The Rising Sun

On the northwest corner of Shepherd and Moore sits a barnacled cocoon transforming into some new species of working class home for an up and coming young family with scrimped down-payment and heads full of dreams.

When I arrived in Blue Springs—lo these many moons ago—the house resembled Tom Bombadil’s abode set off from the street atop a rocky crag. The landscape was a cacophonous collection of Found Art, some incoherent combination of the kitschy and surreal with shadows of sundials and chipped plaster gnomes and vintage farm tools all reddened with rust melting over tableau edges of handmade berms and small circles of stones sitting sentry over the field of smaller stones covering the ground from the sidewalks to the property line so no one ever had to mow.

It was either an eyesore or the pinnacle of folk art.

The back yard sat behind a tall privacy fence of pale, weathered planks that failed to conceal a ramshackle garage or carport or shed shambling behind the house, drunkenly clutching it to keep from collapsing. And obviously holding the horded memories of three quarters of a century or more.

The old man who lived in this house had bought it when he returned from the war—the last declared war—the Great War—the one that had heroes who defeated the greatest monster of history. Or that’s how it’s billed.

He came home fresh mustered and battle-hardened to tickertapes and claps on backs and crowds of younger kin—and older, too—who wanted to know what it was like over there when all he wanted to do was forget and find some kind of normal that the brothers blown to bits beside him would never see. And he found a normal job—at a Ford plant that hadn’t even been an option when he was drafted away from the dust bowl farm in the midst of what History knows as the Great Depression though when he was growing up it was the only reality he ever knew. The shooting of rabbits and squirrels for a morsel and breaking up dirt clods with a much-mended hoe and hauling wood and water up from the crick and eking out existence on a piece of dirt that had been in the family since great grampa’s grampa had unhitched the Conestoga from the ox and set up shop.

Somehow Roosevelt and the Great War had shifted everything, had yanked the rural west into the Industrial Age and somersaulted the city/country ratios and lured the bulk of the population if not into the cities than into the suburban hives where millions of worker husbands returned each night to their sundressed wives and 2.3 children. And since eight out of ten people were no longer needed to produce enough food to feed the world we let two do it and used our American Ingenuity to invent a cornucopia of trinkets the modern housewife just couldn’t do without and whispered to husbands that Jones was way down the road ahead of them in displaying the fruits of his earnings. Having bombed the rest of the First World into the late Middle Ages, Americans bought up Park Place & Boardwalk, cornered the markets for a generation, and persuaded ourselves what we called prosperity was because we were Exceptional. It was our birthright.

The man who lived here worked one of those good union plant jobs that let him buy this house and provide for a wife and raise two strapping sons to expect a life better than their parents had known which was better than the life their parents had known and on back to the wagon-training forebear cresting the wave of Manifest Destiny. The man who lived here put forty years in that plant and retired with a pension and a watch just as Ronald Reagan was raising the banner of American Triumphalism again—after the ugly, tumultuous 60s and post-Viet malaise—like Ira Hayes over smoldering Iwo Jima. Between his plant pension and social security the couple enjoyed their retirement in a house where the mortgage was paid and wondered that the boys could never seem to get ahead and that their wives found it necessary to work outside the house which was kind of against God, to hear Preacher tell it. They knew the world had changed yet still could not connect the matrices that skewed the playing field. The oldest boy was at the plant and seemed to do well for himself, he always had late-model trucks, though why his wife still had to work was anybody’s guess. The youngest joined the service and is stationed far away most of the time so they never saw him but didn’t see much more of the elder, who moved to Wyandotte county and rarely comes to the Missouri side except to work.

The sleepy little town had grown into what they called a city, though it was still just a bedroom community for workers in the city and the county. There were lots of retail shops, that come and go.

The neighborhood had changed, too, from when he first bought the house. The gentle wooded slope across the street that led to the railroad cut grew thick with other houses. Most of all the old neighbors had died or moved away. Lots of the homes were now rentals, many of which were revolving doors for the kind of kids who couldn’t pay their bills. The kind who let their houses go to pot.

People in the neighborhood rarely saw the old man who lived here, but puttering about the back or on the porch with back half-hunched and a wary squint from out his leathered hide and they never saw the old woman except as shadowy shape behind the screen door or in the blinded window. Until one day neighbors noticed they had seen no one for a while but unfamiliar cars parked beside the drive on Moore. And then one day the cars no longer came. And the odd pieces of lawn ornamentation disappeared. And a truck came and scraped away the rock. And Tom Bombadil’s abode looked just like every other property on the street.

A new family is coming to make it their own.

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Effie’s Walnuts

The September late afternoon sun streamed through a leafy canopy arching over the cracked and patched asphalt street as through skylights in the nave of a deciduous cathedral. Blue was leaking out of the leaves, infusing the sky, and curling the greens toward yellow, preparing them to someday sooner rather than later carpet the ground.

Down by the Holler I noticed our last big wind had shaken loose some sizeable boughs, depositing one along a faint fence line where two weathered wooden posts are all that remain from a previous owner but I still see serpentine sections of rail running along the hillside, keeping Mr. Mill’s cows out of Mr. Moore’s corn. If the road is a nave then the Holler is the sanctuary.

What kind of tree was this? I wondered before noticing a single green orb—about the size and shade of a tennis ball—clinging to a twig at the tenuous end of one of the offshoots. It was the green husk of a black walnut. Jugians nigra. Smooth and unbroken, probably not even fully ripe when the winds ripped the bough off the trunk of one of the flourishing local walnut trees.

Them are Effie’s walnuts.

A voice from the past.

There is a model of the universe where past, present, and future exist simultaneously. That means it’s possible to glimpse the Past—or the Future, though that’s more difficult since it hasn’t created as deep a rut, yet—where it occupies the same spatial dimensions. The Temporal Veil is downright flimsy, if you’re sensitive to it, and I’m enough Celt it’s sometimes more effort not to see through it. There are thin places all over.

Effie’s walnuts. I knew right away. Rhoda Effaniah Harris owned this land once. Long ago. She and her husband William bought it from the US government. A hundred acres in Sni-A-Bar Township, townships being the government’s way of plotting land and controlling expansion on the western frontier.

In 1830, when Bill & Rhoda loaded a Conestoga with essentials and joined a train headed by Old Man Reuben Harris, Missouri was the western frontier. It was as wild as it came. Reuben, Bill’s father, had some land coming to him in consideration of his infantry service during the War of Independence. The Federal government had been embarrassingly slow fulfilling its obligations to the only group of American veterans who ever actually fought to win American freedom. Even after President Jefferson doubled the country’s size buying what was left of French North America the government kept tight reins on settlement. Washington was obsessed with maintaining equilibrium between states were slavery was allowed and states where it was illegal. When Massachusetts ceded Maine as a Free State, Missouri was admitted allowing slave-holders.

Both banks of the Missouri River, from St. Louis to Kaw Point, flooded with settlers from Southern states, saturating the land to the point it was called Little Dixie. The group of Baptists who left Virginia’s Patrick Henry country in 1830 included several slaves. Patriarch Reuben Harris brought slaves with him. So did his son William and wife Effie.

It’s pointless for me to pass judgement on them. I understand them within the context of their times, a fact which neither condones nor excuses them. Humankind officially considers the idea of owning other humans as despicable. And yet it persists to our time. If you need to pass judgment there’s a pretty big target right there.

Effie were a witchy woman. That’s what some folk said.

Like most of the clan that followed Old Man Harris out of the foothills of Patrick Henry County, Virginia, Rhoda Effaniah Burnett was of Ulsterman stock—that is, Scots-Irish descent. She came from a long line of women who understood which plants did what. Which ones healed. Which ones helped you find thin places.

Effie, like her mother Effie before her, cultivated her herbalist craft and helped her neighbors when fever struck or some other ailment passed the point of prayers and broth. From her first days off the wagon from Virginia she planted a large herb garden, blending potions and elixirs for medicine. Over each vial she chanted “Slan-jah vore akussa yu-lay yanak do” words without meaning to her, except as a prayer for the infirm, words passed down from her mother and her mother before her to the very fringes of antiquity.

Effie had married Billy Harris when she was seventeen and he was twenty. She bore him fifteen babies. The last eight were born in their Sni-A-Bar Township farmhouse. All but one of them grew to adulthood, and that was unusual in an age when one in three babies died in their first years. Effie boasted she was from good stock. She must have been.

She carried scions of walnut and black locust from the Virginia highlands, wrapping them in strips of linen, rooting them, tenderly planting them with help from Jessie, her eldest boy, so many folks eventually called the winding road built alongside their property (the) Walnut Street, a name it bears to this day.

Sometimes I glimpse Effie as a younger woman. She was only 30 when she arrived her and started roaming these hills, these same hills, minus the houses, minus the streets, minus all the steel and plastic and utilities overhead and railroad running to the east and interstate plowing across up north. She and 12-year-old Jessie fashioned mud bricks by hand and dried them in the sun while William broke the soil with a barshear plow. Through 21st Century eyes she looks much older than her thirty years. She had already borne seven children in twelve years and spent long hours toiling under the sun. There was nothing bucolic about pioneer existence and it swallowed as many as survived it.

Other times I see Effie looking like Granny Clampett, standing with an old-style shotgun cocked and loaded, her faded yellow homespun dress flapping in the breeze, facing down some blue-jacketed Union officer who sat on horseback as his corporal read General Order 11 exiling Miss Harris—and all the civilians of Jackson County—for the duration of the war.

Effie always had been a staunch supporter of the Southern cause. It’s how she grew up. It’s all she knew.

When the War broke out Effie was 60. That was old by the standards of the day. Old for hard frontier life. She had already buried a husband and four sons.

Effie knew Billy Quantrill. Sure she did. Capt. Quantrill formed his band of Raiders—some called them Bushwackers—right down the road from the Harris farm. She kept her ears open. She passed along what supplies she could to them. News, once in a while. Couple of her kin rode with him. One of her own boys, Marion Lee, fought for the Rebels under Sterling Price. Company A, 9th Missouri Infantry. So it was no surprise when the Federals forced her and those of her surviving children still in Missouri from their homes.

Effie was not happy when the Yanks made her move. She set her jaw and stared them down. It was a Lost Cause. It was always a lost cause. The Yanks torched her crops and wrecked her buildings and turned her out for the duration of the war. Her Daddy fought against the British with the 10th Virginia. He must have been just spinning in his grave.

I was looking at the walnut husk on the dead branch, protecting the nut within and thinking of the roots that gnarled their way back to the soil of the 19th Century and the woman who walked their progenitors here from the Virginia mountains. And I was remembering those beautiful Blue Ridge slopes—where I had lived before moving here, as if there is some magnet pulling westward over those mountains. They used to call it Manifest Destiny, a Mongrel Horde of vagabonds riding collectively into the sunset.

Them are Effie’s walnuts I heard and looked around for the speaker, wondering if it was inside my head or outside, but I didn’t see him.

What I saw was a withered crone, the Widow Harris, older than I had ever seen her.

I see you, she said, looking straight at me.

I started. No one had ever seen me, before. “I see you, too, Miss Harris.”

She looked taken aback, but only for a second. You have me at a disadvantage, there, sonny she said. But which of us is seein’ inta th’ future? Hmm? she scowled. She gave a wave of her bony fingers, as if fore-casting was not even worth the trouble.

She touched the patch over her eye. She sighed, ancient and full of days.

I knew I was seeing her near the end of her life—though what, really, does that mean when everything is always … somewhere. Some time. I remembered she lost her eye after the War, when she was old even by 21st Century standards. I think it was a riding accident. Thrown as she dashed to an outlying farm to midwife a first-time mother. Or run like Absalom into a thicket which pierced the eye.

She looked agitated.

I remembered something. Something. Seemed she died in the same kind of accident, riding in a storm to deliver her elixirs to a feverish farmer. I could not refrain from thinking it, knowing as the words formed in my mind I was conjuring her doom on some level.

Long fingers once again touched the eyepatch. Begone! she said, made a sign with her hand, spat on the ground. She lifted the patch, opening the gaping socket, like Lazarus’ tomb, a swirling abyss, the Black Hole of Miss Effie Harris spinning pinwheel vortex sucking away all remnants of her and her time from my view.

I looked around. I was far from my usual path. About a half mile west. Northwest. I stood among a sea of gravestones and other monuments townsfolk who lived and died a stone’s throw from here . I drive here from time to time and wonder about the bones that lay beneath the grass, about the living, breathing souls who once wrapped around those bones and had lives and loves and suffering and joy. But I don’t see my car and sure don’t remember walking here.

At my feet lies a weathered, faded piece of carved rock to faded to read but I know from earlier visits this is little Lewis Franklin, Effie’s 3-month-old baby she bore in her forties and buried too soon on a hill on the family farm. It’s the oldest stone in the cemetery. 1843. Beside him lies his daddy, died of the cholera just five years later. And Effie, who lived long enough to become a crone—highly regarded among her people but little understood by the immigrants and easterners who flooded in on the back of the industrial revolution and the Gilded Age and made a whole new America than the one she rolled through the Appalachians and over the Mississippi to create.

Her gravestone said she died September 9th. I shivered.

“Hey, Miss Harris, thanks for the walnuts,” I said. And made my way back home.

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Smiling on a Cloudy Day

I saw comic AJ Finny at Stanford’s Comedy Club in Overland Park last night.

I first met AJ at the Uptown Arts Bar during their 2nd or 3rd commemoration of the Berkley Human Be-In. It had to be the Be-In because I was wearing my Hippie Clothes, meaning for sure the tie-dyed jeans I got from some parking lot vendor at a Grateful Dead show when I did the Southern States Tour in 1988, the Steal Your Face t-shirt my most recent wife bought me because she knew I was a Dead Head though she never really “got” it—Big Red Flag, fellas—and a purple silken scarf I wear on my head bandana-like. There was a time when all my clothes came from parking lot vendors and I had a pile of tie-dyed tees stacked, folded, to my waist. I’m a short guy, but that’s still a lot of colors.

AJ complemented those jeans as I passed which—being half-bard and all—I could not let pass without pausing to reminisce about the Tour while trying to remember at which venue I bought them. I am not usually talkative amongst people I don’t know. But get me started about one of the topics which have caught my fancy for more than a minute and you’ll never get me to shut up. It’s embarrassing.

AJ and I fell to talking about all things psychedelic and I asked how many shows he saw. He regretted he had been too young when Jerry’s death parked the bus, but he really dug the culture. We hit it off immediately, both being what some call Sixties Freaks, and not always in a complimentary fashion. The biggest difference was AJ started a generation after I did. That makes him something of my spiritual … not son … but nephew. Or much younger cousin.

I first saw AJ perform the previous New Years, also at the Arts Bar. His exuberant performance sprinkled stories from his 12-Step experiences and the road that brought him there. “I’m part Irish, part Native American,” he confided to his audience, “Or, as my AA sponsor calls it: a Natural.” His manic pattern wove a tapestry of yarns seamlessly from anecdote to anecdote that kept us all in stitches. Every comic fabricates his own, unique perspective and AJ’s trippy perspective on incidents common to us all draped around his stage presence with shimmering synergy. I don’t know his influences—any artists incorporate everything we experience either consciously or un into our work—but aspects of his act reminded me of Cheech & Chong, of Gallagher, of Carlin in his Toledo Window Box Period.

At the Be-In it took a minute talking with him before some synapse connected and I exclaimed, “You’re a comic!” He smiled. “You played here New Years’ Eve.” He confessed it was so and with promises to connect on social media we each returned to the circles we were running before my loud psychedelic jeans that people tell me men my age should hide made tangential connection. Dead Heads won’t need an explanation of the experience—everyone else should willingly suspend disbelief. In the interest of narrative.

Since that chance meeting AJ has generously blest me with tickets to his shows when he is in town. My work schedule sometimes makes it impossible to take advantage of the tickets, but I always make the effort. I enjoy his show that much. When I do avail myself of his generosity I feel it’s the least I can do to patronize the venue, to do my part to make it worth their while to book him. From each according to his Ability. I’ve got this down pat.

In principle I hate buying liquor in bars. That’s because bars use alcohol sales to cover every other expense, so mark-ups verge on obscene. By the time I buy two drinks I’ve bought the bottle. I know how long I had to work to pay that tab. I remind myself bars are selling a social experience. It’s not my natural habitat, but if I remain calm I should make it out alive…

Beyond my miserly attitude toward money in general, in particular I hate spending money in Kansas. Because Brownback. Kansas is the toxic petri dish of Sam Brownback’s Great Conservative Experiment of giving businesses the farm—so to speak—eliminating all their taxes and regulations that they might flood the state with thousands of new low-wage jobs thus invigorating the economy. Since Supply-Side Economics has never, will never, and can never work the Legislature balanced the budget piling regressive sales taxes on the backs of the Working Class. I hate there being any possibility I might contribute to the success of such an oppressive economic program.

I eschew spending money in Kansas. I’ll work there all day but wait until I’m back in Missouri to buy anything. Gas. Food. Anything. But I was willing to make an exception to support AJ’s work. It takes cajones for any performance artist to work without a net. It deserves encouragement.

AJ enjoys a special relationship with Stanford & Sons Comedy Club in all of its many incarnations, taking the plunge as a comic at a Stanford’s Open Mic and returning to them like Disaster Area to Milliways.

I saw him at the Wyandotte County Stanford’s once. That was at the Legends Outlet Mall, up by the Kansas Speedway. Or, as I like to call it, BFE. Up in the northwest tentacles of Kansas City, Kansas reaching the Legends from my home in eastern Jackson County, Missouri, feels arduous to me. It’s only 37 miles but geography conspires to funnel westward traffic through a concrete Gordian’s Knot called the Downtown Loop. Cars have been known to disappear never to emerge again.

With no traffic it’s a 50 minute drive at posted speeds. In theory. During stretches when every employed person in the Metro jams onto the highway it can take well over an hour. I’ve driven in much worse traffic than Kansas City but it’s maddening. Particularly during high-density periods.

I remind myself in 1928 the drive just from Blue Springs to neighboring Independence along RD Mize Road took an hour each way. All day, by horse and wagon. Perspective.

When I went to the Legends I invited my cousin and his wife to join me. Griz is my only local relative. His mother, my aunt, is only a couple years older than me. She was always more like a big sister than an aunt when we were growing up. That means Griz is my daughter’s age and when I hang out with him I really feel my age! I was relieved they both laughed enough I didn’t feel like I was recommending Henny Youngman.

I also caught his act when Stanford’s operated out of the Uptown Theater’s Conspiracy Room on Broadway. But this newest Overland Park location was the best yet. It’s near where I’ve been working the past few months. It feels much more accessible.

Last night AJ’s show was all new material. New to me. He’s broken out of the regional confines, toured nationally, done television and film and kept that sharp, twisted perspective that drowns his audience with laughter. I laughed so hard I sounded like a stranded heffalump.

It’s been a rough two weeks and I didn’t know until the last minute if I’d be able to use the tickets, but I needed a laugh. And AJ delivered.

Thanks a million.

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Cries From the Ground

Beaver Cleaver he don’t live here anymore.

He used to. Back before my time. Back before Ed Sanders moved to New York City and formed the Fugs. Back when people of color kept to their own neighborhoods and their own schools and made themselves as inconspicuous as possible whenever they ventured to the homogeneous, milk white world, when working class white neighborhoods never noticed any disparity and liked it that way.

In the booming post-War economy, unchallenged by the smoldering ruined factories of Europe and Asia, selling the world the things needed to rebuild, ordinary Americans were making money hand over fist. The general prosperity erased all memory of two centuries of Boom & Bust and to the young ambitious it really looked like the American Dream of each successive generation achieving better than the one before was gospel.

Dozens of servicemen, sons of local farmers and merchants, chiseled by years of war into triumphant warriors, came home and took good-paying factory jobs in the Ford plants or Lake City Munitions and leveraged their service into college degrees or loans for one of the scores of homes springing up in the green hills of south of the Missouri. Whites bought near whites and blacks settled near blacks—and nobody told their white brothers-in-arms that Negro soldiers couldn’t buy outside certain prescribed areas. Or maybe they did tell. A Whites Only neighborhood was a selling point for many couples in those days. Everyone accepted Like sticks with like.

With soldiers returning to good-paying jobs, young couples bought homes developers built on rolling acres of H.S. Mills’ estate south of Walnut and west of Shepherd. These weren’t yet the cookie-cutter homes suburbs came to symbolize. These are each different from its neighbor. Over the years some of the original homes disappeared—burned or otherwise damaged past repair—being replaced by a newer model. Others have had room additions, patios, garages built onto the original structure. The original owners still abide in some. These are fewer every year. A 20-year-old soldier discharged in 1945 is over 90 today.

In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s these neighborhoods in the hills southwest of the railroad thrived as hermetic petri dishes of cultural homogeneity. What people knew of the outside world came in books or newspapers or the newfangled technology of television. The TV families looked just like the families in the petri dishes. Maybe Mother didn’t wear heels and pearls in the kitchen, but other than that the houses pulsed with a collective hope that tomorrow would be better than yesterday.

That was a generation ago.

On a summer Sunday morning I sat and watched the sky transform from purple to pink to pale blue eyes as the second cup lingered on my palate— massaging aroma memories—and unseen birds serenaded to woodpecker percussion on perches hid in canopies of foliage of shapes and size and all shades dancing between blue and yellow.

It was that Magic hour film directors covet, when resurrecting sun rays highlight leaves and curly peels of birch and the pocked complexions of all the branches sheltering all the rooftops all in a line along my street with a warm otherworldly glow.

The homes across the street sat silent. No lights. No stir behind the shades. No ripples on the windowpanes.

In hours to come they will awake, their doors will open, cars will come and go. People I barely know or know by sight to nod or wave. People who have complex lives and jobs and family members hanging invisibly about them as they move about their starring roles in lives where I am but a background extra. People who have thoughts like mine and emotions like mine and concerns like mine.

We tell ourselves that once upon a time neighborhoods were Sesame Street or Mayberry, where everyone knew their neighbors by name and occupation or avocation and Mrs. Jones felt free to scold Johnny Green for throwing kittens down the well. We idealize those times and choke on cheap sentiment we cut into our bitter cups of rue and regret.

We remember times that never were. Or, at best, gild the lilies we pick for maximum contrast and effect.

Without so much as a knock from me the drawbridge of my memory palace slams down and crowds who lived in the neighborhoods of my youth come flooding through the gates. With pitchforks and torches. No. That’s something else. Damn memories. So fickle. Grabbing elements from other times and places, things that happened, other peoples’ anecdotes, some made-for-TV movie, a scrap read in a book somewhere.

These are the ghosts of neighbors past, not aged a day from the moment I last saw them. Some are now dead. All others are much, much older. Many I would not recognize were they to bump into me on the street.

They tell me when I was younger Everybody knew All their neighbors.

They tell me I should know all of mine. If I were just less antisocial. If I were just more extroverted. And would it hurt you maybe just to try?

That’s not fair. I do know some of my neighbors, at least to wave.

A kid named Philip lives in the house on the corner with his mom. I say kid; he’s my stepson’s age, a teenager when I arrived in the neighborhood. He’s in his 30s, now, with a daughter he’s raising with his mother’s help. He picks up day labor and hustles scrap metal for cash.

A couple lives in the cottage beside Philip’s place. He’s a commercial painter named Paul. He’s my age. His partner is a younger woman, Christine, the neighborhood gossip, from whom I can get an earful of more information than I really want about all the soap opera swirling around us. My preferred strategy is smile and nod and remember something pressing I must do.

Then there’s Billy, a widower, a retired civil servant staying active in his waning years. He leaves early for his social club and sometimes entertains some gray-haired lady in his home. Billy might be an original owner, though he doesn’t look that old.

There’s a couple on the other corner, the second or third to live there since I arrived. They have each had children, and dogs which yap around their fenced back yard, and I’ve never known a one of them by name. Or even to recognize so I could identify them in a line-up. The house seems a starter home for starter families.

Straight across the street a young single woman, Kati, has put her fingerprints all over a tall-roofed white, wooden house. Only a window in a gable on the roof reveals the second story. A porch stretches across the front of the house where Kati rearranges a growing collection of quaint, folksy furnishings—like the pieces for an Appalachia dollhouse—antique wooden bureaus and rockers, wicker headboards, a tall terra cotta fire pit, a wrought iron log rack, a bellows.

The previous owner was an older Vietnam vet, his big-boned, much younger Ol’ Lady, and their tow-headed kid. Turned out he was a mean drunk and spent some time in jail behind it. She took their kid to parts unknown before he finished his time and he could never keep up the payments on his own so this young professional woman bought her first home on the Jackson County Courthouse steps.

The first month after she moved in I wondered what kind of job she had where she could wear yoga pants every day. Then I realized she stopped at the gym. I forgot people do that.

Kati has her Gentlemen Callers: clean cut young men in khakis & polos. For all I know it might just be one guy. God knows they all look alike.

A US flag hangs flaccid from a pole on Kati’s front porch column, affirming for any strangers lost wandering the sleepy streets of Blue Springs that this is the United States of America, by damn, that we are the land of the free and the home of the brave, and no politically correct elitist liberal media is going to dissuade us from letting our free flag fly. Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

For an instant in my imagination Kati becomes old Barbara Frietchie, waiting in defiance for the Stonewall Brigade to pass before her veranda—Shoot if you must this old, gray head—though her hair is far from gray, and I can’t imagine her in flannel nightie and stocking cap shouting out the gable window.

Mrs. Frietchie’s defiance played out in Maryland when the Army of Northern Virginia made its first of two unsuccessful invasions of the North.

Around these parts the officer involved would more likely be Quantrill. And few farmhouses in the Blue Springs of yore were unfurling the Stars & Stripes.

Sometimes, in the grayish gloom of dawn or dusk, if you squint just right, you can tear the veil of the Temporal all the way from Now to Then and peek behind at shades and shadows of what used to be. You may even see the shade of Captain William Clarke Quantrill.

You’ve read of Quantrill. Quantrill’s Raiders are the most famous pro-Confederate guerilla “army” of the War Between the States. Civil War buffs surely know him. So will aficionados of the James Gang. Frank & Jesse, not Joe Walsh.

Capt. Quantrill led an irregular collection of deserters, local Rebel sympathizers, and renegades in hampering raids on Federal logistics. That may be a charitable interpretation. History is written by the victors and Yankee History remembers William Quantrill as a war criminal, operating independent of any command, robbing banks, murdering civilians, and destroying infrastructure.

Federal forces hanged several captured members of Quantrill’s band.

Technically all Rebel soldiers were committing treason against the Constitutional Government and subject to execution. Lincoln insisted on magnanimity. Partisans invited less nuanced approaches.

Partisans always enjoy fewer protections under whatever Rules of War are in current operation.

It was Quantrill who led the bloody raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863. Whether or not one calls it the Lawrence Massacre still, 150 years later, depends on sympathies. I have heard neo-Confederates describe it, with a straight face, as “a great day in History.”

History remembers Quantrill’s Raiders as it would the French Resistance—had Hitler won. There are still scholars, mostly amateur, arguing the Confederacy was the true protector of the constitutional government—that the Federal government of the mid-19th Century was corrupt—that activist judges were betraying the original contract of the Union.

People can justify anything.

What many people don’t realize is William Quantrill was a Yankee, by birth if not allegiance. Once again the American Civil War proves more complex than just South bad; North good.

Quantrill was Ohio born and raised. Ohio was a Free State from its admission to the Union, and there’s no indication the young Quantrill gave the issue of slavery any thought at all.

The eldest of a dozen children, young Billy took a teaching job at 16. A year later his father died of consumption; the family fell into crippling debt.

Teachers’ wages were worse than meager on the frontier, so Billy drifted between menial jobs to help feed the family. He was often on the wrong side of the Law, implicated in thefts, run out of town for killing a man. To protect him, his mother persuaded a couple neighbors relocating to the Kansas Territory to take the youth with them. In Kansas he met vociferously pro-slavery southerners who converted the youth to their views. He joined groups of bushwhackers long before the war began. His comrades took him to the Indian Territories (Oklahoma).

After the election of 1860 set in motion the War Between the States, Quantrill and a companion joined the Confederate 1st Cherokee Regiment, which marched to Missouri to join forces attached to Sterling Price, a former Missouri governor who raised rebel troops after Federals put the state under martial law. In August, 1861, Private Quantrill fought under General Price at Wilson’s Creek. In September he was at Lexington—known as the Battle of the Hemp Bales—where Price’s troops soaked bundles of harvested hemp in the Missouri overnight, then used them in a Birnam Wood gambit, advancing on Federals, pushing the bales ahead of themselves. The hemp absorbed Federal ball & shot, the damp bales never catching fire from the heat, though the smoldering haze may have left both victorious rebels and captured federals a bit dazed and confused.

Shortly after Lexington, Quantrill—frustrated with Price’s timidity—slipped out of camp with seven companions. They made their way west to Jackson County where pro- and anti-slavery forces on both sides of the Kansas state line had been murdering each other since before the war. They rendezvoused on the Widda Crump’s farm, alongside the road connecting Independence with Blue Springs. Three more men joined them on Christmas Day, 1861, and the band swore a blood oath to oppose the Union.

Quantrill considered himself a Southern patriot. He traveled to Richmond, seeking a colonel’s commission and permission to raise troops. The Confederate government denied both. He returned to Mrs. Crump’s and recruited disaffected locals. The counties surrounding the Missouri River were settled by slaveholding Virginians, Carolinians, and Georgians. Federal authorities burned out rebel sympathies with an iron fist. There was plenty of resistance to the Occupation. Jim and Cole Younger from Lee Summit joined him. So did Frank and Jesse James of Clay county. Several hundred other men rode with Quantrill at various times. During the 1862 Battle of Independence, Quantrill received a Captain‘s commission. In his mind this legitimized his command.

That command bivouacked in the Sni-A-Bar environs: Blue Springs, Lone Jack, Pink Hill. All the farmers knew him. Unionists bit their tongues. Rebels gave him supplies and horses and sons. Capt. Quantrill and his men became local fixtures. And Billy Quantrill found himself trotting into Blue Springs to visit Miss Katie.

Sarah Katherine King, to be precise, but everyone called her Katie or Kate.

Kate was 13 when Captain Quantrill first spied her, hauling water from the well on her daddy’s farm. Robert King appreciated what the Marauders were doing, but he was none too pleased to see that man come a’courtin’ his daughter.

It wasn’t Kate’s age. Thirteen was not an unusual age for a young woman to marry in mid-19th Century rural America. But nothing good could happen if the Union garrison in Independence got wind of the dashing young guerilla’s visits to the King Place. When King discouraged the visits, Kate sneaked out of the house and made her way to Quantrill’s camp.

She lived with him as his wife for the duration of the war, calling herself Kate Clarke (from his middle name) for anonymity. As the war was winding down Quantrill headed east to Kentucky. Kate accompanied him as far as St. Louis, where she took shelter and awaited his return.

He never did. Captain Quantrill and his closest associates, spreading mayhem through western Kentucky in Union-blue uniforms, rode into a Federal ambush. Two minie-balls hit him, one severing his spine. Union troops captured him. He died a short time later.

In a sense, he hasn’t died yet. Reenactors portray Quantrill and his Raiders in carefully choreographed echoes of those 19th Century skirmishes. The William Clarke Quantrill Society still meets, though all the original members have long since died. Years after the War ended survivors of the old band met to toast the old days and remember their dashing young leader—forever young, astride a pale horse.

There’s a yellowed clipping, mounted under glass, announcing the reunion of 1888 in Blue Springs. That year Frank James arranged the presence of Caroline Quantrill, their leader’s mother, at a reception in her honor at the Chicago & Alton House, a stone’s throw from my porch.

I recall my daughter’s Pampaw, her maternal great-grandfather, met Frank James. Pamp was just a boy and Frank an old farmer by then. They were kin somehow. Though neither of us are from here there are headstones in the Blue Springs Cemetery I know are Pamp’s relatives. He had an unusual surname.

There’s my six degrees of separation.

The Universe is funny like that.

* In the earlier version of this I mentioned Caroline Quantrill without making clear I meant the mother, who I had never mentioned before by name. That could have led to some confusion with Catherine, and I fixed it. 8/14/16

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Ballad of a Mean Man

“We are billion year old carbon … and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.”

I try to take my pleasure where I can find it. I find it in the sunsets and lightning storms. In butterflies that land on tombstones and hummingbirds darting at the blossoms of the Buddleja. In all the creatures bustling about the neighborhood, living their lives, singing in the trees, chattering in the lawns, puttering in the gardens. In the undulating lush-green verdancy of Jackson County hills.

Remember in grade school art when we took green Crayola’s and drew hills? Those hills were simple. One hill was a 180° arc, a green semi-circle like a croquet wicket on our blank newsprint. Multiple hills were a green sine wave rolling across the paper’s surface.

Actual hills are much less symmetrical. They bulge and wrinkle in response to the environment, the growth of plants, the imperceptible creep of rocks beneath the soil moved by whatever far-off tectonic plate. No two are alike. Very few are symmetrical. Topography is Mother Earth’s phrenology.

I had never given hills much thought before I began walking them.

I grew up at sea level where we were more concerned with marsh than hills. There were bluffs at Yorktown, sure, and overlooking them the redoubts on the Battlefield which is a park now where cannon sit behind artificial berms. We tell tourists these are the redoubts where Washington and Lafayette choked off Lord Cornwallis’s supply line and besieged that tiny river port. But those hills are really remnants of trench lines retreating Rebels threw up to stall McClellan—like three orangutans with a dressmakers’ dummy couldn’t have accomplished that task—during the general’s stage managed Peninsular Campaign. Little Mac, as some reporters called the self-styled Young Napoleon, made sure his pets sent off a string of dispatches titillating the Yankee public with tales of the young general’s exploits against overwhelming odds and little to no support from the Commander-in-Chief. McClellan was never much of a general, but he deftly maneuvered into the Democratic nomination for the election of ’64.

The Confederate trenches sat more or less where the redoubts had been some four score and blah-blah-blah before so a little spit & polish and Voila! A National Park. The “redoubts” were close enough for government work.

But I had never given hills much thought before I began walking them.

I am not a hiker by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. It is Leon who got me walking. Leon is the dog who lives with me. I hesitate using terms like pet or my or owner referencing him. They seem a little too Patriarchal. Too Anthropocentric. It may look for all the world like I provide Leon with all the necessities of Life … but that is no reason to assume the human is “in charge”.

My point is we walk together through the neighborhood. Our strolls cover about a kilometer.

We live in the Old Town neighborhood of the small city of Blue Springs in Jackson County, Missouri. It’s on the wispiest fringe of the Greater Kansas City Metro and justifies me telling folks I’m from KC in the same way my drivers’ license says I’m 5’7” even though a paper in my doctor’s office indicates five-six and change.

Old Town is that section of the city that was the town of Blue Springs at the turn of the last century. At that time it radiated outward from the Chicago & Alton Railroad depot on Main Street.

Before the Late Great Unpleasantness Blue Springs had been nearly a mile west of the depot, at a spot where a fresh brook bubbled up from the hillside and a settler named James Burrus built a grist mill. Like most of the newcomers staking claims to this fertile earth Burrus hailed from Virginia’s Piedmont. He was a farmer. His people were farmers. His neighbors were farmers. Burrus built the mill to turn their wheat into flour.

The spring driving Burrus’ water wheel had been known by travelers for generations. Spanish and French traders trekking the route to Santa Fe replenished stores here. Long before Europeans arrived the indigenous people knew where fresh water was to be had.

It wasn’t that Burrus rushed in to steal the best spot before anyone else could. After President Jefferson bought the land from France he commissioned Lewis & Clark’s Voyage of Discovery to poke the newly-purchased pig. Agents from Washington, DC, spent years negotiating with the tribes who lived on the land, then sent surveyors to plot it for development. Burrus laid down hard-earned gold to get a deed for his land from the government office in Independence.

Buying his own plot within shouting distance of Burrus’ mill and farm, another Virginia Ulsterman, name of Frank Smith, set up a dry goods store, and then petitioned Washington for a post office. He called the post office Blue Springs, after the brook on Burrus’ farm, and operated it from his store.

Farmers, merchants, postmasters—none were exempt from General Order 11 and the residents of tumultuous Jackson County spent most of the War barred from their homes, ejected from their farms, and forced to swear allegiance to the Union before given a spot in one of the relocation areas under the Army’s watchful eye. Those refusing the Loyalty Oath found themselves persona non grata, driven into exile. Their sons and grandsons often took up arms with secesh forces. Some of them are still doing it.

It was in the decades after the war when America was bypassing the unreconstructed South in favor of the dime novel West that Chicago & Alton Railroad established a depot on their Jackson County line, several miles short of Independence. They called it their Blue Springs Depot. But it wasn’t. The village of Blue Springs was a mile away. Engineers calculated a locomotive at a dead stop could never pick up enough speed to crest the hills near Old Blue Springs. So they picked a more navigable spot and appropriated the village’s name and moved it east and slightly south.

Main Street runs perpendicular to the railroad. At the turn of the 20th Century Blue Springs epitomized Middle America. In 1879 J.K. Parr opened the Chicago & Alton House near the depot. This was a rooming house for travelers: what we call a hotel. It was one of Blue Springs’ earliest businesses.

“Eastern Jack” as some call it, has always been rural, the town of Blue Springs and its dozen or more merchants are more an exception than a rule. There were successive Dry Goods stores and Hardware stores where folks might buy the few things they could not produce themselves but at the turn of the Century there were not but a handful of these business houses in town. Mr. Parr ran his C&A House and a mysterious Mrs. Alexander opened Denver House nearby, also servicing weary railroad travelers with a bed for the night and a table spread with Supper between the hours of 6 and 9. Any implication Mrs. A— provided any other type of service is strictly the product of my own lurid imagination.

Even today Blue Springs is only a city by virtue of lax definitions and a lamentable neglect of linguistics. But nobody’s asking me. It’s a suburb. A bedroom community. Franchises, a smattering of petit bourgeois stores and more car dealerships than you can shake a stick at.

But Leon and I are tucked away from all that bustle, back off the main drives, nestled within the shady, tree-lined streets that gently slope over undulating hillsides. We live near the top of one hillock so our route naturally leads us downhill from where we started. Climbing the incline home can be an aerobic workout.

Our habitual route walks west on Moore Street as far as we can go, then south to MacArthur. It’s downhill all the way. Literally.

It’s flat on a map. Moore is a straight line connecting 15th with 18th. The road runs along what used to be the southern property line of J.H. Moore’s estate.

Expanding the map’s two dimensions up to three finds the road cresting a gentle hill. The top of the hill is slightly before 17th Street. Once Moore crests the hilltop it descends to a low spot just before 18th.

I call this low spot The Holler. It seemed appropriate. It felt Faulknerian. I call it The Holler but you might spell it H-O-L-L-O-W. A hollow point in the topography. It’s so hollow I don’t even pronounce the ‘r’.

For some time I’ve been aware of a small, yellow house sitting unfinished to one side of The Holler. A chain-link kennel space, maybe thirty foot square, sits forlorn at the northwest corner of the lot, surrounded by hints of a split-rail fence that passed here long ago. A ramshackle shed at the back of the lot couldn’t decide which way to fall. The property is a tub catching all the runoff from the rest of the neighborhood. An old overgrown tree line borders the western edge of the property and a small copse in the center of the north side serve as breakwaters, though around them there are rivulet gullies where heavy rains have worn through the topsoil. A small culvert channels water from the north side of Moore beneath that road and pours it out into the hollow spot. It looks like it would have a drainage problem. But, again, no one is asking me.

Leon likes visiting The Holler to sniff around. I think it’s because all the odors of the hillsides radiating out from this point rush down the asphalt and sullies to swirl and pool in a great Charybdis of olfactory delights.

Sometimes he adds his own scent to the mix. “Know what I’m doing?”

“I’m afraid to ask.”

“Mark-ing my territory!”

“You did not just say that.”

“Hey, I didn’t invent the language …”

I never saw anyone live in the yellow house. Even from the street tell-tale signs of a home under construction were visible through windows still bearing faded manufacturer’s stickers on random panes, but no construction ever took place. Bare studs stood naked of drywall. A loose extension cord dangled bare bulbs from rafters. A small pile of galvanized pipe behind the house sat long enough saplings sprouted. A ghost house whose owner started a fixer-upper back in the real estate boom then got upside down when the bubble burst and never finished.

The Holler is one of the vacant lots along our route. Bunnyfield is the other. I’m still looking for the Hundred Acre Woods. Like AA Milne, I make my life a little more bearable by superimposing my own reality over the one the Universe offers. Billion year old carbon, indeed.

Vacant lots are important to Leon and me.

Vacant lots are important to Leon because, more than the daily exercise, and more than the contemplative moments spent experiencing our Now, Leon is out attending the calls of Nature. This is where the reader cringes and passes judgment on the author for being one of those dog owners who leaves little land mines all over the neighborhood. That is only partially true.

I carry a plastic grocery sack in my back pocket and if Leon makes a deposit at an inhabited home I will bag it. Which is why vacant lots are important to me. Vacant lots, ditches, utility easements, all are fair game. I realized a long time ago there’s scarcely a square inch of earth where something hasn’t screwed, shit, or died on; it’s the natural way of things and every animal on the planet defecated on the same ground until the sheer volume of human feces made that untenable. But I’d never leave Leon’s fewmets in some homeowner’s yard.

Recently there have been signs of change at The Holler. Someone painted the house. The shed got a facelift. Workers removed two large trees, uprooted the stumps, and built a garage. Things were coming together.

“We’re going to have to find a new spot,” I told Leon. I made a mental note.

Leon carried on with his business. He sniffed all the good parts of The Holler, turned a couple poochie pirouettes, and finished what he had been waiting hours to do.

Suddenly gravel skidded and crunched as a red jeep whipped around the corner and locked its brakes, stopping even where I stood. A blonde woman drove. A bald man rode shotgun. He was already opening the door and stepping out as his the jeep stopped. “I hope you’re going to pick that up!” he bellowed—a bellicose bellow—determined I’d leave with a piece of his mind as well as the aforementioned fewmets.

I whipped my plastic sack from my pocket.

“Yes, sir,” I said. It’s how I was raised. “I brought a bag to pick it up.”

Leon, he say nothin’.

“Well, I’ve seen you leave it—“ determined to see his script to the end.

“Yes, sir. When the house was vacant. If you’re moving in I’ll remove it.” I bent and bagged the offending poop. Nodding toward the house I said, “I like what you’ve done.”

“Yes, we just bought the place,” the Missus explained past her man, relieved, perhaps, I had not greeted his bluster in kind. “Do you live around here?” Her smooth-domed companion glowered at me.

“Sorry about the misunderstanding,” I said, taking the sack, giving Leon’s leash a slight tug. “I’ll steer him away from your yard.”

We walked south away from the house, away from the jeep. Leon couldn’t resist one last lift of his leg on a leafy ornamental at the edge of the yard. I could feel the angry man steaming up his windshield.

You have a problem with pee? I thought. That’s funny. Because where this house sits all the waste from every animal in the neighborhood is going to end up in a pool at the bottom of the property.

But nobody’s asking me.

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Plucking the Apple

In my earliest memory I am floating above the ground, my arms spread wide, my fingers splayed to grasp a shiny red apple wreathed in lush green leaves clutching gnarly boughs. My face bursts with laughter as I pluck the fruit. Strong, firm hands wrap beneath my armpits, holding me aloft, gliding me gently down to earth where I scamper to show my mother this wonderful thing that grew wild in nature instead of a bin at the commissary.

That’s it. A snippet. Fifteen frames of celluloid found lost beneath the splicer where someone compiled a short film to be shown at my Oscar presentation or flash before my eyes when I melt into Death’s embrace.

My imagination decodes the image. This was … This was … This was behind our quarters in Bad Kissingen. West Germany. 1963/64. I would have been about four. What I remember is that Mother used the apples I picked to make dumplings. That may be a story I heard or a detail I invented; I have no memory of eating those dumplings.

I can see Dad pull a deep drag from the cigarette gripped between his bronze fingers and exhale a Magic Dragon billow into the sky above his head. A severe crew cut—still rich brown at the end of his twenties—crowned his face, laugh lines cut around the blue glint of his eyes and the corners of his lips. That face, his arms, and those hands that lifted me into the apple tree were deep, coppery bronze. Dad always looked tan, even in deepest winter.

I see that because it was a constant. The image. Dad always looked like that. As he got older his hair got grayer and his face more leathered. For a brief time after he returned from his Vietnam he wore a mustache, and after he retired he allowed the crew cut to grow out. A little. But his ramrod martial bearing never wavered.

Typical of soldiers in the 1960s and 70s, with high alert Cold War scares and proxy wars, Dad was in and out of our lives as the Pentagon shipped him wherever they needed an officer of his rank and specialties. Time for father-son bonding had to be stolen from other activities in both our lives.

When we lived in Ft. Knox Dad bought me a set of child-sized golf clubs and brought me to the golf course. He always joked I was more interested in chasing squirrels than golfing. Over the years he spent all the time I could stand working with me on my golf swing or the placement of my hands on a bat or playing catch in the back yard. My sense is my lack of enthusiasm for sports frustrated him. Not because he wanted me to be different but because it was something we couldn’t share.

He never stopped trying to find that thing we could share.

A handful of snippets echo that awareness to me. Distinct memories of Dad and me. A fishing trip. Riding in his Fiat convertible. A soapbox derby. Rolling my eyes at his corny quips when I play my new Sgt. Pepper’s album.

Later, when I had graduated from college, and lived with or around him, we discovered something we shared, which was a love of Classical music. But that was long after we had stretched the bonds of our relationship into some floppy, saggy strands that only clung to living with mutual disappointment. Long after my teens and early twenties when I would have little to nothing to do with my father. Most of my memories with Dad come from the time before I gained a second digit in my age.

Today I’m remembering the trip we took to Washington DC, just him and me. We had a hotel room and he took me to see the Orioles play the Senators, to the top of the Washington Monument and the image of Lincoln on his Olympian throne.

We had come for a battery of allergy tests at Walter Reed. But it was the fun sights of Washington we saw together that stretch before me—long seconds, hundreds of frames, reels—the pinnacle of the father interacting with the son.

There is a long, lingering pan of the sea of white tombstones standing alike, shoulder to shoulder, rank and file, in the green lawns of Arlington Cemetery. “When I die,” my father reminded me for the umpteenth time with an umpteen to go, “you don’t have to worry where to put me. There’s a spot for me right here.” And I fell silent, still not familiar with death as anything more than an abstract principle that happened to people I didn’t know or who had been born long before me.

Bobby Kennedy was recently slain and the muddy turned turf over where his coffin temporarily rested screamed some kind of tangent about Death but it was still an abstract like the eternal flame. Like the Tomb of the Unknown.

We caught the Tomb at the Changing of the Guard when the sharp Marine ritual stepped out in liturgy of camaraderie and respect that the outside world was just starting to question in light of Vietnam and Civil Rights and that psychedelic whirlwind people consider the Sixties when everyone I knew was either military or middle America. I was too young to comprehend that whole Brother-in-Arms mystique, but Dad had been through boot camp with boys who didn’t come back from Korea and knew other men whose names were being etched in silver bracelets and would later grace The Wall. And his solemnity impacted me.

“Soldiers are the men who want war the least,” my father used to tell me, “we’re the ones who have to fight it.”

I thought of Arlington today. My Virginia siblings were in Arlington today. They were visiting Dad’s grave. Today is the anniversary of his death. He rests in Death as he stood in life: surrounded by his brothers-in-arms. His identity as a soldier provided him a precious sense of meaning. Calendar vagaries will rotate this anniversary back to Fathers’ Day every decade or so.

Today I find it focusing my reflection. I salute my father for everything he was to us.

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Ola Mae’s Figs

We lived in a one bedroom flat nestled in the rafters of a three-car garage behind a boxy duplex near the university. We could catch a bus at Hildebrand or San Pedro to take us most of the places we needed to go, though the grocery and the laundry and the original Taco Cabana were all within walking distance. Even in my early twenties the furthest I wanted to carry groceries or a duffle of laundry was about a quarter mile. Four to six blocks.

Bus trips were mostly to church or job hunting. Church was St. Mark’s Episcopal, Downtown—a hundred and fifty year old stone structure where Robert E. Lee had sat on the vestry back before he chose Virginia over the Republic—back in the waning days of the Mexican War when the future Confederate officer corps made their bones manifesting the Republic’s Destiny. Job hunting was code for wandering around downtown San Antonio, ducking in some matinee. I don’t think I ever told my wife that.

Legend had it the convoluted arteries radiating outward from the old Mission district followed the meanderings of an inebriated rancher making his way back from the saloons of the frontier town cobbled together around the old Spanish Misión San Antonio de Valero, desacralized, then used as barracks for the Mexican Army’s Alamo de Parras cavalry company.

Who cares if it’s true? It’s a fun story. Streets Laid Out by a Drunk is a fairly common urban legend used to explain the vagaries of civil engineers.

A fig tree grew between the garage and the duplex, its twisted, gnarly limbs pirouetting toward the sunlight. It was old enough to arc up over the driveway, though none of its boughs were thick. The fig’s wood is soft, weak. It tends to grow counter to its own interests—limbs shooting off at odd angles that weaken the secondary branches and yield poor fruit.

Lucky for the fig humans have been pruning them for over 11,000 years.

There is a Neolithic site on the West Bank of the Jordan, a couple miles north of where Jericho has guarded palm-shaded springs since the dawn of History. The site is older than Jericho. It is called Gilgal I. In the excavation of a late Stone Age house archeologists found evidence of several genetically distinct, sterile hybrid figs. The implication is people developed strands of figs with high yields of infertile fruit. These strands could only propagate through grafting. The culture predates metallurgy; they used stone tools to prune. There are enough varieties to suggest the cultivation was deliberate. This was a thousand years before domestication of wheat or rye.

The tell at Gilgal I has traditionally been associated with the Hebrew occupation of Canaan. The story is recounted in Joshua chapter five. It’s one of the funniest stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, though I’ve never heard anyone give a homily or preach a sermon on the text.

It does show up, in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, 4th Sunday of Lent. It’s a severely truncated version that misses the whole joke of the story. They leave out the best parts:

As the somehow ethnically-related “tribes” of Hebrew nomads moved into the hills of Canaan, so the story goes, they had been camping for forty years out in the Sinai. Popular misconception has them wandering all over hell’s half acre, but the text has them camped in two or three sites throughout much of that period. The salient point is they had not held bris in over a generation.

Since they wanted to be ritually pure when they moved in and took the homes and property of the current inhabitants they held one big bris, occupying the mohalim for hours. They threw several hundred thousand foreskins into a big pile.

This is where the folk etymology takes over. There are several places in Hebrew Scriptures called gilgal. The root gll carries connotations of circle, round, or roll. So roundish mounds acquired this label.

When the writer of this story was telling about his people coming into the land and conquering it he crafted a story about re-instituting the lost rite of circumcision, equating it with moral superiority. “This day I have rolled away (gilgal) the reproach from you!” the Deity tells Joshua, punning on rolling back the foreskin and the otherwise inexplicable round mound dominating the landscape.

That place. That’s where gardeners first cultivated that luscious pink pulp that has been blessing us with vitamins and fiber for 5000 years longer than Bishop Usher thought the whole Universe had existed. Perhaps it was the fig and not the apple—which is a fairly late addition to the story—that was the Tree of Knowledge. The Knowledge of Agriculture. The Tree of Life, that taught human beings we could control our food sources and not live at the whims of hunting and gathering.

Whichever tree it was, it was there, already cultivated in that Eden when the man of spit & dirt and his rib-cloned bookend found it necessary to sew together leaves to hide their genitals.

It was there 11,000 years later, in San Antonio, squeezed in a sleepy neighborhood off campus where my newlywed bride and I lived poor as church mice and irrationally in love.

It was Anna who told me of the tree, recognized what it was, delightedly brought some sweet specimens upstairs to our flat and persuaded me to try this strange fruit I had never previously eaten. I sunk my teeth into its fat, round bottom. The skin surrendered with a soft give. Sweet nectar exploded in my mouth, trickled down my chin, moistened my beard.

Only the first taste is free.

Anna made it clear, in the way wives have of communicating their fondest wishes without ever using actual words—or at least the words which mean the thing they want to communicate—how delighted figgy gifts would make her. I made a note. I kept my eye on those plumpening orbs of purple-green perfection. There was an art. There was a skill.

A man will do a lot for that succulent fruit—gently splitting it open, revealing the pink within, the darker flesh ringing the innermost cavity dissolving from puce to red to pink, the nectar warm and sweet past all limits of sensual perception—he will endure toil & sweat and thistle & thorn to achieve that object of his desire. (It’s a metaphor. Go with me, here.)

Two competitors raced me to harvest the luscious fruit.

Figs are favorites of our avian friends. I rarely caught them in the act, but stragglers from migratory movements or even small flocks of birds found our figs as tempting as Hawwa, mistress of Eden, did lo those many pages ago.

The birds cared not a fig for how ripe the fruit was. They ruined them before I would ever consider picking them. Nor were they content to pick one fruit and finish it. No. They were wont to sample every point where blossom had given way to the soft belly of luscious flavor squeezed beneath livid purple skin.

But a more tenacious rival for the fruit than the birds was our landlady, Miss Ola Mae. Ola Mae was old school Texan. She had inherited her attitude from the 19th Century and had never really reconciled herself to Lyndon Baines signing that Civil Rights Act. Nor Juneteenth. Nor even the Annexation of ’45.

Ola Mae was from San Antonio but lived with her husband—whom I never met—in Houston, which is a totally different culture. Houston in the early 80s was all steel and mirrors springing out of the east Texas bayous through a thick oil-money mulch. For a time it had the largest gay community per capita in the United States. And a national headquarters for one of the many splintered factions of the Ku Klux Klan.

Before I married Anna, when she was still in Virginia, I rented the flat from Ola Mae’s aged mother, a bony, gingham-clad woman with a shrunken-apple countenance. She lived in San Antonio, and managed her daughter’s properties. We never met Ola Mae before moving into the unit.

When we did she nursed an instant and intense dislike for Anna.

She liked me, though, which was odd. Because between Anna and myself I’m definitely the more obnoxious one. Ola Mae projected a matriarchal attitude: the stereotypical Southern matron. A real Rosa Coldfield. Ola Mae thought I was too young to be married. She was right, but it was none of her business.

Miss Ola Mae acted like the figs belonged to her. Technically, they did, but driving in from Houston to harvest them when I was in class and Anna was at work felt … underhanded. She never said a word about it, but sometimes I saw her looking at me, then glancing quizzically at the fig tree.

“I swear,” she’d sigh, “If this darned tree isn’t going to put out any more fruit than that I ought to have it cut out of here.”

“Give it another year,” I’d say.

And she glared at me. As if she knew I was plucking the fruit.

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