February 28, 2022

There is no purgatory for war criminals. They go straight to hell.

                                                            –Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador

As Putin, the twenty-first-century Stalin, sent Russian tanks in a rampaging, bloody assault on Ukraine early Thursday morning, we realized that from that moment life will be transformed in some as-yet unknown way for Western civilization. That goes also for Donald Trump, who praised Putin for his “genius” and “savvy” the day before Russian troops started murdering Ukrainians. The stain of those words attaches to him forever. It is the stain of moral turpitude.

In the face of numbing tragedy, we push on with life. When the war was one day old I turned 73. At first I barely noticed. Nearly everything will change before I’m 74.

Some birthdays set the stage for big thoughts. The Washington Post last week ran a story about two women in Florida, identical twins, who just celebrated their 100th birthdays. They both looked great in the photos, and of course, identical. They’ve outlived both their husbands. I was impressed, as were others who read the story. They’ve lost track of more birthdays than me. They were 27 when I was born.

I’ve been making that same comparison since we landed in our new town. I’ve met lots of younger people who embrace their lives with energy and smiles, in the neighborhood, at the YMCA, at hospitals and doctors’ offices. I do that mental calculation, how old was I when they were born. There’s usually three or four decades worth of years’ difference. They’re all busy with jobs and kids. We’re in the grandstand, watching.

Birthdays at every age come with some kind of theme. Gifts, parties, cake with candles and funny hats, friends and “Happy Birthday” for the kids, maybe subtract the hats for the teens (maybe not). Later, adult beverages may be added. Parents’ birthday celebrations depend on what their kids think of them, and may get a little awkward, as in, what in heck is really appropriate? What do you give the sixty-eight-year-old who slouches around the house in a threadbare sweater and never wears earrings or a watch? With gray hair birthdays may get a little wistful, a little, or a lot more solemn, more portentous.

For the oldsters, life’s theme for a couple of decades has been: how do we keep up? We live uneasily in the kids’ universe, which we call “online.” “Kids” now includes the twenty-, thirty-, and forty-somethings and their children down to preteen. The text messages flow continuously, nearly every thought, decision, and act transcribed and transmitted. Making a doctor’s appointment or a restaurant reservation or paying a bill entails a text message at one or both ends. Awhile back I pulled out pen and paper and wrote a longhand thank-you note to someone, complete with envelope and first-class stamp. I received a thank-you for my thank-you—a text.

It’s the world we live in. The grayheads either adapt or retreat into the underworld of geriatric helplessness, when the kids step in and take charge of their lives. The frailties of aging are matched by the marvelous effectiveness of modern medicine, meaning we live longer with debilitating illness, never mind the costs. Then the dark side: still-young people, in their forties and fifties, even later, who had launched their children into the world and looked forward to getting some rest, now are drafted into caring for their own parents.  

When Sandy and I were first married and moved into our fixer-upper in the Vanderbilt neighborhood of Nashville, we charged hard. We sanded down and refinished all the floors and painted all the walls and ceilings. I talked to a plumber, and built a full bathroom upstairs, running the water and power lines and drain connections. Later we stripped old linoleum and laid down a parquet floor, tile by tile. I tuckpointed the chimney and built a brick patio. I installed and connected the power for vent fans in the attic. Then, with three kids, we moved away.

Later, at our Virginia place I installed a drop ceiling in the basement, built another bedroom, and put up paneling. We wallpapered, stripped wallpaper, and painted, over and over. I bought a kit and assembled an eight-by-ten-foot utility shed. I installed a children’s swingset, complete with concrete-anchored pilings. When the kids left I dismantled it. I built another patio, this one with flagstones. We planted dozens of shrubs and hundreds of flowers, year after year. I rented a tiller and tilled and replanted. We slaved away on the lawn, seeding, fertilizing, reseeding, refertilizing, weeding, watering, year after year.

That was then. I said goodbye to all that. When we arrived here we looked at a couple of “country” houses on big lots. We thought hard, and ended up with our postage-stamp-size front and back yards. I bought a shoulder-powered push mower. We hired painters and a plumber. We hired an electrician.  In the spring I planted some flowers and veggies. In the fall I half-heartedly tossed some grass seed around by hand. I barely pay attention to it.

What’s that other bromide about adding years? The one about experience fosters prudence and wisdom? Prudence, or patience, has to do with slowing down. Blood pressure may have slowed down, so heat isn’t rising to the brain as quickly. Tempers and passions tend to cool over a good dose of years. We don’t get as steamed up. We’ve learned from our mistakes or seen how getting steamed up just upsets others. And really what’s the point? The point, in our seventies as at any age, is to see the good in humankind, to extend to others respect, compassion, kindness, love.

The wisdom part is up for debate. As Biden called down sanctions on the Slavic butcher Putin, septuagenarian carnival barker Trump went dark. We reach out with compassion, but meanwhile know mendacity and disloyalty are distributed across all age brackets. If the exception proves the rule, we’re witnessing an argument for listening politely to some old folks, but locking up others.


February 21, 2022

The van wouldn’t start after it sat in the driveway for three cold days. Not even a click. In 45 minutes the roadside assistance guy showed up and attached his power box to the battery. I turned the key, the engine chugged to life. “Is that it?” I asked. “That’s it,” he said. “Let it run for a few minutes. Get it checked at Auto Zone,” he said with a wave and drove off.

This held me up from my trip to the Urgent Care to have three staples removed from my head that a nurse inserted last week to close a cut after a fall. Not a hard fall, it could have been worse. Head wounds bleed. I held a damp cloth against it but the blood wouldn’t stop, so I went in to have it looked at. The staples worked and I moved on.

While the cut ached, I sat on the sofa and thought about driving the van last week to a remote mountain park 40 miles from home and outside cell-signal coverage. An orange warning light popped on, I ignored it. The battery could have died out there, in a deserted field, in below-freezing temperatures.

 I massaged my head, recalling the warning light, stunned at my carelessness, my narrow escape. Eventually I excused myself, distracted around 5:30 by the evening sky, which still glowed pale blue beyond the bare branches of the woods at the end of the street. The lawns are still brown, but daylight is arriving earlier and staying later. February is slouching by. Dawn is chilly but the chill fades and by noon the sun is warm.

Gentle afternoons prompt cosmic thoughts, or pretentious ones. Last week Storyworth, the online interview program, asked, “Who inspires you?” Lots of people inspire me, beginning with authentic heroes, those who sacrifice for the welfare of others. So many, some I know, many I don’t know, parents, teachers, healthcare givers, first responders, military personnel, who lay their comfort and safety on the line for the innocent, the weak, those who now are suffering. The suffering are everywhere, coughing and choking in hospitals and nursing homes. Then too, Ukrainians are facing Russian tanks across three borders.

But then: inspiration grows from truth in the world around us. As I wrote for Storyworth, I’m inspired by Etienne Gilson (Gee-SOHN), the French philosopher, born 1884, died 1978, who probed the dense, argumentative thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, as the saint, in his Summa Theologica, confronted the profound problems of human life. His calling was truth.

Gilson was a historian and a philosopher, inevitably the two disciplines merge. Through his inconspicuous but brilliant career he wrote dozens of works of history and philosophy, in prose both simple and beautiful. He taught at the great French universities, Lille, Strasbourg, Paris, the Sorbonne, and at Harvard, Oxford, Toronto, Aberdeen. He explained gently, again and again, that Aquinas (1225-1274) was not just another name on a roster of the big names of Catholicism.

Gilson is there to lead as we stumble over the questions we all eventually ask ourselves: What is truth, what is the meaning of existence? Does God exist? Ultimately, for all of us in early 2022, on the brink of cynicism, disillusionment, depression, the question is: what is the point? Is there a point? Aquinas, through Gilson, has an answer.

Although ordained a humble Dominican priest, Aquinas was driven to study the great crises of history—not the “Catholic” ones, but the crises of humanity that endure to fascinate and torment mankind over 3,000 years or more. He looked to the thought of the giants of Greek philosophy, Aristotle and Plato, whose teachings, in the face of centuries of intellectual assault and indifference still define, more profoundly than any other, our civilization.

I started reading Gilson in 1979 when I picked up The Gilson Reader. My copy now is dogeared and ragged, held together by tape, nearly every line underlined or highlighted, filled with decades-old scribbles. Then in The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, published in 1956, Gilson attacks our cynicism with logic that is both excruciating and relentless. He shows us an end to doubt and ambiguity, as he draws us cordially and patiently into the misty intellectual world of classical metaphysics.

In the first sentences of his first chapter (entitled “Existence and Reality”) of Part I (entitled simply “God”), he asks: “how do we come to grips with the problem of the existence of God? The problem …  presupposes some understanding of what is meant by the verbs ‘to be,’ or ‘to exist.’ … [Aquinas’] concept of the real and of being dominates his metaphysics.”

Aquinas uses the Latin word esse, designating “act-of-being.” In English, esse is translated as “being,” which “comes to us in sense experience.” He then explains that any concept of God must begin with sense understanding, what we perceive in the physical world.

For Gilson, meaning for Aquinas, God is not an abstract concept or an idea, a glib notion of preachers quoting Scripture and promising miracles. He writes, “it is hard to conceive a [philosophy] more fully and more consciously existential than that of St. Thomas Aquinas.” He reminds that esse, like every verb, designates an act, not a state. “Thus understood, the act of existing lies at the very heart of the real. … it is what we shall later call God.” He escorts us through the razor-sharp discipline of Aquinas’ thought, always anchored in existence, a philosophy of optimism and beauty.

I recall digging out my copy of the Reader in grad school, my five years of night classes with kids (actually very smart people) one-third my age. I read and underlined and made it through the M.A. oral exam. Then I moved to other things.

The sun had fallen beneath the woods. For a moment I looked out the front window at the brown grass, already pocked with clumps of weeds. I remembered the next chore, spreading crabgrass killer on the lawn. Then I went out and started the van and let it run for a couple of minutes, just to be sure.

Rivers Bridge

February 14, 2022

“Breathe in. Hold your breath. Breathe.” The CT spoke to me, as it always does, same orders, same tone. The nurse, Katie, was at the controls. She got me settled on the platform, slid me inside the donut, and cranked up the engine, the way I think of it. Actually she touched a key on a computer. In ten minutes she yelled “All done!” and I was out of there.

The radiologist sent his analysis late Thursday. All systems look good, or “unchanged”; the residual radiation lung damage is still there.  This was CT scan number 20 over three years. I’m on a streak of four encouraging ones. Next week the doc will tell me if he’ll stretch them to every six months. Sandy then will be getting a sonogram, purely exploratory, her doctor says. We’re a pair.

We talked about our next attempt to change the scenery. She mentioned Battle of Rivers Bridge State Park or Historic Site.  She said it’s the only South Carolina state park that memorializes Civil War action. Fort Sumter, where the war started on that infamous day, April 12, 1861, is a national monument, not a state park. I never heard of Rivers Bridge so I looked it up. It’s about 75 miles south of Columbia, one of the smallest state parks, a dot on the map.

Civil War history now reminds me of my OK/not-OK connection to the state. The Trump-flavored politics of state government tells us some folks here are still fighting the war. The Monument to the Confederate Dead in Anderson, erected in 1902, bears this inscription:

“The world shall yet decide, In truth’s clear far-off light, That the soldiers who wore the gray and died, With Lee were in the right.”

Many things have changed since 1902. But the Lost Cause is out there.

Still, we’re settled in, breathing the perfect air of the Blue Ridge foothills. We love the people we’ve met, young and not so young. We no longer shiver in the damp Mid-Atlantic winter. Our doctors have worked miracles, with compassion. Here we are.

So—in December 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, with 60,000 men in two armies, finished his rampaging march from Atlanta to Savannah. He then turned north into the heart of the Carolinas en route to meeting Grant near Richmond, the plan being to finish off Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia by spring.

In early February 1865 Rivers Bridge had its hiccup of history: it’s where 1,200 exhausted South Carolina rebels tried to stop a force of 5,000 veteran Union soldiers hungry to end the war. The Yanks flanked the rebs and brushed them out of the way with about 100 dead and wounded on each side. They pushed on to Columbia, which surrendered February 17. Fires started either by accident or by one side or the other—no one knows—burned the city to the ground.

Around then rebel Major General Wade Hampton, once owner of 1,000 slaves and huge plantations, shows up prominently in state history. He fled his native Columbia as the Union Army arrived and ended up on the staff of General Joe Johnston, who surrendered his starving, tattered army April 18, nine days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.

Anderson Confederate memorial

When the war ended Hampton, a Democrat, fought against Reconstruction as leader of the Redeemers, who worked to restore White state officeholders. He opposed President Grant’s pursuit of the Ku Klux Klan. Violence spread. In 1871 Grant suspended habeus corpus and sent federal troops to nine South Carolina counties to arrest and prosecute Klan members.

During Hampton’s 1876 campaign for governor he was supported by paramilitary “rifle club” Red Shirts, who attacked Blacks and White Republican voters. On July 4, 1876, the nation’s Centennial, a White mob murdered five Blacks in Hamburg, S.C., and pillaged the homes of every Black family. In October at least 17 Blacks and as many as 150 were killed by an armed mob in Ellenton.

Both parties claimed to have won the gubernatorial election. Six months later the state Supreme Court ruled Hampton the winner. The election of Republican President Rutherford Hayes ended Reconstruction, but anti-Black violence continued throughout the South. Hampton later served two terms in the U.S. Senate. Schools, parks, and roads all over the state are named after him.

The Hampton story isn’t unique. In Charleston, tourists line up to admire the Nathaniel Russell House built by wealthy Charlestonian Nathaniel Russell (1738-1820). The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and described in the brochures as an “architectural marvel.” Russell made his millions as a slave trader. The brochures call him a “prominent merchant.”

Am I being persnickety to wonder about this infatuation with rich slaveowners? We find lovely plantation homes all over the South, many, maybe most built by slaves. Sure it was another time, folks had different values and priorities. “States rights” was more important in the South than national unity. But owning human beings, buying and selling them, whipping them, breaking up families, hunting them down when they escaped? That’s why we had the Civil War.

The association of “class” with money isn’t an antebellum Southern eccentricity; some folks admire rich people regardless of how they got rich. Failed real estate salesman Trump has lots of fans. When the Civil War started Hampton, who had no military experience but wanted to command soldiers, financed his own cavalry regiment.

Historic bigotry wasn’t only a Southern tragedy. I recall the racial ugliness and violence of busing in Boston and other Northern places even in the 1970s. We look around our Southern environs, life is different. The Klan still exists in the shadows among other fringe groups, but has been in long decline.

I drive on Wade Hampton Boulevard almost every day and often pass Wade Hampton High School. We have a fifteen-foot-high statue of Hampton in uniform on his horse in Columbia. He once was called “the savior of South Carolina.” Hampton’s plantation home, Millwood, which occupied 13,000 acres, and his two other estate homes in Columbia were destroyed in the February 1865 fire, so not available for tours, although the ruins are on the National Register of Historic Places.

I wonder about Rivers Bridge, commemorating a Civil War footnote, a one-day skirmish of no strategic importance. In 1876 the Confederate dead were reburied in a mass grave, an annual ceremony is held. In 1945 the site became a state park. Like Russell’s house and Hampton’s ruin, it made it onto the National Register. We may go, or not.

The Train and the Woods

February 7, 2022

In 1952 Johnny Cash wrote “Folsom Prison Blues,” which became a huge country hit. For years he sang it as his opening number at concerts. The song is about crime and retribution: punishment, regret, despair. It’s also about the railroad, a mythical railroad, a dream of escape, and maybe salvation. Cash was a man who knew he needed salvation. Like the rest of us.

A track runs along the north side of our neighborhood. It’s a couple of hundred yards beyond the street parallel to ours, and heavily used. In the afternoon we’ll often see a train racing by, hauling a hundred or more cars, engines roaring, sirens shrieking. At times the ground seems to shake. I wonder if those homeowners realized how close the tracks are before they bought their homes.   

Sometimes late at night I hear those lonely sounds, which seem to echo off the trees. I think of “Folsom Prison Blues” and Johnny Cash. I don’t mind the sound, for years we lived within a few miles of tracks in Virginia and Tennessee. The sounds convey a sense of the economy bustling along, carrying goods to markets and customers “down the line,” as the song says. But at some moments they also suggest the weight of emotion Johnny reached for: sorrow for past mistakes, loneliness, isolation that comes from rootlessness, endless movement from one strange place to another.

I thought of these things, inexplicably, when I saw a bright red “For Sale” sign appear last month at the end of our street. It advertises a vacant lot that extends from a steep downslope to woods bordering a fast-moving creek. With the trees now bare, the outlines of houses in the subdivision beyond the creek are visible. The sign doesn’t give the dimensions of the property for sale, so it could be either the same size as the adjacent lots or the whole thing, which looks to be four or five acres.

The woods look like the kind of place parents wouldn’t let their kids play near: thick with underbrush, where scary people might hang around or wander through. When I was a kid my folks didn’t worry if I played all day in the woods behind our house. Things are different now. The woods, in their strangeness, their silence, pull me back to Folsom Prison Blues.

Around here, as elsewhere in suburbia, forest predated home construction. The developers of this subdivision extended two dead-end streets on the natural slope until it becomes too steep for houses. They removed the trees on the now-for-sale lot and pushed back the underbrush to give the place a more benign look. They tried to mitigate the scariness, the vaguely threatening impression that thick woods bordering backyards can create for homeowners.  On my walks down to that end of the street I haven’t seen anyone venture there.

I’ve thought of walking down through the lot to get a look at the woods. Something holds me back. It’s private property. The residents nearby, when they’re there, stay inside. I’m not worried about someone threatening me with a shotgun. Or am I? This is the South, after all. People are hospitable and down-home friendly, except when they’re not, and they have guns. But nervous people with weapons are everywhere. I’m a little nervous myself.

Meanwhile this city advertises its razzle-dazzle: business is booming, we have the giant BMW plant on the interstate, GE, Fluor, Michelin, Lockheed Martin, lots of others. Main Street, in warm weather, hosts a big farmer’s market. There’s a theater, good restaurants, nice parks, the works. Covid hasn’t put a dent in the excitement.

Back at our little subdivision, named Riverside Glen although we have no river, neighbors go about their lives, work, yard care, playing with kids. A short quarter-mile away is this rough little piece of land. The steep drop into the woods says something to me, or to my imagination. It’s a long way from the razzle-dazzle. It conveys, somehow, the break between the known and the unknown, the tame and the wild, the cared for and the forgotten.

Instead of the natural beauty of woodland I see the ragged, empty fringe of this place, neglect, a sense of decay, loss. I wonder why. Sure, it’s impossible to build homes down there. What about a park or a nature trail?  Some sign of civilization, something hopeful.

It won’t happen. The local government has built plenty of kids’ playgrounds, and now is in the middle of a giant downtown urban-renewal project, adding stores, offices, apartments. A big city park with a fountain and lots of green space stretches next to city hall.

We all know of places that somehow are off-limits, that people shy away from. Hemingway wrote about them in his Nick Adams stories, those remote camps in the woods of northern Michigan, where civilization seems far off, where bad things sometimes happen. Hemingway started his career with those stories, a career that won a Nobel Prize for literature. He then descended to his personal hell of wrecked marriages, alcoholic obsession, paranoia, and suicide.

Hemingway’s demons consumed him. Johnny Cash’s song may have been for him an act of repentance, of salvation. He struggled to learn, as others who share his darkness may learn, the truth that at the hardest, bleakest part of existence, surrender to faith and love brings strength and sustenance for the haunted, painful days.

The trains roar by in the middle of the night. We move beyond the Folsom Prison intimations of tragedy and loss. The woods are silent, connoting mystery, but also tranquility, peace. I put the trains and the woods, and the hard thoughts they summon, out of my mind. The property down the street probably will be sold. Or not. It may remain empty, unwanted, shaping nightmares, but also dreams.