Grand Junction

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I’m racing against time; everyone is. I will not win; no one will. I recognize this struggle; many do not. When recognized, more can be done: remember and record.

It is hard to fathom, but sometimes I have nothing to say and don’t even try to speak: nothng is going on in my head. And then – WHAM! – out of the blue something crosses my path and there is a avalanche of recollections and new connections. It’s peculiar and sort of amazing how the train gets rolling from there.

This time the initial WHAM started with an article in The New Yorker about water problems in the western United States. A segment of the story produced a vivid recollection of a travel experience I had twenty years ago. [1] I had also been thinking about the derailment of an Amtrak train from Washington, D.C., outside of Philadelphia, another rail trip I had taken and my son takes periodically. [2]

When not at a stand still, or busy with a day’s practical matters, I am sucked into the vortex of past or future.

As with practically anyone’s vacation, I go about family travel just taking in what comes along, and then – WHAM! – I am completely euphoric: the moment seems monumental, significant, glorious. And it is all neither required nor expected. I confess that a single glass of red wine near sunset tends to magnify, prolong, and vaporize these revelations.

That is what happened outside of Grand Junction one June evening in 1995, as my wife and son and I sat down in the dining car on Amtrak’s California Zephyr.

FOOTNOTE:

1. David Owen’s article “Where the River Runs Dry” in The New Yorker on May 25, 2015.

Owen’s describes the Colorado’s headwaters:

“If you drive west on Interstate 70 from Denver, you pick up the Colorado at Dotsero, about a hundred miles east of the Utah border, and follow it west through canyons so deep and narrow that some stretches are engineered like double-decker bridges: one lane on top of the other. The railroad goes that way, too, on the opposite bank. Tunnels punch through buttresses of rock that the road builders couldn’t go around, and there are sections where the view above is so transfixing that you have to remind yourself to look back at the road….”

2. Wikipedia, “2015 Philadelphia train derailment”; URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_Philadelphia_train_derailment (Updated: September 6, 2015).

3. Three days after publishing this story, I heard this on NPR’s Morning Edition about Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. Kirk Siegler’s report is entitled “Las Vegas, N.M., Needs Amtrak To Help It Draw More Tourists”; URL: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/17/441063247/las-vegas-n-m-needs-amtrak-to-help-it-become-a-bigger-tourist-destination (September 17, 2015).

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Oh, Now I Understand!

For those who fear that technology is taking control of our lives, or for those who believe that it will solve our problems, I offer this rebuttal. On July 13,2015, my father left me a voicemail message at 7:12 p.m. Microsoft’s advanced interpretive software translated the audio message as follows.

“Jerry this is dad I would today I stood.

There but I live at six days that you called and – to turn the computer loan and I did that in court today – dollars and – yellow drama ray mare and are made it clear – which mum my user name – and after that the password in court I don’t know – I work from do they do on this one sort out in meting renewing it – but if you’ll just let me know what what the deal is I’ll get back something some more either computer loan this cooler green – so in tickled which you’re one of that and I need to get the password.

Out calculator tape is bad seven thank you bye.”

The sad thing is that as I have dealt more with my parents aging, I understood the gist of this message. The sadder thing is that it more adequately represents the quality of our telephone conversations better that I could ever describe them.

Adopt an Elder

To liberals and conservatives alike, I say you cannot love (or, you are no warrior) until you have cared and fought for someone you know and owe – not a vague abstraction, but someone close by. Most of my friends and family have experienced this revelation. I am a Johnny-come-lately in this forced march, but I am willing to advocate for it as if I discovered something awesomely new.

Decline is inevitable. It is the future of us all.

Young people, love and cherish your elders before it is too late. Record and remember their sacrifices, foibles, follies, triumphs, and wisdom.

Time is relative, supposedly, but it is an unrelenting hunter. Do unto others as you would have others down the food chain do unto you. When you come to embrace the majestic, unexpected degradation of life, you will come to understand it; only then will you apply to it the full measure of your diminishing capabilities.

Some differ on the focus of their crusades for life. From my perspective, the life not present and formed can have no place of precedence if the life that is nearby is not completely honored. And the life that has given to others many times over cannot be relegated to obscurity and daily want if life to come is to thrive.

We are and have been a busy, self-regarding generation. Those after are perhaps busier. Business is our nature and our fog. Too often we are busy about nothing – nothing of significance at all. Wisdom is recognizing obligation and noting one’s hair’s-breadth remove from insignificance.

Young nieces and nephews – grand nieces and nephews – young friends and strangers, I marvel at your energy and health, your white teeth and strong voices, and your time left for mistakes and successes. But the train of old age is coming at you much faster than you know; you will only know it when it hits. Be prepared for a new near-life. Be prepared to be a model for your descendants in gracefully negotiating the years that were supposed to come so slowly. And pray like mad that your children and their children, and the great souls of your community, will mercifully adopt an elder.

Raid on Palau

Having known R. W. Hulme (Bob) forty years, I can, without reservation, attest that I believe every single word of his stories. It is a wonder that he came to write his stories and that we should hear and like them so much.

I like the excitement and cool detachment; the brevity, clarity, and detail; his determination to get it done; the humility and the humor. But most of all I like the unmistakable humanity – the “one” and the “we” working it out on the fly.

Bob was drafted into the Army on his twenty-second birthday in September, 1941. That fact is completely consistent with the tone of his stories. He was no daring-do cowboy. He moved by force of persistence, against significant odds, into flying. Once there, he took charge without bravado.

Essentially, over time, Bob did not alter, except where a house full of lovely, intelligent, honorable women helps a man adjust admirably. It is noteworthy that his telling of this story comes in 1992. After Ross Perot, Bob privately struggled, for 19 more years, to negotiate the new world order. He adapted in increments like the self-taught, well-read, hard-working, experienced gentleman that he was.

Despite what they claim in fiction and history, great things happen in increments. Bob’s stories – and life – show us that great feats happen in short steps. The context of those steps is often out of control – as are the guiding instruments – but it is how one handles the stick that substantially determines when, where, how, and if one lands.

The new world order was more ambiguous and less trustworthy for a man such as Bob. He respected learning, loyalty, common sense, and work, but he clearly objected to the way things were headed.

After seeing the television series “The Pacific,” I am heartily grateful that Bob was in the air. His is the war that we know through his stories. He and they allow us to suspend judgment about the time, and all that preceded and followed it, in the suspense of how our loved one managed to survive intact. Not just survive, but thrive as the same man we read about now and knew around the kitchen table.

As he makes abundantly clear, Bob was one of many, a leader who wanted to get the hell out and get his comrades out, too, while doing his assigned task in a way that, though not exactly by the book, gets it done and wins peace in which a new world could emerge. Big men yield. But when they succumb to age and change, they leave gaping holes.

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Stories in TennesseeSoul by Lt. Col. Robert W. Hulme, USAF (Ret.)
(ordered by date of war event)

Black Sunday
Raid on Palau
The Big One
Clark Field
The One

Still Life

Our widowed friend paints life still:

each object vibrates color;

vessels brim with promise past,

with memories vaguely shaken.


Repeating acts for themselves,

sublime grasp of the moment,

each stroke observes one forward step,

one backward glance forsaken.


Still life is breath, no less,

when human hands and eyes behold

what minds and hearts embrace,

what sharing lives awaken.

When Letters Could Talk

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I treasure letters. I save most personal correspondence I receive. And I try to save drafts of some letters that I send. Fragments of letters encapsulate evidence of the fullness of living. It pains me to imagine chunks of history daily cast away. Still more, it awes me to consider the trillions of stories that were never part of our shared record.

Digital messaging is something we think we cannot live without. I greatly appreciate its speed and convenience. I am grateful that I continue to receive emails – occasionally even containing multiple paragraphs – that approach the detail, color, feeling, and depth of handwritten letters. But they are fewer and fewer. Though I have tried to keep personal email exchanges over for the past twenty years, emails have become more akin to business telegrams than letters. Blogs are really not like letters either, but they can be richer than emails – though less personal. When I write something for what others insist on calling my “blog,” I generally write portions as if they were letters to individuals with whom I am very familiar. Often the messages I send to them in this indirect way are urgent though quiet. Even though I have substantial experience using digital technology for communication, the first time I got a response to a “blog” story from someone I didn’t know, it creeped me out; I felt as if my personal space had been violated in some way. Maybe I am over that to some extent, but in a significant way I am not. I write to people I know. [1]

Despite having little to say most of the time, I endeavor to be both informative and entertaining in my letters. Whether I succeed in achieving either is an open question. I am not a very inventive letter writer in terms of fiction and fantasy, but I am a passable exaggerator.

Recently I found a bundle of letters written in late 1982 and early 1983. They are particularly interesting to me because they illustrate how my wife and I lived before the advent of our son. These paragraphs that you are reading are a sidewinding preface to selected parts of three of those letters.

There is an incident – not mentioned in the letters – that links the first two recipients. It happened as a close friend, my wife, and I leisurely drove back to Nashville from Boston. My wife and I were returning home after travel north to briefly visit our friend. His girlfriend’s parents lived near the water’s edge of eastern Long Island. We had only just met her days before in Boston, and she had returned to her parent’s comfortable house for an extended summer stay. She and her parents put the three of us up for a night to help relieve our drive south.

My friend had a mischievous streak and was a studied deceiver. He delighted in the discomfort of others, especially familiars. As we were driving across Long Island, he casually mentioned, as if it were a slip of his tongue, that his girlfriend’s brother had deep-rooted psychological problems and had recently been found wandering, if not stalking, the beach holding an ax. When we arrived, we met her friendly family, and while we were on the beach, we ran across her younger brother. He did indeed act peculiarly. After dinner and a beach walk, my wife and I returned to our guest accommodations in the basement of the house. The brother’s bedroom was a small side room off of the main basement room, separated only by a flimsy, hollow-core interior door. From the stairwell he had to walk across the room about ten feet from the foot of our double bed to get to his room. That night, after we got in bed, turned out the lights, and began to nod off, he returned home and walked a little too noisily to his room and shut the door. The light remained on for the entire night, and there was occasional shuffling in the room, accented by periodic human utterances. My eyes and ears were alert all that night. I had one of the most fitful sleeps ever, continually glancing at that door with the light seeping from the inch-wide crack at the bottom, listening for signs of imminent attack. We had been warned by our friend not to mention the brother’s condition; so as thoroughly polite and grateful guests, we issued not a hint, before or after our evening, about our planted suspicions, though craving all the while confirmation or denial of our friend’s darkly sketched story. The next day, our friend reluctantly and “innocently” confessed his tale, after hearing of my restless sleep and seeing my haggard eyes. His girlfriend was not amused by his trick or our long-suffering discomfort.

Letter writing and friendship are similar to that story. It’s difficult to sort what is fact from embellishment. Often we don’t really want to know the absolute truth because it would ruin the experience. If we demand only truth and facts, there might be no story – nor life – to speak of.

FOOTNOTE:

1. Since its inception, TennesseeSoul Mate has not been open to external search engines. That polite curtain of modesty is a cellophane barrier I have been unwilling to lift. Thus, though it is open to whoever stumbles upon it, the TennesseeSoul Mate portion of the TennesseeSoul network possesses an imaginary privacy. Otherwise, TennesseeSoul overall is strongly shielded by obscurity, general lack of interest, and too much other stuff to do.

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Thankful for a Generation

Given an unusual assignment for a family gathering on Thanksgiving Day, I flailed the waters but finally found my current. My list of thanks, as spokesperson for my generation, need not be contained by a single occasion. The items on my list flow freely from a full fount of thanks. We are grateful for much at the close of November 2012. In truth, our river of thanks stretches, like a flooded Mississippi, over the banks of six long decades. It is surely a more colorful and voluminous tributary than my bucket of gratitude suggests.

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Tractors Are Us

Low Idles

I am the proud owner of a copy of Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White, Jr. (Oxford University Press, 1962, 1967). In this old hardcover book, the author documents the dramatic alterations specific technological innovations wrought on Western culture. Not all of the advances originated in the West, but the adoption, adaptations, and application by the West more than made up for an absence of authorship. It is a very good thing for the West that there were no prevailing patent laws back in the early Middle Ages. Wholesale theft of other people’s innovations was a practiced Western art form. For example, the humble stirrup and lowly heavy plough revolutionized warfare and agriculture. This slight book, obtained decades ago, forced me to look at gadgets and machinery in different ways. Afterward, I saw more than a touch of art in the most rust- and grease-bound objects found in junk yards and the dark corners of old barns. Though I dearly love working with wood and the look of wood finishes, the difficulty of fabricating metal pieces casts an artful aura over the disintegrating remains of once-powerful machines. Delicacy alone means less amid a craving for things brutal upon which one can firmly stand and jump. But delicacy joined with practical effectiveness yields stronger substance still.

The new story in TennesseeSoul has little to do with this preface. Or does it?

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Out There with John Ealey

I really don’t have anything pithy to add as a lead to this story. It is quite surprising to me how much fun it was to research and put together. It’s good to be reminded of why we labor to do the things we cannot resist doing. I only wish I could capture the magic ingredients that made this piece so rewarding socially as well. Most every member of my Memphis family was drawn into the endeavor, and I think it was almost as pleasurable for them as it was for me.

I found someone who was lost. Actually, what else need be said?

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