Close Encounters of the Pulitzer Kind

One
1975

The summer I turned 23 I was in San Francisco. That day I went to Baker’s Beach to stare out at the ocean and bathe myself in failure and regret that I had not written a masterpiece by such a late date in my life. It would take a few years before I knew why this made me a perfect fool.

That night I went to a bar in North Beach on Broadway just over the hill toward the bay. It wasn’t a big room but it did have a dance floor, about a dozen long haired hippies hanging around, and one unique looking older man sitting at a table by himself.

He wore a blue serge suit with a snap brim fedora, sported a walrus mustache, held a pearl handled cane between his knees and had a full mug of beer on the table in front of him. There was a passing thought I should speak to him, but I didn’t. I did wind up sitting at the very next table.

That night I danced with woman who was probably in her thirties. When I told her it was my birthday she asked which one and laughed when I gave the answer. “Oh,” she said, “you’re just a baby.” This made me feel vaguely insulted and after the dance I went back to sit my table next to the man who, if only in passing, had to be watching me, for there were maybe three couples on the dance floor that night.

Twelve years go by. One day at work at a law firm in Manhattan I opened up that day’s copy of the New York Times and saw a picture of that man in the same hat, the same mustache, maybe even the same suit. There was no mistake. It made me leap out of my chair and exclaim, “Oh my God, that was him. That was him!”

That’s how long it took me to find out that William Saroyan sat on the edge of a dance floor in a bar in San Francisco and watched me have the time of my life on the night of my 23rd birthday.

Two
1977

Tennessee Williams passed just beneath my shoulder one night in a theater lobby. This happened on Melrose Place in Los Angeles. The real Melrose Place should not be confused with the fictional one. The real street is only two blocks long and full of warehouses except for a small theater on its north side. The lobby is about as large as your average bathroom.

I was on a waiting list to see Scott Wilson in Outcry and the lobby was full of buzz that Tennessee Williams was going to attend. Eight o’clock came, then eight oh five, then eight ten, then the door opened and he entered.

That night he was high as a kite drunk with a beautiful blonde boy in tow. Right in front of me he stopped, turned with one hand across his chest, the other hand near his eyes, striking the melodramatic pose of an aging coquette, and said to someone behind us, “Who, me?”

Then they hustled him into the theater because they had been holding the curtain for his arrival. The man who was the producer or director, the man who had done the most to spread the delicious rumor that Tennessee Williams was going to show up that night, rolled his eyes, which was his remark upon the spectacle.

The theater was sold out and I did not get a seat for the show, but the more personal show happened in the lobby. All these years later I realized the one thing I might have said when he passed by:

“Mister Williams…thanks.”

Three
1986

In the lobby of Manhattan Theater Club I saw David Mamet and Gregory Mosher enter and thought, gee, that’s interesting. When I took my seat there were two empty seats beside me and sure enough a few minutes later in they walk, Mamet to sit next to me and Mosher on the other side of him. The play that night was It’s Only a Play by Terrence McNally.  Appropriate, for it is a show about show business.

On such an occasion one should be witty but of course I was tongue tied. No sparkling words leaped out of me and over the years the things I have thought to say would have been wholly inappropriate.

“Mamet, I saw Glengarry Glen Ross. The curtain went up at 8:15, at 8:45 there was a twenty minute intermission, and at 9:20 the curtain was down. You call that a meal? That was more like a shot of booze and an appetizer.”

“Fuck you,” he might have said.

“And how do you feel about your contribution to the coarsening of the American language?”

“Fuck you,” he might have said.

Maybe it’s best we didn’t have much of an interchange. But if one is sitting next to the man one should say something, right? It happened to be the week before the Super Bowl the year Da Bears went, and my too simple conversational gambit became a bet on the game.

That’s how I wound up owing David Mamet ten bucks.

Four
1989

One morning I walked out of the law firm where I worked and went up Fifth Avenue. This was about a month before I was to exit New York City and return for a second bout with Los Angeles. At the time my wife and I were breaking up, which added to my customary gloom about how the world did not know my plays, though in truth very few of my plays at that point were worth knowing.

It was only nine short blocks to Central Park and once there I took the sidewalk that led to the zoo and there, in a line of benches sitting alone on a bench, was one of America’s most famous playwrights. He was reading the New York Times and as I passed I thought, (a) “that’s Arthur Miller” and (b) “what could I say to him?”

Nothing came to mind except all my troubles and I kept walking up the sidewalk to the zoo. A little time was spent seeing the animals in their cages, which is always depressing, and before long I was walking back down the same sidewalk. Arthur Miller was still there, still reading the Times but was now on its last section, the Business Section, the other sections folded neatly against his leg. Except for him the bench was still empty, so I sat down on the other end.

I was tongue tied, not an unusual condition when one is so tied down with troubles. What could I say to this man? “What advice would you give a young playwright?” That might have been good. That might have got him talking. That might have given us a real encounter. But my intensity as usual was turned inward and I could not utter a word.

After a bit Arthur Miller stood up. I was struck by his broad shoulders and his height. Someone once told me Biff was really Miller. In that moment I thought of that statement and thought, “Of course, this is the guy who went after Marilyn.” He would have been seventy-two that year but he was still fit, trim, and holding his shoulders erect walked away without a word from me.

A few years later in Los Angeles an actress in a play of mine told me she was on the reading committee of some theater. They were doing a one act festival and had just turned down a submission by Arthur Miller. “Oh my God, you are kidding me,” I said. “You turned down Arthur Miller?”

They had. This black box theater in L.A., whose name I can no longer remember, had turned down one of the country’s best playwrights for a one act play he had probably personally printed out, bound up, wrote a transmittal letter, addressed an envelope and made a trip to the post office to put in the mail.

Think on that awhile, and think about the life of a playwright.

Five, Six
1994

The best five weeks of my life were spent at the O’Neill and August Wilson being there was part of it being special.

“Your computer arrived, man. It’s up at the big house.”

Those were the first words he spoke to me. It was good it was him who broke the ice because you know how I can be around famous playwrights. August was easy to be around for his nature was genial and so completely unassuming it was hard to believe the man had won two Pulitzers. At the breakfast table he would be right in the middle of us, gabbing away, but never really gossiping.

“One year the food was so bad here the cook served spaghetti with sauerkraut,” he told us.

Up close August was modest and humble. After Ma Rainey had been done on Broadway he went home to Minneapolis and there, at least for a time, worked as a short order cook again. He did this because this was the rhythm he had known when his work first got good. The man didn’t drive, didn’t own a car, didn’t have a license and cared not a whit about any of these things.

One night a group of people dragged him to an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. After fifteen minutes August walked out and sat in lobby for an hour and a half, telling us later, “I couldn’t stand it. It was too stupid. What a waste of time.”

That year was the 30th anniversary of the O’Neill.  A big white party tent was put on the great lawn. How jealous I was a friend’s play was going up that night instead of mine, for VIPs were coming for a big barbecue and then the show; Edith Oliver, John Lahr, Jane Alexander, Derek Walcott, and a U.S. Senator, a man I would see sneaking out at intermission to be driven away in his limousine.

At the edge of the tent where the playwrights had gathered I met the dapper John Guare, who was among the inaugural class who first came to the great wooden mansion on the ocean. “This is where it all began for me,” he said. “There is no better place.” Any playwright who has been to the O’Neill would agree there is no greater paradise on earth. The only problem is the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference is not reality. It is paradise but it is not reality.

Clouds had been building through the day and as soon as we were seated and the speeches began an enormous summer thunderstorm erupted with a violence that was close to scary. For a few moments the wind threatened to lift the big party tent right off the ground. Amid crashes of thunder and cracks of lightning Lloyd Richards was introduced. Where the playwrights were we pounded the table and yelled as loud as we could, “Lloyd, Lloyd, Lloyd!”

Lloyd Richards was one of the few men I ever met who I thought had greatness about him. He too had a quiet demeanor but don’t be fooled. His perception was precise and powerful. To be in his presence was an honor. August’s plays were not as good when he and Lloyd no longer worked together. The same is true of Tennessee Williams after he no longer worked with Elia Kazan.

Anyway…

A couple of hours later, sitting in the dark on the front porch of the mansion, somebody in the group around me said, “August said your play was his favorite one done here this year.” There was a pause. Then Lori, who was sitting to my left said, “Yeah, I heard him say that, too.”

* * * * * *

At the breakfast table on the last day of the O’Neill I read August Wilson’s palm, a talent for which I once had a superficial and modest knowledge. August had the longest life line I had ever seen, running off his palm and down into his wrist.

“Yeah, I’m going to have a long life,” he told me. “When I get old I’m going to take up painting. Death is going to be looking for me over here but I’m going to be over there doing something else.”

That long life line must have meant his work, for he would die too soon from liver cancer. In the five weeks we spent together I never saw him take a single drink. The rest of us would hang out till closing at Blue Gene’s, the conveniently located tavern on the grounds, before taking the van back to the dorm. But August would catch the first van back and spend the nights working with words. My sense was that he was indifferent to alcohol and I don’t think it was liquor that gave him liver trouble.

“I am ready to go,” he announced a few weeks before his death. “My life has been blessed.”

The last time I saw him was fifteen months after that summer at the O’Neill. I was at a preview of Seven Guitars at the Walter Kerr Theater. As the lights went down on Act One I ran as fast as I could to be the first in line for the men’s room. As I reached for the door it flew open and there was August. His face broke into a big smile, he held out his hand, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Hey man, I told them to do your play. I acted out the whole thing for them.”

I thanked him and asked who. He gave me the name of the artistic director of a major theater. You would think when a two time Pulitzer winner recommends a play, is excited or charmed enough to “act out the whole thing,” you would think that play might get done. But you don’t understand the life of a playwright.

Upon such wisps of encouragement one lives for years, and during those years every theater in the country would turn down my plays again and again and again.  There are days when I know much despair, and days when I believe I will yet coax a chance out of Fortune.

Hyde Park, NY
August, 2019

One Monday a Month

One Monday a month every theater in the country…from the Shuberts and Nederlanders, to Seattle Rep to South Coast Rep, from Florida Rep to the Portland Stage Company, all the way to the second best dinner theater in Pocatello, Idaho … one Monday a month every theater in this country should give twelve minutes on their stage to any playwright who signs up.

The twelve minutes may be a rehearsed scene.  The playwright may simply sit on a chair and read from a script.  It might be possible to have a pool of actors on hand to cold read.  No sets are allowed, nothing but work lights should be used, and the twelve minutes includes any introduction or setting of scene.  There is no talk back afterwards only “thank you” and “next” or if the occasion demands, “your time is up.”

Plays are not meant to be read.  Plays are meant to be heard.  If not heard their value can never be rightly judged.  Plays are notes of music for body, voice, mind and being, and if not heard the music remains only notes on a page.  Could you judge Chopin or Saint-Saens from a sheet of paper blackened with bar notes and musical notations?   No, you could not.

Two examples from my own life:  when young I tried Waiting for Godot three times and never got beyond page 15.  “I don’t get it,” is all I could think.  “What am I missing?  Am I stupid or they stupid?”  Then I saw a production at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theater with Donald Moffat, Dana Elcar and Ralph Waite.  Ten minutes into that show I knew it was a great play, knew why it was a great play, and was utterly captivated.  But on the page I saw nothing at all, which is not the same nothing Mister Beckett intended.

I had no idea why Hamlet was a great play until one afternoon at The Public Theater Kevin Kline showed me why it is a great play.  But from the page I had no clue.  Even its greatest words were as blank to me as an ocean.  Without the resonance of a human voice plays can not be fairly judged.

There are multiple benefits to what is proposed above.  It would cost almost nothing, it brings new people and energy to your theater, and most importantly you are going to find new plays and playwrights.  All of us have sat through bad plays where two hours is an unhappy taste of eternity.  But anyone can survive twelve minutes.  The major houses might develop rules such as one time slot per five years, or after x number of appearances one has to be invited back in order to appear again.  Major houses should at least have a literary manager present for all such Mondays.

I put forth this modest proposal of One Monday a Month and hope to see it happen in my lifetime.

Prelude

When I read that ancient Greeks had Celtic slaves it jostled my cell memory.  Why am I so obsessed with being a playwright, a dramatist even?  With time I have come to believe one of my relatives was in Athens in its golden years.  He was there as a slave, a house slave, as my last name might suggest, perhaps in the house of one of the players, perhaps even in the house of one of the tragedians.  From up close he saw the plays and never forgot.

Mystical?   Yes.   Possible?   Maybe.  Romantic?  Of course.   Welcome to my world and its many cells of memory.

Religion is the Perfection of Evolution

A strong case can be made that  life is about replicating life. The grand design is that all reproduce, give birth to new life, and that each succeeding generation do the same, so that your name, bloodline and species will multiply, flourish, and most importantly, never die.

The great promise of many religions is that you will gain eternal life, that by believing such and such, by calling God by His correct name in the correct manner you will live forever, as will your friends and family, who will multiply, flourish, dwelling forever in a happy place, and most importantly, never die.

In this way religion is the logical outcome, even the perfection, of evolution.   Belief in eternal life is not surprising but inevitable.

September, 2003

Two Stories About Birds

A beautiful thing happened to me, but before I can tell that story I have to tell the first one, and both stories are true.

While stewing  in my usual gloom in May of 1994 there was a knock on my door and the UPS man had a special delivery letter from the O’Neill telling me I was going.  After leaping off the walls I called Annie and then Mom and went out for a walk.  Not one block away on a stretch of sunny sidewalk a mocking bird flew out of a bush, buzzed my face, flew over my shoulder and then down to nip the back of my right hand.

I was made uneasy by this, for never before or since has a bird, much less a mocking bird, treated me such, and in the same hour that I had heard the best news in many a year. My next trip down the sidewalk I saw she had her nest in the bush.  But the portent seemed all too clear.  My fate would mock me.  Indeed it did.

I went to the O’Neill and had the best play, something other playwrights and other people  told me.  Six plays from that year have now been produced, on Broadway, off-Broadway and in London, but not mine.

What I would have given if The Clan of the MacQuillins had gone exactly one week earlier, on a gala star studded night, a 30th anniversary celebration.   I believe it would have been born and given life if done that night.  But it didn’t happen that way and the mocking bird told me right at the top it wouldn’t.   Next summer marks seven years.

This year a beautiful thing happened to me on a Sunday morning in the first week of October.  It was the eve of Yom Kippur, an occasion my Father observed except he called it the Day of Atonement, a day of expiation for sin, observed in our family with prayer, study and traditional privations.

As I stood in my attic window in the room that was my office on a sunny day praying, the Hudson Valley autumn colored at my finger tips, a bald eagle soared up to my right from the North over my neighbor’s field.  He soared one circle then crossed and in front of me to the West soared a second circle, and coming out of this flew towards me, passing above my right shoulder, his wings a bare few feet above the eave of my house, every feather in his wings precise, his beak and talons a hard corn gold.

I was amazed and spoke aloud to the Lord, thanking Him again for my life, joyous at the miracle of being alive, and at that moment the eagle returned soaring a third circle, his wings rigid and still and directly above me, while I at my open window a few feet below was at his center.

There are days I am filled with a serene confidence all will happen as it should.

October, 2000

Eulogy for My Brother Quillin

He was handsome, he was affable, when he had a hundred dollars he felt like he had a thousand. When he had a thousand he felt like he had a million. He was always certain that in the very near future it was all going to work out great. It almost never did. But he was always a fascinating guy to have as an older brother.

Because Quillin, starting with his very name, no middle name, was different.

It was my sister Jan, a conduit of all sorts of interesting information in my youngest days, who told me all the way back on Armstrong, that Quillin had a different Daddy than the one we knew.  I once asked Mom, “What was he like, his dad?” She thought a moment and said, “Quillin is a carbon copy of his Dad, both inside and out.”  It would make an enormous difference in his life and it could and would explain certain things.

When grown Quillin tracked him down, his biological dad, a man named Ford, and convinced his progenitor to meet him at the Los Angeles airport.  When he walked toward him Quillin said, “He looked just like me. It was like meeting myself.”  The first words out the man’s mouth were, “Kid, I don’t need this.”  They spent maybe a half an hour together.

Quillin told me he came back from that trip and put his arms around Dad and told him that he loved him, and that Dad, James L., was his real Dad.  Which was true.  He was a Porter.  But he was also a little bit different, and oh, what a character.

When we were young and went camping, you best believe he met every young woman in that campground. There was the time when a whole gaggle of girls taught Quillin to water ski in the frigid waters of a lake in the Rocky Mountains.  His brothers and sisters stood on shore, laughing when he fell, cheering when he held his balance and skied.

An indelible image of that day, besides Scott laughing so hard he lost his balance and nearly fell into the lake, giving Grandpa Porter an attack of laughter that made him wheeze, was the crowd of adoring girls, wrapping Quillin up in blankets as he emerged from the freezing water, triumphant.

Then there was the trip to California, driving there in a white Chrysler station wagon pulling a green trailer.  It was the trip where the camera got left on the kitchen table, which is a shame because it might have recorded an astonishing event.

On that trip our brother Quillin met and fell in love with, and more importantly she fell in love with him, Hayley Mills. She was a movie star of the time, young, blonde, beautiful and famous.  How she lost her heart to a young man from Kansas, only in California a few days, how he slipped away from his parents, how he swept her off her feet, in San Diego of all places, well, it is truly a shame a camera was not around.

Hayley was so smitten with Quillin she wrote him letters and signed her name a special way, a way she only did for ones she truly loved.  I know all this because my sister Jan told me.  Quillin showed her the letters.  He never showed me the letters.  So I had to scrounge through his desk for weeks, reading all his love letters, sent to him by all sorts of women in Kansas, Colorado and other places, but I was looking for that one letter from Hayley.

It was never found.

But as it turned out there were pictures.  Yes, an eight by ten glossy signed “To Quillin with love, Hayley” and a second eight by ten glossy, a contact sheet with twelve pictures, one with a man’s arm around the adorable young blonde.  You could not see the man, just his arm, and in our one and only passing conversation upon the subject my brother assured me, “That’s my arm.”

He was seven years older which is a lot when one is five and he is twelve, or ten and seventeen, and so forth.  For awhile Quillin told me he had been a football star in college.  Many a time I pored over that Emporia State yearbook, looking for his picture on the team and those great games he played. Maybe he was gone the day the pictures were taken.

There is a story that has floated around for some fifty years that Chuck Connors is our uncle.  No, he isn’t and he wasn’t.  We had an uncle who looked a little like Chuck Connors. But when Quillin told the story around school while in the 8th grade The Rifleman became a blood relative and ssshhhh, no one’s supposed to know this, so don’t tell anybody, so only about seven thousand people ever believed this to be true.

All of us have a dream life.  Quillin was a dreamer.  If he could sell you his dream then it might be true.

It was Quillin who broke the unplowed ground with Dad, and you did not bend Dad’s will easily, about playing sports on Friday nights.  He threw a fit and said he was going to play football no matter what.  So Dad relented, and for the first time the start of the holy day could be profaned by the playing of a game, a victory that was a benefit to each of his siblings.

Grandpa Porter took me to one of Quillin’s football games.  His opinion was, “Your brother runs like a coyote.”  I remember going with Dad to the stadium at WSU and watching Quillin run in a big track meet.  He won his race that day and I was proud to be his brother, and was envious of the medals he wore on his letter sweater.

He was a much better athlete than any of the rest of us.  The game he loved was football.  In the great football games at Porterville, Jan and Whitney were on his team, Scott and Kimberly on my team.  Every game he would lay a ferocious block or tackle on a certain younger brother, which would send me tumbling into a nearby wheat field.

So when he went away to college me and my team practiced.  Oh, how we practiced, working on plays my older brother had taught me. Thanksgiving was the big game and it was the only game in about a hundred my team ever won.  And boy did that make him mad, because Quillin loved to win. In the grudge re-match over that one victory, that was the game Scott broke his collarbone in a collision with Quillin, and for the most part the football games ended, for which I was secretly grateful.

Now I will tell you, I think Quillin was a better big brother to me than I ever was to my little brother Scott. I can catch a baseball because Quillin hit and threw them to me for hours. He let me spend a week with him in bachelor splendor in a sprawling top floor of a Victorian house in Coffeyville, giving me a copy of the book Candy, which I devoured in one day, then going out to look for me when I stayed out too late prowling the streets of a strange big city.

On a later trip to Coffeyville he lent me his brand new Buick, a company car from whatever company he was with at the time, and I drove it much too fast, the only time I ever had a car almost up to a hundred and twenty, with a pretty girl on the front seat, a girl Quillin had introduced to me only a few hours before.  I was fifteen.

He was reckless and he was a lot of fun.

He was an encyclopedia salesman, a sports writer, an insurance adjuster, an advertising man, several times a hustling entrepreneur, and ended his business life as a stock broker and investment manager.

When I heard the words Quillin and stock broker in the same sentence I knew there was going to be trouble.  Because our brother, the dreamer, the reckless one, always wanted to go from A to Z and never mind those pesky little steps in between like B, C or D.  He wanted it now, he could dream it couldn’t he, and for as long as we knew him Quillin wanted to be rich.

A couple of times he got close. For a few months I was an eyewitness at XMG.  It was a good product, a Teflon motor oil that actually seemed to work, giving a car better gas mileage.  The first week I noticed the highlight of the day was lunch. Quillin and his partner would adjourn to a restaurant across the street and order two and on occasion even three rounds of double scotches.  Along about the second drink the burning question would arise, “Why kind of company jet do we think we should get?”

Not being wise in the ways of business but being a wise acre, I would point out that they had not, as of that moment, sold ten thousand dollars worth of product.  “Paul,” my big brother explained to me patiently, “you just don’t understand business.  You need to plan for these things.”

The funny thing about Quillin is that he did know great luck in his life.  There was Dad, a man who adopted and loved him as his own child.  There was Mom.  But maybe his best luck was that he married Yolanda, who was and is beautiful in all the important ways.  Together they had Lexi.

One of my memories of XMG was the day she was born.  Quillin was on the other side of town when Yolanda went into labor, labor that was far too early, and he made the hour’s drive across the length of Kansas City in twenty minutes.  The child born that day was no bigger than your hand and survived in part because her father loved her.

He loved all his children, Traci, Chad, Kenneth, Tiffany and Lexi.  He loved you, he was proud of you, and he regretted that he did not spend more time with you.  One time he said to me, “Dammit Paul, I never knew my own dad, and now my own children grow up without me.”

He knew many defeats.  All of us know defeat.  Few of us wind up spending ten years in prison because of one.  Our brother would spend about one out of every seven days of his too short life behind bars, on parole, or on the run, events which started after he turned fifty. The man who once drove two different Lincoln Continentals, who arrived at our Father’s funeral in new Jaguar, who once gave thought to a company jet, now hid out on the Mexican border sleeping under bridges, becoming a day laborer, happy if he made enough to buy one meal a day.

He learned to speak flawless Spanish, went by foot and horseback for great distances along the Mexican border, working in cantinas as a bartender, and after being out of touch with everyone for four or five years, sneaked back into this country to see Mom.

My Mother told me, “He looked ragged, more like a migrant worker than an American.” Tired of life on the lam, of being out of touch with his family, he turned himself in and from everything I heard was relieved.

It is wrong he is gone only three years after Mom.  He lived long enough to outlive jail and to know again a few years of freedom.  He lived long enough to put to paper his earliest memories of Mom and tell us a story about Dad none of us ever could have guessed.  He lived long enough to reconcile with his beautiful wife, with Lexi, and I hope his other children.

It was fascinating to have him as a brother.  It was also too often sad.

Age plays tricks on you, so I don’t know if it was six months or two years ago that Quillin and I were on the phone.  He told me that he had a hell of life and that he wouldn’t trade it for anybody else’s.  I always told him if he could write the true story of his life it would be a good book, maybe a great book, and he might finally make that million dollars he always wanted.  Not so long after he sent me 150 typed pages.  Some parts I know to be true, some parts I know to be lies, and other parts I just don’t know.

This much is true:  Quillin’s life was an adventure.

There was always something about him that made you forgive him. I knew him to be foolish, but I never knew him to be malicious.  We loved him in the ways us Porters always love each other, both unreservedly and with the judgment of our own strong opinions, Christian or otherwise.  Other than Mom and Dad, he affected my life more than any other single person I ever knew, a fact I did not appreciate until I began to compose these remarks.  Three small examples:

Because he was a Yankee fan, I became a Dodger fan.

Because he was a business man, I became an artist.

Because he was a sports writer I began my own sports column while in high school. It was my first consistent attempt at writing.

One more story.

His first real car was a 1959 red Ford Fairlane convertible, the first in a long line of eye catching cars Quillin would drive.  I shot baskets on the court at Porterville, winning the NCAA championship a remarkable number of times, and I would roll the cars off the drive to enact this miracle.  One day I coasted his red convertible down the cement and the driver’s side door caught on the car next to it and was bent back double.  And did my big brother yell at me for messing up his nice car?

No, he didn’t.

We are a more interesting family because he was our brother.  To my remaining siblings I say no more eulogies for now.  Take care of yourself and get home safely from this day when we remember Quillin, who was, as each of us are, different from all the others, though he was a little bit more so.

Thank you.

Wichita, Kansas
8 August 2010

Eulogy for My Father

I will remind you here at the beginning that it is all right to laugh, and of course it is all right to cry.

I think my father had a good life.  In many ways he was very lucky. Anyone married to our mother for nearly 50 years would have to be considered lucky.  For many of those years he lived in a fine, handsome house — his house — on three of the most beautiful acres of land as could be found anywhere on earth — his land.

Now his children may have been a more mixed bag of luck.  Some of us may not have turned out exactly as he might have wanted.  But there was never any doubt that he loved us, and never any doubt he treated each of us equally, not favoring the righteous over the not so righteous, the loud over the more quiet, the obnoxious over the less than obviously obnoxious.

He and Mom raised good children, and in the end he showed a parent’s greatest love, by letting us go on to become exactly who we wanted to be, never meddling, always pulling for us in our struggles, loving us regardless, and always, always praying for us.

A man starts out as a son, and today for a moment we remember his parents, Grandpa and Grandma Porter as well.  It was Grandpa who taught Dad how to fish, and he was always happy with a pole in his hand and a hook in the water, a love he passed on to two of his six children, and in baseball three hundred is a good average.

Grandpa taught Dad how to fix and tinker and fool with, the same as Dad taught me and others, the fruits of which have adorned and plagued our various houses for years.

Dad went to college and became a geologist, and from there to war as a pilot, nearly being killed three different times in training accidents, a fact he told me once that began his religious search.

After the war he married Mom and us kids, one-two-three-four-five-six came along, nearly as fast as that, and after a life time of not being a church going man, Dad decided there was something missing and thus began his spiritual journey, a journey that was a key to his life.

Dad began to read the Bible, not just to read it, but to study it, not just to study it, but to devour it, and in the end he would breathe its words as naturally as a man would walk.  And he decided that God wanted him to keep the Sabbath.

Now at this time Dad worked for Shell Oil and at this time people worked six days a week.  But Dad didn’t want to work on the Sabbath.  So he left, or they fired him.

At this same time Dad picked a doctrinal difference – not the last time this would happen – with the church we belonged to, and they kicked us out and cursed us, and told my Mother she would soon be a widow.

And in this time we were poor, and lived often on what we grew in the garden, and one hard winter when my brother’s shoes were accidentally put in the trash and burned and there was no money for new ones, my Mother wept.

But Dad would not go back to Shell Oil and he would not go back to the church that threw us out, and he felt if he stayed true to what he believed then God would bless him.

And God did.

I remember his clothes that Mom showed us, that were covered with oil from a well that had finally come in, and soon we moved to that handsome house on those fine three acres, and he had the three things that most marked his life:  his family, his home and his spiritual journey.

Now Dad was not particularly playful.  Jokes and wise cracks were not his forte.  He was reserved and he had a presence.  Even if he did not speak you knew he was in the room.  But he did make two of the most outstandingly playful toys imaginable: a bag swing and the monorail.

Now there are other bag swings, but surely none more perfect than the one we had, swinging down the steep hill and back to its stand.  And for those of us who were there, we cannot forget the sight of our father, all two hundred and ten pounds of him then, stretched prone on that tree limb, twenty-three feet above the hard ground, while Mom stood below, wringing her hands and crying, “Be careful, Jim.”

There might be one or two bag swings that are better.  But the monorail, ah, the monorail.  There was a feat of engineering and whimsy, of playful uniqueness, a one of a kind wonderful back yard toy never duplicated, and it was Dad who made it.  What a shame we didn’t have camcorders then, so we could prove it was every bit as wonderful as we remember.

Now there are other stories I could tell you of Dad, of the camping trip to Colorado when he urged Mom from her warm sleeping bag early one cold morning.  So she finally got up, none too happy, saying, “What? What?”

“Just look at how that fog hangs on the water, honey.”  She could have smacked him one.

Or the time, as all of us watched from the front picture window, when he killed a coyote at a hundred yards with a single shot.  Years later he told us, “You know, I was as surprised as that coyote by that shot.”

But mostly I think we will remember Dad for his great passion for the Bible, for his endless study of its words, his journey to get closer to God, to understand what God wanted him to do, and how he became filled with the Spirit of the Lord.

There were many people who would go see Dad, to be prayed over, to be taught, to be healed. There is no counting the number of pilgrims and refugees who passed through our house.  Whenever I came home from my various travels there would be new ones and he my Mother would always welcome them.  To my knowledge, they never turned anyone away, and there were scores of them.

I sometimes tell people I never heard my father use a single swear word, and never once heard him raise his voice to my mother, and they are astonished.  But it is true.

Now he was not a saint.  I’m not trying to tell you he was.  But he was a good man, a man of great character and integrity, and most difficult of all, he was a righteous man.

Perhaps the best measure of a man’s life can be found in how many days he gets to spend doing exactly what he wants with his time. When I think of Dad I will remember him on the patio, the sunlight slanting from across the river and through the trees, in that serene and beautiful place that was his home, the Bible open on his lap, as evening was coming on.

Faith is the measure of the hopefulness of man, that his deeds on earth will let him know peace, now and through the ages. I think my father had a good life. I think he is now in a place of peace.

February 15, 1997
Valley Center, Kansas

Eulogy for My Mother

Mom_in_Konawa-364x430Mom_in_Oklahoma_City-340x431

Before I begin there are a couple of things I need to cover. Last night my sisters looked at me…horrified…not the first time this has happened…and said in one voice, practically in unison, “You’re not going to your Mother’s funeral tomorrow dressed like that, are you?”

So I had to tell them a true story, about one of my last conversations with my Mother. There toward the end I got to spend a week with her and I asked her, I just flat out asked her.  I said, “Mom, do you want me to go to your funeral dressed in a three piece wool suit on a hot summer’s day?”

Now you have to understand, it is from my Mother I get my highly developed and rather original sense of humor. So now Mom, bless her heart, she looked at me and said, “Why no, son, don’t go to my funeral dressed in a three piece suit on a hot day. Go there in a t-shirt and flip flops, because afterwards you might want to go swimming.”

So as I stand before you here today, I am dressed better than my Mother expected.

There is one other thing I would like to mention before I truly begin. I would like to thank my sister Jan and her husband Steve, for all the love and comfort they gave our Mother in the difficult last months of her life. Before that my brother Scott and his wife Kirsi opened up their hearts and their home to our Mother in her declining years. Before that my sisters Kimberly and Whitney, and their husbands Randy and Bob, gave so much comfort and joy to both Mom and Dad in the sunset years they lived in Texas.

Their behavior is a testament to our parents. May we all be so fortunate to have such devoted and loving children when our own end approaches. I thank each of them.

* * * * * * *

Our Mother was beautiful every single day of her life. When she was young, she was movie star beautiful. Now some of you might say, “Well, of course he’s going to say that. And on a day like today he’s even allowed.”  So I brought pictures to prove that what I say is true. Now it would please me and make me proud if you took the time to look at these pictures and to ooh and aah.  But if any of you steal these pictures, I will hunt you down to the ends of the earth.

Some of you may remember Jackie Mackay. When he was about ten he told Mom, “Mrs. Porter, you sure are pretty.”

“Well, thank you, Jackie.”

“You sure don’t look like you’re fifty.”

“Well Jackie, I’m not. I’m forty.”

“Oh. Well you sure don’t look like you’re forty either.”

And when she was she didn’t. She was one of those rare people every bit as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside, which is better than almost any movie star you could name.

She was born Virginia Beth Quillin, a last name so unique and full of history and one she loved so well, she would give it as a first name to her oldest son.

For a moment today we remember her parents, Granny and Grandad Quillin, who lived such hard lives and produced such good children. For a moment we also remember her four brothers – Frank, Dale, Rob and Paul – each of whom proceeded her to heaven, each of whom fought in World War II, some with heroic distinction.

She was brought up on a ninety acre cotton farm in Konawa, Oklahoma.  Except in the most remote corners of the world, no one picks cotton by hand anymore, not even slaves.  But our Mother did.

The house she grew up in did not have electricity, and she read her books and learned her lessons by the light of a kerosene lamp. This was not unusual on the small farms of the 1920’s and 1930’s.  But I hope you young ones, and you not so young ones, think about this when you step outside and flip on that cell phone, or click through the hundred channels on the remote tonight, because life was not always so easy or flip, and it could be argued, quite well I believe, that the very hardness of that time produced a better quality of people.

She started school at a one room school house when she was five years old.  At the end of the first week she was promoted to the third grade. One of her older brothers complained to their mother about her class room ability. “Make Jenny stop answering all those questions. She’s embarrassing me!”

She graduated from high school when she was fourteen. She graduated from college when she was seventeen. While in college she appeared as Emily in a production of Our Town.  She told once about being in that play, “I really wasn’t very good.” But I bet she was.

During World War II Mom worked at the Douglas aircraft plant in Oklahoma City. It was during these years she learned to fly and got a pilot’s license, and actually flew alone, soloed.  There is a picture of her as a young woman in her aviator’s outfit, one foot on the wing of a plane, looking every inch like Amelia Erhardt’s cousin.  How I wish I could put my hands on a copy of that picture.

After the war her younger brother brought around this guy he knew, a young petroleum geologist named Jim Porter, who was destined to become one of the luckiest men on the face of the earth, for he was to be married to our Mother for nearly fifty years.

She told me when she first met Dad, “He smoked like a chimney and every third word out of his mouth was a cuss word.”  But pretty soon he quit smoking, and she must have had a good effect his language too, because I never heard Dad use a single swear word in all the years I knew him. They were best friends and made a great and happy couple, and of course on this day we remember Dad, too.

They had six children and she became what those of us who knew and loved her best will always remember her as:  Mom.  When we were very young and our family very poor and television so new we didn’t even own one yet, Mom ended each day by reading us a chapter from a book.  Tom Sawyer. Huckleberry Finn.  Alice in Wonderland.  The Pickwick Papers.  What a treat to gather around our beautiful Mother at the end of the day and listen as she read to us great books.

When Dad found religion and began teaching each week from the New Testament, it was Mom who taught us the stories from the Old Testament.  Now Dad had an engineer’s mind and a pedantic way of thinking and speaking and teaching, and I will be honest here, he could drone on. [nervous laughter from the audience] I see a few of you spent a Saturday afternoon or two with my father.

But never for a moment was I – or anyone else – bored when Mom held the floor, and told and acted out the great stories from the Old Testament.  Abraham, Joseph, Moses. Joshua, Gideon, Samson.  Saul, David, Solomon. To this day I can remember those stories because she told them so well.  It is a shame video cameras did not then exist so there would be a record of Mom in her prime, entertaining us to the point of enchantment, and teaching us the Bible.

She did not like to sit and do nothing.  When quite advanced in years, as President of Women’s Aglow, she flew all over Alaska, giving speeches in remote towns and Eskimo fishing villages and loved every minute of it, and if given a chance would have done it again.

When she finally did sit still, she read.  It is no accident two of her children are published playwrights, one is a novelist, one just wrote his first screenplay. Another is a doctor. Now I don’t mean to slight the last one by not giving a label to her life, but she is probably the best looking of the bunch, and for that she can also thank our Mother.

For us, the six of her children, it is the greatest deal of the cosmic deck that we could call her Mom, for no one could ask for one better. Twenty-one others could call her grandma. Twelve more could call her great grandma. Now my math may be a fuzzy on these last two figures.  But I can guarantee you she knew the exact number, and she knew all of their names and their birthdays as well.

And in this large tree of her descendants, if you find that you are smart and witty and love to laugh, if you smile easily, if even on your death bed your smile makes you beautiful, if your idea of a great day is when the whole family and guests and friends and relatives sit down together for a good and big meal, and after that meal you sit with your family and friends to play Liverpool Rummy or Twixt or Boggle or Thunder on Your Neighbor, so that you could compete, laugh and have fun with each other, if you are fair of face and have few if any enemies, if you are wise and warm, if you are a good and great parent to your children and love them no matter how far they wander, if you are made of good character, if you love to read and have a good mind and are more interested in ideas and thoughts and history than you are in mere gossip, then remember to thank our Mother, your Grandma and your Great Grandma, for you are in part these things, because of her.

If there is a heaven she is there.  As another playwright wrote, “May flights of angels sing you to your rest.”  Amen.

7 July 2007
Valley Center, Kansas

The Last Time I Saw My Son

The last time I saw my youngest son, Sam, he was wearing a ridiculous haircut.  He was such a handsome fellow and it was the worst haircut ever, one that made him look goofy. Thank God I didn’t say anything about the hair.  Maybe that’s why he smiled at me, because I didn’t say anything. That is my last clear image of him, giving me a happy mischievous smile, his face sunny for a moment.

He came by to drive me to the garage where I had left my truck. That was a good drive because we talked and it could be hard to get Sam to talk.  I left him laughing with a story about moving a piano.  Both boys had been by a couple of weeks before to help move the piano to have new carpet put down.  It was a huffing, puffing experience for the three of us and Sam as always more than held up his end.

I got him to laugh because I told him about the two Mexican laborers, here to lay the carpet and who helped me move the piano back. Both were five six one forty and “they picked up that piano like it was a kitchen chair and I just had my fingers underneath the thing.”  He laughed and I thanked him for the ride and closed the door to his black Camry.  That was the last time I saw my son.

In the last two weeks of his life he remembered Mother’s Day and his Mother’s birthday.  Only days go Annie was driving home, thinking to herself, “When I get there I’ll ask Sam to put the air conditioner in the kitchen window.”  When she arrived he had just finished doing that very thing.

On a Saturday morning in late June our beautiful son Sam chose to take his life.  This has left me in such a state of shock I cannot say the words “my son is dead” without boiling into the hottest tears I have ever cried. “This is so unnecessary,” I keep telling him, “you didn’t have to do this, son.”  But that handsome young man, so intelligent, so full of light once, who kept so much of his inner life unspoken, is gone.

I thank you for your thoughts and prayers.

1 July 2013

Sam-399x600Me_and_Sam_and_Mike_-_2-337x600

Me_and_Sam_and_Mike_-_3-406x600Sam_at_the_pond-355x451

Kidnapping Kenny Boy

Three high school teachers in Kansas hope to kidnap an aide to George W. Bush, interrogate him, and post video to the internet.

Prologue

At the time our escapade was deemed notorious.  But it almost seems quaint now.  It had a moral.  It took a long time to put itself together because we did not start out our lives as…well, you can fill in the blank when you get to the end.  The story is always more complicated than it first appears. The wrong we fought against was, in retrospect, merely a river of stupid as opposed to an ocean of ignorance in which we now swim. But that river was the headwaters of this ocean.

This is how it happened and I could almost swear you it’s true.

 

Chapter 1

There is a time in every young man’s life when he drinks too much beer and the summer of 1974 was one such time for me.  There was a bar called Kirby’s conveniently located right off the Wichita State campus and not more than two blocks from where I lived.  That Jack and I would meet there on that particular night was ironic, or perhaps merely fitting.

Watergate and the impeachment of Nixon were in the news every day that summer.  After work I would race home from my part time job to be in front of the television when Walter Cronkite came on the air.  There were no twenty-four-seven news channels in those days, which increased the civility and tone of events.  The airwaves were not yet infested with spin merchants, programmed into blandly handsome men with too much botox in their forehead or women with too much bouffant blond for brains and cleavage for personality.

Wing Nut Radio had not yet happened either.  To this day those nattering knobs of bluster still insist Nixon was railroaded by a liberal press.  They are, as they are so often, full of shit.  They are convinced, now more than ever to borrow a phrase, if they repeat something long enough, loud enough and with enough righteous indignation, black will be white, lies will be truth and Nixon was innocent.  He wasn’t.

Watergate was one of the great public dramas ever.  It had a first, second and third act played out in stately fashion, full of wonderful characters, intrigue, back story, side plots, all overlaid with history and wrapped in an enormous civics lesson.  It was mesmerizing.  Then on a hot night in August the final curtain came down on the great show.  Nixon gave his resignation speech and would leave Washington the next day.

After the speech the usual crowd drifted into Kirby’s.  The mood at first was surprisingly somber.  Everyone was quiet, the way an audience can be hushed after seeing a great play.  The emotion and meaning were too great to even speak of for a while, and for however briefly, had to be digested and contemplated.

Then everyone began to drink.  Not as they usually did with a casual ease, but with a vengeance and true thirst.  It became a celebration.  Not surprising for it was a room full of long haired hippies.  What was surprising and what has always stuck in my mind over the years was the solemn appreciation which preceded the usual drunkenness.  That was the special part, the contemplation of the common citizens, reflecting upon the fall of the king.

At a table in the corner, crammed in elbow to elbow with a pile of people, pitchers of beer disappearing as fast as they could be poured, I found myself next to a guy I had seen around campus but had never met.  His face was easy to remember for he had unusual white boy hair that frizzed out into a natural Afro.

“It makes you proud to be an American,” he told me above the din.  “It makes you proud the system really worked.”  It was Jack Meade and this was the first thing he ever said to me.

After a while there were two girls across the table from us.  They had long, straight hair, parted in the middle and wore denim work shirts embroidered with flowers.  It is hard to recall the conversation.  We talked, they talked.  We smiled, they smiled.  Pretty soon one of them said, “Would you like to go outside and smoke a number?”

*******

We wound up at their house on Vassar Street and Jack wound up with the better looking of the two.  It was something I resented and remember thinking, “Man, he’s fast.”  He and his girl disappeared down a hall.  I and my girl were soon on the couch getting better acquainted.  It’s not that I was so good looking or a lady’s man.  Such fast and easy couplings were common at the time.  To be young and horny in the 1970’s was to be the beneficiary of good timing.

Soon enough we were at the point where the guy mumbles a few words, finds his clothes and the front door.  But Jack and his girl came back into the room.  She put on a record, they rolled another joint, and we sat around one of those wooden spools everyone used to use as a coffee table.

That’s when Jack and I had our first chance to really talk, one of those intense and earnest conversations college students have, ranging over history, politics, and philosophy, each of us dropping in names of famous books and authors we knew just enough to quote from.  Being so intent on how intelligent we both sounded we ignored the girls, until one told us, “Really, it’s time for you guys to go.”

We did.  We went to walk circle after circle in Fairmont Park and continue our discussion of the great issues of the day.  We spoke of the sweeping currents of history and how the subject is poorly taught.  History was a great river which poured into, forming and informing, the present moment.  History was passionate and only the dolts who teach it made it dull.  We wondered if religion qualified as philosophy, if Spinoza was greater than Voltaire, why baseball is a better game than football.

Then the issue arose whether Jewish girls were good lovers or if their reputation as cold and un-giving was a lie.  Jack had dated three Jewish girls and I had gone out with at least two myself.  Based on our own experience we were puzzled by their reputation, for our field work had shown nothing cold about them, no siree.  Jack insisted the wildest lover he ever knew was a vixen named Rosenbloom, whose passion was so out of control he could not, out of common decency, tell me everything.

We decided Jewish girls had an undeserved reputation and were victims of calumny, perpetuated by comedians and writers, mostly male and from their own tribe.  Then the thought occurred maybe Jewish girls gained this reputation after marriage, when their sexual behavior might change.  Or maybe they were different with goys.  We decided our sampling was too small to be scientifically accurate and more investigative field work was in order.

The sky had begun to lighten in the east when we parted, each of us happy to find a new friend.  The odd thing was Jack and I would not see each other for fourteen years.  In a few days he was off to hitchhike around Europe and we did not connect again before he left.  We would meet much later when we both had short hair.  Well, one of us had almost no hair, and we both would be card carrying members of the middle class.  Then we stepped off that path in a grand fashion.  But we will come to that.

One last note:  when Gerald Ford walked Richard Nixon out to the helicopter on the White House lawn, where Nixon gave one last wave, climbed in and then lifted off, that was the precise instant the 1960’s ended.  When Ford walked back inside and took the oath of office the 1970’s began.  The calendar may have it different, but facts and truth are not always the same thing.  There are times when facts miss the truth.

Chapter 2

Fourteen years later I was married, had a mortgage and was thinking of voting Republican in the fall.  For six years I had been teaching history at Ark Valley High School, my life arranged into a dull though reasonably happy routine.  Then my marriage went to hell.

Asking around for a good divorce attorney a friend gave me a name.  At the appointed hour I was in a law office in downtown Wichita.  There was nothing familiar about the man when he came down the hall to introduce himself. Once behind his desk he started taking down the necessary information.  Married five years, no kids, I was a teacher. She worked as a secretary for a group of architects, though that ended when she went back to Virginia.

“Virginia is her home?”

“That’s where I met her,” I said.  Then I added, no doubt fishing for approval as my confidence had been rocked in the past months with a marriage falling apart, “I was doing research on the Civil War.”

“Really,” he said, for the first time sounding interested instead of merely professional.  “You writing a book?”

When I said I was, he was impressed.  This was a reaction I was always getting from people and for a few years this response gratified me, an ego stroking people would freely give. It was a great ice breaker at parties when someone might introduce me as “Teddy Thompson, he’s writing a book on the Civil War.”

“Ohh,” the ladies would say.

“Ahh,” the men would say, many of them invariably remarking, “I always wanted to write.”

“Well,” I would say modestly, smiling at my shoes, before lifting my chin resolutely and remarking, “it’s a lot of hard work.”

This was always followed by the same questions for which I never developed good answers.  “Is it published?” or “When can I read it?”  But the man across the desk did not ask the obvious questions, but asked two intelligent ones instead.  “Are you doing original research?  Did you go to source material?”

“I spent six years doing research,” I told him.  “Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, the Smithsonian, the New York Public Library.  I went to every major battle field.”

“Really,” he said.

“Worked for a summer as a guide at Gettysburg.”

“No kidding.”

“I wasn’t with the National Park Service.  I was a private guide.  It was a great summer.  Kind of dull at night, I mean there’s only one little college in Gettysburg.”

“Six years you did this?”

“Happiest years of my life,” I admitted.  “Met my wife, well, now going to be my ex-wife, at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.  She was a librarian there.”

This was an exaggeration.  She had just started and was a page or intern.  It was true she would bring me boxes of old letters to look through and for a week, without permission, brought me a file they had on Jefferson Davis.  This made her feel like a secret agent and was a form of delicious rebellion.  Later I came to see rebellion played a part in our entire love life.  It should be mentioned she was beautiful, blonde, and named Jenny.

“Those were the good days,” I told him.

“Then what happened?” he asked.

There wasn’t a quick answer to this.  There were a lot of smart ass replies I could have given.  Life happened.  The great bitch reality bit me on the ass, bit me down to the bone and held on, kicking me with hunger and desolation until I had to pay attention.

The modest inheritance I had from my grandfather finally ran out.  Despite my best attempts at penury I could no longer sustain myself in cheap hotels and cafeterias as I roamed the country in an old VW bug, gleaning odd bits of first hand history in unlikely spots.  The small jobs I took here and there helped.  I was a flag man on a highway crew outside Fredericksburg, a night clerk at a hotel in Chattanooga, as well as a guide in Gettysburg.  All this so I could haunt battlefields, libraries, historical societies and meet weird old widows who had a cache of ancient family letters written by Civil War soldiers.  My notes would grow to fill twenty-six boxes, which I would pack up and ship home to my parents.

By all rights I never should have had a chance with Jenny.  Her father was a retired Marine colonel who had done combat tours in three wars.  He would not approve of anyone dating his daughter, his only child, unless that man was a Marine.  Or grudgingly, if she was ever going to date “one of those Army pussies” he had graduated from West Point, preferably at the head of his class.  It bears mentioning I had shaved my beard and cut my hair before meeting the Colonel, though even at that early date I was losing hands full of hair with every shower.

That a Yankee from Kansas, and a civilian at that, had become interested in his girl might have occasioned red faced rage and real threats of physical violence.  But it was a tactful bit of lying that won me his good graces.  He had written a book on the Civil War himself.  It had been self-published, which is more correctly characterized as vanity publishing.  There were about a thousand copies of Lee’s Eternal Glory moldering in card board boxes out in his garage.  Jenny had given me a copy.  It was three hundred pages of hero worship.  Robert E. Lee was next only to Jesus, though maybe a bit better, as he had most of the savior’s virtues, plus he was a soldier.

So when I met the man the first words out of my mouth were about what an outstanding piece of work Lee’s Eternal Glory was, citing points of erudition and insight never before seen by lesser mortals.  Within minutes I had compared him favorably to Tacitus and Thucydides.  That it was undisguised flattery never seemed to have occurred to him.  If you are starved for flattery, honeyed words are merely long disguised truth now thankfully revealed.

That first night we traded Civil War trivia for hours.  Impressed with the depth of my knowledge and mission he began to like me, to even look forward to my visits.  After a month he compared me to the great English historian John Keegan, who also had a bum set of legs.  It was the greatest compliment I have ever been paid.

On a memorable afternoon he took me to his VFW Club, introducing me as a “scholar writing an important book about the Civil War.”  This impressed almost no one and within minutes the question was floated, as I knew it would be, if I had served in Vietnam.  At that point I stood up and marched around the table, pointing at my feet.

“Gentlemen, the Marines wouldn’t take me with these feet, or the Army, or the Navy, or even the stinking Merchant Marines.  All I can say is goddamn all the doctors.”

The men looked at my feet with pity and at me with what I hoped was forgiveness.  I was born with my two big toes fused together.  The doctors cut them apart of course, but I grew up the most pigeon toed man in all of America.  This kept me out of the service.  This was a relief yes, but also a disappointment.  What historian doesn’t have a fascination with the military?

Part of me regretted not being born earlier and thus denied the chance to fight in the “good war” that was World War II, when they would have taken me bad feet and all.  That Vietnam was not a good war was a small sorrow for me but a colossal one for the country.

Unlike legions of Republican hypocrites however, I never became a chicken hawk in my later years, bloodthirsty from the safety of an arm chair while escaping military service in my youth.  There is a decent argument to be made the Iraq war happened because a whole flock of chicken hawks had to compensate.

The Colonel was from the true warrior class.  He had been in places like Peleliu and the Frozen Chosin.  That I knew of these battles, obscure in history though not in Marine lore, scored major points with him.  One day I said to him, “Everyone thinks opera singers are divas. But some of the biggest divas in the history of the world were generals.”  He liked that and added a few more names to my list.

The Colonel could tell wonderful stories but could not write them down.  His words turned stiffly formal on the page, probably the result of too many after action reports written in cover your ass bureaucratic speak.  There was talk of me ghost writing his memoirs.

You might ask where the Colonel’s wife and Jenny’s mother was during all this time.  She was in the living room, smoking carton after carton of Kent cigarettes, watching television.  If you discounted the number of times she acknowledged my presence by saying “Hello Ted,” she said exactly six words to me over the years.  Even around the dinner table she didn’t speak but simply smoked, the television blabbering away in another room.  Hers was a passive aggressive assault against her marriage.  Once I saw her tap cigarette ash into a gravy boat she was about to serve her husband. Catching my eye she glared at me, daring me to say something.  I didn’t.

My time in Virginia came to an end.  With money gone and beautiful girlfriend waiting I came home to commit to paper my great treasure trove of research.  It turned out I was a decent scholar but like the Colonel a lousy writer, a point I was not then ready to concede. My parents began to ask pointed questions about me making a living.  As completed pages were not rolling out of my typewriter, my dad would actually stand outside my bedroom door and listen for such activity, my youthful spree was over.  It was time to get serious about joining the middle class.  I would be a history teacher.

For a while I thought about a doctorate.  Then I chanced upon a professor at a party who after about nine gin and tonics told me, “Son, you have a better chance of getting the clap from the Czarina of Russia than you do of ever getting a job with a PhD in history.”  So I decided to be a high school teacher.

I took education courses at Wichita State and told myself I was not giving up on my best hopes.  Summers would be free to pursue the great unfinished business of a book.  Being a teacher would give me something I needed, a job, and something I wanted, Jenny as a wife.

When I married the girl from Virginia, the Colonel, now on a respirator from the lung cancer that was going to kill him within six months, managed to walk her down the aisle without the aid of an oxygen tank.  At the reception her mother spoke those six words, the only sentence she ever really said to me.  “Now you’ve gone and done it,” she announced.  She would outlive her husband by three years, finally dying from the same thing that killed him, cigarettes. Tobacco is the Indians’ revenge.

When I brought my new bride to Kansas she immediately did not like the place.  It was too flat, too windy, had no trees and too many Yankees.  “This Kansas,” she would say, pissy as hell, a side of her I had never before witnessed. “If you have seen one tree then you have seen them both.”

It was not long before she learned to enjoy liquor too much.  When she wasn’t drinking she was sweet, or at least mild.  When she was drinking she was poisonous.  It later occurred to me I had brought her all the way out to the Midwest where everything was foreign to her.  Far too late I realized we should have left it at love letters and longing.   Still, for a few years, we tried.

That day in the lawyer’s office I told him some of this, and though I sensed a connection with the man across the desk, I didn’t tell him about the party my wife and I had been to a few months before.  Upon being introduced as a writer she had, under the influence of too much Scotch, announced quite loudly, “He’s never going to write that goddamn book.”  This led to a screaming fight when we got home and could be correctly marked as our final break.

“How much you make a year?” he asked.

When I named a figure I thought I saw a small shake of his head, which I took to be pity, which made me defensive, a posture I often felt when comparing salaries.  So it surprised me when he leaned back and said, “I always thought I would be happier teaching high school than I would be practicing law.”

“You must be crazy,” I told him.

“I’ve been told that more than once,” he remarked.  Then he studied my face again, something I noticed he had been doing for a few minutes, and squinted up his eyes.  “I’m going to ask you a very odd question.  Where were you the night Nixon resigned?”

Now I looked closer, saw the wiry hair, not out in a full Afro but cropped closer now, and in that moment we both realized who the other was.  He got to his feet with his hand out, a big smile on his face.  “I remember your name was Ted.  But I never knew your last name.”

*******

An hour later we were at the Lancers Club, a bar in downtown Wichita just below street level near a fountain.  It was happy hour and the place was filling up with men in suits and women in blouses somber in cut and color.  After a few drinks it seemed the top button or two on those blouses would come undone.  The atmosphere had the delicious expectation of chance seduction.  As we talked each of us was checking out the room.

“You really want to be a teacher instead of a lawyer?” I asked.

“I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I hate the law.”

“A fine time to find this out,” I said, only half joking.

“I’ll handle your divorce,” Jack said.  “You have no kids.  She left the state.  All that helps.  You’ll have to divide up what little you’ve got.  But you’re young.  You’ll start over.”

“So why do you hate the law?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“Right off the bat, it’s dull.”  He took a sip of bourbon and shook his head with what I took to be self-disgust.  “First week in law school I knew this.  Knew I hated it, hated the way it makes you think.  But I pushed myself.  If you think Gettysburg is dull at night, you should go to law school at Washburn and know the magic night life of Topeka.”

“I can’t say I hate the people,” he said and took another sip of bourbon.  “I can’t go that far.  But for the most part I don’t like lawyers.  They have no imagination.  If you go to college and then right into law school you never have time to develop a personality.  And if you’re going to be good at the law you need to be at it twenty-four seven.”

He shook his head again. “What surprises me is how fast I conformed. That’s what stings. All of us hippies were going to be different.  Ha.  We’re just grubbing around for money like everybody else.”  He let out a long breath, paused, and said almost wistfully, “I really think I would rather be a teacher.”

As the waitress brought us another round two women, a blonde and a brunette, came into the bar.  Every eye in the room followed them and most were following the blonde.  She had long legs, a great figure, and a gentle face.  Her friend was not bad looking either, but your eye just naturally went to the blonde.  When they sat at the table next to ours our conversation was forgotten.  Before their purses were off their shoulders Jack said, “Excuse me, my friend has bet me he’s seen you before.”

“Really?” asked the blonde.  “Where?”

Jack turned to me.  Dumbfounded, but only for a moment I said, “Didn’t we take the bar together?  Weren’t you in law school at KU?”

“Not me,” she said.  “I tried law school but it bored me.”

Before I had another word out of my mouth Jack was out of his chair and sitting down at her table.  In the dim light I could see that his face was lit up.  “I’m Jack,” he began, and started talking and didn’t stop for an hour.

In a moment I came over to the table too and tried to make contact with the other woman.  But she was put out.  She wanted to be with her friend, not hit on by some guy.  She didn’t like me.  In fact I came to believe she was a lesbian in love with the blonde, whose name was Mindy, because she kept staring at Jack as if willing him to evaporate.

But Jack and Mindy were locked in on each other.  The other woman and I might as well have been baggage on a tarmac.  Jack was turning on all his charm and she seemed exactly that, charmed, smiling and laughing.  Every once in a while she touched his arm.  He was a burst dam, spilling over with words, jokes and energy, a whirlwind.

This went on for three rounds of drinks, till the brunette and I were at least making small talk on our side of the table.  Finally, I noticed a silence and caught Mindy looking down at her vodka, thinking.  Then she stared into Jack’s eyes in an earnest, searching way.  She rose and with a mere nod of her head she and her friend went to the ladies room.  When they were gone Jack leaned across the table and, I swear this is true, there was a gleam in his eye, an absolute sparkle.

“Man, that’s her.  That’s the woman I’m going to marry.”

Now more than once I had fallen in love with a woman in a bar, usually after a few drinks in a dimly lit place.  At a certain time in my life this was a regular occurrence.  It didn’t have to be in a bar either.  A grocery store or sidewalk did just fine.  It could be the woman cleaning my teeth or the one taking my ticket at the movies.  “Fallen in love” is the wrong way to state the event.  Smacked with infatuation is closer to the truth.  No.  Seized with lust would be the exact truth.  This happened approximately five thousand six hundred seventy-two times before I was thirty.  It still happens.  A mere glimpse of a pretty woman and within seconds we were married, endlessly happy, and having great sex.  Not in that order.  All this is to say, having done this dance a few times myself, I didn’t believe a word of what Jack had just told me.

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“No man.  I’m telling you the truth.”

For the record I will again state there was a light shining in his eyes, a phenomenon on rare occasions I have witnessed.  His high beams were turned on.  In a couple of minutes the two women came back to the table and Jack was on his feet, asking a one word question.

“Well?”

Mindy nodded.  A smile ripped across Jack’s face as if he had just won the lottery.  Then he smacked his forehead with his palm and said, “Oh my God, I almost forgot.  This is Ted.  Ted, Mindy.”

When I got to my feet she took my extended hand and said, “I’m sorry to have ignored you all this time,” and here she leaned in to whisper in my ear, “but your friend is so nice.”  Her voice was soft and breathy. It made the little hairs inside my ear stand up and tickle. The moment was erotic.  Her voice and touch would stay a vivid memory.  She wrinkled up her nose at me in a conspiratorial wink, let go of my hand and turned to speak to her friend, which gave Jack the chance to grab my arm and pull me aside.

“You must be my good luck charm,” he said.  “Every time I’m with you I get a girl.”  He patted my shoulder.  “Call me and we’ll go over the divorce stuff.”

Then I heard her friend say, “Be careful,” and Jack and Mindy were walking toward the door, which he opened, and they disappeared.  Within seconds the brunette said, “It’s time for me to go, too.”

“I’ll walk you to your car.”

“That’s all right,” she told me flatly, “I’ll manage.”

A few minutes later I was alone on the dark sidewalks of downtown Wichita. “Lawyers get all the women,” I thought.  It was the second time I had been with Jack and both times he walked away with the prettier girl.  On this score he was not a man to be trusted.

*******

Jack was to marry Mindy, marry her within six weeks of meeting her, and I never saw any man more in love with his wife.  He practiced law for another two years and then “bored out of my mind, disgusted with myself beyond all measure” gave up being an attorney.  Instead of becoming a teacher right away he and Mindy joined the Peace Corp and went to a small village in Indonesia.  But that didn’t last long.  He told me how it had happened.

“One day I’m out in the jungle, a hundred and ten degrees, trying to prime this water pump which I knew nothing about, dodging mosquitoes the size of dogs, and I realized I was all the way on the other side of the world trying to cure ignorance.  Then it hit me. There was plenty of ignorance back where I came from.  That’s when I knew the Doo-Dah Suck had got me, man.”

Local legend had it there was a geo-magnetic field around Wichita.  No matter how far you traveled, the “Doo-Dah Suck” would always pull you back to Kansas, there being no place like, well, you know.  People were good here and life was easy.  Out here the razor’s edge is a yard wide and you can lie down on it and take a nap.

It was my feeling the school was lucky to have a teacher with Jack’s unusual background.  For a few years the school felt the same.  He was wildly popular with the kids, idealistic and energetic, starting out as an English teacher, later made coach of the debate squad.  They offered him the chance to teach a class in business law but he turned them down flat.  He wanted nothing to do with the law ever again.  Over time the pride in having a teacher like Jack faded.  The administration came to see him, as they did any of us who couldn’t stay between the lines, as a pain in the ass.

As for me I married a second time, to a woman named Lynne.  She ran the billing department for a hospital and brought two children, a girl and a boy, eight and seven at the time, both starved for the attention of a dad, into the marriage. It would be wrong to drag them into the mess that has become my life, so I will not mention them by name.  But I will say I adored them both, still do, and consider it one the best acts of my life to have been their father, adopted or otherwise.  For the record, Jack and Mindy had a beautiful daughter.  For the same reason my children should not be brought into this spectacle, I won’t give her name either.

This was how Jack and I came to be teachers in a town just north of Wichita, Kansas.  Each of us had a dab of color in our background, but our lives had turned as bland as a suburban lawn.  The years ticked by in an orderly fashion and might have done so all the way to the end.

But Wing Nuts got hold of the country.  This would change us from being boringly middle class into something else entirely. It would make us outlaws.  The slide into this dementia happened as these things usually do.  First slow then fast.

Chapter 3

The day I heard the first glimmer of the idea Jack walked into the lounge and stopped at a table where three teachers sat.  He tapped a finger on a color photo on the front page of the Wichita Eagle which lay open in front of them.

“That is one hell of a p.r. stunt,” he said.

Two of the teachers grinned at him, one with condescension and one with smirking pity.  The third took the bait and got a narrow look in her eyes.  She looked up at Jack and announced primly, “The trouble with you liberals is that you only know defeat.  You’re only happy with defeat.  You wouldn’t know victory if it slapped you in the face.”

“The trouble with you Republicans,” said Jack, falsely sweet, “is that you believe a photo op is reality.”  A three part chorus of hooting laughter followed him as he crossed the room to the coffee machine.

“Oh, we know reality,” said the prim one, an English teacher.  “We live in reality.”

“You are the one out of touch with reality,” added the second, a gym teacher, menopausal and fat, famous for her mustache.

“Biggest victory this country has known in years,” chimed in the third, a teacher of geometry, who always wore a white shirt and black pants, “and all you want to do is denigrate.”

“Biggest victory?” asked Jack, putting down the coffee pot.  “We just kicked one hell of an ant hill and you don’t have a clue.”

“Humph,” sniffed the teacher of math, a form based completely in fact. “The man has got nuclear bombs pointed at us and you don’t want to do anything?”

“He doesn’t have nuclear bombs,” said Jack, saying this as much to the ceiling as to them.

“Oh, he’s got them all right,” insisted the gym lady.

“Then let me ask you a simple question,” said Jack, and stepped back to their table and lowered his face till it was even with the three teachers.  “If he’s got them, why didn’t he use them?”

This shut them up into an immediate and stunned perplexity.  Their faces, which had been smug in certainty only a moment before, now turned unsure and sour.  It seemed a trick question, an unwanted pop quiz, an intrusion into their security.

“Saddam Hussein,” continued Jack, “Mister Evil, as we have been so well informed lately, gets invaded by the most powerful country in the world, and yet he didn’t use his WMDs.  Now why do you suppose that is?”

He circled their table now as if he had them corralled, sipping his coffee.  An uneasy pause drew out.  The three teachers glanced at each other from the corner of their eyes hoping one of them might have a good answer.  But none of them did.

“Because he didn’t have any,” said Jack, disgusted.

“Oh, they’re going to find them,” insisted the English teacher.

“That’s right,” added Mister Math, going on to explain, “He just didn’t have time to get them ready.”

“Didn’t have time?  You’re a teacher and you’re this deficient in logic?”  There was nasty sarcasm in his voice as he added, “What a sad day for education in America.”  Now he was circling them again, restless and energized, like a cat with three mice in a box.  This was the Jack people had gotten tired of and tried not to provoke.  This was the Jack who had been called before the school board and told to pipe down on his opinions.  Parents had complained.  Certain teachers were reluctant to stay in the same room with him.

“Everyone has known for months we were going. Then we were there.  American armies.  In Iraq.  Driving toward Baghdad.  And Saddam Hussein didn’t use his WMDs?”  He let the question hang there for a moment, like the good teacher he was, before asking, “What was he waiting for?  Until he found himself in a tight spot?”

The three let out a collective and exasperated sigh, as if asked something so stupid it didn’t merit a reply.  The geometry man turned to his companions and announced, “A defeatist.  What can you do with such a defeatist?”

“Shoot him,” muttered the gym teacher.

They wanted to laugh but were from Kansas and knew good manners so settled for small grins.  They also knew Jack and were afraid, very much afraid it seemed to me as I sat across the room watching, that such a wise crack might set off a volcanic response.

There was a famous incident last year in this very room between Jack and the football coach.  They had nearly come to blows and would have if I and a few others had not gotten between them, pushing Jack into the hall.  Both nearly lost their jobs and Jack, not being a winning coach, came closer to losing his.  It was serious enough that lawyers were involved for a couple of weeks.  The people here knew and remembered this, so the moment hung there, electric.

But Jack just sighed.  His point now made his anger had passed and he seemed resigned, as if he had just explained an obvious point to a slow student for the umpteenth time.  He raised his arms, palms up, as if asking heaven, ‘What else can I do?’

“Shoot me?” he asked quietly.  Then he spread his arms out like Jesus on the cross.  “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” he said.  This drew quizzical stares from the three at the table.  “I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me what it means and another dollar if you can tell me who said it.”  His voice was calm as he took another sip of coffee.

“I know its Latin,” said the English teacher.  “But you’re just a damn show off and who cares what it means.”

“Here we are in a place of learning and you praise ignorance?” asked Jack, feigning amazement and expressing contempt.

“I bet you’re the only one in the room who knows the translation,” said the gym teacher.  “But I bet you looked it up two days ago.”

“I’m willing to bet my friend over there would know,” said Jack, and pointed at me.

“I’ll put a dollar on that,” said the gym teacher.

“Wait a minute, Harriett,” said the math man, “that’s Teddy.  You know how he is.”

All eyes came to me.  Maybe if the math teacher hadn’t thrown in that “you know how he is” I would have shrugged it off and let the spat cool down.  It wasn’t my intention to get drawn into a personal power struggle, which could infect teachers every bit as much as students in any high school.  It often seemed the whole world never grew beyond the juvenile condition which could be summed up in four little words, I’m better than you, a belief that has started uncounted wars.

This was also the teachers’ lounge.  Except when Jack stirred it up it was usually a place to rest and regroup, a sanctuary where one could bitch and moan in congenial commiseration.  But these three were not my favorites.  It was also amazing how they had played right into Jack’s hands.  I had quoted this phrase to him only a few days before.  He had liked it so much he had written it down, even taking the trouble to learn the Latin.

“Sweet it is to die for one’s country,” I said.  I could have let it rest there, but I was not a teacher for nothing.  “Horace wrote it.  He was trying to kiss up the Emperor Augustus at the time.  When he was a young man Horace was in a battle, the civil war between Augustus and Mark Antony, and he hated being a soldier.  But when he got old he got sentimental.”

“He was just kissing the Emperor’s ass so he could get a new villa,” said Jack, waving a hand, sounding cheerful for the first time.

“Oh God, you two,” said the English teacher.

“This is high school, not college,” sniffed the gym teacher with the hairy lip, who rose and dug in her purse.

“Go on Jeopardy if you want to show off,” said Mister Math.

“It’s tragic you’re so in love with your own ignorance,” said Jack.  “But maybe in your case it just explains a great deal about you.”

The gym teacher shoved a dollar into his hand and Jack said, “It’s all right, I believe in free education,” and with a slightly formal bow placed the dollar back into the woman’s hand.  She huffed her way out the door.  The other two teachers scraped their chairs back from the table and left the room with air of much displeasure.  With a satisfied smile Jack came over to my table.

But his smile disappeared when he saw the same copy of that day’s Wichita Eagle on my table as well.  Jack twisted an index finger into the President’s face, hard enough to make the front page of the newspaper spin. “Someday, someone is going to make that man pay attention.”

In the picture George W. Bush was on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by cheering sailors.  Over his shoulder a banner announced “Mission Accomplished.”  It was May, 2003.  At that moment sixty-five American soldiers had died in Iraq.

The man who had stage managed this photo op, who would go on record as saying it was “the proudest day I ever knew as an American,” was named Kenneth Brian Kammerer.  He was better known by a nickname George W. Bush had given him:  Kenny Boy.

« Older posts

© 2020 John Paul Porter

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑