Sunday, October 15, 2017

THE FLOWER - A Brand New Horror Story for Halloween 2017!

   What can I say?  It's been over a month since my last entry, and honestly, that last post was more a whiny screed about why I don't have time to write instead of a real piece of writing.  I could apologize some more, or I could offer you some entertaining content to apologize for my long absence.  So here you go, my first short story in several months, a creepy little tale of botanical horror, just in time for Halloween . . .



                              THE FLOWER

                                           A Short Story

                                                    By

                                           Lewis Smith

 

          Mark Swinton was a slender lad, some twelve years old, suffering through the spring of his sixth-grade year at the John B. Hood Middle School in Blanchard Springs, Texas.  Other states and bigger towns might have renamed the school, since it honored a decorated veteran of the Confederate States Army, but Blanchard Springs was a mostly white, mostly Republican town in a backwater district of East Texas, and change came slowly.  Life there was slow-paced for the most part; the biggest excitement of the year came in the fall when the high school football team battled rival Carthage for a shot at the district title.

          Not that Mark cared for sports; he was scrawny, bespectacled, and still spoke in the high, piping tones of an elementary student.  He favored books over athletics and video games over hunting and fishing.  His classmates teased him endlessly, and for the last two years he had been forced to endure the humiliation of being thought of as gay by most of his peers.  In a different state, in a bigger town, he might have pretended it was true, since gay was the new cool – at least according to his online friends from trendy towns like Cincinnati and Boston – but homosexuality was still a huge badge of shame in rural Texas, and the taunts came thick and fast, especially in the locker room, a place he avoided at all costs except during the forty-five minutes of mandatory torture known as Physical Education.

          The heck of it was, Mark liked girls, liked them a lot!  Unfortunately, while most of the girls he knew were quite kind to him and even stood up for him when the jocks began slinging slurs his way, he dwelled so deep in the “friendzone” of the female population of Hood Middle School he doubted he would ever escape.  Other guys his age had enjoyed their first kiss in fourth grade or earlier, and some of them had already made the legendary trip to “second base” (a few said they had been further, but frankly Mark thought they were liars).  Mark was still pining for his first kiss, and he knew who he wanted to administer it:  Laura Henderson.

          Laura was Mark’s “study buddy” in Mrs. Reasoner’s upper track English class, and his next-door neighbor.  They had been friends since first grade, but in the last year Mark had seen his tomboy playmate from elementary school blossom into an adolescent beauty that took his breath away.  Her long red hair shone like burnished copper in the sun, and her smile was blinding.  Mark tried to maintain the same easy ways with her that had made them such good friends as kids, but the fact is he was smitten and smitten deeply.  Laura had no idea that Mark was romantically interested in her; she chattered happily to him about the boys she liked and who she thought would ask her to the Spring Fling dance, never noticing the hurt in his eyes.

          Mark had already made up his mind that he would ask her himself, he was just waiting for the perfect opportunity.  As the bell rang for the end of the day, he thought that maybe that moment had come.  They were working on a report together for English over Rudyard Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” and would be going to her house after school to do some research on mongooses, and then maybe play some Fallout 4 together.  Surely, somewhere over the next two hours, he could work up the courage to ask her to the dance!

          A shoulder slammed into his chest, knocking him into his locker and sending his books flying.

          “Watch where you’re going, Squinton!” said Bobby Busby, one of Mark’s chief tormentors, using his favorite nickname for his favorite victim.

          “You know what they say makes little boys go blind!” echoed Jimmy Hanson, Mark’s sidekick. The two of them brayed in donkey-like laughter and sauntered down the hall, looking for a new target.

          Mark imagined what it would be like to vaporize both of them with a plasma rifle as he gathered his books up and closed his locker.

          “I wish those guys would find someone else to pick on,” said Laura, stooping to help him.  “I hope you hit a growth spurt and are a foot taller than them by the time you’re a sophomore!”

          “Fat chance,” Mark said.  His Dad was slightly built, and of below average height.  “I’d be better off wishing I could become a werewolf or a mutant and eat them alive.”

          “They’d probably taste nasty,” she said as they headed towards the door.

          The pair left the school and walked towards home in a companionable silence.  From time to time, Mark cast a shy glance at this girl he desired above all things, but no matter how many times he screamed Ask her, you moron! inside his head, he could not get the words out.  Frustrated with himself, he glanced over at the overgrown abandoned lot they were passing.  A forbidding three story house had stood there until their first-grade year, when it had been consumed in a spectacular fire that claimed the life of its only occupant, a retired scientist.  There were all sorts of stories about what this mysterious man had really done for a living, and speculation on how the fire got started, but no one knew much for sure – only that Dr. Craig had been a botanist by training, and had worked for NASA.

          Mark was replaying one of the more lurid theories about the fire in his head when a splash of bizarre color caught his eye, standing out in stark contrast to the greens and browns of the weeds that covered most of the lot.  He stopped and stared for a moment, and then stepped off the sidewalk.

          “Where are you going, silly?” Laura asked him.  “That place is haunted!”

          “I’ll be right back,” Mark said, and began carefully walking through the weeds towards the blooming plant.

          The stalk was a very dark green, like the shadows in the deepest corners of some forgotten forest, and the leaves were shaped like nothing Mark had ever seen – almost like snowflakes in their delicate complexity.  But the flower!

          The single blossom was nearly a foot across, displaying a sunburst of colors so bizarre and different that Mark could not even come up with names for them.  What did you call a bright, glowing mix of purple and green, or red and brightest blue?  Even those words and combinations did not do the bloom justice – it was purely and simply the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

          That was when the idea struck him: he would give this flower to Laura, the greatest beauty he could find for the greatest beauty that he knew, and as she looked at its radiant petals, he would ask her to the dance.  His face lit up with a smile as he imagined her reaction.

          The stalk was cold to the touch, but pulsating with life.  Mark plucked the flower with the greatest of ease; it let go of its stem at the gentlest of tugs, not losing a single petal.  Cradling it in both hands, he turned and walked across the lot, holding it out before him.

          “This is for you,” he said, “because you are the prettiest girl I have ever known.”

          She took it from him, awestruck, and sniffed deeply of its fragrance. Her eyes softened as she looked at him, and Mark knew to the depths of his soul that she finally – finally! – saw the love he had carried for her for so long, saw it and returned it.

          “Laura, would you go to the Spring Fling dance with me?” he asked.

          Her smile melted his heart.

          “I thought you would never ask!” she exclaimed, and carefully setting the flower down, she took his face in her hands and leaned forward, her lips reaching for his.

          But none of that ever happened.

          Instead, the moment Mark touched the stalk of the plant, the flower emitted a wispy stream of vapor that curled up to his nostrils before he could even begin to try and pluck the bloom.  The powerful pheromone hit his cerebral cortex and broadcast images into his brain, images of the things he most wanted to happen.  He stood there frozen as the story played out in his mind.

          Laura was curious as to why Mark had taken off across the lot where the mad scientist’s house once stood, and had started after him almost right away.  She saw him walk up to the brightly colored flower and place his hand on it, and when the strange mist sprayed in his face, she paused to see how he would react.  A beatific smile came across his face, and he looked happier than she had ever seen him.  She started to speak, but decided to hold her silence, letting him enjoy whatever it was that filled him with such radiant bliss.

          That was when the flower sprayed a second time.  This time the mist was black, and there was much more of it.  It wove around Mark’s body, then closed in on him and vanished, seemingly sinking into his pores.  His smile wavered for just a moment, and a look of alarm came into his eyes. But before he could open his mouth to speak, a horrible transformation took place,

          Before her eyes, Mark began to dissipate, his body breaking down to a cloud of mist, or dust, individual particles swirling around, still maintaining the shape of a young boy, but losing all solidity and mass.  Then, as she stared in shock, the flower opened, opened up impossibly wide, exposing row after row of tiny, needle like teeth lining a trumpet-shaped proboscis.  With a hideous sucking sound, the cloud of particles that had been Mark were drawn into that brilliantly colored maw.

          Laura screamed and ran, blind with terror, seeking only to put as much distance between her and that unearthly blossom of death.  She never saw the minivan that struck her, sending her flying forward, then rolling over the small of her back and crushing her spine.  She never felt her head hit the pavement, fracturing her skull in three places.  In time, she would recover some cognitive function.  Although her memories of that terrible moment never went away, she could not communicate them to anyone – her speech center was too badly damaged.  She did scream “The Flower!!  The Flower!” for years afterward when she was afraid or upset, but she could not explain what the phrase meant, and the gentle nurses who tended the ruined husk of a once-beautiful girl simply made sure that new bouquets were never delivered to her room or placed where she could see them.

          Search parties looked frantically for Mark for several days, and in a more resigned fashion for weeks thereafter, but not trace of him was ever found.  Only his mother came close to unraveling the mystery; the day after Laura’s terrible accident, she came to the scene and wandered into the vacant lot.  She saw the unusual plant and its single colorful blossom.  Although the flower was already wilting, she could see it had been a remarkably beautiful specimen when in full bloom.  Despite being an experience gardener, she did not recognize the plant at all.  She leaned closer, her grief and sorrow forgotten for a moment in simple curiosity.  That was when the bloom shot out a cloud of black vapor.

          The mist smelled foul, like blood and rot and sewage, but that was not what made her stagger back in terror.  For as the black cloud swirled about in the air above the dying bloom, for just a second it took on the contours of a human face – her son’s face, twisted in anguish and fear.  Then a gentle breeze dispersed the pollen – surely that is what it was, she told herself! – and the terrifying image was gone, if it had ever been there to begin with.  Over time, she convinced herself that she had hallucinated the whole thing.  But for the rest of her life, that swirling, gritty image of her son’s face haunted her nightmares, even after her conscious mind forgot it.

          A week after Mark disappeared, the vacant lot was bulldozed to make room for a new coffee shop.  The flower never bloomed again.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

WRITER'S BLOCK . . . Or Just Too Much Going On?

   I'm glad my last blog post was a nice fun one, because I have been really lazy about updating this month.  The fact is, other than my weekly newspaper column and my posting about miscellaneous stuff on social media, I haven't done much writing at all since early August.  At least, during that time, several hundred people have apparently gotten a chuckle about my lack of mechanical aptitude.  But what to write about tonight?

   I was doing great there for a bit during the late summer - whipped out three chapters of my new novel in two weeks, penned some entertaining blog posts, corresponded at length with an assortment of fascinating friends, debated everything from atheism to the Confederate flag on social media - and then something happened.  Specifically, school started! 

   Now, I recognize that I am blessed beyond measure to teach in a small private school where my kids are motivated to learn, the parents are supportive, we have a great headmaster, and I am accorded a degree of academic freedom that public school teachers can only dream of.  ("Mr. Smith, why are we spending a whole month of the school year on ancient Rome?"  "Because it's flippin' AWESOME, that's why!!")  But the truth is, despite the fact that I love my job, it really does keep me awfully busy.

   I have seven different preps - 7th grade Texas History, 8th grade U.S. History, 9th grade World Geography, 10th Grade World History, 11th Grade Dual Credit History, Senior Government, and of course, my baby, the elective class I created - Modern America: Pop Culture, History, and Politics from 1980 to the Present. All but one of those classes meet every day of the week.  Oh, and in addition to all that, I have been asked to be the announcer at all our home football games this season.  Again, something I love doing, but it bites a chunk out of some Saturdays!

   What other hats do I wear?  Well, I teach a night class one day a week at our local community college.  I raise goats (been a tough year in that department, sadly).  I pastor a small church near where I live, that keeps me occupied on Wednesdays and Sundays.  I am helping my wife and daughters take care of my elderly mother-in-law at home, in addition to being a husband and a father.  And, when I can work them in, I do book signings on Saturdays in my ongoing quest to become a best selling author and maybe retire from some of the above activities.

   That's why I haven't updated my blog, you see:  I have writer's block.  Or, actually, I can't seem to block out any time to write!  Is that the same thing?  Either way, I'll try to be funny again next week.

   However, this temporary hiatus in my literary output gives all you lucky folks a chance to catch up on my already published works!  So whip out the credit card, or maybe the good old Kindle Fire, and order them today! THE TESTIMONIUM, MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH, THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE, and THEOPHILUS, rattling good reads all! 
 Here's the link:

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&text=Lewis+Ben+Smith&search-alias=books&field-author=Lewis+Ben+Smith&sort=relevancerank

Monday, August 21, 2017

MECHANICAL APTITUDE (AKA That Thing I Don't Have!)

    There are guys who are born with a wrench in one hand.  They can change their own oil, rewire a trailer, diagnose mechanical problems, change spark plugs and "points" (whatever those are) - some of them can even take a thing apart and put them together again and the thing will still work!  These guys go on to become auto mechanics, aircraft technicians, lawn mower repairmen, architects, carpenters, and other occupations that make far more money than us history teachers.

    Then there are guys like me.  I am the reason those guys exist.  On a good day, if I take my time and am very careful, I can change a tire without setting the car on fire.  If I'm lucky.  And there my mechanical abilities come to a screeching halt, not unlike a Hefty garbage bag full of cream of tomato soup hitting the pavement after being dropped from the top of AT&T Stadium.  Seriously,  I'm not only the reason mechanics exist, I'm the reason they get paid so well.  I am a helpless hostage to their skills.  They can do by nature stuff that I could not do if you waved a million dollars under my nose and got Anne Hathaway to stand on the sideline and cheer me on in a French maid uniform . . . but I digress.

    One example:  Earlier this summer I was mowing my lawn (DON'T even get me started on mowing!  I am a sixth generation Texan, and I don't mind a hot dry summer. In fact, I look forward every year to the lawn turning brown and dying and the soil turning to concrete by mid-July, so I can put the mower in the shed till next spring and devote my time to far more important pursuits, like figuring out the next plot twist in GAME OF THRONES or waiting for the lake to drop far enough for my favorite arrowhead spots to come out of the water.  But this year we have had nearly a foot of rain in August - AUGUST, when it's supposed to be a hundred and six degrees outside!!!! - and my lawn was beginning to resemble the Amazon basin until I spent four hours cutting it down to size this afternoon.  Did I digress again?  I think I did.  Where was I?  Oh, yeah, I need to close these parentheses!)

    Anyway, I was mowing my lawn a month or so back, and my lawnmower threw a belt.  Where it threw the belt, I do not know - it looked like the belt was still there, just not doing its belty job, which was to make sure my blades turned rapidly and cut the nasty green stuff that just won't quit growing this year.  But my friends all said it had "thrown a belt," although none of them could tell me how far the throw was, who caught the belt and whether or not the runner was safe.  At any rate, with only a tiny amount of my vast yard actually mowed, my riding mower had been reduced to the world's slowest four-wheeler.  So I did what any red-blooded American male utterly devoid of mechanical aptitude would do: I went on Facebook and griped about it.

    Here's where one of my friends jumped in - I'll call him Dave because, well, his name IS Dave.  I was in mid-rant about having to take the mower to the shop and spend money I didn't have, and he said: "You don't have to take it to the shop, it's a simple fix."  I said: "For you, maybe.  I have a hard time figuring out which end of a hammer to use."

    He then adopted that tone (I presume, our communications were all written, but in my mind he was speaking in that slow, sonorous voice that a shepherd uses to persuade a particularly dense sheep that it can cross a trickle of water in the pasture without being eaten by crocodiles) which people with mechanical aptitude use to make guys like me feel particularly useless.

    "It's SIMPLE," he said, "you just loosen the thermo-weeble gasket with a sonic screwdriver until the particle flange detaches from the warp core.  Then you take your tricorder and use the basic principles of leverage to crawl through the Jeffreys tube and re-attach the belt to the servomotor, being sure not to unhook it from the router."

   Now Dave might argue that he said no such thing, and he might be right, because what he was telling me seemed to be written in a rare dialect of Sanskrit spoken by drunken Hindu monks who took language lessons from drunken monkeys.  In other words, I couldn't understand a word of it.  He went on to try and break it down into even simpler terms, using a combination of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Hebrew folklore to show that to anyone with a shred of mechanical aptitude that changing a drive belt was a simple, five-minute job - a job that a moderately well-trained chimpanzee should be able to do.  In the end, I meekly shredded my man card and put the mower on a trailer and took it to the shop, where they ("they" being members of a sinister society of guys like Dave who understand how mechanical things work; it's a form of black magic) did mysterious mechanical things that made it work again.

    But that was not this summer's only attempt to drive home the fact that I was born with less mechanical aptitude than Donald Trump has grace and good manners.  A couple weeks back, me and my friend Danny hooked up my faithful vessel, the Water Turkey, for a run down to Lake Limestone - only to find that my trailer lights were as dead as the tradition of wearing petticoats to Ft. Lauderdale during spring break. Now, I had actually wired the trailer myself originally - well, technically, me and my friend Ray wired it.  To be COMLETELY honest, Ray wired it while holding out his hand and asking me to give him the necessary tools, which I sometimes actually located in six tries or less!  When that set of lights went bad after two lake seasons, I took the boat trailer to a local shop and had it professionally rewired. That was over three years ago, but now the trailer had gone dark again.   Danny plugged and unplugged the connector that hooked the trailer's lights to my SUV's electrical system, studied it a moment, and said "Well, I think you've either got a short or a ground wire not doing its job."  Not wanting to appear ignorant, I nodded in solemn agreement that, yes, there was a short wire on the ground not doing its job, even though I looked on the ground and didn't see a wire anywhere.

    "Can you fix it?" I asked.  "Sure," he said, "but you should be able to do it yourself.  Just get a groundwire connector, a thermo-weeble gasket, a pair of seismic pliers, some eclipse glasses, and a proton generator.  Hook the trailer to a superconducting supercollider, give it a jolt of dilithium, and you should have lights in no time."

    I looked at him in astonishment, because he was speaking (apparently) the same dialect of Sanskrit that Dave had used when telling me how to fix the drive belt.  Finally, turning over those arcane phrases in my mind and wondering how on earth he had memorized so much of the Necronomicon, I said "Well, we could just drive it on down to the lake and work on it later, right?"

    "Sure," he said.  Despite my best attempts to turn the conversation to arrowheads, women, the Civil War, a recent uptick in dog hickeys, and the startling drop in the price of imported tarantulas from Brazil, Danny kept coming back to how easy it should be for me to fix those trailer lights when I got home.  Finally I broke down and admitted to him that, no matter how many times he repeated it, I still had NO idea what he was talking about.  He looked at me the way I look at 8th grade students who for the life of them cannot seem to recall that Grant fought for the Union and Lee for the Confederacy!  I was going to give him my man card, but then I remembered that I shredded it in shame when I took my mower to the shop.  So my boat trailer still has no lights!

   I think I'll invite Danny over, and offer to grill pork spare ribs if he'll rewire the trailer.  I might be mechanically illiterate, but I can do pretty good things with cut up pieces of dead pig - enough that I might even be issued a new man card.

    Mechanical aptitude.  I think it's a cult!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

BOOK SIGNING ETIQUETTE FOR DUMMIES (Because Writers Have Feelings Too!)

   As of this month - on August 14th to be precise - I have been a published novelist for three years.  During those years I have done about a hundred book signings, give or take a few.  I thoroughly enjoy getting out and presenting my works to the public, and if a store is busy I generally manage to have double digit sales.  I love meeting people, talking to people about my books, and above all, I love it when someone reads the back of the book blurb, and their face lights up and they say: "I love stories like this!"

   However, I must admit there are a few things people do that drive me nuts.  I really do believe that most people are decent and polite, given a chance.  But lots of folks have never actually met an author peddling his wares and aren't sure how to handle the situation.  SO, for all you non-writers out there, here are some things you can do to make sure an aspiring new novelist doesn't go home in tears from his or her first book signing!

   1.  GIVE THE WRITER A MINUTE OF YOUR TIME.  Chances are that slim novel lying on the table there (OK, OK, mine are not that slim, I know!) represents months, if not years, of effort.  Composing a story, writing it down, editing it, looking for an agent, looking for a publisher, wrangling over cover art, purchasing copies wholesale (which often represents a huge investment from a person who doesn't have a lot of cash) - none of this is easy.  Even if you have zero interest in the person's book, take a moment of your time, let them tell you about it, and congratulate them for getting this far!

  2.  DON'T THANK THEM FOR NOTHING.  When I see someone come into the store where I am signing, I have a standard line that I use (with minor variations): "Good morning!  Would you like to check out my new novel?  I'm doing a book signing today!"  I get all kinds of responses, but the one that drives me up a wall is when the person looks right through me and says: "Thank you!" without ever making eye contact - and then walks right past me!  Excuse me, but what on EARTH did you just thank me for?  Seriously, even "Sorry, I don't have time right now!" is better than that.  Writers are people, show them a little courtesy.

  3.  AT LEAST THINK ABOUT BUYING THE BOOK.  I get that not everyone is a reader (although that fact makes me very sad).  I realize that not everyone relishes historical fiction with a Biblical twist, which is what I write.  But still, everybody knows somebody who reads!  And, as I always say, a signed first edition makes a marvelous gift for Christmas or someone's birthday.  Besides, who's to say that the struggling young author sitting at that table might not be the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling?  Heck, that signed book might be WORTH something someday!  Nearly all writers start at the bottom, doing what I've been doing for three years now - sitting at a table trying to persuade total strangers to buy their books. Give'em a break and plunk down a twenty.  You won't miss the money in a week, and you may be the only sale they make that day!  (It doesn't happen often, but it has happened to me, and it's a real kick in the teeth to drive fifty miles and not make a sale!)

  4.  IF YOU BUY THE BOOK, REVIEW IT!  Writers LOVE feedback!  Negative or positive, Amazon and Goodreads reviews mean that people are actually reading and reacting to what we have written.  The only thing worse than looking at your book's Amazon page week after week and realizing that your sales rank hasn't budged is looking at your book's Amazon page and seeing that no one has reviewed it in weeks.  I've been fortunate - my books have generated 67 Amazon reviews and I have only ONE negative review.  Goodreads folks are a little more picky, but even there all four of my books are in the 4 point range out of 5 possible.  We love reading your comments, so go ahead and post a review.  Tell us what we did right.  Tell us what we did wrong.  Tell us you love us.  Tell us our writing is less comprehensible than moose drool.  Just tell us SOMETHING!

  5.  DON'T WASTE OUR TIME.  The only thing worse than having someone blow by you without a word is having someone sit and talk to you for thirty solid minutes, asking you all kinds of details about your book, reading the back and the prologue, and then NOT making a purchase!  We love visiting with you, but ultimately, a writer at a book signing is "on the clock."  We are there to make money for our selves and our families, and most of us are not rich.  So if you're going to take up a big chunk of our time, go ahead and make that purchase!


   There are probably some other things I could list, but these are the things that drive me nuts when I am sitting at a table trying to make a sale.  So please, follow these simple rules and you will make your local author a happy camper.  OH! - and speaking of making a sale:  Here is a link to my that will take you to all my books on Amazon.  Because online sales are important too!

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&text=Lewis+Ben+Smith&search-alias=books&field-author=Lewis+Ben+Smith&sort=relevancerank

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Poem About Something We All Have in Common . . .

I never thought I would be one of these guys that freaked out over getting older - until I turned fifty.  Then, all of a sudden, my age and the realization that my time on this planet was, most likely, over half done just threw me for a loop.  I am still sorting out how I feel, and earlier this week this poem came to me.  It sums up my current feelings pretty well:


REFLECTIONS ON MORTALITY

 

The photograph is faded and yellow, taken in my twentieth year.

When Reagan was President and I wore Navy whites,

And life seemed endless and I had no fear.

For I was slim and tan and young and nice to look upon – or so I’m told.

Years unnumbered lay before me, pages of life yet unwritten,

And if it occurred to me, I laughed at the thought of growing old.

 

Now the photo album has come unbound, pictures of my now-spent youth,

Lie tumbled and jumbled in a box full of memories –

And when I look in the mirror it tells me the truth.

For the man I once was has long since gone, his trim form but a memory.

Hair has greyed, waist has thickened, and though I’m still strong,

I see the old man I’ll soon become standing there, staring into me.

 

Too soon!  Not yet!  There is so much living I have not done!

Sensations unfelt, things untried, I feel that I must hasten quickly;

For more than half the sands in my hourglass have already run.

Youth was a blur, youth was an era; it felt like a short eternity.

Now my father is gone, my mother is old, my siblings about to retire,

And when girls smile at me, it seems like a cold act of charity.

 

I see with a clarity the young cannot know, I see the future that beckons;

The slow decline of my body, the withering of my mind,

As all the choices I have made demand to be reckoned.

A decade, perhaps, maybe two or three, is all that I have remaining.

Will I be hale and strong til the end?  Or an invalid,

Helpless, lying in bed, demanding and complaining?

 

This cannot be!  I won’t allow it!  I refuse to grow any older!

How many before me have screamed at the clock thus,

Their demands growing louder and bolder?

But time, the great teacher, instructs us all in reality,

For no matter how much we scream and rage,

We cannot outrun our mortality.

So what can we do, but live, and live large, seizing each day as it comes!

We know not how many we have, or how few –

As we march to the beat of our own set of drums.

From this day forth I shout from the ramparts a new battle cry;

Let all who hear take note and take heed,

If nothing else I will live ere I die!

This is the last third of my life’s brand-new creed.

 

 

Lewis Smith

Age 53

July 2017

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A TRIBUTE TO MY MOM . . . .

   I have written a lot about my Dad in this blog over the last six months.  His final bout with illness, followed by his passing away in May, brought forth a flood of fond memories of happy times that helped stave off some of our deep sadness at his death.  But, looking back, I do wish now that I had written some of those things when he was still alive and of sound enough mind to read and appreciate them. I resolved that I would not make that mistake twice.

   Today my extended family gathered to celebrate my Mom's 85th birthday.  The actual date was back in May, only a few days after my Dad's funeral.  None of us felt quite like a party so soon after such a sad occasion, so we decided to wait and celebrate a bit later in the summer.  It was quite a gathering - my three siblings and their spouses were there, and seven out of ten of mom's grandchildren, as well as four out of ten great-grandchildren, plus two of my three first cousins - the son and daughter of mom's sister Bobbie (now deceased), plus assorted in-laws and one boyfriend.  We had plenty of food, laughs, and stories (including a rare opportunity for me to embarrass my big brother instead of vice versa!), and Mom was showered with gifts, cards, hugs, and wishes for many more happy and healthy years to come.

    Laura Smith is one of the most remarkable ladies I know. She and my Dad were married in 1950, right before he was recalled to military service during the Korean War.  My sister Clinta was born not long after that, then my brother Dwain, my sister Jo, and finally me - a bit of a surprise, in 1963.  Mom was a military wife briefly, but she spent over fifty years as a preacher's wife, in a time when pastors and their families were both looked up to and held to a very high standard.  She raised four kids who all grew up to be good and reputable adults (my Dad used to say with a wink: "Ain't one of my kids been in jail!") despite a few bumps along the way, including my oldest sister's "Flower Child" phase and my repeated attempts to talk her into letting me keep a pet snake.

   Mom was a teacher by profession, high school English to be precise.  She was strict but fun, demanding high quality work from her students but also investing in their lives and reminding them that she cared about them as people, not just as numbers in a grade book.  All of us had her as our classroom teacher at one point or another, I think, and she made a point of showing no favoritism and accepting no excuses when it came to our schoolwork!  But let someone treat one of us unfairly and she would sail into battle with all guns blazing, as evinced the time I got kicked out of Mr. S---------'s class after spending one period as "Teacher for a Day" my senior year.  I said (erroneously, as it turned out, but in good faith) that Hitler had been born out of wedlock, and the history teacher flew into a rage and booted me from his room!  Mom was NOT happy and let him know in no uncertain terms.  (I think Mr. S--------- may have been a member of the Hitler Youth as a child, but that is pure conjecture on my part.)

   Mom loved her students, and they loved her back.  In the mid-70's, when the "Pet Rock" craze was at it height, all her students started bringing her pet rocks.  She named each one, stone by stone, and one kid even built her a little house for them!  She displayed them at the front of her room and referred to each rock by name.  (I think she was just grateful to have the most maintenance-free classroom pets of all time!)  She was sponsor for the Future Teachers of America for many years, and after I graduated she switched career tracks and ended her time in the public schools as a high school counselor.

    Mom was a perfect match for my Dad.  He adored her and delighted in giving her gifts on special occasions, and their love was evident, not just in the way they spoke to each other in public, but in the way they treated each other at home.  She was Dad's best friend, his refuge in time of stress, and his constant companion.  I remember one time when I was about 14 or so, and we were trying to find our way to an obscure Dallas hospital to visit a sick church member.  Dad got turned around and simply could not locate the place, and was getting more and more frustrated.  Now, my Dad VERY rarely swore (I think I maybe heard him cuss 3 times in my entire life!), but he did have a number of colorful East Texas-isms that came out when he was mad, and one of them was the adjective "frazzlin' ".  He must have said it a dozen times during that drive, and finally my dear mother leaned over and put her hand on his arm and said "Honey, I think you are frazzlin' your vocabulary tonight!"  Dad burst out laughing, his anger dissipated, and I think we even eventually found the hospital.

    Mom loved church - she sang in the choir, played the piano, performed solos (or "special music" as we call it in Baptist churches), and taught Sunday School classes.  She stood by my Dad through some of the difficult times in his ministry, through combative business meetings, irate deacon interviews, and tragedies within the church family.  She was his partner in ministry and his refuge from its storms.  She was a role model to the younger women in the church, and to some of the older ones too, and how they all loved her!

    But above all, my Mom was a loyal and devoted spouse to my Dad.  During their retirement, they traveled together around the country, sometimes driving and sometimes going on tour buses.  Later they got an RV and spent months at a time at places like Cooper Lake Park and Lake Wright Patman.  But the place that truly captured their hearts was Mountain View, Arkansas.  They wound up leaving their RV there full time and driving back and forth several times a year, staying for two or three months at a time in the "Folk Music Capitol of America," where they made many friends.

    When Dad fell and broke his hip, that was the end of their traveling days.  His health went downhill after that - within a year he was a permanent resident at a local nursing home.  Mom continued to see him every day - unless it was raining, for she will not drive in bad weather.  But for five years, she would get up, get dressed, go to the nursing home, and sit with Dad till lunchtime.  They would eat together, visit with the other residents, and then she would take him back to his room.  Only when he went down for the inevitable after-dinner nap would she leave, running her personal errands in the early afternoon, then driving back to her apartment and doing it all again the next day.  Even though Dad was sadly reduced by dementia during his final two years, he always recognized her, always thought of her, and always worried about her.  "Take care of your momma!" he admonished me at the end of nearly every visit.

   Mom showed us all that "Love Wins."  When Dad was in his final illness, she stayed with him every day, only going home at night because we kids insisted.  She never left without kissing him goodbye and telling him she loved him.  Her devotion never wavered, she never grumbled or complained about her lot, and in the end, she said her goodbyes with dignity and love, one last lesson for us all.  The day after Dad's funeral, she told me: "I took a vow - 'in sickness and in health, till death do  us part' - and I kept it as well as I could."  That was very well indeed.

    Now, for the first time in 67 years, she is on her own.  She attends church every Sunday, goes to events with her Sunday School class, reads books, watches her beloved Texas Rangers, and has dinner with whichever one of us kids is free to take her as often as we ask.  She told me her new policy is to refuse no invitation, so her days and evenings are often taken up with concerts, dinners, and even stage plays.  She came to our house for the Fourth and enjoyed dinner and time with our family and friends.  The joy in her face at the party today, seeing so many familiar and much-loved faces, was a reminder that she is far from done with living yet!

   My Mom was always a good teacher - and I think she has many lessons yet to impart to us all. May she keep teaching them for many years to come!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

I THINK I AM ADDICTED TO DEBATE . . .

    Actually, I know I am.  I used to love discussing politics, but the subject has become so ugly of late, with so much bitterness on both sides, that I tend to shy away from that these.  You can look back on some of my posts here from last year if you want to see how I felt about the election, or simply take my word that, for the first time in my life, I saw it as a true no-win scenario.  But despite stepping away from that particular area, I still love taking any complex issue and going back and forth, point by point.

    Religious debate is a favorite of mine.  I am a Christian and make no bones about it, and I believe that the claims of Christianity have far more historical credibility than those of any other faith.  I love engaging atheists and agnostics and discussing the historical evidence that underlies the Bible, especially the Gospels.  I have studied the issue enough that I am able to counter a lot of their arguments and counterclaims, and I feel as if the whole process of engaging people who don't share my beliefs actually strengthens my faith rather than undermines it.  And, every so often, I actually manage to change someone's mind.  One of the proudest moments of my life was about seven years ago, when a longtime agnostic friend sent me this email:  "You know, I've been thinking about it, and I have decided that the single best explanation for all those stories about Jesus rising from the dead is that He really did!"  Walking that person into the path of belief remains one of my very proudest achievements.

   I also like debating historical issues.  I have very little patience for those who say the Civil War was not about slavery.  This comes as a surprise to many, since I am a sixth generation Texan and a tenth generation Southerner.  All my ancestors, on both sides of the family, fought for the Stars and Bars - but I do believe they were on the wrong side of history, and that the whole "State's Rights" argument was largely created after the war to enshrine the Lost Cause in something more noble than the auction block and the whip.  A lot of people simply don't want to hear that, especially Southerners, but the historical facts are in my favor - and MOST people can discuss this one without getting too angry.

   Presidents?  Oh, I love discussing their merits and demerits, who is overrated (Jefferson, Kennedy)  and who is underrated (Grant, Cleveland).  I have read dozens of Presidential biographies, and I thoroughly enjoy discussing the lives of our nation's leaders in the past.  I also recognize that it takes about twenty to thirty years to truly pass historical judgment on a Presidency; before that political passions are still too strong. 

   What else to I enjoy debating?  Well, movies and such - although that is largely a matter of taste, I will still defend SUCKER PUNCH against all detractors, and insist that SAVING PRIVATE RYAN got totally ripped off for Best Picture in 1998.  "Shakespeare in Love"??? Really?    I l also love discussing what portrayals of well-known historical figures are best, and which are worst.  I follow some sports, mainly Dallas Cowboys football, and I will go to my grave saying that Dez CAUGHT THAT DARNED BALL in the playoff game against Green Bay a couple years back.

   I always try to be civil and friendly during these discussions.  If someone cannot debate an issue without getting their feelings hurt or becoming abusive, I simply won't debate them.  And one of the few things I will absolutely "unfriend" someone over on social media is if they are rude and ugly to other people in the discussion.  I have many friends and family members whose political and religious beliefs are different from mine, and we bat stuff back and forth all the time.  But if someone jumps into the discussion and starts being abusive and nasty, they are gone!

    There are a few topics that I simply hate getting into, and both of them involve conspiracy theories. A few years back I tangled with a Holocaust denier.  He wasn't a knuckle-dragging skinhead, but a man with some education and an array of websites and literature at his disposal.  But there was a nasty undercurrent of anti-Semitism that pervaded his arguments.  Once I commented that it was difficult for me to believe that the testimony of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors was all a fabrication, and his response was a snarling: "They've gotten away with this for way too long!"  I was kind of glad when the forum where this off and on conversation had gone on for over a year shut down, because that guy made me feel like I needed a hot shower after I read his posts.

   The other thing that drives me nuts is the whole 9/11 "Truther" movement. I've had the privilege of being friends with several people, over the years, in the intelligence community.  They are good, decent people, patriotic Americans all, who love this country and defend it at great cost.  I find the idea that these same people, my friends and their co-workers, would willingly murder 3000 American citizens to achieve some sinister foreign policy goal, to be deeply offensive.  Plus the whole idea is just plain silly.  The stuff these nuts come up with - drone airplanes, crisis actors, tons and tons of high explosive somehow smuggled into one of the busiest workplaces in the whole world under the noses of 50,000 employees, it just staggers the imagination.  Not to mention the whole concept of "the secret too big to keep" - it would have taken a minimum of a couple thousand people to carry off a conspiracy of that magnitude, and there is simply no way that it could have happened. A covert op with a dozen agents is incredibly difficult; a covert op involving several thousand operatives that STAYS covert - no way!  But facts and logic never get in the way of conspiracy theorists, and any credible study or published report that contradicts their narrative is "part of the whitewash."  I sometimes try to point out stuff like this, but honestly, these people are not worth the effort.

   So there it is, the confession of a junkie.  I am addicted to debate - point by point, hopefully polite and civil, you take your side and I take mine and may the best mind win.

   GO!