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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Freak Flag


 Those of us born in the mid fifties have seen a transition of society that few have witnessed. I’m not referring to technology or war. We were raised with “spare the rod, spoil the child” and the idea that each generation would do better than the last. Our parents had grown up during the Great Depression. Their ideals and ideas were marinated in the cauldron of poverty and want so they were adamant that we seek material gain as a primary endeavor. Eisenhower was president. Home ownership was the American dream.  Conservative political and social ideals were the norm. You not only did not rock the boat but you sought to fit in at all costs. Feelings were “best kept to oneself.”
  As the page turned to the sixties and we entered grade school we watched John Kennedy debate Richard Nixon and knew something was stirring. We were watching the faces of change but did not know how vast a change lay ahead.
  For many of us life was rooted in soil like that of the television series “Happy Days” from the seventies and eighties. We went home for the summer after the tenth grade in continental slacks, starched oxford button down shirts, Florsheim tassle loafers and Ivy League haircuts. We came back the following September in pocket t-shirts, bell-bottom pants, blue jean jackets and hair covering our ears.
  Living in Charlotte, N.C. was like being in a delay time warp. In the summer of 69 we began to hear through the “grapevine” about this thing called “Woodstock” up north. During the fall we all went to see it at the drive in movie theatre out on Wilkinson Blvd. By then we had the act down pat. Chevy vans with mattresses and shag carpet were turned sideways to the screen as most of us stood and wandered about the pungent fog of a crisp fall weekend night.
  Mixed among the Chevy vans were plenty of 50’s and 60’s era muscle cars. There was no lack of letter jackets and brush cuts still. You see, we were southern by birth and heritage but Woodstock by default because we were young and this was the music that spoke to us all.
  For the next few years we experimented with life with all the gusto of youth. Easy Rider cruised through our psyches and we read Kerouac and regaled at the antics of Timothy Leary and his ilk.
  And then there was the music. Achievement fell by the wayside as we patterned ourselves after the bad boys of rock and roll. Hendricks, Morrison, Jagger, Duane and Greg Allman …. The list marched on. Names like Edgar Winter, Cream, Blue Oyster Cult, Blind Faith exploded in our minds as we bean bagged our way through black lights and purple haze.
  “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin’. We’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drummin’, four dead in Ohio” We heard the lyric and we were shocked at the travesty of injustice and violence yet something had slipped our grasp.
  The choppers wopped their way through our suppers as we rushed to escape our wardens. We saw the body bags carried from the cargo jets but they were zipped up you see.
  Carlos Casteneda wrote of visions and we copied the act while leaving the concept of spirituality in the dust of the southwest desert.
  We mimicked the tortured poets of the rock world in all their actions, dress and mannerisms until we became a southern version of them.
  Lynard Skinnard played the Cellar and we partied the night away in the muck and mud of a beer-sodded floor that looked and smelled like dirt. The darkness forgave all. We became darkness and we wallowed in the detritus of a dream that had been born in the music of peace and love.
  The “Deadheads” wore tie-dye but we wore sequins and tight pants with shag haircuts as we plied the bars and saloons of Independence Blvd. Chaka Khan gyrated along with us as we shot pool and gathered in the name of hedonism to eat the flesh and bone of our ideals.
  We called ourselves “Freaks” as in “let your freak flag fly” until we were like old men sitting on bar stools telling rerun stories because we were too burned out to care anymore.
  The “devil had gone down to Charlotte” and we had sold our soul because we did not know who to be. We had lost our way and were destined to roam an aimless road to nowhere having forgotten how to care. We lived for no one but ourselves.
  As time rolled on the price of our negligence began to become visible. Few married. Even fewer bought homes or finished college. As we sat on the bar stools our eyes hollowed and our cheeks sunk. Our tight pants began to be loose and we could not afford new ones that fit.
  John Prine sang of a “hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” and we looked into the blackened pool of our existence where we could see the reflection of anguish that understood the lyric.
  There was no way home from here. It was a dead end and we did not believe we had the energy to make our way back to the fork in the road that we had not even seen when we passed. There had been no conscious choice …  only laughter. And then there was silence.
  I know you’re out there. If you’re reading this I need you to know that the fork is a long way back but you can make it. There really is a “city on the hill.” It is not made of gold but of spirit.
  I see you there in your Super Bee flying down the highway toward the beach. I remember how happy we were to greet each other at the bar when the entire world was new and the girls smelled like strawberries.
  I remember the shackles of your ten-year-old black Dodge rattling across the too high speed bumps at school.
  I smell the musty beds of the seedy hotel at Myrtle Beach and feel the gritty sand beneath my cheek as the slobber runs onto the pillow.
  Yet these memories are not the end of the story. There was a narrow way that led to life. I stand there now at the headwaters waiting for others to come. Lord willing I will be here to help them when they arrive. I will be here so that they will know. We were "lost but now are found." Each day the world is made new. Each day another fork in the road. The difference is ... now we can see it.

Monday, October 8, 2012


  Years ago I went on my first river-rafting trip. It was also the first time I’d ever gone formally camping. Once while hitchhiking across country I had slept in a sleeping bag in the high desert of Arizona but had never taken gear, set up a tent, built a fire and all that.  I liked the rafting but abhorred the camping.

 “I normally get paid to work.” I grumbled.

I was uncomfortable and put out but soldiered through because I knew it was good for the family. I went back every year for five or six years out of a sense of obligation to the group.

  My wife went on a couple of other trips to different rivers but I refused other than the yearly church trip. Then, one October we went to a river down south in the fall. This was a “different animal”. 

  The Chatooga looked like one long landslide of granite had tumbled into the rushing, cold, gray water. Four hours we lived among huge boulders with forest rising on either side.

  We rode seven-foot drops while soaring hawks watched from above. We stood at the foot of 100-foot falls as they took photos of us. Each of our group is grinning ear to ear from under the white plastic helmets they insist that you wear. The element of danger creates a bond with the folks you are with. You have to work together or you can get hurt.


   I sense Indian spirits astride their painted ponies, camouflaged by the turning leaves. Half the day is in the shadow of the cliffs and forest with welcome breaks in the warming sun. I feel as if I am being bathed in nature as wind caresses my skin and the rust colored leaves dance on the air.
  Back at the rustic old wooden center of operations with its welcoming porch we regale one another with our spills and bruises, watching slide shows of ourselves engulfed by boiling white water. We laugh and joke at our faces forever frozen in moments of truth as the river has it’s way with us. 
  Back at camp we prepare a meal and gorge until we all meet by the blazing bonfire. Everyone laughs while some listen to the college football games, all basking in the warmth of the fire. I note the chill of the starlit night as I take mental photos of these grins of camaraderie.
  I've come to the tent that I did not mind setting up. I've lit the lanterns, put on some warm socks and lie here listening to voices outside as they fade with the dying fire. Some will talk until the wee hours. It used to bother me but now it’s ok. I’ll fall asleep to the sound of folks at ease with themselves.
  A few weeks back after work one evening I groused to my wife,

“I dread this trip.”

 “REALLY?” she said surprised.

 I knew even then there was something amiss in the comment. Now I know why. The truth is I stopped hating camping a long time ago. The truth is I feel close to God here.  He’s in the river. He’s in the wind and the mutating embers of the blazing fire. Most of all He’s in the people all around me, here in the woods, under the towering trees that reach ever higher into the infinite night sky.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Flowers of War

Where have all the flowers gone?
What did we do with peace?
Did grace come once then abandon us,
To war and leave a lease

On hard times and hate and massacre,
On disease and pain and doubt?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Can you hear the children shout?

On fire they flee to darkest woe,
Searching for escape.
Listen close to bells that ring on high,
Drowning in hopeless hate.

Cast off the seed that leads to war
Call the master’s name.
Heed the toll of clarion call.
Deny the devil’s shame.

Rise up to purge unfettered gall
From all the despot’s phlegm.
Renew the Son that lies within,
Cease-fire and answer Him.