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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Otis Remembered

Daddy died on Christmas Day 2005.  I preached this homily at his funeral.  On the 103rd anniversary of his birth, I repost it.

            

Otis Remembered 


He had described the place dozens of times.  It was an old Victorian house with a center dormer with a double window.  It had a wide front porch.  The center door opened into a hallway floored with pine boards which his aunts used to scrub with sand.  When he was a little boy he used to spend the night there.  He loved the featherbeds.  But you need not think of getting into one of those beds without bathing first.  Aunt Minnie saw to that. 

            We went looking for this old place where John Wesley and Josephine Patrick Dunn, Daddy’s grandparents, had lived.  The road has disappeared.  But he could still describe it.  It began down at the barn opposite Mr. Charlie Causey’s place and ran more or less parallel with the river.  It passed the old Dunn place, went over a branch and then up a slight hill and passed the Cooper Place on the left.

            “That’s where we lived for awhile,” Daddy said.  “The Cooper Place.  A pretty place with a tree-lined lane leading up to the house.”

            I wanted to know if he remembered much about the Cooper Place.

            “You mighty right I do,” he said with signature emphasis.  “It was 1918, the winter that Rochelle was a baby.  Mama had sent for a woman to come stay with us to help her out with the baby.  I think her name was Brown.  She came from over yonder ‘bout Socastee.  She was a big woman.  I wasn’t quite five years old.  I had me a hatchet.  That old lady kept telling me, ‘Otis, go get this.  Otis, do that.  Clean the baby.  Boil me some water.’ First one thing and another.  She run me ragged.  So one night she says,  ‘Otis, go chop some wood and build a fire in the kitchen stove.’ So I said all right, I’ll fix her so she won’t be running me all the consarned time.  So I took my hatchet and I found some fat light’ood and I chopped it up and loaded up the fire box of that stove and lit that thing and got it going like all forty.  First news you know somebody is passing by the house and comes up and says that the roof’s on fire.  I’d started a dadgum chimney fire.  And that woman, you know, she got up a ladder and went on top of that house and outened that fire.  And she was a big woman too.  I think her name was Brown maybe.  She came from down around Socastee.” 

            And that was in many ways the story of Daddy’s life.  He was always lighting fires. Always getting something going.

            We had a dog named Andy, so named because he was an orphan—Orphan Andy—who had followed Mama into the office at the mill one day when she returned from lunch.  She brought him home.  Andy would bite.  So Daddy put up a sign in the front yard, “Beware.  Dog will bite.”  Perry and I were trained.  When someone would drive down the lane from the highway and reach the front yard, Andy would already be barking his warnings.  One of us would grab his collar, take him around to the back porch, latch the screen door, and come through the house back into the front yard and greet whoever had driven up and, no doubt, had honked. 

            One Sunday morning Perry and I, like the rest of the family, were asleep.  Somebody picked that time to come talk to Daddy about some hogs or some wheat that needed harvesting or some tobacco acreage or whatever.  He pulled up into the front yard, ignored the sign, got out and came up the walk to the front door and knocked.   Andy barked furiously.  Daddy came to the front door.  Andy sneaked down among the arbor vitas and bided his time.  Every once in awhile, he would growl, run up to the man and prepare to go in for a plug of the man’s leg.  Daddy said, “You better come inside.  That dog’ll bite.”

            “Oh,” said the man, kicking at Andy, “that dog ain’t gonna bite me.”

            They talked on for a few minutes.  Andy again would sneak up and growl and go after the pants leg again.

            “You better step inside here,” Daddy said.  “That dog’s going to bite you.”

            “Oh, that dog won’t bite me,” replied the man, issuing a second or third kick at Andy.

            Finally, their business concluded, Daddy shut the door.  In a second or two, as Daddy would tell the story, there was all this commotion and raising sand outside. “So,” said Daddy, “I opened the door and yelled, “What’s the matter?”

            “ ‘Oh,’ bawled the man, crying and carrying on, ‘Yer dog bit me, yer dog bit me.’

            “I said, ‘Oh, that dog won’t bite.’ And I shut that door as tight as wax.’”

            Daddy’s language was colorful.  He didn’t do something a long time ago; the first time he did it he “kicked the slats out the cradle.”  She did not have beautiful eyes; her eyes “looked like two burnt holes in a blanket.”  Somebody was not simply thin; his butt looked like “two grains of coffee tacked on a shingle.”  Something was not just good; it “would sweeten your breath and curl your hair and make you feel like a millionaire.”  An oddity was not a contraption; it was “a lay-over to catch meddlers.”  Something didn’t taste delicious; it was “so good that it would make a fella wish his neck was a mile long.”  And it was no ordinary rainstorm that fell on ground dried by an August drought; it rained “like a cow pissing on a flat rock.”

            He remembered.  In his 80’s he could recall whole conversations that took place thirty, fifty, sixty years before.  He could recite eighty years later the names of Beck, Emma, Pet, Tom, Dan, Fannie, Mag, Gussie, Hickman Mary, Bones, King Jewel, and all the others of the 22 mules whose tack he had handled in the 1920’s when his father worked for Myrtle Beach Farms.   He could tell me in 1993 who owned every house in the old part of Conway when he was delivering groceries on his bicycle in grammar school.

            Daddy liked to feed people.  The second most fortunate thing to happen to him (the first was marrying Tiny Burroughs) was that he was made a cook in the U. S. Navy.  He probably knew how to cook before that, but then he became an expert.  A stream of people came to Tiny and Otis’ condo at Garden City and ate chicken bog, shrimp, oysters, deviled crab, Peach Dunrite, and a multitude of other things.  Occasionally I could coax him into getting a fresh mullet and fixing it with sweet potatoes.  But there was one time he fed me that exceeded all the rest.  I had come down to visit them by myself, the first time I had come home as an adult without bringing anyone with me.  I left them for a couple of days to go off and make a retreat.  I returned on the first Sunday in January, which happened to be that year the Feast of The Epiphany, the celebration of the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.  Daddy had said that he had to be at church early that morning because he had some responsibilities, but I did not know what they were until I knelt down to receive communion.  He was distributing the Bread of Holy Communion.  He placed in my hands a little piece of bread with the words that I had said so many times myself:  “The Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.  Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.” I had fed him the Bread of Life many times before.  Now it was his turn to feed me.  That little morsel of bread was better than any shrimp, red snapper, grits, or mullet and sweet potato that he ever fed me.

            It was not long after that, in 1997, when I was at the lowest point of my life.  I was in the habit of calling and talking with Daddy every Saturday morning.  One Saturday I told him, “I just want to come talk with you.”

            “Well you come right on,” he invited me.

            So I went to have a talk with him.  It was the talk that the poet Robert Bly refers to as the talk every son must have with his father about the Wound he carries.  But it was more than that.  I needed to tell him about my life, much of which he did not know.  We went to Brookgreen Gardens.  We spent all day in front of a little pond where a baby alligator swam to and fro as I talked and Daddy listened.  I knew that some of what I was saying must have been awfully rough for him to hear, so every now and again I would pause and ask, “Are you OK?  Is this too much for you to hear?”

            He encouraged me to continue.  “Go right ahead.  Get it all off your chest.”  Our talk went on after we had returned to the condo, and lasted into the night.  The next morning I awoke and began packing to leave.  He came into my room.  “Are you still all right?”  I asked.  He nodded.  “You know, some fathers would want no more to do with me.” 

He stretched his arms around me and held me tight.  “I love you,” he said.  “I always have.  I always will.”   I came away from that moment knowing that if God only loves me as much as Otis loves me—and  no more—I will be all right.    Thus had he given the Bread of Life to me.

            We read the story of Jacob’s ladder today because Jacob is, to my mind, the most human of all the characters in the Hebrew Bible.  Impetuous, sometimes confused, striving with God and men, he was nonetheless great beyond description.  We heard Paul’s great hymn in Philippians 2 because Daddy once went to Junaluska to attend a conference whose theme was drawn from that passage, and for years he carried that theme in words stamped on a little aluminum cross in his pocket, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” which is probably still among his effects.  We heard from John’s gospel, “All that the Father gives to me will come to me and him who comes to me I will in no wise cast out.”  I think that is not only about the inclusiveness of the gospel, but also about how every jot and tittle of one’s life, every beam of light and every shadow, every shard and fragment, no matter how great or trivial, will be caught up in a story of salvation and redemption.  So it is with Otis.  It is not only his religion, his teaching Sunday school lessons and leading hymn singing, or distributing communion, or leading prayer meetings; but it is his building a fire in that cold kitchen at the Cooper Place, his hunting with Dick Causey, his recovery from alcoholism, his jokes, his laughter, his stubbornness, his hospitality that are redeemed.  In all of who he was and what he was we saw something of the Truth, just as surely as if we were holding a little crumb of bread believing it devoutly to be the Body of the one by whom Otis was made.

            What a fella.  What a fella.
 
Otis Gasque Dunn (1913-2005)

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2005. 

            

Hubcaps

           
Two years ago, Joe and I bit the bullet and traded our 15-year-old Ford Ranger for a Toyota Prius.  Though it was hard to see the pick-up go (as my father would say, “A fella needs a pick-up—that’s all there is to it”), we’ve been happy.  I am elated every time I pull up to a gas pump and spend something like $15.04 or $18.23 or $12.17 to fill ’er up.  I thought I’d never again see such gasoline prices, reminiscent of those I used to pay in the 1970’s. 

Nothing is free, however, and even money-saving things cost.  Hubcaps, for example, cost more than $100 at the Toyota dealer.  Well, I know that that is a rip-off, for goodness sake.  Plastic pop-on hubcaps?  Why would I even need one you might ask.  Because the infernal things don’t wear well when I squeeze the car into a parking place and accidentally get the rear wheel too close to the curb.  Scratched, scraped, bent if not broken, the hubcap might last for a day or two, but rolls away when the first big bump jars it enough for it to break loose.


I found online a place where I could get four recycled hubcaps for way less than a single new one costs at the dealer.  So I decided to get all four.  

Today I took the Prius to the dealer for servicing.  And that is another big boon.  We paid a reasonable amount to cover maintenance for five years.  I like the illusion that it is “free” maintenance.  As I got out of the car at the dealership, I noticed that a second hubcap was missing.  It was the victim of another scrape I had, running against a curb to avoid hitting some clueless driver that was about to pull out in front of me.  I thought that I’d salvaged the hubcap, but apparently it too rolled away on some random street. 

Hubcaps do perform a useful function I know.  But these are really cosmetic, hardly essential to the health of the wheel and of little necessity in protecting lugs. But cosmetics have their place.  Cosmetics prettify things, even automobiles.  Hubcaps are mostly decorative.  And décor is important to me.  I am not deceived into thinking that décor is decisive or essential.  I just value appearances.

In the total scheme of things hubcaps can’t compete with health care or justice.  But how my car looks matters to me.  And how I feel about it is not entirely frivolous. 

Or is it?


© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Mistakes


One afternoon this week I traveled down one of Washington’s busy streets, noted for its absence of parking.  I had an errand to do that I planned to take at most 15 minutes.  I had no need to spend money for a spot in the lone neighborhood parking garage.  I took my chances on finding  a space relatively nearby on the street.

Just as I was passing the store to which I was headed, a car began pulling out of a parking space just where I wanted one.  Moreover it was on the end of a row just beyond an alley.  All I had to do was to pull up behind the car, wait a second, then assume the space as soon as it was vacant.

...flying past me on my right...
Or so I thought.  Just as I began to shift slightly to the right, someone hollered.  “Ho!  WHOA!  and flying past me on my right was a bicyclist who had his own idea of who ought to be driving where.  I slammed on brakes, startled.  The cyclist swerved past, and I cautiously pulled into the space. 

Before turning off the car, I heard the back door on the passenger’s side open.  A little disoriented from the near collision, I immediately thought that somebody was going to tell me something, maybe, about being careful or watching what I was doing.  I turned to see appearing in my back seat a young woman, a complete stranger.  “Hi,” she said.  “How are you?”

“Fine.  And you are…?”

“Melissa.”

“Why are you getting in my car?” 

“She blanched.  Oh—!  Aren’t you Uber?”

“No.  Are you waiting for an Uber?”

She began profusely apologizing.  I laughed.  I guffawed.  I said, “Maybe I should have told you that I am Uber—

“Oh. My. God.  I thought you were the Toyota I was waiting for—

“I could have made some money—

By this time she was getting out of the car.  I had shut off the engine.  In a second we were both on the sidewalk, I trying to locate the code for the parking space, she still apologizing for the mistake she’d made, both of us laughing.

I told her what had happened the second before we met.  I told her not to mind, that I’d done plenty of similar things.  I couldn’t think of one but I was sure I could have or would have or might some day. 

About that time the Uber driver pulled up in front of the alleyway and she said goodbye as she climbed in.  I heard her first say, “Uber?”  Guess she had learned her lesson for the day.

And she had made my day.  Give me the tonic of a good laugh after a close call.  It can make a party out of screw-ups.


© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

A Prayer on September 11 With the Hindsight of Fifteen Years


O God of eternal mercy, whose heart overflows with love even for those who despise you:  we remember with you those who on this day fifteen years ago were killed in an attack on our nation.  We commend to your mercy all who died, all who ministered to the suffering, the dying, the wounded, and the dead; those who caused death and destruction; those who planned the evil; those who stood by helpless, grieving, stricken; those whose hearts were turned to rage and bitterness; those who cried for revenge; those who exploited tragedy for personal and political gain; and all whose souls and bodies have been twisted and crushed by the weight of sorrow and anger in the ensuing years.  Lead us all to the fountain of your healing.  Teach us to drink deeply from the well of forgiveness.  When we cling to beliefs and attitudes that separate us one from another and from your own desire for wholeness, aid us to learn and to practice letting go, that our hearts may be healed, our souls freed, our spirits restored, and our joy be only to serve you and share your desire to bring all creation into oneness with you, for the love shared with us through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.