Thursday, September 29, 2016


We have a fountain in our small container garden.  It stands just outside our door.  Neighborhood sparrows love us for supplying perhaps the only free water within blocks.  They congregate almost as thick as mosquitos on a hot August evening, sipping from the gurgling water washing across the top of the column and dropping down into the bowl below.  If I creep up to the door, I can look through the glass and see them shaking and fluttering as they dip wings into the coolness.
our fountain

Stealthily I inch towards the door.  I make no movements their sharp eyes can detect even behind the door panes.  They drink, bathe, fly, return.  Some clearly have leader’s rights.  When younger, smaller birds hop up for a sip or dip, they might be pecked, shooed away. 

My silent study answers some questions.   Is the fountain leaking; or why all the wetness around it?  How does it suddenly run dry sometimes?  Did it rain last night?  Where did all the water come from on those plants feet away from the fountain?

City birds do not represent quite the variety of suburban or country birds.  We have our pigeons, of course, the signature city bird.  There are surprising numbers of doves if you look for them.  Crows show up from time to time.  Starlings, of course.  Every once in awhile a redbird or a robin will show up.  But flocks of sparrows own the air space apparently.  I consider it something of an honor when the sparrow finds her a house under our eaves.  I don’t take too kindly to birds constructing nests right over our door.  We had one once and it was difficult to tell exactly where the bathroom was or if indeed we even had indoor plumbing. 

But I digress. 

Birds are what we got when dinosaurs disappeared.  I think that that evolution was a winner for planet earth.  Birds teach us.  They do not sow nor reap nor gather into barns, Jesus noted.  “And yet Abba feeds them.”  They do not hook up fountains or replenish them with water.  And yet they have enough and to spare, at least here on the East Coast where water is still relatively plentiful.  A rhyme I learned as a child runs

Said the robin to the sparrow,
  “There’s one thing I’d like to know—
Why these anxious human beings
   Rush around and worry so.
Said the sparrow to the robin,
  “I think that it must be
That they have no heavenly Father
  Such as cares for you and me.”

Consider the birds of the air.

American tree sparrow

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


When I began planning a cross-country trip in 1999, I invited my friend Mike Moore to be my camping consultant.  My friendship with Mike began around a conversation we had one day about fishing.  I was never much of a fisherman and when I learned that he certainly was, I prevailed upon him for some personal coaching.  That led to our going on an overnight camping trip up in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia, location of some of the best trout streams you’ll ever find.  I had been dreaming of camping since I was in the Boy Scouts.  My trip with Mike didn’t disappoint.

He made a total disciple of me by cooking in an iron kettle over a fire a stew of freshly caught fish, potatoes, other vegetables, and spices.  I forthwith returned to Lynchburg, went downtown to an old-fashioned hardware store, and bought a cast iron pot of the sort that Mike had used.   I still have it.  I’ve never cooked a fish stew in it, but I have hopes.

That cross-country trip was my reintroduction to the joys of camping.  Barry, a friend I met at a men’s retreat in New Mexico, was along with me to aid in pitching camp the first time I’d done so since adolescence.   We spent a very breezy night on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  I was surprised that we weren’t totally blown away.   The winds howled.  The tent flapped.  But next day we made breakfast over an open fire with morning calm enwrapping us.  Odors of smoke, bacon, and coffee brought me from the level of disciple to that of true apostolic believer. 

Camping solo has its value, though I am not much of a loner and certainly don’t like setting up a tent of any size by myself.  Enter Joe, seven or so years after that extended trip.   I owned a tent that Bobby Harris had handily talked me into buying when he was selling tents in the early 2000’s on the lawn of Boonsboro Shopping Center in Lynchburg.  It was a beautiful little tent—rather gaily colored purple and green, and big enough (so Bobby said) for two. I used it over the next few years, including at least twice on Joe’s and my initial camping ventures.  It did not take us long to discover that two guys our size would be much happier not stuffed into a pup tent. 
Joe and I camping at Ohiopyle, PA
We sprang for a four-person tent that actually is just the right size for two adult men.  And both of us can stand up in it, though it is easier to do so when we don’t have a queen size air mattress in the middle of it. 

We manage to go camping once or twice during warm weather, three times if we’re lucky.   Only once have we carted with us my old plastic tub of cooking pots and utensils, although there is a part of me that would love to carry all that paraphernalia including the Mike-inspired cast iron pot.   Last weekend, our second and final one for camping this year, we returned to a small, private campground in rural Virginia.  It is really more like a bed and breakfast than a campground.   There is a swimming pool, an outdoor Jacuzzi, a lake for boating and swimming (though not for fishing), a guest house with kitchen facilities available to campers, an outdoor bar, some gazebos for lounging and eating, and plenty of trails to hike, including one that encircles the lake, punctuated by two screened gazebos that serve as nice little stopping places for relaxing and socializing. 

swimming pool at "camp" in Virginia

domed cover over jacuzzi; pool; bar

more like camping maybe than pools and jacuzzis

Lovely stonework, an enviable array of shrubs and plants, a new gas grill and various other amenities clearly do not throw this place into the column “Roughing It.”   Still, in the fire pit and the fireplace of the beautiful outdoor stone chimney, burning oak and the occasional hickory logs snap and pop in mesmerizing flames that take us back to our tribal origins.

In the ten years that we’ve been camping, Joe and I have perhaps only twice avoided being rained on.  Even though the weather was incredibly beautiful last Friday and Saturday, some little breakaway cloud could simply not avoid dumping a quick shower on us.  It didn’t last long, nor was it heavy, though it only takes a quart or two of water from on high to ensure the necessity of drying out a tent before repacking it. 

Camping is hardly a convenience.  In our small living space, we have exactly one tiny closet into which to store all of our camping gear and just about anything else that needs to be out of sight.  Unpacking and repacking the closet is itself something of a time consumer, not to mention loading and unloading the car twice, pitching and striking camp, and sometimes being bested by mosquitos who can zoom into a tent faster than you can zip, unzip, and re-zip the tent door.  It is cheaper than a hotel room, for sure.  But the mystique of camping is exactly what drew me to the Boy Scouts in the first place, when I had little in common with most of the guys in my troop. 

one of our better campfires
It is some form of primal experience of sitting in the nighttime around a fire, gazing into its flames, maybe not even speaking for long stretches, sharing a story or two (the ghastlier the better), maybe cutting a fart, yarning, joking, philosophizing. 

Convenience?  What is that to compare with waking up in the morning to the scent of bacon sizzling over an open fire and the bubbling of coffee perking in an enamel pot?

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016


Sunday, September 25, 2016


I cannot begin to number the times I have been worked up about it since I have lived in Washington, DC.

Trash.  That is the thing about my life I can least stand.

Literal trash.  Not metaphorical trash.  Of the two, I do better dealing with the second kind.  But bottles, wrappers, used Q-tips, grocery store receipts, cigarette butts, flattened cans, broken glass, newspapers, and more random stuff just littering the sidewalks and streets in my neighborhood challenge me in ways that even after more than a decade still startle me.  The street is marginally better than it was a few years ago.  Or maybe I am just getting used to it. 

Today in mid-morning except for the occasional passer-by the street was uncommonly placid.  Minimum cars were parked where it is usually difficult to find a vacant space.  A stray bottle, some paper, and other bits of trash stood out as I scanned the sidewalk in front of our building.  I grabbed a trash bag, a broom, and a dustpan.  I couldn’t stop.  I walked half the block in one direction, sweeping and cleaning.  Then I worked an even greater distance in the other direction.  I stopped when my bag was full.

Joe looks at me askance when I get into street cleaning.  I think he has no more patience than I with people who litter.  Perhaps even less.  Why do I spend my time doing something that I know within hours will be completely undone?  Well, because it is a known fact that people tend to litter more when litter is already present.  So in some sense what I am doing is preventive maintenance. 

When I was little, I could not stand to be dirty.  I didn’t want to play outdoors.   I did not want to soil my clothes.  I thought for a long time that all the ways I really am attracted to various forms of dirt, both literal and figurative dirt, bore evidence of my shadow side.  I have come to understand that my fetish with cleanliness is itself laden with shadow for me.  Through it I express a certain intolerance, a self-righteousness, a disdain for those who mar and sully “my” world.  Through somewhat compulsive cleaning I externalize my perfectionism or what’s left of it. 

I sweep on.  I use my broom and dustpan as tools for meditation.  Instead of loathing the litterbugs, I practice trying to understand them.  Instead of raging on the inside, I try exercising some love towards them.  I try to see the empty bottle as having once been held to a mouth to quench a thirst.  I try hard to see the Styrofoam plate not just as environmental sin but as having once held food that fed some growling stomach.  Even the infernal cigarette butts.  They once stuck to the lips that some lover kissed and desired.  

Well, the street is cleaner now.  I feel better.  Even though I realize that after all, I’m not so clean myself.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, September 16, 2016

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.