Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Long Black Veil

"She walks these hills in a long black veil..."

It seems new, like you're hearing it for the first time. Charlie Waller's baritone sets the pace while John Duffey's tenor flies high above it all. If you can listen to it and not have chills fly up and down your spine, check for a pulse.

"Ten years ago, on a cold, dark night..."

I first heard "The Long Black Veil" performed by Johnny Cash on one of his late 1960s prison albums. I liked the macabre, folk feel to the ballad about the innocent man who was put to death for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It had a certain style to it and fit Cash's voice and persona quite well.

But hearing the Country Gentlemen sing the song was like being on hand on the seventh day, seeing Creation when it was new. It's one of those moments you remember. You play it again, and again, and yet again. It haunts your thoughts, so you play it again after a few minutes. You just sit there a minute afterwards, hesitant to move, cause you don't want to ruin it all.

In Duffey's hands, the song becomes something more than just another haunting ballad. It reaches that plateau where only a few tunes stand. "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is there. "Making Believe." A few others.

"The judge said 'Son, what is your alibi? If you were somewhere else, then you won't have to die.' "

Murder ballads were once a staple in country music, back when the genre was pure, untouched by the slick, polished disease that is commercialism. The Gents do the song as it should be done -- raw, aching, reaching new heights on the back of Duffey's high lonesome sound.

As a good friend says, "It's a moment and it works."

The Smithsonian released this little gem a few years ago on the CD "The Country Gentlemen: On the Road (And More)." Run to the store, go now to, or visit the iTunes music store and get this disc. Put it in a special place. Cherish it. Play it again and again and try not to make a mess when you climb the walls.

"I spoke not a word though it meant my life. For I had been in the arms of my best friend's wife."

Duffey and Waller are no longer with us. Duffey passed first; Waller died a couple of years ago. Of their long string of success, both together and apart (Duffey would leave the Gents in 1969 and later form The Seldom Scene), this is their shining hour.

Don't be surprised if you hear their harmony, though, echoing through the hills on a cold, dark night. And if you look closely, you might see her, too. She'll be walking these hills, crying over a solitary grave, wearing a long, black veil.

What a song.

"Nobody knows, nobody sees. Nobody knows but me."

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Magic in Monument Valley

The camera slowly pans through the open doorway to reveal a rugged, sparse landscape.

Off in the distance, a man slowly approaches the house. He has traveled a great distance. We sense that this is a force to be reckoned with; here is a man with many hidden demons.

Thus begins "The Searchers," John Ford's epic, the western movie of them all. So beautiful is its photography, so wonderful is the acting, so gripping the story, that this film can only be described as a work of art.

That it is Ford's best film is of no question. That it is John Wayne's best performance is obvious. It is more than a film. It belongs in a museum, hanging there in a frame alongside Monet and Picasso.

Warner Brothers has released a fine 2-disc special edition of this enduring 1956 classic. Included are several documentaries that include commentary from cast members and film directors, including John Milius and Martin Scorcese. All agree that in the "The Searchers" John Ford created what few mortals achieve -- a masterpiece.

Ford was filming in his favorite location (Monument Valley, Calif.), with his favorite actor (Wayne) at the helm. Both reach the apex of their long collaboration in this dark, brooding tale of racism, revenge and redemption.

It was as if, buried in the dark heart of Ethan Edwards, Wayne was finally able to tap into something deep within his soul. The result is stunning; it is by far his best work. That he wasn't even nominated for an Academy Award speaks volumes about the nearsightedness of that panel.

Wayne never talked much about the film. He did say years later that Ethan Edwards was his favorite role. He proved it when his last son was born. Yep, you guessed it. He named him Ethan.

The film was originally shot in VistaVision. What the nostalgic movie buff wouldn't give to see "The Searchers" in that glorious format. This DVD print (based on the surviving 35 millimeter masters) retains the cinematography beautifully.

And all the familiar faces are here. Ward Bond. Jeffrey Hunter. Harry Carey Jr. Vera Miles. Ken Curtis. Natalie Wood. Even the Sons of the Pioneers show up to sing a few tunes after supper.

The defining moment happens when Wayne encounters a gaggle of white girls who had been kidnapped by the Comanche. The look on his face when he turns to stare at one of them is fodder for the gods. The buffoons who still insist Wayne couldn't act either haven't seen this movie or just aren't in touch with reality.

Ford and Wayne made two more films together after "The Searchers." But neither the introspective, claustrophobic "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" or the inept "Donovan's Reef" match this celluloid triumph.

Watching "The Searchers" is an experience to be savored, something you remember, hold tight in your heart, saving it for rainy days or those times when the world is out of focus. Fifty years later, can we ever imagine a day when this film won't stir something deep in the American consciousness?

That'll be the day.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

'Farewell' to film, hello to Hemingway

How many times have you said it?

“You know, the movie just wasn’t as good as the book.”

So it is with the 1932 film version of “A Farewell to Arms.” Course, when the source material is Ernest Hemingway, it is unfair to expect much.

The movie tries hard. Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes turn in fine if overdone performances as the doomed Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley, playing out their love affair amid the backdrop of World War I. But without Papa’s tough, terse prose, the story plays like a bad B-grade Saturday afternoon melodrama.

“Farewell” records the romance between Henry (Cooper), an American ambulance driver in the Italian army, and Barkley (Hayes), an English Red Cross nurse. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl resists. Girl falls in love. Boy is wounded. The lovers are separated. Yada, yada, yada.

Oh, there are moments. Coop plays the tall, stoic type quite well, even early in his career. And director Frank Borzage is ahead of his time – employing the camera as first-person subjective viewpoint quite effectively when Henry awakes in the hospital.

Character actors Adolphe Menjou and Jack La Rue shine as Coop’s Italian buddy and the local priest respectively. And, given the limitations of the period, the film holds up quite well.

But without Hemingway’s talent driving the plot, all this is mute – particularly the ending, which plays like something straight from the vaudeville stage. One halfway expected to see a hook rip the actors back behind the curtain.

Lost amid the overacting is Hemingway’s brilliant, understated ending: “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”

Less is more – especially from the master.

If you’re looking for a classic slice of cinema to cool off with this summer, skip this one. If you like Coop, go rent “High Noon” and marvel at one of the finest performances in American film.

And if you are looking for a good love story, head straight for Hemingway’s novel. His prose hits you like a tidal wave. You find yourself lost in an uncontrollable tide. And you are saddened when the undertow finally gives way and the ride stops.

This is one time when the pen is indeed mightier.

“A Farewell To Arms” is available on DVD. The novel can be found at major bookstores and from the Knox County Public Library.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Coming home

"Out on runway number nine, big 707 set to go... So I'd best be on my way, in the early morning rain."

I've always loved flying.

You feel at peace high above the clouds. The white waves before you look so inviting you can almost touch them, like a fresh blanket of newly fallen winter snow.

You can clear your head up here. Contemplate life. "Figure out," as my favorite TV detective once said flying in T.C.'s chopper, "what it is you need to do."

That is until an infant four seats up starts squealing. Then you can't wait to get on the ground.

People are funny. One guy two seats up ignored the "fasten seatbelt" sign and started fumbling with his overhead compartment as we began the descent into Knoxville. I had visions of his entire luggage falling down around us. He finally got everything situated and sat back down.

The baby finally stops crying. I get in a few more pages of Hemingway before landing.

We pass over familiar spots. I-40. The Tennessee River. "I'll-kill-ya" Highway. (Also known as Alcoa Highway.)

The person behind me jumps up as soon as the plane lands. No matter that all the people in front of her had to get off the plane first. That didn't matter. She was locked and loaded.

Nobody knocks us over in the Knoxville airport. Strangers wave and smile. There's room to walk down the concourse.

"You folks coming back from Detroit?" the security agent asks.

"Yes, sir, we are."

"Thanks," he says, and smiles. "Have a good night."

The sun has set on another perfect vacation. But it's always good to come home.

Monday, July 24, 2006

"Danger" in Detroit

DETROIT -- We thought it would only take a minute. Famous last words.

My pal David Romas is the information officer for the dean of the fine arts college at Wayne State University here in Motown. (He's also the world's biggest "Magnum, p.i." fan, but that's another story for another day.)

Driving back from the Lugnuts game yesterday, David says he needs to run by his office to send a file to a printer who's processing a job for the college. That's cool. We're on vacation. No hurries, no worries.

We drive downtown. We pass an entire car bumper, laying casually in the middle of the road.

"This is Detroit," David says. "There's no telling what you're going to see."

We park and walk across Wayne State's quaint campus. A group of school-aged children are congregated in front of one of the buildings. The young males are playing football, the girls gathered in groups, talking.

We arrive at David's building. Ooops. A loud noise is going off inside the building. It's the alarm!

Dave calls the cops. They show up a minute later.

Officer Kelly asks Dave a few questions. She and a backup officer case the joint. We mill around outside.

A few minutes later, they return, grinning.

"It's OK," they tell David. "We'll leave you alone with your boogieman."

The other officer drives off, but Officer Kelly lingers. She's young, tan, with a friendly smile. She says she went to the Tigers game on Saturday. But not to watch the best team in baseball.

"I went to work on my tan."

We laugh. She tells us she likes her job. Says she never gives parking tickets because she remembers what it was like to be a student -- rushing to class and arriving late.

Officer Kelly says she was disappointed that the opera singing vendor from Comerica Park wasn't there on Saturday.

"He was on David Letterman and everything. Kind of a bummer."

She leaves and Dave heads up to his office to take care of the file. A 10 minute trip has taken us an hour.

Somehow it seems fitting.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

King football triumphs again

DETROIT -- OK, I give up. I won't fight it anymore. Football is the real national pastime.

Pull up a seat a minute and I'll tell you why.

We just had to get the taste out of our mouths. Losing is never fun.

When the Detroit Tigers lose like they did yesterday (9-5 to the Oakland A's, after blowing a five run lead), you gotta get rid of the feeling. Purge it. Take solace in the fact that the Tigers still have the best record in baseball.

So today we drove over to Lansing to catch the team with the most delicious name in minor league baseball -- the Lansing Lugnuts.

Ain't that great? Their logo is, yep, a smiling lugnut.

It was a beautiful day. Mid-seventies (nice respite from the East Tennessee heat), sunny, "perfect day for baseball," as the guy in front of me says just before the first pitch.

Mid-way through the second inning, the guy behind me becomes chatty. We talk baseball a few minutes. Reminisce about the last time a guy hit two grand slams in one inning. (Fernando Tatis.)

"Yeah," he says. "My brother is the starting pitcher for Peoria. He also plays for Notre Dame. He was a first team All-American last year."

"What did you say his name was again?" I asked.

"Jeff Samardzija."

Flash back to last year. South Bend, Indiana. The Golden Dome. Notre Dame is handing it to Tennessee. One of the biggest culprits? The wide receiver with the long hair -- Samardzija.

His brother flashes a big grin and says Jeff has signed a multi-million dollar contract with the Chicago Cubs. He really wants to play baseball, but his brother says he'll go wherever the contract is biggest.

Today Jeff makes his first minor league start. He looks good, giving up only two hits in five innings, but he surrenders three runs in an eventual 4-0 loss to the Lugnuts.

Jeff's brother is proud. He goes to as many Notre Dame games as he can. Today he's driven up from South Bend along with his wife and parents for Jeff's start. Several fans sport Notre Dame and Cubs hats.

Minor league baseball is where it's at. You're close to the action. You pay about $10 for good seats. You don't have to then fight a mob to get to them.

You get to see fun sights, like the kid who nonchalantly catches a foul ball in the upper deck, holding his glove out over the balcony, easy as you please.

And sometimes you run into the brother of college football's best wide receiver. Even here, in the midst of the greatest game of them all, football reigns supreme.

It's OK. I'm ready for the home opener against Cal anyway.

Just keep Jeff Samardzija far, far away from Rocky Top.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Blog note

Jake is away, enjoying a vacation in Michigan. His posts about taking in a Detroit Tigers baseball game and a Lansing Lugnuts minor league game will be posted later this weekend.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Beating the heat

So what do you do on a Wednesday night when it's too hot to stir and you have a migraine?

Well, you sleep a lot. Then, when the headache eases, you read. Tonight's book was "Across the River and into the Trees" by Papa himself -- the late, great Ernest Hemingway.

Contemporary critics hated the book. They called it "self-parody," said it was unworthy of Hemingway's talent. Said he was washed up.

Naturally, I had to check it out. The jury is still out, but it's not that bad.

Papa proved the nattering nabobs wrong by writing "The Old Man and the Sea" three years later. It won the Pulitzer and helped Hemingway win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

"Across the River" is about an aging American colonel who finds love too late with a 19-year-old girl in Italy. I'm enjoying it. It's dark, it's moody and elegiac, and definitely isn't Papa's best work. But you can't write "The Sun Also Rises" every time you sit down at the typewriter.

Hemingway was the best American writer of the 20th Century. His terse, choppy prose revolutionized literature. Most of it still rings true today.

His genius is most apparent in his short stories. "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" may be his best. "Snows of Kilimanjaro" is haunting and most of the Nick Adams stories are keepers. I still hope to get to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan one of these days. Maybe next summer.

It's sad to think of how this great talented finished his life -- hurting, depressed, lonely, unable to write. Anti-depressants could have saved him, but they weren't available in 1961. He thought a shotgun to the head was the only solution. Still can't help but wonder what stories died with him that day.

Guess that's enough for tonight. Time to drink a cold glass of tea and get cool.

I hate this heat.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Good Ol' Boys Like Me

Heard this old country song driving into work today. Kind of fit the day, so I thought I'd share it. Have a good day.

Nothing makes a sound in the night like the wind does
But you ain't afraid if you're washed in the blood like I was
The smell of cape jasmine through the window screen
John R. and the Wolfman kept me company
By the light of the radio by my bed
With Thomas Wolfe whispering in my head

I can still hear the soft Southern winds in the live oak trees
And those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me
Hank and Tennessee
I guess we're all gonna be what we're gonna be
So what do you do with good ol' boys like me?

Monday, July 17, 2006

The snowflake

This is the second installment in a continuing series of short pieces of fiction.

He remembered the first time he saw her.

She was young then, and beautiful. What he remembered were her eyes. They were the kind of eyes that a man could get lost in, and often does.

He remembered her hand, the way it felt in his, so soft, so warm. He watched her once, as she swayed to and fro to some long forgotten piece of music, her soul keeping time with the waltz. He knew then he loved her, with all the passion and the certainty and the innocence that only a young man can feel.

They went walking, alone together in the fading twilight. She told him her fears and he shared his dreams. The fading red hues matched something in his heart, something he thought would last forever, but was fleeting, a star shooting brightly but briefly across the night sky.

She looked beautiful in the moonlight, illuminated by its pale light. He wanted to love her then. He wanted to give his heart to her, realizing for the first time that what he felt was something rare and wonderful and pure.

And now she was gone. Like a snowflake that lands on your hand. One beautiful, unique snowflake. It had rested there a moment, then it melted and was gone.

He became tired of the rain and returned to his flat. He opened the door and did not turn on the light.

He sat there in the darkness, alone with his memories.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The good-bye

This is my first experiment at writing a brief piece of fiction on the blog. Let me know what you think. It's probably not worth much, but I thought this would be fun.

He got up and walked across the room. He paced back and forth, shuffling his hands in and out of his pockets. In and out. In and out.

She sat there. She did not speak, but her brown eyes followed his as he walked. Finally he spoke.


"Because. I have to. We both know this is what is best."

He knew she was right. As much as he loved her, it would never work.

He would not look at her.

"Are you leaving now?"


"Is he waiting for you?"


Finally he looked up. In those eyes rested the only love he'd ever known. She was beautiful in that way a woman is -- full of life, full of intelligence, full of whatever it is a woman possesses that a man needs.

She held out her hand. He took it. They stood there a few moments.

"I will never love again."

"Yes, you will," she said. "You will."

He thought back to the night they talked. Dan sat in a corner and strummed his guitar, playing an old country tune that didn't fit the moment.

They had talked this way before, but it wasn't like this.

When the sun found its hiding place, his heart was hers forever. It surprised him and yet it didn't.

"This is best. You know it and so do I."

"I guess."

They embraced. After a moment, he sat down.

He held her hands and stared into her eyes. A few seconds passed. She saw a look she'd never know again.


He watched her as she walked across the room. Her sandy hair came to rest just past her shoulders. She was tall, with a dancer's legs, and an innocent smile that belied a lifetime of disappointment.

She gave him one last look.

"Good-bye, Jake."

She left.

He listened to the thud of her feet on the stairs. It faded.

Never again would he hear the laughter. Never again would his heart leap into his throat. Never again would she look at him, flash that brief, embarrassed smile, and look down at the floor.

She was gone.

He lay there awhile. At dusk, he rose and walked out into the night.

A soft rain began to fall.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Getting a glimpse

"Had a vision of heaven, what these eyes they did see..."

What is Heaven really like? Don't know for sure, other than what was revealed to John on the isle of Patmos. And from Jesus' words.

Got a little glimpse of it today, though. For a few minutes at Big Ridge State Park, it seemed so close you could reach out and touch it.

The Northern and Midland Baptist associations held Impact in the Park today -- dinner on the ground, a little singin', a little preachin' -- and an old-fashioned baptizing, right there in Norris Lake.

They had fried chicken for lunch, of course. It's a Baptist thing. After dinner, I sat at the edge of a horseshoe pit, shut my eyes and listened to The Foster Family sing Speer Family and Squire Parsons songs.

I shut my eyes a few minutes, lost in the simple happiness of it all. After awhile, I looked around and saw folks laughing, hugging necks, singing and shaking hands. Everybody wore a smile. A ray of sunshine blanketed the whole area in bright yellow.

"You know," I thought to myself, "surely heaven will be something like this."

Oh, it will be better, I know. No sickness. No heartache. Hopefully no humidity.

Hines Creek Baptist Church pastor Mark Large got up to preach a few minutes. He's an animated, old-school type Baptist preacher. I want to go hear him preach at his church sometime.

"I'm not a great preacher," Mark says. "But I preach a great gospel."

Folks were getting happy. Just before the baptizing, everybody sang four stanzas of "Amazing Grace." The best part faded off at the end of the third verse.

"T'was grace that brought me safe thus far. And grace will lead me home..."

Just a little glimpse, folks. Just a little glimpse of what awaits.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

What a night!

Called up my old pal Larry Mathis the other day. Larry's one of the best banjo pickers 'round these parts.

"When are y'all playing next?" I asked.

"July 20," he said. "At a political rally. Come on down."

A few minutes later, the phone rang. It was Larry.

"The band's coming over to my house Thursday night to practice. Come on over. We'll have some pizza."

So here I went after work. I could hear the mandolin and the bass from the driveway.

The boys were getting wound up pretty good. I ate pizza while they went through one classic after another -- Bill Monroe, Don Reno, Flatt and Scruggs.

"What do you want to hear?" Larry asked.

"How about Little Georgia Rose..."

They did it. Mike Ramsey was dropping notes on the mandolin that were prettier than the falling rain. Larry asked me to sing one, so I managed to hang on through "Blue Ridge Mountain Home." Felt honored just to be there. But I ain't no Mike Ramsey, that's for sure.

After while, the gang had a request to do "Fox on the Run." I called my mom and held out the cell phone so she could hear. That's mom's favorite bluegrass song.

"She walks through the corn leading down to the river/Her hair shone like gold in the hot morning sun/She took all the love that a poor boy could give her/And left me to die like a fox on the run...

"Like a foooooooooooooooooooox...on the run ..."

I could have died a happy man right then and there. Mom went nuts.

"That's better than any group I've ever heard," she said.

They picked some more, we talked about Monroe and Scruggs and I drank a sweet tea and patted my foot. Larry let me borrow a Monroe tribute and some Monroe and Reno and Smiley CDs. Peggy, his wife, wrapped me up an apple fritter to go.

"Come on back anytime," Larry said. "You're always welcome."

The high lonesome sound was still ringing in my ears as I headed back up Texas Valley Road.

"Mabester," I thought to myself as I drove into Halls, "you've got one heck of a good life. The best friends, a loving family, good music, great job and good health."

I wouldn't have traded tonight for all the riches in the world.

God's been good.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

'Prairie' journeys back to the past

Every now and then a movie will grab you.

It tugs at the part of you that you ignore when it is convenient and wallow in when that seems the thing to do. All good art does that.

So it is with “A Prairie Home Companion,” Robert Altman’s fine new film based on the popular radio variety program.

But this isn’t a motion picture version of Garrison Keillor’s long-running show. No, it’s a metaphor for loving life as it once was, “a memorial to dreams,” as film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “that died but left the dreamers dreaming.”

It’s the last week of the show. A group of investors based in Texas has bought the Fitzgerald Theater, the Minnesota home to “The Prairie Home Companion,” and plans to turn it into a parking lot.

The show is a thing of the past anyway. A radio variety show – that went out, when, the 1940s?

But G.K., Keillor’s movie version of himself, is unmoved. He treats the show like any other. He won’t even pause to mention that a longtime cast member (L.Q. Jones) has passed away.

“I’m of an age if I started to do eulogies, I’d be doing nothing else.”

We meet the rest of the show’s cast – the weirdly charming Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), cowboy singers Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), stage manager Molly (Maya Rudolph), the backstage manager (Tim Russell) and, of course, the sound effects guy (Tom Keith). Together they have created this beautiful little anachronism, week after week for 30 years.

Altman’s film isn’t about much, really. Oh, there’s a thin plot here, but that’s not what’s important.

No, the film creeps along at its own pace, introducing us to unique characters and to a special world, and let’s us muse awhile on the past and what it all means. Altman’s technique, so infuriating in “Nashville,” works quite well here.

Because what this film really is about, you see, is nostalgia. It’s about remembering the past without becoming adrift in it, about enjoying the good times and being content to accept them for what they were.

Theater security agent Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) tries to alter the show’s fate. He asks the visiting angel (Virginia Madsen) to get rid of Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), who is representing the investors. She does. For a minute you think the show will survive.

Nope. Axeman dies, but the wrecking crew shows up anyway. Guy Noir plays a few final notes on the piano and carries off the bust of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald that sat in the theater’s luxury box.

Fitzgerald’s presence (his work was often about the pull of the past) seems fitting here – especially when the gang sings “Red River Valley” at the end of the final show. Or when the camera pauses one final moment on the cast as they enjoy one last late night dinner together in one of those all-night diners that doesn’t exist anymore.

The past has passed. Can’t get it back. But you’ll always have the memories. You’ll forever cherish the happy moments.

How does that song go?

“Come and sit by my side if you love me. Do not hasten to bid me adieu.

“Just remember the Red River Valley. And the cowboy who loved you so true.”

Remember we will. How on earth could we forget?

“A Prairie Home Companion” is now playing. It is rated PG-13.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Old friends

You know, sometimes I just stand back and am amazed.

I heard a poem last night that got me to thinking about some old friends and led to Monday night's post about them. First, the poem, then the rest of the story. (Sorry, Paul Harvey.)

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

That comes from the pen of Robert Herrick -- 17th Century. I heard it while watching Robert Altman's fine new film "A Prairie Home Companion" yesterday. It got me to thinking about old times and old friends.

As I tend to do, I got a little depressed about it. I love people and sometimes wish I could just have everybody (yeah, that's all of ye!) over to the house for dinner and conversation out on the porch. I think about those who have gone on and wonder often how their lives have turned.

OK, back to the story. This morning I get up, and boom, here's several e-mails from friends I haven't talked with in more than 10 years.

One's in the military now. He says hello, asks about the gang, and calls me "Elvis" -- that's a surefire sign he went to Halls High School in the mid-1990s.

Anyway, it's sweet sometimes how things work out. Thanks, God.

Here's a few verses for your day. Have a good one, y'all.

Old friends pass away,
New friends appear.
It is just like the days.
An old day passes,
a new day arrives.
The important thing is to make it meaningful:
A meaningful friend -- or a meaningful day.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Lest we forget

Sometimes I get to thinking.

I wonder about life and its twists and turns, and watch the stars move in their courses. One thing you start thinking about is how fast time passes by.

You wake up one morning and realize 10 or 20 years have gone by. Friends you shared many happy hours with no longer darken the door. Loved ones are gone. Memories, like photographs, fade.

Never have gotten used to that. Don't guess I ever will.

Some nights I'll hear a song or pass a particular place and it jogs something. My mind drifts back to long ago laughs and forgotten smiles, embarrassed looks across the room and warm feelings that are gone, too. They drifted away one morning with the wind.

Songs I've sung, words I've written, books I've read and things I've felt -- all gone away to wherever such things go, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

I'm thinking tonight of those with whom I wish I could talk. Those who, for whatever reason, have faded away. Those who have literally or figuratively passed on to another life. Those I just don't see anymore.

I think that everybody you encounter in this life leaves a little part of them with you. Whether good or bad, large or small, it doesn't matter. I've never figured out a way to completely turn those feelings off, nor do I think you should. Life's too short.

Here, let the Oak Ridge Boys say it better than I can:

Oh, you're always in my heart
And you're often on my mind
I will never let it die
Just as long as I'm alive
Sometimes it makes me sad
That we never said good-bye
Well, I guess it never hurts to hurt sometimes.

Sober thoughts on a Monday night in Halls. Lest we forget.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

One true sentence

Ernest Hemingway often said his lifelong goal was to write one true sentence.

Hemingway learned early on a lesson many writers have never bothered with, to the detriment of their work and the expense of several hundred thousand trees -- put something on paper that matters.

A college professor once read a creative fiction assignment by one of his students. When finished, he ripped it up. "Now," he said, "go put something down on paper that matters to you."

The student did. The professor gave him an A and smiled. "If it doesn't matter to you," he said, "it won't matter to the reader."

Hemingway did his best work early. His two best novels, "The Sun Also Rises" and "A Farewell To Arms," were both written by 1930. One could argue his most brilliant prose can be found in his short stories.

Oh, he did some memorable stuff later. "For Whom The Bell Tolls" comes to mind. As does "The Old Man and the Sea," which won him a Nobel Prize.

As much as I admire long, complicated prose, terse, cogent writing is always the best. Guess that's the reporter in me. You tell me which sentence sounds better:

Barney the dog ate his breakfast at 6 a.m., as the sun rose above the clouds, and the wind blew mist around the farm house.

The dog ate.

See what I mean?

One of the best such sentences is in the Bible. "Jesus wept." Not much more needed to be said.

I have this theory that newspaper reporters often make the best writers. Hemingway would certainly fall into that category. Bruce Catton. Pete Hamill.

Although not from that background, Faulkner has to be dealt with if you're seriously going to write. But be prepared. He fits no one's mold but his own. Carmac McCarthy's in his own universe.

Larry McMurtry's good. "Lonesome Dove" is the best piece of American fiction written after World War II. (Sorry, Roth.) His early work does well, too, especially "The Last Picture Show" and "Moving On."

I like the Lost Generation writers. Papa Hemingway, of course. Scott Fitzgerald. One or two others.

Course, if you really want to read about the numbing effect of World War I, find a copy of "Good-bye To All That" by Robert Graves. It's poetry.

The best writing these days? A lot of it is in the New Yorker. I don't read much modern fiction at all. Charles Frazier had a good story a few years back in "Cold Mountain." I hear he's doing another one. If you like Southern humor, it's hard to go wrong with Fannie Flagg.

I guess what I look for more than anything else is something that feels real. Something that's written well. Something that gets the job done without going the long way around the barn.

One true sentence. Not a bad goal, huh?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Just looking

Somebody once said that life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think.

That is a bit overstated, but the general point is true. Working in newspapers will make one cynical, I'll tell you that. I once sat in one meeting and watched a politician state one position. Later that same night, he said the exact opposite position at another meeting, in front of a different audience.

Both applauded wildly each time.

Reporters, by the way, get a bad rap. Sometimes it is deserved. Most of the time, not so much. The scribes I respect most care about two things: a good story and keeping their readers aware of what is going on around them. Both are honorable.

I've always been fascinated by people -- especially the way they handle interpersonal relationships. Some are pros. Some aren't even ready for the bush leagues. And some, well, they just downright confound you.

There are those who will slap your back on Sunday morning and stab you in the same spot the next day. You know that type. Then there are those who hate everybody and don't care who knows it.

And then, every now and then, you'll meet somebody who loves everything and everybody. They don't have a bitter bone in their body. Nine times out of 10, they will always leave you feeling better than you did before you met them.

Those are the types I cherish. They are few and far between.

Isn't it amazing, this world around us? There are people totally unconcerned with others -- with the struggles and burdens they may bear. And as I told a good friend, then there are those who weep at everything from a limping child to an old man who can't remember where he put his glasses.

One of these days, I'm going to write a book about some of the things I've learned just by watching people and how they behave. I'd call it "Just Looking" if John Updike didn't beat me to that title a few years ago. I might still use it anyway.

I've laughed at much of what I've seen, cried at even more of it. Tragedy and comedy. It seems to me life's not either/or, it's both.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Lemmon, Matthau catch 'Front Page' disease

“I’m beginning to think all newspapermen have a disease,” a character says toward the end of “The Front Page,” the 1974 Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau classic.

And so they do – especially managing editor Walter Burns (Matthau). Burns wears badly fitting clothes. He yells a lot. He sleeps on a couch in his office five nights a week. He eats food out of a carton.

Hildy (Lemmon) is his star reporter. Burns wants him to cover the biggest story of the year – the hanging of Earl Williams (Austin Pendleton), a political activist accused of shooting and killing a police officer. Nobody can cover the story like Hildy. He’s a pro. He’s the best of the best.

But Hildy has had it. He’s ready to marry Peggy (Susan Sarandon), take an advertising job in Philadelphia and leave the deadlines behind.

As fate would have it, Hildy stumbles into the biggest story of his career. He’s literally sitting on it. Burns sets to work coaxing Hildy into covering one last story – the big one – before he leaves.

“The Front Page” has been around a long time. It was first a play written by Ben Hect and Charles MacArthur. It became a successful motion picture in 1931 and has been remade countless times, both well (“His Gal Friday”) and poorly (“Switching Channels.”)

What makes Billy Wilder’s remake so much fun is obvious. Matthau and Lemmon were simply made for each other. Both had successful solo work, but nothing matches the chemistry when they are on screen together.

The film doesn’t take itself too seriously and that plays well here. It captures the nostalgia of a pre-Depression newspaper office perfectly, complete with the suits, the bad hats, the Tin Pan Alley tunes, and, yes, all that cigarette smoke.

The 1974 “Front Page” also boasts a great supporting class, including veteran character actors Carol Burnett, Vincent Gardenia, David Wayne, Harold Gould, Dick O’Neill and Paul Benedict. Wayne in particular shines as the “poetic” reporter who does everything with a flourish.

If you enjoyed Lemmon and Matthau in “The Odd Couple” or the “Grumpy Old Men” series, you’ll love them here. This may be their best work post “Odd Couple.”

And as for that disease? Turns out Hildy’s got it, too.

You should see him when he’s banging away on that typewriter trying to make his deadline. His eyes light up. He cannot be disturbed – not even by his love Peggy.

“Marry an undertaker,” Peggy is told. “Marry a blackjack dealer, marry a pickpocket, but never marry a newspaperman!”

Guess it has something to do with that disease.

“The Front Page” is available on home video and DVD. It is rated PG, but contains adult language and situations.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

What a time!

Long after the sun had found its resting place last night, you could still hear the gunfire pops of fireworks. Occasionally you'd see a quick flash or two. America was celebrating its birthday.

It's always a happy time. I usually spend it either at the lake or the ballpark. But it was too hot for baseball and fell in the middle of the week this year -- so a lake trip was out.

I was up just after the sun and was rolling in my mom's driveway by 9 a.m. We went to Pigeon Forge (can you believe it? We hit the traffic just right!) to hear a 10 a.m. show by The Triumphant Quartet.

The boys used to be known as Integrity Quartet, but changed their name for legal reasons. It matters not what they are called. These guys can SING. They are without a doubt the best Southern Gospel quartet I've heard in the last 10 years.

Triumphant has what all successful quartets must have -- a dynamite tenor, a solid lead, a multi-talented baritone, a rip-roaring bass and a piano player who is out of sight! Oh, yeah, and those matching suits, too.

The baritone singer, Scotty Inman, is one of the best singers to pop up in Southern Gospel in a decade. He's young, only 24, but man, can he let it fly. His impersonation of Gospel legend Jake Hess is worth the price of admission alone.

The show was a hit -- solid harmony, old mixed with new and enough laughs to make it fun without going overboard. Pianist Jeff Stice even fired off a dead-on rendition of Floyd Cramer's "Last Date." That has to be the prettiest American pop instrumental.

When the group jumped down into the crowd to sing a medley of old-time hymns, folks were clapping along. A Halls guy even got to sing a few lines of "Daddy Sang Bass" with the group! He got so excited, he bought all of Triumphant's CDs. (They gave him a tote bag and a photo, too!)

Triumphant appears regularly at The Miracle Theater in Pigeon Forge. For more info, check them out at

By noon, mom and I were scraping down pancakes and eggs at Flapjacks. Talk about service. We had our food in less than four minutes.

By 2 p.m., it was off to a friend's house for a cookout. We talked, tried to watch the Reds and Brewers, played with a one-year-old and just had a good time. That steak never tasted any better.

At 6 p.m., it was off to see an old friend who'd been sick. We had some laughs and enjoyed the televised Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concert from the World's Fair Park. It does me good to take time to enjoy music. It's healing. It's therapeutic. It's fun.

We marveled at the shuttle launch, shook our heads at the North Korean missile launch.

Driving home, I thought about another Fourth -- the year the Braves and the Mets got into that marathon six plus hour, 19-inning game in Atlanta. I'll never forget when pitcher Rick Camp tied it up in the bottom of the 18th -- with a home run! (Remember that one, Dewayne?!)

The Fourth is about remembering our Founding Fathers. It is first and foremost about freedom. It should always be a time to thank those who gave the last full measure of devotion and to remember those who are today putting themselves in harm's way.

But I think our forefathers would have wanted us to kick back, shoot fireworks, spend time with those we love and have a good time.

That's freedom, folks.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Let Freedom Ring!

Today is my favorite (except Christmas, of course) holiday of the year. We celebrate our nation's birthday and remember the heroes who literally put their lives on the line so that we might enjoy this grand experiment called America. Two-hundred and thirty years later, the United States is still the best country in the world -- warts and all.

I know of no other way to express my love for this day and for this country, except to say it like this:

Oh, beautiful, for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountains majesty
Above the fruited plain

America, America
God shed His grace on Thee
And crown Thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Two ships in the night

I've always been moved by nautical analogies.

That's why, probably, I redesigned this blog site several months ago with a lighthouse theme. It's also one thing I love about being associated with the E.W. Scripps Co. -- that lighthouse logo -- a beacon on the hill.

Told someone recently that I've always loved, too, the spiritual analogy of one's life being a ship at sea -- and all those songs that play on that theme. (My favorite is Ronnie Hinson's "The Lighthouse.")

Here's a different kind of nautical story.

He saw her across the room yesterday for the first time in several years. They do not know each other at all, really. Have exchanged nothing more than a half dozen smiles and hellos in a decade.

He remembered being drawn to her in that mysterious way you sometimes just are, not so much because of physical beauty, although she possesses it, but more from a feeling you get sometimes that you just can't explain. From something stirred deep inside.

Tried to make eye contact a few times. Didn't happen. Noticed while talking to others that she appeared to be looking his way from time to time. Couldn't be sure, though.

Looks like she's married now, or at least in some kind of relationship. That was good to see. She seemed happy, or at the very least, content. Her face belied a sense of peace.

The sun began to set, yellow giving way to red and pink; evening was nigh. He wanted to speak, but it just didn't seem to be the thing to do.

Finally their eyes met. He smiled. She waved and quickly looked down. He waved back, uncertain if she even saw.

How would Hemingway have put it? "When I saw her... everything turned over inside me."

She walked quietly across the room and was gone. He left wishing he'd once said more, back when he often sailed these waters and frequented this port.

Instead they set off, content to follow their courses, two ships passing in the night.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

I Firmly Promise You


We keep them. We break them. We make them. We deny them.

You know what I mean. Others make them to us. Sometimes they keep them. Sometimes they don't.

Sitting here enjoying this beautiful (if a bit hot) Sunday afternoon, I've been thinking about promises. And my hope is that if you don't remember my name or anything else about me, that's not important at all.

But I do hope you remember this promise. Because it's one I intend to keep. Have a great day!

I firmly promise you
That I'll meet you by the river
On the banks of that evergreen shore
Where our hearts will never break
And our lips will never quiver
For the friends that have gone on before

One by one we'll see them cross the silent river
They are leaving every moment or two
So I firmly promise you
That I'll meet you by the river
Won't you promise to meet me, too?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Going Home


What a precious word. You go away awhile, you always enjoy getting back. To the familiar. To the place you feel safe. To the most beautiful sight in the world -- those who love you most.

Tomorrow morning I will be going back home. Back to a place I've been away from for seven years. I have no idea yet why I need to be there and how long I will stay. But all I know is I can't wait to get back.

This has been the most incredible week of my life. I owe it all to God -- and, through an unexpected time, to one special person.

Here are some lyrics from Bill Gaither I'll leave you with today. Have a good one, y'all.

Many times in my childhood
When we'd travel so far
By nightfall how weary I'd grow.
Father's arm would slip 'round me
So gently, he'd say
"My child, we are going home."

Going home
I am going home.
There is nothing to hold me here.
I've caught a glimpse of that heavenly Land,
And now, I am going home

Now the twilight is fading
The day soon shall end.
I get homesick the farther I roam;

But my Father has led me
Each step of the way,
And now, He will lead me Home.

Going Home
I'm going Home.
There is nothing to hold me here.
I've caught a glimpse of that heavenly land,
Praise God, I am going Home.