Hell Fire-ah

I have a country music playlist I’ve essentially been working on for 20+ years. It’s called “Gone Country,” and it features songs that were popular when I was a kid.

That was the only time I ever really liked country music.

Initially, I downloaded digital versions of the songs from Napster and burned them onto CDs. There were 5 compilations in all. Nowadays, I have the best of these in one playlist on my Apple Music.

It’s my cycling playlist and I love playing with the sequencing when I add a new song, which is rare. Most all of these songs have a sort of beat that’s comfortable and the tunes are very singable.

Mostly.

Anyway, this song, “Elvira” has been lodged in my head for a while and so I considered adding it. What’s funny is that when I was a small child, I was convinced they were singing “Hell Fire-ah.”

At the church I was raised in, we had an old Preacher who would sub in when the main minister was away. He was called Preacher Collins, and I never knew him to have a first name.

He was one of those old time whooping and hollering types of preachers who’d get going and add an “ah HA” at the end of a phrase.

There was a certain ah HA.
Rhythm to it ah HA.
He would get to preaching ah HA
And it was a sight to behold ah HA.

That sort of thing.

I would imagine that my poor childhood brain must have been under the influence of old Preacher Collins when all I could hear in the song was “Hell Fire-ha.” If you listen to this old Oak Ridge Boys song, you might see how I heard that even tho it’s quite clear—to my adult ears—what they were singing.

Look it up on youtube.

Enjoy.

Ah HA.

The Ruth Hall Solution 

Today, I watched two people who had been arguing back and forth about some strange inconsequentia come, after heated discussion, to a compromise.    
Neither of them seemed particularly satisfied with the outcome.  
I call these kinds of compromises the “Ruth Hall Solution.”  
Mrs. Ruth Hall was the cafeteria manager at Witt Elementary School where I went for two years.  
She said, “half the people don’t like mayonaise and half the people don’t like mustard.”  
So she mixed them together in equal amounts and put a dollop on everyone’s hamburger…. A dollop–her solution was born out of many years of feeling like she couldn’t make anybody happy and so she wanted all of us to know this was her final word on the subject.  
Surely, there was a better way.

A Vaughn from Afar

Or, the family that let itself off the hook. 

——-
I took this picture two years ago today.
Moths/butterflies are always huge symbols of transformation for me, so I felt the significance of this that morning as I left for work.  
The next day I got the call that grandfather was near death, and he passed the next evening. 
I also realized that this was as much about my personal transformation as the result of his death as it was about his transitioning process. After all, my symbols usually turn out to be the lessons that I am to learn. I continue to learn lessons such as these. 
Suffice it to say, my grandfather’s passing dissolved what I’d call some “uneasy” alliances and renegotiated some familial contracts between myself and my father’s family.   
It was freeing to know that some obligations were apparently satisfied, and it allowed me to focus my efforts in ways that have brought me more joy.  
What I discovered was something I had long suspected, something I began to see when my father passed.  
Without the solidifying energy of my grandfather, there was scarcely a connection at all. Today, I can affirm that family ties are often weak. A genetic imprint alone doesn’t signify everything I was taught it was from a young age, that family sticks together. I suppose I knew this intellectually. But at the level of the heart…nah. Not so much.  
I understand my dad’s immediate family. I see where we are similar in so many ways. They are, at the very least, a crafty bunch. And they know how to leverage resources to get a thing done. They are intrigued by intrigue and are excited by a back-room deal.  
And I don’t hate them. Certainly not. I am able to say now that I don’t feel the loss because I can’t remember a time in decades where I felt much of a presence.  
Sometimes, obligations and conveniences are passed off as love when they are in fact just that–obligations and conveniences.   
And people going through life as though they were automatons. 
I wish them well. Perhaps one day we can all gather round and have an honest and meaningful relationship.  
In the meantime, I will be a Vaughn from afar.  
Peace to all.

The Inheritance

My father used to say that this was his inheritance, this concrete THING, that I want to say is shaped like a curvilinear triangle. I might or might not be right on that.

Perhaps it’s more of a paraboloid, as one of my high school friends explained.

There was a whole run of these that lined the driveway of my great-grandparents’ house in Russellville.

My great grandfather would not have had anyone parking his or her car in the yard.

Not family.

Not customers of the pick-your-own strawberry farm he maintained in later life.

Nobody.

He was a man of many barriers. Is it any wonder he opened one of the first concrete block companies in Eastern Tennessee?

If this were a work of fiction, I’d skip mentioning that obvious bit of symbolism.

My great-grandfather was a harsh sort of man. By all accounts, he was enormously gifted and smart and knew how to turn know-how’s into money-making ventures.

He was not always kind.

He initially turned his skills toward bootlegging. He excelled. It was a family affair. He and my great grandmother would be set up along side of the road. You’d come up and pay your money, and he’d reach up her skirt and pull out a jar of premium distilled corn whiskey.

He took pains to make a good product.

It was in high demand. As though this were one big Appalachian cliche, the sheriff and the deputies loved the product.

Distribution was of concern, so he went into the ice business. It was a legitimate means to transport the liquid illegality into people’s homes.

My grandfather’s first job was delivering ice to folks. To his dying day he called the fridge the ice box. He could be counted on never to tell what he saw in other people’s ice boxes.

As I said, my great grandfather was harsh. He was also very competitive and was known to contend with the competition in extreme ways. My grandfather watched all this as a child. He took it all in and he learned to take on a steely silent stance. In a sense, my grandfather never escaped being the ice man.

As electric ice boxes became more available, it was determined that the inside of a cinder block was the perfect space to place and convey a jar of whiskey all over the region.

The concrete block company in Russellville was the business my great grandfather built as a front for illegal booze.

Business grew. Trucks were going all over. But we will set aside that narrative for another time.

The concrete object.

I remember my grandmother once calling it a “boob.” It was said in a disparaging tone. I don’t believe she ever loved her in-laws. But she was nice to their faces.

The story goes that as my great grandfather was getting the concrete business off the ground, someone had the bright idea to take the headlamp off a rusting Ford Model T sitting in the back yard and make a mold of it.

This concrete thing is the result of that.

When my great grandmother died, the left-over contents of their lives were auctioned to high bidders.

I saw my father place the losing bid on at least 7 of these.

He won the 8th bid.

And he claimed his inheritance.

And as for me, it’s mine now.

I think I’ll paint it purple.IMG_0533.JPG

The Camera

img_1796

Looking back at my “on this day” from 2012, I see that I’d made reference to finding a 35 mm camera that had film in it. The original post went something like this:

“Found an old 35mm camera with a half-used roll of film in it. I got it developed and it was nothing out of the ordinary, just people in the middle of living their lives, not knowing what was ahead of them good or bad….”

What I didn’t share at the time was that this was my dad’s old camera. A Pentax k1000 that I think he bought at Kmart back when Kmart had quality items. It was a popular camera and not the high end of the pricing spectrum.

When people still used film, it would not be uncommon to find a roll left in a camera. Generally, it would stay until another special event and people would often struggle to remember just what was on a given roll over time.

In this case, the beginning of the digital era and the accessibility of good quality digital cameras corresponded with my father’s declining condition of a Vietnam veteran with Agent Orange exposure. Those circumstances caused this roll of film to become trapped in that space between eras and advancement of technologies.

What strikes me now is how the pictures on that film captured my parents in their usual state. The commonality of my mom sitting at the dining room table at home or of my mom while they were on one of their frequent vacations.  I see my mom standing there in the butterfly sanctuary at Callaway Gardens, a place that remained special to them long after they left Fort Benning. I guess it always reminded them of a time when everything was new. And before my father’s innocence was stripped away in Vietnam.

It strikes me that though my father was seldom in any of our family pictures, his presence is always implied. For several years, he only appears on film as half a finger that he carelessly left touching the lens when he wasn’t paying attention. These are things you can correct easily in this digital era by taking another picture. In those days, you had to conserve your film.

My parents had no idea at that moment that things were about change drastically for them. My father would soon begin his 12 year decline due to Agent Orange exposure. My mother would do all she could do and sacrificed her own health to ensure some kind of quality of life for my father as first he could hardly get out of the chair, then lost his ability to walk, then to feed himself, then to speak, then to….

And, as for me, I had already been away from home for a long time. On a visit to see them, I grabbed up the camera from their home while they were staying at an assisted living for my dad’s final year.

I didn’t connect it at the time, but I was taking lots of pictures of abandoned buildings and was on the verge of becoming some kind of photographer myself.  I see now that perhaps this camera that I will never use was a kind of symbolic gift from my dad that set me along a certain path. He liked taking pics of my mom and sometimes close-ups of flowers in the yard. I like abandoned structures and have fascinations with the items people leave behind.

My father set me up to do my own thing, which is what he himself would have done. He didn’t live long enough to see what that “gift” has spawned. It’s gone from being a fun hobby to a thriving small business.

Back to the picture of my mom in the butterfly sanctuary. I always associate butterflies with transformation. They are often a sign for me when I’m going through a period of great change.

My father’s illness and death was, obviously, a hugely transformative process for all of us. I believe that transformations leave us in a better, more awakened state than before if we are willing to be in that teachable space. Although it achieved that end, this transformation was a bit more than we asked for.

And never let anyone fool you.

The process of awakening is not for the faint of heart.

My father’s illness and death changed me. It opened me up in such a way that I understand pain more. I am more in touch with my own pain. I am more empathetic. I can see more. And I can feel more. I can be of greater service. These are beautiful gifts.
It allows me to do the spiritual work that I do, and it has allowed me to see beauty in things that other people disregard.

I often ask people “just how much enlightenment, just how much transformation can you stand?”

Think before you answer that. Myself, I’m grateful for what my father taught me in life, in death and beyond.

But it’s profoundly saddening that it had to go down that way.

Seeds.

When I was considering my yard in this first spring at my house, I had thought of planting a vegetable garden.

I thought of pulling carrots out of the ground, washing them off outside and eating them in the yard. I could almost literally taste them. Cucumbers, too.

One of the joys of growing food for yourself.

Not exactly knowing what to do, I decided to plant a packet of wildflower seeds instead.

Imagine my surprise last week when I began to survey the results and noted a whole bed of radishes where there ought to have been wildflowers.

I suppose that’s a way of saying be mindful when planting seeds in your life. Strong intentions often over-ride superficial labels about what we want.

And what we are.

Peace to all today.IMG_0670.JPG

One last time for my father

Playing the piano at the assisted living where my mom and dad were staying at the end of my father’s illness was more emotional than I had planned.

pianome
Me at an abandoned Yamaha piano in an abandoned auditorium at a defunct college in Knoxville, TN.  My fellow-explorer, Beth Hooper, set her camera just right to capture this.  I was playing the theme song from Mary Tyler Moore.

 

My father was wheeled in by a nurse. It was an ordeal for him to get out of the bed at all. All I knew to do was keep the music coming. It was hard to watch. I used the piano as a buffer between that sight and a certain sadness I held in the background.

Their friend Cleta Byrd, who many of you who’ve known me a long long time will recognize, introduced me by saying that “Scott is their only son, no grandchildren [which must have sounded suspect to her, given her tone] but he’s young…sort of young…. They sent him to all kinds of music teachers and they couldn’t teach him a thing, so his mother had to teach him how to play the piano.”

Keep in mind that my mother does not play the piano. She was a strong, strong influence on my music growing up but she never really has played the piano. I had a few teachers. I took lessons for a long time. My parents wanted that for me. So did I.

But I smiled…and I said “yes yes….”

And I realized why my mother told me beforehand, “remember, you were asked here to play, not to talk, so just play, will you?”

At any rate, this is a sad story with some comic relief. As sick as my dad was, and as clear as the signs were, I had not accepted that he was nearing the end of his time here.

He died the following March from neurological problems consistent, according to the Mayo Clinic, with Agent Orange exposure.   My father served in Vietnam and one of the functions of his unit was to carry Agent Orange from one location to the other.  After they’d used up a barrel of it, they would hose them out, put their clothes and belongings in the barrels and take them with them to the next location.  A perfect delivery method for a neurotoxin

Being asked to just play was fine with me. I could focus on the songs and not have to process that my dad was leaving us a little day by day.

This was the last time I played for my father. At least when he was on this plane.

Again, a sad story if you stop reading here.

But it really hasn’t ended. I have played the piano for a small congregation in Bristol for many years. Often, I’ll sense his presence right there behind me.

I can feel his gentle soul. Just letting me know he’s there. Never obtrusive, just as in life, but still encouraging me and loving it when I go for one of those big full gospel chords or when I do one of those speedy runs halfway up the keyboard.

Today, I suppose it’s high time I honor the fact that my parents made sacrifices for me to have my first piano and lessons. They also sacrificed the peace and quiet of their home for me (except when the Braves were playing). They got me to and from lessons and they gave me access to lots and lots of record albums.

I am grateful for it all.

Thank you and thank you.