Dear Ol’ Dad — A Father’s Day Reprise

[Ed. Note: This piece ran first in 2009; here it is again for Father's Day 2014.]

children in cotton millI know only sketchily what brought my father, John Lamb, from Greenville, South Carolina, to Horse Creek Valley. He never talked much about his past. Only in his last year of life did he speak to me of his father, and then only two or three times. He never mentioned his mother at all.

“He has never mentioned her to me, either,” my mother once told me, “but his relatives say she died when he was about nine years old. She sewed a lot, they said, and had a habit of carrying her needles stuck in her dress.” Mother poked at her chest a couple of times, as if sticking pins in her blouse. “They say the constant pricking caused a cancer of the breast and it killed her.”

Dad’s father died young, too, or relatively young, 57, of pleurisy, leaving Dad an orphan at 15. Dad’s next home was with his older brother William in Clearwater, S.C., where my uncle and his wife Toddy, and soon my father, worked in a cotton mill.

“We lived on the highway,” Mother said, “and Bill and Tod lived across the road from us, two doors down.”

The highway was — is — U.S. 1. Clearwater is one of several cotton-mill towns strung out along the two-lane road as it meanders 17 miles from Augusta, Georgia, to Aiken, South Carolina. Located four miles from Augusta, at the western end of Horse Creek Valley, Clearwater in the early 1930s, when my father arrived there, was little more than a small village of company houses clustered around the Seminole Mill. It is not much more than that today, for the mill, like most other mills in the valley, closed years ago, and no new industry moved in. Or seems likely to. Today, most mill villages are anachronisms. Modern industry has bigger fish to fry, and bigger and better places in which to fry them. So nowadays Clearwater just sits there, a town marooned in time, a hamlet becalmed in a backwater of history, a geographical oxymoron: a mill village with no mill.

Even the highway, once a mainstream of national commerce, is now an insignificant tributary. In the 1950s, a new four-lane road pushed through from Augusta to Aiken, giving Clearwater wide berth, and a decade later, still farther away, Interstate 20 opened. Now the modern world, tires hissing, exhaust fumes flying, blows past Clearwater and all of Horse Creek Valley without so much as tooting its horn in a nostalgic salute.

Ah, but there was a time when Clearwater teemed with life. When I was a boy, about five years old, the town, indeed the whole valley, bustled with activity. The mills ran 24 hours a day, inhaling and exhaling full shifts of workers every eight hours, and they were workers who, though poorly paid, were happy just to be drawing regular paychecks, happy to have any kind of steady job. It was 1940, the nation had only recently begun to shake off the misery of the Great Depression, and cotton-mill workers, perhaps more than most of the recently unemployed millions, had good reason to think that happy days were here again. Only five years earlier, the four-room house I was born into, my grandmother’s house, on Highway 1, was the home of 14 people teetering on the edge of destitution. At the lowest ebb of the Depression, only one of the household’s ten adults, my father, had a job.

“We had only three beds and a couple of cots,” Mother said. “Your crib and playpen was a large pasteboard box.” She laughed. “Some of us had to sleep in shifts. The sheets never got cold.”

But in late 1940, my parents, able at last to afford a place of their own, moved to a two-room (note: not two-bedroom) company house on Pine Street, less than half a mile from the house on the highway, and in 1941 they moved twice more: into a three-room shotgun house on lower Church Street, a stone’s throw from the mill, and then into a four-room house farther up the street, on higher ground, No. 24 Church Street.

For my parents, the moves must have felt like a rapid ascent on the social ladder, and indeed it was, for I have observed in life that any of us can measure our upward (or downward) mobility with fair accuracy by the number of rooms in our successive dwellings. Of course, there are rooms, and then there are rooms. No. 24 Church Street was by no means the palace at Versailles. But as mill-village housing went, it was nice. Relatively new, it had features lacking in the house on the highway, not least of which was an indoor toilet, the first I ever saw, and the house looked out on a quiet, tree-lined residential street, not a busy highway.

In any case, the new house meant that my father the orphan had risen in a mere 16 years from a sharecropper’s shack to a respectable address in the working-class American South of the early 1940s. If in her whole life my mother ever gave a single thought to upward mobility, I’d be surprised, for she was singularly unassuming. But I feel certain that my father noted his new perch with great satisfaction, for he was an ambitious man who, no doubt spurred by poverty, chased elusive wealth all his life.

“Your daddy could have been rich if he had saved all the money he spent on get-rich schemes,” Mother said after his death in November 1988.

We were sitting in the kitchen of her home in Greenville, S.C., sorting through box after box of his personal effects. Each held brochures, pamphlets, manuals, booklets and other literature on this or that half-baked scheme to make money. You’ve seen the ads: Start your own mail-order business; raise chinchillas, organize a chain-letter; get in on the ground floor of multi-level marketing; buy and sell government surplus; write hit songs; invest in precious metals; and on and on. You name it, it was there — and Dad had probably tried it. He even came up with a few of his own schemes.

I remember one as the Infamous Photinia Folly. Make a long story short, one April Dad bought 3,000 one-gallon plastic pots, lined them up in rows in his backyard there in Greenville and filled them with potting soil. Then he bought a few red-tip plants at Kmart, with the idea of using cuttings from them to grow thousands more and get rich as a wholesale nurseryman.

“I’ll make a killing,” he said, standing there surveying all those pots, thumbs hooked in his overalls straps, dollar signs in his eyes. “These things sell for $2.98 to $4.98 apiece in garden centers. So, wholesale, they ought to bring a dollar apiece come next spring. That’s $3,000 minimum! And what have I got in them? Maybe $200. Maybe. And this is only the beginning. All I have to do is plant ‘em and let nature take its course.”

Nature’s “course” that winter included an early freeze that left all of Dad’s fledgling photinia rattling in the wind with rigor mortis.

Okay, a freeze, to both preachers and lawyers, is an Act of God, and none of us is blamable for an Act of God. But another of his get-rich schemes that I recall struck me then — and strikes me now — as more an act of lunacy. In spite of myself, I think of this one as the Phenomenal Florida Frog Farm.

frog-1“Frog legs will be the next fast-food craze in America,” Dad announced one day. “We could buy some swampland in Florida — get it for a song — and start raising frogs.”

“Get a jump on the market, so to speak,” I said. Very drolly, I’m ashamed to say. No matter: My little witticism leaped, or limped, your choice, right past him.

“What’s the biggest fast-food success story in America, in the world?” he asked, eyes ablaze.

“McDonald’s,” I said.

He writhed in frustration. “Okay, the next biggest. Kentucky Fried Chicken. Am I right?”

I gave an uncertain but conceding nod, my knowledge of the fast-food industry already exhausted.

“And what do frog legs taste like?” he prompted, grinning.

I just looked at him. I didn’t know what frog legs tasted like — and didn’t want to know, at least not first-hand.

“Chicken!” he crowed triumphantly. “Tender, delicious chicken.”

While he sat there — this talk took place at his kitchen table — like a supremely confident defense attorney who had just rested his case, my mind reeled to the do-si-do of his logic. I won’t belabor this by itemizing my objections; suffice it to say that I took his proposal “under advisement” and kept it there until another enthusiasm seized him, sweeping the Florida Frog Farm idea into oblivion. He didn’t let me get away, though, without trying a sauce he had concocted “from secret flavor granules” that was going to do for frog legs — and any other meat — what the Colonel’s secret recipe had done for fried chicken. Dad served it to me on steak. I ranked its taste, speculatively, of course, right up there with camel dung.

But let me be fair to the man. He was not crazy, or at least no crazier than the rest of us, and he was by no stretch a fool. With very little formal education — “Maybe seventh grade,” Mother said — he rose in the Army to chief warrant officer, the top enlisted man’s rank, and along the way got his high-school diploma and earned quite a few college credits, I was told.

I realize, of course, that there are many educated fools, but, excepting his hare-brained schemes to get rich, Dad had a good head on his shoulders, and was a caring, provident husband and a thoughtful father. I wish I had known him better.

Beach Walk

I walk my pit bull ‘Dro (short for Pedro), on or near the beach nearly every morning. We usually access the beach at an inn whose parking lot, full these days, is to me something of an amusement park, what with all the bumper/window stickers and out-of-state license plates to be seen there: New York, Tennessee, Dro-DroMaryland, Ontario, Virginia, Texas, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina.

One Maryland license plate was especially evocative; it said simply RIPTREV. Love to know the story behind that one.

But most of the stickers were ones you’ve seen many times before: Ask Me About My Grandkids; I’d Rather Be Fishing; Hang Up And Drive!

Some were pugnacious: If Yo’ Heart Ain’t in Dixie, Git Your Ass Out; Keep Honking, I’m Reloading; My Kid Can Beat Up Your Honor Student.

Others were downright mean: Who Cares About Your Stick Figure Family?

Some aim for wit: My Other Car Is A Rolls; Jesus Saves — At First Federal; Be Nice To America Or We’ll Bring Democracy To Your Country; Your Village Called – Their Idiot Is Missing; Ask Me About My Grandog. ‘Dro liked that last one.

Still other stickers aim for wit but get only halfway there: Going 60 In The Left Lane With My Left Blinker On: Deal With It!

But I saw one this morning, on a North Carolina car, that was wholly witless. It said: Non-Judgment Day Is Near.

Lord, I hope not! The whole idea of a people who do not exercise judgment is frightening.

I know, I know. The original idea, one of the cardinal tenets of Political Correctness, was to curb or eliminate the judgmental in us. But somewhere between conception and implementation, judgment itself got fixed in the cross-hairs of social disapproval. Happens a lot with Political Correctness.

Anyhow, “judgment,” says the dictionary, is the evaluation of evidence to make a decision. It’s the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.

“Judgmental” means having or displaying an extremely critical point of view.

Very different, eh?

Same with the uproar from time to time over so-called hateful speech. We might be right to disapprove of it — I say “might be” because the language both pro and con can get pretty hateful, can’t it?

But squelch it?

No.

Punish it?

A thousand times no.

Hateful or not, freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment, and free speech is much more important to a free society than are bruised sensibilities. The French philosopher Voltaire nailed the problem nicely: “I might not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Now if only I can get all that on a bumper sticker.

I asked ‘Dro if he thought it were possible, but he gave me a decidedly judgmental look and pointed, I swear it, to a bumper sticker that said: Wag More, Bark Less.

Never let it be said that I can’t take a hint from a pit bull, judgmental or otherwise.

We hurried on through the parking lot and soon were on the beach.

Dear S.C. Education Lottery:

Image

I bought one of your $5 scratch-off cards the other day. It exclaimed in big, bold type: “Win Up To $100,000!” Alas, scratched clean, the card showed no such possible prize. The most I could have won was $1,000. I find this puzzling and unfair. It is in fact false advertising.

Printed on the back of the card (enclosed) is this: “TOP PRIZE ODDS: 1 in 480,000.” But I submit that my odds on this card were “None in 480,000.” In short, I paid for a chance to win the top prize when actually I was given no chance whatever to win the top prize.

No? Then ask yourself: Would people buy Powerball lottery tickets in the hope of winning, say, $10 million if in fact there was no $10 million to win? Or if their ticket was null and void from the start? I think not.

So let me tell you your odds of getting $5 from me again: None in 48 quadrillion to the tenth power.

Have a good day. ~Bob Lamb

The Queen Wants What!!!

Let me see if I’ve got this right: The Queen wants Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, to lower her hem lines. They’re too short, sayeth the English monarch.

Royal Limbs

I like the Queen. Got nothing against her. But take a look at this photo (right) of Kate, snapped as the wind in Calgary, Canada, lifted the hem of her dress. Is that not as pretty a pair of legs as you’ve seen in a month of Sundays? Never mind that the wind almost flashed a royal tush — I guarantee you that this photo won more friends for the Crown than a million-dollar PR campaign could have.

Some of the stories, which were all over the Internet yesterday, even said that Queen Elizabeth had “ordered” Kate to wear longer dresses and skirts.

If true, all I can say is: Lighten up, Liz. There is such a thing as being a royal pain, you know.

Hey, you don’t hear her husband,  your grandson William, complaining, do you?

Bet not.

Your Highness “ordered” her to lower her hems?

No wonder you Brits lost the Colonies.

Jeez!

‘Your call is very important to us. . .’

I woke up this morning with a great idea (drum roll, please): we as a nation should abandon Imagevoice mail! It is the most vexing invention that ever came down the pike and has probably caused more ulcers than surprise phone calls from the IRS.

Why voice mail was not smothered in its crib ranks right up there with the mystery of why we ever let Texas into the Union. True, America has never met a bad idea that millions of its citizens didn’t embrace at once. Take the national mania for tattoos— but let’s leave that for another day; voice mail is easily the more harmful social affliction.

Is there anybody here whose milk of human kindness hasn’t curdled and re-curdled at hearing for the umpteenth time in half an hour’s wait, “All our agents are still busy. Your call is very important  to us. Please wait for the next available agent”?

Who among us has not turned the air blue with curses and shouted into the receiver, “If my call is so #^&*()+%  important to you, why don’t you hire more agents to answer your phones?”

Hire more agents? Provide REAL customer service? What a great idea! But why do we the frustrated customers have to do all the thinking for corporate America? Which of our beloved captains of industry, in the first place, thought it would be a good idea to install a communications system that put all of telephoning America on hold? And isn’t that, right there, the proximate cause of high rates in both unemployment and valium addiction?

Certainly it is. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you:

-Did or did not voicemail put thousands of real live people out of work?

-Did or did not Corporate America hire enough agents to answer the phones when at some time in the next century Customer America finally gets to speak to a real live person?

-Was it or was it not cruel and barbarous treatment to devise a recorded list of options none of which was the reason you called in the first place?

-Was it or was it not with malice aforethought  that the voice-mail people selected the worst music ever recorded to play for you while you waited (and waited, and waited)?

I rest my case — and I call for a conviction that can be appealed only through voice mail.

-

Anatomy of a novel

I wrote my latest novel, A Majority of One, to explore the influence of religion in our society, a Imageconstitutional democracy. To do this, I set up a clash between church and state, a clash of the kind that shows up in news headlines again and again, year after year, propelled nearly always  by misguided albeit sincere religious fervor. Oddly, we easily recognize religious zealotry in other parts of the world, like the Middle East, but are blind to its influence in our own culture. The idea for this story came to me years ago when I was the editor/publisher of a weekly newspaper and lived for five years in a small Southern town. At a party one night, the hostess, thirtyish wife of a popular local businessman, cornered me in her kitchen to tell me of her religious fervor. After exclaiming at length how much she loved Jesus, she segued into her fear of Satan, which struck me as much stronger than her love of Christ. The devil was after her soImageul night and day, she said, and she lived in perpetual fear that he would somehow capture it and take it off to Hell. I believed then and I believe now that the woman, who appeared completely normal, was actually under a self-induced spell smacking of lunacy. I also knew, while cornered in that kitchen years ago, that one day I would write a novel about that kind of religious zeal. A Majority of One is that novel.

Petition

The Declaration of Independence, Updated

by | Dec 3, 2013

doi signingWhen in the life of a democratic nation it becomes clear that the government has parted ways with the governed and evinces no intention to reform, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that the governed, i.e. the People, should declare in terms both broad and narrow the causes that impel them toward a separation of their own.

We the People hold to be self-evident the same truths that were proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence of 1776, chief among them an inalienable right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, and we remind the nation’s leaders that enlightened governments are instituted among humankind to secure these rights. We have grown weary of waiting for that to which we are entitled.

We also remind Washington and the world that governmental powers owe their legitimacy to the consent of the governed, and we reaffirm the original document’s declaration that it is the right and duty of the People to alter or abolish any form of government that becomes destructive of these ends, and to form a new government. The recent history of the present government is one of repeated malfeasance of office and of practices aimed at establishing a plutocracy of the privileged; fostering an economy whose chief industry is arms and armaments; and refusing to cooperate for the common good.

To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world:

The Executive branch since World War II has steadily assumed a disproportionate advantage in our system of checks and balances, rendering Congress ineffective in helping to guide the nation in its affairs. Achieved mainly through the President’s role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, this imbalance has resulted in continual military operations abroad that consume a great part of the nation’s wealth at the expense of needs here at home; makes enemies for us around the world; and propels us along the course of Empire instead of world citizen.

The Legislative branch has steadily separated itself from the People by voting itself special privileges that distance it from the needs and desires of the populace it purports to represent; by selling its loyalty to the highest bidders; by refusing utterly to govern for the common good; and by turning a blind eye to the glaring need to reform itself.

The Judicial branch has evolved to a deliberative body reflecting the beliefs and interests of a privileged minority rather than those of a democratic cross-section of the People. Such a narrow range of sensibilities inclines the court toward decisions that favor their own kind and are in fact no more objective than were those of King George in the months leading up to the Revolutionary War. This societal imbalance and bias have tended to undermine the People’s faith in the court’s probity and in its fitness to guide the Ship of State.

Thus we the People call for an immediate return to responsible and responsive government of the kind that is achievable only through solemn and selfless deliberation, in all three branches of the government, by leaders resolved daily to put the People and the welfare of the nation first in every consideration. Thus we urge the following reforms and enjoin the Powers-that-Be to lead, follow, or get out of the way:

Abandon the role of global policeman, disengage the economy from the Military/Industrial Complex, and redirect the expenditures to domestic needs.

Repair the nation’s infrastructure, providing much-needed jobs while making long overdue repairs to roads and bridges, waterways and sanitation systems, power plants and electric grids, airports and harbors, without all of which the nation’s trade and transport would vanish.

Overhaul public education. Appoint a national commission to find out why we have fallen behind other Western nations in educating our children.

Make the minimum wage a living wage aligned with the cost-of living index.

Secure the nation’s borders and enforce the immigration laws. Do it without erecting the American equivalent of the Berlin Wall on any of our borders. Offer America’s executive and financial know-how to help Mexico build an economy strong enough to support its people at home.

Encourage and foster entrepreneurship from all corners of the nation, not just Academia. History has proven that nature distributes intelligence and ingenuity impartially.

Fix the mental-health problem. Alter laws that obstruct mandatory treatment. Stop the use of prisons as dumping grounds for the mentally ill.

Pass legislation defining corporations as business entities, not as people. With the backing of the Supreme Court, the government has endorsed a secret and non-transparent system of campaign finance assuring that the rich can continue to exert a pernicious influence on the Congress, the Office of President, and the Supreme Court.

Recompose the army. The current composition has in effect privatized the military, which encourages armed adventuring, often for illusory and ill-advised reasons, and without the advice and consent of Congress. Today’s army is drawn principally from the poor, who serve as cannon fodder mainly because they are politically impotent. A private army answerable to one person only is, as we saw in Nazi Germany, an invitation to tyranny.

Forbid states to use their law enforcement and corrections systems as sources of revenue. Require that they support these systems with tax money, not the fee system, which mainly targets those least able to afford fees and renders void the Constitutional guarantee of equality under the law.

Decriminalize marijuana and free those in prison for relatively minor offenses. In a civilized society, crime and punishment are not the components of an industry that feeds on human misery.

Expand Medicare into a national health plan. Health care for profit is a social evil.

Extend to 10 years the time during which former members of Congress are forbidden to engage in lobbying.

Abandon the Electoral College in favor of a popular vote to elect a President. The current method has led to a Balkanization of the country and in effect disenfranchised the minority vote in every state.

Reform the laws governing the nation’s banks and other financial markets. Include consumer safeguards against unfair business practices, usurious interest rates, and arbitrary fees.

End the use of secret courts, extralegal proceedings, tortured rationalizations, false alarms about national security, and Heaven only knows what else, to justify the nation’s departure from international law and from its own high ideals of moral conduct.

This list of needed reforms is by no means complete. The governmental ills that bred it have festered for decades, owing to the self-serving of many while the rest of us slept or simply acquiesced. Let us recall the admonition of political philosopher Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

Therefore, appealing to the conscience of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, we demand a fair and impartial government of the People, by the People, and for the People, and we enjoin all who hold office, whether high or low, elected or appointed, to treat public office as a public trust, not as a means of self-enrichment, self-aggrandizement, or empowerment beyond the bounds of honorable public service.

We declare here and now that the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, conjoined with the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the independent spirit that gave birth to this nation, entitle us to good government, and we want it now. In plain point of fact, it is not possible to pursue happiness, let alone find it, in a crime-ridden, bitterly divided society lacking in national cohesion and purpose. Our states are united in name only and our citizenry not at all, for we have abandoned the melting-pot ideal that made us a great nation and replaced it with a thoughtless allegiance to all that divides us.

With a firm reliance on the protection of Providence, we the undersigned pledge on our sacred honor to unite to restore the America for which our forefathers risked their lives and fortunes. Let us resolve to show that we are their rightful legatees. Selah.

Signers of the Updated Declaration of Independence
18 Ian Whatley SC
17 Audie Bovier GA
16 steve stevens Georgia
15 Tom Ferguson Georgia
14 Dave Cooley North Carolina
13 Sheila Morris South Carolina
12 Goddamned Nazis Massachusetts
11 Richard Eisel Georgia
10 STANLEY BROWN NC
9 zac carruth Texas
8 Gail Kiracofe VA
7 Gene Howard NC
6 William Beauford SC
5 Selwyn Gossett Florida
4 Glenn Overman Florida
3 Ian McLaren SC
2 Lee Leslie Georgia
1 Robert Lamb South Carolina

The Declaration of Independence, Updated

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