Author Archives: Chuck and Heidi Thurston

About Chuck and Heidi Thurston

Chuck and Heidi Thurston are both retired professionals and published authors with a wide variety of interests. Their extended family includes other writers, singers, dancers, film makers, artists and Lord only knows what else is coming along. Follow their blog for periodic updates on their thoughts and doings.

Stop Me If You’ve Seen This Before by Chuck Thurston

I have a friend who has done a lot of writing in various media. And I’m talking Hollywood and TV network prime time script writing stuff, etc. This background will tend to lower the objectivity bar for many of you, and so, to establish his credentials as honest and grounded in reality, I have to point out that he left the glamor of this life and now does considerable technical and business writing.

Now that he’s earning an honest living, he can look back on his earlier efforts with a critical eye. He told me some time ago that TV programming was suffering because of a lack of good writing these days. I am not sure if this is coincident with his leaving that business, but he went on to say this accounts for the rise of the – now ubiquitous – TV Reality Shows. It is far easier for TV producers to get some interesting folks, put them in unusual situations, give them a few instructions on what is wanted – and record the results.

The characters are chosen because of their good looks, nice bodies, quirkiness, wiseassery, likelihood of drawing sympathy, etc.  In other words, most of the traits that would get them selected for traditional TV acting roles – if there were good writers producing these shows now! The resultant work can’t be entirely without direction, however. The producers are smart enough to know what sells and what doesn’t, and if don’t know what the big draw is, you haven’t watched much TV. Dancing with the stars is as much about dancing as bull fighting is about animal control.

The advertisements for these shows are designed to entice the viewer in much the same way that ads for traditional shows did – emphasizing the excitement, adventure and titillating possibilities to be expected. And you can bag the excitement and adventure if it dampens the titillating.

My wife showed me an ad for The Bachelor in Paradise show that read, ‘Ashley takes Jared to a hotel!’ “What could possibly be her motive for that?” she asked. I sensed a tongue-in-cheek behind that remark.

“Don’t read too much into it,” I said. “That hotel has the best breakfast buffet in town!”

She snorted. “Oh sure!

“Look,” I said. “Before I watch that show – if I thought for a minute there was some hanky panky going on – I’d ask my doctor if my heart was healthy enough for viewing!”

 

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The Flying Boat by Chuck Thurston

The PBM Martin Mariner was a flying boat that saw considerable action in World War II. It was a long-range sea plane that provided escort duty for convoys headed for Europe and was credited with sinking 10 German U-Boats during the course of the war.

After the war, a number of these planes were transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard for search and rescue service. The Coast Guard phased them out in 1958, and I expect I was one of the last aircrewmen to have a ride in them. These planes were built to stay in the air a long time, and they were outfitted accordingly. They normally had a crew of nine, so you could be relieved after a four-hour watch – as a radioman, in my case. Off duty, you could go to the small galley in the belly of the aircraft and get something to eat. Then, maybe, take a nap in an available hammock.

I would go for the sandwich and drink, but I was more into sightseeing, and I found the perfect place for it. Although the .50 caliber guns had been removed, the gun turrets were still in place, and the tail gunner’s seat provided a view like no other. I had to crawl on my hands and knees through the long tail boom to the back of the aircraft. I would squeeze into the plexiglass bubble, hunker down in the tailgunner’s seat and watch the world go by.

I would have my sandwich and drink and watch the ocean roll below. I could imagine the battles planes like this engaged in – the sight of a U-Boat just breaching the surface, or alerted to danger, preparing to dive. I could feel the course change, the big plane wheeling over to line up on the target, and the thump as the depth charges were released. I could imagine the tail gunner manning the hand-aimed machine gun, and alert for danger from the skies.

Or I could daydream. It was peacetime. We were actually in-between wars. Korea was over, but Viet Nam was not yet on the horizon. In any case, the action was over for these old flying boats. Their exploits were honored, their duty was done. There is one in the Smithsonian now. There are a few others, scavenged for parts in a sunbaked bone yard in Arizona – far, far from the rolling ocean.

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Ellie and the Hoyas by Chuck Thurston

The oldest cliché in human relationships is that of the contentious mother-in-law. I luckily escaped that dynamic. I truly loved my wife’s mother, and we had wonderful times together. She lived in Denmark, so getting together wasn’t a matter of a neighborhood visit or a short road trip. Consequently, when she came to see us, it was usually a stay of a couple of months. She was an easy houseguest, and one we thoroughly enjoyed.

She didn’t like the hot southern summers, so her visits were invariably in the spring or fall. During one such stay, I introduced her to “March Madness.” In the mid 1980’s, the Georgetown Hoyas had a run of good seasons, and were routinely in the NCAA’s championship tournament. Elinor – Ellie – knew nothing of basketball, adopted them as her team. She was in fact, a soccer fan in Europe, so perhaps the spectacle of men in shorts chasing around a round ball resonated in some way. Maybe it was the blue and grey uniforms, which dated back to the civil war and signified the union of north and south – although she didn’t know much about that conflict, either. Ellie’s adoption of the Hoyas ran counter to popular sentiment. The team was often – perhaps because of its success and the swagger that goes with it – the one that everyone liked to dislike.

Georgetown’s coach, John Thompson –a giant of a man – captured her admiration. Perhaps his display of passion for the game and for his team appealed to her. He prowled the sideline during games with an ever-present towel over his shoulder.

john thompson

In the spring of 1984, the Hoyas took it all. They polished off the Houston Cougars, and Ellie and I watched every game, usually with a beer or two. I didn’t make many attempts to explain the intricacies of the game. I’m not an expert in any case, and the athleticism and competitiveness of the contests spoke for themselves. When the final whistle sounded on the final game of the tournament, we both felt satisfied, but somehow incomplete – there would not be another round of basketball to look forward to. It would have to wait until the next year and the next March Madness. In those days, it was almost a given that Ellie’s Hoyas would be back – and Ellie would be back to cheer them on.

PS – in 1985, the Hoyas were back, and lost in the final game, a 62-64 nail-biter to Villanova.

Chuck Thurston is currently absorbed in the March Madness of 2017. We lost Ellie a few years ago, and the Hoyas are not the powerhouse they once were, but I believe we would have found a suitable replacement.  

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Carry On by Chuck Thurston

 

victorian-mourning

We were talking with old friends – a couple – that we had not seen for some time. It was the tail end of the holiday season. The grey of a gloomy day had darkened into a cold night. An outside light showed snow flurries swirling around the bare limbs and darkened evergreens. We were digging into memories of past times good and bad. The short days and long nights of the winter solstice often seem to invite these reflections. The setting and time of year lent itself to nostalgia.

We talked of the parties of long ago – the candles, the music, the gaiety, those then present; the several now gone. The lady said that she got in this mood after her father died, and that she missed him and grieved for his absence every day. I had not heard of her father’s death and told her I was sorry for her loss. I asked when it had happened. “Eight years ago,” she replied.

Had she lived in Victorian times, her job would have been much easier.

Back then the process was highly ritualized, and twelve months was considered appropriate for a child mourning a parent, or vice versa. If you’re wondering, yes, there was a sliding scale. A full two years was considered appropriate for a widow; first cousins merited only four weeks. Everyone else – a sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, was somewhere in between.

The Victorians wore the appropriate clothes, conducted the appropriate ceremonies, had a lavish funeral and erected an ornate monument for the grave. Manuals and journals described the mourning etiquette in the event the survivors needed guidance. I am sure they continued to miss the departed for a longer or shorter period of time depending on the nature of the relationship, but as far as formal mourning went, they dropped it after the prescribed period.

Life then, if less complicated, was harsher. Household tasks had to be taken care of; farm or home tended to, children to be raised with few of today’s conveniences. In many cases efforts were begun to acquire a new mate or partner to fill the void. “There’s no limit to what a person can accomplish,” the saying is, “but they can rarely do it by themselves.” So it often seemed desirable in those days to hook up with another solo soul and carry on. My grandfather’s first wife died leaving him with nine children, and he wasted no time finding another mate.

The Victorians believed in curtailing social behavior for a set period of time, but that practice seems outmoded now. Many losing a loved one today feel obligated to advertise the extent of their pain across the internet. Perhaps this is a part of the healing process, but many of the posts are troubling; some are frightening in their description of despair and the feeling that life has lost much of its meaning.

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. He later wrote that suicides were not uncommon under these brutal conditions. Two prisoners in his building were talked out of their intent to kill themselves. Others reminded them that they had important things yet to do. One had a child who had escaped to Canada and would want to join him after the war. The other was a noted scientist who had begun a series of books that only he could finish. When others reminded them of their duty to their future, they abandoned their suicide plans.

And that is key – our duty to the future. I do not know what cognizance the departed have of the lives they leave behind, but I would be saddened beyond belief if I knew that a loved one of mine was crippled with inconsolable grief by my going. It would seem to speak poorly of my earthly contributions to our happiness. Was the time we spent together so vapid and unfulfilling that he or she can’t summon up memories of shared joys to buffer the pain of my departure? If the spirits of the dead are permitted anger, I think mine would be angry.

For life is not a three-legged bag race. Barring some catastrophic event, one of a loving couple will die before the other. My wife and I brush on this topic now and then. One or the other of us usually mentions that it would be extremely difficult to carry on alone. But the answer to the statement that “I couldn’t go on without you,” is certainly, “Yes, you could; you must, really.” Each person will find the tools necessary to build a new life and directions for the path going forward. The tools are the good memories of years gone by. The path will reveal itself through them. Healing will commence, because it must; grief is not a career and doesn’t deserve that consideration.

So back to Viktor Frankl…how did he come through? Was he empowered by the knowledge that he had something important left to do? As a matter of fact he did. When he first entered the concentration camp he set three goals for himself. He first determined that he would survive; he made a commitment to use his medical skills to help where he could, and, remarkably – that he would learn something from the experience. His book, “Man’s Search For Meaning,” came out of the misery of Auschwitz.

Carry on.

 

Chuck Thurston lives and writes in Kannapolis, NC. His two volumes of Senior Scribbles (Unearthed and Second Dose) will be joined by a third in 2017: Senior Scribbles Bathroom Reader. His work is available from the Indigo Sea Press and Amazon.

Joel Barker’s The Power of Vision documentary tells the story of Viktor Frankl.

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She Made Them Mittens by Heidi Thurston

hand-knitted-mittens

They all loved her – from time to time they still talk about her and the things she did in years past.

There was, for instance, the time when their first child was born and she stayed over, did the cooking, the cleaning, and even took over a couple of 3 am feedings. Yet, she never interfered or tried to take over the care of the baby or the running of the house, and when mother and child were stronger, she quietly went back to her own home.

There was also the time when junior was without a ride to a special game out of town and she volunteered to drive; then remained to cheer him and his team to victory.

Whenever there was a birthday, anniversary or other family celebration, she was on hand with homemade gifts made especially for those she cared about, and she always lent a hand in the kitchen afterwards so the honored guests did not have to wake up to a mess.

For years, the children never had to worry about holes in the knees of their favorite jeans, because she knew how to operate her sewing machine as well as her mixer, with which she made the most delicious cookies. Little hands were also kept warm by homemade mittens and many a toddler went out on a chilly fall afternoon wearing one of her sweaters and matching cap.

She was also on hand whenever someone needed to be taken to the doctor and everyone else was working, and she took a lot of friends who were unable to drive, along for grocery shopping or just for a ride out of town.

Oh, she had her bad days too…we all do. She could be grouchy and not on top of things, but those moods usually did not last long and she is mostly remembered for her smiles and caring ways, and for the love she so generously gave to those around her.

So, where is she now, and who is she?

She is in a nursing home, placed there by a family who knew they could no longer take care of her, realizing that she needed around-the-clock care.

And she is someone’s mother, older sister, maiden aunt, grandmother, or just a former next-door neighbor who would love to have a visit from anyone she used to know.

We all know someone like her with some of the above-mentioned virtues, whose company we enjoyed when she was around and able to participate in events. But the day came when the only realistic thing was to place her where she could be cared for properly. Most of us would like to have taken her into our homes, but of course, that is seldom practical since the majority of us work and do not always have the extra space.

But that is no excuse for not making an effort to visit her now and then. Why must we feel so guilty for having done the only right thing that we let it keep us from stopping and telling her about the things we are doing, showing her pictures of our family and friends, and listen to what she has to say?

It takes only a few minutes once in a while and it is so appreciated by her, who sits day after day and waits for someone to stop in and say, “Hello, how are you?”

This is the time of the year to give thanks and share our abundance with those who need it. Why not end this year with spreading a little cheer to those who once were so much a part of our lives but who now are alone and unable to join us in our day-to-day lives.   Why not make yourself a promise; put away the guilt, and go visit her…she’ll be so glad you did – and so will you.

Heidi Thurston lives in Kannapolis, NC. “She Made Them Mittens” was one of her “Not So Strictly Speaking” columns published weekly in the Sayre Evening Times in Sayre, Pa. It won an award from the Pennsylvania Press Association for human interest columns. Heidi’s adult romance novel, “The Duchess, The Knight And The Leprechaun” is available from Amazon and Indigo Sea Press.

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Feeding the Hungry by Chuck Thurston

 

Primitive men and women were hunter-gatherers. Eating was catch as catch can. Sharing was essential. If one of them ran across a nut tree in the forest, he or she didn’t keep it to himself or herself. Survival of their tribe demanded that they run and tell the rest.   They stored very little, but ate whatever could be consumed on the spot — and hunted for another source.

Some would say that the behavior of teenagers in the food court of a large mall indicates that this human instinct is still strong.

But in every age and in every way, humans periodically drop whatever else they are doing and hunt for chow.

My farm mother had five sons and a husband to deal with. We did grace on special occasions – large family gatherings, church holidays, etc., but my dad’s everyday injunction, once the vittles were on the table, was to “grab and growl!” Nothing was wasted. Leftover mashed potatoes became potato croquettes later. Left over baked beans were slathered on sandwiches with a sliced onion and packed in school lunches.

Anything that survived this feeding frenzy went into the slop bucket for the hogs. It is for certain that every now and then these critters dined on the remains of one of their comrades who had made the supreme sacrifice before them. Were they sentient, they might have found temporary solace in Von Braun’s assertion that “Nature does not know extinction. It only knows transformation.” Temporary, I say — that transformation was destined to be next winter’s bacon.

There was a sign over the mess hall of one military installation I spent some time at. It read, “Eat all you want, but eat all you take.” I knew of a few guys who took this to heart. They would gobble down their first tray of food in a mad rush so they could get back in line for another go at it.

At one base, I was invited by one of the storekeepers to accompany him on a truck trip to a large depot that warehoused food meant for military installations in that particular section of the east coast. I was off duty and figured I would enjoy the ride. The SK had been given a list of items he was to pick up for our unit. They would be waiting to be loaded for him.

As he checked off his sheet, one of the warehouse workers informed him that there had been a run on the more popular ice cream flavors. All he had to give us was pistachio. We ate pistachio ice cream for the next several weeks. Look, most folks can breeze through a month with only chocolate or vanilla as their options. But pistachio? I have not touched it since.

My new wife could not cook – came from a long line of women, in fact, who could not cook. I did not know this in advance. Actually she didn’t either until she questioned her mother about her mother. And aunts, and various cousins… “Did you know that your great Aunt Agnette hated to cook?”

I knew a little and was willing to experiment. I had to, really, for self-preservation. I became so familiar with Lipton’s chicken noodle soup that I could tell when they made subtle changes to the formula. “Lipton’s has done it again,” I would say.

Early on she mastered eggs — boiled and scrambled, although an omelet escaped her – and does to this day.

When my wife and I raised a family of our own, we rediscovered what generations of parents before us had already found out.

Our boys had a garage rock band and the house was for some time a teen hangout. Rehearsals took place in our cellar game room. Other parents pointed out that we, at least, knew where they were. Oh, did we know. Every nail in the house was loose. On one occasion, rehearsal coincided with our dinnertime, and we had made a nice casserole. It wouldn’t have fed them anyway, and a Matthew 14 loaves and fishes multiplication was beyond us. As the latest rock riffs billowed up from the basement and filled the rest of the house, we called friends across town. Could we come to their place for dinner? We’d bring it! We put our casserole in the car and headed out.

No need for fine dining or niceties. Invariably these pals would be kids from the swim or wrestling teams of the local HS. They were always in training. You have not lived until you have fed wrestlers who are moving up to a bigger weight class for a coming meet. We cooked spaghetti by the tub-full.

I used to do backpacking trips with my sons and an occasional buddy. On one such trip, we all packed one of the big chocolate mega bars…designed for a week’s survival, I would guess. On the trail, I took mine out at occasional rest stops and nibbled a bite or two before putting it back in my pack. About two hours into the hike, the boys were eying my stash and confessed that they had polished their own bars off.

This particular trail bordered a vineyard in the New York grape country. It was no effort at all to hop off the trail a step or two and grab a bunch of grapes in passing. I am sure the vineyard owner planned on losing a few bunches to the occasional hikers. Luckily for him, the boys’ plunder was limited to what they could carry in their hands without breaking stride on the hike. We grabbed an afternoon snack and trekked on.

That night we pulled into a family campground that was not far off our hiking trail. I set up the tent, stowed the packs, lit a campfire, started the little gas stove to heat up some water – then relaxed while our freeze-dried food rehydrated for cooking. After we had eaten, the boys wondered if we might also finish off the breakfast stuff we had brought. And go hungry for breakfast? I couldn’t believe this.

I pointed out that this was a family campground and there were probably lots of folks there with teenagers – likely a few girls, too. I assured them they weren’t the worst looking boys in the state. Why not cruise the grounds, and casually, strike up a conversation here and there to see if a hotdog or burger invitation might be forthcoming? Off they went. Hunters and – hopeful – gatherers.

For many years Jimmy Anderson ran a popular restaurant in Charlotte near the Presbyterian hospital. Jimmy was a genuine Greek – his son, Gary, told me his untranslated name would be Demostanis Anageros Andritsanos. I ate at Anderson’s several times over the years, and never met Jimmy personally, but heard he was a genial and generous soul.  He passed on in 1988, and Charlotte was saddened by its loss.

sssd-jimmy-anderson

The restaurant picked up a lot of hospital traffic — patients and visitors coming and going. Some perhaps having a final restaurant meal before a hospital stay, or ones coming off a stay and back in the world of mashed potatoes, meatloaf, “The World’s Best Pecan Pie,” as Jimmy called it — and the other sturdy dishes that Jimmy served. It was not uncommon to see people with canes and crutches and bandages coming and going on the arm of caregivers. Uniformed nurses, doctors and local businessmen often complimented the crowd.

One time a woman with a small infant walked in — perhaps in the neighborhood because of some hospital business. She asked Jimmy to give her a rear booth with a little privacy because she had to breast feed her baby.  Jimmy graciously complied.

Although she was as discreet as she could make it, an observable customer noticed and complained to Jimmy.  Jimmy replied, “Hey — everybody’s gotta eat!”

Right on Jimmy. RIP.

“Feeding the Hungry” is from Chuck Thurston’s “Senior Scribbles Second Dose” – available from Indigo Sea Press and Amazon. He is working on a third book, pausing only a few times a week to refuel at the dinner table. 

 

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I Take The Con by Chuck Thurston

grumman-albatross-in-flight-copy

Every now and then, Captain Kirk orders one of his starship Enterprise crew to “take the con!” as he beams elsewhere to handle other business. It’s usually Spock, but if Spock joins him on his mission, the con passes down to Sulu or Checkov, or…who knows? In a recent movie, so many of the high level regulars were elsewhere, that the duty might have passed down to a surprised ship’s steward, as he delivered coffee to the bridge.

Just what is the “con” and what does one do with it? The expression originated on early battleships and cruisers, and dates as far back as 1840 sailing warships. These ships were built with “conning towers” – a raised platform on a ship, often armored, and usually located as high on the ship as practical, to give the conning team good visibility of the entirety of their own ship, and of ocean conditions and other vessels. The officer could “con” the vessel, i.e., command or “conduct” the operations of a ship during battle by passing orders down to the helm. The Star Trek crew assumed a lot of Naval terminology as they sailed through the stars.

I was always obsessed with airplanes. As a young boy in WWII, I collected books and pictures of the warbirds of that era. I wanted to be a pilot. One of my idols was the lead character in a movie serial, “Don Winslow of the Coast Guard.” Commander Winslow piloted a seaplane on the lookout for spies, saboteurs and other enemy agents that might be threatening America’s Pacific coast.

Some years later, I had the con for a very short time.

I never did get to pilot training, but I did get to fly – and I had the best seat in the house. I joined the Coast Guard, went to Aviation Electronic School and flew as radioman on the principle search and rescue aircraft of the day – the Grumman Albatross amphibious flying boat, military designation UF1G. The radioman’s seat was on the flight deck on a slightly raised platform directly behind the co-pilot – one looked over his shoulder, as a matter of fact.

On one SAR flight, the co-pilot had to answer a call from nature and went aft to the plane’s small head (toilet, to civilians) – smaller than a phone booth, and located in the very rear of the aircraft. As he left, the pilot turned to me and said, “Like to sit up here, Radio?” Did I! I hurried up and strapped myself in before he belayed (rescinded, to civilians) the order. After a minute or so, he spoke again, “How would you like to feel the plane?”

I can’t describe the feeling as I took the yoke and gently moved it up and down just a bit, while watching the artificial horizon gauge on the instrument panel. I had the con!  Of a six ton seaplane! Over the North Atlantic!

grumman-albatross-sea-rescue

I’d like to say that I spotted something in the ocean below, turned and banked, and roared over the object of our search – a distressed soul waving frantically from a life raft. Of course that isn’t true. Soon enough, the co-pilot finished his business, returned to claim his seat and I went back to mine. My four or five minutes at the con were over.

Chuck Thurston has published two collections of his columns and stories, available from Amazon or Indigo Sea Press. A number of reminiscences of life in a Coast Guard SAR unit are included.  

 

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The Sleep of Reason by Chuck Thurston

 

Many of us believe things to be true that have been proved not – e.g., President Obama is Muslim or Kenyan-born. Many of us do not believe in things that have been demonstrated to be true – climate change is one of the most pervasive non-beliefs.

These positions are part of our personal belief systems. If we disagree with the president’s policies, believing that he has strong ties to a particular religion or country allows us to rationalize behaviors of his we see as suspicious. It confirms our fear, and we tell our acquaintances, “See! I told you so!”

If we don’t believe in climate change, then the dire predictions of what the long term consequences are likely to be won’t worry us.

 

In either case, our beliefs are driven by fear. Franklin Roosevelt took the office of the presidency during the depths of the depression – with turmoil in Europe and the Far East. He quickly realized that many public fears were irrational or unfounded and were keeping the nation from moving toward solutions. He was probably familiar with Mark Twain’s famous quote: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened!”

FDR early on told people “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!”

I recently discovered the science fiction of Alice Mary Norton, who wrote under the pen name of Andre Norton. Female sci fi writers were rarer than hen’s teeth and had very little cred amongst fantasy and sci fi readers in the 50’s and 60’s. I won’t go into a long critique of her work – which I am enjoying – but a particular passage in one of her works stuck with me. Here’s the scene:

A group of space travelers from earth land on a strange planet – almost paradisiac in its beauty, climate and inhabitants – a gentle, handsome Polynesian-type race with extraordinary ESP skills. They can, for instance, communicate with dolphins. In the course of events, the earthmen are following a native girl, guiding them through some very old, dark tunnels toward an old structure that may be frequented by an ancient evil that frightens the natives. At one point the girl says that their “old gods” inhabit these tunnels – they have hundreds – and to disturb them is very dangerous. The girl is terrified and is ready to abandon the expedition.

One of the earthmen attempts to calm her fears. He says, “But they are not our gods! There is no power where there is no belief!” Another adds, “No being without belief!” The girl eventually concludes that she must be safe if she is in the company of those who simply do not believe – and therefore cause the evaporation of the old deities which so frighten her. The troop continues on.

pantheon of the gods

So Norton’s characters are saying that if you don’t believe in these whatevers, they cease to exist. Is it this easy? Over the course of millennia, humans have taken up, worshipped, and eventually discarded – thousands of gods. Most of us don’t believe that Thor or Jupiter have any power to give us strength to meet a particular challenge. We aren’t moved to offer up prayers to Venus or Aphrodite in exchange for help with our love life. Is there going to be an eventual discarding of whatever is left?

Should we consider bringing back a few specialists to handle modern complexities – or does boiling it down to one streamline the process and make it more efficient for the digital age?

Chuck Thurston’s collected columns and essays are available in his Senior Scribbles collections on Amazon. He is currently working on a full length mystery thriller. He is not sure which god he should petition for help.

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Nixonius Rex by Chuck Thurston

 

As the Republic sails merrily along in this presidential campaign, I’ve been thinking about presidents past, and the contributions and liabilities they’ve left us with.

It’s a good thing that Richard Nixon wasn’t our first president. Lord knows how we’d be addressing him. In 1970, Nixon, who was preparing for a visit from British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, was concerned that the White House guards looked “slovenly,” in his words. He’d seen the trappings worn by palace guards in Europe and been impressed. He decided to try his own hand at uniform design.

He signed off on double-breasted white tunics with starred epaulets, gold piping, draped braid, and high black plastic hats decorated with a large White House crest. The result was roundly ridiculed. “They look like old-time movie ushers,” said the Buffalo News. “The Student Prince” said the Chicago Daily News. They disappeared by the mid 70’s.

Gaudy honorifics have been around as long as people have selected other people to lead and guide them, and they are fair game for satire. Author Hesh Kestin, describes the business card appellations of a fictional African potentate:

Mr. Ex-Minister The Honorable Antoine St. Nicholas Msanjende Brocade, Deputy Chief, Nzdwa Sub-Tribe (North), former Cabinet Member [Minister of Mining, Civil Engineering and Potable Water], Bachelor of Science, St. Olaf’s College, Northfield, Minnesota, USA,…

It goes on and on, mentioning Mercedes Benz ownership, National Geographic Society membership, Hotmail accessibility – you get the idea. Putting pomposity in its place is honored in American letters in spoofs such as Kestin’s – and Mark Twain’s before him.

Jim Thorpe – the great Native American athlete, tore up the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm by winning both the decathalon and pentathalon. As King Gustav V of Sweden placed the gold medals around his neck, he told him, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”

To which Jim modestly replied, “Thanks, King!”

Given Richard Nixon’s mindset, had he been sworn in as our first president, he could have had his say in a lot of things we might be stuck with today. The story goes that in 1789, George Washington was in the middle of a discussion on how the new president should be addressed. Our early leaders were familiar with the monarchies of Europe and titles like “Your Excellency” or “Your Majesty” would have been considered. Washington supposedly quashed all that talk and told those assembled, “How about ‘Mr. President?’” It stuck, thank heavens.

 

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A Sermon For The Mellow by Chuck Thurston

I took a couple of English courses in college requiring I write poems, and I wrote quite a few. An instructor remarked at the time: “Your poetry is very personal.” This was not a compliment. He explained that my efforts were poems with little meaning to anyone but me. They were sound in structure, but narrow in expression. It represented a view of my personal life and conflicts, but not in a way that illuminated it for anyone else. I was doing little more than writing irate, self-aggrandizing editorials with a rhythm and rhyme scheme.

I was then a young married father, with all of the associated struggles. I had a good job, but knew I would find my level in it sooner or later, and it wouldn’t be all that high. The war in Vietnam was turning into the horror many had feared. The Peace Movement was burgeoning. The skirmishes for civil rights had begun. Smoke was in the air and it wasn’t all gunpowder or tobacco. I was an angry young man. Worse, I bought with unquestioned agreement, into almost every extreme pronouncement that complimented my own resentments. I had become what can easily turn into that most dangerous of humans – The True Believer.

Believers of one stripe or another have been around as long as humankind. That’s a good thing. Belief precedes experiment, which precedes verification, and well – it’s the only way we ever gather the facts on anything. Scientists call it a hypothesis. Copernicus woke up one morning and said to himself, “Gee, I believe the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around!” He was, as it happened, a great mathematician and developed a heliocentric model that made sense. Let me extemporize on that a bit. Copernicus couldn’t prove his belief – but no other mathematical model made sense to him. Those who believed otherwise went to great lengths to construct models that were torturous in their description of how things worked. These models did, however, jibe with the religious dogma of the time. Although Copernicus got away with it, Galileo, born almost a hundred years later, took most of the heat for this hypothesis – almost literally; he was threatened with death at the stake if he didn’t recant. This threat came from – you guessed it – True Believers.

Now there is nothing wrong with true belief on its face. And there is nothing wrong with an enthusiastic and impassioned defense of it. In their time, humans have given unquestioned obeisance to Paleolithic superstitions, Bronze Age myths and legends, Hebrew tribal laws, prophets, shamans and cultists, medieval alchemists, mystics, psychics and self-proclaimed wizards. All of these authorities have vestigial form today, and we have upped the ante with media-fueled baloney by the megaton. You are free to believe any of this you want. Be my guest.

If it were left at that, people could go merrily on their way chasing Bigfoot or hunting down the Appalachian Devil Monkeys. But a lot of True Believers don’t want to leave it at that. True Believers have harassed and taunted women and gays; True Believers have killed, with routine nonchalance, young people who made romantic attachments their families didn’t approve of; True Believers have flown airplanes into skyscrapers; True Believers have concocted bogus evidence to justify inciting wars. Like the old geocentric model makers, True Believers have warped new insights or observable evidence to match their convictions. “If you don’t like the diagnosis,” said the quack surgeon, “we’ll retouch the X-rays!”

I once attended a religious ceremony where a man officiating told me that I was cursed if I did not believe as he believed. I would, he assured me, roast in perpetual torment after I died, unless I adopted his particular beliefs. He did not actually say that he had placed a curse on me, but it wouldn’t be putting too fine a point on it to interpret it that way, if you ask me.

Well, I didn’t believe that for a minute, and would have told him so, but held to manners I had learned at mother’s knee – a lack of which apparently did not trouble him. His position, to be sure, was met with murmurs of approval from a sizeable part of those in attendance – troubling in itself. The rest sat on their hands along with me and accepted their damnation with polite demeanor. He graciously invited anyone troubled by his pronouncements to meet with him after the service, where we would be set straight. I demurred.

The world has become infected by TBs. Countries are torn apart by factions settling scores for perceived slights perpetuated centuries ago. Politicians embrace their way or no way. The Age of Chivalry is dead and the Age of Civility is evaporating. Statesmanship is moribund. Progress is deadlocked because negotiation and collaboration are dirty words.

My cafeteria lunch mates and I used to have heated discussions on the day’s hot topics, and great philosophical issues. There were always a couple of TBs in these groups. I represented a puzzling anomaly to them. I confessed to a profound curiosity about our whereabouts in the hereafter, but no real ideas on whatever might take place or whoever might be going wherever.

“But Thurston, you have to believe in something!” I was told.

Note: TBs often express things this way; to which I say “Why?”

 “It isn’t just a belief,” I told them. “I know for absolute certainty what happens to us when we die!” This always made them hoot. “We will all be recycled,” I said.

Now you can’t argue with that – and they couldn’t. I’m not talking about that spiritual component. I let the TBs work that part out, and keep it to themselves when they do; but – if every atom in our bodies isn’t sentient, then certainly some critical mass of them must be. We’ll find out one way or another in eight billion years or so when the Sun runs out of fuel and that big fusion bomb implodes and gobbles up its planetary children. Think of that. Assuming we ourselves haven’t incinerated everything by then, our urns or caskets will be atomized and the contents will be off on another adventure. I believe, with no evidence to back it up – Jeez, I’m not a TB, after all – that those contents will accrete again, gravity being what it is, and who knows? Not me, not you, not even Stephen Hawking – who has his own views on it, but is smart enough not to advance them as gospel.

I like the way Richard Feynman put it, “I am a universe of atoms, and an atom in the universe.”

Frankly, there is more empirical evidence to support my scenario than there is the fiery pit described by the proselytizer mentioned earlier.

I eventually returned to poetry after I got over the idea that I had to write angry stuff. I couldn’t begin to match up with Sassoon, anyway: “He’s young; he hated war; how should he die/ when cruel old campaigners win safe through?/ But death replied: ‘I choose him.’ So he went,/ And there was silence in the summer night.”

Whooo! No competing with that! I had to set my sights much lower and settled on doggerel. In fact, I discovered that I didn’t have to knock much polish off of my serious stuff to drop down into this stratum. I whacked out a few lines and thought myself pretty good at it! This would be my poetic niche!

The Lightning Bug

 The lightning bug with logic smug,

Lights up the summer skies,

To find a mate and procreate;

Those clever little guys!

 

The logic here is very clear,

To all who empathize.

So, don’t be coy, dear girl and boy;

It pays to advertise!

Now look – my light verse does not mean that I am glib about the woes of the world. I know full well there is suffering and hunger. Humans can rationalize anything, and a lot of TBs have rationalized cruel responses to ideas they can’t make themselves believe. Don’t join that crowd. One amazing feature of our great gift of free will is the ability to hold several opposing views in our brains at one time without going nuts. Hang out with me for a while.

Here is my belief for this day: It is beautiful outside. I believe I will get a good cigar out of my humidor, give myself a healthy pour of something red, sit out on my deck for an hour or so and ponder all of this. You’re welcome to come over and join me. You can pass on the stogie and choose the booze if you want; or maybe light up a cheroot and pass on the vino. You can bag them both and bring your own iced tea. I don’t believe you’ll be cursed any way you go.

Postscript: The air quality code was green, so my wife joined me on the deck. I didn’t get in an hour of private ponder, but she sat upwind of me, had a glass of wine and the company was welcome. Oh, and later that evening, I came across an article by scientists who have lowered the sun’s time to extinction from 8 billion to around 5.8 billion years. We don’t have as much time left as we thought.

Post-postscript – “A Sermon For The Mellow” will be in Chuck Thurston’s next Senior Scribble – “The Bathroom Reader (Your Results May Vary)”. Look for it later this year – if wine and an occasional cigar don’t get him first.

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