Shooting a Chickadee

George Orwell wrote an essay, set during his days as a policeman in colonial Burma, about having to shoot an elephant, a beast that, by the time Orwell arrived with his gun, was doing no one any harm.  Orwell, as the armed white man representing the Crown, knew he must do something.  He fired, repeatedly, into the elephant’s heart and down his throat, but the creature was unable to move or to die.  It’s a great piece of writing, and I’d recommend you read it.  I’d love to have written it.  But I didn’t.

Instead, I’m writing this.

When I was a boy, guns were around the house.  My dad had a couple rifles for hunting deer and a shotgun for birds.  They weren’t locked up, but they were kept on the top shelf in my parents’ bedroom closet, which might just as well have been a safe when I was 11.  In my memory, I never went into that space.  When I was 11.  (Once I discovered copies of “Oui,” “Cavalier” and “Penthouse” were also secreted there, my hands-off policy vanished, although I’m certain I never fooled around with his weapons.  (It strikes me that it’s a Freudian’s field day that I wouldn’t touch my father’s guns while gathering images of disrobed women.  I’ll leave that alone.))

I had my own gun, nowhere near as powerful as my father’s, but impressive in my young hands.  An air-powered pellet gun I needed to repeatedly pump by hand, it fired metal pellets the size of a pencil eraser.  Honestly, it was capable of doing more serious damage than my parents must have imagined when they gave it to me.  Its barrel wasn’t rifled, so its range was limited and its ammo came out without a spin, lacking the ability of rifle ammo to go in one part of a body and come out somewhere completely different.  If I’d shot a man in the stomach at, say, 30 yards, he’d have a hole in his gut you could stick a finger in, and likely a fair amount of bleeding, but not the peripheral damage a rifle shot would cause.  Still, I was a kid, and probably shouldn’t have been given a weapon capable of putting holes in a body where no holes should be.

Whether I should or shouldn’t have had it, I did, and I practiced in our backyard, shooting at hand-drawn targets, empty cans, my sister’s dolls and, once, a discarded radio.  I’d drawn a firing line and set up the targets under the hanging birdfeeder it was my job to fill with seeds every three or four days.  It was fun to look over the damage I’d inflicted on the moment’s target, empty sunflower seed shells under my feet, and I’d morph from Daniel Boone to GI Joe to John Wayne while plunking away.  By and by, I became a pretty good shot, and took pride in that.  Even the chickadees, having gotten used to the phhhhssssst sound of the air rifle and the tiiiiiinnnngggg of the bullet hitting the target, looked down from the feeder.  With their black-masked heads, chickadees are hard to read, but I think they were impressed with my aim.   I know their bright white chests seemed to swell up with pride that the boy who fed them was such a good shot.

For whatever reason, playing with my gun was a solitary pursuit, and I’d happily put it away for a game of catch or kick-the-can or pepper.

I know my parents didn’t buy me the gun.  Not because I was somehow deprived as a child, but even at 11 I could tell the gun was old—not antique-it-might-be-worth-a-fortune old, but old enough that it wasn’t new.  Things just appeared sometimes, the result of someone moving away or getting tired of a possession.  The gun was an item the tide of good fortune had left behind.

In the same way objects drifted in and out of our life, so with people.  My parents had friends who were always around, friends who were there for a season or three and friends who might not come around often but whose stories I knew because they’d been part of my mom or dad’s childhood—that ancient time when the earth was just beginning to cool.  The Hansen family was one of the latter.  Mrs. Hansen had been one of my mom’s childhood friends, although my memory tells me her name may have been Kickline            as a girl.  Or maybe she’d been a dancer as a teen and part of a kick line?  Regardless, the Hansen’s had three kids older than me.  Whenever we got together with the Hansens, who had a lake house, one of the older Hansens was always trying to teach me something—how to dive, how to snorkel, how to water ski.  I’m sure their intentions were kind, but needing to learn things was evidence of how little I knew.

The year I was 11, the Hansen clan came for Thanksgiving.  I don’t know why.  As a kid, things sometimes just happened.  When they got to our house, the older Hansen kids adopted the boredom masks teenagers carry in a back pocket for just such events.  Not wanting a group of Big Kids to be bored on my watch, I asked them if they wanted to shoot my gun.  At first, they were unimpressed—or hadn’t had a chance to put away their masks, but with a bit of wheedling, they all agreed to come into the backyard.

I encouraged the two Big Girls and the Big Boy to hold the gun and sight down it.  Then I set up empty cranberry sauce and evaporated milk cans for each of them to shoot at.  Because of my hours of practice, I was much better than they, a first for me.  Imagine—being better than Big Kids at shooting!  This Thanksgiving was turning out to be a red-letter day in the life of Keith.

Not content with demonstrating my marksmanship skills on pieces of trash, I searched for something else to shoot.  While the windows in the house were tempting, they wouldn’t demonstrate my pinpoint accuracy, even if they would have shown I was one tough hombre.  (Here, the phrase “one tough hombre” is sometimes translated “lunatic.”)  I looked up into the trees, but shooting a branch or pine cone wouldn’t have the oomph I wanted.  Then, I saw it.  The perfect way to cap off a perfect morning.

I raised the rifle’s stock to my right shoulder, sighted down the black barrel at my target five feet above the ground, breathed in, breathed out and squeezed off a shot.  At the speed of moral outrage, the big kids turned on me.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“You’re crazy!”

“What kind of monster shoots a little bird?”

“It’s a chickadee,” I said, wanting to salvage some pride in my ornithological knowledge.

“It WAS a chickadee!” said the big boy.  “Now it’s a nothing.”

He was right.  The tiny bird’s head had been destroyed by the shot, and its formerly white body looked like a bloody cotton ball removed from a messy surgery.  Barely recognizable as a bird, the dead chickadee didn’t move at all on the frozen ground.  The shot, after killing the chickadee, had shattered the glass front of the bird feeder, so sunflower seeds flowed slowly to the ground around the fresh bird corpse.

The Big Kids stared in horror at me, and I wanted to join them.  I wanted to be part of the mob judging me, finding me barely human, and driving me off into the forest.  Unfortunately, no matter how mush self-loathing we monsters feel, we cannot join the band of humanity, at least until the tribe has a chance to forget.

That Thanksgiving, I had much for which to be ashamed and even more for whicht o be thankful, most of all that my mother called us all in right then and, for reasons I never understood, the Big Kids didn’t say a word about my killing a chickadee.  Perhaps they remembered horrible things they’d done as little kids.  Perhaps they wanted me to suffer silently for the rest of the day, wondering when they’d reveal my evil.  Most likely, they’d never imagined a sweet kid like me could really have done what I’d really done.  For whatever reasons, they kept quiet.

After the Hansens left, I went to the back yard, picked up the dead chickadee and threw it into the bushes.  I took down the bird feeder, so my father could buy new sheets of glass for it.  I put the pellet gun away in my closet, until I was older.  Then I said a prayer for the bird, and vowed I’d never shoot another animal again.

And I haven’t.

But I’ve also never lost that shame.  I don’t know that I ever will.

An Undelivered Speech at the Turkish Friendship Dinner–Along with What I Did Say

In a couple days, the Turkish Cultural Center in Manchester, NH, is giving me an award.  This is very gratifying, if undeserved.  They offered me three or four minutes to speak, and I will likely use that time.  I don’t often speak from a script, so any remarks I make will be extemporaneous, entertaining and entirely unprepared.

If I were a serious man, a man who delivered speeches instead of a man prone to jackassery, this is what I might say, after saying, “Thank you for this award”:

I am a man of a Christian country, who grew up among Jews and who has become friends with many Muslims. The differences among us are many—from the foods we avoid, to our dress, to the ways we worship our creator.  One thing we share is a love of stories.  Whenever people gather in a marketplace or at a fire in the forest or desert, stories are told.  Our nature seeks a good story the same way we are drawn to food and sleep. I see the Old and New Testaments and the Koran as collections of tales designed to entertain as well as enlighten. If the stories in them were not good ones, the enlightenment would have been left behind long ago.  Imagine an instruction book for life with no stories.  It would be nearly unreadable.  While the Ten Commandments may be the center of the Book of Exodus, not many readers would reach them without the story of Pharaoh and Moses and the, well, exodus of the Jews.  Humans love stories—in fact, it may be our love of stories that makes us human. 

Stories can be diagrammed, broken down into telegram versions, the bare bones of the story.  One of our favorite stories could be diagrammed like this: 

  • A man walks a righteous path
  • The man loses his way, whether through distraction, attacks from others or a taste for sin
  • The man sees the light of the righteous path and returns to it

This is my personal story—I defended my country, then taught and led people, then became a drunk without a home, then returned to lead Liberty House, which might well be called Library House, for it is a storehouse of such tales, of men and women who defended their country, lost their way, then saw the warm glow of Liberty House’s fire and returned to lives of meaning and hope.  Jews, Muslims, Christians and people of any faith, or no faith at all, seem drawn to this story, the return to health of a man beset by sickness, the redemption of a man from a life of sin, the rediscovery of a man who had been given up for dead.   

Each of us, if not this very evening then tomorrow certainly, will come across a human whose story remains unfinished, who is at the middle part, the straying from righteousness, and each of us has a choice at that moment.  We can become some small part of heat, light and compassion, whether through a smile or kind word, a meal purchased or comfort offered.  Or we can continue to walk past.  If we choose the latter, I ask you one question:  what good is your fire, your light, if it doesn’t warm and brighten the path of another?  I am a man who has stood in the darkness, who has gazed into the faces of people who will not meet my eyes, who learned to accept scorn and judgment from strangers who knew nothing of me—and I know how much the occasional light of others meant to me.  I have pledged to share my light and my warmth—and I ask you to join me in that effort.  You can help change the arc of someone’s story, help them return to life, help transform their entire universe.  Or you can walk on. 

Thank you.


Earlier this week, I posted the speech I wouldn’t give at Thursday’s Turkish Cultural Center’s Friendship Dinner.  A number of folks made me promise I’d give a report on what I actually did say, once I’d said it.  Before I do, though, I have to say how gratified I was by the reception I received.  Despite my inability to maintain high seriousness, the guests gave me a standing ovation.  (As evidence of that gravitas drought, I am tempted to call it a standing “ovulation,” then go into a lighthearted discussion of how men participate in such a practice.)  I was deeply moved by this, and want to thank everyone in attendance, which includes my three daughters, making the moment one of the most moving in my life.  Thank you all.

As for what I said, I can only give my recollection, since I spoke from no notes but entirely in the moment.  As background, the evening’s keynote speakers, Katrina Lantos Swett and Y. Alp Aslandogan, spoke specifically and movingly about Turkey’s transformation to dictatorship under President Erdogan.  Each of them outlined how fascism is introduced into a country—first through insults and demonization of the opposition, then through expulsion/detention of the “other,” then through emergency measures that become the norm, and so on.

My memory of what I said follows:

My introduction said Im known for doing the unexpected.  Im afraid you may be disappointed with what Im about to say, but it will be unexpected.  In listening to this evenings speakers talk of the rise of fascism in Turkey, I could only think of one of my favorite book by one of my favorite authors, a book I first read 40 year ago.  Sinclair Lewiss It Cant Happen Here, written in, I think, 1936, tells the story of the rise of fascism in America, a fascism different in some flavor from that in Europe, but not in its deadliness.  I dont think our current administration is leading to fascism, but the similarities among Lewis book, the story of Turkey and events today are too great to ignore.  When you hear It Cant Happen Here, the only proper response is:  the Hell it cant if we dont stand up!

Given my general longwindedness, I’m sure this is just a sketch, but it is an accurate sketch.

Silence is Golden; Slumber is Final

The first time I went fishing with my grandfather was the last time I did anything at all with him, except for avoid his gaze, composed as it was of anger and disgust.  I was about four, although physically I looked much younger.  As a child, one of my goals was to be a midget or a jockey—but mostly a midget.  My grandfather had spent his early life around kids—headmaster and lead teacher in Colebrook, then headmaster in Weare.  I suspect the main reason he went to UNH to start the Thompson School there was to avoid being around kids.  I don’t think he liked children, and I always knew he didn’t much like me.  Fishing may have started it.

To Gramper, hunting and fishing were two sacraments to his real religion—being away from humans.   At four, I was Gramper’s oldest grandchild, son of his beloved daughter and old enough to learn to fish.  Although of course he never said it, even as a little boy I thought he blamed me for the series of my mother’s miscarriages that led to my adoption.  Pre hoc ergo propter hoc isn’t even a proper logical fallacy, but I still felt he suspected my involvement in his daughter’s inability to bear children.  He may not have liked me much, but in my mind he identified me as a pretty slick operator.  But I digress.

My memory of the day are hazy and inexact, although my mother told me the story so many times I have it clear in my head.  Bear in mind that I don’t know what’s original and what’s narrative spackle to fill in gaps.  Regardless of what a camera might have recorded, this is my truth.

Gramper picked me up at 7 am, a wicker creel in the back seat of his Buick, and we drove to Wheelwright Pond.  This was just a 15-minute drive, but I began a commentary/monologue/inquisition from the second the wheels started turning.

“Gramper, what do birds think about?”

“Have you ever seen a ghost?”

“I think Winnie the Pooh is for babies.”

“You don’t think I’m a baby, do you?”

“What’s your favorite kind of sandwich?”

“Did you ever drown?

“Even if Pooh is for babies, I still like Christopher Robin.”

“Do they really change guards at Buckingham Palace?”

“I’d like to learn to fly.”

“Do you know how to fly?”

“I wonder what it would be like if Christopher Robin turned into a ghost.”

“That sure is a big tree.”

“Could you cut down a tree with your bare hands?”

“I like popcorn.”

“Sometimes Daddy puts too much butter on popcorn.”

“Do you have any popcorn?”

After this initial quarter-hour drive, we backed the boat trailer into the water.  Before getting out to release the boat, Gramper looked at me very severely and opened his mouth for the first time.

“The only rule of fishing is NO TALKING!  And I mean it!”

A sensible child would have picked up on the oh-so-subtle implicit message—“Shut the hell up!”–and been quiet.  I was not a sensible child.

“Why is that the rule, Gramper?  Are you afraid it will scare away the fish?  They couldn’t even hear us under the water.  When I take a bath and put my head under the water, I can only hear nothing.  How do you know there even are fish here?  I don’t see any.  What about whispering?  Is that okay?  Or laughing?  If I’m drowning I think I might talk even if it scares the fish.  I wonder if fish laugh when people drown.  What language do fish talk, anyway?  Do you know how to talk to fish?  I’ve heard of flying fish but I don’t see any here.  What kind of snacks do fish like?  I wonder if they like butter on their popcorn.  Do you have any popcorn?”

Here, I saw a particular vein on Gramper’s forehead start to throb, a vein I’ve come to know intimately as it pulsed away on teachers, bosses, wives and other authority figures.  Gramper, unlike those future others, didn’t say a word.  Instead, he faced the windshield, put the car in forward gear, pulled the trailer and boat out of the lake and drove me the 15 minutes home.  He didn’t speak, so I needed to fill the silence.

“Guess they just weren’t biting today.  Too much talking might have scared them away.  I wonder if they’ll come back later.  Should we turn around and see?  Or maybe bears ate them all.  I don’t think real bears are for babies.  Just Winnie the Pooh . . . Maybe they were having a snack.  Maybe popcorn.  Do you have any popcorn?”

(The ellipses in the paragraph above can be filled in with mindless and innocent prattle from the mouth of a cute four-year-old.  That’s how I picture that ride.  My grandfather, contrariwise, likely heard buzz saws going through sheet metal while fingernails scraped mile-long blackboards.)

When he got me home, my grandfather silently got out of his side of the car, walked around and opened my door, then pointed to my house.  When my mother came to our front door, roughly 30 minutes after sending me off for a day of fishing, my grandfather said to her, in a soft and controlled voice, “I don’t think he’s cut out to be a fisherman.”

Coda to Demonstrate Consistency

My daughter, Becca, was born in 1991, when Gramper was 85.  As I had been his first grandchild, she was his first great-grandchild.  When Becca was two months old, her mom and I left her for the first time, our little lamb, with my parents. My grandfather, dementia slowly overtaking him, had moved in with them for his last days.  When Cindy and I got back from the movie, I asked my mom how things had gone.  She said Becca had started fussing and Gramper had screamed, “Somebody needs to shut that kid up!  Give it a good spanking!”  Once he’d voiced his opinion, he returned to his twilight thoughts, dreaming, I imagine of the day when all human sounds would disappear and he could practice his faith.  Later that winter, the world went silent for him and he was finally able to get some goddamned quiet.

Wouldn’t It?—Notes on the Texas Church Terrorist Attack

I write this with shame radiating from my body and soul.  As an American, as a veteran, as a human being, I’ve just committed an act I’d never ever pictured myself doing.  Living in the Great North Woods in a Tiny White Box, I don’t have running water, so I can’t take the shower I need.  Not that self-disgust comes off with soap and water, but I feel the need to commit some act to cleanse myself.  Maybe writing this will help.

Regular readers know I don’t have vibrant internet service.  I walk across the dirt road I live on, stand outside the cabin there and pick up a Wi-Fi signal, getting a connection that’s slow but capable of letting me upload daily columns to  It’s Sunday evening, November 5, and about an hour ago I was publishing a silly piece on the importance of focus in writing.  Its hook was that out of its 600 or so words only about 30 are on focus—the rest is a series of asides, conjecture and assorted nonsense.  Ha.  Ha.  To be fair, I also write about more serious topics (addiction, patriotism, homelessness, etc.), but this was just a light gag.

While that column was being sucked up into the sky, letter by letter, I looked at Google News and saw there’d been a church shooting in Sutherland Springs, TX, killing at least 25 people and wounding another 30.

Before continuing, I ask for prayers for the dead and wounded, and for their families.  Each victim is a martyr to madness, and I can’t even imagine what the survivors will endure every day for the rest of their lives.  As soon as a legitimate fund has been set up, I pledge to donate immediately a sum significant to my finances.  Please consider doing the same.

Given the terrorist killings in New York this past week, I HAD to know the shooter’s name and his background.  The internet connection here was hinkier than usual, so I grabbed Sam (is a dog), piled into the Jeep and drove the three miles to the convenience store that has good internet.

Now comes my confession.  Now comes my shame.

The whole way there, I was praying.  For the victims?  Sure.  For their families.  Yes.  Mostly, though, I was praying the killer was not Muslim.  Once I’d prayed for the murderer’s lack of ties to Islam, I prayed he wasn’t an illegal immigrant.  Once I’d prayed he wasn’t shouting “Allah Akbar” or Mexican, I prayed he wasn’t African-American.

Why did I pray these things?  Because I live in a country where the President takes an act of terror by a Muslim lunatic in New York, one who came here legally, and calls for the death penalty before he’s been arraigned and the end of an innocuous immigration program.  Because I live in a country where the man we elected began his campaign by labeling illegal Mexican immigrants murderers and rapists and “some good people.”  Because I live in a country where our commander in chief provided more comfort for marching Nazis than he did for John McCain, a goddamned war hero and genuine great man, or the widow of a soldier slain in defense of our country.

My greatest shame?  The reason I need to confess?  A smile broke across my face when I found out the killer was a white veteran piece of garbage instead of a brown Muslim piece of garbage or a Mexican piece of garbage.  I was happy to identify with the killer.  Why, he’s just like me!  Except for being the piece of garbage, I mean. White veterans like us get seen as individual pieces of garbage who’ve gone crazy, not representative of ALL white veterans.

That would be crazy, wouldn’t it, to start rounding up all of us white veterans because of that piece of garbage Devin Kelley who killed those innocent churchgoers in Sutherland Springs, Texas? That would be criminal, wouldn’t it, to require white veterans to register and check in monthly at their local VA, based on the violent terrorism of one white veteran?  That would be un-American, wouldn’t it, to limit the civil liberties of white veterans after a white veteran goes crazy and shoots people while they worship?

Wouldn’t it?

Wouldn’t it?



“But He’s a Muslim”

Next month I’m being awarded a prize, the Community Service Award, from the Turkish Cultural Center in Manchester, at their annual Friendship Dinner.  I’m honored.  I’m pleased.  I’m flabbergasted.  My first thought was they had the wrong man, but since they’d sent the invitation to my post office box in Pittsburg, that seemed unlikely.  According to their website, this award is given to me as the former executive director of Liberty House, a transitional home for formerly homeless veterans, so I tried to figure out what I could have done to deserve such an honor.

It’s unclear to me what connection, if any, the Turkish Cultural Center has with the Turkish government, a government led by a strong man.  Here again I must confess to an ignorance of whether “strong man” in this case should be read as “a leader who must take firm control of a country to lead it through a crisis” (e.g., Franklin Roosevelt) or “a despotic tyrant” (e.g., Joe Stalin.) Last summer, I spent a couple weeks in England, both in London and in the north.  Countless were the conversations I had with Brits convinced the US was under a modified martial law inflicted by a xenophobic madman.  When I explained that life for the vast majority of Americans had not changed one jot or tittle under President Trump, they got the look of an elementary-school guidance counselor talking with a third grader about the bruises on her arms—“There, there, you can tell me about it.”  But I digress.

Whether government-sanctioned or not, the Turkish Cultural Center’s Friendship Dinner is a sweet gesture of brotherhood.  I know it’s bold to say this, but I think friendship is a good thing.  I think awards are fine things (as long as recipients keep their comments to three minutes or less).  Still, I needed to justify, in my own mind, why I should receive an award.

In addition to being led by a strong man of indeterminate category, Turkey is a historically Muslim country.  (I know, I know those of you who still refer to Istanbul as Constantinople and harbor hopes of a reconstructed Roman Empire will disagree.  For my lifetime and my great-grandparents’ lifetimes, Turkey has been Muslim.  That’s “historical” enough for this context.)  I’m not a Muslim, and have made no study of Islamic scriptures, but I do have a story, and that story helps me justify this award.  Let me explain.

Liberty House has a breakfast each Veterans Day, a fundraising event where former Liberty House residents are honored for their accomplishments and each speaks for five minutes or so about what life is like now, not on what led them to be homeless and not on their time at Liberty House.  It is, quite simply, a celebration of progress folks have experienced since they left.  As director, I helped choose the speakers and introduced each of them.  Last year, Veterans Day fell less than a week after election day.  Although I was as surprised as much of the electorate that President Trump had been elected, a fundraising breakfast is no place for controversy, so I was very careful to keep my comments completely apolitical.  I thought.

Before introducing the first speaker, I mentioned that part of the Liberty House ethos is a sense of giving back, that while a homeless veteran might today be in need of assistance, that same veteran, returned to stability, had an obligation to support future vets in need.  So far, so good.  I then mentioned that in my time there, one particular veteran had gone above and beyond in giving back.

I first met Hisham (not his real name, because he wants no credit for his mitvah) when he was locked up awaiting charges related to, as I remember, gun-running and cocaine.  Hisham had grown up in northern Sudan, and had joined the United States Army as a translator, serving in Iraq.  After his honorable discharge, Hisham came to the US, got involved, like many vets, with drugs, alcohol and violence and finally ended up sitting behind bars with me interviewing him for a spot at Liberty House.

Hisham is a mountain of a man with a ready grin.  He came to Liberty House, lived with us for a while, got a job and moved on.  He was not the best resident ever, but he was far from the worst.  He was no better a Muslim than he had to be, just like the other residents were not particularly focused on their Christianity or Judaism.  He was just another good guy who took advantage of the opportunity we offered.  I like him.  We are friends.

As it happened, two or three days before the Veterans Day breakfast, Hisham came to Liberty House and donated $1,000, saying he’d been lucky and wanted to follow the practice of giving back.  He was under no obligation to do anything, and I will say no Christian, Atheist, Jew or Agnostic Liberty House resident had ever done anything so generous before.

Anyway, I told this brief anecdote, then went on to introduce the morning’s speakers.  After the breakfast, though, I was stopped by a red-faced man in a dark suit.  He looked like a man who needed either to get something off his chest or get an EKG.

“How dare you insult the President like that!” he said.

I had no idea what he was talking about, and said so.

“You had no right,” he responded, “to talk about a Muslim that way.  You know how the President feels about Muslims.”

“I wasn’t talking about a Muslim,” I said, feeling reality drift away.  “I was talking about a formerly homeless American veteran who did the right thing.”

“But he’s a Muslim!” the man said, then stormed off.

On Thursday, November 16, I’ll be given a Community Service Award by the Turkish Cultural Center.  No matter what may be said when they introduce me, I’ll know I’m receiving the award because of Hisham.  Hisham is not just Sudanese, not just a formerly homeless veteran, not just Muslim, not just a recovering junkie and not just a criminal.  Hisham is my friend, a man who does the right thing because it is the right thing.  I’ll accept that award on behalf of all the Hishams out there, whether Buddhist, Animist, Christian, Muslim or any other religion.  They are the kind of men I value and try to be.

(Tickets for the Friendship Dinner are available through the Turkish Cultural Center’s Facebook Page.  If you do go, please sidle up to me and introduce yourself.  Even if it’s only to say, “But he’s a Muslim!”)

A Fable

A certain man was a gardener, specializing in beautiful perennial gardens.  Discarding modern, efficient techniques like fertilizer, irrigation and rotation, the man instead relied on intuition, caring and a search for perfection.  For miles around, people came to see each year’s garden, observing the beauty of both change and continuity.  The man was pleased to be where he belonged, and proud to do what he was called to do.

The man’s fame spread, and he was invited to become chief landscaper in a neighboring kingdom.

I would like to be your landscaper,the man said, but I don’t have experience in planning crops, buying supplies or maintaining lawns.  I am, however, a very good perennial gardener.

The leaders of the kingdom assured the man that his skills as a perennial gardener were highly valued, and that others would surely be able to do the planning of crops, the buying of supplies and the maintaining of lawns.  He took the position.

Soon, the man felt overwhelmed and alienated by the daily work of planning crops, buying supplies and maintaining lawns.  Still, he cherished his ability as a perennial gardener

Spending his days planning crops, buying supplies and maintaining lawns, the man still cherished the moments when he could work with perennials, helping them to grow, flourish and become what they were meant to be.  Over time, though, the man felt so burdened by planning crops, buying supplies and maintaining lawns that he began to feel guilty for any time he spent with the perennials.

One day, two surly villagers brought him their only plant, a perennial which had failed to thrive or grow or flower.  Although the couple was hardened, coarse and vile, they did love their plant, in their way, and wanted to see it do well.  They spoke viciously of the others who had promised to help their plant, appearing to believe that they were victims of a conspiracy to hurt them.  The man listened patiently, then talked of the light that he would give the plant, the care he would take with it and the growth it would enjoy.  The villagers left their plant and went away.

The man spent time with the plant, starting to transplant it but being called away by the needs of planning crops, buying supplies and maintaining lawns. He knew that crops, supplies and lawns can wait; plants can’t.  Still, he left the plant to do his duty.

The village couple sent word inquiring about their plant.  The man told himself that tomorrow he would find time to work with the plant.  But tomorrow was filled with planning crops, buying supplies and maintaining lawns.  Every tomorrow was the same.  The couple again sent word, asking about the man’s promises to work with their plant.  Each time, the man told himself that tomorrow would be different.  After all, the man was a very good perennial gardener.  Instead, tomorrow was just the overflow from today.

Finally, the couple came in person to confront the man.  Filled with shame, his mouth tasting of aspirin, the man realized he had forgotten the plant, allowing it to die without light or care or growth.  Instead of a gardener, he was guilty of herbicide.  The man begged the forgiveness of the couple, who treated him as he deserved, comparing him to all the others who had let them down over the years.  They shook the dust off their feet at him and left him alone.



A Vietnam Veterans Death–“And of the dead, speak only truth”

How do you say goodbye to a drunk who didn’t get it?  How do you pay proper respect to a man whose life seems to have been devoted to telling lies and manufacturing more lies to provide evidence for the first round?  How do you miss a man whose corpse you discovered 10 months ago, a half-full vodka bottle near one outstretched hand and an empty just out of reach of the other?

When I first met Chuck, I was director of Liberty House, a transitional-living facility for formerly homeless veterans.  Chuck had been in the Army twice, first in the early 1960s, when he was stationed in Germany and again at the end of the decade when he served in Vietnam.  I say these things, because I’ve seen the proper paperwork, DD-214s that verify this.  At that first meeting, Chuck had been living for two or three weeks at a homeless shelter.  When he found out I was in recovery, he told me he’d been sober for 16 years, and had sponsored a number of men in AA.  The first part was a lie; the second may have been true.  But I doubt it.  Chuck also told me he’d been an infantry scout in Vietnam, spending most of his time behind enemy lines, gathering information to make life safer for the rest of his unit.  His service record indicates he was a jeep mechanic, but that doesn’t necessarily make his stories of combat bravery bunk.  Not necessarily.  Chuck also told me he’d been a high-end antiques dealer, having made hundreds of thousands of dollars buying and selling furniture from the late 18th century.  That may have been true, but when Chuck and I later visited various antique galleries, he seemed to know little more than I about the differences between Chippendale and Queen Anne.  Still, you don’t have to know a market to make a killing in it.  I guess.

During Chuck’s two or three months at Liberty House, we got to know each other fairly well.  Or, honestly, Chuck got to know me—I didn’t really know much that was true about Chuck, other than that he was a good story-teller, that he could be cranky about how coffee was made and that, if we sat outside smoking after the sun went down, he was given to weeping about how alone he was in the world.  Also, how he had betrayed anyone who’d ever loved him, but that was really a setup for more weeping about how badly life had treated him.

When he left Liberty House, he sat me down and made an unusual request.

“Keith, you’re my only true friend, the only man I trust in the whole world.  I’d like for you to be my next-of-kin, the person who makes decisions about me if I can’t.  Would you do that for me?”

Just as when someone says, “I love you” to me, I don’t know what to say except, “I love you, too,” when Chuck asked this, I felt a gun held to my head.  I said, “Sure.”

And thus I was for the next three years, getting phone calls every few months from landlords, cops, nursing homes and others.  Chuck had done this or not done that—what was I going to do about it?  Usually, this involved taking Chuck out for coffee, helping him come up with a plan and sending him on his way.  Even when Chuck started pretending he was completely blind, often so he could grab a woman’s breast or butt, then point to his very, very dark glasses.  I have no doubt Chuck’s vision was getting worse, but he’d always walk around dog crap on the street, and never stumbled at a curb when we’d go for a walk.

This “blindness” wasn’t Chuck’s first horse at the fraudulent rodeo.  Chuck loved to tell stories, typically starring him as the guy who got the girl, made the money, saved the day.  One story Chuck didn’t tell was the reason he’d spent years in a federal penitentiary.  Oh, he’d brag about how wonderful life was in the country-club prison he’d done his time in—and about all the important and famous people he’d met there.  His crime, according to Chuck, was internet-related and involved making lots and lots of money.  This is not true.  Chuck’s crime was convincing everyone in his small town that he was dying of cancer, and sitting back to let them hold fundraisers for him, his wife and their children.  Convincing everyone means everyone.  Even as his charade was falling apart, he never fessed up to his wife or kids.  It was a long con, and he wouldn’t climb off as long as there was any movement left.  Federal prison?  He’d been found guilty of wire fraud—using the telephone and internet, I believe, to defraud his employer of workers’ compensation payments—which carried a maximum 30-year sentence.  He served, I think, five years, but that information came from Chuck, and he wasn’t very reliable regarding things like times and dates and facts and truth in general.

Last January, I got a call from the Veterans Administration Homeless Team, asking if I could check up on Chuck, and try to talk him into going to the medical center for a checkup.  He’d been sick and drinking lately–especially drinking.  Every time I saw Chuck, though, he’d let me know he’d stayed sober the previous couple weeks—even with a tumbler of vodka in front of him on his coffee table.  When I got to Chuck’s place that last time, the door was locked, so I got the landlord to let me in.  That’s when I found the tableau described above.  I sat with Chuck’s corpse for 10 or 15 minutes, waiting for an EMT to declare Chuck dead.

Chuck’s ashes sat in my office at Liberty House until mid-August, when some of them were scattered around the property—the last place I know he was safe, sober and surrounded by people who cared about him.  As I write this, a hundred miles away a group from the Patriot Guard, spearheaded by a genuine saint, Dee Moore, is paying proper respect to Chuck’s military service and interring his remains into a veterans’ cemetery.

“And of the dead, speak only good,” is a Latin motto, but I’m afraid I haven’t captured that here at all.  Instead, “De mortuis nil nisi verum” is what I’m aiming for.  A few truths about Chuck:

He was an alcoholic.

He was a veteran.

I will miss him.

Oh, yes, why didn’t I give Chuck’s last name?  When Chuck first died, I tracked down his former wife, the woman whose reputation Chuck had helped destroy—for who in their small town really believed she hadn’t been in on his scam?  We had a pleasant 10-minute conversation, and I left it with good feeling for her, their children and all the other people whose trust Chuck had chewed up.  She has long since moved on, is active in Al-Anon and deserves to let the dead bury the dead.