June 19, 2010


            Lardas Johnson has a decision to make. Not an ordinary 'smoking or non-smoking' type of decision but one that truly troubles him. It perplexes and taxes his mind. There is a deep-seated doubt in Lardas that he cannot shake.
            That is the core of his quandary. He cannot decide whether or not to send more money to Brother Carl Wayne Speck, the pastor of the Blood Bought Baptist Church Of The Risen Savior Who Bled For Us.
            Lardas is a big man, just a smidgen over 350 pounds. His suit de jour is a faded and oft repaired pair of bib overalls over a blue t-shirt. Unless he's going to work when he puts on his white mechanic's shirt under the overalls. Handsome is never used in the same sentence as Lardas. Except by Stormy. Stormy is the other half of the Johnson clan and built to fit Lardas. She knows he is a gentle man and always content with his lot in life.
            Until a year ago when the miracle happened.
            "But Darlin' I feel obliged. We pledged to send the money and we ought to keep our solemn oath," said Lardas.
            "I don't care. That man ain't nothin' but bad news. He is a liar and a cheat and I hope he burns in hell for what he done to us."
            "Come on Stormy we got to keep our promise. What happened was not his fault."
            "The answer is no Lardas. As long as there is a breath of life in me that man will never get another penny of our money."
            The Johnsons live in the middle of a barren field in Cumberland County, Georgia at the bottom midsection of the state not far north of the Florida border. Not quite the middle of nowhere but somewhat west of Hahira and the Okefenoke Swamp
            The doublewide is in Hidden Oaks, a community of trailers just off of State Route 188 between Cairo and Ochlocknee. In the yard there is a battered blue plastic swimming pool full of stagnant brown water and black bugs. A brindle mongrel dog, vicious now from the captivity, is staked in the middle of the yard. His only respite from the unflinching Georgia sun is a doghouse made from an oil drum. It has been seven human years since the dog has been free of his chain. He believes his name is Shut Up.
            Stormy and Lardas have been married for 10 years. They married because they both realized they had found someone they could at least tolerate. But over the years as they shared life they fell in love and Lardas, like most married men, wanted to perpetuate himself by siring a full brood of little Lardases.
            But despite their enthusiastic and not infrequent exertions the younguns were not coming. Both went to the doctors in Jacksonville and medically they were fine. So Lardas and Stormy started praying and seeking the Lord. Lardas was especially smitten by the program from the Blood Bought Baptist Church Of The Risen Savior Who Bled For Us.
            The show was broadcast from Valdosta where Brother Wayne Speck and his bee-hived wife Sister Angelica Jean preached a peculiar message they called plantation faith. They seemed to be saying that if you sent your seed (money) to God (but addressed it to them) then He was scripturally obliged to use all the workers on his earthly plantation to bring about doubling your harvest (usually money) and send it back to you. Brother Wayne and Sister Angelica Jean never came right out and said God was willing to swap favors but it was clear that Brother Speck was willing to grease any palms, even those with scars.
            But that was not what necessarily interested Lardas. He was interested in the miracles Brother Wayne performed. It was American primitive kabuki. The stock characters, the obese woman, the child in a wheelchair, the blind man or the gaunt heroin/crack addict Satan worshipper would be pushed into the frame and Brother Wayne would announce their malady. He approached them like a man with a newspaper ready to swat a cockroach and smack them dead center in the middle of their forehead with the palm of his healin’ hand while screaming with holy spittle thick in the air, “In the name of Jeezuz I rebuke Ye Satan, flee this child of God in the name of Jeezuz I command it!”  Suddenly the blind could see, the lame could walk, the mongoloids quit drooling.
Lardas, despite believing in his heart of hearts that some of the healees made repeat performances, secretly sent off a substantial love offering for a miracle prayer cloth and reverently placed it on Stormy's stomach while she slept.
            A month later she was with child.
            "See Honey, I told you it would work if we had enough faith," he said.
            "I wish you woulda told me you was puttin' that thing on my stomach every night," Stormy said. "It's kind of spooky is what it is. How do we know that ain't nothin' but an old cheap piece of pillowcase?”
            “That don’t matter. What matters is Brother Speck putting his healin’ hands on it and praying to the Lord. My faith paid off and God answered my prayer. And now we gonna have us a son.”
            “How do you know it’s gonna be a boy Mr. Smartass?”
            “Because that’s what I prayed for.”
            Despite her initial misgivings Stormy succumbed to the power of Mommyness. Her love for Lardas deepened as she slowly accepted the idea that here was the opportunity to create their own family and to break the chain of some of the issues that plagued both their families. Together they would raise their boy right. Wayne could teach him to hunt and fish, to respect the land to only kill what you can eat. Stormy would make sure he had good manners and treated women right. He would be a little gentleman.
            And so they did. Darnell Wayne Johnson (they both called him Bubby) came fully into their lives as the days cooled and the world turned brown, red and yellow. It was love at first sight. Bubby was a handful, curious and gregarious. Lardas insisted he wear overalls and a Mohawk. Stormy insisted he brush his teeth and say Sir and Mam. Lardas took him riding on the four-wheeler. Stormy made sure he was buckled correctly in the carseat. Lardas taught him it was OK to pee in the yard so long as no one saw. Stormy insisted he lift the lid and wash his hands.
            The only thing missing was another one just like him. But as a girl of course. Stormy longed for tea parties and calico dresses. Lardas longed to meet a little version of Stormy, to watch her grow to be as beautiful as her mother. To be able to say, “That beautiful young lady is my daughter.”
            So they tried. And tried. They tried to count their blessings, to be grateful for the precocious boy who filled their days, who hijacked their lives and set them free with his unadulterated, unconditional, non-judgmental love. He saw only the good, still blind to their faults, still innocent. Still. Another child would complete the family picture.
            “OK, OK. We’ll talk about it later.”
“No we will not.”
“But Stormy I feel like I owe him for all he done for us.”
“And just what has he done Lardas other than bringing us more heartache than anybody oughta ever have?”
The call came at work.
“Lardas you gotta meet me at the hospital.”
“What’s wrong?”
“It’s Bubby. Just get to the hospital fast.”
The boy was in the grasp of many monitors. Unresponsive. Asleep. Lardas hated himself as soon as the thought crossed his mind, but it looked like a pit crew. They were checking the boy's oil, looking under his hood while others filled his tank and checked the pressure. The crew chief/doctor said it was like a coma but not. Such trauma was hard to treat but children are very resilient and can often endure much more than we believe they can.
Inside himself the boy was at peace. He was playing, running and jumping with his father on a cool November evening. Outside his inner reality, unable to pierce the veil, Lardas and Stormy were stunned, frenzied, unable to cope with their only son, their only child, reduced to this.
“What happened?”
“I’m so sorry. I was backing the truck up. I didn’t see him. I told him to stay in the house. He could not have moved that fast. The back wheel, it ran over him. It was the mudhole, the ground was soft but still I run over him. I am so sorry.”
“Oh my God Stormy how could you do that?”
“I didn’t mean to I love him just as much as you do don’t blame me please don’t blame me it was an accident oh God oh God please don't blame me.”
Together they stood lost on the tide of grief and unbelief.
            Next came the vigil. The boy was never alone. Always Stormy or Lardas were with him. Lardas began putting the prayer cloth on the boy’s head. Weeping in prayer, crying out to a deaf god. Stormy talked to him hoping her voice would pierce the veil, having to believe her son could hear her. Her voice was the voice of God for the boy. He more felt than heard her but it eased his pains, slowed his decay.
Lardas wrote a letter to Brother Wayne telling him what happened and asking for a new prayer cloth, a new miracle. Instead Brother Wayne came and stood all night with the father joining him in prayer, easing his mind.
Still. It was not enough. At shift change with Lardas and Stormy both in the room Bubby’s body jolted, his small body tensed and went limp and he released/set free a long slow breath as this life left him. Alarms screamed as all signs of vital activity ceased. Stormy’s soul erupted in a scream, a primal otherworldly blood chilling lament, the sound of all hope and joy forever gone into the ether, the cry of a mother left bereft and now childless by her own hand.
            Lardas found he needed to rest. He could no longer hold his body upright, he fell to his knees, his head slumped onto his chest. His mind slipped into a void of nothingness, the pain, the grief too visceral, too much.
The doctor and chaplain came. One offered only physiological reasoning, the other trite observations on our inability to understand God’s plans or his reasoning. In essence he told these two no longer parents that they would just have to reconcile themselves to the ways of an unknowable and unfathomable God and wait for time to ease their burden.
            The funeral was standing room only. Family friends and complete strangers gathered to remember the boy, to love the parents. Wayne Speck sat and wept unobtrusively on the back row. An unfamiliar sensation overwhelmed him. Prayer cloths and plantation faith were no solace as the fist of God held him.
Lardas arranged with the funeral director to have the prayer cloth that brought them Bubby put into the boy’s hand before they sealed the coffin. He felt the boy should have it with him over on the other shore.
            After the red-hot grief had cooled enough to speak the boy’s name without it burning his tongue Lardas continued the conversation with Stormy. She had resolved within herself that the trouble lay with that piece of shit so-called preacher in Valdosta. He had done this. If he had stayed out of their lives none of this would have happened.
            “But Stormy it ain’t his fault and I gave him my word.”
“If it ain’t his fault then who’s is it? Tell me Lardas, who’s fault is it?”
“It ain’t nobody’s fault. We just have to remember the time we did have with Bubby. They were good times Stormy, the best times of my life.”
“I’m telling you right now and you listen good Lardas Johnson. You send that man another dime and I will leave you. You gotta decide, me or him.”
Lardas decided his wife, blind in her rage was wrong and he took the biggest gamble in his life. He sent cash money to Brother Wayne to get another prayer cloth as full of the anointing of God as Brother Wayne could make it.
            At night when left with only his thoughts and his regrets and the sound of his forever wife succumbing to the solace of sleep he took the cloth from it’s hiding place, unfolded it like an altar cloth and laid it on her belly.

 © 2010 William Terrell

June 15, 2010

A Killer Poet

I distinctly remember the first time I worked a full shift at the Sheriff’s Office. I was driving northbound on the interstate enjoying the sensation of being THE MAN. The Poe-lease. The Five-O. I was armed with a 9mm Smith & Wesson semi-automatic firearm, pepper spray, a ticket book and just enough experience to be dangerous. A poet I was not. A warrior I was really trying to be.
Then, reality. My mind began trying to embrace the reality that whatever came out of that state-of-the-art super-duper Motorola radio would be my responsibility. Whether it be a burglar alarm, a murder, a broken down vehicle, a rape, a funeral escort, a suicide, a stranded traveler, an armed robbery, an unruly juvenile, a molestation, a hazard in the road or any of the other innumerable versions of malice and mayhem I would have to respond.
My mind might have the luxury of having a few minutes to formulate a plan en route. Or it might not. It could erupt so quickly right in front of me that my body would respond quicker than I could think. And either way I would have to get it right. And fix it. Or at least contain it till the fixer could get there. This was heavy and I was suddenly not sure I could handle the weight.
What to do? I could trust my instincts. Believe in my training. Clear my mind. Respond to the situation at hand with flexibility and react appropriately to even the smallest changes.
Sounds easy enough.
Except it isn’t.
It’s life and death.
To be unprepared is to be defeated.
How did I get myself into this? Am I as ready for this as I can possibly be given the amount of mental and physical preparation available to me? Many times while practicing aikido I have asked myself the same questions.
One of the reasons aikido attracted was the notion of being a gentleman warrior, to be able to defend myself without resorting to unnecessary violence, to possess the latent ability to respond to a threat quickly and effectively, to be a coiled spring. To contain the dichotomy of the calm, polite, well-mannered berserker.
There has been a great deal written about the concept of the warrior-poet, just exactly what the term means and the role of such a person in different cultures. It is an interesting concept but I am too much of a novice to speak intelligently about anything but my own experience.  I profess to be no expert. My thoughts reflect a great simplification of a very complex concept and are not my final thoughts on the subject. This is just one of the ways I have examined the idea of a warrior poet in my own life.
For me the concept of the warrior poet can be fairly straightforward and not necessarily an esoteric dissertation (although there is a time and a place for such things) on mind and no-mind. Simply stated in this train of thought the poet is my conscious mind, the warrior is my body. Training the mind is much harder than training the body.
There are times when my body takes over with reflexive movement faster than my conscious mind can formulate. Call it instinct. Call it training. Call it muscle memory. Either way I know that in some threat situations my body will respond independently without me knowingly/deliberately willing it to.
One day at the office a co-worker came up behind me wielding a pencil as if it were a knife. My arm rose in response so fast I drove the pencil lead into my arm where it promptly snapped off. I do not remember seeing her until after I responded. My body acted of its own accord. There was no time to dash off a haiku. No time for mushin no shin (a relaxed but hyper alert state of mind). No time to decide which stance I should assume in response to what was basically a shomenuchi  (overhead blow to the head) attack. My body responded in defense of itself, true self-defense.
In this situation it is to my advantage to have a body that is flexible and strong, to be relaxed but alert. The kind of body developed through the steady practice of aikido, the situational awareness fostered through the consistent practice of aikido techniques both on and off the mat and the mindset of not expecting a threat to be around every corner but to be prepared for it nonetheless.
One night while again patrolling a stretch of I-95 I pulled over a passenger car for speeding. The location of the stop was miles away in either direction from the nearest exit. Any backup would be at least 10-15 minutes away.
The driver got out and so did five other adult males. Then to really jack things up the driver proceeded to urinate right in front of me. He was saying he believed himself to be the alpha male and that I was just another dog.
My first response was to notify dispatch to have my brothers in arms coming to me. Just in case. In this case having a strong and flexible body would help. Aikido technique would help a great deal but if this situation escalated the S&K .45 semi-automatic high velocity projectile tsuki (a straight punch) would have been my optimum technique choice.
It was my strong and flexible brain, the poet, the thinker, the rational, conniving part of me that kept me alive. The aikido training, the breath control, the soft focus, the confidence. No panic. Staying calm and cool and waiting for backup. Keeping all of them in sight and not let them get behind me. Use my training and experience both on and off the mat to place my body in the best possible defensive position. To keep my weapon guarded but available
And to talk. The five passengers leaned against the car and broke out the cigarettes. I kept a running conversation going with the driver, consciously trying to defuse the conflict, to avoid the use of deadly force. But if they had bumrushed me the warrior, the instinct, the training, the muscle memory in me would have taken over and I would have fired at them. I would have done everything possible to go home and not to the morgue at the end of the shift.
Of course the best possible way to avoid conflict would have been to never have put on the badge. Or the gi.  But where’s the fun in that?
This essay was also posted on my dojo's blog and on two prominent aikido websites.

June 7, 2010

A Great Legacy Pt. 2

These are but a few of the many talented writers and poets from the great Southern tradition in American literature. My favorites in this particular group are William Faulkner, a visionary and genius by any definition and the writer who set the standard for all who came after, Flannery O'Connor, unrivaled writer of short stories and Fred Chappell, a ferocious talent as a writer and poet.

I was not aware of the strong Southern contribution in American letters until I was introduced to some of these artists  in college. One of the reasons for this outporing (especially with Faulkner) was their ability to combine their sense of history, a tradition of story telling, a strong sense of history and place with new ways of writing and thinking (stream of consciousness etc). They were able to look both forward and backward across the historical landscape.

At a time when many considered the South a land of poor, racist, unlettered folk who couldn't get over losing the Civil War these artists were creating works that will stand the test of time and remain some of the best writing in any language from any time period. It is a tremendous legacy of which I am very proud.