Category Archives: Jer’s Myths

He was Me (Dad’s Story)

After last week’s post, I commissioned my father to write this particular story.  It is one so real to me that I struggle to remember that I was not actually in it!  Also, those of you who know me well will be struck with how the last few paragraphs share identical sentiments you’ve heard me rant about dozens of times.  Indeed, I was startled to see the resemblance, and then ashamed of my surprise.  Of course!  I got my passion for connecting to history from my own connection with my dad (and most of my other good passions I got from him too).  I hope you enjoy it!   

I remember the day very well. As a boy, it was my task to clean and dust the basement. It was one of those finished basements with the brick fireplaces and wood paneling popular in the 70’s. We spent a lot of time in that basement (as opposed to the living room, which was reserved for “guests” and almost never used), so it got messier quicker.

There was delicious irony in my mother assigning this particular task. On the wall an old photo of a civil war soldier looked out from a very ornate frame that my mom had to clean when she was a kid. She hated cleaning that frame, because it was so ornate—it took forever. I grew up around this picture and its frame, and now it was my turn. But unlike my mother’s situation, my taskmaster was not as persnickety, and so all I had to do was to take a vacuum brush to it, and then wipe it down with a cloth dampened with “Endust”–some wonderful modern chemicals.

On this particular day, however, I was not appreciating the lucky break that history had given me, but rather thinking what a silly chore this was.  And so I began to wipe this stupid frame with the stupid old picture in it, thinking what a beautiful day I was wasting. But, as I did so, the light from the window reflected off the picture in a way that made me actually look at the picture. My half closed eyes slowly got wider and wider. And I stopped wiping and just stared. And gaped.

I knew I was looking at my great great grandfather, Rich McGee. He was a confederate soldier in the civil war.  And he was around 16 when he joined. I knew all this. But it began to dawn on me that the eyes that were looking at me were about the same age as eyes that had been joylessly cleaning with Endust.

A stocky, 16 year old. Brown hair. Round face. Light colored eyes.

And then I saw him.

He was me. I was not looking at a picture, I was looking in a mirror. I had grown up into this picture.

It was both an exhilarating and tremendously creepy sensation, all blended into one. There was at once a sense of bonding with the past, and at the same time a realization that his world was nothing like mine, and the issues that he faced were quite different. I had to eventually stop and go upstairs to tell Mom my epiphany. She just smiled.

This got me wondering what had happened to Rich McGee.  And so I asked my grandmother Dana what she remembered about Rich McGee in the civil war. This is the story that she told me, with probably some details gone awry:

There were three brothers who had signed up for the confederate army, I believe from Patrick County. The mother was understandably worried for his sons. She made the oldest promise that he would take care of the youngest.  I don’t know why the middle child was not a part of this family pact, maybe the mother felt that he could take care of himself (but not necessarily others).

I don’t remember what battle it was—it could have been the second battle of Manassas. But after a day of combat, the older brother could not find the youngest among the fires that the soldiers huddled around. Desperate, he made his way out in the darkness, away from the fires, and back unto the battlefield looking for his brother. While searching on that battlefield, he was shot by a Union sniper, and was killed instantly.

Eventually, they did find the younger brother out there in the battlefield.   He was alive, but seriously wounded. About a half a year later, he would die from those wounds.

Only the middle child, Rich, remained.  Again, I am not sure which battle, but he was eventually taken prisoner, and waited the rest of the war out in a union camp.

Rich McGee eventually lived into his 90’s and died in the 1930’s. He had a son, also named Rich, and that son also lived into his 90’s and died in the 1960’s. I have a picture of that son, then grown old, there with his little great grandson—me.

And when I think of this, it reminds me how young we are as a nation, how the things we read about in history books are not really that far away. It also reminds me that we are never born in a vacuum. That we stand on the shoulders of the decisions and choices of those before us. And we stand with similar equipment in mind and body. This doesn’t stop each new generation from taking history in another direction. But it does tell us at what point we start.

I have come to appreciate the Chinese value of honoring our ancestors. But I don’t have to burn incense or paper money to do so. I can honor them by remembering their stories.

So thanks, Jer, for letting me do some remembering and some reminiscing–some honoring.

By Cary Clifton

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A Love Story

This is likely my most foundational myth.  I share it now because of its relevance to my last post.  Click on the “My Myths” page above for more info about what these myths are all about.  

Most expats in my community headed back to the States during the lazy summers of High School.  The ones who remained were at the pool everyday.  Among them were Coach Harris and his progeny, who at the time numbered five.  They couldn’t afford seven plane tickets anywhere, so instead they kept us in business.  Everyday I watched them swim from my perch atop the lifeguard stand.

I think the main reason why some people did not like Coach Harris was because they didn’t know what to do with him.  He had all these cute kids, but he himself was big, bald, buff and scary.  He appeared taller then he really was.  He kept his head shaved because he had started to go bald in his early twenties and didn’t want to deal with it.  He taught high school math and was intelligent, but he was also quite emotional, dramatic, and judgmental.  He wasn’t mean, brutally honest to a fault perhaps, but not mean.  Once he screamed at me when I lost a big wrestling match and called me an idiot, but I don’t hold it against him.  He was caught up in it.  I think most people did not like him because he neither said hello nor smiled when he passed you on the sidewalk.  But his intensity and the fear he inspired kept us wrestlers in shape and his four little boys in tow.  Now his wife had just given birth to their fifth: a girl.  Some people feared for her.  How would this guy raise a daughter?

Once or twice I wondered this myself as I watched the Harris boys jump off the boards.  They loved the diving boards.  Coach would often join them, teaching them how to make big splashes, dive, and do flips.  But for hours after Couch would retire to his big towel shared by his wife and little daughter, his sons’ ceaseless jumping would keep wet a closed circuit on the pavement from the pool to the boards.

The three eldest took great pride and pleasure in jumping off the twelve foot high dive.  But the youngest was still too scared.  Elijah was four, scrawny, and ridiculously cute.  One day he turned his over-sized head and cast his big brown eyes on the high dive.  He wanted to join his brothers.

“Daddy, can I jump off the high dive?” he asks, staring up at the board.

“Are you sure son?  It’s pretty high,” says Coach.

“Yeah, but I want to.”

At our pool nobody is allowed to climb down the high dive ladder.  It is too long, wet, steep, and slippery.   Of course, most lifeguards, myself included, were not martinets about it.  But Coach squats down, looks his son in the eye and says, “It’s your decision Elijah, but I want this to be clear: if you decide to go up the ladder, the only way down is jumping.  It’s the rules.  Are you sure you still want to do this?”

“Yeah.”

“Great.  If you think you are up to it, I think you are too.”

Elijah slowly starts to climb the ladder.  Caleb, the eldest, looks concerned.

“Are you sure Elijah?” he says. “Won’t you be scared?  It’s pretty high.”

“I can…do it,” Elijah mumbles.

The steps on the ladder are too big for him, but after some awkward climbing he arrives at the top and beholds the world from twelve feet up.  His eyes pop.  There is no place higher in all the world.

After a few short seconds he musters his courage and begins to inch his way slowly down the board.  His arms are not long enough to reach the railings on both sides so he grabs the right side with both hands and walks woodenly sideways in his sopping red swim shorts.  But he quickly runs out of railing and faces the board’s lonely extension into oblivion.  The panic starts.

“Dad, I’m scared,” he said.

“You can do it,” Coach calls back, “I believe in you.”

Elijah’s brothers join his dad on the side.

“You can do it!”

“Go Elijah!”

With knees wobbly, Elijah slowly lowers himself to his hands and knees.  He painfully relinquishes the metal rail and starts to crawl forward.

As the line behind the high dive grows, I worry that being the lifeguard on duty I might have to expedite matters.  But impatience thaws as those in the line become invested in the delightful drama of this little guy’s jump.  They join the cheering crowd.

“Come on buddy!”

“You can do it!”

As Elijah journeys down the board, his crawl becomes slower and slower, and he hunkers lower and lower, until he is finally lying face down, at the end of all things.  With his nose pressed into the sandy-textured surface his eyes peep over the edge.

“Daddy, I don’t want to do this!”

Coach replies, “You have to buddy.  Now stand up.”

At this point, patrons from around the pool find themselves congregating around Coach, adding their voice to the encouragement.  Through the power of cheer they hoist Elijah to a crouch.  Then they start the “one-two-three-jump” routine, but when they get to “jump” Elijah remains motionless, tense, his big eyes staring at the water.  After a few disappointed seconds they start again, but at “two” they stop.  Elijah has burst into tears.

“Daddy, Daddy,” he says through chortled gasps, “don’t … make …me …. do … it. I’m scared, I don’t …want to.”  His knees now shake uncontrollably, and his nose is running.  The mood of the crowd begins to alter.

“Ok, that’s enough.  Get him down now,” an older man barks.

Coach whips him a look that shuts him up, but as time ticks on those looks become less effective.  Some of the crowd’s cheers for Elijah become muttered jeers against his father.  I feel that it might be gracious to provide an opportunity to end this.  I began to speak, “Elijah, its OK.  You can climb…” but coach gives me a glare, and my voice trails off.  He was scary and bald.

But Elijah still won’t jump.  The exciting and uplifting drama that had brought in the crowd and stalled the impatience of those in line was now becoming the grotesque sight of an ill-tempered father needlessly torturing his son.  The crowd thins.  Many give up on jumping off the boards in order to escape.  I feel it too, the way you want to hide in your chair when someone on stage is embarrassing themselves, the way you want to turn the other way when a child is being spanked in public.  Those who stayed either donned a grim face suitable for watching parental inadequacy or became vocal hecklers.

“Why are you doing this to him?”

“Somebody needs to get that kid down.”

As Elijah continues to sob, the crowd focuses on Coach, and as Coach’s looks grow increasingly ineffective, he turns to his son.

“I believe in you Elijah.  You can do it.  Jump!”

But when chokes and sobs progress to delirium, the crowd turns from Coach to me.  The second time I open my mouth Coach raises a hand, “Please Jeremy,” and while looking up he says,

“Son, I love you.  You made a decision to climb up that ladder knowing that you would have to jump.  I am going to hold you to your word.  You can do it.”

At several points during this entire spectacle Elijah ran back to the railing, once as far as to the top of the ladder, but he always came back.   When his Father says these last words Elijah is at the edge of the board again.  Elijah responds by taking a few breathes and calming himself a bit.  Then, during a lull in the cheering, while most are focused on denouncing Coach and I, while I am absorbed in figuring out how best to salvage my own reputation in the situation, Elijah crouches a little lower.  Then, with body tense, hops lightly off.

Splash!  The crowd goes wild. Elijah himself comes up out of the water with a grin big enough to match the size of his eyes.  Pure joy.  His brothers help him to the side.  “That was so cool!” Elijah squealed as he clambered out.  His father kneels in front of him.

“Son, I’m so proud of you.  I knew you could do it.”

“Thanks Dad,” Elijah squeaks and quickly pulls away.

“What? Where are you going?” Coach asks confused.

Elijah turns as he runs, “I’m doing it again!”

Elijah spent the rest of the day jumping off the high dive.  The crowd dissipated.  Coach and even Elijah’s brothers eventually left him to make his own closed circuit on the pavement.  But I stayed at my post until the pool closed watching this child and pondering his transformation.  It seems to me that my graciousness and the crowd’s compassion would have had Elijah ashamed, crying, huddling with his mommy and baby sister, wrapped in a towel and sucking pulpy juice through a straw while silently watching his brothers jump off the boards again and again without him.  It seems that only his father really loved him, and that enough to stand up to the crowd, to stand up to the lifeguard and, above all, to stand up to his own son’s tears.  What is love which damages its object?  What is love when it is motivated by the immediate gratification of our emotional “philanthropic” insecurities?

What is love?

I pondered all this and more high aloft in my sun-baked, concrete tower.


Fire

After I first began lifting weights and started getting pretty buff, I was ready for music camp.  My mom was always trying to get me to go to camps.  I hated going because I stuttered.  I would have to introduce myself and stutter on my name, then they would think I’m either stupid or telling a joke, which for me amounted to the same thing.  But Mom would make me go anyway.  Though it was hard, today I am thankful for her kick out the door.

One of the last nights of music camp they built a bonfire.  The flickering light emboldened me to strike up a conversation with one of the girls I had a crush on.   Anna was as gorgeous as a 7th grader could be, and I suspected that she was interested in me too.  But as we were trying keenly to entertain each other, another guy makes a move.  He walks up and makes as if to join the discussion.  At that moment I am saying something and stuttering heavily.  He chimes in with a loud, dull voice, “st-st-st-st-stupid.”

Anger rises in me.  Thoughts flutter in my brain.  “He’s mocking me…my stuttering…he’s mocking me about stuttering in front of a hot girl…he’s small and annoying.”  In a flash of rage, I see a vision of myself grabbing his belt buckle with my near arm, grabbing his collar with my other hand, pulling him towards me and, in one smooth motion, turning him upside down and throwing him into the fire.  I lean towards him with my hands tense.

I pause.  “Holy crap,” I think to myself, “I am going to kill this kid.”

I realized something about myself that day.  I was now powerful enough to do real damage.  A child can get mad, throw tantrums, and punch blindly with consequences amounting to a handful of bruises at most.  But the tantrums of men can kill.

Anyway, though I didn’t throw him into the fire, I still got the little bastard.  Anna was disgusted by him and sympathized with me.  Stuttering always gets the girls.

This is another myth.

 Also, I wanted to say thanks to all that responded, privately and publicly, to the “Loved in Hell” post.  And in other news, Alicia gets back in less than 2 weeks!  


Armrest Wars

I extend my duffel bag awkwardly in front of me, shuffle my feet, and focus on making myself as narrow as possible.  Still, I bump at least two shoulders as I walk down the aisle.  I see my seat, stuff my bag in the overhead bin, and plop down next to an expressionless, somewhat girthy, but still middling middle-aged man whose chest hair protrudes out the stretched neck of a faded blue polo.  He does not move.

Normally I love flying seated next to transfixed automatons.  I am even cool with a little drooling.  No big deal.  But this man is not situated as a man should be when accommodating another paying passenger.  He stares straight ahead, his body centered in the seat, his legs splay wide, his weight forward, his elbows out, his radius and ulna hugging the top of the armrest, and his hand curling over and gripping its end.  He had claimed the land and was not budging.  I lean towards my other armrest.  This was going to be a long flight.

We trundle down the runway, and I get a little angrier.  We take off, and I get even angrier.  He reaches with his far hand to get a bag of Cheetos from his suitcase, opens the bag with one hand, eats it with one hand, wipes his fat face with one hand, stuffs the empty bag into the seat pocket in front of him with one hand, and I feel my blood pressure threatening to blow a hole in my brain.  And what kind of person keeps bags of Cheetos in their briefcase anyway?

I get out a book and try to distract myself, but I immediately notice my elbow grazing his hairy forearm.  I relax my shoulder and our skin touches.  Interesting.  I push down gently.  Nothing happens.  A little more.  Nothing happens.  Over the next 10 minutes I pretend to read while digging increasingly deeper at 30-second intervals.  But the bastard does not move.  Harder, deeper, and into the flesh of his forearm.  I am starting to hurt myself now.  How can he stand this?

I give up, on that tactic at least, and put my book away without finishing a paragraph.  “Bring it on,” I think to myself, “let’s make this real uncomfortable.”  Slowly, I start laying my arm down on his.  It gets weird really quick.  There we are, two strange men staring at the seat backs in front of us, practically holding hands.  I hold out as long as I can before I give up and make for the lavatory.  As I wash my hands vigorously I look in the mirror.  What is up with this guy?

I poke my head out of the bathroom and immediately spy him looking out the window with both arms folded across his chest!  I race towards the seat, but I am too late.  He turns, sees me coming, and re-stakes his claim on the armrest.

I almost lose it.  I almost scream.  I almost grab his neck and break it like a pencil.

Instead I sit, awed at my anger.  Have I ever been this angry?  But why is he doing it?  What a jerk!  I am entitled to the armrest just as much as he is!  Why can’t he just fold his arms like he obviously wants to?  He must enjoy depriving me.  But why do I care?  Why does this man exert so much power over my emotions?  Is my anger simply due to my discomfort?  Probably not.  I had been a missionary kid.  Uncomfortable travelling was my life.  Air conditioning vents had dripped on me for whole flights and then doused me with a cold and muddy liter upon landing.  I had been packed into truck beds under windowless tin covers with dozens of Filipinos in the middle of July.  I had lived in airports for over a day in the eternal limbo of rescheduling.  And I had never been this angry.  Afterall, I could sit in a much narrower seat with no armrest, smashed up against the wall of the plane on one side and a horde of people on the other, with smelly air conditioner water dripping on my head every two seconds, and I know it would not bother me nearly as much as this does.  The problem, I realize, is that somebody else is involved in a specific way; he is selfishly, knowingly, needlessly, and continually, treating me unfairly.

And then something snaps inside of me.  I give up on justice.  What’s the use of it?  It is just stressing me out.  For the rest of the flight the man still does not move, and I maintain a wooden lean and shift of my body weight to accommodate him, but I am happy.  From time to time, I look at him, and barely hold in my laughter as he continues his death grip.  My back starts hurting, but it is no big deal.  It is temporary, and I am happily finishing my book.

Thanks middling man.  You were a marvelous teacher.

This is the rough draft of a new myth I wrote yesterday.  You can see an explanation of the project and a few more myths on the “My Myths” page above.