My Most Unforgettable Character: Gordon Baxter

One of the most interesting people I’ve ever known was a pilot, a radio DJ, and a writer for several of the little weekly papers in our corner of East Texas: someone I greatly admired and wanted to be like. His name was Gordon Baxter.

Bax was born in Port Arthur, Texas, on December 25, 1923. He was also an entertainer, singer and emcee for little country bands in that area. I grew up listening to Gordon while I was getting ready for school, mostly on AM radio powerhouse KLVI in Beaumont. He was on every morning beginning at 6:00 am. For the first hour, he would play only gospel songs – he called it “Come to Jesus” music. He featured a lot of Mother Maybelle and the original Carter Family Singers.

He would talk about how beautiful the dawn was. He would tell funny stories about everyday things. One morning he kept playing the same song, over and over, and when someone would call to complain, he told them he was playing different songs – their radio must be stuck. He would play music guaranteed to poke fun at the folks who took themselves too seriously – “Little boxes, on the hillside, little boxes, made of tickey-tackey” was one that I especially remember. And he loved to make his audience consider things that sometimes made them uncomfortable. “Go on, think about it,” he once said during the Civil Rights struggles in the late 1960s. “How would you feel if you were black? How would you want people to treat you?”

He used to say that radio was the most personal of all forms of mass communication. “It’s from my lips to your ears,” he would say. “What’s more personal than that?”

Gordon was good friends with another Beaumont radio personality, J.P. Richardson. Baxter and their other friends mostly knew him as “Jape,” but he was more famously known as “The Big Bopper” for his breakout hit record, “Chantilly Lace.” When Richardson was killed in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens, Bax wrote a song, “Gold Records in the Snow.” Later, he did an on-the-air, moment-by-moment description of his friend’s funeral procession.

Bax served in the Merchant Marine in the South Pacific during World War II. When his ship was sunk out from under him, he joined the Army Air Corps and became a gunner in B-17s. More than once, I remember, he would fly a little single-engine aircraft into the edge of a hurricane and radio back a live report to his listeners on the Upper Texas coast.

Flying was his real passion. When the editor of Flying magazine visited Beaumont in 1970, Baxter cornered him as he was heading out the door and shoved three of his articles into the man’s hands. He stood there and read them, then asked, “Why aren’t you writing for us?” And so his column, “Bax Seat,” began and continued for more than 25 years. He also wrote for Car and Driver magazine, as well as authoring a dozen different books, most of which are still in print.

When the editorial board at Flying wanted to do a feature about an old-school, “seat-of-his-pants” flyer learning to fly by instruments, they asked Gordon to do it. He said, “Instrument flying is an unnatural act, probably punishable by God.” But he went ahead and did it. I remember hearing him talk about it on his radio show and write about it for the magazine. He went on to earn a number of advanced aviation certifications, but in his heart, he always remained an open cockpit, stick and rudder, “pasture” pilot.

Gordon Baxter – Pilot, Author, DJ

I got to meet Bax on several occasions. Once, for a high school dramatic reading assignment, I read a story he had written about going skydiving and breaking his ankle. “It was worth it,” he wrote. “Any good folly is worth whatever you’re willing to pay for it.” I called Bax later, to tell him about it. He laughed and dedicated the next record to my high school speech teacher – “The Day I Jumped from Uncle Harvey’s Plane,” by Roger Miller.

Gordon died June 11, 2005, leaving behind a wife, nine children and 16 grandchildren. Among other honors, he has been inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame and the Lone Star Flight Museum. His family donated his broadcasting archives – 50 years of recordings – to Lamar University and their campus radio station, KVLU, which still airs his “Best of Bax” program every week.

So thanks, Bax – thanks for keeping us company, for the great songs, the way you made us laugh, and the way you made us think. For the way you loved flying, and the way you made us love it, too. You were definitely one of a kind.

Some Thoughts on Small Town Living

My wife and I first moved to Haskell in July 1980, and for 17 of the next 26 years, I served as the minister of the First Christian Church – 1980-82, 1986-92, and 1997-2006. A few years ago I moved back to my Southeast Texas roots, to live in Orange County with my dad as his caregiver. After he passed in December 2018, Kathy and I talked about it and decided that we wanted to move back to Haskell, so we bought a home here and returned during the summer of 2019.

All of that to say, we love Haskell and the many wonderful friends we’ve made here. Three of our kids were born here, and two of them graduated from Haskell County schools. I have known members of the same family for six generations and have performed second, and in some cases, even third generation weddings, funerals and baptisms. That’s rare and special for a pastor these days.

I enjoy the rhythm of life in our small town – the “regularness” of it, the familiarity of it all. I appreciate the traditions of life here, from Wild Horse Prairie Days to Friday Night Lights and how folks who haven’t had a family member playing high school football in 40 years are still holding on to their season tickets. I love our annual Lighted Christmas Parade and the Easter Egg Hunt at City Park. All of these things, and many, many more, are all part of what makes life good in Haskell.

And of course, the friendships – the wonderful relationships with people that we walk through life with. You see them at their best, you see them at their worst, and everything in between. We visit with them at Modern Way and at the post office. From weddings and funerals to the birth of babies and grandbabies and high school graduation – fiftieth anniversaries and backyard BBQs and quinceañeras – towns like Haskell are where life happens, and it’s where the people are who matter the most to us.

Other towns around the area are all also nice, each in its own unique and special way. Stamford has the Cowboy Reunion, and Rochester has its Trade Days. I have friends in just about every community around here, and I cherish all of those relationships. They help make life worth living, and they are a big part of why Kathy and I decided to buy a place and settle here. For better or worse, we have “adopted” Haskell, and it is our intention to stay. You’re stuck with us.

However, as much as I love Haskell – and I REALLY do! – there are things about our town that make me crazy. And so with all humility, I offer some thoughts about a few areas of concern I have.

At the top of the list would have to be people who are automatically opposed to anything new or different. This attitude is especially prevalent in churches, but we find it everywhere. “We’ve never done it that way before.” Just because something is new or untried doesn’t make it wonderful, of course, but just because something is old and familiar doesn’t automatically make it the best, either. Every item that we use every day – automobiles, electric lights, telephones, running water, and more – were all once new and untried. Rather than rejecting a new idea simply because it is new, we ought to be willing to at least listen and consider some fresh ideas and different approaches to problem-solving.

Closely related is the issue of being afraid or suspicious of “new” people moving into town. Yes, Haskell is a tightly-knit community with shared values and a common heritage, but that shouldn’t mean that we hate and fear all “outsiders” who come here. We all have a lot of friends and loved ones buried in Willow Cemetery, but we can’t be so devoted to honoring the dead that we neglect the next generation. Yes, we should cherish the memory of our grandparents – but we also need to make a way for our grandchildren. And sometimes, that means being willing to meet and listen to new people and hearing their thoughts.

One final concern is that sometimes, we are much too concerned with the past and not enough with the future. Have you ever noticed the size of your car’s windshield, compared to the rearview mirror? That’s because when you’re driving, you should be much more focused on where you’re going, as opposed to where you’ve been. We must absolutely have pride in our past – but we also need to have faith in the future.

I love Haskell and I’m very proud to be here. All I’m saying is, working together, we can make it better.

My Amtrak Adventure

I read the other day where Amtrak, the nation’s intercity rail-passenger service, just had a birthday, turning 51. And that got me to thinking about some different Amtrak trips I have taken that I really enjoyed. One in particular that I remember was on my birthday, a few years ago, when I went from Fort Worth to St. Louis. Kathy wasn’t able to take the time off from work, but I had accumulated enough credit card points to earn a free round-trip, first-class ticket. So off I went to Ft. Worth, to ride the Texas Eagle to St. Louis.

The Eagle is an old and honored name among passenger trains, first operated by the Missouri Pacific & Texas & Pacific system in the late 1940s. The original Texas Eagle went from St. Louis to Texarkana and Marshall; from there, you could take it west to Dallas/Ft. Worth, Abilene, and El Paso, or go south to Houston, San Antonio, Brownsville, even Mexico City. Amtrak’s Eagle runs from Chicago to St. Louis, Texarkana, Marshall, Dallas and Ft. Worth, then south to Austin and San Antonio, with connections eastbound to Houston, or westbound to El Paso and Los Angeles.

The Texas Eagle arrives in Fort Worth, coming up from San Antonio and Austin.

Our train arrived from Austin. I checked in with the conductor, and he pointed me towards my compartment, and I settled in. Accommodations on an Amtrak sleeper come in various sizes. The “roomette” that I had is the smallest private compartment, with two bench seats that face each other. Cozy but comfortable, as long as you’re not claustrophobic, with restroom and shower facilities down the hall. Amtrak also larger rooms with private facilities, if you want to pay for it. Meals in the dining car are included with your first-class ticket at no extra charge – gratuities and adult beverages are extra, of course.

After a few minutes, the engineer gave the customary “Toot-toot” on the big locomotive’s horn, and we pulled smoothly out of downtown Ft. Worth, on our way to Dallas Union Station. As we arrived, the conductor announced that he was hoping to make up some of the time he had lost earlier that day and warned any passengers getting off for a smoke break to stay close to the train and ready to leave at short notice. Sure enough, we weren’t there very long before two more short blasts on the horn announced our departure, and we were gone, heading past Fair Park and into Mesquite and Terrell.

Passing through these residential areas, I was reminded of the interesting experience that often accompanies train travel: looking out your window into people’s backyards – some well-kept and inviting, others filled with piles of junk and forgotten, half-finished projects. You see plenty of both kinds, and everything in between.

Then it was into the beautiful woods of East Texas, which at the time were just beginning to put on their autumn colors. Now and then we’d pass a rural homestead, often with tractors and other farm equipment parked around the place. Going by homes like that, I can’t help but wonder about the people who live there. What is their life like? What are their delights, and their struggles? Are they happy? Do they want to ride this train when they hear it going by?

Train travel always makes me thoughtful.

Somewhere around Longview, I headed to the dining car for supper. Railroad dining cars have a long and well-deserved reputation for good food, and I’m happy to report that tradition is alive and well on the Texas Eagle. I had an excellent steak and baked potato, while enjoying pleasant conversation with three other travelers who were bound for various points north and east. (This kind of shared discussion is another old tradition of train travel.) Later I found the bed in my room prepared for sleeping. I changed clothes and crawled between the sheets, the train rocking me to sleep with the (usually) gentle “rhythm of the rails.”

I woke up the next morning, just after daylight. It was a cool, gray, cloudy and drizzly morning. We had crossed through Arkansas, and were just outside of St. Louis, awaiting clearance to pull into our spot. I got dressed and went to the dining car for breakfast – scrambled eggs and bacon, with whole wheat toast.

We pulled in and stopped. I tipped the waiter, went back to my room, and grabbed my luggage; from there, I headed out to explore St. Louis. But that’s a story for another time.

Mr. Spafford’s Testimony

H.G. Spafford was a force in Chicago in the early 1870s. He was a wealthy, senior partner in a major law firm, a real estate developer, and a devout elder in his Presbyterian Church. He and his wife Anna loved to entertain guests in their comfortable home, and they became friends and supporters of the world-famous Chicago minister Dwight L. Moody. They were the parents of a son and four daughters.

Chicago lawyer and businessman Horatio G. Spafford. Spafford was a devout elder in the Presbyterian Church. In the 1870s, he and his wife Anna were the parents of five children.

In 1870, their four-year-old son, Horatio, Junior, died suddenly of scarlet fever. Then in October of 1871, a massive fire swept through downtown Chicago and the city’s north side, where Mr. Spafford was heavily invested in a real estate development. The immense blaze cost over 300 lives and left more than 100,000 Chicagoans homeless. Even though their entire investment was gone, and being close to ruin financially themselves, the Spaffords nevertheless continued to demonstrate Christian hospitality, showing the love of Jesus in the face of tragedy.

Two years later, in 1873, Horatio and his wife decided they would take their four daughters and go to Europe for a lengthy visit. Even though his business interests had been hit hard in the national Financial Panic of 1873, Horatio and Anna intended to help their friend, Evangelist D.L. Moody, who was then planning an extended evangelistic crusade in England. The family booked space on the steamship SS Ville du Havre, but last-minute business complications forced Horatio to remain in Chicago. The plan then was for Anna and the four daughters – 11-year-old Anna, 9-year-old Margaret Lee, 5-year-old Elizabeth, and 2-year-old Tanetta – to go on, and Mr. Spafford would join them as soon as he could.

On November 22, 1873, the Ville du Havre was struck by another ship, the freighter Loch Earn. The passenger ship sank in only 12 minutes, and 226 people died in the disaster – including all four of the Spafford daughters. Only 61 passengers and 26 crew members survived, but miraculously, one of those rescued was Anna Spafford. She was found unconscious, floating on a piece of timber. She would later tell a fellow survivor, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.” When the rescued passengers reached Cardiff, Wales, Anna sent a telegram back to her husband that read, “Saved alone.”

Horatio booked passage to rejoin his devasted wife. A few days later, as they were on their way across the Atlantic, the captain of the vessel summoned Mr. Spafford to the bridge and told him, “We are now passing over the spot where the Ville du Havre went down.” Mr. Spafford went back to his cabin and began to think of his four young daughters, dying in those cold waters, three miles deep. And then he began to write,

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
   When sorrows, like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
   It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well (it is well) with my soul (with my soul),
   It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Later, when American hymnist Philip P. Bliss wrote a melody for Mr. Spafford’s words, he named the tune after the ill-fated liner, calling it “Ville du Havre.” It was first published in 1876. Personally, I particularly appreciate the verse that says –

My sin - oh the bliss of this glorious thought! -
   My sin - not in part, but the whole -
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more:
   Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

The hymn, of course, is still sung to this day, and we continue to hear Mr. Spafford’s testimony through its message, so let me respectfully suggest something. The next time you sing this song, take a moment and reflect on Horatio and Anna Spafford. Remember the tragedy they suffered, then give thanks to God who has used their incredible faith in such a beautiful way over the years, to create a hymn that gives us such a powerful testimony. May we be encouraged, and may our faith be strengthened, so that we can join in and affirm with them, from our hearts: It is well with my soul.

MORE of the Movies Times Five

I was visiting with a friend the other day, and we got to talking about some favorite movies, and who starred with whom in a particular film. And that made me think about doing another salute to classic movies of different categories. As always, I’m not saying these are necessarily the BEST movies of these types of films, just that these are some that I enjoyed.

Favorite Hitchcock Movies – Alfred Hitchcock was a very well-known director with a distinctive style of movie making. His career began in the 1920s, late in the era of silent films, and then flourished well into the 1960s. He also created a very successful television program. He was known for suspense movies with an unexpected twist in the story. Here are five of my favorites of his –

5. Rope (1948). Farley Granger and John Dall think they have committed the perfect murder. Then Jimmy Stewart starts asking questions.

4. To Catch a Thief (1955). Cary Grant stars as a retired jewel thief who is wrongly accused of stealing a fortune in precious stones and has to catch the real bad guy in order to clear his name. Grace Kelly is always so easy on the eyes.

3. Rear Window (1954). Jimmy Stewart as a New Yorker who enjoys looking out of his apartment window and watching his neighbors, until he sees one of them commit a murder. Grace Kelly plays his skeptical fashion-model girlfriend.

2. Psycho (1960). Janet Leigh embezzles money from her boss, then learns the hard way about the dangers of taking a shower. Also with Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles.

1. North by Northwest (1959). Cary Grant again, this time as an advertising executive who is mistaken for a notorious spy and has to run for his life. James Mason is the main villain, and Eva Marie Saint is the lady trying to help him. Or is she also one of the villains?

Cary Grant stars in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic, “North by Northwest.”

Five other great Hitchcock flicks – The Birds, Dial “M” for Murder, The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, Vertigo.

Favorite Train Movies – Okay, yes, I love trains. And of course, I love movies. So what could be better than movies in and about trains? All aboard!

5. Emperor of the North (1973). Ernest Borgnine plays a vicious freight train conductor in the Pacific Northwest who enjoys throwing hobos off of moving trains, trying to injure them as much as possible. Lee Marvin plays a hobo nicknamed “A Number 1,” who makes it his mission to ride on that train. Based on an uncredited short story written by “Call of the Wild” author, Jack London.

4. Human Desire (1954). Glenn Ford is an engineer returning to railroad work after his service in the Korean War. Gloria Grahame is the boss’s wife, who tries to seduce him into helping her start a new life. Broderick Crawford is the thoroughly despicable boss. A well-made film noir.

3. The Train (1964). In this World War II story based on true events, Burt Lancaster stars as a locomotive engineer who is actually a member of the French Underground, trying to prevent the Nazis from stealing a trainload of French art treasures. The problem is, how do you stop the train without blowing it up and destroying the art that you are trying to save?

2. Silver Streak (1976). Gene Wilder is a book editor trying to get from Los Angeles to Chicago, when he meets Jill Clayburgh on the train. Comedy and romance follow, but then it’s murder. Richard Pryor is a good-natured thief who becomes Wilder’s friend. The music by Henry Mancini is also gorgeous.

1. Union Pacific (1939). A lot of people – myself included – think that 1939 was Hollywood’s best-ever year for movies. In this sprawling epic directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck are trying to help the Union Pacific complete America’s first transcontinental railroad, while Brian Donlevy, Robert Preston and Anthony Quinn work to stop it. Mr. DeMille knew how to tell a big story with a broad, sweeping setting, and this is a good one.

Five more favorites – The General, Shanghai Express, The Narrow Margin (1952), The Great Locomotive Chase, Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

Do you have a favorite type of film you’d like to talk about, or maybe, a favorite classic movie director? Just drop me an email at haskellstarnews@gmail.com. And please be sure to save me some popcorn.

Skull Rock and the Garden Tomb

When I was a kid, a name like “Skull Rock” sounded spooky, a little creepy, very adventurous. It was the sort of place where Peter Pan and the boys from Never, Never Land would hang out. It was a fun place to visit at Six Flags over Texas when I was younger, with its slightly scary green lighting and its fun, twisty slide to play on.

This foreboding cliff looks like a skull when the sunlight hits it just right.
It is part of the area known as “Gordon’s Calvary,” near the Garden Tomb.

It never occurred to me that there might have been a real Skull Rock. And that it would be anything but fun to visit. At least, it never occurred to me, until I actually went there.

I have written before about my 2009 visit to Israel. During that trip, I learned that there are actually two different sites identified as the possible location where Jesus was crucified. Although they are both within the main environs of Jerusalem now, both would have been outside the city walls back in Jesus’ day. Both have elements to recommend them as the “real” location, and both have shallow caves nearby, where Jesus could have been buried, in keeping with the story as told in the Gospels.

One, of course, is the site contained within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the historically accepted spot, with visitors going back at least to the 300s. It’s there we find the oldest traditions about the rocky hill on which Jesus was crucified and the nearby, borrowed, tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where He was buried. The final few stations along the famous “Via Dolorosa” – the Way of Suffering – are located there.

But over the years, the old location has been gilded over and gold plated. It’s had shrines erected over and beside it, so much so that only with the greatest stretch of imagination can you picture in your mind what it must have been like 2,000 years ago, when Jesus was actually there. Metal shields have actually been installed in some parts, to prevent souvenir hunters from chipping off a chunk of rock to take home with them. The candles, the incense, the fabric draperies – it all seems more fake, more “Hollywood,” and less like a location where public executions took place.

At least, that’s the reaction that a lot of American visitors, especially Protestants, have. And so, while that location definitely has the better historical claim to being the actual site of the crucifixion, there is another spot that is more preferred by a lot of Christians who want to see the spot where Jesus died, was buried, and three days later, rose again.

Gordon’s Calvary is about a third of mile away. Charles Gordon was a British General and amateur archeologist who helped popularized the location, and so his name is associated with it. One of the things that is so special about it is a limestone cliff, jutting up from the ground. Two deep depressions in the side of the cliff remind visitors of a skull’s empty eye sockets – and so the cliff is known, unofficially, as “Skull Rock.” (Both “Golgotha” and “Calvary” refer to a skull in their original languages.) If this was the execution spot, it would have been an appropriate name – both for its appearance, and for the painful events that took place there.

So imagine, if you will, that you are a visitor to Jerusalem in those days, coming in from Jericho. As you enter the city, near the main gates, you see a large cliff, and there, in front of that cliff (and not on top of it), you see a number of crosses there, with the prisoners being executed. And a few dozen yards away, a number of shallow caves in the side of the cliff have been hollowed out to serve as graves.

This is the Garden Tomb. And those caves are empty.

Was this where Jesus was crucified? Honestly, we don’t know. As I said, both the traditional Golgotha and Gordon’s Calvary have their advocates. But wherever it was, I invite you to join with me this weekend as we remember those events. Let us give thanks that wherever the tomb of Jesus was, it is empty!

Their Biggest Day, x2

God has been very, very good to me and my family over the years. He has blessed Kathy and me with good health and while we haven’t gotten rich, we have always had food on the table and a roof over our heads. He blessed us with parents who loved us and friends who supported us. Our greatest blessing has been that we had four children: two boys and two girls.

And both of our girls are getting married this month. Separate ceremonies, different locations, even different states, but the same month, only two weeks apart. Give me strength.

Brittany, our older daughter, lives in Baltimore. She’s 30, and has lived there for several years. She works at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. Her fiancé is a software engineer. His name is John, and he looks a lot like the actor Tom Cruise. Most of his family is from the New Jersey – Pennsylvania area. We like John, and he has visited Haskell a few times. They seem to be a good “fit” together.

Kathy and I have visited Baltimore a couple of times since she’s been up there, and we have enjoyed it very much. There’s so much interesting history, and so many exciting things to do. We took in an Orioles baseball game at Camden Yards and visited the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum. We toured the U.S. Navy’s historic USS Constellation, a three-masted sailing ship anchored there in the harbor, as well as a World War II submarine also docked nearby.

Perhaps most fascinating was a visit to Fort McHenry. That was where a Baltimore attorney, Francis Scott Key, was negotiating for the release of a hostage being held on a British warship, which was busy shelling the fort during the War of 1812. Mr. Key was successful in gaining the man’s release, but he had to spend the night on the warship. All night long, he kept trying to see if the fort was holding or if it had surrendered to the Brits. Finally, at dawn the next morning, he was able to see the Stars and Stripes, still proudly flying above the fort. That’s when he wrote, “O say! Can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming.” I like Baltimore.

Our younger daughter Erin lives in Abilene, and she works as a dental technician for an oral surgeon. She is engaged to a young man named Joseph. We also like Joseph; he’s a big fan of “dad” jokes – the cornier, the better.

Each of our kids is unique and special, and they all have very distinct personalities and tastes. Any parent who has raised several kids in the same family certainly knows that kids are different (no surprise there), but it’s fascinating to see the way that plays out with our two girls and their wedding plans. Different colors, different styles, different ceremonies. I’m officiating for Brittany’s wedding, but Erin wanted my brother David, who is a pastor in Spring, Texas, to handle her ceremony. Brittany is getting married at an old castle, right outside of Baltimore; Erin and Joseph are having their service at a beautiful outdoor venue on the San Angelo highway. The differences go on and on.

Another interesting difference: Brittany’s middle name is “Helen,” named after Kathy’s mom. Erin’s middle name is “Beth,” named in honor of my mother, Tommie Beth. Both our moms have passed away, so they won’t be with us physically, but their memories will certainly be cherished as we celebrate with family and friends.

As the father of the bride(s), I don’t have much say in any of the details of either ceremony, of course. My job is to go where I’m told, stand where they point, and smile for the pictures. But I keep thinking about the cycles we go through in life, and that day in August of 1978 when Kathy and I made our promises to each other. And I’m remembering two little girls growing up, their hopes and dreams, alternating silliness and seriousness. Dress-up parties and bedtime stories, and now, one by one, I get to walk them down the aisle and give each of them to another man whom she loves and who loves her. I will continue to pray God’s richest blessings on the new families they will be starting.

Right now, I need a Kleenex. Dang, my allergies are bad this time of year…

Towards Appreciating Poetry

I have always loved the power and the beauty of words. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I became a preacher, and now, it’s part of why I enjoy this newspaper business.

Words have the power to create worlds and to transport us backwards – even forwards! – in time.

Appropriate words can inspire a nation, comfort the afflicted, and encourage the hopeless. Proverbs 25:11 tells us that when the right words are well spoken, they are like “apples of gold in settings of silver.” That is to say, words can have a beauty and a value like an exquisite piece of fine jewelry.

I think that is especially true for poetry. And April is National Poetry Month. According to the website poets.org, “National Poetry Month in April is a special occasion to celebrate the importance of poets and poetry in our culture. This year, on the 25th anniversary of the celebration and in this time of uncertainty and great concern, we can rely on poems to offer wisdom, uplifting ideas, and language that prompts reflection that can help us slow down and center mentally, emotionally, spiritually.”

In my experience, poetry is one of those things that you either love or you hate. And speaking just for myself, I love it. I like the way poets can play with rhythm and “hard,” or accented syllables, versus softer ones: “I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree” is the way Sergeant Joyce Kilmer began his famous poem “Trees.” He was a member of the Famous 69th New York, with the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War I. Countless soldiers have surveyed the wasteland of a devastated, bombed-out forest, but to read his poem is to feel it from his point of view. Then think about the fact that he was killed in action on July 30, 1918, at the age of 31.

There’s a Robert Frost poem that I enjoy that says, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.” Any dad trying to get home to his family before someone’s Big Day can relate to the speaker being tired and wishing he could stay where he was but knowing that he had to keep moving.

If you are old enough to remember the Challenger disaster, then perhaps you also remember President Reagan’s tribute to the seven who died in that tragedy. The president quoted from the poem “High Flight,” written by an American flyer serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force, Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee. He wrote the poem in the early days of World War II; tragically, he was killed in action a short time later. It begins, “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…” The poem concludes with, “And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod The high un-trespassed sanctity of space, Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

I don’t know much about this idea, but I think poetry taps into to that whole “left-brain, right-brain” thing. Doctors who study the brain tell us that one side of our brain handles the analytical duties – math, language, engineering – while the other side deals with emotions, imagination, and creativity. So maybe poetry is able to touch both parts – the words communicate the meaning intended by the writer, but the rhyming, the cadence of the verses, and the other types of creative expression touch that part of us that enjoys art and beauty. It’s a possibility.

In honor of April as National Poetry Month, this coming Friday night, April 1, there’s going to be an “Open Mic Night” featuring poetry and coffee, at the new Copenhagen Coffee House in Stamford, 126 E. Hamilton. It is scheduled for 6:30 – 8:00 pm, and I’m planning to go. Maybe you can join me there.

One of my favorite poems is – Big Surprise! – about trains. The title is “Travel,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I read somewhere that it was a favorite of President Franklin Roosevelt. It closes with –

My heart is warm with friends I make,
  And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
  No matter where it’s going.

Anticipating the Bluebonnets

One of my favorite parts of living in Texas will soon be with us again. It’s almost time for the bluebonnets, our state flower, to make their annual visit.

When I was growing up in East Texas, bluebonnets were not as common as they are now. The state had not yet started the practice of seeding wildflowers along Texas highways, and the beautiful blue flowers were not as widespread as they have since become. We had plenty of the pink primrose wildflowers – my brothers and I used to call them “buttercups” because of their yellow center – along with a type of daisy, crimson clover, and lots of other types of “pretty weeds,” but bluebonnets – well, not so much.

I was in high school the first time I saw a giant field of “Lupinus Texensis,” as the most common variety is known. We were on a school trip, going to Brenham, and I spied what I thought was a beautiful blue lake beside the road. It was a pasture completely covered in bluebonnets; to me, it looked like looked like there were two skies, one above the other. Fifty years later, I still remember how beautiful they were.

My mom tried for years to get some bluebonnets to grow at their home in Orange County, but without much luck. Even under the best of conditions, they are hard flowers to get started, and it’s just too wet in that part of the state for them to do well (that’s hard for folks in West Texas to imagine!). But bless her heart, my mom kept trying. And then one spring after she passed, my dad sent me a picture he had snapped of mom’s bluebonnets blooming there on their place. He was so proud. She would have loved it.

Bluebonnets were designated as the “official” state flower in 1901, and contrary to popular belief, it is NOT illegal to pick them. It is not recommended, though, because like any wildflower, they will wilt almost immediately after you pick them. And it’s a right of passage for Texas families to take pictures of the kids, posing in the middle of a bluebonnet patch. Just be careful doing that: in some parts of the state especially, you’ll need to watch out for rattlesnakes in the middle of the flowers.

There are believed to be six different versions of the bluebonnets, from the common ones that are best known, to the giant “Big Bend” variety that can be found in that part of Southwest Texas. Some versions that are totally white, and the research plant specialists at Texas A&M even created a maroon variety! But the familiar blue and white kind are the best known. And whether you call them buffalo clover, wolf flower, or even by their Spanish name of “el conejo” (“the rabbit”), they are close to the heart of most Texans. And I’m thankful for the work of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Texas Highway Department for their efforts at expanding the flower’s coverage.

Besides bluebonnets, of course, be sure to look for the many other gorgeous Texas wildflowers, including Indian Paintbrush, the red-and-yellow Indian Blanket (also known as Firewheel), the pink or purple Coneflower, Giant Spiderwort, various colors of Phlox, and many more. By the way, Coneflower is a type of echinacea, which has long been used in natural medicine and which can be found in different types of cough drops.

Central Texas around Austin, and the Hill Country, are great places to see big fields of bluebonnets. Ennis, Texas, is also a popular location, along with Burnet, but the best places in the state will vary somewhat from year to year. If you’re interested in taking your own road trip, you can check with the Texas Highway Department and their magazine, Texas Highways. I also highly recommend printing out your own free guide to Texas wildflowers, downloadable at ftp.dot.state.tx.us/pub/txdot-info/trv/wildflowers/wildflowers_brochure.pdf.

However you choose to enjoy the bluebonnets, have a safe trip as you spend time with your family and enjoy the awesome Texas scenery and perfect spring weather. And God bless Texas.

Baseball is Back

Baseball is back. And for those of us who love the game and all that it represents, it’s about time.

The just-concluded lockout was only the latest in a long list of crimes committed against baseball by those who have been entrusted with the National Pastime – sometimes by the owners, sometimes by the players, but always, the ones who are hurt the most are the longsuffering fans. But finally, it’s over. The season will start a week late – Opening Day is set for Thursday, April 7 – but they will play all 162 games, using double-headers and makeup dates.

As MLB columnist Will Leitch says, “Baseball gives us normal.” Going to a big-league ballpark with my family and having a hot dog and some nachos and cheering for the Rangers and our favorite players. And booing those Damn Yankees. Listening to a game on the radio, and remembering hot summer nights in Southeast Texas, sitting up with my dad, listening to Gene Elston and Loel Passe announce the Houston Colt 45s games (before they became the Astros) – “Now you chunkin’ in there, kid!” Sweet thoughts of my son Drew, grilling burgers for me for my birthday on a perfect fall evening, then watching the Rangers beat the Tigers in the American League Championship Series.

Going into this season, we will have day games, night games, and doubleheader games. We will have no hitters and bases-clearing doubles, and towering fly balls that end up being nothing more than a loud out. We will ask, “What was that idiot manager thinking?” and, “Was that ump watching the same play as everybody else?” There will be the All-Star game, followed by the eternal question – will the games the Rangers play in September ACTUALLY MATTER? Watching the playoffs and the World Series and being reminded that big players make big plays in big games. Because baseball is all about continuity, reminding us that there are consistent and reliable things in life. There’s a time to bunt and a time to swing for the fences, and a time to take one for the team. As James Earl Jones says in Field of Dreams,

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game – it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.

We will cheer and groan and speculate. And we will see some of the greatest athletes who have ever played the game do some of the most amazing things you have ever seen anyone accomplish. Pitchers who throw exploding sliders and unbelievable fast balls. Hitters who send towering homers literally out of the stadium and into the parking lot. Outfielders who get an impossible jump on a ball and make a diving catch to rob a hitter of a sure double. Infielders who make a 6-4-3 double-play look as easy as breathing, and third basemen who can scoop a ball with their bare hand and rifle it over to first, to get a runner without ever looking. And then smile for his own amusement. These are the moments of baseball. It’s normal. It’s routine and yet also magical.

I was never a good ball player. I couldn’t run very fast, I had no hand-eye coordination, and my vision is terrible. But I love this game. And even as bad as I was, I still got to play baseball on my college team. (That tells you just how small the school was!) So now we can finally focus our attention on Spring Training in Florida and Arizona and know that the regular season is finally, blessedly, just around the corner.

Play ball.