I spent much of this past weekend on my back under the kitchen sink, wrestling out an old faucet and shoving in a new one. As many of you know from experience, this is a provoking business that requires many painful contortions and cruel frustrations, not to mention periodic showers of rusty grit into one’s eyes. If I did not break the Third Commandment, it was by the grace of God.
There was, however, more to my weekend than this descent into the perdition of amateur plumbing, and a couple of the things that I saw may be worthy of notice.
Saturday morning, I took my daughter and her two friends to the Brazos River, where they proposed to mark her birthday by sporting on the sandbar that stretches north near the Highway 21 bridge. The path to this sandbar passes along the base of Stone City Bluff, an outcrop of Eocene marine sediments on which lonely fossil hunters are often seen, chipping away the soft shale.
This past Saturday, the fossil-hounds were out in force, their numbers swollen by a troop of Boy Scouts who were, it seemed, earning their paleontology merit badge by dislodging avalanches of gravel into the river. I stopped to exchange pleasantries with their scoutmaster, and dodged one of those avalanches with footwork that, in a man of my age, is normally denoted as spry.
I mention all of this because I also saw fossil hunters who were wearing masks. Not the boy scouts, to be sure, nor their scoutmaster, but rather some serious and solitary shell-seekers. These were the same as sported headgear indicating a lively apprehension of the hazards of ultraviolet radiation, and who were, I suspect, redolent of chemicals known to repel both Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus (which the boy scouts call skeeters and are satisfied to swat).
I strongly suspect these masked men and women possess, hope to possess, or regret not possessing, a Doctorate of Philosophy, or PhD. This is a class of humanity I know well, and I therefore believe that they don masks, hats and bug juice in the belief that they can outsmart fate. These people are in many cases gifted with high intelligence, but high intelligence evidently causes an overdevelopment of the virtue of prudence (self-preservation), and a corresponding atrophy of the virtue of courage (self-sacrifice).
Here is what Sir John Glubb had to say about the social significance of the belief that men can outsmart fate by taking thought.
“The impression that the situation can be saved by mental cleverness, without unselfishness or human self-dedication, can only lead to collapse.”*
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With running water restored to the kitchen, I set out on Sunday afternoon to find the grave of Walter Washington Williams, of whom more in a minute. This took me north into Robertson County, where half of the roads are unpaved and face masks are very few and far between. The same could not be said about signs and flags in support of President Trump, of which I saw dozens, even on unfrequented backroads.
My town-dwelling neighbors removed their Trump signs the morning after the election, but here in the boondocks the campaign is still going strong.
I can’t say how long this political paraphernalia will remain on display (although some of these houses have yet to dispose of the pick-up truck they wrecked in 1973). I will guess that most of it will be gone before the inauguration, but that some will remain as a sort of rebel flag signifying loyalty to the Lost Cause.
I wrote about loyalty to lost causes two years ago, and without making any particular claims for the cosmic meaning of Trumpism will quote these lines
[Josiah] Royce points out that Christianity was born as loyalty to a lost cause. Indeed, it may be the archetypal case. When Christ died on the cross, his historical cause in the visible world of first-century Judea was lost. Judaism would not be reformed, the Romans would not be expelled, and the line of David would not be restored. Considered as a merely historical event with these narrow and contingent purposes, the cause of Jesus ended in defeat and ignominy. But his cause was raised from the stream of history and resurrected as a cosmic cause because his disciples remained loyal when the historical cause was lost. They idealized the historical cause of Jesus, placed it on a transcendental level, and thus transformed a failed revolt in a minor Roman province into a cosmic revolution that changed the world.”
I did not photograph any of the Trump signs, but I did photograph this enigmatic placard. I have no notion what it means.
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The real purpose of yesterday’s drive was to clear my mind of the memory of the underside of our kitchen sink, but my stated purpose, when pressed by my wife, was to visit the grave of Walter Washington Williams. This is in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, southeast of Franklin, and is worthy of visiting because Williams was, or at least claimed to be, the last survivor of the War Between the States.
Williams was, strictly speaking, a “forager” for Hood’s Texas Brigade when he was but ten-years of age, and even this may not be speaking all that strictly. As you can see from my photograph, I visited William’s grave one day after his birthday, which he said was November 14, 1842. If this natal fact is true, Williams had reached the extremely old age of 117 when he died, leaving more than 200 descendants, in 1959. President Eisenhower was one person who did believe Williams, and he therefore named Williams an honorary General and declared a national day of mourning when he died.
What’s good enough for Ike is good enough for me.
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The Mount Pleasant Cemetery is, I am sorry to say, a grimly forsaken place. Not god-forsaken, but man-forsaken. I am using this word advisedly, since the word forsake means to break or betray a natural tie, or sacred duty, or moral bond. To be forsaken is therefore to be wrongly abandoned, neglected, or discarded. And the one who is forsaken naturally cries out against this wrong. You all know the outstanding instance of this.
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
It was, of course, wrong for God to forsake Jesus because Jesus never broke his natural tie with God. In a perfectly just (but merciless) world, God would have forsaken us.
Forsaken places cry in a voice that is not so loud or portentous, but they nevertheless do cry. And the cry of the forsaken places of rural America is particularly plaintive because, when they are forsaken, they fall into such unlovely ruins. Those who go looking for the romance of mossy stones will seldom find it in this land where every man is at liberty to forsake his natural ties, sacred duties, and moral bonds.
Forsaking is, one might say, what America is all about.
But, as I said, the places we forsake answer with a plaintive and unlovely cry, and we would do well to listen when they do. Do you suppose a hidden hand may have guided the dilapidation of the sign over the gate to the forsaken Mount Pleasant Cemetery, and thus crafted an omen for those with the eyes to see?
*)Sir John Glubb, The Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival (1977).