Half(a)Life

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Me arrancaste el alma…

and there, in the palm of my hand,
the bloody trace of
who I am, who I
might have been

…corazón destruido por latir…

the words come like a bolt
from the black,
will not be taken back
when the past strikes it hits like
a gunshot,
memory shrapnel to the back of the head
and leaves you for dead

…latiendo por destruir…

we die every moment
and live every death, a breath’s hesitation
a lifetime’s regret, until forgetfulness
comes and erases the line
between real pain and play
a world swept away in an instant of
always

…un espejo hecho añicos.

Book Review: The Celtic Way of Evangelism

The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West...AgainThe Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again by George G. Hunter III

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Hunter’s book is a perfect example of the disconnect between professional and amateur Celtic studies. In his defense, the author is up front about his lack of expertise in most things Celtic, but this is not an encouraging bit of honesty when it comes to the practical application of his book. Similar to saying “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV,” to a patient right before the anaesthesia kicks in.

The application of Bible scholar-style hermeneutics to material from hagiography to history is far from satisfying to one whose interest is primarily historical, and rather than reinforcing an interest in “Celtic Christianity,” tends to support the protestations of many scholars that no such entity ever really existed. In other words, it is a fabulous flight of fancy, and as a missiological text it contains a good deal of insight. But that is a far stretch from claiming for Hunter’s theories any but the most tenuous of connections with the Celtic past.

View all my reviews

Meet the Big Shaggy

Here’s the first of (hopefully) many entries in our list of required reading. Since I began by discussing the need for a universal language, some keycode that will allow us access to the workings of the multifaceted human mind, I thought this would be a good place to start:

David Brooks, “History for Dollars.” The New York Times, June 7, 2010. You can access this article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/08/opinion/08brooks.html?_r=0.

I was working, that summer, on an essay for the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies (Vol. XXIII/1: 2011) on John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University (which will also be featured on this list in future), and in the process of researching the topic, I came across this editorial of Brooks’. In an age of practical education, when pragmatism outshines idealism and philosophy gives way to the paycheck, Brooks reminds us of the need for continued study of the humanities, and through them, of humanity itself. He calls it The Big Shaggy, one of the best descriptions of that hairy monster that lives inside us all and inspires both the best and the worst acts we commit, from the impulse that led to the bombing of the Boston marathon to the courage that led first responders to give their lives for the people of West, Texas, when their fertilizer plant blew.

Brooks reminds us that there is more to life than business or computer science degrees can adequately address. We are living beings, bundles of contradictory emotions that refuse to be reconciled or explained. Truth be told, there is some measure of bipolarity in all of us: we oscillate between happiness and sadness, confidence and depression; we lash out in fear as often as we reach out in love; we struggle to keep our ship of state from tacking wildly in the winds of change. In order to truly understand one another, to see the man behind the curtain (if you will), we need to see into the machinery that makes us tick. We need to meet The Big Shaggy.

Happy reading!

Around Butler (Release Date: March 4, 2013)

To all those who followed my adventures in local history over the last year or so, thank you so much. The journey is over, and the finish line is fast approaching. My new book, Around Butler, will be available to purchase on March 4, 2013.

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By Vance Woods and Brian Phillips. Images Of America. Arcadia Publishing. $21.99.

Meet the Electric City! From cattle to coal mines, border ruffians to businessmen, and rockets to railroad schemes, the air around Butler, Missouri, has crackled with energy since the settlement’s establishment in 1856. Ravaged by Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers and consumed in 1863 by the flames of General Order No. 11, the settlement rose from the ashes in the late 1860s and 1870s to become a hub of culture and commerce at the western edge of the “Show Me State.” In 1881, the capital of Bates County went electric, becoming one of the first municipalities west of the Mississippi to generate its own power, outstripping Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station in Manhattan by almost a year. A quiet little community with a loud and vibrant history, Butler is the quintessential example of the American small-town experience.

If you find it difficult to leave the back road behind; if you love nothing more than an excellent piece of homemade pie to go with your homespun tales; if you believe, deep inside, that there’s a wide-eyed, small-town kid inside us all–take a trip through the story of Butler with me. Then, if you are touched as much as I have been, perhaps even take a trip through the streets of Butler, and meet the people who call it home. Go to South Side Cafe and ask Randy about his pint-sized ghosts; check out the Suzie-Qs (curly fries, for those who don’t know) at The Flaming Lantern; take a walk around the brick-cobbled square; and stop by Sam’s for one of the best burgers in the world today. Finally, pop your head in at the Bates County Museum and ask Peggy about a man named Eddie and his amazing collection of Butler stuff. You will not regret it.

Past Prologue

The old barn.

The blue gate. In the foreground, there used to be a red hay barn in which we grandkids used to play. Climbing on piles of hay bales may not be wise, but it sure was fun. Sadly, the barn was torn down several years back to keep it from collapsing under its own weight…

Cows and trees.

V and Francie’s old place (or what’s left of it).

The road less traveled…

The LaCygne power plant. One of my favorite sights from the farm. On a still, cold day the plumes go on forever…

Hay bales. Sometimes they take up so much space that they look like herds of buffalo…

The government tried to assign street numbers to the rural roads several years back. Didn’t go so well. The farm’s still sitting right where it used to, on Rural Route 3…

We all have places that awaken in us stirrings of memory, where every detail holds for us immense significance (even if the source of that significance be insignificant on a global scale). The Durst family farm does this for me. No matter where I am in the world (and I have been many places), this plot of earth calls me back and reminds me of who I am and where I (and those before me) came from. It speaks to me–I heard its voice as a child, and I hear it still, the insistent tones of something both fundamentally human and fundamentally natural, the fulcrum in the connection between humankind and the earth we call home. I am not a farmer, but I come from farmer’s stock–I do not feed the world, but I belong to the line of those who have. Whether or not I ever lay hand to plow, the hands that did are an integral part of who I am, and I cannot understand myself without first understanding them…

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Southeast of the old house lies a field I have traversed dozens of times, from childhood through the present. At the moment it is planted, but since I can remember it has been used as pasture, and venturing across was for neither the faint of heart nor the fancy of footwear. One eye to the horizon, one eye to the ground–those of you who have spent any amount of time on a cattle farm will know what I mean by that. To the left runs Miami Creek, winding its way toward the southeast and the Marais des Cygne, and beyond that, the Osage. To the right, an old, crumbling barbed-wire fence (three strands against straying stock) divides the Durst land from their neighbors to the south. When I was very, very young, it belonged to a couple named V and Francie, at whose house I spent many an hour, staring through the grating in the living room floor into the basement (which hole for some reason I found extremely fascinating). The old house burned in 1998 or ‘9; now all that remains are a few lonesome outbuildings and a water tower or two.

If I had a dime–as the saying goes–for every time I’ve wandered off down one of the gravel roads surrounding the farm, the good old “mile roads,” I’d be a rich man. Financially, at least. In some ways, the mere fact that I have had access to these out of the way avenues fills me with feelings of a different kind of wealth. Everything around me moves so fast: weekday becomes weekend becomes weekday again, clouds fly overhead like some sort of time-lapse film, and it’s hard even to keep up with myself. Which is why walking these lanes bears such an attraction to an overburdened soul supercharged with an overactive mind. Here time almost ceases to lapse, at least for me. I’m transmogrified, alchemized, into my childhood self, waiting impatiently beside the cattle chute for Grandpa and a chance to “steer” the tractor across a pasture or two. I’m young again, ready for a mad dash through pig-puddles in search of the “peepers” called forth by a night of gentle rain, or for a channel-cat hunt at one of the myriad watering holes/stock-ponds scattered around the property. I’m ME again, washed clean of the intervening years of experience, heartache, and “knowing better.” And for an instant–just a brief fleeting instant before I remember who I am–I feel the grip of immortality, given force by my own tarrying ghost which will, I hope, haunt these backroads long, long after I am no more…

Eddie Herrman, 1935-2012

Some of you may be aware of the book project I spent the last year traveling back and forth across the Midwest to complete. Today, though, I’d like to take you behind the scenes and introduce you to one of the people without whose earlier work I would not have been able to finish my own. Sadly, he is no longer with us, but his influence is evident (I hope) in almost every page of my work, and I thank him for it.

Here is a write-up from the Bates County news blog:

Community mourns loss of local historian

Local historian Eddie Herrman, formerly of Butler, passed away Saturday morning October 20th in Springfield, Mo.
Funeral services will be Tuesday at 2pm at the Schowengerdt Funeral Chapel in Butler with inurnment at the Oak Hill Cemetery with Military Honors. Visitation will be from 1 – 2 pm Tuesday immediately prior to services at the Chapel. Our community and the entire Bates County area has lost a true friend. Eddie Herrman, who spent his life here among us until he and Shirley moved to Springfield, to be near their son, has passed on to his reward.

Eddie worked at the Butler radio station KMAM/KMOE-FM for a period of time in the early years of his career. He later moved into insurance and spent the rest of his time in that business field. But he’ll be best remembered among us for his excellent work…a labor of love…giving us historical news about our part of Missouri and Kansas. His weekly article in the News Express was a feature that drew many readers every week. Eddie loved this area, and we were fortunate to be able to see past and present the work he put into living here.

The whole reason I originally embarked upon this journey was to gain a greater and more nuanced understanding and appreciation of my family’s ancestral home, the roots from which I eventually sprang. In the process, I have been able to peel away the cobwebs of time and faded memory and discover a heritage of surprising vitality and interest. In large part, that discovery was facilitated by the materials and stories collected by Eddie over several decades of activity, and which have recently been donated to the Bates County Museum. From 1985 to January 2012, bits and pieces from these materials appeared weekly in the Butler News X-Press as part of Eddie’s “Historical Happenings” series (a sort of “on this day in history” affair). Most anyone in Butler would tell you there is no greater authority on the town’s past than he. One person remarked, as we were debating the accuracy of a certain historical fact, that “if Eddie said it, then it’s right.”

I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but I feel that as I sat and sorted through his pride and joy–photos, newspaper articles, flyers, and more–I made contact somehow with a kindred spirit, another of those who believe at their core that small things are often worth preserving, and more often thoughtlessly discarded by those who don’t really understand their meaning. Eddie loved his town and his neighbors, their story was his story, and he spent his life in the telling.

So, if you are ever passing through Bates County, have a few moments to spare, and wonder what the place is all about and what kind of people live there, take the main Butler exit and follow the signs to the Bates County Museum. Once inside, make a simple request: “Tell me about Eddie Herrman.” And all will be made clear.

Thanks, Eddie. Rest in peace.

Research Trip, Day 2

I tend to be something of a pessimist when it comes to complicated plans and seat-pant-pilot endeavors (even though the latter describes well most of what I do). Take, for example, my four-day trip to Greeley, Colorado, to interview a Presbyterian priest for my Master’s thesis–you know, the trip where I took my little mini-recorder and forgot to press record. A whole day’s worth of conversation down the tubes, since of course, having relied upon the gadget, I failed to write anything down. Lesson learned; still a snafu. So, when I got up on Thursday morning (day two of my trip), I had no idea what to expect (or do) and every conviction that it would all go horribly, terribly wrong. Would I once again–metaphorically–forget to press record?

Imagine my surprise when, at the end of the day, I looked back on a series of (mostly) successful efforts to forward my project. Outside of a somewhat irritating encounter with a grouchy old man at the Chamber of Commerce, all went well and productively.

My first order of business took me to the Butler Chamber of Commerce (and, no, not to the old grouchy guy…yet). The first time I was there, I went in search of the aerial photograph of the “Butler–Shine On” event I mentioned in an earlier post. I’m hoping for this to be the centerpiece of the book. It was, after all, the image that set me on this path to begin with: the perfect shot of community in action. If we could arrive at a place where more people could come together for more efforts such as this (however ridiculous outsiders might believe them to be), we’d be heading somewhere useful–instead of rolling down the highway like an isolated snowball headed for a virtual hell…

Having achieved my first goal (and in nice, large format), I decided to re-familiarize myself with the Bates County courthouse (finally complete after what seems two or three decades of renovation) and Butler’s square. Here are the results:

From the east.

The old BC National clock.

From the northeast.

From the north.

Honoring the first engagement of African-American Union troops of the Civil War, at Island Mound, Oct. 29, 1862.

Where City Hall used to be (no, not in the water tower--in the little building beside it...)

From the northwest.

West side of the square.

Southside Cafe

From the south.

Gazebo view.

Random presidents. Not really sure about that one...

Next came lunch with Brian Phillips, executive director of the group that runs the Poplar Heights Living History Farm and the Family History Center, who has graciously consented to act as co-author (not being strictly a local, the Arcadia policies require that I find a co-author who is). Lunch at the Flaming Lantern (http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/210/1064263/restaurant/Missouri/Flaming-Lantern-Butler). It’s been a while since I ate there, and it has really never been one of my favorite places, but I have to say that it wasn’t at all bad. They’ve added a sports bar to the place since Tammy and I left town (which for Butler is tantamount to the repeal of Prohibition). One thing that must be said for them: Get the Suzy-Qs. The rest of you might know these as curly fries. By any name, they are quite simply spectacular. Seriously, if you’re ever headed up or down Highway 71 (or I-49, as they’re getting ready to call it), give ’em a try. East side of the highway, north side of the road (across from the abomination that is the new Wal-Mart).

After lunch came the second visit to the Chamber to drop off a copy of the Arcadia proposal. Enter grouchy old man. Exit Vance, quickly. ‘Nuff said.

Then it was off to the Bates County Museum, but on the way a quick stop at the Stop Light Market (two words, not one). Another place to stop if you’re ever in Butler, especially if you like odd handmade foodstuffs. The market is run by a Mennonite family from the Rich Hill area, and carries everything from cornmeal to gum drops. I picked up a small bag of honey-roasted soybeans (not a fan favorite) and another small bag of okra chips (which are absolutely fantastic). Bigger bag next time…

The Bates County Museum, from which I hope to obtain some of my older images, used to be located on the southeast fringe of the square. Now, it it housed in what was once the Poor Home (what Dickens might refer to as the “work’us,” and Butlerites lovingly refer to as the “nut house”), on the outskirts of town to the west. (http://home.earthlink.net/~bcmuseum/id6.html) It is a lovely two-story, red brick structure dedicated to the history of Bates County from its beginnings in 1841, through the Civil War and Order No. 11, up to the present. During my visit, I became a card-carrying (sans card) member of the Bates County Historical Society, and met the sitting president of the Cass County Civil War Round Table. Goes to show, you never know what’ll happen in the course of a day.

Next stop: Oak Hill Cemetery, home of the world’s smallest tombstone (according to the Ripley’s folks). It belongs to Linnie Crouch, presumed infant, called by some a boy, by others a girl. No one knows. Some Internet death certificate research over my father-in-law’s shoulder (man KNOWS his stuff) indicates that Linnie’s parents MAY have been Daniel Crouch and Belle Miller, but beyond that (which is far from certain), and a story which credits his father with the carving of the headstone, all that remains is a small, stone Bible with little Linnie’s name on it. A mystery, dated April 25, 1898…

Smallest tombstone in the world.

To cap off a long day of hand-shaking and amateur photography, two final stops. First, a nice panoramic view of Passaic, a town numbering 40 in 2009 (and according to some counts, 2 in 2011), between Butler and the family farm. Here’re the pictures. Pretty much what you see is what you get: an intersection…

After braving the overpass...

And this one, just because I thought it was cool.

And, finally, a quick jaunt out to the Island Mound battlefield, some 11 miles southwest of town. There’s a grand opening coming this October, to mark the 150th anniversary of the engagement, and one assumes more will be added to the aspiring state park, but for the moment it is pretty much a pasture with a sign stuck in it:

Island Mound on a gray day...

 On October 29, 1862, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers took on a larger Confederate force in the first Union action of the Civil War carried out by a unit composed solely of African American soldiers. Multiple perspectives confuse the issue a bit (with some Confederate reports suggesting the total annihilation of the Kansas Volunteers), but the consensus of late is that the day went ultimately to the smaller, Union regiment. I’m still in the middle of learning about this battle myself, so I won’t throw out too much (possibly misleading) detail just yet, but if you’re interested, here’s a web site for you: http://www.mocivilwar.org/history/battles/island_mound.html

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Here endeth my first day of research and relationship-building. At the moment, things are stalled as I await news of the project’s reception by the national offices of Arcadia Publishing. I’m told that news may arrive by the end of the week, and I’m about as nervous as it is possible to be. I realize that for some this experience of mine may not seem too terribly important, but to me it is the next step toward achieving a goal I set for myself in junior high (if not earlier). It is destiny, and it is calling. For those of you with children, think about those nine months leading up to the birth, and you’ll know roughly how I feel right now. Not to put too fine a point on things, the future seems pregnant with possibilities that quite recently seemed beyond the realm. So, cross your fingers with me if you care to, and we’ll see what happens…