Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Taliban Vintage Tank

I'll admit that Im absolutely shameless. Another summer day, another summer re-run.

I was taking a walk around town and as I passed by the Taliban vintage tank that protects Emporia I took a digital photo of it and went on my way.

At about 12th and Merchant I began to recall the story that I originally wrote last year. It served two purposes. One was to give you, the reader, a small snapshot small town life here in Emporia. The other was to pay homage to E.B. White, who gave up big city life to return to rural Maine and observe American life from his farm. Republishing the story today serves a third purpose. Things are quite busy for Nancy and me right now, thus for a day or so re-runs are in order.

The original story now follows for your enlightenment and amusement:

“People who favor progress and improvements are apt to be people who have had a tough enough time without an extra inconvenience. Reactionaries who pout at innovations are apt to be well-heeled sentimentalists who had the breaks. Yet for all that, there is always a subtle danger in life’s refinements, a dim degeneracy in progress. I Have just been refining the room in which I sit, yet I sometimes doubt that a writer should refine or improve his workroom by so much as a dictionary: one thing leads to another and the first thing you know he has a stuffed chair and is fast asleep in it. Half a man’s life is devoted to what he calls improvements, yet the original had some quality that is lost in the process.”

E.B. White –
“Progress and Change” (from One Man’s Meat) – December 1938

E.B. White is one of my favorite writers. The title of my blog is a tribute of sorts to him.

Most people know him for his children’s books, especially Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. As good as those works were, however, that was not what drew me to him. It was his essays done in the thirties and forties. White observed the world around him from his perch in North Brooklin, Maine. That perch afforded him two things – time and a keen eye. His unhurried prose is a great testament to manner in which he used both.

His work is a model of sorts for what I’m trying to do here in the Kansas Flint Hills. After all those years of busyness, business, and urban life, I’ve found that retirement here in Emporia has given me the time to begin to develop the keen eye that shows so wonderfully in White’s work.

A little more than five years ago I never would have thought this would be a fit for me and Nancy. Back in those days we were looking for a way out of Memphis, Tennessee. We’d reached a level of dissatisfaction with the corporate life that we began to look for ways out, but Emporia was far from our thoughts. Early on in the process we thought about moving to Florida. “After all,” we reasoned. “It’s warm and relatively inexpensive.” But a web search showed us the error of our ways. Seeing all those men dressed in seersucker shorts, tennis shoes and black socks was enough to send us seeking another refuge. We looked at New Mexico, Taos to be more precise. Too “new age.” Colorado? Too cold! And so it went until one morning over breakfast Nancy recounted a dream she had had the night before. Within a month from that point we were on our way.

What is it about this small place that I find so attractive? It certainly isn’t the night life. When we lived in New Jersey we found it exceedingly easy to get on a commuter train into New York City to shop at Macy’s, go to a Broadway play, or visit one of the city’s great museums. There’s nothing like that here in Emporia. About as cultural as it gets is the annual visit of the Singing Sergeants either on Veterans’ Day or Memorial Day. But for what we lack in culture here we more than make up for in the sanity of ordinary lives.

Big city life did have its benefits. And it also had its problems. I remember once when we lived in northwest New Jersey that Nancy and I took my two sons, who were on a summer break, to see “Cats” at the Wintergarden Theater. The trip in was uneventful and the play was grand, but it was the trip back to New Jersey that provided the night’s excitement. We left the play at about 10:30 PM and walked back to the Port Authority building on 42nd Street to catch our bus back home. We took the elevator up to level four in plenty of time. In fact we had about a twenty minute wait till the bus was to depart. About ten minutes into that wait we noticed a ragged man shuffling past us. I sat transfixed, almost not believing what I was seeing. He was dirty, filthy actually, dressed in black clothes that appeared to have been run through a shredder, which gave him the appearance of being a grimy, gritty kite tail as he floated past us. As he shuffled past me I saw that I saw that he had no underwear on and the only thing that was covering his nakedness were the flaps of cloth that swayed back and forth as he moved. Now that’s not the type of thing a fella’ sees every day in Emporia, Kansas, I’m here to tell you. For some reason my first reaction to this “sight” was amusement. I chuckled. I found out almost instantly that it was not the politically correct response. The man stopped and looked over at me, his eyes holding a menacing look. It was clear that he didn’t think I should have been amused. He started to move slowly toward me and as he did my youngest son Michael poked me and said, “What do we do now, Dad?” “I dunno’,” I responded, gulping as I did. “I think we’ll have to play this by ear. I really don’t know why I did what I did next; I think it might have been pure instinct. I decided to take a pro-active approach to the situation. I got up and walked toward my disheveled antagonist. When we got to the place where we were face to face I decided to act like an animal. “Two can play this game,” I thought. I looked him squarely in the eye and growled….. “Rrrrrrrrrrhhhhhhhh.” He growled back….“Rrrrrrrrrrhhhhhhhh.” Then we growled at each other in unison….“Rrrrrrrrrrhhhhhhhh.” I remember feeling my heart beat, which by this time was at a rate about what an astronaut’s would be in an emergency. I remember the smell of the sneaky pete wafting in the air as we went through our ritual dance, two men sizing each other up like animals in the wild. Thankfully, the dance ended as quickly as it had started. He turned away from me and shuffled down the corridor. The bus came about five minutes later and our New York City adventure ended with me slumped in my seat, still sweating from the confrontation. I took a few deep breaths and as I did Michael, who was sitting next to me, patted me on the shoulder and declared, “I guess you showed him, Dad.” I didn’t respond the way I felt. Inside I was saying, “Shut up, Michael.” For public consumption, however, I said, “Thanks.”

I guess there are times in life you give up some things to get others. Nancy and I gave up some of the big city’s cultural advantages for safety, serenity, and security here in fly over country. Now I doubt that “Cats” will ever come to Emporia. But I doubt that I’ll ever see that guy with the shredded outfit and the exposed gluteus maximus either.

So I now spend my days in serenity. This morning, for example, I took my daily stroll through our downtown. I stopped by the bank and the tellers all acknowledged me by name – “Taking your daily stroll, Phil?
“Yup. Next stop is the Gazette. I’ll be saying a little prayer as I pass that Patrick Kelley will see the light today, or someday.” As I leave one of the tellers reminds me to say a little prayer for them too. I promise them that I will, but that it will be different that the one I pray at the Gazette. After all, these folks and I have a wonderful working relationship. I’m either giving them money or they’re giving it to me. It’s an arrangement that’s hard to beat. After about an hour of surveying my kingdom I’m back home. I pick up the previous night’s copy of the Gazette and browse. The crime blotter or page two tells me all I need to know. ‘Nine A.M. _ Dog at large…..9th and Neosho…..Ten forty A.M. – Dog at large 15th and State…..1:42 PM – Dog at large – 5th and Commercial.” I see that the dog catcher is busy chasing someone’s golden retriever or Labrador around. The municipal court report reveals all the previous day’s violators. There were four incidences of “prohibited noise,” two cases of “open beer in public,” and other activities worthy of note. I take a peek at the editorial page and see that Patrick Kelley’s at it again. But I find it rather reassuring. A town like ours needs a gadfly and Patrick Kelley is the perfect man for the job.

About a mile or so from my house, at exit 130 off of I-35 sits a Taliban vintage tank in front of the National Guard armory. It’s gun is aimed at the highway, letting any interlopers know that we’ll defend ourselves from any unwarranted encroachments. Each time I pass by it after one of my increasingly rare forays into the world outside the Flint Hills, I feel comforted by the sight. The outside world might have the cultural advantages, but if I need something I’ll order it and have FedEx deliver it, thank you. The outside world has the guy with the shredded britches. Me? “I’ve got the Taliban vintage tank at exit 130. Now I ask you, “Who could ask for anything more.”


Gone Away said...

Emporia and Lawton have much in common, it seems... ;)

Abrham Lincoln said...

Like your blog. Like your writing. I'm about 71 so this is new to me but I got a blog on April 12, 2005 and it is doing good