Sitting Still In Church

The pictured church from Cades Cove, without the cemetery and deer, closely resembled the church in my story from two years ago.   

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I was a fidgety, skinny kid–couldn’t sit still.  When I tried, my legs would swing.  Since they didn’t yet reach the floor.  I may have had ADD–who knows?  When the good reverend’s Sunday sermons ran long, there were always kid games; done discreetly of course.

Even with the windows opened, it was miserable in summer.  That’s when the paper fans came out–compliments of local funeral homes.  It seemed to me–the efforts taken to waggle fans back-and-forth, cancelled out the benefits.  The two front doors were left open.  Bugs and birds often joined the proceedings.

Father was a strict disciplinarian; his firm fingers turned my buzz-cut head around in an instant, with firm warnings.  “Turn around.  Sit still and pay attention.”  Fear of the coal shed hung over my head like the sword of Damocles.  I was convinced it was used as a whipping shed for unruly children.

Our little, white clapboard country church, was heated by two pot–bellied “Round Oak” stoves–manufactured in Dowegiac, Michigan.  There were oak leaf embossed silver-trimmed rails below the stove doors.  Were these foot rests?  I didn’t really know.

Brother Harold kept the stoves stoked for Sunday services.  Church faithful were addressed as brothers or sisters in Christ.  Brother Harold also worked as custodian at a local high school.

An oak “regulator” schoolhouse clock tick-tocked on one wall; a table up front, near the piano, had an antique Tammany Hall bank.  When coins for missions were deposited, the cast iron, brightly painted man in a suit, bowed his head in thanks.

My parents seemed old.  The rest of the church members were older still.  We four children were the youngest in attendance–unless there were visitors.

Sister Eunice was a sweet old soul, and mentally challenged.  She had episodes of jealousy and suspicion–which made others avoid her.  Her ill-fitting dentures, clicked like castanets, added to communication difficulties.

Once, when mother was to be away for teacher’s institute, Sister Eunice offered to babysit the four of us.  Mom had misgivings, but Sister Eunice insisted.  Mom relented and hoped for the best.

I hope when I reach the Pearly Gates of Heaven, the mayhem of that day has been long forgotten.  Things got completely out of hand.  Away from church, we weren’t the little darlings she expected us to be.  I deserved to be sent to the coal shed.

Sister Eunice was upset the entire day, until mom arrived.  We apologized, but the damage had been done.  Sister Eunice never volunteered for babysitting duty ever again.

I’VE GOT A SECRET

Sometimes I envy the mentally challenged little old man that stood in line to pay his utility bill that winter day.

He had a secret–given away by the possum eating persimmons grin plastered across his bewhiskered face.  If only someone would come closer.

Bundled up against the cold, he was, wearing a blue-gray cardigan sweater and a jaunty snap-brim cap.

Life was simple.  He was at peace with the world and had a purpose.

The joy on his face couldn’t be measured when the secret was revealed.

“I’ve got twelve sweaters on–you want to see them?”  He meant no harm to himself or anyone else–laughed fit to die.

If he was happy with who he was–I was happy.  He made my day.  There’d be other secrets in days to come.

Accordions & Monologues

making musicBasil’s monologues, respectfully borrowed
From the likes of–Jack Benny, Rodney Dangerfield
Began, from a shady park bench
“I grew up in a tough ethnic neighborhood”
“Learned to play accordion to keep from getting beaten up”
“Could I have a rim shot, please?”  “Wow, tough crowd”

Self-deprecating humor worked well
At parties, social events, until laughter faded
His marriage failed–she claimed, she needed more
Than he could give, lawyers, ex-wives, blah-blah-blah!
Drinking, masked pains of failure, until DT demons
Came to call, left behind, hallucinations, shaking, cold sweats

Several vagrancy arrests later
The Salvation Army took him in
Basil survived, self-esteem, only
Slightly wounded, by the celebratory
Gunfire, of his formerly overinflated, ego

Any, remaining, self-righteous inclinations
Quickly disappeared, his dark red accordion
And music remained, reminders of former glories
Park bench performances became routine
The take, on good days, enough for hot meals
And lodging at better transient hotels

His only true love, the dark red accordion
With mother of pearl inlays and ivory keys
There’d been a couple of minor dustups
Basil’s personal space, had been invaded
By outsiders, too touchy-feely for his liking

In his mind, still fancied himself, as nine-year old
Basil Rominski, in front of an adoring audience
At Mrs. Holtzmann’s fourth-grade music recital
As he played, spirited renditions, of
“Flight of the Bumblebee,” “Beer Barrel Polka”
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” recently added to his repertoire

Until, one day, street thugs
Waited In ambush, whacked him
Over the head, stole his money
Left him on the sidewalk, unconscious
Sprawled out, over his accordion case

The next thing, Basil remembered, was
An echoed, booming, bass voice
“Don’t ask, unless you’re willing to listen”
“How much is this advice going to cost me?”
Basil, asked the disconnected voice
“How much money you got?”
Came the curious answer
In the form of a question

“Everything, everywhere in”
“The universe, is in motion”
“Millions and billions”
“Of atoms, electrons, neutrons, protons”
“Are spinning around inside your body”
The thought made Basil nauseous
“Stop it! I’m going to throw up!”
Boris pleaded

“You’re a family of one”
The voice droned on, with
More unintelligible mumblings
A blurry, angelic figure, enshrouded in white
Called out, “Mr. Rominski, Mr. Rominski”
“You’ve had a concussion, you’re dreaming”
“Come on, let me help you get back to bed”

Basil’s mistake, looking out a broken window
At the wrong time–witnessing a crime
Intimidated, to insure his silence
There were fewer and fewer places to hide
Basil hid in a mechanical room, above a
Storefront, in an abandoned shopping center

The parking lot lights were on
He watched from a vantage point
Heart pounded, as a car stopped
Thieves, looking for things to steal?
Had he been followed?
Was it the same people as before?

Basil held his accordion closely
This is the last good thing I’ve got!
You thieving bastards can’t have it!
He was in grave danger, if spotted
Without his accordion and music
He was dead, anyway

Jimmy Lee Dykes: Mystery in Wiregrass Country

English: Downtown Dothan, Alabama, looking up ...
English: Downtown Dothan, Alabama, looking up Foster Street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tragedy was no stranger to the wiregrass country of southeastern Alabama.  On March I, 2007, a tornado ravaged the high school and community of Enterprise, killing nine people.  This was the latest chapter–a murder, kidnapping, and seven-day standoff in Midland City.

It would be easy for people, who view at a distance, to let those TV newsclips define Midland City. Think Columbine, Pearl, and Newtown.  Communities touched by tragedy often carry the stigma of it for years.    

Amid the reports from the hostage scene this week, there were stories of residents holding candlelight vigils, cooking food for law enforcement officers, and leaving their porch lights on as a sign of hope.  Kent–dkent@al.com 

Local law enforcement and FBI exercised tremendous restraint.  Five year old Ethan is alive and physically unharmed.  He will carry mental scars forever.  Charles Albert Poland Jr., the school bus driver, sacrified his life for Ethan and other busriders.  Midland City is more than this tragedy.  It’s a tight-knit small community of twenty-three hundred people near the larger community of Dothan.  Midland City embodies all the good things of small-town America.

The life of Jimmy Lee Dykes is a mystery that continues to unfold.  What drove him to take the final violent act?  A friend and former neighbor stated–he liked to bet on dog races.  He followed racing results faithfully and had, what he thought, was a system to beat the odds.  His paranoia and distrust grew over the years.

Even decades before, according to neighbor, George Arnold, Dykes was, filled with rage against the federal government.  …And blacks and Jews…He never felt afraid of him, even though Dykes used to carry a pistol in his waistband.  If the government came for him, he always said he wouldn’t get taken alive. rmcclendon@al.com The pistol and some marijuana plants got Dykes kicked out of government subsidized housing.  He spent several years living in a truck.

Signs of trouble were there.  Dykes thought the government and mafia conspired against his success at the dog tracks.  He refused to sign up for disability and Social Security.  He didn’t have a telephone because the government could use it to track him.  There were run-ins with neighbors.  He beat one woman’s dog to death with a pipe.  A trespasser was met by Dykes brandishing and firing a weapon.

It was a tragedy of poverty mixed with paranoia.  The bunker was rigged with explosives.  Dykes was true to his word–didn’t plan to be taken alive.  Secretly inserted fiber optic cameras revealed an even more agitated kidnapper.  He requested the presence of a reporter to tell his story.  It was obvious Dykes planned revenge on those who, in his mind, tortured him during his lifetime.

Could this have been prevented?  Was Jimmy Lee Dykes just another mentally ill person that fell through the cracks?  Would stricter firearm ownership laws have made a difference?  People can’t be helped that don’t want to be helped.  Many people harbor mistrust of government–they don’t necessarily commit violent acts.  Mentally ill outpatients don’t always take their medications.  There are no answers, only more questions.  Two families were changed forever.