Silence is Golden, or Poison

My father liked this saying, “Better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.” I think there is some wisdom in that. I could write a book, maybe a set of encyclopedias on the things I have said that were less intelligent than silence. Usually these pearls of foolishness spilled out when I was angry or under pressure. Inevitably sooner or later, sometimes years later I have wished I could inhale these words back. But, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, “It’s mighty hard to unring a bell.”

So I decided a long time ago to take responsibility for my words and actions. The current buzz word is “accountability.” To paraphrase the song, “I was country when country wasn’t cool”. I like to think I was accountable when accountable wasn’t cool. Full disclosure: I often didn’t/don’t live up to my lofty goal. But I believed in it, still do.

To achieve accountability, I vowed that under pressure my first response would be to shut my mouth. Later when I had time to analyze the situation and prepare a proper response I would do so. Alas, like most silver bullet solutions, this has its limitations. It can even cause its own problems. I have a pretty good collection of times when I should have spoken but didn’t.

I was a hot shot Sunday School teacher in my church with all the wisdom and insight of 18 years when I picked up a piece of chalk from the ward (congregation) “media center” a closet containing a few battered copies of the scriptures, a short stack of faded pictures, chalk and an eraser or two. I was in a hurry as usual, and I snatched a piece of chalk and started for my class room. I heard a shriek behind me. “Put that back! That’s our chalk. You’re a thief that’s what you are! You’re a thief!”

I looked around to see if I could help catch the thief, and saw Sister Haskell, one of the older (all adults were older to me in those days) sisters in our ward pointing her threatening finger at me.

Only she wasn’t in our ward any more as of the previous week. The ward had been divided, and so had the closet. I didn’t stop to figure that out. I just smiled and said, “Whatever.” Or whatever the 1955 version of “whatever” was.

I remembered later, but tossed it off. Even now I think she was trying to kill an ant with a sledge hammer. But still wish I hadn’t let her go to her grave thinking I was running an underground crime ring peddling stolen chalk.

Why didn’t I say something at the time? Youthful pig headedness I think. I didn’t cotton to the idea of humbly asking forgiveness of this screaming woman.

Same story, different scene: I am standing in the middle of my hay field by an irrigation ditch when a car comes speeding up the field toward me, stops and two men jump out. One I recognize as the water master who turns water into my ditch. The other man is a stranger to me. I hope he remains so from the look on his face. I take a firmer grip on my shovel handle in case it comes to that. I think it won’t because I have the law on my side in the form of the water master.

I already know the problem. Every week I order water from the canal. The water master turns it in, and this hydro-thief on the same ditch line sneaks up and opens his head gate half way to siphon off some of my water. He thinks I won’t notice because the canal head gate is way up a hill. Most people wouldn’t walk up to check if somebody upstream is stealing part of their water.

But I am not most people. Suspecting I was getting less than I had ordered, I have checked it out over several weeks. Always it is the same; a discretely half opened head gate is sending part of my stream to his reservoir. “The wheels of the (water) gods grind slow but exceeding fine,” as the saying goes, and he’s about to get his comeuppance.

They take their stance. The water master speaks first, “What do you think you’re doing. Every week you order a foot of water. He orders a half foot for his reservoir. I turn a foot and a half into the ditch, and open up his head gate to give him his share. You come along and close his gate and steal his water.”

I stand stunned, processing this new scenario. Instinctively accountability kicks in. I say nothing.

“Don’t let it happen again.” The water master and the water thief/victim jump back into the car, throw it into reverse and burn rubber out to the street and away.

My mind grinds slow and not exceeding fine. I think, “I am a voiceless idiot. Why didn’t I say something?”

Later that night I call my neighbor and add to the evidence of my guilt by offering to give him some of my water. He says, “I don’t need your water. I can take care of myself,” the implication being why don’t I do the same.

I go through several speeches I could have made. None of them would have solved the problem. They include to the water master, “Why didn’t you tell me that is what you were doing.” To which he would have said. “Everybody on the line but you knows how it works. You city slickers come out here and think you know everything.” Or I could have said to my water neighbor. “What would you think if you found somebody tapping water out of your stream? I figured you were stealing my water.” To which he would have said. “You calling me a thief? You better get a good grip on that shovel buddy. Nobody says that to me and gets away with it.”

The only response that might have worked would be, “Whoa, I am sorry. I didn’t know that’s how the system worked. I’m really embarrassed that I didn’t understand. I hope you will forgive me, and let me repay you the water that I took by mistake.”

They could have said, “You got that right Slick. You’re either stupid or lying. Don’t let it happen again.”

They might even have said, “Say aren’t you the same guy who stole chalk from Sister Haskell’s ward 56 years ago?”

Thou Shalt Kill

Not reworking the Ten Commandments here, just making a statement of fact. If you raise animals for food, the inevitable day comes when you have to start moving them from the pen or pasture to the plate. If you don’t raise livestock, but you do eat meat, you are also involved in the process. This doesn’t make you a murderer, or even a sinner. You are in the company of respectable people including prophets and the God who gave the commandment about not killing.

Nevertheless, taking the life of an animal is a solemn and sobering experience for many people including me. I would sooner shoo an insect than swat it. I have been known to carry spiders and hornets outside and set them free rather than executing them with a rolled up newspaper or a boot sole. (I am not so considerate with mosquitoes and flies.)

Harvesting the meat crop is a dreaded day. I’ve never gotten over reading Bambi and Black Beauty as a child. But it has to be done. “Time to cowboy up and get to the business at hand” I reiterated the words of wisdom I have poured out over the years on our children, and myself., “The issue is not that we kill them, but how did we care for them while they were alive? If we pen or cage an animal we are responsible to provide its needs. Code of the west, take care of your animals first and then yourself.” And, “If you can avoid it, don’t name food.”

I killed my first goat with a 30.06 hunting rifle borrowed from my neighbor. That was a black humor ballet. Maybelle our goat was bobbing and weaving on the end of a short rope. I was holding on to the rope with one hand and trying to aim the hefty rifle with the other. I figured I had one chance in three of hitting the goat. The other two targets were my foot, and the United Airlines flight from Denver passing over. I shot lucky, dropped her instantly, breathed a sigh of relief, and decided never again this way. Too loud, too violent, too dangerous.

I read up on how the Old Testament priests sacrificed their animals. To them it was a religious rite. They honed their skills and their knives. I liked that approach. Even today Jewish butchers are legendarily efficient because they only get one pass at the animal’s jugular vein. If they take more than one stroke, the meat is no longer kosher and has to be sold on the gentile market for less money. . So I bought a very sharp knife, and the next time straddled the goat, held it’s head under the chin. Goats do not like to be held by their main weapon, the horns. I thanked the animal for the sacrifice it was making, and cut its throat in a stroke. The goat dropped to the ground. No struggling; a couple of reflex twitches, and it was all over. It was a quiet and sensitive, even sacred moment. That’s how I slaughtered the doe goats from that day. The big bucks are a different challenge. They are contentious and can be dangerous with their horns.

For chickens, we have metal cones, shaped like a megaphone. We put the chicken inside with its head hanging out of the small opening. This has proved the least stressful on the birds and on us. Chickens are reactionary creatures. If one freaks out they all do. They even freak themselves out. If they see their wings flapping they figure “Why would my wings be flapping if there wasn’t something chasing me?”

But with their wings tucked to their sides by the cone they relax. A sharp knife cuts into their jugular vein without causing them pain. As the blood supplying oxygen slows, their brain shuts down, and they quietly go to sleep. If you do it right, they don’t even flinch. It is the most gentle way to kill a chicken.

Nevertheless, Saturday I was dreading the experience. I went jogging as usual in the morning. My route takes me through the cemetery where my first wife, Diane is buried. It is in the foothills near our house, a peaceful and beautiful location with a spectacular view of Utah Valley below. As I approached Diane’s grave a picture entered into my mind. It was not a vision, but it was a very comforting scene. Diane who loves animals was standing in a beautiful meadow with blue sky above and a few puffy clouds. Appearing in the distance was a bird. It was soaring like an eagle. It floated down and landed on her outstretched arm. She laughed, petted it, and set it down. It began to forage and frolic in the lush grass. But it was not an eagle. It was a chicken. One by one the others arrived as we sent them on their way from this imperfect world we live in. The birds had filled the measure of their creation, and were now donating their bodies to feed us while their spirits swooped off to chicken heaven. That’s a scenario that works for me.

As for the goats, I was talking to my young friend Samuel Thrupp who had helped milk Daisy, one of our goats. She got too old to milk, but I couldn’t bring myself to slaughter her. ( See advice above, “Don’t name food.”) Finally stiff, old, and rheumatoid, she wheezed her last through fluid filled lungs. I didn’t do her any favors by procrastinating her trip to goat heaven.

I told Samuel that Daisy had gone to her reward. A man passing heard our conversation and later asked with a grin “What is a goat’s reward. No question about that one. I told him, “Goat heaven is a green pasture, a bubbling creek, grass to graze, and trees to browse on, and fences you can jump over or wiggle under, tether ropes you can untie you’re your teeth, corrals in which you can explore, and always find an escape route, bottomless grain barrels you can pry open with your horn and feast to your fill. And most of all, an owner who doesn’t get bent out of shape if you do all these fun things. That is heaven for a goat.

My Friend Duke and Other Dogs

We have a cordial ceremony when we meet on my daily jog. Duke barks, comes out to the road. I say, “Hey Duke. Good to see you. How’s the big guy.?” Duke gets bored and walks back to his house. I jog on.

It has not always been this way. One of us got smarter. The other got amnesia.

My association with other people’s dogs includes being chased by the bishop’s feisty guard pet. I was too young to understand the snarling and snapping were only for show. Apparently so was the nip on my back side. The bishop told me the dog was harmless, but he forgot to tell his dog.

I have never been a mail man, but I was a paper boy; same spot on the food chain to some dogs including the deranged collie on my route. Psychologically many generations removed from Lassie the TV and movie star, his job as he saw it was to protect his owners from the news of the day no matter what the cost—the cost to the newsboy that is. In his feeble brain he was a pit bull, and I was a rabbit.

Every afternoon I would take a deep breath and push off down third East Street headed north. No problem delivering the paper. The street was a gentle down hill slope. I just got up a little speed, pulled up both feet out of range (barely) of his gnashing teeth, sailed the paper over him to the front porch (or near it), and coasted on till he ran out of breath, lost interest or more likely, bided his time. Because, as we both knew, the street was a dead end.

Where are the Barnum and Bailey Circus talent scouts when you need them? The trip back up the street was an act worthy of the Big Top. Water and bikes don’t run uphill. To keep from slowing down, and tipping into the jaws of death, I had to lift up the dog side leg and pump with the other foot. This involved catching the pedal with my toe on the up stroke and coaxing it over the top of the arc so I could push it down again. Man’s best fiend knew the drill. He would whip from one side of the bike to the other trying to get a hunk of peddling leg before I could reverse my pumping and lifting order.

My childhood trauma, newsboy days and my deep feelings about citizens’ rights are the only excuse I can give for my part in the ongoing feud between Duke and me. As I used to say (fruitlessly) to my mother when my brother Gordon and I went a few rounds as children, “He started it.”

My mother was never convinced, neither was Duke. The first day we met he stood his ground snarling as I invaded his turf. But it was not his turf. It was the middle of the street, a street that I as a tax payer had helped pay for and was therefore authorized to jog on.

The blood of patriots flowed to my brain as I picked up a rock, and stared Duke down. Justice having been served, I jogged on triumphant except that Duke was nipping at my heals at every step.

And thus it was for years. I threatened to stone him. He backed off then came snarling back as soon as my head turned from him. I got bigger rocks. Worked on my attack face and posture. No good, same scenario. I read you could spray ammonia in the eyes and it acts like tear gas. That’s what I’ll do,” I thought. “I’ll fill a squirt gun with ammonia and when I pass Duke’s house I’ll knock on the door and when his owners open it I’ll spray then in the eyes and say… never mind what I’ll say. That won’t work.”

And nothing did. Sometimes Duke would be locked in their garage when I came by. But he would hear my gentle padding steps a block away, and start tearing down the walls to get at me. No matter how long Duke spent in the garage. He always remembered me when he got out

I suppose I could have changed jogging routes, but hey the founding Fathers could have moved to Mexico instead of fighting for their lawful territory. There was a principle at stake. Stupid dog. Doesn’t he know anything about American history?

One day I told Sharon about this homicidal dog. She said, “Oh, you mean that nice friendly black dog. He comes out when I walk past his house. I give him a little treat or a pat on the head. We’re friends.”

Shades of Benedict Arnold, my own wife collaborating with the enemy. .

Nothing changed until Sharon and I went to the Caribbean Islands to serve a two year mission for our church.

The first day or so back I went for my morning jog. Truth to tell, two years being involved in more noble pursuits than winning a street battle with somebody else’s dog had matured me. I had forgotten my daily firefight with Duke. That is until he came streaking from behind his house barking and reclaiming his—really my—road. But part way out, he slowed down, seemed confused, couldn’t quite remember why he was doing this act.

I tensed, then relaxed, then remembered the higher road I had been walking for two years. I said, “Hey, old buddy good to see you. Still got the nice shiny black coat and white tooth smile. The last 14 dog years haven’t aged you at all. Have a good day.”

Duke trotted back to his front lawn to continue his sun bathing. I jogged on thinking, “Who knew?” Christian kindness is a whole lot better than snarls, rocks and glaring among dogs, people, or combinations thereof.

Change of Heart

My usual dreams are silent movies with little or no dialogue or sound track. But occasionally I experience a different kind of dream, almost all narration. This usually happens as I am in the twilight zone between sleeping and awakening. I often know I am dreaming, but voluntarily stay on the sleepy side of consciousness because I want to hear how the story turns out. I don’t know what the next scene or even word will be until I “hear” it from the dream narrator.

Recently I had such a dream. If you have any idea what it means, I would be curious to know. In the dream a man was telling a story. As I heard the story unfold I created pictures in my mind as one would do when reading or hearing a story. They were not created for me as in a movie or television show.

The man’s narration went like this.

“I was in an English pub. A man came up to me and said, ‘I just saw a horrible sight, the corpse of a man. In place of his eyes where gashes in the shape of an X. His mouth was one big x-shaped gash. He was an ugly wicked devilish looking specter. He had done a horrible thing to a child, and the people made him pay with his life in a terrible way.’

“When the man in the pub finished, I picked up my gold headed walking stick and walked out. There I met a beautiful little girl with her mother. The child was crying. Her cousin who looked like this child’s twin was missing. I gave the child a five dollar bill to help her feel better. She didn’t take it because it was too much money, and neither she nor her mother had change.

“I saw nearby a group of boys playing baseball. I had not played in years, but I used to be quite good. I joined the boys in their game, and played surprisingly well.

“After awhile I grew tired, but they encouraged me to keep playing as I was valuable to the team. Finally we all had had enough, and we stopped playing.

“I went into another pub or restaurant. I saw a large black man who appeared to be an American. I approached him and asked if he could change a five dollar bill. He said ‘No,’ but pointed out to me another man. ‘You need to talk with him,’ the big man said.

“I went up to the man, a conservatively dressed gentleman with dark hair, and a sober expression. I gave him my five dollar bill and asked him if he could give me change. Instead he pulled from his pocket a white handkerchief. He unwrapped the cloth, and inside was a small human heart still beating slowly. I shrank back disgusted. The man hurried away with my five dollars.

“I reported the event to a Bobby outside. The police officer told me to do my duty and find the man. I searched and found him in a panic in a train station. He said, ‘I gave your five dollars to a cabbie to bring me here. Now I have no money to escape on the train.’

“Distraught, he took me to a room and showed me the fresh corpse of a child. I was aghast. It was the cousin of the girl I had met. In place of her heart was an open bloody cavity. The man took another heart from his pocket wrapped in white cloth. It was larger than the one he had earlier shown me. It too was slowly beating.

“He said, ‘Let me tell you my story. I am a doctor. I learned that this child had a bad heart and would soon die. I found her, and removed her heart.’

“The man then gave me the beating heart he had shown me. He told me to put the heart in the child. He said it was his own heart. Then he died.

“I placed the heart gently in the open hole in the child’s chest and closed the wound as best I could. The child immediately opened her eyes, smiled, and became happy, bubbly, and alive.

“I turned to look at the dead man. In place of his eyes were slashed X marks. His mouth was a larger slashed X.”

Then the man telling the story in my dream concluded, “I pray God that before we judge another person’s actions we know his motives, and the result of what he has done.”

That was the end of the man’s story. I opened my eyes. During the dream I had been somewhat concerned that I would wake up and not hear the conclusion of the story. I was pleased that this did not happen.

Enjoying the best of Every Age

Lying on my parents’ bed listening to our old Philco table top radio with its shorted out ground wire so you had to put your hand on its back to keep the music louder than the static, I had a thought. This alone was a significant experience for a ten year old brain. It was an occasion worthy to be added to my journal which I didn’t do because 1. I didn’t have a journal, and 2. That would have required energy I could have put into something else like bouncing a ball against a wall, and 3. It was not an earth shaking thought. I had not suddenly settled on my life’s work. No heavenly visions opened to me. My thought was, “I am ten years old. It must be great to be ten years old. It’s a round number. People talk about when they were ten years old as though it was something special.”

That was plenty enough thinking for one day. Why I have remembered that moment every now and then for decades, I have no idea.

But folded up inside that thought was a profundity, sort of like the secret compartment in my Captain Midnight ring, obtained for 15 cents, the top from a Cheerios cereal box, and an endless wait for Ed Patten, the mail man to get it to me. The ring finally arrived followed by the disappointment of discovering I didn’t have any secrets worth putting into the secret compartment.

But now I do. Unfortunately the Captain Midnight secret compartment ring soon stained a green band around my finger. The on-size-fits-all expandable ring part got flattened into one-size-fits-none. The secret compartment became even more secret when I put it carefully away in case I ever got a secret; so carefully that I never found it, or looked for it again, or thought about it until pretty much this minute. If I had it now, I would write this secret in microscopic letters. The hidden compartment was not designed for big, wordy secrets.

The secret is this. Ten years old is a wonderful age; so is twenty, fifty, and I’m assuming the big century mark and beyond. Every age has its charms. One of the advantages of the mature years is that people cut you a little more slack when you don’t perform at Olympic level. Some people even smile, nod, and appear to believe you when you claim, “The older I get, the better I was.”

You get clever, even devious at turning your limitations into advantages. At his retirement a reporter for the New York Times told how he got information from interviews that other reporters didn’t. “I stutter,” he said. “At first I thought this would be a problem. It turned out to be a tremendous advantage. Most people are more or less empathetic to someone who is struggling a bit. They were patient while I sorted out the words. Waiting for me to formulate the next question prompted them to fill in more information to fill up the empty space. Reporters sometimes miss chances because they are in a hurry to move on to the next question. That was not a problem for me. People wondered how mentally capable I was, so they would explain things clearly. They were not as combative and defensive as they would have been with some fast talking pushy reporter.” By using his limitation as a lever instead of a crutch, the man became one of the best in his profession.

My life work is communication using music, humor, stories, writing, speaking, performing, teaching, and personal conversation. Sometimes my mind gets ahead of my memory, and it takes me a moment to come up with the name, the word or the fact I’m after. Rather than staring out into space and leaving an uncomfortable hole in the delivery or conversation, I usually do my mental fishing out loud. This invites my listeners to join in the search. It engages their attention. When they come up with the right answer, they feel good about their success. It also keeps me humble, and helps me avoid pontificating which is always less persuasive than inviting them to join in the search.

This system does not work so well when I am telling a joke or story with a snappy closer. Timing is vital in this kind of delivery, and not having the word available for the punch line moment does make for a deflated joke. But overall it seems to put people more at ease, opens up communication, and I suppose, adds a quaint eccentricity to my persona.

Every age has its opportunities I am finding. It is an interesting journey.