Archive for August, 2013

Prayers at Public Meetings

By Bob Litton

When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
— Matt. 6:5-6

On May 25th, 2012, I heard a radio news report that the City Council of Weatherford, Texas, was to study the issue of whether they should institute the practice of saying a prayer and pledging allegiance to the flag(s) at the start of meetings.  No such proceedings had been part of Weatherford City Council meetings for 30 years, the reporter said, and no one remembered why they were discontinued back then.  According to newspaper reports, the council was under pressure from a bunch of local ministers to have an invocation.  The council, however, was concerned especially about two potential problems: (1) the possible perception of unfairness in the representation of different faiths and denominations; and (2) the possibility that some of the clergy would extend their time at the podium overmuch.

The news report, coming as it did just while I had been pondering, for weeks, the same practices at Alpine City Council meetings and debating with myself whether I should risk my friendships—and perhaps even my life—by writing about it, served as a goad for me to do so.

Not all governmental bodies in this area have both an invocation and a pledge of allegiance ceremony.  Some just have a board member say a brief prayer.  At least one body does neither.  The Alpine City Council, however, has a practice of inviting local ministers on a rotating basis to say a prayer, followed by a recitation of  the pledge of allegiance, first to the U.S. flag and then to the Texas state flag.

Here I must acknowledge that what I write is based on my own beliefs, no matter how much I intend to be open-minded and equitable in what I say.  At this point I want to recall to my readers’ minds Roger Williams, who is a saint in my own personal heaven.  Williams was a 17th century Calvinist minister, theologian, philosopher…and, eventually, freethinker.  Many modern American religion professors consider him one of the profoundest theologians in American history.  He was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because he believed, and taught, that no creed should be force-fed to an individual, that every person—even the Native American “savage”—has a right to develop his or her own relationship to God.  Williams and his followers founded the colony of Rhode Island as a haven for those who wished to develop themselves spiritually according to their own studies and insights.  He is regarded as the originator of the American ideal of separation of Church and State.  I am a firm believer in that ideal.

While I would like to see an absolute separation of Church and State, I will concede two areas where some compromise seems feasible.  For one, state parks are public property, supported and maintained by taxpayers’ dollars.  Yet, some religious groups hold small workshops, spiritual retreats and Easter sunrise services at those parks.  I see nothing wrong with that, as long as such groups are not large, their stay is not extended and they show no outward sign of proselytizing to others.

Pointedly related to that, I was faced with a quandary once while I was editor of the paper in another small West Texas town in the early 1980s.  The Baptists had planned a revival but thought their sanctuary was inadequate to accommodate the hoped-for crowd, so they asked the school board for permission to rent a school facility for the event.  Having previously written a couple of columns in which I acknowledged (essentially as parenthetical remarks) that I was not a Christian, I hesitated to publicly comment on this development, even though I saw it as a potential major infraction of the “separation of Church and State” standard.  My “bias” was already out in the open.  Instead, I wrote a concise but, I thought, cogent personal note to the school board urging them not to approve the rental, and handed it to the assistant school superintendent, who passed it on to the board members.  At the next board meeting, when the revival meeting subject came up for a vote, the board members asked the school superintendent if he had received any comments from the community about the idea.  “Only from the newspaper man,” he said.  The church’s request was approved.  The question that has gnawed at me ever since is: Should I have written a column alerting the citizenry to the gross invasion of public property by a particular religious group?

So, you see, my position is that, while parks should be open for use by small church groups for Easter sunrise services or Sunday school retreats, no public facility should be used by a religious group as a place for proselytizing.

And, while I very much disapprove of the current Alpine Council’s procedure of inviting local ministers to leave their supper tables and come say a prayer at City Hall, I quite understand their desire to obtain whatever inspiration they can from wherever they can get it, especially on those occasions where decisions must be made on matters that offer no painless options.

The problems with the practice are that (1) only Protestant ministers give the invocation, although occasionally a Catholic layperson will do so; (2) some ministers, naturally enough, considering what has been asked of them, apparently feel that a fairly lengthy prayer is needed, sometimes one that resembles a mini-sermon; while many of these mini-sermons are eloquent and worthy, they are still mini-sermons (in other words, the ministers are not addressing God, they are addressing the council members); (3) their prayers always end with the sentence “In Jesus’ name we pray” or words of the same meaning, completely oblivious of the fact that in the recent past three Jews that I know, at least one Hindu and no telling how many of other persuasions had been frequent attendees; and (4) the practice leads one to suppose that the council believes only ordained ministers — in particular, Protestant ministers — know how to pray, or that God only listens to such professionals.  Recall how, in August 1980, Baptist preacher and, at the time, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Bailey Smith made news by exclaiming that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”  To be fair, we should acknowledge that some other Baptist conventions distanced themselves from Smith’s point of view and asked him to apologize for saying it: he declined to do so. Also, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter withdrew his membership in the Southern Baptist Convention because of Smith’s intransigence.

But, to my mind, the most egregious problem with prayers at public meetings is that they are regimented on a captive audience.

My proposed compromise solution to this issue is actually a choice of two approaches.

The first is to schedule a one-minute meditation time during which every member of the council and the audience can silently address his or her own concept of God or Higher Power, and the mayor can signal that the minute is up by saying “Amen”, with the audience repeating that word.

The second approach is to adopt a modified form of 20th Century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer—the one used at AA meetings and known as “The Serenity Prayer”.  If memory serves me right, this prayer has been slightly altered over the years; but presently, as AA members recite it, it says:

God, grant us
The serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
The courage to change the things we can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Note the universality of this prayer; it is non-creedal.  Note also that it asks God to improve our human attributes — elements within ourselves — not in the external world.  What it asks for is totally inclusive — everything that is needed.  It allows that it is our job, not God’s, to make needed changes when necessary.  It just asks God to give us the insight and strength necessary to improve the world and our own lives.  Above all, it does not make a “Step-‘n’-Fetch-it” of God.

I would suggest that the council alter just one line.  Instead of “The courage to change the things we can”, I would express that line thus: “The courage to change the things that should be changed”; for, not everything that can be changed should be changed.

Here I will thank Saint Roger Williams for his inspiration in the writing of this “letter to the community”.  I hope I have not disappointed him.


Note To Readers:  The Alpine City Council, after reading this essay in its original form in 2012, invited a Greek Orthodox minister and a local Jewish citizen activist (there is no synagogue in the county) to give invocations but did not advise local ministers to dispense with the usual Christocentric conclusion.



Flags as Idols

By Bob Litton

Any flag is a piece of cloth that informs observers that some building, ship, airplane or organization represents a particular country.  It is not — or should not be — an idol.

Yet, the American pledge of allegiance addresses the flag as though it were in fact an idol.  Consider the phrases of the pledge:  “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States/ and to the republic for which it stands…”.  Have you ever wondered why it does not start out this way: “I pledge allegiance to the United States…” and simply leave out the reference to the flag?  As it is, it appears to bring in “the republic” as an afterthought.

Moreover, verbal pledges are in fact mere verbiage.  Just consider how many couples pledge their troths to each other one day and a few years later go out and have a fling.  All genuine fidelity is demonstrated in action.  Serving on a city council, on a county commissioners’ court, on one of our state or national legislatures is a demonstration of allegiance to the principles of our country.  Serving in the military or the Peace Corps is showing allegiance to our country’s principles.  Simply voting and serving on juries is showing allegiance to the principles of our country; but observe how many Americans do not vote so they can avoid jury duty.  There are many, many ways to show allegiance other than a regimented ceremony — an act that amounts to idolatry.

Then there is the business about “one nation indivisible under God”.  Yet, look at all the bumper stickers of the so-called “super patriots” calling for secession.  And aren’t ALL nations under God — that is, if their people believe in God.

Contrary to what many in our younger generations might believe, the pledge of allegiance has not been part of our national ceremonies since 1798.  It was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy — a Baptist minister — and has been revised four times since then.  It was formally adopted by the U.S. Congress in 1942.  Prior to 1942, the pledge involved an arm outstretched toward the flag, but President Franklin Roosevelt instituted the hand-over-the-heart gesture because the outstretched arm resembled the Nazi salute.

The phrase “under God” was pushed by the Knights of Columbus (a Roman Catholic Church fraternal organization) and others during the early 1950s; but such efforts were defeated in Congress until 1954, when Presbyterian minister George MacPherson Docherty persuaded President Dwight Eisenhower to get Congress to amend the pledge to include the phrase “under God”.  What is notable about this incident is that it followed a sermon in which Docherty noted that the pledge’s sentiments, as expressed, could be those of any nation and therefore lacked “the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life”.  The pastor claimed that the words “under God” set the United States apart from other nations.  (We should note here that this occurred during the Cold War — the historical era when the Soviet Union and Communist China were the atheistic bugbears in the American psyche.)

But what are we now to think of this?  Do we actually believe that the United States is the only nation over which God presides in his heaven?

The present pledge of allegiance to the state flag of Texas is even worse. Originally, in 1933, the Texas Legislature instituted the state pledge as follows: “Honor the Texas flag of 1836; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one and indivisible.”  Now, “honor” is a decent word in this context, connoting as it does the same sentiment as is understood in the fifth biblical commandment: “Honor your father and mother.” The 1933 version was thus brief, easy to say and — ignoring for the moment the fact that the words “one and indivisible” conflict with the national pledge — not too silly.  The word “allegiance” still bothers me: How can one bear allegiance both to a nation and to one of its constituent states?

In 2007, however, the Texas pledge was amended to say “one state under God” and thus not only cracked the wall of separation between Church and State, just as the U.S. pledge had, but it became something of a tongue-twister.  So, God’s heaven is shrinking: it no longer covers the 50 states plus a few territories; it just covers Texas.

Now, do not suppose from the above that the flags themselves are equally deserving of contempt.  Like any other nation’s or state’s, they represent a definite group of people.  They have very proper uses: designating governmental or quasi-governmental buildings, embassies and ships.  They are very appropriately carried on poles during parades.  They should be treated respectfully.

The problem is that the flags are often treated without proper respect.  They are left hanging outside during the night and when it rains.  They are left aloft for days after national holidays and allowed to become shredded by the Texas winds.  They are worn as shirts and used for primarily decorative purposes.  And the people who treat them in such a manner consider themselves as patriotic.

In summary then, our national and state pledges of allegiance are empty, arrogant, regimented pieces of verbiage.  But many people who know the truth about this situation remain silent.  They join in the little ceremonies on the principle of “Go along to get along”.  It’s very much like Hans Christian Andersen’s story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.  Remember that story of how a country’s ruler is duped by some fake tailors into believing that the invisible cloth they are draping over him are actual clothes?  All the court officials and the general public had been led to believe by the “tailors” that anyone who could not see the emperor’s garments would be thought unfit for their jobs or as fools.  Therefore, when the emperor holds a parade to show off  his “new clothes”, everyone expresses admiration for them — everyone, that is, except one child who exclaims, “The emperor has no clothes on!”


Contra Secession

By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READER:  This essay was initially published in 2011 in two West Texas media. I had written it because I had seen too many vehicles on the streets with bumper stickers showing the Texas flag and the word “Secede”.  Since then I have read where groups in all fifty states have sent petitions to Washington expressing their desire to secede from the Union — most notably Texas, Vermont and South Carolina. Although there has long been a secessionist movement in Texas, I believe the other states have developed an anti-Union mentality because we now have an African-American president. However, recently I read that north Coloradans wish to separate from south Colorado because they do not want to share their oil wealth with the lower half of the state.  The following was addressed to my fellow Texans, but I believe it also should be addressed to the folks in the other states who are suffering from the same fantasy.

By the way, “Contra” is the Latin term for “Against”; it has nothing to do in this context with the former revolutionary group in Nicaragua.  I have used “Contra” not to appear pedantic but because it has a distinguished history going back to Nietsche’s “Contra Wagner” and Cicero’s “Contra Verres”: It thus bears connotatively more gravitas than the English word, and I want this essay to be taken very, very seriously.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Federalism versus states’ rights seems a conflict of principles which has become securely embedded in the substance that makes up U.S. history and destiny.  The following is an argument for federalism and against, not states’ rights, but only that so-called states’ right known as “secession”.

From the beginning of our creation, the United States has been made up of different interests, generally numerous and often, in varying degrees, conflicting.  The designers of the Constitution spent a long, hot summer wrestling with the conflicting interests they faced at the time.  They didn’t resolve them all, but they did manage to devise a federal government that, through checks and balances, would keep the Nation in relative equilibrium long enough for the country to mature into a greater sense of nationhood and credibility with other nations.

Of course, sectional jealousies continued and even, with the addition of Western states to the Northern and Southern, became even more complicated. One of the main purposes of creating the Constitution was to bring to an end the economic disagreements between the squabbling states that made up the first Confederation.  Many saw the need for an overall centralization of authority that could enforce legislated interactions between the states.  The question was then, and has remained, how much authority would remain to the states.

Then John C. Calhoun came up with his notion of “nullification”: Any federal law that a state deemed inimical to its own local interests could be declared null and void within that state.  The most significant statutes that agitated nullifiers were those limiting or abolishing slavery (the 1808 importation ban included in the Constitution and the 1820 Missouri Compromise prohibiting slavery north of Missouri’s southern border).

By the 1850s, however, the balance of influence switched to the South and the West due to national expansion and the invention of the cotton gin.  Soon, the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) obligated federal forces to apprehend escaped slaves in free states and return them to their masters, the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) repealed the Missouri Compromise, and the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision (1857) declared that the Negro slave had no rights under law.

Economic issues, of course, exacerbated the dissension between North and South, but the crucial issues were states’ rights and slavery.  So, we had a very deadly Civil War (562,130 dead).  The high school history books say the Civil War ended in 1865, but actually its more fundamental cessation came with the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s.

Yet our country is still marred with inequities based on race as well as a continuing belief, among no small minority, in the constitutionality of nullification and secession.  These are the ones I want to address here.

There is presently a secessionist movement in Texas.  Some of its motivation derives from residual resentments over federal court-ordered school busing and a continuing requirement that all state and local political redistricting must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department.  More immediate, however, is the joining of allocation of federal funds with requirements that the state upgrade its standards on air quality, education and health care.  Also, the current economic crisis has created a fear among some that Texas will have to help other states overcome their financial problems, despite the fact that Texas’ anticipated deficit will be at least $15 billion–$5 billion more than New York’s.

Moreover, the state that is noted for its bragging talent proudly points to its almost unique capability ─ because of geography, size, climate and economic diversity — to thrive as a nation on its own.  Some people are already drawing lines over the Texas map to delineate appropriate borders for constituent states.

There are basic problems encumbering such a fantasy.

First is the long-existing emotional envelope derived from our common history with the other states, starting with the Civil War and continuing through seven other major wars and “police actions”, concluding with Afghanistan.  In all those wars, we were comrades in arms with citizens of other states.  You want to divorce them now?

Next, do you consciously suppose that removing the Texas star from Old Glory will end our part in sectional strife?  Sorry, folks, but then you will have not only four contiguous (still United) States to quarrel with over such things as “international” commerce and law enforcement, but you will have potentially as many as four “United States of Texas” to monitor and moderate.  There has been, during my adult lifetime at least, a regional contest between the more populated, industrialized East Texas and the still largely agrarian West Texas that is reminiscent of the contest between the Northeastern states and the Southern states prior to the Civil War.  (Interstate 35 is more than just a highway.)

The regional quarreling doesn’t stop there either.  Dallas and Fort Worth had a long ugly feud over DFW International Airport ─ a supposedly mutual enterprise that would preclude interstate air travel in each city ─ and Dallas’ continued operation of Love Field.

What I’m saying here is that, because of self-centeredness, greed and dreams of glory, you are setting up a scenario reminiscent of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s self-created dilemma.  In order to avoid having to do his chores, the apprentice waved his master’s wand to enchant the mop and water bucket into auto-pilot.  When he didn’t know how to make them stop, he charmed them in half, but the doubled mop and bucket kept on sloshing away.  So he charmed them again, making four mops and buckets, until the whole laboratory was awash and chaos prevailed.  Then the Sorcerer returned and put a stop to it.

What sorcerer is going to put a halt to your chaos?  A king?

Once a nation in your own right do you really believe you will be able to garner nothing but economic wealth and worldly respect?  Then behold, out there are other nations among whom you will have to establish embassies, with their concomitant bureaucracies.  Then all the money you imagined you were saving through secession will have to be spent on foreign offices and officials as well as an army and a navy.  There will be potential threats from other countries.  A survey of the recent past indicated that more than 50 percent of Mexican citizens believe that Texas actually is legally Mexico’s property.  Should Mexico finally succeed in winning its war against the drug cartels (which Texas’ drug addiction and NRA-fostered weapons laws have exacerbated) then our south of the border neighbor could plausibly reassert its claim of territorial right.  Will we then cry out for aid from Uncle Sam, saying, “Come help us, uncle, we are your kin!”

There is no gainsaying that our country has problems, some of them of long duration, others of very sudden appearance, but all daunting.  We have had dull, cowardly, and corrupt legislators.  We have had Supreme Court justices who have rendered bad decisions — Dred Scott being just one of them.  And we have had weak and corrupt Presidents.  But we have had intellectual and moral giants among all those departments, too.  Do you honestly suppose that Texas has such a large surplusage of gifted legislators and judges that it can surpass the United States’ record?

Our times are tough, not just for us but for the world as a whole.  We must keep on slogging through the muck and try to do the right thing as often as we can determine the right thing.  We don’t have time to waste on such fantasies as secession.

—  Written 1-31-2011
—  Published in NIMBY News  Feb. 24, 2011
—  Published in Big Bend Sentinel June 30, 2011

The Little Seeds of Wisdom

By Bob Litton

“Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.”
                                                                             — Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915)

In all my reading of history, religion and literature, I know of only two episodes that illustrated unequivocally effective wisdom. One was the biblical story of Solomon, who resolved a dispute over a baby by ruling that the child would be cut in half and each of two women claiming to be its mother would receive an equal portion. The actual mother, as Solomon had foreseen, thereupon repudiated her claim in order to save the child’s life. Solomon declared that the whole baby would be given to her. The other incident — the source of which I cannot recall — involved a quarrel between two young brothers over a candy bar their mother had bought for them. The mother, perhaps taking her cue from the Solomon story, declared that one son would be allowed to cut the bar in two and the other son would have the first opportunity to select.

These two anecdotes, while certainly plausible, are yet apocryphal. They are nonetheless worth pondering and even relishing. The reason they are believable and satisfying is that they are uncomplicated, perhaps even simplistic, considering that such clear-cut instances are rare. Most of the issues we have to resolve, especially among regions and societies, are much more complicated and complex. In these latter cases, wisdom per se usually takes a back seat to economic and territorial interests as well as to conflicting egos. The disputants spend as much or more time abating those pressures as they do attending to the primary, essential problems.

I wonder how many of us have deluded ourselves into believing that the lesson of Solomon and the baby is readily applicable in every situation. The Taliban and the Tea Partiers seem to do so. They have two-faceted eyes — like the sans culottes of Marat and Robespierre’s time, when the labeling approach of “right” and “left” was invented. They are like bibbers too deep in their cups; there is no arguing with them, for they cannot formulate a coherent sentence. Yet they are extraordinarily difficult to subdue. It seems as though a smirking Fate anoints them to be burdens to the sober authorities.

The main handicap for a “wise” insight is that it most often takes a long time to germinate, to bud and to blossom. And by the time it reaches any of those stages it is intermingled — even submerged in — a nest of factions. In such a situation, the voice of wisdom is like a kernel or a nucleus within a larger, chaotic, protoplasmic mass — all ready to explode. How can anyone listen to wisdom in such a scenario as that? Yet, did not Ben Franklin pull it off near the conclusion of the 1787 constitutional convention? In a speech, which he had written but someone else reportedly read aloud, he said:

I confess that I do not entirely approve of the Constitution at present; but, sir, I am not sure I shall never approve of it, for, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. Most men, indeed, as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error. (Richard) Steele, a Protestant, in a dedication, tells the pope that the only difference between our two churches in their opinions is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But, tho many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who, in a dispute with her sister, said: “But I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right.”

In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults — if they are such — because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if it is well administered; and I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other. I doubt, too, whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution; for, when you assemble a number of men, to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?

It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does, and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our counsels are confounded like the builders of Babel, and that our states are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls were they born, and here they shall die. If every one of us, in returning to our constituents, were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans (sic) in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects and great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign nations, as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity. Much of the strength and efficiency of any government, in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of that government, as well as the wisdom and integrity of its governors. I hope, therefore, for our own sakes, as a part of the people, and for the sake of our posterity, that we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending the Constitution wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts and endeavors to the means of having it well administered.

On the whole, sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name on this instrument.

Note how Franklin (1) acknowledged the limitations of his own judgment; (2) stressed the numerous influences affecting any joint enterprise, particularly a political one; (3) pointed out that the continued success of the Constitution depends on the strength or frailty of the people; and (4) called upon his co-framers to sublimate their prejudices in order to secure ratification of the document.

That was as much as wisdom could accomplish given the culture, the characters, and the uncertainties of the time. Of course the Constitution had flaws in it — one of them of the most absurd sort — as every one of its signers was aware, although the framers didn’t agree on which parts were flawed. It took a civil war and many extended and bloody protest movements to iron out some of the wrinkles; and I believe almost as many wrinkles were added in later as were ironed out — by the Supreme Courts, the Congresses, and the people. There is no completely forward movement in the advance of human wisdom, if, indeed, there is any advance at all.

While wisdom is sometimes wistfully sought and anticipated — like a Christmas present — it is more often ambitiously claimed, like an elixir. The term “wisdom” is not even used much anymore, not as much anyway as it was in the eighteenth century and earlier. Since the burgeoning scientism of the nineteenth century and the doubts that it placed on almost every human belief and institution, there has been too much disillusionment for “wisdom” to retain its former luster.

We do still prize intelligence: a very different quality, yet slightly related to “wisdom” as a substructure. One is born with a certain level of intelligence; wisdom develops over time through experience. As Franklin noted, the changes in his worldview evolved from years of experiences and reflection on those experiences. Intelligence is something that can be scientifically measured; while wisdom is as indeterminate and transitory as a manna. Intelligence is used to perceive and gather data; wisdom draws inferences, sometimes mysterious, ironical inferences from that data. Intelligence can be used for misguided or evil purposes; wisdom cannot.

Several thinkers over the centuries — from whoever wrote Ecclesiastes on down — have warned people away from wooing wisdom. Some have averred that only he can be called wise who admits most often that he is a fool. At seventy-four years, each morning when my eyelids struggle to open, I ask myself if I am ready yet to accept such fatalism. “O Athena,” I pray, “Please spring from my forehead fully formed!”


The Shetland Refugee

ImageMe with my first customer in 1991.  He was a lightweight.

As Told To Bob Litton 

I’m a pony. A Shetland pony. A Classic Shetland pony. In other words, I’m high-class, not one of your “run of the mill” coal-toters.

My great-great-grandsire, however, was a coal-toter. He was brought over here in 1908 from the home country — the Shetland Islands — to work in the Virginia mines until he died from lung disease or overwork: we never could determine which. He was only twenty years old when he died. The humans stopped that nonsense in 1971 — for ponies anyway. But that, of course, was after he had sired my great-grandsire, who, along with my grandsire, ploughed on a small farm in Iowa. Now, as for my sire and dam, they were taken up by a traveling carnival that included a petting zoo and a pony ride, something like a carousel.

My aunts and uncles and cousins have been all sorts of things: children’s pets, harness race horses, and even guide and therapy horses. But most of my relatives, I suppose, have been used like me — by carnies and itinerant photographers: the first let kiddies ride around on us in small circles for a few bucks, and the latter take us through residential streets where small children can sit atop us with chaps, a bandana and a cowboy hat to have their picture taken for a few bucks. I’ve probably earned enough for some guys’ retirements that way over the years.

O, but don’t take me wrong: We like kids. That’s why we are popular with the parents — those, anyway, who can afford pony pets for their children. We Shetlands are the most intelligent, hardy, patient and generally gentle breed of horse in the world, although we do sometimes have our moments of contrariness. Let me relate to you an incident early in my own life when I proved just how contrary we can be.

I was once a member of a trio of ponies who traveled about in a small carnival from one community to the next where small children could pet us or ride us around in a circle. Our master was a big-bellied fellow with a flushed faced, and gray hair only on his temples; he dressed kind of loud in a red Hawaiian shirt with pink flamingos printed on it, and dark yellow pants. He didn’t feed us right or otherwise take good care of our bodies. He never really beat us, although he swatted us with a folded newspaper frequently enough and yelled at us silly things when he got drunk at night.

On one such night, the pot-bellied sot neglected to let down the latch on our portable pen, and I noticed it. I waited until just an hour or so before sunrise, then I neighed to the other two ponies to follow me as I nosed open the gate, but they were either too tired or not adventuresome enough to leave the confine.

The carnival had been set up in a couple of large vacant lots between a lumber yard and a gas station. In the other two directions were a two-lane road and a wide, shallow creek. I crossed the creek cautiously, and a good thing, too, because the rapidly flowing water was trying to tumble me, and the slippery round rocks on its bed were trying to assist it in its mischief. But I got to the other side all right and stumbled on up the muddy bank. My not being acquainted with the area, of course, created another problem; still, what else was there to do but head for the pinkish rise of the morning light.

After penetrating a couple hundred yards of brush and saplings, I came to a spillway where water lightly flowed over into the creek I had just traversed. To my right was a four-lane highway with as yet not much traffic on it. I crossed the highway and soon found myself on a narrow street with houses and tall trees on both sides. The street wound oddly for some reason I could not even guess, but as the sun rose higher and heated the day, the numerous tall pecan and oak trees stretching over the roadway provided a nice, cool, shady arcade for me to wander in.

After a brief pleasant walk on that avenue, I noticed a blue bicycle coming toward me from a side street. Riding it was a red-headed boy of I supposed about ten to twelve years; he was wearing khaki shorts and a white T-shirt and flip-flops. I didn’t know where he was going or what he was up to, but I figured it would be prudent to pick up my pace. I geared up to a trot and, when I heard the bicycle tires on the road behind me, I moved into a gallop. Still that youngster was gaining on me. There weren’t any paces left except an out and out run, so I put my heart into it.

Soon the street became downhill slightly; that helped, although it helped my pursuer, too. At the bottom of the hill, where the street became a bridge over yet another creek and then climbed upward again, was a gravel drive where another boy, this one a cotton-top and of about the same age as the boy on the bike, was just entering the street. He was dressed in a tan T-shirt and blue denim jeans and was shod in tennis shoes.

“Bobby! Bobby!” shouted the bike rider. “Stop that horse!”

Well now, at least I knew the cotton-top’s name. He started running after me — not the fastest kid in the world, but he could cut across lawns and down alleys and thus keep up with us. In fact, he was just ahead of bike-boy when we turned onto another tree-lined street.

Off to my left I saw a middle-aged woman in a light blue blouse and aquamarine Capri pants raking new-mown grass in her front yard. She watched us with amused surprise as we came her way, then she stepped quickly into the middle of the street and held up her broom like it was a gate bar. Out of habit, I guess, and not wanting to run over this busy-body, I halted.

Bobby ran up, out of breath, and said, “Thanks, ma’am. We’ve been chasing that pony for at least six blocks.”

Then the red-headed kid, dismounting from his bike, added, “I’ve been chasing it twice that far!”

“Is he your pony?” the woman asked.

“No,” replied Bobby, who sounded perplexed. “You don’t know who owns him, do you, Carlton?”

“No, I don’t,” said “Red”, now identified as Carlton. “I saw him first up on San Benito Street, and I’ve been following him ever since. I think he’s lost.”

Only in a minor sense! I wanted to say.

“We’ll take care of him and try to find his owner,” Bobby said.

“Okay, boys,” said the woman, smiling doubtfully. “Hold him by his halter here while I go rustle up a rope. I think I have one in the garage.” The woman transferred the halter to Bobby’s hands and walked up a driveway towards her garage.

All this time I had noticed a slight expression of anxious irritation on Carlton’s face as he stood holding his bike upright: he couldn’t hold my halter because he had to tend to his two-wheeler.

The woman brought a clothesline rope, tied one end to the halter and gave the rest to Bobby. As Bobby led me away, with Carlton riding slowly and wobbly beside us, I felt like this was the end of my world. Wouldn’t you? I had known freedom for maybe two hours, and it had been exhilarating but strange. I probably could have broken loose, for Bobby was not exactly a husky lad; but I was tired out from the run and I had developed an overwhelming sense of bewilderment due to the confusing streets. And probably more people would be out and about by now with even more effective means of catching me. My lassitude, as it turned out, was wiser than I.

They took me back to the graveled driveway by the creek. Along the way, Carlton related to Bobby how he had spotted me after finishing his newspaper route. The graveled drive led back thirty yards among some pecan, redbud and persimmon trees. The creek wound around and partly through the property. The house was a small, white-framed, ranch-style structure with a green roof.

Bobby tied the rope to a small redbud tree in the middle of the yard. Some Bermuda grass was there, but it was sparse and recently mowed, so it did not seem delectable to me, even though I was hungry. I snorted my disdain, which, of course, Bobby and Carlton could not interpret.

“Mama! Mama!” Bobby yelled.

A woman with gray-streaked brown hair parted in pigtails, wearing a light blue housecoat, appeared at the screen door and asked, “What in the world have you two done now? Where did you get that pony?”

“Carlton saw him on San Benito Street and chased him over here where I joined him. A lady down on San Leandro stopped him for us. Boy! Was she brave, Mama!”

“Well, hells’ bells! What are you going to do with him? You can’t keep him.”

“We don’t know. We were hoping that between our two yards there would be enough grass for him to eat.”

“Yeah!” Carlton said, claiming his half.

“I’m sure Carlton’s mom and dad won’t be any more welcoming than I am.”

“Okay,” Bobby said, sounding crestfallen. “But we ought to try and find his owner, shouldn’t we?”

The woman’s voice softened. “Yeah, that’s true,” she said. “Wait. I’ll get a bucket of water.”

That struck a note with me. I’d been through one creek and near two others — maybe the same one in different places — and hadn’t taken one lick: Now I was as thirsty as an un-nursed colt.

Carlton laid his bike on the ground, and then he and Bobby stroked my back and withers and ran their fingers through my long tangled mane.

All of a sudden, Carlton exclaimed, “Bobby, look! His dong is chapped! It’s all crusty-looking!”

“What do you mean, ‘dong’?” Bobby asked.

“Just look down there under his belly,” Carlton said, pointing.

“That’s not any ‘dong’! That’s his pecker!” Bobby said, trying to sound better informed than he obviously felt.

“My dad calls it a ‘dong’,” Carlton retorted.

“Well, Pappy calls it a ‘pecker’!” Bobby persisted. “Anyway, what does it matter? The thing looks in pretty bad shape to me, too.”

At that point, Bobby’s mother showed up with the water. She placed the bucket on the ground, and I lapped thirstily.

“Mama,” said Bobby sotto voce, “look there.”

The woman followed the direction of his arm pointing at my penis.

“What’s wrong with him, Mama?”

“How would I know?” replied his mother in a tone of annoyed perturbation.  “You’d have to ask a veterinarian that.”

Carlton joined in. “What’s a veterinarian?”

“An animal doctor,” the woman said.

“Can we take him to one?” continued Carlton.

“I can’t,” Bobby’s mother replied. “They’re not cheap, and he’s not our horse.”

All this while, Bobby kept running the palm of his hand nervously over my shoulder and along my back. “I wish he were mine,” he said.

“Hey, I saw him first,” interjected Carlton.

“Your folks can’t afford a veterinarian for somebody else’s horse any more than we can, Carlton,” the woman said in a soothing tone. “And, besides that, both of you guys will be too big in a couple of years to ride him anyway. He’s not going to get any bigger, but you will.”

“Yeah, she’s probably right, Carlton” said Bobby. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

The boys stood silently a few moments, looking sadly disappointed.

“Well,” Bobby’s mother said. “We’ll try to find his owner. I’ll check in tomorrow’s paper to see if anyone’s seriously looking for him. If they’re not, we’ll probably have to turn him over to the county agent or the animal control people. In the meantime, you boys can watch after him, maybe even ride him around the yard. However, he looks tired to me, so maybe you should just pet him. I’ll go see what I can find for him to eat.”

She went into the house and came back a few minutes later with a large box of tire-shaped cereal, three large brown potatoes and a head of cabbage. As she returned to the house, she shook her head: That was probably three breakfasts and a lunch for her and Bobby.

While I was munching at the tire-shaped cereal bits, Bobby ran his fingers through my mane and Carlton unknotted my tail.

“Bobby,” said Carlton, pensively. “Don’t his tail look awfully long to you?”


“Think we should cut it some?”

“I’ll go get my mother’s scissors.”

So they trimmed my tail, not knowing that Classic Shetlands are noted for their long, thick manes and tails. I didn’t care. I appreciated their positive attention.

Bobby and Carlton’s friends came over throughout the day to see the strange pony. The only names I recall are Alan Ray, Billy and Jay. No young girls in that neighborhood, apparently. They all petted me but, oddly enough, not a single one mounted me. Being city boys, they probably didn’t know how without a saddle and were ashamed to admit it. Or maybe they thought I would buck. Neighhh! Wouldn’t that be a show!

Before the boys took off for supper and their TV shows, they were conscientious enough to tie the rope at the base of the redbud tree so I would have enough tether to lie down. But I didn’t do that for a few hours. Rather I stood on three hooves, as horses are wont to do, and looked up at the stars in the broad night sky. And I wondered what real freedom is like, for I felt that my adventure had involved a bogus freedom full of anxiety and confusion. I wondered if there even is such a thing as real freedom.

The next morning was what humans call “Sunday” — the day when people can sleep late and even the afternoon paper is delivered before dawn. Odd customs! But, naturally, Bobby came outside just as the sun rose. So did his mother. He came to see if I needed any water and to comb my mane with his fingers, while she picked up the paper from the driveway and went back inside.

“I don’t know what to call you,” Bobby murmured behind my right ear, which I shook on feeling his breath there. “Bet you have some corny name, like ‘Reginald’; but if you were mine I’d call you something grand, like ‘Champ’.”

Soon, Carlton showed up. “Is he okay?” Carlton asked as he dismounted from his bike. “Did he sleep all night?”

Bobby chuckled and replied, “I guess so. I wasn’t out here….but I didn’t.”

“Me neither. Think we’re going to have to give him up?”

“Almost certain of it, even if we don’t find his owner. We can’t afford to keep him. Mother was right. And we don’t have a yard big enough. Or a fence. It wouldn’t be fair to keep him pegged to a tree day and night. He needs some roaming room.”

“Yeah,” said Carlton thoughtfully. “I getch’a….Still, I hate to see him go.”

“Bobby!” There was Bobby’s mother standing in the front doorway, holding the screen door open with one hand and waving the newspaper with her other hand. “Bobby, there’s a twenty-five dollar reward for that pony! I’m going to call the owner in a little while. Got to give him time to wake up.”

Bobby and Carlton looked at each other with faces reflecting the features of condemned men. I actually felt sorry for them. Can you believe that?  A horse feeling sympathy for humans? But as for me, I was already resigned; I knew where I was going. But, really, I didn’t.

Bald ol’ belly came to Bobby’s house just before noon. He was driving his ten-year-old maroon pickup truck and towing a four-horse trailer.

“How d’ye do, ma’m,” he said to Bobby’s mother when she came out to meet him. He took off his straw sombrero and shook her hand and introduced himself, “I’m Buster Monahan.” He glanced toward the boys standing beside me a few yards away under the shade of the redbud leaves. “I’ve got twenty-five dollars in cash right here for you. I sure appreciate your finding my pony for me.”

“Those two boys were the ones who found him, not I,” the woman said archly. “My son asked me what was wrong with your horse’s….uh, penis. I told him I didn’t know, but I think maybe I should mention it so you can do something about it. It bothers the boys very much”

“Oh that!” said Buster. “That’s nothing serious, ma’am. That pony — all my ponies — are geldings, and geldings don’t get erections like stallions do, so they sometimes don’t get enough sunshine down there. Sunshine’s a great cleaner. So the geldings develop this film on their members, and when they roll around in the dirt their members begin to look flaky…or chapped. Just a little bit of soapy water will take care of the problem. I’ll do it soon as I get back to my riding pen.

“Hey, we’re right up near the spillway. I’ll be there two more days, then we’re leaving for New Mexico. If you’d like to bring these two boys up there, I’ll let them ride around a couple of times gratis. Additional reward, you know.”

“I’ll think about it,” said Bobby’s mother, “but I believe the boys are a little too old to get much of a thrill riding around in a circle on a Shetland pony.”

“Suit yourself,” Buster said, as he untied me and gave the rope to Bobby and led me to the trailer. He took me back to the carnival lot. Boy! Was he ever mad at me! He swatted my flank ten times with his folded Sunday paper. “I’m tired of messing with you, Jeremiah, you stupid critter,” he yelled as he backed me out of the trailer. “I’m going to sell you as soon as I can.”

Well, fortunately, it was soon enough. He advertised in a few daily papers and a horse lovers magazine, and a middle-aged fellow named Ralph in a town not far away came the following month and hauled me away in a nice single-horse trailer. Ralph was a photographer of sorts. What I mean by that is that he didn’t take artsy type pictures. He just used a Polaroid camera to photograph kids generally younger than Bobby and Carlton as they sat on my saddled back decked out with chaps and a cowboy hat and a bandana. That was a good racket for ol’ Ralph. He prospered by it for about ten years and he fed me well and took care of my ”dong” or “pecker” or whatever you want to call it.

Then, in about the year 2000, some human invented a small portable phone that also had a camera in it. The “customers” began to try to cheat Ralph by taking their kids’ portraits as soon as Ralph had the little tykes in the saddle. Ralph began to counter by standing in front of me and whatever child was on me. He had a bunch of quarrels with the cheating parents, a couple of which reached the fisticuffs stage. Finally, he gave it up as a lost cause and retired me to this nice pasture in the hill country. I love it here. I see this as real freedom — a freedom that satisfies me, anyway.

Ralph was an all right guy. He recognized my proper dignity. Even gave me a new name: “Champ”.


NOTE TO READERS:  The next post on this blog site will be on or about August 18 of this year.

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