Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Shade and Shadow

Green park

A scene where both shade and shadow are equally illustrated.
Photo Credit: Bing Images/

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS:  Formerly, as an instructor in rhetoric at a community college, I assigned the students a weekly essay topic.  Each subject was intended to be an exercise in some aspect of communicating through the written word, e.g. describing a house or a room, interviewing someone about their vocation and then writing about it, explaining how to perform some fairly complex task. The first exercise I imposed on them was to describe the differences between shade and shadow; the point of this one was to acquaint them with an exam type they were likely to encounter in other humanities courses: “compare and contrast”.  I eventually developed a slight guilt complex about this assignment, since I had never written about shade and shadow myself.  The following essay is an attempt to assuage that guilty feeling.  I believe it is timely to publish it on my blog today because Halloween is just a few days away. While there is nothing “spooky” in the essay, I am sure most of you can recall or imagine times in your past when some shadow made you shiver. So, happy Halloween!

¶Shade and shadow, although at first glance apparent synonyms for each other, are in fact nothing of the sort. They differ not only denotatively but connotatively.
¶Shade and shadow are alike only in one particular: they are created by the obstruction of light in its journey toward a final destination. The first and most definitive differences, indeed, derive from those light sources. For shade results only from sunlight, despite what one might suppose from such a misnomer as “lampshade”; while shadow results from artificial light as well as sunlight (including that reflection of the sun we call “moonlight”).
¶Shade and shadow also differ in that the former can serve as an aid, as is implied by its name: It can protect something from the annoyance or even harm which too much sunlight might inflict. Here we also note that shade moves—or rather changes position—as the light source moves; while shadow moves according as the interfering object, such as a person walking at night under a lamp-post or a plane flying overhead on a sunny day, moves. Nor is shade as sharply delineated as a shadow; the shade created by a tree in full leafage is a diaphanous phenomenon with bits of faint sunlight jostling with the spots made by the leaves on the ground. Shadow, on the other hand, occupies a more outlined area, which might be exemplified by the tree’s trunk as opposed to its leaves. While I suppose it is comprehensible to speak of a tree’s canopy at night as providing “shady protection” for a pair of lovers on a park bench, who have sat there in pursuit of privacy, actually at that time even the leaves are creating shadows, because lamplight does not move around or even penetrate a leaf the way sunlight does.
¶Again unlike shade, shadow is not limited to the daylight hours. In fact, with “shadow” the connotative contrast becomes primary. We have invested that word with mystery; I won’t insult your intelligence by specifying the ways we have done that. Suffice it to say that while, when we hear of a shadow during the daytime, we imagine the darker grayness left by an object, such as a building, on the sidewalk or of the undulating gray trail left by a plane as it passes over some hilly landscape; and when we hear the word “shadow” at night the image that passes before our mind’s eye is that of a skulking figure with a dagger in its hand moving against a wall. Obviously there is nothing inherently sinister about the word “shadow”; the connotation which has become attached to it is just another example of how our language is impacted by our emotions.
¶Shade, then, is a comparatively static phenomenon that is often thought of as beneficial. It is a product of sunlight and some interfering non-mobile object. Shadow is a denser darkness which may appear either during the day or during the night, and is created by either the natural lights of the sun and moon or by artificial light. Also, shadow is not restricted to static objects; it accompanies mobile objects just as frequently as does shade and, perhaps for that reason, has developed a slightly sinister reputation.




Thank you for visiting my blog, which I am dropping for art and health’s sake. I will leave it in cyberspace for anyone who might want to browse through the 43 months of archives.



More Shop Talk: Some Pet Peeves

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

It has been slightly more than a year (March 2015) since I wrote my last blog post about language and writing. The writing below differs from that earlier one in that it can be described as simply a column of pet peeves, while the older was an essay concerning problems I have with the nature of my native tongue. Of course, reading an essay is usually more fun than reading a list of gripes, but I hope you readers will continue on and gain something at least enlightening if not entertaining from your perusal.

— BL

* * * * * *

Last Tuesday I joined our “lame-duck” mayor at breakfast in the local diner. (For those who don’t know what “lame-duck” means, the term describes an elected official whose term is approaching its end and who will not be returning to office next term.) During our conversation the mayor mentioned how annoyed he is when someone uses the term “Obamacare” instead of “Affordable Care Act” or its abbreviation “ACA”.
“What are they thinking?” he asked. “Do they see it as a medical benefit set up especially for Obama?”
“I understand your point,” I replied. “Another problem with their phrasing is that it can appear like an edict establishing a healthcare program by fiat instead of a legislative act passed by Congress.”

That conversation got me to reflecting—for the umpteenth time—on all the irritating malapropisms, misplaced words, and nonsensical interpolations I hear over and over again.

One of the chief malapropisms that has become so ingrained in our common discourse that even top echelon journalists run afoul of it is the use of “bathroom” where “restroom” is the accurate term. If it is not already obvious to you, “bathroom” literally refers to a room where a bath can be performed, such as in a tub or in a shower stall. A “restroom” is a place, often hardly larger than a closet (thus the British preference for saying “water closet”) where one can relieve oneself of urine and feces.

One misuse of terms which is not quite as objectionable as those is the substitution of “less” for “fewer”. “‘Fewer’ refers only to number and things that are counted: Fewer cars on the road. There were fewer than sixty present. In Formal usage ‘less’ refers only to amount or quantity and things measured: There was a good less tardiness in the second semester. There was even less hay than the summer before.  ‘Fewer’ seems to be declining in use and ‘less’ often takes its place.” Still, I am among those purists who find the substitution of “less” for “fewer” offensive because it reduces the exactitude and therefore clarity. (I should credit late Professor Porter G. Perrin for much of the above paragraph, including the examples, from whose Writer’s Guide and Index to English I borrowed it.)

Similar to those terms’ confusion is the phrase “one or two” and similar constructions. Particularly surprising instances of this fault are in Henry James’ novel Portrait of a Lady. In Chapter 22, Gilbert Osmond, while nervous in the company of his visitor Madame Merle, “…without looking at Madame Merle, pushed one or two chairs back into their places.” And in Chapter 28, I read where Lord Warburton goes to an opera house to find the “heroine”, Isabel Archer, and her friends; there, “(a)fter scanning two or three tiers of boxes, he perceived in one of the largest of these receptacles a lady whom he easily recognized.” When I see such phrasing in an article or a story or a novel, I almost pull my hair out in exasperation and utter aloud, “Can’t you count even to three, you numbskull?!”  I must be upfront here and acknowledge that I cannot stand Henry James; I think he is one of the most overrated authors and insufferable snobs in American literary history. And Portrait of a Lady is a ridiculously absurd novel filled with other types of flaws which I might elucidate some other time.

In the class of misplaced words I particularly note the word “only”. I remind you that English has evolved (or devolved?) into a mostly uninflected language. That is, we do not use multiple case endings on our nouns and adjectives to indicate their functions in a sentence; our pronouns alone retain that characteristic. Consequently, we determine and infer a word’s function by its place in the sentence; that includes the term “only”. I frequently see this word misplaced in a sentence and its intended meaning thus jeopardized. Disgusting! I could write some sentences to further explain the problem with “only”, but I found in the online Free Dictionary by Farlex as good or probably even better an explanation than I might render, so I copied part of it for use here. Hope they don’t mind; if they do, I will withdraw it and struggle through with my own examples:

Usage Note: The adverb only is notorious for its ability to change the meaning of
a sentence depending on its placement. Consider the difference in meaning in
the following examples: Dictators respect only force; they are not moved by words.  Dictators only respect force; they do not worship it. She picked up the phone only when he entered, not before. She only picked up the phone when he entered; she didn’t dial the number. The surest way to prevent readers from misinterpreting only is to place it next to the word or words it modifies.

The Free Dictionary’s entry for “only” has a few more interesting remarks which I recommend aspiring writers peruse.

Finally, under the heading nonsensical interpolations I include “you know”, the latest substitution for “uh” as a pause gap filler. I hear it frequently on one of my favorite NPR talk shows, On Point, with Tom Ashbrook. I believe it would be safe to claim that at least half of the people Ashbrook talks with on that program—special guests and call-in listeners alike—use “you know” in many of their sentences. It is irritating for three reasons: (1) No, Tom might not know it (whatever it is); (2) if he does know it, then why are they saying it? and (3) the constant repetition of “you know” soon begins to grate.

Well, gentle readers, I hope your eyes have not glazed over from reading this blog post about the more horrific writing…and speaking…crimes.





More on the Separation of Church and State

© 2016 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS:  In my January 7 post, I related the beginning of a local controversy involving the placement of religion-oriented decals on the windows of county vehicles driven by our sheriff’s deputies. In concert with similar episodes in this state and other states, this incident has swelled into a debate about the “wall between church and state”. Actually, though, such events have peppered our nation’s history almost ever since the U.S. Constitution, together with its first ten amendments, was ratified by the legislatures of the thirteen original states between 1787 and 1791.

My homeland is now agitated by disagreements over a few parts of the Constitution. Some citizens, known generally as “strict constructionists” or “originalists”, are in verbal conflict with other citizens loosely describable as “believers in a living, evolving constitution”, over a few sections of the Constitution, particularly those concerning immigration, women’s rights, appointments of judges, and the right to bear arms. The First Amendment issue of separation of church and state is not currently the subject of a national quarrel, but it does pop up occasionally in pockets around the country.

The decal debate here apparently is of interest only to a few vocal citizens, including myself; however, the Texas governor has weighed in; and so has the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the latter of which announcing that they would enter the legal fray if any local citizen would file suit in court. Like me, however, most of the people here are not financially able to pursue a lengthy court battle with an undeterminable outcome. And I prefer to fight my battles in the newspaper.

Which brings me up to the present. This past week, one of my letters-to-the editor was published in one of the local weeklies. (I did not submit it to the other paper because the publisher/editor there has a bad habit of excising sentences from my letters.) For those of you who were interested in that first letter I re-published on this blog, you might find this one just as entertaining.


The brown-and-blue cross decals on sheriff’s deputies’ vehicles here in Brewster County have reportedly attracted the attention of state politicians. Gov. Gregg Abbott, in a “brief” to State Attorney General Ken Paxton, is quoted as saying that ‘the cross has a long history in America and elsewhere as a symbol of service and sacrifice’. I suppose he is referring to the historical practice of burning crosses on the lawns of colored folks, and to those red plus-signs on the sides of Red Cross medical vans. He did acknowledge that the cross does have “its religious significance”.

Now, Abbott’s message is what I call a capital case of sophistical demagoguery. A Republican politician who is trying to establish his position early as a religious conservative in preparation for the next gubernatorial campaign, Abbott is diving into an issue that he apparently hopes will give him an advantage with the evangelicals in this state.

Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson said at the beginning of this cross decal controversy that he views the sticker as a symbol of the cross that Jesus died on and of the religion that evolved from that incident but that he would allow any Jewish deputy (if he had one) to apply a Star of David decal, or any Muslim deputy (if he had one) to apply a Crescent-and-Star decal. He said he sees the decals as a way of invoking God’s protection for his officers. Therefore, the religious significance of this decal is the primary accent to be interpreted, and as such it amounts to an intrusion of religion into what is supposed to be a non-sectarian government.

Now, I am not opposed to the deputies sticking those decals on their own, private vehicles, i.e., those vehicles not purchased with funds derived from taxes. But when the decals are stuck on the windows of official government vehicles, then they constitute a violation of the First Amendment principle of prohibiting any law respecting the establishment of religion. (Jews and Hindus have helped pay for those vehicles.)

The religious conservative crowd wants to involve their personal religion into every governmental activity they can. They do not realize what such an approach can lead to. But a bunch of them in Phoenix, Arizona, got a jolt recently when the local Satanist church petitioned to have their turn at giving the invocation at a city council meeting. The nonplussed council members — faced with the dilemma that any officially recognized religious organization must have its opportunity to share in invocation presentations and yet unwilling to allow the Satanists their chance — discontinued prayers at council meetings altogether.

I am not an atheist and definitely not a Satanist, but oh, how I wish we had a Satanist church in Alpine! That would be a hilarious scene to watch! And it might benefit us defenders of the doctrine of separation of church and state (Everson vs. Board of Education [1947].


The Doldrums

Dear Reader,
I don’t know if this message is relevant to you or not. If you are a WordPress blogger who has boarded my blog as a “Follower”, then it most likely does not relate because you receive an email flag every time I publish a new post. And, if you are a new visitor to my site and do not expect to return, then it does not relate in your case either. However, if you visit me occasionally and intend to return for more reading pleasure but have not signed on as a “Follower”, then this message is definitely addressed to you.

All that wind is the preface to my admitting to a lack of wind in my sails right now, so I have been merely tossing on the waves here on the pond of “The Vanity Mirror”. I will continue to be idle at least for a little while longer, for I am in “the doldrums”. I looked that word up in an online dictionary to be sure I was using it appropriately, and I certainly was:
  (dōl′drəmz′, dôl′-, dŏl′-)
pl.n. (used with a sing. or pl. verb)
A period of stagnation or slump.
b. A period of depression or unhappy listlessness.
A region of the ocean near the equator, characterized by calms, light winds, or squalls
b. The weather conditions characteristic of these regions of the ocean.

All the above definitions are at least poetically pertinent, but the highlighted one fits my present condition best. I have had to contend with several enervating problems lately: a plumbing problem that resulted in a squishy carpet in my living room, tugs of war with so-called medical providers, and a next door neighbor who is dying of lung cancer. (As a former journalist, I have seen several dead bodies; and I visited my mother in the ICU ward when she was dying from heart failure; but this is the first time I have seen the outward evidences of a body attacked in various ways by a vicious, ugly disease.)

I know I have published posts in the past that I composed as I wrote — “off the top of my head”, as the image goes —; and the problem is not that I do not have topics at hand (even a significant amount of research done on a couple); but I don’t have the emotional energy right now to produce. Hopefully, by the end of this month I will be ready to move forward.

The above sentences might strike a few of you as arrogant, as if I were imagining a line of people waiting at the ticket window and being told that the show has been cancelled tonight. Well, although that is not really the case, it isn’t far from the truth either. I always look at my “stats page”, and I regularly see small flags from certain countries which I have begun to perceive as frequent visitors who, for whatever reasons, do not wish to click the “Follow” button. So, you see, this post is essentially my apology and explanation to them. Please be patient and come back. In the meantime, there are many prior posts in the “archives” to peruse — three years’ worth — and they don’t die just because the ink is dry.

Best regards and thanks to all of you!

On Words

©2016 By Bob Litton
There were periods in my life when I earned a living employing words. And I have read many more words through a lifetime, a lot of which I never have used in my own compositions. I had to look too many of them up in a dictionary or guess their meanings from the contexts; one such term is “fascicle”, which I came upon yesterday in a book about the poems disguised as prose in Emily Dickinson’s letters. That word was used in this sentence: The poem follows a progression found in some of Dickinson’s other nature poems of the fascicle years: first a simple description of nature and then, in a later stanza, the leap to the transcendental level.” And that is followed by an ambiguous use of the word transitive in one of her briefer poems:
         That a pansy is transitive,
          is its only pang.
          This, precluding that,
          is indeed divine.

Like most English words, the above two terms have more than one meaning. Looking them both up in my dictionary, I inferred that fascicle, as intended by the critic, refers to Dickinson’s habit of bundling several poems together, punching a couple of holes through the pages, and running strings through them—making her own books; for, one of the meanings of fascicle is “one of the divisions of a book published in parts.”

As for transitive, I sensed while reading Emily’s poem that she was using that word in the same sense I would have used transitory or transient, meaning “of brief duration/temporary.” I wondered if her choice had been dictated by a concern for meter and connotation, since transitory contains one syllable more than transitive, and transient summons an image of physical movement, particularly of hoboes, as much as it does of time passing. That poem, a virtual brain-teaser, is difficult enough in its composition and content without adding ambiguous acceptation to the puzzle.

It is not just in academic and poetical works that I find words that halt my reading pace. Recently I was escape-reading in an omnibus volume of Nero Wolfe novels and novellas by Rex Stout. Twice in a single day up popped a word that I had seen before, but long ago, and I could not recall its exact meaning. No dictionary was at hand. I thought I would remember the word and look it up later; I kept on reading; I didn’t remember the word. Such occurrences have  happened too many times.

Before I leave Rex Stout’s works, I want to mention an example of how Stout never passed up an opportunity, even in his Nero Wolfe novels, to castigate organizations such as the FBI and even the G. & C. Merriam Company, publisher of Webster’s New International Dictionary, whenever they breached his principles. The first chapter of Gambit (1962) opens with a scene of Wolfe sitting in front of his fireplace, tearing out pages of the new dictionary, and tossing them into the fire. He explains his activity to a new client, who has just entered the room, thus:
          ‘Do you use ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ interchangeably, Miss Blount?”
          She did fine, She said simply, “No.”
          “This book says you may. Pfui. I prefer not to interrupt this auto-da-fe. You wish
           to consult me?”
I agree with Nero Wolfe’s, i.e. Rex Stout’s, judgment about infer and imply absolutely.

Another problem I have with words, and even proper names, is that I often forget the most common ones — not just the rarely used or more difficult ones — the frequently used ones. And worse still, often I have thought of the word I needed within the previous hour. Naturally, this problem is directly related to my transformation into an old man. If  I were not a compulsive writer, perhaps such a weakness would not be as exasperating as it is; but when I have to pause  in my typing several minutes — perhaps even pull up an Internet dictionary or call a friend — to recover the desired word, well, that’s just maddening.

And that is one of the reasons I don’t produce as much for this blog as I would like.



Dangerous Moments

© 2015 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS:  Well, I’m back, folks…sort of. I still have some health problems to attend to, which will not be completely out of the way until late November. However, the worst, I believe, hopefully, is over. And, to tell you the truth, avoiding my blog has been almost as painful for me as the emotional travail of my physical issues. And, too, the topic of the following essay has been goading me to hie myself to the computer.
I feel obliged to warn you that the essay is 2,542 words long, and some of my readers have short attention spans. So, you might want to read one of its segments today and another tomorrow, or whenever.
In any case, ENJOY!!!

Perhaps advanced age is the instigator of my recent mulling over the question: What is courage? Am I brave? Have I ever been up to risk-taking? Is there any difference between courage and bravery? How long in any particular dangerous situation can one maintain equanimity — five minutes, five hours, five days? What is the difference between courage and foolhardiness?

I realize the issue is much more complex than I have suggested above that it could be. There are all kinds of parameters surrounding, and elements that form, situations which outwardly appear similar but which can have small core elements that radically alter the warrant for action. Any individual might react aggressively in one situation and at another time passively brush off the offense in a near-like situation. I will leave it to the reader to recall or imagine such scenarios, for I do not want to wander that extensively in this essay. Here I wish merely to relate some personal anecdotes concerning dangerous moments in my own life and how I reacted to them.

Oh, I have thought about this matter quite often in the past; one cannot live through seventy-five years without encountering danger. And I have wondered at the apparent cowardice I have seen in myself in some instances and the exceeding boldness in other cases. It is still a conundrum for me.

The first episode in my life where I think some degree of bravery was required was when I was about thirteen years old, during a plane trip I and my friend Carlton D. took. It was in a private aircraft, not a commercial one, yet the plane was large enough to contain four seats. But let me back up a bit to explain the reason we were on that plane.

I had a paper route, and one of my customers was a man who was very outgoing — or conning — who asked me one evening, when I stopped at his house to collect his monthly subscription payment, if I would like to ride in his airplane. Always immediately trusting, I said, “Sure! Can I bring my friend Carlton along?” (He knew Carlton.)

“That’ll be fine. Only I must ask you to help me paint it first.”

How difficult can painting an airplane be? Surely not very,” I surmised.

The next Saturday, Carlton and I met the man at White Rock airport, a small airfield only about a mile from our homes: I don’t believe that airport exists any longer. Most of the work in “painting” the plane, we discovered, involved scrubbing and sanding it. That was work. I don’t remember how long it took us, but I believe it was more than one day. However, we were probably into summer vacation at the time, so, even though it might have taken more than a day, the job couldn’t have required more than three days. When we were done, though, both Carlton and I thought, This trip had better be fun! The man did the painting himself, presumably with a spray applicator.

While we were working on the plane, I asked the man what he did for a living, for I considered that anybody who owned his own aircraft must have a pretty good job.

“I’m an engineer,” he said. “I do the engineering work on machines such as soda pop dispensers,” he said. That didn’t tell me much about his financial condition, but it was fascinating to contemplate the supposed complexity of the job.

A week or so thereafter, the man called me and said he was flying the next weekend up to some town in the Panhandle. Did Carlton and I want to go? We certainly did, for by this time Carlton and I had concluded we had been hustled by a con artist.

On the flight north, I sat in the “co-pilot’s seat”, while Carlton sat behind us. We landed at some airport no bigger than White Rock. I can’t recall if the man rented a vehicle or if we were picked up by his relatives, for he had come to visit his family. Anyway, the man dropped us off at the county courthouse lawn and told us to meet him there in a few hours (don’t recall how many). Again Carlton and I felt cheated because we had assumed the fellow was going to take us to wherever he was going and treat us to lunch; he hadn’t instructed us to bring sack lunches.

We walked around the town square: a very dull place that didn’t even have a five-and-dime store. (Readers who were born after 1960 won’t recognize what fun-filled hang-outs five-and-dime stores were for kids before that year.) But most of the time we sat on a bench on the courthouse lawn and scraped tic-tac-toe games in the red soil.

Finally, the man returned and we once again loaded into the plane. There was nothing extraordinary about our return trip (the checkerboard scenery on the ground below had already lost its romance) until we got over downtown Dallas. That was when we heard the sputtering and the plane’s altitude diminished noticeably.

“What’s wrong?” I asked our pilot.

“We’re out of gas,” he answered after too long a pause.

Then he reached up to a spot just above the windshield and started turning a crank similar in appearance to the device with which we roll up and down car windows.

“This opens the other gas tank,” he explained.

I turned around to glance at Carlton. He looked pale. However, neither of us had screamed or cried. Perhaps we just had not had time to rise to that level of fear. But had we been brave? I don’t know. I believe now that if we had descended low enough to graze the Flying Red Horse atop the Humble Oil building, I would have screamed.

That experience was not as scary, though, as what happened when we got to the airport a short time later. As we approached the runway, the plane started to gain altitude. I looked at the pilot, who seemed unfittingly blasé. We went up and circled the little field again. I gazed out my side to see if there were any other aircraft in the vicinity: none. Then we were on the approach again; and I was touching my seat belt, ready to get away from this nutsy pilot and his death-trap of a plane. But he pulled the plane upward again.

After three passes, we landed safely. I never again had anything more to do with that man except to deliver his paper and collect his subscription money.

For the next episode that I remember vividly — and care to relate — we have to fast-forward several years to when I was 21. It was another dangerous flying experience.

I was standing at the reservation counter at the Okinawa airport, obtaining my boarding pass to return to the U.S. after completing my 18-monthlong tour of duty on the island, when I heard my name announced over the PA system; they were summoning me to another line. When I arrived at the spot specified, I was introduced to a woman and her two small boys: one about five and the other about three. They were military “dependents”, the family of some officer on the island, and I had been assigned to assist the mother in caring for the boys during the flight home. Of course, I silently lamented that I had not been spared this charge, but at the moment it did not seem to be such an onerous task as it later turned out to be.

The DC-3’s of that ancient era had only four seats to a row, two to a side. The mother and one of her sons sat in the row in front of me and her other son. The personalities of the boys were extraordinarily different from one another; how much of that difference was due to the gap in their ages, I do not know. One sat beside me for several hours of our journey, and then they switched seats. The older boy was jolly enough, perhaps too jolly, for he jabbered constantly. He also had a “Raggedy Ann” comic book which he asked me to read to him. I had no problem at the start; but as I read panel after panel of the comic book I became increasingly anxious because the story involved one character who spoke in reversed-meaning, i.e., he spoke the opposite of what he meant. It was absurd, and I have an absurdity phobia. Fortunately, though, the comic book episode was soon finished, and the youngster returned to his constant jabbering about anything that popped into his mind.

The real problem was with the younger of the two brothers. He was taciturn in the extreme; even though I tried for a short time to draw him out of his shell. I now believe that he was possibly one of those many people who have a fear of flying, so strong a fear that it paralyzes them. He did, however, say often enough that he needed to go to the restroom. I took him there, but he did not do anything. After our second futile trip to the restroom, I chided him. After the third, I pinched him on the forearm. I’ll let some child psychologist figure that one out.

Then the plane entered an area of turbulence; the aircraft shook violently for many minutes. The signal box at the end of the cabin lit up with the words “Fasten seat belts please”. I fastened my seat belt and then leaned over to fasten that of my young charge. He started screaming. His high decibel racket annoyed me, but I could sympathize with him because I was a bit scared, too. “Look here, young’un, I understand your fear, but this belt is going to be hooked!” After I had completed my mission, I leaned back in my own seat and hoped for the best. That was, indeed, a lengthy period of rough jolting, and I wondered how we would handle dipping in the Pacific Ocean.

When we arrived in Honolulu for a brief layover, the woman and her boys disappeared. I don’t recall whether Hawaii was their final destination or they simply sought accommodations away from that mean airman. I did not care, for I was free.

My only remaining question about that experience is, was I brave during the turbulence or merely fatalistic?

Now for the third and penultimate “courage” episode — away from airplanes but still in the transportation mode.

My brother Vernon (the eldest of us three Litton boys) had located a 1953 Ford coupe for me to drive to college and to work in. This was in 1962, when I was 22, and my other brother, Elbert, and I were sharing an apartment on Henderson Street in Dallas, about half a dozen blocks south of Central Expressway. One winter’s evening after a snowfall and while the streets were glazed with ice, I left the SMU library and started my drive southward toward home. Just a block before I came to the bridge over Central, my steering wheel went crazy. I had to turn it a couple of times to make the car go right and a couple of times to make it go left. I had to make the choice then and there whether to stop my car and go to a nearby house to use a phone to call for a tow truck (all the local businesses were closed) or to try to make it home. There were no other vehicles on the service road where I was and none on the bridge. I can’t recall my reasoning, but I probably decided that I had learned enough already how to steer the car at least slightly and my apartment was not at any great distance, so to continue at a slow speed was the preferable option. How lovely of all those other people that they were not out driving that night! The hardest part was maneuvering my way up our narrow drive to the parking area out back. A mechanic told me the next day that one wheel’s “tie rod” had broken.

Now I ask you, dear reader, had I been brave or foolhardy? Or perhaps simply facing up to a necessity?

The final episode is similar to the above, in a way.

I was fifty-seven and working as a reporter for the Alpine Avalanche. One day, the publisher/editor sent me to photograph a new, second water tank that had been set up on the top of “A” Mountain on the south side of town. I wrote “’A’ Mountain”, but don’t take that too literally. It is not exactly what I would call a “mountain” — not like most of the mountains to the north and south of us, which do not themselves compare with those in the Rockies. No, “A” Mountain is, to me, just a really big hill with a one-vehicle road that winds up to its rather dull top.

So, I grabbed a camera and drove my 1972 Ford sedan up the narrow access road. Only about fifty yards from the top I came upon a stretch of sandy loam about six yards long, and my tires refused to force their way through it. After a few attempts at revving the engine, I got out and trekked up to the top where I found two men discussing the new tank.

“Hi,” I said, “I’ve gotten stuck in some sand a few yards down the road. Can you guys help me?”

“Nope,” one of them said, “Don’t think there’s anything we can do to help.” Strange!

But I took a couple of photo shots of the boring image of the water tank and walked back down to my car.

After gazing over the road’s edge to see how far I would roll should I do a poor job of it, I got in the vehicle, turned on the engine, switched into reverse gear, and revved my engine. Fortunately, the car was not nearly as reluctant to go backward as it had been to go forward, possibly because the sand was not as deep that way. All the while I kept my eyes trained on all three mirrors. During my drive uphill, I had noticed a slight indentation in the mountain’s wall about halfway, which I assumed one vehicle pulled into when another vehicle was approaching from the opposite direction. When I got to it, with a sigh of relief, I pulled in and managed to turn my car around. From that moment I assumed I was safe driving forward the remaining distance downhill.

All of that trouble and anxiety for a stupid photo of a stupid metal water tank! Had I been brave, foolhardy, or again merely facing up to necessity?

Oh, I have been in many other dangerous situations, even four car accidents, in two of which I was briefly knocked unconscious and my brow suffered cuts. However, all those other events happened so suddenly that, although I had to react — and did react to the best of my ability — there was not enough time to summon up recognizable courage.

No, I don’t believe one can live to age seventy-five without encountering dangerous moments.


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