A Hunger In The Land

Part Two, Oklahoma and The Cherokee Nation

October 28, 2013 in JOURNEYS,SOUTHERN JOURNAL | Comments (5)

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At a restaurant called EAT in neon letters three feet high I ordered chicken fried steak and gravy, which is the essence of the official Oklahoma State Meal, created by the legislature in 1988 to promote beef and other agricultural derivatives including corn bread and pecan pie. EAT was crowded, and many of the noon customers were voluminous. There is no famine in this land (Gen 26: 1).

Not at least the sort of famine that drove Abraham and then Jacob and his sons into Egypt, where God saved them. The biblical stories of manna from heaven and the miracle of the loaves and fishes require you to suspend disbelief. But what if the famine and the salvation were allegories? Abandoning their God and going down to Egypt, worshiping “the idols of Egypt,” the people were at last brought back, spiritually. Estrangement, being a stranger in a strange land, is the greatest suffering. That is why the prophets and some of the Psalms lament Babylon. Dwelling in exile, as Jeremiah and Ezekiel admonished, brings estrangement from God. Which is to say: Religion is cultural. Suppress it and a way of life declines and dies. It’s in the Book!

How then could Christians ignore these profound themes of the Pentateuch? How could they not know the evil of exiling a people? In Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in a set of dioramas at the Cherokee Heritage Center, we saw the tragedy of exile. In the 1830‘s the Cherokee people in the American southeast were dispossessed. Their remarkable acculturation — a high rate of literacy, adoption of constitutional government — did not save them from depredation by frontier Americans under protection of southern politicians. They, men-women-children, were rounded up by the hundreds and marched a thousand miles by U.S. soldiers. The tragedy is now called “The Trail of Tears.” Those who survived were settled here, in “Indian Country.” What remained of their traditions was suppressed. Their children were educated in places like the girl’s school that once stood on these grounds. (more…)

The Music Everybody Knows

Part 3, The Ozarks and New Orleans


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Because much of the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas is federal, all the campgrounds were closed, so we found ourselves checking-in at the Dogwood Motel in Mountainview (pop. c. 3000). The young man at the desk recommended a catfish restaurant and the Ozark Culture Center north of town.

Catfish needs no definition. Even anthropologists argue endlessly about culture, but at the proud little state park culture is about music and storytelling and broom making and copper annealing and dress making and wood carving and wool carding and weaving and cigar-box guitars and letter-press printing and quilting. You go from studio to studio where exhibitors show how things were done, as musicians in a pavilion outside sing old-timey songs. Bill Clinton visits here often, they say.

P1000630The printer caught my interest, the quilter, Pat’s. I was reminded how much work it took to hand-set type and justify it and make the impressions right. A printer apprenticeship was five years. The foot-treadle press must have been satisfying work because the printer, not the machinery, was in control of the speed and the paper feeding. The quilter showed Pat how to design and sew a “log cabin” patch, a square that has dark colors in one corner giving way to light colors in the opposite corner — like the cold side and the fire side of a log cabin.



Going In Peace

Part 4, the Natchez Trace


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Thich Nhat Hanh teaches walking meditation. Early one morning in Hanoi he took a long line of us walking — slow and mindful, step by step, breath by breath — against the rush-hour torrent of 125 cc motor scooters, as government agents, no doubt, watched.  I am wondering how walking meditation would go over in the small towns of the American South, if I tried it.

The region is mostly Protestant and about one-third Southern Baptist. Our drive through Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee on backroads left the impression that another third of the people attend non-denominational churches distinguished from each other by catchy themes. We noted signs proclaiming: Church of Divine Intervention,  Abundant Life Church, Life Changing Ministries, Free Will Baptist Church, The People’s Church and Baptist Ministry churches of New Zion, Old Jerusalem and New Hope of the Brethren.

I imagined many of these were solitary creations of men like Robert Duvall’s preacher in “The Apostle.” Take, for example, Jehovah Java in Lake Providence, LA. It is an excellent espresso coffee shop in a Starbuckless world, and it is part of a non-denominational church. It was created by a minister and his wife who love the Bean and the Lord. (more…)

Family In A Perfect World

Part 5, A North Carolina Holler


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Appalachian “hollers” (hollows) are perfect little worlds, or used to be. They provided everything a large family needed: timber, firewood and game from the surrounding mountains, grazing on the descending  slopes, farming in the fertile bottom lands, and even fish in the streams. And in almost every holler was a church and a cemetery next to it. The people were Baptists. They baptized in the water — total immersion. My grandfather and grandmother on my dad’s side were from the Appalachia’s of western North Carolina,  near Mars Hill, which now is a picturesque little college town.

The college was started by the Southern Baptist Convention, but in recent years it has turned to other sources for funding. The region is diversifying. Many of the rural churches look abandoned. They are eclipsed by McMansions on the hills. In one of these land coves north of Asheville, half way between the Blue Ridge Mountains Parkway and the Appalachian Trail, we found Calloway Road.

I knocked on the door of a modular home, arousing a large dog inside. A pretty woman about the age of my daughters hushed the dog and came to the door holding a soft warm cookie with a bite gone. I told her my father’s people came from around there. She listened carefully. I smiled. Finally, she said, “I’m a Calloway. Would you like a pumpkin cookie?” She left and returned with two in a Ziplock bag. Pat and I ate them later. They were spicy with flecks of dark chocolate but not too sweet.

Amanda took us down the hill to meet her mother and father, Charles and Linda (same names as my parents), a greying couple who were at work in their farmyard. They were stacking boards for a communal barn raising set for that weekend. They had a pet mule, some goats, a few beef cattle, a young border collie and a garden. There were other acreages nearby, and Charles affirmed most of the neighbors were family. His grandfather, of the same generation as mine and perhaps from the same river drainage north of there, bought the cove about 100 years ago. He lived into his 90‘s and raised a self-reliant family.

Linda, Amanda, Charles

Linda, Amanda, Charles


Free At Last In Washington

Part 6, the capitol grouds


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P1000985 - Version 2In a time of militant religiosity, when “God Bless America” is the standard ending of most political speeches, it was encouraging to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, Washington’s newest. There is no “God” in the 14 quotations approved by his family to be cut in white stone.  How do you explain a memorial to a powerful minister that does not mention God? Certainly he was not Godless, this man of peace, liberation and non-violence. Suddenly it occurred to me that the divine presence there on the edge of the Tidal Basin on the nation’s spacious capitol grounds is universal Humanity.

One quote of the Rev. Dr. King says:

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation. . . “

No, the absence of the word God there requires no apology. Rather, the quivering politicians should be asked to explain their use — and I mean use — of God.  The slogan “God bless America” was invented during a time of war with God on our side. It is a declaration of patriotism, even an implicit directive to those who do not fear the Old Testament God. (more…)

Why I Love Black Walnuts

First Posted June 2006

October 27, 2013 in JOURNEYS,SOUTHERN JOURNAL | Comments (0)

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When I was a boy one of my father’s sisters gave him a tree, a sapling, and we planted it in the back yard in Denver. He said it was a black walnut from the mountains of western North Carolina, which are practically owned by the Scotch-Irish, his people. That gnarly stick of a tree survived from winter to Colorado winter, growing a few feet a year in the rich alluvial soil of our back yard.


Each summer I’d look for the black walnuts – a blossom, a green pod on a branch, a fallen clunker with a shell like a hand grenade – but the tree never bore. It needed pollination, I would learn. It needed to be back in Madison County, N.C., of which both my paternal grandparents were third- or fourth-generation natives. The little tree kept growing, and even after my father was gone it spoke to me of roots.


A family tree!


Better than the paper kind, I thought. You can’t taste a genealogy, can’t chop it up to put in ice cream or sprinkle on brownies. You can’t make fine oiled gun stocks or cabinets out of kinship charts. I didn’t care about doing the Alex Haley thing, which turned out to be fiction anyway. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to any backwoods Appalachian “holler.” I had grown up reading “Li’l Abner” and “Snuffy Smith” in the comics. I knew the stereotypes. TV brought “Ma and Pa Kettle,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Hee Haw,” Festus on “Gunsmoke,” and so forth. Hey, I could relate to these comedy characters, but I didn’t want to discover we were actually . . . related!


Then came “Deliverance” by the troubled Georgia poet James Dickey, whose inbred, demented, violent stereotypes cast a shadow on the southern mountains in general. The movie with Burt Reynolds and John Voight was a blockbuster, and “Dueling Banjos” from the sound track was a hit. It was filmed on the Chantanooga River, which runs along the Georgia-South Carolina border, but that was a little too close to home, the “home” I had never seen, and would not see until. . .  (more…)

From The Uttermost Ends Of The Earth

Essays north and south

January 8, 2013 in Ends of the Earth | Comments (0)

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(The January Crestone Eagle features my account of a journey into the heart of the new Inuit state of Nunavut in Canada. Here’s a link for non-Crestonians:
The following account of a journey to Tierra del Fuego a year earlier balances things out.)

Darwin And The Yamana People

The fires of Tierra del Fuego are gone. The Yamana people, whose smoke signals announced Magellan in 1520, are gone. Their bark canoes carrying fire, gone. And nobody for now lives at Wulaia, which in a missionary’s dictionary of the Yamana language meant beautiful-sheltered cove (aia).

On a summer day in January we landed at Wulaia in rubber Zodiacs from the Mare Australis, a clean new expedition crucero of Chilean registry. For now, this is the only cruise through the restricted Murray Narrows south of the Beagle Channel, a passage from Ushuaia to Cape Horn.

View of our ship from Wulaia

On the pebbled beach, with the mother ship shining like an ice berg among the blue islands of the cove, we shed our orange life vests and took a guided walk. Except for the masonry hulk of an old naval station, Wulaia is graciously unimproved. Our guide said the cruise company has leased the site from the Chilean government and plans to restore the vandalized two-story building as a visitor’s center with dorm rooms for archeologists. They have dug in the strata of discarded mussel shells and concluded the place was inhabited for perhaps 10,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. (more…)

Saying Goodbye In Thai

Mean Streets, Peaceful River

April 24, 2012 in JOURNEYS,Theatre of War | Comments (2)

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by Larry Calloway (c) 2012

In the new Bangkok air terminal a long sculpture on the way to international departures depicts a tug of war, demigods v. devils, in the clean bright primary colors of Theravada Buddhist  temples. This moral chemistry, this dynamic equilibrium of unresolved issues that has gone on since the beginning is a fine Hindu creation myth.

In this story, “Churning the Ocean of Milk,” the Asuras and Devas pull back and forth on a rope hitched around a spindle. (The rope is a mythological snake, the spindle is a sacred mountain, and the winners will get immortality if they last, but we’ll never know.) From the disturbance of the Milky Way came a number of things, depending on the version. The version in my Western eyes as I departed – perhaps finally – was cosmic. It was creation via the slightest first tick of information in the ocean of Zen Emptiness, like Milton’s Satan crossing Chaos and leaving a track from which all organization evolved. The sculpture also is Thailand, where the nightclubs are as famous as the temples (and a whore would never touch a monk) and yellow shirts and red shirts hold staggered demonstrations and democracy alternates with military dictatorship and committees on national reconciliation don’t reconcile. Whatever, the reciprocating engine produces something wonderful like . . . life.


Secret Wars Have No Heroes

More on what Obama revealed and rued

September 10, 2011 in Theatre of War | Comments (1)

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A king at rest


(C)text and photos by LARRY CALLOWAY


Air America was created in 1959 to support covert operations in Laos, a landlocked country of no more than 3 million people then, caught between Vietnam and Thailand. Our man in Laos was Phoumi Nosavan, a diminutive general of the Royal Lao Army who became prime minister in a CIA-backed coup in December 1959, two months after death ended the 55-year reign of beloved King Sisavang. Phoumi was a close friend of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, his cousin and mentor, who ruled Thailand under martial law with the apparent consent of King Bhumibol. Sarit was ruthless and corrupt. But he had American friends like the Dulles brothers (Secretary of State John Foster and CIA director Allen).

Our backup in the war against communism was Vang Pao, a leader among Hmong hill tribesmen. The hostility between the communists of Laos and the Hmong minority was not only due to the Marxist enmity toward traditional cultures (and religion). The Hmongs, long ago driven out of China, had been on the side of the French in the anti-colonial revolution. American intelligence agents who remained in Thailand after the defeat of Japan helped organize the Hmong and other ethnic minorities in an alliance with the Royal Lao Army against the Pathet Lao, counterpart of the Viet Cong. John Foster Dulles called Laos a “bastion of the free world.”

During the 1960 American election campaign (Kennedy vs. Nixon) a former Royal Lao officer named Kong Le, who now sympathized with the Pathet Lao, occupied Vientiane. What alarmed the Dulles brothers was evidence that he was getting support from the Soviet Union. On inauguration day, President Dwight D. Eisenhower told Kennedy he faced war in Laos. Both men must have known the risk at hand because, unlike the nuclear sword rattlers, they knew war and were informed about Indochina. Early in his administration Eisenhower had authorized disguised American transport planes to supply the French army in its last stand at Dien Ben Phu in North Vietnam, and Kennedy had visited Indochina twice as a congressman before the defeat of the French in 1954.

Laos was far from the minds of most Americans, then as now, and so when the new president addressed the nation two months after his inauguration, he used maps showing the landlocked kingdom’s long border with Vietnam to illustrate his thesis that, in his words, “The security of all Southeast Asia will be endangered if Laos loses its neutral independence.” (He mispronounced Laos, perhaps intentionally.) In June 1961 in Vienna Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev declared Laos neutral, a sentiment that was signed and sealed in Geneva a year later.

So in May of 1963, as I stepped from a Pan Am Boeing 707 into the tropical heat of Bangkok, the American setup against North Vietnam in Indochina was this: two Buddhist kingdoms run by cousins, (Thailand and Laos) a Buddhist kingdom run by a neutral prince (Sihanouk in Cambodia), and an anti-Buddhist Catholic autocracy run by brothers (Diem and Nhu in South Vietnam). But it was a fragile setup, a row of dominoes. Hanoi was reinforcing the North Vietnam Army troops that had never left Laos despite the Geneva accord. Kennedy authorized the CIA to arm and train 20,000 Hmong guerrillas. To facilitate this the CIA was building a secret city, Long Tien, south of the Plain of Jars and had scraped airstrips, code named Lima sites, for STOL aircraft on a dozen mountains surrounding the plain. (more…)

The Emptiness Of The Plain of Jars

A sidebar to President Obama’s Laos apology

September 6, 2011 in Theatre of War | Comments (5)

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THE JARS  on the Plain of Jarres (French colonialists named it) are empty. The bomb craters from the secret war in Laos, pockmarks of a sick strategy called “madman,” are not empty. They hold the remnants of cluster bombs that popped open in the air and birthed out baby bombs in tricky patterns. The “bomblets” (military jargon) were designed to explode and fragment at intervals, and some were destined to explode years later like forgotten land mines.

“The use of delayed-action antipersonnel weapons on the Plain after 1967 made life above ground very hazardous,” a report by the Congressional Research Service found. Villagers lived in trenches or caves. They farmed at night. One fourth to one third of

Cluster Bomb Casings

the Lao population became refugees, it said. The casualties at the height of the B52 sorties from 1970 to 1973 were estimated at 90,000 including 30,000 deaths. Each B52 bomber could drop 108 500-pound bombs from an altitude of 18,000 to 30,000 feet.

Descending to the Xieng Khouang provincial air strip in north central Laos near the new town of Phonsavan (the old one was destroyed in the war) I could see the craters, lines of red pocks in a land that reminded me of the arid part of the Colorado San Luis Valley where I live. Among the greeters of the dozen passengers in the waiting room was a young guide named Suen, whom I chose intuitively. He worked for a five-room guest house by some rice paddies on an ugly highway. Bomb casings decorated the entry. A wall of the dining room displayed war weapons.