There must have been something in the water of Oak Park, Illinois. Frank Lloyd Wright would move there and have his first studio and his works are all over this suburb of Chicago, Ray Kroc of McDonalds fame would be born and raised there, Edgar Rice Burroughs of the Tarzan stories would come from there, Ernest Hemingway would be born there, and the three Neal brothers and their sister were raised there. The second oldest of the Neal brothers Phil would attend Harvard Law School and hang out with JFK Jr. He would start his own celebrated law firm, be the dean of the University of Chicago law school, serve on presidential commissions, and argue a case before the US Supreme Court. The oldest brother would be a decorated hero of World War II, a surgeon, and work with Doctors without Borders. The sister would become a teacher of teachers in the Chicago school system. Dick as he was called became an internist with a private practice in the place he grew up.
He was the human among a race of titans. His brothers made more money and had more notoriety and his sister became known throughout Chicago for her contributions to the education system. They seemed to consider him the underachiever. His choice as a doctor was a simple one. He enlisted in the Army to do his patriotic duty during WW II. After boot camp he was told he was qualified to go to officer’s candidate school or be a medic. He was given a minute to make up his mind and he chose medic. This experience would influence the rest of his life. He would serve in the Pacific where he would see soldiers’ bodies torn asunder by bombs, shrapnel, and bullets. He would also encounter various Pacific Island diseases, yellow fever, and dysentery. He was becoming a doctor though the soldiers called him medic. He enjoyed the camaraderie and the ability to help. He learned about cultures of the Philippines, Japan, and New Guinea through his military duty. Through his fellow brothers in arms he learned about the different American cultures southern, mid-western, black, and Ivy league were but a few. He was amazed at how they had all come together to work for one common cause. He would remember these experiences and use them in his practice.
His time in the Army also showed him the value of giving oneself to the group in order to obtain a common goal. This would guide him for the rest of his life. He would find his place, where there was a need he could meet, and give himself to perform that service.
Oftentimes he would look at his brothers wistfully as their fame and financial successes grew. As competitive brothers often do they would remind him of the differences. Yet he chose to have a private practice and would always remain comfortably with that choice. His choice paid well but did not give him the extravagant lifestyles of his brothers. He worked day and night. Married a woman who was okay with his practice being first. He assumed his duty and role in Oak Park with pride and diligence. He became known as a great diagnostician. His peers were amazed at his ability to recognize strange symptoms and identify their sources. He could have used this ability to earn even more money as a consulting physician but he offered his diagnosis to his fellow doctors for free. They were after all in the healing profession together and were comrades in arms against disease.
He rose early every day to make his rounds. He did this seven days a week except for his vacation. After he did his morning rounds he went home had lunch with his wife and then went to his office to see patients there until seven at night. He had no power lunches. He was not interested in climbing ladders. He was interested in practicing good medicine. His children learned on Christmas day they could not open presents until their father had made his rounds and returned home. His practice and patients came first. It was his sacrifice to his call of duty. It was nothing special after all he had seen in war that everyone did their part without complaint. He made house calls although it eventually was not as efficient because of the tests and equipment he had available at the office. His skill as diagnostician was basic: listen to the patient, try to understand their perspective and understandings, and use his learnings and reason to make the best possible diagnosis. He was seldom wrong. This skill had been honed early doing triage in battle.
Many of his fellow doctors chose him for their primary care. They respected his skills and he never charged them for his services. He did the same for his family members. Nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers and in-laws all saw him and he never charged for his services. His talents were given to the larger cause. Much to his wife’s chagrin they seldom returned the professional favors.
He worked to make the local hospital become one of the best suburban hospitals in the Chicago area. He would create the Department of Internal medicine and later as the hospital became a teaching hospital he would be the Director of Medical Education. He served as a trustee for years. He was dedicated and proud of the hospital.
His brothers continue to prosper financially with second and third homes to go with their primary estates. They also had second wives. He practiced and made a good living and stayed loyal to his Nancy. His brother’s trips were epic. His was to the Grand Canyon. His brothers thought they were leaving the runt behind but they loved his simple charm and his boyish humor.
As we all do he grew older. He marveled at the medical advances that had taken place during his practice. He kept himself up to date on all the new procedures, medications, and equipment. But the delivery of services in the medical field was changing with the advent of HMOs in the seventies. He was resistant to what he viewed as the new assembly line approach of medicine. HMOs could tell you how many patients you should see for how much money. It was a science of medicine for money that was slowly driving him out of practice. He was a diagnostician not a wheel in the cog. He could not heal his patients if he did not take time to listen. Everyone around him seemed to enjoy the new money HMOs seemed to be stirring their way. New homes, boats and epic trips were being delivered daily in the new system. But he questioned the practice.
In the last years of his practice he taught at the historic indigent care hospital in Chicago. Maybe he was hoping to escape the HMO world and to help improve a system that was failing so many poor. The new ‘medicine’ made him retire early. He would keep his license until his eighties. Taking his exams and studying on all the new breakthroughs in medicine. He always passed with flying colors. But his practice was now limited to giving advice to his family and friends when asked. He never asked for payment. He taught at the hospital trying to infuse medical students with the healing arts. He still amazed students and other doctors with his skills.
He was always an avid reader but now he was reading books about science and religion. He was an agnostic. Science supplied all the answers his practice needed. But now that he was growing older he felt a need to diagnose what the future might hold. He continued to look at things from all angles and listen to all opinions so he could develop the best diagnosis.
He kept himself in excellent shape. He exercised regularly. He did not smoke or drink. He was a doctor that could say do as I do. He was on his daily bike ride when a car hit him. Bruised and battered he refused to go in an ambulance and rode home. He slowly recovered but his health was never the same.
He had always had difficulty with his hearing. But now age had wreaked havoc on it. He probably could hear only sixty percent of what was said. But he would sit with his practiced stoic face and listen as intently as he could giving you his full attention. You would only know that he had missed parts of the conversation when he asked questions you had just answered. His genteel bedside manner now made him a calming force in the life of his friends and family.
Surprisingly, the healer had not prepared for his own medical decline. He had no insurance and had not thought much about end of life care for himself. His wife would exclaim ‘we thought we would live forever.’ Yet there were the readings and the thoughtfulness about life, god, and death. The healer who had helped so many through death thought that good medical practice would take care of him too. But the hospital he had served and had taught students how to be healers had changed. It was now owned by a private company that prided itself on embracing the principles of non-profit healthcare and marrying them with the business acumen of a privately owned organization. Their motto was non-profit values with investor owned vision.
His trust in the system would lead to procedures that did not add quality or quantity to his life. But they did cost him huge sums of money. He died in the hospital when he wished to die at home. They performed a tracheotomy on his last day that was uncomfortable and took away his ability to speak. The healer had to grimace inside to himself this was the medicine he had fought against.
His funeral was attended by family, friends, and professional colleagues. They all knew him as a doctor and a healer. He had had a simple practice. He was the human in the family of titans. In the end he made no great fortune but he answered his call to duty and became an excellent healer with a good practice. That was all he did and it was more than enough.
UNTO THE ENDS OF THE WORLD
He came from the hills of North Carolina where his father was a moonshiner. He and his four brothers were expected, as they grew of age, to make runs of moonshine for their father. His mother was a devout woman who loved her man and her sons, and though it was against her religion she appreciated the money that the moonshine brought to the family in these hard times. Guthrie C. Curtis was the youngest of the sons. Growing up poor and uneducated he was determined to get out of them hills and escape the poverty. His conversion to the Baptist faith at an early age disturbed his father and brothers but made all the difference for him. He had been saved by that old time religion. And he began to believe it and became uncomfortable with selling moonshine. To make matters worse he slowly began to feel the call to be a preacher. He was becoming an outsider in his own family. His mother was praying over him while his father and brothers were cussing his new faith. It was one thing to have religion, another to live religion. Religion was for Sundays, weddings and funerals, otherwise it had no business interrupting your life. His father told him that he needed to be out in the world learning how to make a living to survive.
But Guthrie could not avoid it. He was being called by the Lord God Almighty to preacherdom. His pastor told him if this was true he needed to leave these hills and get an education. God could use anybody but he could especially use an educated man. He only had to be sure he went to a bona-fide God-fearing college, otherwise Satan could corrupt his soul and he would become a false prophet. So Guthrie took this advice and headed to a Baptist college in Birmingham, Alabama at the age of sixteen. Now Birmingham was a rather big city in those days. One of the biggest and most prominent cities. The pagan god Vulcan of fire stood guard over her at night and day. Fortunes were being made in the steel industry and the loose morals of finance were creating prosperity for others. The god Vulcan held a blacksmith hammer in his hand to symbolize hard work but he was also scantily clothed and sometimes the fire from his work would impregnate the women around him, it was rumored. For a boy from the hills of North Carolina, Birmingham offered cultural opportunities and heaps more chances to sin than the hills did. But he was consumed with praying, and for the first time in his life he was learning and thinking. He loved learning. Some of the teachings challenged the gospel he had learned back home. But he would never venture far from the religion that had changed his life. In his view it had literally saved his life. Yet his education would leave a small door opened for others to have room to believe differently. So he worked as hard as the god Vulcan shaping himself into a man of God.
Somewhere along the line his faith consumed his life and he began a practice of never talking about anything without showing how it fit into the Christian faith. He did not believe in what he would call idle chatter. Some said this became his practice when he found himself temporarily caught up in the passions of fire with a woman of ill-repute started by idle chatter. So if you were in his presence for any length of time you would hear a sermon or two. It was a defense mechanism against being caught literally with his pants down and the fire of his loins enrapturing women.
If the topic were sports he could talk about good sportsmanship being Christ-like, or the discipline necessary to follow the gospel, or the battles waged on another field for our souls. If it was food he would talk about the temptations of desserts and Satan, gluttony as a sin (a sin he readily admitted he fell prey to often), or how sex for some was a sweet food where they devoured every morsel and then threw the carcass to the side. No matter what the subject was he had a metaphor or a story to illustrate the gospel. It occasionally became the practice of some of his more mischievous parishioners to try to sidetrack him. They would use arcane subjects that they thought he could never use as an example of the gospel’s teachings. And just when they thought they had successfully diverted or stumped him he would form a smile in the corner of his mouth and almost with a wink of his eye at them he would circle back to talk about the gospel.
He had a good sense of humor. Once right before he was to go out to the pulpit a parishioner with mentally illness rushed up to him and said, “Preacher the Lord told me last night in a vision that he wanted me to deliver the message today.” Stroking his chin Brother Curtis replied,” So the Lord told you this last night,” the parishioner nodded enthusiastically, “Well I was just now in prayer with God before I stepped out of here and he must have had a change of plan because he told me to go ahead and preach. I am going to have to go with the latest news from God.” He walked by the dumbfounded parishioner to deliver the sermon.
He was a physical preacher who even in his seventies could leap in the air to emphasize his message. He would point a finger, he would shout for glory, and the pulpit would creak from his pounding. He was also a pastor who was always there for every life crisis. He enjoyed the ministry because he enjoyed people and life. It attracted people to him. He kept a proud count of people who accepted the call to preach under his ministry; it was over thirty. He was a true believer.
His largest church was a small gathering that he grew into over a thousand members. But the church grew and wanted a more refined preacher. They needed someone with a doctor of divinity. And they began to challenge his basic belief that he preached Sunday after Sunday: the ground is level at the foot of the cross. Black or white, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, male or female, it did not matter because we were all the same in God’s eye. He would sing the children’s song “They Are All Precious in His Sight.” He would admit this was a hard teaching. He struggled with the equality of races and gender issues having been raised in the hills of North Carolina and doing ministry in the nineteen-fifties and ‘sixties. But ultimately it did not matter what he thought; it was what God almighty thought and God expressed his opinion in the Bible. “There is no Greek or Jew, female or male in Christ Jesus.” Even though members of his congregation were his best friends, they voted him out in favor of searching for a new minister.
His heart ached and he moved on. He took a job in a small military town in south Alabama. The church was smaller and he thought at first that it would be a lot easier job. He was going to live a semi-retired life. But as he would say God had other plans. The church he pastored was multicultural by accident. It was near an army base and there were few churches. He had black, Hispanic, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and white members. The church had colonels and old sergeants and privates. It had young families and seniors. It also had people who lived in the trailer parks and homes that were mansions. It was diverse. His other church had middle- to upper-class whites and occasionally a black member. Here he found a church that had the appearance of equality but was class, rank, and ethnically divided. It was a challenge. His sermon about the ground being level at the foot of the cross was needed. And though people at this church accepted the truth, living that truth was tougher. He would spend the rest of his ministry trying to learn cultures he knew nothing of and mending fences he did not know needed mending. Because of past wars the Koreans and Japanese would hold separate Sunday School classes. Although the wars were long ago in a part of the world they may never see again, they carried the cultural and ethnic war with them to this little church.
When he asked them why they had to have separate classes they said because they spoke different languages. But when he attended the classes they were all in English. They had lied to cover up that they did not want to be in the same room with each other. Colonels would almost bark orders to enlisted parishioners to have them vote a particular way on some church matters. And some whites were uncomfortable with a growing number of blacks and Hispanics joining their ranks. He would laugh sometimes saying “I am a far cry from them North Carolina Hills.” He never felt overwhelmed by all this because he believed the gospel was able to penetrate every wall humanity set up. The Church and he were far from perfect in dealing with diversity but they struggled in the right ways.
He was always an encourager. He always insisted his ministry recruits receive the best education. His education had been important to him and he knew it would be to others. He was never bothered by the new-fangled theologies they brought fresh from the seminary to enlighten him. He would listen and encourage their digging deeper into the truths. Occasionally he would remind them not to lose the essence of the gospel, as he called it, but he never once challenged their new and developing ideas: that was always between them and God.
It is said that his preaching so hard for so long was the cause of his heart failure. His last sermon would be “God Was Not a Respecter of Persons.” He knew this to be a fact because a North Carolina hillbilly and moonshiner’s son could come to learn and love all the people of the world. He died in Alabama, not so far from North Carolina, but still he died a long way from the hills of his childhood home.
THE GOOD LIFE
Brent was a tall good-looking ole boy from a small town in Kentucky. He had a degree from the University of Kentucky. He worked in the medical profession. He was the darling of his mother. He was out and proud before it was cool. He was full of confidence and comfortable in his own skin. He was opinionated but not offensive. He let you know his opinion but did not mind hearing yours. He made friends easily and yet offended others with his same open way of living life. He also had AIDS.
Brent became the advocate supreme for his friends with AIDS. He educated himself and confronted and challenged people’s ways of thinking. Because of his good ole boyness he did not fit into the stereotypes of gays and often caught people off guard when in a conversation he would mention it. He was renowned for confronting a local gay philanthropist with his obligation to support the local HIV\AIDS support agency. Every time he saw this man he asked him what he was going to do to help the community. He called him out in a gay bar and said he had a responsibility to give back. The philanthropist was taken aback and realized Brent was going to hound him until he did the right thing. He did the right thing and Brent made sure it kept being enough of the right thing.
Brent drove medical staff up the wall. Because he was in the medical profession, he was comfortable challenging doctors and nurses alike. But AIDS was new; treatments were ever-developing; oftentimes the patients would know the latest and best treatments before the doctors. Brent was one of these people and was often giving unsolicited advice to doctors who were not used to such patient empowerment. When he was hospitalized he would fuss at lax nurses, about standard protocol of wearing gloves and mask as necessary. He would often tell them he did not want to be responsible for them contracting this disease.
Brent was thought to be invincible. His attitude, persona and size made you think he was going to beat this thing called AIDS. It shocked everyone when he became vincible. The syndrome attacked his immune system in an unforgiving way. Brent was dying. We gathered in his home as he lay in his bed. He was under hospice care. His friends took shifts to ensure he had around the clock care. Despite the ravages of the disease his spirit remained indomitable. He joked about his demise and laughed at all of the worried faces around him.
He was not denying death. He was denying death the power of fear. He was also choosing to live the life he had left. Brandie, his friend and head of the local AIDS organization, and he had a special connection. She was a vivacious, passionate, beautiful woman. She had the ability to make everyone in the room she was in feel good. She was at his bedside often. It was an emotional time for her; not only was she dealing with losing a friend, she was pregnant and preparing to welcome a new child into the world. Each time she would visit, Brent would reach out and touch her belly to feel the baby kicking or moving. He would smile and as if he was a shaman blessed Brandi and her baby with his last touches of life and wishing the good things life had offered him onto the baby.
Brent was an atheist and held no quarters with religion especially after the whole “AIDS was the curse of God on gays” thing. He accepted me as a minister because I was present, not because I had any special gift to offer him. As the disease progressed he began to show signs of dementia. Knowing his mind was not healthy he knew he was not long for this earth. He wanted to think through things with his last bit of clarity. Surprising everyone he said he wanted spiritual counseling. And he flattered me by saying I was the only one he trusted to give that spiritual counseling. He said he knew I would not try to convert him and not make him listen to all that religious mumbo jumbo. He knew that I would accept his atheism. He also knew how to draw the parameters of how he wanted to talk about these issues.
I was a bit intimidated. I had never counseled, knowingly, an atheist on their deathbed before. It was out of my bailiwick. But I liked Brent and respected who he was. I agreed to meet with him. I had spent much time reading and studying before we met and hoped maybe something I could say would offer some consolation to him. So it was with fear and trembling that I went to offer my ministerial guidance. I came into his room and a crowd of people surrounded him. I passed the usual niceties with people. I was a little stressed about the conversation we were going to have. Finally, Brent said, “Now all of you leave because Mike and I have some things to talk about and none of you need to hear any of it.” The room cleared and I sat next to the bed and we began. He talked mostly and I listened a lot. He did not have fear about death but was curious what he might encounter. He did not have a view of the afterlife and he wanted to think through what death meant to and for him. I offered my most poetic mini-sermon on how we did not go on in this form but that these bodies came from the stars and at death went back into the cosmos from which they came. This and other semi-useful thoughts I offered. He nodded and listened. Finally, he said, “If you do not have anything left to say I think I sorted out my thoughts and am okay.” I nodded and said, “Let us conclude with a moment of silence.” After the silence I said, “You are a good man and I cannot see the universe ever letting go of you.” It was only about forty-five minutes but it had seemed like a lifetime for me.
Brent called everybody back in and they all began to interact and be present for Brent. I felt relieved. I also felt a sense of pride. I had handled the situation so well. Just as I was about to leave Brent looked at me and said, “It is about time you got here, I have been waiting for you.” “Ministers,” he said smiling “they think they are so special and show up whenever they want to. You need to give me my deathbed counseling.” The room fell silent. He started telling everyone to leave so he could be alone with me. When someone said, “Brent he was just with you.” Brent looked confused, paused and finally said, “And I am sure it was comforting too.” He laughed we all laughed. He died the next day. The city’s annual award for the volunteer who had contributed the most to helping persons with AIDS in the last year was named the Brent Bothman Award.
THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS
They said giants lived in those mountains. I know they did. I knew one. He was six feet four inches, broad-shouldered and athletic. But at six feet four he was the runt of the litter. Even his only sister was taller at six feet five inches.
His family were original settlers of the small community where he lived. There were so many Jones in that small town, one wondered if Mentone had some kind of witness protection program with a lazy peace officer who did not want to think of different aliases for those in the program. The giant I knew cherished his heritage and his little town. Mentone was a resort town. It had three summer camps, the only snow ski slope in Alabama, one large historic resort and a bed and breakfast. Mentone sits on the southwest corner of Lookout Mountain with a population approaching six hundred. It is beautiful. He loved the bluff park that overlooked the valley. He walked the old trails, some said left by Native Americans, that many had forgotten still existed. He visited the small family gravesites on his brother’s land across the road from his land. He knew every tree and plant on the mountain and could call each by name. He took pride in the land his ancestors had homesteaded.
He married a girl down in the valley in a small town called Henager. It was natural for him to marry a local girl; she would know the stories and families he knew and could understand his colloquialisms. She came from a hard scrabble family where the father ruled with an iron fist. Her father took pleasure in allowing her to claim as a pet one of the chickens, goats, or cows he planned to slaughter later. He would let her name it and when the day came he would make her watch as he slaughtered it. So it was with relief that she met this gentle giant who never raised his voice to her.
The Giant loved his daughter and developed the knack of never saying no to her. Once in a store there was a bicycle that his daughter, age six, wanted. So she climbed on it and said she would not leave until he bought it for her. The giant was frustrated but was completely under the control of this six year old. Counting his cash he realized it was too expensive but he couldn’t say no to her and see the disappointment in her face; he would have to skip a few meals to pay for it he thought. He picked her and the bike up and sat them next to the counter and paid for it. He spoiled her a lot but loved her even more.
He took great pride in his physical prowess. When we played tennis he always won. His long arms and legs helped him cover the court with one step either way if he stood in the middle. So he would make me chase the balls from one side of the court to the other while he barely moved. His serve was hard but you could tell he took some zip off the ball to make it appear as though it was a fair game. At the end I would always be a puddle mess of sweat while he barely broke one. He did not brag but would give me a bemused smile because he was confused why I was working so hard. The understatement of the smile was not a brag but a smile of satisfaction.
He enjoyed using his body to work hard and to build things. He became part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and left home to go to the Seattle area as a young man. Jobs were scarce in his part of the world. He also needed to leave to know where he wanted to stay. It would be one of the few times he strayed far from where he was raised. But he was proud to be building up America. After he married he moved to Hueytown where he labored in the Birmingham steel mills. He was proud of his union job. He was paid well and the benefits were good. But more importantly he was making a living by the sweat of his brow and the brawn of his muscle.
For all the pride he took in his work and the home he made in Hueytown he never lost sight of his homestead in Mentone. He wanted to return to the land which he knew so well when he retired. He hoped by saving and scrimping he would be able to retire early. The old farmhouse needed restoring and the land needed reclaiming but he knew through his might he could do it.
The accident at the mill almost claimed his life. It was one of those industrial accidents that laborers will pay for the price of a better America. He was badly burned and was hospitalized for weeks. No one was sure if his physical health would ever completely return. He was able to work his way back to health but the fire had done neurological damage. The gentle giant would have fits of depression and nervousness. He would have immobilizing episodes of crying the rest of his life. This made returning home soon all the more important.
He finally could not wait anymore. He began to drive to his land on the weekends to work it. They eventually moved into a trailer on the property. He renovated the old farmhouse, blazed trails in the woods, and planted a large garden. After all the work was done a paradise had been created. He was home. For the next twenty years life could not get any better.
He was always on call, in retirement, to help his neighbors. He acted as a plumber, carpenter, mason or whatever was needed. He gave his skills to the church. He mowed the grass and worked as their steward. He even built a playground for the two-room school in Mentone. He never asked for acknowledgement or pay; he enjoyed working with his hands and making life a little better for those in his community.
One Christmas Eve we were at his new\old home when a frantic knock came to the door. It was the woman who lived in the trailer across the field and tree line from his house. He had earlier dropped food off at the house for a Christmas dinner. But now she was saying the trailer was on fire not a big fire but the water had been turned off. He woke me up and said we must stop a fire and handed me two buckets and said fill them with water and let us go. Still a little groggy I said, ‘where’. ‘Follow me’ said the man of few words. And so for the next thirty minutes I followed with buckets in hand back and forth. It was freezing temperature and I was barefoot because when a giant tells you to do something you do not stop to put on your shoes. Finally, the fire stopped. After the thirty minutes was up the Mentone Volunteer Fire Department arrived with truck and uniforms ready for action. The giant told them it was put out. But the adrenaline-filled volunteers were anxious to do something so one axe wielding member went to the outside back of the chimney and said we must see if it is back here. He swung the axe before anyone knew it and his axe went thru the aluminum siding of the trailer causing a huge gash. It revealed nothing but he was still game and readied the axe for another swing the giant grabbed the axe and shook his head no. The fire department left. For when a giant speaks, or should I say gestures, you listen.
But time waits for no one, not even giants. After twenty years he and his wife could no longer maintain themselves much less the home and property. His son had, with his own hands (and also with his father’s help), built a home and claimed land in another place. The daughter lived in the college town her husband grew up in. Neither the son nor daughter could use the property. That, combined with the fact that the giant and his wife needed money for the assisted living facility they were living in, led to the property being sold.
He spent his last years with his wife in the college town where his daughter lived. The wide open spaces of his place in Mentone were gone. The heritage and homestead lost. Now if one drives by the old homestead they may see only a piece of land and not the ghost of a gentle giant who once graced this piece of earth. A giant who could call the trees by name and move mountains to grow and plant. A gentle giant who like legends of lore once stood astride this place. Sometimes on a crisp spring morning one might find him if they close their eyes and listen. A sound of feet, on one of those long forgotten paths only he knew, could be heard walking in their gentle, giant, quiet way.
There he was the man who he was to use my body for a tool to create a garden that was legendary. He dressed in his homemade sandals made from old tires me in my sporty basketball shoes. He wore or should I say let hang from his body an old khaki shirt with torn sleeves me in my colored v neck t-shirt. He with his blue jean shorts with holes barely covering his body me in my new shorts. He wore a circle broad rimmed straw hat and I had my trusty baseball cap. I was at least five inches taller and hundred pounds heavier. He was shorter than average and not an inch of wasted sinew. He looked at me and you could see an internal shaking of the head as he thought, “big and strong but won’t last an hour in the south Georgia sun.” He watched as he handed me a hoe he thought “hasn’t gardened much because he is uncomfortable handling a hoe.” You could almost hear a sigh as he grumbled “this is what they give me.” I didn’t take it personal I had a funny feeling this was a similar assessment of all the volunteers he was given.
He had went to Bangladesh with a United States aid organization after receiving his horticultural degree. He was ready to share his wealth of knowledge. But as with so many young Americans who travel to Third World countries with starving populations, he was the one who learned. He learned how much you really need to survive. And it wasn’t much. He learned that you can be happy with little. He learned how fragile human life is and how nature was blind to human welfare and governments did not value most of their people’s lives. He learned that it was hard to change even suffering people’s minds about new techniques of farming, and that living in areas that constantly flood would eventually lead to death and destruction. He learned too often governments are only concerned with spending money on things that help the elite maintain power. He learned that poor people did not matter to governments as much as national prestige did. He learned that in a land of poverty, being able to grow your own food was key to survival and the only way to withstand the whims of a wayward government.
He came back to America and experienced culture shock. Survival here was so easy. But the easiness also was on the backs of other less privileged folk. So he vowed to himself to get as near as he could to the basics of survival and life. He could not buy his own land. So he told a commune in southwest Georgia that he would grow them a garden. They would eat well and treat the land with the respect it deserved. They said yes and the garden grew.
Bob was short and wiry without any fat on his body. He was dark-skinned from working in the sun all day. He was a blur in constant motion making you wonder if he had his own personal hydro-electric plant inside. He walked fast and with purpose on feet shorn with shoes made from old tires and leather he stitched together, at least when he was not bare foot. When he wore a shirt (the commune demanded it at meals and community meetings) he wore an old khaki shirt with the sleeves cut out and unbuttoned in the front. Some in the community joked that when he went to weddings his formal dress was he wore his shoes and shirt at the same time.
People laughed about his simple living. “What did he use for toilet paper”’, they wondered. But it was always done with a sense of awe. Because no one really wanted to know what he used for toilet paper. He refused to use anything that did not need human power (except when he used the old steering wheel stick-shift truck to get around the commune) in the garden or elsewhere. His volunteers would often comment they were Bob’s plow; they were confused when he did not make them stay in the barn overnight so he would have access to them 24/7.
He worked me and the volunteers hard but we always left inspired and informed about gardening. He gave impromptu lectures on cow, chicken, and horse manure. You learned the various acidities of the manures and what plants prefer which manure. He did this all while he held it in his hand to show you. He even asked you to smell the sample manure in his hand because he claimed you could tell the potency by smell. Many volunteers passed on this. When we passed he gave us his sheepish grin and a shake of his head implying “I have not made a true gardener out of you yet.”
He foraged for mushrooms and edible greens (read weeds). Occasionally, he would lead groups through the forest showing us all the things there were to eat. There would only be a few who would eat his forage. He cooked his food by a solar cooker he made out of aluminum foil and discarded wood. He had a staff and a sari he wore on special occasions, making him look like Gandhi on a salt march. He rarely left the commune’s land. There was an abundance of things to do on these 1,200 acres; he reasoned, who needed more? He started a recycling program before it was the fad and the commune filled the barn with cardboard. He would invent ways to use the card board in the garden or elsewhere. The world may not have caught the recycling bug but Bob led the movement here. But it made him disgruntled when he realized how much packaged items the commune used. You can never win with these American consumers. He grinned; he saw a new trend start, not buying things with packaging. He could hear the bellyaching already.
He also enjoyed life. He loved community events and would attend all of them unless the garden called louder. He shared his journal readings and they oozed with the passion of nature mystics such as Muir, Thoreau, or Thomas Starr King. There was a lot happening inside that small man’s heart and brain.
He loved the non-edible plants too, just not as much as the food plants. So he planted lush indigenous plants around his shared abode. It became one of the stops along your way no matter how many times you passed. He became an expert on organic gardening in Georgia. His gardens were a mecca for organic growers in the state.
He demonstrated with his life how to survive and thrive with little. Like most people who have found how to eke out meaning in life, he had his detractors. And sure people would take one thing out of context and use it to distort the rest of what he did. But the totality of his way could only leave you breathless at the simple beauty of it all. Some claim no one else could live like him. But that was not the point. Do not be me but do not let your life become cluttered with things. Appreciate and know the things you need to survive and add as little more as possible was his message.
He would eventually move from the commune to live on land he purchased by saving his small weekly commune stipend of $15. The garden is not as vibrant as it once was but his spirit still inspires the community. Even folks who have come years after he left hear the stories and see the skeleton of the garden he once grew. They know the legend of the gardener.
What motivated him could probably be found in pages he has not shared in his journal. But I imagine in those pages there is some poor Bangladesh family who struggled to survive in a land subject to flooding of their fields and homes every three years. That family came to live in the depths of his soul. And ever since, he does not want or need to have more than his share of the abundance of this earth. He wants to show the world we can have food for everyone but first we must get back to basics.
He lived so simply, you could not say, “I cannot live like that.” No, you would have to say I won’t live like that.