Uncle Dennis and the big fish

My uncle Dennis was a fisherman.

Though he kept his feet planted firmly in the red dirt along the banks of small ponds, creeks and oxbow lakes near and along the meandering Mississippi, he was a fisherman of grand proportion.

He always prided himself on a good catch.

No one who knew my uncle Dennis back when his kids and I were growing up needed keen powers of observation to recognize that he was a man who loved to fish. Though he has mellowed in the last few decades and allergies prevent him from fishing as much as he used to, even at 80, he can pull out a good fish tale for almost any occasion.

When Mark, his first grandson was born, my uncle easily stepped into the role of Pa. He and his grandson spent hours together romping round their farm, digging worms and, of course, fishing. One afternoon when the little boy was four or five, I was sitting in my aunt and uncle’s living room with a caboodle of cousins.

Mark and Uncle Dennis were out at the small pond behind the garden behind the windmill. My cousins and I were sitting in the living room. It was one of those days that was the stock of mid-1970s Southern childhood. I have no exact memory of what we were doing, but lots of laughter was involved — and maybe a tear or two, as well, but we were no worse for the wear.

For those of you too young to remember the mid-1970s, my generation spent many afternoons back then doing very little. You might consider that time unstructured and unproductive, but it was glorious. Those lazy mornings that stretched into afternoons and evenings went a long way in building the bonds I continue to share with my cousins.

At some point that particular afternoon, the side door opened and in walked my uncle and Mark.

“Where are the fish?” Aunt Hazel exclaimed, in a voice that traveled the range of two octaves over the course of a sentence.

“Well,” my uncle said, with a funny look on his face, “We caught a big one.”

“Where is it?” we all said in unison.

Through the years, I’ve never forgotten how Mark was standing there beside his grandfather, with his head hanging a little low. They both were acting sheepish and strange. I didn’t know what had happened, but their odd demeanors piqued my interest. Clearly, something strange had occurred that made the day not-just-another-fishing-trip.

Uncle Dennis seemed hesitant to speak. In retrospect, I think he may have been a little ill at ease with what he had done.

The pair, grandfather and grandson, just kept standing there, and again, we all asked, “Where are the fish?”

“We only caught one,” Uncle Dennis said, “but it was a nice one. We caught it early on, and through the course of the afternoon (long pause), Mark became attached to it.”

This was not speak that typically came from my uncle.

I was amazed and couldn’t hold back any longer.

“He became attached to it?” I asked.

“That’s what he said,” Uncle Dennis responded.

“Wait,” I said. “Mark said he became attached to the fish?”

“Well, yes, Jan, he did. Those were his exact words — he became attached to the fish.”

As amazed as I was that a child would use such language, I was even more stunned that my uncle had succumbed to the sentiment of a little boy who — over the course of an afternoon, decided he loved a fish.

Uncle Dennis went on to explain that, together, they had released the fish and walked home quietly — and fishless.

My uncle, who enjoyed walking through the door with a string of fish more than anyone I knew, had let that one go.

I was dumbfounded.

Now, it all makes sense to me. I finally understand why Uncle Dennis released that fish all those years ago — and also why I didn’t understand it back then.

That was before I understood the power of loving of a child.

Inaugurations offer more than the swearing in of a president

Though the public celebration will be Monday, President Barack Obama is being inaugurated into his second term today in a private ceremony.

Throughout history, much has remained constant about the peaceful transition of power or extension of power for our country’s leader. However, taking a look at some of the facts, courtesy of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies’ website, the details of presidential inaugurations reveal a timeline of historical footnotes, technological advances and social movements.

For example, the Electoral College unanimously elected George Washington, our country’s first chief executive. Let’s stop for a moment and consider that. He was unanimously elected by the Electoral College.

On April 30, 1789, Washington was inaugurated on the balcony of the Senate Chamber of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York City. Judging from the speech he gave that day, Washington approached the office of president with a degree of doubt and self-deprecation, describing himself as “inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration”.

And yet, he prevailed. His second inauguration was in Philadelphia.

From there, presidential inaugurations remained on March 4, as Congress mandated until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second inauguration in 1937, when Jan. 20 became the official date — with the exception of a vice-president inaugurated at the death of a president.

In 1825, John Quincy Adams was the first president to wear long trousers rather than knee breeches. In 1837, Martin Van Buren was the first president who was not born a British subject.

In 1841, William Henry Harrison was the first president to arrive in Washington, D.C. by train. Harrison is also noted for giving the longest inauguration speech (8,445 words). He died of pneumonia a month later. The weather had been horrible as he spoke. Most believe Harrison’s pneumonia was brought on by prolonged exposure to bad weather — and the moral of that story is, shorter speeches may save your life.

In 1845, James Polk’s inauguration was the first to be covered by telegraph. James Buchanan’s 1857 inauguration was the first known to have been photographed.

African Americans participated in the Inaugural parade for the first time at In Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865.

In 1897, William McKinley’s inauguration was the first recorded by a motion picture. McKinley was also the first to have a glass-enclosed viewing stand for the Inaugural parade. For Theodore Roosevelt’s second inauguration in 1905, telephone lines were installed at the Capitol for the first time.

In 1909, Helen Herron Taft became the first First Lady to accompany her husband on the return ride from the Capitol to the White House following his Inauguration. Just 8 years later in Woodrow Wilson’s second inauguration, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson was the first First Lady to accompany the President both to and from the Capitol. Additionally, women participated in the 1917 Inaugural parade — another first.

Not until 1921 did a president, Warren G. Harding, ride to and from his Inauguration in an automobile. Herbert Hoover’s 1929 inauguration was the first to be recorded by a talking newsreel. In 1949, Harry S. Truman’s inauguration was the first televised ceremony.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic to become President, and Robert Frost was the first poet to participate in an Inaugural ceremony. Jimmy Carter was the first president to walk from the Capitol to the White House in the parade following the swearing-in ceremony in 1977. In 1981, Ronald Reagan was the first to be sworn in on the west front of the U.S. Capitol.

Bill Clinton’s second inauguration in 1997 was the first to be broadcast live on the Internet. George W Bush’s second inauguration in 2005 was the first to feature a live webcam of the inaugural platform construction and the first with secure inaugural credentials.

Along with a host of technological breakthroughs, in 2009, more people attended Barack Obama’s first inauguration than have ever attended any event in the history of Washington, D.C.

Much of what we have come to expect or perceive as normal was in fact a breakthrough and/or a social victory, resisted by many, when it first happened. Though we may find it impossible to fathom some of the mindsets that required previous generations’ breakthroughs, numerous steps deemed difficult today will be perceived by generations we won’t know as matter of fact.

Come to the dinner table.

A few years back, during a major winter storm in Washington, D.C., police made a large number of arrests. They said that when weather got really harsh, almost everyone (even those accused of heinous crimes) does their best to go home — and the police were able to find them easier.

Seeking the safety of home is just human nature. Through the epic rains we’ve had lately, I’ve appreciated the extra time by the fire and lingering long at our family’s table.

When I think of being at home, I think of being around our family’s table. We probably spend more time together there than anywhere else. No matter how humble our meal, we do our best to sit down together for dinner nearly every night. It’s my favorite part of the day.

During dinner, we have a little routine of telling the highlight of our day, as well as the most difficult part of our day. I’d like to believe that time makes our daughters better, more well-rounded people.

Historian David McCullough agrees. In a recent interview on 60 Minutes, McCullough said American students were “historically illiterate.”

In discussing his tour of universities, he said, “I ran into some students on university campuses who were bright and attractive and likeable. And I was just stunned by how much they didn’t know. One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, ‘What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?’ I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities — same thing. Now, it’s not their fault. It’s our fault. And when I say our fault, I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.”

Research also backs up the importance of having dinner as a family. A 2011 study by Columbia University offers all sorts of proof that those who make family dinners a priority are ahead of the odds when it comes to a long list of potential problems and pitfalls with teenagers.

According to the study, families that have dinner together are usually the ones whose children spend more time with their parents (stands to reason, doesn’t it?) The study shows that teens who spend more time with parents usually make better choices when it comes to the trickier parts of life — friends, alcohol, drugs, etc.

Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners (five to seven per week), those who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week) are:

» Almost four times likelier to use tobacco
» More than twice as likely to use alcohol
» Two-and-a-half times likelier to use marijuana
» Almost four times likelier to say they expect to try drugs in the future.

The dinner table factor seems to go further than teens making good choices about drugs and alcohol. It also is an indicator of their relationships with their families.

Teens who have frequent family dinners are more likely to report having high quality relationships with both parents and siblings.

Clearly, all of these statistics are about more than kids having dinner at a table with their parents, but isn’t it interesting that one act accounts for so much?

Finding the man in the arena

Every time we walk through a contemporary art exhibit, somebody somewhere says the five words that set my husband off.

I could have done that.

My husband has one response, “Then, why didn’t you do it? And, by the way, if you do it now, it’s already been done.”

When he said his go-to quote last week, I immediately thought of Theodore Roosevelt.

In defense of what may seem a non sequitur to you, let me explain.

The week before Christmas, I took a trip to Avery Island. My guide was Shane Bernard, Tabasco’s historian. His unique perspective gave me a keener appreciation for the place and product.

One story he told was about John Avery McIlhenny, son of Tabasco sauce inventor E. McIlhenny. John resigned as the second president of the company in 1898 to join Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Bernard’s book, Tabasco: An Illustrated History, tells the whole story. With the author’s permission, I’ll share a piece of it here:
When the Spanish-American War erupted in April 1898 over the issues of Cuban independence and the sinking of the American battleship Maine, John [McIlhenny] put aside familial duties, resigned as president of Tabasco operations, and enlisted in the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment — better known as Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

Before we go any further, imagine the rarity of a corporate executive leaving his post to join the military these days.

Bernard continues, “As Roosevelt noted in his campaign memoir, “We could have filled up the whole regiment many times over from the South Atlantic and Gulf States alone but were only able to accept a very few applicants. One of them was John McIlhenny, of Louisiana; a planter and manufacturer, a big-game hunter and book-lover, who could have had a commission in the Louisiana troops, but who preferred to go as a trooper in the Rough Riders because he believed we would surely see fighting. He could have commanded any influence, social or political, he wished; but he never asked a favor of any kind.” …

In 1906, John’s former commander, Theodore Roosevelt — now President of the United States — tapped him for an important federal position. “There is a vacancy in the Civil Service Commission,” Roosevelt wrote to John from the White House. “It is the same position that I once held. . . . From the public standpoint I feel that yours would be an ideal choice.”
Roosevelt warmly added, “My dear John, I shall not attempt to say that I am actuated solely by the public feeling in the matter. Mrs. Roosevelt and I would so like to have you up here.” John dutifully accepted Roosevelt’s offer and moved to Washington, D.C., to occupy the federal post. …

For whatever reasons, since I left Avery Island, Teddy Roosevelt has popped up in many corners of my world. On New Years Eve, I happened across a segment of his speech to the Sorbonne (in 1910, after his presidency) and recognized its noble perspective and spirit for the new year. The entire speech was nearly 10,000 words and 35 pages long. Yet somehow, 140 of those words have surfaced on many on many occasions throughout the last century — often linked with great people succeeding in epic circumstances:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without terror and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

What action do you need to take? What arena do you need to enter so that when 2013 has come and gone, you won’t feel the need to look at someone else’s work and say, “I could have done that.”

This is the year to know great enthusiasm, devotion and follow-through. Get in the arena and do it. If you fail, get back up and do it again.

From Teddy, my husband and me, go big in 2013.