Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Cosmos: Explored and Explained

Monday, July 20, 2009

Two Friends Helping Each Other Cope

In the fall of 2002 I had the good fortune of meeting a 13 year-old-boy named Charles Pillow. He was shy at first, obviously very bright with a great smile. I had been recruited by my neighbor, Tam, to spend a couple of hours a week to help Charles study and be his friend. Truth be told, the previous year had rocked me to the point to where I needed Charles more than he needed me.

As the weeks wore on we covered the typical ground of an 8th grade curriculum: American history (a cinch and joy for me - a history minor); English - reading, writing, parts of speech and sentence diagramming (helping him write was fun for me, the later tasks were nerve wracking because an English major should breeze through the technical rules - not me, I miss editors; Science - surprisingly fun; Math - mostly pre-algebra (I loved algebra in school and was very thankful to have been able to pick it up without having to ask a real teacher).

All in all I felt pride in knowing I could pass the 8th grade again and Charles really didn't need me to pass the 8th grade either. He would ask me a question and I would say, "I don't know, Charles, let's look it up." My best help was teaching him how to rely on himself to find the answer by himself. We also spent time in whispered conversation about rappers such as Snoop, 50-cent and Eminem. These talks were clandestine because Charles wasn't supposed to be listening to rap and we were meeting in the fellowship hall of his church. He thought it was funny that I knew these guys and their music. I enjoyed watching him learn and watching him smile.

By the beginning of the 2003 school year my mobility issues had reached the point that I did not need to be behind the wheel so my tutoring days ended. As you would expect - we did not stay in touch but I would get the occasional update from Tam. Out of the blue he called one afternoon when I really needed a good surprise.

"Mr. Nelson," the deep voice boomed.

"Yes," I replied.

"This is Charles," he said.
"Charles - who?" I was drawing a blank.

"Aw, man, you know - Charles Pillow!"

It was with great pride he told me about playing cornerback for his high school team - Hunters Lane, his good grades, his girlfriend(s), "Aw, you know," he explains. He gave me his plans for college and brought the conversation to his reason for calling, "I just called to say, 'Thanks, you know, for working with me back then'." I told Charles it was my pleasure and I meant it. I told Charles he could call me anytime and we hung up.

The next spring an invitation to Charles' graduation came in the mail. I wrote him a note and enclosed the best gift you can give the new graduate - cash. Again I thought back on our time together and smiled to think of his development and my tiny role in helping him by being his friend.

A few months ago, my phone rang and it was Charles again. He was doing well with his classes but the pressure of school and the high cost of living had him debating whether to switch schools so he could stay at home and commute rather than strain to survive life on his own and handle greater debt later. Tough choices a lot of young people are facing today. I gave him my best advice and hoped I had helped but I could sense he was having a tough time.

Last week, Tam emailed me that Charles was awaiting exploratory surgery after going to the emergency room with severe abdominal pain. The anxiety mounted as no word came until the next morning when Tam emailed the news that an eight hour exploratory surgery yielded intestinal blockages and the removal of a dead appendix.

After five days Charles was released from the hospital yesterday, July 20th, and faces a lengthy rehab at home. I've called and talked to his mom and sent him a card and would like to ask my friends to also send Charles a "Get Well Soon," message if you can. It would make his day to get some surprise greetings from strangers and anything I can do to promote this young man's happiness and well being makes my day.

Please send a card to: Charles Pillow, 3824 Northbrook Drive, Nashville, TN 37207

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Day Clarksville Was Rocked By A Cannonball

Was the last shot of the Civil War actually fired in Clarksville, Tennessee?
According to my late father, Arnold Nelson, the boys of the Odd Fellows Lodge launched the last cannonball of that conflict - in the spring of 1935. There was no political statement attached to the prank. It was just boys being boys - risking lives and limbs to see if they could blow up a cannonball. They could; it did.

Dad was raised in the orphanage which also operated a farm on the bluffs overlooking the Red River in New Providence. The Fraternal Order of ODD Fellows provided orphanages and retirement homes as a benefit to their members.
My grandfather, Albert Sanford Nelson, was an ODD Fellow when he died at the end of the Great Flu Pandemic in October 1920. Dad was born two months earlier on August 9, 1920.

My grandmother, Texas Jane Powers Nelson, left Chattanooga and went back to her hometown of Spring City, Tennessee to try and make life work with nine children - and no father. Her saving grace was also her children's good fortune; sometime in the summer of 1921, the youngest five were shipped off to live with scores of other youngsters in Clarksville whose families had imploded in similar ways. Remember, this was before government assistance - these kids were not forced to burden relatives or become homeless.
My research has not yielded verifying evidence but by the time dad was in his early teens, Bonehead (a euphemistic name my father used at will to label the true perp of any particular crime), found a 70-year old cannonball lodged in the ground of one of their fields.

The cannonball undoubtedly was connected to a minor skirmish in Clarksville following the fall of Fort Donelson in Dover. Ft. Donelson's fall was a pivotal moment in the Civil War . It meant control over southern Kentucky and Middle Tennessee was about to flip to Union control for the balance of the war within the first year of actual fighting.
A desperate and doomed attempt to halt the inevitable happened at the confluence of the Red and Cumberland Rivers - a site proudly named Fort Defiance. While Fort Donelson in Dover was falling in mid-February 1862, native Clarksvillians and soldiers who fled Dover after the fall of Ft. Donelson, threw up battlements and aimed their few cannon at the Cumberland River. They knew Union forces would be moving on Nashville by way of the river below them.
Unfortunately for them, General Ulysses S. Grant, anticipated the possibility of such a ploy and sent cavalry ahead to reconnoiter in advance of a naval movement to Nashville. The brave men left defending Ft. Defiance were taken by surprise and had to surrender before they could turn their cannons around to defend themselves.

Dad and his fellow homeboys (they called themselves homeboys long before street lingo) grew up within romping distance of those battlements and routinely found the odd minnie ball and other trinkets. Finding the cannonball trumped any and all things for a gang of teenagers. They decided to load the cannonball on to a wheelbarrow and stop short of the cliff and - let it fly.
Not only did the bomb detonate - it blew up in front of the mouth of a cave. Their joy turned into horror as the ground shook. Surely they would be caught, beaten and/or imprisoned. They were exonerated by the next day's edition of The Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle which said the previous days tremor was caused by an earthquake.
My dad could embellish a tale with the best but if he made this up completely I'd be stunned. Until somebody out there proves otherwise, I believe my dad.