“As I Lay Dying”: A Smith Family Reunion

I seem to be writing a lot about death lately.  (Brings to mind the title of a book used in one of my Ph.D. courses, Sex and Death – it was a philosophy of biology text, and was aptly titled because, after all, evolutionary biology is all about sex and death; but sorry to disappoint – I’ll leave the writing about sex to someone else…)  One of my more recent posts (included below, slightly edited) was on Facebook, and briefly recounted one event that happened the day before my dad passed away.  There is more beyond that story.  So added on to that, here are some further items of interest that happened over the ten days following.

*   *   *

For most of October I had been in Boise, Idaho helping my sister Clara and other members of our large family nurse our father through the last weeks and days of his life. For us this was a hard and emotional period but, paradoxically, it was also a happy and humorous time as well.  My dad, Fred C “Cal” Smith, always had a quirky (and some would say corny) sense of humor that was just one step short of irrepressible. Even with the grim reaper staring him straight in the eye, Dad refused to blink, and he continued to find the humor in his circumstances, despite their looming finality.

This continued right up to Saturday, October 26th, the day before he died.  My brother Kevin, a master craftsman in wood, delivered the oak coffin he had spent more than 60 hours lovingly building at Dad’s request. We unloaded the coffin onto the front lawn (“What will the neighbors think?” fretted my sister, totally ignored by the rest of us, who didn’t have to live there).  Even as we wheeled Dad out through the garage to the front of the house he threatened to “get into the coffin and try it on for size.”  We snuggled his wheelchair up close to the oaken box, and

Cal Smith and the zombie head

Cal Smith and the zombie head.

he examined it appreciatively while we snapped pictures. Then someone opened the lid. Inside, resting on the coffin’s satin pillow was the zombie-head my niece Tiana had been hiding around the house in honor of Halloween in places most likely to startle people when suddenly come across. Dad got a real chuckle out of it, as did the rest of us.

Later, as I listened to his rough breathing just a few feet away on the other side of the Sponge Bob shower curtain jury-rigged to keep the kitchen light out of his room, my heart was warmed by the memory of my dad, just hours ago looking death in the face and saying “You can’t stop me from enjoying life until I have drunk it dry!”

*   *   *

Cal Smith in his new duds

Dad in his new duds.

There are two sequels to the story.  The first happened as we were getting him ready to go see the coffin.  I had helped him pull on new long-sleeved shirt and bright orange basketball shorts.  Then, with two others of my brothers helping, we eased him into his wheelchair, then stood there talking back and forth over the top of Dad’s head about how best to get him outside.  Feeling ignored, Dad demanded. “Well, what are you going to do with me now?”

“That’s easy, Dad,” I replied.  “We’re going to wheel you out to the curb and put a sign on you, ‘Free to a Good Home.’” Everyone got a good laugh out of that too, as we wrestled Dad and his wheelchair out to the front yard to see the casket.  After, as we were getting him and his wheelchair off the lawn and back onto the front walk, my youngest brother Sam hurried up with a piece of cardboard torn off the flap of a box.  On it he had scrawled the words, “Free to a Good Home.”  As he handed it to Dad, more laughter and photos ensued.

Free to a Good Home

Free to a Good Home.

Dad passed away almost exactly 24 hours later.  It was as if seeing the coffin was the last item on his bucket list, and now that was completed, it was time to leave.  Nearly from the moment we wheeled him back into the house he began to decline.  As the afternoon wore on, he got to be less and less responsive.  It was my turn that night to sleep on the couch by his bedside, and it was long and rough night for both of us.  His breath frequently came in ragged gasps, and he coughed often and deep.  Once he vomited a nasty, vile liquid.  Fortunately he was aware enough to alert me with grunts in time for me to catch most of it in the plastic tub we kept ready nearby.  He moaned and muttered erratically in his sleep, and once, about 3:00 AM I think, shot his left hand up into the air and cried “I need a hand!”   I was unsure what he meant, but I took his hand in mine and he drew both down to the bed and held mine there for most of the next hour.  In the dark I half perched, half squatted on the edge of the couch and held his wrinkled, warm hand until he finally released his grip and shoved his arm back under the covers.

I prayed during that interminable night that his passing would be as pain free and peaceful as possible.  I feel that my prayer was granted.  While Dad experienced some respiratory distress, his pain seemed to be minimal – there was morphine available but he only called for it once, later the next morning on his final day.  As the clock approached 1:40 PM on the afternoon of Sunday, October 27th, my father lived out the last few moments of his life.  My brother Kevin, the master casket builder, held both of Dad’s hands.  On the opposite side of the hospital bed, I cradled Dad’s arm.  It was one of the hardest, yet easiest things I have ever done.  There was sadness, but there was love; and, remarkably,  there was also no regret, and no longer any anxiety or fear.

Eventually the hospice worker came and performed his various duties; then the mortuary arrived and took Dad’s body away.  On the empty hospital bed, my brother Sam put the cardboard sign, now with appropriate letters blotted out.  It read: “Free to Go Home.”

*   *   *

But there is one more story to tell.  Dad was to be buried at the Veterans cemetery in Boulder City, Nevada, where my mom already rested, holding a spot for him.  Just three weeks earlier, Dad had taken my brother Kevin and me aside and said, “Once I’m gone I don’t want some fancy hearse or expensive limousine to get me to Boulder City.  I want you to put me in the back of a pickup truck or horse trailer and get me down there as cheaply as you can.”  We weren’t sure that could legally be done, but we told him we’d do our best.

The week following his passing was a swirling tangle of travel and preparation.  On Monday, the day after he died, I flew home from Boise to Austin for a little while, returning four days later on Friday, November 1st.  We arranged the funeral, and conducted it the next morning, Saturday the 2nd of November.  Dad’s Mormon church ward graciously put on a luncheon afterwards for the extended family and, after some further errands and arrangements, it was time to leave.

Paul H Smith in the driver's seat, Cal Smith in the back

Paul in the driver’s seat, Cal in the back.

It turned out, you see, that it was legal to transport a properly-prepared body.  Only you couldn’t do it in a pickup truck; it had to be an enclosed vehicle.  So we ended up with a Dodge Grand Caravan rented from Avis instead – Kevin’s casket, with Dad in it, fit in just right with the van’s seats laid flat.  The Dodge was glossy black – a perfect color for the trip.  My film-maker son Christopher and my daughter Mary had come for the funeral.  Mary had to return to Portland, but Christopher decided to tag along on the trip south to document this strange odyssey.  We thought of it as three generations of Smiths on a road trip  – one of them riding the whole way as a silent partner in the back.  Christopher said it reminded him of William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, “Only it’s got a Smith family reunion thrown in,” he remarked.

The elementary school Cal Smith attended, now the Glenns Ferry town museum

The elementary school Cal Smith attended, now the Glenns Ferry town museum.

As we drove east from Boise on I-84 in the late afternoon light, the weather was cloudy, cold, and spitting tiny flakes of snow.  Sixty miles east of Boise is the little railroad hamlet of Glenns Ferry, where Dad was born 87 years ago.  I had been to Boise for his birthday on October 1st, just three days after his surprise diagnosis of stomach cancer.  Along with Kevin, who was visiting then, too, and my youngest son Will, we took Dad to Glenns Ferry for the day to visit his old school (now turned town museum), the property where he was born, the ranch where he grew up, and the Snake River, which he rowed across every day to school.  Surprisingly, he was able to rattle off for the museum docent (who until then had not had that information) the names of all the teachers, which grades they taught, and which classrooms they occupied.  Kevin jotted down all this information and left it for the museum to use in future displays.

Now on this, Dad’s final journey, we decided to give him one last tour of his birthplace, even if he had been there just a month before.  We pulled off the freeway into Glenns Ferry and pulled in for a commemorative milkshake at “The Stop,”  the ancient drive-in burger joint just across the street from the cemetery where Dad’s parents lay buried.  Then we

The ranch where Cal Smith grew up on the far side of the Snake River, directly across from Glenns Ferry

The ranch where Cal Smith grew up on the far side of the Snake River, directly across from Glenns Ferry.

drove him past the old school, to the water tower on the bluff at the south edge of town that overlooks the river and the ranch, then across the bridge to the place of his nativity, and finally on into the dusk to Twin Falls, where we turned south.  We spent the night at the Motel 6 in Wells, Nevada – a wide spot in the road where, 36 years before, I had totaled my pickup and nearly killed my family when I had fallen asleep and rear-ended a semi after driving all night during a transfer with the military.  This time there was much less drama.  Dad had to spend the night in the van, as it was impractical to get him into the cramped motel room.  While we slept, a thin skim of snow fell, decorating the black van with white accents and crystalline beads of ice.

Christopher Smith next to the snow-frosted van in Wells, Nevada

Christopher Smith next to the snow-frosted van in Wells, Nevada.

After breakfast, we headed south on US 93, through a crisp, beautiful day framed by freshly snow-draped mountains on either flank.  My brother Kevin and his wife Barbara (who had also been by Dad’s bedside when he passed), drove escort behind us, bringing along with them our newlywed nephew Josh and his wife Brook.  For the first half of the day I (a moderate conservative) and Christopher (a flaming liberal) argued politics, with Dad silent, but I’m sure amused, behind us.

In the United States there are few more barren spans of highway than the 500 miles of road stretching from Twin Falls to Las Vegas.  I had been over it numerous times as a kid when my parents returned to their ancestral homes for summer visits.  But I had never dreamed that I would drive it in this fashion, arguing politics with one of my offspring while my dead father kept us company in the back.  I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way.

Sister-inlaw Cindy, and brothers Jeff and Kevin at family fireside get together the night before Dad's memorial and interment

Sister-inlaw Cindy, and brothers Jeff and Kevin at family fireside get together the night before Dad’s memorial and interment.

By late afternoon we got to Kevin’s house in Henderson, NV which lies between Las Vegas and Boulder City.  I parked Dad and the van in Kevin’s garage until the following morning (Monday), when we would hold a memorial service at the chapel in Boulder City’s Veterans Memorial Cemetery with Dad as the guest of honor.

Next day, Sam was at the cemetery early to make sure everything was in order.  But as I drove up, there was a look of concern on his face.  He needed the paperwork the Boise mortuary had given us, or no burial was going to take place.  I had it in the glove box, and handed it to him.  We unloaded the casket and placed it in the front of the chapel.  In seats before us were as many as 200 people who had come to pay their respects – more than had even attended the full funeral in Boise.

Sons Les and Kevin escorting Cal Smith into the Veterans chapel

Sons Les and Kevin escorting Cal Smith into the Veterans chapel.

Just as we were finally set up and ready to start the memorial, Sam came up to me.  “Paul, they say we need not just the Idaho permit, but also a Nevada burial permit.  And we don’t have one!”  And if we didn’t have one, it seemed, we would have to put Dad back in the van after the memorial service until such time as we did have one.  Since the office where the permit could be procured was back in Las Vegas somewhere, everyone would be gone by the time Dad could be taken to the grave site.  We continued with the memorial while Sam and I alternated between doing our parts of program and negotiating with the Veterans cemetery staff.  We were trying to keep the folks attending from learning, then worrying about the crisis, but they could tell from minor confusions and pauses during the service that something wasn’t coming together quite right.

Smith siblings singing a cappella rendition of Dad's favorite family song about togetherness, "When Sammy Put the Paper on the Wall"

Smith siblings singing a cappella rendition of Dad’s favorite family song about togetherness, “When Sammy Put the Paper on the Wall.”

Finally, Tyson Smith, a local funeral director who, though no relation to us was friends with Kevin, stepped in and offered to secure the permit for us.  We blessed him roundly and in the end, after fitting military honors for his World War II service with the Navy, Dad was escorted to his final resting place by his eight children and numerous friends, relatives, and well-wishers.

I know that Dad would have loved all the fuss and drama and attention that surrounded his final farewell.  As for me, though I might have preferred to have some of it happen a little differently, I was still happy to oblige him with a going away celebration that I know left him laughing.

(Click here for an obituary of Fred C “Cal” Smith)

Christopher, Paul, Daryl and Will seeing Fred C "Cal" Smith off in style

Christopher, Paul, Daryl and Will seeing Fred C “Cal” Smith off in style.

A (Veterans) Day to Remember

When I woke up this past Veterans-Day Monday, I had no idea that I would be flying over Georgetown Texas in a plane that was seven years older than was I (and that is pretty darned old!).  November 11th has always been an important day for our family.  My dad was a veteran, as was my wife’s father, Bill “Hoot” Gibson, as am I.  It is also the birthday of my wife’s late mother Beth, who was born on November 11th in 1920, just one year after it was declared a holiday by President Woodrow Wilson.

Gibson, and Bill Gibson after B-17 ride in Georgetown, Texas

Will Smith, Bryan Gibson, and Bill Gibson after B-17 ride in Georgetown, Texas

On November 11th four years ago, in 2009, Grandpa Bill Gibson, together with his grandsons Will (my son) and Bryan (Will’s cousin) were invited to the Georgetown, Texas airport for what turned out to be Bill’s final ride in a B-17 – the aircraft in which he went to war the first time, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941.  It was, conversely, Will’s and Bryan’s first ride on a B-17, and they were appropriately thrilled at the opportunity.

Earlier this week, we celebrated Veterans Day for the current year. This most recent November 11th  accidentally turned out to be the day that Will, now 20 years old and following in his Grandpa Gibson’s aviator footsteps, took his first solo airplane flight at the same Georgetown, Texas airport where the B-17 flight took place.  You are probably saying that one usually doesn’t “accidentally” take one’s first solo flight, and you would be right.  However, the schedule for such a flight can be accidental, as it was this time for Will.  Throughout the previous month he had several times tried to arrange this flight.  Yet somehow, due to weather delays, other events getting in the way, and the passing of his remaining grandfather (my dad) it always had to be moved.

It was, therefore, not until November 11th that everything finally came together. Of course, saying that everything came together isn’t the same as saying things also went smoothly – things rarely do where the Smith family is involved.  There is always room for adventure.

The main snafu happened when we arrived at the airport minus Will’s logbook and flight-physical form.  I rushed home to find them, and got back as he and his instructor were taxiing out to do the standard instructor-guided warm-up take-offs and landings.  Haruko Reese, who is herself a newly-minted aviator of just a few years and  who was there to show her support for Will, offered to take his missing credentials over to the Pilots Choice Aviation office, the flight school Will is attending.

Shaded under the wing of Devil Dog, a navy-blue, WW II-vintage B-25 bomber belonging to

Watching Will's solo flight

Watching Will’s solo flight.

the Commemorative Air Force, the rest of us stood on the pavement in front of the operations building watching the flight unfold.  Made nervous by all the eyes upon him, Will had to perform twice the number of touch-and-go landings before his instructor was satisfied enough with his performance to turn him loose to do them on his own.  Before long, though, she had him taxi over to the hangar and drop her off.

From then on it was up to him and, except for one aborted landing sequence when he found himself coming in too high and went around the flight pattern once more to make sure everything was right, he was soon finishing his successful solo flight.  Once he was back on the ground at last, his mom ceased anxiously biting her lower lip and turned off the HF radio with which she had monitored every syllable of Will’s communications with the tower.

We all went over to Pilots Choice to welcome him back to earth.  We also got to witness his instructor executing the grand tradition of cutting the back out of his tee-shirt to hang, inscribed with an appropriate slogan, upon the inside wall of the hangar.

But the day wasn’t over yet.  Sharing apron space with the B-25 was a Stearman bi-plane that had served faithfully as a trainer for many an Army Air Corps pilot.  In the days just prior to the Second World War, Bill Gibson had learned to fly in just such an airplane. The Stearman had been lovingly restored and now belonged to the Ageless Aviation Dreams foundation, an organization for veterans’ awareness sponsored by Sports Clips and other worthy businesses.

Throughout the day its dedicated pilot, Darryl Fisher, had been happily taking off, circling out over Lake Georgetown and the greater Georgetown area, then returning back for a landing with a steady flow of veterans who had pre-registered for the free honor-flight.  On learning that I was retired Army and that it was my son Will who was making his first solo flight, Darryl said that there was no way he was not going to take me for the last ride of the day. I soon found myself strapped into the front seat with the engine revving and the wind blowing through the stubble that passes for my hair these days. (Click here for the video.)

Paul H. Smith and Darryl Fisher after flight in Stearman bi-plane, thanks to the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation

Paul H. Smith and Darryl Fisher after flight in Stearman bi-plane, thanks to the Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation.

As the light shifted towards late afternoon on a day of perfect fall sunshine, we climbed, circled, banked, and climbed again, then swooped in for the Stearman’s final landing of the day.  I shared grins and handshakes with Darryl and was soon headed back over to Pilots Choice to link up with the rest of the family.

Sport Clips helps sponsor the Ageless Aviation Dreams foundation

Sport Clips helps sponsor the Ageless Aviation Dreams foundation.

But that was not to be the last act of the day.  John, my wife’s brother, had signed up for him and his son Bryan to take a “Discovery Flight” – an inexpensive, 30-minute jaunt into the air aboard a Cessna for those who think they might want to look into flight training for themselves.  Some forty years in the past John had come within just an hour or two of getting his own license.  Now he thought he would give it one more try to see if he had any of the old juice still left.

Apparently he did.  At the end of the flight, with a grin plastered from one side of his face to the other, John piled out of the Cessna, already trying to figure out how he could manage the finances to refurbish, then complete his decades-old pilot skills.  It seems a new twist on an old saying: The family that flies together stays together.

John and Bryan setting out on their Discovery Flight

John and Bryan setting out on their Discovery Flight.

Requiem for a Cat

Our cat, Snitch Smith-Gibson, died this morning at approximately 8:30 AM.

Will and Snitch shortly after she joined our family

Will and Snitch shortly after she joined our family.

That simple epitaph masks a rich familial relationship that can never be recaptured except in memories and photographs, and then only imperfectly.  But that will be enough. Since we didn’t know her actual birthday, we thought of her as our 9-11 cat; by our best calculations she was born about that time in 2001. She was a mangey rescue cat, still minus patches of fur when we adopted her from a cat-rescue group as a Christmas present for our then 8-year-old son Will. During present-opening time, we hid her in the downstairs bathroom. When the time came for the great reveal, I opened the door and the 3-month-old kitten we would soon come to name Snitch came slinking out – a bundle of fear and wonder at her new surroundings. In her ginger timidity she had slung herself so low and long that her skinny belly nearly dragged the ground. She made me think of a pipe-cleaner with stubby toothpick legs.

“You got me a cat?” Will said in surprise and joy. He had been begging for one for months, ever since our friends down the street had gotten one, but he apparently never expected that we would actually do it. And Bill, Daryl’s dad – not overly fond of felines – who was visiting that Christmas said with somewhat different emphasis, “You got him a cat?!”

Snitch was Will's cat, but Daryl's best buddy

Snitch was Will’s cat, but Daryl’s best buddy.

Snitch was William’s present, but adopted Daryl. This was ironic, because Daryl had grown up in a family that loved dogs, yet thought of cats as barnyard animals – fur covered rodent control. Daryl was proud to declare herself a cat-disliker from birth. But it was soon clear that, even as our attempts at hair-restoral bore fruit and she began to look like a normal cat again, Snitch was developing a real fondness for my wife and (much as she tried to deny it) the feeling was mutual. This was the beginning of a companionship that would last nearly 12 years.

Snitch viewed the world mostly through panes of glass

Snitch viewed the world mostly through panes of glass.

For the most part, Snitch was a committed in-door cat. Angel, the cat I had brought with me to our marriage, was in-door/out-door which probably contributed to her ultimate demise from feline leukemia at the age of 14. We figured that if we kept Snitch up on her immunizations and prevented her from associating with other cats, we would have her longer than 14 years (of course, Fate has a way of keeping you off balance).

Snitch’s one big chance for adventure was quickly short-circuited. We had driven away one morning for a three-week vacation out west, and had arranged for cat sitters to regularly visit with and care for Snitch in our absence. But in a last-minute dash into the house to grab something I had forgotten, I failed to properly latch the front door. Fortunately Michelle, one of our friends, happened to drive by about an hour later and noticed the door ajar. Naughty Snitch was hanging out with a neighbor cat under the utility trailer we left parked in our driveway. As soon as she spotted Michelle approaching, Snitch apparently figured her plot was foiled, and she scampered back in the front door with no urging required.

Catishenics

Catisthenics

Snitch earned a place in my heart when in 2007 I had major foot surgery. I was worried about getting out of shape, and did daily floor exercises to the extent my temporary handicap allowed. One exercise was leg-raisers, which was made more challenging by the massive orthopedic boot on one leg. I very quickly realized I had company during my workout, when on a regular basis Snitch would join me. Like two members of a synchronized swim team, we would roll back and forth together on the floor, with her doing her “Catisthenics” in unison with me.

Snitch was a big help at Christmas!

Snitch was a big help at Christmas!

We also had another frequent ritual. She was a cat that liked to play “fetch.” While working late in my home-office, she would often bring in little hard rubber balls (the kind we used to call “superballs,” because of the way they ricochet around when thrown against a hard surface), and drop them at my feet. I would hear the pad-pad-pad of her soft feet as she approached, and then a tunk-tunk-tunk-rattle as she dropped the ball from her mouth and it bounced and rolled across the laminate flooring. This was my cue to pick it up and fling it out the office door, trying to get it to bounce as far and frequently as I could so she could have the fun of leaping and dodging after it. Truth be told, I often tried to get it to go out, bounce down the stairs, and carom around the living room, in hopes of buying me a little more working time before she was back again, carrying the colorful little ball in her mouth.

Will in his Cub Scout uniform with Snitch

Will in his Cub Scout uniform with Snitch.

When strangers were around, Snitch was normally reclusive. This was particularly so when one of Will’s best friends, Alex Oldroyd was around. Whether this was due to the timbre of Alex’s voice, or some pheromone he exuded, any time Alex showed up at the door Snitch beat-feet up the stairs and hid under our bed.

But in some magical way, she immediately recognized cat people. The paradigm case of this was when one of my students, tall, bearded, tattooed, heavy-metal rock musician Paul Rivera, Jr. visited one day. I couldn’t think of anyone less likely to instill confidence in an otherwise shy cat. Yet as soon as he walked through the door she was right there at his feet, and Paul obliged her by scratching and rumpling her fur in a way she clearly relished. It turned out that for all his appearances, Paul was a cat-lover and knew exactly how to make them happy.

Will and Snitch as teenagers together

Will and Snitch as teenagers together.

 

Life with Snitch was not without some drama. On the evening of Thursday, September 2, 2010, She suddenly started behaving strangely. Daryl was on one of her weekly over-night trips down to San Antonio to visit her 90-year-old parents. Around 8:00 PM, I was standing at the bar in our kitchen, when Snitch leaped up on the back of Daryl’s favorite arm chair, just about 5 feet from where I was standing, and started yowling and crying in a most alarmed and alarming way. I had never seen her behave in such a fashion before. In fact, I remarked to William, who was sitting at the kitchen table doing homework. “What the heck has gotten into that cat?” I reached over and scratched her ears. “It’s okay,” I said. In a moment or two, still somewhat agitated, she leaped down from the chair and scurried away.

Snitch in a moment of repose

Snitch in a moment of repose.

About an hour later, I was upstairs in our bedroom when the phone on the night stand rang. “Paul?” It was Daryl on the other end, her voice barely recognizable. “I think my dad is dead!” She was at that moment driving behind an ambulance carrying her father, Bill, over to the Lackland Air Force Base hospital. Bill and Daryl had been making the bed, when he had suddenly blurted out “Short of breath,” and collapsed onto the bed. He had suffered a heart attack, and was indeed gone. It had happened at about 8:00 PM, near as I can tell just the time when Snitch had leaped up on the chair back and started meowing hysterically – something she had never done before, nor since.

Daryl and Snitch, fast friends

Daryl and Snitch, fast friends.

I can’t believe that was just a coincidence. As close as Snitch had become to Daryl, I am convinced that even with 120 miles between them, the cat had sensed my wife’s extreme distress, and had acted in the only way a cat can to get my attention. And she succeeded. I just was neither as clever nor as sensitive as our otherwise mellow cat to understand what she was trying to tell me. Instead, I had to wait an hour to learn through ordinary wire and electricity of the trauma that had just happened in Daryl’s life.

Snitch’s final act of kindness to us was to die in the arms of her now 20-year-old owner, Will, just as we were taking her to the vet for what Daryl euphemistically calls “The Big Sniff.” Just 24 hours previously, we had left to spend the day attending the Mormon temple in San Antonio. We had no inkling when we departed that there was anything wrong with our cat. True, Snitch was being more reclusive and sedentary than usual. But we chalked that up to the fact that we were temporary dog-sitters for a bouncy but timid little white poodle-kind of canine. Naturally, Snitch made herself scarce when a strange (if determinedly friendly) pooch was around.

But almost as soon as we walked in the door after arriving home that afternoon, Daryl knew something was wrong. Snitch had not moved from the spot where she had been lying when we left nine ours before. She was responsive, but far from being her normal self. An emergency trip to the vet brought a suite of possible diagnoses. We left for home with some medication as a test to see if one of the more treatable possibilities responded. It didn’t. Snitch declined rapidly, and by morning it was obvious that there was nothing more we could do.

Between them, Will and Daryl decided they didn’t want the ashes. Better to remember her as the rambunctious kitty she had once been than a box gathering dust on a shelf.

Snitch's "Jabba-the-Cat" pose

Snitch’s “Jabba-the-Cat” pose.

 

There are two times we will always remember her: whenever I lie down to take a short afternoon nap, I will think of how Snitch would always gallop in, leap up on the bed and snuggle up to my stomach for the duration.

Doing the laundry can tucker a cat ou

Doing the laundry can tucker a cat out.

 

 

And when Daryl folds laundry, it will be a more humdrum experience without Snitch to burrow into warm linens or to fight over the mates to socks.

But I like to think of Snitch now hanging out with Bill who, over the years, decided that she was maybe okay, even if she was a cat. He kept making fun of us as cat owners, but I did catch a glimpse a time or two of him surreptitiously giving her a scratch or a quick pet. By the time the rest of us get to where they are, I expect to find the two of them fast friends.  And maybe Bill is throwing a ball for her.

Snitch Smith-Gibson, September 2011- August 2013

Snitch Smith-Gibson, September 2001- August 2013.

Obama and the Trayvon Martin Case

Photo of President Obama

President Obama

In what came across in the media as a startling, personal intervention in the debate over the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case [though see my comments at the very end of this article], President Obama asked the question whether Trayvon Martin would have been justified in shooting George Zimmerman were their roles reversed.  His exact words were, “ …do we actually think that [Trayvon Martin] would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?”

The answer is, of course, no.  Trayvon Martin would have been convicted of at least manslaughter, and likely even second degree murder in those circumstances.  But here’s the rub: Under those circumstances, George Zimmerman would also have been convicted.

The problem is that President Obama asked the wrong question. How the president described the incident doesn’t match what actually happened.

Photo of Trayvon Martin (date unknown)

Trayvon Martin (date unknown)

So what is the right question?  In his thought experiment, President Obama implied that he was turning the tables between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. But what would the situation have been like were the tables turned correctly?  If Trayvon Martin was a designated neighborhood watch person with a concealed handgun license; if he saw George Zimmerman in a black hoodie, appearing to wander through the neighborhood in the dark on a rainy night, seeming to be looking into people’s windows in a neighborhood where similar behavior had led to home invasions in the recent past, would Trayvon the neighborhood watch person have found George suspicious?  Probably.

Would Trayvon have gotten out of his vehicle in response to a 311 operator asking where the suspicious person had gone? We can never know for sure, but it seems very likely that he  probability would have.  If George Zimmerman approached Trayvon and after some sharp words suddenly punched Trayvon in the nose, then had pounded Trayvon Martin’s head on the cement while sitting on top holding him down, then spotted Trayvon Martin’s concealed firearm and made a grab for it, would Trayvon have felt it necessary to shoot George to protect his own life?  I’m pretty sure I would have, and I suspect most of you would have, to.

Photo of George Zimmerman, 2012

George Zimmerman, 2012

Of course, that last part of the story about the gun was how it was told by George Zimmerman, and we have no other evidence for it.  But if the circumstances were reversed wouldn’t Trayvon Martin have likely told a similar story?  Probably.

Now let’s go to the courtroom.  If a deceased George Zimmerman were represented by the state prosecutors, and a living Trayvon Martin defended by Mark O’Mara (who has experience defending young African American men in past cases) and Don West, with the physical evidence being the same, the eye/ear witnesses and expert witnesses being the same, the jury being the same – everything being the same except the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman roles being reversed, here is the right question to ask:  Had the situation been exactly the opposite, would Trayvon Martin have been found not guilty the same way George Zimmerman was in the way things actually turned out?

In this case, the answer would be yes.  I truly believe that Trayvon Martin would have been exonerated, just as George Zimmerman was.

One moral to this story is just how important it is that public officials get things straight when commenting on current issues.  Taking only this parts of his remarks into account (which is largely what the media did), President Obama may have merely further muddied the debate going on right now over racism in the US justice system.

Though things are certainly better than they were even just decades ago, there is no doubt still racial bias lingering in the system.  As the president said in another part of his speech:

“…as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.”

Unfortunately,  those making the Zimmerman trial a focus of the debate are only hurting the cause.  Despite the polemics and the demagoguery coming from the usual social-agitator suspects (not to mention the egregious NBC News faux pas that early on made it erroneously seem like the case was about race), there is little in this case that even hints at racism.  To waste all this energy, drama, and – yes – even hysteria on a case which, if it is about race at all, is only marginally so only detracts from our power as a nation to deal with real cases of racial bias. There are other cases out there that I think are more likely to have racial bias implications. We should be spending our energies and outrage on those.

Like the old “cry wolf” story where too many false alarms caused people to ignore the real wolf when he showed up, keeping up this artificial outrage may do nothing more than hamper our future efforts at achieving a true color-blind society.

*       *       *       *

[Note: When I first started to write this article, all I was going on was the media-reported sound-bites that truncated and mis-characterized President Obama’s speech.  Focusing on a few sensationalized out-takes, the media across the spectrum (Fox, CNN, and the traditional network news reports I heard) all gave a warped impression of what the president had to say, tailored to their own editorial biases.  I still stand by what I wrote above, aimed as it was not just at what the president said but how it appears to have resonated in the activist communities that have jumped on the bandwagon.  But once I had actually read President Obama’s whole speech, I found it much more thoughtful and rational than I had expected from the media reports and commentary I had heard.  I recommend everyone read it in its entirety – the president made some important points, even if I believe he was off on a few.  You can find the transcript here.]

Teachers Really DO Make A Difference — A tribute to Mabel McKnight Mitchell

Mabel Mitchell in November, 2010

Mabel Mitchell in November, 2010.

When my book Reading the Enemy’s Mind came out in 2005, this was the dedication that graced its opening pages:  “To Mabel Mitchell, my English teacher for four years and my seminary teacher for two, and her husband, Andrew J. Mitchell, my elementary school principal, who are living proof that teachers really do make a difference.”

Andy died a few years ago, but Mabel, at the advanced age of 96, just passed away July 10th,  this last Wednesday – though I didn’t learn of it until my brother Kevin called me on Sunday morning with the news.  My book was about remote viewing, and the Mitchells didn’t have anything specifically to do with that (though I did invite them to be the guests of honor at the banquet for the Year 2000 Remote Viewing Conference I chaired; we held it that year in Mesquite, Nevada near where they lived at the time).  But in a very real way, if it weren’t for them, Reading the Enemy’s Mind  would have been a much different, and likely more inferior work.

As my elementary school principal while I was growing up in Boulder City, Nevada, Andy made sure the school lived up to the highest educational standards.  (The town’s elementary school is now named for him.)  But Mabel was my English teacher – through all four years of high school (and for two years as my early morning scripture study teacher to boot).  Her class was an innovative program called English Forum, in which the students were not just encouraged, but expected to explore writing and literature in greater depth and with greater freedom than was common in high schools at the time.

Paul H Smith and Mabel Mitchell

Paul H. Smith and Mabel Mitchell.

There was often a significant tie-in to current events, and besides great literature we were frequently assigned to immerse ourselves in and write about happenings and trends in the larger world. It was no accident that Mabel was an important fixture in the Sun Youth Forum, sponsored by the Las Vegas Sun newspaper, an annual state-wide convocation of high school students to discuss and debate important topics of the day.  The 1969 Forum, for example,  featured Mabel along with the future Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid jointly moderating the debate on national affairs.

Both Andy and Mabel were active in other prominent education causes.  In 1964 Andy took a year’s leave of absence from his school principal duties for a Fulbright exchange scholarship to Norway and England.  Starting in 1969 he served several terms as president of the National Elementary School Principals Association, and was a member of a US State Department evaluation team to Brazil.

Mabel was president of the Nevada State Classroom Teachers Association for a number of years.  From 1964 to 1970, she was appointed to the National Education Association’s  Commission on Professional Rights and Responsibilities, traveling to Alabama, Arkansas, and other Southern states as they struggled to integrate their schools during the height of the civil rights movement.

My interest in writing and reading didn’t begin with Mabel Mitchell, and I learned a lot from the other four English teachers who also taught me during my high school years. But of all the outstanding teachers I have been privileged to learn from, Mabel had the most profound influence on me, even to this day.

She wasn’t beyond telling stories at my expense, though.  She had plenty, since her daughters used to baby sit me and my siblings when we were little.  But she most loved to tease me about one incident that happened during my school years.  She had noticed my habit of reading books as I trudged the mile back and forth to school (not having a car at my disposal in that era before iPhones and MP3 players, I couldn’t stand the thought of all that useful commuting time going to waste when there were so many interesting books to be read).  Whenever in later years I would stop by for a visit, she would gleefully repeat the story of seeing me stumble, fall to my knees, and get back up, all without ever taking my nose out of the book.  I have absolutely no recollection of that happening, so either I was very engrossed, or she was making it up just to tease me – but I’m afraid it was more likely than not to be true.

Andrew and Mabel Mitchell in their Beaver Dam, Arizona home.

Andrew and Mabel Mitchell in their Beaver Dam, Arizona home.

Over the years, I tried to stay in touch with Mabel and Andy–first while they lived in Midway, Utah where they managed the Homestead resort after they both retired from education.  But I enjoyed even more visiting them after they settled into their smartly-designed adobe style home that overlooked the creek bottom and apricot orchard on land Mabel had inherited from her family in Beaver Dam, a tiny municipality on the otherwise arid corner of Arizona desert wedged between Nevada and Utah.

Eventually, I had to visit them in their retirement community in St. George, Utah, where they settled as they became too old to manage 30 acres and a household. They were happy there, too – as they seemed to be no matter where life put them. That brought Mabel close to her beloved Shakespeare Festival, a national Tony award-winning event just up the road from St. George in Cedar City, that was organized decades ago by her close friend Fred Adams.

Today, the Festival runs every summer, and attracts top-billed Shakespearean actors to leading roles.  For most of its thus-far 50 year history, Mabel attended the Festival every year with her family and any friends she could talk into it, only stopping after Andy was gone and could no longer attend with her.

Mabel and Andrew Mitchell in 2008

Mabel and Andrew Mitchell in 2008.

Even as the years inexorably piled up, and even as her beloved Andy transitioned to the world beyond, Mabel kept a passion for life and a love of learning that would have shamed many much younger people. Often when I and my family would stop by for a visit on our more-or-less annual expeditions out West, we would find her playing bridge, or watching a movie, or visiting friends, or engaging in spirited conversation. She was always happy to see us, and with her bright, engaging smile and twinkling eyes, was eager even in her nineties to engage us in discussions about the news of the day, or the latest issues confronting the world. And though she often good-naturedly lamented her failing memory, she was still sharper than any three people 10 to 20 years her junior.

Given her love for life, her fondness for adventure, her respect for every human being, and her boundless curiosity, I am not at all surprised that she made it to the age of 96 with her enthusiasm still intact. Physically, she was a diminutive thing – -always slim, and not much over 5 feet tall with her shoes on (and she grew even tinier as she aged).  But heaven had better be a really big place if it’s going to fit the giant spirit that she is bringing with her.

And if there are any angels up there who are slacking off on their reading, Mabel will do her best to convince them of all the wonders that await them between the covers of a book.

[You can see a picture of Mabel and Andy reading a copy of Reading the Enemy’s Mind by going to my Rogues Gallery and scrolling down towards the bottom. And you can access her obituary here. See a Piano Guys video featuring Mabel.]

We All Are Being Nibbled to Death by (Airline) Ducks

Having just returned from a ten-day trip to Israel using Delta Airlines, I was startled to learn from a new Washington Post story thatPile of suitcases, just in time for peak travel season, Delta has joined ranks with United, American Airlines, US Airways, and Frontier to abuse the traveling public with yet more draconian fee increases for checked baggage, ticket change fees and – get this – even in some cases carry-on luggage.  The author of the Post story lamented that there was “little” the traveler could do beyond simply biting the bullet and submitting to extortion.

However, there is something you can do: Fly Southwest Airlines whenever you can.  Southwest still has no baggage, change, or cancellation fees, and serves an ever increasing part of the country and even a few foreign destinations.  Back when my mom’s health was uncertain and her passing imminent, I appreciated the fact that if you had to change your flight, you could, worry free.  And if you had to cancel one you scheduled, you didn’t automatically lose it.  Instead, you could bank the fare with Southwest for use on some future booking.

I used to love Frontier with its cute animal pictures on the tails and winglets of its planes.  But since they drank the corporate kool-aid of nibbling passengers to death with their ever-increasing fees, Southwest has become my favorite airline for domestic travel.  And it helps that Southwest gives passengers marginally more leg-room than its big-boy competitors, and has one of the most rational boarding procedures around.  Go Southwest!

(Disclaimer: I have no stake in nor receive any benefit from Southwest Airlines.  I just like their policies! )

Guns versus Booze?

Thomas Jefferson, supporter of right to bear arms

Framers of the Constitution, such as Thomas Jefferson, supported citizens’ right to possess firearms.

Before America came along, this is how it worked: The ruler told you what you were allowed to do, and nothing else were you allowed to do unless he said you could (if he ever did).   America introduced a different principle: You could do anything you wanted, unless the government told you that you couldn’t.  And if the government told you that you couldn’t do something, it had to have a good reason.  Either because that action would cause harm, or because it would infringe on someone else’s rights, or both.  (To you rights scholars out there – I know this is simplistic; but I think the principle is sound.)

Using the First Amendment as an example, the principle works out this way in practical terms.  Freedom of speech means you can say anything you want.  But if you say “I have a bomb” in an airport security line, even if you don’t, you can be punished (the Constitution doesn’t require TSA screeners to have a sense of humor).

TSA security line

TSA security line. Don’t ever say “I have a bomb!”

Note what doesn’t happen: You are not forbidden to speak, just because you might say “I have a bomb.”  You are not gagged, nor are your vocal cords temporarily paralyzed because you might choose to say you have a bomb while going through a security line.

The same applies to other ways of expressing free speech.  We are free to write or publish anything we want.  But the law only allows us to be sued if we hurt someone through false accusations that libel or defame.  But no one takes away our computer nor printer, or access to a publishing company, just because we might libel someone.  We are not deprived of access to these things even if we have previously committed libel and might do it again.

As far as I can tell, this is so for every one of what are called “inalienable” rights.  The government can’t invade your home without good, objective evidence that they will find there evidence of criminal activity.  The government can’t lock you up just to keep you from associating with undesirable persons.  The government cannot stop you from owning a house or other property just because you might do something on or with it that harms the person or rights of someone else.  And so on.

Traditionally this has (mostly) even held true for the 2nd Amendment.  You are allowed to own a firearm of your choosing and use it however you wish.  But if you use it irresponsibly to threaten, injure or kill someone, you are punished for the illegal act, not for owning the firearm.

Yet if some folks get their way, that is about to go through a big change.  A whole category of previously-legal firearms and the features associated with them – so-called “assault weapons” (“tactical rifle” is actually a more accurate term) – are about to become illegal.

Popular civilian version of the AR-15 tactical rifle

Popular civilian version of the AR-15 tactical rifle.

I know there’s a quibble – those who already own one of these weapons would get to keep it for now.  But if the law passes, no one who isn’t already an owner will be able to take possession of a tactical semi-automatic rifle in the future under penalty of law.  The purpose of the legislation is, in principle, to reduce the level of ownership – ideally towards zero – through attrition or other means.  Proponents recognize this will take time, but they think that if the law is passed they will eventually reach that goal.

What this means, essentially, is that someone who takes possession of one of these weapons after such a ban might go into effect can be punished for an action that has not resulted in harm to anyone, nor infringed on anyone’s rights.  This is a clear violation of the principle that anything that doesn’t cause harm or infringement is permitted.  Indeed, this presents a turn in the founding principle of America.  It changes treatment of one of the original inalienable rights from a “restriction only if harm is done” model to a “permission from the government” model.  This seems an exceedingly dangerous precedent, if only from a Constitutional perspective.  We know the effect that precedents can have.  If it can be done with one right, might the same principle be applied to others?

I know some of you are thinking “Now wait a minute!  There is, after all, a difference.  In committing a hurtful speech act, someone’s reputation might be damaged.  But in misusing a firearm, someone might die.”

Actually, there are speech acts that can lead to death.  There’s the famous Yelling-Fire-in-a-Theater example (could lead to someone being trampled).  But in this case I more often think of what happened to Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens who was assassinated after being identified in a magazine article.  Free speech can, on occasion, have fatal results. Still, I think we’ll all agree that few punishable speech acts lead directly to unjustified deaths.

But there is another, more interesting parallel, that involves something else that is widely popular, yet is often misused and regularly contributes to many unjustified deaths.  Yes, I’m talking about alcohol consumption.

“Guns vs. booze?”  Some people have objected to the analogy.  “They’re different cases.  You can’t compare them.”

Oh, but you can.

True, how we think of alcohol is different than how we think of guns.  But there are both similarities and differences between the two cases that make alcohol an excellent model to contrast/compare with Second Amendment arguments.

Let’s start off by enumerating some of the differences:

  • Alcohol is a consumable substance, firearms are durable objects.
  • Alcohol is physically addictive, firearms are not.
  • The mere consumption of alcohol impairs judgment and behavior.  The mere possession of a firearm does not.
  • Firearms have some practical applications.  Alcohol does not – it serves only an entertainment function.
  • Firearms possession and lawful use is Constitutionally protected.  Alcohol possession and consumption is not.
  •  Most harm from firearms use is directly intentional.  Most harm from alcohol consumption is not directly intentional, though it starts with an intentional act..
  • Alcohol consumption results in more unjustified fatalities annually than firearms use does.
Drunk driving kills more people per year than firearms murders

Drunk driving kills more people per year than firearms murders.

[For perspective, keep the following statistics in mind:  The Center for Disease Control estimates there are 80,000 alcohol-related deaths per year, compared to 32,163 total firearms deaths including suicide and accidents (in 2011).  In 2011 9,878 of those alcohol-related deaths were caused by drunk driving (compared to 8,583 firearms-related murders the same year).]

Now, let’s consider how they’re similar:

  • Misuse of both firearms and alcohol can lead to unjustified deaths.
  • Society imposes some regulation on the possession and use of both.
Whiskey bottles on display.

Whiskey bottles on display.

Here’s the crux of the comparison; Alcohol, which has no practical use and merely entertainment value in society, is only criminalized when its use leads to harm to others.  In other words, beyond the requirement that those who imbibe must be above a certain age, there are no further restrictions on possession or use of alcohol, even if you commit an illegal act involving alcohol.  You are never forbidden, for example, to own or drink whiskey even if you get behind the wheel of a car. You are punished for driving the car after you have drunk the whiskey.  Even if you have already been convicted before of a crime involving alcohol (e.g., driving drunk) you will still never be prevented from possessing or consuming, say, vodka or gin, just because it is possible (or even if it is likely) you might drive drunk again.

Yet that is the equivalent of what is being proposed for tactical semi-automatic rifles (“assault rifles”) and large-capacity magazines.  Citizens may be forbidden the possession and lawful use of these weapons just in case a tiny fraction might later be employed in a harmful, illegal way.  This would be the same as saying no one is allowed to buy or drink scotch whiskey because a minority of those consuming it will almost certainly drive drunk and kill someone.

It strikes me not just as odd, but in fact wrong that firearms ownership, which is enumerated as a right under the Constitution, could be more severely infringed than something like alcohol consumption, which not only is not a guaranteed right, but in fact kills far more people.

What do you think?