Appreciation

The Chinn Farmhouse

The Chinn Place

People often called the farms of my Kansas childhood “places,” as in “just past the cemetery you’ll come to the Johnson place.” Novelist Wallace Stegner wrote that such a place “is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, lived in it, died in it…over more than one generation.”

         Four generations of Chinns have owned (and seven have known) a place, a small farm in Kansas. Many were born and grew up on that land, and some died there. In another confirmation of place, when my cousin Karen was a child, she addressed a letter to our grandparents:

Grammie and Grampie
Coats, Kansas

         And the letter was delivered.

A Hidden Place

The Chinn farm, located just off the Coats-Sun City road, is hard to find. If you plug the address into a GPS system, you’ll never find the place. It’s hidden. The heart of the farm—the old house, barn, windmill, garage, chicken coop, shed, and silo—lies down in a hollow, concealed about a hundred feet below the main road.

         That farm is ground zero for Chinns. My soul’s architecture folds over the undulant contours of the land, the ancient hum of ancestral voices rising from the soil; massive dark thunderheads boiling out of the western horizon; a wedding on the lawn, and the scents of saddles, alfalfa, and machinery.

The Chinn Farmhouse

         The house is a hodgepodge of parts hauled in by wagon, drug by horses, or rolled on logs and nailed together. Two of the parts cost my widowed great-grandmother forty dollars. That’s the only construction cost I can find. Yet that house, through various repairs, improvements, and expansions, has been home to Chinns since 1897.

         The barn emerged from a similar organic pattern. When a horse killed my great-grandfather in 1900, his four young children had to grow up fast. In 1910, my thirteen-year-old future grandfather, his twin, and their eighteen-year-old brother built the barn. It has now stood as a working barn for more than a century.

A Fertile Place

The farm gave abundantly over the decades; it was a fruitful place. Grandpa farmed it for sixty years (1917-1977) and Grandma gave birth to twelve children between 1919 and 1936. The fertile land gave generously, but Chinns also poured their sweat and blood on the ground to uphold their end of the deal.

         Now, after 136 years of continuous family ownership, the old Chinn place is for sale. These days I find myself walking the ridge between the eras of Chinn ownership and the future, considering the mystery of land and identity.

         Land, the most visible dimension on earth, hides in plain sight. Many people walk, drive, or fly over it without even seeing it. But when humans stop, look, and listen; when they take it seriously, that partnership produces wonders. Grass, gardens, and crops, but also houses, highways, workplaces, cathedrals, airports, and cities climb out of the dirt.  

A Sense Of Place

We often hear people announce their need “for space,” usually away from sources of pain or the demands of maturity. But, more than space, we need a sense of place. Space is infinite, but place is specific. Space is romantic; place is real as a hammer. We tumble through space, but we stand on a place. Space brings vertigo and disorientation. Place brings experience, confidence, and (eventually) wisdom.

         That’s because a place forms an altar where pride and illusions die.

         From that altar my grandparents helplessly watched their two-year-old daughter die, struggled with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, got kicked in the guts by a wheat harvest of a bushel and a half per acre, and sent three sons to World War II. They spent most of the 20th Century wrestling with Heaven and earth just to pull life from the ground.

            “Humus,” the Latin word for soil or ground, is also the root for “humility.” We don’t ever find our place in the world without humbling ourselves. Humility commits. To a woman, to a man. To promises, to a purpose. To a place.

         The same story has unfurled in many places; God and a family walked together through a place, a pinpoint on earth. Because weighty things happened there, we have a hardy sense of place. More than that, we were formed by a soaring sense of God.

The Chinn Place (photo by Ashley Chinn Matos)

The Woman Who Loved Storms

On the afternoon of May 7, 2002, a large tornado hit my home town, Pratt, Kansas. My brother Vernon, Pratt County Sheriff, immediately called our parents and told them to get to the hall bathroom and stay there. When he later dropped in to check on them, he found them standing at the sliding glass door, gazing at the beautiful terror of the storm.

       Mom was always ready to trade safety for the thrill of dazzling and dangerous spectacles. Her love of ominous Kansas weather forged one of the anchors of my life. She loved the very things which sent others diving into storm cellars or basements.

       Not only was she unafraid, but blizzards, thunderstorms, and even tornadoes brought pure squealing-with-delight joy to Mary Chinn. And she passed it on to her children. Mom’s exuberant enjoyment of storms was wonderfully infectious; we caught it the same way people catch colds.

       The great blizzards of my childhood served magical gifts to the Chinn boys. They kept us home from school, drew us outside to play in the snow, and gave us Mom’s “snow ice cream” (vanilla, sugar, and cream in a bowl of snow). Surely, we were the only children in the world who had ever tasted such a magnificent dessert. 

Beyond Burger King

I’m grateful for the great virtues and lessons that I learned or caught from Jack and Mary Chinn. But a love of storms may be the most valuable legacy handed down to me.

       Why?

       Because God loves storms. They reflect an essential part of His nature, and they also comprise the planet’s fleet of big transport trucks that haul temperature and moisture to places that need them. Furthermore, by learning to love what the Creator loves, we find new alignment with God.

       Mom loved and lived the words of the old hymn,

“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed”[1]

       Mary Chinn would rather have known the “awesome wonder…of rolling thunder” than safety.

       But, in our consumer age, many people turn away from wonder in their reach for control. They prefer the words of an old Burger King ad: “Have it your way.” 

       A storm, however, is a powerful reminder that a great sweep of life lies beyond our control. We cannot choose the timing, the target, or the intensity of a storm. A tornado or hurricane is an enormous swirling billboard that announces, “You can’t have it your way.” 

Nature’s Theater

I’m forever grateful that I grew up beneath the large canopy of south-central Kansas sky. We had front row seats at the grand theater of nature. I slept in the backyard as often as possible; the night sky overwhelmed and charmed me. And few natural exhibitions can be as thrilling as a black thunderhead boiling up out of the western Kansas horizon.

       We grew up knowing that a storm might kill us, but it couldn’t destroy us. We knew life was a continuum; it would go on… somewhere! Nature held no threat over our real life. Knowing that released us from the fear of death, a fear which keeps many from living a full life.

       After living a very full 96 years, Mom died November 1. The weather forecast for the day of her funeral and burial called for 37 degrees and light wind. But, when we arrived at the cemetery, the temperature was 22, and snow came horizontally out of the north.

       I could almost hear her laughter in the wind.


[1] “How Great Thou Art,” Stuart K. Hine

Sailors

In the summer of 1992, while driving a dirt road in Pratt County, Kansas, my 70-year-old dad saw his own tractor, driverless, rolling across a field pulling a land leveler. He felt a chill; he knew his brother Harold had been driving the tractor and leveler rig up to his place near Pratt.

Dad soon saw Harold lying on the ground beside the road. Frantic, he stopped his pickup and ran to his brother. Harold was fully conscious, but Dad could clearly see that was going to be a real bad day.

Harold’s death was an earthquake in the Chinn family. Youngest son, playful and funny, and the spark of life in every family gathering, his death left a wide wound across our landscape. But it blew a deep and ragged hole right through Dad’s heart. He never recovered.

From that day it seemed that Dad’s strong mind began to melt. The distinct shapes of his personality began to droop and dissolve. His confidence tottered. He still went to his beloved shop, but he stopped repairing and making things. He just stood amidst his tools and cried; he didn’t know why.

Dad served on the aircraft carrier, USS Princeton, in World War 2. He was on board for every day of her 19-month existence. Her sinking on October 24, 1944, in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, was the central moment of his life. From that day Dad seemed to live in the shadow of the Princeton.

Dad and Mom made their last visit to our home in Northern Virginia in the spring of 1995. In preparing for their visit I wanted to find something that would engage Dad again, some spark that would animate his wonderful and vivid personality.

In 1995 the very colorful Admiral Arleigh Burke was one of the last living commanding officers from the Pacific theater of the war. And he had participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Two weeks before my parents’ visit, I learned that the 93-year-old Admiral lived in nearby Fairfax, Virginia. So I found a phone number for his home.

When Roberta “Bobbie” Burke answered the phone, I introduced myself and told her about Dad. I told her that Dad would be there in a couple weeks and asked if “the Admiral would be open to a visit from another sailor.” Bobbie immediately exclaimed, “Oh, yes, he would so love that! Please come.” She gave me their address and we agreed on a date and time.

When my parents arrived, I handed a new biography of Admiral Burke to Dad. He thanked me, scanned through it and told stories he recalled of “31-knot” Burke. Then I told him that we had an appointment with Admiral Burke the next day. Dad’s smile revealed his anxiety; he had never met an Admiral. Even after 50 years of civilian life he still thought like an enlisted man.

Dad asked too many questions about protocol and social courtesies as we drove from our house in Reston over to The Virginian apartments in Fairfax. He grew silent as we entered the building. Finally we stood at the door. I knocked. Very quickly, an elderly man, standing with a walker, opened the door and smiled. “Jack,” he barked and grabbed Dad’s hand. Dad relaxed; he heard an invitation to a safe place.

We spent two hours in the Burke living room. Bobbie gracefully vanished from the distinctly male gathering, as I’m sure she had often done in 72 years of marriage to a Navy man.

I watched in astonishment. A former Chief of Naval Operations, a major player in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, an Admiral who had a class of destroyers named after him sat with an enlisted man, a Kansas railroader, a Sunday School teacher. But their eyes glistened at the same heartsounds of battle, loss, and heritage. And they burst into synchronous laughter at the same details and nuances of Navy culture.

I’ll never forget Dad’s face as Burke told him of watching Dad’s beloved Princeton, through his binoculars, explode and sink.

The 20th century had taken these two men to vastly different places, but as children of God they shared an enormous familial heritage. I saw them touch their shared bond as brothers. Class distinctions blew away like dust; they were sailors.

As we prepared to leave, Bobbie bid us farewell with a deep glowing sadness. Admiral Burke, with his walker, escorted us to the elevator; he clearly wanted to extend the moment as long as possible. He and Dad shook hands, “Come back anytime Jack.” They both knew they would never meet again.

Admiral Burke died 7 months later. Two thousand people attended his funeral; President Clinton delivered the eulogy. Burke’s tombstone at the Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis carries a one-word epitaph, “Sailor.”

Dad lived another 10 years. The slide that began with Harold’s death continued. But that incredible day was a clear announcement that human value has nothing to do with the illusions of rank, class, wealth, or productivity. Our value, our royalty, flows from the Fatherhood of God.

Far more than we realize, we are all His children. We have infinitely more in common than we have in conflict. May we all discover our shared family bond…even with those who may seem so different or so far away. They really aren’t.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

The true story Rod Dreher tells in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (Grand Central, 2013) is simple and straight. And we know the end from the beginning. Rod and his little sister Ruth grow up in a small town in Louisiana. He cannot wait to leave the place. He wants the “big” – city, money, fame. She chooses the local, the little, and the quiet.

At forty, she is stricken with a very aggressive cancer. Rod watches the community come around his little sister. Her quiet and steady sowing – her “faithfulness in small things” – turns into a great harvest of kindness and generosity. She dies. Rod not only writes a book honoring his sister and her choice of the “little way,” he realizes he can and must find that way.

It has been said that a great book will read us more than we read it. This is that kind of book; at least it was for me. I too grew up in a small town. And I could not wait to leave Pratt, Kansas. My brother Vernon stayed. Except for an excursion through the US Army and Viet Nam, and postwar ranching jobs in Nebraska and Colorado, Vernon has been a supporting column for family and community all his life.

So this very real, organic, and probing book was a mirror for me. I saw myself in the intricate layers of father-son relationships, the shades of familial and community acceptance (and rejection), and the nuances of sibling relationships.

But, the real beauty and power of The Little Way…is the compelling twin portraits of Ruthie and St. Francisville, Louisiana. Ruthie was a very full-spirited southern woman. She always manifested a serious, even sacrificial, approach to life. But she also dropped her bra at a Hank Williams Jr. concert, swung it like a lasso, then released it to soar onto the stage (Hank draped it from the neck of his guitar).

In time, Ruthie settled. She became a teacher; “Listen, sweet baby, you can do this,” she pleads with a student. She loved her parents, her husband and daughters, her students, cooking and St. Francisville. She was a true community spark plug. Everyone in town knew and loved her. Ruthie comes right off the pages in full throbbing color.

When Ruthie got sick, the town folded around her like a right hand would grab and hold injured fingers on the left hand. This is one of the most vivid portrayals of community you will ever read.

For example, the town came together for a “Leming-Aid” concert in the park.  Out of 1700 residents, a thousand people came, and they gave $43,000! People were buying ice cream cones with hundred dollar bills.

When Ruthie hit a very bad place, a text message called her daughter Hannah out of class at LSU. Hannah quickly asked a classmate to drive her home (30 miles) in her Jeep. He drove so fast that he blew the radiator. Almost immediately a couple picked them up and drove them straight to the hospital. That night, as the family returned from the hospital, their house had been cleaned, the tables and counters piled high with food, and the Jeep was sitting in the driveway. The radiator had been repaired.

True to the rhythms of community, her open casket sat on the same spot in the church “where she and Mike had stood years earlier and promised to be together until death.”

Ruthie was often barefooted; it was something of a signature. When the pallbearers stepped to the rear of the funeral coach to receive her casket, they were all barefoot, with their suit pants rolled high over their ankles. They carried her “to her grave with the wet green grass of Starhill [Cemetery] between their toes.” When Ruthie’s daughters saw that, they removed their shoes too.

After the funeral, Rod and his family knew – and told some friends –they were returning to St. Francisville. In the little way of small towns, immediately someone told him about a house. He looked at it and took it.

The house was located on Fidelity Street.

September 16, 1966

Today, September 16, is the most frequent birth date in America.

Seriously.

I don’t know why, but I’m sure the Christmas season and alcohol play contributing roles. “Oh, Melanie, Melanie, Melanie, in nine days we will celebrate our Lord’s birth…my grandfather made this moonshine in 1938. He left it to me and I’ve saved it all these years. Let us now begin this season of worship.” Or something like that.

Our first child, Jack Edward, was born on this date in 1966. I can’t remember the Christmas season of 1965, but I do know that alcohol was not involved. As Pentecostals, Joanne and I had not yet discovered those wondrous liquids made from grain and grapes. But having been married just three months, I’m sure we were intoxicated by love.

Whatever the factors that led to conception, Joanne woke me about midnight nine months later, “Honey, it’s time.” Minutes later, I drove my young wife very fast across San Marcos, Texas.

Fathers were not invited into delivery rooms in those days. So about seven hours later Joanne’s aunt Veva, who was a natal nurse, rushed Eddie out to the waiting room. She grinned as she handed him to me. I didn’t understand her joy; Eddie looked like he had been thrown from a speeding car. His head was long and horribly bent. Apparently the doctor had once worked in a sheet metal shop. He used forceps like he was straightening a truck frame. I could visualize the afternoon paper headline: “Tragedy in Texas.” But, in the great mystery of human resiliency, Eddie’s head was just fine by the next day.

I was 19 when he was born. In a very real sense, he and I grew up together. At times, he has seemed like a younger brother. I made so many mistakes with him. But he was always so gentle, sweet, and forgiving. And he still is.

He was a happy child. He often gushed, “I’m just so proud, happy, and glad” as he clapped his hands and grinned. He loved his parents, his grandparents, his brother and sister, and…Johnny Cash. When he was five, we took him to a Cash concert in the Fort Worth Convention Center. Although we had cheap seats, at one point I carried Eddie right down to the stage. I held him as we both gazed up at the Man in Black. Dear God, the man must have been fourteen feet tall.

Eddie never got over that. He has been an unrelenting, unrepentant, Cash fan since that night.

Eighteen years ago, Eddie married his lifelong friend, Myra Roachelle. And they have raised three splendid and beautiful daughters. One of the greatest joys of my life has been watching our firstborn come into full measure as a dad; he fathers his children much different, and much better, than I did.

The Bible says that Samuel grew up “in stature and in favor with God and men.” So did Eddie. Like his brother and sister, Eddie found his life reasons and rhythms beyond this place. He has always been a blessing on society.

So, for this and many other reasons, on this September 16, Joanne and I are just “so proud, happy, and glad” to salute our son on his forth-seventh birthday. Son, we love you and we honor you.

We joyfully celebrate the day of your birth.

The Artist: a Meditation

Besides being wonderfully crafted and thoroughly engrossing, The Artist is a thoughtful meditation on the value of people.

The movie tells the story of a 1920s silent film star, George Valentin, who knows he has value. The applause, big checks, and adoring fans tell him so; doesn’t go any deeper than that. He frolics in the designer pool of his ego, pushing costars away from the waterfall of adoration that cascades over him. Even Valentin’s faithful dog (best movie dog you will see in your lifetime) and his chauffeur have no relational value to him. They are fully functional and expendable.

The same is true of the beautiful girl, Peppy, who literally bumps into Valentin. Ah, another moon whose purpose is to simply reflect his dazzling value.

But a monster of a storm is brewing – a technological one: sound is coming to the movies. One development is going to change everything for an industry; it will swirl new people into the picture and suck others away.

In that tech shift, Valentin suddenly finds himself among the losers. His value drops like a body from a bridge. Broke, unemployed, drunk, and discarded (by his wife and his studio), he is forced to sell his furniture and other possessions (which, by the way, some call “valuables”) and move out to Humbleville.

Have you noticed that life’s crucibles have a way of revealing authentic value? When entire way of living explodes in flames, the first human reaction is to try to save ourselves and preserve the old way. But, eventually, the people, possessions, motivations, and false measurements all get reduced to mere kindling for the blaze. Old (and false) identities, hopes, and values perish in the fire. And then, after time in the grave (could be days or years), on a shimmering new resurrection morning, a new life steps out of the tomb.

In that note, The Artist tells a story we have not seen very often: the redemptive (“buying back”) power of pure love. And Peppy is a character we’ve not often seen. She is beautiful, but her real loveliness is, in words from the Bible, her “hidden person of the heart…the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.”

The Artist is also a discerning look at celebrity. I once asked a young woman who had just become engaged, “Tell me what you most respect about your fiancée.” She twirled her hair, giggled, closed her eyes, giggled some more and said, “Well…” She didn’t seem to know anything about his integrity, faith, family heritage or traditions, sense of purpose, protective instincts, personal dreams or anything else foundational to life. They married and divorced quickly.

Like her, we can’t seem to locate respect for those we adore.

So our celebrity-driven culture splashes exotic intangibles – like cool or awesomeness – on the big screen in our collective head. We don’t define, require, or examine; we applaud, gush, and swoon. Don’t underestimate that power; America elected a President on that. The Artist thoughtfully considers the emptiness of image and the futility of building a life on applause.

Finally, The Artist is a great artistic achievement. In a medium marked by decibels and explosive visuals, The Artist is a splendidly silent and gorgeously black and white movie. It is like walking away from the flash and roar of typical movie entertainment and into a silent and majestic high country meadow.

The Artist dares to present and permit a quiet contemplation of who and what and why we value.

Bill Raspberry: 1935 – 2012

In 1988, as a new kid in Washington and having read William Raspberry’s columns for several years, I called him at his Washington Post office. I told him I was new in town and found myself in charge of a very high profile event honoring some African-American family champions. I said, “Mr. Raspberry, I’m white and I’m from Kansas. I can’t help that. But I don’t want to do anything stupid or embarrass anyone. So I’m asking you to help me.” He laughed and said, “Come on over and have lunch with me.”

I found a true friend that day. We talked long and deep, exploring some of the deep caves of the human experience. The event was a success, in large part because of his coaching. More than that, he became my tutor; he helped me understand and navigate the Washington mirages, whirlpools, and smoke.

Our friendship was a measure of his character. He was a well known and respected Washington figure and I could not help him or hurt him; he did not need to give me anything. But he gave generously and continued to do so for a quarter century.

Over the next seven years, we met often for breakfast, lunch, or in his office. Nothing changed when he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Bill was fairly liberal in his politics; I was fairly conservative. But the political chasm was never an issue. We discussed our differing perspectives with no fear of ridicule or polarization. He, a liberal, often encouraged me to submit my more conservative perspectives for publication.

When we left Washington in 1995, Bill was one of the few Washington friends who kept in touch. In 1997, he interviewed me for one of his columns. After that, he interviewed me three or four more times. Bill is a primary reason I was accepted as a writer.

In the past 17 years, I never went back to Washington without seeing Bill. We always met for long lunches and honest conversations. He was one of the most honest people I ever met. Every spoken or written word that came from Bill Raspberry was true. You could trust it; it came from an honest heart.

The last time I saw him was for a two hour lunch on October 24, 2011, the 67th anniversary of the sinking of the USS Princeton (my dad’s ship). Bill and I talked about our fathers that day. As I told one story about Dad, I wept. Bill’s eyes grew red and he just silently nodded. It was a classic Bill Raspberry moment; pure empathy and deep respect for the secret places. When we parted, he hugged me. I felt a chill in the air as I walked to my car.

A few weeks ago, he stopped replying to emails. I knew he was sick; I asked when we could talk. He did not respond. His silence concerned me deeply.

For two weeks I’ve felt like I should call. But I was busy. Bill died yesterday.

I am forever grateful that this great man’s path crossed through my life. I cherish the memories of Bill’s great kindness, humor, generosity, and care.

Two years ago, he told me that he had prostate cancer. He wanted to talk about God that day. Every time we met after that, our conversation always came back to God. I tried to help; I do not know if I did. But I’m confident that someday Bill will tell me. He is unfailingly honest.

WR Corvin: A Big Oak

Like so many of his generation, my dad was scarred from his service in World War 2. As I wrote in my book, Footprints in the Sea, “To his three little boys Dad was often a warrior with no war. We loved him, he was the finest man we ever knew, and we were terrified of him. Like many World War II vets, Dad brought the war home.”

Although I later found friendship with Dad, in those early years, soon after the war, I kept a healthy distance from him. That’s the main reason I left home when I was fifteen. The 218 miles from Pratt, Kansas to 4700 NW 10th in Oklahoma City seemed about right.

I enrolled in our denomination’s Southwestern Bible School (which combined a high school, junior college, and school of theology) in Oklahoma City. And that is where I met W. R. Corvin, the President of the school.

Dr. Corvin was exactly the same age as Dad. But, because of a deformed foot, he missed World War 2. And through that little twist of my history, he became to me what Jack Chinn could not be. In short, he paid attention to me. He took me and my writing seriously. At a perplexing and lonely time in my life, God delivered essential encouragement to me through W. R. Corvin. I often showed him essays and stories I had written. He received every one of them as a gift. And I think he gave me feedback on every one.

His attention elevated me. Because of that, he has remained one of the largest people on the landscape of my life.

One day in his speech class, he suddenly said in front of everyone, “Ed, someday you will write for the glory of God.” I later asked him why he said that. He seemed puzzled: “I don’t know. I just knew I had to say it.” I still don’t know why he said it or if I will ever do it. But I do know what that voice engraved in me.

Because of his great responsibilities, he took several years to complete his dissertation for his Ph.D at OU. Someone once said to him, “W.R., why do you want to do this? You’ll be forty years old before your get your doctorate.” I can still hear that gentle Ada, Oklahoma farm boy twang, “Well, you know, I’m gonna be forty anyway. I’d rather be forty with a Ph.D.”

That wisdom, applicable to everything worth doing, has served me for almost fifty years.

The last time I heard that distinctive nasal vibrato was five and a half years ago at a Southwestern alumni function. The eyes were bright, the smile beaming, and the handshake firm; he could still work a room as he had for decades in his various fundraising roles. But Alzheimer’s had wiped the names and memories away. He introduced himself to me three times.

Dr. Corvin died a few days ago. And his death recalls a line from a letter that Tommy (the Cork) Corcoran wrote to Lyndon Johnson in 1961, on the occasion of Sam Rayburn’s death:

“You and I have had both the advantages and now the disadvantages of early being proteges of big men before us. Once our world was full of older men who were magnificent individuals in the grand manner: many big oaks sheltered us. In this November, they fall fast: we are now ourselves our own front line.”

God, I miss those men.

Smashburger

Let’s face it; hamburgers are an American original. I’ve been on a diet for 50 years; I still must have a burger 3 or 4 times a year. My favorite chains?

  • #1 – Whataburger.
  • #2 – Five Guys Burger.
  • #3 – Backyard Burger.

But, this Forbes piece may move SMASHBURGER up.

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