|© Copyright 1999 David Clark, P.O. Box 148/Cochran, GA 31014
There are various laws that have been around a long, long time. Some of them found their way into English common law. These formed the basis for our present set of rules. Many of the old laws dealt with the basics of doing right by another person.
Before most of America's population moved to the cities during the Great Depression, everyone understood certain things about living together. Anger with one's neighbor was to be avoided if possible. If anger couldn't be avoided, it was worked out man-to-man in the back yard. In most cases, men did right by one another.
This taking of responsibility forged trust and respect between neighbors. In the worst cases, men were selfish. This is when men shot each other.
There was usually no need for the courts. Most problems were easily solved because both parties could easily see what was important.
Being a good neighbor was the rule. Fairness was the order of the day. Pain of one party was shared by another. Survival dictated the priorities. Survival meant having neighbors one could count on.
Some would say life was cheap in the old days. If one spends an afternoon reading rural newspapers from the late 1800's and early 1900's, one will see what folks were up against. Not a week went by that there weren't attacks from mad dogs, flu epidemics, snakes, angry men, or lightning. Death was quick, unless you got bit by a mad dog. Then it took a couple of months to die.
Maybe it would be better to say that the currency of living was not so much cheap as it was in short supply. It was highly valued by all concerned. Living things were held with more respect in general than they are now. Humans were bound to the living world around them.
The lowly chicken, for instance, was vitally important in those days. The yardbird could go a long way towards feeding the children. The eggs were valuable. They were gathered carefully. Nothing was wasted. Everyone looked after the things which fed them. Those chickens were tended with love.
The family dog was more than a pet. He was part of the family--he guarded the family by guarding the henhouse.
It was universally understood that once an animal got a taste of blood, nothing would stop him from tasting it again. The dog caught killing chickens or other livestock was like a man convicted of treason. He was shot.
It's hard to think of treason. There have been times when it's been a commonly used word, but it's not the sort of word people use lightly.
In modern times it applies to betraying one's government, like a National Judas. In olden times the government was the respect shared by men who were joined in some way by property.
These were your neighbors.
Whatever was damaging to the respect shared by the neighbors was as good as treason. Sometimes the Benedict Arnold was a dog.
My Aunt Betty Trail lived in Basehor, Kansas. She was a small woman who grew up in Colby, Kansas, during the Dust Bowl years. After she married, Aunt Betty got some chickens. She gathered eggs twice a day.
They helped put my cousins through college. I'd bet fifty dollars right now that Aunt Betty could hit a dog on the run a half mile across the wheat field out back if she caught him stealing one of her hens. Besides college money, those eggs fed at least five mouths at least twice a day. There would be no treason against feeding the family as long as Aunt Betty could help it.
In the old days, it was the women who guarded the day to day life of the household. Virtually all women were good with a rifle. They knew how to use it. They knew when to use it. If it needed using, they didn't hesitate.
As I move into the year of my fortieth birthday, I can begin to see the mythology in life. I reckon one can see it anywhere at anytime, but for whatever reason I'm seeing it now.
I can imagine that someone would think: "Oh, are you just now seeing it?" And someone else would wonder what I was talking about.
Someone who is a little more connected to the everydayness of what is called normal life would tell me I was seeing things and making things up. Someone who is a little too connected to the everydayness of that normal life might ponder dreamily about what it would be like to have the time in their mind to see the mythology around them.
One of the luxuries of being a writer is that it's part of my job to see these things. One of the hardships is describing what I see.
The week before Christmas, I was complaining long-distance to my girlfriend about being lonely. "All I've got is my dogs," I said.
It has occurred to me that while God may answer prayers, Murphy answers complaints. This same Murphy helped draw up some of the original laws.
Maybe complaints are like upside down and backwards prayers. Murphy will always answer us.
Maybe what God does is give us a God-shaped-mirror, which helps us transform the upside down and the backwards into something we can make sense of.
I live on a gravel driveway. One thing about a gravel driveway is that you can almost tell how a person feels by the sound their vehicle makes when they drive up.
So when I was startled out of sleep two mornings before Christmas by the sound of the gravel, I knew the man in the truck lurching to a stop outside my window was mad.
I threw on some clothes. He banged on the door until I pulled it open. He said: "Those goats of mine are worth money."
I went out on the back porch and asked him if he was sure it was my dogs.
His voice broke when he told me about carrying his son in his arms to see a young goat that was born the same day as the son. They arrived just in time to see my best friends tearing the young goat to pieces.
I reached for my neighbor's hand, and we shook hands for a long time. This grown man was crying openly. So was I, because I knew what came next.
I've learned I can't really tell this story. Some of my city friends think I'm cruel. They've never heard of any such law as the one I obeyed. Their suggestions ranged from putting the dogs on a chain to telling the neighbor to go to hell. They've never heard of their Grandma's certain expertise with a rifle. They have no conception of the cruelty of a chain for a dog who is accustomed to running in miles of open space. In our modern society, where neighbors don't even know each other, it's no wonder there's not much understanding of being or having a neighbor who can be counted on.
It's no longer part of the national experience to share the understanding between two men that comes after one takes painful responsibility for the pain of the other.
I turned left onto Mr. Billy's road. I had borrowed his .22 rifle and had to take it back. There's a bare spot on the side of the road on that corner, where the clay is red. There on the bare spot, sat a crow.
It was the first crow I'd seen all year. Usually a crow will land in a field where there's something to eat. One won't normally see a crow on a bare spot of clay.
I took my hat off when I passed that crow.
When I got back home from Mr. Billy's, I looked in my book of American Indian mythology. According to this book, animals seen at certain times have meaning.
The crow stands for law.
When I went for a walk that night, I saw a sort of shape out of the corner of each eye. One shape was next to me on the right and the other was slightly ahead and to the left. What I saw can only be described as little balls of energy, which might sound ridiculous if you've never seen one.
As I walked on down the dirt road, the moon cast a shadow on my left in the ditch. Slightly below the plane of the road was the shadow of the road. I could see myself--a solitary shadow of a man walking. I looked back at the road. Something caught my eye about the shadow of myself and I looked at it.
Some folks would insist it was an illusion. But I'll always believe that on Christmas Eve I saw, for a brief moment, two smaller shadows walking beside the solitary shadow of a man. After that brief moment, the two smaller shadows ran happily off into the larger shadow of the cotton patch.
David Clark is a writer, guitarist, and storyteller living in Cochran, Georgia. His weekly column appears in a couple dozen Southeastern newspapers. His essays have run on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." He performs regularly for all kinds of groups, telling his stories and singing his songs. He also tells Uncle Remus stories. Clark has released nine CDs and 3 books.