Monthly Archives: February 2013

Guns and Bullets — Fight or Flee?

Guns and Bullets  —  Fight or Flee?

Periodically a tragedy like Columbine occurs and reminds us of the “killing power” of a gun or guns.  I expect that an argument could be made that alcohol, irresponsible driving, or unnecessary military action kills more people than the legal and illegal use of firearms. I don’t care to go into the infinite number of arguments as to whether or not certain types of guns should be banned.  I am more interested in trying to understand whether I should own a gun and whether I can use it responsibly.

My father occasionally hunted and I was given a new rifle, a 22 caliber Remington Nylon 66 for my thirteenth birthday.  My first hunting trip alone resulted in a personal disappointment.  I was idiotic enough to aim and fire at the first moving animal I spotted, a timid red cardinal posing beautifully on a limb.  I didn’t consider the consequences of a perfect shot.  Within moments I stood weeping, holding warm helpless death in my palms.  My rifle was lying on the ground.  The impact was significant–shooting at a living creature would never be a favored hobby.  In the future, no matter what I shot, I saw “cardinals.”  I don’t think I was ever told that I needed a firearm for self-defense.  Guns meant a hobby, adventure, and a source of food.

Later, as a young adult, I acquired a 10-gauge shotgun to hunt ducks and doves in West Tennessee. More than anything I bought the gun to act like a hunter so I didn’t seem so foolish freezing my buns in a duck blind or tagging with friends on their adventures.  Those experiences never proved that positive.  In fact they drove me further from seeing hunting as relaxation.  For example, one of my best friends, Andy, invited me to go deer hunting on a very cold day in 1972.  He boosted me into the air to reach the first tree limb from which I could scale to a large V in the tree where I only half fit.  After six hours of thirsty shivering and feeling like my butt would never straighten to a normal shape or experience a painless existence, I vowed to leave the “fun” of game hunting to those with higher pain thresholds. So my guns gathered dust in one or another closet for the next fifteen years until I suddenly and unexpectedly needed protection.

Strangely enough I have traveled to a number of volatile countries such as Egypt, Liberia, and Colombia. Fortunately I never felt an imminent need for a firearm.  Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about the U.S.A.

Late one Saturday evening in 1987 I reclined in the basement family room of the Cumberland Presbyterian manse in Louisville, Kentucky.  At the time I was alone.  Our house was located on Manslick Road—a busy street between Shively and downtown Louisville.  Even in the dark of night, cars passed the house with frequency.  So much so, that we became oblivious to the airbrakes of the semi’s, the popping of accelerating motorcycles, or the ambulances on their way to the St. Mary’s Hospital located one-tenth of a mile from our house.

Our house was built on the first lot north of the church.  And then there were two empty lots before our closest neighbor.  The neighbors directly in front of us lived on a wine estate and we could barely see their house. Our neighbors to the back were so far removed we could not hear or see each other. Sometimes, people stopped by the house to ask for directions or for a financial need.  And, occasionally, members would drop by for a variety of needs without an appointment.  Occasionally, in the late evening, I needed to be undisturbed and shut off all the lights except the front door light and retreated to the solitude of the basement.  This night I was relaxing on the couch in nothing but my boxers watching T.V.  The action started sometime after 11 p.m.

There came a rapping at the upstairs front door.  I ignored the knock, assuming it was someone lost and looking for directions.  The visitor persisted with each round of knocks being louder.  So, I headed upstairs.  The problem was to get to my bedroom and my pants I had to pass directly down a hall visible to any guest looking through the glass section of the door.  I darted by, grabbed my blue jeans, and went to the door.  By then, the visitor had apparently tired of knocking and was not to be seen.  So I walked through the living room to look at the parking area on the church side of the house.  I spotted an aged Buick with a driver.  Immediately, loud knocking began at the outside door that entered the kitchen on the dark backside of the house; so I walked angrily toward that part of the house ready to lambast someone for such rude behavior late at night.  But, just as I turned the corner to enter the kitchen, there arose a terrifying clatter.  Someone had kicked the door to kitchen open.  I froze in a state of incredible indecision—fight or flight.  I was ready to shout as loud as possible, but no one entered.  In a moment I heard the car spring to life.  Carefully I went back to the living room window and saw two men leaving in the car.  I thought, “These guys are leaving to see if the house is alarmed.  They will be back!”  I ran to the phone and called 911 to report an attempted break-in and request a squad car.

I then went to the kitchen to see the condition of the door.  The primary door lock had been broken out of its frame, but the triple lock still functioned so I closed the door and secured it.  Then, I had to decide, do I leave or stay?  I decided to load my shotgun, wait for the police, and if the thieves returned before the police, to turn on the door light in their face when they approached.  I hoped that would cause them to retreat a bit wetter than they had come; then, I would open the door and shoot into the air as they ran away.

I ran to the closet to get a gun, only to remember my ammunition was in the basement in a cabinet.  When I got to the basement “one-bullet Barney” could only find one deer slug.  So, I finally got it into the chamber and returned to the kitchen to wait.  The police did not arrive before the perpetrator.  By now I was second-guessing my strategy.  Sure enough, a car returned and one of the men got out of the car and I heard the car pull away.  The exploring thief came to the back door.  When he got nearly to the porch landing, I flicked the switch—illuminating a black unshaven middle-aged man in a stocking cap.  He reeled quickly and took flight.  I tried to open the door, but I was shaking so badly I couldn’t get the key in the lock.  And, when I finally got the door open; I could see him disappearing behind the back of the church into any number of backyards, probably to try to find a phone and call for a pickup.

Finally, ten minutes later the police arrived and apologized for not being able to come immediately because of another case.  If I had it to do again, I would have reported a possible murder.  They went through the formalities of a report, but never contacted me again.

The next day I made the necessary calls for security doors.  Could I have shot someone to protect my family or myself?  There is no doubt in my mind, but I would choose another option if possible.  If there is the choice between fight or flee; next time I will flee.


A Valentine Taradiddle

It’s always exciting to return to Camden, TN. It is packed with memories and friends. The highways into the city are not spectacularly scenic except for Highway 70 from Waverly. It takes you over the main channel of the Tennessee River. Whether you look north or south, you see a body of water that can transition in a few minutes from a gentle dark blue, almost silk black blanket to thousands of shark heads reading their white capped teeth to take a chunk out of any prey that passes within their grasp.

But, even the brief presentation of the peaceful or angry river and lake cannot hide some of the not so pristine sights approaching the town.

Today, I am not coming to see anything particularly; this trip is to visit old friends. It has been nearly three years since we left the town for San Jose, Costa Rica and language study. As I leave Waverly, I turn to WFWL at 1220 on my radio. Three years have past since I heard the familiar announcer, but I will never forget the station’s willingness to host my first radio program.

The first spot catches my interest. “Benton County residents—Pay attention because this is day three of Patterson Jewelry’s ‘Guess the Secret Friend and Win a Diamond.’ Just stop by Patterson’s and make the correct guess and you will be the recipient of $500 diamond ring.”

Instantly, I thought, “I know the winner.” But just as quickly I realized I could never win the diamond because everyone would suspect someone’s dishonesty. My guess was a lady that I was certain could keep a secret, but she was also one of our family’s greatest friends. I knew that Mr. Patterson would seek someone just like Mrs. James.

But, I couldn’t help myself. I drove directly to Patterson’s Jewelry. I glanced at the diamond case as I walked toward the owner’s office at the back of the store. He knew me because of my radio program and all the hoop-to-law when we left town as missionaries to Colombia. He invited me into his modest office. After a little small talk, I said, “Mr. Barker, I think I know the name of the secret friend.”

“Yeah, so have a lot of people.”

“But, I have a problem. I know I can’t claim the prize because Mrs. James is one of my very best friends and no one will believe that she didn’t let the secret slip. But, I just wanted to stop in and see if I was correct.”

Mr. Patterson smiled and said, “You are right, Bob. But, I believe you. I think you guessed correctly. You should have the ring!”

I sat quietly, ever so tempted and then replied, “Nope, I can’t do it. It would put Mrs. James in a horrible position. I am not even going to tell her. So, please, let’s make it our secret.”

He replied, “Ok, that will have to be your call.” And, I took my leave. Oh, I saw Mrs. James the next day, but never mentioned the secret friend dilemma.

One year later, on Valentine’s Day I received a special delivery package from Patterson’s Jewelry. It contained stunning diamond ring and a brief hand-written sentence, “Honesty pays!”

“On The Roads of Mandalay”

I have visited orphanages around the world—they always drive my emotion to an unattainable wish to adopt the whole lot of smiling, begging faces.  These love-starved children usually try to make eye contact while silently crying, “Please pick me.”  And, I always leave wondering why the world can’t do a better job of matching lonely homeless children with desiring adults.

God has always urged us to be compassionate with widows and orphans. “The King will reply, ‘Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for the one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” — Matthew 25:40, NIV


We touch down in Yangon, Myanmar in early 2004 with representatives from World Vision International.  Our goal is to visit some of the sites where Cumberland Presbyterian monetary gifts collected through the Love Loaf Program had been distributed.  These ministries included an AIDS support group, a grade school administered by Buddhist monks, a community directed small business loan cooperative, and an orphanage.  Each visit introduces us to unimagined needs.


As we walk the dusty dirt streets of Yangon, we pass small, unpainted wooden homes on stilts backing up to the black waters carrying sewage to small canals running throughout the slums. This is the only option for the removal of sewage when people move onto undeveloped land and the government is unwilling to install proper public services.  Unfortunately, these moves are always the result of choosing between two miserable options. People leave a meager farm life to wiggle through the hellish tunnel of poverty while trying to find a job and some kind of makeshift lodging.  The transition is never easy and for many it means sleeping on the street under a cardboard box and pilfering through the stinking garbage dumps for something to eat.  We walk by a lot of people carrying very heavy loads balanced on their heads.  I wonder how they bear the burden, but they smile and move along chatting with other Burmese they meet.

Burma is often called the “Land of the Pagodas,” but the graceful white or gilded golden structures are absent in the poor communities.


Our guides ushers us through the large swinging metal doors of a building resembling a small abandoned warehouse.  The outside of the building has obviously been white washed years ago and now carries what I assume is the graffiti of area gangs. Inside, thirty 8-12 year old orphan boys and one smiling girl converge upon us with few inhibitions.  The orphanage director tries to restrain the children, but within a few minutes they are hanging on our legs and trying to converse with us in their limited English.  I am ashamed that I have not bothered to even learn the simplest greeting in Burmese.


We receive a brief orientation and are then privileged to take a seat on little wooden chairs from the mess hall so we can divvy out the stuffed animals, key chains, baseball caps, pens, notebooks and a host of other things that we have brought as gifts.  None of the kids are disappointed by their presents, but it is obvious that they are constantly glancing to see what their friends are receiving at the other gift stations around the patio.  The director then asked three of the little boys to show us their sleeping quarters.


The 40 x 20 feet sleeping area is crowded but neatly kept.  The walls are painted light aqua, stained from years of heavy use, giving me the opinion that the caregivers operate on a very limited budget.  Portions of the plaster have fallen revealing fragile adobe and lathe.  The dampness makes the room feel much cooler than the outside temperature.  The concrete floor has a few rugs spread here and there, but the nap has long since been worn down, leaving only the burlap weave.  The forty wrought iron beds are crowded into two rows that run the length of the room with no space to walk between the beds.  The kids must climb in from the foot of the bed.  Despite this simplicity, my mind drifts to an orphanage in Liberia where four kids often share a double bed.  At least each child has a bed to himself.  I see no sheets or blankets, and only two pillows in the whole dorm.  Each bed has a burlap mattress that isn’t over a quarter inch thick.  It is obviously an effort to keep the children from sleeping directly on the supportive wire mesh.  Each bed has one wooden box approximately 2 X 3 X 2 ft. on it.  And, each box is closed and padlocked.  The boys explain that their box contained all of their earthly possessions—clothes, toys, pictures, and books.  I ask one boy, “Out of everything in your chest, what is most important to you?”

He replies, “My books, I love my books.”  And, he runs to open his chest to show his limited treasures.  In his case, his box is nearly full of books.  I nearly cry when I see another little guy showing his favorite toys; two axles and their remaining rubber wheels.  The body of car or truck has long since disappeared.


None of the children have shoes.  Most of them have never owned a pair of shoes in their life—their feet heavily calloused.  Given the glass and nails so prevalent on all the community streets, the bottoms of their feet must resemble thick leather.  They allow us a peek into the kitchen but the darkness is as empty as the shelves.  Everything is prepared over gas heating elements.  I can only assume that the groceries are brought in on a daily basis or the children will be hungry for the day.  I am so overwhelmed by the experience that I move to the less depressing patio to try to find a few moments alone.  Our guides indicate it is time to go, so we wave goodbye to the kids and return to the quite streets.  My mind drifts to Kipling and his poem “On the Road to Mandalay.”

On the Road to Mandalay

by Rudyard Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,

There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:

“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

Come you back to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay:

Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin’-fishes play,

An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,

An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat — jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,

An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,

An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:

Bloomin’ idol made o’mud —

Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd —

Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!

On the road to Mandalay . . .

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,

She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!”

With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin’ my cheek

We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.

Elephints a-pilin’ teak

In the sludgy, squdgy creek,

Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!

On the road to Mandalay . . .

But that’s all shove be’ind me — long ago an’ fur away,

An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;

An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:

“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”

No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else

But them spicy garlic smells,

An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;

On the road to Mandalay . . .

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,

An’ the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;

Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,

An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?

Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and —

Law! wot do they understand?

I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!

On the road to Mandalay . . .

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,

Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;

For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay,

With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin’-fishes play,

An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

Note: You might be interested in going back to the English period of Burma with the help of a song by Peter Lawson that evolved from Kipling’s poem.  It is interesting to me that my mom introduced me to this poem more than thirty years before I dreamed of going there.  My mother was such an incredible farmer’s wife—a Renaissance woman.

Skiing with Grandma

ImageLouise Love Jamison Watkins had convinced my father to drive her from Yarmouth, Iowa to Tampa, Florida in their old blah beige “grand-parent” Studebaker. That was just fine until I was drafted, without a voice, into what was certain to be a nightmare. My father would drive her as far as Springfield, Tennessee, and from there I would accompany her to Tampa.  Each of us would return by plane to our point of origin.  Please note that neither my sister, nor any of my sweet cousins would volunteer to do their duty for their grandmother.

Louise was a very determined lady. She had recently lost her husband, also named Robert Watkins. For several years preceding his death, they had spent the winter in Florida in their so-called winter home. I imagined that this was a small functional house tucked away in a modest retirement community.

Grandma had insisted from the beginning of the planning that my father would bring her to Tennessee in a day drive and that she wanted to press on immediately and drive all night to actually arrive in Florida. That suited me fine since I assumed she would quickly fall asleep and I wouldn’t have to make small talk as we wondered through most of Tennessee, the breadth of Georgia, and the panhandle of West Florida. So with that in mind, I had the prepared myself by taking a couple benydryl tabs to induce an afternoon nap and by tanking up with a pot of coffee over a few hours prior to their arrival. However, when she arrived in Springfield, her thinking had changed and she was too tuckered to follow Plan A. She wanted to sleep and then leave the following morning. Well, my wife and I lived in a very small second-story apartment, and it only had two small bedrooms with one standard bed in each. With this change in plans we quickly decided that Dad and I would sleep together in our bed, Grandma would inhabit the guest bed, and Virginia was demoted to the couch. She had no idea that she had definitely secured the quietest draw for the night.  The three doors between Grandma and Virginia nearly buffered the coming onslaught of “a two person rattle and roar.” Within moments of hitting the sheets my father began a rumble, nearly in tune with Grandma next door, making it absolutely impossible for me to sleep. My grandmother was raising such a commotion that our landlady trying sleep down stairs spoke about the event for years into the future.  I spent the entire night wide-eyed as the bed shook with the vibration of the jackhammer next to me. By sunrise, I was not in a very good mood and really thoroughly exhausted.

The next morning I left with my grandmother in their Studebaker coupe that was packed as if she was moving her entire household, no room remained for any of my luggage, except for a small shaving kit. She had so packed the car so that the small attached t.v. antenna stuck out the window next to the tarp covering all the crap she had tied to the roof.

The drive to Florida was rather uneventful as we recalled the wonderful stories that we had experienced together in Iowa when I was a small child.  We recounted Santa Claus showing each year for Christmas, her teaching us how to crochet, knit and embroidery.  We talked about stringing buttons, sleeping with Grandpa with the utter fear that he would die right next to me, due to the long pauses between snores probably caused by sleep athmia.  I didn’t mention it but I recalled that she always smelled uniquely as if her clothes were slightly soured. Come to find out their sulfur well left its telltale odor on anything that went into the wash. I did recall to her that I hated to drink the water at their house. Despite the water, I loved her pancakes that were charred black around the edges by being fried in lard.

When we arrived in Tampa I was not prepared for what was about to happen, I should’ve expected it.  I knew my grandmother was spontaneous and just likely to change her mind it any moment. Grandma had committed to put me up in a hotel upon arrival.  No such luck.  She looked at me in the darkness of the car and announced, “You used to sleep with me when you were little boy and I see no reason why I should have to pay for hotel bed tonight. You can to sleep in a bed with me in the cabin. In those days I was rather reserved about expressing a negative opinion, particularly to my grandmother. So I began to plan in my mind how to make the best out of a horrible thing. I realized, if I did not get right into the house, into bed, and asleep before she did that I would probably spend another night listening to her outrageous snoring. Much to my dismay, I found that the Watkins winter house was really only a two-room cabin with a cement floor with a few throw rugs placed around. The bedroom was a very small, just big enough for a flimsy double bed, dresser and a small sitting chair. The other room was the kitchen with a small dinette table and two card table chairs. It was hardly what I had expected. The bed was an old wrought iron frame with of simple mattress lying upon rows of metal strips with springs on each end to keep it stable. Immediately, I had visions in my mind of trying to sleep in the sorry bed with my grandmother that far out weighed me. I could only imagine that I would be rolling toward her the entire night. As I surveyed the situation, I also noted that there was no bathroom in this “lean to” for retirees. When I went to ask about it, she said all the public restrooms were just down the driveway a piece. So I made my way down to what I found was a “three-holer”, 2 showers and three sinks. The cement floors had some type of green algae growing in the crevices.  When I returned from the bathroom, Grandma was deeply involved in conversation with some of her old friends that had obviously lived there for a number years. So I excused myself and headed for bed to try to get asleep before she arrived. But when I arrived, I could not get out of my mind the picture of Grandma crawling into bed. I could not begin to get sleepy; sometimes I was angry, the next moment I was at the point of giggle. So I laid there and tossed and turned until I finally heard her arrive. She didn’t turn on the lights, thank God. In the pitch-dark room, she was obviously making her way by the braille method. My mind had it’s own lighting system and was creatively choreagraphing it’s horror movie. Shortly after entering the room I could hear her shuffling on the other side of the bed from where I was laying. She was obviously her pulling off her moo-moo dress-up and then tossing it toward the small cabinet.  Next, she pulled out something from one of the drawers, giving me the hint that she was probably putting on her nightgown.  At least, I hoped so. Then I heard her come back over to the side of the bed again. And I heard a scraping sound as if it were a metal pail being pulled across the cement floor of the cabin.

Next, I heard an additional tin “something” hitting against side of the pail. And then all of a sudden it was as if someone had turned on a garden hose into that pail. A bright light came on in my mind–my grandmother, 6 feet away from me, had pulled out a chamber pot and was literally using the bathroom in the bedroom.

I immediately got tickled and had to use every bit of restraint to keep from bursting into laughter. Within just a few moments my grandmother literally rolled into bed and what previously had been a flat surface suddenly became a small ski slope that drifted toward her. Moments later she was asleep and snoring rambunctiously. Again, I lied in bed unable to sleep and could only hold on for dear life to keep from sliding like a baby right up close to her side. I was so tired by early morning that I admitted defeat, recognized I would need therapy, and spent the last couple hours next to a type of Florida heat I didn’t expect.