Logging On – The Last Musings of Mr. Lincoln

By Henry Childs
Nellysford, VA
Published on our website September 2010

Chapter 1

My childhood was, by all accounts, less than ideal. While I must reluctantly concur with that sad assessment, it comes with a heavy heart. For it comes with a necessary condemnation of members of my family, not all of whom were in full command of their faculties. It is true that my father admired the nectar of the still more than was wise. It is true that my mother was weak in the eyes of many, when it came to matters of flirtation. And it is certainly true that our needs of mere survival had grown to severe proportions long before I was able to grow long enough to adequately meet them.

It is not my intent to draw upon the pity of any man. There are countless instances of those who suffered more greatly than I. It is simply my hope to contend with the issues of importance in my life once I was able to call upon strengths – and acknowledge weaknesses – that were full blown in me by way of the many experiences I alone had encountered. In short, the life I have led once I could call myself a man.

Coming from the far reaches of the wilderness, and born into…difficult circumstances, there is much that I would, and shall, skip over in bringing into focus the life that perhaps many of you might consider of greater interest. I am reminded by friends that dalliance over sweet nothings is preferable to most forms of self-indulgence. But there is nothing like going straight to the viscera of events, when another’s interest is sought. (I do have friends, or at least once did, who quite revel in the celebration of language. It has been a life-long boon to my own ambition to master my own tongue more worthily than not.)

I cannot forget my early encounters with frustration when hoping to garner the attention of a certain young lady whose identity I shall not burden you with here. My efforts, needless to say, went unappreciated. It was at that awkward stage in life – penniless, devoid of worldly experience, uncertain of ambition, even wanting in hope – that I undertook to better my ability to speak. It was a simple ambition, I would have thought. I had been forbidden to read, early on, for reasons that need not be discussed here. But it was at that critical juncture of failure and hope that I resolved to better educate myself, if for no other reason than to “get the girl”, as we used to say.  My Mary would not want to know that the initial impetus to express myself well came at the cost of losing another. We have discussed the role of other women in my life, and I have often made light of my awkwardness in social matters. So she would not be surprised. Disappointed that I had not been more direct with her, perhaps. But not surprised.

Well, with that out of the way, I feel the need to lighten my soul on another matter that seldom enters into discussions these days. And that is the use of old-fashioned expressions in the manly art of cussing. In recent years, my position has been one of overweening pressure to put on what can best be described as “a warrior’s mean”. I have been called on to deliver any number of addresses on the terrible losses our nation has sustained. I have visited the blood-soaked fields and cannon-shattered woods and countless mounds that bear witness to the calamity that has gripped every town and hamlet in the country. I have made every effort to alleviate the suffering of the survivors, and to comfort the kin of the lost. And while I have been praised by many for those efforts, I find it disappointing that not more attention has been paid to my home-grown ability to light a fire beneath the bottoms of some of our more irascible opponents of union. I have even been known, to a few, at least, to call upon the powers of the Almighty to quell the impish and intractable among us, not least of all myself.

My relationship with the Creator, as our Founding Fathers so wisely put it, will be saved for some more salubrious moment. (I hope I have that word in its correct usage. I have been told that I have not always hit the nail on the head with my choice of fifty cent words, but that is yet another – unnecessary – digression. Who can carry a dictionary around at all times, I might wonder, even had I not other matters to concern myself with?)  But the point of this discussion was to be my own capacity for what passes for wit, commingled with the desire to put an opponent on his guard. Or, better yet, his backside. There have been more moments than I care to think when it has been necessary to address an issue from the parapets of embattled discourse. This means resorting to the vocal equivalent of pouring boiling oil down upon the foe who seeks to undermine your position. For me, the favorite variation of boiling oil has always been of a scatological nature. Now that last big word I had to look up many years ago, when I was lawyering out west. It took me two days to find a dictionary that contained the word. That was the nature of the community I found myself in, reflected in the very libraries one might find. It always amused me to discover that the farther I became removed from the course nature of the frontier, the courser the nature of those I encountered. It must have been a conscious effort by those out west to remove themselves, if not literally, then in the manner available to them, from the coarseness that surrounded them daily.

I believe that I have digressed. I hope, in fact, that this entire discourse will be in the manner of a digression, if my ambitions are met. I believe it was the young Mark Twain who makes a point of praising the off-hand comment and has found considerable success in stringing together long series of same, thus constructing stories that better resemble the jumble of life than prefabricated efforts that lack the lilt of reality. I stand in wonder at any such talent, and hereafter will make every effort to keep the warp and woof of life in these words and disjointed thoughts.

Back, at last, to the critical point of self-expression. As mentioned earlier, there is an art, or so I have been led to believe, in all manner of speech, not least of which should be included cussing. This habit is, of course, reserved for the more irascible amongst us. It is a simple tool for those who find the need to refrain from punching their opponents on the snoot. There are many such moments in any man’s life, I suspect, and certainly more than I care to think in my own. The demands of most men’s pursuits bring them perilously close to challenges that are most immediately met by a well chosen word or two -seldom more – that defuse the situation and, at the same time, pronounce the state of mind of the speaker with indelible accuracy. The rattles on the hind end of that certain species of snake come to mind as one of nature’s surest warnings, not unlike the ringing proclamation of those of us who speak our mind with carefully chosen barbs. I am in constant awe of those who can deliver the sword of condemnation while still sheathed in the soft cover of humor. I have often endeavored so to do, myself. And it is those instances that require not only  a nimble mind, but an entire quiver full of phrases. This has been a near constant interest of mine, if truth be told. And as I am the husband and father, even of a sadly diminished number of children, there are ample reasons to practice restraint, even if I did not hold a high office and be condemned to constant vigil by any number of would-be detractors.

And so, the preference for wit. Not the rapier type, of which I have read. But the dull instrument with indelible thud. The sort that leaves the recipient quite certain of intent, without demeaning either participant. If  thought be given to that ambition, the mind could wander for many a day in search of comparable satisfaction. For, in the end, it would seem that satisfaction is what we crave more than most anything else. Appreciation for our endeavors must rank high. As would affection from our friends and loved ones. But, when the bull of reality charges, it is by the horns of satisfaction that we grasp him. It is the lack of ability to grasp those same horns that brings us closest to despair. Or so it would appear to me. I have had some considerable acquaintance with despair, so heed my words closely. It is not a simple chemical compound loose in one’s brain that brings one down. No. It is the loss of the sense of satisfaction from gaining one’s goals, from succeeding in the day-to-day endeavors, from being thwarted at every turn in pursuit of lofty goals, that throws the heavy mantle of melancholy upon one’s shoulders.

I have been told, more than once, that my manner is enough to discourage a mule from bearing burdens. That was most unkind. Not inaccurate. Just unkind. For the boot does fit and I must wear it. There have been several occasions when I have thought less than kind thoughts about the inventor of the mirror. When I see that beleaguered visage staring at me, I am oft offended, as would anyone by such a sight. While on the subject of self-reflection, if I may be allowed a simple witticism, I needs emphasize the call for restraint in self-criticism. There are always enough self-appointed judges out there – there were even back in sunny Springfield – ready to deliver a curdling version of condemnation unfit for the ears of any but themselves. Even the lowest farm boy is not free from such harshness. In fact, there have been too many tales of the whip finding its own sad form of expression on the backs of the innocent, both black and white, for the mere offense of being in reach, both physical and cultural. If I could have effected one single legislation as a lawyer when young, it would have been the abolition of the bullwhip. I have only just come to realize that had that one act been accomplished, the agonies leading up to the need to abolish slavery once and for all might well have been avoided. That is a hard revelation to have to deal with, as Appomattox has finally brought the throes of discontent to a halt.

But there are always regrets. I once said that a man is responsible for his face by the age of forty. I have frequently thought I might amend that downwards, but that is another matter. I might wish to be quoted as having said that a life without regrets is not worth living. Oh, Mary would give me what for for saying that!  All I mean to imply is that without regrets, there can have been no decisions. It is our decisions, and little else, that we can come to regret. The vicissitudes of fate are quite another matter. But, by their very nature, they are beyond our control, and therefore not eligible for regret. And I would be most grateful for meeting any man who has led a fateful life who has never made a decision he lived to regret. And therein lies my prejudice. I needs here admit to favoring those who have chosen the fateful life over the one that might avoid all chance, all possible disappointment. For that person – quite beyond imagining that he can exist – sheds the very warp and woof of life that Mr. Samuel L. Clements so nobly describes in his writing. I trust that I am not being too obtuse here. I merely wish to say that a life uncommitted to taking chances is one that would appear to have little, if any, appeal.

Given my admission that there are no souls abroad in this land – or any other, for that matter – who might travel from cradle to grave without the need to make decisions that could later be regretted does tend to reduce the weight of this entire discussion. Particularly as the departing point was…disappointment!  Regret. Sadness. Melancholy. The whole downward spiral that I have been accused of being caught up in. Would that it were not true. I have, indeed, been the victim of much that might not have been, both of my own making, and that which quite transcended my own poor means to add or detract. Who has not suffered such a fate?  Who in this world can honestly say that he – or she – has not been afflicted with the sorry consequence of the misdeeds of others?  But to become aware of an oversight of one’s own with such costly effect?  This pains me as much as any single issue I have needed to deal with these past many years.

To think that the removal of the evil of the bullwhip might have so altered history that this nation could have reconciled its differences without the scourge of war brings tears to my eyes. The very thought of those enslaved in southern states, and many here in the north, as well, who might have found dignity, if not freedom, but for the harsh presence of the overseer’s whip… It does bring a heavy heart to this lone leader of a fractured land. And yet…I must look upon it as just one more burden to bear. Particularly if my very countenance keeps the mule from his work. Oh, laughter, lift up this heavy heart. Make light of that which cannot be changed. But always grant reprieve to those who seek it in the goodness of their hearts. For without humor, without the healing wrench of gut that is laughter, there is little that we can hope to accomplish when the stern face of need stares us down.

Yale '62

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  • Bill Wheeler (wine) November 27, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Beautifully constructed or reconstructed, Henry, and a pleasure to read. Mr. Lincoln smiles down upon you. Bill W

  • Henry Childs October 6, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    I have responded separately to Al, whose kind words will resonate for some time with me. And the reaction from Steve is as great as anyone could hope for. Many thanks from Mr. Lincoln and his scribe, yours truly, Henry

  • Al Chambers September 26, 2010 at 11:31 am

    Now I understand, Henry, what you have been doing in your beloved and chosen “backwoods.” Compelling writing that bridges centuries. I’ll look forward to your book. I think back to our telephone conversation several years ago when you explained so well why you preferred not to use e-mail or the web but wanted to remain in contact with the class. You have found a way to do both.

    Al

  • Steve Buck September 26, 2010 at 10:24 am

    WOW. Hard to do anything but admire such eloquence.