These discussions could turn faster than a cuttin’ horse as Mike asked, “Jim, what do you think of all this hoopla over the definition of marriage?”
They could also gore quicker and deeper than an ornery steer.
In his friends’ eyes, Doug was a man’s man. He always said, “Men don’t cry.” You knew he didn’t. He would say it with the conviction of a person that had traveled through time’s greatest desperations and survived; he was tough, gruff and hard; he was a fourth generation Texas rancher. This year alone; he sold all his cattle before they died from thirst or hunger, he plowed his crop under to preserve the soil for a better year, he watched the worst firestorm in a century blow overhead through the treetops at forty miles an hour. Against that fire, he had made a lonely stand. He nearly died protecting a single tree—a majestic oak centered in a grassy field that marked his family graveyard. Just last week he described lying on his belly where water once flowed, and with his chest pressed against an earth harder than concrete, reached down into a jagged fissure so deep he was unable to see or reach its bottom.
His observation on this occasion was simply, “The only roots alive that deep down, are my family’s.”
Doug’s words and convictions sprang from that well of Texas wisdom dug deeper with each successive drought. His friends knew that similar “dry spells,” as his family called them, had drawn those same words from his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. These men were all clones of one hardy pioneer that had put down the original Wilhite roots. Doug was just the latest of a long line of Wilhite stewards. No, he never cried. It was just life and he didn’t cry about life. Even if it was hard, it was the life he had chosen. He would never show regret. He would never deny it. His dry ashes would float across that desolate landscape first.
He would shrug off admiring words with, “Just another year raisin’ kids, cattle and weeds in Texas.” This was the Doug each man at that table knew so well. He was a fifth generation Wilhite; but the Wilhite roots could die with him. He was estranged from his son.
They had returned to the table and between sips of a refreshed iced tea, Harold looked across the table and asked Jim again, “It seems you ought to have an opinion on this marriage topic, Jim?”
Doug gave the green light. “Jim, if you have an opinion, I would love to hear it.” Jim had been waiting for this invitation. If someone didn’t want to discuss a topic, this invitation would not be issued and the topic changed.
To his friends, Jim was honest and truthful; and although he made things simple, they viewed him as one of God’s most complex creations. He only attended church on Easter Sunday. Every Easter he would complain, “Darn Catholic Church taught me if I didn’t go to mass on Easter it was a mortal sin. I attend just to cover all the bases.” Everyone knew he didn’t go because of the Catholic Church. If so, he would have attended the local Catholic service to curry favor with the Catholic god. Instead he went to the local multi-denominational service to hear about forgiveness, God’s grace and the ongoing attempts of “an imperfect creation to understand a perfect creator.” He would hang this thought like quotation marks around his stories, starting and ending with “I am a truly imperfect creation.” Jim was, if anything, a spiritual creation. His views defied religious classification. His thoughts transcended rigid rules, inflexible laws, eternal damnation and talk of hellfire and brimstone. To him, theological complexities were utter nonsense. He only studied such complexities to extract clear, simple truths and then use these truths in his stories. His friends loved these stories. They were full of life, laughter, love and heart. Any Man of God overhearing them would have stolen them for himself.
Jim chuckled, knowing exactly what his next comment would bring down on him, “Doug, you know I definitely have an opinion!”
Buck, because Rudy’s is a family institution, leaned forward and lowered his voice to a whisper, “And we all know what opinions are like……” and Harold finished it with, “……..and we all have one!”
All five men leaned back and laughed a comfortable laugh. It was that kind of laugh that caught everyone’s attention in Rudy’s. It was the laugh of good ol’ boys sharing something special, something that bound them together. It said to everyone, we have shared tough times; we have fought alongside and against each other; we have argued but we never cross that line that damages friendships. We accept our differences. We accept our varied viewpoints. We are comfortable with who our friends are and yes, who we are. That was all communicated in one continuous, deep Texas laugh by five good ol’ boys just sittin’ and talkin’.
Jim continued, “Now that everyone has commented on my opinions AND my posterior, get prepared to be mooned.”
Old men laugh at the silliest things, but this was why they got together each morning. Hundreds of times they had used that saying and none of them had ever taken this old man’s maxim that direction before. Each of them would smile all day thinking of Jim mooning his opinion at them. Even Doug recovered. “Laughter!” he thought. “If you help me laugh this pain away, you are a good friend Jim.”
Jim had struggled with this topic for thirty years. Seeing in Doug’s eyes a man reeling on a cliff’s edge, he set down his bacon, potato and egg breakfast taco and focused.
“You know I am an imperfect being, so feel free to disagree. Marriage to me is one part man’s laws and one part the love of God, family and friends. Today, so many people take a marriage which is composed of two separate defining events and celebrate them as one; and they get confused. Marriage is a legal contract defined by the state, which everyone is struggling with, but it is also a spiritual covenant defined by God and supported by family and friends, which everyone is forgetting about.
Jim looked around. The questioning looks said he had their attention.
He pointed to a group of younger men studying the Bible a few tables away and asked, “They study the Bible here every Wednesday morning. Do you think they study so hard only to miss its utter simplicity?”
He didn’t pause, “That Bible they are studying is about one thing. It is about God desiring a relationship with man, with us; and his desire to have sons. Do you think they ever ask one of the simplest of questions like, ‘Why is there an “Old” Testament and a “New” Testament with four gospels of love jammed in between?’ Do they ask, ‘What was old that had to be discarded?’ ‘What is new?’ ”
Jim continued answering his own questions, “The Old Testament, just like so many religions, is about laws, legalities and penalties. It wrapped a straightjacket around all men in the hopes of preventing evil, but never prevented it and also hindered good. The gospels were not about fulfilling but destroying the old. Yet it seems many still want to live under the old. The New Testament is about throwing off the straightjacket of Old Testament laws, legalities and regulations and being freed to love God with your whole heart soul, mind and strength……
He paused for a second, “And heck, I even have to love guys like you—which, I might add, is one hard thing to do.”
Everyone smiled and shifted a little in their metal chairs. They had time to reposition, sip on their iced teas and make the uncomfortable, comfortable; but most importantly, it preserved a moment to digest what had just been carefully positioned on the table.
“And marriage, to me, is just like the Bible; disguised in a single wedding ceremony are two covenants; the old governs man’s relationships through the laws of man and the new is about something greater—a covenant of love between God, family and friends.”
Doug looked at Jim intently. He respected Jim but most of the time he didn’t agree with him. But he always listened, and every once in a while, baking out in that mid-day Texas sun with 100+ degree heat and dust swirling all around, he would gain insight into what Jim meant. On a very rare occasion Doug would admit it. Then Jim would say, “I guess it takes that direct West Texas sun to burn some sense into that thick, balding skull of yours.”
Doug would just respond, “That’s why we Wilhites stayed in Texas. It takes tough times to get our attention and Texas gets it. Life, otherwise, is boring.” He would then chuckle because most of the time he would come to the conclusion that Jim was just full of crap—like the dried, cattle meadow muffins he plowed under in his fields. He would think, “That Texas sun can turn both ways Jim, but it does get to the truth of a matter.”
Harold asked, “How in the heck did you get on this thought, Jim?”
“Harold, my wife and I were married twice, thirty years ago.”
Mike said, “You have to remember two anniversaries, Jim? Heck, I can’t remember one.”
“I think the only reason we are still married is my wife’s memory is as bad as mine.”
Harold said, “Or maybe the wedding nights, with the emphasis on nightsssssss, weren’t so memorable for her, Jim?”
“And you had two tries?” Mike questioned.
There was more laughter around the table.
Jim was pleased with the banter. He continued, “We had already set our marriage date as July 1st. Then, because we wanted to finance our house with the Veteran’s Administration, we had to get legally married by a Justice of the Peace in June. So I have always said we were married twice; by the State of Texas in June and in front of God, family and friends in July. That started me thinking about the difference between the two; one enforced by the laws of man and the other guided by God’s love and the love of family and friends."
He paused for a moment and then added, "Sometimes when there is a conflict, we have to decide which is more important.”
Jim straightened up in his chair and sighed, “I think I have said enough. Since I am an imperfect creation, all I will say is caveat emptor. This opinion is worth about as much as you paid for it.”
“Two dollars and ninety-eight cents for a breakfast taco and tea refill,” said Harold. He then slapped both hands on the table to signal the end of the morning meeting and said, “Enough talking for me.” He crumpled up the foil from his breakfast taco and threw it into the white paper bag with his name printed neatly on it. “I’ve got plenty to think about today that I didn’t have when I came in this morning.”
“Amen,” said Mike.
“Yep,” said Harold, “I’ll picture THAT posterior’s opinion all day.”
Jim chuckled as he recycled his trash.
As they exited Doug asked, “Mañana?”
Harold said, “Absolutely, unless we all die.”
And Jim countered, “Or the good Lord returns to send us all to hell together.”
Doug responded, “Jim, if we find ourselves together for eternity, it will most certainly be hell.”
Everyone at Rudy’s knew the gathering had come to an end. Five old men started a new day with community, wit and laughter. These were old men that the world knows are set in their archaic, rigid and inflexible ways; but how little the world knows.
He said to his fathers, “I thought I knew what the two of you taught me. But what you taught me before anything else was how to love a son. I forgot that. I’m sorry. I remember now.” He then politely excused himself, “Pardon me. I have a son to call.” He lifted his light, tough but now less rigid frame from the earth and journeyed across a desolation that suddenly didn’t seem so desolate. He was going home to tell his gay son that he would be in attendance at their God, family and friend celebration. Doug had decided to live in the new and not continue to swelter under the oppression of the old.
Back in the fracture that Doug had just left, his single tear found bottom and splayed. New growth sprouted, true to the Wilhite tradition, in a place where denial could or would never reach.
He walked home grateful for this one hundred degree plus day and its brilliant, burning, baking Texas sun…..
…..and a breakfast morning that started with just old men talkin’ at Rudy’s 360.