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The Furniture Business

Raouf: To celebrate 42 years of collegiality, loyalty, love, friendship, and brotherhood, Johnny Wink , whose Arabic name is Hanna Ighmez,  and I are presenting the last Colloquium of this academic year.  Hanna was christened with this nouveau nom in the summer of 2001 on the shores of Lake Serenity, at Beijing’s famous Imperial Summer Palace, in the Middle Kingdom — to which Tom Greer dedicated the last 25 years of his life.  For the baptismal ceremony, Tony, my oldest brother,  served as Hanna’s Godfather.

When Joe Jeffers set up this august platform 41 years ago, he intended to elevate and promote an intellectual discourse on this campus – a kind of high-minded academic and scholarly conversation across all disciples. Since I will retire in three weeks, today’s colloquium, presented jointly with Hanna Ighmez,  is going to be a nostalgic recap of our 42 years in the Furniture Business. And Rachel might disown me as I briefly venture into a hybrid, if not phony, Southern Drawl  that is very alien to my speech pattern.

So, here she goes: This here preezentation we’re bout to deeliver ain’t gonna be no High Church Colloquium. Instead, ‘tiz goin to be a tent reevival with Brother Johnny Wink, a native of Gulfport Mississippi doin the preachin, and brother Ralph McHalaby,  a missionary,  who travelled all the way from Jesus’  blessed Holy Land and Jerusalem to be with ya’ll today, will be leadin  the singin. From Warren Arkansas, Brother Joe Jeffers will pass the offering plate, and all the way from Evergreen, Alabami,  brother Granade’s goin to be doin the recordin to inscribe these here stories in this here  university’s archives.Y’all need to be listening carefully cause brother Wink, given the gift of  speakin in tongues, and ifin the spirit so moves him, might  glosso-la -liate   in multi syllables of  Greek, Latin, German, French, Eyetalian, Spanioli, Comminist  Russian, and even biblical Hebrew and Ay-Rabic, its first cousin.

Rachel tells me I am crazy!  So, on with the show:  When Johnny  and I joined the faculty in the Fall of 1973, we moved into Terrel More second floor, formerly an army barracks, then a dorm, and then quarters for history on first floor, and English on second floor. The carpeting was the ugliest eye sore  indoor-outdoor teal, aquamarine,  artichoke green you’d ever seen. The newest kids on the block, our office furniture, vintage goodwill rejects, was worse than decrepit. Soon after befriending Lavell Cole and Ray Granade, we learned that  they had mastered the art of acquiring new office furniture in a process they called “Midnight Requisitions.”  While they took care of Tom Auffenberg, their history colleague, and a newbie like us, Johnny and I had to fend for ourselves. Thus it was that as Granade, Cole, and Auffenberg upgraded their office furniture, Wink and I would inherit the hand-me-down rejects. By the end of our third year, we’d upgraded to fair to middling fairly passable standards. Long story short,  Johnny Wink, an outstanding educator, a published poet,  a wordsmith and a linguist par excellence,  up and coined the following phrase. “Raouf,” said he one day, “We’re in the Furniture Business,” a phrase that became a metaphor for teaching, and a metaphor Johnny wove into scores of poems and essays.

Johnny:

The Furniture Business

We were in it a long time together, Raouf and I.

We dealt in everything from mahogany to the soft pine

They sell for two-bys downtown.

Trundling, trundling, we moved furniture

From room to room.  We tried to move

Young minds from A to B, or, better,

Tried to get young minds to understand

How to get from A to B or to wherever

A led them.  We worked in wood,

Acquired a lumber room,

And, Lordy, what a great lot of memory

Accrues to us at this starry pinnacle!

How the names start running in our heads:

Beth Polo, Paul Harrison, Hannah West,

Julia Smith, Greg Brownderville,

Ramzy Halaby, Gene Wink….

Keep going and, I’ll swear, you’ll have

To call the fire department to come

Put out what blazes in our heads.

O, blaze of glory that was there

Among our students, as we plied

Our happy trade in the furniture business.

Raouf: Sometime in the 1980’s we graduated from the furniture business to the leaf business. In the Fall of Greer’s first one-year stint in China,  I sent him some turnip green seeds to plant in his  window flower pots, and a whole bunch of fiery red, brown, and orange leaves as a way to send, albeit in an impersonal large manila envelope, a cornucopia of visual imagery to replicate the rich and tantalizingly abundant  panoramic flavors of home in Arkansas.

Soon thereafter, Johnny  began  an annual fall ritual that has lasted even to this day. On his daily walks to school, Johnny would pick a variety of richly colored leaves and either deliver them in person, often placing them on my desk, at my office door, or through the good graces of a student. Thus began the annual tradition of  the Fall Leaf Exchange. While all I could offer were leaves, Hanna would often send a leaf-illuminated page with accompanying scribed   couplets, quatrains, haikus,  sonnets, and elegant prose. In my three Johnny Wink Files (some 6 inches thick) I have scores of such precious leaf-studded missives.

Every fall the Ginkgo trees on our campus, Greer’s favorite tree, shed their rich golden leaves in elegiac leafy blankets hovering protectively over mother earth (in that perennial process we call Fall)  — yet another metaphor for that cycle through which repose and transmutation herald a  rebirth.  And thus it is Hanna, that as you and I and Joe, and Ray add chronological rings to our lives, Fall Leaves acquire a deeper and more profound connotation.  Because the best is yet to come, these  are the very best years of one’s life.

Johnny:

Poem #1

The leaf that I just sent your way,

Arabic teacher and pal,

Is beautiful, sere, and fallen:

Call it Lavell.

 

Poem#2

Leaves

Dark days indeed, compadre,

When rage is in the air

And bombs are viewed as answers

And all is full of care.

 

And yet in these dark days, my friend,

These days of blank despair,

These lovelinesses that I send

Fall also from the air.

 

Poem #3

One Leaf this Fall

 

One leaf this fall: let it stand for a single good man.

Soon will the winds have blown and left but a small trace

Of the leafy glory of summer and greenbursting spring.

Early this autumn. Professor Said went ad patres.

 

Let this one leaf lie, dear Raouf, on your autumnal desk,

Rich in its texture, its color, exquisite design,

A jewel that came down through the air from a most stately tree,

As did our good Edward Said from his dear Palestine.

Raouf: Plucked too soon from our midst and with the pain of loss still fresh in our hearts and minds, we remember the loss of three giants who walked the hallowed halls of this university and touched the lives of thousands of students. Today, however, we wish to paint a buoyant tableau of our memories.

Lavell Cole: Back in the days when I was young, foolish and succumbed to the fashionable addiction of playing the Marlboro Man, I would sneak into Lavell’s office and, for 25 cents, I’d  buy three ehems so as to avoid having to purchase a whole pack.  Three ehems,  I rationalized, took the edge off and were less harmful to my lungs. Lavell would refuse to take the quarter, I would refuse to take the cigs, he would recant, we’d get in a vehicle, drive off campus, and foolishly light up. That was then, and this is now. Reformed in the early 1990’s,  I became a holier than thou former smoker.

Johnny: Lavell, known in the OBU jargon as the Prince of Owls, owing to his melancholic temperament and to the fact that he was a genuine prince among men, delighted in disorder.  He kept one of the messiest desks on campus.  I, on the other hand, kept a very neat desk.  It was Lavell’s pleasure to come into my office and, as we were chatting, rearrange items on my desk in the tiniest of ways.  He was truly dismayed that I kept on said desk what it pleased me to call a “poetry writing kit.”  I had a box which contained poems I was going to send out, envelopes in which to send them out and  self-addressed stamped envelopes in which I hoped to receive a notice of acceptance but more often than not received a notice of rejection.  The poetry writing kit was always left slightly askew whenever Lavell left my office.  How sad I was when a period of ill health punctuated by death rendered The Prince of Owls incapable of messing with my desk.

Raouf: As some of you know, Tom Greer was very creative and surrounded himself with an eclectic array of artistic expressions. He would eventually become hooked on hooking, rug making that is, making exquisite rugs, giving them away as gifts and having them exhibited in regional art shows. And in his occasional childlike mischievous manner, he delighted in referring to himself as the Hooker. 

Johnny:  Tom Greer was giving me pleasure right up until the last half hour of his earthly tenure.  At 1:45 on November 15, 2006, he walked into the outer office of The Bugtruck (Ouachita English Departmentalese for “The English Department”), pointed, as I thought, at the spot where a departmental worker named Christa Bennett usually sat, and said, as I thought, to me and a student, “Don’t anybody put that bitch here any more.”   “What is The White Rabbit doing calling Christa a bitch?” I wondered.  Christa had come in long enough to put her books down and had gone off to check her mail just before the onset of The White Rabbit.  What had happened was that Tom had barked his shin as he entered the office, owing to a bench’s having been placed so that one of its ends was flush with the door of the department.   Tom had said, “Don’t anybody put that bench  here any more!”  Tom showed me where he’d scuffed his shin, we had a last laugh about the bench/bitch matter, and I went off to teach Latin.  Tom went off to his office and within the hour was dead of a massive and utterly unexpected heart attack.  This vibrant man’s going knocked many holes in many hearts. 

Raouf:  Tom Auffenberg had a great  sense of humor, frequently peppering his conversation with witty, ironic, and clever double entendre. While he enjoyed being on the giving end of humorous comments, he was a great sport when the tables were turned around and he was on the receiving end. One day, when we were still quartered in Terrell Moore, some of Tom’s students pulled a prank on him. He perfunctorily pulled down the screen to prepare for a slide presentation and, taped on the screen was the image of a bodacious Playboy Bunny centerfold. With full composure, Tom merely remarked “Oh, My!”  Fully cognizant that such pranks were a part of the college experience, he carried on with dignity.

Johnny:  The scene shifts to another desk, this one in the erstwhile office of Tom Auffenberg, historian par excellence, as affable a man as ever I knew and as dear a friend as ever I had.  Tom became the very antithesis of affable, however, the day he was in his office and on the phone, attempting to order chicken breasts for a banquet.  He was at that time the head of Ouachita’s honors program and the honors banquet was looming.  I wandered into his office along with The Prince of Owls, that venerable haunter of desks.  As Tom talked on the phone, Lavell moved things around on his desk and I went further, grabbing the telephone cord and beginning to wind it around Tom’s neck.  Tom very politely asked his telephonic interlocutor to pardon him a moment, put his hand over the mouthpiece, and bellowed LEAVE ME ALONE!!!  Lavell and I quit his office with extreme haste.

Sometime in the late 1980’s,  when leaf blowers were still a novelty,  I invited Ramzy, our older son, to join me on the roof to sweep the leaves off the skylights. Ryan, still too young for this rooftop experience, begged me to climb the roof; request denied, he vociferously voiced his complaint. Ramzy, on the other hand, advised that it would be prudent to put the newly acquired leaf blower to good use – for,  after all, machines were made to serve man and not the other way around. Thus it was that I shared an essay I had published in the Christian Science Monitor (Old Enough to Climb the Roof, November 21, 1989) in which I compared my children’s rooftop experiences with mine.  Typically, Palestinian architecture is designed with flat rooftops with a sort of crenelated protective circumscribing parapet. One day, while cleaning the roof of our two story stone house, my two older brothers convinced my twin brother and me that an intact World War II German Luftwaffe plane had landed on our roof. As proof, they would hold a piece of metal, barely extended over the edge. Their vivid description of the plane matched perfectly with the images of the German Luftwaffe planes we saw in books in our father’s massive library. It was only after they left for Terra Sancta boarding school in Nazareth, Palestine, that Ramzy and I, now old enough to climb the roof, anxiously climbed the ladder from the landing of the second floor, eagerly anticipating to sit in the cockpit of the vintage Luftwaffe plane # 185. We had every intention of making the aging contraption fly.  Growing up is never easy!

Johnny: 

The Plane On The Roof

The plane on the roof was vintage World War II.

His older brothers assured him it was there.

“There’ll come a day,” they said to him, “when you

And Ramzy will be charged with taking care

Of it.”  And so they waited, R and R.


The years went by.  One day the roof was theirs.

And no plane on it!  O, what a bummer!  Far

Away I childed at my own affairs,

Made castles in the sand in Gulfport town,

Was told some lies more harmful than the one

Raouf was told.  When the whip of truth comes down,

You learn the difficulty and the fun,

If integrity in life is what you’d gain,

Is learning how to build your own damned plane.

Raouf:  Between August 23 and August 31 of 2005,  an ugly monster descended with fury and vengeance on the Gulf Coast of the United States leaving in its wake a gosh awful pulverized terrain that triggered a tragedy of epic proportions, a tragedy so severe, it laid squalid waste to man, beast, and landscape.  3621,  10th St., Gulfport, Mississippi zip 39501 lay helpless as  foul ferocity toyed with it as though it were merely a saltine crackers box. In that same  house a brave man carried his aged mother to the center of the dining room, set her on the dining table, and held on to the chair with every emotional,  mental and physical  faculty he could muster, tightly  holding on to both their lives. Even though the walls came crashing down and water swept through the house, the strong man would hold on to his mother, anchoring her in the safe room of his arms. Badly injured, bleeding profusely, and tossed around like an uprooted tree, Richard Wink never let go of his dear mother, thus saving her life.

And thus it was that Johnny and Susan would help move Mrs. Dorothy Wink to Arkadelphia. “A refugee,” Johnny would call her; he would daily visit her at the nursing home and engage in word games, write and hand deliver lengthy letters in the most eloquent epistolary style, including poems galore. This filial devotion gives a new denotation to the 5th commandment. After Mrs. Wink moved to Arkadelphia, my 32 year friendship with Hanna took on a deeper meaning. Having lost my own mother just a few years earlier (right after the March 1, 1997  vengeful tornado that descended on our small community with a fiendish fury that took ten lives and decimated several neighborhoods), Hanna shared his mother’s love with me.

And from then on I would address her as mother Wink.   She, a refugee from nature’s wrath, and I, a refugee from war; she, dispossessed of her home and a lifetime of precious mementos and personal belongings, and I dispossessed of nationality and identity; she, finding a nurturing and loving environment in her final days, and I, finding a home, a citizenship (at age 31, the first citizenship I would own), as well as a whole battalion of great colleagues and friends .  Two refugees, we were destined to bond. During my visits I would occasionally sneak in a small amount of red wine in a small plastic sprite bottle. “Mother Wink,” I would say, “here is a little tonic the doctor prescribed.”  And what a communion of love and fellowship I enjoyed with Dot, Mother Wink, a charming lady whose wit, gentle, and genteel demeanor charmed me and sustained me as only a mother could.

Hanna, at the local hospital I stood by her bedside on the evening before she passed away. In pain and falling deeper into the abyss, I reached for and held on to her hand  — that same hand that held you when you took your first breath; that same hand that held you close to her bosom to nurse you;  that same hand that nurtured you, the hand that fed you and diapered you, the hand onto which you held when you took your first steps, the hand that wiped your childhood tears, the hand that cleaned and bandaged your wounded hands and knees,  the hand that canned the vegetables from you father’s garden, the hand that cleaned and fried the fish your father caught in the waters of the Gulf, not too far where they lived,  the hand that travelled across the pages of printed materials to take  you to imaginary worlds beyond your reach, the hand that taught you how to read and write and make music with words. And what symphonies you’ve produced?  And what a hand it was, it is, and will forever be. The same hand of friendship you’ve extended to the Halabys, your army of colleagues and friends and a gazillion students on whose lives you’ve left an indelible mark.

Somewhere in the blue yonder Mother Wink met a blue-eyed, fair skinned Katrina, an infinitely more kind, more gentle Katrina.  Katrina Halaby and Dot Wink are pointing at you and me and are saying the following to each other:  “Look at our boys. They’ve turned pine and sweet gum boards into beautiful oak, teak and walnut furniture. They have done exceedingly well in the furniture business.”

And the saints assented.

Johnny:  What Raouf has closed with is, for me, a hard act to follow in both the conventional sense and another sense which I’m sure needs no explaining.  But follow I will by simply saying that my mother richly reciprocated Raouf’s esteem and affection for her.  I cannot help drawing a parallel between my brave mom and my dear friend.  By virtue of being a denizen of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the wife of a sailor, my mother spent almost all of her life by the shores of one great body of water or another.    The last three years of her life, however, found her landlocked in Arkansas, at a nursing home among people who were initially strangers but became friends.  Tom Auffenberg marveled at my mother’s grace under pressure, the way that in her own small way she became a part of that same community that a half century earlier another refugee had become a part of, with much the same grace under pressure.  I speak of course of my and my mother’s heartfriend Raouf Halaby. 

Johnny Wink holds the Betty Burton Peck Chair of English at Ouachita Baptist University where he teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Latin. A native of Gulfport, Mississippi, Johnny is a published poet, a critic, and a popular public speaker. winkj@obu.edu

Raouf J. Halaby, after serving for 42 years at Ouachita Baptist University, has just retired as a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. A native of Jerusalem, Palestine, Raouf is a writer, sculptor, photographer, and an avid gardener. halabyr@obu.edu

 

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