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Rev. Joey N. Welsh:
To Take A Licking, And Keep On Ticking

Another Angle, the occasional musings of a Kentucky pastor: To take a Licking, and Keep on Ticking: This article was originally published in the Hart County News-Herald, 29 January 2006.
To see other articles by this author, enter "Rev. Joey N. Welsh," or "Another Angle," in the searchbox.

By The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

When I was a child I always enjoyed the commercials for Timex watches hosted by the respected news broadcaster, John Cameron Swayze. I some ways those television ads were a precursor of today's reality shows, though they were much shorter and far more clever.

Time after time Swayze would show a Timex watch being strapped in some odd place -- on a bucking bronco, or on a baton carried by a dolphin through saltwater, on an outboard motor propeller, etc. -- at the end of which a camera close-up would show the watch still functioning. Then came Swayze's catch phrase, "It takes a licking and keeps on ticking."

I admired the timepieces, but over the years I have admired even more people who have exhibited the same quality, the ability to keep on in spite of hard knocks in life. As I watched the 2006 Gator Bowl I appreciated the way that Louisville's replacement quarterback, walk-on Hunter Cantwell, kept functioning with class even after his nose-breaking poundings.

One of my Christmas presents was a book, 1776, by David McCullough. It tells the story of the leaders of the American Revolution during its earliest year, when victory looked highly unlikely. Those leaders took several early lickings, and they kept on ticking. 230 years later, we still benefit from their stubborn sacrifice.

Another Christmas gift book, Our Endangered Values, by Jimmy Carter, reminded me of the valuable and insightful life President Carter has led since his crushing loss in the 1980 election. Back then many people viewed Carter as a failure. Nowadays, though, I would gladly trade in some of his failures for the grand jury investigations, indictments, Abramoff revelations, and foreign policy miscalculations we now hear about on a daily basis.

Looking over the calendar of historic events, though, I was taken back to another childhood memory of licking/ticking. As a second grader I watched the Presidential Inauguration of John F. Kennedy in January, 1961. In honesty, I do not recall appreciating any of the oft-quoted lines from Kennedy's address. I do remember poet Robert Frost coming to the podium and speaking some lines of poetry. Frost was a national icon, a frail man with fading eyesight, who died but a couple of years later on January 29, 1963, 43 years ago today.

Only when I was in college did I read of Frost's ordeal and triumph that snow-bright day in 1961. President-elect Kennedy had asked Frost to write a poem for the inauguration and come to read it as part of the ceremony. Frost, who disliked composing for specific occasions, declined. But Kennedy countered by asking him to read a poem from 1942, "The Gift Outright," a poem about the American people and their growing sense of oneness with their expanding nation.

It's a solid poem, though 21st Century critics sometimes attack its lack of consciousness about the effect of national expansion on native peoples. As for me, I'm impatient with people who impose contemporary sensibilities on long-dead literary figures instead of viewing them in the context of other writers in that same period. I have no doubt that Frost's work would be quite different if he lived today.

The poem ends with a line referring to the nation, "Such as she was, such as she would become." Kennedy asked if Frost might consider altering the last line to read "...such as she will become" in order to sharpen the optimistic hope in the poem. Frost responded, "I suppose so." This story strikes me for two reasons. First, I can't imagine asking Robert Frost, of all people, to change one of his poems. Second, I find it hard to imagine many of today's political leaders caring enough about a poet's work, or even knowing enough about poetry, to ask him to alter it.

As events proceeded, Frost did write a long new poem containing over six dozen rhyming couplets, with some of the rhymes sounding very forced. This new poem ended with the lines, "A golden age of poetry and power / Of which this noonday's the beginning hour." It is not one of Frost's finer works, not in a league with the beloved Frost poems like "Birches," "The Road Not Taken," "The Pasture," "Death of the Hired Man," or "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

On the day of the festivities the podium was blindingly bright because of the full sun reflecting off the new snowfall. The 86-year-old Frost struggled to read the text of his new poem, then gave up and recited "The Gift Outright" flawlessly from memory. When he got to the last line he asked the audience's forbearance as he altered the closing words in his own graceful, classy way, never letting on that the change was a request from the new President. Frost closed, saying, "Such as she was, such as she would become, has become, and I -- and for this occasion let me change that to -- she will become."

On that day Robert Frost took a licking in that blinding sunlight, and he carried on in inspiring fashion. May we all have the grace to meet life's challenges with the same class and fine spirit shown by Robert Frost on that sunny day over four decades ago. And may we all be resilient enough to take a licking - and keep on ticking. Now, going from the ridiculous to the sublime, let's leave the Timex jingle for the text of "The Gift Outright" by Robert Frost:
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

This story was posted on 2010-01-10 07:21:51
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