from Spots of Time and other Fugitive Pieces

An excerpt from a memoir


“…sits mocking in our plumes.”

There’s another later drama where another dramatist writes about an atmosphere of shame, of our opinions, of our experience, and how we are ashamed of our naked skins. That would be George Bernard Shaw, and Man and Superman.

William Shakespeare was acquainted with the thing, shame and blushing, how shame confounds all, reproachful and everlasting, shame that sole monarch of universal earth. Like Adam and Eve, I guess, not born to shame but surely as they skedaddled from that Garden of Eden with their shame and its offspring, shyness.

So it starts early in life: Cub Scouting which starts in, oh fifth grade, or earlier, say age seven. Webelos, meaning we will be loyal scouts. And other badges, Bobcat, Tiger Cub, Wolf, and eventually Arrow of Light. The latter the highest rank and which means a young boy has completed every pre-requisite to become a Boy Scout. Rites of passage….

The method is much the same, moral character, the oath, the law, the code, you know, “…do a good turn daily.” Self-reliance, three finger salute, and then after 21 merit badges, service and leadership and an extensive service project, another rank, Eagle Scout.

And there you have it, almost as if one has had placed upon the crown of one’s head a braided rope of laurel, an award to a victor, a symbol of triumph, or enough to hang one’s self. Dante is often pictured wearing such a wreath. But he had cause, reason, and was Italian and had written pretty good long poem.

But then there’s this:

What would ordinarily be Middle School, or eighth grade before matriculating. A “tween” year, between age 13 and 14. Winter, then, and January, and if I remember properly 1960 or 1961, and although an Eagle Scout still a late-

bloomer: a bit over five feet tall, and maybe 90 odds pounds of adolescent awkwardness. Yet to fill out, in other words but clear skin.

That time and season for basketball and for a January round-robin tournament in the local high school gymnasium, eight teams invited then pared to four and then pared to the final two and for the first go around, the first four games, the gymnasium packed.

The tip-off was minutes away, the clock ticking away on the score board. Drama. The band would be playing usually big-band music. Two teams would be warming up, if not showing off. It would all then stop. The score-keeper/announcer would say “Ladies and gentleman please rise for our American National Anthem.”

And they would, the whole gymnasium audience. A snare drum would softly drum. The lights would go out. A spot light would be focused on a pair of side doors. The clock would tick away on that score board.

And there we would be: one Cub Scout in uniform; one Boy Scout in Uniform; and me, an Eagle Scout in uniform.

We had practiced this; my job would be to dip the Stars and Stripes and lead the trio out onto the gymnasium floor and into the spot light. We would slow march the one end of the gymnasium and turn left to make our way to the center circle of that gymnasium floor before turning and facing the bleachers where stood the assembled multitude. Snare drums snaring….

There is a laurel wreath of service on an Eagle Scout uniform, a position badge it’s called.

I suffered from it, deep pleasure that is, pride, an inward emotion which in this one spot of time taught me hubris, that corrupt sense of my own personal value, my status, my accomplishments, my laurel wreath, another poor showing.

The spot light followed us along; we stopped and turned left forming a line and then began to slow march toward the center of the gymnasium. But in the dark and in my pride and in my high social status I neglected, and here the spot of time deepens.

The American Eagle tops the pole from which the flag is unfurled. It’s wise to dip the flag pole when passing beneath the basketball backboard and net, lest that American Eagle become entangled in that net.

It can be a vice, you see, pride, which can at one single spot of time, one single moment in the whole of one’s history and to be repeated in home town lore for years if not decades at the local cafe over coffee: “Do you remember that basketball game when little Danny Sundahl.…”

For I am speaking now not of laurels but of shame which sat upon my brow mocking my plumes.

No, not a victim and not a victor but a fool. The more I tried the more that American Eagle became entangled. That single spot of time lengthened. The snare drums ceased. The lights in the gymnasium came up more bright than before, and that damned score board clock continued to tick.

Time….Not the rendered of all things but the warden of one’s sins.

A custodian came forward with a ladder. He unfolded that ladder and climbed the steps to the net and the tangled American Eagle. The clock ticked.

His postural display is something to remember. Once entangled and once he came down from his ladder he gave me back my American Flag and did so by not looking me in the face, in my eyes.

And so it went beginning again in time. The clock ticked, the snare drums snared, the lights went out again, the spot light spotted and we three marched to the center, turned and the lights came up and the band played and the audience sang….

That now to me ubiquitous first line: “O say can you see….” Irony….

That was now years ago, a Thursday night, ensconced in memory.

Was there a positive outcome?

I think these days that at that age there’s a deadlock between an overvalued and undervalued sense of self. But that’s also the point of that Neo-Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney. It interests me only a bit.

If being filled with humility is a positive outcome well, then, there was a positive outcome. Is it a virtue, then, humility? We did not have stained glass windows in our little home town Lutheran Church. One might have wished there would be one window in stained glass portraying humility. Andrew Murray has a book titled “Humility”; it’s a good book and with some editions has a stained glass image of humility, a design by Edward Burne-Jones. There are others in other churches and chapels. Murray’s thesis is that humility should be our top priority; pride seeks only itself and He that sitteth in the heavens laughs because the people imagine vain things.

It’s been in my mind for years. I know that many religions and philosophers believe humility is a virtue. But it’s also been criticized by practitioners of individualism. Humility in other words is pretentious. But I came to believe in time, that warden of our souls, that humility and the experiences that lead to humility can reinforce a certain kind of self-resolve. I disagree with Nietzsche who thought humility was a form of hubris. Better for a man to be unfettered by such pretensions, to be proud of stature and power, and unafraid to step on worms, to be or, yes, not to be.

Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols might be a self-help book for some. I prefer Walker Percy, his Lost in the Cosmos. Humility is paradoxically what gives life its value although I am not a Quentin Compson stepping off a bridge into the Charles River.

But imagine that Thursday night and then school the next day, the hallways, locker number thirteen, the classrooms, and the thought that it might be best just to stay home that Friday, that weekend, and all other days, happiness becoming that ability to stay quietly in one’s room one’s meals placed on the floor outside. Why complicate one’s life anymore? But that would be a mis-interpretation of Pascal who did believe that one should desire to sit quietly in one’s room. But his point was not to escape reality but to confront reality. Man is obviously made for thinking but diversion is trivial and hinders us from ruminating, thinking. Sitting in one’s room is not absolute rest and is not an escape from the wretchedness of life and is not existential solitude.

It can be a moment in which God reveals himself, or so thought Pascal.

There’s a lot of stuff on this, you know, on how paradoxically there must be the affirmation of the self as a humble spirit in order to overcome despair which makes little sense to someone age 13 or so. And it’s true, that Friday, and school the next day is a blank page of becoming and about to be written. And it could have been that next day that despair could have accelerated exponentially. And even to go to school the next day could be understood as a stoic act. Did I say my skin was clear?

The years have passed and I went to school the next day and the next day and all the days after. I did not become a candidate for suicide but did have an odd revelation that Friday. There was a student a few years younger than me, wheel-chair bound, and slowly becoming more and more debilitated. I was walking along and alone that Friday morning approaching the school doors. She was in front of me, and I hurried without thinking to open the doors for her.

Without thinking….

And I helped her through.

She said, “Thank you.” And then she said, “I love you.”

And without knowing she helped me through, or perhaps she did know because there’s humility and then there’s humility and I loved her, too….


Projected Letters is a literary magazine dedicated to publishing the best new and established writing from around the world.


Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in English and American Studies at Hillsdale College where he taught for thirty-three years.