Lynden Harris: The Big Oak

09/01/2014 9:42 AM

09/01/2014 9:43 AM

It was known as The Big Oak. The tree stood on the outskirts of my husband’s hometown. I learned about the Big Oak at this summer’s high school reunion. I was stoked about the gathering. My husband had been president of the student body. There would be stories.

This had been a dry town in a dry county; therefore, the means to obtain liquor were plentiful and creative. The Big Oak was one. Cruise up, roll down your window, and within minutes a figure appeared by your car. You had three choices: a tall Schlitz in a metal can that required a church key, some whiskey whose name escapes me, or moonshine. A short time later, someone reappeared with your order. Faith and a little cash were the only requirements.

Turns out there were many such spots. This dirt road by the pond; that track by the cemetery. By the time you got out to the lake, every other store was a bootleg place. The Moose Lodge actually had a safe door. The front was family-style with tables and food but behind the hidden door was a bar and pool tables,

For a dry county, it was pretty wet.

These spots were kinds of shadow-sites. Like the Old Trading Path that tracked through our front property, a deep long ditch marking hundreds of years and miles. Shadow sites are hidden in plain sight. They are hidden only because we don’t question what we see. There was nothing to indicate the Big Oak was anything but a tree, that dirt track anything but a path, the ditch anything but a site for refuse. Unless you noticed and asked.

Questions are powerful, particularly the ones we don’t ask. A friend recently wrote me about his childhood of not questioning. Adults were distant to his world of “do as you’re told” and “stay in your place.” He learned early to keep his mouth shut and his ears open.

He recalled, as a 3-year-old, standing at the edge a crowd gathered around two women fighting. One was his mother.

The fight had started over her new baby. Suddenly, a white Lincoln Continental screeched to the curb. The door popped open and his grandmother hopped out. Less than five feet tall, she looked like a giant to him, pearl-handled Saturday Night Special in hand. Her boyfriend jumped out the other door, long switchblade at the ready.

His grandmother demanded they bring the baby to her. Then she scooped both children up and left. But not before telling her daughter, my friend’s mother, that she better beat the other woman’s ass.

His grandmother asked no questions about what was going on. Nor did she offer any explanation. You backed-up your family without question and by any means necessary.

The beliefs that drive us are rarely the ones we’re conscious of. The real drivers are the beliefs we don’t think to question, because we don’t recognize them as beliefs. We just see them as “what is.” You can’t question what you don’t see. My friend was many years into his life at a maximum security prison before questioning this particular driver.

Belief dictates truth. A thing is true because we believe it to be so. But if we pay attention, if we question deeply, we often find that the accepted wisdom isn’t.

There’s a well-known story about the airline industry. For decades, the accepted wisdom was that if everyone did their job well, they wouldn’t drop more than one or, at most, two planes a year. This wasn’t a belief; it was truth. You only had to check the data.

Yet someone challenged that truth by claiming it was a belief. What if they never lost a plane? The pushback was enormous. The consensus insisted it was impossible. Yet questioning that truth and recognizing it as belief, then replacing that belief with a better one, led to 13 years of not losing a single major flight.

Often “truth” is simply some form of It must be, because it is. Or, It can’t be because it hasn’t been. Stay within that circular world and those statements hold up. But step outside that culture of belief and suddenly the shadow-sites dictating our behavior stand out against a larger landscape of possibility. We notice the path we’re walking and recognize it as one of many. Shoot, we might blaze a new course entirely.

A former student asked me to answer four questions for her. The first was: What are three things that you consider, right this moment, to be true?

I said I’d get back to her. I wanted to ask you first.

What we consider to be true dictates our outcomes. I’d like to invite the pearl-handled grandmother, the former airline executive, my friend in prison, the bootleggers, and of course, you to join me at the Big Oak. Do some truth-telling and maybe even some truth-trading. I think such a gathering would be just the thing to come up with new options. Maybe even open a few safe doors. For sure, there would be stories.

Lynden Harris is the founder of Hidden Voices. You can reach her at

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