What I Owe Two Men

Thanksgiving’s here and some important things are going on. My son is getting married and he’s probably losing half of his business at the same time, closing one of his restaurants before he loses them both. It’s a dicey dance, the pivot from getting out to getting in. Meanwhile, I head toward my 73rd birthday. Despite the economic confusion and social/political anomie besetting the rest of the country entering 2014, I am ok. Not that I am without regrets, but they are of the woulda-coulda-shoulda varieties. If I choose, I can address some of them in the fifteen or so years I see ahead of me. If I don’t—well, that’s on me, isn’t it?

That I am in this position is a consequence of more than a few variables and one or two seemingly fixed properties. The fixed properties are something like a goodly store of basic intelligence and a surprisingly good memory. I did nothing to acquire them nor do I “deserve” them in any micro-or macro-historical sense. The variables are similarly arbitrarily factored in. For example, my second marriage, difficult as it has been, put me daily in the presence of a woman who is a model of discipline and rigor. These two qualities were obviously lacking from my makeup until I hit my late thirties and met her. I’d say, in passing, that I got the better of the deal on this because what now work as “virtues” for me were and remain obsessions in her. I wish I could lighten her load a bit, but after 30 years I see that’s just not in the cards.

But all that I have learned from her would be useless to me were it not for decisions made by two men. Each in his own way made it possible, most likely probable, that “history” would turn in my favor. I think each knew that.

In the summer of 1957, when I was sixteen, between my junior and senior years in high school, I served an apprenticeship with my father. He was forty, a veteran of the Second World War, who had turned down a commission and the GI Bill’s education benefits to get back to his job in the glass factory. By 1957 he was beginning to feel the consequences of those decisions. The job he had, industrial glass cutting, no longer exists, all the men so employed having long since been replaced by machines. It was a physically hard job and mentally exhausting. It was also dangerous. A glass cutter worked in an open stall roughly ten by eight feet “square.” In front of him was a waist-high table about eight feet long and almost two yards deep, covered in green felt. A rule ran the length of its near and far edges. To start the day carters brought a stack of ten to twenty plate glass sheets, each roughly ninety by forty inches, and stood them on end along the wall of the stall to the right of a right-handed cutter. On the table would be a sheet of paper with the orders for the day. The company might want 100 “lights” of glass 9 x 12 and 50  of 10×14 and so on. The cutter’s job was to extract from the raw sheets the sizes and quantities of the order. Besides the obvious visual imagination called for, the job required a kind of judgment that only experience could provide: each sheet of raw glass was flawed by stones left unmelted in the furnaces and blisters caused by an uneven draw. The cutter had to find those specific lights around and between the blisters and stones pitting the glass he was given. A very small stone here or one blister there might pass but the inspector, who came around regularly throughout the day, could reject some or all of a pack of ten lights, a fate called “rammycacking.” Since the cutter was paid on a piecework basis, he could ill afford a half-morning’s work thrown into the scrap bin at the left of his stall to be taken back to the furnaces and melted down.

This mental strain, the constant demands of instinct and judgment, was in addition to the physical strain.  Glass is heavy and a sheet of glass 90 by 40 is very heavy. The cutter would turn to his right, facing the stacked glass and take one sheet in his hands, about halfway up its length. He would lift the sheet and turn to face the table, the glass between him and the table edge. He would then turn the sheet ninety degrees to the right so that his hands were at the top and bottom of the now horizontal sheet. Lifting with his bottom hand, his right, and loosening the fingers of his left hand at the top of the sheet, he would then flip the sheet of glass into the air ever so slightly so that it would fall exactly flat on the felt top of the table. From there he could begin to cut.

Most cutters were wounded men. Everyone I knew had scars on their hands, faces, or arms. Some has lost an eye, a finger or two, a couple of toes. There was safety equipment but not everyone wore it and in my father’s day men of the generation prior to his had worked without much gear at all, through the Depression and the war and some even before that. The trade had come to America in the late 19th century with Belgian glass makers and most older cutters had names like Desire and Hermes and LaBenne. Since this was a guild trade, most entered by serving apprenticeships with their fathers or brothers or uncles. A few, like my father, had been “adopted” by single men with no families. The man who took my father in had lost a hand to the glass and worked with a two-fingered metal claw that was fitted with rubber tips. A safety-conscious cutter wore a thick leather apron that covered him from his chest to just below his knees. He wore steel-toed work shoes, thick leather gloves, and padded cotton sleeves set with steel grommets that reached and covered his shoulders. Most wore a cap of some kind. You can imagine how hot this outfit was in the summertime. That we lived in Louisiana that summer made it even worse. That is why some of the younger cutters worked stark naked beneath the equipment. Walking down the workroom past the stalls where the men faced their tables and turned their backs on the world was quite an experience.

Once the cutter faced the glass on the table, the game was on. The cutting tool was an industrial diamond set to the precise angle in the tip of a cartridge held in a beveling clamp at the end of a small rod. The length of the rod and the swiveling clamp allowed the cutter to set the right attitude of his draw down the glass, from the far edge of the table toward him at the near edge. And so it went, for eight hours a day: lift, turn, turn, flip, measure, cut, pray for the best. Radios played, men sang, told jokes and stories, cursed the inspector. This was the world I thought I wanted to enter.

It took some convincing to convince my father to take me on, as he had done both his younger brothers in the past, but many of the sons of my father’s friends were starting, boys I knew from high school and from years of company softball games and picnics. It was almost a rite of passage, I suppose. My father eventually gave in and one morning in June of 1957, union card in my pocket, badge on my ball cap, apprenticeship book in hand, I walked with my father through the factory gates. I have to tell you that I loved it, for all the boyish-mannish reasons you can think of. I loved watching my father work. He was a patient teacher by example and instruction. He was well-thought of by his comrades and moved with ease through the factory. We sweated through the summer together and as school approached I asked him how the apprenticeship worked in the school year. Only then did he tell me that I would not be coming back. He had let me work with him because he knew it was necessary for my growing up, but he said it was not necessary that he deceive me. He told me that he knew I thought glass cutting was a good job but he wanted me to know that it was not.  Piece work pay for a dangerous job was the worst kind of life. The job was seasonal, as well, a fact that I had understood as we moved around the country year after year, from factory to factory, chasing open furnaces and unfilled orders, but I had no idea what that meant financially, he said. I remembered nights we had slipped out of town a car length ahead of the landlord—or the sheriff, probably. There had been a few flush periods, a few months at a time. Once we had owned a house, but once we had lived in a three-room shack with no hot water and a bathroom shared with the people next door. I don’t know if my father thought of himself as a happy man, a fortunate man. He seemed so to me. But by many measures his life was hard and worrisome and unrewarding. Whatever was the case, he did not want any of it for me. “You’re going to college,” he said. And I did.

In the spring of 1972, George Worth called me into his office. George Worth was chair of the English Department at the University of Kansas where I was a graduate student. That semester I had finished my orals and writtens and had drafted the prospectus for my dissertation. My plan was to refine the draft and start researching and writing in the fall while I taught Freshman-Sophomore English as a senior assistant instructor. It was how it was done there. Three, maybe four years stretched out in front of me, years of teaching and writing and enjoying one of the best kept secrets of academia: the pleasures of life in Lawrence, Kansas, university town par excellence. Then, as the script went, I would apply for assistant professorships all over the country, take just such a job somewhere in a small town, start smoking a pipe, and settle in to a storybook life. I was already married and had three kids and a house. Like my father, I was a veteran. I had gone to college, married, joined the Air Force, gone to war, got out and, unlike my father, had taken the GI Bill and headed off to graduate school in pursuit of a PhD. While in graduate school I bought a house and we adopted a son, a young prince to be spoiled by his two sisters who had come along biologically some years before. My daughters were in grade school and my wife worked at the university library. Lawrence was inexpensive, safe, and comfortable. One could live there on two small salaries and, in fact, many doctoral students stayed forever, never completing their formal work toward a degree, content to be of the university and the town.

So, my father had been right, although I missed the masculine world of the factory; the Air Force had filled that gap a bit, but the Officers’ Mess is not the same as the factory floor. Neither was my carrel in the stacks of the library anything like my father’s work stall; it was smaller and darker and lonelier. Academic life is an exercise in delayed gratification; its pleasures are a long time coming and even then are few and far between. But if you are fit for it, its rewards are satisfying and the excitement of ideas is every bit equal in value in the search for a good life as the sense of a cut well-placed across an expanse of clear glass or the feeling of release that comes on disconnect after a mid-air refueling at 35,000 feet. What separates a life of scholarship from the factory and the flight line is its solitude. In the humanities, ironically, the creation of new knowledge is undertaken alone, in isolation from your peers for hours every day. Decisions are made alone, attempts at meaning are crafted alone, failure is absorbed alone. So it was that George Worth’s act of singular kindness stands out for its very performance.

Professor Worth had just returned from a national meeting of chairs of departments of English when he asked me to drop by his office. I did not know him well, had taken no course from him. Because I was a bit older than the other students, I had chaired the graduate student organization and sat on a few committees in the department, this, of course, being the new egalitarian Seventies on campuses everywhere. As a consequence of all this, I knew him, but only at a distance. Graduate students were, then as now, still mendicants, seeking knowledge and comfort where they could, one course after another, until finally they were allowed to form a dissertation committee. This group of faculty would, in theory, guide the student through the writing of his dissertation. In fact, it was usually only the chair of the committee who had anything like a real power to shape the thesis. This person was usually the man or woman with whom the student had taken the most courses or the latest course in a given specialty. Some such relationships were good, and some, too many, were not. But George Worth was not on my committee and I had never been in his office on personal business of any kind. I had no idea what he wanted to see me about.

The gist of his desire to see me was simply that he had become convinced that there would be no jobs for new PhDs in our field for years to come after the next year. He had never, he said, wanted to send his department’s students on to the job market without their having finished their dissertations but he was, he said, almost certain that these were extraordinary times. I haven’t any idea how many of us he warned, I think none but me, actually, and I am not sure why he singled me out. It was clear to me, however, that I was at risk. I had three children and I had not written one word of my dissertation. What if I never found a job?

That semester I sent out 150 letters of application. Some of the jobs I applied for seemed to fit like a glove, if I had actually had a degree, but many were shots in the dark. The return on my effort was startling. Without a word to show except a hastily drafted proposal, I got seven interviews and three and ¾ job offers. I took one, the one in New York. (The fractional offers—not part-time positions but offers tendered yet at the same time withheld—deserve their own little stories). The next year, and for almost a decade thereafter, the market for PhDs in English dried up and half  of a generation of scholars was lost.

I went to New York, stayed there, got tenured, got promoted, eventually retired. Had it not been for George Worth, none of that would have happened, I’m sure. The strange thing is that, except for formal occasions and the annual holiday party, I never spoke to George Worth again. We would pass in the hallway during the year before I left and he would smile and nod and I would smile and nod. He was a pleasant man but unknown to me, really. And me to him, I am sure. What kindness prompted him to call me that day?

So, two men told me, don’t stay; go. Go now while you can. Knowing when to leave seems to be the trick. But then, knowing when to stay might be harder. I wish I really knew. I’m thankful, nevertheless.

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Setting the Record Straight

There was an email/post/blogpoint going around for a while that captured the essence of the Culture Wars. It purported to be a history of the world in the telling of which “conservatives” had done or invented everything of value and “liberals” had contributed only the irrelevant or the exploitive. When it first appeared, many “liberals” tried to argue with it, point by point, saying, “No, we didn’t!” But there is no point arguing with satire. I mean, one can just state the truth and hope for the best. For instance, here is how things REALLY happened:

WORLD HISTORY 101

Humans originally existed as members of small bands of nomadic hunters/gatherers. They lived on deer in the mountains during the summer and would go to the coast and live on fish and lobster in the winter.

The two most important events in all of history were the invention of beer and the invention of the wheel. The wheel was invented to get man to the beer. These were the foundation of modern civilization and together were the catalyst for the splitting of humanity into two distinct subgroups:

1. Liberals, and

2. Conservatives.

Once beer was discovered, it required grain and that was the beginning of agriculture. Neither the glass bottle nor aluminum can were invented yet, so while our early humans were sitting around waiting for them to be invented, they just stayed close to the brewery. That’s how villages were formed.

Some men spent their days tracking and killing animals to B-B-Q at night while they were drinking beer. This was the beginning of what is known as the Conservative movement. To wit, after drinking a lot of beer and eating a lot of meat, many men would pass out or throw up and then pass out. When they woke up, many found that other men had taken their stuff and run off with their women. So, they founded “conservatism,” a movement to conserve what they had got while they drank and passed out. “Property” became the foundation of this movement–what I have is my property and must be conserved. What you have is potentially my property and when I get it from you, it must be conserved as mine, especially if I got it while you were drunk and passed out.

Other men who had stronger stomachs and were better drinkers (as evidenced by their rapid evolution from relatively weak beer, which even at 3.2% has the capacity to render Conservatives stupidly drunk within minutes, to wines and Scotch whiskies, neat) realized that by offering enough beer and a warm place to lay down, they could get the Conservatives to bring all the meat to a central place. Then, while the Conservatives drank beer, threw up, and passed out, these guys made lists of the poor and ill and defenseless and made sure that they got their share of the meat in return for doing the sewing, fetching, and hair dressing that so fascinated the Conservatives when they were awake and/or sober. This was the beginning of the Liberal movement.

Some noteworthy Liberal achievements include the domestication of Conservatives, the invention of the individual, face-to-face sex, and the concept of Democratic voting to decide how to divide the meat and beer that Conservatives provided.

Over the years Conservatives came to be symbolized by the largest, most destructive land animal on earth, the elephant. Liberals are symbolized by the mule, the animal whose ability to pull the plow that broke the plains so grain could be planted and more beer could be brewed and civilization ensured, has been enshrined in the literature and art of the ages, including a magnificent series of films.

Modern Liberals avoid beer so as not to be confused by Frenchmen with Conservatives but will, if pressed, sip an imported beer (with lime added). They eat raw fish but like their beef well done and in very small portions called “medallions” (Conservatives prefer meat to come in slabs; most Conservatives are overweight, have high blood pressure, and die young, which is what makes them so testy; advocating a life style that provably leads to the premature extinction of your own kind is intellectually hard to reconcile). Liberals also like sushi, tofu, and French food including lots of red wine and are invariably slender, well-groomed and live very long happy lives with many serial wives and mistresses. Another interesting evolutionary side note: most Liberals have much higher testosterone levels than Conservatives as evidenced by the higher incidence of baldness among Liberals and African American basketball players. Most social workers, personal injury attorneys, journalists, dreamers in Hollywood and group therapists are Liberals. Liberals invented the rule that a fly ball behind third base belongs to the shortstop to prevent Conservative infielders from injuring themselves and losing the game in the last of the ninth.

Conservatives drink domestic beer, mostly Bud or Miller Lite. They eat red meat and still provide for their women. Conservatives are big-game hunters, rodeo cowboys, lumberjacks, construction workers, firemen, medical doctors, police officers, corporate executives, athletes, members of the military, airline pilots and generally anyone who works productively. Conservatives who own companies hire other Conservatives who, not being Liberals and so not having careers but needing jobs, have to work for a living, and they pay them as little as they can, thus “conserving” their own wealth.

As much as Liberals would like to spend their time producing stuff, they realize that making it is only half the battle, so they take on the thankless task of governing the producers and deciding what to do with the production. Otherwise, while the Conservative producers, having drank, thrown, up, and passed out, were unconscious, other guys would come steal their stuff.

Liberals believe Europeans are more enlightened than Americans and so work very hard to protect their Conservative friends from Europeans. It is this impulse to protect their Conservative friends that constitutes the basic weakness of Liberals, since Conservatives seem to have little more on their minds than the absolute eradication of Liberals from the earth and their embedded-ness in Hell (which, by the way, is also another Conservative invention worthy of notice; see, for example Alighieri, Dante and Santorum, Rick) or in Europe, not really part of Earth, actually.

Finally, this note: because Conservatives privilege action (or speech; the US Supreme Court says they are the same, which is why donations of millions of dollars from rich white men to conservatives is not unconstitutional; what looks like an action is really a speech) before thought, it is hard to know what Conservatives really think, or if they do. One can only watch their actions. In fact, if you are in the presence of Conservatives, it is always good to watch their actions—and your back.

 

Here ends today’s lesson in world history:

It should be noted that a Conservative may have a momentary urge to angrily respond to the above.

A Liberal will simply laugh and order another scotch and text message his secretary to remind him to send his Conservative brother-in-law two tickets to the ballet, just to piss him off. And there you have it.

 

ON THE RUN….AND BACK

November 18, 2013

  

We left Oklahoma for West Virginia. It was a surprise for me but of course it was Dad moving us as far away from the poet/plumber as he could. “As far as he could” was limited by the prospects of a job and that meant we went where there was a glass factory. That would change years later, moves again prompted by my mother’s appetites, but then, in those first postwar years, we went where the glass was being made.

 Laboring on the piece-work system is not the same for everyone caught up in it. This was particularly true sixty-five years ago. If you were young and single and in good health, the idea of being paid in ratio to your productivity, piece by piece, could seem sensible. A strong young man with no one dependent on him could make as much or as little out of the job as he needed it to be. But for a married man with kids, edging into middle age, slowed by the effects of bad diet, cigarettes, whisky, and the inevitable industrial accidents generated on what was essentially a nineteenth-century work-floor, piece-work seemed increasingly like a pact with the devil, made at eighteen and called in at thirty-five.

 This system drove the labor/capital relationship throughout the glass industry in the late 1940s and through my childhood and adolescence; it shaped the calendar of my life, determined where I lived, constructed manhood, defined marriage, fixed abstractions like authority, respect, and privilege. The mechanism was fear, of course. My father lived in fear that the factory would shut the tanks down and we’d have to move yet again. By the time I was 13 we had lived in Shreveport three different times, Fort Smith, Okmulgee, and Charleston, West Virginia. Even in Shreveport we moved often, every time in response to the productivity of the glass plant. Sometimes we had a bit of money and Dad and Mom would buy a house; then they’d sell it at a loss and we’d move back down the scale to an apartment or a shotgun house we could rent. There were times when we left in the middle of the night.

 This all weighed on Dad, but he had a kind of optimism that protected him from despair. I don’t know how deep-seated it was, how fundamental to him that trust in the future was, but I do know it was basically unwarranted. I’ll never fully understand how he maintained his belief that there was enough in the moment to sustain him until better days came, since they never did. Nevertheless, he had a kind of love for the day at hand that colors all my memories of him. But if I were to be truthful, I’d have to say that I have from time to time suspected that it was all performance, that at his center he was deeply hurt by the world. And if that is so, then the most amazing thing about him may well have been the very perfection of performance.

 My mother, on the other hand, was ruined by disappointment. If our intermittent slides into poverty kept Dad awake at night, at least he woke every morning, before either of the other of us, to make coffee, read the paper, and sing softly to himself before he came to where I slept and eased me into his day. The older I got the earlier he invited me. My mother could rarely face the day and theorized that if she woke too suddenly she would be out of bed and into life before her soul could get back from its endless wandering and into her breast. My mother was, I think, never at home.

 It was a better place she wanted. She had none of Dad’s optimism; she performed despair and loss. But let me qualify that. Despair and loss were not her performances; they were her life. Her performance was as accomplished as my dad’s but it was somehow hollow. My dad’s performance was the same in the kitchen at seven in the morning as it was in church on Wednesday night at prayer meeting or at the Corner Bar on Saturdays teaching me to shoot pool. Mom’s genius was to mask the very real blackness of her vision of the world with glittering wit, song, beauty. She performed “performance” itself. Most people who thought they knew her knew only that performed self. Even her grand children were never allowed to see beneath the spangles.

 That performance covered one other of my mother’s attributes, her anger. As she saw things, the world refused to take her seriously, to see how really smart, clever, talented, beautiful, she really was, so she performed an imitation of her real internal self. But she harbored an unforgiving anger at the world’s refusal to see the real her. The tragedy was that my father and my mother were thus locked into a struggle neither could win, a struggle for the other’s soul. The world my father had inherited from his country folk parents accepted poverty as the default position from which you negotiated the day’s pleasures, if any were to be had. And if there were none that day, some would come another day, “further along,” as the spiritual he loved promised. He likewise loved the Louisiana Cajun concept of “lagniappe;” it was that unexpected something carrying pleasure that came along on top of the everyday deal you had just made with the world. If he had, as I sometimes suspected, penetrated to the false promise of that hope, he never failed to perform its story. The performance itself held him up.

 But to take my mother seriously, to take as his responsibility the maintenance of her text of the world as bitterly lacking in all that she needed, would have crippled him, I think. And it did. The daily evidence of the world’s neglect, as my mother experienced it, was the very poverty my dad had woven into his performance. To enter her “slough of despond” would have drowned him. And yet he wanted to “save” her. He kept a journal later in his life, at her insistence, and in it he records his daily regret that he cannot ease her pain at being trapped in such an ungrateful world. This all comes long after the days of her infidelities and long after he had left the glass factory to help her chase the love she needed less from him and more and more from a world that barely suspected she existed.

 

And so, the poet/plumber, the Boy Scout leader, and the acting coach.

 

Veterans’ Day and we continue with the story of the unnamed veteran in my life

November 11, 2013—

After WWII, when my dad decided to forgo an army career, he also turned his back on the GI Bill. I think he regretted that, later; he should have gone to school but all he could think of was getting home to us and getting back to work. Years later, when he was in his late 50s, Dad did enroll in a college course. He took Freshman English. His report was that he had done ok but it took too much time away from his life. My mother, on the other hand, wanted to go to college. Both of her sisters had done so and only the Depression had kept her from enrolling. So it was that soon after we moved to Okmulgee, my mother went to school.

The closest college was a branch of what was then known as Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State University. The A&M universities had begun as land-grant colleges in the 19th century. The “A&M” stood for “Agricultural and Mechanical” and the institutions had a responsibility to provide such extension services in farming and local industry as were fitting. The branch nearest Okmulgee was housed on the grounds of a former prisoner of war camp, one of more than thirty built in Oklahoma during the war to hold German POWs. The locations of these camps were regulated by three basic criteria: 1) they had to be in a temperate climate zone; 2) they had do be at a distance from major industrial and urban areas; and 3) they should be located in areas where the prison population could alleviate agricultural labor shortages caused by the war-time draft. Most of Oklahoma fit the bill.

When my mother began classes there, the college still looked like a prison camp. The German prisoners were gone (although some had stayed after the war to live in Oklahoma under a relocation program) and the barbed wire had been removed, but the air of a stockade hung over the exercise fields, garden plots, latrines, motor pool, and cell block. Courses were taught in barracks converted to classrooms and the camp admin buildings housed the library and the offices of the deans and registrar and the like. There were no tall trees, no “campus” green, no quaint walks or shady nooks. There was nothing collegiate or romantic about the place. Not that that made any difference to my mother.

I wish I knew more about that year, as far as what courses my mother took, what interested her. All I know is what she told me about the place many, many years later as she and I drove upstate from New York City to the little house in the country my wife and I had been renovating for twenty years. I had promised myself that I would ask her about that second year in Okmulgee because I had been haunted for quite some time by a memory of a remark my grandmother had made. I was in college then, living with her to save money, and we had some privacy issues between us, mostly that she wanted to regulate my comings and goings with a bit more Methodist rectitude than I was inclined to welcome. Too many infractions of her rules on my part drove her to exasperation one evening and she told me that I was just like my mother; that she, too, had no respect for decency and that was why she had had an affair. It was a wonder, she said, that my dad had not left her back then in Okmulgee.

Well, dear reader, I ignored her angry revelation; that is, at that point in my adolescence I had little interest in what my mother had or had not done so long ago and certainly was not interested in my grandmother’s moral indignation about it or me. But as I got older and became more familiar with infidelity than I care to remember, that conversation returned to me from time to time. And as I watched my parents age and came to understand more what tensions and betrayals slept beneath most marriages, I also came to believe that those that underlie their marriage were my mother’s betrayals. So it was that as we entered the last stretch of the New York State Thruway that would take us to New Paltz and beyond, I asked her.

Yes, she said. It began in her first English class. It was as simple as that. She loved writing; she was certain she was destined to write. (And she did write for the rest of her life from that point forward. She wrote plays and poetry and short stories and journals and articles and songs and jokes and began novels and more stories.) In that class she met a man. A writer. A veteran. Returned from the war. A plumber who wrote poetry on the GI Bill. A single man, he lived at the college, in one of the barracks fitted out as an ersatz dormitory for the men. No women lived there; my mother was one of the very few women at the college.

How, I asked, did you do it, then; “it” was, of course, the “it” at the center of all such betrayal. How did you do “it” in a dorm room?

“Oh,” she said, “we didn’t. Not there. At home.”

“Home?”

“The house, you know, in town. Your dad would go off to work and you would go off to school and he would come over or I would go to classes and he would come back with me. Of course we met at night for a beer or just to drive around, but we only had sex at the house. In the daytime.”

She thought she was in love and he with her and he  wanted her to come with him, leave us and move…somewhere, not the dorm but maybe a house in Tulsa. She wanted to go and she told my dad all this. I can’t believe that I knew nothing of it. In movies the sensitive child (and I was alert, if not particularly sensitive) picks up the cracks in the façade, senses the deeper flaws, feels intimations of the train wreck that is to come. Nothing; I knew nothing. And I never did. Not even, to this day, the veteran’s name.

How had my mother and father so reconciled that moment with the rest of their lives together? How could I have not known something had gone wrong? As I look back I see other episodes as behind a scrim coming clearer; other betrayals? Fights that had no origin that I could fathom then make sense now. Once about five years later, at a time when we were very poor, so poor that other kids from school were too embarrassed to come to my house to play, she threatened him with a kitchen knife and I stood there as he wielded a chair, like a lion tamer, in front of him, between him and her, between him and the knife. I don’t know how it ended; nobody died.

I think a lot of that was the poverty. I didn’t know then just how poor we were and maybe family who lived near us then would say it wasn’t that bad. It was not oppressive to me but it must have weighed on them terribly, especially on her, since she had, as you can guess, given up the poet/plumber. How that happened and more about poverty and my mother next time.

November 4, 2013

 

I restart this blog a week before Veterans’ Day. I want to tell a story about my life in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, in 1948 and ’49 and, fittingly, veterans play a considerable part in it.

 

I mentioned many months ago that when my father came back from Japan in 1946 after turning down a commission in the Regular Army, he went back to work at the glass factory. His younger brothers, Ted and John Allen, were already back, Ted from the Navy in the South Pacific and John Allen from the army in Europe. Two other uncles had been in the war; my mother’s brothers-in-law, Carl and Bus. Bus had been an officer on a destroyer in the Pacific and Carl had been a Seabee on Iwo Jima and Tarawa. Except for Carl, none of my uncles seemed dramatically touched by the war. Except for Bus, they had all been rowdy lads, hard workers and hard drinkers, but Carl came back wounded somewhere in his “soul” and his alcoholism haunted him and my aunt for years. He lived a long time and endured too much pain along the way, to my taste.

 

I knew other veterans. Our next door neighbor when we moved back to Shreveport from Baldwin was a tall, very thin, very quiet man. He was also very intense and he had a long scar on his left leg. When he mowed the lawn in khaki shorts, you could see it run from somewhere on his hip from under the shorts and down the side of his leg to the back of his knee. He limped. And one night, not so late, just after dinner, the police came and arrested him because he had beaten his wife. My dad said it was too bad, that we should not be too quick to judge him, that he had been on the “Death March,” the Bataan Death March.

 

The husbands of two of my mother’s close friends were veterans and I liked to hear them talk about the war. Jack Davis had been some sort of officer behind the lines and years later, when I read Catch 22, I recognized Jack in Milo Minderbinder. Jack was an insurance salesman and made good at that. His wife, Eddie, was probably my mother’s best friend, ever. She was a brash, funny, almost manic woman who, nevertheless, took my mother seriously; that was really all my mother ever wanted, to be taken seriously. Si Garvin and his wife, Werdie (no, I have no idea what it stood for), were also close to my mother and so to Dad. Si was a printer but in the war he had been a tank commander in North Africa. He told me once that to make coffee in the desert they would heat tin cups of hot water on the engine manifold, crack coffee beans between their teeth, hold them there, and then suck the hot water over them through their teeth. I believed him then and I believe him now. For many years I could lie awake at night and wonder what it would be like to command a tank in the desert.

 

These folks all lived in Shreveport and so at least once week for a year or so, at one house or another, the war was replayed for me as men and women sat around kitchen tables and played poker or drank coffee or played softball and then picnicked in the stands. My dad and his brothers played on the glass factory softball team; Ted and John Allen had each served an apprenticeship with Dad to become glass cutters and so the three of them worked together and played together.

 

But then the factory cut production, sometime in 1948, and Ted, the youngest, was laid off. Anxious ‘phone calls turned up a couple of spots in Oklahoma and Ted begged my dad to come with him up there, to protect him, in some way that even now I don’t really understand. Dad was very much respected in the union and there had been talk of getting him to run for a national office in it. Men listened to him, because he was a fair man and a good ball player. Ted was very young. Maybe he was just afraid to leave home again.

 

And so we moved to Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Uncle John Allen stayed in Shreveport; I think men at the factory thought Dad was foolish to move but admired his dedication to family. In a guild in which membership was got only by being handed from father to son or brother to brother, family relationships were important to say the least. I still remember the entire Hermes family and the Desires, the Boulangers.

 

But Okmulgee it was and off we went. Here I encountered the last of the veterans with whom we are concerned. Actually, there are two men about whom I want to write; I only met one of them and I want to tell you about him only because he was the most mysterious man I had ever met. The other, however, had a deep and lasting effect on my life, and not for the good.

 

In Okmulgee, we lived in the Beauclair Hotel. It was a regular hotel but it had some apartments as well. We lived on the third floor and below us, on the second floor, lived the Pickards. For the first year we were in Okmulgee, Paul Pickard was my best friend. We were in the same grade at Woodrow Wilson Grammar School; we walked to school and back together every day and on weekends one or both of our dads would take us out to the country to shoot our bb guns and just kind of run wild where we wouldn’t get hurt. The hotel had a television set in the lobby and it got a signal from Tulsa. Paul and I would camp in the lobby after school to watch tv and wait for our fathers to come home from work. I don’t know what Paul’s dad, Mr. Pickard (I never knew his first name, I’m sure, and I never heard my father call him anything but “Mr. Pickard”), did for a living but he was a veteran. I could not really figure out what he had done in the war.

 

The war was already for me a mysterious and romantic place. Grown men that I knew had left home and seen and done things that, however much they revealed at those poker games they allowed me to watch or after the ball games at which I had sat and adored my father as he squatted behind the plate, mask tilted back on his head, laughing between pitches, were never quite everything they could say or ever would say. Mr. Pickard, I was certain, had done some very interesting things about which he would never speak. There were two clues, however. One was that I could swear I heard him speaking French in the kitchen one Saturday. The other was his cigarette pack. It was blue. It had French writing on it: “Gauloises.” The cigarettes that came out of that pack didn’t look at all like the Chesterfields my dad smoked (until a worm crawled into his mouth one day just after he had lit up; he switched to Pall Malls) and they certainly didn’t smell like them either. Mr. Pickard would smoke them one after the other quickly at the kitchen table, writing in a notebook and coughing. A spy. That could be it. Hiding in Oklahoma. About a year after we moved from the Beauclair Hotel to a small rented house with a back yard that gave onto a large open field and I switched schools so that now I went to Horace Mann Grade School, I heard that Mr. Pickard had died.

 

It was at this new house that the last veteran of the war to enter my life appeared. I never saw him there, but I feel his presence today as though I knew him. I could have met him, chance being what it is; it is good, I think, that I did not.

WHERE I LEFT OFF

[HERE IS A BIG EXCERPT FROM THE LAST POST BEFORE I SHUT DOWN FOR A FEW MONTHS. ITS CONCERNS SHOULD GET YOU READY FOR WHAT’S COMING DOWN THE PIKE]
 
In 1949, Oklahoma was just a decade or so past the worst of the Dust Bowl of the mid-1930s. The Great Depression had ended; a world war had come and gone. Most Okies that were vulnerable to being driven from their homes by weather or banks had long ago left for California. Of those remaining who had not been kicked out by circumstance, the able and the adventurous had gone to California, too, to work in war-time shipyards and aircraft factories. That left the old and the infirm and the Indians and folks with oil wells. Then my folks moved to Okmulgee.
 
They had married during the Great Depression, my mom and dad, she just out of high school and him just two years ahead of her. Photos show a handsome couple. She was a cheerleader and ROTC “sponsor,” a kind of girls’ auxiliary for the high school junior officer corps of the day. She had black hair and grey eyes and a nice figure. She was pretty. He was handsome, a football and basketball star with wavy blonde hair and a ready smile. While she finished high school, he and a friend, Jack, set out to make do as best they could in the mid 1930s: they started up a little logging operation in the swamps and along the bayous of north and central Louisiana. They had a team of mules and a wagon. They’d go into the swamp with the mules, cut down as much as they could, chain the logs and mule-drag them onto dry ground. At nights they’d sleep on the front porches of the Negroes who lived in and around the swamps and along the bayous. Once they had a wagon load they’d drive the mules into Shreveport and sell them to a black man who had a lumberyard. This fellow was a good businessman and he was honest and gave Dad and Jack fair price for the trees. It was common knowledge that he had a silent partner in the business, a white man who owned the local Ford dealership. This was pretty much the way black folks had to do business, but old man Harmon made out ok, it seemed.
 
Anyway, while Dad logged, Mom lived at home with her folks and finished high school at Fair Park, where Dad had gone and where I went twenty years later. Her father, Ernest, worked for the Kansas City Southern Railroad, a line which ran between Kansas City and Shreveport. Shreveport was a railway hub in those days and the KCS had a big yard down in the West End. Ernest had started working for the railroad back in the ‘teens, before the first war, finally exchanging a life as a sort of ne’er-do-well Kansas cowboy for that of a solid married working man once his wife, Elva had presented him with three kids; there would be five but one, the baby Buddy, died in the 1918 flu epidemic.
Ernest had a good job; he was foreman of a repair crew in the yards and he worked right through the Great Depression. That made it possible for him to support a household of his married children and their families and the two children who were still in school, my mom and her younger brother. So, once Mom graduated and she and Dad got married, she just stayed there and Dad moved in. That household was eight all told: Ernest and Elva; Mom and Dad; sister Blanche and her husband Carl, a  carpenter; brother Ralph who fooled around with radios and his wife, Juanita, a student in a nursing school. Dad’s folks lived on the outskirts of town with his two brothers, Ted and John Allen, and his sister, Ruth. Dad’s father, Floyd, had grown up on a farm in East Texas and married over there, where my dad was born. By the late 1930s, he had brought my grandmother, Madie (Mary Jane), and the family into Louisiana, to Shreveport where he found work at the Libbey-Owens-Ford glass factory as a snapper. A snapper was the guy who came around and nailed shut the boxes of lights the cutters had set out. Dad was the oldest child, so in 1937, when he and Mom got married, Ted and John Allen and Ruth were all still in school.
 
I don’t know too much about Dad and Mom’s early married life except that they were young and handsome and full of life. There are stories of big dances out at a swimming park near Cross Lake where bottles were thrown and knives pulled. Dad played a kind of semi-professional baseball in those days and their “team” would travel to little towns in Texas and Arkansas and play the local lads for half the gate. Wives would come along with baskets of fried chicken and bottles of illicit beer and sell them at the little ball fields. There would be the occasional dispute over money, either between the teams or among the women, and a hasty retreat was beat now and then. Dad said that Mom was the best pistol shot he had ever seen; they used to go riding out around Cross Lake sitting up on the back of Uncle Ralph’s Model A and shoot at mail boxes. Mom never missed Dad said, no matter how fast Ralph drove. My favorite picture of my mother was taken during WWII; Uncle Carl was home on leave from the SeaBees and Dad was over in the Philippines so there are Mom and Carl just back from hunting squirrels and Mom in her rolled up jeans and her left hand on the rifle at her side looks as comfortable as
Annie Oakley—or Bonnie Parker, whose personality, I have since come to think, was probably closer to Mom’s than was Annie Oakley’s.
The war came and it finally caught up with Dad, even though he was married with a kid and worked in a defense industry; by the middle of the war he was cutting glass at L-O-F in Shreveport, logging long behind him. He got drafted in late 1944 and we moved up to Kansas to be with Mom’s mother in Baldwin City, a small farming and college town about 50 miles west of Kansas City. Ernest had been killed in 1940, just months before I was born. He was scalded to death when a high-pressure steam line broke in the round-house where we and his gang were working on an engine. Elva had gone home to Kansas and was running a small café. We spent the rest of the war and a year after up there; Mom worked in a factory making ammunition boxes and I just ran around this little town of about 1200 living a kind of life that only exists now in Steven Spielberg movies—before the aliens arrive.
 
When Dad got back from Japan, where he had served in the first US Army unit to set foot on Japanese soil, we went back to Shreveport and Dad went back to the glass factory. He had turned down a commission and a career in the Regular Army. They took up with old friends, some changed by the war, Dad told me later, but others still the same. They danced and drank and smoked and the men in the glass cutting trade kept an eye on which plants were open and which were closed. I started school in Shreveport, at the same grade school my dad had attended but then we moved to Arkansas when the L-O-F plant shut down. Soon enough it was back to Shreveport but not for long. In the winter of 1948-9, we left Shreveport for several years. First stop and fateful, was Okmulgee, Oklahoma.