Sunday, April 27, 2014

Out of the Fog

The pines and oaks were like giant legs, gray and rough, and seemed poised to move. The young hunter wove his way deep into the familiar wilderness west of Gillham, feeling the cool fog soak his face until it began to drip, wetting his hair so that it hung from beneath the camouflage cap like black icicles. He seemed to be walking on a cloud with invisible feet. He had been hunting this lease since age nine, and although he knew these woods like a trucker knows his highway, he became somewhat disoriented that foggy morning. He could have been in Russia or China from the unfamiliar look and feel of his surroundings. Once common sounds were strange and out of joint. He heard a distant whippoorwill that sounded like a bad imitation of the sound those birds normally make. As if by instinct, though, he came upon the crude stand he had constructed years ago.

As he climbed the twelve rungs to the narrow platform, a sense of normalcy returned. He made himself quiet and comfortable, bow and arrows on the ready. The whippoorwill was persistent until the day birds began to sing and the dawn light slowly turned the fog whiter and whiter. The light was diffused and bleak, no longer cottony, but milky and obliterating.  “Without form and void,” he whispered to himself. This white morning must be like the atmosphere at the very beginning of everything in the book of Genesis, he thought. He heard a twig snap behind him and turned his head slowly and carefully. Ten feet from the tree he was in, a big 12-point buck nonchalantly rooted for acorns. It was as if the animal materialized from the surface of the world, like bas-relief on ancient marble. To get in position, he turned his body slowly and quietly, arrow notched. As he pulled back, his sleeve slightly raked the tree and the buck heard and bolted. He took the shot anyway as the animal disappeared. Immediately upon release, he knew the shot was a mistake. A gut shot meant a mile or two of tracking and it would be next to impossible to track in this fog. He would have to go home and get the dogs.

He came down the rungs rapidly and ran into the woods after the animal. He squinted to find the blood trail. There was a lot of it. He stumbled upon the buck on the creek bank, less than a mile from the stand, lying on his side, still moving his legs, trying to lift his head. A gut shot usually means a much longer chase, but the arrow had angled and punctured a lung. He made sure the buck had expired and tagged him.

Out of the wet whiteness of the hardwood woods, it was as if he had captured a phantom. But this phantom was fat, heavy and all-too real as he pulled it through the thick forest. The silver sun was like a dinner plate, hiding above the pines when he emerged from the woods. He was, as he put it, wore slap out when he arrived at his old pickup and hefted the buck aboard. Breakfast was mighty good that morning as he watched the ancient and reliable sun burn the fog away so the colors of autumn could wave in celebration.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

O'Connor's Moon

The short story “Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor is fascinating to me because of its accuracy in depicting appearances and attitudes. The narrative starts with a spot-on description of a small southern doctor’s office. If you grew up on the South you will recognize the sounds, smells, sights and people she presents so accurately there.

Mrs. Turpin has brought her husband to the doctor to see about a place on his leg where a cow kicked him. He is rather quiet, just making a few standard comments to show his stoicism. She, however, is full of pious platitudes and pat phrases contrived to convince the other patients of her wonderful station in life. She privately makes negative observations about those in the waiting room she perceives as less blessed than she is.

Suddenly, a female college student who had been staring at Mrs. Turpin while she went on and on, leaps upon her, grabs her by the throat and pins her to the floor, saying, “You old wart hog, go back to Hell where you came from.” Of course the girl has to be sedated and taken away by ambulance and Mrs. Turpin is quite disturbed about the episode, eventually praying about it and receiving a significant revelation as she cleans the “pig parlor” back at the farm. I won’t spoil the story for you by relating what she learned. Suffice it to say that the conclusion gives a great perspective on pride, false piety and spiritual blindness.

I also renewed my interest in an oft-cited story by O’Connor, “Good Country People.” That is a story with a similar theme, but told with much more power. In it, O’Connor presents a woman Ph. D. in philosophy, in her thirties, living at home with a mother much like Mrs. Turpin. The woman has legally changed her name from the standard Southern her mother gave her to Hulga. She is an amputee because of a bad accident and has an artificial leg. Needless to say, this set up leads to dramatic action demonstrating the shallowness of understanding life through hollow phrases such as, “good country people.”

One reason I went back to O’Connor is that her prayer journal was recently published. My wife bought me a copy and it is fascinating. A deeply committed Christian writer suffering from Lupus, she begins her journal with these words:  “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see, but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.” That kind of depth and sincerity comes through in all the stories. O’Connor died in her late thirties, leaving behind a magnificent body of work.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mark My Word

One time Mark Twain told the conductor on a slow-moving train that if the locomotive was going to catch cows, the engineer would have to speed it up a bit. His joke made reference to the cow-catcher, a device on the front of train engines designed to push any cows or other animals the train might encounter to one side or the other. That kind of wit, feigned innocence that takes everything literally, is what made him famous.

For example, he once told a story about trying to help a lady who had lumbago. He informed her that he had suffered from that disease and could help her recover. Of course, she was interested in hearing about the cure. He said, “You must give up smoking and drinking and swearing and you will get well.” The lady replied, “Sir, I cannot give up those things because I have never done any of them.” His reply was a classic, “There you have it, a sinking ship without any cargo to throw overboard.”

As to smoking, Mark Twain said, “I can give it up any time I want to. I have done it a thousand times.” Some of you may remember how the Widow was always on Huckleberry Finn about his pipe smoking. Huck said, “Of course, she took snuff, but that was alright because she done it herself.” He observed that he did not want to go to Heaven if there was no smoking in it. That kind of irreverence was a hallmark of his performances and he was in demand as lecturer all over the country. Interestingly, he did not wear that famous white suit with the string tie very often. Re-enactors have made that costume the norm, not the great writer himself.

Literary history is full of contradictions between the character of the writer and the work itself. Hawthorne, for example, had every reason to be a happy Victorian-style man, having married well, attained success and outlived his children. Yet he wrote some of the most morose and some of the saddest tales in the American canon. On the other hand, Mark Twain had a very tragic life, having lost loved ones and having repeatedly suffered great financial crises. Yet he wrote some of the funniest and most joyful stories we have in our heritage. I am convinced that writers assume a persona when practicing their craft to provide a distance between their inner being and what appears on the page. Even William Faulkner hid behind his characters.

One must never ask what a writer himself or herself thinks about a subject from studying his or her work. Ideas are not opinions and the author’s state of mind is disguised in the final product. I know some of you psychoanalysts will disagree with me on that issue, but I am convinced we must appreciate the writing quite apart from the author’s biography. A story is a story, not a psychological document nor a sociological tract.

A child asked Mark Twain how he wrote stories. He replied that he created a handful of characters and turned them loose on the page: “Pretty soon I have a whole novel finished up and it never costs me an idea.”

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Car Washing Bug Man

While I was hot on the trail of a Ph. D. degree in English, we had a neighbor who was an entomologist. He was a quiet man who loved bugs and had devoted his life to becoming better acquainted with every variety of creepy-crawly thing. He was very much the introvert and he had a lot of trouble laughing. He did not have time for foolishness because, even on weekends, he was pursuing deeper relationships with bugs.

I used to go with him out to one of Auburn University’s research ponds where the fish people did all their finny funny stuff. He had some fly traps set up all around a couple of those ponds attempting to gather samples of what he called adult horse flies. (I guess he would have rejected adolescent ones). I would fish while my solemn friend gathered his flies. He was more excited to catch a fly or two than I was to catch a nice bluegill, of which there were aplenty. They were the kind of big old bream so fat they looked like someone had punched their faces in.

Aside from catching flies, the only thing my introspective neighbor enjoyed was washing cars. I had taught him to use newspaper to clean windshields and he thought that was the most amazing innovation in car washing history and the second best use for newspapers, the first, of course, being to actually read them. We were not allowed to have birds in the apartments, so papers were not needed to line the floors of birdcages.

All my life, Sunday afternoons were for naps. But, as soon as we settled down for a Sunday afternoon nap there in Auburn, Alabama, the bug man would come rapping at our door. When I opened it, he would say, “Want us to wash cars?” I do not know why he needed me to wash my car while he washed his. It was certainly not for the company, because he did not say two words the whole time. I never touched his vehicle and he never touched mine. We just shared the hose and the moment. Perhaps he thought I knew some more secrets of car cleaning I might share, since I had enlightened him about newspapers for windshield cleaning. He loved for me to wash my old Dodge while he washed his Pontiac. He had one of those 1960s model Pontiacs that looked like it was in mourning. Remember those?

Anyway, my bug man friend was in ROTC and when he finished his doctorate in bugology, he went to Viet Nam as an army officer. He wrote me a time or two and I wrote him back, making jokes about horseflies and windshields, which I am sure, struck no funny bone, his sense of humor being what it was, not to mention, he was in Viet Nam.

He and his equally sedate wife came to visit us in Arkansas years later. At that time, he was interested in the breed of mosquitoes that left their wigglers in tree-hole water. I helped him syphon some of those and he later sent me a test tube with an adult tree-hole mosquito in it. While he was at our house in Arkansas, he never said one word about washing cars.