Sunday, July 27, 2014

Paul Green's Stories


I met Paul Green in Chapel Hill, North Carolina a year before he died. He was 86 at the time and his mind was crisp. This witty, gifted and highly intelligent playwright was a guest of our UNC seminar on Southern Literature in the summer of 1980.

He came to our gathering as the great founder of American outdoor drama, though he had been quite successful in other forms of theater both at home and abroad. In fact, he helped Richard Wright bring his novel Native Son to the stage. He said they did a lot of their work on the play in North Carolina, but some of it sitting in the back of vacant theaters in New York City, envisioning the scenes. He told our group that Richard Wright much preferred working in North Carolina where, as Wright put it, “we have some freedom.”

Of course, I was more interested in Green’s friendship with William Faulkner. He said he met the great Mississippian there in Chapel Hill at a conference for up-and-coming as well as established writers. Green was on the drama faculty at UNC at the time and he was “assigned” to be in charge of Faulkner during the conference. When he went to the hotel to meet him at the arranged time, he said Faulkner came down the stairs into the lobby wearing scuffed-up brogans, very casual clothing and an aviator’s leather cap with goggles. After Green introduced himself, Faulkner said in his high-pitched Mississippi drawl, “Hi, I’m William Faulkner. I am an aviator.” Green said the author wore that cap throughout the conference.

Dos Passos, another great American writer at the conference, complained to Green that Faulkner kept showing up in his room. Apparently, Faulkner often got his room number confused with that of Dos Passos, especially when he was in his cups, which was frequently. Green went up to Dos Passos’ room and, sure enough, protruding from the blanket he found Faulkner’s brogans. When Green shook him, he said, “Get out of my room.”

But, the most interesting thing he told about Faulkner was that he asked Green if he could accompany him to the opening of Green’s new play in New York. Though skeptical, Green allowed him to ride up there with him from Chapel Hill and to sit in the author’s box with him. Green said that during the play, Faulkner took notes and drew an elaborate paradigm on the back of the program. After the show, which was very well-received by the huge audience, with shouts of “Author! Author!” Faulkner showed him his scribbling and said, “Paul, here is the outline of your play. You are never going to amount to anything.”

Even though he had achieved considerable success and is still highly regarded, Green never had the success and acclaim that Faulkner later achieved. And, Green said there in Chapel Hill a year before his death, “I have often thought about that moment in New York when Bill Faulkner told me I would never amount to anything.” He said that with some remorse.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Picket Fence


Robert Frost has the narrator of “Mending Wall” say that before one builds a fence, he should determine what he is walling in or walling out. I think that is true, don’t you? There has to be a purpose for a wall or a fence, right? Otherwise, why put one up?

Well, the historic town I live in is full of picket fences and a friend of mine who lives behind me just gave me a bunch of picket fence panels he had acquired somehow. My wife and I had been talking about building some kind of enclosure out back to hide unsightly stuff we have accumulated. A fence would be cheaper than a storage building and the city council is particular about what kind of structures you can put up here. So, we decided a little picket fence enclosure would be attractive and in line with the overall d├ęcor of our neighborhood.

So, I asked myself the question from Robert Frost’s poem: what am I walling in or walling out? An honest answer is that the fence is merely cosmetic. We want to hide a pile of seldom-used junk too valuable to throw away. But would a picket fence hide it? Probably not, but it would camouflage it somewhat. So, I am leaning toward getting started on the project. Right now, I just have the panels and posts laid out on the yard back there.

I have had some experience in fence building. My Gillham born and bred son-in-law is a highly skilled fence builder and I have watched him work. While my barbed wire fences never measured up to his creations, I did get the basic principles down. The trouble was, at that time I lived in a wooded area and trees and limbs had a tendency to fall on my handiwork.

My donkeys would show up in our neighbor’s yard and I would go fetch them with a feed bucket, secure them in the pasture and think my job was done. Then the phone would ring and the neighbor’s somewhat irritated voice would say, “They’re back.” After a time or two of this, I would walk the fence line back through the woods and, inevitably, I would find a tree or a limb down on the fence. I got pretty good and mending fences in more ways than one.

So, in answer to Robert Frost’s admonition to ask what we are walling in or walling out, I guess I was walling in wandering equines. But at this place there are no animals to consider. I don’t think my garbage can will get out and go to a neighbor’s yard. Thus, I am not walling anything in. But I am walling out eyes that would fall on a pile of junk. Oh, you can see through the picket fence, but the eye falls on the fence itself, not the spaces between the stakes. I hope.

A repeated refrain in Frost’s poem is, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” I don’t think we will love our little picket fence. I do think our back yard will be a little more attractive.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Rufus


When I arrived in Germany for my three-year tour of duty, I did not realize their electric system was 220 instead of 110. All I had to shave with was an electric razor Mother gave me for high school graduation. When I noticed the wall socket had holes instead of slits, I asked a soldier nearby who had also newly arrived what the deal was. He said, “I guess you will need an adapter.” So, I went to the base store and bought an adapter. When I plugged in, there was a pop and a lot of black smoke. The razor never worked again. Later I learned that what I needed was not an adapter but a transformer.

Another difficulty was that my squadron did not have a mail room yet when I arrived, so they had “mail call.” It was quite a while before I got mail and I was homesick. Well, the day arrived for mail call and one of the first people the sergeant called out was a Rufus. Because he thought the place name on the return address was funny, he called out, “Rufus got one from Smackover, Arkansas.” There were a few snickers, but mostly people wanted Sarge to get on with mail call. I got a pretty good handful of mail that day and edged over to Rufus. I said, “Hey, Rufus, I am from El Dorado.” We shook hands and became really good friends for the duration.

Both of us missed state-side stuff you could not get over there, delicacies such as our favorite sodas and peanut wheels. Rufus went back to the states a year before my tour of duty was over and in the mail shortly after he got home came a box from him with two sodas and a half-dozen peanut wheels. He also visited my parents and my sister in El Dorado and sent me photographs of him in my living room. He was a good friend, but, of course, I lost touch with him.

When I got out of the service, I worked at various jobs and eventually went to college and graduate school and landed a teaching job at the college in Magnolia. Rufus showed up at my office one day. His daughter was enrolled there. We had quite a reunion. He had been hurt on the flight line and was on disability, so he had a lot of free time. We saw quite a bit of each other at ball games and such. Eventually, I moved on to other universities and lost touch again. When my sister died years later, Rufus showed up at the visitation. We had a great time reminiscing about our experiences in Europe. We both observed how southerners seem to seek each other out and stick together.

I learned a lot from Rufus about friendship, altruism and little deeds of kindness that mean so much, especially far from home. He made me want to be the kind of friend he was. Every time I see an electric razor, I smell electrical smoldering. Every time I pass through Smackover, I think of a gift from home: Rufus, a true friend.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Mr. Faulkner, What Do You Do?


One of my favorite stories about William Faulkner is about his time as a screen writer in Hollywood. Apparently he had to go to work in a studio where he had little privacy and for that and other reasons he wanted to go home to Oxford, Mississippi. The main reason was that he was just plain homesick. So, he asked the producer if he could go home to work on the scripts and, thinking he meant back to his apartment, the producer said yes. Well, he got on the train and went to Oxford, much to the chagrin of his bosses. Faulkner later said Hollywood was the only place he knew of where you could get stabbed in the back while climbing a ladder. I never understood what he meant by that statement.

Another story is about his friendship with the famous director, Howard Hawks. Faulkner loved hunting and they had been hunting together a few times, so Hawks invited him to go bird hunting in the valley again, this time with him and Clark Gable. On the journey to the hunting location, Faulkner asked Hawks if Hemingway was a better shot than he was. Hawks told him Hemingway shot more birds than he did. That made Faulkner mad because he was very competitive, especially with the other great writer of the time. So, to change the subject and calm the fiery Faulkner down, he said, “Bill, if I wanted to read the greatest living writers, who should I read?” Faulkner mentioned a few, you know, writers like Dos Passos and Thomas Mann, and then concluded, “and, of course my work.” At that, Clark Gable perked up in the back seat and said, “Oh, Mr. Faulkner, do you write?” And, Faulkner replied, “Why yes, Mr. Gable, what do you to?” The funny part of that story is that they were both serious. Gable did not read and Faulkner did not go to the movies. These two great artists had no idea about the other’s gifts.

When I was doing my work of Faulkner back in the early 1970s, I went out to Oxford and talked to several people. A man named Motee Daniels said, “Will Faulkner was different from just about anybody. I have seen him in town in his pajamas. People used to call him Count No-Count around Oxford. I saw him one day just staring at the statue of the Confederate soldier, standing in the road transfixed, just staring up at the statue.” Shelby Foote said that in Oxford at the time of Faulkner’s greatest popularity, if you asked a citizen if he knew William Faulkner, the person would not reply but turn his head and spit. They felt that because of novels like Sanctuary, he was sullying the atmosphere around there.

However, all that changed after he won the Nobel Prize in 1949. Then he was considered a kind of elder statesman. I saw a video of his return to Oxford from Stockholm where he had received the coveted award. Someone sitting on the bench in front of the drug store said, “Where you been, Bill?” He replied, “Sweden.” Then the man asked, “Had a good trip, I guess?” Faulkner said, yes, good trip and then changed the subject to deer hunting. He said, “Tell you what we are going to do this year. Corral them up out there by the Yocona Creek and you can whip them to death with collard greens.” Both Faulkner and his companion had a good laugh.