I always thought it a very cool thing to be able to say that Glennray Tutor, Glenn Ballard, and I took a writing workshop together in the summer of ’74. Indeed, so far as I know, it was the only writing class any of us ever took. There were other good students whose names I do not recall, but wish I could. Neither can I bring to mind the least remnant of what I learned in that class. The professor, however, was unforgettable.
He was a devilishly handsome man, funny and kind, and he seemed to know everything. Simply everything. He could summon a quote from the ether anytime he wanted. He read beautifully, both poetry and prose, and read as if the poet or writer were his best friend in all the world. He had written an actual novel (we didn’t know then about the ones he would always dismiss as “drugstore paperbacks”) published by an actual New York City house, and his short stories had appeared in actual magazines, and we boys looked on these accomplishments as commensurate with raising the dead. Nevertheless, he was humble in the presence of great writers, and treated even our sophomoric maunderings with delicacy and respect. More important, he practiced humility toward his own prodigious talent.
Our professor smoked a pipe, as all professors ought, and as most did in those vanished days. Over the years, I took every course he offered, and his routine never varied: he would arrive with his pipe and tobacco pouch and a thermos of coffee, greet everyone, open whatever book we were using, and commence to be brilliant. (He had a Nimrod Sportsman pipe lighter–the kind advertised in Field & Stream–and his old students will smile when I recall the image of that good man flicking his lighter and stoking his pipe and pouring a cup of coffee all at the same time.) He never used notes, and hardly ever wrote on the blackboard. Had there been Power Point then (God forbid!), he would have scorned it. Neither did he waste time with films or slides. He just talked, and read, and revealed the magical realm of literature to us.
Those who remember this excellent professor will be interested to know that, his life and contributions are contained in a biography: Living in Mississippi: The Life and Times of Evans Harrington (UP of Mississippi, 2017). Author and scholar Robert Hamblin knew Dr. Harrington as friend and colleague; he has drawn on that relationship, on a wide range of interviews, and on careful research to present as complete a portrait of the man as we are ever likely to have.
And what a man he was! Evans Harrington was born in Birmingham of parents who were conservative both in religion (his father, Silas, was a Baptist minister) and politics–which is to say that the elder Harringtons were Southerners of their time and generation. When Evans was three, the family moved to Mississippi, and there they remained. Young Evans grew up in the rural South of the ‘20s and ‘30s, a culture which shaped him in many ways. Harrington loved the Southern landscape; he was a skilled hunter and fisherman; he knew what it meant to work hard; he was schooled in the Bible and old-time religion; he was as mannerly and courtly and brave as any character in Swallow Barn. At the same time, he grew to manhood in a time when change was on the horizon.
Like many thoughtful Southerners before him, Harrington was exposed to unexpected, often uncomfortable, insights when he left the South and joined the service in 1943. For the first time, he encountered young men from the North and West who owned different ways of thinking; when called upon to explain his region’s unique qualities, Harrington, like Quentin Compson at Harvard, discovered he could not defend many cultural elements he had taken for granted. In an interview, Harrington admitted that, by the time of his discharge in 1945, he was “already an integrationist and a defender of the blacks.”
Throughout his adult life, Evans Harrington was a champion of equal rights, not only for blacks, but for all persons protected by the United States Constitution–and this at a time when such notions might cost a Southern man his life. Nevertheless, he refused to follow many of his educated, like-minded contemporaries (including William Faulkner) in their exodus to more “enlightened” areas of the country.
Hamblin takes his biography’s title from the essay “Living in Mississippi” (Yale Review, June, 1968), in which Harrington defines the extraordinary dilemma of one who insists on loving his native land in spite of itself. Harrington remained in the state he loved; throughout the tumultuous civil rights era, he fought, with ardor and passion, often at his own peril, and at considerable personal cost, for what he believed to be the only decent, humane, and just relationship among human beings.
Among the many virtues of Hamblin’s book is the decision to present different elements of his subject’s history–biographical, political, academic, and literary–as independent sections. A departure from traditional biography, Hamblin’s technique offers clarity and focus, though not at the expense of the narrative as a whole.
It well may be that Robert Hamblin’s outstanding work will find but a limited audience, since Evans Harrington’s is not exactly a household name, and it is unlikely Hamblin will make it one. This is a very great pity, for Dr. Harrington’s life would inspire anyone who values courage, honor, and the rare quality of thinking for oneself, especially when it challenges the entrenched world view of a conservative society. In any event, those lucky enough to have known Dr. Harrington will find this book a treasure indeed.
Having begun this review on a personal note, I will end it in the same fashion. I never saw eye-to-eye with our good professor on certain points of his philosophy. I continue to believe liberal thinkers of his era embraced an ideology that, while admirable, was wholly impractical. They were naïve in the sense that all are naïve who cannot imagine the unimaginable future, a fault shared by every person who ever lived. On the other hand, without idealists like Dr. Harrington, our flawed humanity would never improve, never move toward kindness and justice and mercy. We are intractable until we see our image in the mirror of history, held up to us by brave men like Dr. Harrington.
By the way, when we at last discovered the Doc had written novels under a pen name, we implored him to reveal it. Finally, one day, he did. “It’s Jacqueline Suzanne,” he said.
Thank you, Dr. Harrington. Well done, sir. May you rest in peace.
In 1951, author S. Skip Farrington, Jr., bestirred himself to see how America’s railroads were faring in the years following World War Two. What he found was a thriving industry open to innovation and dedicated to customer service. In his classic Railroading the Modern Way (Coward-McCann, 1951), Farrington extolled the virtues of the great companies whose heralds, maps, lists of officers, and intricate schedules fattened The Official Guide to the Railways, that indispensable yearly publication, the size of a Chicago phone book, that every ticket clerk and agent in the Republic consulted for the routing of freight and passengers. Farrington raised hymns to powerful diesel locomotives, all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), cushion couplings, centralized traffic control, end-to-end radio communication, and luxurious new passenger equipment. Reading Farrington’s work now, one is struck by his implicit conclusion: everything about the railroad was going to stay the same, but it would all be faster, safer, and shinier than ever before. The traveling public could rejoice, and small shippers could rub their hands in glee.
Two decades later, Farrington’s cheery prophecy had collapsed like a washed-out trestle. Those of us who were railroading in those twilight days witnessed changes in the industry far more radical than anything Farrington could have imagined in the money-green glow of the ‘Fifties. From our decrepit yard offices, grimy locomotive cabs, and generic all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), we watched as the old resounding road names celebrated in Farrington’s book were gobbled up by mergers. We saw the sale or abandonment of entire districts, the consolidation of agencies, the ruthless encroachment of job-killing technology, and the surgical excision of labor-intensive commodities like perishable fruit and passengers. The government got involved, then it got uninvolved, and then–well, who knows? Traffic agents like my old man– those stalwart, hard-drinking, fiercely loyal drummers who pounded the pavements in search of business–became as anachronistic as link-and-pin couplers and finally disappeared altogether, their once-busy offices abandoned or used for storage.
Railroads, it seemed, had found other interests. Our beloved Illinois Central, for example–once the Main Line of Mid-America–yearned for greater profits, so it redefined itself as Illinois Central Industries and wrapped its tentacles around Pepsi Cola and Whitman Candies and left the now-unprofitable railroad property to wither on the vine. By the mid-Seventies, the Official Guide had shrunk to the size of an L.L. Bean catalog. On our Gulfport District, the maximum main line speed of freight trains had been reduced to ten miles an hour over crumbling lightweight 1930s rail affixed to ties that could be pulled apart in the hand. Three-man crews, with radios that rarely worked, risked their lives trying to switch behemoth tank cars and piggyback flats in yards designed in the 1890s. Almost overnight, the old craft became unrecognizable to persons like myself, who remembered footboards and forty-foot cars and coal-oil switch targets, who had penciled switch lists in the rain, who had passed lantern- and hand signals along a cut of cars and waved at pretty girls from the cupola of a caboose or the cab window of a growling GP-9.
But surely some revelation was at hand. Surely the Second Coming was at hand. The new railroad model, slouching toward solvency with relentless efficiency, was a desperate attempt to survive in a world that had swiftly left Farrington’s ideal behind.
In due season–another ten years perhaps–the railroads accomplished their vision and their survival. The result, as John R. Stilgoe so beautifully illustrates in Train Time (U of Virginia P, 2007), was a tectonic shift in the American industrial landscape. Stilgoe’s book, in perfect counterpoint to Farrington’s, demonstrates how, in less than a half-century, the old clanking, colorful, individualistic railroad companies of folklore and romance vanished like a dream, and in their place rose a new paradigm: the single trunk line, a silvery welded-rail turnpike over which computer-controlled trains with two-man crews hauled inter-modals or bulk commodities. Yard switching became a matter of mere pulling and shoving, and along the main line, switching was minimal or nonexistent. Depots were sold for restaurants or gift shops, freight houses were demolished, and only the most reluctant accommodation was made for Amtrak passenger trains.
Out of the chaos, finally, rose a single indisputable Gibraltar of fact: for the Post-Modern age, no better method exists for the transportation of bulk commodities than a well-maintained, high-speed, computer-controlled, heavy-rail corridor over which fuel-efficient motive power hauls the goods. American mega-railroads have achieved their goal, and American mega-business–not to mention highways and Interstates choked with eighteen-wheelers–will be the better for it.
Like most revolutions, however, that which I have just described was not without its cost. A way of life disappeared, and with it the loyalty men and women felt for the companies that had sustained them, often for generations. Countless jobs were abolished as shops and yards “modernized,” trains were cut off, and maintenance and damage control were hired out to private companies. Small shippers found they were no longer courted; indeed, they were ignored, even bypassed, as the railroad companies pulled up branch lines and spur tracks. Train crews no longer learned on the job, but attended centralized schools like truck drivers or heavy-equipment operators. People, especially poor ones, who still found it expedient to travel by rail were shuffled off to poor old Amtrak, for years the red-headed stepchild of the new empire.
Today, railroads have all but disappeared from the American imagination, where they once held center stage. Through four years of Naval service, I was sustained by the idea that, when I was released at last, I could go and be a railroad brakeman–somewhere, anywhere. I would walk the tops gaily and ride the caboose; I might even get to wear the uniform of a passenger trainman. I could do it for as long as I wanted, for the railroads, of course, would never change, a prodigious delusion as it turned out. In latter years, I have met not a single young person whose ambition was to work for the railroad.
When the family SUV is inconveniently blocked at a grade crossing–OMG! Josh will be late for soccer practice!–or when a derailed ninety-foot tank car of ammonia exterminates a congregation, then the citizens pay attention, a little. Otherwise, most people are only dimly aware of the big, graffiti-plastered objects that lumber past on the edge of their vision. In an age when, for example, the Canadian National operates in Mississippi and Louisiana, the public can hardly be blamed for losing their sense of regional affiliation. Crewpersons, buttoned up tight in their air-conditioned locomotive cabs, do not wave much anymore, and the caboose, the public’s most cherished railroad icon, has long been replaced by FRED, the Federal Rear End Device. FRED is an air-pressure gauge with a blinking red light fixed to the last knuckle of the last car. FRED does not wave, he cares nothing for pretty girls, and trains pass like sentences without punctuation, gliding on their way toward destinations no one can name.
With the exception of amateur rail enthusiasts, most people born after 1970–even most contemporary railroad persons, I expect–have little sense or patience for what the old craft meant, or how important it was in the daily life of generations. My students do not know what a caboose is. They have never heard of the Panama Limited or the Pan American. They think The City of New Orleans is a corny old song their grandparents listened to. This is our collective consciousness now. It is where we need to be if we are to have a viable rail system in the context of the Twenty-First Century. A hard truth, perhaps, but, as old Major R.K. Cross used to say, the truth is a stubborn thing.
And yet. And yet. Some ghosts are hard to shrive from blood memory, and not for nothing do people have a sense of something lost, though they may no longer be able to articulate just what the loss involves. When a person, by chance meeting, discovers that I was once a railroad man, he or she will more often than not voice a familiar lament. “Isn’t it a shame,” the person will say, “that we let our railroads go.” Then, inevitably, he will press on to sing of the supposed glories of European systems, or how, as a child, he rode to grandma’s house on the beautiful Sunset Limited and drank from Waterford crystal in the dining car as the scenery reeled past like illustrations on an SP calendar. I never know how to answer the complaint, nor how to respond to the memoir, so I nod my head and remain silent, wondering if the person understands what he is saying. He is unaware, I think, that the guilty collective pronoun included the railroads themselves. He forgets, perhaps, that the complexities of modern life offer no alternative. He forgets, most of all, that one can no longer expect Waterford crystal in a culture that has agreed unanimously on the Styrofoam cup.
Nostalgia has little virtue save for them who have earned it. In the end, Nostalgia, and its consort Romance, are an insult to the old ones who spent half their lives in cheap hotels; who saw their comrades cut in half or mangled under the wheels; who felt the loneliness and isolation of flagging behind in a ghostly fog; who understood that a steam engine, for all the mournful poignancy of its whistle, was a hard taskmaster and a deadly one. Nostalgia and Romance conceal, and therefore dishonor, the fact that old-time railroading was a real bitch, a dangerous and lonely and demanding craft, and those who followed it, especially in train or engine service, dwelt always on the edge of catastrophe. To paraphrase my old friend Frank Smith, a switch engine foreman of thirty years service, if you got home after the job without having killed someone or turned something over, your day was a success.
And yet, for those of us who lived the old craft, no coldly efficient, high-speed computer game can replace it. Perhaps too much happened for too many years out there in the night when the old trains ran. There was too much death, too much honor and meanness, too much tragedy and glory and fun, and too many souls were moved by the distant cry of a locomotive–steam whistle or diesel horn, no matter–for it all to be erased by corporate ukase. Something of the old life remains, something deeply human and therefore messy and dramatic, to haunt the memory of the Race.
Once, Frank Smith and I were talking to a gentleman who had worked his whole life on the now-vanished Columbus and Greenville Railroad. Beside him sat his wife, a gentle, silver-haired lady whose eyes glowed with the knowledge that she and this old rascal had been married sixty-one years and had made it work. The old man patted her knee. “Ever’ time I’d leave on the job,” he said, “my wife would make me a bucket of fried chicken. I used to throw the bones right out the cab window, a lot of bones all down the main line, years and years.” He thought a moment, then smiled. “Lord,” he said, “wouldn’t it be funny if them bones was to rise again.”
Funny, indeed, and an irresistible image: hundreds of white leghorns rising from the dust, gazing about, puzzling how in the world they ever got there, all wandering forlorn along the weed-choked iron of the old C&G. Meanwhile, all across the Republic, outside the trembling windowpanes of restored depots and freight house museums, the big anonymous trains roll on, the cone of their headlights pointed toward tomorrow.
The Illinois Central’s Green Diamond by Howard Bahr
In the decades following the Great War, American culture shook itself out of the Nineteenth Century and woke to fresh ideas and new possibilities. Youth, having liberated Europe and ended war forever, had a voice for the first time in our history. Cynicism and joi de vivre found ways to cohabit, and under their common roof, Youth created a new way of living. Jazz was the soundtrack. Flappers in short skirts, long beads swinging, danced the Charleston, the Fox Trot, the Shimmy: girls smoked cigarettes and drank gin in public and were picked up from Mama’s house by sheiks in fast cars. The Imagists’ admonition–“Make it new!”–resonated everywhere.
Downtown, the staid dignity of the Chicago School gave way to soaring silver skyscrapers that transformed city skylines. In the suburbs, new houses traded a classical vocabulary for the sleek lines, portholes, and minimalist décor of the Moderne. Aluminum and glass replaced busy fretwork; cluttered, over-stuffed parlors vanished, and porches disappeared; tall Lombardy poplars, nature’s answer to Arts Decoratif, graced the landscaping. Even everyday objects like radios, toasters, pencil sharpeners, vases, clocks, mirrors, and telephones took on new forms in the up-to-date household. The automobile industry, ever alert to the public’s whims, abandoned the boxy bodies and spoked wheels inherited from horse-drawn carriages and began to experiment with streamlining, a movement that culminated in the startling 1936 Chrysler Airflow.
When that car and others like it appeared on showroom floors, they represented not only a revolution in style, but in movement as well. Newly-paved highways beckoned, and the motorcar, liberated from Sunday drives and trips to the park, was recast as a ship of dreams. The world was opened up in an unprecedented way: as Dinah Shore would sing in 1953, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet! America is asking you to call!” Travelers, once bound to the railroads, could now set their own schedules, carry as much baggage as they wanted (no charge!), and rest in the friendly motor hotels springing up in the wilderness.
American railroad companies looked on this newfound Freedom of the Road with misgivings. Railroads had bullied steamboats off the inland rivers, now, in their turn, they were threatened by the automobile. Passenger revenue was still high, but the Detroit competition was available, cheap, and attractive to the public. In 1882, when the railroads were at the height of their tyrannical power, Commodore Vanderbilt of the New York Central could proclaim, in an unguarded moment, “The public be damned!” Needless to say, by the mid-1930s, this sentiment was no longer viable.
To meet this challenge, railroad engineering and PR departments tapped into the Moderne craze and created the Streamliner: a first-class, air-conditioned train with sleek aluminum coaches, specially assigned engines, and a color scheme that ran from the locomotive pilot to the end of the observation car. Design luminaries like Henry Dreyfuss and Raymond Loewy brought steam locomotives into the realm of high art: when the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited (Dreyfuss) and the Pennsylvania’s Broadway Limited (Loewy) raced each other eastbound out of Chicago on parallel tracks, they represented a pinnacle of design unequaled for American industry.
Another innovation was the articulated “trainset,” the railroads’ first great experiment with diesel-electric power. Articulation meant that the power car” (that is, the locomotive) and all the coaches shared wheel trucks and were permanently coupled together, save when they went to the shops for maintenance. Trainsets were short–five or six cars in the consist–ran on tight schedules, and were well-appointed. The CB&Q fielded several silver, shovel-nosed Zephyrs. The UP and C&NW ran a joint City of Denver, the Santa Fe’s Chicagoan/Kansas moderne aesthetic.
The schedule of the Green Diamond was ideally suited for businessmen traveling between the great cities of St. Louis and Chicago, with a stop at Springfield, Illinois’ capitol. Northbound, the train departed St. Louis at 8:55 A.M. and arrived in Chicago five hours later. Southbound departure from Chicago was at the close of the business day, 5:00 P.M., with a St. Louis arrival at 9:55 P.M. Along the way, passengers enjoyed such amenities as air-conditioning, a radio in every car, and excellent dining (see Jesse Yancy’s article below). In addition, the train carried a stewardess trained in dictation, and a registered nurse for the hangovers and heart attacks common among Capitalists in the Great Depression years.
The Green Diamond must have been quite a sight as she glided through the cornfields on a summer’s day, or flashed her green against the snow of winter. People accustomed to a steam engine’s mournful whistle no doubt looked up when #121 blatted her air horn at grade crossings: perhaps they heard in it the sound of the Future, but probably not. Locomotives would always and evermore be driven by steam, just as the Great War had ended all wars, and drugstores would always sell Paregoric.
In the end, the very success of the Green Diamond led to her demise. The St. LouisSpringfield-Chicago schedule proved so popular that passenger traffic began to exceed the limited capacity of the trainset, which could not accommodate the addition of extra cars during a surge of ridership. In 1947, eleven years after her glorious debut, IC #121 and her articulated companions were replaced by conventional, more practical diesel locomotives and coaches. The train’s name and schedule remained, but the moderne novelty was gone forever from the Land of Lincoln.
The final chapter of the trainset’s story began at the Illinois Central’s Paducah shops, where she was given an overhaul. When she emerged, she was freshly-painted in the same two-tone green, but the Green Diamond banner had been erased from her sides. Train crews, doubtless Bemused by the assignment, took her across the various divisions to Cairo, Memphis, and at last to her new home of Jackson, Mississippi. Why she was sent there instead of somewhere else is lost to history, but for the next three years–until she was sold for scrap–she traveled the Louisiana Division between Jackson and New Orleans. Now called the Miss-Lou, her timecard schedule was almost identical to that of the Green Diamond, and she once again provided the reliable, courteous service for which the Main Line of Mid-America was famous. The Miss-Lou moniker derived, of course, from the states through which she traveled, but, as Yancy explains below, it was by another name that she entered the folklore of the Deep South.
We are given some things in life–the Iris, for example, or a young girl’s face–that seem the more beautiful because we know their flowering will not last. We treasure less, perhaps, those things we foolishly believe will last forever. So it was with the great passenger trains that once flowed majestically across the Republic: colorful carriers of Dream and Promise in a time when pride was still part of the national character and anything was possible. They are vanished now, every one scattered across the trash-heaps of memory, and few remain who remember them at all. They will not come again; that they once passed among us is testimony to what we had, and to what we can never have again.
Dining on the Green Diamond
by Jesse Yancy
In 1867, George Pullman introduced his first railroad “hotel car,” the President, a converted sleeper equipped with limited dining facilities. In 1868, Pullman built his next all-dining car, which he named the Delmonico after the famous New York restaurant. The Delmonico was placed in service on the Chicago & Alton Railroad between Chicago and Springfield, Ill. Meals were the lofty price of one dollar.
The 1940s and 1950s were the golden age of train travel and the pinnacle of railroad dining car operations. For many passengers, the ambiance of the dining car was the reason they rode the train. The Panama Limited maintained a high level of service until the Amtrak era. It was noted for its first-rate culinary staff and Creole fare in the Vieux Carre-themed dining cars, a service which the Illinois Central marketed heavily. A well-known multi-course meal on the Panama Limited was the Kings Dinner, for about $10; other deluxe, complete meals such as steak or lobster, including wine or cocktail, were priced around $4 to $5. The menu the Super Chief, called the “Train for the Stars” because it was the choice transportation from the East Coast and Chicago to Hollywood, rivaled that served in many five-star restaurants. A “Wake-Up Cup” of coffee was brought to one’s private bedroom each morning, on request, a service exclusive to the Super Chief. The elaborate dinner offerings generally included caviar and other delicacies, cold salads, grilled and sauteéd fish, sirloin steaks and filet mignon, lamb chops, and the like. For discerning palates, elegant champagne dinners were an option.
In that golden age of the itinerant epicure, the Illinois Central touted their schedules with its most famous advertisement stating, “Enjoy the fastest service ever offered and the supreme luxury of America’s smoothest riding train. Air-conditioned…radio in every car… Stewardess… Delicious inexpensive meals as low as: breakfast 25 cents, lunch 35 cents, and dinner 40 cents.” The ICRR original Green Diamond dining service carried on the railroad’s tradition of fine dining, with every element of complete passenger train service contained in four cars with 200 square feet. With dining seating for only 24, it would take 5 seatings to serve all 120 passengers in the dining space, and that had to be done in the five hour and 10-minute trip. Six serving tray stands were provided in each chair car for use in serving meals at the seats of the patrons, and this helped case the process.
The 22-square feet kitchen was provided with an oil burning range, broiler, warming ovens, urn and steam table. Polished stainless steel was used for the table tops, sinks, chipped ice wells, facings of refrigerators, range, work tables and lower lockers. The interior linings of cold boxes, refrigerator compartments, racks, etc. were also of stainless steel. Dry ice refrigeration, automatically controlled, was used in the large refrigerator, cold boxes, and ice cream cabinet. The kitchen was provided with a serving bay open on three sided to facilitate serving meals. Ornamental panels of inlaid Formica closed off these openings when the kitchen is not in use. An annunciator for waiter service was provided with push buttons conveniently located in the diner-observation car and at the dining section in the chair car.
The Green Diamond’s menu offered an impressive variety for what amounted to a glorified commuter train. Both the a la carte menu and the table d’hote included broiled codfish with anchovy sauce, lamb chops with spiced crabapple, pork tenderloin with yams, chicken a la king, and New Orleans-style pan-fried oysters served with succotash, French-fried potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. Lettuce and fruit salads, cold and hot soups, and freshly baked pie rounded out the menu. The bar offered cocktails, beers, and wines, mixed drinks, sodas (Seven Up and Coca Cola), and a selection of assorted cigars (5, 10, and 15 cents).
When the Green Diamond began her final runs as the Miss-Lou (MISSissippi-LOUisiana) between Jackson, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana, she left Jackson at 6:20 AM, arriving in New Orleans at 10:20 AM; the return journey left at 6:20 PM and arrived in Jackson at 10:20 PM. This articulated version of the original trainset probably offered little more to eat than cold sandwiches and sodas.
Along rails running among the homesteads of south Mississippi, the farmers along its route noted the green train’s resemblance to a pest, and before long became affectionately known the Tomato Worm.
In the summer of 1855, Miss Anna Sheegog died upstairs in the house in which I write. No token of hers remains, not even a hair ribbon; the grief at her passing was eased and forgotten long ago. Yet she is still fooling around up there, after al this time, and no wonder—she was only 16 and not ready to be done with life.
Something is always stirring in old houses, for they murmur in their sleep as people do. So much happens, and none of it wants to leave; it is laid up in the walls, left to leak out now and then when someone is listening. Ghosts, we call it, though it is really only memory. I have listened here—in all weathers, in the bright noon and deep watches of the night—longer than Miss Anna was alive, and I know something of the memory of houses.
This one is called Rowan Oak, for Mr. William Faulkner called it that, and he lived here longer than anybody. Because he lived here it is a literary shrine of sorts; for 20-odd years pilgrims have been coming up the walk to see what lies in the white house.
I, too, was a pilgrim once, come by a long road begun in a railroad yard. One night a switchman, Frank Smith, pressed on me a book, of all things, a paperback, greasy and bent to the shape of his blue jeans pocket. “Read this,” he said. In the yard office after the train was gone, I opened it and began to read, and the world was never the same again.
Years later, when I was curator of Mr. William Faulkner’s house, I happened on a page of manuscript behind a drawer in the library. I knew right away what it was; lines from The Hamlet, written in this very house. It was no small thing to meet, and as the morning light fell through the tall library windows, I remembered another light; the glow of Frank Smith’s lantern on that vanished summer night, when he put his copy of The Hamlet in my hand.
Ghosts again, and, always, time. In Mr. Faulkner’s house, time is the sum of all senses. It is in the light, in all seasons softened to twilight by the trees. Time lies in the creak of a shutter, rain in the downspouts, in a step half-heard in the empty rooms above. It is in the very smell of the place, which is the smell of all grandmother’s houses, made of dust and mildew, old books and years of fried chicken—and that almost palpable memory that will not go away. It is the smell of time.
No wonder pilgrims sometimes speak in whispers here. No wonder children often cling shyly to their parents’ legs, flirting with something only they can see. Time conjures them all, as it conjures us, who are stewards of time.
There have not been many of us. Dr. James Webb, the first and best curator, will always be chief. In the early years Dr. George Street was here, and Bev Smith. I have worked with Danny Toma, Terrell Lewis, Keith Fudge. Winfred Ragland was the first groundskeeper, and then Isiah McGuirt, whom I watched rake the leaves of 15 autumns.
These were all Southern men who knew not just Mr. Faulkner and his work, but also what it means to love an old house and earth whence it came. They were all pilgrims, come here by their own long roads, each to find his own doorway to the past.
Once, on one of those days when the sky is deep blue and every leaf sharp and clear and shadows haunt the fence corners—once, on such a day, Isaiah walked out in the north pasture to work his turnips and Dany went along to swap lies. I wandered out by myself by and by and leaned on the fence and watched them. On the whole place there were only three of us. Their voices drifted to me across the morning. Now and then, an acorn rattled on the tin roof of the cookhouse, the loft door creaked, the house drowsed white and solid in the sun.
I should not have been surprised to find Mr. Faulkner at my elbow, leaning on the fence with his pipe, nor to see Miss Anna in the kitchen door—for the streams of time had come together once more, the old proper rhythms of life were in cadence, and all that ever happened on this place narrowed to an old man and a boy in the pasture, talking quietly under the autumn sky.
Occasionally, folks ask me what it is like to work at Rowan Oak. I do not know how to tell them about Frank Smith or Dr. Webb or Danny or the day Isiah went out to hoe his greens, but sometimes I try, and they are almost always satisfied. It is a good thing for pilgrims to carry away into the world waiting for them beyond the gate, for in that world ghosts are silly and magic is only for children. I don’t believe so myself, and neither does Miss Anna—but then, she is only 16, after all.
Almost 200 [sic] years after the battle which killed 200 [sic] Americans at an old Spanish church outside San Antonio, the essential argument remains the same: were these settlers fighting for their “freedom” against the oppression of a Mexican tyrant, Antonio López de Santa Anna, or were they mostly interested in preserving the slavery recently independent Mexico opposed, but [which the settlers] considered essential [sic] for the success of their burgeoning cotton farms? Burrough, Tomlinson[,] and Stanford leave no doubt [italics mine] about the correct answer. Slavery.
–The Guardian, August 30, ‘21
Praise for Forget the Alamo (2021), a celebrated revisionist history which, according to The Guardian, has laid to rest once and for all, with no room for further discussion, an argument of almost two centuries’ duration! Well, thank goodness, I say.
Nevertheless, nagging questions remain. Is the “essential argument” about the Alamo really such an antique, or is it freshly sprung from the collective conscience of the Third Millennium? Were the defenders of the Alamo really such moral paupers that they would sell their lives violently and irretrievably for nothing more than cheap plantation labor–Would you, dear reader?–or is it possible they chose to fight and die for some higher purpose? Is it conceivable that soft, comfortable, well-fed scholars whose entire lives have been spent in school–is it conceivable such persons are suddenly able to remove all doubt about the motives of men–white, black, red, or brown–who lived hard lives no contemporary person can imagine?
Forget the Alamo is a landmark document of The Woke, a populist movement of seemingly boundless authority whose acolytes seek Righteous Truth and, like Christopher Columbus, believe they have discovered a New World. However, and also like Columbus, they are mistaken, for many persons less objectionable were there long before they arrived. In any event, one quality–their first principle, in fact–renders The Woke unique: i.e., their universal condemnation of persons from the past who, through no fault of their own, were born free and white. The Woke have decided, all by themselves, that Western Civilization–from the Vikings to just yesterday–is irredeemably tainted by oppression, suppression, deception, cruelty, corruption, and lies promulgated by the white race. At best, this assumption is a grave discourtesy; at worst, it slanders people whom The Woke never met, who are conveniently dead and thus no longer around to speak for themselves.
Ironically, because The Woke have little chance–and less desire–to participate in a cause that demands physical courage and sacrifice, they have raised an Alamo of their own, a bastion of morality whence double-shotted rhetoric may be fired into the national conscience. Their Alamo is unique: being virtual, no one is able to assault it! Ambrose Bierce might have anticipated The Woke Movement when he included this definition in The Devil’s Dictionary:
Discussion, n. A method of confirming others in their errors.
Theirs is an egregious fallacy. It is Presentism, a tendency by which citizens of a distant and far different time are judged in the light of contemporary morality–judged by, in G.K. Chesterton’s words, “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
For our purpose here, let us limit Chesterton’s “small and arrogant oligarchy” to, first, The Woke themselves, and second, those whom they have “awakened.” To the latter, we might well apply a cliched (but hard to improve on) simile. They are like sheep who must have a shepherd to protect them from the wolf. Tragically, shepherd and wolf are often one and the same: an entity who has understood since the days of Eden that, when it comes to control, nothing works like fear and guilt. The Great Assholes of History (including, in our time, Putin and Trump) rallied their flocks with fear–of Jews, of negroes, of Communists or Capitalists, of Armenians, of Catholics or Protestants or Democrats, what have you. The Woke, however, choose to invoke the specter of guilt. The Woke speak with the iteration of the sadistic nun in Game of Thrones–“Shame! Shame! Shame!”–and white people everywhere respond, “But what are we guilty of?”
Well, there’s Texas Independence for one, and slavery, and Jim Crow, and the Confederacy–and how about old Christopher Columbus? The Italian navigator, bold and ambitious and under Spanish patronage, set out in three primitive caravels in the belief that, by sailing west, he would discover the East. His primary motive was to open the Orient’s riches to European trade; at the same time, he would illuminate blackened pagan souls with the light of Christianity. As everyone knows, Columbus did not reach the Orient–too much geography was in the way; instead, he stumbled upon something almost as good: a world new to him, filled with possibilities for exploitation and populated by heathens ripe for conversion. Columbus and those who came after took advantage of the opportunity and set about exploiting and converting with the brutality common to Renaissance life. I was not around in the Renaissance, nor do I know a single person who was. I’ve never been rich, have exploited no one, and converting the heathen has never engaged my interest. Yet for me, for you, for the white boy pumping gas at the Shell station, The Woke have a stern admonition: For this, for the cruelty and excesses of European adventurers, are you guilty. White people–how dare you continue to celebrate as heroic, as consequential, this man Columbus! Raze his monuments! Erase Columbus Day from the calendar! Teach your children the Truth: Columbus was a piece of shit, and you all white motherfuckers are responsible! Wake! Wake to the shame!
I decline to feel responsible for Christopher Columbus, and I hope you do as well. Meanwhile, “Who’s Columbus?” asks the white boy at the Shell station.
* * * * *
Though secular in intention, The Woke manifesto gives off a strong whiff of Calvinism. The concept of Original Sin–“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all”–is revised and updated so that contemporary white people must answer not only for the disobedience of Adam and Eve, but for the collective misdeeds of their ancestors. No other ethnic group has been thus burdened, nor has any such burden been so joyfully embraced. As it turns out, The Awakened are happy to dismantle their own culture, ignoring its virtues while simultaneously ignoring the vices of all the others. The physical vandalism and destruction of monuments is an expression of a spiritual zeal not only self-indulgent, but perfectly safe. In marked contrast to those whom they condemn, The Woke make no sacrifice, face no peril, suffer no hardship. Like Medieval flagellants (but absent the pain and gore), The Woke and The Awakened revel in guilt, robe themselves in the sins of others, and spew curses on their fellows–the white ones, anyhow. The result, for them, is a warm sense of moral superiority and, even better, the happy knowledge that a culture’s entire narrative is crumbling under their hands. They do not care to create, nor do they build; they only destroy. This is their sole accomplishment and will be their only legacy.
I have said The Woke frame their judgments from Presentism, a fallacy that is itself framed from ignorance–which, I hasten to add, is not to be equated with stupidity. The latter is a mental vacuum common among those who, for whatever reason, cannot or do not wish to think, who view the world without complexity as it presents itself in the moment. Ignorance, on the other hand, is a conscious choice by persons who refuse not to be stupid. The Woke demonstrate ignorance in two ways. First, they seem to have no understanding of the ambiguities of history; second, they apparently know very little about its realities. Taken together, these deficiencies should disqualify The Woke from judgment. Instead, they form the cornerstone of the movement.
* * * * *
The principle of ambiguity, as I use it here, is hardly complex–anyone not a psychopath should find it already familiar. It begins with an unassailable premise: everybody you know, including yourself, is totally fucked up. That goes for your mother, your grandma, your best pal, the lover whom you believe hung the moon and the stars–everybody. This hard truth, once accepted–and accept it we must, soon or late–proves useful as we ponder why the world itself is so . . . well, you know.
A useful truth no doubt, but one that harbors a dangerous possibility. Should we allow it sole governance in our conduct toward others, no human relationship could endure. Indeed, it is unlikely we could endure even ourselves. Lucky for us, this first premise is only half an equation, made complete by a second equally unassailable: we have the innate, perhaps evolutionary, ability to acknowledge universal human frailty and at the same time continue to love and admire, or at least like, or at least tolerate others–and ourselves–in spite of it. Not everyone, of course, gets a free pass. Only a fool would ignore evil or dismiss injustice or excuse one whose only guide is a malignant nature. Every person is weighed in the balances, and some, in the end, deserve neither forgiveness nor mercy. In my view, however, the Total Depravity of Man, perhaps the most significant Calvinist doctrine, is, like Original Sin from which it derives, a wholly artificial concept contrary to reason, contrary to evidence, and offensive to every decent impulse of the human heart. To believe without exception that a man’s worth cannot transcend his inevitable folly is nothing less than nihilism and denies the value and purpose of existence itself.
Nevertheless, it is through the lens of Total Depravity that The Woke view history. They are merciless in their appraisal of historic figures great and small. Should a man be brought to judgment before them, his conduct in life, however honorable, is dismissed as irrelevant. In the court of The Woke, higher virtues are inadmissible evidence, and nobody gets a free pass.
Unless, of course, he is a man like George Floyd.
The Woke represent Floyd’s brutal, needless murder by Minneapolis police as emblematic of the abuse of power and authority; in this, at least, they are correct.. Floyd was a felon, a dope-head, and a thief–a troubled soul struggling to overcome his demons. He needed help, but what he got was death at the hands of an officer sworn to serve and protect everybody. However, extensive media coverage elevated Floyd above the myriads who have suffered a similar fate and made of him a symbol which The Woke were quick to seize upon for their own purposes. Now they are able to demand, and demand we accept, that men who acted in the past be replaced in our admiration by persons who are acted upon. And while the Woke ignore the egregious flaws and ambiguities surrounding a man like Floyd, they refuse to tolerate the same qualities in those they put on trial and condemn to oblivion. Like Columbus. Like General Lee and Walt Whitman. Like the defenders of the Alamo.
Hard evidence has revealed William Travis to be a cad of the first order. James Bowie, a cold killer, has always been difficult to romanticize: the knife he designed was not meant for whittling, but to cleave an opponent from stem to rudder-post. David Crockett was neither cad nor killer, but a genuine legend in his own time; his principle flaws seem to have been political ambition and his role in the “heroic Anglo narrative.” These three, and the 180-odd men who died with them, were not mythic heroes, nor were they models of Christian virtue–this, no one can deny. Still, they were possessed of humanity: like all men, like George Floyd, their souls were of light and darkness, fraught with ambiguity.
Here, however, the similarity ends. The Alamo’s defenders were nothing like us; in fact, I would argue they have no parallel in modern culture. Like the principle of ambiguity, this is an element of history The Woke cannot seem to grasp as they hold men to account and judge them by a moral standard that did not even exist in their time.
* * * * *
I alluded above to “citizens of a distant and far different time.” Here we will take a glance at how distant and how different their time actually was.
Persons living in the present are privileged to view the past as an unfolding series of complex and interrelated events. Patterns emerge that are obvious to us, but were invisible to those who took part in making them, just as we are unaware of the shape our own time will take in the view of those who come after us. And while we can gather data and facts and discern cultural shifts–while we can analyze and interpret events in a larger context–there is one thing we cannot do: we cannot now, nor will we ever, be able to enter or even begin to understand the minds of those who acted out their parts in a vanished time. A fundamental rule of science states that a thing observed is necessarily changed by the very act of observing. It is impossible, no matter how hostile or sympathetic we may be, to look upon persons of the past without interference from our own consciousness.
The defenders of the Alamo can only be viewed in the context of the 1830s, and thus are no more comprehensible to us than inhabitants of Pluto. It is easy to condemn their morality until we reflect that it was the product of their world, not this one. The same is true for any period in history, including that within living memory.
Medical science began to emerge from the Medieval around the time of the Great War. In all the long ages prior, a person who lived into adulthood was possessed of a constitution strong enough to survive; such a person, of whatever color, was an exception. In a moment, we will touch on some of the difficulties his survival brought down upon him, but here let us try an illustrative experiment. Choose a night in deep winter when the rain has turned to sleet, and the ground is covered in ice. After the temperature falls below freezing, take off your shoes and socks. No coat or thermal underwear allowed: only pants, a shirt, a hat, and a single blanket over your shoulders. Now walk out into your yard and see what happens.
If you can stand the pain more than five minutes, you are a better man than I. Ten minutes, and you are a masochist. Once back in your warm house, ponder this: it is impossible–impossible–for a barefoot (or rag-shod) human being, clad only in a thin coat and trousers and hat, to survive for weeks in temperatures below freezing. Yet, time and again throughout history, we find persons doing precisely the impossible!
As a specific example, consider the Confederate Army of Tennessee during their siege of Nashville in December, 1864. Many of the men were without shoes. Food was scarce. Firewood was scarce. They had few tents and few blankets; if a man had an overcoat, it was likely taken from a Federal corpse back in Franklin. Every morning, men would be found frozen to death. We can understand that. We are astonished the whole rebel army did not freeze to death!
How did they endure under those circumstances? The customary answer, “Well, they were tougher than we are,” is insufficient. It is too easy, glosses over too much, and fails to take into account the realities of human limitation and the demonstrable nature of Impossibility. What answer, then, can we offer in its place? Devotion to cause and country, however fervent, cannot overcome physical impossibility. Neither can the will to live, nor hatred of an enemy, nor love for one’s comrades, nor the memory of folks at home. We may salute the indomitability of the Spirit, but in the end, we must face an incontrovertible fact: the human body, unprotected against extreme cold, ceases to function. The heart stops. Death comes. There is simply no alternative.
Except . . . there was an alternative. Soldiers of the Army of Tennessee first endured the impossible, then gave a good account of themselves in the battle of Nashville. In headlong retreat–physically and emotionally exhausted, terrified, freezing, starving, debilitated–the majority not only continued to endure the impossible, but in many cases did so on their own initiative, without the support of comrades or the presence of any military discipline. They walked all the way to Mississippi, and when they stopped, they were still an army and still dangerous–individually dangerous and ready to fight again.
(In one personal account, published in Confederate Veteran magazine in the 1880s, the author tells of his experiences on the retreat from Nashville. These included wading the Harpeth River up to his armpits and emerging soaking wet on the far bank–and this at night under the same conditions as our experiment. His comment? “I walked fast to keep from freezing.”)
How did they do it? The answer is unlikely to be found, for it lies in a realm of human nature forever beyond our reach. So, too, is the answer to a parallel question: Why did they do it? To ensure the spread of slavery into the territories? To confirm white superiority? To keep the niggers in their place? These are among the responses The Woke might offer as they drive their kids to soccer practice.
When the noise, the frenzy, the fever of postmodern life grows unbearable, The Woke also drive their kids, and themselves, to therapy. When the darkness comes down, and that old anvil settles on the heart, a variety of nostrums–Paxil, Zoloft, Cymbalta–are on hand to ease the pain. Who is not thankful? The Woke are thankful, surely, but they forget that those whom they condemn had no recourse from a woeful mind, a troubled soul.
I have always believed that, for most of human history, people hovered on the brink of madness–and why not? Little in their world was soft–persons white and black and brown, rich and poor, were alike cold in winter, hot in summer, tormented by insects, in constant pain from headaches, toothaches, arthritis, pleurisy, melancholia, and for these no help but willow twigs and whiskey. They were surrounded by death in violent encounters and in their quotidian lives. The prick of a thorn might easily lead to blood poisoning; a woman had little chance of surviving childbirth, and the infant would likely die before it could walk. The specter of sickness–yellow fever, scarlet fever, cholera, consumption–lurked always in their minds, and suicide was a common escape for people who could no longer bear the sorrow or the fear. Nighttime was a stygian dark, an abyss of silence that tortured the imagination. By light of day, they broke their backs at labor and grew old before they ought. They lived at the mercy of horses, mules, milk cows, the weather, wood stoves, fires, spoiled food–and on the frontier, what they ate, they had to grow or kill for themselves. Their food, heavily salted and overcooked, was empty of vitamins and short on calories, and there was rarely enough of it. On the frontier, people were closer to the natural world, more in tune with its rhythms and moods, than anyone alive today, and they were not immune to its beauty. Yet, for them, the natural world was no Garden of Eden; it was hostile and threatening, and in every way their adversary.
We, who dwell in such ease and comfort, must allow those people their own lives and condemn, as outlined above, only those who deserve it.
Thus we return to the men in the Alamo. What they knew and how they perceived the world is unavailable to us. How they actually viewed slavery and nation-building and Negroes and Mexicans and Indians is forever beyond our grasp. We can only examine the facts, among which is this: the defenders of the Alamo fought with the certain knowledge that their lives would be the price for something they believed in. We cannot know how they saw their sacrifice: that belongs to them alone. They were deeply flawed, but for me–and I hope for you–they remain brave and honorable. They gave us Texas, and men like them gave us America for better or for worse.
* * * * *
I have said–and I believe it true–that The Woke have no interest in discussion. I will add here that The Woke are not only dismissive of, but immune to, criticism. They are at the helm, and whatever voices might be raised in opposition–including my own–will go unheard by them. How and why that happened is beyond the scope of this brief exercise. Instead, and despite the futility, I will conclude with a few paragraphs entitled simply,
A Message for the Woke.
The cruelties and inequities of the human experience are nothing new to historians who, since at least the 1960s, have struggled to temper romance with reality. Nevertheless, you believe–or behave as if you do–that you are the very first to be woke (awakened?) to the realization that some people got left out of the American story. Your attitude might have been forgiven–are we not supposed to challenge the status quo?–had you striven honorably to recognize voices heretofore silenced and to illuminate inequalities (the list is long) heretofore ignored. Such an approach might have healed old wounds and made possible a genuine reconciliation among antagonists.
Instead, you have embarked on a path that leads only to greater antagonism and separation. On behalf of minorities you cannot possibly understand, you have chosen to erase the memory of people you cannot possibly understand, who lived in a time you cannot possibly understand–all this to spite others whose view you do not wish to understand. You have shattered the old Metanarrative into a swarming pool of micronarratives that may themselves be divided into fragments, each one jealous of the rest, each one insisting on its true place as the one and only axle of the universe–and this in the name of Equitas.
Your belligerent righteousness has won the day. Soon, no one may point to an ancestor with pride, nor to any place where his kinsmen acted bravely and well. You will teach your children to be ashamed of whence they came, and pretty soon they’ll stop caring, for you will teach them that as well. The old stories will be banished and in time forgotten, and you will have no stories of your own, for, in the world you are creating, it is unlikely you will ever do anything worth telling about. Then one day, after all the monuments are pulled down, all the buildings and towns and landmarks renamed, all the long narrative of humanity purged–on that day you will look down from your moral Gibraltar and discover that you yourselves are forgotten. Or, if your movement is remembered at all, it will be as a pale, pathetic, humorless blur whose cowardice was masked as virtue, whose pandering was disguised as sympathy. You have rung the Passing Bell for others; you do not see that it tolls for thee as well.
This Message for the Woke is delivered from the ramparts of the Alamo, the Rebel trenches at Petersburg, the field of Union dead on Marye’s Heights. I speak for Jeff Davis at Monterey and Pat Cleburne musing in St. John’s churchyard; for all the unknown dead who gave up their lives for causes they believed in–and for my pals Neumeyer and Rudisill, killed in Vietnam, and for my Old Man Charlie Bahr and my daddy Gene Hereford and my Uncle Bill Gleaton who helped whip the Axis in World War II, and for my Great Grandaddy Josiah Hereford who fought in every battle of the Army of Northern Virginia, and finally from my own once-upon-a-time self, crouched on the stern sheet of a landing craft in the Tonkin Gulf. For these and for myself I speak, and for the myriads who had the great good fortune to live out their lives before you came along.
The Mean Summer of ‘22
 Actually, I have yet to see enlightened comment on the Vikings–but they were mostly white, Nordic even, so their time is coming.  For the nature of Presentism, I am indebted to an old friend, the historian Michael Bradley. Another old friend, Frank Walker, introduced me to Chesterton long years ago.  By this means, we excuse the reasonably intellectual and the myriads with more to worry about than the historical canon.  This phrase is not original to me–a Woke Female of my acquaintance once used it in a media posting. Columbus as a piece of shit? A marvel of reductivism to stun the intellect!  Presumably white themselves if illustrated Bibles are to be trusted. And The Almighty too, and Jesus and Mary and Joseph–the whole crowd save poor old Gaspar the Moor, who was no doubt oppressed and forbidden to vote.  I challenge the reader to assemble, from all the resources of the language, a more succinct phrase to identify this fundamental human quality.  I am aware of no woman of any class or color who has fallen under the disapprobation of The Woke–a curious omission in a movement–indeed, a generation–hyper-sensitive to gender equality.  We are often told that God gives us no burden greater than we can bear, but, Believer, consider this: Your husband left weeks ago, and you can no longer hope he will return. Snow sifts through the chinks in the cabin, and the weight of it will collapse the roof pretty soon. You can’t remember how long it’s been since your child died; she is turning black, her eyes are glazed, and she is beginning to smell, but still you clasp her to your breast–you simply cannot let her go. The wood-box and pantry are long since empty. Every night, more and more wolves come to snuffle and scratch at the door, and it’s only a matter of time before the Kiowa or Comanche find you. Now, in a felt-lined case lies your husband’s Dragoon pistol. You take it out, see that it is loaded and primed as he taught you. What do you say to God now? Do you pray for His help, His intervention, His protection? Do you pray for a miracle? No. As you cock the pistol–it’s hard, for the spring is strong–and press its cold muzzle to your temple, you pray only that it will work. This was a reality of life, once upon a time.  An instructive example is Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star (1984). While his titular subject is George Armstrong Custer, and the central event the Little Bighorn fight, Connell presents both in the wider context of the Nineteenth Century. I think no better demonstration of historical ambiguity can be found in the language.
When I was a little kid, I’d write stories and my mother would type them up on her Royal Standard typewriter. Writing those stories, I never supposed I’d become serious. I used to use a manual typewriter, my own 1953 Royal standard, a beautiful machine that I loved dearly. Then I got a computer, and I use that now. The thing about the computer is that it makes it so easy to revise. Stepping off into the blank page is scary, and it’s much easier to go back and revise what you’ve already written than to make up something new, so I have to watch myself with that. I only work at night; drink beer, smoke my pipe and try to write a couple of pages. It’s kind of a ritual.
When I first became really interested in writing, when I was working on the railroad, my friend Frank Smith introduced me to William Faulkner. I’d heard of Faulkner, but I had never read him. Frank and I were talking about writing, thinking, sort of coming out of ourselves and finding out things. When he gave me some Faulkner books to read, I became just totally involved in Faulkner’s world. It was a world I thought I would have loved to have lived in; the 1890s, the turn of the century, the South of the 1920s. I was fascinated by his style, so I began to unconsciously imitate it. If I had any of my early writings, you would see that I was a very poor copier of William Faulkner, but an imitator nevertheless. Parenthetically, Shelby Foote did the same thing, you read Foote’s early novels and they are a poor imitation of Faulkner’s style. Then I read Joseph Conrad, and I began to imitate him, his cadences, then I read Scott Fitzgerald and I tried to imitate his beautiful, musical lines. Every person I read, I would imitate. Many years later, when I read Lonesome Dove, that book put echoes in my head. Out of all that came my own style.
That’s how I learned to write, by reading other writers, imitating and finding my own voice, and that’s what I recommend for any writer, to not be afraid to imitate a number of writers, because eventually you’ll find your own style. That’s what Faulkner himself did; he imitated A.E. Housman, a number of stylists until he came up with his own. By the time I came to Rowan Oak as a caretaker, I was sick and tired of William Faulkner, I was sick of his baroque sentences, he had begun to annoy me with his coy, almost willful obscurity, so I lost interest in his writing for that reason. Oddly enough, the presence of William Faulkner at Rowan Oak was very small. The boys who worked with me there I think would agree. We all wrote stories and wrote things in the house, but there was no inspiration or magical breath that came down the stairs. It was like writing in a hotel room. Although we talked about him, kept the house as he and his family had, the house really had a life of its own. To us, it was always the house that was more alive to us than Faulkner. Wherever Mr. Faulkner’s ghost is, it is at rest.
I never go to a lecture unless I’m giving it. I say that kind of tongue-in-cheek, but there’s also some truth in it, too. I go to a writers’ conference to speak or read, and I look out over the auditorium and they’ve all got their pads and their pencils are poised to write down The Secret as if there must be some secret to this. They would be better off spending that time reading other writers and writing for themselves. Edgar Allen Poe never went to a writers’ conference; William Faulkner never attended classes at Bread Loaf. The great writers learn to write by reading and imitating and by working their asses off day and night. You’ve always got to be working on something, whether it’s going to amount to anything or not. You can ask any writer if he is working on anything now, and he will say yes. He may be staring at the blank page, but he’s still working.
Don’t preach. You want to write a story. Faulkner said, and I think he’s quite right, that a writer should not have an agenda, that he should not preach; his business is to tell the story of the human heart, to tell it well in all of its lights and shadows, and out of that telling, if you do it true enough and honest enough, if you don’t make fun of your characters and create a real world that your reader can move around in, if you do all that and tell the story, then the meaning, the preaching, whatever you’re trying to say will come out. The Black Flower is not about North versus South; it’s not about the Yankees and the Rebels; it’s about how horrible and unspeakable war is. That’s what it preaches about, not through the voice of the author but through the actions and reactions of the characters and the things they see in the world around them. The reader gets the message without being button-holed. What is wrong with preaching is that you begin to move away from the story, away from the work, and into the writer. And the writer doesn’t matter. If the writer has a message, it needs to come out in the work.
I think that my course has run as a writer. I don’t think that I’ll be publishing any more books. I think that the time has come for me to be a teacher of writing. But having said that, I still write all the time, I’m still paying attention. The literary world is a landscape that I don’t recognize any more, I don’t understand it; I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t think anyone would be interested in publishing anything else I write, but if I ever finish something, I’ll send it in, see what happens.
Among the most distinguished and elegant writers in the Mississippi canon, Howard Bahr writes compelling novels of the American Civil War. Bahr is the winner of the 2007 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction for his book The Judas Field. His novel The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War received the W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction in 1998, and in 2011 Bahr was the winner of the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Literary Arts. Between 1968 and 1973, Bahr worked in various positions for the Illinois Central Railroad, theAlabama, Tennessee, and Northern Railway, Missouri Pacific Railroad, the Southern Railway, and the CB&Q Railroad. A friend and neighbor, he kindly consented to interpret this old schedule for the Mississippi & Skuna Valley Railroad.
The Mississippi & Skuna Valley Railroad was constructed between May 1925, and September 1926. The M&SV came off the Illinois Central main line at Bryant, just south of Coffeeville. The road was twenty-one miles long running slightly northeast; at its terminus, the town of Bruce, Mississippi, was built around the E. L. Bruce Co. lumber mill. Original motive power was one Prairie Class (2-6-2) steam engine. Sometime before 1952, the road obtained at least three seventy-ton GE diesel switch engines. The M&SV also operated a motor rail car (named “Bruce”) for express and passenger service. The car was a coach body set on a Reo truck chassis.
The M&SV timetable is from the August, 1952, edition of The Official Guide of the Railways. Among the common symbols on railroad time tables are found the following:
§ indicates a train that runs only on Sunday
† indicates a train that runs daily except Sunday
∫ when placed beside a station name, indicates a “Flag Stop” (i.e., passenger trains only stop at those stations upon a displayed signal)
■ meaning can vary; on the M&SV timetable, indicates motor rail car service.
Times in the A.M. are printed in light-faced type; times in the P.M. are printed in bold type. The time given for each station is the scheduled time that the train leaves the station. Southbound and westbound trains are given odd numbers. Read down. Northbound and eastbound trains are given even numbers. Read up. On this table, mileage between stations is not given. Mileage from Bruce Junction is indicated in column Mls.
On the M&SV timetable, the motor coaches have regularly scheduled runs. The absence of numbered freight trains indicates that freight trains run “Extra”; i.e., they can be listed at any time. This timetable is for the convenience of passengers and does not show sidings where trains may pass. Most likely, the motor coaches had rights over freight trains. In any event, the M&SV is so short, and traffic so light, that train control was probably informal. By 1952, the Illinois Central ran no passenger trains from Jackson, Tennessee, to Grenada, Mississippi. Thus, one wonders why passengers would want to go from Bruce to Bruce Junction.
Novelist, scholar, humanitarian and gentleman, Howard Bahr also has a poet’s hand and ear, eye and heart.
For A Girl I Know, That She Might Not Grieve
When I am dead,
you must not think me dead,
but gone ahead on a two-lane desert blacktop
road, doing eighty with the top down
in a cream-colored ’40 Ford coupe
stroked and bored in Tucumcari.
Route 66 is a blue arrow to the mountains,
and the desert no dead place, but strewn
with flowers only Indians have the names to;
hawks aloft, and lizards legging it
over the hot sand, bellies raised; roadrunners
racing the hopped-up Ford through the Creosote
brush; shrikes perched on the telephone lines; and
an SP freight train running fast westbound–
a flat plume of smoke, all signals green.
Then mountains passed, the western slope kissed
with morning shadow, the fir trees dusted with snow.
The pastel desert towns lay behind me now,
and below a green valley, orange groves,
the distant glittering sea.
Now, after dark, in a bungalow in Elysian Park,
I labor as of old, trying to find the words to tell
of why we do the things we do: why we love;
why we strive in vain; why we let the rain beguile our hearts
with longing and desire.
And here, from time to time, I rise, go to the window,
pull the curtains by and raise the blinds,
and gaze upon the palms and Oleander
and the haze around the moon.
All is well. My heart’s alive.
I watch for your twin headlights in the drive.
In apartments stuffed of furniture no one wants,
where children grown and gone
smile down from every horizontal place,
the old ones listen for the mail.
And when at last the postman brings the mail around,
he creaks the boxes open, creaks them shut again.
The old ones peer into the hall, then shuffle in their slippers
to the boxes on the wall: church bulletins, bills,
catalogs from a world no longer theirs.
But how is Judith faring in the city?
And Donny on the oil rig in the Gulf–
is he safe? Did he marry the girl from Lafayette?
What of young Alyssa at her college in the North?
Those lives are silent.
In the catalogs: plush counterpanes, support hose,
baths to sooth the feet, and means
to keep the patio insect-free.
The water bill is high this month.
Behind their curtains, the old ones open checkbooks,
Next day, the mail comes round again.
A Parable for My Students
Last night, my neighbor Pitts
Set out a Havahart for cats
That fell his birds. No luck.
Instead, today by early light,
I kenned a possum caught.
Unkempt he was, and fat, and pacing
To and fro. He rose to press his paws
Against the wire, then paced again: a turn,
And turn, and rise, and turn, and rise,
And turn, and rise to naught.
A ghostly, wedge-faced possum,
Rat du Bois, no good in stir to anyone
Except himself perhaps, or Johnny Cross
Who fattens one each year to bake
With sweet potatoes–God forbid the thought!
Anon, I rambled out and crossed
The dewy grass, took hold the door
And lifted it, and propped it with a stick.
“Now, scram,” said I. But, no, he hunkered down,
And bared his yellow teeth, and curled his tail
Just as his mama taught.
Thus he remained, like unto Death,
A mockery of Life, when all the while
The door stood open, beckoning him quit
The bars, and flee, and brave the morning
As a creature ought.
In early afternoon, old Pitts came out
And puzzled at his prize, and scratched his head,
And gazed suspicious at the stick. He shrugged at last
And took his snub-nosed .22 in hand:
Pop! Pop! it said, and so the possum bought.
Take heed, my Little Ones: the gate is raised;
Go hence and seek the morning. God be praised!
So far, I have written hardly anything to make you smile, which I certainly like to do, so I will tell a story featuring our late pal L.W. Thomas, one of the funniest boys who ever lived and a very nervous character who owned many peculiar phobias. For example, he was afraid of milk in any form. Also, when he bought a six-pack of beer at the Jitney Jungle, he would not touch the can with the price-tag on it (this, of course, was when things had price-tags). You could be sure L.W. would have a beer for you at his house, because there were always fifteen or so cans with the price-tag in his icebox. For Thomas, flying in an airplane was out of the question. Once, when he and Randy Cross and I flew on Delta Airlines to Washington, D.C., we had to render him comatose with three Ativan tablets before he would even get in the taxi to the airport.
Another late friend of ours, Captain R.A. Jung, owned a 1943 Taylorcraft tail-dragger (an old Army spotter plane) he named “The Yellow Peril.” She was canvas-covered (painted bright yellow) and could accommodate two persons in tandem seating. For instruments, she had an altimeter, an air-speed indicator, a horizon bubble, and a compass. That was it. We all enjoyed flying in this antique crate (sometimes we’d buy two or three bags of flour, then go hunting along the Illinois Central for a train to bomb), but, as you might expect, L.W. steadfastly refused to have anything to do with her. Finally, one evening at the local tavern, Captain R.A. Jung beguiled Thomas with the news that he had just installed a radio in the cockpit of “The Yellow Peril.” (Heretofore, the ship had been incommunicado, which meant the Captain could only land at strips without a tower.) This apparatus, claimed Captain R.A. Jung, made the old bird safe as a Chevrolet station wagon. L.W., girded with the bravado of a half-dozen draft beers, and no doubt embarrassed by his legendary reluctance, uttered the fatal words, “Why, there ain’t nothin’ I’d rather do than scale the airy heights with my old pal, Captain R.A. Jung. Excelsior!” After that, there was no turning back.
Next afternoon, a Sunday, the boys gathered at the Oxford airfield to see L.W. Thomas off on his maiden flight in the Taylorcraft. Having steeled himself beforehand with a half-pint of Cabin Still (no Ativan or Xanax in those days, and, at the moment, none of us had any reefer), Thomas squeezed into the cockpit and buckled himself in the rear seat, clutching to his chest a Gideon Bible he had swiped from some fleabag motel back down the line. Present as observers were Frank Walker, John Schorfheide, Steve Cook, Tommy Freeland, and I, each man enjoying the balmy day, each man uttering words of comfort and encouragement to our jittery comrade:
“C’mon, L.W.–if you crash, it won’t hurt–you’ll be killed instantly.”
“Don’t listen to him, pard–you’re back aft and may only be injured for life–”
“If that happens, man, try to keep your arms and fingers so you can play the
the guitar on the sidewalk by the bus station.”
“But . . . what if he’s only injured and the wreckage catches fire?”
“Good point! Lotsa guys survive a crash, only to perish in the flames.”
Meanwhile, Captain Jung ran through the pre-flight checklist:
Horizontal Stabilizer: OK
Loaded Revolver Under Seat: OK
Peach Brandy: OK
L.W. Thomas : Sitting quietly hating the Wright Brothers; hating Mr. Taylor who designed the Taylorcraft; hating all of us who, safely on Terra Firma, could afford to make light of hideous injury and death; most of all hating Captain R.A. Jung who, when satisfied of the craft’s readiness spoke up as follows:
“Awright, girls–knock it off and pay attention.” He rummaged around under his feet and produced a mare’s nest of wiring from which, after a few minutes of muted invective, he extracted two sets of headphones fitted with throat mics. The leather earpads were cracked and dry, like the antique Bakelite mics and the confusion of black wires that connected one apparatus to the other, then disappeared beneath the instrument panel where, presumably, they were somehow connected to the generator. Captain Jung explained that, while the device was not exactly a radio, it was a revolutionary, if makeshift, intercom system assembled from genuine WWII Naval Aviation components he’d discovered in a surplus store in East St. Louis, Illinois. As a result, the Captain pointed out, those in the cockpit would no longer have to scream at one another over the clattering of the engine and the wind howling through the wires and wing struts. L.W. Thomas–lucky boy!–was the first passenger to show up since the installation, and this flight would be the intercom’s initial trial.
Thomas revealed later that, in that moment, he did not feel lucky; his confidence was further eroded by the knowledge that Captain Jung had installed the rig himself. Not that the Captain wasn’t handy! It was he who built a muzzle-loading black-powder cannon from a length of steel pipe, so effective it could fire a dirt-packed tomato sauce can clear across the Mississippi River. His work with plunger-activated black-powder aerial bombs was pure genius. However, the Captain’s craftsmanship was generally applied to automobile repair, heavy machinery, and crude explosive devices; his experience with electricity was limited to hot-wiring cars in his youth. Thomas was aware of this deficiency, but his thought was, What could possibly go wrong with an intercom?
Now, to start the motor of the Taylorcraft, a ground crewman had to turn the propeller until he felt pressure on the pistons, whereupon that person would announce “Contact!” whereupon Captain Jung would flip the magneto and reply “Switch on!” whereupon the ground crewman would grasp the propeller blade and give it a heave counterclockwise. This is a very old-timey way to start an airplane, but she was a very old-timey airplane. After the engine was started and the prop spinning, pilot and ground crewman would exchange a hearty thumbs-up and “Cheerio!” (see illustration below), Captain Jung would take a draught from his flask of peach brandy, and off he’d go.
So it went on the day of L.W.’s first flight. We watched the little machine trundle onto the grass runway–in a moment, she began to roll forward–Captain R.A. Jung opened the throttle–the mighty sixty-five HP engine began to buzz–the tail came up–and in a moment “The Yellow Peril” was gracefully aloft and disappearing southward over the trees. Meanwhile, the boys walked back to the office to drink coffee and listen as the airfield manager, the late Mr. Jeff White, told us tales of flying in World War II.
Well, I started out with the intention of telling about the time our friend S. Cragin Knox beguiled L.W. Thomas into accompanying him to Texas to work on an oil exploration crew, and the foreman out there gave Thomas the job of driving the dynamite truck, which made Thomas very nervous indeed, especially when, one day, and without thinking, L.W. Thomas flicked his cigarette out the open window of the truck cab–but now I am all tangled up in the story of L.W. Thomas and the Taylorcraft. However, as I think about it, the two stories have a similar narrative thread. As a modern person (no offense), and especially a modern person (no offense) married to an Air Force fireman, you might question the wisdom of L.W. Thomas smoking a cigarette while driving a dynamite truck. Also, you might contemplate the photo above and ask yourself, “Should Captain R.A. Jung really be smoking a cigar in the cabin of a fabric-covered airplane swirling with gasoline fumes that is about to sail into the Wild Blue Yonder?” This behavior was perfectly routine in those times; today, it would most likely be considered poor judgment, if not moronic.
(At this point, I should insert an apologetic parenthetical. Beloved niece, you could not be blamed for assuming our gallant band were naught but a crowd of dissipated low-lifes and scoundrels. In fact, we were all in college at Ole Miss, save Schorfheide [a railroad detective on the Cotton Belt RR in Memphis] and Captain Jung, who, when he was not adventuring, worked as a millwright at a steel mill in Granite City, Illinois. Walker was an ex-Marine, Schorfheide and I were Vietnam veterans; Jung had served his Army time in Alaska as a ski-trooper; Steve Cook would become chairman of the graduate art program at Mississippi College. Tommy Freeland was a poet and intellectual from an old Mississippi family; he would grow up to become an excellent attorney, marry my ex-wife, and die of a heart attack at a tragically young age. S. Cragin Knox, in spite of his lowly beginnings slinging cable on an exploration crew, eventually became the State Geologist of Mississippi. As for L.W., he was a graduate student in theatre at Ole Miss, a musician, a restaurateur, and a fine writer. He died in his sleep at age fifty-two in ’02 as his beloved wife Jeanne watched by the bedside. Life was never the same for us after L.W. Thomas crossed the river, and I do not believe a man can own a higher accolade. The same can be said of Captain R.A. Jung, who was killed in the crash of “The Yellow Peril” on [fittingly] November 11th, 1976, just seven months after the events recorded here. These were lads who lived authentic lives, and I am proud to have been one among them, and I miss them greatly. Thus, though sometimes we were dissipated low-lifes and scoundrels, misbehavior was only part of the adventure.)
Anyway, since I am thus far into the airplane story, I will stick with it.
Time and again, we hear persons complain that Life is Unfair, and certainly it seems so at times. Some point to Fate; the Calvinist attributes every misfortune to God’s Inscrutable Plan; sensible people have no other recourse than to mutter the well-worn phrase, “Shit just happens.” Whatever one’s philosophy, it does seem patently unfair that events surrounding “The Yellow Peril” on that balmy April morning in ‘75 came to pass with poor ol’ L.W. Thomas, of all people, in the catbird seat. (As a writer, you will recognize this paragraph as intended to “stretch out the story” and “build up suspense” in order to delay the climax of the tragedy, so I will mention the wholly superfluous fact that, like old-timey barnstormers, Captain R.A. Jung always carried a number of wooden tomato stakes and a rolled-up bundle of cord affixed with colorful pennants like you might see at the state fair, a used-car lot, &c. so that, should he land in a cow pasture, as he often did, he could stake out a perimeter of wavy little flags around the ship. Remember that cows, though not very bright, are curious creatures; remember also that Captain Jung’s Taylorcraft was covered in a fabric treated with sealant [pilots call it “dope”]. Naturally, the local bovines would saunter over to investigate the big yellow insect that had buzzed down into their pasture; if Captain R.A. Jung neglected to set out a perimeter of wavy little flags to confuse them, the cows would commence to snack on the tasty, dope-covered fabric so that when Captain Jung returned from the nearby grocery with his sack lunch, he might well find a more or less portion of his fuselage gnawed down the the ribs. I always wanted to use this arcane fact in a novel, but never found the opportunity.)
In any event, but a few minutes after takeoff found our intrepid aviators at a thousand feet and crossing over the Yokona River. L.W. Thomas, of course, was not feeling intrepid. Below him lay the thin brown thread of the river, the greening woods, the checkerboard of cotton fields soon to know disc and plow, a sprinkling of white houses and, here and there, a wisp of cloud: truly a magical scene stretching to the blue hills and the world beyond. Alas, these aesthetic delights were not for Thomas. Later, he would freely admit that, from the moment the tail wheel lifted off the grass strip in Oxford, he shut his eyes tight and kept them shut. He white-knuckled the Gideon Bible and felt the rapid beating of his heart. He listened keenly to every variation in the motor’s rhythm and waited for the moment when it must surely quit altogether, all the while painfully aware that only a bit of wood and fabric lay between him and a thousand feet of empty air. Meanwhile, Captain Jung’s voice chattered amiably through the headphones clamped over Thomas’s Baltimore Orioles cap. Heretofore, L.W. had ignored the Captain’s observations, thinking them no more than the utterance of a madman indifferent to his own mortality. Now, high over the fields of Lafayette County, the Captain said something that made L.W. open his eyes and take notice: “Hey, man,” spake the Captain, “whatever you’re smoking back there smells like shit!”
This remark was an eye-opener for Thomas–first, because he wasn’t smoking at all, and, second, because he, too, all at once detected an unwelcome odor; i.e., the acrid smell peculiar to electrical fires. As the cabin began to fill with blue smoke, Thomas understood that the moment he’d feared was arrived at last, a realization confirmed by the Captain’s next announcement: “Well, hell, Thomas–we are on fire. Help me look for a place to set her down.”
Looking “for a place to set her down” was not among L.W. Thomas’s various array of skills. He’d never needed to “set down” from anyplace higher than his own bed, nor supposed he ever would. In addition, obeying the Captain’s order meant L.W. would actually have to look out the window! This he tried manfully to do, but the attempt was cut short when he realized (as he would later remark) that the distant ground, scary as it was from the sealed double-paned window of an airliner, was a hundredfold more so viewed through a vibrating half inch of cracked and oil-smeared plexiglass howling with wind. Thomas, heart palpitating, closed his eyes again and exclaimed “Oh, Jesus!” just as “The Yellow Peril” made a sudden stomach-churning drop. The Captain had chosen a field of broomsage nigh the river, and toward this he descended with dispatch, at the same time banking the ship hard over on her starboard wing in order to land into the wind, which direction he perceived by the smoke of a burning brush pile. The little machine hit hard, bounced high, hit and bounced again, and at last found her footing among the muddy ruts of the field. In a moment, she had rolled to a stop, whereupon Captain Jung shut off the engine and bailed out of the cabin door, pulling after him the still-smoldering remains of the intercom system, including L.W.’s headset. To say that Thomas was not far behind is to diminish the speed and agility of his exit.
Later, L.W. would admit that, once free of the cabin, he fell to his knees, pressed his cheek to Mother Earth’s welcoming bosom, and promised never again to leave her. It was, he said, not one of his finer moments.
For a time, Thomas and the Captain lounged under the wing, sipped peach brandy, and basked in the warmth of danger passed, peril overcome. Luckily, the Taylorcraft suffered no damage beyond a little bubbling of paint on the instrument panel; the intercom system, however, was hors de combat. One can imagine how, in that field to this very day, fragments of wire and Bakelite are turned up by harrow or plow, unseen and unlamented, their history lost to time like artifacts from a remote civilization. Here we must leave them, and here we must leave our tale of two gallant flyers–save for a final contemplation. When you feel safe, when the world seems in order at last and the Almighty has apparently wrapped you in His protecting arms–then look out, for the Cosmos is about to slap you up side the head. L.W. Thomas was still congratulating himself on his narrow escape when Captain R.A. Jung stood up, brushed off the seat of his pants, lit a fresh cigar, and said, “Awright, buddy–you ready to go?” Only then did Thomas comprehend that “The Yellow Peril,” having landed, must now take off again. With him aboard. True courage means that, when you’re scared shitless, you go ahead anyhow. This Thomas did, clutching his Gideon Bible as the ship bounced across the muddy broomsage field and struggled aloft. The last thing Thomas heard before he fell asleep was the brush of the landing gear through the greening branches of the trees.
 The generator was fixed under the starboard wing and had its own little red propeller. In flight, the wind spun the little red prop, and the generator generated.  When he told the story later, L.W. Thomas used a more colorful synonym for “makeshift,” i.e. “nigger-rigged.” Regrettably, the term has since fallen out of common usage.  In fact, we only had one; it was stoppered by a wooden plug so wouldn’t disintegrate; It made a most satisfying thump when dropped on an empty field, but when we landed, we had to get in the car and go retrieve it. The bomb in its experimental form wouldn’t hurt anyone, unless it hit him on the head. However, should any bad guys–Russians, Yankees, &c.–invade North Mississippi, we were ready to provide air support. Today, we’d be arrested as terrorists.  When I was a little boy in Primary School, certain children from poor families (known as “clay-eaters”) would eat library paste and even dirt from the playground to satisfy the cravings of vitamin deficiency. Perhaps this helps to explain cows’ tendency to chew on airplanes.  Originally called the Yoknapatawpha and so named in Faulkner’s novels and stories.
Buried deep in my album is a photograph from the hot summer of 1979, of the boys playing music on a flatbed trailer. We appear to be laying down some pretty hot licks, going for the big $100 purse in the band contest on the Oxford square. Old John Bradley is thumping the stand-up bass; Mr. Cragin Knox frails the banjo. Randy Cross, staring off into the flaw- less summer sky, is on rhythm guitar; the immortal L. W. Thomas is playing lead; and I am sawing on the fiddle.
Our faces are solemn masks, the de rigueur expression of the old-time string band. WOOR Radio is flashing us out over the airwaves; the shirt- sleeved judges lean on their elbows; and in the foreground Mr. Jack Cofield himself is snapping our picture as if we were very big dogs indeed. It is a satisfying image, for it fails to mention that we were not big dogs at all but mere dabblers in the music trade. Moreover, it omits the dubious harmonies we sent aloft that day to the old arched windows of city hall.
And to look at it you would never guess, any more than the “bored judges” or the listeners scattered on the green, that our faces-so cool, so self-possessed-are in fact rigid with fear, and in our hearts a secret voice bargains with God to only let us live through this set and we would never, never, never play in public again.
What, then, were we doing there? It was a question we often asked our-selves when the pressure, largely self-induced, was on. It was not really all that bad, playing music-we had our good days, even a triumph now and then. But there was always the suspicion that sooner or later the People Out Front would rise up in their scorn and drive us from the stage. hey never did, of course, and we lurked on the fringes of the business for years.
We were known by picturesque names-The Waterford Road, The Eighth of January, The Horse Stealers. Friends came and went: Uncle Frank Childrey and his Gibson mandolin; Gathal Runnells, a great fiddler; young Les Kerr and Mike Burduck, a fine bass player. We played all around, turning up like rented palms at parties and banquets and wedding receptions, even at wine-and-cheese affairs where our repertoire nearly always clashed with the decor. We worked the Watermelon Festivals in Water Valley, the Faulkner Conferences in Oxford, and Ole Miss pep rallies.
And always there were the taverns: Abbey’s Irish Rose, Cajun Fred’s, The Warehouse; all gone now but lively enough places once upon a time. In the taverns we met all the usual roadhouse foolishness. People grabbed at our microphones and spilled beer on our instruments. Combatants arrived at our feet in a spray of broken glass. It was a rare show that we didn’t get 10 requests for “Rocky Top,” a song we all hated and couldn’t play very well anyway.
But in our travels, we knew also the good bright sun, the faces of friends, pretty girls dancing, free drinks, and the smell of barbecue in the air. It was a colorful pastime, and there was nothing quite like walking into a job with an instrument case and having the public mistake you for a musician.
We fooled them for a long time, though we never amounted to much more than a bunch of boys playing music on a flatbed truck. We had none of the professional apparatus, like matching shirts or our own sound equipment, and our showmanship was… elemental, you might say (“Now it’s time for the boys to innerduce themselves,” L. W. would announce, “and we would turn and nod and shake hands with each other, and sometimes the People would get it and sometimes they wouldn’t.)
Yet in time we gained, to our everlasting astonishment, a following. Not just our girlfriends and cronies, understand, but people we never knew before. To the Ole Miss students we were a novelty beyond words, to the older folks perhaps the half-remembered voice of a simpler time. And in spite of our fears none of them ever seemed to care if we were very slick or not, if we broke strings or forgot the words. All they wanted was a joyful noise, and we could give them that. Through the old songs, we touched something solid and authentic in the heart that all of them could recognize, even if they didn’t know why.
And for ourselves – when we were rolling along and hanging on to the steady thumping of the bass, we were in high cotton indeed. So in the end it was worth it, and if we had to ask what we were doing up there, we need look no further than the music for an answer. We would do it all again, I think. And when the house lights came on for the last time, and the boys closed their cases and went away into the world, they took with them a long memory, and the old songs – to be broken out in the parlor now and then, or suddenly remembered in the ruin of night. And in my album the boys are captured forever, having a bad day but trying to do their best just the same.
We won the $100, by the way-not for being top band in the contest, but for being the only one to sign up. “That’s show biz,” as the feller said. –Howard Bahr