MEMORY ON THE THEME OF AN OLD SAW, “AN IDLE MIND IS THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND”

 

As best I recall it was a Friday near noon in midsummer, a work day (important point), when the wooden hand-cranked telephone jangled in my grandparents’ hall. Grandmother handed me the earpiece with a sour look and stalked back to the kitchen. It was Bobby calling to say, You gotta come down here. He wouldn’t tell me what the deal was, but it had to be something. I could hear it in his voice. You won’t believe it, he said, and momma and daddy aren’t home.

He had phoned three or four of us. We set out on bikes down the street, rounding up strays on the way. Nearly everybody we knew lived on a half mile of ramshackle houses along the railroad that constituted the right side of the tracks in Riceville, Tennessee, Pop. 401. Across the railroad ditch were low dark houses presided over by a kid who ran up and down the tracks all day shaking his hands and foaming at the mouth. I was a city boy, in Riceville on visits to my grandparents.

Bobby was thirteen and a friend of my older brother’s since Bobby beaned my brother on the head with a sledge hammer. It was a famous incident. Mostly Bobby hung out with younger kids, so he could lord it a little. He was stringy with a big adam’s apple and a crew cut. We all had crew cuts, except for the boys with the flat fuzz called a burr, and in summer we wore t-shirts and rolled-up bluejeans. Bobby’s father was my grandfather’s best friend. My Grandmother considered Bobby’s family ignorant and uppity and had ranted about them for as long as I could remember.

We dropped our bikes in Bobby’s front yard and ran around back of the house. Sure enough, you could hardly believe the sight. It was a pile of new lumber, gleaming gold and smelling sweet in the sun. Next to the lumber sat a bucket of nails. Bobby was posing in the yard with a proud grin, brandishing a hammer.

The wood was intended for repairs to the barn, I guess. We never found out. It had been delivered by a truck that morning, to Bobby’s amazement and jubilation. To us it was a summons to glory. What are we going to do all with this stuff? Bobby asked. We gazed at the lumber, cloudy endeavors forming in our minds.

Oh man, let’s build us a tank, Jimmy said. The conception dazzled us. A tank! It was a natural. A damn tank as big as, as—as a tank!

Hot-O-Molly, said JR, that’s what we’re gonna do. This was way better than shooting snakes down to the creek, possibly even more fun than blowing up dead cats with cherry bombs in the railroad ditch. And here was the brilliant part: We’d paint our tank to look like iron or whatever they make tanks out of, and we’d mount it on bicycles! On six bicycles! With awe, each in our secret hearts, we imagined the great weapon floating down the street, transcending the crumbling houses, all of us invisible inside, some of us pedaling, others aiming the turret with the big gun. It would be the wonder of Riceville.

Bobby disappeared into the screened back porch and after some crashing around started pitching tools into the yard. We swarmed onto the stack of lumber, grabbing whatever we conceived to be part of the plan–ten-foot pine planks, slats, two-by-fours, fat sheets of plywood–and threw everything down onto the grass.

A fury of hammering and sawing broke out in the noonday sun. From the barn door a cow watched us, eyes big with bovine alarm. Frantically we nailed boards to boards, slats to plywood, expecting everything would coalesce into the great design. Now and then a scream would arise, somebody’d go jumping and cussing around the yard clutching his thumb. Whaling at a plank next to me, his tongue protruding in concentration, was a big kid–stumbly, thick eyeglasses, drooled some, always last to be picked for a team. We called him Useless. He didn’t mind, as long as he was in the game. Just now Useless appeared baffled by the problem of finding a nail with a hammer, but he gave it everything he had.

In the middle of pounding stuff into a frame for the bicycles, or something, I looked up to see Bobby toting an eight-foot four-by-four across the yard. This’ll be the gun, he said. He kneeled and began sawing at it viciously. For a moment I wondered about the verisimilitude of a square gunbarrel.

After a while Bobby stood up and declared, We’ve got to get organized. Nobody paid him any attention. We kept hammering and sawing. The wood pile was getting smaller, flowing across the lawn in wildcat configurations. Bobby said again, We’ve got to get organized. Stopping to wipe the sweat from our brows we agreed, in principle, but we were too busy to think about it. After that Bobby kept quiet, and we minded our work.

Maybe an hour passed industriously. Another quarter hour, less so. It was a boiling midsummer day in the South and weapons building is hot work. The cow had disappeared into the barn for a while but now she was back at the door, watching. Finally the bam-bam-plink of missed nails and the hoarse rasping of saws petered out and we stood up, sweaty and speckled with sawdust. Around the yard half the lumber had been manhandled into crazy angles, hammer-pocked wood banged together with bent nails.

We were tired, and dimly into our heads had entered the conception that maybe it wouldn’t be so good to be around when Bobby’s daddy got home. We decided to call it a day. We agreed that we’d made a fine start on our tank, and would convene again soon to finish it up. All right, Bobby said. It’s gonna be a really great tank, said Useless. Bobby didn’t say anything else. He was looking kind of sick all of a sudden.

We edged around to the front of the house and picked up our bikes and departed, hastily. From the distance the cow gave a long lonely moo. We waited all next week for Bobby to call us to come down and finish the tank. He didn’t call, and nobody saw him for a while. We never found out what his parents did when they got home. Somebody said they thought they heard Bobby in the back yard, pulling nails out of boards and crying.

Then, 45 years. We went our ways. Names and faces have drifted apart, but I seem to recall Bobby is a lawyer, the next town over. Useless runs a feed store and for a while was mayor of Riceville. Jimmy and JR went to Vietnam. Jimmy came back. And I sit all day at pianos and computers, my mind full of forests and mountains, peregrine falcons, Vienna, the Rhine. I think about that day a long time ago, and the nature of creative ambition. I might ask of a given endeavor, Is this a wooden tank on bicycles?

My generation grew up with a mythology that ran, You wish hard enough for anything to happen, and, Lo, it will happen. In the course of years you learn that, for most of us, most of the time, Lo, it will not. So you have to work to remember what children understand by nature, as a matter of divine inspiration: no matter what, to sustain our bit of briefly mobile earth, dreams are worth dreaming.

WORDS AND GLANCES, ETHNOLOGY DEPT.

I was delighted recently to hear from a distant Swafford relative about some of her forebears, to whom I’m even more distantly related: “Stingy Jim” Swafford of Sequatchie Valley, Tennessee, and his wife Mary Polly Nail. The latter is a splendid moniker. In her childhood I can hear her mother crying, “Mary Polly Nail, you come down outen that tree this instant or you’re lookin for a whoopin! You hear me, Mary Polly?” According to my relative, one day as Stingy Jim lay on his deathbed Mary Polly was in the kitchen making coffee. He hollered to her, “Go there easy on the coffee!” Those were Stingy Jim’s last words.

Except how he would have said that would have been roughly: “Go thar aisy awn the cawfee.” That brings up some thoughts about the accent I grew up with in various Tennessee towns of my childhood, mainly Chattanooga and Riceville, the latter where my mother was born and my grandparents lived, a red-dirt village of some 400 souls and maybe 200 cattle and swine. I’m thinking about how to spell the way we actually talked. For example, the mammalian head. “Head” in Southern is usually represented on the page as “haid,” but that’s misleading—it reads as “hayd.” What that spelling is trying and failing to convey is how it’s actually pronounced, which is “hayid,” a classic Southern diphthong. So misleading is the usual spelling that when we did the musical Oklahoma in my Chattanooga high school we pronounced the word haid in the script as “hayd,” even though a lot of us in real life said “hayid.”

That brings up the pronunciation of a familiar Southern phrase. In Standard English it would be, “I am going to knock your head off.” Where I grew up, that was properly pronounced, “Ahm’o knock yore hayid awf.” Which I submit is a more vivid and efficient way of threatening somebody with decapitation. “Ahm’o” is my favorite of all contractions: “I am going to” squashed into two syllables. That’s Southern genius, such as it is. “Ahm’o go downtown. Yawngo?” My best friend in Riceville was named Morrow, which was pronounced Marr.

One whole summer in Riceville my friends and I were at any opportunity exclaiming “Hot-O-Molly!”, which was our version of Hot Tamale. On blazing hot days—which was most days in the summer– we frequented a swimming hole in the creek that my grandfather had dug out for the kids in the 1920s. At the hole you could do two fun things: splash around in the shallow water, or shoot cottonmouths with a .22. If you wanted to swim it was a good idea to chase the snakes away first. We’d throw rocks, or a couple of us would do a cannonball into the creek. (Boys in Riceville got a .bb gun at eight, a .22 at ten, a shotgun at fourteen. I was a visiting city kid so didn’t get guns, but I used to go out with my friends hunting. I still remember the gamy smell of rabbit blood.)

Also comes to mind my Chattanooga schooldays friend Kevin, who was tall. He grew up in Manhattan, so had a Yankee accent and thought Southerners talked funny. His little-kid neighbor used to play a game in which he would climb up Kevin’s body. He called his game, “Peter Spider climbing up a tree.” Kevin reported that in the kid’s pronunciation it came out, “Peter Spahder climbin hup a tray.” The kid’s father was Superintendent of Schools for Chattanooga.

When my mother used to call me in college and my roommates answered they’d crack up at her accent. I’d remind them that she had a Master’s in Speech from the University of Chattanooga. Every year in my Jr. High school the principal would announce over the intercom the annual Kiwanis Club Oratorical Contest. With him it came out, “The Ky-wanis Club Artarcal Contest.” Could he have won an Artarcal Contest in Chattanooga?

The next linguistic item is a little racy, so be warned. I learned many of my best cusswords at that swimming hole in Riceville. One of the terms I learned was “cock,” meaning the female genitalia. You heard right. Every kid I knew used that term for lady parts. For me this persisted until eighth grade, when I happened to use the locution in front of Kevin, the New York import noted above. “A cock isn’t a pussy, you idiot!” he sputtered. “A cock is a dick!” I stood corrected. Kevin later attended Columbia in English and he was already concerned with the proper use of language. Many years later I mentioned all this, for some reason, to my writer cousin John Bowers, who grew up in Johnson City, Tennessee. I told him I assumed it was some incomprehensible mixup by local kids where I grew up. Not at all, John said. Cock is a common term for women’s junk in the lower South; that’s the way he used it in childhood. As to why it was common usage, I’d like to know. It may be one of many indications of characteristic Southern intelligence and connection to reality. I could cite more.

When I was a senior in high school I took lessons with the principal trombonist of the Atlanta Symphony. That involved getting up at 5AM and driving there from Chattanooga (on two-lane roads, pre-interstate) for a 9:30 lesson on Saturday morning. (That year I was first-chair trombone in the Tennessee All-State Band, one of the leading distinctions of my life.) As I drove I would keep myself awake reciting vowels, trying to lose the diphthongs: learning to say aee eee eye oh you instead of aiee eee ah owh yiu. I wanted to get rid of my Southern accent because I was intending to become not only a famous composer and conductor like Leonard Bernstein, but a famous actor too. And famous actors didn’t have hick accents like mine. (In high school I was named Best Actor in the yearbook Senior Superlatives for my hearty performance as Mr. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth.) In practice my Southern accent withered away at college in the East. I miss it. It had some character as compared to how I speak now, which doesn’t sound like anyplace in particular.

I was born in Chattanooga, but for about three years before I was four we lived in my father’s natal house in Etowah, Tennessee, a smallish town straddling the railroad. A while back I was contacted by my father’s niece, Peggy, who grew up in Etowah. Talking to her on the phone, I suddenly realized that she didn’t have a Southern accent. I asked her why. “Etowahans mostly didn’t have the accent,” she said. “That’s because it started as a railroad town, and a lot of the population were imported there by the company from out of the region.” From that I realized that there were other abiding effects of the town’s founding: the streets were wide and well laid out, many of the houses relatively elegant, and there was a certain sophistication in the town temperament that to say the least doesn’t usually mark smallish Southern towns. My mother taught highschool English in Etowah and had stories about her students from the sticks. One of them was obsessed with Napoleon Bonaparte. Once he arrived in class full of enthusiasm and declared to her: “You know, Miz Johnson, they ain’t no flies on that Napoleon.”

(I just looked up “natal” to see if I used it correctly above and was startled to learn that, according to my computer thesaurus, the adjective can mean either “of birth” or “of buttocks.” You’ve got to be careful with that one.)

Two final accounts of Southern volubility. Some years back my brother and I were visiting Chattanooga and having lunch at a BBQ place. A family sat down behind us. After a heavy silence, the grandmother spoke: “You know, if thar’s one thang ah don’t lahk, it’s apple pie.” Thoughtful silence. “Ah just don’t lahk it.” More contemplation. “Seems lahk everbody lahks it, but ah don’t. Mah husband likes it. Mah brother Frank likes it. But ah don’t lahk it.” The family were clearing their throats. “Some people put a piece ‘o cheese on it. Covers up the whooole top! But Ah. Don’t. Lahk it.” This went on, but you get the idea.

I told this story to my soprano friend Wanda, who used to work in Louisiana, and she responded with a story from a master class she gave at, I think, LSU. A girl got up to sing and Wanda asked her what the song was about. Crooned the girl: “Ah’m fixin to sing a song about a swan that’s fixin to die.” Wanda made the suggestion that perhaps she could phrase her introduction more elegantly. The aspiring soprano looked puzzled. “Okay,” she said, “I’m gonna sing a song about a swan that’s fixin to die.”

Back to Etowah. My paternal grandfather left his prosperous lumber business on the railroad to my father rather than to his brother. It turned out a poor decision. As my mother learned only some time later, good old dad lost the lumber business playing poker. This I think influenced her decision to throw him the hell out. On the other hand, as my brother once observed, if dad had not perpetrated that, my brother and I might have ended our days sitting in the office beside the railroad in Etowah growling to each other on the order of, “There’s another load ‘o two-by-fours comin’ in and don’t overpay it this time, you son of a bitch.”

I digress. About 25 years ago I went with my brother and mother and cousin John Bowers and his wife to the Edgemon Family Reunion in Tullahoma, Tennessee. It was held in the old and extensive family graveyard, which as I remember was landscaped mostly in red dirt. This was my grandfather’s family on his mother’s side—she was Kizzy Edgemon, if I remember right. (There’s an Edgemon Ave. in Tullahoma.)

At the cemetery we found a tent under which sat a large woman before a large book. They were the Edgemon family archive and archivist. I introduced myself. “So you’re Jan, Lucille’s son and Lawrence’s grandson and Kizzy’s great-grandson. Let’s see.” She licked her thumb and turned to my page. “All righty,” she said, “last thing it says here is you went to Harvard. What have you been doing since then?” The school information would have come from Lawrence. She noted down my later history. Cousin John’s wife, who was of Russian-Jewish extraction, told us this was all exotic to her. She had no idea of her genealogy beyond two generations back, in the old country.

My ancestors, in other words, were pretty much rednecks. The only distinguished person I know of in my family to date was my maternal grandmother Beulah’s father, Gray by name, who was a medical doctor and a dentist. At the height of his career he invested every penny he had building a new office in Riceville. Beulah said he supplied it with twelve sheets of gold to use for fillings. The office burned to the ground the day before it opened. In the next years great-grandfather Gray gave up medicine for a position as town drunk. It’s easier and the hours are good.

Accents. One of the things I appreciate about William Faulkner is that he conveys a range of Mississippi dialects, from poor whites and blacks to tradesmen and the middle class, and he does it more with rhythm and phrasing than with the convoluted spellings that some (like me and Mark Twain) resort to. He can also add resonances with a representation of a phrase. In one novel a woman keeps saying about her hapless and penniless husband: “He aint got no more despair.” (Hmmm. I recall Faulkner saying in an interview that in his early years the best employment offer he ever had was to be manager of a whorehouse. He said it’s a pretty soft job. You just have to keep track of what the ladies are up to, get the trash out, and pay off the police now and then. It leaves your mornings free, which is the best time for writing, and in the evenings you don’t have to go out to enjoy a social life. He may have been exaggerating. On another occasion Faulkner told an interviewer he was the offspring of a negro slave and an alligator, both of them named Gladys Rock. I’m not making this up.)

I digress again. Besides redneck, my family are also mongrels—English, Scottish, and I don’t know what-all. But the Edgemon part is Dutch, a corruption of Egmont. This is, of course, a legendary family in Holland. As I tell people, I’m related to a play by Goethe and an overture and incidental music by Beethoven.

An erratic mixture of redneck and educated I think marks my family and me too, in my way. My mother Lucille and her brother Larry both went to college, small denominational ones in Tennessee, she majoring as I remember in English and Psychology, Larry majoring mainly in girls. Mother became a highschool English teacher noted for her vigorous promotion of literature, her histrionic poetry readings, her teaching of grammar by having students write poems and short stories. As she said, she was teaching not just grammar but creativity. I was probably foreordained–maybe doomed is the better word–to some sort of creative endeavor. Mother was not happy about my going into music because she had some idea of what a lousy job it is, but she supported me in it all the way. Trying to be helpful, she advised me to compose disco on the side. When I started writing prose she urged me to produce a naughty novel, under a pseudonym of course.

For all her devotion to literature on the job, at home we never knew Mother to read a book. Meanwhile she could stand in the middle of a museum gallery and name most of the famous painters at a distance. At home she had in the living room two prints, one Las Meninas by Velasquez, sometimes called the greatest of all paintings, and the other a tacky tourist rendering of a barn in a field. She didn’t really know the difference between the two. Mother was a Southern Baptist Republican who in my childhood would kneel down every night by the bed and pray. With her highschool literary magazine staff she would dress up in fancy pajamas, burn incense, and read them Beat poetry. Her heroes were Alan Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, though she regretted their use of dirty words. Many of her students thought she herself was a Beatnik, but she was generally appreciated and a bit marveled at. She was a star of the faculty. I like to think that I’ve reached a more sophisticated stage in the arts and letters and career and so on. But I think I’ve still got traces of the family mix of sophistication here and cluelessness there. Ask my ex-bosses, my ex-spouses, etc.

As soon as I can get to it I’m going to post a memoir about my mother’s brother, my Uncle Larry, one of those orphan stretches of prose I don’t have much to do with but put in the blog. Also a memoir about my Southern boyhood, which in Chattanooga was largely boring and barely middle class, in Riceville more peculiar and interesting.

P.S. Actually I’ve had some ideas about the naughty novel Mother wanted me to write. It would be structured in a sort of algebraic logic. The four characters I call A B C and D. The outer ones are male, the inner ones female. The couplings, as well as the tensions in the plot and denouement, would proceed logically: A + B; B + C; C + D; A + B + C; B + C + D; and for a grand final whizbang, A through D inclusively. Haven’t gotten around to it, but you never know.

 

 

About this thing

I’ve always said I’ll never write a blog because I lack the requisite self-involvement, which is to say that I don’t consider my merest thoughts to be worth the world’s attention. Really, we don’t come up every day with things worth sharing. But I’ve got a number of bits and pieces piling up on my computer that I find worthwhile, which for one reason or another I can’t seem to sell to anybody. Mainly, then, this blog is a repository of my orphans. Its title originated in my Boston Symphony note on Charles Ives’s Ragtime Dances. It’s come to represent my own odd bits, my thoughts and fantasies and feuilletons on assorted subjects.

A suggestion: try reading selections from the bottom up, because that’s the way they were posted.