When cataloguing the top ten stupidest stunts I’ve pulled, smuggling marijuana into Jamaica probably ranks in the top 5 behind leaping off the top of a chest-of-drawers onto a rocking horse that catapulted me face first onto a Biloxi Beach cottage’s wooden floor, driving my MG down steps of a parking garage that housed the USC’s campus police, totaling Joey Brown’s car in Hilton Head, and mistakenly thinking the stitches I received in that crash were dissolvable.
So, yeah, smuggling weed into JA comes in at five.
Why, curious reader, would someone smuggle ganja into Ganjaland you wonder?
It was the summer of ’81. My late wife Judy Birdsong and I had booked a flight to Montego Bay and a rental car so we could explore the north coast of the island. I had a problem, though. I didn’t know anyone in Jamaica, had no contacts, and approaching strangers seemed like a bad idea. After all, wouldn’t undercover cops be sporting dreads and t-shirts festooned with cannabis leaves?
So, I removed the ball from my roll-on deodorant, stuffed a nickel bag into the hollow cylinder, replaced the ball [cue Mission Impossible theme].
Once we arrived, it didn’t take me long to realize I had made a mistake. The Hertz Rent-a-Car attendant at the airport asked me if I needed some ganja, the house band asked me if I needed some ganja, every trinket seller on the beach asked me if I needed some ganja.
So, I trashed my USA stash and bought some local and had a blast.
Oh yeah, packing a suit for Jamaica may also seem stupid, but a restaurant we read about required a coat and tie.
 The stitches were pulled months later by my brother Fleming with a pair of pliers, a scene reminiscent of the tooth extraction in Marathon Man.
What a wonderful stroke of luck to be born and grow up in a quaint town like Summerville, South Carolina, with its verdant, lush, flowery neighborhoods and old-fashioned downtown one-story shops and cafes. Of course, nowadays, the nowhere-that’s-everywhere sprawl of Walmarts, strip shopping centers, and hotel chains have grown outward from the town proper, creating traffic tie-ups and spritzing stress. Nevertheless, to live in the Old Village, on Sumter Avenue, let’s say, is to reside in a lovely neighborhood that hasn’t changed significantly in nearly a century. Perhaps terrestrial and architectural beauty counteract humans’ inherent inclination to seek adventure because many natives spend their entire lives in Summerville.
These thoughts have come to me this gorgeous May 11th after listening to Robert Earl Keen’s cover of James McMurtry’s minor masterpiece “Levelland,” an anti-ode that dismisses an uninspiring town in west Texas. McMurtry was born in Fort Worth and grew up for the most part in Leesburg, Virginia, the son of the celebrated novelist Larry McMurtry. Nevertheless, his first-person narrator comes across as a living, breathing human being born and bred in an American wasteland. Unlike the unrestless denizens of Summerville, he can’t wait to get the hell out of a town that makes Dodge look like an oasis of cultural richness.
Here’s the first stanza:
Flatter than a tabletop Makes you wonder why they stopped here Wagon must have lost a wheel or they lacked ambition one On the great migration west Separated from the rest Though they might have tried their best They never caught the sun So they sunk some roots down in the dirt To keep from blowin’ off the earth Built a town around here And when the dust had all but cleared They called it Levelland, the pride of man In Levelland.
What follows is a family history fraught with agricultural hardship and the depletion of the land, his grandaddy growing “dryland wheat,” his daddy growing cotton “so high” that it “sucks the water table dry” while “rolling sprinklers circle round bleedin’ it to the bone.”
He’s seen jets flying overhead and has promised himself he won’t be in Levelland when the soil “dries up and blows away.”
In Keen’s rendering, the last stanza ends in an insistent heroic thrust as the narrator engineers his escape.
Mama used to roll her hair Back before the central air We’d sit outside and watch the stars at night She’d tell me to make a wish I’d wish we both could fly Don’t think she’s seen the sky Since we got the satellite dish and I can hear the marching band Doin’ the best they can They’re playing “Smoke on the Water”, “Joy to the World” I’ve paid off all my debts Got some change left over yet and I’m Gettin’ on a whisper jet I’m gonna fly as far as I can get from Levelland, doin’ the best I can Out in Levelland – imagine that.
I suspect, alas, that even in picturesque Summerville, many mamas haven’t seen the waning of the moon in the nighttime sky since the advent of cable television and social media.
And yes, some of us natives do move away – I, though, only about thirty miles to a town not unlike Summerville, a community with Spanish moss and small shops, though with a greater influx of tourists and many more drinking establishments and restaurants per capita.
Folly Beach isn’t exactly Summerville by the Sea. It’s more like, to echo Winston Foster, aka Yellowman, a “little Key West.”
It, too. is about as flat as you can get, but it’s no Levelland, though; come to think of it, no one has come close to writing such as good song about Summerville or Folly Beach as McMurtry has about the desolation of that West Texas hellhole.
 The towns of Sumter and Clemson share the strange linguistic quirk of having an invisible P-sound in their pronunciations.
 James went to Woodberry Forrest School and studied English and Spanish at the University of Arizona. By then, his father was back in Texas living in an “little bitty ranch house crammed with 10,000 books.” [BTW, the Wikipedia version of this quote (cited here) irritatingly had the period outside the quotation marks]. But since this post is perhaps riddled with typos, I should perhaps STFU.
 Of course, creating true-to-life characters is what fiction’s all about. In this sense, James is Larry’s son.
With apologies to DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin
Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind, In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined.
Tennyson, “The Lotos-eaters”
Summertime, And the living is queasy, Traffic’s stalled, And the rent’s sky high. Our landlord’s rich And constantly bitching, So, c’mon, sweet baby, Let’s stiff the bitch and fly.
Up ‘26, there’s the hipster haven of Ashville with its majestic mountains ‘neath a blue Carolina sky. But come to think of it, We’re pretty awful lazy. So, never mind, sweet baby, We’ll stay right here and get high.
 Gershwin wrote the song “Summertime” on Folly Beach.
Bill ignored the early symptoms of the major coronary event that did him in. After all, he was only in his early 50s.
Yet, the googleable telltale signs were there, both in his body and on WebMD: cold night sweats, stentorian snoring, tightness in his chest, and then, on the day of his departure, a horrifying feeling of impending doom, like a star collapsing, sucking life’s light into a black hole of sudden despair.
He had hoped for the best, had ignored a week’s worth of symptoms, but as he pressed the button to engage the garage door opener on a clear, crisp late April Monday, two of his heart’s arteries slammed their doors, the pain Psycho-shower-scene stabbing horror show.
Clutching his chest, he thought of his children.
Neither his biological offspring nor stepchild would mourn his death because he had been an aloof inconsiderate cigar-puffing malcontent who thought of his sons and daughters, which was rarely, only as abstract extensions of himself.
The two last words screamed silently in his skull as he fell against the BMW and onto the concrete.
Interlude: A Short, Contrarian Meditation on Birth and Death
After it is all said and done, if atheism is correct, death is cessation from pain, both mental and physical, whereas birth is the commencement of suffering, of fardel bearing, of grunting and sweating, etc.
Unlike Bill, many decedents pass quietly, transitioning gently from a room of loved ones into that good night.
On the other hand, no successfully born baby has ever come into being quietly, whether he or she was born in a hovel or a mahogany paneled birthing room.
Nestled in the uterus, lulled by a maternal heartbeat – bump-bump, bump-bump – a fetus enjoys womb-service, as it were, but with its mother’s water, all hell breaks loose. An excruciating passage through a way too tiny portal transpires. The fetus experiences pain for the first time as it is smushed through a fleshy wringer. Finally, when the head emerges, it encounters blinding light, sudden cold, unpleasant odors.
Like a turd, the baby plops out, suffers a slap, and wails in abject horror.
The horror, the horror!
For Bill, there was no tunnel of light with loved ones reaching down but a sudden transition, as if God had suddenly shut the venetian blinds, then immediately opened them.
Just like that he found himself alone on a cloudy plain dressed in his Tommy Bahama resort casual get-up: loud parrot-printed party shirt, cargo shorts, tasseled loafers without socks, in other words, what he had been wearing when he pressed the garage door opener and met his doom.
He looked down, and, as in a cartoon, he found himself standing on a cloud. He took a step on the soft mushy surface of what appeared to be congealed water vapor, and spritzy mist plumed upwards around his loafer. He took another step and then another.
Looking up, he saw twenty or so meters ahead a woman wearing nothing but a hospital gown, walking in the same direction, her plump exposed buttocks jiggling with each soft step. Back in the beforelife, this sight would have excited him, altered his metabolism, but here and now, here and now, here and now, it didn’t matter, and now, now, very now he could see up ahead a white walled edifice glowing beneath the blank azure of the deepest of skies, and now he could discern others walking ahead and behind, dressed in various guises, many in hospital gowns. He continued moving forward, his footprints disappearing after each step.
The Pearly Gates
It was like the heaven of a New Yorker cartoon, complete with a Northern European St. Peter with a Santa-like beard and white robe. He was running his index finger up and down a prodigious tome propped open on a golden, downright gaudy, rococo easel.
Avoiding direct eye contact, nodding quickly, St. Pete waved him through, and Bill sighed a sigh of profound relief. Despite his sloth, those hungover sabbaths in the hammock, despite his serial adulteries, his envy, greed, anger, and pride, he had somehow made it into heaven, had escaped the fiery furnace of pain everlasting.
A Gospel Jamboree Meets O Henry Meets Jean-Paul Sartre (or Wasting Away in the Opposite of Margaritaville)
A native of Trenton New Jersey who had spent most of his adult life in central Florida, Bill had never acquired a taste for gospel music, especially hillbilly gospel, but now without transition he stood among a sea of hayseeds in white robes wearing crowns listening to a praise band plucking banjos and yodeling hallelujahs.
Good God, how long would he have to listen to this shit?
Although “coronary event” is effete, I thought I’d avoid triggering readers who may have lost a loved one via heartattack.
Oops, never mind.
I.e., to the two sets of children from his first two failed marriages and the one stepchild from his third marriage.
 Or, to keep the motif going, “that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns.”
 My apologies to homeopathic midwives and Third World babies.
 A business major, Bill rarely read literature assignments, but instead opted for CliffsNotes summaries. He remembered nothing about No Exit, so had no clue of the concept of an existential hell, that his hell could be the hillbilly’s heaven whereas a never-ending Jimmy Buffett concert would be hell for these teetotaling worshipers who surrounded him.
Every now and then on Facebook or Twitter, I run across a give-yourself-a-point list like the one below.
I remember my first one. I was maybe twelve or thirteen, hadn’t even broken a bone, much less skinny-dipped or enjoyed a one-night stand.
In fact, I scored a 19. I had appeared on a local kiddie afternoon TV show where preadolescents celebrated birthdays between Hanna and Barbara cartoons. There was an elephant named Suzie-Q. chained up outside the TV station. That was the extent of worldliness.
Anyway, the list made me feel like a loser.
How bittersweet it must be for Mormons and Liberty University alumni to encounter these lists. Sure, some probably feel righteous, but I suspect that more than a few feel somehow inadequate, inexperienced, left out.
Therefore, in the spirit of solidarity with my inexperienced brothers and sisters, I have compiled a list where they, too, can achieve a low score.
GIVE YOURSELF 1 POINT FOR EACH THING YOU HAVEN’T DONE
Eaten at Appleby’s
Discarded gum underneath a desk
Seen a PG-13 movie
Stubbed a toe
Talked behind someone’s back
Farted in a bathtub
Forgot to floss
Ogled natives in a National Geographic magazine
Dreaded going to school.
How’d you do? I don’t like to brag, but I scored a 0! What a badass!
Generally, when I first listen to a song, I don’t pay much attention to lyrics. If I dig the melody and beat – as the boppers used to say on Bandstand – I’ll start paying closer attention to the words, and if the diction is clever or thought-provoking, all the better.
After all, it’s really rare to encounter lyrics that possess the compression and structural integrity of poetry, i.e., to find songs with words that can stand alone on a page and engage sans musical accompaniment.
My friend George Fox’s latest song – so new that it’s still untitled – comes close to accomplishing this rare feat. The song, which consists of three verses followed by a chorus, distills a lifetime in four-and-a-half minutes and does so employing diction, imagery, and structure that reinforce and embody the song’s central theme, what Andrew Marvell famously dubbed “time’s wingèd chariot.” George wrestles with the metaphysics of time, the illusive nature of past, present, and future, and how a lifetime passes [cliché alert] in the blink of an eye.
The song begins with a callous youth speeding through life in rural Orangeburg County, South Carolina:
Just eighteen, driving an old pickup truck, Joint in the ashtray and a bed full of luck. Running nowhere as fast as I can Down an Orangeburg County washboard road Not enough sense to take it slow. Rolling Stones singing “Street Fighting Man.”
Here, the theme of speed is introduced, and we have our first bit of compression in the allusion to the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” which melds the attitude of the the speaker in the Stones’ song with George’s narrator, both young men fueled by the fire of youthful exuberance.
What’s a poor boy to do but “run nowhere as fast as [he] can?”
The chorus shifts to the present, and again, we have speed, the idea of chasing “the dying light,” or as Marvell puts it in “To His Coy Mistress,” although “we cannot make our sun /Stand still, yet we will make him run.” Yet, in the last line, the speaker comes to the realization it’s always now, that the past and future only exist in the present and meaning lies in perspective, depending on where “you’re standing.”
Right outside of your window, just outside your door, Everything is waiting for you To fall into the night and chase the dying light. There’s no need to be gentle. Sometimes it’s heaven, sometimes it’s hell. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. All depends on where you’re standing. I stand before you now, and I see it written in in the clouds, All that was and is and could be is now.
In the video below you can check out the first verse and chorus from a live performance at Chico Feo’s Monday Night Singer/Songwriter Soapbox, which George emcees. The song is a work-in-progress, and for me, it’s thrilling to see it evolve on stage, as George experiments with phrasing and gestures.
In the second verse, the middle verse, the narrator finds himself suddenly middle aged, “thirty-three/With two little boys sitting on my knee” and has come to know “how love is made,” but swoosh, suddenly, with the days having flown by “like a midnight train,” he looks down to see, not his sons, but his granddaughter Eliza Jade.
Turned around and I was thirty-three With two little boys sitting on my knee, And I realized how love is made. The days flew by like a midnight train. The years fell on me like the pouring rain. Now I look down and see Eliza Jade.
The last stanza arrives like a melancholy last act, with “second guesses, another last chance, and one more shot.” Once again, the radio is playing, not “Street Fighting Man,” but “a brand new song” saying “the same old thing” but “still get[ting] it wrong.”
Second guesses are all I’ve got, Another last chance and one more shot. And how I got here I don’t even know. The radio plays a brand new song. It says the same old thing they still get wrong Oh man, and so it goes.
And so it goes – a lifetime distilled into a handful of words.
I could go on about structure, how the number three is central to the architectonics – three six-line stanzas, three nine-line choruses, the narrator citing at one point his age is thirty-three, but you’d think I was overdoing it, and you’d be wrong. If it’s there, it’s there, whether the artist planned it or not. Making art is like dreaming, it comes from below, often surprising the artist him or herself.
By the way, George’s band Big Stoner Creek has a new album out. You can check it out HERE.
PS. Here’s an earlier rendition of stanza three and the concluding chorus:
I recall as a boy my daddy complaining about how television news stereotyped Southerners, the correspondents constantly trotting out before the cameras a series of Bull Connor belligerents, grammatically challenged podunk politicians, and/or dentally deficient racists whose lack of front teeth made pronouncing the n-word problematic.
I didn’t know enough back then to explain that they were the ones making the most noise, the ones cracking Blacks with baseball bats, unleashing snarling German shepherds, that they were newsworthy, that his own nuanced, quiet racism wouldn’t be all that interesting to viewers.
And if you were born and raised in the South in the first or middle portion of the 20th Century, you were bound to be racist because bigotry was inculcated, abundant in the air you breathed: segregation included not only movie theaters, restrooms, and water fountains, but even doctors’ offices. Even if your parents didn’t explain to you as a child that Blacks were inferior, you would sense that they were because of their forced separation. It went without saying, though of course, lots of people were saying it, repeating racist jokes and addressing grandfathers as boy. The Blacks’ poverty was proof of their lowness, as if conquering systemic racism and overcoming a substandard education should not be a hinderance from rising from rags to riches. Look at the Greek immigrants, the Italians, etc.
Last Tuesday, my friend Warren Moise presented his excellent memoir The Class of ’71: A Tale of Desegregation in Gamecock City to the Thomas Street Book Club. This was our first in-person meeting since the pandemic, so attendance was sparse. In fact, all the participants were white male Southerners of the boomer generation, so we all had stories to tell of race relations back in the day, of “maids” entering through back doors and yardmen eating their lunches on back stoops.
However, to my mind, the most poignant narrative came from Ed, a physician who grew up in Little River, South Carolina.
In high school Ed worked at an A&P supermarket bagging groceries. Like many establishments, the store had an in-door and an out-door. After working a month or two, Ed discovered he could save time exiting the store through the in-door as he carted customers’ groceries to their vehicles in the parking lot.
One of the stores’ produce suppliers was an elderly Black man who brought in his vegetables on a cart composed of wood and cardboard, a sort of oversized wheelbarrow he pushed along the highway to the store.
One day, Ed rocketed out through the in-door and collided with the old man, overturning the cart, knocking the man to the pavement. The cement was strewn with vegetables, with smashed tomatoes, the cart destroyed.
Clearly in the wrong, Ed was mortified, worried that the old man was hurt, that he’d have to pay for the ruined produce, that he might be fired.
Slowly, Ed said, the old man tottered to his feet, placed his cap back in his head, looked Ed in the eye, and said, “Excuse me, sir.”
 C.f. Atticus Finch and Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird.
 It just occurred to me that what I’m writing is exactly what opponents of critical race theory want to, pardon the term, whitewash.