Miss Capers Gives Edgar Allen Poe a Gothic Run for His Money

V0025881 The witch of Endor with a candle. Engraving by J. Kay, 1805,

The witch of Endor with a candle. Engraving by J. Kay, 1805, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

 

Of all the many eccentric characters who haunted the streets of my hometown in childhood, including the mentally challenged man known as Pepsi Cola and another more infamous miscreant who trafficked in underwear and firecrackers, I believe that the old crone known as Miss Capers deserves the title of the strangest Summervillian of all.[1]

In the early Sixties, my maternal grandparents stayed in a subdivided Victorian house on West 3rd Street, the upstairs having been split into two apartments, the bottom story uninhabited and warehousing a portion of some wealthy family’s estate: furniture, rugs, an extensive library with hundreds of books.[2] In the side yard there was a well.  You could remove the cinder block and then the plywood and peer into an abyss.  I think I remember looking down at my reflection in water, but I may have gotten that idea from a Seamus Heaney poem. Behind the house was an open grassy field and a patch of woods featuring bamboo that we called “Ghost Forest.” It was a convenient neighborhood, two houses down from Timrod Library and close to the Playground via the short cut through Pike Hole.

sepia house copy

Although not an adventurous child, I somehow gained entrance into those off-limit rooms downstairs, the furniture sheeted, the air stale. I’d sneak below and explore. After repeated visitations and investigating some of the books I could reach on the lower shelves, I started secretly “borrowing” individual volumes of the Complete Works of Edgar Alan Poe.

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This is from the actual set I’m talking about

pit-pendulum-bmp-2Each slender volume, bound in red, featured sheer paper sheathing occasional engravings of ravens, subterranean crypts, or rats gnawing on ropes of the dudgeon-bound protagonist of “The Pit and the Pendulum.”  Into the forbidden first-story space I’d sneak, terrified I’d get caught, carefully replacing last week’s purloined octavo, flipping through other volumes, choosing another based solely on the luridness of the illustrations.

I was only eight or nine, so most of the prose lay beyond my reckoning, but I could manage lots of the poetry and some of the stories (“The Tell Tale Heart,” for example). Unable to distinguish bathos from profundity, I became completely enamored of the singsong silliness of “The Raven,” devoting several stanzas to memory. “Annabelle Lee” could bring tears to my eyes. Something sinister lay beneath those works, so the whole enterprise smacked of trafficking in pornography – though pornography would not have been in my early Sixties vocabulary.

I’d smuggle the forbidden text and read it surreptitiously in bed because I knew my parents/ grandparents wouldn’t approve of my trespassing and borrowing without asking. I liked the musty smell of the books, the way the pages whispered when I turned them, the way the illustrations lay perversely beneath diaphanous paper. Despite the buxom space sirens who cavorted on the covers of pulpy paperbacks, Sixties sci-fi couldn’t compete with the deep purple sublimations of diseased consciousness that I found in Poe.

The thing is, though, if it were the gothic that I was craving, I needed only to traipse across the hall and knock on mysterious Miss Capers’ door because she lived in the other apartment in the upstairs of my grandparents’ house. Truth is, I would not have knocked on her door for five dollars, a fortune in those days, because my brother David and I were convinced that she was a witch, and as far as diseased consciousnesses go, Miss Capers could give Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s insane wife in Jane Eyre, a run for her money.

She certainly looked witchlike with her sharp nose and perpetual frown. It seemed that she only possessed two outfits, the one she wore most often a brown, probably woolen, monkish garment, the hood coming to a point pulled up over her stark white hair, even on blistering summer afternoons.  Her other outfit consisted of an old-fashioned white blouse and long blue skirt. Her shoes were strange Victorian contraptions, boots, I guess you’d call them, that had several buttons on the side.  She looked like she’d stepped out of the pages of a 19th Century Gothic novel.

shoes

She rarely left the house, but occasionally you’d spy her walking down the street, hunched over a cane in one hand and a bag in the other. Perpetually belligerent, she’d shake her cane at you if you passed her on the sidewalk. I seem to remember that she was terrified of thunder and lightning. One time my parents took David, my high-school aged aunt Virginia, and me into Miss Capers’ room during a storm, I think to try to comfort her, and she told me the safest thing to do during a thunderstorm was to place your face six inches from a window and to stare out at the rain. It’s the only conversation I ever had with her.

Eventually, a smell began to emanate from Miss Capers’ room, which we thought might be accumulated garbage, but when the smell metastasized into a stench, my father knocked, then pounded on the door, eventually forcing it open. I wasn’t there at the time, but what he found was Miss Capers sitting with her leg wrapped in newspapers, gangrenous, terrible to behold, literally rotting.

Of course, my parents called for an ambulance, and from what I understand, the leg was amputated, and she survived, but was taken away somewhere to live out the rest of her days and nights under some sort of supervision.

Miss Capers would have made an excellent ghost, moaning in that room whenever a thunderstorm passed, but the house has been redone, been spiffed up with all its gothic traces effaced, an incongruous setting for a specter. They should have kept that library, though. It was really something. Perhaps if I ever become a ghost, I’ll haunt it, aggrieved that the books shelves have been replaced with prissy wainscoting.


[1] According to legend, the second man would trade firecrackers to naive newcomers to town for a pair of their underwear and a photograph of them. He would say, “I’ll give you 50 pack of firecracker for your drawers.” If successful in the transaction, he would tie the underwear (always tightie whities) behind his bike, place the photograph of the victim in the underwear, and pedal his bicycle all over town. There was a local band fronted by the late Jerry Stimpson who adapted Yardbirds hit “For Your Love” into “For Your Drawers.”

Also, I realize that “crone” has fallen into disfavor because of its sexist connotations, but I use it here anyway because, well, she fit precisely the definition, especially the bad-tempered part.

[2] It’s still there, across the street from Bethany Methodist Church.

Sometimes the Twain Do Meet

Dorchester County Hospital Summerville, SC

Dorchester County Hospital Summerville, SC 1950s

In the first decade of my life, the 1950s, my mother worked as a practical nurse at Dorchester County Hospital in Summerville, South Carolina. Unfortunately, I got to spend more time at the hospital than I would have liked because I contracted rheumatic fever in 1956, which would result in a two-week stay in a ward at the hospital and two months in bed at home after that.

I was only five at the time, so my memory of the ward is hazy. I remember getting EKGs and Reverend Storm, the Baptist preacher, coming and extolling everyone on the ward to bow their heads and pray for me, which I found embarrassing, and I also remember some of my mother’s friends and my grandmother’s friends coming to visit the hospital.

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One of these was Vivian Mallard, a good friend of my grandmother’s. I remember her playing a simple board game called Davy Jones Locker with me as I lay in the hospital bed. If erect posture is a sign of moral uprightness, Vivian was a paragon of virtue. She was a short, trim woman with curly gray hair and glasses, a no-nonsense lady who walked as if she were balancing an etiquette book on her head. After my recovery, when my grandmother kept my brother and me while Mama was nursing, I spent many a boring hour on Vivian Mallard’s porch or in her immaculately trimmed yard while “Mama Blanton,” as we called my grandmother, and Vivian exchanged gossip about the ins and outs and comings and goings of Summerville’s citizenry.

Another of Mama Blanton’s good friends was Miriam Etheridge, who with her husband ran a grocery store attached to their house just down the street from Alston High School, the African American School in those days of segregation. This was a “colored neighborhood,” as we put it back then, so the clientele of the store was almost exclusively African American.  Because of segregation, my only exposure to Black children was at the store. I remember the girls having elaborate, complicated hairdos featuring multiple parts and ponytail like projections. I actually had a crush on one of the Black girls, a tall, pretty light-skinned girl, but even back then I knew better than admit to something like that.[1]

Perhaps, it was at Mrs. Etheridge’s store that I first encountered Harold, a mysterious black man whom people claimed “was not right in the head.”  In addition to mental illness, Harold suffered from a strange, plum-sized, sac-like growth dangling from his ear that my mother called a “wen.” Scouring google for an approximation, the closest image I could come up with is the one below, which isn’t nearly big enough. Why no charitable entity sought to have it removed seems strange. But back then even doctors’ offices were segregated with separate black and white waiting rooms. Perhaps pro bono operations weren’t a thing.

cystAt any rate, among the rumors about Harold was that he had been on a path to becoming a physician but had some sort of mental breakdown in medical school. Whatever the case, Harold’s status in his adulthood was that of a vagrant. Riding my bicycle through the park, one time I saw him passed lying among azalea bushes with a jug next to him.

Another time, in those days before people locked their cars, Harold crawled into the back seat of Vivian Mallard’s Oldsmobile and fell asleep. It’s not clear if he had done so the night before or in the morning when Vivian decided to go grocery shopping.  It wasn’t until she arrived at the Piggly Wiggly parking lot and got out of her car that she discovered Harold curled up unconscious in the back. I suspect that she screamed, but I don’t know for sure. And I also don’t know if Harold was arrested or whatever ultimately became of him. Sometimes cases like his were sent up to the State Mental Hospital on Bull Street in Columbia, an institution featuring the same dark brown bricks that gave Dorchester County Hospital such an uninviting vibe. If he had been sent to Columbia, maybe they would have removed the wen, but at that point, it wouldn’t have done him much good.

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The now abandoned State Mental Hospital on Bull Street


[1] She actually appears in a short story I wrote, which you can access here.

Update: Please note in the comments that Harold indeed eventually had the wen removed.

The Silent Screams of Preacher Simmons

preacher simmons illustration

There was a man in Summerville named Preacher Simmons. I don’t think Preacher was an ecclesiastic title, but merely what his mama had named him.

Unfortunately, cancer had claimed Preacher’s larynx, and after his tracheotomy, he communicated by holding a vibrating wand to his throat that produced a strange humming robotic voice. He and my granddaddy, Kistler Blanton, had been pals for a half-century, once boyhood fishing buddies, now surreptitious drinking buddies, both cursed with Baptist wives raised by Puritanical mothers way back in the days not long after Reconstruction.

Preacher called my house one time when I was twelve or so, asking for my granddaddy, and not putting two and two together, I thought I was getting bamboozled with a prank call. Not to be outwitted, I said in a theatrically polite voice, “I’m sorry, sir, but there are no extra-terrestrials by that name living here.”

Without waiting for an answer, I hung up.

In less than a minute, the phone rang again, so I picked it up and heard again the robotic vibrato in my ear, “Preacher Simmons, this is Preacher Simmons on the line. I need to talk to Kistler.”

Of course, I felt terrible.  “So sorry, Mr. Simmons,” I said, halfway apologizing and halfway not, segueing from my sorry-ness about my rudeness to my sorry-ness that Kistler was not at my house. I told him I had no idea where he might be, though I couldn’t imagine he wasn’t in his room, where he spent virtually all of his time.[1] No, he hummed, he’d tried that. My grandmother had given him our number.

 

Alas, this next anecdote featuring Preacher Simmons may strike you as cruel, but if I were telling it to you in the flesh, I guarantee you that you’d laugh out loud. When I was an English teacher, I used to tell it to my classes to illustrate the cruelty of comedy, to suggest that laughter itself could be strange and creepy, a sort of nervous reaction brought on by either discomfort or perverse incongruity.[2] When telling the story, I’d act the part of Preacher, placing an invisible wand to my throat, mimicking his robotic voice, making a Lowcountry baritone sound mechanical.  It never failed: at the denouement, every year, every single student would be laughing out loud, some ashamed of themselves but unable to stifle the reaction.

In fact, the story would make a great silent one-reeler, with Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd starring as Preacher. It would have to be filmed outside in a yard with an unpaved driveway that snaked some fifty yards between pine trees to a clapboard house without a garage.

Anyway, Preacher’s wife, whose name I’ve forgotten, had purchased some piece of furniture that had been stashed in the back of their station wagon and impeded her view from the rearview mirror. She had parked the vehicle way up the driveway and honked the horn, summoning Preacher from the house. The idea was that he’d turn the station wagon around and back the vehicle to the front porch so they could save some steps unloading the furniture. When she got him on the porch, Preacher’s red-rimmed eyes and the telltale olfactory emanations of Old Grandad signaled to Mrs. Simmons that she ought to be the one driving, that Preacher ought to be the one to help her negotiate the twists, turns, and trees of the driveway.

So she pulled up a ways, turned the car around, and started backing up. Standing behind the wagon, with auditory wand to throat, he guided her, waving with his free arm, back peddling as the vehicle moved slowly in reverse.

“COME ON BACK,” his electrified voice hummed. “TURN IT MORE. KEEP TURNING.”

He backed into a tree, so he decided to cut around the back of the wagon to the other side, but tripping on a root, he went sprawling, arms splayed, the wand falling from his hand and rolling out of his reach.

Of course, when he screamed for her to stop, there were no sounds, just a mouth franticly mouthing, “STOP! FOR CHRISTSAKES, STOP!”

Mrs. Simmons felt the vehicle run over something, a root or limb she thought, so she shifted gears, put in forward, and ran over Preacher one more time.

She got out, walked to the back of the wagon to find her husband, thrashing on his stomach in the dirt, screaming in pain, mime-like, his head lifted with his mouth opening and closing again and again in thunderous silence.

She leaned over and handed him his wand, so he could scream out loud, so she could ask him how bad off he was, but the contraption no longer worked.

The good news is that he wasn’t bad off at all. The station wagon had rolled over his legs, not inflicting all that much damage. According to Mama, Preacher and Kistler had consumed so much alcohol over the course of their long lives, they had become “pickled,” a metabolic process that made them impervious to injury.

I guess you could say Kiki and Preacher lived semi-charmed lives.

lloyd


[1] You can read a more detailed description of his existence here.

[2] I have a theory about the psychological creepiness of laughter, which you can read here.

 

Tales from Old Summerville

carolina inn

Old Carolina Inn, the first building in Summerville to have an elevator

Before the fast food franchises, before the Wal-Marts, before the sprawl, my hometown Summerville, SC, was a lovely, quiet village nestled in a pine forest 25 miles northwest of Charleston.  Settled just after the Revolutionary War and originally known as Pineland Village, the community in those days offered a haven for plantation owners seeking seasonal escape from malaria-bearing mosquitoes.

Eventually, Pineland Village became known as Summerville, and people started settling there year round. In 1847, Summerville officially became a municipality, and that very year the town council passed one of the first conservation laws in the nation, a statue forbidding cutting down trees of a certain circumference without permission.

Town-Hall-3

Town Hall back in the day

This passion for conservation and appreciation for the beauty of nature resulted in the planting of hundreds of azaleas, camellias, and gardenias throughout the town, both in its municipal parks and in the yards of the old clapboard whitewashed Victorian houses.  In the springtime, what is now called “the Old Village” or “the Historic District” has to rank as one of the most beautiful towns in the nation.  It claims as its official motto “Flowertown in the Pines.”

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St Paul’s Episcopal Church (photo credit Fleming Moore)

In 1950, the year my mother graduated from Summerville High School, the population stood at 3,312; in 1970, the year I began my senior year there, the population had barely grown to 3,839.  However, it almost doubled between 1970 and 1980 and grew a startling 247% to 22,519 from 1980 to 1990.  Since then, the population has doubled yet again, and according to a 2019 estimate, now 52,549 people call Summerville home.  When I go there nowadays, have lunch out or hit a bar, I recognize virtually no one.

However, in the old days, being a native and growing up “Flowertown” meant that everyone knew everyone else, which was a real disadvantage if you were a redhead like me.

“Did you recognize any of the boys?”

“No, but one of them was redheaded.”

“I bet it was Rusty Moore.  I’ll call his mother.”

Everyone in town knew everyone else, but outside of the town limits, there were a number of smaller unincorporated communities like Knightsville, which had its own elementary school, the Boone Hill community, Stallsville, New Hope, etc.  By junior high, children from these communities had matriculated in Summerville schools.  Unfortunately, a few of these rural children were dirt poor.  I remember shoeless White children hopping on the bus on the first day of school. We’re talking about the days of segregation when only a few handpicked African Americans had been integrated into our classes, and they were from downtown and academically talented.  Because academically, we were “tracked,” I rarely interacted with any of the disadvantaged kids from the rural areas, although I became good friends with several prosperous college prep kids from Knightsville.

However, when PE started in the 7th grade, I not only interacted with some of the disadvantaged rural kids, but I also showered with them, and since several had failed a year or two, some sported five o’clock shadows rather than peach fuzz.  PE  is where I first met Bobby Bosheen, the antagonist (and protagonist) of this piece.

My attempts to google Bobby Bosheen have turned up zilch.  I heard somewhere decades ago that he had been chained to a tree and bullwhipped and lost an eye.  Another rumor had him throwing a Hanahan boy off the Folly Pier and killing him in a tribal fight between rival high schools.  Although I doubt that either rumor is true, I don’t doubt that Bobby is no longer among the quick.  To say that he had anger issues is to say that Kanye West has ego issues.  Adjectives like volcanic and nuclear come to mind.  I would like to think that Bobby overcame his rage, that he turned out okay because deep down inside I don’t think he was a bad person.  He had this haunted look about him that suggested his childhood hadn’t taken place on Sunnybrook Farm.

For some odd reason, one Saturday, I let my friend, the late Gordon Wilson, talk me in going to Boone Hill Methodist Church to engage in unsupervised tackle football with the natives of that region.  Bobby was among the crew and had a jolly time swinging elbows, crushing ball carriers, and piling on.  Even though I enjoyed the game about as much as I would a root canal, I think my participation reaped the benefit of Bobby’s vaguely recognizing me and therefore not targeting me as an adversary.  True, he did punch me once as I was sitting in a car at the Curve-In Pool, but he was rip-roaring drunk and started fights that night with numerous revelers, including Kenny Reese, a popular basketball player.  The very next week I saw Bobby at Tastee Freeze, and Gordon asked him why he had punched me, and Bobby actually apologized, lamenting, “Whiskey and beer don’t mix.”

tastee freeze

The Old Tastee-Freeze

What really solidified my self-identification as a coward was Bobby’s girlfriend, a large, stringy haired bruiser with discolored teeth and the calves of a linebacker.  Unlike, Bobby, she hated me, hated me viscerally on sight. This was in ’70 or ’71, and I had started to grow my hair long and dress like Neil Young.  She used to position herself outside the entrance of the back of the main building and threaten me.  “I can’t wait to cut your ass, you red-headed bitch,” she said one day with arms crossed blocking the entrance.

red neck gal

I suspected she could have, given that she outweighed me and I hadn’t been in a real fight since the fourth grade, so I turned tail and found another entryway.  Whenever I saw her, I avoided her.  She scared the shit out of me.

The last time I heard something concrete about Bobby was in ’75 when I was bumming a ride back to college with one of my mother’s colleagues, a teacher at Newington Elementary School.  As we passed Morris Knight’s, a beer joint, the husband of the teacher, a non-Summerville native, mentioned that he had made the mistake of going in there one time to shoot pool and had been assaulted and actually beaten with pool cues.  He told me that he had pressed charges against the assailant, who was convicted, but that he couldn’t remember his name, that is was something funny sounding.

“Bobby Bosheen,” I suggested.

“Yes, that’s it!  Bobby Bosheen!”

Of course, Bobby’s anger had to come from somewhere.  I suspect at home he was no stranger to corporal punishment.  Perhaps, like Pee Wee Gaskins, he had been strung upside down naked and beaten with a two-by-four.  If he had been born to one of the families living on Carolina Avenue in a Victorian house with a spacious porch beneath moss draped live oaks among the azaleas, I suspect he and the rest of the world would have gotten along much better.

sville house

These Dreams That Shake Us Nightly

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For some reason the projectionist in the Octoplex of my unconsciousness has been running triple features based on the theme of shirked responsibility. For example, last night ­– or probably more accurately this morning – Mrs. Waltrip, a woman I hadn’t thought about in a half-century, appeared in a dream I’ll entitle Maybe Waiting Until the Day Before the Final Exam to Come to Class for the First Time Was a Bad Idea.[1]

Mrs. Waltrip was my 7th grade math teacher, and hers was the final class of the school day.[2]  I recall she had a verbal tic of punctuating sentences with “op-shoop” and a habit of pointing at equations with her middle finger, an unfortunate peccadillo given the immaturity of her charges. However, what I most remember about her class is how frequently I looked up at stubborn hands of the institutional clock being dragged like a mule to the designation of three o’clock.  If it was a good day – a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday – I’d be headed home, but on Tuesdays or Thursdays I’d end up in the band room sitting in the last seat of the back row of the clarinet section pantomiming my way through “The Stars and Stripes Forever” or “Seventy-Six Trombones.”

Oh, how I wish that after I had failed the musical aptitude test for band in the fourth grade, Mr. Moody had said, “Sorry, Rusty, but I don’t thing band is a good fit for you.” Instead, I’d spend the next four years under his tutelage completely lost, pretending to play, marching in parades, miserably sitting  as a 7th grader in buses with high school students headed to or coming back from Charlotte, Walterboro, or Hanahan. Mr. Moody was all too aware of my incompetence but possessed too kind a heart for both of our goods.

In the summer before my 8th grade year, he called my house one afternoon while I was on the sofa in the den watching reruns of Sea Hunt. He asked me if I was planning to take band next year, and I summoned the courage to say no. After hanging up, I felt at once guilty and relieved (I suspect that he himself was dancing a jig). Summer practice would start in a week, and I wouldn’t be with the band on the football field inhaling (what had become for me) the sad smell of freshly mown grass. I’d be watching old movies or hanging with non-band friends in the neighborhood. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Band came out that summer, a group more in tune with my musical tastes than the Summerville High School Marching Band.

But the thing is, I never dream about being an incompetent imposter fingering a clarinet. My bad dreams deal with academics, which, despite my disorganization, I was okay at. In this morning’s dream, Mrs. Waltrip is teaching a high school senior class I need for graduation, but when I show up for the very first time, she’s not angry but sympathetic, and is going to allow me to write a research paper to catch up. The equations on the board might as well be written in Farsi as well as I can reckon, but as the dream transfigures, I find myself at track practice running across a bridge with leaden feet, the research paper unwritten.

The question arises, why now that I’m retired with no real academic responsibilities at all – no essays to write, no essays to grade – do I so often dream that I have let my parents (both dead) and myself down? Why don’t I dream about winning essay or short fiction contests? Or sitting in Ted Savage’s living room with Paul Smith listening to “A Day in the Life?”

Perhaps we can’t undo what has been left undone.


[1] Doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it?

[2] Back then, classes didn’t rotate throughout the week, so her class was always the last class of the day.

Old Man Trouble Laying Awaiting

old man trouble

Old Man Trouble by David Parkins

Trouble took my money, Cadillac’s gone
Best suit of clothes, all raised up in the closet, oh lord
But I’m so glad
Trouble don’t last, always

“Trouble You Can’t Fool Me” as performed by Ry Cooder

 

 

I was born on a rare snowy December afternoon in Summerville, South Carolina, during the waning weeks of the Truman Administration. It was the very same year that J. Fred Muggs, the chimp on NBC’s Today show, was born and the year the first issue of Mad Magazine appeared. Six months later, on June 19th, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg received 1700 volts of electricity in New York State’s Sing Sing Correctional Institute.

Hello, World; hello, Cold War.

Mama, look an H-Bomb (sung to the tune of “Shortening Bread”)

“Mama, look an H-bomb,” they all shout.

Mama say, “Watch out for the fallout.

See your daddy, he know.

Fallout make him ugly so.”

Hit the dirt, join the crowd.

“Mama, look a mushroom cloud!”[1]

Thanks, Mad Magazine.

mad castro

 

I remember standing in the weeds of the front yard of our two-bedroom rented house watching Sputnik travel across the night sky and recall squatting underneath a desk in the third grade during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Also, there was a sign hanging in the stairwell of Condon’s Department Store designating it as an official fallout shelter. I’ll admit the sign creeped me out whenever I saw it, but to say I grew up under the specter of nuclear annihilation would be inaccurate. The skies of my childhood were mostly sunny. I had escaped polio, my parents and pets lived long lives, though I did, come to think of it, suffer from an unrelenting series of unrequited crushes.

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John F Kennedy had the top of his head blown off when I was a fifth grader. I remember my teacher Miss McCue dabbing her eyes, but no tears were shed at my house. The following year our Ford Falcon station wagon sported a “Goldwater for President” bumper sticker, and I lamented when I woke up on 5 November 1964 to learn that ol’ AuH2O had been buried in a landslide. My first year of high school, James Earl Ray picked off Martin Luther King, and the following year Sirhan Sirhan shot Bobby Kennedy at point blank range after he had won the California Primary. Of course, all the while men and boys in body bags were flying in from Southeast Asia, and African Americans were being battered with billy clubs across the South.

Geopolitically speaking, it was a lousy time to grow up. You sort of winced when you picked up the paper each morning.

 

 

 

Well, I don’t know, but I’ve been told
The streets in heaven are lined with gold
I ask you how things could get much worse
If the Russians happen to get up there first
Wowee! pretty scary!

Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree
I want ev’rybody to be free
But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater
Move in next door and marry my daughter
You must think I’m crazy!
I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.

Bob Dylan, “I Shall Be Free No. 10”

 

The Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties seemed less traumatic. September 11th, of course, was horrible, but you have to be extraordinarily unlucky to be killed by an international terrorist. You’re more likely to be gunned down in a theater, school, night club, church or synagogue by a red-blooded American.

Whatever the case, Apocalypse was in the air. Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy wrote about it. Across both large and small screens zombies marched and pandemics raged.

Here’s a snippet from a post from 2014:

Horror is all the rage in Late Empire America. Walking your rescue dog past young Bentley’s house, you can hear heavy gunfire and explosions emanating from his manipulations of a video console. Hmm, sounds like he’s playing Mortal Kombat Armageddon, or is it World of WelfareLet’s Kill the Bloodsuckers?

All of this got me to wondering when the West quit writing utopias a la Thomas More and started portraying the future world as a nightmare. Of course, my go-to unscholarly source is Wikipedia, and it anoints Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travel’s as the first dystopian “literature” – though Oedipus Rex might lay some claim to being the first, with its plague-ridden Thebes ruled by a tainted king whose sexual misdeeds make the Clinton/Lewinski dalliance seem downright wholesome in comparison. But Oedipus Rex predates empire, and I suppose you must have an empire, a nation state, or a polluted planet to qualify as a dystopian society. My colleague Aaron Lipka tells me the civilization must be a fallen one in a dystopian society.

how-to-be-on-the-walking-dead

So what we have been dreading has arrived, a crippling pandemic; we have become actors ourselves in a historical drama. Nothing in my past can compare to what’s going on right now, and, of course, economically no one really knows what’s going to happen, but with all due respect to the President, we have seen something like this before.

In fact, Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker provides a succinct history of pandemics in the 30 March issue.  Here’s a brief catalogue:

541-50 CE – the Bubonic plague known as the Justinianic plague spreads from Egypt to Britain, playing a significant role in the fall of the Roman Empire.

1400s through 1720: smallpox. “Parents would commonly wait to name their children until after they had survived smallpox.” Exported to the Americas, smallpox essentially wiped out indigenous populations.

1817 –  now – Cholera, a resurgent pandemic whose latest outbreak has killed approximately 10,000 Haitians in 2010.

20th century – influenza, polio, measles, typhus . . .

21st century – influenza, Ebola, Covid-19 [to be continued].

Forgive the cliché, but what goes around comes around. Here are Kolbert’s final three paragraphs:

Whenever disaster strikes, like right about now, it’s tempting to look to the past for guidance on what to do or, alternatively, what not to do. It has been almost fifteen hundred years since the Justinianic plague, and, what with plague, smallpox, cholera, influenza, polio, measles, malaria, and typhus, there are an epidemic number of epidemics to reflect on.

The trouble is that, for all the common patterns that emerge, there are at least as many confounding variations. During the cholera riots, people blamed not outsiders but insiders; it was doctors and government officials who were targeted. Smallpox helped the Spanish conquer the Aztec and Incan Empires, but other diseases helped defeat colonial powers. During the Haitian Revolution, for example, Napoleon tried to retake the French colony, in 1802, with some fifty thousand men. So many of his soldiers died from yellow fever that, after a year, he gave up on the attempt, and also decided to sell the Louisiana Territory to the Americans.

Even the mathematics of outbreaks varies dramatically from case to case. As Adam Kucharski, a professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the author of “The Rules of Contagion” (forthcoming in the U.S. from Basic Books), points out, the differences depend on such factors as the mode of transmission, the length of time an individual is contagious, and the social networks that each disease exploits. “There’s a saying in my field: ‘if you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen . . . one pandemic,’ ” he writes. Among the few predictions about covid-19 that it seems safe to make at this point is that it will become the subject of many histories of its own.

The good news, however, is that at least as far as contagion goes, we non-medical personnel are the masters of our fate. We can distance ourselves, wash our hands if we go out, and train ourselves not to touch our faces.  In the catalogue of pandemics, Covid-19, to quote a physician I saw online, “is a wimpy virus,” done in by a simple soap.  Perhaps, if you allow me to wax all Panglossian, some good will come out of all of this, greater respect for science maybe, a reconfiguring of our medical insurance situation, a change of political leadership, a more equitable distribution of wealth.

Hang in there, y’all. Who knows?

Thinking of Noah, childheart, try to forget
How for so many bedlam hours his saw
Soured the song of birds with its wheezy gnaw,
And the slam of his hammer all the day beset

The people’s ears. Forget that he could bear
To see the towns like coral under the keel,
And the fields so dismal deep. Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where

He rocked his only world, and everyone’s.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah’s sons.

Richard Wilbur, “Still, Citizen Sparrow”


[1] I’ve scoured the Internet in vain seeking the issue in which this ditty appeared. However, I’m confident the lyrics are accurate because it’s one of the myriad of selections recorded in the juke box of my brain.

 

Buster Keaton Meets Kafka

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Me in 1973 (or at least my head in 1973)

Back, in ’73, it still got cold in early October.

In August of that year, I had on a whim enrolled in a tennis course mistakenly thinking it would count as an elective. Given my busy schedule of sometimes going to class, washing dishes at Capstone Cafeteria, and making the rounds of various pubs each evening, I had put off to the afternoon of the last day to drop a course without penalty to go through the rigamarole necessary to avoid further tarnishing my transcript.   To successfully do so, I needed to accumulate certain signatures.

After visiting the registrar’s office and securing the drop form, I trekked over to the far distant PE department and copped the john henry of the so-called instructor, the most difficult task in what seemed to me at the time as a Herculean quest – I had never been to class; I didn’t know his or her name.

After a bit of a runaround, somebody signed the form, so now all I had to do is to get my advisor to sign on the dotted line – something she no doubt would be delighted to do – but this rather severe woman gave me the heebie-jeebies. I sensed she held me in contempt -maybe because I was red-headed? or betrayed a contemptuous smirk when I dealt with her? or perhaps because I reeked of cannabis?  – I had no idea why she disapproved of me, but I imagined her animus was as palatable as dandruff-sprinkled wool.

Of course, she signed it – probably not even really knowing exactly who I was.

With the two signatures secured, I rode the elevator down to the lobby of the Humanities Building with a half-hour to spare before the Registrar’s Office closed.  As the elevator door opened and as I stepped out, the form somehow fluttered from my hand – and I swear I’m not making this up – it disappeared cartwheeling through the gap between elevator and lobby into the dark underworld of that hideous structure.

I could have tried a thousand times to flip the form through that gap and probably not been successful even once.  I stood there astonished, frozen, unbelieving.

elevator gap

I literally ran back to the registrar’s office, grabbed another form.  With the clock reading ten till five, my only recourse was to forge signatures, and in the case of my tennis instructor, to make up a name because I had already forgotten it.*


*Although I doubted it at the time, this strategy of forging and making up names worked.  In a pre-digital university with 20,000 students, what functionary is going to check to see if the the signatures are legit?


I shared that year an apartment with a bassist named Stan Gibbons who worked at the Record Bar at Richland Mall and who possessed a record collection extraordinare.  It was an upstairs apartment in a ramshackle house built in the Twenties on Henderson Street, a house long ago purchased by USC and transformed into a parking lot.

After the traumatic experience of having some malevolent spirit snatch the form from my hand and deposit it sideways through the one inch slot of the elevator shaft, I trudged up the steep hill to my house and up the steep stairs to the shithole I called home (my bed was in the kitchen) to watch the NL playoff game between the Mets and Reds on Stan’s black and white portable TV.

As the sun set and a cold front passed through, it started getting very chilly in the apartment. Need I mention that the apartment was unairconditioned and every window frozen into an open position? I managed to ram two windows down, but a third, one of two facing the front of the house, wouldn’t budge.  However, summoning every ounce of my 140 or so pounds, in a Samsonlike shouting concentration of force, I slammed the window down with such violence that the glass shattered.

What else, I inwardly whined, could go wrong today?  Now ice cold wind was streaming through the broken glass. I had no recourse but to light the heater, a gas fueled relic from the 1950’s.  This action required igniting a pilot light, something, again, I had never attempted, yet after maybe twenty or so attempts, whoosh, success.  I turned up the heat to a nice toasty temperature.

So I leaned back in a threadbare chair to watch the game.  In a minute or two, however, I smelled something burning, and turned around to see flames leaping from the stove upon which Stan’s record collection rested.  How could I have not noticed them sitting there in their cardboard boxes?  After all, I played them all the time.

I snatched the records off the stove, sickened by the stench of melted vinyl.  Every single LP was severely warped, unplayable.  Desperate ideas darkened my mind.  Hitchhiking to Nome, Alaska, never to return.  Telling Stan an outrageous lie: “Hey, Stan, someone must really hate you.  They broke in to the apartment through that window and set your records on fire.”

But I did neither.  When I heard his dreaded tread upon the stairs, I confronted him there and told him I had accidentally ruined his record collection.

He smiled broadly.  “Ha ha! you’re kidding,” he said.

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Dan Scott:  Increasing Confusion

It didn’t take long for the truth to register with the smell and my unchanging woebegone expression. He said he might have to move out but stuck with me until the end of our lease; then on amiable terms we went our separate ways.

 

 

 

 

[Cue ‘Tara’s Theme’ from “Gone with the Wind”] or an Old Descendent of a Confederate Soldier Tells Not Much

luther's gravestone

Son of Wesley Moore, CSA, my great-grandfather’s tombstone

“Beware of using up your last forty years in being the curator of your first fifty.”
― Allan Gurganus, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All

I am –  as far as generations go –  not all that far removed from my Civil War ancestors.  I remember with cinematic precision the evening circa 1970 when my high school girlfriend dropped on the uncarpeted floor of our ranch-style house the slab of glass that held my great-great grandfather’s image.  That raw-boned, thin-lipped scowler posing in his Confederate uniform evaporated before our very eyes, the molecules constituting his outline rising through the crack in the glass like a soul vacating a corpse. Gone, those small penetrating brown eyes, the prototype of my father’s eyes, my eyes, and my son Ned’s eyes.

I, in fact, met that ghost’s son, my great grandfather, who lived past 90, and I also remember a winter night in Sumter, South Carolina, when my college roommate’s great-great aunt, a centenarian, the daughter of a Confederate general, told us long-haired hippies that we were two of the prettiest girls she’d ever seen.  She was a lovely woman, alive, engaged, this daughter of the general, a genteel wrinkled skein of a skeleton sitting, smiling before a fire, practically deaf, practically blind.

I think there might have been a painting of the general over the mantel — or perhaps he was a colonel?  —  I really can’t remember as my memories flicker and fade in the old musty museum of my mind.  I am certain, however, that “the evil that men do lives after them,” and “the good is oft interred with their bones.”

Bishopville_SC

Bishopville, SC

Swapping Stories, Southern-Style

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I actually witnessed this implosion in November of 1971.  Stayed up all night to see it right before dawn with my personal bodyguard Haboo Garbowski, a bear of a mannishboy.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of hanging out with old college friends who attended the University of South Carolina with me in the early to mid-70s, and, of course, we told stories because that’s what old Southern boomers do.[1]  We relive the past because, as the song says, “old times [here] are not forgotten.”[2]

The majority of these tales are comedic, thematically connected. For example, the time when ol’ so-and-so was wandering around someone’s house in the wee hours drunk as a skunk wearing only an oxford dress shirt as he stumbled around munching on a chicken drumstick, and another, even more embarrassing incident, when an extremely inebriated newlywed became disoriented and crawled naked in bed with his mother-in-law. Here, the written word is no substitute for the oral transmission, the whoops and hollers, the rhythm of the vernacular.

That story led to one about a young woman who house sat for B and D.  This woman, a free spirit, slept in the nude. One morning, she stepped out onto the deck in her naked majesty and closed the sliding doors.  CLICK.  She tried to reopen the door, but it wouldn’t budge. All the other doors were locked as well.

Fortunately, she had her phone in her hand, which she had picked up out of habit, a rather absurd situation, to be outside naked except for a cell phone, which brings to mind this lovely ditty from Robert Graves.[3]

For me, the naked and the nude
(By lexicographers construed
As synonyms that should express
The same deficiency of dress
Or shelter) stand as wide apart
As love from lies, or truth from art.

Lovers without reproach will gaze
On bodies naked and ablaze;
The Hippocratic eye will see
In nakedness, anatomy;
And naked shines the Goddess when
She mounts her lion among men.

The nude are bold, the nude are sly
To hold each treasonable eye.
While draping by a showman’s trick
Their dishabille in rhetoric,
They grin a mock-religious grin
Of scorn at those of naked skin.

The naked, therefore, who compete
Against the nude may know defeat;
Yet when they both together tread
The briary pastures of the dead,
By Gorgons with long whips pursued,
How naked go the sometimes nude!

Well, by Graves’ definition, she was naked, not nude, as naked as a jaybird, as my grandmother would say, who herself has relocated to “the briary pastures of the dead,” but that’s another story.

Obviously distressed, the young woman called one of the owners, D, and asked her if she should ask people in the neighboring house for help, but D said, “We live at the end of a dirt road.  We don’t have neighbors. I’ve hardly ever talked to those people.”

The good news, though — and how lucky is this – the house was equipped with a trap door.  All she had to do was fetch the ladder, find the trap door, push it open, and enter from below, which, bless her heart, she did successfully.

This narrative led to other getting locked out of the house stories, like poor ol’ Sherman T who was told he could crash at that very house, but found it locked. His door knocking coming to naught, he decided to crash on a lounge chair next to the pool.

“So I wrapped myself in towels,” he said.  “They were dog towels. I spent the night wrapped up in dog towels under the moon.”

Of course, I have a couple of getting out of the house stories (here’s one), but the one I was going to tell involved in-laws, a rental house in St. Simons, and the Swimming Pool Q’s.

“The Swimming Pool Q’s,” D and B shouted.  “They’re good friends of ours!”

So instead of hearing my lame story we talked about the Pool Q’s, which had nothing to do with my favorite story of the evening , the Great Mount Pleasant Mushroom Disaster, but I’ll have to tell you that one in private the next time I see you.

I’ll leave you with this peek of the Pool Q’s until the folks at YouTube remove it because of copyright concerns.


[1] Pardon the redundancy.

[2] Despite the copious amounts of intoxicants involved in many of these stories.

[3] Graves doesn’t distinguish “nekkid,” unlike Lewis Grizzard, who famously  explained, “There’s a big difference between the words, ‘naked’ and ‘nekkid.’ ‘Naked’ means you don’t have any clothes on. ‘Nekkid’ means you don’t have any clothes on … and you’re up to something.”

 

What’s Become of All the Dear, Dead Typewriters?

underwood.jpg

I miss the sound of the clicking-clacking typewriter keys.

My very first typewriter was an Underwood that I bought for next to nothing, a slow-motion engine whose keys would sometimes stick, freezing in midair before they could imprint a letter on the scrolled paper.  The keys were small and round and perched aloft by long metal attachments. When you hit them, they sort of catapulted through the ribbon onto the paper. At the end of a line, you had to yank a metal flange so the carriage would return to the left margin, producing a clear audible “ding.” As it turned out, the ribbon couldn’t be replaced unless I could locate a time machine, so the Underwood and I had a short-lived romance, little more than a fling.

Nevertheless, with it I composed a few very bad poems, love poems or satiric poems in tiny typeset.  Only a couple of the satiric ones survive, written in a self-invented fifteen-line rhyming stanza form I called the bonnet, in honor of my favorite bartender, Hartley Bonnet, who worked at Oliver’s Pub on Devine Street in Columbia. It was a private club, so you could drink on Sundays.  Jimmy Buffett was a member. He was dating a girl from Columbia, whom I heard he eventually married.

I think my daddy provided me with my first electric typewriter, a throw off from his business, and after banging on the Underwood, I had a hell of a time adjusting to the gentle touch that the sensitive electric model demanded.  At first, the keys would stutter when I banged them, a staccato hiccup that meant starting over, or positioning correction tape to efface my mistake, or if I had splurged and bought erasable bound paper, scrolling up, erasing the errata, repositioning the paper, and retyping. If I were writing a research paper, sometimes when I was typing a footnote, the paper would shoot out because I’d misjudged, typed past the bottom of the  page, the last couple of strokes hitting the black cylinder where the paper should be.

Here’s what a typed page looked like:

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And a close up of a correction.

IMG_2393

I was typing  the words to that soon-to-be abandoned novel when I lived in the Manigault House on East Bay Street, which was divided into three apartments, one upstairs and one downstairs in the main house.  The third apartment,  ours, was two stories on the back end and sported an upstairs porch overlooking the projects.

manigault house

wesley porch typing

wesley limehouse typing 1

One day, my neighbor, whose name I didn’t know, asked me if I were a writer.  “Well, sort of,”  I said, pleased to think I may have possessed an author’s aura.  “I’m working on a novel.”

He told me he could hear my typing through the walls.

When I landed a state government contract to crank out descriptions of various jobs you could get with an associate degree from the local community college, I went ahead and bought a Tandy computer and printer.  This was early, in the days before hard drives, and this contraption sported ten-inch twin disc drives.  The salesman assured me that ten-inch disc drives would be the wave of the future.  One drive accommodated a ten-inch floppy disc that contained the word processing program, the other a blank disc for your writing. The printer was sort of like a typewriter and produced clicking sounds.

When I first started teaching at Porter-Gaud, I would type out my carbon-backed report cards and feed them individually into the printer, making me way on the cutting edge of technology.

Of course, I wouldn’t go back to those lesser technologies. In fact, I could if I wanted to; an electric typewriter is languishing in my attic. On the other hand, I think something is lost by not having to retype manuscripts after editing a page by hand, which encourages polishing, and you can make editing changes too rapidly without having time to digest the alterations.  Of course, a meticulous, patient person can still edit the old way, but as this typo-plagued blog attests, I’m not that person.

Time’s winged chariot and all that jazz.

Speaking of jazz, here’s a video of the poet Eddie Cabbage accompanying some cool cats up on the porch in the upstairs Chico Feo Airbnb.