The Death of the First Summer of Act 3

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise.

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”


Now that I’m not hanging in the Social Security office or at the estate law offices of Kuhn and Kuhn (whom I robustly recommend) or the Charleston County RMC office, I have in the last couple of weeks been able to revert to being a simple beach bum.

It’s the life of Jimmy Buffett, sans the Hawaiian shirts – it’s sandy, gritty, humid, free.

Had a great weekend just past. Gave my first surf lesson in four years on Saturday and spent part of the Sabbath promenading Walt-Whitman style up and down Center Street where I bantered with a twangy husband and wife with matching calf tattoos.

Saturday evening as I was leaving Mosquito Beach, an old black man with a walking stick stopped me, climbed onto the hood of my car and lay spread eagle with his back against the windshield.

After maybe ten seconds, he hopped off laughing.

Once on his feet, he performed the old-fashioned roll-down-the-window cranking pantomime and welcomed my companion and me with a friendly greeting laced with f-words. He was happy; we were happy.

The night was just getting started. Fun ahoy!

But now, just when the summer has become like a sort of typical summer for me (i.e., not teeming with post-mortem to-dos), it’s time to stick a fork in it. Next Thursday, I need to show up not-hungover at my school and begin my 32nd year of striking through linking verbs and offering alternate phraseology. Pontificating about the great linguistic blessing of William’s kicking Harold’s ass at Hastings. Tapping talkers in chapel on the shoulder to shut them up.

Anyway, this, my last week, I’m going to embrace it, to rage, rage against the dying of the reggae riff.

Chico Feo on a December Saturday

Around four today, I went down to Chico Feo with my 9th graders’ summer reading book and annotating pen in hand. A loudmouthed young man (i.e., early forties) smoking a cigar at the bar asked if there were any other “hidden gems” around the beach. Greg, the bartender, said, “We generally don’t like plugging the competition.”

But then Greg caved and mentioned the Jack of Cups, adding, “It’s not really hidden though.”

The cigar-chomper started talking about how cheap everything was down here compared to Ohio — even downtown Charleston in the touristy places — and just when I was getting ready to reposition myself out of earshot, Jeremy, one of the cooks, sat down beside me.

Unfortunately, you don’t get to know the cooks at Chico Feo as well as the bartenders because, duh, they’re in the kitchen rassling up Mahi tacos or a noodle bowl or a batch of curried goat.

I’d talked to Jeremy before a few times on slow nights and knew he was from Louisiana. I told him I was headed to New Orleans in early September, and he said that he’d just gotten back from there yesterday. He and his extended family had spent ten days on the southern coast fishing, eating, and drinking beer. He said that the youngest of that clan were teenagers and one of his parents had chided him for using foul language in front of them. “I try to use polite language when I’m in polite company,” he said, “but I’m never in polite company,”

We had a wide-ranging conversation in which I discovered Jeremy has a way with words, a sharp wit. He had a roll of blue tape with him, and I asked him what it was for, and he said, “labeling things in the kitchen.” He said he had been looking for the tape all day. “That’s why I like living alone,” he said, “because I know where everything is.” This reminded me that in my recent widowerhood, I had developed an incredibly efficient way to load the dishwasher.

Me: Do you have a dishwasher?

Jeremy: No, I don’t have any dishes.

We started about talking about New Orleans, and he asked me if there was anything specific I was going to do, and I said I was definitely going to hit the Rock and Bowl, which, as it turns out, was one of his favorite high school hangouts because back then the drinking age was 18, he was tall, and never carded.

“Tell me about a cool spot I should go?” (asking like the Ohioan for the inside scoop on hidden gems).

“Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge.”

Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club

I’ll leave you with one last of his witticisms. Greg was emptying ashtrays with a pair of vice grips, and I said, “Man is a toolmaker, a user of tools.”

Jeremy said, “or just a tool.”

So with that, I bid this Monday a fond farewell, will saunter downstairs (saunter’s a stupid verb, by the way) and have a chat with John Jameson.

Confessions of an Impulsive Procrastinator

 

people say I’m the life of the party

Certainly, I’m no stranger to what Eliot called “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender.”  One of my few memories of my family’s 9-month stay in Biloxi, Mississippi, is leaping from a chest-of-drawers onto a rocking horse Roy Rogers style, an act of derring-do that produced buckets of blood and pain so intense that it is pointless to even attempt to describe it.[1]

Alas, I could enumerate more recent acts of stupidity spurred by impulse rather than contemplation, whether it be driving my MG Midget down steps leading to the campus police department, an act of bravado that cost me a reckless driving fine of $200 dollars, an overnight stay in an establishment with bars (way too many in fact), and six points from my license. Even more recently, in the present century, impulsiveness has led to my machine-gunning undiplomatic emails and cc-ing everyone from the Pope to Mr. Peanut.

On the other hand, when it comes to everyday non-academic living, I’m the worst type of procrastinator. For example, my upper-story AC unit shut down last Wednesday, and I’ve just set an appointment to have it fixed tomorrow. The handle one of the doors leading to screen door has been broken longer than Barron Trump has been alive.[2]

Often when things do get repaired, it’s thanks to my neighbors. Friday, I was piddling around in my sweltering study upstairs when I heard banging below.

It was next-door neighbor Jim and his pal Gino working on the door. This morning another neighbor Whitney, whose landscaping company provided our yard maintenance before she and her husband sold Good Natured Gardening, arrived with a fellow to offer a quote for cleaning up the vine ridden back yard (think of Faulkner’s Miss Emily’s yard in Jefferson).

Asiatic jasmine, not a lawn, is hidden beneath the vines.

I did get a couple of things done. Went to my new classroom to draw it for my friend Kris who’s going to feng shui it. I contacted Judy’s life insurance company to hear the welcome news that after 12 weeks the claim is finally in the process of being processed. I also deposited Judy’s social security death benefit check, $255 dollars that I will no doubt spend unwisely.

Can you tell it hasn’t been feng-shuied yet?

However, these small victories were offset by failures.[3] I was rejected in my attempt to buy fill dirt for the almost always water-filled swale in my driveway that dips and rises like a ride at Six Flags.[4] My rejector suggested several other places to call, which I may one day. Also, I can’t find the red Chinese envelopes I need for the feng-shui-ing. Nor did I call a plumber to fix a toilet in the guest room bath, which I will get to tomorrow or the next day or the day after that. In fact, among today’s a dozen to-dos: “clean bedroom, read 50 pages, finish civil rights presentation, dispose of no-longer necessary artifacts “ all remain undone.

But I did crank out number 9 on the list – “create a blog post” — and accomplished something not even listed – boiling three pounds of peanuts.

So farewell sloth, hail gluttony.


[1] Okay, I can’t help myself.  Imagine vice-squeezed testicles (my landing on the saddle of the spring-loaded rocking horse) coupled with a bully taking you by the hair and slamming your face on the sidewalk (my face-first landing on a tiled-floor).

[2] Though Judy did get someone out to fix it 5 years ago but he fiddled with it for an hour, left, and never came back.

[3] Shut up, Microsoft word suggestion; that sentence needs to be in the passive voice.

[4] It does, however, dissuade tourists on golf carts to hang a right on my property.

Back to School, Then and Now

I never really liked school, except for kindergarten. I got lost on the second day of first grade by going to the wrong entry, the first sign of a sense of direction so challenged (i.e., damaged/unsound/defective) that a generation later I would spend over an hour looking for my car in the North Charleston Coliseum parking lot after my niece’s high school graduation.

Anyway, in the lower grades, I was mistaken for an academic superstar because of my verbal skills, but by 6th grade math, the jig was up, and when the rest of my alpha-grade-skipping group took Algebra I in the 8th grade, I was in regular classes and continued to struggle there among the not-so-gifted. Disorganized, lazy, rebellious, I always had something to dread — the lost band music, the undone homework, the choice of “suspension or three licks.”[1]

We are wonderful/We are fun/ We’re the class of ’71 (from SHS 1971 yearbook)

In the glorious summers, I was free to roam acres of undeveloped woods surrounding my neighborhood, later to pop wheelies on my banana bike under the glow of moth-crazed streetlights, and finally to sneak kisses waist-deep in Lake Murray on a weeknight with someone who signed her notes “I will love you forever.”[2]

And no matter whether it was in elementary, junior high, or high school, an established pattern developed: mental mourning on seeing back-to-school ads followed by a sense of growing anticipation about returning to check out the tans, the clothes, the new teachers.

I went to kindergarten in the school year 1957-8, the same year that the Little Rock 9 integrated Little Rock Central High. This year, I’m teaching my first history course, a semester elective called “America in the ‘60’s,” so I’ve been scouring the internet for material and ran across this remarkable film.  I invite you to enjoy its artistry and shudder at its content. Seriously, I consider this 3-minute film by Brittany VerHoef, Down Corwin, and Travis Cameron a minor masterpiece.

 

The horrible thing is that those divisions are all too alive and all too well exactly 60 years later. Do the enraged white people in the film remind you of any group today?


[1] I.e., three burning smacks on the ass with paddle or strop (I suffered both in my career as miscreant). Whoever it was delivering these blows, whether in junior or high school, was inevitably a former football coach now serving an administrative role. (If you were a girl the female basketball and golf coached did the whapping. (TMI?)

[2] And it was true! I received a sympathy call from her after my wife Judy’s death after decades of non-contact. My former girlfriend’s voice on the answering machine was choked with emotion over my loss. Maybe if you truly love someone, you continue to love him or her forever. It’s certainly true for me in regards to this caller.

O, the Years, the Years

Jack, cat killer

33 years ago yesterday Judy Birdsong woke me up with this message: “I have some good news and some bad news.”

She was a week overdue, and I had slept in the guest room to avoid the ocean swells generated by our waterbed when she turned over or got out of bed to use the toilet.

She was smiling, so I knew the bad news couldn’t be all that bad. “Okay, let’s have it,” I said.

 

Judy in Rantowles pregnant with Harry petting Jack’s mate Sally

“The good news is that I’m in labor. The bad news is that Jack’s killed a neighbor’s cat.”

Jack was a springer spaniel, very agile, adept at killing cats, squirrels, and raccoons. This was when we lived in Rantowles off Chaplin’s Landing Road in our first bought home, a ranch style three bedroom brick house overlooking Log Bridge Creek. Judy had taken Jack for a walk through the woods, and he had bolted and snagged and dispatched a cat.

Judy explained where the crime had occurred, on the corner of the adjacent street, Burrow Pit Road. So I went to deliver the news to the cat’s owner, retracing Judy’s steps through the woods. When I reached the house, I encountered a couple of fossilized automobiles, you know, the kind with four flat tires. The good news was the place was crawling with cats.

scene of the crime as it appears on google maps today

I went up and knocked on the front door. And older lady opened up and greeted me.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but my dog killed one of your cats.”

She actually chuckled. I’m not making this up. “Oh, don’t worry about that, honey,” she said. “That’s just human nature when it comes to dogs and cats.”

So that was that. I hightailed it home and got into the Lamaze mode of timing contractions. Harrison was born the next morning in the wee hours.

Time flies, but actually it doesn’t seem like yesterday at all. It seems like a hundred years ago.

17 July 1984

 

Hank, Cormac, and Daddy

from left to right, Cormac McCarthy, Hank Williams, Sr., Wesley Moore, Jr.

“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses


I want some old school raspy voiced chain-smoking musician from Alabama or Mississippi to write me a song called “Crushed Out Cigarette in Hank Williams’ Ashtray.”

Hank was high-strung, jittery, an ADD-riddled Cormac McCarthy. The glass ain’t half full with them two, and their assessment of the glass ain’t even as positive as half empty. The glass is half-empty and carcinogenic. [1]

I remember being a kid at The North-52 Drive-in with my parents and seeing the trailer for Your Cheating Heart, a biopic of Hank’s life starring George Hamilton with Hank Jr. providing the soundtrack vocals.[2] In the olden days, I’d have to describe the trailer for you based on my short-circuiting memory, but now you can see for yourself.

 

 

At the drive-in some of these scenes hit home a little too familiarly. In other words, I could relate. Like Hank, my daddy could be sweet and generous, but, like Hank, he had a fuse so short static electricity could set him off, especially if he’d been drinking, Nor was my daddy what you would call a feminist.

Like Hank, Daddy felt the urge to create. He rendered in shoe polish on our dining room wall a credible copy of the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner’s The Lesesne Gates, 14 Greene Street. Late in life, he sculpted gnomes, which weren’t nearly as good as the mural. Not only was he creative in the visual arts, he was also scientifically inventive. He received a patent for a sonar-operated weir for sewer treatment plants, but rather than selling the patent, he tried to manufacture the product himself and went broke.

I wish I had a photo of the wall, but I don’t think we ever owned a camera. The wall’s been painted over three or four times. I do have half of a gnome, though, which I keep hidden in the closet of my classroom. Because they were never baked, they eventually fell apart.

Hank’s works, however, survive and will as long as humans are around to strum guitars. His pain lives on in a meaningful way. Listen to Lucinda pass it along to us.

 

 

I raise my glass to dissonance, to sweet songs of sorrow, to Hank and Cormac and Daddy.

Wesley Edward Moore, Jr.


[1] To my ear “ain’t” is a lovely word with that mournful diphthong.

[2] Actually Hamilton looks more like Townes Van Zandt than he does Hank.

The Reluctant Juror, the Dowager, and Dr. Betty

This week I have been summoned to jury duty.

I arrived at the courthouse yesterday with my wife’s death certificate in hand figuring I’d play the grief card to attempt to weasel out of my civic obligation. Once through security and ushered by a bailiff to the seat next to the man in front of me, I looked around the room, which was nicely appointed, official-looking but not ominous. There were four rows of benches holding five potential jurors per bench. I’d say maybe 200 people had been summoned.

Eventually (it seems a traffic incident on the Ravenel Bridge delayed the start), an assistant clerk, a tall, slender man who appeared around 30, welcomed us and made a few opening remarks. I had seen him milling around with his buzzcut temples, spiky crown, and angular beard, all of which created a sort of villainous vibe, like he could have been cast as an undercover Stasi agent in a coldwar movie. However, his voice was warm, friendly. He thanked us for our service, acknowledged the inconvenience. He mentioned that this was a propitious week to have been chosen (randomly from voter registration and DMV data bases) because there were only two trials on the docket, both civil litigation cases, whereas a typical week would feature 3 criminal and 3 civil cases.

Once the judge arrived, each of us had to stand when called and give our juror number, age, occupation, marital status, and if married, the occupation of our spouse.

This procedure seemed somewhat intrusive. Age, I can see, occupation okay, but why marital status?

Juror 147.   My name’s Bottom. I’m 25 years old, a weaver. My wife is a charwoman.

This occasion marked the first time I had to officially acknowledge that now I’m single, and I hated it. Although many proudly shared specifics about where they worked – “I’m a third grade teacher for Berkeley Counter Schools and my husband an electrical engineer at Folsom Manufacturing” – I decided to give as little info as possible.

“Juror 238. Wesley Moore, 64, a teacher, a widower.” [1]

As the preliminaries moved slowly along, it became apparent even if I could be excused this go around, I’d be transferred to a future term. The last time I had served on a jury was in 1978 when Judy and I were newlyweds and I could walk from our apartment on Limehouse Street to the Courthouse on Broad.  Even though I had brought along Kaufman’s translation of The Portable Nietzsche to give the false impression to lawyers that I believed “[i]n the last analysis, even the best man is evil: in the last analysis, even the best woman is bad,” I was chosen for 3 trials, the last right out Flannery O’Connor.

***

As it turned out, I served as the foreman of that jury, the only non-African American
represented. I don’t remember the official name of the case, but it might have well be dubbed Rich Dowager Whose Address Contains the Word Plantation vs. Dr. Betty, doll surgeon.

The Dowager was represented by her son-in-law whose day job was assisting Senator Strom Thurmond in Washington DC, and Dr. Betty’s counsel was a public defender, a young dark-haired woman who looked as if she might have been Joyce Carol Oates’s first cousin.

Here’s the gist: The Dowager had brought an 18th century doll that had been in the family since – um – the 18th century.  Somehow the doll’s nose had been knocked off, and Dr. Betty was to replace the nose so no one would know the difference.

Dr. Betty, who referred herself in the third person (“Dr. Betty would never do a thing like that”) was probably in her 60’s with poorly dyed unkempt blonde hair. She wore a thin dress with a white cardigan even though it was in the summer. Essentially she looked like the type who might take care of thirty cats roaming around a yard strewn with inoperable automobiles and cast away washing machines.

The Dowager was seeking $5,000 in real damages and $5,000 in punitive damages because, as it turned out, when the Dowager had come 2 years later to retrieve the doll, it was gone, allegedly sold by Dr. Betty to someone in a town near Columbia for what she claimed was $5.

Judge Stoney: So you don’t remember the name of the town. Could it have been Cayce?

Dr. Betty: Yes, yes, that was the name of the man I sold it to. His name was Casey.

Oh, if I only could create a gif of Judge Stoney’s expression.

Through the course of the trial it came to light that an 18th century doll who has had a nose job possesses only sentimental value, that Dr. Betty’s phone records showed she had called So-and-So Plantation in Beaufort trying to get the Dowager to pick up the doll, which Dr. Betty had repaired.  It had been two years, and she had not received any remuneration.   However, in South Carolina you can’t lawfully sell another’s unclaimed property unless you announce that intention in the newspaper.

At one point the Dowager told of visiting Dr. Betty’s shop, peeking in one of the windows,  and described its squalor in tones of obvious disgust.

Dr. Betty: That’s not my shop. That’s where I live.

Dowager: My God, you poor woman!

I swear, I’m not making this up.

Once we went into our deliberations, my colleagues, who had taken to calling me “Professor” [2] unanimously wanted to find Dr. Betty innocent, but I explained to them we shouldn’t do that because according to the law she was guilty because she hadn’t published her intent to sell the Dowager’s unclaimed property.

“Look, I said, “we can award her one penny in real damages and nothing in punitive damages,” but we have to find her guilty.”

“No, 5 dollars,” one of the jurors said, “that’s what she sold it for.”

We all agreed. The deliberations may have taken ten minutes.

When I had to stand and deliver our verdict, the Dowager smiled, and Dr. Betty looked incensed, the opposite reactions of what I would have imagined.

***

A clerk’s announcement of who were being selected for the pool ended my reverie of long dead Dr. Betty and the Dowager, and sure enough I was selected to join the pool of potential jurors.

Several of the chosen got out of it by approaching the judge and telling her their sad stories, but I didn’t try.

Charleston  County Courtroom

The Bailiff ushered us upstairs to the courtroom pictured above where a different judge, an older bald-pated white-haired fellow from Edisto Beach presided. He announced the case and asked a series of questions: for example, were we kin to any of these people, had we ever received their professional services, etc.

Finally, the judge asked if there were any other issues that might prejudice us, and I approached the bench.

Huddled there with the judge and the attorneys, I disclosed that I had taught one of the parties’ son and daughter. The judge asked me if he thought this might prejudice me. I said in a perfect, rational, Euclidian world it would not but that in this messier world I had a great deal of affection for both of this person’s children. The judge seemed sympathetic.

Of course, I was struck and set free, and here I sit hoping against hope that when I call in this evening at six, the message will be to call in Wednesday at 6.  At the very worst, I’ll only be involved in one trial.


[1] As it turned out, I was the oldest person there; the youngest was 18 but looked all of 12.

[2] I was an adjunct at Trident Technical College at the time teaching composition, Business English, and Technical Report Writing.

An Undelivered Eulogy

Judy Birdsong Moore
1954-2017

Because I’m used to speaking in front of crowds and have a good ear for the sound of words, over the years, several people have asked me to deliver eulogies at their loved ones’ funerals/memorial services.

When I write a eulogy, I choose a text – for my father I opted for Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” I read the poem and pegged my father as a wild man “who caught and sang the sun in flight” but who learned “too late” that he “grieved it on its way.”

I offered examples of his wildness, like the time he captured a baby alligator and kept it in our bathtub, how he performed death-defying aerobatic stunts in an open-cockpit plane he had refurbished himself. I admitted that my father really didn’t care what other people thought, that he essentially gave the finger to the world.

Nevertheless, my father could be a man of immense compassion and adhered to an unimpeachable code of personal honor. I told about the time during the height of the Civil Rights movement, much to the chagrin of our neighbors, how he invited an abused ten-year-old African American boy to come live with us until a permanent safe abode could be found for him.

What I didn’t mention was that his last words were, “Get that goddamned light out of my face.”

Instead, I ended by saying that I thought Dylan Thomas’ exhortation to “rage, rage against the dying of the light” was bad advice and quoted some scripture that had been printed on my mother-in-law’s funeral program:

Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.

Having a text creates unity for a eulogy, helps coherence. What you want to do — or at least what I want to do – is to bring the dead back to life for a minute or two but also to help people come to terms with death’s predestined inevitability. Obviously, this last part is easier when the departed has lived a long life than it is when a life has been cut short.

from left to right, my father, an identified woman, my mother

When it became all too obvious that my love of 40 years, Judy Birdsong, was doomed to die of lymphoma, I thought about what I might say at her memorial service, what text I might use. Although these thoughts may seem self-indulgent to some, they provided me a chance to look back over our four decades together, back over the wooing, the establishing a household, travelling the world, begetting and rearing children, the various stations in the progression of our marriage.

About a week before she died, she looked over at me and said, “You’re not planning to do a eulogy for me, are you?” She delivered this question in the tone of voice she might use if I told her I was thinking about buying a thong speedo swimsuit for Folly Beach’s New Year Day’s polar bear plunge.

“No, of course not,” I said.

So now, of course, I’m not.

However, if I were, I would make use of quotes from the many sympathy cards we’ve received. I was sort of dreading reading those cards, but it has been so comforting, so life affirming.

Here’s her college and grad school roommate Veda who can’t “think of any times we really didn’t get along or were really mad at each other” but added “I guess she really didn’t like it when I would clean her room at our apartment in Columbia, but she really never got too upset about it.” [1] It was Veda who got Judy the job at the Golden Spur. Veda adds, “Sometimes it seems I can still smell the beer from mopping the floors after closing.”  It was also Veda who played matchmaker inviting me to their apartment for fried shrimp sensing Judy and I had crushes on one another but were too shy to do anything about it.   What an enormous debt I owe to her.

I’ve also heard from many of Judy’s colleagues I don’t know. A principal describes her as “so pleasant to work with and so well-prepared and good with parents.”

Our niece Beth nails it when she describes Judy as “kind, generous, funny, smart, and beautiful.  But I think what set her apart to me was the serenity she always possessed.  In this world which is increasingly so frantic, Judy always seemed calm and peaceful, happy in her life and content in her own skin.”

Perhaps the greatest solace I have received comes from others who have lost spouses. One describes us as “travelers on the same unwished for road, members of the same broken-hearted fraternity.”

The best advice comes from fellow widower Richard O’Prey who writes

It is in that spirit that I offer you this note. I hope it lends moral support to your heroic attempt to carry on without Judy. As I did with my wife Mary, I honored her by recalling her wisdom, her counsel, her courage in supporting me during our marriage. Now I urge you to honor Judy by continuing to consult her values, her directions, her unshakable faith in you [ . . .] As you are a creature of your early youth and the effects of those who loved you, think of Judy in the same way. Think of her often and ask what you believe her advice would be under the present circumstance. Perhaps that might be the best support I can offer at this discouraging time.

Judy absolutely hated being the center-of-attention. She wouldn’t let me put in her obituary that she was named Psychology Student of the Year at PC or that her EdS thesis was published in a respected journal and has been cited in other scholarly works. In fact, she really didn’t want to have a memorial service at all but thought it was necessary because it would help others receive some closure. It was always others she was thinking of, not herself.

I’m with Richie O’Prey. Rather than seeking closure, I’ll keep Judy always nearby in my thoughts,

She’s an impossible model to live up to, she who spent the week before her death recording passwords so I could have access to her accounts. To quote Shakespeare, she died

As one that had been studied in [her] death

To throw away the dearest thing [she] owed,

As ‘twere a careless trifle.

Like I said, she’s an impossible model to live up to, but I’ll give it my best.


[1] This, by the way, gave me the false impression that Judy was a meticulous housekeeper, an illusion that quickly disappeared after I carried her over the threshold of our first apartment at 17 Limehouse Street.