It turns out that the story I wrote regarding my dad and Oct. 23rd, 1993 might end up being ‘the’ thing.
A torrent of people wrote to me after reading the story in other places, wanting to know the rest of the story or asking questions about Bobby Dean – or the history of the place I once called home. I’ve done my best to answer them. My dad would get a laugh from the idea that so many people, almost all of them strangers to himself or his hometown, might want to read about his life. He would also struggle to understand that it would be his younger son who valued nothing of his contribution until it was too late who would ultimately be the culprit responsible for softening Bobby Dean’s character. I opted to shed myself of his name and yet the residue of his shadow eternally lurks just behind me.
Better writers, better singers, and better historians might recount a more compelling tale; from their absence or application of effort, however, they’ve yielded the floor to me. I don’t know what writer’s block is and I seldom let the undertone of misbehavior break my pencil. Our lives are all stories, even as we fail to see it or wish them to be unwritten.
For anyone who has looked past my imperfect and stubborn way of writing and reached out to me to let me know they found something of value in it, I thank you. I still believe that our lives and the internet would be more understanding if everyone could find a way to share stories, even those tempered by our lesser natures.
It’s maddening and rewarding to find an audience out in the sea of strangers on the internet, in the place allegedly most hostile to sharing one’s life or story.
This picture is of my dad in a moment brimming with happiness. The house is now a hunting lodge off of Highway 49. I’m not sure what music might have been playing in the background, but Schlitz beer was powering the occasion. Dad, whose dance moves ran the gamut between A and all the way to B, danced with glee in front of his friends. It’s worth noting that Bobby Dean would have never danced in front of other men had alcohol not been involved. Delma Lee, the wife of one of dad’s friends, snapped the picture. She was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. Her voice was as supple as a whispering angel, one with a drawl long to reach across the room and cause people to listen.
It’s still difficult for me to believe that dad wasn’t even 30 when this picture was taken. 25 years after his death, people who never shook his hand or cursed at his antics are thinking about his life. It’s a romanticized version, of course, but the majority of our memories are culled from the husks of things that many times should remain at rest or fuzzy with the passage of time.
In the early evening of Saturday, October 23rd, 1993, Bobby Dean stood by the tan surface of Highway 49, in a community sometimes called Rich. He watched as the last glimmers of the sun reflected from one of the windows of the fellowship hall of the Lutheran church across the state highway. The church itself had no front-facing windows, something that always drew his attention. Due to Bobby Dean’s connection to farming in the Delta of Arkansas, he knew that the official sunset was technically 15 minutes ago, slightly before 6:30. Like so many from that part of the state, he didn’t need a calendar or weatherman to predict the weather for him.
It was a warm day for eastern Arkansas. Not that Bobby Dean typically wore a jacket, but on this day, he had left his grease-stained jacket on the hook in the garage all day. The day had turned out to be perfect, rising to the upper 60s. The gas pumps were busy for most of the day, then activity tapered substantially as people headed home to eat before either venturing out again of staying home to watch the world series or Hee Haw. In the last ten minutes, only two cars had passed. Neither had stopped, probably on their way to Helena or Tunica. The casinos had recently put their footprint on the area and Highway 49 was quickly becoming a rapid corridor to find them. Locals argued relentlessly about whether they’d bring life back to their area or further drain it.
As the last car passed, Bobby Dean had been inside the station, closing the old register, the kind featuring mechanical rolling numbers. For no particular reason, he looked out one of the two wide front windows and saw the Reverend from Our Savior Church pull out on to the highway and point his vehicle toward Brinkley. As was his custom, Bobby Dean instinctively waved at toward the departing pastor, unsure whether the preacher could see his silhouette inside the station. Much to the surprise of many, the preacher and Bobby Dean had become well-acquainted. He performed Bobby Dean’s remarriage, as well as his funeral. One of Bobby Dean’s jokes was that remarriage technically could be considered to be a funeral, depending on one’s perspective.
As Bobby Dean looked to the north and south, the highway lay silent, its straight strip of asphalt pointing the way to wide expanses of farmland and house dotted along its perimeter. The tilled-under fields now waited, dormant and marching toward winter lifelessness. For those who admire such austere landscapes, it was meditative. Bobby Dean was certainly no one to ascribe to such silly words. To him, it was simply peaceful.
A younger Bobby Dean had lived in Northwest Arkansas and a short time in Indiana. He resided in Pendleton Correctional facility in Indiana as well, for his part in a robbery of a truck stop off of U.S. Highway 20. His heart always beat strongest in Monroe County. He was anchored to his wild youth, his family, the soil, and the freedom that such wide open spaces always presented to those willing to live inside them. Unfettered freedom and wide stages often led people like Bobby Dean to run wild.
He took an unfiltered Camel from his front shirt pocket and lit it. The smoke filled his lungs. As he exhaled, it formed a small cloud near him. The day’s light breeze had weakened. Bobby Dean always smelled like a blend of one or more of gasoline, oil, cigarettes, dirt, mints, and whiskey. Those who knew him could often read his potential behavior based on the prevalence of one scent over the other.
Looking back at the small church across the highway, he recalled that he had remarried there only 8 months prior. Strangely, it reaffirmed where he’d started: married to Carolyn and living in the small farming community. Carolyn would undoubtedly be at home just a bit up the road, near Cypress Road. The last time Bobby Dean ran this service station, the United States was celebrating its bicentennial and he and Carolyn had lived in a trailer almost touching the rear of the gas station. For a second, Bobby Dean wished they still lived behind the station. He could imagine the scent of freshly fried catfish in hot oil, the shouts of people congregating, and time before family began succumbing to inevitable biological frailty. His weariness enveloped him. His dream of coming back here to live and to work was realized but his bones were weary. Bobby Dean’s idea of a metaphor was the type found in Louis L’Amour westerns or demonstrated in the slitted, watchful eyes of Clint Eastwood.
Tonight, his demon fed by whiskey would not rear its head. Lately, Bobby Dean could not sustain its aftermath. His hard life was dealing out hard consequences. His namesake son, X, had surprised him last weekend with a visit. Bobby Dean had been driving his pickup along Highway 39, heading toward Monroe. His son had pulled alongside him in his roommate’s borrowed car, hogging the entire road. Carolyn was in the passenger seat, smiling like an idiot and shouting. “What’s up, #$%#$%#$%$@#$ ?” Bobby Dean had shouted back, laughing. He pulled over so everyone could exchange greetings and cleverly-worded obscenities as they laughed. Bobby Dean managed to salvage a few normal moments with his son during that visit until the urge to drink overwhelmed him. Like so many, he had no way of knowing that it would be his last chance to build a narrow bridge back toward his son.
He finished his cigarette, dropped it to the pavement, and smashed it out with his boot. Bobby Dean turned and walked over to the three gas pumps. He leaned against the outside pump, watching.
The October sun had disappeared entirely. The edge of the highway and all that surrounded it now lay in a blanket of time and silence. Waiting.
38 days later, Bobby Dean walked his last step.
His bones now rest in Upper Cemetery along the same highway, near one of the areas where Cypress Creek and its thick, muddy waters crest near the road. If you drive by at night, you can hear Bobby Dean’s shouts trailing behind you. You’ll fight the urge to floor it without knowing why. Instead, you’ll roll down the window and listen more closely. Tilled earth, smoke, and whiskey will greet you. It’s my hope that you’ll find only the wild, enthusiastic side of Bobby Dean as you pass; may his violent undercurrent forever be at rest.
If you drive the highway to visit the area where the station once stood, you’ll find the small church still patiently marking the days of its members. The station, though, is long gone. In April of 2009, someone removed the subterranean gas tanks. Not long after, the building was gone. Now, as you pass, you’ll note almost no remaining footprint for the gas station. The two telephone poles which once aligned with either end of the property still stand, along with a very narrow strip of pavement. The rest, however, has surrendered to the relentless fertile soil of the Monroe County landscape. The last couple of times that I passed where the station once stood, I resisted the urge to stop and stand in the field there. I couldn’t be sure that time itself wouldn’t grab me and whisk me back to a distant decade, trapping me in nostalgia.
I fear that the entire area might be slipping into non-existence, reverting to a time before railroads, lumber, and commerce; one inhabited by natives.
I fear that Bobby Dean might be dissipating, too. He’s been dead for over half of my life and I’ve survived this place longer than he did.
Each of us only survives in actuality as long as a living soul still remembers us.
Somehow, I received the curse of being the historian of the family. Despite my untrustworthy memory, the only honor I can bring to the history of those who preceded me is to hold my hand aloft and swear to tell the unflinching truth. Some facts slightly disjoin in my retelling, without a doubt.
The mood and temperament though? These are my promises kept.
Nothing is entirely real, not even much of our memory. We revisit the places of our past and often find our footing slightly unfamiliar.
Emotion and bias tinge everything, a spreading patina of ink from a single drop. The more desperately we cling to our version of events, the less firm is our ability to live a life worthy enough to satisfy us. The emotional context which surrounds us shapes our ability to recall objectively what precedes us.
My parents were a volatile mix of temper and tantrum and no one could be an innocent bystander. To be a witness meant participation was mandatory and choosing sides wasn’t optional. There was no Switzerland in the households of my youth.
Yet, my parents chose to marry each other again, despite their long and violent history and while ignoring incredulous scrutiny from friends and family. Both had married other people during their marital hiatus and neither found adversaries willing to suffer and share their scarring.
I’m guilty of allowing my own history with them to cloud my ability to see that somewhere out of my reach, they shared a connection with one another. While it was forged in years of anger, it was real to them. Alcohol, jealousy, and unhappiness were the fuels of their mutual fire. Both of them were adept at stockpiling these lesser tendencies for the upcoming fires that would rage. None of us was equipped with the right tools to combat their wildfires. Each of us tried and failed.
Mom and dad married on Feb. 12th, 1964 and again on Feb. 12th, 1993. Dad died 9 months later, once again with mom in his life and while trying to make his dream work, in a rural little gas station on the edge of highway 49. The gas station is gone and a field has enveloped even its memory. If my father has a ghost, these greening acres along a nondescript highway are one of its homes. Most of these stretches of rural America certainly feel as if they are inhabited by lost souls.
This picture is of us in 1993, at a small Lutheran church that still manages to survive today. Mom and Dad had just exchanged vows for the second time. Although Dad was visibly uncomfortable in the suit he was wearing, he was at home with mom once again in his corner. Twenty-five long years have intervened. The church sits defiantly and almost directly across the road from the gas station dad attempted to make successful during two tries in his lifetime. Small communities need churches to bond them, serving both spiritual and mundane connections. Many of us in this world converged upon that small church in different stages of our lives; most of us have at least a few memories that are rendered opaque and wistful by having done so.
None of the facts has changed, but I have. I’m a stranger in the lands of my memories and I take comfort in my distorted reflection.
Somehow, experience has wrapped me in its strange embrace and violently shaken me. Not only is the sum of my parts now more than whole, but things I knew and things in my field or ignorance have exchanged residency.
I’m not certain of anything anymore.
Yet, paradoxically, I think that it might bring me greater happiness to see a fuzzy world instead of one sharply focused by my own opinions and experience.
The gas station and church both left footprints somewhere inside me, just as my parents did. I struggle with the same forces now that tormented me when I was younger. I learned ways to mitigate the disaster of my upbringing. There was no easy road or prolonged escape from the lessons I learned involuntarily.
I can see immeasurable violence in those whispering the word ‘love’ openly in the world and compassion in the eyes of someone with snarled lip and ready fist. I saw both in Carolyn and in Bobby Dean, the people who played the roles of my parents.
Love’s mystery is that it flourishes at all, as we teeter on the edge of loss at every moment.
“My dad taught me to swim by throwing me out of a moving vehicle. He was a master of incongruity.” – X
On the way back home from Texas, I turned off the discolored and uneven blacktop highway and drove through a small farming town in Arkansas. It was almost 7 p.m. on a windless Sunday evening. My windshield was a graveyard of hundreds of insects. The richness of the delta has its gifts.
I had lost all sense of urgency and time. Because I knew I wouldn’t drive all the way home that evening, I chose the blue highways to take me across part of my journey. These highways were once the only way to traverse the country and each one of them pierced rural communities, loosely connecting them to the outside world. As interstates rose to meet the demands of speed and commerce, the blue highways remained, like half-forgotten pictures tucked away in the top drawer of a dresser in one’s extra bedroom.
Downtown was a disintegrating and deceitful testament to the past. The solitary water tower still stood, rusting, and even the town’s name, once proudly emblazoned there, was long erased. The youthful graffiti always found on such a tower was illegible. The few young people who might live nearby attended school in another town, their own hometown mascot supplanted with another. Each of them quietly reminded themselves that they’d leave as soon as graduation came.
The jolt of crossing a desolate set of railroad tracks caused me to reach over and turn off the radio. A town’s railroad crossing conveys a clear message: a smooth transition indicates a thriving economy and nicer vehicles, while an uneven and poorly maintained one usually means that people live lives filled with less. People with money and separated from their agricultural roots clamor for better roads, ones devoid of historical reminders of commerce and transport.
History accompanied me as I made my way slowly across the brick-paved street. Without any evidence, I knew that several years ago, some well-meaning resident with a little money had vainly attempted to rejuvenate the corpse of this place, one founded on the backs of farmers. With his passing, the enthusiasm for saving the heritage of the place no longer loomed large on the psyche of the town. His tombstone, larger than those surrounding his resting place, is easily found in the cemetery not too far from the train tracks. In a generation, most of the cemeteries would be overgrown and many of these buildings would fall in on themselves, a gradual shattering and splintering of history. If I were to look, somewhere in the juncture of the small side streets would be a shuttered museum; its existence once contained within but with time, opened to spread out and include the entire town. My own hometown shares a similar and degenerative trajectory; the fiercely loyal will stay until nothing remains. They are the geographical observations points for entropy. Death need not make haste in these places.
Somewhere within the 4 blocks traversing west to east, I noticed a particular vacant storefront, displaying a single white rocking chair perched haphazardly up front, undoubtedly home to the bones of a once-thriving furniture store. The setting sun illuminated the faces of a hundred stacked cardboard boxes near the front windows. As carefully as the boxes were stacked, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they had been packed in haste and then abandoned, much like the store and probably like the town in general. I was certain that human hands hadn’t touched the boxes in years and that no one had relaxed in the rocking chair since its placement there. People were choosing to leave with as small a burden as possible.
Something about this store spoke to me. I pulled unevenly toward the broken curb and hesitated as I shut off the engine. The brick pavers had ended with the last block, probably as fund-raising dried up and people chose to leave instead. Every few feet a clump of grass was triumphantly sprouting from the untarred cracks in the road. I sat there, hands on the wheel, watching. Nothing moved around me. Maybe nothing had moved in the last hour, day, or week. A block ahead, the only traffic light in town blinked a dull red, casting a strange pall on an approaching evening. The light wasn’t blinking to any certain tempo and its arrhythmia went unheeded.
Looking at the sun reflected in the terrible facade of that building, I felt a creeping sadness wash over me. It seemed like I could feel the glances of the thousands of inhabitants who had passed here, reluctant to leave their hometown, but certain that they must. Brake lights always yield to a foot on the gas as nostalgia loses inevitably to hope. The fondness we so often feel for the places in our rearview mirrors softens our doubts about leaving yet rarely detains us.
The sun gave me its warmth as I sat in my car. Though the air was still and uncomfortable, I couldn’t break the silence by starting my car. The heat seemed to stir the ghosts of this place. I could hear their whispered names: Robert, Henry, Thomas, Samuel, Maggie and Jane Elvira. It was both melodious and cacophonous, like a choir warming up to an unspecified crescendo that would never quite arrive.
I could picture a shotgun house not too far from here, its ancient inhabitant eating cold cereal or buttermilk-soaked bread from a chipped white bowl. The metal fan nearby would be loudly alternating air through the cramped room. Around the person would be dozens of pictures, spanning generations, each of them revealing the face of someone long departed or of one who visits with less frequency. Next to the stubborn resident was a small wooden table. It was adorned with dozens of pill bottles, knick-knacks, and an older telephone, one wired to the world. In the rare event of a call, I could hear the fizzled and tired ring and recite almost every word that would ensue in the phone call, one measured by regret, loss, and small details.
I imagined the smell of cornbread, mustard greens, and fish quickly fried under the shade of any available tree. This place, once dominated by the sounds of screen doors casually slammed, pitchers of iced tea, and enthusiastic summer baseball games, was losing its voice. It seemed that even the echoes of lives once lived were fading now, departing with their particular smells and customs.
Before leaving town, I turned on the radio again. I pressed the ‘next station’ button and to my surprise, Merle Travis was singing “No Vacancy.” I smiled, pressed the gas pedal with enthusiasm, and took one last glance in the driver side mirror.
As I passed over the railroad tracks, I didn’t even notice the jolt.
I would wake up in another town tomorrow morning and this haunted place would fade to become an uncertain memory. All who had departed this place would unknowingly share this in common with me.
I, too, am from such a town. It is with me, always, in my quiet moments.
Charlotte once resided in a modest house on the corner of Lilly Street and Shumer Way, nestled inside one of the many decaying towns in the delta area of Arkansas. While she hadn’t stepped foot inside the family home in decades, it was still an infrequent and lingering beacon, a place that once defined her. Her mom had departed this world unexpectedly just as Charlotte hit her stride as an adult. Though her own life was full, a little air exited her soul with her mother’s passing. She not only had buried her mother but a sliver of her own life as well. It remained in her hometown, cloistered and protected from the world.
The promise of life blossomed before her, of course, but the loss of the person closest to her heart would always be one characterized by that uneasy and painful feeling one experiences after swallowing too big of a bite. In Charlotte’s case, the bubble of discomfort failed to fade completely. Each new experience, every shared story, and all moments of clarity occurred with an invisible and almost indiscernible hand on her shoulder. As time marched forward, the hand would feel lighter even as the bruise on her soul deepened. If a kind soul such as her mother could find herself so ingloriously subjected to the injustice of unearned disease, it could writhe toward anyone, despite nobility, intention, or merit. It was a hard lesson to accept but her mother taught it with unimaginable and sublime beauty.
She’d find herself in her hometown, often without remembering the interstate or the quaint highways that brought her there, the same byways once traveled by her mother. The engine of her car would be thunderously ticking, even as the beads of sweat rolled down her forehead. After untold minutes, she’d lower the driver window. Her eyes would devour the familiar details of the small covered rear porch and door, the one almost everyone used. The front door was almost ornamental; someone announcing himself there invariably identified as strangers. She knew without looking that there were 18 rows of white clapboard ascending the side of the house, culminating in exposed painted soffits. Some nights she would slowly emerge from a dream and could still feel the rough sensation of those painted boards as she leaned against the house of her youth. In the summer, one could feel the heat from several feet away.
The cacophony of the summer insects would reach her ears, the hum of mosquitoes would play its summertime melody, and she would cry. In her hometown, most memories anchored in the perennial summertime of her youth. Her mother was so close and the echo of her voice was a lingering presence in the humid air. Whispers, languid syllables of laughter and love, all these intertwined and coalesced in the way that only occurs in Southern towns infected by the paradoxical need to move away.
The peeling paint of the place she once called home still called her name. The four side windows once adorned with light and familiar faces now blankly stared outward without regard. The lawn now screamed for someone to show it the attention it once took for granted. No children would dance in its hidden garden again and it was likely that no family would claim it as an anchor before the structure yielded to the inevitable neglect and gravity. This town and all other places like it are the observable results of entropy; all slide toward darkness and disorder without a guiding force to sustain them. She felt sometimes that her mother was the same dynamic demonstration of physics and that her growing absence was slowly accumulating in her own body as a void with a widening precipice.
The apparition of her mom walked the streets next to the house, idly chiding an unseen canine companion as it wandered in exploration. That her mother might indeed be slightly beyond the unseen membrane between this place of the here and now and the unknown seemed plausible. It was a spell without resolution, though. Hours of fondly wishing it to be so proved the fruitlessness of the endeavor.
“Claire,” Charlotte would cautiously whisper, her mother’s name a secret she dared not say aloud, all these years later. The name, once fallen from her lips, would unleash something primal inside her.
The expectation of her mother’s return was the closest thing to an afterlife that Charlotte could anticipate. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps in a decade, she would also yield to this world’s demands and sleep one last time, to awaken in the place wherein her mother now resided. It was promise enough for her, beyond even the lofty covenants given to her in church.
Mother and daughter would join one another in raucous laughter, undoubtedly in the unassuming kitchen of her youth. Love would be on the menu, forever, accompanied by the foods with which her mother had so gracefully adorned the family dinner table.
For now, though, Charlotte experienced the heat, the buzz of insects, and the observance of the disintegration of the cradle and crucible of her innermost heart. She could feel the fingers of time furtively clawing their way up her spine, just as they were doing to the integrity of the house she once called home. Both she and the house would inevitably succumb.
As a bead of sweat coalesced against her neck, those same fateful fingers chilled her and she smiled the most secret and indecipherable of smiles that puzzled everyone who knew her.
Not everyone holds onto life with desperation. For some, hope lies beyond, away, and in lingering embraces.
Meanwhile, some of us, like her, sit in the gathering dark in our versions of curious little hometowns and wait. All of this, each detail, is temporary on a sufficiently long enough timeline.
Memories abide and love resists the void.
The beet chip story from a few days ago forces my hand toward another story. It’s not one which ends with a grand moral observation, though, unless it’s a reminder for everyone to avoid being ‘food stupid,’ as I call it.
To assist you to better understand my youth, you can observe through the picture that while food scarcity was sometimes a problem for me, starvation was the least of my worries. It wasn’t until the end of my 9th grade year that I managed to break away from my intense infatuation with food. I probably should say ‘temporarily breakup’ given my adulthood. That’s my mom with her arms over my shoulders. She’d been drinking when my Aunt Ardith snapped this picture.
I wish I had been drinking heavily, especially if I had known I’d be writing about the herpes of the vegetable world: raw celery.
I mean no disrespect toward the current food waste programs. Teachers do difficult jobs and those involved in USDA-related food programs emphasize giving students control and also encourage eating what’s taken and taking only what one plans to eat. I went to elementary school 40 years ago, about the time that fire was discovered. What’s true now was definitely not true then.
Today, I listened to a story about food waste in schools. Most of the arguments were well reasoned and supported. They were so proud of the food waste reduction and that kids were now squirreling away leftover food instead of throwing it away at school. I knew immediately that at least one school kid was going to get his revenge on these well-intentioned people as they patted themselves on the back for reducing food waste. We not only don’t learn from history, but we also tend to amplify our egregiousness with even greater folly. I laughed as I imagined that imaginary and gleeful child puking all over the high heels of his well-intentioned teacher.
Thanks to my grandma, I was spoiled by food. Even though her type of cuisine leaned toward the basic, there was nothing as delicious in my mind as elbow macaroni soup, collard and mustard greens, green beans, corn in any form, tomatoes, okra, or potatoes. Unlike my parents, my grandparents were compassionate about food, even though they were children of the Great Depression. Both money and food were always held in high esteem. In my case, they didn’t care what I put on my plate as long as I ate it all. Wasting food was simply not something one could do. On the other hand, they didn’t threaten me for disliking food or force me to eat something for my own good. They weren’t “food stupid” as so many modern people are. They asked me to try everything before deciding whether I liked it or not. And I did, even things such as sardines and salt pork. I never rejected a food without trying it. My grandma knew that overall I was going to get much more than I needed, especially since I was known to eat more vegetables than any other 5 kids combined. I don’t know how harsh grandma was to other grandkids (because I was her favorite) but I do know that she would never have forced me to eat something I clearly indicated I didn’t like. In my defense, it would have never occurred to me to lie to her about it, either. I found out at a young age that I didn’t like beets, which puzzled my grandma.
At home, my parents were tyrants about food. I ate some of the worst, most ill-prepared foods known to man, many times under the guise of not being wasteful. This particular line of logic confused me, given that dollar for dollar, most of their money was spent on alcohol, cigarettes, or replacing broken furniture each time they decided to practice their ever-widening domestic violence reactions. Wherever we lived, most evenings threatened to turn into WWE nights, without referee or ropes. Never mind that because mom chain-smoked her entire life I had never eaten potatoes at home that didn’t look peppered already. Mom also put onions in everything. I mean that literally. I kept expecting to find several peeled onions in her bathwater. Because of dad, mom would often prepare the nastiest meats; large slabs of beef nonsense, barely cooked, smelling of old paper and blood. When she could, mom would buy large volumes of sliced ham, the kind that reminded of what a toilet smells like when seldom flushed. It’s one of the reasons to do this day that I dislike ham, and more so when it is sliced into slivers of hell like deli meat. Mom also made me eat potted meat and Vienna sausages, which as we learned from Karl in “Sling Blade”, is nothing more than brains and beef peckers.
I was content with noodles, soup, or vegetables. I was a simple kid and easily satisfied. Give me a soda, basic food, a book – and stop beating on me, and I could make a good day out it. As I’ve written about before, I also acquired an intense LIKE for over-cooked and burned food.
Even though it seems unlikely, it was because of my parents that I went years without eating much meat voluntarily. I wasn’t sure that meat could be prepared in an appetizing manner, so I’d eat salads, bread, and vegetables – or the tablecloth if it kept me from getting ill or having to force down food better suited to be thrown from a moving car at one’s enemies. Forays to other people’s houses showed me that the food at home versus out in the world were wildly different animals and that I was trapped in a culinary hell from which there would be no escape. It should be noted that no green leafy vegetables, much less lettuce, were kept at my house growing up. It was when I was older and had access to an unlimited amount of salad from a popular eatery in Tontitown and from a distant cousin we lived with that I found a love for lettuce.
Since I grew up in small-town Arkansas, I heard the phrase, “Boy, you don’t know what’s good” with such regularity that it lost all meaning. This phrase was considered to be the height of culinary comparative arguments. On one occasion, my Uncle Harold was chiding me for not wanting to eat any of whatever dead carcass flesh was being offered and proudly yelled, “Boy, you don’t what’s good!” Uncle Harold was one of the good guys, too. My grandma laughed and said, “Harold, why are you sitting there picking on the boy when you know darn well you wouldn’t eat a lot of things growing up?”
As for retaliation, for each gesture of love and kindness from my grandma, my dad would be capable of the most brutal reprisals for not wanting to eat whatever he wanted me to. I took beatings night and day. If I told him I didn’t want fried chicken or a slab of whatever animal carcass of the day he had, I would get hit by a fist, belt, spatula, or item he found nearby. He was like the Wile E. Coyote of food beatings. His creativity toward brutality was endless. To him, eating, especially meat eating was a characteristic of all real men. It incensed him that I had no desire whatsoever to eat what he dictated. Deer, frog legs, snake, gizzards, cow livers, boiled beef tongue, rabbit, and squirrel: all of these were required eating. I hated them all and don’t eat them willingly today. His cruelty expanded to other areas, too. Once, he forced me to try raw forest-gathered mushrooms at my Uncle Buck’s house. They tasted like a deer’s anus. When I started to throw up, he punched me. He then forced more of them into my mouth. Crying, I forced what I could down. He made me agree that I loved them. As soon as possible, I went outside and threw it all up on the next-door neighbor’s side of the house. This same scenario was re-enacted many times in my youth. (I often think I could have painted the house with vomit with sufficient time to do so.)
It is strange looking back, because despite having been in prison and falsely claiming he could eat anything, the truth is that my dad hated a lot of food, especially the healthy stuff. I’m not sure why food granted him such an expansive outlook on cruelty towards me. He never missed a chance, though, and I got it much, much worse than my siblings did. I often daydreamed of sautéing him a skillet full of wild mushrooms and steak – and then bashing him over the head with it.
In school, I learned that people would willingly barter with me, and happily, for my dessert or milk in exchange for whatever concoction of vegetables the school was inflicting on us that day. One of the most common was peas or one of the ten varieties of mixed vegetables that generally got boiled in huge cauldrons on the industrial stoves. Countless times, I would press my tray against that of a schoolmate and swap for something better. At home, I would eat green beans, corn, and tomatoes directly from the can – something I often do even now. While I looked like I traded for desserts, the opposite was usually true.
One day during elementary school, our teacher proudly explained that we would be graded on what we ate. “What fresh hell was this?” I asked myself. I figured there was some kind of error or that all the teachers had lost their minds. Unlike my fellow classmates, my world viewpoint didn’t preclude adults acting as if they had lost their minds at any given moment. At that school, we didn’t choose what we wanted. The school workers plopped, flung and threw whatever the next item was more or less into the segregated concavities of our food trays. There were things I simply couldn’t eat. Make no mistake, unlike most of my schoolmates; I overall REALLY enjoyed school lunches. They simply were miles above the consistency and content of what I could expect at home. Just like at home, I couldn’t always determine what the food was supposed to be. Unlike home, however, I could be reasonably certain it wasn’t poisonous, given the likelihood of dead children all over the concrete block cafeteria if things went terribly awry.
In those days, it was almost impossible to explain to your teachers that you were accustomed to being tortured by your dad if you said you didn’t like something. They didn’t know that if I wet the bed, I’d have stripes across my back and legs for a week if my dad had a hangover or was simply bored. I knew that with time, the school’s ill-advised plan to judge what I chose to eat or didn’t eat would cause a problem.
It was the same week that the food grading system started that I met my lifelong nemesis: Raw Celery. On a dozen previous occasions, I had attempted to eat this abomination without throwing up. I was scoreless against the impulse. It was puzzling, given my love of all things vegetable. If given a choice between licking the under-rim of a bus station bathroom toilet and eating celery, I would unflinchingly opt for the toilet, even if someone was sitting on it at the time. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I will demonstrate this if ever given the choice between death and celery. If foreign terrorists ever capture me, all they’ll need to do is force me to eat celery in order to get a confession from me.
I don’t remember a lot about the lunch grading starting, honestly, other than dreading it. When I went up to put my tray on the conveyor, the teacher told me to eat my celery or get a reduced grade. As I was fearful of almost all teachers when controversy arose, I told her that I was fine with that. She got mad at me and reversed course. She insisted that I eat it – a reduced grade was no longer at stake. A paddle was in my future. I told her that I would get sick if I tried to eat the celery. She forced me to take a bite anyway and I spit it back out immediately. She let me go, through a clenched jaw. I knew the battle lines were drawn and that just like at home I had no artillery with which to fight back.
A few days later, celery once again made its disgusting appearance on the menu. They must have purchased a truckload of it from the local Satanic Distributor. I traded my celery and dessert for another boy’s mixed vegetables. He ate the celery with glee, as I did his vegetables. Soon enough, the Gestapo teacher doing lunch duty came over and told us we were forbidden to trade food. Therefore, I got another reduced grade, even though I had eaten more vegetables by trading for a serving of mixed vegetables compared to a slice of celery stalk.
How much later it was, I’m not sure, but the day came when celery was once again served. Except another horrific layer was added: they put peanut butter on the stalk. While I was okay with peanut butter, the only thing worse than a celery stalk with peanut butter on it would be if a large diseased bird pooped on it first. The teacher didn’t even wait for my reaction this time. She insisted I eat it, that everyone liked peanut butter and celery. Having forgotten the exact words, I’m sure she ranted off a list of reasons why I was being a little jerk for not wanting to eat the celery. Since I wasn’t getting out alive, she also insisted that I drink my carton of milk, something that I often didn’t touch. However, I held my nose and drank the milk quickly.
“Now eat the celery. You and I both know you are pretending you don’t like it.” The teacher glared at me. Having been shamed and beaten by experts way beyond her level of cruelty, I didn’t really care about getting a paddling. A paddling from someone at school was comparable to a pat on the back from Attila the Hun at home. The teacher, seeing my reluctance, came around next to me, picked up the celery stalk, and put it in my hand, then dragging my hand holding the celery toward my face. I unwillingly took a bite, immediately feeling the urge to vomit. “Keep going. You’ll see it won’t kill you.” The teacher stepped away at the end of the table. I took another bite – and that’s when the universe shifted.
The mix of peanut butter and raw celery triggered something in my mind. It might have been the last time my dad held my face into my plate and forced me to get a mouthful of whatever man-making garbage he wanted me to eat. Whatever it was, it was powerful. From my nose and mouth came a simultaneous torrent of milk and lunch remnants. It went across the table and onto the floor, splashing across to the table on the next aisle of seating. I flooded my plate with it, knocking over my milk carton. I heaved and expelled everything I had eaten for the last 10 meals, or so it seemed. Moreover, I then put my head down into the mess, feeling a massive wave of nausea and dizziness. Keeping my head up wasn’t an option.
This story would be much better if I remembered what sort of shocked reaction the teacher had on her face after seeing me projectile vomit. However, I don’t know. I was too sick.
Another teacher came and helped me to the restroom to clean up. I enjoyed several exceptional teachers. Like so many others growing up, I also had a few who somehow seemed to know that I was an easy victim. My secret shame from my tortured home life must have registered in some instinctive corner of their brains.
We didn’t do lunch grading for very long. I don’t remember why that it ended but I do know that my fantasy is that the teacher who was so intent on being totalitarian in regard to what I ate or didn’t eat was so sickened by my volcanic eruption of vomit that she insisted that the program be abandoned. While I don’t remember exactly which teacher was the mean one, I could figure it out, if I really wanted to. I won’t though because I might be tempted to go to her house with an array or reprehensible food and force her to eat them all, one by one until vomit ejects from her ear canals. I’ll start with beet chips and celery filled with tripe and livers.
She did me one favor, though: unlike so many other foods I grew to like or at least tolerate, raw celery to me is no better than raw sewage – and I’d drink a cup of the latter before I’d ever eat a stalk of celery.
If I every develop super-villain powers just spray me down with raw celery.
Note: this anecdote is from my favorite cousin Lynette. She grew up in Brinkley, Arkansas, a quintessential small agricultural town in the South, one preoccupied with tornados.
A bad weather post a friend made earlier reminded me of a tornado experience from my youth.
We lived a block from a tornado siren. If you have never experienced one of these at that range, you should. A resident of my hometown likened it to the sound of the angel Gabriel blowing the final trumpet.
Anyway, one evening I was in the shower, and the alarm sounded. The sudden firing up of the siren alone was enough to cause cardiac arrest even for a teenager. Add to that the thought of being hit by a tornado nude, and the panic was real.
My mother runs into the bathroom throwing clothes at me. I catch the underwear and throw it to the floor.
She yells, “Put on your underwear!”
I scream, “There’s no time for underwear!”
She shouts back, “If the house is destroyed by a tornado, that is the only pair of underwear you will have!”
It’s Mom for the win!
Remember – There’s always time for underwear.
Recently, I wrote a story about finally discovering exactly what type of coffee cup I had used to drink my first cup of coffee with, back when people like my grandpa Willie believed that such things should simply just happen regardless of one’s age. I ordered a jadeite Fire-king cup from Etsy, more as a tribute than a keepsake.
A cousin of mine read my post and reached out to me. It turns out that she had a blue Fire-King cup, a cup my grandpa used to hold his razor and shaving cream brush. He was a minimalist, too, but for totally different reasons than mine.
My grandpa died on a Saturday back in October 1977. The cup he used most days sat dormant, waiting for me to wind my way through decades of intervening years. My cousin graciously offered to send it to me. I received it today. With the piece of ‘art’ I already posted about, this was a day for both something old and something new.
As sentimental as it may sound to say it aloud, holding the cup has already peeled back the foggy curtains of my youth.
The half-broken nail in front of the ‘shaving kit’ is the infamous nail that I wrote about in another blog post. This is the shortened version: A Rusty Nail…
P.S. My post about the jadeite green coffee mug on my blog and public figure Facebook page opened many doors for other people, people whose memories were triggered by the same recollections of family and home.