The Show Must Go On!

I was a sickly child.  My parents worried I would be a runt.  At night I would wake up to find them rolling me over on my stomach and shining a flashlight up my a-hole to see if I had worms.  Apparently the worms came out at night.  We walked around barefoot all the time and stepped in manure and chicken shit, the kinds of materials that had worms.

 community houseI had a part in a Christmas Pageant at the community center.  Halloween things were held there, apple bobbing and pin the tale on the donkey, and in the summer picnics.  Everybody brought fried chicken and potato salad.  Once at a picnic I looked up from a chicken leg to see little Tommy Byrd standing directly over a washtub full of ice tea with his pee-pee out.  I was not the only one, but it was too late, as little Tommy let his stream fly.

 I don’t remember my part at the Christmas Pageant.  I had a costume though, and I liked doing that sort of thing.  But this time, I knew I was sick.  My ear hurt like hell and I was pretty sure I had a fever.  But I didn’t want to upset the apple cart because that would upset my mother.  She had made my costume, and I didn’t want to let the other people down either.  So I didn’t say a word about my ear or my throat that was getting sore.

After the Pageant, a lady looked at me and said, “My, that boy’s color doesn’t look good.” And then she felt my forehead and said, “This boy is burning up.”  I was at 104 when they took my temperature; then it went up to 105, and by the time the local nurse arrived it was up to 106.  I don’t know if the local nurse had any nursing training or not, but I expect she did.  She lived by herself in a little trailer and was always there to help with a stomach ache or a burn or a cut off finger.

 She decided to take direct and vigorous action to break the fever.  They were worried about potential brain damage.  So she decided to give me an ice water enema.  I had never had an enema and didn’t know what that floppy red bag full of water was for or the tube either.  But I soon did and was astonished.  The adults whispered to me, “Now hold it as long as you can.  Hold it.”  Because the longer I held it in the more effective it would be.  I thought I was going to burst open right there on the spot.

I jumped out of the bed and, covering my nakedness as best I could, I sort of ran and sort of shuffled behind a curtain where the chamber pot was.  After that all was darkness.

They said they found me still sitting on the chamber pot and fast asleep.  The dump must have taken it all out of me. But the enema broke the fever.  I didn’t suffer any major brain damage that I know of; though that night my left ear drum ruptured, but with only the slightest loss of hearing.

Eventually I had to have my tonsils taken out.  I was getting strep throat and was infecting myself over and over again in a way that somehow involved my tonsils.  We went up to the hospital in Greenville. The doctor said count backwards from ten.  I don’t think I got to eight.  All was darkness.

I woke up feeling pretty shitty.  My mother stuck her head in the door acting all cheery and asked did I want some ice cream—like I would be all overjoyed by that—and did I want chocolate or vanilla. I said, “Go to hell!”  My mother denies I said that, but she lives in denial, so who knows.  I know for sure it’s what I said in my head.  I also knew it was a bad thing to say because the first time I had told them to go to hell, they grabbed me and washed out my mouth was soap.

As Freud says, civilization progresses with a sword in one hand and a bar of soap in another.  That’s civilization for you.

An Errant Bicycle Spoke


The Ford School was built by the Mill for mill kids who lived in places built by the Mill for people who worked at the Mill and who, as tenants in mill homes, were charged an arm and a leg.  The Ford School somewhat lacked in amenities.

I don’t remember that we had recess proper.  Rather we were sort of released, after lunch, especially, to run around in the large field adjacent to the school.  The big kids had a baseball diamond if they wanted to use it.  They had a backstop and three bases, not tied down, a couple of bats, so if somebody brought a ball they could have a game.  The little kids had nothing much to do but stand there or play tag.

 Occasionally one kid would knock down another kid in the middle of the grassy field and yell out, “Nigger pile.” And the kids would all go and jump on each other, making this sort of mound of kids.  I was in it sometimes though I made sure I wasn’t on the bottom because I didn’t want to rip or stain my clothes.  That would upset my mother, who said daily that money didn’t grow on trees.  We would all be there wiggling like worms, saying get your elbow out of my face, or who farted, and then somebody would yell here he comes, and this big fat kid, who saved himself for last, would come and jump on top of the pile.

 One day after school, while we waited for the bus, we were playing tag.  I was “it” and I tagged this other kid who tripped as I tagged him and fell right over just as a bicycle with a number of spokes hanging out passed the kid’s head.  I didn’t put it all together, the bicycle and the spokes, till I saw this jet of blood shoot a foot in the air from the kid’s temple.  One loose spoke had gone straight in there; and given the tiny size of the puncture and its neatness, the blood shot up and out with each beat of the heart as if coming from a squirt gun.

My bus was there and I had to go, but I saw enough to know that an adult had taken over the situation.  I didn’t know anything about anatomy and thought maybe I had killed the kid.  He would die of too much bleeding or maybe the spoke had gone right into his brain.  I was scared to death. But even before I got home, I knew I would just have to wait till the next day to see if the kid was alive.  And if he didn’t show up the next day, I would have to ask somebody where he was, though I didn’t know who to ask.

I couldn’t tell my parents that I thought I had killed the kid. I couldn’t even really imagine the repercussions of that.  Mother would go into frenzy.  Father would become furious.

“Boy Upsets Mother by Killing Mill Kid in Freak Bicycle Accident.”

“Mother Testifies:  I did all I could.  You don’t know what I have to put up with.”

 “Father Reports:  He wasn’t right from the very beginning.”

 I had a pretty restless night.  The next day I was overjoyed to see the kid with this huge bandage attached to the side of his head.  They had even had to shave off some of his hair, which stuck out every which-away, to make sure it stuck.

 Our eyes met, however briefly.  He recognized me as the kid who had pushed him, but he didn’t care really.  He had an air of weary impassivity about him, as if he knew that having to contend with errant bicycle spokes would always be part of his life.


My mother did not spank us boys much.  She was pretty slow for one thing and not at all given to physical exertion of any kind.  I don’t think she thought it was ladylike.  But in the summers especially, she always kept a switch, which she would occasionally ineffectually apply, on top of the refrigerator.

Sometimes, if we were not acting in ways to her liking, she would take down the switch and say, “My, but this switch is old and all dried out.  This won’t do.  I want you boys to go out right now and get me a proper switch.”  Something about going out to get the instrument of your own destruction really upset me. So we would go out and get and switch, and she would look at it and say, “This is not a proper switch.  It’s not long enough and it’s all dried out.”  Or:  “It’s spring. Aren’t there some switches out there with buds on them?  They really sting don’t they?”  So we would have to go out and get a switch with nice little green buds on it.

The worst for me though was when I did something that bothered her and she would say, “Just you wait till your father gets home.”  A good portion, but not always—sometimes she would just forget she had said it—this meant I would get a whipping.  If she said this late in the day, it wasn’t so bad, because my father would be getting home soon and the whole thing would be over one way or another.  But sometimes, she would say it early in the day, and just thinking about him coming home to beat me would ruin my whole day.

One day, when this happened, something got into me and I climbed up a tree.  I had not thoroughly thought out my plan, but it seemed to be that if he wanted to whip me he was going to have to get me.  I was a good tree climber and got myself pretty far up a nearby tree. But I had not timed my climbing well and so had to sit there two hours before he came home.

I heard the car and he entered through the front.  But nothing happened.  Instead I heard the sounds of the table being set.  And then quiet.  They must have been eating.  I felt really hungry and knew I was licked.  Climbing up a tree is not a good escape plan.  I climbed down and went into the kitchen.  My father just laughed at me; and my mother she I had punished myself sufficiently.

I had to eat my dinner cold.  But I didn’t get a beating.  I thought that was a pretty good trade off.

Though my whole day had been ruined.

Fuck Dick and Jane

dick and janeOur first grade teacher would ask us to read aloud from Dick and Jane.  Dick and Jane were awful boring white kids. Their father wore a suit.  What bullshit.  They also had a dog named Spot.  I didn’t know where the hell these kids lived, but they sure didn’t live where I did. My parents gave me a dog; but it became a chicken killer and somebody killed it with a shot gun.   “See Spot run.  Shoot Spot in the ass.”

 The teacher would read, “See Spot Run!” and we would say it back.  Then she would ask one of us to say it back; if you didn’t say it back correctly, she would whack you on the hand with her yardstick.

 We had a dunce chair.  The kid who couldn’t get anything right would be stuck up there on the dunce chair.

“See Dick on the dunce chair.  Dick is an idiot boy.”

But we didn’t have a dunce cap.  When the dunce chair was occupied, the teacher would put kids in the two closets in the back.  They had to stand there and face the wall; the teacher kept the doors open so she could see what they were up to.  When she ran out of closet she would use the wall.  Kids would just line up and face the wall.

Late one afternoon, I looked around and saw I was the only person still in my seat except for one girl across the room.  The room was stone cold silent; I couldn’t even hear the kids breathing.  I felt a bit dizzy sitting there alone and exposed.  My I had a brain and paid attention.  I remember getting whacked only once.  “Hold out your hand.”  She was a pretty good whacker.  It stung.

“See Dick get whacked!  See Dick cry like a baby.”

Tragic Bus

I caught the school bus to the Ford School; it was seven miles away in Watts Mill.  I would cross the two lanes of blacktop and take up my position on a dirt road that dead ended in the blacktop.  Twenty yards away the dirt road crossed over the railroad tracks and disappeared into the woods.

The ditch by the side of the dirt road always seemed to have water in it.  In the winter it froze over; in the spring I would watch the guppies grow and then disappear to go wherever frogs go.

The school bus was driven by some kid, a senior in high school, who lived out on the route.  In the morning, he would pick up the kids and park it in front of the Ford School and go in and take classes.  The Ford School had all grades, one to twelve, in it.  After school, the high school kid would drop us off, go home, and park the bus in front of his house.

One day, as we were turning into the gate to the school, the steering wheel came right off in the driver’s hands.  He held it up in the air like he was wondering how it got there and forgot to put on the brakes; but he had the right angle and we just rolled on in to a dead stop.  Then the driver stuck the steering wheel back on the post. 

Another time going home, I was sitting in the front seat and notice some smoke coming up through the floor boards.  I waited a while to see if the driver would notice, but he didn’t.  So I yelled out, there is smoke coming up here.  He looked around, slammed on the breaks and pulled over on the shoulder.  He gave the fire extinguisher a yank and it came right out with a piece of the metal wall attached to it.  The whole thing was rusted through and through.

But there was a creek nearby and the driver got out and ran into the bushes and came back with water pouring out the holes in his baseball cap.  And then he ran off again into the bushes.  That was one of the few times I ever saw Jane Wallace smile.  She was laughing at the bus driver disappearing into the bushes.  Here teeth were exposed and every one of them—her baby teeth—were as black as coal and looked flaky and rotten. I looked away quickly so she wouldn’t see me looking.  But I think she did because her mouth snapped shut.

I don’t know what was wrong with the bus.  But the driver wet down the floor boards and we went on our way.  My father had driven the school bus back in his day before WWII; sometimes I thought maybe it was the same bus I went to school in.

Webs of Words

I was reading around on consumerism and came across an article that the neo-marxist were wrong about consumerism and the newer hip guys like Baudrillard were right because desire is mediated.  So individuals seek the sacred now in consumer objects and are able to achieve individuation without rigid hierarchies and maximize personal freedom.

Sure desire is mediated; Hegel said that, and maybe the guy does prove the neo-marxists wrong (or at least his version of it ).  But the whole argument is not just wrong but completely absurd:

 First, one can only be free in his system if one has money to buy sacred consumer objects.

Second, since this is true, consumerism of the kind he describes cannot and will not do away with rigid hierarchies until the class structure is modified.

Three, this consumerism that he promotes threatens to eat up the world’s resources; maybe we will have to impose some rigid hierarchies to restrain over consumption.

A patently absurd argument of this kind is possible only if one steps completely into the so-called world of intertexuality.  It is an argument contextualized by the argument it makes against a position it does not understand and so is nothing but a creation of words with absolutely no reference to any known reality.

It’s this kind of stuff that leads the masses to think, if they think at all, that academics live in the “ivory tower” and are generally out of touch with common sense.  The masses for their part do not see that common sense is not reality, but a socially mediated construction.  The consequence of this is that anybody can easily be caught up in a self-satisfying and narcissistically fulfilling web of words.

Bad Spelling

Back in South Carolina, Thursday evening was spelling prep night.  The teachers would give us a list of ten words on Wednesday that we would be tested on Friday.  Thursday evening, my mother would run me through the words; if I missed some I was sent off to memorize them.  When I came back, I sat at the table on my nail keg nail keg(which was my sitting at the table chair) and across from me would be by mother and to my left at the end of the table would be my father.

My mother would say the word; if I spelled it incorrectly my father would whack me across the palm with a yardstick.  Most of the time I never got whacked because I spelled the words correctly.  But sometimes I missed and then I would get whacked.  Then my mother would spell the word for me again and I had to repeat it and if I didn’t repeat it correctly I would get whacked again.  At times, I don’t know why exactly, I would know the word in my head and say it wrong anyway and then my father would whack me again.

Those whacking spelling sessions could go on for some time.  Occasionally, they just gave up.  My mother would say something like, “Now you see what I have to put up with all day.”  And they would both get up disgusted.

Perhaps because of my spelling experiences, I am today only a satisfactory speller, and when I get really tired or anxious my spelling will go out the window entirely.  As a prelude to my nervous breakdown I wrote a paper for a graduate course in literature that had 220 spelling errors in it.  The professor brought up the paper in class; he said he had received a paper with 220 spelling errors and that people who wrote such papers did not belong in graduate school.

We had maybe 12 people in that class; and the guy hadn’t bothered to memorize our names.  If he had, he might have remembered that I was the guy whose remarks he had praised twice, once even saying to the class as a whole, listen to this guy, he knows what he is talking about.  And even if he didn’t know who I was, maybe he could have stopped a bit and thought about what would cause a person to write a paper with 220 spelling errors in it.  After all, the winter of 1969 was not a particularly wonderful time; all over the country campuses were filled with tension.  People were suffering.  He might have stopped me after class if only out of curiosity, to see what kind of person would write a paper with 220 spelling errors in it.

But he didn’t.  He was a nationally known scholar in his particular area of literary study and he was full of shit.

Potty Pooper

I believe my earliest memory goes back to when I was 2.5 years old or thereabouts.  My sightline is about a foot off the floor; I must be lying on my belly.  Feet enter the picture; they are attached to the legs of a person who drops his shorts and sits down on my potty to take a dump.  I feel that fist of rage knotting somewhere beneath my diaphragm.

It’s my cousin Skipper.  Not skip, mind you, that’s what girls do; but Skipper as in Gilligan and the Skipper. He’s the son of my mother’s older sister, Aunt Susan, who fell on hard times and has come from California to be near kin, and she has left Skipper with us while she goes up to Greenville to get a job as a telephone operator and a place for them both.

 One of the reasons, as I learn later for going to California, aside from my father’s “I couldn’t compete with the fucking niggers” is that my mother wanted to be near her sister in her time of need.  That’s probably bullshit; the two hated each other.

 But Skipper was dying.  About the time he was ten or eleven, he just shot up to a full six feet or better.  Then cancer was discovered in his knee; so they cut his leg off above the knee.  But the stuff spread, everywhere and into his lungs.

 He was just a year or less older than I, so sometimes on a Saturday morning, they would drop me off at my Aunt’s place where I was spposed to play games with Skipper.  He smelled funny.  That was when to get the cancer, they aimed a radiation cannon at you and blasted away.  He was six feet of skin and bones with a child’s head attached.  And on the right side of his chest were concentric circles that got fainter as they moved away from the center which was bright red and from which I had seen a drainage tube hanging.

 I don’t know what we played.  Board games I guess, probably checkers; and he had to win of course.  Not that I let him win; he was pretty good.  But I just didn’t give a fuck. Still, he was annoying because he had to shout out, “Mommy, mommy, I won again.  I won again.” Like every time he won, which was every time we played.  “Mommy, Mommy, I won.” Again and again and again.

 When he died, my Aunt just had to have an open casket funeral.  So we all had to tromp by and take at look at him all pasty white with rouge on his cheeks.  And dead as a doornail.

An Undocumented Migration


I was reading around—I wish I could remember where—and came across this book by a couple of British sociologists who claimed that the greatest uncharted and undocumented migration in America was not that of blacks out of the South after WWII to the cities of the North East but the movement of poor whites out of the South to the west, particularly to Arizona and Southern California.


My family was part of that migration.  We lit out for greener pastures in the summer of 1955.  For the trip, the old man had bought a ’47 Studebaker, and behind that, in a rented u-haul, we towed all our earthly possessions, up to and including our old refrigerator. The old man drove like a bat out of hell day and night.  In Louisiana they were doing some road work; there was the blacktop and right next to that a deep gulley that ran for miles.  All through there the old lady was clinging for her life to the armrest and pleading with “Bill” to slow down.  But he wouldn’t.  It wasn’t in his nature and he enjoyed scaring the piss out of the old lady.  Speaking of which, the old lady had a sensitive bladder as she called it and seemed like she needed to urinate all the time.  So on and on it went, she saying she had to urinate and he saying he would stop at the next place, and then drive right past, saying something like, too crowded or too dirty or missed the turnoff.

 He would stop for us boys only when all of us needed to piss at the same time.  Then he would pull off the road and we would all run off into the bushes or down into the roadside ditch to relieve ourselves. I pissed, on one of those short excursions, on a piece of the Petrified Forest, in New Mexico, I think.

 The old man had built a sort of bench between the back of the front seat and the front of the back seat.  At night I slept on that with the other two of us sleeping on the back seat, all of us sort of packed together like sardines and farting up a storm from the junk we were eating on the road. 

When me got to those California Mountains—I had never really seen a mountain before—I figured the jig was up and all was for naught.  No way we were going to make it over those.  But the old man had thought ahead and filled to the brim with water a metal trash can that he had strapped to the front of the u-haul.  We went damn slow up those mountains, with faster people honking at us, and the engine over-heated three times.  But we would just pull over, wait till it cooled down, add water, and move on.

 The old man drove straight through, except for a night in a cheap motel on the Texas side of Louisiana.  Partly because the old man needed some sleep and partly because we boys had been sweating up such a storm we had really begun to stink and needed some cleaning.  So I was led into a place the likes of which I had never seen before in the bathroom, a spot with tiles on the walls and tiles on the floor and a thing that water shot out of.  That was my first shower.

Hell, we were still on the road, and we were already moving up in the world.  And in California we would have indoor toilet and bathing facilities.

You Can Take The Boy Out of the Country…

grandmaFor years I had this repeating dream.  I would be driving on a two lane country road with red dirt gulley on each side and pines all around and I would head around this corner, and as soon as I went around it I knew I would see my grandma’s house back in South Carolina.  But sometimes in the dream I would tell myself I was just dreaming and sometimes I would just wake up because there was no way to actually see grandma’s house in a dream.  It was a painful, frustrating, and somehow heartbreaking dream.

About forty years later, I went back to South Carolina, reconnected with my relatives and saw the remains of my grandmother’s house.  I have not had that dream since.

As usual, when we moved from South Carolina to California, my parents didn’t bother to explain anything to us kids, like where we were moving, or why we were moving, or that we shouldn’t be upset about moving.  Given my mother’s pathological inability to see her children as separate people maybe she figured we had picked up all the answers to our questions by telepathy.

Looking back I can see that dream as a scar or as a scab covering a sore—something that really didn’t have to be but was nonetheless.

I was sitting on the front porch of a bed and breakfast in Madison, Georgia with a cup of coffee and a cigarette, smelling the honey suckle, watching the sun sink behind the trees, feeling the soft breeze and I was filled with peaceful sense of being Home.

Little kids absorb their environment; it goes directly into them.  They don’t have the psychological padding of “reason” yet, that gives me all sorts of stupid answers to why this or that is happening.  We moved to a place that was mountainous, where the air was always dry, where the sky was a pale blue, where there was no honey suckle, where the heat and humidly didn’t turn you into a limp rag, where storms did not come up out of nowhere, drop their fury of rain and then leave, where there were no blackberry patches, and no woods.

My parents just picked us up and ripped that place right out of us.  It took me forty years to understand that the message of my painful dream was:  you can’t see your grandmother’s house in a dream.  You have to go there.