On Campus


What do you know but in early February I get a letter from the smokers saying they wanted to invite me for that precious on campus interview.  That was big time in the job search because it meant SPEAKINGyou had made a cut that meant you were one of three.  So I called the department, got a secretary, and arranged a time a couple weeks down the line for the interview.  Thank goodness, usually—but not all of the time—the campus would pay for your plane fare.  These guys were paying and they paid for the motel too.

I was to fly in, go to the motel via taxi, sleep, and then I was told the spot where I was supposed to stand where somebody would pick me up and take me to the campus.  Then I would spend the whole damn day being interviewed.  The itinerary read something like.  brief meeting with President of University (largely ceremonial); extended interview with Dean (a very important part of the whole process); interview with chair of the department; lunch in the cafeteria with assorted faculty (meaning whoever was around); and then the goddamn talk.

 I hated the goddamn talk part.  When I first started interviewing, people actually read a paper, something they had written, to a tired assed bunch of faculty who seemed to loathe your very presence.  But later on, they started asking for talks rather than paper readings.  I would worked myself into a lather over these talks, like the fate of the whole interview depended on it, which maybe it did, since the people you talked to would be the people who voted, though there would be a lot of corridor lobbying before the vote by interested parties, if there were any.  And for a position like the head of composition there might not be any.

The talk part had gotten worse since I had started having anxiety attacks when I had to speak publically.  This was part of my psychotherapy.  Before I started that, I had not particularly liked public speaking but I hadn’t had any anxiety attacks.  But if psychotherapy works, it does so by making you worse for a long time before you start getting better.  If you sit around thinking and talking about your emotions that has a way of bringing them right up to the surface.

The first time I had a public speaking anxiety attack (as opposed to an every day, walking around, run-of-the-mill, for no obvious reason anxiety attack, which I also had though less predictably) was when I gave a “talk” at one of those damn conventions.  I hated those damn talks and those damn conventions, but you did them to get brownie points to make sure, in my case, that I got hired again and to “net-work” which I didn’t do.  So I was giving this talk when I began to sweat profusely.  My shirt was visibly saturated hung on me from the weight on the sweat.  I had to stop before I was done because I thought my head was going to explode.

So I had to worry not just about the talk and what it should be about but also about whether I would have an anxiety attack, and sweat all over the place, and crumble up like a wet rag or maybe just pee myself.

(to be continued)



In any case, I was so upset by all the people being fired, and feeling myself as if I were one of them and not rehired, as was in fact the case, led me to perceive that my grasp of reality was off a witchdoctorbit.  I had of course known that for a very long time, given my seven years in the hole, and the results of the MMPP saying I was a danger to myself and others, and getting out of the draft because I was nuts.  But with my new self-terminating one year contract, I would be making something like 18,000 dollars in the upcoming year (this was 1981 maybe) so I could afford to seek the assistance of a professional.

So not only was I the first person in my family to get a PhD, I was also the first to seek the help of a psychotherapist.  The two things are not unrelated.  Working class people do not seek the assistance of psychotherapists, though they will take meds if they have a doctor who prescribes them, but a shrink—that’s a different matter.  As one working class friend put it, he could never go to a shrink because doing so was just too self-involved and self-indulgent.  That’s how I felt about it too.

And going to a shrink seemed as if you were sort of officially declaring that you were a nut.  If you didn’t go to a shrink, you could think that, while you were nuts, you were not really nuts, just sort of psychologically off your feed, or maybe a bit moody, you know, or perhaps given to the “blues.”  Hell, lots of people feel like crap till the day they die.  That doesn’t mean they are nuts.

But this shrink thing didn’t make any sense unless you accepted, at least provisionally, that you were nuts.  Why else would you go to see a shrink and pay that shrink money to talk with you unless you were nuts.  I took the whole thing too seriously I guess.  I hadn’t been raised middle class, and didn’t know that for some middle class people going to a shrink was more of a lifestyle choice like buying a BMW or something.  I didn’t know that some people—way up there on the social and financial scale—were not ashamed or embarrassed to go to a shrink but actually competed with each other as to who had the most famous or expensive shrink.

So not only was going to a shrink a lifestyle choice—to help you over life bumps or to help you maximize your potential and become self-actualized—it was a status symbol.  But these people most went to righteous Freudian guys where you went like three or four times a week and paid an arm and a leg to do it.  For me getting a shrink was not a lifestyle choice.  I was not concerned about self-actualizing my potentials but about falling off the face of the earth.  Also I couldn’t afford a status symbol shrink.  I needed a bargain basement Wal-Mart sort of shrink.

Being around more middle class people I had heard a few of them—fellow graduate students or visiting lecturers—mention having gone to a shrink for this or that.  They didn’t seem embarrassed by it but then they always went for something pretty specific—like, my mother just died, or I was having a lifestyle transition.  Me though I knew I looking for a bargain basement shrink because I was nuts.

BS Oath

Being a Boy Scout required some memorization.  For example, I had to recite the following oath:

On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.

I don’t think I gave a second thought to what I was saying, though now I can see I was completely unqualified to be a Scout.  I did think about the Scout Law because it was difficult to keep straight.

A Boy Scout is: Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.

mosesI kept forgetting parts of that or the order of it anyway.  And it seemed like an awful lot of things for a person to be.  I already had to deal with the Ten Commandments.  And even back then I could see I had problems in the Obedience Department, also in the Cheerful area; being Thrifty was easy since I didn’t have any money.  And as for the Clean part I have always had problems in the personal hygiene area maybe because I spent the first ten years of my life without a bathroom.

Mostly though Boy Scouts was about going on camping trips three or four times a year, and having Monday night meetings in the cafeteria of the local elementary school.  One year I was the boy leader of the whole damn troop.  During this time I began to develop my particular leadership style.  Sometimes, I would have to get the whole damn troop stand in a line.  So I would be upfront and I would order them to stand in line and I would do it in such a way as to suggest: really I don’t give a good goddamn whether you stand in line or not but “they” have told me to do this and if you don’t do it I will get my ass in a sling, so please stand in line.

You give some people a little power and it goes straight to their head.  They think the power is their power (even thought it has been given to them) and actually get upset if somebody doesn’t respond to “their” power.  Petty bureaucrats act like that; without the power they have been given, they would be like nothing but a zero.  So in my first year in college, we could only get one piece of meat, whatever it was, for dinner, and if you went back and asked for a second piece from the server ladies they would get their panties in an uproar because you were challenging their power.

Power always comes from above and if it goes to your head it infantilizes you.

Old Man River

I got as high as Life Scout in the organization; nobody knows about that rank because it’s the one below Eagle Scout.  I couldn’t ever become Eagle Scout because you had to have a life saving swimming merit badge which meant jumping in the water and pretending to save drowning people.  eonoreeI wasn’t likely to get that because I couldn’t swim.  Actually, I shouldn’t have gotten beyond 1st class scout because I couldn’t swim.  But my parents actually paid for swimming lessons for me, and the guy giving the lessons finally had mercy on me and let me get the swimming merit badge by doing it on my back rather than on my face like I was supposed to. No way was I going to be able to save people while swimming on my back.

I really don’t know what the fucking big deal was about swimming.  Back in South Carolina nobody knew how to swim.  We were landlocked and nobody had swimming pools.  Maybe getting me to swim was a way of raising the status of the whole family or something.  I just couldn’t put my face in the water to do the crawl.  Once back in SC we had gone on a family outing.  A rare thing.  Because it was blazing hot they took us down to the Enoree River near Clinton to cool off in the water.  This was a very old river that twisted this way and that.

I took about 10 steps out into the old Enoree River and whap I fall into a hole made by its swirling currents.  I went straight down, and I felt like I do today when I fall; I just sort of relaxed and went with the flow because there wasn’t much I could do about it. I mean I didn’t know how to swim.  I sort of knew the situation was dire and then I was distracted by my life passing before my eyes just like they say it does when you are drowning.  This didn’t last long because my life was pretty short.  I was about 4 and then things went dark and before I knew it somebody had grabbed me by the hair.

A guy had been standing there with this pants rolled up to the knee, and he had looked over and seen me, and then he had looked away for a while, and then he looked back and saw I had disappeared, and then he saw what looked like movement under the water and he grabbed me by the hair and pulled me straight up.

And the way the old lady acted you would have thought she was the one who nearly drowned.  It was boo-hoo-hoo, boo-hoo-hoo, and she wouldn’t stop so once again I had fucked up.  I remember sitting in the back of that car and saying, “Mommy, Mommy, I am all right. I am all right.”  But it was still boo-hoo-hoo, boo-hoo-hoo.

I spent way too much energy over the years trying to make that woman feel better.  But she was like that hole in the Enoree River —bottomless.  You could try and try to make her feel better but it didn’t do a damn bit of good.

And that’s why years later I couldn’t put my face in the water to get that fucking merit badge.


We are not free.  Just because our minds run around like rats in a cage—doesn’t make us free.  As much as I might wish to expunge or expel the old man, he is stuck to me every where.  It’s as if I have little pieces of Velcro all over me and the old man just sticks to them.  I pull off little pieces of him and I turn around and they are stuck to me all over again.  Like those little thistles that used to get in my socks and I would pull them out, take two steps, and they would be right back.  As if I had my own particular species of flea that lives only on me and won’t go away till I cease to exist as an environment.

I think of those baby ducks that imprint on the first thing that walks by after they come out of their eggs.  If a cat walks by, they will imprint on it and the cat will have a host of little ducks following it around.  The same with a boy baby and his father; I just imprinted.

I wear a hat and have for years.  Hardly anybody wears a hat where I work and when people ask why I wear a hat I say my dermatologist told me to.  But really I wear a hat because my father wore one, as he was out in the sun all day.  I also for years have carried a thermos with my coffee in it; I always have a Stanley thermos because that was the kind of thermos my old man preferred with his coffee in it.  People ask me to do lunch, but I bring my lunch to work with me in a paper bag.  I don’t understand doing lunch.

Also I am a workaholic.  That’s all I know how to do.  If I am not working or producing in some way, I pretty much am not.  That’s all he did all his life.  Work. What do they say—work, it was his raison d’être. He started at 8; his father found him messing around when his mother had told him to do something, and the father said, if you are old enough to disobey your mother you are old enough to work, and gave him a bucket to carry water to workers in the field.  He did not graduate from high school till he was 21 because if you missed more than a month of school you had to repeat the class.  They had that rule to keep parents from keeping their kids at home on the farm so they could work them.  He studied by gas lamp till they got some electricity from the TVA.

I smoke and have smoked for 40 years.  I expect it will kill me.  My father smoked.  For some reason, I was his son, and my brother was my mother’s son.  So when we drove anywhere, I had to sit in the seat behind him and my brother sat in the seat behind my mother.  The smoke would blow back in my face.  I remember disliking it.  But when I bought my first pack, it was like I knew exactly what I was doing just like those damn ducks following a cat around.


Back in SC, after his attempt to grow cotton with a mule had proved futile, the old man worked for a pliersman named AY, doing pretty much whatever AY said, like digging ditches, or roofing, or framing, or laying block or brick, or pouring concrete, or fixing plumbing or whatever needed doing by way of construction.  The old man always had this old black man as his helper.  I forget his name, but if the old man treated him the way he treated me, I would have killed him.

 For some reason, he just had to have somebody with him when he was working on something.  So it would be, Nick, Nick, your father wants you!  And he would be out in the washroom trying to fix the dryer the barrel of which had come lose or something.  He would hand me a flash light and I would have to turn it this way and that so he could see, and then he would cuss me if I got bored and missed the spot.

Then, it would be, he wanted some tool or other.  If you have ever been around tools, you know there are an amazing number of them and they all have different names.  So it would be: go get me (vice grips, pliers, channel locks).  I would be afraid because he would cuss me, and I would go out and look for vice grips, pliers, channel locks, even though I wasn’t sure if I knew what it was or not.  Then I would come back in and, say I couldn’t find it, and he would say, well it must be in the back of the truck then, because every thing in the  universe seemed to end up in the back of that truck.

The back of the truck contained a tool chest—a metal box actually—about six feet long and four deep—and filled to the brim with stuff, tools, and bits of paper, and all of it wrapped up in pieces of twine.  You could grab a piece of twine and pull out any manner of stuff attached to it: hammers,channel locks blades for cutting brick and block, screw drivers, socket wrenches, little pieces of metal bricklayers use to link brick or block together, trowels of different kinds, joiners, joint rakers, and plum bobs.  My heart would just go out of me looking at that mess; how was I going to find a pair of vice grips, pliers or channel locks in all that shit, even if I knew what they were.

The relief I felt when I found something was palpable, but sometimes and he would say he meant something else and make like had I misheard him or something.  And there was the always immortal, where the fuck is that screw driver, goddammotherfuckingsonofabitch, and, of course he would be sitting right on it. None of which, held a candle to the pure outrageousness of his mashing his fingers while working on an engine and then his throwing the tool across the street or down in the bushes in the backyard, and I would have to go fetch it.

 I figure there are a couple of things in life a man should be prepared to do for himself: wipe his own ass and go get the tool he has thrown into the bushes.  Sure he was my father and he fed me and such, but so what?  Was I supposed to be happy that he wasn’t an alcoholic or gambling addict? Above all else in life a person is first and foremost a person, and as one of those my father was a dickhead.

Yes Sir, No Sir, Thank You Mam, Please

Yes Sir, no Sir, thank you Mam, please. 

A proper southern boy was taught to address folks in particular ways.   Being the eternally curious boy I was I asked why and was told that saying sir and mam was a way to show respect to my elders.  The next time I happened to be introduced to another little boy, I asked him how old he was, and since he was a year older than I, I addressed him as sir, since he was my elder. My parents told me to stop it.  I knew of course what I was doing; I was being aggravting, bordering on insolance.  They knew I knew that’s not what they had meant.

So they tried to define elder which ended up being impossible; and then I asked should I say “sir” to a criminal since such a person might be older but not worthy of respect.  Intelligence is a mixed blessing.  Half the time—more than that probably—that they thought I was being insolent, I was really asking a question that they couldn’t answer because there wasn’t an answer, except “because I say so.”  I got that one a lot, and “you will know when you are an adult.”

 I don’t think on this particular occasion that I was in a bad mood. Thought it might have been my second year in high school when I was always in a bad mood.  I recollect having been really quite abstracted, off in my own mind someplace.

We were at the dinner table.  I sat at one end, as the number 1 son, and the old man sat opposite; and my mother and my youngest brother still in his high chair sat on one side and the two other brothers on the other side.  Usually Popeye the Sailor Man was on TV. The way the room was shaped and sitting where I sat, the damn TV was directly behind me and I couldn’t see it at all.  But the old man looking over my shoulder could see what Olive Oil, Wimpy and the rest of the gang were up to.

 My father asked me to pass him something.  Like the salt.  So I did, and as far as I was concerned that was over with.  But then the old lady said, “Say Sir to your father.”  What the hell was her problem?  I couldn’t remember having said anything at all; had I said yes with out the sir.  I felt sort of startled like you do when somebody sneaks up behind you and makes a noise and you jump.  It was like out of nowhere….

 And I found myself saying, “I don’t say sir….”  And about there I knew what I was going to say and I decided to say it all….”to people I don’t respect.”  Things would just come over me sometimes.

 So the old man started huffing and puffing and banging his fists on the table and looking like one of those cartoon creatures with smoke coming out of its nose and ears, and then he stood up and lifted the whole table about up to his neck and slammed it down again.  So my favorite meal ended up flying every whichaway and mostly into my lap.  Pork chops with minute rice and gravy and an iceberg lettuce salad with some sort of fucking vegatable out of a can.  If you really want to turn kids off to their veggies, be sure to serve them out of a can.

 I don’t know what happened after that.  The old lady started bawling of course and the two young brothers too.  But I didn’t get hit because this was after the time they had decided to stop beating me.  Probably I was sent to my room and deprived of my one pathetic hour of TV viewing.  Like missing Mannix was going to kill me.

Probably there’s no excuse for what I said except maybe for the fact I was telling the truth.  I had thought about it long and hard and concluded that the old man, while my elder, was not worthy of my respect and thus did not warrant a “Sir.”

Corn Rows

The old man built a concrete block house with four rooms, and, as I have indicated, no bathroom facilities.  We were located, through a line of trees and across an empty field, about 100 yards from Grandma Tingle’s house.  I spent 10 years right next door to her out in the middle of nowhere and I never really got to know her.  Certainly I was not fond of her.  She was not exactly a font of warmth and affection.

She was tiny, about five feet tall and less than a hundred pounds, and mean.  She smoked cigarettes but pretended not to.  Proper ladies don’t smoke; if somebody came to the door, she would stick her cigarette in the oven of her wood burning stove.  She was also a mean chicken killer.  She would grab the bird by the neck; hold the struggling bird at arm’s length, stick its head in this little noose she had hanging from a tree and give the bird a twirl.  Then she’d dip the thing in some hot water and go at plucking the bird with a will, digging out handfuls of feathers with each pull.

 I think she’d pretty much had it with children.  She’d been pregnant, I have heard tell, at least 10 times in her adult life.  Seven lived.  How that little woman ever carried a child, I don’t know.  But she was wiry.  Her family had lived once in a place down in Georgia where she had to carry water a mile in a bucket each day from the spring to the house.  But kids, by the time I showed up, she’d had her fill of kids.

One day I was half way across the open field to my house and she took into yelling at me from her porch.  She was going at me up and down about running through the corn rows.  I don’t remember what she said and to this day I don’t know what’s so bad about running through the corn rows.  Put a boy in front of a corn row and what do you expect he is going to do.

 She was giving me a good tongue lashing and I was upset.  As I stood there in that field knee high in the grass, a bee landed on my hand.  And for some reason, unknown to me I did not shake it off, and—what do you know—but it stung me.  I let out a howl and turned and ran home.

Was I already a masochist in training—finding novel ways to punish myself?

Or could be I was becoming a sadist.  Granny didn’t know a bee had stung me; and given the howl I let—instead of my usual polite, yes’em Grandma–out she might have had second thoughts about tongue lashing a child as sensitive as I was.

My Aim Is True

“Authorities report that Jeffry Trent Bit killed his mother, his father, and his brothers while they slept.  Each was killed with a single arrow in the heart.  Neighbors expressed surprised.  “He was such a good boy,” one neighbor said “He was a model student,” said another.  Bit was a straight A student, an Eagle Scout, the leader of his Church Youth Group, a semi-finalist in the state wide spelling bee, an all league player in football, and an Olympic Quality Archer.   Although injured in several places, Bit’s attempts to kill himself with a bow and arrow proved futile.”

 When I come across a story like that I, depending upon the morbidity of my mood, either turn quickly to another page or read all the lurid details.  I passed a good deal of time in my sophomore and junior years in high school having fanaticizes about killing my parents.  Actually, it was pretty much the same fantasy.  For some reason, unknown to me, the massacre always happened in the kitchen.  My parents would be bound and gagged.  The fantasy did not include how I bound and gagged them; they came in fantasy land prepackaged for massacre.

 First I would cut mother’s throat.  She would bleed out, as it were, while slumped against our pea green refrigerator.  The idea was that the old man might suffer even more if he saw his wife dying.  So then I would cut his throat, and he would slump up against the cabinets under the kitchen sink.

 While entertaining these fantasies, my blood pressure would go up; I would begin to sweat.  Sometimes though I would get all hung up and the fantasy would go bad because I couldn’t figure out which of them I wanted to suffer more and thus I couldn’t figure out which one to kill first so that the other one would have to suffer the death of the other.  My reason with its attempt to calculate pain would get in the way and the fantasy would pop like a worn balloon.

 I don’t know why I didn’t carry out the fantasy.  Thank goodness we had no guns in the house.  And I didn’t have a bow and arrow either.  I didn’t fit the profile.  I wasn’t a straight A student; I was an atheist; I spelled poorly; I played varsity basketball but was not all league, and I wasn’t an Eagle Scout.  I was a “Life” Scout; that’s the one before Eagle, but I never got Eagle because I couldn’t swim well enough to get the “Life Saver” merit badge.

 I was imperfect.

Dead Dogs

I had dogs before a boy could properly be said to have a dog.  My parents said it was my dog because I was supposed to feed it.  The dog didn’t come in the house; really it was a yard dog, a good thing to have around as a form of protection.  My Uncle down in Georgia had a raging pack of such dogs living under his house.  These were fearsome snarling creatures.

One of “my” dogs ran off, and another became a chicken killer.  That was the end of him; once a dog gets the taste of chicken blood, it can’t stop.  So somebody shot him.  Then, I got a dog that was more properly my dog.  I was old enough to really have a dog, and he was short, compact, and hairy, unlike the boney tall dogs that were mine before.  I knew him from a pup.  I would go outside and he would come up wagging his tail and he would follow me wherever I went.

I made a little of my own money; I would regularly make a sweep of the gullies up and down the road for about a mile either way looking for pop bottles that people tossed out of their cars.  I could get 3 cents a piece for them.  I didn’t get what people called an “allowance,” so whatever money I had that was my money came from those pop bottles.

One day I was out picking up those bottles and I look around I see that my dog is crossing the road to get to me.  I couldn’t do a fucking thing as a car ran right over him.  I felt awful and came home crying.

I lay face down on my bed and cried and cried, and all my mother could do was to yell at me because she had told me, over and over and over, hadn’t she?, not to go near the road with the dog.  What did it take to make me listen?  A dead dog apparently.  And she hoped I realized that if I had listened to her that the dog would not be dead.  But for some perverse reason I had insisted on taking the dog down to the road and now it was dead just as she had predicted.

She went on and on in that manner and all I could do was cry harder and harder.  I was almost sick with crying.  Sure I remembered what she said, and her idea of comforting me was to rub it in further.  Once again she was right and I was a perverse and stubborn child.

I must ask because I really don’t understand and I have tried so hard to understand, but what could possess a person to taunt (I told you so! I told you so!), humiliate, shame and bury with guilt an eight year old boy who was lamenting the death of his dog and his role in that death.  It is not enough apparently to kick a person when he is down; having done it once one must do it repeatedly.

Within the bosum of our families we learn our capacity for inhumanity from each other.