There also seems to be a problem with the muffler--or lack of muffler....
Now Playing at Canterbury, by Vance Bourjaily. Here's the book situation: a group of academics and theater professionals get together to stage a faculty-composed opera at a fictionalized version of the University of Iowa--and things happen. Stories happen. Life happens. Magic happens.
I love this book so much.
I remember the day I bought my first copy: 19 years old and coming down with a cold, I was in a Minneapolis bookstore looking for something to read while I suffered. I saw NPAC, a mass-market paperback edition. I vaguely remembered a review a year or two earlier in Time--was it on the year's 10 Best List? I think so. Don't really remember. I bought it, though, and took it back to my squalid, mouse-infested apartment, and I read it pretty much straight through in one sneezing coughing Nyquilling sprint, caught up in the magic of the stories and characters in this book.
I loaned that book out to someone, never got it back. No problem. I bought other copies, loaned them out, too. Read it nine, ten, fifteen times. Gave away more copies. Bought new ones (used ones), learned from the writing. Went back to it again and again.
In grad school my thesis was supervised by James Hannah, whose thesis at the University of Iowa was supervised by...Vance Bourjaily. I found this amusing and pleasing, my lucky proximity to greatness.
But--you know what? Now Playing at Canterbury is out of freaking print and has been for several years! How is that possible?
So. Here is what you need to do: go grab a used copy and read it right now. And lobby to somehow bring it back into print....
Second summer session was over and my dad was driving us back home to West Virginia. We left the morning of August 7th. I remember looking at the headline in the Minneapolis newspaper, reporting on the fallout of the smoking gun tape, which had been released two days earlier. Didn’t have time to read the paper, though—we got in the car and headed off. I was—excited. Thrilled. I felt this tightness in my chest—I can almost call it back now. I was thrilled—I was happy. I loved history, loved politics—I loved the stories that came from out in the material world. I was a kid but I was smart enough to know I was living in weirdly historic times—Vietnam, riots, moon landings, assassinations—Watergate! I was thrilled. It was an amazing time to be alive.
We drove on all day, listening to the radio news updates—there was a lot to say but not much action. The votes for impeachment were there. They weren’t there yet. Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott were going to the White House to deliver the bad news. No, they were going later.
Sometimes we listened to music. At one point “American Woman” came on.
“Who was that?” my dad asked.
“The Guess Who,” I said.
“No, not the Who!” I said. Kinda teenaged snarkily. “The Guess Who.”
“I don’t know, goddammit,” he said. “Just tell me.”
I thought he was making a joke. He thought I was being a smartass. I sort of was. That’s the way things often worked between us.
Spent the night someplace in Indiana. Drove on the next day. More news all day long, none of it good for Nixon.
I really loved Watergate. I’d watched the hearings all the way through the Summer of 1973—I was watching the day Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the White House tapes. I had a Sam Ervin t-shirt. I had a crush on Maureen Dean. I’d been off with my dad closing up the lake place when Nixon staged the Saturday night massacre, a cold October night, and when William Ruckelshaus came and gave a talk at the college the next winter, I attended and got his autograph. When the first tapes were released they were of course famously redacted, and Rolling Stone had a contest to fill in the missing expletives. My mom happened to see my entry before it was safely in an envelope and freaked out—”You’ll get arrested! You can’t send obscenity through the mail!”
I sent it anyway. Ha.
So…then we drove on through Ohio, news all day. Nixon was going to speak that evening. What was he going to say? He was going to resign. He was going to fight on. Goldwater and Scott finally delivered the bad news. No votes in the Senate…he was going to go…probably. We stopped off to see my aunt and uncle. Dad I think wanted to visit some but I was afire to get to Cox’s Mills and sit down in front of a TV and watch it all happen. I was anxious. Had to see it. We headed on, Just after we crossed the river into West Virginia, “Whipping Post” came over the radio. What an odd song to hear! AM radio reception was always bad in West Virginia, bursts of music filtering through the mountains between bursts of static, but the Allman Brothers came through the static that once. How often did you hear non-hit Allmans on the AM radio? Very strange. I told my dad that I bet Nixon felt like he was tied to a whipping post…
We got to Cox’s Mills in time for the speech. Our family had been Republican since there were Republicans—we all wanted to see what was going to happen. My dad thought Nixon was getting what he deserved. (My dad had been county Republican Chairman until he resigned in the spring of 1973—over Watergate, he said. But it occurs to me as I write this that that was also the spring my parents were divorced, and my dad had other problems then, too. So maybe Watergate was an excuse?) My grandfather was more upset over Nixon’s tax cheating than he was about the break-in and coverup. My grandmother wanted to see Nixon cry.
“I just want to see him cry, is all,” she said.
The speech came on. It wasn’t much of a speech.
My grandmother was in the other room. She called out, “Is he crying yet?”
Nixon didn’t cry. He just quit. And that was that. The news had people on talking about stuff, but I don’t remember what anyone was saying. I felt kind of let down. I went to bed at some point and slept late and missed Nixon’s farewell speech the next morning—I don’t think he cried then, either. I slept late but woke when a big thunderstorm blew in. Then the power went out.
“The son of a bitch’s only been gone a half-hour,” my grandfather said. “The country’s already going to hell.”
Life was empty after that. No more thrilling news. I was deflated. A couple of weeks later Rolling Stone arrived with its coverage of the resignation, and there was a wonderful Annie Leibovitz photo of Dan Rather sitting in front of the White House looking depressed. I remember he said he felt like rock fans did when the Beatles broke up. I was a rock fan and a politics fan, too, and I understood.
Back in 2004 I was co-editor of the journal Big Tex[t], and we published the following essay by C. McKenzie. With today’s immolation of the Big Tex statue at the State Fair of Texas, I thought I might re-publish it here.
The State Fair O’Texas: (A) Political Essay
By C. McKenzie
He had been Santa Claus at first, benevolent perhaps, but bizarre-looking with hyperthyroid eyes bulging out of a paper mach head, and with a spraypainted beard made out shredded rope. His arm is upraised, his eyes glazed: He seems sort of manic like he will meet and greet everybody in the world if he has to because that is his job and the only thing he knows how to do.
Made out of salvaged oil derrick parts—drilling casing mostly—Big Santa was born in Kerens, Texas in 1948 and got to be about fifty feet tall pretty damned quick which is probably too big for a Santa to be, even a Big Santa from Texas. Santas lose their humanity at about ten feet tall, I’d guess. Any Santa bigger than that is just plain freaky and just seems wrong. The people of Kerens got tired of Big Santa pretty quick too. Many local residents said that they could not tolerate the giant’s sneer. In fact, some of the locals called Big Santa, “The Lip.” He didn’t talk at first, so he couldn’t convince the people of Kerens to keep him on. He couldn’t really do anything, the good people of Kerens complained, except wave his hand at you. He was not good at business and terrible at school, so he was pretty useless in general. He was sort of like an inept politician who stood outside the grocery store shaking hands and kissing babies because he wasn’t smart enough to go inside and get a real job stacking bananas or cutting steaks or sacking can goods or mopping up spilt milk.
In 1951 Big Santa was bought by a Dallas Big Money Man, a banker named R..L Thornton who might have been in Klan #66, the Dallas Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s and who did form the Citizen’s Council that has more or less run Big D for about the last seventy years or thereabouts. I think R.L. Thornton the Third is still in Big D. I don’t know if he is running things like his granddaddy did, but you never know. I don’t think there’s much of anybody in the Klan these days; but you never know that either. Back in the 20’s half of Dallas was under the thumb of Klansmen and they looked just like regular bankers, politicians, and policeman--white ones at least.
The year I am thinking of was probably 1972, in early October. I am not sure at all of the dates, but the day I am certain of since Tuesdays were my daddy’s day off and we always went to the Texas State Fair on a Tuesday. My sister and I just skipped school. If we had been black kids and skipped school to go the State Fair or anyplace, we would have been penalized; but we were white and middle class so the school let my sister and I go with our parents to the State Fair O’ Texas as an “educational trip.” One year my daddy took us out of school for a couple of weeks, to go to Hawai’i, I think. I don’t think even we could claim that as an educational trip, though, of course it was because what trip isn’t? The principal in my middle school threatened to hold me back for a grade because he thought me missing that much school to go on vacation was just plain old egregious. My daddy said, “Fine then, do it. Hold him back a year.” Daddy didn’t ask me how I felt about that, though I am sure he consulted my mother about the decision. I didn’t get held back; of course, I didn’t. But I wonder what would have happened to me had I been. Likely nothing much.
Probably the best time of all to be at the State Fair O’ Texas was the early 1970’s. It was a good time if you were me anyway—old enough then to be able to play games of skill and chance and buy crappy baubles with personal folding money, young enough to have avoided the Draft, but not yet driving a car and so not responsible to more than myself, not dangerous to society, a good kid who still thought finger rings made out of silver spoons were wearable art, protected from if not entirely unmindful of larger social issues, relatively well off financially, white, good-looking, and athletic, with a jawline like Meredith and an arm like Staubach. Actually, the year I am thinking of I was wearing number 14 on my amateur’s version of the professional home team’s blue-on-white jersey so Dandy Don and Roger the Dodger, the handsome scoundrel and the righteous scrambler, the prodigal son and the good stay-at-home son, Number 17 and Number 12 were both sidelined. Craig Morton, a nice looking and entirely competent but wholly uninspiring quarterback was ramrod of the Cowboys that day.
Well, Landry was the big ramrod of the Cowboys then and persists as ”Coach” in Dallas to a lot of native Texans in the same way that the father and the father’s concerns remain at the center of the bible story about the prodigal son. Everything in Dallas Cowboy’s football is, and always will be for a lot of fans, relative to Landry and the Landry Legacy. Jerry J. whines on within the Legacy but he is not now and never will be the Big Daddy of Dallas Cowboy Football, because it is the grand father that is the originary center of all men’s stories as it is Big Tex that is the center of the State Fair O’ Texas. Tom Landry--inscrutable, jacket-tie-hat--is the real Father, the Zeus of the Big System of the Cowboys, for better and for worse. Even the possible San Antonio defection can’t kill him. Even death can’t kill him. Various Achilles will rise and shine and die during their days in the sun--as did Chuck Howley when he won the MVP award even though his Cowboy team lost the Super Bowl (he got a station wagon for that); but Zeus is the sun and so will live on, grumpy on Olympus perhaps but there forever, stirred on occasion but never shaken because he is the foundation of all, all the good and all the bad. And so the shadow Landry cast over the Cowboys remains and ever will remain, much as the shadow of Big Tex remains--spread long and permanent over the state fairgrounds, over Dallas, over Texas and Texans, over me, there to cover and cloud memory.
The Cowboys still played in the Cotton Bowl in those days and there was still a Southwest Conference. The important rivalry in regional college football was Arkansas versus Texas. My people were from Arkansas but my sister and I were born Texas, though there is some contestation of my actual origins since I was conceived in North Carolina during my dad’s medical residency in Greensboro. It is debatable which is more important in determining what place you are most from—the place you became you as only an egg meeting up with some sperm or the place you were born into breathing air and screaming against that invasion into your lungs and proclaiming your invasion of the world or the place you were raised up in causing trouble. Where you choose as your place of becoming says a lot about how you see history. I had advantages going all directions, the way I evaluated my history. Having been of Arkansans but conceived in North Carolina and born and raised in Texas, I was, and continue to be, a multiple threat. When I played front yard football with my friend down the road, Todd would be a Longhorn and I would be a Hog. But I could be a Longhorn too, while Todd could never be a Hog. His brother played somewhat for North Texas State where my uncle was a professor in Educational Psychology, whatever that is. The day I heard my uncle Harold had died—of cancer from smoking cigarettes—I bought a carton of Pall Malls, smoked, drank a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and cried. I was going to college in Arkansas then. My uncle Harold was a good fellow who played poker and told jokes about the privileges of tenure and was a proudly intellectual liberal when nobody else I knew was. My father was a Nixon Man. I miss Uncle Harold now that I am looking for a tenure track job: I could use his wise advice on how to be collegial which is a lesson I didn’t get in graduate school. I have missed Harold Sunderman on occasion, but his family have missed him every day since he died and nobody was happy when he checked out early. Nobody being happy or relieved when I am dead is not an endorsement I can be sure of, but it is an ambition for us all.
The family of my neighborhood friend owned a lucky local diner called the Shamrock, which was also something of a dive because it served beer and had a juke box. In the den above the garage of Todd’s house there was a pool table and another juke box. We listened to the Cowsills and the Osmonds mostly, though there were some Beatles around and some C&W of course. His mother kept Jolly Rancher candy in bowl on the living room table and that seemed excessive and somehow exotic. His room was a shrine to Texas football. Todd still lives in that house and he still has Longhorn paraphernalia in his yard. Seasonally he and I played football in our youths, in my front yard. Todd did not have much of a front yard. There was some dirt and a few scrub oak trees, but no space for football. My front yard was peculiar because there was some small flat space between the chain link fence and where the big trees started, but it was a narrow swath of Bermuda and the chain link was tough on your skin if you veered toward the tar road, West Lake Drive, that connected our suburb to town. I used to practice my passing by throwing the football against that fence and that old Rawlings was flayed from the contact with that barbed fence wire like a tortured saint flagellated for the sake of the forward pass. My dad built me a goal post on the road side of the fence to practice my extra point kicking, but he never taught me to kick a ball. He also made me a stand-in guard for my basketball court, a big X made out of cedar wood that I could move around from spot to spot—I pretended the cedarwood X man was someone trying to block my shots. Dad built me things to stand in for him, but I have never minded being by myself and learning to do things on my own.
Todd and I played a lot of football against that chain link fence, with the sweet gum on one end of our short field and the big oak on the other as out-of-bounds. I don’t remember who won those games. Maybe we didn’t keep score. I hope we didn’t.
One-on-one football is strange game, more psychological than physical or else just physical, depending on what style of play suits your talents. In ways, one-on-one football is more like tai chi than it is like professional wrestling; or else it is just like professional wrestling without the dramatics. In one case, a single good feint resulted in a touchdown. In the other case it was just pushing forward and resisting the pushing forward. It was a game, principally, of deception and/or of mere brute strength. It was a running game, that was a given: You couldn’t pass to yourself very often so the finesse and skill of the air game was gone. Plays were not complicated. You had to say, “Hike!” but after that anything could happen and little ever did. It was mostly push and shove going one direction for four downs, unless there was a punt, and then push and shove from the other direction for four downs. As I remember, you could tee up the ball on fourth down and go for a field goal. Nobody tried to block field goals, mainly because nobody wanted a face full of football. Jan Stenerud was just starting to kick sidestyle (soccer style) for Kansas City then and Todd was a sidewinder. I was a George Blanda straight-ahead kicker. Neither one of us could make a field goal anyway so we mostly ran on fourth down. Running hard was the key to one-on-one football because there was no whistle to end a play so the play was ongoing as long as the runner was standing. We usually scored our touchdowns when a grip was loosened. But all that three-yards-and-a cloud-of-dust seemed natural back then as everybody in the Southwest Conference was running the option out of the wishbone. Passing was for sissies. Passing was undependable. Passing was for Hail Mary time, for the fourth quarter when you were way down. There were three things that could happen to a forward pass and two of them were bad. The West Coast Offense was unheard of. My good arm was wasted on front yard one-on-one football. In one-on-one football you either ran over your opponent--usually dragging him along on the abused lawn grass as he clung to your leg-- or you faked him out and walked past the mimosa tree stumps and into the end zone virtually untouched. These were the options—power or deception.
These are the lessons we learn playing one-on-one front yard football. Kids, fortunately, can make a game out of damned near anything so Todd and I weren’t bored by the lack of options our offenses had. Todd was stronger than I was. I was more deceptive. Our games lasted days. I remember one day when there was a mostly clear sky, but it was raining. We played through the freakish rain storm, but when it stopped raining we stopped playing as if a whistle had finally blown.
My father had his own battle going on against the mimosa trees in the front yard and that was a battle royale, Man Against Nature. The mimosa, as is well known, is one of the jewels of the Southern botanical world, but these feathery flexible trees are also a royal pain in the ass mainly because they shed pods constantly and resist killing. My daddy sawed the mimosa trees down, but they came back. He cross-cut the stumps festooned with new growth and they flourished. He doused the living stumps with gasoline and burned them, but they survived and kept on growing new limbs like an indefatigable lizard will grow new tails. He dug up and pulled out the persistently alive stumps of those mimosas but from the root buried all over the yard more new limbs came. He pulled up all those roots and then burned them and burned all the pods they were spread and cast salt over all the earth around them and, finally, the mimosa trees died and their potential progeny died and all was right, finally, in my father’s front yard world.
If you do enough damage to a thing it will die; that’s the lesson I learned from the battle between the mimosas and my daddy.
I am guessing this memorable fair day at sometime in September of 1972. My family strolled the grounds of the State Fair O’ Texas for most of the day and then in the late afternoon watched the Cowboys play the Giants. I played some games myself that day at the Fair; shot some baskets and threw a couple of footballs at a hole in a tire. I mostly lost my money because like most people my best game is in my head. The Cowboys, however, beat the Giants; of course they did. We saw the whole game from the forty-five yard line from behind a steel pillar. It was an exciting game we all agreed, and so everybody was in high spirits by the end of our adventure. We had driven two hours to get to the State Fair and we had had a good time whether we wanted to or not. Above us Big Tex smiled liked a maniac as a recorded voice twanged “Howdy folks! Welcome to the State Fair O’ Texas!” There were exclamation points all around that day because there had to be. We were skewered on this excess of fun like a corn dog is skewered on a stick. We were superlatives ourselves. We were glad to be there. If the world was not our oyster it was a corn dog and we were there to consume it whether it nauseated us or not. We were Texans in Texas at the great State Fair O’ Texas. The Dallas Cowboys were our home team before they were America’s team. The Cowboys slayed the Giants as David killed Goliath. Bullet Bob Hayes was the fastest man on earth and we were not far behind him.
The real giant of the State Fair though was Big Tex who watched over us all like a god overseeing the progress of his pilgrims as we migrated from exhibition to exhibition, ate our mana--corn dogs--made ourselves sick in the Indian Summer heat, pitched and pined for prizes, those huge stuffed animals always somehow just past the reach of our skills. We were not alone at the State Fair. There were lines for everything. There were even lines for taking a pee. But Big Tex wore the largest pair of Levis ever made and a denim shirt as big as a football field and a hat large enough to swim in so everything was okay. That day I was wearing brown faux suede pants with white piping and my faux Dallas Cowboys home jersey. The Cowboys, the ultimate home team, couldn’t lose if they were wearing their white home jerseys and nor could I or my home team ever lose. My family were a team back then and we would win as a team. Nothing could ever break us apart and nothing could defeat us. My mother was young then and beautiful, as young and beautiful as the way Bullet Bob Hayes could run, though she couldn’t walk into the livestock halls because the animal dander gave her an asthma attack. My father, back then about my age now, was Tom Landry. He was a successful small town doctor and handsome in an Arkansas way, with deep set eyes and a widow’s peak and dark prescription CIA sunglasses he wore even inside: those Ray Bans were his trademark as much as Landry’s hat was his. Daddy had hopes I would follow in his footsteps and take over his medical practice eventually--as Landry thought Staubach would mature into a leadership role for the Cowboys--though my daddy claimed and continues to claim that my happiness was the most important thing to him. I believed him them, but do no longer. My sister was just losing her baby fat at twelve, not yet sexy, just a pretty kid who did good in school because she worked hard. She never really played sports because she was not only slow she was small and Title Nine was not in place so girls did other things than sports. Sis was a cheerleader from about age three until now. I was a quarterback who also did good in school, though I didn’t have to work at it, or at anything. I kept my eye on the ball back then. My sis and I were good, white kids and we came from a good, white family. I read books and Sis didn’t and that’s been the main difference between us. My parents loved each other and were faithful to their pledges. My father stuck to his guns. My family was a good, white team; indeed if not in fact, we were America’s team.
Sis still lives very near where we were born and reared and her boys are starting now to play football and aiming at playing on Friday Nights and she goes to a church that won’t let women preach and votes Republican because she and her husband are relatively rich. She didn’t become a doctor, but she did marry one. I left small town Texas and eventually became a liberal who thinks writing is important and good writers are the smartest people in the world and doctors are mostly just glorified mechanics and football coaches are mostly idiots. That’s all.
Memory is reconstructive though. A lot of important theorists and philosophers and writers have said this, but it is still some matter of contention and disbelief amongst most of us that this is so: That the fact of the matter is, there are no real facts of the matter. We make up history, based loosely on what actually happened; that’s the truth of the matter. What actually happened is never known, can never be known because any report of what happened comes from a very particular and peculiar place, because it comes from a person and persons are notoriously peculiar and particular, in fact, unique. For instance, if there is a car wreck and there are seventeen eyewitnesses on the scene then there will be seventeen first person accounts, but all will be different somewhat. Whether you focus on the similarities in accounts or the differences determines how history is constructed, what it represents for you. Cops and politicians look for similarities; that’s the problem with cops and politicians. Writers, good ones at least, look for differences and that’s why writers are better people than cops and politicians and more valuable, in the long run, for civilization if such a thing as civilization exists. Most people prefer to focus on the ways we are the same because they fear cops and trust politicians. This, to my mind, is foolish. I tend to focus on how every one is different from everybody and so my histories are different and my philosophy encourages resistance to groups and shies away from anything much that gets people coordinated into big groups to do collective stuff like kill eight million Jews for one instance. It is the group to fear, the collective action, as far as I am concerned. It is the man that sticks to his guns. The Nazis were very much a community working in harmony for collective action and Hitler stuck to his guns. The Nazis even had neat uniforms. Let there be a little chaos. Let there be no more uniforms.
Let there be no Big Brother or Big Tex overseeing all.
But then I have ever been a maverick. Being part of the herd has its advantages and we all know that: You can’t play football by yourself. The advantages of being out there free-ranging on your own, however, are less obvious, but, to me, more valuable: Who in their right mind actually wants to play football anyway? Nobody but sadists and masochists. Football is just a good way to get hurt and hurt others, on purpose.
Being a maverick is actually what makes me different from my clan, from fellow Texans, indeed from the whole rest of the world. I focus on differences and how I am different and that’s what makes me a person in my own right. If I focused on how I was like other people then I would not be a person in my own right: I would be like you, and I ain’t, so, therefore, I am. Some ancient Greek should have said it like this—I am not you, or anybody else, so I am. It is our differences, and our different constructions of history—our own and the world’s—that make us what we are, that make us individuals.
The big thing during that trip to the State Fair was to win something by throwing a football through a tire. I was still in love with football back then. It was the sport you played if you were small town Texas and I was small town Texas, for some of my life anyway. I grew out of that pretty quick, relatively speaking. I grew out of football when a sadistic little bastard ninth grade coach broke my leg. Well, physics broke my leg, weight and mass broke me down. But I didn’t cry. There are a lot of things you can resist in life, but gravity ain’t one of them. You can cry or not, as far as I am concerned, and either way you are not more or less broken when gravity kicks your ass.
The game was called Bull In the Ring. The team circled up on the field and then one person was forced to get in the center of the circle and then names or numbers were called and the names or numbers called were supposed to run at the boy, the bull, in the middle of the circle, the ring and try to knock the shit out of him. Usually the coach (sadistic little bastard who wound up joining the Texas Highway Patrol years later, which was his great ambition and that tells it all) would call one or two numbers to hit the bull in the ring. But I was a special case--for reasons you might understand if you are resistant yourself to sadistic little bastards-- and so deserved special treatment, and so the coach just kept calling numbers. I took the first couple of hits and stayed on my feet until the Coach called Van Townsend’s number.
I went to schools where you pretty much knew everybody from Day One. We had about seventy kids in my class in kindergarten and the same seventy when we were in high school, and Van was the biggest kid in our class by far, close to six feet in grade school. By ninth grade he was something of a monster. He played fullback for our junior high team and also played Defense, position undetermined. He played where he wanted to, in other words, and hit anything that moved with the intention of killing it. He was also a friend of mine. We had gone to basketball camp together. His mother sewed his practice outfits for his trip to camp, his shorts at least. We both wore white Fruit-of-the-Loom T-shirts and we both wore canvas sneakers. Back then everybody wore white T-shirts and canvas sneakers. This is how things were back then: If you were poor, your mother made your clothes, even your basketball gear and everybody wore white T-shirts and canvas sneakers. Working class people lived close to the vest and didn’t have credit cards. They bought what they could afford and made the rest from scratch or did without. Van only had one eye. His dad accidentally put out his other eye in a welding accident. That’s the kind of place I come from. His senior year Van hit a halfback from Gilmer, Texas so hard Van knocked his own glass eye out of his face and the football game was stopped for a while to look for Van’s blue and white eye. You’d think an eyeball would be pretty noticeable, but the referees and players on the field couldn’t find the eye, so the game went on that night.
I imagine the East Texas autumn air was cool in the empty eye socket in his head, but Van ignored the absence in his face and focused on the present and made umpteen tackles that Friday night for the Gladewater Bears, per usual. He was a scary force that Friday night as you can well imagine. Saturday morning his mother was on her hands and knees in the muddy middle of that churned up football field looking for that glass eye. She found it and put it back in her son’s head.
During Bull In the Ring Van knocked me loopy and I staggered and hit the turf as I heard other numbers, rapidly and in sequence, being called by the sadistic little bastard coach. The next thing I knew I was on the bottom of a big pile of ninth graders all in full football gear. For some of them the gear weighed more than they did but it added up and I got crushed. My leg was twisted underneath me. I could feel my ankle bone bending. I actually felt it bend like a mimosa tree branch bending. It was pretty flexible, but only to a point. I tried to scream, but the weight on me took my breath away. The weight of those eleven kids, a whole football team, crushed my voice. When the ankle bone broke it was loud as a pistol shot. The kids piled off of me slower than they had piled on. The sadistic little bastard coach made me spend the rest of practice, an hour, on the sidelines, standing up, and then he made me walk the quarter mile back to the locker rooms after practice was over. When our waterboy offered me an arm to lean on the coach pushed him away and told the congregation that all the brave men, all the real Texas football players got themselves off the field without help. We all make mistakes, but the coach is never really and fully accountable for his—he always has a reason for a loss that does not include his own stupidity. We were soldiers in a cause, the sadistic little bastard told us kids, and that cause was Texas High School Football. If we had to get maimed for the cause, that was okay because the cause was just and right. That was the Texas High School Football Mentality back then and it is still the Texas High School Football Mentality.
That was the last day I ever played organized football. Fuck football. Fuck Friday Nights Texas High School Football. Fuck the Texas High School Football Mentality.
Schopenhauer said that even when environmental circumstances are very similar between us, we each still live in a world of our own. This is a good thing to know. For instance, when my sister and I talk about our father we agree that we are not talking about the same thing. While Ben McKenzie is a stable biological referent, “Daddy” is what we each make him, and we make daddy differently because he has been different to us: Though Sis and I were both sired by Ben McKenzie of Smackover, Arkansas, Sis and I have different “daddies.” This agreement about difference saves us a lot of grief when it comes to discussing the family.
Like any Big Daddy, Big Tex still extends his arm over the State Fair O’ Texas and he still casts the shadow under which a lot of Texans live, but those lives are all different, or should be at least, and so we each ought to look at Big Tex through our own eyes and decide about the big fellow for ourselves. Big Tex seems big, in other words, but Big Tex is really only in his own little world too, just like you are in your own little world. That I am in my own little world goes without saying. If you can see that—that we are each and every one of us in our own little worlds and that’s okay--then you can see the Big Picture which is that there is no big picture. It is all spin really and perception, and everybody is spinning and perceiving only from their own spot. You can only see of the world what you can see from your particular and peculiar spot in it, so you can never see the Big Picture. This separation and these very different perspectives on every conceivable thing are not the problem from my perspective. The problem is when we start thinking collectively, like, for instance, that the World of Big Tex is our world too, that the coach’s world or your daddy’s is yours. It’s not: It’s just his world. Resist it. We should make our own worlds. That’s all.
I was in an art museum recently with a bunch of students I work for and we were analyzing a painting that portrayed George W. straddling the Great State O’ Texas. I told them about Big Tex straddling the State Fair O’ Texas. “His Levis,” I said, “are the biggest Levis in the world.” The students were not very impressed with the size of Big Tex’s pants. They wanted to know what was in them. “Not much of nothing,” I said. “That’s all.”
In the painting in the art museum a mushroom cloud billows around W and Evil reigns in a circular pattern that seems to have no end. In this painting there is no escape from the Evil; the frame holds it all in and the Evil feeds on itself and makes itself rich. I am not here to say that W is the devil. He’s not. He’s just living in his daddy’s world when he should have made his own. He should have made his own fortune. He should have lived his own life. That’s why I can’t stand W. He is just keeping his daddy, and Big Tex, in the middle of everything so that everything is still relative to Big Tex. Big Tex ought only to be relevant to Big Tex. His reach should not be extended. His Levis should not be stretched to cover the whole world. W should have tried to make his own world better by making it different. Lisa Marie Presley shouldn’t be singing either. Muhammad Ali’s daughter shouldn’t be fighting. I shouldn’t be a small town Texas doctor. When we can see that different is good then we can start making a difference. When we can stop living our parents’ lives then we can make a difference. How can we change the world when we just continue to do what our people have always done?
Big Tex is just Big Tex—that’s the bottom line. He is only big relatively speaking and he should mean nothing special to anybody but himself. He wears the biggest Levis in the known world. His shirt is as big as a football field and his hat is so big you can swim in it. Good for Big Tex. And fuck Big Tex. He is not worth the trouble of even writing about, because all he can do, really, is say “Howdy!”
This is the little story that didn’t go away.
So: a way long time ago, circa 1979, when I was a student at the University of Texas, I was seeing a girl named Susan, who had a roommate whose name I forget, who had a boyfriend whose name I forget. The boyfriend was a volunteer with a wildlife rescue organization, and he took care of injured and orphaned birds—primarily raptors. He’d come in and out carrying these birds around—a red-tailed hawk, a golden eagle. One day he had the eagle sitting on a tether in the backyard, and the eagle killed an old lady’s cat that chose the wrong time to wander by. I was totally pissed off—said that I’d kill the eagle if it killed my cat.
That’s the origin of the story. Bad eagle kills good cat. I carried the idea around with me for years, and then when I was writing my MA thesis I pulled it out and tried to do something with it. The end result was the basic draft of “Wildlife Rehabilitation.”
Where I live in Texas the hills level out and rise into the plains and the sky opens up to swallow everything. In the fall and winter fronts blow through, cold dark clouds and wind rattling the brush and pushing birds down from the north—most notably, great numbers of hawks and eagles. When I was a young man, people hated those birds. It was not an uncommon thing to see dead eagles and hawks strung up on fenceposts along our roads, shot dead and left to rot, a warning to all other varmints. Crows and buzzards would drift by and pick at the carcasses, and most of the dead birds' feathers would float off into the brush, and finally, after a few months, by summertime, all you'd have left to see would be maybe a skeleton with one wing and a head, hanging there from a clawed foot like a grim vision of the future that awaits us all. It was something to see, all the dead birds hanging from fenceposts, but it's not so common anymore. In fact, it's not something I had seen in years, or even thought of, until my cat—his name was Festus—was killed by my neighbor’s golden eagle.
And no one liked it. My fellow writers in workshop were dissatisfied with the ending and with what they saw as the sentimentality the story as a whole, and my thesis director thought the ending was absolutely dreadful. He thought the story sucked too much to go into my thesis, and it didn’t. I kept working on it, though, adding more and more, making it increasingly complicated and dense—one version actually cracks 50 pages, and has fun and weird scenes of drugs and sex and arson and kidnapping. I came up with at least four different endings. And I didn’t like any of the changes.
But I still believed in the basic story—no kidding, I liked it! I thought there was something there!—and I submitted it to a few journals, and was rejected, and then I presented it at the Western Literature Association conference in 2007. Twister Marquiss of Southwestern American Literature was there, and he liked it a lot, and offered to publish it, and so about a year later it came out. Other people liked it, too. “Wildlife Rehabilitation” was later chosen as an honorable mention for the anthology Best of the West, edited by Seth Horton.
So, in the end, with a lot of help, this story found an audience….
I really love these photographs. No up or down about it.
I came across them when searching through public
photo archives for work I could use for the cover of my book, Long Time Ago Good—and from first glance I was wholly captivated. They’re the work of Marc St. Gil, who produced them for the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Documerica Project.
Documerica hired 100 or so photographers to document the American environment of the mid-1970s. Over 15,000 photos were taken for the project, and every one I look at I find consistently amazing and astonishing and miraculous. I can—and have—lost hours staring into the computer screen, connecting with this past world, or trying to….
Though the project as a whole covered the entire US, I’ve concentrated on St. Gil’s Texas pictures. They really fit well with the stories in my book.
Who are these kids? What happened to them? There is an intense mystery here in these images that totally captures my heart…they're part of the great forgotten....
I don’t just love the photos—I love these people, too. I hope they’re all alive and well and happy….
In addition to the book cover, I used a series of these St. Gil photos to make a trailer for Long Time Ago Good:
As I mentioned in an earlier post, this was the original shot for the book cover….
Which became this….
Documerica website is here
A flickr gallery of St. Gil’s work is here….