I'm as peaceful a man as you're likely to meet in America now, but this is about a death I may have caused. Not slowly over time by abuse or meanness but on a certain day and by ignorance, by plain lack of notice. Though it happened thirty-four years ago, and though I can't say it's haunted my mind that many nights lately, I suspect I can draw it out for you now, clear as this noon. I may need to try.
I was twenty-one, an official man. I could almost surely have held him back; he deserved to stay. It wouldn't have taken a hero to do it, just a person with more common sense than I had at the time and, as I said, more attention to things. Half the mistakes I've made till now are mistakes of attention. I haven't really watched or I watched too close. And the only consolation I've had, for his death at least, is the hope that I learned a necessary lesson and that -- from his short life, short not small -- I made a part of the work I've done.
I'm a painter, of pictures not houses. From the time I started, back before grade school and down till now, everything I paint tries to look like the world, not just the world behind my eyes. And since I've been lucky and determined enough to support myself with mainly representational pictures, right through the abstract expressionist years, I've used the place and hour of his death a good many times -- the actual air and light of that evening.
It happened the summer of 1954 at a boys' camp in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. I was a counselor there for ten weeks between my third and fourth years of college. He was a camper, age fourteen -- Raphael Noren. That was two syllables, pronounced RAY-field with the d silent. Fourteen was the oldest you could be at Camp Juniper, pending a dispensation in the event of arrested development. All this was two decades before the nutritional boom of the postwar years excited all the hormonal clocks and made us a nation of sexually precocious giants. But even back then, after age fourteen you were too hot to handle and likely to be more of a bad influence than not.
Rafe was a lot of things; but whatever else, he was not a bad influence. Not intentionally, not on boys his own age. He laid down around him, and several steps ahead, the grave and pleasing air of a generous heart. Most children look out, grab a sight or two, run home and think about what it means for them. Rare was the only outward-looking child I ever knew or heard of. Somehow he felt safe enough to watch the world. One way or other, everybody felt that trait as somehow unnerving. And we all responded according to our natures. A surprising lot of Rafe's elders laughed. Though they couldn't admit it, he was plainly too grown. But the one thing nobody did was ignore him.
Rafe's draw worked in all directions, and that too came from his watchful ways. Very few people think that they've been noticed enough, and they almost always rise to the bait. They tend to think it means you like them. And Rare was all but factory-set to believe the best about everybody and everything. Not that he liked everything he saw. But if you were human, Rafe hoped he could please or at least amuse you. And besides his face, he'd already got his grown man's voice. It was a substantial baritone with none of the hints of embryonic preacher, politician or other fund-raiser that some boys get with premature manhood. It helped him a lot.
His face was also well advanced in its walk towards the uncluttered dignity it might have had at forty. And though his body was still supported on the compact bones of childhood, he was taller than his age -- maybe five foot nine -- and the skin of his calves and lower belly had grown the gold hair of first manhood. I'd grown it myself, only seven years before. But young as I' was, I could already see it wearing away on my ankles and losing the metallic luster that makes you feel more like some brand of ram with gold fleece than a helpless boy.
Rafe was so far ahead of most boys his age that he seemed a little pained at the institutional Saturday night mass shower jamborees. We counselors were supposed to make them sound like major entertainment events. But of course they were just a stab at insuring one bath per week for the many reluctant. I never thought Rare was embarrassed for himself; he worried about the others. They'd fix on his plumbing with helpless amazement. And the key to their feeling was, nobody laughed. I suspect he thought his precocity would shame them and he hated that. Since one of his surprising qualities was wit -- most of the good-looking young people I've met have all the wit of a basement door -- he at first tried to joke about it in public.
At the first jamboree of his session, for instance, when Rare saw them staring, he stretched his member to its limit, strummed it like a banjo and sang "You Are My Sunshine." But he must have seen that it saddened the other boys, like standing by helpless at a vandal act. From then out anyhow he took a far corner and kept himself hid. Better samples of his wit will surface later. But I need at the start to warn you against rejecting him early as a sober saint. That he was not. Any hour in Rafe's presence would let you see a dozen ways in which he was still a boy. But what I ask you to see at the start is something difficult. For surprising lengths of time most days, Rafe Noren showed stretches of majesty. And everybody around him knew it, not just the painter in residence, me.
In republican America, majesty's a trait seen mostly in photographs of Yosemite Valley or statues of Lincoln; so I'm hard put to give you parallel examples. Imagine a tall girl stepping towards you from a Botticelli "Spring" with your name on her lips, not knowing she's grander than the life all around. Or try thinking of a tall lean diver who honors the air turning down, slow motion, from a ten-meter board and vanishes sooner than you might hope. Or the eighteen-year-olds on ancient Greek tombstones. They wave you in with what may be the start of a smile towards absolute rest.
But I've run way ahead. Rafe Noren won't appear for some time yet. I need to explain what brought me near him and why I may have a part in his ending. Like all real stories, this one starts with my parents. They had excellent practical sense but were not highly educated. My father was denied college by a lack of family money, the last of eight children. Mother stayed at home because gifts then mostly did, but also her parents died before she was sixteen. Father had aimed to be a civil engineer; Mother dreamed of being an actress.
That may have made them too generous with me, who was their only child. So I have to admit that I got through my first twenty years without ever holding a real job. I made little pieces of money here and there by mowing yards, refinishing furniture and drawing portraits of children and dogs. But summers were mine for loafing, reading, playing with friends and dodging polio. Those were the standard dreamy times, much written about and featured in movies, when middle-class children in green suburbs invented their lazy heedless way, minus money and jobs, between their well-behaved winters in school.
And the reason I got a job when I did had nothing to do with virtue or vigor. My father had died the previous winter, the kind of heart attack that downs you in the midst of trying to phone your wife and say goodbye. And that was followed by more than a week of lingering agony with congestive heart failure. Mother and I weren't penniless yet; but three weeks after we buried Father, she took a job in an office supply store. And I saw that if I really was going to seize my fate and study in Europe after I finished college, then I'd better put shoulder to wheel as well and see if it moved.
Even in 1954 there weren't many jobs for clean white boys with slim common sense and no practical experience. In the late winter as I was beginning to worry, Mother's minister came up with a letter from Albert Jenkins, a famous youth leader and founder-owner of old Camp Juniper up beyond Asheville. In those days the North Carolina mountains were strewn with camps -- all firmly segregated as to gender and race, though few of us noticed the fact that early. They were generally named for things Indian or things in nature. And none was more highly regarded than Juniper.
A few weeks later "Chief" Jenkins, maybe sixty, spent an evening in Winston and met with a small group of young men like me in search of an easy summer's work in no more than semiwild conditions with pay so low that it seemed Errol-Flynn-buccaneering of Jenkins to state his case. But of course he did, from just below the pulpit of our Presbyterian church, to three dozen men more or less my age one late winter evening.
This is pretty nearly what he said. "I like to think that, for whichever ones of you are earnest tonight and meet our standards for ten weeks at Juniper, you won't be working but reaping a harvest of lifelong gifts -- three fine meals a day, your bunk in a cabin with boys whose minds you're expected to inspire, thrilling religious and musical programs, Indian dancing, woodcraft training, all our entertainment facilities, one day a week off to visit Asheville or climb in the mountains for your spiritual needs and as a token of my personal thanks -- three hundred and thirty dollars on the final day."
Even in 1954, $330 for ten weeks of six-day round-the-clock work was less than joke pay. And when there was a dazed pause between the preposterous offer and the interviews, half of the candidates slumped their shoulders and melted up the aisles. For practical reasons I should have joined them; I needed a lot more money than that. But whether it was the blindness of immediate despair or a sudden fascination with the old man's heat, light and gall, I was one of the six who stayed.
I'd grown up in a wide spectrum of Protestant churches, from the chilled Presbyterians through the sweaty fervor of Tar River Baptists through the politer Methodists and on out to pasture. So I was more than familiar with the generation of dear-eyed thigh-squeezing ex-YMCA types who populated the church and youth field. No denomination was safe. But Chief Jenkins blazed like a nova in their firmament.
He was ramrod straight in a Spartan chair when I entered the preacher's study. The only vacant chair almost touched his. He waved me towards it and gave me the first of his shot-down smiles -- an instant grin on ivory false teeth; then an instant end, as if shot down. Another trait of the youth-leader class in those trusting days was a tendency to proximity. They were hell-bent to crowd you and press the flesh, in Lyndon Johnson's perfect phrase of a decade later. It seemed your flesh was a fuel they needed. They'd rub your palm or the back of your neck or any other part you'd freely concede. I'd long since learned how to go glass-eyed and flaccid in their grip. It cooled their fires and they let you drop. So with Chief's ice-water pupils nailed on me, I took the chair, expecting at least a thigh massage.
I'd read him wrong. He was all but stone deaf and wouldn't admit it. Our meeting lasted maybe four minutes. He said he'd heard of my father's death; was I now the man of the family?
He'd also heard I was on the college paper. Did that mean I qualified to edit The Thunderbird, the camp's mimeographed weekly?
I hoped it did.
I'd want to cover inspirational news and to make good efforts to use each boy's name once in the weeks he was present in camp. They hadn't taught art for a number of years in the crafts program, an early artist having died of diabetes after the annual watermelon feast. Would I like to organize a sketching class with real substance to it?
I didn't probe the word substance for fear it meant Bible illustrations, but I agreed in principle.
Chief drilled me a final stare in the eyes -- today it would constitute assault. Then he jerked upright on spastic puppet joints. They were the clue to his other secret, which was bad arthritis. He asked if I'd wait outside with the others. And far from making a final grab, another common tactic, he seemed momentarily shocked when I offered a forthright parting handshake.
The last man came out a quarter hour later. All six of us were young enough to lapse into the dumb patience of youth, so we loosened our ties for the standard wait on the grownups. And the cockier three, not I, knocked together some easy jokes about the old guy. "What does he use when he nicks himself shaving? -- Plastic Wood." But they laughed too soon.
In less than three minutes, Chief's door flew open; and the blue eyes bore down on us again. Precisely on me. We'd all stood up, to be sure. But with not one word of regret to the others, he rapped my tie at breastbone level -- my brain felt the thud -- and he said "You're my man. I'll write you a letter." With that he was gone, no farewell handshakes and not a dry crumb for the five stunned losers.
That confirmed my hunch. Wilder than ever and in the teeth of a salary that was less than a tip -- less than a fifth of what I could have made in construction work -- I was bound to accept. I checked with Mother. All her life she saw no point in doing anything that was not your heart's hunger. And I'd inherited her tendency to impulsive choices; so of course she said if it's what I wanted, that was all she needed to hear -- just go. A few days later when Chief's formal letter came, I signed on readily and added an acceptance that was more Pentecostal than I generally manage to be on paper. I didn't quite shout or speak in tongues, but I said something like "I promise you an abundant harvest for your trust in me." I had that glowing a view of myself, though only a Chief could make me admit it.
The time of my boyhood was a far more fervent time than many now believe. Today anybody whose eyes glint fire, and who sees himself as a gift to the world, is likely to be a flimflam man or an out-of-state strangler, maybe both. But don't forget, we boys born in the early 1930s had watched our parents body-surf the Depression and in some cases wipe out. We'd been too young to fight in the Second War but just old enough to hear the news and understand what an all-time evil genius had brought on the conflict. And we got a thrilling dose of patriotism and high moral expectation from our participation in scrap metal drives, old bacon grease drives (to grease shell casings), paper drives, war bonds.
In short we lived through the grandest long entertainment event in human history, with the gleamingest heroes and villains. Our standards for the future were immensely and rightly high. Show me a later villain with the black radiance of Hitler or brighter heroes than Roosevelt and Churchill. And the fact that not one of us had fired so much as a single live shot left us with high hopes of our own chance at grappling with a demon someday. Chief's eyes then had stirred that tender wound inside my mind. I've said it yearned for rousing touch and a call to action but maybe not then.
Anyhow I navigated the final months of my classes, concentrating less on my studies than on the manufacture of adequate reasons for not spending weekends at Mother's -- she lived two hours from my dormitory room. I must have understood that I was beginning an effort to bury my father. To be sure, he was decently interred under gray Vermont granite, with vacancies beside him for Mother and me. Bury him in my life, I meant.
The sights I'd witnessed in his last few days are, to this day, the worst I've seen -- and as an artist-journalist, I saw Vietnam. But even the sights don't begin to match the domino set of mental dilemmas. You are now the man at bat in your home, plus you've suddenly got the woman you envied him all your life. Nothing stands between you and her, except God of course and a Heavenly host with flaming swords. But that spring and summer, I was slaving full-time to blind myself to the fresh home movies that were scalding my mind. Not remembering my father meant not seeing Mother. I tried it, as I said, and she let me -- to a point.
But I did spend ten days at home in early June. Mother left the house for work at eight-thirty every morning and never got back before six. That freed me to sleep as late as I wanted. Then I'd get up, slip on some old shorts and draw or paint watercolors in the steamy yard. Or I'd write the endless illustrated letters I was noted for among my friends. I'd tell them my news, inch by inch, with semicomic marginal drawings. The sketches would burst now and then into my equivalent of visual nuclear war, a careful bird or flower they might want to frame or risk blaspheming the Holy Ghost. It was what I could do that none of them could, just that one thing; but they all seemed to like it. After supper Mother and I would sit in the den and watch the television that Father had introduced into the house only two years before.
Those were the good days of Jackie Gleason and live drama and of Liberace's epicene debut. A good index to my father's kind nature lies in his first response to Liberace. The three of us sat in dumbstruck silence through the whole candlelit hour of the entertainer's TV debut. When it ended I really couldn't guess my parents' reaction -- their musical taste ran to Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians -- but when Mother rose to make more popcorn, Father looked at me earnestly, "Son, couldn't something be done for him?" Not with him, notice, but for him.
And there Mother and I sat through most of my ten nights at home. We were a good way too far gone in life before TV to become the instant zombies that most later Americans are, at a flicker of the tube. Still we were glad of the lazy diversion and the excuse not to talk. One of the hundred things we'd agreed not to mention was how I planned to get to Juniper. I had a dozen friends with cars, and buses were thick on the roads.
But three nights before my departure, Mother brought me a dish of lemon ice cream and said "I apply for the chauffeuring job."
I drew an honest blank.
"To drive you to camp. I'd enjoy that if you would."
I knew she was struggling for nonchalance, but her face couldn't have looked anymore like a wound if I'd struck her a blow. I asked if she could take the time off.
She said "If we left Saturday morning, I could be back by dark Sunday. I've already asked for Saturday off. I'm still the best driver you know."
The last claim was true and still is. She drove the way Fred Astaire danced, as if her fingers were putting out green leaves with no pain or work. I sat there spooning cream, trying to deny what I entirely understood. This woman had manufactured me after all. I'd lived inside her body nine months. I saw and felt every atom of pride it cost her to ask that. I'd all but bought a bus ticket that day, but I said "I'd be honored."
Now it's a brisk two hours on the interstate, but then Asheville was a hard uphill four hours. The whole way we both held in. There'd be long stretches of silence. And if either one of us spoke, it was mostly a reference to sights on the roadside. Thirty years ago once you were in the mountains, there were numerous craftsmen's displays by the road. You could see fine baskets and hooked rugs, salt-glaze crocks and churns of the good old kind, and chenille bedspreads in poisonous chemical colors. Peacocks strutting, dawn in the Smokies, the whole Last Supper down to the spilled salt. We stopped at several of those. And at the last one, I unthinkingly bought a three-by-five cornucopia hooked rug for the vestibule at home. The pattern was primitive but the colors were worthy of a Persian weaver. And that did it.
Mother was not a hair-trigger weeper, so there were no tears. But the silence right after I bought the rug was deeper than before. And at last with Asheville in sight, she said "Bridge, let me say it now and don't stop me. You buying that rug was the most help anybody's given me yet."
Again my lifelong blood share in the depths of this woman's mind rescued me. She stopped there, thank God. But I suddenly knew the truth she'd beat me to. Her house was my home; in the face of my marriage a few years off, it would be my home till the day she died. One of the few things I'll say for myself here is this, I had the guts then to spell it out for her and say she was right.
Juniper was forty-five minutes past Asheville in thick green country. You turned off the paved road and followed a narrowing dirt trail up through small cedars and junipers, then on till the normal trees were shrubs beside the huge-waisted two-hundred-foot hemlocks. And then you broke out of dark into sunlight -- the camp itself. It covered the equivalent of a long city block with the Jenkins home, the dining hall and the lodge. Then scattered up the hill were the crafts and Indian lore cabin, some other log buildings, a field for archery and tetherball and all other sports. Then climbing steeply for two hundred yards was the wide horseshoe of residential cabins and bathhouses.
Mother and I had a prior understanding, a lot like the ones adolescents force on their parents. She was going to drop me off at the lodge. We'd say our goodbye and she'd drive off, with no looking around, no introductions. Childish as it was, it turned out to be a good idea. I was almost the last counselor to arrive; and dungareed young men were loping all around us -- they weren't called Levi's or jeans for years to come. A few of the urban types even had new axes, well on their way to woodsmanship.
I'd been an Eagle Scout, with palms. So I didn't have that much to learn about chopping and sawing, axe sharpening, fire building and such open-fire delicacies as dough on a stick and pork and beans, heated. The classes were conducted on a broad rock shelf near the top of the mountain to the north of Juniper. On Monday it too would be the site of a camp, an elite survivalist outfit for boys from fifteen to eighteen. The empty campground consisted of little more than a clutch of ramshackle tree houses from the previous year. The first task for this year's boys would be the erasure of last year's work and the building of their own tree houses. They called it Tsali after a hero of the nearby Cherokees, and a good deal of the curriculum involved an effort to recover Indian skills that our great-grandfathers had lied, cheated, stolen and killed to eradicate.
As I said, I marked time through the woodlore classes, thinking such unproductive thoughts. But after we'd eaten the good beans, bacon and biscuits, Chief Jenkins stood in the midst of our circle, closer to the fire than I could have managed. With his unpredictable but always wooden gestures, he gave us an orientation speech that was just a warmer version of his Winston talk. I've mentioned that he shone among others of his kind. It was on two scores. He had no fleshly designs on his staff, and he burned the hottest brand of spiritual gasoline I'd ever seen. But that first night I understood something I'd missed before. Half of Chief's intensity and power came from his brevity and his boxy gestures.
He might be outrageous in his vision of excellence, but he was never boring. His weird little jerks of arm or head proved he meant all he claimed. And no hot-gospel liar could have raised a dime with a body that awkward. But the blue eyes worked even better by firelight. And he ended with something like "Think about this, my young friends tonight. Go lie on your cots in the black mountain clark and think this over before you rest. You've agreed to take on, for ten whole weeks, the healthy future of numerous souls. Never once doubt it -- these loud wild bodies, these knockabout boys that will try to craze you with pranks and noise are nothing less than souls from God that you must tend and send forth from Juniper, better than they came, on the high road to manhood. Think. Please think."
Generally Chief seemed to quit, not finish, any speech he gave, so he sat down then. The head counselor took over -- Sam Baker, another sane enthusiast. During the school year Sam taught at a nearby boys' school; and his slightest move revealed his foundry, which was the U.S. Marines. He followed Chief's spiritual generalities with a cool rundown on problems to expect. In declining order they were homesickness, cursing, bedwetting, exhibitionistic masturbation in boys over twelve and constipation. And that was about it for problems apparently. Sam finished by mentioning the camp infirmary, with its nurse. But he issued no special warnings on health, despite the fact that we were barely clinging to the flank of a granite mountain in untamed forest stocked with bears and panthers, bobcats and rattlers.
Then Sam sat down and I could see I was not alone in feeling the powerful wash from his wave. All of us counselors looked at each other and shook our heads. They were entrusting each of us -- none of whom was a father or even a husband -- with fourteen live human children, seven every five weeks. And this was it for orientation?
Once he sat down Sam did add the word that he'd be underfoot around the clock for on-the-spot advice.
I'd been nursing an inward smile of superiority to all this fervor. But at that point I remember it dawned on me, They're taking me seriously. That was a raw experience for me, the standard sheltered child of my time and place. Wasn't my generation the first that middle-class America decided to keep in childhood well beyond the age of twenty? Till that night anyhow no one else but my dying father had turned to me and said You're it. It thrilled me more than not.
And the final hour only tuned me higher. We didn't actually toast marshmallows, but we sat in a loose circle around the big fire. Sam asked us to introduce ourselves, so we went around the circle and heard each man. The oldest was Roger the swimming counselor, and he was not yet twenty-five. Most of us were sophomore or junior students at small colleges in the Carolinas. Some were bound for the service; Korea was still in arms and hungry for every boy it could get. Two were engaged to be married, one at the end of these ten weeks and the other at Thanksgiving. We were children who thought you should streak out of childhood as fast as you could, and we were the last such American generation.
The immediately remarkable person was Kevin Hawser. With one year to go at Yale, and in a tight race to graduate first in his class, Kevin was the Robert Redford among us. He was six foot three -- built strongly with a frank open face. He was also an expert pianist in all brands of music and a jaw-dropping magician. Not that he spoke that self-servingly on the first night. Those were facts that transpired in the course of the summer. But there at the campfire, I saw that Kev was likely to be my nearest friend.
I told them I was Bridge Boatner from Winston-Salem, that I had a year left at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and that then I was hoping to get a Fulbright and study art in Europe, preferably France or Italy. Somebody asked if I wasn't worried about the draft? I was able to say truthfully that, as the only son of a widowed mother, I was exempt.
Several sang out "Lucky!" and laughed. Since that was what I'd secretly felt since we knew Father was dying, I was still touchy about it.
But Chief said "A thoroughly merciful provision," and attention passed to the man beside me.
After that Chief rose a last time. Again he thanked us; again in general terms he reminded us of our high privilege and duty. And then he added a revelation. "Up there, high over Tsali on that ledge, is the well of Juniper's sacred strength. It's an Indian prayer circle scraped in the ground, packed by dozens of grown men's feet and ringed with dozens of crude sticks. Each stick is the sign of one man's pilgrimage. It is my fondest hope that, whatever your denomination, each of you will find your own way there before summer ends and pledge your life to the sacrificial service of all mankind. Some of you may think it looks a little high. Some may even think the idea is childish. It's not the most accessible spot -- that was intentional. But eat this plentiful simple food, drink this spring water, firm your limbs in weeks of service; and you'll find the climb seems far more possible. It's not a secret we share with campers. That is vital for you to remember. They're not yet strong enough in limb or spirit. But before ten weeks has finished here, each one of you will have the limbs to do it. The only question will concern your spirit. Will you need to and want to? The place is waiting." He drilled us a final blast from the eyes -- Chief invented the laser years early -- and sat back down.
Then Uncle Mike Dorfman, a genuinely skilled musician and anthropologist, led us in singing old camp songs. Any of the millions of Americans who are veterans of the camps of the 1940s and '50s are likely to join me in saying that very few later experiences ever match the shivering joy that can well up at such a time, in such a circle. Maybe there was a whiff of Hitler Youth muscularity in the tradition, though weak and awkward boys were not reviled. But the fact remains that, at the right time and in the right place, campfire singing equaled Handel for laughing grandeur against the night -- "Tell Me Why the Ivy Twines," "Cocaine Bill and His Wifey Sue" and the endless and mystical "Green Grow the Rushes."
At the very last Mike taught us the Indian words and melody for a prayer to the Great Spirit. I've never since attempted to look it up and discover which language it's in or whether the chromatic melody is authentic or was harmonized for paleface ears. But this much is in my memory still, in crude phonetic spelling --
Wakonda day do, wap-a-deen aton-hay. (Repeat)
All I remember is, Wakonda is the Great Spirit; and the prayer asks for blessing. But there in the cold thin air under starlight, with a dying fire and a band of brothers, it shivered my timbers the first time around, and we sang it twice. Then everybody rose for the trip down to bed.
More than one of us paused and tried to make out the prayer circle in darkness. I thought I could see the line of a crag. Whatever, I knew that, since I was burdened with a lifelong stock of awe, I'd climb to that circle and pledge my father the rest of the life denied to his brave weak body. Or pledge it to God, one or the other. Back then to be sure, I was thinking with some of Chief's wide-eyed fever, though for my generation I was no fuming zealot.
My bed was an upper, lust inside the door of Cabin 16. It consisted of a piece of canvas stretched between two boards. There were mattress pads piled on the bunk below me, but a quick inspection by lantern light showed concentric stains from decades back. So until I could sun them, I decided to sleep on the bare canvas, however cold. The mountain nights could freeze, even in June. And with no more preparation, I vaulted up fully dressed with a single army blanket and listened to the night. There was not the usual summer din of frogs, cicadas and the whine of bats. Instead there was silence of such a brown depth as to make me feel a warning twinge of the all but lethal sickness I suffered the one time I was a camper. I longed for home.
For years I'd been convinced that I'd outgrown the problem. Children of the Depression and Second War years seldom went far from home. If your parents had the money, they didn't have the gas or vice versa. So at age eleven my first camp experience ambushed me. After the first few days of novelty, I began to watch this great sink hole open in my heart and spread. By the end of the first week, I couldn't even remember how my parents looked, much less sounded. I strongly suspected they wouldn't show up to get me at the end of the month. This taste of freedom I'd been tricked into giving them would have turned the tide. Why would they want me back in their midst?
By the fourth and last week, I was so hungry for their faces that I'd have eaten a picture of them if you'd brought me one. When the month ended and they reappeared smiling -- and at the farewell banquet, I won a Best Boy shield, one of seven-I realized with amazement that I'd managed to conceal my misery. But if I look back and weigh the terrors of a lifetime, I come across very few times more painful than those weeks of wanting my home as the desert wants rain.
But that was ten years behind me. I was grown. I'd traveled meanwhile and lived alone through six semesters of college. So what was this ambush, at Juniper tonight? It came anyhow as a need for the place -- the actual two-story, cool frame house with my hermit's cave high up in the back. I saw no visions of Father's or Mother's faces. I heard no keening cries, but I felt a famished craving -- Take me back. I'd never reneged on a promise as big as I'd made to Chief, but God knew how I would last ten weeks in this ludicrous job.
I recalled I hadn't prayed. College religion courses, with their demonstrations of what a grab bag the poor old Bible is, had pushed my childish faith to the edge of agnosticism. And my prayers by then were mainly a list of the names I loved. Luckily my two parental families were huge. So with selections from their names and with the addition of friends my age, I had another fifteen minutes of meditation. As they mostly did, the names soon turned into handholds on life. They were people who watched me with expectation and whom I hoped to amaze. Just turning their names back and forth in my mind, like smooth creek stones, was a kind of prayer.
Then the idea of prayer led on into planning my prayer circle climb and trying to see designs for my stick. I was already old enough to know when an idea was meant for me; and this plainly was, a beautiful place with a noble purpose. Chief had also mentioned prayer sticks as craft possibilities, another big attraction. I knew at once that I'd wait till the last day, far down in August. Not till then would I know how to thank the Spirit and what to ask next.
I even thought that my prayer stick might have a carved skull on the top -- King Death. I'd stood three feet away, six months ago, and watched Father die. I was the only young man I knew who'd actually seen a human death, in a room with normal furniture, as real as a sneeze. So my thoughts were as bone-strewn as any slaughterhouse. But they wore me out in a few more minutes. In the frigid black I pulled my one blanket tighter around me and fell on sleep like a safety net.
The next morning was Sunday, so we put on our white shirts and trousers. Then after breakfast we climbed to yet another prominence. This one was a high field with tall oaks, which for some reason was called the Pasture. And there we took seats to hear the first of Chief's sermons. Strictly speaking it was about the fourth sermon I'd heard from Chief. If he said "You're looking well today," it sounded sermonical, like an elegy on all your wasted days. And his favorite gesture was the classic pulpit chop, righthand axe on lefthand stump. His text was the parable of the Prodigal Son from the gospel of Luke, and he meant to prepare us to cherish even the most troublesome boy in our care. For all his up-and-at-em vigor, Chief always included the weak and needy boy. You couldn't find a boy he'd spurn or despise.
I admired that in him, but the main thing I heard that Sunday morning was a confirmation of my resolve from the night before. At the end of the parable, when the bereaved father embraces his lost son, I fought back tears and swore to have a sizable life.
One of the last things my father said to me was "Anybody on Earth can be common, son." In the idiom of his time, the word common was harsher by far than shit is now. Common meant absolutely natural, people who settled for being themselves, with their shirttails out. He'd been balked in his own hopes to practice law. I must not be balked, whatever my dream. Somehow he'd spared me the weight of substitute success. He never asked me to excel because he hadn't. But the meaning hung there before me from the start. And oh, no starved whitetrash hound was ever hungrier for rabbit than I was for greatness in the eyes of Heaven and Earth.
If you remember the bottomless, and topless, innocence of the 1950s, you'll find it easier to believe me when I say that-alongside a healthy appetite for fun, sex, tennis, swimming and most kinds of music -- I was a starved consumer of the highest art. My room at college was a tabernacle to the Greeks, Michelangelo, Vermeer, Picasso, Winslow Homer, Handel, Wagner, Keats, Hemingway and T. S. Eliot. From an Italian trip a teacher had brought me five or six of the uncanny Alinari reproductions of Michelangelo's most ethereal drawings. So over my bed hung such high-water marks as "Archers Shooting at a Herm," "The Fall of Phaeton," a study of the Last Judgment and so on.
On a New York trip, for fifty dollars I'd purchased a fragment of a Greek girl. It was just a lopped-off torso but it glowed. My mellow RCA phonograph was backed by a respectable library of classical and jazz and blues albums. And the low bookcase held the cream of a library I'd accumulated since childhood. There were poems, novels, the lives of great artists and every Phaidon art book I could find. I'd have killed for copies of the prewar Phaidons I couldn't find -- Giorgione, Titian and E1 Greco.
I not only owned them, I used them all. And years before Father suffered and died, I combined their exalted visions of human potential with my own boyhood fantasies about Young Jesus, the one who astounded the scholars in the Temple. And I came up with high ambitions. Now with the memories of Father and his final challenge not to be common, the goal shone brighter. It spun ever faster and it seemed to draw near. I wanted to earn, I wanted truly to deserve, the permanent thanks of mankind. I wanted my good-sounding name to last. It was not impossible. A few dozen men had actually done it, a few strong women. Therefore I could.
I'm painfully aware how crazy that sounds. Even at the time, I suspected I was all but certifiable. Before I reached Juniper though, I'd confided to no one. Despite the ecstatic imagery of my plan, the practical means were within the reach of hope. I would paint, or make with whatever tools, pictures of the world that compelled belief. And belief not only in the reality of the world and its worthiness for contemplation and honor but a whole lot more. I wanted my pictures to inculcate, in secret of course, a trust in the hand that waits behind this brute noble Earth to lead us out and elsewhere.
I meant, in a word, to be a great artist and was far more certain than any of my overimpressed kin and friends of what a long distance lay between me and the goal. And still does, half a normal lifespan later. I mentioned calling myself agnostic. It didn't rule out my firm conviction that nature is made. And it gives fairly unmistakable signs of being made by a single force that somehow includes everything. Everything we think of as beautiful and ugly, all good, all evil and a great deal more than we can imagine. I already had twenty-one years of evidence. I planned to get more, with my own two eyes. I mean, if you've never seen a watch or a clock in your life but discover a fine Swiss watch in working order on your walk today, will you just assume it's a natural object -- the product of eons of chemical accidents? If so, proceed to the nearest brain-scan machine. You are almost surely in terrible shape.
All of that swam only just below the surface as I sat with the other counselors, heard Chief out and sang "A Mighty Fortress" to Mike Dorfman's pitch. On the amble downhill to lunch, two of the second-timers stage-whispered their boredom with the steadily rising piety level. We laughed them on into perfect imitations of Chief's puppet walk, all lurching knees and elbows. We hadn't noticed but he was just behind us. He saw the mocking and responded with a chuckle that relieved us at least but was more like the usual human response to gastric distress.
That released me. I'd been reared in a household founded on laughter. If a thing couldn't be laughed at, it either hadn't happened or was pitiful. I realized that nobody had laughed yet at Juniper -- not in my hearing, certainly not in Chief's, not a belly laugh deep enough to ventilate the mind. So I joined in the general relief and was still laughing ten minutes later when the soup came round.
Finally Kevin Hawser said "It's just life, Bridge." Then he sang "'Don't take it serious; it's too mysterious.'"
I didn't know it was from an old song, but it sounded true enough to calm me down.
Then we changed into work clothes and spent the rest of Sunday, on into the night, getting the cabins and the other buildings ready for Monday's fabled onslaught of boys.
The boys pretty well took care of themselves. Parents were the work. From what I gathered in their applications, six of my seven boys were first-timers here. That meant six chances for distraught mothers and pining boys. And since all my boys were in the middle age group, ten to twelve, I also anticipated the problems of that painful fulcrum between frank childhood and the musky outskirts of puberty. There'd be the scorn of older boys for younger and the opposite in romantic worship -- moon-eyed crushes by the younger boys. By suppertime anyhow I had a full cabin, nobody was dead or in traction yet, and I'd suffered few mamas.
Chief had suggested strenuously that taking money from parents for favors was an unworthy idea. And one father tried it, in appropriate whispers. His son was a bedwetter, despite the application's urging that such boys might feel uncomfortable. Would I conspire with the child to conceal any mishaps from the others? When I told him I'd survived the same heartache myself and would do my best, his eyes filled; and he pressed a wadded fifty into my palm. He was one of the bigger Carolina textile magnates -- I'd known his name in the paper for years -- and from the look of relief on his face, I saw that if I'd known of a cure for belated bedwetting, I could have named my fee. As it was, fifty dollars back then was serious money. But entirely against my will, I returned it.
One mother presented a handsome King James New Testament, bound in olive wood from the Holy Land, with the words of Jesus in red ink. She said she'd just feel better knowing that the cabin had a Bible but that in August I should take it home with me. When I thanked her she also whispered that she didn't want her Teddy to hear the Bible read in any translation but the "Saint James." There'd been hot grass-roots objections to the recent publication of the Revised Standard Version, which cast some shadow on the Virgin Mary's virginity. I told her Teddy would be safe from such harm. And after that the other boys and parents seemed normal. There were several damp good-byes -- five weeks apart! -- but by suppertime we were all campers banded together, and the forging of a temporary family was underway.
To my genuine pleasure it went smoothly, right along. As we lay in the dark that first night, telling our names and backgrounds aloud, a boy said straightforwardly that his mother had died last November and that he wasn't "as strong as I want to be yet." He said it out slowly, taking each word like a steppingstone through rapid water. So I could tell that he knew his audience and still had the nerve to say it. I'm proud to record that no one snickered or ever used it against him, and he ended as one of the popular boys.
One boy from High Point was clearly in the early stages of hormonal tumult and said so, something like "I'm turning into a grownup faster than I planned to, but so far it's right much fun to watch."
The bedwetter went straight to the brink of confession. "My father says I've got some habits that camp will help, which is why I came. I hope y'all will help me." That plea, in its abject dignity, was as brave as it was reckless. And again I'm glad to say that it got him a smooth five weeks with the others.
The rest had nothing peculiar to add.
So I finished off by telling them about my father's death early last winter and of my hope to lay that behind me during ten weeks of mountain air, sunlight, fun with them and a lot of good work. It wasn't quite out of my mouth before I thought that was too scary for them, this first night anyhow. And for half a minute, they all were so quiet I thought they'd gone to sleep or were sobbing or chewing their pillows.
But then the boy who'd lost his mother said "Why do you want your daddy behind you? I want Mother back in front of me."
I told him gently that was probably because he was eleven and I was twenty-one, the kind of damned-fool thing you say at twenty-one.
He said "I won't be twenty-one then. I liked to watch her. Her hair was the best-smelling stuff I know."
Before I could muster a second wise answer, a voluminous fart tore the cold like a lit powder trail -- the loudest I'd heard. A faceless voice said "How's that for good smelling?" Then monkey-house laughter, boys hopping out of bunks accusing one another and fanning their outraged delighted noses. The boy with the dead mother led the glee.
I silently reminded my upstaged self that body wind in its two main forms, belches and farts, is half the foundation of boyish humor. I rightly suspected I'd hardly begun to experience their virtuosity in ways to smuggle farts like anarchist bombs into the highest and most sacred scenes of camp life. In fact the rest of the summer was, from one angle anyhow, a crash training course in ballistic wind tactics. Their supreme goal turned out to be a feat called the "S.B.D.," a silent but deadly fart -- the anonymous invisible outrage that left a room gasping. If no one guessed the culprit within thirty seconds, he got to cry "S.B.D.!" in triumph and could hit us all, one good hard punch.
Finally that first night I corralled them back down, called for the customary Lord's Prayer and tumbled on sleep as easily as they.
An orderly report on that first five weeks would raise a number of laughs and more than one lump in the throat, but the jokes and poignancy of Camp Juniper in June and early July 1954 were thoroughly typical of the American camp life that has since been the subject of numerous comic songs, movies and TV series. Only one of the boys, the son of the camp's dietitian and a four-year veteran of Juniper, posed an early problem -- mainly verbal defiance and an effort to demoralize the cabin with jokes about every adult in sight. When I discovered that his parents were recently divorced, which was a rarity then in the South, I stumbled on a benign paternal tack. I told him that, as a new counselor, I needed his advice. From that moment on I'd confide my puzzlement at this or that. He'd set me straight as an old Dutch uncle and from then on was a mainly stalwart help.
The bedwetter never confided an accident. The orphan had a few desolate moments -- one morning, when he and I were alone in the cabin, out of the absolute blue he told me he didn't believe in Heaven -- but he never shed a tear that I got to see. And the others pitched in with mostly unfailing good humor. There were normal frictions, bruised feelings and one or two black eyes. But to my knowledge there was none of the meanness normal in childhood. The best I can say about them is that they occasionally made me regret being an only child and missing such robust company.
We all slept in the same open space, and we dressed and undressed in full view of one another. We ate our meals at the same table, washed in the same bathhouse. And once a week we went on a cabin supper together. That consisted of maybe a three-mile hike, followed by a campfire-cooked meal, ghost stories, songs and a night on the ground. So my claim of close knowledge is probably safe. The only substantial time they spent out of my sight was during the morning and afternoon classes. Then they were off taking archery, art, diving, horseback riding, magic, Indian lore, pottery, swimming and woodcraft. And there they were watched by other counselors. As summers go then -- and boys -- it was an unblemished start.
I taught drawing and watercolor painting five mornings a week. And I single-handedly wrote, typed, mimeographed and stapled The Thunderbird in the afternoons. The paper was easy and boring but of evident importance to Chief. He'd told me in Winston how, once a year, he sent a complete set of papers to the Asheville Library, where they were carefully preserved "for after times." And I realized that, such as it was, Chief saw The Thunderbird as history. Somewhere a hundred years from now, we'd all be dead -- and all these boys and their grandchildren -- but a set of mimeographed weekly papers would be the surviving record of his work and his life's devotion. Not to mention its revelations that Bill Grimsley had won the intermediate horseshoe tournament, David Holt had plaited a yard-long key chain or that Mrs. Chief was safely back from a visit to her bedridden sister in Aurelian Springs.
Still Chief paid frequent visits to my office in the lodge. He said he only meant to encourage me, and he'd often deliver the latest of his brief but clarion editorials. But I understood he was also checking the health of the trust he'd placed in me. Was I thinning out, in mind or soul, towards the kind of break that often delays after a personal crisis but strikes unexpected one calm afternoon? Was my dead father riding me still? I'll grant that Chief managed his checks with a pawky grace. He'd always ask for news of my mother, or he'd say he noticed how proud the boys in my art class looked. Proud was very high praise from Chief, but beneath it I also heard his fear. And I tried to let him see I was safe.
My other main work was the art class. At the first interview Chief had spoken of my offering a "serious" class. I decided it was better not to probe the meaning of that -- unless he volunteered advice, which he never did. So when I planned the activities, I leaned heavily on the traditional methods that I'd learned privately from an excellent woman in Winston and was repeating now in college. Plus a few innovations from my reading in the lives of painters, in Michelangelo's letters, Delacroix's diary and the notebooks of Gauguin and Leonardo.
Hard as I tried though, my Juniper classes were steadily but not surprisingly disappointing. Public schools then had no funds at all for teaching art. After an early run at fingerpainting with garish mud, and at drawing with broken and peeled crayons, we were bustled on to the meat of life. That was math, grammar and writing the business letter. So none of the campers had really studied art before meeting me. And to be honest, in the first session I felt lucky not to have a gifted pupil. I thought he would have drained my energy and stood between me and my own work. I hadn't yet experienced the teacher's best reward. If you're lucky, that comes on the unpredictable day when the years of classroom rock-crushing suddenly begin to feed into your own work. You find that you understand human life, and you still want to paint it.
Meanwhile twice a week I set up still lifes or led the boys to interesting views, plants or rock formations in the middle distance, and turned them loose. I never left though till I'd given some version of the only useful advice I'd heard in my own training -- Look, really look. The boundary lines of the natural world are tracing a lot more complicated route than you think at first. Watch the line of your leg, the trunk of that tree, the split in your face through which you feed. Or to put it quicker, Things don't often look the way you think they do. Pay them the simple honor of watching their lines and shadows till they tell you their secrets. Those are the codes of life and of life's own draftsman.
Was that any quicker? Maybe I can no longer recover the naive advice I gave that summer. A dredge of my memory finds what I've written above. And since it has a dim but true ring still, then I could be recalling correctly. It's the implied and beatific "wisdom" that convinces me. Who but a very young and privileged white American, unaccustomed to hearing a discouraging word, would claim that much in public and for pay?
Whatever I said, however I begged, their copies of everything were dogged and lifeless and scared. Like most people they were helpless to copy appearances. Their images were either small and cramped as microbes or big as pumpkins. There'd be tiny boiled-down mountains or a gaseous wallowing bowl of peaches on the verge of crowding people off the planet. I'd patrol their easels and drawing boards, exhorting attention, pleading for scale. Let the peach on paper be the realer peach, the one you'd rather have.
I was behind on my reading of contemporary fiction and poetry. So I didn't know that, at that moment in San Francisco and New York, Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac were urging the same. Transcribe the world! They thought of their method as Buddhist. I thought of mine as Christian, but I kept that to myself.
Hadn't Jesus gone to great lengths, in numbers of parables, to teach just that? Only the endlessly watchful life is worth living and will be rewarded. What I say to you, I say to alt-watch! And by watchful he didn't mean condemning or fearful but attentive. You watch your particular set of external objects because you love, or at least respect, them on faith. And because you watch them, you train that respect to know them better. Then you go on watching with an even deeper, though maybe more painful, devotion.
Was I badly off course, for my time and place? Who isn't, in his or her early twenties? They're an even more self-intoxicated age than adolescence. If I was at fault, and most times I think I was, then my mistake lay in operating on such a highfalutin base with creatures as impressionable as boys. Sometimes still I defend myself by saying that not a soul in camp, in either session, knew the contents of my mind. They had only my acts to watch and my words to hear. And those were straightforward performances of daily duty, salted with what I hoped was enough wit for freshness and the prevention of boredom.
Whatever light my thinking cast as a torch for my own life and work, I kept it a secret dynamo humming at the center of my mind. For me it lit every sketch I drew, every roll call, every tick hunt. On Sunday mornings after Saturday jamborees, we checked each boy for the all too common tick. Ticks could give you Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and most boy's scalps were studded with ticks after any short hike, but again nobody came down with anything worse than the sniffles. Even my own two sons, when they hit adolescence twenty-five years later -- they barely glanced up from their own self-regard to hear my stream of tactful suggestions. For all they knew, or cared apparently, I might just be a money-secreting fungus on the ground at their feet. More lately here though, things have improved.
But in the 1950s if a lot of my guidance came from the life of Jesus, then was I a Christian? I still believed that the man Jesus was a good deal more than a man and had died in some entirely mysterious way as a blood sacrifice for you and me. So my big problem was not with him but with the outfits that called themselves "his" church. When I read in Carl Jung that religion was a way to avoid having religious experiences, I heard my own mind. It still impresses me no little that, in the whole New Testament, Jesus goes to church -- synagogue -- not more than twice by my count, and each time it gets him in serious trouble.
I've mentioned being raised a Presbyterian, and I'd sat through Sunday school and several hundred sermons in my childhood and teens. And in college I'd already taken more than the one required Bible course, but back at age nineteen the church and I had agreed to separate. I thought church religion was good for who it was good for, and that I was no good for it or it for me. That meant, by the time I was in college, I'd basically become an agnostic mystic, if that sounds vague enough. I don't mean a man who sits out naked and stares at the sun till his eyeballs boil. Or a self-flagellator whose tortured flesh is now and then rewarded with visions of God as an oiled sexy lover.
I just mean a person who feels inspired to conduct his own relations with the mainline energy behind creation. What's agnostic is that I'm sure the mainline circuit is something far too complicated for me, or any other creature, to know entirely -- much less map out for future control. In light of what's coming later here, I need to say that none of this means that I can't get roused at the right time and place to some fairly hot feelings and acts. I can.
I mean I've got down on my knees and kissed the spot in Jerusalem where Jesus' dead body almost certainly lay till it came to life, and I feel no shame in saying as much. Places get holy, some rare few places; and you want to know what's what and when to bow. After the real-estate agents have had their century of freedom in America, there's little enough left where you can even see dirt, much less the god in it. So you've got to keep looking. You can't just prostrate yourself at every crossroads tomb of a president or other licensed killer. That's idol worship and is also indecent.
If you're young and male, working long days and eating great helpings of farm-fresh food in mountain air with unlimited butter, milk, cheese and ice cream, then your main problem with decency is going to be sex. Now well on in my sixth decade -- age fifty-four -- and hardly out of the running, I can recall the unquenchable erotic fury of those years with awe and frank pride. The awe comes from looking back and seeing my long slender body seized at the waist, in the vast and thoroughly capable jaws of Eros, and shook. In my case serious shaking began in the sixth grade and continued, with no more than breathers for food and laundry, till my late forties when the jaws seemed a little less fierce than before, though by no means weak.
Young people in the 1960s announced that they'd discovered free sex. They proceeded to give each other fleas and to bore the rest of us speechless right on till now when the immense and incalculable horror of AIDS promises to alter mankind's sexuality and our cell-by-cell feeling for the loveliness of human flesh more profoundly than anything else in history, syphilis included. People after all occasionally recovered from syphilis or endured mild cases, even before treatments were discovered and the spirochete had picked off Beethoven, Schubert, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine and Gauguin just to start the roll.
But we in the 1950s were supremely lucky, I still think, in maturing at a time when sex was not in the glare of public lights. You could sleep with your girlfriend or sister or a whore or the boy next door or for that matter with your parents. And there wouldn't be a pollster, a welfare worker or a representative of CBS News standing by the bed waiting for the heaves to subside so he could ask you to rate your experience for sensory reward and moral value.
There were a lot of virgins among us, of all ages and genders. There were also a lot of thoroughly industrious indulgers, male and female. They were recognizable only by a faint though enviable smile and a refusal to talk or above all to brag. Between the extremes lay the frustrated millions who claimed to be in mortal need but who were secretly relieved to have a few more years of passive seasoning in the cave of adolescence before rushing onto the drenched and floodlit field of combat. Whichever, if you needed a little pornography to help you in your anatomy lessons and to buff your imagination, it could always be found cheap at the tobacconist's or on grade-school playgrounds. Recall those late-lamented and elegantly drawn funny books where Sandy was boarding an eager Orphan Annie, or Popeye in full spinach frenzy was transporting Olive to the heights of bliss?
If you fell into the majority of American male youth, you went to your room and joined the silent majority of self-servers, again and again and again. Unfortunately sexual surveys had not yet permeated us guilt-crazed youngsters with the news that we were the overwhelming majority. So we labored alone -- shamefully producing, casting and running our own mental movies for an audience consisting, safely but sadly, of our lone selves.
I'll add only that, in line with my policy of decency where possible, I adopted a rule for my sexual fantasies. I could not cast any real girl or woman in my head movies unless she'd given me permission to do so. Permission could be given in two ways. Either she had already appeared in real movies and thus offered herself for fantasy work or she, in person, had permitted me sufficient liberties. This rule, strict as it was, still left me Rita Hayworth, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, not to mention a few good sports on my block and at school.
To be brief I arrived at Juniper as a thoroughly debauched yet technical virgin. I had not quite had intercourse but almost, a few dozen times. I'd had no regular sweetheart since my fouryear high-school girlfriend left me for the quarterback, literally. At college I'd gone out with several of the blazingly intelligent and witty girls of that era, the female inhabitants of early Roth and Updike stories. One in particular -- a tall brunette from Lyme, Connecticut -- was my principle resource.
She finished my education in female parts. And we laughed our way through it, together or in distended letters when we were separated, as now. By mail we'd make flat-out full love. But in real life at the end of our stupendously successful games, she would always find my dilated eyes and say sadly "We aren't meant to do this forever, you know?" The fact that she always stopped us from doing it all -- and the further fact that our hair and eyes were duplicates of one another and that people often mistook us for siblings -- gives the memory of us a weird lovely spin, even today. Bad as it hurt, I guess she was right. We weren't meant to do it.
So understand that I got to Juniper -- wondering if I was meant to, ever, go all the way? And while I plan to avoid boring insistence on the matter, anyone hoping to understand this story will need to recall that, all through the summer, I was fired up in that whole territory too and that my one self-administered vent was far from sufficient to cool me safely. The constant and comic sight of prepubescent male bodies served only to remind me that I -- a man already past the flood tide of reproductive power but roaring -- was still, practically speaking, as nearly a eunuch as they with their pitiful tubular hairless frames and trembling blue tadpole dicks.
Finding ten minutes alone for self-fulfillment was a near impossibility. You'd have thought a camp in the midst of wild forest would be ideal. But I tried locking the Thunderbird door only to have Chief insert his pass key and almost catch me. I hiked up the mountain behind Cabin 16 and found a secluded mossy niche only to have two of my boys scramble up noisily, with their new Indian pathfinding skills, and ask was I safe? My only hope was to wait past their bedtime, count all their breaths by way of roll call, then quickly dispatch myself in the freezing black night. It was sad deprivation for a body young as mine and so eager to please.
If I missed sex, I didn't miss love. Maybe I've been abnormal in that. But from late childhood, I've got pretty much all the love I needed in doing my work. I've thought all along anyhow, and hoped, that my painting absorbs and focuses and returns to the viewer most of the energy that normally flows into love. From watching other humans I have to guess that love is a steady longing for the presence and betterment of one or more other humans. If that's the case then I have to say now that, with the huge exception of my two sons, I doubt I've known much human love -- not since leaving the shelter of both my parents. I've understood sex fairly well, I think. God knows, I've enjoyed its varieties, from the howling barnyard buck-and-buckle to the mute conjugation of souls in flesh.
And I gave all I had to an early marriage, honestly all. My wife and the mother of both my sons was and is a splendid creature. She just had far more to give than I needed. It was mostly good and any other ten sane men on the street would have dropped to their knees and begged to get it, her hundred daily proofs of care. But her steady attention had worried me early; and once we were married, it was soon our torment. I hated to keep refusing her overflow. And for three long years I managed to take it. They were the years that brought sons. Then my whole mind balked. This was way too much, and I began to show it in ways too shameful and small to own up to. We hurt each other through six more years, and then we parted with the sad respect of animals too numb to go on fighting. And of course we shared real thanks and amazement for two sturdy boys, each better than us.
Since then my roaming but fastidious erotic curiosity, with my basic dread of loneliness and the standard need to pass my findings along to a fellow human, has won me several long intimacies, with big gifts and receipts. But they've yet to compel me to want one woman -- or Labrador -- steadily. And with that limitation I've continued to balk at the final marriage jump, though I've known an irregular sequence of helpmates that ranged from wonderful to sweet-but-awful. Maybe the visible outskirts of age will begin to change that.
Anyhow at Juniper I wrote journal letters to my girlfriend and sent her dozens of sketches, more than one of them anatomical, and several finished watercolor landscapes. But the great part of all my various energies went toward painting and my camp routines. In that I wasn't remarkable. All my age mates groaned but bore the deprivations. And when we all gathered most nights in the counselors' hut after lights out, I could easily join their railing and joking. We'd sort the day's take of camper horrors, like the boy who tried to circumcise himself with dull scissors or the boy who hadn't had a b.m. in three weeks, then was delivered of a nine-pound wonder that two boys recorded on Polaroid film.
And by then we'd honed our imitations of Chief to perfection and had turned to work on Mrs. Chief, a flawless Victorian matron with remorselessly even porcelain teeth and breastworks that might have saved Richmond from Grant. I could also silently monitor their minds and compare them to my own. We all seemed cheerfully horny -- mean horny waited till the late 1960s -- because we'd been blessed in the same way as most of our contemporaries, even the two all-but-marrieds. We'd never known regular mutual sex and were thus not addicted, not truly desperate, as so many young people plainly are now.
In all it was one of the most likable groups I've ever been with. Except for the betrothed two and another few who were going steady, in general they were as loose in the world as me and as fit to be amazed. The highest ambitions, other than my own, were held by the man from Yale -- Kevin Hawser -- and by a would-be lawyer from Wake Forest, Possum Walters. Otherwise they were politely unexceptional, without ambition but with a vague confidence in working for their fathers or fathers-in-law or simply throwing themselves on the mercy of the open market in a floodtime of easy employment.
To the passing eye, I was very much like them. In only one visible way was I conspicuous, my drawing and painting. They liked to watch me draw. Any sidewalk incompetent can pull a small crowd in a city. And at Juniper wherever I sat with my paper and board, I soon had a huddle of whispering watchers. They enjoyed the small thrill I also enjoy when I stumble on a competent public artist. They were spying on what all such spies think of as a splendid magic, "Look, he's making another world." That far, they're right, though it's easier than they think. As I mentioned, you only need to watch, then let your hand do exactly what your mind tells it. Eventually one of the bystanders at camp would say "Could you draw me, if you wanted to?" And when I said "If I wanted to," they would laugh and begin to melt away.
Like most artists of any description, I quickly learned how to build my own solitude and concentration, no matter who stood at my shoulder. And that became another wide gulf between me and the world. Most people are all too ready to be jostled. Their work is something they're longing to quit. Wherever I've taught, I've taught that first -- the power and joy of oneness, solitude. And for the first three weeks at Juniper, I took my class on walks around the campground, sketching anything and everything.
I'd set one boy to one object. I'd point Chip to a box turtle found in the path; I'd assign Willie to Mrs. Chief's morning glories and Jeff to her old blind collie. Like anywhere else in unroofed nature, the subjects were endless. Take the brown still lake in early morning; guess the mind of this bird fishing in the shallows here, those rocks that mimic every known shape and form, your neighbor's face or the Smoky range in the western distance. That, God knows, was grand as the stride of the young Norse gods into Odin's Valhalla and far more surely immortal in strength. Boys can laugh at anything nearly. But I never heard one of mine laugh at the Smokies.
In the fourth week of the first session, I grounded the class with me on the west side of the crafts cabin. And while they made what they could, in watercolor and pastels, of the ten thousand values of green and gray between us and the western horizon, I began the painting I'd been led to do. No voices in the night, don't worry. But I do mean led. As I sketched and fiddled in search of a bigger subject, my mind's eye kept showing me that wide west range. You might say that I'd have had to be blind to choose anything else. But there were stunning views to the south -- even more dramatic peaks and crags, including the one with the prayer circle -- and the whole eastward sweep of camp, on up past my own cabin into taller and thicker trees, was one immense green breast.
What led me to the long horizontal west range was my growing sense that the line itself was a calligraphed sentence. Those hazy hard peaks on a harder blue sky. It was some coded combination of meanings that, if ever deciphered, would free mankind and forever reward us. I had few illusions of cracking the code. But as late as that summer, I did believe that if I could transfer the line to canvas and set all patient watchers to work on the task of translation, what grace might I not set loose in the world?
I didn't mean it, not that flatfootedly anyhow. I was splendidly and crazily fervent, but even that summer I knew the world better than to tell it my plan to save its soul. All the same I was as sure then as now that most of the urgent outstanding secrets of this one universe are strewn here before us. They are barely encoded, in faces and things, and are patiently waiting for the witness that will solve them.
It will only take a few human beings -- light and persistent, saints and artists -- who struggle to master the languages that can finally convey such news to the rest of the species. I'll leave it at that, I'm sure you're glad to hear. Few things are more pointless than tries at describing the emotional burden of a visual image to someone who hasn't already seen the image. You can talk half an hour and wind up with a misty little paragraph that sounds like a Kahlil Gibran reject.
In any case I spent more than a week, in my rare hours of personal time, laying the design of that western horizon onto a stretched and primed canvas in meticulous pencil detail. And when the first session ended in mid-August, I was ready to start the stacking up of light and shade in hundreds of almost transparent glazes.
Then with more regret than I'd planned, I helped my first set of boys pack to leave. It was my introduction to one of life's sorrows. In the short but fierce proximities of life -- summer camp, painting classes, ocean cruises, army platoons -- we only begin seeing our companions in the final few days. And only in those fourth and fifth weeks of the first session at Juniper did I see what I might have had if I'd known how really to watch the boys a good while sooner. I'd have had rich lists of their unique brands of small daily heroism, their doggy personal quirks and their thirsty affections. Parting day was a Friday -- the mamas and the papas again, beamish this time and with a few more tips, that I shamelessly took.
The Saturday morning was cleanup time. Each counselor spread all his cabin's mattress pads out to sun. And it was only then that I realized how successfully my threatened bedwetter had deceived me and his cabin mates. His mattress pad was a swamp of concentric circles of never-dried pee. I hauled it far up into the woods and abandoned it, with a real shudder for the boy who suffered five weeks of cold sodden nights rather than confess.
Sunday was free. I haven't mentioned previous such days. One day a week, once we'd seen our boys through breakfast, we were free till reveille the next morning. Kevin and I usually managed to take the same day off. Since neither one of us had a car, we'd catch a ride into Asheville with some older staff member or we'd hitch.
Now the whole city has been leveled, homogenized and defaced. But back then the pocket-sized town had the irregular charm of a real place. It felt like one whole single thing that had grown in slow response to various needs of people and the land. And in the case of Asheville, the charm was all the greater because of the mountain terrain. A small busy downtown square was overwatched by a ring of still wild mountains, with only the tan stone hulk of the Grove Park Inn staring down. Even the streets were humped here and there by an uncertain grounding.
Kev and I would get there a little after ten. We'd part and do personal errands. Then we'd meet at a particularly generous cafeteria and gorge on what we never got at camp. I remember craving fried eggplant and country-style steak. In the afternoon together we'd hunt through the several old bookstores, then the cafeteria again for supper, a movie, then the trip back to camp. Neither Kevin nor I was a night owl, but it was vital to the notion of a day off that we stay in town till our boys were asleep.
Those few free days have a distinct sweetness in my memory. It comes partly from the fact that, since I'd never had a job before, I'd never known the joy of not working. Mostly though the pleasure comes from remembering the long hours of talk with Kevin. Americans in their early twenties then were still fairly wild to learn their way forward into the world. They'd talk a whole night just to learn some scrap of useful news that they could have found in an almanac in fourteen seconds -- say, the manner of death of Catherine the Great, and did it involve her suffocation by an amorous donkey? Kevin and I were in that boat but mainly me. I knew he was further along than me in everything.
Kev's answers to me on a big range of subjects were wide, deep and well-seasoned with wit. They were also land-mined with unexpected questions that kept me constantly on guard. A thoroughly typical case was this. Over strawberry shortcake one day at lunch, I made the strategic error of owning up to a little less than half my ambition for greatness. Kevin heard it straight through with no trace of a smile, and then he asked "What will the world do if you die tonight?" No trace of an edge on his question either. He was just asking for the sake of the news, so he'd know if I croaked.
If I meant then to lay out my wares for Kev, I had to be damned sure they were strong enough to handle and were laid down carefully. You couldn't just tell him that, say, Picasso was greater than Gilbert Stuart. You had to prove it and mostly I couldn't. So breakage was high in any such dialogue. Kev would hold back politely and let you choose the topic. But once you invited him in, he jumped. I've said that, because of the recent Depression and war, Americans hadn't traveled much for twenty-five years; and the country was strictly divided into regions. If you'd grown up in Rockford, Illinois, you barely knew anybody from Chicago, much less Winston-Salem.
And Kevin Hawser was the first real Yankee I'd spent time with. I enjoyed the speed and fresh air of our talks, but I also knew what a heavy brake his urban cynicism put on me. I could never let him see the full gleam of my intentions or my plans for reaching them. My sort of dream, in those early days, melted in the presence of laughter. That midsummer Sunday though, Kev set the pace. He asked me the night before if I'd like to join him tomorrow for a "pilgrimage" -- the quotation marks were his -- to Thomas Wolfe's home. I gladly agreed, though with reservations that will soon appear.
As a native North Carolinian, I knew that the state's most famous artist of any sort was born in Asheville in 1990 and died from tuberculosis of the brain before he was forty. My father, exactly Wolfe's age, had met him briefly in the early twenties. A lot of painters are big readers; so when I began consuming fiction in my teens, Father suggested that I notice his friend Tom Wolfe. In some brand of adolescent truculence, I didn't. Then early in high school, several of my male friends began to echo Father -- Thomas Wolfe had apparently solved the mysteries of human longing or had at least captured them in words forever. They confided also that Wolfe wrote a lot about sex, whores and body crabs.
That knocked me off-center, and I rushed out to find him. But the book wasn't in our school library, being thought unfit for innocent eyes. The old dragons at the Public downtown were sleeping for once, so I managed to check out Look Homeward, Angel. But even at age sixteen, pitching and tossing in the very flames Wolfe described -- youthful sex and vaulting ambition -- I thought I knew bad prose when I saw it. And I stopped for good at page fifty.
That didn't keep me from wanting to see his home. Now I hear it's a manicured historical site operated by the state. But in the early fifties, with Wolfe not twenty years dead, it was still owned by members of the family. A rambling white barn of no architectural distinction, it had till fairly recently been a busy boardinghouse run by Wolfe's feisty mother right through his childhood, youth, fame and death.
The front door was open. We knocked on the screen and were met by a pretty young woman with a snotty baby on her hip. We asked if this really was the Wolfe house. She nodded yes, said it cost a quarter and took our money. Then she stepped aside and let us in. Her voice had the high blackboard-scraping harshness of the born mountaineer, but then her prematurely exhausted face broke into a quick smile that I'd still give a lot to paint. It was as good an emblem as I've ever seen for hanging on when the sky's against you.
But she didn't look any the worse for wear. To me, she wore whatever pain she'd borne like an invitation to take one short step and save her life, hers and the smiling girl-baby's she held.
She said "I'm right busy, with the baby and whatnot. And since I ain't been here but a week, I don't know much nohow. So if y'all want to look around, make yourself at home. Just try not to touch things more than you have to. They're precious and all."
We pretty much made ourselves at home. It hadn't dawned on me to wonder what no-nonsense Kevin was seeking here at this font of wind. But it was soon clear that he'd come along in hopes of a postcard to send a professor friend and Wolfe fan. Kev had at least read Look Homeward, Angel; but he kept most of his knowledge to himself as always. Since I couldn't say what had happened in the many rooms of the dim upper warrens, it was pretty much a musty old boardinghouse to me. But there were little hand-lettered cards, saying "Tom's Boyhood Room," "Tom's Boyhood Shakespeare" by a thick black book or "Brother Ben's Deathbed." And even Kevin, an English major, seemed muffled so I stayed respectful. I had to admit to myself that it did have a certain pregnant air, as if a big artist hadn't yet been born but was going to be, here and soon. I used the word artist a lot in those days. I thought it would help me grow. But my only clear memory of the house itself is of a huge black pay-phone by the door in a back hallway.
It was the old kind that had so many different comforting odors -- one for the metal of the chassis, one for the heavy Bakelite handset, one for the breathed-on mouthpiece, another for the thick stiff cord. And it had names and phone numbers still gouged in the plaster around it, old-timey numbers in pencil or scratched with a key, just three digits -- Ethel 468 or Mamie 300. I stroked a finger down the cool plaster and thought I could see a crowd of faces, all waiting alone in rented rooms for the bell to ring, for life to strike.
When we'd used up the space, we could hear the young woman knocking around in the kitchen. We found our way there and thanked her. She said shoot, she hadn't done nothing but rob us to see a dirty old house. She rushed on to add that she had a husband in the Army who was maybe coming home in two weeks, but I still doubt it. She had on the kind of cheap left-hand ring that girls have been known to buy from the dime store.
By then she was very much a girl to my eyes. And she had too lost a look in her eyes. This girl had been abandoned. When she told us that she'd have give us some dinner if she'd knowed we was coming, I felt like we ought to get out fast and neat. But Kevin kept asking her questions till it was clear she'd told the truth in one respect anyhow. She knew very little about the place -- just that one of the Wolfes was famous and all, mostly up north as far as she could tell from the people that came, maybe ten on a weekday.
In fact as we finally turned to go, she asked me "Who was this fellow you're aiming at?" Though the visit was Kev's idea and he'd done most of the talking, she aimed her question straight at my eyes. And she seemed to be referring to Tom, as most native Tar Heels still call him, like a family member. I'd mentioned him at the start; and thinking she must admire him, I'd also said I was hoping to be as good at painting as Wolfe was at fiction. In fact I was hoping to be a lot better. So now I told her "He was one Asheville boy that wrote a famous book and died too soon."
She nodded as if she'd put that aside for further thought. Then she said "You find what you're looking for?"
I said "Well, it proves famous men can be born anywhere."
She said "Even stables." But then she laughed and apologized for the dust. "Seems like dust just dogs my tracks, every house I'm in. You could eat off'n my mama's floor, no plate. But look at all this." On its own, her hand indicated the floor -- dust cuffed at our feet. Then she managed a smile, thanked us for coming and followed us to the door. The baby was no longer in sight. And when we were on the outside of the screen door, she stayed behind the rusty mesh. But she made a last try. She laughed again, harder and covering her teeth. Then she said "You must not of gone to church either."
I confessed and said "Ain't it awful?" Back then in the South, if you missed Sunday church, you had you a good alibi before sunrise.
She stood there and genuinely fought with herself. It tortured her eyes. Then she said "They throwed me out, down there at Hog Elk -- fine Christian souls!" Her last word flung on past us, towards the road.
Kev was plainly at a loss. This was a deeply Southern transaction, even though she was mountaineer and I was piedmont. Many Americans would die naked in theroad before they'd tell you what's hurt them the worst. But born Southerners will show you the cell in their heart that burns the hardest. They'll hold it right towards you, in their bare right hand. This girl had done that for me, Lord God. So what could I say but "That's all they know. You're far better off"?
Her thanks were deep and they welled in her eyes. But right away she said "Look, if you want to come back next week-both of you -- and eat a good dinner I cook and all, you could read me some from that book he wrote. Then I'd know better what to tell folks. I feel real ignorant now." She dredged up her smile again, and this time it lasted so long I was ready to go back and better her lot by whatever means. With Father's death so raw in my heart, how could I leave a needy magnetic soul that pretty and lonesome?
Kevin was Yankee-polite about it -- you know, you tell somebody the hard truth; but you tell it a little to the right of their eyes. Still he told her it just couldn't be. We were both tied up from here on out till summer ended. Then he took my elbow and steered me around.
Once I'd turned my back on her face, I couldn't look again. I might cave in and do something wild. Kev had seen that and done the right thing by me, mean as it seemed.
I can hear her voice though, clear as my own, right to this minute. "I hope people want to see your house someday."
We spent the rest of Sunday eating and seeing two movies. I said before that Kev was a true Yankee, from Rhode Island. He could no more ask you a personal question than flap his arms and fly unaided. Southerners ask intimate questions in the way monkeys groom each other for lice, not to pry but to make you feel cared for. Kev though could sit and stare, just past your ear for maybe five minutes, and not say a word. I could have robbed a bank vault and be wearing the Hope diamond in plain view, and he would have died before asking me about it. Since all my campers were children, and since their self-entrapment ruled out curiosity into lives older than their own, I was running a good two quarts low on close attention. So over the breaded veal cutlet at lunch, I said "I would have married that girl on the spot."
Kev said "So I noticed -- girl and baby. Hope you didn't mind the rescue."
"Not a bit." But I did. I just slightly did.
Kevin said "I figured old Chief might be a little flummoxed if we got back tonight with a wife and baby." On other days off I'd told Kev a little about my presence at Father's death and, as I said, my ambitions. He'd heard me patiently and with what seemed genuine interest. He was hoping for a diplomatic career and would need a working knowledge of all brands of human folly. But as usual he asked no further questions.
So now I asked if he thought I was crazy.
He looked out the street window, in fact at the blinding sunlight, and said "Yes."
When I finished laughing I told him not to worry, that I was a little dizzy still from my hospital duties with Father, plus five weeks of boys, and would pipe down soon.
Kev waited and said "Don't get me wrong. You're beyond me now. You've seen a man die. And with no brothers or sisters, you're the last person in line in your family. That makes you the hitter and backstop and pitcher and all. You're rightly scared stiff."
It still seems a real piece of understanding. That it came from a twenty-one-year-old unmarried man, as protected as me, is hard to believe. I've never heard the same from anyone since, but I've noticed its accuracy in dozens of lives. Once you're the next member of your family in line for death, you become a new person. And for quite a while, you can easily fly off the handle and make entangling commitments or else you can run. We didn't say more on the subject that day, but I thought through it many times in the remainder of the summer. And I think it guided my subsequent actions. Which is not the same thing as blaming Kevin for my ignorant error.
When we got back to camp past midnight, the air was actually cold. I walked into Cabin 16 thinking I'd be asleep in two minutes. But when I stripped and lay down, my mind was howling ahead. It mainly told me that the whole experience of the tawdry Wolfe house and the lost madonna and child and Kevin's insight was a single shaft aimed at my heart. I'd got both a big new wound and a gift -- a broad leap of knowledge that would show in my life, beginning tomorrow. I had a fairly decent heart and a worthy aim. But oh, I was loose in the world and must work.
My canvas was locked downhill in the crafts cabin, safe. But at one in the morning, I halfway dressed and went down there in the near freezing dark to study the drawing. At night you tried to remember never to walk without a flashlight and to step high to avoid rattlers. So far this year nobody had been bit. The week before though, the hardy boys from Tsali brought a full and squirming gunnysack down the mountain. They said it was a dozen live rattlers they'd trapped. They wanted undamaged skins to make hatbands and belts, so they'd come up with the idea of gassing the snakes by cranking the camp station wagon and tying the mouth of the sack over the tailpipe. Without Chief's permission somehow they got the key, and the project very nearly worked.
When the sack stopped moving, they turned off the engine, untied the sack and dumped the contents out on the ground. I was there to see it. Sure enough, eleven dead snakes. But the boys were sure there'd been twelve to start with. They tried to recrank the engine and force the stray out but the engine was dead. It turned out that the twelfth snake had climbed up the tailpipe and got himself far forward in the exhaust system before dying in place. Chief made the boys pool their spending money to get the station wagon towed to Asheville where some brave fool located the snake and fished it out. Of course all us city-slicker counselors rejoiced at the downfall of the hardscrabble Tsali boys. But the gunnysack reminded me anyhow what kind of world was underfoot here, by day and night.
I got all the way to the crafts cabin safely and found the door unlocked. To rest his bowed legs, Uncle Mike kept a cot in the Indian lore room next door. I took the flashlight and went in to Mike's cot, propped my canvas on a chair and lay on my belly to study it. Even in black and white pencil line, I thought I could almost read the meaning of so much rock against so much sky. It was yearning to speak, the way a good dog -- a setter or retriever -- will meet your eyes and grieve, pure grieve, not to know your language.
If you think such thoughts are incompatible with good art, then you haven't read Michelangelo's poems or especially van Gogh's letters. They meant every picture as a forthright message, to change men's souls. Anyhow that night I was suddenly surer than ever that -- if I was good and daring enough as a painter -- I'd finish the summer with a picture that would also be a real gift of beauty and useful knowledge, for myself and every patient onlooker. Finally the whole good day fell on me. And lying under Mike's dusty Navaho blanket, I slid off to sleep and rested deeper than dreams or fears till cold first light.
Then Mike came limping through the door. With his stiff shock of white hair and his broad seamed face, he looked more than a little like pictures of God. And though he was older than Chief, he made at least as big a presence. When he finally saw me, he said "O Wise One, arise and dress. Seven new immortal souls await thee!" I had sat in on some of his Indian talks. He was genuinely informed on the subject, not just a half-baked enthusiast. And he'd taken to calling me Wise One because I also knew some Indian history.
I won't describe our many long talks. But from here looking back, I can see that Mike Dorfman was one of that summer's really good influences on my life. He'd graduated from Juilliard "back before God," as he said. Then he'd taken an M.A. in anthropology from Columbia, with fieldwork among two bands of the Sioux. And all this was forty years ago, just one generation after Wounded Knee and the Custer massacre. But the plight of the Indians disturbed him too deeply. So he turned aside, had a nervous breakdown -- which he freely admitted to me -- and spent his life teaching composition, piano, violin and "everything else but gynecology" at various conservatories and colleges. His wife had died young, leaving him with a daughter who was now somewhere with the Red Cross in Africa.
He'd met Chief in the late twenties, when he came down here to the Smokies to convalesce from TB. And once he retired from teaching, he decided to spend his summers at Juniper. That was mainly because it was so near the Cherokees. And also, he told me, because he had a whole lifetime of guilt to repay. He'd never forgiven himself for turning aside from the Sioux. He thought he could make some recompense by teaching white boys what a wrong we'd done, destroying the Indians. Since beginning to read I'd also consumed every word I could find on the same people, and I shared his guilt. If God is just, this country may never finish paying for their death -- though maybe Vietnam was part of the payment, more or less exactly a century after our red version of a Final Solution. If so, at fifty thousand dead boys, we got off light.
Anyhow it was the first morning of second session and I'd overslept. I raced to shower and dress in my whites. Parents and new boys were driving towards us already from every corner of the South and a few from the Northeast. For the first time, I resented their droning nearness and my own renewed commitment to five more weeks of babysitting. A mind hot as mine, and aimed as narrowly, thought it needed whole days and weeks free to see and to translate. Or so I told myself, as I poised upright and old enough to know much better, on the doorsill of launching what may be the real piece of harm I've done the world.
In those days even middle-class Americans didn't pick up the long distance phone just to say "Good evening" to distant friends and ask what they might have had for dessert. Back then when you got a ring and picked up the receiver, that moment of staticky long distance noise would scare you cold-somebody was dead or deathly sick. But I'd promised myself for the past five weeks to call my girlfriend between the two sessions, also my mother. I'd written regularly to both, but voice is voice and I thought I was in special need of my girlfriend's. I haven't mentioned that I called her Viemme, our French pronunciation of her American initials V.M. She was apparently waiting table at a hotel on Mount Desert Island, Maine and had sent me a number for emergencies.
So that Sunday night I went down to the camp office. It was open to counselors by request for just such calls or for typing letters to campers' parents -- "errands of mercy only," Chief had said. I thought I was being merciful to me; and I placed the call, charging it to Mother in Winston. In seconds, I thought, this will all make sense. I'll send Mother a check before her bill comes; she'll understand. But the phone in Maine sounded farther off than the Dalai Lama's deepest cell. And as its ring bored on unanswered, I began to feel humiliated.
Here I'd spent two months with no sight, not to mention touch, of Viemme or any girl. I'd done serious work; we'd exchanged full letters, with my lyrical anatomical drawings that she responded to with a sonnet -- what on Earth would I say? My mind whited out. I've mentioned that Viemme's cool good sense had stopped us from talking of eternal love. And we'd never ventured into the brand of long-distance pornographic transaction that some of the counselors informed me of. So what would we say?
Then I knew it didn't matter. Words weren't the point, for me anyhow, just her sound. I thought I needed the brief reminder that I still existed in a young woman's mind, that her hands recalled the times she'd taught me various grades of joy.
Finally a man's voice said "Mist Over."
At first I thought he was some sort of weather report I'd stumbled on by mistake -- the rocky north coast, mist, nobody out tonight. Then I recalled "Mist Over" was the name of Viemme's hotel. So I asked for her.
The man took a long pause -- Mother's bill was rising -- and then he came back to say "Her roommate says she's spending the night where they don't have a phone."
I was more shocked by the fact of the news than by its contents. It was another long decade before American youth were that candid to strangers. For all the man knew, I was Viemme's father. What would these Yankees stop at, with their tact as raw as oysters? I thanked him anyhow and hung up firmly before I began to feel more than desolate. Granted that Viemme and I had agreed to be sensible about our time-bound relations. Still, when skin has been as mutually kind to skin as she and I had been, the sudden news that yet another whole suit of epidermis has been inserted literally between us -- you know the feeling. Unspeakable sadness, followed by hot anger and cold disdain.
So I called Mother collect right away to head off the blues a few minutes longer. As usual she was sitting on the phone, with an instant cultivated "Hello." So we talked on for twenty minutes, a major financial commitment back then. At first I must have sounded preposterously official. Your distant son is making a courteous inquiry as to whether you're still breathing, madam. But her genius, and the secret weapon of all good mothers, was to pretend not to hear me and to plunge forthwith into a quiet and boring but deeply consoling narrative of the events of her daily life.
She started with how she went out to Aunt Sely's this morning to get the laundry and found Sely lying in the yard, with a broken hip and nothing but a blind dog for company. Sely had been there all night, Mother thought -- of course it hadn't been terribly cold but still. Then Mother continued with how she rounded up some boys, and they got Sely into the car and safe to Bowman Gray Hospital. And how just tonight, just before I called, she'd come from the hospital where Sely was plaster-casted but happy, saying God had known -- had flat out knowed -- when to tame her pride. Sely had worked for us all through my parents' early marriage and then my childhood. And she'd quit awhile back on what she figured was more or less her eightieth birthday. But she'd insisted on washing our sheets till now. "Maybe this'll stop her finally," Mother said. "But don't bank on it. I'm dying to take my sheets to the laundry and get em pressed right. But Sely will rise from this, mark my word."
In five minutes she had me nodding in the old conspiracy, of mothers that of course this is the purpose and goal of life, not some heroic baying at the hazy moons of art and flesh. It was only when we'd played out all the events we could mention to one another that she took a little misstep and broke her spell. She said "Is your spending money holding out?"
Money of course was a joke this summer, my enormous salary. But I still had a fifty-dollar bank balance, and that would see me through another few book-buying trips to Asheville. I wasn't about to take funds from a working widow. I said "Yes, Mother. I'm solvent as a Vanderbilt."
She saw her mistake. "I knew that, Bridge. But I wanted to help."
Then I recovered my primal warmth long enough to get through a final restorative minute. I promised her that no, I didn't need her to come up and get me at the end of the month and that yes, I'd let her hear the moment anything went wrong.
She took a long pause, and I thought she was going to say she loved me -- she generally did. I even braced for it. But she'd long since out-thought me. Or was just more honest. She said "I remember you plain as my father." Despite her father's early death, she loved him intensely to the end of her days. But what a strange and moving thing to say.
I was grateful at once and opened my mouth to let the spirit move me, and what came out still seems a fair match. I said "I remember you clear as the day I first saw you."
She laughed. "Well, damn! That was your first day."
I said "You're right."
And just before dawn I dreamed of her back then -- Mother, not Viemme or any other gift. In my mind for what seemed hours of sleep, my mother wandered smiling beyond me, always near but just past reaching. She was young as me now and wildly lovely, with long black hair that bronzed in the light and eyes far deeper than any cave.
Copyright © 1990 by Reynolds Price
Tongues of Angels
Set in a summer camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains during the deceptively tranquil 1950s, The Tongues of Angels is a story of the twenty-one-year-old painting teacher, a superbly gifted boy, and their advance toward a startling fate. As the now-older man looks back at on that summer, he reflects on the meanings he thought he had learned on the threshold of manhood from the perspective of full maturity.
- Scribner |
- 208 pages |
- ISBN 9780743202213 |
- October 2000