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Spirit, soul, and psyche each arrive in turn before gravity, before a sensing of the world;
a few invisible things surrounding and containing something, reflecting and concurring,
like a seaward sunset and its reach of sands......
It was early autumn, 1949. A four year old boy walked a happy mile between a ditch and the shoulder of a gravel road on an Arkansas afternoon. The road was west of Jonesboro, but many miles east of the Ozark mountains. It was survey straight and rice land flat, and its telephone poles were crossed up high with rows of green glass targets for BB guns. Like all northeast Arkansas graveled farm roads, it held a perpetual attraction to red-winged blackbirds and grasshoppers.
Parallel to the road and ditch lay a rock-bedded, elevated railroad track spurring into the Riceland Rice grain elevators, which towered proudly over the post-war Arkansas farm lands. Rice fields, cotton fields, and soy-bean fields constituted the primary agriculture of the region, but there was also an extensive array of secondary farm crops, such as okra and corn. Situated among the crops were scattered farmhouses and barns, along with sharecroppers' shacks and miscellaneous outbuildings attendant to the farms. Along with occasional stands of forests and rivers or creeks, but not very proximal to each other, were several tiny towns; if, that is, we may call a gravel-roads intersection populated by possibly a gasoline filling station, a general store, and a post-office a town. In most cases these three edifices of rural society shared a single building. Sometimes at such intersections could be found a humble country church, or a John Deere or Massey-Ferguson implement dealership who's wares were spread out in the weathers for passers-by to view.
The rural southern setting was detailed with an abundance of mules and horses, cattle, domestic fowl and farmyard creatures, along with wild life such as the fox, rabbit, raccoon, deer, mink, muskrat, and such. There was always a hawk or two in sight, as well as dove, quail, heron, jay, and countless other types of birdlife. The insect kingdom was abundantly represented, as were also the reptile and amphibian family. In a word, it was a country farmland environment which had been developed and worked out of a great natural region which existed south of the Missouri hills and extended all the way to the Louisiana coastal region on the west side of the Mississippi River. The deep top soil which time and the great river had deposited there supported a rich and prosperous wild life as well as an under-populated agricultural society whose values and interests had not been much affected by the industrial revolution of the general western world. Yes, there were tractors and their accessories, but still there were commonly seen the farmer behind his team of mules, plowing; the field hands dragging long cotton bags down the endless rows of harvest cotton; the horse-drawn buggy and wagon. The saddle horse was commonly used to get oneself to town in Jonesboro, where hitching rails appointed the fronts of stores and offices. The
occasional automobile was the new intruder, not the common mode.
Upon leaving Jonesboro, any traveler would become absorbed by the endless agriculture, the wildness and naturalness of the landscape. It was the time and place of simplicity, of basics awaiting the advent of electricity, plumbing, mechanization, and acceleration; it was almost pristine, almost pure, and but for the countless farms and their few inhabitants, it was almost natural, almost the way Nature herself had made the region. But there was a railroad, and there were plenty of graveled county roads, and there was a two-lane highway running south/southeast over sixty miles from Jonesboro to Memphis. So it was inevitable that appliances, radios, and televisions would soon begin to replace the washboards and the
family intercommunications which had sufficed for generations; rural agricultural Arkansas was another potential market for inventors and manufacturers and distributors, all of whom knew in their hearts that their product would greatly benefit and enhance the lives of poor farm people. This certainty of belief salved the acquisition of profits, and was never questioned. No one who sold refrigerators which displaced the ice boxes families had used wondered if it might be a good thing to displace an old standby with a new improvement; there was little reverence placed on the old-fashioned habit of drawing water from a well when a profit could be made on the sale of an electric pump. And we can't blame the Fords, Edisons, Bells for giving it to America, when simple America yawned grandly in its dream of improvement, when the rigors of arduous farm life produced a consensus wish for something better, something more, and awakened itself like a hungry market demanding to be fed. It would all come to Arkansas, was on its way already, but on this afternoon in 1949 a young barefoot boy walking a graveled country road was in himself an adequate symbol of a fading culture which had yet to finalize the trading of its soul for progress.
As he neared the grain elevators, the boy crossed the road and the tracks and made his way to the front of the general store. In his pocket his right hand was clenched protectively around a nickel which, upon entering through the screen door of the outpost, he held forth silently to the storekeeper.
The storekeeper knew the boy; knew all the children in this part of the county. He knew all the folks, and had a name for any face which might enter his store. There were not a lot of people in the area, and everyone who lived near became his customer. "Nu-Grape?" he asked, and the boy bashfully nodded with wide honest eyes and fidgeting feet. The storekeeper smiled and opened the lid on the soft drink cooler, which was chilled daily with bought ice. Rows of capped bottles of colored, delicious treats hung by their necks above the ice bed, and the boy looked eagerly at the root beer, orange, and cola drinks awaiting purchase. The boy watched as the storekeeper slid the bottle through the key and pulled it from the cooler like a Nu-grape fish yanked from an icy pond; he eyed a display of kandy-kits as the storekeeper opened the Nu-grape and extended it. The boy took his purple treasure in both hands and sampled a cold, lip-staining sip. The fluid rush down to his warm belly reassured him and he blinked at the storekeeper as he muttered an inaudible "thank you", then turned and went out of the store into the warm late afternoon sunlight.
The storekeeper understood the boy's silence and appreciated how folk in rural 1940s America raised their children to be seen and not heard. Everything was as it should be, and the fact that the boy had not tried to engage him in conversation implied that he was being "brought up" correctly, that he was not up to mischief like a city boy might be. The boy's name was Lee, and Roy and Elizabeth were his parents. Lee had a younger brother named Brandon, and though he hadn't yet been introduced, the storekeeper had already heard that another brother had arrived recently. The family was filling in, getting established. The only problem he suspected about this family was its future in the area; this because Roy was not a farmer. Roy worked in Jonesboro, and rented a farm not far from the general store. Roy's landlord kept a fine herd of cattle there, and part of Roy's rent obligation was to oversee the needs of the herd. Beyond that, Roy and Elizabeth were free to enjoy the abundant acreage as they wished.
But the storekeeper knew that folk who did not
own a farm may drift away in time, might move out of the county. Like all the
other folk in that part of the county, however, the storekeeper accepted Roy's
family anyway; this in large part because of Elizabeth's familial roots in the
county. Elizabeth's parents, grandparents, and great- grandparents had always
lived there. That family had always been solidly honest, hard-working, and
honorable. Her family had been respectable in every way, and had displayed a
constant and abiding commitment to the community. Like the other families,
Elizabeth's family was always ready to help a neighbor when he might need it,
was always there with a hand if fire took a home or a tornado took a barn, or if
someone just needed a friend. This attitude of sharing life with one's neighbors
had evolved from lean and stark terms of existence in the farming community,
changing but little from the times when the land was being explored and settled
The storekeeper knew all this. His only reservation was Roy. Roy had been a Jonesboro boy who had managed to graduate high school before joining the army to serve in World War Two. He had been stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky, from where he had used his leaves to date Elizabeth back in Arkansas. Roy had been a mechanic in the army, helping maintain trucks and jeeps and half-tracks and tanks. He never received orders for "over there", a fact which did not really bother his practical mind. "Over there" they were killing American boys by the thousands, and maiming many more. He knew he would have gone willingly had he been sent, and sometimes he wondered what it would be like to be under fire, how he would respond to eminent death-fear. But he also knew that the army needed him at Fort Knox, and that his choice of duty in the military was not in his hands. He contented himself with doing the best job he could in his assigned duty station, and looked forward to his leaves to Jonesboro where he could do something about the love which had begun between himself and Elizabeth. A year before the war ended, he and Elizabeth had quickly married and started their family. Lee had arrived in 1945. Roy took a job as a body man in town, repairing damaged fenders and doors, hoods and trunks. He learned well a skill which taught him to fashion by hand from a sheet of steel a new door or fender for any automobile. He used hand tools to forge the sheet steel; used a torch and lead for restoring a dent. He mastered the painting of automobiles, and all the related maintenance operations such as tune-ups, brake jobs, clutch restorations, and the like. His skilled trade would provide his family with automobiles for years to come. He would assess a totaled-out wreck for its restoration feasibility, buy it for little or nothing, restore it to like new, and his family would suddenly have a new second-hand car. Frugality, honest work, improvement. Such was Roy's way.
The storekeeper did not know much about the details of what Roy did to earn a living, but he gave the man credit for attracting one of the finest young ladies in Craighead County as his bride; and, if Elizabeth saw all the right qualities in Roy, enough to marry him, then Roy must be all right. Besides, Roy always paid cash for his purchases at the general store, never ran a tab, and showed every sign of being a decent and honorable man even if he wasn't a farmer. Only time would tell if Roy would move his young family away, and until that happened the storekeeper was prepared to respect him like any other customer.
As Lee had departed the store, he had begun walking slowly back up the road toward his cutoff through a cotton field which would lead him into and through a small forest, the other side of which would reveal the west pasture behind his home. He paused at the cutoff, and sat down by the ditch to enjoy his Nu- Grape drink. He was not thinking of anything in particular; he was absorbed completely in a childlike dreamy trance of pleasure. The soft drink was a fitting end to a long day spent playing in the pastures of his farm. The cold wetness of the flavor was, for a country boy, an unconscious sacrament to a fading summer, and his whole being was absorbed in the pleasant task. Nearby where Lee sat in the tall creek- side weeds, a garter snake peeked at the boy with wide round eyes, and, above in the blue sky a circling red-tailed hawk peered at them both.
As he worked on emptying the glass bottle he weighed two conflicting drives; the part of him which wanted to drink slowly and prolong the pleasure of the soft drink, and the other part of him which wanted to feel the gushing cascade of purple grape-flavored coldness pouring down his throat into his belly like a flood of pure sensational pleasure. He found, as the garter snake stared, a compromise within himself. He took several smaller sips, then a respectably overpowering gulp; he alternated sips and gulps, milking the soft drink for all it was worth.
The sun was gentle upon his auburn hair, being less than two hours from setting. Smells of mud and soil and the slow creek behind him were in the breeze which played easily on his freckled skin. A dragonfly flitted nearby, as did a fritillary and a horsefly. He turned his face upward to the clean sky and felt the sun wash his skin with a pleasing warmth. He waved at the circling red-tailed hawk and the movement of his hand and arm startled the garter snake, who withdrew an inch or two. The fritillary bobbed on air about him and measured his mass by flying all about him and then over his head. In following the butterfly's movements, Lee's eye caught the frozen face of the garter snake a few feet away in the roadside vetch and Johnson grass. He became very still and watched the snake watching him. He wondered what errand he had interrupted for the snake by choosing this particular spot to sit and enjoy his soda. Had the garter snake been hunting, or making his way to the creek for a drink?
Though Lee would not be five years old until the coming month, he had already caught and observed countless garter snakes. He knew their general disposition, their quickness and their willingness to bite a finger. He also knew that they were harmless and not poisonous. He admired their personalities, their aggressiveness and evasiveness. Compared to varieties of King snakes which were much larger and behaved with more surety, garter snakes seemed to be a bit high-strung, a bit nervous. They were a darkened brown in color, and had several bright yellow stripes running from neck to tail the length of their slender bodies. Lee was not afraid of garter snakes, or most snakes for that matter, though he was aware that rattlers or water moccasins or copperheads could and would kill him if he managed to get bitten. He was aware of the common fear held by the grownups in the county for snakes, and he knew that most of the growns judged the harmless snakes in the same grouping with poisonous snakes. He felt this to be unfair to most snakes, and he noticed a wrongness on the part of the growns to judge a snake before they bothered to find out the truth about it. To most country folk at that time, any snake found about the farm was to be killed; one more good riddance of a possible threat to the children. Hoes and shotguns violently took their tolls on the snake population, no questions asked. The concept of an eco-system in which all elements played a vital and inter-dependent role was mostly alien to the farm people of north-east Arkansas. The unobserved or unassimilated fact that a king snake was helpful in controlling the rodent population by virtue of his predatory habits did little or nothing to spare him if he was unlucky enough to cross paths with a farmer. And, all the snakes seemed to know this, for they invariably tried to avoid contact with humankind, feared humans as some sort of deadly, giant enemy. They would try two basic maneuvers when confronted: freeze still as a color, or flee rapidly.
Lee watched the snake intently. It had no idea of visiting with Lee; whatever mentality it had was weighing what to do next, flee or continue in its stillness, hoping not to be seen. Lee knew what was going on in the snake's mind, and he knew he could catch this smart young snake if he wished. But the Nu-Grape held a greater fascination. And there was something going on in his own mind about which he did not have full cognizance, but which he was entertaining anyway. It was something which spoke to him in a feeling, a vague mood instead of a clear and structured thought. Lee sensed his belonging in the same world which he was sharing with this garter snake, felt their union as two different manifestations of the same creation, the same existence in nature. He was feeling a sense of beingness which he was sure the snake also felt. He knew down deep in his heart that he and this snake, along with all creatures, were fixed in the same rapture of existence by an unexplainable, universal reality. He did not put the feeling into words, did not form a thought with the feeling; he would not have been able to had he tried, being only an almost five years old country boy. But somehow, where it counted most, the knowledge was alive and complete, and its moody message filled Lee as he quietly observed the snake.
From far down the road the grumble of gravel under an approaching car sustained a rolling scrunching noise which drew Lee out of his trance with the snake and caused him to think of making his way through the mature cotton field which backed up to the forest. He would take a trail through this stand of woods to the farm where he lived. Carrying his now empty pop bottle, he slowly circumvented the garter snake at a distance which would not frighten the snake any more than necessary and began making his way through the, for him, shoulder-high cotton stalks. The opened and spread bowls scratched and clutched at his arms and legs as he carefully made his way through the field. Close to the far side of the field a cottontail rabbit lurched and hopped away.
He carried the bottle, which he would hand over to his mother. She would return it to the general store the next time she went there, like always. The storekeeper never charged a bottle deposit. His clients, as a matter of honor, always returned their empties. It was the way of country people in the late `40s in Arkansas; it was just the right thing to do, and people took pride in doing the right thing, no matter how inconsequential or insignificant the deed. They did not name it "dignity", though it was; they did not name it "responsibility", though it was. They just called it "livin' right".
Walking the half mile home through the cotton field and forest, Lee saw no omen of the great thing which was within minutes of changing his life forever. No squirrel, wren, or chipmunk offered a hint. The air was indifferent, if sweet to breathe. The earth beneath his bare feet felt as familiar and honest as ever, yet sent no sign of impending change. He had no reason to suspect anything. When he exited the forest into the pasture, crossed the creek at midfield and made his unhurried way to the back of the house he heard laughter from around the house in the front yard. His brother Brandon was yelping, and his mother's voice could be heard rising in mirthful exclamations. He walked faster past the side of the house, and, rounding the front corner he burst upon a grand scene of revelry and fun.
Lee's father had brought home to his young family a puppy. His parents were laughing in delight as two- year old Brandon was trying to run circles around Roy as an awkward puppy, whose purpose in life at that moment was to chase blue jeans and anyone in them, ran yelping and snapping gleefully after him.
Elizabeth was holding in her arms Lee's newest
baby brother, David, and her face was lit up with joy at the playing of Brandon
and Boots. She had named the pup immediately, at first sight, for the four white
paws. Roy was turning circles watching his son's desperate zig-zags. He laughed
out loud whenever Boots managed to clamp into the backsides of Brandon's jeans
and the two would tumble in a tangle of young legs.
Lee forgot instantly the bottle he had carried from the general store. He flew to the puppy and tackled her to the ground. Boots could not contain herself. She was too full of joy and puppy energy. When Lee tried to hug her she leaped away and resumed chasing Brandon's blue jeans, which themselves were not lacking in youthful energy. Lee jumped up and joined in the play, chasing and being chased.
Boots was ten weeks old and comedic in her awkwardness, a condition which perpetuated itself all the more as her excitement outran her legs. Boots would grow to a German Shepard's size, and even now she showed intelligence, but her head was of a softer lineation, was more gently peaceful than the earnest features of a purebred. A breeder's horror, she had perky ears which were fuller than they should be; her fur was finer and longer than her purebred's thesis; her tail was full to just short of bushy; and she was more ruddy and brown than black and grey. She was, however, the most beautiful thing Lee had ever seen.
She was clumsy, falling over herself, tripping over and bumping into everything at once. Her strong snout poked at and under and into anything that was there. Nose quivering, tongue bouncing, teeth nipping busily, Boots was hyper and could not contain her joy and playfulness. She blundered in every romp, every retreat, every trick she tried to play. Her joy brought smiles and laughter to Elizabeth and Roy. Lee was in what could be best described as electric bliss. Brandon was already conquered by the puppy and had discovered he could not outrun her stubby legs. He and Lee both quickly learned they did better when they would turn after and chase Boots, who was only too happy to dart and scamper out of reach, leaving diving boy-bodies sprawling on the front yard's lush grass. She would run in crazy circles, would run in erratic directions, would bump the boys and nip at their cuffs or shirt sleeves..
Presently everyone and the puppy moved into the living room of the house, where Boots' short legs, already stout and strong, tumbled and tripped all about the furnishings of the room. Panting happily, she bumped her way into the kitchen, her nose aquiver in all directions at once. She was quickly chased out of the kitchen by Elizabeth, whereupon she tripped and rolled out the screen door to the back porch. Elizabeth, in a newly found authority, exclaimed with conviction, "Roy! That dog is going to have to be an outdoors dog! I'm not having that tornado tail in my kitchen!" Roy and his sons were quick to follow Boots onto the porch and stood in amusement as they witnessed Boots' discovery of, for the first time in her life, Chicken! It was a surprise for Boots, but an even bigger surprise for the fat red hen who had been pecking about the lower porch step when the rolling pup came to an abrupt stop at the edge of the porch, just at the top of the steps.
For Boots the discovery had come at precisely the same moment as had arrived an undeniable call of Nature which demanded she relieve herself then and there, chicken or no. Before she could clamber down the steps and give chase to the first chicken of a long chicken-chasing career, she, with dismay, found herself rotely positioning herself for a respectable urination; her back hunched somewhat and bent down in back over spread legs. But Boots' nose and eyes were telling her that she had no time for concentration on routine matters. She barked and her front paws began to paddle, dragging her hind end with them; she fell headlong down the steps, wetting everything in the fall, and righted herself to try again. Back still bowed, hind legs still spread, her front legs continued paddling for another hilarious moment before her hind end completed its unwanted task and straightened and joined the rest of her in the chase. Roy and his boys hooted and laughed, bending over in their mirth as the red hen went running for her life across the back yard toward the barn which seemed to be an eternity away. The hen, paranoid on her best days, was terrified, and her clucking and shuffling of tail feathers served to entice Boots all the more.
Brandon and Lee were off the porch in an instant, dashing after Boots, hoping to spare the chicken some grief and humiliation. But Boots stayed ahead of them, and the red hen stayed ahead of Boots, and led them all straight into the barn. The red hen knew a passage from inside the barn which Boots could not negotiate, and promptly escaped. Boots let loose a couple of assertive barks which said for certain to all the chickens, geese, ducks, and guineas who lived at the farm, who had until that moment reigned unchallenged about the immediate back yard between the porch and barn, that life as they had always known it was over.
Lee and Brandon caught up with Boots inside the barn, where she sat scanning the interior sights and smells. Lee hugged her and Brandon patted her head. Roy stood by the porch door with satisfaction and pride, and a weak stirring of reserve about training the pup to respect the other farm animals. He took in the sundering of the peaceful farmyard by one clumsy puppy, and knew the pup would grow at the farm's expense into a serious hunter unless taught wisely. That could be a new responsibility for the boys, the training of Boots. The boys' mother had a better idea as she watched from just inside the screen door.
"Roy, that mutt you found today is nothing more than a brown butterball of puppy-prank and chicken- chase. Seems the boys will do good with Boots, but it is all your doin's, so don't forget rule number one, which says the dog stays outside!"
Smiling, Roy played back. "Is that it? One rule? Don't you have a rule number two?"
"Rule number two, since you asked, is that you have to pluck any chickens that dog kills, and you'd better hope it isn't very many at that!"
"Aw, hon, that pup just wants to play with `em. I don't think she'll really kill one."
"Right, Roy; and there ain't no milk in the bottom of my butter churn. You think about it before Boots gets any bigger, and figure out how to stop it from happening. It's already too late to take that pup away from the boys.......look at them running with that fat little varmint!" She was smiling now, sharing the bright side of Roy's decision to surprise his family with a puppy. It was a sort of moment wherein she remembered he was a good man, and that she was glad she had married him.
Roy was getting caught up in the rightness of it. To him, a boy and a dog was a good thing. He might even get another puppy to run with Boots. He'd see how things went for a while. For his sons to have a puppy was a part of the right picture of a good family, in his thinking. Roy was always worrying about doing life right. It was important to him because he had always felt that his parents had not done it quite right; he wanted his family to have it right. He and Elizabeth were both young, and Washington, D.C., was as far away and as unperceived as the long southern future which hovered invisibly over their young innocent family like an invisible fate bound-up in their desire to live life "right".
© Elias Alias 1998
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