State Farm Chicanery

by O. Victor Miller

I’m wired, wide-eyed as an owl.  Johnboat and trailer still jack-knifed out into the slow lane but untouched, the Blue Goose bashed in even worse than it was before on the shotgun side, all four quarter panels.

When my teeth quit rattling, the ones I was born with and the others, I hop out of The Goose into a crepe myrtle bush at the entrance of Solo Archery’s driveway. I get untangled from scratchy branches and rush over to the Chevy Cobalt with the pig nose beneath the windshield. I jerk open the passenger’s door and slide into the front seat to check out the victim, a pretty Hispanic- looking brunette I’ll eventually discover doesn’t speak Spanish is strapped in behind the wheel howling hysterically, babbling away in some dialect  I don’t recognize–some guttural polyglot packed with grunts, squeaks and consonants–English, it turns out.

Oh God! I see the empty baby seat in back and go bananas, screaming louder than the Hispanic-looking girl who hit me. I hang over the front seat digging around for dead babies, going increasingly and absolutely postal. I’m looking for babies in places where babies absolutely cannot be, under the front seat, everywhere. The Hispanic looking woman and I scream together until it dawns on me there are no dead or injured infants in the Chevy Cobalt. I address the hysterical victim in Spanish, which I assume is her native tongue.

“Todo estara bien,” I promise her.

She looks at me wide-eyed and howls some more. Her left hand is raised like she’s been riding a bull, the wrist bleeding, but not bad enough for a tourniquet. Her arms and legs exit her torso at acceptable angles, no fractured bones extruding, but I’m reluctant to feel up a hysterical young woman for broken bones without express permission with her being restrained, as she is, in a safety harness.  Her face is swollen and distorted from crying, best I can tell.

Then, oh my God, I see it! A pearly organ herniating into her lap, some secret female bowel our mothers didn’t tell us about. Ruptured, it eases out like the foot of a giant mollusk, growing and undulating. Whisps of gray smoke rising off this thing.

I’m petrified. Just as I discover I haven’t killed an infant, I see I’ve wombed the mother. Her hysterics are drowned out by my own. I scramble back out of the Chevy.  Nothing in first aid or basic human anatomy covers a rupturing bladder fixing to combust into flames. I tumble out the door, colliding with– thank God–another woman, a mature, capable female who can take charge.

“Are you hurt?” the newcomer asks.

I cover my mouth, holding back the bottomless scream.

Of course, I’ve heard of air bags but I’ve never seen one, never owned a vehicle with one on board. This smoking thing quivering like the viscera of a flathead catfish.

“No, no!” It’s her! It’s her!” I finally squeak through parted fingers. I usher the Samaritan into the front seat with the wombed Latina. “I didn’t touch her,” I protest loudly, getting a grip.

Todo estara bien! Ella te ayuda!” I bleat through the window.  By now I’ve figured out the victim’s womb hasn’t popped out to spontaneously combust. What looked like smoke is actually talcum powder a partially deploring air bag was packed in.

Some panic dissipates, but I’m still humming with adrenaline, hanging on the door frame, still glancing around looking for slaughtered innocence, stand. It’s easy to first overlook something you’re loath to find. I stand by and try to remain conscious in case I have to translate mortal statistics.

The victim mumbles something to the Samaritan.

“What! Wha’d she say?”

“She says she speaks English. She says, call 911?”

“That’s English?”

“Yes.”  

“I don’t have a phone,” I report.

While I was out sailing the Caribbean, technology got way ahead of me. You cruise around at four knots for seven years, you get terrified of a cloverleaf. Same thing happened when I came home from Korea in 1968.  It’s biologically practical for bipeds to go slowly so they don’t fall down and bust their asses. In the last hundred years or so we’ve artificially acclimated ourselves to high velocity and this is neurotically stressful to human meat. The interstate and the Internet override our animal sanity, run contrary to the biological wisdom we acquired over millions of years of arboreal and pedestrian evolution. That’s why we’re all crazy as cat squirrels in a brushfire.

Mother Nature doesn’t like us hauling our fragile asses around in sheet metal and plastic capsules at suicidal velocities while conducting business and volatile love affairs on a Blackberry. In the good old days when I came along everybody on the highway was just drunk, trying to see one centerline and staying between it and the ditch. Nobody zipping around in heavy traffic screwing with the GPS or television or texting other teenagers on cell phones. Even drunks were more focused than commuters are now. 

Seeing I don’t have a cell phone, a dozen anxious bystanders slap leather. Phones clear hip holsters and pocketbooks–none alike in color, size or design–spectators raising them high like fiddler crabs attracting a mate. They regard me like something that dropped in from outer space when they discover I’ve got no earthly idea how to use the one somebody has handed me. Actually both wrecked vehicles look like they could’ve fallen from somewhere pretty high.

There’re as many phones as bystanders, including the one on the front seat the hysterical victim may or may not have been using when she slammed my ass into the crepe myrtle tree. Of course, I’ll never own a cell phone. My life is fragmented enough without being at the beck and call of every son of a bitch on the planet. You got a Blackberry, you’re expected to stay in touch with everybody you’ve ever met. Some bimbo in Cartagena wondering why you haven’t called her on her birthday for six or seven years. Until my shipwreck I had a radio for emergencies and for entering an occasional harbor. I kept it off most of the time I wasn’t screaming “MAYDAY!”

Instantly sheriff prowlers and police cars from two counties materialize. EMT vans and a fire truck howl up. Then one of two ambulances totes the victim, splinted into a gurney and wearing a neck brace, off to the hospital. The wrecker winches her Chevrolet Cobalt up the ramp of its flatbed. My own neck hasn’t started hurting yet. Or my back.

The ranking police officer, Corporal McClure, commander of Georgia State Patrol Post 40, takes charge.

“Tell me what happened, Mr. Miller?”

“I got no earthly idea, Trooper. “When I heard the tires squalling, I turtled in my neck, felt the crash and saw some celestial pyrotechnics. I didn’t notice her in my rear view mirror, I guess because she hit me in the side. I was turning in Solo Archery here for longbow strings.  Bam!  I’d be afraid to tell you I know what happened. Except I know I was going slow. I always go slow. Traffic terrifies me. I sailed the Caribbean for seven years. You get used to four knots for seven years, man, a bicycle’s too fast. If you always go slower than everybody else, I guess it’s logical you’re going to take a hit in the ass.”

“How slow do you think you were going?”

“I was going slow enough to pull a boat trailer into a business driveway without turning over. Then I was I was going sideways faster than forward.”

The wreck didn’t shake me up. I’ve been in wrecks for fifty years, some of them doozies, and “The Goose” had been rear-ended earlier this month coming out of Open Air Barbeque in Jackson, Ga., the outdoor restaurant Flannery O’Connor recreated in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Waiting for the highway patrol, this young lady palavered on and on about automobile accidents she’d had. The Goose turned the front of her Japanese sedan into a pig nose just like it did the Chevy. Before the highway patrol got there, I told her if she’d promise never to text in a moving vehicle, I wouldn’t file against her insurance company. There wasn’t much noticeable new damage to The Goose anyway, which has a steel bumper.  I hadn’t been driving that time. KK had. She won’t let me drive when we’re going somewhere together. I drive too slow, for one thing.

“What scared me was the baby seat, then, ugh, that air bag!”

“You wearing your seat belt, Mr. Miller?”

I’m able to answer that. “I never wear a seat belt, never have. I’m scared of driving off a bridge or catching fire.” I point to The Goose. “I got roll-up windows and manual door locks, a ball peen hammer in the floorboard in case I got to come out of there through the windshield.”

Trooper McClure informs me that although drivers of trucks aren’t currently required to wear restraining harnesses, the law will soon change. With all this protection, why don’t I feel safe?

Cpl. McClure notices a lot of stuff besides a ball peen hammer.  Several longbows, a dozen arrows, a .308 deer rifle, a 12 gage Winchester pump, two pistols, a fly rod, a tackle vest, and one pair of jockey briefs in a paper bag with a cheese sandwich.

“It’s Thanksgiving,” I explain. “Everything’s in season.”

Of course, the johnboat’s full of stuff, the truck bed too. Cpl. McClure wonders if any of the guns are loaded. They all are, of course, except maybe the shotgun.

“A lot of this was in the backseat before the crash,” I explain.

“How about a driver’s license and proof of insurance? You got anything like that?” 

 “Oh, sure. I got all that stuff in here somewhere,” I’m proud to say. I try to stay legal, hate being in jail. I plunder the truck for proof of insurance. Plunder is what my mother called it when I got to looking for something I probably won’t be able to find. I discover an expired learner’s motorcycle permit, donating worn out organs to anybody hard up enough to need them. I proffer my tote permit and my Senior Lifetime Sportsman license. There’s a note on the visor with K.K. Snyder’s number in case I’m discovered dead, demented or too addled to make sense. Like in case I start speaking Spanish to hysterical women who don’t.

“I’m retired,” I grin. “I hunt and fish a lot and write about it sometimes. If it ain’t fun, I don’t do it, and if it is, I take my own sweet time.”

I shuffle through the canasta deck of expired insurance cards from the glove compartment the wreck jarred open.  “This might take a while.”

Never mind, he can check all that out on the computer. 

So why’m I required to tote all this shit around if it’s on the computer.  The firearm license makes sense if you got a truckload of loaded guns, I guess, although almost as many folks have tote permits as cell phones. They’re a heap more guns than permits.  The tote permit didn’t keep me from going to jail in Belize on an undeclared firearms charge after the shipwreck.  After K.K. flew down to get me out of jail, I’d lost 40 lbs, my yacht and most of my net worth including a lot of toys. After the $5000 fine to get out of jail and the expense of flying me, my two Boykin spaniels and K.K. back home, I had $4200, which I’d spent on The Blue Goose to pull my Airstream, my home. Before the shipwreck I lived on my CSY 44 cutter-rigged sloop. Ex-wives and their lawyers had relieved me of my house and property long before I retired.

Although it doesn’t look like it to Cpl. McClure, I don’t sleep in the truck, but in the Airstream parked on the riverbank of my family home of sixty years, where I’m trying to simplify life enough to afford to live it. With Social Security and teacher’s retirement, I do fine as long as I don’t buy anything or borrow money. I have a “three-sisters” native American garden (corn, beans and squash) on the riverbank. My sister, who lives with my son in the big house, is a gourmet cook so we eat very well on what we grow and whatever I can catch, shoot or run-over, which is why I need a vehicle sturdy enough to sustain collisions with deer, hogs and other large animals, as Tonette Gezzi might testify. Well, that’s why The Goose is so full of stuff. It’s where I keep my toys.

Although I’ve done a heap of winnowing since I retired, the Airstream’s still too small for all the stuff I salvaged from the shipwreck, police and pirates. She wasn’t much when I bought her, the cheapest of several taken out of service by an electrical company. Since then I’ve sideswiped some trees in the woods, sculpting a gutter down the shotgun side from a pipe fence that swung to when I was hauling a deer out of a former student’s hunting lease. I thought the sound was a privet bush and kept on going, digging a trench down quarter panels already damaged when I bought her with my last $4200. If it hadn’t been a junker, I couldn’t have afforded it. Since the shipwreck I have become what is called a gentleman of reduced circumstances.

 “The wreck didn’t do all that,” I tell Trooper McCall, “but she hit everywhere there was already damage and some virgin territory.”

Cpl. McClure asks that I get to the point and wonders if The Goose can pull the johnboat off the highway to let some of the officials directing traffic go home. She cranks right up in a dependable veil of blue smoke. I drag the boat deeper into the parking lot. Officer McClure shows me the skid marks where the Cobalt jumped the curb and clobbered me after I’d already executed the turn.

In some ways The Goose is better than before. It never has been the kind of vehicle anybody would try to carjack or break into to steal the tape deck. Thieves steer clear, afraid that while they plunder The Goose. I’ll steal something from them. Plus, there’s all those guns. Now the passenger door is jammed so there’s only the driver’s side to break into.  It’s safer to drive now too. The wreck left both doors sprung ajar wide enough to scoop in fresh air with not quite enough space for a thief to reach in to snatch my pistol off the front seat. I never have to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning.  

The heat and AC didn’t work even before Ms Tonette Gezzi plastered me. Plus I’ve been trying to own the most economical transportation possible to move my home off friends’ property when they get tired of having me around. The Goose wasn’t worth much in money before the wreck. Now two body shops have declared it “totaled,” so I feel like I’m down to the economical bare minimum of vehicular simplicity. I’m driving a “totaled” vehicle that was practically worthless when I bought her. The Goose don’t owe me nothing, and I can take pride in the ownership of property that doesn’t actually own me. Like the johnboat Ms. Gezzi charitably spared.

A few days later I drive The Goose by the State Patrol Post to pick up the accident report. It cants a little to one side, the frame being bent, but it’s drivable at least for speeds I’m inclined to drive it. It still pulls my johnboat and the lights and blinkers work. I have high hopes it will still tug the Airstream out of my sister’s backyard when she runs me off.

One thing about all the technology I haven’t kept up with, it’s capable of producing very unambiguous accident reports complete with a digitally reproduced drawing of a Chevy Cobalt  jumping the curb,  passing a  johnboat and trailer on the right and T-boning The Goose, a glancing blow that scored the shotgun quarter panels from the rear hubcap to the front bumper.

Imagine my surprise when State Farm Claims Investigator Jim A. Tidwell wrote me that he had determined that 50 percent of the accident was my fault. According to Ms. Gezzi, their hysterical client, I swerved into the center lane before turning into the driveway, which is what I thought you had to do with a diesel Ford F-250 pulling a 14 ft. johnboat around a sharp right turn.  To avoid hitting my boat the Chevy Cobalt jumped the curb and hit The Goose, which had already entered Solo Archery’s driveway—according to State Trooper McClure and the accident report. State Farm’s accident investigator apparently hadn’t conferred with the mob of official witnesses, police, firemen, EMT’s, plus a dozen or so bystanders with designer telephones who were on the scene. Tidwell just decided to rule on the case contrary to the State Police report.

“But Ms. Tonette Gezzi was charged,” I point out, “and I wasn’t.”

“We conduct our own investigations,” says Tidwell. He tells me I can drive the totaled truck to Byron, Georgia, where Ms. Tonette Gezzi resides and take it up with the magistrate. State Farm isn’t going to fix my truck, but they won’t claim against my liability insurance if I don’t contest Tidwell’s findings. By now it’s the end of January. I’m holding $3500 worth of airline tickets for Tierra del Fuego, where an Argentine couple who once crewed on my boat have invited me to visit. I’m not inclined to go to Byron, Georgia and get mixed up in local politics trying to make State Farm accept an accident report prepared by a post commander of the Georgia State Patrol.

I contact the insurance firm my family has used for six decades. “Your liability insurance is with us,” the pretty secretary explains. “You don’t carry collision.”

“Collision! Who’d buy collision on a 1997 truck?” The Goose wasn’t worth much when I bought her, but she’s the only transportation I’ve got besides the johnboat and a 650cc dirt bike. I’m not licensed to drive the bike on paved roads after dark because I dropped it during the driving test and was too embarrassed to go back to retest.

“Listen, I’m a retired teacher on a fixed income. I live in a travel trailer. How can State Farm refuse to pay for my truck when the State Police charged their client with the accident?”

I call a lawyer I grew up with at Radium Springs a half century ago. He turns me over to his partner, who isn’t interested in cases not involving personal injury. Well, I know I have neck and back pain I didn’t have before the wreck, but my quasi-aristocratic mother taught me it was “common” to go to court in the first place, and it’s the worst kind of cliché to go in wearing a neck brace and yelling whiplash.  At my age, the injury could’ve been caused by any number of things besides an automobile accident. My electric toothbrush could have backfired, for example. The neck pain didn’t get really bad until after I bounced over several thousand miles of bad highway across Patagonia in a Volkswagen sedan.

Once trial lawyers, judges and insurance commissioners get involved, even I won’t remember the truth. And truth is what we got to live with when we shave. In your case, Mr. Tidwell, the evidence shows you willfully ignored an official State Police report to cheat a 67-year-old school teacher on a fixed retirement income out of the only semi-reliable transportation he has, and it looks to me like you encouraged or abetted a young lady’s involvement in chicanery, maybe a conspiracy to defraud the Grange Company, my liability insurer. You lied when you told another writer, K.K. Snyder, over a telephone she knows how to use, that State Farm wouldn’t claim against my liability policy if I kept my mouth shut. I find now that you’ve indeed filed that claim.

Even though I haven’t yet legally contested your ridiculous ploy, I’m posting the accident report, your letters and a MRI X-ray of the old bones damaged by your client on this blog.

A reading public and fellow motorists can decide for themselves if they ever want to do business with you and State Farm. Perhaps you have friends and family, maybe children who’d like to respect your memory. Perhaps you consider yourself respectable, a company man who strolls in church among prospective clients nodding like a pigeon. Maybe you content yourself that you are just doing your job, a rising star in a mega-firm rapidly earning a reputation for shirking contractual obligations. Maybe you think it’s just good business to save State Farm a few bucks by rendering claims too frustrating for disenfranchised baby boomers on the last lap of their earthly spawn to bother pursuing.

I’m lucky The Goose still runs well enough to illuminate your and your company’s shenanigans. I hope I can make you both a little more famous and notorious, contenting myself for the time being to warn other folks my age against mega-companies that lobby into law universal mandates requiring liability insurance, then ignoring  their obligation to live up it. Did you frighten Ms. Tonette Gezzi, warning that her daddy’s premiums would go up if State Farm made good the damage she did to my meat, bones and property?

Since the accident I’ve spent $800 to keep The Goose running down the road, advertising this blog and State Farm’s felonious chicanery. And  Ms. Tonette Gezzi has made The Goose conspicuous. I don’t expect I’ll go away. Every time neck or back pain keeps me from fishing, drawing my bow or lifting my grand-nieces for a hug, I’ll remember you and your clients in Byron, who apparently lack the courage or responsibility to insist you make good the liability protection they’ve paid for. I plan to drive The Goose until it won’t move another foot. Then I’ll make a planter out of it in some conspicuous place visible to a gullible public. When I die I expect to be buried in my junk beneath a stone marker warning that recalls State Farm’s chicanery.

No I won’t. I’ll will The Goose to any teenagers who’ll promise to keep her moving perpetually around the USA, advertising State Farm Chicanery. A very good day to you, sir.

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Spared Rods and Spoiled Children

By O. Victor Miller

In memory of Dan Fowler

“O ye! Who teach the ingenious youth of nations, Holland, France, England, Germany or Spain.  I pray ye flog them upon all occasions, It mends their morals, never mind the pain” – Byron, Don Juan

 The other day young Michael Brooks, publisher of Albany Magazine asked me if it was true, as his father swore, that our generation walked barefoot to school through the snow. Loyal to the parental credibility of my contemporaries, I assured him that this was so, though truth compelled me to add there was snow on the ground in South Georgia only from September through April.

 If Michael’s generation doesn’t have trouble filling our shoes it’s because their feet are bigger. Kids are taller now. In my day nobody on the basketball team was over five-ten.  Our growth was stunted because there was no free lunch, and we burned a lot of calories walking to school-calories we couldn’t replenish without lunch money.  Also, parents and teachers conspired to keep us small so they could whip us with impunity.  Size was power, and if the youth of today aren’t sinewed with cables of steel, it’s because their mettle is untempered by the exquisite hardships we endured.  Even the notion of healthy growth was treated contemptuously in my day.  Adults derogatorily labeled recalcitrant children big babies, or, bigshots, or too big for their britches. Existence itself, being, was even shameful. “You think you’re something, don’t you?” they’d chide.

 Another distinction between my generation and Michael’s is the commitment of our teachers, who were tough as the seasons. We had corporal punishment in our segregated schools and teachers fully capable of dishing it out. They ordered us to grab our ankles and flailed us with strops, paddles, rulers, fan belts and radiator hoses.  Licks, the punishment was called, and the rare girl got spanked too. Girls grabbed their ankles with their derriere to the blackboard to prevent baring the dumpling hinges of knees.  The humiliation of public whipping didn’t umbrage Victorian modesty.  The other guys delight in the struck penitents’ wobble of breast, but I always averted my eyes.

 To make sure you didn’t release your ankles and straighten up before the–therwack-lick landed, the coaches randomly fired high, swinging over our backs.  Anyone bolting upright at the penultimate moment would be stropped across the ear with a fan belt or clubbed with a modified 2X4 in the back of the head. The paddles were marked with clever nomenclature: Board of Education or Golden Ruler.  We were too stupid for reverse psychology.  One new math teacher down from New Jersey announced that misbehavers would no longer be allowed to work word problems.  “Oh Jeez,” we pleaded, “anything but that!”

 Sugar Ray’s punitive policy had a sporting twist.  When you misbehaved, cut-up they called it, you came back after school and chose one of the four drawers in his filing cabinet. One had a large paddle, one a smaller one, one a razor strop, and one drawer was empty. I made a point of cutting up every fifth period until ordered to report after school. During sixth period W.C. Anderson would find out which drawer was empty and whisper the secret number.  I’d show up to try my luck, choose the empty drawer, and leave Mr. Council scratching his head over the mathematical odds of my choosing the empty drawer every afternoon for 15 consecutive schooldays.

 Miss Plant would have us read Macbeth, leaving the room when the Bard’s text contained the words inappropriate to her Victorian sensibilities.  Mr. McNabb, the principal, wouldn’t let her expurgate Shakespeare.  We’d read loud enough for her to hear us in the hall.

 It was a special and festive day when a girl got licks, though this generally occurred in the sequestered inter-sanctum of Miss Plant’s office, where not even football players were allowed. It was generally conceded that girls who acted like boys were treated accordingly, but it was feared that a misplaced lick could “ruin a girl for life,” shocking the uterus into permanent dysfunction.  This eventuality wasn’t viewed as particularly tragic as long as the good girls’ uteruses survived in tact, though everybody knew only bad girls engaged in the kind of deportment that led to reproduction.

 Robert “Buffalo Bob” Faudree, the second largest teacher at AHS, married the Spanish teacher and became a banker, kowabonga. Lots of teachers in those days were farmers too. And auto mechanics. They brought in a diverse variety of educational aids–jumper cables, hydraulic and radiator hoses, fan belts. The female teachers brought in bed slats, having them drilled and whittled in wood shop to offset with balance and leverage whatever they lacked in upper body strength.

 “I don’t know,” Edward answered, carelessly pointed his digitus impudicus under Frenchy’s nose.  “I seen the other boys doing it, so I copied them. I don’t know what this means.”  Edward’s decomposed body was found a decade or so later in a snow bank in Ohio with a gangland bullet in his head. I don’t know if Coach Lowe has any connections up there or not. Tommy Ross married beautiful Robin Leeger and became a lawyer like Buster Vansant, who says Pat “Mudcat” Field paddle him so vigorously for cutting up in Mrs. Saunders’ English class he had to go home and unstick his bloody underwear from his ass by soaking in the tub.  Buster’s mother was horrified, but his father smiled over his newspaper, understanding what an insufferable little shit Buster could be.

 Times were tougher in those days, and winters were colder. During hard freezes we left home early, staggering our paths to step in lukewarm cow flop to keep our toes from freezing. We followed closely behind the cows because the pies cooled as they dropped and froze soon after splattering the frozen pastures.  Teachers in those days provided heated antifungal footbaths at entrance thresholds to keep us from tracking cow shit into the classrooms.  It was a long walk between cow pies for those who crossed the frozen Flint. Eventually, teenage entrepreneur Bucky Geer drove his father’s cattle to school and let us for the price of our lunch money follow the herd.  Our mothers, as had mothers since the first one, warned us not to make ugly faces in winter for fear a north wind would freeze our mugs into a hideous rictus we would carry to our graves.They sighted football hero Frank Orgel, who never obeyed his mother, as a living example. Orgel became a prodigious broken field runner rushing late to school and zig-zagging through as many cow pies as he could along the way.  His face froze into an agonized snarl that didn’t soften until middle age.

 I told Michael he could thank or blame my generation for the softness of his and for its general progress.  If sons’ vision is longer than their fathers’, it’s because sons stand upon the shoulders of our stony hardship.  It was difficult to improve ourselves fighting hard times and dodging the draft, and we developed a grim determinism of poverty and global aggression-a perpetuity of world wide economic and military instability which can be expressed, in the words of Steve Hinton’s mother: “They’ll always be POah and WAwah.”

 Coach Bob “Big-un” Fowler was educations best deterrent to bad deportment.  He’s only 6’8” inches now, but he was a lot taller when I was in junior high and high school. We figured if he paddled you, you’d end up in a body cast or an iron lung. But the coaches weren’t the only teachers compulsive about keeping order. “Sugar” Ray Council, my high school algebra teacher, paddled me so severely one afternoon he numbed my coccyx and backlashed my ducktail. Temporarily paralyzed in a jack-knifed posture, I had to walk home dragging my knuckles across frozen cow pies, my mind full of splintered light.  For this, saints flagellated themselves?

 I got another whipping when I got home, for getting a whipping at school.

 W.C. later died in jail awaiting trial as the prime suspect for killing “Jane Doe,” a decomposed woman discovered to be his wife, but in those days W.C. had replaced Bucky as recipient of my lunch money.  One day W.C. cut class to shoot illegal wood ducks, and I found myself trying to stare through a gunmetal filing cabinet, procrastinating as long as I could before stooping to eenie-meenie mental telepathy. Sugar Ray smiled diabolically when I picked the drawer containing the large paddle with nickel-sized holes for he’d been sorely provoked. With that instrument, powered by hostility pent up from weeks of unavenged insubordination, he embossed nickel-sized blood blisters in base relief across my fundament, teaching me that the slight Mr. Council could give licks nearly as hard as we imagined Coach Fowler could.

 Miss Thelma Plant, the Albany High School dean of girls, carried a tape to measure skirt lengths she suspected be less than 6 inches below the knee.  Miss Plant was no taller than my belt buckle.  She didn’t even have to stoop to gauge hems. Pregnant girls were sent home, married girls were sent home. Funny haircuts were sent home with the heads they decorated. The worst thing they could do to us was send us home, where our parents didn’t want us around any more than teachers did.

 “’I have given SUCK’,” we’d yell, “’and know how tender ‘tis to love the babe that MILKS me. I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my NIPPLE from its boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this’.”

 Miss Plant was hard on girls but loved football players, in whom she found grand measures of bucolic grace.  She’d beam lovingly as Mike “Toilet” Doyal or Eddie Ogletree duhed and stuttered through Elizabethan drama. “That was wonderful, Michael, spoken like a true Southern gentleman. Now please be kind enough to recite the dagger soliloquy.”

 “Do what?”

 Strangely Miss Plant loved me too.  My daddy, she insisted, had saved her life with an O-negative transfusion when she’d had some unmentionable organ removed. She’d pull me aside and smile upward, focusing her teary eyes on some phenomenon a thousand yards beyond the back of my tangled ducktail. “We have the same blood in our veins, you and I,” she said.

 “Do what?”

 I don’t recall Coach Fowler ever whipping a girl.  Actually, I don’t remember him giving anybody licks at all, but it was rumored that he used his bare, oar-sized hand instead of a paddle.

 There were other coaches like O’Brian and Tilliski, who’d pop our buttocks with lanyards as we ran laps around the track.  Mr. Hershell, the mechanical drawing teacher, had forearms like Popeye, and we were deathly afraid of one-armed “Lefty” Sanders, to whom Ben Swilley gave a single cufflink for Christmas.  We correctly assumed Lefty to be twice as strong as any two-fisted teacher except Coach Fowler.

 Graham “Frenchy” Lowe threatened to run Edward Lewis through the expansion wire window of the gym and dice him like a carrot. Edward had flipped a bird at Tommy Ross and Frenchy saw him through the corner of his eye. Coach Lowe snatched Edward up by his upturned collar as Edward ran in place. “What does that mean, big shot?” he demanded.

 Coach “Moon” Mullis, famous for tantrums, accidentally flung his watch along with a pile of substandard geometry papers, shattering it against the wall, then paddled Johann Bleicher for laughing.  Johann later became a San Francisco hippie, a drug head, then a high school principal in North Carolina.

 “Sweet William” Bragg was there, svelte and dramatic, waving his arms and quoting Falstaff. Nobody misbehaved in his class either, and if any teacher ever deserved a monument cast in bronze it was Billy Bragg, whose professional footsteps I tried to follow, later becoming his colleague and friend.

 We liked them all well enough, our teachers.  They were decent men and women with sadistic streaks we could understand, but Coach Fowler was the one who stood us in awe. He never rushed, he never screamed, it looked like he never breathed deeply enough to blow his whistle.  Our respect derived in part from our knowledge that he was big enough to kill us but didn’t.

 Coach Bob taught me in junior high and in high school, as did Graham Lowe.  To this day I don’t know if they changed jobs, got promoted, or moonlighted just to follow me around.  At Darton College I taught Bob’s youngsters Julie, Nancy, and Dan less for vengeance that for a sweet sense of continuity.  Dan couldn’t get to my 8 a.m. English class on time because he deer hunted every morning.  To make him punctual, I hunted with him until I started coming in late myself.  An emu or a wildebeest could walk under your deer stand at Fowler Farms, which served as a holding facility for wild animals Dan’s naturalist uncle had promised to zoos.  There was no telling what Uncle Jim turned loose in that swamp.  Sometimes I was too scared to climb down at 8 o’clock.

 I tried to follow Billy Bragg’s footsteps but found my path as staggered and beshitted as our way to school.  Billy was an institution, the kind of teacher I’ll never be. All my old teachers were better educators than I am, and a high school diploma in those days was equivalent to at least a master’s degree today.  I still remember the Shakespeare Miss Plant made me memorize, and what little algebra I know came from Mr. Council.  I’ve never paddled a student, although I’ve had to call the cops on a few, and more pupils than I can estimate have come through or around me without mastering basic literacy skills.

 Georgia’s public schools in Albany during the ‘50s weren’t perfect and our teachers weren’t either, but I don’t remember ever seeing a kid beyond the third grade who couldn’t read, write or figure. Our teachers meant well, and I hold no grudge for the licks. If they didn’t teach us right from wrong, they left no doubt in our minds what they thought was right and wrong, and our parents sided with them to present a united front. I look back on my education with one haunting regret. I’m ashamed that I wasn’t anywhere near the role model for Bob’s kids that their father was for me.

Things That Bite In the Night

by Douglas Bernon

 If you’ve spent all day knocking back high-octane chicha – fermented ceremonial corn – at an islandwide jamfest celebrating a Kuna girl’s first menses and it’s the middle of the night and you’re on the throne in a rickety outhouse perched over the water’s edge, you’ve neither time nor reason to determine what kind of Paleozoic monster has reared up from the depths and is ripping flesh from your leg. When this happened to a Kuna named Demasio, despite his wounds he leaped up, broke free, and, trousers bunched at his ankles, lurched down the dirt street – screaming.

Photo by K.K. Snyder

 Playon Chico, an island off Panama, had been aflutter for weeks, fearing for the safety of its children, because some nocturnal beast had been stealing ashore and eating dogs. Now, with the sneak attack on Demasio and the beast’s obliteration of a privy and dock, the fiend was known, and Kuna elders were faced with a call to arms. An event to mythologically and psychologically perfect – what youngster hasn’t feared surreptitious attacks from the toilet bowl? – plucks its own rescuing knight.

Destiny provided St. George in the form of cruising sailor O. Victor Miller, from the Kinchafoonee Creek in Leesburg, Georgia. A most untweedy retired professor of literature, Victor is a single-hander who, for part of each year, works on his writing while living on Kestyll, his CSY 44, anchored in Ukupseni Bay, across from Playon Chico. One of the deftest hands in the “Grit Lit” movement of contemporary Southern literature, his droll tales of hunting and fishing in Gray’s Sporting Journal and his collected short stories, in a volume called One Man’s Junk, make me long to have been born south of the Mason-Dixon. He’s also well armed, and because of his many volunteer projects in the village, he’d already become an adopted son of the Kunas in Playon Chico.

 Dragon slaying has probably always required a seasonal hunting license from some fool bureaucracy, and not much goes down in the San Blas islands without the overview of the Kuna Yala island chiefs. Aware that hiring heroes can be a tricky business, the sahilas approached Victor for help and asked the pertinent question: “Have you killed crocodiles before?”

 “No,” he swaggered. “We don’t have crocs in Georgia, but what’s a crocodile but an alligator with an attitude? If he ain’t bulletproof, we’ll bring him in.”

 Licensed to kill, and hoping to bring home major bacon for a community that doesn’t see much protein from meat, Victor assembled his weapons and a small Kuna posse. On the second evening of their hunt, he tracked his quarry to a nearby mainland river and baited the ambush by tying a dog to a tree. Hours ticked by. Suddenly the dog became agitated. Victor spotted “a long, green log.” He eased in the direction of the suspicious log, which disappeared, leaving in the mud a flat, smooth area with claw prints. “Meanwhile, that ol’ dog went crazy, tore itself from the tree, and took off. My headlamp ignited a bright red eye floating on the water. I blasted it with a round of00-buck. A warty, conical head, like an outsized wizard cap, erupted from the water, followed by an interminable length of crocodile, shaggy as a pinecone, big as a Pontiac.”

 Wounded, the monster slipped under water. Victor blasted it with a .44. Thought he killed it. Bet down, grabbed it around the neck, and began dragging it to shore. But the croc spun wildly and knocked him in the water. “Suddenly,” he said, “I’m on the other side of the river, trying to yell for help around a mouthful of mud.” Humming with endorphins, he draws his .44. Again he shoots it behind the head. Again it slides back into the water. He shot it three more times before the beast called it quits. After it was over, Victor felt a melancholy “that I knew wasn’t going to go away, something that comes with age to hunters who come to love prey more than killing it.”

 Lately festooned with a croc-teeth necklace, Victor is now a full-fledged superman in Playon Chico. Many Kunas proudly point us to the nine-foot hide drying on a hut roof, and everyone gives Victor wide smiles as we walk around together. The village is peaceful again. Kids play and splash once more near the shoreline. Damasio limps a little, but he’s healed up pretty well, and the Kunas have a new story to tell, about the big gringo who came on his sailboat, slayed their dragon, and decided to stay awhile.

 Published in Log of Ithaka – Cruising World Magazine – August 2003