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.

In Memory of Lt. Col. Frank F. Hutto, USAF Reserves

(For Linda Hutto)

 Your cousin

and I flew a Cessna to Eglin

to visit your brave wife and children

and found them surrounded

by women who gather late

together waiting

when a fighter pilot’s lost or down.

The night you ditched

somewhere off the Key Largo

in shallow ocean

and your sergeant found

your laughter in the fog,

you-crazy-son-of-a-bitch,

those women were around.

They came

when you ejected

over desert

and the choppers found your parachute,

and you in a yellow raft

floating on sand.

the same wives gathered.

Busy maternity wives,

infected with hope

while you screeched

through mountains that rise

from the South China Sea.

Hope out of habit

tempered in the ripped

thick darkness

of Viet Nam nights.

            II.

We leave the church at Shalimar,

the tan blond undertaker,

in despicable health, orchestrating,

arranging the sluggish formation

that follows to your grave:

Your wild-ass warrior friends

mellowed and sober, mute,

seasoned, debriefed, tamed

into civilian suits,

strapped into Chevrolets.

Those who learned to love you best,

the college friends

bound by middle age among the living,

your brother, your sister.

And your mother,

alone in grief that nature did not groom her for—

the death of sons.

Your wife, your son, your daughter

grappled to absent flesh,

and the crab scuttles back to the forth house.

            III.

We huddle in the August heat

around a flag-draped corpse

while adolescent corpsmen

stand in rank

to tap the drums

and raise the guns

to fire their muffled blanks.

After taps,

authenticated by the one bad note,

and after the pop-guns fired

and after the flyover

when the jets screamed,

teasing the barriers of sound,

howling…it seemed…

and after they buzzed again,

after the planes were gone,

after the minister mumbled

on and on…

…high above us, high above the cemetery lawn,

riding the updrafts and currents where

the airs of the land and sea collide,

an osprey sailed

higher than the ceremonial jets had flown,

a swept-wing, square-tailed silhouette alone

that frolicked through capricious, saline breezes

from the sea with aquiline felicity.

            And some said:

“There’s Frank, hot-shotting

now he’s got his wings.”

            When death’s around,

We say the damndest things.

            IV.

Returning home from burying you,

lone engine droning,

we feel like fledglings,

trespassing air space,

yours, if anyone has the claim of love on air,

here where the wrinkled gulf

gnaws the land’s edge – a wafer, thin and gray,

the color of your dying face.

We skirt weather that a jet would shatter,

the intermarried shroud

of wind and rain together

in the towering cumulus cloud.

            V.

We mourn

cheerfully where we are

and pray you will be borne

higher than ether,

mixing molecules with freckled stars.

Sunday School

 

By O.Victor Miller

In Memory of John T. Phillips, Jr.

            Mother was what they called high-strung.  She’d press the heels of her hands into the temples of her hairdo – her permanent—look to heaven and declare, “I can’t stand another minute,” at which point Tillie, the black saint respon­sible for our care and deportment, packed a cardboard suitcase and braided my sister’s hair. The Old Man would load us and Adam, our goofy English setter, into the Buick and head out for the Okefenokee Swamp where Lem Griffis’ Fish Camp had been since WWI, in Clinch County on the Fargo side of the swamp. We passed flickering pine woods, where rectangu­lar cups beneath golden wounds the shape of arrow fletch­ing caught sap we called Indian chewing gum.  The Old Man drank libations of bourbon poured into the neck of nickel Co-Colas and we sang the hymn of getting out of Mother’s hair:

                        If the river was whiskey

                        And I was a duck,

                        I’d swim down to the bottom

                        And drink my way up.

            The Suwannee, meandering the bream beds from its headwaters with the St. Marys like the rivers of Eden, was the color of the Old Man’s bourbon. We always stayed at Lem Griffis’ Fish Camp when we were getting out of Mother’s hair because of our father’s pagan love of that stretch of swamp and for his admira­tion for Lem Griffis, a sinewy guide in his 60’s in immaculate overalls with a full head of black hair hoar-frosted at the temples. Lem was the best and the most won­derful liar in Georgia. He was born in a log cabin he helped his daddy build. The Okefenokee was our Sunday School and the Old Man’s religion, with Lem a sort of high priest presiding over the earthly paradise eighteenth century Creeks de­scribed to Bartram as Shangrila, the most blis­sful place on Earth, where beautiful women and fierce warriors inhabited islands that vanished and reap­peared.  We worshiped the cathedral hush of canopy, the prai­ries, the hammocks, the runs, the lakes.  We marveled at gothic roots and pillars of cypress, bay and tupelo in patriarchal whiskers of Spanish moss that held up a perfect sky. I re­member looking up to Lem, way up, into the twinkle of black eyes though he must’ve been shorter than the Griffis uncle who had to climb a ladder to shave– taller than the one so short he fell back up every time he fell down. Lem had a host of uncles including one who drank so much coffee it took six weeks to shut his eyes after his funeral.

             There was magic in the Okefeno­kee condu­cive to folk­lore and myth, magic in the ­water that kept fish bright as flowers until they were boated and started to fade, the redbelly’s crimson leaching to rust. Silk fishing lines plumbed depths of primordial creation where fish mailed in sequins flickered and tugged when pulled from lakes black as Russian tea– lakes with exotic names like Buck, Billy’s, Maul Hammock, Minnie’s, Sometime Hole, Half Moon, Lick Lack and Monkey surrounding islands called Honey Bee, Soldier’s Camp, Strange, Roasting Ear, Black Jack, Carry’s Sock, Cowhouse and Bugaboo. The Old Man chunked Lucky 13’s to bigmouth bass, whose silver sides flashed gold through the dark water and tar­nished to pewter when hauled gasping into the lethal light of day.  He caught stump­ knock­ers, warmouth and whiskered catfish stained sooty by tannin and mule-mouthed carp that remained golden even in a sloshing bilge.  He caught so many fish Lem said he wore a hole in the water pulling them out.

            The diversity of the swamp’s crit­ters reinforced the Old Man’s reverence for creation, under­lin­ing some principle of plenitude and peace where water birds and wild boar, whitetail deer, black bear, panther and bellowing ­gators lived in quasi-harmony with bullfrogs, coot­ers and red-bellied water snakes basking on low limbs. He was awed by the par­tridge berry, the pitcher plants, the water lily, the busy water bugs in wild molecular orbit, the prism of dew on a spider web.  That these things existed together in micro­cosmic interdependence in­spired the Old Man with a notion of holy and continuous creation.

            After breakfast Lem showed us his shrine of logging tools, arrow­heads, turtle shells, snake skins, deer racks, gator hides, wasp nests, bobcats, birds with baleful glass eyes that linger into adult dreams.  The long yellow teeth of a black bear he’d killed with a pocketknife to save Uncle Billy, whose vainglorious attempt to rescue a beehive left him scalped bald and stitched like a softball.

            We might not see Lem again all day, but after we’d climbed into our bunks, his alto country voice consoled us through insects tapping against the wire screen–If y’uns hear a black noise, reach yore foot out and shake paws.

            One gray morning he told us about a flood, a lighterd knot floater that killed his hogs. Little mud balls accumulated in the curl of their tails finally got too heavy to drag around, stretching hides to the point they couldn’t close their eyelids, killing them from lack of sleep.

             Lem’s fables of cracker wis­dom were to us more credible than bizarre Sunday School parables of hunchback camels and cloyed merchants squirming at Heaven through the eye of a needle– camels you swallowed while choking on gnats.

            Sister believed one whopper about the two snakes pert near matched in mortal combat that Lem happened upon, each swallowing the other’s tail until two heads disappeared in a final gulp and “both them snakes vanished,” he said, slapping his hands, “just like that.”  I relegated the snake story to a concoction to keep us from fighting, which was O.K. Disbelief in Lem’s parables didn’t constitute heresy as with Biblical counterparts of affluent corpses and dromedaries wiggling through tight places, but ­I remember very little sibling discord in the Okefenokee, where bruins lay with fawns, and brothers generally coexisted peaceably with younger sisters. On retreats from Mother’s hair I recall only one serious spanking, and that was when the Old Man was scared–the Sunday morning Sister fell in a dip vat, in 1949, which would’ve made me about seven, Sister four.

          Dip vats were open concrete sepultures built by The Govern­ment to fight Texas tick fever– rectangular tanks set in the ground like narrow swimming pools, shal­low on both ends, deeper than a cow in the middle. They were filled with a solution of arsenic and water to drive livestock through while men pushed their heads under with poles. The idea was about as well thought out beforehand as an Asian war, and there’s no telling how many cows and other life forms were murdered by residu­al arsenic, but this dip vat was long out of service. Minnows and mosquito larva kicked around in murky emerald depths beneath a skim of algae and toad eggs. I never learned how much deeper than cows dip vats were, but Sister may have. She was squatted on the mossy ledge of this one in a narcissistic trance, double pigtails hanging down her back as we, Adam includ­ed, gazed into opaque green mysteries when Adam’s wagging tail knocked her off balance into the chalky depths where she disap­peared into a marbled bloom of disturbed sediment.

            Howling like a redbone if hounds could cuss, the Old Man dropped on his belly over the edge, flailing arms and screaming unholy invocations where Sister disappeared. I wonder­ed what he was going to tell Moth­er.

            Sister must’ve sunk halfway to the bottom and stopped suspended in an emulsion of no telling what dead pelts, algae, insects and spermatic tadpoles. His splashing arms wound up with a braid, which he yanked mighti­ly like his stub­born Evinrude and Sister burst through the surface, dangling by a pigtail from the Old Man’s right hand while he beat her with his left.  I thought he’d snatch her bald as Uncle Billy.  Her eyes were slits, little buckteeth gleam­ing, her canted face—a cartoon Chinaman’s­ – stretched tight enough to imbue credibility of the insomniac demise of Lem’s hogs. I was standing there like a fool wondering if Sister’s face would ever draw back when he flung her to higher ground and snatched me, laying on a spanking that blurred lines between parental love and child abuse. We sniffed and whim­pered while our father, humming with adrena­lin, went after Adam, who outran him, barking and wagging his tail.

            Some Sunday mornings, especially that one, the Old Man read unconvincingly from the worn and dog-eared Gideon on the rough table in the cabin, and we were glad to hear it. Tillie had assured us blas­phemers roasted in Hell like hens, and the Old Man among his many other attributes was a champion blasphemer, especially when Adam knocked Sister into a dip vat.

            Still, our religious education was mostly pagan. We awed a purer truth that existed long before its micromanagement by pastors, popes, saints and heretics into chauvinistic notions and misplaced ideas of man’s mismanaged dominion. So if you were out with the Old Man when he poled our leaky skiff through water lily canals and you laid your cheek on the rough bow to see the world reflected sideways clear as chrome, you couldn’t tell up from down at the meeting of heaven and earth on a vertical hori­zon where wide-bellied cypress with stalagmite roots joined inverted twins reflected in a Delph blue sky so evenly that you forgot which side of the horizon was more perfect – which side was real. And you’d feel the warm sun against a proffered cheek and dream off to sleep while the Old Man, calm as Charon, eased up to a 12-foot alligator, switching its face with a fish­ing pole.  The dragon of Eden would arch its back, raise up on dewclaws, hiss like an air com­pressor through a wide white mouth, so even as Sister and I screamed we could smell its cold fishy breath before it exploded into frothy spray that rocked the skiff.  And Mother, if uncharacteristically lured into joining her dysfunctional family’s sojourn into shrinking wilderness, would dig manicured fin­gernails into the wooden gunwales and call my father hideous names as he poled her ashore to change Sister, who, by the way, flowered prematurely following her wild baptism among tadpoles, worrying Mother for her first bra before she was six.

            The Old Man’s paganism rubbed off on me more than Sister. Though I’ve prac­ticed plenty, I can’t cuss as fluently as he could, yet my immortal portions still seek that frenzied spirit in buck-naked pursuit of illusive swamp maidens and watery footprints of latter day Eves anxious to start over.

            The Old Man, Mother and Tillie are all dead. Lem died in 1968, the year I came home from the Army, comprehensively disillusioned with a sizable chunk of my generation by a deadly patriotism that demands blood sacrifice along fringes of greedy empire. The inside of a church will never inspire salvation like old growth wilderness with the paint of continuous creation still wet on leaf and flower, and I’m chilled that my spiritual progeny will travel wider deserts in cocoons of machine air and blanched blindness to know but thinly the fading testament of Creation  between compromised Earth and toxic Heaven.

 (Published in Southwest Georgia Living 2009)