Monday, July 11, 2005

What?


At the family gathering this weekend to celebrate, belatedly, my sister’s birthday, we told family stories. My sister recalled a story that I had never heard…one, that, indeed, almost made me wet my pants. It is times such as these that I regret having come along ten years later, because I have only very vague memories of some of the subjects of these stories.

My dad had an Uncle Earney, a former GI who had returned home after his World War I stint in the military to work as a carpenter and, apparently, to smoke stogies. I only recall ever having met him once, when he was known as "T-Bone". He had developed cancer of the jaw and mouth and one side of his lower jaw had been removed by the time I met him at his home in Raleigh in the early 1960s. I have since stood at the foot of his grave on numerous occasions and tried to reconcile the granite headstone with the images of the man that I have seen in family photos.

When Earney was a young man just home from the war, he landed a job as a carpenter to help in the construction of some part of the State Home for the Mentally Ill at Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh. Those of us who lived in Delway affectionately referred to this place as "Dix Hill", partly because we talked about it often enough, with all the folks we knew who ended up living there, that we needed a shorthand name of reference for it.

Earney, being the country boy that he was, said that he would go to work at the site, and then at lunch, he would walk down to a nearby restaurant, order a glass of tea and then take out his lunch-pail and eat the sandwich he had brought in with him for the day. He claimed that the managers and wait-staff always looked at him as if he had done something wrong, but he just never could figure out what he had done that was so bad.

One day, after having felt particularly pinched by the glares of the people in the Raleigh restaurants, he returned to work feeling just a tad bit paranoid. As he was walking along, he noticed a man, obviously an inmate, running rapidly toward him. As he drew nearer, Earney noticed the mad look on this man’s face and became concerned. He had just a few seconds to assess the situation, but he decided that he should avoid this man who was approaching at a rapid pace. So, Earney set off running away from the fellow as fast as he could go, his lunch box in tow.

He ran and the man chased him. They ran through the stately oaks on the property and circled them, Earney fearing for his life as this man, who was obviously insane, chased after him. At one point, Earney decided that he had to eject his lunch pail as it was slowing him down and his breath was growing short. The chase continued for several minutes and Earney was suffering from leg pain and shortness of breath to the point that he decided it would be better to let the guy catch him and to call for help than to die of exhaustion running away from him.

So, Uncle Earney stopped in his tracks, expecting the worst.

The man ran up to him, tapped him on the shoulder, screamed "You’re It!" and took off running in the opposite direction.

º º º

At my father’s store, one of the men who "helped out" was involved in a discussion of marriage and procreation. He was fidgeting as he always did. He did a kind of St. Vitus dance that had its own rhythm and form. It involved talking a step slightly forward on the right foot, then partially extending his right arm, although slightly bent at the elbow, while moving his clenched fist in a small circular motion before leaning back into his stride and balance, all to start the movement again in just a few split-seconds.

Someone referred to the horror involved when first cousins marry. At this point, the helper leaned in, moved his hand in a circle, said "My parents were first cousins and there isn’t anything wrong with me!" just before leaning back out to complete his spasmodic dance.

º º º

We had, in fact, a number of families in our community that were the standard setters for behavior, due in part, to the marriage of their parents who were first cousins. As a result, several of the children in these families were afflicted with various tics or dysfunctional behaviors of one type or another. One such family included three brothers who were usually in proximity of one another. One rocked back and forth, one shook and the third didn’t talk "plain". In a normal society, they might have been assessed for mental illness and taken somewhere for care, but in my hometown, they were considered entertainment by many, judging, at least, by the stories that were told about them.

On one occasion, a lady from the community had come to my father’s store to shop when she felt the urge to visit the community outhouse. She walked around to the side of the store and pulled open the door. There, sitting over the hole in the privy with his pants down around his ankles was one of the three brothers. When he looked up at her and she at him, he quickly put his hands over his eyes and shouted "You can’t see me!"

From that day forward, "You can’t see me!" became a kind of catch-phrase for anyone who suffered an embarrassing moment in public in our town.

º º º

Sitting here writing these stories down, I am feeling a tinge of sadness and guilt at the way that our community tended to treat those who suffered from misfortune. In some ways, the arrival of radio and television might have resulted in better treatment for some of these folks as they were either removed from public view by their new distractions, or the public view no longer found them quite as entertaining once images of the outside world came into our town. Either way, despite the nature of the ribbing that they suffered, I don’t think it was ever done in front of them, nor that they would have understood had it been done so. Nonetheless, our community probably could find its karma sitting in the bottom of a community outhouse somewhere in eastern North Carolina. Maybe we laughed because we recognized the humor in the suffering of the human condition that was not so far removed from our own families, or maybe because we knew that our own minds were rocking, shaking and dancing inside, trying to break out of our boredom, our dysfunction or our poverty. Either way, if you find my story offensive, I will simply have to place my hands over my eyes and say "You can't see me!"

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3 Comments:

Blogger Ron Hudson said...

Dang, I just realized how much like Uncle Earney I look. Good thing I don't smoke stogies!

7/11/2005 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger Vickie said...

Ron, there are many days when "you can't see me" would be so appropriate. If only it truly were that easy. Thanks for sharing these stories.

7/11/2005 08:22:00 PM  
Blogger Erin said...

That was quite possibly the most introspective perfectly deep and serious ending to a comedic entry as I have ever seen! Seriously, great writing...

Had me laughing and giggling, and then made me stop and really think.

7/12/2005 11:00:00 PM  

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