Wednesday, December 28, 2011

As promised

If you look back a day or two, you'll hear the tale of my being the editor of the SPIRIT magazine at West Virginia University in the spring of that wondrous year 1969.

I promised I'd type out the short story of mine that was in the magazine. Well, here it is. I did correct some grammar and punctuation but mostly left it as it was.

I was 21 years old when I wrote this. Who was that young man? Am I who he became? I guess so.

Hope you like it.

Once Softly, October

THE FATHER: My father was tall and thin and smoked cigars. He was also a Republican and a Yankee fan and always smoked cigars when he talked politics or watched baseball on television. My mother always wanted him to smoke a pipe.

“They look so nice, Vern,” my mother always told him. “They really do. And smell so much better, so manly.”

“But they take patience,” my father always replied. “Patience is what you need to smoke a pipe and you know I don't have any patience. They go out too much.”

My father was impatient and bossed section on the hoot-owl shift at French # 2 mine and voted straight Republican in every election. Somehow it all went well together in my father: the cigars and Republicans and Yankees and bossing section—went well much as the meeting of bat and ball went will with a soft, October afternoon and the taste of peanuts. There is a certain repressed dignity in voting for Eisenhower and wanting Mickey Mantle to hit a home run—a faith, perhaps, in a power just out of our control.

THE GAME: Whitey Ford was my father's hero—along with Richard Nixon. Whitey Ford was the only one who could stop the Pirates and Richard Nixon was the only one who could stop the Communists and the Catholics and they all, according to my father, had to be stopped. But that day, in the seventh game of all games, it was Bob Turley who had to top the Pirates and he had to do it that day and no other, because, as I was putting on my sneakers to go to the filling station, I heard Linsey Nelson say: “This is it, Law against Turley. There is no tomorrow for these teams.”

There had always been no tomorrow for the Yankees—every year the day came when there was no tomorrow—and most of the time, to my father's delight, the Yankees had no need for a tomorrow, much less a next week. But this time, I thought, putting on my tennis shoes, it may be different because it wasn't Whitey Ford or even Ralph Terry who would try to stop the Pirates, but Bob Turley, who looked overweight as he warmed up.

THE CAR: The car was a 1959 black Ford with a Richard Nixon sticker on the right side of the back bumper. All the sticker said was NIXON/LODGE in red, white and blue. It was covered by a film of coal dust from being on the bumper of a car that sat by the portal of French #2 mine every night from 11:45 until 8:15 the next morning. The ash tray was full of cigar ashes and though the car was less than a year old, the smell of cigar smoke had soaked into the upholstery. With the windows up, the smell almost made my mother sick, so I was going to the filling station for her to get a spruce scented pine tree to hang from the rear view mirror.

“Winter's coming and I can't ride in that car with the windows up, Vern,” my mother had said. “I'll have Richie get one of the air fresheners I saw at Poppy's.”

Mel Allen was telling how Bobby Richardson was breaking all the records for hitting in a World Series and my father just nodded to my mother. I had finished tying my shoes and was looking at the hole in my left sneaker, right where the sole met the canvas in front, about where my third toe was when my mother said,

“Come here, Richard,”

and gave me two quarters and a penny to get the air freshener.

I dropped the money in my pocket and walked to the door.

“And don't get one with a girl on it,” she said. “I saw those and I don't want one in our car.”

I nodded and turned the knob.

“Don't be too long,” she said. As I left, the Star Spangled Banner was playing.

THE PLAY: ACT ONE: French, West Virginia, where I have lived all of my thirteen years, is a coal mining camp in a valley of the Appalachians near the Virginia border. All the mountains around French, my father once told me, have thick veins of coal running through them. Mr. Krolling, our next door neighbor, who runs a machine on the second shift at French #2, laughed when I told him our science book said coal used to be ferns and palm trees that were buried for millions of years and turned to carbon. He said coal was coal and God put it there and that was that. At any rate, whether ferns or God put it there, the coal was all around French.

From our front yard, I could see three strip mines high up on the mountains around French. Herbie Lowman and I would climb up to them on summer Saturdays to look for fossils and throw rocks. From the strip mines French looked like a toy village with its two rows of houses, all painted the same shade of pale yellow U.S. Steel used to paint all the houses in all the coal camps and all covered with a thin layer of coal dust. The coal cars behind the houses on our side of the street and the people in their yards looked small enough to reach down and pick up—small enough to move from place to place and make them do whatever you wanted.

“That doesn't make any sense,” Herbie said when I told him how I felt I could reach down and move the coal cars and people around. We squatted near the edge of the leveled mountain top and he twisted his face into a frown. “It looks just the same to me.”

“When you're up here, don't you feel like you're bigger than all that—bigger than French and the houses and the people?” I asked. “Just look how small they are.”

Herbie stared down for a while. “They aren't small,” he said, “they just look small.”

“But can't you forget that for a minute and pretend that they're really that small?”

I waited for him to answer, but he just squinted his eyes and stared silently into the valley.

The day of the seventh game was clear and soft with just a hint of coming cold. Tonight, I thought, will be crisp and very October. I looked at our grass, that was already turning brown and turned the words over in my mind.

“Tonight will be crisp and very October,” I said aloud.

“What's that?” Mr. Krolling said. He was leaning on the fence between our yards. I hadn't noticed him there and when I looked over he smiled.

“What did you say, Rich?”

“I said it might be cold tonight.”

He shook his head slowly and his glasses slipped down on his nose. He was short and fat and his thin nose seemed out of place on his face.

“Yep,” he said, chuckling, “might just be.”

“Going to watch the game?”

“Yessir, soon as I get back from Poppy's.”

“Should be a very game.”


I opened the gate walked past his house. He was still chuckling.

ACT ONE, SCENE TWO: The Lowmans lived four houses down, so I stopped on the way to Poppy's and watched the first four innings of the game with Herbie. Mrs. Lowman gave me a cup of hot chocolate and I was still waiting for it to cool when Rocky Nelson hit a home run for Pittsburgh. As I watched him run around the bases, I wondered what my father had said. He always got very angry when something bad happened to the Yankees and he couldn't help but say, “God-damn!” My mother disliked that more than anything—more than the cigar smoke and the ashes on the rug. When he said, “God-damn!” she would get a hurt look on her face and lower her head and he'd have to put down his King Edward to kiss her on the cheek and apologize. I guess they both know that the very next time Rocky Nelson or somebody hit a home run against the Yankees he'd say it again, but they went through the whole thing just the same.

“Listen,” Herbie whispered in the third inning while his mother went out to the kitchen, “there's something I've got to tell you later.”

Vern Law looked like he was going to be hard to beat and Herbie kept saying he had something to tell me later, so when the Pirates were ahead 4-0, we left. He was silent until we came to the Lodge Hall half-way between his house and Poppy's and then he took my jacket sleeve and led me up on the porch.

“Listen,” he whispered looking around nervously, “you've got to hurry back here.”


“They're going to show us,” he said, glancing around nervously.

“What are you talking about?”

“Jeri and Donna are going to show us.”

I looked at him, wondering what he was talking about.

“Jeri and Donna...they're going to meet us here in a few minutes. I told them to come after the fifth inning. They said so yesterday after school. I wanted to tell you last....”

“But, Herbie....”

“Listen now, they leave the back door of the Lodge unlocked and they're going to meet us inside. It's all planned.” He narrowed his eyes into slits and watched me carefully. “You're not scared...are you?”

I shook my head mechanically and turned to go.

“Hurry,” he said.

I didn't.

THE STATION: Poppy's Esso station always smelled of coal-dust and chewing tobacco. Poppy kept a fire in the uncovered stove in the middle of the station and their were usually a few men sitting on upturned pop crates watching television and talking. They were old men on miner's pensions and young men with families on their way to work or home and they talked about whatever happened to be on television at the time and about the mines.

When I got there Moose Skowron had hit a home run for the Yankees and the score was 4-1. I sat down on a Coke crate that was on its end and watched a Gillette commercial. You could get a World Series book with a razor for a limited time but one of the men said the book was no good.

“I didn't even need the damn razor, but I wanted to see the book. It ain't worth a damn.” He was a man in clean work clothes. He was chewing Red Man and spitting at the stove. When he hit it on the side there was a loud hiss.

“Why the hell you got a fire in that thing, Poppy?” he asked. “It's not cold outside yet.”

“Like to have a fire all the time,” Poppy said. He was sitting behind a cluttered desk near the back of the station beside the Coke machine. “I like it nice and warm.”

The only other person in the station besides the young man in work clothes and Poppy and me was Sam, an old crippled Negro who was sitting on a Coke crate beside me. “Warm!” Sam said, picking up his home-made cane and looking around at Poppy. “Why it's hot as hell in here! Man might suffocate smelling himself sweat.”

The young man—I think he was one of Dane Spencer's boys—laughed and then the four of us sat in silence and listened to the Gillette jingle: “to look sharp and to be sharp too....”

The Pirates were out in no time and between innings I squeezed through two piles of old tires and went into Poppy's tiny bathroom. The dark green wall paint was peeling off and the whole room smelled of stale urine and motor oil. I looked at the writing on the wall and the dim light that illuminated the windowless room and wondered why I had come in there. I turned to leave and saw someone had scrawled on the door in pencil--”Stop! Have you washed your Cock?”

I sat on the Coke crate and watched Yogi Berra hit a home run and before the inning was over the Yankees had gone ahead 5-4. After the Pirates batted in the sixth I got up and walked over to the place where the air fresheners were. There were five pine trees and two girls in red bathing suits left. The girls were lemon scented and had a tag around their legs that said: MADE IN THE USA.

“I want one of these, Poppy,” I said.

He straightened his dirty plastic rain hat with a VFW Buddy Poppy in the band and got up. “Which kind?” he said, walking over to me.

“He wants one of them girls,” Sam said, smiling and winking at the young Spencer boy.

“No, I want a tree,” I said quickly.

“Hell, boy,” Same said, “take a girl. Look nice in your old man's Ford.”

The young man spit at the stove and made it hissed. I looked at the air fresheners and felt the cellophane that covered one of the trees. “Sure boy,” Rand Spencer said (in that moment I remembered his name), “get the girl.”

Poppy smiled and showed his gold capped front tooth. I handed him the fifty-one cents. “Which one?” he asked.

“The girl.”

He tore it off and handed it to me. “Take good care of her now,” he said. I held the cellophane bag in my hand and could smell the lemon plainly as I left the station. The three men were smiling at me.

THE PLAY, ACT TWO: French # 2 was one long street that intersected the main road to Welch right in front of Poppy's station. The houses on one side were right next to the creek that was black from the waste from the tipple and behind the houses on the other side, the side our house was on, were four parallel railroad tracks with long lines of coal cars, half empty and half full. From the Esso station I could see straight down the street to the end where our car was parked. It was too far away to see the Nixon sticker and it would have been covered with coal dust if it could be seen, but I knew it was there. I put the air freshener in my jacket pocket and walked up the main road to where the tracks crossed it on the way to the # 2 tipple. I scuffed the cinders as I walked between the tracks and the houses.

The houses were on my right and the yellow paint was even dirtier from the back than it was in front. The coal cars were always parked there for as soon as some left—for Pittsburgh where steel was made and Whitey Ford would not pitch that day—more were put in their place. I had counted seventy nine, four deep, by the time I came to the back of the Masonic Lodge and saw the back door was standing about half open.

I squeezed through without touching the door and walked through the Lodge kitchen into the main room where the Masons met every Thursday. The venetian blinds over the windows were half closed and the October sun creased the floor with small strips of light. Herbie was standing on the elevated platform where the officers must have sat at the meetings. He was sitting in one of the seven chairs arranged in a semi-circle there. They looked like kitchen chairs from seven different kitchens, almost as if those who sat in them brought their own chair from home. When I came in Herbie got up slowly and waked behind the speaker's stand that stared out at the empty folding chairs a level below him.

“They said they'd come,” he said nervously, wrinkling his forehead and clinching his lips together tightly. “I don't know what happened. They promised they'd come.”

The folding chairs before him were in neat rows—five rows of seven each with a break between the fourth and fifth chair of each row for an aisle. I wondered where my father sat. He had to wear his work clothes to the meeting when he worked hoot-owl. I tried to picture him there but the chairs were too neatly arranged and the venetian blinds made the room too dark.

“Do you want to wait?” Herbie asked, glancing over at me from the speaker's platform. “I mean, if you want to go watch the rest of the game we could tell them...when we see them...that we waited a long time.”

The air freshener was making me smell like lemons so I sat down on one of the folding chairs near the kitchen door and put the girl on the chair beside me.

“I don't care,” I said.

Herbie leaned on the speaker's podium and we waited in silence. I found myself humming the Gillette jingle and looking at the podium Herbie was leaning on. On the side of the podium there was a small sign with three letters on it—JFK. I thought about his mysterious little half-smile in all the picture I had seen of him and of the coal dust on NIXON/LODGE on our Ford's bumper. “If Kennedy gets elected,” I had heard my father tell Mr. Krolling, “he'll freeze holy water and make Pope-cicles.”

“You know will happen if Kennedy gets elected, Herbie?”

Herbie paced back and forth slowly in front of the seven chairs. “I don't know why they didn't come.”

“Maybe they were scared,” I said. “Maybe we were.”

He stopped and stared at me. His face was in a hard frown. “I wasn't scared. I wanted to see them. I wanted to feel what they have between their legs.”

I thought for a long time about what Jeri and Donna had between their legs. I knew what I imagined was there was probably wrong and I really couldn't decide if I wanted to see or not.

Herbie walked over to the window nearest me and peeked out the venetian blind. “You can see a strip mine from here.”

“You can see a strip mind from anywhere.”

He stood silently looking out the windows and my nostrils were beginning to burn from the smell of lemons.

{THE BOY: For some reason, despite the constant smell of cigar smoke and the sight of all those coal cars, seven days a week, every day, and the men who st in the station and spit at the stove—despite all that, and despite the hiss when the men's aim was right, the boy always thought of himself as a poet. He had known nothing in his life but French, West Virginia and he had never written a poem until that day. He had walked the mountains in Springtime but couldn't forget that the flowers—yellow and pink and purple and red—were growing from the coal deep down inside.

“Once you get that coal dust in your blood,” his father once told him as they drove across the mountain in the 1957 black Ford they had before they got the new one, “once it gets there, there's no getting it out—and I don't want you to get it in your blood.”

But his father was too late—it was already there. For all the boy knew it had always been there. He could not remember a time when the coal wasn't in his mind and his heart and under his nails unless it was when he stood on the strip mine and looked down. He had never been inside a mine—perhaps he never would be, but he couldn't get rid of the coal dust and he couldn't remember it not being there.

Across the snow he raced, leaving tracks behind—he was no more than four and it was the earliest thing he could remember. When he dug down the snow was white—clean and white—but across the top where it had been exposed for a few hours, there was a thin, almost imperceptible layer of coal dust. The coal was a pale yellow on top—not yet gray—but it wasn't white and he couldn't forget it.

When that October day ended, after the game and after the smell of lemon was gone and after his sure knowledge that Nixon would lose—after that long day he would climb the stairs to his room, close the window and sit at his desk to write a poem. It was his first poem—he always thought of himself as a poet—but it was not until that October night at thirteen, in the circle of light from his desk lamp, that he wrote his first poem.

I am afraid of winter

The snow is yellow in my


I have not yet known it

but it is ahead, forbidding.

Just once before the cold

once before the yellow


once for strength

once for hope

be soft, oh world!

Before November and December

once softly,


After he wrote it he folded it carefully and placed it under the newspaper lining his mother kept on the bottom of his sock drawer. He wondered if it meant anything and knew somehow that he would have to find a shoe box to hold all the poems he would write before the Spring.}

THE PLAY, ACT THREE: As I walked slowly home from the Lodge, I saw Mr. Krolling in his yard. He smiled as I passed.

“Tied up again,” he said, “nine to nine.”

I nodded and walked up our walk.

He moved over to the fence and leaned over it. “It's going to be very October, Richard, don't you think,” he said and began to chuckle.

I glanced back and fumbled with the door knob. As I walked into the house my eyes stung and I could hear Mel Allen's voice.

“Terry's first pitch. Ball, high outside.”

“He's got to keep the ball low,” my father said, chewing on his cigar.

I stared blankly at the television set. Terry stared down at Elston Howard. My mother looked up from where she was sitting on the couch and asked if I'd gotten the air freshener.

“Yes,” I said, watching Terry wind up, “I got the girl.”

My mother made a little gasp and my father glanced over at us just as Mazeroski hit the ball.

“That one is gone!” Mel Allen said, excitedly, futilely.

His words drew all eyes to the screen. Yogi Berra, inexplicably playing left field, waddled back a few steps and watched the ball disappear over the scoreboard. Pittsburgh, where the coal went, exploded.

“Why did you get the.....” my mother began.

“God-damn it! God-damn it!” my father muttered, slouching back in his chair, biting his cigar.

“Vern....” my mother said, looking hurt.

“I can't help it.”

“Vern,” my mother said sadly, “please don't say that.”

He put down his cigar, got up slowly and walked over to kiss her softly on the cheek. The election was less than a month away. Kennedy would win. My father had one good 'God-damn' left.

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.