This is a continuation of a story that began at: https://sunriseswansong.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/teaser-to-a-novel/
Part 2 can be found at: https://sunriseswansong.wordpress.com/2015/01/13/novels-teaser-part-2/
Part 3 can be found at: https://sunriseswansong.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/novels-teaser-part-3/
Part 4 can be found at: https://sunriseswansong.wordpress.com/2015/02/27/novels-teaser-part-4/
Part 5 can be found at: https://sunriseswansong.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/novels-teaser-part-5/
Part 6 can be found at https://sunriseswansong.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/novels-teaser-part-6/
Part 7 can be found at: https://sunriseswansong.wordpress.com/2015/03/07/novels-teaser-part-7/
SYNOPSIS: The American “Nig” has returned after a year abroad at a strict school in Scotland, and is writing the South African “Kaff”, using a shorthand the two teenagers devised which allows them to write with the speed of their frenetic thoughts.
Nig has been dismayed by the changes to the USA, and at this point is telling Kaff he has decided to make a lot of money selling lyrics for hit songs, and to buy a plot of land he calls “The Party Woods.” He plans to form a commune of his boyhood friends, but needs to convince his friends the scheme is possible. At this point he is facing convincing two teens who have decided to become communists, and is waging the Cold War in the genteel suburbs of Boston.
Now I can’t sleep though the sun isn’t even dusking the east. So let me explain why I‘m so excited about the Party Woods, cos I know I have some explaining to do.
I found that letter I was telling you about, “Pep Talks In The Party Woods,” under my bed last night, and when I reread it, it made everything clear to me. If it had been a bear it would have bitten me.
As soon as I got back from Dunrobin everyone seemed wicked bummed out, in some weird way I couldn’t put my finger on, and they were dragging me down by being so down. It’s not just my writing that seems to suck, when people don’t cheer and clap, and go “Ooh” and “Ah” like Audley Bine. It’s everything. All life seems to suck, so I have to fight back. I have to give all these pep talks to bummed-out friends. But it’s only me against too many. I get to feeling like a miniature Atlas, a mouse holding up a planet big as Jupiter..
It’s like, back in 1969, everyone wanted to get it together, but now everyone only wants to fight. Yesterday I was listening to my old Beatle’s albums, and in my mind it was 1969 again, and Lennon’s singing “Come together,” and McCartney’s singing “Get back to where you once belonged,” but then the record ended and the room got silent and now it’s 1971 and everyone wants to get apart and get away from where they once belonged. Even the Beatles can’t stand each other and are broken up. The difference is as different as divorce is from marriage.
So I’m up against the tide, by trying to get the gang together. The worst part is that people really do make stuff dark, when they don’t go “Ooh” and “Ah” and clap their hands. You get all doubtful. Or I do, anyway. I get backed off and cowed and retreat, until I’m doing just what I think you shouldn’t; I’m getting away rather than getting together. So then I think I’d better counter attack.
The best way to do this is get with the guys in the gang one by one, so you don’t have to deal with a chorus. So that’s pretty much what I did. Not that I planned it. It just sort of happened.
The first guys I dealt with were the Lodge brothers. Of course, you usually can’t deal with them one at a time.
Their names are Hamilton and Franklin, cos their folks were into politics big time when they were born, and must’ve figured their kids were bound to be presidents or senators or something, but we’ve always called them Ham and Franks, and you usually say their names together, “Ham ‘n’ Franks,“ cos they’re so seldom apart.
I actually got to know Franks away from Ham, cos he was in my grade and sat next to me in a few classes, while Ham was a grade ahead. Away from Ham, Franks is real mild mannered, and I don’t think he’s disagreed with anyone, ever. You’d never think of him as a murdering Stalinist, cos he the sort of guy the girl’s call “sweet”. He’s so agreeable it is sort of hard to ever get his opinions, cos he’s agreeing with yours so much, but cos he sat next to me I’d see a little of his opinions, and they were wicked kind .
So Franks is this mild, sweet guy, but even in grade school I knew that as soon as Ham showed up Franks would get real quiet, and nod a lot. If Franks ever ventured his own opinion it would be in a real whispery voice, as if he was pretty sure Ham would say his opinion was real dumb, and Ham usually did say that, in a real polite way.
It wasn’t like Ham yelled at Franks or anything. Ham would just explain. Ham was real patient and intellectual, but finished with a real tinfoil-on-teeth smile that made me want to punch him, even though he was talking to Franks and not me. Franks never talked all whispery with me, but, with Ham, Franks just seemed to shrink a couple inches. I never liked Ham for doing that to Franks, even though I couldn’t really see how he did it.
I also didn’t like Ham in the same way Millie doesn’t like Duke Saumille: Just cos they fuss with fashion. I just can’t stand how Ham sometimes wears a snazzy scarf when it isn’t all that cold. I could never really trust a guy who cared that much about fashion, and who couldn’t pass a mirror without pausing. I suppose I’d be no good at politics, cos half the time I’ve got a snot hanging out of my nose and could care less, but Ham was president of his class. Even Millie liked him, when she met him, cos he was a socialist that month, and even though Millie doesn’t like a phony Ham blinded her with all his charming blabbing about civil rights and sexism and so forth. Ham could talk a mosquito out of its blood I think, but I’ve known him too long, and my ears turn off as soon as he starts with the commie stuff.. I avoid him when I can.
You’re probably wondering how I came to giving him a pep talk, if I can’t stand him. Well, it happened like this:
I was just heading out into the Party Woods, cos you’ve been pestering me about my “Party Woods” tale, and also I was thinking about, “Wind‘s Song.” In order to get into those woods you have to cut through the Lasaumille’s yard, by their big barn. I could see Duke and Spook were working on Spook’s car behind the barn, with two other fellows, and Duke just gives me a wave in passing, like he’s busy and I’m busy and there’s no time to talk. (They see me heading into the woods often enough so that my passing is no big deal.) Spook looked pretty anxious about something wicked annoying in an engine, and I was walking fast, like I had places to go. Then one of the other fellows raises an index finger at me; like that finger’s suppose to bring me to a screeching halt. Only Ham can presume like that, so I knew it was him and walked faster. (I never did find out exactly what he wanted, but I walk faster cos he always wants me to sign some petition or go to some anti-war rally, or else drag me into some dumb political talk, when I want to do more serious poetic work, like find rhymes for “silver” and “orange.”)
I also knew it was Ham right off the bat, cos, even though he’s wearing a completely new outfit I‘d never seen him in before, it doesn’t fit the weather.
The air was still nice and dry and Canadian, but the wind was shifting from northwest around to southwest, so the coolness was fading fast, back to summer heat. The sky had gone from vivid blue to milky, so you knew the humidity was coming back, but it hadn’t gotten down to ground level yet, so the increasing heat was that really delicious, rare, bone-dry, July heat, without the humidity that wilts you.
I was barefoot in nothing but my shorts. (I guess wearing that blasted Dunrobin uniform all the time made me starved for just dressing like a summertime schoolboy.) The last thing I wanted was to talk to this guy whose hat probably cost more than my whole winter wardrobe.
Ham’s hat was this huge, light brown, stiff-leather slouch, sort of halfway between an Aussie cowboy’s and the big fireman’s hat worn by a circus midget-clown, and it’s got a peacock plume sticking up two feet from the top. He’s got spiffy leather boots, but you can only see the heels and the tips of the pointed toes, cos his bell-bottoms have to be a bit bigger-belled than anyone else’s, the same way a Cadillac in the nineteen-fifties had to have the biggest fins. His shirt is mostly white and long sleeved, with cufflinks, but is so summery thin it’s practically transparent, and it has a faint, flowery, light-yellow-and-light-brown, baroque, paisley-pattern that was last seen on some French Lord on the steps up to the guillotine.
Ham’s starting to hurry after me, still with that finger raised, holding his hat on with his other hand, while tossing the strands of his lanky, tan hair off his perfect face with its fake smile, with the hair just long enough to be hip but not so long that he’d lose votes. Behind him Franks is looking left and looking right with his mop of white hair like a sheepdog’s, waking up to the fact that he is going to be left behind, all alone with the tough, wrenchheadish Lasaumille brothers, so then Franks jumps forward to hurry behind Ham like a little puppy.
I was just going into the trees, and figured I’d sprint out of sight as soon as the underbrush hid the fact I was actually running away, but my feet haven’t toughened up properly after all those months in Dunrobin shoes, so I wound up hopping, extracting a blackberry thorn. Otherwise Ham would have reached those trees and looked about mystified, wondering where the heck I’d got to.
Instead I have to listen to him joke about me not wearing shoes. He does this one thing when he jokes I really can’t stand. He sort of curls his tongue in his cheek, after he speaks. I think he practices it in a mirror. It’s like he’s saying, “I am such a wit, am I not?” It works on some people, but has the opposite effect on me. Even if he says something really funny, all I can think is how gross he looks, cos his mouth is sort of open in a toothy smile, and you can see his wet, shining tongue parked pretentiously to the left, in his cheek. Yuk.
The mood I was in wasn’t polite, I know, but I just couldn’t pretend I was thrilled to see him, and after I was rid of the torn I just started walking fast, and he had to hustle to stay beside my ear. Not that I said anything rude, but Franks had a real anxious and apologetic expression, as he trotted along behind. And I felt bad about worrying Franks, which is probably the only reason I didn’t tell Ham to shut the fuck up. (Ham is too arrogant to think anyone wouldn’t want to listen to him, unless you’re rude and say so.) Even when he asked me what I was up to, and I said I was going out into the woods to enjoy the quiet, he wasn’t quiet. He can’t take a hint.
I was pretty grumpy, and only answering with grunts, but Ham is pretty good at finding some common ground even when there isn’t any. He’d been at the unplanned party at the Fossil’s that happened my first night back, which ended with the alarm going off, so he told me what a great party it was and how the whole town was talking about it the next day.
To hear Ham tell the tale, it was due to him and not the alarm that everyone cleared out so fast. He made it sound like he’d single-handedly organized the mass exodus, opening doors and directing traffic. I’m pretty sure that’s not how it happened. I think he ran so fast I didn’t see him at all, and that he left everyone behind in his dust, and Franks had to hop in another car. But Ham had seen Chief Mayberry coming the other way as he fled in his car, so Ham finally got around to stopping all the talk about how cool he himself is, and asked me how I handled Mayberry.
I’d been biting my tongue, just walking fast, but I couldn’t help but tease him a bit. I leaked out that maybe I found out that Mayberry wasn’t too pleased, when I told him that Ham had helped all the bad guys get away. I winked back at Franks when I said that, but Franks only looked real confused. Ham didn’t see I was pulling his leg, either. He got all indignant and said Mayberry was the lackey of Capitalistic swine. I felt irked by that, and grumbled that maybe Ham forgot the time back when we were kids that he split his chin on the monkey bars on the playground in grade school, when Mayberry was the closest thing Weston had to an ambulance. Was Mayberry a lackey to mop Ham’s blood with his spare sweatshirt? Was he a lacky to wipe away Ham‘s tears? Was he a lacky to drive Ham to the stitcher at Newton-Wellesley Hospital?
We’d reached the old campground, and I really didn’t expect an answer from Ham, but I could see I was going to get one. He’d screeched to a halt and was drawing himself up all arch-backed and indignant, his elbows cocked and his fists balled and his eyes showing whites. Behind him Franks was wincing and biting his index finger.
I was thinking, ‘O God, I need a politics from Ham like I need a hole in my head,” but couldn’t think how to change the subject, but then I just blurted, “What the hell? No one’s been out here all year!” I don’t know why, but I said it like an accusation. Franks did look instantly guilty, but Ham just looked distracted and like he didn’t comprehend.
I have to admit the capital of the Party Woods Commune, that I bragged to you about, was a sort of melancholy campsite, and nothing like I described to you. The wigwam’s balsam fir boughs were half-naked of needles, with the needles that remained all browned to a rusty red. The bare earth of the area, which the teenyboppers once had swept clean with pine-bough brooms, was buried by brown leaves. Weeds grew in the fire pit. It was plain the place was deserted. I turned to Ham and said, “What the heck have you guys been doing all year?”
Franks was cringing, but Ham looked completely baffled, so I continued, “Oh, you sure were big on talking about how we were going to make a better world, and we sure had one going here, but soon as my back is turned you don’t lift a finger. And don’t say you did. Look here: Here is some birch bark I gathered last September first, at the end of our last party, just before I left for Dunrobin. I gathered it to be ready for the next fire. But you never lit it, did you now?”
Franks looked on the verge of tears. I even think he was nodding a little. But Ham started laughing and said, “You really think this stupid place is all that important?”
I sat down on the log where I always used to sit, and suddenly felt really at home. I challenged him right back, “You really think where you went instead is all that important?”
Ham curled his tongue in that way I hate, and said maybe I ought try college. I might learn something. I told him to tell me something I didn’t already know. Then I just waited.
Ham looked surprised to see me just waiting. He thought a while, and then adjusted his hat, put on a real kindly face, raised his index finger, and launched into a sort of sermon.
Ham said it wasn’t enough to be a small person by a small campfire in a small town. Little movements would just get crushed. You had to join a greater and grander movement, which was what Karl Marx invented. Communism was what we were trying to do in our small way with our campsite, but communism was bigger and better than our little campfire. It was true sharing. It wasn’t all that different from the early Christians, where nobody had any private property.
Ham then quoted some stuff from some part of the Bible called “Acts,” and I knew I was on shaky ground. (I tried to read the Bible once, but couldn’t get beyond the begets.) So I just said communist purges didn’t sound much like turning the other cheek, which I figured was Christian philosophy. Not that I know where the heck that is written, or even if it’s from the Bible. But I asked how could Ham say communism was like Christians, when purges bumped people off, rather than turning the other cheek?
Ham said Acts talks about how God bumped off a couple of people for not sharing, and holding back money for themselves, which proves purging is OK. So I asked Ham what was he bringing up God for; I didn’t think communists believed in God. I had him there, and while he was figuring out what to say next, I said our little movement didn’t purge anyone, and included everyone.
That got Ham mad, and he said you couldn’t include everyone, cos some were just plain bad. He started to talk about the Haves and the Have-nots, which seemed really dumb to me, cos he’s such a rich kid, even if his Dad is not shelling him out any money these days. His stupid hat with its stupid peacock plume is probably as expensive as the GNP of Gambia. But what I said was that the people who do the purging are the Haves, cos they have the power. And the people they purge are the Have-nots, cos they have no power. And I’d actually met some of the poor people they purged. The cleaning-lady who cooked me Wiener-schnitzel when I was a kid was a refugee from Stalin, and the fellow I bought illegal fireworks from in Boston was a refugee from Mao, and they sure didn’t deserve the nightmares communism gave them.
Then I went into the details, but I told you all the details, back at Dunrobin, so I won’t go over all that hell again. I just finished by telling Ham that those refugees were just little people doing good in small ways, and along comes these murdering purgers who kill half their family, and jail and torture them.
Ham got all smirky and said I was just talking capitalistic propaganda, and I stood up and yelled. I hollered it wasn’t propaganda; it was actual people who’d seen it with their own eyes, instead of watching the stupid, mushy movies about Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” that Loosey showed us in Social Studies class. Those movies didn’t mention any starvation, but if Ham just talked to the Chinaman I bought fireworks from he’d get a whole earful about villages of people like walking skeletons, and more besides. Those movies cut out the parts that showed dead people laying in the streets. So it was those movies that were the propaganda, and Ham ought to just wake up and smell the bacon.
Franks was looking like a puppy with its paws atop its ears, he was so horrified by my fury, but Ham just pouted a little. Then he said Russia and China were brutal and crude nations, and unfortunately reeducation had to take brutal and crude forms in such environments. In our more civilized and educated environment reeducation would not involve the same drastic measures.
I was feeling bad about making Franks just about pee in his pants, so I calmed down, and sat back down to gather my wits. You need wits with Ham, cos he‘s got all these facts and figures to back up tidbits of history. I never used to be able to out-argue Ham last summer cos I only had the tidbits of history my Dad told me, without any facts and figures, but after Dunrobin I have economics hammered into by skull by Chum, and have facts and figures dribbling out my ears. I suppose that is why Lysenko came to mind.
I told Ham that the reeducation business was where Ham missed the boat: The entire rap about reeducation was bullshit. China was an ancient land full of wisdom, and its farmers sure didn’t need some idiot from Russia coming in to tell them how to grow carrots. But Lysenko comes in and says they shouldn’t thin their carrots, cos carrots recognize fellow carrots as the same species and won’t compete for the compost in the soil, like carrots do with weeds. It was like Lysenko thought carrots had brains and would share with fellow communistic carrots cos they were all part of the same political carrot-party and in the same carrot-commune. The Chinese farmers knew this was bullshit, but if they dared say so they got accused of being part of some sort of evil counter-revolution and got purged. So they just shut up and didn’t thin their carrots, and got a crop of malnourished threads, without a single fat carrot. That is what reeducation got them: Starvation. That was the choice communism gave them: Starve or be purged.
Ham got all sneery, like he smelled a rat, and said I was making it up, and I told him even Russia was starting to say Lysenko was wrong. But it was only after millions of Russian serfs and millions of Chinese peasants starved that anyone dared stand up and say thinning carrots might be a good idea. Before that they were all bending over backwards to be reeducated, just as Ham was bending over backwards to be a good, good little Communist, and to be reeducated instead of speaking the common sense he already knew, cos even a kid knows common sense about carrots, and doesn’t need to go to college to unlearn it.
That got him. Ham hardly ever looks doubtful, unless he is just pretending to be doubtful in the middle of a condescending act. But this time a flash of real doubt crossed his face, before that sneery look came back, and he said, “And what is this wondrous thing I know, pray tell, that I don’t need to go to college to learn?”
I said something like, “You know me, for starters. You’ve known me since I was knee high to a grasshopper. I can’t fool you. You know when I’m me and when I’m shitting you. And I know you, too, like the back of my hand. You can’t bullshit me either. And so it goes, with the entire gang. We’ve grown up in Weston, quibbled and quarreled and questioned and quipped in Weston, for nearly two decades. It would take us two decades to get anywhere near as close to anyone else as we are with each other, and even then the new people couldn’t really be nearly as close, cos we were kids together, and we can’t be kids together with anyone else, ever again. We ought stick together like the Three Musketeers, and shout “All for One and One for All,” and never let any fools tell us we need to go be relocated far apart, like we’re Cherokee on some Trail of Tears. We’ve already learned something by heart. You can never get that heart back, if you go.”
For once Ham and Franks wore the same expression. They both looked sort of sad, and then Ham said, “So what are you saying? That we shouldn’t go to college?”
I said, “Go anywhere you want. Sail a clipper to China, for all I care. But you need a place to come back to, and folk you’re doing it for. But that’s not what college is, for us. They want us out and they don’t want us back.”
I got a surprise then, cos it was Franks who spoke. He said, “My folks want us to have it better than they did, and college is how to get a better life.”
I said, “If your parents think that, then they are deluded. They had a home and a family and a neighborhood and a town. Is it a better life to have none of that?” I got up and started pacing around. “Anyway, your parents didn’t have it so bad. Weston’s turned into one of the richest towns on earth, right before our eyes. The poorer families, who we started grade school with, have sort of gotten squeezed right out. The people who have moved in think they have got it made, cos they’ve got brains, and money, and fame, and power, and feasts, and popularity, and sex galore, but what is it all worth? We’ve seen it is all hollow. They’ve turned Weston from a real town, full of real people, into a suburb full of dissatisfaction, where folk are so sick of their lives they’re boozing their brains out and popping pills and swapping wives left and right, just trying to find something that has any meaning. But we have the meaning they lost, and we found it right here, at this campsite. It’s not money or fame or power or having brilliant brains. It’s brotherhood, and sharing, and caring, and simply having friends and being one.”
I stopped my ranting and felt a big smile spreading across my face, as I sat back down, cos I knew I’d hit the nail on the head. I don’t know what it is about that campsite, but I talk better there than anyplace else.
Franks saw my smile and smiled back, cos that’s the way he is, but Ham was rubbing under his lower lip and looking real critical. Then he looked up at me and adjusted his huge hat and raised that index finger of his, and I knew he had some sort of rebuttal in mind.
Frank said that if I went to college and studied history that maybe I’d know America was built on having a frontier the kids could move to. There was always extra land you could steal from the Indians. But those days were over. I was dreaming if I thought we could move to the Party Woods like our great-grandparents moved to the frontier. The land was too over-populated and you couldn’t say, “Go west, young man,” any more. So now it was all about power, and who controlled the land, and that was where communism came in.
I said that was a fine theory, but the facts were that we lived in New England. We Yankees were the people who didn’t go west. We’d lived in the same place for three-hundred-fifty years. We knew how to live together, and didn’t need some professor in some ivory tower saying we didn’t.
Frank insisted it was all about power, cos we had to steal the land from the Indians in the first place.
I said maybe Ham ought study our own history like my Dad did. We didn’t steal the land. It was deserted. When Squanto came back from England, before the Pilgrims landed, his town was completely deserted. There were skulls laying about. The only reason twenty thousand Puritan could move in, in twenty years, was cos Boston was a ghost town, cos some sickness wiped out the Massachusetts tribe. The Dutch said that, before the sickness came, New England was so crowded the beaches twinkled with campfires, when Dutch boats sailed along the coasts at night, but the Pilgrims found empty fields, all ready to plant, but no people left to plant them. There was no wilderness to fight, until the fields grew over with puckerbrush, and that didn’t happen until ten or twenty years after the Pilgrims got here.
Ham said the sickness sure sounded like a purge to him. He made the Pandemic sound like some sort of germ warfare. I rolled my eyes and said he was grasping at straws. I said my Dad’s a doctor, and he says nobody even knew what the sickness that killed the Indians was. Whatever it was, it took its sweet time to hit the Indians, cos the French had been around for a hundred years before it happened, and it hadn’t happened earlier. And the sickness wasn’t from the Pilgrims or Puritans, cos it hit the Indians before the Mayflower even set sail. So it was dumb to make it sound like it was an evil plan. It was just a mystery, like the Anasazi deserting their cliff-dwellings out west, or the Mound-builders deserting their mounds in Ohio.
Ham said I was just trying to justify my guilt about the genocide against the Indians, and I said there was no bloody genocide. Then Franks ventured, in a really apologetic voice, that there actually was genocide, cos we had given the Indians blankets full of smallpox germs. I said I went to that same stupid Social Studies class, and Loosey was full of crap when he said that. I’d asked my Dad, and found out the smallpox-blankets-thing never happened until the war with Pontiac, which was more than a century after the Puritans.
Ham said it was incredible I didn’t believe there had been genocide, and I said I didn’t deny there had been plenty of crap. War was hell, and the Iroquois were pretty cruel to Algonquians, and Spaniards were pretty cruel to the French who were pretty cruel to the English. I gave some examples, but then went on to say we’d gotten over it, in New England. Maybe Ham’s family was all Boston blue bloods, but my family mingled all the folk who had been killing each other for hundreds of years. I had French blood and English blood, and Mayflower blood and Abernaki blood, and most Yankees in New England, away from Boston, were the same as me. It made it hard to feud like Hatfield’s and McCoy’s, when you’re related to both sides, and maybe that was why there had been no war in New England in a hundred-fifty years.
Ham said we’d only had peace cos we’d been expert Capitalists and exported war and exploited the masses in other places, for the last hundred-fifty years, and then he started off on a rant about how we are always the bad guys. I looked over at Franks, and saw the little sheep-dog was nodding as his big brother spoke, or he did that until he saw me watching him. Then Franks looked away, awkward as all get out. I felt really tired all of a sudden, and just told Ham I didn’t want to hear all his stupid political history. Ham said I didn’t want to hear cos I couldn’t match his logic, and I said no, I didn’t want to hear cos I couldn’t figure out why he was so gung-ho about dragging our names in the mud. I said my family had flaws, cos all humans had flaws, but I said my family had also done a lot of good stuff and really nice things. Then I said I figured the Lodge family was the same. Why did he want to drag the Lodge name in the mud?
For some reason that shut him up. I think it was cos he thinks being a Communist shows he’s smarter than most, and ahead of most, and proves Lodges are just born to be leaders. When I said he was dragging his own name in the mud it was like his own guns backfired.
Ham just looked at me, in a really odd, round-eyed way, with that huge hat sort of tilted off center, and while his mouth stayed closed I went on. I said I was really tired of everyone thinking you had to be so macho, and that you had to grit your teeth all the time. Everyone seemed to think you had to have more and more and more, and had to work sixteen hour days, and have purges and reeducation and do push-ups and diet and have face-lifts, but that wasn’t the answer. That was the problem. The answer was that folk ought to look around, and see they had it good, and didn’t need any more. Folk ought to just mellow out and see how beautiful everything was, in its own way.
Ham stayed silent, and again it was Franks who spoke. He asked me, wicked timidly, if I didn’t think we should improve the lot of the poor. So I gently asked Franks if he would mind if I told him a story, to show him what I learned at Dunrobin. Ham scowled, but Franks nodded, so told him about the Duke of Dunrobin Castle, the richest man in Europe, sitting there in his castle and wondering how he could help all the poor Highlanders in their impoverished, thatched-roof hovels.
I said sure, the Duke was a Capitalist, but he was no different than a Communist with a five-year-plan. He had it made, but figured there must be some way to make even more money so everyone would be richer. All he needed to do was reeducate the poor Highlanders. They were just tenants on his land, though they were living where they had lived for a thousand years, and he was their Duke, which is sort of like being the Communist Party boss. So he did what Stalin did, and moved folk about like checkers on a board.
I said that what happened to the Highlanders made a lot of sense, in terms of making money, but it was Great Britain’s version of the Trail of Tears. All the hovels got burned down, and the Highlanders got moved from their lands, cos raising sheep on those lands made more money. The Highlanders got moved to the coast, to work in the coal mines, or in the herring and cod salting plants, or on the fishing boats, cos that made economic sense. Of course, it only gave jobs to half the Highlanders, so the rest got shipped off to a sort of Siberia, which was America and Canada, back in those days.
I know you already know this story, Kaff, but I’m just telling it again so you will see the trap I laid for Ham and Franks.
What I did was ask them, “Did the Duke do a good thing?” After all, the sheep did make lots of money, on the land where the Highlanders had lived for a thousand years. The coal mines made money, with the Highlanders trained to dig coal. The fish-salting plants made money, with the Highlanders trained for that, and the fishing boats made money, with Highlanders at the helm. And all the Highlanders who got uprooted and sent away? Lots of them transplanted well, and did so well they sent money back to Scotland, and even paid for relatives to come to America and Canada. Sure, a fair number of Highlanders couldn’t take the shock of being uprooted, and died of transplant shock, but they might have died of TB in their hovels anyway, and in the end the crop was bigger, and that’s what matters when you transplant, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if the Duke was a Capitalist or a Stalinist, he was striving for betterment, was he not? And things were better, in terms of money, were they not? So didn’t the Duke do the right thing, even if it was a difficult choice to send an entire culture on a Trail of Tears?
I could see I’d get no answer from Franks. He could sense a trap, and was shrinking away from answering. So I turned to Ham, and he was tossing his hair and adjusting his hat and curling his tongue in his cheek, as if he had an answer, and was ready to crush me with his devastating reply. I looked at him and just waited, and he finally got around to saying, “Did the profits ever get back to the Highlanders, or did the Duke pocket them all for himself?”
I said, “The Duke tried to give some money back, but the Highlanders refused to take it.”
I wish you could have seen the way the expression changed on Ham’s face. I can’t describe it. Finally he sort of blurted, “What do you mean?”
I explained that what really mattered to Highlanders was loyalty. That was why, even though they were the poorest people in Britain, they were the best soldiers. They didn’t really need the King’s Shilling to bribe them to enlist. They would enlist because the Duke told them to, and they were loyal to the Duke. Then they would die in battle, because loyalty meant more than life itself. They were such great soldiers that the sound of their bag-pipes made any army facing British troops tremble. However, after the Duke burned down the Highlander’s homes to improve their lot in life, they stopped enlisting.
I explained this was embarrassing and humiliating to the Duke. After all, he was hanging out with royalty down in London, bragging about how he had improved the lot of Highlanders, and how their new houses had slate roofs rather than thatch roofs, but then the Crimean War started, and Britain’s best troops were missing. It wasn’t just that a whole lot of Highlanders had been shipped off to America and Canada. Plenty were left in Scotland, but they wouldn’t take the King’s Shilling and enlist. More and more people asked the Duke the embarrassing question, “Where are the Highlanders?”
So, I explained, the Duke hurried back north to Dunrobin Castle, with a bag of bright, golden coins. Then he rode his horse down from the castle to the little town of Golspie, and made a big deal of getting Highlanders to enlist. He stacked golden coins on a table, and stated that any man who enlisted would not only get the silver of the King’s Shilling, but also would get the gold of the Duke’s Guinea. That was a heck of a lot of money in those parts, but the only man who stepped forward was the village idiot.
At this point, I explained, the Duke apparently got icy cold. He was a big man, raised on beef, while the Highlanders were raised on oatmeal and haggis and were shrimpier, so I reckon the Duke could loom and tower over people and look scary. He asked them how dare they not enlist. He said he had done everything he possibly could to improve the lot of Highlanders, and now was offering more than some of them could make in an entire year. Why were they not grateful? Why were they not loyal?
For a while no one dared reply. Then, at last, a very old man, with nothing left to lose, stepped forward. He straightened his shoulders and said, “You, Lord, have chosen to burn down our homes and scatter our families, because sheep are more profitable to you. Now, let those sheep fight for you.”
I laughed when I got to that part of the story, cos you know how I love it, but Ham and Franks just were looking at me like a couple of owls. So I went on, saying it feels real good to sit in some castle and plan how you are going to help the poor, but if you take away their homes you take away their reason for living and dying, and maybe they won’t fight for you. It doesn’t do any good to tell them you’re going to give them better homes, cos home is where the heart is, and you can’t replace it, even if it a hovel with a thatched roof.
Ham and Franks were still looking like owls, so I just laughed again and said something like, “Can’t you see how those Highlanders were just like we are now? They took away our town of Weston and turned it into an empty suburb. They tell us the new way will give us more money and fancier houses, and college will make us rich, and towns are for dumb hicks while suburbs are full of wonderful parties and booze and swimming pools, and having kids is over-population and having no kids is freedom, and also divorce is freedom and marriage is slavery. Then they want us to fight their wars, and what do we say? We say, “Hell no! We won’t go,” just the same way the Highlanders wouldn’t take the King’s Shilling. And why? It’s cos money can’t buy happiness. Everywhere they look they see us saying we don’t want their good jobs and their pretty boxes in the suburbs, and instead see us trying to set up communes of one sort or another, but what’s a commune? It’s just the town we lost. We want it back.”
Ham sort of writhed and complained, “You can’t get it back. You can’t go home again.” I asked him why the heck not? I could remember an old grandmother, when I was a kid, dieing in the same home she was born in, right down the street. It was only recently that fellows thought they had to get promotions by getting transferred all over kingdom come, uprooting their families every couple of years, until half the kids in Weston were rootless, like military kids moving from base to base.
Ham was so bent that his hat was crooked, as he waved his hand like I was dismissed. Then he said Americans didn’t want homes; they had always been roaming, heading west in covered wagons. I said that those Dads moved their homes; they took the whole family with them, back then. In some cases entire towns pulled up stakes and headed west together. You couldn’t compare Dads in covered wagons with a suburb, where the Dads were never around during the daylight.
Then I got a shock, for I heard a twig snap, and to the side got a glimpse of Durf‘s face, moving behind some low, moose-maple leaves beside the clearing. He was looking at Ham and not me, his long hair hanging from a headband like an Indian‘s, his eyebrows hunched and his eyes stern and serious and sad. I didn‘t know when he’d snuck up or how long he‘d been listening, but was nervous cos he and Ham don‘t see eye to eye. Ham hadn‘t seen him, cos he was too busy taking off his huge hat and looking into it like he was going to pull out a rabbit. Then he looked up at me and said, “What you’re talking about is us all staying and living with our Mommies.”
I was ready for that, cos lots of fellows say that to me. I said, “Nope. I’m talking about the Daddies staying at home with the Mommies, like they used to on farms. Or at least working in the same town. That’s what all the communes are working for: People living together in one big group that cares.”
Franks timidly put in, “But that’s what communism is: One big group that cares.”
I said, “Yeah, but who’s caring? We don’t need some Central Committee caring for us, off in some Kremlin or castle. They don’t know what we want or need. All they have is a bunch of bloody papers to shuffle, and columns of numbers, and that’s no good. I studied bloody economics until it oozed out my pours, to pass my bloody Oxford A levels, at Dunrobin, so I know how we look, if you just shuffle papers and look at columns of numbers. You don’t see the smiles, or hear the fellows playing guitars, or know a baby is a big deal. You don’t understand a thatched roof’s better, when its over a warm home, and that the new slate roof is worse, when it covers a shattered and broken home. Numbers and lists are cold hearted and belong to Scrooge, which is why it is no bloody good to look down your nose from a stinking ivory tower.”
I was getting too hot, and Franks had his puppy paws over his ears again, but Ham got all snide and plunked his hat back on his head and said, “Seems to me you’re the one whose spent the last year in a castle, at that Dunrobin place. You’ve gone all right-wing on us.”
He set me back with that, and I conceded something like, “Well, you may have me there. I sure was homesick, and had a lot of time to think about what it was I was missing.”
Ham stressed, “What you’re missing is the street. You need to get out on the street more. That’s where the struggle is.”
I just said I had better things to do than get involved in some dumb fight between the left wing and the right wing. It took two wings to fly, but stupid politicians had the two wings ripping the bird in two, like my stupid parents did to their marriage with their dumb divorce. I wanted the two sides mended back together, and that’s what I thought we were all about, when we talked about Truth, Love and Understanding by this campfire. Then I stretched out my leg and toed the cold charcoal in the weedy fire-pit.
Ham just laughed and said things looked a lot different, out on the street. I had learned nothing but pie-in-the-sky dreams, at my right-wing, ivory-tower school.
That was when Durf came thrashing out of the shrubbery. I guess he’d heard enough. Franks jumped about three feet into the air, and even Ham took a step back, cos Durf had that glare of his. Durf walked straight to the stump where he always used to sit, during the parties, and sat down, and, after shooting Ham a single murderous glance, said to me, “Funny how old Ham here started out telling you that you hadn’t been educated enough, but now he’s saying you are too educated.”
I laughed, partly cos it felt so good to have Durf back where he used to sit, but also cos Ham and Franks had such funny expressions. I asked, “How long have you been eavesdropping?” Durf said he’d seen me leave my house as he came walking down the road to visit me. He tried to catch up, but I walked too fast. Then, when he saw Ham and Franks follow me into the woods, he got curious about what sort of rap they’d lay on me. Then he turned to Ham, and hunched forward. Ham raised an index finger. They went at it. I just sat back to watch, happy cos it was like last summer. We had a lot of serious and deep talks last summer, at that campsite.
Gotta go and mow a lawn.
To be continued. (at https://sunriseswansong.wordpress.com/2015/03/21/novels-teaser-part-9/ )