Off to the Side
A Memoirby Jim Harrison
“A sprawling, impressionistic memoir as roundabout as one of the author’s famous road trips. . . . A celebration of the hearty, sensual life.” —Bruce Barcott, The New York Times Book Review
For nearly forty years Jim Harrison has been one of America’s most-beloved writers, a literary giant who has given us American classics like Dalva, Legends of the Fall, and The Road Home. And he is perhaps just as loved for the spirit from which he writes—devoted to the senses, staunchly unpretentious, and ever mindful of the dangers of straying too far from our origins. It is this spirit of which The Oregonian wrote, “The magic of writing as good as Harrison’s is that it can bridge the gulf of human separation.” Now, for the first time, Jim Harrison has put pen to paper to write about his own life—a life that he captures with a riveting directness and a delightful, resonant music.
In Off to the Side, Harrison writes about his upbringing in Michigan, the austerities of life amid the Depression and the Second World War, and the seemingly greater austerities of his starchy Swedish forebears, who have inspired so much of his writing. He traces his coming-of-age, from a boy drunk with books to a young man making his way among fellow writers he deeply admired—writers like Tom McGuane, Philip Caputo, Peter Matthiessen, Robert Lowell, W. H. Auden, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Allen Ginsberg, among others.
Harrison writes forthrightly about the life-changing experience of becoming a father, and the minor cognitive dissonance when this boy from the “heartland” somehow ended up a highly paid Hollywood screenwriter. He gives free rein to his “seven obsessions”—alcohol, France, stripping, hunting and fishing (and the dogs who have accompanied him in both), religion, the road, and our place in the natural world—which he elucidates with earthy wisdom and an elegant sense of connectedness. He returns always to his love of literature—from his first awakenings to the power of writing in his teens, and his youthful decision to model himself on Rimbaud, to how books have remained his center, sustaining him during the darkest times of his life. Above all, he delivers a joyful, meditative, candid, and wise book that is a paean to the complex delights of life.
The London Sunday Times has written that Jim Harrison is “a writer with immortality in him.” Now, for the first time, the personal stories and unbridled enthusiasms that feed Harrison’s magisterial fiction are available to his readers. Off to the Side is a work of great beauty and importance, a triumphant achievement that captures the writing life and brings us all clues for living.
“A sprawling, impressionistic memoir as roundabout as one of the author’s famous road trips. . . . A celebration of the hearty, sensual life.” —Bruce Barcott, The New York Times Book Review
“As engaging as it is eccentric. . . . [Off to the Side] is about the writing life, about having a ‘call’ visited upon oneself and figuring out not merely how to make the most of it but how to live with it. . . . A story of art’s triumph over human fallibility and perversity. . . . Readers will find lovely prose, an original mind and a plainspoken man.” —Jonathan Yardly, The Washington Post Book World
“The writing is stunning. . . .[Contains] dazzling metaphors and gorgeously layered sentences. . . . [Harrison] can sweep a reader off her feet with his wordplay, even if he is just describing the weather.” —Bernadette Murphy, Los Angeles Times
“Reading Jim Harrison is about as close as one can come in contemporary fiction to experiencing the abundant pleasures of living.” —The Boston Globe
“An anti-memoir, a reflection of the writer as quirky iconoclast. . . . Harrison’s candor shines, especially in a time when so many other people are afraid of offending anyone. . . . Memoir becomes an enticing ramble with plenty of detours along the way. Off to the Side is a long night around the campfire with an irascible, yet irresistible force.” —John Marshall, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“A grand treat. . . . Crotchety, hyper-literate, ribald, wine-stained, a lingual barnstormer, the crazy rogue uncle of American writing—this is Jim Harrison, folks, and Off to the Side is proof yet again of his cockeyed genius.” —Jonathan Miles, Men’s Journal
“Consistently entertaining. . . . Harrison writes with enormous gusto. . . . Reading Jim Harrison’s memoir, Off to the Side, is a lot like sitting down with a garrulous and wise uncle to hear story after story late into the night. He’s been around the block, for sure, but he’s neither bragging nor complaining. The pleasure comes from total immersion in a life lived to the hilt.” —Dan Cryer, Newsday
“Boisterous. . . . Harrison gracefully balances his high sense of the literary calling with a Midwesterner’s self-deprecating humor. . . . You’ll find yourself in the literary equivalent of a bearhug, enveloped by a whiff of garlic, booze and the brimstone that accompanies unfettered thought.” —Chris Waddington, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Harrison’s prose has an earthy physicality. He is a writer for whom the natural world is not an abstraction but a reality. . . . [He is] a raunchy, bold outsize character big enough to admit his night fears and how much the workaday world intimidates him.” —William Corbett, Boston Phoenix
“Part memoir and part menu from a 64-year old writer who is part man and part beast.” —Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
“Well-crafted. . . . Harrison moves through his life story like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, a man unhinged in time, whose meditation on his early life is layered with observations from his present-day situation. . . . His work conveys such a zest for life and the living. Imagine the ultimate gourmand, outdoorsman, raconteur and storyteller all wrapped in one messy, compassionate, energetic bundle. . . . The result is a delight.” —John C. Ensslin, Rocky Mountain News
“Frank and engaging. . . . [Off to the Side] offers wry, insightful and delightfully indulgent commentary. . . . [It sparkles] with the rambling wit and thematic acrobatics that mark his best work. . . . Harrison’s most unforgettable creation may be Harrison himself.” —Tim McNulty, The Seattle Times
“Heady with the aroma of a life deeply lived and deeply felt. . . . Off to the Side is meandering and meditative, like the trout streams Harrison so loves, and at times even dense like the thickets where he escapes to do his best thinking.” —Steve Byrne, Detroit Free Press
“A wholly winning book, a compendium of wonderful anecdotes and observations holding together marvelously and giving a fine, clear sense of its author. . . . As fine a portrait of the species American writer as we’re ever likely to have.” —James Sallis, Boston Globe
“It is hard to read about the life of Jim Harrison without a great deal of admiration, if not adulation. . . . Off to the Side will reward and inspire veterans as well as first-time Harrison readers.” —Dex Westrum, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Harrison has been prowling the literary edges for four decades now, stubbornly eluding the snares of critical reduction—including such dim taggings as ‘macho’ and ‘regional’—while producing a body of work so lushly idiosyncratic as to thwart even the gentlest efforts at classification.” —Jonathan Miles, Salon
“No one has advanced and expanded the American Literary ethos in the latter part of the twentieth century more cogently, usefully, and just plain brilliantly than Jim Harrison. . . . This is a matter to which all literate Americans should pay serious attention.” —Hayden Carruth
“Harrison has quietly established one of the deeper canons in modern American letters.” —William Porter, The Denver Post
“Harrison embraces his life in all its creativity, trauma, excess and longing. . . . [He] assays here his lifelong “obsessions’ in his poetic, careening, intense, at times hauntingly comedic style.” —Richard Kilgore, Dallas Morning News
“The story of a very colorful life. . . . An intriguing first-person look at the life of a self-professed bad boy.” —Hartford Courant
“Compelling because of Harrison’s story and his style of writing. Harrison’s traumas would have killed others or caused them to abandon their dreams. . . . Even if you are not interested in reading, writing, the outdoors or movies, this memoir is still required reading. Jim Harrison has taken his aspirations and talent, and, even in the depths of sadness, has gotten life just where he wants it.” —John Rowen, The Sunday Gazette
“A full and interesting story, rich with anecdote and self-deprecating wit. . . . It becomes abundantly clear early on in Off to the Side that the themes permeating Harrison’s work—a love of nature, sex, gourmet food, and a general pioneer/blue-collar ethos—are reflections of the writer’s life and not literary contrivances. . . . Fans of novelist and poet Jim Harrison will find much to savor.” —Bruce VanWyngarden, Memphis Flyer
“Full of heart and wisdom. . . . Off to the Side is rambling, poetic, big-hearted, expansive—just like the wise man who wrote it.” —Jeff Baker, The Oregonian
“Harrison is the greatest unfashionable writer in America. . . . Harrison’s mind is the zone where alcohol, testosterone and lithium meet. . . . There are few works of art that stand entirely alone, appearing to have given birth to themselves, but Off to the Side is one of them. There is no memoir like it. . . . Harrison has delivered a work of art that, like his novels and poems, will be read for as long as people care about literature.” —Barry Graham, Metrotimes
“[Harrison is] an authoritative gourmand and a lover of fine wine as well as of fine women, but ‘outdoors’ is his true milieu, the favored background of his best writing, the warmest passages of which describe days afield with his hunting dog or wading the trout streams of Montana and Michigan.” —James Idema, Santa Fe New Mexican
“Rollicking. . . . A funny, warm, personal tour through the heart and mind of an American original. . . . A rugged individualist from an early age, Harrison’s life on and off the page has been one long tug-o’-war between his love of the natural world and his begrudging participation in the rat race.” —Jay MacDonald, Ft. Meyers New-Press
“A soul-baring treatise on living a life devoted to the art of writing. . . . Harrison stands alone among American writers, with the ethereal hand of a poet and the earnest devotion and stamina of a novelist. . . . Off to the Side is a brilliant discourse on dealing with fame, while maintaining a balanced perspective on life and an enduring sense of place: of home, family, and nature.” —Beef Torrey, Independent Publisher
“Rollicking. . . . Harrison writes with his characteristic passion. . . . A funny, warm, personal tour through the heart and mind of an American original.” —Jay McDonald, The News-Press
“An intriguing look into the personal life of a man who not only writes but also writes with a wisdom that only comes from living a life of manly American experiences. . . . Rarely will a writer step back and look at himself and his indulgences as well as Harrison does in Off to the Side. He writes about what he likes, politically correct or not, with a great deal of warmth and humor, and that makes for the heart and soul of the book. . . . [Harrison is] an American literary giant.” —Bob Fuljum, Pages
“Rife with elegant, earth-bound metaphors that employ and challenge all of the senses regardless of whether the author is describing his irascible temperament, obsession with strippers, or brilliant appreciation of nature. The resulting tone is an artistic celebration of life and literature, as well as an elegiac lament for things inevitably lost with the passage of time.” —Contents
“A soul-bearing treatise on living a life devoted to the art of words. [Off to the Side] is a boon for Harrison aficionados who can now revel among the inner workings of one of today’s most intriguing literary minds. But it is also a brilliant, rambling monologue on dealing with fame and fortune, while maintaining one’s equilibrium and an enduring sense of place: of home, family, friends and nature.” —Beef Torrey, Lincoln Journal Star
“Lively, sometimes rough and raw, often thought-provoking, it’s quintessential Jim Harrison.” —Victoria Diaz, Livonia Observer
“Contains so much philosophical landscape, it’s almost impossible to cover even a portion of the unique internal discussions, the parade of famous and infamous free spirits, and the personal vices of both poverty and prosperity.” —Robert L. Nicholas, Magnolia Gazette
“A man as willing to shoot a grouse as trip on psychedelics—he claims to annually experience God-like visions and swears that he was once transformed into a wolf—Harrison is never less than intriguing. This fine memoir is a worthy capstone to a fascinating career.” —Publishers Weekly
“Somewhere in that big literary acreage staked out by Thoreau, Hemingway, and Hunter Thompson is a chunk of space for Jim Harrison.” —Playboy
“This is my favorite book by Harrison (I say that about each of his books) because this beautifully written memoir is most like listening to him speak. I found sentences on each page that break the world open, that glitter in the darkness. The French are masters of the aphorism, but I don’t know of any other contemporary American writer who does it as well as Jim Harrison.” —Karl Pohrt, Shaman Drum Bookshop, Ann Arbor, MI, Book Sense quote
A New York Times Book Review Notable Book
A Washington Post Book World Best Book
A Book Sense 76 Selection
Norma Olivia Walgren met Winfield Sprague Harrison in 1933 at the River Gardens, a dance hall just north of Big Rapids, Michigan, on the banks of the Muskegon River. When young we children were somewhat embarrassed to hear the story of our parents’ probably feverish collision on a summer evening early in the Great Depression. The river has to slide past until we ourselves are in love and bent on mating with the scant ability to lift our eyelids high enough to see that it happens to nearly everyone. Norma was a very strong and somewhat irascible character and remained that way—until her death at eighty-five. Winfield was obsessively hardworking, playful but melancholy. He must have been troubled at the time because he had worked his way through Michigan Agricultural College, graduating in 1932, but the convulsed economy only allowed him a job driving a beer truck and he was lucky to get that. I think I was twelve and we were trout fishing when he told me that I had nearly missed existing.
One hot summer day on a hangover he had taken an after-lunch nap in the shade underneath the beer truck. His employer had driven by with a friend, seen his abandoned truck with its valuable cargo, and driven the truck off, a back tire slightly grazing my father’s head.
A close call with nonexistence, a vaguely stimulating idea until I think of the nonexistence of my brothers and sisters and my children. At the time, though, of first hearing the story while driving home from the Pine River, it seemed part of the carelessness of adults similar to my uncles drinking a case of beer while fishing and falling off the dock into the lake at the cabin in a semi-stupor. My father’s younger brothers, Walter and Arthur, had had a long and tough time in the South Pacific during World War II and their general behavior was never up to my mother’s high standards. My father’s side of the family was verbally witty and Walt and Artie’s talk was full of sexual badinage, some of which puzzled me at the time. Of course their wives, Audrey and Barbara, were young and you could imagine how much passion got saved up during four years in the armed services on ships with thousands of other men all mooning for home.
For a boy forced to attend church and Sunday school every week there is the fuzzy paradox of Bible lessons not jibing with what he hears and sees. One part of him feels slightly priggish about the behavior of adults. Young people seem not to know that they are going to get old, but older people know that they are not going to become young again. And the other part of the boy is sunk in his growing knowledge of the natural world and farm life where the sexual lives of dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, and cows is an open book, not to speak of the tingly warmth he feels when there’s a glance up a girl’s skirt at school or when he sees by happenstance a lovely aunt’s breast while she’s squeezing in or out of a bathing suit at the cabin. I’ve always been a bit cynical about the existence of the Oedipus complex but having a number of attractive aunts can be tough and dreamy at the same time. Your sense of wrong and right is tenuous and you drift around in a goofy haze of instinctual curiosity with your hard little weenie an almost acceptable embarrassment. At the time I was amazed at my childhood friend David Kilmer, who would heroically pursue the quest. David was a doctor’s son with an ample allowance and would bribe certain girls with a quarter for an inspection, or their somewhat retarded housemaid a couple of bucks for a peek. I recall he wasn’t the least bit fixated, spending most of the time fishing, killing frogs and turtles, repairing an Evinrude outboard, riding his bike off a gangplank at the end of their long dock under the erroneous assumption that he would truly fly through the air. It was, however, my decision to quit looking at the photos of women in his father’s medical books. A woman is included in the book only if something has gone “haywire,” we agreed, and the photos weren’t pretty.
There is a specific melancholy to hardship that accrues later as a collection of gestures, glances, and dire events. I don’t remember anyone ever saying life is hard but it was hard to a child in other puzzling ways, say at Great-uncle Nelse’s shack when we joined him in eating possum, beaver, and raccoon, and I asked my dad why Nelse ate such strange things and he said, “He came up short on beef.” I do remember Nelse embracing the keg of herring we bought him for Christmas, the salt brine soaking through the slats enough so that the wood was grainy with crystals to the touch. Nelse had been unhappily in love, rejected in his twenties, and retreated to the woods forever.
It’s not a matter of romanticizing farm life or distorting it for effect. It was merely the given, the donnéee as the French would have it. Anyone’s earliest memories tend to be sensuous so that when we lived with my grandparents in the Depression I was a child and what is left is remarkably vivid but spotty and nonlinear. When my dad finally got work he was more than happy to leave because my mother’s father was a true Swede autocrat whose opinions on farming were at extreme odds with what my dad had learned in agricultural college.
Strange to say my sister Judith knew the most about my grandfather John but then she died at nineteen and took her knowledge with her. John had come from a fishing family in northern Sweden (my grandmother’s people were from the Stockholm archipelago), emigrating at sixteen to the United States where he soon took the train west hoping to be a cowboy in Wyoming or South Dakota. This was 1890, the year of Wounded Knee, certainly a signal event of American history. Grandma Hulda had been raised in the Swedish colony of Davenport, Iowa. They were said to have met in Chicago. They married and with modest savings made a down payment on a small farm in northern Michigan. He went back south to buy a team of draft horses, riding with them on a freight train north to Big Rapids, then reining them home the twelve miles to the farm.
That’s not much but as my mother said, “We were never hungry during the Great Depression,” a pretty big item. When shortly before her death at ninety-seven Hulda said to me, “Don’t ever go to Milwaukee. The streets are full of mud in Milwaukee,” it was because the streets weren’t paved when she was there. I do know that Hulda and John raised five daughters—Inez, Grace, Norma, Evelyn, and Marjorie—on a cash income that never reached a thousand dollars a year.
Maybe I had been ill, or maybe it was shortly after my left eye was blinded, but I can return at will to a summer dawn in an upstairs room where I was confined: in a corner were three old trunks from Sweden with stickers in that foreign language, and lined with pasted newspaper I think from Göteborg (Gothenburg). I hear the screen door of the pump shed slam and in the dim light I can see my grandfather heading to the barn with two pails of milk skimmed for the calves. The rooster won’t stop crowing. There had been a little rain in the night and I can smell the damp garden, the strong winey smell of the grape arbor, the bacon grease from the kitchen below. My older brother, also named John, runs out the pump-shed door followed by my maiden great-aunt Anna carrying a pail of slop for the hogs. Both John and I loved to watch the pigs feeding at their trough. John swiped them a few pieces of ham once and proclaimed them “goddamned cannibals.” Pigs eat with marvelously vivid energy. Anna turns now to the gathering chickens and John has retrieved ground-shell corn from the granary and he and Anna broadcast it out to the frantic chickens with Anna pausing to scratch her arms which are covered with psoriasis. Grandpa has finished milking and turned the cows and the two big draft horses out to pasture. He had never owned a tractor and pretends he doesn’t want one. He carries the milk to the house and soon I hear the cream separator whirring. Sometimes I’m allowed to turn the crank and this whirling machine divides the cream and the skim milk fed to the calves and pigs. We eat the heavy thick cream on our cereal. In bad weather I’m allowed to fork down hay from the mow to the horses and cows. Across from the granary is an outside toilet called a privy. Later, when I’m in high school, I help my father install an indoor toilet for my grandparents. The family also collected money and bought them a television but old John put the television out in the pump shed saying it was too late to start something new. In the front yard there is a tire swing hanging from a maple branch near a grove of lilacs. If you swing high enough you look down at the flowers as if you were a bird. Sweet mint grows in the ditch near the section road.
What have I forgotten? Waking to the animal sounds that seem to comfort one, easing the soul into consciousness. There were no alarm clocks in the house. This ancient cycle was so embedded that no reminders were needed. The body’s clock sufficed and through the screen window and the skein of a mosquito or fly’s whine and buzz there was a sow’s untroubled grunt, the muffled squeal of a piglet, the neighbor’s dog, the milk truck two miles away, a cow lowing, a horse stomping a sleepy foot, and the long-awaited rooster’s crow which, though it might still be dark, dispelled the inevitable night demons.
What else have I forgotten? My young aunt bathing in a tin tub in the kitchen. Old John telling me not to drop stones on the pigs from the granary roof. Pigs don’t forget. A farm boy lost his errant kicking foot to a sow. Some evenings they all read in silence, or there was the stink of the aunts doing each other’s hair with Toni Home Permanents. Or reading with a pillow on the floor next to the woodstove, or next to the kitchen range fueled by wood. On the floor when they played the card game pinochle for hours, smelling the spittoon, the raw cheap whiskey, Guckenheimer’s, they poured into their coffee with sugar. In the herring crock I favored the tail pieces. I collected the little wood boxes the salt cod came in. They fried with lard and put butter on everything. Salt-pork gravy. Churning sweet butter. The heaviness of the rye bread eaten with herring. The sip of my father’s beer, the wet straps of his undershirt when he plowed with horses wearing an old fedora for the sun. Old John’s cabled arms when he harnessed the horses. The long country funerals. The gush of blood at pig butchering. You could hear it.
A poor farmer didn’t really want five daughters but that’s what John and Hulda got. It was sad for the daughters who felt his disappointment. They worked like men but that likely wasn’t enough in his autocratic mind. The only son died as an infant during the flu epidemic around World War I. This flu epidemic was unimaginable in that it killed millions, the majority of them children and the aged. On one of my frequent visits to Nebraska to research Dalva and The Road Home my friend Ted Kooser, a Nebraska poet, took me to a country graveyard that was beautifully overgrown with lilacs and roses and wildflowers in a grove of pines. One family lost six children within a month, all of the children they had. What was left for the parents? Not much, I’d guess. Forty years later I can still hear the voices of my father and sister, Judith, who died together in an auto accident when I was twenty-five. I’m sure the parents of the six at night while looking up at the moon and stars could hear the voices, or in the morning so many empty chairs must have driven them quite mad. Kooser told me that in the middle of this extended plague people took to burying their dead in the night. A night funeral does seem more appropriate when you are dealing with small caskets.
My father’s side of the family could be even more lachrymose than the Swedes, but also more immediate. Once when I was about ten and rowing the boat while old John fished it began to sprinkle, then rain pretty steadily. After an hour or so of fairly good fishing while it rained and we became fully drenched, John finally said, “It’s raining, Yimmy.” I was always Yimmy rather than Jimmy.
This kind of thing was out of the question in my father’s family. “It’s goddamned raining,” they’d say and pop another bottle of A&P two-dollar-a-case beer. If it was raining hard you might get something as extreme as, “It’s raining like a double-cunted cow pissing on a flat rock.” Of the five children, Lena, Winfield, David, Walter, and Arthur, only David was completely even-tempered. The father, Arthur, know as Carty, was said to have gotten in his last fistfight well into his sixties. He had been a farmer, logger, cook for other loggers, a rural mailman. Their farm pretty much went bust and the family moved near the village of Paris, Michigan, numbering a hundred or so people, to the ample house on a high riverbank. My grandma Amanda, or Mandy, was a melancholy soul of unsound health, and this seemed to color their family life so that the moods could alternate between morose Sundays and wild semi-drunken card games the night before.
Naturally, both sides of the family seemed utterly normal to me at the time but a great deal less so in retrospect. Most of us have perceived that there are specific classes in this country though there is admittedly more mobility than France and England. Fate has never ladled out hardship very evenly, and this frequently trips our often infantile sense of justice. Symmetry, balance, ultimate fairness seem to be abstractions remote to our occasionally naked sense of reality, as startling as walking out of a crisp and idealized civics class at a country school and into a lavish party of congressmen and lobbyists. If you’ve just spent ten hours digging ditches on a hot summer day you don’t enter the tavern and begin to talk about the virtues of hard work and thrift, the beauty of Calvinism as a moral system. You want several mugs of beer.
On both sides of the family no job was too lowly when connected to survival. My mother and her two older sisters worked as servant girls in the town of Big Rapids, a dozen miles from the farm, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to attend high school. My father camped out in a tent for two years, including winter, digging on a pipeline in order to go to college. It is easy for some to romanticize plowing with horses, or the ritual of autumn hog butchering, but with the latter I don’t recall meeting anyone who actually enjoyed killing a pig. It was simply a necessity to get pork on the table. I’m unsure if it built my character in my early teens to dig a well pit for five bucks but I wanted the five bucks and it only took a long day’s work. Early in high school I worked as a night janitor and rather than thinking it was demeaning I recall the quiet that allowed me to think of the books I had been reading, whether Erskine Caldwell or Sherwood Anderson or the very confusing Stendhal, The Red and the Black. With five children in our family and my father’s relatively low-paying job as a government agriculturist it was readily assumed that you had to earn your own spending money.
Of course in the evolutionary curve we tend to remember the hard lessons more clearly than the pleasant experiences, a simple fact of life that allows you to learn survival. If it was unpleasant seeing a favorite pig get its throat cut, then gutted and scalded, it was wonderful when the whole extended family got together for the sausage and sauerkraut making. It was wonderful to fish in every spare moment and later to hunt. When older you come to understand that you were very lucky that your father began taking you fishing at the age of five, and at seven after you lost your left eye it was unthinkable ever to be left behind. I’ve said elsewhere that I had never heard any comment from my father or uncles in regard to fishing and hunting as ‘manly” sports. They were simply a part of life. The value judgments about ‘manly” preoccupations seemed to come later when the country became predominantly urban and semi-urban and people became quite remote from the sources of their food. However, I’ll readily admit that a great deal of savage stupidity and rank behavior have attached themselves to hunting and fishing whether at game farms or tournament killing, the mechanization of hunting by all-terrain vehicles, or the sheer hoggery of fishing tourists returning from Mexico with hundreds of pounds of fillets. Man has an inexhaustible ability to beshit his environment, with politicians well in the lead.
If I ever had golden years it was in Reed City from the recoverable ages of five to twelve, though my brainpan recoils at the word “golden.” I suspect the repellency I feel for the banalities of our usage comes from my father who would go to strenuous lengths to avoid saying the same thing the same way, but then this was a time when verbal wit in ordinary situations was prized rather than viewed with suspicion except in television comedians. People not otherwise diverted added color to their speech in order to rise above flatness and be heard. I was amazed a few years ago while hunting on the property of a Hutterite colony in northern Montana to hear how developed and playful the speech patterns of the Hutterite children were without the dubious benefits of radio and television. If everything becomes a diversion what is left at the center? Maybe my grandfather when he put the Christmas-present television out in the cold pump shed was being prescient. I have closely noted that people who watch a great deal of tv never again seem able to adjust to the actual pace of life. The speed of the passing images apparently becomes the speed they aspire to and they seem to develop an impatience and boredom with anything else. Children become so saturated with TV and video games that Ritalin becomes the alternative, or so I’ve read.
Recently out a windowpane about the size of a TV screen at my studio at the Hard Luck Ranch in Arizona the leaves of the pyrocanthus tree moved in a slight wind with the birds having nearly finished the last of the wizened red berries on this, the first day of spring. In the distance beyond the bed of a dry arroyo the far bank facing the sun was quite solid with yellow Mexican poppies. Offscreen cow dogs were drinking water from a tub in the yard. Two grayish butterflies fluttered past from left to right. Five minutes later a female vermilion flycatcher landed on a phone pole. Ten minutes later a green hummingbird acted irritated with a group of sparrows. A few weeks before something dramatic actually happened. Through the bushes surrounding the screened porch I could see the rancher Bob Bergier in his white pickup dragging a dead cow from the corral up to the boneyard on the side of a rock-strewn hill. Twelve cow dogs followed, all firm disciples of cow death. The dogs pranced in delight, a truly big meal in the offing.
Of course these changes in cultural behavior and the invention of diversions are part of an economic system far beyond my ken. I think of it as a matter of swimming in an anemic, sterile, and crowded swimming pool stinking of chlorine compared to swimming in a lake back in the woods, the lake’s edge rimmed with flowering lily pads upon which small turtles sit, a heron or two in tall pines or in the shallows, a few water snakes in the reed beds, and when you dive down you see fish resting motionless under upraised logs. Even the black depths look attractive compared to a swimming pool, like a rainy spring walk in the woods compared to a serial where people in New York or L.A. are shot or pummeled to the tune of witty quips.
* * *
I suppose antic verbal propensities passed from father to son are best thought of as learned rather than transmitted genetically, at least until such a far-fetched idea as the latter can be proven, though I find it impossible not to believe that there’s something in Irish blood that favors their power with words. Notions of genealogy have always filled me with torpor but the idea of the genome is stupefying. We Americans are trained to think big, talk big, act big, love big, admire bigness but then the essential mystery is in the small. Even in botanical terms with trees it’s not so much the stalwart roots which are but a vehicle for the thousands of tiny root hairs that draw in nutrition and moisture that ensure life. With humans, in terms of what is thought of high society, it is always sadly comic to see some layabout princeling talking about his ancestors. This is as obviously ludicrous as a young writer thinking that there could be some meaningful earned credential other than his writing, pure and simple.
What we think of our hometown is our first substantial map of the world. In a city it’s the neighborhood. Reed City was containable with clear borders of fields and woods. Two blocks from our five-bedroom house (which cost $3,500) was the courthouse where my father had his office. Across from the courthouse was the Congregational Church where we were members, and from where I mainly remember the gloom of the message, the anxious boredom of sitting there to hear about things quite remote from any of my concerns.
Filling in the total map of where you live never stops. At one friend’s house, Glenn “Icky” Preston, we would eat catsup sandwiches, and at another’s, people who had come up all the way from Louisiana for our modest oil boom, supper was mostly a plate of beans. I was slow to learn that this was poverty. Our class took up a collection to buy the dump-picker’s daughter, Gertie, shoes and socks when cold weather came. And one friend was called “Purple” because he had a heart defect that gave his skin a purplish cast. This was during the war years and immediately afterwards and the postdepression prosperity hadn’t reached the hinterlands, though many men would drive south to Grand Rapids, rent a room, take a factory job, returning on weekends. And there were several middle-aged, tattered men in town who hadn’t fully survived the mustard and other gas attacks during World War I. They were indigent, living in shacks, mowing lawns and shoveling snow, but this was considered a better life than being confined to a VA hospital. People also tended not to sequester their retarded and otherwise dysfunctional. My first real girlfriend, Mary Cooper, had a mentally impaired aunt named Josephine, a big lumbering woman who tagged along with us. I recall it only as a fact of life. Josephine would pick literal bushels of wildflowers and sometimes secrete small frogs down in her bra. Her toilet habits were those of a farm animal but then I was used to that.
The fact of World War II pervaded our lives. Some evenings there were air-raid alarms and when our fire chief, Percy Conrad, would start the siren all of the lights in town had to be turned off, presumably to make Reed City a less obvious target for bombers from Germany and Japan. The question of why these mortal enemies would select us as a target was never asked in my earshot. Only my brother John claimed to hear approaching bombers while the rest of us merely sat there on the front porch listening to the radio through the living room window.
The hardest part was when we drove over from Reed City to Paris to visit my father’s parents and would sit there in a circle around their radio listening to the war news from Gabriel Heater who had a raw voice of doom that equaled Edward Murrow’s. Since my uncles Arthur and Walter were in the Pacific I didn’t pay attention to anything going on in Europe. You wonder what a child truly draws in in such circumstances other than the fear of those around him: old Carty stone-faced, but Mandy with eyes brimming with tears, Winfield and David straining to hear. (Lena lived with her husband, Bernard, way down in Detroit.) Even now names can own an unpleasant resonance from the memory of Gabriel Heater’s voice, especially Guadalcanal, the Philippines. One war would have been more than enough for a child’s imagination but two in different hemispheres fractionated the mind. My mother’s carefully preserved Life magazines and our world globe helped but only modestly. Fear is deeper than knowledge and overwhelms our rationality. What if Walter and Arthur had their heads chopped off by a Japanese officer? How would we even have a funeral? What would become of their girlfriends, Audrey and Babe? People are killing each other like we do pigs, cows, and chickens. You chop a chicken’s head off and it runs in circles for longer than you expect and then it flops over. Do people do this? Then the mind stopped here, the head buried against the sofa or mother. In this darkness that fails to be comforting there is the question, “What if we lose the war?” Reed City will be blown apart and we will be captives.
During the war my sister Judith was born and I remember having mixed feelings about the loss of attention from my mother. This sense of loss was vastly energized by a woeful accident where I lost the vision in my left eye in a quarrel with a neighbor girl near a cinder pile in a woodlot behind the town hospital. She had shoved a broken bottle in my face and my sight had leaked away with a lot of blood.
The consequences of her simple, violent gesture were long-range, to use a euphemism. When this area is touched upon in quiet moments the aftereffects of the accident can arrive in comic profusion: since the left eye is skewed people are puzzled about whether or not I’m looking at them, I was 4-F and unable to fight for my country in Vietnam, I’d get blindsided in football, I knock over grocery displays in abrupt left turns, also run walking partners into buildings on left turns, tennis was finally out of the question, parking and shooting are complicated and somewhat impaired though most of the cues for depth perception were learned by the time of my accident at age seven.
Trauma is trauma but much of the time for a child it can be leavened because there are fewer neurotic reasons to hold on to it. Quite suddenly the left side of my world vanished but the worst was the nearly monthlong stay in the hospital, that long because someone came down with whooping cough or scarlet fever and we were quarantined. It naturally was a children’s ward and a girl with bad burns had died after three days. No one mentioned it to us but a kid with two fractured legs had overheard nurses talking in the night. I think my mother and father spent a lot of time with me but I recall the fear of having both eyes totally covered for a week or so. Even now I can bring back this haunted time by closing my good eye and looking at a big moon on a summer night with my bad, something I would try in the months after the injury. It is a concentrated but foggy light, quite beautiful in its way, and the practice immediately emphasizes the sounds one might hear, nighthawks, coyotes, a whippoorwill, in the spring the eerie call of the loon, the mating call of a woodcock, river sounds. This is an odd habit, looking at the moon with an essentially blind eye. You have the idea you can actually hear color, and between hearing and smell you construct a world that is further decorated by tasting and touching the night air. The old Ch”an monk Yuan-Wu said a thousand years ago, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”
The compensatory joys were my uncles coming home from the war, the gradual joy perceived by my brother and me of having a baby sister, a curious creature indeed who could be filled with simultaneous ebullience and anger, a shrewd girl who in a gifted sentence could perfectly marry joy and melancholy.
Easily the biggest item of consolation was my father and his brothers building us a cabin on a remote lake fifteen miles from town where we were to spend most of our summers for the next half-dozen years. It was one thing to live in a town with a small river going through a close-by modest-sized wild area, and large wooded areas intermixed with farms bordering the town, but quite another thing to live in a cabin without electricity and plumbing, and the goodly-sized lake having only three or four cabins on it. Last year in order to check the accuracy of childhood memories I looked at a detailed county map and discovered the empty area behind the cabin was indeed fairly large, about twelve by fourteen miles with no human habitation; huge gulleys covered by bracken and the large stumps of white pines cut in the logging era, small bogs and lakes, some too shallow for fish, grand swamps, and ridges covered with birch, oak, maple, and beech. Whether alone or with my uncles in whom I sensed a communal woundedness, or with a friend, wandering in this grand emptiness allowed me to survive my blinding in reasonably good mental shape. I don’t in the least mean the purely idyllic. In northern Michigan it is frequently cold in the summer, or too hot with clouds of mosquitoes, blackflies, horseflies, deerflies, wasps, and hornets. But it was wild, crisscrossed by old logging roads, and properly used to adolescent exhaustion the natural world can draw away your poisons to the point that your curiosity takes over and “you,” the accumulation of wounds and concomitant despair, no longer exist. The immediate world for hours at a time becomes quite beyond self-consciousness. You are more purely the mammal beneath the clothing of the culture, the civilization. The reading will take place in the evening near the oil lamp on the roseate oilcloth covering the picnic table in the corner of the cabin. But now for the time being you are merely wandering with your five senses, which, without your usual self-absorptions, are uncannily alive. Decades later I wrote an odd poem about this state:
Walking back on a chill morning past Kilmer’s Lake
into the first broad gully, down its trough
and over a ridge of poplar, scrub oak, and into
a larger gully, walking into the slow fresh warmth
of midmorning to Spider Lake where I drank
at a small spring remembered from ten years back;
walking northwest two miles where another gully
opened, seeing a stump on a knoll where my father
stood one deer season, and tiring of sleet and cold
burned a pine stump, the snow gathering fire-orange
on a dull day; walking past charred stumps blackened
by the “81 fire to a great hollow stump near a basswood
swale – I sat within it on a November morning
watching deer browse beyond my young range of shotgun
and slug, chest beating hard for killing—
into the edge of a swale waist-high with ferns,
seeing the quick movement of a blue racer,
and thick curl of the snake against a birch log,
a pale blue with nothing of the sky in it,
a fleshy blue, blue of knotted veins in an arm;
walking to Savage’s Lake where I ate my bread
and cheese, drank cool lake water, and slept for a while,
dreaming of fire, snake and fish and women in white
linen walking, pinkish warm limbs beneath white linen;
then waking, walking homeward toward Well’s Lake,
brain at boil now with heat, afternoon glistening
in yellow heat, dead dun-brown grass, windless,
with all distant things shimmering, grasshoppers, birds
dulled to quietness; walking a log road near a cedar swamp
looking cool with green darkness and whine of mosquitoes,
crow’s caw overhead, Cooper’s hawk floating singly
in mateless haze; walking dumbly, footsore, cutting
into evening through sumac and blackberry brambles,
onto the lake road, feet sliding in the gravel,
whippoorwills, night birds wakening, stumbling to lake
shore, shedding clothes on sweet moss; walking
into syrupy August moonless dark, water cold, pushing
lily pads aside, walking out into the lake with feet
springing on mucky bottom until the water flows overhead;
sinking again to walk on the bottom then buoyed up,
walking on the surface, moving through beds of reeds,
snakes and frogs moving, to the far edge of the lake
then walking upward over the basswood and alders, and field
of sharp stubble and hay bales, toward the woods,
floating over the bushy crests of hardwoods and tips
of pine, barely touching in miles of rolling heavy dark,
coming to the larger water, there walking along the troughs
of waves folding in upon themselves; walking to an island,
small, narrow, sandy, sparsely wooded, in the middle
of the island in a clump of cedars a small spring
which I enter, sliding far down into a deep cool
dark endless weight of water.
As pleasant and innocent as this life seemed at the time it created enormous problems beginning at the age of twelve and these not unique problems still very much confuse my life. You live in a small town without claustrophobia because the town ends so suddenly, its borders clearly defined. Most people in the town have known one another for generations and there is no particular reason for anyone there to move away, or anyone to move in for that matter. Most often you walk home from school for lunch, or walk to your father’s office in the county courthouse and ride home a few blocks with him. Your mother is ironing, tending baby Judith, and singing along with whoever is singing on Arthur Godfrey on the radio. On Saturday she listens to the opera broadcast directly from New York City far to the east. You are a bit out of hand ever since your accident a year or two before. You’re in the third grade and just learning to read. All you really want to do is ride around with your dad and visit farmers. Once he left in the evening to help a family when the farmer hanged himself in the barn. Another time you got to help pull a difficult calf from a mother cow who was making an improbable amount of noise. Second grade was horrible and for some reason you were punished for pissing on the cloakroom floor. Third grade was better with Audubon cards to identify birds and the insufferable nonsense of words like “when where what why who and whom” finally resolved themselves. School had gotten better but you still didn’t want to be there. You simply wanted to be at the cabin safe from the confusions of who you were, what you looked like, and the inevitable report cards that came in every societal form and still do over fifty years later. You dammed a creek with friends without knowing it would flood the neighborhood. The deputy said you’d end up in reform school. You boarded a boxcar while the train was moving and an adult reported you. You rode your bike fifty miles and it got dark and you had to be retrieved. Three months at the cabin seemed to solve everything with days of fishing, swimming, and wandering. You were in love with this life as deeply as is possible and it imprinted itself in your brain and heart just as deeply, bone- and marrow-deep, permanently altering brain chemistry.
The trouble is that over fifty years later this life still lives within me and has presented unpleasant difficulties, including claustrophobia that is occasionally acute. It isn’t the hokum Daniel Boone-Robert Frost, city-country, civilization-wilderness thing, which is far too simple for actual humans, though it occurs regularly in our mythology, especially the aspects of the ‘mythos’ that arise in television and movies. And low-rent fiction. You know, the guy has a pooch, a pet bear, says ‘darn it” a lot and can’t “abide womenfolk.” I mean something closer to the Portuguese notion of saudade, a person or place or sense of life irretrievably lost; a shadow of your own making that follows you, and though often forgotten can at any moment give rise to heartache, an obtuse sentimentality, a sharp anger that you are not located where you wish to be, an irrational and childish melancholy that you have cheated yourself of being married to a life essence that you have never been able to quite gather to yourself.
On the simplest, most ordinary level I’ve seen this in the small village near my cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a location I found and moved to because it reminded me of the ambience of my childhood cabin. People who used to live in the village, were children there, come up for holidays, usually Memorial Day weekend, or the Fourth of July, from what is called “down below,” the cities far to the south of the Mackinaw Bridge that connects Michigan’s two sections and where they make their livelihoods. When they first arrive back home there is often jubilant drinking, then the next day fishing or hunting, and by the second evening a vague unrest often settles in. Things, of course, are not what they were in the old days and though these feelings are bearable the disappointment is always there.