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Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Stumble and Bumble update

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Let me bring my first-time "At Random" readers, if any, up to date on the category "Stumble and Bumble," which I haven't written about recently. When Ginny and I (and let's not forget 6-year-old Jessica Cathrine [Yes, I know her middle name is sort of unusually spelled, but that's the way she liked it. Any objections?] moved from Minnesota to Missouri in 1973, Ginny had no job waiting for her, and I was to begin teaching at Cottey only come fall, during what might be called Cottey's "Iron Age." (Yes, hold on, I'll explain!)

Academic folks like Ginny and I can usually be found behind a desk, developing a pear-shape butt, and in the summer of 1973, we knew we needed physical exercise, but weren't getting nearly enough. (Oh, yeah, I lit and crushed out some 30 cigarettes each day, but that was about the extent of my physical exercise!)

So, Ginny took a part-time job at Social Security, later helped the folks at Gibson's, a small department store in town, with their inventory. (Hey, we needed every penny. In those days, beginning Cottey professors, even those with their PhD's, started at $10,000 a year!) As wife Ginny will confirm, she's built in such a way that, like the shark, if she's stationary (Yeah, that's how you spell it) for long, she's a goner. ("No, there ain't no fleas on me, boys!" she sings mornings, in the bathtub.)

So, she soon realized that she needed a whole lot more activity, despite the fact that at six years of age, our daughter Jessica, we thought, needed to be entertained. (As it turned out, she really didn't, but Dr. Spock said otherwise.)

For my part, when classes began, in mid-August, I immediately realized I'd found my true calling. Once I entered my classroom, I sensed I'd entered an enchanted zone, where I found myself teaching, to genuinely gifted and interested young women, the craft of my heart's desire, even though I sometimes had to put down "The Great Gatsby" and tackle the more mundane but still important subjects of comma-splices and substantive foot-notes. But I soon found myself hunched over our dining room table, at home, commenting voluminously on each of my students' essays. Sometimes I wrote more on an essay than the writer had! To this day, I remember my first students' names better than those of the last kids I taught before I retired a few years ago. Sometimes I was up till 3. Loving it. And, let's not forget my University of Minnesota dissertation adviser, who, from time to time, sent me a postcard asking snidely if I were still breathing. And just when, he asked, was I going to finish my doctoral dissertation and defend it before my long-suffering committee. Did I need more sleep?

Hell, no, I needed more physical exercise.

And so, we got together with Robert Palmer. First thing I joined in Nevada was the chancel choir of the Nevada United (Sorry, but I early felt compelled to spell it the "Untied") Methodist Church. I felt the word change loosened things up a bit.). I was a bass (Imagine the sniping that ensued when everyone in the choir introduced himself/herself and identified his/her voice-category, I was suddenly, as I'd always feared, a fish that swims in rivers.) Robert Palmer was a tenor. But not one of those uppity tenors who, like Pavarotti, for instance, hold themselves above all the other guys. No, Robert was a true democrat, like Walt Whitman, who would deign to speak with anyone, a fellow laborer, "who would send," as Walt would surely bellow, "his barbaric yawp across the roofs of the world " and never know a moment of embarrassment. Yes, indeed, I grew to like Robert very much, as I did his elderly mother, whom my elderly Aunt Vera in Cincinnati insisted on calling, because Mrs. P's phone number happened to be one digit away from our own. (And who would blame Vera? She was 97 years old.) And one night, when Ginny needed our VW station wagon (the color, Jess had judged, of "yesterday's rice") for an important can't-wait trip elsewhere--he drove me home from choir practice clinging to the back of his snazzy BMW motorcycle.

Those are some of the human charms that you can find only in a small town.

Our second summer in Nevada, if I remember correctly, we cut an informal deal: Robert would help us expand our house by performing the really difficult tasks of carpentry that I, as an English teacher, hadn't a chance of doing myself. Hell, I didn't even possess the proper terminology. (And I didn't want to make a fool of myself by getting myself perched alone on the top of the roof and shouting down to a bevy of professional carpenters, plumbers, roofers, on coffee break, below, "Hey, Bob, would you please come on up here and show me how the V-shaped metal doodad on the end of my hammer works. What the @%$&% is it used for?")

That summer, the three of us started to convert our attic space into a genuine second floor (talk about raising the roof!), tall enough to accommodate six-footers, not all bent over, but standing upright, for a modest fee and the promise of a fine Ginny-made dinner with us if we ran late.

Whose law states that work will expand to fill the time allotted for it? George W. Bush? His shooter Dick Cheney? Well, whoever articulated the law, she hit the nail right on the head. (Notice the change of gender here; I didn't teach at a woman's college thirty-one years for nothing, you know. "No, there ain't no fleas on me, boys.")

Well, I can remember distinctly standing happily at the very top of our house at 320 North Spring one bright early summer afternoon (they were all either "bright early summer afternoons" or else "dim and drizzly late summer afternoons") stripping away the last of the old shingles, tossing them Frisbee-style to the immense eyesore of a pile of outmoded and disfigured shingles below, and suddenly realizing I was standing squarely in the middle of our own sunlit space. For a brief moment, I felt I was on top of the world! From that fresh vantage point, I thought of all I'd learned that summer--and ended up feeling embarrassingly pleased with myself. For one thing, I'd spent a lot of time on roofs, first crawling gingerly, then creeping cautiously, and finally dancing foolishly. I'd beaten my inchoate fears of heights, of electric knives and clippers that buzz and growl, of overhead electric wires. Under Robert's tutelage I'd learned to maintain, build, and disassemble things that heretofore had been nothing but mechanical mysteries. More than once that summer, a Nevadan had walked to 320 North Spring, stopped, shaded his eyes, and looked up at me performing some amazing feat or other on the roof. "Gosh, for an English teacher, Chuck," he'd say admiringly, and with just a tough of awe, "you do pretty good carpentry." Those remarks made not only my day, but my whole summer! For a brief but gratifying moment, I felt like Keats's European explorer stunned by the sheer and unsullied immensity of the Pacific he's just laid his eyes upon.

(No joke, deer reader. And don't you, too, marvel at what the European sailors must've seen when first they laid eyes on virginal America--even New Jersey?)