I didn’t truly pay attention to Alvey Kitzmiller until he told about witnessing his dad’s fatal accident. I was 15 years-old and accounts involving death and destruction—especially of fathers—were sure to wake me from my teenage self-absorption. I often fantasized about being permanently free of my parents’ stifling influence and was unsentimental about the ways I would rid myself of them.
Alvey related the story in the one-room shack that doubled as scale house and Uncle Billy’s office. It was my third day working at Potomac Pulpwood. We had our dinner buckets open and I was wolfing down food after we’d spent the morning moving tiers of pulpwood from trucks to railcars. Dinner time—what city people called lunch—was the only occasion for extended talk unless we’d exhausted all tasks that the wood yard required. I sprawled on the truck bench-couch by the stove. Alvey sat in my uncle’s desk chair that rolled on noisy casters.
The accident happened when he was eight-years old. Alvey, his hands on his outspread knees, related the horror in deadpan mountain style. The arthritis that made his father’s grip uncertain. The sticks of nitroglycerin-soaked paper. His dad had saved the brittle explosive from some mining job years before—a bad idea since nitroglycerin becomes more unstable as it ages. His dad bending over the apple tree stump that he wanted to knock loose from the ground. The children excited for the big show, hiding on the smokehouse corner and behind the back steps. He squeezed the three dynamite sticks too tightly and boom! A leg shot clear past the barn. An arm lay in the kitchen garden.
Alvey said that despite his father being blown into large pieces, the mortician was able to salvage an open casket funeral. The pulverized torso was replaced with a straw-stuffed dress shirt, the limbs laid in the coffin, further covered by a jacket and trousers. Pappy’s head, though also having been torn from the body, was surprisingly intact, with some bruising and burns that the mortician covered with makeup and then set into a high starched collar.
Only years later do I realize that Alvey told that story not merely to impress me with its macabre details. Uncle Billy had certainly briefed him on the situation before I arrived in Petersburg, West Virginia in 1974. I wanted to run wild all night and I wanted to get laid. My friends were giggling idiots. Pot and LSD and loud music at least made the world strange and fresh. Drugs awakened me to how deadened my senses had already become. Conventional behavior had hammered me into a fearful creature with no way to match my inner self to the world I encountered.
I now understand what the teenage Rimbaud meant when he wrote to a friend that “I is someone else” but I didn’t have his clarity or the balls to run away.
When my father talked to me at all, one of his favorite criticisms was, “You just want to do what you want to do when you want to do it.” I still consider that stance to be eminently reasonable—who wouldn’t want to do what he wanted?
When dad was the same age, he was a fuckup in a much direr era of economic depression and war. His father had been dead three years and the family didn’t have much more than a house, a garden and a cow. He went to work for his oldest brother Billy, fifteen years his senior, who would soon be making big money mass producing chickens during wartime. Dad had the stinking job of mucking out truckloads of manure between crops. If dirty hard labor had helped him grow up, then it would surely help me.
Laboring for the same brother Billy at his latest venture, a pulpwood and coal brokerage, was just what a suburban brat needed. Though Dad and I were alike in so many ways, I had a different response to the work: I came to myself doing that hard, sometimes dangerous labor. It made me understand that you must live in your body, and I have been spending my whole life trying to reconcile the satisfactions of the body with the disease of reflective thought.
I had never met anyone like Alvey Kitzmiller. My first impression was that he was even more idiotic than the typical adult, just a hillbilly with a hick name. Unlike the rough men who arrived at the yard to sell pulpwood, Alvey’s trim build didn’t suggest physical strength. Calmness radiated from him that I first mistook for blandness. His meek affect seemed to match his unvarying uniform of gray cotton workpants, shirt and cap. At first it didn’t make sense to me that he wore his long sleeves buttoned down even on the hottest summer day while I went shirtless and sunburned. When he was required to measure a truckload’s volume in order to calculate its value, he removed his gloves and carefully tucked them in his back pocket. After leaning the long measuring rod against a truck, he would pull a pencil stub from behind his ear and flip open a leather covered notebook that he kept in his shirt. His calm gestures would reassure the men selling the wood that they weren’t being cheated.
To a 15-year-old, his age was indeterminate. He was somewhere in his late forties, I would reckon now, living with his wife in that dull town, having had no children, and leading a peaceful life of work, vegetable garden and holy-roller church. He neither smoked, chewed, drank nor swore, yet he didn’t seem bothered by those who had those vices. He seemed to be a man who lived the idea of Christian charity without having any obnoxious urge to proselytize. As I consider his spiritual bearing years later, I believe that Alvey understood that the essence of true religion is to calm us down and allow us to accept our fate. Ethics always intrude with contradictory rules for how to treat others. But the first big step is ontological: learning to exist in a body and accept that this body connects to mysteries beyond our knowing.
I was sullen and stubborn. I didn’t want to cooperate with anyone or anything. I had a dim opinion of all adults. But it took only a few days for Alvey to earn my slavish devotion—that story about his dad certainly woke me up. I was so happy to be free of my parents for the first time in my life. I didn’t feel like I even had a father. In my mind, both Alvey and I were orphans and that made us confederates. Unlike my teachers, he didn’t stand over me but worked right alongside, igniting my desire to do good, simple work. He needed no supervision and, in turn, he guided me gently, letting me make my own mistakes as I learned.
My first lessons were purely practical, designed to keep me alive and with all limbs intact. Before a truck arrived on my first morning, Alvey took me to the Hyster loader to explain its workings. I wasn’t used to being alert at seven a.m. and my eyes blinked with sleep. The machine resembled a rubber tire forklift, but instead of forks it had a long vertical plate welded to its front. At the top of that plate was a horizontal bar from which dangled two sets of sling cables. The Hyster would be pulled up snug to a truck bearing two or three sets of steel standards into which were stacked logs four feet in length—the bolts of pulpwood that my uncle brokered between the farmers and the paper mill. My job was to snake the cable ends under the bottom-most bolts and secure the hooks that would allow the cables to cradle the load. Alvey told me that the cables had to be held taut by hand to keep them from unhooking until the Hyster began to pull upward.
“Now here’s where you better watch out,” he said, pulling out one cable. He held the three-quarter-inch cable between thumb and forefinger. “This here will snap taut when the boom lifts whether your fingers are under it or not. I ain’t never seen it but I suppose they’ve been some fingers popped off using this machine.” He looked at me and laughed, no doubt thinking of foolish people letting their concentration wander, something that he would later discuss with me in language that sounded like that of a Zen monk using country diction. Once the cables had drawn taut, I was to step away as Alvey or Uncle Billy sat in the Hyster’s seat and lifted the tier of wood from the truck. He was emphatic about me getting clear of the hoisted load. It was a few days before I witnessed why: as the Hyster raised the wood, the load would shift and sometimes trip one or both of the cable-sling’s hooks. If the load had already been pulled free from the truck and was hanging somewhere between eight and twelve feet in the air, it would suddenly explode onto the ground in a cloud of dust and tangled logs.
The trucks came in at no prescribed pace. Some mornings three would be lined up at seven a.m., their headlights burning in the river fog. Other mornings, the trucks rolled in at comfortable intervals before falling off in the afternoon heat. There were scorching cloudless days where only one or two would arrive and we’d run out of chores to do. When I would see a truck coming along the train right of way, I would climb down from a railcar or walk over from the coal grinder—my two main stations at Uncle Billy’s—to help hook up the Hyster’s cables. Almost all the trucks had been worked hard, some so beat that it seemed doubtful that they could have made it down steep mountains curves. Most had doors spray painted with “Farm Use,” a legal designation that allowed them to operate without tags, insurance or state inspections. The drivers climbed out dirty and sober, ready to trade pulpwood for cash money. Some of the farmers brought along their teenaged sons, and I compared my skinny, city-boy self with their tough looks. I envied them their muscles that bulged from throwing hay bales and logs, some with crude signs tattooed on their biceps. Unlike me, they seemed as if they knew their place in the world and were completely at home in it.
The next lesson that first morning involved my main job—sorting and stacking the jumbled pulpwood that the Hyster had dropped on the open-sided railcars. Back at the scale house, Alvey gave me a pair of leather gloves, the palms black with pine tar. He then held out a pulp hook, handle toward me, his hand gripping the tool’s tempered steel curve. Its heaviness surprised me as I tried the handle, letting it swing in my curled hand. That tool was specifically made for the job, though it resembled the hooks that longshoremen once used to move cargo before the advent of containers. Carrying the pulp hook, I followed him over to the railcars, one of which was partially loaded with pulpwood.
Alvey climbed the steel rungs attached to the car’s bulkhead and once he was near the top, I grabbed a rung and pulled myself upwards. The B & O railroad would leave my uncle four or five cars joined together, each car being approximately fifty feet long with the top of the bulkheads standing about twelve feet from the ground. Alvey swung around the bulkhead and stepped down onto the jumble of logs that had been dropped by the Hyster. We used the pulp hooks to help leverage the ungainly four-foot bolts, smacking the steel point into the log’s middle and then lifting it, while the other hand cradled the bolt’s butt end.
I would spend most of my days on the cars, sorting and packing the bolts dumped by the Hyster before it dropped another scattered load onto the car. Eventually, I would be standing tall on two tight parallel rows of pulpwood that would survive sixty miles of poorly-maintained track to the Westvaco paper mill farther down river at Luke. The sun would be high in the summer sky, my chest and arms streaked with sap, and I was dizzy from laboring as I staggered along the top row of logs swinging the pulpwood hook. I could feel my body growing stronger while my mind calmed. Rather than the constant assault of anxious thoughts that had cowed me, at these moments images and sounds flowed behind my eyes, putting me in a state of amazed mindfulness. I would chase that feeling for many years, a better high than drugs, because it didn’t shock the brain. A better high than sex because it could last for hours. Better than intellectual labor because it was beyond reason and language, permitting me to inhabit that “better consciousness” that Schopenhauer spilled so much ink attempting to describe before abandoning the day’s work to take his daily hike along country roads.
I was 18-feet tall atop the railcars and the world looked fresh from a giant’s view. The yard, with the scale house/office, outbuildings, machinery and coal piles, opened onto the bigger world around it. Down the train tracks leaving town were the lime mill and a mysterious plant called SCM/Allied Egry. The other way, across town, just church spires and the tannery smokestack jutted up into my line of vision. On the nearest hillside, a sawmill had recently burned, the huge sawdust pile still smoldering weeks later. When it occasionally burst into full flame, the volunteer fire department, alerted by a siren heard across the town, would rush up and pour more water on it. Adjacent to the tracks, the mighty river moved silently, hidden by bluffs of Sycamores. It made itself known each morning, blanketing the wood yard in gray mist.
That fog depressed me for the first week I worked because it fooled me into believing that the day would be overcast, even rainy. I was amazed when the mist burned off by nine to reveal a bottomless blue sky. Ten years later, after both my uncle and Alvey were dead, the river would become a tidal wave roaring down from deep mountain gaps in a once-in-500-year flood. The water would sweep away the scale house and the tracks, the trees, the hard packed soil, and everything else in that part of town, exposing acres of primeval bedrock that undergirded the world.
After dinner, when Alvey and I would be working towards one another from opposite ends of a railcar, a guy he knew from the Church of God congregation would often climb up for a visit. Gerald, a dour man who worked at the lime mill, always arrived covered with white dust from cap to boot. He liked to squat on his heels and complain about the fallen world. As he spoke, he would glance my way as if I might be part of the problem. In the early afternoon, kids on motocross bikes would come roaring through the yard and continue along the railroad right of way—a perfect flat track for motorcycles. One day when these riders furiously approached and just as quickly disappeared in their own dust plumes, Gerald said, “Death bikes. That’s what they is.”
As Alvey and I continued to sort through the bolts, I studied his reaction to these comments. “Yessir,” Alvey would always say, not assenting to Gerald’s aggressive statements so much as just acknowledging that Gerald had spoken.
Another afternoon as Gerald squatted on his heels, he suddenly turned his dusty cap toward me and said, “Boy, how’d you get so black!” He went on to make some stupid racial statements. I was glistening with coal dust, having been operating the grinder right after dinner break because Jesse Mayle, who drove my uncle’s delivery truck, would be picking up a full load of stoker coal bound for the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant. There was no way to avoid the bitter-tasting dust that blew in my sweaty face as I stood on an overturned bucket and picked shale off the conveyer belt. The dust was so fine that it permeated my skin and would later seep out of my pores, blackening shirt collars even after I’d taken a long shower in the family home’s basement. Yes, I was black with coal, my eyes and teeth shining out brightly from the contrast.
That day, after Gerald had climbed down and gone on to the lime mill, Alvey adjusted his cap and translated my inchoate thoughts about Gerald back to me: “Well sir, lime or coal—it don’t make no difference. They’re both filthy, now ain’t they?”
During those first weeks, Gerald wasn’t the only unofficial visitor in the pulpwood yard’s open social world. Since my uncle’s place butted up against the tracks, the railroad right-of-way attracted all sorts of outcasts. A huge mumbling drunk named Fred would wander over from the south-side beer joints. Alvey gave him water. I could never understand a word that came out of Fred’s barely moving lips. One afternoon, he passed out by the scale house door. Jesse weighed him as he slept on the rough boards that held up the scales. He stamped a ticket that showed Fred to be an impressive 430 pounds. Jesse was giggling while Alvey and I grabbed our gloves to meet a truckload of pulpwood. He took the ticket and attached it to Fred’s pant cuff with a piece of wire. I started to giggle, but when I saw the look on Alvey’s face I shut up.
“I expect his tare weight’ll be thirty pounds lesser once he’s pissed all his beer out,” Jesse yelled after us.
Another drunk whom everyone called Ducky because of his spoon-shaped nose would guzzle beer in the shade of the boxcars that served the wholesale grocer out on the road. Unlike Fred, Ducky was alleged to be mean. He would carry a cardboard box filled with eight quarts of Stroh’s beer and would spend the day drinking alone, no matter that the beer soon was air temperature. After draining each bottle, he seemed to mark time by smashing them on the rails. When the eighth one was consumed and shattered, we’d see him wander back into town, his day over. Even though Alvey warned me about his temper, I approached him one afternoon to get a closer look. Ducky hissed and whipped out an ice pick from inside his shirt. Sitting with his back against a railcar’s huge wheel, he waved the pick, telling me that it was his weapon of choice to take care of any punks who’d dare trespass upon his binge.
For two weeks, there was Duke, an employee of sorts, who helped Jesse deliver coal. After Duke showed up that first Monday, Alvey told me that he was on a county jail work-release program. My uncle was forever helping out losers, his nephews and nieces included. Alvey said that Duke was serving time for fighting outside a tavern, which I had found out the hard way was a perennial hobby of the region’s young men. “Saturday night—black eye night and drunk night,” Uncle Billy used to say with some nostalgia for his dissipated youth. I covertly studied Duke whenever he and Jesse loitered in the scale house. He would chain-smoke and just as compulsively smooth back his Vitalis-soaked hair. He had a trim black goatee that contrasted sharply with his jailhouse pallor. He only smiled with his deep set eyes and I sensed latent violence in the muscles that rippled under his t-shirt.
One day Alvey, Jesse and I were eating dinner out of our buckets while Duke smoked and smoothed his hair. He had a mysterious arrangement with Jesse that allowed him to leave in late morning and then return around noon. I asked him innocently why he wasn’t having dinner with us. He fixed me with those eyes. He said, “I done et. I had some hair pie for dinner. You ever et a hair pie, boy?” It was a beautifully obscene thing to say to a teenager. I shook my head, my face flushing. Even Alvey had to smile while Jesse laughed, banging one boot heel on the floor boards. That was the one huge thing missing from the pulpwood yard: females not only didn’t set foot there, they were rarely mentioned. My uncle was married, but it seemed more a habit than an intense relationship, and he made jokes about copulating with sheep, wearing hip waders so as to tuck the ewe’s back legs in to hold her close. Alvey mentioned his wife from time to time, but only in passing. Jesse was shacked up with a woman, no doubt as wizened and toothless as he. Out of earshot of Alvey, Jesse took it upon himself to school me by repeating bizarre statements such as “If she’s old enough to bleed, then she’s old enough to butcher,” or “Remember, Glenn, you ain’t a man till you split a black oak.” And then there were the bachelors—Gerald, Fred, and Ducky—all three dazed by their solitary lives.
I was already way out of my league with the town’s teenage sweetheart, a luscious girl my age who usually went with older boys and had taken some long car rides at night. Hair pie, indeed! I wanted some. But if the pulpwood yard’s macho dynamic were a sure sign of things to come, then I might have predicted a wretched life, wandering around with other males, having foolish discussions about the sex with women that we probably weren’t having.
Some of the men who cut pulpwood only appeared intermittently. Others arrived several times a week during high summer, with crops laid by and nothing to do but fix fences, make hay and try to get some cash money. Guys with strange first names like June, Junior and Cletus. Many looked hard and underfed, had missing eyes and fingers, romantic notions of the yeoman farmer still one of America’s persistent myths. Along with the loads of wood, some would arrive with dead rattlesnakes draped across hoods or huge paper hornet nests stuck in grilles. Twin brothers were among the most regular pulpwooders. Alvey asked me if I could tell which had a fake leg. I hadn’t noticed until Alvey pointed him out. He did walk with a slight limp, but then again the other men also lurched around with their own hidden injuries. Alvey said that the boy—called Diddy—had lost the leg in a logging accident. A tree had barber-chaired, splitting upwards from the horizontal cut he’d been making with a chainsaw at the tree’s stump end. As the split pulled the tree’s top perpendicular to the stump, the split separated from the part still attached to the trunk and fell on Diddy, crushing his left leg, the entire event transpiring in seconds. “Now there’s a proud man,” Alvey said, and I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment. Diddy, who was in his late twenties, had refused the prosthesis offered him as he recovered in the hospital, his leg amputated below the knee. Instead, he carved his own. When the first one didn’t fit and caused the leg stump to bleed, he carved another and had been wearing that one for a year when I first saw him. Diddy, just like his twin, Duddy, was so taciturn that he never even looked at me when I helped them run the sling cables under he and his brother’s thrice-weekly truckload.
But then there was Luther Whetzel, a reckless little man who always brought all five of his boys along. He would stagger out from the driver’s seat, raggedy and unshaven, grinning while shouting his greeting. His farm-use truck was from the 1950’s and had wire holding up the headlights and the doors screeched when opened. His sons ranged from eight to 16, and the older two would arrive sitting tucked up in the three tiers Luther’s bobtail truck held, shirtless and stained with pine tar, holding on to chainsaws and gas cans. His boys were just as amiable as Luther and the younger ones would swarm me, their cheeks stuffed with sickening bulges of snuff that leaked black juice down their chins. They pulled on my arms and talked at me with wide eyes as if I were some exotic creature, this city kid. But their curiosity was well-founded. We werestrange to one another. Mass media and Wal-Mart had yet to iron out the country’s culture into coast-to-coast reference points of sit-coms and consumer desires. Even though I had lived there as a child, West Virginia was as strange a culture as if I’d found myself in Tasmania, where English could be heard, approximately, but spoken with ancient rhythms.
The son of another farmer was my country doppelganger—same first name, same age, same build—we even had the same wavy blonde hair. Glenn Ours had no trouble teasing me openly about my origins, greeting me with “What say, city slicker?” and then giggling while punching my arm. Our biggest connection was love for the same girl—she later related his awkward flirtations in school. He told me, smiling, that he, like many of the town’s boys, wanted to beat my ass for somehow just strolling into their madly competitive society and getting with her.
I had been a bad kid in my known world. Getting cast into the pulpwood yard’s society at first intimidated me, then made me see how paltry my life had been. I saw the seriousness of survival. Some of the farmers like Luther Whetzel were dirt poor and used the money that they got in exchange for a truckload of pulpwood to feed their families for the week. The one dollar an hour that Uncle Billy paid me—totaling 50 dollars per week—was just spending money that I banked after wasting a small portion on my new habits of cigarettes, Red Coon plug tobacco and the 3.2 percent beer that was only sold in West Virginia taverns. I was staying with my widowed Aunt Katy in the rambling family home where my father had been born. I lived off of the hot dogs and garden vegetables that she fed me. I could never forget that, unlike every one that I met at the pulpwood yard, I was just playing on summer vacation and not, like my country-other Glenn Ours, practicing my life’s work. I would later be expected by my family to work a respectable job in corporate business or one of the professions, just as Uncle Billy had been expected to do.
What a disappointment I too would become!
Billy Moomau looked like a tough guy in his slant-brim fedora and gray work clothes, all of him covered with a palpable film of coal dust and nicotine. In his shirt pockets he carried glasses, notebooks, pens and a pack of Camel shorts, one of which was constantly burning somewhere around him. He had no teeth and only wore dentures to funerals or weddings where his normally elastic face would be stiff with discomfort. Without the teeth, he could break out into an unbelievably livid gum-rimmed smile when he was tickled about something. Like the other men in my life, he didn’t say much. He was hard of hearing from years of loud machinery and so he was always responding to my statements with “Hah? Hah?” He also coughed constantly, hawking up the junk from his lungs that would later kill him.
He’d been the rebellious first son of a middle-aged bank clerk and his young bride, and his exasperated father had set Billy up with a number of cushy government jobs that he drank himself through. Then he made it big with his chicken houses. But he and his cronies drank the profits and he ended up twice in the asylum at Weston. He somehow quit drinking—he had been horribly addicted. I believed that the drinking had just been a manifestation of his non-conformity, and that gave me license to swill beer and do drugs. But that summer was the first time that I observed my favorite uncle daily. Walking home from the pulpwood yard, swinging my dinner bucket in one hand, I would catch glimpses of Billy sitting alone in Sites’ restaurant, hunched over the counter, sipping coffee and smoking. In the evenings, from out of the second floor sleeping porch’s wide windows, I watched his back leaning in a lawn chair as he faced the sunset, staring over his garden, and again, smoking one cigarette after another. I would get terrible pangs seeing my uncle like that. I was a loner too and that made me sad for both of us: what was wrong with us that we couldn’t be more sociable? I would later learn that imbalanced brain chemistry ran in my Dad’s family. I had a flat-out crazy great aunt who, when manic, would do all kinds of wild stunts, but she had died when I was just an infant. One of my great uncles, a young newspaperman named Claude, had died mysteriously in his late twenties—was it a suicide? My cousins and I were exposing a whole host of pathologies that had been sleeping in the family, brought alive by prosperity, boredom and the full-scale rebellion of the young against their parents. I had inherited a whacked out brain, though no one would have dared mention psychiatric problems as these were things that happened to other, less fortunate families. No wonder Billy didn’t want any part of the respectable world’s hypocrisy and looked and acted like no other relative I had.
Up to that point in my life, I had had no impressive guides aside from my dad. But he was hardly ever home and we were so different. If the teachers in my public schools were excellent, it was hidden from me, their energy diluted by herding hundreds of children through long days. I absolutely hated my junior high school and its massive factory-like structure, my first taste of how the contemporary world had strangled itself with its own institutions. But the pulpwood wood yard was an elemental place, simple in its dimensions, and the machinery and giant railcars awakened me with the whiff of danger. I was too young to legally work in my home state of Maryland so spending the summer on my first job in West Virginia saved me. I simply don’t know what I would have done while waiting for dreaded school to begin yet again in September. I worked there for two months and would have stayed right through the summer’s close had my father not nearly been felled by a heart attack, a more genteel version of getting blown apart by dynamite, and I was forced to go home so quickly that I didn’t even get to say thanks to Alvey and Jesse.
When I saw my father in what passed for an intensive care ward at that time, I was appalled by his weak state. Here was my once-powerful old man, 45 years-old, on his back, his skin pale, his heart damaged, holding up a plastic cigarette that the nurses had given him to mollify his utter addiction to the weed. I suddenly felt superior to him and that feeling quickly turned to shame. We never had an orderly succession of power in my family. When I read about Ken Kesey’s dad letting his son beat him physically in a wrestling match when he was 17 so that Ken would have the confidence to go out into the world and take it on, I was sad that my own father was too insecure to do that, and so we butted heads nearly up to his death 25 years later.
When no trucks showed up, there were lambent afternoons that seemed outside of time. On those days, I would go even deeper into my cleansed mind. I’d straighten the pulpwood and then go back over my job. I climbed up and down on the railcars, never failing to be impressed at how massively they dwarfed me. With a scoop shovel, I consolidated the coal piles. I picked up sheaves of tree bark. I busted apart pallets for the barrel stove that even in the summer was sometimes lit by Alvey to take off the morning chill. I sorted piles of precious materials that Uncle Billy hoarded for sale—the brass, copper and cast iron that came from a post-industrial nation’s scrapped machinery. And then, with absolutely nothing to do, I would listen to Alvey’s edifying stories about his childhood out on the wild Allegany Front plateau, what everyone in the area referred to as “the mountain.”
The job gave me satisfactions that seemed strange at the time. I was surrounded with droll country people and I spent my days entirely outdoors. I was amazed at how dirty the job made me and how satisfying it was to have the sweat, sap and coal dust rinsed from my body after work. At night, I would make out with my girlfriend on her front porch or ride around the town with my buddy Greg Turner. I had been an insomniac at home, tossing in my bed for hours even after masturbating twice. In the second-floor sleeping porch, with the bank of windows opened wide, I passed out when my head hit the pillow. It was like my inner and outer lives coincided for the first time since I had become aware a few years earlier that huge discontinuities existed inside my body.
After I was forced to return home, I was sick for my job and girlfriend. At night, I walked the streets in my parent’s fancy neighborhood feeling even more alien than before. The suburbs were an empty tableau where life seemed turned away from me, taking place behind windows and walls. I never saw anyone working except doing yard chores, and at night the houses were silent while the cicadas screamed in the trees. It was a place cleansed of all essential challenges, where by design nothing happened.
My parents had intended the summer job to buck me up and get me away from my louche friends. It didn’t work and getting stoned before school was the only way to endure its dull routine. The next summer, Uncle Billy hired my cousin Fred and me to salvage the town’s defunct tannery—an even dirtier, crazier job than grinding coal and sorting pulpwood. All day in the sun, destroying cast iron machinery with sledgehammers just made me wilder. A few times I was sent to the pulpwood yard to pick up a truck or get tools. Alvey was no longer in charge, now worked under an affable guy named Vernon. Alvey looked smaller and paler to me now that I was a year older.
I kept up my bad behavior and barely graduated from a combination of low grades and disciplinary problems. But I carried forward from that initial summer at the pulpwood yard a few essential truths that I stubbornly developed without truly understanding. Outside of being a citizen of the nation, I would never bow to an institution’s dictates. That would take a toll—I knew that my life wouldn’t involve much money and that I’d forgo getting married and having children. Though my life would seem outwardly ascetic, that would be the price I was willing to pay to live free. I wanted to be like Gary Snyder, whom I’d admired from Kerouac’s fictional portrayal in The Dharma Bums, only later realizing that everything Kerouac wrote had a patina of romantic exaggeration. I would study on my own and live on the cheap. I would spend as much time as possible outdoors no matter the weather. I would never be chained to a desk inside a cubicle.
At first I avoided college. I got a job in a plant nursery and later hiked the Appalachian Trail, which my parents at least saw as a goal-oriented task. When I did try school, I failed out after the fall semester. There were some rough years, where my confidence faltered in the face of the culture’s unbearable pressure for all to earn a respectable living. I saw how my father had done his duty and was rewarded by a shortened life and a bitter end. I finally went part-time to the local state school and balanced that with a roguish laborer’s job working for a tree surgeon. I thought that studying history and literature was the most gloriously impractical vocation I could possibly choose, one that would forever banish me from the straight world and its job market.
I finally came indoors in my early thirties. I went to grad school, even though I would never possess a scholar’s sensibility. I acquiesced in my hatred of institutions because I needed an easier job. I picked newspapers and universities. They seemed benign compared with the average corporation. When I found out how wrong I was about that assumption, it was too late to turn back.
I compromised because I just didn’t have the body for outdoor labor anymore. Noble notions about poverty also began to wear on me. I was tired of shacks and a mattress on the floor and no telephone. I wanted to have a kitchen and a live-in girlfriend. Later, in my forties, I developed arthritis in my elbows, knees, neck and hands. I wondered how athletes cope with disability, having lived in a beautifully functioning body that no longer will operate in high gear. I turned to other bodily excesses—food, drink and sex. But hedonism just keeps the brain hungry for more and varied stimulation, and I had to learn that to exploit those sensations would be a full-time job in itself. If I couldn’t get paid to party, then I’d have to modify my desires.
Recently I was reading a favorite, the canny aphorist E.M. Cioran. I was enjoying the irony implicit in one of his periodic attacks on reflective thought. Cioran surprised me by talking about work: “So long as I give myself up to physical exercise, manual labor, I am happy, fulfilled; once I stop, I am seized by dizziness and can think of nothing but giving up for good.” I tried to imagine a Parisian intellectual pushing a wheelbarrow or digging potatoes with a long-handled spade. I wondered how my original mentor Alvey Kitzmiller would have interpreted Cioran’s statement because he certainly held similar attitudes, though he would have probably laughed at Cioran’s melodramatic phrasing. I do remember that Alvey constantly expressed pity for those lost souls whose main workplace goal was getting to dinner or quitting time. These remarks were usually focused upon Jesse Mayle or some raggedly farmer who’d arrived at the yard complaining about making a living. I had already been heavily infected with the boredom and anxiety that put all hopes toward some future bliss. I had no antidote for that dread until Alvey showed me how to work in the moment, which was the key to living in my body as time ticked by.
I still crave the chance to lose myself in hard, dirty labor. It offers a form of active meditation. Even more, I believe that jobs that dealt with essential materials like the pulpwood that was processed into paper are far more interesting than anything that could be written on that paper. Pulpwood and coal, and later stone, gravel, dirt, manure, and concrete—handling the materials upon which was built a complicated civilization showed me that I needed this primary stuff through which I could experience, think and feel the world. Ironically, as my body gets crabbed, in a decade I fear all I will possess will be a mind, now overstuffed with fallible memories and rootless anxieties.
I would much rather live than write about life.
Sitting here with the windows in this apartment open to the noisy city, I just don’t know how I will manage to outlast this desperate need.