Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (2/19) — Chapter Two, Bean (1/4)

WE PLANTED THESE BEANS to learn what their growth had to teach us about life, work and other things that can be food for thought.


BOONE, N.C. (Aug. 20, 2019) – Right now I’m sitting in the lobby of the Reich College of Education at Appalachian State University, and I’m wondering why I don’t know beans—or, rather, about growing beans. The rabbits keep getting them at both of our houses, in town and in the country.

Henry D. Thoreau, a hoer with a heart of gold and the humor of iron pyrite, wrote in Walden; or, Life in the Woods: “I am determined to know beans.” And in the two years, two months and two days of his experiment in living deliberately at Walden Pond in the mid-1840s, he did learn much about growing beans, but mainly that it was a lot of hard work just to feed the rabbits, woodchucks and other rodents.

THE SEEDS OF WALDEN are as relevant today as they were when Henry Thoreau issued them 170 years ago. One paper package of them looks like this now.

If you know anything at all about me or about 19th-century American literature, you’ve already noticed that this odd collection of ramblings I’ve been posting owes much to Thoreau and Walden, his literary masterpiece. Earlier I called this effort a memoir; however, upon rereading my friend Jeffrey Cramer’s afterword to the Yale edition of Walden that he also edited, I’ve decided that this book, Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run, is, like Walden, an autobiography, not a memoir, for whatever that distinction is worth.

Basically, what I’m writing about involves events that you were probably unaware of, events that had meaning to me and to the other participants when they occurred but not necessarily to you, the reader—not until now, that is … hopefully. That’s an autobiography. And, no, I don’t think my life experiences need to have been any more important than anyone else’s to write about them.

After all, we are all fellow travelers to the tomb—or to say it a different way, quoting Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, “fellow-passengers to the grave.” Though our flight plans, our rides, our layovers and our landings are all somewhat different, our final destinations are one and the very same. We’re all headed toward Hartsfield sooner or later. So my main objective in writing Rutherwood is to help make your trips around the sun a little less bumpy than some of mine have been.

But back to the issue of beans. Thoreau might have found fulfillment in hoeing his two-and-a-half acres of white bush beans in fields that he had cleared just up the county road from his shack at the Pond, but I’ve never found work of that sort to be rewarding, maybe because it has always been too easy for me to walk to the cupboard and grab an easy-open can of Bush’s White Beans when I want them for supper.

Growing up in rural Burke and Caldwell counties, I was regularly forced by my father, who had grown up on a farm, to work in our garden during the summer, no matter how hot and humid the weather was. I especially disliked picking beans, having to bend over and pinch off the dangling green pods until my back ached, usually on the steamiest, stickiest, sunniest August mornings. Then, depending upon the type of legume, I often had to spend even more of my valuable summer vacation time stringing and snapping or maybe shelling those dang beans. I could have been playing basketball or reading a book.

Actually, I learned about Thoreau—not necessarily about his bean-growing, but about him in general—on the basketball court. I was a seventh-grader at Happy Valley Elementary School near Patterson when my older brother was a junior at Hibriten High School in Lenoir. In North Carolina public high schools, 11th-graders back then studied American literature, from Anne Bradstreet to Strunk & White. One day at home after school, my brother and I were shooting baskets outside, and he told me about this guy his class was studying who said people should pick rewarding jobs that could be their very lives because so much of their time would be spent pursuing those careers. That’s all I remember from that conversation. But that was enough to plant a Walden seed in my head.

Three years later, as a 10th-grader at Hibriten, I was herded to the gymtorium with the rest of the student body to watch the drama club’s matinée performance of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, a two-act play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. This was in 1975, I think, only five years after the play’s debut in Washington, D.C. It was like no play I’d ever seen before—and being around my mom, a high school English teacher, I’d previewed Shakespearean tragedies and comedies on 16mm film at home, and seen first-rate collegiate dramas at Bob Jones University, where my parents and sister had all matriculated.

In addition to the play’s unconventional staging, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail thoroughly captured my imagination and freed my mind at the same time. Yes, I know those are huge clichés. But if you’ll consider what those metaphors actually mean and get past the fact that they have been used to death—often without either phrase being employed appropriately—then you’ll understand that seeing Thoreau’s essays come to life in this time- and mind-bending play turned me loose to think about different worlds—the wide world within me and the narrower world around me—in different ways from that point on.

I started to quit thinking of myself as a prisoner of society’s expectations, whether I was one or not in actual fact. Simply put, I tried not to worry so much about things that really didn’t matter—making A’s in a few classes whose teachers graded on reputation, not performance; accumulating medals, ribbons and stripes to adorn my red, military-style band uniform, instead of reveling in the sounds that I heard as I blew my own horn; making the junior varsity and, later, varsity basketball teams when I could have just as much fun and get much more exercise playing pickup ball on the neighborhood’s outdoor court with Buddy, Lynn and my younger brother Ken against The Damn Watsons, two easy-going but almost unbeatable brothers who lived across the hill. One tall and rangy with inside moves, the other short and wiry with a killer jumpshot, their perambulating figures always seemed to appear, backlit on the road’s horizon, like the Clanton Brothers heading toward the OK Corral, whenever they heard a ball thumping on the asphalt court.

You’re probably thinking, Seriously? All you played was pickup ball? I thought you loved the game. Yeah, seriously, I had no choice but to give up on my dream of becoming a basketball star after I was cut in preseason tryouts for the second straight year. Getting ahead of myself, the next year I tried out for the varsity and by all rights should have made the team. When I was cut instead—apparently because I hadn’t played junior-varsity ball the previous two years—I asked if I could join the JVs despite being an 11th-grader, because “I just want to play basketball.” The feckless coach said OK to that. I can call him that, because 15 years later I became a feckless coach myself. Just ask any of my feckless players.

But failure can lead to more real freedom than some successes ever will. Thoreau said about writing Walden:I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as [a] chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”

You’d think old Bozo Joe, the worst English teacher I ever had, would have liked Thoreau and Walden if only for that one quotation. Why? Because he raised fighting cocks in the yard of his home out in the county. As far as I’m concerned, that one biographical tidbit says all you need to know to take the measure of the man. He was a cruel teacher and shameful bastard—or did I get that ass-backwards? I can say that about him because, well, first of all, he’s dead, and because 15 years later I became an English teacher myself. I have the pay stubs to prove it.

Let me stop right here and confess that most of my students did not, by any stretch of the imagination, consider me to be a great high school English teacher. I wasn’t the Dead Poets’ Society kind of molder of young minds who stood on his desk to see the world in a different way and then invited his students to mount the desk and jump off it behind him. But I always tried to do the best job I could with all my students, given the circumstances that we encountered as a class at any given time. And I did care very much about their learning, not necessarily about whether or not it made me popular. I did give a feck.

Old Bozo Joe taught my ninth- and 10th-grade English classes, which were called “advanced” because my classmates and I had been high achievers at our respective elementary schools. Looking back on it, the label had nothing to do with the quality of instruction or with expectations of student achievement. I have no earthly idea how that man was picked to teach upper-level classes, unless it had to do with his seniority within the English Department, or with someone who might have owed him big money after a Saturday night cockfight, or maybe with the idea that good teachers should be assigned to the other, lower-level classes because we were smart enough not to be messed up too much by Bozo Joe’s craziness. But he was crazy like a fox; he was no fool. Yes, two more clichés.

His textbook was the 1958 revised edition of One Hundred and One Famous Poems: With a Prose Supplement, an anthology originally compiled in 1916 by editor Roy J. Cook, whose preface begins with: “This is the age of science, of steel—of speed and the cement road. The age of hard faces and hard highways. Science and steel demand the medium of prose. Speed requires only the look—the gesture. What need then, for poetry? Great need!” Have I said yet that Joe drove a battered old two-door Ford Falcon that we called the Bozomobile? I can make fun of his car because I drove an AMC Gremlin for 15 years. Only poets at heart could appreciate owning those particular automobiles.

When we weren’t parsing poems, we sat in the classroom conjugating verbs in every imaginable way or diagramming interminable sentences while Joe stood outside on the breezeway and smoked cigarettes. He would show up near the end of the 55-minute period to take up our papers, which he never returned. If anyone had a question, he’d always reply in a sing-songy voice, “Weeeelllll, if you don’t know, I ain’t a-gonna tell yoooooou!” Those were the classes I didn’t mind so much, when he stayed out of the room.

Of course, he was never on time to class—always five or ten minutes late so that he could grab a smoke or two after all us students had cleared the halls. His buddy, the rotund math teacher next door, chewed tobacco with him on the breezeway after the tardy bell, but at least that guy actually taught upper-level math lessons once he’d gotten his nicotine fix. He also answered our questions, checked our papers and handed out honest grades. And he never paddled us, either to punish us or to entertain both himself and our laughing classmates, as Joe regularly did, as we “assumed the position” at the front of the room. To my knowledge, there were never any adult witnesses, just us chickens.

Yes, that’s a hard thing to say about a dead man who can’t defend himself—a poor public school teacher whose rowdy students called him Bozo Joe not just because it rhymed but also because he did act like a damn clown in front of our class. I learned Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” song only because Bozo Joe would inexplicably and loudly sing a verse or two almost every day when he finally strode through the classroom door after his smoke break. He had put-downs correlating low IQs with the uniform numbers of his football players who wore their jerseys to school on game days. He openly shamed students who had a physical weakness or obvious sensitivity that he could exploit for cruel laughs.

And he regularly paddled his male students for no damn reason at all, not even because we’d left on his desk a family-sized box of Bozo Crunchies, a new breakfast cereal made of sawdust, nuts, bolts, nails and springs; nor because we’d formed a Bozoshop Quartet to sing a new version of “The Christmas Song,” with lines like, “Tiny tots with their rears all aglow will find it hard to sleep tonight; they know that Bo-zo’s on his way.” We had also created and designed a Sears and Bozo Catalog, which included numerous products that contained what we called Zack’s Fork Recipe, our euphemism for chickenshit. It was creative writing for tactical ends.

In case you’re wondering, this is where my ramblings reconnect with Thoreau, who abhorred corporal punishment and quit his first job as a public school teacher after he was ordered to whip students. Bozo Joe needed no encouragement whatsoever to wield the thick wooden paddle that he kept in his desk. He called paddlings “medicine” and “whup-whup,” and always asked us boys if we wanted some before he administered it. “Uh, no, sir,” I’d say. Joe would then ask my cackling classmates, “Rahn said no, class, but what he really meant to say was. . . .” And, on cue, my friends would exclaim, “Yes!” Oh, it was all good fun, especially when the bashful boy took his two hard licks and then got two more for forgetting to thank his tormentor—all for nothing, remember.

The one friend of mine who probably should have gotten a paddling from Bozo Joe for something he had done didn’t get paddled. He was merely taken out into the hall and counseled in private, though I don’t know what Joe said to him, and I’m almost afraid to ask now. But I do remember the look in Joe’s eyes when he entered the classroom that day, scanned the room for victims, as he usually did, casually glanced at my friend and then suddenly remembered what my pal had done. It was a double-take that would have made Pennywise proud. I know, because I was sitting in the desk right behind my friend.

I’m not trying to say that I was the only boy whom that teacher physically abused, not even in that one class—and that’s what striking a student, hard, two times, four times, for no reason, or maybe for any reason, is. Every boy in that class was paddled, I think, especially our freshman year. But some of us were paddled more often than others were. I do know that when Bozo Joe found out that my father was a Baptist preacher—something about which I had always been sensitive, whether rightly so or not—my no-fault paddlings increased and Joe’s snide remarks about my religious upbringing began.

I guess the man had his reasons for being abusive, but he had no excuse.

It’s one of my three biggest regrets about my high school years—that I didn’t stand up to that man and refuse to be publicly harassed, as one other buddy did do freshman year. For his nerve, my friend was transferred out of the “advanced” English class. But I also didn’t stand up for him or for any other student who was similarly mistreated. The evil clown was running the circus with the ringmaster’s permission, and we trained chimps were too busy coming up with monkey-shines to cover our lack of courage.

But what did we know? We were more like timid little bunnies back then, afraid that the least wiggle or squeal from us might attract unwanted attention and possibly stifle our aspirations for popularity and unblemished permanent records.

Unlike the rascally rabbits who have been raiding our gardens of late, we didn’t know beans about anything. Or did we?

3 thoughts on “Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (2/19) — Chapter Two, Bean (1/4)”

Comments are closed.