Memories of me & Harry Crews . . .

Harry Crews: June 7, 1935 – March 28, 2012. Here he’s probably holding forth at the University of Florida, probably in the mid- to late-1970s when I was there.

. . . but mostly of me, 1973–1977.

For Tom.

I was a college freshman in 1973, and drove to school from our Florida beach town in a Triumph convertible with my eight-track blaring “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. I went airborne off the railroad tracks near campus.

Brevard Community College, Melbourne branch, was one gray concrete building, two plywood shacks, and a picnic table under some pines. In my speech class my teacher said I sounded country: “You say ‘fur,’ ‘gist’ and ‘git.’ ” We had to give a speech about a classmate, and a blonde girl with brown eyes interviewed me.

“So what are you going to major in?” she asked.

“Business,” I said.

“Why? You said you’re interested in writing.”

“That’s what my family does now,” I muttered.

I changed my major.

I’d never gotten over my father’s sale of our family’s farm in Georgia, and thought my hurt feelings and sense of exile were unique. A teacher wrote on one of my essays about Georgia, “You are a young, budding Truman Capote.” When I showed Dad, he handed the paper back to me without comment, and I realized he knew Capote only as a talk-show freak.

. . .

Although I was attending classes full time and selling clothes twenty hours a week at Belk-Lindsey, I spent every spare moment at “Andy’s” place, a little farm a few miles from campus. Andy was a pure Sicilian from Mississippi, thirty-eight years old; his day job was teaching school and his part-time work was growing orchids. Ducks and geese and guinea hens milled around his lath houses, and exotic breeds of chickens crowed and flapped and cackled in coops crammed everywhere.

Andy, circa 1974

Andy, circa 1974

The orchids supported Andy’s poultry habit; corsages were still popular, and China was decades away from taking over the potted market. You reached his place down a dirt lane overhung with gnarly oak branches, Spanish moss, and grapevines. Duck Valley, as Andy called it, was doomed to be surrounded by condos, but then it was a lost world. The little tin-roofed farmhouse had been built in the 1920s—ancient for central Florida—and its cypress boards were petrified. A breezeway connected it to a barn with stanchions for six cows. In the palmetto woods nearby was a sunken concrete tank, half full of black water, where the homesteaders had dipped cattle to kill ticks.

One day Andy and I were plucking ducks in the breezeway and listening to “Take Me Home, Country Roads”; I was a closet John Denver fan and had given him the tape. Gopher arrived in his dented blue Chevy pickup, his tawny pit bull, Skipper, in the bed. Gopher supplied Andy with hogs, wild razorbacks with long snouts and sharp white tusks. They overran the cattle ranch where Gopher worked. Skipper would sink his teeth in their tender noses and hold them until Gopher could tie them and throw them in his truck. While Andy was fattening the pigs for slaughter, if a chicken flew in their pen they ate it as soon as it landed.

“That a tape?” Gopher asked. He wore baby-blue jeans, a filthy yellow t-shirt, and a white nylon baseball cap with a Rebel battle flag on the crown.

“Yes,” I said. “You got a tape deck?”

“Yeah, but I don’t like it,” he said. “I can’t stand listening to the same songs over and over.”

You’ve got to own more than one tape, I thought. I might have said it, but wanted Gopher to leave. He was just there to moon over Andy’s game chickens.

One day I drove out to Andy’s at lunchtime. By then I had a key for the gate. Usually I came at the end of the day, just before Andy got there, and did his poultry chores. It was peaceful but spooky alone there in the middle of the day. I walked around and looked at the chickens. Andy’s homing pigeons strutted and cooed atop his farmhouse; wind sighed in the eighty-foot Australian pines in the farmyard.

When I returned in the afternoon to feed and water the chickens, I found the chain on the gate cut. Thirteen pens that had held gamecocks were empty.

“Gopher,” Andy said. “That son-of-a-bitch.”

“A chicken thief,” I said. “If I had to picture one, it would be Gopher. He’s going to fight them and get every one killed.”

“He’s already sold them.”

But all I could think was: What would have happened if I’d surprised him? He’d have put a bullet in my head. No, he would have cut my throat. Less noise. Gopher was stupid, not dumb.

. . .

Before I left for the University of Florida, Dad told me, “I don’t think writers go to college.” I majored in journalism, my compromise—you went out and got stories and couldn’t just bullshit like in English—but I mostly wrote poetry.

One day in my class on Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor, I wrote a lovesick poem, probably thinking of a girl named Jesse back in Satellite Beach:

Lament

I saw a white dove winging by

She made me think of you

Just a city pigeon, really

So call my memory rue

But it was not a bird I saw

Floating by so fast

Only the figure of a girl

Of love I’d hoped would last

At night I worked on an epic poem, “Clouds Like Blue Pancakes,” about a southern backwoodsman who’s coon-hunting one night and pokes out an eye on a dead branch. He stumbles into an old cow dip, breaks a leg, and drowns. The next day a pregnant girl—whom I stole outright from the character Lena Grove in Faulkner’s Light in August—boards a Greyhound bus. She’s carrying the world’s new Messiah, maybe, and she appears without apparent link  to Silas. But some cosmic equation is being worked out. The poem ends, Big changes coming.

Me at University of Florida, 1976

I labored to write a short story about Andy. Mostly it was about how Andy was a throwback to old southern values, how his farm was a time capsule of old Florida. How the air at Duck Valley smelled heavy with sweet citrus blooms all summer. How sunsets out there were operatic: cloudbanks, bruised blue, floated in the yellow sky above a glowing orange band. How the sandy farmyard glowed like a moon-smoothed river in the night.

Harry Crews was the famous writing teacher at University of Florida. I took a class from one of his graduate students and wrote a short story about a boy fishing with his strangely silent father. I never even thought of trying to take a class from Crews. He looked terrifying, and everyone told stories about how he was terrifying. He scared his own students to death. Or so someone said and we repeated. He looked like a man from a nightmare. Like an axe murderer from lover’s lane. Everyone nattered that the short story he’d just published, the one about a kid who has sex with his sister, was not only true, it was autobiographical. He was a real walking southern gothic, our bogeyman. And unlike us, he had material. Lots of it! Because he’d been lucky enough to have been born dirt-poor, with a violent alcoholic stepfather, among rednecks so ignorant they ate dirt.

I just noticed: Harry Crews was my poem’s Silas Tidewater.

Crews shows his tattoo: “How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy, Mister Death?”

We didn’t know that the wild man had hedged his own bets by getting a master’s in English education at UF. Or that, in reality, Crews had doggedly made himself into an artist. Now, having at last read and reviewed his great memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place I’d wager that his soul was gentle under all his bluster. Then again, he once expressed contempt for timid student writers, of which I certainly was, despite my bluster. Regardless of that, and of our student tales and the ones he told on himself and the ones he wrote about the world’s broken ones, I wish I’d taken a class from him.

Back then, I didn’t even think of myself as southern. After all, I’d been ripped from Georgia where I belonged and had finished growing up in a soulless Florida beach town. I didn’t notice that I hewed to certain southern stereotypes: I drove like a moonshiner, scorned scotch and drank bourbon—Wild Turkey, 101 proof—hunted and fished, listened to southern rock, read southern writers, and kept a rifle and a loaded shotgun under my bed.

Soon I was unhappy with my major of journalism but felt it was too late to switch to English. “How,” I asked a journalism professor, once a foreign correspondent, “do you get people to feel the way you do?” He stared for a moment at me, shook his head, and looked back down at the papers on his desk. Somewhere across campus, that’s what Harry Crews was teaching.

. . .

I finally turned my short story about Andy into an essay, what we’d call creative nonfiction today. Although it utterly lacked any narrative arc, it placed seventh as a profile in a national contest for student journalists. It did have a perfect first line, maybe the best sentence I’ve ever written, full of backstory and movement and gravid with mystery:

The wind had abated, leaving a stillness so complete we could hear the rasp of pigeons’ feet against the tin roof of the farmhouse.

But I left out Gopher.

Like many a young writer, I couldn’t see the life I’d lived and was living—and I wrongly elevated and feared what I was trying to be. I wish I’d seen myself more clearly. I couldn’t see my own material, let alone own it, or see how imagination might have used, extended, and transformed it. How I might have begun to learn the habits of art. I didn’t know that Harry Crews had written three novels and a roomful of stories before he hit his own subject one lonely night and started getting published.

And I never thought about how I’d been spared, how I’d cheated death that day at Andy’s, escaped a dark fate.

After four and a half years of hectic newspaper work in Georgia and Florida I moved north and married and raised children, lost touch with Andy, forgot Gopher, and quit following Harry Crews. I never wrote about that day at Andy’s farm. I never did.

My senior journalism class, Spring 1977, at The Gainesville Sun. That’s me in the middle, at the typewriter between the two computers. Three of us became reporters for The Orlando Sentinel.

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18 Comments

Filed under essay-narrative, fiction, journalism, memoir, MY LIFE, poetry, teaching, education

18 responses to “Memories of me & Harry Crews . . .

  1. Good Lord, Richard, there’s so much here that resonates I don’t even know where to begin. I’ll start with this: it was pure pleasure to read. I learn from and enjoy your writing about writing always, but this — this sings.

    There’s something inherently terrifying about any guy who gets up close and personal with piney woods rooters. Even Gopher’s name suggests he might share some genetic material with those eating machines. Your innocence at that time and his opportunistic, casual evil are the mother’s milk of Southern gothic themes. Plus, the atmospherics of that “doomed . . .lost world” can’t be beat.

    I was a freshman studying classical piano at University of Florida starting the summer of 1969 — the summer of love. I went to the bogeyman himself’s house out in Micanopy on a date with one of his graduate students, sat on the back of a convertible under a moss-draped spreading oak and was electrified by a first listen of Chicago Transit Authority (Wake Up Sunshine) blasting out from the car’s 8-track tape deck. The great one wasn’t there, but I can still see the gauzy curtain blowing from the bedroom window and I’m pretty sure it was the idea of Crews that seduced me more than the graduate student . . .

  2. Thanks so much, Beth. Micanopy, that was out there! All those little communities around Gainesville like Micanopy and Fort White were interesting, and living in a different time frame. They didn’t seem like bedroom communities then.

  3. Love this story. So rich, full of stories within stories. I also majored in journalism (around the same time– mid 70’s). Growing up in a working class family, being an English major seemed like too much of a gamble (at least you could get a JOB in journalism). Took me many years to find my way back to what I really wanted to do, write about the world, but from that Harry Crews-write-what-you-feel perspective instead of the dreaded pin-headed pyramid.(BTW–My Mom took a writing class at Brevard Community College when she was in her forties from a guy that sounded like a decent writing teacher.) Your description of the central Florida coast then is so accurate — Satellite Beach, soul-less beach town indeed.(Come to think of it, that part of Florida is still pretty soul-less). Thanks.

    • Thank you, Janice. Small world. You know, today I look back and think Satellite Beach wasn’t such a bad place to grow up. But I hated it at the time, and it did lack history, and maybe that still equates to me to a lack of soul. One day there were palmettos, then they scraped them away with bulldozers and my town popped up. There was no past so no traditions, a commuter town, and like most of the beach towns probably still is.

  4. john V.Wylie

    Fantastic, Richard. What has gotten into you. What a wonderful riff. You have emerged from soulless Florida and settled in the South. Love the pics. Bravo! More.

  5. Hey now, you guys are talking about South Florida, not my soul-full neck of the woods!

    • Simmer down, Beth! Actually my own soulless comment in the post was really from my young perspective. I am not so negative today, except that it did lack, and to a degree still does, there stereotypical community look and feel. But when I go back it feels homey and not only because I grew up there; in the past three decades people have been making it home. I wish, growing up there, I had at least recognized more what a physical paradise it was and is.

  6. paulettealden

    Hi, Richard, I loved reading this post — so lively and entertaining and so well-written, per usual! I wish you had had Crews for cw — maybe he would have made a fiction writer out of you. As it is, you turned out to be a fantastic non-fiction writer — and blogger. (not too late for fiction, however). Thanks for this memoir and I enjoyed the pictures! GREAT! Paulette

  7. 40 is the new 13

    Thanks for directing me here. This is a really evocative piece of writing. We moved to Gainesville in 1971. We’d come from Ithaca, NY. My dad had gotten a job at the UF College of Medicine, where he’s still teaching. North Florida was an immense culture shock for my parents… for all the reasons you so vividly describe. But as I was two-years old when we arrived, it was all I’d ever known. I never felt much love for Gainesville. It felt very podunk and limiting. And local kids always felt eclipsed by the university and its students. (I even remember, when I finally enrolled, meeting people from South Florida who were stunned to find out that people lived in town… they thought it was literally a campus and nothing else.) You’ve made me appreciate my personal history with that place a bit more… at least for now.

    As for Harry Crews, I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know he’d died until reading your piece and then googling. I’m also a bit embarrassed that I’d never wanted to take his class. In school, I was completely fixated on reporting. Nothing but the facts. Breaking a story was such a thrill. It was only much later that other forms of writing began to interest me.

    Which is why I love reading your posts. They’re like gentle coaching from a great teacher. Also, I hadn’t pegged you for a small town southerner. So that’s an added bonus. Now I’m curious to read more about your life. I’ll have to wander your site in search of additional essays.

    I still think southern rock rules. And here in our town, people are allowed to keep chickens in their yards. But I only know one man who has them. Sometimes they get loose in the roundabout by the Baptist Church and the cops have to round ’em up and send them back to their coop.

    • So neat you grew up in Hogtown! When I went to j-school there, it was still in the stadium, under the bleachers. You must have gone in the fancy new facility. Bet we had a few of the same teachers, though.

  8. Hi, Richard! So this is a fragment of the long-awaited memoir–very well done, very evocative, suggestive, and full of statements of newly perceived truths. What I mean by that is that you go back and forth nicely between the younger self and the older self looking back which has now drawn some conclusions about the past. I hope you plan to give us more when you’re ready.

    • Actually none of this is in the book, Victoria. Which is strange to some of those who know me,and sometimes to me, but then I have cut so much: from 500 pages in one draft to 340 now. By the way, Andy called the other day from Florida, where in retirement he still puts in twelve-hour days in a greenhouse by his house. No poultry now, though. He is 78.

      You can read some excerpts from my memoir and other more personal writing by clicking on the blog’s My Life category . . .

      • Thanks for the info and the reference to your My Life category. I still have so much to harvest from your site that I suppose I overlooked the possibility that your memoir was stored there. And don’t worry about the cutting down procedure–it seems to be a part of every kind of writing. My thesis supervisor swears that my thesis was 700 pages when he first saw it, and even allowing for jests and playful exaggeration, that’s probably closer to true than not. It’s now at a more modest 298 pages including notes, which is largely due to his promptings, since I raged and swore at every suggested cut (though only privately). And if you save the material you cut, you can always make something else of it later, or at least there’s the chance that you can.

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