Because I have been a recluse for the most part of the last 25 years, if my name rings a bell with anybody, it’s probably because of my occasional AVA byline. My stuff has two or three times been sidebars to Bruce’s righteously over-the-top stories on child abuse, Fort Bragg’s one-story-too-tall motel, or crank houses in Anderson Valley. Back in the mid-80s I also wrote on the Ocean Sanctuary issue. Like the timber issue, the Ocean Sanctuary issue was hijacked by gutless Democrats. Nevertheless, if you look out to sea, you’ll see no oil platforms, while inland you can still feel and hear the shudder of falling, old-growth redwoods.
I’m a lefty; probably a radical. I say it more out of frustration than pride. But our numbers are growing. Largely in silence, but they are growing.
I therefore expected my friends to be astonished when I recently told them that I was headed just south of Nashville, Tennessee, to teach in a Fundamentalist Christian academy, just minutes away from my own alma mater, Webb School in Bell Buckle. Actually, there were more smiles of approval than consternation. Admittedly, some eyebrows were raised: Hmm! An AVA contributor contributing to a Christian Academy. During this two-week period, I would be working with ninth-through-twelfth graders, and mentoring their teachers.
Middle Tennessee is Bubba country, the buckle of the Bible Belt, where two generations ago, there were communities of some size that had not been Patel-motelized; not been Wal-Marted to the point where the general population appears indistinguishable blobs with shopping carts, holding both plopped over bellies, plus brightly-packed packets of Fritos for the TV set and its ubiquitous Grand Ole Opry, and shrines of VCR tapes with the king, Elvis Presley.
I became a consultant for this Christian school as a result of a letter of gratitude written by a former Webb School student of the 1970s, now a 50-year-old headmaster of this Christian academy, where girls don’t wear makeup, and furthermore don’t seem to mind. The headmaster said he wanted some advice on what he was doing wrong. My job grew from there. Creationism is supposedly taught here. I don’t know. I didn’t find the religious bias any more intense or time-consuming than it is at traditional prep schools.
As an English teacher of Middle Tennessee kids, I thought an ideal text would be Stories of the Modern South, edited by Ben Forkner and Patrick Samway, S.J., the last I thought — with its S.J. — a sort of Jesuit imprimatur to parents at large. The list of writers is awesome to the point of intimidation beginning with Agee, Barth and Betts and ending with Warren, Welty and Williams. The way the anthology is packaged, it’s obvious that it was intended as a high school and college text. Indeed, I ran into a saleswoman, who had used the very same book at nearby Middle Tennessee State University.
I pointed out the desirability of humor in stories, such as those written by Truman Capote and Eudora Welty. I got the reaction, “Truman Capote? What Truman Capote story?” “Children on their Birthdays” was the reply. Capote’s story is a modern Huck Finn with a handful of kids, rather than two protagonists. One of the children, ten-year-old Miss Bobbit, an attractive run-over-by-a-bus victim of the tale, was doing in the story a child’s version of a French Can-Can for a local talent show. One of Miss Bobbit’s lines was “I was born in China, and raised in Jay-paan… If you don’t like my peaches, stay away from my can, o-ho — o-ho.”
O-ho-oh, no, no no. Frowns on the anthology, and isn’t Tennessee Williams in that book also?, I was asked rhetorically, since Tennessee Williams is the crowning end of the alphabetized anthology. Yes, Tennessee Williams is represented in the short story anthology. My interlocutor was reminded that Tennessee Williams also wrote two plays that are taught in high schools across the country. “Well, yes, but I’ve heard some bad things about some of his short stories.” I refrained from responding that the main thing I’d heard was that Williams’s short stories weren’t as good as the plays.
I was told by the school’s headmistress that years ago, at this same school, there had been a teacher who taught a “questionable” story that appears to have espoused homosexuality. Parents had been up in arms then. And now comes this mad man, with the funny hat, from Northern California. You know what’s in Northern California, don’t you? San Francisco. End of discussion. The last comment from the headmistress: “I’m trying to teach a class on abstinence. What’ll kids think if they read this buzz word, ‘peaches’ for breasts.” Yes, “peaches” has become a buzz word, but only among the more rarefied and liberal literary circles of Middle Tennessee State University.
After my two weeks were up at the Christian school, this marvelous Southern story anthology — centerpieced by Faulkner’s marvelous “Pantaloon in Black,” which spoke with the same voice and same accents that were voiced by the story’s young Middle Tennessee readers, was abandoned. In its place, and being taught as I write, is Orwell’s CIA-sponsored Animal Farm, which speaks in the voice of Eton’s plummy New Statesman voices, nurtured at Oxford and Cambridge. Well, at least the kids can tune in to old re-runs of “Hee-Haw.” Hee-haw, hee-haw, hee haw.
Before returning to the West Coast, I called on a 50-year-old former student of mine, whom we shall call Robert Baker, an attorney and Army reservist, who may be destined for Iraq as a colonel over an artillery unit. Robert says he’s heard of contemporaries who’ve gotten killed. Robert has twin sons graduating this year from his and my alma mater, Webb School. Robert’s sons make a fifth generation. He and his wife recently adopted an Azerbaijan orphan, whose parents are doting and whose TV set is forever on.
My former student, Robert, and I talk for an hour. We stay off politics. He is guarded. Toward the end of our trip down memory lane, he concedes he’s not happy with Rumsfeld. “He went in on the cheap. Too few troops,” he says. I take my leave, as is done in Faulkner’s South, by the back door. As I passed the refrigerator, I notice a Kerry-Edwards magnet on the ice box door. Robert notices me noticing. The two darting eyes are caught by the headlights. He says, startled, “It’s my wife’s. It’s my wife’s. She’s political. I’m not political.”
More than 30 years earlier, I had been closer to this Reserve colonel than his own father. Robert had been a spunky kid back then. As a high school student he had headed an alcohol project, and was mentored by a Nashville halfway house full of the formerly homeless and presently alcoholic. Gutsy kid. Now a terrified rabbit. “It’s my wife; she voted for Kerry.”
Well, the next morning my wife and I were in our bed in Mendocino. I went down to The Gallery Bookstore for the Saturday Times. Behind me at the cash register was a poster advertising a Sunday-afternoon book talk by Kate Coleman, who would be talking on The Secret Wars of Judi Bari: A Car Bomb, The Fight for the Redwoods, and the End of Earth First! I could hardly wait. It came to me out of the blue. I had been gone for a month. Kate Coleman, who was she? I had never heard of her conservative publisher, Encounter Books , which, in turn, is backed by the conservative Bradley Foundation.
After leafing through the pages of the Bari book, I could see that it was probably going to be a repudiation of the hagiography that’s surrounded the ego-driven, ruthless environmental Earth First! leader, ever since her death in 1997. By the time the next afternoon rolled around, I’d heard that there had earlier been a Kate Coleman reading in Fort Bragg. That’s all I heard. Only later would I learn that Kate Coleman had to be scooted out the back door, with the librarian exclaiming after her: “This was like a book burning.” As I say, I learned that later.
For the present, hours from Coleman’s Mendocino reading, I was simply a-tingle with anticipation, glad to be out of Tennessee, grateful to be back where people knew how to have free-wheeling discussions. Well, after all, I mean look at the AVA. They haven’t got an AVA in Tennessee.
I’ve been to Mendocino book readings before. The most interesting one I thought was eight years or so ago when we heard David Harris tell how Charles Hurwitz, the Texas S&L predator, and through Mike Milken the junk bond king, borrowed millions and millions of dollars to buy much of the world’s remaining ancient redwoods in Northern California. The David Harris book was a how-to book (or rather, a how-it-could have been done book to stop Charles Hurwitz, a Milken stooge from treeless Texas, still clear cutting Northern California, creating the mudslides that we’ve been plagued with ever since, the lost jobs, the busted marriages, the out-of-control, Mexican-nurtured crack epidemic, the homeless, the new Starbucks)
When you get on I-24, fleeing the Nashville Airport’s 20-foot well-lighted bazoom-filled posters for the Grand Ole Opry, you are driving on the main corridor between Nashville and Chattanooga. I was driving a rental car with New Jersey plates, which may have accounted for a good percentage of the nasty, aggressive driving immediately around me. Nevertheless, urban-area interstates are all the anonymous same. Except for the ubiquitous Bush-Cheney decals whizzing, and honking past, one feels no sense of place.
A slight sense of place would not come until the Highway 231 turnoff, that heads through rolling-hill farmland to my Christian school, and the nearby county seat of Shelbyville, one of the homes of Tyson the chicken king, a factory which in my time had been owned by a classmate — and was now owned by a man who used to own Bill Clinton, the Arkansan Tyson, whose Shelbyville is now populated by a large Mexican population, bringing the county seat up to 30 percent Latino.
Within minutes, after I pulled into the well-rocked driveway of the Christian school, I would learn that the modern language taught here is French. No one speaks Spanish; and no one speaks of it either. French is the language of diplomats. French and Latin are the two languages taught. The kids had just spent an entire semester of reading the four-pound polemic on French penal reform, Les Miserables, and in the first week of February they would be going to fly to St. Louis see the musical, “Les Mis,” featuring the booming voice of a handsome Javert, who in our law-and-order times, doesn’t seem to be such a bad guy after all. I would love to have shown the kids the mid-30s version of Victor Hugo’s classic, with snarling Charles Laughton turning in his own masterful performance of the Old Testament inspired, Javert, a name that has symbolized the law’s vengeful vindictiveness down to the present day, only to be recently effaced by the ringing name of Nurse Ratchett in Jack Nicholson’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
My wife and I want to return to this Christian school in the spring, I better not even mention Charles Laughton’s savage movie version of Les Miserables. In the buckle of the Bible Belt, Javert has got his whirling red-and-blue lights, tinted glasses, toothpick, smile and “How are you, ma’am. May I see your driver’s license, please.”
Walking Horse country begins in earnest after the town of Christiana. A historical understanding of Middle Tennessee’s cultural deprivation can only be understood with knowing something about where the Walking Horse came from. It came from slavery times, when one day, some white overseer, riding up and down the rows of slaves who pulled behind them balloon-shaped cotton sacks, noticed that his horse was giving him a right comfortable ride. Yes, sir, right smooth. A man carrying sacks of eggs on either side of the saddle wouldn’t break a single egg. “Right smooth ride. Yes, sir.” Horse riding made the white butts sore, so when this freak of nature came along, they decided to breed it and it worked. The rest is history. However, today there is the annual Walking Horse Celebration, where $40-a-night rooms go for $200. In order to turn the horse into something commercial, they had to juice its gait. They called it soreing. They trimmed off the bottom of all the horse’s hooves, and then slapped mustard or some other stinging substance on it. By doing this soreing, they got that high-stepping, mincing gait. Whenever, the horse’s foot touches the ground, it immediately recoils in immediate, sharp, agonizing pain. The foot recoils sharply. And thus the gait.
When knee-jerk, animal-rights people go to the early-fall Walking Horse Celebration, they wince whenever they see a hoof hit the ground, and then recoil; but they learn to keep their mouth shut. They learn pretty fast. I learned when I taught there, and I didn’t have anything to say when I went back the first of January. Yes, of course, soreing is outlawed. And everybody is absolutely shocked when somebody gets caught, when some poor horse’s foot shoots open during its prance around the ring, and a white trail of stinging stuff, trails behind crazily like a crazy trail of insecticide powder. “My word, did you ever… what in the world is that, do you suppose…? Next horse! Next horse!”
I was so glad to get out of Middle Tennessee and get back to the environs of the AVA. I started to say KZYX. And then I remembered. How many times has this NPR-drivel-driven station KZYX ever had Bruce Anderson on the air to talk about the Judi Bari bombing.
And yet the Kate Coleman reading would, by definition, be different. Wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t there have to be a civilized give-and-take. There would be no blackout. She would speak. Somebody — Bruce Anderson, Mark Scaramella, perhaps myself as a last resort, would cover it. Surely, this would not be a reprise of the Fort Bragg debacle. Lordy, Lord, it was good to get out of Tennessee, to the bracing, freedom-loving open debates of most Mendocino gatherings.
I see I have given an inadvertently jaundiced view of Middle Tennessee, including a model of what a Christian academy, is — and in many ways — should be. The administrators, the adults, some of the parents are a nemesis. But the students — those sweet, unspoiled students, are something else. Teaching those eager kids must have been what it was like teaching in the 40s and 50s. Unfortunately, I started in 1967, the year of Woodstock. I taught first in Litchfield, Connecticut. Three of my students had been among the stoners at Woodstock. Stoners are infectious. It’s hard to teach them how to write. Their self-critical faculties are suspended, and for a teenager’s writing, that’s suicide.
These 20 kids at this Christian school were eager to learn everything about writing. My methods are confrontational. Students do not write just for a teacher. Their writing winds up on transparencies, reflected in front of the class on a white erase-board. so they write for a classroom audience, a broad audience, just like in the real world. They don’t learn about topic sentences. They learn about leads, and how to write an exciting one. Not every piece has to have a topic sentence; every piece has to have a lead, a beginning. And the lead either works, or it doesn’t. These kids were up for anything — the controversial semicolon, Lincoln’s favorite.
One day I discovered a current Sports Illustrated with a full-page, fully trivial piece on gift-giving to children and celebrity athletes. Trivial piece, but a thrilling illustration of the allusion, a device that can save hundreds of words of writing, and hit the reader over the head at the same time.
In the piece (which I no longer have at hand), I think Tiger Woods, as a very young kid, always wanted to have a Lego set. Tiger Woods, however, was in the body of the story. The lead featured principally the name Charles Foster Kane. The most imaginative kid in class began to smile and wriggle furiously in her seat. She got the allusion to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, the devastating send-up of our first monolithic press baron William Randolph Hearst, whose family overcharges us, by fifty cents a copy, for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Not once in the Sports Illustrated gift-giving-to-children piece, did the writer tip his hand. The name Orson Welles never came up. Toward the end of the article, came Rosebud, the name of the beloved sled of that ruthless, cruel, megalomanic Charles Foster Kane. Only one person in the class got the allusion, the antsy, imaginative girl in the back row. To the rest of the class she explained the movie; the next night, by way of Blockbuster, she had a hot chocolate movie party with Orson Welles’ first and last great classic.
These eager little kids dug the allusion, the impact, its time-saving. From then on, through the remainder of the two weeks, Orson Welles and allusion were interchangeable.
Next week I will conclude with an analogous allusion. When Kate Coleman’s Sunday talk is interrupted by what one person called the “thuggery element,” I will simply throw out an allusion, Beth Bosk. She was there. Had she and her acolytes kept their mouths shut until Coleman finished, then they could have asked a series of questions that would have nailed Kate Coleman as she should have been nailed — for egregious inaccuracies and omissions, the most egregious of which timber heroine, Anna Marie Stenberg, pointed out, was when Coleman didn’t even try to use the invaluable Judi Bari Archives of Fort Bragg’s Russell and Sylvia Bartley. Had she bothered to consult these archives, she would have studied detailed documentation into Bari’s relations with Earth First! and their actions, which ultimately derailed the movement.
Kate Coleman’s book is replete with errors. She couldn’t even get right the name of Earth First!’s patron-saint-union, the Wobblies or Industrial Workers of the World. Supposedly she called the union the International Workers of the World. I made the same error once when I wrote a favorable piece about Earth First! Big, big mistake; nobody told me about it.
Later, in a long telephonic monologue with me and explaining some of the inaccuracies, Coleman said the mantra around the publishing house was, “We’ve got to beat [Susan] Faludi,” who should be coming out soon with her own Bari book.” But according to Anna Marie Stenberg, when Coleman interviewed her years ago, it was long before Faludi’s book was even in the works. No, the “We’ve Got to Beat Faludi” mantra doesn’t wash. In next week’s conclusion, we’ll have a laundry list of Coleman’s errors and some of the truths.
Nevertheless, as Anna Marie said to me yesterday, “Kate Coleman wrote a seriously flawed book. She should have checked her facts; she should have used available sources. This book may have very little credibility. But it had to be written. It got the story out there. It tells what went wrong with the movement.” Anna Marie Stenberg was an indispensable part of Redwood Summer and she was Scott Fitzgerald’s kind of woman — that is, a person who can hold two opposing ideas in the mind at once and resolve their differences.