Saturday, May 07, 2005
A NIGHT AT THE THEATRE
On my way to the theatre last night, I ran into my old pal, Jack Rafter, walking up the street pulling his trade-mark red wagon, a battered Radio Flyer, with Vincent, his dog, bringing up the rear. For those who haven’t been keeping up, Jack’s been sharing some of his experiences as a homeless person here on this site. Actually, he keeps a sort of journal, if you can call it that, scratching his thoughts on scraps of paper retrieved from dumpsters or picked up off the street. These he keeps rubber-banded in an old cloth book jacket. The original book that came with the jacket is long gone, but the title is printed on the spine in faded gold letters: The Works of Tennyson. Inside, there are only a couple of surviving pages, or scraps of pages, since they’re partly ripped out, leaving only a few snippets of poems penned by the immortal bard. Like this one, for instance:
Yet all things must die.
The stream will cease to flow;
The wind will cease to blow;
The clouds will cease to fleet;
The heart will cease to beat;
For all things must die.
All things must die.
Spring will come never more.
Death waits at the door.
See! Our friends are all forsaking
The wine and the merrymaking.
We are call’d—we must go.
Laid low, very low,
In the dark we must lie.
The merry glees are still;
The voice of the bird
Shall nomore be heard,
Nor the wind on the hill.
Hark! Death is calling
While I speak to ye,
The jaw is falling,
The red cheek paling,
The strong limbs failing;
Ice with the warm blood mixing;
The eyeballs fixing.
Nine times goes the passing bell:
Ye merry souls, farewell.
This was on page 3 of the book, about half of which was torn out. There’s a huge gap between page three and the next and only other page—numbered 525, which makes me think maybe Jack just tore out all the pages except those two, leaving them as a sort of “Prologue” and “Afterward” to his own diary. On page 525, he or someone had underlined these lines with a pencil:
Many a carcase they left to be carrion,
Many a livid one, many a sallow-skin—
Left for the white-tail’d eagle to tear it,
Left for the horny-nibb’d raven to rend
Gave to the garbaging war-hawk to gorge it, and
That gray beast, the wolf of the weald.
Never had huger
Slaughter of heroes
Slain by the sword-edge—
Such as old writers
Have writ of in histories—
Hapt in this isle, since
Up from the East hither
Saxon and Angle from
Over the broad billow
Broke into Britain with
Haughty war-workers who
Harried the Welshman, when
Earls that were lured by the
Hunger of glory gat
Hold of the land.
And so on, like that. Not very cheerful stuff. Anyway, before we could even greet each other, Jack was pulling his “diary” out of his coat pocket. “Hey, got some new stuff for you, Grayson,” he said as I walked up.
“Ah, great!” I replied, “We could use it. Loved your last submission, by the way.”
“Thanks.” He pulled some loose pages from the book and handed them to me. “Hope you like this stuff,” he said.
“I’m sure we will,” I replied. I guess I’ve gotten used to his eccentric approach. In keeping with flotsam found on the street, the pages he hands me tend to be crumpled and soiled; some are even torn. And, since they’re recycled scraps, they’re often already printed on the front or back. Jack just works his thoughts in wherever there’s space. I gave him a brand new spiral notebook one time, thinking he would be delighted to have all those clean sheets to write on. He accepted it with a gracious smile, said, “Thanks,” and I never saw it again.
I slipped the pages in my pocket. “We always enjoy your work, Jack.” He smiled at that. We shook hands. “So, how you been doing?”
“Ah, you know—hit some, miss some. Yourself?”
“I’m all right. Went through a spell of flu and bronchitis that really brought me down for awhile, there. But I think I’m on the mend, now.”
“Same here,” he said. “I think everybody’s had the old flu. Johnny Blair had it. He had to close the café for a couple weeks. Said he just stared death down. Actually got in a fight with him, he said. I believe they wrestled all over the house. But luckily, he won out. Johnny, I mean. Me and Vince are on our way over there now to get some of that good beef stew he likes to make. It’s his Mom’s recipe, you know. In fact, that’s what he calls it—‘Mom’s Beef Stew.’ Why don’t you come with us?” Jack offered.
“Well, I’d love to, Jack, but I’m on my way to the theatre.”
“Oh, yeah? Which one?”
“The Bent Shoe—right up the street, here.”
“Oh, hell, yeah, I know the Bent Shoe. June and I used to go there, back when we were still together. We saw Waiting For Godot there. You ever seen that play, Grayson?”
“No, but I’ve read it. It’s a great play.”
“Well, in the Bent Shoe’s production, they cast women as the two tramps. You believe that?”
“Women, huh? How was it?”
“Well, it was just amazing.”
“Yeah. Really knocked me out. The women they cast were just perfect. They were great actors. Since then, I’ve seen women livin’ on the street that reminded me of those two girl tramps in that play. June didn’t care for it, much, but I thought it was terrific. Should have won some kind of award or something, I believe.”
“Why didn’t June like it?” I asked him.
“Well, I don’t know.” He took a paper towel out of his coat pocket and wiped his nose. “It wasn’t the fact that they used women so much, as she was just bothered by the whole play, in general, I s’pose. You know, people sitting around using up their lives, waiting for something to happen—just frustrates the shit out of her, for some reason. But June’s a real go-getter—you know, Type-A personality. She thinks people oughta just get on with it, do something. Quit thinking so much. She’s real suspicious of people that think a whole lot.”
“Maybe she’s right,” I said.
“Yeah, maybe she is,” Jack replied with a grin. “Thinking can get your ass in a lot of trouble these days.”
“Yes, it can,” I said.
“So what’s on at the Bent Shoe?”
“Well, they’re doing Buried Child, by Sam Shepard.”
“Buried Child?” Jack’s face lit up. “Are you shittin’ me? Man, I was just readin’ that play the other day. You won’t believe this, but it so happens I been readin’ all of Sam Shepard’s plays at the library.”
I knew Jack hung out there a lot in the winter, trying to keep warm, but he’s also big into reading.
“Let’s see,” he went on, “I read Fool For Love, Angel City, Curse of the Starving Class, The Tooth of Crime, and True West.”
“Wow, you’ve really been busy,” I said.
“Well, it was a cold winter. I had a lot of time on my hands. Anyway, I just think Shepard’s a helluva playwright. His plays really talk to me, if you know what I mean. They tell me who I am. They even tell me why I lost my home and why my wife left me, and everything. I mean, they go right into the heart of things. The heart of darkness! If you wanta know why this country’s so fucked up, all you have to do is read that fella’s plays. You’ll see it all real clear. Yes sir, you’re in for somethin’, now, bubba. Better brace yourself. Buried Child tells it straight. I mean, it hits you right here.”--He reached up with his hand and tapped me on the chest—“It messes with your chromosomes, and. . . and, well, there you have it—the American family in all its dysfunctional, demented glory. That play won the Pulitzer, did you know that?”
“Yeah, I knew that,” I said. I looked at him. He was quivering. He’d worked himself up so much the sweat had popped out on his forehead. And right then, I knew I couldn’t just leave him on the street and go see this play on my own. It just wouldn’t be right. “Listen, Jack,” I said, “a buddy of mine was going with me tonight, but he had to go do something else at the last minute, so I’ve got an extra ticket. Would you like to go with me?”
“With you? Now? To see that play?” His eyes got as big as silver dollars. “No!—you don’t mean it! Really?”
“Godamighty, I can’t believe it!” He was practically jumping up and down. “I’d love that. But what am I gonna do with Vincent, and my wagon and stuff?”
“It’s all right,” I said, “I know a couple of people at the Bent Shoe. The guy in the box office owes me a favor. He’ll look after your stuff. And I think they can keep Vincent in the Green Room. Everybody likes him.”
“Wow! I can’t believe it! And to think I was gonna go down Clement Street to Johnny Blair’s café, but then I changed my mind and came down 4th. Now, ain’t that just amazing, the way fate works out in your favor sometimes!”
So off we went.
* * * *
We only had to go another block to the theatre. As we walked in, I was a little concerned about Jack’s appearance. For a homeless person, he does pretty well in the hygiene department. Still, I noticed his coat was breaking out at the elbows and there was a definite odor about him that was at least partially disagreeable. Actually, it was a blend of several smells, chief among them being sweat; but there was also the smell of dumpsters, dirty socks, wet dog, weeds and bare earth. And one other thing—what was it? I know from reading his diary that he spends a lot of time near the train yards. That’s it, then—just a hint of creosote, for spice.
Still, I couldn’t help thinking how appropriate it was, somehow, that a homeless person should, by chance, find himself sitting in a theatre with regular people, watching almost any play by Sam Shepard, but especially Buried Child.
The Bent Shoe is an intimate little space—seats about a hundred. Good thing I’d already purchased the tickets. A herd of college students had showed up to see the play; they took up half the house. They looked a little too upscale, too shiny, to be art or theatre students. Probably business majors taking Theatre Appreciation for an easy elective, dispatched to the scene of the crime by one of those evil liberal college professors lately under attack by so many wing-nuts on the right. Jack and I lucked out and got good seats about four rows from the stage, so we were happy campers.
We sat there, reading our programs, checking out the actors’ headshots and biographies, director’s notes, and so on. Meanwhile, Jack was still beside himself. He kept whispering under his breath, “Oh, man!” and “Wow,” as he read each actor’s list of credits. Then, he’d turn to me and point, saying, “Read this, read this!” so I couldn’t finish anything I was already reading.
The pre-curtain music was all stuff by people like Johnny Cash, T-Bone Burnett and Tom Waits—in other words, down-home and hip, which really supported the whole idea of the play and got everybody in the proper mood. Of course, Waits added just the right element of pure prankster with a knife-edge, funny and sad at the same time. Jack and I burst out laughing at some of his crazed lines. Well, there’s no one like Waits.
Then, the lights began slowly to dim till there was darkness and the play began.
* * * * *
And Jack was right. The play does hit you right here. It messes with your chromosomes. At first, you don’t notice because what you see is a realistic set, a living room in a farmhouse in the Midwest. You see an old man, lean and grizzled, on a couch, blanket over his lap, a TV on the floor blinking at him. The old coot (Dodge) takes a swig of whiskey and launches into a coughing fit. We hear his wife (Halie) upstairs begin to talk to him, telling him to take a pill. It’s clear Dodge doesn’t want to talk to her, but she’s persistent. Since it’s raining outside, she believes the rain must be the cause of his coughing. And so the conversation continues, and she stays up there, droning on, from one mundane topic to another. Her voice seems to hang overhead like a disembodied spirit. And perhaps that’s the first clue to what the play is about. Are we visiting a house of dead souls?
Soon, we are introduced to Dodge’s son, Tilden, and later, his grandson, Vince, who shows up after being away for some years. Tilden comes out with a tubful of corn and begins shucking it. Dodge wants to know where it came from. Tilden says he just picked it out in the back yard—it’s growing everywhere, he says. Dodge insists there hasn’t been corn out there since 1935, therefore Tilden must have stolen it. “You take that corn back to wherever you got it from,” he tells him. To which Tilden, dead-pan, replies: “It’s picked. I picked it all in the rain. Once it’s picked you can’t put it back.”
So there are mysteries and secrets, the main one being the child—a baby—buried out in the back yard somewhere—where now, seemingly, there’s corn growing in profusion. Everything in Shepard’s plays is symbol and metaphor. And, if in the beginning, you find yourself a little confused, discombobulated, cut off from your own reality, gradually, some other part of your consciousness, something on a deeper level, becomes engaged and you begin to realize what the playwright is trying to say. Buried Child has a gathering power and you have to pay attention and stay with it—which isn’t difficult, because Shepard is a masterful writer of dialogue with a watchmaker’s gift for putting plays together line by line, and scene by scene. You go where he takes you, if not altogether willingly. And even if certain questions are left unanswered, somewhere along the way, the larger meanings become clear.
And what are they? Well, one of them, certainly, is this: that the way in which things get broken in a family, and by inference, in a whole nation of people, are often bred in the bone; and that these broken things tend to stay that way, and are handed down from generation to generation. The historian, Shelby Foote, has said that everything we are today as a country can be traced back to the Civil War, our great national calamity in the mid-nineteenth century. Though the country may have changed physically, the psychic wounds are still there, just as they are still with us from all our wars, including Vietnam.
Buried Child was written during the height of the Vietnam War. A political scandal had broken out in Washington, called Watergate. The country was knocked back on its heels. The President was facing impeachment. How could these things happen?
Sam Shepard needed a way to explain it, and chose to do so through these characters, these “family” members; a grandmother, who keeps babbling on about her Fundamentalist beliefs, a father and a grandfather who hardly recognize their own children, and who lack any curiosity about the past or the world beyond their own doorstep. As we get to know the seedy old Dodge, in his unkempt clothes, his grimy “gimme” cap, ranting on about everything from horse races, to the spawning of nameless grandchildren, to the hopelessness of hope, we soon recognize him as the archetypal old “rip,” a pure cousin of the Southern crackers, a somewhat familial group of folk who have remained virtually unchanged for a hundred and forty years, as if somehow, they managed to get themselves locked in a time-warp; the same people who, to this day, still hold a grudge against Lincoln, who always voted the Democratic ticket till States’ Rights came to mean Republican. They're the folks who kept Strom Thurmond in office for sixty years and nowadays vote for the likes of Bush without a second thought. Indeed, Dodge, could easily pass for a retired Confederate sergeant or a Korean War veteran; it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. Virtually all his lines could remain the same and they would still ring true.
At one point, Dodge is talking to his grandson’s girlfriend. Shelly has spent the night in the upstairs bedroom. She says: “Last night I went to sleep up there in that room.”
DODGE: What room?
SHELLY: That room up there with all the pictures. All the crosses on the wall.
DODGE: Haley’s room?
SHELLY: Yeah. Whoever “Halie” is.
DODGE: She’s my wife.
SHELLY: So you remember her?
DODGE: Whad’ya mean! ‘Course I remember her! She’s only been gone for a day—half a day. However long it’s been.
SHELLY: Do you remember her when her hair was bright red? Standing in front of an apple tree?
DODGE: What is this, the third degree or something! Who’re you to be askin’ me personal questions about my wife!
SHELLY: You never look at those pictures up there?
DODGE: What pictures!
SHELLY: Your whole life’s up there hanging on the wall. Somebody who looks just like you. Somebody who looks just like you used to look.
DODGE: That isn’t me! That never was me! This is me. Right here. This is it. The whole shootin’ match, sittin’ right in front of you.
SHELLY: So the past never happened as far as you’re concerned?
DODGE: The past? Jesus Christ. The past. What do you know about the past?
And so on. If all this seemed vaguely familiar to play-going audienes in Nixon’s time, I can tell you it feels even more so now, when the people in charge of the country, as well as many of its citizens, have just about that much awareness of their own past, their own origins and history. Now, a generation later, the country is in a death-grip of corporate and political corruption that makes Nixon’s misdeeds seem like child’s play. We have a people so ignorant of their country’s established principles, so little regard for the Constitution and the rule of law, that they would countenance a blatant attack on another country, who would look the other way when innocent people are slaughtered and others are tortured; a people who seem hardly able to recognize themselves in the mirror, yet they are precisely mirroring the same old lies, the same mindless patriotism and war fetish of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
Perhaps the buried child of the play’s title is history itself. How many of our bright young soldiers now serving in Iraq would be likely to have any idea of the meaning of the phrase “Manifest Destiny”? How many would be likely to have looked at the causes of the Mexican War of 1845 and seen something they might have dimly recognized—a systematic pattern of lies, followed by an unprovoked invasion by our side, in order to provoke an attack by the other; then, the big media circus, the patriotic speeches, the incessant flag-waving, the public hysteria for war, as well as the denouncing and silencing of critics; in short, they might have recognized a virtual blueprint for the war they are presently fighting, as well as just about every war our country has fought since that time, from the Spanish-American War to the Philippines, to World War I, to Korea, to Vietnam, and beyond.
In a book called, Lies My Teacher Told Me, Prof. James Loewen was stunned to discover how few students in his freshman college history classes had any knowledge of the Vietnam War. Many did not even know the meanings of the words hawk and dove. He writes:
On the first day of class in 1989 I gave my students a quiz including the open-ended question, “Who fought in the war in Vietnam?” Almost a fourth of my students said the combatants were North and South Korea!
For all the weirdness in Buried Child, I can find nothing more bizarre or disconcerting than that.
Loewen goes on to cite a number of famous photographs from that war, that most older folks who lived through that period might recognize: the Buddhist monk who immolated himself at a Saigon intersection to protest the South Vietnamese government; the execution of a terrified man suspected of being a Viet Cong, with a pistol shot to the side of his head; the bodies of men, women and children in a ditch after the My Lai massacre; and the terrified children fleeing down a road after a napalm attack on their village—one little girl has stripped off her burning clothes and runs naked, screaming down the road.
For the most part, none of these photographs appear in any high school history textbooks. Loewen points out that, of course, the photograph of the naked girl could not appear because it would violate a textbook taboo: never show anyone naked. And the other taboo is never show suffering, even in a time of war.
Thus, he says, “These photographs have gone down the memory hole, that chute to the furnace where embarrassing facts burn to a crisp in George Orwell’s 1984.”
The children that are not being “left behind,” who are marching off to war nowadays, are the products of that education or lack of it. They are the products of a country that is suffering a kind of amnesia about the past, in which probably very few could hazard a guess as to the significance of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. It is just another piece of history gone down the “memory hole,” the same place where the lie about “weapons of mass destruction” will doubtless end up, and, in fact, is already well on its way. Yes, the “Memory Hole.” Where all the old lies of the past are buried, along with all the bodies of all the naive children who sacrificed themselves for those lies, for the profit, the gaining of empire. by the select few, whose own children somehow never end up maimed or dead on a battlefield.
These baby soldiers, our children, are the issue of a country that is presently stunted in its intellectual growth, whose scientists are prevented from doing valuable stem-cell research, and even forbidden to discuss global warming or birth control, and where so-called “science” museums (including the one in my home town), have refused to show films about evolution. And what of their awareness of geography, or other cultures or religions throughout the rest of the known world, particularly that region whose people and way of life they are presently destroying? Sounding almost like the hoary old Dodge in Buried Child, the ignoramus Rumsfeld referred to France and other countries that objected to our barbarous behavior, as “Old Europe.”
Buried Child is as relevant as ever. It delves into the heart of the good old “nuclear” family, examining the myth of the so-called “American Dream.” In a sense, it and True West are the natural offspring of plays like All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, both by Arthur Miller, even if Shepard’s language and symbolism are closer to Harold Pinter’s.
At Intermission, as the lights came up, Jack turned to me. His eyes were wide and his jaw hung slack. “Wow,” he said, quietly.
I looked around. I saw similar expressions on the faces of some of the students in the audience, but whether it meant they “got it” or didn’t, I couldn’t tell. Most of them broke into goofy grins and hurried off to the wine bar.
* * * * *
Jack and I sat there pretty quiet, waiting for the last act. A couple of times, thinking about what he’d already seen, Jack muttered, “God damn! God damn!” and shook his head, quietly.
Thus far, the acting had been superb. All the parts were well done. We were later to learn that the actor playing the part of old man Dodge was actually playing way over his age, that he was, in fact, a vigorous young man in his late twenties. We were stunned. He was completely convincing, just in the way he held himself, the way he sat and moved in his old clothes, even in the way he would light his cigarettes.
The final act leads to a climax in which Dodge, referring to his house and holdings, almost echoes the salesman, Willy Loman, who spoke of his own house as a place that was never really his to enjoy:
And then, from Buried Child:
WILLY: Figure it out. Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it. –Death of a Salesman.
DODGE: (to VINCE.) Go ahead! Take over the house! Take over the whole goddamn house! You can have it! It’s yours. It’s been a pain in the neck ever since the very first mortgage. I’m gonna die any second now. Any second. You won’t even notice. So I’ll settle my affairs once and for all.Dodge then “proclaims his last will and testament”—the list of things he rattles off, all representing a certain kind of existence, an “homage,” to the rural American farm life that has all but passed away. Yet, there’s no cheap sentiment, here; it’s a bitter requiem, a litany spoken with a death’s head grin; meanwhile, grandson Vince strides around the space inspecting his inheritance with a knife in his mouth. Only moments before, he had been outside on the porch smashing beer bottles and singing the Marine’s Hymn:
“From the halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli. We will fight our country’s battles on the land and on the sea.”
Shelly, his girlfriend, remains on the porch, staring in at him, unable to make sense of any of it. Vince just ignores her, as does Dodge, who begins to speak these lines:
DODGE: The house goes to my Grandson, Vincent. All the furnishings, accoutrements and paraphernalia therein. Everything tacked to the walls or otherwise resting under this roof. My tools—namely my band saw, my skill saw, my drill press, my chain saw, my lathe, my electric sander, all go to my eldest son, Tilden. That is, if he ever shows up again. My shed and gasoline powered equipment, namely my tractor, my dozer, my hand tiller plus all the attachments and riggings for the above mentioned machinery, namely my spring tooth harrow, my deep plows, my disk plows, my automatic fertilizing equipment, my reaper, my swathe, my seeder, my John Deere Harvester, my post hole digger, my jackhammer, my lathe—(to himself) Did I mention my lathe? I already mentioned my lathe—my Bennie Goodman records, my harnesses, my bits, my halters, my brace, my rough rasp, my forge, my welding equipment, my shoeing nails, my levels and bevels, my milking stool—no, not my milking stool—my hammers and chisels, my hinges, my cattle gates, my barbed wire, self-tapping augers, my horse hair ropes and all related materials are to be pushed into a gigantic heap and set ablaze in the very center of my fields. When the blaze is at its highest, preferably on a cold, windless night, my body is to be pitched into the middle of it and burned till nothing remains but ash.At this point, Shelly, perhaps the only person in the play capable of thinking for herself, at last unable to take anymore of this surreal craziness, decides to leave. But of course, Vince will stay behind, to carry on the dream, the illusion. . . .
SHELLY: You’re not coming?Keep rolling, indeed! But before she can get away, Vince goes on to deliver perhaps the defining speech of the play; facing straight out to the audience, he speaks these words:
VINCE: I just inherited a house.
SHELLY: You want to stay here?
VINCE: I’ve gotta carry on the line. I’ve gotta see to it that things keep rolling.
VINCE: I was gonna run last night. I was gonna run and keep right on running. I drove all night. Clear to the Iowa border. The old man’s two bucks sitting right on the seat beside me. It never stopped raining the whole time. Never stopped once. I could see myself in the windshield. My face. My eyes. I studied my face. Studied everything about it. As though I was looking at another man. As though I could see his whole race behind him. Like a mummy’s face. I saw him dead and alive at the same time. In the same breath. In the windshield, I watched him breathe as though he was frozen in time. And every breath marked him. Marked him forever without him knowing. And then his face changed. His face became his father’s face. Same bones. Same eyes. Same nose. Same breath. And his father’s face changed to his Grandfather’s face. And it went on like that. Changing. Clear on back to faces I’d never seen before but still recognized. Still recognized the bones underneath. The eyes. The breath. The mouth. I followed my family clear into Iowa. Every last one. Straight into the Corn Belt and further. Straight back as far as they’d take me. Then it all dissolved. Everything dissolved.* * * *
When it was over, Jack, and, I suppose, I, too, felt somewhat drained. We went backstage to collect his wagon and dog. There, in the Green Room, we encountered several members of the cast. The woman who played Shelly, the young man who played Vince, and the man who played Dodge. We were especially surprised to see how different Dodge looked. For one thing, he was no longer stoop shouldered, but standing straight and tall. He still had a shadow of beard, still wore the old clothes and the gimme cap, yet up close, he looked completely different and sounded different. Jack and I looked at each other, puzzled. Such is the magic of theatre. The same magic I first experienced long ago when I was a kid, when the actors unmasked themselves at the end of the film, The List of Adrian Messenger.
They were very friendly. We told them how much we enjoyed the play and what a fine job they did. Dodge looked at us seriously at one point and said, “Did you get it?” Jack just laughed, shook his head a little, and said, “Well, yeah, I think so.”
The fella playing Vince in the play said he felt a special connection to Vincent, the dog. They all said he could come back anytime; they liked having him backstage. I think it made Jack happy to hear that.
* * * * *
It was nine-thirty when we got back on the street. We headed over to Johnny Blair’s café, the Bizzy Bee, hoping to catch him before he closed up at ten, and made it just under the wire. This was my first time to meet Johnny, though I felt like I’d already made his acquaintance through Jack’s writings. And yep, Jack’s description of him was dead on. Almost entirely covered in tattoos. We were a little worried we might be keeping him from going home, but he seemed glad to see us.
He had just put the beef stew in the refrigerator, so it was still plenty hot and he set before us a couple of bowls, along with some good iron skillet corn bread. Then, he sat down with us with a cup of coffee and I explained to him how Jack and I met, and about Jack’s diary and so forth.
He got all excited when we told him where we’d been that night and wanted to know all about it. He said he was going to take his wife to that show, if he got the chance. “She’d love it,” he said. “She loves stuff like that—all that esoteric stuff. She gets it all. She’s just amazing like that.”
So we sat there, the three of us, shooting the shit over cups of coffee till around midnight, when finally, we dragged ourselves up from the table to leave. As we stood there, saying our goodbyes, I couldn’t help noticing all the odd photographs and memorabilia Johnny had hung on the walls all around the café. It was really an eccentric place. There were pictures of his mother and father, brothers and sisters; there were photos of motorcycles, all custom-built, with lots of tattooed beefy guys; a wedding picture of Johnny and his wife cutting their cake; there were numerous pictures of Johnny holding up strings of catfish. There were pictures of horses. There was a shadowbox hung on the wall full of arrowheads. And there were numerous black and white reproductions from the Civil War. Pausing in front of a photograph of Bushrod Rush Johnson, I said, “What’s all this?”
Johnny laughed, somewhat embarrassed, and said, “Aw, I’m kind of a Civil War buff, you might say.”
“Motorcycles and Civil War, huh?” I said.
“Yup.” He laughed again.
Jack and I moved around the room, looking at antique soldiers and officers from the North and the South. There was a picture of General Lee, of course. A photo of Longstreet, Stonewall Jackson, Bedford-Forrest, Johnston, Beauregard. From the North, there was one of Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur), one of McPherson, one of Buell, Barlow, Hancock, Warren, Chamberlain, Burnside, Sherman. I wondered what they would make of finding their pictures in a 21st century tattooed man’s café, alongside pictures of motorcycles. Not that they would be able to identify those weird contraptions.
Then, we both paused in front of a very good picture of Ulysses S. Grant, gazing out at us with his dark intense eyes. The man who won the Civil War. Underneath, Johnny had copied a few lines from Grant’s memoirs—something the general had said about the Mexican War long after the fact. We fell silent as we stood there reading. Later, as we walked up the street in the gloom of the night, we both agreed that something about those words seemed awfully familiar. Here’s what he wrote so long ago:
Generally the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory. . . .To us, it was an empire and of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means. The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.