To Read or Not to Read?


    School at Mulberry was “consolidated” in 1949. All grades, including the eighth for Gregory, went to Ravenna. Clayton heard his son read and remarked to Gladys, “He’ll never graduate.” A diary will subsequently show how hard Gregory worked to prove that wrong, though he didn’t know the meaning of “college” yet.

    During the four years that followed (1950-54), on the long school bus rides to Bonham high school, Gregory found a time to enter a world of his own imagination. Parents and all the adults he knew were absent from it. It was centered on a beautiful house beside a lake, with terraces and “French doors” like in the movie version of “Great Gatsby” at the Elite, and the central figure was an “older brother”. “Tarzan” movies also came regularly to the
American; a “house” wasn’t necessary in that jungle.
    Clayton continued to whip Gregory until he was fifteen. He kept a tractor fan belt on a nail behind the refrigerator in the kitchen, but the last time he used a branch from the weeping willow Gregory planted. With a cousin, he’d ridden his bicycle to the church before sundown. Inside the back door, Gregory saw the whip on the quilt box. Clayton was eating, rose and caught him by the wrist, dragged him outside behind the garage, and whipped hard. He didn’t cry and his fury startled them. They would have to find another way to punish. It was denial of permission to go to town on Saturday night, on the school bus (Marvin Baker in Mulberry owned his own and charged 25 cents),
to see a show, walk around the square, and have a cherry-coke at the bus station, returning home before the 10:30 picture started.

    Starting his freshman year in Bonham, at physical education, Gregory’s class was assigned touch football. The coach did not accompany. A few of the boys played. Gregory stood on the sideline, watching. One of the boys under the tree yelled “Get in there”. He said he’d watch. The boy took off a heavy belt and whipped Gregory. He didn’t move... harder...they all watched. Bright scars showed for many years (fainter toward the end of life). Gladys and Clayton were disturbed. Clayton would demand to know why. Next morning: “No, it would just get the coach in trouble and make the class harder for you.”

     In fourth grade at Mulberry (1946), we were in Miss Hazel Rogers’ room. At recess, on a field beyond the cook shack, choosing sides before a ball game was the daily ritual. If he was not the chooser himself, as captain of one side, Doyle was always chosen first; the rest was predictable, including the bigger girls first, and me last. I don’t remember being bothered by this; I seemed to know, because my size and weight.

    We rode the school bus only a mile from where I caught it. Neal was the Burgess brother nearest my age. Making his way down a crowded aisle, he dropped his schoolbooks and was picking them up when the idea came to me. As we were getting off, I bumped Neal’s arm so that he dropped his books again. This time he didn’t stop to pick them up, but pursued me fast until we reached the schoolhouse door. Then Neal punched my nose with his fist, very hard. I was bleeding, but could say, “Now, Neal, see what you’ve done.” He’d already turned his back and nobody paid any attention, or said anything about the incident when teachers started arriving, and we became better friends, but never close.

    Ruth was the daughter of Odie and Jack Crumby. She was my age and we were in first grade together, where more than one grade was taught in the same school room. I sat beside Ruth during second grade spelling classes; she was bright and fast, compared with me; my “kat” was wrong again. Ruth was allowed to assist the teacher in the “library,” a curtained-off corner which might be either open, or closed, a privileged place, I thought.

    Waymon Overton in our class had read “all the books”. Champion reader! in a flash. I was still not learning to read and no one seemed to notice, though my mother tried to help me during the summer months. Waymon and I had started first grade in Mrs. Delashaw’s room; her husband was principal, and they had two sons who occasionally played with me, but soon left Mulberry. As told to me years later: On the day “Miss” Myrtle Cain died, Johnny Crumby whipped Mr. Delashaw with a peach tree limb, or threatened to, because he had disciplined Leolan at school.

    Miss Helen McKnight was our second grade teacher, and by this time the big schoolrooms were heated by an innovation we did not yet have at home, butane gas; the stovepipes were only for “fumes”. On cold days we were allowed to gather around the shiny brown stoves. Through only a peep hole could I see a fire. Miss Helen was thought to be a favorite of the Bramletts, especially Jubie, but that meant nothing to me.

    As Thanksgiving approached we were allowed to decorate the blackboards using colored chalk, showing all the tail feathers of turkeys in different colors. I was good at this, but knew I could never match the artistry of Christina Castenada, the daughter of Mexican Bob. She was a withdrawn, quiet girl who spoke little but, looking back, I’m sure she knew how everyone admired her talent.

    Several of the boys in Miss Rogers’ room stroked “themselves” during class. Their half closed eyes turned a goofy grin when they realized anybody was looking. It was not till “Miss” Odie complained to the principal that the boys gave up this stimulation. I never knew what he told them. Doyle and Dwight would have known, and the twins, Ned and Ted. They were a few years older than me, and had their own horses to ride off on with my daddy to see about the cows on Caney Creek. I also wore pants that were different from theirs; mine were “bib-overalls” or the yellowish-brown khaki, never blue jeans with cowboy boots.

     When my mother was finally able to start teaching at Mulberry, Uncle Willie had to give up his position on the school board, and this went hard with him. There’s a photograph of Odie and Gladys posing on one of the giant oak trees in front of the school. Odie was smiling and I believe she was still a teacher then, though eventually her education no longer qualified her.

    Odie had more to endure, daily, closer to home. Her husband Jack was a hired hand on the Bond Farm, where Mr. Omar Hodge was foreman. The farm provided a house for Odie and Jack, but “Miss” Effie and Mr. Omar lived in a house close to the big house, with a connecting concrete walk. Effie’s daughter Nancy had shiny red hair that hung in long bouncing curls. She always wore beautiful dresses. Sometime she was allowed to come to my house; there is a picture of us on old Bob, my contrary Shetland pony that would always paw and then lie down in the middle of Caney Creek when we were there to “see about” the cows. Nobody else’s horse did anything like this. “Kick him! Kick him; make him come on.”

    But when my family went to Gainesville to cousin Glenna Gregory’s wedding, it was Ruth who went, not Nancy, and her smile, sitting next to Clifford V, compared to cousin Bobbie’s closed face, next to me, tells how we will all go our divergent ways. It is difficult for me to view this picture now without sharing my father’s shame in me, facing his brothers and their sons. It started early, and continued always, I suppose.

    In 1945, as the war was endi
ng with Earl Johnson dead in Normandy, and Trinie Sanchez a participant in the execution of Private Slovik (we didn’t know), my female cousins let me share the fantasy of their big “playhouse,” an old log house on the road toward Uncle Willie’s. There we conducted the first “animal funeral,” the start of an another cemetery on the hillside not far from the gully where the cat’s rusty noose still hung. It was a dry, sandy easy-to-dig bull-nettle-infested site, eventually fenced with tall gateposts and a sign, “Mulberry Animal Cemetery”.

    Aunt Vera recorded in her diary for September 30: “Sunday. Lelia went to Clayton’s and had dinner. I went up there in the afternoon to the dog Funeral.” It was a Saturday when Uncle Joe ran over the dog, and didn’t stop to see about it. We saw, and decided to have a funeral. The dog was dressed in a red, flowered suit my mother made for the teddy bear. The coffin was a wooden apple crate with a soft, soiled pillow under a ruffled window curtain. Late summer flowers were made into elaborate wreaths wrapped in strips of clear cellophane brought home by returning soldiers. It made them look fine. Notice was given at church. Aunts Lelia and Vera would have to come because it was “her car” and “her husband” that killed the dog. Gladys preached the funeral in a satisfying, solemn manner, and “...the dog that didn’t even have a name” was first in the animal cemetery. “Miss” Mandy’s white goldfish followed, but no animal’s grave was ever heaped as high with flowers, or kept with more reverence than that of the dog that had no name.

    About the other cemetery we watched from the schoolroom windows, even adults were telling scary stories. “Miss” Zona’s brother, who lived in a cabin in the woods, near the path between the winding gates, was “talking to the dead”. He left his glasses on one of the tombstones, and Zona had to go down to Alva Cain’s, a recent school board adversary, to get them. Brother always wore a white shirt and carried a bundle of newspapers wherever he went.

    One afternoon while Doyle and Dwight, Larry and Albert Junior, and I were playing in the ditches behind my house, “Gladys” dressed up like Zona’s brother and approached in an ambling sort of way. Dwight saw “him” first:

    “Doyle, he’s headed this way.”

    “What’s he wearin’?”

    “What’s he got?”

    “Come on boys!”

    I went under, but Albert Junior in glasses ran through the barbed wire fence, to Uncle Willie’s.... My mother had to promise she wouldn’t scare us anymore.

     We were still attending school at Mulberry in 1947, and I was eleven. “Miss” Kate Reed Estes drove the county schools’ bookmobile. She dressed in colorful full-skirts, played the piano extravagantly, and smoked thin brown cigars, though we didn’t know that then. When Aunt Dean, at the start of my sophomore year in high school (1951), sent me a selection of six long-sleeved shirts, they were as bright a plaid as any of Miss Estes’ skirts. Mrs. Annie Pearl Heaton, a famous and dreaded English teacher, shook her head and said, “In my time no boy would have dared wear a shirt like that.” I didn’t know what she meant, but the toss of her head made an “impression”.

    Gregory was graduated from Bonham High School in 1954 as “valedictorian”. More significant, his reading, though still slow, now included Victor Hugo’s vast Les Misérables which opened a foreign, richer world than his imagined one. The tender romance of Cossette and Marcus didn’t seem shameful, and JeanVal Jean’s flight, experience of injustice, and courage created “sides” to take. Paris became a destination. Turning to Betsy Saunders’ small bookstore in Bonham, Gregory received next Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, gaining in this way the whole world.

    Years later, after a year-long residence in London, Gregory would find Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), but its warning had come too late:  “Rosewood said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Foedor Dostoevsky. ‘But that isn’t enough any more,’ said Rosewood.”

    “Any good books?” Basil will ask, my New York army friend. In a paperback copy of All Quiet on the Western Front, a favorite he mentioned, I found that I’d already marked the author’s (Remarque’s) visit with his books at home, waiting:

    ...the quick joy in the world of thought, it shall bring back again the lost eagerness of my youth. I sit and wait.... I want to feel that I belong here, I want to harken and know when I go back to the front that the war will sink down, be drowned utterly in the great home-coming tide, know that it will then be past for ever, and not gnaw us continually, that it will have none but an outward power over us.

    The backs of the books stand in rows. I know them all still, I remember arranging them in order. I implore them with my eyes: Speak to me—take me up—take me, Life of my Youth—you who are carefree, beautiful—receive me.

    I wait, I wait.

    After Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1960), it took me longer to discover again in whose company I wanted to live. But as more books became the my constant and only dependable source of companionship I, too, liked arranging them for changing conversations—begun before I arrived, but continuing....

    When the professor brought an Irish poet to Mulberry (1978), the visitor, before supper, spent some time before my shelves and, not finding Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, asked, Why? So the next year in London I bought the Penguin edition, of course, remembering from’68 the High Hill bookstore in Hampstead’s High Street, not far from the Everyman film theater, and the London.

    Keepsakes: ... another lonely Sunday in Mulberry, another discovery. I was walking in the creek bed up Caney Creek not far from where it flows into the river. At eye-level in the bank was a perfect arrowhead three inches long; another rise would have swept it away. Later that year I gave it to a friend visiting Mulberry; it’s with her now in Copenhagen. As the years pass, in different places, we meet to renew our friendship, as recently on a November afternoon in London’s Highgate. “Of course, I want you to keep it.” She paused, then said, “Maybe someday I’ll give it to the National Museum”. It was another fateful decision in 1968, to return to Mulberry. That Easter we’d made a car trip to Cornwall and stopped on the return journey in Devon at the family home of another friend. After supper, reunited sisters retold local ghost stories, and alone I carried a faltering candle to my bed chamber under the eaves.