The Whittler

Allegory: Dedicated to my student story writers, by L.E. Taylor

The forest floor welcomes its seedlings each spring. Most are consumed by animals or smothered in decay and added to the loam. A sprout will reach for the light above and, though rarely, if enough sunlight flickers through the great-grandfather’s greening canopy to its wee place, it will become a sapling. It will continue, season by season to strive for the sun. Fewer and fewer of the saplings live to full tree-ness. As great-great grandfathers go the way of the Great Plan, the rare chosen sapling still drinks at the earth’s breast, gains height and grows closer to the nourishing golden Source of Life. In time men arrive and select which of the trees would serve them. The sapling had grown to grand-fatherness when the men chose him. Before they could take him a great storm came, the season was spent, and they left.

Many years before, a young man had built a house high on a hillock at the edge of the forest. He’d built a plain little house for his bride. They farmed the land down near the stream and then built more rooms as their family grew. A barn and a corral, a shed, and a good, deep well made life nearly complete. One year, the not so young man built a railed porch across the front of the house. With the forest behind and the whole valley spread out beyond the stream as far as he could see, the place had become a good home. At day’s end, with work done, the family would gather on the porch for supper. Sometimes they would read aloud, the children would play. Sometimes they would retreat into themselves and watch the sun set across the river, beyond the valley.

The change did not come all at once. It never does. A baby died. The daughters grew discontent; one married young, the other wanted college and got her way. The eldest son was a strong worker and loved the farm, but modern times required proper education even for a farmer and one summer he left for the state college. Soon after, the youngest boy went off to war. When the man’s wife took ill, it was the first time in forty years, and it became the last. Each day the man walked his hillside in loneliness and grief. One morning, strolling a path through the woods, his way was blocked by a heavy branch, thick and fully leafed, split from its parent-bole in the night’s violent storm. It emitted a freshness of life. For no reason known to the grieving man, he headed for home, dragging the massive branch behind.

And so it was, he found himself at the side of his sturdy porch, with an over-size tree branch. And a jackknife.

The old man dreamed of his bittersweet past and he puzzled over the terror of his destiny, and aimlessly he began to winnow down the leafy father branch he’d drug home with such effort and so little reason. Next day, he walked around the great twisted limb and he began to whittle.

Hour upon hour, at first uncertainly, then with sinew, he pared away. As a Renaissance sculptor divining some mystic masterpiece within a  block of dead granite, he carved images. Alone and in the company of only his honed knife blade and the oaken tree limb, he whittled. Days gentled into nights, and again into days. Weeks became a seamless, restful eternity as the dead branch became what God had made it for.

And the old man became young again.

Onward.

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Old School, Part One: I Remember Rosecrance

High School ’53 – The Way We Were, a remembrance by L. E. Taylor

“English is the most beautiful language God ever invented.” Al Neugebauer smiled and settled back comfortably into his big executive chair. “Listening to you speak is like listening to music.”

Years earlier, as a teenager, Al had escaped Eastern Europe. He’d known German, Russian, and a little French. His accented English came just before his American citizenship. And his lucrative travel business came after that.

The young adman across the desk from Al came by his own language skills less dramatically, but arguably with more stress.

I was a senior at Edwin Denby High School in December of 1952. My curriculum was “College Prep.” It meant something decades ago. We were being prepared for a course of study elevated above, and far more demanding than anything we had known. Only in my senior year had I come to understand that the world didn’t give a crap about me, and I’d better get focused.

I trundled to school each morning by public transportation before daybreak, dressed with care in a V-neck sweater, pressed grey flannel slacks, a button-down white shirt, and a tightly knotted knit tie. The finishing touch was often a scrupulously chalked pair of Pat Boone-style white bucks.

My English instructor was an eccentric martinet of the British “public” school model. A gangly, craggy, bespectacled, gray-faced Ichabod Crane, he dominated his stage, hectoring each wretch in his thirty-student classes, assuring them that his criticism was not general, but decidedly personal. He expected, each day, in each assignment, not perfection, but resounding excellence. He awarded no “A’s”.

On my first day of class at fifteen, he’d strode the aisles reading from each yellowed enrollment card and drilling each new victim with raven’s eyes. He stopped next to me. “LA-ree,” he said.

Yes, sir.

“Your name is Lawrence.” I told him my given name is Larry.

“Nonsense,” he sneered, “Suppose some mommy and daddy gazed upon their new babe and said, ‘Oh, ain’t he just darling! Let’s call him Herbie!’ Who’d want to go through life with Herrr-bie?!”

For the time being, my name would be Lawrence.

This was my introduction to Jackson Lancelot Rosecrance, Terror of the College Prep English faculty.

The whole name issue was moot; Mr. Rosecrance never used our Christian names anyway – only, in the custom of private prep schools, our surnames. One day in my senior year, he paused at my desk. “My, Mister Taylor, aren’t you the picture of sartorial splendor! Blazer… tie. May I see your socks?” I hiked up a creased slack-leg revealing a green and orange argyle. “Ahhh! I needn’t have asked. I could have heard them,” he hooted. Everyone laughed, not least of all, myself.

Mr. Rosecrance had few fans among the plebian student body. I was one of that few who got it. I enjoyed the sparring. I loved his droll way with words. And I was learning. Of course, I squirmed as he skewered classmates and I tolerated his belittling my own peccadilloes. But I knew what was going on. It wasn’t bloody-minded vitriol. This was just his act, albeit a persuasive one. He used it to force the main issue: Wake up, sluggard! You are better than the mess you are allowing yourself to drift into!

The Rosecrance method was unorthodox. He taught writing as a collateral skill to learning from great literature. Not a secondary side issue, writing was a synchronous part of in-depth English literature studies, at least in this public school room.

Appreciation of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Elizabethan poetry was interwoven with stringent exercises in vocabulary, syntax, and pellucid prose writing, even penmanship. Each Monday, in class, we were to write an extemporaneous precis (pray’-seez), a short 10-minute essay, and turn it in. The week’s precis, would be graded, 1-10.

As oral book-based classwork proceeded, led by students with the two highest scores of the previous week, Mr. R planted himself in the back of the room, crammed into the desk at the window corner. From this command post, he multi-tasked: monitoring and elucidating (in real time) the class doings, while summoning each student in turn, to come sit across the aisle from him and take his/her medicine, “one-to-ten”.

Once, I recall, he berated an athlete, a handsome blond track star and a letterman on our very good football team. “Trackman!” he barked, scowling at a slip of copybook paper. “Mister Betzer, there is no such word as ‘trackman’.” The lad’s reply was an embarrassed mumble. “Mr. Betzer, you are better than this… I think. Do not be misled by the fame of Dick Panin at Michigan State. He is said to have been a student here. He was NOT a student; he ATTENDED CLASSES here. And got away with it. You had the same amount of time on Monday as your classmates; you came up with this fiasco of eleven words, and … ‘trackman.’ Your grade for the week is zero.”

Okay, enough of the caricature. Mr. Rosecrance was more than the sadistic drill sergeant he portrayed; he was a serious, gifted teacher of the English literary canon. He introduced me to the dysfunctional Macbeths and other figments of Elizabethan imagination – Bacon, Marlow, Spenser, the Sonnets, and quaint oddities that would come to mean more very shortly on a faraway campus.

How do I remember these things? I guess they made an impression. And I remember one other moment, which is the counterpoint of this tale.

It was the last day before Christmas break. A cold, bleak morning outside. I was making my way around back of the room before class. Mr. Rosecrance had got up from his nesting place at the last desk by the window and walked toward me. The passage was narrow. I stood aside to make way for him. Suddenly, with theatrical clumsiness, he stomped his dull black brogans upon my white bucks. He grabbed my shoulders and, with moist eyes, he whispered straight into my face, “Thank you for the Christmas card, Larry. That was damned nice of you.”

His breath was awful. But what startled me was, “… Larry”.

Dedicated to Al Neugebauer, wherever you are.

Onward.

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Next time: Old School, Part Two – Education on the Rocks

 

Bully Boys – Part I: Terror

Remembrance and Reflections: By L.E.Taylor

1943.

The damp yellow clay of the pit smelled of rancid grass cuttings and mutilated earthworms and what the boy would later think of as Death. He was wrestled into the grave – what else could you call it? – by the four “big boys” from another neighborhood. He pled to be freed, but they laughed. As he cried they closed off the sky with a sheet of particle board and scrap planks from a construction site. The last small opening to life was blocked with a chunk of concrete suspended by a length of close-line just above his head.

“Larr-reee,” came the call from somewhere far off.

The boys scrambled and disappeared. My mother came bustling through the high weeds and the swampy standing water of the big vacant lot. She wore a patterned cotton house dress as even young women did in those days, and sensible shoes. Before she arrived at the pit, I’d freed myself, and was running toward her. She scolded me for not staying near home or telling her where I was going. The vacant lot was only a block from home, but a mother’s instinct and racial memory informed Grace of a vast universe of peril.

I was eight. I never told her about being buried alive. The spanking was painless and made us both feel a lot better. For different reasons.

Onward.

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Next time, Bully Boys – Part II: Mad Men