Paul Ruffin's Blog


by pauldruffin


There are those stories that linger with us as evidence that oftentimes the mild and meek of the earth may indeed end up directing the future of it.

This story was told me by Dr. Walter Yorkshire Mason, retired Houston physician, who settled along the river at Segovia, Texas, a decade ago not far from where he grew up, having found even the sparsely traveled streets of Kerrville a bit too busy for his blood.

It was on a Thanksgiving many, many years before, and all was well upon the hill where three generations of the Mason clan had gathered at the family ancestral home, a sprawling ranch house above the river valley, except for a problem with Bobby Wayne, shining child of his doting parents but a steadfast thorn in the side of the female cousins.

Having reached the age of fifteen much alive and little scarred, his system charged–nay, brimming with hormones–Bobby behaved as if he knew no wrath could fall upon him that his smile and pale blue eyes would not render helpless the one who spent it on him. And so it was that when he crossed the lines of staunch decorum, little was done to set him straight, this single son with no female siblings.

“It is only Bobby Wayne being a boy,” his father would say, proud of his fine lineage. “Only Bobby Wayne.”

“Just Bobby Wayne,” his mom agreed, stroking his blond hair and placing a kiss upon his cherubic cheek.

Bobby was the only boy among the grandchildren, and he rode this distinction hard and heavy, falling so soundly into the graces of Grandpa and Grandma Mason that they brushed his little indiscretions off like flies and shooed them hither, assigning him his own room in their house, the only child to have one.

The aunts and uncles loved him too, this blond and blue-eyed prince.

“Just a boy,” they said. A thorn he was to the girls, but one the others gladly suffered. Who knew what he might grow into?

Ah, but Bobby was far from a favorite among the lithe and lovely cousins, daughters of the aunts and uncles. Three of them there were this time–Molly, Brenda, and Sarah–one with long black tresses, two lighter-haired sisters, the older other two electing not to come and have to deal with Bobby Wayne, so great was this scourge upon them.

Alas, they were not even near Turkey Time when Bobby Wayne laid his hand on a place on Molly that shall go unnamed–but for purposes of anatomical identification, these places come in pairs on the human female. The four of them were sitting in the barn loft playing Scrabble on a table made of a bale of hay when Bobby reached across the board and touched what he little understood but knew he must be fond of in order to be a Big Boy.

Molly squealed, but not from pleasure, and knocked his hand away and retreated from the scene, whereupon Bobby turned his attention to the sisters, using every word he’d ever heard that he thought might nigh impress them and pinning Sarah against the straw until she wiggled loose and followed Brenda down the ladder.

This time it was, as they say, the last straw for the girls. They ran and hid behind the house until Bobby shambled down toward the dry creekbed, then went back to the loft and put their pretty heads together, one of raven hair, two of tawny, and alas, a plan was born whereby Bobby might be dealt with.

The grandest folly of the male is to underestimate the female, at all levels, as he is wont to do. Bobby Wayne Mason had had his way with the lovely cousins so long, lording it over them, touching as he would, saying what he liked, that not even the strayest of notions that he might have a price to pay ventured into his vacant head.

This is too often the case for a boy, blessed as he is with an intellect that should set him well above the hooved and horned and hairy, but with an arrogance and hormonal rage that drives all wisdom from him.

So there was Bobby Wayne Mason strutting up the hedged drive of the old homeplace, not a quarter of a mile from the new, in search of the female cousins, known to gather in the weathered house once for games and little parties involving tea and dolls but now for talk of boys. And he was, after all, BOY, almost MAN, cousin or not, and in his head strange notions danced from ear to ear. He had felt faint stirrings near and far, now gathered to greatness in him, a surge to be obeyed rather than allayed. So he would act upon them.

Ah, but Bobby Wayne knew not what dreadful fate awaited him. He had crossed the cousins a time too many, and now he must be punished, only how could he know this, being swamped by hormones and bereft of common sense?

“Oh, Bobby Wayne, Bobby Wayne,” a voice came from out the hedge, low and sweet and thrilling, smooth as panty silk and soft as summer butter, “would you like to see me now
with all my clothes from off me and touch me as you might, sir?”

What boy or man could resist this call, cousin or not, sir? Bobby dove into the hedge,
like plunging into water, and found himself enjungled there–six sets of claws unsheathed, three mouths howling, three racks of fangs upon him.

And when at last he surfaced, a shocked and trembling thing, weak and mewling like a baby–striated, torn, and bleeding–his pride stripped bare of what it was, ravaged soul and body, poor Bobby limped off to his room and huddled there, resisting all entreaties, though the sun passed across the sky and settled westward red and swollen. Word was he had gotten lost in a great patch of briars and endured a terrible shredding.

Next day, as the others talked and watched TV and surfeited on Thanksgiving plenty, Bobby Wayne lay sullen in his room while across his window dashed the girls, shrieking gaily, “Catch us, Bobby, if you can, and you may be our master. We are but little Gypsy girls, harmless as the wind and ripe now to be taken.”

Poor Bobby winced at their cries and wept and snuffled–forlorn, ashamed, and shaken.

The boy grew up to become a successful county politician, with dreams of ascending to the legislature, and word is that to this day when he is around the female cousins, now broadening into middle-age, with children of their own, he treats them with utmost respect and the reverence that is due their kind. So sayeth the good doctor.


by pauldruffin


[The following is actually an excerpt from a novel of mine, Castle in the Gloom, though it focuses on an area of my life I regard as almost sacred: the kitchen. In this book a couple end up being essentially kidnapped by an old woman who lives in a converted general store over near Lufkin, and the kitchen figures prominently in it. If you have not read the novel, that’s your loss, but you can still buy it from University Press of Mississippi and most online sources.]

It has always been amazing to me how in a kitchen two women who have never seen each other before and who have nothing at all in common can fall into a conversation about food or people or home furnishings or clothes or whatever. I guess it’s just familiar territory to them, neutral and inviting, and they’ll set into a conversation the minute they arrive there. If I hadn’t been along,
I think the old woman would have forgotten all about the pistol and pulled up a chair at the table with Annie and they’d have started right off talking about the things that women talk about. Out in the shop or yard or in the living room a couple of men might stumble around a little bit about the weather or make a few passing remarks about cars or sports or tools, but unless they just happen to have the same kind of job or share a hobby, their conversation will go stone-cold in five minutes. Unless they’re drinking. Drop a third man into the equation and things will generally pick up again, especially if you throw in beer or whiskey or a deck of cards or any combination thereof, and anywhere at all will do. Run a woman past them, and you’ve got a wolf-pack on your hands, with whistling and lewd comments. It’ll happen just about every time.

But a kitchen and two women—that’s all it takes. Here were a lonely old woman armed with a .44 magnum and living in the Davy Crockett National Forest and a slender young woman from the bright outer world who’d probably never been that close to a gun before, much less had one pointed at her, not thirty minutes earlier absolute and utter strangers, mortal enemies, and likely to be enemies again in thirty minutes, and they were off on egg sandwiches. There is just something about kitchens and women.

Or maybe it’s just women. Like what the old woman said about me not coming into her house unless my woman was along. As if the female somehow makes all the difference in the relative threat in a man. It’s universally accepted that if two guys are approaching you on a sidewalk somewhere in a strange town, you go on mild alert, just in case, but if it’s a man and woman, it looks right, harmless, and you nod and smile, no more ill-at-ease than you would be with a couple of toddlers passing you. She’s the moderating agent in the man, you see.

And women are just more inclined to resolve problems through conversation rather than through physical confrontation. That’s a fact.

Maybe kitchens do help. If you had to choose any place in the house that seems to be symbolic of life and comfort and the most civil side of us, it’s the kitchen. It might go back to the original kitchens, the old campfires that our hairy forebears gathered around—an almost sacred place of light and warmth where food was prepared and served and eaten and where people gathered at night against the awful dark. And even if the kitchen’s closed, with everything put away and it’s cooled down and the lights are off, there’s something comforting about it that you don’t feel in other rooms in the house. Bathrooms and bedrooms and living rooms contribute to the myth of a house in their own ways, but nothing has the universal and collective appeal of a kitchen, an almost sedative and evocative effect, and I guess that’s the way it is supposed to be.

I never in my life heard of a man killing another man or a woman or child in the kitchen, though there are probably far more dangerous weapons at hand there than anyplace else in the house. Knives and cleavers, icepicks. Your average butcher knife is just as good a weapon as a gun in close quarters—two steps and you can slice somebody’s throat or gut him like a fish, kill him just as dead with that knife as a bullet and make a hell of a lot bigger mess. I suspect that there have been times when men have squared off in kitchens and one of them has held his hands out in appeal and said, “Let’s take this outside in the yard or off in the den. You can’t fight in no kitchen.” The primary passion in a kitchen is hunger, and the kitchen’s purpose is satisfying that hunger.

People don’t even commit suicide in kitchens. They may blow their brains out in the den or living room or bedroom or cut their wrists over the lavatory or tub or hang themselves from the rafters of the shop or even do something really crazy like throw themselves out a second-story window onto the driveway, but somehow the kitchen just doesn’t seem to be the place to die. It’s a place that makes you think about life and living. It’s always the cleanest room in the house and in some ways it’s as close to sacred as rooms can get. I know that some famous poet stuck her head in an oven and gassed herself, but she is the only exception I can think of, and that wasn’t violent.

I’ll just bet that if the world’s negotiators gathered around a table in someone’s kitchen in just
about any country you could name to talk things over, instead of seating themselves somberly and
stiffly at a heavily oiled formal table in some official-looking room with dark paneling and por-
traits of dignitaries on the wall, international problems could be much more quickly solved. You
know, somebody would say, “All right, after we get this taken care of, we’re going to reach right
over there and bring out the ham and cheese and make sandwiches and maybe open a couple of
cans of that soup up there.” They’d get the problem solved and then eat.


by pauldruffin


I’ve entered the phase of my life when I have begun to notice how much hair I’m losing when I brush it out after a shower. I’ve still got a lot of color left, thanks to the Cherokee blood in me, and I have not really started to bald. But reality sets in when you realize that you can make just so many drags through the old rug before all the fiber is gone.

While pondering this issue the other night, I recalled my graduate-school days and the glorious crop of hair I had back then. I don’t mean in terms of appearance, just amount. I had a lot of hair. And while I was thinking about that, I remembered one of the finest moments of my literary life.

Scene set: It was a long time ago in Mississippi, and I was young and dapper, snappily dressed in a bow-tie and sports jacket of yellow, black, and red plaid, ready for the world of serious poetry. I had won my first prize, and as I stood before that audience of poets and Jackson elite in the Senate Chamber of the Old State Capitol Building reading a sampling of my work, I recognized it as the finest moment of my obscure life. And it was good.

As I was leaving the building, a check for five hundred dollars in my wallet, earned by poetry, no less, an elderly lady approached me, extended what even then was a hand gnarled with age, then cupped mine with her other, and said, “Hello. I’m Eudora Welty. I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your poems–and, furthermore, that you look like a Florentine painting.” It was the Blue Bell on my apple cobbler, the whipped cream on my strawberry shortcake.

As I puttered along in my VW Beetle on the way back to Hattiesburg and the graduate school hovel I lived in, I ran over and over in my mind what she had said and what it meant. I remembered well the painters of the Italian Renaissance, but I recalled nothing from Michelangelo, Raphael, or Giotto that I thought I looked like. Did I resemble one of the figures in Masaccio’s “Expulsion from Paradise”? Was I Castagno’s “David”? I couldn’t find myself in Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” and if Miss Welty recognized me among the degenerate characters of Di Cosimo’s “Discovery of Honey,” surely she wouldn’t have said anything. Maybe I was Titian’s “Man with the Glove,” or perhaps, with my long hair, I looked vaguely like the Mona Lisa to her.

I just couldn’t make the connection, but I liked it, whatever it meant. I felt good about it, and for years to come, anytime I taught a Welty story, I recalled that day in Jackson when the Grand Dame of Southern Letters said something nice to me.

A couple of years later, I was working on a book on Southern fiction, and I decided it might be nice to have an interview with Eudora Welty in it. I hadn’t the foggiest notion how to go about contacting her, but someone mentioned that she was making a brief appearance at a Southern Literary Festival event in Jackson, so I thought I’d simply head her off at the pass, so to speak, play my trump card.

Well, I scoped everything out and assumed a strategic position outside the building where she was speaking and near the car she had arrived in. My wife and I, married only a couple of weeks, waited. After an hour or so Miss Welty came out through double doors, escorted by her driver and followed by a throng of groupies, whom she paid no attention to. When the driver had assisted her into the back seat, I pushed past him, leaned down, thrust out my hand, and said, “Hello, Miss Welty. I’m Paul Ruffin. You told me one time that I looked like a Florentine painting, and–”

That breathless rush was all I managed before she raised her cold blue eyes to me, said simply, “And so you do,” and slammed the door in my face.

I stood shoulder to shoulder with my new wife and watched as the driver got in and they drove slowly away. “Short interview,” she said.

You will agree, I think, that most things said to you may be interpreted positively or negatively, depending on how hard you work at it, and I worked at it hard over the next few weeks, concluding finally that Miss Welty was simply reinforcing her earlier opinion of me rather than brushing me off. She just had a schedule to keep. I felt good about our relationship again. For many years I felt good about it, and I told my Florentine painting story often.

Scene set: It was twenty years after that day in Jackson, and I was on the phone with Beverly Jarrett, Director of the University of Missouri Press, talking with her about a new book that George Garrett and I had put together, an anthology of contemporary Southern short fiction called That’s What I Like About the South. Beverly was interested in publishing the book.

“This is a good line-up of writers,” she said, “but shouldn’t you have a few more recognizable names to go along with Bobbie Ann Mason, Bill Harrison, and Mary Lee Settle?”

“What about Eurdora Welty?” I asked. “I might be able to get a story from her.”

“Wonderful, but how will you ever do that? She’s virtually inaccessible.”

Then I told her my story. There was a pause on the line, then a chuckle, then Beverly’s voice: “She told me one time I looked like an Easter chick.”

“She told you–an Easter chick?”

“Yeah, I think it was the yellow coat I was wearing.”

I was troubled by this news. There were now two of us in the club.

Scene set: a few years later, reading tour, the University of Kansas campus. I was sitting in a little foyer after lunch talking with Chester Sullivan, author of Alligator Gar and Answered Prayers, among other books. We were talking about Mississippi writers.

“Is Miz Eudora still writing?” he asked.

“Don’t know.”

“She’s gotta be in her eighties, I’d figure,” Chester said. “The last time I saw her . . . .”

His voice trailed off. I was barely listening anyway. I was priming, watching for an entrance for my Eudora Welty story.

He laughed. “You know, once she told me I looked like a summer sunrise.”

The Florentine painting faded to black.

I don’t know how many writers and editors there are out there who have had Eudora Welty say nice things to them, but it is not an exclusive club. She is a kind lady and loves similes
–there are, I believe, sixteen on the first page of her novel Losing Battles–and we cannot fault her kind habit.

One time I asked D. C. Berry, poet-in-residence at the University of Southern Mississippi, whether he had been around her much. “A few times,” he said.

When I asked whether she’d ever said anything nice to him, he shrugged and said, “Naw. She’s never said anything nice to me.” So there’s at least one writer not in the club.

I have stopped talking to people about Eurdora Welty. I seldom tell my story even to students now, for fear that one of them will come by after class and say, “You know, I met her once, at a conference over in Louisiana, and she told me that I looked like an Easter sunrise in Florence.” I just don’t think I could take it.


by pauldruffin


Several Christmases ago I received a flipbook entitled Thy Father Is a Corbellied Codpiece, by Barry Kraft. The book has three spiral-mounted panels with adjectives on the top and middle panels and nouns on the bottom one, all arranged alphabetically. You just flip through until you find an adjective on the top panel that pleases you, then choose a middle panel adjective that seems to go well with it, then select a noun to cap it off.

For example, we find “beslubbering,” which means “to smear or plaster over”; the word is too close to “slobbering,” though, not to be taken offensively. Link it to “bat-fowling” and “bladder” and you have a classic insult: “You beslubbering, bat-fowling bladder!” My, what a nice ring, whether it makes any sense or not.

Alliteration helps in the combination, you see–this is where the alphabetizing comes in handy. “You churlish, clay-brained clotpole” literally sings. Or “You frothy, fat-kidneyed fustilarian!” Fustilarian, the best I can determine, comes from the word fusty, which means “smelling of mildew or decay,” or simply old-fashioned; either way, one labeled a fustilarian should not swell with pride at the pronouncement. Another: “You dankish dizzy-eyed death-token.” Perhaps “mewly, milk-livered maggot-pie” would please thee more, or “puking, pox-marked pignut.” Try “surly, swag-bellied scut.” (A scut, by the way, is a small critter with a “stubby, erect tail, as of a hare, rabbit, or deer,” so the sound is worse than the meaning–I think.)

Alliteration, while a nice touch, is not essential in this process. Swift and resolute results may be had from “You goatish, onion-eyed barnacle!” Or stop the next guy you see on the street and try this one on him: “Thou yeasty, beef-witted gudgeon! Out of my way!” While you are recovering at the hospital, you might try to figure out which word triggered the beating. Hint: It probably wouldn’t be gudgeon, since few people are likely to know that that is a freshwater fish found in Europe and Asia or a person easily fooled. Beef-witted, on the other hand . . . well, you can bet the old boy knows where beef comes from.

Let’s work up a practical scenario here, one in which you remain safe in your car: You’re out at the high school waiting in line to pick up your daughter–one of the best places in the world for this sort of thing to happen–and some mammal from among the mannerless born cuts in in front of you and blocks both lanes so that when you are ready to go, he’s not, and his kid is apparently staying for night classes, maybe summer school.

You lean out the window and ask pleasantly, “Sir, may I pass?”

“I’m waitin’ on my kid,” he yells back.

“But I need to get by.”

“People in hell want ice tea.”

He’s started it, so you lean farther out and unleash: “You roguish, rump-fed lout, how about moving over and letting me by?”
“Whud you say, fool?”

“I said, you fobbing, urchin-snouted canker-blossom, would you mind letting me by?”

“So’s your old man,” he comes back.

“Listen, you mammering fen-sucked flap-dragon, I have another kid to pick up, at another school.”

“Well, tell you what, __________ [just fill in the blank here–could start with an A, a B, a C, whatever], you might as well cut yer motor off and take a nap, ’cause I ain’t movin’ till Geraldine gets out here to the truck.”

“Oh, yeah, you bootless, beetle-headed whey-face?”

“Yeah, you son of a ___________ [this one’s a little easier to fill in], whon’t you try movin’ me?”

“I might could,” you say, not loud enough for him to hear it, but he’ll hear it anyway, which is why you have to put a pore-Southerner spin on it.

“Oh yeah? You and whose army?”

See what I mean? Whatever, you have absolute verbal supremacy here. As long as this torporific trailer-bound terrapin–this one is not from Shakespeare–does not reach down and pick up a pistol or shotgun or tire iron, he is simply no match for you. He lapses into the vapid prattle he’s heard all his life while you rise to majestic heights with your three-paneled combinations from Shakespeare.

You’ll have plenty of time to review them while you wait for Geraldine to show and your stomach fills slowly with acid.

Well, I trust that this sampling will help better arm you for the perilous world just beyond these walls: May you walk softly but carry with you the wit and wisdom to recognize and readily assail every bucket of cold clabber who crosses you.


by pauldruffin


Continuing with put-downs:

Gerald Ford on Ronald Reagan: “Ronald Reagan does not dye his hair–he’s just prematurely orange.”

Robin Williams on Nancy Reagan: “I still think Nancy does most of his talking; you’ll notice that she never drinks water when Ronnie speaks.”

H. L. Menchken on FDR: “If he became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he so sorely needs, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House backyard come Wednesday.”

Patricia O’Toole on Theodore Roosevelt: “He was an old maid with testosterone poisoning.”

Benjamin Disraeli on John Russell, British MP and prime minister: “If a traveler were informed that such a man was leader of the House of Commons, he might well begin to comprehend how the Egyptions could worship an insect.”

Cyril Connolly on Vita Sackville-West: “She looked like Lady Chatterley above the waist and the gamekeeper below.”

David Lloyd George on Sir Herbert Samuel, British politician: “When they circumcised him, they threw away the wrong part.”

Israel Zangwill on George Bernard Shaw: “The way Bernard Shaw believes in himself is very refreshing in these atheistic days when so many people believe in no God at all.”

J. B. Priestley on George Bernard Shaw: “I remember coming across him at the Grand Canyon and finding him peevish, refusing to admire it or even look at it properly. He was jealous.”

Lillian Hellman on Norma Shearer: “Hers was a face unclouded by thought.”

Samuel Johnson on Thomas Sheridan, the actor: “Why, sir, Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such excess of stupidity, sir, is not in nature.”

Thomas Babington Macaulay on Socrates: “The more I read him, the less I wonder that they poisoned him.”

(This reminds one of what Mark Twain said of Michelangelo: “When you first hear about him dying young, you regret it, but by and by you regret only that you didn’t get to see it happen.”)
Clifton Fadiman on Gertrude Stein: “Miss Stein was a past master in making nothing happen very slowly.”

W. S. Gilbert on Herbert Beerbohm Tree (British actor and manager known for his Shakespearean productions: “Do you know how they’re going to decide the Shakespeare-Bacon dispute? They are going to dig up Shakespeare and dig up Bacon; they are going to set their coffins side by side, and they are going to get Tree to recite Hamlet to them. And the one who turns in his coffin will be the author of the play.”

Herbert Beerbohm Tree on Israel Zangwill, the British writer: “He is such an old bore; even the grave yawns for him.”

Next week I’m going to discuss with you a book on formulating your own inimitable insults for use against those who deserve them.


by pauldruffin


Continuing from last week, here are some wonderful put-downs for you. First of all, some memorable Churchill utterances:

Winston Churchill on Sir Stafford Cripps, the British statesman: “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

Winston Churchill on Sir Anthony Eden: “He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.”

Winston Churchill on Charles de Gaulle: “He is like a female llama surprised in her bath.”

Winston Churchill on British Prime Minister William Gladstone: “They told me he read Homer for fun, which I thought served him right.”

Winston Churchill on Field Marshall Montgomery: “In defeat unbeatable, in victory unbearable.”

Churchill’s response upon being told how modest some fellow was: “Well, he has much to be modest about.”

Here are some more current ones (but way old):

John Sununu on Congress: “It’s like a baby–a huge appetite on one end and no sense of responsibility on the other.”

House Speaker Tom Foley on Sununu: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.”

Lady Di on Prince Charles: “He’s in love with himself, but he is not sure that it’s reciprocal.”

Charles on Di: “She believes instant gratification takes too long.”

Boris Yeltsin on the assessment that Gorbachev was his own worst enemy: “Not while I’m alive he isn’t.”

Some older ones:

Fred Allen on Jack Benny: “When Jack Benny plays the violin, it sounds as if the strings are still back in the cat.”

Gore Vidal on William F. Buckley: “Looks and sounds like Hitler, without the charm.”

Samuel Butler on Thomas Carlyle: “It was good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another and so make only two people miserable instead of four.”

Frederick Edwin Smith on Winston Churchill: “Winston has devoted the best years of his life to preparing his impromptu speeches.”

Faulkner on Hemingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might send the reader to a dictionary.”

Dorothy Parker on Katherine Hepburn: “She ran the whole gamut of the emotions from A to B.”

King George V on Sir Samuel Hoare, British Foreign Secretary: “No more coals to Newcastle, no more Hoares to Paris.”

Noel Coward on Bonnie Langford, the child actor, when a horse defecated onstage: “If they’d stuffed the child’s head up the horse’s a__, they’d have solved two problems at once.”

Rev. Ralph Abernathy on Nixon: “He told us he was going to take crime out of the streets. He did. He took it into the damn White House.”

John Gavin on Nixon: “If he had an affair while in office, I misjudged him. I thought he was just doing that to the rest of the country.”

Cyril Connolly on George Orwell: “He would not blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry.”

Joan Rivers on Marie Osmond: “She’s so pure Moses couldn’t part her knees.”

Running out of space. More next time . . . .


by pauldruffin


Continuing from last week . . . .

Now, what I’d like to do here is not to attempt to examine or analyze for you the anatomy of wit, sort of like the way we analyze a poem, to see what makes it work. All too often we just confuse with this sort of thing; humor cannot be explained scientifically, any more than poetry or fiction or love can, much as we in academe try to do it. Instead of analyzing the comeback and putdown, I thought I’d give you some good examples of them; you know, like reading a few poems and enjoying them instead of hacking them to death through dissection, as our critics are apt to do.

I will be pulling from several sources, but my primary one will be a book that a friend of mine from New York, Louis Phillips, co-edited with Michael Cole, called Oh, What an Awful Thing To Say! Now, I’ll be using lots of names here, many that you probably have never heard of, simply because a great many of them will be Brits, who, as I demonstrated in my opening anecdote, are infinitely better at putdowns and comebacks than Americans are. They’ve been around longer. The American’s notion of good repartee is “So’s your old man.” Or “Says who, ___hole?” Maybe “Oh yeah, you and whose army?” Perhaps “Maybe you’d like a nukkel [the way he would spell it] sammitch.”

That’s not to say that a line like, “You’re so ugly you’d make a freight train take a gravel road” isn’t pretty memorable–I heard that once at a softball tournament from a Choctaw Indian from Philadelphia (Mississippi) who was talking about his wife, who, fortunately for him and the rest of us, wasn’t there. Another one of his: “She was so ugly we could put a porkchop necklace on her and the dogs wouldn’t go near her.”

Then there’s the less savory, perhaps, but equally memorable utterance that my friend Sam Pickering, the real-life teacher that Dead Poets’ Society is based on: Sam, at age five, once told his father, “You think you’re hot snot, but you’re nothing but cold boogers.” Hey, that’s not far from as good as the little Brit’s yell-down.

Now, I’ll divide my samples into the comeback or repartee–which, though it purports to be spontaneous, may in fact have been practiced into perfection, its user waiting perhaps twenty long years, like Faulkner’s mule, for an opportunity to thrust it into some poor soul and twist–and the putdown, which may be days or weeks, perhaps months or years in the making. You will want to take notes, because some of these are classics that you might like to use in the future.

Come-backs worth remembering

Winston Churchill was, of course, one of the best ever at repartee:
Lady Astor: Winston, if I were married to you, I’d put poison in your coffee.
WC: Nancy, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.
Betsy Braddock: Winston, you’re drunk!
WC: Betsy, you’re ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober.

Clare Boothe Luce (playwright, politician, and celebrity) and Dorothy Parker at the door of a nightclub:
Luce, bowing and yielding to Parker: Age before beauty.
Parker, stepping forward: And pearls before swine.

Jean Harlow, approaching Margot, Lady Asquith, at a Hollywood party:
Harlow: Why, you are Margot Asquith, aren’t you?
Lady Asquith: No, my dear. I am Margo Asquith. The “t” is silent, as in Harlow.

Earl of Sandwich to John Wilkes (18th century politician)
Sandwich: Sir, you will die either of the pox or on the gallows.
Wilkes: That depends on whether I embrace your mistress or your principles.

[Next week I’ll give you some put-downs worth putting down.]


by pauldruffin


Back in the summer of 1969, while I was taking post-graduate courses at the University of Southampton in Southern England, one of my fellow students had lost an earring on the lawn at the university–this was in the days when only girls wore them–and a number of us Americans were down on hands and knees in the failing light looking for it, sort of like the comedy scenes you’ve seen in movies where people are scrambling around to find a lost contact on a restaurant floor, all you-know-whats and elbows. While we were in this undignified position, some five of us, a small voice came drifting down from an open window, “Would anyone like me to fetch a torch?”

It was the five-year-old son one of the university administrators leaning far out a window over us. He was an intolerable snoop, with great Dumbo ears, always prying into our affairs, rummaging through our rooms when we were away, listening in on our conversations.

Some fellow in our group, irritated enough with our needle-in-the-haystack search, glanced up at him and rose to his knees and yelled, “You mean a flashlight, you little Limey snot.”

As the silent, darkening evening gathered about us, after a long pause the small voice came back, “You may call it what you will, but it is still a torch, you bucket of cold clabber.”

There was no retort for this poor lad from Virginia, no comeback. He was slain as surely as if the boy had hurled down a two-pound stone and caught him between the eyes.

The child had probably heard little Limey snot before, or something equally trite, but not one of us had been called a bucket of cold clabber, and especially not by a five-year-old, and it left us mutely humble or humbly mute. Doubtless the others returned to their rooms as I did and tried to figure out precisely what it was about the phrase that cut so like a knife. Was it the alliteration? the consonance? the fact that the clabber was cold? the questionable market value of clabber at the time? That a five-year-old had said it? That a five-year-old irrepressible Brit had said it? All these? Probably.

Had the boy heard the come-back before? Perhaps so. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that it was the first time we had heard it. And it was gooood.

The put-down and the come-back are the weapons of the civilized man–they allow him to batter and brutalize without using knives and guns, and often they are far more effective weapons. You can use them again and again without wearing them out and without fear of incarceration and receive them time and again without fear of infection or fatal loss of blood. That five-year-old could have flung a brick down on the Virginian, perhaps striking him, but he probably would have dodged it and gotten the boy into a peck of trouble for doing it. There was no dodging that “bucket of cold clabber,” and to have told on him for saying it would probably have elicited nothing but adulation from his father, who didn’t care much for us impetuous Americans. In the past week we had suffered a slight loss to the English in rugby and simply destroyed them playing American football, so they were smarting. Rugby’s only a shade rougher than sandlot football, which we could manage, and it requires little thinking and planning, mostly stamina and brute force; American football is infinitely more sophisticated–a few intricate plays and you can tie into little knots a bunch of Brits, who can’t pass and catch anyway.

Leaping across the Atlantic and forward in time a bit and backwards in social setting and certainly in genetics, let me recall a comeback I heard about three years ago just outside Pascagoula, Mississippi. I was riding out to the police rifle range with a my father-in-law and a friend and his brother and a couple of his brother’s ne’er-do-well friends who had been laid off at the local shipyard–I’ll call them Larry and Daryl, because I don’t remember the names of the rednecks from Deliverance; the other Daryl was probably back home boning up on neurosurgery.

Larry had just been boasting about being a volunteer firefighter for the Vancleave Fire Department, and he was going on and on about the dangers he’d faced. Daryl laughed and said there wasn’t much danger in cleaning up the hoses after a fire, which, he said, was Larry’s job. Larry glared him off, though, told him what he knew about fires would fit in a thimble, and continued to talk about the temperatures of a fire and how sometimes their plastic helmets would actually sag in the heat, what temperature brick melts at, that sort of thing. Then, suddenly, he pointed out into a field we were passing.

“There’s one of our houses, one I helped on.”

We looked out across the winter field at a chimney standing stark against the distant trees with pieces of rusty tin lying flat at its base.

“What house?” I asked.

“That one!” He pointed. “The one that went with that chimbley. Take’n two pumper trucks.”

We watched the chimney slide out of sight.

“That was one of our houses,” he said again, proudly.

Daryl cleared his throat and said philosophically, “Yep, they ain’t lost a chimbley in eight years.”

Larry said nothing more that day about being a firefighter. His heroism had been doused, the ashes soaked.

[Next week I’m going to discuss this issue of using language as a weapon.]


by pauldruffin


A new story I’m working on has to do with an aging man who upon retirement sets out on a pilgrimage to find a certain woman who helped shape his world when he was a terribly naive lad growing up in Mississippi. He just wants to find out what has happened to her and to thank her for her influence on him. The woman he’s looking for was a model for lingerie in the Sears catalog during the mid-fifties.

In an earlier story, called “In Search of the Tight-Rope Walker,” I have this old fellow go off on a months-long quest to find a girl he watched perform at a Mississippi county fair when he was a boy, she having ignited in him a passion that stuck with him for years. The essay I wrote about the girl—an actual person who did have a profound impact on me at the time–appeared in Southern Living many years ago.

But for one swift and blinding view of a naked woman in a foreign magazine I found in a caboose one day in Millport, Alabama (an event described in a piece titled “Trains”), what I knew of the shape of women I derived principally from one source: that lingerie section of the Sears catalog, a tome which in those days no household would have been without, even if they had indoor plumbing. (This was long before Playboy made the trip to Mississippi. I would have sold my soul for a Playboy.) Oh, the pleasure of studying those pages and pages of women wearing nothing but panties and bras and corsets. So lovely, and so fe-male, they were there for me to stare at anytime I wanted. Slide the big thick book out, let it fall naturally open to that section, spine-sprung as it was within two weeks of its arrival, and they were mine.

Now these women, mind you, wore not the flimsy sorts of undergarments you see in Victoria’s Secret: They were formidable devices designed to contain and conceal and restrain and reshape, perhaps repel a man’s hand. A study of my mother’s underwear revealed much wire and heavy cloth and elastic strong enough to harness a mule. But in my mind’s eye the garments in the catalog grew gossamer and ethereal and fell away readily from those lovely women of Sears to reveal, to reveal . . . hell, I didn’t know, couldn’t imagine. (I knew more about the economics of Portugal.) What I saw in the magazine in that caboose that day was unsteady in my mind: I was so awe-struck that not much of it lingered in my ready memory. It was like looking at the sun: When you try to recall what it looks like, you can’t, even when the image is still dancing deep in your head. It is simply too much light.

The big catalog came twice a year, if I remember correctly, courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service, and I never got my hands on it until Mother had thumbed through it, dreaming about all the stuff that could be had there, if only she had the money, and Daddy would have his go at it to look at tools and guns. In those days you could buy surplus firearms for ten bucks or so and new rifles and shotguns and tools for less than they cost up town. Finally, though, my time came and I would take the catalog off somewhere private and find the women.

The Spring and Summer edition had them in bathing suits as well, and sometimes the same model would show up wearing panties and bra in one section and a bathing suit in another. There was one brunette whom I fell particularly hard for. She had long, willowy hair and was flawless of face and limb, and her eyes just seemed to bore right into mine, like we really knew each other. I would spend hours staring at her, wondering what she was like, what it would be like to touch her, wondering what she looked like with nothing on.

Once a catalog was replaced by a new one, the old one migrated to the outhouse, where sheets were randomly torn from it. The first thing I did was tear out the lingerie section, layer the pages in wax paper, and hide them in my grandfather’s barn next-door, deep in bales of hay, which I formed tunnels in to my own secret places. Along the back wall I always left an opening that I could squirrel through to the light, so that I could see the women of Sears.

Some kid taught me a trick at school: You could take a pencil eraser and delicately remove the ink from a picture in a newspaper, comic book, or catalog and take the clothes off Blondie or Veronica or a Sears model, but you had to be really careful not to tear or wrinkle the paper. So it was that I would erase the underwear from my brunette (who appeared several years in a row) and try to draw in what I imagined was there. But it was futile. I couldn’t imagine something I’d never seen. You have to have frames of reference, you know. So I just guessed. Obviously here I cannot tell you what I drew. Let me say simply that they were not da Vinci-league renderings, in either technique or anatomical correctness. But they served.

In time I would replace my frayed pages with newer ones and bury the old ones in the woods. (I buried hundreds of Sears models along the Luxapalila River.) I simply could not burn them. When in church or at a tent revival I got saved, as I did quite frequently, I would always have to dig my women out of the hay and burn them and my comic books in the trash barrel, which seemed to be a more fitting way to dispose of sin, but as soon as the salvation wore off, usually within two days unless it really took and hung on for a couple of weeks, I would be clawing through the ashes in the barrel to see what I could salvage.

There was always that long wait for a new catalog to come in, and the even longer wait for Mother and Daddy to finish with it, so I usually slipped into my grandmother’s house and just stole hers. I can still recall hearing her yell when her catalog disappeared. It was a terrible loss for any country woman to suffer, and she would tear the house up trying to find it. The worst part was that once I took one and tore out the lingerie section, I would have to throw the rest of the catalog in the river. I couldn’t, after all, return it to her house with those particular pages missing: Somebody would have been in trouble, and you can imagine how long that blame would circle before it landed square on my head.

Eventually my childhood ran out on me, as they are apt to do, and I made empirical discoveries that explained the many mysteries of the human female body. One day I abandoned my beautiful women in the hay of that barn and never went back for them. I’m certain that my grandfather found them, long after I left them to languish in the dark and fragrant hay, and I am equally certain that he knew how they got there.

So here’s a tip of the hat to the lovely ladies of Sears, wherever you might be now: Thank you for my first notions of women’s bodies. Thank you for sharing your beauty and those glorious shapes with me. And to that one brunette in particular: I do hope life has been good for you, that you still have your grace and beauty and those marvelous eyes I so often lost myself in. You will always be young and lovely in this boy’s mind.


by pauldruffin


If you recall, last week I told y’all about the photograph one of our Mars rovers snapped up there (or over there, wherever) while a couple of them were prowling around for soil and rock samples to bring back: I mean the shot of what appears to be an ark.

Professor Ernest Breakley, an astronomer, noted that an “on board alpha proton X-ray spectrometer” analyzed it and “determined conclusively that it is made of wood.” He did not go into detail about the particular kind of wood, but I just figure it was made out of Marpher Wood, the Martian equivalent of gopher wood (or bois d’arc, if you want to get technical). It doesn’t really matter, I suppose, the wonder being that an ark made out of any kind of wood should be on Mars.

Well, speculation (educated and otherwise) holds that the planet was ravaged by a tremendous flood (and do recall that there is evidence that once there was water on the surface of Mars) at some point, and Noah and his family built to ark to keep at least his family alive. Since the measurements of the Marzark, as I prefer to call it, are roughly the same that those of the one in the Good Book, we must theorize that he also rounded up a whole lot more than family or took onboard some Marzanimals.

After the waters receded and Noah judged the place unsuited to his future plans, it is surmised (again, by some degreed authorities) that he designed and built a space ship of some sort that could transport him and at least part of his brood to Earth. I cannot imagine that he had to turn away anyone attempting to board. I mean, it’s one thing to clamber on an ark, with water lapping at your heels, quite another to slip into a little ol’ spaceship, whatever it was made of and looked like. I know from experience that bois d’arc is tough, but I don’t think that it could stand up to the trip. Our authorities have carefully skirted the issue of propulsion and availability of oxygen and all. But these were probably minor issues for ol’ Noah, wise as he was.

However it happened, Noah brought at least part of his family to Earth, and they started over.

Skipping on a bit, we all know that eventually Noah and the thunder squared off again, and he knuckled and built another ark to save his family and a pair of every kind of animal on earth. (It is doubted that he had room on the spaceship to bring in Marzanimals with him, so these would have been regular animals, the kind you might see roaming around or in zoos.

There seems to be little contention over the size of—and materials used to construct—the new ark. It was gopher wood all the way.

In my new book of stories, “The Day the Waters Rose” and Stories of the Gulf Coast (due out from the University of South Carolina Press late this year), I allow the Noah story to be told through the eyes of one of the rednecks who conspire to take over the ark. Yes, there were rednecks there and then. There have always been (and always will be) rednecks. Count on it.

At one point, my narrator is crouched in the bushes watching and listening to Noah just after he’s busted his thumb with a hammer.

“Then he [Noah] turned his face up to the sky and yelled out, ‘Why have I got to use gopher wood, Lord? Why the hell–how come I can’t use something softer, something that you can drive a damn–something you can drive a nail thoo without busting your hammer and thumb and without using a thousand strokes to finish the job? It’s enough to make the most devout man cuss!’

“Didn’t nobody laugh. I guess when a 600-year-old man that has the inside scoop from God about a coming disaster loses his cool, you just take it in stride. But he wasn’t finished.

“‘And why in the hell–why have we got to measure all this stuff out in cubits, which ain’t the way our rulers are calibrated? That stuff went out over 200 years ago. Cubit, my butt. They teachin’ different stuff in the schools these days, but nawwwwww–You gotta make me use cubits on this d-d-d . . . on this boat.

“‘Why me, Lord, what have I ever done? I ain’t responsible for the heatherns on this Earth, and I don’t think it’s fair for You to lay all this on me. I got eighteen boys working for me, and all of’m together ain’t got sense enough to pour pee out of a wine jug, with the directions wrote on the bottom, or build a sheep shed or donkey cart, much less build a boat big enough for all them animals.

“‘And how, by the way, am I gon’ be able to round all of’m up, them animals? Some live thousands of miles from here, and I am 600 years old and can’t walk that far, much less herd a bunch of animals–even a turtle can outrun me. Ain’t got enough family to do it neither.

“‘And how am I gon’ pair’m up? Donkeys and goats and camels I got no trouble with, but how about snakes and armadillos and ants and stuff like that? How I’mon sex’m, Lord? If there ain’t no equipment down there, how I’mon know? Muskeeters? Lizards? Turtles? Ants? I just don’t know enough about their equipment to know how to pair’m up. I might screw up and ruin their chances down the line, Lord. It’s a heavy burden.

“‘And, Lord, ain’t nobody outside the family takin’ me serious.’”

But then ol’ Noah turned around and went back to work on the ark. If you want to know the rest of this story, you’ll have to read the version in my book.

By the way, the next time you are annoyed by ants or mosquitoes or roaches or armadillos or lovebugs, just remember that there’s only one person to blame, and it’s not God. It’s Noah. A few stomps of his foot or smacks of his hands . . . . He should have drawn the line somewhere, but he didn’t. He should have, but he didn’t.

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