Paul Ruffin's Blog

LANGUAGE AS A WEAPON, PART 5

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: LANGUAGE AS A WEAPON, PART 5

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.


LANGUAGE AS A WEAPON, PART 4

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: LANGUAGE AS A WEAPON, PART 4

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.


LANGUAGE AS A WEAPON, PART 3

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: LANGUAGE AS A WEAPON, PART 3

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 . . . .


LANGUAGE AS A WEAPON, PART 2

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: LANGUAGE AS A WEAPON, PART 2

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.]


LANGUAGE AS A WEAPON, PART 1

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: LANGUAGE AS A WEAPON, PART 1

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.]


SO HERE’S TO THE WOMEN OF SEARS

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: SO HERE’S TO THE WOMEN OF SEARS . . . .

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.


HERE’S TO NOAH, BLESS HIS ARK, PART II

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: HERE’S TO NOAH, BLESS HIS ARK, PART II

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.


HERE’S TO NOAH, BLESS HIS ARK, PART I

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: HERE’S TO NOAH, BLESS HIS ARK, PART I

It is sometimes hard to recall that all of us wouldn’t be here today if some enterprising character from the Old Testament had not been willing to listen to his aching bones and build a huge boat to stash our predecessors on and deliver them from a world of serious water. There are those who question the verity of the story of the Great Flood, but I grew up in a flood plain in Mississippi, so the story was always a little easier for me to accept.

When your father lugs you away from the house on his shoulders, the water swirling about his waist and your feet, and that water is the color of something that hogs might wallow in, it is not an image or sensation easy to forget. Every way you look is water, water, water, and all you want is for your feet to touch dry dirt again.

My folks, luckily, did not turn to the Bible for direction, preferring instead merely to camp on higher ground until the waters receded, as in a couple of days they did, leaving the house a truly muddy mess that Mother must have spent months restoring to the useful and the good. I am fairly certain that my father had neither the materials nor resolve to build an ark, however convinced he might have been that the time might be right.

It appears that every time a planet gets a healthy flood going, somebody gets called on to build an ark and save two of every kind of creature that can generate more of its kind if he doesn’t mess up and pair wrong—not necessarily a damper on the entertainment those long boring months while the boat’s adrift but hell on chances for descendants.

It seems that in all this press about Rover on Mars many year back, somebody decided to hide away the one photograph that would have generated more excitement than a colony of nekkid little green people running around up there: a shot of an ark cocked up at an angle the way it would have come to rest when the waters receded, as apparently they did, given the dry nature of what ol’ Rover found while sniffing away for bones.

Well, I have seen it—at least a photograph of it taken by the camera mounted on Pathfinder. It looks like some artist might have done a little touching up, but the boat’s there, sure as sin in Congress.

According to Professor Ernest Breakley, described by my source as a leading astronomer (leading in what, we are not told), when Pathfinder rotated its camera to follow Rover, it picked up the ark in the background.

“When I first saw that picture, I thought it must somehow be a rock that happened to be shaped very much like a ship,” he is quoted as saying. The “on board alpha proton X-ray spectrometer” analyzed it, though, and “determined conclusively that it is made of wood.” There’s your scientific proof, but anyone looking at the picture should know this anyway—the individual planking is distinguishable, and the gabled roof of the animal husbandry building is quite clear. It does appear to have Tennessee v-groove tin on top, but I suspect that this is an illusion.

Further, Professor Breakley says, “the dimensions of the ark appear to be precisely those described in the Old Testament: 450 feet (’300 cubits’) long, 75 feet (’50 cubits’) wide and 45 feet (’30 cubits’) high.” Among other things, this should quiet those out there who insist that metrics should be our standard of measurement for the solar system. We’ve got precedent here.

Professor Breakley goes on to theorize that Noah, “traditionally believed to be the remote ancestor of all humans now living,” was perhaps a Martian. “And after the Great Flood destroyed most of his world, then he or his descendants developed a means of escaping their increasingly desolate planet: A spaceship.” I’d stick with Noah myself. We know what a mess his descendants are capable of.

One thing’s sure: Ol’ Noah must have been a troubled man most of his life. Do you reckon thunder made him jump?

“Why me, Lord, what have I ever done?” he must have asked himself many a time sawing planks out of bois d’arc (whose hard yellow wood will melt down a new Poulan chain in half an hour), knowing he had to put nails through that stuff, and cursing his luck that he had to go by cubits. Where were the metric people when he needed them?

And no sooner did he get that first ark back on solid ground than he had to turn around and build a spaceship that would bring his folks here. It’s quite amazing to imagine such resources in that age, but you can never underestimate a man with hammer and saw and a vision, divinely appointed or not.

[Next week we get back to Noah and his long, long trip.]


Ah, Those Dear Deer Ears

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: AH, THOSE DEAR DEER EARS

[Barbara Tyson, recently deceased, was for many years a colleague of mine in the English Department at SHSU and for several of those years an office mate. During our time together, she shared with me many funny, strange, and sometimes outrageous stories, mostly true, that later went on to be incorporated into my poetry and prose. She always insisted that she intended to do nothing with them, that I might as well put them to use. And that I did. The following piece, which I ran only a few years ago, was one of the last stories she told me. Here it is in her own words.]

After my father died, I vowed to protect his beloved objects, such as the Chinese chair, his parents’ love letters, and the last of his mounted deer-head trophies. My niece had made off with the best deer head, but I kept the one that had a lowered rack, with beautiful eyes “peering out of the brush.”

However, one day I noticed that the ears were not only fraying–they were splitting and falling apart. So I took the head to a Houston taxidermist to see about a repair. I was hoping for new ears, or rather, new hide on old ear forms, but this idea, like new wine in old bottles, was folly. My wrangle with the shop guy was one dismal scene:

“You mean you’ll have to replace ALL the hide? Over the entire head?”

“Yes ma’am, but we don’t use the old head form either. We start with a new poly resin form, and use all fresh hide.”

“Are you telling me that all that’s left of the original trophy head is the antlers and the eyes? And that’s to cost me two hundred dollars?!”

“Yes ma’am, but we don’t use the old eyes either. We have a form just like this one of yours. But it cost that much cause it’s all new but the rack.”

So I brought my dear old scruffy relic back to Huntsville and thought about things. My next plan was far fetched, but it seemed fun and doable, especially to Miss Can Fix Anything. I would get my own deer ears (fresh ones), prepare the hide myself, and somehow patch the remodeled ears back on that dusty head. I knew that many of my East Texas students were country boys who would go deer hunting in the fall, and I would simply ask them to bring me some fresh ears.

Winter came. I gathered my facts and chemicals for preserving hide, and one day a student came to my office saying he would have to miss a major test he was going deer hunting. Perfect! I told him fine, I would give him a late test if he would bring me a pair of ears.

This seemed like a fine trade to him, and sure-nuff, a week later in he came with a small freezer box, the fresh mole gray ears safely iced in baggies. This project was looking ready for lift off! But as the poet might say, dawn hadn’t yet come down to day.

I left campus at noon to go have lunch, and one hour later I found myself sick and miserable with the flu. I drove home, called the office, and took to bed, where I toiled and moiled and sought oblivion long past nightfall. Then, around midnight, I surged up from some Hieronymous Bosch sleepworld and remembered the box of deer ears! Ice now melted. Janitor checking tomorrow. Strange odors! My severed ears now looking like . . . body parts! Dismemberment! Anyone looking in that box of tepid water and soggy plastic would see hair and flesh and . . . ANIMAL EARS! They would KNOW that I was into some CULT practices, for sure!

I came out of that bed like one who’d been buried alive, threw on my raincoat, drove to my office, and grabbed that ice chest, and raced home to put those suckers in my garage refrigerator. Then I sank back into the flu.

If a night watchman had stopped me, I realized later, the spectacle of my madwoman night caper would have doomed me forever. Rumpled, fevered, clad in nightgown and raincoat, clutching my box of ears, I was an Edward Gorey [American writer and illustrator of the bizarre] wretch escaped from God knows where. Headline in the Huntsville Item: “Sam Houston Female Professor Suspected Member of Mystery Cult!” But then, my students might have said, “What’d you expect? She was always teaching stuff like ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ with those creepy women crawling around the floor.”

I finally threw the deer ears in the garbage. The box of love letters are in my bank safety box. And my sister and I just sold the Chinese chair to an antique dealer for four thousand dollars. I think Daddy would have loved it!


ARMADILLO ANNIE AND SCOUT WATCH WHILE CHAMP CHOMPS

by pauldruffin

ARMADILLO ANNIE AND SCOUT WATCH WHILE CHAMP CHOMPS

If you recall, last week I told you about the team of Armadillo Annie (Barbara Tyson) and Scout, a pair of retired English professors who had finally suffered enough at the snouts and claws of armadillos that they decided to take arms against the sea of dillers and by opposing end them. Scout was to maintain strict vigil when Annie was not poised in her lawn chair, .410 at the ready, and call at any hour when there was an intrusion into the No-Root Zone, whereupon Annie would rise from book or bed, snatch up her little shotgun, and take said intruder out of the gene pool forever.

Recently the two of them were joined by a third diller hater and became a triumvirate of vigilantes dedicated to maintaining law and order on the property covered by the artillery umbrella of AA, though the third member came on board uninvited.

Champ his name is, according to Scout, who theorizes that he is “part German shepherd, maybe some husky, maybe some alaunt (for one ear is always up, the other down).” Not a lap dog, she’s saying. Whatever, he is a big dog who likes to bark so much that he sports a bark collar, and Scout was keeping him for her daughter when the event about to be described took place.

Now, the agreement between Scout and Armadillo Annie was that no matter the hour, if Scout spotted a diller, she was to rouse Annie and call out the proper coordinates, and Annie was to bring her artillery to bear on the target.

“I told her to sound the alarm any time she saw one of the little devils in my grass. I had the gun and shells propped by the patio door, ready for any sign or call,” Annie told me.

It was a simple and effective plan, and it worked to perfection for some time.

On this particular morning Annie was awakened at 7, “after a restless night,” with the word that a diller was at work behind a pile of pine straw in her back yard.

“So I staggered outside in my nightgown, loading a shell and trying to get my eyes to work. Sure ’nuff, there he was, digging holes, oblivious to the world. One blast was an easy hit, but he didn’t die on the spot. He was wiggling around like an earthworm on a fishhook.” Meanwhile Scout was standing at her kitchen door watching, having done her part of the job in exemplary fashion.

“We both were waiting for the creature to die,” Annie says, “when suddenly, the dog came bounding out from her house, the sound of the gunshot having stirred all his hunting instincts to the max. He dashed down to the bloody thrashing creature, grabbed it, and proudly took it to Scout. She was trying to shoo him off, so he just sidestepped her, and darted INTO HER HOUSE with his prize, headed for her carpeted den, laid it on the floor, and with one crunch broke its neck. Then he looked up with supreme pride and giddy joy. Scout was almost autistic, but she called me inside with a little ‘help, please!’ I told her to fetch a towel, and I retrieved the corpse in a wad, surprised that there was not much blood at all on her carpet.”

Scout adds a few more details to the episode: “Anyhow, the morning I got Annie out of bed to shoot the armadillo, Champ was in back (l00 feet down the hall) eating his breakfast. I was at the open kitchen door pointing at the critter. She hit it, but it was still bouncing around, when a whoosh of wind flew past me, missed most of the stairs down, jumped the ravine, and had the thing in his mouth before I knew what happened. I tried to control the dog but he whizzed up the stairs into the kitchen (door was still open) and I heard a crunch (now a dead armadillo) and blood was splattered all over. I tried to get the thing loose from Champ. No way.”

So she yelled for help. “At this point the dog moved his catch to the den rug, bleeding-side up, thank God. Annie told me to go get an old towel. So I went another 100 feet down the hall. When I got back, she had Champ locked into my bedroom, sans catch, had closed the door, then wrapped the critter in the towel and left. I had to clean up all the blood.”

Annie: “I bagged it for the garbage can, and was trying to collect my wits and savor the hilarity, when Scout called to say that she too was laughing and laughing. We both agreed that if it hadn’t been for the dog’s neck-break crunch, that pitiful dying thing would have flung blood all over her den! [This is a charitable attitude, since if it hadn’t been for the dog, the armadillo wouldn’t have been in the house to begin with.] She assured me that the dog would have been barking for days over this very armadillo, if she hadn’t had him in that bark collar. If he weren’t so large and a barker, I would be asking to adopt him!”

So it appears that Champ has earned a spot on the legendary diller killer team out there at Autumn Lake and might very well appear in the history books alongside the other two. Let us hope so.

For those of you who might find fault with these gentle ladies and the less-than-gentle dog for their role as armadillo nemeses, let me point out that the armadillo is not a legitimate animal anyway. It is a mere fluke of nature, both it and the possum, neither of which Noah would have allowed aboard the ark. The Bible mentions nothing about either one of them being allowed up the plank or begetting, once they were onboard.

It is true that both the possum and armadillo came off the ark, but they were the result of begetting by a couple of genuinely desperate and, thankfully, unnamed creatures during forty-seven weeks of boredom at sea (just guessing at the length of the voyage).


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