Thursday, March 18, 2010

Award Winning Writing

The following is a peice I wrote my senior year in college. I was taking a class on Southern Autobiography. Dr. Macmillan wanted to submit it for consideration for the President's Award in writing. I won for upper classmen. I was not a very good English Major. English in most American universities is more about politics and less about story. I was an English Major because I love stories. I was a solid B- student because I did not see the importance of Feminist, Socialist, or any of the other "ist" schools of literary criticism. One of my other professors announced to the class that I had won the President's Award. Most of my earnest young classmates looked like someone had just broken spectacular and offensive wind. Any way, here is what I wrote back in the fall of 1996. I hope you enjoy.

Uranus and a Royal Blue Falcon

When I was young one of the things that I liked to do most was watch the planets at night with Bill. Bill is my father. I call him Bill because that is his name. I guess I called him this because that's what everyone else called him. My mother told me that she tried to get me to call him dad or daddy or papa or some other ridiculous name that I heard other boys call their fathers but I couldn't hear my self saying "Hey dad! Can I borrow the car?" or "How's it goin' pop?" or anything else that sounds remotely similar to these things. It has always been just plain Bill.

One Christmas Santa brought us a telescope. I remember that Christmas morning because I had on my one piece, button up the back, Incredible Hulk p.j.'s on. They had the sleeper soles on the bottom of the feet that made a swishing noise when I walked around on the linoleum floors of my grandmother's house. I know I had these on when I got the telescope that Christmas morning because of the picture that I found not too long ago. I'm sitting in Bill's lap watching him as he was looking through the eyepiece. It was early in the morning because my hair was really messed up and Bill had no shirt on. He was a large, large man with a bushy red beard and red hair all over his head and shoulders and back.

I have always been fascinated with things not of this world. I could draw by second grade a somewhat detailed map of our solar system. On all of my notebooks and all of my scratch paper there were these crude drawings of the solar system. First the sun, which I could never get quite round. Then Mercury, which was really only a little dot next to the sun. Venus and Earth were next and always looked pretty much the same except for the fact that I always drew a little stick man that was supposed to be me on Earth. The moon was orbiting nearby and had little crater marks on it. Mars was next and just a little smaller than the earth with no detail whatsoever. Jupiter came next and was drawn a lot bigger than any of the rest of the planets but just a little smaller than the sun. Of course it had the Great Red Spot. Next came Saturn with its slightly diagonal rings and then Uranus (Pronounced "your anus": A word which I would come to appreciate later on in fifth grade for its endless possibilities) with its vertical ring. I really had no interest in Neptune, but it was out there so I drew it on my model. Last came little Pluto. I always tried to make it as small as possible but still visible to the naked eye. The universe was the only thing that made my young mind marvel and want to know more.

In my wonder I only had the knowledge of my father to guide me. The universe and all of the things that were in it fascinated him and he passed this fascination on to me. This was not and is not just a passing curiosity for Bill. The man really does know what he is talking about. He would tell me things about the origins of the planets that were way over my head, but I was not lost or bored. I had seen pictures of the planets but had never seen them. The telescope opened a window through which I could look at the universe with my own eyes. Not in pictures, which had no perspective of time, but in the living, live Technicolor that was my own vision. When I would look at Mars through our telescope, I was seeing it in that moment. Bill would guide my wonder and salt my imagination with tales of black holes and exploding stars and temper all of that with enough information so as not to confuse me. I came away from these nights spent looking at the stars knowing that my father was the smartest man on this planet.

We would put the telescope on top of a car so Bill would not have to bend over to look into the eye piece. I would get up on one of the stools from the kitchen and lean over and look down into the eye piece and lean against Bill so I would not bump the car and inadvertently knock the telescope billions of miles off target. We always used Bill's royal blue 1965 Ford Falcon. The Falcon was his work car and it looked the part. It had dents and dings all over the body and no floorboard to speak of in the back seat. When I would ride in the back seat I would peer over the edge into the floor board so I could see the road moving beneath the car.

The Falcon was white before Bill thought that it might be a good idea to paint it royal blue. Why royal blue? Because someone gave him about 20 gallons of royal blue paint. And there's no point in letting 20 gallons of royal blue paint go to waste. This might not have been so bad except that he was also quite drunk at the time and thought that it would be an even better idea if he painted the car with a paint brush. By the time that he was half finished with the car he was either beginning to see the futility of it all or he was beginning to sober up. My guess is that it was a combination of both. The car was blue for the most part except for the places that the white was showing not so faintly through the blue because a paint brush was not designed to paint an automobile.

Is there something that you wish you could have from your childhood to enjoy as an adult when you would really be able to appreciate it? One of the things that I would have back is that old Falcon. The car had 240 some odd thousand miles on it when it finally gave up its ghost. That car hauled a camper across the desert from Alabama to Utah and back when I was in fourth grade and during that whole trip we rarely got over 50 mph. Even coasting downhill. 50 mph was warp speed as far as that old bird was concerned. This was a very long trip and I would pretend that I was the tail gunner of some type of experimental government weapon that they allowed my father to use and paint blue with a paint brush one day while he was drunk. But the time that I remember most about the car was when it was about to turn over 200,000 miles.

Bill loaded mother and me up and drove for a few miles until it turned over to 00000 for the second time. The moment it turned over we got out and my father poured each of us a glass of very cheap champagne. I was eight years old and it was quite a treat to get to drink with the big people. He said a toast and poured the rest of the bubbly over the very old, very tired engine. The christening drowned out two spark plugs and the trip home was marked by Bill stewing silently and my mother laughing AT him and not WITH him. This was my first taste of irony and it was delicious.

One night we were looking at the sky and Bill dropped one of the high powered lenses, breaking it. I really didn't think that it was such a big deal at the time and it really wasn't. It marked the end of our night viewing the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn and the plant life on Uranus (I told you that word had endless possibilities for me). We still did a lot of stuff together because I was a daddy's boy and he was this boys hero. But the thing happened to me that happens to a lot of people that drives a wedge between them and their parents. Puberty.

Sometimes puberty comes slow on people and they have the opportunity to adjust to the chemical bomb that has gone off inside of them. Puberty didnt hit me like it hits a lot of people. It beat the crap out of me and there was no subtle adjusting that could be done.

I believe that the teenage years are spent trying to find an identity apart from the one that you have as your parents' child. For instance people that know Bill would sometimes call me "little Red." I did not mind this when I was a kid. In fact it was an honor. But as puberty began to wrap its cruel hand around my throat I was screaming inside, "MY NAME IS JOSEPH YOU MORON!!!" The friends that I chose had nothing to do with my parents and most of the time went against their wishes. I was smoking by fifth grade and drinking Thunderbird by the bottle and enjoying it by eighth grade. Once puberty hit I was no longer Bill's boy but a smart a$$ punk that no longer cared for or respected what my father said or thought. No longer did I hang on his every word and think that he was the smartest man in the world. At the time I couldn't imagine any one being as out of touch with the way that things were done in the real world than he was.

I did manage to graduate from high school and get accepted to the University of Alabama. Bill was the one that took me down to unload all of my stuff and leave me at the dorm. As I watched him drive away I wanted him to come back and help with my stuff and give me all those long and drawn out explanations about things I will never understand.

During the summer between my freshman year at Alabama and my next freshman year at Montevallo there was a lunar eclipse. Bill drug out the old telescope and set it on the hood of my Honda Civic, which had about as many miles on it but not as much character as the Falcon. We took turns looking at earth's shadow as it passed over the moon and I began to feel a sadness inside that I have only been able to understand as I was writing this. I don't think that Bill knew I was crying and I don't think I would have been able to tell him why had he realized it. I was feeling the same wonder and amazement that I felt as a kid when we would gaze up at the heavens and talk about how it was that God made everything click just right so that everything worked like it was supposed to. I stood there and watched as the earth passed between the sun and the moon and would only nod when he would say something because my trembling voice would have betrayed me.

Why was I sad? I don't think it was about the way that I treated him when I was younger. We both said and did some crummy things to each other that I think canceled out any bitterness that I may have felt later on. Looking back now after having had some time to reflect on the moment I believe that it was a pivotal moment in a life that is going to be full of pivotal moments. I said earlier that we spend a lot of time trying to get away from our parents and their control. I believe that a small part of us spend the rest of the time that we have wishing we could fall back into our parent's arms and everything would go away as it did when we were children. When a father's kiss could make your knee stop hurting. When the safest place in the world is sleeping with your head in you father's lap riding down the road even though he has been drinking. When puberty hit me those things failed to comfort me anymore. Nothing could make my knee stop hurting except for healing and time and the most dangerous place I could be was in the car asleep when Bill had been drinking. I realized that night that I could never go back to the simple days of my childhood and had only my irresistible need to grow up to blame. But for a few brief and wonderful moments that night I was a little boy listening in awestruck silence as my father explained the marvels of the universe. The sadness was the realization that I would never be able to go back.