#20 The Confessor of Littlefield

Bill Dinklpfuss sat up, his bed shrieking like an awakened banshee. The floor boards beneath him creaked as he settled himself and slowly duck walked through the dark, around the corner and into the bathroom. He was a couple inches shorter than the average Great Lakes American man born in 1941, with thick legs, small shoulders and a shaggy head of long red hair. His quiet nature was skewed by a nearsightedness that caused him to constantly squint, giving him the appearance of scowling all the time.

There was nothing in particular on his mind as he glanced at the same pile of dirty clothes on the floor and the tub caked with soap scum, but in the mirror, there he was scowling. There was the smell of mildew on the tub curtain, the odor of urine rising from the floor, crotch odor. He sniffed his arm pit and was both amused and disgusted. He was thirty seven years old and had worn the shirts and pants in and out of that pile on the floor for the past eight years. Outside, the January wind rattled the bulky chain that hung from the engine hoist towering next to the garage; gusts of snow heaved over the maze of cars in back of the garage.

Bill’s father, Rupert, started the salvage yard and repair business in the the late 1930’s. The salvage yard rested on the edge of a gully that sloped into a deep ravine to the south. There is a corn field on the SW corner of Barnett and and Main St., and an old Drive In theater across the street that is now a farmer’s market. The big screen is still standing with its back to the road.

The Hapfliks, Hiram and Rita, bought the business from Rupert in 1948 and built the four square house in front of it on the corner of Main Street and Barnett Road. The Hapfliks had one son, John, born in August of 1941. Hiram passed away in June of 1968, John six months later.

The township instructed Rita to build a fence around the yard after Hiram passed away, including the house and front yard, and thereafter passersby could only see the second story and attic dormers above the fence row. The gate to the drive way was always open with a muddy path that forked away near the garage and around to the back of the house with its separate garage. The big main garage that people saw as they drove into the yard was where Bill worked on brakes, exhausts, suspensions; the garage near the back door of the house is where he did engine overhauls, transmissions, rear end rebuilds.

In December of 1968, Bill reported John Hapflik dead in the yard. A car had slipped off a hook on the engine hoist, crushing John under the vehicle. The burly hoist loomed over Bill as he explained to the police – including an incredulous detective – what had happened. Rita had just lost Hiram and was sad but not nonplussed to see John go. She imagined he wasn’t making a life for himself anyway and would’ve always need a mother. He didn’t relate to women as any more than maids and sex objects. The world had gotten value from him in Indonesia, but all value John gained from life, even before he joined the military, seemed squandered in cynicism.

At night Johnny usually disappeared upstairs and drank beer in front of a TV until he fell asleep, and Rita would check on him to make sure he didn’t have a lit cigarette in his hand. Sometimes, she would put a blanket over him and look at his face before turning out the light; even in his sleep he didn’t seem to change that stiff lipped look. Since returning from Vietnam he never changed that look. It was as if even in his sleep the muses couldn’t animate his appearance.

As a child, John had few other friends in the community except Bill Dinklpfuss. Until Bill quit school when he was fifteen, the two had been fellow loners who gravitated together while the rest of the kids seemed to sort out peer conflict. During the last five years of his life, John’s visitors included friends of his father’s who still stopped in to have their cars serviced, and a growing cadre of veterans who shared a bond stronger than family. Bill saw them daily, gathered as in a vigil, smoking cigarettes, some drinking beer or smoking weed, occasionally arguing among themselves. Some were surly, some reticent, some religious, some not. Most were cordial to Bill. A few customers expressed their discomfort with the few scruffy looking men who were always hanging around but Hiram would just tell them, “they’re good men. You’re safe with them around.”

John never spoke about his war experiences with anyone but the veterans, and when they weren’t around he spent the hours losing himself in daily tasks. He usually had a twelve pack in him by 11AM, and then he’d go inside to eat lunch and sleep for a few hours. Every day he returned to the yard at 2PM, grinding through the hours, wrenching, pounding, removing parts and putting them in piles or stacking car bodies one atop another onto a trailer to be driven to a metal scrap yard.

Meanwhile, Bill kept 8 – 5 hours, Monday through Saturday, doing repairs. Even though he wasn’t much for conversation, he was business like and customers respected him for his work. Rita Hapflik didn’t like Bill. To her, he was the big short helper in the yard with the dirty flannel vest and torn jeans with a questionable morality. Ah well, the customers didn’t seem to mind him; maybe he wasn’t as bad as she thought. Hiram thought the world of him, but then Hiram loved everybody. Rita hadn’t grown up in Littlefield; after John died, she sold the house and business on easy terms to Bill, and moved back to Ohio to live with her sister.

One damp, dark and cold November Monday, when he was 23, Bill was kicked out of the house by his mother, Virgie, who said, “you can come back at five o’clock. It’s not like you have to get a job and earn some money,” she told him sarcastically, “but you have to leave every morning by 7:30AM and can come back again after five.”

Bill had a vehicle but no money for gas. He had only casual acquaintances and didn’t want a job anywhere other than Hapflik’s. John had been back from from combat for a couple months when Bill pulled into the muddy driveway and parked in the row of cars waiting to be repaired. John hadn’t seen him since he had gotten back and if he was thrilled to see him now he didn’t show it. Bill thought John was brushing him off until he realized that John was distracted when he kept asking, “what was that?”.

At first John was annoyed to have someone talking to him. He required a solitude that, with a glance, could be understood by any perceptive person; he was described by Dante as one who sought solace in constant misery. John hadn’t liked Bill when they were kids as much as he didn’t find him disagreeable. Both were underground men who came of age in the 1950’s as outsiders in a small village. In school, each was as pathetic to the other as they were to themselves, but both came to understand each other and others through their interaction with each other. They helped to shape each other’s inner dialogue, the a priori “I,” revealed and observed.

Each revealed himself to himself by using the other as a soundboard, an unquestioning observer with his own self interests. Both were unnatural to the group, the political party, to family values. John styled himself in high school after Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ideas of self reliance and exultation of the self, in response to Rita’s unbending evangelical faith, while Bill’s inner voice began to establish Swedenborgian associations using the natural environment of the woods and the words of John paraphrasing Emerson. The birds were the poets, the bees and ants were workers, dogs and cats; companions; fleas and flies were hooligans.

For others, adolescence seemed to Bill to be about instilling the family values of nesting, producing, procuring and consuming, while making it seem like each had more choices then they really did. From the cradle, a punitive Calvinist morality choked the individual based on appearance, for what he could see. One’s existence was represented in congress by a Republican who legislated with an eye towards deterring some evil or another, and singling out “loners” in particular, as being “up to no good because they just couldn’t help themselves.” A charge Mrs. Snicklebothom directed at Bill for some particular reason as he was walking past her front porch one warm summer evening in 1963.

Bill and John shared a distaste and distrust for the group; any group. They sat together in the bleachers for gym class while the other kids wrestled or did gymnastics, but both got dressed for field hockey, football and softball. They would’ve been dressed for basketball, except for the one class period of skins versus shirts which was enough to keep them from participating in basketball again.

John found Bill’s aloofness and inattentiveness aggravating. Bill found John’s fast and confusing way of dancing from subject to subject tiresome. Now, both at the age of 23, the roles were reversed, with Bill the one trying to draw out a sullen John into conversation; any conversation. For a few weeks he seemed to snap out of it but then the Tonkin Gulf incident occurred and he returned to his morose state. More and more cold eyed veterans began hanging out in the yard most days and if someone needed John they just looked around the yard for the group of vets who were always gathered wherever John was working.

Rita complained to Hiram about the men who were hanging around the yard all day, but she had to agree that it was good that at least John was talking with people. As long as he had the company of others to keep him occupied he didn’t have to face whatever it was he faced every night alone.

The Hapfliks moved into their house in Littlefield in the Summer of 1948, and John began the second grade with Bill in Ms. Penny’s class. The schoolhouse was a 20 X 20 square foot, one room building with one row of a dozen chairs each for grades one through six. On the the first day, John called Bill’s mother a whore and Bill shoved him down and sat with his knees across John’s chest, punching him in the cheek and forehead. He thought about punching him in the mouth but felt compassion for the smaller John, and didn’t want to hurt him anymore. Then he was stiffly pulled away by an ear pull from Ms. Penny.

Bill’s father, Rupert Dinklpfuss was an imposing 6’5”, with a broad back and heavy limbs. His was a face with little expression, save for a calm resolution. He was a man of routine and schedules. He wasn’t so much angry of temper as he was intolerant of those who did not defer to him. With Bill, he believed in strict moral training. He did not accept any breach of his authority, and he was quick to exert his hand on Bill’s behind if Bill lagged in the least. Rupert vowed to Jesus that he would mold his boy to be a man despite the immorality of his mother, and despite the living situation with his wife and son. He had made a deal with his God and he was going to keep his word. Rupert had prayed to God to send him a wife if he went to church. And after going to the local Lutheran church every Sunday, though staying away from Wednesday bible study, he met a niece staying with Deacon Haskins from Indiana.

Virginia Dinklpfuss, nee Haskins, was thirteen years younger than Rupert. She was the daughter of a farmer who’d had four successive bad years of crops and seven children to feed. So he sent his four daughters to live with various relatives. Virgie was given money by her father to buy a train ticket but when she got to town she kept the money and slipped into a boxcar while the conductor looked the other way. It wasn’t the first time the conductor had seen her. The squat gray-haired man in his mid 50s kept a paternal eye on her whenever he saw her going to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh.

Virgie immediately despised her uncle, the Deacon, for his steadfast and stern impulse to be a shepherd of righteousness for anyone he spoke to. What was good enough for Christ was good enough for him. And as a mortgage investor, the Deacon patterned his life on the tale of the honest dollar earned. A man who couldn’t earn his keep wasn’t following Christ.

Virgie made many friends who were activists and artists who didn’t share her uncle’s simple faith and feeling of entitlement. For Virgie, the Deacon and Deaconess were symbols of an old standard, a showing in a museum of a fading dream. She had lost her innocence at 11, and the last thing she wanted to do was make her uncle privy to all of her, what they would call, indecencies. She was a peppy five foot four with honey blonde hair and curvy, plump hips, downy velvet skin and a delicious grin. Her brown eyes leveled her listeners and her face blossomed into petals when she smiled.

Rupert was used to fighting. His size always drew the attention of the fighters in a crowd and he had a broken nose, missing tooth and an aching floating rib to show for it. He really wanted to believe Christ was sending a woman as a help mate for him, but he grit his teeth at the thought of groveling to church. Still, he plastered on a smile that made his face red when he met other parishioners. Virgie’s leer gave away the fact that she wasn’t one of the crowd; that she, too, was playing along while she silently sang her own tune. In Rupert, she found someone willing to listen to her grievances about her aunt, whom she always referred to as “the Deaconess.” She despised her aunt all the more because she instinctively knew Virgie in a way that her uncle couldn’t. And her aunt kept her knowledge to herself for the most part, save for the occasional, “that girl knows a lot more about the world than you think she does.”

“Oh,what could she know, except maybe she took a fella for a role a few times? That don’t mean nothing.”

“Still, I wouldn’t want her setting her eye on any of these nice boys around here.”

“Certainly not! Why, I have a reputation to keep. Say, that cranky fella that no one likes. What’s his name?”

“That big ugly one with the missing tooth? Rupert something or other.”

“Dinklfist, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know” impatiently.

“Well, he’s a bit older. Got a house. Seems to take care of himself responsibly. Maybe he’d be willin’ to take her.”

“I did see them talking together,” the Deaconess mused.

Virgie mistakenly thought she could choose who she wanted to spend her time with; around the small farming community, any would be suitor was too scared of Rupert. Given the choice between living with the Deacon and his wife or Rupert, she without hesitation took Rupert. She clashed too much with her aunt and was disgusted by the Deacon’s blind allegiance to what Virgie called a commercial Christ.

It was a familiar free thinker and conservative value clash. Commercial Christ blessed everything by appropriating morality as a dodge for his prejudices which he imposes through the judicial systems and by extorting local governments for corporate tax cuts. Commercial Christ was a politician legislating gentility into the lower classes that otherwise wouldn’t submit to the will of the manager and foreman. The commoner must be kept in a condition of wanting. Communism was a threat against capitalism, not free will. To the rest of the world, capitalism was the real threat because the will that was no longer required by the state was required by the employer. Capitalism was just a mechanism to control global economies as worker states. The American Civil War was about the use of a slave work force creating an unfair employer advantage.

This was the philosophy Virgie fulminated to Rupert. And he sat through it, even though his mother’s Calvinist epistemology was at the deep structure of his own reason. Rupert had aspirations. He invested wisely in capital equipment as a builder and was building a good auto resale business. He calculated dollars and cents, managed his time, studied investment charts. He believed in the ability of anyone to make money some way.

As a builder, Rupert had a grand income, a fact that helped endear him to the church. But to the consternation of the church elders, he was stingy with his money. By the 1930’s, he was also making money selling used autos. During the first seven years of Bill’s life, Rupert’s fortunes exploded exponentially, as he spent fourteen hours every day working on auto repairs, cleaning up road accidents, taking apart cars, while occasionally helping his assistant with building contracts. As a bachelor, his industry was noted by the banker, the insurance man, the lawyer, the undertaker, all of whom a had niece or daughter who sat unhappily next to him at a dinner table. And while his tithe was most welcome at the Lutheran church, the elders were sure he was withholding a fraction of the lord’s portion. Rupert’s demeanor was cordial, but he and Virgie mutually disliked going to church on Sunday; a fact that endeared themselves to each other.

Bill often felt his father’s hand upon him and heard a snarl with the castigating tone when he spilled the milk, ran in the house, or tried to go to bed without brushing his teeth. Rupert’s preoccupation with morality sealed himself off from Bill, who was talkative with his mother because she lent him enthusiasm that she withheld from Rupert. He read comic books and sometimes listened to Virgie’s classical records on a phonograph. He listened to radio soap operas like Big Sister, the Guiding Light, and Just Plain Bill.

Girls called him ugly and he was self conscious of his size. When boys laughed at him he wanted to punch them. But after the episode with John he didn’t pick fights anymore.  Rupert taught him that no matter what he did he was always wrong and deserving of a whipping. He developed a resigned but brooding, down cast look; the same look he now saw in the mirror as a 37 year old.

“It’s 1979,” Bill said too himself, glancing out the curtainless window at the snow whirling under the lamp in the yard. “Hard to believe I’m 37.” The bedroom looked like a Van Gogh painting, with a single bed, night stand with lamp, and a small dresser. John’s furniture left by Rita.

Bill took a cigarette from the pack on the night stand and went over what he had to do the next few days; remove the engine from an old Ford Pickup for Dev, change some tires for that Pickford guy. Oh yeah, Ms. Hollis wants an oil change. Didn’t have to go anywhere. He could sleep until 8. He flicked the ashes from his cigarette into an ash tray.

The Shah had fled Iran recently. The King of Kings escaping the mountain top for lower ground. A sham liberator deposed by a state authority. It was a theme Bill revisited repeatedly since being served General MacArthur as the model citizen by the village of Littlefield during the 1940’s and 1950’s. It wasn’t that people rejected modernization so much as having their freedom taken from them in the process. Maybe the life of a Persian didn’t include multiple choices from dealers in employment or religion.

Still, the vitriolic contempt sprinkled with the phrase “praise Allah” from a turbaned and bearded man with raging eyes did little to stir the compassion in anyone except toward some rebellion or another. In America, it would be hard to get anybody to be sympathetic towards Iran, even though it seemed to Bill when he heard the Shah speak he heard a narcissist publicist who spoke of himself as a great person doing great things just as MacArthur did. The sermons in the various congregations of churches in Littlefield defended the Shah, just as they had General MacArthur and Senator Joseph McCarthy. The plots of communists not withstanding, the Shah and MacArthur stood by their honor as the grandeur around them collapsed.

Sympathy was a matter of what ideology was being exploited. Bill recalled old farmer Bluntson talking about the Shah with old Diggers, and Diggers, just after Mosadeq was murdered, saying the Shah was going to “bring peace to those people whether they want it or not.” The world order didn’t have room for savages who couldn’t accept all the guidance our missionaries tried to give ’em.

Bluntson asked him, what missionaries, and Diggers couldn’t recall off hand, but he had heard the minister say that God’s word had spread throughout the world and there wasn’t a savage alive who hadn’t heard God’s word and had a chance to repent. The atom bomb was just the beginning. It was a sign from God that he had granted us preeminence over the Russians in global affairs. We didn’t have a right to dispute the authority of the United States government. On the coin it said In God We Trust. We trust like the Israelites trusted King Saul.

“What about Christ,” asked Bluntson. “Is he subject to the authority of the government?”

“Why, yes, if he were here right now. He said ‘render unto Ceasar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.’”

“Yeah,between God and the government whadda we got left over, in this life or the next?”

Bill put the cigarette butt out and looked for a Penthouse Magazine and a towel under his bed.

 

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