#22 The Confessor of Littlefield: the Nature of the Nest

Bill realized he was dismissive as a social creature, and that his appearance affected others: the dirty clothes and curled lip. But it still bothered him that his limp pissed some people off. Once in a while he noticed the curled lip in a mirror and would try to tame it in an effort to be more agreeable, but it was hard taming a facial reaction to an unpleasant memory. And even if he caught himself giving that repulsive look of reaction unintended, it would often already be too late. There always seemed to be the ubiquitous bystander who was sure Bill was scowling at them for some reason; a message stamped on his brain by the 14 year old girl in the laundromat who told her mother, “how disgusting; we gotta let retards walk around acting like normal human beings.”

Bill kept to data and rarely took the lead in conversation. If he didn’t like what someone was talking about he simply ignored them. If someone was intimidating, Bill usually gave a shrug of the shoulders and looked away. He was greeted from time to time on the street or in a store by a friendly smile and warm and placid body language but he’d often catch himself being defensive.

He knew he’d always attributed thoughts to other’s unfairly. No one knows what anyone is thinking, precisely. He’d had his own thoughts mistaken so often, inferred incorrectly by others, that in his head was the superego voice of his mother, mocking him for his poetry, his illustrations, and his diaries. On the faces of others were the bullying expressions of children, demanding and haranguing as grown up teachers, theologians, policemen, and administrators. It wouldn’t be until his first mid-life crisis that he would realize the expressions people made were usually toward themselves and had little to no meaning for him, personally.

People were always asking about his mother, and no one really knew her; they just wanted to talk about her. He resented the insinuations he’d heard all his life; about her, about himself. Some days it seemed as though everyone’s voice, everyone’s body hurled judgment at him. Bill read the looks of people; the flash of emotion in the face before the voice comes that may or may not be in union with it. Body language was far more truthful than words. He saw himself as an agent processor of environmental variables whose own individual values couldn’t help but come into contradiction with others sharing the same environment.

Because of a person’s prejudices in determining the value of variables, he concluded that value for possessions was about the same in anyone, the common impetus for producing and exchanging. The guy who says he is just trying to supply for his family isn’t a liar by nature, he is simply playing along, creating and producing, consuming and investing. He isn’t dismissing compassion and sharing, only when it gets to be needy and compulsive.

Some of the parents didn’t approve of their kids interacting with Bill but the girls would wrangle him into square dancing when gym class had a rainy day. He recalled the confusion of truth, not by equation or words, when a girl looked at him; his value was summed up in the reaction a girl had towards him. He had nice bangs that curled up over the corners of his eyes; his body twisted and turned non aggressively; his hands made soft minuets. His pace was quick and enthusiastic, if lumbering. Square dancing was one of the few engagements with others where his body felt exuberant.

He often wondered what it would be like to be fidgety like some of the other kids; like his mother, and he supposed he was lucky to not feel the anxiety that some seemed to feel. It seemed that while he went at a steady pace some, like John Hapflik, were always stepping on and off the gas.

Everyone was shackled to peers and convention, loyalty and conviction. From impressions left on him by religious boys like Calvin Dyme Jr. he concluded that Sunday school taught children to distill politics into two adversarial forms of prejudiced expression: good versus evil; capitalism versus communism; duty to nation and family versus the right to privacy and individuality. A man who lacked a sense of duty was not a man. One took his family’s values or be rejected by the family and the community.

After the truce in Korea, Bill heard a reverend on the radio say that Rome lends her values to America until we fall to an eventual and everlasting doom. We were destined to fall as the Roman Empire had fallen to the whore of Babylon. “Ever since Pope Eugene IV was restored to the papacy the church has been a whore to the Holy Roman Empire. Since then, all popes served a false Christ,” said the radio preacher. “And just like the Roman senate, the United States congress has its own elements ready to make deals with the devil in order to gain or retain power.”

Bill wondered why the king of the Chaldeans, or the Romans, or the Greeks was any less desirable than the king of the Israelites. Solomon emphasized authority and wealth at the expense of human life, just as the papacy, just as the congress of the United States. The preacher said that ours was a society that emphasized profit making over human life, which was the way Virgie described churches with their hierarchy of family elders who’d managed to maintain their inherited wealth for their own next generation. There were many ways a person is made a sacrifice, a scapegoat for the conscience of a community, but none is made so easy sport of as an individual without allegiances.

Bill was strong, but not much of a fighter. Before puberty he was taller than the other kids, after puberty, shorter. Seventh grade was a three story school house that schooled five hundred kids from four school districts . Far different than the one room school house of grades one through six. On the first day of the seventh grade a small kid with a big mouth, along with his big friend goaded him to fight, but Bill backed away and never did figure out how to deal with the aggression of others. His impulse was murderous and his reasoning power recognized it and was appalled. Rather than act out his aggression, he internalized his hatred and brooded away from others.

He hated going to school and acting as if he were ever going to be part of anything with the others when his heart wasn’t in it. Instead, he liked to read comic books and detective stories, draw pictures of the objects in the classroom. While his bus ran late after school to accommodate ROTC training in high school, Bill waited in the school library, scouring history reference books and encyclopedias for non military history. For Bill, to acknowledge that the military was responsible for his freedom of thought was absurd, but what was more absurd was to think that the military’s involvement in foreign governments was a just example of the greater cause for which the individual was supposed to sacrifice his life. He had no desire for the military, and luckily, his club foot kept him from duty.

Z

The cost of the operation to repair Bill’s foot after birth was a source of disapprobation for his father, who grudged the fact that he had to pay to correct a birth defect in Virgie’s son. For Rupert, Bill’s foot was just another in the litany of grievances he had against fate. Virgie and Bill were an albatross that kept Rupert bound to an unwanted existence. Virgie politely listened to Rupert when he was around the house giving orders like a shop foreman, but she seethed inwardly at the indignity of being a house wife, or to be scrutinized for various indiscretions of thrift.

Rupert made sure Bill ate everything on his plate and preached that it was sinful to fill the milk glass too full. When he was caught sleeping without pajamas he was given a whipping to drive the devil out of him. If the trash wasn’t taken out it was because Bill was lazy, not forgetful. When Bill wore out the shoe sole from dragging his foot Rupert was annoyed. “Can’t you learn to walk like everybody else?” he railed.

Bill was conceived the night of Rupert and Virgie’s wedding, and after that Virgie rarely let Rupert touch her. Deaconess Haskins, Virgie’s aunt, told Rupert to be aware, that his future wife had a difficult time with men. She knew that Virgie didn’t love Rupert, and didn’t want him to feel like a fool when he didn’t find Virgie as responsive as he was hoping. Nonetheless, Rupert was a father in spite of the circumstances. “Every man needs to be tricked into responsibility, no matter how dignified they act afterward,” thought Deaconess Haskins.

The surgeon told Rupert that Bill’s leg would be fine, except he wouldn’t be able to run a lot, due to his build. And answering Rupert’s demand for an affirmative answer that his boy be OK to work for a living, the surgeon responded, “it depends. He should probably do more stationary work; bookkeeper or something like that.”

“How about construction work?”

“”Uh,” the doctor gave a slight shake of the head and said, “depends on the work. He should do things that don’t require he stay on his feet all the time. He seems like a bright kid. Why not architecture?”

When Bill was able to run in the house after Rupert told him to stop it was determined that Bill was ready to start helping Rupert with cement work. At the age of six he needed seven stitches above his eye after shoveling a scoop of gravel into the spinning barrel, taking a step and being struck in the face by the butt end of Rupert’s shovel. Rupert angrily growled at him, “What the hellya doin’ standin’ in backa me? Workeen’ is like bein’ a soldier, son; if you don’t pay attention somebody is gonna get hurt.”

The Nature of the Nest

Bill was born on August 8, 1941. Rupert was 39 years old and had survived the depression years dealing in used autos. Many of the farmers belonged to co ops: the livestock farmers, feed farmers, dairy farmers, pig, turkey, and chicken farmers. All belonged to associations which pooled their resources when money was scarce during the 1930’s. They often made due with their own carpentry and building needs, while the banks didn’t give many loans for residential construction. Despite their financial woes, all the farmers needed transportation.

Rupert often came across an abandoned vehicle while doing carpentry or construction work. He started towing these home and toying with them at night; learning which ones could be fixed. He had been part of the evolution of transportation in the countryside from horse to auto, selling hundreds of cars to first time buyers of automobiles around Littlefield.

When Rupert was born in June, 1902, every person’s affairs were pretty much condensed to a square six mile existence. But during the Great Depression many county roads were improved to accommodate autos. Merchandise and entertainment available in the larger towns became more accessible to the people of small towns like Littlefield.

When Bill was born, Japan was about to blitz Pearl Harbor, and Germany’s air force was looking disparagingly like a symbol of the beast from the Book of Revelation to uncomfortable, small town, evangelical Americans. The sons of farmers and administrators alike were stirred again and again to stand for God in the face of evil, through radio and newspaper ads, billboards, and political commentary. And if a soldier made it back home he came to believe that he had been called to stand for good, if not necessarily for God.

Littlefield was no different than the scores of other small, conservative communities throughout Michigan; staunch supporters of General Douglas MacArthur. Rupert was always asked if he had met him. No, he hadn’t. He thought MacArthur was superintendent at West Point when he had served, but he wasn’t sure. No, he didn’t fight in the Scout Mutiny; that was after he left the armed forces.

Rupert was more interested in the business news, but he, like most men in small Great Lakes towns who did military service, believed that MacArthur’s word was as good as God’s. The General quoted scripture, “think not that I have come in peace, but with a sword that I smite,” (it was a metaphor, general) and “because they are secured by swords the goods are at peace”.

A man wasn’t a man unless he was prepared to make a sacrifice. God and family, duty and honor. And making money, not just providing for your family. The papers and radio didn’t have a hard time garnering support from the countryside to defend western civilization when the antagonists in the drama included Hitler, Stalin, and Roosevelt, a liberal democrat, all who wanted to appropriate the individual’s share for the common good.

Rupert went to Casie’s Cafe for breakfast most mornings during the Fall and Winter. One frigid morning in early January of 1943, his mind was elsewhere as he ordered ham, potatoes, and eggs. Rupert didn’t have many personal friends, except Augustus Trenton, sitting at the counter next to him, who asks, “what’s wrong, you don’t look so good this mornin’?”

“Nothing. Just going over some figures in my head.”

The waitress, Pearl, a wispy salt and pepper haired woman in her late forties, smiles and takes their orders back to the kitchen, then comes back with a newspaper for Rupert. The two men sit immersed in their papers, reading about the war. And like most others in the diner, are most interested in General MacArthur and the war in the pacific. The chatter bellows and recedes in volume, with orders, discussion, greetings, and laughter.

“How long before General MacArthur retakes the Philippines?”

“He woulda never hadda leave if theyda given him the arsenal he needed in the first dang place!” Most of the men and women talking and reading their papers, smoking, drinking coffee, maybe having that slice of peach pie after all, had sons, sons of relatives, sons of friends, co-workers and employees being called to action. MacArthur had escaped to Australia, and many young men from Littlefield were ready to go fight for him.

Most conversation between Rupert and Trenton was conceived around the editorial narrative of their newspapers. They’d served in the Philippines together. Trenton insisted to everyone but Rupert that he had seen MacArthur get into a car in Manila in the early 1920s. But when someone asked Rupert if he’d ever seen MacArthur he would shake his head.

“Well, Trenton says he saw him.”

Rupert would shrug his shoulders. “Never saw him myself.”

“Wasn’t he in charge over there?”

“That’s what I hear.”

Rupert rarely offered a volley in conversation with another. If nobody talked to him he didn’t talk to anybody. Trenton was one of the few people he would indulge with dialogue. Although Rupert was proud of his service, he didn’t share Trenton’s unabashed call to duty. Yes, he had to teach his son the importance of duty, no matter how little sense it made, but the choices a person made had nothing to do with Uncle Sam; they had everything to do with a person’s standing in the community.

Trenton looked up from his paper. He had asked Rupert if had any ’34 Ford trucks and he didn’t receive an answer. Rupert was looking out the window through the wind and snow of the courtyard to the figure of a young woman in her late 20s, with straight dark hair streaming down from under a white woolen cap. She hurried forward with a strong and strident gait in leather boots and a double breasted herringbone coat. Trenton saw Rupert’s jaw give a slight flinch. No. Rupert had no ’34 trucks in the yard. Maybe next week.

*

Everyone asked about Bill’s mother, but it was none of anyone’s business, as far as he was concerned. People just liked to talk about each other; the less known about someone, the more fantastic the stories about them tended to be. Let people talk. It didn’t matter what they said; he wasn’t one of them anyway. He wasn’t going to serve his mother up for others to chew on.

This much the farmers and villagers of Littlefield did know: that Virgie had different ideas, that she was away on weekends, and usually had visitors that stayed during the week. She frequently brought them to the cafe in Littlefield so Mildred, the waitress would tell the Lutheran Ladies Club what she said. Virgie liked to let Mildred overhear her talking about the evil trinity of Capitalism, God, and General MacArthur, which Mildred dutifully reported anonymously to her district congressional representative, Arthur Goompfah, who’s office responded that they would look into it but never did.

Through Mildred, Virgie let everyone in her aunt’s social circle know just what she thought of the U.S. Military involvement in Korea and Indochina: that if it was OK to hate the Pope it was OK to hate MacArthur. She told the Deacon ,“I don’t share your idea of a Puritan God. There is no right and wrong, good or evil. There is no favoritism. Remember the parable of the workers in the vineyard? Everyone born is entitled to their share of the earth.”

“Just sit around, never having to prove nothin’ to no one? What kinda self responsibility it that?”

“You are incapable of understanding anything I tell you because you weigh everything with your puritan morality, as though we judged everything right and wrong, or good against evil.”

“I don’t see anything wrong with teaching good morals.”

“Who are you to teach? Huh? What makes the list of things you find acceptable about humans any more superior than anyone else’s?”

“I don’t see anything acceptable about homosexuality, modern art, or communism. All are perversions by the devil to appeal to the masses, to get them to destroy themselves with decadence. Men dressed like women, women giving men orders—it’s all leading us to the End Times.”

Virgie laughed and shook her head. “And you call me misguided.”

When Stalin died, when the Soviets invaded Hungary, when Senator Joseph McCarthy was conducting inquiries into Unamerican Activity, Virgie and her friends talked about the assassination of Mosaddegh; how America was taking over influences forged by early European employers. Mildred was to tell the ladies of the Lutheran church just what Virgie thought of their commercial Christ, the defender of their beloved government funded capitalism. In answer, Mrs. Van Innern, a banker’s wife, Mrs. Eaglethorn, wife of an insurance agent, and Mrs. Davis, wife of the feed mill owner, organized weekly meetings of the Lutheran Ladies Club to educate the community about the dangers of communism and immorality. The meetings predictably followed McCarthyism and rejected the teaching of evolution in public schools. For Virgie, the ladies represented the righteous who clobbered the poor and weak with charges of immorality while disenfranchising them through investors, zoning administrators, and tax officials.

After they were married, Virgie and Rupert began skipping church services. Virgie bristled at the disapprobation on the silent faces of the women she saw at the the grocery store and at the post office. Cousin Clara began visiting on weekends about six months after Virgie was married; they would walk into town to the cafe and then to the library, where they would read the newspapers from Chicago, Detroit, and New York. Between Mildred and Margie, the librarian, the Lutheran ladies heard of Humanism and Existentialism, Marx, Iran, and Truman. It was reported that Clara told Virgie that the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki was cruel and unnecessary, and that Virgie responded with “wicked righteousness.”

Everything in the talk of the town was distilled to the ultimate reality that Satan was fighting Christ for the soul of the planet, with Virgie and Clara playing the role of advocatus diaboli. One day, while the two were reading poetry in the library, located in the basement of the courthouse, Mrs. Van Innern visited it for the first time in her life to ask Margie if she didn’t think people should spend more time reading their bibles instead of a bunch of newspaper gossip. After all, the more a person knew of the world’s affairs the more they became a part of the world. Virgie imagined the deaconess Haskins gossiping in Mrs. Van Innern’s ear. Virgie and Clara looked at each other and burst out laughing, ignoring the cold look of the other two ladies.

 

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