#23 The Confessor of Littlefield: A Communist’s Child, 1941 – 1961

By 1949, Rupert had saved enough money to open a new car dealership two hundred miles away, on the east side of the state. Bill was glad his dad was gone. He would never see him, or hear from him again. Bill was a pretender son to Rupert, given to him by Virgie in order to keep up appearances, while she gave herself to Clara; cousin Clara who had not been at their wedding; cousin Clara who Rupert had never met; cousin Clara who really wasn’t a cousin – something pointed out by the deaconess Haskins, and something for which Virgie couldn’t forgive her aunt. After all, it was none of her business.

A few months after Rupert left, Clara drove to Dixfield and found Rupert at his dealership. She brought from her suitcase some documents for him to sign and assured him she was there only to reach a solution. Rupert had been expecting her. Due to the fact that Virgie was a known communist and could be proven an unfit wife and mother he could just as easily let the courts settle it, but that would involve the courts in his business. He agreed to sign the house over to Virgie. It was the least he could do for Bill, said Clara. Rupert just gave a snort of contempt.

For three years, Clara worked in Chicago during the week and stayed with Virgie and Bill on the weekends. Bill would see Clara when he went to bed on Sunday night and she would be gone when he awakened Monday morning. During the week he would recall the time spent with her; Clara read to him Shakespeare, made him sit up straight, made sure he brushed his teeth before going to bed. She threw the ball with him against the wall, much to Virgie’s chagrin, helped him with his math and spelling, and when the other kids wouldn’t let him play football, Clara threw the ball with him and let him tackle her.

When Bill was learning grammar in third grade Clara coached him as he conceived the plot of Timmy Furfinger Gets His Nose Smashed By His Big Old Stupid Daddy. Her confident, even temperament made her exceptionally reasonable and patient compared to Bill’s mother, but Clara constantly told Bill to sit up and to stand tall. She wasn’t a cuddly sort of woman but she made Bill feel more secure whenever she was around.

She also helped Bill to learn geography and his times tables, how to properly brush his teeth and comb his hair, how to wash himself. Her enthusiasm for Bill somewhat annoyed Virgie, who too often wanted Clara to herself and would abruptly end Bill and Clara’s time together with a dismissive “you, go on up to your room and figure it out. Aunt Clara ain’t gonna be there to help you the rest of your life. You have to figure out how to settle your own problems.” He was eight years old and it made him cry to find out he had “problems.”

Like everyone else, Virgie was stunned by Rupert’s abrupt departure, but further stunned when she found out how much money he had managed to save during their marriage. She was adamant she was going to get her share of it somehow; that she was entitled.

“For Bill’s sake,” Clara said mockingly.

“Yeah, that’s right” replied a righteously indignant Virgie, but she knew that it was hopeless.

Bill had heard the tone of insinuation in Clara’s voice and intuited it as a voice that affirmed his suspicion: that he was important neither to his father nor his mother. But he would later read The Great Gatsby, and he would be glad for the physical things he’d had to do for his mother around the house and in the yard. The people in Gatsby’s world were dismissive, cold and entitled. As a boy in the 1940’s and 1950’s in rural Michigan, work was a necessity in proving to the world you belonged; that no matter how you were treated by others, you were one of them, exchanging time for money. Other necessities were: lip service to the bible; loyalty to the flag; suspicion towards anything Communist. Under Clara’s tutelage, Bill neglected all three.

Thanks to Rupert’s daily habit of reading the bible aloud at the table after supper, Bill’s inner voice would always sound mysteriously like his father reading the bible; for Virgie, doing kitchen work rarely provided so much gratification as when Rupert was reading the bible, which was inaudible to her above the symphony of dishes she rattled. At school, Bill stood at attention for the flag because he was told, not because he felt a sense of pride; and while he enjoyed the skyrockets on the Fourth of July, he didn’t associate them with anthems or battles. What was more interesting to Bill were the primary color explosions sparking and sputtering against flashing clouds.

One day, to Rupert’s annoyance, Bill turned the volume up on the radio so loud that Rupert could hear it outside, and he came charging into Bill’s room to find that Bill had marked the furniture, walls and objects in his room with crayons. After that, Rupert didn’t allow him a radio in his room, but he was free to scribble on a pile of old newspapers. Virgie was careful to keep Bill away from the evening paper waiting for Rupert, giving it to Bill only after the next day’s paper had arrived.

Bill amused himself by throwing a tennis ball against the side of the garage outside and in his room upstairs until Virgie told him to stop. Couldn’t he see he was annoying her with that thumping? But the thumping wasn’t always the ball. It was Bill jumping on the bed, hurling his toy cars against the wall, slamming doors. Virgie’s nerves were charged by his presence and she often sent him to play outside.

After the divorce, Virgie had title to the house but no income. Clara reasoned that at least she could sell the house and buy a smaller one, and a car. A local Realtor was happy to purchase the house for cash at a fraction of the value but Clara wouldn’t allow it and supported Virgie and Bill for three years before Virgie sold the house and bought a cabin outside of town, along with an old car from Hiram Hapflik. After that, Virgie received government rations and raised and butchered chickens and rabbits for Bill to eat, while on the weekends she never spent any of her own money. During the week she ate whatever Bill made her. Often, Virgie’s friends would offer to buy them groceries, but Virgie felt it was important to teach Bill to keep for himself.

On school days the bus picked him up on the corner, a mile and a half away at Main Street and Barnett Road, and then took him six blocks to the schoolhouse. He would limp on days after he didn’t get enough sleep, and he left his books at school most of the time to avoid having to carry them a total of three miles every day. As long as he moved steadily, swinging his hips, his foot would tag along, but when he was tired he would drag it.

Still, according to Mrs. Gilchkopf, the math teacher, and Mr. Greenknut, the biology teacher, there was no excuse for leaving his textbooks at school. Why, if little Tracy Timpkins could carry her books to school – she lived three blocks away and excelled at gymnastics – if she could carry her books than so could a big boy like Bill.

Despite being able to do farm work, Bill didn’t engage in the mandatory physical education class. His body was so warn out from doing farm labor after school and from walking the three miles back and forth to the farm besides the three he walked to and from the bus stop every day, that he didn’t care that Mr. Hektor, the Phys. Ed. teacher with thick hairy back and shoulders bellowed at him, “a big kid like is gonna get soft if you don’t engage in little physical activity once in a while.” He learned to recognize the “Hektor’s,” all teachers and people of authority who browbeat preemptively, without knowing another, child or adult. School, church, or the law, they wee always there with their brutish discipline with no mind for variables, or individual experience. The condition of Bill’s leg was better known by the Hektors of the world than by Bill himself.

The Mr. Hektor’s of the world wanted to be recognized for their credentials more than their productivity. They came with a program of study: be good at wrestling and football. Toughen up. There was nothing better to teach a boy how to be a man than to play football. And since Bill had no interest in football; had a doctor’s excuse not to participate in gym class, yet was assigned to Mr. Hektor for 50 minutes every day, he could do little but humiliate the faker before the class.

While the other students climbed ropes and did chin ups, Bill swept the floor under the bleachers. Mr. Hektor was aggravated by Bill’s presence, something he shared with the class almost daily. Bill and John joked about the teacher as a cheap man who satisfied himself by humiliating boys he didn’t like. It was a cheap, low hanging fruit for satisfaction, said Bill. One day, they saw Mr. Hektor’s turkey skin scrotum with its gray ball hairs dangling in the shower and Bill drew a picture of Mr. Hektor as a carping old man with a turkey neck under his chin and between his legs, making ape gestures, with bushes of curls sprouting from his shoulders, back and neck.

Art classes were the only thing that drew Bill’s attention in school, aside from the shop and auto mechanics classes, and after leaving school in 1956 he maintained a habit of drawing pictures on old newspapers.

He enjoyed taking cars apart and working on tractors since working with farmers Bluntson and Robinston, and after tooling around the salvage yard with Hiram and John his hands and fingers became more inclined to grip, wrench, slam, and push. But while his hands relished manual dexterity, his mind leaned toward creativity. A few times Hiram and John had to point out to Bill that it didn’t matter what color an auto body was, just make sure to put it in the right place. After Bill bought the salvage yard from Rita he would move the cars parked in the service row so that an orange Duster wouldn’t be parked next to a green Mercury station wagon, or a Corvair next to a Cadillac.

By the time he was fourteen, Bill weighed 140 lbs., and the local farmers, always in need of strong but cheap labor paid Bill to pull up rocks from fields, or to pitch bales of hay into barn lofts. But Bill had trouble picking things up over his head. He didn’t have the broad shoulders of his father. He had the narrow shoulders of his mother. He used his lats to pick up heavy things but his back tightened much of the time. And because of his uneven gait his hips got sore the longer he was on his feet. He would shot put bails of hay into a loft, ignoring a farmer’s inevitable correction of technique. Most left him alone when they saw how quickly he filled a wagon with hay bails and then tossed them into a loft.

From Robinston and Bluntson, he learned to work on tractors and machinery and how to drive an automobile. These men would serve as lifelong role models for Bill. They valued him as a human being deserving of equal respect, despite his aloofness. Bill didn’t always look you square in the eye when he spoke. Probably because of his foot. “A man just needs time to learn to be himself,” said the farmers. Still, he made you wonder sometimes if he could care less what you had to say; made you wonder what he was thinking sometimes.

Bill left school at age fifteen to work as a farm hand, but by the age of twenty it was evident that his body wasn’t going to withstand a lifetime of long hours being on his feet and not getting enough sleep. To the stern denunciation of Trenton, the dairy farmer, he stayed home for three days, enjoying the receding strain of his leg and his back, both which were taxed by his cranky foot. Trenton called him a lazy bum who wasn’t going to amount to anything; that he was going to the devil. Then he slammed the front door of the house, which sent Virgie flying after him, flinging open the door and shouting, “you old miserable, ignorant son of a bitch! What gives you the right to slam my door like that? I oughtta get my shotgun and blast your goddamn head off and send YOU to the goddamn devil!”

Trenton stood wide eyed at the open door of his Chevy Pickup and had to force back the idea of charging back after Virgie. Although short, Bill was a big man, and it was his mother. Besides, what if she did get her shotgun? “Ahh, to hell with you, ya goddamn whore!” he shouted, and got in his truck, slammed it into reverse, spinning stones back towards the cabin. Of course, news spread from the Trentons that Bill wasn’t a trustworthy worker; and don’t forget what sort of woman his mother was.

Regardless of his cranky foot, Bill liked to walk in the woods. He had a daily routine of identifying plants from the books he’d taken out of the library. Once a week he borrowed and returned books about herbs and and other field edibles. He read Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck, Robert Frost.

Virgie was glad for Bill’s absorption of reading; she couldn’t find the energy to converse with Bill like she could with her friends. Bill was made in the image of Rupert, and was a constant reminder that she bore a responsibility for which she had little desire. But she was a practical woman. She had to make choices for the future. She thought of so many ways she could’ve handled Rupert better, but she had no choice but to accept what life presented. Still, the situation left her feeling degradation. She could not accept the role of woman as wife and mother any more than her aunt and uncle could accept Catholicism or the democratic party. It wasn’t her fault that the social structure built around a biblical subservient role of the woman was outdated. She was disgusted by the domestic creature, subservient to the patriarchal direction of her husband. Virgie said everyone accepted it because they were afraid to not be part of a social dynamic that excluded inheritance.

Marx was not available at the local library, after a complaint from the Lutheran Ladies Club. Neither were books depicting abstract art. Virgie bought these books for Bill in Chicago with the money he made working for Bluntson, an atheist and outcast among the members of the Chamber of Commerce, churches, and local stores. His credit was as good as anyone else’s, but because he denounced all politicians and military generals as corrupt pawns of the world’s bankers, and said the ministers of congregations were nothing but circus show barkers selling slogans for businessmen, few cared to talk to him, except Bill.

After hearing Trenton rail about Virgie and Bill at Casie’s diner the next morning, Bluntson, who despised the Trentons and the Dymes for distilling all ideology and purpose to the battle of good and evil, offered Bill a job on his small potato farm. Know Nothingism, Bluntson called it, among other things; gloating men who honestly believed their economic good fortune hinged on the favor of Christ, notwithstanding that it was at the expense of others. The insurance settlement from an untimely death was a measure of faith in common sense profit.

Bill once overheard Bluntson challenge Trenton, “we are hicks, Trenton. You and me both. Neither one of us belong in a politician’s world because the politician is an upper class citizen. He is the the lawyer and the judge and the legislator. His interests are what become our interests. He owns stock in weapons businesses that keep people killing each other on behalf of upper class shareholders. His bombs will cause all of the little people to annihilate themselves some day, while he lives out his life in a fortress somewhere. And you think it’s all about doing the right thing in the name of good versus evil.”

Bill smirked and passed it on to Virgie, who had a bond with her son tugging ever so slightly at her conscience as she left Bill alone on his birthday that weekend to go to a gallery Opening in Cleveland.

Farmer Bluntson died one May morning when Bill was 20. Bill didn’t think anything of it when he showed up at the farm at 5AM and the old man wasn’t around. He disked a few acres and came to the house to ask for some coffee. When he asked Mrs. Bluntson where the the old man was she said, “why, he went out the door this morning when he saw your headlights at the end of the road. You didn’t see him?” Bluntson had tumbled over the porch and into the bushes and lay dead of a heart attack.

Bill, who had been working only for Bluntson after Virgie threatened to blow Trenton’s head off, was without work. None of the other farmers in the area wanted to hire him, so he read all day. Virgie kept him busy if he stayed around the cabin during the day so he spent most morning walking and reading in the woods.

He began to take apart the two old cars he’d hauled into the yard from his time with Bluntson; one that had been abandoned in the road near the Bluntson farm in the 1940’s, the other was from a gully in back of the Bluntson farm. Virgie was happy to see him busy doing something but he needed to start earning his way in life. So she told him that he had to leave the house at 7:30AM and could not come back until after 5PM.

*

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s