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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Twelve Tales of Another Town: The Third Tale (The Desks)

Nissen Trampoline Company, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Throughout these memoirs I have maintained that until my days in college, I was close to a model child, obedient and well-behaved; and I truly believe to this day that I was an almost saintly son. Some memories, however, seem to contradict this vision of myself, a couple of which I shall now reveal for the first time.

I recall myself as being a fairly unreflective child, living in a world I only vaguely understood. The world about me, particularly the world I experienced in the small town of Newhall, was filled, accordingly, with a kind of magical possibility. Since I saw everything by the light of a slightly darkened bulb, I seldom comprehended the significance of things. I believe this kind of determined innocence was inculcated into my young life, encouraged, so to speak, by my parents, who themselves—when I think back on their behavior—were less sophisticated, perhaps, than many of today’s children. Like my nephews, growing up in a similar world, if an adult were to tell me to go climb a tree, I would go climb a tree—unless I was fearful of falling.

One morning, however, I awoke and in that half sleeping, half awake condition of all transcendent revelations, I suddenly arrived at a wondrous conclusion. At that time I was six years old; the year was 1953, the year of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, of Harry Truman’s announcement that the United States had developed a hydrogen bomb; the North Sea flooded Zeeland and other parts of the Netherlands, killing over 1,800 people; in Denmark, George William Jorgensen became Christine.

So excited was I with my sudden revelation that I immediately jumped up and ran into my parents’ bedroom, where they were still asleep. “Mom, Dad,” I called out. “Mom, Dad.” I can imagine them opening their eyes in slight startlement: “What is it, Doug? What’s wrong?”

I paused. “There’s no Santa Claus, is there?”

They took a few moments to digest my statement.

“You’re Santa Claus, aren’t you?”

My father awkwardly spoke. “Well, there is Santa Claus in a sort of way, the spirit of Christmas. That’s Santa Claus.”

“And there’s no Tooth Fairy either?

I don’t think they even had an answer for that one.

I merrily skipped out of their room, not disturbed, as they might have feared, in the least. It didn’t matter to me a wink. I still got gifts. How nice, I must have concluded, that my parents had given me all those things.

No sooner had they served me breakfast than I ran out to tell the neighborhood. Fortunately, I got only as far as the girl next door, Gretchen Grover. I joyfully shared my enlightenment, but she was not as pleased to hear what I had to say, and ran off into her house, crying. I was confused. And by the time I returned home my parents had already received a telephone call from her father, reporting my reprehensible behavior.

“Doug,” my mother scolded, “you can’t go around telling your friends this information.”

“Why not?”

“Because they’ll be hurt. They’ll be disappointed.”

“Why?” I exploded. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” my father added, “but it’s a truth that for now only you can know. You can’t tell your friends or your brother or sister either. Just keep it to yourself.”

Perhaps that was when I learned how to lie. I kept it a secret for years, often helping my parents hurry the gifts under the tree before we took our Christmas Eve rides. By the time we returned, so my brother and sister were always convinced, Santa had arrived.

By this time I began to realize that knowing things was not always a pleasant experience, that the confusion I’d felt as a younger child was perhaps a preferable sensation. With knowing came responsibilities.

When I was in first grade, 1954, I began to take piano lessons after school with our music teacher. My lesson was Tuesdays and Thursdays just after school let out, and immediately after Marcia Boddicker, my dearest friend, had her lesson; so I usually waited around to hear her play at a more advanced level than I, for she clearly practiced what I never did.

The Boddickers, who lived a just a few doors from our house, had a modernized farmhouse; indeed their place, although located just at the edge of our town, was still an active farm. Marica’s older sister, so I had heard my parents whisper between themselves, had had to get married while still in high school—and, more shockingly still, to the school coach, ending in her expulsion and his being fired. “What an unfortunate event to happen to such a nice couple as Marcia’s parents, Cyril and Louella,” my mother had concluded her household gossip.

I also went to school with Vincent Boddicker, a cousin, who lived a few miles away on a “real” farm (as opposed to the citified version) with six or seven brothers. I once stayed overnight with Vincent, and the next day we rose before five o’clock, ate a huge breakfast of eggs, pancakes, and various meats before we helped with the haying. I hated farms.

Years later, my companion Howard worked with one of these cousins at the University of Wisconsin library. One might say of the Boddickers, as Harvey’s Elwood P. Dowd remarked of his school friend and Vern MacIlhaney and family “there were a lot of them and they circulated. Very nice people.”

After Marcia’s lesson, we would generally play, just the two of us, on the trampoline in the school gym. I believe nearly every school in Iowa had a trampoline, and particularly every school in my hometown of Marion and nearby Cedar Rapids—for we were the home of the Grisson-Nissen Trampoline and Tumbling Company, the inventors of the trampoline and largest producer of trampolines in the world. We never once thought of the dangers that the two of us might have faced.

One evening, Marcia suggested that we visit our classroom.


“I just want to see it when no one is there,” she innocently declared.

We crept into our room through the still-open door.

“I have an idea,” I said—or perhaps Marcia came up with the plot. Does it matter? “Let’s change around all of the desks.”

“Won’t that surprise everyone tomorrow morning,” she or I added.

We did just that.

Now, I have forgotten to mention that my father was Superintendent of Schools. That night, after my homework, I began to feel the call of a guilty conscience; and finally as my brother and I, who shared bunk beds (Dave at the bottom, me at the top), were being tucked in, I admitted to my father what I had done.

Within seconds he had dragged me out of bed and commanded I get dressed. Together we returned to the school, where I was told to put all the desks in their proper place.

“I can’t remember where they go,” I cried out.

“You better, and quick!” he retorted.

I put them back as best I could.

“And in the morning, I want you to report to your teacher just what you have done.”

I don’t recall anything else. I must have reported early the next morning to Miss Donlinger. I know that I cried all the way home that night on account of the terrible thing that I had done.

Why had I performed this Ionescoian act, I now ask? Had Marcia and I placed all those desks the way we desired reality to be, putting the desks of friends next to our own? Or had we simply pulled them into a helter-skelter order? I have no answer. The only one surprised come morning was Marcia herself.

“What happened?” she disappointedly queried during recess.

“I don’t know,” I lied. “Maybe Miss Donlinger put them all back again.”

“How could she have found out?” the young Eve suspiciously wondered. “You must have told her. Did you tell her?”

As I had learned a few weeks before, it was best to keep quiet. So I said nothing for a very long while.

Los Angeles, February 20, 2003

Three years after writing the piece above, it suddenly dawned on me that, while working on a series of poems for an annual of poetic writing, produced in monthly installments by Paul Vangelisti in a Xerxoed format, Lowghost (1999), I had described my poems with the same subtitle of this essay, “Desks.” The “Desks” poems begin with a visit to Joe Ross and Laura Wilber (who later was webmaster of my Green Integer site) at their then-new home in San Diego, where I stayed the night. Left alone in their apartment for the day, I took down several of the volumes of poetry from Joe’s shelves and wrote poems—using the processes I have described in my 2004 interview with Charles Bernstein [My Year 2005]—while also attempting to put myself in the mindset of Joe while writing. Over the several months of Paul’s innovative and stimulating forum, I worked through writings in this manner of several poets and friends—Leslie Scalapino, Barbara Guest, Robert Creeley, Dennis Phillips, Ray DiPalma (producing from Ray’s work what I think is one of my most notable poems, “The Secret Saint”) and others, poems which presaged my collaborative writing of Between.

One can obviously invest too much meaning into innocent and often intuitive childhood acts, but I now wonder, was my transformation of that childhood classroom a simple act of malice or an attempt to comprehend and reformulate my relationships with my fellow students—the very proximity to one another being so important to school-age children? In reorganizing my friends’ desks, perhaps I was seeking a new definition of their relationships with me. Certainly, in later attempting to re-imagine my fellow poets’ approaches to language, I was doing precisely that. My father’s insistence that I recreate the previous order—despite my obedience of his dictate—was, accordingly, an untenable demand. For me, there was no possible return to the past.

At an early age, I now realize, I had already shaken up my world, a process later symbolized by Stacey Levine’s gift of a snow-plagued nun [see
My Year 2005].

Westchester, November 20, 2006

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