A Hitch in His Get-Along
(For Rollin David Wilson aka Baldy, 1900 – 1971)
Baldy’s grandfather was captured by the Confederates at Gettysburg and after a long, hard, hungry march, spent the balance of the war at Andersonville. Baldy’s brother returned from World War I with a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and a broken spirit.
Baldy’s father, Scott Wilson, was a blacksmith in Mayburg, Pennsylvania.
In the mid-twentieth century timber and oil culture of Northwestern Pennsylvania, a widely accepted male ethos of bravado and grace made “outlaw” a colloquial term of cautious admiration for those men who had the wildness of the forest in their blood; they were generous, funny, outrageous, and outspoken men who played hard, drank hard, laughed loudly, poached venison, trusted their luck more than most people dared, and got away with it more than most people thought they deserved. Their surplus energy, which could not be contained by the drudgery of hard labor or the preachings of hellfire and brimstone, nurtured and protected the wildness of the human heart, the wildness that could look into the forest as a mirror and see itself.
Baldy was an outlaw.
Baldy and a few friends organized Saturday night dances in Mayburg. He was the bouncer. Grizzled characters from lumber camps would come out of the woods looking for booze and a fight, in that order. Baldy’s job was to keep them from ruining everyone else’s good time. Usually, he could defuse cabin fever and moonshine weirdness with humor and empathy.
One night, a burly character with a reputation for his love of a good brawl, arrived fresh from weeks of lumber camp isolation and began harassing people outside. A crowd gathered to watch the seemingly inevitable fight. When Baldy was alerted, he went out, approached the irate drunk from behind, grabbed him by the seat of the pants and shirt collar, lifted him over his head, and threw him completely over a nearby truck. He turned to the fight-hungry spectators and said, “Where’s that big son-of-a-bitch everyone was complaining about?”
When Wilda Deshner’s passion for Baldy’s wild heart culminated in pregnancy, they married. Given the cultural context, their romance must have been powerful, but its story was erased by stigma. Wilda was driven into the crippled spirituality of fundamentalist Methodism by shame and the dominance of self-righteous and unattractive sisters.
[Baldy stood by his commitment to the end of his days, but, like the multiple dimensions of quantum physics, they occupied different worlds in the same space.]
Baldy had driven the train from Mayburg to Sheffield when he learned that Wilda was in labor. He decided to make the return trip, even though there was an ice jam in progress on the Tionesta Creek.
[The Tionesta Creek is larger than many rivers.]
He drove the locomotive as fast as he dared in the strange silver half-light of a New Year’s full moon with the rising ice closing over the tracks in the visible distance behind him as he raced down the creekside.
In the depths of the Great Depression, Baldy and a couple of his friends decided, since it was strawberry season when venison is prime, they ought to get some. Home brew probably played a role. They jack-lighted a nice fat doe—she went down in her tracks. While one of his friends held the light, Baldy stepped astride the fallen deer. Mysteriously revived, she stood up. The light was dropped and, while his friends were helpless with laughter, he rode the deer off into the darkness.
Baldy knew how to be happy. He was a big-hearted man with a full compliment of the flaws we associate with big-hearted men. While his wife’s pious family spewed repression and damnation, he danced in the background and taught his children and grandchildren to laugh and fish.
Baldy drove his car off the bridge that spans the Tionesta at Mayburg. The car landed on one of the concrete supports and hung there, teetering precariously. A bystander heard a voice yell out, “Jesus Christ, the moon’s upside down!”
In the fall of 1941, Clyde Darling, the man who would become my father on the far end of that immense decade, was enjoying an after-work beer when Wade and Ira came into the bar, already crazy drunk.
Wade and Ira were bad boys. They lived and worked in lumber camps, often for several weeks at a stretch, then came into town to drink and brawl until their money was gone. The bartender wasn’t happy to see them, but feared refusing to serve them would ignite the brawl he wished to avoid. He turned to the men seated at the bar and said, “Drinks on the house for the rest of the night, if anyone can get those two assholes out of here without busting the place up.” A tall, wiry man rose from his barstool, walked up behind Wade, grabbed him by the belt and collar, and threw him through the screen door. Ira rushed to his brother’s defense and was knocked senseless by a single punch. The man grabbed the semiconscious Ira by the ankles, dragged him outside through the ruined screen door, and dipped Ira’s head in the cesspool.
After the man returned to his seat amidst laughter and handshakes, Clyde raised his free beer in a toast to Baldy Wilson. Though he didn’t know it at the time, this was Clyde’s first encounter with his future father-in-law.
When Mayburg became a ghost town with the closing of the Mayburg Chemical Company in 1943, Baldy and Wilda moved to Warren, and Baldy went to work in a factory that made steel components for a variety of large weapons. One of his duties was to don an asbestos suit, cover his nose and mouth with a wet towel, and enter an idle blast furnace to scrape encrusted debris from its interior walls. They worked in teams a rushed few minutes at a time to avoid the risk of lung damage from the intense heat. Part of their job involved unbolting and replacing large metal plates, and one day in the rush to finish and get back out, they bolted Baldy’s thumb down. There was no time for hesitation—he drew his knife and cut his thumb off. Even that small delay scorched his lungs.
[My grandfather never truly recovered from the incident. He healed well at first, but he got old quickly. He must have felt the loss of his vigor keenly, but he didn’t complain. He became wise and his wisdom comingled with his wildness in the same way his former physical vitality had.]
No longer able to hunt, Baldy became the camp cook (and conversationalist) at Aunt Gert’s camp in deer season. When he said, “I just make a big pot of Mulligan,” I asked what “Mulligan” was.
“I make a stew with pretty much everything we’ve got. I keep it on the stove and add stuff to it as it gets eaten. When it turns green, I throw it away and start a new batch.”
Reminiscing about a time many years before, when one of his children had been bullied, Baldy said, “I went and had a talk with the boy.”
“What did you say?”
“I told him the next time I needed to have a talk with him, I was gonna spike his pecker to a stump and push him over backward.” He laughed softly and shook his head.
Baldy said, “This is a special truck—with it, I don’t have to pay any attention to speed limits.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I have limited speed.”
[Baldy was a one-man counterculture within the family. His humor and recklessness—the lightness of his heart—kept the family’s ancestral wildness from suffocating beneath the terrible weight of plastic industrial culture.]
Baldy drove a succession of battered old jalopies—hundred dollar vehicles that only needed to get him around town and trout fishing now and then. After his old truck finally died, his mobility was compromised for a while, until he found a baby-shit brown Volkswagen, which had most definitely seen better days.
That summer, Baldy was late for a family gathering. Just when my aunts, uncles, and parents were beginning to worry, he drove into the yard. Branches, leaves and ferns were stuck in the Volkswagen’s windows, doors, trunk lid, and bumpers, making it look like he had driven wildly through a clearcut jungle. He got out of the car wearing one of those novelty fake arrows that give the appearance of one’s head being transfixed, danced a little jig, and said, “I was ambushed!” The glove compartment was stuffed with crumpled, wadded currency. He’d had a great afternoon betting on (illegal) cockfights.
[Everyone, except my grandmother, including his grandchildren and great grandchildren, called him “Baldy.”]
My mother lamented the misery and injustice of a late April snowstorm.
“It could be worse,” Baldy said.
“How?” she asked with audible annoyance leaking from the edges of her voice.
“It could rain cow shit and rocks to splash it,” he replied.
[Such humor may have been my first conscious appreciation of multilayered meanings as he separated my mother’s complaint from her self-pity, affirmed the validity of the complaint, and substituted laughter and irony for lamentation.]
Clyde and Baldy were talking about a local politician whom they both loathed, probably for a good reason—I don’t recall the background or even whether I ever knew it. Clyde launched into a loud rant of manly rage sprinkled with threats of violence. When he paused, Baldy said, “He isn’t worthy of a fist, but I’d be happy to slap him until he pissed like a pup,” and laughed softly.
Advice from my grandfather seldom came in direct form, rather it was the subtext in stories, so when it emerged from the subtext into direct statement, it commanded attention. Once he told me about a man whose dishonesty had gotten him into a world of trouble.
“He didn’t intend to be that way. He only meant to tell one small lie, but every lie needs seven more to make it stick. That’s why it only takes one lie to make a liar of you.”
I was sitting beside Baldy on Mayburg Old Home Day. His morbidly obese, fundamentalist sister-in-law, Lottie, walked past.
[Lottie and her sister, Helen, were ever eager to forthrightly assure anyone and everyone that if you drank beer or failed to attend the right church regularly, you were doomed to eternal hellfire.]
“She’ll grow a lot of nice flowers on her grave when she dies,” he said.
“Why is that?”
“Lotta shit there.”
I showed Baldy an odd-shaped machine part I had found in the woods near Mayburg and asked, “What do you suppose this was for?”
“It looks like a hooty-cackle for on the butt end of a sneeze bar,” he replied.
My girlfriend and I were making love on my parents’ living room floor when the front door opened, and Baldy walked in. Seeming to take no notice, he walked past us, through the dining room, into the kitchen, and closed the kitchen door behind him. We heard the refrigerator open and close, a can of beer being opened, and the back door open and close.
As Baldy’s emphysema progressed, he could barely cross a room without pausing to catch his breath, but he refused to give up trout fishing. He loved to fish little forest streams for native brook trout with a long fly rod, a bait casting reel, and night crawlers. He walked miles into the woods in twenty-foot increments. His daughters (my mother and aunt) were worried.
[His blend of patience and courage was a larger lesson than I was able to assimilate at the time.]
Aunt Gert asked, “Dad, what are we going to do if you don’t come back one of these times?”
“Wait a week or two and take a walk. You’ll smell me,” he replied.
My plunge into the late-sixties zeitgeist seemed to send seismic shock waves through the boondock Methodist contingent of my mother’s family. Some were forthright in their conviction that I had embraced both eternal damnation and present treason, while others were content to merely squirm and fill the room with the veiled vibes of their nervous confusion.
My grandfather mostly seemed not to notice, but one day as we drank my father’s beer, while he was at work, Baldy said, “You know back in Prohibition, me and my friends used to buy illegal booze knowing that some of the bad stuff out there could make you go blind or worse, but we knew each other and knew who we could trust. Make sure you know who you can trust.”
I said, “That’s what life is all about.”
We tapped our bottles in a toast.
Following a tip from my grandfather, I went to Hank’s Plumbing to apply for a job as a clerk/shop assistant/laborer.
“So you’re looking for a job, huh? Well, come on, let’s go out back,” Hank said, as he picked up a softball and walked out the back door. I followed. In the backyard, he gestured to where he wanted me to go twenty-five feet away and threw the softball at me—hard.
I have an eye convergence problem, which compromises my depth perception. In order to make the catch I had to get my face directly in front of the ball and save myself with my right hand. So, that’s what I did. I caught the ball and fired it right back at his face.
He caught it and asked, “Why are you out of work now?” as he threw the ball again. I caught it, threw it back, and said, “I dropped out of college.”
He threw the ball back, “Why?”
“School didn’t seem nearly so attractive after I flunked my draft physical.”
Hank caught and returned the ball, “Why’d they flunk you.”
I caught and returned, “I don’t have binocular vision—shitty depth perception—it’s no big deal.”
[This was a lie. I had evaded the draft by claiming to harbor ”homosexual tendencies” and catching a hard thrown ball was, indeed, a big deal.]
He caught the ball and threw it back hard, “When can you start?”
“Right now,” I said and tossed the ball to him gently.
“What’s with the beard?”
“Nothing, it just grew there all by itself.”
Hank laughed and said, “Yeah, I guess so.”
I spent the rest of the day learning Hank’s bookkeeping method, how to operate the pipe threading machine, how to handle sales, and getting an introduction to Hank’s collection of pornographic magazines.
I bought a 1963 Rambler station wagon for a hundred thirty-five dollars.
Baldy was hospitalized when the emphysema that had been steadily draining his vitality for years reached its final, critical stage. It was obvious to all that death was closing in on him fast.
Aunt Gert said tearfully, “Dad, don’t leave us.”
“Do I look like I’m going anywhere?”
A nurse brought his dinner.
Baldy turned to me and said. “This hospital food makes me wish I was a dog.”
“Why is that?”
“So I could lick my ass and get the taste out of my mouth.”
He died the next day.
My parents moved to North Carolina not long after Baldy died. I lingered in northwest Pennsylvania for a while and dreamed of wild, faraway possibilities.
[He was so intensely alive, even when he was half-dead, that mourning seemed unnatural, and my journey from grief to gratitude was short. The wisdom beneath the surface of his wildness slowly bubbled to the surface in the decades after he was gone.]
From my earliest memory, my grandmother had parakeets. They all had names, but no one ever spoke about them. They were just there, one or two at a time, in a cage in the dining room.
There were no more birds after Baldy died.
My parents had expressed a longing to have a dog again, and their new home in North Carolina had a large fenced-in yard. They also wanted me to visit them before I headed for the West Coast. On the way, I stopped to visit my friend and former teacher, Aaron, and traded a selection of my prints for a borzoi puppy, Mona.
[Aaron bred and raised borzois, some of whom seemed like canine bodhisattvas.]
As I traveled southward, it became obvious that my aging Rambler’s top speed was in steady decline. A mechanic told me it would take two days and more money than the car was worth to resurrect it. Creeping into West Virginia at thirty-five mph with the gas pedal to the floor, a change of strategy was called for. I checked into a motel and dropped off Mona and my worldly belongings. Then, I drove to a supermarket parking lot a half-mile away, scraped off the inspection sticker, removed the license plate, and walked back to the motel. On the way, I bought two cheeseburgers—one for Mona and one for me. I called my parents and explained the delay in my expected arrival.
The next morning, I stuck out my thumb with a knapsack, two large bags, and a puppy. My mother picked me up not far down the road. My father was utterly smitten with Mona.
My parents paid for an airplane ticket to San Francisco. I didn’t have a place to settle, but I had a phone number for a bright friend who was living in a commune in Oakland.