Sermonette in a Dead Tongue

The farm was quartered by a creek that dragged across a gentle slope. Granite humps arched out of its muddy banks where it descended beneath the roadway lying along the north-south axis. When my father and his brothers expanded their farm to include a dairy, the department of highways brought a backhoe on a flatbed truck and dug a culvert beneath old 86 tall enough for the cows to walk through.
Hornyheads and moccasins gathered in the wallows at either end of the pipe, and as children we would catch the miserable little fish with their thorned crowns while the adults scouted the banks for vipers. The dairy barn wouldn’t hold paint and when they stopped dairying the silo stood wailing lowly in the wind. Even a half dead farm is dead quiet.

I tried to climb the silo’s ladder a few times but always froze even before I reached the sheltered section at the top. My misunderstanding of the value of money can be traced to my feeble efforts to climb the thing. I couldn’t understand how something so far removed from the end products of milk and shit and cash could be worth the risk of falling silently to one’s death on the foundation slab.

And the processes of silage stretched even farther back, sucking at money like the shitty mud would suck the shoes off your feet. Clydesdales and laborers to be fed, plowing, hilling and seeding corn, maintaining ensilage cutters…

There was haying, too. Cut, tedded and put up loose in the loft of the barn with a trolley and hooks. One of my uncles tried to ride the hooks down to a waiting wagonload of hay, slipped, and the hook sliced into his thigh up to the groin. They left him on it until the ambulance came, in case he’d more than grazed his femoral artery.

It seemed like it was fifty years ago they had the dairy, but it was less than a decade they’d quit the hard work and gone to beef cattle and hogs. A square sump of pigshit now foamed behind the silo, and green mildew spores flourished on its whitewash. The pigs were crowded beneath a long open shed on a glassy concrete floor and they stood in their food and their shit until they were trucked off and the floor hosed down into the sump, and the process was repeated until one rough November, when nearly all of them contracted pneumonia in the cold, on the filthy concrete.

At first one by one, and then by the dozens, they had to be shot by my uncle and his brothers, who came to help with the liquidation of that year’s prospects. I remember my father and my older brother coming home with the hems of their trousers caked in blood, worrying my uncle might have placed his bets wrong enough to lose the place.

Most of my family couldn’t have done anything to help them afford the farm. My grandfather was an illiterate barber. A violent drunkard. He quit having to work much once his eldest son was able to hitch horses and begin supporting the family. He kept fucking though, making the family bigger, dumber and more unwieldy.

My eldest uncle had numerous confrontations with him, and I gather they ultimately came to blows. But it wasn’t until later, when my uncle was in the Army Air Force, that gramps got his shit partially together.

He came home late one evening from drinking and for some reason picked a fight with his horse in the stall. Horse won. Gran decided the combination of liquor and stupid was going to kill him, so he opted for stupid, straight up.

They’d saddled the eldest boy with a stupid name- Winnifred. He promptly changed it to Winston when he entered Army flight school as a sergeant. His class books are annotated in a terse, small hand. He was anxious about washing out. He began keeping a diary along with his flight logs, fitfully.

There are family stories about him buzzing the farm in various aircraft. He was probably accumulating flight time by ferrying them back and forth between airbases and transport nodes along the coast.

One time he detoured to come screeching down in a Douglass SBD, dive brakes open, on his brothers picking rocks out of the field. He would have had to tighten the scarf around his neck to keep g’s from pulling all the blood away from his brain and causing him to black out. He rolled back the canopy for one more run and shot them the bird.

People were willing to invest a lot in a joke then.

A few months into the war, he was flying a Bell Aircobra over eastern South Carolina when the fuel hose ruptured. He had to glide the plane down in the Pee Dee swamps. He hydroplaned into a tangle of saplings at the water’s edge. Some sharecroppers had watched him fall and ran from their field into the woods to see what happened.

He was sitting on the wing, his head in his hands, sobbing. It wasn’t so much he’d torn a big chunk of his upper lip and nose on the gunsight. He was afraid he’d fucked up somehow, and they might not let him fly again.
It would have been back to the farm, with no way to pay for it.

He grew a mustache to hide the mess he’d made of his face by the time Operation Torch cleared North Africa. There are a few entries in his diary describing the Roman ruins in Algiers. He was amused the ancients had indoor plumbing when the folks back home were still walking forty yards to a shithouse and wiping their asses with corncobs.

He knew they were dupes, and they’d always be dupes, and they would always need help. He believed in Roosevelt. He believed so strongly, that before he left for Newport News, and North Africa, he went to a radio station and cut a couple of steel discs of himself reading Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech.

There was only one disc that hadn’t been lost, and it was badly marred and scratched by the time I heard it. It sounded older than it was. He sounded like an old time musician talking while the band tuned up. Irish tenor register:

Just as our national policy in internal affairs has been based upon a decent respect for the rights and the dignity of all of our fellow men within our gates, so our national policy in foreign affairs has been based on a decent respect for the rights and the dignity of all nations, large and small. And the justice of morality..ality…ality…

Before he left he rebuked one of his younger brothers for using the word Nigger. It was an offence against the poor, he said. Everybody poor, including the people who’d helped him off the wing of his plane and driven him in a farmwagon until they could flag down a car to help him get his face stitched back on. Everybody poor-including his family.

His first combat flight was out of Castel Volturno, near Naples, providing air cover for the Americans bottled up at Anzio. The flight officer’s report says they encountered about eighteen FW-190s. He saw my uncle’s chute deploy and drift toward the German lines.

At home, his hunting dog began to scream, and did for a few days.

His last diary entry is about the Spitfires his fighter group flew. He said it was a beautiful thing to fly- an intelligent, graceful thing.