Swinging For the Fence

“You all set?”

“Yep” he said collapsing onto his bed and kicking to straighten out the sheets which hung off the mattress from the night before. “I am utterly exhausted!” he groaned just as I was about to turn out the lights.

“Utterly exhausted?” I paused. “Utterly?” It wasn’t that he professed to be soooooo tired as much as that word caught my attention. A perfectly good word ‘utterly’ may be, I seldom think to use it. And why was he exhausted? What events had transpired that had so completely depleted his life force? Was it even possible to be anything more than exhausted or was the proclamation of utter exhaustion the melodramatic equivalent declaring one’s self really REALLY tired, which got me to thinking.

Back in 10th grade I remember my English teacher putting up a challenge against use of the word ‘really’ in classroom discussions or our subsequent writing assignments. Mr H. ran an interesting classroom. As a relatively average looking fellow of average height and medium complexion I’d say he’d blend right into the crowd of students passing in the hallway outside his door if it weren’t for the fuzz of his closely cropped cranium which I can only assume alluded to the eminent recession of his hairline at a relatively young age. But his youthful exuberance for the written word was palpable, and a welcome change after my freshman year of conjugating verbs and dissecting grammar under the watchful eye of the old redheaded crone that preceded him. Instead, we’d dive into Catcher In the Rye, explore poetic imagery, and immerse out minds and fingers in a pot luck supper dubbed the Medieval Banquet. If that weren’t inspiring enough, rumor had it that he was also bangin’ Miss L., my eigth-grade English teacher who had recently ascended to a new position on staff (pun intended) at the high school. She was a modestly bohemian young woman who wore gunny-sack dresses to compliment her untamed mane of curly hair. It didn’t matter if it was true, but it did earn him the respect of myself and the other guys on the soccer team that shared class time with him.

For whatever brief moments a room full of 16-year-old angst could endure, he brought passages to life with fervent vigor and boisterous thespian articulation. Clad in faded blue jeans, muted flannel and understated sweaters, it was as if Shakespeare himself had stepped out from between the tattered catalogue pages of LLBean and Eddie Bauer. He simply asked that we think about words in our writing and expression and avoid the pitfalls of ‘ummm’ and ‘uhhh’, ‘totally’ and ‘wicked’ that were haphazardly strewn about like extra exclamation points at the end of every sentence which is really unnecessary!!! Whatever happened to him, I wonder. Perhaps he’s enshrined himself in a hermitage surrounded by books that are actually made of paper. His catatonic gaze upon the woodland creatures that pass the window to his hovel is broken only by turret-like blurts of profanity and jumbled quotes from Hamlet and Fifty Shades of Grey. Either that or he and Miss L. are fornicating on a beach somewhere in South America when they’re not lying in a hammock mercilessly LOL-ing over the degradation of contemporary American English propagated by hip-hop music and Damn-You-Autocorrect! Oh, were it only ‘so true’, verily.

“That’s an interesting word, ‘utterly’…. I have a question for you,” I started in. “If ‘exhausted’ means the complete depletion of something like energy, or food or resources, and ‘utterly’ means ‘completely’, then isn’t saying ‘utterly exhausted’ like saying ‘completely completely depleted’?”

“Uhhhh…… I guess.” He didn’t care, but I couldn’t stop myself.

“I mean, does it add anything?” I asked as innocently as I could. I know I should have let it go, but I believed it was an interesting little thought nugget he might appreciate. I had the best intentions. My boy, now 13, is a bookworm. Whereas I am resigned to chip away at a book at a daunting 15 pages an hour, He can leisurely rip through a 500 page novel in a couple days. His bookcase and nightstand are stacked high with more books than I’ve read in a lifetime. But in that moment of inspiration, that forced one-sided conversation, I thought I might make a connection over the common thread between his passion for reading and my interest in writing: words. “I just wonder what you think,” I said to dispel his natural inclination to wander off. Fortunately, he was already tucked in against the headboard of his bed with no means of escape. “I don’t know what’s right”, I confessed, “but ‘utterly’ seems sorta similar to ‘really’ when you use it like that, doesn’t it? What is that, a vague adverb or something?” I think he shrugged and grunted some monosyllabic form of “idontknow” which I took to mean that it was time for me to please leave. – Strike One.

The entire exchange had only taken a couple minutes up to that point, but he was utterly exhausted after all. Reluctant to submit defeat in my misguided attempt to bond with him over some trivial literary concept, good sense told me it was about time to release him from the conversation…. almost. But then I had another interesting thought. “Hey, here’s another interesting thought for you.”

“Whaaaaat”, he begged off with a grin. In hindsight, I’m sure the few synapses that were still firing behind his utterly exhausted eyes were begging for mercy. I should have interpreted the grin as a polite white flag of surrender instead of mild interest in his father’s enthusiastic monologue, but I was on a roll.

A few weeks earlier we had been on a rustic family vacation in Maine. The lakeside cabin offered the modern conveniences of electricity, a wood stove for heat, a few basic kitchen appliances, and the bathroom had running water. It covered all one’s basic needs…. EXCEPT for television, a point of contention between all us boys and Mommy who had rented the shanty in the middle of nowhere, sans cable or internet. So as we each found other ways to entertain ourselves I stumbled upon a collection of short stories previously published in The Saturday Evening Post. Having nothing better to do without the comfort of my faithful TV remote control,  I thumbed through the anthology from 1946 figuring there must be something else interesting about the year my mother was born and settled on a story titled “Fire in the Night”.

I set the stage for him as I prepared to read a particular passage that had captured my attention so many days prior, hoping that it might capture his. Though the story was set in a small lumber mill town in the 1940’s it was easy to draw him a familiar comparison to our rustic vacation getaway. With only a few small shops, a bank and a post office nestled along a half-mile stretch of Main Street, the townspeople would be use to a very simple way of life. Instead of hitching-posts for horses and wagons, our contemporary setting came adorned with ATV and snowmobile parking spaces. If you wanted anything more exotic than a hearty breakfast or a good burger, there was one little pizza joint or a remarkably good Thai restaurant that had no business being there other than that it was a welcome alternative to the otherwise bland palette of the entire region. Perhaps the proprietors had planted roots in this town when the railroad had first come through to supply the lumber yard and the first settlers. The bowling alley at the far end of town had recently grown into a sprawling multiplex offering a bar, dartboards and dinner, a meager suite of arcade games and a dance floor. I’d bet that a good number of future townsfolk would be conceived right there in the ATV parking lot after whooping it up to country music and cheap beer on hot summer nights.

“So you remember that town we stayed in for summer vacation, right? Well, this story takes place back in the 1940’s. The town was just like it except that they rode horses and wagons instead of four-wheelers and snow mobiles, and their main business was a lumber yard right in the middle of main street. Everyone in the town worked and depended on that lumber yard. Without it, the town would fade away ’cause people would have to look for work elsewhere.” I gotta make this quick or I’ll totally loose his attention. “You remember the town, right?”

“Yaaaa…..” Maybe.

I’m not convinced he’s even listening, but I continue. “So in this story, there’s a fire in the night. The lumber yard which is like the heart of the town goes up in flames and all the men in town rush over to help fight the fire. They aren’t fire fighters. They just men doing what they can to save their livelihood and the town. So here”, I begin to read excitedly. Maybe my enthusiasm would be a little contagious. It was worth taking another swing at it…

“Billy heard the hoarse, tight voices of the men, the words thrown over the shoulders and across flame-swept alleys, the very sound and sparsity of the words significant. He saw the men of the town in this excitement, transformed from everyday nonentity to surprising summits of endurance, skill and strength. The grocery clerk was handling his nozzle with the skill of a veteran, playing the water in advantageous spots and not shrinking from the flames or falling timbers; words, sharp and acutely outlined against the noise of the fire, came up to his ears:
“Get that hose over here.”
Look out, Joe, watch that roof.”
“More pressure.”
“Watch it, boys. She’s going down any minute.”
“Give me a hand with this wrench.”

“…and here it is”, I interrupt to highlight my favorite part, and the reason for putting him through all this…

“They were simple words and in them was no dramatic quality, but the night with the fire and the noise and the newness of the thing made the words mean a great deal.”

“Here, listen to that again – “, I said, re-reading with thespian dramatic flare that Mr. H would have approved…

“Get that hose over here.”
“Look out, Joe, watch that roof.”
“More pressure.”
“Watch it, boys. She’s going down any minute.”
“Give me a hand with this wrench.”
“They. were. simple. words. and in them was no. dramatic. quality, but the night with the fire and the noise and the newness of the thing made. the. words. mean. a great. deal.”

“Wow.” How could he not find that interesting? Simple words wether for reading or writing could be so important to getting a idea across or creating a feeling without ‘really’ or ‘totally’ or Heaven forbid ‘wicked’. I’m fired up. The idea is fascinating. We’re bonding over the least common denominator of his passion for reading and mine for writing: words. “What do you think?”

“Mmmm, it’s good.” We’re not bonding. – Swing and a miss. Strike two.

“Ok”, I relent. “I’ll leave you alone.” I give his knee a loving little pat through the quilt as he pulls the sheets I was sitting on up to his chin. “I love you.” And just as I was about to flip the switch it occurs to me. “Hey. Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“I. Love. You. See? Those are simple words. Kinda like in the story. In them is no dramatic quality but the words mean a great deal.”

“uh huh.” – Strike three.

“Good night, buddy.”

“G’night, Dad.”

..

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