An Excerpt from The Helicon
Ptol and I are laying on our backs on the big flat rock that overlooks Devil's Shoal of the Hiwassee River. A clear night. Plenty of stars. In the middle of nowhere.
Ptol knows all the constellations. He names them for me.
“See those three. Sometimes they're called the Three Kings. Sometimes Orion. The Hunter.”
Ptol gets the pot from Bernard, one of the cooks. I can't tell if I'm high or not. I start coughing and pass the joint back to him.
“Don't cough, don't get off,” he laughs.
I stop coughing, though I'm still not sure about getting off.
I say, “Those guys must have been smoking something to see a hunter in those three stars.”
“It's his belt.”
“Three kings makes more sense.”
“The bright one up high, to the right, is Aldebaran.”
“Al who?” I joke.
“It's Arabic. The Persians were famous astronomers mapping the heavens while Europeans were still squatting in ditches.”
“You saying that Western Civ is overrated?”
I laugh. He laughs.
“What do you expect when the teacher is the Wrestling Coach?” he says.
“C'mon,” I say, “Hammerlock's hip. He's listens to Bob Dylan.”
“Think he gets stoned?”
“Has to, to listen to Dylan.”
We both laugh.
Ptolemy defends: “He's a poet, not a singer.”
“At least he's not British.”
“You don't like being invaded?” he says.
“All the girls want guys who grow their hair out. Just so they can look like John Paul George and Pugno.”
“The Beatles are okay,” Ptol decides. “They're not Buddy Holly but they're okay.”
“Nobody's Buddy Holly. Not even Bobby Dye-lan.” I sing, “Though his pants, they are a-changing.”
That's our inside joke. Substitute pants for random words in songs.
“I want to hold your pants,” I sing. Maybe I am a little high.
Ptol say, “You just wanna get in Susie Moore's!”
Usually he'd play along, but pot makes him moodier than usual.
It get still. Crickets chirping quiet. I say, “Think things will change?”
“No, things will go on like they always have. Just like the stars. After they killed Kennedy . . . .”
I don't want to hear another conspiracy theory. “The Warren Commission will find out the truth.”
He's incensed: “You believe that?! The government doesn't want the truth. They want blind obedience. Good Christian soldiers marching on to war.”
He's getting hyper and paranoid. The pot does that too, I guess. It makes me want to sleep. I could fall asleep on this rock and not wake up until the breakfast bell.
But Ptol's not finished. “The Warren Commission's a giant setup. Lone gunman theory! What a crock!”
Intersession is the best. No campers for a whole week, but they have to pay us anyway. A group of us are going to hike into the Cherokee National Forest and climb Chilhowee.
I think, some things do change--this is our last year as counselors.
Everything's changing. At least down here. Maybe not in the stars.
Three shots in six seconds. That's what they say Oswald did. And he missed one. Course it was a moving target but moving slow.
I want to tell Ptolemy that he shoots better than that. He's six for six in the kill zone in less than six seconds. But I don't want to get him riled.
“So whatta you think about Bunning?” he asks, still moody.
He means Jim Bunning, pitcher for Phillies. We'd listened to the Phillies-Mets game on the radio that Sunday afternoon. The first of a double-header. He pitched a perfect game.
“He's a pretty good pitcher, I guess.”
“Oh, he's nothing but a bean-baller,” Ptol argues. “He couldn't win a game if he pitched clean.”
“The Mets are the worst team in baseball. Even Casey Stengel says that.”
“It's not much of an accomplishment,” Ptol decides.
“No,” I agree.
“Not like Larsen. I can't believe they were comparing him to Larsen!”
Larsen was the last guy to pitch a perfect game. For the Yankees against the Dodgers in '56 World Series. I don't want to get into that either.
“It's nothing like a Series game,” I say.
“There'll never be another perfect game,” Ptol insists.
“No, there won't.”
We pause and the crickets chirp and I think he's finished. But he won't let it die: “They shouldn't even put it in the record book.”
“They have to,” I say.
“No they don't. They can do whatever they want to. Remember Maris and the asterisk.”
“He broke Ruth's record,” I say.
“No he didn't—he had more games. And those expansion teams. It's not the same! It's like playing against minor leagues.”
“You're telling me the Mets belong in the Minor Leagues?” I ask, mock-innocent.
“Hell, I don't know if they're good enough for the minor leagues,” he laughs.
Laughter, a good sign. The water laps in the Devil's Shoals.
I ask, “We gonna climb Chilhowee?”
“I don't know.” he says.
“This pot makes you lazy.”
“Once you been to the top,” he says, “what's the point of climbing up there again?”
“It may not be Everest, but it is the highest mountain around here.”
“Mount Mitchell's way higher.”
“No,” I say, “you're higher than Mount Mitchell.”
We laugh. Even Devil's Shoals is laughing.
“This is our last year,” I remind him.
“Okay,” he says, “maybe.”
“You really think I could get into Susie Moore's pants?”
“Maybe if you got her stoned,” he suggests.
“Oh, I'm sure that will happen,” I laugh. She's straighter than a new pair of Levis.
I guess I'm feeling pretty high after all. Devil's Shoals seems to be speaking Cherokee: “Wukka, wukka, wukka, wukka.”
“Maybe if you were Paul McLennon O'Harrison,” Ptol says, “she'd let you touch her boobies. But I don't know about the goods.”
“Homo,” I say, laughing.
“Homo yourself,” he says, laughing back.
He'll climb Chilhowee.
“You know,” I say, “The Raven climbed Chilhowee.”
He doesn't answer. He's lost in the stars. Maybe found a new constellation.
Sam Houston was “The Raven.” He left civilization to join the Hiwassee Cherokees after a girl broke his heart. Ptolemy knows way more about him than I do.
“He even married a Cherokee girl,” I say.
“That wasn't until later,” Ptol corrects me, “when the Cherokee were removed. Oklahoma. You know what they called him, don't ya?”
“No, Big Drunk,” he says with some bitterness. Even though he's high, he's still wound up.
“Doesn't sound too bad to me. Fishing, drinking, Cherokee women. Living like the Good Lord intended.”
“Doesn't sound too bad to me. Fishing, drinking, Cherokee women. Living like the Good Lord intended.”
“The Good Lord?” he mocks me. Lately he's become an atheist. Or agnostic. I'm not sure which and I don't think he is either.
“The Good Lord has nothing to do with it. They lived as Nature intended. Western Civilization is just a blot, a cancer. It'll kill itself eventually.”
“We still have time to change our ways,” I say. Ptol's seriously killing my buzz.
The Devil's Shoals go wukka-wukka-wukka.
“Know that Buddhist priest who set himself on fire?” he says.
“Everybody's seen that picture.”
“That's true belief. He's willing to die for a cause. To put an end to War. He' s not dressing up in fancy clothes and sitting his fat rump in a church pew looking around to see who's there and who's not.”
“Like the Pharisees?”
“Hell, yes! If Jesus were around today, he'd go straight into First Pres', walk up the aisle and kick the minister right in the nuts!”
I hate to see him get like this. Like his intestines are being twisted into knots.
“You really think Jesus would kick a guy in the nuts?” I ask.
“It won't work. People will never wake up. Things won't change.”
“You're making me tired,” I say. “C'mon, I'm going back to the cabin.”
I get up but he doesn't move.
“You coming?” I ask.
“Later,” he says.
“Don't fall asleep out here. You might fall in the river and drown—wake up dead.”
Devil's Shoal. Wukka-wukka-wukka.
* * *
We meet in refectory after breakfast. 6:30 am. Enough to time to get us up and down Chilhowee before nightfall.
Not because Chilhowee is haunted by the ghost of the Cherokee. It is.
But mainly because you can kill yourself on those trails in plain day. They twist up the South face, narrowing in places to half-a-foot wide. With a drop of over two hundred feet.
They call it “the Cherokee's Revenge.”
Trouble starts immediately. There's Jackson, Sam Barker, Ptolemy, me . . . and Bernard. Personally I've got nothing against Bernard. He wants to come it's fine by me. He's a great guy, a good cook, sells decent weed and is pretty funny.
He also happens to be a Negro.
Which is a problem for Sam Barker. And if it's a problem for Sam then it's a problem for his butt-buddy Jackson.
It doesn't help that Bernard has never climbed Chilhowee. (Or any other mountain, for that matter). He's never even left camp since he showed up on the first day. He's mainly hung out with the other cooks and staff. But Mr. Mills, Camp Director, has sent them all home for inter-session. Bernard is low man on the totem pole so he has to stay.
Ptol, God love him, bears right in on Sam and Jackson: “I guess you guys don't mind that Bernard's not a counselor. That he's a cook. I guess the color of his skin makes him less capable of walking up a path than either of you two seasoned mountaineers.”
Bernard says, “Hey guys, I got plenty of stuff here to keep me busy.”
Sam backpedals, “Bernard, it's nothing about you personally. But Chilhowee isn't some cakewalk.” He glares at Ptolemy: “You have to know what you're doing!”
Ptol glares back: “I been up and down that mountain twice as many times as you! I've led twelve-year-olds up that mountain!”
Bernard says, “Look, boys, you have your climb.” He starts to walk back to the kitchen. “I'll catch you on the flipside.”
“Hell no!” Ptolemy roars. “Bernard, tell them who your grandmother was.”
“Man, come on,” he says. He needs this job—he doesn't need Ptolemy screwing it up for him.
“Tell them!” Ptol shouts.
“Alright,” he says, “she was full-blooded Cherokee. Baker Roll.”
You can see the Indian in his nose and cheekbones.
Ptolemy's on fire. “He's got more business on that mountain than any of us—especially you two! I wouldn't trust either of you in front or behind me!”
“Go to hell, nigger-lover!” Sam Barker spits at Ptol. He turns to Bernard, “I'm not saying that to you, you're a good guy. Just be careful climbing with these two.”
Sam and Jackson march off as if they've somehow saved the Confederacy.
Jackson looks back, “You can't climb with three. Mr. Mills won't like it.” He mimics Mr. Mills' drawl: “It reflects poorly on the judgment of a camp counselor.”
The rule is four to a climb. In case one gets hurt, two can carry and a third goes for help.
I'm not sure about the climb myself. But now that Ptolemy has made it a bona fide Civil Rights issue, I've got no choice.
* * *
It takes us half the morning to reach the base of Chilhowee.
Bernard keeps us entertained with camp scoop.
“Mr. Mills is right with me so I don't have a problem. But some of the ladies sure do.”
“How?” I ask.
“They call him Freaky Hands.”
Ptol laughs, “Freaky hands?”
“Yeah, he's got his hands down his pants all the time. Playing with himself.”
We all break out laughing.
“And he's got this thing of walking down the serving line behind the women and feeling their butts.”
“The cafeteria women?”
“Yeah, nobody wants to work that line, they'd rather be back in the kitchen. It's hot as Hades but Freaky Hands don't come back there. Betty'd whip his ass if he messed in her kitchen.”
Betty is the head cook and probably could whip Mr. Mills' ass, or any man's, for that matter. She looks like a cross between Mammy from Gone with the Wind and a Green Bay Packer.
“Yeah, he's a freak, alright,” Bernard says. “Wife too. One of the cleaning girls says she caught 'em at it in the middle of the afternoon.”
“Doing what?” I ask.
“What you think?” Ptol says sarcastically.
“Well, it wasn't what you think,” Bernard corrects Ptol. I feel vindicated. “His old lady had one of his leather belts. A thick black one. And was beating hell out of his naked ass! Raising red welts!”
“What a total perv!” Ptolemy laughs. “Big Mr. Mills!”
I mimic his drawl: “The duty of a camp counselor is one of the highest duties you will ever have the privilege of upholding. These children are in your hands . . . .”
Ptolemy butts in, “your freaky hands!”
We all bust a gut and have to sit down.
I blurt out to Bernard, “God, you guys know everything.”
It comes out all wrong, but Bernard does his best not to take it that way. “Yeah, we see things you guys never see.”
He says it more sorrowful than spiteful. I start to say I'm sorry but figure that will only make things more awkward.
Luckily Chilhowee is in sight. I stands like a clumb of sugar before us.
Ptol says, “That's it, Bernard.”
Bernard looks up, “That's the highest mountain I've ever seen. I thought the Mountain was tall.”
“Mountain's a hill,” Ptolemy says in disgust.
Bernard is incredulous, “We gonna climb that? In a day?”
“If you still want to,” Ptol says, though turning back is not an option.
“I guess you boys know what you're doing,” Bernard says.
“That's right,” Ptolemy laughs, “we got the Freaky Hands!”
We all bust up one more time. But the mountain looms.
* * *
The first half of Chilhowee is easy. Up and down slow ridges. Trail follows a gulley. Switchbacks on a low grade.
Ptol yells, “Let's race!” and takes off.
Bernard looks at me. I shrug my shoulders and we head after him.
Ptol's a miler and wearing weejuns. Bernard is wearing black work boots. I'm a wrestler.
But Bernard's in pretty good shape, and not from cooking. He darts off like the Flash, catches Ptol and passes him.
“Wait up!” I yell, but the two of them are in a duel now.
They disappear over a ridge. All I can do is trot along and hope the insanity passes before somebody twists an ankle or worse.
I catch up a mile or so up the trail. They're both out of breath, panting. Taking a canteen break.
“He kicked . . . my . . . ass,” Ptol huffs, turning to Bernard. “But I'll still . . . beat you . . . to the top.”
“Shit you will,” Bernard replies, smiling, his face running with sweat.
“You guys nuts?” I say. “No more running, Ptol, you know how dangerous the trail gets!”
“Chicken,” he says.
“He's running in work boots!” I say.
Ptol looks to Bernard, “Barefoot?”
Bernard says, “These shoes are killing me.”
Ptol eggs him on, “You're Cherokee, aren't you!”
So they both pull off their shoes.
“Why don't I just wait here for the screams?” I say.
“Sounds good to me,” Ptol says. “Just say I went out in a blaze of glory.”
“Bernard,” I ask, “how old are you?”
That surprises me. He's only a year older than us. He looks like a man in his twenties. Must grow up faster, I think.
“I'll make sure,” I say, “they get your age right on your tombstone.”
* * *
I climb alone. It doesn't thrill me. Near the top a long stretch of the trail scales the rock face. The Cherokee carved a walkway out of the bluff just wide enough for single file.
Above, pine trees hang from the bluff like broken fingers. Below, the tallest white pines look like mini-Christmas trees. Their tops wave slowly in the hazy breeze.
At one point a good yard of trail drops out altogether. A washout. It would make sense to turn around, but my “climbing partners” seem to have made it so I soldier on.
I press my back to the cliffside, thinking, it'd be nice to have a hand.
I stretch my left foot over the gap, an inch at a time, until I'm ready to make my leap of faith.
Kierkegaard would be proud of me. I land perfectly on the other side. The adrenalin kicks in and now I start running after Ptol and Bernard. I wonder if this is going to be my last time on the mountain. Even if nothing really changes, things change.
But I'm a wrestler not a runner. I drop to a trot, then walk. I hike the rest of the way, taking careful steps—wondering what that worn ancient rock feels like against bare feet.
But screw it! I'm not taking off my shoes.
* * *
At the summit Ptol is laying on his back in the middle of a poplar grove. Bernard is entranced by the blue haze floating cross the foothills of the Smokies.
If Ptol's condition is any indication, they've already burnt one joint. I'm not in the mood.
“You made it,” he says, looking up dreamily.
“I could have used you back there on that washout.”
“Oh, dude,” he says, “I'm sorry.”
“You look sorry,” I say, heavy on the irony.
“You want to blow some weed?” he asks by way of apology. “Hey, Bernie,” he calls. “You got that joint?”
Bernard is shielding his eyes, lost in the distance.
“Bernie?” I ask.
“That's his real name. Nobody calls him Bernard except for his grandmother. And Mr. and Mrs. Mills . . . .”
“Freaky Hands?” I laugh.
“And asswhipping Jan,” he laughs.
“God, how we gonna look at them with a straight face?” I ask.
Bernard, or Bernie, wanders back over. He looks a little too high. I'm worried he might fall off the mountain.
He offers me the joint, but I shake my head no.
“Suit yourself,” he slurs.
I figure one of us needs to stay sharp. This ain't a picnic.
Well, maybe it is.
Ptol says he's starving and I am too. Bernie unloads a feast from his skilfully packed rucksack. A dozen individually wrapped ham and cheese sandwiches. A box of rye-crisps. Sardines. Even a jar of dill pickles.
We devour it. Like three bears, tearing through the wrappers, peeling back tins with our fingers.
Laughter is the only thing that makes us human. Once we finish off the food, we have a burping contest. Ptol wins.
Ptol has to hear asswhipping story again.
“Bernie,” he asks, “which girl saw him?”
“Her name's Omie. Short for Naomi.”
“Which one is she?” Ptol asks.
“You wouldn't know her,” he says.
“She got sent back. Soon as it happened.”
“Mills is a dick,” Ptol mutters in disgust.
“No, Mr. Mills paid her whole summer. Gave her an extra hundred to keep it on the low down.”
“How'd you find out?” I ask.
“Grapevine,” Bernie says, adding with a laugh, “I guess he should have give Omie more than a hundred.”
We all laugh.
“Think he'll give us each a hundred bucks, if we let tell him we know?” Ptol laughs.
Bernie grabs him by the arm. Not hard, but serious.
“You can't tell nobody what I told you. I need this job!”
Ptol tries to shake it off, “Bernie, I'm just kidding.”
“Yeah, he's stupid but he's kidding,” I chime in.
Bernie calms down. Tosses an empty can of sardines. “I'll be living on these this winter without my pay-check.”
“Don't you have a job back in town?” I ask innocently.
“Hell, no,” he says like Ptol and I are fools. “I'm in school.”
I'm thinking trade school, but it turns out he's enrolled in the State College for Negroes in Nashville. And he runs track, a miler.
“Coach Herbert,” he says with pride, “has coached more Olympic medalists than any coach in the United States. A black man.”
“Wilma Rudolph,” I say.
Not to be outdone, Ptol adds, “Ralph Boston won the long jump. Didn't he go to State?”
“Yeah,” Bernie says. “There's lots of them.”
“How about you,” Ptol asks, “you going to the Olympics?”
“I'm ain't that good. But we'll send a girl to Tokyo. You watch for her. Wyomia Tyus. A sprinter. She's as good as Wilma.”
“Will she break a world record?” I ask.
“Good chance in the 100. Tracks getting faster every year.”
“So what are you studying?” I ask.
“Engineering. If Calculus don't kill me.”
“Ptol's a wiz at Calculus,” I say, “he won the Math Medal at MacArthur.”
“Goddamnit,” Ptol says, his quick mood changing like a sudden thunderstorm. “I mean, just, goddamnit.”
“What's the matter?” Bernie asks.
“Goddamn this country. I mean, you're working here as a goddamn cook . . .”
“Gotta make the bread somehow,” Bernie laughs. It's the first time I've ever heard the word bread used that way. “Coach Herbert talked to Mr. Mills, who gave me this job. I'm happy to have it. I'll make more in a summer than I'd make all year bagging groceries or working a filling station.”
He licks the sardine juice off his fingers.
“Mr. Mills hired me even though I never cooked before. Told Coach I'd learn. And I have.”
“I can't believe Freaky Hands pays you that well,” Ptol says.
“Mr. Mills pays good money. That's why these older ladies are willing to come out here and sleep in the woods. Shoot, Betty cooks at one of the biggest houses up on the Mountain. The family's away for the summer, so she works here.”
“At least somebody's making money,” I say, “because we ain't making shit.”
“Hell, you guys don't have nothing to do but chase around little kids. That ain't work!”
Through some roundabout discussion we learn that Bernie's making triple what we are.
“Goddamnit!” Ptol says. “I want to cook. You can be the counselor.”
Bernie smiles, “No thanks. I'll leave the kiddies to you two.”
“It's not that easy,” I say.
“The kitchen folks wonder why you guys work for nothing,” Bernie says, “Old Betty says it's because you guys are just big kids. Parents pay for everything.”
I feel like a twelve-year-old. For once Ptol doesn't have a thing to say.
Bernie asks Ptol, “You good at Calculus?”
“You good at track?” Ptol replies.
“I would have beat you in the City Meet if I could have run in it.”
Ptol had won the mile in a city record time: 4:25. Bernie's best that year a 4:18.
“That's why Coach Herbert recruited me.”
“Goddamnit,” Ptol says, “Goddamn this country . . . it's runs a big bunch of bastards. That's why they killed Kennedy. They're afraid a Negro might beat some precious white kid in something as stupid as the mile run!”
Bernie ignores his rant, “My problem is my time ain't coming down. I can't break 4:15.”
I say, “Smoking this shit can't help.”
Bernie smiles, “The preacher says there's vice and advice. Vice usually wins.”
“I always wanted to break four minutes,” Ptol admits. His hero is Roger Banister. He started running because Banister broke the four-minute mile. “But I don't think it'll happen.”
“There's a boy out Kansas,” Bernie says, “In high school. Broke four-minutes.”
“Ryan,” I say. I've seen him in “Faces in the Crowd” in Sports Illustrated.
“James Ry-un,” Ptol corrects me.
“These tracks are getting faster, just not me,” Bernie says, “I need a four-minute mile in Calculus.”
“I'll help you,” Ptol offers. “Integral, differential. It's not that hard. Just like learning a foreign language. Gotta learn what the words mean.”
“I don't want you to do it for free,” Bernie insists. “Seeing as you guys aren't making much.”
“I'm sure we can come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement,” Ptol smiles. Pot for Calculus.
“Deal,” Bernie smiles.
For some reason the mountain feels higher, the Smokies bluer and the sky wider than they ever have before. Times may not change, I think, but maybe people can.
* * *
Dad has been appointed Federal Judge for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Mr. Mills lets me leave camp a week early so that I can attend the ceremony.
Dad's friend Judge Millsaps swears him in. They take pictures for the newspapers.
The reporters ask stupid questions like how it feels to be a judge, was he surprised, has he spoken to President Johnson, stuff about his background, and of course the family.
He answers all the questions patiently and seriously. Lawyerly. He finishes by saying proudly that I have been accepted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the Fall semester.
One needle-nosed reporter breaks the good mood by asking dad how he is prepared to handle Civil Rights cases.
Dad stares the guy eye-to-eye and vows to vigorously uphold the rule of law.
Judge Millsaps pat him on the back and the interview is over.
* * *
In the car on the way home I ask dad if the reporter is a jerk.
“He was just doing his job,” dad insists.
“It's his job to be a jerk!” mom says, adding, “I thought you handled it well. Thank the Lord this isn't Mississippi.”
Three Civil Rights workers have gone missing there. It's on the news every night.
Dad fumes, “I'd round up every single one of those damned Klan men and give them a public whipping. We'd find out what happened quick!”
“John!” mom scolds him, “you're a judge now!”
Dad says, “They got folks, capable black folks, who are fighting for their rights down there. These white northern college kids go down there and are just muddying the water!”
“Young people are idealistic,” mom says.
“I know,” he says, a little ashamed.
“You're going to be a great judge,” mom says.
The car is quiet for most of the drive up the Mountain. The farther we get away from the Valley, the more the tension eases.
Dad turns around to say something to me and for a second I'm back on the MacArthur bus with Arly.
Mom cries, “John! Keep your eye on the road.”
He turns back around but continues. “You know, your people fought for the Union. This 'states rights' bullshit was settled a hundred years ago. With good men's blood. You know, more men died in the Civil War than World War II?”
I know this, because he's told me a hundred times before and I know exactly where this is going.
“And your great-great-grandfather fought for the 7th Tennessee in the Union Army. He was captured in Union City, Tennessee, and sent to Andersonville Prison. He died of dysentery in that prison camp! Can you imagine?” It's been three generations and it still upsets him.
I can imagine. I've seen photographs of survivors of Andersonville. They don't look much different than those from Auschwitz. Naked living skeletons. Mouths hanging open in mute accusation. The eyes black holes but not blind. Not blind.
“You know, I reopen Andersonville,” dad says as we pull in the driveway, “if I could send every one of those KKK sons of bitches there! Let 'em learn some real history.”
“John!” mom says, more at his language than the sentiment.
Author: Luke Powers
My bio: I teach English at Tennessee State University, an historically black college in Nashville, TN. I received a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University where I hoped to be the last of the fugitives, but found out they had already fled. I have an M.A. in Folklore from UNC-Chapel Hill, which I attended as a Morehead Scholar. I am a songwriter who has worked with a range of artists including Mark Collie, Garth Hudson (The Band) and Richard Lloyd (Television). I once got to sing with Johnny Cash. Downloads of my music are available at www.phoebeclaire.net and jango.com.
The entire book is currently available for free download at http://www.phoebeclaire.net.