Pop - Henry Arthur (Harry) Smith
Fidgets Retreat, Virginia
Summer 1941
Photo from To Hell In A Handbasket


Notes on a Father*


H. Allen Smith

IN RECENT YEARS my father has been living at a camp on the banks of the Potomac about twenty miles above Washington. Until he grew weary of it, he was employed at the camp as a sort of custodian, renting canoes and fishing tackle to the customers, keeping cabins repaired, and looking after the establishment's little truck garden.

I visited Pop at the camp in the summer of 1941.

I found him among his cronies. One of these is a gentleman employed as an assistant plumber in an insane asylum. Another is a stiff-backed old man, around seventy, wearing a drooping mustache and inhabiting a cabin back in the woods some distance from the camp. This old guy's name is Mose. He is the final remnant of an old Virginia family.

Mose often walks eight miles to a crossroads store to get some beer and many times Pop has made the sixteen-mile hike with him. Mose buys a case of beer when he has the money. Then he starts for home with the cargo in his arms. He'll walk maybe two miles and then he'll remark to himself that his burden is getting intolerably heavy and maybe he ought to drink a bottle or two to lighten the load. He'll stop and knock off two bottles, walk another half mile, sit down under a tree, drink three more, walk another half mile, and so on-reaching his cabin at last with an empty case.

One day Mose drank a dozen bottles of beer at the store before taking up his full case and starting the long journey home. When he got into the woods he soon grew thirsty. He drank half a dozen more beers, moved on, and then tried to drink some more, but he couldn't get the caps off the bottles. He had no opener, and his condition was such that he was unable to devise another method of uncapping the bottles. He couldn't even bite them off. He had to weave all the way home before he could get another drink and, once in his cabin, he resolved that this dilemma should never be put upon him again.

Having nothing else to do, Mose got busy acquiring bottle openers, and when he had about fifty of them he went into the woods with a hammer and a pocketful of nails. He hung beer bottle openers on trees all along the eight-mile trail to the store and nowadays he never gets home with anything but an empty case.

Living in the neighborhood is a lady who writes novels, and she has long taken an interest in Mose and Pop. One day she came down to the camp to see Pop.

"Mose has lice on him," she told Pop. "I found it out today. Now, Mr. Smith, I want you to get him down here and give him a good scrubbing and get some food into him."

Pop went up and got Mose, who was full of beer, and led him down to the camp. He got some water and heated it and put it in a galvanized washtub. Mose sat and mumbled. He was ashamed of himself, but he swore that the man didn't live who could give him a bath. Pop gentled him and told him that if he submitted and behaved himself, they would have a nice mess of black-eyed peas after the bath. Mose is crazy for black-eyed peas.

Mose began to chant:

"Drunk and lousy and black-eyed peas! Drunk and lousy and black-eyed peas!"

He kept it up all during the bathing operation and finally, cleansed and depopulated and fed, went back up the hill to his cabin. The next day he came into camp again. He had been to the store. He was chanting:

"Drunk and lousy and black-eyed peas! Drunk and lousy and black-eyed peas!"

"Mose," said Pop, "you're drunk all right, but I guarantee you, you ain't lousy."

Mose laid a forefinger against his nose and studied this intelligence for a while. Then he began a new chant:

"Drunk and crazy and black-eyed peas! Drunk and crazy and black-eyed peas!"

Pop is in his early sixties. He has always been a remote sort of person to me, because I left home when I was fifteen. When I decided to go to Virginia and visit him I approached the thing a little sadly. I figured I would find an old man, spiritless and debilitated. When I first came upon him he was wearing an undershirt. His arms and shoulders and chest were the equipment of an athlete. His biceps were as hard as mahogany. There was a little gray in his black hair and he had his own teeth. He looked as though he could lick any man his size. He could take a rifle and, without glasses, outshoot anyone in the neighborhood. And though work is the thing he hates most in life, he has a reputation for being the handiest man in forty square miles.

He was born and raised in southern Illinois and speaks a sort of Ozarkian language. He can tarnish the welkin with beautiful cussing and when I complimented him on his talents in this direction he said he learned it at a tender age, hanging around a poolroom in McLeansboro.

He is one of the most impatient men alive. The editors of Time Magazine might be interested to know that Pop talks back to their publication. He subscribes to Time and each week reads it from cover to cover, talking and cussing a blue streak-not really at Time, but at the human beings whose antics are reported in its pages.

During my visit he was telling me about his impatience with his fellow creatures. He said he had always been that way and told me a story in illustration.

"You was the first boy," he said, "and I suppose I felt a little like other fellas about it at first. Maybe you don't remember this, but when you was about four er five years old I made you a kite. Be goddamn if I didn't work half a day on it. Made the best damn kite I ever saw in my life. Then I took you over to a field alongside the brickyard and gave you the string, and stretched'er out, and I held the kite. Then I hollered at you to run. Well, you run a little ways and the kite started goin' up and got up about fifty foot and, 'y God, you stopped and turned around to look at it. It started comin' down, and I hollered at you to run, and you run a little piece and then you turned around and looked at it again. I was cuss' you and tellin' you to keep runnin', but you'd only run a little ways and then you'd stop and turn around to look. Fin'ly the kite come down and I was so goddamn mad I walked up to it and stomped it to pieces and went on home and cussed every step of the way."

He worked hard during the years his nine kids were growing up. He worked in his father's brickyard, then as a cigar maker, and later in various poultry houses. He'd work all day and then come home and work. He built better furniture than you could buy at a store. He had a cobbling outfit and always half-soled all the family shoes. And he was the family barber.

Up until I was about ten years old Pop always cut my hair. It was a harrowing operation-perhaps the most horrible memory I have of my childhood.

I would be jammed into the baby's high chair. A sheet would be tied around my neck so tightly that it is a wonder to me I didn't die of strangulation. Then Pop, who enjoyed the business no more than I, would begin.

It always took him an unconscionable time, or so it seemed to me, and he kept up a running commentary throughout the operation-a flow of bitter, acid language that kept my scalp free of parasites. He made disparaging remarks about my hair. He objected to its texture. His speech, as I said, has an Ozarkian flavor. The syllable "ire" becomes "arr" in his tongue. Thus he speaks of a thing being "hard as arrn," and of "buildin' a farr," and so on. During those horrendous haircuts he'd keep growling:

" Hair jist like warr!"

The actual cutting of the hair was akin to being broken on the rack, yet it was as child's play compared to the torture that came with the conclusion of the transaction. Throughout the snipping (he never used clippers) I must admit that I had a certain amount of compensating enjoyment from my father's unorthodox use of the nine parts of speech. But the climax of a haircut at home was unleavened horror.

Having finished the actual scissorwork, Pop would stand off and sight at me with one eye and then the other, cursing a bad job badly done. Then he'd unfasten the sheet, and I'd bend my head for the furious assault. This was the job of removing particles of hair from my neck and its environs. He would clap his large left hand down over my skull, lean forward, and start blowing and puffing. As he blew he would flail my neck with the flat of his right hand-full, vigorous blows they were too-huffing and cuffing for what seemed like an hour. When at last it was over, I would get out of the chair, stagger into the back yard, collapse on the grass beneath the cherry tree, and just lie there. If a wasp stung me I wouldn't even notice it.

Not long ago, during a Christmas shopping season, I remembered something out of my childhood, something involving Pop's inventiveness. I was in the most famous toy store in America and I was marveling at the ingenuity of the men who fashion our modern playthings. They had dolls that would do everything human except live together as man and wife. There were mechanical contrivances much more intricate than the inside of a cow. Watching these things whirr and whizz and click and clack, I got to thinking about a straight pin. I agreed that the toymakers were clever, but never so clever as Pop.

At Christmas time, when I was a kid, we always managed to get a few toys, some purchased out of Pop's pay envelope and some contributed by relatives. These toys were never, however, of an enduring quality and by mid-January we had broken them beyond hope, or traded them off, or thrown then at a cat. The rest of the year we had to depend on our own ingenuity for playthings.

Pop, as I have suggested, was a man who enjoyed reading his newspaper in peace each evening-those evenings when he didn't have shoes to repair or furniture to fix. Peace and quiet, in a house containing eight or nine children and a dog, is well-nigh unthinkable. He tried yelling at us, but you can't quiet that many younguns by yelling. Maybe for a few minutes, but then the leapfrog and the pillow fights and quarreling start all over again.

One evening six or seven of us were creating the usual bedlam and Pop was trying to read his newspaper. At last he had an idea. He took a penny out of his pocket, got down on the floor, and began to rub the coin vigorously back and forth on the rug. All of us gathered about, wondering if he had suddenly been stricken daft. He rubbed the penny for several minutes, then held it up for us to see. One side of it glistened as it hadn't glistened since it left the mint.

Pop then handed each of us a penny and set us to work. We rubbed those pennies until they shone like bright gold, and we were quiet about it, too. When we had given a glitter to both sides of our coins we took them proudly to Pop. He received each one, examined it on either side, and in each case grinned and said:

"Hm-m-m-m. Bee-yootiful!"

Then he put the shiny pennies back in his pocket.

For a time after that, whenever the tumult grew great in the house, Pop would summon us to his chair, give us each a penny, and say:

"Go shine."

This assured him at least a half hour of quiet. He always took the pennies back, but one day he made the mistake of letting us keep them. From then on he realized that it would break our hearts if he took them back. He had to invent a new game.

Again he got down on the floor, this time with a magazine cover and a straight pin. On the magazine cover was an illustration of a girl's head and Pop placed it flat on the rug, face up. Then, with the pin, he began sticking holes around the outline of the head. He made the pinholes as close together as possible and covered almost every line of the illustration-eyes, nose, mouth, chin, hairline. It took him a long while, and when he had finished he got up, went to the lamp, and held the sheet up to the light. To us it was pure beauty-a girl's head lined in sparkling pinpoints of light.

Thereafter Pop's evenings were quiet. When the hubbub started, he'd call us around, hand us each a pin and say:

"Go stick."

 We'd lie on the floor and stick by the hour. We got magazine covers from the neighbors and Pop brought home all he could find. We'd spend a whole evening sticking a single cover, and when we were finished we'd take the result to Pop. He'd put down his paper, take the magazine cover, hold it up to the light, and say:

"Hm-m-m-m. Bee-yootiful!"

During my recent visit with him I recalled this "Go stick" business and asked Pop if he had actually invented the game.

"Don't remember," he said. "Don't think I ever invented nothin' in my life."

 It had been my hope that, by spending several days with him, I'd be able to mine some stories out of him. I told my brother Sam in advance of my intentions, but suggested that he keep quiet about it. I figured that if Pop knew I was planning on writing about him, he'd be inclined toward reticence. My brother did tell him-told him about a month before my arrival at the camp that I was coming down and that I might want to write some stories about his early life. Sam told me later that Pop made the eight-mile bike that day but not for beer. He came back from the store with a handful of writing tablets. He shut himself up in his cabin and wrote for a week and a half, neglecting his work around the camp and telling no one what he was doing. Sam knew he was writing, but never said a word to him about it. Then one day Pop returned to his customary labors. A week passed, and Sam finally asked him about it.

"Did you get finished writing your life story, Pop?'

"Who told you I was writin' enything?" Pop demanded.

"Ah, I knew it," said Sam. "Where is it?"

"I threw the goddamned thing in the stove and burnt it up," said Pop.

"What did you do that for?"

"I couldn't git no good endin' for it."

His magnificent cussing is blasphemous in character, never lewd. He simply dislikes women and refuses to pay them the compliment of talking about their questionable charms.

He got started on the subject by condemning the widespread use of the expression, "Like Mother used to make." He himself is an expert cook and he won't concede that women are talented in the same direction.

"You hear people talk," he said, "about how good their mothers could cook, but it ain't true. Kids will eat anything and think it tastes good. Almost all kids are that way. A growin' kid will eat the bark off a tree and think it's good. So when kids grow up and start losin' their appetites, they remember back when they used to eat their mothers' cookin' and how good it used to taste, and they think from that their mothers was marvelous cooks. Prob-ly nine tenths of them couldn't cook as good as old Mose can."

From that point he went to a discussion of feminine beauty.

"It's all the way you look at them," he said. "If you give some thought to it, you won't decide women are so beautiful. Men are always talkin' about how beautiful a woman's breasts is. Go look at one. Suppose women were built different than they are today. Suppose all the women in the world had only one breast apiece and it was right in the middle and had tits on it like a cow. What would the men say? Beautiful! They'd go around grabbin' at the unsightly thing and talkin' about how lovely and round it was, and how pink and so on. All right. Suppose that's the way it was, and along come a woman with two breasts like they got now. Good God! That woman would be a circus freak and men wouldn't be able to look at her without getting sick at the stummick. So I got it figured out that a woman's breasts are unbeautiful, not to mention downright ugly."

I never, myself, thought of it in quite that way. Too late to start now.

When my father was in the vicinity of twelve years old he was unreasonable about bananas. He could never get enough of them. In those days bananas were almost as rare as rotolactors and Pop's passionate yearning for them became a source of irritation to his parents.

One afternoon his father summoned him to the front yard of the Smith homestead. Hanging from a lower limb of the mulberry tree was a stalk of bananas, full and complete.

"Yonder's some bananas for you," said Caleb Smith.

The entire family, augmented by half a dozen neighbors, gathered in the front yard to watch Pop eat bananas. He vows to this day that he didn't move off the spot until he had consumed every one of those bananas. He has not eaten another during all of the ensuing fifty years. It nauseates him to be in the same room with a banana.

*Reprinted from The World, The Flesh and H. Allen Smith Copyright © 1954 by H. Allen Smith.

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