Pagans, Poetry and Back sliding

The University of North Alabama, formerly Florence State College, formerly Florence State Teacher’s College, spread out before me waiting to suck me into its academic belly, digest me and spit me out an educated hillbilly, redneck, retired salesman, boozer and babe chaser, and send me on to seminary and then out into the wicked world to preach the gospel according to me. What a system! If I could crack it anybody can.

Those first few months I learned a lot—mainly that goofing off with my best buds, Bob White, Roger Fuller and Dane, all through high school and irritating teachers to get a laugh had left me virtually illiterate. So I began reading not only what was expected in each course, but everything I could every waking hour. I carried paper-backs in the back pockets of my Levi’s and would pull them out in the bathroom while I peed or pooped—every moment was precious and I didn’t want to waste any of them. I had a lot of catching up to do. Although I was sucking hind tit compared to my compatriots in class, it didn’t dissuade me from thinking I was chosen by God almighty to spread the word of Jesus Christ to the rest of the heathens around me.

Somehow I got signed up with the local Methodist ministries to become a substitute minister.

When the regular pastor could not be present to preach and attend to his flock, they would give neophytes like me who were preparing for the ministry a call and we’d mount our white horses, or in my case, a rusty, blue Chevy Vega, and go pretend we knew what the hell we were talking about at the tender age of twenty-one or -two. I thought surely this would impress my red-haired angel that I really wanted much more than Jesus.

Somewhere along my way to getting on “The Dean’s List,” I started veering off the straight and narrow. Something was pulling me. Was it Satan, the great seducer of potential seminary students? Beelzebub, the Devil himself, trying to penetrate my psyche (Greek word meaning soul) – see Dean, how much I learned? Was I such a treat to Lucifer’s diabolical plan, the old serpent himself that sent me towards the pagan professors, back-sliding preachers and weirdo poets who became a huge influence on me in ways I didn’t even know at the time?

I had taken a few sociology classes before I was asked to leave college back in 1970. I had to declare a major upon returning. I had done pretty well according to my transcripts—two D’s and one C—Sociology it was. Besides even would-be saints like myself needed to know about the society I’d be preaching in and to, and there was nothing that went against the Gospels. But then there was the electives and courses that would transfer into most any seminaries that would take me – courses like The New Testament and The Old Testament. Every upstart Bible-banger needed those, but here is where the slippery slope that led right to Hell began—The History of World Religion, Comparative Religion – they were teaching the heretical ideas that there were religions besides Christianity that had satisfied and soothed souls for centuries and some even before Christ came to earth.

Dr. Miller (I’ll call him) was a short, cheery, Episcopal priest in his late seventies or early eighties that taught these pagan philosophies. Turns out the word “pagan” comes from the Greek or Latin word, I forget which, “paganos,” which means “country folk.” I could relate. I took every course this distinguished, easy-going, gray-haired man taught as my back began to accumulate marks from the slide I was taking by giving credence to these blasphemous creeds. So while I’m studying the historical veracity, or lack of the Four Gospels, I’m also being introduced to Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Shintoism and much more all the while eating it up with a spoon.

Now to make matters worse I was accumulating quality points, becoming Vice-President of the Sociology Club and meeting non-believers who had to be the Devil’s henchmen because a couple of them, Ed and Dan, introduced me to the poetry teacher they admired. Dan and Ed were two aspiring poets themselves. We would meet in the Student Union for coffee and conversation, not conversion, well maybe they were converting me. Dan reminded me of a southern version of James Dean—tall, lanky, tanned and intelligent. His cohort Ed, was shorter, studious-looking and eccentric.

“You’ve got to take a course from Dr. Thompson,” was their almost daily battle cry.

“I don’t know guys; English is not my forte. I mean I’ve barely mastered Southern Appalachian and I’m almost finished with my hours to complete my bachelor’s in sociology.”

“Listen, Dr. John Thompson will blow your fucking mind. Sorry, I forgot you don’t curse,” said Dan jokingly. I was trying to stay with my self-imposed asceticism—no cursing, screwing, drinking, smoking or caffeine.

My mind had already suffered a serious shock by exposure to Eastern thought. I wasn’t sure my neocortex was developed enough to handle more disruption.

After many more hours of brow beating, I gave up and went to registration for the next semester and signed up for Dr. Thompson’s Advanced Romantic Poetry class.

Let the Inquisition of my faith begin.

School-Dazed and Confused

Now for a totally different kind of blog post in a more personal story/memoir format. Part of the reason I’m doing this is because memoir will be heavily discussed in my latest Writing from the Body workshop.

If you like these types of posts, please let me know and I’ll post regularly.

Life is a Funny Old Dog

“A 0.02 average,” the white-haired Dean of Students said with a mixture of sarcasm and disbelief in his voice. He took off his glasses, pinched his nose and rubbed it before looking up from my transcripts. The bookish man with girlish fingers laid his wire-rimmed glasses on the table and looked around the four tables in a square that had been placed in the cavernous cafeteria as a makeshift courtroom that would decide mine and others’ fates who had murdered their chances at a college education.

I sat there at the opposite end of their world, a stranger in a strange land, knowing I didn’t speak their language.

“Can you tell us here why we should agree to let you back in with a record like this?” he said looking at the others but not directly at me.

“Yes sir,” was all I could think of to say at the moment.

“Tell this esteemed body why you want to come back to college. But before you begin I want to say two things. I think I can speak for everyone at this table. First, I don’t think I can ever recall someone with your record asking to be admitted a second time, and second, I can’t believe you can say anything that would convince us of your seriousness and gravitas to seek a genuine education. Now it is your turn, Mr. Lee. We are all ears.”

I was lucky I knew what the word serious meant, but I had no idea what the hell gravitas meant. I sat there thinking that before my Christian days I would have thought what an asshole, but I was bucking for sainthood then and had given up cursing a year before to impress that red-haired Christian girl.

“I want to be a preacher and a teacher. I believe with all my heart that is what I’ve been put on this earth to do, sir.” 

Everyone, especially the Dean, looked like I was talking like a tree had fallen on me, as we say in the South, which for you northerners, means talking like I was crazy. The silence was deafening as the corduroy-elbow-patched professors and the two women who wore their hair in a tight bun broke in to syncopated laughter.

“Mr. Lee, I have to hand it to you. That is the most original answer I think we’ve ever heard at one of these, and I think I can speak for everyone here. What a thought—a 0.02 student aspires to be a teacher and a preacher. Well good luck, son. I know you are going to need God’s help because you have got one hell of a job in front of you. I think,” he paused to collect himself and wait for everyone to stop laughing, “We all agree to let you in for a probationary period of two semesters. If you show yourself to be a serious scholar in the making, then you can stay. You really want to be a preacher and a teacher? That’s just the most outrageous and original answer I’ve ever heard.”

I was in to learn this time and couldn’t wait to see what would come next.

Life Is A Funny Old Dog – Introduction

An Excerpt from the Introduction of a Memoir in Progress

In Alabama, if you meet someone you know you say, “How’s your momma’n’em?” If you don’t know them, you say hello, pass some pleasantries, and then you say, “So who are your people?” Let me answer this question.

These are my people, at least the people on the Knight and Lee sides of the family. I came from grandparents who were sharecroppers for a long time before they owned their own small farms. They plowed with borrowed mules before they bought their own tractors. Both my grandfathers and their fathers slaughtered hogs at the hint of the first frost and ate everything that surly pig begrudgingly gave up. My great-grandmothers called their husbands Mister, and Mister washed his feet in a pan every Saturday night, and sometimes he washed the feet of his brethren on Sunday mornings, being the Baptist he was brought up to be.

The water they used to wash their sins away came from creeks, ponds, and wells instead of water faucets. Cooking water was drawn from ice-cold wells by hands as rough as corn cobs. The wells were found by water witchers using forked branches from an old oak tree.

My people were old when they were in their forties, and grandparents were old way before then, since many of them were bound together for life at thirteen, or fourteen. Being nineteen for a woman was considered really bad news because she was labeled an old maid or spinster.

My people hunted and ate squirrels, rabbits and possums, saying grace and thanking the Lord for them. They blew rabbit tobacco or cigar smoke in their children’s ears when they suffered from an ear ache, and if grandpa’s nose itched that meant someone was coming, and if their ears burned that meant someone was talking about them. They didn’t believe in doctors, and even if they did, they didn’t have the money to pay for one, so they relied on a lot of old ways. If their kids had a sty they would chant, “Sty, sty leave his eye, catch the next one who walks by.” If frogs gave you warts, witchery could remove them, and no one thought the Holy Ghost would mind a little witchery every now and then.  Most of them tended, except tee-totalers, to make, distribute and worship White Lightnin’ since it weren’t no sin if used for medicinal purposes or to get their rear in gear for a Saturday night fight or for square dancin’.

Most of them were uneducated and didn’t trust anyone who was, and yet would walk two inches taller when their children learned to read “real good.” But they knew when to sow and when to reap, and how deep to plant a seed, and had the patience to watch it, and watch their children, grow – though childhood was short and usually over by age eight or nine. While they weren’t great readers themselves, they were damn good story tellers and nearly everyone was musical in some way and ready to pick and grin the night away, belting out a Jimmy Rogers or Hank Williams’ song without much shyness. Many a grandma beat the black off the keys of an upright, slightly out of tune pianne’ and belt out “The Old Rugged Cross” fully believing she would exchange that cross “someday for a crown.”

I came from men who wouldn’t hold a baby for fear they might break it and who wouldn’t hold hands with their four-year-old or their wife in public because that was too personal. But they thought it was their duty to toughen up and break boys before they were the ripe old age of eight or nine—for the most part, girls didn’t get “broken” until twelve or thirteen. 

I came from men who hand-rolled their Prince Albert cigarettes, and later smoked two or three packs of unfiltered cancer sticks a day, and drank lots of Old Crow whiskey at night and especially on weekends after working in Northern factories, which was supposed to provide a better living than a few acres of worn out soil down South. These men thought a handshake was as good as a signature on a piece of paper. These men were rough on their children and their women, but even worse on themselves, especially if they were unemployed or underemployed.

I came from women who not only stood by their men, but would help them stand up in court or in church after a hard night. They had to hide money to buy shoes, and picked cotton as good as any man alive.   Alabama SharecroppersThese women doted on their children since the fathers were either gone in the fields, and later to the factories, trying to compensate for their husband’s coldness and indifference and pure lack of what we now call “emotional intelligence.” I came from women who read the Bible and made their own clothes and thought a Sears and Roebuck catalogue was about as close as they would ever come to being middle-class.

Where did most of these people come from? They sailed across the big pond from Scotland and Ireland. Most of them settled in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, the Carolinas and few went to, “M-I-crooked-letter-crooked letter-I-crooked-letter-crooked-letter-I-humpback-humpback-I”: That’s how we learned to spell Mississippi.   Most of the land had petered out due to over-farming and not rotating the crops, and a lot of what was left was strangled by kudzu, and yet these are some of the most beautiful states in the Union and some of the greatest and most religious and spiritual people in the world.

It was here in the Deep South that I found myself still struggling with leftover Puritanism. My people would be working for the people who John Winthrop would be owning the, “shining city upon a hill.” This exclusive Christian club worked for me for a while, but then it got to be like the vegetable your mom or dad puts on your plate saying, “Eat this; it is good for you,” but you don’t really like the taste so you hide it under the mashed potatoes and hope they don’t notice. Fundamentalist Christianity became my own personal Brussels sprouts, and psychology my lumpy mashed potatoes. I was hiding my doubts about the little baby Jesus who was supposedly born in a manger to a virgin as well as the one who bled on the cross for my sins. Mixed into the mess was a whole plate full of self-dished out shame and guilt that I couldn’t do what I thought, and was even told I was born to do—be a preacher.