Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Two who were kin only by marriage, but I remember them both fondly as kind, courteous gentlemen:

Aunt Lo’s deaf-mute brother-in-law was almost as great an attraction as those tiny spoons. And I mean that in the nicest way---Unca Fancy’s two brothers were both born “afflicted” as the vernacular of the day put it. Carlo did not hear or speak, but he could DRAW anything with his ever-full pocket of pencils. Everybody in town gave him paper and tablets, and he drew. He taught me the two-hand sign language, where every letter uses both hands and you spell every word. I tried them just now, and could do every letter, but slowly, stopping to think.

He preceded Pixie Stix by a decade or so---he used his “check” to buy the few groceries he kept in the little ceiling-less shack he lived in in his brother’s back yard. (Not roofless---the peak just went all the way up to the tarpaper, and the rafters provided a handy gallery for all the curvy carvings he made). He loved Jello and all the dry-mix puddings. Straight. Dry. He’d scrounge the cellophanes off other people’s Lucky Strikes and Camels, fit them neat as a cup into his shirt pockets, and pour in the My-T-Fine, from which he took a little nip with his fingers now and then, dainty as a dandy's snuff.

And he went into their house to take his “baths” but it irritated her to the Nth that he would run water into the tub, get naked, and stand outside on the mat, wetting and soaping and wringing his washcloth over and over as he used the tub primarily as an enormous basin to wash himself and thoroughly wet the mat and floor. She'd grump, "He'll go swimmin' in a bayou fulla SNAKES, and won't get in a good clean bathtub!"

But he DID have another particular talent---he searched the woods, riverbanks, fields for bits of wood, gnarled roots, bark---anything he could carve into something else, and could see and whittle the contours of a snake from any branch or root---he made them lifelike with intricately-carved markings---the diamonds and little charms of a rattler, the evil wide-head cottonmouth. They hung in all their scary glory in the rafters of “his” house, and none of us kids would set foot inside---we were all country kids, we liked HIM, and weren’t frightened by the menacing menagerie. But too many of us had seen real snakes in the rafters and ceilings of barns and outbuildings and sometimes the hunting cabins, and we weren’t taking any chances that a real one might have snuck in amongst all the fakes.

He also had an unfortunate propensity to disappear for several days, then he’d re-surface with a new ornament---a smooth stone, a coin, once even a smoothly-ground piece of turquoise toothbrush handle, adorning his person. His PERSON---he would make a little incision on forearm, thigh, stomach, chest---anywhere he could reach comfortably---insert the object, tape the wound shut, then hide in the woods or somewhere else until the cut had healed. We kids all liked him; we were all outcasts of one sort or another, and our acceptance of him and of each other was an unspoken, righteous thing.

The other brother was blind, and had a C/W band---the one who brought the Louvin Brothers to visit one day. He loved my Mammaw---she was always kind to him and always had a good meal on the table---she’d tell him “peas at ten o’clock, potatoes at four, etc.”, and I SO wanted to do that part. He wrote to us all the time, from all over the South and West, on his old Royal---occasionally he’d get mixed up as he re-inserted the paper to write on the second side, and I’d be called on to translate the two-pages-on-one-side-of-the-paper, letters scattershot atop each other, the punctuation like free-flung flyspecks.

Say THAT three times.

I’ve since tried to imagine the endless nights riding that old panel-wagon over the roads to the next stop, bathless and fatigued, and the solitary loneliness of his unfamiliar room with its tired sameness. What grim darkness of night and eye with no input from books or newspapers or color or line. Just the idea of being in a strange room, with a new arrangement of cheap furniture every night to trip even the sighted---but he made his living, and some records, besides.

I’ve always hoped that his life was brightened enough by his music to make up for part of the darkness.

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