DOC WATSON and ‘The Big Doctor’/”Name Game”
Spoke to Doc Watson today (Mar. 3). It’s his 87th birthday, y’know. Conversation started mildly enough, at least for me if not for Doc, who was nursing an earache, but became deep and rather intense after about ten or fifteen minutes of palaver.
But first things first. The reason I’ve posted the accompanying vinyl album slick from a mid-‘Sixties release—Jason Odd, will you tell us exactly when?—is that Doc gave it to me just before its distribution in lieu of his signature, sort of. “This is for your scrapbook, son, since they never taught me to write,” is the way he put it.
Doc would stay at my house, and I would be his leadboy, whenever he came to LA. Leadboys are often followers (an interesting twist of the English language) of their blind musician-masters, as I was with Doc, and sometimes they even get to play and/or perform with their teachers, as was the case with Doc and me.
I backed up Doc on stage at the Ash Grove, LA’s leading folk and roots music venue from the late ‘Fifties into the ‘Seventies, and any other place he played when he was in Southern California, like Orange County College and various guitar workshops and symposia. So the album slick meant a little more to me than a big piece of coated, imprinted stock that identifying what was under it.
Back to business.
These days, Doc and his wife, Rosa Lee—the writer/composer of “Long Journey,” a track on “Raising Sand,” Robert Plant and Allison Krauss’ 2007 Grammy-winning album—are struggling with their health, Doc with urinary track issues and Rosa Lee with back and heart problems.
I mention this not only because it’s increasingly more and more of what we talk about, but because it’s the issue that led to our conversation suddenly deepening. Here’s how that went.
Doc had been going into some detail about a recent, intricate procedure Rosa Lee’d been thru involving the removal of a stroke-threatening blood clot in her brain resulting from a fall. The attending doctor at Wake Forest wasn’t sure about which course of action to take, but he eventually decided to drill a tiny hole in Rosa Lee’s head and remove the clot with suction. The procedure worked, and both the doctor and Doc felt the hand of “The Big Doctor” was on the hand of the medical one; the Big Heart, perhaps, had been in the chest of the musical one.
To Doc this was nothing but an affirmation of his deep belief in the healing powers of Jesus Christ, but not necessarily a belief he’d held all his life. I was curious about that, because I’d always assumed, based on long talks we’d had forty, forty-five years before, that he’d been a committed believer all his life.
I used the opening to ask him if he’d ever be interested in talking on the record about his spiritual life, something no one has covered in an interview so far. I quickly explained before he had a chance to say no that I thought he should think about it for three reasons: 1) it’s a huge part of his life—and music?—no one knows anything about; 2) it has had a sometimes profound effect on others (including myself); 3) it’s why he and his wife have a track on an Album of the Year. “Long Journey” is, after all, a religious song.
He thought for a minute, then said, “Al, I’d need to sit down and talk with you for about twenty minutes, and I mean not on the phone, but in person, before I’d want to answer that question.
Turns out he’d had a revelation about four years back that he feels changed his life, and he felt it would take a real sit-down, face-to-face to talk about it. I’m all ears, to say the least.
I’ve always listened carefully to Doc’s words on matters of the spirit. He’s a highly intelligent man with a basically scientific mind and a reasonably skeptical approach to things.
At the same time, he is a blind man, from deep, Southern poverty who has reached his 87th birthday in good shape, is still performing, and responsible for an approach to guitar playing that has had a deep and abiding effect on Folk, Roots & Rock music since he first appeared in public, in the early ‘60’s. Yes, Rock; v.q. Clarence White, Ry Cooder, et al. It’s hard to believe there isn’t something charmed about his life.
I’m gonna leave it at that, at least for now. More TK?
* * * *
From the book Growing Up Jewish in L.A.
By Allan Ross
“Your father and I have decided to change our last name, sweetheart,” says the boy’s mother as she buttons his jacket and wipes a smudge of poached egg off his chin. She forces a smile and sounds apologetic. “It’s for business reasons.”
Her blond, shining-faced six-year-old son doesn’t react to the statement one way or the other, which is exactly what her husband, Jack, had predicted.
“We haven’t kept the Kashruth with him or observed the Torah,” Jack had said the night before, doing his best to keep the rancor out of his voice, if not his choice of words. “You wouldn’t send him to Hebrew School, you won’t let him fast with me on the High Holy Days. He knows nothing about being a Jew. Why should he care about having his name changed?”
Her husband’s point was well taken, but, still, she’d had her doubts. She’d long felt Jack saw their son’s feelings as much simpler and more predictable than they were. She wasn’t convinced he grasped the essentials of this situation in particular. It was uncomfortable for Jack, and he seemed to just want it behind them all as soon as humanly possible.
“Just tell him right out that we’ve already done it,” he’d said. “You’ll know whether it’s important to him or not the minute you tell him. And if it doesn’t seem important, I’d just as soon you leave it alone. There’s no reason to make more of it than necessary and worry an open sore.”
He was referring to the strain the name change had put on his and his wife’s relationship with his family, Old Country Jews who had lived through the worst of it and couldn’t understand trying to hide their identities now that the Nazis had been vanquished forever.
Eleanor’s youth had been hard and bitterly disappointing. The hardness was ten years in an orphanage, the disappointment the promises her aunts and uncles continually made and broke to get her and her three siblings out. It was a Jewish orphanage—with uniforms—and the time was the Depression. The experience left Eleanor resolved never to be poor again, and never, ever, to be seen first and only as a Jew.
She is forced to acknowledge that her son’s response to the news of the name change is indifference, and that her husband’s imprecation not to explain the decision any further, if this were the case, is wise.
And yet, even though it will make it easier for her to not have to answer any questions, she feels vaguely disappointed that Karl responded according to her husband’s expectations and not hers. Didn’t she and her son always think and feel alike? Isn’t that the unspoken agreement? Their bond?
“Someone at school’s going to ask you for a couple of things,” she says, handing him a manila envelope, “so they can make the changes in your records. It’s no big deal, darling, believe me. People do this all the time.” She tries to read his expression, but his face is the restless, ever-changing map of any six-year-old wondering what his fourth day in public school would bring.
“Come on, boychik,” she finally says, “what’s going on?” She pauses, just in case he tries to answer. But he doesn’t, so she does for him. “Why are we doing this, changing our name, right?” She thinks about her promise to her husband. But it’s just a question, she tells herself. It’s not spilt milk unless I answer it.
The boy nods.
“Well, if I tell you that ‘Rosenberg’ is too long and too hard to spell will you believe me?” She looks at him.
He makes a face and shrugs.
“That’s what I mean,” she mumbles to herself.
Eleanor had decided when Karl was born that there would continue to be a closeness between them equal to their bond before his birth. Her nine months carrying Karl had been the best ones of her life, even allowing for the discomfort. She had no intention of ending them just because he was out of her womb.
Her connection with Karl, the first thing in her life that had given her real happiness, would be built on a ferocious trust between them. Full disclosure, total honesty; no empty promises, no lies.
And, to a surprising extent, she’d managed to do away with many of the tall tales and postponed truths─—”bridge lies,” she called them──that parents in the Mid-Twentieth Century fed their pre-schoolers. But she’s noticed it was getting harder every day. She has trouble meeting Karl’s bright, exploring eyes.
He knows that this is somehow important to me, she thinks, but he can’t figure out how to get it out of me. Neither can I.
“But if I try to tell you the truth,” she says, finally looking straight at him, “I’ll have to use words and feelings you don’t know yet. I’m afraid you might think I’m some kind of …” She stalls and lapses into silence.
She can’t finish the sentence, not only because she doesn’t like what she’s going to say about herself, but because she realizes she has no idea what he’s going to think, or if he’s even going to think about it at all. He’s had no exposure to the culture, she hears her husband’s words from the night before. “It won’t mean anything at all to him.”
She tries on Jack’s words as a mantra, repeating them over and over to herself, trying to work them into some kind of rhythm. But it’s not a rhythm her heart understands.
I should live so long, she decides. How could it mean nothing to him when I can’t think about it without getting a lump in my throat?
“Mom,” the boy says, trying to get her attention. “Mom, listen: we’re going to make a wax tyrannosaurus rex, today. Neat, huh? See, first, we’re going to take this plaster mold thing…”
She hears not the words, just the sound of his voice. She kisses him on the cheek. “Yes, sweetheart, it’s neat.” Her hands flit over him, straightening and folding things that don’t need straightening and folding, her eyes once more avoiding his.
Her mind is on last night’s dishwashing conversation with Jack. The name change had become official that day, and he’d wanted as little marking of the occasion as possible. He was washing, she was drying when he’d asked her please not to explain anything to Karl unless an explanation was specifically asked for at the time she told him, i.e., right away. Jack knew how powerful were his wife’s [thought waves] over their son’s.
The brows above his blue-green eyes had arched hopefully as he’d handed her a hot, wet plate to dry. He was a spare, handsome man, patrician in body type and manner, patient and comfortable with his authority as operating partner of a small glazing concern. But his wife was his Achilles heel when it came to putting his foot down and keeping it there. He loved her madly, and had trouble bringing her any pain whatsoever, even when it was necessary.
Eleanor, silent for most of the conversation, had had no wish to give up an inch, an ounce, a nickel’s worth of the autonomy she’d consolidated as watchdog of her son’s happiness.
“It’s held so far,” she’d said to herself then, as she says to herself now, of her bond with Karl.
But she knows she’s on borrowed time, that the reason the bond has held this long is she’s let no one challenge it. Not her husband, nor his family, nor the school. To everyone’s amazement, she’d made a deal with the Los Angeles Tenth District Primary Education Department to allow her to home-school her son through his Kindergarten year, the last year of the War. It hadn’t been hard for her to get this dispensation. Eleanor was attractive, bright and resourceful. And highly motivated, when it came to Karl’s happiness.
“Eleanor?” her husband had said. “Promise? No discussion without a question?”
She’d nodded yes. Her reluctance was that Karl tended not to question anything she said, such was their agreement on full disclosure. He’d come to learn that whatever she wanted him to know, for example, how prehistoric animals had got to be trapped in the tar pits near their house, was front-loaded with all the information she had or wanted him to have. After that, she would become vague and distracted. Karl’d gotten used to not asking her to elaborate on things. And this worried her.
But she’d nodded, anyway. The fact of the name change was a huge victory, and she could concede this minor procedural point. Now, her son would not have to be a Jew first and everything else second.
“I promise,” she’d told her husband, knowing that by his lights, this was a valid oath and bond she would have to observe.
She suddenly realizes she’s been in a daydream for the last couple of minutes. She looks into Karl’s dark eyes, dancing with the imagined adventures he’ll have today outside the small, white, West Hollywood “Spanish-stucco” they’d moved into three weeks before.
“Karl, I…I promise I’ll explain it to you as soon as we have a long minute together.” It is the closest she’s ever come to saying, “You’ll understand when you get a little older,” and the sound of the words repulses her and makes her afraid for the bond. Please don’t press me, Karl, she prays silently.
“I bet I could understand it now,” says the boy. It’s his first full sentence since she had brought up the name thing.
Is that a question? she asks herself. But it’s too late, anyway, by the agreement she had with Jack. And, in fact, it really is too late to go into it now. His ride is due any minute.
“I bet you could, too, darling. It’s just that the car is going to be here any second, and we always try to finish what we start, don’t we?”
The boy nods and runs to the window. The thrill of the anticipated ride causes him to burst into one of his “sunshine smiles,” as Eleanor and Jack call them, big, happy, bet-the-limit toothers that can drench a room with dazzling light when he flashes one. Its pure Sunkist brightness and energy leaves her momentarily stunned with joy as she watches him separate the blinds and search for today’s carpool car.
She remembers the first time she ever imagined having a child with Jack, long before he’d proposed. It was an entirely different feeling than she’d ever had before, warm, personal and private. And surprisingly proprietary. Here was a young woman who’d never had a puppy, and now she was picturing herself with a child! And it felt fine, thank you, just fine.
As she came to live with the growing possibility, she began to think about the life this child would have, and what she could do to make it the best it could be. The first thing she could do would be to subtract anything that could describe her life between the ages of eight and eighteen. Automatic identification as Jewish was out.
She’d told her husband before they were married that his family name might be an issue some day. He’d replied they would deal with it then, and nothing more was said for the next seven years. But “then” had finally come, forcing her to excercize her option. It was not going well.
The Petition for Change of Name had threatened the uneasy equilibrium between her and her husband’s family like nothing else in their marriage before, and she’d only won this victory because of the sudden crackdown on “subversives” in the motion picture industry.
She’d been a negative-cutter and bloop mark-maker at Pathé Labs before the War. Bloop marks are the hand-applied ink blots that appear toward the end of a film reel to alert the projectionist to start the next reel, so the change will appear seamless. She knew several of the men who were being blacklisted as Communist sympathizers by the newly-formed House UnAmerican Activities Commission. She also knew that all but one were Jewish.
“It’s very involved, darling,” she tells her son, who’s no longer listening, “and you’re going to miss your ride if I try to explain it now.”
As if to underscore her special powers as the boy’s omniscient guardian-spirit, there are five short burps of a car horn from the street.
“There’s Mrs. Van Kirken,” she says. “Big kiss, now, my pony-boy.”
The boy had run to the front door and now must come back to deal with the new demand. She meets him halfway across the living room, he kisses her quickly on the lips, then runs out of the house waving and yelling all the way to the car. She waves to Mrs. Van Kirken herself and watches from the doorway as the ’39 Buick roars up to the corner, turns right and disappears up Almond Avenue.
She stands in the threshold of the door for a full minute after that, thinking about their new lives in this homey, middle class neighborhood and wondering if it will be the positive, liberating journey her husband had confidently prophesied, or the same old song and dance she’d always known, feeling that she had to read every new face for signs of acceptance or rejection, study every gesture her new neighbors made, every expression, vocal inflection, throat-clearing to see if she were on safe ground with them or not. She cannot remember a moment in her life when she had not noticed herself noticing herself. She wonders if her son will notice the difference between being Karl Rosenberg and Karl Roberts.
* * *
“I don’t know if I get it,” says Mrs. Johnson, Karl’s first grade teacher, as she fingers the paperwork he’d left on her desk earlier that morning.
He stands facing her across her big teachers’ desk in the rear of the classroom, where she can watch everyone at their desks from behind. The rest of the class has been told to study.
“I mean,” she says to Karl, just a little too loudly to be meant for his ears only, “I don’t know which name you’re changing. Are you Robert Rosenberg now?”
The room stirs with a random energy that hadn’t been noticeable a few seconds before.
Karl shakes his head slowly, not sure he’s hearing right. He’d forgotten about the name change. He’d put off thinking about it from minute to minute, then forgotten about it completely. Even now, with Mrs. Johnson sitting here talking to him about it, it seems to have no place in his life. But he knows he’s not Robert Rosenberg.
“No, it’s─—” he says, but it’s too late.
“So, you’re still Karl Rosenberg. Do you have a brother?”
“No, ma’am.” He realizes he’s got to catch up to her, to where she’s going with this. “It’s my last name that’s changed, Mrs. Johnson. I mean, it’s being changed. To Roberts. My name’s going to be—um, is──Karl Roberts…I guess.”
The air over his classmates’ heads is alive with schoolroom outlaw energy. No one works, everyone is listening.
He realizes it’s the first time anyone has actually pronounced his new name. He is embarrassed. He doesn’t know why, but there’s something vaguely sinister about suddenly being someone else, just like that. No wonder the teacher seems a little put out. I’m getting away with something, he tells himself.
He wishes he’d spent some time thinking about his new name before having to explain it to someone else, in front of his friends and everything. He wishes Mrs. Johnson could have been a little more quiet, or nicer about it, or something. It’s like I did something wrong, and I’m supposed to feel ashamed. And I do feel ashamed.
He wonders why his mother didn’t tell him that there might be… something? He feels a pang of terror at…what? Her fallibility? A betrayal? But that could never be. Something’s wrong and he feels alone, exposed and helpless.
“Fwoof!,” says Mrs. Johnson, sounding weary and unconvinced. “Okay, ‘Karl…Roberts,'” she says, laboring over the name and looking back and forth from him to the Change of Name certificate, as if no matter how hard she tried, she could not make them fit together.
“I’ll, uh, make sure this goes to the Attendance Office. You can return to your seat, Karl.”
Karl nods, mumbles a “thank you” to her and slinks away from her desk toward his own. He is half-way there when he hears her voice again, this time at its full classroom-teaching volume.
There’s no rustle of bodies turning to look at her, because they’re already turned in that direction; have been, for the last few minutes.
But Karl turns. Does he ever. And realizes in a frozen split-second what Mrs. Johnson is about to do.
“Class,” she says, “Karl Rosenberg’s family has changed their last name. It’s now Roberts. So Karl Rosenberg is now Karl Roberts. Can we all say, ‘Karl Roberts?'”
“Kar-l Rob-berts,” echoes the class.
“Very good,” says Mrs. J. to the class. “This is one of the wonderful things about living in America,” she goes on, improvising, “that foreigners can come here and change their names whenever they want. Can anyone tell me a place in Europe or the Orient where you are allowed to do that?” [Pause]. “Anyone?” [Pause]. “I didn’t think so. Can we all say, ‘Europe and the Orient?'”
“‘Yur-rup and the Or-ient,'” repeats the class.
“Good. And, again, class: ‘Karl Roberts?'” says Mrs. Johnson.
Karl begins to redden.
“Kar-l Rob-berts,” mumbles the class. They are looking at him as if he were on the other side of bars in a zoo. How could she not have told me?
The loneliness deepens, begins to feel willed and personal, like rejection, as if his classmates had voted, right out in front of him, to blackball him from their company. He searches for a familiar emotion, anything to give the chilly experience a handle.
The birthday party! he thinks. The birthday party with the sign they stuck on my back!
He’d gone to a birthday party for an older child, the daughter of friends of his parents, where somebody had stuck a sign on his back with Scotch tape that said, “Hit Me Hard, Please!”
The kids at the party had socked him forever, on his arms, chest, stomach, wherever they could get a clear shot as he spun in circles trying to find out what he’d done to start it so he could stop it. But wherever he turned for help there was nothing but laughter and more punching and shoving. There was some kind of code to which he did not have the key.
Finally, a fourth grader hit him in the nose and he started bleeding. At first he was too stunned to cry. But in a few seconds he felt a tightness behind his eyes and a raw catch at the bottom of his throat that he knew he couldn’t give in to but couldn’t seem to stop, either.
Then one of the parents came back into the room, sized up the situation, scolded the ringleaders and showed Karl the sign.
That had ended it for the parent, but Karl continued hurt and confused by it. Although the parent told him it was “a stupid kids’ game, for stupid kids,” and not to take it personally, somehow he did take it personally. After all, the sign was taped to his back, not the parent’s or anyone else’s.
This feels like that, he decides, looking at the classroom faces looking at him. Except that the sign gag had finally ended. This one seemed to keep going on and on, courtesy of Mrs. Johnson.
“And one more time, class: ‘Karl Rosenberg is Karl Roberts.'”
And, unlike the message taped to his back, this one is published out there in the ether, in code, and everyone in the classroom knows the code except him. And he’s not going to learn it here, either, because it’s something you’re supposed to already know.
“Kar-l Rose-n-berg is Kar-l Rob-berts.”
He pictures the pretty and adoring face of his mother, leaning over him or kneeling in front of him while he stands, so they’re both eye-to-eye, but he cannot ever remember her telling him anything about name-changing except what she’d said this morning. He doesn’t know the word “betrayal” yet, but he knows his throat aches and his eyes are filling with tears, eroding his fragile composure.
He prays Mrs. Johnson has finished with him, and that she’ll give an assignment or something to the class that will end this difficult moment, not just for him but for everyone.
But she seems to have become involved with something on her desk and leaves him dangling at the end of an imaginary string with which she controls the length of the moment.
He makes it back to his desk and sits down quickly. A couple of rows away two boys whisper to each other and steal glances at him. They’re laughing at something. What is it? he wants to yell. Why are you laughing? Why are you all staring at me?
The words reverberate silently in his head. But something tells him that to utter them aloud would be to break another code he doesn’t have the key to, just like the one about name-changing, so he doesn’t make a sound.
And still there is no break in the freefall the teacher has put the class in as she rearranges the top of her big oak desk. Karl has heard his parents say they were “waiting for the other shoe to drop” about something in the future that made them nervous, and that’s the way he feels right now.
The mood in the classroom has become edgy, bordering on hostile. The two boys in the first row are now staring at him all the time and sharing some “goods” they seem to have on him with each other. Now another boy joins them and starts looking at Karl as if he’s just learned something that changes everything he might have ever thought about him.
In desperation Karl reaches under his desk and picks up the first thing his hand touches. It’s an arithmetic book, but it doesn’t matter; he’ll take anything that allows him to avert his eyes from the mobs’. He tears into the book as if it were directions to buried treasure.
It’s a chance gesture, not intended to have any effect on anyone except himself, but for some reason it breaks Mrs. Johnson’s de facto spell over the class. After a minute or two of watching Karl read they begin to lose interest. Some even look at the clock. Mrs. Johnson feels her own loss of control.
“All right, class,” she says at last, putting the final touches on her finally-efficient desktop. “Let’s have a rest period before lunch. Heads down, everybody. You, too, Karl. You can’t be special all the time.”
The moment is over, and not a second too soon. His aching throat and quivering lips couldn’t have survived another “Kar-l Rob-berts,” or another smirk or, for that matter, even an honestly curious glance without betraying him and costing him the battle right there.
Why did I know to call it a battle? he asks himself. It is a parenthetical question, and he is curious to know how it got there. Do I know things I don’t think I know?
But he has not learned why a battle started in the first place. He hasn’t decrypted any codes. How could he? His mother hadn’t given him any keys; his beautiful, adoring, perfect and invincible mother, with whom he is one.
Karl Roberts, neé Rosenberg, puts his head down on his desk. He wonders if anyone else can see the lump in his throat. Just in case they can, he makes sure he is the last one to leave the room for lunch period.
* * *
“…Seven, eight!” cry the three six-year-old girls playing hop-scotch in front of him.
Today, he’s decided to eat in the play area rather than the lunchroom. At first he has the bench and the whole corner of the gravel upper-yard to himself. But after twenty minutes kids begin to drain out of the lunchroom and into the upper and lower play areas. Court and game boundary lines have been marked with powdered lime on the uneven gravel surface of the upper field. It’s Monday, so the lines are still crisp and fresh. By this time the next day they’ll be nothing more than white smudges in the light brown pulverized granite.
“Karl,” yells one of the kids he’s been getting to know, “we’re gonna play dodge-ball. Come on.”
Karl looks around himself for a few seconds before he realizes Dennis Mueller is talking to him. He feels a rush of joy to be included, but he isn’t ready to leave his private island.
“I have to eat my lunch,” he yells back. “I’ll come down as soon as I──”
But Dennis has already moved on to a clutch of other kids walking out of the lunchroom. He quickly recruits some of them. Now, Karl feels left out. Nuts, he thinks, shoulda gone.
He’s still not comfortable at West Hollywood Elementary. It’s only his second week there and almost all the other kids know each other from before and from outside of school. His mother says it will just take a little time for him to become “one of the guys,” but one day, soon, he’ll look around and there it’ll be: recognition and acceptance.
I guess not today, he says to himself as he empties his lunchbox garbage into a pail at the end of his bench.
Two of the boys who hadn’t gone with Dennis to play dodge-ball have sat down on the bench that makes a right angle with Karl’s. They’re the same two who were whispering and laughing at him in class. They’re playing with some pieces of metal Karl recognizes as empty shell casings. Lots of kids have them. It’s only a year after the War.
Occasionally, either one of the boys looks over at him. Karl nods to them. They start giggling and their conversation gets more animated. They continue stealing glances at him until one of them seems to have an idea. They have a quick discussion and then get up and walk over to Karl. The big one, whose name is “JJ” Something, is blond and freckled and sheathed in baby fat.
“See this?” he asks Karl, standing over him and holding out a large brass cylinder closed on one end and tapering at the other. “Know what it is?”
“Um, a bullet shell?” asks Karl.
JJ turns to the other boy, Ronnie, and they both snicker. “‘A bullet shell,'” says JJ. Both boys roll their eyes skyward, shake their heads.
“This is a real Sturmgewehr 44 shell casing,” says JJ. “I have the load and the cap at home. They won’t let me bring it to school.”
Donnie’s nod punctuates the statement.
“Wow,” says Karl. It seems like the right thing to say.
“My dad brought it back from Germany,” JJ says. He reaches into his Levis, struggling to get his hand into a front pocket made tight by his girth, and pulls out another shell. “He got this one in Salerno. I’ve got a whole bunch of them at home. I’ve got a live hand grenade, too. My dad has a Mauser pistol. Where did your father fight?”
Karl is caught off guard by the question. He looks at Donnie, who looks back at him with narrowed eyes and unmoving lips, like a Hollywood gangster.
“I-I don’t know,” he says, at last. “I’ll have to ask him.”
The two other boys exchange looks and snickers. JJ says, “I bet you don’t get an answer.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t think your father fought in the War.”
Karl frowns. “How do you know?” he says, although it’s true his father hadn’t fought in the Second World War.
Jack had volunteered but was rejected for flat feet and bad eyesight. He’d gone to another draft board, a hundred miles away, in Bakersfield. But there, besides the feet and eyesight, they found a spot on his lung and sent him packing. He’d really wanted to fight, in either theatre, though he’d have preferred the European. This War was very personal to him.
“We just know,” says Donnie, speaking for the first time.
“How?” insists Karl.
The two boys look at each other. “My father told me,” says JJ.
“Told you what?”
“That your father didn’t fight in the War.”
“Maybe he couldn’t, or something,” says Karl.
The two boys exchange smiles and huffs.
“Why couldn’t he?” says JJ.
“I don’t know. Maybe he was sick. I think that’s what it was.”
“Maybe he was chicken,” says Donnie, and now Karl’s suspicions are confirmed: calling his father a coward was what this whole conversation had been about from the beginning. He doesn’t know where the next words come from, but they come.
“Oh, yeah?” he says.
“Maybe,” says Donnie.
“Who says?” says Karl. He starts to stand up, but JJ pushes him back down.
“Everybody says,” says JJ. “Jews don’t like to fight. That’s why you changed your name. So you wouldn’t have to fight.”
Karl tries to get up again, but Donnie shoves him back down. He sits there for a moment, confused, except about one thing: the other shoe has dropped, the code has been broken. It’s about being Jewish. And yet it’s far from clear to Karl why that fact is the source of his current trouble. He is blond, six years old, lives on Rosedale Avenue and the family owns a 1938 DeSoto, but no one is pushing him around because of those things.
Why are people picking on me? Is there something wrong about being Jewish? Can you get in trouble for it? Can you change it if you want? Is that why we’re changing our name?
He is talking to himself, but it’s his mother’s beautiful, devoted and, now, sad face he sees in his mind, and she is silent. His own inner voice, directed to the unseeing figure, sounds confused and anxious.
Mom, I don’t know what to do.
The two boys seem to talk to each other with their eyes. Then JJ suddenly pushes Donnie into Karl, and the two go flying over the bench, Donnie ending up on top of Karl.
“Oops, so sorry,” says JJ, reaching across the bench to offer one of them help. It turns out to be Karl.
Karl looks at the extended hand for a moment, then shakes it off, knowing at that moment that it’s the next step along a road he’s never been down before. I don’t want this, he starts to whimper to himself.
JJ’s hand is still out. There’s a smirk on his face. “I want us to be friends, Karl,” he’s saying. “C’mon, shake.”
“Yeah, me too,” says Donnie, shooting his hand out as he gets back to his feet.
Two or three kibitzers that had been watching the three boys now becomes a dozen souls and continues to grow. Karl recognizes faces. Robin Malone, Chris MacKeown. It seems as if his whole class is gradually joining the ring forming around him and the other boys.
I don’t want to be here. Mom!? Where are you? What am I supposed to do?
“Um, I, uh…,” he says, on his feet but rejecting the hands offered in supposed friendship, “I really have to─—”
“What’s the matter,” JJ says, “you don’t want to touch us?” He looks from his open hand to Karl, and then to the crowd. “Did Mommy tell you not to play with anyone who wasn’t your own kind?”
Karl has been examining the scrape on the heel of his hand where he’d broken his fall a few moments before when he hears these words. He looks up from the reddening wound at JJ. His eyebrows are knit in uncertainty.
My “own kind?” he says to himself. I have a “kind?” What is it? He’s looking at the inside-tipster expression JJ wears for the crowd and wonders who else knows what his, Karl’s, “own kind” is. He pictures his mother’s face once more, but in the imagined dialog he can tell she doesn’t see him.
Mommy, what are they talking about? How come everybody knows except me?
Her smile in this imagined audience is sad and embarrassed. She looks defeated to Karl, like pictures of prisoners of war he’s seen in the newsreel. Her image, which had been vibrant and almost real to him in this and all his psychic exchanges with her, has grown pale and unconvincing, and her voice is thin and hollow, whistling and tubular. It makes him uncomfortable to think he’s been relying on her as heavily as he has.
“Because I didn’t tell you, my sweetheart, my darling, that’s why. I didn’t know how. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” And then her image is gone.
Karl experiences a deep shudder of isolation. He knows he’s about to go through something important for the first time in his life without having his mother less than four rooms away. No strong hand to hold when the wave crashes over him, no comforting voice to still his father’s scary one on the rare occasions when he used it.
“C’mon, Karl, you know what I’m talking about,” says JJ. “Changing your name doesn’t change what you are.”
Karl looks around at the expectant crowd, hoping for some sign of what is expected of him. But there is none. In desperation he says the first thing that comes into his mind.
“I never said it did.”
“Good,” says JJ, still playing to the crowd, “then let’s shake on it.” His hand is still out, re-offering peace.
But Karl shakes his head, No.
“Why not?” says JJ, stabbing his hand further into Karl’s personal space, which Karl reckons to be about one arm’s-length away from his belt buckle or his nose.
“I don’t have to have a reason,” says Karl. He is surprised at the words, at their simple honesty, and how they sound coming out of his mouth. They sound like him.
“My friends and I aren’t good enough for you? Huh?”
Karl stares silently at his tormentor.
“Well,” says JJ to his partner and the crowd, “I guess we’re just not good enough for Karl Robsonbergerrosen──”
“Hey,” says Karl. “Hey! Don’t say that!” Is this me? It can’t be; I don’t know how to do this.
JJ stops and glares at Karl. “Did I say it wrong? Robertbergrosen? No, wait a second: Boogerbergerrosen──”
JJ gets another one or two wheezy syllables out before Karl slams into his chest, knocks the wind out of him, sends them both to the ground with the skidding, scratching sound of bodies hitting pea gravel in earnest. It’s so fast and unexpected no one seems to even see it. And least of all, Karl, whose face is buried in JJ’s chest as the two roll on the ground, piston-punching each other with every fiber of their little six-year-old beings.
There is something about a schoolyard fight that can galvanize kids into action faster than a gym teacher with a paddle. From the ground Karl sees knees and shoes and Levis and socks converge around him and JJ as if by magic, as if the disembodied limbs and ankles, oxfords and Mary Janes were told to “make a ring around these two fellows, won’t you?” He also realizes, with a welter of mostly negative emotions that it is he who has “started” the first fist fight of the new school year.
The two six-year-olds roll around on the loose, rough surface, grunting and puffing. At a distance it could be two kids playing any game. But about this particular contest there is an air of duty and of things at stake, though neither boy could tell you what they were.
The crowd is now four or five deep, the yelling and screaming is spirited.
“Fight! Fight!” yell the first, second and third grade boys.
“Eeeee!” scream the first, second and third grade girls.
“JJ! Get him in a headlock!” says a brown-haired boy with a butch and a thick green rubber band of mucous hanging out of his nose.
“Whatsa matter, JJ, did he hit back?” says another boy, taller, a little more worldly, probably a third grader.
As the two boys come out of a roll, straining and gasping for breath, it is Karl who is on top. JJ’s bigger, but Karl’s gotten hold of his right arm and bent it behind him in such a way that JJ is helpless and in pain. The half-Nelson wrestling hold is a complete accident on Karl’s part. He couldn’t recreate it if he had to. But he knows enough to hold on.
JJ tries to stand up and turn in the direction of the corkscrewing motion, but Karl keeps the tension on, following JJ around the improvised ring and twisting his arm counterclockwise. JJ is forced to his knees, his face almost in the dirt as Karl continues to torque the taut helix of his arm.
“Karl, wait,” gasps JJ, looking up at the smaller boy. “Can’t we just be friends? I was kidding about that other stuff. I just want us to be friends.” His voice sounds different than it had just a moment earlier saying almost exactly the same words. He sounds strangled, breathless and very much the little boy he is.
Karl eases the pressure on JJ’s arm a sixteenth of a turn or so, leans over him for a muffled conversation. JJ shakes his head reluctantly up and down. His face is beet-red and he is sweating. Karl straightens up.
“Okay?” he says in a hoarse whisper to JJ. “Okay?!” more urgently this time, and giving the arm a half-inch tweak.
“Aarrgh!” cries JJ, “Yes, yes. Okay. Yes. I promise. Yes.”
“Say it!” It’s Karl, near tears, still not knowing where to take this, how to finish it, what to do now.
“I promise not to make fun of Karl Roberts’ name anymore,” JJ says, panting. “I promise swear to God.” His head is still just an inch or two from the ground.
Karl can’t think of anything else to do, so he lets go of JJ’s arm.
At the same time, he feels the collar of his sweater snap into a garrote round his neck, tighter and steadier than any first, second or third grade hand could make it.
As his breath catches in his throat he sees a second hand, partner to the first, grab a big shock of JJ’s hair, pull it up off the ground, head and all, and turn it to face him. It happens so quickly and Karl is so wound up by the high-octane mixture of emotions pulsing through him it takes him a second to realize that both hands belong to Mr. Palmister, Principal of West Hollywood Elementary School.
“I think you fellows are about through, aren’t you?” says the Mr. Palmister, looking from one to the other.
They look at each other, at the ground, mumble their “Yessirs” to him.
“Good. First, you’ll tell me what your names are, and then you’ll follow me to my office.” He looks at JJ.
“John Joseph Corman, sir,” says JJ.
Then he looks at Karl.
“Karl, uh, Roberts, sir,” says Karl.
“Are you sure, Karl ‘Uh’ Roberts?” says the Principal.
“Yessir,” Karl says, nodding. “I’m sure, sir. Karl Roberts.”
3/30/02 6665 wds.
© Allan Ross, Waccabuc, 2002