Tuesday, February 28, 2017

In the beginning there was fire

In the beginning, there was fire.
At least in my family. Or my memory of my family.
There was an oilfield in Minnesota. It was Fugate family's property in the early 1930s. It may be a depression for everybody else, but not for the Fugates, nope, because the Fugates had property and the Fugates have talent and brains and the Fugates have oil.
In my mind's eye, I see all All the bigass, moneyed, priveleged, Godblessed Fugates are strutting around on that moneygiving oil-spurting property. My Grandfather. His brother. Their wives. They're having a family picnic and celebrating all that privelege. Someone may even have wanted to take a photograph. Had them all cluster in together...

And some idiotasshole lights a cigarette.

The fire roars out like some bluewhite living thing, a hellspawn caricature of the Holy Ghost, and in microseconds the Fugates standing around are transfigured into writhing, screaming things on the ground like redmeat screaming illustrations from Grey's Anatomy.

My Grandfather is a tough Scots-Irish sonofabitch and it takes him a day and a half to die. He could've escaped unharmed. But he ran back into the fire to pull his sister out. And had third degree burns over 90% of his body.

My Great Aunt (Marion McLanahan) sees her Father, Mother, Uncle and various other relatives killed before her eyes. She is only 7 years old. Something about the horror of that sight fixes her at the age of 7 for the rest of her life. No matter how old she gets, she will always be 7 years old.
I know all this from my father's stories, the ones he told me when I was a little kid. Somewhere along the line, he stopped telling me stories and started telling me lectures His stories were fascinating. His lectures were boring as hell.
In my second year of college, I realized I had the great American novel on my hands. If I could just get those stories down on paper. But he wouldn't tell them anymore. I'd ask about grandmother louise's pony. He'd tell me that women were nest builders, I had to start thinking about my career, the world didn't give a shit about my goddamn creative talents, it's root hog or die, baby, root hog or die. How do you like them apples?
I'd get the lecture of the day. A massive assault on the sorry ass false onsxiousness he'd spotted in my skull. An exhortation that people were rotten and materialistic and the world would bust my balls and kill my pride if I didn't have money, property and a career--sound ground to stand on that'd allow me to tell the bastards "Kiss my ass."
But I'd persist and try to trick him into telling me fragments. I hit on the clever strategy of stuffing a tape recorder down the front of my jeans. Not the leak modern numbers. The bell and howell cassette recorder they'd bought me in 1968. Huge mother fucker. Half the time he'd notice it. "You sorry little shit. Did you stuff a goddamn taper corer down your pants. But I'd keep at it.
Tell me about the time Uncle Marion beat up the bully picking on Aunt Jo.
How you wanted to rig a pulley in the church, swoop down with robes and fake wings like you were angels, and steal the election plate.
The contrasts in the depression who'd come in the Hotel restaurant with a dead roach in a baby food jar-- and hide it under the food so they would have to pay.
Tell me Dad. Tell me.
90% of the time, he'd zero in like a secret missile on the theme of a root hog or die attitude in a psoriasis world.
Like Tristam Shandy. He never told the cock and bull story. He'd always veer off. A digression. A point he wanted to make.
But I kept trying.

July 19, 1930


Victims in Michigan Disaster Sprayed With Flames.

MT. PLEASANT, Mich., July 19. - (United News) - The first major disaster of the newly-developed Michigan oil fields had taken a toll of seven lives today after a wild gusher exploded and scattered blazing oil over a crowd of 2,000 persons.

Men, women and children, who had flocked to see the state's biggest oil "strike" were caught in the fiery blast shortly after nightfall last night. The well was a column of flames today while hundreds of men fought to bring it under control.

The known dead were:

Mrs. Walter L. McClanahan, 35, wife of the well owner.

Mrs. E. J. Guy, 45, wife of the general superintendent of the Roosevelt Refinery.

Ruby Melvin, 13, Mount Pleasant.

Mrs. Robert C. Guy, 18, Mt. Pleasant.

Arwin E. Gorham, wealthy Mt. Pleasant manufacturer.

Marion Fugate, 28, Mt. Pleasant.

Mrs. Thomas Lamb, 25, Mt. Pleasant.

Two others were so seriously burned that they are not expected to live.

A cigaret carelessly dropped by a member of the crowd was blamed for the tragedy.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh, PA 20 Jul 1931


OK, man. If he won't tell the story, we will.
You don't know the damn story.

Then tell me. Start at the beginning.
I'm fuzzy about the beginning. I can say stuff, but it's all mangled and wrong.

Do your best man. Make shit up.
Names. Dates,.
I don't even remember my Grandfather's name. My Grandmother is named Louise.
Before marriage, she was Louise Something (McCuddy?) Lindsey, after marriage,
Louise Lindsey Fugate.

What was she like?
Fucking nightmare. We used to call her Grandmonster.
When she was a kid.
Oh, right. Well ...

Once upon a time I taped her recollections but she was old and drugged and drunk. 
She went on and on about her pony. She loved her pony.
What's the pony's name?
No fucking clue.
Well. You got it on the tape, right? 
Yeh did. But the tape was destroyed

No man. You destroyed it.
Fuck you, oK? Yeah I did and I don't want to talk
about it. 

Fine be me.

She was born in Franklin, Kentucky. Her Father was a schoolteacher, one of
those one-room schoolhouse deals. She was privileged, or at least honored. She
had her own pony and rode back and forth to school on her pony. The other kids
were in awe.

She was good-looking -- and also had a wild side. Time rolled into the 20s and
she became something of a party girl -- veneered over with Southern belle
charm and double entendre. The dances she went to were catered affairs,
cotillions, Southern society crap -- as opposed to the roadhouse variety. But
she made the rounds. I see her as something out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. A
Daisy figure. A Zelda figure...

And, somewhere along the line, she landed my Grandfather (whose name I don't
even remember) the son of "Papa" Fugate, the banker dude who owned everything
in Franklin county -- a Gentleman's C UVA graduate with a six foot shelf of
the Harvard classic that he probably never read...

No, man. You read shit all the time. He probably did too. Don't piss off his fucking ghost.
OK. Sorry sir.
I'm just fuckin with you, man. So, she landed him. You mean she married him.
Yeah. She married the rich guy. This is what all the calculated prettiness, mannerisms and flirtations was for, of course -- and it worked. She married him. She was set for life. 

Sometime I think around 1927 my Uncle Marion Lindsey Fugate was born, followed
by my father, Terence McCuddy (sp?) Fugate in 1930 and Estelle Something
Fugate a year or so later. I know it wasn't that long because my Father was
only a year or a year and a half old when his Father was killed, which is why,
as he told me ten thousand times, he never had a Father.

Fucking sad man. So, she married the rich guy. She had it made in the shade but life didn't go according to plan. All the pretty dreams an shit. That fired burned it all up.

Yeah. Down in flames. 

How she take it?
What do you think?
It fucked her up, 

All of this shattered Louise because it meant all her calculations had been for nothing. This wasn't supposed to happen. This was not her wonderful life.but ... Like what did your dad say

And so my Grandmother screamed and went mad with grief -- for the right
reasons and for the wrong reasons -- and then, since this was the Great
Depression by now, she pulled herself together and, with the money from the
will, bought a hotel in Franklin Kentucky.

Instead of being landed gentry she scraped and humped and washed dishes and
cooked meals and did the laundry and learned accounting (she'd always been
good at math anyway) and, being one of those clever, controlling people with
the kind of brain that can attend to ten thousand things at once down to the
last nitpicky detail, she made a go of it.

But this was not her dream. 
Not it was not. She wanted to be Zelda fitzgerald Southern Belle with blalhahbah.

So what happened next?

I'm sketchy on what happened next and the sequence may be screwed up here.
But, as far as I know, she made a clever leap of brain to figure Florida was
the place she oughta be and so sold the hotel and family property in Franklin
and moved down to Pompano Beach Florida -- somehow, either in advance or once
she landed, obtaining the Walton Hotel. For all I know she screwed the Waltons
and sent 'em packing to Walton's Mountain. History is silent on this point...

So there she was with three clever, bratty kids and nothing but hard work --
all work and no play. Better off than most, maybe -- but in their heart of
hearts, the abstract notion that there are more miserable people out there
somewhere never helped any human being deal better with their misery the least
goddamn bit, now does it?

Girls just want to have fun, including her. She wanted to get down. She wanted
to party. She started slipping out, going to dances and honky tonks and bad
places where she shouldn't've oughta gone. Also working her ass off, of
course. And scheming all the time. Drinking too, naturally -- perhaps a way of
holding all the contradictions together and going on from day to day. Her
glorious dreams on the one hand, her shitty life on the other....

Her drink of choice: Early Times.

Grandmother dealt with work and play by sending her kids to the movies almost
all the time. On weekends and the dead hours of the afternoon, she'd have
Daisy (the "colored" maid) drive 'em down to the local movie palace, the kids
all stuffed with enough money to stay the whole day.

In this way my Father -- like Walker Percy's Moviegoer -- grew up with his
eyes stuffed with visions and came away with a head full of other people's

While my Grandmother's schemes continued -- namely centering on Finding a Man,
her expectations having lowered considerably (as her hands had roughened) from
her original Southern Gentleman.

At one point, if I'm not screwing the sequence up, Louise brought home some
"white trash" to the Hotel and shacked up with him. The man thought he was
instantly king of the roost and slapped one of the little kids. Uncle Marion
punched him in the balls. The man fled and that was that.

She finally settled on a coarse, no-doubt sexually deprived serviceman of
German extraction named Donald Aurand who, for some reason, was there in
Florida during the WWII years. (Vacationing on leave? Stationed at a base
nearby?) They married. He went off for the year or so left of his tour of
duty. Came back.

And instantly became her henpecked, pussywhipped slave.

That's hash, man.

It's true. I witnessed it personally ... as a kid. I thought it was funny. Haha, she's making the German guy with big ears suffer! Now I look back ... and I think God, the poor bastard. Jesus, she made him crawl.

Why'd she do it or why'd he put up with it?
The second one.

Because it was her house, her hotel, her land, her money, her kids, her her everything.

So, how did this slave thing work in practice?

She had a cowbell that she'd ring CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! that you could
hear for a 40-mile radius. "Don!" she'd scream with a voice like a cackling
hen, "Don -- do this! Don do that!" Don would grumble, shuffling along, "I'm
coming, I'm coming. Don't have to pitch a goldurn fit..." That was not her sole means of communication. She also had a bell system.

A bell system.

Like a school bell, when the classes change. There's one at the front desk at the hotel, in the back room, in his area, any place he might be. She wanted something, she'd push a button by her bed and they'd ring, they're were fucking loud. Sometimes we'd be there. He'd roll his eyes, Oh God, what' the old bat want now. He'd say all this shit like we weren't even. He'd start shugglingf along RIINGNNNGGGG. I'm going. RINGGGGGG. Keep your panties on, damn it.

Man thjat's hellish.
Yeah. Like no exit with a fucking bell.
No, man. It's a two bell system. In terms of scale, you know?  Little bell, big bells. Cowbell by the bed. And those big bells in the hotel.
That never occurred to me. 
Hre to help man.
So how long he put up with that shit.
Until she died.
Jesus. So the man just took her shit.
He took her shit ...
And he dipped in the till, right?

They got older; Don
got deafer; Louise got louder. He got slower. Other than that, the pattern stayed the same
for decades.

The kids picked up on the contempt and Don's servile status, of course --
especially my Father. Don was not their real dad. Fuck Don.

Don, realizing he was without power and totally screwed, started salting money
away in secret and continued to do this for years. Bad, bad Don.

The kids, meanwhile, grew up and, occasionally, raised a little hell.

My Father -- when he used to tell stories instead of boring lectures -- told
some good ones. One story about how Uncle Marion saw a bully beating up on
Aunt Jo and how Uncle Marion tore off across a field like a shot and kicked
the bully's ass. How Aunt Jo thought she saw God and fainted in Church once.
How Dad and Uncle Marion wanted to dress Dad up in an angel costume, suspend
him from a rope, and have him come swooping down in church to steal the
offering plate. How some kid named Pee Wee painted a picture of Hitler's open,
screaming mouth at the bottom of his toilet. How the cheerleaders at the white
schools hooted and hollered like goofs -- while the black cheer leaders
snapped their fingers, cool, styling, chanting "satisfied...satisfied." How
Dad and Uncle Marion almost gave Louise a heart attack by dropping a dummy off
the Hotel fire escape in Dad's clothes that she thought was Dad. How Dad could
argue or talk his way out of anything -- except his Brother. How Uncle Marion
wrapped Dad around his little finger -- had him running around, doing chores,
doing his work -- for a quarter, a favor, whatever that, somehow, Uncle Marion
always got out of. How a good kid got knifed and died at the hands of some
white trash. How Dad listened in on a phone conversation once and realized
that Uncle Marion was having an affair with a married woman. How Dad fucked up
constantly and was always in trouble and got sent to military school. How
Uncle Marion enrolled in the Army at age 17 and became the youngest pilot in
the Army Air Corps.

Fire again.

They used him as an example in the lectures at the training academy. How if
you didn't do this or did do that -- or whatever they made out it was he did
that was wrong -- you'd burn to death and die in agony. Dad likes to think
that's a load of crap and they were just using him as an example and had no
right to do that.

And so George Bush became the youngest fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps.

And Grandmother Louise went screaming around the Hotel -- screaming like a
wild animal, screaming like something out of Shakespeare, something out of


Before he left for the train station they all went and saw a movie. The movie
had a cartoon short -- something by Disney about Captain Billy Mitchell's plan
to have a fully functioning air force. The film ended with an endless flying
wedge of planes filling up the sky in the victorious fight against fascism.
Uncle Marion went away. Dad and everybody waved goodbye.

ix months later they got the telegram that Uncle Marion died in a training
accident. Two planes ran into each other over a lake -- one pilot, obviously,
not where he was supposed to be. One pilot parachuted to safety. Uncle Marion
went down in flames into the lake and died. 

In the end theere was fire.
Yeah. That's how I'm going to end the story.
Man, that's too damn depressing.


The essential conflict is between guts and manipulation. Do you throw yourself into life with courage? Are you willing to risk everything? Or to you try to play it safe? Do you avoid head-on fights? Do you try to get what you want by cheating and manipulating people?

1920s. Kentucky, etc.
The Patriarch has guts. He’s a risk-taker. A visionary. An entrepreneur.
He can afford to be because his dad, essentially, owned the county. He’s the son of a rich banker. He was raised to take risks. What’s the worst that could happen? You die. There are worse things than being dead.
He marries Zelda, who is highly appealing in the babe department. Zelda made herself appealing. She snagged him as a result of a long, drawn out, highly complicated strategic campaign. She’s not a lady. She comes from semi-decent people: a rakehell county Sherriff with a suffering “Whatever you say dear” shmoo of a wife. She takes after her daddy – his wild streak. She wants to rise above her background. She wants the good stuff.
His wife, Zelda, is a con-artist.
A manic money maker with visionary ideas and unstoppable energy. To Zelda, the Patriarch is her ticket to a high class life. She figures life owes it to her. She loves him on some level; but there’s an element of insincerity because she’s using him. This insincerity, at a very sordid level, includes the fact that she’s highly oversexed. She is not, at her core, a lady.
The Patriarch and Zelda marry. They have three children:
1932. The Patriarch’s fearlessness gets him killed in an oil well explosion. Carl and Zoe are still toddlers. Francis is the only child who remembers his father.
Zelda is bitter. Life has cheated her of the golden ticket. Life fucked with her carefully made plan.
Zelda may be bitter, but she’s a fierce realist. To survive, she goes into the hotel business. Instead of being a genteel lady, she has to root and grub for money. She has to kiss ass and please people. Be a servant. The destiny she tried to escape. She immediately begins looking for a replacement Money Man.
Along the way she also has to raise her three kids.
Francis takes after his Daddy. Francis is a risk-taker. He jumps into fights.
Carl and Zoe try to play it safe. They avoid fights.
Francis stands up for his brother and sister against Zelda’s emotional bullshit. If she’s an emotional H-bomb, he’s their emotional fallout shelter.
Mommy Zelda neglects her kids. She’s either worried about business or looking for a man. She lets the black servants raise them. Either them, or Hollywood. Whenever Zelda can, she dumps the kids off at the movies. On the weekend, sometimes for the whole day.
Francis acts as protector to Zoe and Carl. Bullies pick on Zoe; he kicks their ass. A shop teacher picks on Carl. He scares the shit out of him.
Carl learns to be a people pleaser, a class clown, a comedian. He defuses fights with jokes. He tells people what they want to hear, distracts them from what they’re angry about. Francis accuses him of being a wimp (or whatever they said in the 1940s). You never stand up to people. So what if you get your nose broke? So what?
1941 Pearl Harbor. WW II breaks out. It forms the background for the rest of the story. Constantly blaring out from radios, newspapers, conversations.
Carl turns Francis into a substitute father. They share a room. Francis tells Carl his dreams of flight. Airplanes. Airplanes are all he can think about. There’s a model plane hanging from the ceiling. Carl asks Francis what was father like? Francis tells him stories. Carl tells Francis about his dreams of fire. He keeps having them. Dreams of his father burning to death. That’s horseshit. He died instantly. He lies.
Zelda dotes on Francis, despite the shit he gives her. There’s a slightly sick quality to her affection. She sees her dead husband in him. It’s creepy. He knows it’s creepy and avoids her. She starts to drink. She’s still looking for a man.
A hotel guest acts inappropriately to Zoe. Zelda projects her own lustful responses onto the kid. Assumes she was asking for it. Zelda, in a fit of guilt, sends Zoe to a Catholic school. Doesn’t want her to be like her.
Zoe dreams of Hollywood. Becoming an actress. Her escape, blended in her mind with Catholic iconography. She devours movie magazines.
Carl and Francis, in spite of the crap, manage to have fun. They horse around.
Carl finds a dead body. A guest who’s hung himself. Hell, says Francis. It’s only a dead body.
Francis continues to dream of flight. Francis and Carl run around, watching the P-38 Mustangs fly at Homestead Airbase.
Zelda, occasionally, gets drunk and breaks into Carl and Francis world. It’s always some rant about money, money, money. Carl’s side of the family owes her. That rich bastard in the mansion in Kentucky owes her. She raised his grandkids, spent $X, Y, Z on this and that. She gets into mind-numbingly microscopic details about what she’s owed, the inheritance she has coming, the great profit/loss balance sheet in the sky. Goes into schemes how she plans to get her share. Mom, you’re boring the crap out of me. Get the hell out of here.
Francis is not entirely noble. He scares the shit out of Zelda by throwing dummies off the hotel fire escape railing. And various other pranks. He manipulates Carl into being his servant– doing most of the hotel scutwork. Carl, who worships the ground Francis is trying to fly off from, thinks it’s a privilege.
Francis has his dad’s fearlessness. And his mom’s sex drive. He’s sexually active at 16 or so. Has sex with a married woman while still a teenager. Carl overhears dirty talk on the phone. He worries that Francis, his angelic brother, may be going to hell.
Meanwhile, Carl and Francis continue to run around.
Colorful scenes of WWII. Hitler with open mouth painted in tolet bowl. Florida crackers. The judgemental Baptist church next door who won’t let them get a liquor license. “To Kill a Mockingbird” vibe.
Francis stands up to some very dangerous people who knifed one of his buddies. He kicks ass against very serious odds.
Carl wonders how he could risk his life like that. Francis replies: how couldn’t you? It’s what you do.
Gas rationing and the rest of it is murder to the hotel business. Mom is barely scraping by. All work and no play.
In desperation, she snags a low-class solider who happened to be eating in the hotel restaurant. Ironically, he’s from a German family. They marry in a minute. He goes back to war. She sees it as a financial investment. But she’s not getting any.
As the decade drags on, Mom goes off the deep end. Has a sloppy, public affair with a low class bastard. Very shocking in the cracker Florida of the 1940s.
Francis, now 17, kicks the dude’s ass and sends him packing.
Zelda confronts him, but Francis puts her in her place. She backs down. This teenage badass is the man. He’s a superhero. Carl is in awe. Life’s a fight. You can’t run away, says Francis.
Francis tells Carl he’s enlisted in the Army Air Corps. The youngest person in the USA to do so.
Before he gets shipped off, Francis sees a movie with Carl: Disney’s “Victory through Airpower” about Alexander Seversky’s vision to create an Air Force. In diminishing perspective lines, an endless formation of planes ascend to the heavens like angels. We’re going to win the war.
Francis dies in a training accident. He burns to death, like his father before him.
Zelda gets drunk out of her mind and rages against God.
Why did you take my good son?
She sends Carl to military school.

Carl decides to play it safe for the rest of his life.