8/2/14 What I Don’t Know

Well, I do know that this is my daughter’s birthday. I became a father 32 years ago today. I know that I love her and the two precious daughters she has of her own, also known as my grandchildren, one of the best things I have found in life so far, which is something all grandparents discover for themselves.

I also know that I stepped on a thorn while working on the water pump at the Ridge House, yesterday. I was wearing some of those casual canvas shoes, which are very comfortable but certainly not thorn proof. I felt it as I stepped on some vines going in to the pump house. It was piercingly painful, if you’ll allow me the alliterative pun. Debbie dug it out of my foot this morning with a large needle and a pair of tweezers. Right now, I feel towards her about like the lion did about Androcles (See Aesop’s Fables), thankful that someone was there to dig out this painful thorn from a place I could not contort myself to reach. I also know that these days, there are a lot of places I can’t contort myself to reach.

I know I got the water working again in the Ridge House, got the booster pump running, and bypassed the rusted out water tank. The only reason we had the tank was because the Porterville Water Association could not deliver very much water to the high elevation of the Ridge House. It sits high atop a ridge in this very hilly part of Mississippi known geologically as the Wilcox Anticline. My friend and musical accomplice on The Sucarnochee Revue, Britt Gully, has a degree in geology from Mississippi State University. He is the one who told me about the Wilcox Formation, also known as the anticline, which is where Lauderdale and Kemper Counties get their 600 to 700 foot hills, from a base elevation of about 200 to 300 feet, for a significant rise which is phenomenal for Mississippi. The Ridge House is at about 500 feet, from a base elevation at The Sucarnochee Creek of about 220 feet. Ever since Porterville Water Association built a new water tower, they can deliver much more water to the Ridge House, and to the shower faucet at my home, which used to run at a mere trickle at times.

It was simply a matter of physics and the money to overcome the physical limitations that caused the poor water flow. If you don’t think this can be a big problem just go and visit the Grand Canyon, and see for yourself that they haul in potable water by truck in one of the most heavily visited of National Parks. The only water is five thousand feet below in the Colorado River. Pumping water up a mile is far more expensive than hauling it in by truck. If it was easy, the federal government with all of its resources would have fixed it by now. If the federal government thinks lifting water a mere vertical mile is a extraordinarily expensive nuisance, then thank goodness for Porterville Water Association’s determination to lift it 300 feet. Neither one could be done without great expense. It’s all just a number when it comes to the expense; the question is simply….where does one put the decimal point?

So far, I have not written anything about what I don’t know. This is an anticlimactic effort from atop the anticline. I must think about the things I don’t know. I had a long list when I set out but can’t seem to find it now that I have begun. I suppose that the first thing I don’t know is where my list of things I don’t know got off to. It did not want to be written about, feeling ashamed I suppose…I don’t know.

Now, I have foresworn local, national, and world politics as a topic, well not really local, but local is not of much interest to anyone who might read this blog, but I have not foresworn writing about what I don’t know about it, which, in reality, puts me in a class with thousands of other writers since they seem to relentlessly write about what they don’t know about, too. Some of them, perhaps most of them, have simply got to be wrong, as we are beleaguered with conflicting facts and diametrically opposed opinions.

I don’t know a thing about the complexities of relations between Middle-Eastern nations, Hamas, Israel, Palestine, and the purposes, cross-purposes, and counter-purposes they seem to continually display towards each other. I could write about it and act as if I knew, like a lot of other people, but I don’t really know, not having been there recently. I have been to Israel, so I know what the air smells like, and have seen smoke from a perch in Jerusalem coming from a battle that had been fought the day before near Jericho several miles away: far, far away from where they allowed us tourists to go.

Tourists don’t know very much about a place, since they don’t get to spend much time anywhere, always being bussed about and harried by their tour guides, don’t speak the local language, nor get to know anyone who actually lives their entire lives there, other than their tour guides, who are paid professionals, almost as if they worked for the local Chamber of Commerce. If you don’t think your local Chamber of Commerce will put a false spin on your community, then you haven’t read its propaganda. They’ll lie their ass off, which is their job. Well, maybe they just see things differently because they are paid to. I don’t know why Chambers of Commerce and Economic Development Districts never publish things like, “Our schools are among the worst in the nation,” or, “Crime and gang-related activities are increasing at alarming rates,” or, “The odds of the home you just purchased being next door to a working meth lab are one in six.” Nope…you never see those things. I don’t know why. Do you?

I don’t know why people are always complaining about nothing to do in their local communities. Everyone can’t live in New York City or San Francisco. Surely, there are folks there complaining about nothing to do, too. Maybe so. I don’t know. I am pretty sure that where I grew up qualifies as one of those places where there was a bonafide nothing to do, but I never really noticed it. I was always too busy. I never knew I had nothing to do. I was ignorant of the entire matter. In hindsight, I might think that there perhaps might have been a severe dearth of passive entertainment, since PONG hadn’t even been invented and plugged into a black and white TV. But one could always listen in on the telephone party-line and learn what scandalous things the neighbors were up to.

I picked up the phone quietly. I could hear the neighbors, or at least one of the neighbors, talking in whispers. Though they could hear each other, I reckon they thought I would not be able to hear them in my unauthorized status if they talked in whispers. I heard Mrs. Georgia Flake tell some woman I could not identify that her son had been accused of impregnating Wanda June Shoemaker, who was no good, her family was no good, and her momma was no good, and they were to be immediately married. I knew Wanda June. She was a bit older than me, didn’t even know that I was alive, but the thought of the activities involving the impregnation of Wanda June was on every teenage boy’s mind that I knew of that had ever seen Wanda June. I admired that Gary Flake at that moment, though I had always thought of him as a ne’er-do-well himself. Now, he was going to marry Wanda June and have her all to himself rather than as the shared commodity everyone said she was but no one was certain of. This idea was primarily advanced by those who never got closer to Wanda June than passing her in the school hallway and getting a whiff of her perfume.

“What are they gonna do?” asked the unidentifiable lady on the other end of Miss Georgia’s semi-private party-line conversation.

“They’re gonna git married this weekend. The preacher won’t marry them, but the Justice of the Peace will. We done paid him the five dollars and they done paid for the license. It has to be this weekend because the results of the syphilis test won’t be back until Friday,” whispered Miss Georgia. I didn’t know what syphilis was, but it sounded diabolical the way she whispered it. Wanda June was bound to have syphilis, whatever that was. Probably Gary, too.

Until very recently, Mississippi required a negative syphilis test from both parties before issuing a marriage license. Back then the syphilis test was a free service performed by the County Health Department, along with free immunizations. Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, HIV, Hepatitis C, HPV, or PID didn’t matter, since the first one was easily curable, antibiotic resistant strains having not been heard of yet, and the others were also unheard of, or considered to be merely minor nuisances if they were considered at all. No one knew about HIV then, unless it was bio-pathologists studying in the Congo, which was called Zaire at the time I was eavesdropping on Miss Georgia’s conversation. I knew where Zaire was since George Foreman and Muhamad Ali had fought a championship bout there, but, admittedly, it was not possible to know about something I had not even heard of, and when I finally got around to hearing about it a few years later, what I heard was all wrong and what I knew was all wrong. We get a lot of things wrong. I’m still getting some things wrong. I don’t know why.

I was excited about Gary Flake and Wanda June’s upcoming nuptials. They would live forever in marital bliss, getting a small, used mobile home of their own which would be parked out back behind Miss Georgia’s house. Mr. Flake was out there right at that moment putting down some concrete block foundations so the pulp-wooder that Gary was going to work for could back the trailer in with one of his pulp-wood trucks. Pulp-wooding, Wanda June, a trailer of their own…man, that Gary Flake was one lucky fellow.

“I ain’t at all sure that baby is his,” Miss Georgia whispered even softer to her phone companion. We both gasped out loud at the same time, but I was a young teenager, and though my voice was pitched about the same as the lady on the other end, my pubescent voice broke deep in mid-gasp. My cover was blown.

“Someone else is on this line,” shouted Miss Georgia. I looked around to make sure she could not see me, which was useless as she was about two miles down the road, then hung up the phone as quietly as I could. I wondered if she knew it was me. Nah! Not possible. There were about five houses on the same party-line, so she could not be sure. But she had heard my adolescent/pubescent voice croak. I would have to make sure that I controlled my voice, using its deepest, most manly manifestation when I was around her. It never occurred to me that my put-on air would be a dead giveaway to Miss Georgia, aided by the fact that I could not look her in the eye since I felt guilty for having violated her privacy. The next time I saw her, which was just a few post-wedding days later as she was picking up some groceries and signing her charge ticket at Creel’s General Merchandise and Service Station, cause everyone had a charge account at Creel’s, she took me aside, pointed her finger in my face and warned, “I’m gonna tell yore momma the next time you are listening in on my phone call. It’s a federal crime, you know.”

I did not know. Now I was terrified. Federal agents would be along just any minute to arrest me, and I would spend years and years in solitary confinement with the forlorn knowledge that Gary and Wanda June would be enjoying the pleasures of wedded bliss as I rotted in a Ft. Leavenworth cell, and though the thought of that terrified me, what really had me worried was that she might tell my momma.

It was all over. I confessed to Miss Georgia. I cried. I pleaded. She hadn’t known it was me, of course. I gave myself away at the first opportunity because I never was a good liar. Not knowing how to lie very well, I didn’t know how to not give myself away immediately. Denial when confronted with the truth was not something I was capable of maintaining.

“Oh! Please, Miss Georgia, don’t call the sheriff. I don’t want to go to jail forever. I’m sorry I eavesdropped. And please, oh, please, don’t tell my momma. She would whip me with a mule hame if she thought I did that. I’m so sorry. I won’t never do it again, I swear.”

“Don’t you dare swear,” she said raising her voice, her finger still pointing but now shaking as well..

“I mean, I promise. Not swear. Promise,” I cried. “I promise I won’t never do it again.”

“Then what you heard will be our secret?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” I lied even though I’ve already admitted that I’m not good at it. I had already leaked our secret. Our secret was all over the place. It may as well have been published as the leading headline on the front page of the weekly paper. “Syphilisless Couple Forced to Marry,” it may well have read. Me contributing my own version added nothing to the story that was any more unsavory than what others had discussed among themselves and the entire community. Everybody knew it already. The talk was all over the village just from seeing the used trailed parked out behind of their house. Then the preacher-less wedding had occurred, and everyone had known that both Gary and Wanda June had dropped out of school, Gary Flake driving one of Eustis Freeman’s pulp-wood trucks, and the new Mrs. Wanda June Shoemaker Flake setting out to be a good housewife. Everyone also knew, of course, that neither one of the newly married couple likely had syphilis. What no one knew, or rather what no one publicly admitted to knowing, was the reason for the rushed marriage. Of course they knew, they just didn’t say so out loud, though I expect the ladies at the Community Development Club’s Wednesday garden luncheon had discussed it thoroughly during Miss Georgia’s absence. They would pretend to have not done so upon her return, giving themselves away with a display of extraordinary kindness instead of their usual detachment. Miss Georgia was no fool. She put her best game face on and held her head erect, which offended a couple of the more saintly garden club matrons who felt some contrition would have been more ladylike. They wanted to gloat in Miss Georgia’s shame but were denied the privilege. They were quite put out by this, too.

After the baby was born, everything would be fine. Gary would be settled in his new job. Wanda June would be settled in as a housewife and mother with a new baby, and they would be pressured by dozens of debit insurance salesmen to buy a life insurance policy. Gary would be fretted over like a pork chop is worried over by a pack of Red Bone Hounds until he relented and agreed to pay $2.75 per week for a $1,500 policy that would protect his young family in case of an unfortunate accident or untimely demise. I did not know anything about this life insurance thing other than that a man with a large leather book came around every week to collect the premiums on the policy. I later learned that if one lived long enough and kept up with their premiums, not letting the policy lapse, the insurance company would make out like a bandit by returning as its benefit about a third of the money that had been paid in. But it was not to be; the insurance company would lose on this one. Wanda June later learned that $1,500, which seemed like so much when the check was placed in her hand, did not go very far or last very long. A tree Gary felled pinched between the fork of another tree kicked back and killed him just a couple of years later. Wanda June was then a good-looking widow with a whole $1,500 dollars in one lump sum. Many valiant efforts to court her were made by dozens of suitors just as soon as it was thought proper to do so. She spurned all offers, moved to Jackson, and got a job with the state, working for some bureau of something or other in some tall building downtown. I don’t know.

I don’t know what ever became of Gary, Jr. Momma said that she heard that he had joined the army, or the navy, or national guard, or something, and was stationed somewhere, his mother had long since remarried and was doing well. Miss Georgia left to go live with Wanda June and her new husband after Mr. Flake died. Their old home place has since rotted down, having been pulled apart by untamed wisteria, all except for the marital trailer out back. From the outside, they say it looks good, but the guts are gone, it being just an empty steel shell. I don’t know. I haven’t seen it. I don’t know why I wonder about it. I don’t know why I asked anyone about it. Those I asked didn’t seem to know as much as speculate, which is not very reliable. The ones who speculated the most convincingly are likely those who knew the least. That is the way things go. I don’t know why.

It could be similar to what’s going on in the Middle-East. Those who speculate the most convincingly are the ones whose story is the most believable. Those who talk about Hamas/Palestine/Gaza/Israel/Netanyahu with the most strident and ardent arguments are likely to pass muster with those of us who don’t know. I am pretty sure that the families of those who were killed know that their loved ones are dead, but the politics behind rockets fired from one place into another are a different matter. Those who fire the rockets tell us all the reasons why the rockets were justly fired since it is unlikely that anyone will admit to firing rockets unjustly. I don’t know why this is, but I do know that before there were rockets (which are not guided missiles), there were cannon balls and mortar shells, and before that catapults, trebuchets, and other engines of war that hurled boulders at fortress walls or rained down arrows from the skies, each one like a rocket, falling indiscriminately where the wind and ballistics would take it. Some folks are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, much like Gary Flake. A foot one way or the other could make all the difference between continuing weekly life insurance payments or a check being issued to one’s beneficiary. One might say that Gary was collateral damage when the pinched tree kicked back. He may as well have been in Gaza. He may as well have been in Syria. I did hear that Gary, Jr., was in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm (the first Gulf War), but I don’t know.

There’s a lot I don’t know. I do know that the telephone party-line went away long before the land line began to disappear, as it is steadily disappearing from our homes in favor of wireless communications. I know that before they disappeared, I never again listened in on anyone’s party-line conversation. I never think of Miss Georgia without being thankful that she did not have me arrested or tell my mother. If she had, I wonder what would have happened to me?

I don’t know. I just surely don’t know.

By the way, I am occasionally warned by those who do know that my sentences are too long. I don’t know. Like Honoré De Balzac and William Faulkner, I will make my sentences as long as I please for as long as it pleases me to do so. I am obstinate like that. I don’t know why. It is just another thing among many that I don’t know, and most of what I do know I’m not too sure about, especially about places I have never been and people I’ve never met, nor customs and cultures of peoples foreign to me who have hundreds, even thousands of years of animosity towards each other. For me to write about that with any veracity is ludicrous, but perhaps no more ludicrous than what is being fed to us as the truth. What one clandestinely overheard on a telephone party-line is very likely to be more accurate than what now comes forth as a political party line.

I’m mostly pretty sure that Gary and Wanda June didn’t have syphilis, and that I never violated another’s party-line privacy ever again. I have Miss Georgia to thank for that.

Thank you, Miss Georgia, wherever you are.

PS…not knowing is ignorance, which is curable. The most ignorant person of all is the one who thinks he knows everything.

PPS…Happy Birthday, Piper!



©2014 Mississippi Chris Sharp

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