Excerpt from FACES & SONGS – The Manuscript
Written by Barry Etris
The big, yellow Blue Bird buses would converge in front and discharge their human cargo; children of all descriptions between six and twelve years, each one a prisoner of the Cobb County School System. We’d stand around in small groups talking softly or shuffling around aimlessly in the hush of early morning, waiting for the inevitable clanging of the big irritating brass bell that the assistant principal, Mrs. Mozely, kept on top of her official-looking oak desk. (We figured she took a vicarious delight in ringing the hand held torture device longer and louder than was necessary.)
With the authoritative gongs still ringing in sensitive, sleepy ears, we’d slowly shoulder our way through the big front doors into Riverside Elementary; quaint and unassuming …, a scholarly anachronism even in the forties. The one level, red brick school house with white trim had squeaky oiled floors and coal burning, pot bellied stoves in each classroom. There were no indoor toilets, the only plumbing was well water pumped into porcelain water fountains in the long halls. There was a pervasive odor of oil, old varnish and textbooks that you soon associated with discipline and learning.
The state legislators may have been parsimonious when it came to spending tax dollars on plumbing and heating, but they spared no expense on windows.
In the spring those large, generous windows would be thrown open at the top to receive warm breezes carrying the scent of wild honeysuckle and magnolia blossoms to the drowsy students; inviting glass openings much too large to listen to what the teacher was saying, but just large enough to day dream through.
How startling it was to have your reverie broken by wise, gray haired Mrs. Dupree calling your name, knowing you couldn’t answer her question about American History because you had been thinking how you were going to climb that tall poplar at the edge of the school yard at recess while little blue-eyed Ruth King watched. How humiliating to stand at the blackboard with your nose in the chalk circle that the teacher drew just a little too high so that you had to stand on tip toes. How gratifying it was to erase that circle with your nose and draw it lower while she wasn’t looking.
My big sister had already blazed such a brilliant academic path through her class, I’m sure the kindly lady thought I was going to end up foundered on the dismal shores of total ignorance.
“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
Mrs. Dupree would be shocked but proud to know I could remember that. There was something else that stuck; I marvel even now at the haunting profundity of a remark she made while teaching math.
“Class”, she said, “someday you’ll find that time passes in fractions. For instance, you are eight years old. A year is 1/8th of all the time you’ve been on this earth. That makes one year a long time for you.”
“I’m sixty-two last birthday,” she admitted. “A year is just one sixty-second of my life. The fractions get continually smaller and the years shorter. Someday, when your’s have gotten as short as mine, you’ll understand how relative time is, and how rapidly it passes.”
The landscape of the South is dotted with churches. It’s as if she has so many houses of worship because she hopes so fervently that her children will transcend their native soil; children who once lived so close to the earth that a return to the dust seemed but a very short way.
Long before George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abe Lincoln there were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on Sabbath mornings at Sunday School, then songs from worn old hymnals and Preacher Wix’s fiery sermon when the congregation came together in the sanctuary.
Dressed in his uncomfortable Sunday suit was a freshly scrubbed young sinner, moved by the message and the music, but gamely holding on to the back of the pew in front of him to keep from going down to be reborn to the soft invitation of “Just As I Am.”
I never joined the church at Mt. Pisgah, but they gave me a white Bible with my name in it. I still have it.
I remember a small, far away white washed country church and long Sunday sojourns with parents, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles and cousins to visit the graying tombstones of my people. While the adults cleaned off the graves and paid their respects with bouquets of flowers, the children would run and hide among the markers, careful not to step on a grave as it would bring bad luck, or go looking among the leaves in the woods for maypops until our parents called.
We gave no thought to the significance of those old grey markers … that would come years later.
THE CHANGELING …
TIME YOU OLD GYPSY MAN
WILL YOU NOT STAY
PUT UP YOUR CARAVAN
JUST FOR ONE DAY?
— Ralph Hodgson
Time … a mathematical tool derived from the movement of a planet spinning on its axis, circling a star; used to measure finite energy as it passes through it. Day and night …. past and future …. order in chaos. An infant, an old person, the arthritis in your knee, the crow feet around your eyes, the fate in your shadow lengthening in the westering sun of a late afternoon ….
And time is change. Change as imperceptible as time itself, and so amorphous and abstract as to defy reasoning into articulation.
I think my father and his hunting companions were among the first to notice. There were new barbed-wire fences to cross that hadn’t been there before, and “posted: no hunting” signs in areas that had been open land.
Those fences and signs were the outriders of a population shift that would explode over the South, sub-dividing the land and destroying the old landmarks more effectively than Sherman could have done with a thousand Union Divisions, and the country girl south of the forties went skipping off in a wide-brimmed straw hat, carrying a cardboard suitcase into the towering metropolitan sprawl of the eighties to become urbane and sophisticated, losing the rustic charm she never even knew she possessed.
I was unconsciously entering the universal nether-world that exists between childhood and maturity when your body is rapidly growing, but your bewildered emotions pause awhile, trying to sort out the conflicting feelings caused by that growth; mental maturation falling behind the physical, creating a restless burning hunger for something different, something far beyond anything you can experience in a twenty mile triangle suddenly too confining and familiar.
There’s an ambivalent sexual awakening and a desire to go away alone and assert yourself in the world. Sensing that you’re poised on the brink of an inexplicable transition, you’re excited at the prospect of someday quenching that innocuous thirst, yet at the same time, reluctant to venture into the unknown. …
I still don’t know when time came like the fairies in a half-remembered nursery tale to tear down the props, fold up the backdrop, and steal the child.
In my youthful immortality when I looked forward to an infinity of unchanging years to come, I never dreamed those red clay foothills would become a metaphor for things past; a mosaic of memories viewed as if looking backward through the translucence of summer heat rising off hot tar pavement that burns your toes on a long country road …. Tenuous memories of cherished faces from the wispy chronicles of a small boy in a vanished decade, shimmering and dancing in the mind’s eye, then formed into songs by the mortal man who took his place.