The Father Box, by John Lane

“When I was a boy I saw the world I was in.”
— Robert Penn Warren

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”
— Jane Howard

Each week of this year, my father’s birth centennial (2015), I pulled something out of the father box. Here is what I found:

Will
Africa
My Father’s Expectations
Inherited Furniture
Cap
Folded Flag

 

Will

In the early summer of 1978 my uncle’s will was finally out of probate. My uncle had left me eight thousand dollars, real money for the first time in my life. The money came from a one-tenth interest in one hundred and twenty acres of family tobacco land that my father had once sold to his farming brother after the World War II when times had been hard, and my uncle, upon my father’s suicide in 1959—and to my ignorance—had willed to me.

In 1977, when I was a senior in college, a letter arrived from a lawyer in Greenville, North Carolina, informing me that I had inherited this interest in my father’s family land from my dead uncle. The letter explained how this share had been my father’s share, and now it was my share, passed down through my uncle. I remember thinking of the share as one of ten hard silver coins that the brothers and sisters were passing back and forth between them.

But after the letter came, I kept thinking that it wasn’t really having land. It was having an interest in land. It wasn’t somewhere I could ever build a cabin like Henry David Thoreau, or plant a garden. It was tobacco land too. I had never smoked tobacco, and my mother smoked two packs a day and I hated it. For a young, idealistic poet, that was enough to sell it right there. Tobacco was grown on his family land, and tobacco was one of the things I’d always hated.

My father’s family had been tobacco farmers for over two hundred years, but I had no sense of tradition yet, no sense of family history, so it didn’t matter that the parcel of land had been in the family for centuries. I did appreciate that my father’s family had some money. That was easy enough, since my mother’s family, among whom I had been raised, had no money.

Time already seemed more important than money. In my mind time was what I wanted to try and buy, not land. I had heard the arguments about time and money, that I needed to work hard and save money so that sometime in the future there would be enough money to set aside time for retirement. But why not set aside that time in the present if I could already afford it? Why wait to the end of my life to have time of my own? Why not keep the overhead low and do what my heart demanded? I wanted to be a poet.

And what was a poet to do with an interest in family land? I had not read the Agrarians yet. I did not think I knew much about roots or Southern family traditions. These things I had not thought about much at all. When I finally got to college (something that very few in my family had done at that point) I knew that I wanted to get away from home — from Spartanburg and my mother mostly, since my father had been dead since I was five — and this was the quickest way to do it: sell the interest in my father’s family land, and buy as much time and space as possible.

When uncle’s will arrived, I negotiated, sold my interest to a cousin who already had a share himself. That way it stayed a family matter. I was smart enough about family matters to know what really counted and what did not. It did not matter that I was selling his share, but it did matter who I sold it to. Now the cousin had two shares, and twice the interest in the land. As for me? I was twenty-three and didn’t care that I had sold my inheritance because heritage didn’t mean much. What was I heir to? An interest in some tobacco land in North Carolina, four hundred miles from the cotton mill town where I had grown up? Ownership was a lofty abstraction I had no time for at twenty-three.

Later, I would inherit the very Lane wills that stretched back in my family to the eighteenth century, deeding land, granting patronage, dispersing household items and animals, all the way back to my great-great grandfather, John Lane. I would see the handwriting in which the wills were drawn up originally. I would see the signature of my own past in these documents and be enamored in the same way as the great southern novelists. I was years away from possibly understanding what Faulkner had meant by “A man’s future is inherited in that man . . . there is no such thing as was. That time is; and if there is no such thing as was, then there is no such thing as will be.” I was half a lifetime away from understanding Robert Penn Warren’s, “Tell me a story. / In this century, and moment, of mania, tell me a story. / Make it a story of great distances, and starlight. / The name of the story will be time, / But you must not speak its name. / Tell me a story of deep delight.”

My mother was heir to very little. There were no wills in her family. Maybe that’s where I got my sense of freedom. She had lost the house I had been born in, the house my father had been buying in Southern Pines just before he killed himself. It had slipped through her fingers within a year after my father’s death. She had never owned a house since, had no land. Her brothers and sisters mostly lived in houses rented from the mill. I had grown up in Spartanburg in old mill houses. Selling the interest in the family land was money in the bank for me, liquid assets, and so, now forty years later, it is money in someone else’s bank, and my cousin still owns the land in North Carolina. But what mattered forty years ago was that I wanted to be a poet who lived on the west coast, and that demanded making choices my own farming cousins might think romantic but foolish, but which my mother’s family might understand perfectly. After all, the romance of poverty comes with the joy of spending, knowing somehow that there is power in immediacy, in not putting things off. And that time I did not put anything off until later.

 

 

Africa

“Pvt. John E. Lane Casa Blanche Africa,” is written in black ink on the picture’s back, along with the numbers “214” and “495t.” My father stands at rest, dressed in his Army “chinos,” for field duty in hot weather. He wears a brimmed “class A” standard issue dress hat. Worn for indoor assignments, parades, in garrison, and often with a tie, the hat looks formal, but my father wears it at an angle. His shoes are shined and he stands on cut grass somebody had to mow. There’s a ‘34 Ford coupe parked on a street behind.

My father looks confident in his uniform. His large dark farmer’s hands hang calmly at his sides. My father’s hands look enormous, much as his father’s hands looked when he was about the same age, in 1905, standing in front of his father’s house in Greene County, North Carolina looking into a camera much as his son stares in Africa 35 years later.

My aunt would show me this picture when I was a child and say, “He was lost in Africa.” I always pictured my father dipping with his brimmed hat from puddles on the jungle floor, avoiding lions and tigers, like Tarzan, or Livingstone in search of the source of the Nile, following game paths across the savannah, using his web Army issue belt to noose bush meat to barbeque with his service lighter.

Certainly my father was afraid of snakes, raised in the swampy reaches of Greene County, North Carolina. Did he step lightly among the filtered light on the jungle floor? Did the raucous call of tropical birds disturb his sleep on a mat of vines like a primate? Did he cross the paths of Black natives, distant cousins to workers back on his father’s farm? Were there drums? Were there herds of stomping elephants? Rhinos? Zebras? All of Africa swirled as I imagined my father’s adventures, fifteen years before I was born.

The “he was lost in Africa” story was always told as preface to the real story, the family story—that when my father found his way back to his unit a letter from home told him his mother had died. We don’t know who wrote that letter. It probably was one of his sisters, or his sister-in-law.

I don’t know much about my father but I know he loved his mother and had a difficult relationship with his father. What must it have felt like to be so far from home and get such bad news?

The snapshot would have been taken months before he was lost. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized there were no lions, probably few trees; he was in the desert, part of Patton’s army pushing east out of Casablanca in the first great strike at Hitler’s fortress.

If my father was lost at all, he was probably just separated from his engineering unit in the fog of war in Tunisia or in the black smoke chaos after the battle for Kasserine Pass, of his own grief.

 

 

My Father’s Expectations

In training camp in ’42 it was for a short war, and that KP wouldn’t last. On the ship to Africa, that Yankee wouldn’t leave him alone–was it his farm boy accent, or that the Southern boy was a better poker player? In any case, he expected landing in the drink with every approaching storm. Across Tunisia the panzers chased them– and he expected to die the first time, but it was his mother died instead, back home, and expectations burned like axle grease. Sicily, he built bridges where half-tracks and deuce and a halfs passed over to the front. Circling the island, everyone expected each bridge to be their last. England, he sat duty next to a loud generator, running the lights for his unit. London was close enough to covet, and “swell” appeared in his letters home. They trained blowing up things, then loaded ships one night and sailed to Normandy. His CO read a dispatch where Eisenhower called it a crusade and one boy with a college degree laughed about his M-1 lance and cotton armor. Everyone’s expectations were vomit in the bottom of a Higgins Boat, bailing with a helmet; once on the beach the stench wasn’t their enemy any more, or at least not one that could kill them. The sea wall slapped by waves, that was your bosom buddy, not the lieutenant shouting “off the shingle, boys.” The bloody beach receded by nightfall. They cleared mines and crawled behind hedgerows, then it was on the road to Paris, another city like London or Casablanca he’d read about in high school, not like the villages, rubble now, with road signs he couldn’t pronounce or remember. Summer passed quickly like a furlough, and fall collapsed into the legendary winter, the Bulge, and the only expectation was losing your toes. After that, the war ended like a train wreck– like a badly built Bailey Bridge for moving Patton’s tanks quickly over the Rhine, and they followed in trucks pulling bulldozers. In Czechoslovakia he finally felt the first time like they were headed in the wrong direction, Russians appeared from the east, and Berlin, the last city he could recognize burned far away in the cackle of the radio– He would last fifteen more years, but never voice expectations again, unless they were me, a bridge he built to the future. In photos I see he suspected I’d one day stand where he did on Omaha, and what he’d passed on to me–expectations not that things and lives don’t work out, but that they always do.

 

 

Inherited Furniture

Includes your Aunt Eula’s Queen Anne couch that doesn’t fit the room, in a patterned fabric the dog likes to scratch.

Leaves you thinking about the difference between fake Victorian, machine made in the Twenties, and real Victorian, machine made in the Nineties.

Makes you change your parking habits on the drive home, choosing a spot close to the door of Parker’s barbecue so nobody will steal the oak Captain’s Chair tied loosely in the pickup’s back.

Cannot be resold, ever, but must be passed down, forever, the constant manufacturing of heirlooms, the vigil of the past, breaking into space, now, in my house even before dawn on this day.

Manufactures heirs that don’t exist, people walking through your own house choosing pieces of furniture for their house, children, cousins, nieces, aunts, all with a pad and a set of values, a tolerance for sentiment, a budge for space, a newfound romance for your property sometime in the future.

Must be dusted. What would Aunt Eula say? Dust on her marble table top. Dust on her wedding China (1929, Royal Bayreuth, Bavaria). Dust on all.

Forces thinking about words. China is China. The pattern delicate like nothing Western is delicate. Like now, listening to Beethoven, the Ninth.

Sits on my ear like the inherited furniture of my family in the den, nothing delicate about the first movement, like a couch built for a manor, not something to eat off, to carry around in a pickup wrapped in towels.

Changes things, like music, not forever, but for durations of time, the span of a human life, like a movement, first allegro, then Molto vivace— presto, then adagio, ending, then beginning again, in the inherited furniture in my den, the dust swirling, then settling as the dog finds her small place on my aunts seventy year old couch.

 

 

Cap

My family’s North Carolina bones were smoked black long ago—in and out of tobacco barns, lungs ossified with packs of Bull Durhams, Camels, Pall Malls, Lucky Strikes, Salems, and Chesterfields, all swirled with a blood line laid down within smelling distance (on a windy day) of the cooking smoke of Parker’s barbeque.

In my memory Parker’s was the stark white throne room with the big tar parking lot where at least once a summer my boyhood stomach was king, a special vacation trip for parties and events. All other eating was back on the farm, big country meals at mid-day ladled into bowls, fried in a black skillet, cooked in a hot oven. All garden food—greens, yellow squash, new potatoes, white corn.

But we always went to Parker’s to celebrate once or twice a summer, the Lanes pulled together from scattered farms, the drive to Wilson, scrubbed up uncles, cousins stuffed into coups and sedans, something I craved like ice tea when I was there on summer visits from Spartanburg.
My idea of barbecue before I went “home” to Greene County as a eight-year-old a few years after my father’s suicide was red sauce slathered on beef or, worse yet, Poss’ Southern Hash poured from a tin can into a sauce pan. My mother’s South Carolina piedmont was a tomato-based culture, just a step above ketchup, secured above a slice of mustard in the mid-lands (those Dutch Fork Germans) between me and the tangy coastal cooking I soon craved after summers in eastern North Carolina. With vinegar-based sauce, the traditional eastern North Carolina experience (what was emerging from my genes) was tang and pepper on my tongue. My father might’ve been gone, but Parker’s filled up any void.

In Spartanburg I’d never seen cornsticks, the imprint of the cob in fingers of meal-baked gold, where at Parker’s they were always keeping to the high ratio of crust to moist center. I’d gobble that golden ration of corn sticks until I could bust.

At Parker’s I loved the logo pig with “BBQ” in its belly on the menu, followed with shy boyhood eyes the raw-jawed crew cut high school waiters with white paper caps, white aprons, and penny loafers, with Parker’s stamped in red, bringing out meals to the all-white patrons (like us) at long tables, the sliced, or minced pig meat (the black smoked outside mixed in) coming to us in paper trays, the processed porcine prince of the slop-paddocks of the Down East farms.

Those white Parker’s boys could see into the kitchen where the cabbage heads were chopped, the vinegar poured, the cornmeal mixed with oil and salt, and the tea brewed and sugared down. They looked out back to where the hogs rested in greasy grills and the black Wilson boys chopped the meat, fed and sustained me all those North Carolina summers long ago.

If I had a childhood appetite it was a hunger to grow up and be one of Parker’s boys, black or white, penny loafers or brogans, chop and mix, to rush from kitchen floor to the dining room with trays of red slaw, BBQ pork, ice tea. That would settle the black smoke in me, put out the smoldering fire of fear sparked every summer again by my missing father’s suicide. I would eat my way into community, serve my way into belonging.

 

 

Folded Flag

Fifty stars fell on my father in 1959, shrouding his bruised heart. Twenty-five grainy combed cotton points, one for each year on his father’s farm before he left for the war.

Eight soldiers at attention. One barks commands my father’s left behind in 1945. A twenty-one-gun salute empties the barrels one final time over the cemetery’s Greene County tree line. A soldier plays taps on a real bugle, instead of the recordings we get today. Every soldier’s hands relax after the last salute. Six soldiers fold the flag, nine turns, a tucked-in tri-cornered cap, presented as a package to the grieving widow, one gloved hand over and under, Kasserine, Omaha and the Bulge folded as legend within. Years later my mother turns and presents the flag to me, something to hold like the book of family stories, some genetic code dating back at least to Gettysburg, cotton flapping in many lethal breezes that never stopped blowing.

I notice a new star, one of fifty, floating on a square patch of blue, sewn on by the Valley Forge Flag Company, sometime soon before my father’s death in November. Only three months before his suicide, Hawaii had become the fiftieth state, August 21st. The Hawaii star is near one fold, as the islands themselves are near a horizon, surrounded by a watery field– stitched, coarse cotton bunting stars, thread, dye, blue twilight sky covering my father’s casket that autumn, then stored for 55 years. The royal field of his short life is revealed in the honor guard of this box.

*

John Lane is the author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, including six from the University of Georgia Press. His latest book of poems, Anthropocene Blues, was released in 2017. His recognitions include the Phillip D. Reed Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment and the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award. In 2012, his book Abandoned Quarry was named the Southeastern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Poetry Book of the Year. His first novel Fate Moreland’s Widow was published by Story River books in early 2015.

A few weeks ago, editor Timothy Laurence reached out to John via email to talk a little about his experimental essay, “The Father Box,” published in this issue of Sliver of Stone. Read the interview here.

Rob McDonald is a photographer who has been living a double life as an English professor and Associate Dean of the Faculty at Virginia Military Institute for a number of years. He was a nominee for the Vienna PhotoBook Prize and won a fellowship in the visual arts from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. His work, which is held in many private and museum collections, has appeared in several monographs, including Cy’s Rollei (with Sally Mann, Nazraeli Press), and Carolina Writers at Home (Hub City Press).

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