Spared Rods and Spoiled Children
"O ye! who teach the ingenious youth of nations,
Holland, France, England, Germany or Spain.
I pray ye flog them upon all occasions,
It mends their morals, never mind the
pain"--Byron, Don Juan
(In memory of Dan Fowler)
The other day young Michael Brooks, publisher of Albany Magazine asked me if it was true, as his mother swore, that our generation walked barefoot to school through the snow. Loyal to the parental credibility of my contemporaries, I assured him that this was so, though truth compelled me to add there was snow on the ground in Albany only from September through April.
Times were tougher in those days, and winters were colder. During hard freezes we left home early, staggering our paths to step in lukewarm cow pies to keep our toes from freezing. We followed closely behind the cows because the pies cooled as they dropped and froze soon after splattering the pastures. Teachers in those days provided antifungal footbaths at thresholds to keep us from tracking cow crap into the schoolhouse. It was a long walk between cow pies for those who crossed the frozen Flint. Eventually, teenage entrepreneur Bucky Geer drove his father's cattle to school and let us for the price of our lunch money follow the herd. Our mothers, as had mothers since the first one, warned us not to make ugly faces in winter for fear a north wind would freeze us in a rictus that would grow that way. They sighted football hero Frank Orgel, who never obeyed his mother, as a living example. Orgel became a prodigious broken field runner rushing late to school and zig-zagging through as many pies as he could along the way. His face froze into an agonized snarl that didn't soften until middle age.
I told Michael he could thank or blame my generation for the softness of his and for its progress. If sons' vision is longer than their fathers', it's because sons stand upon the shoulders of our stony hardship. It was difficult to improve ourselves fighting hard times and dodging the draft, and we developed a grim determinism of poverty and global aggression--a perpetuity of worldwide economic and military instability which can be expressed, in the words of Steve Hinton's mother: "They'll always be POah and WAwah."
If Michael's generation doesn't have trouble filling our shoes it's because their feet are bigger. Kids are taller now. In my day nobody on the basketball team was much over six feet. Our growth was stunted because there was no free lunch, and we burned a lot of calories walking to school--calories we couldn't replenish without lunch money. Also, parents and teachers conspired to keep us small so they could whip us with impunity. Size was power, and if the youth of today aren't sinewed with cables of steel, it's because their mettle is untempered by exquisite hardships we endured. Even the notion of healthy growth was treated contemptuously in my day. Adults derogatorily labeled recalcitrant children big babies or, bigshots, or too big for their britches. Existence itself was even shameful. "You think you're something, don't you?" they'd chide.
Another distinction between my generation and Michael's is the commitment of our teachers, who were tough as the seasons. We had corporal punishment in our segregated schools and teachers fully capable of dishing it out. They ordered us to grab our ankles and flailed us with strops, paddles, rulers, fan belts and radiator hoses. Licks, the punishment was called, and the rare girl got spanked too. Girls grabbed their ankles with their derriere to the blackboard to prevent baring the dumpling hinges of knees. The humiliation of public whipping didn't umbrage Victorian modesty. The other guys delighted in the struck penitents' wobble of breast, but I always averted my eyes.
To make sure you didn't release your ankles and straighten up before the--therwack--lick landed, the coaches randomly fired high, swinging over our backs. Anyone bolting upright at the penultimate moment would be stropped across the ear or clubbed in the back of the head. The paddles were marked with clever nomenclature: Board of Education or Golden Ruler. We were too stupid for reverse psychology. One new math teacher down from New Jersey announced that misbehavers would no longer be allowed to work word problems. "Oh God," we pleaded, "anything but that!"
Coach Bob "Big-un" Fowler was education's best deterrent to bad deportment. He's 6 feet 8 inches now, but he was a lot taller when I was in junior high and high school. We figured if he paddled you, you'd end up in a body cast or an iron lung. But the coaches weren't the only teachers compulsive about keeping order. "Sugar" Ray Council, my high school algebra teacher, paddled me so severely one afternoon he numbed up my coccyx and backlashed my ducktail. Temporarily paralyzed in a jack-knifed posture, I had to walk home dragging my knuckles across frozen cow pies, my mind full of splintered light. For this saints flagellated themselves?
I got another whipping when I got home, for getting a whipping at school.
Sugar Ray's punitive policy had a sporting twist. When you misbehaved, cut-up they called it, you came back after school and chose one of four drawers in his filing cabinet. One had a large paddle, one a smaller one, one a razor strop, and one drawer was empty. I made a point of cutting up every fifth period until ordered to report after school. During sixth period W.C. Anderson would find out which drawer was empty and whisper the secret number. I'd show up to try my luck, choose the empty drawer, and leave Mr. Council scratching his head over the mathematical odds of my choosing the empty drawer every afternoon for 15 consecutive guesses.
W.C. later died in jail awaiting trial as the prime suspect for killing "Jane Doe," a decomposed woman discovered to be his wife, but in those days W.C. had replaced Bucky as recipient of my lunch money. One day W.C. cut class to shoot illegal wood ducks, and I found myself trying to stare through the gunmetal cabinet, procrastinating as long as I could before stooping to eenie-meenie mental telepathy. Sugar Ray thrilled when I picked the drawer containing the large paddle with nickel-sized holes, for he had been sorely provoked. With that instrument, powered by hostility pent up from weeks of unavenged insubordination, he embossed nickel-sized blood blisters in base relief across my fundament , teaching me that the slight Mr. Council could give licks nearly as hard as we imagined Coach Fowler could.
Miss Thelma Plant, the Albany High dean of girls, carried a tape to measure skirt lengths she suspected to be less than 6 inches below the knee. Miss Plant was no taller than my belt buckle. She didn't even have to stoop to measure hems. Pregnant girls were sent home, married girls were sent home. Funny haircuts were sent home with the heads they decorated. The worst thing they could do to us was send us home, where our parents didn't want us around any more than teachers did.
Miss Plant would have us read Macbeth, leaving the room when the Bard's text contained the words inappropriate to her Victorian sensibilities. Mr. McNabb, the principal, wouldn't let her expurgate Shakespeare. We'd read loud enough for her to hear us in the hall.
"`I have given SUCK,'" we'd yell, "`and know how tender 'tis to love the babe that MILKS me. I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my NIPPLE from its boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this.'"
Miss Plant was hard on girls but loved football players, in whom she found grand measures of bucolic grace. She'd beam lovingly as "Toilet" Doyal or Eddie Ogletree duhed and stuttered through Elizabethan drama. "That was wonderful, Mike, spoken like a true Southern gentleman. Now please be kind enough to recite the dagger soliloquy."
Strangely Miss Plant loved me too. My daddy, she insisted, had saved her life with an O-negative transfusion when she'd had some unmentionable organ removed. She'd pull me aside and smile upward, focusing her teary eyes on some phenomenon a thousand yards beyond the back of my tangled ducktail. "We have the same blood in our veins, you and I," she said.
It was a special and festive day when a girl got licks, though this generally occurred in the sequestered intersanctum of Miss Plant's office, where not even football players were allowed. It was generally conceded that girls who acted like boys were treated accordingly, but it was feared that a misplaced lick could "ruin a girl for life," shocking the uterus into disfunction. Still, it wasn't tragic if only the "right kind" of girls survived to reproduce themselves.
I don't recall Coach Fowler ever whipping a girl. Actually, I don't remember him giving anybody licks at all, but it was rumored that he used his bare, oar-sized hand instead of a paddle.
There were other coaches like O'Brian and Tilliski, who'd pop our buttocks with lanyards as we ran laps around the track. Mr. Hershell, the mechanical drawing teacher, had forearms like Popeye, and we were deathly afraid of the one-armed "Lefty" Sanders, to whom Ben Swilley gave a single cufflink for Christmas. We correctly assumed Lefty to be twice as strong as any two-fisted teacher except Coach Fowler.
Robert "Buffalo Bob" Faudree, the second largest teacher at AHS, married the Spanish teacher and became a banker, kowabonga, but lots of teachers in those days were farmers too. They brought in a diverse variety of educational tools, among them jumper cables, hydraulic and radiator hoses, fan belts. The female teachers brought in bed slats, having them drilled and whittled in wood shop to suit their customized kinks.
Graham "Frenchy" Lowe threatened to run Edward Lewis through the expansion wire window of the gym and dice him like a carrot. Edward had flipped a bird at Tommy Ross and Frenchy saw him through the corner of his eye. Coach Lowe snatched Edward up by his upturned collar as Edward ran in place. "What does that mean, bigshot?" he demanded.
"I don't know," Edward answered, carelessly pointing his digitus impudicus under Frenchy's nose. "I saw the other boys doing it, and I copied them. I don't know what this means." Edward's decomposed body was found a decade or so later in a snow bank in Ohio with a gangland bullet in his head. I don't know if Coach Lowe has any connections up there or not. Tommy Ross married beautiful Robin Leeger and became a lawyer like Buster Vansant, who says "Catfish" Field paddled him so vigorously for cutting up in Mrs. Saunders' English class he had to go home and unstick his underwear from his ass by soaking in a bloody tub. Buster's mother was horrified, but his father smiled over his newspaper, understanding what an insufferable little shit Buster could be.
Coach "Moon" Mullis, famous for tantrums, accidentally flung his watch along with a pile of substandard geometry papers, shattering it against the wall, then paddled Johann Bleicher, who laughed. Johann later became a San Francisco hippie, a drug head, then a high school principal in North Carolina.
"Sweet William" Bragg was there, svelte and dramatic, waving his arms and quoting Falstaff. Nobody misbehaved in his class either, and if any teacher ever deserved a monument cast in bronze it was Billy, whose professional footsteps I tried to follow, later becoming his colleague and friend.
We liked them all well enough, our teachers. They were decent men and women with sadistic streaks we could understand, but Coach Fowler was the one who stood us in awe. He never rushed, he never screamed, it looked like he never breathed deeply enough to blow his whistle. Our respect derived in part from our knowledge that he was big enough to kill us but didn't.
Coach Bob taught me in junior high and in high school, as did Graham Lowe. To this day I don't know if they changed jobs, got promoted, or moonlighted just to follow me around. At Darton I taught Bob's youngsters Julie, Nancy, and Dan less for vengeance than for a sweet sense of continuity. Dan couldn't get to my 8 a.m. English class on time because he deer hunted every morning. To make him punctual, I hunted with him until I started coming in late myself. An emu or a wildebeest could walk under your deer stand at Fowler Farms, which served as a holding facility for wild animals Dan's naturalist uncle had promised to zoos. There was no telling what Uncle Jim turned loose in that swamp. Sometimes I was too scared to climb down at eight o'clock.
I tried to follow Billy Bragg's footsteps but found my path as
staggered and beshitted as our way to school. Billy was an institution, the kind
of teacher I'll never be. All my old teachers were better educators than I am,
and a high school diploma in those days was equivalent to a bachelor's degree
today. I still remember the Shakespeare Miss Plant made me memorize, and what
little algebra I know came from Mr. Council. I've never paddled a student,
although I've had to call the cops on a few, and more pupils than I can estimate
have come through or around me without mastering basic literacy skills. Public
school in Albany during the 50s wasn't perfect and our teachers weren't either,
but I don't remember ever seeing a kid beyond the third grade who couldn't read,
write or make change without a calculator. Our teachers meant well, and I hold
no grudge for the licks. If they didn't teach us right from wrong, they left no
doubt in our minds what they thought was right and wrong, and our parents sided
with them to present a united front. I look back on my education with one
haunting regret. I'm ashamed that I wasn't anywhere near the role model for
Bob's kids that their father was for me.
(Editor's note: The Dan Fowler Memorial Scholarship is funded by contributions designated as such to: The Darton College Foundation, 2400 Gillionville Rd., Albany, Georgia 31707.)
In Praise of Brother Jim
The following letter from Bob Fowler to Katie Couric, who as mistress of ceremonies for the 1995 Safari Planet Earth Award, asked Bob for background on brother Jim. The editors hope it will serve both as historical testament of the pioneer spirit of our forebears as well as an intimate insight the early days of America's most famous contemporary naturalist, Jim Fowler.
Dear Miss Couric,
Regretfully unable to attend the 1995 Safari Planet Earth Award banquet, I can nevertheless offer some small insight into the qualities of my older brother Jim that have served to make him an unrivaled naturalist and a friend to the planet Earth. I'd like to come to New York and correct the misconceptions about my brother, but somebody has got to stay down here in south Georgia and take care of the farm while he sashays around the world harassing wildlife and associating with other strangers to an honest day's work.
First off, I must discount as apocryphal Jim's claim that he was born in a log cabin he himself helped build, although it's true that since the moment of his birth he has excelled at supervision, delighting in all labor so long as it is not his own and vigilantly avoiding any industry that could dirty his fingernails. Our mother claims that Jim's only noteworthy work was turning sideways to avoid being born.
Jim was the Fowler sibling least influenced by a Protestant work ethic. He wasn't much count for farm work or anything else. He was, in fact, so sorry the dogs wouldn't bark at him. Daddy worried over Jim's lethargy and kept a bicycle pump under the seat of the buckboard to keep his oldest son alive in the event he became too lazy to breathe. Mamma said anybody lazy as Jim belonged to be educated.
It's easy to see how my brother's eccentricities developed into the talents that made him into a Hollywood naturalist. His love of animal life was apparent early on. In fact, his affection for the livestock, especially Sarah, our angora milk goat, caused my parents grave concern. The attachment alarmed our mother, prompting her to send Jim off to Earlham College before he could graduate the sixth grade. She packed a shoe box full of fried chicken and Moon Pies and put him on a north-bound Greyhound with a sign around his neck that read: "Don't let this boy eat nothing until you get a good piece down the road; then put him off in Richmond, Indiana."
Jim, perceived by some Northerners as the strong and silent type, was an unusually quiet child, whose reticence in part was due to the fact that he discovered early on that it was metabolically advantageous to chew at the supper table instead of engaging in laconic small talk garbled by mouthfuls of grits. Eating more than the rest of us, he quickly grew, although he was to remain the runt of the litter.
Jim, however, was a capable advisary when sibling hostilities erupted over who would wear our communal safari jacket. The oldest and smallest of five brothers, Jim suffered from hay fever compounded by his lack of stature, which compelled him to walk through the ragweed blossom high. He was, in fact, so short in those days that he averted his face when he sneezed to avoid blowing sand in his eyes. It was during this allergic phase that he became interested in birds, especially the larger predatory and scavenger types, whom he competed with to satisfy a lupine appetite largely dependent on road kills for protein.
Jim's reverence for our wetland environment was largely cultivated by total immersion in stagnant water. As I have said, he was the runt of the litter, but at 9 years old, he was very nearly the same 6 feet 6 inches height he boasts today. The shortest route from the Fowler farm to the nearest paved highway was through Mud Creek Swamp. Jim had to tippy-toe and to elevate his mandible as he waded the six-foot depth. In this way Jim developed the habitual posture some folks regard as prissy. Our family's remarkable height, by the way, resulted not so much from genetics as natural selection, when several of our shorter siblings drowned while traversing the short cut to the hardtop.
Jim's commitment to the environment and to ecological thrift is more a consequence of economic circumstance than philanthropy. The Fowler family was poor as gully dirt, a condition that resulted largely from Jim's insatiable appetite; and, indeed, it was his gastronomic vigor as much as his attachment to Sarah that prompted mother to send him off to Earlham. Like other rural families in South Georgia during Reconstruction, the Fowlers had to be frugal, fortifying my brother's naturalistic leanings by my parents' inability to provide trousers for Jim until he was thirteen. His prematurely receding hairline was also caused indirectly by our family's indigence. Unable to afford a comb, Jim brushed his flattop with pine cones. When his scalp scabbed over, Mother slathered his head in hog lard and encased it in a discarded stocking, which he wore until he was twelve. I remember vividly the day my brother's growing head split its nylon seam and burst from its pod as he blossomed into puberty. And it was about that time Jim began paying more attention to Sarah.
Yes, poverty's sting had an undeniable effect on Jim's ambition. During our entire childhood we brothers shared a communal toothbrush and threw absolutely nothing away, but Jim's frugality was excessive. I remember he used to recycle toothpaste into tooth powder by spitting the minty foam into cheesecloth and drying it in the sun, which should tell you something else about him. He wouldn't brush his teeth with the lye soap the rest of us used--Jim was, even as a boy, always bad to put on airs.
Robert "Buffalo Bob" Fowler