Corbin, Kentucky, a small town of about 10,000, has turned out a wide range of exceptional people. Perhaps best known is Colonel Sanders of Fried Chicken fame. But what I remember are the great football teams of the 1950’s that produce All State and All American football players. There was a spirit in that town. I was about ten years old when move into Corbin and I first felt is presence. I then experienced that feeling for the next seven years. That feeling has never left me. This is a short story written from memories about the spirit and homemade ice cream.
Southeastern Kentucky harbors a town named Corbin. Around 1950, a clearly defined place, Hart Hollow, lay just southwest. An infectious spirit inhabits the area, making great residents greater, lesser ones less so, and the mundane a near impossibility. The infectious spirit first struck the holler’s front end, then spread to the back where my family lived. The spirit, as miniscule as it was powerful, and so fine, a laboratory scale would struggle to measure a microgram, spread and marked us for life.
A boy named Hart spread the infection. He taught me and my brothers about football. He only taught us once, but the micro-spirit, like flint striking steel, showered sparks that kindled fire in our souls. On the way to church, we visited the Hart boy, his mom and dad, and their hound dogs. They shared homemade ice cream the Hart boy’s daddy made. The ice cream, a yearly treat, and friendship, the finest, beats today’s refrigerated and churned vats coldly served. Old man Hart had electricity, but cranked his machines by hand. He possessed unrelenting hound dog spirit. He mentioned his oldest boy was attending Morehead College on a football scholarship. We’d never heard such a thing.
My family moved from Hart Hollow, that heavenly enclave with angels watching over it, or so I reckoned back in 1970, when I took my wife and children to see it. That’s before the Devil took a giant spade and knocked down the south side hill. He’d extracted coal needed to keep Hell burning hot, then covered up the deed with a bypass. I wept, with only the spirit to sooth.
We’d lived “storybook” lives. Dogged by the Devil and strained economics, we moved often, attending South, Central, and Eastward schools. On Ruby Street, behind something called a stadium, we heard, for the first time, drums and trumpets announcing a Friday night football game. Church members said it was the devil. We ignored the comments and played on Eastward’s grade school team, the Green Wave. We sneaked into Friday night football games. With the spirit strong and the Devil in pursuit, we moved to a farm on Cumberland Falls Highway where I could see the backside of the holler, a premonition. Rightly so. The Devil found us. I wondered aloud if we were cursed, my brother’s suggested offering me as sacrifice, instead, my parents spirited the family across the Ohio River, north to Kokomo, Indiana, “a half-hour before the Devil knew we were gone.”
We arrived in Kokomo one week before school started. With 50,000 inhabitants, one high school, and 2,500 students, they cut more freshmen players than Corbin’s team numbered entirely. The spirit was strong, two of us made the starting lineup, one joined the Marine Corp. I remember beating the state’s number one team, Logansport High School, 13 to 6. After season’s end, we quit high school and joined the Air Force and Army. The spirit lives on.
We all struggle in our coming of age. Struggle in ways that aren't fully clear to us in the moment. That become even more mysterious as we grow older and begin to reflect back on all that has happen. Life, our own infinitely complex experience, unfolds itself in manifold ways. Complexity, if anything, is the essential adjective for all that is human. I guess this is what this short piece is about. Its about the ambiguity of the past. Our inability to reconcile with that which has long escaped us, yet an utter necessity to strive towards such an end. That the struggle might not just be growing up and continually growing older, but making manifest a self, a life, that communes with itself a little more fully and sees itself a little more vibrantly.
Light fractured as it passed through cracked glass. Most of the windows were shattered and boarded up except this one. As shards of luminesce danced across me I peered out and into a portal of a life now passed. It was odd looking out at the backyard that was now being ravaged by time and nature. It was odd being in this room again, in this house. I was half expecting my return to this place to reckon forth some semblance of closure, some level of peace that had evaded me all these years. But the other half knew there was great risk in returning home. I had no delusions that my earlier years of life had been completely joyful or completely tragic for that matter, just complicated. So I knew returning here was just as likely to complicate things as it was to set me free, but it was risk worth taking. I needed to find whatever I was looking for if my life was to go forward. For entrenched in the past I was with no future to be had until the past was laid to rest. Laid to rest where the sins of youth could finally be forgiven. Where I could be forgiven. Forgiven… Forgiven for all I had and hadn’t done.
He wanted to hate me. He wanted to hate me because it was easier to hate me than lust for something he couldn't have. I didn't want to have romantic feelings for him. I didn't want to admit that I loved him because it would mean that I had made the wrong choice and that I'd fallen for my best friend. A cocktail that, in this case, wouldn't end well. This poem depicts the magnetic tension that kept us apart and, at the same time circling around each other because, having each other in a dissolute way was better than nothing at all. We danced around our feelings to ignore our desires; an act that bonded us in an unusual way but in the end, lead to our tragic ending.
I quite honestly don't know what drove me to write this piece. Maybe for catharsis in my own entrance into fatherhood. I honestly am not quite sure, but in it lay something I think will be worth writing to a fuller extent someday. It needs a little development and I feel even deserves some extension to get from one section to the next. But alas writing is never completed, even when it is. The eternal recurrence of dispondence in one's creations.
There was stillness in the air, disturbed only by a calm breeze that rustled in from time to time. It was still and you were smoking that last cigarette of yours. While most men take to cigars in moments like this, you found comfort in these just as well. You, then again, have never taken much of a liking to cigars. You don’t know if it was the way they tasted or the perpetuity they encumber themselves in. Too much time invested in what could be more swiftly achieved, achieved in a cigarette. This still night… it was lit only by hospital lights and the ember that now danced closer and closer to my fingers bare. No stars to be found in this moment of new life.
I was bereft of thought in this moment. Bereft of words they too might have engendered. It had been this way the whole night as you and the rest waited. You had all been without true direction this night. Lost in new lands as you had but to wonder what this different frontier might be.
You’re a father… You have a son. You keep saying this to yourself, but it hasn’t quite taken full meaning yet. It hadn’t since you first discovered you were going to be one. It hadn’t even when you held that lil boy in your arms for the first time. No, nothing filled that moment other than awe and utter fear. Awe at the miracle of a child begot and fear of all that could go wrong in a child’s life… all the wrong you could do.
There was joy as well. A joy unknown till you grasp that tiny body for the first time and know that he is yours. But this ecstasy of fathering a child is quickly engulfed with a terror. A terror that dawns on you when a father you truly are. For this whole bundle of life... it is in your hands. And that for every pain he feels. Any neglect he burdens. It’s all your fault or at least you know that is how you will feel. That the tears of the child drench the father’s hands and scars the mother’s heart.
His mother. The woman you were still getting to know. So much had happen between you in the coming of this day. So much confusion. So many mistakes. So much you didn’t know. But in this moment you knew. For all you could know as you watched her hold your baby boy… is that she is perfect. The perfect mother for your son. You may not know her, but of this… nothing could ever be more clear. That she was in love with all that lil boy was and was to be, and was gracious enough to include you in such.
You take one final drag of your cigarette, thinking it will be your last. Your last solace in a substance foreign. That all you’ll ever need again lay inside that hospital waiting. Your family, larger now with the coming of child. Your friend John who, though seemingly just as nervous as you, has been diligent in his love and comradery as the night did progress. Your mother who can barely fathom the exciting days to come as a grandmother. Your brother who is too young to grasp the situation fully, but loved you enough to hunker down with you in the waiting. And then there’s her and there’s you.
Both of you exhausted from the anxious struggle, as the anticipation came to fruitful term. This process had weighed on her more than you will ever know and you could never compare her lot to your own. But even so, as you stood there holding him in your arms, she looked upon you fondly as if she knew you too had worn your burdens up to the coming of this day. You are thankful because you know she doesn’t owe you that. You’re just lucky she even told you about him. That she let you have the chance to be a shitty dad, as much as a good one too. That you got a chance at the prospect of fatherhood and all that it can be, for better and for worse. She let you have that. This was her gift to you. And as you flick that last cigarette and at a slow pace move towards the lighted doors, you breathe. You breathe… Knowing. Knowing your breath will now go on.