Follow Me-1 (Parts 1 and 2) (6-30-10)

Follow Me


When I was growing up in upstate New York in the ‘50s, Gwen and Max Rouse were for many years, my mom & dad’s best friends.

Max played trumpet in the American Legion band, my dad played trombone—Dad and Max were friends—band buddies I guess. That’s how mom got to know Gwen and they also became good friends. The four of them were upstate New York kindred spirits.

Once or twice a month dad and mom would have the Rouses over to visit and we went over to their house about as frequently. The two pairs of adults would simply sit on couches and chairs in the living room and just talk. And talk and talk and talk. I never understood it as a kid—why people would get together and sit in a room for hours just talking.

My younger brother and I never stayed in the house any longer than was humanely possible. We’d usually go outside and play with the Rouse’s son Douglas who was about the same age as my brother.

But inevitably—on occasion (bad weather or something) we’d have to spend time in the room with the talking adults. Typing this 55 years later I can’t remember any particulars but I can remember pretty well the broad categories and perspectives that were taken under consideration. They talked mostly about three things: 1. Other People (gossip and griping,) 2. Possessions (things like cars, houses, furniture, tools,) and 3. Work (chores around the home and making a living.)

And 90 percent of the time the slant on these subjects was negative. Let’s break it down a bit:

People—any odd, objectionable, unfair, illegal or mean-spirited behavior—always judgmental with implications of victimization—self or others—and of course the underlying notion that these (not nice) people were morally and ethically inferior to the 4 adults in the room. My mom could always be depended on to say something like, “Well, the man upstairs will take care of [him or her]—they’ll find out what’s what,” and the other three adults would nod gravely or sit in silent appreciation of this unassailable wisdom.

Possessions—a new car was something only the well-to-do could afford. No one ever flatly stated they wanted a new car—that would have been inappropriate, unseemly or ridiculous—kind of like saying you’d like to be Superman. At some point, in any discussion of new cars and bigger houses, my mom would always remind us that it was “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven,” (more somber nods of agreement.)

New (if cheap) clothes—that was OK—only poor white trash like, “dump-pickers” and N—ers wore used clothing. Tools, (a guy thing) were the Holy Grail of possessions. The more or better tools you had the more value you had as a man—God wanted you to have all the tools you could get hold of.

Work—as a boy I learned there were very few supervisors who were fair. Most were insensitive, evil or just plain stupid jerks who abused their authority to amuse themselves by crushing the supervisee’s pride and spirit or to shamelessly ingratiate themselves with their own supervisors. Any supervisor who saw things the same as the person who was commenting was OK—a good guy—and very much the exception. For that matter—in any topic of discussion—anyone who didn’t see things according to some ill-defined but universally-agreed-upon notion of conventional wisdom (“common sense”) was not just dead wrong but some sort of fool or lunatic.

Both my parents grew up on farms—and farm work was righteous work. Any other form of employment was OK (as long as it was honest and involved manual labor) but was almost certainly, in some vague, amorphous way, morally inferior. Farm work was the mother of all other forms of earning a living and implicitly imbued its practitioners with some degree of favoritism by God. My dad especially, spent all of his personal, creative energy, virtually all of his adult life (so far as I could see) trying to re-capture the magic and spiritual clarity of turn-of-the century farm machinery by building working models of steam-tractors and other farm machinery.

And little wind-mills. I remember at one point while I was in middle school there were 18 or 20 wind mills perched on posts twirling in the back, side and front yards.

In summary—my parents and the Rouses—got together two or three times a month—to affirm each other’s biases, cynical appraisals, judgments and “I’m-a-victim-it-ain’t-fair” perspectives. The unspoken consensus was no matter how irrational and simplistic the expressed belief was—so long as it’s concrete, ostensibly practical and working-class-“common-sense” self-congratulatory in nature—it was God’s own truth. Any sort of competing view, any suggestion this sort of thinking was inadequate or mistaken, any kind of abstraction or self-examination was heresy, contemptible and incomprehensibly lower than excrement.

I don’t know when my folks and the Rouses went their separate ways and stopped getting together to sit in a room and talk at each other but it just happened. They seemed to be such good friends who really enjoyed each other’s company—it’s one of those things out of my cheesy little personal history that never quite made sense.

I think I was out of high school and in the Army—home on leave—when one day I asked my mom why she and Gwen were no longer friends. In a manner I remember as being dismissive and self-righteous, mom said something about being in the hospital and Gwen didn’t come to see her. That’s all I can remember. I’m pretty sure I never said anything to my dad about it. That would have been asking him to discuss something personal that may have involved feelings. Asking my dad to discuss his feelings was a gun-to-the-head impossibility for him. You might as well have asked him to lay an egg.

Max died—I think I was in undergraduate school—sometime in the ‘70s. He and my dad hadn’t spent any time together probably in decades. I have no idea why, but I went to the memorial service. It was a Salvation Army affair in some dingy hall that smelled like mildew and urine on some grubby street in a grubby part of town. The only things I clearly remember about the service was the minister who officiated got Max’s name wrong—first and last (it was obvious he’d never even met him) and some local jamoke in the back of the hall who kept his hand in his girl friend’s pants throughout the entire service.

Gwen died less than a year later I later learned—I don’t remember anything about that except my brother saying something about Gwen not being able to go on without Max.

Sometime in the early nineties I was back home visiting my sister and ran into Douglas in the K-Mart parking lot in downtown Rome. It was obvious he was mentally ill. He had recently been released from an institution and desperately wanted to tell me about a plan he had to save those whose souls were suffering and a journey or quest he wanted to lead loyal followers on (as soon as he could find some).

He wanted to, “claim the shining birthright of those someday souls who were yet to be conceived.” I stood there on the broken asphalt, among the blowing trash and shopping carts for a long time listening to him urgently relate his delusional ideas and aspirations. Every so often he’d stop to catch his breath. He would be briefly silent—his eyes would become all shiny and sparkling—he’d look heavenward through dirty, pointless, upstate New York clouds and mutter repetitively to himself, “Follow me—follow me.”

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