Excerpt from Cool Nation

Here is the final section from the chapter titled “The Invasion.” The other sections are on the sidebar, lower right.

The Invasion (Part 5)

Seth dove and I dove and alone together we swam and splashed in the chlorinated depths of the blue-white pool. Closed off from the world by a stockade fence, the pool was surrounded by hydrangea and clematis and hollyhocks, flowers that Mrs. Drummond tended with that intense sort of sadness that was so much hers. We swam and swam, throwing beach balls and tennis balls and splashing his older sisters in their checked bikinis, until finally Mrs. Drummond, with her platinum hair and dark eyes and quiet voice, came out and said: �Do you boys have to be so loud? Do you?� Then she would retreat to the barbituric-amphetaminic shadows of her home, the house always cool, the blinds drawn, the black housekeeper forever busy keeping their inventory of stuff dusted and clean.
Mrs. Drummond often spoke to us like strangers, and in her beauty she seemed to me unapproachable, almost unknowable. She frightened me also, for once I had come upon her in an upper hall, having been sent upstairs for towels, and she was weeping, passing through the hall and weeping. She looked at me, I at her, and she said Oh Petey, then went into her room and closed the door. I stood before it a moment, then went back out into the sunlight and heat. I never mentioned to Seth what I�d seen, for I knew I had seen a family secret.
Mrs. Drummond drove a Lincoln with suicide doors, Mr. Drummond drove a Lincoln with suicide doors�each with a magnetic Christ on the dash, for the Drummonds were Catholic. Every year they had new Lincolns, always white, hers a convertible, his a hardtop. And every Sunday they went to Saint Ann�s for Mass, dressed immaculately in the fashion of the Kennedys, Mr. and Mrs. Drummond no doubt hungover from whatever party they�d attended the night before.
All their children were girls except for the youngest and the oldest. The oldest, Keith, was everything to us. Although only in thirteen he was like a god, Lindsey Lahski always at his side, swimming with him or smoking cigarettes with him or under the tiki lamps at night making out on an air mattress, Seth and I watching through the slits in the fence as his hand stole up beneath the smallish brassiere, then down to the thighs, only to be repelled and finally slapped and then the girlish: �No! I told you no.�
�No. I said no and I mean no. No.�
�Nikki Robinson does.�
�Good. Go to her then.�
Getting up and buttoning her blouse. He pulling her back down onto the mattress, murmurs of apology, then the making out all over again. Keith promised us he would bang her the next year, when they both turned fourteen. We believed him. He was our idea of a god.
Keith and Seth had their rooms in the basement�not like Jackie�s simple room, but rooms that were sleek and enormous and well furnished, with big windows that looked out onto the pool and tennis court, and each with their own bathroom too. Keith was allowed to smoke in his room, and also to swipe his father�s old issues of Playboy, which we would spend hours searching for some sign of pubic hair. We couldn�t find any. Seth said they would never show that anyway. Keith said they would someday, but we didn�t believe him.
Keith hung out with some kind of gang that was an assembly of similarly bored punks, who in the woods behind the Indian Heights Country Club supposedly sniffed glue in their shack and gang-banged girls and drank beer. There were rumors also that they rumbled with the rough boys on the Missouri side, but I didn�t believe it. They were none of them like my brother, who had rumbled, and had the scars to show for it. They were just disaffected suburban brats whose idea of tough was a streetlight broken or a carton of Camels stuffed into a jacket and out the door.
Seth�s father we rarely saw. When we did see him his tipsiness was as obvious as that of the drunken whistler on his bar: the little figure that had one arm around a lamppost and that whistled �How Dry I Am� whenever you put a coin in the slot. Even when sober Mr. Drummond�s deportment belied a habitual intoxication that seemed to be there as much out of habit as substance. Oddly the deportment rarely changed regardless of how much he drank: he smiled just as much, told as many jokes, and remained in his own way as distant to us as Mrs. Drummond. His children he seemed to look on as a curious if accidental result of his marriage�accidents that he apparently hoped someone else would raise. The rest of us, his children�s friends, were virtually nameless and faceless to him, although he did on occasion associate the right name with the right face.
He was a car dealer, or rather owned a Lincoln/Mercury dealership that other people ran for him. All that the dealership required to function apparently was his occasional smiling presence, the closing of a sale or two, and his appearance in the late-night television ads that ran repetitively and idiotically on Fridays and Saturdays. The ads were poorly conceived, poorly produced and abysmally acted, and of course brought him a flood of business, keeping him and his family buoyed with Lincolns and booze and stuff throughout all those strange, distant, far-gone years.
I loved the Drummond house and I feared it, fearing it for reasons I didn�t understand so much as felt. Whenever I left it to go home though, across the pasture to our simpler house and simple cars and abundance of love, I felt grateful for what we had and who we were. I liked the Drummond�s pool, I liked the tennis court, I liked the big house with its white furniture and wet bars and frigid rooms, but I didn�t want it, and I don�t think Seth wanted it either. He had it though, whether he liked it or not, and that would ultimately prove to be his greatest curse too.

Excerpt from Cool Nation

If you’re not into fiction, and are only interested in my observations on the Artist’s Life, then skip this and go to yesterday’s post. Otherwise, below is another excerpt from the third chapter of Cool Nation. The previous excerpts are posted on the sidebar, lower right. I’m supposed to post these Fridays, but from here on I think I’ll opt for Sundays. Better that way.

The Invasion (part 4)

The way he would come to my room each night, to sit and talk
about nothing: his dreams or mine, or when we�d go hunting next, or how was
school? He�d sit on the edge of my narrow bed, his weight warping it down,
and with a hand on my head, or sometimes a hand in mine, he�d sit and talk
to me about simple things. He was good at that. Then finally he�d tell me
he loved me, say goodnight, switch out the light, and move on to Allen�s
room, then Jean�s, then Stephanie�s. With Jackie the expression was
different, since he was a teenager now, but the sentiment no less sincere.
Each night I could hear him doing it, until he�d done the same for us all.

After he had finished, Mom would do it also.

It was the way they did it, the way they gave and gave, that
made me feel that eventually I would deal with Hastings and his like, that I
would find my place in the world, and that they would help me find it.

It was the occasional embrace for no reason, or a hand mussing
my hair, or a kiss from out of nowhere�those endless expressions that gave us a reserve of warmth to return to each day, after dealing with the tragedies and cruelties that, in some instances, are the world. The world could visit on us whatever it wanted�its beauty, its harshness, its kindness, its hatred, but after that visitation was over, we always returned to the strength of his embrace, and the fragrance of her warmth. That told us, without anyone ever really having to tell us, that in time we would learn to deal with the order of things, learn to accept life�s realities�both the wonderful and the hideous�and determine which of those
aspects we would strive for. In truth, we already knew which aspect, but often we needed their reassurance in the pursuit of it. They gave it, and they gave it in undivided measure.

Years later, we would learn to give it back.

Stephanie on Blaze, Jean on Shasta, me on Nancy Jane. We came
out of the corral bareback and rode down Indian Boulevard to 103rd, where we waited for a break among the whooshing cars. The break came and we coaxed them across the asphalt, they shying a little at the slick of the pavement, then the cars closed the gap behind us and the country opened up and the houses fell behind. We took Mission down past Saddle and Sirloin, then waded them across Indian Creek and at last galloped up into the hills: the trails that went for miles.

The girls were better on their horses than I ever was on Nancy.
I understood our horses� being, the girls their purpose. At nine and eleven they were already naturals, jumping, galloping, entering the shows. My jumps were graceless and forlorn of purpose. Even Nancy seemed to know this, but also seemed to forgive me for it, as if she understood the quiet of my insecurities.

She would never throw me or stop at a jump or roll back on me as
Bullet had Jenny Baker, leaving her crushed in the corral at Indian Valley,
her mouth agape, her eyes open, her body convulsing while her mother ran
across the corral, screaming. The shock the next day at school: one of us had died. That wasn�t supposed to happen. I knew Nancy would never do that, and that I would never need fear her as long as I respected her limits. And an old plug like Nancy had plenty of limits.

We rode all day, taking lunch for a buck each at the Hasty House
on State Line. We rode up there among the Chevelles and Mustangs and called
the order in, the girl brought it out, petting the horses as we paid, then
we rode back across the street and ate in a field there, leaving the horses
to graze.

I watched them graze, and as I watched Jean said to Stephanie,
�Which one do you think is cuter?�


�I think George is.�

�Last week you said John.�


�I don�t think any of them are cute,� I said.

�We didn�t ask you.�

�Well I�m telling you.�

They ignored me. I was a younger brother. I was to be ignored.

�Last week you said John,� Stephanie said.

�Well last month you said Ringo.�


�Well you did.�

I listened to all this as I finished my shake and wadded up the
wax paper. Then I stood. �Come on. Are we going or what?�

The horses had grazed away across the field.

My sisters both looked up. �So, which one�s your favorite?�
Jean said.

�I don�t have a favorite.�

�Yes you do.�

�No I don�t.�

�You do though. I know you do.�

�The hell I do. Now let�s go.�

She stopped sucking her shake and looked at me. �I�ll tell

�You do and I�ll kick your little ass.�

�I�ll tell him that too.�

She wouldn�t though. She never did. It was only her way of
keeping what she feared a bad habit in me from growing worse.

�Oh stop it. Both of you,� Stephanie said. �For Christ�s

She got up, took our refuse, carried it across the street and
came back. Being eleven she was the oldest, and it was up to her to keep

Already Stephanie had the looks that would later become legend.
You could see it just beginning to blossom on her: blonde hair, slender
hips, stunning eyes. Jean had looks too but not like Stephanie�s; not the
heat, not the eyes, and never that unnameable burning quality that already
was drawing older boys to our house like toms, that would bring her to lose
her virginity by the time she was fourteen, that would make her jaded by
sixteen, and that would lead her from one wealthy man to the next, and from
one coast to the other, for a great deal of her life. Beauty, she would
later say, had always been her greatest curse. But there were also
blessings; our parents were two of them.

Stephanie went to one of the private schools, Barstow, known as
Miss Barstow�s when Jean Harlow attended it, when it was downtown. Mom
sent her there as she had sent each of us for our first two years of school.
Stephanie had stayed on though. She was the one who was dyslexic, so she
was allowed to stay, since Mom wanted to make sure she got the kind of
education that would counterbalance the disability. I don�t know much about
the disability, but I�ve always felt that her brashness, her confidence, and
her assertiveness were her way of offsetting the fact that she could barely

Jean�s beauty was different: less harsh, more warm, more rounded. Her looks fitted her personality, and underscored the essential compassion of which she was composed. Like Allen and me she attended the public school, since our parents weren�t sufficiently wealthy to keep all of us at the private one. At nine Jean was only two years older than I, and already had the fine, loving qualities that would later carry her through mess after succeeding mess, and bum after bum, for years to
come. Those were good things to have; she would need them all.

We rode all the rest of the day, recrossing Indian Creek by late
afternoon, and so back to the front lines of the suburbs. In the corral we
combed and fed them, leaving them with fresh water and oats before going in
and asking was dinner ready; We could smell a chicken in the oven and saw the
potatoes on the stove.

�Do you see your father home yet?� Mom said, meaning no one ate
until he was.

So we sat down with Allen�who was only five and not yet allowed
to ride with us�to watch the Stooges, and were watching them still when we
heard Dad�s wagon coming down the drive.

He came in with hugs for us all and said Man, let�s eat, and we
sat down and he carved up the chicken and gave each of us pieces except Mom,
who only ate a salad, having ceased to eat meat the year before. The
practice still puzzled Dad but he no longer ridiculed it, and dinner that
night was without debate. Without Jackie too. He was already out, although
no one seemed to know where, or when he would be home.

After dinner I confessed to Jean that John was my favorite,
although before it had been George, but that now it was definitely John, and
she said, �I knew it.� She had the new forty-five, �Please Please Me,� and
we had Seth over to listen to it, and to it and to it. Then we flipped it
over to hear �Love Me Do,� but didn�t like that as much and listened to the
other side again.

Excerpt from Cool Nation

I meant to post this Friday, in keeping with recent tradition, but the past week was nuts. This is from the third chapter of Cool Nation. The previous excerpts are posted on the sidebar, lower right.

The Invasion (part 3)

Hastings hit me.
�Get out,� he said.
He hit me again, harder this time, first in the mouth and then the stomach. �You ain�t playing. Now get.�
When he hit me the third time I dropped the bat and Hastings picked it up. I went behind the backstop as they resumed the game, to which I’d contributed little.
I couldn�t catch. I couldn�t throw. I couldn�t hit�not like they could. I was unreliable as a teammate, having been blessed with little coordination, meager strength, and insufficient confidence to overcome either. In a country where sports has become religion these are not deemed worthy traits. I was beaten off to join the ranks of the uncoordinated meek, who played in the dusty corners of the schoolyard, hoping not to be noticed. I felt a disgrace to my father, and my grandfather. They wouldn�t have taken it, but I had already been beaten enough to know where I stood. Even my sassiness, which at times could be considerable, made no difference.
The teachers, who were all up the hill, hadn�t seen. Seth had though; he came running in from shortstop and took the bat from Hastings.
�He plays,� Seth said.
�No he doesn�t.�
�You go to hell, Hastings. He does.�
�What did you say?�
�I said go to hell, Hastings! Go to hell.�
The other boys gathered. Hastings stared at Seth but made no move. No one ever did. No one ever would. Seth was neither big nor brutal, but he was something whole that Hastings would never be, and Hastings knew it. Seth was also revered, and Hastings knew that too.
Seth brought the bat to me. �You’re up.�
I shook my head. �No.�
�You’re up, Pete.� He held it out like an offering that only he could make. I didn�t take it.
I walked away and only when my back was turned did I wipe my eyes. �No.�
I heard Hastings laugh, I heard the others laugh. I walked on across the field to the barbed wire fence that separated the school yard from the Horton�s pasture. Lucy was out of her barn, grazing the newly green shoots of April. I gathered some of the taller grass by the fence and held it out. She came over and ate from my flattened palm. Seth came up from behind, and climbed to the upper wire of the fence.
�Do you want to ride her?� he said.
From shame, I couldn�t look at him. �No.�
�Come on. Let�s ride her. It�d be fun.�
We topped the fence and climbed onto her sagging back, I in front, since I understood horses and Seth did not. She meandered away with us, head down, flanks shivering, grazing until I pulled on her mane and tapped with my heels, when she would trot maybe thirty more feet and stop to graze again. In her enormous warmth I lost, at least for a moment, my adolescent depressions and inadequacies. We rode the horse in an ecstasy of liberation.
�Peter McKenna and Seth Drummond! Mr. McKenna and Mr. Drummond! Now! Right now!�
We turned. Mrs. Hazlett, with her angry features and blunt chin, was blowing her whistle and stomping in her pumps, her scarf from that distance like a diminutive sail stranded on an unyielding rock. I turned Lucy toward her.
�No sir! Off that horse. Off that horse now!�
We slid off and walked to the fence.
She herded us down the long hallway; a humorless battle-ax who told us admirable stories about George Worshington and tended to say things like between you and I, young man.
The principal�s office with his undertaker�s suit, undertaker�s shoes, walking back and forth before us, we on his bench, heads down, to one another smirking. His name was Blackwell, and once a month he walked up and down the halls blowing a portable air horn, to the shriek of which we would file down to the basement, put our heads between our knees, and wait for the Russian missiles to hit.
Themes after school that day, but that night playing �I Want to Hold Your Hand� over and over on the Hi-Fi. The only forty-five I owned, it had cost me eighty-five cents at Jenkins. We played it until we couldn�t play it anymore.

Excerpt from Cool Nation

This is the 2nd section from “The Invasion,” which is the 3rd chapter in the novel. The first section was posted last Friday. Yeah, I know I’m supposed to post excerpts every Friday, but I’ve been a little busy. All excerpts are eventually posted by my webmaster on the sidebar, toward the bottom.

The Invasion (part two)

Friday nights I sat on his bed and watched him comb Vitalis through his hair, combing it back and back before the bureau mirror, his legs spread, his head ducked down, Marlboros in his t-shirt sleeve. Then he�d throw on his windbreaker and look at me, his eyes seeing and not seeing with that look that was only his, that I would never see again until when, thirty years later, I went to Leavenworth to visit an old friend, and in the visitor�s room, divided in half by the glass partition, I saw a man with those same eyes in the next booth, doing life for the strangulation of three women. Those were my brother�s eyes. I didn�t know yet that that�s what they were, I only knew that he needed someone to accept him, and in my way I tried to.
�So,� I said. �Can I see it?�
He looked at me. �Why?�
�You�ll just hurt yourself.�
�I haven�t yet.�
He looked at me again, then reached into the pocket of his white jeans�jeans I�d seen bloodied before, covered with grass stains, asphalt stains, and the long black smear of a boot�and pulled it out. Smiling he slid it into my hand.
I pressed the lever and it jumped open, the blade long and thin, the handle black over chrome, the name Hubertus etched into the steel. I never asked him if he knew how to use it; one look at Jackie and you knew he did, would, and probably had.
He wasn�t like other boys from Indian Heights. He didn�t belong to any clubs at school, never acted in any plays, cared nothing for dances or football games or preparations for Rush Week when the fraternities came looking for recruits. That was all alien to him, and nothing my mother could say would alter his interests from the strip joints down on Twelfth Street, the Missouri-side greasers he hung with, and the hard girls that hung with them. He liked nothing from our side of State Line, and wanted nothing to do with it. All this already from a boy of seventeen.
We heard Dad coming heavily down the stairs. Jackie snapped his fingers and I gave the knife over as Dad opened the door.
With a big arm Dad motioned toward me: �You. Out.� He was very tall and his shoulders filled the door frame and his Cherokee nose was prominent on his weathered face�a face that was often red, as it was that moment.
I left and he closed the door.
�Like hell you will,� I heard him tell my brother. �You�re not going out with those bastards again.�
�They�re not bastards. They�re my friends.�
�They�re bums. They�ll make a bum out of you if you stay with them.�
�How do you know?�
I could feel Dad staring right through him. �I know.� And staring still. �You stay home tonight. I�ve had it with all these calls from the cops. I�ve had it with all that crap. And I�m done warning you. Do you hear me? Do you hear me now?�
No answer.
�Do you?�
�Yes sir.�
�Good. I�ll be getting you up at seven. I want you to work at The Place tomorrow. Understood?�
The Place. The Place had prospered since the days of that rented lot in the West Bottoms. Now Dad owned two acres in those same bottoms, with a warehouse and a two-story office and a sales staff and a fleet of trucks and a fleet of workers and new Pontiacs for him and Mom every other year. It was the largest insulation business in the region, and he had built it himself, and we all knew that nobody we knew worked like he did. Dad had come a long way from Picher.
Jackie told him that, yes, he would work at The Place tomorrow.
�All right then.� A slight softening of tone. �Come on upstairs if you want. We�ll be watching The Wizard of Oz later. Your mother�s gone out and bought some pop.�
My brother said nothing, my father said nothing further, and he came out of the bedroom to find me standing in the dim light of the basement. I looked up at his fierceness and breadth and height, and marveled as always at how the face went so quickly from sternness to warmth. He reached down for my hand.
�Come on, bud. Let�s go see about that movie.�
We settled later on the Naugahyde sofa with Vess Soda and Lays chips and watched as the house went up into the twister and came down in Oz and the munchkins came creeping out from among the flowers, laughing and all atwitter, Judy Garland still young and full of promise.
Mom turned to Dad. �You don�t think we should get color?�
�This one works.�
�But, Daddy, it�s not in color.� This from Stephanie and Jean.
They were on one side of him, Allen and I on the other, and he turned and put his lips on their hair, his mammoth arms around both of them, and around me and Allen too. �So you want color, do you?�
�Yes!� This in unison.
He looked back at the tube, at Dorothy and Toto going down the gray brick road, and said, �Well, we�ll see.�
We didn�t buy a color one until two years later, when the Chiefs lost to the Packers in the first Super Bowl, and then we only bought one because the black-and-white had finally given out. My father had never cared for television, any more than I had, any more than I as a father do now.
Jackie didn�t sneak out the basement door that night until the rest of us were in bed. I didn�t hear him go, but heard the unmuffled Impala pass by our drive and stop, idling, two doors down. I knew by heart the sound of that car, had seen it stop out front many times: red paint, chrome wheels, dual exhaust, the interior light illuminating pinch-faced greasers in leather and sometimes girls with teased hair and black eyeliner.
I watched from my window as his white jeans went knifing across our lawn, then across the D�agostino�s lawn, then the Schultz�s. The car door opened, he climbed in, the door closed, and slowly the Impala was swallowed by the black of the March night. I watched it fade away down the street.

Excerpt from Cool Nation

Here are the opening scenes from the third chapter of Cool Nation:

The Invasion

They came out and the crowd, girls mainly, were screaming, and the screaming got louder, then they took up their guitars and started to play but you couldn�t hear it for the screaming, and when they shook their hair and sang into the mikes the screaming just got louder, and louder. The first song ended and the screaming went on and the second song started and the screaming never stopped and when they finished they all bowed, then Ed Sullivan came out and tried to regain control over a thing that not even he had ever seen before, or likely believed possible.
The band left the stage and gradually the screaming subsided into orgiastic moans and hysterical weeping, all of them as if mourning the passing of something or some presence or some event but no one seeming to know what.
Seth and I were on our bellies, watching the black-and-white. We heard Stephanie and Jean weeping behind us. I turned.
�Oh stop it. They�re just a band.� But they wouldn�t stop.
�What do you know? Jean said. �You aren�t old enough to know anything. And they aren�t just a band. They aren�t.� She went on crying. �They aren�t.�
Dad was looking at her from his rocker, Mom from her end of the sofa, Dad holding his Kansas City Star in his lap.
�What do you think?� Mom asked him. Allen, my younger brother, was on her lap, and waited open-mouthed for his answer.
�Not much. I saw it when they brought Presley out. It�s the same as that.�
�It sure doesn�t sound the same.�
�You mean the music, or the screaming?�
�Well.� He picked up his Star and went back to reading. �It is. It�s all hype. Only this time it�s Limey hype.�
�They do a pretty good job of it.�
�They ought to. They learned it from us.�
My mother went back to her Edgar Cayce, bouncing Allen as she read.
My sisters went back to their crying.
Seth and I watched them, then left the room. We�d seen all we wanted to.
We went down into the half-dark of the basement, to Jackie�s room, walking across the shuffleboard tiles to his door, from beneath which a bar of light shone and through which the jamming sound of his music pounded. He only listened to bands like The Beach Boys or Smokey Robinson or, of course, Elvis. It was Marvin Gaye he was listening to now.
I knocked, he didn�t answer. I knocked again, he didn�t answer. Then I opened the door just enough to see his flailing maniacism as he danced, shirtless, before the mirror, spinning, hitting the floor, bouncing back up, spinning and stopping and spinning back the other way. We watched him, the tattoo on his arm, the insane driving motion of his legs, the power of his madness.
Seth pulled on my arm. �Come on,� he said. He, like everyone, was afraid of my brother, afraid of him as I had never been. �Close it, Pete. Close it.�
Silently I did, and we went back up the stairs. We would not be seeing Jackie that night.
We waited around until they came back on, their appearance signaled by the screaming, then we watched until they bowed again, then we watched the more familiar, if entirely contrived world of Bonanza, and afterward I walked Seth home.
�Good-night, Sethy,� Dad said.
�Good-night, Seth,� Mom said.
He told my parents good-night.
Silky saw us going and got up to accompany: her job. Yes she was a collie, a tricolor like the one on TV, loving and always with me and obedient and although not as smart as the one on the screen she was smart enough. I had grown up with her by my side; she would later die with me at hers.
What else can you expect? It was that time in the Sixties when it still felt like the Fifties, when neighborhoods were neighborhoods and dogs often roamed with children and we were allowed, at age seven, to walk to the candy store on State Line or the one on Mission Road without my mother ever once worrying would someone stop and take us, or stop and sodomize us, or just shoot us from a passing car for sport. The thought would never enter her mind, or ours.
It was that time: convertibles and unlocked doors and �Moon River� playing on your parents� Hi-Fi; neighbors you knew and street games at night and the escalating but distant war on the evening news; families that seemed complete and unified and neatly whole but of course weren�t�being human; and always the certainty that America could do no wrong. It was that thing that we�ve since lost, along with our national innocence, and will never get back; that thing that we all want back but this time without the naivet�, without the innocence. It was that time, but it wasn�t going to be that time much longer. You could almost feel how it started to change in one harsh, frost-bound February night, and how it would soon change forever. No band from Liverpool did that. We did. Then we adopted them as a symbol of it all, which perplexed them almost as much as it confused us, then we blamed them, then in the end we killed one of them. But that of course was all much later.
Seth and I went out into the frozen night, down the back steps and across the brief pasture.
We passed the little barn and I heard Nancy Jane, Blaze and Shasta snuffling inside. Nancy stuck out her head and I said, Hey, darlin. She watched with equine indifference as we crossed the acre that served as our backyard. In Indian Heights in those days you could have horses in your backyard if your yard was big enough. Ours was big enough. The house, naturally, was big too.
It was a house on the order of Ozzie and Harriet or Father Knows Best, but bigger even than those. That�s how Indian Heights was: big post-war houses, two-acre lawns, dull complacency, hidden addictions, overt prejudice. A white paradise�or a white hell, if you prefer. It even came with a guarantee from Neuman Realty: no Jews or blacks would ever be allowed to move in. That was their policy. Years later the Neuman brothers went to prison for fraud. That was their karma.
Don�t get me wrong though. I�m not ungrateful to my parent�s generation for having built a nation of Indian Heightses. I�m certainly not ungrateful for having grown up among its broad streets, its lush yards, its air-conditioned houses. If I�d been raised in the soiled want of The Depression, then hardened in the gore-spattered hell of The War, I�d have built a nation of Indian Heightses too. But I wasn�t, and I suppose there�s also a reason for that.
Seth and I crossed the pasture. The elms, enormous and overspreading, rose up above us like titans or guides or silent guards, and walking beneath them I always felt a secret presence and certainty. I felt as though they watched over us.
The elms bordered the pasture fence and the fence was made of split-rail oak that had come from the Ozarks in some long ago before my birth, when Dad and Cary had brought it up here on a truck and split it. Cary didn�t split wood anymore. They had him in the asylum in St. Joe, and he was not the only one of us destined to go there. Some kids used to ask me, in that snotty Johnson County way of theirs, what it was like to have two crazy brothers. I never answered them. Mom told me not to.
Seth and I ducked through the fence and jumped the stones across the creek and walked up the hill into his parent�s backyard�the big white house and swimming pool and tennis court and hydrangeas. Mrs. Drummond was from California, and when she moved here to marry Mr. Drummond she essentially rebuilt what she had had left behind in Orange County�she hated it here that much. Seth didn�t. He had me and I had him and we had the world, and to us that was all that mattered.
We stopped at the back gate. �Did you like them?� I said.
�Oh yeah. Did you?�
�Do you think your dad will let you grow your hair that long?� Meaning to the collar and eyebrows instead of just a crew cut.
�Why not?�
�I�ll be lucky if he gets me the boots,� I said.
�Did you ask for them?�
�What did he say?�
�That only greasers and Mexicans wear them.�
�He would.�
I didn�t ask if Seth�s parents would let him grow his hair that long, or get him Beatle boots, or anything else. That was already assumed.
�Well,� I said. �I�ll see you at school.�
�See you.�
He opened the gate to the stockade fence, closed it, and was lost within the depths of the Drummond compound. I said Come on, girl, and Silky brought her nose out of the bushes and followed me home.

Excerpt from Cool Nation

Here I’ve posted the rest of the second chapter from my novel, Cool Nation. The first half was posted last Friday.

The Making of a Mongrel (remainder)

Early on Grandpa developed a hatred for the sheriff in Picher, and the sheriff a hatred for him. The sheriff dominated bootlegging in that part of Oklahoma, as everyone knew. The trouble began when one of Grandpa�s brothers, Jewell, began to compete with the sheriff for the sale of corn liquor.
Jewell owned a souped-up Model A that was one of the fastest cars in the county, and fast for good reasons. Twice a month he would drive it into the Ozark mountains, where some old man with a still would fill its hidden tanks with whiskey. Jewell would return to Picher after dark, outrunning �the laws� along the way if necessary. In Picher he�d pull into his little garage and drain the tanks into a larger tank that was buried underground. The whiskey was pumped up into bottles by means of a secreted spigot, and for three years Uncle Jewell prospered, supplying many of the miners, certain of the politicians, and enraging the sheriff, who could never seem to catch him or figure out where the booze was kept. Finally though Jewell was given away by some disgruntled confederate, the sheriff sent him to McAlester, and went on controlling bootlegging in Picher for the next several years. My grandfather never forgave him for busting up the enterprise, or for imprisoning Jewell.
The next summer two of the sheriff�s cowpoke nephews were visiting from Wyoming, both of them in their late teens. They were hard drinkers, and one afternoon as they were emerging from a bar they saw my Uncle Galen, aged twelve, and Uncle Wilford, fifteen, coming down the sidewalk. Wilford had broken his leg working in the mines, and was hobbling along with a crutch. The two cowpokes stopped them.
�What you bet I could knock this�n down with one punch?� the blond one said.
�I bet you cain�t.�
�I bet I can.�
He did. He knocked Wilford down with one punch. Then Uncle Galen attacked him, and the cowpoke knocked him out. Apparently this kind of thing had been going on all week, but no one had complained because these were the sheriff�s nephews.
Later my uncles went home and told my grandfather, who listened in reddened silence. After dark he went into the yard behind their shack on Vantage, found two rocks the size of cantaloupes, and walked across town to the sheriff�s house. There he saw the cowpokes at the supper table, their backs to the window. He heaved the rocks, the window shattered, the cowpokes collapsed, and the next day they both were spotted boarding a train out of town, the blond one barely to see for the bandages that swathed his head, he being led aboard by the other, whose arm was in a sling.
A week later, on a moonless night, Grandpa and one of his brothers pistol-whipped the sheriff out behind his saloon. They both wore bandanas over their faces, neither one of them spoke, and before sending him to the hospital they made him understand that they were letting him live, this time. Then they took his wallet.
The sheriff never confronted Grandpa, who as everyone knew went about armed, and the two nephews never returned. This was justice in Picher. This was the town in which my father spent his first ten years.
My grandma, an orphan who had worked as an indentured farm servant most of her young life, was fifteen when she gave birth to Dad, having been knocked up that year by Grandpa, who was thirty. Grandpa�s first wife had died in childbirth twelve years earlier, leaving him to raise his two sons alone. He wanted Grandma to help.
Barely literate, half-Cherokee, half-Irish, with her younger sisters as her only kin, Grandma had taken work at a boarding house in Picher in order to escape the miserable conditions of her servitude on a farm near Joplin. In short order my grandfather met her, seduced her, my father was born, and for as long as Grandma could endure it she remained married to the old man. That wasn�t very long.
Grandma eventually left him, and that Ozark region, to move to Kansas City, to marry a man not given to whoring and brawling, and to try to realize a life that was made up of more than mere subsistence. At first Grandpa wouldn�t let her take my father, insisting he be raised in Picher to become a miner. But finally, through means we�ve never fully known, Grandma gained custody of my father when he was ten and brought him to the city, away from the mines.
In Kansas City then she raised him, and while she never did prosper, at least she and her husband had ample food, a fair measure of sobriety, and even a savings account at the bank. In later years, after her second husband died, she wound up buying a bungalow in Cherokee Grove, a well kept Kansas town not ten miles from the hellhole of Picher�whose mines were abandoned in the 1950s, after supplying lead for yet another world war, then the Korean War, then finally playing out.
Cherokee was one of those towns that had prospered from Picher�s mines, and misery. Its streets were broad, its businesses thriving, and many of its houses were large. It was one of those towns where the mine owner�s had lived and raised their families, while the people of Picher�the ones who had made the owner�s wealth possible�struggled just to get by: drinking lead-tainted water, breathing lead-tainted air, shifting to survive in a town stripped of all industry, after industry had stripped it of everything it had. Cherokee was one of those towns my grandmother had despised when she lived in Picher, but Cherokee was where she moved now.
As it happened, Cherokee was the same town in which my grandfather had earlier died and been buried. I never believed it was a coincidence that Grandma settled there, so close to Grandpa�s grave and presence. Like many women, she had been drawn most to the man who ignored her, not the one who worshipped her, and in the end I�ve always believed she felt a need to be near him.
At any rate, Grandma�s initial move to Kansas City deposited my father there, he later met and charmed my mother, they married, and my brothers, sisters and I were the result. Sure the Muellers are the more respectable, the more conformist side of our family. Sure theirs was once a name to be reckoned with in Kansas City. But it is our father�s side to which we are most drawn; there lay the passion, the grit, the coarseness and the vigor. There lay the hillbilly stamp. It�s still heavy on me. It always will be. And that’s just fine with me.
As common mongrels then we were born, Baby Boomers all, about to embark on two of the strangest decades in the Twentieth Century, unaware of the social steamroller that was about to hit us, and likely better off for the ignorance.

Memory 3: “Phoebe”

Memory 3, “Phoebe,” from Cool Nation:

Then there was the time he was turned away from the pool. We had ridden there on our bikes, towels over our shoulders, only to be told at the gate that our guest wasn�t allowed in. It was Joe Witthauer, a lifeguard, swim team member and self-anointed god, who told us.
�Why not?� I said.
�You know why not.�
�We�re members.�
�I don�t care if you�re owners. He�s a nigro and nigroes ain’t allowed.�
We got on our Stingrays and pedaled home. Mom asked why we were back so soon, Phoebe in the kitchen behind her. I told them, and took in her and Phoebe�s silence as I told them. Ten years earlier my mother would have taken it, knowing she had no choice then. But this was 1967, and she wasn�t taking it anymore.
She on the phone at her absolute shrillest: �I don�t give a goddamn about your policies. If you don�t admit him and admit him today, I�ll release the story to the Star this afternoon, and you can deal with its effect tomorrow. I will also resign my membership, and I have no doubt that I can encourage at least ten other families to do the same. We�re supposed to be living in enlightened times, Mr. Halroyd, or hadn�t you heard?�
Afterward she drove us back down to the pool, neither of us wanting to go in now, and walked us to the admissions gate. Joe Witthauer, with his mirthless smile, was waiting. So was the manager, Dennis Halroyd.
My mother said not a word to either of them as she sent us in, signed the guest book for William, then turned and walked away, her heels clicking.
The silence as we entered that white domain, the unintelligent stares, the handful of approving glances.
William stood out that day like a black dot in a sea of white, his skin shining with water, so distinct amid the neat blue and cream of the pool, and the skin of everyone else. Like opposing magnets the other kids stayed away from him: stunned, surprised, unprepared. We ignored them, and played on our own.
I don�t know that we crossed any great color barrier that day�-certainly nothing like the lunch counter battles of the South�-but for the few remaining years that we lived in Indian Heights, William went on swimming with us whenever he wanted, which he did often, and with great relish.

Related Posts

Excerpt from Cool Nation

In keeping with what I post on Fridays, below I’ve listed the second excerpt from Cool Nation. Last week I posted the entire first chapter. This is the opening to the second chapter…


My mother hailed from Kansas City gentry, if making money and succumbing to its worship qualifies as such, as indeed in Kansas City, and most of the world for that matter, it often does. Her father, Walter Mueller, made his money in the bakery business�a great deal of money. I don�t mean a corner bakery with an old man in a white hat behind the counter, but a massive factory that churned out loaves and buns and rolls by the thousands. He also was involved in the oil refineries in Wichita. He also had his investments, his properties, his stocks and bonds.
My mother often said they never even felt The Depression, living as they did in the Roanoke District. Thomas Hart Benton, drinking bourbon and giving the conformists hell, lived in the neighborhood. So did two former mayors. So in a more general way did Tom Pendergast, who had already given Harry Truman his first judgeship, who would soon move to the Country Club District, and after that to prison for income tax evasion, when finally he had to relinquish his role as City Boss.
Despite their wealth my grandmother always insisted on dressing my mother in ill-fitting, homemade clothes, less a reflection of parsimoniousness than of quiet lunacy. Later it would become raging lunacy: loud, shrill, unnerving. My grandfather out of love or loyalty never had her committed, but cared for her in their Roanoke home until in 1954 he died of a heart attack in the bathroom. By then my parents had been married twelve years, and my father often dropped by his in-laws� house to check on the old couple. Grandfather had been dead for two hours that night when Dad arrived. Grandmother met him in the front hall and Dad asked her where Grandfather was. Wringing her hands and pacing, she said, �Oh he�s back there with that woman again, Floyd. He�s back there with that woman. Go on. You�ll see.�
Dad found him on the bathroom floor, blood on the old man�s forehead from where he�d cut it falling, his flesh already cold. My father wept then, for he had loved my grandfather in a way he could never love his own father. Grandfather Mueller had been a gentle and generous man, who had not only given my father sound advice and warm companionship over the years, but also gave Dad, a poor kid from the Ozarks, the money with which to start his own business. My father had never ceased to revere him.
It was from that old man that my mother got her gentleness, her occasional silences, her tendency toward melancholy, and, in an adverse way, her indifference to money. Her ability to lecture me on the need to always visualize the positive, to understand that this reality is an illusion, and to realize that the world is on the verge of a New Age of peace�this she got from herself. Her mother�s madness she never inherited, although two of my brothers would not be so blessed.
Mom bore seven children (one a stillbirth), alternately loved and despised my father, found her own career at a time when women normally didn�t, loved us, lost us, regained us, endured two suicides and the passing on of the madness she�d escaped, endured the many shades of hell we put her through when the explosion of my generation�s decadence rocked a nation, and through it all maintained that we were put here for a higher good, that our lives were of our own choosing, and that no matter what happened to us we must never give up or feel sorry for ourselves, or lose the vision of a planet at peace, a planet united. All this hailing initially from the Roanoke District in Kansas City, believe it or not.
Mom�s people were Germans, and came here from the area of Cologne late in the nineteenth century. They prospered as merchants, were respectably oblivious to the arts, and generally did well in the Kansas City tradition until as I�ve said my grandfather did very well indeed. Their name was Mueller on her father�s side, Mayer on her mother�s. The Mayors supposedly were descended of Jews, something that horrified my maternal uncles but that always amused us. It also made made my sisters, my brother, and me proud. But don�t tell anyone in Kansas City: I might not be admitted to the better clubs.

My father�s father was a tough old bastard who when young had been among the toughest boys in the southern Missouri town of Ash Grove. You were reminded of this every time you looked at his hands, and counted not ten fingers but nine. He�d lost one finger in an Ozark brawl, bitten off by another boy when both were eighteen, drunk one night on white whiskey. My grandfather, it is said, went on to win the fight, kicking the other boy repeatedly in the guts until he had ruptured certain of his organs. That�s when the spectators in the saloon stopped it, just before they judged that death would descend. Those were brawls among Ozark toughs. That was my father�s side of the family.
Initially they came from landed gentry in colonial Virginia, where a plantation in King William County to this day bears our name. Before that they likely hailed from some hardscrabble village in Scotland.
In Virginia they made the curious mistake of fighting for the English, and after the Revolution found it unhealthy to dwell among the victors. They followed Daniel Boone�s Wilderness Highway into Tennessee, and then Kentucky, staying there until 1825, when my great-great-grandfather, Doc Steven McKenna, migrated to southern Missouri, and at a place called Leeper�s Prairie established a farm. His wife Sarah went with him.
Together they farmed four-hundred acres with relative success, but by 1850 Doc grew bored, went to Kansas City, and left out on the Oregon Trail for California, having heard, as everyone had by then, of the gold strike at Sutter�s Mill. Apparently he did well, because in 1852 he returned by clipper ship to New Orleans, where according to legend he prevented a slave family from being broken up on the block by buying them whole. That family came with him on a steamboat north to Missouri, and to his farm, which then prospered almost immeasurably. He didn�t live long to enjoy it though, having died in an ambushed stagecoach in April of 1861 on the Brazos River in Texas. He had been bound to California once more, to try and find two sons who had gone to the gold fields and not returned. The stage supposedly was ambushed by Kiowas, but my father always believed it was just renegade bandits. The occupants were all scalped just the same.
That same month the Civil War started, and my great-great-grandmother, Sarah McKenna, was left to run the farm with one small boy, three daughters, and the women slaves. Her three remaining sons of military age had joined up�two with the North, one with the South. The men slaves had joined up too, pretty much leaving the women to fend for themselves. Those women ran the farm well enough, but they couldn�t adequately protect it, and over the course of the next four years the Yankees and Rebels alternately robbed them of all their livestock, most of their food, and the bulk of their tools. By 1865 all they were left with was an old mare to do the plowing, and the only reason it wasn�t stolen is because Sarah shaved its hide and slathered the bald spots with grease, giving it the appearance of saddle sores.
It is said that near war�s end a detachment of Yankee cavalry rode up to the farm one day, seeking conscripts. Their leader, an obese, redheaded lieutenant, asked Grandma McKenna if any men lived on the farm. She told him none did, that all of her men were at the war, that two of them were already dead, and anyway that none of her men would ever evade duty. The lieutenant and his men searched the farm anyway, and it was as he was bending down to look under the porch that she decided she couldn�t take it anymore: the years of privation, the slaughter, the sacrifice, and now this Yankee insult of her family�s honor. She grabbed a shovel and clobbered him, knocking him on his face and leaving a welt on his ass. The detachment rode back out, and left Sarah, her daughters, and her broken-down mare, alone.
Sarah died ten years later, much reduced and neglected, buried by the former slaves who had stayed on at the farm to work, reluctant to leave and try their luck in the inhospitable domain of southern Missouri. After she died though, they had to.
Succeeding generations lost what was left of the farm, and its wealth, until finally my father�s father, born Arthur Lee in 1890, was raised as a poor white among other poor whites: semiliterate, given to easy violence, working always with his hands. For years that seemed to be the curse of our family, for years it seemed to be my curse: forever having to earn my living with my hands. But like so many perceived curses this one also had its blessings.
Grandpa, with his nine fingers, went to work in the lead and zinc mines that flourished in southwest Missouri, and northeast Oklahoma, at the beginning of World War I. The mines flourished because Europeans needed lead for their bullets to kill each other with, and they needed it in copious amounts. Those mines supplied it to both sides�at least until we got into the war. The town that was home to most of those mines was Picher, Oklahoma, a much abused little place hard up against the Kansas line, and just west of Missouri.
When the mines opened Picher had started out as a collection of tents, then went on to become a collection of shacks, then a coarse assemblage of frame houses and cheap saloons. Apart from its mines, its main claim to notoriety in those days was its murder rate, which peaked in the 1920s at about 100 a year�this in a town of 11,000. Miners who didn�t die in barfights could look forward to dying in the mines, which, with their collapses and explosions and the spread of silicosis, took a considerable toll. But Grandpa stayed on, working at the Nancy Jane Mine, advancing from miner to hoist operator, and establishing himself as one of the more prominent hillbillies in that hardscrabble town on the Oklahoma prairie.
Of course he wasn�t pure hillbilly. He could read and write and even had a taste for music and fine clothes. Besides, he was more of the Missouri plains than of the Missouri mountains. But his culture was hillbilly, as was his heritage, as in a more detached sense is mine.

(I’ll post the remainder of this chapter next Friday.)

Cool Nation excerpt 1

I’ve been asked a great deal about the Cool Nation Trilogy, what it’s about, and how it came to land me a NY agent–although I wound up leaving him. Man, that’s a big question. Much easier to simply run excerpts, and let you all make your own assessments. So from here forth, as long as it fits, I will run a brief excerpt each Friday. All of these will be from the first of the three novels: Cool Nation. Each excerpt is titled. I hope you dig reading them as much as I dug writing them.

The grinding table had been built in a fenced lot in the West Bottoms, not far from the river, just beneath the high bluffs of the city. The two hundred or so acres of stock yards were in the bottoms also, with their reek of dung and blood and general putrescence. So were the main lines of the Santa Fe, the Burlington Northern, the Union Pacific. So too were a variety of warehouses, factories, vagrants asleep under bridges, small armies of rats. This was where the grinding table was.
Two men worked the table in the rain that night, one of them white, the other black. With pitchforks they fed the insulation scrap onto a conveyor belt, which carried the scrap into the grinder, which pulverized it into blowing wool, where it would later be used to insulate the houses of Mission Hills, Prairie Village, Leawood, and all other extensions of the post-war boom. Fine particles of fiberglass floated in the air, sticking to the faces and arms of the men and setting up an unbearable irritation that neither ever spoke of.
Although covered by a tin roof the grinding table was damp from the slant of the rain. So was the insulation. So were the men.
The white man forked enormous piles of fiberglass out of a semi-trailer that had been backed up to the table. These he pushed toward the black man, who with one foot on a side-shroud fed them onto the belt. The grinder was shrill and screaming and prevented any amount of discernible conversation. Nonetheless, for what was not the first time but what would be the last, the white man shouted in the black man�s ear, �You ought not do that, Charlie.�
�Do what?�
�Leave your foot there that way.�
�But Mr. McKenna, my foot�s sore. You know it is. It done got messed up in France. If I set it up like this it don�t hurt so bad.�

The white man looked at the foot and at the rain-slicked shroud and the whining jaws of the grinder. Again he said, �You ought not to do it.�
Charlie Adams smiled. �You just feed me that insulation, Mr. McKenna. I feed it in. I always feeds it in.�
My father fed him another big pile, then jumped down to go to his �57 Nomad. There he poured coffee from a thermos for both of them. It was as he was capping the thermos that he heard the grinder jam and the hum of the electric motor at full stop and then the screaming. The screaming and the screaming and the screaming.
When he got to the table Charlie Adams was thrashing up and down the way a snake does when its back has been broken. His foot and ankle had disappeared into the grinder, and he was screaming the insane scream of those who know they�re going to die, or who at least wish they would.
My father shut off the motor and took a railroad bar and jammed the grinder wheels apart and pulled out what was left of the other man�s leg. Charlie was whimpering now, his head cast back, he whimpering.
�My god, Mr. McKenna! My god!�
The blood poured onto the table as if from a spilt pitcher, soaking into the yellow insulation that was always everywhere. My father tied a tourniquet and swathed the leg in his shirt and, shirtless, carried Charlie to the Nomad and laid him in back, blood coming through the shirt now. Then like a madman my father drove.
He went first to St. Mary�s, up on the hill by the Great War memorial, where in the glare of the little circle drive he brought one of the doctors out and the doctor looked in the car and saw Charlie and shook his head and said, �I�m sorry, buddy. We can�t take him. You know we can�t.�
My father took a step toward him and the doctor backed away, my father being very big and red-faced. �You will take him, you sonofabitch.”
The doctor looked over his shoulder at the two waiting orderlies. �Call the cops.�

Like a madman again my father drove, to Trinity, then to a hospital near the Plaza. Both turned him down. It was at that third hospital that he began to lose it, grabbing that last doctor by the arms and shaking him, as if trying to shake sense into something senseless.
�Goddamn you! He�s dying. He�s dying. What the hell�s the matter with you people!�
The doctor pulled away. �It�s policy, buddy, and you damned well know it. They�ve got their own hospitals. Go to one of theirs.�
But they didn�t have, at least not in the same way, and the one that they did have was by now too far across the city.
In the wet black of the night my father screamed through the Country Club District, heading to the last hospital he could think of. Charlie now was semi-conscious, fading, never even having questioned why he had been turned away, probably knowing beforehand that he would be, and leaving my father to see for himself what he, Charlie, had known practically since birth.
It was Menorah in the end that took him, a dark-haired doctor with glasses and round features and a soft face coming out, glancing at the bloody mess in the back seat, then yelling for the orderlies to carry Charlie in, and after that telling a nurse to find a shirt for my father.
Yes it was the Jews who took him in. Of course it was the Jews. They understood what it was like to be excluded then (and sometimes even now). Some of those Jews, the ones recently moved to America from Europe with numbers tattooed on their forearms, even understood what it was like to face slaughter. Any of them who lived in Kansas City then�or Chicago or Atlanta or Boston�understood. Unfortunately there was nothing those Jewish doctors could do to save Charlie�s leg, but they did at least save his life.

That was 1957, the year the 82nd Airborne escorted nine black kids past a mob of screaming whites and into a Little Rock high school; the year the Soviets sent Sputnik into space and another wave of reactionary fear through us; the year Elvis recorded �All Shook Up� and again appeared on Ed Sullivan, Ed having already told us that this boy was okay, okay, rock and roll was okay. It was also the year of my birth. This last event was of no consequence to anyone except my mother, for her reasons, and my father, for his, but the events surrounding it do I hope place it somewhat in perspective.
Anyway, into such a world I was born.