Monday, August 31, 2009

I Finally Finished My Novel ... Now What? (or So What?)

In the summer of 2005 I began what started as a short story about a boy going to college and working at a pizza delivery store. It was based in part on my experiences as a college student and pizza guy. The story continued to grow roots and branches until I realized I had the makings of something bigger. I continued working on my "novel" off and on in the following years, periodically writing poetry when I didn't have huge chunks of time to devote to prose writing.

I didn't mention this to many people. I mean, it seemed every writer had an unfinished novel they were working on, and they never seemed to have it finished. I didn't want to be one of those writers of the "Great American (Unfinished) Novel." I told my wife about it a few times, who nodded her head and replied, "That's nice," and then dismissed it when I had trouble telling her what the story was about. Who can blame her? I might have read a chapter or two over the years at some SAWC meetings, but other than that I felt I shouldn't talk it up if I didn't have a "finished" completed novel.

This summer, four years after starting it, I can safely say that I have a finished product, tentatively titled The Slow Constellations Wheeled On. Of course, finished is a relative term, as I expect to do some tweaking or overhauling of the story after having a few close writer friends do a critical reading of it. The ending was the hardest part I found. The closer I came to the end the more difficult it seemed to draw most of the loose ends to a close. I felt like I was trying to tie the end strings of a mop head together. When I did finish the last chapter, I printed the 247-page hard copy and read from the beginning, making notes of the character's names, fixing inconsistencies between details in the story, and looking for grammar and usage mistakes. Then I revised the whole thing on the computer.

Now what?

I read an article somewhere, and conversing with a writer friend about her own novel confirmed it, that the one thing I had to have in order to make my novel marketable is a "dust-jacket" summary of what the novel is about, so when someone asks me what my book is about I can have an answer for them. The following is a rough draft of what I think a good description would be. I don't want to be too specific in giving away details, and I don't want to be too vague, but I tried to describe it in a way that people could relate to its thematic elements.

"A coming-of-age story about Randall Spivey, a boy trying to survive the college scene in a small mountain town on his own in the absence of family support, balancing school and his job as a pizza delivery person, wanting to make it on his own yet battling the despair and loneliness that both pulls him to and repels him from his troubled life at home, facing hardships that challenge him emotionally and spiritually and bring him to the edge of the abyss."

The synopsis needs work, for sure. Eventually I hope to send my novel out to some recognized contests that offer the winner a publishing contract of some sort. I think I have something worthy of being shared with others. I've heard the hardest avenue to take is to send it to an agent. However, I am prepared for a future time when I realize that I will never publish it unless I go "vanity" and publish it myself (in which case it probably won't be published) and just chalk it up to a labor of love.

I'll keep you posted.

Monday, August 10, 2009

My Ipod Shuffle List, Almost Random

Lately I've been over at Facebook and seen where people are posting the next 10 consecutive songs on their Ipod shuffle feature (as a way of sharing their musical tastes?), and thought I would try that out myself. I haven't had my Ipod for a year yet, and am still figuring out how to use it (you should have heard me cuss when I first got it). I have learned that the shuffle feature is not truly random, as it will play songs by the same artist back to back or sometimes three times in a set of 10 songs. So I find myself "fast forwarding" to the next song (do people still say that? I know it's reminiscent of cassettes, and "rewind" is even more so). Here is my list of 25 consecutively different artists from my Ipod . To be honest, I only cut 4 songs out that were repeat artists.

1. Drunken Angel -- Lucinda Williams
2. Rainy Night in Georgia -- Hem (a Brook Benton cover)
3. Temporarily Blind -- Built to Spill
4. Ten Degrees and Getting Colder -- Nanci Griffith (a Gordon Lightfoot cover)
5. West Liberty -- Glossary (the best Southern Garage Rock band no one's ever heard of)
6. Short Life of Trouble -- Carolina Chocolate Drops
7. Whistling in the Dark -- They Might Be Giants
8. High Life -- Counting Crows
9. Psycho Killer -- Talking Heads
10. Happy Birthday -- "Weird Al" Yankovic
11. You Might Think -- The Cars
12. If I Could -- Jack Johnson
13. Again & Again -- The Bird & the Bee
14. Joy of Love -- Victoria Williams
15. Godspeed -- Mortal ( a Christian Industrial Metal Band from the '90s, no kidding)
16. Escape (The Pina Colada Song)-- Rupert Holmes (I know, but it's a guilty pleasure)
17. New Slang -- The Shins
18. Whatever Way the Wind Blows -- Kelly Willis
19. Nobody Gets a Smooth Ride -- The Choir
20. Just How Lonely -- Southern Culture on the Skids
21. Pretend -- King's X (one of the most eclectic heavy metal bands in their day)
22. Oh Molly Dear -- B.F. Shelton (an oldie but a goodie)
23. Past the Mission -- Tori Amos
24. Sandy Land -- The Whites (from "Down From the Mountain" O'Brother Soundtrack)
25. Gin and Juice -- The Gourds (a Snoop Dogg cover, I'd call it the "Hick-Hop" version)

I don't consider myself a music snob, unless it's that modern top 40 corporate mess, but if you are like me you like what you like. One thing I will say about Ipods, I forsee the death of the concept album with this new techology where you purchase only the songs you want. For me, I couldn't listen to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon or The Beatles Sargeant Pepper's albums without listening to the whole thing. Each song fits with the next one and connects to the one before it in some way. It's kind of like what happened to album artwork. In a way it died with the vinyl record. Most of the time ITunes doesn't have the album artwork of CDs I transfer to my playlists, anyway. I hope, however, that there will always be those dusty music stores you can walk into and dig through record bins or pick out a use CD for 3 bucks while listening to the cashier's album pick of the hour.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

If You Can't Duct It....

I embarrassed my wife over family vacation a couple of weeks ago. We took our two kids to Myrtle Beach, and stayed at the Hampton Inn. It wasn't cheap, of course (we'd been paying on it since last year), but it was nice, let me tell you. I was a little dissappointed in the front desk's service, though.
We were fixin' to head out to the beach when the bottom of my sandle came loose and started flapping like a flip-flop every step I took. It was a K-mart special, and I had them for three years, so I wasn't surprised. The kids were tugging at my arm to hurry and get out to the sand when a thought came across my mind, "If only I had a little duct tape."

Like many folks, having a roll of duct tape handy is about as important as a Leatherman tool or a Swiss Army knife. I always keep a roll in my car, and in my desk drawer at the high school where I teach. I go through a roll of it a semester, and its mostly students who need it -- ripped notebook covers, ball caps with the plastic adjuster torn in back, you name it. I won't go into all the creative, and ludicrous, things I've done with duct tape. People have already written books on that.

I figureded about five or six wraps around the back of my sandal would last me at least until the end of the day. Come to find out then that I didn't have a single roll in the van. I remembered the little sign posted in the hotel room stating for any necessities their guests might have forgotten to pack -- toothbrush, razor, needle and thread -- to see the receptionist at the front desk. Despite my wife's eye-rolling, I was sure that if they had toothbrushes they surely would have a roll of duct tape behind the counter. "I'm sure that's something that gets asked of them all the time," I assured my wife. She took the kids around the corner to the side lobby to hide.

When I asked the guy at the front desk if he had any duct tape, or even electrical tape (trying to broaden the options) he looked at me like I'd just asked him for a kidney. I should have known better. The guy looked like some model off the cover of GQ magazine. I told him my sandal was falling apart and I just needed about an arm's length worth. "Well, we don't keep that up here," but in a professional tone said, "but I could call our maintenance man on the radio to see if he has any." He pulled out his radio. "Jerry, are you busy right now?" From the radio I heard a crackle and the sound of an electric drill in the background. "What!?" said the guy on the other end. "We have a gentleman at the front desk who is in need of...."

By that point I was embarrassed that the guy behind the counter interrupted the maintenance man from what he was doing just for duct tape, so I told him not to worry about it. "Well, what room are you in. We could send it up to you later." The thought of room service bringing a roll of duct tape on a silver platter crossed my mind, and I told him to forget it -- I was going out with my family to the beach and wouldn't be back for a few hours. I was also more embarrassed that the maintenance man was probably wondering what idiot would go on vacation and not keep a roll of duct tape under his passenger seat, so I just put up with the flip-flopping until the end of the day and then threw the things away.

"You really showed the color of your neck just now, didn't you?" was my wife's reply when I came back empty handed. She had that I-told-you-so look on her face. "This isn't the Clampett Mansion." Just to rib her a little, I replied, "Well, if we stayed at the Sea Mist or some place a little less fancy, I bet they would have had a roll of duct tape behind the counter! Or Motel 6, 'We'll leave the light on for you -- and a roll of duct tape in your bedside drawer.'" It would probably get more use than that Gideon's Bible, not to be blasphemous or anything.

Moral of the story: Buy an economy pack of duct tape and then keep a roll everywhere you might need it, even if you have to sneak it into your wife's van without her noticing.

My wife's moral of the story: Don't ask the front desk clerk at a 4-star hotel for duct tape. You might as well try asking him for a Skoal Bandit or a Slim Jim.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Poem by R.T. Smith


"I'll get it directly," she'd say, meaning
soon, meaning, when I can, meaning, not
yet, bet patient, the world don't turn upon
your every need and whim. Or "the dogs
will be back home directly, I reckon,"
"the preacher will be finished," "your daddy
will see you," "supper will be laid out"--
all "directly," which never meant the straight
line bewteen two surveyor's points or
an arrow's flight, but rather, by the curve,
the indirect, the arc of life and breath,
and she was right, and when she passed
or was passing, I could not say which,
in a patchwork quilt, the makeshift room,
the sweet hymn notes sung neighborly
across the hall, she whispered, "Learn to tell
what needs doing quick as a bluesnake
and what will take the slow way, full
of care and mulling, be fair in every
dealing with beasts and people and all
else alive, and surely, my dear, He will
come for you in His good time, the way
He comes for all of us, directly."

from The Oxford American, July/August 2003.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Collegiate Poetus (Family: Egotistae)

These aspiring writers,
gathered poets,
form like anthills,
busy workers
at political correctness,
carefully carrying granules
of dirt and scraps of metaphor.

They are everywhere,
crawling, darting
from sidewalk cracks
and coffee houses.
They congregate
on college campus malls,
can lift a hundred times
their weight in redundancy.

But be careful
how you wield that
hard, country sensibility
not to disturb their habitat,
their tiny burrows,
colonies of complacency.
Walk lightly when wearing
your thick-soled
brogans of criticism,
for open toes
bruise easily
in Birkenstocks.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Poem by Gwendolyn Brooks

The Preacher Ruminates Behind the Sermon

I think it must be lonely to be God.
Nobody loves a master. No. Despite
The bright hosannas, bright dear-Lords, and bright
Determined reverence of Sunday eyes.

Picture Jehovah striding through the hall
Of His importance, creatures running out
From servant-corners to acclaim, to shout
Appreciation of His merit's glare.

But who walks with Him? -- dares to take his arm,
To slap Him on the shoulder, tweak His ear,
Buy him a Coca-Cola or a beer,
Pooh-pooh His politics, call Him a fool?

Perhaps -- who knows? -- He tires of looking down.
Those eyes are never lifted. Never straight.
Perhaps sometimes He tires of being great
In solitude. Without a hand to hold.

from Black Voices: An Anthology of African-American Literature (1968).

Thursday, April 9, 2009

People Get Mean When Times Are Lean

Wouldn't it be great to have so much money you don't know what to do with it? Want a bigger cement pond out back? No problem. Someone cons you into buying Central Park in New York? Oops. Unfortunately, most of us can't be that carefree and spend-easy with our money as the Clampetts. We have to be a little more careful with how we use it, except I have been known to pick my teeth with a dollar bill, but only if the corners are really crisp. And, hey, you can't spend a used toothpick.

I've almost stopped going to Blockbuster Video. Before last weekend, it had been months since my wife and I rented a movie. To try to save money, we've decided to just watch the movies we already have. For our kids, we even put all their DVDs in an album so they can browse through their 50+ collection of Spongebob and Scooby Doo. But my wife just had to see Twilight, so we took the whole family to Blockbuster and spent over $25 on rentals for us and the kids. That made me kind of sore, spending that much money on DVDs that we have to give back in a couple of days. When my wife and I finally settled down to watch her movie, it froze up on us about halfway through. Of course when I turned it over to look at the underside, it was loaded with scratches. We live on the other end of town, so I wasn't about to go over there that night to get another copy. I figured I would get my money back on that rental.
The next week after work I took all the movies back and explained the problem with the Twilight DVD. They asked, "Why didn't you call us about the problem?"

I replied, "What do you mean? It was after 11 when we realized the problem."

"Well," she said, rather curtly, "we don't do refunds on scratched rentals. We only do exchanges. But I'll make an exception this time."

I felt a little indignant about it, and thought an exchange wasn't good enough, especially since I've always thought their rentals rather pricey to begin with. But I was glad that I'd be getting my $5 back. At the same time, another customer was cussing a different Blockbuster employee because he wouldn't accept his membership application. He didn't have a copy of his credit card with him, just the number, and he couldn't understand that the employee needed to see a name next to the number on a card, without seeming to accuse the guy of using a stolen number. Then the customer cussed the other guy more when he ripped the application and threw it in the trash can, claiming that someone might steal his credit card number off the unaccepted application. My complaint seemed minuscule.

Directly afterwards, I stopped for gas. When I went in to pre-pay, now standard since people began driving off without paying for their gas in record numbers, there was an old man who handed a couple of already-scratched $10 tickets to the cashier behind the counter. The cashier gave the man a puzzled look and told him that they weren't winners. "What do you mean, no winner?" The man complained. I deducted that the guy might be farsighted. "Fine. Just give me a couple more of the number 47s," he said, handing the cashier a 20. The cashier gave him a dirty look. "And no need to get an attitude about it," said the man. "Y'all are the ones making your money off of these."

I know times are hard for everyone (except for maybe coal companies and liquor stores). I see more and more people lose their tempers or show their rear ends over money, more so than usual. I was raised to always be tight-fisted about money anyway, so I've been guilty of raising a fuss or two at restaurants and return counters when I don't think I'm getting my money's worth, or going back to the grocery store when I've had a 3-dollar item double scanned by mistake. I've also seen a rise in con-artist scams, honest but naive people thinking they can get something for next to nothing from these charlatans. I think it was Mark Twain that said, "The lack of money is the root of all evil."

I don't know if I'm going to loosen my grip anytime soon, but after this week I might think about being a little more considerate when it comes to my money disputes after seeing how other folks have been reacting. Maybe I should take some advice from the writer and cynic Ambrose Bierce and his book The Devil's Dictionary in this definition, "Money -- A blessing that is of no advantage to us excepting when we part with it." In truth, though, I favor one of Jed Clampett's quotes more, "If money were skunk oil a hound dog couldn't smell me."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Mountains Mourn Over Renowned Moonshiner's Death

The distinguished and sometimes notorious moonshiner Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton died a week ago today in Cocke County, Tennessee, at age 61. Like many descendants of Scotch-Irish settlers, he followed in the tradition of making homemade liquor, building a reputation as being one of the south's top makers of white lightning. He also achieved a cult-hero-outlaw status through various documentaries on the moonshine tradition and through an autobiography entitled Me and My Likker.

But unlike the romantic notions of moonshining as a hardscrabble, yet noble way of survival in the Appalachians, and part of our cultural heritage, it unfortunately is still illegal (Uncle Sam wants his taxes). Already on probation for a July 2007 state charge triggered by a still explosion, and having prior convictions for moonshining and felony assault with a deadly weapon, a raid on Sutton's property last year turned up three 1,000-gallon stills, more than 800 gallons of moonshine, ingredients to make sour mash, and of course guns. Most of the moonshine he kept in a shed and a junk school bus on his property.

This time the sentencing, an 18-month term in federal prison followed by three years on supervised release, was too much for him. His wife found him in his beloved Ford Fairlane parked out in his barn, engine running, apparently dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. No one really knows why, but perhaps he thought prison would be the death of him, and decided to leave this world on his own terms.

This blog post is by no means a proper eulogy for the man whom thousands knew as a gentle soul. Others I'm sure pay a greater tribute and are much more vocal and outraged by his death. I just wanted to light my candle for him as well. To many he was the romantic notion of the moonshiner, like Uncle Jesse on The Dukes of Hazzard, "never meaning no harm," "making his way the only way he knows how." It is disheartening to me, however, that something couldn't have been done to prevent the loss of such an iconic figure. He will be sorely missed by many, and hopefully never forgotton.

source: J.J. Stambaugh, "Moonshiner 'Popcorn' Sutton May Have Committed Suicide, in, March 16, 2009.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

In Imitation of Emily Dickinson -- More Parodies

It is that time again when I begin my poetry unit with my students. To help them overcome their fear or disdain in reading poetry, I have them start by reading Emily Dickinson, perhaps not someone's first choice. We discuss her life as a recluse and her unique style of rhythm, capitalization, and punctuation. Then I have them pick one of her poems to do an imitation/parody. When I explain that a parody is like a "Weird Al" Yankovic song -- in a sense you are imitating the rhythm and rhyme of the poem but coming up with your own words -- they warmed up to the activity. Here are just a few examples of my students' work:

Much Sadness is divinest pain --
To an Emo eye --
Much Pain -- the starkest of Darkness --
'Tis not the Majority --
In this, as all will never prevail --
Ascent to darkness -- and you will be sane --
Demure -- you're straightaway to a painful pathway --
And handled with a pitiful sadness chain.

----- by Thoua Chue and Wa Xiong

Tell a lie, but tell it good.
Success is in successful lies,
not bright for our firm delight.
A truth lies superb surprise,
as thunder to the children's nightmare
with dreams of lies.
The lie must blind gradually
or every man be able to see.

----- by Matt Timmons and Elizabeth Burleson

This is our letter to the class.
We never heard a worse song
than Mr. Hampton's sing-a-long.
For this, we hopefully won't get bashed.

Every week he hands out tests
in his gray little sweater vest.
He tried to sing us Gilligan's Island.
It's pretty sad because we think
he tried his best.

----- by Megan Morehead, Luis Diego, and Alex Wells

I included this last poem to show I'm not above a good-humored joke at my expense. As an illustration of how Emily Dickinson used almost exactly the same tight rhythm and meter in her poetry, I demonstrated how you could almost take any poem of hers and sing it to either the tune of Gilligan's Island or The Yellow Rose of Texas. Try it sometime for yourself. It works!

Monday, March 16, 2009

SAWC Reading in Portsmouth, Ohio

The Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (SAWC) will be hosting a reading on March 28th at Ye Olde Lantern, located at 601 Second Street in Portsmouth, Ohio.

The reading takes place during the Appalachian Studies Association (ASA) conference weekend at Shawnee State University. Ye Olde Lantern is the local place for poetry readings, and is located a short walk from the campus center.

The reading will start at 7pm and be a combination of poetry/prose and music. Though I'm not sure of the lineup yet, I anticipate a large group to read and play, seeing that many people will be there already for the ASA conference, and that we have the place reserved until 11pm. I myself plan to attend, and am looking forward to not just reading some poetry but seeing the sights along the Ohio River town. I might even drive a little further north and visit the serpent mound outside of Peebles. Houston (my wife) gave me the "all-clear" to launch on this adventure, provided I change all poop diapers and wash the dishes between now and then!

Update Tues. March 24th -- The SAWC lineup for Ye Olde Lantern is as follows, and in no particular order whatsoever:

Hilda Downer
Don Boklage
Mike Henson
Dana Wildsmith
Sherry Stanforth
Jim Webb
Frankie Finley
Pauletta Hansel
Eddy Pendarvis
and me, of course!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Bee Swarm

The air was quiet in the back porch sun,
save for what I though was a breeze
drifting down from the treetops where I sat.
So soft at first, I didn’t notice that
the whisper was not whistling branches,
not the rasp of twig on limb,
but a droning buzz drawing closer.
Something zipped past my ear,
catching my lazy eyes in the direction
of an approaching swarm of honey bees.
I bolted from the concrete steps,
spun and wove around like a drunken boxer,
swatting the air hastily as if stung.

This roiling fist of wings, enveloping,
swirled instead around a center,
an atomic nucleus, as the queen
herded her hive to a larger nest.
Around the eaves of my house they clung,
rolled in the air like cloud vapors, rose
faster than I could run around to
the front yard to watch them continue,
down the driveway, across the road,
neighbors wondering what I was chasing.
Barefoot and panting for breath, I watched
the glistening coil disappear into the woods.
I longed to sprout cellophane wings,
to follow her secret pheromone trail
where a hollow tree or rock crevice
waited for her and her horde.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Brad Pitt to play a Nazi-Scalping Hillbilly in New Tarantino Film

Quentin Tarantino is known for exploring the B-movie genre, movies he says he enjoyed watching as a kid. For Kill Bill, it was the Japanese Samurai movies. In Grindhouse, a double feature including the two films Planet Terror and Death Proof, he explored the 70's exploitation film. Coming out August 21, 2009, Brad Pitt will be playing the part of Aldo Raine, who Tarantino describes as, "not your Warner Bros. 1950s WWII hero, this is a hillbilly straight from the mountains of Tennessee," in a new Tarantino movie called Inglourious Basterds. The story takes place in WWII France, where Brad Pitt's character leads a rogue band of men who torture and wreak havoc on all Germans, filling a mandated quota of 100 Nazi scalps per man.

Of course, I am always skeptical of films that pander to the crazed, violent hillbilly stereotypes. It's a typical villain format whenever a script writer or producer wants to fill the part of an evil, sadistic, demented, and somewhat ignorant antagonist. Just give him a hick accent and a greasy ball cap to wear and, voila, you got your bad guy. There are your heavy-handed hillbilly villains like in the movie Deliverance or more modern films like The Hills Have Eyes and Wrong Turn, but then there are the more subtle hillbilly villains. For instance, notice how Randall Flagg in the miniseries of Steven King's The Stand has a Travis-Tritt-style mullet and blue-jean jacket. Or how about Zorg in the Sci-Fi movie 5th Element, who has this otherwise ambiguous Southern hick accent. Heck, even Billy Bob Thornton, who has been called the Hillbilly Orson Welles (in a respectable sense), plays a demented mechanic in the movie U-Turn.

Though this isn't the first time that Tarantino dipped into the Southern/Hillbilly inkwell, from my recollection this is the first time a hillbilly character has taken center stage. From the
Quentin Tarantino Archives, Aldo Raine's opening monologue is posted, "… I sure as hell, didn't come down from the goddamn Smoky Mountains, cross five thousand miles of water, fight my way through half Sicily, and then jump out of a fuckin' air-o-plane, to teach the Nazi’s lessons in humanity.” Knowing what a method actor Brad Pitt is, I'm at least interested in seeing how he pulls off this Sergeant York-turned-sadist character, and how believable vs. laughable this character is. You can watch the movie trailer for Inglourious Basterds and draw your own conclusions. Perhaps Tarantino is exploring the "hixploitation" genre in this film.

If you are cheap like me, though, you'll wait until it comes out on DVD and rent it.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Poem by Michael Chitwood

On Being Asked to Pray for a Van

My evangelical brethren have let me know,
via the quarterly fundraising letter,
that they can't get the gospel around
because their van has given up the ghost.
God in the machine, help them.
I lift up their carburetor and their transaxle.
Bless them with meshed gears and a greased cam shaft.
Free their lifters.
Deliver their differential
and anoint their valves and their pistons.
Unblock their engine block
and give them deep treaded tires.
Their brakes cry out to You. Hear them, O Lord.
Drive out the demons from their steering column
and come in to the transmission
that they may know the peace of passing.
Minister even unto the turn indicator.
Creator Spirit, Holy Maker of the Universe,
give them gas.

-- from Spill (Tupelo Press 2007)

Monday, February 9, 2009

A poem by Yusef Komunyakaa


I won't look at her.
My body's been one
Solid motion from sunrise,
Leaning into the lawnmower's
Roar through pine needles
& crabgrass. Tiger-colored
Bumblebees nudge pale blossoms
Till they sway like silent bells
Calling. But I won't look.
Her husband's outside Oxford,
Mississippi, bidding on miles
of timber. I wonder if he's buying
Faulkner's ghost, if he might run
Into Colonel Sartoris
Along some dusty road.
Their teenage daughter & son sped off
An hour ago in a red Corvette
For the tennis courts,
& the cook, Roberta,
Only works a half day
Saturdays. This antebellum house
Looms behind oak & pine
Like a secret, as quail
Flash through branches.
I won't look at her. Nude
On a hammock among elephant ears
& ferns, a pitcher of lemonade
Sweating like our skin.
Afternoon burns on the pool
Till everything's blue,
Till I hear Johnny Mathis
Beside her like a whisper.
I work all the quick hooks
Of light, the same unbroken
Rhythm my father taught me
Years ago: Always give
A man a good day's labor.
I won't look. The engine
Pulls me like a dare.
Scent of honeysuckle
Sings black sap through mystery,
Taboo, law, creed, what kills
A fire that is its own heart
Burning open the mouth.
But I won't look
At the insinuation of buds
Tipped with cinnabar.
I'm here, as if I never left,
Stopped in this garden,
Drawn to some Lotus-eater. Pollen
Explodes, but I only smell
Gasoline & oil on my hands,
& can't say why there's this bed
Of crushed narcissus
As if gods wrestled here.

--from Neon Vernacular (University Press of New England, 1993)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Stock Car Racing and The Last American Hero: An Interivew with Bob Cole

The following is a part of an interview I gave 12 years ago for an Appalachian film class I was taking at the time at ASU in Boone. My professor, J.W. Williamson, suggested I interview a man by the name of Bob Cole, who lived in Todd, just outside of Boone. I met him in the Hardee’s dining room at New Market Center, and we talked for about an hour about his knowledge and experience in stock car racing and film. He currently runs a large beekeeping operation, and travels around the world to teach how to cultivate bees. He also had a storied past that I felt, as an undergraduate, I only scratched the surface. He mentioned that he worked as an actor, consultant, or stunt driver on 11 different movie and television films, most notably Dukes of Hazzard, Where the Lilies Bloom, and the main topic of our conversation a film entitled The Last American Hero, starring Jeff Bridges. The movie was based on a Tom Wolfe article in Esquire magazine called "The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson, Yes!" in 1965.

I thought for years after transcribing the article to post parts of it online for the benefit of anyone interested, and only now have got around to it. I felt inspired to go back to look at this interview by a student I had last semester, whose grandfather turned out to be non other than Bob Cole. I’m sure she thought I was crazy when I very avidly said, “Really!! I know him! I interviewed him in college.”

Interview with Bob Cole

DH: In The Last American Hero you played the part of Mr. Collins, is that right?

BC: Marshall Collins. He was a Federal Marshall who was in charge of the ATF, alcohol, tobacco, and firearms people. It was a federal occupation instead of a county or a State. It’s like your Federal Marshals are today.

DH: How did you get that part for the movie?

BC: Well, I had been in an earlier film in this area called Where the Lilies Bloom.

DH: What were some of the more memorable experiences about The Last American Hero in particular and was it any different than some of the other movies you played a part in?

BC: Basically the thing that was the most memorable in my particular case was the directors asking me to find locations and people and set up situations where they could do their filming with them. If you find a good location and find the right props and people to go with it and you will find out that it works along pretty well. That to me was the challenge of the whole thing over the rest of it was to find those things that would fit those things the director would work with. They want three locations for a shot. They go to each one of the three and check them out, and the one that they like is the one they use for the shot. Some are better than others. Some have better lighting, some have better scenic values, some have better areas that you can magnify what you are doing and others you want to not have anything detracting from the focus of the shot. It depends on what they wanted and what they are working with.

DH: The scenes that you played a role in, where were they filmed at?

BC: They were filmed out in the Crowder’s Mountain area, which was outside of Gastonia. We had found that they needed the mountain top thing to coincide with how Wilkes County sort of lies out over there. Remember this is Junior Johnson’s area and the area that he lived in is just east of North Wilkesboro. So we tried to find something that looked fairly similar to that. Crowder’s Mountain was the closest. They didn’t want to stay up in this area [of Wilkes/Watauga Counties] to shoot because it was too far from an airport. See, your “rushes”, your filming of each day is sent to Hollywood for processing, so you have to have a ready availability of transportation by air to get them there. And then they are back the next day. They go out in the afternoon, they are processed that night and the next day they arrive back. What you are doing is the scenes you shoot today you review the next night so that anything needs to be corrected or be re-shot you can do it while everything is fresh and still there and is available.

DH: So what they filmed for the day they sent all the way back to Hollywood to process it out and then sent it back to the locations where the filming was being done.

BC: We called those the “dailies”. In other words, you always go through your daily shooting on the day after in the afternoon after you had your dinner. In that way the director and the assistant director can script people and all of this can have a look-see at it. Sometimes they allow the actors and other people to sit in on it and I being a director’s assistant, a director’s and producer’s assistant. I was able to work with that to see just what they needed further. If they needed something then I had to sort of round it up and get it worked out. We didn’t have to shoot too much over but occasionally there would be things they wanted a little better, better visibility, maybe. The lines could, of course, be dubbed in later. You have to have as good a shot that first round as you could possibly get.

DH: You had mentioned you were a stunt man, and that kind of makes sense because that one scene in the movie where Junior Jackson zooms by in his Mustang and you are forced off the road down into a ditch.

BC: Tumbled off into a creek and it was thirty-four degrees when I did that scene. It was pretty cold, and we did it twice.

DH: So Junior Johnson was a consultant and technical advisor for the movie. You knew him from racing, but did you work with him much as far as the movie was concerned?

BC: Well, I would ask him on things when we were doing racing shots. I’d say “Junior, do you think there is any way to improve it?” He would say,“Well, you could have brought so-and-so up a little closer and made things a little more believable.” What we were after was intense believability. When you don’t have the believable characteristics in any shot that you make you are setting up comedy. Comedy is not what you are shooting. You are shooting a believable sequence in people’s lives and how they react and work with them and so forth and so on. Jeff Bridges was nice to work with. He was a great young man. We had a lot of fun. Jeff Bridges was very happy when they would let him drive the Mustang, which we didn’t do a whole lot because of the fact that we only had three of them and we didn’t want to waste one. We did a lot of voice coaching for the actors and actresses who were from Hollywood, especially Geraldine Fitzgerald who is a very famous Irish actress and she had a very decided Irish accent. But we broadened it out a little bit and she worked with that. She and I would just go off and take her dialog, her script for the day, and just go through it and go through it and go through it until she had a pretty sustainable country sounding accent.
Junior is a very likable person, and he came up the hard way and he spent some time in jail because of what he did. His family and his family’s family have been involved in some type of moonshine or liquor making in the Wilkes county area. Of course, that was the biggest industry in Wilkes County and they needed to have it delivered so certain people with high powered cars would drop out on the road in the evening and go to Richmond or Roanoke or Raleigh, clear down to Charleston, South Carolina, and carry whiskey that far. And that was prior to plastic jugs. Everything was in glass, glass or in tanks. Some of the bigger runs had special tanks that were curvatured to the body of the car and put into the boot and everything. In fact, if you had a spare tire and had to go into the back seat…

DH: You were in trouble, then I guess.

BC: Uh huh. Overload springs, the whole smear.

DH: I believe they put extra springs so when they were loaded down it would look normal and it wouldn’t look like they were riding low. There was a book I was reading called Dirt Tracks to Glory about stock car racing. It had a lot of different interviews. There was one guy, Banjo Matthews…

BC: He was a race car builder from over in Asheville. He just passed away this past year, Banjo Matthews. He lived over in the Asheville area and he did a lot of driving setting up at Weaverville at the little race track they have there. Banjo was a good car driver and a good builder. He built some of the finest racing chassis that has ever been on a dirt track. And he did a real good job for paved tracks as well, but dirt tracks he could build a chassis that was absolutely safe where you wanted it you put it there and it stayed there. He was a good builder, run a big automobile parts house in west Asheville.

DH: Lamont Johnson, he was the director and you were the assistant director to him?

BC: I was an assistant to the director and to the producer as well, who was John Rogers. We worked together in finding all the locations and the places we wanted to shoot and the race tracks we wanted to use. See, Ned Jarrett, who at the time we did the shooting was the entrepreneur and the manager of the Hickory race track. He was an old friend from many years and we were able to use his facility in some of the earlier filming that was done. And then the track at Martinsville, Virginia and so forth. We were going to do some work in Charlotte or perhaps at Daytona, but the money wasn’t there and so we had to curtail a little bit of the more grandiose plans for the movie. This was a Twentieth Century Fox film.

DH: One thing I noticed about the movie was it was more or less a biography, but they changed some things. For one thing they changed his name to Junior Jackson in the movie…

BC: This had to be done because of some family commitments that he had made that they wouldn’t use the Johnson name. That was part of the deal with Twentieth Century Fox, not to use the Johnson name.

DH: Also, I guess this maybe wasn’t written into the plot in order to make this a more exciting movie, but Flossie who was his high school sweetheart…

BC: Who was his wife, but are now divorced and he’s remarried.

DH: Right. But was that just Hollywood wanting to put in the track groupie…?

BC: Flossie came later in his racing career, and this was something that occurred after his first year or two in racing. She was his high school sweetheart, but they wasn’t that marriage inclined until after he rubbed some dollars and got more so on his feet. And he was also trying to pay fines against the family because of the bootlegging activity, you see. He had a world of things to pay off. That’s one of the reasons why he did go into racing because there was a legal way of earning money without going around running hooch to all these different places that were buying from him.

DH: In the movie, the scene where you blow up the still, is that kind of the same time when they confiscate the seven thousand one hundred gallons of moonshine in actuality from his father Glen. Does that coincide…

BC: This is primarily of the same and estimate that this occurred, although many years later. It was one of the largest seizures in Wilkes County. They used every subterfuge in order to conceal their operations and to cover them up and mask about so that the Feds, the ATF people did not come upon them and blow them up and wreck their still equipment and everything.

DH: I was reading somewhere that when stock car racing was really starting to get popular some of the race tracks were trying to make laws to where if you have ever been arrested you couldn’t race, are you familiar with that?

BC: This was a thought at one time which some of what we call the do-gooders. The do-gooders out vote a lot of people in some things, but not in this sport. A lot of people in the racing game were, of course, well trained in that they had been in high-speed chases and things of this nature due to moonshine running. They knew roads, knew how to set up cars, knew how to drive in particular circumstances, and they had a lot of guts.

DH: The movie The Last American Hero for some reason didn’t do too well in the box office and they ended up taking it back and editing it and then re-naming it Hard Driver?

BC: There is one thing you have to say about The Last American Hero. It continues to play on television. HBO and some of the other outfits as well as the, even the Family Channel. They run the film every so often. Action, on the satellite channels, they run it about every three to five weeks. WGN in Chicago runs it every six weeks.

DH: Yeah, I didn’t know it still got that much air time on television.

BC: You know how I know? Residual checks.

DH: You still get commission, then.

BC: We were promised a piece of the action for the work we did in addition to our regular salaries.

DH: If you don’t mind me asking, about how much do you get every time they show the movie on T.V?

BC: Ninety dollars. And when you think of all the people involved who had this part in their contract.
Incidentally, this Last American Hero group was one of the better crews that I worked with. When they first came to this area to shoot they did not have certain people with them that would be part of what we called the crew. Like construction coordinator, painter, various prop men and the wardrobe people and all that. They asked me for suggestions. I went right back into several of them I had to work with and pull people out there I thought were exemplary in the way they did their thing and the degree of completion in all of the projects they worked with.

DH: You said you knew Junior Johnson. How did you get to know him?

BC: Through racing. If you’re in racing sooner or later whatever you are doing and what you are involved in you rub elbows with a lot of people and you get to meet people at the tracks. I know Kale Yarborough and a whole flock of others, the older drivers. Some of the newer people I don’t know at all because I have not been actively engaged in it or going to races or being in the racing circle for a long time. This film just happened to be something that was sort of tailor-made for what little knowledge I had about it and how I could help them set their things up and we were able to get thirty to thirty-five of the real good NASCAR drivers to drive in a lot of the sequences. See, we interplayed what you saw on the screen was actual races which were going on at that time. Then you take the sequences of the actual races and you tailor them in to fit your script so that things work out and that you get a legible continuation of the story line that you are working with and so forth.

DH: There were a lot of old drivers that when they started to race on these big super speedways were afraid to race on it, weren’t they? Because of the speeds were getting so high that…

BC: Well, you age out and your reaction time gets slower and you have to be well aware of that. For instance, it takes an almost instant recognition of the situation you’re in at a hundred and ninety-five miles and hour versus ninety-five miles an hour. It has to be that quick. And actually when you are driving at the super speedway speeds you have to be driving from the third to one half of the track in front of you. That’s why you have spotters up on the roof who were talking to you on the radio telling you what’s happening in front of you before you ever get to it. But sometimes it happens right in front of you and he (the spotter) never gets a chance to open his mouth before you are into something. One thing you never do. You never drive into the smoke because you don’t know what’s in there. You learn that a long time ago, even if you have to tag and hug the wall to break your speed down.

DH: Because you don’t know what’s on the other side.

BC: You don’t know what’s in the smoke there. If you have a car crossways in the track you got a hundredth of a second to recognize it. If you are doing a hundred and fifty, a hundred ninety miles an hour you can’t believe what a stop that is. I’ve tagged the Darlington wall at a hundred sixty-five miles an hour. That’s where you get your Darlington stripes on the outside of your car.
DH: I hear you did some work in television as well.

BC: I have been in a number of different things, mostly a lot of the Dukes of Hazard episodes. We did a lot of the driving in that.

DH: As a stunt driver?

BC: The General Lee, yeah, we drove those. That big ol’ Dodge, we wrecked about nine of them.

DH: There’s one thing about the Dukes of Hazard, show that always amazes me. No matter how many times that Dodge Charger gets into a crash-up it gets into it always pulls away without a scratch.

BC: Well, you have three vehicles. One that you are shooting with, one they are fixing and they hope to fix. But you always keep three on hand of anything that you are working with that has to be in scenes. When the Director wants something in a scene he wants it. It can’t be in the shop. You got to have one ready to go. They got to mirror one another, be absolutely the same paint job, same scratches, same dents, same dirt. Everything’s got to be just so.