|By Jack Cawthon|
On my last trip to Big Puf I was astounded by something I learned. I am often astounded by Big Puf, but as they say, it goes with the territory.
As I was rambling around the fringes, where one must wander and wonder if visiting this unique locale, I startled Burvil who was engaged in an activity that for a moment caused us both acute embarrassment. No, not that! However, he was reading a BOOK! And not just any book. It was a book of poetry! And not just any poetry, but the writings of Emily Dickinson (not to be confused with Angie, the actress, who once occupied my thoughts as I have never been much for poetry}.
Here was Burvil, by my own observations, a youth whose deepest reading I had observed was on the back of cereal boxes and bumper stickers and then always with his lips moving, reading a book of poetry. Oh, the humanities!
Burvil, who spoke in the vernacular of the Tri-Holler region and whose academic progress resembled our current quest in Iraq, literate enough to read poetry!
Had the world turned upside down? He was aware of my consternation, and although highly embarrassed as shown by the redness of face and the sweaty brow, the latter stemming perhaps from the Dickinson poems, he hesitatingly began an explanation.
As Burvil’s story went, he could hardly become a lover of literature and still maintain his position in the neighborhood as a good ole boy. Everyone accepted Arley Cleeter as strange. He burned books, although there were rumors that in the dark of the night by the light of the roaring fire, heavens!, he read them until the fire dimmed and he was forced to throw more books into the stove.
But Arley was from Pennsylvania and that was accepted as strangeness. Most small towns will tolerate on official town drunk, but the quota is not that open for those suspected of reading books. Burvil was doomed if the light of day shone into his closet.
And Burvil had another much deeper problem. He hoped to make the school’s basketball team, and he had seen what had happened to a kid who had become too literary, if only in name.
He was a fat kid named Melville, Burvill related, who Coach Buzz Wolverine had immediately dubbed “Moby Dick.” The kids had in their dirty little minds thought this hilarious until they found the nickname came from a story about a great white whale, which they referred to as a “great big white feesh.”
From that time on the kids joined in with the coach, calling unfortunate Melville “the Whale” and “Blubber.” Poor Melville became the coach’s clown. He was awarded a castoff jersey which came to his knees and which make him look grotesque, and when the team was far ahead and there was nothing to lose, he was called from the third string bench and sent into the game, which caused the crowd to roar in laughter as he floundered back and forth on the court. As might be expected, the coach and the team were rolling on the floor.
And a good time was had by all, except Melville, Burvil continued. That is, until one fateful day Melville lumbered into school dressed in fatigues, his belly extended more than usual. He burst into Coach Wolverine’s social hygiene class (coaches are often assigned less than basic courses in order to save their vigor for the big game) and announced that he had a bomb under his jacket.
Coach Buzz who had faced the toughest team opponents with only steely eyes and a chaw of tobacco, turned as white as an Alabama Klan meeting, and began to blubber incoherently. This was Melville’s great moment, his chance to make the winning point and become the school hero, or so I’m sure his troubled thinking went, as Burvil related his story.
As luck would have it, at that moment Miss Closbrow, the new young English teacher wandered by the open door and immediately with the quit wit possessed by such teachers, sensed the disaster about the occur. She knew that lives depended on her quick and decided action.
“Melville,” she cooed, with just the right intonation and projection learned from a strict grammarian teacher of the old school, “Captain Ahab was drowned in the deep by his pursuit of an evil symbol. Is it worth your life ahead of you to even the score by the symbol of a losing coach?” And here, Burvil said, Coach Buzz recovered from his fright to that of anger, as being declared a losing coach was worse than death itself.
Melville, who had learned the story of his namesake from this comely tutor of the classics, began to sob. With a rush the coach and the students pinned him to the wall, as Coach Wolverine hissed “sissy.” “Only sissies cry,” the students chanted, as Melville was dragged from the room.
And here Burvil paused in his story and he took on a pensive look. What happened to Melville?, I implored. “They sent him away,” was his choked back answer. I could only assume to a far, far better place.
Burvil gazed at me with a pleading look. I assured him that his secret was safe with me. I wished him luck on the team tryouts. He smiled as he said he thought he had it made as he had told some of the funniest stories about “the Whale” and which the coach and other kids had found hilarious.
As I started to leave, he hesitatingly pulled a note pad from under the book he had been reading and asked me to read “his pome.” “How do I love thee?” he had written, “let me count the ways. 1-2-2-4-5-6-7.” I told him it had promise but needed more work on format.