Down in the Hole

Donny came by in the afternoon. We were in the seventh grade and it was one of those days when so little had gone on that it felt like two. As I often had since I was 8, I found the solution to my boredom in a wooded area that ran behind the houses on the street my house faced.

The hollow, as it was generally called, was a little streak of wilderness running through my hometown. Hickman overlooked the Mississippi River, and the work of water, in one way or another, had put the town together. From my house, I could walk to the top of the little hill and see the river or head the other way behind our house to a pathway just a few steps away that led to the hollow.

My parents worried that the hollow might be dangerous for a child and cautioned me about it from the start. To me, the hollow was almost an extension of our backyard, but at the same time a wild place.  I had played my childhood games of war and cowboys there on its edge. As I grew older, I camped out in the hollow going deeper into its moss and vines each year.

The only woods I had known were near my grandparents’ home. My mother’s family lived deep in the woods on a dirt road near the Tennessee River outside Scotts Hill, Tennessee.  The woods were dense with trees back then, surrounding the few open spaces people had carved out for farming, but there was far more land that had not been cleared than farmland. “Son,” my grandma would say to me, “you wander off in them woods and the Gypsies will get you and take you away with them for sure.” I had no idea who Gypsies were, what they would be doing in her woods or that the warning was a European folk tale that the settlers had brought to this country.  Later in life, I knew a former federal agent who had worked around Scotts Hill hunting moonshiners.  He said that there were stills you didn’t want to stumble over in those woods and laughed when he heard my Grandma’s tale of Gypsies.

My parents never were very specific about their warnings about the hollow. “You have no idea who else might be down there” is about all they would say. Still, the hollow was also a social boundary and there were areas on the other side that housed people we didn’t know. Some of the residents were stable and had lived there for years but there was also a more transient element who came and went.

Because over time I rarely had seen anyone down there, I had gone deeper and deeper into the ravine, moving up and down it freely if not climbing the other side. When I had started camping out, I had moved from my backyard to the Hollow and then worked my way down to my favorite place where the remains of a metal walking bridge that had once connected the two sides remained. The bridge’s walkway, once made of wood, had rotted away, but the bridge itself had the aura of another time. The other side of the hollow was thick with kudzu, planted no doubt to stop erosion, but for me adding to the mystery of the place. For reasons, I couldn’t say, that old bridge was one of my favorite places in town. It had the power of enchantment and just being near it transported me somewhere I had never been.  Donny and I were heading to the old bridge that day in 1959 when the meaning of the hollow would change forever.

As we moved down the hollow, a group of boys approached us from the other side. We only knew one of them, Carl, a boy from our class. Although the other boys were taller and seemed older, ninth graders from another town I suspected, Carl was the ring leader. They all had B-B guns and were looking for something to shoot. Having found nothing else, they decided we would do well enough. I was an overweight soft kid and my friend was skinny and uncoordinated. They could have looked awhile and not found easier marks.

Carl and I had never had any trouble, but his face was already settling into an angry sneer of resentment at what the world hadn’t given him. To him, I was the boy from across the hollow who lived in a brick house, had all the breaks, but wasn’t smart enough to toughen up. At least that’s how I figure it now. They encircled us and shot some BBs at the ground near where we stood.  Not enough satisfaction in that. “Take off your clothes or we will shoot you.” Feeling trapped, we complied. They had already humiliated us, and I hoped that would be the end of it. But it wasn’t. They all fired shots at our legs from a close range. The BBs stung and our pain was their pleasure. Standing naked in the woods, I was less worried about the pain in my legs than what might come next. I am not sure I knew the word “rape” but I knew I could be violated. “Cornholing” was what we called it. But they were bored with their game, and they let us go when I told them I was expected at home.

I would have kept this secret, and did with my friends, but I told my parents because because I was in so much trouble for making us late for dinner. My father called the other boy’s father and told him he would call the police if anything like that ever happened again.  It was never spoken of in our house after that day. Carl and I never spoke to each other again that year or the next. Still, the memory lingered and made the world more complicated. I had been a fearful kid of things both real and imagined, but that day in the hollow brought a new kind of fear. There might not be ghosts under my bed, but there were people to be feared in ways I had never imagined.

My parents worried about the red spots on my legs. Those spots just showed me I could stand pain. What I could not bear was the humiliation of standing naked and knowing I could be raped if they chose and there was little I could have done about it. It was the humiliation of a rape that did not happen but could have that I have carried 60 years. I remember it more clearly than any birthday, Christmas, or academic honor. It is a rock in my pocket to remind me that no matter how people appear, you never know what will happen next.

Don’t pay heed to temptation
For his hands are so cold
You gotta help me keep the devil
Way down in the hole

Tom Waits, “Down in the Hole”

(Donny and Carl are fictional names. I don’t know what became of the real people to which they refer. My purpose here was not to out anyone. It was to capture the childhood fear of being bullied and how it follows you through life. For the first time, I was stumped for a song. My friend Mark Neumann came through with the Waits tune, which was perfect.)


In Dreams

One of my favorite writers, Fred Exley, asks of dreams: “What good are dreams, really, if they come true?”  I have carried this quote of the hometown writer of one of my many hometowns with me through the years. It is an enduring conundrum, my own answer wavering somewhere between Freud (“We are all murderers in our dreams.”) and Waits (“You are innocent when you dream.”). All that I remain certain of is that some of the time all we can do is dream.

My first love came to me in a dream. She was too old for me, 15 or 16. I was only 11. She had blonde, curly hair, chewed a lot of gum and only danced with girls. She lived a thousand miles away, and I would never meet her in the flesh. Still, five days a week in the late afternoon, I was there waiting, hoping to get a glimpse of her on American Bandstand.

I didn’t know her name, but she was she was a regular, though not one of the big teen personalities. She was often only visible in the corner of the picture.  I don’t remember why I first noticed her or how my fascination evolved. Still, it was far from casual. I saw her sometimes in my nocturnal dreams, and even when I was awake, I saw her in a dreamy way.

I was a little fat boy with a bad case of eczema on my arms who had been so scared of his fifth grade teacher that he refused to go school, once for a whole six-week term. When I fell for my dream girl, I was in the sixth grade, and my life was some better. Still, I wasn’t ready for a real girl yet. A year or so later, I held hands with a girl named Jeanie at the movies, mostly because she took my hand. The next Saturday we kissed because she put her arm around me and kissed me. This was all OK, but it didn’t make my heart flutter. I was a boy made for dreams.

Despite the magic I felt, my meetings with my Bandstand sweetheart didn’t go like clockwork. Reception for the local ABC affiliate in Harrisburg, Illinois was not predictable at my house. That meant I couldn’t count on seeing her even if she were there. To be certain of reception, I had to walk around the top of the bluff and and up the hill toward the school to Jim Powers’ house where the Harrisburg reception was always sharp and clear. I watched many a Bandstand there. After I had a sweetheart, though, it felt less delicious to be watching her in front of Jim. So mostly, I had to suffer the pangs of living with a sweetheart who was sometimes absent and, often fuzzy, all alone at home.

It was a small price to pay. I had found someone to receive all of those bubbling new feelings I was starting to have. She was wonderful. She never embarrassed or challenged me or asked me questions I couldn’t answer. All she had to do was chew her gum, dance, and soak up all of that love I was sending her. Surely, it must be getting there. The boys her age were too dimwitted to dance with her. Maybe a kid like me would have a chance.

Since I didn’t really know how to dance, it was hard for me to imagine us dancing fast to “At the Hop.” If we slow danced to something like “Tears on My Pillow,” it would be far too obvious that I was a bit short for her. If we did something like “The Stroll,” everyone would be watching when it came our turn to stroll down the lane and see that I was not the best dancer and maybe didn’t deserve her. At last, I settled on the idea of a cha-cha to a song like the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to do is Dream.” I didn’t think this up on my own. I had seen couples cha-cha to this tune and knew it was possible. I could somehow imagine us in this rhythmic back and forth motion, a turn perhaps, and then back and forth again. Held steady by her eyes, I would magically discover I knew the footwork. I never thought about what came next. To me the dance was the whole she-bang, all that I wished for, and because it was the cha-cha, I didn’t even have to hold her in my arms.

The touch of melancholy in the song went right over my head. “Dreamin my life away” seemed the best of alternatives to me. The Everlys’ sweet harmonies tamed that blue note anyway and made our cha-cha jubilant:

When I want you in my arms,

When I want you and all your charms

Whenever I want you,

All I have to do is dream,

Dream, dream, dream



As I aged, I tried not to dream of things that could never come true, but set my mind on what seemed to be real possibilities. I had friends who chased the counterculture to a commune in Arkansas, but I wouldn’t let my mind, much less my body, go there. That’s how I ended up being a professor, which perhaps was, at its best, a dream. All that talk about the Ivory Tower to the contrary, the university gave me a lot but it took away as much as it gave. The rite of passage was as difficult to cross as that bridge that separated Brooklyn from New York City in “Saturday Night Fever.” After a time, I lost track of all I was having to discard to make the deal work. Seven years in, I had all but lost the ability to dream in daylight.

The nights were another matter, but in the professional world, isn’t that where dreams belong? I wish I had kept a record of my dreams, but most of them arose and passed away. I do remember that my dreams often came wrapped in songs, movies and TV shows. There were the inevitable endless hallways and sometimes, I was stuck somewhere with no way of getting out. Some of my best dreams involved finding another world beyond or below our everyday world. Too often, I was in a place that seemed safe but very quickly became so dangerous that I feared for my life.  Generally these were not the kind of dreams you want to come true, though perhaps they already have.

Just the other night I had a slice of a dream created from memories of old television shows and songs. I was in an apartment with a dark-haired woman who resembled Suzanne Phleshette, Bob the pscyhiatrist’s wife Emily on the old Bob Newhart Show back in the 70s.  She was older now, and there was no Bob in sight. Her hair was short, a pixie-cut that had grown shaggy. Her face was less rounded and revealed her bone structure more clearly. Her apartment was tiny but contained all kinds of fascinating little figurines and small sculpture. Abstract paintings covered the walls. From the ceiling hung various kinds of bead work and little interlocked metal pieces that made noises like wind chimes when you slid through them.  The decorations made the small space even smaller and as intricate as a scarf from India. We sat across a small counter from each other, sipping tea.

I am not sure what Suzanne was saying or who she was speaking for. Perhaps she was my mother who had dark hair or my former wife Barbara who had an angular face. Barb and I watched Bob and Emily every week. I do not know who it was tap, tap, taping at my cellar door. I suspect I fell into a Leonard Cohen song and substituted one Suzanne for another. Whomever the dream woman was, she had me “on her wave length.” That part is for sure.  She did not seem half-crazy, but I did feel that she was somehow instructing me, perhaps, even showing me “where to look among the garbage and the flowers.”

As young boy I dreamed easily and believed. I had not yet learned to distinguish the imaginary from the everyday world. Life was a big romance novel where eyes meet, and suddenly you know you are made for each other. My Bandstand sweetheart was made from my own vision and contributed almost nothing but the act of appearing. I didn’t know then that the people I’d meet in my dreams might often, to steal a line from one of several Amy Rigby songs on this theme, “fail to measure up to who they were when they were just someone I had in mind.” I anticipated a soft voice, but maybe she was loud. I imagined her to be understanding, but perhaps she was self-centered. Although she danced great, maybe she knew nothing about movies and basketball.

When people do fall in love they can lose themselves as well as find themselves in the couple they make together. There is nothing, a beautiful song written by Rowland Salley says, “sadder than losing yourself in love.”  When it is necessary to pull apart, there is so much raw skin that everything you do afterward can be terribly painful. And all the regret that comes with this pain makes life harder than you ever imagined. A child is saved from knowing that sometimes all you can do is go on alone. And then somehow you do it and become so good at it that there is no other way for you to go but alone:

There are heroes in the seaweed

There are children in the morning

They are leaning out for love

And they will lean that way forever


While Suzanne holds the mirror

(I am lucky to have the writer Lynne Butler read my work prior to publication. She has an eye for the good sentences and a  nose for the bad ones, and my writing wouldn’t be the same without her counsel. A long time ago, I taught her a few very simple things about journalism, but she has taught be much more about narrative.)


Blog at

%d bloggers like this: