Dispatches from Quarry Farm: Huck! Speak Up. We Need You.

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

The word and all it carries.

My son and I live in the space where Huck and Tom were called into existence. He’s nine and quickly approaching age that the boys were in Mark Twain’s stories. So it only seems appropriate that I’d read the great novels to him here at Quarry Farm. But how do I explain the struggles and cruelty, the dehumanizing hate and ignorance, the misguided belief and responsibility that is all packed into that one word—a box that will bust open, I know, the first moment it reluctantly passes over my lips as I read.

When I was young I was inadvertently armed with that word—definitely old enough to know better, but I didn’t. I just assumed it ranked somewhere near the “F-word” on the scale of words I don’t say in front of my mom. I was sitting at the lunch table with my little school buddies and I flung it out like it was funny, like just the word itself was a punch line. The table went quiet. They all looked down and through the tops of their eyes, at me, then over at Matt. His brown face darkened with red and his eyes shot me with shock, pain, anger and a cutting finality all in a split second. He grabbed his books and he left. He never came back to the lunch table again for the rest of the year. My apology later in the locker room was a jittery, stuttering, failure that he didn’t even turn to acknowledge. I never saw him again. Yes, we were in classes together and passed in the hallway but all I saw was a stoic black face looking straight ahead. When I see that same look on people of color today, I can’t help but think about it; it’s probably not a coincidence.

The real tragedy is that I didn’t even mean it in any malicious way. I was merely insensitive and ignorant. I was irresponsible. I think Matt took it so hard because I was nice and shy and smiled a lot. He had known me for years and probably trusted me as someone wasn’t a racist, then out of nowhere I let that word fly. It probably made him question his sense of judgment. Is everyone a racist?

More than twenty-five years later I still think about this nearly everyday. How do I prevent my son from making the same mistake? For him it’s not even the deeper problem of unlearning obvious prejudice that has been conditioned by school, church, and society, as Huck chose to—and as an unfortunate segment of our population still needs to. It’s the conveyance of responsibility and empathy and the willingness to stay open and teachable. It’s the awareness that society and culture still place those biases in our heads like air, invisible and everywhere, and as a white man raising a little white boy the responsibility to know them and correct them as they arise is as important as any lesson I teach him. But how do I convey all this to a nine-year-old boy who displays, as I try not to cringe, more traits of a young, outspoken, mischievous, Tom Sawyer than of the sensitive and thoughtful Huck Finn? How the hell should I know?

Again, jittery and stuttering—apparently my default—I explained the word he will soon hear me read over and over. My language smoothed out and I tried to be objective. I told him that this word was not mine or his or any other white person’s word and outside of this story you’ll never hear me say it. I told him it was the ugliest and most hurtful word in the English language.

“Worse than the F—word?”

“Not even in the same league.” I said in a low gravely whisper that pulled his attention closer.

I think he got it. His stare was intense and earnest as he lay tucked into his little bed with a look of impending punishment. Too much? In this case too much is better than too little. Too much may not be possible.

As I began to read and I settled into the best Hal Holbrook drawl I could muster he began to lighten. See, a mischievous boy will quickly recognize a fellow artist when he sees one. He fell into Hannibal and the “hymn to boyhood.” I had to explain much of the language, unfamiliar to a 9-year-old in 2017, but as I got into the flow of reading, he got into the flow of hearing. I just hope he heard everything.

Weeks later when I was picking him up from school he had a story to tell me. He started off jittery and stuttering: hyper, not scared.

“You know Zach in my class? Not my cousin Zach, but the Zach from my class.” (He clarifies this every time….I get it.)

“Yep.”

“He said that word today! The word from Mark Twain (I know, one step at a time.) He called Mariah that right to her face! I got up and said ‘You can’t say that!’ and told the lunch lady. He got suspended.”

Most of the time the job of parenting haunts me with two questions. First, How am I screwing this kid up? I have a long list of unfavorable answers. And second, What kind of world am I leaving him with? I rarely have even one good answer. I wish that Matt hadn’t had to experience my ignorance way back then, but at least it helped Mariah see that she wasn’t alone and she didn’t have to leave the lunch table— and I hope she never adopts that stoic stare.

As for those two haunting questions of parenting, with about the frequency of Haley’s comet you get ‘em both right.

Dispatches From Quarry Farm: The Cat, Plays Bass.

A train rumbles through the city of Elmira. The tracks are at least three miles away, and I can hear it as a distant echo. I think of the past and the future here at Quarry Farm. It’s 4:00 A.M. and a cat, the cat, of the house has developed a habit of strolling through my room in the middle of the night like a young man entering a party just a little too full of himself. The distant ghost of a train is like the booming bass in a dance club in the city of Los Angeles. With at least forty-six elongated meows he not only wakes me up, but my eyes are bright white circles in the black room. My heart jumps to a pace that’ll be impossible to relax before the birds begin to sing, and I’m wishing this creature—my good friend in the daytime—was tied to the tracks in front of that train.

In Pudd’nhead Wilson, Mark Twain wrote that “A home without a cat—and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat—may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?” Twain said this about cats but he never said what to do with a cat that talks too much. I guess it’s possible that around Twain no cat ever had a chance to get a word in. When all the Twain scholars are here on the lawn or in the house or on the porch I don’t get word in. So I guess that puts me in the league of most cats; except this particular one that has rousted me in the middle of the night, which leads me to believe this cat may be a scholar. Maybe I’ll sign him up to do a talk at the upcoming quadrennial conference? It’s possible that after fifteen lectures on Twain the cat will be as sensible and inspiring as anyone. Maybe he could do the keynote? He’s cheap too—a can of tuna and a little nip would cover his fee.

Twain and his family traveled almost yearly in the 1870s and 1880s from Hartford, CT to Elmira, NY. The trip was about five hours by train from Hartford to New York City then, after an overnight, a ten-hour trip from the city up to Elmira. Often, as was a habit of his since boyhood, Twain traveled with his favorite cat—Sour Mash being his most prized feline of this time period. Although the trip, for most, is much shorter these days I would encourage you to not bring your favorite cat to the conference. The Assault of Laughter is the theme and in my current experience, though assaulting, cats are not that funny.

I will, however, encourage you to bring some earplugs. Three reasons: 1. ) the cat will need some time in the spotlight—most likely at 4:00 A.M.—so all those staying at the farm be advised, 2.) the snoring from the attendees—most often occurring in late afternoon sessions—can be distracting, and 3.) there will be a Jazz trio playing at the Quarry Farm picnic from 6-8 p.m. Since Jazz was not invented in Twain’s lifetime we can only speculate (and I’m sure we will) on his opinions of the music. But since it is a truly American art form, born on the Mississippi. I like to imagine that our favorite riverboat pilot would have approved. Another reason for the earplugs is that the bass player in this particular jazz trio is an incompetent faker and simply used his connections to the Center for Mark Twain Studies to get the gig. So unless you can shut off one-third of your hearing—for the other two musicians do possess great talent—wear your earplugs!

As Caretaker of the majestic, Quarry Farm, I want to assure the scholarly community that the lawn and house will be pristine, the flowers will be brilliant, the weather ideal, I will actually practice my jazz bass skills and all the stories will be riveting. I will however assure you of none of these things. I am a moody, procrastinating, recluse. It’s important to manage your expectations.

I do look forward to this weekend though! The conference will be great. Scholars from around the world will arrive and talk. And talk. And talk…And talk. The American icon, Mark Twain, will be honored for what he did best. There will be food and music and jokes and probably some cigars. Then, everyone will leave. I’ll clean up and settle back into the creepy caretaker role that I so adore and before I know it the next weekend will arrive. I look forward to that weekend too.