Nine-year-old Andy Catlett embarks on a trip going alone by bus to visit his grandparents. It is Christmas 1943 andas he sees modern life crowding out the old waysthose he meets become touchstones for his understanding of a precious and imperiled world.
This beautiful short novel is a perfect introduction to Wendell Berry’s rich and ever-evolving saga of the Port William Membership.
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It was still way in the night, as it seemed to me, when my father woke me by gently shaking my shoulder with his hand.
I said aloud, "No. Wait!" in a dream I was having, and then, "What?"
"Get up, honey. I've about got your breakfast ready."
Ordinarily the news that my father was cooking my breakfast would have made me cover my head. He cooked with what I thought an unseemly haste and show of force, like a man putting out a fire. You wouldn't have been surprised to see him lean over and blow on the coils of our then fairly new electric stove.
But he was in one of his finer moods, as I could tell by the touch of his hand, and I promptly remembered that this was the day of my trip to Port William.
"Be quiet, now. The others are still asleep," he said, and he went out so quietly he seemed almost not to have been there.
"Maybe I'm dreaming," I thought, but by the light coming in from the hall I could see my brother, Henry, curled up beneath the covers, deeply asleep in his bed. And then a thrill of pleasure came upon me. I felt in the shadow of my own bed to make sure of my small grip, packed with my clothes, toothbrush, and my new copy of Sidney Lanier's The Boy's King Arthur, imbued already with the voice of my mother, raptly reading it to me. It was still there. I got up then, dressed in a hurry in the shadowy room, picked up my grip, and went quietly out the door.
It was the fourth day after Christmas, 1943, and I was nine years old. Port William, the native community of both my parents, was all of ten miles from our house in Hargrave. It was in fact my own native community. I had been born there, had been there hundreds of times, sometimes to stay weeks at a stretch with my Feltner grandparents, my mother's parents, in the town of Port William itself, or with my Catlett grandparents out on the Bird's Branch road. But this time it was going to be different. This time I was going on the bus by myself, alone. It was going to be an adventure, as my parents saw it, a new experience that I would greatly enjoy. As I saw it, it was nothing less than my first step into manhood.
How this had come about I no longer remember and cannot guess. It may have been that my parents were giving a New Year's Eve party at our house, or were going to one elsewhere, and were distributing us children here and there ahead of time, starting with me, the oldest. But the sympathy that comes with age causes me to consider also the possibility that they were shipping me off for a few days just to give themselves a taste of freedom. For I had not grown, as I preferred to think, into the vaguest semblance of adulthood, but rather into a serious and lasting form of nuisancehood. As even I had noticed, I could not be good at home and at school at the same time, which meant that I was a worry to my parents all the time. At school I had become a fourth-grade Thomas Paine, striking blows for liberty, which of course earned me in return blows of yardsticks, rulers, and other pedagogical weapons, which I welcomed as distractions from the established order. At home I was actuated, like Daniel Boone, by a desire for elbow room, and our house seemed to me to be growing smaller by the day, as densely crowded by the other five members of our family as if it had been no bigger than a phone booth. And so I can't think now that my parents were grieving over my departure or that they were going to miss me much.
On the other hand, I was good, a model boy, at least when I was in sight, on my visits to both sets of my grandparents. In their houses, for me, peace reigned, and I could even count on being spoiled a little as a just compensation for my goodness. And so of course I loved those visits, especially when I could go alone.
* * *
When I got downstairs my father had my breakfast on the table: orange juice, eggs, bacon, and toast. The bacon fat had not been fried quite crisp. The eggs were done "over easy," as I liked them, but were rather crunchy around the edges because he had had the skillet too hot. And he had smeared the butter on the toast after he had toasted it. He certainly was not as good a cook as my mother, but I wisely made no comment.
I only said, "Where's the jelly?"
"You don't need any jelly," he said in perfect good humor, meaning, I judged, that he had not been able to find it.
"I don't reckon I do," I said.
He said, "Have you washed your face?"
"No," I said, "but I'm going to directly."
He had cleaned up his own plate and was sipping his coffee and reading the paper. He evidently had plans of his own for that early morning. He was dressed for the office and was already wearing his hat.
When I had finished eating he said, "Put your dishes in the sink."
I carried my dishes away, and when I came back he said, still reading the paper, "Go to the toilet."
I did, and when I was finished I went to the further trouble of washing my face and of wetting my hair and combing it both front and back. I didn't brush my teeth because I had packed my toothbrush the night before.
When he was ready, my father put on his overcoat and handed me my mackinaw and toboggan.
"It'll be cold out there," he said. "Have you got enough clothes?"
"Long underwear and sweater. Extra clothes in the grip."
"Where are your gloves?"
"In my coat pocket."
"Well, put on your overshoes."
I did, while he watched. He picked up the grip, and we started for the door.
"Be quiet," he said.
* * *
He had things on his mind. At the start of the morning you could feel him aiming himself into the day. We drove down into town, to Front Street, without talking. I was wide awake, and it was good to feel the earliness of the morning, the town dark yet and mostly quiet. People were just up, or still waking up, or still asleep. We passed through the pools of light from the streetlights, one after another. The sound of the car's engine was loud and then quiet, quiet and then again loud, as we went by the other cars parked here and there along the still street.
My father parked the car in front of the Poppy Shop, just a few doors down from his office. The Poppy Shop liked to call itself a "luncheonette." It opened early in the morning for breakfast, served coffee, sandwiches, ice cream, and such all day, and did duty besides as our bus station. As we got out of the car, I was quick to take charge of the grip myself. I didn't want to be seen allowing my father to carry it for me, and I didn't want there to be any mistaking who the traveler was.
When we went in, my father stepped up to where Miss Angela Davis was standing behind the cash register. Miss Angela was the proprietress of the Poppy Shop. Behind her back some of the men called her "Ample Angela." To my mother she was known as a "sweet person."
"A ticket to Port William, Miss Angela, if you please," my father said.
"Why, Wheeler, is Andy leaving home?" Miss Angela said, peeping around my father at me and my grip.
"He's pulling out," my father said.
"I know you're going to miss that boy."
"It's the truth," my father said. "Make that a round trip."
Miss Angela laughed. She handed him the ticket. He turned to me. "Here. Put this ticket in your pocket now, so you won't lose it."
He still had his wallet in his hand. He took out a dollar bill and gave it to me. "Put this in your pocket too." And he stuck out his hand.
I understood something then: He wanted to hug me — if we had been alone he would have — but he didn't want to embarrass me.
We shook hands. "Put that money in your pocket," he said. "Be careful with it."
"Yes, sir," I said, being conscientiously polite there in public, and wishing suddenly that he would hug me.
"You'll be all right," he said. And then, turning to Miss Angela, he said, "He'll want to get off at the upper end of the Bird's Branch road, the Port William end."
Miss Angela, looking past him at me and smiling, said, "He won't need to worry."
And then with the instant haste that was his way, my father strode out the door.
The Poppy Shop was a small place, with a few booths and a few small tables. The chairs at the tables had round seats with backs and legs of twisted wire. There were several customers, eating breakfast or drinking coffee, getting ready to go to work.
One of the tables was empty. I put my grip on one of the chairs and sat in another.
My uncle Andrew had given me a dollar at Christmas, and so now I had two. I laid the two together, folded them up, and put them into the little coin purse I had in my pocket. I also had a nickel and a dime.
Miss Angela came over to my table. "You've got a little while to wait, honey. Do you want a cup of coffee or something?"
I said, "No, mam," but that sounded impolite. It sounded somehow ungrateful, and so I said, "Yes, mam."
"Coffee?" she said.
I said, "Yes, mam."
Though of course I had seen other people drink it, I had never tasted coffee in my life. My mother did not think it healthful for children to drink coffee. Privately, I thought coffee had an excellent smell, and I had looked forward to being old enough to drink it. And now, just because I was unaccustomed to the ways of the world and was embarrassed and wished to be polite to an older person, which would have pleased my mother, I was going to drink some coffee without being old enough.
Miss Angela set a full steaming cup in front of me. I stirred it a little, as the coffee drinkers I knew usually did, and then I took a sip from the spoon and was amazed that anything could taste so little like it smelled. The bitterness of it puckered my mouth. Miss Angela, who had been watching me, laughed in such a hearty, friendly way that I wasn't embarrassed but was merely grateful to be the cause of her amusement. Sugar was rationed because of the war, and people were encouraged to drink their coffee without it. Miss Angela, a patriot, did not supply sugar until specifically asked. But she went to the kitchen and brought back a sugar bowl, which she set down in front of me. She put two spoonsful of sugar into my cup and a generous dollop of cream.
"Now stir it," she said, "and see if it don't taste better."
I stirred it and tasted it again, and she was right. The sugar and cream made it taste more like it smelled. It only needed to be a little sweeter, and when she went away I added two more spoonsful of sugar. It went down very pleasantly after that, though I was already wondering how much my extravagance with the sugar might have hurt "the war effort." My conscience was not always alert, but when alerted it went eagerly about its duty.
When Miss Angela passed by again, she said, "How's your coffee, hon?"
"Just fine," I said. "How much do I owe you for it, please, mam?"
"You're such a nice, polite young man, I think I'll just charge it to your daddy. He's a generous fellow, isn't he?"
I couldn't have disagreed more, even though he had just given me a dollar, even though I would eventually know him as a generous man. In fact, my father had learned the lessons of the thirties pretty thoroughly, though of course I was incapable of any such insight at the age of nine. He didn't like to see money thrown away on such things as I was always needing nickels for, and so he was not especially generous with nickels. He was apt to burden me by asking, "What do you want with it?" or "What do you need it for?" or "Do you think nickels grow on trees?" Perhaps as a result, I too grew up under the shadow of the Depression, and it is still with me. I still suspect, like many of my predecessors here in Port William, that it will come back again, and that it taught lessons that needed to be learned.
And so I didn't know what to say to Miss Angela, who proceeded to give me a small prompt: "He wouldn't mind buying a boy a cup of coffee, would he?"
I knew perfectly well that he would mind. Embarrassed again, I gave her the first grown up–sounding answer I could think of: "If it suits him, it'll tickle the hell out of me." And then I slapped my hand over my mouth.
Too late, of course. I had spoken loudly, and the place was suddenly full of laughter. For a few seconds I had a sort of vision of myself sitting there red-faced and grinning, embarrassed, scared, and proud.
The episode gave me a sort of fame, and of course my father heard of it. Two or three weeks later I happened to encounter him on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse. He was standing with his hands in the pockets of his overcoat, talking to his friend Charlie Hardy.
I gave them a wave and said, "Hi."
"That's Miss Angela's buddy, ain't it?" Mr. Hardy said.
My father snorted. "That's him." He reached into his pants pocket, drew out a nickel, and handed it to me. "Here. Go buy yourself a cup of coffee."
* * *
The war changed things. It was changing the world, and it was changing us. I didn't know it then, but sugar rationing was changing the way we would live after the war. Businesses and restaurants were given larger rations of sugar than households, and this helped to shift the dependence of households from their own kitchens to commercial bakeries. Betty Crocker was the "homemaker" who got the most sugar, and she did more and more of the baking.
Because of the war we certainly knew that history was happening to us, but it was happening to us more than we knew. History and conscience, however, did not stop me from enjoying my over-sweetened cup of coffee. I drank it to the last slow trickle.
The arrival of the bus was an event, heralding itself by the sound of brakes out in the dark street, the blast of a horn, and the rumbling of a big motor. I was already on my feet, grip in hand, when the uniformed driver threw open the door of the bus and stepped nimbly down onto the pavement. He was a smallish, neat man who was going to no trouble to disguise his good looks. When I presented myself to him, feeling in the pocket where I thought I had put my ticket and not finding it and then feeling in the pocket where I actually had put it and finding it, he looked me up and down with a grin.
"Now I wonder whose daddy this boy is," he said.
While he held out his hand for my ticket, I wasted some of his valuable time in wondering if that question had an answer — though, by now, it has been answered, for years ago I did become somebody's daddy, and in the course of time somebody's granddaddy also.
"Hush up and get on out of here," Miss Angela said from behind me. "He needs to get off at the upper end of Bird's Branch."
He took my ticket, said "Yowzum!" to Miss Angela, and I stepped up into the dim interior of the bus, followed by three or four other passengers. I took a seat by the window just behind the driver and put my grip on the seat beside me. The driver leapt heroically into his seat, closed the door, sealing us within the inward rumble of the motor while he put the gathered tickets into their proper place and readjusted his handsome cap, and then we were off.
Hargrave was a stop on the Greyhound route from Louisville to Cincinnati, but this bus was not one of the Greyhound line. It lacked the insignia of the running hound, which I admired excessively, and it made its humble journey from Hargrave to Louisville by way of the back roads, gathering eventually a pretty full load of shoppers and people whom I believe we had not yet learned to call "commuters." It was a lesser dog than a greyhound, but I had never ridden in such a vehicle before and I was duly impressed by its size and power and by the height of my plush seat, which permitted me to look down upon the tops of mere automobiles. We rolled out of Hargrave and over the bridge into Ellville, there turning away from the valley of the Ohio into the valley of what we, who still belonged more to Port William than to Hargrave, called "our river."
I could look back then at the lights of Hargrave disappearing behind us. Soon even the glow of them was out of sight, and the bus was enclosed in the darkness of the night-bound countryside, broken only by its own headlights and those of a car or two, and here and there by the lighted kitchen windows of the farmhouses. So I remember the nighttimes of my childhood, when the darkness enclosed separately our scattered human lights.
Only now and again we met a car. The cars, like our bus, were going slowly, observing the wartime speed limit. There were limits of all kinds in those days, enough of them to keep even a child reminded that over across the oceans people were fighting and being hurt or killed every hour of every day and night. When I thought of the war I thought of my uncle Virgil, who was in the army. He had not yet been sent overseas. He was safe so far. But as it would turn out he would, as we feared, be sent overseas and into the fighting. He would, as we feared, be killed, though for a long time we knew for sure only that he was "missing."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Andy Catlett: Early Travels"
Copyright © 2006 Wendell Berry.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a surprise find on the shelves. Reading Berry's account of his early childhood travels will strike up memories of your own travels to Grandpa's. The story is rich with axioms and descriptions that will help you relive warm memories of your own upbringing. His colorful reflections of life in the 1940's and the transition from agrarian to industrialization of the US will leave you wishing for the simpler times of your childhood. That coupled with Berry's reflections on how World War II would change everyone's lives makes this a powerful novel. Pick this for your book club! You won't go wrong.
A touching reminiscence of growing up in Kentucky during World War II.
I am very grateful for this story because it has opened up a depth of humanity in simple, small things, that I am prone to forget. While I was born many decades after the events of this story, I have relatives who lived similar stories - visiting grandparents and relatives over the holidays, on small rural farms and towns and seeing the world as it was and as it was changing in some scary, uncomfortable ways. I can certainly relate to this story, because of other stories told to me from relatives who lived just the kind of events that young Andy Catlett did, and who now, decades later, understand and live those kind of events again. I understand this story as well, because I feel, but cannot not really articulate just how the world has changed, and knowing that something, and many things, are indeed missing in modern life. This little novel helps me a bit to articulate those things that are missing. Because this novel is set in the Christmas and New Year's season, I highly recommend it as a way to thoughtfully approach family, family and life that has gone and the days and new year to come. It is certainly a story worth rereading again and again.
Morning everybody im leaving to grandma today!
Yea...ill try to be on. Night:)