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ISSUE:  Winter 1989

Few members of my family have been involved in things political. Whether concern over character or distrust of partisanship has kept us far from ballot and position, I am uncertain. Whatever the truth, however, the only Pickering to hold public office was appointed. In 1881— 82 my great grandfather William Blackstone Pickering was chief clerk of the Tennessee legislature. About the same time another great grandfather “Bud” Griffin was killed in a brawl in Franklin, Tennessee. With a reputation unsullied by politics, Griffin was a drinker and a philanderer, and it seems probable that matters fleshly, not political, lay behind his death. Still, Griffin was outspoken, and some rash proposal of his might have raised consciousness so much that it provoked a permanent veto. A splattering of Griffin courses through me, and once or twice an occasional statement of mine has warmed the blood of the politically active. On my remarking that I thought De Gaulle a great Frenchman, a man across the table from me at a seated dinner jumped up and shaking his fist, shouted, “You Communist, burn your draft card. Carry a protest sign. Move to Russia.”

In retrospect, the man’s response was not surprising. He was a dentist, and I have never met a liberal dentist. The steamy rank air of bicuspids and molars, root canals and plaque, is not intellectually bracing. Patterns of work influence patterns of thought, and the mind confined by day to the narrow world between gum and epiglottis is not likely to pay lip service to the broad view at night. Still, the dentist may have been more correct than he knew. Although I have never carried a sign in a demonstration, I have liberal leanings. On May Day I tie a strand of red yarn around my left arm as protest against incomes policy at home and foreign policy abroad. Of course, I’m not politically consistent, and I stagger to the right as much as I totter to the left. I am tired, for example, of hearing the American Civil Liberties Union give high reasons for being on the low side. I believe in capital punishment, not simply for murderers but sundry types of malefactors, lawyers, bankers, even folks who cheat on their income tax. People who drive faster than the speed limit provoke me to the edge of reason, and I think whipping posts should be constructed every quarter mile or so on the shoulders of public roads. Instead of wasting time writing tickets police ought to jerk speeders out of their cars, strap them to posts, and flog the tar out of them.

Irritating me almost as much as speeders are foreigners who come to this country and spend affluent days criticizing everything. Actually, I don’t meet such people now, but 20 years ago in graduate school, I bumped into boatloads of them. “We need the bomb,” an Indian student on a large fellowship shouted in the graduate dining room at Princeton one night. “We need the bomb to protect ourselves against people like you. Look around,” he said to his companion, “nothing but fascist pigs.” When the speaker himself looked around, he saw me, a black and white Hampshire hanging above him, rumbling and snorting like a thunder storm. I had been eating across the room with my friend Bill, peacefully speculating on how I could become all things to all women. When the man started shouting, though, and the room became quiet, everyone looking silently down at his meal, I hoisted myself up and grunting pushed through the tables and chairs. “Damn straight,” I said bristling above the speaker and slamming my fist down so hard on the table that lasagna bounced off his plate and fell to the floor; “Hell, yes, India needs a bomb—from forty thousand feet.”

“By God, Sam, good for you,” Bill said when I sat back down; “you showed him. Have you ever thought about going into politics?” “No,” I answered; “it’s too corrupt and to succeed in Tennessee I would have to be some sort of knee-jerk right-winger. Give me quiet retirement.” Actually I wasn’t entirely truthful. Despite reluctance to become involved in politics, I have always hankered for the spotlight. As a boy I went to baseball games at Sulpher Dell in Nashville. Whenever the “Vols” fell behind, I yelled “Put Pickering in.” “Who is Pickering,” someone invariably asked. “He’s just come over from Fayetteville in the Carolina League, Class B,” I answered; “he was hitting three hundred and seventy and knocking so many balls into the brickyard across the railroad tracks that folks nicknamed him “Brickyard.”” As soon as people around me began shouting “we want Pickering,” I crept off to another seat, and by the end of the game, people all over Sulpher Dell were yelling for Pickering, some of them considerably exercised because the manager had not even let him pinch-hit.

Although I have not seen a baseball game in 30 years, desire for attention must have been spreading quietly in my unconscious. This past summer when the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference offered me a fellowship, I accepted. Some years ago I turned Bread Loaf down. My writings having recently attracted notice, however, I was ready to talk about them. In the past I avoided flattery; now I went to Bread Loaf, eager for a thick basting of compliment. The person desirous of attention is usually so stuffed with self that all seasoning disappears from his character. Awash in a margarine of praise, the Griffin in my nature flowed slick and smooth. Of course once or twice I was forced to truss up my tongue, and, for that matter, other parts. One cool evening as the moon broke full and silver splintering over the hills and down through the trees, I could not sleep. Thinking a walk might exhaust me, I dressed and crossing the street opposite the Bread Loaf Inn started through a pasture. “Do you mind if I join you,” a young woman said; “I have read your latest book. It’s super, and I would like to talk to you about it.” “Sure,” I said, suddenly swept far from insomnia and pasture by the melody of compliment. My companion, however, was not so oblivious to place and occasion, and when we reached a depression in the middle of the pasture and night gathered around us like a hand, she stopped and drawing near looked up at the hat I wore. “Does that say “Sea Island Beach Club,”” she asked; “it’s hard to tell at night.” “Yes, that’s what it says,” I answered. “What sweet memories that brings to mind,” she said, pushing her hair back off her forehead and her lips wet and gleaming in the moonlight. “Sea Island,” she said softly, “that’s where I lost my virginity.” For a moment desire for flattery almost became desire for something else, but then I mastered heredity. “What an elegant place for such pleasantry,” I said, adding as I turned back to the Inn, “what was it you said about my book and the eternal verities?”

Not wanting to offend anyone who might praise me, I was judicious, restrained, and even diplomatic at Bread Loaf. When a woman who liked my writing gave me one of her poems to read, I was complimentary, albeit the poem described curing a yeast infection with yogurt. Instead of criticizing the subject, I suggested that the poem needed more specifics. “What sort of yogurt was used,” I asked, “low fat, all natural, blueberry? Under certain circumstances I can imagine an application of peach melba. In a warm climate, frozen yogurt might prove most efficacious. Such details,” I concluded, “are the sorts of things which interest readers and make poems live.” My response to the poem was temperate not only because the woman flattered me, but also because I had recently agreed to run for the Board of Education in Mansfield, Connecticut. A little restraint in the summer, I hoped might become tact by the fall, tact tan and anonymous like fallen leaves. Success in educational matters, I suspected, rarely went to the outspoken or the colorful. In September when my son Francis entered first grade, my hunch, was proved correct. For an art project students in his class drew pictures of dinosaurs. After the children finished their drawings, the teacher bound them together as a book and asked the class for suggestions for the title. Francis suggested “Great Big Stompers.” The title chosen was “Our Dinosaur Book.”

Despite my hankering for attention, running for the Board of Education was not my idea. In April some Democrats approached Vicki and asked her to urge me to run for the board. When Vicki mentioned the idea to me, I hesitated, saying Pickerings were not political animals. Besides, I added, “the limelight is no place for a man who needs a whitewash.” “Come off the canned wit,” Vicki said, “it’s your civic duty. Besides if you are elected you’ll be able to pick out good teachers for the children.” That evening I called the Democrats and said I would run. A small problem existed, however. Although I had few partisan opinions, I was a bit contrary, I explained, and when I moved to Mansfield and registered to vote, I told the clerk to sign me up with the party which had the smaller number of members. As a result I was a Republican. “I’ll go over to town hall tomorrow, though,” I said, “and change parties.” “No, no,” the Democrats said, “Mansfield has a minority rule. That means that some members of the smaller party have to be elected to the town council and various boards, including the School Board. You stay a Republican. We will make a few telephone calls and get the Republicans to nominate you. All you have to do is go to a meeting or two and the nomination is yours.”

Two days later the chairman of the Republican Town Committee telephoned. “I understand you are willing to stand for the School Board,” he said; “that’s terrific. We are having a potluck picnic in May for potential candidates. Do you think you could attend?” When I said I would like to attend, he said he would send me a notice in a couple of weeks. Ten days later the notice arrived. On it was printed “Awake the Slumbering Elephant” and “Let the Political Football Game Begin.” “I don’t know about these metaphors, Vicki,” I said, looking at the notice. “Hush,” she said, “we will go and take the children. I’ll bake chocolate chip cookies, and everybody will think us a sugary American family. If you will just smile and not say much, the nomination is in the bag.” Because of rash Bud Griffin, I was nervous about the picnic. I should not have worried. In pursuit of office my talk flattened out, and I sprayed compliments about like air freshener. Exchanging compliments, Josh Billings wrote, is another name for exchanging lies. To anyone who writes, lying comes naturally, and a month later the Republicans put me up for the School Board.

Being nominated for office is far different from running for election. I do not like the telephone and despise knocking on strangers’ doors. Even though neighbors know Vicki and me and the children well and expect us to come trick or treating, Halloween almost gives me colitis. When the children ring doorbells, I hide in the shadows. In September I went to a Republican meeting and addressed a few envelopes, but after that I lay low. While Democrats and Republicans roamed neighborhoods digging up votes, I planted flowers in the yard: from Hildenbrant’s Iris Gardens in Nebraska 32 bearded iris, ten poppies, and four peonies; from Breck’s 128 crocus and 53 tulips. My little boy Edward helped with the tulips. Because tulips rarely weather many springs, I don’t normally plant them. This year was different, however. Story has it that fairies sometimes use tulip blossoms as cradles for their babies, and Edward and I put the tulips down in hopes of keeping fairies in our neighborhood. In the rush to become “a great research university,” the University of Connecticut has razed the small world around us, leveling Fish Pool Hill, cutting down the Old Orchard and Dancing Wood, and turning Cat’s Foot Lane into a parking lot. Never again will Edward walk through the Old Orchard on a dark winter day and see an elf crouched under an apple tree, icicles hanging from his pointed cap. No longer will troops of fairies wear great wheels in the moss around oaks in the Dancing Wood. Now if my boys are ever bothered by warts, I will have to buy patent medicine for them at Storrs Drugs instead of telling them to search for snails in the Fish Pool. To get rid of a wart, old lore has it, one should hang a snail on a briar. As the snail dries and withers away, so the wart will disappear.

Imagination and sensibility have been diminished. At the end of Cat’s Foot Lane where a great honey locust towered, sheltering life and story, now stretches a long flat row of cars, metallic and dead. Long ago a devil, so I was told, broke through the iron bars confining him to the underworld and climbing up into the sky stole a jar of pure white honey from the cloud god. As the devil hurried back to the underground, one of the god’s sentinels, a falcon, saw him and swooping down tore the jar of honey from his grasp. Before the falcon escaped into the clouds, however, the devil threw a spear at him. The aim was true, and although the falcon pitched over to one side, the spear knocked the honey loose, slicing off one of the falcon’s claws as well. The jar of honey fell to the ground, but before the devil could retrieve it, the cloud god transformed the spear into the locust, the honey becoming the tree’s long white spikes of sugary blossoms and the falcon’s claw, the blossom’s sharp protecting thorns.

From White Flower Farm in Litchfield I ordered 72 Dutch Iris, 24 squill, and three lilacs, old fashioned-ones, Ludwig Spaeth, Lucie Ballet, and Ellen Willmott. Familiar sights around old foundation holes and tumbledown barns, the lilacs raise visions of dirt roads, lightning rods, and milk wagons. I planted them almost as replacements for the locust and apple trees, to create the illusion of holding asphalt and dark modernity at branch’s length. To plant the lilacs I had to dig up forsythia, but we have lots of forsythia in the yard and its roots are shallow. To plant the bearded iris, I dug up some of my mock orange. In late spring mock orange blooms creamy sweet, clusters of blossoms and dark green leaves pulling branches in heavy curves toward the ground. Later, alas, no matter how I trim them, my plants grow angular and cutting like cheap, painted fingernails. Most of my digging, though, was for daffodils, some 300 of them. In my part of Connecticut, the topsoil is thin, and the granite below pushes through the surface. For a month I was my own chain gang, levering up and carting stone to a rock pile behind the house, then filling my cart with black mulch from the woods and spreading it thick over the bulbs. Come May, my yard will be bright with daffodils—red, orange, yellow, and white: Accent, Festivity, Smiling Maestro, Spellbinder, Cheerfulness, Cragford, Jenny, Sugar Bush, Ice Follies. “You had better start campaigning,” Vicki said when I showed her the Grant Mitsch bulbs, saying they resembled living sculptures, tanned and veined with potential. “No,” I answered, “the election is not important. Next spring these bulbs will bring beauty into our lives. The School Board will only cause wrangling.”

I had lost enthusiasm for the election. When friends discovered I was running, they delighted in telling me that six years on the School Board demanded long hours and a thick skin. “I am voting for you, Sam,” Joe said, “but you better hope you lose.” I was ambivalent. On some days I wanted to win; on others I prayed to lose. What was constant, though, was the dread of humiliation, receiving 16 votes. The dread, however, was not enough to make me to forsake shovel and cart for doorbells. In early October the Willimantic paper reviewed a book I wrote, praising it and printing a picture of me. “That’s my campaign,” I told Vicki; “I am not doing anything more.” Alas, four nights later I wrote a flyer. Sometime earlier my picture had been taken for a Republican advertisement; unfortunately the Republican Committee had trouble putting the advertisement together and, rumor reported it would not appear. When the Democrats who urged me to run heard about the advertisement, they donated a hundred dollars toward my and another Republican’s campaign for the School Board. My running mate having accepted the money, I had to buckle down and write a flyer. The hundred dollars bought a thousand flyers. Running actually did not cost me much. Laramie Photography in Willimantic charged eight dollars and 60 cents to take my picture for the advertisement. In September the head of the Republican Committee urged me to buy an election sweatshirt. The shirt was white with blue lettering. On the chest in front was printed “R” TEAM in bold letters; to the left over the heart was the town seal, an office building in the center and the date of incorporation, October 1702, running around the edge. In capital letters on the back was my last name; under it was 8B, the number of my lever on the voting machine; beneath that was BD OF ED, standing for Board of Education.

The shirt cost 17 dollars and 83 cents. Not wanting to be a spoil sport, I bought it, telling Vicki that the political animal would fit comfortably into my menagerie of other sweatshirts stamped with “Sewanee Tigers,” “UCONN Huskies,” and “Princeton Tuna Team.” The second week in October Vicki and I attended a fund-raising cocktail party. The evening cost 37 dollars and 99 cents, the big expenses being 20 dollars for the party and ten dollars for the babysitter. Since we knew few people at the party itself, we did not stay long. To make the evening worthwhile for the sitter, we killed time, going to Zenny’s Restaurant and having coffee and two pieces of chocolate Amaretto pie for six dollars and 99 cents plus a dollar tip. My running mate distributed most of the flyers by hand, sticking them under doors and in newspaper boxes, but I mailed 254 at bulk rate, 12 ½ cents a piece at a cost of 31 dollars and 75 cents.

After the election I bought a dozen bottles of wine as a present for the man who donated one hundred dollars to my campaign. My returning the money directly would have offended him, but I knew he could not refuse a gift. Burgundy, Beaujolais, Medoc, Claret—the names of wines mean little to me, so I bought by the label. I bought two bottles of Zaca Mesa’s California wine. In the center of the label was a drawing of the desert, mesas sloping and rising one behind another like knees. Framing the drawing were gold and blue bands while underneath Zaca Mesa slide stylishly across the label like a sidewinder over the desert. In contrast the label on Round Hill’s bottles had a quaint, 1950ish look: a little house, warm and comfortable, snugged down under a tight round hill with vineyards rising regular and clean above. The label on Tyrrell’s Hunter River Long Flat Red was almost unadorned, conveying a lean, outdoorsy, Australian simplicity. The labels on Australian wine were particularly appealing, and I bought several bottles. My favorite was on a wine bottled by Thomas Hardy, a reproduction of a painting called “Summer Landscape near Kapunda.” On the left side of the label the earth gathered in great dusty orange swirls; on the bottom and around the right, a line of trees stretched, green and brown and desolate. The wine cost 79 dollars and 40 cents. The other candidate gave me 40 dollars so I paid 39 dollars and 40 cents. I had some few incidental expenses: ingredients for the chocolate chip cookies and the cheese crackers which Vicki cooked for the picnic and then cocktail party. To attend the meetings and parties, I drove a few miles and so the expenses for gas and ingredients came, I estimate, to 12 dollars. My final expense occurred after the election. The Republicans were so badly beaten that the head of the Town Committee was immediately forced to resign. He had worked hard, and I felt sorry for him, so in appreciation of his effort, I gave him a copy of my latest book, the cost to me being nine dollars and 18 cents. For the election then, my expenses, including sweatshirt, picture, fund-raisers, mailing, and “literature,” came to 157 dollars and 65 cents.

The tone of my flyer differed from that written by the Democratic candidates for School Board. Under headings such as “Proven Leadership,” “Proven Concern,” and “Proven Responsibility,” they stuck serious, studiously business-like paragraphs filled with phrases like professional commitment, curricular development, and creative educational program. While high-calling hung like a gull over the Democratic flyer, mine, I am afraid, smacked of the Pepperidge Farm cookies my running mate and I ate while discussing it. On the address side of the Democrats’ flyer was a picture of the candidates standing in a classroom next to the American flag. In the same place on our flyer were corny jokes. “Teacher:” one of the jokes began, “”Who discovered America?”” “Little boy: “Ohio.”” “Teacher: “No, America was discovered by Columbus.”” “Little boy: “Yes, Columbus was his first name.”“

Printed in bold letters at the top of the reverse side of our flyer was “READING, WRITING, ETC.*” At the bottom of the page was “*ETC. is the word you use when you want people to think you know more than you do.” In the middle of the flyer appeared our names, pictures, biographies, and “philosophic” statement. In my biography I stated simply that I had three children, taught English at the University of Connecticut, and spent a lot of time writing about myself. The philosophic statement was similarly straightforward, containing no philosophy. We said we were pleased with the schooling our children were receiving, adding “We want to serve a town we like. Neither of us pretends to be an expert, but we are deeply interested in education and our community.” And that, I must admit, was all of that. We might have said more if we stood a better chance in the election. In Mansfield, however, there were 2900 registered Democrats and 1500 registered Republicans. Because of the rule granting representation to the minority party, either my running mate or I would be elected. A high school teacher, advisor to the Cub Scouts, and head of adult education in the largest church in Mansfield, my running mate was certain to win. Moreover he understood the problems facing the schools and talked brightly and learnedly about them. For my part I had lived almost as an anchorite, unconcerned about local affairs and devoted to self and family. Because I did not know the candidates, I rarely voted in municipal elections. As for schools and their problems, I knew nothing and said so when asked.

Certain that I would be odd man out on voting day, I began to enjoy campaign doings. When the Mansfield Education Association invited candidates for the School Board to address them, I accepted. Unlike other candidates I did not prepare a speech and instead spoke spontaneously. I hated talking about myself but, I said, I loved being talked about. “If you want to know anything about me,” I added, “read my latest book.” Although most of the things I wrote would bore the behind off a hippopotamus, this book, I said, “was wonderful.” When someone asked me why I was running for election, I answered that I didn’t know. “I was asked,” I said, “and like Adam when he saw Eve, naked and munching on an apple I didn’t know how to say no.” “A person ought to try to serve his community once,” I said later, but since serving was dangerously addictive a man “ought not let it become a habit.” When another questioner asked what actions I would take to promote better dialogue between the teachers and the Board, I said I wouldn’t do anything. I was not the sort of person to hover about teachers and make them nervous, I explained, adding that if folks wanted to see me they could catch me in the spring. In winter I hibernated in the house, but in spring I could always be found, I said, sitting outside in the middle of my daffodils. At the end of the afternoon, the Educational Association gave each of the candidates a rose, and I carried it and a piece of coffee cake home to Vicki. The rose was a domestic success, making a much greater impression than the pots of chrysanthemums I usually bring home.

During the week before the election the League of Women Voters sponsored a “Candidates’ Night.” All the nominees for town office—Judge of Probate, Zoning Board of Appeals, Planning and Zoning Commission, Board of Tax Review, Town Council, and School Board—were instructed to give two-minute talks outlining positions and detailing qualifications for office. I talked for 30 seconds. After saying my name, I said that I had no particular credentials for office and “that so far as I can tell all the candidates for School Board were good, decent people, all of whom would be much better than I.” I then sat down, and ominously, the crowd cheered. “Vicki,” I said apprehensively when I got home, “you don’t suppose my lax, offhand manner will attract votes.” Vicki was too interested in Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane’s doings on “Mystery Theatre” to answer. Whatever the case, my campaign was over, and the next morning when a leader of the Republican party called and asked me to join a “campaign blitz” that Sunday, I declined. Lying, I said, that we would be in Stamford celebrating the birthday of Vicki’s brother Geoffrey. “He will be 36,” I said, “and has just been made partner in a big law firm in New Jersey.” On Sunday, I told Vicki, we would have to keep the shades down and refrain from flushing the toilet, lest a blitzing Republican be in the neighborhood and hear “the damn thing.”

I taught the morning of election day. At one o’clock I walked down Eastwood to the home of chairman of the Republican Town Committee. The previous night he called and asked me to come over and help out. Feeling guilty because I had not campaigned, I agreed. For two hours I did nothing apart from sitting in the study with another candidate’s little girl and watching Walt Disney cartoons on television, Daffy Duck, Uncle Scrooge, and Woody Woodpecker. The chairman stayed in the kitchen, eating fudge cake and checking town lists to see who had not voted. At three o’clock he handed me five pages of names and telephone numbers, Republicans who had not voted, and asked me to return home and call them, urging them to vote. Although I dislike using the telephone, refusal was impossible. At home Mr. Shinnick was painting the trim on the house. To get myself into the proper political mood, I plugged the phone into a jack in the hall. On a ladder working on the dining room windows, Mr. Shinnick would hear, I knew, all I said. Leaving the phone down, I pretended to dial a number, after which I began an imaginary conversation. I started with the conventional pleasantries, but then I shouted, loudly and clearly for Mr. Shinnick, “I don’t give a damn; just get your big fat ass down to the fire station and vote.” I then picked up the receiver and slammed it down. “Some people,” I yelled to Mr. Shinnick. “Uh, huh,” he answered, and I dialed a second imaginary number. This conversation, too, began conventionally, but after a moment or two I said, again loudly, “well when you get off the commode, try Metamucil, then vote.” “That man, Mr. Shinnick, was suffering from slow movement of the bowels,” I said after hanging up, “shucks, I have that problem myself, but it doesn’t keep me from voting.” Later that day before he left, Mr. Shinnick talked to Vicki. “I am going to vote now,” he said; “I’m a Democrat, but I am going to vote for your husband. He’s different.”

The imaginary calls raised my spirits, and I went upstairs and started through my list. I didn’t get far. After four rings, I usually hung up. On the twelfth or so call, Edward distracted me, and I let the phone ring six or seven times. Just as I was putting my receiver down, someone grabbed hers, then dropped it on the floor. I waited and then a woman, breathing heavily spoke. “I am calling for the Republican Party,” I began, and urged her to vote. “I would like to,” she said, pausing and breathing heavily, “but I am having a baby. My husband is coming home to take me to the hospital,” she continued; “the baby’s almost here and I don’t think I can vote.” “Well, well,” I said, “is it going to be a boy or a girl?” A discussion followed ranging from the desirability of knowing the sex of a child before birth to natural childbirth, breast-feeding, and circumcision. Only when the husband rushed in did the conversation end. That was my last phone call. After hanging up, I took the receiver off the hook so that if the chairman called to check on me, he would discover the line was busy and conclude that I was diligently at work. Afterward I put on old clothes and going into the back yard, began raking leaves.

When the polls closed that evening I was not at Town Hall, but at Willard’s Lumber Yard, attending an adult education course on home repair. The class ended at nine-fifteen, and I left, wanting to think about wallboard, not the school board, gypsum, daffodils, falcons and honey, anything other than politics. Still, I knew that before I returned home I should go by Republican headquarters and congratulate the victors. After that, I would have nothing more to do with politics. “Maybe the presidency,” I said to Vicki two hours later when I got home. “What,” she said, busy eating popcorn and watching “L.A. Law.” “The White House. Then I’ll put an end to all these parking lots. After today,” I said, “who knows what’s ahead.” “You didn’t win,” she said. “Of course I did, 1,092 votes,” I answered; “what did you expect?”


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