Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman (17 page)

BOOK: Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
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My little brother, incidentally, played his final game for his high school yesterday, and is sitting back now to survey the mob of college scouts who've been hounding my mother since October. I am the new bargaining agent, and expect to enjoy the position thoroughly. (Just heard Gen. White's proclamation that we “have Russia zeroed in from all directions.” I am waiting now for Vannevar Bush and Ed Teller
to announce that our new supersensitive radar picked up a rash of heart tremors from the direction of the USSR, immediately after White's remarkably insignificant statement. I could almost hear Karl Marx laughing in his tomb.)

But don't be alarmed over my apparent lack of patriotism. I merely get these quips out of my system in letters, rather than the sporting editor's column of the
Jersey Shore Herald.
On that note, I'll leave you,

forever optimistic …


Upon arriving in Jersey Shore, Thompson dutifully wrote home full of concern about the obvious dullness of the Pennsylvania mining town. In later years he would write about his harrowing Jersey Shore experiences in
Songs of the Doomed.

November 29, 1957
Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania

Dear Mom,

You probably have my other letter by now, so you should have a fair idea as to how things stand. To put it all in a nutshell … the situation is about as fluid as a situation can get.

I have paid my rent for one month. The apartment seemed horrible at first, but I've been working on it most of the day, and it looks a little better now. It is old: the floors slant, the lights hang from the ceiling, the walls are filthy and cracked, and the furniture is all but worthless and anything but
functional. It is, nonetheless, an apartment. The address is 1220 Allegheny Street, Jersey Shore, Pa. I live in the rear apartment on the second floor. My view—a northeastern exposure—consists of an eyesore of a barn about 100 yards to the rear, several run-down houses in the vicinity, and another eyesore of a hill—covered with scraggly trees and grass, rising into the smoggy sky which shrouds this smoggy town. Needless to say, north-central Pennsylvania in itself is not an inspiring sight: and the small blot called Jersey Shore is one of the least inspiring sights in north-central Pennsylvania.

So, as you see, being accustomed as I am to relying on my eyes to satisfy any aesthetic tension, I am now facing a neurosis of the worst sort. There are no waves pounding a sandy beach, no sea gulls soaring lazily over a fishing boat, and no glass-front bars in which to sit and watch the rain pelt down on a motionless bay. I must, in short, rely on something else: and whether I can derive any satisfaction from that “something else” will be the deciding factor in whether I stay here or not.

I'm speaking of my work: not just the newspaper, but other writing I can do. If a man really wanted to bury himself, I can think of no better place to do it than in Jersey Shore. I will have time—I can see that now—and the only pressure on me will be that which I put there myself. As compensations for the complacent squalor of this town, I have New York and Philadelphia within six hours driving distance, the possibility of a new car, and the privacy of an apartment.

But the ultimate factor will be the degree of freedom I have with the sports section. I don't mean that anyone will interfere with or censor my work—far from it. I will have to be able to make it as good as I want it to be … and that's where I may run into trouble.

Frankly, the paper is not good. The stress here is on speed and efficiency, rather than quality. And, rather than fight a system which will inevitably dull my ardor, I will have to leave. In one respect, this desolation is good. Having no other outlets for my energy, I will be able to pour them all into my work. But if I'm frustrated there, I can see no point in staying here.

I'll be clear on this point by the middle of January. By that time, the new system will have been in effect for about two weeks. I've already been informed that, in addition to the responsibility of a four-page sports section (which is really nothing at all when you have 2 wire services) I'll also do the final layout of the front page each morning. This means that, at night, along with an old but genial reporter, I'll be running the paper in the capacity of an editor. If I can do what I want with it, I think I'll like it here. But if I'll have to subject myself to the system here, as I said before, I'll leave. You will hear more on this.

The people are all very nice. I've been to two banquets in two nights—meeting hundreds of people and receiving numerous invitations to dinner
and that sort of thing. It's always Mr. Thompson and “sir,” and all slightly embarrassing. […]

Tell Memo that her “extra” $5 was a great help—especially since I had to pay the rent in advance. Also tell her that I'm in great need of a radio. It will help during the holidays. Naturally, I'm going to hate being away from home: especially in this ghastly hole. I think, however, that it may do me some good—writing-wise. I enjoyed my last stay immensely and hope to get home again sometime soon … and it may be sooner than we think.

But I'm going to close now, for I don't feel real well; not any physical illness, of course, but a sort of emotional turmoil. I know that I'm in a period of crisis now, and I'll probably be keyed-up and touchy until things begin to clear up.

Write soon and tell everyone hello for me.


P.S. send any packages c/o Regan's Grill (same address). That's the taproom I live on top of. My mailbox won't hold packages.


A few weeks in Jersey Shore and Thompson was envying Callen for being stationed in Iceland.

December 12, 1957
Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania

Dear Larry,

So you think Iceland is bad: ha! Let me tell you about north-central Pennsylvania.

There were three red lights in metropolitan Fort Walton: there are two in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania. There were four laundry & dry cleaning establishments in Fort Walton: there are NONE in Jersey Shore. There were innumerable bars in Fort Walton: there are two in Jersey Shore. There were at least four good eating establishments in Fort Walton: there are but three small grills in Jersey Shore. There were women (whores, lesbians and divorcees, if you must) in Fort Walton: the only women under forty in Jersey Shore go to high school. There were beaches and water and sand dunes and sea gulls and boats and bays in Fort Walton: there are mountains of coal dust, dirty old people, ancient wrecks of houses, and
True Confessions
magazines in Jersey Shore.

And now you're going to ask just what in the hell I'm doing in Jersey Shore, Pa. I know … and I'm ready with a quick answer: I am having a nightmare.

In this nightmare I am an ass … but I have everybody fooled. These nightmare people think I'm a “nice young man” who's come to settle in their community and make it a home. They call me “Mr. Thompson” and “sir” and insist that I attend the Lions' Club meetings, become an Elk, and join a bowling team. They invite me to their homes for dinner and tell me that the only thing wrong with America is the fact that we've given all our money to foreigners. The boy who writes the high school basketball games for me told me the other day that he wanted me to write a letter of recommendation for him for a college scholarship—the Grantland Rice Scholarship at Vanderbilt. Oh blasphemous irony: and I had mailed in my application only a few days before. The bastard can't even write a box score—and he'll probably win it because he has extracurricular activities in high school. He's a well-adjusted lad: there's no doubt about that at all. Yessir, he fits right in.

But let's get back to the nightmare … and how I became an ass. I am the sports editor of the town paper. For some reason, it's a daily, and an afternoon daily at that. My work takes me about three out of every twenty-four hours. I also do the final dummy of the front page. I'm a $75 dollar a week man; a white collar worker; one of ten people in town who wears a coat and tie to work. I'm a young man on his way up. Screw it all: if this path leads up, then I'd rather go down. At least it's enjoyable while the ride lasts.

But you want to know why I'm an ass. It's because I believed what I read in a letter. I believed a little man's description of his good ole home town: not realizing that he was measuring it in his own mind—with the same kind of measuring stick they use in chambers of commerce all over the land.

Not only do these bastards have no idea what a good paper should look like, but all they care about is getting enough local copy. They don't give a damn if the headlines make any sense or not—just as long as they get to the typesetters in time to keep anyone in the composition room from having to hurry. Half of one entire page has to be local bowling scores—a goddamn list of people's names. I've gotten my hands on one picture since I've been here—and that was a team shot of the Lock Haven State Teacher's College basketball team. I have about as much pride in my work as I did during my last days on the
Command Courier.

It really is a nightmare. And the tragically funny thing about it is that I don't really know what to do. Naturally, I can always go back home: but that would be a regression of the worst sort. I can't bitch about this place because I know I can leave anytime I want to. It's worse than the AF, because talk was cheap there. It didn't really matter what you said. I pity very few people, but right now I'm ready to enlarge my list. I can understand how these poor bastards feel who lie awake at night and wrestle with the realization of their own worthlessness. I can understand how a man feels
when he has to explain to his friends why he re-enlisted. And I can understand how those millions of poor fools feel, who hate every minute of their jobs and can't do a damn thing about it.

Don't get me wrong now: I'm not sitting here bemoaning my own fate. If I were twenty years older, that might be the case. But it depresses me that I've been wrong about so many people. I think of all the things I said about reenlistment in front of John Edenfield.
And I think of all the rest of the John Edenfields who've had sentences pronounced on them by factors almost completely beyond their control. I don't really wonder how they manage to live, because I know they get into comfortable ruts, but I wonder how it feels to know that the only people who care if you live or die are those you provide for.

I don't wonder that we have sex criminals who didn't really want to be sex criminals, or murderers who don't know why they kill. There are so many things wrapped up in this “ego” business that it sort of makes you wonder whether it would be a good thing to put it in psychology books and make it available to people who think they want to learn about themselves.

But I've written much more than I'd intended to already. I will read
Atlas Shrugged
and I am going to school next fall. You'll hear from me again when I make up my mind about what I'm going to do between now and then. Think of me on Christmas and you won't mind Iceland so much. Until I hear from you, I remain,

slightly deflated, but no longer
ripe for popping,


The son of an eminent Kentucky judge, Logan was a Louisville friend of Thompson's who was attending Williams College in Massachusetts.

December 14, 1957
1220 Allegheny Street
Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania

Dear George,

Well lad, I wouldn't have written at this particular time, had I not, only a moment before, been thrown into an orgasm of spiritual glee by the sound of Jesus tapping out a message of Christmas cheer on my dirty window-pane.
And with this heavenly tapping, there came a sound so pious, so blessed, and so moving, that I was lifted completely out of myself and into the realm of the ethereal.

I had just finished the orgasm brought on by the savior's tapping, when I heard a song. On unsteady legs, I struggled to the window and saw, to my great joy, a truck—a Salvation Army truck. On top of this truck there was mounted a speaker, and out of it came sounds of a most unearthly nature. I recognized some of the “old songs”; some of the old and stirring melodies I sang as a wee lad when I caroled in the streets with my drunken uncles.

I was moved, George: I was lifted out of myself and up … up … up … up … and up. I was soon perched—in nothing but my shorts and tennis shoes—on a cloud of smog, overlooking the filthy community called Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania. And I was not alone on this cloud: to my left was H. L. Mencken; to my right was George Bernard Shaw; and slumped on a particularly smoggy ledge was Westbrook Pegler. And over the entire scene stood William [Billy] Graham, scepter in hand, a crazed look in his eye, and a red judo belt wrapped snugly around his groin.

Nothing was said. We looked nervously at the scene below. The entire town seemed to shimmer in the night—emitting a certain pious glow which only the smallest and most complacently ignorant town can emit. Pegler vomited over the side.

“Jesus, look at that place,” muttered Mencken. “It's enough to make a man pray for a plague of maggots.”

“Shut up! you dirty bastard,” screamed Graham. “I get seven hundred and forty-four tax-free dollars every year from those people. That's a good, typical American community. Those fine people are determined to hear the word of god—even to the point of paying for it. And they'll listen to nothing else, by christ! That's the kind of town we need more of.”

“Bullshit,” said Pegler, wiping his mouth. “That's all you are, Graham—bullshit.… I hope I got that Salvation Army truck: I think I made the correct adjustment for the windspeed.”

“Nobody,” said Shaw in a slow and sorrowful voice, “with a grain of sense, would live in that place for more than a month. It is without a doubt one of the most frighteningly desolate sights in the western hemisphere.”

BOOK: Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
5.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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