Columns » Bob Lancaster

It will or it won't

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The end of August is always a big relief, a moral victory, but in it also there’s a note of melancholy.

A year loses its momentum as August concludes, and thence to the winter solstice is a time of reckoning.

The going-out has ended, and the season has commenced to come back in. Sowing is over and soon the reaping starts. Another year’s initiatives are launched and gestating, so back to the house to await the tabulation. The cool of autumn evenings is the time for that.

Will it prove to have been a good year? Will civilization have made some minor advances — maybe one or two not so minor ones — that posterity might footnote with gratitude?

A friend of mine named Bill McMahan believes that every proposition has a 50-50 chance of realization — whether it’s filling a straight inside or hitting the lottery or a meteor taking your roof off exactly 15 seconds from now. “Either it will,” he says, “or it won’t.”

That is a sanguine philosophy and I’m warming to it in my superannuation. Another August is gone and we’ve either made some meager progress on a few fronts here in 2006 or we haven’t. Well and good if we have; TFB if we haven’t. In frog, say la vee.

The assessment takes its time, but we’ll have a good notion of it by Halloween, and should be pretty clear on it by Thanksgiving.

A.M. punkin frost, falling leaves, insect studies against football lights — the answers, the final ’06 tally, will appear in those.

For the time being, we’ve still got the 50-50 chance. Either we did or we didn’t.

The grandchildren started back to school this week, and the little dickenses give no credence to the old man’s tales of yore school days in the primitive pre-cyber epoch when, they are certain, hideous, enveloping boredom must surely have crushed nubbin lives into perfect unliveability.

“How did you stand it?” one of them earnestly inquired.

“It was grim,” I had to acknowledge. But back there in the Jurassic there was something called imagination, and it worked wonders. It worked them in much the same way that a Play Station does, too, only faster and more efficiently. Just a different kind of electronics but your DSL couldn’t hold a pixel to it. They were unimpressed.

We didn’t go to school until way up in the fall, I told them, because we had to get the cotton in first. Imagine that. Nimble urchin fingers filling the long sacks with it day after livelong day, on past the equinox and the start of squirrel season, singing songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as we picked along those old rows that ran to the horizon in both directions.

Yessir, and the evil overseer would pop a blacksnake whip over your stooped form if he thought you’d gone to daydreaming and weren’t getting your quota, and sometimes that whip would lay open a shoulder or buttock, but usually that was only accidental, and you learned to grin and bear it, the way an ox does. And pretty soon your hide would toughen so it didn’t smart any more than a horsefly nip anyhow, and the whole issue was very much overblown. Just my opinion, theirs being indifference and an occasional “Wait a minute. Let me turn this thing down.”

Hard work and the lash weren’t exactly enjoyable but cotton-picking did have its pleasanter features. Momma always packed us a nice lunch in the lard bucket, and although it was only a cold biscuit, it wasn’t usually too much trouble catching a cotton rat or a skink to sandwich in there for a high-protein midday treat. One time an unwary prairie chicken wandered up and the only drawback there was that by the ancient rules of entail and primogeniture the overseer laid claim to all the white meat. That was just one of his prerogatives and no use whining about it.

One of the womenfolk sometimes brought along a little granulated sugar in her shimmytail, and during the lunch break she would use it to spin up some cotton candy. This was real cotton candy now, made with real cotton, not this stringy pink imitation-cotton candy you got at the county fair. The grandchildren merely scoff when I try to relate the difference between real cotton candy and the pink imposter. They think I’m “giving them the business,” and it saddens me that they are such strangers to ordinary, tangible, natural reality that they can’t conceptualize so basic a thing as a raw material. They can’t look at a cotton stalk with the bolls on it and see those fibers morph into a T-shirt. They can’t see that any more than they can see in their grandpappy ruins a barefoot boy picking cotton, eating lizard sandwiches, and occasionally bursting forth that Nobody Knows the Trouble He’s Seen.

Where these youngsters live, cows joyride on stolen motorbikes and sponges wearing square pants live in undersea pineapples and work as fry cooks. Cotton is a purposeless something that grows, apparently, in aspirin bottles, and the only trustworthy reality — a next generation’s invocation of the 50-50 rule — either comes up out of a Game Boy or can be exiled back into one.

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