Columns » Bob Lancaster

The August slows

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I was once a country correspondent for a glib New York newspaper that required me to submit articles by dictating them over the telephone. A voice-activated robot on the other end recorded and transcribed them. Or it tried to. I speak so slowly and softly that the machine would shut down virtually after every long-distance word. I could sense its frustration, its wanting to tell me to speak up, speak up, faster, faster, out with it, out with it, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon. But, lacking the hortatory speech function, it simply sputtered into unworkability, fried its wires, and expired. A fast-talking assistant editor phoned me back to say I was personally to blame for having killed it and to demand some sort of restitution, but before I could think what to reply, she too had hung up in exasperation. This was in August. Neither machine nor editor knew it, but they had come up against a beast as formidable for their kind as a Kong. The month itself is that beast. It gets into the sluggish blood and lazy pharynxes of the slow talkers of these latitudes and slows our speech, our reflexes, our rhythms, our couplings, our weltanschauungs almost to the point of petrification or paralysis, and people on the upside of the Mason and Dix don’t know what to make of us. They’re buffaloed. They sense voodoo coming at them in large. The August slows can do a molasses number on our own psyches, too, and absurding up the institutions. For example revival meetings feature only one hymn, and the first verse only of that, lest sermon-time find the brethren already absconded, tuckered by the very thought of having to take aboard redemption. Wisconsinians could age cheese in the time, in August, that we require to milk a goat. Not only in our stump oratory but in our drill instruction and track-and-field countdowns we take the scenic route. The jerky jumpy frenetic life that you hear in George Gershwin and see in Charles Chaplin fades from memory and even from imagination. Slow gets so slow that we forget more often than not to finish our … uh … . One thought leads to another before the first one gets fully expressed, and the utterance turns out to consist of the first part of one thought and, after an elliptic abyss, the last part of a thought four or five thoughts on down the stream of consciousness. Or something. True, there remain fast talkers among us in August, road ragers, Type A’s chattering for hustle, but come the slows the majority hereabout drop into a reduced-speed zone, where the pace is so deliberate, as the baseball announcers say, that we can no longer even perceive the flitting and zipping and buzzing around of those busy bees, like in the famous episode of the original Star Trek. I first became aware of these parallel non-intersecting worlds of August Fast Elsewhere and August Slow Here one canine evening when I was trying to beat out a Pony League bunt. It was a good bunt, and I had a notion I might beat it out, and I was about to get excited over the prospect when I realized that I’d been en route to first base for nigh on to 20 minutes. First base was still a ways off yonder, my left foot was making a slow descent toward it, a descent as slow as one of Edgar Allan Poe’s, and I realized that before that foot hit the ground I would have time to detour to the concession stand for a Clem’s Cola and a corndog and an ice-cream sandwich, with time left over for a smoke. Boys were worse to smoke in those days, and I might have paused there for a few drags on my way to first base but all I had on me were a couple of sweat-damp Old Golds yegged from the Lawrence Johnson stash and no one to bum a light off of. I don’t remember, out or safe, one or the other, all of it, including the memory of it, pulled up into the dark maw of the August night with the astonishing elongating annihilating suck of a black hole. This was time no longer glacial, no longer geological, having slowed off into a cosmic phase nearing infinitude, nearing omnipresence. It was August time. Herky jerky Yankees coming up against it are positively dumfounded, as are their voice-activated recording machines. People from the Borean climes often mistake this great August slow for stupidity. I knew some guys from New Bedford, Mass., once who didn’t think it possible for them to lose substantial waddage at snooker against a rube who pronounced the game like it had four o’s. That’s Mr. Rube to you boys, they were told. Stuff that happened on the slow August watch: Mr. Whit sold his first belt buckle. Elvis hip-swiveled first, and the slow of it was such that a myriad swooned. Mr. Sam discounted his first merchandise by mistake, and by the time he got around to making the correction, his first $5 billion was in the bank. Also, Jim Kaat invented the eephus pitch, which traverses the 60 feet six inches in about the same amount of time that the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria took.

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