John Tarkov – "Lonesome Whipporwill"

The gist of it was: Anachronism.

I was an anachronistic child.

They took me to an adolescent psychologist in Murfreesboro, referred to her mainly by their own sense of alarm. My dad was the family practitioner in Dulcimer. Friends of his from the medical school had spoken highly of this woman, so Tuesday evenings after football practice, my mom would drive me the forty miles.

Hank Williams was the cause of it, but I didn’t recognize that as a problem. I counted it as a blessing.

My folks had a fine collection of neo-classical music: Lefty Frizell, Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Webb Pierce, and, towering above them all: Hank. At the age of seven, I began listening to those old records. My parents found it “precious.”

Oh, how I loved those old songs and still do. The purity. The authenticity. Those songs were recorded in soundproof shower stalls, or close to it, unassisted by synthesizers, or studio musicians with musicology degrees, or M.B.A. producers and techno-geek sound engineers.

Those old songs were produced mostly by the human heart.

I sing them joyfully even now. Saturday mornings, the only time I have the house to myself, when Melanie and the girls go to soccer ― I bristle when that Brit coach calls it “football,”  but all the ladies and the girls, my wife and daughters included, are seduced by his accent ― I close the windows and I go about the house … from room to room … clutching an imaginary microphone … and …

Did you hear that Lonesome Whippoorwill?
He sounds too blue to fly-y-y …
The midnight train is whining low ….

If James Joyce had written those lines, every English professor at Oxford ― plus the ones at that school in England ― would be picking every syllable to pieces.

It’s all about the accent.

Back to 1982.

The high school was brand-new: a big school, consolidating three little township schools that had existed too long, the county decided. It would open that September, and I was part of the first freshman class. For some reason, they launched the school using only freshmen, and only a hundred of those. It created a postapocalyptic atmosphere throughout the building until our junior year.

I couldn’t wait for school to start, or, strictly speaking, for football. I had quarterbacked my middle-school team. Now, with no sophomores through seniors ahead of me, I would have three competitors for the starting quarterback position ― from the three other middle schools feeding the high school ― and I was familiar with their talents.

The job was mine, and I knew it.

Our football schedule was posted in the gym, next to the trophy case, whose shelves, understandably, were bare. “It looks like a Soviet bakery,” my mom said on the orientation tour.

I saw nothing funny about it. Those shelves were awaiting the steady accumulation of trophies, which I and my teammates, I was certain, would provide by our senior year. That fall, however, we would only play four games, all against the same middle schools where we ourselves had played the year before.

These were humble beginnings, and I said so, perhaps crudely.

“We have to walk before we can run,” my dad said in a deep voice, which he used when he wished to signify wisdom, adding, unnecessarily in my opinion, “and before we can walk, we have to crawl.”

The puny schedule was controversial to me personally, but the only controversy that everybody could agree upon was the choosing of school colors and a school mascot. School colors came up for a vote at the first inter-community football meeting.

The women and girls wanted purple and white. The men and boys could not form a cohesive voting bloc. Some wanted black and red. Others, orange and black. Others, red and white. Two wanted powder blue.

The athletic director ― who was also the football coach ― only wanted a decision, and he pressed hard for it. He had to “order the damn things,” meaning our helmets and uniforms, “in time for the season, unless y’all want your boys practicing in jockstraps and coming home with concussions.”

Purple and white it would be. I had no opinion on that. It was a mere point of fashion.

But when it came to the mascot … I had a distinct and luminous idea.

I was hoping to advance it that night, but I didn’t get a chance to speak. The naming of the Dulcimer Union High School mascot was a fraught topic. Discord was rife; tempers rose. The item was tabled before things got out of hand. The name of our mascot remained undecided even as the new high school opened its doors.

I had been waiting patiently.

On the third day of school, I stood before the principal, an imposing man who understood football. He had played at Vanderbilt. His varsity letter hung framed on the wall next to his diplomas, easily outshining them in my eyes. It was a beautiful “V” in burnished gold, trimmed in black, with two little felt footballs sewn into it.

He was young for the job. I had learned that listening to my parents. He hadn’t turned forty yet, but “we were lucky to get him,” my mother said. “He has a doctorate in education. And a master’s in counseling.” She had boundless faith in degrees.

“Can you explain this thing?” he said. He held aloft my petition.

“It’s a petition, sir.”

“And you mean it seriously.”

“Yes, sir.”

“It’s not a prank.”

“No, sir.”

“Many names on this document are fictitious. You realize that.”

“I didn’t know, sir. So many people were signing it.” That was a lie. He knew.

“Why is the handwriting almost identical for each signature?”

“Hmmm.”
“Benjamin. Should I expect our four years together to be punctuated regularly by incidents such as this?”

“No, sir.”

“I’m going to tear this up now,” he said.

I watched as he tore my petition in half, slowly, precisely, without any show of anger, tearing it in half, and then again, and then again, and then into his trash.

“The Lonesome Whippoorwills?” he said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Your inspiration for the name?”

“I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

“I empathize, Benjamin. I was your age myself. But that’s not what I asked.”

“Hank Williams, sir?”

“Yes?”

“It’s a tribute to him.”

“The Lonesome Whippoorwill? As our school mascot?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I don’t grasp this.”

My heart was moved to song. How else could I make this modern man understand the exquisite pain and longing.

I shuffled verses at random, opening with my favorite.

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky.
And when I wonder where you are,
I get so lonesome I could cry.

Did you hear that Lonesome Whippoorwill?
He sounds too blue to fly-y-y.
The midnight train is whining low …
And I’m so lonesome I could cry.

“You have a fine voice, Benjamin.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“The song you just sang. It was performed by Hank Williams? Do I understand that correctly?”

My senses reeled. He didn’t know. This man had gone to college in Nashville, two punts and a field goal from Music Row.

The New South had risen again, before my eyes.

“Yes sir. It was Hank Williams,” I said. “And many others later on. But it was Hank.”

“I gather you like country music, Benjamin.”

“It’s the only music I care about, sir.”

“Don’t you like the Eagles?”

“Philadelphia? No, sir. I root for the Falcons.”

“I meant the group. Eagles. Queen. Bruce Springsteen. Grand Funk?”

“I’ve heard of those, sir.”

“I see.” He tilted his head quizzically. “The Lonesome Whippoorwill.”

“Yes, sir.”

“To serve as the mascot of our fledgling school.”

“Yes.”

“This will put Dulcimer Union on the map, you believe.”

“Maybe, sir.”

“Put our school on the map in all the right ways?”
“I don’t know, sir. I just love the song.”

“I’m sure you do.” He tilted his head back to vertical. “Benjamin. Why do schools have mascots? Tell me.”

“To inspire people?”

“Exactly. To motivate the community. To provide an inspiring image around which we can rally as one.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you feel the Lonesome Whippoorwill is suitable for that?”

“Oh, I do, sir. I do.”

“Benjamin. Let us consider the mascots of the SEC: Bulldogs, Tigers, Gators, Wildcats, then Bulldogs and Tigers a second time …”

“I know them all, sir.”

“And in that other world outside the SEC, an even larger bestiary of ferocious animals: Badgers, Cougars, Grizzlies, Wolverines. Do you see the pattern?”

“The Oregon Ducks, sir?” I didn’t mean to piss him off, but I must have. His neck flushed.

“Ah, but they play on the West Coast,” he said, “a region notorious for bohemianism and eccentricity. I admit to exceptions. Ducks. Gophers. Even Quakers. But, Benjamin, each of those names has, supporting it, a sensible rationale, specific to the school or the surrounding area.”

He was resorting now to debating tricks, but he had stumbled.

“Sir, if a name should make sense to a region, then Hank Williams and the Lonesome Whippoorwill should make sense for us. A lot of sense.” I had spoken far too boldly. His face went red.

“Gators, Wildcats, Tigers, Bulldogs.” He pronounced the names slowly, calming himself. “Each one chosen carefully, to send a message to the foe.”

Then what the hell is a Commodore, I wondered. But I held my tongue.

“I will be blunt, Benjamin. Your Lonesome Whippoorwill would not inspire a mad dog to bark.”

“Sir?”

“Even once.”

Sir?”

“It is insufficiently bellicose, and I reject it on those grounds.”

“Sir?”

“Can you imagine the helmet decals?”

“Sir?”

“Furthermore, you, young man, for all your clever posturing, have not deceived me. This is a prank, and you, apparently, are the ringleader.”

“Sir?”

“Over these next four years, Benjamin, you will find me to be no connoisseur of pranks, and no friend to pranksters.”

“It’s not a prank, sir. I mean it from my heart.”

“At least now I know who my campus prankster is. Thank you for stepping forward so early.”

“Sir?”

“I urge you, young man, to refrain from exploiting your unwarranted celebrity as an athlete. You owe it only to a comically limited talent pool.”

“Sir?”

“And if you repeat what I said about the talent pool, I will deny it and come down hard. Since this is the first week of school ― ever, at Dulcimer Union ― I will be lenient with my starting quarterback. Consider this an informal reprimand. Your student file will remain unblemished.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Until you blemish it. As I’m sure you will.”

Everything had gone horribly wrong. My luminous idea … I became unhinged.

My voice was trembling. “The Crawfish Pies?” I said.

“Excuse me?”

“The Crawfish Pies, sir? That’s a good one, too.”

He stared. I sang.

Jambalaya, and a crawfish pie, and a fillet gumbo …
‘Cause tonight I’m-a gonna see my ma-cher-a-mio …

“Benjamin, please.”

“The Honky-Tonk Angels, sir? For the pep squad?”

His face took on an expression of sadness.

“Benjamin.” He spoke gently now. “I believe I came to a hasty judgment about you. Please pay no mind to my harsh words. Everything will be all right.”

The next day, he called my parents in. Urgently. I have no idea what he told them, but my mom had tears in her eyes at the table that evening, and my dad, uncharacteristically, had little to say.

My first appointment in Murfreesboro took place the following Tuesday, after practice.

I was fourteen. It was 1982. And I didn’t listen to Queen.

As I said early on, I was an anachronistic child.

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