Midwife in the Tire Swing
Ludus Litterarum—Where Words Come From
Fr. Coughlin’s voice was a rich voice, the voice of a beloved uncle more than that of an orator. Cat is sure he is a Newfoundlander who broadcasts from Bangor. She will write him a letter.
“Pax intrantibus, salus exeuntibus; Superman don’t need no seat belt.” These words (first page in the print edition) are supposed to mean something as the two (unrelated) phrases seem to belong together when seen together. The first, a Benedictine lintel carving, “Peace on entering, health on leaving” or “Happy come; healthy go,” is pretty pedestrian—small wonder Latin is a favorite for quotations. The latter is credited to Muhammad Ali. Superman’s seatbelt may be explored in Intermezzo 9.
Mysterious and ancient, Latin is a dead language spoken by no one and understood by but a Papal consistory somewhere. Good for them. Latin quotes are a nineteenth century holdover in the age of copy-and-paste, and churn in the millennial reader’s belly like a feel-bad falafel. Quotes, even? Why? Need a quote? Just go online and plug one in; no one reads them anyway, like the prologue or acknowledgements. I do—read them, that is; I always have. So consider the chapter head quotations as there for my eyes only; you may read them if you wish.
Young Charlie Coughlin’s mother, her son’s asthma notwithstanding, objected to the indoor air of 19th Century Hamilton, Ontario. “I hope to improve the indoors,” said Amelia Mahoney Coughlin and, good housekeeper that she was, took steps. Her scented candles filled the house with the come-hither scent of blooming lilacs and volatile organic compounds, petrochemicals—benzene, phenol, toluene, xylenes, cresols, naphthalene, and cyclopentene. The reek of Amelia’s candles would have been not unfamiliar to the scouts of the Iroquois Confederation who traced the boundaries of Upper Canada. Vanilla or cherry pie or lilac scents announced that one might creep up and watch which creature, if any, nibbled at a proffered fruit. A ring of dead or intoxicated birds was not a healthy sign.
It is also reported that Indian Tobacco, redolent with cannabinoids, when decomposing encourages a palate of lethal fungus-borne diseases such as histoplasmosis. Victims of alpha-terpineol intoxication report a minty lavender odor, the odor of lilac, a smell of locker rooms. Alpha-terpineol may be found in the many compounds swallowed by Alzheimer’s patients: cologne, soap, hairspray, bleach and aftershave. It produces a lilac odor and can cause eye, nose, and respiratory irritation, headache, depression and central nervous system damage. For more about Fr. Coughlin’s childhood asthma and nineteenth-century scent obsession, check Chapter 1.
Wayne-ee, wid-ee, weegee meets Kicker-o. We were taught a ‘Purist’ pronunciation [i.e.: W for initial V, and a hard C everywhere] which persisted until Italian art films flooded university cinemas and Badger Latinistas began to emote and flap our arms like drowning consiglieri. ‘Cicero’ was inflected with a slither and a grin while Kaiser’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico was now written by that Caesar person.
My academic credentials are close to nonexistent—one year at Langlade County Normal School (Antigo, Wisconsin) then the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (in those days called Milwaukee State Teachers College). There I cherished my draft deferment to the drone of Dr. Hudson’s English history lectures and read Horace Gregory’s translation of Catullus. In the 1950s, eighteen-year-olds didn’t mind marching around the field house in our hand-me-down uniforms, relics of WWI we guessed. The USA came late and left early to that misbegotten slaughter, so the thick wool khakis that made it back home even 35 years later had more moth holes than bullet holes. In a wise move, the Army gave us dummy rifles to march with.
Some backstory on Bernard of Cluny, who made it into the tale attached to Judge Crater rather than Cat Hobart
Bumper-hitch generators bounced along, following the tent preachers.
“Gethsemane and You: Secrets of the Bible Revealed. The kids loved a movie; got me every time,” said Cat. “They’d wring us out for a donation to see the last half of the movie when the generator ran out of gas.”
“They all had music of some kind; some had a picture show,” Mrs. Wiggins agreed. The two women sat in a row of theater seats dragged out for the occasion. Libby Wiggins spread out magazines to separate them from previous occupants. “There.”
“Open the door...” This by Br. Clapstick, the call to the mourners’ bench and the crowd hushed to see who would be coming through the tent flap. Dilly Waycott stood and dropped a screw-top pint, there was some gurgling, sticky residue trickled on the grass. “I’m a sinner,” Dilly announced.
Crabmeat Griffin gave Dilly a poke; the half pint smelled like wine but didn’t look like it. “Whuzzat, Dilly, glycerin?” He meant nitroglycerin. Dilly had been down south and knew things. Maybe a bank robbery, blowing stumps, doing something that allowed him to drink liquor with a label on it. There was a ghost of a memory. Crabmeat wondered, “Cider press waste,” said Dilly.
Cat Hobart nodded meaningfully. “Bet Dilly’s got a case in the car.” Dilly liked to stop in Wytopitlock to admire a picture in The Celestial Country, a roadside knick-knackery. Just inside the door Maggie Kilbride, the owner, had thumbtacked a midair snapshot of herself and a craggy unnamed gentleman wearing nothing but their parachute harnesses. They had just jumped out of an airplane; it was a rear view. Local visitors called it “The Naked Picture.”
“Fruit press waste, Brother Clapstick,” said Mrs. Wiggins. “Legal.”
“Well then, you might invite your son-in-law out of the tent to wash his dishes.”
“It’s a sacrament, Brother Clapstick,” said Dilly Waycott.
“Not in this assembly, we’re Baptists.”
Arise, arise, good Christian, let
right to wrong succeed;
Let penitential sorrow to heavenly gladness lead,
To light that has no evening, that knows nor moon nor sun,
The light so new and golden, the light that is but one.
The peace that is for Heaven, and shall be too for earth,
The palace that re-echoes with festal song and mirth;
The garden breathing spices, the paradise on high;
Grace beautified to glory, unceasing minstrelsy.
O happy, holy portion, reflection for the blest,
True vision of true beauty, true cure of the distressed!
Strive, man, to win that glory; toil, man, to gain that light;
Send hope before to grasp it, till hope be lost in sight.
O sweet and blessèd country, the home of God’s elect!
O sweet and blessèd country, that eager hearts expect!
Jesu, in mercy bring us to that dear land of rest;
Who art with God the Father and Spirit, ever blest.
—Bernard of Cluny,The Celestial Country
Over fifty-plus years and as many miles to a factor of ten, I have read a fair quantity of quotes, epigraphs, similes and afterwords. Not to mention introductions and prologues. Dirty work, but someone’s got to do it. That’s me. And you gentle reader, should you care to.
For a self-referential fiefdom of ad hoc quoting, Richard Condon’s Keener’s Manual is the most marvelous of the lot. Here’s one of his keenings from Some Angry Angel (1960):
Some angry angel,
Bleared by Bach and too inbred,
Climbed out of bed,
Pulled on a sock,
And, glancing downward,
Threw a rock
Which struck an earthbound peacock’s head.
The peacock fell.
The peacock’s yell,
Outraged by such treason,
Cried out to know why it,
Out of billions, Should be hit,
And instantly invented a reason.
“I feel sorry for novelists when they have to mention women’s eyes; there’s so little choice, and whatever colouring is decided upon inevitably carries banal implications. Her eyes are blue: innocence and honesty. Her eyes are black: passion and depth. Her eyes are green: wildness and jealousy. Her eyes are brown: reliability and common sense. Her eyes are violet: the novel is by Raymond Chandler.”
—Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot