Give Kadiddlehopper your axe
by Joe Palmer
[ opinion - november 02 ]
In all of Elvis Presley's 31 films, the orchestra leader nods toward the Elvis character, turns to his guitarist and tells him to lend his guitar to the reluctant rube so that "we can see what this hayseed can do."
In the film 'Loving You' he commands: "Give Kadiddlehopper your axe," and therein lies a tale, a meandering meditation on American identity. Every American, it seems, always has to have a Clem Kadiddlehopper, someone to look down upon, someone culturally and socially beneath him. Condoleezza Rice, a very American woman and advisor to a president, is said once to have told a detractor that she was his superior because unlike him she could play Bach and speak French.
Clem Kadiddlehopper is a pathetic, ignorant clown, an American Frankenstein created to be an object of humour and pathos by Red Skelton, the beloved Hoosier monologuist. When he was a child, Red was a friend and neighbour of my grandmother, Delta Heacock. Red and his mother, the Widow Skelton, lived in the apartment above my grandmother's, over Schultheis' Furniture Store, at the corner of Seventh and Main Streets in Vincennes, Indiana. Whenever Grandma wanted to hear music, she would bang on the radiator, and young Red would play the piano.
Red Skelton's creations, all absurd characters, allowed Americans to find humour and pity in looking down on someone else as an outsider, an intruder of risible ethnic or social origin who must nevertheless be accepted, if not an obvious foreigner, then a bumpkin, a yokel, or a naïve, a rustic, or a grotesque deserving of exclusion from the inner circle of people who belong there. In his 20 years on television and in 43 films ('Panama Hattie', 'Whistlin' Dixie'), in addition to Kadiddlehopper he played Freddy the Freeloader, The Mean Widdle Kid, the boxer Cauliflower McPugg, the drunk Willie Lump Lump ('Drink Guzzler's Gin'), the hen-pecked George Appleby, and the cross-eyed seagulls Heathcliffe and Gertrude, aspects all of what Red felt himself to be.
Richard Skelton was born in 1913 the youngest of four brothers. His father, a grocer, died when Red was two months old. His mother worked as a cleaning lady. Red earned nickels by standing on his head on a milk bottle at the railway station for the amusement of passengers. Discovered there by Ed Wynn, the vaudeville clown on tour in 1923, he joined the circus and broke into vaudeville at the Gaiety Theater in Kansas City at age 15. His first wife Edna Stilwell, whom he married when he was 17 years old, was the writer who created the comic characters with which he made his fortune. According to his biographer, Arthur Marx, he felt profoundly depressed, lonely, and cheated throughout his long life. He retired to Hawai'i, where he painted and sold clown pictures, not representations of actual clowns, but paintings of the typical clowns haunting his imagination. Unlike almost all painters, for several years he earned many million of dollars from the sale of his banal paintings. He is said to have died miserably sad, at age 84.
My wife's friend Hélène belongs to a group of old ladies of the sort that once might have met each week for tea and sandwiches, to discuss knitting or gardening. Nowadays they seek more exciting diversions like hockey games, male Chippendale strippers, and erotic film festivals. After a recent trip to Quebec City to see 'The Elvis Show', an extravaganza of Elvis impersonators ("Order your copy of Mark's 'How to Become an Elvis Impersonator Kit' now"}, the group decided to organize a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, to see the Graceland Mansion, Elvis' signature home, and Beale Street, the home of jazz and rock 'n' roll.
"It's like Disney World or Mecca," my wife told me. "Eventually, everyone has to go there."
"I've been to Graceland," I told her.
"You've been everywhere..."
In May, 1959, I stood at one of the driveway gates in front of the Graceland Mansion on Union Avenue, which was later to be renamed Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, Tennessee. It is just down the street from the Peabody Hotel where I spent the night waiting for a flight to Detroit, returning home to Romeo, Michigan, after a short visit to Fort Smith, Arkansas.
I stood at a front gate of Elvis' home, reading the sign that said that the house was closed to visitors because 'The King' was in residence, gazing in wonder at the beautiful pre-war mansion floating on the blood of slaves, thinking about the fact that it was then owned by an enthusiastic, sex-possessed, pandering, mediocre singer dearly loved by the Fates. In those modern days, different sorts of slaves gave their attention and money, a part of their lives, to reward the moans and gyrations that made up Elvis' performances. In his 31 movies, his characters' talents, grace, and uprightness were always recognized and rewarded when the undervalued, misunderstood youth won the race and the girl. The good guy always won, there were no surprises, and the music was a bastard. As Liberace was to the piano, so Elvis was to the blues a travesty. He earned, or rather was given, a fortune for his performances. It was not fair. It still isn't. There is no justice. Virtue, talent and intelligence may as well be wasted on the desert air for all the dollars they earn for sure, while lucky mediocrity gets the gold. We need to have kings, it seems. There is a human compulsion to accept the superiority, royalty, and magic of certain other people. Why else a pope or president or king?
In front of the Graceland Mansion there stands an ancient tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, a magnolia, bearing gigantic greenish-yellow flowers. When I was there, a mendicant sat beneath it vending blossoms from the venerable tree: a bum was selling the flowers. I gave him a dollar for one; he gave me his blessing and a big, yellow, smelly bloom.
The next morning I boarded the United Airlines DC-3 for the flight to Detroit, carrying only my tackle box, a fishing rod, and the putrid, fading, lotus-like blossom. I had gone to Fort Smith, to retrieve our 1956 Ford Fordor sedan, which had been stolen from the driveway of our modest home in Romeo, Michigan. Someone had left it in a ditch in Arkansas.
It was not the habit to remove the keys from the ignition switches of automobiles in those days, or to lock the doors of houses there. In that world justice was swift and people knew how to keep in their places, usually, as they do in Canada today. One fine May morning as I went to go to work, there was no car where it had always been left. I was on my way to Romeo High School, where I was earning my living by entertaining children, by teaching them to decipher elementary French texts and to understand a few of the literary gems of the English-language canon, while maintaining order in the classroom.
After reporting the stolen car and going to the school, I learned that one of my students had taken the car. Out of spite. Three days later someone at the FBI office in Detroit telephoned and gave me the number of a garage in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where I could retrieve the car. It had been found, wrecked and abandoned. I could get it by arrangement with the owner of the automobile-repair garage to which it had been towed, and where it now sat. I phoned the garage and spoke to Mr Jones, the proprietor, I supposed.
"Can I come and get my car," I asked.
"Sure," he said, "but the A-frame's busted." I didn't know what an A-frame was. It sounded serious.
"Well, can you fix it?"
"Sure, I can fix it. No problem."
"Can you fix it by Saturday?"
"Sure, I can fix it by Saturday."
"Well, you fix it, and I'll come and get it."
"OK," said Mr Jones. "I'll see to it."
I flew to Memphis, changed planes, and was in Fort Smith by noon. I found Mr Jones merely the watchman at a junkyard, not the proprietor of a garage, and he did not recall having spoken to me. Nothing could have been done to repair the car, anyway. It was crumpled like a paper bag. Indeed, the A-frame was busted, and all the glass and fenders and doors. I sold the remains, the tyres and the radio to the junkyard owner, retrieved my fishing gear from the trunk, and flew to Memphis on my way back to Michigan.
Fort Smith, a Wild West town, was built as a military outpost during the suppression of the Indians, "to quell intertribal conflict [sic]." From the gallows there, built in 1896, Judge Isaac C Parker hanged 83 men. From there The Western and Southern Railroad crossed the Indian Territory on its way to the gold rush in California. It is not far from Dogpatch, a town named after a place in American literature, Al Capp's 'L'il Abner', a comic strip set in Dogpatch, which is in reality not far from Hogeye and Smackover, Arkansas.
My automobile had been taken, not for a joyride, but as a way to get to Mexico. My student Brian Wick and his pal Juan Morales had stolen the car. Brian was the 17-year-old son of the town's barber; Juan's folks were migrant labourers who had got stuck in Romeo after the apple harvest. Brian was pissed off at me; I didn't know Juan. He probably missed his girlfriends back in Monterrey.
We teach English in order to impart understanding and appreciation of the cultural heritage that makes us who we want to be. Or who we think we are. Kids have to know what's important to us, lest they remain savages, barbarians in a state of nature, red in tooth and claw. And so forth.
No fiction writer would dare to make up a set of coincidences such as those that inform our daily lives.
In those days in Michigan the 11th grade students were exposed to the history of American literature. Only the 12th and final high-school year included an introduction to British literature reserved for the cultural enrichment of those bound for higher learning.
Having suffered through Hawthorne and Emerson during the dark winter months, towards the end of the school year in May the kids were looking at the cartoons of Bill Mauldin, who received the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1945, with the GIs Willie and Joe in the mud of WWII. One cartoon had the V-for-victory sign, upraised fingers, and the Morse code for the letter V, ..._.
"Duh, duh, duh, dummm," one kid sang.
"What's that from?" another asked.
No one knew.
"They are the first notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony," I said.
"Beethoven? Who's Beethoven?"
Brian Wick, sitting in the far corner, who usually had nothing to contribute to class discussion, was staring out the window at a lilac bush blooming in the schoolyard. "Wick-dipper," the kids called him, an allusion to a sex act. I had not been "able to reach him," as teachers said of the quiet or disaffected ones, the lonely, untouchable kids of no obvious talent who refused to let down their defenses. Brian was small, hardly athletic and barely literate. Had he a personality, he might have been pathetic.
Thinking to myself that that was an easy one to answer and his responding to the question might help Brian get into the game, I asked him "Brian, who was Beethoven?"
His reverie interrupted, Brian turned scowling toward me and spat out "Some prick that makes music!"
Silence. Shock. Thirty people held their breath, waiting to see what would happen next. You must remember that this happened in a day when people said "Yes, Sir", and "Yes, Ma'am", and "Thank you." Teachers said good morning to the politely waiting class and the students said good morning in return. Verbal taboos were so strong that even a "damn" was unthinkable among ladies.
I held my breath too, for a few seconds, until I remembered the panic button: "Brian, report to the principal's office immediately."
The naughty student would wait in the vestibule of the principal's office under the watchful eye of Miss Anderson until it was convenient for the teacher to inform the principal of the nature of the infraction, or, God forbid, the violation. If the student bolted and left the school he would be guilty of truancy, and the matter would be referred to the truant officer, and all hell would break loose for the student at home.
For Brian, home was an older sister and her daughter, his mother, and his father, Tom Wick, a bricklayer who had fallen from a scaffold and lost the use of one leg. He had taken up cutting hair instead of laying brick. I didn't go to that barbershop, and so I did not know Mr Wick personally.
At the end of the hour, I told Miss Anderson that Brian had used foul language in class. That afternoon she sent me a note from the principal, Harold Barr, asking me to meet with him and Brian after the school buses left.
At 3.30 pm, I found Brian and Mr Wick at the office. We were summoned before the principal. Mr Barr nodded, and so I sat down, as did Mr Wick. Brian remained standing in front of the principal's desk.
"Brian, this is serious," Mr Barr said. "I want you to tell your father what you said to Mr Palmer."
Brian looked down at the floor, and said sotto voce: "I said that Beethoven was some prick that makes music."
With one movement Tom Wick rose from the chair with an uppercut that became a left hook that caught Brian on the side of his head. He bounced off the office door and fell to the floor, his elbows at his ears, blubbering "I'm sorry."
"There!" Mr Wick shouted. "Don't use bad language."
Brian did not return to Romeo High School for his senior year. I saw him later that fall, walking down Prospect Street, his hands in his pockets, whistling.
I was told that the boys had made it as far as Laredo on their way to Monterrey. Brian couldn't pass for a Chicano. A Mexican immigration officer turned him over to the yanquis.