struck | The
Hollywood pitch | Olive
In the Green Chair
By David Van Meter
William Harrison -- of Rollerball and Mountains on the Moon
fame -- sits in a green chair in a warehouse on Fort Worth's south side.
Colored lights cast accents across the 67-year-old author's Hemingwayesque
face as I silently wonder if the chair we've chosen -- a sage corduroy
wingback -- will be green enough for this story about, yes, the Green
Honors Chair program.
In 1966, Honors students and professors
dreamed of an endowed chair that would be shared by almost every school
and department. Three years later, benefactors Cecil H. and Ida Green
endowed such an academic seat, named for them, with a $600,000 gift to
What a gift it has been.
Several years ago, I sat stunned as oceanographer
Robert Ballard, who discovered the sunken Titanic, showed a packed Ed
Landreth Hall the picture he took of a toddler's shoe, resting all these
years next to the ship's hull.
I also remember when CBS Evening News anchor
Dan Rather, a cup of coffee in hand, stood toe to toe with students, describing
the day he tied himself to a light pole on Galveston Beach to report the
arrival of Hurricane Carla.
This year, a new edition of Green Honors
scholars spent days or weeks on campus. We focus on four -- an expert on
olives, a Hollywood producer, the "sexiest" astrophysicist in America
and Harrison himself. Is the chair green enough?
Alas, I conclude, its color pales anyway
next to the tint of those who sit in it.
the Green Honors Chair in English warned students that making a living
in the arts is a brutal existence, he also proves it is still quite possible
story by William Harrison '55
old man hassled his son all morning, complaining that the coffee wasn't
strong enough, that one of the shotguns had been removed from its case
too early so that morning dew settled on it and that the kid's grades
-- he had finished the year at the local college -- had better improve.
mediocre, always mediocre," the old man snapped at him, and his son
grew sullen as they started walking the path at the edge of the farm.
The old man,
Cobb Yoder, was now almost 70 years old. He had driven off his two older
sons, so now only Jackdog, 19 years old and the son of Cobb's second wife,
was left to hunt with him.
to get through the day," the old man went on. "Don't step on
no rattlesnakes, and don't be makin' any fancy swing shots so I get in
the line of fire."
worry, I won't shoot you," Jackdog answered.
Mind the culvert." They went into a culvert, and then climbed out,
going along the edge of the farm that fronted the gray waters of Baffin
Bay. "And slow down, dammit," the old man protested.
time Jackdog seethed with anger, but kept silent. They went another hundred
yards, stepping over an old coil of barbwire and crossing a patch of weeds,
but no birds flew up.
bet you miss football season," Cobb said, making the first feeble
attempt at real conversation. "Not a bit," Jackdog answered,
and he knew well enough why his father mentioned it. After all, it was
only six-man football played on a dusty field up at the Riviera Beach
school, but it gave the old man an opportunity, after years of having
no sons to watch at the local games, to sit in the stands and brag with
his drinking buddies.
For a minute
Jackdog remembered the games, the girls and the camaraderie with the Garza
boys and others, but he didn't miss it.
just won't say, but you liked football," the old man persisted. "No,
because when I played linebacker I never hit hard enough, and when I played
fullback I never ran far enough to suit you," Jackdog told him. "So
I don't miss it one damn bit."
started again when Cobb said, "I notice you didn't shake out your
boots this morning. You could've stuck your foot right down on a scorpion."
kept on walking.
sun came up, they opened the thermos and drank the coffee Jackdog had
made, eating a wedge of cheese with it.
in hell are all the birds?" the old man asked the sky. Jackdog knew
how to keep quiet and irritate his father, so he did.
his coffee, Cobb said, "Okay, we turn inland. We'll hunt them two
long fence rows, c'mon."
stay along the beach," Jackdog replied.
for? Ain't no birds here."
take my chances."
you didn't want to hunt today, you should've said so."
hunt alone, Jackdog told himself, and once again he let the silence stand
between them until finally he added, "Meet you back at the shack
at lunchtime. We'll see who found the birds and who didn't."
right then," his father said with an angry snort, and he thrust the
empty thermos back into Jackdog's hands and stalked off.
alone, Jackdog's anger ebbed away. The midday heat of September had not
yet started, and he enjoyed shaking out his aching limbs, having slept
in a bedroll in the yard outside the shack where, once, long ago, his
grandfather had lived out his last days, exiled to the far end of the
shack, useless now, with a rickety dock that stuck out 60 feet into the
waters of the bay. He never really knew old Jack Yoder, but his mother
told him stories: a leathery old man, alone, playing solitaire, fishing
for drum and less-than-edible fish, coming up to the big house on Sundays
A dove flew
up, but far out of range. Loyola Beach lay to the east of Baffin Bay,
a salty shallows between Padre Island and the South Texas mainland.
rattlesnakes floated across the briny water, coming ashore at Loyola to
occupy a thorny countryside of mesquite trees, nettles, cactus, yucca,
lizards and scorpions. Along the beach sad driftwood and rotted carcasses
of fish gathered in a residue of oil, smelly seaweed, bottle caps, defecation
and slime. Where the road ended at the boat ramp, the ramshackle Fisherman's
Inn stood perched on pilings, serving everything fried: shrimp, fillets,
potatoes, oysters, hush puppies and Mexican beans.
On the weathered
dock, a few misguided fishermen sometimes pulled their faded boats up
to the rusted pumps. The old man loved the Inn and all his beer drinking
buddies inside it, all of them content to gather in a place as grim as
the landscape itself.
of the Inn the Yoder land started: more than a thousand acres hacked out
of a prickly terrain by grandfather Jack, his son Cobb and Cobb's sons
and given over to cotton farming.
earth was turned over for the fall planting, thousands of doves arrived,
and for a few days the Yoders and their farm workers, especially the large
Garza family, enjoyed the shooting.
flushed out as Cobb went along the fence row, flew with the strong southern
breeze so that Jackdog, giving them a big lead, brought them down. Too
good quick shots. He started across the soft field to pick them up.
We need ourselves some dogs!" he said aloud as he made his way over
another thing to be angry about, having no dogs. They had Beau and Spirit,
once, but Cobb neglected them, and when they finally died the old man
offered the opinion that a good wing shot didn't really need a retriever
in the month of September when the ground lay so bare.
circled the field, found the birds and placed them in his pouch. After
walking back to the path beside the beach, lifting his boots high over
the furrows, he was sweaty and pissed off again.
mean-spirited, stingy, stubborn, dumb son of a bitch: He had recently
raised a hand against Jackdog's mother again after all the promises that
it wouldn't happen another time. The argument: a pair of shoes she had
bought for him, a pair he claimed he didn't need.
of himself, Jackdog went down a list. No dogs. Farm equipment in lousy
shape. The Garzas constantly and rightfully angry, so that Tony finally
quit in disgust, went off and joined the Army. Beer and bullshit every
night at the Inn. Something
had to be done.
the birds came up. They came from the fence rows by the dozens, sailing
on the rising breeze, heading from his left to right so fast that he could
only shoot, load and shoot again.
they came and kept coming in a long rope of frantic wings. Swinging his
gun, giving them a big lead, he pulled off shot after shot, at war with
the whole dove population of South Texas, it seemed, missing dozens while
stopping to reload. One, two, a double: He never missed. The Old Stevens
felt wonderful as it warmed in his hands.
felt oiled and ready as if he'd waited all his hunting years -- since
he was 9 years old -- for this moment. Once, stopping to load again, he
listened for the sound of Cobb's gun, but heard nothing.
As they kept
coming, he stood on the beach path firing toward the field, dropping birds
for perhaps 30 minutes until his ammo started running out. The morning
sun glared at him, but he glared back and, once, he made an impossibly
long shot on a bird so far away that he knew he'd never go look for it.
It went down on the horizon like a stone.
birds until he felt like a man who possessed the day, himself and pure
nature. A deep exhilaration boiled up inside him, and he knew it was the
greatest feat of shooting he had ever heard about, a hunter's dream, and
a story he would later tell. And still the birds came, dark flights of
them coming in clusters and very fast.
He kept firing
until his ammo was gone, but with his last shot he got a double, feeling
heroic and blessed.
shotgun was hot and empty, he let out a yelp of raw pleasure. As he trudged
into the field once again to pick them up, he heard for the first time
the report of Cobb's gun somewhere to the east: a single, rather forlorn
little bump of sound.
up 53 birds. On the long walk back toward the shack, the pouch became
a steaming burden, but his thoughts were pleasantly addled at what he
had done. He didn't mind the wait.
As his eyes
drifted over the gray waters of Baffin Bay, even that pitiful sight looked
curiously beautiful in the September sun.
At the shack,
he cleaned the birds the way Cobb taught him: pushing up the breast of
each bird with the pressure of his two thumbs, and then tossing the bloody
seeing old man Garza doing this with one hand: his thumb squeezing a dove's
breast up and out. It was generally agreed that a dove's legs and thighs
weren't worth anybody's trouble. Jackdog tossed the remains of the dead
birds down a dusty slope onto the beach: feathers, gore, all of it in
a messy pile for the scavengers to clean up. A
he washed at the tap beside the rickety porch of the shack, then started
the campfire with twigs and driftwood. Cooking up the birds: the last
of the tradition.
In the old
days, the Garzas and other workers joined the Yodors in an evening picnic
on the first day of dove season. The men cooked for the women. Today was
a pale reminder of those times: a single skillet now, a midday lunch,
no dogs, no older brothers, no women, no Garzas, just the old man and
it, Jackdog pealed two potatoes and opened a can of salsa, then went to
the truck, removed the cooler and opened a beer. Gliding over the waters
of the bay, two gulls called to each other.
about his mother. She kept all of Cobb's books, doing all the complex
accounting, and in recent years had even started making the deals with
the cotton gin. A slender woman, shrewd and tender, she left Cobb to his
nights at the Inn and to his days running around the countryside in his
pickup. His sexual demands were long over, but his gruff complaints still
bore down on her, so she earned what she had from the marriage.
remembered how she sat in the stands two years ago when he still played
football: her hands over her mouth, her eyes worried. Cobb appeared, coming
toward the beach through the furrows.
got two damned birds," the old man announced, glancing at the sizzling
skillet. "You get some?"
Jackdog admitted, and he nodded toward that steep pathway to the beach
littered with feathers, blood and scrawny necks and wings.
over for an indifferent look.
betcha didn't put all the breasts in plastic sacks," he managed.
"They're in the cooler warmin' up your beer."
what're you cookin' for?"
Jackdog replied, biting off the word. In
spite of himself, his anger flared up again.
it's too hot for a big meal," Cobb said, and he wiped out a shotgun
and placed it in its leather case. "Hear what I'm saying? It's too
hot to eat."
me to clean your two birds?"
hell no," Cobb answered him, and tossed both birds down the pathway
toward the others. "I'm taking the truck back to the house, so I
reckon you can eat by yourself, if that's all you want, then walk back."
rose from tending the fire, then kicked hard, sending the skillet flying.
Hot grease and dove meat scattered around the yard.
that is one stupid thing to do," Cobb told him, but before he could
say anything else Jackdog pounced on him, turned him, lifted him by the
scruff of his hair and the seat of his pants, and hurled him into the
gory mess of dead birds. Cobb didn't stop rolling until he hit the beach,
but he bounced up quickly, muddy, a smear of blood -- not his own -- on
his reddening cheek.
ungrateful little bastard," Cobb spat out as he started back the
same way, his boots sliding over the wet feathers of the dead birds.
on up," Jackdog said evenly. "Raise a hand to me like you did
to Mama, and I'll break it off for you. Complain one more time, and I'll
close your mouth. You've had your run."
his way back into the yard, but was short of breath. While he sputtered
and gathered himself together, Jackdog had hold of him again. This time
he sent the old man flying backward down the same slope.
to make you live out here in the same shack where you put grandfather,"
Jackdog told him. "But I don't want to see that much of you. You
can move into one of them smelly rooms above the Inn. Better yet, move
your ass into Kingsville. Into some damn condo. Come out for Sunday dinner
if you want to, but tell me when you're comin' so I'll be gone."
smoothly, everything natural and impromptu, fluid, like the shooting of
so many dove in the morning sunlight.
around on his back down in the slime.
don't try to money-whip us 'cause Mama knows what's in the books -- all
the stuff you've tried over the years -- and I'd just as soon send your
sorry ass to jail. You don't know the IRS from a bottle of Shiner. You
don't even know cotton farming these days, and that's why I'm taking it
over! Because I still know how to work, and I'm sober enough to keep the
farm in the black!"
his way through all those little corpses again, wheezing, his face swollen
with anger. He had a muddy stone in his fist and meant to use it.
never had a friend or worker you've managed to keep," Jackdog went
on. "If I can get Tony Garza out of the Army and back here, we'll
show you some cotton farming. Treat your workers right, and they'll show
you a profit, you dumb, sorry, tight-fisted old fart!"
his arm with the muddy stone and stumbled forward, but Jackdog had him
used Cobb's weight against him, dodging his feeble swipe, then caught
him in the crotch, lifted him fully off his feet, and hurled him over
the side of the embankment for the third time.
At the bottom,
covered with sticky feathers, his white hair rumpled, Cobb lay back to
rest for a spell.
can't even go up the right fence row," Jackdog said, standing at
the edge of the yard and peering down at him. "You chased off two
sons who worked themselves to death for you! One of 'em's 10 times brighter
than you are, and what's he? A tractor salesmen! And what're you? A braggart
who wore out the first Mrs. Yoder like you wore out the dogs! And my own
mama, too, except she's too gentle to tell you so, but I will! Forget
your sorry ass! Get up here so I can throw you back down where you belong!"
real partial to dove, and you went and ruined the whole skillet of 'em,"
Cobb managed. "Don't talk to me about dove! I shoot half the birds
in Cleburne County, and what do you do? Lay around on the beach!"
"I didn't elect to come down here," Cobb quickly added.
I ever let your miserable face back in the house, keep it locked away
in your room!" Jackdog told him, and in spite of the tone the old
man heard some small possibility. "Well, sure, your Mama don't want
me sleepin' in her room. Where else do I stay put except my own damn room?"
should apologize to her every day for the rest of your sorry life! And
get down on your knees and apologize to both my half brothers! And ask
the Garzas to forgive you for all of the stuff you dumped on them! I'm
deeding them land we cleared and some we haven't because, by god, they've
heavily and struggled to his feet once more."Now
here I come, so don't keep yourself so riled up. You could hurt a man
carrying on with such a terrible temper as I see you've got."
you step out of line I intend to whip you like a dog," Jackdog informed
him. "And you're outta line any time I say. "
his way up the incline once again, then stood before Jackdog winded and
flushed. In time he picked up the half-cooked breast of a dove, brushed
it off, and seemed content to keep it as a souvenir.
about a beer?" he asked, trying to concoct a grin.
don't you walk down to the Inn and get your own," Jackdog told him.
"I worked all night icing down the cooler, packed gear, laid out
food and ammo, then started lunch, but you didn't appreciate any of it.
Take care of your own damned requirements. Later, if you're too drunk
to walk home from the Inn, phone home. Mama might have mercy on you, but
give a man one beer," Cobb argued, as if this much might be salvaged
from the day.
gathered up the camp items, even the hot skillet, and tossed them into
the rear of the pickup with a loud clang. Cobb followed him around during
all this, pleading his case for just one single bottle of beer, just one
bottle to see him off on his trip down the beach to the Inn.
me one more time and I'm stuffing you down the bird slot again,"
Jackdog finally snapped at him. With that he jumped into the truck, started
the engine and drove away.
When he glanced
in the rearview mirror he saw Cobb -- his mouth tight and sealed -- as
he turned his footsteps toward the Inn.
By the time
Jackdog drove a mile back to the house, his thoughts had returned to shooting
dove: a great day, a glorious series of wing shots, impossible shots,
five birds with two barrels, a closing double, and he felt his jurisdiction
over the fields, the distant waters of the bay and the creatures of the
Harrison was the editor of the The TCU Daily Skiff in 1954-55.
His wife of 44 years, Merlee, attended TCU, and two of their three children
became journalists. In 1964, Harrison began his long association with
the University of Arkansas as the founder of the program in creative writing.
He retired as University Professor in 1998. Five of Harrison's eight novels,
including his most recent work, The Blood Latitudes, have African
settings. Perhaps his best-known work in that setting is Burton and
Speke, filmed under the title Mountains of the Moon. Harrison is also
the author of the futuristic short story, Rollerball Murder. Harrison's
screenplay based on the story became the film Rollerball in 1975;
with a remake of that classic to be be released in 2001.