In mid-January, my husband, Rick, slipped on a muddy hillside while walking our dog and fell and broke his arm. It was a simple, clean break, only requiring a basic cast. But it radically—and immediately—altered the ebb and flow of his days.
Rather than spending eight to ten hours a day at work moving heavy boxes of auto parts, he has found himself rattling around the house getting reacquainted with the TV, the washer and dryer, and his computer. He can stay up until midnight, if he chooses, and wake up when he wants. He can ponder home projects we’ve delayed for years, even if we both know we’ll never get around to tackling them.
Some things haven’t changed. He and Lucy continue to take long walks, whether the temperature is 4 or 64. Tuesday nights he still joins the West Sixth Run Club, even if he’s walking rather than running. And, for those of you most concerned about whether he can still churn out hundreds of bourbon balls a week, fear not: he quickly adapted to one-arm candy-making.
He also hasn’t been homebound. Despite the fact that both of our cars have a manual transmission—requiring two hands or, in Rick’s case, one very busy right hand—Rick hasn’t let his temporary disability keep him from his usual gallivanting. One evening he may head to Lexington for a music or cultural event. The next evening he’ll see what’s shaking in Frankfort. If it’s a day ending in “y,” there’s a bourbon celebration somewhere in central Kentucky. And Rick will most likely be there.
As usual, he has taken this unexpected turn of events in stride. He prefers to think of it as “practicing retirement.”
Meanwhile, I have also been navigating a shift in perspective. At the end of 2018, I decided to dedicate the first few months of 2019 to the novel I’ve been working on, with various levels of commitment, for years. I’m close—really close—to finishing it. I’m newly enthusiastic about the work. And I’m trying my best to ignore as many distractions as possible and devote my time to that singular task.
To that end, I recently spent 10 days on a writing retreat in Minnesota under the hawkish eye of my newly minted writing coach, Tim Cooper. Together we scoured every word, every nuance, every historical fact in the first 20 chapters. He offered helpful criticism and much-needed encouragement. As a result, I have renewed confidence that I can get this thing done, and I have a clear plan to get there.
Transitioning from writing nonfiction—in this blog, in op-eds provoked by national events, in materials related to The Last Resort—to fiction has not been easy for me. I’m comfortable writing about factual events and people’s individual and collective responses to them. I feel much more inept at imagining characters and scenes and conflicts and, most importantly, effectively rendering the emotions inherent in each. It has taken some time, and a lot of classroom instruction and mentoring, to help me understand how to capture the human condition, essentially, in words on a page, with the goal of evoking an authentic response from the reader.
Rick may be comfortable behind the wheel of a car right now—reaching across the steering wheel for the turn signal, taking corners by alternately turning the wheel and shifting gears with the same hand—even if I’m not comfortable watching him do it. But I’m paying attention to him, trying to adopt his sanguine approach to an unexpected challenge. I think I can persevere. I hope the result will be a story worth reading.
I come from a family of readers. Serious readers. People who read all the time. I am by far the slacker in the group. If my parents were alive today, I’m sure they would continue to read books despite all the electronic distractions available to them.
My family members also distinguished themselves with skillful writing, although—aside from the two journals by father kept that are included in whole or in part in The Last Resort—I’m not aware that any of them ever wrote for pleasure or just for themselves. I have no recollection of anyone in my immediate family, say, writing poetry or short stories. It’s possible they did, but I’m not aware of it.
And until this past summer, I wasn’t aware of another family member who had, as I did for many years, made a living as a writer or editor. My checkered career had me writing everything from technical manuals to marketing froth for private companies, higher education, and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. I spent countless hours reviewing, editing, and verifying pieces written by other staff members. My work days were dedicated to selecting just the right words to persuade, instruct, enlighten, or cajole a particular audience.
But I now know about my Uncle Forrest.
My great-uncle Hamilton Forrest Moore (1881-1972)—oldest son of the Rev. William Dudley Moore, brother of my grandmother Martha Florence Moore Goodlett—had a long career, I believe, with The Anderson News, the newspaper of my family’s home town, Lawrenceburg, Ky. My cousin Sandy recalls that Uncle Forrest continued to edit each edition of the newspaper and send his markup to the news office long after he had officially left his post. It appears that writing precisely, and scanning the work of others for errors, had become a passion for him, or perhaps a curse.
I cannot read a newspaper or magazine or book without landing with a thud on every typo or missing word or poorly constructed sentence. For years I wanted to volunteer to copyedit my local newspaper the night before the rag was printed. It was an embarrassment. Now my husband has picked up the same habits. In fact, he sometimes catches outrageous errors that I miss. His keener mind makes him even better at it than I am.
But I’m happy to know that somewhere in my genetic material there may be a tiny marker that I inherited from my Moore ancestors, the same marker that Uncle Forrest had. Because I lived outside Kentucky the first years of my life, I only remember meeting him once. He was quite old by then and I don’t have any specific recollections of what he was like. But I’m proud now to think that, long before I knew anything about how he had spent his life, I ended up carrying on the work he had loved.
Pud’s mother died two months after he did, in June 1967 at age 81. Her health, both physical and mental, had been failing, so the family tried to keep from her the fact that her youngest son had died unexpectedly. Whether we were successful or not, we’ll never know.
Because I had lived in Baltimore until my father died, I never really knew my grandmother. I’m sure I was around her as a young child, but I have no recollection of having a conversation with her. I don’t remember her voice, her mannerisms, her interests.
I do recall how surprised I was not too long ago when my cousin Mac described sitting with our grandmother and listening to baseball games on the radio. Evidently she was an avid fan. I had no idea. I don’t think I had ever really thought of her as a person with hobbies or passions or opinions. She was simply my grandmother, an abstract that I had shown little curiosity about fleshing out.
Last week another cousin, Vince, sent us a copy of a note our grandmother had written to him in 1953. With just a few phrases, she came alive for me for the first time.
It starts out, “Dear Vincy, Awfully sorry you didn’t get to come down Sunday. You must take your medicine real good and hustle yourself down before it gets too cold to play out.”
She continues, “Mac has gone nuts over baseball and football. As cold as it was Sunday, he had his daddy out back playing ball with him. The little black pig has a room in the barn now right next door to the big pig. Kenneth’s big white rabbit is living in a coop nailed to the wall in the coal house. All fixed up for winter.
“Mac had a jaw tooth filled yesterday. Didn’t whoop and holler nary a bit. Love, Mamoo”
In that brief note, I learned how she spoke, what and whom she cared about, and what events preoccupied her thoughts, as well as a bit about the world she inhabited.
As I hunker down to finish the novel about my maternal grandfather—a man who remained a mystery to everyone in my family until recent research unearthed the outlines of his remarkable life—I recognize even more urgently the importance of perfecting each character’s voice. A few words, an idiomatic usage, a turn-of-phrase paints a better portrait of the individual than countless overdone descriptions. What a character chooses to say, and how he mutters it, reveals his values, his circumstances, his background, and how he views himself and others in his world.
Trying to bring my long-gone ancestors to life is a daunting undertaking. I make decisions daily about their language and their actions that may in no way reflect the reality of who they were. That is why I am writing fiction.
But, this week, I learned a great deal from reading one brief note casually penned by another ancestor. Not only did I learn about her, but I learned how to be a better writer.
As a child, I remember dull Sunday afternoon car trips driving through western Maryland. I now understand that my parents were looking for a connection to Kentucky in the rolling hills and farmland. Having been displaced first to Massachusetts and then to Baltimore, it was the best substitute they had for the familiar scenery they longed for.
Even before that diaspora, Pud had been forced to leave central Kentucky to fulfill his military obligations. After returning home and completing his bachelor's degree at the University of Kentucky, he chose to leave again to pursue a doctorate at Harvard. It is clear, however, from the notes he kept in his second journal, dating from 1953-54, that he intended to return to his home state someday.
Upon returning from a working trip to Washington D.C., on March 9, 1953, Pud finds a letter from H.P Riley, professor in the Department of Botany at UK. Pud writes:
“Among the otherwise useless mail awaiting our return was a friendly, warm letter from H.P. Riley, informing me in a poker-faced way that McInteer may retire 1 June, and did I know of a possible replacement. In all modesty, the requirements for his successor fit me like a glove. I’ve been in a tizzy at prospects of returning to Ky. I finished the laborious job of composing a reply tonight and will send it tomorrow.”
Later, on March 14, he continues:
“[Mary Marrs] and I were in a dreamy mood about getting back to Ky. tonight. We have a tough problem in devising ways and means to get our belongings home. Probably a part-load in a moving van would be best. One thing is certain, it will be expensive.”
Pud eventually interviewed for the position but, in the end, Professor B.B. McInteer decided not to retire and the opening with the UK herbarium never materialized.
My parents continued to make trips home to visit family, and Pud continued to talk to Riley about a position at UK, but no further opportunities for employment in Kentucky arose.
Although he could never secure a position at the University of Kentucky, his legacy will now have a place on campus. Thanks to inquiries initially made by Bobby Cole’s daughter-in-law, Teresa, The Last Resort: Journal of a Salt River Camp 1942-43 will be available at the UK library’s Special Collections Research Center. When contacted about possibly acquiring the book for this collection, Jaime Burton, director of research services and education, wrote:
“We are so pleased that we are able to serve as further stewards of your father’s recorded experiences, and look forward to securing his place here on campus once again! This is a great story.”
It seems the perfect resting place for his words. The center’s mission states, in part:
“The Special Collections Research Center sustains the Commonwealth's memory and serves as the essential bridge between past, present and future. By preserving materials documenting the social, cultural, economic and political history of Kentucky, the SCRC provides rich opportunities for students to expand their worldview and enhance their critical thinking skills. SCRC materials are used by scholars worldwide to advance original research and pioneer creative approaches to scholarship.”
The UK library already has a number of my father’s academic publications (including the most widely available, Geomorphology and Forest Ecology of a Mountain Region in the Central Appalachians), but it’s a special gift to know that a book that reveals more about his personal life and his ties to Kentucky will also have a home there. I hope Kentucky enthusiasts and researchers find it a useful volume that offers a window into a specific era in our Commonwealth’s history.
Welcome home, Pud. Merry Christmas.
My favorite part of Christmas has always been the music. As a child, I looked forward to going to church and singing the Christmas hymns and traditional carols. At home, I wore out my parents’ records, which were largely sweeping, symphonic renditions of those same tunes. I believe it was my sister who first introduced me to Handel’s Messiah, and that recording immediately became part of my regular rotation on the turntable.
I studied piano for 15 years. I was never very good. But it helped me learn a little about music fundamentals and the classical repertoire. Eventually I came to love the practicing. It was my opportunity—my obligation, even—to withdraw from the demands and rigors of the outside world into a place where only the music existed. It was as if my peripheral vision blurred, and I could see nothing beyond the notes on the page and the keys on the piano. Practicing required my complete concentration, as well as a coordinated physical and mental effort. When I was tuned in to whatever piece I was working on, the grievances, the annoyances, the embarrassments, the insecurities that tormented me at other times could not intrude.
I have my father to thank for introducing me to music. I’m fairly certain he was the one responsible for the Christmas records, as well as the recordings of Burl Ives and Herb Alpert and Peter, Paul, and Mary (and the musical satirist Tom Lehrer) that were available to me as a child. But most importantly, he was the one who insisted that my sister and I start piano lessons at a young age. I imagine that was in part because he had not had that opportunity.
Recently, Bobby Cole’s daughter, Julie, sent me a newspaper clipping that indicated that Pud’s older sister, Virginia, did study piano as a youngster. The 1923 article states that she performed a piece titled “The Dawn of Springtime” at Miss Jessie Mae Lillard’s student recital at the Lawrenceburg Christian Church. She would have been about 13 then (and my dad would have been 1). There was still a piano in the Goodlett home when my dad was a boy: I have often heard the story of how his pet raccoon tripped lightly down the piano keys one day, casually flipping the ivory off several keys with his sharp nails as he went. I also understand that was the last day he had the honor of being a pet in the Goodlett household.
As an adult, my dad evidently educated himself about classical music, at least sufficiently to have a genuine appreciation for it. I remember casual family dinners at the black drop-leaf table in our pine-paneled den in Baltimore, my father listening to a classic radio station while conducting with his fork.
My cousin Bob Goodlett, who has played contrabass with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for over 40 years, recently suggested that his father, Vincent—Pud’s oldest brother, also emphasized musical study with his children for similar reasons. Both brothers fiercely valued a classical education, and both battled long odds to complete their schooling. Bob reminded me that, to pay for law school, Vincent would go to school for a semester and then work for a semester. After serving in the Army for three years, my dad left his home and family again to pursue an advanced education. Years ago I stumbled across a classical high school curriculum that he had compiled at some point, perhaps for a school he one day hoped to open but, more likely, simply to show the public educators at the time how it should be done.
According to Bob, Vincent managed to collect a number of classical recordings, including a set of Arturo Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s symphonies. (Bob tells me that his parents had some success getting him to sleep when he was a baby by playing Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony. As he learned to talk, he would request “Teethoven No. 2.”) Vincent also had a 1955 recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto featuring Jascha Heifetz. When the recording reached the cadenza, Bob distinctly remembers my father saying, “Now he gets to show off.” That must have resonated with the 10-year-old boy, who spent the next few years mastering several instruments while simultaneously pursuing baseball stardom.
Bob recalled one more story of the fun my father had with music. While teaching at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Pud had a student, Sherry Olson, whose husband, Julian, played French horn with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra was evidently preparing to perform Beethoven’s 9th, and Pud and others were taking bets, I imagine while sipping a bourbon, about whether the fourth horn would mess up the famous solo in the quiet third movement.
Although as a teenager Pud struggled to appreciate Bobby’s devotion to the radio he brought to the quiet camp along Salt River, as an adult music obviously gave him much pleasure. He is not alone, of course. Listening to music—of whatever genre or style—allows us to shut out the raging noise of the world around us as well as drown out our own cacophonous thoughts. It’s also a way to share with others one of the truly sublime human endeavors.
For all those reasons, I hope your holiday is full of music.
The Last Resort—the camp along Salt River and, ultimately, the book by the same name—came to pass because of the bond that formed between two classmates. Pud Goodlett and Bobby Cole shared a love of the outdoors and relished the time they spent together fishing and hunting. At some point in their teen years they hatched the plan to build the cabin on the bluff above the river on the Cole family farm. Thus began the idyllic days described in Pud’s journal.
The relationship between the two boys appears deep and sometimes complicated. Pud is occasionally annoyed by Bobby’s radio, his fastidiousness, or his desire to head home for a shower and a shave after a few days at camp. But Pud is also proud of Bobby’s marksmanship and his ability to identify the trees along the river. It is clear that he is devoted to his friend, and his sadness when Bobby is called up for service is profound.
On November 1, 1942, Pud writes, “Went to camp early this morning for the first time since Bobby left. All the bottom seems to have fallen out of the joy of that wonderful, free life on the river. Bobby’s worrying about the dirty floor, the big leak, the state of his radio, the fact that our floor has spread and the countless other dear old-maidish things he did are gone, seemingly forever. I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to spend a weekend here until he can again spend it with me.”
Of course, Pud did return to the camp, but he had to enlist a whole group of young boys from his Scout troop to try to fill the hole created by Bobby’s absence. That never proved completely satisfactory, but it did allow Pud to extend his time at the camp until he, too, was called to fight a war.
From the limited evidence we have, the boys seemed tighter than mere friends. They seemed more like brothers.
In fact, we now know that they were cousins.
Bobby had a keen sense of his family’s history and its roots in the area, and I imagine he was aware that the nearly 400 acres his father and older brothers tilled had been in the family for generations. John W. Cole had pieced the property together in the 1880s from extensive lands owned by his Bond, Kavanaugh, and Penney (yes, of J.C. Penney lineage) ancestors. Some had settled the area in the late 1700s. The main Kavanaugh home had been built in 1840. The stone for the chimney Bobby and Pud constructed, which still stands today, was confiscated from the crumbling foundation of a former slave cabin.
On the farm, circa 1918. Left to right: James L. Bond (1855-1934), William B. Cole (1881-1983), Lula Roach Cole (1880-1964), J. W. Cole (1905-2001), Allen Carroll Cole (child, 1916-1987), John William Cole (1860-1924), Mary Louise Cole Ransdell (girl standing, 1911-1988), Annie Bond Cole (1862-1948), John W. Bond (1846-1929), Phoebe Utterback Bond (1851-1940). Photo provided by Bob Cole.
Bobby knew all this. But I doubt that Pud was aware of his own familial ties to the land.
Thanks to the curiosity of Bobby’s daughter, Julie, and to the detective abilities of her son, Nicholas, we now know that Pud and Bobby share a common ancestor. William F. Bond was born in Virginia in 1740. After his first wife died sometime around 1786, he accepted a land grant awarded for his Revolutionary War service and moved his four children west with the Penney and Burrus families to what is now central Kentucky. In 1790, he married Sarah Cranson, who hailed from what was then Woodford County, Virginia. William and Sarah had five more children. Bobby was a descendent of their oldest son, John. Pud was a descendent of their second oldest daughter, Ailse.
In fact, the boys can also trace their families back to a common Utterback ancestor. And Pud’s mother had connections to the Bond family through her maternal grandmother, Mary Ann Routt.
Of course, we’re talking about a small rural community. It’s no surprise that two families with longtime roots in the same geographic area have common ancestors.
But it somehow feels special to know that Pud and Bobby were connected by more than the teeming water of Salt River. They were connected by blood.
Transcription of marriage contract (with gratitude to Nick Wilson, Bobby Cole's grandson, for offering his legal and historical expertise):
Know all men by these presents that William Bond and Sherwood Knight are held and firmly bound unto his Excellency the Governor of this Commonwealth in the first and full sum of fifty pounds current money to which payment will and truly to be made we and every of us bind ourselves and every one of our heirs Executors and administrators jointly and severally firmly by these presents sealed and dated this 29th day of November 1790.
The condition of this obligation is that whereas a marriage is shortly intended to be solemnized between the above bound William Bond and Sally Cranson of the County of Woodford. Now if it shall hereafter always appear that there is no just cause to obstruct this said marriage then this obligation shall be void or else to remain in full force.
I can almost feel my mother rolling over in her grave.
On October 11, 1991, exactly one month before she died, I remember finding her in the recliner positioned next to her bed, riveted to the television. She was watching Anita Hill testify before the Senate about the sexual harassment she had endured while working for Clarence Thomas.
My mother was a political junkie. She had watched endless hours of the Watergate hearings in the 1970s. According to the journal my father kept in the 1950s, they had both closely followed the Joseph McCarthy hearings. So I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me to see her following every detail of the shocking testimony.
But my mother was also in a losing battle with cancer, and I remember thinking it felt like a sad way to spend your final days. Her cancer had made this articulate, intelligent woman nearly mute, so it wasn’t possible for her to tell me what she thought about the spectacle. But it was discouraging for me to think that this might be her last image of the country her husband, already dead 24 years, had fought to defend.
My mother had worked in male-dominated businesses. She had been a chemist at two different Seagram’s distilleries. She had worked for the Navy in Hawaii during World War II. She had worked at a large university. She had worked for state government. I have to imagine that she had suffered sexual harassment at some point in her life. I can only hope it was not as degrading as what Hill so bravely described.
Of course, my mother had never mentioned any incidents of harassment to me. Nor had I ever told her about the sexual assaults I had experienced as a young woman. It never occurred to me to tell her—or anyone else, for that matter. I was fortunate in that my experiences did not seem to haunt me. Like so many, I felt I had somehow been at fault, although deep down I knew that was not true. I suppose I found the incidents embarrassing, a sign of my own weakness or naïveté. So I simply buried my memory of them and moved on.
Until I watched candidate Donald Trump brag about his penchant for sexually assaulting women. That moment brought everything back. To regain control over my own stories, I seethed in an op-ed about the presidential candidate’s behavior.
I’m in the majority, of course. In a January 2018 online survey sponsored by the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment and reported by NPR, 51 percent of women stated that they had been victims of unwelcome sexual touching. I’ll admit that number seems low to me. The survey also found that “81 percent of women and 43 percent of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime.”
In part because of the Anita Hill hearings, managers in workplaces across the country now receive regular training on how to handle accusations of sexual harassment. Most of us recognize that it is a pervasive problem that we are still struggling to address. Most of us understand that it is most commonly an abuse of power and has very little to do with sexual titillation.
Recently, we have all watched as women, spurred by the #MeToo movement, have found their voices and started naming the men who have victimized them. There has been a wave of courage, of provocative charges against people known and unknown in positions of power. In the last few days, a new movement, #WhyIDidntReport, has emerged in response to one of President Trump’s tweets.
And now, amid this backdrop, 27 years after Anita Hill attempted to educate the largely white male U.S. Senate about sexual harassment and its ramifications, we are once again watching a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court deny allegations of sexual assault. The accuser is once again female, educated, professional. I had hoped that the process for investigating the allegation might be handled with more sensitivity and more honesty than we have witnessed so far. It seems we’re hearing the same old excuses. The powerful men have not relinquished control. The kid gloves that they initially so carefully displayed have now come off and it appears to be fair game to attack or bully or belittle the accuser.
Why does it feel like nothing has changed?
I think of my mother staring intently as our Congressional leaders exposed their vile inhumanity and their naked self-interest, and I am once again ashamed.
The first time I recall encountering a snake in the wild was at Girl Scout camp. I was 7 years old.
My father had died about three months before and, at my uncle’s urging, my mother had moved what was left of our family from Baltimore to central Kentucky, closer to relatives. While staying at the rambling farm house of my aunt and uncle awaiting our move into a new home, my father’s mother—my only grandparent—died. My mother’s aunt and closest confidante suffered a stroke. There seemed to be no end to the calamity.
I loved staying with my cousins at their farm. But I was unmoored from all that I knew. My father’s absence seemed to confuse me less than the prospect of starting life over in a new town. I hated leaving my friends. On the other hand, my dad—a professor during the academic year and a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey during the summers—hadn’t been around much anyway. Did I miss him? I wasn’t sure yet.
As summer arrived, my cousins were preparing to go to camp. My mother and aunt (Charleen, the boys’ ready rescuer at The Last Resort) evidently thought it would be a good idea to send my sister and me, too, perhaps so we could be around children our age in a more normal environment, or perhaps to allow my mother a little privacy to grieve.
I was technically too young to attend the two-week camp, but the administrators had given me special permission. Everyone kept a watchful eye on me. I was not only the youngest camper; I was most certainly the tiniest.
But no one needed to worry. I loved every minute of it. I loved being deep in the woods of Morgan County. I loved sleeping outdoors in a tent modeled after a Conestoga wagon. I loved swimming in the brownish green water of the lake. And I particularly loved the hikes along the mountain trails.
So when one of our counselors first pointed out “Blackie,” the camp’s “pet” black racer, I was mesmerized. He was enormous—at least five or six feet long in my memory. It was a lighthearted moment. The 8- and 9-year-old veteran campers around me ooohed and ahhhhhed and called to him affectionately. Blackie took all the commotion in stride.
I was smitten. I became that child who always volunteered to handle snakes that were brought into the classroom. At home, I gently shooed the garter snakes out of the way of the lawn mower or the hedge clippers.
I can’t remember if we saw any other snakes that particular summer, although I encountered several over the succeeding years. (The image of the heavy rat snake coiled around the top of the latrine just above the seat is burned in my memory.) And I was fully aware that during every hike at least two counselors carried “snake sticks” and hatchets in case we came across a less companionable snake that needed to be disposed of for everyone’s safety.
All of these memories came to my mind recently after having yet another conversation about snakes with two friends who share a sincere fear of the reptiles. A large corner of their consciousness seems to be devoted to their phobia. During our conversation, I wondered aloud way I reacted so differently. After brief reflection, I’m sure it’s because snakes were first introduced to me as friends, family even. Important wildlife that we should not disturb. That we should respect.
During a recent paddle around our small lake, I experienced yet another flashback to Camp Judy Layne. I tucked my lightweight canoe into a cove deep in the woods, and the heavy vegetation and woodland smells transported me to my favorite childhood camp. After a dreadfully long stretch of dark and dreary days here in the Bluegrass, brilliant sunlight illumined the black oak leaves and the purple ironweed.
As I paddled out of the cove, I could see bluegill swimming just beneath the surface as if they, too, had been longing for the warmth of the sun. Several Great Blue Heron swooped and cackled at me, warning me away from their supper. Dinner-plate sized turtles didn’t bother to leave their posts on downed logs, daring me to disturb their sunbathing.
Perhaps, at some unconscious level, I learned at a tender age that the woods welcome us when our spirit has been wounded. That escaping into the woods can soothe the soul. The abundance of life there somehow gives back just what we need. Our personal afflictions can’t alter nature’s rhythms and cycles.
Even the snakes have a role and a certain majesty. And somehow that comforts me rather than frightening me.
My parents were enthusiastic bourbon drinkers long before craft bourbons and celebrity master distillers. They were loyal to reasonably-priced Kentucky bourbon that soothed the rough edges of the day or amplified the conviviality of a small gathering. As Kentucky natives, they were proud to offer the state’s signature elixir to friends and colleagues in Maryland and Massachusetts. I imagine for them it served as an emotional tie to the home they felt estranged from but so longed for.
So it was not surprising to learn that John C. Goodlett, only two years removed from an extended bout of homesickness as he was shuttled around Europe fulfilling his duties as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, would, in 1948 while a graduate student at Harvard University, write a paper titled “Kentucky Bourbon Whisky [sic].” He was still a long way from home, and perhaps he hadn’t yet fully reconciled why he had chosen to continue his studies at such a distance from all that he knew and loved.
What is surprising, however, is that the Harvard Botany Library still has a copy of that paper in its stacks. David Hoefer, author of the Introduction to The Last Resort and archaeologist extraordinaire, recently unearthed this relic during a routine search for books related to my father. Unfortunately, he also learned that the document is not available through interlibrary loan. My curiosity piqued, I picked up the phone to find out how I might access this bit of my father’s legacy.
It turns out that all of the holdings at Harvard’s collective Botany Libraries are non-circulating. I’ll have to make a trip to Cambridge to learn just how my father managed to write about bourbon from a botanist’s perspective, and perhaps why this work has been housed in one of the university’s libraries for 70 years.
The young lady who took my call was kind enough to pull the document from the shelves. She confirmed that what was identified as a “book” in the online card catalog appeared instead to be something more akin to a research paper. Nothing on the title page ties it to a particular Harvard class or professor or explains the thesis or genesis of the paper.
Obviously, bourbon is distilled from a number of plants—corn, rye, barley—so it’s not too far-fetched to imagine why the young grad student chose this topic for research. One can also imagine the department professors getting such a kick out of the subject that they made the paper available to their curious, nonabstemious colleagues by placing it in the library. And somehow, either by neglect or fond oversight, it’s remained lodged in its somewhat incongruous home for decades.
Someday I hope to make the trek up the East Coast to check it out.
This unexpected discovery took on more meaning when The Last Resort was recently reviewed by Steve Flairty in the Annual Bourbon Issue of the Kentucky Monthly magazine (September 2018). It seemed fitting that Pud’s journal about life along Salt River had found a temporary home among the articles extolling the burgeoning bourbon industry in Kentucky. It would have been hard for Pud to write about the Lawrenceburg environs in 1942-43 without mentioning the Old Joe and Ripy Brothers distilleries. In a contemplative moment in February 1943, he describes the two distilleries looming on the horizon as familiar geographic and economic markers of the county’s industry and history.
“Took a stroll across Mr. Holly’s* this afternoon. Went by the pond where I saw several robins, killdeer, and meadowlarks. I walked up along the old rail fence to the ridge and up through the redbud thicket to the crest of the hill. I just sat there for an hour and a half and looked around. I could see for miles—Woodford and Shelby and Mercer Counties, Ripy Bros. and Old Joe. Today is just like spring with bird songs everywhere.”
*Mr. Holly’s: Mr. Holly Witherspoon’s property on west Broadway, which included the site of the current high school and stretched north to Route 44.
Pud went to school with members of the Dowling and Ripy and Bond families. They were his friends. He understood the role bourbon played as an economic engine for the county.
In his handwritten notes on the “History of Anderson County”—which he kept in the same University of Kentucky loose-leaf notebook where he compiled the camp logbook—he inserts a brief but telling allusion amid more detailed information about the county’s founders, its courthouses, its industries, its churches, and its role in the Civil War:
“pop. 1870—373. Since 1818—50 distilleries.”
You can’t talk about Anderson County history without talking about bourbon. And it’s nearly impossible to recall a Goodlett family gathering without thinking about the bourbon that was poured. I expect the Johns Hopkins professor would have been tickled—or possibly mortified—to know that the paper he wrote about Kentucky bourbon as a first-year grad student is still available to curious botanists in 2018. I hope he would be happy to know that, in that same year, a book about his wanderings along Salt River would be mentioned in a magazine devoted to his favorite Kentucky beverage.
Last week I had the privilege of hearing Kentucky resident and nationally-acclaimed poet Ada Limón read from her newest collection, The Carrying. Rich Copley, writing for the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader, said, “The book is colored by the deep green of Kentucky….Limón’s work is marked by exquisite, minute details that pass by many people.”
It is indeed a lovely book, with heart-rending personal reflections and keen observations of the world that surrounds her. After the reading—during which Limón exhibited her usual warmth and quiet exuberance—an audience member asked why she wrote so frequently about nature. I wish I had been prepared to capture her full response, but my general recollection is that she writes about nature because she has to. It defines her place in this world.
The first poem in the collection, “A Name,” reminded me of my father.
When Eve walked among
the animals and named them--
nightingale, red-shouldered hawk,
fiddler crab, fallow deer--
I wonder if she ever wanted
them to speak back, looked into
their wide wonderful eyes and
whispered, Name me, name me.
At its most elemental, the journal my father kept at The Last Resort was a means for recording the natural world around him: the birds, the trees, the wildflowers, the river level, the snakes, the peepers calling in the spring. He documented the names of each, both the common names and the scientific names, as he prepared, wittingly or unwittingly, for a future career. He understood that in order to acknowledge the intricate parts of the natural environment, it was important to be able to identify each by its name. The name itself would then call up a fulsome list of traits and characteristics—some unique, some common with other similar species—that defined that particular plant or creature.
If the critters could talk, I suspect there were moments when they indeed had a name for my dad: threat, intruder, murderer. He describes a memorable moment after he has shot a young squirrel: “I can still see that tiny baby sitting hunched on that limb, chattering gleefully to himself and gnawing on a pignut. To think that I would snuff out such a happy existence. It will never happen again.” Sadly, it took being hunted by his fellow man during World War II for Pud to finally end his hunting of animals for sport.
Is there perhaps a more sinister consequence of naming others who share this world with us? When Eve named the things in the garden, did she innocently guarantee their ultimate destruction? Once they became separate from the two who claimed dominion over them, once they were identified as different, were they expendable? Insignificant? Unprotected?
On the other hand, it’s hard to truly see what we can’t name. During our daily rush to and fro, we pass trees and wildflowers and songbirds. If we can’t name them, we don’t see or hear them. We don’t recognize them or respect their importance. If we don’t recognize their value, we don’t feel remorse when they are destroyed. We stand by and allow their annihilation without understanding what we have lost.
Part of this journey for me, as I write about my father and the words he left behind, has been learning what it means to belong to the genus Goodlett. As my cousins and I gather more regularly to honor our long-gone parents, we ponder the mysteries of our Goodlett ancestors, and we try to figure out who we are.
If our name is Goodlett, what does that mean? What are our traits and characteristics? Would a dichotomous key distinguish us from the Smiths and the Joneses? Does the name carry pre-packaged notions? How do others respond to it? How do I live up to it? Or carry its burdens? How has my name defined who I am, or my ultimate fate?
In Limón’s poem, Eve’s plea to be named also feels like a voicing of her desire to be part of the community she is ordering. Perhaps a name would define her place, her role, her responsibilities among the others that share her space. Perhaps once we identify ourselves, we can see more clearly how we must defend and protect all the species that inhabit this earth.
For more on the importance of naming things in The Last Resort, refer to David Hoefer's blog The Power to Name.