But Pat Boone Never Lived in Bessemer, essay by Terry Barr

On the night before I entered 7th grade, my across-the-street, 9th grade neigh­bor Joe, while we were enjoy­ing spareribs at our family’s annu­al Labor Day pic­nic, gave me this advice:

Be care­ful tomor­row. You nev­er know who’s car­ry­ing a switch­blade.”

I grew up in the switch­blade era. I’d hear talk at home about beer brawls in the rougher sec­tions of town where com­bat­ants would pull switch-blade knives on each oth­er and fight it out, often to the death. In fact, Joe’s family’s handy-man–Elijah who had conked red hair and car­ried his own ladder—was mur­dered in a switch­blade fight. I knew Eli­jah. He was friend­ly enough, but my senses—or was it my grandmother’s voice—warned me to not hang around him too long, as I did with the var­i­ous oth­er maids and yard men of our cir­cle of friends. I was only ten when reports of the inci­dent made their way through our neigh­bor­hood hot­lines, the usu­al after­noon phone ses­sions where my moth­er and grand­moth­er and all their friends might tie up the lines for lit­er­al­ly hours.

“What does a switch­blade look like,” I asked Joe. At that moment, I felt as threat­ened by a switch­blade as I was by the cot­ton­mouths that my par­ents told me slith­ered in and near the creek down the street from my house.

Nev­er mind what they look like,” Joe cau­tioned. “Just keep close to the lock­ers and nev­er get in the way of a ninth-grad­er, or any­one else for that mat­ter. You nev­er know who’s been left-behind.”

I couldn’t enjoy the rest of my sup­per that night and refused the home­made vanil­la ice cream alto­geth­er.

It’s OK” my Dad­dy said lat­er. “Joe’s Mom for­got to put sug­ar in it again.”

So there I stood: My first day at Besse­mer Jr. High in these switch­blade times. The front entrance doors opened garage-door wide and I thronged in with my new class­mates. The main office lurked just to the right of this entrance, which didn’t real­ly assure me that any “hood” wouldn’t try to sneak in a dan­ger­ous weapon. Because, I noticed in my first breath­tak­ing moment of junior high, the office had no win­dows, on the door or else­where. And nei­ther on this day or any oth­er in my expe­ri­ence there did the principal–Mr. Camp, whose lar­ynx had been crushed, report­ed­ly, in some for­eign war—nor the assis­tant principal—Mr. David­son, a red-haired and, I’d been warned, hot-head­ed man—ever stand in the front door­way to frisk the entrants. Joe told me that if you ever got caught with a switch­blade, you were auto­mat­i­cal­ly expelled. I won­dered how, if they weren’t check­ing at the door, our school guardians could ever catch any­one with that ven­omous weapon. I con­sid­ered my chances of sur­viv­ing that year fifty-fifty at best.

I hadn’t been in school for a week when I saw my first fight, the first in what seemed an every-oth­er-day occur­rence. Once, Rus­sell Aldrich tore a hunk of Don Griffis’s hair out of the side of his head. Hav­ing a bald spot in sev­enth grade is maybe a badge of hon­or. It cer­tain­ly didn’t hurt Don’s suc­cess with the girls. And then, a giant of a ninth grad­er, Biff Wyatt, allowed him­self to be pum­meled into sub­mis­sion by a wiry kid named Bob­by Ray Led­bet­ter. I saw Biff on the ground, strug­gling to cast off Bob­by Ray’s “bulk,” his face a red rib­bon of strain and shame. Most of these fights were set up dur­ing school hours and then enact­ed just after the 3:00 bell, behind the school and just beneath the gym­na­si­um win­dow. On any giv­en week there might be a fea­ture event three or four days straight; nev­er was there a week with few­er than two.

Maybe the strangest and scari­est of these for me occurred on a cold, cloudy after­noon in ear­ly Decem­ber when, as I was walk­ing up the hill to my Mom’s car, I saw Bruce Dun­can, the first Black kid who’d ever spo­ken to me in ele­men­tary school, walk­ing among a crowd of white boys. When I reached our car, they passed me, head­ing across the street and under the rail­road viaduct. A few min­utes lat­er, our car passed, and in a vacant lot I saw Bruce, entan­gled on the ground with one of the boys. The oth­ers were gath­ered in a semi-cir­cle watch­ing, cheer­ing, or so it seemed to me since our win­dows were rolled up as we passed. We turned the next cor­ner, out of sight, but I kept think­ing of that scene and how as they passed me on their way to the bat­tle, they seemed like they were going over to someone’s house for a game of foot­ball in the front yard.

I didn’t see any­one with a switch­blade dur­ing that grap­pling moment. Nor did I see one over the next few months of school, though like those snakes that I nev­er saw either, I just knew that someone’s switch­blade was out there, some­where, wait­ing for me.

Edu­ca­tion is a fun­ny expe­ri­ence. Not every­thing you see will edu­cate you in the way that your guid­ing elders intend, and just when you’re dis­tract­ed enough from real or unre­al fears, some­one aris­es to impart a valu­able les­son. Such was the case with my edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence in the face of Pat Boone’s immor­tal art film, The Cross and the Switch­blade.

In my 7th grade year, I came home straight from school every day, and after a light snack, imme­di­ate­ly tack­led my home­work. I was allowed to pause for a game of foot­ball with friends in my own front yard, but I could not watch TV until every last bit of my geom­e­try, com­po­si­tion, or sci­ence home­work lay exhaust­ed in my note­books. In my leisure time I read biogra­phies of famous Amer­i­cans; Ray Brad­bury sto­ries; Bat­man comics; and the Sports Page of The Birm­ing­ham News, our after­noon paper. While I didn’t always eat my veg­eta­bles at din­ner (steamed cau­li­flower smells exact­ly like sewage), I gen­er­al­ly obeyed my par­ents’ every com­mand: I always asked per­mis­sion to go to a friend’s house; took out the garbage after sup­per; raked every leaf I could see in ear­ly fall. I was no cause for wor­ry or alarm.

And I didn’t need help from a born-again Chris­t­ian croon­er-turned-auteur.

Yet, as part of a Methodist Youth Fel­low­ship expe­ri­ence, one win­ter Fri­day night, my church friends and I packed into Birmingham’s Empire The­ater to take in Pat Boone’s per­son­al epic. Munch­ing my high­ly-salt­ed pop­corn, over the next nine­ty-five min­utes I watched Pat take on and con­vert a switch­blade-wield­ing gang. For all of those min­utes, as I observed his white bucks, his plas­tic bro­mides, and his strange­ly combed hair, I just knew that he would be sliced to rib­bons, pack­aged up, and deliv­ered to the near­est 4-H club­house by my junior high peers: Hol­lis Todd who wore no under­pants (I know, because he made no secret of it when he stood at the uri­nal next to me); Phillip Barnes, who was rivaled in uncouth­ness only by Hol­lis’ sis­ter Judy (who report­ed­ly staged many fights her­self with girls and guys); and Wayne Whit­lock, a six foot one, eighth-grad­er, who could scale the ten-foot wall on the obsta­cle course using only one arm.

I remem­ber rid­ing home that night with my best friend Jim­bo in the back seat of his Mother’s sta­tion wag­on. WSGN-AM, “The Big 610,” was fol­low­ing up “Crim­son and Clover” with “Honky Tonk Women.”

What did ya’ll think of the movie?” Jimbo’s Mom cheer­ful­ly and opti­misti­cal­ly asked.

Oh, it was OK,” we respond­ed in uni­son which, if you under­stand teenage lin­go, trans­lat­ed into: “It was beyond stu­pid, and thanks a lot for ruin­ing anoth­er week­end night on this crap when we could have been at a par­ty, attempt­ing to kiss a girl or some­thing.”

I thought it was real­ly inspi­ra­tional,” she replied, hope­ful­ly. “You can take a lot of com­fort and learn a lot of lessons from these movies!”

Sigh. No one but an adult would believe that Pat Boone could turn the hearts and minds of my hood­ish peers who wouldn’t even need the switch­blades that I was sure they owned, but nev­er saw in those ear­ly months of school.

How­ev­er, I did see the Reid broth­ers, Saul and Paul, who were as dis­tinct as fra­ter­nal twins can be.

Saul was six­teen when he re-entered the sev­enth grade. He had tat­toos on both arms—faded-green 1969-era tat­toos that I thought only cab dri­vers and fill­ing sta­tion atten­dants dared. And Saul’s mus­cles, so clear­ly defined that in semi-flex they rip­pled to such an extent that even class princess Ren­nie Robin­son expressed won­der at them. These mus­cles seemed to dis­count Saul’s need­ing a switch­blade to keep us puny junior high pawns in our places. So full of swag­ger, with greased hair flip­ping up both in front and back, Saul held us all in con­tempt, and we held him in abject fear, com­plete and stu­pe­fy­ing ter­ror, but also with a strange and mes­mer­iz­ing respect. For Saul, among oth­er feats of scholas­tic dar­ing, told every­one that Fri­days were his day off, and after a few weeks, most teach­ers just skipped his name dur­ing Fri­day roll call. On the oth­er days, instead of answer­ing “Here,” or “Present,” Saul had his own cul­tur­al sig­ni­fi­er: “Account­ed for.” And in some way that I didn’t yet under­stand, he cer­tain­ly was.

Truth­ful­ly, if you were smart, you did want Saul account­ed for. Dur­ing the first week of school, after hav­ing been exposed to Saul for maybe three days, I was sit­ting on the bleach­ers dur­ing gym class with my good friend Randy Manzel­la. Wait­ing for Coach Brew­er to appear and so inform us of the remark­able feats of ath­let­ic prowess that we would be attempt­ing this school year, Randy and I didn’t account for Saul, who had slow­ly and imper­cep­ti­bly crept clos­er to our row. Randy was no doubt fill­ing my ears with yet anoth­er hor­ror sto­ry he had heard about gym class–about boys pop­ping your exposed rear with wet tow­els, or steal­ing your clothes as you show­ered. We vowed right then and there nev­er to show­er in gym class, and I sup­pose our false brava­do set us up for Saul.

So sit­ting there, believ­ing that our great­est prob­lem con­cerned not appear­ing naked in the show­ers, we allowed Saul—that undu­lat­ing cottonmouth—to strike. Except that Randy, God Bless him, wore thick glass­es with wide black frames, and even Saul had a code. So it was I and I alone who qual­i­fied as Saul’s prey. Up until this very moment, Saul and I had nev­er spo­ken or even exchanged looks, or at least he had nev­er caught me look­ing at him. Of course, every­one looked at Saul, just like every­one stares hyp­not­i­cal­ly at the rep­tile pit in the zoo, won­der­ing just what prey con­tin­ues to wrig­gle in that par­tic­u­lar viper’s throat.

So con­sid­er me the ham­ster.

Hey, Can­dy-Ass!”

His voice con­veyed no trace of anger, vit­ri­ol, or, class-envy. His tone sound­ed the same pitch and inflec­tion as all those “Account­ed for’s” we heard that year. Yet, the words them­selves clear­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed his men­ace.

That’s my spot, and if you don’t get up by the time I count to ten, you’re gonna get it.”

And Saul showed me his flexed arm, which had extend­ed from it at its the very end, not the switch-blade that had recent­ly haunt­ed my days and nights, but a mas­sive, scarred fist. Dis­play­ing this prize, he began count­ing.

Each of us has a par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence that gives spe­cial, per­son­al mean­ing to the phrase “Words failed me.” This, of course, was mine.

By this point–“three, four…” Randy and the entire Manzel­la fam­i­ly had set sail for their native Sici­ly. Actu­al­ly, since he was the smartest kid in our class, Randy, with the encour­ag­ing words, “You bet­ter move,” slid off his seat and found anoth­er, maybe five rows below us. Yet, hyp­no­tized by Saul’s viper­ous arm, I couldn’t.

And so I won­dered: Would a cross, at this late moment, make any dif­fer­ence at all? Would I stand a chance against the demon of my ado­les­cence had I Pat Boone’s smooth, sil­ver-tongued deliv­ery or his plas­ticine comb-over instead of my own frozen lar­ynx and Bea­t­le-bangs?

Good old Pat!

Would he ever be able to account for a view­er like me, the prod­uct of a mixed Protes­tant-Jew­ish family–a fam­i­ly who def­i­nite­ly did not own a cross?

I had seen cross­es and actu­al­ly touched a few in my time. My Dad worked in a jew­el­ry store, and I had my first sum­mer job there, just before this school year start­ed. The store, Stan­dard Jew­el­ry Com­pa­ny, was in my Dad’s fam­i­ly, so we were Jew­ish jew­el­ers though no fam­i­ly name adorned any store sign­post. And not only did we sell cross­es, but cru­ci­fix­es, and oth­er jew­eled Chris­t­ian icons too. I knew that ordi­nary cross­es were off-lim­its to me, but once I did ask Dad to get me a surfer’s cross. My favorite male TV stars wore them, and so I assumed that girls would think they were cool. That these cool tal­is­mans also looked like the Ger­man Iron Cross escaped me then. Nev­er­the­less, Dad got me the cross, which I then prompt­ly gave to the girl-of-my-dreams, Joe’s sis­ter Mary Jane, who just as prompt­ly hand­ed it off to her lit­tle sis­ter. Did this mean that I was going steady with a nine-year old named Mar­garet Lou?

But even if I hadn’t giv­en it away, Saul wouldn’t have been impressed by it. Maybe I could have told him about the leg­end of the surfer’s cross and the sto­ry of my unre­quit­ed love for the beau­ti­ful blonde-haired girl whom I watched in secret every day from my liv­ing room win­dow. Maybe he was a clos­et­ed Jan and Dean surf-rock fan, for wasn’t my sto­ry the stuff of every 60’s teenage pop song? Maybe hear­ing my trag­ic lament, he would take pity on me or be so bored that he’d for­get he was count­ing my fate.

These thoughts, though seem­ing­ly end­less, had got­ten us to the count of sev­en. My arm, Saul’s intend­ed tar­get, was already begin­ning to ache.

But that’s when the Pat Boone mir­a­cle hap­pened.

Saul had just count­ed “eight,” when the gym office door opened. Out from this inner sanc­tum strolled not a man in white bucks, but one in black cleats: Coach Bil­ly “Bomber” Brew­er, who was also an itin­er­ant Bap­tist preach­er. As the year went on, many guys in gym class would come to accuse “Bomber” of cheat­ing, as he would call invis­i­ble fouls or inter­fer­ence when­ev­er he had, or lost, the ball dur­ing the innu­mer­able foot­ball and bas­ket­ball games that com­posed most of our gym peri­ods that year. On this day, how­ev­er, the gym grew qui­et, not so much because he was stand­ing there, but because of what he had in his hand: A three-foot long, sol­id wood board, which, sup­pos­ed­ly, he had named “The Lit­tle Bomber,” after him­self.

To this day I’ve nev­er fig­ured out how he knew what was tran­spir­ing nine­ty feet from his office with­out being able to see through those plas­ter walls. I sup­pose he knew that he had to account for Saul even­tu­al­ly and not let more than a cou­ple of min­utes go by with­out check­ing off his pres­ence.

What­ev­er the case, Coach Brew­er walked straight to us, nev­er waver­ing, nev­er look­ing else­where.

Saul, get down here right now and grab those ankles!”

Saul, fist still poised above my already-winc­ing arm, had no excuse, no recourse.

So he com­plied. He descend­ed the bleach­ers, walked right up to Coach, and bent over, grab­bing those ankles in front of the entire gym class, God, and Pat Boone. Then “The Lit­tle Bomber” went to work. Three loud whacks that echoed like Bible thumps through­out the gym. To his cred­it, Saul held firm, and when Coach said “Get up, and go back to your seat,” Saul did. But first, he extend­ed his hand to “Bomber” and said, “Hey! They were good ‘uns.”

Saul left me alone after that. Oh, he might occa­sion­al­ly speak in my direc­tion:

You’re fat, you know that?”

Of course, I did.

The only oth­er encounter we had occurred dur­ing our class spelling bee tri­als. Since I was one of the cham­pi­on class spellers, our teacher often allowed me to call out the words in prac­tice ses­sions. On one par­tic­u­lar after­noon, as I was antic­i­pat­ing which words those stand­ing in line were bound to get, I saw Saul wait­ing his turn. My eyes skipped down the page to see the word he would be forced to spell.

When his turn came, I looked him in the eye and called it out:

CONVERSION, Saul.”

Con­ver­sion.” He looked puz­zled for a moment. Our eyes met again, and then he start­ed:

C-O-N-V-E-R-…

I wait­ed, won­der­ing. And hop­ing.

S-I-O-N.”

That’s right,” I con­firmed.

Saul nei­ther smiled nor nod­ded. He mere­ly took his place in the back of the line, wait­ing for his next word, or for the bell, or for some­thing else that I would nev­er under­stand. I won­dered whether he was proud of him­self, and if that pride might trans­late into some­thing greater if he could just spell the next word cor­rect­ly. I tried glanc­ing down the list as my class­mates strug­gled through “con­ver­sant” and “con­vo­lut­ed.” But I didn’t have a chance to see what would hap­pen, for the bell for last peri­od rang then, and we were off to the greater glo­ries of Read­ing Lab or Machine Shop which is where I lost Saul each day. On this day, and this day only, I was actu­al­ly a bit sad.

He nev­er con­vert­ed, by the way. Maybe in part because his broth­er Paul had recon­sti­tut­ed him­self by Saul’s stan­dards into a “nor­mal” student—meaning one who want­ed to stick it out at least until high school.

And yes, before school offi­cial­ly released us for the sum­mer, I saw Saul’s switch­blade. It was dur­ing sci­ence class. He had wait­ed and wait­ed, and final­ly, to impress Ren­nie Robin­son, he brought it out, switched it open, and then, after maybe ten sec­onds, care­ful­ly closed it and returned it to his front left pock­et. It was all rather anti-cli­mat­ic, for by that point in the year, I had already expe­ri­enced too much. I had even giv­en a girl a box of can­dy for Valentine’s Day: Deb­bie Pat­ter­son who was rail-skin­ny and had the longest, wavi­est blond hair I had ever seen, and who claimed to be part Chero­kee.

See how crooked my nose is? Just like an Indi­an!”

Two days after I gave her the can­dy she broke up with me because “I nev­er called her.”

It real­ly didn’t mat­ter so much to me because at least I had one girl­friend in sev­enth grade.

Besides, when Saul showed me that men­ac­ing switch­blade, he also did some­thing else that he had nev­er done before.

He called me by my name.

SWITCH

“That’s how you open it, Ter­ry.”

Saul didn’t make it to the end of that school year. He turned sev­en­teen in April and so, as he pledged he would, he left us behind, jour­ney­ing out into the Dam­as­cus of his life: A cross­roads of glit­ter­ing switch­blade fame, a per­pet­u­al small-town rebel­lion.

It might make a nice, Hol­ly­wood end­ing if I said I nev­er heard from or saw him again. That way I could leave him paint­ed as defi­ant, plagued, and maybe even repen­tant, in an adult and reha­bil­i­tat­ed life.

But I did see him again. It was three or four years lat­er, my high school years. Shop­ping for Christ­mas at our local mall with my moth­er and broth­er, I looked up and com­ing out of WT Grant’s, I saw a man and a woman push­ing a baby stroller. The woman was a bleached blonde, a lit­tle heavy, but that could have been the after-effects of her preg­nan­cy. I had nev­er seen her before. But some­thing looked famil­iar about the guy. He looked… would “belea­guered” be the right word? “Haunt­ed?” I watched them for a minute as they strolled clos­er. And then I knew it was Saul. He had gained some weight. He had “set­tled,” so to speak.

I imag­ined this lit­tle fam­i­ly tak­ing their pur­chase from Grant’s or Super-X Drugs home, and gath­er­ing that night in front of their Motoro­la watch­ing “The Movie of the Week.” Maybe they’re eat­ing burg­ers or Din­ty Moore Stew. Maybe they have a beer or two and remem­ber to give the baby his bot­tle. And maybe they keep the knives they cut their burg­ers with safe­ly out of the baby’s reach. I’d like to think so any­way.

I saw anoth­er movie unfold in those few moments, but I didn’t stare too long. For I had seen cross­es and switch­blades in my small Alaba­ma town. And I had sur­vived them all.

Photo Terry BarrTer­ry Barr lives in Greenville, South Car­oli­na, with his wife and two daugh­ters. A native of Besse­mer, Alaba­ma, he grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mon­te­val­lo in 1979 and went on to earn a Ph.D in Eng­lish at The Uni­ver­si­ty of Ten­nessee in 1986.

He is cur­rent­ly Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Pres­by­ter­ian Col­lege in Clin­ton, South Car­oli­na, where he teach­es cours­es in Mod­ern Nov­el, Film Stud­ies, and Cre­ative Writ­ing. He has had schol­ar­ly essays pub­lished in South­ern Jew­ish His­to­ry, The Qui­et Voic­es: Rab­bis in the Black Civ­il Rights Era, Stud­ies in Pop­u­lar Cul­ture, and has cre­ative essays pub­lished in The Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Review, The Bat­tered Suit­case, and moon­Shine review. He is work­ing on a col­lec­tion of essays about grow­ing up in Alaba­ma and his jour­ney from being Chris­t­ian to Jew­ish and to mar­ry­ing an Iran­ian émi­gré.

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