Merry and Joe, Part One
by Terry Davis
Editor’s note: The second part of “Merry and Joe” will be published in our second issue on December 4.
My mother, Merry Davis, lived two lives. She grew up in a strict Christian community in the high desert of central Washington, then in 1945 moved into the YWCA in Spokane. Mom discovered she loved to dance in those ecstatic days when the boys were flooding back from Europe after the fall of Berlin and from the Pacific after V-J Day, and it was at a dance featuring the Henry Busse Orchestra where she met Joe Davis, an Army Air Corps veteran of the Pacific theatre, who was not religious.
My father was service manager for Northside Chevrolet in Spokane. He was a mechanic, not a moralist or philosopher. Even so he lived his life on the following principles: 1. Look at things to see how they work; 2. Know how to fix things when they break; 3. Love the job you’re doing; 4. Be a man who does what he says. He taught me these things by example. When I was desperate to survive my own life, I looked back at his and put these ideas into words.
Principles reveal themselves in action. Dad showed me how to fix a flat on my bike with tire irons instead of screwdrivers so I wouldn’t pinch the tube. When I broke a pane out of the storm door with the handle of my fish pole, he showed me how to cut the glass, replace it, anchor the pane in the frame with glazier’s points, then seal it with glazing compound.
In fourth grade I asked my mother about the word vacuum on my spelling list. She made me look it up: a state of emptiness.
“And so?” I said.
So Dad walked me down to the three-bay shop he’d built on our five acres northwest of town. We’d discussed the principles of internal combustion, but he said he’d left something out. He had a Triumph Cub engine on the bench—200cc, single-cylinder. The head was off, and we looked down into the combustion chamber at the crown of the piston. Dad turned the engine sprocket, and the piston moved up and down with a swooshy, gulping sound. He grabbed the head and set it on the cylinder. He held the carburetor up to the intake port. “Okay,” he said, “what makes the fuel mixture flow into the combustion chamber?”
I looked at him.
“A vacuum,” he said. “When the piston moves down on the intake stroke, it creates lower air pressure in the combustion chamber than in the carb, so the fuel-air mix is sucked in.”
Dad pulled the carb away, and I leaned forward and peered through the intake port into the darkness of the combustion chamber.
“There’s almost no air pressure in there for that fraction of a second,” Dad said, “and there’s all kinds of air pressure in the carburetor and around in the world. The fuel-air mix shoots in to fill the vacuum.”
“Because that’s the way nature works.”
My father did not say, Nature abhors a vacuum, which is both a cliché and inaccurate. Dad’s life must have taught him—and my life has taught me—that nature doesn’t abhor anything. Nature has no feelings. Nature just is.
Dad conducted himself as though no force natural or supernatural existed to help him through the world. He lived as though he and his family were an unaligned nation, and only by living with meticulous care, and with the grace of fortune, would he be able to lead us safely through the world. I think he believed the forces of nature—in league as they were with the forces of chance—were too strong.
* * *
My maternal grandparents, Miller Stargill and Francine Larouche, were married in Pemiscot County, Missouri, in 1928, by Francine’s father, a traveling preacher who cured by a laying-on of hands. Miller, an apprentice stonecutter, was twenty, and Francine was fourteen. Miller had found God at the reverend’s tent revival, and later that evening found Francine alone and wanting, behind the pulpit. The next morning at sunrise, as The Reverend Larouche washed him in the Blood of the Lamb, Miller proclaimed it all a miracle and vowed thereafter that he would be cutting stone for the Lord.
The Reverend Larouche didn’t believe that miracle described that series of events, and he wanted to lay hands on Miller and cure him of his masculinity. But by then it was too late, so he announced to his scattered flocks that the Lord’s will called for the union of these two young sinners to go forth and write large His name in the granite hearts of non-believers. He bound them in matrimony and banished them northward and west to the land of the heathens.
Mom was born nine months later in the tiny town of Nespelem on the Colville Reservation in the heart of Washington State, where Francine’s uncle was an agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It wasn’t loyalty of blood or generosity of spirit that moved Uncle Charles to rent one of his sheds to his rotund niece and her tall sinewy husband. He put Miller to work cutting, engraving and polishing gravestones for the agency.
Francine read to Mom, whom she and Miller named Esther, from the time she was able to hold her head up. It wasn’t so much that Francine wanted Mom to read as she wanted her to read the Bible. Yes, the first literary work Francine poured through Mom’s little head was The Book of Esther, in which the young, beautiful, and wily Esther helps Mordecai and their fellow Jews turn the tables on their enemies and . . . to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish all the power of the people and province that would assault them, both little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.
The theme of my grandfather’s work was the cataclysmic power of the Old Testament. For four years every deceased Colville was laid to rest beneath a legend of Yahweh’s mighty hand. Miller portrayed God bringing a flood of waters upon the earth and destroying all flesh except Noah and his household; Lot’s wife as a pillar of salt wreathed in brimstone smoke, her salt-eyes locked eternally on the devastation of Sodom and Gomorrah; a God-inspired wind blowing quail from the sea into a layer two cubits deep around the Hebrews’ camp, so that His chosen would have meat to eat; Jacob, his head resting on pillows of fieldstone, dreaming the ladder on which angles trafficked down from heaven and back again.
When I was fifteen, Mom and Dad took me to see the Grand Coulee Dam. Dad thought that since we were so close we should visit another of the nations landmarks: my mother’s first home. So I saw for myself, and walked among, the two-by-three foot gravestones that had become monoliths in my imagination. I also saw some of my grandfather’s work Mom hadn’t included in the stories of her youth. There was Abraham establishing the rite of circumcision: with eyes aflame and hair flying, the progenitor of the Hebrews sweeps his blade down upon an infant’s out-of-scale honker. On some of these stones the patriarch has completed the covenant and holds the foreskin aloft like a tiny captured battle flag.
* * *
I never saw my father pray or set foot in a church. I can’t remember an instance when he used the word God, except, of course, in common phrases such as God knows, or for God’s sake, the imperative God damn, and the adjective goddamn. And now and then, Jesus fucking God.
Dad never spoke about the thoughts behind his actions. He may not have wanted to articulate them—or could not. I suppose it’s possible that he never brought his mind to bear on such questions. But it makes no sense to me that a man who could wire a B-29 would be disinclined to introspection.
Dad saw to it that I had chores starting young. It didn’t take me long to understand the necessity of putting my toys in the toy box before going to bed. He would come in to check on me, step on a Tinker Toy in the dark, and smash it to smithereens; Mom would kick one of my favorite army men under the dresser, and I would spend all afternoon hunting for it. The clincher was getting up from a bad dream, scrambling for Mom and Dad’s room to climb into bed with them, and taking a header on my Texaco tanker truck.
By the time I was six I’d learned that we become the cause of most of our accidents when we don’t pay attention to how we live. Work made sense to me. I cleaned my room so my stuff didn’t get wrecked or wreck me. I took out the garbage because it was ugly and smelled bad and attracted vermin when I didn’t. I fed our dog Yogi because Yogi couldn’t open a can, and because we loved him and didn’t want him going hungry.
But I never made peace with raking the yard. We had a huge yard overgrown with pine and broadleaf trees, so the crop of needles and leaves was staggering. I liked most work, but I hated raking. This was where Dad and I parted company; he and I were not buddies when it came to rake work.
One Saturday in late fall of my seventh-grade year I went out to rake after he’d told me for weeks to do it. The whole yard was covered: pine needles on the bottom, leaves over top of them, and the whole mess wet from rain. I stood in the middle with my brown cotton gloves, my steel rake, my wheelbarrow, and my vision of life’s inequities.
I was overwhelmed. I started where I stood. I raked a five-foot circle clear; then I raked another circle in another place; then I loaded the soggy mess into the wheelbarrow and pushed it to the garden. I returned to see Dad standing, rake in hand, in one of the circles of bare grass.
“Let me show you something, Terry,” he said. We walked to a corner of the yard. Dad raked back six feet from the corner, then started at the clear spot and raked another six feet. He did that until a rectangle of clear grass ran the length of the yard. At the bottom of the rectangle lay a row of leaves and needles.
“See that row?” Dad asked.
It was hard to miss.
“That’s a windrow. The leaves and needles bind on each other. The wind’s going to have a harder time blowing them all over. That’s why it’s called a windrow. And look at that straight line,” he said.
The line could not have been straighter if he’d made it with a T-square.
“A guy can be proud of a straight line,” Dad said.
Did I experience a linear epiphany? Did I redirect my life’s goal and become a raker? No. I thought it was stupid, just like I thought everything that had not come from me and my friends was stupid. But I raked the yard in windrows, and the work went easier. And I felt a grudging satisfaction in the straight rows of leaves and pine needles and the perfect square of bare, shiny grass.
When I’d piled half the row of leaves, Dad showed up with the kerosene can, soaked the pile and lit it. Then we carried a pallet from behind the shop and tossed on together. After a while, the kerosene burnt off and the pure smell of burning leaves and needles blew out over the yard. I kept coming with leaves, and dad tossed on another pallet, and the two of us watched the flames and the gray smoke rise in broken columns toward the starlit sky.
* * *
In 1933, the Public Works Administration sent up a cry for stone polishers to begin work on an enormous new hydroelectric dam on the Columbia. The cry caught my grandfather’s ear, so the family moved a few miles down the road to Grand Coulee.
The stone polishers didn’t work on the dam itself. After engineers built coffer dams to divert the river, excavators dug up and hauled away the millions of tons of dirt and broken rock on the dam site. The polishers came in with soap, water and brushes, and on their hands and knees polished the granite bedrock until it was smooth and ready for its union with millions of tons of concrete.
Mom remembered this as the best time of her childhood. There were kids in workers’ housing whose parents were believers sufficiently ardent for Miller and Francine, and so Mom had playmates. The housing units were built three feet off the ground, and the kids played under them, out of the high desert sun. Mom remembered digging with a spoon in that fine dirt, feeling the cool air on the back of her neck, looking out from the gentle darkness into the shimmering summer days. The kids had toy cars and trucks and construction equipment; they made roads, dug a river bed, and poured in a river. Mom was in her glory.
One day a rattlesnake was coiled in the shade when the kids crawled in. A girl named Callie Quist crawled right up next to it. The rattler didn’t rattle a warning. It bit Callie three times before one of the mothers snatched her and Mom out of there. When the snake lay headless in the dusty sunshine, people saw it had no rattles, only the paper-thin husks from which, long ago, the rattles had been ground away. Francine and Miller instructed Mom to give thanks to God for his saving grace. But even at that age Mom wondered why God had saved her but not Callie Quist. Why had a car run over the snake’s tail, or why had a rock of sufficient weight rolled from a sufficient height to crush the rattles? Over and over as she grew up, Mom asked herself and her folks variants of this question. Miller and Francine responded consistently: Everything happens according to the Lord’s will, and the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Miller was an imposing figure at six-three and two hundred pounds, with arms sculpted by years of swinging a hammer. Now he had begun to gather around his knotted shoulders the patriarchal air that later provided news writers with a decade of epithets. He saw every good thing as a miracle, and he made joyous noise unto anyone who would listen to the wonders that the Lord performed. He was a character, and when the polishing was done, the concrete drillers added him to their crew as a drill carrier.
* * *
“A guy can always find something to like about a job,” Dad said the day he showed me a windrow. “If you don’t like the feel of the rake in your hands, maybe you can like the smell of the leaves. Maybe you can like the color of the grass that’s under them. If you’re digging a ditch for waterline, you can like the feel through your foot and up your leg of the shovel biting into the ground. If the ground is rocky, and it’s hot and the flies are swarming and you’re thirsty and it’s a miserable sonofabitch and you can’t think of a thing to like, you can always like it that you’re alive enough to dig a ditch—that you’re not in the ground yourself.”
* * *
My grandfather encountered his first atheist shortly after he went to work at Grand Coulee. He’d met people who hadn’t been saved, of course, but they were reluctant or doubting rather than steadfast in non-belief.
Manny Himmel, foreman of machinists, had been an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, the infamous Wobblies. He was college-educated, clean in his personal habits, hard-working, true to his word; in the minds of his co-workers he was a gentleman. This ran counter to what the men expected, because Manny Himmel was also a godless communist. A Bolshevik, in his own words. Himmel kept his radical rhetoric at a modest pitch and was disliked by no one except Miller Stargill. The men who had some education found his historical commentaries enlightening and were at worst bemused by his theology.
Miller was impervious to enlightenment. His reaction to Himmel was a mix of outrage and fascination. Miller’s fear of the Lord was to him such a natural part of being alive that he was sure it existed in everyone. Yet in Himmel he encountered a man who with good humor denied the Lord thrice daily. It didn’t take long for Miller to conclude that the reason Himmel was untouched by the Lord in the natural way was that Himmel was unnatural; he was not of this earth. He was a member of Satan’s legion. Maybe Satan himself.
On the day the first concrete was poured to form the dam’s base, Manny Himmel struck an arc with his welder too close to a pan of benzine. Thanks to the host of flammable liquids spilled on his overalls, Himmel went up like a rocket. Everyone heard the whoosh of ignition and turned to see the flaming, shrieking thing hurtle past, strike the four-foot wooden form, flip, and land with a plop and a hiss in the wet pour.
Fast on the trail of comet Himmel ran Miller Stargill. Miller stood at the edge of the form and watched Himmel wave his arms and legs in the wet concrete, then vaulted in and beat out with his hands the parts of Himmel still flaming. Before the gray mud filled Himmel’s mouth and nose and silenced his ragged screams, Miller pulled him out, hoisted him over his head, and handed him to the men. An ambulance took Himmel to the hospital in Moses Lake, then later to Spokane.
Miller Stargill played the hero’s role in an event people agreed was a miracle. The miracle was not that Miller had saved Himmel—or that God had. Himmel died later in the week. His only visible injury was the second-degree burn to his face, but he had inhaled the flames, and they had burned his throat and lungs. The miracle revealed itself after the ambulance pulled away and the men drifted back to the concrete: an angel was imprinted where Himmel had lain.
“Like Moses’ burning bush,” Miller told newspapers and radio, “Brother Himmel burned and was not consumed. The miracle we witnessed was not that Himmel would live, but that the Lord lives.
“The Lord has given me the miracle of Moses for a sign,” Miller continued. “As the burning bush called Moses to bring forth the people out of Egypt, so too the Lord calls me to bring unto Him His children wandering the desert of ignorance.
“When the Lord appeared to Abram, He named him anew Abraham. My name henceforth shall be Moses.”
* * *
Joe Davis also had experience with fire. Dad served with the Army Air Corps in the Pacific. He was an airplane mechanic, not a glamorous military occupation to me when I was a boy, and this was why I never asked about it. The only story he ever told me took place in a huge airplane hangar at Henderson Field on Okinawa when a Japanese 150mm artillery shell hit. The hangar was reduced to sticks and twisted metal. He was under a Marine Corsair at the other end from where the shell hit and the fire started. His buddies knew he was in there. They called to him, and he called back, but digging him out of the rubble went slowly.
The toughest part, Dad said, was the snakes and rats. He’d only seen a few rats and no snakes when the hangar was whole. But when it was in a million pieces and on fire, all the snakes and rats in the world, he said, were crawling over and around him to find another place to live. It was daytime, and enough light filtered through so he could see a little. He said he’d have had a tough time in the dark. He heard men screaming and planes exploding. The fire got close enough for him to feel the heat and hear the crackling of wood and the crumpling of the long corrugated metal sheets. His buddies gave up digging by hand, and a man Dad had never met—a Construction Battalion guy named Terrence Albert from Muscatine, Iowa—jumped on a bulldozer and took a corner off the rubble. The blade caught a wing of the Corsair, and gas went everywhere, including all over Dad. He scrambled through the mess, rolled to his feet, and ripped off his clothes as he ran.
He was in his shorts when the Corsair blew. Dad was fine, but a piece of metal from the plane whirled through the dozer’s rollcage like a circular saw blade and cut Terrence Albert from his belt buckle to his spine.
I never heard my father thank God for saving him, like a wide receiver on TV thanking God for helping him hold that tough hook-and-go. But I did hear him thank Terrence Albert numerous times.
Joe and Merry Davis named their son Terrence Albert, and they called me Terry.
Mr. Davis’s biography, in his own words: I’ve taught Storytelling in Prose in MFA programs for thirty years, last time at Minnesota State, Mankato, where a health issue forced my early retirement. I miss the workshops, and I especially miss the classes where we read stories line-by-line (really) with all the care we could muster. I understand that what we do is way more about storytelling than about writing—that it should be, at least—but I do love working to find the right words and get them in the right places. I wish I had Louise Erdrich’s skill with figurative language; it’s possible, though, that what Erdrich has is beyond skill. I always tried to teach that skill can create the illusion of talent, and that to call someone talented isn’t the compliment we think it is before we really understand how storytelling in prose works. Calling someone tenacious, now that’s a compliment. I had good luck with my first novel back in 1979. I think my books got better; I wish there’d been more of them, but I don’t like to write a novel more than once a decade so I don’t glut the market. Consequently, people think I shone brightly, then dimmed. If you look down in there among the words, though, I don’t think you’ll find that accurate. Merry and Joe is from a novel titled Falling One Long Time, the Life of Karl Russell, All-American Boy.