Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Moral Story

            This happened when I was teaching high school in Ann Arbor back in the 70s, and I want to write it down so the story won’t be lost.

            Half of our school’s classroom windows looked out on a practice field where it had snowed the night before. An enterprising student (we assume) had tromped out the word “FUCK” in large letters, visible to all.

            Our school principal called in the Vice Principal, Al Gallup, and told him to “do something about it.” Al put on his boots and headed for the field. He immediately did some of his own tromping, changing the word “FUCK” to “BOOK.” Problem solved. Our virtue was no longer in danger.

            One of my Creative Writing students, witnessing the restoration, was inspired by what he witnessed. I have searched the piles of paperwork that accumulate after a teaching career, but I have not been able to find “Four-letter Word Talkin’ Blues,” nor can I confirm my vague memory that a guy named Joe Welch was the author. The style resembles “Alice’s Restaurant,” without the singing.

            The talkin’ blues narrates the story of a man who was troubled by all the immoral graffiti that was appearing on buildings, bridges and sidewalks around the country, so he got himself a supply of spray paint and traveled from coast to coast, changing every “FUCK” he saw to “BOOK.” He was very thorough – so much so that his mission led to an unintended consequence: the two words started to trade meanings. The piece went on to give some examples. One I remember: Folks would go to the library and request “an overnight fuck.” You can probably come up with some other good ones on your own.

            The talkin’ blues ends with the spray-painter’s being arrested. He is taken to the police station, where the officer says, “Fuck him.”

            Now, this here being a moral story, there’s gotta be a moral message at the end. Somethin’ to turn us into better people than we were before we heard the story, and something easy to hang onto for folks who weren’t payin’ good attention. Maybe I’m just not a moral enough person, but I can’t quite figure out the moral of my own story. Mine or Joe Welch’s, if that’s really who wrote the poem, though a friend of Joe’s says he didn’t. So it’s up to you folks who have stayed with me this far to come up with your own moral message. If you have one, I’d sure love to hear it.

1 comment:

  1. "In the lavatory Caldwell is puzzled by the word BOOK gouged in square capitals in the wall above the urinal. Close examination reveals that this word has been laid over another; the F had been extended and closed to make a B, the U and C closed into O's, the K left as it was. Willing to learn, even by the last flash of light before annihilation, he absorbs the fact, totally new to him, that every FUCK could be made into a BOOK. But who would do such a thing? The psychology of the boy (it must have been a boy) who altered the original word, who desecrated the desecration, is a mystery to him. The mystery depresses him; leaving the lavatory, he tries to enter that mind, to picture that hand, and as he walks down the hall the heaviest weight yet seems laid upon his heart by that unimaginable boy's hand." - John Updike, The Centaur