by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
September 15, 2004
TOENAILS AND KEROSENE
SEATTLE, Wash. -- The children are back, thanks be to God. I don't mean my children-I mean those who go to the school that is just across a wide playing field directly behind my house.
In this view-obsessed region, they are my view. This would not count for much with any realtor charged with selling my house, but I prefer them to the Puget Sound. I'd much rather watch schoolyard bullies than orcas. Them at least I understand, having been one in my day.
Faithful readers will know that I began my distinguished academic career by being expelled from kindergarten. For hitting a little girl with a chair.
I am still pleading my case that she had it coming, but perhaps we should
wait for the judicial process to run its course. Seventy years (from 1934
to now) is not a disgraceful span for judicial inaction. I'd be much
happier if they were sure.
Living across the street from a schoolyard seems to be my fate in life.
In Princeton, my house on Moore Street in the Borough was directly opposite the large lawn of the High School.
Not exactly the playing field, unless you count as play kite-flying and assorted highjinks, handstands, and general hilarity.
During the summer vacations that expanse of law served as a backup to my own property for the sake of entertaining visiting grandchildren.
And not only grandchildren. I remember that it caught the eye of Sir Isaiah Berlin, whose eye did not miss much. On this first visit, my daughter Kitty raced into the house to show her hand to her mother, saying, "I just shook the hand of a knight!"
Sir Isaiah, whose letters have just been published, more or less made the fortune of my first book about the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam by reviewing it very favorably in the New York Review of Books.
He was spending a year at Princeton and was so impressed by my book that he nominated me for the post of Professor of Russian at Oxford (where he was long the star of All Souls College).
One of the letters that I should have sent to the editor of his collected
correspondence reached me in Moscow to say, sorrowfully, that the post
had gone to another.
But I'm off the topic, which is, for those who have just joined us, the delights of living across from a school playing field.
In Greer, S.C., the house of my grandmother Cunningham was directly across the street from the High School field.
I don't so much remember the students playing there as I recall my own playing there.
On one never-to-be-sufficiently-deplored occasion, when I was the catcher in a baseball game, the batter slung the bat, which neatly removed the nail from the big toe of my left foot. Neither of my feet had known a shoe, needless to say, since the beginning of summer.
I ran howling across the street to show my grandmother what had happened. She hushed me with her usual authority, took me into the kitchen, sat me in a chair, wet a rag with the kerosene that fueled her cookstove, and daubed it on the place formerly occupied by my toenail.
The screaming that then ensued brought out the neighbors and kin from all the adjacent houses.
But she knew what she was doing, for the nail grew back, stronger from having survived her first aid.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.