Being Chuckie by Richard Hague
from The Book of Ing: Memoirs of a Manhood
I used to suffer from something I’ve called “class panic,” which is a phobia experienced by lower-middle or working-class folks, highly educated or not, when they find themselves among the wealthy, professorial, or powerful—worst when the company combines all three. I witnessed a close friend of mine nose-dive in a matter of minutes from his usual confident self into an anxious and awkward retreat, practically pushing people aside as he bolted for the door from an art opening hosted by a well-known curator and collector in Cincinnati. I had done much the same thing myself a few years before when, in a fairly high-class restaurant, I suddenly felt like a dolt, a fop, an impersonator, and had an anxiety attack so strong it swept me and my wife abruptly from the table and our friends, and kept us away for the rest of the evening.
I outgrew this, mostly, but there must have been vestiges of some sort of opposite off-kiltered-ness, since my late friend Dave Stratman, knowing full well the extent of my education and the conventionality of my life—hell, I’d had the same job for something like thirty years when he observed this—Dave still thought I exhibited a few coarser, rube-like, stereotypically hillbilly behaviors. Partly this was because of my habit of bringing music along to our shared summer weeks of vacation on Cape Cod, music that included such classics as “Wolverton Mountain,” which I played on my car cassette deck and then crooned to Dave’s kids, Robin and Justin, throughout the week. At any time, just for kicks, I’d sing, “Her tender lips (her tender lips) were sweeter than ha-uh-ney.” The kids’ eyes would widen and then roll back in their heads (actually Justin would often smile delightedly, the dear boy) and Dave might chime in on the chorus. At one point after a particularly rambunctious display, he turned to my wife and said, “So, how long have you known Chuckie?”
We all have several selves. There is the CEO self, always on top of things, “wrapped tight,” as my father would say of upper-level management types, or of obsessive-compulsives, or of generally humorless drudges. Or there may be the boy in us, who, like Peter Pan, resists growing up. This resistance is not all bad, and offers a healthy alternative to the CEO self, allowing for a letting loose and an inlet for play and humor and the casual enjoyment of things. It’s generally bad, though, if, as in the recent Bud Light commercials featuring screaming, arrested-development football fans, it leads to superstition, absurdity, and hocus-pocus. It’s weird whether it works or not, dudes.
Nevertheless, many men continue to harbor the inner jock—long ago abandoned, we tell ourselves—but in reality still lurking just beneath the surface of us, a kind of Neanderthalic doppelganger who forgets that middle or old age is really here. He appears when, for example, we take our sons to the local tennis court (a sport we never played in our youth) to teach them the rudiments of the game. We start a volley, and then, one of the boys out of blind luck hitting a sharp corner-shot, we plant our foot, lunge sideways, stretching to backhand our return, and snap!, a tendon in our left calf parts so loudly even the boys hear it across the net and stand wide-eyed as we limp, utterly hobbled, to the sideline, saying, ”That’ll be it for today, guys.”
Others of us still think of ourselves as Lotharios or Casanovas, and suck in our bellies when an attractive girl (or guy) a third of our age ambles by on the sidewalk. We fail to realize that we only marginally exist for such creatures; we are their dead fathers or their loutish uncles who are best fled when encountered at some wedding reception or wake, booze on their breath, hands rampant.
So I have to admit that I’m not particularly happy to be known as Chuckie, in one or another of the aforementioned guises, at times in my life. Knowing the likelihood of Chuckie’s breaking out at inappropriate times haunts my spontaneity. I have to watch out for this good old boy in myself, lest he hurt himself, or, like the strong-armed left-hander eight-year old son of mine, hurt me, even though we thought we were just playing an innocent game of catch in grandma’s backyard.
Still, there are aspects of Chuckie which appeal to me, and which feel more comfortable than most of my other public fronts.
Chuckie prefers jeans to khakis, for example. Chuckie prefers beer to bourbon or Beaujolais. Chuckie can just as soon gobble a bowl of cheese-jalapeno grits as sip a saucer of bouillabaise. Chuckie eats peanuts rather than expensive smoked almonds, and he remembers the five-cent bags of hot, salty, freshly-roasted Spanish peanuts he ate regularly as a little boy. He’d stand munching them, a tiny fellow just three and a half or four feet tall in those days, leaning against the McCrory’s Five & Ten radiator for warmth, watching out the big glass double doors for the Lincoln Heights bus to cross Market Street and stop just outside the store and carry him home from school.
Chuckie doesn’t mind getting dirty and staying that way. His late friend Joe Enzweiler used to joke seriously about what he called an “earned shower.” Living in Alaska, in an unplumbed cabin, and not wont to sweat inordinately anyway, though he was an incredibly hard worker and determined athlete, Joe would go for what many would consider utterly uncivilized, even toxic, periods of time between showers. He offhandedly told me that one spring, he’d had to trim the hair of his arms and chest, which had grown through the material during the long winter, in order to get out of the top of his longjohns. As much as he was interested in “tomatoes” as he called them (otherwise known as “babes” or “skirts,” in the Minnesota Fats lingo he often jokingly and politically incorrectly employed), he was unimpressed by “suits,” both the actual things and the men who wore them. When, every decade or so, he’d have to put on a tie, he looked and acted like a man who had been outfitted in a hurry at the Goodwill, and was now being led to his own hanging. Chuckie sympathizes deeply with that kind of guy.
Chuckie is scornful of swells, dandies, most hipsters. He’d take Johnny Cash or Willy Nelson over Tom Wolfe, James Still over Scott McClanahan, just as he’d take a mule over a riding mower, if he had the choice. Chuckie would prefer a slug of Old Overholt or Southern Comfort over a Cosmopolitan.
Camping with me for a few days at my place in the woods, my young English-teacher colleague Jason Haap once paused from our demolishing of half a case of near-expired Yuengling beer he’d brought back from Pittsburgh several months before to remark how strange it was that I, a respected veteran teacher, an author, a writer published in prestigious journals, the winner of literary awards, and a guy who hobnobbed now and again with professors and physicists and physicians, could be utterly happy living in a ramshackle trailer in Appalachia and running the ridges with the likes of Happy Jim Winland, former millhand and then fisherman and chewer of tobacco, or Mr. Arnett Whitacre, storekeep and yarn-spinner, all of this in a ’75 Chevy short-bed pickup whose floor was rusted through so that when you pressed the clutch, your heel nearly dragged on the pavement. I just told him, “It’s Chuckie, man, it’s Chuckie.”
Chuckie is okay with 25 dollar-a-night motels in places like Chesapeake, Ohio, just down the river from Ironton, and across the river from Huntington, West Virginia. He isn’t wild about such dives—the thin walls, the yellow-with-cigarette-smoke-rugs, spattered lampshades, sketchy pillowcases, greasy door knobs and crinkly linens, the guys in the room next door kicking their dogs all night—but he can do them every now and then, especially when cash is low and he thinks there’s somebody on his tail.
Chuckie can eat Vienna sausages right out of the can, or fry a slab of Spam for breakfast, or peel open a tin of sardines and eat them with saltines for lunch. After all, Chuckie had to serve 5:45 Mass on cold winter mornings back in Steubenville with just the flatulent Father Priest (his actual name and his actual condition) and the nuns shivering and alleluiaing and rattling their beads no more than three feet behind him in the claustrophobic convent chapel. Breakfast after that Gothic ordeal was a hardboiled egg, biscuits and peanut butter, and a half pint of chocolate milk, consumed in the freezing front seat of his dad’s ’56 Mercury sedan. Chuckie ain’t too particular.
Chuckie is okay going to bed in his trailer smelling of wood smoke, beer, and pitch pine. He’s okay sneaking a rare (earned) bath in a bend of the Clear Fork of the Little Muskingum river, standing on a rock about fifteen feet offshore and feeling minnows pick at the air bubbles caught in the hair above his ankles. He’s not grossed out completely if he steps in a cow plop while walking barefoot down Mr. Braun’s pasture toward the pond where he’s gotten permission to fish.
Chuckie is invaluable in certain moments of outrage. Where a more self-conscious and shoe-polished man might exclaim, upon learning that his neighbors had been bilked by some fraudulent plumber, “Oh my goodness!” Chuckie will bawl, “#*&@%, you have got to be #*&% kidding me!”
Because Chuckie is Me and Not Me simultaneously, I have to try to understand him. And I think I do: it takes a bit of ornery genius, wouldn’t you agree, to escape one’s education and upbringing as successfully as Chuckie has done? Lesser men might heed their p’s and q’s, might govern themselves more closely, concerned about being bad examples or causing scandal. Not Chuckie. He revels in letting it all hang out. If attitude were a shirt, Chuckie would have a drawer full of bullet-holed, fingernail-scratched, hotsauce-stained neon green wife-beaters. Or he’d sport a black t-shirt with “Eat The Rich” stenciled across it, which he would wear to his credit union every payday. During parties at work, he’d call his boss’s wife “Babe.”
That kind of genius, I mean.