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An excerpt from The Return of the Son of Needmore, A novel in progress
1937. Harry Eastep, age five, is sitting with his grandfather in the swing on the front porch of the homeplace. It’s a warm midsummer evening, nearly dusk; there’s a lot of daylight left, but the lightning bugs are already winking in the deepening shadows of the big walnut tree in the front yard. Harry’s grandfather, Poodad Biddle, is reading to him from a tattered, dog-eared, old leather-bound volume titled World’s Best-Loved Verse:
“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold ... ”
Harry, of course, hasn’t the foggiest idea what a cohort is, much less an Assyrian. But Poodad, albeit a smallish gent even from Harry’s small-fry perspective, possesses an improbably large, mellow, melodious voice which both he and Harry love to listen to, a sounding trumpet of a voice, a human pipe organ, yea, verily, a deacon’s voice, or a philosopher’s--or a politician’s.
All of which, from trumpet to politician, describes G.J. “Poodad” Biddle--Poodaddy, as Harry calls him--to a fare-thee-well, yet still it doesn’t do him justice. In the first place, Poodad isn’t just a politician, he’s a political legend; like his father before him, he’s basically resided in the Burdock County courthouse all his life. He’s been county clerk (two terms), sheriff (two terms), property value administrator (one term), jailer (one term), and circuit court clerk (six terms, going on seven); again like his father before him, he’s taken up residence in the latter post and hopes to hold it till he drops. (Which ambition, by the way, he is destined to fulfill--like his father before him.) “Philosopher” is another word Harry doesn’t know yet, but if he did he’d be sure his Poodaddy was one, because he is serenely confident that Poodaddy knows everything worth knowing, and is the wisest of wise men. And Poodaddy isn’t merely a philosopher, he’s also a poet (for Harry strongly suspects that his grandfather wrote all the poems in World’s Best-Loved Verse himself) and--though he left school after the eighth grade--even a scholar of sorts, with a whole shelf of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, which he pores over almost every evening by the light of a coal oil lamp at the dining room table.
As a deacon, perhaps, he leaves a little something wanting--he’s not averse to a nip now and then, and he likes a sly joke as much as the next sinner--, but on the other hand he’s read the benediction at the Methodist Church every Sunday for the last thirty-seven years and--who knows?--maybe for the next thirty-seven as well.
And as to the trumpet and the pipe organ, in little Harry’s opinion neither those nor all the other instruments in the whole celestial orchestra, taken together, could match the grandiloquent roll and rumbletumble of his Poodaddy’s voice as he intones the vast, inscrutable mysteries of the poem:
“Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay wither’d and strown ... “
G.J. “Poodad” Biddle, only child (b. 1871) of Wiley and Florence Biddle, had entered the world afflicted by an ungainly pair of Christian names--Gaston Jarvis--which commemorated certain of his mother’s family connections, but to Florence’s eternal consternation Wiley had resolutely and steadfastly called him, a propos of nothing at all, “Poodad” from the moment of his birth, and Poodad he became. It was almost as though neither a Gaston nor yet a Jarvis had ever walked upon the earth. No one, not even his mother, had addressed him as Gaston Jarvis within the memory of man.
Even as fish are hatched into water, Poodad was hatched into the element of politics, and he took to it like his kinsman the fish, or at any rate like the proverbial duck. By the time he was three, he was spending a substantial portion of his days toddling about underfoot in the circuit court clerk’s office, to which Wiley had been elected just after the Civil War; by five or six, he’d had his hair tousled by every registered voter in Burdock County; by the venerable age of eight, he was working on his handshake. (“Firm and manly, my boy,” Wiley advised. “It’s firm and manly brings ‘em to the polls.”) Back when he was still small enough to walk around under his papa’s desk, Wiley had bought him a little broom and assigned him the task of sweeping up the shavings that spilled from the pencil sharpener; gradually, he widened his area of responsibility until by the time he was eight or nine he was doing all the offices on Wiley’s hall, pulling down a dollar-fifty a week in tips and soaking up politics by osmosis, like a frog taking on oxygen. On Saturdays during election seasons, he stood on the courthouse steps for hours on end, handing out vote-for-Biddle cards; after school on weekday afternoons, he roamed the byways of Needmore tacking up vote-for-Biddle posters on every receptive surface he could locate. “Vote for Biddle!” became his motto and his mantra--and soon enough his art and calling.
Meanwhile, Poodad’s mother, Florence, devoted herself to the refinement of her prodigy’s more elevated sensibilities. She was uniquely suited for the work, being Needmore’s brightest literary light; once a month she penned a column in verse, entitled “Flo’s Gently,” for the Social Notes page of the Burdock County News. Frequently, the columns were poetical reports on the (also monthly) meetings of the Burdock County chapter of the Society of Colonial Dames (“Henrietta Figgott led the Pledge of Allegiance/And then we were served a most scrumptious lunch ... ”), of which Florence was a stalwart member. Her recitation of “Old Ironsides” was an annual high point of the Colonial Dames’ 4th of July ice cream social, as were her Christmas Eve renditions of “The Greatest Gift” at the Methodist Church. On their honeymoon trip to Cincinnati, Wiley had bought his bride, as a wedding gift, a handsome, leather-bound volume called World’s Best-Loved Poems, and the infant Poodad had passed many a summer’s evening snuggled next to his mama’s soft, comfortable person in the porch swing while she read him her favorites from the book--even as, some sixty years later, the doting Poodaddy would sit in the same swing on the same front porch, reading to his little grandson from the self-same book:
“For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he pass’d ... ”
Poodad’s lap is doubtless bonier than Florence’s had been, but the luxuriant timbre of his voice is all the padding Harry needs. Harry is spending two whole weeks with Poodaddy and Miss Lute, his grannie, in Needmore, while Leona and Benny are off on a camping-and-drinking pilgrimage to Calendar, Ontario, with two or three other Dayton couples, ostensibly to pay homage to the Dionne quintuplets, who are all the rage just now. (“They’re just drinking them old cocktails up there,” sniffed Miss Lute, with customary charity.) Harry doesn’t really care what “Leona Pomeroy and them” (as Miss Lute contemptuously styles the Canadian expedition) are up to, as long as he gets to stay in Needmore with Poodaddy and Miss Lute. He’s been here before, of course--all those carsick miles on Route 10, a road so crooked that Benny predicted it would screw itself into the ground someday--, but Leona was determined to see that her boy didn’t pick up Needmore’s hickish country ways, so their visits had usually been eat-and-run holiday affairs that invariably left Miss Lute fuming about bad-mannered Buckeyes and Poodaddy visibly saddened by the too-quick departure of his only grandchild. Still, when the opportunity arose to broaden herself by “batting off” (Miss Lute again) to see the famous quints, Leona overcame her anxieties and unceremoniously parked Harry for two weeks smack in the midst of the pernicious Needmore influence zone.
Which couldn’t have suited Harry better. He’s always been in Leona’s camp in loudly dreading trips to Needmore, but it was the coming and the going that he protested at the top of his little lungs, not the being there; when he’s there he thinks it the best of all possible worlds.
The Old Biddle Place, as it is known, is in fact a small farm that has been in the family for untold generations; the rambling white frame farmhouse is situated on Route 10 just outside the Needmore city limits on the south side of town. It’s a nice little farm, with good pastures, tight fences, sound outbuildings, an apple orchard, a couple of ponds fairly jumping with sunfish ... Harry gets to help Miss Lute feed the chickens, and to watch Mr. Beagle, the hired man, milk the cow, and to go to the courthouse with Poodaddy to sweep up pencil shavings with a little broom that Poodaddy says is sixty years old. At lunchtime, they’d cross the street to the White Manor Cafe, where Harry was encouraged to hand out vote-for-Biddle cards to the other diners. When they got home in the afternoon, Poodaddy would take him to the pond to fish, or they’d play crocquet in the yard, or he’d ride Prince, the big draft horse, up and down the orchard (with Poodaddy leading), and Miss Lute would fix fried chicken and country ham for supper and jamcake for dessert, and then Poodaddy would read to him on the front porch. Harry wouldn’t have traded his two-week idyll in Needmore for all the quints in Canada.
“And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!”
“Poodaddy,” Harry pipes, “what’s a Syrium?”
“Why honey,” the old man answers, putting down the book, “it’s a kinely of a cut above a cross between a Philistine and a Pharisee. Come along, cohort, let’s me and you go catch us some lightning bugs.”
Poet, philosopher, politician! Vote for Biddle, vote for Biddle!
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