It’s now getting onto nearly two years since I inherited by default this mid-week space in the Bulletin when Brown County legend and cultural treasure Harry Marlin relinquished it. The only advice I was given at that time was “don’t try to be Harry Marlin.” I think I have heeded that warning and must say that only a fool would try to emulate Harry. He’s in a class all his own.
Of all Harry’s many qualities as a purveyor of local history, homespun recollections and observations about the contemporary scene he has the unmistakable talent of being able to “turn a phrase.” It’s the talent writers endlessly strive for, and whether Harry developed it over time or was born with it is subject to debate. What is not subject to debate is that he does indeed possess the skill. Rarely, is it mastered and even more rarely is it mastered to the degree that Harry Marlin has mastered it.
Last week, I pulled copies of the three of Harry’s five published books I have been able to find off the shelf and re-read them just to remind myself of the sanctity of the space with which I’ve been entrusted. In that there may be relatively new readers of the Bulletin who may not have been blessed with exposure to Harry Marlin’s philosophical bent on the world, perhaps it’s appropriate to take an opportunity to review, what to me are some of Harry’s most colorful recollections and observations in the words that are unique to him alone. Some of his best phrases, however, are in fact so uniquely “Harry” that I will not even take the liberty to try to put them in context. Even those who have read and re-read Harry in the past may be refreshed by the following selections, too.
From “Last Train to Blanket” copyright 2000:
On frugality: “My uncle was so tight, when he chewed tobacco he never spit.”
On promptness: “If I wasn’t home in time for supper mama would be on me like a boll weevil on cotton.”
On smoking tobacco: “We found that ‘Run Johnny Run’ gave us the ability to walk on water and speak in tongues. We stayed away from that….”
On poverty: “We had no TV, Nintendo games, Pokeman cards or 8-liners to poke our money into. Neither did we have any money to poke, had they existed.”
On vanity: “We’ve come a long, long way but like dirt, grassburs, Johnson grass and weeds the poor are still with us, with not even a Model T running board to put their feet on to have their picture taken.”
On war: “It is my fervent hope that I never again have to fly in the ball turret of a B-17 bomber in the frigid skies over Germany while the gunners on the ground are doing their best to make me forget all my memories of the other things I don’t ever want to do again.”
On being from the Greatest Generation: “We had no government intervention back then, and certainly no government help. We managed somehow, even with our shortcomings, to win WWII. We left our dead resting under white crosses in places we never asked to go.”
From “Dirt Roads and Memories Copyright 2002:
On the other side of the tracks: “Most of the residents of this area were underprivileged, underpaid, underfed and most of the time under the influence of something. Nobody could blame them much for the under the influence part.”
On gasoline: “Gasoline in those days was so low octane it was hard to get it to explode. It had a much better taste too. Having been born with a siphon hose in my mouth, I was familiar with the taste.”
From “Lonesome Bull” Copyright 2004:
On cutting and pasting:”I didn’t really want to get that paste on my computer. …We had a girl in our class who ate a full jar of it every day. She could kick start a 747. The teacher tried to break her from it but once you get hooked on the stuff you’re a gone gosling.”
On IQ tests: “I remember Lum explaining the workings of an eight-day clock to Cedric Wehunt whose IQ was measured by how many bales of hay he could lift at a time.”
On being a tough guy: “To agree with anybody with a different opinion than mine is a sign of weakness.”
Harry’s just got a way with words.
John Kliebenstein is circulation and operations manager of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesdays. E-mail him at john.kliebenstein@brownwood