Chris Offutt: Porn Bought My Football

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Ace coverstory January 5, 2006

Award-winning author and Kentucky native Chris Offutt (now writing and teaching in Iowa) grew up in an Eastern Kentucky small town that no longer has a zip code — the offspring of Depression-era parents. His mother attended Transylvania University. His father graduated from the University of Louisville on a Ford Foundation Scholarship, with an English degree and his own literary aspirations. A job in sales transferred him to Lexington, and Chris’s parents met at a Catholic-school dance, married, and started a family (Chris was born at the old St. Joseph’s). Then they bucked the trend — leaving Lexington and a new ranch house for the hills of  Eastern Kentucky at a time when everyone else was abandoning Appalachia to find work. Chris was five. Though his father found success selling insurance, he eventually left the field to pursue his initial dream of writing — science fiction at first, and later, as the 70s sexual revolution created increasing market demand, pornography. His last book was published in 1992 (all are out of print today), the same year Chris Offutt’s first book was published.

Like Father, Like Son: Or How Porn Bought My Football, and Other Literary Legacies

BY CHRIS OFFUTT

My parents were born within a few months of each other during the ‘dirty thirties’ as my mother called the Depression. She came of age in Lexington, Kentucky, drawing lines up the back of her legs with charcoal to simulate the seams of stockings she couldn’t afford. Her father sold shoes at Wolf Wiles. Mom’s only aunt was a nun, and her favorite uncle was an undertaker who distinguished himself by embalming the racehorse Man o War. Both sides of her family made a living in the unruly world that surrounded the horse-race industry. Mom’s relatives included professional gamblers, bartenders, poker dealers, bookies, and jockeys. These were people of great loyalty to one another, close-knit and fierce, part of a force that successfully defended itself against organized mobsters from Ohio who tried to muscle in on the gambling. Within the loose circles of organized crime, Lexington is still regarded as “an open city.”

My father grew up on a dairy farm near Louisville. To save the land during the Depression, my grandfather rented out the main house, and moved his family into the sharecropper’s quarters — a hundred-year-old log cabin with defensive gun ports bored through the walls. The water lines froze every winter. Dad was a dreamy child, a mama’s boy who read escapist fiction and play-acted stories from his imagination. The tedium of farm work instilled in him an aversion to physical labor as well as a strong work ethic — both of which followed him throughout life. At age ten, he wrote his first novel, a Western adventure.

Dad attended the University of Louisville on a full academic scholarship financed by the Ford Foundation that compelled bright kids to skip their senior year of high school and go straight to college. After a difficult initial transition to the urban social life, Dad became editor of the school newspaper and president of his fraternity. He also won a college science fiction writing contest sponsored by If Magazine. Dad graduated with a degree in English and began selling Procter & Gamble products to small country stores. Young and single, he was transferred to Lexington.

Mom went to Transylvania College for a year until economics forced her to quit and take a job in a bank. She met my father at a Catholic Youth Dance. At age twenty-two, they considered themselves old to be unwed and were eager to start a new family.

They soon married and I was born the following year. My parents’ lives reflected the enthusiasm of the 50s — they lived in a freshly built ranch house, owned a hardtop convertible, enjoyed martinis, and played records on a new Hi-Fi. Dad didn’t like jazz or rock and roll, and Mom despised Elvis Presley because he reminded her of the greasy corner boys she’d been warned against. They preferred the crooning of Frank Sinatra. For Halloween, they dressed as beatniks.

With three young children and a pregnant wife, Dad envisioned a brighter future selling insurance seventy-five miles east in the hills. He bought a house that had been empty for more than a year due to its location. Haldeman was the smallest outlying community, farthest from town, and had a poor reputation due to its bootlegger, drag races, poker games, and frequent bouts of gunplay.

The two-story brick house in Haldeman offered everything my father wanted, including two bathrooms, a basement, a large attic and a private dirt road. Just as importantly, Mr. Haldeman had built it for himself. After growing up in a sharecropper’s cabin, my father had finally made it to the main house.

During the 1960s, Eastern Kentucky experienced its greatest period of out-migration as thousands of people left for industrial jobs. Mom and Dad did the opposite. They moved into Appalachia and never left. I was five years old.

My new hometown was founded in 1905 along with the Haldeman Firebrick Company, the biggest employer in the hills. Local mines provided clay for the manufacture of large yellow bricks that were transported north to line the kilns of steel mills. In the old days, Haldeman had its own water system, railroad station, barbershop, saloon, tennis court, and small hospital. The town ran on scrip, paper money issued by the company to its workers, redeemable only at the high-priced company store. Mr. Haldeman established an Athletic Association funded by a compulsory tax of every worker. The amount was equivalent to fifty dollars a month by today’s economic standards. This mandatory fee built a baseball diamond and basketball court where employees were permitted free access to watch games played with the equipment they’d been forced to buy.

In 1934, the workers produced 60,000 bricks a day. They attempted to form a union affiliated with teh AFL. The Kentucky Firebrick Company notified the county judge who called in the National Guard to stop a strike. Mr. Haldeman recognized his inability to control the town he’d founded or the men he employed. Within a year, he sold the town to U.S. Steel, the biggest client for firebrick.

Haldeman’s glory was reduced to empty mines, rusty sections of train track, and dirt roads that dwindled into the underbrush. The water tanks went dry. The buildings commenced a slow collapse. By the time my parents arrived, the town had been in decline for thirty years.

Haldeman was composed mainly of out-of-work workingmen whose wives occasionally held menial jobs in town. Many of our neighbors heated with coal or wood, and some replaced broken windows with panels of cardboard. Others lacked indoor plumbing. People canned garden vegetables for the winter, slaughtered hogs in the fall, hunted year-round, and fished when they could. The chief source of income was tobacco. Many families lived on various forms of federal assistance.

A hierarchy formed based on monthly income — military pension, physical disability, aid to dependent children, social security. At the top of the heap was “the crazy check,” a large amount received for emotional disability. So many people received welfare that the local bootlegger accepted food stamps, which he sold to store managers, who exchanged them with the government. Eventually the bootlegger cut out the middle-man and improved his profits by dealing directly with corrupt state officials.

Kingsford Charcoal bought the brick-making facility and used the kilns to burn railroad ties soaked in creosote. The resulting smoke killed infants and the elderly, turned the creeks black, and produced a high rate of emphysema and asthma. At night, the smoke blended with fog to form an opaque wall. My mother drove the slowest speed possible, following my father who walked a few feet ahead carrying a flashlight. Town people knew where we lived by the smell of our clothes. My parents led a legal drive to force the charcoal plant to curb its pollution. Rather than face a court battle and bad publicity, Kingsford shut down operation. The air was suddenly clear. Everyone could breathe easier.

Some people appreciated my parents’ efforts, but many resented our family — we had moved into a dying town and dealt it a fatal blow. Worse, we’d done it from Mr. Haldeman’s house, the biggest in the community. the air was no longer lethal, but men were out of work again. I knew nothing of this at the time. At age ten, the woods were suddenly open to me, free of smoke, and the charcoal factory became a vast playground for daylong games of cops and robbers, army, and bicycle tag. I came home exhausted, covered in soot from the kilns, my body scraped and bruised. The next day, I went back for more.

My father flourished as an insurance salesman. One of my earliest memories is waiting for him to come home. If he’d closed a sale, he honked the horn in a distinctive way, and supper would have an element of cheer. A silent horn signaled the family to be careful. By 1968, he was running his own agency in Morehead, overseeing several employees at two branch offices in nearby towns. People in other parts of the country may have been protesting the war and indulging the Summer of Love, but Dad was working sixty hours a week. He wore tailored three-piece suits and drove the only Mercedes in the hills.

In the meantime, Mom was single-handedly raising four kids. She shopped for food, prepared every meal, washed all the dishes, cleaned the house, did the laundry, and took care of repairs. Overwhelmed by domestic duties, she carried out her tasks with a grim determination. Mom seldom smiled and enver laughed. She was smart but uneducated, and her life lacked the structure and sense of purpose a job would provide.

Both my parents severed relations with their own families and had no friends in Haldeman. I don’t recall any adults from the community ever visitng our house. Mom and Dad preferred the upper echelon of town society, which meant hobnobbing with the professors of Morehead State University, doctors who worked at the small local hospital, and a few lawyers. Mom hid her intimidation behind a patina of politesse and cheer.

Essentially, my parents sought upward mobility in a world where there was plenty of traction but nowhere to go. Dad had accomplished his early goals of family, career, and status, but found little satisfaction with success. Through public feud and private grudge, he began withdrawing from the society in which he strove to belong.

At night, he wrote longhand in the dank basement. The walls leaked with every storm. Periodic plumbing problems caused the septic tank to back up and fill the floor with detritus. Snakes and vermin were not uncommon. Our well was contaminated so badly that we mixed Clorox with tap water to drink. On weekends Dad sat at the dining room table and used three fingers to type what he’d written through the week. He struck the keys of his manual typewriter with such force that his glass of water slowly moved across the table. Every so often he slammed the carriage return into the glass, drenching his manuscript, and yelling at whomever was handy. More and more, I explored the world outdoors.

***

Haldeman was a hill and hollow community — a zip code with a creek. Several dead-end dirt roads branched off the blacktop. We had a church, post office, grade school, and a general store. George Molton offered country staples on long shelves that that sagged from the weight of flour, sugar, cigarettes, candy, Vienna sausages, bread, crackers, and canned goods. Two refrigerators stood side-by-side, one full of pop, the other containing milk and eggs. To save money, George kept the lights off most of the time, creating perpetual shadows in the room. If the store was closed, I crossed the creek to George’s house and borrowed the key. I went to the store, found the merchandise, returned the key, and paid for the goods.

Haldeman had two actual employers. The school hired a janitor, a bus driver, a secretary, and two women in the cafeteria. Mrs. Franklin was the only teacher who lived in the community, and the only one who didn’t threaten her students with violence or beat them with a length of lumber. The Haldeman Post Office employed one person, Avanelle Eldridge, who heated the building with a wood stove. Avanelle read letters to the illiterate and delivered mail personally to the sick.

The Haldeman bootlegger was a legendary figure widely admired for his ability to outwit the law. He sold beer, wine, and whiskey from a one-room shack located in a wide spot at the top of a hill, well placed to watch traffic and defend against a robbery. People parked next to the building and made transactions through a sliding panel of wood. The State Police monitored illegal alcohol sales with several regional posts, each of which covered vast territory. The bootlegger operated at the farthest edge of their jurisdiction, less than a hundred yards from the county line. Because of this carefully chosen spot, the state troopers of the next closest post couldn’t bother him. When politics forced an official arrest, the bootlegger made arrangements for someone other than himself to serve jail time. The business closed briefly, then reopened to the joy of the community and the dismay of the preachers.

I wore an army shirt as a jacket due to its deep pockets and ability to withstand briars in the woods. The shirt was too big, which protected me from my rough and tumble habits riding my bicycle along game paths through the woods, plunging down slopes, splashing through creeks, climbing trees, leaping from cliffs, playing at the Charcoal Factory. Several of us boys roamed the hills together, grateful to be free from our respective homes. When thirsty, we stopped at people’s houses and asked for water. Our only mutual rule was to be home by dark. We had camaraderie and the woods, and a shared boyhood of remarkable freedom.

The heavy yellow bricks were everywhere — in the woods and creeks, propping up foundations, stacked as steps, and holding doors open. During winter, people tucked hot bricks to warm their feet. The original buildings commenced their gradual collapse — windows first, then roofs and floors, until finally the exterior walls began to crumble. Each dislodged brick bore the name of the town, a perpetual reminder of Haldeman’s former prosperity.

The War on Poverty had begun and young peole arrived with half-baked ideas of how to help us. One group of do-gooders saw us kids running free in the woods and decided we needed a Youth Center. They arranged for delivery of concrete blocks and lumber, which vanished overnight, used by families for house repairs. This was their greatest form of assistance, although certainly unintended. At the time, we considered our saviors supremely ignorant.

Dad’s late nights paid off with the publication of a few short stories, and on their basis he was invited to attend the 1969 World Science Fiction Convention in St. Louis. My mother accompanied him. It was the farthest either had traveled from Kentucky, and the longest they’d been away — four days. The convention introduced them to the counter culture. Faced with the outrageous styles of hippies, Mom no longer worried that wives of professors and doctors might judge her clothes. Few people in Rowan County knew that Dad wrote, but science fiction fans sought his autograph, a dream come true for him.

My parents went to St. Louis with the confidence of people who are naive to their own degree of naivete and came home astonished. They had never questioned the lives they led or the motivations for their decisions, but merely followed the accepted patterns — they hated communists, loved JFK, and flew the flag on national holidays. A gigantic Douay-Rheims Bible was always open by the supper table. They had four kids because the church opposed birth control. At age thirty-five, my parents felt trapped by the lives they’d assembled. The fissures were undoubtedly in place before, but now the cracks had deepened, and the surface of their life was beginning to peel.

My parents were not particularly brave people, but in 1970, they made a courageous decision, the only risk they ever took. Dad shut down his insurance agency to pursue his dream of writing. He hired a carpenter to build a home-office, and then placed a desk in their bedroom, where she typed his manuscripts for submission. She treated this as a serious job and felt good about herself. Dad was happy as well. He quit the church and wrote a letter of resignation to the Pope. The Bible disappeared, replaced unceremoniously by a massive unabridged dictionary. Dad grew long hair and a beard, and Mom trimmed her hair in a pixie cut. They traded the Mercedes and Mom’s car for a Volkswagen. Dad began writing ten hours a day.

After school, I climbed a dirt road and walked a path through the woods, entering the house to the sound of two typewriters clattering simultaneously, a continual noise that represented home. Money was suddenly tighter. I wore shoes wrapped in electrical tape and in August we received a set of mail-order school clothes to last the year. My parents’ experience with economic deprivation during childhood resulted in household thrift. Dad insisted on savign tiny slivers of soap, which he then reformed into new soap. Mom carefully kept dry eggshells year-round to make a Christmas wreath for the front door. My parents never discussed family finances in front of me. The general feeling was that we always had a little money, but never really knew where the next chunk was coming from. Everything relied on Dad continuing to write, and our family geared itself to protest his time, space, and emotional stability.

Dad went from being always gone to always home. I didn’t feel as if I’d gained a father but lost my mother, who shifted her attention to him. The house was suddenly less a family center and more a place of work — we had to be quiet lest we invoke Dad’s wrath. Mom made it clear that she was not to be bothered unless someone was bleeding. I avoided the house as much as possible, preferring to be alone in the woods, at my neighbors’ homes, or exploring the remnants of Haldeman. Dad’s change in occupation made us more like other families — the father was home, the mother was subservient, the kids desired to be away. Molton’s Store was two miles away by car, but I could cut the trip in half by walking out the ridge and following a trail down the hill. It wasn’t a path in the strictest sense of the term, but more of a muddy gully in spring, a leaf-filled ditch in fall, a snowy crevice in winter. During summer it vanished into the thick underbrush of weeds and briars, overhung by dense foliage. The creek at the bottom of the hill held household garbage, sewage, and empty bottles thrown from cars. I often walked the creek hunting pop bottles, and telephone insulators. With luck, I could find enough for a candy bar and co.d Dr. Pepper. George never complained about the muddy bottles filled with a layer of hardened silt or the foul odors from within. He carefully counted the bottles, handed me the money, then waited with utmost patience while I calculated how to maximize my earnings.

The road leading up my hill bore the improbable name of Broadway and was originally paved with brick. Broadway ended at the top of teh hill where four ridges intersected, each with its own dirt lane. I lived on Clubhouse Road. Our house was not Mr. Haldeman’s primary dwelling, but his site for entertaining politicians, captains of industry, and Lexington horse people. Dad hadn’t made it to the main house after all.

Porn Bought My Football.

To support a family of six, my parents began mass producing pornography for the burgeoning market in 1970. Dad had sold ten such books the year before, which Mom dutifully typed and mailed to editors.This was a simple business decision. The sexual freedom of the sixties coincided with widespread availability of birth control pills. Pornography was in sudden demand. The books were tailored to various tastes: gay, lesbian, group, bondage, swap, inter-racial, incest, sado-masochism, even historical and science fiction. The publishers paid poorly, but their standards were low. Different pseudonyms were used for each sub-genre.

An obsessive and dark sexuality began to permeate our house, and I spent more and more time in the woods. Several weekends a year, Mom and Dad left the state for conventions where they wore revealing clothes and participated in the various activities of the counter-culture. The conventions provided them with rock star status on the periphery of the sexual revolution. Working as a team, my parents produced over a hundred hardcore porn novels published under thirteen pseudonyms.

Neither of them had ever been inside a dirty bookstore, and vehemently denied the terms ‘smut’ or ‘porn.’ They said that they were performing a kind of social service by providing sexual guides in the form of hardcore pornography.

In eastern Kentucky, an area oppressed as much by religious belief as economics, my parents put forth the image of a close family financed by Dad’s work as a science fiction writer. I was taught to keep the real source of our family’s income secret. In their efforts to protect themselves, they arranged for outgoing manuscripts to be postmarked in Lexington instead of Haldeman, and later used my out-of-state return address for envelopes.

Once a month, Mom drove me to Mt. Sterling for orthodontic care. Porn straightened my teeth. Porn supplied me with shoes, food, and clothing, and the only football on the hill. Not all the boys had gloves, but porn kept my hands warm in the winter.Porn paid the mortgage. Porn bought clothes and food and medicine. Porn provided Christmas and birthday presents. Porn would have financed my high school dates had not the widespread knowledge of Dad’s occupation interfered with my ability to acquire dates. It was an open secret, but rarely mentioned, expressed instead in the silent judgment of a small town. People knew who I was because of my father’s occupation.

For twenty years, the only successful business people in Haldeman were my parents, the bootlegger and George Molton. Like Mr. Haldeman himself, each operated as an entrepreneur during a time that marked the end of an era for each particular enterprise. George Molton closed his store and died a few months later, still holding IOUs for several thousand dollars. His cash register was sold as an antique. When Morehead legalized the sale of alcohol, the bootlegger went out of business and opened a liquor store in town. My former grade school closed. The government shut the post office, rescinded the zip code and changed the mailing address to town. The onset of AIDS ended the era of sexual freedom. The widespread availability of VCRs introduced a market in adult movies, which effectively eliminated the demand for written pornography.

All of my father’s books are currently out of print, although early porn has become increasingly valuable in the collector’s market. Serious academic courses in pornography are offered at major universities, and a number of schools include vintage porn in their libraries. Indiana University at Bloomington has a temperature controlled, highly secure archival library that houses the largest collection of pornography in the Unite dStates. Soft-core porn pervades media advertising, television, movies, music and video games. Hard-core porn has entered many homes via the internet. This overt commercialization has given rise to a romantic nostalgia for the more innocent era of the 1970s when sexuality was free and open, its creators tucked in out-of-the-way places.

My parents still live in the house where I grew up, but Dad no longer writes. His last book came out in 1992, the same year my book was published. Mom went back to school and now works for a lawyer in town, answering the phone, running errands, and typing.

Progress is an odd beast in Haldeman. The dirt roads of Haldeman are paved now, and the piped-in water is sanitary enough to drink. These changes allow trailer courts to proliferate in a curious form of rural suburbanization. The population has increased. But there is no school to educate children, no store to buy goods, no place to mail letters. Without a zip code to mark its place in the federal system, my hometown will eventually vanish from official maps. The lovely wooded hills endure, but the people who remember the past are dying off. Only the bricks remain.

 

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