M.J. Downing: Influences #4. Life on the Ohio.

I had no business trying to read this book when I did, but one key scene stayed with me all the times after I read it at ten years of age. What I expected from the cover it once had—a boy in cut-offs, and old shirt, and a straw hat, fishing from a raft—was life on the Ohio River, where I spent many a happy vacation day at Hanover Beach. I grew up with the Ohio figuring large in my life. Not only did we go to that fishing camp just below Madison, Indiana for our family vacations, but my father, also, grew up just ashore from Towhead Island. The river and that island were his playground. Stories of the Great Depression and the 1937 Flood were served up with most meals I had. And though Huckleberry Finn did feature an even mightier river and even bigger adventures, longer ago than my Dad’s, it was more than I could handle at the time. The flood of that great book has swept over me, again and again, eroding my sense of what is right and what is wrong. In the wake of those floods, I emerge from the sediment richer each time, like the fertile river bottoms that look so devastated after the waters pass yet yield crops in abundance thereafter. I remain as grateful to Mark Twain, Samuel Clemons, in many ways, as I do my father, Bill Johnson, for the river waters of my life were and are pushed by deep, mysterious forces, and they come from places that are beyond my comprehension.
The book itself, a 1950s printing, whose cover was lost to my grubby-handed childhood, came to me sometime after my Mom died. I was four when cancer took her, and much of that time remains blurry to me. But that copy of Twain’s work is one of the oldest of my books that I still have, along side my First Communion Daily Missal. One of my Baker cousins gave it to me. It could have been Sandy or Suzie’s copy, I reckon, maybe even Donna’s, but one of them gave it to me on an overnight I spent at their Main Street home, and I took it away with me. Eventually, I read it or tried to, anyway.
Its first challenge to me was in the way it showed me the truth about grownups in my life, much of which had to do with my father and the character of Huck’s Pap. Since the time of my Mom’s death, I have listened too hard to the words of others and looked to those words as the guidelines of my actions. I grew to try and please people, making my behavior reflect the needs I saw in others. So, I guess it’s fair to say that I grew up in a state of uncertainty and fear: hardly ever clear about what people meant when they spoke to me; fearful of saying the wrong thing and being perceived as bad. But my Dad was so much better than Huck’s Pap that even when I was left in uncertainty by his behavior, I never had to fear his wrath. Bill Johnson was no drunken ruffian. He was a kind, loving, and generous father, according to his means, even if I could never ask him about Mom, unless I was willing to see him break down in tears.
Still, I was in a better place than Huck, though I could not get away like he could, like he dared, when the Widow Douglas’s attentions were too much to bear. Getting out of the house was good enough, having such small adventures as I could in an area bounded by Preston Highway, Gilmore Lane, and Indian Trail. My Dad didn’t set many boundaries on me as long as I knew how to get across a street with reasonable safety. And, Twain’s book helped warn me that men like Pap were out there, people who didn’t mind hurting others.
But early on, I could not see how the racist, classist view of Twain’s adult characters mirrored the views of most of the adults in my life, even the loving ones. They were all products of their time, as much as I was. All went to church, worked hard, loved and cared for their kids, and tried to instill in me a clear sense of right and wrong. Even the nuns at Guardian Angels with their strict sense of discipline tried to do so, instilling in me a clear sense of Heaven and Hell and what it took to get to either. But Mark Twain tossed the largest wrench into my works, one that clanged and banged around inside my head. It still makes a huge noise in my noggin when I think of Huck worrying about turning in Jim, his black friend, an escaped slave, and thereby incurring a Hell-worthy penalty. The greatest scene in that book, for me, is a scene on the river where Huck engages in an inner dialogue about turning in Jim. He thinks of how Jim is part of his own freedom, Huck’s getting away from the dangers of Pap, the smothering oppression of the Widow Douglas. Huck’s basic sense of right and wrong informs him that failing to turn in a run-away slave is a sin, and its consequence is Hell. Huck’s own rebellious nature gives him the courage to say,”Alright, then. I’ll go to Hell,” rather than turn Jim in, and it is one of the greatest moments of heroic action in literature. That moment introduced me to the idea of a moral compass that has the power to override any rule or stricture imposed on me, and I recognized, then as now, that mine and Huck’s action after such a decision would alienate me from some and join me firmly to others.
If I chose to accept the hell worthy consequences of an act, did that mean that I could just throw out the notions of imposed ideas of right and wrong? I could not be the sort of person I had learned to be and live with that idea. In a sense, grappling with the gravity of Huck Finn’s decision to accept Hell as a consequence of one action, I entered into a journey of consciousness, which would change my life forever. I saw that my moral compass could alienate me from others as well as join me to them. Thinking on my own was a dangerous business, and in April of 1968, I began to see that I had no other choice but to try and be the best person I could be in light of my own moral compass.
When Martin Luther King, Jr, was shot and killed, I saw it on the t.v. Dad was there in the living room with me, and I remember my dismay as he worried about black people rioting as a result of this death. Dr. King was a minister, I knew, a man who fought to get people the rights they deserved under the law. True, I was raised by people comfortable in the racial biases they’d inherited, and I saw that my Dad, a fireman, worried about the practical dangers of such things as a riot. Fires would burn homes. People would be killed, and they would act out their frustrations, but my youthful moral compass swung to a different “North” that day. I saw in my good Dad that a fear overcame his sense of the injustice done that day. I didn’t realize that my moral compass, informed so heavily by my early exposure to the tenets of my faith, had me at odds with the view of my father. I had seen all the news coverage as he had about the marches, the peaceful demonstrations, wherein black people asked for the same rights that I had, and I assumed that they should have them. True, I lived segregated from black people, in largely white, middle-class Okolona, but I knew that we were all equal in God’s eyes, should all be equal under the law. That was the first instance of my conscious choice to rid myself of racist tendencies.
Huck’s decision made an awful kind of sense to me, that day, and still does every time I see an injustice done to someone based on someone else’s fear or need to control. Race has been a big part of this, but it hasn’t been all. I suppose that I became a sort of closet anarchist, in my own quiet way, and, sadly, I grew even more careful about listening to people. It was a more dangerous world, then, because of Huckleberry Finn. And, thinking back to that book, I have a feeling that it was a good thing for me to see in association with a river. For, Huck enjoyed his freedom because of that river. It had been his means of escape. I lacked the river’s company much of the time, though, in my own attempts to follow my moral compass. Sometimes, I’d dream of them or just go sit by the bank of any old stream. My history shows, I think, that I should have sat by more rivers.
We see only the surface of a river. We see its power, watch its different currents eddy and swirl, and we watch it go past us, carrying things away. It’s daunting to see a full grown tree, a barn, or someone’s home floating away down the current. But a river is that powerful, as powerful as the decision to act on what you know is true.
The river’s bottom changes as much or more than its surface. It is fed by aquifers deeper that anyone can see, by tiny streams, by rain and snow on distant hills. Whatever water you see passing in a river is pushed by forces that you cannot know. Looking at it, floating on its surface and from its banks, a river can astound you, and yet, it’s only water. But, like John Hartford said, “Ain’t nothin’ like a muddy ol’ river to straighten your head right out.” On a river, Huck chose damnation rather than being right by others’ standards, and it was a good and true choice. Jim broke a law based on his oppression, the need by the dominant society to see him as property. Huck saw in Jim a man yearning to be as free as he did. Mark Twain’s influence on me started there, and I can only hope that I carry on that tradition.
We are rivers, floods pushed along by forces we cannot name or see, but we can tell what direction we are going. Huck’s direction was freedom, growth, an integrity to match the inconvenient truth of his moral compass. We have used rivers in poor ways in this country, polluting them, taking them for granted, thinking of them only as those in the past did, as a means of slipping goods from one place to another. But it never works to leave them out of our calculations. They are power. They mirror our ability to look deep in ourselves and find such truth as we can, beyond the superficial acceptance of what those in power call right and wrong. I want my books to be rivers, pushed by mysterious currents, some gentle, some violent, but all powerful and yet they are only words, like a river is only water. Twain knew that water and words share a kind of power that brings change. My hope is that in my writing, I will be able to say, like Langston Hughes, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” and let my waters flow out to others, for Huck Finn knew that, in addition to a moral compass, we only ever have each other, which is a good and perilous thing.

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