Just a Few Degrees Off Cool
By: Garland Davis
I wasn’t aware of the concept of being cool for much of the time growing up but, as comedian Bill Engvall put it I was always just a few degrees off cool.
My name has relegated me to uncool in so many ways. I was born in 1944 before my Mom and Dad were married. He was away in Indiana training for duty in Europe. They were married after he was discharged. I still have my mother’s maiden name. They would have to go to court to change my name and that cost seventy-five dollars. Let’s face it, they didn’t have that much money and there was another baby coming. So I ended up the lone Davis boy in the Salmons family. Learned early on the meaning of “Bastard.”
To top it off, I was given the most uncool nickname ever, Buster. My mama named me Garland Gray. Buster came about when my aunts came to see the “new” baby. I was told that I was given the name when my Aunt Bet asked my mama, “What did you say his name is?”
“Garland Gray,” she replied.
“My God, what a mouthful of a name. I’m going to call him Buster.”
I was about two years old (hell yeah, I remember this stuff. I remember the day I was born. Cried like a baby!) and most of the men I knew either smoked or chewed tobacco. I didn’t like the smell of the smoke or of the chewing tobacco. But, most of my aunts dipped snuff. It was a fine powder, known as Scotch Snuff. I remember them packing their lower lips, getting their spit cups and sitting on the front porch clucking like a bunch of old hens. I thought I might like to try snuff.
I know it was a Sunday. We had just come from church. One of my aunts announced that she had found a new brand of snuff and it tasted good. They were in the kitchen around the table, each of them using the little spoon that came with the snuff to pack it under their lip. I asked if I could have some and of course, they laughed and said no.
They all retired to the front porch and left that jar of snuff sitting in the middle of the table. I climbed onto a chair and pulled myself up to the table. I pulled the jar to me and wrestled the lid off. I smelled it. Didn’t smell that good. For some reason, I blew into the jar. I was suddenly enveloped in a cloud of tobacco powder. I was coughing, sneezing, my eyes burned and I was crying. After, I was cleaned up and was pretty much okay, I was crying again because my Mama swatted my bottom for getting into the snuff. I have never tried snuff, of any kind, since. If anyone tells you that a two-year-old is too young to make a life decision, I have news for that person.
I tell you, it seems as if I was always a little behind where I thought I should be. I think I was between two and or three years old when I inherited a hand me down tricycle from an older cousin. I was proud of it and pedaled down the walk to show the kid next door. He wheels out his brand new, shiny trike sucked the cool right off me. I looked at the scratched, rusty bike I had been so proud of and for the first time realized that the world was unfair when it came to cool.
Shortly after the tricycle, we moved to the farm. Everyone in the farm community wore denim bib overalls. My overalls were corduroy. All the cool guys were wearing denim. I wanted to be cool and begged for denim overalls. And finally, my begging was rewarded. I had denim overalls to start school. I strolled proudly through the door of the first-grade class dressed in my brand new denim overalls to learn that only one other boy was wearing overalls. All the other boys sure seemed cool in their denim jeans. To really add to it, I had to go to the toilet and I couldn’t get the galluses unfastened and shit my pants. Not long afterward, my Mama bought me some denim pants with a belt. What were known as “hip britches.” I was on my way to cool.
I had spent most summers with my grandmother and she had taught me to read, write, add, subtract, and multiply. Shortly after the mishap with the galluses, I was moved from the first grade to the third grade. I would no longer have to endure the name “Dookie Drawers” during recess. In elementary school, like every organization I have ever been affiliated with, embarrassing news travels at the speed of light. Not only was I called Dookie Drawers, but I got my ass whipped regularly because I was smarter than the rest of the class.
You couldn’t reach a higher state of uncool. Think not? I stammered. Whenever I tried to talk, especially if I was excited, I had a real problem with the letter S. I solved that problem by talking as little as possible. I became the introverted little geek who had shit himself in the first grade. The only friend I had was the preacher’s kid who wore the coke bottle lens glasses, slobbered and had a bladder condition that caused him to piss about every half hour.
A common theme of recess was, “Hey it’s old Dookie Drawers and old Pissy Pants alone in the corner of the schoolyard reading books, let’s go whip their asses.”. The thing that usually saved us was our ability to out run them back to the school room.
By the time I reached fifth grade, my brother started first grade. He was a confident leader in his crowd on the school yard. He told tales, both true and false, about me that filtered through the school yard detracting from any iota of cool that I did possess. He did it partly out of spite for unpleasantness I had caused him at home and because he was expected to, and couldn’t, live up to my example as an exemplary student.
I pretty much stumbled through a six-year eighth-grade education thusly. The one bright point of my elementary education was a sixth-grade teacher who cared enough to work with me to overcome my stammer. For fifteen minutes every day after class she had me practice vocal exercises and encouraged me to practice at home and to try to emulate the newscasters on radio and TV. I slowly overcame my stammer and haven’t been able to shut up since.
I knew when I went into High School, it would lay a measure of coolness on me. I forgot that I would be entering high school with the same kids I had had to endure during elementary school. Being about two years younger than them, our interests suddenly didn’t coincide. They were entering puberty. Their voices changed, they grew body hair and suddenly boys and girls became interesting to each other. Me with my books and my science projects were of no interest to them. I would have two wait two years for students of my own age. I was still “Dookie Drawers” but, no one cared any longer. My friend’s father had been offered a congregation in another town and he moved to another school. I was too young, too smart, too alone and too uncool enough to fit into the social life of the high school.
The summer before my Junior year, a cousin had enlisted in the Coast Guard. He was a high school dropout and the recruiter sent him to take the tests for his GED. He passed and was issued a certificate by the State of North Carolina stating that he had the equivalency of a high school education. I called the testing facility and learned that anyone could take the tests, but it cost $20. I had that much money and the Friday before my fourteenth birthday, I took the tests. About a week before school started I received my certificate in the mail.
On the first day of school, I went to the Assistant Principle and showed it to him and told him I didn’t have to go to school any longer. He burst my bubble. He told me that regardless of the GED, state law required children to attend school until at least sixteen years old. But, he told me that since my scores on the GED tests were extremely high, that he would try to get me into a state vocational school. He made a call and told me the only thing available was a course in Baking and Bakery Science. Not wanting to spend two years in a high school where I was so out of place, I agreed.
A little less than three years later, I enlisted in the Navy, where I served as a baker and a cook for thirty years. I always thought by being a sailor I had finally achieved a state of cool. But the older I get, the less I give a crap about cool.
But I tell you, The Asia Sailor Westpac’rs reunion in Branson, MO and the shipmates I meet with there every May are cool.
A native of North Carolina, Garland Davis has lived in Hawaii since 1987. He always had a penchant for writing but did not seriously pursue it until recently. He is a graduate of Hawaii Pacific University, where he majored in Business Management. Garland is a thirty-year Navy retiree and service-connected Disabled Veteran.