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Tom Chaney: No. R705: Willie Morris' Last Bugle

Of Writers and Their Books No.R705: Willie Morris' Last Bugle Call. First published in the Hart Co. News-Herald Sunday, 16 April 2006.
The next earlier column: No. R704. McKinney No. 1 - 400 barrels a day

By Tom Chaney

In a brief chapter of his first book, North Toward Home, Willie Morris recalls his 1951 experience as a teenaged trumpeter playing "Taps" for a dismaying string of local casualties of the Korean War.



His final novel, Taps, published after his death in 1999, is a poignant echo of the awakening of its narrator, Swayze Barksdale. Swayze and his friend and fellow trumpeter Arch Kidd are recruited by a World War II veteran, Luke Cartwright, to play "Taps" for the burials of the returning casualties. One played at the grave, the other provided the echo -- determined by the toss of a coin.

Swayze is "a solitary brotherless and fatherless boy growing up in a house full of tap dancers and a crazed mother." The town is the fictional Fisk Landing, Mississippi, lying at the break of the hills and the beginning of the delta where "Our people played seven-card stud against God." The book is dedicated to Morris' actual birthplace, Yazoo.

From the distance of time and the fragility of memory, Swayze tells the story of teenage friendship between himself and Arch; the bittersweet course of first love, sexual awakening, separation, and reconciliation with Georgia; and the tragic love affair of Luke and Amanda.

The echo of the playing of "Taps" with each phrase of the song played after a four-second delay by a hidden musician is a lucid metaphor for memory and the process of distilling that memory from the necessary distance of time.

Early in the novel Swayze notes "Selective memory is a human trait, and memory itself, I have learned, is the corrector of existence." And later "Some things come back in memory as in a dream. Psychiatry reminds us that dreams tell us who we are. I myself have long since discovered that many of the moments of life -- of grief or ecstasy or sorrow -- are dreamlike in their unfolding, at once starker and more fragile than reality itself."

And memory is a collective and community possession in Fisk Landing.

The graveyard reflects the elements and divisions of the town. Swayze becomes familiar with the history of his place as he walks amongst the graves searching for the best place to play his echo.

In the complexity of the past he is helped by Potter Ricks, the undertaker whose family had been filling the graveyard for five generations; Woodrow his black assistant who keeps his books and a good part of the town's memory; and by Luke who is in charge of military rites for the local veterans' organizations.

But it is Luke who becomes both older brother and father to the fatherless Swayze. And it is Luke whose funeral provides the final performance of Taps.

Amanda is married to the abusive son of the major planter in Fisk Landing, Durley Godbold. Amanda is the music teacher at the high school and the accompanist for Swayze's mother as she presides over the tap dance recitals of her pupils.

Durley is drafted and reported missing in action -- captured by the Chinese army which swept into North Korea. Amanda long had realized that the physical and verbal attacks on her by Durley and the disdain of his aristocratic family were intolerable. Befriended by Luke, they gradually fall in love.

They plan to make a life together in Atlanta, assuming that Durley is dead. But he returns. Amanda leaves him. Durley then has Luke killed along with Swayze's dog Dusty while Swayze is hiding in the thicket behind Luke's cabin.

In the closing page of the novel the narrator looks backward in memory. "Set beside the slow, dalliant days of youth, why must time dwindle so swiftly as one ages? Just as we begin to perceive the complexity of the puzzle, to ponder its disparate pieces we must rush before the hour grows too late."

Realizing that there is a fatalism about "the terrible confusions of life, believing that there is little order or reason to it, that the eternal experience is all we ever have."

In a recurring dream Swayze is standing alone in the graveyard under the magnolia tree from where the echo is played. The mourners have departed. "Soon four figures gradually approach me from the lower sweep of the hill. . . .

"Through a diaphanous mist I try to make them out. They come closer, and then they find me and stand lovingly before me: Georgia and Luke and Amanda and Dusty! I am with them again, and the accumulated past rises before me, and, beyond, the town itself, in all its sad and wonderful seasons, and the consuming earth where we briefly lived."

Steven G. Kellman of The Texas Observer, which Morris once edited, observed that "[Morris] writes in gorgeously redolent sentences that seem to grow directly out of the lush Delta landscape they evoke."

Swayze listens to funeral weeping as one listens to "the murmur of mourning doves at dusk, or the breathless flow of water in a summer's stream."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
THE BOOKSTORE
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749 (270) 786-3084
Email: Tom Chaney bookstore@scrtc.com


This story was posted on 2011-04-03 08:20:36
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