Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Bill Archer

June 25, 2012

How a college term paper and elastic waistband merged in a not so tall tale

I was the least-likely person on the planet to be a tutor, but that’s what I did one spring to help a friend finish up his English requirement so he could graduate. Cedric “CT” Thomas could run like the wind. I know that because I asked him what it felt like to run the 11-yard dash in under 10 seconds. He was from up in Alliquippa, Pa., on the Ohio River west of Pittsburgh. He told me that when he got going that fast, all he was really aware of was the air rushing past his ears.

He was struggling with his English II class just like I had struggled with both English I and II. I managed to pass both courses with Ds, and that was all I needed to move on to the next level. CT was concerned, and wanted to do the same thing. The English II required course had a research paper associated with it. When I had the course, I wrote about UFOs in the news, and believe now that I was very blessed to get a D. When I talked to the professor, he suggested that I help CT find an interesting topic to research. He told me that CT really needed to do well on the paper or he would have to repeat the course. It was a critical moment.

As I was walking away from Armstrong Hall after talking to the professor, I got an idea for a good paper that CT could bring some insights to. At that time, there was a movement in some literary circles to redact or enact an outright ban on certain works of Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) because the African American dialect he used in some of his works — including “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — were insensitive to black people. Some literary scholars believed that the language should be censored or otherwise, sanitized so as not to offend.

I grew up in a farming community of southwestern Pennsylvania with only a few black people, but I knew from visiting Alliquippa to load out of the J&L Steel Plant there that most of the people I saw in town there were black. As I recall, it was a friendly place where people waved at truckers and little kids pumped their fists in the air to get me to sound my air horn. I always enjoyed going to Alliquippa because I knew my way in and out of the plant and I felt comfortable with the people.

Partially for that reason, and also because I had become friends with CT when I was driving campus bus, I talked to him about writing his research paper on the topic of the dialect that Twain used in “Huckleberry Finn.” We went to the library and got analytical books about the characters Huck Finn and his aunt’s slave, Jim, and CT read the novel. We discussed passages of dialect. He struggled to get started on his paper, but it was his paper — not mine. I hadn’t even read it in its final form. I had written my paper about UFOs. He wrote about something significant, from a perspective that few professors at that time might get to see.

I knew when CT was supposed to turn his paper in, and the next time I saw him was also the last time I saw him. He had passed, and he was smiling that CT Thomas smile that anyone who knew him, knows all about. I remember him as just a happy guy. He went his way. I went mine, and never the twain shall meet, I guess. I just remember being the wrong person to tutor anyone, but I was happy that he made it through.

I was interviewed by a Sirius XM radio talk show host from Chicago about a month ago. The guy I talked with, Tim Ridley, had read my column about changing out a universal joint in Maryland in a story where I talked about the tools every trucker needed. As far as I know, the interview hasn’t aired, and I think that might be because I could tell he thought I was exaggerating when I told him about cutting the elastic waistband out of my underwear to replace a broken spring on the throttle linkage on my freightliner. From the tone of his voice, I thought maybe he thought it was a tall tale.

Of course, Mark Twain was considered the master of the tall tale in American literature, and his story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” is considered a template for that genre. I re-read it when I thought about my elastic waistband story and smiled. There’s dialect in that story that might be offensive to some people as well. The thing that makes Mark Twain so special is that there is a lot more going on in even his most simple stories than most people could imagine. Twain, or Clemens, suffered several life-altering events in his personal life, and a careful reader can see the pain beneath the plot of his stories. The reason that Twain’s writing endures is because there is more going in his work than a casual glance might reveal.

Bill Archer is a senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com

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