Flipping through the pages of my old literary magazines, I recently found a piece that I had written long ago and had published in a Philadelphia magazine called LaZer (1994). I’d completely forgotten about this personal reflection from my youthful bartending days not far from where I currently reside, but I thought to share it with you on the chance that “Crazylegs” might still entertain…. [photos: autumn rose. delphinium, wild sunflower, Jack-in-the-pulpit… Greenwood, NY environs]
Spike, a human fixture at the Sycamore Hotel, was prone to calling Daniel Woodworth “Crazylegs.” In recent years old Dan had begun to lose control of his left leg and so resorted to the use of canes, but the nickname didn’t seem to bother him. In fact, his retaliatory and affectionate name for Spike was “Dago.” Crazylegs and Dago got along just fine.
I was tending bar at the Sycamore when I first met Crazy. He was short and stooped, a long-retired farmer now with sunken cheeks and thick-lensed glasses. Because of his alcoholic tendencies, Crazylegs wasn’t the official Town Historian of Grayville, but he was, nonetheless, a true historian. Drunk or sober, he could speak articulately, accurately, and with intelligence and detail on almost anything pertaining to the Grayville area.
With the quickness of a warm computer, he could spiel out genealogies for any rooted family; he could speak of Fall Creek, Hiram’s Gully or Grouse Hollow, for example, and inform one of the natural and human history there; he could people all the buildings in the township with men and women who had known them, and he could talk of how they mobilized both socially and geographically. Crazy’s memory was nearly photographic, but he seldom flaunted it. He kept his knowledge locked within himself unless someone indicated an interest. Arguably, he knew more about the place than did the Town Historian, but undeniably Crazylegs was friendlier and more accessible than his official counterpart.
I never knew him well or saw him much outside of his occasional appearance at the bar. He seemed to be a humble man of wisdom, one who stayed in touch with the traditions, who could see both the torn fabric of existence and the wholeness of the cycles that were life. Surely my view of him was limited by my own selective interests. For all I really knew, Crazylegs could have been a life-long alcoholic, one who poisoned dogs, molested children, beat his wife, and picked his nose in church. I knew that he lived in a dumpy shack out in the hills, that his farm animals were history, and that his kids had grown and left him in solitude, but these were facts I could easily attribute to the ravages of modern life on rural dwellers, rather than to personal irresponsibility.
There was something in his speech and manner that portrayed him as an amiable, independent and compassionate fellow. Symbolically, he might represent the old and vanishing rural community– where community meant more than the assembly of volunteers at the Fire Hall for beer or cards on Thursday nights. As if to balance these reflections there was also something of the tragic in his mien. Old Crazy was approaching blindness, but I saw his inner eye glancing back and forth in time, perceiving some kind of hope still glimmering for us as a culture, although growing dimmer day by day.
Several men were sitting at a table talking casually about the trapping season. Harry Sanford said he was buying mink and beaver skins this year. On the television there was news about a local free-lance writer just released from her status as Iranian hostage. She reported that major publishers were interested in the book she planned to write about her months behind the lines. Crazylegs hobbled through the door and sat near Spike at the bar.
“Must have been around New Year’s when I last run into you,” said Crazy when I served him a can of Genesee. I didn’t need to remind him that we talked then of the vanished farms out my way. “Sure, we talked about Minnie. She was sumpthin’,” added Crazylegs.
“She had lots of kids, huh?” said Spike.
“Fourteen. Nine girls, five boys.”
“Some of them died real young.”
“Let’s see, ” continued Crazylegs. “Little Sam. Died way back around 1920; and Thomas– died a few years after that.”
Spike ran his hand indifferently through his slicked-back hair. Moments later he was staring at the doorway when he said, “Helen I remember good. Went off to Minnesota and died.”
“And Marie,” added Crazylegs.
“She went nuts,” declared Spike.
“Yeah, but she pulled out of it, though. Tough bird.”
I wondered how much sadness surfaced through the recollection process and how sharply Crazylegs reacted to the more significant happenings of long ago. Was there still a pretty face, a someone who would never change through time and could allure him always to events as he had lived them?
I imagined him laughing as he looked down the hallways of a grim and tottering future. Would his days unwind at the “Old Folks Home” where the dayroom television blared to offset the existence of faded magazines, potted geraniums, and white-gowned female companions now unable to answer questions such as, “Would you like a baked or a mashed potato with your dinner?”
Suffice it to say that such a future wouldn’t be for him. We are living in a strange and dangerous time like frogs in a crock of water slowly heated over a fire. Many of us, if not already spiritually dead from exploitation and our own insensitivity, will be boiled to death in time. But I don’t think Crazylegs will forget how his life once was or how it might be lived tomorrow. When others knock upon his door to take him to the city, Crazy’s lame left leg will kick like a swimming frog’s; the cane will bear the body’s weight. He’ll stumble toward an open window and be gone unnoticed.