By CLAY REYNOLDSFrom time to time, I am asked to address one of the several hundred women's clubs that dot the urban landscape near me. The point is to provide a program for their meetings that, otherwise, would consist mostly of drinking coffee and eating sweetmeats and gossiping. The other morning, I was invited to review two new biographies of Dwight Eisenhower for a particular chapter of a self-proclaimed patriotic women's group, founded in the certainty that each of them had descended from some individual who was in some way augustly connected to one of our nation's several antique and noble wars. It was quite an experience.
The meeting was in a one of our city's wealthier areas, a neighborhood that offers a half-decent imitation of West Hollywood, CA, only without the celebrities or even the ersatz-luxury restaurants. It was held in a vintage private home that probably cost more than my combined lifetime income. (George W. Bush resides in the same general neighborhood.) The street in front was a narrow but un-gated private drive, and I was directed by two flag-waving attendants into the parking lot. They had their own parking lot, fenced and guarded. Once inside, I found about a dozen cars, not counting the owners' two boats, ATV, Jeep, and compact pickup, all of which were garaged there. The open area resembled nothing more than a luxury car rental agency. Mercedes, Caddies, BMWs, a couple of Lincolns, Lexuses and Infinitis, a Jaguar and one Corvette, all hemmed in my pickup, but I found a slot and soon made my way to the front of the house. "I guess this is the place for the meeting, I said to one attendant.My hostess, whom I instantly offended, I fear, by overlooking the cautionary sign and letting the cat in when I passed through the front door, looked like a character from Central Casting sent over to fill a role in a horror film. No more than 5'1" and built something like a turnip, an effect in no way diminished by a white-and-purple dress, her hair, which was piled high on her head in the shape of an inverted hornet's nest, contained at least three different colors: black, white, and a kind of pinkish gray. She was so elaborately made up, she looked like a walking corpse. Her orange-colored, stiletto nails extended a full inch from each fingertip, and one of her eyes was blue, the other brown, and it wandered. Her teeth, which I'd guess were original, were stained green, for some reason, and she had no eyebrows. I guessed her to be well into her eighties. She carried a cane, but she didn't use it, except to threaten the intrusive cat; I was very polite and careful not to arouse ire, all the same. Although abundantly friendly and hospitable, she was, in truth, utterly grotesque.
Through the windows of "the Main Room" I noted a fieldstone patio that gave way to a brick-edged body of water about the size of an Olympic swimming pool, in the center of which stood a miniature (six or seven feet tall) replica of the Statue of Liberty, with water shooting out of the torch. Spaced throughout the house were other vivid reminders of Americana and Texana of one sort or another. There also were a number of dead animals, stuffed and mounted in attitudes of predatory perusal; raccoons seemed to be favored, for some reason. The furniture varied from Second Empire to late Victorian to indifferent American, with Persian rugs scattered about over hard wood. I was put in mind of some flea markets I've seen.
Around fifty women were in attendance. The membership averaged in age, I'd say, around 70, with the youngest being a relatively attractive woman of about 50, who, she said, was a graduate of the college where I teach, class of 1989, and who wanted to know if I remembered her. I didn't, since I joined the faculty in 1998, but this did not deter her from insisting that she remembered me. She was the only one there under 60, I'm sure. The pancake makeup and hair spray concession was doing well, along with lilac-scented perfume that was as dense as the air around the average chemical plant.
There was no smoking, of course, and no booze. But oh, my, the money. You could smell that. The fruits of decades if not centuries of gross profits from oil, cotton, "caddle," land acquisition and creative accounting were on vivid parade. At first, I was taken aback by the elaborate costume jewelry they all seemed to be wearing, but as they came closer to introduce themselves, I realized that all these gems were real. One woman had on a necklace of what appeared to be emeralds the size of quarters. There are probably South African diamond mines with fewer quality gemstones in residence than were adorning elaborately manicured fingers, liver-spotted wrists, and wattled necklines. I determined that if the Texas economy depended on the sales from Nordstrom's and Tiffany's, to say nothing of local plastic surgeons, that all will be well in the future. The food layout on a 12' table complete with lace tablecloth and silver coffee service, was clearly catered and looked delicious; although I was directed to eat, I didn't sample any of it. I'd already let the outdoor cat in; I didn't want to risk spilling and soiling an expensive oriental rug.
The formal meeting was held in a specially designed meeting room that had been added on to the back of the house, facing what Granny Clampett would have called "the see-ment pond." There were plenty of folding chairs, an altar (complete with crosses, a chalice, and candles), and a small table where three tiny flags--US, Texas, and Protestant Christian--were stuck into tiny holders that fell over whenever anyone passed near them. Although they always have a program, no lectern or even table was provided for a putative speaker's notes. I dutifully took a chair then stood when, after a great deal of confusion created by the chapter's chaplain's inability to light one of the candles with a "gadget," a butane lighter (the trigger mechanism she deftly handled, but the thumb-switch activating the gas flummoxed her), was resolved by the production of book of matches, the meeting was launched with a non-denominational prayer. The chalice was ignored.
The heavenly supplication was followed by the careful snuffing of candles, then the elocution of the "Pledge of Allegiance," a unison reading of the "Preamble to the Constitution," and something called, "The Oath to Citizenship," which read for all the world like an adaptation of "The Apostle's Creed," but with patriotic jingos substituted for religious references--"Constitution" for God, "Freedom" for Faith, "Liberty" for Everlasting Life, "Congress" for Evangelical Church, etc.; then there was the "Pledge of Allegiance" to the Texas Flag. All of these recitations were solemnly performed. I wondered about the order of events.
Next up was the business meeting. The treasury report revealed that this chapter has 110 active (and still living; proceedings were interrupted for a memorial prayer for three members who had died since the last meeting) members and more than $25,000 in the bank. I belong to a couple of major regional academic organizations with less than half that in disposable income. They were quibbling over spending $500 to send gift packages to 100 soldiers in Afghanistan. Among items to be included were small toiletries, bags of trail-mix, baby-wipes, and "magazines." I was curious as to what magazines the group might approve of, and speculated about Car and Driver, Field and Stream, National Geographic, possibly Playboy or even, for that matter, Playgirl; but they turned out to be mostly cross-word puzzle and word-game magazines. Just what a lonely soldier on the front wants most, I decided. Most of the room expressed profound shock that the US Postal Service provided boxes into which items could be packed; they sold, postage included, for $15.95, a sum deemed to be outrageous for a cardboard box. "No wonder they're in financial trouble," a woman near me whispered. After some debate, they decided to go ahead with the project.
After the business meeting, I was introduced. My presentation went over very well. Or so they said, and said, and said. I have no idea who they've had previously, but whoever it was must have been damned boring. I talked about Eisenhower's life from the books I've reviewed, and they seemed astounded by facts that most all of them remembered. Several announced that they wanted to take a course from me. One woman announced that she wrote a paper in college on the Suez Crisis and wondered if she got it right. They seemed perplexed when I noted that before reading the two books, I'd always found it remarkable that few if any present-day Republicans ever even mentioned Eisenhower as one of the bright stars of the GOP. After studying his presidency, though, I concluded that he may well have been too much of a progressive to qualify for more than honorable mention. This raised the question, "Aren't all presidents progressive?"
The only potential sour note was when I noted that at the time Eisenhower was tapped for the GOP nomination, he had never voted in a general election (Expressions of shock rippled through the room) and when I offered two quotes from Ike: "I cannot see why anyone in his right mind would want to be a Republican," and "The two foundations of any democracy are housing and food. That's what people want and need, and when they can't have them, they revolt." Heads visibly ratcheted back when I read the latter. I shouldn't have done it, I guess, but I couldn't resist, especially after one of the members had previously risen and urged them each to write to Justice Scalia and tell him to stand firm on declaring the voting rights act unconstitutional.
On the other hand, afterwards, one woman put a claw on my forearm and explained that there always had been only two kinds of Democrats in Texas--"a Yarborough Democrat and a Shivers Democrat." That," she said, "was what made me a Republican." A lady nearby overheard, leaned in and with a chuckle said, "You got that right, Honey! Eventually, I made my getaway, though, and mostly unscathed, although I was warned that at least four of them would be sending me some ancestral story for me to adapt into a book. I said I looked forward to receiving them, but when they asked for my address, I also lamented that somehow, some way, I had forgotten to bring any business cards with me. As none had pen and paper handy, they were all disappointed.
Reynolds' first novel, The Vigil , won an "Oppie Award" in 1986; his third novel, Franklin's Crossing was entered into the Pulitzer Prize competition for 1992; in 2012, Reynolds was awarded the prestigious Spur Award for Short Fiction for his story, "The Deacon's Horse." Reynolds' critical evaluations and feature articles have appeared in several national magazines, including Chronicles, American Way, and Texas Monthly; his short fiction has been published in Writers' Forum, South Dakota Review, High Plains Literary Review, and Cimarron Review. He has regularly contributed book reviews and feature columns to several metropolitan newspapers; for more than ten years, he was a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews and has written for The New York Times. Reynolds has nearly forty years of university teaching experience, presently Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas and serves as Director of Creative Writing.