Ozark Eulogy On the Valley Floor
Bobby George Rowell: 1932-2016
Life is not one if not ten thousand acts of florid find. That, then a ramrod exit, past a star’s worth of candled footlights, stage left. Which, mind you, is stage right to the audience, if there is any. That’s the rub, being that everything is a bell wrung opposite to the audience view. But once you know this, a path is crystal cleared. To pursue any craft is to first understand this. One must then write that into the quotient of their tale, bearing on the first account. But it seems somehow that we find to feel that just because the stores replenish fresh costumes for us, that we might, or shall live forever.
I had only a few mentors growing into a writer’s space, but the few I did have I did have. One was a razorback whom I’ll tell you about. He hailed from Hattieville, an unincorporated collection of dust, ensconced in tandem beside such other luck-thirsty Arkansas towns as, Old Hickory, Lick Mountain, Buttermilk, and Jerusalem. Arkansas was not so subtle as California, it was a tad hard edged, more like a golf course for dinosaurs. And this was the birthplace of one Bobby George Rowell in 1932, a man blessed with a perpetually embarrassed skin tone, and lips that didn’t bother to volunteer much movement when he spoke. Relocating to Fontana, California he ventriliqued his way through twelve sun belted years of the attempted teaching of English literature, through a blue collar stunted audience’s gaze, to a bevy of mill spawned and pubescent youths. Only one being me.
Our family, the Brayers, landed in Fontana, California in 1958 where upon we purchased an egg ranch on a sleepy bolder strewn lane at 8986 Date Street. Keeping the chickens company were a springtime’s foal of pomegranates, figs, cactus, rabbits, trestled grape, and a dunce hat line of soldiery cypress. We scratched out a living, churned our way firstly through the bowels of Catholic school, and then we, freshly born out of the Eisenhower years, tried to be as modern as the shaky ghost of an orchard town would allow. The clouds, then oft weighted down with slag dust, left abound a vaudeville of a leather brown sky one could actually punch. Our baseball coach, a hippie draft dodger with a dishwater mustache, forbid us to swim on the day of a game. Which of course I did, and therefore embarrassed did I, the sponsoring Seven Up Bottling Company, when which I was carried off on a stretcher from a ringworm looking pitching mound. The smog was a written part of the game, where one sometimes had best to hail a taxi to a long fly ball.
I didn’t meet Bobby Rowell until 1972 in his role as my English Literature teacher at Fontana High School. The time worn genius of his influence I didn’t then understand, not until some thirty odd years later when we became friends, and co-manglers of southern fiction. I will attempt to tell a story that might exemplify the relevance of his hidden art. The scene of the crime being the dulcet clown colored arena of the Fontana High School auditorium. The school was built in 1952 to cater to the migration’s children from the east to the open arms of the Kaiser Steel Mill, the largest such plant this side of the Mississippi. The Mill was originally built to aid in the construction of Liberty Ships for the WWII effort, then lingering to march with hard hats and steel-toed boots until its decent in the 1980’s. It was a town that didn’t even know to apologize for its inability to house a single bookstore. You were more likely to graduate into a degree in snooker at the Smoke House Pool Hall, with perhaps a minor in alcoholic neon and truck route honky-tonk more so than you were to tip a candle lit brandy at the bard. Not literate perhaps, but you couldn’t fault it’s history for not being Shakespearian. It’s political ravaging was to be documented thoroughly in Mike Davis’ bestseller City of Quartz. The final chapter being a Fontana tell-all, entitled Junkyard of Dreams. We are nothing it seems if not built upon our delusions.
Ozarkian Bobby was lured to the San Bernardino valley in 1960 to a teaching position at Fontana High School, one with utopian promises of bountiful mountains and sun dappled beaches, only then to arrive in the pre-school summer to a one hundred degree kiln of burning sand. He needed the money and he had a razor sharp sense of humor, which went together like an alluvial soup and sandwich, all matronly overseen by the San Gabriel Mountains. So there it was all about to happen, 1972, we reported to the auditorium on account of we were being forced by Mr. Rowell to watch the movie, The Count of Monte Christo, which we were viewing on account of we were being forced to read the book in his English class. Mr. Rowell was sitting in front of me in the theatre seats and before the lights dimmed he turned around abruptly and addressed me, “Mr. Brayer I understand that you like Hank Williams”. This caught me completely off guard, as it was something you surely wouldn’t brag about, being a flower power teenager. “Yes sir I admit I do like Hank Williams”, I replied, not wanting any trouble. That was my M.O. at the time, do as little as possible but avoid ruffling feathers back at the egg ranch. “Well, could you bring some to class tomorrow?” Upon which I shyly agreed. It seemed that he was trying to slyly relate to the kids by him once a week allowing the class to lug in contemporary records that they liked. Little did I know that he was using me to stack the deck. We’d play Hank Williams, The Carter Family, or Skeets McDonald perhaps, only to be followed by some other diametrically apposed LPs like Grand Funk Railroad, Black Sabbath, or David Bowie. I didn’t realize it at the time but I guess it was that moment that sealed our future friendship.
When we were supposed to be done reading The Count of Monte Christo, he approached me in regards to my unfinished report on the subject. He asked me if I read it. I said no. He asked me why. I told him I tried but I just couldn’t. He asked me why. I responded to him in a truthfulness that you only have at your disposal when your seventeen years old, “because I didn’t think it was any good”. About here is where your instructor lights into you to set you straight, but Bobby just smiled so big his eyes closed, then after that short pause he justly apologized on behalf of the author, and nothing about it was ever spoken again.
Now, a few weeks later I’m traversing the hallways from one class to another, which is sort of a grand central station affair, equally peppered with guys that want to punch you in the arm and girls that will have nothing whatsoever to do with you. My only want, in a stride towards equality, was to be just as invisible to the bully as I already was to the maiden. I looked over and there leaning against a cubist menagerie of lockers was Mr. Rowell. I’m not saying he was wearing a trench coat, but he was very much like the nefarious guy in the old movies that opens his jacket in bat-like shadows to expose a collection of watches for sale. “Hey buddy, wanna’ buy a watch?” He made a tight-lipped call to me and waved me over. I thought, “what have I done now?” He reached into his jacket with the smirk of a card sharp’s bluff and he pulled afront a book and thrust it into my defenseless hands. “This is the book you’ve been looking for Mr. Brayer”. I was rather shocked I’ll have to tell you, but I looked down onto a paperback copy of John Steinbeck’s novel, Burning Bright (published in 1950). He then pleaded with me not to thank him, not to lavish him with expensive gifts, because he was a busy man. I took it home, read it, and sure enough it was a great book. So great in fact that I went on to then read all of Steinbeck’s many novels, which then led me on like chain link to a lot of other heroes to be, like Woody Guthrie etc. So the art to this man Bobby Rowell was in his finding a way to me, and in this case an unorthodox way, but perhaps penetrating through the wicked branches of the only way.
Skip ahead forty four years and you have me before a mirror dawning a pin stripped suit gifted to me for my wedding day by a friend in a bluegrass band. This along with a satin tie designed by Salvador Dali, and the dusting off of a pair of crow black wingtips that I bought for the funeral of record producer Kim Fowley. Of course everyone at Bobby’s memorial service was dressed in casual black for the most part, leaving me to just look like I worked for the mortuary. It’s never been my strong suit to successfully estimate the public or any given situation, so much so until I should have probably heeded my own advice from the very first sentences of this piece, to harken to do just the opposite.
The memorial service for Bobby George Rowell was held at the Mountain Avenue Baptist Church in Banning, California August 12, 2016. A eulogy poem, which was penned in the nocturnal hours the night before, was read from the pulpit just above the honey stained casket, through honest tear-pause by its author, published poet, and doctor of English, Carla Coldiron McGill. Other speakers beside myself, were Jim Mathews, who co-published a wildlife newsletter with Bobby called Western Birds, and who was not only a fish hassling sidekick, but currently a noted columnist for The Riverside Press Enterprise. The last to speak was an old time friend of Bobby’s, Tony Ladieri, who decked out in a pearl-snap cowboy shirt embarked upon a tale of the prankster’s side, one involving Bobby sending in a young innocent student to the teacher’s lounge to sell him a jar of ten dollar sorghum for a fictitious worthy cause.
It was touching, in closing, to see how his family, wives, children and grandchildren all surrounded the casket as a human wreath. Most telling of all was that what I saw in the casket that day, in full desert realization, was not Mr. Rowell at all, but a scrimshawed sculpture of what I would soon miss, all blushing pinkness appropriately gone. Appropriate also I thought it was, then when I performed a few moments later, that my banjo flailing of the old Baptist hymn, Precious Memoires, was half-comically obscured from audience view by the casket and a shock of yellow flowers. It was more as if the botanical arrangement where singing and not me at all. A much better way to go out if you have to anyway. Before they battened down his final bed and the bagpipes wheezed, we all touched his face one last time with our eyes and stepped away bookmarking his seeming calm of genuine peace. I felt it was ‘old school’, even if school was out.
Patrick Brayer / August 2016
Bobby and Kenlyn Rowell welcoming our daughter into the world at Rancho Brayerrito 2009.