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- December 20, 1982
- Vol. 18
- No. 25
Those Funnybones Grew from a Depression-Era Virginia Boyhood
Baker, of course, knows only too well. New York is the city he and his wife, Mimi, call home. It is the place where he suffers urban ignominies like "potholes the size of woodchuck holes in the fields of Morrisonville" and pricey produce markets that think they are "the Gucci of vegetable stores." Manhattan is also where Baker, 57, turns out "Observer," a thrice-weekly humor column that appears in the New York Times and scores of other U.S. papers. Baker's elegant prose and his droll views on subjects like inflation, asexuality and Norman Rockwell won him the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. But despite the merriment in his writing, Baker argues (unconvincingly) that he's a somber chap at heart. "There's nothing harder than to be funny on demand. I charge high rates to do that for a living. Why should I do it for nothing?"
The book-buying public is only too happy to pay for Baker's whimsy. Growing Up (Congdon & Weed, $15), Baker's new best-selling autobiography, is a bittersweet chronicle about a Depression-era boyhood that began in Morrisonville. "I was issued uneventfully into the governance of Calvin Coolidge," he writes. "World War I was seven years past, the Russian revolution was eight years old, and the music on my grandmother's wind-up Victrola was Yes, We Have No Bananas." When Russell was 5, the music stopped. His father, 33, a diabetic, drank moonshine one night at hog-butchering festivities, sank into a coma later and died. His strong-willed mother, a former schoolteacher, gave up her youngest daughter, Audrey, to childless relatives. She took Russell and his 3-year-old sister, Doris, to live with family members in New Jersey, and later Maryland.
But Russell's roots remain fixed in the tin-roofed farmhouses, weeping willows and cornfields of tiny Morrisonville. Here, in a rural pocket of northwestern Virginia, he researched parts of his book by interviewing his two remaining cousins (once there were two dozen Bakers in town) and visiting boyhood haunts. When a dilapidated log house dating back to 1810 came on the market a little later, Baker wanted to buy it, much to the surprise of Mimi. "I didn't know if he was ready to return to Morrisonville," she says. But Baker asked his contractor son, Michael, the youngest of his three children, to refurbish and enlarge the house. Michael and his wife, Phyllis, both 27, are living there during the renovations. Russell pops in with Mimi on occasional weekends to play genial paterfamilias and not-so-genial absentee owner. The unfixed hole in the living room ceiling, where Maggie, Michael and Phyllis' dog fell through from upstairs, gets a dark look. "He's not as liberal at home as in the column," says Michael. "He's very straitlaced. I'll never forget the time my brother, Allen, and I were playing at our summer house in Nantucket and kicked the shingles from the roof. Dad got real angry. But he got a column out of it."
Dad expects to get an investment for the future out of Michael's present efforts. He claims he'll sell the house when it's done, but that remains to be seen. Strolling through Morrisonville's dusty main drag, or surveying his 17 acres (farmed with the help of Lester Riley, who introduces himself to one and all as "the Black Sheep of Morrisonville"), Baker is obviously in bliss. "I didn't need Proust's madeleine to unlock memories," he says. "I had never forgotten any of this." He gestures broadly in the direction of a low stone wall and an icehouse, somehow poignant in its obsolescence. "I remember shooting sparrows with BB guns and playing cowboys and Indians in that apple orchard. I remember making mud pies, and watching the horses, cows and bulls copulating." Russell also recalls his sister trying to fly from a barn loft with an umbrella, a feat, he says, that "people try nowadays from New York windows under the influence of LSD."
Baker has especially vivid memories of steer slaughters at his cousin Howard's place. "To me this was infinitely exciting. You remember the line from Hamlet about hauling out the guts? Well, we hauled out the guts. You know," he adds with a faintly discernible wink, "country life."
At a white fence near the outskirts of town, Baker pauses under a honey locust. "I was playing in the dirt here and watching the cattle," he says somberly, "when my cousins Kenneth and Ruth Lee came down that road and told me my father had died. It's strange how clearly I remember that. I don't think I'll ever be hurt that badly again. I was inconsolable after that. I couldn't believe that this anthropomorphic God was a benign gentleman who had taken my daddy to a nice place. I couldn't believe in these archangels playing instruments. I knew that wasn't right. At the age of 5, I had become a skeptic."
Today Baker, who was raised as a Lutheran in his Morrisonville days, eschews organized religion. "I go to church now and then but I'm nonsectarian," he says. "I consider myself a moralist." Yet he feels a kinship with the pastor of the New Jerusalem Lutheran Church in nearby Lovettsville, where his father's funeral took place. Chatting with the parson, Reverend Michael Kretsinger, Baker asks: "What are you going to talk about Sunday?" The reverend, who has a touch of Baker's wit himself, replies: "The Lord, obviously!" Russell then turns to Mimi and says dryly: "He's like me. He hasn't written it yet." (Actually, Baker is proud of the fact that he never has a column in reserve. "I figure that if I write one and then I die, the Times will get something free.")
Bidding goodbye to the pastor, Baker ponders the temporal concerns of dinner. Country fare like chitlins and a local delicacy called "hog maws" (pig stomach) doesn't interest him in the least. "I wouldn't spend a lot of time with that sort of thing, culinarily speaking," he says. As for the famed cured Virginia hams, he likens the curing process to "the preparation of an Egyptian mummy." Baker prefers chicken curry at a restaurant in Leesburg, the Loudoun County seat. His portion seems to have been prepared for someone who has spent the day chopping logs. "What's in here—Big Bird?" Baker asks the blushing waitress. He then launches into a discussion of his inherent frugality, which stems from the days when his mother brought home $10 a week for patching worn grocers' smocks for the A&P. "It's part of my wiring," he says. "It's an irrational fear of poverty in the back of my skull. A dollar is still a big sum of money to me." Still, he doesn't struggle to finish the last morsel of chicken. "When people say kids are starving all over the world, I always wonder how you can get the leftovers to them. What do you use? Federal Express?"
Turning serious again, Baker explains that his hand-to-mouth upbringing affected the way he reared his daughter, Kasia, 31, an aspiring poet, Allen, 30, a free-lance key grip for TV commercials, and Michael. "I would try to tell them about my values, which were very materialistic and had to do with getting a white-collar job with an expense account. They would look glassy-eyed. I realized that it was because they came from a completely different world. A big car sat at the curb and there was steak for dinner. My kids reacted against materialism." All three also reacted, successfully, against going to college. (Baker himself won a scholarship to Johns Hopkins.) "I had terrible fights with them about this. It was silly of me," he says now.
With the revelation of all his childhood thoughts and fantasies in Growing Up, Baker hopes his children will better understand their "sappy old dad." He had reached the stage, he felt, where the kids were looking upon him as "somebody stuffed." Russell himself was amazed to learn in the course of his research that his own mother (who is now 85 and in a Maryland nursing home) conceived him out of wedlock. "I was quite pleased," he says. "I was a love child."
Most of all, Baker wants his offspring to appreciate life's circularity and the value of the past. "Children ought to know what it was that went into their making," he writes, "to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud." Maybe now, he figures, Michael will stop calling him "the Oldtimer" and envisioning him as having been born in a jacket and tie, writing urbane columns for the Times. "I still call him 'the Oldtimer,' " confesses Michael. "When he's out of earshot."
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