From the cutting-room floor of WMUR.
Videographed/edited by Paul Falco
Interview conducted 1/29/18 by Sean McDonald
Subject: Keith Howard, Tiny White Box
Transcript Follows, McDonald’s Questions/Comments in Bold:
“I first got interested in politics in 1972, when I was 13. Since you’ve given me free rein to trot through my past, I’ll tell you that if Norm Platine hadn’t been such a pompous popinjay, and if my mother hadn’t defended my indefensible behavior, we wouldn’t be sitting here today.
“In fact, we might have been sitting facing the woods instead of facing the road. I don’t really know how much impact one choice or action makes on the entire future, but I suspect a food fight was my vin-dit.”
“Sir? I mean, Keith, what does that mean?”
“A food fight in a junior-high-school cafeteria, a fight I’d started, was the crystal that taught the rest of my life how to unfold. What kind of upbringing did you have, Sean, that you don’t know what a food fight is?”
“I know what a food fight is, but I don’t know that other word you used.”
“Vin-dit? In addition to being a lapsed Christian, I’m also a terrible Buddhist and a very poor Bokononist. Bokonon taught that a vin-dit is a sharp and personal shove in the direction of Boknonism. It made it possible for me to join my karass, a group of people whose lives are joined together to do God’s work, even though they may have no idea why they are enjoined and what that purpose is. It’s from Cat’s Cradle. By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr?”
“I’ve heard of him. Didn’t he also write about meat-packing plants?”
“Good one, Sean! You’re confusing Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut with The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. The latter encouraged Americans to eat tinned meat, since fresh meat didn’t have the processing to kill all the disease it carried. The former, as Vonnegut said somewhere about something had all the effect of a man dressing up in a knight’s costume and riding full speed, lance horizontal, at an ice-cream sundae—with whipped cream!
“Since you’re giving me free rein, I’ll ride the Bokonon horse a bit longer. The karass I referred to, the first of many, was political liberals on a college campus in small-town New England in the spring of 1972. That food fight, begun, I believe, when out of boredom I brought a bowl of chocolate pudding up to my mouth, pretending it was a hand grenade, pulled its pin with my teeth and tossed it an arc that ended 30 feet away. Apparently no one at that table knew they were at war, so I did the same thing with an open milk container. This was the actual casus belli, and the battle was joined. It was good clean fun. Until an informer sitting at my table collected his 30 pieces of silver from the Romans.
“I’ve got to stop there for a second. Even with my inflated view of myself, I can’t draw me as a Christ figure, and the traitor as Judas. I did form a cult in high school, but that was three years later, and had nothing to do with this. Let me just say a trusted lieutenant betrayed me to the authorities. Or, more honestly, a kid sitting at my table told Mr. Platine, the principal.
“Still, this would have been no vin-dit if Platine hadn’t tried to write over his vocabulary and if my mother hadn’t been my mother.”
“Keith, you’ve lost me here. How does a food fight and your principal and your mother lead to leftist politics?”
“So I could find my karass! Aren’t you listening? Anyway, Mr. Platine, after studying the facts, decided I would be banned from entering the cafeteria for a week, forced to eat alone in a classroom. To be fair to Platine, I was now in mid-February of my eighth-grade year, 13 years old, and he’d had to deal with me since the first day of class in sixth grade, when I’d been sent to his office for disrupting a class. He was likely drained by this time, having lectured me for two-and-a-half years about the importance of shutting my goddamned mouth. So, I was to bring a book to an empty classroom each day for a week. If it weren’t for his letter.”
“Yes. I didn’t figure my parents needed to know about this—at 13, I felt I was pretty much my own man—so I hadn’t said anything. Platine, though, sent a letter through the mail to my mom that set things in motion.”
“Was he disrespectful?”
“Nope. Not at all. He just stood on his verbal tippy-toes when writing it. Apparently, he felt he couldn’t send home a simple slip of paper with my crime and my punishment. Instead, he wrote a full-page, single-spaced outline of concerns about me—poor grades, poor behavior, disrespect—all accurate. In the final paragraph, though, he described the food fight and my role in it, finishing with the sentence ‘In lieu of Keith’s most recent behavioral outburst, I have no choice but to bar him from entry to the cafeteria for the next week.’”
“Your mother didn’t like the word ‘outburst?’”
“No, no, no! ’In lieu of’ means ‘instead of.’ Platine meant ‘in light of,’ but thought ‘lieu’ sounded fancier—despite it making the sentence unintelligible. My mother was not a pedant, but she valued communication, and she despised the abuse of language.
“She immediately got out pen and paper, informed Platine of his mistake, asked how he could be a principal if he couldn’t draft a simple business letter, and said he needn’t worry about my behavior in the cafeteria, because I would never eat in that cafeteria again. She let me read it, then folded it carefully and gave it to me to pass in at the principal’s office the next morning.
“I said, ‘But, Mom! If I don’t eat in the cafeteria, I’ll be stuck eating alone the rest of the year!’”
“’That is a problem,’” she said. “’There must be something better for you to do with that 45 minutes than sit in an empty room for the whole time. What about going to the library?’”
“Now, my mom was crazy about libraries, thought they contained all the world’s knowledge. Unfortunately for me, the school librarian was Mrs. Mooradian, a friend of my mother’s who had repeatedly ratted me out for things like looking up dirty words in the dictionary and, most recently, taking a woodscrew out of a library table and walking up to girls and saying, ‘You wanna screw?’ Even my mom took issue with that.
“Years later—and I can see, Sean, these circumlocutions are getting on your nerves, so I’ll try to control them—years later, I had a male student who would walk up to his friends’ mothers and say, ‘Excuse me, I think you’ve got a little jism on your lips.’ When they would react with shock, he’d say, ‘Isn’t jism one of those Yiddish words, like schmutz, you’ve got some schmutz on your face?’ When they said NO, he’d put on his best little-boy face and say, “Then what is jism?’
“Anyway, Mrs. Mooradian was a good friend to my mom, which made her a threat to me, so the last thing I wanted was to have her prying eyes looking at me all the time. I needed to think fast, and did. ‘Mom, I’ve got reading class right before lunch. I already know how to read, so how about you set it up for me to go to the UNH library for that hour-and-a-half? It’s only a 10-minute walk from school, and I’ll learn a lot.’”
“Now, my mother had grown up in Durham, the daughter of the man who started the Thompson School there, the two-year redheaded stepchild of a state research university. The Thompson School was designed to offer farm boys an introduction to ‘scientific’ methods of farming. My grandfather—Gramper, I called him—was unusual in 1930s and 1940s Durham. He’d been raised up in Machias, Maine, near the Canadian border. It was a little fishing town, and he and his kid brother, Donald, both wanted to get out of there. Gramper was lucky—and smart, I guess—and got a scholarship to college, while Donald had to work his way out of there. Gramper made it farther—out of the state, at least—while Donald made a living as a plumbing and heating guy in South Portland, Maine.
“I’m sorry, Sean. I can tell you noticed when the narrative took a new path. You reach a certain age, and it’s the ability to keep going that’s exciting, not any particular destination. So Gramper left Machias, went to college and ended up schoolmaster in Colebrook, 20 miles south from here. It’s funny, but growing up my mother would refer to Colebrook as though it were in the middle of nowhere. Now that I live on the outskirts of nowhere, Colebrook is the nearest civilizational outpost, where I go for supplies and companionship.
“When my mother finally moved to Durham in, say, 1937, it was the library she loved best. Having grown up in rural towns, where the library’s children’s section was a bookshelf, the UNH Library was holy to her, having a whole room devoted to children and storeys devoted to other stories. It was Mecca. It was Jerusalem. It was a goddamned library! When I asked her to arrange for me to leave school to spend 90 minutes a day at the UNH Library, I was making all her dreams for me come true. She asked for the Platine letter back and rewrote it. Platine approved the plan, both to assuage her and banish me. Win. Win. Win.”
“Keith? You were going to talk about politics.”
“Of course I was. And I am. This is just setting a context.”
End of Transcript.