HEROD, Ill. — A lot of people who know James
him — and criticize him most robustly too, waving their hands
around for emphasis — for the kind of life he lives.
They say it’s just an awful shame, that’s
all, that such a smart
man — a man who can do anything he sets his mind to do — is
wasting his time, just throwing it away, up there on the top of that
godforsaken hill, where you practically have to break your neck
and dislocate every bone in in your rump when you take the
bumpy, climbing lane that leads from the highway.
They say he ought to come down from up there and,
by the Great American Dream, “make something” of himself.
And they add that it wouldn’t do any great harm if he bathed
himself more often, either, and paid a bit more attention to his
housekeeping, which is certainly housekeeping at its most casual.
Nor do they think it’s right — it’s just not moral, somehow,
sinful — for a grown man to read all night and sleep all day if
what he feels like doing.
What about that proud American tradition of
8-to-5 with time
and a half for overtime?
And it may be — it just may be — that most of
what they say is
spoken in envy, that Carr can get by with leading the life he does
while they are slaves to an alarm clock that rings at 5.
I wouldn’t be much surprised.
And even if it isn’t, it’s not apt to change
anything, because it
just so happens that Carr doesn’t much care one way or the other
what people think about him, or what they say.
He is living life on his own terms up there on
the crest of Possum
Ridge, just across the wooded countryside from Wamble Mountain
and that’s the way he is going to continue to live.
Like it or lump it, he doesn’t care which.
The facts of life, boiled down to their bare
bones are these:
He is a cabinetmaker and a good one too, he reckons, though he
hasn’t built one for many a year. But he still can, just as good
ever. It comes natural to him.
He is a welder and has been for more than 30
years — and a
welding rig, along with a blacksmith’s anvil, and a blacksmith’s
forge, and fancy table saws, and more assorted tools than you
could ever easily inventory — stand around in a magnificent
in a single room house where he lives.
He once invented two machines, the second an
the first, for manufacturing concrete blocks, and he made and sold
blocks for several years before selling the machines.
He has built 17 reproductions — exact
reproductions, down to
the minutest detail — of the historic Eli Terry clock, and taught
only son to make them too, using mahogany from the Honduran
He has only three of them left and when a couple
from a long
ways off came to dicker for one while I was there, it was obvious he
didn’t give a hoot whether they bought one or not.
They finally left in a stew of indecision, the
man saying, “If you
want it, buy it. What else can I tell you?”
The woman kept looking back over her shoulder at
and Carr seemed delighted that they did not buy.
Carr, who will be 67 in late October — and
hasn’t been to a doc-
tor, he said, in 18 years — taught himself to play the accordion
then wrote a book, unpublished as we go to press, on how he did it
He played “Danny Boy” for me, because that’s one of my
favorites, and he played it slow and soulful, looking far out across
the hilltops through the open door.
Then, taking up a guitar that was covered with
dust, he played
“Strawberry Roan” and sang a few of its 15 stanzas.
He is perhaps less of a singer than he is
anything else, unless you
count neurosurgery, which he’s never done at all. But then it may
not be fair to judge a man’s singing by “Strawberry Roan.”
Carr built the house where he lives, there smack
on the hilltop,
and he put three doors in it .— one of them big enough to drive a
through — to catch the cooling breeze.
His three old hens wander casually in and out as
they please, and
his two dogs, and an occasional snake presumably taking a short-
He killed one rattlesnake and one copperhead when
them sauntering across his floor as if they were inspecting a piece
real estate they might buy.
But when I asked was he afraid of snakes,
figuring on making
him out to be absolutely fearless when he said no, he exclaimed,
“You dadgum right I am!” He said he can jump to astounding
heights when he sees one.
If he has read all the books he claims to have
read — and I frankly
suspect he has, judging from the encyclopedic range of his knowledge
— then Carr may be the best-read man I ever met.
Many years ago, dissatisfied with the fact that
he had only a high
school education, he started buying and reading what Life magazine
once called the 100 greatest books ever written.
He read, and has since re-read, Plato and
Shakespeare and Voltaire and Homer and Cervantes and Defoe and
— well, I don’t know who all else, as well as books on history
clock-making and the story of the Santa Fe Trail.
And while I was there, along with Willard St.
John, who is this
buddy of mine, Carr got down a volume of Schopenhauer’s Essays
and began reading one of them to us, slapping his thigh in glee over
good one the German philosopher got off.
“And how many of these 100 books,” he asked
slyly, “do you
suppose were written by women?” Then, denying me a chance to
answer, he exclaimed triumphantly, “Not a one!”
So in addition to all his other faults, he may be
a male chauvinist
pig too. So I guess lynching’s the only answer.
One final cautionary tidbit — never presume to
challenge Carr to a
game of chess, thinking you are about to humble a dumb hillbilly
who wouldn’t know a rook from a well rope.
I am told he is absolutely merciless at the game
and has often
calmly dismantled college professors who thought they invented it.