Bedtime Story: Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me

Nancy K Pearson

When I was a kid, I used to watch the country-themed TV show, Hee Haw, with my father on Saturday nights. Hee Haw aired (in local syndication) for over 25 years. If you've never heard of Hee Haw (shame on you), picture Saturday Night Live in a cornfield; replace "Weekend Update" with "KORN News," and Tina Fey with Minnie Pearl. Think pickin' and a grinnin', corn-pone humor, and over-the top hillbilly satire. My father loved the sketch "Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me," which featured country singers like Roy Clark and Archie Campbell drinking moonshine and howling about life's miseries like hound dogs. Here's the chorus: Gloom, despair, and agony on me-e! Deep dark depression, excessive misery-y! If it weren't for bad luck I'd have no luck at all! Gloom, despair, and agony on me-e-e! Truth be told, I never thought Hee Haw was very funny. As a child, I didn't get the jokes and when I was old enough to understand the puns and innuendos, I found many of the skits offensive. But the show made my father laugh and hearing my father laugh made me laugh and that was worth an hour of suffering through Buck Owens' knock-knock jokes. My father rarely smiled during my childhood years. And because we saw each other only on occasional weekends, Saturday night Hee Haw was like our bedtime story hour. Over the tales of Kornfield Kounty, my father and I bonded. Right now, I could use a little Hee Haw humor with my Pa. I'm writing nonfiction essays about experiences on psychiatric wards, poems about illness. I'm also reading articles like "Suicide and Despair in Milton's Samson Agonistes," "Why Didn't Samson Just Kill Himself?" and "Milton's Samson: Gloom, Doom and Vermin" (adapted titles). I recently finished J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace and Alice Sebold's Lucky (her memoir about being brutally raped). Call me crazy, but I'm not finding any of this good bedtime reading-- though I'll admit Milton's wound-by-wound account of the blind and chained Samson is occasionally thrilling. Needing some light reading and in search of what I might have read as a kid had I not been watching Hee Haw, I picked up John Fitzgerald's The Great Brain, a 1970s children's series centered around a few kids living in a small Mormon town. What could be better than a story about a clever kid who swindles money from grown-ups? Turns out, illness and death. A few days ago, I finished the part where old man Abie, alone and living in a rundown trailer, dies of severe malnutrition. The next chapter was better--kid Andy, who loses a leg to infection, ties a gunnysack over his head and tries to drown himself.
The truth is I'm not reading The Great Brain; my partner is reading the book to me. She's read me a story every night for the last three years. It's true. Every night. I struggle with insomnia; I don't fall asleep without story time. Often, I'm sound asleep one paragraph into a chapter. This was especially true when we were reading the Little House series. Ingalls gives you mesmerizing play-by-play details of door construction. First, Pa cuts a tree, then he cuts the tree into slabs and then he cuts the slabs into smaller slabs and on and on. Other nights, I keep my partner awake urging her to read on a little longer. The Long Winter--the suspense killed me. Blizzard after blizzard ruined the corn, swallowed the sheep, killed the cows (ruined the wheat, swallowed the town, killed the horse). Sometimes reading together at night feels like sharing popcorn during a tearjerker. Before we're swamped in holiday cheer, pass me an extra salty handful of gloom. If you're lucky, I'll cheer you up with The Great Brain, the chapter where young Jimmy dies from diabetes. I can't promise you'll be lulled to sleep, but maybe, when we turn the page together, we'll find a little laugher. Hee haw. • (By the way, if you're looking for a bedtime story that will really make you snicker (no joke), check out The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. From one reviewer: "Jane Eyre meets Lemony Snicket.")

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