A tale of a veteran named Owen Felts, highlighting how truly remarkable the lives of others may be and how much we can learn if we simply ask…
by: Michael Haller
In 1987, when I was a sophomore in high school, my English teacher gave us an assignment to interview ten neighbors, get their life stories, and write one-page summaries of what they said. I dreaded that assignment, because the last thing I wanted to do was ask my neighbors a bunch of questions and then try to shrink everything they said down to one page. It was too much work, and we all thought our teacher was nuts. But my friend Jacque, who had a different English teacher, said to do the assignment, for it would allow me “to chronicle the life and times of our humble neighborhood.” That wasn’t a good enough reason to me, but I also didn’t want the embarrassment of getting an Incomplete, so, with Jacque’s help, I decided to at least interview one neighbor, Owen Felts, and see how that went. I still have the homework assignment I turned in, because Jacque told me to keep it as “a memento of an idyllic childhood that thirty years from now you’ll realize was the wellspring for whatever lies ahead, be it good, bad, or lukewarm.” Although I did keep the homework assignment that I got back with a grade of B+, I’ve never looked at it until today, and the only reason I looked at it today is because my brother told me that Owen Felts died last week, at age ninety-five. When I heard the news, a deluge of memories overcame me to the point I got weepy. I sat on the couch and stared into a mirage of shifting scenes from my past for so long it went from light to dark outside, and I might have sat there all night if my cat hadn’t jumped in my lap. But I was curious about that report. Maybe Jacque was right that it would be a memento of the wellspring, etc. I went searching and found it curled up in a shoebox in the junk closet with some other high school things, including a gift from Jane of the Woods — she’s a whole other story, or book, maybe. But along with the summary of my interview with Owen Felts, which was only 400 words, I wrote a much longer and more detailed journal of my interviews — transcripts that I wrote after an interview and then used as notes that I condensed into one or two pages. The ten journal stories, around eighty pages total, were in a notebook in another closet. The journal was also Jacque’s idea. Talk to me long enough and you’ll notice I mention Jacque around every twenty minutes, because he’s a genius and taught me more than all my teachers combined. So without further blathering, here’s the journal of my interview with Mr. Felts.
Owen Felts lives across the street and four doors down, and he’s the first person I interviewed for my paper. All I knew about Owen Felts before the interview was that his wife died from a stroke a few years ago, and he lives by himself with his beagles, Rupert and Delilah, in a small house with tomato plants in the backyard. He sits on his porch every night when the weather is warm, listening to Cincinnati Reds’ games and drinking beer. I’ve only ever seen him in a t-shirt and jeans (in the summer) or a CPO jacket and hunting cap (in the winter). He drives a big rusted out Bonneville that my mom says is an eyesore but my brother says will run forever, because Owen Felts is a retired mechanic and knows how to maintain his car. I was a little leery of approaching Owen Felts, because the other thing we know about him is that he has a shotgun, and he’s not afraid to use it, or so he says, because one day someone from the hill came speeding up the street in a sports car and almost ran us over. The driver parked in the dead end and brought flowers to a girl who lives there, which gave Mr. Felts time to get his gun. He stood in the middle of the street and when the car came down he pointed the gun at the driver and told him to obey the speed limit or he’d blow his goddamn head off. The driver said “yessir, yessir,” and drove away around two miles an hour. Owen Felts was our hero after that, and ever since, we’ve known he’s watching out for us, even though he never shows much interest.
It was a little before noon when my friend Jacque and I knocked on his door. Something fell over inside and we heard some cussing. There was another noise that sounded like dishes breaking and we heard more cussing. Jacque and I looked at each other and were about to leave, but just then he came to the door, looking grumpy, or tired, or both. Even though he’d seen us hundreds of times, we’d never actually met, so I introduced us and explained the reason for our visit.
“If it’s your school report, then what’s he doing here?” he asked, looking at me but sticking his thumb out toward Jacque.
“He’s my secretary,” I said. “He’s taking notes.”
“Notes about what?”
“Your life story.”
“Why do you want this again?”
“My English teacher gave us an assignment to interview 10 people and write a one page summary of what they said.”
“What the hell for?”
“He didn’t say.”
“No one asked?”
“That’s the problem nowadays. People just do what they’re told and don’t ask questions. Anyhow,” he said, removing his cap and running his fingers through his hair, then putting his cap back on, “I don’t know that I can summarize my entire sixty-two years down into one page.”
“That’s why Jacque is here. He’ll take notes, then I’ll use his notes to write the report.”
“Isn’t that cheating?”
“How so?” said Jacque.
“Well if he gave the assignment to…what’s your name again?”
“I’m Ruben. This is Jacque.”
“Well if he gave the assignment to him, I don’t see how you should be helping.”
“It’s ok,” I said. “The teacher said it’s ok if someone takes notes.” Which was a lie. I wanted Jacque there because Mr. Felts is a little scary, what with the gun and all, and Jacque can talk his way out of anything. I then had the idea to make up all ten stories without interviewing anyone, because I feel like I’m being nosy. But since we came this far, I figured I would at least interview Mr. Felts, then make up the other nine.
“Well, let’s see,” he said, still standing in his doorway, propping the screen door open with his foot. “I was born 1925 in Knoxville, Tennessee, actually the hills outside Knoxville in a part of Knox County that had no running water…” He went on and on, standing in the doorway, and I just wanted to be done with the whole thing, but Jacque kept asking questions.
“So after you were honorably discharged from the Army in 1945, you decided not to return to Tennessee, even though your sweetheart…Loretta?…was waiting for you?”
“Well the thing was, when we was in California before shipping out, they kept us in San Francisco a few weeks, and me and my buddies went to the roller rink one night and I met a gal named Virginia Summers, cutest thing ever, pure dynamite, a couple years younger than me, but she knew more than me about everything that seemed important to a country boy. She showed me how to play golf and tennis, how to hail a cab, she even showed me some karate and said I might need it overseas, which I never did, but still, she chopped me down on her lawn one night, and next thing I know I’m flat on my back and she’s kissing me like I never been kissed. Then she told me I was wicked and would never see me again. And she kept her word. I called on her a couple of times, but no dice. Her father told me in no uncertain terms that I was not welcome on his property. And, well, make a long story short, one day in the jungle six months later I get a piece of mail, and by god if it’s not from Virginia Summers, telling me to stay safe, don’t let anyone kill me, she admired my courage and couldn’t imagine the hardships I had to endure, and she enclosed a picture of herself sitting on a pony, and there was a rose in the envelope that she flattened and must have sprayed with perfume, because the letter and the envelope smelled so nice I would take it out of my pocket every chance I got and hold it to my nose.
“Now I’m not saying that letter got me through the war, but it helped. I still have it in a shoebox somewhere with my medals, and even though the smell is gone, I can still remember the smell, and when I remember the smell, I’m right back in the jungle reading her letter, feeling how special she made me feel. So, like I said, I go back to California after the war, and by the time I get there she’s in college, and her old man isn’t watching her every move, and, well, we fell in love and got married. In 1947, when she finished college with a nursing degree, we drove down to L.A.. She said she could get a job anywhere in the country, and me being a mechanic, I could too, and boy did she have the wanderlust. We lived in Fresno, Albuquerque, Des Moines, Boise, St. Louis, even Knoxville, because she wanted to meet my people. And then her sister married a fella who worked here in Cincinnati for the radio, and Virginia wanted to be near her, so up we come…been here ever since.”
That was all pretty interesting, but then he started talking a bit wacky, and I wondered if he’d been drinking. He said his entire life, from the moment he was born, he’s suffered from a split personality, a condition he attributes to his parents. His father, he said, is descended from Robert E. Lee, and his mom, he says, is descended from Ulysses Grant, with the result that he is constantly at war with himself. He said when he was a boy, he would have arm wrestling matches against himself, with his right hand Lee and his left hand Grant. He said Lee always won, so he changed hands so that Lee was the left hand and Grant the right, and Lee still won. He took this to mean different things. One was that the spirit of Lee is still waging war on the North, using Mr. Felts’ hands as a weapon to defeat Grant, who having won the real war, didn’t need to win the arm wrestling wars. His other theory is that because his Lee blood came from his paternal, masculine side (his dad) it was naturally stronger than the maternal, feminine side from his mom. He even invited us into his kitchen and gave a demonstration. He told me to decide which hand would be Lee and which Grant. I picked left for Lee, and sure enough, Lee won. Then I picked right for Lee, and even though Grant put up a valiant struggle and almost pinned Lee, Lee rallied and slammed Grant so hard you could hear his knuckles smack the table.
“The only time General Lee lost,” he said, “was 1965, on the hundredth anniversary of Appomattox. He put up no resistance that day.”
Mr. Felts then took us out back and demonstrated his sharpshooting skills by aiming his .22 at a mourning dove on a neighbor’s TV antenna. “Watch this,” he said. He closed his eyes, fired, and scored a head shot that felled it in mid-coo. “That’s something you can’t learn. You’re born with it or you ain’t.” His dog Rupert was chained to a pole, going berserk about the bird, so Mr. Felts unchained him and let him fetch. He brought it back and dropped it in front of Mr. Felts, who said he used to eat mourning dove when he was a boy in Tennessee, along with squirrel, possum, and other animals.
“Now lookit this,” he said. “One more thing I want to show you fellas, then I’ll turn you loose.”
He took us back into an aluminum storage shed and turned on a light hanging from a string. He moved aside a lawnmower and trash can and swept his foot over the floor to clear away some dirt, then lifted a trap door. “Down here’s a tunnel the previous owner dug, which connected to a tunnel next door that he also dug, because he and the married woman next door was having an affair, so he built a tunnel that connected his back yard to hers, and built a room halfway in between where they’d horse around. Until her Doberman followed her down one night and all hell broke loose. Fella lived here was a POW in Germany and helped dig some escape tunnels, so he knew what he was doing. I have to shore it up time to time, but it’s safe.”
He picked up a flashlight off a work table and took us down four wooden steps embedded in the earth, which led to a tunnel so narrow we had to lay flat and scooch ourselves forward, and after around forty feet, we came to a cave where the two would meet. The ceiling wasn’t high enough for us to stand, but I guess they didn’t need to stand anyhow, it was more for laying down. Mr. Felts shined his flashlight around the cave and we saw the wooden beams holding the room and tunnel together. There was also a lounge chair, a battery-operated lantern, a jug of water, and some fishing magazines. Mr. Felts took a seat and invited us to sit on the ground. He said he likes to go down there when he’s feeling crowded out by the world, so he can be alone and focus on what’s important. When Jacque asked him what was so important that he needs to retreat to the cave, Mr. Felts said he likes to think about his dead wife, Virginia, and their daughter, Regina, who died at the age of ten from leukemia, and their son, Vince, killed in Viet Nam.
It got quiet for a minute. He took off his cap and wiped some sweat from his forehead, then put it back on.
“The problem with this family,” he said, “has been too much dying.”
It got silent for another minute, then he said the tour was over and it was time for us boys to get back out in the sun. He led us through the tunnel, into the storage shed, then into his backyard, where the sunlight was so bright I had to squint.
“Gentlemen,” he said, shaking our hands, “it’s been a pleasure making your acquaintance, and I hope I told you something you can use on your report.”
We said goodbye and left, both of us marveling at the world Mr. Felts exposed us to, what with the war, and the love letter, and the tunnel, and his dead children. It made me think that everyone has a story. That no matter how boring or plain someone might be on the outside, they’ve probably lived a life that’s more interesting than any book or movie. It makes me think I will interview the other nine people, although I don’t know how I can condense everything everyone tells me down into one page.
So that was the journal part of my interview that I went home and wrote right away. I shrunk it down to 400 words and turned it in with the other nine summaries. Mr. Filmore gave the report back with the usual comments in the margins (“awkward construction,” “unclear,” “redundant”) and at the end he wrote B+ and, “Not bad, but don’t quit your day job.” I didn’t know what that meant, but Jacque said it was an attempt at humor that was actually an insult, and that the human race will never advance “until his kind are held accountable.” Jacque was always preaching revolution back then, and referred to high school as a gulag, or detention center. Which is ironic, because Jacque is now a high school history teacher himself, just like his dad.
As for me, I ended up a librarian, which is also ironic, because throughout grade school and high school, the library was a place to goof off and get kicked out of. But that changed in college, when I was an English major. I went to the library almost every day and fell in love with the ivy-covered building crammed with centuries of knowledge. By the time I was twenty-six, I had a Master’s in library science, and I’ve been working at a public library ever since. I have a Corgi named Sam, a cat named Samantha, and a twenty-year-old daughter roaming the forests of America with her boyfriend, looking for the perfect place to sit and stare. That might sound strange, but from the time she was five until fifteen, she and my ex-wife and I hiked through woods or drove to state parks and wandered off trail until we found a spot where there was no evidence of human existence. No candy wrappers, no power lines, no whoops from other hikers…just the three of us, sitting still until we became part of the woods. If we found the right spot, we would sit there up to two hours, not talking, just breathing, not even aware we were alive.
That tuning out was something Jane of the Woods taught me after I met her in the woods that surrounded our neighborhood. You sit on the ground, stare straight ahead, listen, and breathe, and soon you forget you’re alive. But something happens in your head when you’re tuned out, but you don’t know it until you come out of it and realize you were gone the whole time. Your body was there, but your mind was gone. I think the meditation experts call this “emptying your mind,” which never works when I try to do it, but if I sit in the woods and stare, and listen, I go into a trance.
Jane was a girl my age who showed up in the woods one day when I was looking at an ant hill. She was skinny and shaking, and had sticks and leaves in her hair, and when I said hi, she ran off like a frightened deer. But I kept seeing her in the woods, and when she finally told me her name, I nicknamed her Jane of the Woods, “like Jane of the Jungle in Tarzan,” I said, “because you remind me of her, even though you don’t look like her.” I realize how dorky and fifteen-year-old that sounds now, but back then I thought it was clever. We had awkward conversations, and I could never find out anything specific about her except that her family just moved into the Hole. (The Hole was the nickname for our neighborhood, because to get there, you had to drive down this long, steep hill called Prosperity Rd., which was the only way in or out.) I asked her where she lived, and she said “the worst part,” and I knew where she meant. We called it The Bottom, because it was the lowest point in the Hole, and also the shabbiest. No one in the Hole was rich, but if you lived in The Bottom, your parents were probably on welfare, or there was a divorce going on, or an argument was blasting from one of the houses. But whenever I saw her, it was like a visitation. I’d be sitting on the ground studying a leaf or a pill bug, and I’d look up and there she was, pale and skinny, her eyes shining. And she talked about things I never heard of. For one, she said she was a pagan, and she understood the trees, and talked to the trees. I thought she was a weirdo until we hung out enough that I started to believe her, and besides, she was the first girl I ever met who actually talked to me. She said the woods were her true home, and that everything in the woods was alive, even the rocks.
“Really?” I said. “The rocks are alive?”
“Of course they are. There’s no such thing as death, not really.”
And she picked up a stone and put it in her mouth and ran circles around me, poking the back of my head and calling me goofus. Then she took the rock out of her mouth and gave it to me.
“Don’t wipe it off, just put it in your mouth,” she said.
I did as told. I was grossed out because I was tasting her saliva, but then I figured, when people kiss, they’re tasting each other’s saliva, except with their lips and tongues, so I thought of the stone in my mouth as our first kiss. Sort of. And then she taught me how to listen. One day she led me deep into the woods and brought me to her favorite tree. She hugged the tree but her arms only went halfway around. She told me to stand on the other side and put my arms around it, and when I did, our hands locked.
“See what I mean?” she said. “It’s so alive.”
“Yeah. I feel it too.”
“What do you feel?”
“Hope,” I said, without thinking. It just came out of my mouth. “What do you feel?”
“Your hands,” she said, and giggled.
I wanted to gnaw through the tree and kiss her, but instead we sat down and leaned back against the tree, one of us on each side.
“Don’t say anything,” she said. “No talking. Just sit and listen. Find something to stare at and don’t think or talk. Just sit and breathe, and listen, and stare.”
I stared at a log around ten feet away, and listened, like she said. At first, I thought, there’s nothing to listen to. But the longer I stared, I heard a lot of things. A bird called in the distance, and a few seconds later, another bird responded, from a different part of the woods. Several seconds later the first bird called again, the same call as before, then the second bird called back — high, low, high, followed by a trill. I heard leaves scratching overhead. I didn’t look, but I was pretty sure a squirrel was jumping from tree branch to tree branch. I heard something hit the ground, probably an acorn or walnut. I heard chirpy sounds that I guess were crickets. I heard a train going by on the railroad tracks half a mile away. I took a deep breath and heard myself exhale. I did it again and again until my breathing was all I heard…and then I didn’t even hear that, because I sort of fell asleep with my eyes open. I was gone. My body was there, but my mind was gone. I sat there breathing, a thing with life, like everything around me, but I didn’t realize I was there until something warm brushed my face. I took a gulp of air and heard a blue jay screaming. I watched an ant crawl across the tip of my shoe and wondered how it knew its way home. A mosquito landed on my arm, but instead of flicking it off, I watched it stick its needle in me. A woodpecker pecked on a tree, fast, maybe twenty taps, paused, then another burst of taps. I looked at my arm where the mosquito stuck me and saw a small red bump. I looked at a flat rock next to me, the size of a dinner plate, with fossils crusted on it. Millions of years old. Little tubular things, small shells, twig-like shapes. The log I was staring at had bugs feeding off it, or they were laying eggs, or mating, or whatever they were doing. I started to understand what Jane meant that everything was alive. The ant crawling across my shoe was connected to the soil that would absorb the log after years of decay, and the tree the woodpecker was drilling would feed the woodpecker and provide homes for birds and squirrels and other critters. Everything was connected. The woods wasn’t just a bunch of trees, it was a living organism. I dislike bogus epiphanies because they usually sound corny, but I was humbled because I was observing something so much greater than me. I also realized that the woods didn’t need me, but I felt like I needed them. They were my refuge from all the craziness in my house. After a few minutes I was fully awake and looked for Jane on the other side of the tree.
“I’m over here,” she said.
She was sitting on a log partially hidden in a thicket, twisting some twigs together. She blended in so well that I started to believe she really was part of the woods. But I felt sad. She seemed remote, even though she was a few feet away. She was so different, almost foreign, and came from a world she kept secret. I clawed into the thicket and sat next to her.
She held up a little twig man.
“It’s you,” she said, and gave it to me.
I looked at the twig man, about four inches high, with a nut for a head. Then she said, “Look at this.” When I looked at her she kissed me, then charged out of the thicket so fast she was gone by the time I picked my way out.
And that was the last time I saw her.
She’d only lived in the neighborhood four months, and I never saw her anywhere but the woods. After a week went by without seeing her, I decided to go to The Bottom and find her. I didn’t know which house was hers, but when I saw a lopsided yellow and brown shack with a FOR RENT sign in the front yard, my breath caught in my throat and I felt dizzy.
“You lookin’ for the jailbait?” some guy next door said.
It took me a second to realize he was talking to me.
“The skinny one. You sniffin’ for her?”
I wanted to tell him to fuck off, but I needed to find out if she was gone.
“Does a girl named Jane live here?”
“Might’ve. They left two nights ago. Never knew her name.”
“They lived here?”
I looked at the FOR RENT sign and memorized the phone number because I was going to call and find out who they were.
“You know where they went?”
“Back down south, I reckon. Appalachia.”
I turned away because I didn’t want him to see me cry. I walked up the street toward my house, dizzy, then ran up the woods to her tree and hugged it. Deranged with heartbreak, I prayed to the tree to bring her back, or at least send her a message that I loved her. Then I moped home and was too depressed to tell anyone what happened. I didn’t even tell Jacque until two days later, when we resumed interviewing my neighbors. Jacque had never met Jane, but he was fascinated by my descriptions of her. He was convinced she was a spirit girl, or a woodland nymph, or a feral child grown to adolescence. Jacque had read a lot of books about mythology and anthropology, and he loved to come up with off-the-wall theories that allowed him to voice his learning.
“She will always be with you,” he said. “A spirit girl such as Jane never disappears. She is always within you, and as long as you believe this, it’s true.”
I thought he was just trying to cheer me up, but maybe he was right. When I found the twig man in the shoe box earlier, I got goosebumps. I held it in my hand and felt Jane’s breath on my lips, just like when she kissed me. I remembered I saw a garden in my head, full of flowers and trees growing wild, and I saw the garden in my head again. I put the stick man in a jewelry box for safekeeping, but that seemed like a coffin, so I put him in my desk drawer, where he’ll be within reach when I’m sitting here. It’s pointless to do an Internet search, because I never found out her last name, although I did search for Jane of the Woods. No results.
But getting back to Owen Felts. All I know of his final thirty plus years is that he lived in the same house until he died. He remarried in 1995, but she died in 2015. Fortunately for Mr. Felts, she had kids and grandkids from her first marriage, and they became Mr. Felts’ surrogate kids and grandkids. My brother said there were seventeen of them, all there at the end.
Michael Haller is a writer based in Cincinnati. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Five on the Fifth, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, The MacGuffin, and Blue Unicorn.