Commentary: The Billy Budd of Hamilton County | KERA News

Commentary: The Billy Budd of Hamilton County

Dallas, TX –

The cemetery at Carlton, a desolate town in Hamilton County, seems to echo the hardships of the country folk who lie under its soil. The few trees are stunted from a lifetime of existing on this windblown arid prairie. If you're from Carlton, I think, the only way to flourish is to leave. That's what Bill Basham did as a young intellectual in the late 1940s. Now he was back, to lie beside his mother and father, a minister giving him the recognition that was denied him there in his youth.

He answered one of life's noblest callings, the minister said, that of teaching children with speech impediments. Bill was a stammering boy with a love of books and, though Carlton folk never knew it, he had a deep and genuine love for them and for the harsh land he grew up on. In California he stopped stammering and devoted his life to the children of his school and to the arts, especially the theatre. Over the years he and I spent many hours in long distance conversations about books and authors and art.

The minister extolled Bill's dedication to teaching but he never knew him and so was unable to make the small group of mourners aware of the brilliant literary mind of this sweet and gentle man they may have remembered only as a bashful stammering boy. When it was over I told his younger brother Ed that it was a shame Bill never tried his hand at writing books.

A few weeks later I received a big box in the mail from Ed. It weighed 43 pounds. Inside were eight novel manuscripts and one play. After all those literary discussions we had Bill never mentioned these writings. One by one I unwrapped the manuscripts. When I paged through them I made a sad discovery. Except for the titles and other minor changes, they were all the same, the story of a shy, sensitive man from Carlton, Texas. Growing up the boy had a distant, cold father and a doting mother. Polio left him with a noticeable limp. He grew up confused and torn between religion and lust. The descriptions of depression-era farm life are wonderful and the country dialect is authentic. But the story's pace is as halting as a stammering boy's tongue and nothing exciting or meaningful ever happens. Some of the characters' expressions are funny but I searched in vain for examples of Bill's ironic humor.

A dozen letters in the box from his teacher praised the novel in 1951. Another literary luminary from Cal-Tech sent him a chapter by chapter critique and promised to recommend it to a New York publisher. Others offered their help. Between 1951 and 1956 he apparently submitted it to eight publishers and rewrote it after every rejection.

After 1956, the writing stopped. Two of his oldest friends in California told me they had no more knowledge of his early literary endeavor than I had.

There is something wrong with the American Dream. As I understand it, it goes like this: In America, if you are willing to work, you can achieve whatever you can dream. Bill Basham, a good American, dreamed of being a great writer. He had literary talent and a degree in creative writing from SMU. He worked hard to achieve his dream. But, at the end, all he had to show for it was 43 pounds of typing.

And, yet, we do not know how many young children Bill freed from the restraints of stammers, stutters, cleft palates, and lisps. Sometimes our unfulfilled dreams may enable others to realize theirs.

Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian.

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