The Dragon Slayer
Sir Blunder, Princess Otello, Sir One-Eye, Pee-Pee the Peeper, King Four-Four, Speedy Lightfingers, Father Opportunity, Johnny Ne’er-Do-Well, Old Dragon…these are the characters I grew up with, all fermented in the wonderfully inventive mind of Walter Kerr, my grandfather, and now in print in Sir Blunder: A Bedtime Story for Big People.
My grandfather doted over his two children, Mitzi (my mother) and Mike, her fraternal twin. When they were young, he read them bedtime stories, but over time got tired of reading the same old ones: Cinderella, The Three Little Bears, Little Red Riding Hood, and so on. He started making up his own tales. When my mother had children of her own, she asked her father to write down her favorite story, Sir Blunder. She wanted to read it to her children.
Although my grandfather told the earliest version of Sir Blunder in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he didn’t start writing it until the early 1970s; he finished in the early 1990s. Hand written on college-ruled paper, the story grew in the telling, and many new characters and adventures were introduced. The short tale had become novel length. If it was originally intended for small children, it wasn’t by the time it was finished. As my grandfather told me, “I just didn’t know enough small words to entirely cater to children. Also, parts of it are just too brutal.” After he wrote the early chapters, he mailed them to my mother, but soon he was mailing them directly to me. I was the grandson who loved to read.
My memories of my grandfather are inextricably linked with Sir Blunder. He was kind and gentle, a bit of a rogue, mischievous, funny, an outrageous flirt, and, like many humorous people, deeply serious at heart. All of that is captured in Sir Blunder. It is family lore that many of the characters in Sir Blunder are based on members of his own family. Blunder, for instance, seems to be inspired by his son Mike, who from an early age exhibited severe psychological problems; later he was given many electroshock treatments. Except for brief periods, he lived with my grandparents all of his life. Blunder got his name because as a small boy he was a blunderer; everything he did he did wrong. Later a kindly old woman of the woods discovers that he had poor eyesight and takes him to a faraway land where he gets glasses and trains to be a knight, the mightiest of the day. To some degree, this is wish fulfillment—an alternative story to the sad story of my Uncle Mike’s life.
Princess Otello seems to be based on my mother. As a young girl, she was her twin brother’s protector, and shielded him as much as she could from the taunts of bullies at school. My mom was an extraordinary individual: very kind, fun-loving, empathetic, adventurous, up for anything. Pee-Pee the Peeper was probably inspired by one of my brothers, a charismatic but wholly amoral soul frequently in trouble with the law.
Growing up, I saw my grandfather only on vacations, but when I was 15, my family moved back to Texas, and I saw him all the time. We’d watch the Dallas Cowboys, talk about Blunder, hang out. I learned some of his life story. My grandfather enlisted in the Army in 1944; eight days after his children were born that year, he was shipped to Germany to serve as a medic during the closing days of World War II. The Walter Kerr I knew was always an older man. He was born in 1915, which means he was 29 when he enlisted and was 63 in 1978, when I began seeing him more often.
He was my favorite grandparent. He was fun, and funny—a bit gnomish. Sometimes he simply shocked me, like when he’d flirt outrageously with cashiers. I was embarrassed, but they flirted right back: “Hey Walter,” they’d yell when they’d see him. “When are you taking us to Vegas?” He’d respond with something halfway between a chuckle and laugh.
Life was often difficult for my grandfather. His son Mike committed suicide a few years after Sir Blunder was completed. He had a difficult marriage, one that made him nervous and jumpy. I remember many times talking with him in the kitchen only to hear “Walter!” yelled from further inside the house. My grandfather would jump and hurry to the bedroom. His wife had her own psychological problems; my grandfather kept up the house, did all the shopping, all of the cooking, all of the bill paying, all that was necessary.
But no matter how bad things got, he always knew how to laugh. After returning from Germany, he had a few menial jobs until he finally got hired by the U.S. Post Office, a job he held for many years until he retired. He told me of many misadventures working with the Post Office, including getting in trouble because he’d park his mail truck and read Playboys before he delivered them. My grandfather would chuckle as he told the story. It turns out that folks don’t want their mail carriers to read their men’s magazines.
By the time my grandfather finished Sir Blunder in 1991, I had already moved to Knoxville. I had always thought Sir Blunder deserved to see print, but life got in the way and I didn’t do much with the manuscript. He died in 1998, and despite my best efforts, I wasn’t there. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my grandfather, to my friend. Ever since I’ve regretted not getting Sir Blunder published while he was alive. I was asked to speak at his funeral, and I did, but what I spoke were his words: “When I die I want everyone to get up and say what a wonderful person I was. I want them to lie.” Then I read a section of Sir Blunder in which Pee-Pee the Peeper pilfers money from the church collection plates.
The manuscript of Sir Blunder has been sitting on my shelves for years, but this summer, I decided to get it published. My daughter, Zoë Eades, my grandfather’s great-grand-daughter, created the cover illustration. The book is now available on Amazon. I think my grandfather would be pleased.
Excerpt from Sir Blunder: A Bedtime Story for Big People
by Walter Kerr
Before Gretel began night delivery of the baker’s wood, she had noticed a small boy who was always accompanied by a large, shaggy dog. She had heard people call the boy “Blunder.” The pair was imprinted in her mind as they seemed to neither fear nor hate her. Rather, Blunder looked wistfully at her when she passed, and she knew he watched hoping for an encouraging sign to run after her. She did nothing to show she was aware of him, but he was such a small boy—so skinny and frail; his body was starved and his spirit perished. She could give him food and secretly did. But she would never speak to him, for she knew it would only bring him trouble.
Except for Blunder and the baker, no one doubted that Gretel was a witch. Humped, gnarled, and sickeningly old, she was thought to be able to turn a man into a sack of salt with the flicker of an eyelash. Fearing her power, neither merchant nor peasant molested her until one day Johnny Ne’er-Do-Well felled her with a stone to her back.
Johnny told everyone what he was going to do and he did it, but now that it was done he was not happy. He slunk away and hid behind the stables.
The villagers watched Gretel writhing on the ground. Had the baker been there he would have helped her, for he was a brave man.
Suddenly a little fellow was at her side, tugging and trying to get her to her feet. With Blunder’s help, she crawled to the wagon and pulled herself up.
“Thank you, child,” she said, “but you have brought trouble to yourself.”
The old woman shook all of her limbs, one at a time. None was broken. She waved her hand setting her mule in motion and plodded behind him out of the village.
“Poor Blunder,” thought the villagers. “All covered with witches’ dust. He must be washed clean.”
The townspeople seized Blunder and took him to the river. He was to be held under water while Sunny Snail swam across the river and back. When one was washed of witches’ dust, it was Sunny’s job to swim across the river and back while the victim was held under water. Sunny was now eighty years old and no one had survived the test since he was fifty. This time Sunny almost drowned and had to be pulled from the water himself.
Blunder was not let up at once. It would not have been fair to him. He might still be contaminated. When he was finally taken out of the water, they decided to find a new swimmer and test him again the next day. No one dreamed Blunder was alive, but they felt good that they were willing to give him another chance.
Back in the village no one came near Johnny Ne’er-Do-Well. Gretel’s spirit was expected to bring vengeance down upon him at any moment. Johnny was lonely and very much afraid.
Two hours passed. Nothing happened to Johnny. Perhaps Gretel’s spirit was not strong enough to do him any harm. The villagers started to gather around him.
Johnny felt better and enjoyed the audience. He said, “I told Freddy Ne’er-Take-a-Chance what I was going to do and I did it, didn’t I, Freddy? A lot of people saw me do it. I am going to get me a big pile of rocks, and I am going to throw one at her every time she comes around.”
Everyone made a big fuss over Johnny. He was petted and fed. A family of the upper crust even invited him to Sunday dinner. The Society for a Town Free of Witchcraft called a town meeting at which was recommended that an ordinance be passed allowing only Johnny Ne’er-Do-Well to throw stones at Gretel. After all, it was he who proved it could be done.
In all of Johnny’s life he never before had been noticed. Life was grand. By Golly! He would throw two stones at her the very next time she came around.
Finally night came, but Johnny could not sleep. He recalled the great happening of the day but could not regain the fine feeling he had felt. The wind rattled the shutters and Johnny cringed. A dog howled in the lower end of the village—a sure sign of terrible things to come.
Johnny’s wife, who lay on the bed by his side, snored. He wished she would stay awake and talk to him. He woke her to tell her that Freddy Ne’er-Take-a-Chance had said he would not throw a stone at Gretel even if the duke made him the guardian of the cow chip pile. He wife said that he had already told her that three times and to please let her sleep.
Two o’clock! Johnny listened to the church bell toll. The night was long. Four o’clock. Only an hour to daylight—and safety.
And then: Knock, knock! “Oh no! Not now!” Knock, knock! “Please go away.” Knock, knock! Johnny remembered something. How could he have forgotten? If one person is on top of the bed and another is under, then a spirit is honor bound to take the one on top of the bed. After tonight, he would put one of his twelve children on top of the bed each night.
Johnny was jubilant. His wife still had heard nothing. She was a sound sleeper. He must not wake her now. He slid over the side of the bed and wriggled under it. He could not have moved more quickly if he had been greased with a melted Christmas candle.
Crash! The front door was torn from its hinges. The moon came shining through the opening. In the doorway was a white figure. All white—hair, face, tunic, even its shoes. Gretel’s spirit had arrived.