Sunday, August 28, 2022

Packed Off

 Because he was a jock, some people might have thought Neil Brown was a bit dim, but before college, he was the best word-smith I knew, and in the disjointed band of misfits we called a high school, that made him a leader.  He found or created a phrase we ended up using a lot: Packed Off.  It meant getting so injured that you couldn't continue in the athletic event you were in and had to be taken off the field.  Packed Off.  

It only happened to me once.  I didn't know it yet, but this would be the last game I played at St. Andrews.  My relationship with the headmaster was bad and getting worse, and soon I'd be off to other adventures away from the class I'd been with since second grade.

It was cold.  A late fall rain made our field an ugly mud pit for the last game of the season.  Coach Clark developed a play just for me.  Pulling guards were pretty standard in those days, but I was a tackle.   I couldn't maintain it, but for short distances, I could develop fairly good speeds, and with my size and leg muscle, his thought was I could pull around the end and build up enough momentum to take out pretty much any defender in our way.  Nobody expected a tackle to pull around the end, plowing the field before a runner.  We'd tried it a few times, and against some defensive formations, it was devastating.  We were behind and needed to put points on the board badly.  It was my time.

Ours was a natural grass field, the cold and the rain made the sod something of a paste.  Down!  Set!  Hike! I pulled out of my position, turned toward the end, and planted my foot to turn back into their defensive end...  My foot was supposed to pivot, and I would direct that considerable momentum and bulk into their defensive end, but my foot stuck in the mud.  I could feel the pop.  I connected with my man, but without much power.  We made a few yards, but not enough.  Second down.

I knew I was in trouble.  I also knew this was our last game, and I and every kid and coach, and parent I knew wanted to end the season with a win.  Third down.  For me, it was a regular play.  My job was to stay in my position and move my defensive counterpart toward the end enough to create a hole for our man to go through.  Four yards and a cloud of dust, Coach Clark called it, but we needed six.  

I was in considerable pain and starting to limp.  Down! Set! Hike!  I connected with my man and pushed for all I could.  Three yards.  Not enough.  Fourth down.  Special teams, my job was to protect the punter and then make it downfield as fast as I could to block the way of the receiver.  I blocked, I started to run and collapsed.  The pain was intense, and my right leg could no longer support me.  I was packed off.  Coach Myers (now Doctor Myers) put my arm around his shoulder and crutched me off the field.

On the sidelines, my pants wouldn't pull over my knee, so he cut them.  Coach Myers had his eyes set on medical school and knew more about anatomy than anyone I knew.  My knee was the size of a cantaloupe and turning purple on one side.  

"I can go back in!"

"You can't go back in."

We were losing.  It was our last game for the year.  We needed this game to have a winning season.

"I can go back in!"  I stood up.  I wouldn't be denied.  Michael Mitchell hid my helmet.  I wasn't going back in.

Playing hurt is part of the American Male credo.  Sylvester Stalone literally made a career making movies about guys who played hurt.  "Are you a pussy?" "Get back in there!"  If you're a man, you feel it, even if nobody says it.  We're forged into believing we are disposable men, I suppose, in case we're ever needed in a war.  Once you get to be around thirty, you can start living for yourself without this burden of playing hurt hanging over your head.  It takes a toll too.  Every boy I know has scars on his face, and seventy percent of them have profoundly damaged knees.  I don't know anybody who had any of these micro-brain injuries you hear about that come from getting your bell rung too many times, but I don't know anyone who was tested, either.

I never had sons, so I never got to put it in practice, but I decided if I did, we'd have a talk about sports and steroids and playing hurt and not making the mistakes dad made.  For young men and boys, the message is pretty clear: your life, your health, and your well-being aren't as important as the game.  Know your place.  Whatever cultural forces make young men believe being disposable is honorable are wrong and possibly evil.   I got packed off.  Mike Mitchell hid my helmet, so I couldn't go back in.  I'm glad he did.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

The Day My Mother Lied To Me

 Sometimes in my youth, a mother's desire to shield her child from the unpleasant truths of our condition meant that sometimes I had to be lied to.

By the summer I turned ten, I taught myself to operate our eight-millimeter film projector and often would, with and without permission.   Being the third of four very active children and far too shy to do anything performative worth filming, I wasn't in very many of these films, but I loved them nevertheless. 

That this unlikely-looking machine could turn thin strips of plastic into a show, tantamount to a time machine, was nothing less than magic to me.   I would eventually learn that some years my father sold more Bell & Howell film projectors than Sears and Robuck.  

One reel I particularly enjoyed showed my brother Jimmy when he was five or six, playing in the wading pool at Riverside Park with my cousin Libby.  They looked to be having such fun, and the pool was packed.  I recognized the structure.  That's where we sat and had bag lunch in the summer when I was in Y-Guys.  Riverside Park was a great place for a summer day camp because it offered the occasional visit to Dead-Mans Gulch off near the nature trail.  

By the time I knew and used the wading pool, there was no water in it, and the paint was faded and peeling off.  It seemed a relic of some bygone civilization.  But here in this film, just a few years before, it was filled with water and happy kids.  What happened?

"That looks like fun.  Why don't they put water in the pool anymore?" I asked.

"It leaked."  My mother said.  

That was a lie.  It was a lie to cover up a truth about living in Mississippi that she believed I wasn't ready for yet.  There would come a time when she would tell me the truth about this and many other things, but that summer, she hoped to let me hold on to my innocence a little longer.

In truth, Riverside Park and every other city-owned pool were closed because Jackson lost a court case forcing them to integrate the parks and pools, and rather than dealing with white and black kids swimming together, the city closed them all, no matter how much money they invested in building them.

I was always very interested in this part of our history.  Jackson abandoned several really nice facilities to spite the courts trying to force us to integrate.  The biggest were Livingston Lake across from the Jackson Zoo and Lake Hico, which rested on the sixteenth section land and served to cool the production facility for Mississippi Power and Light.  

I asked a man involved in the Lake Hico decision about it once.  "My job was to provide electrical power to the people of Mississippi and deliver a dividend to my shareholders, not worry about whether or not some negras wanted to go swimming."  He told me.  That seemed harsh, but not wanting to deal with "the troubles" became a common refrain in Jackson.

Whatever reason Hico was initially closed, it remained closed to leisure activities because MP&L had no desire to deal with the insurance and liability of keeping it open.  It cooled the water used to operate their natural gas-powered electric dynamos, and that was that.  

In Mississippi, a film-strip time machine sometimes opened doors and initiated discussions nobody wanted to have.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

The Sharks Are Laughing

 Mississippi floats like a lifeboat on a vast and friendless ocean.  Because it's Mississippi, we divide ourselves into halves, despite having no place where we may retreat in this ancient and poorly equipped craft.  Because it's Mississippi, one half is mostly pink, and one half is mostly brown.

Because we believe the other side is untrustworthy and insane, we hoard what few crackers and potable water we have, not trusting the other to share in them fairly.  Occasionally one side will steal crackers from the other and build a volleyball stadium.  (Sorry, I had to bring it up.)

Both sides know real help isn't coming, although we beg passing liners for more crackers and water.  "Salvation is to the North," one side says and paddles like mad in that direction.  "Our only hope is the South," the other side believes and devotes all hands toward pushing us that way.  

There actually is an island to the East, but nobody wants to go there, and nobody will tell me why.  I've spent years in the north side of the boat, years in the south side, and more than a few years in the middle, waiting for the boat to sink.  Occasionally, a wise soul will jump over the side and swim for it.  They often are never seen again.  Sometimes they'll send us postcards telling us they survived and how great their island is.  Rarely do they ever send us more crackers and water.  Thanks, Oprah.

So, here we sit.  Despite considerable effort on both sides, our boat hasn't moved in years.  Our population of deserters increases, including the next generation of my generation.  I love them, and I miss them, but I can't blame them.  Meanwhile, the sharks play cards and wait patiently below us, knowing they'll eat soon enough.

I Met A Diva

 Kids today (I hate that phrase) use the word "diva" a lot.  For them, it describes someone who thinks a lot of themselves, which is fine, but I met a real one once.

My mother was a lady, not in the perfumed lace, looking down the nose sort of way, but in the garden club, "my children will not grow up in Mississippi without exposure to some sort of culture" way.  Mother had furs, but she preferred jeans, and her hands were in the dirt more often than mine, only she had a purpose in it.  She wasn't raised with airs.  She was the second child of a plumber and a seamstress from Learned Mississippi, both fiercely Irish and more fiercely independent, and raised in West Jackson.  A simple turn of fate threw her into the path of the twentieth-century Campbells and their odd ideas about "doing something" with Mississippi.

A singer was coming to town.  I had no idea who she was.  It was to be in the new auditorium, and the only name that registered with me was "Bubbles."  My father, being my father, somehow warranted front-row seats.  He had recently been the chairman of the Jackson Symphony, and Mississippi School Supply Company could be counted on to buy their place into the back of the program brochure at every arts event.  He could do all these things but couldn't be bothered to attend any of them.  Jim Campbell's favorite singers were Porter Wagoner and Roy Clark.  I met both men through him.  Wagoner was rude, and his hair disturbed me.  Roy Clark acted like he was a cousin or something and smiled at me genuinely.  

With my father out of the picture, invitations were extended on down the line.  Jimmy, No.  Joe, No. Martha, Too Little.  That left me.  I had no idea what "opera" was.  It was akin to church music, I was told.  Similar to how Mrs. Moffatt sang at Galloway.  

I was told what clothes to wear.  This was apparently a church plus dress code.  Mother wore the fur stole she never got to wear and something with a bit of a shine in parts, like tinsel.  The auditorium had a scale model of the city in the foyer.  That was my favorite part.  

I didn't see any of my friends.  I didn't see any other kids at all.  A few junior high girls were handing out program pamphlets, but that was about it.  I saw Uncle Tom and Aunt Burnice.  Uncle Tom wore a tuxedo.  Daddy had one with ruffles in front, but he never wore it.  I recognized Mr. and Mrs. Irby and Mr. and Mrs. Goodman from church, but that was about it.  Mother knew lots more people.  I was in a big crowd in alien territory and the only kid.  This was a lot of pressure.

When you're considerably less than five feet tall, the front row of the Jackson Auditorium meant that you were looking straight up at whoever was performing.  Besides the orchestra, the first person on stage was a man I didn't recognize who said something about something, something, and something, and I'm sure he asked for "support," meaning money.  Lewis Dalvit came out with his tuxedo and remarkable hair.  I'd been to enough of these events to know that meant the show was about to start. He tapped his baton on the music stand.

Whoever Bubbles was, she was next on stage.  She was about Mother's age and had similar hair.  She stood maybe fifteen feet from me, maybe less.  The lights changed.  Lewis Dalvit began to move.  The strings played.  "Here comes the church singing." I thought.

The sounds that came out of Bubbles were impossible.  She looked like my mom, but wow!  Just Wow!  I don't think she was amplified at all.  The auditorium has excellent acoustics, and it wouldn't matter where I was anyway.  I could feel her singing in my hair.  Beyond the power of my own control, my jaw fell open when hers did.  It looked like I was mimicking her, but I had lost control of my face.

When distracted, I tended to leave my chair.  I was mesmerized.  I kept trying to move closer to the stage, which was already just a few feet from me.  After some resistance, Mother let me stay there so long as I was quiet and still, which wasn't a problem because I don't think I could have made a sound if I wanted to.  

From Bubbles' perspective, I was a tiny head with an awkward haircut peeping over the stage, with a tiny pink hand resting on the apron.  After the second song, she knelt down and patted my hand.  I was allowed to stay.  She sang for just a few more minutes or for a few more years.  I couldn't tell you.  When it was over, a man gave her flowers.  She waved and bowed, waved and bowed, then looked at me, winked, and blew a kiss.  

The space between my ears grew considerably that day.  For a child who could barely get his words out without stuttering, I learned a whole new universe of sounds and words.  This was my mother's gift.  I met a diva.  She smiled at me.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

The Sleeper

 For so long, I slept, hidden from the world that filled me with life but showered me with death.  Only the voices of the fellow hidden I heard, spewing their wounds onto each other, seeking neither light nor hope.  

By design, my body weakened, waiting for the day when I could release the chord that held me here.  I saw no other fate.  One day, the choice came.  Do nothing, and I would find peace, call out, and I would return to the world I chose to leave, even though it is still full of pain.

"Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping," Mr. Rogers said.

The strength came from a place I'd forgotten.  I called out...

The helpers: First to a woman in an ambulance, then to a woman who's been with me since she was born.  An ambulance ride.  A hospital.  Many long talks.  The sleeper was waking.

While I slept, my body became weak and strange and white and painful.  The first order of business, cut my beard and my hair.  I meant to be Samson, not Moses.  Second, lose all the excess flesh I used to hide me from the world.

Though I could barely move, I could feel the life returning, like a green shoot emerging from a dead tree stump.  If I wanted to live, I would have to fight, and listen, and trust, and love, and follow.  

Now, with my eyes open, I can see the world as it is.  So much that I love needs me to return.  I can feel my strength returning, dew at first, then drops, then a trickle, now a stream, life returns to this vessel.   Whatever I was meant for is manifesting itself before me.  The sleeper has awakened.  The life is returning.  I chose this.

Monday, August 8, 2022

How I ended up in private schools

 There are some stories where I always said I would never tell them until everyone involved was dead.  How I ended up in private schools is one of them.  I'm not even sure if my siblings know this story.  Even though everybody involved has been dead for at least fifteen years, I'm still not going to give out the names.

As you may know, my father was the head of Missco Corporation.  Five of its seven divisions derived most of their income from the public schools.    

By 1970, Mississippi had exhausted all options to keep its public schools segregated.  There was a mad rush to form private schools beginning the prior two years to absorb the predicted flood of white kids leaving the public schools.

The right choice for my dad's business would be to keep all four of us in public schools.  My dyslexia had already manifested itself, but at that point, my teachers thought I just needed to work harder, but I didn't need any special education.  Taking his children out of the public schools could have been seen as an affront to his most valuable customers.  

Here's the part where I'm not going to give you the man's name.  He was a good man.  My dad admired him.  I admired him,  But he was wrong.  This man had a senior position in Mississippi public schools.  He was a friend of my dad, granddad, and Uncle Boyd. 

"Jim, you need to get your kids in private school before they hit Murrah.  We just don't know what's going to happen at Murrah next year.  "  He said.

By next year, he meant 1971,  the year I would be in third grade.  My brother Jimmy would be in Murrah soon.  My dad was in a position where most of his friends were moving to private schools, and now this man he admired, whose job it was to administer the Mississippi public schools, was saying to get out of our public schools before high school.

Let me be clear on something.  Many of my friends went to Murrah.  I have family members who went to Murrah.  My ex-wife went to Murrah.  Absolutely nothing terrible happened at Murrah.  Whatever that man was afraid of didn't happen.  Some of these people are better scholars than me, even now.

Because of my dyslexia, I needed some special training that St. Andrews offered that Casey Elementary didn't, but in 1970, nobody knew I was dyslexic yet.  They just thought I was lazy.  

My parents had to choose between the right decision for the business and what all their friends said was the right decision as parents.  For my dad, having his friends say to move us was one thing; to have an actual official with the schools say it was another.  

I would have had a great time at Murrah.  Many of my friends did.  Forced to choose between doing what was best for his business and what everyone said was doing was best for his children, my dad chose us.  I don't know what I would have done in his position.  Both of us tend to err on the side of caution when children are involved.  

They pulled me from Casey and moved me to St. Andrews.  At St. Andrews, Mrs. McIntyre became concerned that my reading and writing were far behind my classmates, so they held me back a year and got me some special training both for my dyslexia and my stuttering.  Eventually, I learned to read and speak normally.

Had we stuck it out in the public schools, I'm sure I would have been fine.  I might have had to have tutoring or something for my dyslexia and stuttering, but it would have been fine.  That's hindsight, though.  There was a panic among parents in 1970, and my dad erred on the side of caution.  I can't criticize him for it.  There were times when he would be accused of choosing business over people, but this time he didn't; even if the danger her feared never manifested, he chose us.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Robin's Nest

 The Lord's been good to me.  She sent me a friend who could always see the truth of my situation.  The gentle glint of her eyes anesthetizes the sharpness of her rapier.  When we were young, I could sometimes hide from it; now that I'm old, I just don't bother.

"Why do you find it necessary to try and save everyone and everything?"  She asks.

That's the question, isn't it?  That's THE question.  The answer is not so simple.  Part of the answer is that I had a moderately privileged upbringing, exaggerated by the reputations of my father (who was always out of town) and my uncle (who was actually dead.)  I was receiving credit for things I had nothing to do with, and I knew it, and it bothered me.  A lot.  

I had a moderately privileged life in a world where nearly everyone was desperately underserved and suffering, and if I gave away everything I ever had, it wouldn't make a dent in that condition.  Psychologists and sociologists call it "white guilt" or "survivor's guilt."  Whatever you call it, I had it in spades, and it made enjoying the privileges of being privileged very difficult.

Dickenson says to help one fainting robin unto his nest again, and I will not live in vain.  That's great advice, but Dickenson was a devoted recluse and couldn't see the thousands of naked, struggling robins dying on the ground with no one caring to look if their nest was even close by.  I understand why Dickenson became a recluse.  I tried it myself.  I failed.

Suffering, when I'm not the one suffering, makes me insane.  It splits my mind into a million different directions.  Sometimes I can help.  Most of the time, I can't.  The thousand failures make it difficult to enjoy the precious few victories.  

In my rehabilitation, I'm surrounded by people in much worse shape than I.  The staff here is world-class, but even they can't provide comfort for some of the sufferings.  If I'm to recover, I have to focus on myself.  One step, two steps, three steps, look up, straighten my back, take my meds, watch my diet.  Pretend as if everything is normal and smile at everyone like it's afternoon tea, even when they're in genuine distress, distress that will never go away.  I can be gentle, I can be kind, but I can't actually help.

I am Sisyphos, endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill.  At least Sisyphos knew what his sins were.  When the moon is right, I can sometimes move one of my boulders to the top.  No rest, though; there are thousands of boulders still at the bottom.

So, Why do I find it necessary to try and save everyone and everything?  If I'm honest, then I suppose the answer is: because I cannot.  


Official Ted Lasso