Friday, June 30, 2023

Mississippi Airplanes

 For guys in my dad’s generation, for those who were also from here, there wasn’t much more impressive than an airplane.  Some, like his cousin Ben, went for sailboats instead.  Sailing has the advantage that you don’t fall to your death if the wind goes out of your sails, but you may end up shark food, so it’s a trade-off.

Part of this phenomenon might have been driven by wanting to impress people that there was something more to them than just another country boy, and a machine that can actually fly is a pretty good way to do just that.  In some cases, it was a thing that their parents had only read about.  It’s hard to imagine what that would be like today.  I guess my father never dreamed of such a thing as a submersible that went to the Titanic, so if I got one, it’d be impressive to him, although apparently ill-advised.

Bob Neblett was the first weatherman in Mississippi on the first television station in Mississippi.  He was a weatherman because he was also one of Mississippi’s first private pilots.  Besides doing the news, he was in charge of Mississippi’s only airport, Hawkin’s Field, out by the zoo.  Today, pilots check their phones for weather reports before going out.  Neblett didn’t have that available to him, and NOAH didn’t send out weather reports on the wire, so he learned basic meteorology himself.  When WJTV went on the air, Bob was the only choice.  He also sold ice cream and introduced Mississippians to Reddy Kilowatt.

Serving in the ROTC, my dad wanted very much to be a pilot.  He was in ROTC, so when he went into the service, he would be an officer.  His father insisted.  He was completely ready to fight the Nazis in World War II, but it ended before he graduated, so he served in Korea.  The airforce said he was too tall for a pilot, but he could be an engineer, so they sent him to school to learn this fancy new thing they had called “radar,” and he spent his entire military career listening for Russians flying over the border into West Berlin, and learning the specs of every aircraft on the base.

Most of Dad’s friends were as plane obsessed as he was.  When Brum Day ascended at Trustmark, Trustmark got an airplane.  My uncle Boyd loved trains.  He was part owner of a railroad in North Mississippi for a while, and Missco had a sleeper car they could attach to the City of New Orleans for trips to Chicago and beyond.  When my dad took over, the sleeper car was replaced by a Beechcraft King turboprop airplane.  The first of three, each one a seat or two bigger than the last.  His last aircraft had previously belonged to Roy Clark, the singer, who traded it for a jet.

There are scary moments with airplanes.  The Missco plane was hit by lightning twice and by geese several times.  Ben Puckett, one of his best friends, was flying out of Hilton Head when they crashed and killed six passengers, including Roger Stribling.  Ben had a broken back, and it took him months to recover.  One of Roger’s daughters was in my class.  The idea that this could have been my family was very clear to me.

Not rated to fly a craft the size of a Beechcraft King, my dad had to hire a pilot.  A retired WWII pilot named Tony Staples came highly recommended.  Tony was a square-shouldered, steel-eyed gent with shocking white hair.  

Tony was the most fastidious guy I ever knew.  He was so good at taking care of airplanes that each of our airplanes sold for more than what we paid for them.  While his voice had great power, he used a very controlled tone.  This is a trait often found among pilots whose lives depend on radio communications.

Tony, very conspicuously, wore a gold Mason’s ring.  From what I understand, he never missed a meeting.  He talked to me about it a few times but never pressured me to join.  I was interested because there were several Freemasons in my family, but never joined.

One of my favorite stories about Tony is that once, we were stopped at a small airport for fuel, and inside the fuel center were four young men wearing denim and t-shirts but with their faces painted in elaborate designs.  We assumed they were clowns and avoided them.  Tony never met a stranger and struck up a conversation with the boys and came back reporting that they were a band, and their gimmick was that they never appeared without their makeup.  He even bought one of their albums.  Showing me the album, I could see the artwork of the same four boys in makeup and the words “KISS” on top.  I always heard they did pretty well after that meeting.  

When my dad died, the man who took over his position hated flying, so it was clear the days of our airplane were numbered.  They were having a pretty terrible year and hoped this infusion of cash would improve the bottom line.  Tony had retired, but the new pilot passed me in the hall.  “They’re selling your daddy’s airplane.”  He said.  The comment was more potent coming from him because it meant he was out of a job.  “Things are changing,” I said.  Things are really changing.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Broken Fire Hydrant

 Last night on the news, they interviewed a woman who had a fire in her neighborhood, but the Firemen couldn’t find the hydrant, and when they did find it, it didn’t work.  The firemen fought the blaze for hours without a source of water and prevented this one-house fire from taking over the neighborhood.

I was struck by the abject poverty of this woman and her neighbors.  I’ve seen neighborhoods like this before, but I don’t get that many opportunities to talk to the residents.  

Some people would say, especially in Mississippi, say that her subculture and her race are what made her this poor.  While there’s no evidence that race has this effect, whoever you are, whatever you become, your subculture has a lot to do with it.  

No subculture is perfectly logical or perfectly successful.  My subculture makes me read books I don’t understand (looking at you, James Joyce.)  Her culture has given her all the tools necessary to live in abject poverty but hasn’t provided her a path out of it.  Even though my city has an administration that’s more attentive and generous to people on her end of the economic spectrum than ever in the history of Mississippi, we still failed her, and we don’t have a clear path to improving things for her.  If not for some inventive firemen, her entire neighborhood could have been destroyed.

Ivan Allen made more money in the Office Supply business than anyone in the history of stationery.  He was also a brilliant statesman.  Allen had a theory that went something like this:  all of our boats are tied together–the greatest and the smallest.  When the tide comes in, my boat cannot rise to its potential unless this poor woman whose house burned down has a boat that’s allowed and encouraged to rise too.  No matter how seaworthy my vessel is, I’m never going to reach my potential unless I take her with me.  There’s no way to stay here and cut the ropes.

A lot of people choose not to stay here.  You have to go pretty far away, though.  You can’t just go to Madison or Brandon and expect to escape the cycle of poverty; you have to leave the state, and sometimes you have to leave the South.

We have a responsibility to improve all of our citizens, starting at birth.  In Mississippi, we don’t do such a great job of that.  Unless we improve the lot of the poorest and weakest born to us, the strongest can never reach their potential.  

The woman on television said she’d lived in Jackson all her life.  I believe her.  She was the product of the Jackson Public Schools and all the organizations we have and create to improve our citizens, and we didn’t do such a great job with her.  We can do better.  A great society recognizes the necessity to improve every child born within its borders.  We don’t do such a great job of this, but we can do better.  

Monday, June 26, 2023

Surrender at Appomattox

 Through my association with Kappa Alpha Order, I’ve been given or otherwise accumulated five portraits of Robert E. Lee.  As per KA tradition, they are all post-war portraits of Lee.  One was immediately post-war.  

I haven’t displayed them for years.  They sat quietly in a closet, wrapped in butcher paper.  After what seemed like one hundred KA Conventions and spending two years raising money for a massive renovation of the Alpha Mu house, I felt like, whatever I owed KA, I had given.  I appreciated Dick Wilson and Doug Stone's effort and time invested in KA, but I didn’t want to do that.  I felt like there were other things to come in my life.

Many of my peers focused on the Confederate part of Lee’s life.  There were Confederate flags and Confederate uniforms everywhere.  In the South, having a relative who served in the war was considered a badge of honor.  I have a grandfather who served in the Mississippi Regiment.  My brother has his musket.  

The boys who created KA saw things differently.  They served under Lee in the four years before.  Like Lee, they were officially considered traitors in the eyes of the United States Government.  Lincoln had spoken of a pardon for Lee, but an assassin's bullet stopped that.  

Having followed Lee into battle, these boys didn’t know what to do with their lives.  Most of Virginia was destroyed, and what wasn’t ruined by fire was devastated by the massive economic depression that followed the war.  Lee taking the job as president of Washington College gave them some direction in life.  They would pick back up the studies they left behind when the war started.  

What these boys wanted was not to glamorize or memorialize the war.  They wanted to be citizens again and rebuild their ruined homes, and they saw Lee’s guidance as the best path to do that.   They didn’t want to be Confederates again; they wanted to be Americans.

Lee surrendered his commission because he felt that Virginia was in danger.  He was right.  Union troops marched over every inch of Virginia.  He’d only ever been a military man, and now he couldn’t do that.  The offer of a job at Washington College would be similar to the position he performed at West Point.  He was very grateful for the opportunity.

The Confederate War was a fool’s errand.  We lost nearly everything in it.  At Appomattox, Lee had many advisings not to surrender.  His men wept when they saw him riding off on his horse, Traveler, to meet Grant.  

Lee knew that surrender would save lives no matter how horrific Grant’s terms might be.  The Confederate cause was lost, not that it ever had much chance.  Grant was gracious and generous.  The men left the meeting with respect for each other and respect for their men.

As Lee left the courthouse to return to his men, the Union soldiers lowered their hats as he passed.  There were no photographs of the event, but an artist named Alfred Waud captured some of the events with gesture sketches.  

One of these sketches, the one of Lee riding Traveler away from the courthouse, with the Union soldiers doffing their hats, was given to me by my cousin Robert Wingate.  I framed it and hung it in my home for many years.

In my new home, I think I’ll store all the other portraits of Lee, even the ones of Lee and Traveler, but hang this one.  Surrendering was probably the most important of all the things Lee tried to do for his homeland.  

I know many people who try to cling to our four years in the Confederacy as if that were our culture.  It is not.  It did, however, leave devastating scars on the South.  Wounds that only began to heal when Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!

In 1929, Christopher Isherwood traveled to Berlin on the advice of his childhood friend W.H. Auden, the poet.  Like Auden, and many men his age, Isherwood developed an interest in economic justice and social reform.  He saw Berlin as a way to explore social and economic ideas that weren't allowed anywhere else in the world.  

The years between the wars saw an explosion of philosophy and art in Berlin.  Its influence is still felt in the worlds of film, theater, painting, and music.  It was the birthplace of German Expressionism.  Berlin saw a great opening of the strata between class, culture, and sexuality.  It was here that Isherwood discovered his own latent bisexuality.

In Berlin, Isherwood met a young English communist writer named Jean Ross.  Ross was a very serious writer on topics of economic justice and feminism.  She was a communist until she realized the communists weren't any more accepting of her feminist ideas than English capitalists, and she left the party to go out on her own.  

Isherwood spent most of his days and nights in a basement bar called "The Cozy Corner," where he sometimes dated one of the busboys and where Ross would sometimes sing for extra money.  It was Ross's singing that inspired Isherwood to create a character in his semi-autobiographical novel that became known as "Goodbye To Berlin," where Jean Ross became Sally Bowles.  

Jean Ross The Real Sally Bowles
Ross didn't care for Isherwood's portrayal of her, calling Bowles "silly" and "inconsequential."  She was also not happy with Isherwood's portrayal of her abortion.  Isherwood's publicist felt "Goodbye Berlin" had potential as a novel and sought out a letter from Ross, absolving them of any liability in the novel.  She reluctantly signed it.

John Van Druten saw potential in adapting the novel for the stage.  After securing the rights, he worked with Isherwood to write "I Am A Camera," based on "Goodbye to Berlin," with Julie Harris as Sally Bowles.   In 1955, "I Am a Camera" was produced as a film, starring Shelly Winters as Sally Bowles.

In 1965, Hal Prince saw the filmed version with Winters and thought maybe it would work as a musical since Bowles was a singer, and so much of the action took place in the Kit Kat Club.  He brought in John Kander for music and Fred Ebb for lyrics.  A team Prince would work with again.  

A young Julie Andrews was offered the role of Sally Bowles, a part she wanted to play, but her management team rejected it because of the "immoral nature" of the play.  Jill Hayworth accepted the role of Sally and Burt Convey as Cliff.  

Prince changed the play considerably from "I Am A Camera."  The antisemitic landlady became a more likable second lead, in love with a Jewish fruit seller.   Their doomed love affair becomes almost the heart of the play.

A very young Joel Gray was hired as the Emcee.  Originally, this character wasn't much of a character.  He introduced the songs, and that's about it.  Without much help from the script or his director, Gray struggled for ways to understand his character.  

Ultimately, he decided that the Emcee could be something of a Greek Chorus, reminding the characters of the realities they faced, and not necessarily being on their side.  Despite being married, with a child, Gray knew he was a gay man, and so did his wife.  Together, they developed makeup and mannerisms that bring out an androgynous, almost brutal character.  Prince, Kander, and Ebb all saw and encouraged Gray in what he was doing with the role and expanded his part to the point now where the Emcee is really the star of the show, more than Sally or Cliff. 

With choreography by the famous Bob Fossee, Cabaret opened at the Broadhurst Theater in New York in 1966.  Criticized for its "immoral content," the play wasn't a huge success financially, but it attracted a great deal of artistic attention.  The West End production fared better and attracted Judi Dench as Sally, considered by many to be the best portrayal of the role yet.

Bob Fosse wanted very much to direct for film.  His earlier effort, "Sweet Charity," didn't do well, but he used all his Broadway contacts to get the rights to "Cabaret" and funding for a shoot in Berlin.  Considering the subplot about Schneider and Schultz as sentimental, he reduced their role in the story considerably and focused more on Cliff, Sally, and von Heune.  

Fossee introduced a very young Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, who saw her part as much more cheerful than any of the previous incarnations.  Fossee's interpretation of the story was a big hit, and several of the songs rose on the pop music charts.  What was considered scandalous a few years before was "progressive" and "intellectual" in the seventies.

"Cabaret" works because you know what's coming.  Even though none of it is shown, you know that all of these characters will either have to escape Berlin or die in the very near future.  The original ending of the play leaves the audience looking at themselves in a twisted and distorted mirror.  It made the point, but in the 1993 London revival, with Alan Cumming, they make the point even stronger, with each character reviving bits of their theme song, and in the very last moment, the Emcee, standing by himself where he takes off his coat revealing a concentration camp uniform, with a yellow star and a pink triangle.  Known for his facial expressions, Cumming leaves the audience with a fierce accusatory stare.  

Sometimes, I see in today's world what I saw in the Berlin Stories.  Surely this can't happen again.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Monkeys at the Zoo

I've always had an affinity for primates.  Because I learned how to make websites early, I became weirdly famous for writing about King Kong.  It wasn't just movie monkeys, though; I also loved real-world primates.

When I was little, the chimpanzee exhibit at the Jackson Zoo was slightly upstream from the Monkey Island exhibit.  The water exhibits at the Jackson Zoo were built so that fresh water from the sea lion exhibit flowed into the alligator exhibit, then poured into the Monkey Island exhibit, then into the first and second duck ponds, where it then flowed into the sewer, pretty full of animal poop.

The chimpanzee exhibit was roughly fifteen feet by fifteen feet, with a concrete floor, a tile roof, steel bars, and a covered area behind it where the animals slept.  This was pretty standard for the forties when it was built.  The emphasis was on containing the animals and keeping the exhibit clean.  Like most exhibits in the Zoo, cleaning mainly happened by a high-pressure fire hose--the kind you saw in the riots in Selma.

By the time I was old enough to know anything, we had two chimps, Roy and Venus.  Roy was an unusually large animal, one hundred and eighty pounds, close to a record for a chimpanzee in activity.  He was famous for two things.  First, he smoked cigarettes like a human being and would demand them from the Zoo's guests.  Roy was like half the guys at the KA house in college after they'd had a beer or two when they saw somebody with cigarettes.

Roy and Venus 1968
Roy and Venus 1968

The other way Roy was like a fraternity boy that he was famous for was that he could throw his own poo with distance and accuracy that could easily qualify him for the Millsaps baseball team.  Guests who annoyed him (or didn't give him cigarettes) would sometimes take one on the back of the head with enough force to make them stumble.  

Sometime in the seventies, the city decided they were no longer interested in West Jackson.  They built an industrial park where Missco and McCarty-Holeman moved and developed the interchange where Ellis Avenue went under I-220, but that was it.  By 1975, West Jackson was in steep decline, including the Zoo.  Everything that mattered in Jackson happened in the North East and the South West.  

It had been ten years since Mayor Thompson shut down the city pools, including the giant one in Livingston Park.  As the city grew away from West Jackson, despite the many beautiful things there, the city government, who ran the Zoo, became less and less interested in it.  Decay and attrition began to set in.

The city hired Jim Swigert as the director, who worked with local architects to develop a master plan, starting with a petting zoo, but failed to fund most of his ideas.  The city gave lip service to building the Zoo but with little money.

A group of Jackson residents who loved animals and loved the Zoo formed Friends of the Jackson Zoo.  a volunteer organization that helped maintain the landscaping at the Zoo and raised money to upgrade old exhibits and build new ones.

Members of the friends had an idea.  Maybe they could privatize it since the city wasn't very interested in the Zoo anymore.  A private organization focused on maintaining the Zoo could do a better job of running the Zoo than the city could.  The idea intrigued the Mayor and the Council.  The city would make a yearly contribution to the Zoo but wouldn't pay their employees or involve themselves in the day-to-day operation of the Zoo.

The Jackson Zoological Parks board was created to lease the Zoo from the city for one dollar, and they would take over all operations, saving the city a considerable amount of money and effort.   

Needing a director, the JZP board interviewed several people but hired a woman named Barbara Barrett.  She was an energetic redhead of remarkable charm and beauty who somehow had remained unmarried (although that wouldn't last).  Barbara had a natural affinity for running Zoos.  One of her first tasks was raising money to realize the planned African Rainforest exhibit, which included moving our growing chimpanzee troup to a naturalized island with a waterfall and a moat.

With all this new growth at the Zoo, I became very interested in it.  Still working for my father, my office was just around the corner.  Having seen my face so often, Barbara asked me to be on the Friends of the Jackson Zoo board, even though I was only twenty-three.  A move that meant I would be at the Zoo even more.

Our little chimp troupe was getting a lot of attention.  Jackson, the first chimp born at the Jackson Zoo, broke his back during an epileptic fit.  He was rushed to the veterinary hospital at Mississippi State University for emergency surgery, which was successful.   While I was very proud of our work to help Jackson, I always felt bad for him until his body hair grew over the surgical scars.

In a new, larger exhibit, the AZP sent us enough chimpanzees to make two troops, who took turns in the exhibit.  Keepers were slowly acclimating the two groups together, as ordered by AZP, and it was going well until one morning, the main group, headed by Darwin, a massive, white-bearded animal, was in the exhibit, and Jo-Jo's smaller group was allowed on.  

Normally, fights for dominance among chimpanzees aren't fatal.  Jo-Jo had been mistreated before he came to Jackson; that's one of the reasons they sent him here.  Early one morning, Jo-Jo attacked Darwin from behind, breaking his jaw and flinging his body into the moat.  Darwin drowned in the moat water and his own vomit.  The keepers were right there, but it all happened so fast that they could do nothing.  

I arrived two hours later, not knowing anything was wrong.  Not finding Barbara in her office, I was told where to go.  The staff was responding as if one of their own had been killed.  It was a mortifying shock.   Our keepers had reservations about merging the groups; now, there was no choice.  There was only one dominant male left.  

About a year later, one of our females named Belle had a baby in May, named Maybelle.  With most of the group in the public exhibit, the keepers allowed me to go into the night cages and see the baby.  The trick I learned with chimps was that if you dipped your shoulders down so that you were not taller than them, they weren't as threatened by you.  Jackson, who was also inside, hooted loudly until I stooped down.  Approaching her cage, Belle carried her baby to the front of the cage, where I could see it.  She showed me her baby, even pointing to it.  People question how close chimpanzee intelligence is to human intelligence.  In my experience, it's very, very close.

Most of my life was pretty miserable in those years.  My job was sucking the life out of me, and I was involved with a woman in another city, who I would find out was not entirely faithful despite the enormous amount of effort she required from me.

The Zoo was my respite, safe space, and my one beautiful thing.  My friends from the friends of Jackson Zoo were remarkable artists and architects, and more.  It was the only place on earth where I felt like I fit in.  

One day I'll write about the end of the JZP board and returning the Zoo back to the city.  We have some remarkable people working there, but unless we can figure out a way to inject life back into West Jackson, I wonder if we can do much with the Zoo.  I would favor saving West Jackson, even if the Zoo wasn't there.  There are many remarkable things in West Jackson; we just seem to lack the resolve as a people to save it, and city leadership doesn't seem to have any answers.  

Even now, when I dream of happy things, many of them are at our Zoo.  I don't really have any answers, but I have many, many memories.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Miss Eudora's Typewriter

If you visit Eudora Welty's house and museum, you can see some of her typewriters.  How a writer writes is very important, especially for writers of her generation.  Through his business connections, her father could procure quite good typewriters for her for most of her life, both new and secondhand.  

When Miss Eudora was writing, there were only three places in Jackson where one could purchase typing paper or legal pads.  The Office Supply Company was down the street from her father's office, so I've always amused myself that some of her novels began life as a box of blank typing paper sitting on a shelf in my uncle's store.  I even confirmed once that Mr. Welty had an account, although what he purchased was long since lost to history.

Eudora Welty was most likely taught to type in high school.  Most women in her generation were, in case they'd have to get a job one day, and typing or teaching was about the only jobs available to most girls.  Businesses needed typists too.  Every letter, every statement, and every invoice had to be hand typed in the days before computers.  One of the reasons banks and insurance companies had such large buildings was to house secretarial pools of typing women.

Faulkner had a typewriter but didn't write with it.  He preferred writing longhand so he could see and feel the shape of his words.  There weren't many things in Faulkner's life that he treated with love and care, but his words were among them.

When I was a younger man, I traveled to Hollywood in the summers hoping to live there someday.  I even gave it a shot a couple of times, but living outside of Mississippi never took hold.  In those summers, I made friends with Forrest J Ackerman, the previous editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and the inventor of Vampirella.  

Uncle Forry's life was in the waning years.  He'd lost his wife.  It'd been many years since his magazine shut down.  When he was a magazine editor, Forry was a literary agent for hopeful science fiction writers.  His most notorious client was L Ron Hubbard, who wrote very sort of standard Sci-Fi for the fifties.  His books were light on science but heavy on post-war social commentary.  Most were pretty bad.  Forry did not represent Hubbard's book Dianetics, which was an effort to replace psychology, which became Hubbard's obsession and, ultimately, a religious cult.  

One day, Forry introduced me to a man at lunch, saying, "This is Ray Bradbury.  He writes sometimes."  

Ackerman and Bradbury had been childhood friends and were considered co-founders of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Forum.  Ackerman had been Bradbury's agent, but after Fahrenheit 451, his publisher demanded Bradbury get a more well-placed agent. Ackerman didn't seem to take offense, and they remained the closest of friends until their very last days.  

 As a young writer, Bradbury didn't have a typewriter of his own.  In the basement of the library, you could put coins in a machine and get an hour's worth of electricity on one of their electric typewriters.  Descending with a box of his own paper, Bradbury wrote all of Fahrenheit 451 this way, spending time between pages and looking at the books in the library for inspiration.

Compared to his other novels, there wasn't very much science in Fahrenheit 451, but he hit on cultural memes that resonated deeply in American culture, especially counterculture.  After Fahrenheit 451, he was able to afford his own typewriter, an IBM selectric.  He'd have other typewriters along the way, but he favored the selectric.  Stephen King suggested a word processor for him, which Bradbury got, but never really produced anything of note on it.

Ray Bradbury was who I wanted to be.  His advice for young writers was to produce one thousand words a day.  In his method of writing, that's slightly less than three pages.  You're not really a writer if you don't write.  I've been producing between a thousand and two thousand words a day for forty-five years now.  At first on my mother's portable typewriter, then later on, different forms of computer word processors.  I've only allowed anyone to see what I write for the last two years.  That's another story.

The way that Welty, Faulkner, and Bradbury wrote was like making multiple interactions of a carving, making changes and improvements between them, and ultimately only showing the world the final copy.  It's a pretty tedious way to write.  You end up typing or writing over the same sentence several times.  With word processing, there's just one draft that you're constantly massaging and improving.  

It's possible that the multiple draft method of writing produces a better result.  Typing the same sentence over and over again can make you either commit to it or change it.  Most people don't do it.  It's time-consuming, and it keeps you from the more interesting part of making new sentences.  

I really don't know what my writing will produce.  I'd like to think I can produce seven or eight books in the next ten years.  I have pretty good writing discipline and can sometimes write things that produce emotion; what remains to be seen is if I can bring all these pieces together into something larger.  I love Ray Bradbury, but I've been to his office, and he's not a very organized person.   I don't think I can do what he did, but I think I can match his output, maybe even exceed it for a while.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Rainbow Babies

My friends are very bright.  They teach me things all the time.  I learned a new word the other day.  A “Rainbow Baby” is a child born after a miscarriage.  I’ve been called many things, but it turns out I’m a Rainbow Baby.

After my brother was born, my Mother conceived again.  This pregnancy didn’t last; in the second term, she miscarried.  Sad but undaunted, she tried again six months later.  That time she conceived twins.  They gave every indication of being healthy.  We’re they boys; she would name them John and Allen, after my uncles.  Were they girls, she would call them Joreine and Evelyn, after my aunts.  

The pregnancy was strong and healthy.  Soon Mother’s little family would double in size.  One night, barely into the third trimester, she woke up at our tiny home on Northside Drive with terrible cramps.  Expecting one of the many stomach ailments that come with pregnancy, she ran to the bathroom, where, after a few painful moments, she miscarried the twins into the toilet.  She saw them just long enough to know they were boys.  

Heartbroken, Mother resolved herself to a life with only two children.  My father, and her Mother, tried to console her, but little would.  My father’s job became much more complicated and busier with my Uncle, the paterfamilias, very ill and probably dying.  

As sometimes happens with couples, as my father became distracted and my Mother nurtured the emotional wounds from losing three children in two pregnancies, intimacy between them became rare.  There were pretty emotional severe wounds that had to heal.

Spending a few days at the Broadwater Beach Hotel in Biloxi for the National School Supply and Equipment Association convention hosted by my Uncle’s company, my father’s job became much more visible, as my Uncle died the February before.  

A young couple with recent new responsibilities, they drove to Biloxi with news of Russian missiles in Cuba pointed at us on the radio.  Mississippi was well within striking distance of one of these missiles.  The president said not to be afraid, but everyone was.  It would be another week before he resolved the crisis.  With imminent death in the air, one night after the NSSEA awards dinner, I was conceived in a Broadwater Beach bungalow in the salty air of Biloxi.  I suppose not knowing how many tomorrows there would be brought them together for the first time since the twins died.   

After Christmas, my Mother told my father that she was pregnant again.  Understandably gun shy after two miscarriages, she spent double the usual time at the doctor.  As the young Jim Campbell moved into his new position as the new paterfamilias, the family held their breath, hoping the new baby would be healthy.

Into the first trimester, the doctor reported a solid and healthy pregnancy.  If I were a girl, they’d name me Martha, after my Mother.  If I were a boy, they’d call me John-Allen, after my uncles, a combination of what was to be the twins’ names.  Besides my Uncle’s death, there wasn’t much in life to worry about.  Kennedy averted the Russian missiles.  There was agitation among the Africans in the South, but it had yet to come to a full boil.  Things were good.  By the Spring, Mother decided that if the new baby were a boy, she’d name it Alexander Boyd, after my late Uncle.

On into the second trimester, the doctor expected to hear a fetal heartbeat but couldn’t always.  Some days there would be a heartbeat, and some days there wouldn’t be.  This was long before anything like an ultrasound.  Fetal heartbeats were detected by putting a cold stethoscope on the Mother’s belly.  He said not to worry about it.  I was probably in a position where it was difficult to detect.

Into the third trimester, a heartbeat was detectable but still not reliable.  The doctor could hear it; but some days, he couldn’t.  My parents, especially my Mother, feared the worst.  

Starting the third trimester,  my Mother began finding blood spots in her pants.  Uncertain about what was causing the spots, her doctor prescribed absolute bed rest. 

Still, it was challenging to detect a consistent fetal heartbeat.  The doctor told Mother not to worry, but she felt he wasn’t telling her the truth.  Carter O’Ferral told her I might be in an unusual position, but I might also have an underdeveloped heart.  This was difficult news to hear, but she appreciated the honesty.  Her Mother and a recently hired family nurse and housekeeper tended to my Mother in her bed.

Ten days before my due date, the doctor told Daddy to pack a bag, and Mother was moved into a room at Baptist Hospital.  St. Dominics and University weren’t delivering babies yet.  Most people born in Jackson in those days were born in the same ward.

While my father packed a bag to take his wife to the hospital.  Up in the delta, Bryon De la Beckwith was packing a rifle and heading to a spot in Jackson, near where my Mother was headed.  My father was hoping to bring a life into the world.  De la Beckwith was planning to take one out.

On June twelfth, with my Mother spending the last days of her pregnancy in the hospital, my father received a call that Medgar Evers, the Civil Rights worker, was killed.  Jackson was a tinderbox.  Martin Luther King Jr. was told that Mississippi was too volatile for him to speak there.  Medgar Evers lived here, but on June twelfth, he lived no more.

No one knew how Jackson would respond to the assassination.  There would be several more assassinations in the days to come, but in June 1963, Evers was the first.  Police and sheriff’s deputies from the surrounding counties moved into Jackson in case of a riot.  My brothers and my Mother’s Mother moved in with my father’s parents on St. Ann Street.  My father slept in a chair in my Mother’s hospital room.  Everyone held their breath.  While the world counted out the chances of Mississippi bursting into riots, my family counted out the chances I would be born alive.

Four days later, Mother began to show signs of contractions.  Again, no heartbeat was detected, but the baby was definitely moving.  The specter of a baby with heart problems was very real.  As the contractions weren’t very close together, the doctor said I wouldn’t be born for another day yet.  My father and Jack Flood decided to walk over to Primos and get hamburgers in a sack.  The doctor assured them nothing would happen while they were gone.

When they slapped the red hamburger meat on the griddle at Primos, Mother’s contractions suddenly started coming very close together.  Without cellphones to tell them to come back, my father had no way of knowing that; while he ate his hamburger, my head was crowning, and my Mother held her breath, hoping for a healthy baby.

Daddy and Dr. Flood returned to find my Mother exhausted in her bed while the nurses cleaned the bright red screaming baby.  A baby with a strong, steady heartbeat.  The long three years were over, and the loss of three babies before they were born ended with a healthy live birth.  

They call people like me “Rainbow Babies” because after destroying the world, God gave us the rainbow as a sign of new life and new hope, despite the destruction that came before.  My Mother was a pretty tough person, but losing three children in two pregnancies tested her resolve.  

She tried several times to explain to me what it was like when she saw the twins, my brothers, dead in the toilet, but she could never get through it.  Some images can burn your soul.  Were I not born healthy, she resolved herself that she wouldn’t try again.  Although I was born healthy, the world soon showed signs of breaking at the seams.  By November, Kennedy would be dead.  Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy went the same way in five years.  I was born healthy into a world that wasn’t.  

I’ve tried to educate myself on the things my Mother endured because she endured them for my sake.  I can’t imagine the feeling of carrying a child, not knowing if it was alive or not, and if it were alive, would its heart be strong enough to survive?  We tend to think of mothers as funny haircuts and birthday parties, but it’s so much more complicated than that.  

I was a rainbow baby.  Just by arriving, I marked the end of a very painful few years for my Mother.  I’ve known a few women who went through this.  Even though you never get to meet and know the babies that are lost, their mothers feel their loss just the same.  According to the world, there were four Campbell children.  According to my Mother, there were seven.  We never met three of them, but I was the rainbow at the storm’s end.

Monday, June 19, 2023

Why So Many Homeless in Jackson

Pretty often, the question comes up about why Jackson has so many homeless.  For a city our size, we have a much larger homeless population than you'd expect.  I don't know the answer, but I have a pretty good guess and an opinion.

Even before Stewpot opened, there were accusations that other cities were sending their homeless to Jackson.  We had large bus terminals here, and the Spirit of New Orleans comes through Union Station twice a day.   It'd be awfully easy for police at any stop along those lines to give their homeless a sandwich and a free ticket to Jackson.

Living downtown for fifteen years, I can't prove anything, but I've seen some stuff.  I've seen six or seven homeless get off the bus from Memphis a couple days a week.  I've seen both Madison and Rankin county sheriff cars dropping off homeless on the other side of the tracks on Capitol Street.  

I've heard talk about doing something about this, either legally or journalistically, but after forty-five years of this, nobody has done anything yet.  It'd be pretty complicated to do, for one thing.  You'd almost have to have a whistle-blower to prove anything, and even if you had that, there are several entities involved, and you wouldn't have a whistle-blower in all of them.  I do think proving something against one of them might have an influence on the others, but that hasn't happened yet.

One of the responses I hear is that Jackson is far better able to care for the homeless than these other cities.  That part is true.  More than forty-five years ago, Central Presbyterian Church convinced the other downtown churches that they had a moral obligation to do something about these people living among us. I'm really very proud of what Stewpot has become, and it's spawned a rich cluster of like-minded organizations like Shower Power and Grace Place, and together they do a pretty good job of taking care of those who can't take care of themselves.

I don't know any answers here.  Pretty soon, we're going to have a crisis because closing mental health services at St. Dominics will have a pretty significant impact on the homeless here because many homeless are in a mental health crisis, and without a place like St. Dominics to help, the only other option is to jail them without any help.   Medicaid expansion sure would fix that, but I don't see that happening.  

There are only a few things Jesus told us directly to do.  This is one of them.  He didn't tell us to fight abortion, fend off Transgender athletes, or get rid of books about Heather Has Two Mommies, but he did tell Peter directly, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs."  I'm not gonna argue with him about it.  That's a pretty straightforward command.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Leaving Mississippi

I talk to a lot of young people.  I like to talk about what they see as their future because they are the future.  At least once a week, sometimes more, some brilliant young person tells me there isn't anything that would keep them in Mississippi, that they've worked too hard to become whatever they're becoming to waste it here.

It's probably psychologically unhealthy, but I consider that a personal failure.  I didn't do enough to make this a place where they felt like they could apply their best selves.  Some of these young people are pretty dear to me, and I'd be willing to do quite a lot to get them to stay, but I didn't do enough.

When I was sick, I'd sometimes have breakfast with a guy who spent his life really devoted to making health care in Mississippi considerably better.  This was a guy who really cared all his life.  His grandchildren are brilliant, but he can't keep them here.  

That happens a lot.  We invest all this time and money into our young people, and by twenty-five, they've grown too large to fit into the nest we've built for them, and their hearts tell them they have to leave.

I don't actually know how to fix this, but I'm gonna act like I have a plan and try to work on it.  It won't work.  My father tried to do the same thing, and it failed.  His father and his father's father did the same thing, and it failed.  

I think we spent many generations pushing Mississippi down into the hole we're in now, and it'll take many generations of Mississippians throwing their shoulder into the wheel to make it better.  

For those who stay, I love ya.  God loves ya.  We're gonna do our best to make sure you made the right decision.  For those who go, I still love you.  God still loves you.  We really wanted things to be different, but by the time your wings were strong enough to fly, we just didn't have Mississippi ready to keep you.  That's our failure, not yours.  

I was born four days after Medgar Evers was shot.  I have no illusions about what Mississippi is and was.  I might have illusions about what Mississippi can be, but I hope, deeply hope, that maybe they're not illusions but predictions.

Lunch At Jitney

 I made my way to the fabled Fondren Jitney for the first time from the new digs today.  It's called something else now, but who cares.  For my generation, the Fondren Jitney was even better than Jitney 14 because that's where Mr. Henry lived and personally oversaw the day-to-day actions.

I got "yessuh'ed" twice today.  In Mississippi, being told "yes sir" means something entirely different from what it means in other parts of the world.  It happens because I'm very old and very white, and even with my beard and my fake biker's vest on, you can tell by my eyes what part of town I come from.  

People have been saying this phrase to me all my life.  I asked my Grandmother about it once, and she said it was a sign of respect.  I said I was eleven; why was this grown man respecting me?  It should be the other way around.  "That's just the way things are."  She said.  I think a lot of grandmothers gave that answer through the years.

One was a woman my age, and she was actually serving me from the plate lunch line, so I kind of understood it.  The other was a young fella, no more than twenty, who was just passing by.  That kind of bothered me.  

Most of the serious change between the races happened in the years around when I was born, some, particularly in the year that I was born.  By the time I was nine, the steam had run out of the engine, and it was just moving chess pieces around the board after that.  

Some guys tried to make substantial changes with the Ayers case, but it languished in litigation hell for thirty-five years.   To get everything on their wish list, Jackson State would have had to give up a lot of the uniqueness that made it an HBCU, so I think the settlement they ultimately reached was probably the right one, although, by the time they reached it, hardly anybody remembered what it was about, to begin with.

Mississippi can be a pretty amazing place but with a fractured soul.  That fracture holds us back at everything.  I love the people here, but I try to be as honest as I can about our past and our present condition.   Despite all that, we produce some remarkable people.  We generate Pulitzer Prize winners like they were cornbread muffins.  

Hell, a girl not ten months older than my Nephew just won one for Journalism.  I have life-long friends on that side of the aisle in her story, and I'm at a loss as to why they haven't yet fixed the things she wrote about.  They think they can get away with it because it's so hard for a Democrat to win anything in Mississippi, but I think it's terribly short-sighted to count on that because I just don't think you really can.

All I see are ghosts of the past now.  I was in Fondren Jitney when it looked like it looked in "The Help"  Most people don't have all-day domestic help that rides in and out on the city bus anymore.  That doesn't mean attitudes have changed all that much.  

My dad's mentor was a man named Ivan Allen, Jr., who was once the Mayor of Atlanta, besides being one of the most successful stationers in the country.  Allen famously said that "There are too many negroes in Atlanta for us to progress and prosper unless they did too."  One of the things he did to encourage this was to force the Atlanta Police to keep their foot off the neck of Martin Luther King, Jr. so he could do what he was doing.  He removed the "white" and "colored" signs from all public property, and when King won the Nobel Peace Prize, he made sure there were plenty of photographs of them eating together.

A month after I was born, Allen was invited by President Kennedy to speak before Congress in hearings that ultimately led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was the only significant white Southern public official to testify.  I know all this, not because I learned it in school, but because he was a legend at National Office Products Association meetings, and my daddy made sure I met him and knew what he'd done.  

I don't think you're going to see much more significant change to come out of my generation.  We're pretty set in our ways.  We ended up being born in sort of the middle years in the battle for America's soul.  Big things will come in the generation after mine.  I can see it in their eyes.  It may not seem like it, but this place is worth saving.

Father's Day

Good morning, Daddy. I miss you. Things got a little crazy after you left. I know you tried to prevent that, but sometimes you can't. Before you left, you said you were worried I lost my way. You were right. I lost my way, and it took a very long time to find it.

I thought I was following you when I focused my life on people who needed me rather than seeking out the people and things that I needed. That was a mistake on my part. I ended up spending much of my life alone because no one needed me forever. Helping people find what they were looking for often meant they weren't looking for me anymore.

I let Mississippi go to crap. I know it wasn't my responsibility to stop that, but I wasn't supposed to turn my back on it for so long. I let a lot of things I care about get in pretty bad shape, and now I have to haul ass to get them back on track.

I never really had anybody to talk to after you died. Many of your friends tried to help me, Robert Wingate, of course, but also Stuart Irby, Warren Hood, and Deaton and Taylor. Heck, J.O. Manning operated on my leg and forgot to charge me. No matter how sincere it is, I'm not very good at taking help.

I ended up spending a lot of time talking to Lance Goss. I know you weren't expecting that. Talking about his life helped me understand my own.

As healthy as he was, George Harmon left not long after you did. I suppose you guys had some project in heaven. We're still struggling to replace him. After a performance like that, how does anyone follow it?

Rowann ended up staying with Suzanne Marrs until the day he died. Both Jane Lewis and Brum Day caught Lou Gehrig's Disease. For a disease that's supposed to be pretty rare, it sure has taken out a lot of Jackson people. Brum was always one of the strongest guys I ever knew. The last time I saw him, he didn't have the strength to keep his jaw shut.

Things calmed down a lot with Jimmy. He died pretty peacefully. Whatever was eating at him never really went away, but it did get a lot less severe.

They ended up driving Missco into the ground after you left. This might be the first time I ever admitted that publically, but it's true. I tried to stop it, but I was outnumbered and in way over my head.  I think, ultimately, you built a chariot nobody else knew how to drive.  I certainly didn't.  

We fought a lot, but in many ways, you were the only one who ever really understood me, even though I think you wanted me to be something I wasn't. It took an awfully long time to understand what I was myself, so it's reasonable that you couldn't see it either.

Things were better when I could see you every day. I was pretty miserable, as you knew, but knowing I could talk to you whenever I needed made things a lot better. I never really found anyone to replace that.

I was born on Father's Day. A fair portion of my birthdays were on Father's Day. Now, I'm here, and you're not. I think the world would have been better off if those roles were reversed. I did everything I could to make sure I got where you are now before my time, but in the end, I decided I wasn't quite done yet.

I'd do anything to see you again, even for an hour. Happy Father's Day, Daddy. This year I've had more Father's Days without you than the ones when I had you. That's not really a milestone I thought I'd face. I miss you.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Aint From Here

Last night we talked about a guy who is something like a fifth-generation Mississippian and does business here, but for reasons of his own, chooses to no longer live here.  That happens quite a lot.  Mississippi, as you may know, has a shrinking population.  Despite a steady inflow of immigrants from Asia and Central America, there are more native Mississippians either dying or moving than being born, which keeps our numbers in the red.

One of my favorite parts about Thalia Mara is that she's not from here.  She came from a part of the world that generally doesn't think much of Mississippi, and we fairly recently had been in the news for blowing up a synagog and burying civil rights workers from the part of the world where she was coming from in an earthen dam.  She saw something in Mississippi that people who lived here couldn't.  She saw us as a significant place for ballet, of all things, and brought the world to Mississippi to appreciate dance.

The same is true of Catherine and Richard Freiss.  Their friends must have thought they'd lost their minds when they said where they were going to work.  Millsaps has a pretty great reputation, but it's not great enough to hide the fact that Mississippi is the poorest part of the United States, and we have a reputation for doing terrible things to people from their part of the world.  But still, they came, and generations of students from all over the South are the better for it, and students from around the world are better for the work they did while they were here.

Pop Primos came to Mississippi from Greece.  He could have gone anywhere in the world, but he chose to come here.  I guess in Greece, they didn't know that Mississippi was an economically depressed state, totally dependent on a non-sustainable crop and a caste system that was equally unsustainable.  Pop saw something in Mississippi to make his own, and there he built an empire of restaurants and real estate.

Woody Assaf's parents came from Lebanon at a time when maybe things weren't so great in Lebanon, but they weren't much better in Mississippi.  He could have gone anywhere, but he chose to stay here and became a broadcasting legend.

Stuart Good came here with his teenage son from somewhere like Wisconsin.  Jeff Good did really well at Millsaps.  He could have gone anywhere and done anything, but he saw something in Jackson that a lot of people who have been here for generations couldn't see, and that inspired him to start a business here and raise a family here and make himself a part of the fabric of Mississippi.

Peter DeBeukelaer came from Belgium, where his family had a successful business since the civil war.  He had an idea for a new product and wanted a place to make it a reality, and he chose Mississippi even though he could have gone anywhere.  

Mississippi is still a very troubled place.  It probably always will be.  There are still opportunities here.  Sometimes it's hard for the people who have been here for generations to see it, but it's still very real.  There are stories of successful immigrants to Mississippi starting today and tomorrow in areas that those of us who have been here a while might never see.    Sometimes, the keys to success is a fresh pair of eyes.

Monday, June 12, 2023


 In 1974, I turned eleven years old.  Life was pretty good.  I was doing better in school, and I had a paid-up subscription to Famous Monsters magazine.  Birthdays are a big deal to a kid.  I was looking forward to mine.

In 1974, my brother turned seventeen.  In years past, watching him live his life was probably my favorite thing to do.  By 1974 watching him live his life was really very painful.  His part of his generation was characterized by anger and rebellion.  The war in Vietnam was not yet over, and the music was getting angrier and angrier.  Nobody said it, but he had begun having addiction problems the year before.  Some of his friends had it much worse.   I can't really say when his problems turned from addiction to full-on schizophrenia and paranoia, but it was coming.  The police had to bring him home for a few nights, but he didn't get into any real trouble.  His best friend nearly died from eating the wrong kind of mushroom trying to get high.

My father belonged to a group called the Young Presidents Organization, which was basically a group of second-generation business owners who ascended to positions of power at a young age and wanted to make the best of it.  They met three or four times a year, but the summer meeting was always the "family session" where the members brought not only their wives but their children.

In 1974, the trip was scheduled to be five days at the Ponte Vedra resort in Florida.  Since this was the Rebel Chapter of YPO, all the conference spots were in the South East.  Since Ponte Vedra was big enough to host the group, we went there a few times.  

My grandmother lived with us for half the year, so in preparation for getting us all to Florida, my mother had to arrange for my grandmother to fly to my Aunt's house for her half of the year.  My brother was flatly refusing to go to Florida.  Part of his rebellion was being really angry at the establishment, which basically meant my parents.  

My mother had to get my Grandmother to Atlanta, somehow make peace with my brother since he couldn't be left alone, pack my other brother, my sister and me, and herself and my father, and get someone to take care of the dog in the days leading up to our flight to Florida.

Watching her struggle to plan everything, I said offhand, "That's my birthday." and my mother looked at me with a very quizzical look on her face.  "No, no, that's a couple weeks after." She said.

I was ten, turning eleven.  I knew when my birthday was.  I wasn't going to challenge her on it.  She had a lot on her plate, I knew, and family dinners had become very tense between everyone and my brother.  I looked at the dog and said, "You're right.  We'll deal with that later."  and went to my room.

YPO family meetings didn't actually provide much family time.  The grownups had seminars all day and golf and tennis when they weren't meeting.  The entire point of the thing was networking with people other than your children.  Counselors were provided by the resort to take us kids swimming or golfing or some other activity.  One day they took us to a marine park.  I'd seen dolphin shows in Biloxi, so I wasn't impressed.

During one of the tween movie nights, I said to one of the counselors, "Tomorrow is my birthday, but nobody knows."  I'm not entirely sure why I said it.  I had resolved myself to not fretting over it.  My mother would take care of it when we got home, I was sure.  Maybe I just wanted to have something to say to this person in a power position over me.  The movie about the lady trying to raise a great dane and some dachshunds had already been on television and didn't interest me.  I didn't say anything else about it and continued watching the movie.

The counselor I talked to had to be no more than twenty.  She was pretty, but in a natural sort of way; she wore no makeup and always had her hair pulled back.  Her main job was to make sure we didn't drown and give tennis lessons.  The next night, when we gathered for kids' dinner around the pool, she came out with a cake lit up with candles.  It wasn't a birthday cake.  I think they just got a chocolate cake the hotel had for their restaurant and put candles in it.  I was really embarrassed to get so much attention from strangers.  

My parents walked by on the way to one of their functions, and when my mother saw what was going on, she developed this very pained look on her face, then she did a very curious thing.  She looked at me with a very pained look, like I had betrayed her.  I really have no idea what she was thinking.  Clearly, she was hurt, but I started feeling like I was the one who had hurt her, like maybe telling other people it was my birthday was a really bad idea, that it was some sort of private secret between us.

When we got home and got unpacked, my mother asked what I wanted for my birthday.  I listed off the Aurora Monster Models I didn't have yet, so the next day she took me to Play Pen and got the models, paints, the kind of glue that was safe for kids, and a GI Joe Action Set with a white tiger.  Most years, I had some sort of party to mark my birthday, but not that year.  We didn't speak of it again until forty years later.  

I should have told my mother that I understood she was very busy and had much more serious things to worry about than my birthday, but I didn't.  I don't think it hurt me, and I wasn't really angry so much as I didn't really know how to handle it.  In a family of four kids, attention went to whoever was having the biggest emergency, and in 1974, that was never me.

When I turned sixteen, it happened again.  My brother had been in jail, and when my birthday came around, he was living in the mental care facility at St. Dominics.  My family let June go by with no mention of my birthday.  My girlfriend baked me a little cake from a box.  Her father had died just a few months earlier.  I found the body after he'd shot himself.  It was a really sad, uncomfortable birthday.  Just like in 1974, whoever was having the biggest emergency got all the attention, and at sixteen, that was anybody but me.  By then, I learned to take up as little time and space in the family as I could.  I don't blame them for overlooking me because I was doing my best to hide from them.

I never bothered much with birthdays after that.  My mother would always try to take me out to dinner, usually Nicks, because that was the nicest, closest place she could think of.  Some of the time, I would do it, but most of the time, I would say I was going to schedule the dinner with my mother but never would.

Sometimes relationships die of a thousand tiny blows rather than one big one.  My mother created me.  She taught me how to read when my teachers couldn't, but a thousand tiny blows ended up breaking the bond between us.  Her life was very complicated, and I was but one character in a cast of thousands.  There was pretty good proof all around me that there were far worse fates than being overlooked.  

Being the child that didn't need attention meant that if I was quiet enough, I could get away with whatever I wanted.  And did.   Living under the radar like that had its advantages, but I missed some very important lessons on how to share my life with somebody, and that would come back to hurt me later.  

I miss my mother very much.  When she died, it'd been fifty years since I confided in my mother the way a child should.  I was still the child who needed the least attention.  By that time, I was absolutely the child who wanted the least attention.  I don't resent birthdays; I just don't celebrate them.  That ship sailed quite a while ago.

Communists In America

Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, and J Edgar Hoover all tried to prove that Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist but failed.  They couldn't openly destroy the man just for being black, so they found a way to disguise it.  Everybody hated communists, so they were determined to pin that label on him.

King knew people were coming for his neck from a fairly young age, so he made sure nobody could pin that tag on him.  In all honesty, while he did everything he could to improve the fate of the working man, I don't think he was a communist.  I think he was just a liberal, but he believed in private ownership and other capitalistic principles. 

There were communists in the movement, and everybody knew it.  I don't mean left-leaning socialists that the GOP now calls communists; I mean acolytes of Trotsky bent on an overthrow of the government.  I can't say that I blame them.  Communism offered to overthrow their oppressors and guarantee equality with their former masters.  For an African living in America in the twentieth century, I can see how that would be appealing.  

At the time, nobody really knew that Communism couldn't deliver on its promises.   George Orwell had an idea things might go bad for the communists in 1945 when he had the pigs say that some animals were more equal than others.  In China and the Soviet Union, that certainly proved to be true.  It might also have been a clue in 1940 when a fellow revolutionary put a pick into Trotsky's skull.  

Even with all these warning signs, I don't know that I could blame anyone living on the underside of Jim Crow America for clinging to that as some sort of last hope for a better life.  With a big faction of white America calling them communists just for demanding equal rights, I imagine quite a few thought to themselves, "Why not?"

In 1977 when a house painter planted a bomb in Beth Israel Synagog, the reason given was that Rabbi Nussbaum and his followers were communists.   Having known several members of Beth Israel in 1977, I can tell you they absolutely were not communists.  Some were more capitalist than I am.

I'm not sure how communism became the big bad in America.  Rosevelt had broken up the trusts ten years before the Russian Revolution, but I guess there were enough mega bankers left to turn the public tide against it.  A lot of what Huey Long proposed was technically communism, but nobody dared say it because he was so powerful.  

Communism didn't work for the Russians, so I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have worked here.  There weren't ever any real efforts to make America Communist, though, so I don't really get the fear.  Maybe people had called things communist that wasn't for so long that people began to see it as a threat everywhere.  

In the end, all the efforts to destroy King politically were pointless because somebody decided to destroy him mortally.  For a while, calling somebody a communist became something of a joke.  There weren't many real communists floating around America, and nobody cared about the ones that were.  Everything old is new again.  All of our ancient prejudices are bubbling to the surface again, and accusing somebody of being a communist is a serious threat again.  There are fifty-five years between 1968 when Martin Luther King was killed, and 2023.  Fifty-five is a good, round number.  I'd like to say we've made significant advances since then, but that wouldn't be true.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Evil and Computers

There was a time when I thought we had this xenophobia that strangled America from the beginning on the ropes.  There are evolutionary reasons why we're afraid of people who don't look like us, but for a while, I really thought we'd made progress on it and were learning to transcend our evolutionary prejudices.  I was wrong.  They came back with a vengeance.

Terry Gilliam's treatise on good, evil, time, space, and everything is the 1981 film "Time Bandits."  Because it has a child star and several little people castmates, a lot of people assumed it was a children's film.  It's ever so much deeper than that.  Completely stymied getting his script for "Brazil" produced, Gilliam showed the treatment for "Time Bandits" to George Harrison, who agreed to finance it.

In "Time Bandits," the ultimate evil is played by the brilliant David Warner.  Trapped in hell by the supreme being, Evil sends his minions after the map to time and the universe held by our heroes.  Evil is ready to escape hell, and he believes he knows how to take over the universe: computers.  

In 1981, I was a bit computer mad.  Tom Stemshorn arranged for St. Andrews to have a small computer lab.  A single terminal, connected by modem to the computer at Millsaps, I began a life-long journey of discovery with these machines.  

Early on, I had great hope for the new world computers communicating with modems would bring us.  Slowly at first, but gathering speed now, I learned that, while communicating computers bring great good, they are equally capable of bringing great evil.  In 2023, the greatest medium for the unprecedented growth in xenophobia and outright hate groups has been the internet.  I'm worried it's growing because it allows people to let loose the internal prejudices we all have and lets them find like-minded people.

In the film, the Time Bandits use weapons of war from every age to defeat the ultimate evil.  We don't have that at our disposal.  The only way to counter the hate growing on the internet is with the truth and relentlessly confronting evil with it.  

I don't think this conflict will ever really be over.  I don't think we have that option.  The struggle continues, even on this new battleground.  

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Lauren Stennis Statement of Belief And Intention

 A random Google search returned an unexpected memory today. Lauren Stennis went to Millsaps. Her grandfather was John Stennis. Lauren had a great passion for Mississippi and especially desired for us to break with our Confederate past and change the flag. She had her own design, which I liked very much.

Eventually, there was a referendum to change the flag, which a lot of us had a lot of hopes for that were dashed when the results came in. Fearing reprisals from the NCAA, who were threatening to boycott Mississippi, the Speaker brokered a deal where the legislature would pass a new flag, but as Stennis was far too liberal for their stomach, her design was outright rejected, even though she'd spent ten years fighting for change.

This is a link to Lauren's GofundMe from seven years ago. She raised the money, and ultimately, she got what she wanted, but she never got credit for it, not officially. In my world, Lauren fought for the chance that Mississippi might rise above its past, and in my eyes, she won.

In response to an egregious bill in the Mississippi House, Lauren was raising money for a new Statement of Belief and Intention. The original statement was published in 1968, affirming the position that Jackson should no longer be segregated and signed by some of the most prominent business, educational and legal leaders in Jackson at the time. If you can't read this version, Please follow the link to my Blog, where you can see it in higher detail.

Here is the text version of what appeared in the paper:

These days constitute the swiftest time of change in our memory. Events hurriedly pile themselves upon events. In our business, our professions and everywhere fast-breaking changes require quick answers and quick actions.

We are threatened with a widening chasm between our people in this State and in our City. Yet, here in this State and in this City there is a vast reservoir of good will, compassion and kindness that is genuinely a very part of our being. This vital reservoir of true neighborly feeling, true friendship must be brought to the fore now and without delay.

We cannot sit back and become prisoners of events. We must cope with them firmly and decisively and manage our own destiny. Accordingly, in the set conviction that the great majority of our people, white and black, desire harmony, good order, a decent honorable family life and a chance to better themselves economically, we, the undersigned Jackson business and professional men and women declare we believe in the following principles, and we pledge ourselves to do everything within our power to see that they are carried out:

1: We believe in the essential worth and dignity of every human being and all that such implies.

2: Fair and impartial treatment must be accorded to all citizens in the enforcement and administration of the law.

3: Every citizen of this City regardless of race, creed or color is entitled to equal access to employment as he is qualified by training and experience to perform, and to earn the con-
tinuation of such employment by his own hard efforts.

4: In order that all of our citizens may be qualified for equal employment opportunities, educational opportunities must be available to them on an equal basis.

5: Adequate and properly staffed recreational facilities should be made available for all of with the coming of the summer season, all City swimming pools should be opened. All parks should be open, and should be staffed by competent personnel, and properly equipped to the end that all our people may obtain the maximum benefits from them.

6. Communications between the races should be encouraged en every level of our City. This should include all of us whether we be public officials, civic, business, religious, or professional leaders.

7. There is no place in our city for hate, discord or violence.  No man, whatever his course or whatever his convictions, is above the law. All of our citizens should work untiringly and unceasingly to bring out to the fullest the best in us in the way of kindness, compassion,
friendliness and understanding that we may all progress through cooperation. We owe this to ourselves, our families, the oncoming generations, and the development of all of our talents.

Respectfully Submitted,

(Please refer to the image for the complete list of names.  Many of you will find your parents on it.  Nearly every Millsaps Professor is on it. My own father is not on it.  In 1968 there would have been tremendous pressure on Missco not to appear too radical.  He found ways to express his opinions, though, for one thing, there were no reprisals against any of the Millsaps Professors.  This was also the year that Daddy hired a black woman to be the company receptionist so that the very first face you saw when you entered our building on South Street was a smartly dressed descendant of Mississippi slaves.)  

Justice? Redemption

Every morning, Alexa plays a little tune until I sit up and say, "Alexa, Stop."  Then she says, "Good Morning.  It's six o'clock.  The Temperature is seventy-eight degrees.  Today expect cloudy skies and a high of eighty-four degrees.  "  

Then she plays "Philadelphia Morning" from the Rocky Soundtrack.  That image of Rocky struggling to breathe while he jogs and holding his sides in pain when he reaches the top of the stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is what gets me out of bed in the morning.  Rocky suffered and suffered, but he got better.  That thought inspires me.

A guy like me can stay in bed all day, every day.  I have the kind of mind where I can keep myself intellectually stimulated without ever speaking to another person or seeing the world outside of my room.  The problem is, the world actually is outside of my room.  I can stay in my room forever, but I'll never fulfill the contract of my creation.  My job is to do something to the world, something with the world, not sit in the dark imagining it.  There's an imaginary dog that yips at me whenever I think about forgetting that.

I sent the first chapter of my book to a few people for mostly good reviews.  A few people said, "Uh-oh, I can't believe you're talking about that."  The inciting action in my book is a fictionalized version of something that actually happened.  It's fictionalized mainly because I want a very different ending than what really happened.  I'm also not about the business of exposing people's personal suffering to the world.  There will be quite a bit of suffering in the story, but it's imaginary people, not real people.  I don't think I could do it otherwise.

My first several chapters will be chasing my characters up a tree and then throwing rocks at them, a quote attributed to both Nabakov and Hitchcock.  Hitch probably stole it.  Young people cross several really significant Rubicons as they grow.  The first is learning to walk, then going to school, then puberty, and going to high school and college.  Eventually, they emerge as an adult and start a completely different journey.

Young people arrive at college, often with the wounds inflicted on them before still bleeding, but without the support structure they always had, and sometimes they go a bit mad without it.  

Hurt people hurt others.  Every psychologist will tell you that.  Injured people hurting others and getting hurt themselves is the action that drives my narrative.  Characters not recognizing that they don't have to stay on the road where they find themselves is what sustains it.

In the real world, when bad things happen, people cry out for justice, but they never get it.  I've been thinking about this for a long time, and I don't think I've ever seen a case where justice was served.  

Orestes killed his mother and his uncle to seek justice for his murdered father, who was murdered for taking the life of his daughter Iphigenia; then, he spends three more plays struggling with the gods to try and discover justice.   Arguably, he never does it, but through his efforts, he redeems himself.

That's what I want my characters to do.  I want them to go through hell and then redeem themselves.  The question of justice will hang in the air unresolved.  That's intentional.  

Thirty years ago, Bobby DeLaughter and Ed Peters shocked the world by bringing Bryan De La Beckwith to trial.  Whatever would happen to Bobby in the future, that was a monumental moment in Mississippi history.  De La Beckwith was convicted and died in prison, but was justice served?  We could have burned De La Beckwith at the stake along with all his companions, but would that be justice for the death of Medgar Evers?  Could their suffering replace his loss?  My argument is "no."   Justice is a thing we seek but cannot find.

Redemption is possible, though.  If we put our minds to it, we can each achieve some level of redemption every moment of every day.  A daily struggle for redemption is how we pay back the lord for the air we breathe and the water we drink, and redemption begins with forgiveness.  Not the forgiveness from God, although that's vital, but forgiving ourselves and allowing us to redeem ourselves.

These are the ideas I'm going for.  We'll see how well I do.

In the meantime, I'm having one last breakfast in the little cafe out here.  The food's pretty good.  They'll bring the food to you, but if I let people serve me all the time, I'd never get out of here, and getting out of here is happening really soon.  


Friday, June 9, 2023

The Economic Shortfall in Mississippi

Even though I live in the poorest part of America, I received one of the best possible educations on economics, taught by brilliant, very Christian-thinking people.   Mississippi has some truly brilliant people working on our considerable economic problems.  They're people with varied perspectives and qualifications, but they're all very genuine and all ultimately working for the same goal.  I'm proud to say most are from here.

We're still failing, though.  On every economic metric, we're failing.  The problem we're facing is the human condition is so complex and so nuanced that no economic system or combination of economic systems is capable of meeting all our needs.  Despite our bountiful economic resources, our history and our internal conflicts create such a complicated economic landscape that we're simply not able to provide for our people.

In Mississippi, there is a considerable shortfall between our reach and our grasp.  You won't hear me say this very often, and I don't mean everybody, but there are some very conscientious and Christian people in our Legislature working as hard as they can to elevate us out of the spot we're in and have been for as long as I can remember, but there's only so much they can do.

This considerable gap between what we need and what we have is what keeps me up at night.  The only way we can make sure all the people of Mississippi are clothed and fed and close this gap between what our economy supplies and what our people can provide is with the ancient concept of simple Christian charity.  

When you use words like "charity," for many people, it conjures up images of little old ladies at bakesales or rich people who don't care at black tie events, but it's so much more complicated than that.  Charity is what keeps Mississippi alive.  Nearly everyone on my Facebook list is involved in some form of charity.  Some are involved in EVERY form of charity.  We have such an enormous capacity for human capacity that there are a good dozen or more who are intimately involved in charity for dogs and cats.

My father taught me some very simple lessons.  People will hate me if I'm not humble.  I come from poor farmer stock in Mississippi and poor farmer stock in Scotland and Ireland before that.  I must never try to elevate myself beyond a deep concern for the poorest people in Mississippi.  That's where charity comes in.  As a people, Mississippi may never really be prosperous, but we can be kind.  We can be sufficient so that not even the least of us suffers.  That's where charity comes in.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Yelp Reviews

 For about a hundred years, I've written restaurant reviews in my journal.  I just never showed anybody.  My goal is to eventually post a really good review for all my favorite restaurants.  If I haven't gotten to your restaurant yet, I will!

My Yelp Page

Lunch Downtown

Getting ready for the big move, I went downtown to meet the movers.  Since I was nearby, I went to the Mayflower for lunch.  Since 1975, I've done this maybe seven hundred times.

I've known Jerry for something like forty years.  In that time, there have been maybe eleven encounters when he didn't find something to complain about.  His cousin was like that.  His dad was too.  Greeks are pretty straight shooters.

Jerry's complaint yesterday was that it was a beautiful summer day, a quarter till noon, the IBC was getting ramped up, and his restaurant was nearly empty.  Judge Waller came in.  His dad ate there every day since before he served as governor, so I guess he's just keeping up the tradition.  A couple of three tops came in, and an out-of-town couple who didn't know to order anything with the salad dressing but somehow weren't connected with the ballet.

It wasn't Jerry's fault.  My gumbo and seafood salad was as good as it was the three hundred other times I've had it.  It wasn't the fault of the IBC.  I met with a cluster of dancers having lunch at Millsaps, and they were having a great experience.  Truth be told, parts of Jackson are dying.  Jerry's restaurant is in one of them.

When Jerry was thinking about buying the restaurant from his dad and his cousins, we talked about it a good bit.  He had a great strategy and good financing.  It was a good deal.  Downtown then didn't have any retail traffic to speak of, but it had a lot of people, and his tables were always full.  Some fifteen years into it, Parlor Market moved in and brought Mayflower as much business as they had their own.  It was a good time.  That's when I moved downtown.

Jackson's biggest problem is jobs.  There aren't enough.  All the crime and dropping property values, and rotting infrastructure go back to jobs.  If we had the same employment levels we had in 1980, the Mayflower would be packed.

In 1980, between Missco, McCarty-Holeman, McRaes, and Deposit Guarantee, you were looking at something like twenty-five hundred jobs.  Maybe more.  In 2023, those four companies hired zero people.  That's a number that's kept me awake at night for twenty years.  

Part of the problem is that we've had a massive accumulation of wealth in very few people since Jimmy Carter left office.  The last major anti-trust action was Judge Brown vs AT&T.  That ended in 1984.  Just speaking for our own company, there was really no way we could compete with companies coming into our market with fifteen and twenty times as much capital as we had.  Like McRaes and McCarty-Holeman, we formed a purchasing group with other companies our size.  I was deeply involved in creating it.  With that, we were able to have price parity with Office Depot and Staples for a while, but they had so much money for other areas of how that business reaches the market that we were really probably doomed to failure, no matter what.

The last time this happened, the situation was actually much worse, but we're getting there.  What saved us was Teddy Rosevelt, a Republican, who became the greatest trust-buster in history.  The moves he made and the legislation he passed made it possible for companies like the ones I mentioned to make a profit in Mississippi, which has been the poorest state in the union since the war, the Civil one, not the one in Europe.

A lot of people are going to disagree with the economics of my assessment, but I feel like the evidence is there.

A lot of times, when I mention doing things downtown, I get a handful of responses like, "Aren't you afraid of getting shot?"  Well, I've always been afraid of getting shot.  Hell, listening to TW Lewis and Ed King talk about what happened to them in the sixties, and I don't know that I've ever been safe.  

Jackson has a crime problem that's undeniable, but over-inflating it isn't helping anything.  The Mayflower is a hundred feet from the federal building, two hundred yards from the Governor's Mansion, and two hundred and fifty yards from not only Jackson Police Headquarters but now the Capitol Police Headquarters.  I've lived downtown for fifteen years, and I've never had a problem.

Parts of Jackson are very sick.  Parts of my body are very sick.  Neither of us is dead yet.  The Jackson Police, The Hinds County Sheriff's Department, the Capitol Police, and the Mississippi Highway Patrol have combined efforts to make sure that your experience at the International Ballet Competition is safe and enjoyable.  While you're downtown, eat at the Mayflower and Ironhorse and King Edward and Hal & Mals.  Don't give in to hate and fear.  Even though I'm moving, you'll probably see me around.

Official Ted Lasso