Showing posts with label Jackson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jackson. Show all posts

Thursday, March 14, 2024

The Bug Truck

 How often have you heard that we lived in simpler times? When people my age say it, they’re often forgetting the Cold War, the culture war, school desegregation, civil rights protests, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Aids, crack babies, and more. Like Billy Joel said, we didn’t start the fire. It was always burning.

Our parents, who were born during the Depression and celebrated the end of World War II, did seem to have more faith in our government than anyone does now. An issue during the baby boom was dealing with childhood diseases, and our parents dealt with that in much the same way they dealt with World War II, with technology and organized effort.

We had to receive a series of inoculations at different ages to enter any school. Vaccines for everything from the mumps to polio were administered either at your pediatrician’s office, or they would line us up in school and administer a multi-vaccine in the fatty part of our arm using a device called a pneumatic jet injector that looked like something Buck Rogers might use and left a tell-tale ring-shaped scar in your arm for the rest of your life, proof you were born in the fifties or sixties. No one ever questioned it. If you lived here, you got the shot, and nobody got polio.

There were no vaccines for diseases carried by mosquitos or biting flies. In northern states, this wasn’t as much of an issue because the cold weather kept the mosquito population in check. In the deep South, though, disease carried by mosquitos was a genuine danger to children.

The federal government determined that the most effective method to control the mosquito population was to use the chemical Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, otherwise known as DDT. Like many Southern states, Mississippi paid men to drive through neighborhoods in a truck with a fog device in the back, emitting a dense cloud of insecticide-laden smoke.

The clouds the spray trucks were emitting must have contained kerosene because they smelled strongly of it. As children, we would either ride our bikes behind these trucks or run behind them, laughing insanely at the spectacle. The whole neighborhood would turn out.

We were so trusting of adults, especially anybody we identified as a civil servant, that none of us ever gave a moments thought to whether this might be dangerous or not, even though we knew the smoke was used to kill bugs.

My grandmother, who had raised two girls during the great depression in Mississippi, which was already desperately poor, didn’t share our trust in the government and begged us not to ride our bikes behind the bug truck. My mother insisted that they wouldn’t be out in the neighborhoods spraying like that if the smoke was any danger to us, so we were allowed to continue chasing the truck without getting in trouble.

We were allowed, that is, until 1972, when the federal government, which had proscribed our use of DDT, decided that it was a dangerous chemical that might give little boys like me cancer, so the state of Mississippi discontinued the use of DDT.

So far, nobody I know has died from riding behind the bug truck. They say some of us who were exposed to DDT might be at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, but I don’t know how they’d ever determine if it was the bug juice or any of the other millions of chemicals we were exposed to.

Nobody ever talked about the government secretly using mind-control drugs in the bug spray, or population control or any of the other things you hear people on the edges accuse the government of these days. We didn’t trust the government not to make mistakes because DDT clearly was one, but there wasn’t this widespread paranoia about what the government might do to us.

Maybe we didn’t live in simpler times. Maybe we had simpler minds and didn’t clutter them with fears and paranoid delusions. Maybe we trusted that the government was people just like us, for all the good and all the bad that might suggest.




Saturday, February 10, 2024

Whale Discovered in Reservoir

Reprinted from Clarion Ledger
Jackson MS April 19, 1962


Ancient Bones Give View Of Past To Digging Crew 

Workers digging at the Pearl River Reservoir took a journey through time Wednesday when St-feet of fossil bones, described as everything from dinosaur to whale vertebrae were uncovered by earth-moving machinery. The bones were discovered between 8 and 9 a.m., when a piece of machinery lifted the top dirt off of the fossil. Shovels were then used to avoid damage, and the area was roped off. Digging continued in hopes of finding the head of the fossil but as yet it has not been discovered. Plans were being made to place loose dirt or boards over the bones to keep them in good condition until a geologist can examine them.

Dr. R. R. Piddy, geologist at Millsaps has been contacted and will study the bones Thursday morning, according to workmen. Workmen on the scene were mildly excited over the find, with much speculation as to what it was, but said in their type of work, they are constantly watching for remains of prehistoric animals. A guard at the Reservoir, Carey Alridge, viewing the fossil, neatly summed up the situation by saying, "Preached to me all my life that our ancestors had more back bone than we do looks like that might be right.


PEARL RIVER RESERVOIR

Geologists Identify Fossils As Back Of Ancient Whale (Earlier Story On Page 2A)
By VAN SAVELL Associated Press Staff Writer

Geologists identified a series of fossilized bones found on the Pearl River Reservoir construction site Wednesday as the back vertebrae of a 40-million-year-old "Basilosaurus" or whale. "The find is not uncommon," said William H. Moore, a member of the Mississippi Geological Survey team. "But, the condition is peculiar with its vertebrae almost completely intact." Moort described the ancient whale a member of the "Zeugledon" family as nearly Identical to the present-day giant ocean mammal, except for its sharp head. A bulldozer operator unearthed the unfamiliar charcoal object about 9 a.m.

Wednesday. Ross Grimes of Carthage, crew supervisor, stopped work completely when he realized what had been uncovered. , The geology team described the whale as about 35 feet long with weight between eight and 10 tons. Vertebrae sections near the real end of the fossil were 17 inches in length and about 40 inches in circumference. A white bone described as part of a rib was 22 inches long and broken on both ends.

After lengthy investigations, Moore told the Associated Press the whale "apparently sank to  the bottom of the sea and turned over on its back. "You see, the vertebrae is upside down and the rib cage points skyward." He described the peculiarities of the find, apparently rare elsewhere but common in the "Yazoo Clay" found in the area.

"The animal is almost completely intact, and with patient work, we might uncover it in the same condition," Moore said. "Apparently, the ground conditions caused the bones to turn to charcoal instead of the normal lime, causing the hardness of the object." Moore said a conference with Survey Commission officials would reveal whether attempts would be made by Mississippi to preserve the whale. "If we don't have the money," he said, "then we'll have to turn to some college geology department for the work." The fossils were found about eight feet underground and scattered over a 60-foot area, except for the 35-foot long connected vertebrae section..

Fossil On Display Ms Museum of Natural History


St Andrews Teacher Attends Symposium

South's enduring past intrigues teacher
By NELL LITTER FOCUS Staff Writer 
Clarion Ledger June 15, 1983

Steve Anspach is a Northerner charmed by the South. 

Come June 25 Anspach, a resident of Florence and an English teacher at St Andrew's Episcopal School, will turn the pages of literature to learn more about the region he loves. "There's something about how the past endures in us that intrigues me," he said. "Books at least give partial answers." "For me, it's not a love of books but a love of place. It's the books that help me understand the place." Anspach will hopefully unravel some of the mystery during a Southern writers seminar at Louisiana State University that is being sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

He is among 15 high-school teachers selected from 300 applicants nationwide to attend the conference. Lewis Simpson, an authority on Southern literature and professor at LSU, is scheduled to teach the group. During the five-week course, the group will study novels by literary giants such as William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Walter Percy and visit several related literary sites. Because "The Moviegoer," a novel by Percy, is set in New Orleans, Anspach said the class would probably see the city's sights. Also, a trip to Oxford, to visit Rowan Oak, the home of Faulkner, is a second possibility for a literary field trip.

Anspach applied for the summer classes in January after his wife, a student at Mississippi College School of Law, received a brochure listing various topics of study offered by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was tempted to learn more about Chaucer, which he also teaches, but instead chose to apply for the Southern writers course. He outlined his reasons for wanting to attend the seminar in a short one-page essay tacked onto his application. "I said I was a Northerner, and that I'd had fascination with the South ever since I'd been in the army in Fort Jackson, S.C." His wife felt the essay was too short, but Anspach disagreed. "I felt right when I wrote my essay.

I felt like I said what I wanted in a convincing way." Two months later, Anspach's instincts proved correct and he received an acceptance letter and course outline. Of the novels to be studied, there are two he is reviewing "Absalom, Absalom!" by Faulkner and "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" by 'For me, it's not a love of books but a love of place. It's the books that help me understand the place.' Steve Anspach Ernest Gaines. Anspach hopes the conference will boost his self-confidence about teaching Southern literature. He also hopes to become more familiar with the works of Faulkner, a novelist whom he finds difficult to read.

The class will be a far cry from all play and no work. Each participant is required to complete a 3,000-word essay during the course. Anspach and his wife, Judy, came south in 1978 when they moved to Florence from Cleveland, Ohio. He was scheduled to work on a doctorate degree at a Mississippi school but instead accepted a job at SL Andrew's. Since 1979, he has taught tenth graders literature of the world, and seniors, American literature.

Anspach received a bachelor's degree in psychology and English from Kent State University and a master's degree from West Virginia University. He and his wife, Judy, are parents of one son, Erich, 19, a sophomore at Washington and Lee University.



Monday, February 5, 2024

Margaret Key Volunteer Award

I've been thinking of writing a Christmas story.  When I was little, this really remarkable woman gathered artistically leaning people at church to craft Christian-themed ornaments for a giant tree that would sit in the sanctuary at Galloway Memorial.  Her name was Margaret Kea, and she was always especially kind to me.  She was the one who encouraged me to make a painting to enter the Jackson Arts Festival.  I painted a tiger using the grid method to copy a photograph.  It won first place in my age group, but in all the putting together and taking part in the Arts Festival, the painting was lost, but I was given the ribbon.  

Part of my research for the story led me to find this article from 1988, where Mrs. Kea was given an award recognizing her volunteer work at Mississippi Methodist Rehab Center.  Many articles mentioned her being involved in arts oriented things, but I found this story, by Rebecca Hood-Adams, particularly revealing of her character.

I'm always learning things I don't know.  In this article, she mentions that there was a skating rink at the Livingston Park by the Zoo.  In all my studies about the Zoo, this is the first I've heard of a skating rink.

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REBECCA HOOD-ADAMS Columnist The Clarion-Ledger Aug 28, 1988 

One Mississippian gets paid for time in blessings shared A walk in the park led Margaret Kea to the halls of Mississippi Methodist Rehabilitation Center, where she helps others stand tall. ; Eight years ago, Mrs. Kea encountered Peggy Bowland. Both women were walking for exercise, and as they fell in step, they found common ground. 

"We became each other's psychiatrist," Mrs.Kea says of her friend who died this past spring. "We'd talk about whatever was on our hearts as; we walked together." ; 

They exchanged histories with Mrs. Kea, 67, '. Reminiscing about her girlhood in Jackson. "It was like a small town then," she says. "We never locked our doors, and we spoke to everybody on the street. We knew everyone by name." 

Mrs. Kea recalls her Claiborne Street home in a town "so quiet at night that you could hear the lion roar from the zoo all the way to our, house." 

Sweet childhood memories 

There were jaunts to the Jitney to buy Banana Kisses, two for a penny. Afternoons at the skating rink in Livingston Park, where the big pipe organ filled the air with music. Evenings when the gang gathered at her home to make fudge and dance on hardwood floors.

Life in Jackson between the Depression and World War II was filled with simple pleasures. "On Saturday night we'd park the car on Capitol Street and watch the people come and go," Mrs. Kea says.

 Graduation from Central High School. A year at Belhaven College. A job as a telephone operator and then as a secretary with Mississippi Power & Light Co. 

The post-war boom brought change. A girlfriend arranged a blind date between Margaret Bridgers and Luther Kea, an agent for the Internal Revenue Service. "I was kind of leery at first," she remembers. But a six-month courtship grew into a 40-year marriage.

Life was not always easy for the young matron. She lost an infant son and then remained childless for five years. "I'd been praying so hard for a baby," Mrs. Kea says. "Finally, I got down on my knees one night and told the Lord that I'd never ask for a child again, that I'd accept his will." That's the month she became pregnant with Chip, 31, now a Port Gibson accountant.

The years flew by. Cub Scout den mother. President of the PTA. Sunday school teacher at Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church. Along the way, Margaret Kea broke her leg and vowed that if she ever got off crutches, she'd help somebody else.

"But I got busy and didn't do it," she says, remembering how she shared this need to aid others with her walking buddy. Peggy Bowland encouraged her and together they volunteered at Methodist Rehab. "A friend had told me that there were boys out there that couldn't even wipe a tear from their eyes," Mrs. Kea says. "That jerked something in me." 

But Margaret Kea has not found her Thursdays at Methodist depressing. "It's a place of courage and determination and hope," she says. "Patients establish deep friendships with everyone. Then when they finally are able to take that first step or lift a fork, there's a whole cheering section rooting for them."

Little deeds, big results 

Mrs. Kea's volunteer hours are spent in quiet service. She reads to patients, writes letters for them. Mostly she loves.

"My favorite thing is to just sit down beside somebody, put my arms around them and let them know they're cared for. I don't get paid, but I sure get blessed in return."

"Margaret offers spiritual strength and guidance to help patients through the long rehabilitation process," says Nellie Paul Farr, director of volunteer services at Methodist Rehabilitation Center. "She's not always recognized because her deeds of kindness are quietly given."

That will change Sept. 14 when Margaret Kea is one of 10 honorees at Goodwill Industries' 1988 Volunteer Activists Awards Luncheon.  She was tapped for her service at Methodist, although she could just as readily have been honored for her work with the Community Stewpot or Lakeland Nursing Home. And four Jackson women who've met for 12 years in Margaret Kea's home for weekly prayer already have had an opportunity to repay some of the spiritual strength she has lent them.

Two years ago Mrs. Kea developed cancer, the same disease that claimed her friend Peggy Bowland's life. 

"My prayer circle nursed me through like they were my own daughters," Mrs. Kea says. "You know, we're made strong by adversity. And you have to continually keep a problem in order to keep humble."

Courageous advice from One Mississippian whose heart is as brave as the lion roaring through Margaret Kea's memories. Are you One Mississippian who volunteers at least one hour per month to make Mississippi a better place? Send your name, address and telephone number in a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Rebecca Howl-Adams, The Clarion-Ledger, P.O. Box 40, Jackson, Miss., 39205.

You will be sent a One Mississippian button. Rebecca Hood-Adams' columns appear Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.



Saturday, January 27, 2024

Eudora Welty - A Visit of Charity

 Tomorrow's story for the Eudora Welty reading group is "A Visit of Charity" from "A Curtain of Green."  The story is about Marian, a little girl and member of an organization like the Girl Scouts (but not the Girl Scouts) who visits the Old Ladies Home to gain points for her organization and her reaction to the women in the home.

The Old Ladies' Home was a large wooden structure just east of the Jackson Zoo.  My grandmother was a contemporary of Miss Welty but a few years older.  My father's mother, she was deeply involved in the Girl Scouts most of her life, and in middle age, she and a group of women she knew became very involved in helping with the Old Ladies' Home.  As time passed, the City of Jackson became less and less interested in maintaining the Old Ladies' home, so it fell on private citizens to help maintain it and provide for the residents.  

Eventually, it became really difficult to maintain the old wooden structure, and only a few residents left living there, as most people had begun using nursing homes rather than the Old Ladies' Home.  Since I was on the board of the Zoo, she asked me to help facilitate giving the land and the building to the Zoo.  I told her we didn't really need the extra five acres (and another old building to maintain), but as the City of Jackson ultimately owned both properties, I felt certain there was a way to make it happen.


Sometimes, it's hard for me to read Welty's stories from an academic viewpoint because her subject matter seems so very familiar.  She wasn't family or anything, but it's really close.  It wasn't hard to imagine my mother or grandmother as Marian, the protagonist in this story, as both had stories about visiting the residents at the Old Ladies Home, as I'm sure Miss Welty did herself.

An avid gardener, she creatively includes her beloved plants in nearly all her stories.  For this story, she mentions cineraria as a small potted plant her antagonist brings as a gift for the ladies at the Old Lady's Home.  Sometimes called "climbing fig," you see cineraria in many Mississippi gardens.

Put on by the Mississippi Archives and History and the Eudora Welty Foundation, I'm really enjoying these weekly zoom sessions to discuss the works of Eudora Welty.  Many thanks to Catherine Freis for telling me about it.  

Sunday, January 21, 2024

A Memory : A Curtian Of Green

Reading "A Memory" from Eudora Welty's "A Curtain of Green," it occurs to me that, although she never mentions it, the lake she's talking about must be Livingston Lake across from the Jackson Zoo.  She describes it perfectly with the beaches of sand trucked into Jackson to cover the natural mud bottom of the lake.  

She talks about the pavilions, painted white, that circle the shore.  There was no Pearl River Reservoir in her youth and no Lake Hico.  Neither of them brought in sand to make a beach anyway.  It had to be Livingston late.  

That happens a lot when people from here read Eudora Welty; they'll run across a bit that suddenly starts to sound familiar, and then a smile of recognition comes to the reader.  "I know this place."  

Friday, January 19, 2024

Washing Our Feet

Like many cities in the South, by 1963, Jackson, Mississippi, closed all of its public swimming pools rather than integrate them as required by the Civil Rights Act.  The city argued that closing the facilities didn't violate the Civil Rights Act because closing the facilities impacted both races equally.  The Supreme Court upheld this view.

In 1969, Fred Rogers's television program, "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood," had a huge impact nationally but still had a very small budget.  Realizing the impact his program had on people, Rogers wanted to say something positive about integration, but since his program was for small children, he didn't want to do it in a confrontational way, and he needed it to not cost very much money to produce.

In "Mr Rogers Neighborhood," actors portrayed the characters children might recognize in their neighborhood.  They were postal workers, police officers, shopkeepers, handymen, and others.  In May 1969, as the issue of integration and public swimming pools grew, Rogers had an idea for a segment involving Officer Clemmons.


Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Fran├žois Clemmons was a black singer.  By the time he began working for Fred Rogers, he had spent time singing in the Harlem Spiritual Choir and the Metropolitan Opera.  Fred Rogers knew Clemmons was a gay man but hired him anyway for his program, a move that was, by itself, very controversial at the time, especially considering that Rogers was an ordained minister.  Clemmons played the neighborhood policeman, which was somewhat controversial as Mr. Roger's Neighborhood appeared to be white.

Without making any sort of confrontational statement, Rogers thought that Mr Rogers and Officer Clemmons could take off their shoes and dip their feet in a cool plastic wading pool together on a hot summer day.  The taking off or changing of shoes was often used to represent a time of relaxation or intimacy, a letting down of defenses, on the program, as Mr Rogers changed his leather "work shoes" to cloth loafers to begin every show.

Before coming to television, Fred Rogers was a minister.  In the Christian faith, the idea of washing one's feet has a deep spiritual meaning, one he hoped would be evident to adults watching the episode.  For children, he hoped to gently instill the idea that black men and white men could swim together and be friends with nothing to worry about.  When the two finished washing their feet and quietly talking, they shared a towel to dry their feet, reinforcing the "washing of feet" theme while also making it evident that sharing a swim or a towel wasn't dangerous.  He feared that hearing adults argue about integrating swimming pools might make children afraid of it, so this was his gentle means to show them there was nothing to worry about.  

In Mississippi, where much of the argument over integrated pools originated, children like me never saw this episode when it first aired because the Mississippi legislature refused to fund public broadcasting for fear it would spread a communist, race-mixing message, even though the funds for it had already come down from the federal government.  (Sound familiar?)  It wasn't until late in 1969 when the Mississippi Legislature voted to create the Mississippi Public Broadcasting System, which wouldn't go into effect until 1970, almost a year after the pool episode of Mr. Rogers.

In 1993, when Clemmons made his final appearance on Mr Rogers Neighborhood, Rogers and Clemmons recreated the pool scene, where they sang "There Are Many Ways to Say I Love You" together.  After soaking their feet together, Rogers used a towel to dry his own feet and then used the same towel to dry Clemmons' feet, mimicking the moment in Christ's life when he washed the feet of the apostles.   

Fred Rogers understood that gestures are often a far better way to teach than words.  Trying to mend the wounds of the world in the minds of children, he invoked a gesture he knew well from the life of Christ.  Humility creates an environment that breeds love.


Thursday, January 18, 2024

Lamar Disco

 Stage and dance floor, Lamar Theater/Disco, Downtown Jackson, 1979



Monday, January 8, 2024

They Leave Home

 We bring them home.  We raise them up.  We fill them up with as much spirit and love and learning as we can possibly find.  One day, you realize their home isn't big enough for them anymore.  All those qualities you tried so hard to put them are greater than the place they grew up can hold.  

The true cost of keeping Mississippi last at everything, and all the stubborn unwillingness to change, and all the blaming of the wrong people is just this: we lose our children.  We grew them to be too large to fit in the world we created for them.  

My words float out in the air in the hopes that they'll land somewhere that will make a difference.  It's all I can do.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Secrets in the East

I’ve been delaying working on this for a few days.  Sometimes, what I have to say makes me uncomfortable.

My father had eight children. Four were human: my two brothers, my sister, and me; four were not human: Missco, Mllsaps, Trustmark, and St Dominic’s. He tried his best to balance his time between us, but sometimes, living things are difficult to balance.  In the five or six years before his death, I would regularly meet my father and his office for a drink after work. He alone understood how dangerously unhappy I was and blindly helped me search for the solution neither of us could see.  On those nights alone with my father in his office, he told me many things as he reflected back on my own history and the history of my city.   

One day, not long before he died, he told me that he had searched as far into the west as he could see to remove anything that might be a danger to his children in the future, but he failed to look very far into the east. Anyone who grew up in a prosperous and successful and growing Jackson and then expected that to continue in their lives probably understands what he meant. Nobody expected the city to die. We were doing great, but we didn’t look into the east.

I always knew that my dad kept secrets.  I also knew that he kept these secrets because if he didn't, somebody would get hurt, and that made me sad for him.  What happened to Jackson, why it grew so rapidly, then broke and started to shrink, is a story he was deeply involved in.  Some of it he told me, and some of it he kept secret. 

To understand what happened to Jackson, you have to understand what happened in 1969 and 1970 when nearly half the white students abandoned the Jackson Public Schools and started something else.  I wanted to resolve, in my own mind, what his role was in all this.  He told me a few things through the years, but I wanted to validate what he told me through other sources.  I wanted to see his role in what happened to Jackson the way other people saw it.

My dad was in the school business.  Even if he weren’t in the school business, he would have been right in the middle of all this because that’s how he lived, trying to build his community.  He told me many things, but there were many more I had to find out on my own.  

I had dinner with my sister this weekend.  There are things in my universe where she really is the only person alive who can understand what I’m saying.  After everyone else had left, she waited with me for my Uber to arrive.  I talked to her about how I’ve spent over twenty-five years digging deeply and researching what happened to Jackson, our home.  I always felt like, because of who our family was and because of who I was, I might be in a fairly unique position to understand what went on here, why, and what the results were.

There’s been so much written about what happened in Jackson and in Mississippi during the “civil rights era.”  It’s become this really complex mosaic of different points of view and different perspectives, and I’ve tried to consume it all, to try and understand what happened in a way that satisfied my own mind.  Doing this for so long, I’ve cultivated a pretty substantial body of knowledge.

I told my sister I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with all this history I’d accumulated.  I could write a scathing tell-all that exposes all the secrets of Jackson’s society and its racist underbelly, but the story was so much more complicated than that, but even if it weren’t more complicated than that, even if it were just the story of a bunch of unreconstructed racists screwing things up, nearly all those guys are dead, and the ones who aren’t dead are in a memory care facility now.  There’s nothing I could write that could bring anybody justice, and there’s nothing I could write that would change the past or change the future.  Most of these guys are dead, but their children aren’t; their grandchildren and, in some cases, their great-grandchildren are still very much with us, still very much a part of Jackson.  Did I want to be the guy who put down in a book that somebody’s beloved Pop-pop did something horrible long before they were born?  

I still want to tell this story, but I have to be careful and be gentle with the memories people have of the people who lived here.  I have to try not to be a hypocrite here because I have already said some pretty rough things about Ross Barnett and Alan C Thompson, and I very much know their families and descendants, but I’m trying to make allowances for people whose histories are already part of public discourse, and people (like Barnett and Thompson) who made a particular effort to make things difficult.

That being said, in my studies, I’ve found that some of the people everyone assumes were the villains might not be.  My entire life, I’ve heard people from every angle blame what happened in Jackson on Billy Simmons and the Citizen’s Council.  I can’t posit that Billy was anything like a good guy.  He said, wrote, and broadcast some of the most vile racist stuff that I’ve ever been exposed to.  He was pretty bad, but If you look at the number of kids who ended up enrolled at the three Jackson Citizen’s Council Schools and the fact that they were out of business by 1981, you can’t really say they caused the problem.  There just weren’t enough kids in those schools to account for the nearly 50% drop in white student participation in Jackson Public Schools, and even if they were, they were out of business before the first class of kids who had never been in public schools graduated.

In 1981, former Nixon Aide and lifelong republican operative Lee Atwater was recorded as saying: 

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “N____r, n____r, n____r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n____r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N____r, n____r.”

Here, he lays out the infamous “Southern Strategy” pretty plainly.  It was never more relevant than in 1969 and 1970 in Jackson, Mississippi.  There were guys who believed everything Billy Simmons believed but didn’t like the way he said it.  In their minds, as long as you didn’t say “N____r, n____r, n____r” then you were in the clear, even if that’s what you were thinking.  These guys wanted schools that ticked all the boxes that the Citizen’s Council schools ticked but without being affiliated with the Citizen’s Council.  They managed to introduce class into this gumbo of race, class, and gender.  They considered themselves in one class and Billy Simmons and all his Citizens Council pals in another.  I have a problem with that.  Billy Simmons had the courage to tell us what he was.  These guys who were the same thing but tried to tell us they were something different were less of a man than Billy, in my opinion.  I can’t say that any of the things he believed were right or decent, but he had enough respect for other people that he would at least be honest and upfront about it and not hide it behind dog-whistle words like what Atwater was talking about.  

One of my fraternity brothers, a man by the name of Dick Wilson, tried to tell me not to judge Simmons too quickly.  “He’s a lot smarter than people realize,” Dick told me.  It took me a while to understand what Dick was saying, but he was right, Billy Simmons was kind of a genius.  You can look at his library now at the Fairview and see evidence of this.  What might tempt a guy with such a vast intellect down such dark avenues is something I don’t understand, but I’d really like to.  I’m fascinated by his story.

The influence of Kappa Alpha Order is waning in the world, and I think that’s probably for the best.  In 1969, it was at its peak.   When I look at the names of the men who organized and funded these non-citizens-council segregation academies in Jackson, a good two-thirds of them were KAs, mostly from Ole Miss.  We’ll be judged for that, and I think that’s fair.  These guys were community and business leaders; they could have said, “Let’s take all this money and effort and dump it into the public schools, and the Justice Department be damned!” but they didn’t. 

In 1969, most of these guys considered themselves at war, not with black Mississippians, but with the federal government.  Kirby Walker, superintendent of Jackson Public Schools, had a plan to gradually integrate our schools.  In interview after interview, he was proud of the fact that he had introduced black students into every school without incident.  I honestly think Mayor Thompson wanted a big, violent confrontation like what happened in Oxford.  He kept buying equipment and building up his forces to be ready for it, but it never happened.  

In the Alexander v Holmes County decision, the court decided that “justice delayed, is justice denied” and ordered the Mississippi schools to be racially balanced immediately. And in some cases, like Jackson Public Schools, they put the Justice Department in charge of it.  Kirby Walker spent ten years out of a thirty-year career trying to desegregate Jackson Public Schools.  He believed he had done a good job, only to have it torn from him and given to Washington Bureocrats.  In 1969, he retired rather than serve under the federal Department of Health Education and Welfare.  Upon retiring, he told my grandfather to say to my father, “Tell Jim to get those boys into private schools.  I just don’t know what’s going to happen with Jackson Public Schools.”  

That caused a bit of panic in my family.  Both my mother and father were products of the Jackson Public Schools.  They were our best and most profitable customer, and even with Dr. Walker retiring, my dad had many friends who still worked at Jackson Public Schools.  At the same time, nearly everyone he knew from Ole Miss was sending their children to either JA or Prep, and his fraternity brothers served on every board.  There was a time when four members of the Jackson Prep board of trustees had consecutively been the president of the Ole Miss Chapter of Kappa Alpha after my father.  For good or for evil, in the second half of the twentieth century, we got mixed up in everything that happened in Mississippi.

Announcing that the Justice Department was taking over our schools caused a full-on panic.  In it, with pressure from his own father and his father’s friends, I think my dad also panicked.  In his mind, sending us to St. Andrews quieted the voices, yelling that he had to do something while not giving in to the pressure to join a “segregation academy.”  Without a doubt, there were parents who were sending their kids to St. Andrews because it was almost entirely white, but there were also parents who sent their kids to St. Andrews precisely because it wasn’t entirely white.

There were heroes in those days, although we don’t talk about it very much.  Andy Mullins couldn’t have been much older than twenty-five or twenty-six when he fought off efforts from without and from within to force St. Andrews to join the Mississippi Private School Association, so boys at St. Andrews wouldn’t have to worry about playing football against any black boys.  Andy went on to fight a number of important battles, but that one must have been pretty tough, considering how young he was and how uncertain the times were.  As I understand it, St. Andrews still plays in the league he got us into.

I’ve made no secret about how much I fought David Hicks when I was at St. Andrews, but there’s something important I need to say about him.  David pretty quickly assessed the situation in Jackson and what was going on with the other schools almost as soon as he got here.  He very firmly drew a line in the sand and said, “This is what they’re about, and this is what we’re about.  Don’t ever get it confused.”  The school still operates under that principle today.  

In 1950, Jackson had one of the most successful and friendliest public schools in America (so long as you were white.)  By 1970, nearly half the white students in Jackson Public Schools abandoned it rather than stay and be a part of the Justice Department's efforts to balance the school’s population racially.  They left, and they never went back.  People who couldn’t afford to keep sending their kids to private schools left the city.

I often think about what would have happened if the scores of families who left Jackson Public School had banded together and decided they were going to make the best of whatever the Justice Department had in mind.  I think, within just a few years, they would have realized that they could handle this, and with a strong public school that everybody supported, there never would have been the massive white flight that decimated Jackson.  There were efforts from several prominent private school educators in the 80s and 90s who returned to the public schools and tried to undo the harm they had done.

Jesus talks to us about shifting sands.  There’s even a pretty great song about it.  Mississippi twice built its house on shifting sands.  Once, when we started importing people from another part of the world to serve as slaves here, and then again, when we decided that we had to keep these former slaves under our thumb and forever separate from us socially and politically after slavery ended.  What Jesus said about building a house on the shifting sands was true; our foundations came tumbling down.

None of the people in this story meant to choose the wrong thing.  That choice was made decades before they were born.  The people in this story were trying to navigate the world as it was left to them.  Their biggest sin was not questioning the assumptions they were working under.

In the story of what happened in Jackson, there were bad actors, that’s for sure.  Because I’ve been doggedly pursuing this story for thirty years, I’ve uncovered a lot of them, even the ones my father tried to keep hidden from me.    Most people weren’t bad actors, though.  Most were regular people trying to do the best they could for their families during a time when nothing made much sense, not the world they knew before and not the world laid out before them.  Faced with a very uncertain future, a lot of them just panicked.  Moving their kids out of the public schools into a private school seemed like the safe thing to do, and when your children are involved, nearly everyone wants the safe thing to do.

So, here we are.  Fifty years later, and I’m keeping the same secrets my father kept.  Maybe that’s my legacy.  Maybe that’s what he was trying to keep me away from.  What I know is this:  there were bad men.  There were many painful and ignorant and short-sighted things–but most people were good.  They may have been short-sighted or misguided by our tangled and snarled culture, but they all wanted something better for their children, even if what they were afraid of wasn’t even real.  

Jackson survived.  It just moved to Madison, Brandon, Pearl, and Clinton.  The city itself sits like a scar on the landscape.  A reminder of the good we failed to do.  I wanted to know what happened to my city.  I wanted to know if my father or I were culpable for what happened.  I think he was, and I am, but so is everyone else.  People use the word “simple” to describe Mississippi.  “We’re simple.”  “We have simple minds.”  “We have simple lives.”  None of that is true.  There’s nothing simple about living here or about being born here.  Our history is a mass of rose thorns, kudzu, shards of broken stained glass from churches where no one meets anymore, cornbread, and piercing sunlight.  It’s really hard to make any sense of it unless you were brought up in it.  Look as far as you can to the West, but look to the East too, when you can, and sometimes decide to keep secrets.



Monday, October 9, 2023

Count Ohno and the Imaginary Dog

Tom Cotton was at work.  At sixty-four, he had enough life savings to last him about eleven months, so he figured he’d be working till the day he died.  He didn’t mind work.  He rather liked it.  If he died working, he wouldn’t mind.  He just wished that being a DJ was as good a job today as it was thirty years ago.  He thought a lot about the fact that, in a couple of years, he’d be heading into a new century, having dedicated his life to a job nobody really cared much about anymore.  

Everybody thought Tom used a made-up name for the radio, but Cotton was the name of his ancestors.  The only thing Tom made up for the radio was Wonder Boy, the imaginary dog that was the butt of most of his jokes.   Tom was the top morning man in central Mississippi for twenty years until a young fella named Mateer took over that spot in the eighties.  Mateer played Top Forty at a time when MTV on cable television had reignited young people’s interest in top-forty music.  

Tom preferred to pick his own music.  Some country, some top forty, with a focus on singers familiar to Mississippi, Bobby Gentry especially.  He’d been in radio long enough to know how playlist services worked; he just preferred to use his own.  In his current job, he gave out the station ID and the time before playing the news over the wire.  When he got to work, he played the day’s recording of the Rush Limbaugh show.  His station played Limbaugh twice a day, once live during the day and once recorded during his shift.  Nearly every day, he received a call from somebody who thought they were talking to Rush.  Sometimes, Tom would talk to them.  He’d done talk radio before, and it was nice having somebody to talk to.  After Rush, he played Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell until four in the morning, when he’d play the recorded playlist until his replacement came at 6:00 a.m.  Sometimes, he’d record commercials and voice-overs, which gave him a little extra money.  

As the night wore on, Tom’s job got quieter and quieter.  When he first started working in radio, the studio was on the first floor of the Lamar Life Building.  A glass window let passers-by look into the studio and see Tom at work and try to catch a glimpse of Boy Wonder, who Tom always said was outside doing his business and would be back soon.  There was some discussion in Jackson about whether Boy Wonder was a real dog or imaginary.  Tom never let on what he knew.  His current studio is in rented office space on the west side of Interstate 55, across from Devilla Plaza on the east.  He sat between the car dealerships and the Chinese restaurants.  When he broadcast from the Lamar Life Building, everybody knew where he was.  Now, nobody cares.

Sometimes, when it got very slow at work, Tom would answer fan mail sent to Count Ohno Notagain.  When Tom worked for one of the top media companies in Mississippi, they had offices and radio studios in the Lamar Life Building and an independent television station a few blocks away on Commerce Street.  

There were two television stations in that part of town.  One was the fabled WLBT, one of Mississippi’s oldest television stations and the only one in the country ever to lose its license for associating with too many racists.  WLBT was an NBC affiliate, but WLFB was independent.  Like most independent television stations, they survived by broadcasting syndicated programs, Gilligan's Island, Star Trek, The Brady Bunch, etc, and packages of old movies.  

Starting in 1964, WLFB signed a contract to offer “Shock Theater.” on Saturday nights.  ScreenGems, the television arm of Columbia Pictures, assembled a package of fifty-two horror films made before 1942.  Most were by Universal, but it also included King Kong, Son of Kong, The Body Snatchers, and I Walked With A Zombie from RKO.  

Most of the stations that carried the Shock Theater package put together a program where a host, sometimes given a creepy costume like a character in one of the movies, would introduce The Mummy’s Hand, Monster on Campus, or House of Frankenstein, and then again lead either into or out of commercial breaks.  

The station manager asked Tom if he wanted to do a voice-over to introduce the movies, but Tom decided he loved the idea and wanted to do more.  He asked if he could use the studio space where they shot commercials and do a program like they had in the bigger cities with Zacherly, Sir Graves Ghoulie, and others.  Tom still owned his father’s 130-acre farm near Learned, Mississippi, and there he had some woodworking tools he was pretty good with.  He made a coffin out of pine boards and stood it upright on a base with locking casters.  He could stand inside and open the coffin lid like a door to start the show.  He built a “mad scientist table,” also on casters, which he decorated with test tubes and beakers from Mississippi School Supply and blinking light bulbs he got from Irby Electric.  He built a throne with locking casters on the feet and decorated it with plastic Halloween skulls.  These three props would be stored in a corner until Saturday nights when Tom would roll them into place with a clip-on mic that dragged the chord behind, and he mostly adlibbed his lines, although he spent most of the week trying to figure out what he would say.  Boy Wonder, the imaginary dog, was replaced by Bubbles The Blob, played by his wife, crouching down and covering herself with several layers of plastic sheeting.

Mississippi Monster Matinee was the surprise hit of the sixties and seventies.  WLFB even managed to license it to stations in the Delta and the Golden Triangle.  School children wrote letters to Count Ohno Notagain and drew pictures of him and bubbles.  For a costume, Tom found an old Tuxcedo at the Goodwill Store.  It had some dry rot at some of the seams, but he was going to dirty it up anyway.  By thirty-five, he still had a full head of hair, but it was already dead white.  On a trip to New Orleans, he visited a magic shop and costume shop, where he bought a white handlebar mustache, a white goatee beard, and white mutton chop sideburns.  A little greasepaint gave him circles under the eyes and thin black lips, and that became Count Ohno.  Tom joked that he looked like Colonel Sanders in a Dracula costume, but the look was memorable, and his young fans loved it.

During the sixties and seventies, Count Ohno made appearances at the Arts Festival in Jackson and the State Fair.  For people of a certain age, Count Ohno was a bigger star than Doc Severson, George Jones, or any of the other acts the grownups brought in.  Eventually, Tom cleared it with his station manager to start a Count Ohno Notagain Fan Club.  The station always figured the show was six months from failing, so they let him do it as long as he paid the expenses.  He rented out a PO box at the downtown post office in the Federal Court House and started telling kids an address where they could write to him.  For five dollars, they could join the Count Ohno Fan Club and receive an official Membership Card, a signed 8 x 10 photograph of the Count, and a personal letter written by the count and slobbered on by bubbles, the blob.

As the seventies wore on, Screen Gems quit offering the Shock Theater, but there were other packages, including one that had early Ray Harryhausen films, The Giant Claw, some Hammer Horror, and Tom’s favorite, giant monster movies from Japan.  One night, Tom put on a lab coat, some thick glasses, and a heavy accent to become Professor Tojo Ohno, who talked about how horrible Godzilla and Ghidora were for Japan.  He thought it was incredibly funny, and so did his wife, but an irate German woman called the station to complain about the horribly racist portrayal of our Japanese Allies Tojo Ohno was, so Tom decided not to ever play him again.  It was just the one person who complained, but Tom was like that.  He never wanted to offend anybody.

When he started playing Count Ohno, Tom had to draw on the bags under his eyes and the wrinkles on his forehead.  He has all these naturally now, but he still draws them in as part of the ritual of getting into character.  Of all the things Tom had been, of all the parts he played in live, being Count Ohno was the most fun.

The station canceled the Mississippi Monster Movie Matinee by 1985, but Count Ohno Notagain still made convention appearances and command performances at Halloween parties at local nightclubs, like Hal and Mals.  He was always surprised at how many kids listened to his morning show and then watched him on television but never realized he was both people.  Tom never admitted to fans that Count Ohno was actually Tom Cotton, the radio DJ.  It was well into the twenty-first century before the secret made its way to his many fans.

For the Monster Movie project and other programs Tom came up with, he was often left to sell advertising himself if he wanted the show to go on.  Tom had a few places he could always count on for an ad.  BeBop Record Shop, The Little Big Store, and JL Jones Furniture were all regulars.  He sold ads to Mac Bailey Fine Cars in Pearl, where your job was your credit.  Bailey had a pretty active racket selling late-model used cars in crappy condition to desperate people on a weekly payment plan they couldn’t afford; then, after several weeks of struggling to keep up with the weekly payments, he would repossess the car and sell it again.  Some of his better cars were sold six or seven times this way before they quit working.

Tom could always count on Clarance Wong of Wong’s Authentic Chinese Kitchen and Lounge.  Wong was authentically Korean, but nobody cared.  His name wasn't Clarance or Wong either, but that’s what they put on his immigration papers, and he always got a kick out of the fact that he tricked the government.  Wong had a menu with almost thirty choices on it, nearly all made with the same ten ingredients, but your choice of protein.  Wong built up quite a reputation and quite a business over the years.  He wanted very much to leave it to the daughter he loved so much, but she decided to get her MD at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and now she’s an anesthesiologist and not a very good cook.  

Tom’s wife died about six years ago.  He fell in love with her in Junior High School and never thought about another woman.  His father left him a little farm up around Learned with a house on it.  He and his wife lived there.  She had a garden and taught third grade in Raymond.  Tom always fancied himself a farmer.  His father was, and he grew up on that little farm helping his father with the beans and corn.  Farming didn’t pay what it used to, and small farms never paid much.  Once Tom got into the radio business, he eventually gave up on agriculture.  He still lives in the house now, but he rents most of the land out to a guy who grows Christmas trees.  

For a while, Tom served in the Mississippi House of Representatives.  His wife taught school, and he still worked in radio to pay the bills, but when the house was in session, he’d go from his desk in the radio studio to his desk on the House floor and do the people’s business.   As white people moved out of rural Hinds County, districts were redrawn to preserve white majorities for a while, but ultimately, Tom’s district began looking for black candidates, so he retired from the house.  He still paid close attention to every bill that passed through the Mississippi House Of Representatives, even though he couldn’t do much about it.  

As Mississippi raced toward the twenty-first century, Tom felt like his best days were behind him.  Most people remembered him for things he didn’t really do anymore, at least not professionally.  At least two generations of Mississippians grew up listening to him on the radio and watching him on television, but they were becoming parents themselves now, and fond memories of Boy Wonder, the imaginary dog, and Count Ohno doesn’t pay the bills.  What people do because they love it and what people do so they can feed their progeny are usually two different things.

When six o’clock comes along, Tom will drive back to Learned.  He’ll make a cup of coffee and sit on his porch and watch the sun rise over the horizon where Jackson, the State Capitol, the Lamar Life Building, and his wife’s grave lay.  If you can measure a man by his memories, Tom Cotton is one of the richest men in Hinds County.  For tens of thousands of Mississippians, Boy Wonder sits curled up at Tom’s feet.  They can see him, even if Tom can’t.    Count Ohno’s throne sits in the barn, under a tarp, ready for the next show.  Until next time, my ghoulies.  Sleep tight!  If you dare! Ha,ha,ha,ha,ha!


Monday, September 4, 2023

The Pornographic Ring of Hell

 When Lance Goss held auditions for a new play, it was his custom to tell the story of the play briefly for the students wishing to audition so they would know what their characters were up to.  When he held auditions for the Williams play “Orpheus Descending,” he told both the story of the play and the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, on which the play is based.  

“The myth of Orpheus,” he said, “was one of galloping romance.”  Lance liked adjectives with a flair.  In studying the Williams play, the myth, and the plays and poems that tell the story of the myth, I learned that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was what Joseph Campbell called a monomyth, or Jung’s archetypal unimyth.  It was a story repeated in several different and divergent cultures and might have meaning deeper than what the bare facts of the story might suggest.  

To my way of thinking, you could explain why this story appeared in so many different cultures because when someone they care about is in jeopardy, young men often feel compelled to travel into the jaws of peril and rescue their lady fair.  The story of Orpheus became the blueprint for many tales of the knight-errant and a model for generations of young men with a feeling for galloping romance.

When I was young but still a man, some friends called me le Dauphin–the heir apparent.  I’m sure my behavior warranted it.  Because of my father’s place in society and my physical size, I felt like I could talk to grown men in any way I wanted, as long as I was polite and telling the truth.  When I was just nineteen, this led me to ask well-known educators why they built a school with nothing but white kids in it.  As long as I was doing it for the right reasons, I felt like I could talk to anyone like an equal because, at the end of the day, I could easily hold them over my head and throw them a ways.   I was pretty much a jerk.

There came a time when I found myself looking for ways to help a guy who I didn’t know very well because I had promised his child that I would.  That’s really about the extent of it.  Not really knowing how to help him, I cast a wide net, hoping to catch ideas.  One of the fish I caught in my net was a man named Dewey Edwards.  Edwards traveled regularly in the circles I needed help from.  He also knew the man I was trying to help.  Not knowing where else to turn, I decided he was elected, and I called him asking for a meeting.

I had a card up my sleeve where Dewey Edwards was concerned.  Whatever he had done with his life since then, Dewey Edwards was in my father’s class at Central High School.  In Junior High, my father talked Edwards into getting baptized and even attending a few Methodist Youth Fellowship meetings.  Whatever Edwards got up to before or since, my father once made an effort to save his soul, and even though it didn’t seem to take, Edwards remembered it.

In Mississippi, pornography, prostitution, methamphetamines, topless dancing, motorcycles, and gambling all functioned on the same level of society.  Originally, bootleg alcohol occupied the space where methamphetamines eventually went, but booze was legal now, and these guys had to figure out a way to make a living, so meth became a thing.  

Dewey Edwards was the king of pornography in Mississippi.  In the days before the internet, pornography was a physical product, like a hat or a chair.  You had to go somewhere to purchase it.  Edwards owned three adult “book stores” in Jackson and a pornographic distributorship that supplied all the pornographic retailers in the state, mainly on the Gulf Coast.  Edwards was a pretty good businessman and built an absolute empire out of this.  

His “bookstores” sold a lot more than books.  They had paperbacks with filthy storylines and racks and racks of dirty magazines wrapped in plastic, so you couldn’t get a peek without buying first. He also had racks and racks of what they called “marital aids” to avoid trouble with the censors, but were really sex toys, shelves and racks of sex toys of every description, all that traveled through his warehouse in the southwest part of downtown Jackson.  He also dabbled in what some people called “head-gear,” which was pipes, bongs, papers, and things associated with the smoking of marijuana. Still, his bread and butter was good old American pornography (made in Sweden.)    

This was in the late eighties.  By the end of the eighties, an engineer at Compuserve developed what he called the “gif.” Graphics Interchange Format was an algorithm that allowed your computer to store and display graphic images.  The first ones were limited to sixteen colors, but the format grew and grew.  A few years after my encounter with Edwards, I spent a great deal of time with a girl named Sue Ellen, who sat with me as I scrolled through the exciting new GIF forum on Compuserve and looked at the names of all the different GIF images you could download.  One Of these files had a particularly salacious name.  Sue Ellen said, “What is that!?” with a giggle.  

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Let’s find out.” and I clicked it.  After fifteen minutes of downloading, we had a small, black-and-white, but very clearly pornographic image on my computer screen. Sue Ellen laughed loudly.  We didn’t know it, but we witnessed what would soon drive guys like Dewey Edwards out of business or into another business altogether.  Getting pornography at home, silently and privately, meant nobody would ever again have to travel downtown to a seedy bookstore with questionable hygiene to purchase pornography.  

The City of Jackson and the State of Mississippi made a couple of attempts at running Dewey Edwards out of business.  There was no shortage of money in what Edwards did for a living, so he hired the best lawyers he could find–that would have him for a client.  In this case, that meant Sebastian Moore and a young Bobby DeLaughter in the Magnum PI Moustache phase of his life.  For a while, Bobby was a personal hero of mine.  For a while, the whole world saw him that way–and then he screwed that up.  Ultimately, Edwards always found a way to make the First Amendment protect his livelihood, and DeLaughter got his name in the papers for the first of many times.  

When I called to ask Mr. Edwards for a meeting, I led with, “You might know my father.”  I didn’t know where he currently stood with baptism and Methodism, but I gambled that he’d remember my father’s efforts and receive me kindly.  It worked.  He invited me to his office, in the same building as his wholesale operation, in a part of downtown I didn’t visit very often.

I parked my Ford LTD next to an enormous, copper-colored Caddilac.  I assumed it was his.  I laughed to myself, “Boy, you’re about to walk into a whole warehouse full of dildos.” and so I was.  

I hoped to enter quietly and, exit quietly and finish my entire business in less than twenty minutes.  Dewey Edwards had other ideas.  I don’t know how often he had visitors from my side of town, but he seemed really pleased to have the son of the man who tried to baptize him walking into his kingdom, and he was intent on showing me the entire thing—starting with the warehouse.  

Right off the bat, we passed an entire palette of plastic phalluses with a belt attached.  I assume the idea was to wear the belt around your waist and the phallus where they would normally go, but I wasn’t having any of that.  It might be funny if you wore it on your head like a unicorn, though.

An old black man was resting on a metal stool in this dimly lit pornographic dungeon.  We were introduced, and he shook my hand, saying, “Nice to meet you, Mr. Cameron.”  “Call me Boyd.” I insisted.  It was traditional in Mississippi for black men his age to call white men my age “Mr. Last Name” and sometimes “Mr. Fist Name,” but I really wanted to be just “Boyd” and leave it at that.  Also, there was the issue of Africans of a certain age in Mississippi who heard my name as “Campbell” but pronounced it as “Cameron.”  I’ve never devised a workable theory as to why this happened.  I’m sure there was a world of cultural clues and takes on our twisted history in it, but I never understood it.

Mr. Edwards continued the tour, showing me boxes and boxes of dirty magazines in antiseptic plastic bags and three different types of blow-up dolls, with their plastic faces visible through cellophane windows cut into their display box.  

There was a showroom of sorts, with a display of perhaps twenty plastic devices designed to be inserted into the human body.  Some were designed to look like human organs, others with more abstract designs, some with whimsical faces on one end.  He also had racks of his latest big money maker, pornographic VHS video tapes.  He planned to turn two of his stores into a video rental business featuring both pornographic and regular video tapes.  He was in a race to open the first video rental place in Mississippi.  Video Library, in the Deville shopping center, beat him by just a few weeks.  

In his office, he told me stories about going to Central High School and how great Jackson used to be.  All of the air-conditioned rooms in his building were covered in cheap seventies woodgrain plywood.  I felt like I wasn’t making any progress at all on the issue I’d made the meeting for, and I was pretty anxious to get out of there.  I was polite enough to act like I was very impressed with his warehouse full of dildos, but, in reality, I knew I was where I shouldn’t be and was anxious to go home.  I’d traveled into the pornographic layer of hell and even met with Hades himself but found nothing there to help Eurydice.  My mission was a failure.

Driving home, I looked back to see if anyone had followed me to the mouth of Hell, but I was alone.  I never saw Dewey Edwards again.  We didn’t travel much in the same circles.  My boldness gained me nothing, but I’d seen things I never thought I would, so maybe that was the point.  


Monday, August 28, 2023

UMMC Urban Myths

For quite a while now, I’ve been collecting the urban legends that emanate from students and employees at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.  Now that I live next door, I’m looking for some new ones.  Urban legends are similar to myths.  They tell a story that’s usually related to something historical or factual but doesn’t have to be, and the story reflects some sort of moral value, as interpreted by the culture the story comes from.  They are cautionary tales that are disguised to not look like cautionary tales.

Being told in Mississippi by Mississippians, there’s some effort to make the stories more vivid, more interesting, and more local than, say, stories from the University of Pennsylvania Medical College, no offense to Pennsylvanians.  Stories generated in Mississippi will have our unique flavor and perspective on things like race, sexuality, gender, religion, and people from Mississippi State University.

I’ve been doing this for around forty years, and there are a lot of stories.  These are the categories I’ve organized them with.  

Stories about Cadavers:  Like the Greeks, UMMC students are obsessed with the moral implications of death, the relations between the dead and the living, and the influence of living morality on the dead body.   Stories about cadavers often have the elements of ghost stories but are couched in a medical scenario to give them extra vitality and credence.

Stories about Swelling and Exploding Cysts:  What goes into the body must come out of the body, and what more interesting way to come out of the body is there than exploding cysts?  Often, these stories involve elements of new ties/shirts/suits that are destroyed by detritus shooting out of a cyst.  These are often tales of how dedicated a young doctor might be who sacrifice his new tie or designer glasses to open the cyst, often on some fat woman’s taint.

Stories about Catheters:  The Greeks did this, too.  Stories about the phallus and its misadventures are both the stuff of comedy and morality.  A malfunctioning phallus and what must be done to make it function can encompass all sorts of memes about morality, culture, and body horror.

Stories about Aids:  Although they’re not as prominent now, there was once an entire genre of stories about Aids.  To the myth-maker, aids was not only a disease but a moral judgment against the people who violate the cultural mores about sexuality and gratuitous sexual encounters.  Stories about men, often upstanding citizens, who got aids by cheating on their spouses were common.

Stories about Strippers and Prostitutes:  Much like the aids stories, these are stories about sexual morality and the perils of wanton sexuality.  Strippers and prostitutes make a lot of money, but they end up at the hospital with fatal diseases or gunshot or knife wounds that prove fatal.  These stories are precautions both against using prostitutes and becoming one.

Dumb Mistakes/Darwin Awards:  There may be no greater cautionary tale than “Don’t do dumb things.”  Especially in the South, stories about “y’all watch this” or “y’all hold my beer.” are perfect for urban myths, and their arrival at the hospital with fingers/testicles/teeth/ears/toes blown off make great stories.    

Crime Doesn’t Pay:  Stories about criminals who show up at the hospital after the police or other criminals shoot them are pretty common.  While there’s sometimes a racial element to these stories, they all have moral implications.  If you hadn’t have been doing that, you wouldn’t have ended up here with a gunshot wound.

Because University is a communal experience, they are great places to generate stories, particularly myth-building stories.  Most of the stories I’ve collected about UMMC I can’t reprint here because they’re either really gross, really depressing, and sometimes obviously bigoted.  There are guys who spend their entire lives and careers studying the memes broadcast in stories like these.  It’s a fascinating area of study.


Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Van Cliburn Concert

 In 1978 I was fifteen years old.  It was the first year I ever fully experienced the darkness inside me.  My family fought through an extraordinarily difficult 1977 and survived.  Things were looking up, but my outlook on life lost any hint of sunshine for the first time.

My father was the chairman of the Mississippi Arts Festival, an event designed to raise money and awareness of the proposed art center attached to what was then called the City Auditorium.  My father’s favorite appreciation of art was listening to Hee Haw on channel 12.  He was a big promoter of the idea of bringing arts and culture to Jackson, but he wasn’t the type to spend much time at the opera.

The featured performer for the 1978 Mississippi Arts Festival was Van Cliburn, the celebrated pianist from Shreveport, Louisiana.  He was to give a performance at the City Auditorium and attend a gala reception afterward at the Governor’s Mansion.  My mother wanted very much to attend.  Although he helped arrange the event, my father would have never survived a two-hour classical piano concert awake, and he didn’t much care for that governor, and that governor didn’t much care for him.

My oldest brother had just returned home and was under both legal and medical advice not to go out at night.  My middle brother saw nothing remotely cool in a concert by a guy who looked like Jerry Lee Lewis in a tuxedo.  Having deeply loved the previous Beverly Sills concert, I was anxious for my mother to ask me.  She decided I was old enough, not only for the concert but for the reception afterward.

We had dress circle tickets purchased in the name of The Office Supply Company.  I didn’t have a tuxedo, but I did have a navy blue suit and a red tie.  The concert was fascinating.  Van Cliburn moves like he was animated by Walt Disney.  I was attentive and wrapped in attention the entire concert.

After the concert, Mother asked if I thought we could park behind the Office Supply Company and walk to the Governor’s Mansion.  Since she was the one with the impractical shoes and the one driving, so I figured it was best just to do whatever she suggested.

Inside the Governor’s Mansion, I recognized many faces from church and our neighborhood.  Dick Wilson and Lester Senter stood next to Dick’s father, Baxter.  Bill Goodman had a drink and asked my mother, “Where’s Jim?” with a smirk.  My father’s actual location at home watching television wasn’t a mystery to anyone.  I’m sure there were lots of husbands who wished they’d made the same deal.  

Sunday night in April, the Governor’s mansion was prolific with flowers.  The Governor and his wife stood to the right of Van Cliburn, shaking the hands of those willing to wait in line.  Cliff Finch had hair not unlike Donald Trump.  Both an unnatural color and an unnatural shape.  Deeply tanned, he convinced Mississippi farmers and workers that he was one of them by carrying a lunch box.  He was not.  His wife looked like she’d taken enough pills that we could have performed minor surgery on her without complaint.  We later learned that was most likely the case.  At fifteen, I was already pretty well-versed in the ritual of shaking hands.  This wasn’t my first governor.  

My mother began to work the room.  These were her people, and there was an open bar.  “I want to look at the paintings,” I said as a way of announcing that I was going off on my own.  More than anything, I just wasn’t in the mood for a grown-up party or any kind of party, even though I really loved the concert.  

I found my way into a room to the side of where they had the staging area set up for the party.  It seemed to be used for storage.  In a couple of years, Elise Winter completely remodeled and restored the Governor’s Mansion.  Rumors and tales of the damage they found left by the Finch administration passed around Jackson for years.

I recognized a girl standing by a window as the governor’s daughter.  She was something like two years older than me and held a glass of chilled white wine.  “Do you want one?” she asked.  I was pretty sure she wasn’t supposed to have one, and I was absolutely sure I wasn’t supposed to.  I’d snuck alcohol from parties before, but considering the guest list at this one, I was under some pressure to be good.  She sounded like this was maybe her third glass that night.

“What’s your name?” She asked.  Her hair was unnaturally blonde and sculpted with aquanet and a blow dryer.  Her voice had a cadence that told me we weren’t from the same tribe.

“Alexander,”  I said.  I did that sometimes when I didn’t want to have to explain that my name was Boyd with a “D” and not just “Boy.”  I still do it sometimes.

“Did you go to that thing?” She asked, gesturing toward the Auditorium.  

“Yeah, my dad was a sponsor,”  I said.

“That’s not my kind of music.”  She said and gripped the back of my arm.  “You’re so big.”  She said.  I’d heard that before.  “I can get you a glass of wine or a beer if you want it.”  She said, demonstrating her power and connections.

“Can’t, I’m in training,”  I said.  It was mostly a lie, but if she hadn’t figured out I was just fifteen, I didn’t want to be the one to spoil her delusion.  

Glancing left and right, she moved her hand around to the front of my arm and squeezed my bicep.  Then she leaned in and kissed me.  I could feel her tongue brush against the tip of the cupid’s bow on my top lip.  This, too, felt like a show of power and connections.

I pulled back.  “I’ve got to go check on my ride,”  I said.  Saying that my ride was my mother wasn’t cool, so I left that part out.  After I found my mother, I never saw the governor’s daughter the rest of the night and never spoke to her again the rest of my life.

There were stories about her career at Ole Miss, but I’m sure she was a pretty nice girl.   A few glasses of wine and a really boring party can lead a girl to silly mistakes.  

I didn’t feel like I’d been kissed by a pretty girl at all.  I felt really dark and misunderstood.  I felt like if she had any idea who I was or what I was like, she never would have kissed me.  Sometimes, it’s a lot easier to kiss a stranger.  I experienced that a few times.  It’d be another year before I felt like I had a handle on this being around girls thing.  So much had to happen before that.  Some of it was really dark and painful.  I wasn’t really ready for what life would become.  I’d had a taste of it.  Some of my friends had lost a parent, and I was just beginning to realize that I’d lost my brother, or at least lost the person he was before he got sick.  

Van Cliburn’s career would continue to rise, but I would always associate it with something entirely different.  His was the music that played when I went through one of life’s more difficult doors.  Hiding a pretty girl in one of the rooms didn’t make things much better.




Signs and Omens

 Ken Stribling messaged me last night with corrections about a piece I wrote at 3:00 a.m.  What would I do without friends who can’t sleep either?  

Janie messaged me during coffee hours with some really vital information about an aspect of my Mississippi History project.  If this thing ever comes together, it’ll be due, in large part, to her input and influence.

Nearly all the boys I knew fell in love with Jane at one point or another.  If you ever saw her, you’d know why.  I did, too, but when a girl takes your friend’s heart, there are rules a gentleman must follow, or at least try to.  

I told her that I thought seeing Ruma’s photo at Hal & Mal’s was an omen.  Ruma had been the city attorney at a very young age.  She was an unusually brilliant lawyer and a valuable asset to the city.  A boy I knew loved her more than anything.  When she died so young, a lot of us felt like we lost a limb.  Jackson’s in constant trouble now.  The kind of trouble where the advice of a good lawyer could make a really big difference.  

Ruma loved Mississippi.  She died exploring it.  If I were to meet her in heaven today, I’d have to explain why I let Jackson get as bad as it is.  Maybe that’s what an omen means.  It’s a reminder of where your course lies.

Jane and I were born into a kind of bubble, a gilded age in Mississippi history.  We had very politically and socially active parents at a time when the worst of the Civil Rights stuff had passed, and Jackson’s population was growing at a pace never experienced before.  We had two very strong, locally owned banks.  Our electricity came from a company based here in Jackson.  Our clothes, our shoes, and luggage all came from stores based here in Jackson, where we’d see the owners at parties.  Millsaps was at its peak enrolment, and the academic world was falling over itself trying to copy the success of George Harmon.   The entire medical profession was amazed at the success of a bunch of nuns from Chicago who moved to Mississippi.  William Winter and Ray Mabus were governors–without a scandal in sight.  At certain parties, you were fairly likely to see Willie Morris, Eudora Welty, Michael Rubenstein, and Dale Danks wandering around.  Long-neck beer was a buck at CS’s, Cherokee, and Dutch Bar, and the Jackson Mets were Texas League Champions.  

Bubbles don’t last, though, and when bubbles break, it can break your heart.  The city of Jackson is facing the possibility of their insurance increasing by 300% because they can’t seem to manage their affairs.  My beloved Zoo is valiantly fighting to hold on, but I’m basically watching it die.  Violence in the city is at terrifying levels, and nobody in the city government seems to be taking it seriously–at least not to the level that the situation would seem to warrant, and nobody seems to have answers.  

Her children, my step-children, my nephews, and the children of nearly all my friends are asking if they should stay in Mississippi and will we be hurt if they don’t.  It’s not their job to worry about how we feel if they leave Mississippi; it was our job to make sure Mississippi is a place where they felt like they could grow–and I guess we didn’t do that.  

Some people, like Jane, tried to keep building Jackson and Mississippi a lot harder than I did, and I feel pretty bad about giving up for as long as I did.  I guess I thought maybe I was the problem, and if I stepped out, smarter and better people would take over, and that’d fix everything.  It didn’t.  The bubble around Jackson broke, and we were left naked, looking around and saying, “Oh.  I don’t think I know how to fix this.”

I think my plan was not to be here at sixty still, looking at all this.  I think part of me wishes I’d left this mortal coil when the bubble around Jackson broke.  That was a pretty shitty plan and a cowardly move on my part.  

When I look at Jackson now, I see so many green shoots.  The signs of life and growth are everywhere; we just have to provide the right environment for it to thrive.  There’s nothing that says there can’t be more than one Gilded Age.   Seeing that photo of Ruma reminded me of the path I’m on and energized me to keep pushing.  

Keep correcting me while I post parts of this project on Facebook, and keep messaging me these details that I missed.  The past isn’t the only avenue to the future, but it’s the only one I understand.  


What Happened to Feist-Dog

This project that I’m calling “Lies My Mother Never Told Me” has been openly banging around in my head for about a year and a half now.   Quietly, these stories have been whispering to me for forty years.  The funny thing about whispers is they sometimes say, “Go now!” and they sometimes say, “You better not.”  

What makes this project interesting is these are real people with real stories, and they all have histories and are interconnected.  I can put my finger down and say, “I want to start here.” in, say, 1963, but the story doesn’t end there; it feathers out like the Mississippi River Delta into time and space, spreading farther and wider, dropping more and more rich loam.  What makes this project dangerous is that these fingers, these feathers of time, reach into real people with real lives and descendants.  The story doesn’t stay in 1963; it reaches out through the seventies, eighties, nineties, and the millennium. It reaches until today, and if I write about things in the past that were painful, it could hurt somebody today.

For example, when I went to the McMullen Writer’s Workshop, the featured speaker was Andrew Aydin, a fascinating young guy who wrote a graphic novel about John Lewis.  So, I’m going to the lecture, and I’m thinking this is really cool because I’ve been into graphic novels longer than most. Lewis was a guy who really interested me, and this is pretty important work, and one of the first things out of Aydin’s mouth was how much he appreciated the school putting him up at Fairview, and in the back of my mind, I think, “Oh.”

Fairview is beautiful and a great representation of what Jackson can be like, and the food is really good, but, to me, that was Bill Simmons’s house, and even though he and Ms. Corley from St. Andrews made it into this beautiful inn, it’s still his house, and his history is so deeply intertwined in everything “Lies My Mother Never Told Me” is about, that I can’t really talk about the story without talking about him.  I can talk about pieces and fabricate whole sections that avoid him, but the story of how Mississippi moved from 1954 to 1994 involves Bill Simmons and some really unpleasant things about him.

Even writing just that sentence makes me nervous.  I’m pleased about what’s happening with Fairview, and I wouldn’t ever do anything to damage their reputation, but going to Bill’s house and having him show me all his books on the Civil War and what I call the “questionable anthropology” he studied for twenty-five years are part of the story–part of my reflection on his story.  The newspaper and radio program he wrote are part of the story.  The schools he created are part of the story.  

I can’t tell this story without talking about Bill Simmons; most importantly, I can’t tell the story of Bill Simmons without pointing out that I really liked the guy.  I know many brilliant people who also liked the guy.  As a writer, I can reconcile that.  That becomes part of my story, but I'll be criticized as a historian (which I am not).  Historians have written about all this.  Stephanie Clanton Rolph wrote about it, and I’m reading her book now for reference.  I think her work on this is much more important than mine, but Stephanie is a lot younger than I am, and she didn’t have all the sort of interpersonal connectedness I did.  I can’t tell you how to reconcile the facts that Bill Simmons was this brilliant guy who appreciated art and music and history but also believed and taught some of the most putrid, hateful things I ever heard.  Both statements are factual, though.  Maybe part of why the universe draws me to this story is that somebody really needs to make the point that it’s a lot more complicated than just saying he was a horrible guy.  

Another part of it is that I deeply love Galloway.  It’s a part of me, like a limb I didn’t use for twenty years but really need now.  People have already pointed out that there are painful parts of Galloway’s history in this, and if I loved the church, do I really want to dig all that back up?  

The answer is that I don’t want to bring all that back up without strongly making the point that Galloway worked through it.  Love and acceptance won out, even though getting there was rough.  Goodness won out, and Galloway was much stronger in 1970 than they were in 1960 because of it.  A sword has to pass through the fire to become strong, and we passed through the fire.

I wrote that long piece about why I was baptized by WJ Cunningham, not by W.B. Selah or Clay Lee, making the point that I never met Cunningham and didn’t really engage with his future in any way other than what I saw on paper, but it turns out that wasn’t true.  Joe Reiff helped make the connection that he was Lori Trigg’s grandfather, and I knew Lori well.  A guy in my pledge class was deeply taken with her; the rest of us were absolutely devoted to her. I very likely met her grandfather one of the years she was voted on the Millsaps Homecoming court, but I knew him as Lori’s grandfather, not the former pastor at Galloway.

Another thread that I’ve been interested in but can’t really make up my mind about is that Riverside Methodist Church didn’t die out.  They took the money the Boy Scouts paid them for their building and built a smaller church in Rankin County.  They have a website, and it's given me some tantalizing bits about what they’ve been up to over the last fifty years, but do I have the right to try and talk to them about some potentially painful and embarrassing things in their past? 

I can’t actually tell my story without telling the story of other people, too.  That’s one of the reasons why I post big pieces of it on Facebook, so people I know can pick it apart and correct me when I make mistakes and either privately or publicly challenge my perspective.  It also gives them a chance to tell me pieces of the story I don’t know, which is really interesting because these stories are fifty years old, and I’ve been digging into them for at least forty years, but every time I write about it, somebody tells me something new.  

My dad believed the only way to deal with Mississippi was to keep looking ahead.  Tear down all that antebellum stuff and build modern new stuff.  The past is but the past, and we’re all about the future.  I understand his point of view, and sometimes I agree with it, but the past is the stock and the roux that binds this stew together.  We’re not yet to the point where we can say the past has no hold on us.  I know that my dad, and Mayor Danks, and Mayor Davis tried to put a modern face on everything so the world wouldn’t judge us for the sixties, but those stories are a part of us, and it’s important to tell them.  I may not be the guy to tell them.  I may be better off writing about Dinosaurs, Robots, and Space Ships like Ray Bradbury said I should.  These stories don’t leave me, though.  They percolate through everything else I try to do.  

Even if I say I will stop working on “Lies My Mother Never Told Me,” it won’t be true because there’s more to writing than just moving my fingers across a keyboard.  I’ll still lay in bed, putting pieces together in my head while I wait for the alarm to go off.  Photos of brilliant people I used to know hiding in a corner of Hal and Mals will still catch my eye.  

I haven’t written about Feist-Dog in a while.  There’s a million other dogs living here, so he’s running around sniffing butts.  This is feist-dog’s story, though.  The day Medgar Evers was shot, Feist-dog was on the radio.   The day men ran Ed King off the road, Feist-Dog was on the radio.  The day Rev Cunningham left Galloway and the days Bill Simmons and Jessie Howell opened their schools, Feist-Dog was on the radio.  He’s just an imaginary dog on the radio, but this is his story.  I’m just a little boy who saw parts of it, and tried to piece together the rest.


Friday, August 25, 2023

Reading The Other Side

If I'm going to write about what happened in the sixties and early seventies, I feel like I need to be able to at least understand and articulate the opposing viewpoint, even if I don't agree with it.  

In Mississippi, most of the argument in favor of segregation came from the Citizens Council, and most of that came from Bill Simmons.  There's such a vast gulf between the things the guy said and wrote and my personal experience with him that I struggle to rationalize it all, and yet it's all true.  

No one sets out to be a villain.  Everybody believes they're working for the greater good.  Medgar Evers thought he was working for the greater good.  Bryan De La Beckwith thought he was working for the greater good.  Obviously, they weren't both correct.   Either that or the actual greater good isn't something we can understand.  

Most of what Bill Simmons wrote, I attribute to what Stephen Jay Gould called "biological determinism," or what I call "really bad anthropology."  What really helped me with all this was Richard Dawkins' theory on "The Selfish Gene," where he introduced the idea of the "meme" as a unit of cultural evolution to help the gene maximize inclusive fitness.  

There's an awful lot more to the word "meme" than funny pictures of cats or animated gifs from 90's sitcoms.  "Meme," as Dawkins intended it, could be the key to everything.  Once you infest yourself with a certain set of memes, then everything Bill Simmons ever wrote and everything Bryan De La Beckwith did starts to become understandable.  They're serving not truth but a meme, and that meme serves some level of genetic inclusive fitness.  

The wrongness of what these men said and did was the result of the selfish gene and the memes it spun to protect its agenda.

George Lucas simplifies the story so that red light sabers mean bad and light colors mean good, and that makes a great story, but there's more to it than that.

I'm starting these stories with the idea that everybody in the are trying to do what's right, but there's a big difference in what they all consider "right" to be.  Everybody is working to serve the memes they start with, but everybody starts with different memes.  

It's possible that the same flaws in my brain that make it difficult to read or speak also give me a way to see these things differently.  Either way, every time I turn on the television, I see where an old enemy of my culture has returned.  Understanding them is vitally important.

Official Ted Lasso