Showing posts with label Lies My Mother Never Told Me. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lies My Mother Never Told Me. Show all posts

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.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Fox In A Trap

When I was a boy, I heard the story of the fox who chewed his own leg off when it was caught in a trap.  I have no idea if this ever actually happens, but the story was applied to many things, particularly stories about girls you didn't mean to get with and guys who played football for Mississippi State and kept chewing off the wrong leg.  

In my second year in college, I became entangled with a girl from the Mississippi Delta.  She was descended from Washington County royalty and knew it.  She could, and often did, out-shoot and out-drink me.  Our time together nearly got both of us kicked out of college.  After that, she left Millsaps for Mississippi State to get sober and marry a boy who wanted to be a dentist, but never made it out of dental school.

After that, I figured keeping one special girl was asking for trouble, so I avoided it and adopted them all, mostly Chi-Omegas, but I married a Kappa Delta.  

There was, of course, one special girl, but apart from a few wanton glances and moments of electric passion when we touched in ways we weren't planning to, we never discussed it.  Not discussing it didn't keep me from getting written up several times for staying too late in her dorm.  There were more than a few nights when Ken Ranager and I would together seek an escape route without getting caught.  He was really very good about it and about as willing to go out a window into the limbs of an adjacent live oak tree as I was.  Trees and climbing things were intricate parts of my college experience.  

After college, I tried again to make one girl more special than the others.  A lot of my friends were doing it.  She turned out to be a pretty neutral experience.  Lots of fun and not much drama.  I wasn't the only boy on her dance card, but she wasn't the only one on mine either.  After about a year, it was pretty clear this wasn't going anywhere, even though she talked me to sleep on the telephone nearly every night.

After that, there was this girl who was going to be a sophomore at Millsaps.  She wasn't really my type at all, but she kept talking to me and asking about my day, what I did with my life, and what happened to that girl who called all the time.  She was very pretty, and she was absolutely determined to be a part of my day if not part of my life, even though we had absolutely nothing in common.  

Her hair was a mass of blonde curls, enormous and rigid, like a light helmet, but attractive if you didn't try to touch it.  Bid day was coming up, and she labored mightily all Summer for Phi Mu to make sure they had a great year.  There supposedly was a boyfriend somewhere in her life, but he was in-again and out-again, and on bid day, he was out-again, so I told her I'd take her to dinner, and then we could go to the KA house and CS's to see her pledges running around.

Taking her to dinner at the Mayflower, she began to cry as we passed the courthouse.  I pulled over and held her hand while she got her cry out.  Asking her what was wrong was fruitless.  "A bad day" was all she said.  I assumed it had something to do with Mr. out-again, who was at Mississippi State.  Even though she lived here, she'd never been to the Mayflower before.  After dinner, we went to the KA house to watch the madness, where I pointed out to her and the active members where we planned to put the addition with the concrete room and the fancy patio behind.  I would spend the next two years raising money for that and getting it built, even though the architect seems to have screwed us over on some aspects of it.

At about two in the morning, I took her to where she parked her car by the library under the Academic Complex.  For a little over an hour, I leaned against my car and held her as tight as I could.  Lightly kissing and lightly talking, it seemed really important to her that I hold her and keep holding her as the night hours slipped by.  "It really must have been a bad day," I thought.  This was a wounded creature hiding in my arms in the night air.  I'd experienced that before.

About a week later, a mutual friend asked if I was going to see this girl again.  "I dunno.  Maybe." I said.

"I just feel so bad about what's happening with her daddy."  My friend said.  This was the first I heard anything about this.  Maybe this is what was behind her "bad day."  Her father, it seemed, was in a federal prison in Texas, having been sentenced at the courthouse we passed on the way to the Mayflower.  

In high school, my steady girlfriend's father shot himself, and I found the body. I spent two years unsuccessfully trying to fill the hole he left in her life.  Now God sent me another broken bird with a missing father.  I didn't mean for this to be something I did with my life.  It wasn't fair, though, for me to have more than I needed when some people didn't have enough.  

I called for another date.  This time to Scrooges.  In the parking lot, before we got out of the car, I held her hand and said, "I know what you've been going through, and I just wanted you to know that I'm your friend."  

I'm sure she intended to tell me sometime, but she wasn't ready for me to know without her telling me.  There's some embarrassment in people knowing your daddy is in prison, on top of all the devastating emotional losses that come from him losing his liberty; all of these feelings were crashing over her like a flooded creek in a rainstorm while she gripped my hands for her very life and did her best to push out the pain by grinding her back teeth together, lest she scream.

Fortunately, she didn't wear much makeup, despite the elaborate engineering that went into her hair, so it didn't take much effort to repair her face in my rearview mirror when the tears stopped and we went inside.  This was during the era when Scrooges had a different quiche every day, despite the popularity of the book "Real Men Don't Eat Quiche."  I had that, and she had a chicken sandwich, and we talked.  We talked in the sort of way that people who no longer have secrets talk.  Even though it hadn't happened yet, we talked in the way that people who had seen each other naked in the stark reality of daylight talked.  

"If Daddy doesn't come home, I don't know if I'm gonna make it.  If my life doesn't get better, I don't know what I'll do."  She said.  "I'm doing the best I can, but some days, I just can't."  She said.  Was that a threat?  Was she saying she might do something if her father didn't come home?  Would something happen if he didn't?  Would she break?  Why was this happening in the path of my life?  Was I supposed to do something?

I let her talk.  I wanted to hear all of what she was thinking and what her plans were.  Forever after that, I became something of an expert at gauging her emotional health by the words she used and the way she moved her face and hands.  

After dinner, taking her back to her car, which was outside my apartment at Pebble Creek, I again leaned against my car with her deep in my arms for an unnaturally long time.  "Look," I said.  "I'm only twenty-three, and I've never done this before, and I really don't know what I'm doing--but I'm going to do my best to get your daddy home.  You're not going to make it the end of his sentence."

She pushed her face deep into my chest.  Soon my shirt was wet with her tears and then my skin underneath as her nearly silent sobs floated out into the night air.  I wasn't really that interested in this girl, but she was in a great deal of pain, so I committed myself.  No one should feel that much pain.

Over the next year, I talked with lawyers and judges.  Sometimes as a personal favor, sometimes for a fee.  I educated myself on the consequences of federal drug charges and the parole system.  I knew something about parole from my brother's experience, so I wasn't starting from scratch.  It didn't look good.  He had prior convictions, which was part of why his sentence was the way it was.  From what I could tell, it looked to me like he was covering for somebody else.  I knew about some of his associates, and they were pretty unpleasant guys.  

That next Spring, she told me she might not be able to go back to Millsaps the next Fall.  Something had gone wrong with her student loans, and she didn't know what she was going to do.  I called Jack Woodward and asked if I could buy him lunch.  He said he was gonna eat at home but to come by his office.  In his office, we discussed the situation, and he was able to find some more money.  What shortfall was left, I'd give him a check for, and he'd put it in one of his many spent-out scholarship funds and award it to her without her ever knowing I was involved.  We'd made that deal before.

With her junior year at Millsaps assured, I moved on to work on her father's upcoming parole hearing.  It didn't look good, even though he'd been a model prisoner.  What happened next, I can't really talk about.  There were other people working on his parole hearing for very different reasons from mine.  We were able to come to an understanding.  There were no guarantees, but the outcome looked much better than it did before.  

The next time I saw the friend who had originally told me this girl's father was in prison, I told her that I thought there might be a chance he'd be home before Christmas.  Then I said, "If this happens, then I'm going to separate myself from this girl as much as I possibly can.  I've gotten in way over my head, and it's not going to end well no matter what I do, but if I end it now, then it won't be that bad."  I'd developed feelings I never intended to have.  I developed them by spending a year trying to pull this girl's oxcart out of the ditch she found herself in, and now I was stuck.

Going into exams for the Fall semester, I met with her to say that in a few days, she would hear the outcome of her father's parole hearing, and I was praying for them both.  I gave her an envelope with two one-hundred dollar bills in it, with instructions to use it to visit her dad in Texas before Christmas to help restore her mental health.  Within a few days, she received word that he was paroled.  She and her mother and little brother used the money I gave her to go pick up her father so the family could be home together for Christmas.  

In my mind, my part in this story was over.  I'd stuck with it long enough to see happen what I said I wanted to happen.  My own well-being was in jeopardy, so I formulated an escape plan.  I went to Albrittons and got a drop with an opal surrounded by diamonds and amethyst.  These parting gifts were a pretty silly ritual I'd adopted to end relationships.  After New Year's, I arranged to meet her at The University Club for dinner.

One of the reasons The University Club didn't make it was because they were never very full.  By the end of dinner, we were the only people in the restaurant, but the bar was pretty lively.  I ordered a cigar from the girl with the cart, lit it, and pushed the gift box in white paper toward my friend.

I explained that we'd accomplished what we had set out for.  I fulfilled my promise, and it was time for me to go.  She began to cry.  She didn't understand.  "Look, I can't have feelings for you when you don't have feelings for me.  That's a disaster that can only get worse.  You have to let me go.  Your life is pretty good now.  That guy from Mississippi State wants to talk again.  Your daddy's home.  It's time for me to go."

"No." She said.  "There has to be another way."

"Look," I said, "I'm not going to hang around like some sort of mascot.  There's probably somebody out there who wants to be as devoted to me as I was to you.  If you don't let me go, I won't ever find them."  That part wasn't true.  The future didn't hold anyone who had that kind of devotion for me.  At twenty-four, I thought, surely that's how the world works.  I'd put myself in harm's way enough times that surely there would be somebody who just wanted me to be comfortable and was devoted to that.  I believed that if you gave life enough time, accounts would balance out, and life would be fair.  That wasn't the case.    

For months this woman tried to talk to me, to hug me, to ask about what was happening in my life.  Eventually, it started to really bother me that she wouldn't just let me go.  I felt like I'd been really fair with her and really done my best for her.  I deserved to have enough space to get over all this and move on to whatever was next in my life.  She didn't understand that.  Slowly, I started to really resent it.  I started saying really hateful things when she tried to talk to me.

One day, she said, "Sometimes, when you look at me, it looks like you hate me!"  

"I don't hate anyone," I said.

She threw her arms around me and wept.  She wept with the same passion and resignation she had that night we went to the Mayflower.  She was back with the boy from Mississippi State again full-time.  She knew that I knew that.  Soon she'd be showing everyone the ring he got her.  

Through her tears, she said, "I'm sorry.  I'm sorry.  I'm sorry.  I'm sorry."  Still crying, she pulled away and said, "But I understand."  And I didn't speak to her again for five years.


When my father died, a great mass of people came to the reception at the funeral home.  I stood in line for most of the day, shaking hands and receiving well wishes.  Most of it wasn't really very emotional to me, mainly because of the sheer volume of people coming through.  Although my friends came too, there would be what seemed like hundreds of my dad's friends between them.  I was holding up pretty well.

Toward the back of the line, near the staircase, I caught a glimpse of blonde curls.  "I really hope that's not her."  I thought.  I didn't look back again.  Soon, I could feel her presence.  I focused on the people in front of me so as not to betray my emotions.  Suddenly, she was the face before me.  I froze.  The muscles in my back began to twitch.  I could smell her.  

She reached up and threw her arms around my neck.  We both began to weep.  The line stopped, and then, realizing we were in a moment, they began to move around us.

"I'm sorry,"  I said.  "I'm sorry.  I'm sorry.  I'm sorry.  I didn't mean any of those things I said.  I said some really hateful things to make you go away.  I didn't mean them."  I said.

She held my face with a trembling hand and kissed me one last time.  "I believe you."  She said.  "I understand.  Please be happy."  She said, and pulled me tight, and held me for what seemed like hours.  Then she turned and walked away, and I never saw her again.

From other people, I would learn that her father returned to prison and would die there.  Her marriage turned out pretty well.  Her sometimes boyfriend decided to be full-time.  Some people thought my story was really sweet.  Some people thought I was a fool.  To me, she told me she didn't think she would make it if her life didn't get better.  Her life did get better, and she did make it.  Whatever part I had to play in that didn't really matter because I wanted to make sure she made it.  It was her life, not mine.  What I got out of it was the story.  I can't say that a story is as good as somebody who loves you and takes care of you forever, but it's not bad.  She was never my type anyway.  

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Terror At The Carnival Ball

I originally wrote this about twenty years ago and reprinted it because my sister didn't remember it.   I did it pretty quickly, without much research, because for many years, this was just something of a family joke. I have now, and research is easy, so I reworked the entire piece to reflect more and more accurate information.

When I was a kid, my mother was deeply involved in the Jackson Junior League.  I’m not sure who the Senior League was, but the Junior League consisted of women under forty who became involved in civic events.  They did many cool things, including fairy tale theater and puppet shows, which I loved.  In 1970, when I was seven years old, the Jackson Junior League sponsored the Carnival Ball.

The Carnival Ball was the primary fundraising effort for the Jackson Junior League. They sponsored many charities for disadvantaged children and young women in trouble, but the primary goal of the Carnival Ball was to raise money for that year's Arts Festival, which, in turn, raised money to build an arts center downtown.  They’ve had other fundraising efforts through the years, and the current main fundraiser is Mistletoe Marketplace.  In 1970 was the thirty-eighth annual Jackson Junior League Carnival Ball.  Lance Goss directed the entire event, and Frank Hains was the technical director.

My mother wasn't the kind of person to join a volunteer organization like the Junior League without doing any actual volunteer work, so one year, she ended up in charge of all the costumes for the Carnival Ball, and my brother was enlisted as a page boy. I remember racks and racks of costumes filling the living room and the dining room of our house and strangers in and out to try them on. 

That year, the King of the ball was Doctor James Hardy, the famous surgeon who pioneered heart and lung transplants at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.  In 1963, two months before I was born, he performed the first Lung Transplant on a dying inmate from the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the first successful operation of its kind.  The next year, he successfully transplanted the heart of a chimpanzee into a dying man, also the first successful operation of its kind.  Isabel Poteat Lutkin, wife of Donald Lutkin, the new president of Mississippi Power and Light Company, was the queen.

The theme that year was Echo 1890, where the floor of the Mississippi Collesceum was transformed into a facsimile of Jackson, Mississippi, in 1890.  While everyone at the Carnival Ball wore costumes, special attention was paid to local “celebrities.”  Lt. Governor Charlie Sullivan came dressed as Diamond Jim Brady.  Mayor Russell Davis dressed as an 1890 Jackson Policeman.  Al Simmons, head DJ at WSLI (and father of newscaster Scott Simmons), rode in on a balloon as the “observer.”  Governor John Bell Williams dressed as one of his personal heroes, Teddy Rosevelt, with a retinue of young Jacksonians as his Rough Rider soldiers.  Attendants to the "princesses" wore Gibson Girl costumes and wigs, and page boys wore knickerbockers.

While my mother handled all the costumes for the major characters, It was John Bell Williams who made an impression on the seven-year-old version of me.  Williams was a World War II hero and lost one arm in battle when his bomber crashed. Sometimes, he wore a mechanical prosthetic arm that ended in two curved metal prongs, but I didn’t know that. 

Williams was an old-style Democrat and previously served in Congress in Washington. He supported segregation, but, as governor, he didn't fight the court order (Alexander v Holmes County Schools) when it came down to desegregating Mississippi public schools immediately, but others did.  Williams distanced himself from the Citizens Council, but by then, the damage was done.

Arrangements were made for the Governor to come by our house and try on his Teddy Rosevelt costume before the ball. My dad supported Williams' opponent, William Winter, in the governor's race, so this was a slightly delicate moment. 

My mother pulled us kids aside to tell us that a very important man was coming to the house, and we were to be on our best behavior and be very polite and say "yes, sir" and especially not to stare because he had only one arm.  “Only one arm,” she said, and that was all she said.

Determined to be a good boy, I spent the next day and a half preparing myself to meet this important man with one arm. I wasn't going to stare, and I wasn't going to say anything stupid like, "Nice to meet you, we voted for William Winter." or "Hey, mister, where's your arm?".   This man was a hero, and he sacrificed part of his body fighting those rotten nazis.  I was going to be a good boy and a solid scout.

The big day came, and a nicely dressed older man came to the door in a dark suit with a hat. I was seven years old. Now, my mother was wise to warn us about meeting a man with one arm, and I was ready for that, even though I'd never met a man with one arm before. I was prepared for there being no arm.  I wasn’t prepared for what there was.  What she didn't tell us was that he had replaced that arm with what looked to me exactly like the gleaming metal HOOK like Captain Hook had in Peter Pan!   

I’d seen both the animated version of Peter Pan by Walt Disney and the Television version with Mary Martin.  In both versions, Captain Hook was a bad guy who wanted to poke holes in little boys with his sword, so I ran and hid in the many racks of costumes taking up space in our house, not to come out until after the Governor had left.  My mother hadn’t lied to me, but she left out some important pieces of information.

In the years to come, I would have more gentlemanly encounters with Governor Williams when he spoke to my Boy Scout Troop and other functions.  Charlie Sullivan would be a regular visitor at our house during his ill-fated run for governor.  I would buy honey collected by former Mayor Davis in the years ahead.

I think my mother missed being in the Junior League.  Her life was much simpler and much more exciting then.  There was considerable pressure on white moms in Jackson in 1970 to move their kids out of the public schools, and there were other conflicts, but my Mother’s life would become much more challenging in the years to come.  

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.

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.

Official Ted Lasso