Showing posts with label My Life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label My Life. Show all posts

Monday, July 24, 2023

Don't Keep Secrets

My wife and I used to argue because she thought my version of her was a lot more optimistic than what she saw in herself.  I think one of the reasons she wanted to get married was that she wanted the things I said about her to be true.  

When a child loses confidence in themselves, we have a tendency to blame the parents, but in her case, I knew them before I knew her, and that wasn't the problem.  

Sometimes, I think people just have trouble finding the things they're good at.  Everyone has them, but not everyone knows what they are.  A lot of us tend to judge ourselves based on what other people are good at.  I do too.  That's a rigged game, though.  You have your own gifts, and it's utterly unfair to judge yourself by someone else's.

I've loved a lot of people where I really wanted them to see what I saw in them, just for a few minutes, that if they could see just a glimpse of the power and beauty that I see, it'd make it real for them.  

The girl before my wife had the same problem.  I just wanted to shake her and say, "Don't you see!  Don't you see!" but she never did.  She lived out the rest of her life without seeing what I saw.

I used to write really long letters explaining exactly why I felt about someone I loved the way I did.  I think maybe that might have helped me share my vision with these girls, but someone came along before them and made fun of it, so I gave up on the practice; now, the opportunity to share this is lost to time forever.   

Don't just tell people you love them.  Tell them why, and don't assume they already know.  They often can't see it, but you can. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Broken Promises

My parents worked pretty hard to instill several important lessons in me.  Some I picked up on better than others.  One was that I should always try to be useful and always try to help other people.  That was reinforced pretty heavily when I went to Boy Scouts or Sunday School.  The message was pretty clear.  You're here to have a positive impact on other people.  It might be more important than anything else.

When I was much younger, one of the things that made me really uncomfortable and unhappy was that it was really common for people to make social, even romantic, connections with me just because they thought I could help with their job or some other financial aspect of their lives.  

The end result was a situation where, whenever I met somebody, I'd wonder why they were there and if they really had any interest in me or were they just acting like it so I'd help them out.  The times when that did become a problem, it was almost impossible to tell if somebody was genuine or not, and I made several mistakes when I trusted somebody who was not.  

I don't know that I really blame them, though.  In your twenties, life is kind of a survival game.  Nobody is in a very stable situation, and taking a shortcut here and there can be very tempting, especially if your situation is really upside down and dire.  I don't think anybody ever set out to hurt me.  I think they just got desperate and saw me as a solution to their problem and didn't care enough not to hurt me.  

It was particularly bad with people who struggled with addiction issues.  With an addict, you're dealing with two people.  One is normal and moral and usually really nice, and the other is an animal out to survive however it can, which sometimes meant me.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Surrender at Appomattox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Monkeys at the Zoo

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

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

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

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

Roy and Venus 1968
Roy and Venus 1968

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Miss Eudora's Typewriter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Rainbow Babies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Official Ted Lasso