Things that get in us when we’re children stay with us. We might not understand. We might just feel fear, insecurity, uncertainty, and dwell on our perceptions. That’s the way it was with me. Whatever was going on in the U.S. when I was ten, eleven, twelve, and thirteen got in me and never let go. I feared the H-bomb. There was an overwhelming fear that nuclear war would break out between the United States and Russia in the late 50s and early 60s. We even had bomb drills in school. People built and stocked bomb shelters. It didn’t help in 1960 to see Nikita Khrushchev on TV banging his shoe on the podium. He said, “We will bury you!”
How does a little girl sleep at night? I remember leaning on my window sill after bedtime, looking up at stars in the black sky and smelling the honeysuckle on the back fence and wondering what was out there and what if it came down on me and my little town.
I remember visiting one set of grandparents in the city of Cincinnati and looking up beyond tall buildings and worrying that a bomb would hit at any time. After all, it was a city, and cities were targets. I remember visiting the other set of grandparents on a farm in the Mississippi Hill Country. At the edge of the woods was a gully, deep, thirty feet, maybe forty. A natural spring came out of the ground at the bottom and ran in a gentle stream the length of the land. The red clay cliff walls deterred any climbing down to the bottom, but I could walk into the gully via the stream bed. One summer day I did just that and pulled myself up to a protrusion in the wall and sat for a while thinking. I looked up at the sunshine filtering through ancient trees at the top. No one could ever find me here. I vowed to come to the gully when it happened — end times, the bomb, the apocalypse, the burning of Babylon, the crash and failure of society. After all, everyone needs a plan.
I wonder now if I passed on my fear of end times to my own children. When they were little, we had our own secret code word that reflected catastrophe. I won’t say what it was, because it still is our code word.
Just yesterday as I told one son I was preparing to buy a new car, he said, “Good, make sure you have a sleeping bag, a tent, and some survival supplies in the cargo area, and you can head this way [North Carolina] when the time comes.” (Actually, I do have two survival bins of supplies in the garage next to the back of my car, ready to load in an emergency.) Just yesterday I sent the other son a text message and in the middle of it, that code word happened to appear. “Are you trying to tell me something?” he replied. No, I wasn’t. The apples don’t fall too far from the tree.
I’m thinking about all this now because the other day I found an old book that my husband bought in September 1969, so written on the inside cover. Alas, Babylon is the title. It’s a novel published in 1959 about nuclear war with Russia–the dropping of the bomb–and the end of the world. I read this book when I was child, maybe twelve, and it made an impact on me, not only because the subject matter was what it was, but also because it was really an adult book with adult language and situations, and my mother let me read it. One summer week I lay on top of the picnic table in the back yard under the pecan tree, sap dripping on me, and read about Randy in the fictional town of Fort Repose, Florida, near McCoy Air Force Base, who got the warning of doom from his Strategic Air Command brother Mark and experienced the bomb and the rebuilding of life after.
I guess I never got over the Cold War fears of the 50s and early 60s. By the mid-60s, though, Kennedy had been assassinated, Vietnam was on the world news every night on TV, and the bombs and fires and fiery actions of the civil rights movement were on the local news. And a girl tends to push back the H-bomb when all that is happening.
Now I return to read Alas, Babylon. The original version in paperback — the complete text of the original hardcover edition, not one word omitted. My sons read the book in high school as required reading, but it was a cleaned-up, dumbed-down version. This is the real sixty-cent deal.
The words on the back cover still apply today to whatever “bomb situation” comes up:
THE DAY AFTER THE BOMB DROPPED the thousands of years of “progress” that had covered the treacheries and weaknesses of ordinary man with a thin veneer of civilization were dissolved and melted like snow on the desert’s dusty face.
All this makes me want to say: Please, America, for the sake of little girls and boys everywhere, let’s work together and do this thing right. Let’s give and take, let’s don’t push for radical extremes, let’s don’t fight for our own ONE way, let’s be tolerant of others. Let’s work together for the good of all. Let’s keep “progress” and keep it going.
We were in Navajo Nation in Arizona somewhere along the hot, barren Highway 89 near its junction with 160 which goes to Tuba City. It was the fourth day of our summer trip — seven of us, family, from Memphis, Oxford and Tupelo, Mississippi, and the Nashville area — and we four ladies had not yet bought any jewelry. We’d talked for months about buying earrings from a real local artisan. So when we saw the long segmented line of roadside vendor stands, we all yelled, “Stop!” The white Ford van pulled into the desert dirt in a cloud of dust, and we all piled out to look at the wares.
Judi and the men were quick to get back on the van, but Lee, Sally, and I got caught up midway at the tables of a Navajo man named Lawrence Alfred, who was wearing a red and black Redskins cap. A Washington Redskins football team cap?
He was interested in languages, he said, dialects in particular, and he wanted to know about ours. We were all Mississippi born and raised (Cleveland and Oxford), and he asked where the Southern dialect had its origin. I tried to tell him about my Scots-Irish ancestors and how they settled in the eastern mountains and then migrated into Alabama and Mississippi looking for land, and how the speech of all related settlers influenced the language patterns of the people in the South. I did not tell him how my people moved to Noxubee County, Mississippi, in 1833 after the Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty was signed, opening the land for white settlement.
I bought a pendant from him with a blue-green turquoise stone that was made by his uncle.
Then Lee turned the conversation and asked Lawrence Alfred about his Redskins hat, and we got his story.
He was a Redskins fan, and the name, in a push to be changed so as not to offend Native Americans, did not offend him. He knew the history, he said. He pointed to the red rock mesas all around us. “We got red clay from the mesa and used it as a sun screen. We rubbed it on our arms, and so people called us the red men.” He would be offended if the team did change its name.
History explains the meaning. Awareness brings acceptance. I wish my people could understand the importance of a name or a concept based on its history, or even historical truth. But as terms and their interpretation change to succeeding generations who are either clueless or embarrassed, my people want to change history instead of understanding it and learning from it.
Lawrence wore his grandfather’s military pin on the cap. His grandfather, now deceased, was a World War II veteran. He was a Navajo Code Talker. Johnny Alfred was his name.
The little-known language of Arizona’s Navajo Code Talkers helped lead the Allied forces to victory over Japan in WWII. The Navajo men developed an unbreakable code alphabet from their language by attaching familiar words to letters. For example, one way to say the word “Navy” in Navajo code would be tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-ked-di-glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca). The enemy could not break the code. The Code Talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945.
In 1982 President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation honoring them. “Equipped with the only foolproof, unbreakable code in the history of warfare, the code talkers confused the enemy with an earful of sounds never before heard by code experts,” Reagan said.
In 2000 President Bill Clinton awarded the original 29 Code Talkers the Congressional Silver Medal.
I felt a kinship with Lawrence. My dad was a WWII veteran. Then I learned Johnny’s wife was named Lucille, as was my mother. Johnny Alfred was 22 years old when he enlisted in the Marines in October of 1942. He survived four of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific: Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian, and Okinawa. He brought honor to the Navajo Nation and the Navajo language.
No wonder his grandson is interested in languages.
Navajo flags were flown at half-staff when Johnny Alfred died in 2011. Johnny Alfred brought honor to America.
The beauty of America is in the differences of its people. We are of different nationalities, religions, political beliefs, educational levels, skills, and language backgrounds, but when our country is threatened, we come together as Americans and we take care of our land. (Or we used to . . . . )
Lawrence’s aunt drove up and came over to enter our conversation. She had been out on the mesa gathering pieces of petrified wood. She gave one to Lee, Sally, and me.
This is a family who wants to keep its stories alive. I treasure this, and I treasure meeting Lawrence, his aunt, buying his uncle’s pendant, receiving the gift of petrified wood . . . and most of all, hearing the stories.
There were seven of us, including my sister, her husband, and his two sisters, who flew to Las Vegas, rented a white Ford van, and toured the northeastern part of Arizona. The land is arid, free of greenery, and filled with hills, mesas, buttes, cliffs, and canyons.
We visited the Grand Canyon and spent the night at the El Tovar Hotel where presidents have stayed. I got up at five one morning, sat on a big rock on the trail at the rim of the Grand Canyon—a geological spectacle one mile deep—and watched the sun rise and throw light against the cliff walls. Reds. Oranges. Sculpted rock. Majestic.
East of the canyon we went on a smooth water raft trip from the Glen Canyon Dam up the Colorado River and also took a slot canyon off-road Hummer tour, where we viewed the red rock canyons and landforms created by years of wind, rain, flooding, and fluvial abrasion. We went to the Navajo reservation and saw dinosaur tracks, bones, and eggs. Then we traveled on to Hopi land—Third Mesa, Second Mesa, and First Mesa—and saw the oldest continuously inhabited town in the United States. At White Bear Hopi Art gallery I bought a Kachina doll made by one of the local artists. We went to the Painted Desert, a meteor crater site, and the Petrified Forest, and we drove on the old Route 66 and stopped at Juan Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In where the daughter made jokes like the father used to. To end the trip we made our way down to Sedona for a couple of days of touring and shopping.
I fell in love with Arizona. I wanted to bring home the sage green succulents and trailing plants and the pink-red rocks. I couldn’t absorb enough of the view of the landforms. Beautiful. Colorful. Carved rock. Majestic.
Then a thought came to me. I was looking at the wonder of canyons and cliffs. I saw only beauty. But that beauty was carved over time out of harshness and upheaval. Violence within—earthquakes and volcanoes thrusting the rock upward. Fury without—a raging, flooding river cutting deep and wind blowing sand and rock, the friction cutting the earth. Battered. Washed over. Pounded upon.
How much like life is that? Something good and strong and beautiful is created out of pain and tumult.
I look around me at the wonder that is my yard. How can a flower be bigger than my hand? And so beautiful? I don’t understand how nature can create something that is beyond words.
I wanted a popcorn bush or a white hydrangea like the ones at the entrance to my subdivision. But I ended up getting a limelight hydrangea. I could look at it all day.
I think about going far off to wonders of the world — canyons, big rivers, and red rock mesas. And then I look at my hydrangea bush. And at night I look up through the big fifteen-foot high windows in my dining room and see an almost full moon shining down on me.
And I think…I don’t need to go anywhere. I am content right here. There is beauty all around me. There is amazement all around me.
Does it get any better than that?
Six in the morning July 4. I sit on my deck looking northeast at an ever-lightening blue sky fading to cream. If the sun is up, I can’t see it; it’s behind houses on the next street. Against the sky is a little flag I’ve stuck in a flower pot waving in a cool July breeze. Behind the stars and stripes is a tulip poplar against the backdrop of a neighbor’s roof line. I hear the hum of traffic to the north—could it be from 840? The birds are starting to get excited about the sun coming up. I hear the “drink your tea” bird mixed in with choruses of the others.
I’m wearing my Franklin Jazz Festival ’98 tee shirt. That was such a long time ago. It was the year Molly died, the year Chaeli was born. Charlie and I used to go every year to the jazz festival, and he always bought us tee shirts, and now, that’s what I sleep in. If he were here this July 4, we’d grill. Ribs, shrimp, steak. But he’s not, and I won’t.
I think back to my old neighborhood. Every July 4 there was a patriotic kids’ parade down the main parkway. Children would decorate their bikes or trikes in red, white, and blue, and there was a prize for the best. My new neighborhood doesn’t do anything.
The sun starts to throw its light against the tops of trees behind the eastern arc of Aenon Circle. The sky grows brighter above the steep pitch of a neighbor’s roof. It’s really cool for July. My tee shirt is holding the cold breeze against the skin of my back, and I can feel the chill on my arms. I look at the flag of my country in the pot—dawn’s early light, and it’s still there, waving o’er the land of the free.
I think about my country. I worry about it. It seems we just can’t get things together. We have a violent past, a dark history. The natives who were living on this land when we arrived? We killed them, we ran them west—my own ancestor John Mahaffey was a savage Scots-Irish Indian fighter on the frontier of Pennsylvania and Ohio. He was also a revolutionary soldier. I have part of his original tombstone in my back yard. I’m proud of my fourth great grandfather who made this a country . . . even though it became a country by killing and taking.
Family land that I now own in Mississippi has seventy-five Choctaw Indian graves on it. They used to be marked with red-iron rocks. Now, they are not. My grandfather honored that graveyard, but my grandmother’s brother moved on the farm for a while, removed all the rocks, and plowed up the land. You can’t tell anybody was ever buried there. They’re gone, lost. I have six of those rocks now in my front flower beds. The Choctaws were pushed out of Mississippi and run off to reservations out west.
During the 1860s my great great grandfather who lived on that Mississippi land owned two slaves. Think about it. We had slaves in this country, the land of the free. One hundred years after the slaves became freedmen, they still weren’t free.
This is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. I was born and raised in Mississippi, one of the hotbeds of the civil rights movement. Three civil rights workers helping register black people to vote were murdered that summer in Philadelphia, Mississippi, just miles from my family land and the home of my grandparents.
We have a pattern in this country of doing wrongs and then overcorrecting. We have become the world’s watchdog because of this.
It now seems that because we did so much wrong, we are trying to compensate by doing what seems right and good—from offering “government money” to thousands and thousands and thousands of people who enter our country illegally to sending our sons off to faraway places to sacrifice their lives and bodies fighting for the freedom of citizens of other countries.
But you can’t right a wrong with another wrong. Somebody needs to fix things soon while that flag is still waving.
We just can’t give any more of America away. We need to hold on to America and protect Americans. The government’s first duty is to protect its citizens—their safety, their rights. We’re not. Where will Americans go when we give America away?
The sun comes up over the top of the tall house behind me.
Wake up, America.
He was one of a kind. Through all the years, I have sifted the memories down to a few that make me smile.
Like the night—a school night!—when I went out in the back yard to look for UFOs.
This was a big thing back in the 1960s. On weekend nights my friends and I occasionally drove out in the country on dark roads and scanned the sky looking for small moving objects, so hoping for an encounter. One night there were ten or eleven of us in someone’s Volkswagen. All I remember was that I was in the front with one arm over the seat, holding hands with a boy in the back. There were body limbs awry in that car. People were pushed up against and on top of my arm, and the blood circulation to my hand was cut off, but I wasn’t going to let go. We couldn’t see the sky for the body parts, but we had fun.
That night in my back yard I kept watching a tiny lighted object moving north to south at a very slow speed. I ran in and told Dad, who followed me willingly out and viewed with me. After a while he said, “I think you’re right. We better go check this out. Let’s get away from the town lights.” I asked him if we could pick up my friend Gerri, and he said to tell her to bring binoculars. So there we were, nine o’clock dark on a country road between Boyle and Skene with cotton fields pressing up to the narrow strip of asphalt, parked on a turnrow, looking up at a starlit sky, convinced we were seeing a UFO and beings from another planet.
Next month I’m going to a famous, secret UFO place. I will ride on the Extraterrestrial Highway to the town of Rachel, Nevada. Remember the movie Independence Day? A trailer park scene in the movie was filmed here. I will order an Alien Burger at the diner A’Le’Inn. I will explore Groom Lake Road for thirteen miles before I get to the border of Area 51. There are road sensors buried in the ground to give Area 51 security an early warning of approaching vehicles. There are security cameras and Cammo Dudes who sit at the top of the hill, and if anyone tries to enter Area 51, the Dudes will pull them out of their car and slam them face down on the ground and hold them at gunpoint while they call the Lincoln County Sheriff. I play by the rules so I will not go too close, and I plan to hightail it out of there before the Cammo Men can rough me up.
Area 51 is a top-secret military test and development facility, owned and operated by the US Air Force. It is located within the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), 85 miles north of Las Vegas. It is operated as Detachment 3 of the Air Force Flight Test Center, headquartered at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
In 1989 according to the Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce, a resident claimed that he had worked with alien spacecraft at Papoose Lake about 35 miles south of Rachel—the location of Area 51. He claimed he saw nine flying saucers in a hangar built into a hillside. Since then, UFO enthusiasts have flocked to the area to look for UFOs.
LAS VEGAS (AP) August 16, 2013 — UFO buffs and believers in alien encounters are celebrating the CIA’s clearest acknowledgement yet of the existence of Area 51, the top-secret Cold War test site that has been the subject of elaborate conspiracy theories for decades.
The recently declassified documents have set the tinfoil-hat crowd abuzz, though there’s no mention in the papers of UFO crashes, black-eyed extraterrestrials or staged moon landings.
For a long time, U.S. government officials hesitated to acknowledge even the existence of Area 51.
The CIA history released [August 16] not only refers to Area 51 by name and describes some of the aviation activities that took place there, but locates the Air Force base on a map, along the dry Groom Lake bed.
It also talks about some cool planes, though none of them are saucer-shaped…
It’s not the first time the government has acknowledged the existence of the super-secret, 8,000-square-mile installation. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush referred to the “location near Groom Lake” in insisting on continued secrecy, and other government references date to the 1960s…
[Some] are taking the document as a sign of loosening secrecy about the government’s activities in the Nevada desert.
The site is known as Area 51 among UFO aficionados because that was the base’s designation on old Nevada test site maps. The CIA history reveals that officials renamed it “Paradise Ranch” to try to lure skilled workers, who can still be seen over Las Vegas flying to and from the site on unmarked planes.
Beginning with the U-2 in the 1950s, the base has been the testing ground for a host of top-secret aircraft, including the SR-71 Blackbird, F-117A stealth fighter and B-2 stealth bomber. Some believe the base’s Strangelovian hangars also contain alien vehicles, evidence from the “Roswell incident” — the alleged 1947 crash of a UFO in New Mexico — and extraterrestrial corpses…
Even for those who do not believe in UFOs, the mystery surrounding the site — situated about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, across miles of desert speckled with Joshua trees and sagebrush — has been a boon.
Small-town restaurants along State Route 375, officially designated the Extraterrestrial Highway, sell souvenir T-shirts to tourists making their way to the boundary of Area 51, which consists of a no-trespassing sign, an armed guard on a hill and a surveillance camera. [AP Press Release, yahoo.com]
Dad, you are now up in the skies, and you know the truth. You know how big the universe is, and you know what eternity and infinity mean and what role the Earth plays in eternity and infinity. You know if I’m just chasing rabbits in the desert or if there’s really something to all this stuff. Me? Same as back then when I was just a girl with you under a cool Mississippi night sky and watched a tiny light move south and believed with all my heart.
I sure wish you were still here and you could go with me to Area 51. Judi’s going. Maybe we’ll take some Delta dirt from our old back yard and leave there where the extraterrestrials fly.
What do I really want to do? After I finished the memoir of loss, grief, and rebuilding, I was spent. I had pulled up my soul again and again and again in the writing and editing process. I walked through the darkness and dwelt there as I lay words across the page.
I haven’t been writing. Well, maybe a blog piece here and there and once, what I perceived as a first chapter of a book. And professionally, I am writing a book on writing, so that should count for something. But it doesn’t satisfy that innate need to see the world in a unique way, to see a story, to see something that strikes me as being significant and memorable. I need to figure this out because it is bugging me.
Maybe I want to return to what I started out doing—personal essays, little stories about things I encounter. Stories about family, place, the past, nature around me. Stories that are nostalgic, thought provoking, soothing; stories that bring a smile and a nod.
Years ago, when I first started sharing my work at Barnes and Noble monthly writers open mic nights, Robbie Bryan, Community Relations Manager, led me to the stacks and pulled out a book titled Due South by R. Scott Brunner—Memoir/Essay. “This is what you’re doing,” he said. “Buy it, read it. You could publish a collection like this.” Hence, Pink Butterbeans, my collection of fifty stories. (Yep. Wacky title. I wanted something feminine and Southern. My husband helped me brainstorm title possibilities on a trip all the way to Boone, North Carolina. He didn’t like this one, but I picked it—pun intended—and I’m still glad I did.)
Brunner has titles like “Mother’s Greasy Bible,” “The ‘Bless Your Heart’ Rules,” and “Turnip Greens at 33,000 Feet.” Brunner says the South is “not a region, not lines on a map, not stereotypes of belles and bubbas and poverty and racism, but a sense of place. It’s an understanding of who we are; it’s a recollection of the past and a genuine hope for the future; and it’s a set of more widely held attitudes of kindness and civility and appreciation.”
I have titles like “Grandpa’s Watermelon Patch,” “Opa Boof’s Chocolate Chess Pie,” and “Grandma’s Porch.” I say, “Time spent on Grandma’s front porch after vigorous play was a serendipitous part of becoming whole. Time spent in a slowed-down world. Time to think and observe, to fit into the scheme of extended family, to mesh activity with reflection. Becoming happens in the quiet reflective phase . . .
“I yearn for the peace I knew back then. I yearn for time—simple, still, suspended. I yearn to be cocooned at Grandpa’s knee, mesmerized by his slow rocking and tales told in a slow, Southern drawl. To return once again to the summers of yesteryear on Grandma’s front porch.”
Maybe I need to go home again.