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.
I find satisfaction in planting a seed and watching the energy of life sprout out of the earth, in watching the plant grow up and bear food. It’s the love of dirt and growing things that compels me to put out a few tomato plants every year.
In early spring, I plant. Then I tend, water, weed, and wait.
In high summer, I pick fat, red, and ripe tomatoes off the backyard vines. Homegrown varieties, all with the smell and taste of the sun and earth packed inside.
The first tomato always goes to an old-fashioned, country-style tomato sandwich. The recipe is simple. Pick one garden-grown, softball-sized tomato, still warm from the vine. Place it on a cutting board. Cut a 3/8” slice crosswise into slippery, orange-red pulp, through a sunburst of yellow, as seeds and juice spill out. Smother two slices of white bread with liberal swirls of creamy mayonnaise. The slice of tomato should cover the slice of bread, touching brown crust on all four sides, leaving only slight triangular corners. Salt sparingly. Pepper. Savor the first bite, letting the juices trickle down your chin.
I wonder if a little rock on a beach can last seventy years.
My friend Judy just got back from a trip to Paris and a visit to the Normandy beach. She posted on Facebook: “The most important place I wanted to see was the Normandy Beach Memorial . . . There are signs stating what a special place it is and to keep quiet as you walk through the cemetery where 10,000 soldiers are buried, and you could feel that you were in a special place . . . I got even more touched when we walked down to the beach at Omaha and looked up where the soldiers had to get on the beach out of boats and scale the bluffs in spite of all the bunkers that were built on the top, and the Germans could shoot down at the soldiers, and you wonder how they were able to overcome . . . All you can do is stand there and know you are on a special piece of land, and you realize that tears are streaming down your face . . . and you just say a prayer for all those soldiers that were killed and the ones that were saved . . . .”
I commented: “My daddy landed there during the war . . . and my best friend’s father was actually in the battle there, injured, fingers shot off, and had to hide in the wreckage and tread water for two days before being rescued.”
Judy invited me over for dinner and muscadine wine and told me she picked up five rocks on the beach, and she wanted to give me one because my father was there. We sit at the table, the rocks between us. She describes her emotions while at that beach. I tell her it’s because of all the souls lost there, still there. She tells me I can pick out the rock I want.
I put my fingers around the pale blue-gray pebble, pick it up, and look at it sitting in the palm of my hand. It is cold sitting against my skin. It has pock marks like craters and lines and holes that have been washed deep and smooth by the waves of time washing over. It is two inches long and the shape of a footprint.
My father’s footprints are there.
Seventy years ago during full moon on June six, three hundred twenty thousand feet landed along a fifty-mile stretch of the coastline at Normandy. Eighteen thousand feet did not make it past that day. By July four, two million feet had tromped across the pebbles on the beach. All those feet began a march across Europe to defeat Hitler.
Three months later on September twenty-third, my dad landed on that beach near Cherbourg. The foot shape of the rock I selected from Judy’s treasures reminds me of his movement from the ship to the landing craft to the water at the beach’s edge. I want to think that his boots stepped on this very rock on his way to war.
Dad was in the Tenth Armored Division, Third Army, under General Patton. He once told me: “It wasn’t safe to enter at Cherbourg in a large vessel because of all the wreckage, so we boarded small landing craft out in the ocean. Many ships had been sunk there, and some of their tops stuck up out of the water. There were huge balloons up in the air over us to protect us from being strafed by German planes. The balloons looked to be as big as our house and were attached to the ground with long ropes or metal wire. I walked on shore through bodies and still bloody water.”
Dad was twenty-two then, a boy from a small farm in Mississippi. A boy who quickly became a man.
“War is hell,” Dad said.
“War is a bloody, killing business,” General Patton told the soldiers. “You’ve got to spill their blood, or they will spill yours. Rip them up the belly. Shoot them in the guts. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt off your face and realize that instead of dirt, it’s the blood and guts of what once was your best friend beside you, you’ll know what to do!”
From Cherbourg Dad marched on across France, Belgium, and Germany and was in the big battles—he got a Bronze Star with Valor at Trier and was pinned down at Bastogne. Dad was a front line medic and saw things no boy should ever have to see, but boys do see these things when they serve their country in war.
My rock. A footprint. Boots on the ground. Dad’s boots.
The memory lasts.