Wednesday, I drove through cloudbursts of snow flurries, west from Nashville, to Jackson, to Bolivar before the flakes subsided. It’s always good to cross that Mississippi state line! I arrived in Oxford about three, checked in at the Inn at Ole Miss, and took the shuttle to the Square. In bitter cold temps, I walked and window-shopped around the entire Square and snapped a picture of Faulkner to prove I’m really here. I ate at the Downtown Grill, then browsed through Square Books. I bought Haven Kimmel’s second memoir She Got Up Off the Couch and Dinty W. Moore’s memoir, Between Panic & Desire. I’ll be heading to Dinty’s workshop in about fifteen minutes. Dinty will be on Thacker Mountain Radio tonight.
Hey to Currie and Colleen! Gotta run to class!
“My mommy is gone to the
Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference
in Oxford, Mississippi, and I don’t have anybody to play with.”
(High Fashion Dogwear by UdogU)
“In the name of freedom, America is mutilating [that country]. In the name of peace, America turns that country into a wasteland. And in the name of democracy, America is burying its own dreams. ”
Leaflet, Students for a Democratic Society
Americans had never fought a war like it. It was the most unpopular conflict in American history. It was the nation’s first defeat. It was Vietnam.
In April of 1967, my biggest worry was the wrinkle in my stockings in my Senior Favorite picture for the Delta Daze, the school yearbook. I was sitting beside Bobby Cox in a glider in someone’s flower garden for the photo session. He had his arm behind me on the back of the swing and appeared cool, casual, and sexy. I was poised — back straight, chin up, hands folded in my lap, wearing a flower print dress with a white Peter Pan collar and white patent shoes with a double strap. I must’ve twisted my stocking when I put it on that morning, because in the final shot, there was that wrinkle running diagonally down the side of my left calf to my ankle. And it would remain there, stuck to the page of time, for all succeeding generations to see.
That day, I drove my green 1960 Ford Fairlane 500 with the long fins to the photo shoot, and Anna M. rode with me. In the Superlatives, I’d won Class Favorite, and she was Miss CHS, Sophisticated Senior, and a Beauty. I rolled my window down an inch and let hot wind blow in, as we drove out Highway 8 East, chatting and listening to WHBQ and “I’m A Believer” and “Light My Fire.” It was one of those steamy mornings that could melt the make-up right off your face. Instead of worrying about my Cover Girl, I should’ve paid more attention to my Hanes.
“We should’ve caught that,” the editor of the annual said, “and stopped it.”
“Maybe no one will see it,” I said, hoping people would pay heed to my cute shoes, the arch of my eyebrows, or the big pearl and diamond ring my parents had just given me for graduation.
But people always notice wrinkles.
Other than that wrinkle, and maybe trying to dog paddle out of senior math — a friendly term for trigonometry — with my head above water, it was a jubilant time. It was the season for senior parties, Cotillion, senior prom, Class Day, and graduation gifts. It was a time for bonding with friends before closing the chapter of carefree childhood and moving on to college and all the world had to offer.
Yet there was one more wrinkle in the elation of the season. Halfway around the world, half a million boys just a year or two out of high school were fighting a bloody war, getting shot, getting maimed, getting blown up. They waded through flooded rice paddies full of leeches that stuck to them and had to be burned off with cigarettes, or they trudged through jungles, encountering mines, mortar shells rigged to tripwires, booby traps, pits with poison-tipped bamboo stakes, spears lashed to bent saplings, and the enemy darting from hidden tunnels in ambush, raging to kill.
The debacle of war in Vietnam had been going on since I was a baby, when President Truman sent military aid and soldier-advisers. The Soviet leader Kruschev told us, “We will bury you.” Communism was an evil menace that had swept over Vietnam, and if that tiny country fell, it was likely the whole world would go. President “I Like Ike” said, “You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is a certainty that it will go over very quickly.”
In April of 1967 the biggest military offensive of the war was taking place — a surge of troops sent to Operation Junction City, an 82-day search and destroy operation, that turned out to be successful, but when the troops left, the enemy covered it up again.
The war took place in my living room. The evening news played it — clips of soldiers running with big guns, orange smoke and the fire of bomb blasts, flag-draped coffins coming home instead of live boys, and those infernal helicopters playing the sound of war. Medevacs dropping in to unload fresh soldiers and load up the wounded made deep haunting blade sounds, a whir mixed with rapid beats moving faster than a knife cutting celery on a chopping block. The sound of the blades echoed through my living room, into the kitchen where Mama was cooking supper, into the bedroom where my sister and I were doing homework and listening to records — “The Beat Goes On,” “There’s a Kind of a Hush-sh-sh.”
Thousands of boys were dying in a fury and firestorm, while I slept in my own cozy bed at night beside a picture of my boyfriend in his basketball uniform, ate Mama’s roast beef and mashed potatoes and two-layer chocolate cake, and worried about wrinkles in my stocking.
It all came home to rest one Saturday afternoon when I saw a black car without whitewalls on its tires drive up in front of the house across the street. The boy who lived there was my age, had dropped out of high school, joined up, went to Vietnam. I watched as two soldiers in dress uniforms, pressed to perfection, got out of the car, stopped at the end of the sidewalk, straightened their jackets, straightened their shoulders, then took the first step together and walked in cadence to the front door. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, but I later realized, after word got out and Mama took food over.
A wrinkle, in the name of freedom, in the name of peace, in the name of democracy…
Getting together with friends gives good laughter and great storytelling. Saturday night, Brentwood Grille gave us a long table in a corner because they knew we’d be a rowdy bunch. How did they know? I told them.
In this group are a dentist, an illustrious high school football coach who always wins the state championship, a few educators, an insurance associate, a national retail store manager turned banker, a Fortune 50 corporate executive turned entrepreneur, and a writer. Six of this bunch are from West Tennessee, four are Foster “cousins,” three graduated from high school together, and a few of us spouses just hang out and roll our eyes at small town Huntingdon news and towns like Jumbo and Westmoreland and concrete mixer drivers and cases of orange baseball caps — bills only — that got delivered from one of this bunch to my front door. Then I store the stories, all this fresh fodder, in the back of my mind to bring out at some appropriate time.
The weather map may be pink — ice and snow! — slightly west and north, but my backyard is yellow. My daffodils are blooming.
Obviously, I didn’t plant them deep enough when my sister gave me the transplants 13 years ago, so they don’t have far to go when they start to rise. Not long after New Year’s they come out of the ground, and they bloom around Valentine’s Day.
I am not a poet, but I wrote a piece about these daffodils years ago, just because, titled “Judi’s Daffodils Transplanted.”
Transplanted in new earth…
A fresh attempt at life,
A chance to blossom anew,
Potential of beauty and purpose.
Bulbs bursting forth with life,
Testing the warmth of the sun,
Risking all for fleeting beauty
And brief purpose.
Alas! The icy wind.
The harshness of life.
Tender blades recoil in shock.
Limp, bowed to the ground.
Entombed for a season.
Hope deferred. . .
I went to Ron Firmin’s booksigning Saturday afternoon at Landmark Booksellers in downtown Franklin. I met Ron last June at the Tennessee Writers Alliance conference. Ron had a work in progress then, met with an agent during the conference, and now his book is a reality. Ron called Friday with the news about his signing and was excited about sharing this attractive gem of a book, chock-full of tips and advice on building a strong financial future.
Ron made a fortune and lost it — lost over three million dollars and started over at an age when most people are contemplating retirement. Fire Your Financial Planner contains twenty-one lessons on how to make the most of your assets and how to limit your spending — valuable lessons he learned the hard way.
Ron signed a book for me, and I’ve started digging through it. So far, I’ve learned the Rule of 72 and have great plans to take my little pot of gold and double it. He says it’s not too late to begin to plan for and create a financially strong retirement account.
Ron’s next book will be about China — can’t wait for that one!
Sometimes my jaw drops at the audacity of some in this great nation. They believe we are charged with “spreading democracy around the world.” Our leaders tell other nations they should have a democracy, like us, and they should let their people live free. Did they have their heads in the clouds growing up, like I did? Or did they miss class the day American history was taught? Because our country hasn’t always been free. Some of us have, but some of us haven’t. Some of us came to this country for freedom, and some were brought to be slaves.
Freedom is when everybody is free. Because of the place and time I grew up, I can’t write a memoir without talking about that.
It was the White South. If I were to make a fist, closed up tight like a cotton boll, and then open it to the point to where my fingertips just barely didn’t touch each other, like burs separating to hold fluffed cotton, it would be a representation of my life, growing up. That fluff was me, contained, held in place, protected. I was detached from issues that defined my world.
I only knew life at my fingertips. I was busy being a kid. It was a rich time, and even for folks who didn’t have a lot of money, like Mama and Dad, we still had a lot of new gadgets and toys and dreams, and I knew that anything was possible in my world. Mama and Dad had grown up during the Great Depression, fought and won a world war, and now, they were going to make darn sure my sister and I had every opportunity they didn’t have.
A few months before I started kindergarten at Hill Demonstration School on the college campus six blocks from my house, the Supreme Court said that “separate but equal” had no place in public education. I was too little to know what that meant, if I even knew about it. It certainly didn’t affect me. Life at my fingertips had always been separate—all white schools with kids just like me. In the days that followed, though, my vocabulary grew to take in new words: integrate, integrated, integration. I also learned the cheer that other kids were chanting: “Two, four, six, eight. We don’t want to integrate.” I was attuned to anything with rhythm and rhyme.
At the beginning of third grade, over in Arkansas, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort black children to an all-white school in Little Rock. I watched it happening live, in black-and-white, on TV. I heard the term “integration” again. But other things occupied my thoughts in those days. Mama was my third-grade teacher, and I had to call her Mrs. Hardy like all the other kids, and all in the world I wanted was to be normal like everybody else. I didn’t want everyone thinking I was getting special treatment because of my status as the teacher’s child. I wanted to be equal.
In third grade, a girl knew she was popular if she could get on the merry-go-round at recess, and the other kids did the pushing. I was privileged. I stood on that round platform with my friends Jacqueline and Mary Sue and held on tight to the bars, and the other children pushed us, and I laughed and let my hair blow. I don’t think they ever got a ride. I told them once they could have a turn, but they said no, it was okay.
When I started sixth grade, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were running against each other for president. Mama sat me down and told me we were “unpledged” and “don’t tell anybody who we are voting for because Dad’s customers might get upset and quit coming to him.” I didn’t know who they were voting for anyway, so it didn’t really matter. But Mama had never gotten so serious with me before, so I got the idea that something was up.
Yet life at my fingertips consisted of a boyfriend named Scotty and a whole new wardrobe of dresses and skirts and sweaters from the Sears catalog and Frehling’s dress shop. There was boy-girl softball at recess, and I played in a dress with full petticoats under it. Sometimes, I took off my shoes and played barefooted. Sometimes, I stuck sticks down in doodlebug holes.
The summer after sixth grade there were Freedom Riders. To be honest, I really couldn’t understand if people were saying Freedom Riders or Freedom Writers, so when I repeated that term, I said it so it would sound like either one. I didn’t understand what it was all about. But there was a lot of talk going on, mostly about “troublemakers” and “stirring things up.” “They should stay in their place,” some said. That meant separate. Separate waiting rooms at doctors’ offices, separate schools, separate seating at the movies, separate public restrooms, separate water fountains. Separate churches. They had their own separate cafes, but then they began to have “sit-ins” at lunch counters at Woolworth’s in faraway places, but not in my town.
This was about the time The Twist came about, when Chubby Checker introduced the song and dance on American Bandstand. I went to 4-H camp that summer and saw the older girls and boys doing it, and I did, too. I knew things would be different after that.
In junior high, my school closed the day James Meredith integrated Ole Miss. Leaders were afraid there would be trouble. Everybody was afraid of what it was going to bring. But me, I had penny loafers and Piccolinos and a black leather jacket and a charm bracelet, and I learned to “rat” my hair. I had a crush on an Australian boy who moved to town and started high school. The biggest concern of my day was getting the timing right after third period so I’d be passing through the corridor between the junior high and high school at the same time he’d be coming the other way to go to the lunchroom, just so I could say hey. That’s as far as it ever got.
The summer after eighth grade, Medger Evers was gunned down in Jackson. I saw it on the news and heard talk. People feared there might be trouble. Then Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream that one day … sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
As for this great-great-granddaughter of a slave owner, I could only see as far as the end of my arm. I had a new friend named Linda Gail, I’d be going to a new school, I learned to wear my hair in a flip, and I had Pep Squad tryouts. I discovered The Varsity, with its juke box and hamburgers. And I had to find just the right shade of pink lipstick.
In ninth grade in the middle of Mississippi History, the intercom came on. Another rocket had launched, we thought, because Mr. Crain always turned it on when we shot one into space. There was so much static we could barely hear. Gunshots. In Dallas. Parkland Hospital. The president. Dianne Bobo started to cry. Some were saying good, serves him right, he deserves it because he was the civil rights president. Many of us didn’t go immediately to the gravity of the moment. But then, a pause. And the announcement was made. “The president of the United States is dead.” And then it was recess, and it was raining that Friday afternoon, and we stood outside under the canopy at the entrance to Margaret Green Junior High, stunned, and all we could say was I can’t believe this, as cold chills and a sense of loss and a loss of innocence covered us.
It was all uncovered and laid bare — all the wrongs — the cancer that was eating to our core.
I knew things would be different after that.
I saw that freedom didn’t come easy, that it would come hard and painful and with a high price.
At daylight the snow began to fall hard. The street and sidewalks were white, and rooftops were covered, like frosting on a cake. From my upstairs office window, I watched the snowflakes float and fall, so soft, pure, and peaceful. The whole world outside my window was white for a while.
I was reminded of the dance of the snowflakes when I stopped in Publix this afternoon. There was a shiny grand piano in the Flower Center at the entrance to the market. It played by itself — the keys plucked a melody on their own, marching up and down, reminiscent of the rhythm of the falling flakes. The piano was surrounded by bouquets and vases of roses — pink, yellow, red, white — for Valentine’s Day tomorrow. I stood in the aisle for a moment and watched people shop for their sweethearts — old men, young men, boys, men in work clothes, men in suits, women — buying flowers and chocolates and cards. It was uplifting, the polka of snowflakes and the curling of rose petals.
Since I’ve been writing so much about the past, growing up in the 50s and 60s in the “most southern place on earth,” the Mississippi Delta, this day of softness and white brought to mind something from back then. The white of cotton and the hum, hiss, and bang of the compress on Memorial Drive in Cleveland. It was about six blocks from my house, a long, low, red, wooden series of buildings that made bales out of ginned cotton.
On cool fall evenings during cotton picking time, I’d leave my bedroom window open and listen to the compress churning with urgency. My bed was on the southeastern wall of the back bedroom, the same direction as the compress. The window was at the end of the bed. When all the lights were off — and after my sister stopped throwing bobby pins at me from her twin bed — I’d switch positions and put my pillow at the foot. But I’d prop my chin on the sill and look out into the blackness. I was lulled by a sprinkling of stars above, a heady scent of honeysuckle from the back fence, and the sound of crickets outdone by the hissing and clanging at the compress. God was on his throne and all was right with the world then.
It was my world, and I was safe and secure in its sounds … wrapped, wombed. It put me to sleep.
By day, I could see the highways and back roads lined with cotton fluff after it blew off the trailers during transport to the gin. Until I followed the marked path out of that place, I didn’t begin to see the real world, for mine had only existed at my fingertips, a hand closed up, like a boll.
Today, while attempting an edit — this blog isn’t called First Draft for nothing — of my post “War Stories” [1/28/08], I was trying to figure out how to make it more compelling, more than just a dad telling his little girl about the war. I wanted to capture the reader, as well as to enlighten the reader, without the drone of a simple story style of baring the facts. In other words, a re-make of the post. But how?
Then I sucked in a breath, my jaws tingled, my nostrils got tight and stung. I remembered.
At Lee Gutkind’s “The 5 R’s of Creative Nonfiction Workshop” in Oxford, Mississippi last September, I was immersed in the best example of creative nonfiction I’ve ever heard. After spending a day at the master’s feet, learning that the building blocks of CNF are scenes and stories, that the writer should train himself to look at the piece from the perspective of the reader, that the writer should look at his work the way an engineer looks at a bridge — to see the blueprints, the way it is put together, to be sure it comes together the right way. Good writing is the constant manipulation of the reader — capture and keep. The writer creates a vibrant connection between the reader, the character, and the place.
When I thought the day was done and the workshop was over, Lee said he was going to play a tape for us. He pressed a button on a boom box set up at the front of the room. Click, a hard plastic sound, a second of static, then instruments and voices.
Witness to an Execution documents the minute-by-minute process of carrying out an execution by lethal injection and the stories of those who do it at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Texas is home to one-third of all executions in the U.S. It’s one thing when a society says, yeah, we’re tough on crime, kill the son-of-a-bitch, he deserves it. But it’s another thing entirely to be one of the persons paid to carry out the death sentence, one who prepares and escorts a living, breathing human to that last breath in the death chamber, and looks into his eyes as the curtain drops and it is finished.
“My name is…and I have been with 114 people at the time of their execution.” “My name is…and I have witnessed 170 executions.” “I witnessed 52 executions.” “I’ve overseen about 75 executions at the Walls Unit…. ”
The introductions come fast, one on top of the other, so that you almost stop breathing as you listen. The story is narrated by the warden, who says, “I’m gonna start our story where the execution process really begins. At five minutes to six, I’m sitting in my office. I get up from my chair, put on my jacket, and walk back to the death house” where the inmate has spent the afternoon with the chaplain. At 6:00, a call comes from the governor and the attorney general, giving the go-ahead. “I go down there and I call his name and tell him it’s time to come with me to the next room.”
The warden tells the condemned man to sit on the gurney and lie down with his head on the pillow. The metal gurney has white pads and brown straps with big silver buckles. Each person on the tie-down team is assigned a different portion of the inmate’s body — head, right arm, left arm, right leg, left leg. Simultaneously while he is lying down, each team member puts a strap across his portion. All done in 30 seconds. Some inmates cry, some sweat, some have the smell of anxiety, of fear. The medical team inserts needles and IVs. The chaplain puts his hand on the inmate’s leg, below the knee. He “can feel the trembling, the fear that’s there, the heart surging…You can see it pounding through their shirt.” Witnesses are escorted in, the condemned man says his last words, and the warden gives the signal to the executioner behind a mirrored glass window by removing his glasses. The lethal injection begins to flow — three drugs that do the job. At 6:20 a doctor pronounces death.
On the tape, each person on the execution team describes his part and the details he remembers and the impact it has — short tight sentences that come quick and linger and haunt.
We in the classroom were there in that death chamber. We heard voices, we heard metal sounds, we heard doors close, we heard hearts beat. We learned the facts about how an inmate is put to death. We felt the emotions. Sniffles sounded across the room. We were immersed, engaged, affected.
I could feel the leg of the condemned man tremble uncontrollably under my hand those last few seconds.
I need to be able to accomplish this effect in “War Stories.” How in the world am I going to do that? I must take my trusty yellow magic marker and begin. I’ve got lots of crafting to do.
NOTE: For all interested creative nonfiction writers, Lee Gutkind, the Godfather behind Creative Nonfiction, will be holding “The 5 R’s of Creative Nonfiction workshop in Franklin, Tennessee, September 13, 2008. ASK ME FOR MORE INFO.
Three weeks from today, the Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference will be held in Oxford, Mississippi.