I always had horrible migraines. It is one of the two constants of my life, so far back as I can remember, until I reached middle age — when migraines usually become less frequent, and more to the point, when ibuprofen became an over-the-counter drug and I could take as much of it as I needed. I am told there were unexplained crying spells when I was an infant, and of course as soon I was able, I began to complain of headaches. And that set me on my course to Mississippi.
My mother was an intelligent woman in a difficult position, but her intelligence had limits and one of her limitations was her abiding faith in experts. She had once considered a career in medicine herself, and to that end attended Rice Institute (now Rice University), her admission being somewhat facilitated by the fact of many men of college age being away at war and her having an uncle on the board of regents. But failing quantitative analysis three times running put an end to her thoughts of a medical career. Nonetheless, she eventually completed a degree in biology, which when hard times came served her (and me) by allowing her to become a high school biology teacher with an emergency teaching certificate. Being the woman she was, she soon undertook to remove the "emergency" from her certificate by taking the required education and psychology courses. She believed everything she ever read in a textbook, and perhaps in the case of the psychology textbooks, this was not a good thing.
There was another rumor too. It was that three civil rights workers had been killed by the Klan and the FBI would never find their bodies because they had been buried in a dam.
For my part, I gave them every reason to think I was autistic — well, every reason but one. Of course, there wasn't any autistic in those days, at least not outside of learned journals. It was "brain damaged." But they had observed a few things about autism even then.
Everything I got that had wheels I would turn upside down so I could spin the wheels. I cannot explain my fascination with spinning wheels, entirely, but a part of it was that when you apply a force to a spinning wheel, it tends to react in what seemed me a very counterintuitive way. It just did not seem right to me, and it never did seem right to me. That cost me when I got to high school physics, but that, as they say, is another story. I can also explain, but only to a point, why I sometimes stared at bright lights. Light is very painful to migraine sufferers. But as nothing really helped the pain, and the pain was so intense, sometimes I would stare at the light. What I had in mind, although I was out of my mind in pain, was something like the thought that I could burn out the pain circuits in my brain, if I looked into the searing light — that the pain would stop if I let whatever was hurting be consumed by the light that was hurting it. Of course it did not work. Nothing worked. I would have plucked out my eyes if I had thought that would work. I did not think that would work, but there were times I thought of plucking out my eyes anyway.
Spinning wheels and staring at bright lights. Not conclusive, you know, but often observed in brain damaged children. What did not fit was my intelligence, which seemed considerable as measured by every instrument the experts had at that time. And my mother, as I have said, believed in experts. Well, autism might have been right. We now know that there are higher functioning autistic people, although what the experts knew then, I cannot say. The more I read of Asperger's syndrome, the more I think it possible that I had it, but at this stage in my life, it no longer really matters.
Meanwhile, my migraines brought me to brain damaged by another route. I was in medical hospitals many times, sometimes as an inpatient for up to a week, for nothing more than tests. I had more EEGs than I can count, and all kinds of chemistries, and so forth. The best of this I recall, was being wheeled in a chair to the radiology lab, where I sat for a while, and being wheeled back to my room. The next day they wheeled me back to the radiology lab, where a young whitecoat positioned a sort of pointy cone thing in front my throat. I was about seven at that time. "You won't find anything," I told him, "because you didn't give me the isotope when I was here yesterday." I thought he would faint.
When he had composed himself, he looked at my chart, which evidently said that I had been given the isotope, and he went back to positioning his instrument, which in the fullness of time, of course, revealed not a trace of radio-iodine in my throat. He left the room cursing and yelling. Then of course there were a lot of whitecoats and suits with many questions about the "very special pill," and whether I was given it, whether I spit it out, and so forth, and they would give each other significant looks when I insisted on calling the "very special pill" an isotope. Finally one of them asked me how I knew I had been supposed to get an isotope. I said that the place I was taken said "Radiology" on the door, but they had not X-rayed me the first day, and when I came back the second day, the doctor started pointing that thing at my thyroid — what else was I supposed to think? And that was the end of the questions.
Well, you know, I really did not know any anatomy, and had the concept of thyroid somewhat confused with Adam's apple, but nuclear medicine was a big damn deal at the time, and America was saturated with propaganda about every possible peaceful use of Our Friend the Atom including many films, so I didn't even have to read very well — although I did read rather well for a seven-year-old — to obtain the facts I needed to startle them. I think it was remarkable that I could make the deductions I made in those circumstances, but I really did not know much about what was going on, or what they were doing to me. They could have made a million different mistakes (and perhaps they did) in which I would have been none the wiser, but they happened to make one where I knew a few facts. I had no idea what a thyroid did, or why they were interested in mine, and I was not a medical Rainman or anything. But it cut out the I-am-dealing-with-an-infant bedside manner of some of the whitecoats, although in some cases that was replaced with I-may-be-dealing-with-a-Martian, which I still reckon was an improvement.
Eventually the EEGs did come up with something. They called it a "left temporal spike" and prescribed Dilantin™. Now I do not know whether they were entirely frank with me in suggesting that my migraines were related to what they found on the EEGs. Aside from my migraines having started in early childhood or infancy, that I was male, and that the so-called "Ramparts Syndrome" — the jagged shimmering zigzags in my field of vision — seemed to occur independently of the headaches instead of as their precursor, I have classical migraines. I am not so sure now that they thought treating the spike would help the migraines, or whether they held out that promise to try to get me to comply with the treatment for the spike. At the time, I took them at their word, took the Dilantin™, and when after several weeks I had a migraine anyway, I stopped taking the Dilantin™ on any regular basis, which I accomplished simply by not reminding my mother to give it to me. Occasionally she would realize it was time for a refill, but the bottle was still full, and she would threaten me with the possibility of a seizure — which threat she also used from time to time to prevent my going swimming or something — but since I'd never had a seizure, I was unimpressed by the threat and eventually the issue of Dilantin was forgotten as were the threats of seizures.
it was discovered that the diplomas he had on his wall were all forgeries
The experts, however, had convinced her that I was brain damaged — which was true so far as it went — but it set her even more firmly on the course of consulting all kinds of experts, and my life was punctuated with all kinds of medical and psychological testing and interviews with numerous, mostly unpleasant, experts. In the meantime I became an adolescent, and a fairly unruly one at that. I was in serious trouble in school several times, and sometimes I did not come home at night.
So it was that some time in the spring of 1964 I found myself in the office of yet again another psychologist. But he was not a psychologist, you know. A year or so later he was accused of interfering with some patients and it was discovered that the diplomas he had on his wall were all forgeries, and fairly crude ones at that, and that he had been receiving kickbacks for some of his referrals of troubled youth to various private schools. He was a perfect gentleman with me however, although by that time I had been around the block a few times and I knew an old queen when I saw one. And it began with the usual battery of tests. He had them all, and I had taken all of them before. Some place in there he slipped me the psycho test. This is the one that tries to determine if you are a pathological liar by such subterfuges as asking you whether you always tell the truth in all circumstances and then on the assumption that you will tell the truth tries to determine if you are a psycho by asking you flat out whether you torture little animals much or have set fire to a nursing home recently or whether the voices in your head often ask you to kill anyone in particular.
I recognized this test, so I knew right away the homo questions would be in it. Now I had always lied about the homo questions before. Indeed, when I first got EEGs, when I was six or seven, my main concern was that they could read my mind and tell I was gay. That was not entirely a fantasy of my own making as the Donovan's Brain scenario was a staple of science fiction at the time. And of course it was the '50s, so if they could tell I was gay, I knew my life would be as good as over. But by the spring of 1964, the few close friends I had knew anyway, and I had read the old queen who was giving the test, and basically I just did not give a damn anymore, so I answered the homo questions honestly.
Afterward, I had the supposedly super confidential interview with the pretend psychologist in which anything I said would not be relayed to my mother, which I did not believe for one second — but I never could tell if he had told her, and it was really rather dry. You're a very bright young man, yadda, yadda, yadda, indicates you can accomplish anything you set out to do yadda, yadda, yadda, entirely normal except you indicated you have had some homosexual experiences, is that accurate? And I said, yes it is accurate, and I was very surprised that that was that. Interview over.
To this day, I don't really know what was in his mind, but he prescribed summer school in a military academy in Mississippi. Since, as was later revealed, he got kickbacks for this kind of referral, there may be no point in trying to read anything into it. Still — summer school in an all boys school in Mississippi where there was no air conditioning and everyone runs around in, at most, underwear except to go to class or meals, communal showers — don't throw me in that briar patch! But I did not quite appreciate all the better points of the situation until I got there, so I was strongly opposed. But the guy had a diploma on his wall and my mother, as I have said, believed in experts. About the only redeeming thing about the situation was that in the summer they did not do the military thing, so there wouldn't be any drilling and saluting and stuff. There wouldn't be real uniforms, but we would wear khakis — which would come back from the local laundry like cardboard. They did not tell me about the starch beforehand. It was an unpleasant surprise when I received my first laundry back, mitigated only by the fact that it was the first time in years that I did not have to do my own laundry.
Now I have a confession to make. It is something very shameful. Those of you who have read my account of my first meeting with George Bush, the current one, know it. In 1964, I was a Republican. Okay, I have a ton of excuses. In those days, in the South, the Democrats were the party of racism and I was an anti-racist from early childhood. I was, in 1964, a Goldwater Republican, which would make me in today's political map, a libertarian. I had read Ayn Rand and everything. Unlike a lot of so-called Goldwater Republicans, I also had actually read Goldwater's stuff. I knew when he said "states' rights" he really meant "states' rights." But when he said "states' rights" most everyone else heard "Jim Crow," because "states' rights" was the code word so many of them used for "Jim Crow" in those days. It was many years before I understood that Lyndon Johnson really was the force that passed the Civil Rights Act and really was an FDR Democrat. So when summer rolled around, I shoved my footlocker which was covered with "Goldwater '64" stickers into the luggage compartment of the bus and I was off to Mississippi.
I met Chet MacArthur (not his real name; he had another famous surname) on the bus. I recall his name because of the associations of his surname, but he was certain he was no relation. He was going the same place I was, but I don't remember if I ever knew what got him committed to this fate. He had raven hair and olive skin, but with perfect English and a Scottish surname, he would pass — something that never occurred to me on the bus, but upon which my life would depend.
Chet was from McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. He spoke English without a trace of an accent, and neither of us spoke Texan — which is to say, neither of us had a discernible Southern accent. Although I think he had some experience with boarding school, and certainly seemed to have more experience traveling on his own than I did, he had never been to the school we were traveling to before. We never became great friends, but we were the only boys on the bus and it was a long ride — longer for him of course since he had started in the Valley — so we sat together in the back of the bus, chain-smoking and talking.
The bus stop in Port Gibson, like many of the stops in tiny towns, was a flag stop at an ancient gas station. We arrived after dark and an old man in a battered station wagon came to collect us. We were a day or two early for the start of the summer session and the hour was late so we were put in a room together on the ground floor of a barracks and told not to settle in too much because we were likely to be moved when the room assignments were handed out.
The old man — called "The Colonel" by everyone although I think he had introduced himself to me by name — it turned out, was the ROTC instructor in the regular session and with his wife had an apartment somewhere in the barracks. Chet and I had the rest of the barracks to ourselves. My first unpleasant discovery was biting flies. The second was that we were not allowed to smoke anywhere on the campus — which I discovered when the headmaster appeared at our door. The smoking policy was a new thing and was soon revised when the other boys — including many who had attended before under the previous, permissive smoking policy — arrived, but in the meantime, Chet and I would have to sneak around in the bushes for a few puffs. In this process, we discovered that the headmaster — a tall angular fellow with an explosive temperament — was given to sneaking around in the bushes and spying through windows, which I suppose he could pass off, if caught, as supervision.
This was the Chamberlain-Hunt Academy. But we had no idea of the lay of the land that first night. Evidently there were several other barracks, and in one of them was another boy, one who had no place to go between sessions and more to the point was a bugler of sorts. At any rate we had reveille at the crack of dawn, which was really quite irksome, but both Chet and I were happy for an early breakfast since we had nothing but bus stop sandwiches the day before. The downside to breakfast was grits. It was Mississippi.
This was my first experience with culture shock and the constant "nigger this" and "nigger that" soon had me numb. There was, of course, pervasive, thorough-going racism in Houston, but nothing like at CHA. Now, I will grant that perhaps my observations of CHA were somewhat skewed by being made in the summer session. It was after all summer school, and as a rule the better students would not be attending. Although I was poor student in the Houston schools, I was not attending CHA in the summer for academic reasons, but was there because of the quack psychologist's prescription, as an experiment to determine whether I should be committed to CHA for the remainder of my secondary education.
CHA was not yet, and I don't know if it ever became, one of the grand "white flight" academies of the South. Of course public school integration was not yet a reality in much of Mississippi. As the other boys arrived it became clear this was a huge nest of slackjawed yokels of the redneckiest variety. I hated CHA — mostly on account of the weaselly headmaster — and was appalled by the culture of the Deep South in general and Port Gibson in particular. But the truth to tell, I really wasn't as miserable as I thought I ought to be, which owed mostly to my making two or three fast friends, almost in spite of myself.
One of them was the bugler, who it turned out was a Cajun boy. I would give worlds to remember his name, but I don't, so I will call him Jimmy. Jimmy lived at the school year-around for he had no place to go on holidays and intersession breaks. Whether he had a family, broken or not, and if he did not have one who paid his tuition and board, I do not know and did not ask. He was allowed to remain in his room in his familiar barracks in the summer, in spite of it being closed because of the reduced number of students in the summer session. He had the place to himself except for the young instructor and his young wife who had an apartment in the barracks and were the subjects of some of Jimmy's bawdy stories because of a loophole in a door in their bedroom which was otherwise sealed off when their apartment had been created.
When the smoking policy was returned to normal, the designated smoking area was a small dungeon under the ancient main building. That was where all of the smokers could be found at any unregulated time of the day (and many regulated ones) and a number of the nonsmokers went there too for the company. One day when I had been at CHA a couple of weeks, Jimmy and I and a very slight, very pale boy, who I will have to call Hank for not remembering his name, were in the smoking room between classes. The only remarkable thing about the situation was that there were only three of us. As we all got up to attend our next class, the little boy — quite out of the blue — spun on his heels and punched me in the face with what must have been as much force as he could muster. He explained later that in that moment he decided that I must be a queer, which of course was an accurate observation that I wouldn't have argued with except that it bore no relationship to anything that had happened in the smoking room or the civil conversation we had just had. At any rate Jimmy promptly bloody Hank's nose.
The boy who had hit me complained that it was none of Jimmy's business and I should have defended myself in a fight that Jimmy had no part in, and what right had Jimmy to defend a queer anyway. Jimmy explained to Hank that I was "class" and a "gentleman" whereas Hank was white trash — which didn't address the queer question exactly, but was no doubt what Jimmy sincerely believed, and Hank did not ask more questions because Jimmy was the top boy both by virtue of being more familiar with CHA and of being by far the most athletic and admired boy in the school.
Now of course when you say "the South," everyone thinks race. And it is race. But that is too simplistic. Class counts for a lot. I observed the same thing many years later when I was in Atlanta for a week for a speaking engagement. Above a certain level, there still is race, but everyone contributes to maintaining the illusion that race is not an issue. At any rate, class is a big issue, and you did not have to go very far up in those days to encounter the attitude "I'd rather deal with an honest nigger than with poor white trash."
Anyway, I had been wondering why Jimmy had anything to do with me, and then I knew: he thought I was a gentleman — and by the standards of CHA, I suppose I was a near approximation. Jimmy and I had a regular mutual admiration society going, but he admired me for noble reasons, and I admired him because he was physically beautiful. So who was the gentleman?
This seemed to be a theme that was often repeated in my life. For some reason — perhaps because I made a nonthreatening confidant or an amusing sidekick or perhaps for better reasons (some of them really did think I had a fine mind) — I got along well with the leaders among men — not necessarily the ones with position, but the ones who were first among men because of the men they were. This often was taken as an affront by the men of the second rank, who thought it inappropriate for their heroes to look with favor upon me. They always want the place at the head of the table and they think they can get there by first making their way to the right hand of the man in that place. They never considered that, perhaps, I was at the right hand precisely because I deeply and sincerely did not want my companion's place. Oh, yeah, there is some Biblical stuff about this, but I had not read it at that time. I just naturally took my place at the back of the line, and when I was called to assume a place of honor, it was never my intention to humiliate those who had placed themselves ahead of me. Humiliated, they were, but it was their own doing.
Hank had managed to inflict a cut below my eye as well as a glorious shiner and Hank was bleeding profusely
Hank had managed to inflict a cut below my eye as well as a glorious shiner and Hank was bleeding profusely, so Jimmy insisted we both go to the nurse, consequences be damned. I did not think my injury was at all serious, but Jimmy knew how things were done at CHA, so I went. I was surprised that there was a little infirmary, and there was a woman who was called "the Nurse" on duty. Later, when I had migraines, I was referred to her. She could, of course, do nothing for migraines, but I could lie down in the infirmary and I would be left alone at times that lying in my bunk would be forbidden and I would not have been left alone if I had.
Two bleeding boys showed up at the same time, and she drew the obvious conclusion, which was wrong only in that I had not hit Hank. "What happened to you?" she asked me, as if there was really any question. "I ran into a door," I said, without any expectation that she might believe it. "A door, huh?" she said, and looked me in the eye. "Yes, a door," I said and I winked. Once she understood that I did not take her for a fool, but had a story I would stick to, she lightened up a bit.
My only purpose was to avoid more trouble, but this transaction impressed Hank — who had expected me to tattle. He changed his attitude very quickly. Perhaps he thought this was evidence that Jimmy's opinion of me was correct, not that it mattered whether it was correct. Jimmy's opinion was backed by Jimmy's muscle, and muscle is the most convincing sort of evidence to guys like Hank. My relationship with Hank never became what you would call warm, but thereafter he always took my side, and was more than sociable even when Jimmy was not around. The nearest we had to an altercation thereafter was a dispute occasioned by Hank's insistence that women had one more rib than men — on account of Adam, you know — a dispute that I suggested we put to the biology teacher (who was the young instructor in Jimmy's loophole stories). Unfortunately, the biology teacher refused to provide an unequivocal answer. It was Mississippi.
Now I should point out that CHA, at least at that time, was nominally a Presbyterian school, although Presbyterian of the southern kind. That made it about as liberal a sect as Christianity in the South offered. That the biology teacher at such an institution dared not to commit himself to a point of gross anatomy, seem to me to be a very telling thing. I am glad I was not enrolled in biology. The Colonel was my math instructor. He was a bit more frank with me, although he might well be since math was relatively safe from controversy. He detained me briefly after class one day and told me not to raise my hand anymore. He said he knew I always knew the answer and that he was sure I realized I was surrounded by morons. Well, I did know that, but I hadn't been sure he knew it.
I lied to the Nurse because I wanted to avoid trouble. By rights I should have been in trouble everyday. I would sneak off to town, I would cut study hall, I would get "lost" went we walked to town for church on Sunday and be "found" after services. Actually I had attended church once. It had a golden finger pointing skyward at the top of its spire, and more to the point, it preserved the shackles in the slave pews "for historical purposes," and that sickened me far more than the thousands of Christian sermons I had been forced to listen to ever had. I skipped breakfast, and so forth. All these infractions are very tame by modern standards, but were taken seriously at the time.
The problem was that we had weekly examinations in every subject, and our rankings were announced at each Wednesday's assembly, which were often jarring juxtapositions of a small devotional service and unseemly school business. I always had the top ranking both in my subjects and overall. I was the model student. This seemed as peculiar to me as it was embarrassing to the headmaster. I was told that for a time he insisted on reviewing my examinations himself and he entertained the notion that I was cribbing from other papers until it was pointed out that I often had the only correct answer to an item, which made it manifestly impossible that I copied. Something obviously had to be done.
The problem of study hall was solved with a new rule that excused the two top-ranking students from mandatory study hall for the following week. In that way, I was never guilty of cutting study hall again. (And neither was Chet, who was invariably the second-ranked student and as thoroughly astonished as I was to be so elevated.) Chet studied a little, but I never did except to skim the few literature assignments that I had not read before. The few times I had been apprehended and physically escorted to study hall, I had made a great show of not studying, sitting the whole time with my books closed on the desk in front of me and staring at the proctor. Everyone knew I did not study. So perhaps it was better for the other students not to be reminded of that by seeing me idle in study hall.
Church was a deadlock. When the headmaster threatened to drag me to the church himself, I told him that if he did, I would sit in the slave pews. That was the end of the discussion of church. I would leave for church on Sunday, but I would never get there. There was no way to paper that over. I don't know that I influenced any of the others, but after a while there were about a half-dozen boys who did not attend church but who hung around in the little town on Sunday morning. This, in a town which called its main street Church street and claimed to have more churches per capita than any other town in the world. There was even a synagogue on Church street, although of course it had been burned out, painted with swastikas, and was only a ruin.
The headmaster really, really hated me. I think his name was Crutchfield — although that may not be right. Like any such school in the South, CHA afford him the opportunity of corporal punishment, but nothing happened to me. Evidently there had been an incident with a previous student, which was especially vicious and Crutchfield had ignored the school's own standards for physical abuse and he, or what ever board governed him, had found it wise to delegate such punishments to the Colonel. That would afford Crutchfield no satisfaction, for he wanted to strangle me with his own hands, and for that reason or some other, I was immune from corporal punishment.
We, meaning my roommate and myself — eventually it was Chet again — detected him a couple of times when he spied on us through the bushes outside our window. Thereafter, we occasionally turned to the window and said "Hello, Dr. Crutchfield." Of course most of the time we did not know whether he was out there or not, but we were pretty certain we nailed him a few times when we really hadn't heard anything. He startled us a few times, too, by suddenly appearing in our door, in spite of the creaky boards in the hall floor.
Crutchfield aside, CHA was a spooky place and there were ghost stories. The stories went that either Mr. Chamberlain or Mr. Hunt had killed somebody or been killed by somebody in an impromptu duel over some election results which displeased one or the other of them. I don't really remember except that the upshot was that Mr. Chamberlain's ghost haunted Mr. Chamberlain's large Bible, which was supposed to be somewhere in the institution, and so forth. Very early on, the rumor spread that Lee Harvey Oswald had attended Chamberlain-Hunt — remember this was the summer of '64, some seven months after the assassination of John Kennedy. I did not pay much attention to the rumors, but one Wednesday assembly Dr. Crutchfield took note of the Oswald rumor enough to deny it, although he admitted Oswald's older brother and half-brother had both attended.
There was another rumor too. It was that three civil rights workers had been killed by the Klan and the FBI would never find their bodies because they had been buried in a dam.
I do not believe I saw a television set the whole time I was in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. The barracks I saw at Chamberlain-Hunt Academy had no lounges, but several of the barracks were closed for the summer except for the apartments that instructors had in each barracks. Rarely I had a glimpse of one of those apartments when someone went in or came out, and by what I saw, they were furnished to be quite homey, but I do not recall seeing a television set. I do not even know whether there was broadcast television that would reach Port Gibson. Perhaps the school library got newspapers. I never knew where the library was, and heard of it only as being the repository of Dr. Chamberlain's Bible and his ghost which guarded it.
A few of the other boys did read, and we exchanged James Bond novels. One of the boys had a collection of Wonder Warthog comics which were quite novel to me for I had never seen anything other than above-ground comics, save for a couple of Tijuana bibles. But I imagine being the librarian at Chamberlain-Hunt was the loneliest job in the world.
I had a little nine-volt transistor radio with an ear plug. I used it to listen to the Republican convention on one of the clear-channel stations. I was not much of a music fan, and certainly not of the sort of music I could receive over the air in Port Gibson. I suppose I might have searched for news, but I didn't.
So when late in June the rumor went around that the Klan had killed three civil rights workers and buried their bodies in a dam where the FBI would never find them, it was mixed up in my mind with all other kinds of lore, ghost stories, and claptrap. I didn't get real news — the sort of thing that was read by Chet Huntley — and somehow if it did not come from a television set, I guess, it did not quite register with me in the same way. Before Watergate, network news was an exercise in the journalism of credulity, but for a city boy like myself it had a stamp of authenticity. When I was cut off from the networks, it seemed to me there was no news. I did not understand that in a small, timeless town in Mississippi, rumors were the news.
Port Gibson was the seat of Chamberlain-Hunt Academy and the ass's-end of the universe. It was landlocked. The local lore was that it once had indeed been a river port, but the Mississippi had walked away from the town in the middle of the night and never returned. Smart river. The local lore was that Grant had called the town too beautiful to burn, but if there were a germ of truth in that, nothing special remained a hundred years later. Church Street was nothing more than the name the locals gave the highway as it passed through town. CHA was at the southern end of town, on the highway, on a slight elevation, where — the totally fictitious student lore had it — cadets mounted a valiant, but hopeless defense of the town (in fact, the school had not existed at the time of the Civil War). North, and downhill, on the highway was the First, and so far as I could tell, only Presbyterian Church with its gilded steeple giving the (index) finger to God. Across the highway was the burned-out, desecrated synagogue, and further down the highway were the churches of other protestant sects.
When I first started ducking Sunday services, I would break off with the other boys who claimed affiliations with other sects — and then of course I would duck out on them. This worked until I fell under Dr. Crutchfield's close scrutiny when he researched my records to discovered that nominally I was Presbyterian.
Two streets to the west of the highway was Main Street, in spite of the obvious fact that the highway was the main street. But Main Street had the obligatory Confederate statue and a little country store where the boys who ducked out of Sunday services would drink Cokes and buy cigarettes and cigarette loads. The store did a brisk business in cigarette loads, for bumming was a way of life among the students, and there were several who always bummed, and giving one of them a loaded cigarette was an entertainment that it seemed would never grow old until Jimmy declared one day that it had gotten old. They also sold a liquid breath freshener called Tips™ in tiny bottles. I suppose Tips™ had some very slight alcohol content, but it was said you could get high by mixing Tips™ in your Coke™, and I suppose we all tried it once, but there were some boys who always had Tips™ in their Cokes™.
No black people lived in Port Gibson, so far as I could see. There was a black settlement somewhere off to the north and east, which is where all the maids, chauffeurs, janitors, and cooks came from — and whether it was technically within the bounds of the town I do not know, but — so I was told — if any of them were on the white streets after dark, no matter the nature of their errand, it would be considered "very serious" — pronounced in ominous tones. There was a controversy about an old invalid white woman who wanted her maid to live in, in order to assist her at night in case of an emergency, but if that matter was ever resolved, I don't remember hearing what the resolution was.
Almost everything I ever knew of Port Gibson I picked up at the little store on Main Street. At the mention of a swimming pool my ears pricked up. It was summer in Mississippi. But after all, I came from Houston where I had never had air conditioning, so I did not find the heat unusually oppressive. But I did miss swimming. As it turned out Port Gibson did have a municipal swimming pool, but it had been closed to avoid integrating it. There was a move underway to try to form a private (i.e. whites only) country club which would buy the pool from the city for a nominal sum, and of course all white citizens would be admitted to the country club for a nominal fee, and of course the members would have unlimited privileges to admit white guests. The plans seemed to be stymied by provisions that park land was dedicated to the public in perpetuity, yadda, yadda, yadda. In any event, I couldn't go swimming.
I never quite knew the economic basis of Port Gibson's existence. All the white houses I saw seemed to indicate ample, if not lavish means. The land was very rich, for this was what they called the Delta. Now my impression from my geography classes back in Houston, was that a delta was the land deposited at the mouth of a river. But in Mississippi, the word seemed to mean all of the flood plain where nutrients from upstream were deposited. I'm not sure I have this entirely right, but certainly the white houses I saw in Port Gibson were not farmers' homes. I could not see the businesses to account for jobs for all the white people, not to mention that anything like real work was done by black people. What is more, I was assured by the locals in the little store, that the comfortable homes I saw were extremely modest in comparison to the means of the occupants. I concluded that the principal occupation of white people in Port Gibson was being rich.
I won't dwell on the horrors of racism. Three years before the thing I most wanted to do was to become a Freedom Rider. I had hated racism from the time I was very small child and had frequently been in trouble because of that. But in the summer of '64, in Mississippi, I don't know what happened to me. I had not, of course, developed any sympathy for the racists. I was absorbed in my own problems, cut off from news from the rest of the country, and numb from the constant assaults on my sensibilities. And not to put too fine a point to it, I was too cowardly to speak out where there was simply no hope of finding even one sympathetic ear. Still, in the mess hall, when the boys said "nigger" in front of the serving women, I flinched. But the serving women didn't. I marvel at their incredible strength.
Vicksburg, you see, had fallen on the 4th of July
The 4th of July was to fall on a Saturday. Almost all of the boarding students were from within the state and were to go home for a brief recess. Jimmy had no home he could go to. Chet and I were not going home, for once you deducted the bus trips from the recess, there wouldn't have been much of a holiday left. Jimmy apparently was fairly well known to the townies, and he arranged for us to have a ride to Vicksburg for the 4th of July celebration there, and even obtained leave for us to go. Apparently Dr. Crutchfield was happy to have us out of the way, for he did not look too deeply into our arrangements. The secret of this trip was that we had no way back, for the gentleman who promised us a lift was not returning right away. Our plan was to hitchhike back, and since it was only 25 miles, if worse came to worst, we could walk.
We were warned not to expect much from the 4th of July in Vicksburg. Vicksburg, you see, had fallen on the 4th of July, and the previous year had been the centennial of that event. The Mississippi Delta was a kind of time warp in which a hundred years was but a blink of the eye, and people did not think of the Fall of Vicksburg as history, but as something in their own experience. Nonetheless we were taken to a levee on an oxbow lake where we had a commanding view of a skydiver trailing smoke and landing in the lake and few pitiful fireworks. Jimmy thought we should get drunk, and this seemed agreeable to me and Chet.
Jimmy found a little diner by the highway, and told us to let him do the talking. The man behind the counter looked very sharply at Chet when we walked in, but evidently he concluded that Chet was white, or white enough. When Jimmy ordered beers the man laughed at us. But we were the only ones in the place, and he served us anyway. I think we had three or four beers there, and I suppose we would have had more, if we had not run out of money. For some reason Jimmy put salt in his beer. I'd never seen such a thing. But we did the same. I never learned why Jimmy put salt in his beer, whether it was some kind of regional thing or his own idea.
I was quite lightheaded by the time we left the diner, but no one seemed to be drunk. While we were in the diner it had become quite dark. Nonetheless, we stood by the highway and stuck out our thumbs, and in a very short time we were picked up by a black man in an old fashioned fat black car. The driver took us a few miles and stopped on the shoulder by a honky-tonk. He told us he would take us ten miles more if Jimmy would buy beer for him. You see, the driver was fully an adult (and then some) but he could not go into the honky-tonk. Jimmy was fifteen or sixteen years old, but he was white, and he could get the beer. The driver gave Jimmy the money and Jimmy went in and bought two six packs. True to his word, the driver took us another ten miles and gave us one of the six packs to boot.
We sat by the side of the road and drank the beer. We were somewhat dehydrated from sitting in the sun to watch the somber festivities in Vicksburg, and I — being very fair — had burned, and after more-or-less a six-pack apiece, we were somewhat unsteady on our feet, Chet perhaps a bit less steady than Jimmy or I was. Jimmy said, as something of an aside to me, "Did you notice we haven't seen a single car pass in either direction since we have been here?"
We reckoned we had no more than fifteen miles to go, and possibly as few as ten. But it looked like we would have to walk it. The road was hilly, so we proceeded from hill to hill and at each crest we lay down on our backs in the middle of the road and looked at the stars, which were, of course, quite breathtaking, as we could not see any man-made light in any direction. Although we had mo more beer Chet seemed to get drunker and drunker, and for a few hills Jimmy and I had to walk him between us. When we lay at the top of one hill, and it was time to move on, Jimmy and I happened to sit up simultaneously and found ourselves face to face and eye to eye. Maybe it was the beer but for once I didn't look away. When I didn't look away, Jimmy's eyes got bigger, my eyes got bigger, Jimmy's eyes got bigger again. I am certain that was when he first realized that gentleman though I might be, Hank had been right about me, and it was the first time I realized Jimmy had not known all along. "You know," he said, "if things were different …."
That was all he said then. I had heard the speech in full before and I would hear it again several times, several times too many in my life. In the weeks ahead, Jimmy and I talked about it again, without ever actually saying what it was. Fortunately, Chet seemed to get his second wind, and we were off again. As we walked ourselves stone cold sober we realized we had no idea how late it was, or how far we had come. But at last we saw headlights coming toward us from the north and we stuck out our thumbs enthusiastically. It struck me that the odds were very long indeed that the only car to come along since we were let off with the beer would stop for us. But sure enough, it look as if it would. We rushed towards the car. Jimmy was ahead of me.
When he came up even with the passenger-side window, Jimmy stopped dead as if he had seen a snake. It was not a snake, of course, but the barrel of gun, as I saw when I caught up. I nudged Chet when he stopped next to me, to be sure he saw the gun too, but then all we saw was a bright light in our eyes. "Where y'all boys from?" Chet and I said Texas, and Jimmy said Louisiana. There was a whispered conversation in the car. "Y'all don't sound very Texan to me."
Well we didn't. Beside my broad faggot accent, I seemed to speak Midwest, which was as much a puzzle to me as to anyone else as I had lived in Houston since I was three. Chet didn't have any distinctive accent at all. I wished he had the sense to fake a Mexican accent — I'm sure he could have done it — because I thought even in Mississippi a Mexican would count as white enough. Or would it? Would it be worse if he were a Mexican? Then I was glad he didn't have a Mexican accent. And then I just didn't know.
The light played Chet slowly up and down several times. Now Chet's hair was black as coal, but it was straight, and I don't mean processed straight, I mean flat as week-old pop. There was no denying he was dark, but my mind was screaming "Look at the hair! Look at the hair!" I knew that was nearly hopeless. In Houston, there was an Indian girl in my school who was called "nigger" and not in any jocular vein, because she was so dark, in spite of her wearing a sari and having a tilak, and having a better claim to the word Aryan than any Nazi in the world.
"Y'all sound Northern to me. You boys wouldn't be any of 'em civil rights workers, would you?"
Jimmy said we most assuredly were not, but fortunately he said it more Cajun than that. There was more whispering in the car. "Are you a Cajun boy? Talk me some Cajun."
Jimmy reeled off something in his native patois, and I don't believe any of us, inside the car or out, had the least idea what he said, but it sure as hell sounded Cajun.
"That boy with you ain't no nigger, is he?" And there were many other questions, including where we had been and finally where we were going. When Jimmy said "Port Gibson," that seemed to settled the whispered discussion in the car. "Hell, you boys are from Chamberlain-Hunt. Why the hell didn't you say so in the first place?" And you know, that one seemed to be a pretty good question.
The light went off and the car sped away.
History records that on August the 4th, the FBI recovered the bodies of three civil rights workers from an earthwork dam.
"Damn, damn, damn. They might have killed us." I don't know which of us said that first, but we all said it over and over as we walked south. The sky had seemed wide as we lay on our backs and looked at the stars. Now the sides of the road began to close in on us. That wasn't the pathetic fallacy. It was only the kudzu.
At first light we were spotted by an old townie who recognized Jimmy. He picked us up and took us to his home, where he showed us his extensive collection of Civil War memorabilia — display case after display case, for here a hundred years is but the blink of an eye — while his wife cooked us a big breakfast with plenty of grits beside the sausage and eggs.
History records that on August the 4th, the FBI recovered the bodies of three civil rights workers from an earthwork dam. Only this week did I realize — but I knew they were in a dam on the 4th of July. On that dark road we had talked of how we might have been buried in a dam too. Everyone knew. Everyone in Mississippi, except the FBI, knew. They all knew. I knew.
There was a tear on Jimmy's cheek when he hugged me goodbye.
Detail of Port Gibson Presbyterian Church, Marion Post Wolcott, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Collection, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF34-054875-D DLC. Yearbook photo of Lars from 1966 Orenda, the yearbook of Lamar High School, Houston, Texas, scanned by Robert Bliss.