Yazoo Ho! My 5-day 2000-mile drive across the Deep South – an essay

“They say everything can be replaced/They say every distance is not near.”

            In February 2020, I visited my friend Corey in the federal prison in Butner, NC, his last visitor before Covid-19 changed everything. Among those changes, he and some of his fellow inmates were shipped to a penitentiary in Yazoo City, Mississippi, along the way enduring two months of solitary confinement (ostensibly to protect them from the virus). Far from family and friends, often in lockdown (not enough healthy guards to allow freedom on the unit), he has not had a visit since mine.  I promised him that after retirement, I’d drive down. These are notes from that 5-day journey, just completed.

            Do people still name their cars?  Our boys called mine the Batmobile when I brought it home during the Dark Knight-era of their childhood, a jet black 2012 Mazda 3 hatchback with a 5-speed straight shift, still chugging along 100k later, hooking up via Bluetooth to my phone playlists, humming along on the Interstate and taking backroad curves with sporty precision. She’s not just an appliance to me; rather one of my favorite things. Endearingly, like me, she’s seen better days.

            We hit the Chippenham Parkway out of Bon Air, VA at 9, Atlanta-bound, and cruise control I-85 most of the way, only slowed by intermittent showers along the outer bands of Hurricane Nicholas, and by a chain of accidents encountered along the jagged patch of roadwork that seems to stretch across the entire state of South Carolina. On the radio, a discussion about the Lee statue’s removal in Richmond last week. The most memorable quote, from a city councilwoman, “I’m not worried about General Lee. He’s dead. My concern is the racist sitting across from me in council.” A more succinct statement of our situation I have not heard.

“They say every man needs protection”

            The other topic on Talk Radio, of course, is our interminable bout with Covid. We’re back to 2000 Americans dying every day, only a single digit percentage of Africans vaccinated, PTSD-stricken health professionals sobbing at wit’s end, yet knuckleheads stubbornly refusing to do the patriotic, self-protective thing and get the damned shot! Friends cautioned me about risking the maw of the anti-vaxx, ivermectin-ingesting Deep South. I wear my ND-95 mask at every brief gas stop, empty a bottle of hand sanitizer, and hope for the best, the little Mazda my own personal bubble – pandemic Ho!  Interestingly, nearly all the Black people I see wear masks. Fewer White folk do, none in service stations anywhere west of Atlanta. (I get looks and sternly return them, eyes creased above my mask.)

            I say “Deep South,” contrasted with the South in general, because folks from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana have long questioned whether Virginia counts as Southern at all. Often I’ve found myself explaining, defensively, but the Mason-Dixon Line! The Capital of the Confederacy! Bull Run! General Lee! Which just goes to show how the old slave economy Confederacy still stands as the true cultural marker for what is and isn’t Southern. People nod, okay, I guess so then. But Virginia has turned blue in elections of late; we’ve dismantled most of our Confederate statues, thus insulting the white supremacists north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. MAGA’s popularity across mostly white, rural America shows that racism is not a useful delineator of what is and isn’t Southern, and Southerners have always known that anyway. If you judge by Trump votes, immigration resistance, or ivermectin-ingestion, then Idaho is as Southern as Mississippi these days. So if you can’t go by politics or racism, what do we have left?  Geography, of course, that baleful history, and maybe fried chicken?


Our Breakthrough Quarantine – a poem

Our son Nick, an ocean rescue lifeguard in Nags Head, NC, was vaccinated in May but this month came down with breakthrough covid, and quarantined with his gf, also a lifeguard and vaccinated and sick, at the beach. They’re okay now, back in town. He said they hunkered down indoors, ordered out, played video games, and only ventured outside one night late for a walk. Sentimental dad goes….

In our masks we hold hands
bare feet splashed in the sand
still warm all these hours after sunset.

The 8th of our 10 days sequestered.
Our first outside but late.

Whenever the hospitals normalize
and the masks come off

it will be this squish
of sand, the sea wash,
that wagging finger of moonlight
tracking our solitary stroll…

If we are among the lucky
and why not? Or wherever
you may be, I know I’ll say
but still, there was that night

when we both were feeling better
that pinned it all.

Amnesia – Our Super Power & Our Kryptonite: Thoughts on the U.S. War in Afghanistan

An illustration accompanying today’s Washington Post article about the debacle in Afghanistan shows a friend of ours, a 19-year old Marine, lying in blood on the floor of a helicopter. Corporal Britt had been on the ground in Afghanistan for just two weeks when an improvised explosive device detonated nearby. My wife Chris met him weeks later, when he came for treatment at the VA clinic where she works as an occupational therapist. I met him when he enrolled in a PTSD research study I was running at VCU. Years later, he is hemiparetic with impaired vision and speech, living with a friend, fishing when he can, and wondering what that war was all about anyway. A question we all would do well to ask, as President Biden withdraws our last ground troops from that embattled country.  A month ago, Biden promised that this next two weeks would not replicate our withdrawal from Vietnam:  “There’s going to be no circumstance when you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”  But with the Taliban surrounding Kabul and the U.S.-trained government armed forces fade like morning fog before them, expect to see exactly that.

Which will bring to an ignoble end the nation’s longest war.  The numbers are numbing, as numbers tend to be: 20 years, a quarter of a million Afghan casualties (including at least 50,000 civilian men, women and children killed), 6,242 Americans killed, 20,666 Americans wounded, and $2.26 trillion down the drain (AP NEWS).  This is a tragedy of our own making, one that stretches across Republican and Democratic administrations alike, and it is unlikely that anyone will ever accept the blame for what we have done there. In 1987, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, who had stood on the beach at D-Day, wrote this about Vietnam and our tendency to amnesia after war:

“Forgetting is a normal human activity, although the usual result of forgetting mistakes and craven deeds is to repeat them.”  She added, “Amnesia spared the men at the top, the men responsible for the war: the nation forgot to blame them.”  And this: “It was over.  And no one was responsible. The grandees in Washington and Saigon – the politicians, the policy-makers, the planners, the administrators, the generals – just walked off.  Nobody even said, “I’m sorry.” Reading Gellhorn’s scathing essay, “Last Words on Vietnam” (in her indispensable collection The Face of War) now is doubly shaming, because she was so accurate in her recognition that yes, we would forget, and forgetting do it all again, which in Afghanistan we have.

Twenty years is a long time for a nation with acute attention deficit, a half hour news cycle, and an instant gratification addiction to keep track of a war. Do you remember that we initially invaded Afghanistan as a police action, seeking to hunt down the 9-11 plotter Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda compatriots? That he escaped to Pakistan when the Bush Administration simultaneously launched “Shock and Awe” on Iraq, claiming “weapons of mass destruction” that never materialized?  That the Obama administration chose to prop up a frankly corrupt government in Kabul, and take on the Taliban army, even after Bin Laden was dead and Al Qaeda shredded? That the Trump administration blustered and fretted, even feted the Taliban at Camp David?  How likely is it that anyone in any of these administrations will be held accountable for the two decades of devastation they caused, for the proof they once again offered our allies of American fecklessness, for allowing themselves to be led like naïve children by war mongers spouting the same optimistic lies told so often during the Vietnam War? 

How likely is it that anyone will even apologize for any of this?  Dick Cheney sits on his Wyoming ranch, counting his Halliburton fortune, Bush, a hobbyist oil painter, dares to display portraits of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, blithely overlooking (as he overlooked so much) his responsibility for their thousand-yard stares. Obama, who fought the war in his own detached, cerebral style, perfecting new tactics – drone and missile strikes and satellite surveillance – that will serve our future “police actions” and “little” wars, prepares streaming entertainments. If only the Taliban had promised Trump a hotel in Kabul, the war would have ended already. 

That said, I think, at the very least, that the numbers bear repeating:  20 years, a quarter of a million Afghan casualties (including at least 50,000 civilian men, women and children killed), 6,242 Americans killed, 20,666 Americans wounded, and 2.26 trillion U.S. dollars down the drain.

The Taliban, who are, yes, cruel Medieval fundamentalists, are by all accounts also superb fighters and canny opponents. Rallying his troops in 2008, a Taliban leader counseled that beating the Americans only required patience: “They want to flee from Afghanistan just as they turned tail and ran from Vietnam.” Dude knew his Americans.

Afghans not aligned with the Taliban would do well to flee, if they can. But if they remember our history, as we do not, they will know that our current President, then a young Senator, voted against aid to refugees from Vietnam. What can they hope from him now, as he completes a sputtering withdrawal begun in the latter days of the Bush administration, while no doubt counting on Americans to shrug and forget it all?  

Young men like our friend Britt will not, of course, be among those with amnesia. They will limp along in the shadows, unwelcome reminders of our aimless (and shameless) imperial ventures. Out here in the light, we will breathe a brief sigh of relief, then get on with the work of forgetting, so that no doubt, in no time at all, we again launch Shock and Awe on some other wayward nation. After all, how else can we justify our multi-trillion dollar arsenal and keep our restless citizenry in line?     

August 20: The withdrawal from Kabul looks every bit as chaotic as that from Saigon. Today the Washington Post shared this article, our 20-years war by the numbers.

92 & 89 – found poem

They sit in wheelchairs, holding hands,
discussing this new thing
they’ve done together, falling.
He’d bent to catch her fell himself
broke a femur, now nailed.

He says, Glad we built that ramp.
She says, Our handyman, he could be
our driver now?

They stare into the face they know better
than their own.

She says, Let me comb your hair.
He says, Ask him if he’ll drive.
Both with only briefly wetted eyes.

Vanishing Point – a poem

Buddy splashing in the creek behind our house turns up an arrowhead
stubby quartz chipped to fit a twig pierce a buck’s tawny hide.

There that maw in the hillside where some ancestor mined for gold.
Rusted wire in the woods where sheep grazed in the day.

I went home to say goodbye to my brother who lay dying
in our late parents’ bedroom couldn’t take it had to go outside
and poking around in the back field where we’d raised chickens once
kicked up a rotten bucket a corroded canister what’s this?

So here I am at ten this July day swatting shuttlecocks with him
taking turns churning the salt and ice packed peaches and cream
until our father dips a finger licks the custard spits disgusted.
The can had leaked. See him set himself to hurl the whole
kit and caboodle over the back fence. (Mama opens a bag of Oreos.)

Well, here the moment lay weed sewn and half buried in the red earth
even that hand crank that had chafed my knuckles on its side.

In Virginia sometimes to stretch our legs
we wander Civil War battlefields visualize for instance
how close the farm boys crouched facing off like carnival ducks
at Cold Harbor. Once in a while you’ll see an old man in earphones
divining the lawn with his wand in search of a minie ball a button
some more than storied proof of one episode on this or that ageless acre.

And the night Mama died.  She’d been in coma for weeks
at the nursing home in Fork Union built on the farm where she was born.
I left there in tears before dawn stopped short in the parking lot
by a herd of cows chewing cud among the cars
a film overlay made of now and then
as if they’d wandered up from childhood to low her on.

Buddy cocks his head to wonder why I linger in the ankle deep stream
with this little shard of quartz. He doesn’t care that we live
in a lap dissolve, flies in amber that is only sugar melting.

The point at which receding parallel lines
seen in linear perspective seem to meet.

An article on a new book of photography in this morning’s Washington Post sent me down this rabbit hole! Here’s the article.

Mementos – a poem

On the first anniversary of my friend, the poet and disability service worker, Sarah Knorr’s death, this emerged on my morning walk in the woods with our pup Buddy. Guessing you may concur.

We say “passed”
as if they’d tossed a football.

Some use “transitioned”
so you imagine a Star Trek
transporter beam.

It doesn’t help.

Lately it seems
not a month goes by. . .

until I hear myself tell the boys,
“You want a reliable career?
They’re called funeral directors now.”

I need to get out, get on with it.
Live on in their name, as we say.

But it does get lonely in here.

Like when you think of a joke
that only they’d get
and look around to finger
some trinket left behind.

Mt. Whitney Viewed from Bristlecone Pine Road – a poem

Out here in the desert
the summit just a snaggle-tooth
in a granite gumline.

Anyone, they say, can reach the peak of peaks
though the air is thin and the summer heat brutal.
Up there at night you can freeze to death.

But if you prepare, then dare, all it takes
is what made you a toddler, your one step
then another trudging resolution,
until you stand atop a sea of rock
and nothing anywhere higher.

Who wouldn’t want to do that?
But why, you ask?

Well, to go with friends and
reach the pinnacle of something
look around at the world at our feet
come down, look up, and nod

having tested for once the lie
that distance makes everything small.

Notes Toward a Poem about Fireflies

Woke from restless sleep at a north-facing window, the gibbous moon’s light bathing the curtain of woods at the edge of our yard in that monochrome relief I so love – daytime’s Technicolor bled to noir shadow – surprised by a constellation of fireflies flashing and flickering there like Christmas lights strung across the trees or the stars themselves shaken down. The surprise was not that there were fireflies out there, but that there were so many!

This past covid year we have lived at home, have dreamed of travel, have become so bored with the sameness of our rooms and routines.  Funny, how the night before our dream comes true, a vacation flight to California(!), this 3 am interlude shocks me awake to a delightful pageant — frankly worthy of Yosemite — occurring all summer every evening right in my proverbial (and actual) backyard! 

I sit up in my bed at the window, hugging a pillow, enraptured by a silent spectacle that blips streaks and fizzes at varying heights across the moonlit forest backdrop, my sleepy head imagining a flashlight ballet, though each of these winged insects winks not in synch but in competition with his mates, their twinkling display one of Nature’s finer than strictly necessary embellishments, certainly one of its most brilliant expressions of a yearning all living things – and that means me too – plead across our brief lives, a controlled ignition in their loins intermittent, briefly dazzling (dangerous too as it exposes the firefly to predators), the whole moonlit woods decorated with urgent flares that blink one appeal (supplication) at great expense across a summer night – fuck me, please!  Fuck me!  Fuck me please!  (Visual equivalent of the cicada hordes’ relentless droning symphony.)  If I am to leave any mark, if my line is to continue, please find me worthy:  Let me get a leg over, please!  We haven’t long!  On this moonlit summer night, perhaps our last, won’t you find me worthy, please?  

Fireflies or lightning bugs – what we called them as kids?  

How Some Dads I Know Spent the Past Year

On Mother’s Day, made a list of some things moms I know went through in the year of Covid.  So, doing the same for the guys here on Father’s Day.

Went to get takeout and died when a distracted driver t-boned his car.

Took his family on their last vacation in Mexico just as the virus hit, then spent the rest of the year methodically saying his goodbyes and best wishes to everyone he loved before cancer took him.

Spent a month in hospital with a shattered leg, buried his grandmother, did stay-at-home dad helping one teen with autism cope with zoom school and the kid’s twin cope with their discovery of their non-binary gender.

Caught covid (did not have to be hospitalized) driving his softball playing daughter around the South to not quite socially distanced tournaments.

3 dads:  Taught creative writing via zoom, taught occupational therapy via zoom, taught junior high special education via zoom.

Welcomed a new baby into the family while at the same time launching an online occupational therapy business with his wife (which, by the way, is thriving).

Handled three PRN home care therapy gigs while being Mr. Mom to a toddler son (wife an overburdened anesthesia tech at a major hospital).

Stayed home with his toddler daughter, getting his exercise on walks to the park and VR games, while wife – an overburdened anesthesia tech – worked at a major hospital.  (Different family).

Nursed his wife as she died from cancer, then once vaccinated, made the rounds of his widely scattered adult kids (and grandkids) with hugs, laughter, and generosity.

Reconfigured a college curriculum he directed as covid hit, all while completing his dissertation and raising three kids stuck at home and zooming school (this dad, btw, is blind).

Spent four months in solitary confinement in a federal prison, not for disciplinary reasons, but as a precaution against catching covid (a lot more, as you’d imagine, to this story).

It was a tough year for dad’s, too, folks.  Hope we’ve all learned from this ordeal about the importance of love, connection, and caring, along with a sharper appreciation of how tenuous is our time here, and how precious. Happy Father’s Day, y’all.

Visiting Friends in the Mountains – a poem

Drove five hours out to see my friend Rondalyn at her creekside home in Morgantown this week, came home and went right back out the next day to do some woodworking with my friend Ken at his riverside retreat in Verona. Conflated the trips in this revery at the brink of retirement from my career at VCU:

On the cusp of summer
driving to see friends
out in the mountains:

The pencil thin road
traces a cleavage
of hills like a reclining
body’s contours, so you

roll down the window
reach out and tickle
the breeze with your fingers.

These are ages old ranges
comfy as sofas the plush
deciduous carpet running
right across their peaks.

Old friends, too.
I don’t need my GPS
to find them though
the highway climbs to
rutted trails along
serpentine streams.

They greet me
with hugs and dogs
the whole visit like
those fairy tales where
the wandering and lost

find a hermit and his
hermitage and a way
of living that invites
a raft of questions
about what you do
and why.

We sit in rockers out back
shoulders round
faces creased
sipping whiskey.

Our babble and the stream’s
worrying the puzzle
of worn rock at our feet
as twilight deepens.