Yazoo Ho! Sidebar: Mississippi Memory

Forty years ago, my pal John Wahl and I drove up Highway 61 from New Orleans to Memphis on a blues pilgrimage of sorts. John was my only literature loving friend at the time, and agreed to a detour to Jackson, where we thought we’d drive past Eudora Welty’s home. We stopped at the visitors center and asked where that might be. The two blue haired ladies staffing the center looked up from their crocheting. One sneered, “Clodhopper.” The other snickered, then stood and squinted at us, asking, “Do you boys know what a clodhopper is?”  John and I shot each other amazed glances. Were these ladies, in charge of the capital city of Mississippi’s visitors center, calling the most important living writer of their state, a Pulitzer and National Book Award winner, a derogatory name? Yep, they were. We said we’d still like to drive by her house. The lady who was still sitting shook her head dismissively, “She will no more let you in her house….” She let the thought drop, pointedly.

Maybe that’s what gave me the idea, why I committed that rude, unconscionable intrusion.  We drove up to the city park and easily found the stately two-story brick house where Ms. Welty had lived her whole life. I parked the car out front and said, “Dare me to knock on her door.”  John laughed, sank down in his seat, and whispered, “Whoo boy – dare.” 

So we did it, rang the doorbell, in our t-shirts and jeans, and oh my, yes, she opened the door, the great writer herself, in a house dress and slippers, her white hair pinned back, those bulging eyes that saw everything there was to see (so much like James Baldwin’s, come to think of it) sizing us up instantly. I blathered something about admiring her writing, young writers, etc., and to our surprise, she said, “Well come in then. We can chat.”

For the next hour, we sat on her living room sofa, while she in an arm chair asked thoughtful questions about our silly lives, seeming interested, nodding from time to time, her large spotted hands in her lap. I can’t remember a thing she said about herself. But every horizontal surface of her elegant home was stacked with books, and just past her head, at a window, there it was, her spare writing table, a sturdy, manual typewriter in the center, a sheet of paper rolled into the platen. We’d interrupted her work.

At last another young man came to the door, clearly a close friend, perhaps arriving on some signal from Ms. Welty or having noticed our car on the street. He chatted briefly, asked if we knew of her recently published memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, that had won rave reviews everywhere. We had no idea. Soon he made it clear that it was time for us to head on our way. She walked us to the door, thanked us for our visit.

What asses we were, how gracious she was. Thrilled, abashed, unable to speak a word, we headed on to Oxford and our next pilgrimage site, Faulkner’s home. Of course, dead twenty years, we did not expect a reply to our knock at Rowan Oak.

Btw, the late Ms. Welty’s home is now a full-time pilgrimage site, a National Historic Landmark. Here’s a photograph of her writing desk, as I remember it, from the foundation website:

Eudora Welty's writing desk

Yazoo Ho! A Deep South Travelogue – Part Two

So I remember every face/of every man who put me here.

BnB breakfast at Steele Cottage is served down the street at the Big House at 8:30 am, but that’s when I’m due to visit Corey, so I scarf down my delightfully old-fashioned slice of caramel cake with a Keurig cup and hit the road. Gloomy out. Driving downhill to the Mighty Mississippi riverfront, all lies shrouded in fog. I turn north at the river onto Highway 61-Business, the kudzu shrouded bluffs of the Walnut Hills on my right, the swampy Yazoo River on my left. These are storied names to a Civil War buff, who may recall that General Sherman was rebuffed from these hills, the defenders of Vicksburg firing their muskets directly down on the hapless Bluecoats below. As Mississippi’s favorite son historian Shelby Foote tells it, months later the Yazoo River fed Union gunships into the Big Muddy, where they bombarded and sieged the city into surrender, time and attrition doing what bold charges up the city’s surrounding ravines could not.

Shortly the business route connects to nation-bisecting Highway 61, where bucketing rain, the pre-dawn darkness, and deep puddles shift me down to 2nd gear. Tall oaks hung with Spanish moss line the road.  At some points their tops meet overhead, so the Mazda crawls through a soggy tunnel in gray light. No one of my generation can drive this road without thinking of Dylan, without musing over the Delta Blues. So I say, “Siri, play Robert Johnson,” and allow myself the spooky thrill of “me and the devil/was walkin’ side-by-side,” tinkling notes on guitar mimicking the tap of Satan’s goat hooves on the pavement. No color yet, the flat cotton fields opening before me filled with silvery water to the horizon, kudzu-burdened trees along the borders looming like shaggy monsters. Occasionally a pine log-laden lumber truck blasts past, causing the car to quake and skitter.  Renata Adler wrote, “I think you are not altogether American unless you have been to Mississippi.” I might add, unless you have driven Highway 61 in the rain.

Lights from a paper mill ahead on Highway 61.

So I’m a bundle of nerves and trepidation, as I veer off Highway 61 onto northeast-bound Route 3 towards Yazoo City. Who knows if the guards will let me in? Since covid, the prison goes on lockdown without warning, so despite Corey’s month-long effort on the inside to get all the necessary paperwork signed, and his assurance in a brief phone call that all is in order for an 8:30-11:15 visit, I’m worried.  As always on my visits to see him in Butner, I steel myself to the task. Entering a federal prison, even for a brief visit, is a daunting proposition. The gleaming stacked rolls of razor wire, the guard towers, the turreted walls of reinforced concrete, the doors that creak open like a bank vault’s, all frighten me. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) long ago gave up on any effort at rehabilitation. Their prisons are hermetically-sealed storage bins for human beings, at the beck and call of overworked and underpaid guards.

Fortunately, the rain has eased as I drive past the saw mills, oil distribution plants, and rows of travel trailers (housing migrant workers, I imagine) that signal the city limits. I turn onto an arrow straight stretch of asphalt, stop for a temperature check at a drive-through tent, and begin the 90-minute rigamarole of seeking my friend. Corey is designated a low-security prisoner. If that has you imagining a picket-fenced country club with tennis courts and tea at 3, think again. Just like at Butner, Yazoo’s low security unit is a concrete bunker, surrounded by razor wire. I park, mask up, and knock on the visitor’s door. The guard there seems surprised to see me, shouting, “No visitors here! Covid outbreak!”  My heart sinks, worst fears come true. I beg, explaining that it’s all been set up, I’ve driven from Virginia, my friend hasn’t had a visitor since February of last year at Butner.  At that, the guard says, “Wait, the Butner boys? They ain’t here – they down at the other place.”  He points me further down the road. I try the prison “camp” building and the glowering medium security unit, at each stop pointed further along until at last I arrive at a real fortress, an endless line of low concrete bunkers that could easily withstand a missile attack. Corey, a low security prisoner, lives in the penitentiary. I think of his parents, who hope to visit soon, and tell myself to warn them about this. What a horrible thing for a mother to see.

Of course, there’s more to the morning’s gauntlet. Happily, the guard says, yes, my friend is here, but unhappily, she says, “No visits scheduled for 8:30; don’t know who told you that.” Again, I beg. I’m staying down in Vicksburg, it’s been so long, etc. She softens, a little. Says, “Go sit in your car. See what I can do.”  Fair enough. It’s 10 am before they let me into the visitor’s room, the guard saying no way can I come back after lunch for the afternoon session, but she allows that she’ll be on duty tomorrow, and will let me return for a morning visit then.  I’ve just spent two hours directed from pillar to post, driven by the whim of prison guards. Sitting in my assigned seat in the visiting room, I realize that this helpless frustration is my friend’s life every minute of the day for the past seven years.

And there he is. He strides in behind a Fat Albert-looking guard, with that lazy but alert half-hitch prisoner’s gait that rappers work so hard to emulate. He’s in a baggy beige jumpsuit, cheap running shoes, a white cotton covid mask and prison-issue black frame eyeglasses. Bald as Michael Jordan, squat but buffed out, arms bulging. He shows off his trim bod by briefly tucking back the jumpsuit. No touching, seated six feet apart in facing chairs. Except for the guards at their podium, we’re the only people in this basketball court-sized room. Corey says, “Nobody comes. You never know if they’ll let you in. We’re in the boonies. Too much hassle. There’s a thousand men behind that wall. Nobody visits.”

Nothing to do, either. No window facing onto the world. But there’s a quarter mile track and when they let him out he runs, some days ten miles. Corey’s in his 50’s but can clock a 6-minute mile any day, a 25-minute 5K. There’s no weight room, so the unit becomes a panting, pumping world of Burpees all day long. Corey taught himself Spanish in prison, then began teaching warden-approved English as a Second Language classes to the Latin inmates. He’s penned pleas that have helped guys to shorter sentences, reads every book he can find, and watches cable news when it’s on. But the past year was awful, hearing old men cough themselves to death, untreated, in their cells, locked in solitary for weeks, supposedly as protection from the virus, selected for transfer to this godforsaken penitentiary, only to find that the covid breakout that had sent his crew from Butner had receded there, but then hit hard at Yazoo. He says, “Did you know that Yazoo is a native American word?  It means death.”

But somehow, after all that, he’s the same old Corey, my pal. You know how, with good friends, maybe you haven’t gotten together in years, but when you do, you pick up right where you left off? It’s like that today. Corey tells hilarious tales shared by white collar crooks who once dined with the Kennedy’s, describes ingenious meals concocted from corn flakes, peanut butter, canned tuna, and apple sauce. It’s been bleak, yes. Low security prisoners do not belong in a windowless penitentiary under such rigid rules, but somehow Yazoo has become the overflow valve for the BOP, so here he sits.  He adds, “I’m feeling better, a short-timer, almost done paying my debt to society.” He actually says that: debt to society. At some point next year he’ll get out. So now it’s counting days, filing paperwork, dreaming of putting his life back together in the world.  I ask him how he’s coped with the ugliness of prison life for so long. He says he had a counselor once who introduced him to the concept of radical acceptance. “Whatever happens,” he says, “you acknowledge your own guilt, hope for forgiveness, wake up each day in gratitude that you’re still breathing, and otherwise roll with the punches.” It’s a noble warrior’s path. It’s made him, he says, a better man. I think of some of my patients who suffered spinal cord injuries, strokes, or brain injuries, but who found a way to get on with their lives. That’s their game, too. Radical acceptance. Corey mentions the church congregation in Charleston, SC, that forgave the guy who shot their fellow worshipers. He says, “What you realize is that carrying anger, carrying resentment, carrying frustration, that’s only a burden on you. You have to shrug it off. I think of the people in that church every day.”

It’s the strangest thing. Every time I’ve visited Corey, I leave in better spirits than when I arrived. He’s in jail, his life sucks, yet his irrepressible spirit, his humor in the face of absurdity, and this thing he calls radical acceptance are inspiring. It works with his fellow prisoners, too. His mom says she gets calls from them, telling her of ways her son has helped them. It’s time to go. I stand, cross my arms in the Wakandan salute I’ve adopted in lieu of a handshake in the covid era, and Corey disappears behind the steel door.

NEXT – Vicksburg Battlefield, a second visit to Yazoo USP, and the long drive home (with ruminations, of course)

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 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 10, 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 KN-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?

“I see my light come shining/from the west down to the east”

At sunset, after 9 hours of plodding Interstate, punctuated by intermittent rain, the accidents that upended the lives of one random sample of Thursday afternoon’s drivers, and a jarring pothole struck just inside the Georgia state line that could easily have ended my trip right there (but the little Mazda chugged along – whew!) I pull into the winding, leafy lanes of an upscale Marietta subdivision, home to my unofficial stepmom-in-law, widowed ten years. She lives alone now in the beautifully appointed 3-story MacMansion where she raised her son and nursed her mother and her husband in their last days.  It’s a lily-white neighborhood, except for the maids and yardmen. Despite its luxuries, I’ve always felt uncomfortable there, reverse-snob that I am, my dirty little Mazda sneaking around curves owned by Land Rovers, Beemers and Lexii. Yes, one version of the American Dream achieved. I need to get over my peevishness. After all, my father-in-law earned his wealth honestly, a poor boy who rode the computer revolution up through the IBM ranks into his own software company, etc.

Roz, always gracious and accommodating, had picked up dinner at a taco place, waited for my arrival, and greets me with a hug. She stands in her chrome and marble kitchen with its dual dishwashers and other bespoke appliances like the captain of an abandoned ocean liner, our voices echoing when we call to each other between rooms. We sit down to eat, and I realize that we have something new in common. I’ve just retired, as she did years ago, and back home we’re reconfiguring our sons’ rooms to fit our empty nest. I’m curious how she spends her days. She doesn’t play tennis or — god forbid — pickleball. She doesn’t sketch or crochet. She is the lady who lunches, with longtime friends, and twice a week works out with a handsome Brazilian trainer, who she says has been a lifesaver amidst covid’s social contractions. She tends her orchids, feeds the backyard birds, and babysits her two-year old granddaughter once or twice a week. She seems caught in a lap dissolve between contentment and wistfulness. I feel that way, too, already in my third month without paid work. Her advice is to schedule at least one “event” each day to look forward to. On this day, we are each other’s event.

One of the “events” that has helped my wife and me through covid has been the delightful Youtube yoga instructor Adriene, who with her old dog Benjy at her side, has kept us both centered and flexible.  Before breakfast I knock off one of her 25-minute quickie routines, then hit the road again. The direct route to Vicksburg, my eventual destination, is through Birmingham, but a slight detour will take me to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. That’s my stopover reward, today’s scheduled “event.”

“Yet I swear I see my reflection/somewhere so high above this wall.”

I don’t know how to describe the next several hours of my journey. Maybe it’s too soon to try. But like the fading of a nightmare that seems to hold important insights, I fear forgetting that harrowing experience. I’d read about the Legacy Museum back in 2018 when it opened, and promised myself to visit if I was ever passing through. By the way, here’s the website, where the tickets (free) can be downloaded, and where the museum’s mission is explained: https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/museum.  But let me tell you, you must go there yourself.

On your first steps into the museum, it becomes clear that the curators have followed the narrative model of the Holocaust Museum in DC, relying on personal anecdotes and multimedia exhibits that fit you into the minds and hearts of sufferers as you make your way through dark tunnels that press you up close to their experience. You are launched into the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean amidst grim busts representing the estimated million lives lost on the Middle Passage, stand before cells at slave markets, where ghostly holograms tell their woeful tales, find yourself in a huge exhibit hall lined with audiovisual accounts of slave sales, escapes, whippings, rapes and hideous murders. You find your own town – in my case Richmond, VA – indicted for its important role in the slave trade. But the museum is not done with you yet. This research institution holds the nation’s primary repository of post-liberation lynchings. Stomach turning photographs and news reports line the walls. Then we move on to the Civil Rights era, where the heroes of that time are framed anew against the institutions that resisted them. Finally, our current situation, the museum singling out the American justice system as the most overt means of racial oppression now in play. Mass incarceration, which, I learn here, was launched in the Jim Crow era, was always enslavement by other means. This is the shadow history you weren’t taught in school, and even if you think you know it all, the compression of these tortures within the museum’s confines can be staggering. No photography is allowed. People speak softly. Some weep. Among the few visitors, I find myself keeping pace with an elderly Black man. As the tunnel opens to each new exhibit, he pauses, looks around, and sighs, “Oh my.”

At last, around a corner, you hear the triumphant voice of Aretha Franklin singing a freedom song, and find yourself in a huge hall with a central crystal chandelier, the thirty foot high walls lined with photographic portraits of those Black heroes who have resisted oppression: Nat Turner, W.E.B. Dubois, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Jackie Robinson, and so many more. I’m sure this final exhibit was conceived as a place of hope, an opportunity for Black visitors to reframe the museum’s documentation of victimhood as bracing lessons of resistance and fortitude. There is no such gesture offered to us Whites. Yes, the heroes on this wall are mine, too. But it was people with pigmentation like mine who forced them to resist, and here on this day, more dismayingly than ever before, I face the truth of our separation and our ongoing, irrefutable crime.

I wonder what the curators must have discussed as transition rooms out of the museum?  Punching bags?  Debriefing rooms?  Sign-up sheets for equal justice initiatives? Instead, they offer a kind reprieve, a bright and airy restaurant serving Southern food. That’s a sly gesture, too, soul food prepared by black chefs, a hint perhaps to keep our eyes open out in the world, to attend to the roles we play, to the services we provide and are provided, and to the symbiotic nature of our relationships.

I drive away, still inwardly quaking. Wondering what it would take to get today’s opponents of Critical Race Theory inside those walls? How would anyone fail to recognize the importance of racist oppression in our nation’s history, fail to reckon with their own biases, fail perhaps to begin a study of all we have not been taught, maybe even to seek out ways of changing things for the better? Can there be a more important museum in America right now?

There was one more place I wanted to visit, the Legacy Memorial, just a half mile away. This is the stunning work of art – I would compare its impact to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC – dedicated to honoring (and naming) the 4,743 American lynching victims that we know of. Photographs are allowed here, and here is one of mine.

As you can see, this quadrangular outdoor monument aligns hundreds of hanging steel columns, each representing not a person who was lynched but a county in the U.S. where lynchings have occurred. On the columns, the names of victims are listed. Some columns have as many as a dozen names. I found a column for my home county, Fluvanna, too, with an 1899 lynching listed there. Of course, I knew nothing of this event, but I’ve reached out to the county’s best historians, the McGehee’s, and expect a full account from them.

I get back in my car, with 300 miles yet to go.  It’s mid-afternoon, sprinkling rain, but I’m so glad I took this detour.  And what I’m thinking, as I drive out of Montgomery on Highway 80, headed towards Selma and points west, is how essential this museum and memorial must be to whatever healing our divided nation may hope for.

Now, yonder stands a man in this lonely crowd/A man who swears he’s not to blame.

Recently, in a fit of nostalgia, I cued up the first episode of Star Trek: Next Generation on Hulu, smiling at the memory of having first discovered this new crew and this new Enterprise and their arch-enemy, the creature known as Q, way back in the 1980s. A throw-away line by Captain Picard caught my attention, that at some point following a 21st Century nuclear Armageddon, the United Nations had declared a new day, forgiving all humans for their past misdeeds, thus somehow moving forward to a peaceful civilization without recrimination or conflict.

CRT opponents, clearly, would like to live that way. After all, they argue, I never owned slaves, one of my golfing buddies is African American, and my kids don’t need that guilt trip laid on their innocent young minds. The problem, however (one the episode glances at), is the importance of first recognizing and acknowledging, apologizing for, and yes, distributing reparations for, crimes committed in the past. CRT and the Legacy Museum would educate us about those crimes, invite us to recognize and acknowledge them, and begin to consider how oppressive racist tropes continue to thrive today. Which opens a whole can of worms many would prefer to ignore. It should be clear to all but the Stephen Miller’s of our conflicted nation, that If we are ever to arrive at a place where we might, as Star Trek would have it, forgive and forget, then we first must remember and then, one would hope, fix what’s wrong.  You can’t skip steps straight to let’s forget it all. Germany, in its reckoning with the Holocaust, and South Africa in its reflections on Apartheid, provide examples of that path. We can do this, but try to get that notion through the thick red MAGA baseball caps, eh?

This battle over what is and isn’t remembered, about how to tell our nation’s story, is also personal for many of us. It certainly is for me. My family has lived in Virginia since 1690. On our dining room wall hangs a framed letter from a local historian that traces our ancestors back that far. As I pull out of the parking lot in Montgomery, a key sentence, so characteristic of White obliviousness in its blithe contradiction, jabs at my heart. My great-great grandfather, Benajah Gentry, born in 1788, is described this way:  “He was a successful planter, had a number of slaves, was a man of fine character, well beloved by his neighbors, a leading member of the Baptist Church – very active and zealous in religious work.”

Well, you might say, that was back then, when things were different, which is undoubtedly true, but it doesn’t really let me off the hook. If I am to honor my family heritage, such as it is, standing on the shoulders of those that have gone before, as we say, then shouldn’t I own up to the behavior of those shoulders down there?  How can I be proud of my father’s service in WWII and fail to feel some measure of shame at an ancestor who – not all that long ago – treated people as property?

And how then, can I begin to discharge that shame?  What can I do to help along the reckoning, the learning, the tipping toward equity and good will, that is so clearly called for?

My plan had been to take the Business-80 detour through downtown Selma, stopping at the storefront civil rights museum memorializing the police riot at the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965 (Pettus, by the way, was a KKK leader), and then crossing the bridge on foot, perhaps grabbing an ice cream cone at a shop in the quaint downtown area on the other side, or even, if I dared, a pig ear sandwich at a soul food place I’d read about. But I was running late, after lingering in Montgomery, and just as I came to the bridge the skies opened. I crossed the bridge in a driving rain, noting the Edmund Pettus sign above me on the girders, and headed on towards Vicksburg, clear across Alabama and Mississippi, sipping a deeply unSouthern unsweetened ice tea to stay sharp along the way.

Wait a minute, did you say “pig ears”?  Yep. And no, you probably can’t make a silk purse out of one, but if you slice it in half, boil it long enough, then slap it on white bread with hot sauce, in Selma you can sell all you can cook. The place for this deep soul food treat is Lannie’s; there’s even a picture online of Lannie with Dave Letterman, who went for their barbecue. They sell pig feet, too. I promise myself I’ll try again, further down the line.

I’m quite familiar with pig parts, by the way. My first job – 60 hours/week in the summer of my 4th grade year – was assisting my father, the butcher at Ranson’s Supermarket in Fluvanna County, VA. We sold tons of chicken and hamburger, of course, but also pork intestines (chitterlings) in 5-gallon buckets, pig feet wrapped six to a pack (their toe nails would often tear the plastic wrap if I pulled the package too tight), and pig ears that still bore a few hairs, like those you see sprouting from an old man’s ears. On occasion, Daddy would boil chitterlings, a delicacy from his childhood as a sharecropper’s son. Even after soaking the split and cleaned pig intestines in bleach, when he threw them in a pot of boiling water on the stove, the house stank like, you guessed it, pig poop, for days. None of us kids would touch the stuff, which was fine with Daddy. He got it all to himself. 

Most of the pig part sales went to our Black neighbors, whose ancestors had been making lemonade from lemons in this way back in slavery days, when the choice meats went to the big house. Carried forward, that tradition, soul food, makes up the menus of Mom & Pop barbecue joints all over the South. I remember my surprise, backpacking through France as a young man, discovering that the French, too, love organ meats and leftovers (pig ear terrine, for instance). As they say, everything but the squeal.

Bisecting Alabama and Mississippi on Highway 20 in the rain, the view is picked over cotton fields, grazing cattle, catfish ponds, and the remains of pine forests stripped down to the red earth to feed lumber yards every ten miles or so. The only stop lights are in the occasional small town, some quaint and Mayberry like, others run down like settings for a zombie apocalypse film. I’m in my little automobile bubble, moving in a straight line five miles above the speed limit, but the hard scrabble poverty of these two states cannot be denied. That they lead the nation in Covid deaths only makes things harder. It’s Friday afternoon, and every radio station talks only about the night’s coming high school football match ups. I count five games (that’s ten teams) canceled, because their coaching staffs are sick.

I might have overnighted in Jackson, MS, the state capital, but continue on to Vicksburg, hard up against a bend of the Mississippi River, because – history nut that I am – I want to tour the battlefield there. From either town, it’s an hour’s drive up to the prison in Yazoo City. I’d been warned away from staying in Yazoo; it’s one of the most violent towns in America.  So around dinner time I pull up to the Steele Cottage, where I’ll spend the next two nights. In Old Town Vicksburg, on a bluff overlooking the river, the surprisingly inexpensive three bedroom BnB, built in 1833, had survived the Civil War’s bombardment and siege. The owners appointed it in antebellum style. But before nodding off in my high four-poster bed (I am the only resident of the place, which calms my covid worries somewhat), I walk across the street to the Walnut Hill Restaurant in another old house, and dine alone by the back door on fried chicken with nursing home soft green beans (the way Mama used to cook them) and mashed potatoes with gravy, the waitress – her mask around her chin – addressing me as “darlin'”. Reminds me of Mrs. Rowe’s in Staunton, VA. And like that Virginia mainstay, the menu includes good old homemade Southern desserts. Here’s a photo of their cake display. Oh my. 

I order a slice of caramel cake for breakfast (recalling the version my dear Aunt Dorothy used to bake), head back to my room, negotiate a sit-down shower in a claw-footed tub, and plan my drive up to the penitentiary, back aching after clocking 1000 miles in two days.  I mean, how do truckers do it?

MORE TO COME – NEXT DAY 3, my penitentiary visit, the Civil War battlefield, and hot tamales at Ubon’s in Yazoo.

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 fading 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 of American fecklessness they once again offered our allies, 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 will 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?