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)