Yazoo Ho! Day Five – Headed Home

I’m tired and aching for our bed at home, exactly how you hope to feel at the end of any trip. Waving so long to Roz, I nose the little Mazda out into the mighty river of Atlanta’s notorious morning traffic, and fight my way upstream, as twenty lanes narrow gradually to four, and that harrowing tangle of interchanges gives way to arrow-straight highway bordered by the piney woods and lakes of eastern Georgia. Three hours in, I stop in Greenville, South Carolina for a quick burger at Five Guys with my longtime colleague and friend Jeff, semi-retired from occupational therapy professoring. He’s made lemonade from the Covid lemon, launching an online startup that offers fill-in zoom teaching for OT programs around the country. As always, we happily grouse about the current state of academia (we should have our own MAGA caps: Make Academia Great Again), proudly review the careers of our sons (we each have two – all grown), and promise to catch each other on the flip-flop.

At sunset, signs for Butner appear (just north of Durham), and I smile at how the six-hour roundtrip to visit Corey in prison there used to seem so arduous. When I pull into our driveway in Bon Air after dark, our pup Buddy spins in giddy circles to see me (Is it true, as they say, that dogs have no sense of time? That to them your disappearance for a 5-minute trip to the grocery store is just as painful as a 5-day trip out of town? Maybe one way to measure that would be in the number of circles they spin on your return?), and my wife Chris, who has been tracking my phone, sets out dinner. How sweet it is to be home, to swap tales about our past few days, and yes, to fall back on my own pillow again!

Thus ends my 5-day, 2,000 mile journey, mission accomplished! If I go back before Corey’s release, I’d like to broaden the scope of my travels, perhaps visiting the Blues Museum north of Yazoo and some of the storefront civil rights memorials scattered around the Deep South, maybe even daring that pig ear sandwich. This whole drive I’ve been wrestling with the “Cold Civil War” we seem to be fighting in our dear old USA, while at the same time feeling grateful for the kindness shown by the young woman at the bookstore, who pulled out a map and showed me how to get the most from my battlefield tour, by the prison guard who (I’m pretty sure) came in early to work (after celebrating her son’s birthday) to make sure I could get in to see my friend on that second day, by the waitress who brought me a free Coke for my travels. No, I’m not suggesting that random acts of kindness will get us out of this mess. General Grant did not “nice” himself to victory in the War Between the States. But empathy is the core of community. Isn’t this how we bridge our divide?

This is my first fall season in twenty years not wrapped up in teaching. Instead, October will be book-ended by poem readings at Celebrations of Life for two longtime friends who didn’t live long enough to retire. In between, I’ll do my Meals on Wheels runs, volunteer at this weekend’s Folk Festival, set up a smart home for a friend who uses a wheelchair, and plant a Little Free Library box in a corner of our yard.  Will even tie on my professoring necktie again and lecture at WVU (a trip cleverly planned for the heart of leaf-peeping season). I’m meeting with my friend Ed Turner on Zoom, helping him write his memoir and deep into drafting a new novel. This travelogue has been a homework assignment in my writing life, practice in composing a personal essay. Thank you for coming along for the ride. As Roz counseled, in retirement, you have to give yourself a reason to get up in the morning. At least for this month, that’s covered.

Ruminative musings and detours aside, the main point of this Deep South journey, of course, was to visit my friend Corey in prison. It was so good to see him again, especially since his mom just phoned to say that the Delta variant has hit the penitentiary, his unit is in lockdown, and who knows when anyone else will be allowed to visit?

Post-script: Have been throwing in quotes from Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” across this travelogue. Here’s a superstar version of the song, from The Band’s Last Waltz concert movie.

Yazoo Ho! A Deep South travelogue: Day Four

Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.

I pack and slip out of the Steele Cottage at 7, having finished every crumb of that hummingbird cake, and head back to Yazoo. Hurricane Nicholas has dissolved, and yesterday’s foreboding drive with it. The morning dawns bright upon expansive cotton fields and what had seemed looming, shaggy monsters reveal themselves to be only overgrown swamp oak copses. I stop to admire a delightfully whimsical folk art construction north of Vicksburg, and find myself singing that perfectly appropriate Dylan line, “Yes I think it can be easily done, take it on down to Highway 61.”

This is fun. After a year and a half of masking up and staying home, zooming my final courses, retiring without celebration, and constantly fretting over the death rate, it feels so liberating to hit the road, even if my destination has been a fortress prison in the Mississippi Delta. Having figured out the game, all goes well at Yazoo. The same kind guard is on duty and processes me into the visitors’ room without a hitch. For three hours, Corey and I jabber at each other with never an awkward pause, always more to say. Today we share the room with other visitors, too:  a young woman who drives in from Atlanta once a month to visit her fiancé and a spry elderly fellow and two well-behaved youngsters who have come down from Memphis to see his son, their dad. Atlanta is seven hours away; Memphis three. It’s clear, for all of us, that the drive is worth it. It dawns on me that the rules here — sit six feet apart, no touching, everyone in masks – are the rules we all live under now, more or less. Covid itself is a kind of prison, and with the Delta variant running wild, who knows when we’ll be released?

I plan to drive straight back to Atlanta, stopping only for gas and gnawing on a leftover piece of fried chicken for lunch. When I start the car, the radio blares – wouldn’t you know it? – Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic “Freebird” and it’s shouted claim, bleakly ironic in this setting, “I’m as free as a bird, babe, and this bird you cannot ca-a-a-a-age!”  Don’t you love these sneaky correspondences, when the one-armed bandit turns up all lemons and the world seems briefly a little less random? I’ve been force-feeding the model this whole trip, testing my Apple Music subscription by calling up obscure tunes by Son House or Blind Lemon Jefferson on a whim, their mournful blues a soundtrack to the movie beyond my windshield. Mississippi has been all Delta blues, but crossing into Alabama I switch to the Allman Brothers and Hank Williams, passing through Birmingham Randy Newman’s essential Good Old Boys album, and hitting the Georgia line R.E.M. and Ray Charles. Navigating the multi-lane freeways in Atlanta, though, the best music always is Outkast, and – back aching, eyes bleary – played loud.

The whole trip, though, I’ve been returning to a Bob Dylan playlist, songs across his 60-years-plus career pouring out in a jumble that somehow fits together. I’d scratched my head at old Bob’s Nobel Prize, but the idea has slowly grown on me. Driving through the Deep South for the past four days, I can’t think of any artist who has so bountifully articulated the tortured psyche of America, and delineated how the lies we (who identify as white) tell ourselves (most glaringly about race) are the keys to our culture’s troubles. Nobody listens to albums any more, but having followed Dylan my whole life (yea, even unto these latter years), I still think of his work in album-sized chunks. From one album to another, his bands, his musical stylings, even the timbre of his voice, change. But jumbled together on a playlist, there’s a consistency to his effort, anchored I think, by his masterpiece Highway 61, Revisited. That tune — surreal, careening, hilarious and dark — exemplifies Dylan’s mission, which seems to me – and though a lifelong fan, forgive my presumption here – to be holding a funhouse mirror to the American carnival, that mirror pieced together from shards of our strangely prophetic folk music, the primary sources that no one else seems to grok as he does. Asked about this, Dylan has said, “The main body [of folk music] is just based on myth and the Bible and plague and famine and all kinds of things like that which are nothing but mystery and you can see it in all the songs.” (In Greil Marcus’ The Old, Weird America.) That’s the well Dylan’s been drawing from in his career-long reflection on our flag-bedecked Midway and its back alleys. Anyway, that’s how I see it on this drive, bookended by the bracing horrors of the Legacy Museum and their current incarnation at Yazoo Penitentiary. Throw in the Civil War glorification at Vicksburg battlefield for good measure, Alabama’s governor diverting covid relief money to build more prisons, hospital ICU’s overflowing with anti-vaxxers….  We’re in a bad place, but Dylan’s music implies that you could jump in your time-traveling DeLorean, pick any era in American history, drive eight hours in any direction on any road, and what you come across would be just as gob-smacking as this trip. Play our Nobel Laureate for instruction on the way. As the elderly gentleman at the Legacy Museum said, “Oh my.”

Yazoo Ho! A Deep South Travelogue – Day Three

Living in New Orleans back in the day taught me that the tastiest (and most affordable) cuisine can be found in dives, Mom and Pop shacks treasured (and taken for granted) by locals. The foodie movement is all about such places, of course, and it was Chowhound.com that pointed me towards my best meal of the trip – Ubon’s – a shabby storefront on Yazoo’s outskirts that specializes in pulled pork sandwiches and cornhusk-wrapped tamales. Will spare you the long treatise I’d intended, about how this Mexican delicacy became a classic Delta soul food (here’s a website explanation), let me just say that my half dozen hot sauce-sprinkled tamales, plump with steamed corn meal and morsels of pork, make my day. The enormous “small” pulled pork barbecue sandwich ain’t bad either.

The takeout window at Ubon’s (and the kind lady who gave me a Coke).

Ubon’s is closed to indoor dining, but has picnic tables scattered out front, so I sit down across from the only other customer, a B.B. King lookalike who easily takes up half the picnic table on his side (come to think of it, he might well be kin to the great bluesman, since King grew up just an hour north of where we sit). He’s waiting for his daughter to get off her shift cooking, grins at my relish over the tamales she’s made, and tells me how sweet life is managing the nearby game preserve owned by a conglomerate that paves roads, runs tugboats, and builds bridges all over the Delta. I tell him my brother used to run a game preserve in Virginia, a job that brought the whole family freezers full of venison. He marvels at that, the notion that other people in faraway places may also live his rustic life, agrees that sharing the game shot by bankers feeds his community, too, then pulls out his phone to show me a photo he’d taken that morning of a spotted fawn peeking out from foliage. “More deer than anybody could eat in them woods,” he says. “Ain’t she pretty, though?” 

The whole time we’re talking, I’m swatting away a horde of flies. He says, “Flies love tamales!” When I move on to my sandwich, he takes the greasy wax paper the tamales had come in and spreads them out at the opposite end of the table. The flies swarm there, leaving me alone with my sandwich, problem solved! At last his daughter comes out. I thank her for her delicious tamales. She shrugs as if to say, ain’t no thing, then they hop in his truck and drive off. I’m finished, too, but before I leave the little grandma who’d served me at the takeout window steps out in her apron and mask with a cold can of Coke. She’d heard me talking about visiting a friend in prison, about my drive home to Virginia. She says, “Take this son; you got a long drive ahead of you.”  I want to hug her for her kindness.

Back in Vicksburg, the heavy sky has given way to billowing cumulus and even a welcome breeze. I walk down towards the river past the columned courthouse and antebellum mansions to Washington Street, Old Town’s ten block main drag, and a quaint but well-stocked bookstore called Lorelei Books. I’m the only customer, so the young woman behind the register pulls down her mask, suggests I do the same, if I want. I thank her and for some reason add, “I’m vaccinated.” She nods and replies, “My mama is a nurse and she does her own research.” I’ve heard that phrase before. Isn’t that the universal code for “We’re not vaccinated”?  I let it go, but seriously, people, a nurse who isn’t vaccinated? Why isn’t that considered malpractice? 

The cashier is a sweetheart, though, points me to the local author’s section, and when I tell her I’m only in town today, pulls out a map of the battlefield and marks highlights of the 13-mile figure-8 loop inside its borders. I buy a book on the Delta blues and wander back to my room, checking out historical markers along the way. It seems that half the homes in Old Town proudly bear indentations from cannon balls thrown up during the Union siege.

I get to the visitor’s center just as the park ranger is about to close the gate, but he says I’m welcome to take a run or walk in there. “This is when all the bicyclists and joggers come.”  I’m so glad to have the opportunity to stretch my legs, after sitting for three days. For the next two hours I dawdle along six miles of the park loop, jogging up and down the grassy ramparts and hillocks where, 158 years ago, Vicksburg’s Confederate defenders lined up in trenches within earshot of their Union opponents, at a stalemate, waiting out three months of Mississippi heat until their food ran out. It’s a beautiful park, broad rolling hills (the remains of forts and redans) giving way to steep forested ravines. General Grant sent his men up those ravines just twice, on successive days, and both times they retreated, heavily entrenched graybacks firing directly down on hapless blue coats as they climbed. Standing beside an old cannon atop one of the park’s hills, I wince at how suicidal it must have been to attempt those assaults.

After that, Grant wisely chose the siege route. Both sides dug in, firing cannonades over the ramparts at each other. The little city of Vicksburg took an almost daily bombardment from more than 400 Union artillery pieces, both from the Army’s guns and those fired up from ironclads parked in the river. Yet casualties were surprisingly few. Supposedly, there’s a cave behind the cottage where I’m staying. It’s where the family repaired each day when the bombardment started. Apparently that’s how the civilians in the city survived. (Union soldiers called Vicksburg “Prairie Dog Town.”) The furthest point of my run is a tall oak, marking the spot where General Grant accepted General Pemberton’s surrender, on July 4, 1863. Far away in Pennsylvania, a day earlier, a major general named Pickett had led his men up a ridge at Gettysburg to slaughter. Though the war would drag on for nearly two more years, the tide had turned decisively in the Union’s favor. The surrender of Vicksburg, which has been described as the nail holding the Eastern and Western halves of the Confederacy together, and the defeat of the rebels at Gettysburg the previous day, launched a retreat that would drag on all the way down the face of Virginia to Richmond, Petersburg, and finally Appomattox.

Jogging across the Vicksburg battlefield revives a longtime debate between my ears. Over the past decade or so, culminating with the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue last week in Richmond, we middle-aged white Southerners have undergone a re-education of sorts. I was raised to see Lee as a hero, to understand the Civil War as a battle over the vague notion of “states rights”, to think of the Union Armies (especially General Sherman’s in his destructive “march to the sea”, which began right here in Vicksburg), as the bad guys. Ken Burns’ famous PBS series on the war, narrated by Mississippi historian Shelby Foote, glorified the warriors on both sides. Yet yesterday I walked through the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. A year ago, I marched with protestors down Richmond’s Monument Avenue in the wake of the Floyd and Taylor police murders. It’s clear, of course, that the Civil War that tore our nation apart was all about slavery. And it’s clear, too, that the war continues by other means, a sizeable chunk of white America unable to see people of color as fully human, insistent on maintaining the entitlements that white supremacy affirms.  It’s what MAGA is all about. We came thisclose to a coup over that just months ago. As Mississippi’s Nobel winner William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

I leave the park sweated out and wondering, what is the purpose of all these Civil War battlefields now? Is it possible to still admire Confederate warriors who fought in the name of slavery and treason?  Or are they necessarily understood as pariahs?  I’m grateful for Montgomery’s museum, for the marchers who brought down the bronze figures on Monument Avenue, for the historians who have more truthfully revised the stories I was raised on. I’m glad to wrestle with these questions, and thankful that I’m not alone in doing so. But I’m worried.

Do you remember the Y2K panic, how we’d been warned of the collapse of the Internet when clocks ticked over to a new century?  That New Year’s night, after champagne and kisses, I turned on the tv to some obscure channel that showed the Nation of Islam’s Reverend Louis Farrakhan delivering a speech. I’m no Farrakhan fan. Among other things, I’m convinced he played a key role in the assassination of Malcolm X. But something he said caught my tipsy ear. He noted that around mid-Century the ethnic makeup of the U.S. would tip to minority white, and he doubted that white folks would accept that gracefully. Rather bombastically, I thought, he predicted trouble over the coming decades, culminating in a second Civil War. Over a meagerly stuffed oyster poorboy (and purchase of a slice of hummingbird cake for tomorrow’s breakfast), I fret over our former President, who sits fuming at Mar-a-Lago, at the ugly passions he stirs, and fear that things are about to get worse in our country, for exactly the reasons Farrakhan predicted. A new poll shows the majority of Trump voters (and 41% of Biden voters) support splitting the country in two. What are we going to do?

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)