Friday, December 10, 2010

What to do

It’s two weeks before Christmas, I’m outside, strolling the grounds of Holly Grove on a cool evening, at dusk, when I hear a car stop on the Edwards Road, just to the north. You can’t see the road from the house but I can see taillights through the trees. Then I hear a car door slam. Great, I think. Someone dumping something.

Which turns out to be true. Only they aren’t dumping garbage or an old sofa.

After the car squeals off and the taillights flicker out of sight, a child begins to scream at the exact spot where it had been stopped. A child, and a young one at that, has been abandoned on the road shoulder. It’s a scream of absolute terror that’s soon interrupted by cries of “I’m sorry!”, which, because the kid is five or six years old, comes out sounding like “I’m sobby!” He keeps crying that he’s sorry, though no one can hear him but me, and I’m invisible. It’s heartbreaking.

I wait. I assess. Do I call out to the child and risk frightening him even more? A car has just sped away and left him alone in the gloaming, along an empty road, and I’m the only witness to his agony. Maybe it’s none of my business how these people raise their kid, but who can stand idly by while a child screams alone in the darkness? There’s really no debate. I head to my truck to go check on him.

I’m pretty far from the house, and by the time I get there I hear the offending car return. I’m relieved – sort of – to see the taillights again flickering through the trees. Good, I think: They had second thoughts. Maybe they aren’t bad people. Maybe they were just pushed to their limits, and made a bad call.

The car is reversing down the road very fast, toward the source of the screaming. Even from this distance, the flickering red and white lights and the racing of the engine and the whine of the transmission is ominous, menacing. I can imagine what the child is feeling, faced with this. Still, he doesn’t stop screaming. I’m thinking: That’s what got you put out on the side of the road, lad.

Then I hear a man’s voice, shouting. The child’s screaming still does not abate.

OK, so this is someone else’s drama. Interfering in a family fight is as perilous as trying to stop a dogfight. Who am I, anyway? And how might my intervention be received, in that I’m white and they’re black? This is Mississippi. Race is a powerful dynamic.

And yet?

This episode is so not right, and it’s going down within what I consider to be my domain. I’m a guy who once chased a truckload of men who stopped on the road (at about the same point as this one) and started firing a gun into the woods, in the direction of my house. I was outraged that they would be shooting randomly toward my house, so I got in my truck and chased them until they went careering through a crowd of parishioners turning out from the church down the road, and I didn’t want to follow suit.

The deputy later said, “You chased these guys, knowing they had a gun.” All I could say was: Yes. Sometimes you can’t just look the other way.

This is one of those times. But I wait, hoping it’ll go away. I stand by my truck and listen. Monkey and his wild bitches sit in their rocking chairs on the porch, ears perked in the direction of the screaming.

After a few minutes of this, it occurs to me that the crisis is going on a little too long. If the man was only trying to make a point, to frighten an unruly child into submission, he obviously made it, so why does he not let the kid back in the car and head home? I decide to resume my original course, to head down there and see what’s going on. I think hearing a child screaming in the woods near your house justifies some sort of intervention.

The truth is, I’m OK if you want to spank your child. If you want to verbally abuse him, I don’t really think it’s up to strangers to intercede. But this episode seems extraordinary. Am I supposed to wait for it to escalate to physical violence? I don’t know these people. I don’t know what they’re capable of doing. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe I’m a busybody. But the kid is going crazy and the thing is not going away, and it’s right there, in front of me.

When I turn my truck onto the Edwards Road I see the car in my headlights, sitting crossways in the road. It’s an old model Buick with blacked-out windows. The boy stands on the shoulder nearby, crying and clutching a blanket or a stuffed animal; it’s hard to tell which. The car doesn’t move, nor does the boy, but I feel them feel my presence. I stop. I pull out a piece of paper and write down the tag number. Then I wait. The boy stares into my headlights, then, to my relief, opens the door and gets in. I imagine the driver told him to, because I have refused to pass. Then the car pulls onto the shoulder and stops. I drive past, slowly, glancing toward the blacked-out windows. I drive a half-mile or so, turn around at the dead-end. On my way back out I pass the Buick going the other way.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Monkey's wild bitches

People ask why we call him Monkey Boy, on account of he doesn’t look like a monkey anymore. His simian traits – the oversized head, the arched, serrated backbone, the longer front legs than back, have morphed into something that looks more like a homemade dog that was cobbled together from parts of other dogs. You see Monkey now, you see a default dog of the local countryside -- “a Miss’ippi black dog,” as one friend put it.

Monkey is not, however, a common black dog, like some generic stray scavenging for KFC boxes along the shoulder of the road. Though he has history in that arena, as evidenced by the fact that he abhors buzzards, with which he presumably once had some altercations over road kill, he is, in fact, a Jedi. For starters, he has successfully navigated the pitfalls of the fields and forests around Holly Grove -- the speeding cars and dump trucks of the local roads, the electric fences surrounding the alluring cow pastures, the coyote traps baited with rancid meat in distant creek bottoms, the feral dog-shooters who populate many country abodes, and the sinister, hidden compounds of certain local men who train and fight pitbulls, and who capture loose dogs that come their way to sacrifice as stand-ins during the deadly training. So far, Monkey has not fallen prey to any of these things. As my friend Elaine, who works at the Chevron station in Bolton, said, “Monkey know what he doin’.”

After living more than two years in relative domesticity, Monkey does have a few challenges that he has not yet mastered. These are, primarily, the teeth of cornered beavers, the fangs of various pit vipers, the smoke bombs of skunks, and now, the responsibility for caring for a pair of wild courtesans.

When he arrived at Holly Grove in 2008, Monkey was not made to feel welcome. He was a very bedraggled stray, no doubt attracted to the place by the presence of my comparatively civilized personal dogs, Jack and Truman, two mainstream Labradors who also, it should be noted, enjoyed occasional escapes to explore the hills and dales nearby. Like all good pets, Jack and Truman were devoted users; they held their instincts in abeyance for just the right moment. Truman could snuggle better than any dog I’ve ever known, but his origins (a group of poor children had dropped him off in the parking lot of the Jackson zoo, in a crate filled with straw) no doubt reminded him that we are, all of us, only visitors aboard this weary, unbright cinder. Even when we were bonding, he seemed always aware that I was merely a link in the chain. Sometimes he ignored me when I called his name.

Truman adored Jack, the elder lab, who had actual registration papers, and had proved to be a survivor of the canine perils that had taken a few of his compatriots, one of whom got run over, one of whom was eviscerated by an oversized bobcat, and two others that had simply disappeared. Among Jack’s notable protégés was Omar the Terrible, who, during his years at Holly Grove, brought home evidence of a stunning array of nocturnal conquests – the dead carcasses of a water moccasin, a rat snake, a fox squirrel, a gray squirrel, a flying squirrel, a chipmunk, a rabbit, a possum, a raccoon, a bird, a juvenile beaver, and, remarkably, a long, toothy gar – a fish, mind you. Omar was sweet and loving when it was called for, but he was a ruthless terrorizer of all critters who deigned to enter our domain. I worried for him, having occasionally glimpsed a huge bobcat that padded around the creek bottom, now and then crying out in a shrill scream that would send me back indoors; I’d also seen its large footprints in the mud. Bobcats vary greatly in size, from about the size of a very large housecat to the size of a small Lab. I knew that if Omar ever went into pitched battle with The Big Bobcat he would lose, and sure enough, one morning he did not return, and Jack, his mentor and partner in crime, wandered up with long, bloody scratches all over his head and forequarters. I never saw Omar again.

Not surprisingly, considering their forays into the nether world, my dogs attracted strays, including Little Dog the Cat Killer, who ended up dying at the hands of a cat avenger, and Beau, a happy boxerish dog who showed up on my porch, greeted me jovially, as if we were long-lost friends, and introduced himself as Beau, then went on to become the best pet my friend Dick has ever had.

Jack trained the uninvited emigrants in the ways of Holly Grove – the tandem attractions and dangers of the fields and forests and the denizens therein, the mysterious, speeding hrudus of the roads, and, of particular note, the serpents that crawled upon the ground. Of all my dogs, Jack got snake-bitten more than any other; he never seemed to learn. He passed this penchant onto the newbies who took their queues from him, so that on one Christmas day all three of my dogs were bitten during a dramatic creek-side tug-of-war in which, sooner or later, everyone got the bad end. Only Omar proved capable of killing large, venomous snakes without suffering for it. He would grab the tail and whip the monster maniacally back and forth, breaking whatever passes for a neck on a snake. Jack also had trouble with beavers, which can inflict a deep slice wound. Omar eventually took care of that little problem, too, though checking beavers off the list required suffering a few of his own inspiring slice-wounds and eventually resorting to going after a comparatively vulnerable youth. After that he seemed satisfied, at least where beavers were concerned.

Jack was then the king of Holly Grove, but he had begun life as an heir apparent, the uncontested ruler having been Hank, the First Lab, who knew everything about everything. Hank had the largest vocabulary of any dog I’ve known; I could recognize, from inside the house, whether he was barking at a small animal, a snake, a medium-sized animal, a hog (“They’re SO annoying!”), a large animal (differentiating between horses, cows and deer) or a person (differentiating for race and gender). Jack learned from Hank, though he wasn’t quite the virtuoso in the signaling department, and he passed on everything he’d learned to Al, a 120-lb. half-Lab, half-Rotweiller who is now among the disappeared, as well as to Omar, Truman, and finally Monkey, who showed up a few months before Jack died.

Among Jack’s teachings was one that had been passed down to him from Hank: That dogs should sit in rocking chairs on the front porch of Holly Grove. All of them took to doing this, so that, assuming everyone was around, when I got home I’d be met by the tableau of Jack, Truman and now Monkey lined up in their respective chairs, as if that were what dogs did. It only took Monkey a few days to find his perch, and he now spends all of his downtime so ensconced.

By the time Monkey discovered the chair his head had mysteriously begun to shrink. Because I was feeding him his body was likewise filling out, which caused his prominent vertebrae to recede. Eventually his head was height- and weight-proportional, which was when I realized that it had been grossly swollen from a strategic snakebite at the time he arrived. The result was that he came to look very little like a Monkey. By then, though, the name had stuck.

After the passing of Jack, Monkey and Truman were alone together, and periodically, Monkey would convince Truman to accompany him on greatly extended romps. Previously, Truman had never jumped the fence, but Monkey apparently demonstrated the ease with which this could be done, and they were off. I could never contain either of them again. Slowly Truman became wilder and wilder, until, eventually, he never returned. I don’t know what happened to him, and I miss him still. Every time I see a similar dog on the road I slow to see if it’s him. I blame Monkey for the loss.

So it was that I became a one-man dog, that dog being a stray that had corrupted my chosen ones. Yet I came to love Monkey Boy, and he has since entered my personal pantheon of great dogs. For one thing, he likes to dance and be sung to, very, very much. Take his paws in your hands so that he rises on his hind legs, and sing one of his personalized ditties -- Monkey is the Monkey-dog, the Monkey-dog, the Monkey-dog. Monkey is the monkey-dog, all… day… long -- and he will promenade with you, all day long. Also, he goes into a Zen state while being petted, closing his eyes languorously and going limp. This is extremely endearing, particularly for women, who particularly love Monkey.

Because Monkey became lonesome in the absence of his former peeps, he took to taking more and longer sabbaticals in the countryside, perhaps looking for community beyond the rocking chair. I don’t know where he goes but he is sometimes gone for days (the longest period so far has been a week), and invariably returns muddy, injured in some way, covered with ticks, having lost his collar, and stinking of skunk. There is no containing him. He will climb out of a fence if he can’t dig his way to freedom, even while wearing a shock collar. He is a more adept escape artist than any dog I’ve ever known. Even at the vet, where he sometimes has to go while I’m in New York City (the mysterious place that I disappear to for long periods of time, which no doubt confounds Monkey as much as his romps confound me), he has learned to escape the kennels. Milton, my vet, said that Monkey is the first dog to escape the Maximum Security Unit – a pen that differs from the others in that its roof is also enclosed with chain-length fencing. Monkey climbs the six-foot-tall chain-link fence and worms his way between the top rail and the fencing of the roof. Then he shows up in Milton’s office, wagging his tail. He only wants company. Milton indulged him in this, at first, but because no dog can have free reign in the clinic or its kennels at night, Monkey has had to resign himself to being held, at night, in a cat cage from which there is no escape.

I have thought of implanting one of those microchips in Monkey so that I might monitor his travels by satellite, if only to satisfy my curiosity, but for now his routes remain a mystery. Wherever he goes, I know that among the prominent extras in his peripatetic drama is a skunk. He always comes back reeking of its scent, so much so that one time it was overpowering enough to wake me in my bed, on the second floor, though Monkey himself was nestled in a hole he’d dug under the house. My friend Daniel, who rents the cabin on my place, suggested that the skunk may be Monkey’s girlfriend, and that he comes home only after they have a tiff and she sprays him in disgust.

Monkey is fixed, but that does not seem to diminish his love of female company. As a result, he recently brought home two sisters – the wild bitches, who are identical (like a cross between a Lab and a hound) except for being different colors; Blackie is black, with white knee socks, and Red is red. They differ from Monkey in that they are truly, unabashedly wild. They were not on the lookout for a place to call home; they were merely following The Great Monkey, and this is where he led them. They bolt off the porch when I come out the door or approach from the yard, which is very disquieting, and makes me feel like a lurking monster in my own home. They persist in this despite the fact that I feed them. Red, who recently learned to sit in a rocking chair, after two weeks of observing Monkey, seems more inclined to cozy up, but Blackie is stupid and always sends out false alarms. I don’t know where the bitches came from, but I am determined to domesticate them if only so I can capture them and get them spayed. The last thing I want is two litters of mongrel puppies added to the mix. Their arrival, and their lack of interest in even feigning gratitude for room and board, makes me wonder if I’ve got the feral canine equivalent of a hobo’s mark on my gate.

Sometimes I look out the window and see Monkey prancing off down the gravel road, his wild bitches dancing around him, licking his face in adoration, and am touched to know how happy they make him. They are always up for a romp, with the result that he now disappears more and more. I’ve always seen Monkey’s sabbaticals as a rough corollary of my own life: As I vacillate between my country home at Holly Grove and my city life in Brooklyn, he vacillates between the sedentary life of a rocking chair on the porch and the restive ramblings of the far-flung countryside. Now that he’s got his bitches, the other universe beckons more.

His vacillations have their downsides, obviously, even for him. He sometimes seems a bit chastened, even embarrassed, because he knows that this new development has driven a wedge between us. With much more frequent skunk sprayings, he rarely gets petted, much less danced with, and I can assure you that if he could be petted, nonstop, for the rest of his life, he would never consider going on a romp again. He also at times seems to tire of the bitches’ relentless attention. Elaine predicts that he’ll eventually grow weary of them and take them back, whence they came, but I’m not so sure. I doubt they’d stay put if he returned them, anyway. From the looks of things, they’ve never had much interaction with humans. Monkey is all they’ve known and loved aside from each other. Holly Grove is just Monkey’s way station, and unfortunately harbors a monster who tries to lure them closer with dog food. The fact that Monkey allows the monster to touch and even caress him (when he’s not reeking of skunk) only elevates him in their minds. He is brave! Observe how he engages and disarms the monster!

Because they are inclined to enjoy this spectacle purely as spectators, Monkey’s pets have proved impervious to capture, which would be followed, in short order, by a trip to the CARA no-kill pet repository. For now, though, it looks like the bitches are here to stay, especially since Red, in tribute to Monkey and, though she isn’t aware of it, to Truman, Omar, Al, Jack and Hank, has found her temporary spot in a rocking chair. I don’t know why I was surprised when I walked out the door and saw Red look up at me from her rocking chair, as if to say, “What?” Blackie, meanwhile, ran cowering from the porch.

When I glanced down at Monkey, he looked up at me, as if to say, “Yes, she discovered the rocking chair. Yes, I know you and I have our differences. I know you don’t approve of the wild bitches. But we really, really do love our time at Holly Grove.”

I doubt I’ll ever count the bitches among the noteworthy dogs of my life, but who knows -- I once felt the same way about Monkey.

When people visit Holly Grove they often ask if they can bring their dogs, imagining some Hallmark scene in which their fluffy, well-groomed pets run, unhindered, through the dewy fields, like “Lassie” in days of yore. But, as I explain to them, I do not live inside a Hallmark card. Monkey’s episodes don’t always have a happy ending. I tell them, yes, you can bring your dog, but you may never see him again. Holly Grove is both a way station and a portal to another canine world, and you never know who or what will disappear into that portal, never to return, nor what will emerge from it in its place.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Late on Sunday night, 23rd Street, Chelsea. There aren’t many people on the street. I’m walking home, listening to my ipod, when I pass an old woman in a long dress, wearing several scarves and a head rag, quietly struggling with an old steamer trunk. The trunk is upright, on one end, and she’s slowly, laboriously pivoting it on its corners, moving incrementally down the dark sidewalk, the way you'd try to move a heavy piece of furniture across a room if you didn't have any help.

I make it a few paces past her before the image sinks in. I turn around, see her pivoting it first on one corner, then another. The back of her dress is smeared with various colors of vivid paint. She’s black, stooped and very old -- pushing 90, I'd say. She may be crazy. You see all kinds in New York City, but it’s rare to see anyone as old as her, alone. Why is she doing this? What journey is she on? I walk back to her, remove my earbuds, say, “Ma’am?” She looks up, lets the old trunk come to rest on its end. “I don’t know where you’re going, and I don’t know if I can go all the way, but can I help?”

She stares at me, not speaking at first. Her face is deeply grooved. Her eyes are sad but resolute. Her breathing is labored. I wonder how far she’s come. “No,” she says, “because I’ve got to go to 8th Avenue.”

8th Avenue is a little over a block back in the direction I’ve come.

“I can help you,” I say.

“No,” she says, “because it’s too heavy.”

“It’d be easier with two,” I say.

“No, no,” she says, and looks off down the street. “Thank you. God bless you.”

She resumes pivoting the steamer trunk, as if it’s the most important, monumental task of her life.

“All right,” I say. I replace my earbuds and move on.

I stop twice, look back to see her silhouette against the glare of the city lights, moving almost imperceptibly down the street. A part of me just wants to know the story. I wonder what’s in that trunk, why she’s compelled to transport it alone. I also feel guilty, thinking that I should have insisted on helping her. But she's on her own.

No one else seems to notice her. New York City is full of mysteries. It’s rich. It hardens you.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Talking with the sons of Confederate veterans

I once found myself behind a pickup truck in Jackson, Mississippi that had bumper stickers of the American flag AND the Confederate battle flag. I’m sure it made sense to the driver, but all I could think was: Which is it, buddy? Was not one specifically designed to negate the other?

It was a perfect illustration of how the rebel flag’s meaning has been transformed over the years. In the late eighties, when Mississippi was preparing to vote on whether to retain its current state flag, which includes the Confederate battle flag in its canton corner, I saw a few bumper stickers touting the flag with the words “Heritage Not Hate.” It may have been true in the eyes of the people who sported the bumper sticker, but a heritage that encompasses racial supremacy is naturally going to offend people of other races. The KKK is partly to blame, though the problem obviously runs much deeper than that. Regardless of how you view the Confederate flag, it was the symbol of a nation that sought to secede from the U.S., and one that officially embraced human slavery.

I wrote in a recent post about the Neshoba County Fair that I’d like nothing better than to see black people co-opt the flag, so we can be done with the wedge it drives between the races. Personally, I’ve never been flag-oriented, having observed that symbols are easily perverted. Plus, any kind of nationalism makes me wary. People whom I mistrust and even revile have waved the American flag, too. As a white southerner I’m not personally offended by the rebel flag, but I don’t feel a strong attachment to it, either, and I understand why some people don’t like it. All of which came to mind when I was invited to speak to a group that calls itself the Lowry Rifles Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which meets in the fellowship hall of the tiny Central Independent Baptist Church in Pearl, Mississippi.

The book tour for Sultana is over, but I still get calls now and then from someone who wants me to talk about it to their group, and on this night it was the Lowry Rifles Camp. I was happy to oblige. I’m always interested in engaging people with different perspectives on the story.

When I arrived at the church I noticed that the vehicles in the gravel lot were mostly pickup trucks, many with Confederate battle flag ornamentation. No surprise there. What was surprising was the ritual that the 30 or so members and guests performed after their opening prayer: They pledged allegiance to the flag (the U.S. flag, that is), then to the Mississippi state flag, then to the Confederate flag, which, for those of you who aren’t familiar with such things, is different from the familiar “rebel” flag. In their salute to the Confederate flag they pledged their faithfulness to the cause it represents. I was tempted to ask, when I got to the podium, “What cause would that be?” But that would have launched a long discussion, and I had been asked there to talk about the Sultana, which carried its own subtext, seeing as how the Confederates are the enemy in my book.

Marc Allen, who introduced me, issued a bit of a disclaimer when he mentioned my book and reminded the group that their common interest is history, first and foremost. He seemed to be preparing them to listen to a sympathetic treatment of Yankees. And I think he was right, they were interested primarily in history. Everyone listened to my Yankee story and asked thoughtful questions afterward. I could not have felt more welcome.

When it comes to racial matters I often like to transpose words and vantage points as a sort of test. Say there’s an article about racism, which typically means white racism, though there are clearly other kinds; I like to transpose the words “black” and “white” to see how the story plays that way. It can be an illuminating exercise. In this case I wondered how I’d have been received at this meeting if I had turned out to be black, which would be the antithesis of something that happened several times during the tour for my book Mississippi in Africa, when black audiences were surprised to find that I’m white. I like to think that most people are welcoming by nature, and that it is only in the heat of the moment that they get ornery and hateful. Then again, back in the sixties the moment got heated in places exactly like the Central Independent Baptist Church. There was no way to know how I’d have been received had I been black, but people are complicated and I’ve learned firsthand that just because someone likes the Confederate flag doesn’t mean they’re racist.

At the start of the meeting, before I was introduced, one of the members of the group made a few announcements, one of which concerned a recent news item that the SEC was considering withdrawing its upcoming tournament in Mississippi due to continuing controversy over the state flag. This elicited groans from the audience. He also mentioned a planned “burn a Confederate flag day” in Arkansas, in opposition to a tea party rally, which elicited a few gasps. What really seemed to irk him, though, beyond the flag-burning, was the association of the Confederate flag with the tea party, which he considered offensive.

Growing up as a white boy in Jackson I had a certain fondness for rebel soldiers, who were clearly the more romantic of the two teams in the civil war. They were our people, and a few of them were considered heroic. Later, when I was a student at Ole Miss, before the administration grew sensitive to the problem the university’s symbol, the Confederate battle flag, posed for its athletic recruitment program, I enjoyed seeing the sea of rebel flags on our side of the stadium during football games. We were the South. We were different. We were rebels. Only later did I come to understand that we weren’t the South, exactly. We were a part of the South, and the flag meant something entirely different to some of the other parts. I’d had the luxury of not having to worry about the flag’s deeper meaning. It wasn’t one side in a civil war game. Though I felt no heartache over the eventual banishment of the flag from the stadium, neither do I automatically judge people who see it as a symbol of something they admire. Flags, clearly, can mean different things to different people.

The obvious answer to the question, “Which is it?” is that conservative politics is the common ground over which the otherwise contradictory flags simultaneously wave. But I suspect there was more at work in the fellowship hall of the Central Independent church, in part because of something Marc Allen told me afterward. As he was talking about his group’s mission to restore, save and maintain local civil war cemeteries (many of which are, for a multitude of reasons, endangered), he told me it doesn’t matter to them whether the graves are of Union or Confederate dead. “Whatever side they fought on, their memory should be respected,” he said.

Time heals all wounds, I suppose. The Lowry Rifles Camp may not have diversity in its mission statement, but it’s more inclusive than you might think. There were more than a few women among them, including one from Indiana, and they truly did seem as interested in the stories of Union soldiers as they were in the stories of Confederates. I don’t know how they’d react to a black person who expressed an interest in joining, in that black soldiers fought on both sides during the civil war, but I doubt that’s a call they’ll have to make any time soon. They’re pretty deep into the white southern thing, as evidenced by the items for sale on the table, which you can see in the picture that accompanies this post. They’re the Sons of Confederate Veterans, meeting in a Baptist church in famously white Pearl, Mississippi.

Still, it was interesting to go to a place where those divisive symbols – Rebel flag decals, patches, car tags – were actually on sale, and find that they did not seem to be a rallying point for hatred. On the contrary.

As we lingered outside after the meeting, watching distant lightning fracture the night sky, a boy of about 12, nicknamed Bubba, who had earlier been inducted into the Lowry Rifles Camp, listened to Allen express his deep dismay over the sale, on eBay, of items he was certain had been pilfered from battlefields, including some that were likely exhumed from graves. His point was that some people do not share the SCV’s reverence for the past. Obviously, that reverence is being handed down, as evidenced by Bubba’s induction into the camp. The problem is that the past, in Mississippi, is fraught with perils, and it provides the perfect context for a battle flag to come into play.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Naomi Campbell's hair

A lot has happened in Liberia since my book Mississippi in Africa was first published in 2004, including the arrest of the country’s president, Charles Taylor, for war crimes, the election of the first female president of an African nation -- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the release of two remarkable documentaries, An Uncivil War and Pray the Devil Back to Hell. More importantly, though, the West African nation, which was settled by freed slaves from the U.S. before the American civil war, has found peace after back-to-back civil wars that kept the country in turmoil from 1990 to 2004.

I traveled to Liberia in 2001, searching for descendants of a group of emigrants from Jefferson County, Mississippi in the 1840s. One of my chief sources while I was in Liberia, Jefferson Kanmoh, a student activist who went unnamed in the book due to concerns that he would suffer reprisals from Taylor, has since been elected to the Liberian Congress, representing Sinoe County, site of the old colony known as Mississippi in Africa as well as neighboring Louisiana, which was similarly settled by freed slaves from that state.

I’ve kept up with Jefferson and many others I met while I was in Liberia, and for obvious reasons have remained interested in what was happening there. Last week, I was surprised to read of an episode that adds a new dimension to the strangeness that has never been in short supply where Liberia is concerned: The testimony, on August 5, by supermodel Naomi Campbell in Taylor’s UN trial in The Hague, Netherlands. I was a bit nonplussed to find that the magazine Vanity Fair, which had previously published some excellent reports about the Liberian civil war by journalist Sebastian Junger, chose to focus this time on Campbell’s… hair. So it goes with Vanity Fair. That’s Campbell, by the way, in the photo accompanying this post, alongside another, of two female Liberian soldiers taken by photographer Teun Voeten during the civil war.

Taylor, an American educated former warlord who was elected president primarily because Liberians saw it as their only hope of ending the bloodshed (the popular mantra was, “You killed my ma, you killed my pa; I will vote for you”) is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and cannibalism. The story is too complex to even begin to do it justice here, but Taylor is accused of arming warlords in exchange for so-called “blood diamonds” mined using slave labor, while participating in civil wars in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone in which an estimated 250,000 people were killed. Apparently he sought to impress Campbell soon after his election, which is how she came to testify at The Hague.

Prosecutors had hoped to solidify their case against Taylor through testimony that he had given Campbell a bag of raw diamonds after a charity dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela in Cape Town, South Africa in 1997. Both Campbell’s former agent and actress Mia Farrow confirmed the gift, and though Campbell had previously denied receiving it, she changed her tune in the International Criminal Court. When asked how she received the diamonds, she said: “When I was sleeping I had a knock on my door. I opened it and two men were there and gave me a pouch and said, ‘A gift for you’.” Inside the pouch she saw “very small, dirty looking stones” -- uncut diamonds. She continued: “At breakfast I told Miss Farrow and Miss White [her agent] what had happened and one of the two said, well that’s obviously Charles Taylor, and I said, yes I guess it was.”

When questioned about what she had done with the gems, Campbell said she passed them to Jeremy Ratcliffe, then-director of Nelson Mandela’s Children's Fund and asked him to “do something good with them”. The charity denied receiving the diamonds until last week, when Ratcliffe handed them over to police.

Taylor has been in prison since 2004, and his trial, which began in 2007, appears to be in its final stage. His wife, Jewel, divorced him in 2006 and now serves as a senator in the Liberian Congress, alongside my friend Jefferson, who is in the House. One of the couple’s sons is serving a 97-year sentence for his war crimes role.

The war was going on when I traveled to Liberia, but I wasn’t there to cover the conflict – far from it. I was trying to find out what had happened to the largest group of emigrants, more than 300 slaves who were freed from Prospect Hill Plantation by the will of Mississippi planter Isaac Ross (hence the long and cumbersome subtitle of the book: "The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and their Legacy in Liberia Today”). The war, for me, was primarily a hindrance to doing historical research, and I lived in fear of being arrested while in Liberia after U.S. embassy officials informed me that Taylor thought I had traveled there as a UN spy. Several other journalists had been arrested under the same pretense and charged with capital crimes, though all were subsequently released. My inadvertent insertion into the war, which naturally led to its inclusion in the book, also led to a lasting friendship with Sebastian Junger, whom I contacted after reading his Vanity Fair articles about Sierra Leone, hoping he could give me advice on how to prepare for traveling to Liberia. Sebastian advised me not to go, but when I told him I had no choice, he gave me useful nuts-and-bolts advice and told me to get back in touch with him upon my return. I think he was intrigued by the idea of this inexperienced guy researching family trees in a war zone, without any protection or support, as much as anything. He afterward hooked me up with his literary agency, which sold my manuscript for publication.

Through Sebastian I later met Teun Voeten, the Dutch war photographer whose photo of two young female soldiers appears here, and Tim Hetherington, a British photographer and videographer who spent eight years living and working in West Africa, four focused on Liberia, and shot the footage for the stunning documentary An Uncivil War ( Teun wrote his own book about his experiences in the region, and in 2006 Tim took a break from photography to work as an investigator for the United Nations Security Council’s Liberia Sanctions Committee. More recently, Tim and Sebastian collaborated on the film Restrepo, about the war in Afghanistan, which won this year’s Sundance prize for best documentary. You can check out Teun’s photos at and Tim’s at The trailer for Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary about how the women of Liberia rose up to protest for peace, can be found here: There's also a brief video about efforts to assimilate child soldiers into society, at

Jefferson, meanwhile, who was shot and imprisoned during the Liberian civil war, is now an up-and-coming statesman and remains one of the more inspiring people I’ve met. He recently traveled to a human rights conference in San Francisco and hoped to make it to Mississippi for his first visit to what many “Americo” descendants in Liberia consider their homeland, to “return” to a place he had never been, much as the original freed-slave emigrants to the Liberian colony “returned” in the 1840s to Africa – a place that they, as longtime American slaves, had never been. Unfortunately, Jefferson’s plans fell through.

Despite brief news coverage, the publication of books and the release of documentary films about Liberia, most Americans are unaware of what has been going on there, which mystifies the average Liberian, who’s acutely aware that theirs is the only nation the U.S. ever created. I could not help noticing, during the time that Liberians were asking the U.S. to intervene in their civil war, that American opponents warned of “another Somalia,” despite the fact that the two countries are as geographically and culturally distinct as Ireland and Uzbekistan. Then again, many Americans think Africa is a country, not a continent.

Liberia is Africa’s oldest independent republic, and its history is among the more complex and enthralling in the world. It’s worth reading about, which is why I’m proud to say that the newest edition of Mississippi in Africa is on the shelves after a brief period out of print.

Liberia exists in a sort of parallel universe, with communities named Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Kentucky and Virginia, and reports from the country do occasionally feel as if they’ve passed through the looking glass. Unfortunately it’s often a one-way mirror, through which they can see us but we can’t see them. Perhaps if more supermodels were involved we might pay closer attention.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Neshoba County Fair

Like the rest of America, the Neshoba County Fair has grown more conservative, and incrementally wilder, in the last decade, which is about how long it had been since I was last there. I attended the fair, which is held just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, for two days last month for a much-needed refresher course, and noticed, first off, that the Democrats have more or less gone underground at an event that historically has revolved around political debate.

The Dems are still there – my friend Chuck Lewis’s cabin, where I stayed, is a notable liberal way station on Founder’s Square -- but you'd hardly know it from the look of things. Their voices are quiet and exceptional. The fair is now primarily a mecca for white Republicans, a change that is probably more noticeable to someone who hasn’t been there in a while. Not that it's becoming a giant tea party -- far from it. The fair’s rustic cabins, the venues for what National Geographic magazine once called “Mississippi’s Giant House Party,” are welcoming places, and political differences are tolerated if not necessarily embraced.

The fair’s demographic has always been conservative, though it once voted solidly Democrat. The shift in political party allegiance came slowly, as it did elsewhere in the South. In fact, nothing changes rapidly at the fair, unless you count the occasional natural death among the generations who return each year to their respective cabins, and even then, while the change is keenly felt by family and friends, the fair goes on. There's always another elderly lady, one porch over, with her own scrumptious recipe for ambrosia salad. To make serious inroads, enough time has to pass to kill off all the old ambrosia makers, which is certainly happening, though their offspring are poised to take up the mantel. Continuity is the thing. Ambrosia endures alongside other traditional southern foods in the spreads laid out on Formica dinette sets and other time-worn hand-me-downs that have found their final uses at the fair. The drift toward conservativism is likewise nothing new. It’s something handed down from generation to generation. Those who were once conservative Democrats are now conservative Republicans. That's not to say there's no difference -- there is. But you could see it coming.

The fair, which lasts a week, is the largest and one of the oldest camp-style fairs in the U.S., dating to 1889, and is a much beloved local institution among its fervent but fairly narrow demographic. The rest of us are guests or, in some cases, part of the entertainment, such as the carnies, the jockeys who race the horses on the red-dirt track and the politicians who speak at the pavilion in the square. What the fair is really about is socializing in a friendly, relaxed, and hot and dusty (or muddy, as the case may be) environment. It is a safe redoubt for its participants. Children wander, unsupervised among the crowds, the horses and the carnival rides, or play in creeks that thread through the cabin lanes. My friend Catherine said that when her son Ian was small they would release him on his own recognizance with his cabin number written on his shirt so he’d be returned to his home base if he got lost. There are rounds of political speeches, with blowhards echoing off the cabins on the square to polite applause. There are talent shows, which are entertaining in large part because they’re hopelessly amateur. There is drinking, eating and socializing late into the night. If you’re part of the demographic, it’s a comfortable, reassuring and fun place to be.

Since the fair is held in Mississippi in July the weather is invariably hot, which has made it one of the final holdouts for a once-ubiquitous southern prop, the hand-held cardboard fan, which typically advertises a local funeral home or a political candidate. Air conditioning was once reserved for the newer cabins, on the less rigidly traditional alleys off Founder’s Square, but today most cabins have it, though people still spend most of their time outside, fanning.

People still try to be a bit discrete about their alcohol consumption in the dry county, though you do see flagrantly displayed beer cans late at night, when young people roam the grounds on what appears to be a communal outdoor club cruise. There are still all-night sing-alongs, where strangers and old friends and extended family members who see each other once a year gather around a piano under a bare light bulb in the open air pavilion to sing old standards such as “My Wild Irish Rose.” The sing-along I attended had the look of an old Norman Rockwell painting, until the crowd got around to singing a song about… smiling darkies. The song illustrated the comfortably white-centric dynamic of the fair, for better or worse, and how things change very slowly, in subtle ways. As the sing-along crowd crooned the lyrics from their hand-out sheets, I noticed one young guy who’d been belting out the songs suddenly covered his mouth with his hand when they got to the part about the smiling darkies, yet continued to sing. Not far away, a guy in a group of rougher-edged country boys blurted out, in surprise, “Did you hear that? They’re singing about darkies!” and laughed.

The darkie song notwithstanding, I sensed no hostile racial overtones. Race rarely even comes up in conversation. The fair is simply a place where traditional southern whites can bask in their natural habitat and take advantage of the opportunity to sing familiar songs, including “Dixie,” unhindered. It's an outcropping of Mississippi’s cultural diversity. “Dixie,” for the typical fairgoer, is about how old times here are not forgotten. Pain over certain of the memories is not on public display. No one I spoke with at the fair mentioned the burial, back in the sixties, of three murdered civil rights workers in an earthen dam down the road.

The failure to ruminate about old times that people would just as soon be forgotten was noted in the blog of a man named Tim Murphy, whom I met at the fair, which was later posted on the liberal magazine Mother Jones website ( Murphy, who lives in Boston, showed up at the fair while on a cross-country, post-college graduation road trip, and could not resist mentioning the lack of mention about Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, though he did so without judgment, which was itself something of a surprise. My thought was: Is the lack of mention really unusual? Would it have made sense to hear someone say, “Welcome to our cabin! Make yourself a plate of food, pull up a chair and we’ll talk about the civil rights workers who were executed outside Meridian and buried in an earthen dam not too far from here”? It’s alarming to think that good people the world over have allowed such atrocities to be committed in their midst, but from the perspective of fairgoers it’s just a matter of people going too far, which is a tendency that is roundly frowned upon. It doesn’t mean anyone’s forgotten; they just have a lot of personal catching-up to do.

Conservative fairgoers have no reason to attempt to drive the Democrats from their midst, and anyway, the cabins are legacies handed down, so no one is going away any time soon. They also have no reason to make the occasional black guest, who is not a jockey, a housekeeper, a member of the Neshoba County Fair Security force or a neatly groomed political operative, feel uncomfortable. Still, the political drift is unmistakable, and the aggressively Democratic Jackson city council has contributed to it by ceasing to participate in Jackson Day at the fair on account of the perception that it’s just a bunch of white people doing white-people things, which it most assuredly is, just as the Medgar Evers Homecoming is about black people doing black-people things. The difference, I suppose, lies in the responsibility white people have for the state’s troubled past. Fortunately, and contrary to popular mythology, there are a great many integrated events in Mississippi today; the Neshoba County Fair doesn't happen to be one of them.

When someone mentions the handful of Confederate flags hanging from cabin porches, it occurs to me that every group celebrates its culture, and doing so often drives a wedge between them and other groups. The flag is only offensive to people, black or white, who choose to see it so. In my view, black people should simply co-opt the iconic symbol. They should take to flying the Rebel flag themselves, and perhaps even wear Rebel flag belt buckles. They should just take the flag and run with it, so we can all be done with it. While it’s obvious that fairgoers generally appreciate that people there can fly the flag without being called out on it, the truth is most don’t take it seriously. You can say that’s troubling in and of itself, but the main problem is that such displays become the inevitable take-away for the media and black visitors, to which the natural cabin host’s response would be: “Have a piece of pecan pie!”

At one point, when Murphy, the guy from Boston, took shelter on a cabin porch during a sudden summer downpour, he was welcomed by the hosts, though he was a stranger. I choose to think this would have been the case even if had he not been white, because the fair is, if nothing else, a polite, hospitable place. One of the hosts filled him in on the fair’s history, the high point of which, from her perspective, was a visit by presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980. Murphy and his traveling companion happened upon the fair by happenstance, and he pronounced it kind of wonderful and “wild.”

Later, as we sat on Chuck’s cabin porch, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a former Republican lobbyist who is seriously conservative, took to the stage on Founder’s Square to ruminate about politics and to exaggerate about the impact of President Obama’s drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, his wife sat on the porch of the cabin next door sipping her chosen beverage from a Styrofoam cup, and a Republican candidate with perfectly coiffed hair worked the crowd. A guest on Chuck’s porch looked through one of the photo albums chronicling the decades his family has been coming to their cabin at the fair, observing the comings and goings and the passage of time.

Congenial as the fair is, you can’t gather thousands of people together for a week at a time without the occasional hiccup. During the course of my stay, one of the horse groomers was impolitely stabbed during a late-night altercation with an acquaintance in the stables, and an elderly woman who failed to put her car in park rammed her family’s cabin and suffered a broken bone. But the next day everyone except the old lady was back to socializing, and the word was that she was most concerned about the possibility that she may have cast a pall over her family’s annual reunion. As one fairgoer noted, concerning the stabbing victim, “He was back at the fair by noon the next day, with stitches.” Such events are absorbed into the continuum of the fair. Soon enough, everyone will return to the real world, with all that entails, but for the moment, they're free to sing, with communal gusto, “To Dixie’s Land I’m bound to travel, Look away! Look away! Look away!”

Monday, August 2, 2010

On the trail

If you run through the woods long enough you’re going to run up on a snake now and then. Trail running in the South, particularly in summer, is basically a roving, high-speed surprise party for snakes. The surprise is also on you, of course, but it’s important to remember that the snakes are similarly off-guard.

I trail run every day that I have access to trails, and I’m aware of the presence of snakes, though I typically hear them more often than I see them. They make a different kind of rustling in the grass than legged animals. I occasionally come upon nonpoisonous snakes frantically squirming across the trail, as eager as I am to put the encounter behind. Venomous varieties tend to hold their ground, as if to say, come on, mofo -- I don’t have to run. Fortunately, I don’t see as many poisonous ones on the mountain bike trails at Butts Park, near Clinton, Mississippi, where I often run. I did come upon a copperhead last week that stayed put, right in the middle of the trail, until I backed up far enough that it apparently felt comfortable continuing on its way.

Such encounters provide food for thought while running. At the farthest point on the trails I’m about three miles from my truck, and I’ve often wondered what would happen if I got snake-bitten that far out, when my heart was already racing. “Keep calm and seek immediate medical attention” doesn’t really work in such a scenario.

The experts no longer advise applying tourniquets or trying to suck the venom out. Tourniquets hold the venom in place, which can destroy tissue and result in serious localized damage. Still, I wondered: Might not a temporary tourniquet be a decent fallback position to enable a victim to get back to his truck before he passed out? When I queried a local herpetologist he responded with a firm no. Take your cell phone with you, he said. You could just as easily break your leg, be attacked by a pit bull or suffer heat stroke, and you should be prepared.

Whatever. Anyone who runs trails in the South knows that carrying a cell phone is out of the question. You do not want any unnecessary encumbrance as you leap across roots, fallen logs and creeks, and electronics don't do very well when subjected to copious amounts of sweat. For better or worse, it’s just you and your sodden shorts and shoes. Given that, I asked the herpetologist, what exactly should I do if I get bitten? Keep calm and seek immediate medical attention, he said. Seriously, I said -- that’s the best you can do? Well, he said, just keep in mind that a healthy person isn’t likely to pass out from the bite of a cottonmouth, copperhead or even the kinds of rattlesnakes we have in Mississippi during the time it would take to walk back to my truck. Initially, you’re just going to be in a lot of pain, he said. Most useful was his observation that snakes take a second to get into position to bite, and as a result, rarely bite even when stepped on, assuming the person steps away quickly. Since I’m running, I’m likely to be out of range before the snake even thinks about biting, he said. I pointed out that a friend of mine’s daughter got bitten by a copperhead while running, though it turns out she was the second runner, the first runner having alerted the snake.

I was able to test the surprise theory, to my own surprise, on Saturday, when the temperature was hovering around 100 degrees and I figured any self-respecting snake would be burrowed deep in his hole. As I was running through the woods along a creek, on a section of the trail that’s crisscrossed with tree roots, I noticed that one of the roots had what appeared to be a different surface pattern. It was one of those split-second observations; I watched as my right foot landed beside the root, and noted that it was, in fact, a water moccasin. My foot landed no more than two inches from the snake, which was stretched out, but I was already two strides down the trail before I reacted. The same went for the snake.

When I stopped and turned back to see what the snake would do, it seemed to be trying to figure things out. It started making its body kind of squiggly, just barely flexing, which told me that what the herpetologist had said was true – the snake needed a second to get angry and defensive. Then, to my surprise, it slithered off into the grass.

My first thought was: Damn. Two poisonous snake encounters within a week. My original theory – that by having come upon the copperhead I had diminished the odds of another encounter – was obviously way off. It now looked like the odds were pointing toward more snakes. Yet I actually felt more confident as I resumed running because the snake had not reacted nearly as quickly as it had in my imagination, when it had lashed out like a growling, hissing, prominently-fanged monster from the Temple of Doom. In reality it was just trying to get up with what was going down.

I have a healthy fear of poisonous snakes, but if you’re so risk-averse that you can’t do anything, what’s the point? So it was that yesterday, the day after the moccasin encounter, I was again running on the trails when the heat index reached 111 degrees. I thought of the herpetologist’s admonition, which the weather service has been repeating for the last few days, about putting myself at risk for heat stroke.

In summer I try to pace myself between “heat stroke” and “horsefly,” and unfortunately the necessity of slowing down in response to the 111 thing meant the horseflies could catch up with me. Their strategy was to fly into me at top speed, hoping, I suppose, to become entangled in my fur as I zipped past. Because I do not have fur, what resulted was a ridiculous and annoying exercise. At one point I passed another runner waving his shirt like a horse switches his tail, and wondered: Do horseflies bite snakes? Snakes would seem to be extremely vulnerable in this regard, which is a satisfying thought.

I had expected the trails and the adjacent park to be empty due to the heat, but I passed two runners and about 10 mountain bikers, and even the Indian cricketeers were out there doing whatever it is they do in the big field – “playing a game” seems a bit of a stretch when it comes to cricket. Anyway, I know what you’re thinking: Who would run through snake- and horsefly-infested woods when it’s 100 degrees? Well, there are a few of us. I like to think we’re the kind of people who would be useful to our post-apocalyptic tribe, which is the way I’ve been measuring people’s worth lately, if that tells you anything. Would you want someone in your tribe who whines? No. Steals? Maybe. Waits back at camp to evaluate your reports and/or tend to the wounded, cook and gossip? A few. Is capable of running through extremely hot, snake- and horsefly-infested woods, whether of necessity or for the sheer joy of it? Mos’ definitely. We, the trail runners, are learning the lay of the land, and we’re learning the truth of snakes and horseflies, for better or worse.

My position is, never listen to anyone who warns you to stay in an air-conditioned room, as the weather service has for the last several days. Just use your head. Live in your world. Drink plenty of water. If you run, slow your pace. If necessary, cut back on your distance. And spend as much time as possible in the shade, which is, of course, where the snakes are. But do not stay in that air-conditioned room any more than you have to.

You can play golf, ultimate Frisbee, or cricket, but just get out there. For me, there’s nothing like running through the woods, jumping creeks and fallen logs and yes, the occasional snake, to make me feel alive. Along the way, I’ve learned that the idea of danger is sometimes worse than the reality. When the weather service warns you to “limit your time outdoors,” ignore them unless you’re frail. You’ve only got so long to explore the world, and part of the time it’s going to be hot and there are going to be horseflies and snakes, so just do it, as they say. You’ll spend plenty of time burrowed down in your hole later on.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


In many ways, Utah is just like you picture it: High, dry and populated primarily by clean-cut, square-jawed Mormons whose ancestors came here to get away from everyone else. What comes as a surprise is the corresponding subculture of tattooed mountain bikers, sinuous, 100-mile trail-runners, dreadlocked backpackers and homeless vagabonds who wander the streets of Salt Lake City in clothes stained the color of desert canyons, wood smoke and industrial grime.

Interspersed among the legions of Mormon men in starched white shirts who stroll West Temple Street are a remarkable number of guys wearing no shirts at all – more than I’ve seen in any big-city downtown outside of Rio. Cultural escape takes many forms; sometimes it’s shirts, sometimes it’s skins.

No doubt the alternative types stand out in Utah precisely because of the staid mainstream culture. It’s as if the survivors of some post-apocalyptic world have wandered onto the set of the old “Osmonds Family Show.” Donnie and Marie, meet Mad Max.

On one corner in downtown Salt Lake I see an alt-guy with his alt-girl dressed in dirty, torn gray and olive drab clothes, scuffed hiking boots and head rags that look as if they were ripped from the drapes of some abandoned building. Their hair is wild and dirty. The scent of campfires and long-term B.O. lingers in their wake as they pass a café where four Mitt Romney clones are dining al fresco.

When I mention the odd counterbalance of Donny-and-Marie and Mad Max to my friend Edy, who lives in nearby Park City, she says, “Now, that would be a street fight worth watching.” She says her money would be on the Mormons, who could disable the road warriors with laser-like smiles bright enough to glint off the windows of downtown buildings. She’s probably right when it comes to Salt Lake – the Mormons pretty much own that terrain, but once you get off the grid, all bets would be off.

Salt Lake City is tucked into a corner of its eponymous valley on the western front of the Wasatch Mountains, which rise in elevation to 12,000 feet, encompassing high desert, comparatively lush forests and flowery meadows. It’s a huge wilderness area, and in many ways is a no man’s land both because it’s rugged and remote and because it belongs to everyone. Sixty percent of Utah is in state parks and national parks, monuments and forest land. The name "Utah" is itself derived from the name of the Ute tribe and means “people of the mountains.” The Utah wilderness was originally a perfect place to undertake a religious experiment without interference. Now it’s a perfect place to hike, mountain bike, ski, trail run or undertake whatever other outdoor activity the season and your personal constitution allow.

Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be much conflict between the buttoned-up Mormons and their wild-haired alter-egos. They appear to share more common ground than just the high desert mountains and valleys. For one thing, it turns out that all those young Mormon guys you see roaming the neighborhoods of other cities, proselytizing in their telltale shirts and ties, are actually outliers of a deeply entrenched bike-centric civilization in the Utah desert that encompasses both mainstream and alternative cultures. In Salt Lake you see bicycles everywhere, piloted by people of all ages and backgrounds – men in suits, women in shorts and sandals, road-weary travelers laden with cross-country baggage, mountain trekkers outfitted with technical gear, delivery guys, elderly eccentrics, kids. The bicycle, not the beehive, should be the official Utah state symbol.

Despite the familiar American car culture that periodically smothers Salt Lake in a haze of pollution and contributes to sprawl throughout the valley, there’s a strong athletic vibe about the place that also carries a whiff of anarchy. This is a society, after all, where polygamy was once considered a family value. It’s the youngest state in the U.S., more male than female, and, according to Wikipedia, has the highest rate of paid subscription to pornography and the highest rate of volunteerism in the U.S. Jello is the most popular snack food. Famous Utahans are an odd bunch: Butch Cassidy, serial killer Ted Bundy, Robert Redford, Mitt Romney and Karl Rove. Because of their religious tenets, which stress clean living, exercise and healthy diets, the Mormons tend to be more fit than the average American, which is a trait they also share with a large percentage of their alter-egos.

Coming from a place like Mississippi, where the most popular outdoor pursuits revolve around fishing or sitting in a deer stand, and New York, where everyone is constantly on the move, but mostly out of necessity, what’s striking about Utah is how many people seriously love outdoor recreation. Even the homeless people on the streets of Salt Lake look tan and fit. Park City, in the mountains above Salt Lake, is known for its downhill snow skiing, but there’s also cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snowshoe hiking, and the high country is criss-crossed with thousands of miles of mountain bike, hiking and running trails, in addition to equestrian and four-wheel-drive trekking and mountain climbing routes that come into their own during warmer weather. As a result, Utah is also notable for ripped biceps, triceps, calves and quads, and not just among twenty- and thirty-somethings.

During the time I’m in Utah I spend my free time exploring the nether regions around Park City and Salt Lake, mostly trail-running along routes that rise as high as 8,000 feet, which seriously tax my lowlander lungs, leg muscles and cardiovascular system. It’s beautiful country, though it is the nature of cross-country running that you see more of what’s right in front of you than of the scenery around you. You have to make a point to look up when you reach a brief, smooth stretch, because otherwise all you’re going to see are rocks, roots and perhaps a butterfly pollinating a meadow of wildflowers.

Even in the high desert wilderness I encounter interesting Utah characters, channeling every imaginable cultural more, most notably a wizened, deeply tanned elderly woman who comes tearing down a rocky trail on a mountain bike in full mountain bike regalia. At another point, as I’m running through a boulder-strewn, sloping meadow with thigh-high switch grass and purple and yellow wildflowers, I happen upon a Native American guy running the trail in the other direction. Though he’s just another trail runner, far out in the desert mountains, it’s hard not to assign significance to the encounter. I’m reminded of the myriad ways Utah’s alluring desert mountains have influenced human culture over the centuries, for better or worse.

The modern state of Utah is obsessively orderly, and its stunningly beautiful landscape is both loved and in some cases grandly defiled, as evidenced by the car sprawl, massive strip mines and the miasma of sulfuric stench that occasionally rolls in from the fetid marshes of the Great Salt Lake. During the week I’m in town I’m lodged in a grand old hotel where I am compelled to change rooms twice in an attempt to escape noxious, phantom sewer fumes. The truth is, while Salt Lake City is outwardly clean, and set in a stunning location, it is in many ways seriously messed-up. It’s easy to understand how the city gave rise to both the weirdly wholesome Osmonds and the crazy man who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart and kept her in a pen in his backyard.

Mormonism is all about rules, and the inevitable backlash is about flagrantly breaking them. The streets of Utah cities and towns are invariably wide and organized around numbered grids, with the numbers often running into the thousands, which can be confusing to an outsider unaccustomed to thoroughfares named “12600.” That order was imposed by the church, which means that it is not just street-deep. The rules are designed to both harness and limit individual power, in every imaginable way, and because the rules are so rigidly enforced, it’s very obvious when someone steps off the grid. You can spot them a mile away.

Once you leave the constraints of the manmade environment, though, it’s every man for himself. The Mormons run the government, and dominate the population, and the alt-types prevail in the coffee shops, bars and bicycle stores, but the true Utah, the wild, high desert, is the common backdrop to everyone’s life, and it’s the reason everyone is here.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Weather terrorists

A Weather Channel talking head named Vivian leveled her gaze at us, the worried viewers, on Friday night as an insane late-spring weather system bore down on the South like an invading army, on a front that was hundreds of miles wide.

After a notably quiet tornado season, during which the Weather Channel had run a headline that petulantly asked, “Where have all the tornadoes gone?”, Vivian could not contain her excitement over a storm system that seemed designed for sweeps week. She was clearly energized by the specter – nay, the CERTAINTY – of impending meteorological-related death and destruction.

“There is a strong likelihood not only for tornadoes but for severe tornadoes,” she said, with a glint in her eye. “And they’re going to come during the night, when we’re most vulnerable – as we’re sleeping.”

Even within the realm of weather forecasters who are notoriously aroused by meteorological threats, this seemed an unfair exploitation of the vulnerability we all felt. Plus, are not all tornadoes severe?

Watching Vivian, it was easy to imagine a Weather Channel job interview including questions such as, “Do you enjoy frightening children on Halloween? Not just giving them a start, but really frightening them – as in, making them cry? How about insecure old people at home alone at night during lightning storms?”

Vivian urged us to keep our weather radios on all night, and to make use of a new Weather Channel feature whereby they would call you on the phone if a storm was coming your way. (There is also an available phone app called “Severe Weather in the Palm of Your Hand”).

On the night in question my friends Mike Kardos and Katie Pierce and I were in Columbus, Mississippi for the Southern Literary Festival at Mississippi University for Women. Mike, a fiction writer and instructor at Mississippi State University, and Katie, a poet who is likewise an instructor at MSU, had done readings and/or led workshops with student writers as part of the festival. That night I spoke about Sultana, after which novelist Dedra Johnson read from her book Sandrine’s Letter to Tomorrow.

The Friday night event was held in a dim, 1960s-modern chapel that, as Dedra pointed out, felt like a mausoleum, against a backdrop of lightning flashes that illuminated the single stained glass window behind the podium while torrential downpours roared against the roof. I thought of the guys from the Sultana and all they’d gone through, including cowering, exposed without shelter, as prisoners of war during just such a storm. The crowd on hand for the literary event was surprisingly large considering the weather.

I'm a complete 'fraidy cat when it comes to tornadoes, after having once seen one approaching my house – a squat, roaring wedge of swirling navy blue, encircled by wispy pink clouds that were being sucked into its vortex – at which point I decided to do what they always advise against, which was to run. I got in my truck with my dog and sped away. I hadn’t made it 100 yards before the rain was falling so hard that I couldn’t see the hood of my truck, and was forced to roll slowly, hoping not to drive off into the creek or into a tree, at which point I suddenly realized I wasn’t running at all. I came through the episode unscathed, as did my house, though several trees were blown down. I never saw storms in quite the same way.

On another occasion a tornado swept by my house, downing trees before destroying a series of homes down the road. When I stopped to check on one family they were probing the debris for significant possessions, many of which (including a lot of clothes) had been blown from their obliterated house and hung, burning, in the tops of battered trees. The house had caught fire as it was being blown apart. Did I mention that it was also snowing? The weather. Man.

More recently, I encountered an approaching tornado while driving through the town of Bolton. I abandoned my truck in the middle of the street and ran toward the bank, knowing they had a vault. Curiously, as I ran toward the door one of my footfalls failed to reach the ground. Just one footfall, ending in the air. I’d been briefly lifted by the wind, after which I entered the lee of the bank building and continued on my way. It was just a few feet of involuntary flying: Not much, but enough. Together with the bank’s employees and one other customer I watched from the area near the open vault door as the roof of the fire station across the street and the disintegrating car wash tumbled past the windows.

I feel safer during tornado weather when I’m with other people, so the weather in Columbus that night was more energizing than frightening to me. We joked about the weather terrorists on TV, and continued to do so the next morning, when they informed us that we had an “8 in 10 chance of seeing a tornado today.” We did notice, with some bemusement, that they seemed particularly fixated on Mississippi, where numerous tornadoes had torn through the region to the west of us during the night. We also joked about the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” Whistling past the graveyard, as it were.

I was supposed to drive back to Bolton that day, Saturday, and did not look forward to a three-hour drive through a meteorological nightmare, especially after it started to hail in Columbus at around 7 a.m. But checking the weather radar, Katie, Mike and I decided that there was a narrow window during which we could make it to Starkville, their home (and where we could, if necessary, take refuge in the basement of the MSU English Department building), which would also put me a half-hour closer to my own home in Bolton. The drive to Starkville turned out to be unnerving: Few cars on the road, the sky dark with clouds that dragged little streamers, like tornado starter-kits. It felt like we were driving through the turbulent atmosphere, rather than on the ground.

Frequently returning to the radar screen while ensconced in the English Department, we observed that the storm was actually going to intensify as the day progressed, which meant that I could either hunker down there, in Starkville, for the rest of the weekend, or make use of what appeared to be another narrow window and high-tail it back to Bolton. The radar appeared to indicate that Highway 25, my route home, passed between a series of ugly red Weather Channel blobs, but was itself relatively clear.

It’s stupid, I know. You should not undertake a two-and-a-half-hour road trip when there are tornado warnings. Likewise, it had been stupid to run from the tornado that day at my house. But running is instinctive for me. So we agreed that Mike would monitor the weather and call me if it appeared that I was headed into something ugly, at which point I could, hopefully, seek refuge.

Between Starkville and Louisville, Mississippi I entered a strange meteorological zone. The sun came out and the wind picked up, blowing perhaps 60 mph, which had the effect of driving the racing shadows of clouds across the pavement directly at me. It was kind of dizzying, and reminded me of time-lapse photography. After that lightning began to flash to the south, where I knew a red blob sat, then to the north. I entered heavy rain, called Mike, who checked the radar and said there was a mostly green blob over Marydell, a community I’d just passed through, and that it was mostly green blobs from there to Jackson. “Not even any yellow, really,” he said, adding that there was a wicked looking red blob west of Vicksburg, headed toward me, on a parallel course, though it looked like I could make it to Jackson before it hit.

This was around 11:30 a.m. What was happening, as I nervously navigated my own green blobs, was that the red blob was crossing the Mississippi River north of Vicksburg, after having touched down in Louisiana, and was on its way to killing 10 people across a swath of destruction nearly a mile wide and 200 miles long. I’m glad I didn’t know it at the time. (You can see the path of the storm here:

After a few follow-up conversations with Mike, I made it home uneventfully. I heard about the killer tornado later, and felt a bit chastened about having scoffed at the maniacal Vivian, and, for that matter, for having set out on a road trip under those conditions.

My nerves were a bit frazzled, not only because of the drive but because before I departed Starkville Katie and I had seen our doppelgangers in the reflection of an elevator as the door opened – supposedly a bad omen – and, having perhaps been primed for it by so many image-rich poetry readings – I had noticed what seemed to be an inordinate number of buzzards roosting along the stormy highway. I had also passed a hearse, and meanwhile, what seemed to be the same, lone black man driving in different cars.

It was eery, freighted, and menacing. So it was that the day should end on an equally weird and disturbing note, when my friend John and I, while sitting at a bar in Jackson, saw a woman at the next table sink from her chair onto the floor, having passed out from what her friends, both of whom were texting obliviously as she sank to the floor, said was “four or five drinks, plus she used to be in the Air Force, and she takes medication for migraines, and she had amnesia.”

As John and I and the guys from the surrounding tables hoisted the unconscious woman into a chair and someone called an ambulance, one guy who turned out to be a dentist monitored her pulse. We never heard what happened to her after the ambulance took her away.

I had nightmares that night, reminiscent of a David Lynch movie, in which I was aware that I was dreaming, and performed magical dream stunts for my dream characters, including folding my knees against my chest and flying, high into the air, into the clouds.

The next day I read on the Weather Channel that Saturday's tornado had carried debris, including pieces of tin, houses, trees and who knows what else, 8,000 feet into the air.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


After 173 years, the Rocky Springs Methodist Church held its final homecoming on Sunday, as the few remaining congregants prepare to close and, for the first time, lock the doors. On June 30 the venerable brick church, the last building in the extinct town of Rocky Springs, will be shuttered, literally. Its motto, “Our doors are always open”, will no longer apply.

The closure is immeasurably sad for Jesse and Jane Regan, heirs to the church that Jesse’s ancestors helped found, and likewise for former members and families who attended the homecoming, including a group of my friends in Bolton who helped restore the church more than a decade ago. I rode down with Lee and Dick Harding in their T-Model Ford, which seemed an appropriate vehicle for the historic occasion.

As a standing-room-only crowd sang “Amazing Grace,” accompanied by Mrs. Regan on the piano, the view through the wavy-glass panes of the tall windows included the storied cemetery out back, which, as if to add insult to injury, had recently been vandalized. To my mind, cemetery vandals fall into the same category as child molesters, which is to say there should be a special spot for them in hell, and I have no desire to understand what drives them to attack those who are utterly defenseless. My friend Dick, who led the late nineties restoration, had enlisted his son’s Boy Scout troop to renovate and repair the cemetery following a previous vandalization, but its fate, like that of the historic church, is now unknown.

“It’s ironic, isn’t it? The church looks so great, and it’s closing,” observed Libby Hartfield, part of the Bolton contingent at Sunday’s service, which included music by a Vicksburg bluegrass band and a final dinner-on-the-grounds -- an epic southern repast laid out on antique wooden tables beneath the church’s old, moss-draped cedar trees.

It is tempting to blame the Methodist church organization for withdrawing its last itinerate minister, who travels to Rocky Springs once a month, but as Paul Hartfield, who also worked on the restoration, pointed out, “There’s a difference between ministering to a small congregation and providing what amounts to private lessons.” In recent years the congregation has dwindled to the point that on many Sundays the Regans are the only ones there. That said, the April 18 program offered a quiet rebuttal to the idea, quoting a passage from a past sermon that read, in part, “The church is not of spires or fancy choirs in tune; the church is built by Christ where two or three commune.”

The Rocky Springs church stands atop a knoll adjacent to an eponymous park on the Natchez Trace Parkway. The surrounding countryside is lush and sparsely populated, and has a particularly rich, conflicted history. Author Eudora Welty coined the phrase “sense of place” -- which unfortunately has been worked to death by southern writers -- to describe the abiding allure of the area in her essay “Some Notes on River Country”.

“Perhaps it is the sense of place that gives us the belief that passionate things, in some essence, endure,” Welty wrote. “Whatever is significant and whatever is tragic in its story live as long as the place does, though they are unseen, and the new life will be built upon these things – regardless of commerce and the way of rivers and roads, and other vagrancies.”

Welty penned her piece in 1944; since then the river country has continued its inexorable economic and population decline to the point that even its sense of place is now easily overlooked. Entire communities have vanished, marked only by planted flowers that bloom, untended, each spring, and many others that survive are clearly on life support.

Rocky Springs had a comparatively brief heyday between the 1820s and the Civil War, when settlers flooded into the region from Europe and the Eastern Seaboard to build lavish plantation homes. At its height there were just under 5,000 people living in the town, almost half of whom were enslaved. After the Civil War Rocky Springs suffered a succession of misfortunes -- economic collapse, soil erosion, yellow fever epidemics and finally, the devastation wrought by the cotton boll weevil. The last store in closed in the 1930s, and eventually the springs that had brought the town into being ran dry. Aside from the church, all that’s left are two rusty bank safes resting in a vine-choked ravine, their doors long ago torn off, and a scattering of brick cisterns.

A few representative examples of the region’s historic architecture survive, mostly in towns such as Vicksburg, Port Gibson and Natchez, but the majority of the rural landmarks are going or already gone. By some estimates there are more than 250 abandoned cemeteries in Claiborne and Jefferson counties alone; the Regans’ family home, Vernalia Plantation, one of the last historic houses in the Rocky Springs area, burned in the nineties.

Churches are usually the last to go, and the Rocky Springs church managed to survive the long decline, with few alterations. The building went up in 1837 as a permanent home for a congregation that had previously been served by an itinerant Methodist minister, as its final congregation will be until June 30. Jane Regan said the congregation hopes to find someone to take over the church and cemetery, either for a church or for special events such as weddings, but so far no one has stepped up to the plate.

This is what I heard from the minister, Elizabeth Piazza, who drove down from Clinton, (heard, at least, before I gave up my seat in the back to late arrivals, then quietly backed out through the double paneled doors, across the deeply worn threshold, into the April sunshine to wander the graveyard, where I found, among others, the couple who had a little girl who lived a year before she died, presumably of yellow fever, but who had another child a month before the first died -- so there was that -- except that the second child lived only a year before dying, presumably, of yellow fever): That the Lord will provide; that a use for the building will be found.

This is what the children ate before scampering off to play among the toppled obelisks and crypts of the graveyard, to fashion Spanish moss into wigs and chase each other around, squealing; to climb into the two T-models and manically pretend they were driving; and to repeatedly climb the steep hillside between the men playing the banjo, fiddle, guitar and upright bass, singing, and the gullies of the abandoned town site, where they pulled themselves up by clinging to exposed tree roots: Butterbeans cooked in a crockpot, with bacon; crowder peas cooked in a crockpot, with bacon; homegrown snap beans; roasted potatoes; about 12 different kinds of pasta; multiple hams; pot roast with potatoes and carrots; sausage; corn casserole; fried chicken; glazed chicken; baked chicken; Mexican cornbread (three kinds); various other cornbreads; various casseroles; assorted “health food,” presumably for “heart patients” and possibly suburban visitors; other items that I forget or never saw because my plate was full and I didn’t even get to every table; plus coconut cake; lemon meringue pie; bread pudding; chess pie; pecan pie; chocolate pie; mousse; cheesecake; brownies (several varieties, large and small); puddings; cakes too numerous to mention; and I don’t know what all else for the reasons stated previously; with sweet tea. There were beautiful old folding wooden chairs, along with the usual kinds.

This is what the adults talked about, after they sang about Jesus and heard the preacher say something good will come of the collective loss, and listened to the band play “Salty Dog” (!): People they knew or had once known, whether dead or alive.

Then, without further ado, the tables were struck, the children begged to be allowed to play a little longer, and were disappointed, and the cars slowly started backing away, with little wisps of Spanish moss dangling from their antennas and other appurtenances. The word on everyone’s mind was: “Amen.”

Friday, April 16, 2010

Civil War Roundtable talk

When I heard the first question of the trivia contest at the monthly meeting of the Jackson Civil War Roundtable, I thought: Uh-oh.

I’d been aware, when I agreed to speak to the Roundtable about my book Sultana, that they might be a comparatively challenging audience. I’d be decrying the sufferings of Union soldiers, after all, to a group of obsessively knowledgeable Confederate sympathizers.

But I hadn’t anticipated that they’d cut to the chase so quickly, starting with trivia, which I’m terrible at. I’ve never been good at remembering dates or names, and here I was, the featured speaker at an event that was opening with a glaringly public test of everyone else’s numeric and nomenclature memory.

The first question was, “What was the name of the horse Gen. Longstreet rode during the Battle of Fredericksburg?” (The answer, in case you ever face interrogation by Rebel soldiers who suspect you of being a spy, is “Hero.”) Seriously, someone knew this, and when the audience heard the answer everyone nodded knowingly, as if to say, “Of course, I knew that.”

The second question concerned someone’s boot size. The answer was “Size 9.” Someone actually knew that, too.

This set the tone for what I knew would be a rather pointed Q&A at the conclusion of my talk. The truth is, I don’t remember half of what’s in my book. For me writing a book is like building a house. I pick out a site, research possible plans, consult extensively with experts, develop a blueprint, acquire the necessary materials, assemble them, make allowances for unexpected developments, then put a roof on it, paint it inside and out, get the power turned on and open the doors. Afterward there is a reception; actually there is a series of them. Then I move on.

The house is my creation, of course, and it has my name on it, but I don’t live there. After it’s finished I start another one. Which is to say that a year later I don’t necessarily remember the cornice mold in the guestroom, even if I spent hours selecting just the right one. Then I find myself speaking at a convention of probing, strangely sensitive cornice mold salesmen, and I am forced to admit that the guestroom trim was more or less a one-night stand. I don’t even remember its name.

Does it damage the credibility of the house? I don’t think so. But it does make me look like maybe I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

Considering the dynamics, it naturally followed, I suppose, that I would be unable to summon the name of the Sultana’s captain when asked by one of the Roundtable members. This was not, let’s face it, a trivial question. It’s something anyone familiar with the story should know, and particularly someone who had WRITTEN A BOOK about the disaster which said captain oversaw aboard his fated boat.

“I’ll think of it in a minute,” I sheepishly told the guy who asked. It seemed my brain had basically quit the field in the face of a superior opposing force. The group itself did not oppose me, of course, but we did start out with a test, and as part of my introduction Ron Stowers, the supremely likable guy who invited me to speak, had indicated, good-naturedly, that one of the source books I cited, a copy of which he held aloft before the crowd, was “full of lies.” Which was true. I said that in my book. But, still.

When I got up to speak, I prefaced my remarks by saying that I am not a historian. In fact, in the case of Sultana I wasn’t even the equivalent of an embedded journalist. I was more or less a time traveler who took copious notes. I researched the Sultana saga, evaluated my findings and recounted it in my book, which concerns the monumental sufferings and ultimate triumph of a small group of Union soldiers, and in which the Confederate army, it must be said, plays the role of “the enemy.”

“I grew up in Jackson,” I added. “When I was a boy I loathed the Yankees and wished the South had won the war, but then…” I could not bring myself to say, “I outgrew it,” though in fact I did. I came to see that the cause of the Confederacy was fatally flawed, and that there were good guys and bad guys on both sides, each with their own story to tell. In my book I set out to tell an epic story that had, for all practical purposes, not been heard. The dates and the names of the generals and the battles represented supporting information that I had located and included, and then, in some cases, had promptly forgotten. All of which drew blank stares. “Size 9!” I wanted to blurt out.

I enjoy interacting with audiences whose perspectives are different, in subtle or profound ways, than my own. It opens up the terrain. And it’s not as if these guys were speaking an alien language; I did grow up wishing the Confederacy had won. For white southerners they were our ultimate football team; we had ancestors who played for them. And there’s no doubt that the Rebels are far more romantic than the Yankees, many of whom were pressed into service and did not care a thing about freeing the slaves. All of which means there was common ground in the back room of the Picadilly Cafeteria, where the Roundtable meets, even if some of it was destined to be contested.

With the possible exception of one man in the back who asked a series of pointedly technical questions, everyone seemed to accept the fact that I was not there to compete with them in the realm of Civil War knowledge. I was there to talk about a story. Once the dynamic was clear, I was freed to tell that story, and they asked many thoughtful questions, most of which I was able to answer.

After my talk, as Stowers went over Roundtable business, I sat obsessively probing the moldering files of the Civil War sector of my brain and finally came upon the captain’s name: Cass Mason! I was so excited I blurted it out, which caused Stowers to stop talking and turn to me. Everyone else looked, too. “That’s his name!” I said. “Cass Mason.”

Then Stowers presented me with two books, one a defense of the notorious Confederate prison, Andersonville, by none other than Jefferson Davis, the other a defense of Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz, the only Confederate tried (and hanged) for war crimes. Again, I’m always interested in different perspectives, and I appreciated the gifts.

The implications, of course, were that this was largely an unreconstructed crowd, yet overall it was a very genial gathering. I respect reverence for the past, particularly because the current historical paradigm trends otherwise. We revere the early American settlers, after all, despite their systematic genocide of Native Americans. Secession and civil war were radical acts, and seem particularly disturbing in the context of the vitriolic and potentially violent political atmosphere of America today. But from this distance, in the back room of the Picadilly, it felt more like nostalgia, even faithfulness, to care so much about the details.

Before my talk, as I sat with two Roundtable members, we discussed how their group had sought to preserve a National Landmark house on the Champion Hill battlefield, not far from my Mississippi home, and their maintenance of the historic Greenwood Cemetery in one of Jackson’s blighted neighborhoods. And during Stowers’ remarks he noted that the Roundtable was raising money to replace markers at the Vicksburg National Military Park that had been melted down for the war effort during World War II. All of which represented important, valuable undertakings. It was about preserving memory, about storing, retaining and recalling history’s most telling information. On that front we could all agree, even if my own working memory sometimes fails me.