Friday, January 2, 2009

1947-1958

[This is another bit from my memoir. I'm posting them out of order to see how they work on their own. Part of the text, by the way, has appeared in previous work of mine. I call this recycling. All feedback most welcome.]

It took me till I was thirty years old to remember nursing at my mother’s breast. I was under deep hypnosis, with the aim of quitting smoking, and the psychiatrist was taking me back and back by stages, prompting me to recall tastes and smells, any sensation that arrived through the nose or the mouth, and the events and emotions associated with them. I didn’t just remember them; I was there. I smelled hickory smoke and tasted barbecue, which took me to post-barbecue necking with a girl in my mother’s sky-blue Chevy convertible under the moon, our skin peeling stickily away from the naugahyde seats, on my right forefinger my first whiff of pussy-nectar. I smelled griddle-grease and tasted the greatest hamburgers of all time, handed through the foot-square screen door in the little cook shack at the country club pool. I smelled the burnt-insulation stink of the subway in summer—here I would have been somewhere between three and six years old, after we had moved to New York from Memphis and before we moved back—and my mother’s minty breath when she had bought chewing gum from the slot-and-button machine mounted on a peeling-painted steel column. I smelled my first pizza on East Fourteenth Street, “pizza puoy,” the guy all in white called it who brought it, and I burned my tongue and the roof of my mouth. I remembered sitting punished in the hallway on the rug where I was put when bad—this was earlier yet, I must have been no more than two or three years old—and the maid sweeping me into her arms in secret defiance of my mother, and the scent of her starched cotton uniform and sweet breath. I smelled honeysuckle, magnolias, roses, my orange-blossom-perfumed aunt and grandmother, the Mississippi Delta’s flower-scented pesticides, the cotton compresses smelling like potato chips, the dusty dank of my grandmother’s carpet. I scraped my knees on it; I must have been still crawling. I smelled fresh diapers and the acidic stench of dirty ones in the hamper. I ate applesauce, spinach purée, sweet potatoes from a loop-handled silver spoon in a grownup’s hand, “airplane” (food) sailing into “hangar” (mouth). I reached up and touched my father’s rough late-afternoon beard. It was summer forever, hot all day, hot all night, the hum-pulse of the oscillating fan, the breeze on my belly. And finally I lay crooked in my mother’s arm, sucking down her hot sweet milk, smacking my lips, feeling and tasting the sweat on her breast.

The doctor dredged me back through time as though from the bottom of the sea. The clock told me that I had been under for four hours. I walked unsteadily west on East Seventy-second Street, south through the twin rows of yellowing elms along the park, my nerves raw to the glaring chrome and blaring horns of the traffic down Fifth Avenue. New York was too bright and too loud. I walked all the way home to West Ninth Street and went to sleep.

When I woke, I went out on the little back porch and smoked a cigarette: Take that, doc! Then I brushed my teeth and washed my face in the idiotic hope that Louise wouldn’t smell the truth.

+

My mother and father were not comfortable in Manhattan; they made friends mostly among Metropolitan’s other expatriates. My sister, Jane, was born in 1952, and our mother withdrew further from the world and into motherhood. I went to kindergarten at Christ Church, at Park Avenue and Sixtieth Street, where I met children of real privilege and worldliness, and brought them home to my parents’ delight. Then I went to first grade at a public school near home, from which I brought home Puerto Rican, black, and God-knows-what-they-were friends, to my parents’ dismayWe moved back south in 1954, to an apartment in Memphis, a temporary base while our new house was under construction in the unincorporated suburb of Whitehaven (originally White’s Station on the Southern Rail Road; the name had nothing to do with skin color). I began second grade at Whitehaven Grade School that fall.

It was still a country town, with a cotton gin, one bank, one café, a hardware store, a couple of gas stations, a general store on whose unpainted wood porch old men sat whittling and lying through the afternoons. When we moved in, Whitehaven was home to about five thousand people; by the time I graduated from high school, there would be fifty thousand, beneficiaries of the GI Bill and the postwar boom who had poured in from the country and small towns all across the middle South, where agriculture was rapidly automating and opportunities drying up. Our mothers and fathers were children of the Great Depression, and nearly all of them had known some degree of poverty. The scarcity of money in their childhoods had either stymied any travel or prompted the sort that evoked no lyrical memories—grimy buses, boxcars, shoe leather, all destined for soup lines, unemployment lines, degradation, destitution. Many of our parents were now far from their parents and grandparents, whose agrarian and also isolated lives resembled the life of Whitehaven not at all, with its shopping center, new houses, white-collar commuting, ambition, hope, prosperity, propriety, and ungrateful children.

Only a few of my classmates came from Memphis families. My father , Charles Thomas McNamee, Jr., had been born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and raised in the village of Tutwiler, near Clarksdale, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. He had met my mother in her also very small home town of Savanna, Illinois, in the midst of World War II; he was an Army ordnance officer, and there was an arms depot there. She was doubtful about living in the frightening South, and my father’s mother, who featured herself a grande dame (while lacking the money usually considered the requisite excuse for such attitudes), could hardly bring herself to speak to his son’s lipsticked, red-nailed bride.

My mother, née Gladys Mae Runyan, had been a child not of the poor but certainly of the lower orders. Her father had run through a string of jobs, many of them as what Illinois called a tavernkeeper, a man who cussed and spat and got in “scraps.” Her mother was an obese, ill-tempered hypochondriac who never laughed and rarely smiled and had a lot of bad things to say about just about anybody or anything in Savanna. My mother had well and truly escaped, the first in her family to graduate from college, the University of Iowa, and to live in a big city, first teaching in Chicago and later working in the physics department at the University of Chicago.

Despite Whitehaven’s rapid growth and nonnative identity, real Northerners like my mother were very few. She became Southern quickly, addressing him as Charles in four or five syllables. (His mother called him Charles Thomas, to differentiate him from his father; his friends all called him Cholly. I, Charles Thomas McNamee, III, was Tom to my mother, Tommy to all other adults and to girls, McNamee to my pals.) Whitehaven was a sprawling social laboratory in which these thousands of newcomers were reinventing themselves as modern commuters and housewives. Hence the country club, golf, tennis, bridge, a saddle club, a library, book groups, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Cadillacs. Hence the great middle layer of Whitehaven’s social stratigraphy.

Within that layer, especially with the passing of time and the maturation of affinities, there was a good deal of further stratification. College-educated fathers climbing the managerial pyramid, college-educated mothers decreeing piano and dancing lessons and proper ways of speaking, and their heedlessly fortune-favored, whining children formed an upper middle class that managed to be at once bounded and permeable. That is, if you acted “right,” you could get in almost without effort and without any distinction of ancestry; and once you were in, you defended your class’s standards staunchly against impostors. Within that class, there was an additional, sometimes confounding denominational layering: Baptists on the bottom, then Methodists, then Presbyterians, and on top the almighty though few Episcopalians. Below the Baptists you were beyond the middle-class pale, back in ducktails-and-chewing-tobacco land. Which is not to say there weren’t a lot—a lot—of roof-rattling, Bible-hollering, hand-clapping, foot-stomping, raw-floored, tongue-speaking, some said even snake-handling churches in Whitehaven, many of their congregants upwardly ascendant as well but unwilling to let go of that precious link to their heritage. I was taught, by subtly unspoken example, to ignore certain children’s existence.

We went to the Whitehaven Methodist Church every Sunday, Sunday school at nine-thirty, church proper at eleven. We sat near the front, always in the same pew, fourth row right, on the aisle—practically under the preacher’s nose. My mother was always turned out superbly, in suit, hat, pearls, and beautiful shoes, and my father, who insisted that she dress in nothing but the best, himself quietly but just as carefully clad, in dark suit, white shirt, muted tie, black wingtip shoes. Louise and her parents, who lived a short walk from the church, went there, too, less regularly, and I did not yet know any of them.

Both my parents became prominent in the church and in the larger community, as volunteers, as whizzes at bridge, as leaders. My father was elected chairman of the church board. My mother belonged to the fanciest women’s club in Memphis, chaired the Shelby County chapter of the American Cancer Society, and played serious tennis. Both of them spoke perfect English and had impeccable manners. They were paragons of order and respectability. Hence my early attraction to disorder and rebellion.

+

Those qualities were splendidly embodied in my friend Buzzy. He was fat and mean and funny, and in third grade I worshiped him. I hadn’t yet learned what it was like to behave really badly in school, but Buzzy was an excellent teacher. He also was a person of some privilege within the walls of Whitehaven Grade School—or so, at least, he assumed—because the principal was his uncle.

Although there were black kids living within a five-minute walk, the school was, of course, racially segregated; most of the students were Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a category that had come to include not only the great majority who were of British heritage but also the “Scotch-Irish” and people of German descent. (I was some of each, plus French and Swedish.) There were a few with Italian names. There were a scanter few with names like Cohen and Weinstein, but I don’t think they were actually Jewish, at least not anymore. The Catholics—the other Italians, the non-Ulster Irish, and a few of eastern European ancestry—had their own school. The cooks and janitors were without exception black, and to us they were anonymous bordering on invisible. It was a telling index of the time and place that my classmate Bo Olswanger’s father, Berl Olswanger—the biggest bandleader in Memphis, our Lester Lanin, indispensable at debutante parties and fancy weddings, and a member in good standing of the Whitehaven Presbyterian Church—was denied membership in the not very exclusive Whitehaven Country Club because he was a convert, many years before, from Judaism.

And yet there was a considerable range of diversity in the school’s demography. Across the road from the grade school, Whitehaven High happened to be the home of the machine and woodworking shops for the whole Shelby County school system, and therefore drew young men from all over the county who saw their future as laborers in garages, factories, and construction. Not many of them were going to escape those early-ordained destinies, any more than the janitors and kitchen ladies could have escaped theirs. By the time they were in high school these boys were readily identifiable as a type, by their hair styles (heavily waxed flattops, or grease and ducktails, or a revolting combination of both), their footware (say, black loafers with white lightningbolts down the side), their bad grammar, and their bellicosity. Their distaff counterparts pursued their educations in cosmetology or sometimes “home economics,” and they too, by the age of fourteen or so, were easy to categorize on sight, with their hair “ratted” into giant egg shapes, heavy makeup, open-mouthed gum-chewing, and minimal to zero orthodontic treatment.

When you’re nine years old, however, no kids have ducktails yet, and you don’t give a damn anyway who their parents are or how poor they are or if they say “he don’t.” Nature formed us for an arcadian democracy. But nurture—never more stern than when in hands newly endowed with authority—saw in fine gradations of social class a host of opportunities for the nurtured to rise, even if that meant an increment in social standing so small that only a mother could see it.

There was a top layer above us, thin but apparently impenetrable. There weren’t very many of them, and everybody knew who they were. They were—rich. They traveled abroad. They lived in big houses, often with pillared porticoes, and joined the more important clubs in tony (for Memphis) East Memphis. We knew them—they belonged to our club too—and we played with their kids and those kids went to the public school, but their distinction was never lost on us. It didn’t matter if their fortunes weren’t generations deep; Whitehaven couldn’t afford that Yankee sort of snobbery. One of the great men of the town had been a poor boy from Mississippi who had founded the first television station in Memphis, made a pile of money, built himself a big ol’ white stucco mansion in the California Spanish style, staring down on Highway 51—our equivalent of Main Street, and the artery from Mississippi (two miles to the south) along which his erstwhile peers, driving their trucks and jalopies to town, were obliged to pass in (we believed) disdainful review.

Buzzy was only a cousin of that great man’s family, but he wore a cloak of privilege nevertheless. So when the day came when we passed through the cafeteria line and sat down together and Buzzy lifted a forkful of blackeyed peas to eye level to inspect what was indubitably a caterpillar, he did not hesitate to run full tilt at our august principal shrieking imperiously, “Uncle Benny, Uncle Benny! There’s a worm in my blackeyed peas!”

“Buzzy,” replied Mr. Buford with an affable smile, “where else do you think you can get meat with your black-eyed peas for a nickel?”

+

Some twenty miles to the south of Whitehaven lay the Mississippi Delta, destination of the early-morning busloads of black children turned out of their schools each spring to chop cotton and each fall to pick it while we white children stayed at our desks. The Delta was my daddy's ancestral home, and his kin all still lived there. When we drove down to see them, Highway 61 would plunge from the wide bright cottonfields into dark bayou bottoms, and the windshield would be so spattered with bugs that we had to stop to scrape them off. Dead deer and snakes and owls and opossums lay sprawled on the bridgesides. Ospreys nested in the cypresstops, and there were alligators in the mud.


To the east rose the scrub‑and‑clay uplands of Fayette County, Tennessee's poorest county, pig country, Klan country, buzzard country. West was the River, too huge and too strong to be quite real to a boy of seven.


What was real was closer to home. A big Hereford bull lived across the road, a chaser of children. Down our side of Oakwood Drive there was a row of seven new houses, and beyond its dead end a deep forest began, with swamps and lakes and mysteries in it. Spring nights, the frog chorus there sang loud. In an abandoned barn pulled half down by honeysuckle vines, mud daubers built their terrible castles, tube on tube of wasp‑brick. Because I was allergic, my mama said, one sting could kill me. I grew to dread all insects--June bugs, yellowjackets, bumblebees, dragonflies alike.


The hedge, the lawn, the big hollow sweetgum in the front yard, the maples and dogwoods and pines, even the scruffy bushes that screened our garbage cans were wildlife habitat. Hundreds of songbirds squabbled at my mother's feeders. A family of rabbits every spring, shuffling quails and burbling doves, and countless reptiles and amphibians all thrived around our house. At lightning-bug time, my friends and I had “toadfrog”-catching contests. You could catch three dozen of those warty, poison-peeing monsters in an hour, some of them fat as a softball. Terrariums, their glass walls slimed with the leavings of mudpuppies, skinks, snails, and prize toads, were my pride. I also tried to keep box tortoises and various snakes, but they always escaped, often inside the house.


Behind our house was a sharecropper's shack, with a friendly old retired workhorse. Later, when the shack had given way to the grounds of a grandiose white-columned pseudo-mansion, there came a fancier horse, who would eat my father's Chesterfield cigarettes from my hand. At the bottom of the pasture, a little creek had its source.


I cannot remember when I first began to follow that creek downstream. It flowed slowly and opaquely along the bottom of a deep winding gouge cut through layers of the wind‑deposited silt called loess. Loess is a very fine and viscid stuff, and it makes one hell of a mud. Where the water backed up, the muck could be waist­-deep on a boy. My mother always said I was the muddiest boy of all when my pals and I came trudging home at suppertime.


Above a pool where the creek slowed to stillness, we would swing on grapevines and do cannonballs into water the color of coffee with cream, where the bottom was a bottomless ooze. Snakes swam there, including the dread cottonmouth. Kingfishers laughed in the willows and tall tuliptrees. Catfish took hooked bits of hot dog we dangled from cane poles on lines bobbered with porcupine quills. Once, a gang of us blundered on a hobo camp so freshly abandoned that a half can of beans was still warm on the coals.


As we grew older, I often went into the swamp by myself. I was a melancholy boy, sometimes lonely even among my friends. My solitary wanderings began, I think, as flights, from games in which I could not excel, from an uncomprehended restlessness, from the sweat and tumble and perplexity of social boyhood; but before long my long after-school afternoons alone in the woods had grown into pilgrimages, my weekends and summers rhapsodic quests: I felt that I was seeking something, and sometimes, I know, I found it, though I still could not tell you what it was.


Beyond the tangled muscadine and honeysuckle jungles, beyond the canebrakes in which whole chattering flocks of birds could hide, beyond the old overgrown fields snarled with blackberries and cocklebur, there came an even, easy, open floor of dead leaves and low, soft plants, pillared with trees of awesome girth and height. The canopy was far above, punctured only intermittently by the sun. I believe that this forest had never been logged, although, like some of these others, that memory may be colored by desire. I remember the air as very humid, very hot, very still. I remember the buzzing of wasps in that air, and, in response, the beating of my fretful heart.


My little creek (did it have a name? I never wondered) fed a larger one that fed Nonconnah Creek, which in turn fed the Mississippi River. Nonconnah was occasionally so audacious as to flood its own flood plain, and the Army Corps of Engineers dealt severely with such impertinence. Their chosen instrument of correction was the dragline, a great toothed scoop on a crane. It could rip out a ton of root‑riddled earth in one bite. The messy, inefficient eccentricities of Nonconnah Creek‑‑the oxbows, the riffles and pools, the braided channels, the islanded swamps, the tupelo bottoms‑‑were chastened into an orderly, straight‑running ditch. The rate of flow was thus increased, and flooding prevented, and development of previously unusable land made possible. That thousands of such acts of discipline would bring on anarchy downstream was not particularly a worry, for quelling the Mississippi's rebellion farther south would mean more contracts for the contractors, one of whom was the father of one of my neighborhood pals. Racing ever faster, full of the sediment that the old flood bottoms and swamps used to retain, the Mississippi today wants to crash through its banks down near Natchez and pour into the Atchafalaya basin‑‑and leave New Orleans sitting on a mudflat. To prevent this will require one of the most expensive public-works projects in the history of the United States.


The dragline first came when the old one‑lane wooden bridge at Mill Branch Road was to be replaced. Growling and grunting, it chewed out the bridge pool and left on the bank two Alps of mud. They were the only steep hills we ever had, and they made a splendid place for dirt‑clod fights--just the kind of thing my friends loved and I hated. In that deeper water the fishing improved, but where once a boy could sit all day undisturbed but by an occasional truckload of cotton banging over the planks toward the gin, now there was constant traffic: workers and materials for the tract-house subdivisions springing up to the south. I took my cane pole farther now, to the lakes.


My prey was mostly smaller here than the catfish of the creek, but better eating‑‑bream, and crappies, and once in a while a largemouth bass. No matter how early I might come or how late stay, the best fishing spots always seemed to be occupied by an elderly black man or woman with little to say to a white child. I wonder now, did they fear that I might be the landowner's son? And who did own that land? The thought never crossed my mind. They would nod, and keep on fishing, catching ten fish to my one. For them, of course, it was not sport.


There was a place on the creek we called the rapids‑‑it was just a gravelly riffle, really‑‑and there, one day, my best friend, Bobby Towery, and I came upon the most stupendous animal we had ever met outside the zoo. I knew at once, from my avid reading in field guides, that this was the mighty Alligator Snapping Turtle--you could tell by the three mountainous keels on his carapace--the largest species of freshwater turtle in the world, sometimes surpassing two hundred pounds. He was very far from his home, which was supposed to be the Mississippi River.


Snappers are swimmers, not walkers, and this one seemed to have run aground. A gingerly probe with a stick elicited only a slight drawing‑in of his huge plated head. We agreed that there was only one thing to be done: we had to capture the turtle. With my trusty Boy Scout hatchet we cut down a small tree and laid the trunk, about two inches thick, across the gravel shallows to block him from escaping into the opaque pool below. While Towery stood guard, I ran home for my green coaster wagon. When I got back, the turtle had not moved a muscle.


We had the idea that if we could get him to bite the pole he would not let go, and then we might haul him to land. How to get him into the wagon we would worry about later. But even with some pretty rowdy poking at his great hooked beak, the snapper could not be tempted to do more than flinch.


We sat on the bank and considered waiting him out. How hideous, how beautiful, how fierce, how still he was! How primitive, how ancient. What was time to a creature like this? Two boys could never outwait such a turtle.


We decided we would try to flip him onto his back. And then what? We'd see. At least he would be immobilized. Prying and pushing and sweating and slipping‑‑and terrified that one slip would tumble us in on top of him‑‑we got our pole beneath him, and the alligator snapping turtle came to life. He whirled‑‑I know, turtles aren't supposed to whirl, but this one did‑‑and bit our two‑inch pole in half, and clawed his way into deep water and was gone.

2 comments:

jrt said...

Yep, to my recollection that's just about right. And magnificently told, the whole having been about as close to time travel as I expect to get.

Malfeacance Ya Ya said...

Yea Sur!