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
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
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
We moved back south in 1954, to an apartment in
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
What was real was closer to home. A big
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
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
The dragline first came when the old one‑lane wooden bridge at
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
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.