(The fifth chapter of my memoir.)
I’ve always liked the Twelve Points of the Boy Scout Law, because they have all always applied to me in perfect descending order, from the truly true at the top to the, oh, um, well, something else? as they approach the bottom. A scout is
· trustworthy (“People can depend on him,” says the Boy
· loyal (to a fault);
· helpful (see below);
· friendly (risk-averse);
· courteous (because my mother would have killed me if I hadn’t been, and her ghost keeps a gimlet eye on me to this day);
· kind (“does not harm or kill any living thing”—in this I grossly failed, as a ruthless BB-gunner of songbirds, to kill which was a crime, especially if you shot a mockingbird, the Tennessee state bird, which I found especially easy to hit);
· obedient (here I really begin to slide);
· cheerful (once in a while);
· thrifty (still doesn’t know the meaning of the word);
· brave (“can face danger although he is afraid”—no, runs like hell);
· clean (“keeps his body and mind fit and clean”—well, body yes) ;
· reverent (ha!).
My first cooking was as a Boy Scout: a coffee can into which I piled hamburger meat, onions, and potatoes and which I then buried in the coals of our campfire. An hour later, voilà! When I uncapped it, everything was simultaneously burned and raw. Pretty much everybody’s was the same, and we all choked it down.
By now I had learned to detest the food at school—not only Buzzy Michael’s worm-riddled blackeyed peas but tuna sandwiches so wet the bread clung to the roof of your mouth, summer squash swimming in slack water, rice under pale, congealing gravy, slimy okra, slimy spinach, slimy canned asparagus, slimy canned potatoes, cold hot dogs on clammy cold buns, baked spaghetti under a glazed-hard roof of melted cheese, baked chicken so dry it sucked up all the spit in your mouth, and the worst of the worst, salmon croquettes you could have smelled from Arkansas. Compared to school food and scout food, my mother’s cooking didn’t seem so bad.
She tried hard. Each of the four of us got a different breakfast: my father, eggs, bacon, coffee with cream (real) and sugar; Janie, cinnamon toast or some other sweet thing; my mother, dry toast, four cups of acrid black coffee from an ancient, battered aluminum percolator, and several cigarettes; me, o.j. (frozen), chocolate milk, and a grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And until I got to seventh grade or so and discovered that bringing your lunch was hopelessly uncool, at least a couple of days a week my mother would pack my little gray steel lunchbox tidily with good tuna sandwiches (sweet with Miracle Whip) or American cheese ones, or ham, the bread always white, wrapped in crisp wax paper; a little bag of potato chips; a pickle; a piece of fruit and a cookie. Red-plaid thermos of milk. Hard to beat—happy food.
Scouting was happy too. We worshiped our scoutmaster, the square-jawed American Airlines pilot “Pappy” Conner, and we eagerly took up the discipline he imposed on us (lining up, marching, clean camp, silence in meetings). Pappy could do anything in the woods, and was infinitely kind. I loved getting my merit badges: making just-so fires, tracking animals and making plaster-of-Paris casts of their footprints, learning the bandages and splints of first aid, memorizing the Bill of Rights (for Citizenship), signaling by Morse code and semaphor, and, soon to be momentous, lifesaving
Boy Scout camp, on the other hand, in the Ozarks of northwestern Arkansas, was bad. Pappy wasn’t there, the counselors were sadists, the outhouse wasps buzzed so mercilessly between one’s bare ass and the unspeakable heap below that some of us were admitted to the infirmary suffering from advanced constipation. Once a grunting brute of a counselor, under the guise of teaching me the cross-chest carry for rescuing someone drowning—required for the Lifesaving merit badge—grabbed me, hard, telling me that drowning people were likely to do that, and sank me, and held me there till I began to drown and he let go. I swam to shore, choking, as he laughed.
But there was also canoeing on the icy, clear South Fork of the Spring River, high boy-voices singing Dip, dip, and swing them back, flashing like silver, swift as the wild goose flies.
Corpses of frogs, fish, snakes, and crawdads were ranged along my bedroom bookshelves in jars of denatured alcohol. Then my wild bachelor uncle from the Delta, to my mother's horror, gave me a BB gun. No songbird was safe. The first shot usually only knocked it senseless from its perch, and I would seek it out in the brush to administer the coup de grce to the brain. I made no pretense of collecting them; I left my victims where they lay. My favorite target was the mockingbird, the Tennessee state bird, illegal to kill. What could have possessed me? Remembering this makes my throat clench with shame.
The pursuit of Eagle Scouthood led me to gentler concerns. To take casts of animal tracks for my nature merit badge, I traveled deeper into the old forest than I had ever gone. There were mysteries at every step. Why did the mother raccoon and her family stop here? What made the heron take flight? Fox prints at the edge of the water: did the fox swim, or leap? Hence, slowly, my rage to possess wild creatures was displaced by empathy.
In a little pasture far back in the woods I found a dead calf. The head was twisted half around, the eyes staring into the sky. The skin was peeled back from the rib cage, which was crawling with flies. One leg had been eaten down to the bone. The day was hot, but the flesh had not yet begun to stink, so the kill must have been very recent, and the predator nearby. Crows called. A sharp hind edge of cloudshade swept across the grass, and in the sudden brightness there was a clarity that I had never seen before, as if a veil had been lifted from the face of the world.
I looked for tracks, found one, and took its cast. It was big, three inches across. My field guide said, unbelievably, cougar! Mountain lion! Panther.
Not until years later, when the cast was long lost, did I realize what a find that may have been. Felis concolor is extinct now in the Mississippi valley. Indeed the cougar may be gone everywhere east of the Rockies, except for the minuscule and dwindling population of the Florida panther subspecies. Could this have been one of the last Eastern cougars? Or was it, as a wildlife biologist suggested to me recently, the hybrid of a calf‑killing dog and a boy's eager imagination?
The old-growth forest was cut down, and not even for lumber: the great trees were bulldozed into piles and burned. Most of the topsoil washed away, and the red clay beneath it required laborious cultivation to sustain the newly unrolled swaths of zoysia and Bermuda grass sod. Saplings were planted, and wired upright. The lakes were drained, and the black people moved out. The last hobo known to have visited Whitehaven was found dead beneath a hedge. We got a shopping center, and an interstate highway. Fluoridation of our drinking water was fought, thought to be a Communist plot to curb the birth rate. I had my first summer job as a carpenter's helper, putting up drywall in new houses.
Improved pesticides came onto the market, and it was possible now to drive through the Delta bottoms with no more than an occasional sweep of the windshield wipers. My wild uncle, who kept bongos and a conga drum in his den closet, got married. The ospreys disappeared from the cypresstop nests, the alligators from the bayous. The only lake left was appropriated by tough teenagers as a beer‑drinking hideout; they raped a girl there. Quails no longer shuffled in the leaves on the lawn.
What had been done to Nonconnah Creek was done now to its tributaries. New sewers leaked into the stagnant trench that was all that remained of my creek's headwaters. Our grapevine‑draped swimming hole and the alligator snapping turtle's riffle lasted longer, but we could get there on bicycles now, on smooth blacktop. Often we didn't make it that far, having stopped off to chew gum and laugh in some girl’s yard and lost track of time. When the last of my creek was ditched out, I believe I did not notice.
Thanks to my Boy Scout training—and my mother’s determined character—I saved a man’s life. From the front page of the Memphis Press-Scimitar of June 16, 1960:
SCOUT TOMMY McNAMEE, ONLY 13, SAVES MAN:
Mouth-to-Mouth Respiration Until Firemen Arrive
One of the things 13-year-old Tommy McNamee likes most about Scouting is first aid.
The thing he likes most about first aid is studying about artificial respiration.
Tommy and other members of Boy Scout Troop 30 of Whitehaven Methodist Church decided last year to enroll in a Red Cross class in first aid. They learned how to apply mouth-to-mouth respiration.
The training helped Tommy to save a man’s life in Hot Springs, Ark., yesterday.
The man is Otho Cooper, 54, of Philadelphia, Miss., who was vacationing in Hot Springs. He fell into a swimming pool after an apparent blackout, was pulled out of the pool by some swimmers and then revived by Tommy, who gave him mouth-to-mouth respiration for about four minutes until firemen arrived to help.
Cooper went to a Hot Springs hospital, where doctors gave Tommy credit for saving his life.
Tommy, a First Class Scout, is the son of Mr. and Mrs. C. T. McNamee of 1391 Oakwood Drive.
Tommy was in Hot Springs because his father was on an insurance convention.
Tommy seems certain of winning some honors. The Advancement Committee of the Chickasaw Council of the Boy Scouts will send a review of his heroism to the National Court of Honor, Boy Scouts of America.
Well, what the newspaper neglected to mention was that I would never have gone near Otho Cooper if my mother hadn’t been hissing in my ear the whole time, “Tommy, go, you’ve got to help him, those people are killing him.” Some people were trying to give him the old push-on-the-chest-and-flap-the-elbows style of artificial respiration, to no avail. “He’s got his Lifesaving Merit Badge!” my mother proclaimed, shoving me forward through the crowd of gawkers. Lying inert in his puddle, Otho Cooper was to all appearances already dead, his body white as paper, his face purple as a muscadine grape. My mother chased off the hapless artificial-respirators. I lifted Otho Cooper’s head into the proper throat-clearing position, and then dropped his head, hard, on the concrete. The sound it made was precisely my idea of how the cracking of a skull would sound. I was certain that if he wasn’t already dead, I had now killed him. “Hurry, Tommy,” whispered my mother, urgently. Suppressing a gag, I put my mouth over his. He was surely not fifty-four but a hundred years old. He had not shaved for a couple of days, and his fat purple tongue seemed to have bristles, too. I pinched his nose shut and blew, and nothing happened. “Harder,” said my mother. I blew, and he bubbled faintly way down inside. Blow, bubble, blow, gurgle, blow, choke, and so on for what seemed a very long while, until suddenly Otho Cooper erupted, a great gush of water and then a geyser of vomit. And at last a mucus-choked gasp, and another.
The swimming pool was cut into the side of the mountain and could be reached only through an upper floor of the Arlington Hotel, so the firemen were having to hack their way through the rock-strewn woods to open a way in for their truck, without which their respirator didn’t work. Finally they broke through, and Otho Cooper, now mechanically inflated and deflated, hazily returned to the land of the living.
Several weeks later, I received a package from Otho Cooper, Philadelphia, Mississippi. Inside it was my reward—a wallet—and in the wallet was…twenty bucks? a hundred? No, not a God-damned thing.
In July of 1960, several dozen of my sweltering fellow merit-badge-earners and I—including my bosom pal Towery—rode buses to join fifty-six-thousand-odd others on the arid plains below Pike’s Peak, near Colorado Springs, in celebration of the fiftieth birthday of the Boy Scouts of America. The official account of the Jamboree, as it was called, reminds me that “We did our own cooking—breakfast, lunch, and supper—the whole thing. It wasn’t the Waldorf, but it was good. One night we cooked 25,741 pounds of steak.” We also consumed “9,895 cases of breakfast food, 2,525 cases of canned fruit, 5,567 cases of canned vegetables, 2,607 cases of canned meat, 21,250 pounds of ground beef, 577,960 quarts of milk, 43,980 quarts of fresh orange juice, 132,330 loaves of bread, 10,224 pies, 46,342 heads of lettuce, 45,200 peaches, 77,400 bananas.” Hey, and we saw cue-ball-pated President Dwight D. Eisenhower standing waving from his Lincoln convertible, and Sheriff Matt Dillon from TV, and I ate bear meat and was bitten by a horned toad. At night, beneath the blazing Milky Way—far brighter here in the Rockies than ever in humidity-shrouded Memphis—we lay on our backs listened to our genius of a Senior Patrol Leader tell us the great Greek stories of the constellations. Best of all, we saw, hanging between the back legs of Boys’ Life magazine’s official mascot, a burro (well-)named Pedro, the biggest penis in the world.
In fifth grade I had been president of the He Man Woman Haters Club. By seventh, I had secret girlfriends and soul-deep longings, for which no slightest passage of information from my parents or anybody else had prepared me. My friends and I were in fact remarkably free, in large part thanks to our parents’ ignorance of us. They mistrusted all forms of personal insight. They had inherited emotional distance as a way of being. War, poverty, deracination, and the mysterious, not yet named epidemic of emotional depression that was spreading through American society combined in an all-darkening pall of unconsciousness. History—Indian genocide, slavery, frontier violence and crime, Jim Crow—was a presence not to be known too intimately. Generations of denial had eventuated in a culture of indifference, a shutdown of emotional intelligence, an inexpressible need not to know. Passion was certainly not to be trusted. Teenagers in Paris kissed on bridges as adults flowed smiling past; Whitehaven’s teenagers were confined to furtive grappling at the ends of gravel roads. Mistrust was effectively mitigated in one place: church. You could trust Jesus. You could trust the minister. You could trust your brethren of the congregation. Hence the immitigable shock when one of the pillars of Whitehaven, good Christian man, commissioner of county roads, confessed to taking thousands of dollars in kickbacks from contractors and went to prison.
Once in a while, a grownup would have a “nervous breakdown,” a girl would get pregnant, a boy would hear voices. They disappeared.
The general unconsciousness obscured dangers great and small, and redounded to freedom for us kids. There were no seat belts in our cars, we played baseball, not softball, we played tackle football, unsupervised, not touch. The notion of putting on a helmet to ride your bicycle was risible. We didn’t have play dates; we just went outside, found one another, and played. We rode our bikes to moon around at pretty girls’ houses, and, I’m not quite sure why except maybe on our shared general principle of keeping our distance, we lied to our parents about where we’d been. The swamps and forests of our adventures were seriously wild places, nearly wilderness, stretching for miles, and in them lurked an abundance of ticks, chiggers, highly aggressive wasps of many species, copperheads, water moccasins, rattlesnakes. We smoked the stalks of some weed with a pithy, porous center, doing God knows what to our lungs. We nailed two-by-fours to the great columnar trunks of tulip-trees and climbed them to inconceivable heights. Our creek’s water was infested with worms, flagellates, amoebae, and other dire parasites. We went fishing and hooked ourselves through the thumb and learned to push the barb on through to be clipped by somebody’s rusty needlenose pliers, and never to cry in the process. As long as I was home and presentable and seated at the dinner table by six o’clock, my father was content. If I was five minutes late, he gravely, sadly slipped off his belt, took me outside, and strapped me hard on the butt. I am punctual to this day.
There was a good deal of violence in our world, little of it condemned in any quarter. When you broke a rule at school, you got licks with a stout wooden paddle, sometimes wielded by a teacher, sometimes, more painfully, by the principal. White people’s dogs bit colored people. Our eggs were delivered sometimes by a white man, sometimes by a colored man, and our dogs knew which was which when the station wagon the egg men shared turned into the driveway: They ignored the white man and barked in fury at the colored one. Boys got in fights at school, in people’s back yards, behind a church, and other boys gathered to cheer them on; no one intervened unless the match was severely imbalanced. Bad older boys—hoods—fought gangs from enemy high schools late at night in obscure industrial parking lots, and it was widely believed, and perhaps true, that sometimes they fought with chains or knives. Bullying was rampant from third grade up, and almost never attended to except by informal peer coalitions formed for justice or vengeance, whose only means of retribution was violence.
Violence was often the means of enforcing discipline at school. On January 8, 1962, I wrote an anonymous letter to the principal decrying the acts of an enraged phys ed coach who had paddled every member of his class, including me, when none of us would (or, in my case, could) identify a kid whose fooling around with the water fountain in the gym lobby had resulted in a puddle on the concrete floor. He hit us really hard, too. And then began again, one brutal wham each on the butt. When the bell rang, he bellowed, “This will start again tomorrow!” I didn’t dare send the letter, of course. The principal would probably have paddled me too.
The quarter-square-mile block on which we lived—“nice” houses on three sides, grand ones on the fourth—was home to thirteen boys exactly the same age, and one girl. Within easy walking or biking distance were a dozen more guys. We were a society unto ourselves, unevenly democratic, with constantly shifting alliances, grudges, hierarchy. We rode our bikes to school together in good weather, a relative term in that climate. In bad—which meant really bad: downpours, freezing rain, snow, temperature below twenty-five (the concept of “too hot” was unknown)—our mothers carpooled. We chose up sides for baseball, basketball, football, and red rover. I, small and unaggressive, was often the last to be chosen. My doing better in school than any of the rest of them counted for nothing. Dominance was this society’s only currency.
My father threw a baseball at me, hard. It glanced off my gloved fingertip, which burned with pain. “Just pick it up and throw it,” he scolded as I failed to keep tears in. I threw. “You throw like a damn girl,” he said, disgusted. He insisted I sign up for Peewee League anyhow. I played right field, couldn’t catch anything, struck out over and over.
We wandered the world freely. Bobby Towery and I would ride the bus to downtown Memphis and gorge ourselves on minuscule Krystal hamburgers, square, thin, a nickel apiece, delicious. We’d take ourselves to a movie. We roamed the army-surplus store admiring the hand grenades, machine-gun tripods, camouflage pup tents, padded helmets; we bought canvas-covered canteens, folding shovels, a bayonet, hatchets with which we slew young trees. We had been hearing lately of jungle warfare, and in the swamp we played at it, sweating.
We were still children, ahistorical, culturally isolated, and just beginning to feel, though not yet to recognize, the faint rumble, as from deep in the earth, of the real war, the prodigious violence, the hatred, the catastrophes that were soon to envelop us.