(This is the sixth chapter of my memoir.)
The interstate still wasn’t finished into Mississippi, so we rode old thrumming two-lane Highway 51 to Oxford, where Ole Miss was playing what was always the game of the year, against Mississippi State. We brought Dr. Jim Biles with us. Dr. Biles’s daddy, also a doctor, had birthed my daddy, and the son had birthed me. Dr. Biles had gone to Columbia Medical School and done postgraduate work at Heidelberg; he was a learned, careful, funny man, an excellent physician; but he was a Mississippi white man to the core, a casual, carefree, absolute racist. I now considered myself an official representative of the Civil Rights Movement, and I angrily pointed out the miserable, falling-down shacks past which we glided mile after mile. “Tommy?” he cried, in his high, hoarse, perpetually amused voice, his grammar parodic. “What you don’t understand is that those niggers happy like that. They happy! Long as nobody mess with them.”
There was a lot of messing in 1963. George Wallace, newly elected governor of Alabama, roared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” Martin Luther King and his fast-growing army of followers were repeatedly arrested in protests against segregation. A Ku Klux Klansman murdered one of them, Medgar Evers, in Mississippi, and was exonerated by an all-white jury. The polite usage was no longer the passive, mild “colored” but strong, oppositional “black.” James Meredith had just become the first black graduate of Ole Miss, after four years of being cussed and spat at. Rednecks had firebombed a black church in Alabama and killed four little girls. Dr. King, as we faithful called him, proclaimed his dream, that his own four little children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Dr. Biles’s easy use of “nigger” was, I believe, half unconscious and half to provoke me. My father, no fan of Martin Luther King or his movement, was not much of a racist, but neither did he challenge his friend’s bluster or his choice of language. We were supposed to be having a good time today.
Dr. Biles was a proud graduate of Ole Miss, and my father, a native Mississippian, though he had actually gone to Georgia Tech (and had had to drop out to help his family through the Depression), had through the years made himself a virtual Ole Miss alumnus. Daddy was in ecstasy when, as this season, as so often, the Rebels were invincible. (And yes, they were named for the soldiers of the Confederacy, whose stars and bars adorned their helmets and the thousands of battle flags waving fiercely in the stands.) Johnny Vaught had been coaching, and winning and winning, since the year I was born.
We found shade and a sea of others like us under the grand old oaks and magnolias of the Grove. There we laid out the picnic that Mama and Mrs. Biles had fixed us—cold fried chicken, deviled eggs, potato salad, cole slaw, country ham biscuits, coconut cake, a thermos of hot sweet coffee—and my anger melted away in the warm flow of joy all around us. Dr. Biles took an occasional modest nip from a silver flask, in which my father, the son of a binge drinker, did not share. From time to time, the famous cheer would arise spontaneously:
Are you ready?
Hell, yeah! Damn right!
Hotty toddy, God almighty
Who in the hell are we, hey!
Flim flam, fim bam!
OLE MISS, BY DAMN!
Ole Miss and Mississippi State played to a tie.
So grave was the principal’s voice on the public address system that our chemistry class, and indeed the whole school, fell instantly silent. President Kennedy had been killed. Billy Crawford—one of the boys on our block though not really one of us—rose to his feet, stabbed his fist into the air, and yelled, “We got him!” Billy’s mother was a snap-tempered, much-reviled guidance counselor at Whitehaven High School, as well as a member of the John Birch Society, which was anathema to even the farthest-right of our parents’ plenty-conservative cohort; and she had thoroughly indoctrinated her son. No one spoke, and he sat back down. The silence was long, and then girls began to cry, and then boys.
The board of directors of the Whitehaven Methodist Church, under the chairmanship of Charles T. McNamee, Jr., voted, in 1964, to move our eleven-o’clock Sunday service to ten-fifty, in order to give us a ten-minute head start on the Presbyterians and Episcopalians for lunch at the Whitehaven Country Club.
My favorite Sunday lunch there was fried frogs’ legs and mashed potatoes with brown gravy. I also loved, as did my mother, the lobster Newburg, aromatic with cooking sherry. I also loved, as did my sister, the South African Rock Lobster Tail with drawn butter. Roosevelt, the chef, made a legendary banana cream pie, but I preferred his parfait, layer on bright layer of ice creams and whipped cream in a tall tapered glass. We drank iced tea at all seasons.
Summer brought the best club lunches of all, when our mothers worked on their tans with one eye on their bridge hands and one on the kids splashing happily in the pool. On the patio where they sat at painted steel tables and did not open the umbrellas, it was usually well over a hundred degrees, the concrete impossible to walk on in bare feet, even wet ones. In a ten-by-ten-foot clapboard shed, the kid-beloved waiter named Brother scraped his griddle and sizzled his grease, and through a tiny screen door onto a narrow shelf he slid the world’s most perfect hamburgers, slapped flat and thin and hence well crisped, lavishly dressed with mustard, dill pickles, and onion. Brother’s onion rings were equally sublime. We also loved Mary, a sweet-tempered woman who sometimes substituted for the saucily impertinent Brother, but she just couldn’t get those onion rings right.
One day I saw a little girl, probably five years old, working up her nerve to jump into her father’s arms in the shallow end of the pool. “It’s all right,” he said, “don’t worry, I’ll catch you.” She drew herself up, half terrified, and plunged, all the way in. Her father swept her up, both of them laughing in the pure joy that only unconditional trust engenders. Would she carry the trust and confidence she learned that day through the rest of her life? I like to think so.
It was rumored that civil rights protesters were going to come to the Whitehaven Methodist Church. Some people said, Well, you know, all they do is come and sit in the back and then they leave, but many in the congregation were in a panic. Several members of the board wanted to put axe handles through the brass doorpulls. They themselves would stand just inside, with more axe handles, maybe with guns. My father calmed them down and talked them slowly through the ugly newspaper stories, the further interest in the church as a site for protest, and the scorn that such action would evoke. He did not need to ask what Jesus would have done. That question brooded silently in at least some of their consciences. No protesters ever showed up.
The other race I longed to understand, albeit also across a chasm, was the female. I really liked girls. Specific ones, of course, I craved, both in my heart and in my glands—my mind’s role little more than an offstage voice—and by the time I was sixteen one goal had subsumed all others in my life: I needed, I had, to get laid. The main problem was that in Whitehaven no one my age got laid (so I believed) except hoods and sluts. I made a weak attempt at one of the latter, sneaking her out on dates to barbecue joints and pizza parlors way across town where nobody else went. I convinced myself, more or less, of the okayness of her Woolworth’s perfume and her bleached strawstack hair, but she soon enough had my number, and repaid my ardor with contempt. I also had respectable girlfriends, with whom I would gladly have had carnal congress if I’d had a clue how and they’d have let me, both conditions as remote as the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
In the moments when my animal urges were sufficiently suppressed, I just plain liked these girls. They were nicer and smarter than boys, and more fun, and much more enjoyable to look at. None of them ever tried to hurt or humiliate me, as nearly every boy I’d ever known had at some point tried to do (examples: shot in butt by BB gun; scrotum nearly twisted off in locker room; “friend” sneaks up behind at urinal, grabs belt, shakes till I pee all over myself). The elaborate courtesy that reigned in my relations with girls had its roots in dancing school, where I had learned to bow and to ask for the honor of this dance and to hold them just close enough for us both to feel, oh, so sweetly, the heat of each other’s bodies, and to move together, together, as one two three, one two three, one; and now in its flowering, courtesy was more beautiful than I had ever imagined in its germinal days. And sure, it mitigated against my supreme goal, but supreme goals seemed in our world rarely to have been much on anybody’s mind. Wanting something out of reach was discouraged by every force at work in our social order.
My girlfriend in the fall of 1963 embodied niceness, prettiness, and propriety, although with an ironic sparkle in her blue eyes. Her hair was blond, her figure trim. She wore pearls and was always beautifully dressed. She had just moved from New Jersey, and her voice was more refined than that of the local girls. She was just right for me.
In Whitehaven’s system of social hierarchy a quiet change was taking place, and I was among its beneficiaries. By this age, at least in our high school society, one’s family’s position didn’t count for much; what had always carried sixteen-year-old boys to the upper levels of prestige were toughness, athleticism, taciturnity, and a readiness to fight. Faced with provocation, which didn’t take much, they beat the shit out of guys. They wore mirthless, often cruel smiles. Their ways with girls were rigidly ritualized: In season, the girls watched them on the playing field and cheered demurely (unless, as was often the case, the girls were cheerleaders, in which case they swiveled their hips lasciviously and yelled), and then the guys, freshly showered, hair wet, reeking of Old Spice cologne, would escort them in triumph to Leonard’s Bar-B-Q on the redneck South Side of Memphis. (Only a few years back, this ritual was likely to be broken at least once in the season by a fight behind the stands after the game, most often with South Side High School, the toughest, meanest bastards in city or county; but fighting, suddenly, even one-on-one, was now out of fashion.) At other times of year, the big guy, resplendent in his black letter jacket with the big gold W, would take his gal to one of the rococo movie palaces downtown, and then they’d go to Leonard’s.
Now, Leonard’s happens to have been the greatest pit-barbecue restaurant on the planet. The quality of the pork shoulder slowly roasted over logs of cured hickory was the foundation of its greatness. These were local country pigs, not too big, not too small, fed, I believe, on ambrosia, manna, pecans, and morning dew. The “pit” was actually a windowless concrete blockhouse with a single door that opened into smoky darkness. The golden meat was only faintly visible as the leathery old pitmaster turned the spits. I took my girlfriend to see it in action. We heard occasional hisses as drips of fat hit the coals. The pitmaster closed the door, shook out a Lucky, and regarded us with yellow eyes. He was so dark and sweat-slick he looked as if he himself had been smoked and slow-cooked for decades. “Sure smells good,” I said.
“It is good,” he replied.
“You been working here a long time?”
“Well, we’re going to go inside and eat some of your barbecue.”
He turned away with a drag on his cigarette.
We went inside and took a table. I was wearing a tweed jacket, a button-down shirt, a carefully double-Windsor-knotted tie. My girlfriend wore a blue dress of some diaphanous material that swished and swirled as she walked. The football giants began to swagger in, with a nod to their few chosen non-athlete peers. Their girls’ hair was teased higher and sprayed tighter than that of the girls of the less-favored. The atmosphere was ecstatic, the athletes at the high point of their lives: Whitehaven, undefeated for the last two years, had tonight won the state football championship. And Leonard’s was the place for le tout Whitehaven High School to be.
Once in a while my friends deigned to sample places other schools went—the Pig ’n’ Whistle (private-school kids, sassy young black waiters, more hamburgers than barbecue despite the latter’s pretty high quality; though also sensational onion rings); Coletta’s Pizza (barbecue pizza a popular option, or half barbecue and half pepperoni); night clubs (foodless) that required fake IDs and hip flasks and more nerve than most of us had—but Leonard’s, for kids from Whitehaven, was very heaven. You could be served in your car, with a tray clipped on outside and the heavy smoke from the pit soaking into your sweater and your pores, which was fun sometimes; you could go up and down and visit with your pals through their own car windows, see who was out with whom. But the scene, the lekking ground, with silver dollars embedded in the foyer floor and hormones thick as river air, was here inside.
My favorite waitress, a red-headed crane of a woman with a smoker’s rasp, presented herself with pencil poised over pad. There were a great many things on the menu—barbecued baloney, barbecued Polish sausage, beef barbecue, wonderful ribs, fried catfish with hushpuppies--but if you were a couple from Whitehaven on a date, you ordered a Mr. Pig sandwich, a bean pot, and a Coke. You could try that other stuff with your parents.
You could have your barbecue white, that is, entirely from the inside of the slow-smoked shoulder; or brown, including lots of crunchily caramelized outside; or mixed, which girls, ever eager to please or at least not to displease, often chose. The pork was succulent, just fatty enough, chopped, not pulled, topped with yellow, small-grained cole slaw and a slather of Leonard’s sublime sweet sauce. The buns were just buns. More sweet sauce and a fiery hot one, in a short, unlabeled pharmaceutical bottle, sat on each table. The bean pot, too hot to touch, bean-slop burned to its sides, came on a plate of its own with a little paper cup of the same cole slaw. Custom required that one dump out the slaw and pour the beans on top of it, so that there was a cool bright center to be worked toward through the spicy, glutinous, brick-red beans. Everything was soft and sweet and spicy.
Those were the tastes of our kisses. Whitehaven, ever expanding, always had plenty of dead-end unpaved roads which in a year or two would be lined with houses and asphalted. Some spots were so popular that groups of cars would gather there, each containing a couple hungrily making out, sometimes two couples. I chose to be alone with my girlfriend, kissing and groping and sweating and rock-hard and, finally, gently, pushed away.
And there, at length, our romance ran aground. Every guy I knew was getting somewhere—to first base (touching a breast), or second (below), or even better. Some, for all I knew, might have been going all the way (our code held that no one brag, even speak, of a such a thing). My lovely girlfriend, a pious Catholic, would kiss for hours, but that was it. I was too hungry for her, and she was too buttoned-up for me. I never did like her as much as I thought I should.
What was more, the field was wide-open. It no longer seemed impossible for me to ask the prettiest girls out, or the even cooler few who were becoming sexy as well. It would be years until I understood, but I know now that since the assassination of President Kennedy there had been a storm gathering, and of it such changes were the first soft breezes and distant summer lightning. As if overnight, the jocks and other tough guys were no longer at the top. It was okay—it was admired!—to make good grades. I was not what came later to be known as a nerd, though I did have my nerdy qualities. I was small of stature, studious, bespectacled, decidedly non-tough. Worse, I had a growing tendency to use big words and talk about poetry. But I was certainly no romantic hero, and I had never beaten the shit out of anybody. I had my own column in the Broadcaster, the school newspaper. It was printed at the Whitehaven Press, both a printing business and our community’s weekly newspaper, which Towery’s parents owned. There I met real newspaper people, affectionately cynical and, in the context, worldly. The photographer, once a jazz musician, still smoked marijuana and never stopped talking. I loved the clatter of the old typesetting machine under the swift fingers of the Dickensian old rogue Mr. Henry (I still don’t know if that was his first or last name). I can still smell those innocent poisons, the melting lead and the letterpress ink. Just behind was the Lottaburger stand: Both the building and the counter within were perfect circles. The inimitable Lottaburger itself was huge, grease-soaked, piled high with condiments, superb in every way. A large simulacrum of it twirled slowly atop a pole on the roof.
I was the number-two editor of the Broadcaster. At the Tennessee High School Press Association’s convention in Chattanooga, I ran for the vice presidency. I seem to have had sort of a thing for second place. Anyhow, I did win.
There was also, that spring, the election of the president of the Whitehaven High School senior class for the coming year. At the leading edge of postwar baby boom, the Class of 1965 was the biggest the school had ever had—over five hundred. The two guys nominated were both of the brainy, four-eyed sort who had been grit under the wheels of the football great no more than three years before. I lost.
It was the spring of the Beatles. Most of my pals were letting their hair grow. This was worse even than Elvis! My father and every other father in my ken, not to mention most of the guys in our newly deposed jock class, all regarded the Beatles and even the Rolling Stones as decidedly effeminate. This was not what Winners were supposed to look like—but in early April 1964, all five of the top five singles on the pop charts were Beatles songs.
From my pal Richard Dickson’s column in the Broadcaster:
Tommy McNamee (it seems like I’ve always got something to say about him) has gone berserk. Nothing new, you say? Well, it’s been coming all along….He has a truth movement. He makes little signs for everything. He really went wild at the library last week. Simple things like a sign that reads “chair” on a chair and “magazine” on a magazine weren’t too disturbing. But under a modern art painting “modern art thing”! That’s pretty gross. He also had a sign on the wall that read “sign.” On the librarian’s back (much to her discomfort) was a sign that read “librarian person.” He challenges the school to spread truths....
Like those shaggy, faggy rock-and-rollers, I was a Winner. I had talked my teachers out of having to do homework. “If I can make over 95 on the six-weeks test without it,” I argued, “what’s wrong with that?” And they said Okay, and I made those 95s, and better, often 100s. Whitehaven wasn’t a very hard school. It was just the right smallness of pond for me to feel like a mighty big fish in.
Late that spring I fell in, fell in love, in fact, with another blue-eyed blonde, who was not only nice, smart, smart-alecky, graceful, and unbelievably good-looking but—at the same time—sexy. She always wore her hair down and loose, and knew well how to let it fall over one eye and then with a lift of her chin swing it back. She didn’t have the little short-stepping twittery walk that the other girls had; she had long legs, she swung them long, she pulled her shoulders back, which pushed her breasts up and forward, there was full-bodied freedom in her walk. Watching her coming down the hall toward me, swinging her hips and smiling, I couldn’t believe my luck.
One thing that probably didn’t hurt was my mother’s car, a sky-blue 1961 Chevrolet Impala convertible with the big, 327-cubic-inch V-8 and a four-barrel carburetor that roared like a hurricane when I had sneakily removed the air filter. I had always loved cars, but cars this cool existed in another realm—magazines—out of reach, beyond the farthest horizon. The notion of a girlfriend like this was equally unimaginable. Yet here I was with both.
Out at road’s end in the Chevy with the top down and the moon above, she returned my passion in almost equal measure. But there was never enough time. All good girls, even my not-altogether-good girlfriend, had to be home by midnight. I did not like taking her home, nor, for that matter, picking her up. She lived in a crummy neighborhood in a crummy little house with a fat, bad-tempered mother and a seldom-seen country boy of a father, who worked on the railroad and drank.
Then came summer. I was working part-time at the Whitehaven Public Library, and loving the long literary conversations I had with the remarkable old ladies who were the full-time librarians. It was always quiet. It wasn’t much of a town for reading. Half an hour could pass without the door opening. I also had long days of freedom, to plow through the stacks of books I brought home or, much better, to roam the earth with my girlfriend. We roasted on the imported-sand beach of Sardis Reservoir, an hour down into Mississippi, and as night fell we grappled in the Chevy, our hot skin peeling stickily away from the hot naugahyde, coming closer and closer, I believed, to the possibility of the real thing. Once, we swam a long way across to the colored beach, where we were greeted with silence and stares. Back where we belonged, we walked along the sand holding hands, my girlfriend in a delectably reckless bikini. She swung her long hair back and kissed me in front of the world.
The world: our little, little world. Once in a while, especially with the help of the librarians, I could not help seeing out, to the great world beyond the limits of my understanding. On June 21, 1964, the Ku Klux Klan murdered three civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, in Mississippi. On July 2, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Two weeks later, Harlem rioted. On August 7, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving the president essentially unlimited power to repel North Vietnamese attacks on American armed forces. On August 28, Bob Dylan introduced the Beatles to marijuana. On September 1, I asked my blonde and beautiful girlfriend to join me for a round of fun on the Labor Day weekend, including a summer’s-end trip to the beach at Sardis—and maybe, at last——
She said she couldn’t go. She had a date with my best friend. He came over later that day and said he’d been seeing her all summer. There was something I didn’t like about the way he said “seeing.”
“You’ve—made love to her?” I demanded.
“All summer long you’ve been fucking her behind my back?”
He let me slug him, hard. My time of triumph was over.
I shut myself in the bathroom and poached myself in the bathtub for hours, sobbing. My parents called through the door, begging me to come out and tell them what was wrong. They couldn’t get in, because I had pulled out a drawer that blocked the door. Finally I said I would come out if I didn’t have to tell them what was wrong. They asked me if I wanted to go to a psychiatrist. Sobbing again, I said yes. I told the psychiatrist I would tell him what had happened as long as he promised not to tell my parents. He told me I should tell them myself. I said no, and neither could he. All right, he said, and I told him. He told me it was normal for me to feel that way. I was fine.
My best friend went out with that girl for the next six years, into college and after. Then he married her. That lasted six months. With one of his best friends she ran off to Texas.