Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Feel of a Good Book

Besides the obvious there is a difference between traveling and staying home.  When you travel you seek out the new: foods, people, places, experiences, conversations.  When you stay home you bask in the familiar, and the new comes to you almost accidentally.  But it’s possible, with age, to rediscover what was once new and enjoy it again no matter where you are.

I was in Yellow Springs, Ohio on a trip with my wife.  It was my first time there.  It’s a small town where old buildings are made new with young enterprises.  Young people mix with old.  There’s a small college there.  The town is surrounded by beautiful countryside; a state park, the Little Miami river, farms and orchards within easy reach. 

My wife was looking for a bookstore and we were drawn to Dark Star Books and Comics on Xenia Avenue.  As we do, once inside a bookstore we quickly separated and were absorbed by titles and categories.  I went to fiction she went to travel.  Both of us were looking for something new. 

The fiction section was neatly alphabetized by author.  I was soon at H and found Hemingway.  There were multiple copies of For Whom the Bell Tolls, a couple of nice softbound, new looking copies of The Sun Also Rises, and only one copy of A Farewell to Arms.  But the book that caught my eye was an old but colorful copy of The Old Man and The Sea.  I pulled it off the shelf.  It was covered in that brittle see- through plastic libraries use to protect books. 

Behind the plastic was the original dust cover, boogered up a bit on the front facing corner.  The front cover illustration was one third brown land, on which sit five crude shanties, and two thirds blue sea, with three small boats floating near the beach. On the back was a black and white photograph of Ernest Hemingway.  It was published in 1952 by Charles Scribner’s Sons.  When I turned the narrow edge of the book toward me, opposite the spine, I saw the cut ends of the pages were not smooth but irregular.

The Old Man and The Sea, written the year I was born and published a year later in 1952, won Ernest Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, and then for good measure the Pulitzer Prize again, this time for literature also in 1954.  Upon its release, coupled with being featured in Life Magazine, it sold 5 million copies in two days.  It caused Hemingway’s entire body of work to be re-examined and secured his place as an internationally renowned author. 

I looked at the copyright page, about four pages in, and saw it was a first edition Book of the Month Club selection.  Had I been a reader 68 years ago I might have gotten this very book in the mail, opened the package, held it in my hands,  and by simply turning the pages and reading the words Hemingway wrote, discovered the fisherman Santiago, the boy who cared for him, the fish he hooked and brought back to his village, and the sea in which a great struggle took place.  I bought it on the spot.

We later stayed with friends in Cincinnati whose guest bedroom is in a quiet corner of their basement.  There, under the yellow light of a bedside lamp, because books are not backlit as are my Kindle and I Phone, I reread the story I loved so much the first time in 1970. 

There’s a debate going on among old people who read (and perhaps think too much).  Here it is.  No matter how optimistic or healthy seniors are we come to realize there is only so much time left, and only so many more books one can read in that estimated time, assuming reading remains within the skill set of our aging brains.  The best approach may be to read whatever you damn well please without regard to the future.  But if you feel pressed by time, the question becomes this.  Which books should we include in that finite number of books that can be read before we die?  All of us have books we wanted to read and never did, and most of us want to read new books to keep current with new thoughts and ideas.  But which will it be?  If there is any agreement at all, it is that rereading books previously read is probably a waste of precious time.

I might have agreed until I turned to the first page of Hemingway’s famous book, described in the jacket flap verbiage as “a great book like no other…that cannot be classified.”  It was pure sweetness to reacquaint myself with the words, the scenes, and the characters which waited for me, stored safely all these years, on those printed pages of The Old Man and The Sea.  As I began to read, I remembered a family story connected to the book.

As an English major and a father, I tried to acquaint my kids with literature in an instructive way.  My daughter simply found her own way and neither needed, nor welcomed, suggestions.  My son was more particular, often asking if books were “made up or real.” At the start rejected fiction pretty much out of hand.  I persisted, brought books to him by Gary Paulson and Roald Dahl, and at what I thought was an appropriate time, put this short Hemingway book on his nightstand. 

We only had one bathroom back then, downstairs between my kids’ two rooms, and as I was shaving and getting ready for bed, I heard sniffling coming from my son’s bedroom.  I went in to see what was wrong.  He had his bedside reading light on, The Old Man and The Sea propped open, and tears running down his cheeks. 

“What’s the matter?”

“The sharks are going to eat that old man’s fish, and there’s nothing he can do about it.”

To use a fishing metaphor, I knew he was hooked.  I also knew he was empathetic, like his parents, and totally captivated, as so many of us have been, with a character created by a skillful writer.  Though short, The Old Man and The Sea is a book that creates emotion in its readers, bonds us to its characters, and leaves us with memories we will never (with any luck) forget.  It is only 140 pages long.  You can read it in an afternoon.  If you have read it before, read it again.  If you haven’t read it, by all means do.

Here’s why.  When I first read The Old man and The Sea, and came to know the main character Santiago,  I was nineteen.  Not only did I know nothing about the sea, having grown up on a dairy farm in Illinois, I knew nothing about aging, or being an old man in any way.  At age nineteen did you imagine your life or your body 48 years into the future?  I didn’t.  And if by chance I did in some fashion muse in 1970 about what old age might be like it was only in the abstract.  Certainly not in any detail.  And I never imagined it to feel like this, now, in 2019.

As I read a few weeks ago the struggles of Santiago in his small boat trying to land his fish, how his body let him down, how he might, in his younger days, have done things differently, how much he regretted his circumstances but could do nothing to change them, I appreciated his story, the arc of his life, in a whole new way.

And I value the boy so much more now.  Did I overlook the boy’s kindness before?  His respect for the old man Santiago and his desire to learn from him?  I can’t say.  Because just as I could not imagine being old and a father, at age nineteen, neither can I now remember what I was thinking as a college kid first reading the book.

One thing of which I’m certain is how much more I now appreciate Hemingway’s description of the sea.  It’s always been a place foreign to me, so I relied almost totally on others to acquaint me with it when I was young.  Having been lucky enough to drink up the beauty of the sea at times during my life since, I now have more context for Hemingway’s nautical words and images.  I am tempted to give you examples, but I might spoil your reading experience.  Suffice to say he paints a vivid and beautiful picture.

I was recently reminded through a good friend’s newspaper column there is something magical about having a book with history in your hands.  I agree.  Read an old book you loved in any format you wish.  And if you loved The Old Man and The Sea as I did, and would like to read a first edition, pretending you are a reader in 1952 who happened upon a great new reading adventure, talk to me about borrowing the old fashioned ink on paper edition I have in the shack.  It’s worth your time, no matter how much you think you have left.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Dinner at The Shack

WARNING-This is the longest blog entry I’ve ever posted.  Don’t start it late at night.  It’s a composite of lots or conversations I had throughout the South.  I took the liberty of putting all those words in the mouths of a  real couple I actually met at a very good restaurant.  It took a while to write and I couldn’t figure out how to shorten it or break it in half.  Hope you enjoy it.

The menu at The Shack was the South’s greatest hits.  Smoked meats, gumbo, hush puppies, fresh seafood, all the good sides.  I had trouble deciding what to order.  The mullet won out.  I hadn’t had it in a long time. 
The Shack is quite the joint.  A model train runs all around the dining room on a track suspended from the ceiling.  Six deer heads in a group dominate one wall.  Old time signs for farm equipment, grease, beer, you name it, plaster the other three walls.  Used license plates are starting to cover the  ceiling.  It had everything.  Now if the food just matched up.

I took a seat and Shirley came over.  I like name tags instead of self-introductions.  She had her order book and a pencil ready.  None of that “Hi, my name is _______, and I’ll be your server tonight.”  No drink order first, food order later.  Shirley was all business from the start.
“What’ll it be?”

“How’s the gumbo Shirley?”
‘Homemade and fresh.  We drive to the beach every week and buy our own seafood.  You’ll like it.  Plenty of crawfish and shrimp, sausage from just up the road.”

“I’ll take a cup of that and the mullet.  That’s fried isn’t it?”

“Think your cook could grill it?”
“I suppose he could, but he never has that I know of.  Does a fine job frying it though.  It’s not heavy or greasy or nothin.  You’ll like it fried.  Besides, he’s touchy.  I hate to ask.”

“All right.”
“You get two sides.”

“I’ll have cole slaw and baked beans.”
“Good choices.  You want a long neck beer?”

“Anything on draft?”
“Nope.  Just long necks.  What kind?”

“What do you have?”
“Bud lite, Coors lite, Miller lite, Michelob lite.”

“No beer that’s not lite?”
“Nope.  Pretty simple place.”

I laughed.  “I’ll have a Miller lite.”
It felt good to interact with someone.  I realized I hadn’t spoken a word, to myself for anyone else, since I ordered into the speaker at the Sonic back in Selma.

“All righty then.  I’ll bring that beer right out with your gumbo.”
As she walked away, I felt a hand on my shoulder.  Sort of startled me.  I turned and looked up.  A man about my age was way too close to me.  He smiled and talked softly, almost in my ear.  Too familiar.

“Darrell, what the heck you doin’ down heah in our neck of the woods?”
I didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t say anything for a moment.  I drew back and his smile started to fade.

“I’m sorry sir but I’m not Darrell.”
He looked confused.

“Oh my god you look just like him.  Sound like him too.  I thought it was Darrell, and my wife, she just knew it was Darrell.”
He looked back at a woman sitting alone at a table across the room.

“Lola it’s not Darrell.  Do you believe it?”
“You are KIDDING me.”  Lola came over, stared at me, and started talking very fast.  Loud too.

“When you started talking, your voice sounded like Darrell and then when you laughed, we just knew it was him.  And you’re wearing a golf hat and Darrell is a big golfer.  And you’re big like Darrell.  And with the gray hair and glasses and all.  I can hardly BELIEVE MAH EYES.”
Lola looked at her husband in wonder and turned to me and laughed.  Nice laugh.  Her husband spoke next. 

“Well if you’re not Darrell, who are you?”
“Dave McClure.  I’m from Illinois.”

He stuck out his hand.
“Don Ackland.  This is my wife Lola. 

I shook Lola’s hand too.
“Glad to meet you.  I’m sorry but this is just too much.  You’re a dead ringer for our old friend Darrell Ebner who moved to South Carolina a couple years ago.  I should have known he woulda called us if he was comin’ this way.  Wait till I tell him about this.” 

Lola spoke next.
“We just ordered our dinner.  Would you like to join us?  I hate to see anybody eat alone.”

“Uh…sure.  Don’t mind if I do.  It’s been a long day.”
I picked up my silverware, or rather a plastic fork and knife wrapped in a paper towel, and followed Don and Lola to their table.  Shirley the waitress was right behind us.

“Thought I lost ya there for a minute.”
Don spoke.

“Shirley do you remember our old friend Darrell Ebner from over by Owassa?  Worked at the fertilizer plant?
“Can’t say that I do.” 

“Well this gentleman heah looks just like him.  Just like him.  I’m afraid we bothered him for it.  Can you bring his meal out with ours?”
“Course.  I’m going to get him started with this gumbo and a beer.  You and Lola need anything else?”

Lola answered.  “I suppose I could use a refill of sweet tea.  Don, you want another Bud Lite?  That’s a silly question ain’t it?  Sure, bring him another Bud lite ” 
Shirley retreated to the kitchen.  Don spoke next.

“So what brings you down our way Mr. …uh…McClure.  Or is it Dave?”
“Call me Dave please.  I’m making my way to Pensacola, going to golf with some fellas that are flying down from Illinois.  I’m on a solo road trip to, you know, acquaint myself with this part of the country.  Been following the Civil Rights Trail.  I was in Selma this morning, Montgomery and Birmingham before that.  Learning a lot about Alabama.  My wife is joining me after the golf, we’re going to spend a week or so with some relatives, then head home slowly.  May stop in Memphis.”

“I hope you’re enjoying Alabama Dave.”
“Well, your weather beats ours all to heck, I’ll tell you that.

“What part of Illinois you from?”
“Ottawa.  Town of about 18,000 ninety miles southwest of Chicago.”

Lola had been scrolling furiously on her phone and now held it up.
“There’s Darrell Ebner, just so you don’t think Don and I are getting Alzheimers.  Now isn’t he just about your double?”  She passed me her phone.

I looked on the screen and a grinning gray-haired man in a Titleist cap peered back at me.  It was like looking in a mirror.  It’s happened to me before.  I think the doppleganger thing is real.

I stopped at a junkyard in Tennessee to ask directions a couple years ago on one of the first road trips when a guy my size walked out of the back of the place wearing bib overalls and asked me where I was going.  When I told him Florida, he told me I was lost.  We both laughed the same laugh at the same time.  He had a beard exactly like mine.  The spooky feeling I had that day was the same one I felt looking at Lola’s phone. 
“My god yes.  Let’s hope I’m not his evil twin.”

“I bet not,” Lola said with a toothy smile.  Don followed his wife up quickly.
“So, what are you learning about us Alabamans?”

“You eat well, for one thing.  And you like your beer nice and cold.” 

I took a big swig of my long neck, which was sweating from the heat.  Heat in February.  Nothing but a screen door and windows open there in The Shack.  You gotta love it.  I felt far from home.  I wasn’t sure how much to say about what I’d been thinking of Alabama.
“You eat here often?” I said.

“Yes we do.  Beats cooking,” Lola said.  "I can’t make dinner cook as well as the cook here at The Shack anyway.”
“What county am I in?”

“Conecuh,” Don said.  “Little county less than 13,000 people.  We’ve lived here all our lives.  And Lola never forgets anything.  If there is something you want to know she is the one to ask.”
“We are keeping you from your supper Mr. McClure.  Don’t mind us.  Eat that gumbo before it gets cold.  It may be the best you ever eat,” Lola said.

I had a spoonful and agreed with Lola.  It had the holy trinity of delta cooking; celery, onions, green pepper, along with okra in a pale roux.  The stew was heavy with crawfish, shrimp, and chunks of fish.  In lots of gumbo one or more of the seafood items are overdone and rubbery, but in that cup each were cooked just right.  The best thing about the The Shack’s gumbo though, was the sausage.  Spicy and smooth, but not greasy.
“Wow,” I said.

“What’d I tell ya,” Lola said.  “That’s more of a creole dish with the light-colored butter roux.  Cajun gumbo is darker, made with lard a lot of times.  I prefer this kind.  And that sausage is made right here in Evergreen.  Conecuh sausage company.  Been around since 1947.”
Don wasn’t into talking about food. 

“So what have you been learning about Civil Rights in Alabama?”
I swallowed a mouthful of gumbo and paused.

“I learned civil rights for black people were pretty hard to find until the 60’s when they had to fight to get them.  I knew about what was happening in Birmingham, because I was a kid then and saw it on TV, and I’d read about Montgomery with the freedom riders and what happened on the bridge in Selma.  But I didn’t know what brought it on, and how bad it was for so long after the Civil War ended.”
“I was a kid then too.”

“How old are you Don?”
“I’ll be 69 comin’ up here soon.”

“Yeah, I’ll be 68 in August.  I remember seeing young people being knocked down with a fire house rolling down the street.  I saw them sic the dogs on black people that looked to be just standing there.  But what I remember most is the look on the faces of those cops.  How hateful they looked.  I didn’t understand it back then.  Not sure I do now.”
“Yeah, it would be hard for a Yankee kid to know what it was like down heah then.”

“How’d you feel when that was happening Don?”
“Scared.  I thought everything was breaking loose and I didn’t know what it was going to be like next.  It was like people my parent’s age were losing control.  And they were pissed.”

“White people you mean.”
“Yeah.  I think they were scared too truth be told.  But they were so mad.  At the federal government and the news media as much as the black people.  Looking back I think the leaders of those protests wanted that to happen in front of the TV cameras and we played into it.  They got the upper hand on that one.  It’s never been the same since.”

“Would you want it to be the same?”
“No.  But it didn’t have to happen like it did.”

“It was shameful,” Lola said.  “I just felt ashamed.  I didn’t say it to my parents.  But when they killed those four little black girls with a bomb in their Sunday School?  They was my age those little girls.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was scared because I didn’t know how far we would go to stop those black protestors.  So, I guess I was scared too in a different way.  I was afraid lots and lots more black people would get killed and they’d bring the army in.  And they did bring the army in.  It was a terrible time for Alabama.”

“I suppose you went to the new lynching museum in Montgomery that Stephenson fella put together.”
“Yeah I did.  You been there?”

“No.  Not going neither.”
“It’s really pretty well done Don.  Straightforward and factual.  It’s not just about Alabama but the whole South, the whole country for that matter.  We lynched black people in Illinois too.  That was news to me.  I mean it happened.  I didn’t realize it was anywhere as big a number as it was though.  4,000 they could document.  Surely more we’ll never know about.  Maybe double.  I had no idea.”

They were both quiet.
“I mean, I don’t blame you.  The whole country was responsible.  The North took damned little interest in stopping it.  Trouble was the country was run by nothing but white men for all but a few years after the Civil War.  The slaves may have been free, but they didn’t have any rights.  Couldn’t vote.  It was a different time, but still it happened.  I think we all have to own it.”

Our dinner came, which was good timing.  My dinner companions were having BBQ.  Lola had a pulled pork sandwich with slaw on top (the Slaw Slammer) and Don had the Smoked Butt plate.  My plate had a big pile of mullet.  When the waitress asked if she could bring us anything else, I ordered another beer and asked Don if I could buy him one.  He shot a look at Lola.
“Go ahead.  I’ll drive home honey.  I can see you’re gonna have a good time talking.”  She turned to me.  “My husband likes a good discussion, as you might have caught on to.”

Don went on.  “It might be we all have to own it, but you know as well as I do the rest of the country puts it all on guys like me.  Alabama good old boy born and bred.  White, redneck, NASCAR watchin’, gun totin’, racist cracker.”
“I think you pretty much got all the stereotypes wrapped up into one there, Don.  It might work for some people but not me.  Presumes too much don’t you think?  I imagine you have your ideas about Yankees too.  But I’d rather not be anyone’s typical anything if I can help it.”

“I know that, but I have you figured as a Democrat just the same.”
“You’d be right.  I am a Democrat.  I’m a retired social worker.  I ran a private not for profit that worked with kids and families.  We took government money so we could provide foster care and therapy.  We also did day care and immigration work.  A lot of the people we worked with were poor.  Being a Democrat, especially in Illinois, kind of goes with that territory.”

“That sounds like a tough job.”
“It was.  But satisfying too.  Those programs work you know.  Not every time but they work.  What did you do for a living Don?”

“I ran an insurance agency.  Took it over from my Dad.  I started out selling life insurance, ended up being something of a financial advisor.  That business changed so much.  It works too, if people stick with it.”
“I bet you helped a lot of people, a lot of families, get ahead and stay there.”

“Those that could afford it I did.  There are plenty of poor people round heah I couldn’t figure out how to help.”
“I’d guess you to be a Republican.”

“You’d be right about that.  My whole family is Republican.  Trump got 62% of the vote here.  Better than Mitt Romney.  State government’s pretty much all Republican.  Not much future in being Democrat in Alabama.”
Lola jumped in.  I felt bad about leaving her out.

“I don’t know what I am anymore.  Don’t know that I’m a Democrat, but I’m fixin’ to vote that way come the next election.  I think things are going crazy myself.  And it’d be wrong to think of Alabama as all red Republican.”
“Did you work Lola?”

“I started out working at our kid’s school, Sparta Academy, private.  Then I went and worked as an aide in the public school.  That opened my eyes.  Best thing I ever did was to see how the other half lives.  Oh, and I’m an election judge.”
“I am too Lola.  You had a special election not long ago that got pretty nutty.  Alabama was on the national news every night.  How did that happen Lola?”

“Oh boy, that’s a whopping long story Dave.  How’s that mullet?”
“Just like I hoped it would be.  Nice and fishy.  I get tired of bland white fish sometimes.  And the slaw is great.  Lots of places overlook the sides and they all end up tasting the same.  These beans are nice and spicy too with that same good sausage.”

“I’m telling you, you’re at the best roadside joint in Southern Alabama.”
Don swallowed a mouthful of smoked pork, took a swig of beer, and leaned back in his chair.

“That damn special election was a circus.  We were replacing Jeff Sessions right?  Who probably wishes he’d a never taken that Attorney General job, and it should have been a slam dunk for the Republicans, who started out behind Luther Strange.  But somehow they dug up Roy Moore and expected us to vote him in.  Strange was a perfectly good candidate, moderate, and damned if they didn’t put Moore on the ballot.  I still don’t know what happened.”
“The only thing crazier is they expected Alabama women to vote for him,” Lola added.

“I don’t believe quite all that sexist stuff about Moore like Lola, but they plumb overshot thinking they could get enough votes out of the cities and black votes to elect him in the general.  Put that scandal stuff aside and he’s too old school, even for Alabama.  At least I hope so.  I reckon even Alabama gets more fair-minded over time.”
“You think they’ll run him again against Doug Jones?”

“If they do that’s the only way Doug Jones gets re-elected.  Jones worked for the feds and prosecuted the boys that bombed that Birmingham church where the four black girls were killed.”
“Is that bad?”

“I’m not sayin’ it’s bad.  I’m just sayin’ that stuff is never forgotten in the South.  That background is not going to get you elected down here in a statewide election against any decent Republican.  Not Alabama, not Georgia, Mississippi,  any of the southern states.”
“But he’s an Alabama senator right now.”

“But he’s a Democrat.  He’s going to be a one termer if the party plays its cards right and starts looking at how Alabama votes these days instead of listening to people outside heah.  No way Alabama should have a Democrat senator.”
“Why aren’t you guys talking about the Donald?”

We both looked at Lola.  I didn’t especially want to talk about him.  I had a feeling my dinner partner didn’t either.
“He’s the elephant in the room.  How you going to talk politics and not talk about him?”

I looked up at my dinner companion and he looked at me.
Don said,  “You voted for Hillary and I voted for Trump.  Am I right?”

“You’re right.  You going to vote for him again?”
“To tell the truth, I don’t really want to.  I think he’s kinda dangerous. I mean we wanted him to shake things up and he’s sure doin’ that but I’m not sure he knows what he’s doin’ with foreign policy.  Not sure I trust him.  But unless the Democrats give me somebody I can vote for I’ll give him my vote again.  That’s a promise.”

“Just how bad would a Democratic candidate have to be before you’d vote for Trump again?”
“Well I’m not going to vote for a damn socialist I’ll tell you that.”

Lola spoke up.  “You know, we cancel each other’s votes out quite often, Don and I do.”
“Are you going to vote for Trump next election Lola?”

“I doubt it.  I voted for Hillary. And I voted for Obama the second time.  I thought Don was gonna divorce me.”
“Lola thinks the Democrats can do government programs that help poor people, and I say all they need is jobs and they can take care of themselves.” 

I had to speak up.
“Don, didn’t Obama help poor people with the Affordable Care Act?  Wasn’t he on the right side of the health care problem?”

“Dave, I used to sell health insurance.  Obamacare was a mess.  Still is.  The government has no business in health care.”
“If you ask me the government is knee deep in health care.  Medicaid, Medicare, the Veteran’s program.  That’s government health care.  Tell me, when you were selling insurance before Obamacare, could you find decent individual policies poor people could afford?”

Don shook his head no.
“I worked with poor families Don.  Without Medicaid they had practically no mental health or substance abuse coverage, and even when it was included in the private insurance some were able to buy both had serious limits.  I’m sure you both know people without insurance who are hurting.”

“Yes we sure do,” Lola said.
“Obama gave us a start to figuring out healthcare but we’ve done nothing since.  Trump and the Republicans wanted to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something else and they had nothing.”

“I just know Obama was a big threat to people down here,” Don said.
“Oh Don,” Lola said.  “I have never heard you ever say it like that before.  Who did he threaten?”

“He threatened what America stands for.”
I got back in.

“Don, don’t you think Obama did a lot of good.  Don’t you think he was decent, represented us well in the world, made thoughtful decisions?”
“Well I’ll give him this.  Obama did a lot for black people.  But I don’t think he did much for me.”

I had taken a bite of mullet but stopped chewing it.  Then I resumed and swallowed.  Washed it down with the last of my watery lite beer.
“So Don, I live in a part of Illinois that is not very diverse.  Farm country.  Small businesses.  We had factories with good paying jobs close and tourism and what not took their place.  Earnings went down.  We don’t have many black people where I live.  But we have poor people.  Lots of kids get free lunch in school.  We have a big opioid addiction problem.  Overdose deaths.  Obama was helping those people too not just black people.  Maybe down here that equates to black people, but I see expanding health care as trying to bring everybody up.  Floating all the boats.  You know what I mean?”

“I know what you’re trying to say.  I’ve heard all that.  But just a minute ago you used the word ‘equates.’  Please don’t go all Yankee liberal on me and start using big words.  I may be a redneck but I’m listening.  I get it.”
He called across the room “Shirley can you bring us a couple more beers?”

Lola got up.  “I’m going to the ladies room.  Are you boys going to be OK while I’m gone?”
“I’ll be good honey,” Don said.

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before.”
Shirley brought over two more long necks.  Don resumed his thoughts on our previous president.

“Look, even though Obama was black and a Democrat he was smart.  I’ll give you that.  And I respected him for being a good family man.  I think I gave Obama a real chance.  You know when I lost all respect for him Dave?  It was that deal with the black professor, the Gates fellah.  Shot his mouth off then tried to make it all better by having a beer with them, brought Biden along to referee.”
“You’re talking about Louis Gates.  Has a TV show about genealogy on public TV.  Yeah.  He’s and Obama are friends.  Both taught at Harvard.  Gates still does.  He has a PhD.”

“And both are black.”
“So?  The cops arrested Gates on the front porch of his own house, suspected him of being an intruder.  White neighborhood, black man.  I bet you’d be pissed Don, if it happened to you or a friend of yours.  I would.  I’d be pissed as hell.”

“That’s not the point.  Obama called the policeman who made the arrest stupid.  It’s unforgiveable for the President of the United States to say that about law enforcement.”
“Is that right?”

I scooped up the last of my baked beans with a chunk of hush puppy, put it in my mouth, and tried to compose myself.
“You know when I lost all respect for Trump?

“When he mocked the disabled reporter.  When he bragged about assaulting women.  When he called Central American immigrants at our southern border murderers and rapists.  When he immediately said the murder of a Saudi journalist in their own embassy shouldn’t interfere with us doing business with that country.  When he purposely separated kids from their parents and put them in cages to send immigrants a message.  When he claimed there were good people on both sides of the demonstrations in Charlottesville and gave credence to white supremacists.  When he ruined the grain markets for midwestern farmers with his tariff idea.  I could go on.”

“I’m sure you could.  Look, he’s not like other presidents.  He puts his mouth in gear before he engages his brain.  But he says what a lot of us think.”
Lola had come back and caught the last part of our conversation.

“It doesn’t do any good to argue with Don about the Donald,” Lola said.  “I do it regularly and it gets me nowhere.”
I kept talking to Don anyway.

“Can you really look at Obama’s presidency and say he didn’t accomplish good things for you?”
“Nothing comes to mind.”

I was a little stunned.  Lola helped.
“He did away with your pre-existing condition Don.  You know that helped you.”

“How about you let me talk to my new friend here so I don’t get ganged up on two on one.  Could you do that Lola?”
“As long as you tell the truth.  Besides that, he’s my new friend too.”

“Yeah, well that figures cause he thinks like you.”
“If you don’t mind I’d like to talk to both of you.  We can do this I think, don’t you think?  Without it getting out of hand?”

Don leaned back.  I couldn’t resist the next question.
“You’re not armed are you?”

He smiled.  “The pistol’s in the truck.  Got a permit.  You’re safe.  We haven’t plugged a Yankee down here since the carpetbaggers I don’t think.”
“Not true.  The Klan killed white sympathizers from the North during the Civil Rights demonstrations.  I’m just finding out about that.  But still I feel better you’re not carrying.”

I decided to keep my views on gun control to myself.
“Where were we?”

“Don was telling me to shut up I think.”
“Dang it Lola, I wasn’t.”

“All right you two, how about local voting?  What happens in local elections?”
“It’s pretty much over after the Republican primary, least it used to be,” Lola said.  “Except when it came to that year Obama first won.  That changed everything.”

“How so?”
“Obama won our county.  That’s how big the black turnout was.  I couldn’t believe it.  Nobody could.”

“It just shows you what could happen,” Don said.
“That what could happen?”

“That black voters could drive elections in the South if they got their shit together.  Them and the liberals in the cities.  It’s wrong to think of Alabama, or anywhere else in the South, as all one way.  We got the same tension between cities and rural folk as everybody else.  Thank God our cities aren’t that big.  You got Chicago up there to contend with, like California’s got LA and San Francisco.”
“But so what?  What if Democrats did drive elections?  What do you think would happen?”

“We’d have better public schools around here for one thing,” Lola said.
“Yeah, and be taxed to high heaven paying for them.  This little county?  Conecuh?  They’d spend our little county budget up so fast it’d make your head spin.  We got so little tax base left it’d all be levied for property taxes on our houses.  And if we took that Medicaid subsidy?  All downhill from there brother, mark my words.  Before you know it, the feds’d back out and we’d be paying for it with higher taxes right here in Evergreen.”

“I think  the biggest injustice that happened in reaction to Obamacare is when the red states   refused to take those federal payments to insure their own citizens with Medicaid.  It’s criminal to deny them that care, I think.  If not criminal its damn cruel.”
“Now you sound like Lola. She tells me that about once a week.  Keeps finding ways to feel sorry for those folk without insurance, without this and that.”

“And you don’t?”
“They can get a job with an employer that covers them.  They can get an education so’s to get that kinda job.  They can work for it, ‘stead of getting it handed to them.  I did.  I assume you did too.  You ended up managing an outfit.”

“Oh, yeah.  I worked for it.  I did.  But I had advantages too.”
“Like what?”

“Well I was white for one.  I was a man.  And my family owned land.”
“Thank you very much,” Lola said.  “Maybe he’ll listen to you.”

Shirley the waitress showed up table side with her book out again.  Her timing was impeccable.
“How about dessert folks?”

“What do you have?”
“We got lots of stuff but the best is the bread pudding.”  I looked at Lola who nodded.

“I’ll take it, with a cup of coffee.”
“How about you Lola?”

“Don and I’ll have one too. Two spoons.”
Lola and I commenced having a bread pudding conversation.  She puts a lot of stock in the  flavor nuances of real vanilla extract and whiskey.  Once again Don seemed eager to return to politics.

“So, who do you like coming out of this gaggle of Democrat presidential candidates?”
“I’m for whoever is going to get your vote Don.”

“I’m afraid that democrat won’t show up, unless you end up picking Biden and I’m afraid he’s screwed already.  Now Lola here, she’d vote for any one of them.”
“If its between one of them and the orange Cheeto, which it’s gonna be, you damn right I’ll vote for any one of them.  Any day.”

“You like Joe Biden?”
“Joe’s old.  We gotta be bold to get the young voters.  We’re not going to get any Republican votes anyway.  I don’t care what Don says.”

“But we need independent voters on our side.”
“We need new thinking you ask me.  I like Pete Buttigieg.  He’s a veteran you know.”

Don butted in.
“Hello.  That’s never going to happen.  You think you are going to get black votes with a gay candidate?  Think again.”

“Don, do you and Lola have kids?”
“Two.  Boy and a girl.  Both living in Atlanta.”

“Same as my wife and I except our kids are in Chicago.  Where are they on the LGBTQ issue?”
“Are you sure you got all the right letters there?  Seems like they add one every couple months.”

“I’ll tell ya, it isn’t an issue with our kids,” Lola said.  “And that after growing up in a house with Don Ackland.  I’m amazed, but I’m also proud of them.  They think for themselves.  They’re good smart kids.”
“That’s what I’m talking about.  I’ve never seen a social issue turn as quickly as the country’s attitude toward gay people and then gay marriage.  If we can change that much that quickly on an issue that seemed ingrained in our country, anything is possible.”

“Even socialism?” Don said.
“Yeah, even socialism.  I don’t for a minute think we’re going to be a socialist country.  They can try to scare you with Venezuela but that’s an absurd argument.  Look, if you can get past the label and look a little closer, we can adopt policies and create programs that really help people.  It doesn’t mean we’ll turn into a socialist country.  It will cost us more, and we’ll have to shift our spending, but it will make the country a much better place to live for so many people.”

Don looked out the window at the driveway and Lola looked closely at her husband.
“You know, to hear a decent fellah, an otherwise smart guy like you, say that kind of stuff just scares the hell out of me.  We’re not that different.  Same age, both raised kids, had OK jobs.  We couldn’t think about the future any differently.  I just know spending money on the kind of shit that props people up and shields them from real work is not what made America great.  You do that, you spend our money on people who don’t earn the right to be real Americans, and this country will never be the same.”

I took the last bite of my bread pudding and washed it down with some coffee.
“Well, I gotta say it scares me just as much to think a guy like you with good values supports a man like Donald Trump and is starting to decide who’s a real American and who’s not.  We’ve got a constitution and we have got to pay attention to it.  The country is not the same place we grew up in Don.  The middle class we raised our families in is damn hard to find.  The country is changing.  It’s OK to change with it.  There’s no reason to be scared.  Listen to your kids if nothing else.  We’re going to be all right, but we have to work together and take care of each other.”

“OK Dave.  We’re not going to agree there.  It’s getting late but let me ask you one more thing.  How’s your 401(k)?”
“It’s fine.  I bet yours is too.”

“Mine is more than fine.  It’s booming.  Who do you think gets the credit for that?”
“All the people in government that worked to restore confidence after that huge recession.  Bankers and businessmen who made use of technology to better their operations, a whole bunch of people.”

”You can’t give Trump credit for anything can you?”
“I’m not sure Presidents, Obama or Trump or any of them, should get much credit for the performance of the economy.  That Trump tax cut, did it help you or your kids?  And if Trump removing restrictions on polluting the air and water that big business complained about juiced the economy, I’d gladly give up some of my 401(k) gains to have them back.  I think he’s doing real harm to the environment.  Hell, he won’t even acknowledge climate change.”

Lola stepped in.  “Let’s not talk about climate change.  We’re having dessert.”
“OK fine.  To get back to your 401(k) question, my wife and I are fine financially.  I think we’ll be OK regardless of what happens politically.  That’s not my concern. But let me ask you this, how’s your kids’ 401(k)s?”

“That’s a different story,” Lola said.  “They got student loans, pay a lot of rent, can’t even think about buying homes.  Living in Atlanta is not like living in Conechuh county.  We were able to save money.  I’m not sure they ever will.”
“That’s who I’m worried about.  My kids and their kids.  Automation and technology are going to continue to wipe out jobs.  It’s going to be a different world for them.”

“Yeah, well we’ll just have to see what happens won’t we?”  Don said.  “One thing I know is that people count on our votes down heah.  The South is not going to turn blue while the Democrats keep going in the direction they’re headed.  And who knows?  One day you Democrats might want our votes. 
The Republicans came to us in 1948, and what was a solid Democrat South turned Republican.  Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats all of a sudden jumped to the GOP.  But to do that the Republicans had to come around to our issues, and they did.  Still do.  You’re going to have to turn around some of your own Midwestern states, cause it’s not going to be the South that wins you back the White House."

“OK, let’s see what happens.  But on election night, after Lola and I both get home from the polls, I’ll be thinking of you down here and looking to see how Alabama goes in the election, particularly this little county.  We got a lot on the line the next election.”
“What did you think of the bread pudding?” Lola asked.

“It’s good but there’s a lady in Forest City Arkansas, wish to God I would have gotten her name, that’s got it beat.  Somehow hers was light and airy.  This pudding has good flavor, but it’s a little heavy like a lot of them, and chewy.  Love the restaurant, I wish it was in my hometown, but the bread pudding was not the best part of the meal.”
“You Yankees are so damn picky,” Don said smiling.

“Can’t help it Don, just saying what I think, which you like right?”
“It was nice talking to you Dave.  It’s hard to have this kind of conversation anymore.”

“I’m real glad you asked me to your table.  I’ve had a lot on my mind.  Sometimes it helps to talk.  I get to listen to what I’m thinking.  And it helps to put a face and a voice to views that aren’t my own.  Makes it more personal and real.  I hope I didn’t offend you.”
“Not at all.  You made my day,” Lola said.  “I don’t feel quite so lonely down here now.”

“Yeah,’ Don said. “But I’m afraid you did nothing but encourage her.”
“It’s OK Don.  We don’t grow horns or anything cause of the way we vote.  After we leave the polling booth, we’re all still Americans.”

“Remember that applies to me too,” Lola said to Don.
“I figure your political differences keep you two voting.  I have a sister and brother in law the same way.  Cancel each other’s votes out every time.  But neither dares not vote or the other gets the advantage.”

Lola laughed.  “Drive careful.  Enjoy the rest of your trip.”
I gave Lola a hug and shook Don’s hand.  He was a guy with a strong handshake too.  We tried to outgrip each other.  He has a very genuine smile.  I was glad I met them both.  Frank conversation keeps us grounded.

With that I paid my bill and made my way to the Buick.  It wasn’t far to the Florida line.  Usually I don’t like to drive in the dark on unfamiliar two-lane roads, but that night it felt good.  I rolled the windows down.  No moon and very little artificial light meant it was just the just the swath of brightness made by the Buick’s headlights sweeping along the highway.  Somewhere between Riverview and Dixonville on Route 41 I saw an illuminated billboard in the distance.  As I got closer, I started to make out the words.  It was one of those religious messages you see across the South rather than a commercial advertisement, probably paid for by a local evangelical church.  There in big letters, as if to mark an end to my road trip, it said:


Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’  Matthew 25.41

Isaiah 66:24       Mark 9:43           Luke 3:17

(Note to billboard companies-that’s way too much information for anyone to read going 60 miles an hour.)
I didn’t get all the verses, but each is, like that first verse from Mathew (it had to be those on the left didn’t it?) a scary warning of the eternal agony suffered by evil doers who pass through the gates of hell.  Quite a collection of horrors recorded there.  It reminded me of the homemade billboard I’d seen in Indiana at the start of my trip, which was much simpler and to the point.

If hell is real, I believe it’s man-made.  I think we create our own hell on earth.  At age 67 I’d found fresh new hells in America I’d overlooked.  The horrors of slavery, 4,000+ lynching deaths, the disenfranchisement of millions of people in the South for 100 years following the civil war, the specter of white supremacy and its influence on our country still today.  My close look at Alabama opened my eyes.  If it was just Alabama it would be easier to handle.  It’s not.  It’s in us, this propensity to exclude, marginalize, and cast out “the other.”

Don Ackland wouldn’t like me using the word “propensity.”  Let’s just say habit.  We have a bad habit of fearing each other, believing there is not enough for all of us, feeling superior.  We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go.  Let’s get to work.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Catching up to 2019

Let’s wind up this long trip through American history.  It’s not pretty, but it’s ours. 

Though he survived impeachment and remained in the White House, Andrew Johnson would not be elected to a second term in 1868 , would not even be nominated  by either party.  Johnson lost his political base.  Popular Union General Ulysses S. Grant, a moderate Republican, not a radical, won the Republican nomination for president, and was elected over the Democratic candidate, former New York Governor Horatio Seymour, who campaigned as the “white man’s candidate.”

Listen to an excerpt from Seymour’s speech to the New York State Democratic Convention delivered on March 11, 1868. 

…”(black people) are in form, color, and character unlike the whites and are, in their present condition, an ignorant and degraded race.”

Seymour criticized post-war congressional civil rights laws that prohibited racial discrimination and established equal citizenship rights.  White terror groups, the biggest of which was the Ku Klux Klan, suppressed the black vote in hopes of delivering  the South for Seymour and the Democrats by carrying out  violent attacks in Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia which resulted in hundreds of deaths and successfully prevented black people from casting a single vote in many counties with significant black populations.

The Democratic strategy was to carry the South and gain enough white votes in the North to capture the Presidency.  However, the Republicans, by moderating, and slowing their rhetoric for equality of African Americans, carried most of the Southern states and stayed in power. 

The Klan retreated.  Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford called for its dissolution, claiming its mission had been highjacked by “rogue elements.”  That was a refrain which became common among Klan leaders seeking to distance themselves from the extreme violence they encouraged.  While the Klan partially disbanded as a unified political organization, local entities continued to seek its goals, enforcing white supremacist social mores and economic structures through bloodshed and intimidation.

Varied white groups took up the cause of restoring labor discipline in the absence of slavery.  Vigilantes whipped and lynched black freedmen who argued with employers, left plantations where they were contracted to work, or displayed any economic success of their own. 

But primarily, and even more destructive, was the intense energy white terror groups focused on imposing their own vision of a righteous society, which usually meant targeting black men for perceived sexual transgressions against white women.  Thus, the huge number of lynchings for routinely fabricated rape charges, often exaggerated from minor violations of the social code such as “paying a compliment” to a white woman and other small transgressions.  Through these acts of violence, white vigilantes used terror to revive the privileges of white masculinity over the bodies of their former slaves.

At crucial times in the history of our country we have always maintained hope that the courts will provide a counterbalance to the worst of our instincts as political partisans.  A case in Louisiana filed  against white perpetrators of murder against blacks, in a famous riot called the Colfax Massacres, made its way through the courts and promised to test the 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868.  That amendment addresses the equal protection and rights of former slaves by limiting the action of state and local officials.  It also addresses due process, which prevents citizens from being illegally deprived of life, liberty, or property. 

Charges of violence against African Americans were brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1875, also called the Enforcement Act, which was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant.  The Enforcement act made it a federal crime to conspire to deprive a citizen of his constitutional rights and allowed the federal government to prosecute any crime committed as part of such a conspiracy.  Authorities in this case charged white defendants in the Colfax Massacre with capital offenses, subject to the death penalty, for murdering black people.  Despite overwhelming evidence one defendant was acquitted and no decision was reached on any others.  The case was scheduled for retrial. 
But before retrial of the case, the defense questioned whether the federal court had jurisdiction to hear the case at all, arguing that the Enforcement Act was unconstitutional as applied to private persons who were not state actors.  In the ensuing trial the judge ruled the Enforcement Act was unconstitutional and dismissed the indictments, prompting an appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court accepted the case, United States v. Cruikshank, and decided in 1876 that the 14th amendment “prohibits a State from depriving any person of life liberty or property without due process, but adds nothing to the rights of one citizen against another.”  That meant that the 14th amendment only applied to actions of the State, not against violence perpetrated by individuals.  The power of the federal government was “limited to enforcement of this guaranty.” 
As a result, the Enforcement Act was a dead letter only a year after being enacted.  African Americans in the South were left at the mercy of white terrorists, so long as the terrorists were acting as private citizens and not under the authority of the State.
Enforcement Act trials throughout the South had been halted pending the Supreme Court appeal.  When Cruikshank was decided the Justice Department dropped 179 prosecutions in Mississippi alone.  Violence continued to spread, and increasingly, attacks on African Americans in the South were carried out by undisguised men in broad daylight.
Reconstruction was essentially over.  Going forward, Southern state governments experienced little federal oversight.  Congress returned full civil rights to Confederate leaders and restored their eligibility to hold public office.  A proposal in Congress to discipline Georgia for violence and corruption in the 1879 election was defeated by a five day filibuster in the Senate.  Northern support for federal intervention on behalf of black people living in the South diminished considerably. 
Former Confederate General Jamel L. Kemper was inaugurated as Governor of Virginia in 1874.  He delivered an address to the General Assembly that same year outlining the racial regime he intended to create in the state.  Here is an excerpt from that speech.
“Henceforth, let is be understood of all, that the political equality of the races is settled, and the social equality of the races is a settled impossibility.  Let it be understood of all, that any organized attempt on the part of the weaker and relatively diminishing race to dominate the domestic governments, is the wildest chimera of political insanity.  Let each race settle down in the final resignation to the lot to which the logic of events has inexorably consigned it.”
Former Confederate Colonel James Milton Smith, elected governor of Georgia in 1872, said this in an 1876 interview published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about the status of black people-then 46% of his state’s population.
“Well, the loss of slaves was a severe blow to the south.  Still we should be just as well off without them were the negro race less indolent and unreliable.  They are constitutionally an idle, thriftless race, always depending on the whites for everything, and it will take a century of education before they can be brought up to the standard that will make them in any degree useful members of the community.”
Meanwhile the courts continued to disappoint those Americans who once hoped for equality and justice for black people.  An 1896 ruling by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson upheld racial segregation as fully consistent with the 14th amendment and upheld the legality of the separate but equal doctrine for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality. 
In doing so the Supreme Court gave great deference to American state legislature’s inherent power to make laws regulating health, safety, and morals (the “police power”) and to determine the reasonableness of the laws they passed.  In reality, segregated public facilities, in particular segregated schools, were anything but equal in quality.  In nearly all facets of public life black Americans in the South were doomed to receive inferior services, inferior treatment, and second-class citizenship.
With those sentiments being voiced by political leaders, and court rulings allowing discrimination, is it any wonder white people in America felt justified in their racist attitudes?  Can you now understand why Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, black pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, who emerged from the rubble of the parsonage next door, which had been blown to bits by sixteen sticks of dynamite on Christmas night 1956 , approached a white policeman on the scene and told him to “go tell your Ku Klux Klan brethren I wasn’t raised to run?”
Reverend Shuttlesworth and that police officer both knew who he was talking about.  Ku Klux Klan members weren’t unknown at all.  In fact, both men knew not only who carried out the bombing but the city official who supported and most likely directed, with a wink and a nod, that terrorist act.  Who were the killers in the South?  Who perpetrated terrorist violence for a hundred years after the civil war?  People like Robert Chambliss, whose terrorist acts earned him the nickname “dynamite Bob.”
Gary May, a professor of history at the University of Delaware and the author of Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, by researching declassified government files and interviewing still living players in the drama which played out in Birmingham, describes it this way.
“What was unusual about the crime is that authorities quickly identified the men responsible for building and placing the bomb: they were members of a radical Klan splinter group called the Cahaba River Boys, led by Robert Chambliss.
Chambliss first joined the Klan when he was twenty years old, reportedly after watching The Birth of A Nation, and during the next twenty-seven years, rose to become Exalted Cyclops of the Robert E. Lee Klavern.  He resigned in 1951 because of ‘unfavorable publicity,’ he later said, the result of his ‘one-man war’ against blacks, Catholics, and Jews.  In the mines and quarries of Alabama, he learned about dynamite and, in 1947, first used it to destroy the home of a black man who legally won the right to move into a white neighborhood.  Chambliss had found his life’s work.  In 1956, he bombed Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s Bethel Baptist Church and by the end of the decade was responsible for most of Birmingham’s bombings.  His friendship with long time City Commissioner Bull Connor won him a job in the city garage and protected him from prosecution for his numerous crimes.”
Eugene “Bull” Connor, former Democratic member of the Alabama House of Representatives, served as an elected Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham for twenty years.  He oversaw the fire and police departments, directed the use of fire hoses and attack dogs against civil rights activists, including children, and became an international symbol of institutional racism.
Why did it take so long to imprison the men responsible for the rash of bombings in Birmingham?  In the case of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in which four young black girls were killed while attending Sunday School, FBI agents found several eyewitnesses who could place Chambliss and the others at the church at around 2:00 a.m., eight hours before the bomb exploded.  Two members of Chambliss’ own family, his niece and sister-in-law, heard him make incriminating statements and were willing to testify at trial.  However, despite the urging of local FBI field agents to present evidence to the local prosecutor and U.S. Attorney, neither of whom had knowledge of the evidence gained by the FBI, Director J. Edgar Hoover refused to share information.  Twice he turned down his agents requests to push the case to trial.  Here is a quote from Hoover found in declassified files: 
“From an evaluation of the evidence received thus far, the chance of successful prosecution in State or Federal Court is very remote.”  
Hoover, and many others believed strongly, and perhaps correctly, that no Alabama jury would convict white men, even for the murder of black children.  They were not prosecuted until 1977, five years after Hoover’s death, and twelve years after the crime was committed.  That was the depth of moral depravity in America when it came to race in the 1960’s.  Where are we now?
I know where I am.  I am on Route 83 about a mile from Interstate 65.  Just beyond the overpass I’d hit a town called Evergreen, where I would pick up Route 31, red and thick on the map, which would take me to Brewton, then East Brewton.  That would be my last road change.  A thin road, gray on the map, Route 41, would finally take me out of Alabama.  It was evening.  I’d have to drive in the dark to Pensacola, but I didn’t mind.  My stomach told me it was time to find a restaurant.  I saw a low building in the distance with something sticking out of the roof.  As I got closer it appeared to be the tail end of a small airplane.  The building was plastered with old signs.  Centered over the door was the name of the place in large letters: The Shack.  How can I not stop?