Sunday, April 25, 2004

Remembering the 60s and 70s

I just finished reading Beach Music by Pat Conroy. In my previous post, I sort of hung him out to dry. I've given some additional thought to the subject, and I have some disclosures to make.

I moved to San Jose, California with my mother and two sisters in 1963. We drove from Texas to San Jose in a 1959 Ford. I can't remember if it was a Galaxie or a Fairlane, but it was a standard shift and didn't have air conditioning. We looked like the tv version of the Beverly Hillbillies with our belongings piled high onto the car. We looked like Okies who didn't get the memo about the depression being over.

I hit California like a dry sponge hits water. I soaked it up. Ever see American Grafitti? That's exactly what I was thrown into. What a high. The Californians loved me. I was smart, had a cute accent, obviously liked them. The next year of my life was probably my best. Then my mother tricked me into returning to Texas to graduate from high school at the same school at which I started in 1953. So lucky me, I get to graduate with the kids with whom I started school.

I started at Vidor Elementary School in September 1953. I was living with my grandmother, my brother, and my grandmother's oldest daughter, Elsie, who had a severe learning disability. We lived in a 4-room house built by my grandfather out of left over lumber back in the late 1940s. We had a front porch, a living room, a kitchen where we ate meals, and two bedrooms.

This is me after the second grade. I had just turned 8.

There was a back porch and behind that, a chicken yard through which one had to navigate to get to the outhouse. The greatest fear I had growing up was having to go to the bathroom in the outhouse at night. Two reasons, darkness and chicken shit. In the South, darkness is a force of its own. There's shit out there when it's black and you can't see the hand in front of your face. And those fucking chickens didn't respect the fact that it's not nice to shit on the path between the house and the outhouse. (Creative exercise 1. Imagine you're five years old running through terrifying darkness to the outhouse, barefoot, and stepping in chicken shit. Now, do you feel sorry for me?)

That was the first grade. I also went to school there for the 2nd grade, 6th grade, 9th grade, and 12th grade. My family settled this county 200 years ago. For 200 years, White people have been calling us "niggers" behind our back. We have fought them, tooth and nail, the entire distance. They have never gotten away with it. We are not Black. We have never been Black. We were never slaves. We always believed we were not Black more strongly than those who called us Black. From 1800 to 1820, we were called Free Men of Color in the U.S. Census. From 1820 through 1900, we were called Mulatto. None of these things were we called to our face. We believed ourselves to be White and never agreed to anyone else's terminology. After 1900, they finally gave up and agreed with us.

I mention this because it backgrounds my interaction with my high school classmates in 1964-65. In my year and a half in California, I had blossomed. I was exposed to so much more information that I exploded. I became someone new. In my junior year, a woman by the name of Edith Finkelstein taught me American history. Edith had a batchelor's from Cornell and a masters's from Yale. She taught me history instead of myth. It revolutionized me. I debated, learned to speak French (finally!), visited my first world class city, San Francisco. I was a member of the honor society. I had a set of buddies who enjoyed me and helped me to have the appropriate adventures one has at 16. God bless Herman Osorio, my speech teacher who so generously helped me overcome the intellectual handicaps of being a Southerner.

And then my mother tricked me into returning to Texas. I recognized that I was being tricked just as my mother was returning to California. I begged her not to leave me there. She left. I turned my attention to the reality of my situation. If you think the character Jordan Elliott in Beach Music had attitude, you should have known me the Fall of 1964. Of all my teachers, only one had enough empathy to be supportive and not defensive. His name was Bill Stafford, what a hunk. Hairy chested, empathetic, played the guitar, ... God, did I have a hard on for him. We stayed friends for 20 years after that year, but I've since lost him to the universe. Good luck, you sensitive hunk you.

I drew a group of misfits around me. David Lewis, Guy Berger, Billy Stanley, Margie Hollenbach, and others. I had others, Errol Marioneaux, Jim Brown. I gave that bunch of super bright nerds and social rejects a community of each other. We finished high school together, went off to college with each other and lived the same time frame as Beach Music. Conroy made up the case against Jordan Elliott, but I was charged with 8 counts of draft evasion in Judge Joe Fisher's court in Beaumont, Texas in 1971.

Conroy did cause me to remember the sights and smells of growing up country in the last century. We Southerners like to think we have a special connection to the land. I grew up with open windows and no air conditioning. I do remember the sounds of the night. I can remember laying in bed with my grandmother listening to the sounds of panther in the swamp and woods behind her house. I remember the smells of the southern night. I remember the smell of gardenia in my grandmother's bedroom. I remember the smell of honeysuckles on the back porch. I remember a musky smell my grandmother said was a snake. I remember the smell of chicken shit when I stepped in it.

By 1964, my grandmother had indoor plumbing, a smaller porch and a tv. I liked her old house better, although I did not miss the outhouse.

This is a digression story, but I've got to tell it anyway. In the summer of '55, my mother brought her new husband to meet her mother and her two children. He brought with him two boys, Michael age 7, and Ronnie, age 5. I was showing them around my grandmother's farm, checking them out, so to speak, when Michael disappeared. He must have been missing an hour or more when my grandmother asked out loud where he might be. We called him. He didn't answer. We started searching. A city boy can come to harm getting lost on a farm. After searching for an hour or more, as I walked past the outhouse, I heard someone whimpering. "Michael?" I ask. "What's wrong?" "I can't figure out how to flush it." And that's a true story.

I can't tell anymore of this right now. It's an exhausting memory. I have never focused my life on where I've been. Jaye teases me about writing my memoires. I don't know how to begin telling the story when I think the best part is yet to come. I think if my life is interesting enough to be told, it'll be a biography and not an autobiography.

[This is a ghost version that I deleted. Imagine my surprise when I saw it published. I have made a few changes for the purpose of spelling and grammar. It is incomplete, but I still find it hard to write about certain periods of my life. The best I can do now is to hint about those periods when I remember others with whom I interacted.}