...now browsing by category
I’m just back from a spot of busy travel on the mainland, including a Radford High School class of 1971 reunion. which we held in Las Vegas. It was a very fun, emotional ride for a few days, and I’ll post pictures anon. Some of these folks I had not seen in four decades, including the lovely Mary Cole, whom I greeted by blurting out “My first wife!” — what’s funny is that she remembers why.
One day during lunch recess we were discussing another girl in school, a young lady who was famously gullible. We wondered if she’d fall for anything. And so when this girl showed up, Mary and I claimed we were married, but it had to be kept quiet, because we were underage.
The other girl fell for it. Then we claimed that our parents didn’t know. She still believed us. And so Mary and I upped the ante by talking about our own children, boys Tennessee and Denver, and twin girls Jennifer and Shenandoah, whom we called Tenny, Denny, Jenny and Shenny.
OK, by this point Gullible Girl should have having doubts, but she was not, and we could tell that she had not done the math in her head that made Mary and I (fake) parents when we would have been still in preschool. So we cautioned Gullible Girl not to tell anyone, because then we’d have to drop out of high school.
As far as I know, she still believes it. Even more amazing, Mary Cole remembers a brief prank we pulled 40 years ago. So it’s a good thing she’s not really my wife. I’d never get away with anything.
I’ve got a good seat for awesome aviation artist Jim Dietz’ portion of the League of World War One Aero Historians seminar now occurring in Monterey. Next up, Javier Arango will talk about thrust geometries and P-factor with rotary engines. This is so cool. Wonder why the Missus didn’t want to attend?
“People know about the Klan and the overt racism, but the killing of one’s soul little by little, day after day, is a lot worse than someone coming in your house and lynching you.” — Samuel L. Jackson, actor.
I remember how much I loved fried chicken, although I don’t much care for it now. I also recall my mother screaming, the sense of something not being right, sudden danger, anger ballooning out of nowhere.
Movies sometimes provoke a sense memory, particularly the good movies. The script understands that human connection. Smell is a strong one. There are a couple of shots of chicken frying in “The Help” that make audiences go mmmmmm. But “The Help” also triggers stronger reactions among certain audience members, people who were, as they say, there. I have a friend who refuses to see the film because of memory scars that haven’t healed — a half-century later.
I’m another person for whom “The Help” has a personal memory impact. It involves just about the only time I ever saw my mother lose her cool, to the point of nearly being arrested. It has impact because my mother could handle just about anything. Not this time.
“The Help” takes place in the deep south during the Kennedy years, a time when the world was shifting underfoot. It’s about the black women who take care of white kids, about the daily indignities of implicit racism. For a time, I was one of those kids. For many today, the events in “The Help” seem as ancient and dusty as Babylonia.
I don’t think about those days much. “The Help” jogged several memories loose. Like gears in an old clock, they began to mesh creakily, the wheels turning.
My parents were from a medium-sized town in Ohio. It was pretty much a white community. They simply didn’t grow up with any black people, never even met any. Dad went to war, saw some terrible things, returned home and married Mom, and decided to make a career of the Air Force. The first thing the military did was send them to Japan as part of the first wave of occupation forces. They lived among the Japanese for several years, and then among the Chinese in Taiwan.
The American military was racially integrated by executive order in 1948. Military bases are insular communities, particularly overseas, and the other neighborhood kids — our tiny military neighborhoods — were all races and religions. That’s the way we grew up, and if we were aware that things were different off-base, it’s not something that became apparent until we were older.
I never sensed a lick of racism in my parents. I asked them about it when I was older and curious, and it wasn’t so much that they were anti-racist as that they simply hadn’t been programmed that way as children. They weren’t influenced by racism because there was nobody in their town to abuse. Racism is learned behavior. And then, suddenly, they were surrounded by minorities and under strict orders to treat everyone equally.
The American South, even today, is chockablock with military communities. During the late ’50s, we bounced from base to base — Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee. My mother birthed four boys in three years, and like a lot of overwhelmed military wives, took in help. Looking back, it was probably expected of an officer’s wife to do so. Dad was generally off flying exciting aerial missions in South America at the time.
The woman she hired was named Sarah. I simply can’t remember her last name, and we little boys might never have been told it. We called her Miss Sarah, because Mom told us to respect her, because she was in charge. She was black, tall and rather formal at first. I’m sure she had her hands full with laundry in those cloth-diaper days. I’m the oldest boy, and at the time I was maybe 4 or 5 years old. My brothers also remember Miss Sarah to this day, even though they were toddlers.
My mother was right: Miss Sarah was in charge. I think every photograph taken of my mother in this period shows her exhausted, a cigarette in one hand and a highball in the other, slumped in patio furniture while horrible little boys ran around screaming. When my parents took their first non-kid vacation, Miss Sarah stayed with us, in the base housing.
I HAVE FOND memories of that base housing, which fronted a deep, dark forest that featured an abandoned Antebellum mansion, although later, much later, when I dug through family photos, the base housing looked like a slum, with every other house deserted and boarded up. (Recently, while interviewing Big Brother guitarist Sam Houston Andrews, we discovered we were neighbors at the time.)
The base was shut down soon after we left. Dad received orders to move from Alabama to Tennessee, and true to military form, was sent off on a mission, leaving Mom to handle the move.
Miss Sarah went with us. Now that I look back on it, I’m not sure how Mom talked her into it, but I can guess that was a temporary arrangement until we got settled. So we piled into a station wagon with suitcases and furniture tied to the roof and set off, Mom, four squalling boys and Miss Sarah.
En route, we pulled into a diner for lunch. I don’t know if it was northern Alabama or southern Tennessee. It had a sign that had a big picture of fried chicken. Mom sat us in a booth but I wanted to sit on the shiny stool at the counter like a big boy. Mom order me a fried chicken plate and then she and Sarah secured the car and went to the bathroom around back to freshen.
Looking back, it must have had separate bathrooms.
The counterguy dropped an enormous plate of fried chicken in front of me, a mountain of fried chicken, and laughed. The “chicken plate,” it turned out, was for a whole family. “How far you going to get with that, boy?” he laughed.
At this point, Mom and Sarah entered the diner. “That’s a lot of fried chicken,” said Mom. “I guess Sarah and I are having fried chicken too.”
“You can,” said the guy behind the counter. “But your girl can’t.”
Mom blinked. “My girl? I only have boys.”
“Your maid,” said the counter guy. “The Negra.”
“We don’t serve her kind. There’s a Negra restaurant a couple of blocks away.”
My mother stood stock still. The guy probably thought he was being helpful. I was sitting there at the counter, probably with a drumstick in each hand. I can still taste it. It might have been the best fried chicken I ever had in my life.
“Look,” said Miss Sarah. “We don’t need a problem. I’ll go wait in the car.”
“Sarah!” said Mom. “You aren’t going anywhere. We’re here for lunch, we’re tired and roadsick, and by god, this fellow is going to serve us.”
The counter guy responded in the negative. I’m not sure exactly what he said, because at this point things get jumbled and confused. My mother picked up the big plate of chicken and slammed it into his face. There was lots of yelling. My mother, normally unflappable, was enraged. At least two policemen were there quickly. Miss Sarah quietly bundled us kids out into the car and Mom, escorted by the police, was led to it. They probably thought she was a high-strung Yankee.
Mom shifted the car into gear and we screeched out of there. Nobody got anything to eat until we reached the new Air Force base in Tennessee. I think Miss Sarah stayed with us a couple of weeks, then returned home to Alabama. We never saw her again.
I haven’t much cared for friend chicken since.
My parents died a few years ago. I wonder what Mom would have thought of “The Help.” After all, she was there, a sort of outsider inserted into someone else’s lifestyle. Mom’s memory was fading there near the end, but when I asked her about it, she remembered the incident well. I learned that she and Miss Sarah kept in contact for several years, back in the days when well-brought-up people wrote letters.
“And you know,” she said, “I never did pay for that damn fried chicken.”