Posts Tagged ‘Mississippi’

Mysteries of 1964: Meridian and Tonkin

August 11, 2016

From the new novel King of Soul, now being researched and written, here’s an excerpt. In chapter 4, we find Uncle Cannon speaking about murder in Mississippi, and then the scene changes. As Uncle Cannon was saying, on August 4, 1964 . . .

        “Now these white-power types and KKK misfits who been runnin’ around for a hundred years like they own the place—now they won’t have a leg to stand on when Bobby Kennedy and Hoover’s FBI agents show up with their high-falootin’ writs of law.  I’m sure the Feds knew if they’d root around long enough, something rotten would turn up.”

       “Well now something has turned up. Three dead bodies. Over near Meridian, they found those three dead boys—two yankee college students and one local black, and all hell is gonna break loose. The old ways are gonna go, but they ain’t gonna die without a fight—probably a pretty damned ugly one.”

       The old man shook his head. “With Kennedy being shot last year in Dallas, and now Johnson, who is an extremely competent politician, following in his wake, this whole civil rights movement will mount up  like a tidal wave. It’s gonna break right over the Mason-Dixon line and keep on going, until it rolls all the way down to the Gulf. . .”

~~~

       It just so happened that, while Uncle Cannon’s projections were being uttered into the sultry southern air, a wave of a different kind was being set in motion on the other side of the world. It went thrashing just beneath the choppy surface of  Gulf waters that lie between the coasts of China and Vietnam. The Gulf of Ton-kin.

       A phosphorescent wake—the eerie, night-time straight-line underwater path  of a launched torpedo—went  suddenly slashing beneath the stormy surface of the Gulf of Ton-kin, sixty miles off the coast of  Vietnam. The torpedo had a target:  a destroyer ship of the U.S. Navy.

       Under cover of the dark, stormy night, the torpedo’s path was nigh-impossible to see, almost as difficult to detect as the P-4 North Vietnamese patrol boat from which it had been launched.

       In the air above the USS Turner Joy naval destroyer,  a plane-launched flare erupted,  illuminating  for a few moments the rain-stilted night sky. In the desperate brilliance of one flare flash, a boatsman’s mate caught plain sight of the attacking boat; he noticed, in the fleeting brightness, an odd detail—its long bow.

        Meanwhile, all hell was breaking loose, with the two U.S. Navy destroyers firing ordnance wildly into the stalking mysteries of the Tonkin Gulf.    Two  members of the gun crew sighted the offending boat in the strange light of their own exploding 3-inch shells; one squinting seaman managed to hold the object in view for what seemed like almost two minutes.

       Two signalmen, peering through dark Tonkin night-soup, strove to pinpoint the patrol boat’s searchlight, as it swept through the dark seas several thousand yards off the starboard bow;  Director 31 operator could identify a mast, with a small cross piece, off the destroyer’s port quarter, as it was illuminated in the glare of an exploding shell that the Turner Joy had fired.

      Ahead of the USS Turner Joy, on the flagship Maddox, two Marine  machine-gunners were posted on the ship’s signal bridge; after sighting  what appeared to be the cockpit light of a small-craft, they watched through the fierce weather. Having no orders to fire, they visually tracked the unidentified vessel—friend or foe they didn’t know—as it churned up along port side of their ship; later the miniscule light was seen coming back down on starboard.

       Up on the flagship Maddox bridge,  Operations Officer Commander Buehler was not surprised at  the spotty hodgepodge of indecipherable bogey signals and sightings from various quarters of the two ships; for his ship’s radar contact had earlier indicated something approaching at high speed, which had suddenly turned left when it was 6000 yards from and abeam of the USS Maddox. He knew from the swerve that whatever that was—some vessel the radar contact had indicated—had fired an underwater  torpedo. Approximately three minute later, a topside crewman on the Turner Joy had spotted the thin, phosphorescent wake of the torpedo as it missed both ships and  then disappeared in the dark Tonkin waters that chopped beneath them.

       Later,  black smoke could be discerned,  rising in a column through the black night, and the mysterious P-4 bogey aggressors were seen no more. Where did they go? Davy Jones locker.

King of Soul

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That Southern thang and BB King

May 17, 2015

Oh but when I was growin up

in Jackson

Nigras was somethin different then.

Ole fellas black as coal said Mistuh and Miz

but they were humble like the kind of person

God would favor, if

He was here, which I don’t think he is here but maybe

he was at one time.

Whereas

those ole white fellas, really more pink than

white, or even red-faced, beneath them bald heads and glasses

with black frames, walkin ’round like

they own the place,

which I guess they did, yeah they did down there in

Miss’ippi at that time

but they a-feared, like deer in the headlights, when President

Kennedy

or maybe it was Johnson sent troops down hea’h

to teach Wallace a thing or two ’bout

integration,

and they said the whole damn thang go back to the War and

all that conflummucks when Sherman march to the sea

through Giawga

and such n such an’ so forth.

But what I remember was that delta, flat as

the day is long, and hot as blue blazes and

them shotgun shacks where the Nigras lived,

so different and dilapidated compared to, you know,

where us white folk lived.

Latah on I heard ’bout Medgar Evers and

the night he got shot in his own front yard

in Jackson cuz

he be tryin de git them Nigras registered

to vote, and his last spoken words were at

New Jerusalem Baptist Church,

like Moses or Jesus.

But hell, I was just a snotty-nose white kid out

on the edge of town.

I mean I had no clue ’bout what be goin’ on,

what groundswell of civil rights was buildin up and then

all them smart college kids from up Nawth come down

in ’63 or maybe it was ’64. But three of ’em never

got back home again,

leastwise not alive.

Now I say three, mighta been more.

Damn shame.

Meanwhile this man BB King

was doin his bluesy thang

out there in that hot delta, maybe sittin’ on

a bale of cotton or sump’n like dat.

But thinkin’ back on it now– he musta gone to Memphis

or maybe even Chicago by then.

And I say I say yesterday I heard him on the radio talkin’

to Terri,

even though he died two days ago, an’ he shonuf was a

well spoken Negro,

yes he was,

helluva lot better human specimen than Ross Barnett, that ole fart.

Now Ole BB could shonuf now sing de blues

‘nuf to make a white man cry,

and so I guess if somethin’ like BB King could come outa

the great state uh Miss’ippi, this southern thang

can’t be all bad,

what all happened then

back in the day.

But its all gone now,

witherin’ like a magnolia blossom

on the ground.

Still, yet what a sound

when ole BB King came around,

nuf to make a white man cry,

in the sweet by and bye.

No pain, no gain,

that’s what I say.

 

Glass half-Full

You gotta respect yourself

December 14, 2014

I was in Greensboro yesterday, and visited Scuppernong Books on South Elm Street downtown, where I picked up a copy of Greg Kot’s excellent historical book about Mavis Staples and the Staples Singers.

After reading 40 pages about Pop Staples and his singing family, I was very impressed with these people, and what they did with their lives. I really identify with old Pop Staples, who got his young’uns started in music back in the 1950s, when I was a clueless white kid growing up in Jackson Mississippi.

Now everybody knows that Miss’ippi mud gave birth to the delta blues.

There ain’t nothin’ really wrong with the blues. I’ve spent many an hour myself singing the blues, crying the blues, being blue, and feelin’ that ole E7 12-bar a-wailin’ blues. Ev’body have the blues now and then, and some folks are born into the blues, spend their lives in the blues, and make powerful emotive music in the blues. But the blues is hard, and there are lifestyle choices connected to singin’ them blues that can render a life that is just damned hard, too hard.

Ole Pop Staples learned his blues down in the delta where he was raised, and he played along with them wailin’ boys, but when it came to Sunday morning, Pop took his wife and young’uns to church, cuz there come a time when you gotta rouse yoself outa that funky blues and do somethin’ right.

So Pop Staples got his younguns started out right in the musical life, singing in church, praising God.

Few years later, when they moved up to South side of Chicago , and them Staples saw deeply into all what was going on there in that big hub city of America’s stockyard-smellin’ heartland, and they heard Mahalia and sang with her and all that, Pop’s commitment to gospel music got stronger and stronger.

So he made sure his singing kids stayed on the gospel track, even though what they were doing sounded real bluesy, like his delta roots.

That man from the delta had a unique combination of blues and gospel runnin’ through his veins, and he brought his children on board that train. There wasn’t no one who would sing like Pop with his children; they were good at it. As we say in the Christian heartland, they had “the anointing.”

In his book, Greg Kot mentions on page 34 that, nevertheless, their first record release was a flop. After that, a certain record company was

“. . . looking for hits and encouraged the Staples to move in a rock’n’roll direction, according to Pops, but he would have none of it.”

And Pops said:

“. . .He wanted us to sing blues. He said Mavis could make a lot of money singing blues. I didn’t want her singing blues.”

Prodigy singing daughter Mavis agreed:

“I just enjoy singing spirituals.”

Some time passed. Then the singing had to go on the back burner for awhile. Kot reports:

“When the Staples’ contract expired in 1955, Pop returned to his job at the steel mill, in no hurry to jump back into the music business.”

But that little disagreement with the music professionals turned out to be just a bump in the road for Pop and his soulful singing kids. Long story short, here’s what happened later:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oab4ZCfTbOI

 

Glass half-Full

Jackson Mississippi 1963

April 20, 2014

 

In 1954, I was three years old. In that year, my parents moved from Louisiana to Jackson Mississippi. Our family of four, soon to be six souls, stayed in Jackson until I was in the sixth grade, 1962. Then we moved back to Louisiana.

All around us at that time the world was changing big time. I was, of course, clueless, being just a kid. Living in a humble, GI-bill enabled suburb, l and my whitey neighborhood playmates were quite insulated from the maelstrom of civil rights-fueled social change that was gathering momentum in Jackson and in the whole state of Mississippi and the South, and later the North.

I was in a Catholic school; it was nice enough, and I had some good friends there. Although the US Supreme Court decision,  Brown v. Board of Education, had established a legal  path toward school desegregation in 1954, I never saw a black classmate until I was in junior high school in Baton Rouge a few years later.

My first impressions of black folk in Jackson came mostly through our maid, Aleen. She was a very nice lady. Many an afternoon, my sister and I would accompany my mother as she drove Aleen home from her day-job at our home. Aleen’s home was what we would politely call the “other side of town,” although it wasn’t really in town, but seemed to me to be out in the country somewhere nearby. The vivid image in my child’s mind was of a dirt road lined by houses that I later learned are called “shotgun shacks.”

In 2011, Dreamworks released a movie about what was developing in Jackson at that time. You’ve probably seen it: The Help. It is an excellent film, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett and it absolutely confirms all my juvenile impressions and memories of Jackson in the 1950s. But of course, as I said before, being a kid I had no idea of what was really going on behind all that docile southern comfort status quo.

Recently, I have decided to write a fictional historiography about growing up in the South during that time, and about how being a born-n-bred southerner interfaced with what the rest of our country was becoming. This novel, my fourth, is tentatively named King of Soul. (Preview: I am not “the King.”) The book being written  follows the novel Smoke, which I have just published.

I do a lot of historical research. Learning about history is what propels me as a writer. I turn the research into fiction that, I feel represents a certain time period or zeitgeist. Finally I am doing one now on the actual time and place of my growing up.

My daughter Katie, who nobly attempts to be my editor, tells me that my protagonist’s depth suffers in the midst of all my fictionalized history. She is of course correct in this critique. Certainly I will learn the lesson of satisfactory protagonist development in this next project, instead of obsessing with making the history itself the main character.

To begin research I have picked up several books at the Belk library, Appalachian State University, here in Boone NC where I live, where Pat and I have raised our three grown young’uns. This researching will be my modus operandi. Before King of Soul is finished in a few years, I probably will have consulted with a hundred or more sources from that library, as well as our local Watauga County library.

The Kindle, and Wikipedia, and real historians posting online, and so forth are also major components of my publishing projects.

To get into the King of Soul, I am reading, among other things, Michael Vinson Williams’ opus of history research, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr, and also A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg.

So, by doing, I am finally getting the back-story of what was really going on while I was growing up in Jackson Mississippi in the 1950s and Baton Rouge Louisiana in the 1960s.

I graduated from high school in 1969. What does that tell ya? Should be a fascinating period to reflect upon.

All of this to say: at the present moment I am here to share with you three of the most interesting historical facts I have learned in preparation to writing the fictional historiography.

1. From Williams’ book on Medgar Evers: When Medgar returned to the USA after soldiering to defending our country and Europe in 1946, he had to “go to the back of the bus.”! What kind of a welcome was that for a man who had survived D-Day and World War II in Europe? Mr. Evers went on to do very persistent, determined work in voter registrations in Mississippi in the ’50s and ’60s, and became a great leader in the civil rights movement before he was shot down in the dark of night by a white supremacist in his own front yard in Jackson in 1963. That was just a few months before they got Kennedy.

2. From Greenburg’s book on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC):  Through volunteering in the civil rights movement in the South, empathetic activists from other areas of the country learned how it’s done. For instance: after working with the blacks down south, Mario Savio took his SNCC experience back to Berkeley, where he lead the Free Speech Movement that soon initiated protest against the Vietnam war. Also, after working with blacks down south, Tom Hayden returned to Michigan and authored, with his SDS comrades, the Port Huron Statement which was the beginning of Students for a Democratic Society.

3.What I am seeing now about the time period is this: As the civil rights movement gathered steam in the mid-’60s, a rift developed between the moderates (such as Medgar Evers, the NAACP, Dr. King, SCLC, John Lewis, Julian Bond, etc.) and the radicals (such as Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, SNCC, Panthers, Malcolm X, etc.) This parting of ways is similar to what happened among the anti-Fascists and also among  the anti-Communists in Europe of the 1930s, a subject of my new novel, Smoke. The peaceful v. violent disagreement is also, I believe, indicative of protest movements generally, such as the two biggies: the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. Probably the next revolution, too, whatever becomes of that.

As for me, the kid growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, well. . . shut my mouth, I’m a child of the South. But I’m a commencin’ to write about it. Thank ye for your time.

Glass half-Full