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As you get older, you look back on how much you didn't know when you were a kid, and it makes you laugh. In some cases it makes you laugh till you cry.
In early 1969 Ruth Tuttle and I were seventeen-year-olds in far-flung corners of America -- different countries, really -- who thought we knew how things happen and why. There was at least some basis for these thoughts. We were reasonably intelligent, imaginative kids, comparatively well read and well schooled.
But your body, maturing so much faster than your mind and your emotions, deceives you as you begin to exit childhood. And one day the mirror shows your wondering eyes someone all too easily mistaken for an adult. What it doesn't tell you -- not that you'd listen anyway -- is that the act of growing up will take more time and inflict more pain than you can imagine, and that by the time it's done, you will be a patchwork of hidden scars and fractures.
Part of our flagrant hubris came of youth, the universal intoxicant. But it also came of membership in the nation's largest crop of children: the Baby Boomers. We were accustomed to society stretching and bending for us as we moved from coonskin caps and Ginny dolls to college, and we expected more of the same as our birthright. We were quite certain that this accommodation would be all for the better, and that we, the anointed ones, would bring about the flowering of all of humanity's fondest hopes.
Like most people, and certainly like millions of our postpubescent peers, Ruth and I were looking for love. And we found it with each other, except that it wasn't the kind we expected. But our mind-love, in many ways greater and better than the sweaty and transitory variety, helped sustain us through any number of dizzying amours, bitter disappointments, personal and generational delusions, divorce and death. All through this hard passage from youth to middle age, we wrote to each other and saved the letters, hundreds of them. We clung to them because we knew they contained something priceless -- the keys to our souls, the record of who we were and who we were becoming.
It has been said that the gods first make people crazy before they bring them low. But in the case of Ruth and me, it may be more true that they made us bored before they enlightened us. It all began with a silly prank.
It was a Friday afternoon in February of 1969, eighth period, and my usual crew -- Vinny Vito, Dave "Feldo" Feldman, Jerry Greenfield, Ben Cohen, Judy Vecchione, Sue Ball, Ronnie Bauch and a few others -- had assembled in the office of Hoofbeats, the student newspaper of Calhoun High School in Merrick, Long Island. We'd reached the winter doldrums of our senior year, and we were seriously bored.
Into this hotbed of ennui dropped a seed: the latest newspaper from a high school in Yazoo City, Mississippi. It was one of several exchange papers we received, and as each school sent us its latest issue, I'd scan it with gimlet eyes. The Yazooan was something of a joke around the office, not for its poor quality -- it was quite well written and edited -- but because it was from a place that had the nerve to call itself Yazoo City. The name in itself was enough for a laugh from us worldly "Noo Yawkas," and the fact that this jerkwater burg was located in Mississippi, the most backward state of the whole impossibly retro South, was also comical. But Ben pointed out two additional provocations in the latest issue.
As editor of Hoofbeats, I was most affronted by the first: The student featured as the "Senior Pic" on The Yazooan's front page was none other than its editor, Ruth Tuttle. But my outrage was tempered a bit by the fact that this miscreant Miss Tuttle seemed quite smashing, judging from her photo. The second crime occurred in an ad for the Toggery, a clothing store. The ad featured a smirking Yazoo football hero, Mike Bagwell, with an exhortation to "Be a stud like Mike Bagwell in your Toggery shirt, Higgins pants and Bostonian shoes." A stud like Mike Bagwell? Obviously, these Yazoo yahoos needed some acculturation.
I began a letter in mock indignation, and soon we were passing it around, each laughing and adding a section. We roasted Ruth, the improbable Yazoo City, its miserable high school and the insufferable Mike Bagwell -- not to mention the shit-kicking, night-riding South itself. Mississippi was, after all, the state that hadn't yet ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. It also was where three civil rights workers had been murdered only a few years before and where Medgar Evers had been shot down in sight of his family. Whites in Mississippi had a lot of grief coming, and we were only too happy to provide it. Scrawled over two sides of notebook paper, the letter contained every snide slam we could think of, plus tongue-in-cheek references to ourselves as despicable Jew Commies and self-righteous bastards and bitches.
But it was perhaps less of a joke for Judy, a brilliant girl with long, dark hair and snapping brown eyes. Her reference to burning crosses came of her deep commitment to the Civil Rights movement, of which she was already a veteran. The daughter of activist parents, she had been to Washington to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., and the opportunity to lash out at the Deep South fired her up. (Twenty years later, working for WGBH in Boston, she would produce a segment of the award-winning Eyes on the Prize, a documentary of the movement.) For my main man, the ever thoughtful Vin, it wasn't a joke either; he'd studied Malcolm X in a sociology class, and though raised in the white working class, he strongly identified with Malcolm's philosophy.
The rest of us just skylarked through it, one-upping each other with puns, put-downs and in-jokes. We each signed it. Then eighth period ended, the laughter died down and it was time to go home. I made a show of addressing an envelope and putting a stamp on it, but I doubt anyone thought I'd actually put it in the mail.
I carried the letter around with me for several days, inwardly debating the pros and cons of sending it. What was the worst that could happen? Ruth Tuttle might be too stunned to reply, in which case there would be no further sport, but no downside, either. Of course, she might take it to her principal and demand redress of Yazoo's honor, not to mention her own and the South's. What might happen then? Would he call our principal, or fire off a nasty letter? If he did, who cared? We were the cream of our class; we all would be graduating soon anyway. At most, Mr. Jordan might make us write some sort of bogus apology, which could turn out to be nearly as much fun as the original.
Finally I found myself standing at the mailbox across from my house. I hesitated, thought, Aw, what the hell? and dropped the letter in. The faint "thunk" it made when it hit the bottom of the empty box hinted nothing of the awesome workings of fate, and I whistled as I went about my many adolescent offices afterward.
If anyone had told me that I'd just done something that would profoundly change the course of two lives, I would have thought they were at least as crazy as me and my friends.
It Wasn't the Second Coming, But It Felt Like Salvation
While the Yankee North shivered and shook, getting no respite from winter, in February 1969 Mississippi already enjoyed the tight embrace of a seductive springtime. Tiny drops of moisture sparkled on budding azaleas, and a warming breeze made the daffodils, which had opened only that morning, bob beneath their blankets of cobwebs. Mississippi air rolls up in great waves from the Gulf of Mexico and is so pure that it can cause euphoria. So I lingered on my front porch, breathing it in for several long minutes before skipping down the front steps toward Yazoo City High School.
I was being seduced by a letter I thought was extraordinary: a gift from God, a miracle I had earned with tearful prayers and sleepless, long nights. Never mind that it was confrontational and offensive, from a group of high school seniors I had never met, who lived in the far-off ether of suburban New York City. The hunger of a starved mind is as acute as a bellyache, and this letter had somehow eased that pain for me.
I crossed the bayou that runs from Brickyard Hill to the Yazoo River, where Gypsies had camped in the early 1900s. But no one built fires or slept beside it any longer. Now it was dark and overgrown, frequented only by dogs and snakes. On the other side was Campbell Street, named by my great-grandfather, Tom Campbell, after himself, and the old Butler and Haverkamp houses. The elderly ladies who lived in them could often be seen rocking on their porches, pale, small, white-haired, watching. Today, only Mrs. Haverkamp was out, and I waved to her as I approached. She hoisted her lace handkerchief gaily from its nest in her lap and beckoned me onto the porch. "How's your momma?" she asked.
"She's fine," I answered, looking for the little flask that was usually tucked in a bag by her rocking chair. Its sterling silver skin winked at me as she rocked back and forth, from shadow to sunlight, shadow to sunlight, the cane chair clicking and creaking, her little feet tapping each time they gave another push.
I had first met her in 1963, right after we moved to Yazoo, where my mother had been raised from birth by her Aunt Ruth. The young president, John Kennedy, was alive then, planting the seeds of disastrous conflict in Vietnam, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was a respected Atlanta minister with a growing national following. My great-aunt Ruth's Victorian house on Jackson Avenue, where my family lived, had not been remodeled then. It had the faded wallpaper of my mother's childhood, and of her aunts' and uncles' before her, and the marks of their grimy, tiny hands.
But by 1969 all of those people and things had become history, except for Mrs. Haverkamp. She rocked placidly on her shady porch, her old-lady eyes turned expectantly up to mine.
I usually stopped to visit. But that sunny February morning I walked on. I didn't want to waste time with someone whose surprises seemed all used up, especially when my own life was suddenly so full of potential. The act of being young is possible because inexperience wraps us like a hard shell. When we move on into life, the shell is stripped away by deaths, illnesses and missed opportunities, so we begin to feel pain almost in anticipation of a loss. But at seventeen, I was so calloused with innocence as I walked away from Mrs. Haverkamp's porch that I couldn't hear the rending of fragile ancestral ties with those women and men long dead, who began their lives in the nineteenth century and who handed down to me their unshakable childlike faith in God, their constancy, Scottish practicality, flawless social graces and their love.
No one was waiting for me at school -- no eager girlfriend ready to hear the latest gossip or amorous boyfriend wanting to hold my hand before the eight o'clock bell. My friends were, as usual, paired off with their beaux, letter jackets carelessly tossed over their shoulders like plunder. A few of them waved as I walked by. Dell Gotthelf, who spoke to everyone, trilled out a cheery "Hey!" Most Beautiful and Miss YHS, she had made it a vocation to be unflappably pleasant. She was the Ronald Reagan of Yazoo City High School.
I went inside the building. As editor of The Yazooan, I was allowed in before the bell. The Yazooan office was on the second floor, where it had been since Willie Morris was its editor in the fifties, behind Mrs. Omie Parker's former classroom. As time marched by for others, Mrs. Parker had seemed to stay the course, coloring her raven hair to hide the gray and returning like a swallow to her worn desk, year after year. She had continued working well past the time she could have retired, and I accepted it as a personal benediction that her last year as a teacher was my first in Yazoo City High School.
"Miss Tuttle," she had said to me one day, "I expect you to achieve greatness in your high school career, which is no less than your Aunt Ruth would expect, if she were alive today." Then she had ratcheted the challenge even higher by describing Willie and his transcendent rise to the aerie of publishing. Then editor of Harper's magazine, he was established early on as the giant against whom I would have to measure my own stature as a writer.
The Yazooan room couldn't have been more removed from the hormonal hustle of my peers. The gray-green cubicle had become a sanctuary on those occasions when I slipped out of class to write an article or meet a deadline, and it saved me from having to stand alone in the hallway between classes. That day, I carefully closed and locked the door before I pulled the letter out of my algebra book and sat by the window to read it again.
It had arrived the afternoon before, finding its way to me in physics class -- the purgatorial low point of another soporific day at Yazoo City High School. The school secretary had made an announcement over the school's PA system: "Ruth Tuttle, please come to the office and pick up your mail."
At the time I was morosely mulling the relationship of velocity to torque, not suspecting that a significant amount of emotional and mental torque was about to increase the velocity of my life. I marked the place in my textbook and stood up to go to the office. "Where do you think you're going?" the physics instructor, Mr. Richardson, asked, his voice low and threatening. The class, already quiet because no one dared talk in his classroom, now became deathly still as well.
He and I didn't like each other. Our problems had begun that fall, when I interviewed some of the school's new black students for an article in The Yazooan. They were the first voluntary pioneers of integration, before it became mandatory in 1970. Their dignity and desire to learn, despite being under constant surveillance, had gained my respect. Debbie Nicholas and I even went so far one day as to admit to each other that some of the colored students were "just like us," and that Pamela Harrison, who was the daughter of the black dentist, dressed better than we did. We marveled at these realizations.
In 1969, Yazoo City was beginning to bend toward the end of racial segregation, hoping not to break. There was fear, a certain sense of both races walking a fine line. And there were resentments that couldn't be spoken within hearing of federal lawyers, or the media, who would soon be picking the bones of my old town for signs of trouble.
I had submitted the interview to Coach Rush, the principal, for approval, like every story we published. So far, he'd never questioned anything, so I wasn't worried. But that same afternoon, Mr. Richardson -- who was also assistant principal -- came to fetch me from my fifth-period English class. When I joined him in the hall outside the classroom, he glowered at me, a cold, hard, come-to-Jesus look.
"What's going on?" I asked. But he just hunched his shoulders and silently marched down the hall, fists clenched in the spacious pockets of his worn khakis. I fell in a few paces behind, following him to the principal's office, my face burning with embarrassment. I, the teachers' pet, had somehow made a mess, and he had the air of a man who knew the best use of a newspaper.
In Coach Rush's office I found the paper's faculty adviser, JoAnne Prichard, waiting for us. Mr. Richardson came in, then closed the door. Mrs. Prichard sat facing Coach Rush, her classic profile outlined by the bright light from the window. Her mouth was set and her brown eyes seemed even darker than usual. When I sat down next to her, she and I exchanged a look. I saw consternation and defeat in her eyes.
Coach Rush began to tell me that the interview was too controversial. "This is the sort of thing that could get people riled up. We've got to keep our heads down."
Mr. Richardson said, "Why would a white girl want to interview a colored boy? What do you see in this boy?"
I was embarrassed, and felt I had been caught red-handed, because I had indeed found something appealing about that student. Then I became angry for being made to feel guilty. I had been impressed with his wonderful intellect and love of books, which was what I had said in the article. Perhaps Mr. Richardson equated respect and admiration with sexual attraction. Or maybe he couldn't accept anything complimentary that was said about a black boy. It was the same bigotry I had lived with and witnessed all my life, yet this was the first time its sharp edge had cut me. I said, "He's a smart person. It doesn't matter if he's black."
"'It doesn't matter,'" Mr. Richardson parroted, making my words sound ludicrous. "Well, it matters a lot to some who be your betters."
"Now, George," Coach Rush said. "I'm sure Ruth's going to cooperate with us." His hands were trembling.
Mrs. Prichard spoke up. "Why don't you edit the interview, Coach Rush? Then we'll either use the article like you want it or leave it out."
Relieved, Coach Rush smiled and said, "Well, what a fine idea. That's what we'll do." Mrs. Prichard and I left quickly, before the cease-fire could be broken, and Mr. Richardson sat by the door as we went, his face a mask, hands resting on his knees. His eyes followed me as I hurried past him.
When the edited article came back to us, my glowing compliments for the black students were gone, as were all my editorial remarks about integration and all references to skin color. It was essentially as though I had interviewed white students about their hobbies and what they wanted to be when they grew up. "Well," Mrs. Prichard said, "in a way that's a victory. They're being treated just like any other students." We ran the article as he had edited it.
But I persisted in trying to do an end run around the line that had been drawn between myself and the administration. Graduation was only a few months off, and I was already enrolled in the honors program of a fine Virginia women's college, Mary Baldwin. I didn't think anyone could hurt me.
But later, when Coach Rush became ill, I found myself in constant conflict with Mr. Richardson, who relentlessly inserted his malevolent red pencil into most of my editorials. Another one of my teachers, Mrs. Clark, became his staunchest ally. The next year she took over The Yazooan from Mrs. Prichard and destroyed decades of back editions, including those I had worked on. She was trying, I was told, to rid the school of a bad influence.
Mr. Richardson's most potent weapon was humiliation. In January he made me stand by a window in front of the class to watch as a batch of opinion polls I had circulated was burned outside on the lawn. While my classmates whispered and tittered behind me, I stared into the schoolyard below. Bundles of mimeographed paper were being dropped into a rusty oil drum. Flames jumped up to greet each new batch and the janitor occasionally stirred them with a broom handle. I blinked hard, holding back bitter tears before they ran down my face.
Then Mr. Richardson left the room, and I defiantly went back to my chair. As the other students looked at me nervously and watched the door for his return, I sat reading a novel, determined to defy him in this small way at least. I didn't realize he was about to make my humiliation complete.
The school's PA system crackled on. "Any student who still has a copy of Ruth Tuttle's unauthorized poll should hand it to a teacher before the end of this period. Teachers are instructed to deliver these polls to the side lot, where they are being burned," Mr. Richardson said.
To my knowledge, he succeeded in destroying every copy of the poll, but I remember these eight questions from it: 'Do you believe in God? Have you ever used marijuana? Are you still a virgin? Have you ever used LSD? Do you drink alcohol? Do you smoke cigarettes? Have you ever heard of Vietnam? Do you support integration?'
That night at dinner my father gave me a long, dark look. "We need to talk," he said. I just nodded. The rest of the family ate quickly and left us alone with a tableful of dirty dishes. "Why didn't you tell me about this poll?" he asked, leaning forward.
It was an unexpected question, assuming as it did that we were regular confidants. The reality was that I never told him anything. My external life was a carefully controlled structure of independence. I never asked for advice or guidance. I never shared my feelings. I went to church every time the doors opened. I read my Bible. I sought refuge in the one thing I knew he stayed clear of: religion. Through its protection, I enjoyed a precious solitude filled with teeming secret thoughts of boys and insolent plans for the future.
When he drank, which was almost nightly, his charming and sociable nature became intrusive. It often embarrassed me. He might walk into my bedroom without knocking, or stand behind me when I was practicing the piano and say, "Play me a love song." I had his collection of 1940s sheet music, and as I stumbled through "Ebb Tide" -- the only one I knew passably well -- he'd sing the lyrics. Daddy had a gorgeous tenor voice, and when he sang, a yearning emotional quality came through. At those times, I felt his desperate loneliness, the kind that is bred in childhood by violence and poverty. That may explain why I remember those duets as fearful, throat-constricting forays into danger. I was terrified of being lost in Daddy's dark memories.
He seemed to be battling some vicious, internal monster. His weapons were his warm heart, keen intelligence and love of fun, but sometimes they weren't enough. Then he gave the monster a sacrifice of pain from one of his children, pain inflicted with an open palm or shaming words.
As a child, I had tried to console him, telling him to pray to God if he wanted to be happy, but as I got older, I feared there was a gaping spiritual wound through which all of his goodness would eventually slip away.
When he asked about the poll, I was afraid. "I guess I forgot to mention it," I said lamely.
"Tell me about it now." He lit a cigarette and waited. A long ash was hanging off the end of it before I started talking.
"It was just a story idea for The Yazooan. No big deal." I swung my long hair over my shoulder and looked away, but he took my chin and forced me to look at him.
"Why did you do it?"
I saw he wasn't going to relent, and flight was out of the question, so I told him about how things were changing in Yazoo City -- drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, Vietnam, integration -- and how I had wanted to document it. I used cold, scientific terms to keep him from suspecting that I was interested in experiencing some of these things.
"What about the sex question? Wasn't there a sex question?" he asked.
"What was it?"
I sat silent.
"There's nothing a father and daughter can't talk about," he said, leaning closer.
"I'll have to pray about it first," I whispered, staring at my hands. That, finally, made him mad.
"You do that. You pray about it," he yelled. "Then when God tells you what He thinks, you tell me. In the meantime, we're gonna keep having these talks until I get a little respect in my own home."
"Am I going to be expelled from school?" I asked. I felt braver, because I had moved him to familiar territory.
"Mr. Richardson agreed to let me handle this," he replied. Then, pointing his finger at me, he said, "No more of these polls, or articles, unless I read them first."
After that I felt trapped by my father's ultimatum and persecuted by Mr. Richardson. The strange letter that arrived a few weeks later gave me a perfect, and secret, way to escape both of them.
When I picked it up after physics class, the plain bond envelope appeared innocuous at first, but then I saw the New York postmark and my heart raced. I slit it open with the school secretary's letter opener and peeked inside at the greeting. "Dear whitey, honky, WASP, bitch." What could it mean? Carefully, feigning boredom, I handed the letter opener back to the curious secretary, put the envelope into my purse and walked quickly away from the principal's office.
Students flowed around me on both sides as I plowed through the hallway to the gym. It was empty, and I climbed to the top row of bleachers to make sure no one could interrupt me. The smell of sweaty gym clothes hung in the air, so I held my nose as I read.
The letter was a single sheet of notebook paper, covered on two sides with an assortment of messages in different handwriting. Cuss words caught my eye. Profanities and unfamiliar terms like "WASP" and "Jew Commie" gave me a sense of unreality. But there were backhanded compliments, too: Someone named Jeff called me a "nymph" and a "Southern belle." This guy Jeff seems interested in more than my editorial policy, I thought. The signatures at the end -- "Groin," "Vinny," "Bennett Cohen," "Feldo," "Suzy Q," "Judy Vecchione," and of course "Jeff Durstewitz" -- were like a choir of sirens singing an irresistible song of emancipation to me. Who were these people with the strange names? Why had they singled me out? My trusting child's heart immediately opened to the possibility of divine intervention. There had to be a reason behind this, something I couldn't know.
That night I wondered over the origins of the slanders they had written against me, their unknown victim. They had accused me of bigotry, conceit and racism, and even hinted that I was a murderer through my assumed complicity in Ku Klux Klan lynchings. And I was puzzled by questions about Mike Bagwell and me "making out." When had I ever been associated with Mike Bagwell? He the football hero, Mr. YHS, and I the brainy wallflower? I pored over the various scribblings and began to sort them out.
I showed the letter to only one person, Alice DeCell, the assistant editor of The Yazooan. She advised me to turn it in to Coach Rush when he returned, and strongly urged me to tell my parents so they could take steps to defend me. She was unyielding in her vilification of the dastardly Yankees who had written it. But I was impatient with her conservatism and respect for authority. Why not write back? I asked myself. What harm could it do? And there was also this: I was attracted to the danger of it. As I reread the letter, I found myself drawn again and again to the section by Jeff. He wrote passionately. Whether his ardor extended beyond offensive social commentary I didn't know, but I intended to find out.
A fantasy was born. How many dateless Saturdays -- they were all that way for me then -- could I spend in romantic contemplation of a secret beau? Maybe we would never meet, but I could fill lonely hours with imaginings of what it would be like if we did. The letter I wrote to Jeff was suffused with desperate hope, carefully camouflaged in outrage. I rewrote it several times, trying to leaven reprimand with coquettishness. Then I mailed it.
From the Trade Paperback edition.