Indoor versus Indoor/Outdoor

Savannah Cat
Brewsky wasn’t our first cat. Miss Kitty was. Our initial home—in 1971—was an 8’ x 30’ trailer, and when we moved in, Peggy noticed a wet, miserable, and half-starved kitten near the door. We kept her for a few years until we found it inconvenient, after which we dumped her on my parents, who never objected to having one more dog or cat. Although my mother complained about the mud tracked in by my sister’s Cocker Spaniels (ugly dogs, I thought), she lured them with treats while my father—for whom mud wasn’t a problem—fed them from the table. Both of my parents were of the opinion that if a dog or cat asked for food, you fed him, and this made for some fat Cocker Spaniels.

Unlike our current indoor cats, Miss Kitty came and went at leisure. She liked to sleep in the road despite people honking at her, and she liked to climb trees from which she couldn’t get down. One day, I left her in a tree in the firm belief that she would eventually find her way down. She didn’t, so after two days of rain, I went and got her. Another time, she almost fell from our two story window because she didn’t realize that the screen was off (she did a midair u-turn and came back in). In Miss Kitty’s most infamous incident, my sister ran over her own cat—who she didn’t see—in order to avoid Miss Kitty, who was asleep in the driveway. Miss Kitty spent a lot of time hanging out in my parents’ country store and lived to a ripe old age. Because she was prone to bite, she seemed more like a co-inhabitant than pet.

Miss Kitty represented what I don’t want in a cat. If I’m going to feed an animal, pay its vet bills, empty its litter and so forth, I expect a greater reward than its mere existence. But that’s the difference between my parents and me. They didn’t cozy up to animals, but they liked having them around with the understanding that if the animal got sick or hurt, it was on its own. I would guess that our three cats are going to run us upwards of a thousand dollars a year (a sixteen pound bag of their vet-prescribed food runs $84), and that’s if nothing goes too wrong. My father would have hit an animal over the head with a galvanized pipe—I saw him do it—before he would have shelled out that kind of money, and he would have called me a fool (I can just hear him) if he knew I did. But then I draw little distinction between the inherent rights of “animals” versus those of people. Our belief in our human superiority rests upon our fantasy of being “made in God’s image,” but if we were made in the image of a deity, shouldn
’t we be prettier, that is unless God too is a naked and homely biped with comical genitals?

I’ve had one extraordinarily beautiful dog who I named Bonnie, but all cats (except for a few of the pedigrees) are so pretty that it’s hard to choose, although I think Scully might head the list. I hold her to my face so I can revel in her beauty, but when I reflect upon the homely countenance that I present to her, my shame is only mitigated by my observation that cats don’t appear to appreciate visual beauty.

I am ever challenged by trying to put aside my worldview in order to understand that of my cats. I have purchased entire books (the cat section of my library now contains 31 books) about how cats see the world, but, sad to say, they were all written by humans. People—men mostly—who hate cats imagine that cats disrespect them (like Donald Trump*, they’re very sensitive that way), but we cat lovers are also reduced to projecting our human interpretations onto our cats.

I have a friend, Carl, who believes that cats have an inalienable right to come and go as they please, and that I abuse my cats by keeping them indoors. His is a necessary belief for one whom considers it beneath his masculine dignity to empty a litter box (he won’t pick up after dogs either). In trying to understand Carl
’s position, I must admit that James Bond and Indiana Jones wouldn’t haven’t emptied a litter box either. I haven’t seen all of their movies, so maybe one of them did eventually get himself a catan unneutered leopard probably (real men grab their balls in the presence of neutered pets). To sidestep the litter issue, I suppose Jimmy or Indy might have put a cork up the leopard’s ass while distracting him with caviar (cats are said to LOVE caviar, not that I’ll ever know).

The difference between Carl and me is based upon his belief that cats should live natural lives (i.e. make their own decisions—though he draws the line where sex is concerned) versus my belief that cats, like children, need to be protected from risks that are numerous, common, and deadly. Surely, the greatest boon of an indoor/outdoor cat is that it saves its people money and trouble, but I should think that such savings would be greatly outweighed by the cost, trouble, and heartache of injuries, poisonings, parasites, communicable diseases, reduced life expectancy, and wildlife destruction.

The last thing I want to see some morning is what another friend who didn’t want to be bothered with kitty litter saw—her eight-month-old kitten crushed to death with its intestines strewn beside its corpse. As for Carl, who claims that I abuse my cats by keeping them indoors, he has had two cats since I’ve known him. One simply disappeared, and the other came home with a broken leg, and he had her euthanized. Despite both of his cats coming to bad ends, and any future cats that he gets having similar odds of an early demise, Carl still manages to regard my values as “abusive.” 

I’ve heard some such people claim that when their cats were killed, it was a case of survival of the fittest, despite the fact that evolution has done nothing to prepare cats for the hazards of cars and pesticides. The callousness that underlies people’s willingness to allow their cats to be daily exposed to the risk of a gruesome death is beyond my comprehension, yet those who do it seem cheerful enough. Maybe it hasn’t occurred to them that caring people protect the object of their love to the extent that the object of their love is unable to protect itself.

Then again, maybe they think too highly of God to believe that he will allow bad things to happen to good cats, so they are leaving their pet’s protection in the loving hands of the Almighty. As deeply touching as religious faith is—especially when it makes no sense and is backed by no evidence—might not it be just a little shaken if the “cat lover” had a $20,000 Savannah instead of a bony old arthritic tabby that passed its prime ten years ago? Or what if his aunt had left her cat a million dollars a year to be paid to the nephew for the lifetime of the stump-legged Munchkin? Would these fans of cat liberation still say, “Mere money means nothing compared to my cat’s right to self-determination.”

It is always possible to find stories of outdoor cats that lived to a ripe old age, but you will surely agree that an argument based upon a statistical anomaly is a weak argument. Given the risks involved, shouldn’t those who allow their cats to come and go at least learn all they can about the risks, and do everything possible to mitigate them? Such people could, for instance, keep their cats immunized; have them collared and microchipped; know the location of a 24-hour vet clinic; build a cat-proof fence; live far from busy streets; check their driveway for radiator leaks (a tsp can be fatal); avoid using noxious chemicals in their yards (cats can be poisoned from licking insecticide from their fur); keep their cats indoors when people are commuting or walking their dogs; and so on. I’ve never known anyone who let their cats out who took such measures to protect their cats, or who seemed concerned about their cats shitting in their neighbor’s gardens, killing the songbirds that their neighbors were feeding, decimating the food sources of the wild predator population, or otherwise acting like responsible adults in regard to either their cats or their neighbors. 


Cats, cats, and more cats

Brewsky is the tabby, Ollie is gray, and Scully is the kitten

I’m up for the day, sitting here writing while listening to Ollie and Scully wrestle within the folds of the shower curtainthe bathroom is but one wall away. Ollie always liked the tub and, when he was a kitten, enjoyed watching people shower. He never joined in, but he didn’t mind getting splashed a little.

Kittens tend to be more vocal and have a wider range of sounds than grown cats, so I keep hearing Scully miaowing in a way that sounds more like a dove than a cat. Cats being creatures of routine, Brewsky is no doubt in the living room looking out the window. If I’m lucky, either he or Ollie will soon come and sleep in the chair beside me and into which I put one of my bed pillows every morning. Cats appreciate luxury every bit as much as humans do, so they bond with those humans who provide it. This works well for me because I’m just naturally attentive to the needs of others.

My cats know I love them, and I trust that they love me. It’s hardly like the love of a dog because cats are more subtle, which means that when they do give of themselves, it’s easy for their humans to be unaware of the gift. For instance, I’ll be sitting here writing and will suddenly realize that one of the cats had come into the room and asked for attention, only to leave when he or she didn’t get it.

I had experienced a lifetime of dogs, so when we finally got burned-out on the work of having dogs and got Brewsky, I wondered if I would ever feel close to him. Peggy’s cat-person sister, Pam, warned Peggy that we had made a grave mistake. As she put it, “You are dog people, and a cat is not a dog!” We still laugh about this, but she was right in that if we had gotten a cat thinking that it would be like a dog, we would have been sorely disappointed. Another friend said that the best thing she could say about her pedigreed Siamese was that it was midway between having a dog and not having a pet at all. Fortunately, we were not complete strangers to the ways of cats, so the question wasn’t whether Brewsky would be like a dog, but whether we could find it within ourselves to love a cat as a cat.

My enjoyment of cats got a real boost when we got our second cat, Ollie, because we not only had a total of two cats, Cat A and Cat B, we had a third entity—C—which consisted of the way Brewsky and Ollie related to us and to one another. When we got Scully, things took off even more, and I started to understand how people end up with a houseful of cats. The way cats interact with one another is a good bit more interesting—to me anyway—than the way dogs interact, and because cats are less work, I can imagine myself slipping into the mindset of, I already have ___ cats, so what’s one more?. Fortunately, I have Peggy to put on the brakes because while I know we don’t need a fourth cat, the temptation remains. 

Our vet, Sean, has been in practice for a lot of years, yet he can scarcely believe what we tell him about our cats. Specifically, that Brewsky so readily accepted Ollie despite Brewsky having been a solitary indoor cat since he was a tiny kitten, and that Brewsky and Ollie so readily took a female kitten into their hearts. Worst of all was his dismay when we told him that Ollie—at 14-months of age—is still nursing Brewsky, a six-year-old 15-pound male. Peggy mentioned this in the hope that Sean could tell us how to put an end to
Ollie’s nursing, but he instead asked what it was, exactly, that Ollie nursed and mentioned Brewsky’s tail as a possibility. Peggy assured him that, no, Ollie is a tit-man all the way, and it was then that Sean’s eyes got so big that we wondered if he believed us.

I wouldn’t find Ollie’s nursing so disgusting if he didn’t slurp, but I haven’t been able to discourage him from nursing, and when I try, he just leaves the room and goes back to nursing when I’m not around. Peggy and I are convinced that Brewsky doesn’t like Olli
e’s nursing either because he will look at us when it’s happening as if to say, “God but I wish he wouldn’t do this, but he seems to really need it, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings.” I have had to give up on even trying to put an end to Ollie’s nursing except when the five of us (Peggy, Brewsky, Ollie, Scully, and me) are having our morning cuddle. This and the time that Peggy and I spend trying to read in the evening while Ollie and Scully gallop about the house like tiny horses are the most precious times of my day—those and the time I spend writing. And then there are the ways that Scully moans, coos, yowls, chirrups, miaows, and screams! Before getting cats, I had no idea how varied their vocalizations could be, and how often they sound more like birds than cats. Unfortunately, the older they get, the less they vocalize.

When Ollie was Scully’s age, he and Brewsky would play the way that he and Scully now play, and Ollie would scream like Scully now screams. I soon came to trust that Brewsky wasn’t really killing Ollie, but Peggy never stopped worrying. If you could see a little gray kitten full-out roughhousing with a male tabby five times his size, you could understand her anxiety. Ollie never held anything back, and it would look for all the world like a fight to the death, what with wide-open mouths filled with glistening white daggers. I became completely trusting that, no matter how bad things looked, Brewsky wasn’t really going to kill Ollie, and his patience and compassion confirmed my faith in Brewsky’s ability to give Ollie the kind of love and nurture that he, being an only cat, had never received.

I regard Brewsky as our wise and loving adult, Ollie as our exquisitely sensitive and emotionally vulnerable adolescent, and Scully as our dominant and intellectual girl child. A person who has but one cat is deprived of the joy that comes with observing the differences cats display in their interactions with their humans and with other cats. Different cats are like different people in that their worldviews and their preferences vary enormously. Dogs are that way too, but they’re so fixated on pleasing their humans that the creatures they are within themselves get swallowed-up. I don’t mean here to discount the joy of having dogs because it is their determination to do everything they can to love and to be loved that makes dogs so adorable.

I must admit to finding it very hard to warm up to a person who genuinely dislikes either dogs or cats, and I frankly hate it when people’s preference for one leads them to trash the other. Such people fail to understand that their preference for one species over another is entirely a function of what they want and what they need, and has nothing to do with superiority. To hate either species makes the hater look dim-witted and closed hearted, but haters never seem to realize this. The important thing is not what we love, but that we love.

The last time I was in PetSmart, they had a beautiful black rescue cat that someone had returned because they thought he miaowed too much. God help me, but I wanted that cat, and I wanted him all the more because he had been abandoned at least twice…. I want to bring happiness to all unwanted pets, but I can’t do it, and I hate it that I can’t do it…. 

One of my cats—Ollie, as it turned out—came to sleep on the pillow that I put in the chair beside me, so I keep alternating between writing and petting his soft, soft fur. Oh, the joy—the joy, the joy, the joy.

Meandering reflections about blogging and friendship

I’ve been dumping blogs from my reading list—blogs that no longer exist, blogs that have gone private, blogs owned by people who never visit my blog, and blogs that have been inactive for years. This is a sad task, but I hate clutter.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t have time for bloggers who don’t read my blog unless their blogs are devoted to some longterm or shorterm interest of mine, and the latter blogs I eventually drop. For instance, I just dropped a blog devoted to lynchings because I felt that I had learned enough about the subject, and because I’m depressed enough without continually exposing myself to long ago tragedies (I even wonder if it makes sense to learn as much as I do about current tragedies).

My goal in blogging is to, in the main, give my posts greater context than simply writing about my personal life. Even in my latest post about cats, I tried to communicate what I’ve learned about cats that might be both entertaining and instructive rather than simply entertaining. Even so, I’ve noticed that some of my most popular posts are entirely self-focused—posts about my health, for example, and I’m fine with that because such posts humanize a person. Even so, if personal news is all you write, I have to think of you as a very close friend indeed if I’m to regularly read your blog.

The day that a blogger stops posting is usually the day he ends his friendships with other bloggers. I regard this as a sad outcome because it implies that his blog friends were not so important as he gave them reason to think. I’ve had four blogger friends who I know to have died, but I suspect it is true of others who abruptly dropped out of sight.

Being able to verify that ex-bloggers are still alive is one reason I like to have their contact information. Another is that it means that we’re not just people who share an interest in blogging, but that our friendship transcends our blogs. Even if we never write or phone, it means a lot to me to know how to get in touch, especially if the contact information includes a home address and phone number. My heart will forever be warmed when I recollect that the very first blogger who gave me these things had been recently stalked by another blogger.

I used to wonder if it was even possible to be deeply devoted to someone whom I only know on the Internet, and the answer is yes. True, blogging is a limited kind of friendship, but then face-to-face friendships are also limited, especially if my face-to-face friend has no interest in my blog. The reason for this is that, compared to written communication, the quality of my spoken communication is lacking because I can’t take long pauses or edit myself. I have a friend who imagines that the purpose of such pausing and editing is to present myself in a favorable light at the expense of honesty, his belief being that the first thought that comes out of a person’s mouth is more likely to be the truth. I find his analysis appalling because formulating my thoughts is like digging with a shovel in that the more time I’m allowed, the deeper I can go. I simply need more time to think than conversation allows, so to overcome what is to me an unnatural restriction, I sometimes take such lengthy pauses that people try to hurry me along. It’s also the case in conversation that the listener has no time to reflect upon what was just said without missing that which follows.

I don’t mean to suggest that blogging necessarily leads to depth or honesty. In fact, one of my disappointments with blogging is that many blogs are consistently shallow. Many, if not most, bloggers don’t want to discuss either their posts or the posts of others, and I suspect that many blog visitors only visit other blogs so that those bloggers will visit their blogs. But without an exchange of thoughts, how does anyone even know that his posts are being read? “Interesting post” is what advertisers write, and many bloggers write little more than advertisers, only while advertisers are looking for money, it seems to me that many blog owners are willing to settle for the illusion of being read

Maybe I am being overly cynical based upon the fact that I have no way to know what’s going through a person’s mind unless they tell me, but my doubt comes from the fact that they don’t necessarily tell me. I can but say that I would greatly prefer to have 20 readers who truly care about what I write than my current list of 261, many of whom probably don’t even remember that they are on my “followers” list. A lengthy blogroll is as meaningless as a lengthy “friends” list on Facebook, but I didn’t realize this when I started blogging. At the time, I looked forward to feeling validated by having a lot of readers and to building an international community of blogging friends. While these things have occurred to some extent, they aren't represented by my relatively long list of supposed “followers.”

I’ve also noticed that the number of comments that accumulate following a given post isn’t a function of the quality of the post but the poster’s willingness to visit a lot of other people’s blogs. Another disappointment is that I’ve been naive enough to trust that fellow bloggers meant it when they said they would always be my friends. My early blogging years were marked by idealism in that many of us came to blogging back then in the belief that the blogging world was purer and deeper than the face-to-face world. We imagined that, through blogging, we could meet at a heart level, and that what we gave of ourselves and to one another would remain for the rest of our lives, but this didn’t usually happen.

Other than my sister, Anne, I don’t know a single person whom I first knew face-to-face who—to my knowledge—ever reads my blog, and this has led me to conclude that my face-to-face friends lack interest in knowing me on a deep level. I don’t mean to imply that the only friendships that matter are those that contain profound sharing because being there for one another in more prosaic ways is equally important. I also don’t mean to imply that blog friends are better people because bloggers are as prone to anger and pettiness as anyone else. I will say this: many of those who got mad and went away (from my blog) were liberals who touted a respect of diversity when the only diversity that they respected was diversity that mirrored their own thinking. You can’t show someone a better way by dumping him from your life, yet the self-proclaimed diversity lovers are as prone to this as are conservatives.

I have no friendships that aren’t seriously lacking. Peggy, Brewsky, Ollie, and Scully, are with me in an inner sphere with everyone else being in spheres at varying distances. This is not what I want in life, but it’s what I have, and my greatest problem is that I don’t how I would survive if I lost Peggy. The older we men become, the more the loss of our spouse presents a grave problem (ha). When we were kids and young adults, we had a great many friends, but we have since lost them at a higher rate than they’ve been replaced (Edwin A. Robinson wrote about this in “Mr. Flood’s Party”*). By contrast, when women get beyond early rivalries and the busyness of jobs and children, their friendship circles tend to increase. For this reason and others, women’s declining years are often happier than men’s. In fact, the older a man becomes, the greater his risk of suicide. I think it possible that this will be how I die, but I don’t plan to do it anytime soon.

I am sometimes complimented on my willingness to make myself vulnerable by sharing as deeply as I do on my blog, but if I felt that vulnerable, I would either close my blog to uninvited readers or I wouldn’t divulge as much as I do. I will say that in all the years I’ve been blogging, I haven’t been the recipient of any more abuse than what I’ve received in my face-to-face life. If you want to be abused, upload films onto Youtube because while any mean-spirited moron can watch a film, it takes at least a little intelligence to be interested in reading a multiple page post.


The murder of the Bearden brothers; Brookhaven's last lynching

Brookhaven in the '40s--the Inez Hotel still stands
The following appeared in The Lincoln County Times (Brookhaven, Mississippi) on Thursday, July 5, 1928, and recounts the same double lynching that my father told me about and that I posted an oral history of two posts ago. I’ve rearranged the convoluted paragraphs for clarity, and for the same reason I’ll now provide a four-person list of the main characters:

Stanley Bearden, a 24-year-old black father whose wife had died a week earlier, and who owed $6 to a white man.

James Bearden, Stanley Bearden’s 25-year-old brother.

Caby Byrnes, the white man to whom Stanley Bearden owed money.

Claude Byrnes, Caby Byrnes’ brother.

Now follows the newspaper account:

Two negroes, Stanley and James Bearden, brothers, were taken from the Lincoln county jail early Friday night and lynched.

The trouble which lead to the lynching commenced late Friday morning when Caby Byrnes insisted on payment of a $6 bill which James Bearden owed him. Mr Byrnes had tackled Bearden for the bill earlier in the day and Bearden had promised to see about it right away. After awhile he returned followed in a few moments by his brother Stanley. In discussing the bill further it is understood that Bearden became extremely imprudent whereupon Mr. Byrnes hit him in the face with his fist.

In the meantime, [Claude] Byrnes, who happened to be passing near, noticed that his brother was in danger and rushing to the scene hit James Bearden with the flat side of a shovel just after the negro struck Caby Byrnes on the head with a piece of iron, knocking him to the ground. Stanley Bearden then got into the fight and opened fire on Claude Byrnes, one bullet striking him in the shoulder and another in the shoulder and another piercing one leg breaking the bone and entering the other.

Deputy Sheriff Charles Brister who reached the scene just then, arrested James Bearden without much trouble and took a shot at Stanley Bearden as he made escape through the back of the repair shop in front of which the fight occurred. Archie Smith and Alfred Day, at their work in a barber shop near by, came out during the shooting to assist the Byrnes's in their fight with the negroes with the result that Stanley Bearden fired a shot at both of them, luckily with bad aim.

After making his escape through the back of the shop a crowd chased him up the railroad several blocks until he turned and ran to his home near the Cotton Oil Mill. During the chase several persons started to head the fleeing negro off but were dissuaded by the sight of the automatic pistol he was flourishing and firing.

After the crowd arrived at Bearden’s house volley after volley of bullets were exchanged between the officers and the fugitive until the latter weak from wounds was brought from the house, gun still in hand. He was rushed to the county jail where Dr. Frizell, after examination, stated that despite five wounds he was not desperately hurt. [redundant sentence omitted]

There had been threats of the impending action throughout the afternoon and the sheriff, failing in his efforts to secure a guard of militia, had under him only a handful of deputies who were unable to offer any effective resistance to the large and well armed mob. No shots were fired by the officers defending the jail, only pleas and some physical resistance being offered. Starting at about dusk, and despite the pleading of several of the city's most respected and worthy citizens, among others, Rev. P. D. Hardin, W. D. Davis, Hon. J. A. Naul and Hon. T. Brady, Jr., the mob worked about an hour on the door of the jail, to which the sheriff refused to turn over the keys, and finally came out with two negroes, one of whom they soon discovered was not wanted. They then returned and managed to find the other, James Bearden, who was hiding in the rafters of the jail.

Both negroes were then taken to the Old Brook Bridge and James, in the sight of his brother, was strung to a small nearby tree and shot to death. Stanley was then taken back to Brookhaven and dragged through the streets of the city and through the negro quarters by a truck which was followed by a possession of other automobiles. Leaving the city the party proceeded several miles north and hung what was left of the mutilated body of Stanley Bearden to another tree.

Parts of the large crowd of men, women and children who had gathered at the courthouse to see the lynching followed the cars either to Old Brook or to the point north of town, and viewed the indescribably revolting spectacles to be found at those places.A short while afterward the bodies were taken in charge by Hartman's undertaking establishment and brought back to Brookhaven, preceding which an inquest was held. The corners jury, composed of B. B. Boyt, E. P. Martin, J. C. Martin, George Stanley, R. C. Douglass and Tom Crawford, pronounced James Bearden dead from gunshot wounds inflicted by parties unknown and Stanley Bearden dead from being dragged behind an auto driven by persons unknown.

James Bearden, whose wife died about a week before his lynching, is survived by one child and Stanley is survived by a wife and two children.


The more such accounts I read, the more upset I become. Alfred Day was my barber, and I would have known others who either remained silent or participated in the lynchings.

Because such crimes occurred so often and with such flimsy pretexts, involved prolonged and excruciating torture, and were attended by entire families; I suspect that, like the Roman coliseum atrocities, their main focus wasn't the protection of society--as was claimed--but sadistic entertainment. Just as some men take their families to cock-fights, the men of my town took their wives and children to see human beings shot, burned, beaten, suffocated, and dragged behind cars.

Did my townsmen get erections upon hearing the screams of men being tortured to death, and were they aroused by remembering those screams when they were having sex? Did their hearts race with pleasure when they hoisted a man off the ground by his neck and watched him “breath his last amid the most sickening convulsions”? Did couples smile at one another over their morning grits in anticipation of the next time they had an excuse to murder someone, confident in the knowledge that no white man in Mississippi had ever been convicted of killing a “nigger”?

Such were the people among whom I grew up. I had thought they were kind; I had thought they were Christian; I had thought they loved and protected children. Now, what am I to think but that my town was composed of demons and cowards? The white people didn’t speak-up; the black people didn’t speak up; every level of government remained silent, and the newspapers thought it prudent to editorialize about other matters.

Brookhaven’s last lynching occurred in broad daylight in front of the courthouse on August 13, 1955; I was six years old. After being beaten and shot, Lamar Smith (pictured) crawled under a nandina bush where, according to some accounts, he lingered in agony for hours before dying. Sheriff Robert E. Case and dozens of others witnessed the crime and allowed the bloodied murderers to walk away unhindered, but no one tried to help the 63-year-old farmer, war veteran, and voting rights activist who, despite the entreaties of his friends, had tried to deliver the absentee ballots of black people who were afraid to vote in person.

Who was worse, the three men who beat and shot Lamar Smith, or the scores of witnesses who denied seeing it happen? I like to think that I would have intervened, but would I? It's just too damned easy to look at crimes that happened long ago and far away, and come away feeling superior to dead criminals and their dead abettors, but it's my turn now, and what I am doing? Truth be known, the evil of the world has all but taken the life out of me. So many good people have given so much, and for what

Taken as a whole, our species is too bad for words and too sad for tears, and the only way I can survive is to attempt to rejoice in such good as I am able to find. As the Bible puts it: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is fair, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable; if there be any excellence, if there be anything worthy of praise, think on these things. Yet, the deeds of the best shine brightest against the actions of the worst because it is against the darkness of evil that good assumes its star-like purity. Surely, even the weakest among usand I feign no humility by describing myself as suchcan but find encouragement in remembering a man like Lamar Smith, and so it is that I offer his example for your own consideration.

Looking back to the sixties—gays, Jews, and blacks

I grew-up among people who couldn’t have told you what a blackeyed-susan was, because the only word they knew for the flower was “nigger head” or “nigger navel.” Few people today realize that white people didn’t always intend the word nigger as an insult, but more often as casual slang as opposed to the formal—and small-casednegro.

When I was about ten, I started to worry that if I got too close to a black person, his germs might settle upon me like a noxious fog. This fear was partly societal, partly due to my mother’s phobia of germs, and partly due to the fact that Mississippi is a very hot and humid place and I could detect what I considered an unfavorable difference between the smell of black people’s sweat and that of white people’s sweat. Yet, there was a time when I was younger that I played with black children and rode in a farm wagon with a black family. Later on, when I was in high school, one of my best friends was black, so I only held the aforementioned attitude during the relatively short time when I didn’t know a single black person despite being surrounded by them.

Not only were water fountains and toilet facilities segregated, entrances to buildings were often separate, and even if a restaurant served black people, they would have to order from an outside window. The black area of Brookhaven was called “Little Egypt,” and, unlike the white parts of town, it had no curbs or sidewalks. Black people were exposed to constant reminders that they weren’t as good as white people, yet there were more blacks than whites in many Mississippi towns, including Brookhaven.*

I was a student at Brookhaven High when it was integrated by two black girls and a black boy in 1966. We had a no-nonsense principal whose last name was Roach, and he told us over the intercom that he wasn’t going to allow any trouble, so there wasn’t any, at least physically. Emotionally, it was another story, what with those kids being continually met with hostile stares and muttered curses. The level of hatred was so intense that it scared me even though I wasn’t on the receiving end. I felt sorry for those kids, but I never offered so much as a friendly smile because I was terrified, and because I halfway believed the common argument that black people only wanted to go to white schools because they hated their own race. If I had been those kids’ parents, I don’t think I would have let them go through such an ordeal.

Every year, Brookhaven’s Spanish class would visit Monterrey, Mexico. One year, a busload of Mexican kids visited Brookhaven. They were dark-skinned, so a lot of the boys called them niggers and told them to get the fuck out of Mississippi. I felt sorry for those Mexicans because they would have had no idea why they were being attacked or even what some of the words meant, but, again, I didn’t say anything because I was too scared. I don’t feel guilt for how others of my race treated dark skinned people, but I very much feel guilt for not supporting those people.

In 1967, I was driving home after a date when I saw a cross being burned in a white family’s yard, and I felt sorry for them and wondered what they had done to provoke the Klan. I sometimes found Klan leaflets in my family’s driveway, and I fed on a steady diet of racist newspaper editorials. The best known was Jimmy Ward’s “Covering the Crossroads” that appeared daily on the front page of the Jackson Daily News. Ward believed that God had meant for black people to be subservient and wrote that, “Our negroes were happy until Communist-inspired outside agitators stirred them up.”

Mississippi’s white population commonly believed that black people were by nature childlike and immoral, and needed white people to keep them in line for the good of all. “Outside agitators” were seen as either ignorant of the limitations of black people (many of them having come from areas of the North that had but few black people) and were therefore “dupes of the Communists,” or else they were “Communist infiltrators
whose goal was to “destroy America by fomenting unrest among its negroes.” The impression one got from the national media was that the entire country—if not the world—was united in its contempt for the white people of the South, so when riots started happening in other places, white Southerners rejoiced that “the Yankee chickens have come home to roost.”

Upon seeing a succession of bereaved black parents on the news, parents whose many children had died in one of the devastating house fires that were common among poor blacks who heated their flimsy homes with gas space heaters, my mother said, “I guess negroes grieve for their loved ones just like we do.”

When I called a black customer in my parents’ country store “ma’am,” my mother told me that black women didn’t deserve the same respect as white women. My father thought better of black people. When a rumor went around that a group of black people might try to visit our church, my father was asked to stand guard at the door, but he said he wouldn’t do it because, “This is God’s house, and if God doesn’t want them here, then God can keep them out.” (When I was in college, I often visited black churches, and was always affectionately welcomed.) My father’s views were so liberal that if my sister or I had wanted to marry a black person, I don’t think he would have objected, but it sure would have upset our mother because she was not only bigoted, she also cared deeply about
making a good appearance.

Dad sometimes employed a black preacher—Reverend Truly Westbrook—as a carpenter’s helper, and the two became friends. Truly was a loving man, but he didn’t think much of his own race. One day, he told my father that he knew my father was smarter than he because he was black. He also told me that the hand of God was upon me, and that I was going to become a preacher. I never became a preacher, but I was touched that Truly thought so well of me. My father was a bad-tempered man who was in the habit of cursing loudly and scarily pretty much all day everyday. He took this behavior to the point of acting insane, and I could tell that it hurt Truly to listen to it just as it embarrassed me for him to act as he did.

When I was old enough to do carpentry with my father, we often worked in black people’s homes. He always treated them with kindness and respect, and would even forego his cursing in the presence of a black woman. Sometimes, he and I would share a meal with a black family. Perhaps his transsexuality—although he kept it a secret—gave him a sympathy for those who, like himself, could never be a part of respectable society.

When I was a teenager, a black neighbor named Jerry Kelly became one of my best friends. He would visit me at home (this during an era when, if a black person went to a white person’s home, he would knock at the door and then stand in the yard until someone appeared), and Jerry even went camping and fishing with me and two other white kids, John Collins and Tony Lopez (see photo). Tony was the only person with a Hispanic name who I ever knew in Brookhaven. He had black hair and black eyes, but his skin was white, so no one—to my knowledge—gave him a hard time. I also had a friend named Tony Damico, and he seemed exotic to me because he was a both a dago and a Catholic. I remember spending the night with Tony when it was awfully hot. I was surprised and delighted to find that he had a fan in his bedroom because my mother wouldn’t allow me to have a fan or even to have a window open because she thought that drafts and night air contained “vapors” (She was so afraid of germs that she would run for cover if she saw buzzards overhead because she believed their germs would fall upon her).

When he turned eighteen, Jerry joined the army, and he came home with a chip on his shoulder. Specifically, he looked down on me because, while he was out seeing the world and becoming sophisticated—in his own mind anyway—I was still in the same countrified place that he had left me. Later on, I tried to be friends with other black men, but when we started getting close, they would share their anger toward white people. I took this personally, didn’t think I deserved it, and despaired of them ever trusting me. I soon gave up on even trying to be friends with black men. Black women seem more open, but I don’t know a single black person here in Oregon, and I must say that I miss them. What I like best about black people—the women especially—is their ability to laugh heartily. Despite all they’ve been through, black people are still able to laugh more deeply than white people, plus they seem to respond well to my dry and ironic humor. I know that it’s not PC to generalize about black people, even in a favorable way, but I simply don’t care. The way I see things, all people are racists, but some are more honest about it than others, and nothing tires me more than to hear some smug white liberal bullshit me about how non-prejudiced he or she is.

I used to work with a black woman here in Oregon. She was about twenty years older than I, was from Louisiana, and was responsible for training me to do my job. One day, she said I needed to stop opening doors for her because she knew I was just doing it because she was black. I told her that she was wrong, that I was doing it because she was old. We had a good laugh about that, and she then told me that she missed Louisiana because she could tell where she stood with Southern white people, but here in Oregon, white people try to hide their prejudices, and this makes them act stilted and strange. I said I could relate because so many people act weird because of my Southern accent. Sometimes, they come right out and tell me how bigoted I must be, but more often they just act vaguely hostile, and I can’t know for sure what’s behind it. I loved that woman. So often, I’ve lost people from my life simply because I didn’t make the effort to keep them in it.

Here in Oregon, it’s such a faux pas to express even the barest hint of prejudice toward anyone about anything that a person can get fired for it, and this forces people to weigh their every word because no one can ever be sure but what an innocent remark won’t be interpreted as a microagression. Liberalism=dehumanization.

It was rare in Brookhaven for anyone to have a non-English name. Among whites, Smith was by far the most common name with Case being the second most common. I don’t know what the most common names among blacks was, but there did seem to be a lot of Washingtons. I also had several gay friends, although I didn’t fully understand what it meant to be gay until I was in my twenties.

I went to school with a Jewish girl named Schlesinger who was an albino. She had a lot of friends, but I wasn’t one of them. I probably wouldn’t have been anyway, but it was also true that her family had a higher social status than mine, and that kind of thing mattered a lot in the Brookhaven schools.

I believe that Jews were better regarded than Catholics in Brookhaven because the town had three Jewish mayors (Abraham Lewinthal in 1889, Sam Abrams in 1910, and his grandson, Harold Samuels, in the 1970s and ‘80s),** but I don’t think it ever had a Catholic one. In 1861, a non-Jewish man named Whitworth donated land for a Jewish cemetery because he considered Jews to be the kind of intelligent and ambitious people who would put Brookhaven on the map, so he did all he could to make them feel welcome.

When my father’s family moved to Brookhaven in 1908 from 400 miles away in Bridgeport Alabama, they arrived with little money, and weren’t likely to have any for quite some time. Sam Abrams—who became mayor two years later—ran Abram’s Mercantile (the store’s motto was “If you don’t find it here, go home”), and he became the first merchant to give credit to my grandpa. His willingness to do this still makes me think warmly of Jews because my family would have been in a bad way without Sam Abrams. I know that it isn’t right to judge millions of people because of the actions of one of them, but I do, partly because Mr. Abrams
trust goes against the image of Jews as being tight-fisted and greedy. Later, I had dreams about how beautiful I imagined it must be inside the local synagogue. Even today, I sometimes think about becoming a Jew because I feel such a sympathy and admiration for them.

When I was about thirteen, I went camping with three gay friends (I didn’t know they were gay), and one of them suggested that we all ass-fuck, which they did, but I didn’t. I pretended to go along, but when the friend who was supposed to fuck me tried to stick his penis up my ass, I tightened-up so he couldn’t get in. Even that event didn’t boost my understanding of what it meant to be gay because I considered the event nothing more than a lark. My friends warned me not to tell anyone what we had done, which was a good thing because I was so naive that when the sister of one of the boys showed up at our campsite, I was going to tell her because I thought it was cool even though I didn’t want to take part in it.

Like my father, I never felt that I fit in, plus I was always drawn to people who seemed somehow different because I considered them more interesting than ordinary people. They would tell me things that they didn’t tell anyone else because they trusted me not to betray them. Not only was their trust well-founded, I liked them all the more because our differences intrigued me.

My parents ran a country store, and I sold used books in that store. One time I bought a lot of books from the widow of a black preacher, and among them were the complete works of Robert Ingersoll, a prominent agnostic from the late 1800s. Ingersoll was an incredibly brave man who traveled about making speeches against the Christian religion to immense audiences. I don’t know why a black preacher owned his books, but I wished that I had known that preacher. Another book he owned was entitled The Negro, a Beast or in the Image of God in which the author set about to prove that black people were subhuman. This was a common sentiment among white Southerners as could be seen in my mother’s speculation that black parents might actually grieve when their children were burned alive.

Whereas my home state had previously been ignored by the national media, it made the news almost daily during the Civil Rights era, and it appeared unfavorably in Life Magazine. As a result, most white people quit subscribing to Life (my family didn’t) and assumed a siege mentality. It was as if the entire outside world despised white Southerners, and instead of their hatred inspiring us to change, it made us dig trenches. Many people attached small Confederate flags to their car antennas, so I put one on the antenna of my parents’ 1956 Fairlane. I regarded the KKK’s white robes and cross burnings as romantically attractive, but I also harbored a secret admiration for the Freedom Riders and the Black Panthers. I simply didn’t have the will or the maturity to examine issues rationally or to understand why integration was so important to black people. In my mind, it was as if symbolism existed for its own sake, and I adored symbolism. The Klan did too, and it and I also shared a love for ritual and tradition. Then too, there was the common belief that the KKK and the White Citizens’ Council were doing their best to defend our “Southern Way of Life” from the evil onslaught that was being led by MLK, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and others whose murders were literally cheered in school. However, my fear of the Klan remained greater than my attraction to it because I knew that its ultimate reliance wasn’t upon God’s help in keeping the races separate but upon intimidation and murder. I couldn’t escape the thought that if I made known my admiration for the busloads of idealistic Yankees—scarcely older than myself—who had come to Mississippi to register black people to vote, it might be my family that had a cross burned in its yard.

What I didn’t foresee was how fast the Klan would knuckle-under when it came to going up against the federal government. If its members had possessed the ruthless determination of an organization like the Islamic State, a whole lot more people would have lost their lives. As it was, I suspect that more people are murdered by terrorist organizations in the Middle East in a single day than were murdered by the Klan during the entire Civil Rights Movement. I don’t know if it was fear that held the Klan back, or if it was a basic respect for the law, but when people talk about how much blood was shed, I rather think about how little, and for that I am glad.


A Brookhaven, Mississippi, lynching

When I was a teenager, my father told me about a lynching that occurred when he was an adolescent during which two black youths were dragged to death behind cars. I remember the very spot on the street where he told me this (it was about a block from the above sign), and I still associate that spot with the blood, flesh, and screams of dying kids. This week, I decided to find out what I could about the crime. I didn’t know the year, and I could find no single authoritative source for lynching history, so it took me awhile to sort through a dozen or more sites before I found the boys’ names—James and Stanley Bearden—and the date they were killed—June 29, 1928. I also discovered a 1989 oral history in which the lynching was discussed.* The interviewee was a white man named Sam Jones whose father was mayor in 1928 when the murders occurred. His interviewers were Bob and Betsy Jones. I have no idea how—or if—the three were related. I just know that Jones’ Meat Market was a prominent family-run business when I was a kid. I delivered the local newspaper to the store and was always treated with great kindness by a woman whose name I remember as Betsy Jones. Here is a partial text of the Sam Jones’ interview:

Bob Jones: In 1928 you recall there was a double lynching in Brookhaven of two blacks who had gotten into an altercation with K.B. [?] Burns and his brother and had shot and wounded K.B. Burns and the two blacks were arrested and put in the jail and very quickly the word spread about the problem and an angry mob assembled around the jail from the county and from nearby counties. Quite an angry crowd had assembled within a few hours after they had been put in jail. I believe you told me once you were working in Brookhaven at that time; you were off from school, or something…

Sam Jones: It was the summer time and I was working at Hobbs Drug Store at my usual job as Soda Jerk and I went over to the courthouse to see the crowd, but I didn’t stay to see the lynching and all that happened. But the sheriff had not done anything to try to quiet the mob and my father told him, “You’ve got to call the governor. If you don’t call the governor and ask him for the National Guard to come down here I’m just going to beat the hell out of you.” And those were his words, and he never said anything like that. But it was too late. The sheriff called the governor and they were going to send help but it didn’t get there in time. But my father was the only man in Brookhaven, the only decent man in Brookhaven who was there. He got up and tried to quiet the crowd, but they would have nothing to do with him, they just pushed him out of the way and they got the men out of jail, did all those horrible things, I don’t need to go into what they did.

Bob Jones: Somebody later saw you at the store and made some remark…

Sam Jones:   Oh yes, a dentist. He just came in just laughing, what was going on over there, and said, “Son, that mob just pushed your dad out of the way like nothing. It really made me mad.” I said something I shouldn’t have said, it was out of character for me at that time because I was just about 17 years old, he was an old man and at that time you treated old men with respect. But I never had any respect for him after that.

Bob Jones: He was a dentist?

Sam Jones: Yes…[break] They dragged them, tied them behind a car and dragged them. [break] These were kids; they were always picking on them, the white men. At this time something was said, I don’t know what they said to him but he got angry, he shot K.B. The other man was innocent. He was just in jail for some other reason. But the mob took him too.

Bob Jones: I didn’t know that, I thought there were two of them had been involved…

Sam Jones: No, only the one Negro boy. But you know the streets of Brookhaven were absolutely empty of anybody. Everybody went home, didn’t want to get involved in anything.

[female]: You mean after it was all over?

Sam Jones: No, before it was over.

Bob Jones: Except for the mob.

Sam Jones: Yes, the mob. Yes.

Betsy Jones: Were the stores all closed? Nobody tried to stop them, is what you’re saying.

Sam Jones: Nobody except my father tried to do anything.

[male]: Did anybody get into trouble eventually?

Sam Jones: My father was mayor at that time, too. And was still mayor. He got a lot of hate letters from all over the county. Anonymous letters, most of them were anonymous letters.

[female]: I thought the lynching; because of the lynching…

Bob Jones: He caught it from both sides.

Sam Jones: Yes.

[The End]

Reading this probably had a stronger effect on me than you might imagine because you didn’t grow up with the people who lived through those violent times. You might envision them as frothing beasts who went through life doing one hateful thing after another, but I knew them as my kindly elders. I would at least hope that most people had opposed lynching, but they knew what lynchers were capable of, so they had to choose between putting themselves and their families at risk or keeping quiet, and they kept quiet. I very much wish they had done differently, but I don't even know what I would have done. I just know that if I had kept quiet, I would have hated myself for my cowardice.


Two cars sold and one car bought, all in ten days

Our '93 Chevy and '98 Toyota Camry sold on the spot for the full asking price to the first people who looked at them. Peggy sobbed when she looked out and saw that the Camry was gone because she didn't get to say goodbye. I don't know how much good that would have done her, but I too feel wrecked. Given how fast they sold, I'm wondering if we could have gotten more money for our vehicles, but if we had traded them in, we would have received a total of $1,500, but by selling them on Craigslist, we got $5,000, so I guess I can't complain too much, and even if we could have done better, it would have prolonged the misery.

I was completely forthcoming about every little thing that was wrong with them, even sharing information that made no difference and that the buyer almost certainly wouldn't have discovered had I kept my mouth shut...

We got twelve responses within hours of putting the Camry online, and I had the thought that of all the cars on the road, a Camry was probably the easiest to sell (the Japanese sure kicked American ass on that one). One man wrote that his daughter is a veterinary student who needs a good car for the 40-mile commute to Oregon State.  He went on to describe what a sterling student she was and ended with a plea that I "help her out" by dropping my price $800, which was all he could afford. I thought about not responding, but instead turned him down very courteously. I thought that would be the end of it, but he immediately wrote back offering more money. Someone else offered $400 less than the asking price without even having seen the car. I'm fine with people bargaining for something they know they want, but am offended when they do it on speculation.

It's sad to have sold cars that we  owned for so long and loved so much (cars are like pets in that we humans are totally responsible for their welfare, so it feels like a betrayal to sell them), but at least's it's over, and I feel more relaxed for it. We ran errands in the RAV4 yesterday for the first time since bringing it home, and took turns driving it. When the car belonged to the dealer, our goal was to see how we liked it, but now that it's ours, our goal is simply to avoid wrecking it. We know our unease will diminish every hour that we drive, but it sure was pronounced yesterday. I especially hated that dealer's tag announcing to all the world that it's a new car because I wouldn't be surprised but what some moron would ding it with their door out of envy. Am I more paranoid that most?

Tim said that when he started working as a car salesman, his biggest fears were damaging a car and learning how everything worked on the many models that he was trying to sell (he was also intimidated by having to dress nicely and work with people who were shopping for cars that cost way more than he could afford). His words put our fear of our new car into perspective, but why is it that we didn't used to worry about damaging a car? Is it age-related, or is it because this car is more complex, luxurious, and expensive, than anything we ever owned? Just the instructional manuals make a stack four-inches tall, and being surrounded by all those buttons that we don't know how to use makes learning to drive a RAV4 a bit like learning to land a jet on a carrier. I'm joking, of course, but there is a lot to be said for simplicity, and by our Model T standards, this is not a simple car. 

I've been counting up all the cars we've owned in our 44-years together (I owned others before we met, and then there were the ones that I bought to resell). The list comes to two Fords, two Chevys, three Datsuns, and four Toyotas. Of these, three were trucks, and one was a van, and one a station wagon, leaving a total of five sedans and the new SUV. I'll forever miss most of them, partly for what they were, and partly because they marked epochs in our lives. We're now a one car family for the first time in years, and the sale of our van means the end of our camping days. Will this be our last car or our next to last car? Life can be measured in many ways--time, cars, pets, houses... My mother used to say things like, "Well, this will be my last vacuum cleaner." I thought it was a bummer of a way to look at things, but now I too am doing it. For instance, I know that if our cats live a normal lifespan, we'll never have another baby animal because it would be cruel to get a pet that would outlive us.