All I can say in defense of what I’m about to share is to give you my word that it is the truth as I remember it. You might reply, “Friend, why should your word mean jack to me?”
If you were to say that, I would have to concede, friend, that you had a good point—a brusquely made good point, but a good point nonetheless. After all, I could really be a sixteen-year-old girl from Denmark for all you know. I would just request that you read what I’ve written, and when you are done, ask yourself what the odds are that anyone, much less a Scandinavian teenager, could have made it up. Now, it is my very great pleasure to recount history as I lived it.
Mississippi repealed Prohibition in 1966, making it the last state to do so. This created a grievous obstacle for underage drinkers because bootleggers hadn’t cared who they sold to. I should pause here and clarify what I mean by bootlegger. I’m not referring to men who made whiskey, because I never knew any of those. I’m referring to men who drove the forty miles from my town in Baptist controlled Mississippi to Catholic controlled Louisiana, bought liquor legally, and then returned it to Mississippi and sold it illegally.
I knew of two white bootleggers—I was largely ignorant of the black ones—in my town of 12,000, but you could have picked them out easily even if you were a newcomer. Bootleggers were invariably on the edge of town, and had high wooden fences across the front of their property. A bootlegger’s fence would be interrupted by a one-way driveway that entered on one side, circled around to the back of the building, and exited on the other side. The customer would park abreast of the back door, and someone would come out and take his order. I even knew a kid who bought booze on his bicycle. Whiskey, vodka, rum, gin, tequila, you name it as long as it was hard liquor and in a bottle (I preferred gin). As you might expect, service was more prompt than friendly since no bootlegger wanted a line of cars backed out into the street.
I never heard of a white bootlegger being raided by the law, although I suppose the prospect of a raid by the Feds must have ever hung over them (pun welcomed though unintended). The local sheriff raided the black ones from time to time, presumably because they didn’t pay him enough not to. I wouldn’t be surprised but what in this, as in most things, racism prevailed, and the sheriff demanded more money from the blacks. The sheriffs in Brookhaven Mississippi during the 1960s were so lax that I even bought my illegal fireworks—cherry bombs and M-80s—from one of them (he stored them in his garage). I would then drive the strip, and sell them from my car to other teenagers.
You must remember that all this happened in a Baptist controlled area and that Baptists are—in theory—teetotalers. I should think that one or two law-and-order sermons from the pulpit at First Baptist would have gone far toward making it impossible for everyone to ignore the elephant of iniquity that stood astride the refreshment table of righteousness at Baptist coffee klatches, but none was ever offered. The silence on the part of the Baptists—all of the Baptists—was, as the saying goes, deafening. But then my own church, the Church of Christ, was equally silent. We were taught that the church should stay clear of such affairs, which just happened to be the safest position because it was the position favored by a great many potentially dangerous people. Lucky us.
Drunkenness was as open as booze with a good part of the teenage population driving wasted on weekend nights. Such things simply were not taken seriously back then. I was so drunk on one occasion that I would have driven off down the railroad tracks in my two-tone ‘56 Fairlane (312 cu inch, 98 mph in the quarter-mile) one night if some friends hadn’t alerted me to my error and gotten me back onto the road. Other times, I woke up at home and found my car full of puke and bottles, but with no memory of who I had been with or what we had done. If you had asked me if drunk driving was a bad idea, I might have said that it was, but I don’t remember ever worrying about getting hurt. I didn’t worry about a ticket either because I had been stopped several times and had only gotten one ticket ($17 for reckless driving). Most cops went out of their way to be protective of errant teenagers, white teenagers anyway. I can’t speak for the black ones.
My parents were no threat either. If I had actually wrecked my car, my father would have been terribly distressed, but only because of the financial loss—assuming that I hadn’t been hurt too bad. My parents considered themselves good parents because they provided for my sister and me financially, and they never made us do a lick of work. I guess the truth of the matter was that, beyond material comforts, they simply didn’t think they had anything worth giving. Being poor, they worked long hours just to buy us things.
You might think, given my laissez-faire attitude toward highway safety, that serious accidents were somehow rare, but quite the reverse was true with multiple fatalities being a common occurrence. Brookhaven was at the intersection of two major highways. U.S. 51 ran from below New Orleans all the way to Canada, and U.S. 84 from Savannah to San Diego. They were narrow, curvy, hilly, two-lane, and had little right-of-way. U.S. 84 was the winner for wrecks at the same spot because, just before it entered town, there was a sharp curve directly at the top of a steep hill. It was one of those hills that made you to feel like you were on a roller coaster when you got to the top. If you crested that hill from the west without knowing about the curve, you had to be really alert, and preferably below legal speed, to avoid flying across the other lane and running off the road—and that’s if you were lucky and nothing was coming. Much of the time, something was coming. If a highway engineer had deliberately set out to kill people, he could have scarcely done better.
The fifteen-year-old driving age combined with the easy liquor, bad highways, a 65-mph speed limit, and heavy, high-powered cars with no safety features didn’t help matters. I was in two wrecks in one night with my friend, Penny, driving. First, we ran off a dead-end road into a mud bank; next we slid backwards into a dentist’s office; and then he went on alone and flipped his car, crushing himself beneath it.
Dead teenagers were honored with big photos and gushy sentiments at the front of the school yearbook, and then everything went on as before with no lessons learned. People just seemed to accept that this was how life was. Not that they tried to hide death. If anything, they celebrated it by towing the grisliest wrecks to the center of town and leaving them there for days so everyone would have a chance to drive by. For many of us, driving by wasn’t enough. We would crowd around the cars with flashlights—this being primarily a nighttime entertainment—sniffing the blood and craning to see the guts.
I could scarcely get enough of guts, so I became an ambulance attendant at 14, and went to work at one of two local funeral homes at 18. I would often drive an ambulance and a hearse on the same day because funeral homes commonly ran ambulances too. Few of us even had a rudimentary knowledge of first aid. Because autopsies were done at the funeral home, I got to see one my first day. I had seen butchered animals, and that was what an autopsy looked like. To see that a fat man—and he had been fat—looked no better than a slaughtered hog when his parts were all laid out, lowered my estimation of what is called “human dignity.” At one level, we are just meat, and that was pretty much the level I was focused upon.
Seeing death never gave me the least notion that it might be my car that was towed into town and my picture in the front of the yearbook. The first word I ever spoke was car, and I thought I was simply too good a driver to die. I came close occasionally, although I never realized it at the time. One icy morning, I picked an acquaintance up on my way to school when I saw him waiting for his bus. We were going fifty (double the limit) down narrow North Jackson St. when another school bus turned onto the street a block away. My Ford spun around backwards on the slippery asphalt, and would have slid into the bus had my rear wheel not fallen into a street drain, knocking the cast iron cover into the air. My passenger was pale and speechless; Ray Laird, the bus driver, was pale and speechless; but since my car was undamaged except for the loss of a hubcap, I took off as if nothing much had happened, which was how it seemed to me. The acquaintance wouldn’t ride with me again, but that was his loss as I saw it. I never took him to have much in the way of guts anyway. As I look back on all that, I can but wish I had lived better, and I can but be glad that I lived at all.
But I also feel nostalgic about that era because it was a little like pioneer times. Despite Mississippi’s reputation for oppression, any white person who didn’t moon the mayor, marry a “nigger,” or call Jesus a faggot, was free to do pretty much as he pleased. Taxes were low, cops were mellow, building codes were ignored, fenced yards were the exception, people carried guns if they wanted yet killings were almost unheard of (at least among whites), and even dogs came and went as they thought proper (which meant that there were a lot of dead dogs lying about).
Here’s how wide open things were. When I was ten, my family moved to 133 East Chippewa, which was two blocks from the courthouse/jail/sheriff’s office and six blocks from the police station. I had hunted, by myself, with both a .22 rifle and a .410 shotgun since age eight, and I saw no reason to give it up, especially now that I was living in what appeared to be a squirrels’ paradise. I would blast squirrels out of the tall water oaks that grew in my front yard, and my girlfriend’s grandma would cook them for me, yet no one ever complained, and no cops ever came racing around the corner.
I also carried a .22 H&R revolver to school in my car everyday and left it under the seat with the doors unlocked. Yet, even with guns readily available, I daresay that no one ever thought of shooting another student. Such things simply were not done—they were literally unthinkable. You had to be one hardcore badass to run afoul of the powers that ruled, at least if you were white. Compared to the freedoms that I grew up taking for granted, the liberal city where I now live is like East Germany before the wall came down; I feel constantly oppressed. It’s as if the self-righteous bastards are forever watching me, forever looking for an excuse to interfere with my life.
I’ll offer another example of the freedom with which I was raised. I was more than thirty years old before I ever saw the first person pick up dog shit. Maybe some did—maybe a lot did—but I never saw them, and no one in my family ever did, although we always had one or more dogs. When I did see a person pick up dog shit for the first time, it was my dog’s shit. I was visiting a commune near Summertown, Tennessee, called “The Farm.” The Farm had 1,400 residents in the early ‘80s, and all the many visitors stayed together. So, there we were, ten or more of us, sitting in the shade shooting the breeze, when my little dog Wendy relieved herself right in the middle of our happy little group, as dogs are wont to do. After five minutes, a woman scooped up Wendy’s shit, and put it in the trash while I sat wondering whatever had possessed her to do such a thing.
I know that must sound strange, but a tolerance for dog shit was like a tolerance for all of the other bizarre things that I grew up with; if it’s all you’ve ever known, it seems normal. When I’m tempted to judge people who have different customs, I try to remember this. I often miss the South, or at least the freedom I once had there. God bless Dixie.