I judge my life - Part 1 - Making a start

Has it been worthwhile—your life, I mean?

I will answer with a story.

Long ago, I watched a girl eating in the school cafeteria. Everyday, I watched her. She would raise each forkful high, turning it this way and that, savoring the fragrance, watching the steam rise; then, finally, she would take a bite. At 5’11” and 150 pounds, I regarded eating as a nuisance, and I was charmed by her love for her food; that and her gentle face, brown eyes, shy demeanor, and shapely body. The year was 1971, and we were students at Mississippi College.

A few months later, my roommate, Lynn, introduced me to his newest girl, and it was her, Peggy. I asked Lynn if he minded me asking Peggy out, and he said no. Later, to her, he said, “Turn him down.” Maybe she would have dated me anyway.

Three dates later, school was out. While I was getting graduated at Jackson’s Civic Auditorium, Peggy was next door at the Greyhound Station waiting for a bus back to San Antonio. I also left town that afternoon.

I didn’t much care about Canada, but another student lived in the Canadian Rockies, and I was riding home with him just for the hell of it. I anticipated hitchhiking back to Mississippi almost as soon as we got to Edmonton. On our second day out, we stopped in Trinidad, Colorado, former home of Doc Holliday and present home of my half-sister’s husband’s father. Just enough of a connection for a free night’s lodging. When the lime-green Canadian Gremlin left the next morning, I wasn’t in it. I was on my way to San Antonio to surprise Peggy. We had been apart two whole days. My host worried that the Colorado cops would hassle me, so he drove me just over the border into New Mexico. I stepped out of his car at 7:00 a.m., and figured I would call Peggy if I made it to San Antonio before midnight. Otherwise, I would sleep on the ground.

I called at 11:55. Her father answered. He had been asleep. He didn’t know who the hell I was, so I figured it would be a bad time to tell him that I had come to marry his daughter. My last ride had been with an encyclopedia salesman, and when Peggy and her father pulled into the truck stop, the salesman was dutifully trying to sell me a set of encyclopedias, using his car hood as a table on which to display his wares.

Peggy’s parents moved her 13-year-old sister into another room, and gave me her bed. Pam woke up the next morning, and wondered why she wasn’t in her own bed. When she found me there, she screamed. I nearly screamed too. After Peggy accepted my proposal, I said I would ask her father for her hand. No way, Peggy said. She didn’t want to spring it on him until I was long gone.

We were married on December 19, four months after we met. I wanted to do it sooner, but weddings take time, or so I was told. Father Hale—that would be Episcopal Father Hale—warned us that he had never performed a wedding during Advent that lasted.

Did you ever have any qualms about marrying so quickly?

Only once. Peggy and I went out to eat one Sunday, and she asked me what I thought she should order. I suggested a t-bone. This was my idea of joke because we had just been trying to convince ourselves that we had enough money to get married. Peggy ordered a t-bone. Worse yet, she didn’t eat it all. I naturally concluded that the woman was a spendthrift and that our life together would be an endless cycle of deepening debt and bankruptcy. We had a big fight, maybe our first. Peggy said that she hadn’t even wanted a t-bone, but had gotten one to please me.

Our honeymoon meal was at a “family restaurant.” Our honeymoon destination was the 8’ by 35’ hardly heated trailer that we had rented near Mississippi College where Peggy was still a student. The bedroom was all bed, and the only way we could be in the bathroom at the same time was if one of us was in the tub, but mostly it was the cold that drove us out. After a few months, we moved into an upstairs’ apartment in what had once been a large house. We had already added a stray kitten to our family.

We lived cheaply. Fortunately, we shared a talent for it—Peggy having proven to be anything but a spendthrift. I immediately showed myself unable to hold a job. Between the summer of 1971 and the summer of 1973, I worked first as a funeral director/ambulance driver at Adkin’s Funeral Home, then as a schoolteacher for Hinds County Public Schools, then as a sporting good’s salesman at Miller’s Discount, then as a funeral director at Wright and Ferguson Funeral Home, and finally as a respiratory therapy technician at University Medical Center. My biggest employment challenge was that I feared and hated anyone who gave me orders or had power over me. I considered myself too good for every job I ever had.

Meanwhile, Peggy was finishing up her degree in secondary education while working at Gibb’s Pizza Parlor. She had no trouble holding a job. The other girls at the pizza parlor were black, and they called Peggy princess. It was meant as a compliment.

How did your parents feel about Peggy?

My parents loved Peggy. My mother loved Peggy more than she loved me, and my father loved Peggy equally as well. Anyone who is with Peggy for five minutes would have to be a moron to not notice that here is a woman who is honest, gentle, intelligent, loyal, and modest. If you were in a crowd of strangers and found it necessary to ask one of them to hold onto your life’s savings while you went someplace, you would just naturally choose Peggy. Unlike me, she completely lacks treachery. I’ve never known a better person.

Ms Magazine appeared in January1972, two months after we were married. I subscribed to it in Peggy’s name because I got it into my head that she needed to be liberated. Women libbers seemed sexy to me, maybe because their goal was to make women think; and intelligent, thinking women drove me crazy, libidinally speaking. I made a point of keeping Ms in the bathroom because that’s where I did much of my reading, and where I assumed that Peggy would learn to do much of her reading. Funny that I failed to take it in that Peggy NEVER, EVER read in the bathroom. I attributed this failure to an insufficient variety of reading materials. After 37 years of supplying her with books and magazines, Peggy still doesn’t read in the bathroom. I am beginning to worry that there’s something wrong with her, and that our marriage was a mistake.

In any event, Peggy had zero interest in women’s lib in general or Ms Magazine in particular. What Peggy did have an interest in was good milk, and I had been making her drink powdered milk because it was a lot cheaper. I told her she would get used to powdered milk. She persevered for months. Then one day she came home with a jug of real milk and powdered milk hasn’t passed her lips since. This senseless rebellion wasn’t what I had in mind when I set out to liberate her.

In 1973, I joined the Air Force, and was sent off for training in San Antonio. Peggy’s parents were still in San Antonio where Peggy’s father, Earl, was a Lt. Col at Randolph. The plan was for Peggy to live with her parents while I was in boot camp.

Why did you join the Air Force?

Because I lacked direction. I had a B.S. in education (K-8) but no desire to teach.

Why did you get a degree in something you weren’t interested in?

After my third year in college, I decided I needed a major that I could complete during my fourth year (I don’t remember why), and education was the only thing that fit the bill. I did, as I mentioned, try teaching during the fall before Peggy and I were married, but I felt like a misfit at the elementary school that hired me because every student and every teacher but myself was black. More importantly, I had contracted hepatitis (probably from the girl to whom I gave my virginity two months before I met Peggy), and was feverish, lethargic, and dropped from 150 pounds to 125. I finally walked off the job. The superintendent threatened to sue me, but I had purposely neglected to sign my contract. Promising that I would be in certain spot at a certain time on a certain day months in advance seemed like a jail sentence to me.

Earl said he liked the Air Force, and I liked—and wanted to please—Earl. Since he was a weatherman, I decided that I should be a weatherman too. I mean, what’s not to like about fluffy white clouds and rainbows? Peggy and I drove to San Antonio a week before I was supposed to report to Lackland for basic, so we took a few days for a proper honeymoon in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. We still have a painting on velvet of the desert by moonlight. Years after we bought it, Peggy said it was tacky, and that we should get rid of it. Not likely. It reminds me of our honeymoon, and that makes it holy.

I lasted 17 days at Lackland. The sergeants yelled at me and hurt my feelings, and they did all kinds of other obnoxious things like waking us up before dawn each day by beating garbage can lids together. At 23, I was the oldest recruit among the 70 in my “flight” and the only one with a college education. I felt like a misfit and a failure just by being there instead of at Officer’s Candidate School where everyone else with my qualifications had apparently gone. I concluded that the Air Force was like all the other jobs I ever had only worse. I also spent a lot of time worrying that I couldn’t run the mile fast enough to avoid having to go through boot camp a second time. I was a good runner, so there was no reason for my fear, yet it was a big fear. I have always been a person who blossoms before praise and wilts under criticism, and the whole premise of boot camp is that you remold ordinary people into warriors by tearing down who they used to be.

The Vietnam War was winding down, and the Air Force apparently decided that it had too many people, so one day they took about half of my unit to a building where second lieutenants called us in one at a time and asked us a lot of questions. I didn’t realize until later that they were looking for an excuse to get rid of us, but it wouldn’t have mattered. One of the questions was whether I had ever smoked marijuana. I said I had. The next question was how many times I had smoked it. I think I said three, which was about right. I was to smoke it a lot more in coming years.

The next day, a few of us were called away from our unit, and put together with a lot of other guys. Then we were all lined up and contemptuously ordered to leave our last names on our uniforms (they had been sewn on) but to tear off the U.S. Air Force insignia. It was like a court martial scene from an old cavalry movie except that we weren’t sent through the gates of the fort to wander the desert. Also, we weren’t all being dishonorably discharged. My discharge was what was called a “general discharge.” It’s considered honorable, but not too honorable—just a little honorable, I guess you could say. The expulsion process took a week during which we were housed in some old barracks at the edge of the base. My roommate said he was being discharged for attacking his drill instructor. He looked crazier than shit to me, and I tried to stay clear of him.

We rejects had to stay on the base, but we could move around a good bit—Lackland is the biggest military base in the world, probably bigger than a lot of countries—and nothing was expected of us. We could also have visitors. Peggy and her parents came to see me and, by so doing, to witness my disgrace. That was hard for me, and no doubt hard for Earl and Doris, although they never said anything. My relationship with them was pretty much bereft of either praise or criticism. Peggy didn’t say much either. It was a time to look ahead rather than behind.

I wish I could do those years over. I took trivial things too seriously, and that kept me from taking the rest of my life seriously enough. Like a dog, I only saw what was in front of my face. But I’ll tell you something that I often ponder. Let’s say that I had been able to use my abilities to the fullest. That would have set me on a whole other path, and who knows where that path would have led? Because I can’t see where other choices would have taken me, I can’t know that they would have been for the best. I do know that a person’s smallest act can dramatically alter the rest of his life.

After all these years, I am still alive, and I still have Peggy to hold and to love. My life has been worthwhile.