When I left—I never graduated—Brookhaven, Mississippi’s high school in 1967, I had to choose between college and Vietnam. Happily, a tiny, local Methodist college called Whitworth offered me a scholarship. To say the least, I was surprised because in high school I had been… a disciplinary problem… skipped school regularly… failed to complete assignments… spent four summers in summer school in order to pass the classes I flunked in regular school… wasted two years in the tenth grade … believed my parents and teachers regarded me as mildly retarded… and got so drunk on weekends that I didn’t know where I had been or what I had done, although I was usually the one who drove.
Despite my failure to graduate from high school, my years in summer school enabled me to accumulate enough credits for college. But why would any college—even a tiny college like Whitworth—offer me a scholarship? Given that Whitworth was regarded as an academic joke, I might have been the only one to apply, but it’s also possible that Whitworth was impressed by the fact that I had aced their introductory psychology course while still in high school (I took the course in the hope of getting my head together). In any event, Whitworth had promised to give one scholarship to a country school kid and one to a “city” school kid, so they had to choose someone from Brookhaven (population 11,500), and that someone was me. Their country recipient was a valedictorian named Beau, and after devoting a long paragraph to his illustrious school career, the newspaper ended with a single sentence stating that I showed “promise.”
I loved Whitworth because it had many times the number of course options that BHS offered; because I was able to make a new start among people I hadn’t known for twelve years; and because I had teachers who encouraged me. One such teacher administered an IQ test on which I scored 160, and so it was that I immediately went to thinking I was mildly retarded to regarding myself as fucking brilliant. During my time at Whitworth, I held various jobs: stock clerk at Woolworth’s; mortician’s assistant at a local funeral home; ambulance driver; plus my father and I ran a daily 115-mile paper route.
The only big cloud on the horizon was that I had to keep changing my major in order to maintain my draft deferment, so I knew the day might come when no major would save me. A lesser problem was that Whitworth lacked regional accreditation.
Peggy was an Air Force brat with Mississippi roots and a Mississippi birth certificate, but who vowed she would never live in Mississippi. Unfortunately, her very religious parents shipped her off to Mississippi College, a female-virginity-obsessed Southern Baptist institution near Jackson where she studied education, math, and science. She had been there three years when I transferred up from Whitworth and my roommate, Lynn Taylor introduced me to her as his date. By then, I had been ogling her from across the cafeteria for months, so I asked Lynn if he minded me asking her out. He said no, but he later told her to turn me down, thereby giving her added incentive to go out with me.
When school ended three dates later, Peggy took a Greyhound to her parents’ home in San Antonio, and I left with an acquaintance for his home in Alberta, Canada. I couldn’t get Peggy out of my mind, so I got out of the car in Colorado and hitchhiked down to San Antonio to ask her to marry me. She and her family were greatly surprised by my midnight call from a nearby truckstop, but by the time I left San Antonio three days later, we were engaged. I felt duty-bound to formally ask her Lieutenant Colonel father for her hand, but she said she would break the news after I left. We married five months later. December 19th will mark our 50th anniversary.
After four years in college, I graduated in 1971 with five year’s worth of credits and a degree in elementary education (Peggy’s degree was in biology with minors in chemistry and secondary education). I had named that as my major in order to avoid the draft, not because I had the least interest in teaching. And so it was that I, in turn, drove an ambulance, worked as an inhalation therapy technician at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and then as a funeral director at Mississippi’s largest funeral home.
By this time, a draft lottery had been instituted, and my number was low enough that I would have been taken had my doctor not written the Army a letter stating that I had recently passed six kidney stones. This was news to me, but I happily accepted the yearlong deferment. By the time the year was up, the war was winding down, and my number was just high enough to keep me from being drafted. Because I still had no career goal, I joined the Air Force for the simple reason that Peggy’s father, Earl, liked it. He even pulled strings so the Air Force would send me back to college to study meteorology. Sadly, three weeks into boot camp, I was discharged from the Air Force for smoking pot. Earl never showed his disappointment.
It was now 1973, and having nothing better to do, I returned to Brookhaven and got a teaching job. Four years later, I quit teaching when the administration objected to a beard I grew during summer vacation. My black principal said I looked like a militant, while his two white bosses (both of whom had spanked me when I was a student) thought I looked like a hippie. They said I would be promoted to administration if I shaved, but could be fired if I refused. I confided in my ACLU-affiliated doctor who promised me the group’s support, but I would have kept my beard regardless. As things turned out, I wasn’t fired, but I clearly wasn’t wanted, so I quit at the end of the school year. And so it was that my carpenter father gave me seven acres of Mississippi woodland, and helped me build a house that had been designed as a ski lodge. When it was completed, he and I went to work in residential and commercial property maintenance.
Peggy had never lived anywhere that wasn’t temporary, and the house that my father and I built for her—with such help as she could offer on weekends—was her dream home. Almost from day one, I felt trapped, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her, so I instead tried to make things work by turning our land into a second Eden. I also looked for escape in whatever drugs I could find and in sex with other women. Older married men had told me that finding women—married or single—was easy, and they were right. Few such women were looking for a committed relationship—although some tried to lure me away from Peggy—so as near as I could tell they had sex with me because they were bored, enjoyed the risk, needed to be told they were beautiful, wanted secret vengeance against controlling husbands, or liked the excitement of new partners. One night, Peggy dreamed that I kept calling her by the names of other women, yet I had been having sex with many more women than she knew about. (We had an open marriage by then, but as often happens with such arrangements, it was my idea, and I had sex with a lot more people than she did.)
Then came the day that I knew sex, drugs, and the creation of a second Eden would never be enough, and with this thought came the realization that I had rather be dead than spend the rest of my life in Mississippi. Various things precipitated this. (1) The older I got, the more I regarded myself as smarter and more interesting than my friends, and I wrongly imagined that I would find superior people elsewhere. (2) As I became more liberal and less religious, I increasingly felt that I didn’t belong among people who held opposing values. (3) The incident that occurred during jury duty when I was struck on the head for not standing for prayer (see last post). (4) The restaurant scene in the movie Easy Rider, a scene that was shot just across the Mississippi River in Louisiana. The malevolent diners had been local residents, and the movie’s main characters (Fonda, Nicholson, and Hopper) later spoke of the frighteningly real hatred that they felt from those diners. I recognized my neighbors in those extras, and came to envision myself as living in a hell populated by redneck demons.
Still, I did my best so Peggy wouldn’t have to leave her home. I got a pilot’s license so I could have ready access to other places, but the only plane I could afford was old and slow. I vainly looked for friends in the ads’ section of the Mother Earth News and other alternative magazines. Peggy and I traveled for two months a year, but the day always came when we had to turn the truck in the direction of Mississippi. I joined the Mississippi ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and the Mississippi Native Plant Society in the hope of finding people with whom I had common interests, but only one friendship came out of either group and he left the state as an escaped felon (my friends were usually as lost as myself). I took up canoeing, but even as I tried to lose myself in the beauty of Southern streams, I was haunted by the theme from Easy Rider:
“The river flows, flows to the sea.
Where ever that river goes that’s where I want to be.
Flow river flow, let your waters wash down.
Take me from this road to some other town.”
To be continued...