Sunday, June 28, 2015

Itta Bena, Mississippi | Summer 1966

The Flag of the State of Mississippi

I've recounted this story on a few occasions. The first time as "The Diving Tree" in 1973. Then years later in the late '90's. Then again a few years ago in 2010. Each version different. "Circumstances alter occasions," as Kenneth Burke has said. This account is pretty much the 2010 version recounted now under circumstances framed by murders in a church in Charleston, S.C. More murders in a church in the South.


Aunt Mary was a sweet, steel magnolia. Married to my mother's older brother, Jake. She wore pearls, smelled of lavender, and that summer had a revolver in the glove compartment. It was 1966.

James Meredith hit by a shotgun blast.
A few weeks earlier, James Meredith, who in 1962 was the first black student admitted to Ole Miss, had been wounded by a shotgun blast. He had just begun a solitary voting rights march from Memphis, Tennessee headed down Highway 51 for Jackson, Mississippi. It was called the "March Against Fear" and everyone was scared.

Aunt Mary was also unhappy. She had learned her two nephews from Ohio - "Margaret's boys"- had been "swimming with coloreds".

Some folks might mistake Roebuck Lake for the big river bend it had once been before the Yazoo cut a different channel to the east. Now it was a long, narrow lake with cypress trees growing out from both shores. On the west shore, Itta Bena, Mississippi and cotton farmers. The east shore was hard up against the cotton fields. West: white. East: black.

That line is everywhere and was everywhere then. That line was surely in Ohio, but somewhere on the drive South, the line brightened: a second drinking fountain, a third restroom. Another of most everything. There were places we did not go and they were not to be. There were places and you were expected to be in yours. There was a system of courtesy, deference, and forms of address that maintained the social order. A mannered, gentle, soft-spoken, but firm and unmistakable "looking after them" that was the order of things.

There was a harsher, uglier world - but I did not see it most of the time. That world was kept in the glove compartment.

Roebuck Lake | Itta Bena, Mississippi
The best swimming hole was on the east shore, back among the cypress, dug out of the high bank.

The bottom was sandy, but the climb up the bank would become slick. Something of a vertical mud crawl. Not the best place for diving and a shallow hole at that. Shallow was a good thing otherwise because our friends there could not swim.

The best place to dive was out off the west shore. A cypress tree on the edge of the stand with a pontoon tied off to it. There were three handy limbs hanging out over deep water - low, middle, and high.

One afternoon we were leaving the hole to head over to the tree when our friends asked us to take them along with. They had never been over there and wanted to try it out. Well, we knew we had crossed a line by even being on the east shore swimming. That was bad enough. There was not one among the fifteen or so of us that did not know what it meant to head out across that lake to the west shore.

I want to be clear: we were not striking a blow for liberty - this was no march, this was mischief. We were up to nothing more than trying to get away with something and for the only reason that really matters when you are twelve: because someone told you not to.

So, we overloaded the jon boat, hung off the sides, grabbed a few inner tubes and headed across the lake.

There is a rule that the universe enforces. The rule is that whenever you are having fun doing something you are not supposed to be doing it will end badly. The dog gets out. The vase gets broken. Somebody gets hurt. Your brother ends up splitting a paddle upside the head of some good ole boy raging at him on the Bailey's front lawn.

But, before the rule's full force was felt this day, even after all of what would happen and after all these years, this day remains a perfect day. A perfect day: even though I nearly drowned. One of those days where you could say there was a "before that day" and an "after that day". This day was that kind of day.

We offloaded onto the pontoon. A bit crowded. Mind you this was no party barge. This pontoon was a built of six large empty fuel drums, framed by two by fours and decked with some plywood. It was chained to the trunk of the tree. Boards nailed here and there up the trunk would take you to the limbs.

Recall our friends did not swim. So they would climb up and jump out to hit the water close to the pontoon so they could break surface and grab hold. The older guys who wanted to try diving would depend on my brother or Jim Bailey to tread water out from the tree then swim over to them when they broke surface and help them get back to the pontoon.

That's how the day went. Wait your turn. Up the tree. Jump. Splash. Pull yourself up onto the pontoon. Wait your turn. This routine was only occasionally interrupted by stirring up the wasp nest under a high corner of this listing pontoon, swimming away, and watching the others who could not swim flailing about trying to choose between water and wasps.

I was twelve. This was hilarious.

Finally taunted into trying a jump from the high limb - a place easier to climb up to than down from - I hit the water fine and kept on going straight to the mucky bottom where I managed to get myself pretty well stuck. Scary stuck up to my knees. Even after flailing loose, there was still getting to the surface and I didn't make it there on my own. A lot of splashing about, black hands from everywhere, all over me, lifting me up, pulling me out, hauling me onto the pontoon, pounding my back and rubbing my chest as I coughed water out my mouth and nose.

Sometime after that two white guys showed up in a jon boat. Later I would be told that one of them was a "draft-dodger" - the first time I'd heard that phrase. They called us "Yankees" in a tone that remembered Vicksburg too well. They didn't want "those nigras" on this side of the lake.

We wanted no trouble. We headed back across the lake with our friends. Then we started back to the house followed all the way by those southern boys in their jon boat. Our friends on the east bank ran along the shore, yelling to us not to be scared of those white boys.

The next day we paddled past the diving tree. The pontoon had been sunk. The climbing boards pulled from the trunk. The diving limbs sawed away.

What with the ruckus that ensued on the Bailey's front lawn, it was hard for Aunt Mary not to have learned of what we had been up to. So, as we headed south back to Hazelhurst, Mississippi, Aunt Mary was unhappy.

In her gentle way she reminded us we should not "swim with coloreds". Just to be difficult, even though I knew why, I asked her why. Her answer was unexpected: "Because", she explained, "they all had VD and we would surely catch it if we swam with them again." I honestly did not know at the time what VD was. It may even have been the first time I'd ever heard of it. So, I asked Aunt Mary what it was. VD, she told me, was a "disease of the intestinal tract".

If you come away with a poor opinion of my Aunt Mary, then I have done her a great disservice. I cherish and honor her memory. In the past I have been more judgmental of this recollection. Other versions carried a moral right about now. Not this time it seems. It is a coin worn too smooth for currency.

Maybe this will do.

The wind unfurls all flags alike. Some should be gone with it - long since gone.

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