Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Vietnam, a foray into newspapering, peyote...

As college wound down, life threatened to actually begin.


IMAGINARY LINES partition all hometowns. These inner frontiers survive age and experience and the physical destruction of their own landmarks. For me, the eastern limits of knowable Memphis will always be the intersection of Poplar and Central avenues, beyond which lies a strangeness that was new when I viewed it as a kid from the saddle of my stripped Schwinn: subdivisions and the ancestors of contemporary malls, an office building or two poking out of the vernal homogeneity that is Memphis, as essential as sticky asphalt and water-laden air in summer, the smell of moldering leaves in winter, and always an afternoon light that hardens and flattens reality.

Early one morning I heard a car creep into the driveway. I got up and went to the window to see Harley Laird relieving himself in my back yard. Next to him stood a black four-door Cadillac, the replacement for the silver Pontiac.
I got dressed and went downstairs. "Hey, Con," he said when I came outside. I hadn't seen him in almost two years.
Sprawled in the back seat of the Cadillac was Tad Mullins, one of Harley's more enduring companions, an impoverished ladies' man who during high school had developed good connections. Droll, unperturbable, Tad was drifting among local colleges, a semester here, another there, looking for a good harbor and avoiding the shores of employment. The dark-haired girl next to him shared Tad's bleary-eyed determination that the party wasn't over. "Hey, man," he said, "I want to show her your studio."
I shouldn't have agreed to it but I did. Dodo and Jack were asleep; it was a good hour until daylight. Harley and I watched Tad and the girl teeter past the trellis, and then we got into the Cadillac and sped south on Highland, Harley talking as if our last conversation had just been interrupted. He had a year to go at Annapolis, he said, and then on to flight school; he was going to be a fighter pilot and shoot down MiGs in foreign skies, probably somewhere over Indochina.
I saw a car approaching the intersection at Park Avenue.
"Harley," I said, "the light's red."
"Watch this son of a bitch try to bluff me."
We plowed through and the other car rocked to a halt, the driver having the good sense not to blow his horn. Harley's tie was undone and his shirt unbuttoned, revealing a lot of chest. His eyes were bloodshot. He said, "They're asking for it," or similar words. 
"The Communists."
We thought about that. Then he said, "They're just using 'em."
"Using who?" 
"The Chinks."
We stopped at a diner. I was still not fully awake and drank coffee while Harley forked in eggs, bacon, grits, and biscuits. The Communists were challenging us all over the world, he explained, but particularly in a place called Vietnam. I didn't really know what he was talking about. President Kennedy had been inaugurated in January; he and the First Lady had about them a lightness associated with the new menthol cigarette ads. After the election, caught up in reports of Kennedy's youth and enthusiasm, I had dreamily imagined myself working in some way to help fulfill his dream without knowing what that dream was or what Kennedy represented, except that many older Memphians didn't like him.
"We're gonna kick ass over there," Harley said. "You wait and see. If we don't, the whole goddamn place'll go."
I felt isolated, deprived, stupid. Harley was part of some great enterprise, just touching down in Memphis on the way to glory. I didn't want to share that journey but I did envy him his connection to elsewhere.
We rode back in silence, the night beginning to catch up with him, and found Tad and the girl fumbling with their clothes in a thin dawn raucous with birdsong. Staring at a naked girl was not a common practice even in Harley's crowd, but this one didn't seem to mind. "Why don't you ever come around?" Tad asked me. "Have a drink. Get laid." He laughed apologetically and added, "No offense," as he handed the girl her blouse.
Tad would go on to marry a Miss Hutchinson's graduate who belonged to a wealthy family and then to make book out of her father's office. One weekend Tad would try to corner the football pool, playing banker and refusing to pass along the bets, a weekend when Memphis State beat Ole Miss and UT beat Alabama and all the hometown money was riding on those long shots. Tad would have to flee to the Caribbean owing a million dollars, and his good friends, including some of those he owed, would mourn the fact that they wouldn't be partying anymore with Tad.
I never saw either one of them again. I heard that Harley had a run-in at Annapolis involving marijuana, and survived it. Then that he married a southern blonde and had a child, and was preparing to assume his father's standing at the MCC when he got out of the Navy. Then, at the controls of a plane, after Vietnam had become a too familiar place name, that on a bombing mission he went nose-first into a blue lagoon just short of the jungle, and that his body wasn't recovered.
I can't claim to have mourned for Harley. I half expected such an end, and felt sorry for him in a more immediate way, saw in my mind's eye his big hunched shoulders and heard his amplified voice: "Oh, shhhiiiiiiiiiiit!" I couldn't completely believe in Harley's death until, many years later, I ran my finger over the precise angles of his name, cut into the black marble of the Vietnam Memorial.                                   

That summer I got an introduction to the newspaper business. Linoleum etched with the charred silhouettes of cigarette butts, clamorous telephones, wire baskets full of paper that had to be moved to other wire baskets. I was one of those who did the moving, and brought up cardboard containers of coffee and cigarettes from the restaurant on the ground floor and set them in front of men in shirtsleeves who chewed cigars and made comments cynical by Memphis standards. I regularly descended to the pressroom for copies of each edition, pushed out in waves along rollers and scooped into piles by tough white kids from north Memphis. Sometimes I ascended to the composing room with last-minute copy changes, to see proofreaders jammed together, and stooped typesetters sitting at machines that wheezed and clanked and extruded bits of metal that ended up in inky steel monuments to each printed page. The smell of hot lead vitally linked all that activity and the cerebral intercourse and paper shuffling below to industrial reality: the sight of delivery trucks pulling away from the loading docks on the ground floor and into the glow of the lamps along Union Avenue.
The Commercial Appeal had moved its headquarters away from Second and Court streets since my grandfather's heyday. But in the dark paneling and opaque glass of the private offices I felt a kind of presence. The big corner office contained my uncle Frank, the editor, who would emerge on occasion to honk an order at the city desk; then you could hear the pencils drop. I was still scared of him, of his worldliness and his detailed questions that seemed miraculously pertinent. There were strict standards in the presentation of news, just as there were in bourbon.
My uncles, and the powdery women who put out the Society section, clearly belonged to a different order there. So did I, I suppose, but this didn't affect the way I was treated, or my view of the place. I considered the newspaper hopelessly reactionary. For all our much-discussed roots in the fourth estate, my family seemed to have little in common with those who actually shaped the product, men like the city editor — profane, emaciated, known for caressing with his tongue the filters of the sixty-odd cigarettes he smoked every day, and for collecting Elvis records. The managing editor, a short, strutting man with a black toothbrush mustache and an expression of immutable petulance, never spoke in anything less than a shout. This was a man's world, with a hierarchy and a behavior — demonstrably tough — as prescribed as any court's.
Facts were the currency. The star reporter, Tom, had pale, fishy eyes shaded by the brim of his hat, a permanent appendage. His detachment and his monosyllabic responses to the most dreadful civic developments were legendary, like his drinking in the Press Club across Union Avenue. I saw Tom in action when a handful of black children threatened to enter a white school in midtown and white people thronged in sullen anticipation. I was sent there the way copy boys sometimes were, in case some factual nugget slopped over the edge of the official reporters' collective perception.

Stunned by the possibility of actually writing something in a notepad, I hung around the crowd trying to figure out whom I should talk to, and how. The Negroes, under the direction of a disconcertingly calm, nondescript black man in a raincoat, stood in a group surrounded by police; approaching them was unthinkable. Then a cab rolled up and Tom got out, and he and the man in the raincoat walked down an alley to talk, and Tom took some notes. So that's how it's done, I thought.
The story, if reported, was buried in the newspaper. Integration sidled in through the back door because the powers in the city agreed beforehand to keep it out of the forefront of news, another bit of Memphis paternalism. A handful of black people tried to attend a Sunday service at Second Presbyterian, assisted by some white students from Southwestern, and church members sought to get those students expelled. My friend Metcalf joined a group attempting to integrate the lunch counter at Woolworth's, but it, too, failed after the waitress fainted.
Memphis State agreed to admit a few black students. The dean told the assembled white ones, "These Negroes say they want an education. We're going to offer them the opportunity to get the education they say they want. You aren't to interfere in any way with their pursuing the education they say they want. . . There's going to be no trouble here. If any of them so much as says 'Good morning' to you, I don't want you saying anything back."
When James Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss, we heard the transport planes carrying troops to be convoyed to Oxford come in low over Memphis. The next day Southwestern's brittle dean told the assembled students, "There's no reason to go down there," as if integration in Mississippi were a carnival, not history.        

The young men who had passed through college in the fifties, ahead of me, had more in common with my father. Technically I belonged to the same generation but in fact was separated by a divide that would widen with the pressure of drugs, the Beatles, no-regrets sex, and Vietnam. I and my friends still in college, on the edge of the sixties, had a foot on both sides, pulled at by old post-World War Two verities and by the opportunities and dangers inherent in the next social order. But the perspective that made us contemptuous of the contradictions in our fathers' world would also make us suspicious of the revolutionary certitudes and pieties of the new age. We were in a sense the nowhere generation.
One night I went to my parents' for dinner and was met inside the doorway by Dad, who said, "Here's a letter for you."
It was from a friend in Chapel Hill I had written to, about my life in Memphis. "Who opened it?" I asked.
"I did."
Dad said, "What's this peyote business?"
I had read Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, a fundament for what became the drug culture. After reading it, a friend and I bought some cacti by mail order from Texas, boiled them on the stove, squeezed them in one of his girlfriend's stockings, and drank a pint of revolting green bile mixed with grapefruit soda. I lay in Overton Park for an hour, waiting for something to happen. Later, while eating ham and eggs in a diner on Monroe Avenue, I noticed tiny mouths in the meat blowing grease bubbles and felt the diner shuttling merrily along nonexistent rails, and knew something was up. But when the landscape turned sinister, where I most wanted to be was home.
"So you read it," I said. 
"I asked you a question."
"It was an experiment. Why did you read my letter?" 
"I don't want you using drugs."
"I don't use drugs. Why did you read it?"
My reaction surprised him and let some air out of his indignation. We never discussed the peyote or the opened letter, just as we never discussed anything important that held the promise of conflict, as most things did by now, from integration to the draft. I tried to make excuses for —Dad that he was worried about me, for instance — but they didn't hold up. I knew he had opened the letter not because he thought I was in psychological trouble but because he was curious. And in his eyes, he had the right.
In that small, bitter violation lay strands of the culture: this was the last, lingering moment of the Adult in America, the monarch whose omnipotence comes by virtue of age and masculinity and not much else, a false entitlement shared by Dad's entire generation that would be swept away in an angry social tide I can't claim to have foreseen or to have taken a significant role in. He and other white men had grown up doing pretty much as they pleased, always addressed as "sir," knowing no one else had a real say in the way things were done. None other than white men deserved explanations for the things white men did, and I wasn't one yet.

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