Saturday, July 30, 2005

Mississippi Running

I hit Mississippi running in 1969 at age eight. We lived in a small trailer on dirt lot off a dirt road surrounded by very tall pine trees. It was very hot and my mom spent a lot of her time with her head in the freezer. The guy in the trailer off to our left used to sit outside and skin his rabbits. Until he died when his trailer got hit with lightning and it burned to the ground. A stray dog came by once with ticks in his ear the size of large grapes. Ticks are black, but when they get that bloated, they turn white. They looked like small balloons, so we took them out and lined them up on a wooden two-by-four. Then we popped them with a hammer (not a very pleasant pastime.)

We were poor, but not as poor as the Black family in the small one room house we passed in our Pontiac Tempest when driving to the Meridian Naval Air Station. I remember one time there was a dead horse in front of their house. The mother and ten kids always seemed to be sitting on the porch in front of the house, and waived at us as we drove by. We waived back.

I started the 3rd grade at the Eastside Westside School. Five years earlier, the school was operated under legally mandated segregation, with the Blacks on the Eastside and the Whites on the Westside. But in 1964, President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act, and abolished segregation in Mississippi and throughout the South. But the classes themselves seemed a little segregated still. The Blacks and Asians were in one class, and the Whites in the other class. I was half Asian and placed in the 'Black' class. My teachers were Black. When I was bad, I was hit with a two inch thick, two foot long wooden paddle. The girl who sat next to me was bad all the time. One day, the teacher knocked her to the floor and threw her desk on top of her. Then she dragged her by the hair out the door and slammed her against the hall wall. She fell to the floor and just sat there. The teacher picked up the girl’s books and threw them at her then slammed the door. The girl had been literally kicked out of the class.

The school bus stopped to pick me up right in front of our trailer. One girl stuck her head out the window and caught her long hair on a tree branch. It ripped her hair right off and she crashed into the window frame like a rag doll. She had been scalped alive, but died of a broken neck. Two Filipino brothers road the bus, and they always had their fists clinched tight like they were about to hit someone. The bigger brother was in my class and I did not like him, he had a funny looking head like Bert on Sesame Street. One day I saw him and his brother in the woods, and I don't know why, but I gave Bert a shove. Big mistake! They beat the living shit out of me. Their bodies were hard and their fists were harder. The little brother hit low while Bert hit high. I had martial arts training, but I did not even get a chance to use any of it. They left me on the ground and walked away. Not a word was spoken from anyone during the whole ordeal—kids did not mouth off back then like they do nowadays I guess.

The next day I got on the bus and sat right next to them. (I guess to show I was not afraid) They ignored me, but kept their fists clenched, ready for action. A few days later I saw Bert and his brother in the woods again. And they were in a standoff with six Black boys—they were in trouble and something was about to go down. I went up to them and stood by the brothers and clenched my fists too, ready to fight. The brothers turned their heads to me, and then turned back to the Black guys, looking a little more confident about the situation. I wasn’t surprised the brothers made enemies, because they just attracted trouble somehow. I think it was their clenched fists. The Black leader seemed to recognize me and asked, “Are you Bonnie’s brother?”

I said questionably, “Yeah?”

He said, “I seen you and Bonnie with Maddie. Maddie’s my sister.”

I said, “Maddie-May?” He nodded.

"Maddie-May’s my sister’s best friend, you’re her brother?” I asked.

He nodded, “Yeah, I’m Mike.”

Everyone seemed to relax and the fight was over before it began. Mike, Bert and I quickly became best friends. Bert turned out to be a very cool guy, and Mike was my first Black friend, and we all actually cried when I had to leave for Texas three years later. I still have the going away gift they gave me. It is a “High Chaparral” book signed by them—“Comrades Forever.”

We climbed Goblin’s Glen together, explored the haunted house together and jumped over the spiked fence of the forgotten cemetery, hidden with vines and underbrush where baby tombstones gave us the quivers. We climbed pine trees and ate wild blackberries and peaches, and stole corn and watermelons from farms. My dog Prince and cat Niko would follow us as we walked through the woods. They were both black and Niko was a larger than normal cat. People said it was very strange for a cat to follow people around like that, but my Niko was an exception. One day Prince ran ahead of us and we heard a gun shot. A few minutes later Prince found us in the woods with a smile in his eyes and a chicken in his mouth. Bert, Mike, Prince, Niko and I ran like hell in case the farmer was still giving chase. Prince went off to eat the chicken and Niko followed later to see what was left.

In the woods, we would hear mountain lions roar nearby and carried sticks for protection. One day when Prince was not with us, Niko ran ahead in the brush and fought a bobcat that was twice as big as her. The noise they made was very scary and the fight seemed to last an eternity. Finally, the bobcat ended up running away. The bobcat’s footprints were the size of a silver dollar and we honored Niko for saving our lives against such a formidable foe.

We hung out by Mike’s house a lot. He was very poor and lived in a small wooden, unpainted one room shack. The bathroom was a roll of toilet paper on a low tree branch in the back. He had no electricity and no plumbing or running water. But Mike was wise and showed Bert and I how to spear frogs at night in the swamps. He showed us the bat caves and we watched the bats against the night blue sky at dusk. He taught us how to fish for catfish using a vine, hook, stick, and bloodworms that we dug up from a cornfield. He showed us insects and flowers I’ve never seen before or since. We all ran barefoot in the woods until the bottoms of our feet became as tough as raw hide. We developed a Southern Drawl and attended a small Baptist Church where everyone was Black but me and Bert. We were in Mississippi, running wild and free through the woods without a care in the world. Mike was our leader, and he showed us what life was about. He showed us that life was about having fun with whatever happens to be around you.

And as kids, we never knew or cared about the dangers that loomed in our midst. We never knew about the KKK or the animosity between the Whites and Blacks. If Mike knew, he never mentioned it.

Then I got sick again and they took out my left kidney. When I was in the hospital, Niko got in a fight with a water moccasin (a poisonous water snake) and she was poisoned from the bites and developed gangrene--I was always worried about her running off into the swamps at night. I was told she went off into the woods to die. But the day I returned home, Niko came limping into our trailer and stood in front of me as I sat on the couch. My family and I just stared at her in silence and awe that she was still alive. Her glassy eyes lit up and she dropped to the floor, but held her head up, still looking at me. She purred, blinked, then slowly laid her head down and closed her eyes. Then she simply stopped breathing and died. My family said Niko was strong and waited until I returned home before she would die.

They said it was unusual for a cat to die in front of people. I still remember the quiet times Niko and I spent together in the woods. We would just sit next to each other and silently enjoy the nature around us, and enjoy each other’s company. The silent understanding and connection we had gave us an even stronger bond then I shared with my ‘comrades’. I loved Niko, and she loved me--in Mississippi.


madman said...

Inreresting post--but:

One girl stuck her head out the window and caught her long hair on a tree branch. It ripped her hair right off and she crashed into the window frame like a rag doll. She had been scalped alive, but died of a broken neck

This little girl got three sentences and Niko got 6 paragraphs. Niko had to be a hell of a pet!

Vince said...

Madman, you have a sharp eye. I’m surprised anyone bothered to read this long post let alone making such a valid observation. I should have just left this incident out considering I also completely neglected to mention ALL of my ‘intimate’ experiences with girls in Mississippi. I don’t know why the cat got priority? I hope this doesn’t suggest I have some kind of inclination towards gayety. (Not that there is anything wrong with being gay.)