Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Peace at Grand Gulf Mississippi

This is added to permit comments to the piece below which were off at the time it was posted, My apologies.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Peace at Grand Gulf Mississippi

It is early May in Mississippi. This place, south of Vicksburg, north of Natchez, and up the road from Port Gibson is less than a mile from the Mississippi River. It should be humid but it is not. The weather is pleasant. The breeze is gentle and cooling and the nights fine for sleeping.

This place, designated as a Military Park by the State of Mississippi, looks nothing at all like where yellow fever and cholera killed, a tornado struck, the river raged, or a War came. It is, on this spring morning, a place of peace and contemplation.

Those who care for these 400 acres are here, but school is nearly over, and spring break has passed, thus no large crowd of knowledge seekers is predicted.

There are forty-two campsites. The day I arrived there were two others in use. One, I was to learn is a man and wife who are here nearly full time. The other, an unusual woman from Dallas Texas brightened my first day with her whimsical, indecisive, and decidedly eccentric nature.

It is hard to understand when you learn of it, just how much tragedy happened before this place became a peaceful monument to its battles with nature and man. It is a park, a monument, a museum, and a burial ground of a town’s people and their dreams.

I arrived with the intention of staying one night. I had been in Natchez all day. The vague plan was to travel on the Natchez Trace the next day. Yet when I saw a small part of this place, I needed more time to understand what had happened here.

I needed the laundry in the morning. It was in an elderly building on a hill above the campground. There was a cool breeze and a view of the road and many acres of rolling lawn. It occurred to me as I sat outside waiting for the washing machines to finish what they had started that the birds and a distant lawnmower were the only sound. The road was empty. It seemed it had been for some time. While trying to concentrate on the book I was reading, I noted the time. Forty-two minutes later, a pick-up truck traveling the road disturbed my auditory peace. I decided if one could not relax in this place, then it could not be done, and at that moment put off any thought of leaving soon.

Miss Texas returned from her tour of the various buildings and battle monuments which she had begun in the early light. She was agog at the sights she had seen and would gladly share all of her insights of them with me had I not told her I was going to tour as soon as I was done. After ten minutes spent in self-debate and consultation with me as to whether the river or the museum was her next best stop, she decided, about the third time it came up, that the river would be better left for the evening to see a sunset. Decision made, she bustled off as she remembered other personal tasks. She proposed to trundle down the hill with my clean laundry having volunteered to leave it at my campsite as I was going the other way. She asked if I thought it safe there. Since I had seen four people in the camping area all day, and was on a first name basis with all of them, I vouchsafed it to be a good assumption. Her eccentricities seemed to annoy some here. I found her amusing and intelligent when she slowed her speech long enough to be well understood.

She said she needed to do some housecleaning. She lived at present in a pickup truck with a turtle shell on the rear so I assumed it was not going to take her long. She was a woman with a confused thought process, but a good heart. She had been a hospice nurse for many years so had, I am sure, brought peace to many.

I went to the museum office to pay for an additional night. My habit of paying for only one night at a time amused the staff. I inquired (as I always did) if it was all right for me to stay another day. Louise, whose sense of humor was not rivaled here, said as she would everyday I was there that I could stay the rest of the year, or the rest of my life, so far as she was concerned as long as I paid her. The incredulous tone of voice used to deliver this dictum was such that it never failed to make me laugh.

After touring a bit to look for photo opportunities for the next day, I went down to the river to watch some barges move up river and marvel at the swift current. I was back at the main museum building by the late afternoon. The man in charge of this vast place was the Executive Director, Bud, known to all as “the boss” or the “ranger.” He was a small, powerful, and quiet man. He was thoughtful, slow to act, but decisive when he did. He was a former employee of the nuclear power plant near Port Gibson. He lived on the grounds here in a house that was built in the 1800’s. He had three dogs. Two were in the yard, while the other, a Jack Russell Terrier named “Tyson,” lived anywhere he wanted on the vast acreage. He roamed the grounds on a nearly constant basis. Bud said some nights he came home and some nights he didn’t. He made rounds early every morning. At night, he might just as likely go to sleep on your campsite as in his house. He would shamelessly beg food from anyone, looked over everyone who came through the gate, and would let you scratch his ears for the several hours if you had the patience and never barked while I was there. I suggested that he knew more about what was happening on the 400 acres than any human did. Bud said he believed that was true.

Everyone who worked here would show up at the museum building office near time for it to close. There seemed no purpose for these gatherings. They all seemed to like each other enough to want to share the day. If you showed up on the porch then, you could get caught up on much of what everyone did, how much lawn had been mowed, buildings repaired, and what would happen tomorrow. It was a bit like a family gathering. I liked that.

Just because the place was quiet most of the time, it was not all of the time. There were occasional bus tours that would use the pavilion for lunch and a few visitors who came down the road. There was not much reason to come down that road unless you intended to visit the Park or lived in the few places beyond it. Motor cycle riders, with women who looked half their age riding behind them who rarely were, would come up from Louisiana on day rides. One such group even knew enough to ask about the submarine that sat on the grounds that had been used as a liquor smuggling boat during Prohibition. It makes one shudder when you see it and contemplate someone actually submerged in it, trying to keep the model T motor that powered it running so that he could stay that way.

Many people have been over the ground of the Park more meticulously than I have. Yet this place might be the best-kept secret in Mississippi. What has been assembled is an interesting history, of not only the military action at Grand Gulf, but also the larger role of this area in the early days of the American South. There are structures from the town that are preserved, and donated ones brought here to be preserved. This is also the site of the cemetery of Grand Gulf.

The “Dog Trot” House was originally a one-room cabin built by Thomas Foster of Scotia before the American Revolution in 1762. An additional room and the “dog trot” feature, quite common in the southeastern United States, was added later. It is a passageway between two halves of the house, which scholars hypothesize, was an “architectural response to climatic conditions.” That means it allowed the breeze to pass through. A learned monograph has been written and the temperatures compared by Aaron Gentry and Sze Mun Lam of Mississippi State University. Who says there are no new intellectual fields to plow when there is grant money available? Added later, was a second floor as family quarters when the lower floor was converted to accommodate travelers as a stagecoach stop. A water wheel which is preserved next to it also came from the same area and is roughly the same age. It was originally used to generate power to light five 50-watt bulbs. The original owner had hoped to produce enough electricity to light his home which, unfortunately, was too far from the lake. When the wheel was sold after his failure to appreciate this fault, it was moved and used to operate a gristmill.

Spanish House is one of the two original structures of Grand Gulf that remain. It was built, as the name implies, at the time when Spain ruled this part of the country. Its proximity to Fort Coburn caused it to be damaged in the battle in 1863 but it has been restored with native timber, and remains, as it was when it was first built.

The original town cemetery is here. The original number of gravesites is actually unknown due to erosive rains that washed some away before the preservation began, but some Union and Confederate soldiers are buried here. Much later, the remains of two black soldiers were interred. They are thought to have fought at the siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana which lasted from May through July 9, 1863, the longest siege of any city in the War and the first time former slaves fought with the Union Army.

The heartbreak of Grand Gulf did not start with the War Between the States (the Civil War if you like, or, as a grade school teacher once famously called it where a friend went to school in North Carolina: “the recent unpleasantness”). It was the merely the exclamation point. All of the towns along the river, particularly those in the South have complicated histories. They were Spanish, then French, then English, some French again, and then finally part of the Union, then not and, now are again. The heyday of Grand Gulf was the 50 years in the early 1800’s. The town was still a town in 1863. Yet it had seen more than its share of disasters. In the 1830’s more than 1500 people lived there. It was the 3rd largest port on the Mississippi River. In 1837, 20 steamboats stopped every week and over 47,000 bales of cotton were exported. It was originally planned for eighty city blocks and 76 were built. For that time, it was considered a “city,” perhaps a large town by today’s standards. It had six doctors, 2 dentists, a hospital, Opera House, mercantile, jewelry stores, a jail, five taverns, three hotels, an insurance company, and a brickyard. It also had a police and fire department, and a town hall. The jail has survived and is here on display. By 1836 all the streets were paved. Natchez thought it such a good idea, it did the same, and Grand Gulf businessmen sold them rock to do it. There were private schools for both boys and girls. At least three churches were in town by 1851. In 1834 it had a newspaper, and as many as three by 1851.

It grew because of its location and the ease that cotton could be brought there for shipment. During its most prosperous times, Yellow Fever struck in 1843, followed the next year by cholera. The fever came again 1853. There had been a fire in 1851. Finally the newspapers began to report the erosion of the town as the course of the river changed. By 1858 the town quite literally began to disappear. By summer of 1863, when the War came, it had already been visited, in only ten years, by a series of unimaginable events, far worse than “Katrina,” or the floods in Iowa. While the number of people affected were much smaller, it is hard to contemplate any town having the will to survive so many disastrous events in one decade. When the Union Navy under Captain Porter and units of General Grant’s Army arrived, there were but 165 souls, more or less, still living there. With its commerce gone and spirit broken, the town found it had one more role to play.

The Battle of Vicksburg was long and big. Few know the role that Grand Gulf played in it. The whole campaign to control the Mississippi River was a complicated one and Union forces fought all the way to Louisiana on its banks. Much of this was skirmishing, but its purpose was to take the river away as an avenue of commerce to the Confederacy. In 1862, the decision was made to take a sizeable Union fleet and move it up river to destroy or capture the major trading centers of the time, Natchez, Vicksburg, and New Orleans. While the fleet moved up river, a still obscure Union General named U.S.Grant was moving troops from Illinois and Indiana down the river to capture forts along the way. After Fort Donnelson fell, Grant’s notoriety grew and he was given the charge to take Vicksburg.

The gunboats of the fleet, under Admiral Porter managed to get above the bluffs at Vicksburg, which were not yet fully fortified, and help Grant get down river by opening a second front in most of the battles that he had to fight to reach Vicksburg. By now, other elements of the fleet had secured New Orleans and Natchez. Only Vicksburg remained as a viable western trans-shipping point for cotton to Europe, the Confederacy’s only true source of revenue in the War years. Porter tried shelling the city into submission and failed due to the height of the bluffs and the Confederate ability to fire efficiently down on the ships. The northern approaches were well defended so Grant had little chance to march on the city.

Porter and Grant decided to try a different approach. It would eventually involve Grand Gulf. The iron sided vessels were painted black and tried to run past the guns while hugging the bank on the Louisiana side at night. Porter learned quickly that they were not out of range of the artillery on the bluffs. When one disabled gunboat went adrift and down river close in to the cliffs, Porter serendipitously found his route. The guns could not be aimed down, or be “suppressed” in artillery terms, and the gunboats got past the city. Grant, meanwhile, kept the main force on the other side of the river and went well south of the city. He crossed the river at Bayou Pierre with little or no resistance. Then he moved generally north and east. Porter, meanwhile, ordered to Grand Gulf, came to Fort Cobun and Fort Wade, and shelled what was left of the town. Under the Command of General John Bowen, the Confederate troops, with the use of “flying batteries” of artillery disabled one of the gunboats and damaged another.

The resistance was effective enough that the boats withdrew and Army units had to be put ashore south of the town to dislodge Bowen. The two forts were connected by a covered trench which was used to great effect by the troops to stop the ships. However, with the arrival of the land force, the defenders saw the end, blew up the remaining magazines, and fled to the east toward Jackson. It was the end of a city and an era. What had once been a center of commerce and culture was burned by the Union troops, and, that place of fever, fire, and eroding high river water was abandoned. The remaining residents drifted away and it simple ceased to exist. No attempt to revive it was ever made.

The rifle pits, just depressions in the ground, remain near the cemetery to mark where the forts once were and some artillery pieces can be found. Until the Military Park was dedicated by the State, and the collection of artifacts began, it was simply another bend in the river not much different from when the mound building Indian tribes had come in 1500 BC.

Grant and his Army continued to the East through Jackson and then turned back toward Vicksburg from there having had enough of the river approaches. They laid siege to the city for 43 days. On July 4, 1863, the same day as the Union victory at Gettysburg, the city fell and for the rest of the war, the practical use of the river for commerce ended for the Confederate States of America.

As you contemplate a sunset over the river now, the magnolia trees in bloom, the green grass, and the beauty of the 400 acres dedicated to the memory of Grand Gulf, this carnage and natural disaster is hard to imagine.

There is such peace and beauty here. It has been said that it can take great pain to create beauty and peace. A terrible price was paid here to allow one to enjoy what was realized from that effort.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Making "The Right Stuff"

The owner of the half-empty campground on a quiet lake here in the Florida panhandle near Pensacola is both a friendly and humorous host. He is enjoying this work as retirement from what he refers to only as “more arduous endeavors.” He has a golf cart in which he wanders the property picking up trash or delivering a bag of mulch somewhere. He is always out in the early morning. A pair of geese waits for him on the lawn. He races them each day, going only fast enough to appear to be losing as they run out in front. When they think he will overtake them, they cheat and fly off. It is fun to watch. He thinks it great sport and looks forward to it everyday.

This is a personal stop. I have come here to see the first place I was stationed in my short and vainglorious Navy career. The things I see here stir memories. The places and people of my life then were special. The places remain. The people are gone now one way or the other. Maturity came to me here, slowly but inevitably. It came because of these people I knew, liked, and learned from in this southern Navy town where they first disabused me of my individuality, then taught me much about trusting others, and finally what were to me the mysterious skills of aviation.
My visit now had a simple purpose. I wanted to see, in the reflection that can come with age, the places I that had so impressed me that I remembered them with such utter clarity. In the very early dark of a warm spring morning, I drove to the main base of the Naval Air Station Pensacola. The Marines guards at the gate are still as ramrod straight and as polite as ever. They are children, of course. They may not even have been born when I was here as an Aviation Officer Candidate. Perhaps their uncles stood where they do now and saluted the blue decal on the front bumper of one of my flashy cars as I, perhaps a year or two their senior nodded sagely, and went through the gate at that signal to do so.
This morning I must stop, as there are questions about where I am going at this ungodly hour, a smile in response to my ID card, and a pass issued to permit me to have my vehicle on the base for the day. In the end, there is the quiet “yes sir” from a Lance Corporal, and the privilege of a salute. I remember back then that when a gate guard saluted me in my car or a plane handler saluted an aircraft as we taxied it seemed a sign of respect. I found the salute an arcane practice when doing nothing more than walking around the base back then. I still do not know why. Navy tradition does not permit a return salute while in a vehicle. When these Marines snap smartly to attention and salute as you pass, you are only to acknowledge it by a nod of the head or lifting of a hand from the steering wheel. Perhaps this lack of a need to respond and yet in a way let them know that you acknowledge the privilege is what made it special. Perhaps it is because in our youthful egomania then we believed they were doing it because they could tell by some intuitive sense that we were one of those with The Right Stuff.
Thomas Wolfe wrote of them in his book of that name, which later became a badly adapted movie. He was referring to the best among military aviators. He likened the selection process of those that had “it” to a pyramid. There were those who were good enough to do it, to learn the necessary mechanical skills as those that made up its base, and those who had refined the skills to some degree as the middle. At the top, the smallest part of the pyramid, were those with the skill to do it so well, it is an art. In Wolfe’s view, the original group of seven astronauts came from this group, as did Chuck Yeager--who first broke the sound barrier-- other test pilots, and those that flew the very highest performance aircraft. Pensacola was then and is now the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” as the literature at the museum will later point out. Those of the Navy and Marine Corps with “The Right Stuff” are molded here.
I parked on a street in the Boot Camp area and went down the walk to the small crest that overlooks this spotless and well manicured place. The morning formation and inspection was forming as it had every morning I was here and all the mornings since in the street in front of the same three Georgian style brick structures that housed the Corps of Cadets when I was here. These are “90 Day Wonders” who would soon be, by Act of Congress and their training, Officers and Gentlemen/women. Those here in these ranks have the same anxieties, hopes, and dreams that I did. They are all wondering at some level if, at the end of this hell of 16 weeks, and basic flight training they are to be judged good enough and smart enough to be taught to fly the fastest planes in the world.
They are, as always, in a uniform appropriate for the weather of the day. Today, when it will reach 85 degrees, it is “Tropical tans and low-quarter blacks” in the argot of this place. In English, that means they are wearing khaki trousers and short-sleeved shirts open at the neck and highly polished black dress shoes of ankle height. They all knew this was the uniform because it had been posted on the bulletin board last night and the Battalion Cadet Officer of the Day had confirmed it on the speaker system as he roused them abruptly from their dreamless sleep when Reveille was sounded at 0430. That is the last chance to give information that might have changed from the night before. One learns to awaken quickly to absorb such things, since, had rain come during the night, as it will in this Gulf Coast town, the Plan of the Day (a.k.a. the POD) posted the night before would have made the information on it about the uniform or place of inspection obsolete. With only ten minutes to get ready for the day, it is not a time of leisurely conjecture.
The Battalion Cadet Officer of the Day is the honorific given to a “boot” from a class somewhere midway through this sixteen-week ordeal. It was his responsibility last night to guard the Battalion well and to pass on any new information at this, the only opportunity. This is practice for them, this learning how to work in sleep deprivation when one is required to “stand watch” aboard ship, just as for all of us, learning that “halls” were now “passageways” and “stairs” were now “ladders” and the lower floor was “below” and the upper, “topside” and that walls were now “bulkheads.” Drill Sergeants were not amused if these terms were forgotten.
During my time here, reveille had sounded on a few occasions during an unexpected heavy rain. The new information was passed on and our hectic lives went on as the Navy had planned. On one however, the unfortunate fellow on duty forgot to include a few essential facts, which, to all but a first week recruit, were obvious, but since not changed, remained the POD. He failed to mention that the inspection was to be held indoors at our bunks rather than in the very wet street. He also failed to tell us that the shoes to be worn had been changed and raincoats were to be carried or worn if required.
Since there are three buildings, there are three such Cadet guardians of the night. We lesser beings presumed that the other Battalions had made the necessary changes. Loud protests were hooted down the passageways and ladder wells toward the poor young man in the office “below.” Realizing his mistake, he was both embarrassed and choking on his own voice now since he couldn’t be sure the Battalion Drill Instructor was not already in his office down the passageway at this early hour, listening. Pensacola has Marine Gunnery Sergeants as Drill Instructors who, if such a thing is possible, can make one positively fear for one’s life by the mere use of his voice. The lad finally handed the microphone to one of the more junior cadets that had helped him keep order in the silent battalion through this very short night, who announced the change.
It would be nice to report that this was a character building experience for this young, soon to be commissioned fellow, but alas, it was not. Since not in my “week,” thus not my Boot Camp class, I did not know him well, but I did know him to be a good cadet. After he had been verbally reprimanded by the week’s Cadet Officers assigned to the battalion, the DI, and the Lieutenant, he was “put on report” and assigned “tours” to march—relentlessly back and forth for hours on the parade ground with a rifle on his shoulder all day Saturday--for the age-old Navy crime known simply as “screwing up.” He soon quit the program, “dropped at his own request.” He went to the fleet as a “Dixie Cup.” This was our less than flattering term for those who did not complete the program and finished whatever Navy obligation they had as enlisted men wearing the traditional round Navy white hat which, when viewed from above, looks exactly like the container of that name. Busy, as we all were, we shrugged and, if we thought of it at all when such things happened, decided that he really didn’t want to fly. In retrospect, I am not sure. He may have dreamt of flying all his life. At the time, we were too busy to anything but dismissive in our judgment. It is not a gentle place, and there is little time for introspection. If someone dropped out while we endured this frenzied pace, we forgot them. They disappeared from our conscious thought. They didn’t have “it.” They were no longer a part of the constant tension and pressure. They ceased to exist. There is cruelness in that but a protective instinct as well. Upon reflection these are not feelings of which one is always proud.
On this beautiful spring morning, in a new century, the formation looked neat and rigid. The rituals of the inspection and minor harassments were the same. There was a singular and startling difference. Nearly a third of those now standing at rigid attention in the street awaiting inspection, questions, and verbal abuse from their Drill Instructor’s and this week’s Cadet Officer’s, were women. How odd. I had forgotten. I expected, I suppose, to hold up a mirror and see a reflection. Instead, I saw today’s Navy, where Aviation Officer Candidates come, not only all sizes and shapes, but now of both sexes as well.
A Cadet Officer approached from behind and asked if I needed something. When I turned, I noted the three bar emblem of a Cadet Battalion Commander on the uniform collar. She seemed quite pleasant, yet had a clear, firm sound of command in her voice. I said no, as I pointed off toward the formation, I was only here to try to remember what it was like to be that young, believe I was that smart, and have that much energy so early in the morning. She looked me over and smiled a smile that made my day. She seemed to decide I was not a danger to her or others. We then engaged in the small talk of the “brotherhood,” about the plane I flew and what aircraft carriers I flew from and the rest. Next week she too, would begin the same incredible journey to see whether she had the “right stuff.” I wished her well. She asked that I enjoy my return here and moved on to her morning duties with a military bearing many of my colleagues would have envied.
The inspection ended and the ranks marched off to various venues to begin the long, sometimes painful day that would end in exhaustion at 10 PM that night with “Taps.”
Each class, from week two through fourteen is on a different schedule. In week fifteen, the week before your last, you are taken to a Florida swamp to learn the rudimentary techniques of evasion and escape. Such skills would be refined with far more horrid experiences, should you “reach the fleet,” the term used for the completion of training.
In your last week, you are in “charge” as a “Cadet Officer.” It is a euphemism of course, since you were still practicing and did little independently. The discipline was more lax and the expectations higher, but you were never really on your own.
The rank you were assigned determined your duties, but more importantly, the rank you attained was determined by your peers as well as your academic and physical training marks. The greatest weight is given peer ranking. Each week, we graded the three highest cadets in our class. The criteria are in large part for selflessness and teamwork. It is a good system. I am sure there were those who ranked each other high because they were friends, but most did it for other reasons. If someone returned early from a weekend off and waxed the floors in the common areas instead of catching a nap, for example. Selflessness was an important ingredient in enduring this craziness. It was one of the reasons why I had been impressed by the woman I had met. She held the second highest rank a Cadet Officer could hold. There are only three Battalion Commanders. That her athleticism and academics were good enough and, more importantly, her peers thought enough of her to rank her that high was to me testament that the entrenched machismo culture of the Navy and particularly of naval aviation could change.
When the morning formations had dispersed, I went to the new Aviation Museum. It is a most impressive place and a reminder of how proud the Navy and Marines are of their Aviator heroes. There was much history here, including some images even I remembered.
I left the base after lunch and handed my pass to the guard. He took it, and in perhaps an involuntary gesture borne of training and practice, stiffened and snapped off one more perfect salute, which gave the man driving the van one last smile. I nodded, waved, and went on.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Buddy n' Boots--Part II

Buddy includes two tours in Vietnam with the Army on his resume. He then worked for the Navy as a civilian and had 33 years of federal service when he retired. Originally from Meridian Mississippi, he started traveling in a van about 10 years ago. He liked it and kept buying bigger ones. He lives with and cares for only Boots. He spends much of his time thinking and reading. He listens to the radio, reads newspapers, and prefers the History Channel if television is in his plans. He sits in a chair outside the coach door, plays with Boots, and thinks about the meaning of life, as he knows it. He has a limitless curiosity about people and places and current events and is a wonderful storyteller once he gets over his shyness with strangers.

He left school at 10 when in the third grade to help his father run their farm. He liked that better than school. He enlisted in the Army at 20. Having figured out that the more stripes on your sleeve, the more money in your pocket, he had his high school diploma and was a Sergeant. He did nine years. He decided to leave the Army when he was due to re-enlist one month short of finishing his second tour in Vietnam. The consequences of reenlistment in those days were 30 days combat leave and a return trip to that Southeast Asian paradise for 365 more days. He decided that it was a good time for him to go.

He applied for an apprenticeship program, and by the time the Navy sent him to retirement, he had become a master metalworker on aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines at the Norfolk, Virginia shipyard. He can't think of a reason to regret his career or retiring and has insight that is simple, direct, and logical. He at times has trouble expressing what he means with precision thus seeming less eloquent than he really is but he could be in a room with any group of Television Talking Heads and he would more than hold his own. He is as devoted to his own continuing education as his southern roots and Boots. When you talk to Buddy, Studs Terkel comes to mind. There are people at Harvard and Yale not fit to carry his books. His patience appears to be infinite. He does not wear his beliefs on his sleeve, but he will talk about and defend them with quiet, reasoned passion. He voted to leave the Confederate Stars and Bars as part of the flag of the state of Mississippi. He will tell you, if you ask that in a democratic society the vote was the will of the people, and it was the will of the people to retain them. If it had gone the other way, he says he would have accepted that. He believes it has nothing to do with the south's segregationist past. It is only a symbol of its history and he is proud enough of it that he will give you a pin with the flag on it. You do not have to agree with him or wear it, only promise you won’t throw it away.

Our daily conversations would start over something banal when I wandered down to his campsite to find him softly tossing a ball or grooming Buddy and drinking coffee under the awning of his camper. Buddy would then settle in a chair and speak in a curious rhetorical way much of the time, asking cosmic questions about a world he said was too complex for his understanding. He said he was a typical poor rural Mississippi boy, who quit school as is common here to “do other things.” Here, that could mean to take care of a family, run the streets, work a farm, or because school didn't seem relevant. He believes that he had the chance to do what he had done in his life because of both luck and design. The luck (bad or good) was that his daddy died, and the farm was sold by his Mother and Buddy went in the Army and learned what was important. It was hard, Buddy admitted as he worked to compete with others while trying to make up the reading and learning deficit and overcome the feeling of inferiority while he caught up with his peers. He was angry that he never had the chances they had. Yet Buddy had been stubborn and curious, and had enough natural intelligence to know that leaving school when he did was not the correct decision. He could admit he had made the wrong decision and smart enough too to do something about it despite the time it took, a long and humbling time to be sure, to make up for it. There were several young men who worked in and around the campground who, as they say, were “similarly circumstanced.” Buddy n’ Boots spent time with them under the shade trees in the late afternoon trying to explain it all.
These and other rural southern truths are things that Buddy understands and can talk about to someone who knows nothing about them. He believes many rural southern whites are dirt poor because they toss their chance at education the minute they can so that they can hunt and fish and help Daddy run the farm. Southern males identify strongly with their fathers. They don’t come from single parent homes much and even if they do Daddy is their hero and role model, no matter what jail he may be in now. Since Daddy likely did the same thing, the circle is perpetuated. Buddy did it because he thought it right and had received very little counsel or guidance from a substandard school system overwhelmed by the sheer numbers which required attention. Buddy and so many others like him never got any help thinking through the consequence of his decision. They are the "Kleenex' of southern society, poor whites perceived to be of less than average intelligence, tossed away to be the security guards at campgrounds, or do other menial work and fend for themselves. They become angry and develop a sense of righteousness. As they grow older they believe even more strongly that what they did was the right thing and defend it irrationally. As Buddy points out, not many 10-year-old kids know the right thing to do. The same kid does know, maybe five, or ten years later. Rather than try to rectify it by trying to find a better life, hard as that may be, they accept the earlier decision because of a false pride or belief that they couldn't make a mistake and never really are at peace with themselves. They remain angry. They don't like educated people, because they never had the chance themselves. It is their reason to explain why they are always being "messed with" by the system, the government, the boss, the DMV, and a host of other enemies real and imagined.
If these sound like the same sort of problems found in South Central Los Angeles or Southeast Washington, D.C., they are. The ethnicity is different and the people they blame, but the anger and inadequacies are the same. Buddy spends time thinking about that too and wondering how we can make it better, how to get them to make the leap it will take to get out of the circle of anger and poverty and hate. He knows it isn’t easy. It wasn’t easy to convince him those many years ago.
He thinks these things these days as he sits in his chair outside the door of his Motor Coach while he watches Boots chase a ball or chew a bone. He does not believe that what he has done proves anything. Yet, the man I talked to was a man who improves the world by his existence. He has worked hard, still likes, cares about, and helps the people he meets, and a little sick dog he didn’t have to care about at all.
Buddy isn’t finished. When he and Boots move on he talks of home, of Meridian, of trying to help the boys there understand that time is important, that doing something other than getting angry everyday is useful and good. He wants to try to do that. He has a plan he says with his characteristic soft chuckle and a tap on the side of his head. He will go back there and try to make it work.
Buddy believes that if you remain as inquisitive about what make things work you remain intellectually stimulated. If he does a good deed for a person, he is improved by the act and that person might do one as a result.In a pine grove in Mississippi you learn that a man can make a difference. It is not what you expected to find here, but it was here nonetheless. It is good to know when you leave the next day that Buddy will stay until Boots is well and help those that he can here in this quiet place and then again when they move on together