Meandering reflections about blogging and friendship

I’ve been dumping blogs from my reading list—blogs that no longer exist, blogs that have gone private, blogs owned by people who never visit my blog, and blogs that have been inactive for years. This is a sad task, but I hate clutter.

I’m embarrassed to admit that that I don’t have time for bloggers who don’t read my blog unless their blogs are devoted to some longterm or shorterm interest of mine, and the latter blogs I eventually drop. For instance, I just dropped a blog devoted to lynchings because I felt that I had learned enough about the subject, and because I’m depressed enough without continually exposing myself to long ago tragedies (I even wonder if it makes sense to learn as much as I do about current tragedies).

My goal in blogging is to, in the main, give my posts greater context than simply writing about my personal life. Even in my latest post about cats, I tried to communicate what I’ve learned about cats that might be both entertaining and instructive rather than simply entertaining. Even so, I’ve noticed that some of my most popular posts are entirely self-focused—posts about my health, for example, and I’m fine with that because such posts humanize a person. Even so, if personal news is all you write, I have to think of you as a very close friend indeed if I’m to regularly read your blog.

The day that a blogger stops posting is usually the day he ends his friendships with other bloggers. I regard this as a sad outcome of all because it implies that his blog friends were not so important as he gave them reason to think. I’ve had four blogger friends who I know to have died, but I suspect it is true of others who abruptly dropped out of sight.

Being able to verify that ex-bloggers are still alive is one reason that I like to have their contact information. Another is that the trust this entails means that we’re not just people who share an interest in blogging, but that our friendship transcends out blogs. Even if we never write or phone, it means a lot to me to know how to get in touch, especially if the contact information includes a home address and phone number. My heart will forever be warmed when I recollect that the very first blogger who gave me these things had been recently stalked by another blogger.

I used to wonder if it was even possible to be deeply devoted to someone whom I only know on the Internet, and the answer is yes. True, blogging is a limited kind of friendship, but then face-to-face friendships are also limited, especially if my face-to-face friend has no interest in my blog. The reason for this is that, compared to written communication, the quality of my spoken communication is lacking because I can’t take long pauses or edit myself. I have a friend who imagines that the purpose of such pausing and editing is to present myself in a favorable light at the expense of honesty, his belief being that the first thought that comes out of a person’s mouth is more likely to be the truth. I find his analysis appalling because formulating my thoughts is like digging with a shovel in that the more time I’m allowed, the deeper I can go. I simply need more time to think than conversation allows, so to overcome what is to me an unnatural restriction, I sometimes take such lengthy pauses that people try to hurry me along. It’s also the case in conversation that the listener has no time to reflect upon what was just said without missing that which follows.

I don’t mean to suggest that blogging necessarily leads to depth or honesty. In fact, one of my disappointments with blogging is that many blogs are consistently shallow. Many, if not most, bloggers don’t want to discuss either their posts or the posts of others, and I suspect that many blog visitors only visit other blogs so that those bloggers will visit their blogs. But without an exchange of thoughts, how does anyone even know that his posts are being read? “Interesting post” is what advertisers write, and many bloggers write little more than advertisers, only while advertisers are looking for money, it seems to me that many blog owners are willing to settle for the illusion of being read

Maybe I am being overly cynical based upon the fact that I have no way to know what’s going through a person’s mind unless they tell me, but my doubt comes from the fact that they don’t necessarily tell me. I can but say that I would greatly prefer to have 20 readers who truly care about what I write than my current list of 261, many of whom probably don’t even remember that they are on my “followers” list. A lengthy blogroll is as meaningless as a lengthy “friends” list on Facebook, but I didn’t realize this when I started blogging. At the time, I looked forward to feeling validated by having a lot of readers and to building an international community of blogging friends. While these things have occurred to some extent, they aren't represented by my relatively long list of supposed “followers.”

I’ve also noticed that the number of comments that accumulate following a given post isn’t a function of the quality of the post but the poster’s willingness to visit a lot of other people’s blogs. Another disappointment is that I’ve been naive enough to trust that fellow bloggers meant it when they said they would always be my friends. My early blogging years were marked by idealism in that many of us came to blogging back then in the belief that the blogging world was purer and deeper than the face-to-face world. We imagined that, through blogging, we could meet at a heart level, and that what we gave of ourselves and to one another would remain for the rest of our lives, but this didn’t usually happen.

Other than my sister, Anne, I don’t know a single person whom I first knew face-to-face who—to my knowledge—ever reads my blog, and this has led me to conclude that my face-to-face friends lack interest in knowing me on a deep level. I don’t mean to imply that the only friendships that matter are those that contain profound sharing because being there for one another in more prosaic ways is equally important. I also don’t mean to imply that blog friends are better people because bloggers are as prone to anger and pettiness as anyone else. I will say this: many of those who got mad and went away (from my blog) were liberals who touted a respect of diversity when the only diversity that they respected was diversity that mirrored their own thinking. You can’t show someone a better way by dumping him from your life, yet the self-proclaimed diversity lovers are as prone to this as are conservatives.

I have no friendships that aren’t seriously lacking. Peggy, Brewsky, Ollie, and Scully, are with me in an inner sphere with everyone else being in spheres at varying distances. This is not what I want in life, but it’s what I have, and my greatest problem is that I don’t how I would survive if I lost Peggy. The older we men become, the more the loss of our spouse presents a grave problem (ha). When we were kids and young adults, we had a great many friends, but we have since lost them at a higher rate than they’ve been replaced (Edwin A. Robinson wrote about this in “Mr. Flood’s Party”*). By contrast, when women get beyond early rivalries and the busyness of jobs and children, their friendship circles tend to increase. For this reason and others, women’s declining years are often happier than men’s. In fact, the older a man becomes, the greater his risk of suicide. I think it possible that this will be how I die, but I don’t plan to do it anytime soon.

I am sometimes complimented on my willingness to make myself vulnerable by sharing as deeply as I do on my blog, but if I felt that vulnerable, I would either close my blog to uninvited readers or I wouldn’t divulge as much as I do. I will say that in all the years I’ve been blogging, I haven’t been the recipient of anymore abuse than what I’ve received in my face-to-face life. If you want to be abused, upload films onto Youtube because while any mean-spirited moron can watch a film, it takes at least a little intelligence to be interested in reading a multiple page post.


The murder of the Bearden brothers; Brookhaven's last lynching

Brookhaven in the '40s--the Inez Hotel still stands
The following appeared in The Lincoln County Times (Brookhaven, Mississippi) on Thursday, July 5, 1928, and recounts the same double lynching that my father told me about and that I posted an oral history of two posts ago. I’ve rearranged the convoluted paragraphs for clarity, and for the same reason I’ll now provide a four-person list of the main characters:

Stanley Bearden, a 24-year-old black father whose wife had died a week earlier, and who owed $6 to a white man.

James Bearden, Stanley Bearden’s 25-year-old brother.

Caby Byrnes, the white man to whom Stanley Bearden owed money.

Claude Byrnes, Caby Byrnes’ brother.

Now follows the newspaper account:

Two negroes, Stanley and James Bearden, brothers, were taken from the Lincoln county jail early Friday night and lynched.

The trouble which lead to the lynching commenced late Friday morning when Caby Byrnes insisted on payment of a $6 bill which James Bearden owed him. Mr Byrnes had tackled Bearden for the bill earlier in the day and Bearden had promised to see about it right away. After awhile he returned followed in a few moments by his brother Stanley. In discussing the bill further it is understood that Bearden became extremely imprudent whereupon Mr. Byrnes hit him in the face with his fist.

In the meantime, [Claude] Byrnes, who happened to be passing near, noticed that his brother was in danger and rushing to the scene hit James Bearden with the flat side of a shovel just after the negro struck Caby Byrnes on the head with a piece of iron, knocking him to the ground. Stanley Bearden then got into the fight and opened fire on Claude Byrnes, one bullet striking him in the shoulder and another in the shoulder and another piercing one leg breaking the bone and entering the other.

Deputy Sheriff Charles Brister who reached the scene just then, arrested James Bearden without much trouble and took a shot at Stanley Bearden as he made escape through the back of the repair shop in front of which the fight occurred. Archie Smith and Alfred Day, at their work in a barber shop near by, came out during the shooting to assist the Byrnes's in their fight with the negroes with the result that Stanley Bearden fired a shot at both of them, luckily with bad aim.

After making his escape through the back of the shop a crowd chased him up the railroad several blocks until he turned and ran to his home near the Cotton Oil Mill. During the chase several persons started to head the fleeing negro off but were dissuaded by the sight of the automatic pistol he was flourishing and firing.

After the crowd arrived at Bearden’s house volley after volley of bullets were exchanged between the officers and the fugitive until the latter weak from wounds was brought from the house, gun still in hand. He was rushed to the county jail where Dr. Frizell, after examination, stated that despite five wounds he was not desperately hurt. [redundant sentence omitted]

There had been threats of the impending action throughout the afternoon and the sheriff, failing in his efforts to secure a guard of militia, had under him only a handful of deputies who were unable to offer any effective resistance to the large and well armed mob. No shots were fired by the officers defending the jail, only pleas and some physical resistance being offered. Starting at about dusk, and despite the pleading of several of the city's most respected and worthy citizens, among others, Rev. P. D. Hardin, W. D. Davis, Hon. J. A. Naul and Hon. T. Brady, Jr., the mob worked about an hour on the door of the jail, to which the sheriff refused to turn over the keys, and finally came out with two negroes, one of whom they soon discovered was not wanted. They then returned and managed to find the other, James Bearden, who was hiding in the rafters of the jail.

Both negroes were then taken to the Old Brook Bridge and James, in the sight of his brother, was strung to a small nearby tree and shot to death. Stanley was then taken back to Brookhaven and dragged through the streets of the city and through the negro quarters by a truck which was followed by a possession of other automobiles. Leaving the city the party proceeded several miles north and hung what was left of the mutilated body of Stanley Bearden to another tree.

Parts of the large crowd of men, women and children who had gathered at the courthouse to see the lynching followed the cars either to Old Brook or to the point north of town, and viewed the indescribably revolting spectacles to be found at those places.A short while afterward the bodies were taken in charge by Hartman's undertaking establishment and brought back to Brookhaven, preceding which an inquest was held. The corners jury, composed of B. B. Boyt, E. P. Martin, J. C. Martin, George Stanley, R. C. Douglass and Tom Crawford, pronounced James Bearden dead from gunshot wounds inflicted by parties unknown and Stanley Bearden dead from being dragged behind an auto driven by persons unknown.

James Bearden, whose wife died about a week before his lynching, is survived by one child and Stanley is survived by a wife and two children.


The more such accounts I read, the more upset I become. Alfred Day was my barber, and I would have known others who either remained silent or participated in the lynchings.

Because such crimes occurred so often and with such flimsy pretexts, involved prolonged and excruciating torture, and were attended by entire families; I suspect that, like the Roman coliseum atrocities, their main focus wasn't the protection of society--as was claimed--but sadistic entertainment. Just as some men take their families to cock-fights, the men of my town took their wives and children to see human beings shot, burned, beaten, suffocated, and dragged behind cars.

Did my townsmen get erections upon hearing the screams of men being tortured to death, and were they aroused by remembering those screams when they were having sex? Did their hearts race with pleasure when they hoisted a man off the ground by his neck and watched him “breath his last amid the most sickening convulsions”? Did couples smile at one another over their morning grits in anticipation of the next time they had an excuse to murder someone, confident in the knowledge that no white man in Mississippi had ever been convicted of killing a “nigger”?

Such were the people among whom I grew up. I had thought they were kind; I had thought they were Christian; I had thought they loved and protected children. Now, what am I to think but that my town was composed of demons and cowards? The white people didn’t speak-up; the black people didn’t speak up; every level of government remained silent, and the newspapers thought it prudent to editorialize about other matters.

Brookhaven’s last lynching occurred in broad daylight in front of the courthouse on August 13, 1955; I was six years old. After being beaten and shot, Lamar Smith (pictured) crawled under a nandina bush where, according to some accounts, he lingered in agony for hours before dying. Sheriff Robert E. Case and dozens of others witnessed the crime and allowed the bloodied murderers to walk away unhindered, but no one tried to help the 63-year-old farmer, war veteran, and voting rights activist who, despite the entreaties of his friends, had tried to deliver the absentee ballots of black people who were afraid to vote in person.

Who was worse, the three men who beat and shot Lamar Smith, or the scores of witnesses who denied seeing it happen? I like to think that I would have intervened, but would I? It's just too damned easy to look at crimes that happened long ago and far away, and come away feeling superior to dead criminals and their dead abettors, but it's my turn now, and what I am doing? Truth be known, the evil of the world has all but taken the life out of me. So many good people have given so much, and for what

Taken as a whole, our species is too bad for words and too sad for tears, and the only way I can survive is to attempt to rejoice in such good as I am able to find. As the Bible puts it: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is fair, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable; if there be any excellence, if there be anything worthy of praise, think on these things. Yet, the deeds of the best shine brightest against the actions of the worst because it is against the darkness of evil that good assumes its star-like purity. Surely, even the weakest among usand I feign no humility by describing myself as suchcan but find encouragement in remembering a man like Lamar Smith, and so it is that I offer his example for your own consideration.

Looking back to the sixties—gays, Jews, and blacks

I grew-up among people who couldn’t have told you what a blackeyed-susan was, because the only word they knew for the flower was “nigger head” or “nigger navel.” Few people today realize that white people didn’t always intend the word nigger as an insult, but more often as casual slang as opposed to the formal—and small-casednegro.

When I was about ten, I started to worry that if I got too close to a black person, his germs might settle upon me like a noxious fog. This fear was partly societal, partly due to my mother’s phobia of germs, and partly due to the fact that Mississippi is a very hot and humid place and I could detect what I considered an unfavorable difference between the smell of black people’s sweat and that of white people’s sweat. Yet, there was a time when I was younger that I played with black children and rode in a farm wagon with a black family. Later on, when I was in high school, one of my best friends was black, so I only held the aforementioned attitude during the relatively short time when I didn’t know a single black person despite being surrounded by them.

Not only were water fountains and toilet facilities segregated, entrances to buildings were often separate, and even if a restaurant served black people, they would have to order from an outside window. The black area of Brookhaven was called “Little Egypt,” and, unlike the white parts of town, it had no curbs or sidewalks. Black people were exposed to constant reminders that they weren’t as good as white people, yet there were more blacks than whites in many Mississippi towns, including Brookhaven.*

I was a student at Brookhaven High when it was integrated by two black girls and a black boy in 1966. We had a no-nonsense principal whose last name was Roach, and he told us over the intercom that he wasn’t going to allow any trouble, so there wasn’t any, at least physically. Emotionally, it was another story, what with those kids being continually met with hostile stares and muttered curses. The level of hatred was so intense that it scared me even though I wasn’t on the receiving end. I felt sorry for those kids, but I never offered so much as a friendly smile because I was terrified, and because I halfway believed the common argument that black people only wanted to go to white schools because they hated their own race. If I had been those kids’ parents, I don’t think I would have let them go through such an ordeal.

Every year, Brookhaven’s Spanish class would visit Monterrey, Mexico. One year, a busload of Mexican kids visited Brookhaven. They were dark-skinned, so a lot of the boys called them niggers and told them to get the fuck out of Mississippi. I felt sorry for those Mexicans because they would have had no idea why they were being attacked or even what some of the words meant, but, again, I didn’t say anything because I was too scared. I don’t feel guilt for how others of my race treated dark skinned people, but I very much feel guilt for not supporting those people.

In 1967, I was driving home after a date when I saw a cross being burned in a white family’s yard, and I felt sorry for them and wondered what they had done to provoke the Klan. I sometimes found Klan leaflets in my family’s driveway, and I fed on a steady diet of racist newspaper editorials. The best known was Jimmy Ward’s “Covering the Crossroads” that appeared daily on the front page of the Jackson Daily News. Ward believed that God had meant for black people to be subservient and wrote that, “Our negroes were happy until Communist-inspired outside agitators stirred them up.”

Mississippi’s white population commonly believed that black people were by nature childlike and immoral, and needed white people to keep them in line for the good of all. “Outside agitators” were seen as either ignorant of the limitations of black people (many of them having come from areas of the North that had but few black people) and were therefore “dupes of the Communists,” or else they were “Communist infiltrators
whose goal was to “destroy America by fomenting unrest among its negroes.” The impression one got from the national media was that the entire country—if not the world—was united in its contempt for the white people of the South, so when riots started happening in other places, white Southerners rejoiced that “the Yankee chickens have come home to roost.”

Upon seeing a succession of bereaved black parents on the news, parents whose many children had died in one of the devastating house fires that were common among poor blacks who heated their flimsy homes with gas space heaters, my mother said, “I guess negroes grieve for their loved ones just like we do.”

When I called a black customer in my parents’ country store “ma’am,” my mother told me that black women didn’t deserve the same respect as white women. My father thought better of black people. When a rumor went around that a group of black people might try to visit our church, my father was asked to stand guard at the door, but he said he wouldn’t do it because, “This is God’s house, and if God doesn’t want them here, then God can keep them out.” (When I was in college, I often visited black churches, and was always affectionately welcomed.) My father’s views were so liberal that if my sister or I had wanted to marry a black person, I don’t think he would have objected, but it sure would have upset our mother because she was not only bigoted, she also cared deeply about
making a good appearance.

Dad sometimes employed a black preacher—Reverend Truly Westbrook—as a carpenter’s helper, and the two became friends. Truly was a loving man, but he didn’t think much of his own race. One day, he told my father that he knew my father was smarter than he because he was black. He also told me that the hand of God was upon me, and that I was going to become a preacher. I never became a preacher, but I was touched that Truly thought so well of me. My father was a bad-tempered man who was in the habit of cursing loudly and scarily pretty much all day everyday. He took this behavior to the point of acting insane, and I could tell that it hurt Truly to listen to it just as it embarrassed me for him to act as he did.

When I was old enough to do carpentry with my father, we often worked in black people’s homes. He always treated them with kindness and respect, and would even forego his cursing in the presence of a black woman. Sometimes, he and I would share a meal with a black family. Perhaps his transsexuality—although he kept it a secret—gave him a sympathy for those who, like himself, could never be a part of respectable society.

When I was a teenager, a black neighbor named Jerry Kelly became one of my best friends. He would visit me at home (this during an era when, if a black person went to a white person’s home, he would knock at the door and then stand in the yard until someone appeared), and Jerry even went camping and fishing with me and two other white kids, John Collins and Tony Lopez (see photo). Tony was the only person with a Hispanic name who I ever knew in Brookhaven. He had black hair and black eyes, but his skin was white, so no one—to my knowledge—gave him a hard time. I also had a friend named Tony Damico, and he seemed exotic to me because he was a both a dago and a Catholic. I remember spending the night with Tony when it was awfully hot. I was surprised and delighted to find that he had a fan in his bedroom because my mother wouldn’t allow me to have a fan or even to have a window open because she thought that drafts and night air contained “vapors” (She was so afraid of germs that she would run for cover if she saw buzzards overhead because she believed their germs would fall upon her).

When he turned eighteen, Jerry joined the army, and he came home with a chip on his shoulder. Specifically, he looked down on me because, while he was out seeing the world and becoming sophisticated—in his own mind anyway—I was still in the same countrified place that he had left me. Later on, I tried to be friends with other black men, but when we started getting close, they would share their anger toward white people. I took this personally, didn’t think I deserved it, and despaired of them ever trusting me. I soon gave up on even trying to be friends with black men. Black women seem more open, but I don’t know a single black person here in Oregon, and I must say that I miss them. What I like best about black people—the women especially—is their ability to laugh heartily. Despite all they’ve been through, black people are still able to laugh more deeply than white people, plus they seem to respond well to my dry and ironic humor. I know that it’s not PC to generalize about black people, even in a favorable way, but I simply don’t care. The way I see things, all people are racists, but some are more honest about it than others, and nothing tires me more than to hear some smug white liberal bullshit me about how non-prejudiced he or she is.

I used to work with a black woman here in Oregon. She was about twenty years older than I, was from Louisiana, and was responsible for training me to do my job. One day, she said I needed to stop opening doors for her because she knew I was just doing it because she was black. I told her that she was wrong, that I was doing it because she was old. We had a good laugh about that, and she then told me that she missed Louisiana because she could tell where she stood with Southern white people, but here in Oregon, white people try to hide their prejudices, and this makes them act stilted and strange. I said I could relate because so many people act weird because of my Southern accent. Sometimes, they come right out and tell me how bigoted I must be, but more often they just act vaguely hostile, and I can’t know for sure what’s behind it. I loved that woman. So often, I’ve lost people from my life simply because I didn’t make the effort to keep them in it.

Here in Oregon, it’s such a faux pas to express even the barest hint of prejudice toward anyone about anything that a person can get fired for it, and this forces people to weigh their every word because no one can ever be sure but what an innocent remark won’t be interpreted as a microagression. Liberalism=dehumanization.

It was rare in Brookhaven for anyone to have a non-English name. Among whites, Smith was by far the most common name with Case being the second most common. I don’t know what the most common names among blacks was, but there did seem to be a lot of Washingtons. I also had several gay friends, although I didn’t fully understand what it meant to be gay until I was in my twenties.

I went to school with a Jewish girl named Schlesinger who was an albino. She had a lot of friends, but I wasn’t one of them. I probably wouldn’t have been anyway, but it was also true that her family had a higher social status than mine, and that kind of thing mattered a lot in the Brookhaven schools.

I believe that Jews were better regarded than Catholics in Brookhaven because the town had three Jewish mayors (Abraham Lewinthal in 1889, Sam Abrams in 1910, and his grandson, Harold Samuels, in the 1970s and ‘80s),** but I don’t think it ever had a Catholic one. In 1861, a non-Jewish man named Whitworth donated land for a Jewish cemetery because he considered Jews to be the kind of intelligent and ambitious people who would put Brookhaven on the map, so he did all he could to make them feel welcome.

When my father’s family moved to Brookhaven in 1908 from 400 miles away in Bridgeport Alabama, they arrived with little money, and weren’t likely to have any for quite some time. Sam Abrams—who became mayor two years later—ran Abram’s Mercantile (the store’s motto was “If you don’t find it here, go home”), and he became the first merchant to give credit to my grandpa. His willingness to do this still makes me think warmly of Jews because my family would have been in a bad way without Sam Abrams. I know that it isn’t right to judge millions of people because of the actions of one of them, but I do, partly because Mr. Abrams
trust goes against the image of Jews as being tight-fisted and greedy. Later, I had dreams about how beautiful I imagined it must be inside the local synagogue. Even today, I sometimes think about becoming a Jew because I feel such a sympathy and admiration for them.

When I was about thirteen, I went camping with three gay friends (I didn’t know they were gay), and one of them suggested that we all ass-fuck, which they did, but I didn’t. I pretended to go along, but when the friend who was supposed to fuck me tried to stick his penis up my ass, I tightened-up so he couldn’t get in. Even that event didn’t boost my understanding of what it meant to be gay because I considered the event nothing more than a lark. My friends warned me not to tell anyone what we had done, which was a good thing because I was so naive that when the sister of one of the boys showed up at our campsite, I was going to tell her because I thought it was cool even though I didn’t want to take part in it.

Like my father, I never felt that I fit in, plus I was always drawn to people who seemed somehow different because I considered them more interesting than ordinary people. They would tell me things that they didn’t tell anyone else because they trusted me not to betray them. Not only was their trust well-founded, I liked them all the more because our differences intrigued me.

My parents ran a country store, and I sold used books in that store. One time I bought a lot of books from the widow of a black preacher, and among them were the complete works of Robert Ingersoll, a prominent agnostic from the late 1800s. Ingersoll was an incredibly brave man who traveled about making speeches against the Christian religion to immense audiences. I don’t know why a black preacher owned his books, but I wished that I had known that preacher. Another book he owned was entitled The Negro, a Beast or in the Image of God in which the author set about to prove that black people were subhuman. This was a common sentiment among white Southerners as could be seen in my mother’s speculation that black parents might actually grieve when their children were burned alive.

Whereas my home state had previously been ignored by the national media, it made the news almost daily during the Civil Rights era, and it appeared unfavorably in Life Magazine. As a result, most white people quit subscribing to Life (my family didn’t) and assumed a siege mentality. It was as if the entire outside world despised white Southerners, and instead of their hatred inspiring us to change, it made us dig trenches. Many people attached small Confederate flags to their car antennas, so I put one on the antenna of my parents’ 1956 Fairlane. I regarded the KKK’s white robes and cross burnings as romantically attractive, but I also harbored a secret admiration for the Freedom Riders and the Black Panthers. I simply didn’t have the will or the maturity to examine issues rationally or to understand why integration was so important to black people. In my mind, it was as if symbolism existed for its own sake, and I adored symbolism. The Klan did too, and it and I also shared a love for ritual and tradition. Then too, there was the common belief that the KKK and the White Citizens’ Council were doing their best to defend our “Southern Way of Life” from the evil onslaught that was being led by MLK, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and others whose murders were literally cheered in school. However, my fear of the Klan remained greater than my attraction to it because I knew that its ultimate reliance wasn’t upon God’s help in keeping the races separate but upon intimidation and murder. I couldn’t escape the thought that if I made known my admiration for the busloads of idealistic Yankees—scarcely older than myself—who had come to Mississippi to register black people to vote, it might be my family that had a cross burned in its yard.

What I didn’t foresee was how fast the Klan would knuckle-under when it came to going up against the federal government. If its members had possessed the ruthless determination of an organization like the Islamic State, a whole lot more people would have lost their lives. As it was, I suspect that more people are murdered by terrorist organizations in the Middle East in a single day than were murdered by the Klan during the entire Civil Rights Movement. I don’t know if it was fear that held the Klan back, or if it was a basic respect for the law, but when people talk about how much blood was shed, I rather think about how little, and for that I am glad.


A Brookhaven, Mississippi, lynching

When I was a teenager, my father told me about a lynching that occurred when he was an adolescent during which two black youths were dragged to death behind cars. I remember the very spot on the street where he told me this (it was about a block from the above sign), and I still associate that spot with the blood, flesh, and screams of dying kids. This week, I decided to find out what I could about the crime. I didn’t know the year, and I could find no single authoritative source for lynching history, so it took me awhile to sort through a dozen or more sites before I found the boys’ names—James and Stanley Bearden—and the date they were killed—June 29, 1928. I also discovered a 1989 oral history in which the lynching was discussed.* The interviewee was a white man named Sam Jones whose father was mayor in 1928 when the murders occurred. His interviewers were Bob and Betsy Jones. I have no idea how—or if—the three were related. I just know that Jones’ Meat Market was a prominent family-run business when I was a kid. I delivered the local newspaper to the store and was always treated with great kindness by a woman whose name I remember as Betsy Jones. Here is a partial text of the Sam Jones’ interview:

Bob Jones: In 1928 you recall there was a double lynching in Brookhaven of two blacks who had gotten into an altercation with K.B. [?] Burns and his brother and had shot and wounded K.B. Burns and the two blacks were arrested and put in the jail and very quickly the word spread about the problem and an angry mob assembled around the jail from the county and from nearby counties. Quite an angry crowd had assembled within a few hours after they had been put in jail. I believe you told me once you were working in Brookhaven at that time; you were off from school, or something…

Sam Jones: It was the summer time and I was working at Hobbs Drug Store at my usual job as Soda Jerk and I went over to the courthouse to see the crowd, but I didn’t stay to see the lynching and all that happened. But the sheriff had not done anything to try to quiet the mob and my father told him, “You’ve got to call the governor. If you don’t call the governor and ask him for the National Guard to come down here I’m just going to beat the hell out of you.” And those were his words, and he never said anything like that. But it was too late. The sheriff called the governor and they were going to send help but it didn’t get there in time. But my father was the only man in Brookhaven, the only decent man in Brookhaven who was there. He got up and tried to quiet the crowd, but they would have nothing to do with him, they just pushed him out of the way and they got the men out of jail, did all those horrible things, I don’t need to go into what they did.

Bob Jones: Somebody later saw you at the store and made some remark…

Sam Jones:   Oh yes, a dentist. He just came in just laughing, what was going on over there, and said, “Son, that mob just pushed your dad out of the way like nothing. It really made me mad.” I said something I shouldn’t have said, it was out of character for me at that time because I was just about 17 years old, he was an old man and at that time you treated old men with respect. But I never had any respect for him after that.

Bob Jones: He was a dentist?

Sam Jones: Yes…[break] They dragged them, tied them behind a car and dragged them. [break] These were kids; they were always picking on them, the white men. At this time something was said, I don’t know what they said to him but he got angry, he shot K.B. The other man was innocent. He was just in jail for some other reason. But the mob took him too.

Bob Jones: I didn’t know that, I thought there were two of them had been involved…

Sam Jones: No, only the one Negro boy. But you know the streets of Brookhaven were absolutely empty of anybody. Everybody went home, didn’t want to get involved in anything.

[female]: You mean after it was all over?

Sam Jones: No, before it was over.

Bob Jones: Except for the mob.

Sam Jones: Yes, the mob. Yes.

Betsy Jones: Were the stores all closed? Nobody tried to stop them, is what you’re saying.

Sam Jones: Nobody except my father tried to do anything.

[male]: Did anybody get into trouble eventually?

Sam Jones: My father was mayor at that time, too. And was still mayor. He got a lot of hate letters from all over the county. Anonymous letters, most of them were anonymous letters.

[female]: I thought the lynching; because of the lynching…

Bob Jones: He caught it from both sides.

Sam Jones: Yes.

[The End]

Reading this probably had a stronger effect on me than you might imagine because you didn’t grow up with the people who lived through those violent times. You might envision them as frothing beasts who went through life doing one hateful thing after another, but I knew them as my kindly elders. I would at least hope that most people had opposed lynching, but they knew what lynchers were capable of, so they had to choose between putting themselves and their families at risk or keeping quiet, and they kept quiet. I very much wish they had done differently, but I don't even know what I would have done. I just know that if I had kept quiet, I would have hated myself for my cowardice.


Two cars sold and one car bought, all in ten days

Our '93 Chevy and '98 Toyota Camry sold on the spot for the full asking price to the first people who looked at them. Peggy sobbed when she looked out and saw that the Camry was gone because she didn't get to say goodbye. I don't know how much good that would have done her, but I too feel wrecked. Given how fast they sold, I'm wondering if we could have gotten more money for our vehicles, but if we had traded them in, we would have received a total of $1,500, but by selling them on Craigslist, we got $5,000, so I guess I can't complain too much, and even if we could have done better, it would have prolonged the misery.

I was completely forthcoming about every little thing that was wrong with them, even sharing information that made no difference and that the buyer almost certainly wouldn't have discovered had I kept my mouth shut...

We got twelve responses within hours of putting the Camry online, and I had the thought that of all the cars on the road, a Camry was probably the easiest to sell (the Japanese sure kicked American ass on that one). One man wrote that his daughter is a veterinary student who needs a good car for the 40-mile commute to Oregon State.  He went on to describe what a sterling student she was and ended with a plea that I "help her out" by dropping my price $800, which was all he could afford. I thought about not responding, but instead turned him down very courteously. I thought that would be the end of it, but he immediately wrote back offering more money. Someone else offered $400 less than the asking price without even having seen the car. I'm fine with people bargaining for something they know they want, but am offended when they do it on speculation.

It's sad to have sold cars that we  owned for so long and loved so much (cars are like pets in that we humans are totally responsible for their welfare, so it feels like a betrayal to sell them), but at least's it's over, and I feel more relaxed for it. We ran errands in the RAV4 yesterday for the first time since bringing it home, and took turns driving it. When the car belonged to the dealer, our goal was to see how we liked it, but now that it's ours, our goal is simply to avoid wrecking it. We know our unease will diminish every hour that we drive, but it sure was pronounced yesterday. I especially hated that dealer's tag announcing to all the world that it's a new car because I wouldn't be surprised but what some moron would ding it with their door out of envy. Am I more paranoid that most?

Tim said that when he started working as a car salesman, his biggest fears were damaging a car and learning how everything worked on the many models that he was trying to sell (he was also intimidated by having to dress nicely and work with people who were shopping for cars that cost way more than he could afford). His words put our fear of our new car into perspective, but why is it that we didn't used to worry about damaging a car? Is it age-related, or is it because this car is more complex, luxurious, and expensive, than anything we ever owned? Just the instructional manuals make a stack four-inches tall, and being surrounded by all those buttons that we don't know how to use makes learning to drive a RAV4 a bit like learning to land a jet on a carrier. I'm joking, of course, but there is a lot to be said for simplicity, and by our Model T standards, this is not a simple car. 

I've been counting up all the cars we've owned in our 44-years together (I owned others before we met, and then there were the ones that I bought to resell). The list comes to two Fords, two Chevys, three Datsuns, and four Toyotas. Of these, three were trucks, and one was a van, and one a station wagon, leaving a total of five sedans and the new SUV. I'll forever miss most of them, partly for what they were, and partly because they marked epochs in our lives. We're now a one car family for the first time in years, and the sale of our van means the end of our camping days. Will this be our last car or our next to last car? Life can be measured in many ways--time, cars, pets, houses... My mother used to say things like, "Well, this will be my last vacuum cleaner." I thought it was a bummer of a way to look at things, but now I too am doing it. For instance, I know that if our cats live a normal lifespan, we'll never have another baby animal because it would be cruel to get a pet that would outlive us.

The job is done

The photo is of me, salesman Tim, Peggy, and our new car. After an intensive two and half week search, we finally brought home a Toyota yesterday (it's not the prettiest car we looked at, but I don't want to be stranded on the side of the road in a pretty car). Peggy wanted to celebrate by going out to eat, but I am so deficient in the emotional and physical ability to deal with the stress of car-buying, that I just wanted to go to bed. 

Tim was our final salesman, and Peggy quickly trusted him. Because Peggy doesn't trust easily, and because I have confidence in her discernment, I paid attention to that and started looking for the good in Tim even while trying to find a better price elsewhere and wondering if we shouldn't wait for the end-of-year rebates. Tim soon won me over to the point that Peggy and I decided that we would buy from him even if we could get a better price elsewhere, this based upon our belief that he was caring and had integrity in a field where such virtues are little found. I'll give you an example.

We initially worked with another salesman at the same dealership (Lithia of Springfield). The man's name was Rodney, and he and I had spoken on the phone, so when Peggy and I went to the dealership, we asked for him, and only started working with Tim when Rodney wasn't available. After talking with Tim for at least an hour, Peggy came down with a migraine about the time that Rodney appeared. I found him dour and aggressive, an observation that was confirmed when Peggy said that she really needed to go home, only to have Rodney continue trying to sell her a car. We went home anyway, and I wrote to Tim that I didn't want to work with Rodney anymore because he had shown no concern for Peggy's welfare. Because I had let him get away with it for several minutes, I was also mad at myself for not taking care of my wife when she wasn't in a good place to take care of herself. As Peggy later said, "I was too sick to think clearly, and I really need to think clearly when I'm buying a car."

I like to believe that Peggy and I work as an effective team, but when it comes to anything having to do with numbers, she's better than I because she's more detail oriented, and, as skeptical as I am, I don't know but what she's also quicker to spot bullshit. For example, when we were in Jack's office (Jack being the guy who has you sign all of the many papers that it takes to buy a car even when you're paying cash for it), Peggy expressed interest in the "lifetime oil change" for $649. I wasn't keen on this--I've always done my own oil changes--but she was, and I was willing to give in. The problem was that your first two years of oil changes are free anyway, so I asked Jack why we shouldn't wait and buy-in after the two years were up. He said we could, but that it would cost $200 more. I said, okay then, we'll get it now. Only later did it occur to me that he was almost surely lying (prices tend to go down rather than up when it's the last chance to sell something to a customer), but Peggy recognized it right away and rolled her eyes at Jack. The question I had to ask myself was why I didn't catch-on. Is it because people are more easily taken in the older they get? I think that was probably the reason, and it's why I feel the need to run my decisions past Peggy. The leads me to regard myself as moving in the direction of ever greater helplessness, of being a burden as it were.

When I was young, I could be cheated due to a lack of experience, whereas I am now more vulnerable to being cheated due to a lack of quick thinking and discernment. It's also true that society operates on the premise that, in most situations, most people are going to tell us the truth, so when we get into a situation in which we're blitzkrieged by lies, we're not prepared to deal with it other than by dismissing everything we're told as just another lie, but doing this leaves us with no basis upon which to make an intelligent decision. At some point, we have to believe someone, and our job became easier when we started to believe Tim, although it didn't keep us from learning all we could from sites like Consumer Reports, U.S. News and World Report, and Kelley Blue Book.

When I was a young man, I worked in a series of funeral homes, and found them like car sales in that they relied upon tricks and misinformation at a time when their customers (who were, of course, referred to as the bereaved) were vulnerable. For instance, the customers would be slowly guided through two well-furnished rooms of expensive caskets before reaching the small, unadorned room which contained the poorly-lit cheap ones, and as a final indignity, the funeral home would try to sell the shipping crate that the casket came in. Burying a casket in a pine shipping crate that offered no protection from anything and would soon collapse entirely was just too stupid for words, but it happened more often than not in situations where the customer didn't purchase a steel or concrete vault. I never doubted but what the sales of shipping crates was nothing more than an acknowledged scam within the funeral industry until I overheard two funeral directors trashing a man who refused to buy one, saying, "I guess he didn't care much about his old mama." My god, I thought, they believe their lies. Maybe that's how it is in car sales too, but it doesn't look that way. It just looks like an assault by at least two salesmen and a backroom manager who are out to wear the customer down to the point that he'll do whatever they say just to go home. Every time we buy a car, I tell myself that, this time, it's going to be fun, but with every passing day, I feel a little more worn down.

Tim, though, went out of his way to be helpful, never pressured us, never teamed-up against us (except in the case of Rodney, which he couldn't help), and answered our questions fully. Since I asked a few questions that he could have found insulting (i.e. why is it that so many car salesmen are unethical bullies who are oblivious to people's feelings?), I came to regard him with affection. Even Tim's appearance was non-threatening, due to his being on the elfin side with a magnificently expressive face that portrayed not only his own feelings but his awareness of the feelings of others. He also had striking blue eyes, and I considered him a handsome man. Oddly enough, he was also a bit of a motor mouth, and while I usually find such people tiring due to their self-absorption, Tim was not only a talker, he was also a listener, and I soon came to find his talk soothing because the more he talked, the less I had to. If nothing else, it showed that he had things on his mind other than pressuring us into buying a car. Tim is the kind of person who is so good at what he does that I wish I had a job for him so I could hire him away. And as I said, Peggy trusted him, and this alone was reason enough for me to trust him. 

My biggest problem with Peggy in such situations as buying a car is that the older she gets, the more willful she gets, and once she says that such and such is very important to her, I give up even trying to discuss it. So it was with the lifetime oil change. It probably will save us money, if Lithia honors its word, but only time will tell. Only today did Peggy tell me all of the reasons that she was so set on it: (1) Her father will pay for it if we buy it now (he's buying this car for us); (2) I might become frail or die, making it necessary for her to take charge of car maintenance;  (3) The service includes tire rotation and various inspections; (4) The car requires synthetic oil, and synthetic oil is expensive, so the cost of doing it myself would be higher than with the conventional oil I've always used. I could have added two other considerations: I very much hate doing oil changes during winter when it's raining and so cold that my Raynaud's Disease makes my fingers turn yellow and lose feeling. Also, Toyota will have less excuse to deny warranty-related work if they're the ones doing the servicing.

In all fairness to Peggy, I'm not immune to putting my own foot down, my do-or-die issue being the color of the car--it has to be white. It's also true that I have other go to the grave defending values. For example, at my insistence, we've painted three of the four houses we've owned the same colors (soft blue with beige trim), and I can be equally adamant about other work we do and things we buy. Even agreeing on a new doormat can turn into a major decision for us because we are both (a) strong-willed about home decoration, and (b) we have different preferences; and these factors oblige us to find acceptable compromises no matter how long it takes. I attribute our difficulty to the fact that I have better taste than Peggy, not that she's astute enough to admit it.

This talk of color brings to mind the paper-signing at the dealership. Jack put a blue mark everywhere I was to sign and a pink mark where Peggy was to sign. The funny thing about this was that I prefer pink to blue (my room is pink), and Peggy prefers blue to pink. Although I'm not effeminate, and she's not masculine, there are many ways in which we fit the stereotypes of the opposite gender.

When Frugal People Go Car Shopping

Peggy and I have owned a total of ten cars (not counting 20-30 that I bought specifically to resell) including two new cars. Our first new car was a '73 Datsun truck (with air, mirrors, AM radio, a rear bumper, taxes, tag, and title, the price was $3,300.75--see photo), and our second a '84 Ford Tempo that turned out to be a piece of crap despite its Consumer Reports recommendation.

Yesterday, at my urging, we went shopping for a new car, partly with the thought of cutting back to just one vehicle. Peggy demurred, saying she loves her '98 Camry, and that our '93 Chevy van (which we use for camping and hauling) is bigger than what she would want if we just had one car. But the issue for me isn't just about how many cars we own; it's about the assumed safety and reliability of a new car. I was thinking about this anyway when Peggy's father said he was so worried about us breaking down that he would contribute money toward a new car. Still, Peggy hesitated, saying that if I simply must have something different, why not settle for a newer used one. "Because I want the safest and most dependable thing I can get, and if your father will help pay for it, the expense won't feel like such a kick in the groin" (we are not the kind of people who can cheerfully spend a lot of money).

All those many years ago, after test driving that Datsun truck, we went across the street to a Dodge dealership where Peggy fell in a love with a Colt station wagon. The salesman couldn't say enough about what a lovely young couple we were, and he even offered to take us to dinner. We were happy; he was happy; and all was sweetness and light except for the fact that I didn't like that Dodge. With Peggy's support, he ever so graciously persisted, putting his hand on my shoulder, and speaking to me like a loving father whose only concern was for my well-being. Then, as if the idea had suddenly popped into his head, he said that he wanted us to meet his partner because he just knew that his partner would like us as much as he did. So, his partner came in, and his partner was not impressed. In fact, his partner was pissed. He said we were acting in bad faith by coming into his dealership, saying what we needed in a car, and then refusing to buy, at the very best price, the very best car for our needs. He practically went into in a rage about how badly we were behaving while his partner stood in the corner looking at the floor and softly clucking in shame and mortification. Finally, the bad guy left, and the good guy worked on us, but then, to our horror, the good guy left, and the bad guy came back. And so it went.

We were stunned, and the more abusive the bad guy got, the quieter Peggy and the "good" guy got, and the more cornered I felt. I didn't know what their routine was called, or even that it was a routine; I just knew that there was no way in hell I was going to knuckle-under and buy a car that I didn't want just to get some asshole off my back. If I had been braver, I would have walked out, but as things stood, all I could do was to keep saying no and offering the best excuses I could until the two of them finally gave up. I felt as if I had survived a beating. I told Peggy that I could have used a little help, and Peggy told me that it had been a case of shit or get off the pot, but that I had done neither. Imagine my delight when that dealership got into all kinds of trouble for abusive sales practices. It wasn't I who ratted them out, though, because I didn't know enough to rat them out. It's sad how ignorant young people can be, but since it was our first car buying experience, we just didn't have a clue. Walking into that dealership felt like entering an alternate universe, and it fully enabled me to understand how cops can pressure a young person into confessing to a crime he didn't commit. After all, I was college educated by then and had only been under pressure for a few hours. What if it had lasted for a few days during which I couldn't even use the bathroom without permission?

A few years later, I bought a used Datsun car at the same dealership from which we had gotten our '73 truck. The sales lady's name was Patty, and she was hot in a sophisticated, older woman sort of way that left me slobbering. I was melted by her smile, and my heart beat faster and faster as she moved in closer and closer, and her baby blues burned further and further into the back of my skull. I haltingly pointed out a few problems with the car, and Patty readily agreed to have them fixed. I said, fine, but just so there would be no misunderstanding, maybe we should put everything in writing (I had read that this was a good idea). Patty looked like I had slapped her. She said that, in a world of jaded and suspicious men, she had felt something special with me, and that it hurt her deeply to think that I was no different from anyone else. "Don't be just another cynic," she begged, and I promised I wouldn't, even though it did feel a little strange to be arguing like lovers with a saleswoman. When I took the car back a few days later to have the work done, I learned that not only had Patty never made the appointment, Patty was gone, as in for good, as in I was her last customer. She hadn't gone far, though, because she soon opened her own dealership, and it's still there.

Most car salesmen are not nearly so entertaining as Patty and the good cop/bad cop Dodge boys. Most car salesmen are content to keep saying things like, "What can we do to put you in this car today?" even when I tell them that nothing is going to put me into a $30,000 car without a lot of thought and study. When I went shopping for our last car, I told one salesman that I wanted something that would fit into the garage, and he assured me that I didn't need to park in the garage! I thought, come on you idiot, do I look like someone you can snow, and then I left. I'm simply not going to stand around arguing with a car salesman because choosing a car is hard enough without the pressure.

Given how little Peggy and I drive and how well we take care of vehicles, this could be our next to last car, or even our last one, which is another reason for buying something new. I just want us to be safe. More importantly, I don't want Peggy to ever find herself sitting alone with her hood up (assuming she could figure out how to raise her hood) on the side of I-5 (Interstate 5 goes from Mexico to Canada, making it the major West Coast highway) because my main purpose in life is to protect Peggy. Another troubling possibility is that we would break down so far into the woods that we would have trouble walking for the half-day it might take us to even see another vehicle. When we go camping in our 23-year-old van, this is a real possibility, not because the van isn't in good shape but because when cars get old, everything that can crack, leak, dry out, and disintegrate tends to crack, leak, dry out, and disintegrate (which is what happens to people too, come to think of it). Peggy says that, since she's in better shape for walking, she could go for help alone, and I think, yeah, right, what could be wrong with that idea! Me sitting in the van and her getting raped, murdered, and hidden in a canyon. The cops would probably pressure me into confessing that I killed her, so that would be the end of both of us and the cats too since they would probably starve to death without someone to give them their three-squares a day plus a midnight snack.