An odd thing happened to me the other night.
Earlier in the day I'd had the past much on my mind. Most likely because fall is coming on and the leaves have begun to turn in the woods along Peachtree Creek. That's where I and my dog Elvis take our walks. The atmosphere stirs memory.
I had grocery shopping to do afterwards and I found the surest sign that the Halloween season is upon us at the store. I wandered into the aisle devoted to Halloween costumes and decorations. There, amid all the spooky regalia, I spied a plastic cast skeleton seated on a tombstone holding a banjo. A printed message on its box urged me to "Press the button to hear me play!", so I did. The skeleton's eyes flashed red, its arms began to move and the melody came twanging forth. Dixie.
That took me back. Halloween has been my favorite holiday for as long as I remember. That's back to the age of three, the first time I "trick or treated" with my brother and sisters. At that age it seemed I heard Dixie constantly. At least often enough to recognize that it was a "special song", second only to the "Star Spangled Banner." I can't recall the last time I heard it before this. I only know that it means something very different to me now than it meant to me as that child.
It's famously said that the past is another country. For me its more like another planet. I'm going to try describe a piece of that alien landscape for you.
I was born in 1956 in the humid flatlands of Georgia's old cotton belt in a town called Dublin. I have no memory of the place because we moved north to Atlanta before I turned three. My father was the ambitious son of a textile mill mechanic. The first of his family to go to college, beginning as a scholarship student and finishing up on the GI Bill following his service in WWII. He supported us by selling and occasionally re-possessing tractors for a major manufacturer. For him, our move was a promotion to the Main Dealership in the state and an advance up the corporate ladder. For our Mother it was a reprieve. She had grown up the daughter of a Methodist Minister in the hills and mountains of North Georgia and her heart was always in its cool hollows and Pine shaded heights. Our Daddy bought her a house on the crest of a steep hill that was the closest thing he could find to a mountain inside the city limits.
They'd been High School sweethearts and theirs was a true cross tracks romance. The trains ran directly through the center of their town. The West side was where the high status folks lived and the East side was where you found the "Lint Heads" of the Textile Mills and other working folk. Our Mama, being a Methodist Preacher's kid and the grand daughter of a successful country doctor and landowner, lived on the West side. Our daddy's family lived on the East side.
This was no small matter back in the day. Our Mama's father was so opposed to their prospective match that he once made a thinly veiled threat to shoot our Dad if he didn't stay away from our Mama. The exact words he wrote were: "If you do not respect my wishes in this matter, I must remind you that there is a law in Georgia, unwritten though it may be, that a man may take whatever steps he deems necessary to defend his family and property. It would be a tragedy if this law were to be brought into effect." In the event, they didn't marry until he was long past caring.
All this I didn't learn until much later. My conscious life began in the Atlanta of 1959. It was a much smaller place then and not just in terms of population. For me though, at that age, it was the whole wide world. They had only just begun to build the interstate and the city was much as it had been since before WWII. A small urban center surrounded by farms and piney woods. Downtown was still the destination for shopping and entertainment and a 40 minute drive from there in any direction would have put you in deep country. There, privies and well water were everyday facts of life for a substantial number and electricity was a recent innovation dating to FDR. It was also a thoroughly Jim Crow town.
While I was a Precocious kid and thus born to be maladjusted, I can't claim to have grasped all this at the time. There were points of illumination though, in a gradual process of realization. 1960 was the Centennial of the Civil War and much was made of it. I can't recall a time when I didn't understand that I was a "Rebel". Due in part, I'm sure, to our Dad presenting myself and my older brother with matching uniforms of Confederate Gray, complete with forage caps. It was a real treat for us when we were allowed to wear them to Sunday Church Services. We had one other matching set of clothes: a pair of Superman costumes with capes. We got to wear those to Wednesday Night Fellowship once or twice. Daddy also had a passion for visiting battle field parks and I knew names like Chickamauga and Kennesaw Mountain before I could read.
I didn't really understand much of what being a "rebel" meant, except that we had fought a war with the "Yankees" and had lost. I sensed that, next to WWII, it was the defining historic event in my Grand Parent's and Parent's lives and, presumably, in my own. I experienced plenty of reinforcement from the world around me. There were no inhibitions about exploiting the "Lost cause" and antebellum imagery for commercial purposes. Consequently, it was everywhere.
There was a successful restaurant called Johnny Reb's Dixieland specializing southern style cooking: fried chicken and pan baked biscuits. At dinner time they offered a musical entertainment which dramatized the Battle of Atlanta through songs and music contemporary to the period. One of the most popular restaurants in town was "Mammy's Shanty" which featured an adjoining bar called "The Pickaninny Lounge". The business was surmounted by a gigantic neon sign caricature of a huge, grinning, hankerchief headed Mammy. The mythic "Old South" permeated everything, even the interior decor of our house, which had gray toned wallpaper in the entryway displaying sentimentalized plantation scenes.
One shouldn't imagine that the system of American Apartheid automatically rendered Black folks invisible to a child's eyes. Black people were everywhere, at least during the workday. Clinging to my Mother's skirts as she went about her errands I always saw them, men and women, always working, always in positions of service. I remember looking out the window, high above the street below and watching the crowd of women gathered at the bus stop in the deepening dusk, waiting for the "Maid's Special" and wondering where they all went.
Even where black folks weren't present, images of them were. In grocery stores they were used to sell a myriad of products. I saw "Aunt Jemima" in her original Mammy incarnation. There was the ever smiling "Uncle Ben" in his spotless white Jacket with its shiny brass buttons. He looked for all the world to me to be the very image of Howard Wise, the chief custodian of our church, who oversaw the food serving at Wednesday night supper. He was an imposing figure, over six foot, with a complexion of rich mahogany and clear, sharp eyes. He was fond of cigars, lean and muscular, able to lift two wooden trays full of bottles of Coca Cola with a single hand. I was in awe of him.
The plethora of advertising images could be confusing. For the longest while I thought the bear head dispensers on bottles of Bosco chocolate syrup, with their wide eyes and white muzzles, were supposed to be black folk too.
What I seldom if ever saw were black children of my own age. In fact, if it hadn't been for the magic box called television, I might not have known that black children existed outside the verses of "Jesus Loves the Little Children" or the pages of "Little Black Sambo."
At least one TV station in Atlanta thought it made good business sense to broadcast old films such as "Green Pastures" and "Cabin in the Sky" along with more standard fare like the "Our Gang" comedies. They were still showing reruns of "Amos and Andy" too. Through these I first got a glimmer that black folks had lives of their own, independent of white folks.
Despite being completely submerged in "white Southern" culture, I was insulated from some of its worst aspects. Our Mama was famous for having zero tolerance for racist language or sentiments and few were willing to cross her. Sadly, our Daddy was an exception. He couldn't resist asserting power and authority through racist invective. Secondly, our neighborhood was predominately Jewish, being home to three Synagogues and consequently less invested in Southern White identity.
Still, New Dealer and preacher's kid pistol that she was, our Mama was a product of her place and time. She loved Eleanor Roosevelt and she loved "Gone with the Wind." When the movie was re-released in 1960, we went downtown to see it in the same theater where it had its 1939 world premiere. I couldn't understand why everyone was so taken with Scarlett O'Hara. She seemed to be the opposite of everything I was being taught that a person should be. Even at the age I was then, I thought that Rhett Butler was the only one with a lick of sense. He at least knew that the war was lost before it started. That made it all the harder to comprehend why he'd waste time on Scarlett.
I did learn a valuable lesson from the experience, though indirectly. Sometime afterwards I told Mama that I wished we'd lived back in those days. She fixed me with a wary, sidewise look and asked me why? "Because then we would have had people to do all our work for us!" I chirped back cheerfully. Well, you would've thought that I had dropped the f bomb at four years of age. In no uncertain terms, she made it plain that had we lived back them we likely wouldn't have been living in a fancy big house like Scarlett's. More likely we would have been housed in some broken down shack, dirt poor and barefoot.
This was another time where I got a glimmer that that things weren't exactly as they were presented.
Mama also loved music. So it's no surprise that we went to Johnny Reb's Dixieland one night to hear a performance of "The Battle of Atlanta."
The musician who performed the piece and played all the instruments, mainly organ and piano, was a man named Graham Jackson. Mama, who loved to sing, told me he was famous. That he'd been President Roosevelt's favorite musician. A picture of him, taken the day the President's body had been put on the train to Washington at the station in Warm Springs, had been printed in a national magazine. He'd been wearing his Army uniform and was playing his accordion as tears ran down his cheeks. Mr. Jackson's performance climaxed with the "final charge of the Confederacy", at which point all the waiters and busboys gathered at one end of the dining room and let out a chorus of whoops and rebel yells. They were all black, as was Mr. Jackson. The tune he chose for the crescendo was Dixie.
There's a lot more I could tell you. There was a lot more to come. We were to move away from Atlanta in November of 1962 only to move back in the late Summer of 64. In that span of time the world as I had known it would have all but disappeared and a new and unfamiliar one would be coming into being. But I've rambled on far too long for a diary as it is.
I'll end where I began. In the grocery store aisle. Watching a red eyed skeleton playing Dixie on a banjo.
1:17 PM PT: Thanks to all of you for the kind comments and Rec's. This is my first time in the Community spotlight. I'm glad it was for this diary.
5:03 PM PT: A note of apology to everyone for responding so tardily. I work the Midnight shift which puts me on an opposite schedule from most people. For those who might be interested in a somewhat different take on childhood memory, you could have a look at this. It was written to the memory of Allen Ginsberg