L.W. Aloft

by Howard Bahr (as told to Ms. Kate Kirkpatrick)

So far, I have written hardly anything to make you smile, which I certainly like to do, so I will tell a story featuring our late pal L.W. Thomas, one of the funniest boys who ever lived and a very nervous character who owned many peculiar phobias. For example, he was afraid of milk in any form. Also, when he bought a six-pack of beer at the Jitney Jungle, he would not touch the can with the price-tag on it (this, of course, was when things had price-tags). You could be sure L.W. would have a beer for you at his house, because there were always fifteen or so cans with the price-tag in his icebox. For Thomas, flying in an airplane was out of the question. Once, when he and Randy Cross and I flew on Delta Airlines to Washington, D.C., we had to render him comatose with three Ativan tablets before he would even get in the taxi to the airport.

Capt. Jung and his trusty Taylorcraft

Another late friend of ours, Captain R.A. Jung, owned a 1943 Taylorcraft tail-dragger (an old Army spotter plane) he named “The Yellow Peril.” She was canvas-covered (painted bright yellow) and could accommodate two persons in tandem seating. For instruments, she had an altimeter, an air-speed indicator, a horizon bubble, and a compass. That was it. We all enjoyed flying in this antique crate (sometimes we’d buy two or three bags of flour, then go hunting along the Illinois Central for a train to bomb), but, as you might expect, L.W. steadfastly refused to have anything to do with her. Finally, one evening at the local tavern, Captain R.A. Jung beguiled Thomas with the news that he had just installed a radio in the cockpit of “The Yellow Peril.” (Heretofore, the ship had been incommunicado, which meant the Captain could only land at strips without a tower.) This apparatus, claimed Captain R.A. Jung, made the old bird safe as a Chevrolet station wagon. L.W., girded with the bravado of a half-dozen draft beers, and no doubt embarrassed by his legendary reluctance, uttered the fatal words, “Why, there ain’t nothin’ I’d rather do than scale the airy heights with my old pal, Captain R.A. Jung. Excelsior!” After that, there was no turning back.

Next afternoon, a Sunday, the boys gathered at the Oxford airfield to see L.W. Thomas off on his maiden flight in the Taylorcraft. Having steeled himself beforehand with a half-pint of Cabin Still (no Ativan or Xanax in those days, and, at the moment, none of us had any reefer), Thomas squeezed into the cockpit and buckled himself in the rear seat, clutching to his chest a Gideon Bible he had swiped from some fleabag motel back down the line. Present as observers were Frank Walker, John Schorfheide, Steve Cook, Tommy Freeland, and I, each man enjoying the balmy day, each man uttering words of comfort and encouragement to our jittery comrade:

“C’mon, L.W.–if you crash, it won’t hurt–you’ll be killed instantly.”
“Don’t listen to him, pard–you’re back aft and may only be injured for life–”
“If that happens, man, try to keep your arms and fingers so you can play the
the guitar on the sidewalk by the bus station.”
“But . . . what if he’s only injured and the wreckage catches fire?”
“Good point! Lotsa guys survive a crash, only to perish in the flames.”

Meanwhile, Captain Jung ran through the pre-flight checklist:

Flaps: OK
Horizontal Stabilizer:  OK
Rudder: OK
Brakes: OK
Fuel: OK
Loaded Revolver Under Seat: OK
Peach Brandy: OK
Cigars:  OK
L.W. Thomas : Sitting quietly hating the Wright Brothers; hating Mr. Taylor who designed the Taylorcraft; hating all of us who, safely on Terra Firma, could afford to make light of hideous injury and death; most of all hating Captain  R.A. Jung who, when satisfied of the craft’s readiness spoke up as follows:

“Awright, girls–knock it off and pay attention.” He rummaged around under his feet and produced a mare’s nest of wiring from which, after a few minutes of muted invective, he extracted two sets of headphones fitted with throat mics. The leather earpads were cracked and dry, like the antique Bakelite mics and the confusion of black wires that connected one apparatus to the other, then disappeared beneath the instrument panel where, presumably, they were somehow connected to the generator[1]. Captain Jung explained that, while the device was not exactly a radio, it was a revolutionary, if makeshift[2], intercom system assembled from genuine WWII Naval Aviation components he’d discovered in a surplus store in East St. Louis, Illinois. As a result, the Captain pointed out, those in the cockpit would no longer have to scream at one another over the clattering of the engine and the wind howling through the wires and wing struts. L.W. Thomas–lucky boy!–was the first passenger to show up since the installation, and this flight would be the intercom’s initial trial.

Thomas revealed later that, in that moment, he did not feel lucky; his confidence was further eroded by the knowledge that Captain Jung had installed the rig himself. Not that the Captain wasn’t handy! It was he who built a muzzle-loading black-powder cannon from a length of steel pipe, so effective it could fire a dirt-packed tomato sauce can clear across the Mississippi River. His work with plunger-activated black-powder aerial bombs was pure genius.[3] However, the Captain’s craftsmanship was generally applied to automobile repair, heavy machinery, and crude explosive devices; his experience with electricity was limited to hot-wiring cars in his youth. Thomas was aware of this deficiency, but his thought was, What could possibly go wrong with an intercom?

Now, to start the motor of the Taylorcraft, a ground crewman had to turn the propeller until he felt pressure on the pistons, whereupon that person would announce “Contact!” whereupon Captain Jung would flip the magneto and reply “Switch on!” whereupon the ground crewman would grasp the propeller blade and give it a heave counterclockwise. This is a very old-timey way to start an airplane, but she was a very old-timey airplane. After the engine was started and the prop spinning, pilot and ground crewman would exchange a hearty thumbs-up and “Cheerio!” (see illustration below), Captain Jung would take a draught from his flask of peach brandy, and off he’d go.

Capt. Jung in the cockpit, the author giving him a thumbs up.

So it went on the day of L.W.’s first flight. We watched the little machine trundle onto the grass runway–in a moment, she began to roll forward–Captain R.A. Jung opened the throttle–the mighty sixty-five HP engine began to buzz–the tail came up–and in a moment “The Yellow Peril” was gracefully aloft and disappearing southward over the trees. Meanwhile, the boys walked back to the office to drink coffee and listen as the airfield manager, the late Mr. Jeff White, told us tales of flying in World War II.

Well, I started out with the intention of telling about the time our friend S. Cragin Knox beguiled L.W. Thomas into accompanying him to Texas to work on an oil exploration crew, and the foreman out there gave Thomas the job of driving the dynamite truck, which made Thomas very nervous indeed, especially when, one day, and without thinking, L.W. Thomas flicked his cigarette out the open window of the truck cab–but now I am all tangled up in the story of L.W. Thomas and the Taylorcraft. However, as I think about it, the two stories have a similar narrative thread. As a modern person (no offense), and especially a modern person (no offense) married to an Air Force fireman, you might question the wisdom of L.W. Thomas smoking a cigarette while driving a dynamite truck. Also, you might contemplate the photo above and ask yourself, “Should Captain R.A. Jung really be smoking a cigar in the cabin of a fabric-covered airplane swirling with gasoline fumes that is about to sail into the Wild Blue Yonder?” This behavior was perfectly routine in those times; today, it would most likely be considered poor judgment, if not moronic.

(At this point, I should insert an apologetic parenthetical. Beloved niece, you could not be blamed for assuming our gallant band were naught but a crowd of dissipated low-lifes and scoundrels. In fact, we were all in college at Ole Miss, save Schorfheide [a railroad detective on the Cotton Belt RR in Memphis] and Captain Jung, who, when he was not adventuring, worked as a millwright at a steel mill in Granite City, Illinois. Walker was an ex-Marine, Schorfheide and I were Vietnam veterans; Jung had served his Army time in Alaska as a ski-trooper; Steve Cook would become chairman of the graduate art program at Mississippi College. Tommy Freeland was a poet and intellectual from an old Mississippi family; he would grow up to become an excellent attorney, marry my ex-wife, and die of a heart attack at a tragically young age. S. Cragin Knox, in spite of his lowly beginnings slinging cable on an exploration crew, eventually became the State Geologist of Mississippi. As for L.W., he was a graduate student in theatre at Ole Miss, a musician, a restaurateur, and a fine writer. He died in his sleep at age fifty-two in ’02 as his beloved wife Jeanne watched by the bedside. Life was never the same for us after L.W. Thomas crossed the river, and I do not believe a man can own a higher accolade. The same can be said of Captain R.A. Jung, who was killed in the crash of “The Yellow Peril” on [fittingly] November 11th, 1976, just seven months after the events recorded here. These were lads who lived authentic lives, and I am proud to have been one among them, and I miss them greatly. Thus, though sometimes we were dissipated low-lifes and scoundrels, misbehavior was only part of the adventure.)

Anyway, since I am thus far into the airplane story, I will stick with it.

Time and again, we hear persons complain that Life is Unfair, and certainly it seems so at times. Some point to Fate; the Calvinist attributes every misfortune to God’s Inscrutable Plan; sensible people have no other recourse than to mutter the well-worn phrase, “Shit just happens.” Whatever one’s philosophy, it does seem patently unfair that events surrounding “The Yellow Peril” on that balmy April morning in ‘75 came to pass with poor ol’ L.W. Thomas, of all people, in the catbird seat.  (As a writer, you will recognize this paragraph as intended to “stretch out the story” and “build up suspense” in order to delay the climax of the tragedy, so I will mention the wholly superfluous fact that, like old-timey barnstormers, Captain R.A. Jung always carried a number of wooden tomato stakes and a rolled-up bundle of cord affixed with colorful pennants like you might see at the state fair, a used-car lot, &c. so that, should he land in a cow pasture, as he often did, he could stake out a perimeter of wavy little flags around the ship. Remember that cows, though not very bright, are curious creatures; remember also that Captain Jung’s Taylorcraft was covered in a fabric treated with sealant [pilots call it “dope”]. Naturally, the local bovines would saunter over to investigate the big yellow insect that had buzzed down into their pasture; if Captain R.A. Jung neglected to set out a perimeter of wavy little flags to confuse them, the cows would commence to snack on the tasty, dope-covered fabric so that when Captain Jung returned from the nearby grocery with his sack lunch, he might well find a more or less portion of his fuselage gnawed down the the ribs[4]. I always wanted to use this arcane fact in a novel, but never found the opportunity.)

In any event, but a few minutes after takeoff found our intrepid aviators at a thousand feet and crossing over the Yokona River[5]. L.W. Thomas, of course, was not feeling intrepid. Below him lay the thin brown thread of the river, the greening woods, the checkerboard of cotton fields soon to know disc and plow, a sprinkling of white houses and, here and there, a wisp of cloud: truly a magical scene stretching to the blue hills and the world beyond. Alas, these aesthetic delights were not for Thomas. Later, he would freely admit that, from the moment the tail wheel lifted off the grass strip in Oxford, he shut his eyes tight and kept them shut. He white-knuckled the Gideon Bible and felt the rapid beating of his heart. He listened keenly to every variation in the motor’s rhythm and waited for the moment when it must surely quit altogether, all the while painfully aware that only a bit of wood and fabric lay between him and a thousand feet of empty air. Meanwhile, Captain Jung’s voice chattered amiably through the headphones clamped over Thomas’s Baltimore Orioles cap. Heretofore, L.W. had ignored the Captain’s observations, thinking them no more than the utterance of a madman indifferent to his own mortality. Now, high over the fields of Lafayette County, the Captain said something that made L.W. open his eyes and take notice: “Hey, man,” spake the Captain, “whatever you’re smoking back there smells like shit!”

This remark was an eye-opener for Thomas–first, because he wasn’t smoking at all, and, second, because he, too, all at once detected an unwelcome odor; i.e., the acrid smell peculiar to electrical fires. As the cabin began to fill with blue smoke, Thomas understood that the moment he’d feared was arrived at last, a realization confirmed by the Captain’s next announcement: “Well, hell, Thomas–we are on fire. Help me look for a place to set her down.”

Looking “for a place to set her down” was not among L.W. Thomas’s various array of skills. He’d never needed to “set down” from anyplace higher than his own bed, nor supposed he ever would. In addition, obeying the Captain’s order meant L.W. would actually have to look out the window! This he tried manfully to do, but the attempt was cut short when he realized (as he would later remark) that the distant ground, scary as it was from the sealed double-paned window of an airliner, was a hundredfold more so viewed through a vibrating half inch of cracked and oil-smeared plexiglass howling with wind. Thomas, heart palpitating, closed his eyes again and exclaimed “Oh, Jesus!” just as “The Yellow Peril” made a sudden stomach-churning drop. The Captain had chosen a field of broomsage nigh the river, and toward this he descended with dispatch, at the same time banking the ship hard over on her starboard wing in order to land into the wind, which direction he perceived by the smoke of a burning brush pile. The little machine hit hard, bounced high, hit and bounced again, and at last found her footing among the muddy ruts of the field. In a moment, she had rolled to a stop, whereupon Captain Jung shut off the engine and bailed out of the cabin door, pulling after him the still-smoldering remains of the intercom system, including L.W.’s headset. To say that Thomas was not far behind is to diminish the speed and agility of his exit.

Later, L.W. would admit that, once free of the cabin, he fell to his knees, pressed his cheek to Mother Earth’s welcoming bosom, and promised never again to leave her. It was, he said, not one of his finer moments.

For a time, Thomas and the Captain lounged under the wing, sipped peach brandy, and basked in the warmth of danger passed, peril overcome. Luckily, the Taylorcraft suffered no damage beyond a little bubbling of paint on the instrument panel; the intercom system, however, was hors de combat. One can imagine how, in that field to this very day, fragments of wire and Bakelite are turned up by harrow or plow, unseen and unlamented, their history lost to time like artifacts from a remote civilization. Here we must leave them, and here we must leave our tale of two gallant flyers–save for a final contemplation. When you feel safe, when the world seems in order at last and the Almighty has apparently wrapped you in His protecting arms–then look out, for the Cosmos is about to slap you up side the head. L.W. Thomas was still congratulating himself on his narrow escape when Captain R.A. Jung stood up, brushed off the seat of his pants, lit a fresh cigar, and said, “Awright, buddy–you ready to go?” Only then did Thomas comprehend that “The Yellow Peril,” having landed, must now take off again. With him aboard. True courage means that, when you’re scared shitless, you go ahead anyhow. This Thomas did, clutching his Gideon Bible as the ship bounced across the muddy broomsage field and struggled aloft. The last thing Thomas heard before he fell asleep was the brush of the landing gear through the greening branches of the trees.

The author with the irrepressible L.W. Thomas

[1] The generator was fixed under the starboard wing and had its own little red propeller. In flight, the wind spun the little red prop, and the generator generated.
[2] When he told the story later, L.W. Thomas used a more colorful synonym for “makeshift,” i.e. “nigger-rigged.” Regrettably, the term has since fallen out of common usage.
[3] In fact, we only had one; it was stoppered by a wooden plug so wouldn’t disintegrate; It made a most satisfying thump when dropped on an empty field, but when we landed, we had to get in the car and go retrieve it. The bomb in its experimental form wouldn’t hurt anyone, unless it hit him on the head. However, should any bad guys–Russians, Yankees, &c.–invade North Mississippi, we were ready to provide air support. Today, we’d be arrested as terrorists.
[4] When I was a little boy in Primary School, certain children from poor families (known as “clay-eaters”) would eat library paste and even dirt from the playground to satisfy the cravings of vitamin deficiency. Perhaps this helps to explain cows’ tendency to chew on airplanes.
[5] Originally called the Yoknapatawpha and so named in Faulkner’s novels and stories.

Jello Spaghetti-Os

Some people take themselves far too seriously. If you look around the internet for postings of this dish—I assure you there are many—you’ll find reactions bespeaking of ponderous gravitas: “disgusting” they exclaim; “incomprehensible” they bemoan.

Others possessing a lighter heart and more expansive philosophy—among whom naturally I number myself—recognize this recipe for what it is, a work of sheer, unadulterated genius. Many err in crediting this dish to Ernest Mickler, specifically citing his enduring epic White Trash Cooking as the source. Not so; Ernie (as well as his correspondents) was a more discerning sort. No, this concoction is the fabrication of some double-wide Warhol who set his hat to come up with an iconic work of art for those of us who think Martha Stewart should still be wearing that ankle bracelet.

Dissolve two envelopes unflavored gelatin in a quarter cup of water. When gelatin has bloomed, add a half can condensed tomato soup, heat and add two cans Spaghetti-Os. Stir until well-blended, cool, pour into a ring mold and chill until firm. Vienna sausages (admittedly Freudian) are sine qua non for the presentation, and those of a particularly refined bent top them with a curl of Cheese Whiz.

Bess’s Parched Peanuts

Aunt Bess was a woman of intrepid notions who did not let the world at large get in her way of doing what she knew was right. She found nothing wrong with locking Uncle Ewell in the corn crib to keep him from drinking and picking up loose woman in his baby-blue 1954 Buick Skylark, and just because her brother-in-law was the sheriff did not stop her from chasing him out of her house with a shotgun when he put ketchup on her fried chicken.

Bess lived in a big, ramshackle house with a wringer-washer on the back porch, and two swings out front. She kept a huge garden, almost an acre of corn and beans, okra and tomatoes, potatoes, cabbages, and two long rows of peanuts. When it came time to pull them, her four nephews—niece Cindy was exempt because she was such a pampered little princess—would trudge up there on a weekend afternoon, and after Bess had used a garden fork to loosen them, we’d haul the plants out of the ground with their dangling nuts  and lay them on burlap bags to dry. Later Bess would cut away the peanuts and sack them up to hang on the back porch.

This is how Bess parched peanuts. For a pound of very well-washed raw peanuts in the shell, dissolve a cup of salt in two quarts of water, bring to a rolling boil, and remove from heat. Add peanuts. Sink in the brine with a plate of a pie pan and let them soak for a few hours. Drain, and spread on sheet pan. Roast at 350, stirring a time or two; enjoy the beautiful. Serve warm when shells are brittle.

Rankin County Barbies

Reservoir Barbie

“Rez” Barbie comes with mid‐life crisis Ken and an SUV with stick figure family depicted in rear window and Republican candidate bumper stickers as well as a mega church membership and directions to the nearest wine shop in Hinds or Madison County. Options include a black party dress and a Xanax prescription.

Flowood Barbie

Manufactured outside Rankin County, “Flo” Barbie drives a Chevy Tahoe with multiple private school stickers on back window. Options include a tennis outfit, an IPhone 6s with a permanent hand attachment, matching earbuds, a Shih Tzu and a Kroger grocery cart with pineapple.

West Pearl Barbie

This pale model comes dressed in her own Wrangler jeans two sizes too small, a NASCAR t-shirt and Tweety bird tattoo on her shoulder. She has a six-pack of Bud Lite and a Hank Williams Jr. CD set. She can spit over 5 feet and kick mullet-haired Ken’s ass when she is drunk. Purchase her pickup truck separately and get a Confederate flag bumper sticker absolutely free.

East Pearl Barbie

This tobacco-chewing, brassy-haired Barbie has a pair of her own high-heeled sandals with one broken heel from the time she chased beer-gutted Ken out of Brandon Barbie’s house. Her ensemble includes low-rise acid-washed jeans, fake fingernails and a see-through halter-top. Also available with pink trim mobile home.

Pelahatchie Barbie

This outdoors Barbie comes with her own kayak and Ducks Unlimited Ken as well as a Longleaf camo outfit, a pair of Merrell Reflex Waterproof Hikers and an L.L. Bean backpack. Options include a Browning Citori 725, a Magellan GPS and a pedigree water Spaniel.

Star Barbie

This anorexic teen Barbie comes with a revoked driver’s license, Stage Mother Barbie and an alcoholic closeted Ken. Options include an NYX Cosmetics Soho Glam makeup kit, skin tight Daisy Dukes, ten pairs of glitter high heels and a pregnancy test.

Brandon Barbie

This Barbie has jet black straightened hair, over-plucked, drawn-on eyebrows, a LOVE tattoo on her neck, skin tight jeans, a fitted tank top and fringed soft cowboy boots. Her Meth Head Unshaven Ken has a Yeti logo tattoo, an NRA tattoo, and a recently-added Trump tattoo. Options include a voicebox reocrding with “Come back here, you motherfucker!” and a traumatized Baby Ken.

You Might Be a Gay Redneck If

You met your last boyfriend at Waffle House.
You manscape with a hunting knife.
You cheer for the NASCAR driver with the cutest jumpsuit.
You wish the Indigo Girls would “shut up and sing.”
You keep a colorful stash of Speedos in your bass boat.
You go commando in your overalls.
You always request “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” at the gay bars.
You attend Gay Rodeo events to find a personal trainer.
Your pickup truck horn plays “I Love the Nightlife.”
You smoke Mistys because you like how the slim box fits into your Wranglers.
You tailgate at Barbra Streisand concerts.
Your mullet has frosted tips.
You root for the hillbillies in Deliverance.
You wish R.J. Reynolds would make Cosmo-flavored dip.
The Gay River Expo disqualified you for using a trolling motor.
You think Kid Rock is sexy.
You’re saving up to buy a Pensacola timeshare.
Your Pride float spends the rest of the year on cinder blocks in your front yard.
You carry a camo-patterned man purse.
You were once thrown out of a leather bar for violating the dress code.
Your Miata has Truck Nutz.
Your commitment ceremony was catered by KFC.
Your personal scent is buck lure.

Barbies of Jackson, Mississippi

North Jackson Barbie
This princess Barbie is sold only at Maison Weiss. She comes with an assortment of Kate Spade Handbags, a Lexus SUV, and a cookie-cutter house. Available with or without tummy tuck and face lift. Workaholic Ken sold only in conjunction with the augmented version.

Ridgeland Barbie
The modern-day homemaker Barbie is available with Ford Windstar Minivan and matching gym outfit. She gets lost in parking lots and is the alumna of an off-campus sorority. Traffic-jamming cell phone sold separately.

South Jackson Barbie
This recently paroled Barbie comes with a 9mm handgun, a Ray Lewis knife, a Chevy with dark tinted windows and a meth lab Kit. This model is only available after dark and must be paid for in cash (preferably small, untraceable bills) unless you are a cop…then we don’t know what you are talking about.

West Madison Barbie
This yuppie Barbie comes with your choice of BMW convertible or Hummer H2. Included are her own Starbucks cup, credit card, and country club membership.  As optional items, BIG sunglasses and white tennis hat to wear while driving the SUV at unsafe speeds. Also available for this set are Shallow Ken and Private School Skipper. You won’t be able to afford any of them.

West Pearl Barbie
This pale model comes dressed in her own Wrangler jeans two sizes too small, a NASCAR t-shirt and Tweety bird tattoo on her shoulder. She has a six-pack of Bud Lite and a Hank Williams Jr. CD set. She can spit over 5 feet and kick mullet-haired Ken’s ass when she is drunk. Purchase her pickup truck separately and get a Confederate flag bumper sticker absolutely free.

East Pearl Barbie
This tobacco-chewing, brassy-haired Barbie has a pair of her own high-heeled sandals with one broken heel from the time she chased beer-gutted Ken out of Millington Barbie’s house. Her ensemble includes low-rise acid-washed jeans, fake fingernails and a see-through halter-top. Also available with a mobile home.

Fondren Barbie
This doll is made of tofu. She has long straight brown hair, arch-less feet, and Birkenstocks with white socks. She prefers that you call her Willow. She does not want or need a Ken doll, but if you purchase two Fondren Barbies with the optional Subaru wagon, you get a rainbow flag bumper sticker for free.

Belhaven Barbie
This mature Barbie is the only doll that comes with support hose, hair toppers, and a membership in the neighborhood improvement association. Package also includes a vintage SUV, a variety of “fur babies,” and Pompous Ken. Options include a golf cart and the Martha Stewart kitchen collection.

West Jackson Barbie
This Barbie now comes with a stroller and infant doll. Optional accessories include a GED and bus pass. Gangsta Ken and his 1979 Caddy were available, but are now very difficult to find since the addition of the infant

Flowood/Rez Barbie
This doll includes a Chevy Tahoe with multiple private school stickers, Closeted Ken, 2 Whining Wendy, and an incontinent shih-tzu named Rags. She has highlights from Ms. Ann’s, a mega-church membership, and an I-phone with matching earbuds. Kroger buggy with pineapple optional.

McDowell Road Barbie/Ken
This versatile doll can be easily converted from Barbie to Ken by simply adding or subtracting the multiple snap-on parts.

Native American Place Names in Calhoun County, Mississippi

These place names were collected from the Mississippi Atlas & Gazetteer (DeLorme: 2004), pages 25 and 31; the text is from Keith Baca’s Native American Place Names in Mississippi (University Press of Mississippi: 2007).

Note that the gazetteer was my only source for the place names, and that I only referenced those in Calhoun County, Mississippi. If you want to know the interpretations of other Native American place names in other areas of the state, then you can probably find Baca’s book at your local library. The references in the text refer to works that provided the translations/interpretations for specific words.

Some of you might find all this unnecessarily tedious and more of you will find it predictably pretentious, but my skeptics are legion. The only name I did not find is Oloucalofa Creek, which is crossed by County Roads 284 and 283 in the northwestern corner.

Kittahutty Creek

SW Pontotoc/NE Calhoun counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy 32 nine mi. NE of Bruce. Halbert (1899, p. 73), using Choctaw vocabulary, derives this name from kitti, “mortar” (a bowl-sha0ped container for pounding or grinding corn into meal), and hutta, “white”. Halbert offers no explanation for the adjective, but Seale (1939, pp. 109-10) speculates that it refers to a mortar made of white stone (white or bleached wood, more likely). It should benoted that this creek is located at least partially within historically Chickasaw territory, and while Chickasaw kitti’, “mortar” is very similar to the Choctaw word, the only recorded Chickasaw term for “white” is tobbi’. Also, the first two syllables of the name resemble not lonely kitti/kitti’, but Chickasaw/Choctaw kinta, “beaver” as well.

Lucknuck Creek

N Calhoun County. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 32 five mi. NE of Bruce, and by Miss. Hwy 9 one mi. NE of Sarepta. Perhaps a corruption of Chickasaw/Choctaw lackna, “yellow”.

Potlockney Creek

SE Lafayette/ NE Calhoun counties, local pronunciation unrecorded. Potlockney is a relatively recent corruption; this stream was formerly known as Pollocona, the derivation of which is uncertain. W.A. Read, using Choctaw vocabulary, suggested several possible sources of this name to Seale (1939, p. 153), but all are conjectural: poli, “flying squirrel” and yakni “country”; or poli, “flying squirrel” and okhina, “river; water course; stream”. (It should be noted that this stream is in historically Chickasaw territory; cf. Chickasaw lakna, “yellow”; yaakni, “country”; and pali, “flying squirrel”.

Sabougla Community and Creek

SW Calhoun/NW Webster counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 9 two mi. N of Bellefontaine, and by Miss. Hwy. 8 seven miles E of Gore Springs. Cushman (1999, p. 491) claims that this name is a shortened form of (Chickasaw) “Siboglahatcha… [o]riginal, Is-su-ba-ok-la-hu-cha, Horse River People, i.e. [p]eople living on horse river.” (Cf. Choctaw isuba, “horse”, okla, “people” and hocha, “river”.) However, Halbert (1899, p. 75) states that the name is from shohboli’, “smoke” (cf. Choctaw shoblhi, “smoke;smoky; smoking”.

Shuttispear Creek (SHOOT-uh-speer)

N Webster/S Calhoun Counties. Crossed by Miss Hwy. 9 fie mi. S of Calhoun City, and by Miss. Hwy. 8 seven mi. SW of Calhoun City. From Choctaw shuti, “earthen pot” and probably ista pika, “a scoop” i.e. “pot scoop” or “ladle” (Seale, 1939, p. 167). There is an erroneous local tradition regarding this stream resulting from folk etymology; I have been told that long ago, the creek was the scene of warfare between two tribes. According to this tale, the warriors occupied opposite sides of the stream, “shooting spears across the creek at each other”, hence the name.

Skuna Community and River

S Pontotoc (q.v.)/NW Chickasaw (q.v.)/Calhoun/Yalobusha (q.v.)/Grenada counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy 9 on s. side of Bruce. Skuna is apparently from Choctaw iskuna, “entrails; guts” (cf. Halbert 1899, pp. 73-74).

Topashaw Creek (TOP-uh-shaw)

NE Webster/SW Chickasaw (q.v.)/S Calhoun counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 8/9 two mi. S of Calhoun City,and by Miss. Hwy. 341 six mi. W of Woodland. Possibly a variant of Topisaw (cf.), although Seale (1939, p. 198) speculates that “it is highly probably that there is a connection between Sopashaw and Taposa, the latter being the name of a tribe which formerly lived on the Yazoo River.” The meaning of the tribal name Taposa is unknown (Swanson 1969, p. 192).

A Picture of Dorian Greene

Let’s begin with the hat.

A misty rain was falling on Bourbon Street outside the Night of Joy nightclub where Our Hero, Ignatius Reilly and his mother, Irene, had sought refuge from the police after a chaotic entanglement in front of D.H Holmes. Among the bar’s few customers was “an elegantly dressed young man who chain smoked Salems and drank frozen daiquiris in gulps”.

This fop happens to be Dorian Greene, who spills his daiquiri on his bottle-green velvet jacket. When Irene calls to the bartender for a rag, he tells her not to bother and added, with an arched eyebrow, “I think I’m in the wrong bar anyway.”

It soon becomes clear that Dorian is indeed in the wrong bar. In fact, we soon begin wondering how Dorian could have made the mistake of wandering into the Night of Joy at all.

The few other customers in the bar included a man who ran his finger along a racing form, a “depressed blonde who seemed connected with the bar in some capacity, and a snarling bartender. When Irene suggests that he should “stay and see the show” (“see some ass and tits,” the blonde prompts), he “rolls his eyes heavenward,” and in their ensuing conversation—prompted, somewhat, by her insistence on buying him a drink to replace the one he spilled—it becomes obvious that “tits and ass” are the last things Dorian Greene is interested in. Irene persists in engaging the young man.

“‘That’s sure pretty, that jacket you got.”
“Oh, this?” the young man asked, feeling the velvet on the sleeve. “I don’t mind telling you it cost a fortune. I found it in a dear little shop in the Village.”
“You don’t look like you from the country.”
“Oh, my,” the young man sighed and lit a Salem with a great click of his lighter. “I meant Greenwich Village in New York, sweetie. By the way, where did you ever get that hat? It’s truly fantastic.”
“Aw, Lord, I had this since Ignatius made his First Communion.”
“Would you consider selling it?”
“How come?”
“I’m a dealer in used clothing. I’ll give you ten dollars for it.”
“Aw, come on. For this?”
“Fifteen?”
“Really?” Mrs. Reilly removed the hat. “Sure, honey.”
The young man opened his wallet and gave Mrs. Reilly three five-dollar bills. Draining his daiquiri glass, he stood up and said, “Now I really must run.”
“So soon?” “It’s been perfectly delightful meeting you.” “Take care out in the cold and wet.”
The young man smiled, placed the hat carefully beneath his trench coat, and left the bar.

The young man is not a dealer in used clothing. When he and Ignatius meet again—much later—he reveals that the hat “was destroyed at a really wild gathering. Everybody dearly loved it.” He later reveals that he goes by Dorian Greene. “If I told you my real name, you’d never speak to me again. It’s so common I could die just thinking of it. I was born on a wheat farm in Nebraska. You can take it from there.”

When Ignatius arrives at Dorian’s address on St. Peter Street to attend the kick-off party for what appears to be global gay insurrection, he discovers a three-story yellow stucco building.

Some prosperous Frenchman had built the house in the late 1700s to house a menage of wife, children, and spinster tantes. The tantes had been stored up in the attic along with the other excess and unattractive furniture, and from the two little dormer windows in the roof they had seen what little of the world they believed existed outside of their own monde of slanderous gossip, needlework, and cyclical recitations of the rosary. But the hand of the professional decorator had exorcised whatever ghosts of the French bourgeoisie might still haunt the thick brick walls of the building. The exterior was painted a bright canary yellow; the gas jets in the reproduction brass lanterns mounted on either side of the carriageway flickered softly, their amber flames rippling in reflection on the black enamel of the gate and shutters. On the flagstone paving beneath both lanterns there were old plantation pots in which Spanish daggers grew and extended their sharply pointed stilettos.

When Ignatius asks Dorian where the money comes from “to support this decadent whimsy of yours?” Dorian replies, “From my dear family out there in the wheat. They send me large checks every month. In return I simply guarantee them that I’ll stay out of Nebraska. I left there under something of a cloud, you see. All that wheat and those endless plains. I can’t tell you how depressing it all was. Grant Wood romanticized it, if anything. went East for college and then came here. Oh, New Orleans is such freedom.”

Yes, Dorian found freedom in beautiful, decadent New Orleans, as have so many thousands of gays from the hinterlands. John Rechy, in City of Night (1963) echoes Dorian with his description of the annual gay pilgrimage to New Orleans during Carnival season:

“. . . fugitives will have felt the stirring of this call to brief Freedom. New Orleans is now the pied piper playing a multikeyed tune to varikeyed ears. In those same dark cities equally restless queens, wringing from their exiled lives, each drop of rebellion, will fell the strange excitement . . . Hips siren curved, wrists lily-delicately broken, they will stare in defiant demureness from theater screen and home screens all over the country; and those painted malefaces will challenge—and, Maybe, for an instant, be acknowledged by—the despising, arrogant, apathetic world that produced them and exiled them.”

And, so, Dorian Greene. A comic exaggeration? Yes. A gay stereotype? By any standards, most certainly. Yet Dorian, in Ignatius Reilly’s New Orleans, and, as it so happens, so many other gays in the New Orleans we all know, has found the freedom to be who he needs to be. And Toole’s acknowledgement of this freedom for gays in the city he portrays provides evidence of the liberality of his genius.

11 Different Herbs and Spices

I once knew a woman who claimed to know the Sanders Original Recipe of “11 herbs and spices” because she had worked in a franchise outlet in Grenada, Mississippi for three months while her husband was in the local lock-up for beating up a grease monkey.

She didn’t really know the recipe, of course; her fried chicken tasted nothing like it, though it may have to her after a bottle of vodka. But Harlan Sanders’ original recipe was finally made public in August, 2016, when the Chicago Tribune reported that a nephew by marriage–by marriage, mind you–of Harland Sanders claimed to have found a copy of the original KFC fried chicken recipe on a handwritten piece of paper in an envelope–an envelope, no less–in a scrapbook of an assuredly familial nature .

As journalists of fortitude, integrity, and no small degree of puckish abandon, Tribune staffers tested the recipe before publication, and after “some trial and error” they decided that with the addition of an unspecified amount of MSG, the following seasoning mixture produced fried chicken “indistinguishable” from the fried chicken from a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.

By way of covering their ass, they recommended that the chicken should be soaked in buttermilk, coated once, then fried in oil at 350 degrees until golden brown.

Mix with 2 cups white flour:

2/3 Ts (tablespoons) Salt
1/2 Ts Thyme
1/2 Ts Basil
1/3 Ts Oregano
1 Ts Celery salt
1 Ts Black pepper
1 Ts Dried mustard
4 Ts Paprika
2 Ts Garlic salt
1 Ts Ground ginger
3 Ts White pepper

The Williams/Capote Clash: Fear and Loathing ‘Neath the Old Magnolias

This piece by acclaimed rogue New Orleans journalist (and Mississippi native) Don Lee Keith came to light a week ago in a folder of notes, letters, and other odds and ends while I was looking for something else.

Reading over it again, I made the decision to republish it on Mississippi Sideboard, since, as I’ve stated before, one of this platform’s functions is to preserve amusing or interesting ephemera. Keith’s piece is both interesting, amusing, and sheds a colorful light on people, a time, and a place.

I’ve long since lost the original copy, have only a vague idea of where I may have found it to begin with, and days of research has turned up nothing about the original publication. I did, however find rough drafts of “Fear and Loathing Beneath the Magnolias” in the Earl K Long Library’s archive with Keith’s other papers. If anyone can provide a citation, I’d be much obliged.

JACKSON, MISS.— A year and a half ago, when the post-Junior League women of this capital city began planning the 14th annual Mississippi Arts Festival, they took a shoot-for-the-stars attitude. They set their sights on the likes of Leontyne Price for opera, Liza Minelli for pops, and they wavered between Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote for their literary choices.

Throughout the months of letter writing and phone calling and contract negotiating, the pickings got slimmer. By last weekend, when the festival curtain opened, the committee had altered its preferences and settled on Joanna Simons instead of Leontyne Price. Robert Goulet cost $12,500, which was more realistic than Liza Minelli’s $65,000, so it was Goulet on the festival stage. But by some peculiar move of fate, both choices for the literary star—Williams and Capote—had agreed to appear. When that word was received, the women went into orgasmic ecstasy. They congratulated each other over sherry and called their friends long distance and bored their husbands, talking about nothing but their achievement. “Just think,” they all said, “Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. Together for the first time on one stage. Ours. What a coup!”

What they did not know was that Williams and Capote did not want to be together on any stage at any time, did not want to speak or even see each other, much less appear on the same program. The two men had locked creative horns in the season’s most celebrated battle of egocentric frenzies. Inviting that pair to the same gathering was tantamount to pitching a couple of savage vipers into the same pit.

***

Truman Capote had been writing something called Answered Prayers for nearly 20 years. At least that’s how long he’s been talking about it, skillfully interjecting mentions of the book into every major interview, persistently reminding the public that his “life’s work” has a title taken from St. Theresa: “More tears are shed over answered prayers then over unanswered ones.”

In the meantime, of course, he has come out with several other books—most notably In Cold Blood, which he touted as a “new art form” –but no one had seen a word of Answered Prayers until the summer of 1975 when a story in Esquire was billed as a chapter from the long-awaited, finally forthcoming, novel. A few months later, in the same magazine, there appeared a second story, seemingly unrelated but supposedly part of the novel, which set New York society’s teeth on edge. Capote, in that story, sliced his friends off at the ankles. He told secrets, bared confidences, detailed scandals, disclosed intimacies and hung out more dirty linen than a lot of that gold-plated coterie had ever counted on seeing in print. Immediately, the social set reacted like a burnt spider.

Capote offered no explanation or apology. In May of 1976 he published a third story from the novel. And here is where he gave the shiv to a literary friendship that had spanned three decades.

Capote created an admittedly pseudonymous character called Mr. Wallace. He is America’s most acclaimed playwright. He is “a chunky, paunchy, booze-puffed runt with a play moustache glued about his iconic lips.” He has a corn-pone voice and a pet bulldog. He is paranoic. He is a hypochondriac and expects to die at any moment. He is convinced the critics have turned on himl He laments the death of his homosexual lover. And Mr. Wallace—whom the world took to be an unmistakable portrait of Tennessee Williams—is made more memorab le in Capote’s story for having engaged the services of a male prostitute and then proposing to extinguish his cigar in the young fellow’s rear.

The ink of that Esquire story was scarcely dry before Williams had dipped into an ample supply of venom and pulled out a vengeful epithet for Capote.

It was “rattlesnake”.

***

Well before Christmas, chairman of the Mississippi Arts Festival, Mrs. Heber (“Sister”) Simmons, began making overtures as to the availability of Tennessee Williams. It seemed more logical to invite the playwright because he was, after all, a native Mississippian. He had never appeared on stage in his home state. And, despite the height to which he had raised eyebrows with his revealing Memoirs (1975), there was an undeniable devotion to him among some of the state’s more literate groups.

Williams’ agent, Bill Barnes offered no encouragement, however. Sister Simmons, never a woman to be outdone, shot at the other star, firing off inquiries to Capote’s agent. The reply was a polite No. “Mr. Capote feels that he must closet himself in order to finish the book he is currently writing.”

So, for the first time, the festival committee went to the festival board about an alternate choice for a literary star. James Dickey was considered, a contract was drawn up, tut the board had second thoughts and opted for John Gardner. Gardner’s contract was in the hands of the board, ready for signing, when a telegram arrived from Capote’s agent saying that yes, he would appear. The women in charge of the shindig clasped their bosoms and signed with thanksgiving.

But Sister Simmons would not rest easily until she knew for certain that Williams had personally refused to come to Jackson. She sent out new feelers, fresh inquiries, and dispatched another wire to agent Barnes, with a copy to Williams himself. Then it dawned on her that the festival coffers were empty. All the money had been allocatged.

Raising money in Mississippi to bring in Tennessee Williams can be a furrow-browed chore, particularly when you’re already shelling out three thou for Truman Capote. Potential donors—all the way from bank presidents to prominent professionals—are likely to glance to the side and shuffle nervously at the prospect of paying good money to the likes of those two, regardless of their individual achievements. A kind of magnolia-scented macho rises likethe swamp fog, and when the topic invades beer sessions or hunting outings, the term “damn queers” is heard out loud.

So, Sister Simmons had a few weeks of constant turn-downs ahead, even after Williams informed his agent that he was, indeed, interested in coming to the festival, Finally, with two-thirds of the $4000 pledged, she confronted the board, which eventually agreed to underwrite the rest. If Williams would come, an admission fee of $5 would be charged.

Now, Sister Simmons sat back and waited There was little else she could do.

***

When Capote’s agent, Irene Smookler, was told that Williams might be appearing at the festival, she said she’s pass that word to her client. Two days later, she phoned Nora Jane Ethridge, seminars chairman, with this message: “Mr. Capote doesn’t care of Mr. Williams comes. He just doesn’t want to look at him.”

***

Less than two weeks before Festival, a contract with Williams had been signed. His agent has been assured the yes, the playwright was being paid more than Capote. The program had been updated to include Williams and was at the printer. Now, it was Thursday afternoon and Ms. Ethridge was on the phone to Barnes, confirming arrival time and other such details. Mr. Williams was scheduled to go on stage Sunday at 1 p.m., she said. There was no possibility of a conflict since Truman Capote would have already spoken and left town.

“Well, the phone fairly exploded,” says Nora Jane Ethridge. “Bill Barnes just went crazy “Capote? Capote?” he yelled, and went right into a fit about how anybody with any sense would never invite the two men to the same thing, and what did those deceptive women who called themselves fine Southern ladies mean, and if Mr. Williams had cone to Jackson and found that Truman Capote was on the same program how me, Bill Barnes, would have been fired, and well, it went on and on—and before I knew what was happening he had hung up the phone right in my face!”

For two days, the women in charge of the festival breathed short, careful breaths, their optimism corseted by fear that the playwright would cancel. They sent a lengthy telegram to Williams, saying how pleased, how every pleased everyone was that he was coming. They implored Jacksonian author Eudora Welty to call his New York hotel and if she couldn’t get him in person to at least leave a message that she, too, was pleased. And it wasn’t until the 6 p.m. pl,ant landed on Saturday night that anyone was actually sure that Mississippi’s most acclaimed literary son was coming home again.

By then, nerve endings were blood raw from all the excitement that Truman Capote was in town.

***

Capote’s Saturday had begun with a brunch at the Ethridge house. Predictably, conversations often got around to a mention of Williams. One guest said she was looking forward to meeting him. “You’re in for a big no-treat,” advised Capote. When someone else brought up the question of when Williams latest play, Vieux Carre, might open, Capote remarked, “Oh, his plays open and close so fast you can’t keep up with them.” More immediate concern, however seemed to be on his own appearance on stage.

***

The crowd arrived early and waited anxiously but patiently. It was an odd assortment and a peculiar one for an auditorium on a religiously-oriented campus. Embroidered jeans sat right next to double-knit leisure suits. Gum-chewing teenagers shared arm rests with blue-haired matrons wearing canary diamonds. And all conversations, regardless of subject matter, halted at 3 o’clock sharp when the place was thrown into sudden darkness, except for a single pink pinspot trained on an edge of the stage. From behind the red velvet curtain, he appeared. His head was tilted back at a rakish angle as he struck a pose, he remained there for a moment, affecting a dislocated hip stance not unlike that of Vogue models of the early 1960s. He was wearing a tannish suit with narrow lapels, and an orange turtleneck sweater. His hands were at his sides until all at once, his right arm shot upward and stayed there, straight, with its hand bobbing limply from its wrist. Amid the roar of applause, someone wondered loudly if he had borrowed that salute from Natalie Wood’s last scene in Gypsy.

Then Capote walked to the podium. The edge of its top reached him mid-chest. He leaned forward to the microphone. He blinked several times in rapid succession and began to speak. Capote’s voice is even more celebrated than his prose. It is as recognizable as a whining mammy-cat—fragile yet somehow strong, condescending but commanding, a rather freakish effect devoid of gruff bass notes, almost as if the transition of adolescence has never visited his vocal cords. He commenced the twice-told tale of a guy in New York who went to a pretty model’s apartment in the Dakota to pick her up for a date. In the living room the man encountered a Great Dane, and while the girl finished dressing, the man amused the dog by bouncing a rubber ball, which the animal would catch in its mouth.

The faint ringing that had begun in the sound system of the auditorium had now reached a loud, hollow echo level and the author stopped his story. Three men appeared from three different directions, each intent on correcting the embarrassing dilemma, but they succeeded only partially. The somewhat muted echo continued its distraction. And Capote continued the saga of the big dog that sprang for a rubber ball and leaped through an open window to its death a dozen floors below.

The audience had started to adjust to the little man on sage. Fewer and fewer nudged each other in the ribs when his voice struck lyric soprano notes. But nervous laughter would mount within the group, erupting every minute or so at the least opportunity. When Capote began reading an early story, “My Side of the Matter,” virtually every sentence was punctuated by spratic giggles from his listeners. It seemed an appropriate response, so with each appreciative round of laughter, his interpretation of the story grew more dramatic.

“My Side of the Matter,” is about a young man with a persecution complex who is riddled with paranoia concerning his wife’s family. It is told in first person, and more than one astute reader has noted its similarity to Welty’s brilliant story, “Why I Live at the P.O.” Capote has vowed that he wrote his story long before reading Miss Welty’s.

Certainly he has written better stories, but seldom has he written more expressive orf, indeed, more theatrical ones. His reading left no point unmade, no nuance unrealized. His gestures were plentiful, and each sweet of the hand, each snarl, each frown, was rewarded with laughter.

But the Peter Lorre-like imp did not go on with his caricature after that story. Instead, he switched the turntable speed from humor to tenderness, and he read his highly autobiographical, “A Christmas Memory”. This time the audience adopted a reverence. Several women dabbed at their eyes in the closing words. Clearly, Capote had won. He had converted the disbelievers, even those who had come to point and smirk, and his victory was evident in the unrestrained applause. The jarring, erratic cadence of the crowd clapping almost managed to drown out the hollow echo of the sound system.

Already four persons had stalked out to the lobby, had demanded and received their money back. One said the Festival folks were putting on a shoddy show. Everybody else, however, appeared determined to hear Capote’s response to audience questions, and the most sensitive of the lot were in for a few attacks of chagrin. When a girl rose and asked if he would mind signing a book for her father, paperbacks suddenly began appearing from purses and from beneath vests, and a lot of autograph seekers gathered at the steps leading to the stage. That’s when the Capote performance fell apart; it had lasted an hour and 38 minutes, and if anybody who had stayed to the finish felt it hadn’t been worth the money, no one said so.

***

The first thing anyone noticed when entering the auditorium of the Millsaps Christian Center Sunday afternoon was the table placed at center stage. Right smack in the middle of it was a bottle of wine, and to the right of the bottle was a glass, half full of the dark red liquid the sight had the same effect on the first to arrive, and the last. It caused people to sit stiller than people had sat the previous afternoon. Those who had to speak did so in whispers, almost as if the presence of wine in a placed named Christian Center demanded awe. And when Tennessee Williams came on stage promptly at 1 p.m. and stumbled just enough to drop two of the books he was carrying (but managed to hang onto the raincoat draped across his arm) several persons closed their eyes, in dread that it was all true, all those stories about his getting liquored-up and falling out in public. Some remembered what Truman Capote had said on that talk show, that Williams was going around claiming he had cut down on the booze. Capote said he had cut down all right, at least to three or four bottles a day.

At the podium was the woman lieutenant governor, a tall lady who kept reminding the audience, over and over, that the man was a native Mississippian. When she hammered on that point for the fourth time, they laughed. They laughed even harder when she said the governor himself would have been there, had he not been in the hospital getting a medical check-up. The joke was an inside one shared by those who recalled the governor having been hospitalized last year. That, too, was supposedly a check-up but informants reported he was suffering from a gunshot wound accomplished by his wife. They continued the laughter when the tall woman presented Williams with a certificate declaring him an honorary colonel on the governor’s staff.

It was hardly a reassurance when Williams took the mike from the woman and proceeded to sing the first few bars of the esoteric Mississippi state song. And it failed to squelch any scattered uneasiness when, in the midst of an introduction by a lady from his hometown, Columbus, Williams sauntered over to the table and seated himself in the chair behind it.

Oh, Christ, he really is drunk, they thought. But he wasn’t.

After the introduction, he slowly, methodically, raised his wine glass and proposed a toast: “To the imminent recovery of the governor.” The whole place fairly shook with guffaws.

“I know all about Southern proprieties,” he said, “and I don’t want to offend you. Yet I suspect that you expect me to be somewhat unconventional.” And he read a poem called “Ole Men Go Mad at Night”. When he came to a reference regarding “a fox teethed boy” he offered a sliver of parenthetical insight. “That is preparing you for the general, upcoming mood of this afternoon,” he said, “Not that you are not already adequately prepared. And on he went with the poem.

He sat on the edge of the chair, leaning rather precariously on the table, his head framed on one side by the wine bottle and on the other by the microphone. Not infrequently he reached up to stroke a mustache more carefully clipped than his enunciation. On a couple of occasions, he giggled his celebrated giggle, a sort of gentle cross between the sounds of a robust wind chime and a soup spoon caught in a garbage disposal.

He leafed through the book of poetry, hesitating here and there to consider a selection. “I’m doing this unplanned,” he said, smiling, “so in the meantime, you can bite your nails to the quick.” The audience laughed its last laugh of the afternoon. It soon became obvious that Williams was not aiming for humor. He was aiming for sensitivity. He was not offering the audience comedy. He was offering the audience challenge.

He read a longer poem, “The Lady with Nobody at All”. By now he was more relaxed, more comfortable. He was more peaceful. But peace and Tennessee Williams have not walked together often. Throughout most of his 66 years, he has been plagued with gnawing distresses, by claustrophobia, by fear of heart attacks, drinking. His audience didn’t bat an eyelid when Williams read a short piece of fiction named “Mama’s Old Stucco House”. Its central character, Mr. Jimmy, picks up hitch-hiking young men from the nearby air base and entertains them at the house where his mother is dying. There wasn’t a gri9n, even, when Williams read such lines as “An old faggot took me to New York.” The audience was responding to the playwright’s challenge. It was regarding serious creativity as serious creativity. This was no freak they were listening to; eccentric, perhaps, plenty eccentric, but no freak. They were being enlightened, not merely entertained, and it seemed so incidental, whatever might be his sexual preference.

With the final words of the story still hanging in the air like moth trailings, the audience sat motionless, somehow transfixed by a collective shot of Novocain. Then, after a few brief seconds of steady applause, everyone stood at once. No early jump-ups, no late dawdlers. In a single, united movement, the crowd was on its feet, together. It was as if that particular moment had been choreographed, rehearsed, waited for.

***

Capote had been placed on a Delta jet that morning. Williams had now finished his appearance. Nora Jane Ethridge’s festival duties were three quarters complete. With Williams holed up in an anteroom with a television crew, and the team from People magazine nowhere in sight, Ms. Ethridge could stop fretting and drop all pretenses. She stood backstage with her hands on her hips. “The one yesterday was all you ever hoped for. Why, I had Truman eating out of my hand. But that one, she said, pointing a thin finger toward Williams’ interview room, “he really showed out at first he was the most ungracious, most insulting person I believe I ever saw. But after a while, he was eating of my hand, too. When he’s through in there, we’re going over to my house to have a drink and relax a little before he has to go to the airport.”

 

Williams sat cross-legged in a wicker chair and accepted a jelly-jar sized glass bucket full of vodka. He was over the rigors of performance. In a couple of house he’d be gone. Around him milled other guests, anxious bo hear but cautious not to seem pushy. All hesitation vanished, however, when the playwright slid into the subject of Capote. They clustered around him, savoring each provocative explicative he spat out. Truman is a gutter rat,” he proclaimed. “Ill-born and ill-mannered. He’s never created an original character and what’s more, he is deliberately malicious. I’d sooner bed down with a cobra than to be in his company.”

***

The folks in Jackson will be talking a long time about the 14th annual Mississippi Arts Festival, the year when those two came to town. Long after they’ve ceased to remember what the men said on stage, they will recall what was said about each other. Long after Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote have forgotten what each was all about, or indeed, that there was a clash, Jackson will recount tales of it all. By then, some of the stories may still have some vague basis of fact, and perhaps that will be enough. After all, some vague basis of fact is what started it all in the first place.