As librarians in Tupelo, a colleague and I were in charge of taking books to those who couldn’t come to us. Every Wednesday we’d load up our trusty little station wagon and drive around the city dropping off new checkouts and picking up returns. Our main destinations were nursing homes, and they were all, without exception, far from the dismal environments some people might imagine. As a matter of fact, those under care were often robust enough to elbow a neighbor out of the way to get the best Cartlands, Christies or L’Amours, not to mention the latest John Grisham. During one of these feeding frenzies, a blue stocking with pink hair sniffed and said to me, “They shouldn’t have been taught how to read in the first place.”
My partner Beverly, a seasoned veteran, rarely instructed me on nuances, so the assignment was full of pleasant surprises and lessons. We often picked up returns at the nurses’ stations, which are always a nexus of activity. I remember once early on reaching a station just as a produce man was dropping off three bushels of unshelled peas. Being a reformed kitchen grunt myself, I expected some surly person to appear, haul them in the back and begin the tedium of shelling them, so I was astounded when at least a dozen ladies came out of the TV room, ripped a pea sack open in seconds, filled up their colanders and retreated—talking up a storm—back into the TV room. I was trying to take it all in while Bev started packing up the returned books. Finally I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Bev, are they in there shelling peas?”
She looked over at the TV room door and said, “Oh, yes. They love watching soap operas and shelling peas.” Sure enough, a squadron of ladies had settled into their seats with peas and bowls in their laps and paper sacks on the floor at their sides. They didn’t even look at the peas as they shelled them; their eyes were glued to the drama unfolding before them. The nurse on duty told me that the shelled peas were collected before dinner (I had a vision of some old lady trying to stash HER colander of peas in a bottom drawer), bagged and kept in the refrigerator until cooked or offered to visitors, but “sometimes there’s so much in there, we just end up taking some home to keep them from being wasted.”
Bill Neale suspected that the Lord invented porches and television to make pea-shelling easier. My mother Barbara, as a young bride, was out on her porch one afternoon sweeping when she saw her husband’s Aunt Bess walking down the road with a sack and crying her eyes out, going to her sister Ethel’s, who was Barbara’s mother-in-law. Not being one to impose (at that point), mother assumed the worst and started cooking. After about an hour, with two casseroles and a cake in the oven, she called up Daddy and said, “Jess, your Aunt Bess just went over to Ethel’s just bawling her eyes out. I think Uncle Ed’s finally died.”
So Daddy ran up to Ethel’s house, assessed the situation, came out sweating and said: “Barbara, Ed didn’t die, Bess is just all wrung out over some soap character dying—her and Momma both.” Then Daddy handed her a bag of shelled peas. “Here,” he said. “I told them to come over for dinner tonight. You need to start watching ‘Days of Our Lives.’”
It was the third of June, another hot and dusty Delta day. I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was bailin’ hay.
So begins Mississippi’s most familiar ballad, “Ode to Billy Joe,” a plaintive tune about Billy Joe McAllister’s suicide in the Tallahatchie River, written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1967.
Bobbie Gentry was born Bobbie Lee Streeter July 27, 1944, on her paternal grandparents’ farm near Mantee, Mississippi. Her father, Robert H. Streeter, lived in Greenwood, Mississippi, where she attended school. Gentry moved to Arcadia, California at age thirteen to live with her mother and stepfather. They relocated to Palm Springs two years later, where Bobbie graduated from Palm Springs High School. She changed her name to Gentry after seeing the 1952 film Ruby Gentry, starring Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston. Gentry briefly attended UCLA and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, then drifted between secretarial and nightclub jobs and eventually found herself in Las Vegas working as a showgirl.
Gentry approached Capitol Records in early 1967 with two tunes, “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Mississippi Delta,” which she recorded. “Mississippi Delta” was made the B-side, and despite its lengthy four minutes and thirteen seconds, “Ode to Billy Joe,” the featured song. The recording was released on July 10 and became an immediate hit. By the end of summer 1967, “Ode to Billy Joe” had climbed to the number one position on all three major American music charts–Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World. The album was No. 1 on the US Billboard Top LP’s chart, the only album to displace the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from its 15-week reign at the top of the chart. It also peaked at No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot Country Albums chart and at No. 5 on the US Billboard Top Selling R&B Albums chart.
“The burning question of the day,” wrote Jackson Daily News arts editor Frank Hains, “is not how to un-snarl ourselves from Vietnam or how to un-uppity H. Rap Brown…. It’s what did Billy Joe and that girl throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
“People are trying to read social comment into the song, but none is intended,” Gentry said at the time. The song was simply about human indifference. And she wasn’t even protesting indifference in “Billy Joe,” just describing it. “I’m not so sure indifference isn’t a good thing,” she said. “If we were all totally affected by tragedy, we’d be afraid to go anywhere or do anything.”
Gentry insisted that the “Ode to Billy Joe” narrative, despite its perceived genuineness and its use of actual place-names, was “not true;” however, she conceded that, of all the bridges spanning the Tallahatchie River, she referred in her song to the one just outside Greenwood. She also said that Choctaw Ridge was also located in Leflore County, she noted, near the former home of “Greenwood LeFlore (sic).” Print media outside the South commented on both the song and Gentry’s authenticity. Newsweek called her “a true daughter of the Mississippi Delta who can vividly evoke its pace and poetry and smells and style.” Time reported that “Ode to Billie Joe” was “based on (Gentry’s) recollection of life around Greenwood, Miss.,” and that “millions of puzzled Americans coast to coast [were ready to start dragging] the Tallahatchie.”
Gentry appeared on the most popular variety shows (the Smothers Brothers, Ed Sullivan, Bob Hope, Perry Como, and Carol Burnett) and piloted a BBC series that had some success in other countries. Eventually, Gentry’s fame subsided. She married renowned casino owner William Harrah in late 1969; news reports focused on the couple’s thirty-year age difference and on the bride’s $150,000 pear-shaped diamond ring. The marriage lasted four months.
Gentry eventually signed away rights for both a film adaptation and novelization of “Ode to Billy Joe.” When they both appeared in 1976, nine years after the hit single, they were extremely popular. The book, issued exclusively in paperback by Dell, enjoyed over a dozen print runs that year, and the movie grossed over $10.4 million, placing it fifteenth in earnings among films released in the U.S. in 1976.
The film premiered in Jackson, Mississippi, with much hoopla on June 3, the anniversary of Billy Joe’s swan dive. Mississippi governor Cliff Finch proclaimed it “Bobbie Gentry Day,” and Lieutenant Evelyn Gandy presided over a dedication ceremony at one particular bridge over the Tallahatchie, which Boxoffice magazine claimed was designated as “the official Billy Joe McAllister leap site.”
The picture opened as well in 550 theaters across the South, followed by national distribution. The concern with specifying the exact date and the precise site of Billy Joe’s demise ironically eclipsed the questionable truthfulness of the story. Janet Maslin pointed out in Newsweek that, though the beginning of the film included a title explaining it was shot on location in the Mississippi Delta, “where this story actually took place,” the final frames contained the standard disclaimer that all individuals and incidents depicted were fictitious.
Most reviews and promotional materials stressed the film’s perceived authenticity and its successful evocation of setting. Most of this was due largely to the producer-director. Max Baer, Jr. Born in 1937, in Oakland, California, Baer was best known for his role as the lumpish Jethro in the popular television series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” New Englander Herman Raucher was chosen to write the screenplay and novel. The characters Baer and Raucher created were certainly not “free of cliché,” as Variety asserted. These figures were nothing more than a confusing crowd of Southern stereotypes, and the place depictions were just a mishmash of rural images. Robbie Benson and Glynnis O’Connor played the young leads, Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee, with awkward accents, and though the film was set in the Mississippi Delta, which has a majority black population, the film had not one African American character. Most surprising, for a film based on a song, the music also was displaced; when characters attended a jamboree, they were treated not to Delta blues but rather to upcountry bluegrass.
For all its awkwardness, the film did give a reason for his suicide. After an unsuccessful attempt at intercourse, Bobbie Lee tries to assure Billy Joe that “it’s alright,” but he insists: “It ain’t alright. I ain’t alright. Bobbie Lee, I have been with a man, did you hear me?— which is a sin against nature, a sin against God. I don’t know how I could have done it, I swear.”
Was this reason for Billy Joe’s suicide, the resolution to the question unanswered by “Ode to Billy Joe,” the invention of Herman Raucher, or was the character of Billy Joe McAllister somehow based in reality? Herman Raucher confided in a Jackson Daily News reporter that “the song’s lyric is not quite all fiction. We’ve got an odd combination of fact and fiction in it.”
Gentry’s final public appearance was at the Academy of Country Music Awards on April 30, 1982. Since that time, she has not recorded, performed or been interviewed. On May 14, 2012, BBC Radio 2 in the UK broadcast a documentary titled Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry? presented by country music artist Rosanne Cash. One 2016 news report stated that Gentry lives near Memphis, Tennessee, but according to another, she lives in Los Angeles.
Bobbie Lee has become as much a mystery as Billy Joe.
I am not from Jackson, nor (even worse) am I from Belhaven. This relegates me to troglodyte status to the natives to this fair city, but before you begin casting aspersions (or something sharper and heavier) let me assure you that Seta Sancton’s The World from Gillespie Place goes a very long way towards explaining why I and others love it so.
Given my primeval ignorance, of course I had to find out who Mrs. Sancton was, and given that I know so few people here, I decided to simply do what I do best and research the matter. This eventually led me to contact Tom Sancton, who among other things is former Paris bureau chief for TIME magazine, professor of journalism at the American University of Paris, Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Tulane and a jazz clarinetist to boot. He’s also likely to be one of those irritating people who complete the NYTimes crossword even before they finish their second cup of coffee. In response to my query, Mr. Sancton wrote:
Seta Alexander Sancton (1915-2007) was my mother. She was born in Jackson, on North State Street, into a prominent local family (Whartons on mother’s side, Alexanders on father’s side). Her father was Julian P. Alexander, a graduate of Princeton and Ole Miss law school, and an associate justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court. She graduated from Millsaps College, where she was a member of Chi Omega. She was a close personal friend of Eudora Welty, a neighbor from childhood. (My mother’s family lived first on Gillespie Place, then at 1616 Poplar Blvd; Eudora was on Pinehurst.) Seta married my father, New Orleans journalist and novelist Thomas Sancton, in 1941. They lived mostly in New Orleans and had three children of which I am the youngest. When my mother was in her 70s, she decided to write down some family stories and memories for her children and grandchildren. She started jotting down stories on notepaper, the back of envelopes, whatever she had at hand, adding stick figure illustrations as she went along. The result was the book you have in hand. In the 1990s she recorded readings of some of the stories. Best regards,
Seta’s book is the memoir of city full of “sugar and spice and everything nice”, of June bugs and fig trees, lavender lantana and magnolia musk, braided biscuits, sidewalk parades, and ragtime on the Victrolas. “Though Edward VII was no longer on the throne,” Seta writes, “the temper of the times remained Edwardian for our mothers, our grandmothers and for us children.”
The World from Gillespie is a world where maids took children to Smith Park to play on the swings and slides, feed the swan, and eat sugar cookies in the miniature Greek pagoda. Home libraries offered volumes of Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson and the best-selling works of Zane Gray. Gillespie Place itself was a new subdivision off State Street, and having a mother who was Episcopal and a father who was a Presbyterian was awkward. Going to the state fair was a landmark event as was going downtown to eat at the Bon Ton, the Pantaze, or the Edwards House. Seta’s eyes are filled with the genteel character of Jackson during the 1920s. Yes, of course poverty and oppression were rife at the time, but those and other unpleasantries such as war and epidemics are set aside for bridge luncheons, birthday parties, dragonflies, and swimming in Livingston Lake.
I’m charmed by this picture of Jackson’s past, watch for glimpses of it now, and see it every day. Memory, my children, is a living thing.
In his introduction Oscar Rogers writes, “The title of this book could well have been My Mother Cooked My Way Through Life with These Creole Recipes. Her skill in cooking fine foods, prepared with loving care, assured her of a living and me of my survival. She places part of herself into each dish she prepares—in fact a part of herself is in everything she does. This is her priceless legacy to me.”
Dr. Oscar Rogers was one of the most distinguished educators in Mississippi. He received his A.B. from Tougaloo in 1948, the B.S. in theology in 1954 and an M.A. in theology in 1954, both from Harvard. He returned to Natchez to accept the position as dean of students and registrar at Natchez Junior College in 1954, and was appointed president of Arkansas Baptist College in 1956, serving until 1959. In 1958, he received a doctoral fellowship to enroll at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and there he completed his doctor of education degree in social science in administration in 1960. Rogers’ wife, Lee, insisted that her children (three sons) live near and learn to know her father, Jefferson O. Lewis, a longtime employee of Tougaloo College, so the family moved to Jackson where she became a teacher in the Jackson Public Schools, and Oscar accepted the position as dean of students at Jackson State College from 1960-68. During 1968-69, the family moved to Seattle, where Lee taught and Oscar engaged in research. They returned to Jackson in later 1969, where Dr. Rogers became dean of students at JSU, a position he held for fifteen years. In 1984, he became the seventh president of Clafin University, a position he held to his retirement in 1994. Dr. Rogers died in July, 2011.
This book was published in December, 1971, when Rogers’ mother, Mrs. Walter Tillman, affectionately known as Pinky, was still alive. She attended the reception and signing, which was held by the University and College Press of Mississippi in the H.T. Sampson Library on the JSU campus. Some may be surprised that Oscar calls the recipes “Creole”, since they originate not in New Orleans, but upriver in Natchez, but in its strictest definition, Creole is defined as “a person descended from the early French and Spanish settlers in the U.S. Gulf States”. Natchez was founded by French colonists in 1716. In the culinary sphere, however, Creole implies the cooking of the well-to-do, more urban inhabitants of the region; one authority, Howard Mitcham, defines it as “city” cooking as opposed to “country (Cajun)”. And many of the 200+ recipes are sophisticated indeed: cauliflower Hollandaise, Doberge cake (a distinctly New Orleans dish, by the way), shrimp remoulade and floating island pudding, but there is also an abundance of good home-style recipes such as Southern-style pork chops, a meat loaf, baked beans and spoon bread. It’s also well worth noting that a recipe for Harvard beets makes an appearance on page 49.
Courtbouillion of Red Fish
1 large red fish, snapper or sheepshead, 5-6 lbs.
1/2 cup salad (vegetable) oil
1 c. flour
2 large onions, chopped
2 1/2 cups canned tomatoes
2 bay leaves
4 green bell peppers, chopped
4 shallots or green onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 slices lemon
1 cup claret or port wine
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 1/2 cups water (scant)
a few sprigs parsley
Slice fish across back into 2 or 3 in cuts. In a large skillet heat the salad oil, add the flour and stir until very brown. Add onions, stirring until cooked a bit. add chopped tomatoes and remaining ingredients except wine and fish, cook for 1/2 hour or more. Add sliced fish (you may lay fish in roasting pan or large pot if skillet isn’t large enough and pour sauce over fish). Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until fish is cooked. Add wine and let come to a boil again. Serve with rice or creamed potatoes. (Serves 6 to 8).
Many people consider sweet potato biscuits occasional foods, meaning they’re made only for guests or take-tos such as church suppers, homecomings or trans coming out parties. But these simple quick breads are so very easy and so very good that they’re fit on any table and their sweetness can be adjusted accordingly.
My recipe is a riff on that of April McGregor, a fellow Calhoun Countian and author of the Sweet Potatoes cookbook in the University of North Carolina’s excellent Savor the South series. April writes that while many recipes will advise you to knead biscuit dough, she’ll tell you this is a mistake, as indeed it is. Kneading works up gluten in the dough, making your biscuits heavy. The ingredients must also be kept chilled and (this is crucial) the oven preheated and very hot (450) for maximum leavening.
For the dough, use 3 cups soft flour (Martha White or Dixie Lily) sifted with two teaspoons baking powder. Cut in a cup of cold cooked sweet potatoes (you can use canned drained of the syrup) and one stick butter cut into pats. Remember to keep everything cold until you combine them in a bowl and mix them with our hands until they’re the consistency of rice. To this add enough cold buttermilk to make a sticky dough. You can add chopped pecans if you like. Pat this out in a floured surface, cut with a sharp edge and place into a lightly oiled skillet. If you put them in a cake tin, you risk burning the bottoms. Place in an upper rack of the oven, and bake for about 15 minutes.
As to the molasses, mix a cup of molasses with a half cup water in a small saucepan and add about a tablespoon of grated fresh ginger. Simmer until thickened and strain.
Few things in life are more enjoyable than a walk in Greenwood Cemetery. There I remove myself from the hurly-burly noise of the city, imagine myself in Arcadia and feel close to a that peace of mind everyone speaks of so highly. For all that, the walks are more delightful in your company, when I can drink deeply of your wisdom and smile at your gently biting wit
I can’t remember how we first met, but it might well have been in Greenwood, which has been my refuge for nigh on fifteen years, years, though it may well have been at The Oaks, which I’ve been walking past on my way to the Welty Library for just as long. However we met, I’m grateful we did. Knowing you reminds me that agents are in place to ensure that in time all will be well. What others do in the name of saving history is most often cosmetic and self-serving. You’ll not see such people clearing a grave of choking weeds or freeing a beautiful camelia from the smothering caresses of some upstart vine.
But I’ve seen you do it. I’ve also listened as you speak of plans to keep Greenwood and The Oaks peaceful and beautiful. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart you for all the work you do. I know I’m not the only one who appreciates it. The entire state of Mississippi owes you a bow of gratitude. You should know that.
While I’m at it, thanks for the rain lilies. I’ll plant them safe from marauding landscapers, where they will drink in the thunder and raise their pretty faces to the morning sun.
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.
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:
Horizontal Stabilizer: OK
Loaded Revolver Under Seat: OK
Peach Brandy: 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. Captain Jung explained that, while the device was not exactly a radio, it was a revolutionary, if makeshift, 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. 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.
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. 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. 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 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.  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.  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.  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.  Originally called the Yoknapatawpha and so named in Faulkner’s novels and stories.
Most Southern holiday dishes are home-grown recipes of family favorites, but it’s a sure bet that many tables will have one dish that was developed in a commercial kitchen in New Jersey. Unlike Grandma’s sweet potato pie or Aunt Sally’s ambrosia, the ubiquitous green bean casserole was developed in 1955 in the Camden, NJ test kitchens of the Campbell Soup Company by home-town girl Dorcas Reilly.
A 1947 graduate in home economics from Drexel University, Reilly began working at Campbell’s in 1949 as one of two full-time staff members in the company’s home economics department. Reilly became something of a prototype for today’s culinary celebrities in the sense that she was among the first to use multiple media outlets for marketing. Not only did her job with Campbell’s involve creating recipes from the company’s products, but she also sent press releases to print media, prepared food for photo shoots and cooked live on television. The difference lies in that Dorcas was not promoting herself; she was promoting Campbell’s, which was a good way to make a living.
“It was really a lot of fun,” Reilly later recalled. “Each Thursday, I would travel to New York to meet with the ad agency. They would tell me what I was to prepare for the live commercial breaks during The Henry Aldrich Show in Studio 3B on NBC. I did everything from shopping for what I needed to preparing the food on the set. Campbell’s sponsored the show from 1951 until it ended in May 1953.”
Since the show was live, Reilly prepared the dishes in a makeshift studio kitchen on two heating elements near a utility sink. When time came for the commercial to air, she would bring the hot dish to a table in front of the camera. “Most times there wasn’t time for me to get out of the shot, so I would hide under the table until the commercial was over,” Reilly said. Reilly led the team that created the green bean casserole in 1955. She says the casserole was invented as a recipe involving two things most Americans always had on hand in the 1950s: canned green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. Like all recipes typical of the period, the casserole requires minimal number of ingredients, takes little time and can be customized to fit a wide range of tastes. An estimated 15 million households will serve Dorcas’ green bean casserole this holiday season. The Campbell’s Soup Company estimates that $20 million worth of cream of mushroom soup are sold each year for use in this recipe alone.
In 2002, Reilly, then living in Haddonfield, NJ, appeared at the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame to donate the original copy of the recipe to the museum. In 2008, Alpha Sigma Alpha, Reilly’s sorority at Drexel, honored her with the Recognition of Eminence Award. And in January of 2013 Drexel established an annual $1,000 scholarship in her honor and bestowed her with its inaugural Cultural Contribution Award. Dorcas died on Oct. 15, 2018 in Haddonfield at the age of 92.
Vardaman, Mississippi is in southeast Calhoun County, near the source of the Yalobusha River, the largest tributary of the Yazoo. Like many towns in the upland South, Vardaman grew up around a lumber railhead. Some of the lordliest white oaks that ever left the Continent descended from the hills above Vardaman and were shipped across the Atlantic to construct the great wine barrels for the 1925 Paris Exposition. When the great forests of the southeast were depleted, Vardaman, like so many towns in the rolling hills, needed a sustainable crop. Farmers turned to the sweet potato and their efforts found success. Vardaman, Mississippi IS the Sweet Potato Capital of the World; all others claimants are pretenders.
Vardaman holds an annual Sweet Potato Festival in October—this year the 46th—that includes music, arts and crafts, exhibitions, cook-offs and lots and lots of food. Sweet Potato Kings and Queens are selected in no less than four events with contestants from infancy to high school. Many people consider the recipe contest the main event, and people go all out for the coveted prizes, including the Mayor’s Cup, which this year was won by Lyndsey Wade for her Scrumptious Sweet Potato Coconut Bars. I’m also giving you the winner in the cake category, Melissa Edmondson’s spectacular Sweet Potato Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting. Either or both of these desserts would be a splendid addition to your holiday table.
¾ Cup Butter, melted
1 ½ Cups Graham Cracker Crumbs
1 (14 oz.) can Sweetened Condensed Milk
3 Cups Sweet Potato puree
2 Cups White Chocolate Morsels
11/3 Cups Flaked Coconut
1 Cup Chopped Nuts
Heat oven to 350 degrees and coat 9×13 baking pan with non-stick cooking spray. Combine graham cracker crumbs and butter. Press into bottom of prepared pan. Pour sweetened condensed milk evenly over crumb mixture. Scoop sweet potato from the peeling and mix until smooth. Using a piping bag (or plastic freezer bag with hole cut in one corner), layer the graham cracker crust with sweet potatoes. Layer white chocolate chips, coconut and nuts. Press firmly.Bake 25 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool and cut into bars. Store covered at room temperature.
Sweet Potato Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting
1 ½ Cups butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 large eggs, separated
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups finely grated sweet potato
1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 3 (8in) cake pans with nonstick baking spray with flour. In a large bowl, beat butter, sugar, and vanilla at medium speed with a mixer until fluffy. Add egg yolks, beating until combined. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. Gradually add to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. In a medium bowl, beat egg whites at high speed with a mixture until stiff peaks form. Gently fold into batter. Gently stir in sweet potatoes and walnuts. Spoon batter into prepared pans. Bake for 20 to 23 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, cool completely on wire racks. Spread White Chocolate-Cream Cheese Frosting evenly between layers and on top and sides of cake.
White Chocolate-Cream Cheese Frosting
1 (4oz) white chocolate baking bar, chopped
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup butter, softened
16 oz. cream cheese softened
2lbs. powdered sugar
In a small sauce pan, combine chopped white chocolate and cream. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until chocolate melts and mixture is smooth. Remove from heat, and cool for 1 hour. In a large bowl, beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed with a mixer until creamy. Add white chocolate mixture, beating until combined. Gradually add powdered sugar, beating until smooth. Note: Cake layers can be made up to 1 month ahead; wrap cooled layers tightly in plastic wrap and Freeze. To serve, spread frosting on frozen cake layers (frozen layers are easier to frost), and thaw. Store thawed cake, covered, in refrigerator up to 3 days.
Wil and his wife Bev live around the corner from me in an sedate residential neighborhood in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. More than anyone I’ve ever known, Wil embodies the American Dream of work rewarded and a life well-lived. Here is his story for the world; it matters, yes it does.
I was born September 26, 1939, in a shotgun house on Farish Street in the heart of the black community. The neighborhood had four barbers, three restaurants, and two fast food restaurants for hamburgers, pig ears, smoked sausage, and sandwiches. We had our own grocery store, a cleaner, a shoe repair shop, a laundry, an ice cream parlor, and movie houses on Farish and Amite. We also had two funeral parlors, a bike shop, and a bus company that brought people from the country to sell their produce. Three doors from my house was a pool hall and a cab stand, and all my friends lived within a few blocks.
My aunt always told me I should try to make some money on my own, so I got a job at a beauty parlor on Capitol Street. It was owned by a guy named Baldwin, one of the biggest jerks who ever lived. He said he’d give me six dollars a week to shine shoes, but I couldn’t take tips. I was supposed to make six dollars a week, but he would give me five one week and four the next.
It went on like that for a while until I finally got tired of it and told my aunt. She said, “We’re going to go down and get your money.” She put her pistol in her purse, and we went to the beauty parlor. “Mr. Baldwin,” said my aunt, “you owe this boy six dollars, and you need to pay him.” Baldwin said, “Well, I’m not going to give him anything. He’s fired.” My aunt reached into her purse and pulled out her pistol, walked around the chair where he was standing and said, “You need to pay him his money.” And he did.
Our house at 518 Farish backed up on an alley across from Rodger’s Tailor Shop. Up the alley lived a lady bootlegger named Cara Lee, whose daughter was a whore. All kinds of trouble went on up there on Friday and Saturday nights, and, because my bed was under a window, I heard things I hoped I’d never hear again. Sometimes the police raided Cara Lee’s place, and one night a policeman shot our little cocker spaniel just because he was barking. At that, my aunt came out of the house with a Winchester rifle and told the policeman she might blow his brains out. A long, tense moment passed, and I was sure someone was going to get shot, but finally another officer came over and said, “Please ma’am, Lord to God, he was wrong to shoot your dog, and I’m sorry.” The policeman apologized, and my aunt huffed back into the house.
After all that, my aunt decided it was time for me to get back with my mother. She said, “Son, you know I love you more than life, but if you stay here, either I’m going to be killed or you are. I think it’s time for you to go be with your parents.” Correspondence went back and forth, and in the summer of 1954, I left Jackson and went to Madison, Wisconsin, where my mother and stepfather rented a house in South Madison. The neighborhood was called “The Bush” and was made up entirely of blacks and Italians. I was surprised because every one got along fine.
My new school was Edgewood Sacred Heart Academy, where I was the sixth black among five hundred students. I didn’t do well in school; it was hard for me to concentrate because of the trouble I had at home. My stepfather was an alcoholic, and he couldn’t stand to see my mother and I growing close.
In 1958, I graduated from Edgewood with a C-minus average. Luckily, I was a good athlete and got an offer from Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. I played ball for them over a few semesters, when, out of the blue, my real father sent me a train ticket to come out to Los Angeles. I liked being with my father and planned to go to L.A. City College in the fall, but my grandmother died, and my mother insisted I come back to Farish Street for the funeral. My father begged me not to go, but I had to. I never saw my father again.
By 1961, I was living in Madison again. One snowy day, I was walking down Park Boulevard when two of my buddies and a woman drove by in a Volkswagen bug. I asked, “Where are you going?” They said, “We’re going to New York City.” I said, “Hold on, drive by the house, let me pick up some stuff!” That’s how I got to New York.
I’ll never forget standing on 6th Avenue thinking, “I’m in New York! I’m in the Village!” I moved into a little flea-bag hotel on 43rd Street and found a part-time job right around the corner. Everything was fine until I started going out with a woman who worked in the same place. It wasn’t long before our relationship got to a point where I felt trapped. I wanted to be free, but didn’t know what to do.
One morning, I was looking at the travel section of The New York Times when something caught my eye: a Yugoslavian freighter was due to sail out of Brooklyn for Tangier and Morocco, and you could get passage for $141. As soon as I saw that notice, I remembered the night back in L.A. when my father shook me awake. I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “Dorothy’s in the kitchen.” I said, “So what?” He said, “She’s boiling water to make tea, and she don’t drink tea. Get dressed–we’re going to your sister’s.”
That was it. If you want to get free, all you have to do is leave. A few days later, I was on that Yugoslavian freighter bound for the Straits of Gibraltar.
The voyage lasted nine days. I had my own room, the food was excellent, and I got so drunk off slivovitz, I’ll never drink another drop of it. In Tangier, I rented a room for seventy-five cents a day in a hotel near the Casbah. A few days later, I went to an American bar and was introduced to Mark Gilbey, who owned Gilbey’s Gin. We talked and had some drinks, and after a while, he invited me to a Christmas party. He had a fabulous place overlooking the Atlantic Ocean with a red room, a blue room, and so on.
I stayed in Morocco nine months, in Tangier, Affairs, Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh, and Showan. When I finally decided to leave, I crossed the Mediterranean to Spain. I loved the Spanish people, but when I got into France, I ran into problems. I didn’t speak French, and the natives were nasty about it. From Nice, I took a train into Rome. I was sitting on the Spanish Steps when a guy came up to me and said, “My name is Wilpert Bradley, I’m from Chicago, and I’m gay.” I shook his hand and said, “My name is Wil Cunningham, I’m from New York, and I’m straight.” He laughed and said, “Wil, you’re the first American I’ve met who didn’t take offense at that.” I said, “I’m travelling and living my life. Ain’t no problem.”
Bradley had come over with the “Cleopatra” film company. He had a big place over on Via Seccalle and let me a room in the back. That’s where I stayed for a year and a half.
I did a little modeling, and I was in some spaghetti Westerns, made up as a Mexican bandito. I got fifty dollars a day to stand around and wait for them to shoot me and fall off the horse. It was fun–fifty dollars a day for doing nothing. When I’d made a little money, I’d go up in the Scandinavian countries. I just travelled, met people, travelling was cheap, I could get on the train and be in Paris in just a few hours. But Rome was my home. I could go away for four or five days and come back, and I had a place to stay.
Some friends were showing my Portfolio around to movie companies in Rome when my mother called with bad news. My step father was in the hospital with cirrhosis of the liver, and the doctors feared he would not make it. I thought it was time I should go home for a while–I could get back to Europe after the crisis was over. As it turned out, it would be years before I returned.
When I got back to New York, I stayed with a friend from UW and waited for instructions from mama. The friend was from New Rochelle, New York; that week-end, there was a party up there, and he asked me if I would like to go. That was one of the best things that ever happened to me, for it was at that party I met my wife-to-be. We had a great time together, and we fell in love.
Her father gave us good advice: “Get out of the city,” he told us. “Get out of New York. You’ll never make it there.” My stepfather was in a Madison hospital, and my mother was having a hard time. I talked it over with Beverly, and she said, “Let’s do it. Let’s go to Wisconsin.”
I fought my demons and finally reconciled with my stepfather. As for Bev, my mother thought of her as a daughter until the day mama died. Eventually, Bev and I found jobs, and in no time, we had our own place. That September, we went back to New York and got married.
I attended community college to see if I could get my grade average high enough that a university would accept me. Meanwhile, I got a job at a clothing store called “No Hassle.” The guy liked me a lot because I was very fashion-oriented, I had just come back from Rome, and I knew a lot about clothes and shoes. What I really wanted, though, was to open my own business.
After a year at the community college, I qualified to enroll at the University of Wisconsin, but the desire to open my own business was too strong, and I only stayed one semester. I reached out to a friend of mine, Lamont Jones from Mobile, Alabama, who had just gotten his MBA, and we wrote up a business plan for a woman’s shoe store. He would handle the money, and I would be the buyer, something my time at “No Hassle” had prepared me for.
The problem was, Lamont and I had just two thousand dollars apiece and little credit. The Small Business Administration loaned us nine thousand, and in 1969, we finally opened our shoe store–“Compared To What”–on State Street in Madison, about three blocks from the university campus. Then we had another problem: we simply couldn’t get a credit line with any of the suppliers. When they sent us the shoes, we had to send them the money. We were selling shoes like mad, but we didn’t have a cash flow.
After five years, Lamont and I realized we had a losing proposition. We just couldn’t get ahead, and we still owed Small Business nine thousand dollars. We went down there to pay them off, and the guy said, “We can’t take cash.” I said, “You’re going to take cash today, and I want a receipt.” I counted out nine one-hundred-dollar bills, then Lamont and I split up the remainder: two thousand dollars each, same as we started with.
I decided I’d have to set aside my father-in-law’s advice and return to New York. I had contacts among shoe buyers and suppliers, and through them, I met the general manager of Thayer-McNeil, a division of Florsheim Shoes, in Manhattan. He made me manager of a store at 73rd Street and 3rd Avenue. I had been at Thayer-McNeil/Florsheim a year when a guy told me about a job with Converse. At that time, Converse had an office on the eighty-first floor of the Empire State Building. As soon as I walked in the door, the general manager said, “You’re hired. I like the way you walked in.” (I always dressed well as a salesman.) When the paperwork was finished, I was told my territory would be Brooklyn, a part of New York I knew nothing about.
They gave me a company car with a trunk-load of samples. Next day, the valet parked it in the garage while I went up to the eighty-first floor to check with the general manager. When I got to the car again, I drove across the Brooklyn Bridge and down Flatbush Avenue to my accounts. My first stop was a store that sold Converse; I went in and gave the manager my card. Luckily, business was slow, and the manager was glad to have someone to talk to. I went out to the car to get my samples from the trunk . . . and they were gone! I drove straight back to Manhattan, had the valet park my car, went up eighty-one stories, and said to the general manager, “Irving! I went to a store on Flatbush Avenue, went in to see the manager, came out to get my samples–and they were gone!” Irving closed his eyes for a moment, then said, “Earlier this morning, you parked in the garage downstairs, right?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Next time, when you give the valet your keys, take the trunk key off the ring.” That was my first lesson on the new job.
Irving Cole taught me a lot when I was at Converse. My first time out with him, for example, he taught me to listen. We went into a store in Brooklyn, and before I could unpack my bags, the store manager started complaining about how hard it was to work with our company. He went on for a long time, using language that made me uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Irving never said a word, just let the guy vent. Finally, when the manager calmed down a little, Irving said “Let me apologize for the problem you have getting this shoe in your store.” Then he took out a notepad and asked what colors and sizes the guy needed, and how soon he would need them. When he had the information, he went to the store phone, called our customer service, and arranged for everything to be shipped next day.
After we left the store, Irving asked, “What were you thinking in there?” I told him the guy scared me, and if I’d been by myself, I probably would have walked out. “You got to listen,” Irving said. “The whole time we were in there, the guy never once said he didn’t want our product–he was mad because he couldn’t get it when he needed it. The secret to making a sale like that is not to overreact, but listen to what the guy really needs and see that he gets it. The most important thing you can do is listen.”
In November, 1975, I moved to the sporting goods division, which is where I should have been in the first place. My territory was all five boroughs of New York City. It was a ten-million-dollar account, and I made that and above. In addition, I was given the responsibility of signing pro athletes for Converse; I had the Jets, the Giants, the Knicks, the Jets, and the Yankees (I would go to spring training with the Yankees and make sure they had everything they needed.) Famous guys like Reggie Jackson, Larry Bird, Bernard King, and Larry Johnson would call me at home. Yogi Berra called once, and Spring, my youngest daughter, said, “Yogi the Bear is on the phone!”
I worked that job for twenty-nine years, trying to make a difference. Then, in 2000, I made up my mind that Converse was going nowhere. New owners were taking over, and they were looking to flip the company to the highest bidder. I knew I was not part of their plan, so I took my retirement. It was all right with Bev; she knew it was time.
After my stepfather died in 1996, my mother went home to Jackson, and I talked to Bev about moving down there to look after her. Bev was all for it; she loved mama and was like a daughter to her. We owned five acres in Madison County, and I had the dream of building a big house where all of us could live. In 2001, we moved south, back to the town I started out in. Before long, I realized my dream of building a big house in the country was not going to happen. First, every contractor we spoke to quoted a price way out of our range. Second, I discovered that, no matter how much two women might love each other, each wants her own place.
Bev and I ended up buying a beautiful little house on Kenwood Street in Belhaven. The neighborhood is old and peaceful, and I looked forward to reconnecting with people I’d known as a teenager. As it turned out, this was another dream that, if not lost, was deferred.
One day I brought my oldest friend to the house we had bought. When we got out of the car, I noticed he was hanging back a little, as if he were confused. “Why did you buy a house here?” he asked. “We never came over here when we were kids. Who do you know lives here?” I said, “I was told there’s only one other black owns a house in Belhaven. Now there’s two.” He had nothing to say after that. Another time, Bev and I invited about ten people over for coffee. The men were uncomfortable, and the women sat with their purses in their laps and said little or nothing. These people will always be friends of ours, and we hope that, one day, whatever discomfort they felt will be a thing of the past.
Farish Street is empty now; all the life is washed out of it, and it will never again be like it was when I was a kid. We can’t return to the past, and often it’s hard to catch up to the present, yet, after eighty years, I find myself looking down the road to bridges I’d like to cross. All I can say now is what I said to Wilpert Bradley on the Spanish Steps so many years ago: “I’m travelling and living my life. Ain’t no problem.”