Friday, March 31, 2006

Welcome to Mississippi. Please set your clocks back 200 years.

Here is another installment in my continuing journal of TNL. This part deals with my move and settlement into Starkville, Mississippi:

The summer after my ninth grade year had my family moving from Piper, Kansas, to Starkville, Mississippi. (Or "Missippi" as I would learn to call it.) Originally, I was extremely distressed to be moving from Kansas to Mississippi. I was thirteen going on fourteen and was leaving not many, but a couple of really good friends behind in Piper. My adolescence had bloomed in Kansas, and my teen years lay ahead of me in this unknown place called Starkville. The irony in the name was lost on me at the time.

Lucky for me, Starkville was anything but stark. In a state which often vies for bottom place in educational ranking, elbowing out Louisiana most years for the crappiest education in the nation, Starkville was an oasis of intelligence and contemporary life, relative to the rest of Mississippi. Starkville was a university town, home to Mississippi State University, which is a large technical and agricultural school. They have a very well respected veterinary program, and decent programs in food science, engineering, and animal husbandry.

The college attracted a disproportionate number of academics, professors, students and their families, raising the average IQ in the town well, well above the state average. Starkville was about 12,000 people, more during the school year. The university offered a life which was otherwise rare in northeast Mississippi. We had excellent college football and baseball games (one of the finest college baseball stadiums in the nation resides in Starkville). The university attracted concert performers that would have otherwise avoided our area: the Go-Gos, Berlin, Bon Jovi, Barbara Mandrell. We had a Wal-Mart, a big commercial sector in town, and what's most amazing in the Baptist Bible Belt, a fair-sized Catholic church.

However, all of this was unknown to me before arriving. Mississippi was (somewhat correctly) classified in my mind as a racist state where we would experience first-hand issues like segregated classrooms (yes, they still exist) and the Ku-Klux-Klan. The fear of the unknown did not add to my reluctance to leave Piper. It's funny now that I considered Piper more "affluent" than Starkville. In many ways, the two towns were similar. Piper was an far rural suburb of Kansas City, and Starkville was an isolated university town in Mississippi.

As we drove across the Mississippi border for the first time, packed in my parents Pontiac sedan, my Mom enthusiastically announced, "Welcome to Mississippi! Set your clocks back 200 years." We were all skeptical of the move. However, Starkville would soon work to win us over, almost instantly.

We bought a house on Brookwood Drive. It was a really nice ranch home, somewhat contemporary, located on a nice big yard in a small but well-off neighborhood. It was probably the nicest house we had owned to date, considering my father's modest military pay. However, he had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was to be the Professor of Military Science at M.S.U. In this role, he was the head of the Army ROTC program at M.S.U., and I believe it was a great promotion for him.

After moving into the house, I soon met the kids in the neighborhood. David was one of the first kids I met. He lived, along with his older sister, Angela, in a house across the cul-de-sac from our home. David was a dirty-blonde kid who was my exact age, but because I had skipped a grade and started school early, he was two grades behind me. (As were most kids my age.) I was going to be 14 and would be going into the tenth grade.

David's father, as I would later learn, was a card-carrying member of the K.K.K. I didn't know it at the time--kids are somewhat oblivious to the politics of their parents, and David always seemed pretty nice to me. Thank goodness for that.

On my first day in the neighborhood, David was showing me around, and we walked up to a huge reddish-brown lump of dirt in the grass. I had never seen anything like it before. David grabbed a stick, and poked fiercely into the pile of dirt. Instantly, small black ants began to swarm insanely on the stick, covering it entirely and spreading over the ruined mound of dirt like liquid. I reached down to touch one of the ants, and David barked out at me.

"Don't! You'll get stung! Thems fah aints."

"What?!?" I asked, "'Fah aints?'" I said, mimicking word individually, but not understanding what he had said.

David looked at me and explained, "They's only two kind of aints down heeh. Fah aints an' peess aints. The peess aints, they're okay. But the fah aints will sting you bad!"

Thus was my introduction to fire ants. My teen years would hence be filled with an adolescent mission of destroying fire ants in ever increasingly devious ways: first the stick, then, the stick soaked in gasoline, then the mower, on up to the fireworks, and finally culminating in the homemade Napalm concoction I drizzled on the mounds and lit. Hey, a kid has to stay busy. To this day, there are still parts of that yard where the grass won't grow.

David was best friends with a kid named Lance, also our age, and who also lived on our streets. Lance was from a Cajun family, the Hidalgos. They had a large number of kids and also went to our church. Lance was the youngest, and all his siblings were college age and older. David, Lance and I would quickly become a tight threesome, spending our time fishing and goofing off, playing Atari video games and lighting stuff on fire. We once set the blacktop street on fire with just a can of gasoline. We kept feeding a small circle of lit gasoline until we had a softball-sized crater in the pavement, burning on its own from the tar in the street. We were so proud.

The first week or two on Brookwood Drive, I noticed a tall red-haired boy playing basketball sheepishly by himself in the cul-de-sac. He was older than I, and I was pretty shy, so it took me a while to meet him. His name was Paul Haynie, and he would become one of my best friends in the three years in Starkville. Paul's mother, Jackie, was pure 100% Napoleonic French. She was a real rarity in Starkville, and even a well-traveled army brat like myself found her Frenchness a welcomed oddity. Her house was decorated in high French fashion, with elaborately styled furniture in the dining room and eclectic European pictures on the walls.

Jackie Haynie was one of the best cooks I have ever known. One thing is true, no matter what the stereotype is, the French can cook. During the first the week of our arrival, every single one of our neighbors, with the only exception being the Dulaneys, brought us a home cooked meal to welcome us to the neighborhood. It was incredible kindness like we had never experienced before, and it was the first step in winning us over to the hospitality of the South.

Of all of those meals, the only one I still remember to this day is Jackie Haynie's artichokes and the meatballs in gravy. It doesn't sound elegant, but, I had never had artichokes before and they were incredible! And, man, those meatballs were good! She made a sweet tomato gravy and poured the meatballs and gravy all into a large Pyrex dish. Mmmm.... meatballs.

Paul and I would soon become pretty close. We were both pretty shy and nerdy kids, Paul being two grades, and three years my senior. I was kind of his sidekick... this little kid he tolerated and mentored. He had an Apple II computer, and we would play some pretty dreadful games on it. Mostly, we played Dungeons and Dragons. Paul, being the eldest, was always the coveted Dungeonmaster, and I was always playing into his hands.

"You're walking around a dark corner... spider webs are all around. A cool breeze hits your face," he would say in almost a whisper. Then, he would nonchalantly grab one of the odd-shaped dice, like the 20-sided one, throw the die, and glancing at it, he would tsk-tsk and shake his head.

"Oh, no!" he would yell dramatically, "It's an eighteen foot tall spider! You're toasted!"

And thus a battle would ensue.

I would spend countless, countless hours--weekends and afternoons--at Paul's house playing D&D. Occasionally, my mother would complain that D&D was a cult, or that it was satanic, and that I would be permanently brain damaged by it. Of course, it wasn't any of these things. It was just kids role-playing in a self-created monster world.

It was a super nerd activity, and Paul and I were both super nerds. I would spend hours reading my Monster Manuals, lusting after the nude pen and ink drawings of the Succubus or other various sultry feminine creatures. Monsters with tits... what a combination for a fourteen year old boy! Ah, those were the days. I still have those books, you know. I can never get rid of them.

~~~~

In every town in Mississippi, no matter how large or how small, there are two school systems: the public school and the academy. The academy's supposed purpose is to provide a higher level of education than what can be gained at the public schools. This may be true in many of the towns in Mississippi, where the public schools are appallingly underfunded and inadequate. However, this is not the real reason the academies exist. The real reason is so that little rich white kids don't have to go to school with poor black kids--or black kids at all, for that matter. Academies do not accept black kids. Period.

That summer, my parents wrestled with the decision of which school to send me to. All of my life was spent in the integrated schools of Kansas and the various military towns. My parents and both Mike and I found racism appalling, but there was a concern that the public school in Starkville would not provide me a good enough education. Ultimately, they decided to take a chance, letting conscience win out over fear, and sent me to public school.

I'm one thousand percent glad they did. Not only did it turn out to be a much, much better education than the academy, but I was not sheltered from the experience of living among black kids and white kids--indeed kids of all races and backgrounds. Most of the white kids who went to the public schools were kids, like me, whose parents were teachers and academics at the university. Most of the academy kids were from redneck parents who had never lived outside Mississippi. It quickly became clear to all of us that there was no better place for me than in the public school system.

All three of my friends, Lance, David and Paul, however, went to the academy. Though I had formed a tight bond with them during that first summer, the separate school systems would see me inserted into new groups of friends with whom I would eventually grow much closer.

~~~~

Mississippi rarely had snow and ice, but one winter we got slammed with a big ice storm. Power lines were down all across town, and school was cancelled for ten days. We missed so much school, we had to make up one school day on a Saturday, which was unbelievable to us at the time! This was a line that was never, ever crossed! School on a Saturday?! How can it be so?

After the storm, most of the pine trees in the state had suffered severe damage. We would walk through Sherwood Forest, the upscale neighborhood across the street with thousands of pine trees in it, and it smelled like a pine scented bathroom freshener. The destruction from the storm was incredible, and Mississippi was totally unprepared to deal with it.

The storm knocked the power out for well over a week. Most families were reduced to cooking food in their fireplaces. One afternoon, I had wandered over to Paul' s house, and his mother offered to make us dinner. I never turned down a meal, and especially one from Jackie Haynie. She set to making various things for dinner, including a can of green peas as a side dish. Jackie had Paul and I stoke up the fire, and we got it nice and roaring hot. Then, she placed the can--completely unopened--into the fireplace.

We cooked it for what must have been an hour, and she brought it out with a hotpad. Grabbing a manual can opener, she placed it on top of the can.

The instant she punctured the lid, FWOOSH!!! Green pea liquid began spraying out of the can at enormous pressure. She instantly dropped the can, and we all backed away very quickly. Somehow, none of us was burned.

The can spewed a hot fountain of pea juice so high it reached the ceiling. It continued spewing like that for five or ten minutes, all over the carpet, all over the walls, all over the furniture. Finally, the fountain subsided, and we crept back up to the can. Jackie finished opening the can, and, voila!, a perfectly drained can of peas. As it turned out, they were quite delicious!

~~~~

My friend David had an older sister, Angela, who was closer to Paul's age than my own. She was a pretty little brunette belle with enormous breasts, but rather dim and nïave. All of us boys, except for David of course, lusted after her. I believe Paul had a crippling crush on her his entire life. He never made anything of it; never asked her out.

I definitely had a crush on her, but being so young, I was permanently out of reach. It freed me up for more gratuitous staring from the sidelines rather than troubling myself with pointless schemes to end up as boyfriend-girlfriend.

Angela was an interesting girl. Since I went to public school, I became the "expert" in all things black. I was her sounding board for all her race questions.

She once told me, "Scott, if a black man came up next to me on the sidewalk and said 'Hi", I just don't know what I'd do!"

"What do you mean?" I asked her. "You'd just say 'Hi' back."

I was dumbfounded by the sheer absurdity of her statement, but she was truly afraid of black people. Just their mere presence made her afraid. It was ridiculous, but I suppose that's what a life sheltered in an all-white neighborhood, in an all-white school will get you. It's a vicisous circle and a terrible pity.

Later, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, Angela again inspired me:

"If God had wanted people in space, he would have put wings on us. Man has no business being in outer space."

I had wanted to be an astronaut my entire childhood, so the statement was beyond ludicrous to me. But I couldn't find words to rebuff her, so I let it drop. Later, I wished I had asked her about communications satellites--I mean, how would you get your MTV? But this line of reasoning would have probably gone nowhere.

One afternoon, Paul and Angela and I were alone in her parents' house, and she asked Paul and I if we'd play Monopoly with her. The fact that she was wearing nothing but a bikini never entered into the equation for us.

"Sure!" we both yelled in unison.

At fourteen or fifteen, I had little self control, and even less subtlety. I unabashedly stared at her all through the game. I couldn't take my eyes off her huge breasts and her crotch. I was a slave to those curvy, wonderful parts, concealed by only the thinnest of fabrics.

This is where the funky porn music begins playing in my mind, and the fantasy really begins to take hold. "Strip Monopoly, anyone?"

We played on for a few more minutes, and Angela finally gives me a knowing look, excuses herself, and comes back wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

Damn!!!! Damn! Damn! Damn! I ruined it! Couldn't I show a little discretion, or at least be coy about it? Paul shot me a hateful glare. We finished Monopoly with zero enthusiasm.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

People like you are the reason that other people think Mississipians still have outhouses. Racism is not like that now. "Scott, if a black man came up next to me on the sidewalk and said 'Hi", I just don't know what I'd do!" WHAT!!!!!!!!!! I can't believe anyone in this area would say that. There are about as many blacks as there are whites in this state. I just can't believe what I am reading! You make Mississippi look so bad. You should be ashamed!!!!!!!11

Scott said...

What is racism like now? I'd say it's more the cold looks when a mixed race couple walks into a 7-eleven, or when a black family repeatedly gets turned down for a home purchase in an upscale neighborhood. Yeah, those things still happen.

However, I guess you misunderstood me and didn't really read what I was saying. I am not saying all people from Mississippi are that way. I'm saying I knew one person from Mississippi who was that way. And there are others.

On the whole, people from Mississippi were wonderful to me, and I say so here.

What I am writing is autobiographical, so please take it in that context.

Sandi Harris said...

Anonymous certainly missed the point of your journal entry. These are your memories & experiences while living in MS. THEY DO NOT REFLECT YOUR FEELINGS OR BELIEFS!!!!!

As a military brat, you were raised in a racially mixed community your entire life: even to the extent of having a black foster brother.That doesn't even address all of the guests in our home from other ethnic origins.At times our house looked more like the UN.

MS was your first experience with the continued racism that existed not only in MS, but as we were later to learn - it still exists in many of the northern states as well.

When we moved to MS in the mid 80's, the schools were still segregated legally by forming "academies". While we were there, there was an issue about the academy admitting a child of Chinese & one of Pakistani descent. Both were children of professors at MSU. So the "racism" was pure KKK mentality & not willing to "mix" with other than Caucasian.

When you got ready to go to your first prom, I was told that they had "Black & White" proms there. Curious, I asked what was a black & white prom. I was appalled to learn that in the mid 1980's that they had SEGREGATED proms. The white kids went to theirs at a private facility & the black kids went to theirs in the school gym. I think by the time we left in 1988 they had their first integrated prom. PROGRESS!!

Yes, Starkville was probably racially equal, between black & white. The sad thing to see was that the kids who lived in the county were educated in the county schools which were predominately black & taught by teacher who went to the HBC's (Historic Black Colleges). The quality of the education in both the county & the HBC's was inferior to that in the city schools & other universities. I know this for a fact since my husband was the Professor of Military Science & had to the opportunity to visit the HBC's for recruiting for ROTC. When he got transfers, they usually had stellar grades at the HBC's but many times failed to achieve at MSU. AT THAT TIME, I don't know what it is like now, the black kids coming into MSU, had lower requirements for their entry exams, so that the university could remain racially mixed. I am NOT SAYING all black people are not as bright as white, I am saying those coming out of those county schools did not have the advantage of a good eduction at that time.

When we got ready to sell our house in the "white nice neighborhood", we had a buyer for our house that was a black couple. One was a professor & the other was to be the new Assistant Principal" at the high school. Our neighbors KNEW we had a buyer for our house BEFORE we did. Needless to say, because of "influences" from our neighborhood & the wealthier one across the road from us, the couple did not get their loan approved to buy our house. It needs to be said, that the loan officer, his sister the realestate broker, our agent & several attorneys all lived within a 4 block area of our house! The couple wound up going to a larger "mixed" neighborhood, went to another town for their loan & wound up moving into a lovely home in a good neighborhood. I WAS OUTRAGED that arrangements like this were still going on!!!!

Anonymous, we have not lived in MS since 1988, but have lived in other Southern states since then. This is merely of journal of what it was like at that time - a "history lesson" nothing more - a statement of THAT TIME!!!

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