Hillary, Barry, and Me

1101630614_400Like Hillary Clinton, I, too, worked for Barry Goldwater in the ’64 election, although I was only 12. Growing up in Summerville, South Carolina, I had inherited this tiny hamlet’s folkways, which is just another way of saying I was a racist, although a relatively benign one. In Summerville, not only could you encounter a “whites only” sign above the laundromat, but also patients in doctors’ offices were segregated into separate waiting areas, like dogs and cats waiting to see a vet.

My parents did not hate black folk – we were taught not to use the n-word and loved our “maid” Alice like an aunt – but my folks deemed “colored people,” as they called them, inherently inferior.[1] Obviously, given that he had voted against the Civil Rights Bill, Barry Goldwater was their man, so our 1964 Ford Falcon station wagon sported an Au(H20) bumper sticker because we wanted “a choice not an echo” and “in our hearts” we knew “he was right.”

The fledging Dorchester County Republican Party had rented the defunct movie theater as Goldwater headquarters where they distributed buttons and bumper stickers, and on a couple of Saturdays played the old Fay Wray King Kong movie for an admission fee of ten cents. Among other nominal duties, my job at the theater was to climb a ladder and position letters on the marquee outside. This theater didn’t have a balcony, and even if it did, I doubt if black children would have wanted to donate their pennies to the Goldwater cause. Once, when I took a short cut through one of their communities on my bike (which also sported a Goldwater sticker), I was pelted with rocks, a valuable lesson that freedom of speech can be dangerous.

Well, obviously, Goldwater lost, and I was heartbroken, but attitudes were slowly changing in Summerville. For one thing, the public basketball courts became integrated, even before the school became fully so. I played three-on-three half-court b-ball there after school and on Saturdays. The black kids had different rules – you didn’t take the ball back past the foul line if you got a defensive rebound – but we all got along well, and I got to be friends with these boys before they became my classmates when Summerville’s black and white schools finally merged in 1969. I remember passing a bottle of Boone’s Farm to my pal Mookie at my friend Adam’s one night as we took turns taking swigs. This action would have enraged my father if he could have seen it, even though he was Alice’s children’s Santa Claus, even when we couldn’t afford it.

And so, like Hillary, I switched political sides, I started cancelling my father’s vote out — my very first one cast for McGovern — and politics became a topic best not broached at the dinner table, along with race, and a host of other potentially explosive issues.

It’s hard to believe it’s been fifty years, and although things are much better now, obviously, white supremacy is still alive in darkened, un-Christian anti-intellectual cesspools, and I suspect I won’t see that change in my lifetime. But things do change; people do change sides. It will be interesting to see how many South Carolinians do in this election – if not completely change sides, go for the libertarian candidate.

[1] Alice, for example, called me “Mr. Rusty.”

You can't see it, but there's a Goldwater sticker on the back bumper

You can’t see it, but there’s a Goldwater sticker on the back bumper

[What in Those Days Were Called] Village Idiots

I’ve come to distrust memories, which, if you want to get technical, are basically chemical/electric configurations warehoused somewhere, somehow in the brain. Over the course of my six decades, I have not always consumed the recommended daily allowance of vitamins.* I also plead guilty to attempting to blunt the pain of my existence by drinking more than the recommended daily allowance of malted beverages — a combination of behaviors that I suspect over the course of a lifetime might fray synapses, make brain chemicals go bad — might muddy memory, desire, dream, daydream.

*My mistyping of vitamins was auto-corrected to “citizens.”

For example, it seems that every time I tell a story, my wife Judy has a different, more prosaic memory of the events, like the tattoo on the palm of the hand of the panhandler not actually being on the palm of his hand but on his wrist.

When I’m telling the story, I’m sure I’m right — can see the swastika clearly slashing across the wrinkles of his palm — but I’ve been proven wrong so many times I’ve lost virtually all confidence in my recollection of events.

Today!This lack of confidence in the reality of my memories is more pronounced the further back I go. For example, did I dream this up, or was there in my hometown of Summerville, SC a [what in those days was called] colored man who travelled the streets in a mule-pulled buggy equipped with automobile tires? In my mind’s eye he’s wearing a slouching felt hat. But who knows? Maybe I’m confusing him with the image of Mississippi John Hurt on the album cover.

Then there was a [what in those days was called] retarded man whom everyone called Pepsi Cola, because he’d come up to you — in this case me, an 8-year-old — and ask you to buy him a Pepsi Cola. I think even though he was a grown man, he lived with his mother, so he didn’t roam around the town but might accompany her to the Piggly Wiggly where he’d wander off. You could tell he wasn’t “right” by his head bobbing and slurry annunciation and the repetitive, obsessive poverty of his diction.

But the absolute king of the Summerville town [what in those days were called] idiots was a man whose Christian and surname I’m not going to repeat for his family’s sake but whom everyone called Beakie.

Although he seemed much younger than my mother, she told me that they rode the same school bus and that he would try to impress the girls by sticking pencils so deep into his gums that they would embed and stick out.

In my junior high days, Beakie rode a bicycle back and forth along the sidewalks of Summerville, and he wore national guard fatigues — or was it that he only wore a national guard hat, the kind that Fidel Castro wore back in the day?

Anyway, what earned Beakie his notoriety was that he would trade firecrackers to naive newcomers to town for a pair of their underwear and a photograph of them. He would say, “I’ll give you 50 pack of firecracker for your drawers.” If successful in the transaction, he would tie the underwear (always tightie whities) behind his bike, place the photograph of the victim in the underwear, and pedal his bicycle all over town.

There was a band in town who actually played a version of “For Your Love” with these lyrics:

For your drawers, for your drawers,
I’ll give you 50 pack . . .

It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Is my memory of Beakie coasting by on his bicycle dragging drawers and a polaroid of some sucker a legitimate memory or concoction?

Frankly, I have no idea.