Tobacco Farm

We were in South Carolina, west of Savannah, for nearly two months while my father checked coordinates on a topo mapping job he’d finished earlier that year. When he was done, we headed down to Georgia, Dad’s home state. He was assigned, with his team, to map the Okeefenokee swamp on airboats.

In July of 1965, I was twelve years old. We moved into a rental home that was better than any house we’d ever lived in—a brick ranch house. It had huge glass doors at the north side. Mama called that “The Florida Room” for some reason. Dad’s big radio went into his study. He told us we could dance in there if we made sure not to scuff up the floors.

Sock feet only,” he instructed.

My sister and I shared a bedroom with two beds! We’d had to share a bed in all our other homes. We didn’t mind sharing but it drove Dad crazy, with us giggling and laughing late into the night. Separate beds might keep us quiet, our parents hoped. Wrong they were!

After exploring our new three acres, which included a pier that pushed into the swamp, we three kids decided to walk up and down the main road. It led to Waycross if you went east and Hoboken if you went west. We were in the countryside with few homes nearby.

Across the street from our house, though, was a big old white clapboard farmhouse. A large sized woman came walking across the road as we were standing there trying to decide on what to do next. She was carrying a pie. Bob, Kathi and I waved and said “Hi.”

Well, hey there, young’uns. I made ya’ll new folks a pie.” She pulled back the white and red checkered towel and we inhaled the delicious scent of apples and cinammon.

I put up apples so I can make pie year-round.”

We followed her to our house, opened the door and yelled, “Mom! Pie!”

Mom always had a pot of coffee going, so she and Mrs. Anderson sat down with pie and coffee. We kids got glasses full of milk and slices of hot pie.

I’m fixin’ to harvest me some tobacco, so ya’ll will see a number of trucks and cars pull in to my place soon. Don’t let that worry you none.”

I had no idea why we should worry about a bunch of cars and trucks.

In South Carolina, I had begged a neighbor girl to let me pick cotton on her parents’ farm. She’d told me, “Lordie Dixie, you don’t want to do that! Cotton thorns hurt real bad.”

But I insisted, so we went out into the field and I did quick, slim fingered picking, tearing the bolls out of  four thorns on each head for about twenty minutes. Yes, she was right. My fingers were bleeding after just a short while picking. But I yearned to experience real life wherever we moved, which meant shoveling snow in Wyoming, rafting on the Mississippi and now, tobacco!

Can I go pick tobacco on your farm?” I asked.

Honey, you are just a little ol’ thing. It takes hard work pickin’ tobacco.”

Please, please!” I begged, hands clutched together.

Gosh almighty, Dixie, you’ll get a sunburn.” Mom was right. My pale skin always blister-burned if I was out in the sun too long.

I’ll wear long sleeves, jeans and a hat!” I promised.

Now why in the world would you want to do that dog-hard work?” Mrs. Anderson was truly mystified. “People generally do this just to pay their rent.”

I’ll take half pay!”

My goodness,” our new neighbor had a hearty laugh. “If your Mama and Daddy say it’s all right, you can come over tomorrow morning and I’ll get someone to teach you how to hand tobacco. It’s easier than pickin’. Fifty cents an hour is half pay.”

YAY!” I shouted, dancing around the dining room.

“Get these dishes washed and when your father comes home, you ask him if you can work on the farm.”

The minute Dad walked through the door that night, I rushed up to him,

Daddy, can I please work on Mrs. Anderson’s farm tomorrow!?”

Jesus Christ, we just barely got moved in here. How did you find out about that job?”

She came over. With Pie! And she was talking about harvesting her tobacco. She said I could learn to hand it.”

You’ll get sticky mess all over your hands. Tobacco is a hard crop. Do you think you’re a slave or what?”

No!! I just want to see what it’s like.”

If you agree to do this, you can’t quit in midstream. If it’s hard, you’ll just have to tough it out.”

I thought about my bleeding fingers from not even an hour of picking cotton. But tobacco didn’t have thorns. “I can do it!” My natural born mania had kicked in. All I could think about was joining in the harvesting work.

The next morning, I jumped out of bed when I heard Dad get up just before dawn. I rushed into the kitchen, guzzled down a glass of milk and sat at the table to eat eggs, bacon, toast and jam. I stayed silent. Dad hated talk at the breakfast table. He rattled the newspaper as he ate. A photo of Mars on the front page was amazing. I was all excited about the space race. But I had work to do. So I rushed through brushing my teeth and then raced out the front door and across the road, up to Mrs. Anderson’s.

There were five pick-up trucks, old ones, in the driveway. Some cars, too. 1940s Fords and Chevys. Big enough to live in. I went up onto the porch, where people were gathered, sitting on the steps, awaiting Mrs. Anderson’s instructions.

She came out her front door, in a flowered dress, aproned and wearing a big straw hat like mine.

Welcome, folks. I hope ya’ll had a good breakfast. Your dinner will be served at noon. I’ll clang the skillet. Jason here is your boss.” She nodded toward a tall, heavily muscled black man. He nodded back. “We’ve got a new worker here. Dixie, stand on up.”

I stood. There was muffled laughter from all the black and white grown-up workers.

Tell them what you want to do.”

Well, everywhere we go–we move around a lot. Anyway, I just want to learn about ya’lls crops. I want to pick tobacco.” I picked up the lingo wherever we went. It didn’t help to talk Yankee when you were Down South. So I used the proper term: “ya’ll.”

Loud laughter from all the workers.

A heavily muscled, dark skinned man took off his hat and said,

Miss Dixie, you shore do Not want to be pickin’ no cotton. I’d be surprised and shocked if you made it to noon even just handin’ them leaves.”

I frowned. “OK, I’ll learn to hand. But I will make it way past noon!”

More laughter and people slapping their hats on their knees.

Jason, show Dixie how to do handin’. We’ll see how she does. And Jason, set this here radio to whatever music it is ya’ll like.

My new boss turned the dial until “What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am)” came on. He turned up the volume and pointed to me.  He led the way over to a weathered, wooden shed.

So this here’s her dryin’ shed. Once there’s a bushel o’ leaves, we start to handin’.

He went to the field, which was only a few feet away from the shed, and picked three different-sized leaves off a tobacco plant. The stems dripped a white juice down over his deeply dark hands.

By now, the song was “Every Little Bit Hurts” by Brenda Holloway. I hoped it wouldn’t hurt to hand tobacco.

Image result for tobacco drying shed

Watch me close now, child.” He stood at the long table and laid down a big leaf. On top of that, a middle sized leaf, slightly tilted to the left. Over that, he lay a small leaf, tilted to the right. He held the bunch by the stems and handed it to a size large woman.

She took it and quickly wrapped twine around the stems. She waited for a few more hands, then tied them all together. She handed that bigger bunch to the guy standing on her right. He tied the end of the string onto a pole. It was an assembly line.

It didn’t take long before the field workers had big bushels full of leaves, sorted by size, filled up at the far end of the work table.

Nervously, I selected a big, then medium, then small sized leaf, laying them neatly on top of each other just like Jason had done. I handed them to Martha.

Perfect, little girl,” said Martha.

We all kept going, working in the sweltering heat of a July Georgia day. Time passed quickly as we all toiled together. The radio kept us moving to the beat of songs I’d never heard until that day. I became a big fan of soul music while working on Mrs. Anderson’s tobacco farm.

Suddenly, the skillet was clanging. Dinner already!

Jason took off his hat and shouted, “This little girl lasted all th’ way to Noon.”

He did a twirling dance in the dry dirt. Miss Rosie joined him, laughing. I stuck out my elbows and did a stiff few moves myself.

Oh, Lordie. She doin’ th’ chicken dance,” Rosie laughed her head off.

We all moved as one toward the big house. Mrs. Anderson and her lady friends had a huge meal prepared, all laid out on boards placed over sawhorses, with clean table cloths over the board. It was just like Uncle Edward always set up for my great-aunt Miss Tempie’s meals.

There were field peas with collard greens, cooked to soft perfection. Huge hunks of corn pone slathered in butter. Ham and fried chicken, take your pick or take both said Jason, laughing. To drink, pitchers full of iced sweet tea. And pie for dessert.

Jason stood at one end of the biggest table. “Lord, we thank thee for this thy bounty. In Christ Name Amen.” And we all said amen.

That little Yankee girl out worked you, Mr. Daniel.” Rosie aimed her fork at a skin and bones old white guy.

Deed she did. I reck’” He shook his head while shoveling collards into his puckered mouth.

I am not a Yankee! Daddy was born in Damascus.”

She got you, Rosie. Damascus. Where your Mama from?”

Wyoming.”

Lord in Heaven, how they meet up? By parachute?”

No, my father was making a map of the Rocky Mountains and he met her in a saloon.”

Loud guffaws at that one. “Saloon about th’ best place t’ meet a lady. That or church.” Rosie was the most outspoken of us all.

We ate to our heart’s content, then went back to the fields or over by the shed to finish up the day. My back was sore and my fingers covered in white, sticky tobacco goo but the shade of the shed helped me not faint. I was a well-known fainter.

When the day was done, Mrs. Anderson stood on her porch and we workers filed up the steps in a long line to receive our day’s wages. She handed me four, worn dollar bills. I couldn’t contain my excitement! Four whole dollars!

I raced home and showed Kathi my stash. Then gently lay my hard earned dollar bills into the cigar box Uncle Johnnie had given me. With money made from shoveling snow and doing chores around the house, I had eight dollars. Mom and Dad insisted that one fourth of all we earned be put into savings. That meant I’d have to do some math later on and stow part of my money in the wallet Dad had given me for that purpose. Saving up for college.

That night, when I closed my eyes in bed, I could still see my hands glowing in front of me, placing tobacco leaves carefully together in the harsh Georgia sunshine. I worked for Mrs. Anderson until the entire crop was picked. Then school started, eighth grade. More adventures to come!

 

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Swimming Pool in Georgia

Dixie Bike
We moved to Georgia from Florida in June of 1965. It was hot, viciously humid. As usual, my brother and sister made friends right away. I sat in the relative cool of my and Kathi’s bedroom, reading Gone With the Wind. Every where we lived, I’d read a book about that state. So in Wyoming, I’d read about Jackson Pollock. He was from Cody. My mother and her pals used to race their horses from her home town of Douglas up to Cody.

But here we were in Dad’s home state, sweltering like workers in a steel factory. As I was reading yet another “Fiddle-dee-dee” from Scarlett, Bob came running into my room.

“Hey, girl! There’s a pool over in th’ next town.”

“So? Dad’s at work. We won’t be able to get there.”

“We can ride bikes.”

The bane of my existence, bicycles. I never could figure out how to balance on my blue Schwinn for longer than half a block. It was start, stop, start, stop for me.

“I’m reading.”

“C’mon, fool! It’ll be fun.”

A stranger’s face appeared in the doorway.

“This is Chris. He lives down th’ road. Chris, convince my goofy sister to go swimming with us.”

“In th’ swamp?” We lived right on the edge of the Okeefenokee.

“Whaat? No! The pool over in Hoboken.”

“We can’t swim on a Sunday. That’s Negro Day.”

Bob let out a rough laugh. “NEGRO day? What the heck does that mean?”

Back then, “negro” was a sign of respect. I was glad to hear this southern boy calling black people by their preferred title, rather than the perjorative which rhymed with trigger.

“Negro Day is when no white people can swim. It’s only for negroes. Then at night, they drain the pool and clean it for us. The water turns black from negroes.”

“You have Got to be kidding me!” Shouted my brother. “That is a huge waste of water! Nobody would do that. Water doesn’t turn black from their skin, you fool! Does water turn white because white people swim in it? No, it stays blue. Or clear.” My brother never worried about insulting his friends. He was all about The Truth.

“My Daddy said so.” Chris sounded unsure of himself.

“OK, here’s the deal,” my brother was always making plans. “We’ll go down there tonight. What time does the pool close?”

“8:00”

“So we’ll get down there around 7:30, climb up a tree and wait to see if they really do drain the pool. Dixie, are you with us?”

Lord, I thought. This book was just getting good. A ball at Tara with Scarlett and all her beaux.

“OK, I guess.”

That evening, we filled up on Mom’s home made fried chicken, mashed poatoes, gravy, yeast rolls and tons of iced tea. Mom never put sugar in it like Aunt Inez. The way our aunt made iced tea was this:
One pot boiling with eight tea bags. Another, smaller pot boiling with a cup of sugar! Mix it up, pour into a pitcher filled with ice. Swig down the syrupy stuff. Yuck!

Chris came over and Bob asked Mom, “Can we go ride bikes?”

“Yes but you be back before dark.” Luckily, it was summer. Dark didn’t come until around 9:00.

Off we dashed on our bicycles, leaving five year old Kathi behind. She loved helping Mom out with the dishes. She never liked being too far away from Mama at that point.

We got to the park after twenty minutes of hard riding. I was sweating like a demon from Hades. So were the boys. Shouts from the pool could be heard all the way over where we stopped, at the band stand. We leaned our bikes against the wooden steps and crouched low, running behind my crew-cut, fearless brother.

“OK, guys. Here’s a great tree! Oak. Sturdy.” We climbed up into the thick branches each one covered with long streams of Spanish moss. It was easy to see the pool from our vantage point.

Bob had brought supplies. He was always prepared. He handed Chris and me a Tootsie Roll Pop to suck on so we wouldn’t get dry mouth.

We watched swimmers splashing around. Music blasted from the PA system. Stevie Wonder, singing “I Was Made to Love Her,” Sam and Dave shouting, “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” and “Money” by Barrett Strong. Cool tunes.

Before we knew it, there was the blast from a whistle. Muscular black lifeguards circled the pool, blowing on their high powered whistles. People exited the pool, heading toward the mens’ and womens’ bath houses.

Bob whispered, “See, the water is still blue.”

Chris was having an epiphany. His father had lied to him. The entire world looked different. His eyes were as huge as pancakes.

A worker picked up the pool skimmer and walked around, clearing the water of leaves just like after any long day at the swimming hole. He left. We waited and waited. 1950s Chevys and Buicks drove away. Even the lifeguards and janitors drove or walked toward home. Evening began to fall around us, an orange and pink shawl.

“OK, now do you believe me?” Bob demanded of Chris. “Nobody’s here. The pool is still full of water.”

Chris had no words. We climbed down from the tree, jumped onto our bikes and rode hellbent for leather toward home. That September at school, Chris, Bob and I tried to educate the masses about Negro Day at the Pool. Nobody believed us except the Army Brats. They’d moved around like our family. They knew what was what.

Analysis: Group Portrait, Hand Coloured

Image result for vintage family portrait 1915 teenage boy with soccer ball little daughter with top

The taller man, thin, has lines from patrician nose
to stern mouth. Eyes alert for any nuisance,
slight greying of sideburns, neatly clipped.
Ears close to head, as if by military command.
His coat is dark grey, fitted to the body. Shirt, high collared,
set off by necktie of silver silk. Waistcoat vested in stripes of grey
and black. Elbow crooked, posture straight.
Evidence of a watch (simple gold chain hooked from
vest pocket belt loop), a family heirloom.

The next man is young & hefty, built like a soccer player.
Hair parted down the middle, a Sheik. Eyes glint,
ladies’ man, man’s man. Shoulders strain against vest seams.
He hasn’t bothered with a jacket, it would sear in this
summer’s heat. That is his glass on the oval table,
a slice of lemon in gin, cut glass prisms shine.
He seems ready to spring forward, to enlist at once
upon hearing Call to Country.­

Woman, seated in wing-backed chair of burgundy velvet.
Complicated lace circlet haloes her braid-crownéd head.
Square-jawed, like her son, she stares to the side
(a momentary wish to escape the photographer’s record)
Small hands clasp together, monograph in delicate blue
barely visible on the lower corner of a wispy handkerchief: M
The suit is lamb shanked at the sleeves, skirt long,
feet invisible underneath. She will not stray, despite
unrelenting desires. Sitting on the rug beside her is
a small dog, Cocker mix, laughing into eternity.

The little girl, recently entering her seventh year, has
hair plaited so severely that she frowns at
tense loops, tied up with dark blue bows.
She stands next to the chair, elbow leaning
on a richly padded arm, head tilted toward her mother.

Her skirts are full, petticoats flounced with embroidery.
In her right hand is a toy, a spinning top, circled
with gold, an H.G. Wells space ship she dreams
of riding on cricket sounding nights in her solemn bed.

She will not be still long. It is 1915 & this child
will grow into an educated woman. Her many
scrapbooks fill with photographs & poste cartes
from Cairo, Ethiopia, Arles, St. Petersburg,
Rio & the Grand Canyon. Letters in sharp
fountain-penned script address her by nick name:
Peach! Missed you in Pah-Ree! Hurry Home!”
and “With deep sorrow, we join you in mourning
the death of your belovéd brother,
heroic pilot in the War to End All Wars.”

Yet she will live to see other wars & live long
enough to pass into another Century, riding
with nephews & nieces (she would never
have children of her own) in faster & faster
moving cars.
She thinks “Slow down,” as years pass;
but the pocket watch left
her by that boisterous, dear brother ticks
menacingly, so she shuts it into the locked
center drawer of a walnut chest built for her
by a fond Admirer. His rough hands planed
wood into sweet curves. He told her it was
shaped like her body, round & lovely.

Watch lies covered by a wispy handkerchief,
M nearly white with age, inner wheels
sleek gold, a hummingbird’s heartbeat.

I will lie down for a few minutes before dinner,”
she thinks but just then her spirit gently shifts
(sliver of ice moving over a slice of lemon)
& she floats over the roof of the family home;
swiftly into lavender twilight,
gold at the horizon from a sighing autumnal sun.

previously published in Awakenings Review

 

The Witch Trail

Although my family moved all over America, and in parts of Mexico and Canada, we often spent time in Georgia. Dad was born and raised in Georgia. His brother Jack, Jack’s wife Inez and their kids lived in Hinesville Georgia. Grandma (who we called Miss Bonnie) also lived in Hinesville.

We’d drive from wherever we were living to Hinesville, lug our suitcases into Miss Bonnie’s house and then Dad would go pick up our cousins. The grown ups would hang out at Uncle Jack’s and Aunt Inez’s house while we kids played at the little wooden shack on the edge of a forest.

One trip, Bob and I schemed a plan to fake out the cousins. We loved playing tricks on people. It was a way to have control in our lives, since we had no control over moving two to six times a year.

“OK, here’s the deal,” Bob whispered, “I’ll ride my bike down to Collin’s Drug Store. I’ll buy some Kool Pops with our money. We’ll stick ‘em in Miss Bonnie’s ice box. Then I’ll run out and hide ‘em in that old tree with the hollow hole.”

“All holes are hollow, Bob,” I whispered back.

“Just shut up a minute. So then we’ll get all the cousins and Kathi to go with us on The Witch Trail! I’ll head up the line and you be at the back. I’ll say stuff like ‘See the Owl’ and you hoot. Get it?”

I was onto the plan. We’d done things like this in every place we’d lived. Hiding fake Jesse James treasure maps in Wyoming and charging kids a nickle to help us dig the maps up. Leading safaris in Tennessee. Building rafts on the Mississippi, charging kids ten cents to watch us sail down towards the Gulf of Mexico. This was the latest in our long line of schemes.

Dad let our five cousins out of his Bonneville. They all rushed up to us. Bob said “Let’s go on a safari.”

“Lordie, it’s too hot!” cried Debbie.

“Ya’ll, let’s get Miss Bonnie’s sweet tea and bisquits,” Rusty was always hungry.

“Let’s play dolls,” Kim said to Kathi. They were the same age. Kim had all the Barbies, Skipper  and Ken. I could not be less interested in dolls.

“Nope,” my brother commanded. “That can wait. This is an Adventure. We’re going on The Witch Trail!”

“Yeah!” I shouted, pumping enthusiasm into the group.

Bob got everyone assembled into a line, then marched onward into the forest. I took the last spot in the group, behind my sister.

“Keep quiet, there could be wild animals. Or witches!”

“Lordie,” prayed Debbie.

“Is that an owl I see in yonder tree?” Bob turned toward the group and pointed high up into the Spanish moss-covered branches. I hooted.

“I don’t see it! Owls claw!!” Debbie was high-strung.

“Shhht” Rusty was into the wild adventure, full force now.

“Will a witch appear? Or will we get Kool Pops?” Bob’s voice rasped.

“Kool Pops?” Rusty was ready for a treat.

I cackled, as witch-like as possible.

“Mama!” cried little Kim.

My sister turned to me, lifting an eyebrow accusingly. She knew my tricks. I held my finger up to my lips & bent down to her ear. “There will be a treat, stay quiet.”

Bob ran over to the old oak tree with a big hole in it. “Is the owl in here?” He screamed as if his his arm were being ripped off. Rusty, Debbie and I ran toward him. “Hellllllllllp” Bob shouted.

“Lordie! Lord! Lord!” Debbie was frantic. Rusty grabbed a stick off the ground and held it like a spear. I huddled with the littler kids, telling them “We’re safe.”

Bob pulled his arm out, his hand holding aloft a box of popsicles.  “Kool Pops! The witch left us a present!”

No one asked why on earth a witch would leave gifts in trees for a bunch of kids. Everyone rushed to get their favorite color.

“I want red!” shouted Kathi.

“Me, too” yelled Kim.

We all marched back to Miss Bonnie’s, happily munching on melting Kool Pops.

Thirty years later, my parents were visiting at Jack and Inez’s. All the kids, now grown up, were there. Debbie told the story of the Witch Trail and how she had absolutely believed there was a witch and an owl in that tree. Dad called me on the phone and blessed me out for scaring the kids. I gave my brother a call and he could not believe they had fallen for his trick.

“Lordie, Lord, Lord” I said and we laughed about our wild antics as children.

Fly, Birds, Fly!

Somewhere between Michigan and West Virginia, we moved into a small brick house near a huge cornfield. On our first day there, my brother and I went exploring. As we carefully trod (like Indians) along the road’s shoulder, we reached a spot where that cornfield began. A loud cloud of birds flew raucously up into the sky, terrified of human beings.

Witch!” Bob shouted. “Let’s get kids to pay five cents to see the witch.”

You mean I lead the way and—“

Just as we reach this Exact spot,” Bob put his tennis shoe on the place we’d stepped when the quail flew up, “I whisper ‘go witch go’ and you–”

I’ll raise up my arms and say ‘Fly, birds, fly!”

Bob and I were on the same wavelength.

Here, let’s build a cairn so you know when you’ve reached the place.”

Dad had taught us about cairns for marking our way in forests, in case we got lost. A cairn every fifty steps would show the way back to our car or tent.

We gathered little rocks and piled them up as a marker.

The next day, at our new school, my brother, like the reincarnation of P.T. Barnum, hustled up customers during recess. He pocketed a bunch of milk money, promising a Real Witch Show after school let out.

I kept away from the group. The witch had to stay secret until the last minute.

At last, the final bell rang. Children ran out of the building, screaming as if to escape Godzilla.

My brother assembled a curious group near the flag pole. He led them toward our house, a few blocks away, chanting “A witch you will see! Her power is to make wild birds flee!”

I’d run home on fast feet. Waited in the ditch near our house. I smeared dirt on my face and wove weeds into my always-tangled hair. When I heard my brother approaching, his voice low so as not to frighten the quail prematurely, I stood up as tall as I could. I crooked my hands into claws and, eyes wide, teeth bared, hissed:

Who goes there?”

Bob whispered, “Witch, may we pass?”

I crooked a finger and said quietly, “Follow me.”

The kids bunched up together, holding hands, uncertain what might happen.

I crouched into a witchy creep and stepped forward carefully, kids following, Bob at the back, face in a serious scowl. I turned toward the group and hissed,

Fly birds, Fly!” Then stomped a foot right next to the pile of rocks.

Thunderclap of wings and hundreds of quail rushed into the blue sky.

Terrified kids screamed “Mommy!” and ran wildly toward their safe homes.

Bob divied up the money, both of us laughing our heads off.

We were indeed inheritors of our ancestors’ genes, people who’d been gaoled on the Isle of Wight for “thievery, plots against the King and the practicing of witch-craft.”

The Beatles Hit North Carolina!

Beatlemania hit America when I was eleven. “She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)” conquered the airwaves but I was not impressed. I was in the sixth grade and had been playing flute for two years. My parents set up private lessons for me with a flautist in Bryson City, North Carolina. The tutor was our dentist. He could really do some great jazz riffs. My friend Ivan Gibby and I learned a lot from him.

What’s so great about that song? It’s only three notes! Anyone could play that! Why are girls at Beatles concerts screaming like a werewolf was chasing them? Buddy Holley and the Crickets are way cooler!” I expressed my opinion loudly to my Beatle frenzied class-mates.

Six girls in the sixth grade were my pals. Three of them could sing wonderfully. Bryson City’s school had a great symphonic band, and a marching band. I played in both.

For the next rainy day show, let’s be the Beatles.” I suggested, as we girls chatted during lunch one day.

The school held talent shows on rainy days when recess was not an option. I had in mind a parody but didn’t realize my friends were serious about their Beatle Love.

We practiced during recess, my beautiful friends singing in perfect harmony. They got three songs down: “She Loves You,” “PS, I Love You” and “Love Me Do.” I was to be Ringo, so I practiced belting out rhythms on tree stumps with sticks the band teacher loaned me.

I spent hours making Beatle wigs from black yarn, sewn with care onto run-streaked stockings Mom gave me. I made four, one for myself and one for each singer.

We have to wear the wigs or nobody will know we’re being the Beatles!”

The girls, all with perfect bubble hair-dos, refused at first to mess up their sprayed coiffures but my upbeat excitement finally convinced them.

A rainy week came and the mimeographed memo went out, announcing an end of week talent contest. On Friday, students from all twelve grades were ushered into the huge auditorium. The principal asked everyone to be quiet and enjoy the show. Kids from primary grades acted out skits about how it’s healthy to drink milk. Each grade had skits, singers, kids reciting the Gettysburg Address and other acts.

Finally, it was the sixth grade’s turn. Three boys sang a great rendition of “Walk Like a Man.” They were classy in burgundy and gold blazers, our football team’s colors. They snapped their fingers in time to the music.

Backstage, we four girls put our wigs on, helping each other hide our real hair underneath the stocking caps. I put on one of my brother’s dark colored jackets, to look like a well-dressed Ringo Star. My friends wore lovely shirt-waist dresses. The wigs made us giggle.

I walked out first onto the expansive stage, sat down in a chair, grinned widely, and held up my drum sticks, clacking them together.

After the hum of a pitch pipe, my friends began harmonizing with “She Loves You.” They sounded beautiful. I pretended to slam on fake drums, keeping the beat. Kids applauded. Fantastic! My friends segued into the second song. I got worked up and beat out a more frenzied rhythm, closer to Gene Krupa than Ringo.

On the last song, I flanged my head around, making the wig’s fake hair fly as my hands drummed wildly. I made full use of the imaginary drum set, brushing a snare drum snazzily, tapping my foot for the bass and rat-a-tatting on the high hat.

Students and teachers laughed at my antics. My friends, one by one, turned around and saw me crazily drumming. All gave me furious glares but continued singing and finished “Love Me Do.” Then all three girls stalked off the stage, leaving me alone. I was still drumming, caught up in the act. Ringo had invaded my entire body.

Suddenly, I looked up and saw the whole audience standing and applauding. Some teenaged girls grabbed their hair and screamed, pretending to be Beatle maniacs. Even teachers stood and cheered: “Encore!”

Realizing I’d gone too far with the Ringo imitation, I gestured for my friends to come back. They all had removed the Beatle wigs and fixed their hair with copious amounts of Aqua Net. They took their time but did return to the microphone. They main_900sang “Johnny Angel” tragically. I sat in the chair, smiling, hands in my lap. My friends got their own personal applause.

The principal walked out onstage and handed a blue ribbon to each of us. We’d won first prize! The Beatles had landed in North Carolina!

Seeing Through Walls

Winter 1967. The Vietnam war was in the news every night. High school classmates headed to DC to protest during lunch hour. I caught rides once or twice a week, standing at the periphery of a huge swell of bodies. I was determined to follow the Rev. Martin Luther’s King’s non-violent protest teachings. So instead of yelling “Nix on Nixon!” I shouted “Peace! Love!” and handed out flowers to cops and soldiers.

shadow Dionysus's flower power giftI hardly slept at all. Studying for the AP classes, the terror of having friends send to war, and undiagnosed manic-depression tortured me.  

One morning, I walked into school and a friend rushed up to me, “Dixie! This week is a moratorium! No classes! To observe the war. Seminars on a lot of topics. Like peace-making, non-violent protest, the history of protest songs and all sorts of stuff.”

I couldn’t believe the teachers had come up with this idea. But yes, maybe it was in response to so many of us asking during lessons about Moby Dick, “How is this relevant? There’s a war on! We could all die tomorrow!”

A few friends and I had got together the previous month and produced an underground newspaper. It was on mimeograph paper. I’d drawn a cartoon of the statue of liberty, wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt, her arm lifted up with fingers in the familiar peace gesture instead of holding a torch. One classmate had written an article on why the Vietnam war was a losing proposition. Another drew in between the margins, imitating R. Crumb, people trucking along. One guy’s Mom was the secretary of the PTA. She had a mimeograph machine in the basement of their McLean home. We went over after school one day and ran off 100 copies.

We all dashed around the following day, handing out free newspapers. As I passed the teachers’ table in the cafeteria, carrying a sheaf of the underground paper, Mr. Ward called out, “Don’t we get a copy?” I was stunned. A teacher? Wanting to read an anti-establishment newspaper? “Sure!” I responded and handed my last copies to the grinning teachers.

Many years later, I was a student teacher at Langley High. I realized those teachers had been in their late 20s and early 30s when I was a teenager. I sat in the student lounge with them, laughing about the underground paper and our earnest efforts to end the war.

But it was a moratorium! Students handed out black arm bands. My brother came up to me and whispered fiercely “You freaky little hippie! Don’t even say Hi to me in the hallway.”

So when I came upon my brother and his fellow Young Republicans, I merely smiled and gave them the peace sign. They chanted, “Yay, Nixon!”

I entered the classroom that was usually for American Civ’. A visiting lecturer stood at the podium, talking and talking. I stood there for ten or fifteen minutes before realizing I understood not one word he said. I wandered into the girls’ room and splashed cold water on my face. My cheekbones jutted out, I’d lost weight again. No matter how much I ate, sometimes two dinners (one at home, one at my friend’s house), often finishing friends’ lunch room meals, the hyperactivity kept me bone thin. I went back into the crammed-full hallway. Student were meandering from one seminar to another.

My friend Michael sat on the polished floor, strumming his guitar, singing “I Wanna Go Home.”

I joined him and sang along. Then I realized there was no wall behind us. It was a clear window, overlooking a beautiful garden.

Wow, it’s so cool how they built that atrium overnight.” I stared down into the lush forest.

What atrium?” Michael stared at me with his bright blue eyes. He looked where I was staring.

I pointed at the wall. “Right there. Trees, a creek, birds.”

Wow, Dixie. What are you on? I want some!”

You know I don’t do drugs! Dammit!” I stood up, angrily and walked away from my pal.

Of course there was no atrium in the middle of Langley High. The tiled wall was as sturdy as ever. My mind had gone off on its own, sending me into visions of natural beauty.