I left Mississippi at the age of 15. I ran away. My parents were not the sort of people I would have chosen to know had I not been related to them. My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic alcoholic who was in and out of state mental institutions her entire life; she died in 2006. My father, still living, also an alcoholic, terrorized the entire family. There is no need to go into gory details here out of respect for my two older sisters, who were both of age and out of state by the time I fled. Suffice it to say, my father is dishonorable man and a criminal who never paid for his crimes. Have you ever heard the song, “Skip A Rope” by Hensen Cargill? He loved to sing along to that song, but it might as well have been written about him, especially if there had been a few more vile verses.
I tend to believe people when they make death threats against me, so at the age of 15 I ran away to escape unfounded and irrational wrath. The events and circumstances surrounding my flight have the makings of a true Southern Gothic tale. Perhaps I’ll write it someday. I have many people to thank for getting me to safety, and a few to indict.
For a year I lived with my oldest sister in Oklahoma. When she was transferred by the Air Force to California, I finished high school in Southern California by living with a deceased uncle’s wife before moving out on my own by the time I was 16. Then it was off to UC Santa Barbara for undergrad, Gonzaga University in Washington state for law school, and you know the rest of the story.
Until last month, I had not been back for 32 years. The occasion – Decatur High School’s Class of 1986 30th High School Graduation Reunion. There is no such thing as Decatur High School anymore; smaller school districts in the county consolidated years ago. It feels strange to have no alma mater. Even though I did not graduate from Decatur, it was the only school for which I felt a true belonging and affinity. There were 30 total students in our class, but the classroom sizes were an average of 16. Here’s a class photo from 1984 (I’m in the middle):
The man who contributed half of my my DNA still lives in Decatur, population 1,700. When I ran away, our home was on a dirt road. Driving into Decatur from Meridian, my GPS advised me to take that road. I shook my head and chuckled, both at the “progress” of the asphalt, and the fact that there was going to be no avoiding the old man entirely. I parked my rig less than a half a mile from the house. It’s a small town.
As written in the song, “The Green Green Grass of Home,” “The old hometown still looks the same.” There is still one main street, although there are more empty storefronts now.
A sign has been erected at the courthouse, finally, commemorating Civil Rights activist and Decatur native son, Medgar Evers.
In Sixth Grade Mississippi History class his name was never uttered; I learned about him in a Black Studies course at UC Santa Barbara.
The old high school is now part of the community college across street.
They’re raising a new building on the site where I used to watch my high school sweetheart scrimmage during football practice. It was the discovery of our passionate but chaste relationship that triggered the threat to my safety. He still has the same sparkling eyes and dimples, with a beautiful, intelligent wife and two lovely children. Hell, one of those children just graduated high school. Time changes everything, and nothing.
How thrilled I was that everyone in our class fared so well.
Business owners, nurses, real estate agents, flight attendant, lawyers, entrepreneurs – all birthed from those small classrooms at that little public school in Mississippi. I’m so proud of everyone. Most of them I had not seen since the night I ran away, and hearing their recollections of those ensuing days made me realize that what happened did not happen only to me. They described not understanding why I left, hearing rumors, then learning the family secrets done in the dark but brought to the light by my hasty departure. Some heard I became a lawyer. Few knew I settled in Seattle. Many described looking for me over the years on MySpace and Facebook.
My middle sister eventually returned to the South and made her home in the small town where we lived before moving to Decatur: Union, Mississippi, population 1,982, about 12 miles down the road. I attended elementary school and middle school in Union. While visiting with her we drove through the old neighborhood; the family home from 1972 to 1982 at 203 Wilson St. has fallen into grave disrepair.
In a sort of poetic irony, given that the old man was a bigot and a racist, the address is now 203 Martin Luther King Junior Drive.
Many of the houses in our old Union neighborhood are abandoned and falling down.These are the houses where I listened to Elton John with my sister and her friend and got scrapes and bruises mended by elderly neighbors when I fell off my bicycle. The corner store where we waited for the school bus and bought penny candy is now a private residence, planter boxes where fuel pumps once stood.
The road we walked up each Sunday to go to church has succumbed to the indigenous vegetation, which is relentless.
We all know that Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again. Here’s a quote from the book, which revolved in my mind during the entire visit:
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
It was strange and surreal to return to my roots, yet gratifying and calming and life decision affirming. It’s likely I would never have stayed anyway, even absent the exigent circumstances. I had dreams and schemes too large for a small town. Today, I am good with it all. I choose not to communicate with my father not out of hate for him, but out of love for myself. Besides, good living is the best revenge. Jack White said it well in lyrics: “And I got all I got all despite you, and I get what I get just to spite you.”