I’m sorry I’m late. I got back on Monday and haven’t caught up yet with all my thoughts about my trip. I still want to tell you about some of my experiences though. I always do so much in just a few days when I go to the south, to Alabama; and this time I also went to Tennessee, to my class reunion in Chattanooga so now there’s even more to tell you. Five days and four nights, back and forth on I-59.
It’s all confusing, but the Alabama part is more confusing. Family. How to explain family? My brothers, who don’t speak to each other, my son and his family who aren’t in touch with my brothers. Fragmented family. Well, I live in California so listen to me talk.
So much to think about. Some good things though, really good things. You should see my grandchildren. Yes, I know that all grandparents say that. But you should see my grandchildren, my grand-daughters, thirteen, sixteen, eighteen. I’m so proud of my son and his wife, the job they have done. They’ve worked so hard. I know; I know all kinds of people work hard; but this is my family, and I want to tell you about them, three daughters. Really something. I will; I will. I’ll tell you about them. But not just yet. I have to think more about it, organize my thoughts. There's so much to say.
And then my brothers who don’t speak to each other. Sixty miles apart. Okay more than that; a lifetime apart. They never see each other and neither of them sees my son and family. One of them still remembers a childhood slight. He nurtures that slight. And the other has such a clear idea of the way things should be. Won’t give in, just a bit. What’s the phrase? Cut some slack? Acknowledge imperfection.
So each time I go to Alabama I run back and forth among them to visit with them because it wouldn’t do to invite them all to one great gathering because they don’t communicate on their own, when I’m not there. God, what would that party be like? So I run back and forth on I-59. I’m not complaining about it. I love them all. What’s that song? Why can’t we be friends? Back and forth between Birmingham and Gadsden.
So this time while I was in Gadsden—one of the two times this trip I was there—where I was born and where one of my brothers still lives, I drove by the first home I remember. It was called The Little Brown House when I was a child and was part of a family compound you’d call it, with a much larger yellow house next door. You should see it now. There’s a picture of what we called The Little Brown House at the top of the page and here's a picture of part of that smaller house and what was once called The Yellow House. The Little Brown House is white now and kind of rundown, a real estate office I guess. Look at the fence. When I was a child there was a stone wall out front, cement pillars with decorative cement spheres on top; now that wall is gone and there’s a chain link fence between the properties, the family compound has been divided and is now commercial property. Is that progress? I wouldn’t call it progress. There should be something that I could tell you about that, but I don’t know what it is yet; I need to organize my thoughts about it. I wish people were living there; that’s it. I can tell you that; I’d feel better about the first home I remember if people were living there now; if it weren’t an office.
I also drove by my other childhood home, a two-story brick, where I spent most of my childhood. I’d have to say that the property has been improved. Looks better; I guess that’s improvement. Fancy shrubbery. Is that topiary out front? The big cracked sidewalk has been repaired, but the beautiful big tree and the roots that caused the crack are also gone. What a beautiful tree. There was a bird singing on the chimney while I was there. What a song. I don’t believe in reincarnation or any of that New Age hooey, but if I did I would say, “My mother is here to welcome me home. Listen to her sing.”
Maybe I should tell you something about the reunion now. You might remember that I went south this time so that I could go to a reunion. The Class of 1956 of McCallie School for Boys in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a military school when I was there and now a prep school. I’ve told you here before about how scared…no, not scared, anxious I was. Yes, anxious. But I was talking about the flying and security. I don’t do well with that stuff, authority types. It’s not rational; I know it’s not rational. I understand about 9/11 and all, but still, I see somebody in uniform, telling me to do something and certain physiological things begin to happen with me. Defense postures. Rapid breathing. My pupils probably dilate. Isn’t that typical of fight or flee? Hair on the back of my neck.
I wore a nice jacket and a tie to fly from Burbank to Birmingham. I did it to remind myself to act straight and rational—all people wearing ties are rational beings, it’s a known fact—but I also thought that the TSA authority types would treat me better if I was wearing a tie. My usual garb is shorts and a tee-shirt. Sandals. Baseball cap. Sweat pants in winter. So I wore a tie, and I did fine. I think it helped my attitude. I didn’t know that I was supposed to take my laptop out of its case, but the TSA guy was okay about it, very courteous. My fears were irrational; I know that.
So I go to the reunion. I arrived late in the afternoon last Thursday, Thursday a week ago, in Birmingham. I rented a car and drove to my brother’s home in Birmingham, spent the night, and then drove on to Chattanooga the next morning. There’s more to tell you about that first night—a gourmet meal with my brother and his wife and daughter in their home. There’s also a great dog, Captain, a Scotty, who lives there. I’ll show you his picture.
My sister-in-law is a gourmet cook. You have to understand that my brother’s home in Birmingham is full of family memorabilia. Posters from my father’s dance band, family silverware, place settings. Pictures, God, the pictures. God. Give me a drink. And of course I had one vodka martini too many my first night in the south, in my brother’s home. A little shaky the next morning on my way to Gadsden and Chattanooga, up I-59. I should also tell you about stopping to see my other brother and old friends in Gadsden on my way to Chattanooga. But that’s some of the information that I need to organize; I’ll tell you later, another time.
Anyway, I drive to the reunion. I have rented this big white bomber of a Chrysler. More anxiety I guess about my driving in the south and southern drivers and, okay, comfort. I didn’t want to do my back-and-forth and all-over in some damn roller skate so I arrive in Chattanooga in this big bomber of a car. Oh, I should tell you that just after I rented the car in Birmingham and was driving on the interstate to my brother’s home, not sure exactly of where I was, this minivan comes roaring up behind me in the fast lane. Hell, I was going seventy, the speed limit, and there was traffic to my right so I couldn’t move over, and I tapped the brakes to get this car to back off, and this woman with a crazed look gave me the double finger, she looked really mad, in the kind of minivan a soccer mom would drive; but this lady looked like, she looked like what I would call a meth mom. God. Drug-crazed. I sped up; she got off at the next exit. I was glad I was driving the big white bomber.
So I drive up I-59 and finally I’m in Chattanooga and checked in at my hotel. I visit the bathroom and do a few minor ablutions. Wash my face, work with some mouthwash, brush my hair and then I head down the hall to the hospitality suite. And if you don’t mind I’m going to let the hospitality suite represent all the… let it be the venue for all the social interactions that I experienced during my class reunion at McCallie. Even though there was a barbecue at a homecoming football game and a Headmaster’s Luncheon and a Class Dinner and many conversations in all those places, there’s no need to try to remember what was said where; it’s not important.
So the hospitality suite contains all the weekend’s conversation. My classmates would come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed the piece I wrote here about going to the reunion, and then they would mention a film or TV show that I was in and tell me how much they enjoyed it. Good guys. I need to say that here. My classmates are good guys and not just because they were complimentary.
But here’s what I was thinking while I was hearing those compliments. All of these people are adults. I am in a room with adults, and I feel like a child. I’m trying to write, be a serious writer now in my life; but I was a goddamn actor in my former life without much to show for it. I look around the room. Jesus, look at these successes; there are rich people here, no, I mean rich people. Ted Turner, I’ve got to say it, was a classmate, okay, and Ted’s here. But other wealthy people too and doctors and, yes, lawyers, business people. Adults. And they are telling each other stories, serious stuff, adult stuff, not just about their time at McCallie either. Talking about adult things. Like family and business, big business and success. My classmates would talk to me, ask me about showbiz; and I would say things like, “Diane Keaton is really nice.”
Anyway, I was sitting next to Ted Turner in the hospitality suite, and people were coming up to him and talking adult talk with him—things like what do you think about this and what do you think about that and significant remember-whens. I was looking at the guys talking to him, and Ted was being gracious and personable; and I was just watching him and the people talking to him, and I noticed his moustache. It’s the thinnest moustache I’ve ever seen, and I was no more than two feet from it. And as he was talking I began to stare at it and to wonder about how he gets it so thin.
My guess is that he does it himself. I didn’t ask him, but I’m just sure that he does it himself. But I began to think while sitting there that Ted has so much money that he could have on his staff people, barbers, who only were there to trim his moustache. There could be two men, two barbers, and one of them could be responsible for the left side of his moustache and the other could be responsible for the right side of his moustache. And each morning, Ted could just lie there in bed and snooze and his barbers could arrive and there could be these other men on Ted’s staff and they could be called the barber-hoisters and the barber-hoisters could be these four muscular men, and two of them would lift one barber, the right-side barber, and two would lift the other barber, the left-side barber, and suspend them above the right and left sides of Ted’s moustache, and the barbers would reach down from above his moustache as Ted snoozed there in bed and do the daily trimming. And that’s how he gets his moustache so thin, I thought.
That’s what I was thinking about as serious conversation continued next to me—about sports, big business, important things. That’s what I was thinking sitting there next to Ted Turner, and that's not the way an adult should think.
Okay, let's say that other than the hospitality suite venue there are two other, okay, call them acts if you must of my McCallie reunion weekend. The second act takes place in the Chapel-Auditorium, on the campus itself. And in the Chapel Auditorium I place all the reunion weekend’s prayers and religious references from all the lunches and dinners and a memorial service for McCallie boys who have died. It’s a Christian school and I understand the need for religious references and prayers, but there seemed to be a premium placed on what I would call long prayers, where those who pray really know their praying. One man particularly seemed to be a prayer expert and said “Father” a lot. Father-this and father-that. But that’s what’s done, I guess, in expert prayer. I haven’t been around that much prayer since I left McCallie fifty years ago, and I must say that it was strange to me; I felt awkward. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite so I didn’t bow my head. And I didn’t want to hum or look at the ceiling—I didn't want to be disruptive. So I would just stand there each time there was a prayer, and there were many prayers, a Christian school. I would just stand there.
The final act takes place outside on McCallie's campus, and in this act I have all my serious thoughts. Here’s a picture of what was once the dining hall. In this final act I’m standing on a road that I remember as the central road of McCallie’s much smaller campus in 1956. In 2006 I’m on the road by myself; I’ve decided not to take the tour of the campus led by students; I’m just walking around on my own, trying to find buildings that I remember. I recognize two buildings. Of the ten or so buildings I can see around me I recognize two. The Chapel-Auditorium and a dorm.
The place that I really wanted to see is gone. Founder’s Home, my first-year dorm. The old structure that I remember is gone, replaced by a brick structure. I wanted to stand, at sixty-eight years old, on the porch of Founder’s Home, where I roomed when I first arrived at McCallie, and I wanted to have a conversation with myself and with the shade of the teacher who, on my first night away from home, in 1953, told me to stop crying and get back inside. But that building is gone. So I just stand on the road.
“Leave me alone. I’m standing here for a bit. I want to think about this place. McCallie. I can handle it; I'm okay. Okay, it’s strange to be back, but that’s okay, life is strange. I knew it would be strange to be back. These old guys, my classmates. I’m going to stand here. Leave me alone. My classmates. All these guys I think of as so straight and sane—I know they have their moments, some of them are probably as nuts as I am. But I also get this sense of good people in my class, and I mean good people. Good men. That’s what I get, and I’m glad I came here for this. Fifty years ago I thought that I wouldn’t make it, but I did. I missed my home so much. Even with my angry father I missed my home so much. It’s humid. Damn if it’s not humid. This jacket is too hot. Leave me alone. You could have been kinder, sir, a hand on my shoulder. That motto, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to Enjoy Him Forever.” Still the motto; I don’t buy it. It might work for the school, look good inscribed, maybe that’s what many believe. But it's not what I believe. I should have bought some water at the book store. It's damned hot, humid. I believe that we’re alone on a rock with our fellow animals. We need to be good to each other, help each other out and that includes our fellow animals; that's what I believe. Ted gives it away. He was giving before Gates and Buffett, big money. So he’s trying, trying to be a good man. And no matter that God motto, maybe Ted got that thing about giving at McCallie, maybe we all got some of that at McCallie. Damn. I need some water. I wish it were cooler. So damned humid; I brought the wrong clothes. My brother told me to dress warmly; he was wrong. Still, I think I’ll stand here a bit longer. Look at this. McCallie, dear McCallie school; so beautiful, look at it. The next reunion for my class is in five years; hope I make it. I think I’ll stand here for just a bit longer.”
6 October 2006
Please also see: "Gone South: I-59, Understanding"