The following is the original beginning from the first draft of Mississippi Trial, 1955. None of the following made it through the revision process.
My dad’s crazy.
But there’s not a thing I can do about it because nobody believes me. People at the college think he’s a great guy, a family man and all that. Mom, who should know better, tells me I’m just over reacting.
But I know. And Grampa Hillburn knows. Dad doesn’t act crazy all the time, but about some things, only a few things, you can tell that he’s just off, that he’s not thinking right. Besides, he’s not nuts-in-the-head, wild-eyed-and-drooly, wrap-him-in-a-straitjacket-and-toss-him-the-loonybin crazy. So when you first meet him, you think he’s a regular guy and all that because usually he acts normal, normal for an English professor. But people around here haven’t got a clue, I guess because he hides it pretty well or maybe because they’re just not expecting him to be crazy or maybe because people in Arizona just don’t know what to look for.
But back home in Mississippi, everybody in Greenwood said he was crazy, and that’s why not long after I turned nine years old in 1948, he finally packed us all up and moved us to Tempe, Arizona. He claimed he wanted to get out of Mississippi “and live among the Saints,” but what he really wanted was to get to a place where no one knew about his craziness, to a place where he wouldn’t get in trouble any more.
Funny thing was, even with all that Grampa had told me, I never really understood that my dad was crazy until we moved to Arizona. Maybe I wasn’t old enough to figure out all that Grampa said, or maybe Dad had me fooled, or maybe I didn’t want to admit my own dad was a nut. But we weren’t in Arizona 24 hours before I knew without a doubt that Dad was cracked.
One of the many things Dad won’t abide is a foul mouth; he never sat us down and gave us a list of “bad” words; he didn’t have to because we learned pretty fast on our own.
Anytime anyone of us kids uses a bad word–doesn’t matter if it’s around Dad or if he just hears about it from some rat, Dad takes us into the bathroom and makes us stick out our tongue while he paints it with a wet bar of soap.
The number of strokes he rubs on our tongue depends on what we had said. Mildly profane words like “damn” and “hell” earn us a light stroke of soap, but most other cuss words get us a good slick coating of Life Buoy.
Only once has Dad combined the soap with a good old fashioned whipping. He didn’t approve of whipping kids, in part, I guess because Grampa used to whip him pretty good back when Dad was a sassy kid. Now Dad says it’s inhumane, unchristian, to whip a kid. Even if he deserves it.
The first and last whipping I ever got came soon after we arrived in Tempe, Arizona. Mom, Dad, and I had been driving through desert for two days–hot, bone-dry, rocky brown mile after mile. The last real town before Tempe was El Paso, Texas, so by the time we crossed the bridge at Hayden’s Ferry on the north edge of Tempe, I was feeling like one of those guys you see in cartoons crawling on his belly across the Sahara, dying for water and only seeing mirage after mirage. But Tempe turned out to be real. When we crossed the bridge, I saw three grain silos next to the flour mill at the base of a stony butte. Farther down the street I could see stores and other buildings–civilization at last.
“Welcome to Tem-pe, Arizona!” said Dad, “our new home.” We continued south on Mill Avenue, and after a few blocks Dad slowed down. Mom and I said nothing; we were too sweaty and tired to care about anything except getting out of that blazing sun. “That’s the college right there,” he said, pointing out the window while hot, dry air rolled through the car. “Looks pretty quiet right now, but it’ll be livelier when classes start.”
I only glanced at the college buildings–if you’ve seen one school, you’ve seen them all–and instead concentrated on the tall palm trees that lined the street. Palm trees, not real trees. As a matter of fact, I hadn’t seen a real tree, something like a magnolia, since we’d left home. The heat, the palm trees, the brown rock and sand everywhere–this little town looked nothing like Greenwood. No mud. No cypress trees. No bushes. No murmur of locusts. No green. The desert ran right to the edge of the shallow brown river we had just crossed and didn’t seem to benefit at all from the muddy water that trickled down the riverbed. No plants or bushes lined its banks, and I wondered if anything lived in it. It was nothing like the Yazoo back home, that thick yellow-green river that cuts Greenwood in half, a river mostly hidden by all the trees, bushes and grasses that crowd its banks.
Thinking about the Yazoo made me think about Gramma and Grampa Hillburn and that big old house on Market Street, not much more than a good spit from the river. That’s when our move to Arizona stopped being an adventure, when I first felt homesick, seeing that poor excuse of a river, the Salt, and looking at this barren little desert town that Dad said would be our new home.
I closed my eyes, leaned forward and rested my head on the back of the front seat, letting the stifling hot afternoon air streaming in from Dad’s and Mom’s open windows dry the sweat on my back. As we drove farther down Mill Avenue I dreamt of Greenwood, of Gramma and Grampa’s big old house. Of my friends. Of a cold glass of lemonade in Gramma’s kitchen and maybe a ginger snap or two. When Dad stopped for a minute to go ask for directions, I looked up and wiped the sweat from my forehead; across the street from where we had stopped was a high school, at least I figured it was a high school, maybe it’d be the school I’d end up going to when I was old enough.
When Dad got back in the car and handed Mom a map, I asked, “Daddy, is that a white school or a nigger school?”
That word got me my whipping. Dad didn’t care that I’d been raised in Mississippi, that I had just been using a word that I’d heard kids and grownups use all the time, that I was only nine years old. None of that mattered. When we got to where we were staying that afternoon, a small motel in nearby Phoenix, Dad took me straight into the bathroom and slathered my tongue good and thick with motel soap. When he was done, he said, “I’m not done with you yet, Hiram.”
After dinner that night, he took me outside in the parking lot behind the motel. The air was hot but dry, nothing like the heavy blanket of humidity I was used to in Mississippi. The full moon seemed to fill the black desert sky, and the night breeze carried a scent of cattle manure. We walked to a dark corner of the lot that was partially shaded by a palo verde tree. Dad stopped, facing me. He didn’t look angry as much as he looked worried, maybe a little sad.
“Son, that word you used today . . . I don’ know if you can understand this, but it’s a vile and mean word. Educated people don’t use it. Kind people don’t use it. People who understand that Negroes are our brothers and sisters don’t use it. And I won’t allow my children to use it, not in front of me, not anywhere.”
He paused and I stayed quiet. I knew he wasn’t finished.
“Back home in the Delta, you heard lots of folks use that word. It comes from how they were raised, but when a man uses that word, he’s demeaning his fellow man, giving him a label that makes him not human, not equal to a white man. Nobody could stomach treating a human being the way whites treated the Negroes, but that word made it easier; it made some space, created some distance that allowed bad whites to hurt and punish Negroes.”
“But not any more, Daddy. Grampa says that the Negroes have it good now; they got their own schools, they get paid to work in the fields. Grampa says that people with good breeding don’t use that word because it’s not polite, but he hears people in town use it all the time, and it never bothers him. Never even once.”
Dad sighed and sat down on the split rail fence at the back of the parking lot. “Grampa is holding on to old Southern ideas about Negroes, and it’s that attitude that makes the South a terrible place. Negroes can’t vote. Can’t go to decent schools. Can’t use the same drinking fountains or toilets that you use.”
“But they want it that way. They’ve got their own places, we’ve got ours. Grampa said Negroes don’t want to mix with whites any more than we want to mix with them. It’s all separate, and that’s fair.”
“It’s not fair,” Dad said, “and it’s probably the worst thing this country of ours ever did. It’s pure wrong, son, and we’ve got to do all we can to end the wrong. We got to change how we think–and how we talk.”
I didn’t like it when Dad got like that, kind of starry-eyed and serious, like he was mad and guilty at the same time. Grampa never liked it neither. He said Dad had gotten soft in the War, but that he’d always been contrary, said that I’d better be careful about believing all the wrong-headed ideas my dad had about races and equality and what was wrong with the life in the Delta.
By then, though, I was tired of listening to Dad. And a little mad. It wasn’t like I had hurt anybody. I’d only said that word, and words can’t hurt. Why did he have to make such a big deal about it? Why did he have to make me part of his crazy ideas? Well, I was done listening; our room had air conditioning and a TV, and I just wanted to go in, flop on the bed, watch TV, and cool off.
“Daddy, I didn’t mean any harm; I didn’t mean to do anything wrong. But it doesn’t matter–I don’t care about niggers and never will.”
He stood, and in slow motion, awkward and open-handed, his round house slap caught me full in the cheek, not hurting as much as surprising me. I staggered back a step and touched my face where he slapped me; it felt hot, damp with sweat, mine or his I don’t know.
Dad stared at me wide-eyed, surprised at what I had said, at what he had done, then he grabbed my arm and jerked me towards him. “I told you I will not allow you to talk like that,” he said as he yanked me closer, “I will not allow you to even think like that.”
That’s when he whipped me. Bent over that split rail fence, I took five loud slaps to my butt.
They didn’t even hurt.
He pulled me up when he was done, and I felt his hand tremble on my arm. “Hiram, you must not be like that, you must not think like that. You know I don’t believe in whipping, but I want you to remember what I said; I want you to know right from wrong.”
Then he pulled me to his chest and hugged me. I stood limp, my arms at my sides. I didn’t feel like hugging him then, not after what he had done. And right then I swore I’d get back to Greenwood, to Grampa, the first chance I got.
“I love you, son,” he whispered in my ear. “I love you and I’m sorry, but I cannot allow you to be like that.” Then he let go. “Go on back to our room and tell Mom I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
I was glad to get out of there, to get away from him. Before he turned to walk out of the parking lot, I noticed he was crying.
That’s how crazy my dad is; he whips me for no good reason, then he cries.
Mississippi summers are hot with air so thick and heavy that on the worst days you can hardly breathe. Arizona is hot in a different way. It’s more like a fire, blazing hot but dry and clean–almost thin. The Arizona summers don’t press on you like Mississippi summers do; instead they bake you, dry you out like a raisin, and when you look around at the Arizona landscape, you can see that the desert heat has baked the green right out of everything. Get wet or find a little shade and you can survive for a while; you can escape Arizona’s heat, but Mississippi’s heat dogs you like a shadow, sticks with you in the house and out, day and night until autumn brings some relief.