Friday, April 4, 2008

REVEREND KING: A CHILDHOOD DIARY ENTRY

(Diary of Meg Barnett for years 1965, 1967 and 1968, kept in Dilley, Texas)

Another judiciously worded set of diary entries.

For some reason I cannot comprehend, I entered my comment on the killing of Reverend King on April 12 instead of April 4. I just looked at the original diary, and the space for April 4 that year is empty. Perhaps I turned ahead a week accidentally. I was definitely not in the habit of going back and writing entries after the fact -- if I wrote at all, it was concurrent with the event. (Mostly I didn't write.) So, while the date is completely wrong, I trust the entry itself.

I was twelve in April 1968, and if it were not for this notation, I would not know what I thought at the time. My parents did not see eye to eye about Reverend King, which is an understatement. My father hated him. My mother, who had absorbed nonviolence as a strategy during our years in India, thought he was a successor to Gandhi.

I'm not sure why I pointed out that James Earl Ray was from Missouri -- perhaps it was being emphasized in the news for some reason, perhaps it was a way of deflecting attention from Texas because we were complicit in that other assassination, the one of President Kennedy. "Leader of the Negroes" is a telling phrase: As if they are not Americans. I'm sure I'm repeating what I had heard, there. And the "of course are rioting" could either be me parroting what I'd heard in a cynical way or, more likely, given the fact that I had no guarantee of privacy in this writing and the person most likely to read it was the most racist member of our family, an ambiguous way of stating my sympathy.

One huge clue is the fact that I mispelled assassinated. I didn't mispell words. Ever. I'm much more lax about it now than I was then. So I take this as a sign of stress. The handwriting is bold, too, indicating I was bearing down hard. I was about to become a teenager, and the larger world was melting down around me, not just my swamped family.


The entries for 1967, for April 11 and 12, are a litany which can be found over and over in this diary: I wrote down when I missed school. I didn't indicate what I did those days except stay home -- it was always the same, read whatever books I could find and listen to my mother's stream of consciousness. I hated missing school. I wasn't popular then; class and race issues made that elementary school a cauldron of horizontal oppression. But I was beloved by my teachers, kept in from recess, given special assignments, allowed to go to the library whenever I finished my work, and while these circumstances made some kids hate me all the more, I made the most of it. I liked being there more than home, most of the time. Unless I was well enough to get outside, with my little brother, and play in nature while keeping him safe.

(Maggie and Bill in front yard at 401 Hugo Street, Dilley, Texas, 11 April 1965)

The Easter entry for 1965 gives us a date for the photo above that I've copied here more than once, me and Bill in our finery about to head off to the Baptist Church. We went in alone -- my mother wouldn't join us, partly because she didn't like Baptists any more, partly because there wasn't enough money for her to have a new dress. Not for several years in a row. Also, my father was in the hospital recovering from surgery on a pilonidal cyst, so Mama probably went to see him while we were being preached at. She picked us up afterward and we went to the hospital, as I stated, to show Daddy our clothes.

What's omitted from my entry is that since Bill was not allowed into the hospital (visiting age started at 12), Mama left us in the courtyard where there was a small fountain and pond, plus a bench. She was going to get Daddy to the window that looked out on the courtyard, so we could wave at each other. I sat obediently on the bench, but Bill got up and began walking the ledge of the fishpond, despite me yelling at him not to. Inevitably, he fell in, just as my parents reached the window. His new suit was ruined. It became a family story we laughed about, eventually. But at that time, my father's screams of rage could be heard through the hospital window. Bill sobbed and sobbed. Mama had to leave and drive us home in shame. None of that's in the diary. I stored it where it was safe, in my memory.

In June of 2003, I went back to Dilley and explored the scenes of my childhood. The tiny hospital and courtyard were still there, though the fountain had disappeared and the pond was filled in with plants.

(Hospital courtyard with filled-in pond, Dilley, Texas, June 2003)

The Baptist Church was also still there and looked exactly the same.

(First Baptist Church of Dilley, June 2003)

The house we had lived in was standing, but barely. (I think it is gone now, blown down by the stray winds of Rita or perhaps another hurricane.) It was filled with junk. I sat on the porch where my mother stood in 1965 to take the photo of us in the yard.

(Maggie on porch of house at 401 Hugo, Dilley, Texas, June 2003, in rainbow light)

We left right after this photo, and when my energy worker saw it, she exclaimed "Oh, you cleared those memories! The house remembered you, and through you all the evil that occurred there was released -- look at the rainbow light!" Certainly I stopped feeling haunted by the place as I had to that point.

(The "middle room" at the Dilley house, with Bill, Mama and me at a typewriter; my bed is on the left; circa 1965)

After I got home from that trek, I was able to rewrite and finish a poem I'd written about the years I spent in that house, sleeping in what was the dining room but we called "the middle room".

THE MIDDLE ROOM

In that square house the middle room was square
with four doors at the compass points. All its light
came through the doors from other rooms and from
a fixture overhead that once was gas
but now held bulbs. They don't make houses
any more with middle rooms instead of
halls, whose entryways were never meant to
lock or even hold a door. The only
door that locked was to my mother's bedroom.

In the middle of the middle room was
a round and massive oaken table. The
matching bureau held Mama's radio
with two long dials that picked up every wave
on earth, I did believe. One corner of
the middle room was filled with ironing board
beside an overflowing hamper of
clean clothes. Another corner, behind the
swinging door to the kitchen, was claimed by
Daddy's little desk where he would demand
no interruptions as he wrote out his
field manager reports on the every
other weekend he was home. Next to that
stood the three-shelf bookcase with my
Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift rows
my Trixie Beldens and Donna Parkers
Every horse book by Marguerite Henry
No boring Nancy Drews for me -- I would
sneak mysteries from the stack by Mama's
bed. Beside the shelf was the tin trunk that
held my clothes, then a TV tray which served
as bedside table to my sagging iron
cot with mended sheets and several quilts.

This was my room. I went to sleep with lights
still blaring overhead, the gasps of steam
from Mama's iron, the smell of just-pressed shirts
for next morning and always, until
Mama went to her own bed, the radio.
The radio was left on all but the hours
she and I both slept. It stayed on when she
had to go out to the store, the hour or
two we would be left in the care of my
eldest, almost-grown brother.

I woke at six when Mama got her fresh cup
of Maxwell House and sat down sighing at
the table. She'd strike a match to start the
first of her three packs of Winstons a day.
As soon as she could tell I was awake
she'd turn and flick the switch to warm up the
radio. Then she would fix my Bosco
Heated in a Revereware pan, poured
into a jelly glass, and stand there till
I drank half down. She'd give me all my
morning meds, the yellow Tedral syrup
full of phenobarbital, the orange
stuff to drain my nose, the cortisone, the
Isuprel, placing each dose in my mouth
while holding in the corner of hers a
Winston, squinting at the smoke that drifted
up to stain the ceiling and the sheetrock
walls a darker yellow. She'd hand me my
book and start her chores, doing as much as
she could in the middle room, where the world
came in invisible and free, and she
would hear the voice of another adult.

The only door that locked was to Mama's
room -- my father slept there also when he
was home. It locked with a skeleton key
and had a keyhole just the height for a
toddler to look through. One friend asked me why
I have a photo of my parents' bed --
When film was such a luxury and all
the pictures of those years are scattershot
Dressed up for Easter, Thanksgiving dinners --
Why did I sneak my mother's camera
Stand in that locking doorway and take a
photo of that bed?

My little brother is dead now before
his time, before I found the way to ask
what he felt when I was pulled into that
room begging no, no and then he heard that
key click round. What did he see that made
him pound upon the wood and scream in rage?
I want to ask, what did he think when I
heard in my ear the laughed and whispered
Make him shut up or I'll bring him in here
too
-- what did he think when I yelled at him
on the other side to go away, yelled
it with cruelty enough to slice through
all his love for me?

There was this guy they sometimes brought on the
radio, he was our favorite of all
When he was there, they'd open up the lines
so people could call in. He would answer
one by one, getting folks to talk to him
for just a minute, never more, and then
he could tell them where they lived, what Texas
county they were raised in, and often
he could name the places where their people
came from. In those days, most everybody
lived in pretty much one place for years, TV
had not yet wiped away how the terrain
we walked upon arranged the contours of
our vowels. Mama used to wish we could
call in, to see if he would be able
to decode the Crosstimbers in her speech.
I never joined her in this fantasy.
We count on the people who love us most
to not see our secrets. Strangers were a
risk our family did not take. But that
station was in San Antonio, which
meant the call would be long distance. After
the first year in the house with the middle room
we didn't even have a phone at all.

(Maggie beside windows of "middle room", 401 Hugo Street at Leona, Dilley, Texas, June 2003)

© 2003 Maggie Jochild
Rewritten 8 June 2003


ADDENDUM: Shadocat has written her own first person narrative about the day Reverend King was killed at her blog, linked to this post, and I highly recommend reading her memories as well at Forty Years Ago.

4 comments:

Kitty Glendower said...

What a wonderful and detailed entry. Thanks for the adventure.

letsdance said...

Ah, Maggie, you know how to transport your readers....
Jan

Maggie Jochild said...

Thanks ever so, Kitty and Jan.

LOVE your blog, Kitty. Read it every day, and it's linked in my sidebar, folks -- A Room Of One's Own.

shadocat said...

Maggie---this is powerful stuff. I hope it's okay if I link this up on my little blog with another post that starts wuth the same subject?