The crowd was huge and nervous, overflowing Memorial Gymnasium, building in number and surliness since before five o’clock for an eight p.m. start, and spilling into the concourse leading to it, and it was more different in its make-up than any other event Major Bob Tomball had ever seen in his years as security director at Vanderbilt University. That was because it had something for everybody, he figured, drawing people from more walks of Nashville life than he’d ever suspected even existed.
But Lord God, as one of Major Bob Tomball’s officers in the Vanderbilt Security Force remarked, look at all these coloreds mixed in with the hippies in their damned old nasty dirty torn clothes, and the old boys with the big bellies and the overalls streaming in right next to ladies from Belle Meade being escorted by their lawyer and insurance executive and high dollar earning husbands, not even to mention the professor types, young and old, gray and bald and tottering and long haired and lively, and the damned students not only from Vanderbilt but the colored colleges, too. Fisk and Tennessee State and Meharry, and the other white schools in Nashville, Belmont and Trevecca and David Lipscomb and the Free Will Bible Baptist College and all the junior colleges and even the fly-by-nighters downtown in the store fronts.
“A mess of them like this,” Sergeant Bolt Compton said to Major Tomball, “all mixed up and not seeing things the same way, how do you know how to handle such a bunch? What’s going to set them off, if anything does? Not the same thing for all of them, right? You can’t just look at them and say, oh, yeah, drunk fraternity boy, redneck UT fan, trailer trash, what have you, I know what makes you crazy. Your football crowd now, I can predict every time when I’m going to need to tell the boys to take notice. Hell, you can spot them by the damn clothes they’re wearing. These ones here, I can’t predict. It’s like mixing a shot of bourbon with half a glass of kerosene and trying to drink it down.”
“I appreciate what you’re saying, Bolt,” Major Tomball said, “but it might be even easier than policing a football game, this thing here. These folks at this symposium meeting aren’t likely to be already drunked up when they get here, and the state of Alabama’s not involved in a football contest here tonight, so we might get off real easy. Hell, all these folks are going to do is listen to some people talk at them. How much can that get them riled up?”
“I hope you’re right, Major, but I’m going to be as nervous as a one-legged man in a ass-kicking contest until this damn thing’s over. Anytime you get a whole bunch of nigras and hippies and rednecks all mixed in together and them listening to this Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King jabbering at them, something’s liable to blow any minute.”
“Naw, naw,” Major Tomball assured his officer, “don’t be borrowing trouble now. Martin Luther King is a preacher, whatever else he is, and he’s just likely to talk turning the other cheek and shit like that. That other little skinny bastard, he’s an educated man, they say, and you know our darkies ain’t going to understand a Yankee word he says to them, him being their same color or not.”
“Well, yeah,” Sergeant Compton said, watching the flow of people sweeping through the doors in a steady stream, “but he’s liable to talk about this black power bullshit, and Dr. Martin Luther King is bound to start ranting about peace. When a colored man starts talking about peace, you better be sure you got your gun loaded.”
“Speaking of which,” Major Tomball said, “you have put the word out to all officers not to leave a single round in any weapon, haven’t you?”
“They know that, yeah.”
“Just have their handguns strapped on so folks can see them, that’s all we’re going to need. The last thing we need is some fool popping a cap.”
“It sure makes me nervous, though, Major, these boys being defenseless. There ain’t nothing more dangerous than an unloaded gun.”
“Sergeant, we got a secret weapon tonight you haven’t even mentioned yet,” Major Tomball said. “And that’s going to have a real calming effect.”
“What’s that? Tear gas?”
“No, it’s nothing like that. We got Senator Strom Thurmond up on that stage, that’s what. He’ll talk some sense into the rednecks, and he’ll scare the coloreds to death. He’ll Dixiecrat the living hell out of them.”
“I tell you what scares me,” Sergeant Compton said, laughing a little. “That big old hairy sissy that’s going to be up there, that Allen Ginsberg. He’s liable to take off his clothes and show folks his pecker or something.”
“They tell me he’s a poet, Bolt. What I know about that breed of dipshit, he won’t do a damn thing but throw back his head and jabber.”
The teen-age babysitter hadn’t been ready to leave when Ronald Alden knocked on the door of her apartment just off Peabody, delayed by something happening or not happening at the Flaming Steer restaurant where she worked the afternoon shift. Having to wait the fifteen minutes it took for her to get ready had caused Ronald to get caught in the flow of traffic choking every street toward the Vanderbilt campus, and by the time he got home and got the sitter situated and his wife into the car, he knew they’d have a hard time parking, getting to and into Memorial Gymnasium, and finding a place to sit. The seats reserved for faculty would in all likelihood be filled by those unencumbered by children living at home, and any seats left over would be invaded by students, each with a settled sense of entitlement learned through a privileged upbringing in first and second homes that Ronald knew he’d never be able even to visit, much less own.
As he drove, he refused to look at Lily, and he managed to let her know he was purposely not looking at her even though he didn’t have to say a word to accomplish that. She could tell how her husband was feeling by the deep and venemous curse he’d laid on the driver of a Lincoln Continental that had cut in front of him, causing him to hit the brake hard enough to hear his Chevy tires squeal. Lily had been jolted forward in her seat, forced to put out a hand to keep from sliding into the dashboard, and made to add her own curse to the one Ronald had just vented. On the surface her expression of animus was directed toward a sudden physical dislocation and the damage that might have caused to the way her panty hose stretched over her kneecaps, but the real target was Ronald. He knew that, she knew the son-of-a-bitch ripped out of his throat was only occasioned by the Lincoln and had its true direction and home right between her eyes, and they relished in bitter silence together the fact that between a quarreling husband and wife the sweetest reproof is the one not verbalized.
Neither one said a word to the other all the way to a parking place fully eight blocks from Memorial Stadium, during their walk together toward the site of the symposium, their entrance into the overheated building, and their final sitting places in temporary seats so far off to one side that anyone appearing on the speakers’ platform could be seen only in dim profile blocking the view of any other person up on stage.
“Do you see anybody you know?” Lily said. “I sure don’t.”
“A student or two, maybe. We’re too far away over in this corner from where the real people sit to be able to see anybody.”
“Your students aren’t real? Is that what you’re saying? That’s not the way you act when one comes sucking up to you.”
“You know what I mean. They aren’t real in the aggregate, only one by one.”
“That’s true of everything in the whole sorry world, Ronald,” Lily said, turning to look at her husband for the first time since they’d left their house. “Nothing exists in general.”
“Listen to the deep thinker,” Ronald said. “I bet you made an A in philosophy somewhere back in the distant past.”
“You go to hell,” Ronald’s wife said in a voice a little too loud to be heard only by her husband, and just then someone began talking through the gymnasium loudspeakers in a booming volume.
Almost a hundred feet away, immediately in front of the platform, squarely in the middle of the second row in a section roped off and reserved and fitted with padded chairs with arm rests, Felice Foldman was whispering in the ear of her husband, Malcomb Foldman, Chancellor of Vanderbilt University. “Will you have to say anything tonight?”
He shook his head once, which Felice knew he would do, knowing already the event was student-initiated, student-run, and tuition-funded, obviating the need for the Chancellor to take ownership and responsibility for the lineup of guests sitting on the stage before them and thereby giving him some cover in the event of embarrassment and/or total ruin. She knew that, but by asking Malcomb if he had to speak she could gently remind him the event wasn’t completely his baby. Relax a bit. It’s all right to do that now. I’m glad to do that much for him, that bit of consolation, Felice considered as she focused her gaze tightly on the face of the student at the microphone. My part’s done for this one, and it went off very well. Now it’s his turn.
Anyone looking at the way Felice was gazing on the speaker before her would be convinced she was hanging on every word he uttered and would be able to summarize in great detail what was being said once he’d finished. That ability was a gift, Felice knew, her power to convince she was totally focused and of one mind, and it allowed her to think of anything she wished to consider or not to think at all whenever she wanted. That last part was hard, though, to keep nothing going on in your head, and when such moments of blankness came, that was a blessing. Right now, what I’ll think of while this kid up on the stage jabbers introductions and directions and enjoys the attention he’s getting is how well the dinner at Cherry Mount House went last night.
She had been afraid it could go completely off the rails in any direction, despite her faith in Sanford Temple’s exquisite taste and his masterful handling of Negro servants and cooks. That overseeing of personnel part was taken care of and could be safely released into Sanford’s capable hands always, but the people you had to invite to dinner parties and the dangerous mixes that sometimes occurred and couldn’t have been anticipated, these were the landmines. At last night’s dinner, to have at the same table two nationally known Negroes and a senator from South Carolina and a homosexual whose writings were beyond polite comment and, along with the outsiders, the necessary money people and the old Nashville family people and the token professor or two from the appropriate academic disciplines–all this could have trembled on the edge of explosion and gone off like a hydrogen bomb. It had not. It hadn’t, Felice thought as she riveted her gaze on the young man bleating into the microphone. It hadn’t, even though one of the token professors had been from the English department, DeWitt Vallandigham, a known incendiary on matters racial, social, civil, philosophical, sexual, and familial.
DeWitt had behaved himself, not saying much, and gazing about him like a Hottentot snatched up out of a jungle somewhere and put down at an Amish reunion. Perhaps it’s best to overload them with strangeness, these token faculty members one had to invite to Cherry Mount House, fill their emotional circuits so full they become paralyzed and can’t make spectacles of themselves. There was so much negritude and homosexuality present that DeWitt was overwhelmed. I’ll have to ask dear Sanford about that notion of consciously overloading the social stimuli, Felice told herself, not Malcomb. My husband the chancellor would be so frightened by the idea he’d wet his panties.
At the microphone, Jonathan Seth Matthews, student master of ceremony for the event, looked down again at his written introduction of the symposium, its focus, and the descriptions of its eminent participants, all lined up behind him in their chairs. All but Allen Ginsberg, that is, his seat unoccupied though he had been seen behind the speaking area right before Jonathan mounted the platform to get things kicked off. He had even waved to Jonathan, a cheery little wiggle of his right hand that caused its target to blush, and he’d winked and nodded.
Jonathan had worked long and hard on the remarks he was to deliver, revising and practicing before a mirror, underlining certain words for emphasis, noting strategic points at which to pause, checking again and again the accuracy of biographical facts about the noted guests, and finally adminstering to himself the most important preparation of all, a fifteen minute deep and true toking of high grade hash brought back from Morroco by Boyd Ryman, a freshman-year roommate returned from abroad on a study trip to North Africa, full of new cultural awareness, an improved world view, and outlaw drugs.
The hash was working. Jonathan Seth Matthews was calm, he was ready, he was composed, he was speaking with utter confidence before the greatest number of people he had ever faced before, and he felt as though he could have witnessed a decapitation carried out before him without turning a hair. All I need to make it complete, Jonathan said to himself as he read aloud into a set of booming speakers the words he’d written about great issues of the time now under serious consideration at the Vanderbilt Impact Symposium of 1967, is for Allen Ginsberg to get up on this stage before I get to the part introducing him. And if he doesn’t, Jonathan knew, kind hashish would say calmly in his ear the magic phrase who gives a fuck.
Nearing the end of a sentence which required a strategic pause and a lifting of his eyes to look out over the crowd before him, Jonathan Seth Matthews glimpsed immediately before him in the second row a person who seemed familiar, met perhaps recently and acknowledged by an introduction maybe, someone whose name he’d heard and only half remembered now. He looked more closely, focusing on the face and the shape of the head and the sitting posture of the person so familiar to him. Jesus, he said to himself, I’ve got to look down at what’s in front of me so I can keep reading and get it done, but what in hell am I doing sitting in the seat next to Chancellor Foldman wearing a woman’s dress? I can see I’ve got on earrings, and I’ve got tits and long hair, but my head is right out there in the middle of where I’m looking from up here. Have I lost my actual head? Has it floated off and left me?
Raising a hand to his brow, Jonathan was reassured when he touched a forehead and felt the sensation of his fingers on his skull, but he was afraid to move his hand further down. What if my nose and mouth are gone? How can I keep talking if I haven’t got my mouth up here with me? Can I throw my voice and make my head on my woman’s body say what I’ve got to say? Will the mike pick it up so everybody in the gym can hear me?
His mouth on the head next to the Chancellor was moving, so Jonathan returned to his reading, looking down at the sheaf of papers to see what to say next, and then up at his head in the second row to see what it was doing. There was a delay between his mouthing a set of words and the head’s saying it aloud, but the hesitation was brief and manageable, and most miraculous of all, the sound system was picking up what the head was saying and carrying it throughout the gym. Hell, my good old head, Jonathan Seth Matthews whispered beneath the prepared speech he was mouthing, we can do this thing together. Just hang on, and I’ll do something for you, too, just as soon as I get the chance.
Besides, he thought to add, I got to admit seeing you there I look pretty damn good in that outfit that woman’s body’s wearing. The colors really match my eyes, complement my complexion, and it is so cool to have tits and be wearing rings on my fingers and panty hose on my legs. I bet my head thinks it feels sleek. I wonder if my head will get a chance to sneak a look at what that body’s got underneath that dress in that bra? I don’t see why it can’t take a peek, but will I be there if my head goes home with the body and I’m up here introducing the symposium? Will I get to see my tits? Before Jonathan Seth Matthews could untangle the problems of spatial location raised by that question, managing to keep on reading what was before him even as he attempted to adjust to the new circumstances he was having to face, a noise of chairs moving and people sounding surprised behind him and a rumble and beginning roar and gasp from the Symposium audience in front caused him to take a look to the rear to see what was going on. Had one of the old people on the platform toppled over with a heart attack or stroke? Had a dean kicked the bucket? Had Stokely Carmichael stood up and given a black power salute?
What Jonathan saw as he spun around was Allen Ginsberg, big as life, dressed not in the dark suit and tie he’d been wearing for the last two days but in a long striped robe and sandals, moving in a good trot from one side of the platform to the other, arms outreached and a huge smile of welcome and delight upon his face, toward the last man seated in the lineup of the Vanderbilt Impact Symposium of 1967, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. The senator was rising from his chair automatically, long accustomed to having admirers approach him hungry for handshakes, and he was extending his own good right hand toward the rough beast slouching toward him, ready to swap some skin.
Wanting closer contact than that, the King of the Beats embraced the senior senator from the Palmetto State, hugged him up tight to his dashiki and planted his mouth squarely in the middle of the dishpan-shaped gray face before him. The kiss was a full one, though it didn’t land on the legislative lips, Strom Thurmond being able to turn his head gracefully to one side as though to receive the greeting of a friendly Frenchman, but Allen Ginsberg seemed satisfied and sated for the time being.
Would you look at that, Jonathan Seth Matthews said to himself where he stood and to his fugitive head on the female body in the second row of seats next to the Chancellor, Ginsberg is as fickle as I feared he would be. Never, never again, will I trust my heart to know the truth or my ears to sort through lies spoken in passion. And now what this poet has done has got the crowd so worked up and crazy, I won’t even be able to finish my introductory remarks. Listen to them screaming and laughing and whooping and hollering. I’ll just stop, Jonathan said in a snit. I don’t have to take this. I won’t say another word, and I’ll let them do whatever they want to in whatever order they choose, and I will not moderate or ask for questions from the audience, either. I’ll sit down in the chair reserved for me, and my damn fool head is on its own out there. If it comes back to me from where it’s so happy to be right now, it’ll be because it chooses to, not because I beg and plead.
After Senator Thurmond had broken free from the smiling poet with the deeply foreign smell on his breath, he was able to sit back in his seat alongside his fellow participants, and when his turn to speak came, he dealt with the same topic addressed by the others. Power, variously defined. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of the power of the powerless and the action of inaction, and the audience listened, some weeping, some applauding, but all used to hearing that story told. Stokely Carmichael called power by a new name, showing his teeth frequently in a smile that had no fun in it, and many older faculty and monied elders were roused from their stupor enough to quake a bit, look about them at the rabble applauding this advocate of violent action against the establishment, shake their heads in sorrow and dismay, and promise themselves to install sounder locks on all doors and windows no later than tomorrow.
When Senator Strom Thurmond arose to speak, these awakened faculty and many of the propertied Nashvillians present applauded loud and long, letting all with ears to hear know they were in accord with the senator’s message of turn around, jump back, squat down, and hold on to what you got. As his last words thundered and boomed over the loudspeakers of Memorial Gymnasium–these being “as it was, as it is, as it shall be”–the answering bays and bellows from the crowd drowned out all electronically assisted sound.
The King of the Beats arose to speak, toddled toward the lectern, then lay on the floor to spin in a circle, arose again, launched into a deep hum, banged briskly on a portable set of chimes, and read at length from a work called Wichita Vortex Sutra. “Here is the source of power, here is the healing of division, here is the past, present, and future,” he howled. “Vortex, vortex, vortex.” Many in the crowd took up the chant, particularly those hallucinagenically aided, and in due time and with much struggle and gales of breath, Ginsberg’s presentation and the Impact Symposium of 1967 dissolved into separate clots of like-minded persons, fleeing in slow motion and in no sense part of a larger community, headed for the traffic jam of the outside air.
“I had hoped to hear Ginsberg read from Howl,” Robert McLean, graduate student in English, was saying in a somber tone to Therese Buchanan as they left the gymnasium together, “or something at least from the early stuff. That’s the real deal.”
“Yeah, like the one about Whitman in the supermarket,” Therese said. “He shows some real wit there. Eyeing the bag boys and fondling the melons.”
“Everything is so boringly earnest now,” Robert McLean said. “Even rock is getting too damned committed socially, don’t you think?”
“Um,” Therese said. “Poetry should be about dying, and rock should be about fucking. Things are getting turned upside down.”
“I got some dynamite grass,” Robert said. “Straight from Jamaica, as of yesterday. Want to get your head all torn up?”
“I’d love to, but not now. I promised my parents I’d go to a party at the house after this symposium thing and let them show me off a little. Maybe later. Is it Blue Mountain grass?”
By the time Ronald and Lily Alden had found where their car was parked almost a mile from the gymnasium, fighting their way across streets immobilized with traffic and down sidewalks crowded with students, townfolk, pickpockets, drug dealers, guitar pickers and street whores–all high on something: snort, blow, suck, suppositories, Black Jack, gin, fear, hate, lust, loneliness, despair–they had been forced to talk to each other at least twice. Once when Lily walked out in front of a swerving pick-up truck taking a short cut across a lawn and Ronald felt he had no choice but to warn her, and the next time when Ronald heard his name called out loudly in a high-pitched voice with a deep bray beneath the tenor note. It was Lacy Bodean, grand dame of Belle Meade, and she was proceeding in a controlled totter alongside her husband Chambers, tacking first to one side and then the other of their path as they drew near Dr. Alden and his wife and helpmate.
“Wait up,” Lacy Bodean said, “I want to ask somebody that’s supposed to know why it is they call what that hippie poet was hollering poetry. And that’s not all I want to say. I been saving up questions for the last two hours.”
Stepping off the sidewalk and taking advantage of the screening effect of a good-sized tree trunk, Ronald put out a hand to guide his wife in accompanying him and waited until Lacy and Chambers Bodean reached them, Chambers venturing cautiously off the cement of the sidewalk and tapping at the ground beneath the tree with the toe of one shoe. “I hope this is not a sweetgum tree,” he said. “Those balls will roll under your feet and help turn you a flip if you step on these little suckers wrong.”
“Chambers never needs any help to turn himself a flip,” Lacy Bodean said. “I’ve seen him hit the floor so many times I can’t count and there not be a single impediment to make him take a fall.”
“My impediments come from within, my dear,” Chambers said. “They are not real in a literal sense, like these damned old sweetgum balls. They’re much more insidious than that.”
“Tell it, sugar,” Lacy said, and then looking from Ronald to Lily and back again to the male of the pair, coming to a halt with the bole of the tree between her and the flow of refugees from the Symposium down the sidewalk, she went on. “Have you ever in your life witnessed or imagined a thing like that before in Nashville, Tennessee?”
“You mean a symposium on current issues?” Ronald said, and then trying to sound less stuffily academic as he addressed the Bodeans of Middle Tennessee, “a bunch of folks talking about news of the day?”
“No, I mean the sight of a big crowd of white people in Nashville listening to two darkies just giving them what-for about the kind of life they’ve been living. And the white folks just shouting and clapping and saying pour it on, let us have it. Sock it to us, Negroes.”
“It did seem a little strange to me,” Chambers Bodean said, putting out a hand to brace himself against the tree trunk, “but I liked it. It was some real entertainment. Better than one of the old minstrel shows they used to have in the opera house downtown. Boy howdy, that was some fun. All those folks in blackface trading insults. It’s tore down now, though, that building is, the old Frolic. Had naked dancers there, too. Real tastefully done, though. Real pretty.”
“I would have not thought tonight’s discussion was meant to be entertainment,” Lily said, speaking in a way that Ronald was not used to hearing from her. Any expression of possible disagreement with the opinion of another person, except for any and all from Ronald, was not in Lily’s social arsenal. “I think Dr. King and Mr. Carmichael were deadly serious.”
“Of course they were, honey,” Lacy Bodean said. “That’s what made it so funny. They were just carrying on, like a colored preacher in a hot church house in August, just raising Cain. And I kept waiting for the white folks in the audience to laugh and hoot and holler the more worked up the darkies got, and they never did.”
“They hooted and hollered,” Chambers said. “Now give the white folks credit where it’s due, Lacy.”
“Chambers, hush. It’s not just the hooting and hollering that matters. It’s when they do it that counts.”
“Oh,” Chambers said. “You probably onto something. You know, this is a sweetgum tree. I can feel those little balls just working under my feet. They dying to turn me a flip.”
“One other thing, now y’all,” Lacy Bodean said. “Two things really, and here’s the first one. Why do they call that old queer boy’s shouting and carrying on a specimen of poetry? You are the expert, Dr. Alden. That’s why they got you teaching English at Vanderbilt, right? So what is poetry, and how is Allen Ginsberg a poet? Answer that to my satisfaction, and I’ll be able to go home, take off my girdle, drink half a bottle of something, and lie down and rest my eyes.”
“Some say poetry is just the best words in the best order,” Ronald said carefully, choosing a definition he thought might be simple enough to satisfy a monied matron from a fine old family in Davidson County. “That’s one way to characterize it.”
“That’s a piss poor way then to do it, I got to say,” Lacy said. “Good lord, you could say that about anything anybody ever wrote down. I do that when I make out my grocery list for Lucille to take to the store and buy stuff. I do that when I write my mama a courtesy note. I would do it in a suicide note, if the occasion ever arose.”
“I tell you what,” Chambers Bodean said. “I think you’ve hit on something that can furnish good fodder for discussion at one of our readings from the dramas of Shakespeare. What makes something be a poem? Let’s ask these folks to come to our next reading, and then you can just rake Dr. Alden over the coals, Lacy Love. When is that next one, honey?”
“It’s going to be one of the special ones, you’ll remember, Chambers. It’s next Friday night at the house.”
“That’s right. I bet they wouldn’t mind it being special. Would y’all?”
“I think it would be delightful,” Lily said. “We’d love to come to one of your Shakespeare evenings.”
“I’d love to see you at it, too,” Chambers said, stepping away from the sweetgum tree and beginning to move back toward the sidewalk, a little less crowded by now. “I’d take a good long look at you while you’re reading.”
“Hush your mouth,” Lacy said, chuckling as she put out a hand toward her husband. “I bet I’ll do as much looking as you will.”
“More, if the past is any indication. Maybe not looking at the same people as me, though,” Chambers said. “Do y’all suspect the coloreds are going to be riled up by what that little skinny darky was saying to them tonight? Suppose some of them will want to go on the warpath? Do some of this black power boogie woogie here in Nashville?”
“The ones that get riled don’t go to Vanderbilt to listen to people talk at them,” Lacy said. “They don’t hit the streets until after midnight anyway, the rowdy ones don’t. I’ll be in touch with you folks about next Friday. The reading’s going to be from Hamlet if you want to brush up.”
“That’s the one about the crazy boy, isn’t it? Wants to do it with his mama?” Chambers called after his wife, two or three steps ahead of him as they rejoined the retreat up the dark street away from Memorial Gymnasium.
“What do those two know about Shakespeare?” Ronald allowed himself to say to Lily, this deep into the end of the evening, as he watched the Bodeans move away, into the beam of a streetlamp and then out the other side. “Or Allen Ginsberg? Them and their literary friends. Jesus.”
“They know how to be jolly and have a good time,” Lily said. “And we’re going to their place in Belle Meade next Friday for the reading from Hamlet. At least it’ll give me a chance to get out of the house and away from the kids for a change.”
“Lily, these people are old Nashville of the worst stripe. They’re racists, born and bred. They are truly eaten up with prejudice.”
“And you aren’t?” she said. “Let’s get to the car and go home. I’m freezing to death.”
“It’s not cold,” Ronald said. “It’s April, almost May. You can’t feel like it’s cold in this climate.”
“I know how I feel,” Lily said. “And you don’t.You never do, no matter what you say.”
Don’t let her bait you into a prolonged argument over who feels what and to what degree and when, Ronald told himself, picking up the pace of his steps behind his wife as she moved briskly down the sidewalk with several more blocks to navigate before reaching the Chevrolet. She’s looking for a reason to create an emotional display, and I won’t even consider giving her the opportunity. Instead, I’ll think about civil rights and the changing social contract in the South. I’ll put my mind on Southeast Asia and the prospects for peace. I’ll focus elsewhere and not even consider emotional feelings.
Robard Flange, the Mildred Lutwidge Hammond Professor of American Letters, had dreaded having to attend the Vanderbilt Impact Symposium this year. He feared having to endure the sight of rabble rousers on a public stage supported by students, sponsored by the university, and allowed the free access to publicity that allowed. He foresaw the crowing and preening by the radical faculty in many parts of the university that would result, and he felt most deeply the insult to history and tradition such a congregation of Negroes and homosexuals and the sweepings of Nashville’s lower classes would pose at the event.
He had informed Marie that she must not attend the spectacle for fear of what outbreaks of profanity and threats to civil and moral order might come as passions were inflamed and fed by such creatures as Dr. Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael and this great hairy Jewish pervert Allen Ginsberg. She had assured him she had no desire to be witness to whatever violations of decency might occur and that she would wait patiently at home, all windows and doors securely locked and all lamps lit, until his return.
“I must attend this abomination, my dear,” Robard had told his wife, “to show the flag if nothing else. We cannot cede the field to these charlatans and philibusters, tempting though it is to boycott the gathering. Do that, and you allow what they say and threaten to go publically unchallenged. It is a duty I must discharge. I am compelled to take up the banner.”
“I understand,” Marie had said, standing straight upright, her makeup perfect, her posture that of the helpmate of a warrior, steadfast and unafraid, steeled against tears. “Do you intend to speak out in public?”
“No, I shall not. All of us in the department of English–I refer to those rightminded few, of course, not to the hirelings brought in by our little chairman, this upstart crow Alfred Buchanan–have decided that we shall show our presence by attendance in force, but that we shall demonstrate opposition not by lowering ourselves to verbal debate with this bunch. That they crave. But our posture, our presence and our expression shall inform all with eyes to see what our assessment truly is and will continue to be. We shall condemn in silence. We shall not descend to their charnel house level. ”
“Splendid,” Marie had said. “And will you gather at Marvin Slope’s home afterward for discussion?”
“We shall,” Robard Flange answered in a resigned and determined tone, suffering in silence.
“How does your arm feel, my dear?”
“I do not complain. I never whine. I shall endure. I shall bear it.”
Enduring the actual period of the event in Memorial Gymnasium had not been nearly so disturbing as Robard had thought it would be. He had steeled himself to maintain his outward composure as he sat among his colleagues in the seats reserved for senior faculty in a section advantageous for viewing, and he had prepared mentally an exercise to which he would resort as need be when some particularly offensive or outrageous statement was made or insult committed by any of the three miscreants. Senator Strom Thurmond would be the sole voice of reason and truth on the platform during the event, and Robard intended to allow the assertions of the statesman from South Carolina to register in his conscious mind as they were offered. Those words of wisdom he would welcome.
When either of the other three spoke, Dr. Robard Flange of Vanderbilt University had decided that he would allow his current mind and soul to become quiescent. The current moment in time would become not the year of 1967 in Nashville in an athletic auditorium filled mainly with rabble as audience and provocateurs as speakers, but instead an early morning on a day in the mists of early spring in 1862 near a small chapel on the Tennessee River called Shiloh. There Major Rooney Beauchamp would see to the readiness of the 4th Mississippi regiment, as he bestrode his steed Defiance, his gaze alert, his will at full pitch and tone, his fate consigned to God and to the future of his state and nation, and his mood and temper in perfect ease and pure composure.
Whatever sound of discord and strife might come from a makeshift stage in the Nashville of 1967 or from opposing guns and cannon of Union forces in 1862, Rooney Beauchamp would drown such alarm by reciting to himself the names of all divisions, regiments, and squads of Confederate troops at the ready for the onslaught to come. He would name each man of his own command by initials and last name, all exactly precise and accurate, and all present in the mind of Rooney Beauchamp because Robard Flange had consigned them to memory over a century later. The names of the departed would be evident and available. The years might wither all flesh, blood and bone, but the names of the valiant would be and were preserved for as long as God allowed Robard Flange a mortal presence in this fallen world.
So it had gone well for Robard, the onstage ranting and cavorting, the shouts and laughter and screams of approval from the audience, and the attempts to shock and appall notwithstanding, and he had arrived at the home of Dr. Marvin Slope not only encouraged by the success of his strategy but energized by having been able to recite interiorly over two hundred individual names and home locations of the troops of Rooney Beauchamp’s command at Shiloh. He had gone through them alphabetically at a measured and respectful pace, twice completely, and by the time the Symposium event was over, he had gotten through over two-thirds of another recitation before having the opportunity to cease. In celebration of how well he had managed his showing of the flag, he completed that third recitation in true and good order, this time aloud as he drove his car to Marvin Slope’s home in West Meade, each soldier remembered and duly honored, now dust in fact but alive in memory.
“Robard, old friend,” Marvin Slope greeted him at the door, “I’d pour you a flagon of mead had I it to give. But alas, I do not. I do hope Jack Daniels Black Label will serve as suitable substitute.”
“I don’t see how it might could fail,” Robard said, surprising himself by lapsing into the tenor lilt of an East Tennessee hill farmer and then, enjoying how he felt doing it, carried it a linguistic step further. “Let me have a sup of that good whisky you been hiding in the rafters, Marvin. See do it have the essence it ought to.”
“I wish that little nigra up on stage that kept talking about black power could hear you say that just the way you did, Brother Robard,” Marvin said. “It would scare the dickens out of the little runt. He wouldn’t be thinking about black power. He’d be saying feet don’t fail me now.”
“Show me that whisky you been bragging about,” Robard Flange said, still in full Tennessee hill farmer character. “I need me some proof.”
“That you will have, Doctor, one hundred proof,” Marvin Slope, medievalist scholar, said in a yodel as he led the way toward the drink cart at the heart of the house. Robard laughed as he followed, attempting to beam good will, but the burning began in his arm again, the dead arm, the one not his, the left one, the one belonging to Major Rooney Beauchamp, the limb shot away by elements of the Illinois regiment facing the 4th Mississippi at Shiloh in the Peach Orchard on the first day, the constant reminder of loss and dislocation and displacement–that member–as it continued to whisper in a low dead tone to Robard Flange its message of impending doom, desolation, and defeat.