Mississippi 1955 I don’t know how she knew. I took great pains to smooth the surface, so she wouldn’t notice. I mean it was only a finger full. It was soooo good. She makes the best chocolate pie filling. It isn’t milky like Mrs. Harmon’s or thin like Mrs. Tilden’s but really thick, almost like candy bar filling thick. And chocolate, I mean it tastes like the darkest, sweetest chocolate in the world. Her crusts aren’t bad either and the meringue is always sweet and fluffy. Of course, there was no meringue or crust for me to sample, it was just the filling cooling in the bowl. How on earth did she know? “John, go and cut me a switch from the willow.” That’s when I knew she knew. It was the first time that summer, but it wasn’t the last. She switched me because she didn’t like my father and I looked just like him. She switched me because she was disappointed in my grandfather. He had so much potential when she married him. A college graduate from a wealthy local family with his own farm of almost a thousand acres. Then he went away to the Great War and when he came home, he seemed to have lost his drive and direction. They should be much more prominent in the community than what they were. He should have run for the County Council, but he wouldn’t. He should have joined the Klan, but he wouldn’t. He not only wouldn’t join he wouldn’t invite Klan members to the house. He wouldn’t be the man she thought he should be, but he would cut her a switch from the willow tree down by the creek in the lower pasture. She switched me because she was embarrassed by my mother who ran off to the city and got married. Not married to a local boy from a good family but to a mechanic who was half Chickasaw. As far as she was concerned, he might as well have been a Negro. It was his red olive skin that I shared that drove her crazy. If only I had looked like my mother, then she could have shown me off as a “grandchild.” I mean I was smart and not scrawny like a lot of boys my age. But no, I looked like my father. She switched me because she was terribly dissatisfied with her life. She was constantly reminded at church, at socials, during local elections, even at the Woolworth’s, of her failure to achieve what she had told people in high school she would. She had been courted by any number of boys in the county who were now notable personages. Some of them were even in the State House. She often wondered what the parties in Jackson were like. She had never been to one. Why even the current KKK King Kleagle for Southern Mississippi had been one of her beaus when she was seventeen. She switched me because while I shared my father’s complexion, I bore my Grandfather’s name, “John.” She didn’t think it fitting. If I had had some other name, she could have foisted me off as a poor relation, but “John” invited too many comparisons in the lily-white minds of those from whom she sought approbation. “Lord Abigail,” he said. She hated ‘Abby’ and refused to be called so. “Lord Abigail, the boy hasn’t even been here twelve hours and you want to switch him already.” “He’s been in my pie filling.” He must learn not to do things he isn’t supposed to. Our so-called daughter isn’t teaching him any discipline so it’s up to us.” “What do you mean he’s been in your pie filling? I don’t see any less there than before. Besides I took a swipe of the filling with my finger on the way out to the porch earlier. So, he hasn’t been in the filling, it was me.” It was a noble effort but my grandfather’s attempt to stand in my place was short-lived. “It was not you.” My grandmother’s already pitched voice went up another half-octave. “You would never take the time or make the effort to smooth the surface back into place and I can tell I didn’t smooth this surface because I use a spatula and the marks on this pie look like it was smoothed with a butter knife.” She was right, I had used a butter knife and I had washed it and put it back in the drawer. “Now go and cut me that switch. And none of those half dead branches you bring me sometimes. I mean for him to learn a lesson and I don’t want the switch to break on the first or second stroke. You fetch me something big as my thumb. You hear me?” She meant to do it, so I scurried off to find my suitcase. I had one pair of jeans and I meant to change into them and out of the short pants I was wearing. I also put on an extra pair of underwear. And then I put on a flannel shirt in the middle of the summer and I pulled it down as far as it would go and tucked it into my jeans. It might help, I thought. I went to the parlor and waited. I could have run for the woods but that would have only made things worse. No, waiting in the parlor was the right thing. My grandfather returned with as anemic a piece of willow as he could find but it was still as big around as my thumb and I was big for eight years. My grandmother called me into the kitchen. “Boy,” she wouldn’t call me John. “Boy, did you take chocolate from my pie filling?” “Yes Mam,” My father and mother were very strict about truth telling. My father had told me many stories, tales, and parables about liars and the snares of Hell. He had me convinced that the only way to avoid Hell was to tell the truth and accept the consequences. I hadn’t yet learned the many and varied gradations of the truth, so I sometimes told the truth when a slight twist or a tongue in the cheek would have sufficed, but this was certainly no time to lie. I had been found out. “Boy why did you take some of this filling?” “Because, Mam,” she did not want me to address her as ‘Grandmother’ because I might fall into the habit and do it in public. “Because you make the best pie filling in all of Mississippi and probably Alabama too.” Now I did believe that to be so, thus I was not lying, although I was hoping for the Judge to consider it as mitigating evidence. “Did you smooth it over after you took some?” “Yes, Mam, just as you said, with a butter knife. I washed the knife with detergent, rinsed it and put it back in the drawer.” I wanted her to know I wasn’t unsanitary and that her pie had not been, in any way, tainted. It was only after this I remembered I had not washed my finger before I stuck it in the pie filling. “Do you know that what you did is wrong?” “Yes, Mam.” I did know but I also knew that in the movies people were often tasting pies cooling on windowsills or stove tops or on refrigerator shelves and none of those offenses ever seemed to merit a switching, but then it wasn’t the pie we were really talking bout here. “Lean over that stool.” She indicated a tallish stool that sat under the counter where she made her cakes and pies. The first blow seemed tentative and I thought the four cotton layers might allay the worst. My memories of last summer’s switching’s had faded to just the historic events and the pain had gone from my mind. But then the second stroke fell, and it penetrated the jeans and the shirt and the two pair of underwear. At the third I knew I was marked. She fell to the task as if she were one of her Celtic ancestors wielding a seax to repel the Saxons. The tears arrived on the fifth stroke. I looked over at my grandfather, shattered by the trenches of the Great War, his eyes had teared even before she had begun her assault, but even he could not stand up to my grandmother’s ferocity when it was loosed. He flinched as each stroke fell, almost as if they were falling on his back. Through the tears I could see that, if he could, he would bear the pain for me and I loved him for that. I felt sorry for us all: My grandmother because her fierce vanity blinded her to the meaningful values of life and that blindness made her cruel; my grandfather because he deserved much more but his soul was wounded and his mind could not rise to the challenge; and me, well me because I would not sit upright for almost a week and by that time I would have messed up again. It was my first switching that summer and it wasn’t the last, but each time I learned a little more about how to move my mind to a place where the physical pain would not reach and by the end of the summer I had learned how not to allow the switch to touch my soul. North Viet Nam 1970 By the eighth stroke I was sure the pattern on my back looked like the beginnings of a Jackson Pollock painting. In my mind’s eye, I could see the long welts oozing blood that I could feel running down the small of my back onto my buttocks. They will stop at ten I thought. But they didn’t. That time it was fifteen, but still I did not cry out. Then they would let me hang until my shoulders burned, the nerves sending signals to the brain that permanent damage was near because the muscles would no longer bear the strain, the ligaments were pulling loose from the bone, the tendons had exceeded their flexibility limits and would soon rupture. And then they would loosen the ropes that hung me from the beam of the scaffold. At first, they had questioned me; how many aircraft did we have, who was my commanding officer; what were the upcoming targets; then, with cameras in hand, they had tried to get me to curse my country and my commanders and my faith; they wanted me to sign papers admitting that I was a war criminal and that it was the purpose of my country to kill women and children; but, after a month or so, it had become just a scheduled event. Every few days three men would come to my cell, drag me outside to the scaffold in the grassless square, hang me up and beat me with a long bamboo staff. I was not the only one. Others were beaten as well, each intended as an example for his compatriots as our cells all faced out towards the scaffold. But I was never sure of what we were examples. Obedience? No, we were obedient, how could we not be locked in our small individual cells, fed mealy rice and dirty water. How could we have had the strength to be other than obedient? Perhaps it was to demonstrate their superiority over us but, if so, it wasn’t a very convincing demonstration. That they held our lives in their hands was a foregone conclusion. Each of us had accepted that we were dead to the rest of the world. Or at least I had accepted it. I simply supposed the others had because I did not hear them call out or cry during their beatings. Being beaten and hung was simply a torture of the flesh. Our souls had long ago taken refuge in a place where beatings and other physical and mental degradations could not touch them. Perhaps, like my grandmother, these men were disappointed in their own lives and the choices they had made. After all they had been at war since 1935. First the Japanese and then the French and now Americans. Perhaps they were unhappy because their entire lives were going to be spent at war and they would never achieve the promised communal equality that Ho Chi Min had promised. We were just the latest reason that deprived them of their collective paradise. I could understand their hatred, but I could not feel sorry for them. No, I had felt pity for my grandmother, but I could find no pity for these men. At least my grandmother hadn’t laughed as she switched me. These men did. Each would give a few strokes then trade his stave for the cigarette of one of his fellows who would take up the cane and begin his turn at crafting the raised ridges of flesh on our backs. Each lashing out at those who denied them the promised land. No, I could feel no sorrow for them. In fact, if I could I would have taken great pleasure in throttling each of them, watching the life slowly ebb from their bodies and back into the ether of the universe. I often wondered if, in doing so, I would be able to see into their souls. Yes, I would gladly have throttled each of them. Or so I had wanted early on but, after a few months, I simply wanted them to have sore arms or have the flu or dysentery or some other ailment that would weaken them when they wielded their bamboo rod. They had become a part of my world; a part as reliable as the coming up and going down of the sun. And then it stopped. They did not come for a week, then two weeks. I was suspicious. What had happened? Had I somehow satisfied their desires? Had I, in the weakness and fever of the afterwards of the beatings, told them something I shouldn’t? Had I betrayed my country, my friends, my faith? Could I not remember? They gave me fresh rice to eat, and clean water to drink. Then there was even some fish in the bowl. No one was being beaten, no one. I felt relieved. It wasn’t something I had done or not done. It was the doing of someone else. Clean straw for our cells and they took us to another part of the prison for showers. The cold water ran a rust colored red into the drains. When we came out, they gave us new prison uniforms. Still a rough and heavy cotton but not crawling in lice. There were sandals for our feet, but I had become so used to walking barefoot I had to learn to use shoes all over again. And then our people came to take us home but when we got there it wasn’t home at all. It was a bizarre world; a world in which our souls felt little safer than they had during the first days in our tiny cells. There were people in the streets who wanted to beat us. The very people whose faith we had refused to betray now threw rocks at us. They spit on us and called us vile names; Names that even our captors had never used. These people, too, were unhappy and we had been chosen as the sacrifices to be offered up to their gods of peace and love. We were to be whipped and driven from their society to propitiate these gods. I did not feel sorry for them either. Washington, D.C. Now F**K You!! You should be shot!!! You’re a COMMIE!! You’re a FACIST!! You’re a TRAITOR!!!! You’re a DEMOCRAT!!! I knew it, you’re a DEMOCRAT!! You’re a lying, dirty REPUBLICAN!!! You’re a MISOGYNIST!!!! All these and thousands more came by the minute into my Twitter feed. Each in the safety of the user’s anonymity screamed as loud as the Internet would permit, “We hate you.” Talking heads on television dissect my movements and even my thoughts (as if they were mind readers.) But I am only doing what I had been commissioned to do by the Attorney General of the United States. It was not I who would decide guilt or innocence. I simply sought facts which I would apply against the laws and regulations that existed at the time of the alleged infraction and determine if, indeed, one or more of those directives had been bent or broken. It was not up to me to ask why, only whether. And yet it seemed no one believed I would or could do my job impartially. Those who supported the accused were ready to hang me for having the gall to carry on an investigation rather than immediately declaring their standard bearer not only not guilty but the victim of a conspiracy. Those who accused were ready to hang me because I had not immediately pronounced the accused guilty of treason and recommended life imprisonment. And those who leaned in neither direction were ready to hang me because I occupied too much of their day. Turn on the radio or television, log into the Internet and there I was, being pilloried by this group or that. Yes “pilloried” for this felt no different than being switched by my Grandmother, hanging on the gibbet in Hanoi, or walking through the streets of San Francisco with a military haircut. Each hater meant to mark me with a slash of their verbal cane, and I don’t doubt there were many who, given the opportunity to physically strike me, would do so. I was their whipping boy; someone they could lash out at in their frustration for they, too, had been promised things. Like the people who had beaten me in Vietnam their leaders had promised them a land of equality and plenty; a land where their ideals would rule. A land where they would have power. But the internecine war went on with neither side able to establish their idea of utopia, and both sides saw in me a threat to their ideals. So, it was only natural that each would try to bully me into swaying in their direction. At least such was their intention but so long ago that I sometimes had difficulty remembering how, I had found that place where physical and mental pain could not reach. I understood their frustrations and their desire to hurt others, but they could not hurt me. And when I presented the case to the grand jury, I pointed out that laws are fixed by the words used to write them and the meaning we gave those words when they were written. I emphasized to the members that whether they agreed with the law was unimportant. Their job was only to look at the facts I presented and to determine if there was sufficient reason to determine that the accused had breached the law as it was written. I gave them a short, staccato delivered caution that “why” someone may have breached the law was not their concern. That provision of justice would be managed by a criminal court jury, their only task was to issue or deny an indictment based on the facts as presented to them. They returned an indictment. And now the lashings would begin for real. Now I must prosecute this golden idol worshiped by half the populace and despised just as ardently by the other half. One side will lash me for being too diligent and the other for not being diligent enough. Talking heads will critique my moves while interpreting for the general public what I mean from what I say. They seem unable to cope with the fact that I say what I mean and vice versa. They’ll look for hidden meanings, hidden motives, hidden goals. Lunch in the same restaurant as a friend or enemy of the accused will give rise to rumor of clandestine agreements being discussed. It matters not that our tables will be on opposite sides of the dining room for, after all, lawyers have their secret communications codes where an eyebrow movement means this, and a whisk and flip of the napkin means that. And through this all it will not be the accused on trial for that guilt or innocence has already been decided by supporters and detractors. No, I will be the one in the dock. My persecutors will be my prosecutors. But I do not fear them for I have been conditioned to withstand their best efforts. I have a successful life, thanks in no small part to my grandmother, who prepared me well for the world as it really is.