Sunday, January 30, 2011

King and the King

My father was stationed at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Alabama, during the last half of 1955 and the first half of '56--which just happened to be the timeframe for the lengthy Bus Boycott kicked off by exhausted rider Rosa Parks and turned into a defining Civil Rights event by the young, then-unknown Reverend Martin Luther King and his followers.

Meanwhile, a future "King" with the odd name Elvis was all over the airwaves too; I listened especially for "You're Right, I'm Left, She's Gone" and "Mystery Train" (Sun hits preceding his move to RCA and "Heartbreak Hotel"). But I was 12 going on 13, not smart enough to go see that new singer when he showed up at the Alabama State Fair...

Mainly I felt like a lagging misfit in the highly social 7th grade I was attending. Several factors, but mostly my own immaturity, made that year of Black people walking and Elvis swivelling very much a year of teen angst too as I tried to come to terms with the precocious no-longer-kids all around me with their Southern fixations on sex and race.

Three decades later I wrote a poem expressing some of those feelings, looking back also on the important history--social, racial, musical--we didn't realize we were experiencing. I was slow to think of reviving this poem in conjunction with Dr. King's celebratory day just passed, but maybe it doesn't hurt to expand our remembrance beyond a once-a-year holiday Monday...

(Note: Montgomery was the first capital of the Confederacy, with "President" Jefferson Davis in residence. And the poem's title makes punning reference to a phrase, "Et in Arcadia Ego," from an Eclogue by Latin poet Virgil, his words meaning a rather elaborate "Even in Arcady I am," with Arcady a sort of nymphs-and-shepherds paradise, and the mysterious "I"... Death.)

Et in Alabama Ego

“Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery”:
John Prine warbled that, long after I’d gone
And fled for good... Turning thirteen, I'd nary
A clue compared to junior high’s Rebel debs--
Southern new belles whose angora’ed
Shapes could halt a Crimson Tide,
Or breed an Auburn horde:
Dana Jo, Jewel, and languid Lenore
Running the ’55 fast lane
While Bigger girls Rita and Bonnie Gay
Coyly maintained the country-club ways.

Eddie-come-never, I was plain dazed
By training bras and formal drags,
Tri-Hi-Y functions and making out. Chubby outcast
In baggy pants, I’d more to do with j.d. trash
Like Bubba Beauchamp--“Beech-um,” he’d snarl,
A snaggle-tooth bully pure coonass-mean--
Battered by him twice for not crying “Uncle!”
Which made strong-arm Johnny, our own James Dean,
Train me hard for some future rumble.

The "sosh"-scene kids scared me more,
Filled with their ‘Bama-style rage
At most things black: Negroes called spear-
and jungle bunny; boys my age
Gone nig’-knockin’. “You ain’t a man
Till you’ve dipped your pen in ink,” they’d brag.
“And me with a pencil,” I’d mumble--
Small-time loser at Deep South love and hate.

Was Wallace the governor yet? I disremember.
Hank Williams' Caddy lay in the state rotunda,
But some whites gave rides to Boycotters
Stubbornly trampling on. While two Kings rocked
The Confederacy's Cradle, I trucked
With Dixie dreams, Old Jeff's unfinished curse.

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