03/1/13

Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

Nine

My father is the tallest child in this picture. He was about 13 or 14 at that time.

It was 1937, the dust bowl years. My family was living in Henderson, Ok. They were sharecroppers, cotton mostly. My father used to tell me how he chopped rows and rows of it in his boyhood, rows that went on for miles, and how much he hated it. 

After that cotton season, the family set out in what was sometimes described to me as a beaten down old station wagon, sometimes as a truck. It held fourteen people, kids and adults, as well as luggage and dogs. My dad, Edison, spent the trip in the back seat, with a girl named ‘Pumpkin’ on his lap for most all the way. I guess I never thought to ask her real name.

A note. Papa (my father’s stepfather—his own father died in a streetcar accident in NYC when my dad was three) once owned a shiny new car. This would have been a few years before the move. But according to my dad, it stalled crossing the tracks one day and was struck by a train. Papa barely got out before the car was totaled. Apparently the kids in the area spent the summer playing on the wreckage. If this story sounds a bit far-fetched to you, so it did to me. But he swore it was true.

They spent the entire summer of 1937 making their way across Texas. They stopped often to pick cotton, were received warmly nowhere, and mostly sucked dust blown up by the tires as they wheeled down the road. They frequently picked cotton from first light to darkness. There was no school.

My dad never knew why they left Oklahoma exactly. Probably, he thought, because his parents realized they were getting nowhere as sharecroppers. That’s certainly the sense he had of it. 

My dad is the oldest child in this picture, holding his youngest sister. My youngest uncle was yet to be born, c. 1937.

He remembered the state of Texas as endless, the cotton as endless. At night they parked on the side of the road, put up a tent or two (not enough for all of them) and ate a dinner of hoecakes. My dad described them as essentially nothing more than flour mixed with water and then fried in a pan until all the water was steamed out. The hard cake left behind wasn’t bad if you ate it with syrup. They also had plenty of vegetables and fruit, mostly watermelon. My dad couldn’t recall eating meat once on that trip.

He recalled the nights as difficult, mostly because one of his older sisters (he never said which one—he had six) had her boyfriend along and the sound of them secretly making love every night was a misery to his ears. He was afraid she would get caught and he was afraid to say anything to her directly because he didn’t think she knew he could hear her. He said this single issue nearly drove him nuts. He was fourteen at the time.

He remembered Arizona as more friendly (to the day he died he hated Texas) and hot as the blazes. The cotton grew taller, often over their heads I guess, and for some reason there were lots of people taking pictures of them. At least that’s how he remembered it.

Sometimes they encountered rattlesnakes in the cotton, but nobody ever got bit.

They passed into California at Blythe. Their reception was not kind. The place was filthy, full of homeless folks (like themselves) and at the border they were forced to dump all their fruit and vegetables. My dad remembered as appalling the mountain of fruit and vegetables on the side of the road there. In the days that followed, when there wasn’t always enough food, that sight haunted him.

They managed to leave what he called Okie camp fairly quickly and made their way to an uncle’s place. The man, his name remains unknown to me, somehow owned a sizable farm just outside of Indio, Ca. Later, they settled in Palm Springs and my dad attended the inaugural four years of Palms Springs High School, which he described as a blissful place where racism was unknown and the American Dream was still alive. He felt he owed much of his success to the four years he spent there. In his last year, he was captain of the football team and they won seven out of eight games. His letterman’s certificate is dated December 6th, 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor.

In February of 1943, shortly after he graduated, he was drafted into the Army. 

Nothing would ever be the same again.

02/26/13

Edison Penrow McDaniels

An African American Life

 

I watched an incredible TV show the other night, Stories from the Road to Freedom, a chronicle of African American life as lived by regular people from Emancipation to the Civil Rights era. My own father was such a man.

He was born in 1923, the son of Oklahoma sharecroppers. Born poor, half-black & half-Indian, as far from privilege as possible within these United States—at a time when the Jim Crow South thrived and to be a black man was to be, at best, a doormat in a society valuing dogs and horses above mere negroes. African Americans were still being lynched with regularity throughout his childhood.

He died, on Jan 2, 2011, as far from that conspicuous and abhorrent idea of humanity as one can venture in a single lifetime, an elder statesman  of 87, the product of a long, eventful, and full life.

Edison Penrow McDaniels came of age in the great and terrible years of WWII. He volunteered for service in the United States Army immediately following his graduation from high school in 1942. He was present at what the historian David McCullough called the most important event and date of the 20th Century, Omaha Beach & the Normandy Invasion on the 6th of June 1944, when the tide of Hitler’s evil was first turned back. He spent the next six months in combat, had 18 trucks blown out from under him, and was finally injured in the 19th truck just days before the Battle of the Bulge. The blast shattered his body but primed his mind to go forth and change the world. He was immensely proud of his WWII service, and it proved to be the priming event of his life. He spoke of it often.

He studied under the GI Bill and, although it took sixteen years, he graduated with a Juris Doctor degree from Southwestern University School of Law in 1961. He entered private practice and devoted most of the next forty years to helping those who needed it most. He developed a nationally recognized Civil Rights practice, spoke for the masses against the bureaucrats, and gave voice to those people who, in the small moments of their lives, ran into injustice and unreason that became the big moments that defined and confined them. He spoke for such folks when they could not speak for themselves, in courtrooms and assembly halls, in council chambers and town meetings. He spoke always with eloquence, and it was one of his most important beliefs that we had to be able to communicate with each other, that the mark of intelligence was the ability of one person to speak with another at his or her own level. 

I once asked him what he thought the most important class he ever took was and he answered that it was English. He told us often that whatever we did in life, we’d have to be able to communicate with our fellows and English was the key to that.

He married twice and had nine children. Two preceded him in death: Ronald Vaughn and Ellys Preston.

Far from a perfect man, he was at times irascible and always difficult. More often than not too strict a disciplinarian, he did not encounter humor well, drank too much when the pressures became too great, and rarely praised those around him, even in the best of times. He was a difficult man mostly, and prone to ego-centrism. His political aspirations were never realized, but even so he helped many, and if he demanded too much of others, he demanded most from himself and was unflinching in his own self-criticism.

He was that rare individual whose life summed to more than its parts. And if any of us saw failings in his later years, it was only because his will to live powered him for so long.

02/22/13

The Hardest Thing I Have Ever Written

The Hardest Thing I Have Ever Written

 

ORYOToday, Feb. 22, 2013, would have been my son’s thirty-first birthday. He’s been gone ten years now, but as those of you who are members of the club know, they never really leave us, do they? This is both good and bad, mostly good now. I enjoy thinking about him daily.

Nobody here knew him, of course. What follows below are a few notes I put together for his funeral. I thought it might be of some interest, maybe a way of getting to know me. Or maybe I just wanted you to know him.

Thanks for reading. And if you would like see his memorial site, go to www.mem.com. Or you can send me an email here. That would be nice.

 

THE PUREST SILENCE

Endyll Princeton McDaniels Feb 22, 1982 – Feb 25, 2003

 

We choose our truths the way we choose our gods, single-sightedly, single-mindedly, no other way to feel or see or think. We lock ourselves into our ways, and click all the truths to one.

We put our truths together in pieces, but you use nails and I use glue. You mend with staples. I mend with screws. You stitch what I would bandage.

Your truth may not look like mine, but that is not what matters. What matters is this: You can look at a scar and see hurt, or you can look at a scar and see healing. Try to understand.

–From A Gracious Plenty, by Sheri Reynolds

 

My name is Edison McDaniels and I am Endyll’s father. I could stand up here today and tell you about my son. I could tell you about his years spent growing up in Minnesota and ice skating on the pond behind our house, of playing hockey at 4:00 in the morning before school, of his speed and excellence on the track field. I could tell you how much he loved skiing and how good he was at it, although he never really got to do it all that often. I could tell you about his love of sky diving and how, from the age of eleven or so, he would spend hours designing, sewing, and then actually testing life sized parachutes (on the wind, not in the air). I could tell you about the day of his first real jump, about how we were all gathered at ground zero and how big the smile was on his face that day, about how that jump was a tandem jump with a guy named Brad Foster who was, even then, a good friend. I could tell you how distraught he was when Brad Foster was killed in a sky diving accident last May after more than 4,000 jumps to his credit.

I could tell you what an incredible voice he had for singing and how his dream was to be discovered. If I was going to talk about my son, I suppose one of the main things I’d want you to know is that he was smart and funny, that he smiled a lot and, that he liked Japanese Anime. I’d want you to know that he loved to play cards with his brother England and sister Ehvyn, that he and his brother Edison split the chore of cleaning the kitchen and doing the dishes after dinner every night for years. I’d want to mention that he enjoyed going to the movies. In short, I’d tell you that his youngest brother thought he was “cool”, and that his sister said he was “just nice, always so nice.”

I’d tell you he was most of all a joy to have around, and that his mother and I were so proud of everything he was.

But I’m not going to talk about Endyll today. He has so many friends and loved ones here today and I’m sure we’ll all talk amongst ourselves and reminisce. And his mother and I thank you all for coming out.

What I want to talk about today…is silence. I want you to know about the two kinds of silence. About how one of them is just something called quiet, and how the other is what I have learned, over the last few days, to call “the purest silence.”

The first kind is the silence of an empty room, or it’s maybe what you hear when the TV goes off at night. Sometimes it’s a little spooky, but there’s nothing profound about it, nothing special.

I wish I could say the same of the second kind of silence. It’s what you hear when you’re lying in bed at night, with nothing to do but think about all the why’s and what could have beens. It’s what you hear in the afternoons when you sit for hours staring out a window, looking at the park across the street from your house, the park where they found your son the morning after he took his life.

It’s what you hear when you’re all riding in the car on the way home from the elementary school, after just telling your two youngest kids, who aren’t even teenagers yet, that their brother–their buddy, their best friend–is dead. You hear the tires humming against the roadway, the occasional clink of keys or coins, the raspy sounds of five people breathing as if they can never again get enough air. You hear all of this–and none of it. This kind of silence is absolute, it is so profound–so pure–it’s as if you are traveling in a void, as if you have suddenly been struck deaf. And it’s a painful silence, like a fever burning hotter and hotter and hotter inside of you. It burns down deep, in place you can’t possibly get at. It’s a pain you can’t cure.

In this silence—this purest silence—there are no voices, no words. No one speaks. Yet, suddenly, in the midst of it all, your daughter does speak, and you do hear her.

“We went from a loud family of six,” she says, “to a quiet family of five.”

And instantly, you understand the one thing that could work its way through this misery, the one cure for this silence.

But you will never hear his voice again.

He is gone.

Endyll had a lot of special gifts. He was just three days past his 21st birthday. He didn’t have nearly enough time in this world and we didn’t have nearly enough time with him. It is our most heartfelt prayer—his mother Jean, his brothers Edison III and England, his sister Ehvyn, and mine—that he has found the peace and tranquility in the next world that so eluded him at the end in this one.

England, our youngest son, said the other day that he didn’t even get a chance to say good-bye to Endyll. England, I’d like you to know that none of us did, but that here and now, in this place where God shines, we can say good-bye. I’d also offer that maybe we should just say goodnight though, because I’m confident that we will see Endyll again. And when we do, it’ll be like he was never away.

The End 

02/18/13

Writer’s World

The Writer’s World

For most writers, reading is also a very intense experience; they don’t read so much as compete. The writer measure’s himself against every text he encounters, imagining he could do it better or wishing he had thought of it first. The natural writer would almost always rather be reading, writing, or alone, except of course when he needs to come up for air (that is, for subject matter, food, sex, love, attention). He may be a selfish son of a bitch, he may seem to care more about his work than about the people in his life, he may be a social misfit, a freak, or a smooth operator, but every person who does serious time with a keyboard is attempting to translate his version of the world into words so that he might be understood. Indeed, the great paradox of the writer’s life is how much time he spends alone trying to connect with other people.

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner, pg. 36.

When I first saw this a number of years ago, I couldn’t help but cut it out and pin it to the wall over my desk. It’s been there ever since. This is essentially how I feel all the time. Wow.

Writers World