Roadcuts Through the Heart

In the mid-2000s, Jim Weddell began chronicling stories and memories from his formative years in short essays. As the collection grew, he turned his focus toward organizing them into a memoir. In 2021, shortly before he passed, Jim reached an agreement with Deeds Publishing in his hometown of Athens, GA, to publish Roadcuts Through the Heart: A Georgia Memoir by Jim Weddell. The family is delighted to announce its release!

Deeds describes Roadcuts as “stories from varied times and places in a memoir about forgiveness and social change,” while Dr. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Julia Cherry Spruill Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina, offered this in praise: “I loved Roadcuts Through the Heart. This memoir of a white southern boy growing into manhood as he comes to grips with sex and love, race and power while, at the same time, wrestling with his upbringing in a deeply troubled family rings almost too poignantly true…eloquently, humbly, and with the unmistakable sting of wisdom that is hard-won.”

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Driving with Dad

kudzu

Mom and Dad up front. Me and my sisters in the ’48 Olds back seat. Everyone loving a road trip. Destination unknown.

Dad’s routes take us over Georgia: out to the next county to visit his tree farm; south to Savannah where the beach, the fort, the horseflies, and the Spanish moss and pulp mills were; north to Dahlonega where the gold rush began and you ate family-style at the Smith House or jumped into the teeth-chatteringly-cold lake at 4-H Camp Wahsega if you were brave enough.

Or south again to Eatonton—Uncle Remus’s home and where the Woodland Indians’ big Rock Eagle was merely a mound until you climbed the white man’s tower and looked down; northeast to Winterville to visit the chicken-farming Harrolds in the country and admire their architect-designed home with the back porch in the center of the house; and west to big city Atlanta, seventy-two miles on a wandering two-lane road, passing by the hauntingly abandoned Confederate carving on Stone Mountain.

Sometimes we’d stop, and Dad, a professional forester, would explore a stand of pines. I never knew what caught his eye in those trees, but I was transfixed by the roadcuts along the highway.

They were eroded red clay slopes, steep slopes which never healed. The mighty kudzu plant itself couldn’t hold them. Kudzu which could conquer everything else moving slowly or not at all—trees, power lines, houses, windmills, barns, dead cars, dead tractors, maybe small sleeping boys. Kudzu brought over from Japan to stop this fissuring and sliding was powerless against the will of the clay to move with the rain.

In those cuts, a left-behind miniature of rugged ridges and valleys, scattered plateaus and tabletops, a land where slivers of mica and silica sheltered bits of clay from the power carried in small drops of water.

Caves and box canyons, dry river beds and earthen dams,

A world torn and scarred.

Dakota Badlands and Washington Scablands made familiar.

Kudzu portrait outside Athens, GA. Ron Carver

School’s Out for the Summer

1963peprallyCroppedNineteen sixty-three, end-of-year school-wide pep rally. An assembled horde of young white Athens High Trojans going home, or to work for the summer, or to war.

A gym full of kids with nothing to do but work off hormones and jitters. Cheerleaders winding up the crowd, which didn’t need any help. Athletic letter-winners recognized, the pep squad would play one side of the gym against the other.

GOOOOOOOOH! from the seniors and freshmen. TROOOOH-JAANNS! from the sophomores and juniors. Louder and louder. The seniors always won. Seniors were the judges. When they heard the announcement they’d won, a new chant broke out from their side.

THE LAST WHITE CLASS!! THE LAST WHITE CLASS!! THE LAST WHITE CLASS!!

Two brave black kids would join us next year. They would graduate with us.

But no more would enter Georgia’s Athens High School until 1971.

Palm Reading

hands

Sallie Ann dusting in her white-collared blue maid’s dress. And I, still in short pants wandered following. A question in mind.
Sallie Ann, down from footstool top-shelf dusting,  paused.
I pounced.
Sallie Ann, how come the palms of your hands are white and the top sides brown?
So different.
My hands much the same, one side or the other except for the scar. Hers not. One side mouth-watering chocolate. The other weathered pink earthworm.
Why was that?
Sallie Ann stared at me and left the room.
My eyes welled. I’d done something wrong.

The Diner

DinerCroppedPNG

A diner off rutted dirtroads on the Tennessee-Georgia line, breathing a sigh far outside the urban edge. A creek along the road.
In the equally rutted lot a Chevy 5-window pickup—not battered, not pristine.
A neon light atop a much-scarred and leaning utility pole. If it were night the light would buzz and wink in hot pink.   Diner   Diner   Diner.
Nobody comes down the road anymore. No one ever came down the road.
A phone rings. The man in the truck waits a beat, picks it up, listens a moment, leans across the seat, dangles the receiver out the window.
A woman comes out the diner door: Is that her? Is that her? Hang the damn thing up!
The man: She’s lonely. She likes to listen to the sound of the place. She doesn’t like it there.
The woman: Goddammit! You don’t hang it up, I’ll rip it off!
The man: Don’t do that. It ain’t right.
The woman: Right? You wanna talk about right? It ain’t right for a man to let his wife listen in to his new family’s life. It ain’t normal. It ain’t anyways normal. She’s gotta let you go.
A boy wanders out the diner door: Let who go?
The woman: The “lady” that keeps calling your daddy on the telephone, has got to let your daddy loose.
Boy: You mean Margaret?
The woman: What do you mean “Margaret”?
Boy: That’s her name, Delores. Her name’s Margaret!
Delores, defeated: I know, I just. . . I just. . . She spins on tennies, flees into the diner.
Boy: Can I talk to her?
The man: Sure son.
The boy climbs in the bed of the truck, reels in the receiver, chats it up.
****
Interior: The restroom end of the diner is a walled-off bedroom now. The rest is much the same, now working as everything else. Dining room, living room, breakfast counter, rec room. The boy sleeps in an old booth. Table-top juke players remain on the counter and booth tops. The jukebox itself on the unmolested end-wall. The kitchen behind the counter intact.
The man, spinning a stool with his finger: Honey, I’m sorry. It just don’t seem right to hang up on her. She’s a long way from home. And it’s not what she expected. She doesn’t recognize anybody.
Delores: I don’t care. She was sposed to be out of your life. Just you and me and Timmy and this dammed old diner. I loved it then, when it was like that, the four of us.
The man, moving closer: I’m sorry, like I said. Truly sorry. It ain’t me. She never called when Timmy and I were here all alone. I love you, I surely do. She’s just lonely. What else can I do?
Delores: Hang up! Don’t answer – we don’t get any other calls. Say you can’t talk now! Anything! Just keep her out of our lives.
The man: Would you rather have her out here moving things around? Knocking stacks of plates off the shelves? Putting on records we don’t like? She could do that maybe if I made her mad. I don’t know what all she would do.
Delores, mollified some: I just hate it. Hate it. It was peaceful before. Before she remembered the number. Us, the diner, the creek. It was so new, and fresh.  I’d never been in the country before. I’d never heard silence.
Timmy, coming in from the truck: I love talking to her. It’s like old times. She had to go somewheres. I hung the phone up like you showed me. What’s for dinner?
Delores: What do you think? Hamburgers, fries, and a shake. Go wash up.
Timmy hustles into the bedroom.
Delores: I still think it ain’t right. She’s dead and buried three years. Three damn years.
Blackout
Curtain
photo RJ’s Corner, https://rjscorner.net/2016/11/16/diners/

Something’s Got a Hold on Me

UniverseWide

I still pray. Having much to be thankful for, it seems right to give something back to the universe.
But I always stumble at the start. I need an address. Dear who? Dear what? And then I lose the thread.
Sometimes I find my way back. But once I wound up in an infinite universe, an infinite universe expanding, and I paused there on the horizon, asking myself,
How can an already infinite universe expand?
And I was rewarded.
It’s a mystery, came the answer.
And a mystery so big, so interesting, so complex, so potentially meaningful that it’s worth exploring. And that’s also the way some people feel about God, something said.
Myself, if I use that word I get hung up on that bearded old white guy in the sky, which doesn’t seem a likely guise.
But I can embrace a mystery.
Which would free me to make this admission to myself, and now you. The mystery formerly known as God has got a hold on me, and has since I was very little, when it didn’t bother me.
And while I am still without a name I like for that mystery, and still don’t believe that a just mystery would hand out favors based on who had the most active prayer circle, both the mystery and prayer still have that hold on me.
The Soul Singers here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= UCKwzMEY6xw

Whatever Happened to Jimmy?

Settle-in, breathe deeply, close your eyes if you want. We’re going on a trip. We’re traveling back to the Dixie of 1959. I’m your guide, and you’ll be safe, but you’ll see things and hear things that may offend you and dismay you. For comfort I offer only a moment of magnolia flavored grace, at the end of the trip.
Smell the air? It’s warm and gentle, full of plant life, humus, rebirth and decay.
Picture a tree-lined street with single family houses, built not all at once but over decades. There’s my house, the one with dogwoods at the curb and oaks at the property line.
Come around back. That little shack you can barely see through the hedge? That’s a slave quarters belonging to the columned Civil War mansion, whose backside you can see peeking through the redbud trees.
We’re not out in the country, we’re smack in the middle of Athens, Georgia–a small college town in a rural landscape .Our house sits in the woodlot of that former plantation big-house, on land my parents bought from the maiden-sister survivors of the Carlton clan.
That other sweet, fruity smell? That’s an untended scuppernong arbor. Came with the woodlot.
I’m a twelve-year-old child, and slavery’s ghost is everywhere.
I absorb it and its Jim Crow stand-in through my every sense. I see the shacks and I see the mansions.
And I feel it. A few years back when I was littler, I held slavery’s legacy in my hand. Literally. My hand was in the maid’s hand. And even after my family slid into genteel white poverty, we still kept her on. Not to look after her, but for her to keep looking after us. We could afford it. Her wages were small.
She is black. An of course statement. Twelve-year old me still thinks all maids are black. It will take me years to start picking that apart.
I hear the ghost in the music around me. Ray Charles creating What’d I Say, Alvin and the Chipmunks rendering Ragtime Cowboy Joe.
I taste the pepper in Lula Mae’s meats.
I smell the fatback in her greens.
She serves me in our dining room with mahogany table, lace tablecloth, and china. Grace is said. Lula Mae comes from the kitchen when Mom rings a little silver bell. When the family is done, she eats her meal outside on a splintery unfinished picnic table.
All the requisite attitudes seep into me by osmosis. By twelve I know black people are different from white people. I’m supposed to call them colored people because we’re polite. In a few more years some whites will call them nigras. Well-meaning  people who haven’t got a clue, don’t want to sound low-class, and, perhaps most importantly, don’t want to be shut-out by their friends for being egalitarian.
I’m one of the clueless.
Elderly black sharecroppers I pass on downtown sidewalks step into the street gutter when I approach. Kids my age show off a new knife and proudly call it an alliterative-digger. They don’t say alliterative.
Boys my age laugh and point at a black man in a past-its-prime Cadillac, especially one flying a fox or raccoon tail from the radio antenna. Meanwhile they admire the fuzzy dice hanging in a white teenager’s wannabe hot rod, and say When I get my license…
I’m one of those boys too.
What happened to me?
A black kid jumped a fence the summer of 1963. A fence both real and metaphorical. He watched two white kids play tennis on the whites-only high school’s whites-only tennis courts. He can’t attend that high school although he lives just across the street. The more mannerly of the two boys playing asks the newcomer if he’d like to play. I’m left on the court with the black kid.
At game’s end we lead the new-comer to the hose spigot for water. Georgia. July. Hot. Humid. A dance ensues around our drinking fountain problem. One for white, an inferior version for blacks. At these courts there’s only the hose. White children do not drink from the same fountain as black children.
Who drinks first? My friend Stan offers first drink to Willie. He declines, I decline, Stan declines. I say I’ll do it, just to save us another pas de trois.
Conversation erupts. Surprising me. I’ve never talked with a black kid my age. Willie asks Y’all ever been bowling?
Stan and I look at each other in amazement. Everybody bowls some. (Everybody has only white kids in it.) We’re taught in PE, school-bussed out to the new alley.
Willie says, I’ve never been.
Stan and I look at each other, still not comprehending. Athens is a small town. There’s not that much to do.
Willie says, There’s no place I can go.
And I start to bend.

A Love Story. Complicated.

wedding-pictureFor those of you who thought there might be a love story.

I met Bertie one evening in the waiting room at Group Labs, a therapy outfit on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The waiting room was comfy, upholstered, and carpeted, with soft lights. People chatted easily, at least those who were experienced with the drill, those who weren’t (and even some who were) were terrified. They were waiting to go into sound-proofed rooms to expose their innermost secrets to what were, at least at the beginning of the process, a bunch of complete strangers, and they were going to be encouraged to do this as loudly as possible.

Bertie and her group were going to go out for Chinese after their session and she invited me to come along. My group would get out at about the same time, so that would work out well. I was delighted. I hadn’t noticed her before, but she was slender, with a beautiful face and lovely blue eyes. I was flattered that she had asked me to tag along.

After dinner, five of us went back to her place, talked for a while, and then somehow started singing freedom songs. It was an enchanting evening. A long, long way from home. At the end of the evening Bertie offered me her phone number, which I happily accepted.

From there on our courtship was a disaster. I couldn’t stop working against myself. I lost her number two or three times—only her persistence saved us. And then my accent got in the way. Clearly she was interested in me, and I in her, but when I finally got it together enough to ask her out for what I thought was a really cool date, she turned me down. Not until long after we were married did I find out why.

This is what I thought I said, “Would you like to come out with me and beat down walls on our center?” Out at Sheepshead Bay we were doing our own remodeling at the nascent youth center. I loved remodeling, especially taking a sledge hammer to things and demolishing them.

Bertie knew that my accent came from Georgia and that I had been brought up religious. That was about all, except that I now believed in the civil rights movement, was opposed to the war in Vietnam, had some left-wing sympathies, had been beaten by the cops, and was a former jock. She also thought I was brave because she saw me step in and stop a dog fight. My combination, so different from the urban intellectual boys she had known, intrigued her.

On my side, she was an exotic flower. Naturally beautiful in an elegant unforced way that put my high school beauty queens to shame, she was also not shy about her intelligence or opinions. Culturally Jewish but not religious, and congenitally far left—her father, open and proud of being a big C Communist, went to jail for defying the House Un-American Activities Committee—she introduced me to a world I knew nothing about.

Most importantly, she was direct, forthright, and generally said what she meant. She had not been trained in the way of many southern girls, who were often taught that the only means of getting what they wanted was to be coy and manipulative.

But this is what she heard when I asked her out, “Would you like to come out with me and help beat down walls on our sinner?” When she carefully enunciated this to me long after we left the city I couldn’t hear the difference. Finally, I got it and assumed she thought it was some weird religious rite I was involved in. She says no, she just didn’t understand, and, unusual for her, didn’t want to ask. Southerners are, at best, careless with consonants and vowels. In our deepest dialects, you’ll need a translator. Somehow Bertie and I managed to dig our way out of this misunderstanding at the time without actually sorting it out.

That was possible because Bertie took the initiative. She invited me over to dinner at her place. Honestly, her place was a dump. The neighborhood was sketchy; abandoned cars and winos abounded, and the neighboring building was an SRO—single room occupancy hotel—which meant that it was a low-rent dive filled with screaming punctuated by crashing bottles. Her apartment itself was a cramped, harshly-lit flat where all the rooms opened off one narrow linear hallway. It smelled a little off, both because of the neighborhood and because of the resident monkey, her roommate’s pet.

The evening was doomed from the start. Group Labs hadn’t worked its magic on me yet. I learned my way around the groups, but I was still an emotional stone. Inwardly I was a cauldron. Externally, forget about it.

My friend Ratterman had committed suicide in the wee hours of that morning. Jumped off the roof, from right over my head as I slept by the street-side window of my shared top-floor apartment.

Ten stories later, he was dead on the sidewalk below. He was living with his new wife three floors below mine and two apartments down the hall in my old apartment. I had given it to him and moved in with friends upstairs when I heard he was getting married. Compared to that place on an airshaft, Bertie’s place was lovely.

I had been at his wedding just six blocks away in St. Paul’s chapel on the Columbia campus. Ratterman met his bride-to-be in the psych ward, the same one my acid-tripping friend wound up in, and Ratterman and the young trumpet student fell in love. Ratterman was a frequent flyer there. He had paranoid schizophrenia, which he and his doctors kept reasonably under control with Thorazine, chloral hydrate (the ingredient for a Mickey Finn knockout drop), and counseling.

The drugs could barely contain him. He was a funny, hyper, brilliant guy. The best writer I knew. His closest friend was my roommate in that former apartment, and I was jealous of their shared genius and out-of-control hilarity. Ratterman’s story of the Lone Ranger and Tonto around a campfire in a mall parking lot on a smoky blue evening awes me still.

When Ratterman told his therapist that he was getting married, the therapist abandoned him. “Bob, you can’t get married, you’re a paranoid schizophrenic and you can’t handle it. If you marry her, I won’t see you again.” And he didn’t.

I thought this was the cruelest, most irresponsible choice a therapist could make. But he stuck by it, and it was just a few weeks later that Ratterman took his last flight.

I didn’t tell Bertie about it that evening. Acted as if nothing had happened. But that didn’t work out well, and there were other things going on, too.

My mom’s cooking wasn’t good, but it was plain. I grew up on the standard southern fare of the time, fry everything that’s not a vegetable, and some of those, too. Over-boil everything else desperately and deliciously, preferably with fatback, bacon, or some other dead pig product. White bread, ketchup, and baloney sandwiches are a solid lunch. You don’t really even need the baloney.

I swear Mom’s recipe for spaghetti went like this. Fry up the ground beef in a cast iron fry pan. Add the ketchup. Simmer. Throw in spaghetti out of the box. Simmer. Chop the spaghetti in the pan. Add more ketchup. Simmer. Serve. Caroline insists that she did cook the spaghetti first. I stand by my version. It was good.

So, I am not a foodie. Bertie served me spaghetti. A nice, special dinner—white sauce, green spaghetti, simple salad. (Bertie says that the sauce was red. We both agree about the spaghetti. I had never seen green spaghetti, or white sauce with spaghetti.) I was intimidated. I knew the spaghetti wasn’t green from mold, and recognized it as being glamorous.

But I panic at the sight of new food. The expectations are too high, and the risk of offense too great. I failed at both. You can’t hide it, when you’re just pushing food around the plate and taking very little bites.

I wasn’t done with making a hash of Bertie’s attempt to jump start our sputtering relationship. Caroline called. I had a brand new niece. Caroline and Bill’s first child. I’d given them Bertie’s number (the one I lost twice) because I knew the birth date was close. I never dreamed it would actually happen that night.

So after spending half an hour not eating I spent another half-hour talking to my family. Bertie didn’t kick me out, which was kind, to say the least.

We chatted for a while in the living room after dinner, but I was bad company. Ratterman was dead. I’d made a fool of myself with my picky eating and poor manners, and my sister had a new baby. And Bertie hadn’t shown me the door even after I’d made such a hash of everything. It was too, too much. I needed to get away and hide, maybe even cry. Pull the covers over my head.

I had had a long dry spell since my college girl-friend found someone else. And I didn’t handle it well. I became desperate and needy, the very model, I thought, of the kind of loser who sends out waves of sad, pitiful anti-pheromones. And here I was anxious to run away from the best thing that had happened to me in years. And I was mad about it. Mad at her. Mad at her for putting me in this situation. It still makes sense to me, but I admit it was weird, and a sign of just how screwed-up I was then.

Back then, I didn’t have the capability of admitting that I was angry. And that night, it seemed such a peculiarly wrong way to feel. So unjustified, so unfair since I could count the ways I had insulted Bertie, and she had been nothing but beautiful, pleasant, and interested. So I couldn’t be angry. That wasn’t what I was feeling. I wasn’t feeling anything. I hadn’t learned that feelings aren’t right or wrong, they’re just feelings.

Seventeen months later we were married. Twice. Once in City Hall to make it legal, again the day after on the beach at Fire Island to make it fun and the way we wanted to do it. I was no way healed enough to invite Mom, who had met Bertie once, and, knowing nothing about her except that she might be Jewish, served her ham. Mom knew better.

Bertie didn’t care about the dietary rule, but I knew Mom was just turning the knife. Not inviting Mom, meant not inviting Mary Win either. Mary Win loved weddings. I felt really bad about that. But not bad enough or grown-up enough to behave better.

The crowd we were running with at the time, and Group Labs generally, was pretty liberal, pro women’s rights, and slightly anti-marriage. There were lots of bad marriages, bad divorces, and several variations of “marriage is just a property contract” sentiments.

A common question for us was, “Why do you want to get married?” Even Bertie’s mom asked her that. When they asked me in my therapy group, I surprised myself when I popped out with this, “Because it’s an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual commitment.”

Their eyes actually rolled, and their jaws actually dropped, and there were several pulses of dead silence. But it was possibly the most spontaneously honest thing I’d ever said in that little lead-lined room, or anywhere else.

In the early days of our relationship (and longer after than I care to admit to) when I would go silent, Bertie would march around me beating on pots and pans until I’d eventually say something. An amazingly creative and effective tactic, but something I hated. (Maybe because it worked.) More amazing is that she saw something in me worth fighting for that hard.

We were married on September eighteenth and nineteenth, 1971. We celebrate the second one, the one on the beach. You can do the math. We’re still married. Living far from New York and far from Georgia on the edge of Idaho, in Washington state. We’re happy here with varied and delightful friends and a little known but often photographed and painted ever-changing landscape.

To me, our twin cities, Pullman, Washington, and Moscow, Idaho, both college towns and only eight miles apart, are like being home—only without the baggage.

And Bertie hasn’t had to beat the pots and pans in years.

Compost Rose

compostrose4a

Compost Rose. A rare, delicate flower found only indoors in winter, when its normal ecological niche—mounded decaying vegetative matter—is frozen and lost among the snow drifts.

Rosa composta should not be confused with the Compass Roses (rosa humanica nautica and rosa humanica aeronautica), or the Windrose (rosa humanica meteorica), more poetically known as the Rose of the Winds.

Compass Roses and Windroses inhabit a completely different ecosystem than does the Compost Rose, and are at home with human machines for conveyance, and seers of future meteorological events.

Writing Contest & Gingerbread

Cassette Player stack: Various—New England Christmastide; Odetta—Christmas Spirituals; Emmy Lou Harris—Light of the Stable; Lisa Neustat and Jean Redpath—Shout for Joy. CDs: Wes Weddell (compiler) (www.wesweddell.com ) Saturn Songs XIV; Wes Weddell Band—Nobody’s Flag; John Denver and the Muppets—A Christmas Together; The Effi Netzer Singers—A Festival of Jewish Song; Amanda Winterhalter http://amandawinterhalter.comOlea; John Waters (compiler)—A John Waters Christmas; Bob Dylan—Christmas in the Heart.

Book Just Finished: Tana French—The Trespasser. The one before that: Harlan Coben—Fool Me Once (Y’all can see where my head’s been.) Getting Back to: Sayantani Dasgupta—Fire Girl, and Esther Barnett Goffinet—Ripples of a Lie (backstory and aftermath of class-based injustice in Centralia, WA, 1919) On Deck: Play House—The Architecture of Daniel Evan White, and David C. Korten—Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Future Bedtime: Jules Fieffer—By the Side of the Road.

Memoir Writers! There is a simple contest running for obtaining an agent, but it ends Saturday, December 31, 2016. It is run by Chuck Sambuchino, and the agent is Jennifer Wills. All the information is available at http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/28th-free-dear-lucky-agent-contest-memoir. And, as long as you have the manuscript and access to a least one form of social media at your command, you can enter in a very short time.

The Gingerbread House. Over a number of years the family’s vision has changed, and friends—especially poet Rosalie Moffett (June in Eden, 2016, just out, www.rosaliemoffett.com ) have embraced a completely different esthetic.

Left: The cookbook vision; Right Top: The 2016 family and friends edition front; Right bottom: 2016 aerial rear. Includes two outhouses, one still, two bears, three pigs, one mutant amphibian, the Easter Bunny, and no partridge in a pear tree.

Happy New Year, Jim