I remember both my grandfathers very well. Both served in the military during WWI, and their grandfathers fought in the American Civil War. With that perspective, one can readily comprehend how quickly time moves along.
Nowadays, at age 59, I see things at flea markets that are touted as antiques, yet I may have used some of those things early in life. And all the nostalgic stories of yesteryear are easily sliced to ribbons by memories of having been there. I mention it here in regard to my mother, who died on July 15.
Jean Muirhead was elected to serve in the Mississippi Legislature in 1968, having only recently been also admitted to the state bar. At the time there were only seven women in the Magnolia state who were licensed to practice law. But it was the 60’s, and things were changing fast.
One of her first legislative attention-getters was to break with tradition in regard to the school-age kids who served as assistants in the House and the Senate. They were, they are still, called pages. But in the halcyon days of Deep South thinking, before “the nigras” began howling to be recognized as people, before Yankee television reporters could invade at any moment and send live, color images of the truth back to their anchors’ desks in New York City, life in my home state was vastly different than it is today.
It was a time of male domination. There were only seven female lawyers? Today there are hundreds! And although it never really felt like it to me at the time, as a kid growing up in the late 50’s and 60’s, repression was everywhere. (I’m not about to attempt to explain life through the eyes of a black Mississippian. I am white; but I’ve got my own stories.)
I well remember as a teenager the nagging sensation of living inside an inescapable falseness. Things were not as they seemed. On Sunday mornings I would attend Sunday school and “big church” with my family. And before “big church” began, outside the sanctuary the deacons smoked cigarettes at the front door. Sometimes the preacher would walk through the crowd and cloud of blue smoke, nodding with tight lips at his coterie of ordained sinners. He would never smoke; nor would he condemn those who did, at least not one on one. He would wait until he stood in sanctuary of his pulpit, there to harangue the entire congregation on the evils of tobacco. The deacons on the front row would then clear their throats, cough, and nod in agreement.
Women were seen only in the pews or the choir loft. They had no place on the dais. God’s word was men’s word, and females were not considered astute enough to preach and teach on the complexities of Western religion. Their place was in the home, cooking pot roast, rearing the children, pleasing their husbands.
In those days, drug stores had entrances around back labeled “Colored.” The few public restrooms available were similarly identified. If you are under the age of 30 and are reading this, you probably find it difficult to understand. But repression and segregation were the orders of the day. The world was controlled by white men, no matter how ignorant and brutish they happened to be. Boys wore flat-top haircuts, and girls wore skirts, not pants. Individualism was an arcane and unholy route, and those who took it faced universal condemnation.
In the movie “Patton,” G.C. Scott portrays the mercurial WWII general, George S. Patton. In one scene enemy airplanes begin strafing his headquarters in N. Africa. The planes make a couple of passes over the village until finally a direct hit is made on the building wherein Patton is watching the action from a window. Suddenly plaster and debris is raining down on his head. Grabbing at his revolver in its holster Patton growls, “All right now, by God, THAT’S ENOUGH!” He jumps through an open window onto the top of a truck, and then down to the ground where he stands in the street and fires relentlessly at the planes with his handheld revolver, cursing with every shot.
Well, I doubt my mother did much cursing on the Senate floor, but one day she did realize, “by God, THAT’S ENOUGH!” In glaring, shocking revolt, she appointed a female page to serve her, even though it was not girl’s week. Boys could serve as pages throughout the legislative session; but girls got the opportunity during only one of those weeks, until, that is, Jean Muirhead came to town.
Later she would disrupt the ol’ boys club even more. A bill had come to the floor that had to do with state court procedures. My mother scribbled out an amendment to the bill and took it forward to the secretary of the senate. For other reasons the bill was apparently important to the entrenched powers, the men who wanted the bill passed right then. The secretary read the amendment, which struck the word “male” from the text. If you have never been present when our lawmakers are working, you may not grasp how chaotic it sometimes is. Half the time it appears no one is paying any attention. (The other half they are not.)
So, amid the usual confusion, when the secretary called for the vote, the bill passed. It then was moved directly to the House, where, owing to the momentum of the thing, it passed there too. The Ol’ Boys realized they’d been snookered, but to resist would have been embarrassing, and probably futile. There was a chink in the armor, and because of the passage of that bill, women could at last serve on state court juries. It may seem a trifle today, but at the time it was yet another indication that in the homeland of Confederate President Jefferson Finis Davis, a new day was dawning.
With its unending contradictions, life is at best confusing and at worst inexplicable. The U.S. is in the minority of nations today that embraces the death penalty. Since I endeavor to avoid self righteous mobs known as majorities, I like that. But the one troublesome aspect to the death penalty is its stingy application. Our justice system, otherwise known as the employment service for lawyers and clerks, is unfairly inefficient; and as regards the death penalty the unfairness of its lethargic foot-dragging bears not against the guilty, but against society.
If you can pardon the expression, I’m just dying to know why in capital offenses we dally in applying the appropriate punishment when there is no reasonable doubt of a person’s guilt. Death penalty opponents contend that capital punishment is cruel and unreasonable, and the irony is in the fact that those opponents usually come from the political left, where atheism and a general disregard for things divine seem to flourish in abundance.
Non-believers think the death penalty immoral. Believers think it righteous. (This is a generalization, but I subscribe to that word’s definition as being “a huge truth, highly disconcerting to sociologists and others who have earned like degrees from correspondence courses, community colleges and equivalent universities.”)
The paradox thrives in the fact that those who oppose the death penalty do not necessarily oppose war and all its much talked about collateral damage. That euphemistic term means, “Oops, we may have destroyed a town full of civilians.”
At present our government has elected to enter into yet another war, this time against the leadership of Libya. Never mind that Libya is a sovereign nation conducting its own affairs. No, the U.S. and its acolytes now think it necessary to get involved in that country’s internal affairs. Citing some abstruse moral code, our leadership tends to play down the fact that Libya has valuable oil reserves. This could lead some to believe in the insincerity of altruism. I’m one of those.
I frankly do not care anything at all about Libya, or what goes on there. If the people in that nation desire a civil war, let them have one. I don’t care. The quarter-billion dollars in cruise missiles the U.S. recently fired into the sand dunes over there is money that might have been better applied in paying down the national debt. As far as I know, we don’t owe Libya a dime.
See how confusing it is? Unlike an electric chair or tablets of cyanide or a syringe or two of poison, cruise missiles are somewhat indiscreet. They blow up, and anyone nearby gets blown up too. Conversely, an electric chair has room for only one. So why do we whimsically risk blowing up people whose only crime is misfortune, while here at home we debate and quibble and appeal and protest over the execution of deranged killers? Our political leadership calls Muammar Qaddafi deranged, and is ready and willing to kill him for it. Yet we allow deranged killers to languish on death row for 20 or more years. Worse, we sentence deranged killers to life imprisonment.
The Unabomber is now doing life without parole for blowing up people with dynamite. Serving the same sentence right down the hall from him is Eric Rudolph, who killed people in a like manner. They killed American citizens on American soil, but it is wrong to execute them? It is wrong to execute them yet it is right to execute people on the other side of the planet who may not have committed any crime against anyone?
Are you confused too?
By Scott Muirhead • Guest Columnist
Politics aside, what could possibly be more absurd than plastic flowers? (OK, there are hundreds of things, I know, but we’re on a tight schedule here. Besides, polyethylene gladioli are long overdue for a bashing.)
Fake flowers seem to be the darlings of those who obviously do not grasp the concept of real flowers. But to avoid stumbling into a pit of poetic mush, let’s just say that the bittersweet joy of flowers, ahem, stems from their impermanence. Whether on the vine or bush or in a gilded vase, flowers die. We bring them indoors fragrant and fresh, luminescent and vibrant, then in a few days they shrivel and blacken and die. It is then that they are unceremoniously but with admitted satisfaction dropped into a trash bag. They had for a few days splendidly served as one of our better metaphors for life, which, like the flowers, is real and limited.
Meanwhile, plastic flowers, those illegitimate offspring of the oil fields, those insolent phonies squat on the credenza reeking of cheap commercialism, collecting dust and never changing. Life is not like that, although I suspect there are wives within the readership of this very newspaper who consider their husbands to be a lot like plastic flowers.
Maybe fake flowers are good for guilt. You can place a plastic bouquet of jasmine and hydrangea by a tombstone, and you don’t have to come back for months. Best of all, no guilt! Everybody who happens by will think you had just been there that morning.
Otherwise, the point of artificial blooms eludes me. I suppose they are economical. They never go away, and money spent on real daffodils and roses could be more enjoyably applied at Burger King or for a cell phone upgrade. In all its shapes and forms and embodiments, plastic is eternal, you know.
Plastic flowers are especially tedious for those who travel interstate highways, where every 50 feet or so there is a little makeshift memorial, a wad of mud-spattered chrysanthemums adorning what may appear to be a rhinestone studded candy box left over from Valentine’s Day.
The memorials are a bit of a distraction, actually. Drivers are craning their necks trying to read the epitaphs at 70 miles an hour, on the outside chance they know something about the departed. Such behavior will inevitably result in even more roadside plastic.
There is something quizzical about the interstate testimonials. If a homeowner falls and breaks his neck cleaning gutters, does his wife rush to K-Mart for a buggy full of fake baby’s breath and Queen Anne’s lace? Does she jab a little PVC lilac cross in the ground at the head of the deceased? No. She collects the insurance and hightails it to the casino. But just let that dolt husband of hers get killed on the highway and see what happens. There’ll be plastic purple tulips everywhere!
And probably there is not a church house in the land whose narthex or altar is not — shall we say — adorned with the colorful petals and leaves of a Taiwanese injection mold factory. There is something ironic about that artificiality.
But where the utilitarian beauty of fake flora is most abundant is in our delicately manicured graveyards, where spring springs eternal. Why visit the gardens of Biltmore? You can see all the pretty flowers you want, anytime of year, right down the street at the nearby cemetery. But what about the poignancy that is life? Isn’t it dying and death that make life so precious?
And lest you think me a completely callous monster, I confess I am not immune to the sadness that sometimes accompanies the death of a family member or business associate. But I like to mark the occasion with real cut flowers. In a few days they, like the memory of the dearly departed, wilt and vanish. You can read all about it in Ecclesiastes.