Good-bye, Marshall

The recent passing of Marshall Smith, Jr. truly marked the end of a Hub City era.   Marshall, like his father before him, was one of the unofficial Mayors of downtown Hattiesburg and, together, they owned and operated the Owl Drug Store downtown for many years prior to its move to the Hattiesburg Clinic in 1985, where it remains today.marshall01

The Owl opened at the prominent corner of Main and Front streets in 1907, in the space now occupied by McKenzie’s on Main, and Marshall, Sr. purchased it in 1927. Marshall, Jr. purchased it in 1952 when he finished pharmacy school and returned to Hattiesburg.

But, no matter who owned it, or when, the Owl was always a downtown landmark, meeting place and information hub, which was integral to the lives of most downtowners.  For instance, Charner McLelland conducted some of his popular television business from next door at the Owl, where he was often paged in person by “Mrs. Mac,” while assorted Tatums drifted up Main Street from the gas company on a daily basis.  Quarters were flipped on the counter to see who paid for the coffee, and some people actually thought you could pay your gas bill at the Owl.

And of course, the local Bench and Bar were always in evidence.  It was said that one colorful local attorney tried his cases at Lea’s Café, and appealed them to the Owl Drug Store.  Or, more precisely, to the Blue Room of the Owl Drug Store, a special division of the operation.


   The Blue Room


Factitiously named after its somewhat better known namesake at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, Hattiesburg’s Blue Room was a venue of great renown in its own right.  After all, it was the all-male private dining room of the Owl’s excellent and well patronized lunch counter out front.

It was somewhat by invitation only, although no one was really sure how the invitations were extended or accepted, or rescinded. It seemed to be sort of by osmosis.  You just sort of knew when it was your time to be welcome in the back room (or that that time had passed).

The room was about ten by twelve feet, with a single oilcloth covered table in the middle, surrounded by an assortment of six or eight wooden chairs from various times and places, some painted, some not.  A large picture window looked out onto Main Street for the diner’s enjoyment and edification.

And this sumptuous ensemble shared the space with the firm’s huge and ancient steel safe in the corner.  It was so massive and heavy that I had always assumed the building had been built around it, since I saw no way to have brought it in.  Occasionally, Marshall opened the ponderous doors of the great safe for some   extraordinary transaction, and the floor actually moved slightly. You wondered what business required this special procedure.
The diners were surrounded by shelves holding all the drugs, potions, elixirs, chemicals, photography supplies, walking canes and braces, and other supplies kept in the back of a multi-generational downtown drug store.  It was a fascinating environment with an atmosphere entirely its own.

Marshall or the other pharmacist, Hinds Blackwell, would occasionally ask a diner to hand him some strange old brown or green bottle located behind his head, with which to fill a prescription.  Sort of made you feel part of the enterprise.

But, in addition to its more obvious functions, the Blue Room was also the true Athenaeum of downtown, a marketplace of ideas, where the great issues of the day were fully and critically examined and debated.  The patrons were never shy, and opinions were never in short supply.  And if no answer was apparent to the question at hand, one would eventually arise from the heat of the arena.  No issue was left unattended.


   The Food


For the very regular customers, admission to the Owl was available from about 7:00 AM, by way of the back door on the alley (the front door on the corner opening at 8:00).  The first coffee was served about 7:30, and, with apologies to my wife and mother, the most delicious biscuits I have ever tasted came out of the oven about 7:45, piping hot, usually enjoyed at the lunch counter.

The food at the Owl’s lunch counter, and therefore in the Blue Room, was really first rate lunch counter fare, always fresh, expertly prepared, and truly delicious.  The culinary geniuses in charge for many years were Sarah Warren and Margaret Williamson, who evermore knew how to fix groceries.

Hazel Pickett managed the food service for Marshall, including the counter, the Blue Room, and the complete old-fashioned soda fountain service which featured all the classic old soda concoctions that you had heard about from your parents and grandparents.  They could make anything.

But my favorite desert was Sarah’s heavenly rice pudding, which she only made occasionally and which was usually still warm and could support a scoop of ice cream if you liked (I liked).  Someone was usually kind enough to let me know in advance when it was on the day’s menu.


The Business


But the Owl was much more than a pharmacy with a lunch counter.  It had fine chocolates, upscale cosmetics, fine cameras and photographic supplies and services, gifts and gift wrapping, cards, electrical appliances, and on and on.
It was essentially a 20th Century general store that served many daily needs, which were seen to by an experienced and loyal staff (family, really), some of whom were there on that last day downtown in 1985, a sad but well memorialized occasion.
Sue Brown looked after the front of the house, along with Ardelle Kellum and Clara Ross, while the steady hand of book keeper Helen Chestang had kept everything in balance since 1948.
Anything could be charged at the Owl and, for many years, delivered by Lee Worsham, the genteel older black man who always reminded me of Louis Armstrong.
In short, the Owl was the heartbeat of downtown for many years and, for a good number of those years, Marshall was at the helm.
   The Rest of the Story
But apart from his own successful business, and again like his father before him, Marshall also labored in the civic vineyards of Hattiesburg, always keen on improving his hometwon.  He was a past president of the local Rotary Club, and was named the Young Man of the Year by the state Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1962.  Marshall helped establish the Hattiesburg Downtown Business Development District, a self-taxing district set up to help start the redevelopment of downtown after retail started moving west in the late 1960s.  Its early efforts were the precursors of all the great effort which followed over the years, which is today bearing such significant fruit downtown.
So, in addition to his own landmark business, Marshall was the kind of civic servant of whom no town ever has enough, or can ever afford to be without, and he will be sorely missed by all those who care deeply about Hattiesburg.
Farewell, Marshall, and Godspeed!

Cuba on the Brink

December, 2011

Yes, it is now possible for Americans to visit Cuba, under certain limited circumstances. My wife and I had wanted to do so for most of our adult lives (her parents were there in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s and loved it) but, until recently, it was not possible. So, when we learned of a People to People exchange through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, we signed up. There was a fair amount of red tape and regulation, and it was not inexpensive, but it was possible.

We took the 45 minute flight from Miami to Havana (only 90 miles from Key West, but a world away) early on a Sunday morning in December (November through March seems to be the best time of year to go), with our small group of Americans from all over the country. None of us, including our group leader from the National Trust, had ever been to Cuba, and didn’t know exactly what to expect. But I think we all somehow felt that this was a time of uncertainty and change in the island nation to our south, and we wanted to see and experience it first hand.

Our visit was concentrated in Havana and the surrounding area so, while I assume much of what is said here has general application in Cuba, confirmation awaits further exploration on other trips.

First Impressions

CheOnce in the country, I was indeed repeatedly struck by the feeling that Cuba is on the brink of profound change. The signs, some subtle, some not, seemed to be everywhere, from the proliferation of small, privately owned businesses, to the generally friendly and open attitudes of the people, and the announcement while we were there of a major change in the ability to own and sell private (there’s that word again) property, to the ever closer end of the fifty-three year reign of the Office-Holder-in-Chief.

Many would say it is about time for change (or that it is long overdue) and, although we cannot say precisely how change will occur, we can at least perhaps say when it will occur: when he dies. Fidel Castro (simply “He” on the island) has been in the process of dying for some time, and many believe that change has already begun under the influence of Fidel’s younger brother, Raul, now President, although, like the absence of the emperor’s new clothes, it is still not necessarily wise to recognize the fact in some quarters.

It’s as if there is a great holding of the national breath, or a perpetual waiting by the nation for the other shoe to drop. It’s almost palpable these days, and the question of the hour seems to be “What’s going to happen when he’s gone?” It’s the question on everybody’s mind (Cuban and non-Cuban alike) and the one you as an outsider are expected to ask (and that you assume Cubans are asking each other, privately).

And change has certainly been desperately needed, as everyone knows, ever since Cuba’s Eastern Block partners underwent their own desperately needed changes in the early 90’s. As our government-sanctioned guide put it, “That’s when all the socialists decided they didn’t want to be socialist anymore”.

When that occurred, their problems quickly became Cuba’s problems, and it has been steeply downhill for the Cubans ever since. It has been known as the “Special Period” of the Revolution, which is the government-speak euphemism for the starkly austere hard times which quickly followed the departure of the Soviet and other Eastern Block aid. The Cuban economy very nearly collapsed in 1990-1991, and has struggled terribly ever since.

Of course, the regime prefers to blame everything (and I do mean everything) on the U. S. and its trade embargo (read “blockade” on the island), rather than their own flawed and bankrupt system, and the fact that Cuba and its own rulers chose their course, no one else. During the boom times when the rubles were pouring in (comprising approximately 85% of the Cuban economy), the effects of the “blockade” were largely offset, and apparently the Cubans didn’t bother with building their own economy during that time, relying instead on the largesse from overseas.

But those halcyon days are long gone, and the blush is way off the sugarcane now (and everything else, for that matter). The 15% of its economy that the Cubans were left with, following the departure of their comrades, transformed the “Pearl of the Antilles” into a struggling third world country with few international supporters. And there now seems to be very little love lost in Cuba for those former friends from the East, who were so alluring in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Everyone we talked to was pretty frank about it, and they clearly felt “left holding the bag” (while the Russians, on the other hand, feel like their massive support of Cuba contributed significantly to the downfall and dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s. Not much love lost there, either, one would assume.).

Given all of the above, Cuba’s infrastructure is now pretty much in shambles, and the list of urgent needs stretches well beyond the horizon. A significant portion of the GNP now comes from Cuban-American families in South Florida. It is truly a shame that Cuba’s political system has served it so poorly and has brought the island to this.

Ingenuity, Perseverance, and Survival

All of the above being said (mostly about the regime), there are of course the Cuban people, and I must admit sympathy and admiration for their gritty self-reliance and survival under very difficult circumstances (self-inflicted though they may be). Of course the surviving is done mostly by the people, not the government, which covers itself just fine. The people show a remarkable ability to adapt and persevere under the system with which they are saddled.

Everyone is familiar with the old American and Soviet cars which are everywhere in Cuba and which are somehow kept operational (well, at least moving). And, since many of them are taxis, you too can enjoy the unique experience — it’s a blast and really makes you feel a part of the scene. And the cars are just one example of how the people somehow figure ingenious ways to make it from day to day on very little.

Another example is the multitude of very small private businesses (souvenir shops, butcher shops, bakeries, etc.) that seem to be popping up everywhere in little holes in the wall. This is interesting in a Communist country where essentially everything has been owned and run by the government for the last 50 years. Private entrepreneurship appears to be awakening after a long nap.

Paladare “La Guarida” entry

Also interesting are the small private restaurants now allowed in private homes, known as “Paladares”. They are limited in size and the menu is sometimes limited, but surprisingly good. They come in all different shapes, sizes and locations, as you can imagine, and there are some paladares which are amazingly good and are considered some of the best restaurants in Havana.

My wife and I went to one of the most recommended paladares and had one of the best meals, and most unusual experience of the trip. It was on the third floor of a once elegant but now incredibly deteriorated apartment house (literally, chunks of it missing, paint and plaster hanging from the walls and ceiling) in a really rough part of town. It is called “La Guarida” (the hideaway) and is one of the most sought after reservations in town. We could not get a table until 10:00 p.m., and people were still being seated as we left about 11:30 p.m. And it was one of the coolest experiences we’ve ever had. It was like this elegant little cocoon on top Web and Michelle in La Guarida, Havanaof a disaster of a building in a disaster of a neighborhood, but just wonderful. It was so bizarre, it was like a scene from a Fellini movie (seriously). And very cool people were there (made you proud you had found the place and waited until 10:00 p.m. for a table).

Life in Plain View

As in most Latin countries, life in Cuba seems to be lived very publicly to those of us from the North who tend to live in detached, single family dwellings, often in somewhat isolated suburbs or developments, often without sidewalks, nearby public parks, or other public amenities. Latins, on the other hand, do not seem to place as high a value on privacy as we do, and their elaborate public spaces reflect this. They still gather in their beautiful public squares late in the afternoon, arm in arm, for a paseo or promenade, to visit and interact with friends, family, and total strangers. Havana is a city of over two million people, and this is still a beautiful part of daily life in many public places, in many parts of the city.

One of those beautiful public spaces much used by the people is Havana’s grandest avenue, Paseo de Marti, known as El Prado, which runs from the National Capitol to the sea. It is a paseo indeed, with block after block of beautiful decorative paving and trees in the median of the great boulevard, sloping gently toward the sea and equipped with fine street fixtures and amenities. But, again, the most impressive element of the whole ensemble is the people using it, in their hundreds. Scores of school children, with their teachers, playing games, giggling, ogling the strange people from the North, being kids. We visited with them and practiced our rudimentary Spanish and their rudimentary English. They enthusiastically posed for photos and were fascinated with our i-tablets, phones, etc. Great fun!


Old Havana (La Habana Vieja) is similar to the French Quarter in New Orleans, without cars. It is an almost totally pedestrian district, with very narrow streets, so you can observe Cuban home and street life up close and personal. You can look right into homes and courtyards, and speak to friends, neighbors, and passersby. So there is a lot of personal contact and interaction, and the people do not seem to live as isolated as we sometimes do. I have always thought that this was a beautiful aspect of Latin life from which we could learn.  In fact, the “New Urbanism” movement in the U.S. seems to be a move in that direction, re-discovering many traditional elements of city planning and design which are commonplace in Latin countries (so the slogan for Seaside, Florida, the New Urbanist icon, is, “The new town, the old ways”).

Another classic Latin city planning element employed out of doors in Havana is the portales or arcade, running on both sides of the street for blocks in various parts of the city. These lovely covered walkways really improve outdoor life, especially in the often inclement weather of the tropics. We should use it more ourselves.

The Sound of Music

Okay, my wife and I admit that we love Latin music (having been initiated many years ago at La Casa de los Marinos in the New Orleans French Quarter), and find it hard to sit still when we hear it. But music has always been a wonderful part of any visit to Cuba, and the music seems to be everywhere. My wife took a number of videos in which three or four different groups can be heard playing simultaneously in the background. And with all those exotic and unfamiliar instruments: conga, bongo, and timbale drums, maracas, claves, and the strange rasping sound of the “guiro” (that gourd that you scratch with a stick)—it is just wonderful!

The rich and exotic blend of African rhythm and Spanish melody in Cuba has given the world salsa, rumba, mambo, son, danzon, cha-cha-cha and other forms of popular music and dance. It is indeed an intoxicating brew, especially for us Norte Americanos, and the whole island seems to pulsate with it day and night. What a background for everything else you’ve come to see and do!

A real musical treat for us was a night in a traditional club where the “Buena Vista Social Club” was playing. This group of elderly gents plays authentic Son music (the foundation of Cuban traditional music), and it was something to behold. Like my wife and I, no one could sit still, and everyone was dancing, wishing someone would ask them to dance, or at least moving in place. The sidewalks outside the open windows of the corner location were about four deep in those doing the same for free. It was truly a scene!

And on a different level, and a different night, we had the opportunity to visit the world famous Tropicana club, which has been a Havana institution since 1939. About every bigwig who’s been to Cuba since then has been to the club. It features what has to be the largest and finest dance orchestra in Cuba, and the most talented and least dressed dancing beauties on the planet. The two-hour extravaganza takes place in a beautiful tropical garden under the stars, and deserves every bit of its fame.

View from tower

The Grand Old Lady

Havana’s traditional name, La Habana, means “the Old Lady” in Spanish, and I was impressed by how grand the Old Lady had once been. Her strategic location on the boundary between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, and right on that ancient highway in the ocean known as the Gulf Stream, made her the principle Spanish port in the Caribbean for several hundred years, and the main port of call for the treasure fleets going to and from Spain twice every year, as the Americas were systematically looted.

Havana’s great natural harbor sheltered many ships with its four fortresses, including the largest Spanish fortress ever built in the Western Hemisphere, Fortaleza de San Carlos de La Cabana. The ships could be pulled up (“careened”) on the shorelines of the large bay for work and refitting before continuing on to Mexico or Peru, or returning to Spain.

All of this activity required tremendous support facilities and generated great wealth for Havana. Needless to say, some of the vast fortunes flowing through the port managed to go astray, either accidentally or on purpose, and to this day modern treasure hunters are dredging up gold and silver from the bottom of Havana Bay. Some of it is beautifully displayed inside the oldest of the forts, Castillo de la Real Fuerza, which abuts both the harbor and the city’s oldest square, the Plaza de Armas. Our hotel, a colonial-era palace, was located on this lovely 500 year old square, where time seems to have stood quite still.

All this wealth, plus the sugar, coffee, tobacco, and rum wealth which followed, created a stunning colonial capitol, much of which survives to this day (though not in the best of shape).

Much like Eastern Europe under its post -World War II communist governments, relatively little has changed physically in Havana during the last 50 years, so much of the old city remains intact if not in good repair. This lack of change has been both fortunate and unfortunate. The whole city (and country) has stagnated and deteriorated in many ways, but that very stagnation has at least preserved by default much of what would have otherwise fallen to modern “progress”, which has been the post-war experience in most western cities.

So, much of Havana’s splendid 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th century urban fabric remained in place and relatively in tact in 1959 when the new regime took over, and remains so today. In fact, Habana Vieja (Old Havana) has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its marvelous concentration of colonial through early 20th century structures, which should at least help in its preservation.

There are unfortunate Soviet and American Mob-era intrusions (which our guide actually liked to point out), and the ever present demolition-by-neglect which has accelerated greatly during the “special period” of hardship following the Soviet pullout. Large areas along the Malecon (the great waterfront drive), which are subject to a frequent salty spray, appear to be under consumption by some rampant urban malignancy, while parts of Central Havana actually carry signs warning pedestrians of falling buildings. Indeed, on average, three buildings a day simply collapse in Havana, due to lack of maintenance.

Adios, Cuba!

Our week in Havana was both enjoyable and enlightening, and we look forward to returning at a future date to witness the continuing evolution of the Revolution. And to better understand the Cuban people and the relationships between their various groups, which are complex and defy simple pat explanations.

For instance, broadly speaking, there are of course “those who left” and “those who stayed” after the Revolution, which some say equates very roughly to the “haves” and the “have nots” in Cuba at the time. Whether or not that’s completely accurate, relations between these two groups have not always been cordial (reference the Bay of Pigs) , although both groups have a large number of relatives on the opposite side of the Florida Straights, and many of the Florida residents send support to relatives still on the island. And those who left, and their descendants, now comprise a good portion of the population of South Florida (enough to elect many public officials, on the local, state, and national levels), a good portion of whom have never lived in Cuba. So it gets complicated.

One small but poignant example occurred on our return flight to Miami. When the plane touched the runway, spontaneous applause broke out in the cabin. It wasn’t from us over privileged Americans, glad to be back home (although maybe it should have been), it was from the Cubans and Cuban-Americans who were thankful to be back on U.S. soil, or to be here for the first time.  Sort of put things in perspective.

My Night at the Alamo Plaza

Alamo Plaza cropped
It’s not often that a guy in his 60s gets to actually live out a childhood fantasy. And, before you get the wrong idea, this is an innocent fantasy.

You see, there were certain deprivations in my childhood, one of which was never being allowed to stay at an Alamo Plaza Motel, that icon of the American road that stirred the imaginations of young boys in the 1950s and 60s.

It was the Davy Crockett era, and Fess Parker was our hero, and we saw the Disney movie multiple times, even when you had to go downtown to a real movie theatre each time. We ran around the neighborhood in coonskin caps, complete with snap-off coon tails (so that they wouldn’t be pulled off permanently), and defended anything looking remotely like a fort from the invading Mexicans who were expected at any moment (although, originally, it may have been the Texans doing the invading—depends on your point of view).

And in such an atmosphere, what could possibly be more interesting, more fascinating, to us kids than those wonderful replicas of the famed mission-turned-fortress in San Antonio that you could actually stay in (how cool was that)? The answer to both questions is absolutely nothing on the planet, unless you happened to be the parents of such kids, who were more interested in the Howard Johnson’s or Holiday Inn, neither of which needed defending from the invaders (took all the fun out of it). So, needless to say, no matter how many times my sister and I pleaded, the station wagon never darkened the romantic arches of a single Alamo Plaza during my entire childhood.

But, life goes on, you grow up, and put away such childish things. However, even as an adult, I admit that I would occasionally cast a wistful glance at an ancient Alamo Plaza ageing by some old highway, wondering what might have been.

The only Alamo Plaza in South Mississippi that I would see with some regularity was located on old Highway 90 on the beach in Gulfport. It was slightly elevated and had a fine view of the Sound, and hadn’t seen a coat of paint in a decade or two, and probably not many customers either. Having now become a man with a family of my own, I had never considered subjecting them to the luxury of an Alamo Plaza, so my fantasy remained just that. . . until I learned that the old place might be in danger of being replaced by one of those new high rise apartment blocks with all the charm of, say, a mausoleum.

And that got the old juices flowing again. If I was ever going to stay in one of those intriguing fragments of my lost childhood, so long denied me, it would have to be soon.

And, as luck would have it, I had business on the Coast soon, so the opportunity was there. My understanding wife even offered to make the reservation for me (I suspected she was sort of getting into the idea, although she didn’t volunteer to come down and spend the night with me there). According to my wife, she spoke to a very nice elderly lady, who was delighted to help and asked, “What type of room would he like?”

“Well, what types do you have?”, my wife asked.

“Oh, we have a single with one twin bed and a shower for $24.50 plus tax. Or, we have a double that has a bathtub for $34.50 plus tax. Or, we have a suite that includes paneling and a kitchenette for $44.50 plus tax.”
“Great, we’ll take the suite. Do you need a credit card to hold it?”
“Oh, no, just a phone number, and will you be with him?”

“I’m afraid not . . .”

The next night, the same elderly desk clerk seemed mildly impressed by my arrival, as if she hadn’t really expected it. I got the impression that reservations were not necessarily the norm, and began to feel a little like a visiting dignitary. But, before I could get carried away, she asked if I would be paying in cash, and it didn’t really sound like a question.

The lobby was period 50s and great, with a nice view over the slopping front lawn to the swimming pool and the Gulf beyond. With the slope, it was sort of a 50s infinity pool and looked very inviting. And my suite was the same, really carrying out the feeling of a time capsule. Paneled in real Ponderosa Pine, with those big dark knots, it had really been sumptuous in its day. It had a really nice 50s tiled bath, with the small tiles, and many built in extras and amenities not found in motel rooms today.

Of course the place had been remodeled, redone, repainted, refurnished, and touched up too many times to count, but that only resulted in that wonderful patina of age and that interesting eclectic mix of furniture, hardware, décor, and the like, little of which matched, that conjured a certain rather jaded “atmosphere” not necessarily appreciated by all, to be sure (like the rest of my family and most of the traveling public).

“Now, see,” I thought , ” we could have been enjoying these groovy places all these years.” And, when young, we could have defended them from the invaders, coonskin caps and all. But, somehow I don’t think the rest of the family would have seen quite the same romance in it all that I did. And then there was someone’s laundry hanging outside to dry, but, again, that only added charm to my way of thinking (and at no extra charge).

Well, by the next morning a longtime dream had been fulfilled. I had actually stayed in an Alamo Plaza Motel, albeit a few years after the Davy Crockett craze.

But I had no way of knowing that the experience was not quite over, and that I had one more unique pleasure in store. That occurred the next day during the legal depositions that I had come to the Coast to conduct. They were of course held in one of the fancy casino resort hotels, and were attended by a number of well heeled and sophisticated attorneys from all over the place.

During one of our breaks, we were standing around making very small talk when someone inquired as to where everyone was staying there on the Coast (you can see it coming, can’t you?). Some were staying at “the Beau” (Beau Rivage), some at “the IP”( Imperial Palace), some at the Grand , and so on. And then they got to me. “Where are you staying, Web?” “Oh, me? I’m at the Alamo Plaza.”

There was an awkward moment of complete silence, followed by the sound of their collective jaws hitting the floor and the stricken looks on their faces, which were, as the MasterCard add goes, . . . “Priceless!”

Hiking With Sonny

SonnySonny was a piece of work — like no other — completely unique. His recent passing was marked and mourned by many, especially by his hiking buddies.

Most people knew him as Dr. Milam S. Cotten, a prominent and respected ophthalmologist in Hattiesburg for many years. But the good doctor had another life and another persona not known to everyone. It was Our Milam of the Trail, the hiker, the camper, the outdoorsman; and that Milam had his own separate trail name: Sonny 34 (1934 being the year of his birth in McComb, Miss.).

Sonny 34 was a fascinating and uniquely entertaining character, much loved and enjoyed by the many friends he made on the trail.

His hiking group has sometimes been loosely referred to as “The Dirty Dozen”, although the composition of the groups with whom Milam hiked has varied greatly over the last quarter century or so. More or less than twelve, and different combinations of guys (and, occasionally, wives, daughters, and/or daughters in law).

But, whoever and however many there were, they were each lucky to have experienced the great outdoors with one of the Lord’s truly unique creations: Sonny 34.

A Hike to Remember

There are more tales growing out of those hikes than Carter has Little Liver Pills, as the saying goes, so here I will attempt to share only a few of those from one memorable hike in the Grand Canyon in 1991.

The group on that occasion, though dirty, was far less than a dozen; four to be exact. It consisted of Thad Waites, Ed Langton, Sonny, and yours truly.

The trip in question was a week at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and included two major hikes, one into the Havasu Canyon, one of the many tributary canyons of the Colorado and inhabited for hundreds of years by the Havasupai Indians, and a second hike into the main canyon of the Colorado River itself (the Grand Canyon).

Planning and Preparation

Of course, part of the fun of a major hike is studying the area, planning the actual hike(s), obtaining the required permits and registrations, plane tickets, vehicle rentals, hotel and cabin rentals, assembling the gear, obtaining and studying the maps and quadrants and, of course, discussing and debating all of the above repeatedly ad infinitum.

Our hikes always required several early morning meetings at the Cracker Barrel, starting weeks prior to departure, to make sure all plans and arrangements were in place and understood by all (the latter not always achieved).


Gear is a major consideration, more major for some than others. Some are real “gear heads” and study, discuss and debate all the latest equipment and are constantly updating their stuff. When they open their back packs, the inside looks like the inside of a computer, everything being organized and packed just so. And of course all of this has to be properly discussed during the weeks preceding departure.

And then there was Milam. He was not what you’d call a gear head or high-tech hiker. In fact, he was the opposite of a high-tech hiker. He was not even a low-tech hiker. He was no-tech.

He cared not for tech of any kind. For him, the older, the more worn-out, beat-up and apparently useless a piece of “equipment” was, the better he liked it. He cared nothing for the new, sporty, hi-tech gadgets and, if something he had happened to be new, he’d add a little duck tape and spray paint to make it look used. For example, while some had the latest ergonomic hiking poles, Milam proudly used one handle off a rusty old post-hole digger which he had partially spray-painted at some point to make it look even worse (as if it needed any help).

On one winter hike, Sonny didn’t even bother to bring a sleeping bag, but simply wrapped himself up in some plastic sheeting for the night (not much R-factor there!).

And, of course, he disdained fancy up-scale hiking boots, the one item most hikers would recommend for comfort and safety. When he did have boots, they were old, beat-up, and appeared close to useless, but Sonny loved them. So much so that he put them under his head at night for a “pillow.” There were times, as discussed below, when he had no boots at all.

It was all part of Sonny’s mind-set, his point of view, where he came from. The worse things were, the worse the conditions were (the hotter, the colder, the wetter, the drier, etc.), the better he liked it. And that went for his appearance as well. He couldn’t just feel rough, he wanted to look rough as well. Thus, he didn’t care for photos when he was fresh and looking good, he wanted them at the worst time of day or night when he appeared exhausted, dehydrated, and on the verge of heat stroke (now that’s what he’s talking about!). And to assure the worst possible photos of himself, he often took his own; just arm’s length, looking into his camera (now those are some bad photos).

Getting There

With Sonny, the adventure usually started long before you actually hit the trail, in this case at the Jackson airport where he was prevented from boarding the plane with his huge new Bowie knife, which he had purchased for this hike. In fairness, this was long before 9-11 but, even then, most people understood that trying to board an airplane with what amounted to a machete was not going to endear you to security, as modest as it was in those days. So he had to go back and put the knife in his checked backpack, with hopes of seeing it again in Arizona. However, when we landed near the Grand Canyon, Sonny’s backpack was not on the plane, having missed the flight due to the flap over the knife.

The knife he could do without, but his pack contained all of his cloths and hiking gear, such as it was, and we began to wonder how that was going to be addressed.

Sonny rim view

The El Tovar

The El Tovar Hotel sits on th very edge of the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and is one of those wonderful old railroad hotels you find in the National Parks out west. Built to entice tourists west by rail, it opened in 1905 and, like many of the others, it looks like the ultimate western hunting lodge, complete with huge beams, lots of stone, and Indian blankets and artifacts everywhere.

The four of us had a beautiful suite with a balcony literally overlooking the Canyon. The views were simply indescribable, as we stared slack-jawed toward the north rim some 11 miles away.

We were told that President Bush 41 would be in the hotel, and was expected the next day. That explained the serious looking guys in the lobby with bugs in their ears.

The First Hike: Havasu Canyon

According to plan, our first hike was a descent into Havasu Canyon, one of the side or tributary canyons off of the main Colorado River canyon. This canyon has been the beautiful home of the Havasupai Indian tribe since around the 1300s, and they are still living there today, in and around their village of Supai.

The Havasupai (“people of the blue-green water”) welcome visitors to their village and have both camping facilities and a nice lodge in which to stay.

This would probably be an appropriate place to update you on the fate of Sonny’s backpack and all his hiking gear,including the knife. In short, it didn’t arrive before we left the El Tovar, so he had to improvise, which he had been known to do before and didn’t mind. In fact, I suspected that he kind of enjoyed it since it resulted in a most unorthodox hiking outfit. And Sonny was nothing if not unorthodox. Let me describe it.

On his head he wore a huge black felt cowboy hat (remember the movie “Billy Jack?”). Since he had no hiking shorts, he substituted a pair of boxer shorts (yes, underwear), with Micky Mouse printed all over them (I’m serious). Below them a pair of very white legs descended to a pair of real eye-catching red socks, which lined not hiking boots, of course, but low-quarter Cole-Hann deck shoes (for a major multi-day hike into the Grand Canyon).

It goes without saying that Sonny got incredulous looks at almost every turn; Indians, white men, and everyone else. He was, indeed, a sight for sore eyes!

The 8 mile trail down drops 2400 feet and is the only way in or out of Havasu Canyon and theVillage of Supai, and there is no mechanized transport of any kind below the trailhead. Literally everything goes over the trail, most of it by mule or pony pack train, including the U.S. and Havasupai mail, one of only two places in America where the mail is delivered by pack train–the other being Phantom Ranch, another place on the bottom of the canyon, which we would visit during our second hike.

Once you reach the canyon floor the trail is usually a dry creek bed and, from time to time, we would hear what sounded like sleigh bells jingling. Then, all of a sudden, a mule or pony train would come thundering around a turn in the trail and we would scatter for survival. A mounted Indian or two would be leading the train, which was gone in an instant; the Pony Express indeed!

An interesting innovation Sonny often employed while hiking was his oatmeal raisin cookie system. He preferred not to lug a lot of heavy food and cooking gear in his pack, allowing others to perform that task. However, after a hard day of hiking he would be as hungry as the next guy, and his solution to this dilemma was simple and elegant. Sonny simply brought along a bag of what he described as his wife Betty’s famous homemade oatmeal raisin cookies, which he ceremoniously shared with one and all at crucial times throughout the day.

Later, as the wonderful smelling trail grub was being pulled off the fire for supper, Sonny would appear with his plate in hand. Having been so generous with those wonderful cookies all day, no one would refuse him a little of what they each had. Thus, Sonny ate as well as anyone, having transported no more than a light bag of cookies.

At one point we passed a small group of Indians, who asked us for a light. When we told them that none of us smoked, they looked a little surprised and one of them smiled and replied, “Oh, you guys are into fiber?”

We were very amused by the question/observation (here I am, relating it 21 years later), and its implications. We from the fancy, modern, white man’s world were so concerned about blood pressure, cholesterol, fiber intake, etc., while these Indians who lived simply, naturally, and close to the earth were smoking cigarettes and were amused at us. Sort of a conundrum.

As we finally neared Supai village, we were fascinated by everything we saw. The trail gradually widened and, shaded by ancient cottonwoods, became the main street of the village, which was surrounded and guarded, at a distance, by gigantic red rock walls, towers, and other formations, nature’s own sentinels.

The people were open and friendly, despite Sonny’s bizarre appearance, and you felt like you were encountering a lost tribe of some kind (although it was more likely we who were lost).

At the lodge we were given our room keys and split up to find our rooms, clean up, and settle in for the night. Thad, Ed and I didn’t learn what happened next until the next day.

What did happen next was that the naked woman on the bed screamed when Sonny opened her door. Given his attire and appearance, she probably would have screamed had she been fully clothed but, given the way things were, Sonny’s arrival must have been doubly alarming. We later learned that there had been a slight mixup with the room keys and that Sonny had beaten a hasty retreat to get it straightened out. Lord knows what the woman did.

Land of Blue-Green Water

The next morning we walked out of the lodge and into paradise, which is really the only word for Havasu Canyon. It is stunningly beautiful.

It is a relatively narrow canyon, one of the many tributaries of the main Colorado River canyon, and is filled with beautiful natural gardens accented by great randomly scattered boulders and exotic rock formations which are bordered by high sheer rock walls on either side, heightening the lush oasis effect in this otherwise arid land. The contrast between the lush green vegetation in the canyon, and the surrounding desert environment, which stretches for hundreds of miles in every direction, is dramatic. In fact, everything in canyon land appears dramatic; it is a harsh but ruggedly beautiful world.

Havasu Canyon is transected by multiple dramatic cataracts forming beautiful waterfalls. And the pools into which that water falls, as well as the adjacent creek bottoms, are all coated in a light-colored travertine produced by the minerals in the water. The creek bottom and the minerals suspended in the water reflect the brilliantly blue sky, charging the creek with a beautiful blue-green (turquoise) color, hence, the name of the canyon, the creek, and the people who inhabit it.

The whole effect was profoundly moving . Words like “heaven,” “ enchanted,” and “the Garden of Eden” came to mind repeatedly.

Our intrepid band continued exploration of this enchanted place, swimming in the round travertine pools beneath the waterfalls, each one more beautiful than the last, and descending the cataracts using little steps cut into the face of the sheer cliff, while holding onto steel cables or chains. We climbed over, under, around and through the multitude of rocks, boulders, and exotic formations of every description. We even scaled the sheer rock walls of the canyon on remnants of old mining ladders left in place by long vanished miners (don’t know what we were thinking, but it was fun!).

At our last waterfall, Mooney Falls, Ed and I happened to be talking with a lady who related an unusual incident at the lodge the night before when a strange man in a large black hat and red socks attempted to get into her room. This was news to us, and we couldn’t wait to tell Thad and Sonny!

Meanwhile, Back in the Village

One of Sonny’s favorite hobbies, for which he was well known in Hattiesburg, was welding, believe it or not. He had his own shop in his backyard where he could get away from his normal high-tech, high-stress job. Now, in the village, Sonny fell in love . . . with an anvil, and he wanted to buy it and take it to his welding shop back home. Doubtless it was a fine anvil, but how in the hell Sonny planned to extract it from Havasu Canyon, then somehow transport it across a good bit of North America, was never entirely clear. However, like the unexplained naked woman in Sonny’s room (or the unexplained man in her room), it did make for good conversation.

One of the more charming features of the village was its signs, and we enjoyed trying to decipher them. For instance, a prominent and very official looking sign near the center of the village read:

‘No Parking Any Other Time’

We debated the true import of this sign extensively. In fact, on the rare occasion that things slowed down a bit, someone would quote that sign and the discussion would start all over again.

Another great sign was exquisitely local in nature. It displayed a logo representation of an Indian on horseback, obviously inebriated (the rider, not the horse), covered by the usual large red circle and slash mark, under which was the admonition:

‘Don’t Drink and Ride’

We assumed that the offence would be RUI, rather than DUI, and that the latter was unknown in the village.

Adieu, Havasu!

Having had a wonderful visit in the Land of Blue-Green Water, we hiked out of Supai before dawn the next morning in order to ascend during the cooler hours (a definite consideration in these climes), and made it back to Hilltop in good order. We stopped on nearby Route 66 for milkshakes and, in about five hours, were back at the El Tovar.

Return to the El T and Second Hike

During our Havasu hiatus our wonderful suite had been pinched by the President of the United States! That’s right, they gave our room to George 41 but, not to worry, the replacement was plenty good enough for us peons.

We had another great night of socializing in the El Tovar dining room, and a restful night in our suite. In our maturity, we are no longer strict purists about hiking and camping, and little objection is heard to the occasional night under roof (especially a roof as nice as this one). As the years have gone by, it is what we have come to call, “hotel hiking,” and we are no longer even ashamed of it.

South Kaibab Trail

Early the next morning we began our descent on the spectacular South Kaibab Trail, which drops 4780 feet in 7.3 very sunny miles from the south rim to the Colorado River. The South Kaibab is one of the most scenic trails in the whole Grand Canyon complex, since it is principally located on a huge promontory jutting out into the main channel of the Colorado River canyon. This puts you on display, as it were, out in the middle of the canyon and right in the middle of some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet.

You encounter many interesting things along the trail in the Grand Canyon. Many young people, while quite fit, fail to understand or allow for the rather extreme desert environment of the canyon. Dehydration is quite common, and the park rangers told us that, believe it or not, Germanic males between the ages of 18 and 25 are the most common victims (“We haul them out like cord wood, all the time.”). While they are young and fit and quite used to hiking in, say, the Alps, they are not used to the desert conditions of the canyon and fail to take the proper precautions, such as water, hats, occasional rest, etc. We would see young men without hats, water, or even clothes other than shorts attempting to run, not walk from rim to rim in a single day. These would be some of those we’d see being carried, packed or air-lifted out by the Rangers.

The Plateau, Inner Canyon, and River

After you wind down the wall of the outer canyon you come out onto a broad, more level plateau or esplanade that takes you to the edge of the final steep plunge into the dark and ancient inner canyon, whose twisted and tortured rocks are some of the oldest visible on the earth’s surface. It also grows noticeably warmer, from what was already quite warm and dry, as you travel down into the earth and far into the past—many millions of years into the past. Some indigenous legends hold that if you sleep within the earth, you will never be the same again. My wife probably believes them.

Many signs along the way had warned us to “Have plenty of fluid” with us, and it was at about this point in the hike that we noticed Sonny’s artfully efficient system of fluid circulation. At first, it merely looked like he was sitting on a flat rock drinking water out of his nalgene bottle, and spilling a lot of it in the process. But then we noticed that he was actually, and simultaneously, relieving himself at the other end. It was such an elegantly simple, efficient, and time-saving system that the rest of us adopted it as well. Worked just fine.

At the bottom of the inner canyon roars the mighty hand that had wrought all of that which we had seen and at which we had marveled, the Colorado River. From the rim it seems so small and far away and silent. Down here, when swollen by rain, snow runoff, or a dam release, it roars like a freight train at some points, while inexorably continuing its ancient work. From here you can at least fathom how the mighty waters might somehow cut and remove a great deal of stone. But then you look at the unimaginable size of the abyss above and all around you (for example, 11 miles wide and a mile deep at this point, and hundreds of miles long), and the amount of time it has taken to do so starts looking pretty infinite.

Phantom Ranch

Once we finally reached and crossed the river on the pedestrian suspension bridge, two more miles brought us to Phantom Ranch, the famous outpost on the bottom of the canyon, where we had a place to eat, drink and sleep.

This famous and alluring place has been visited and inhabited by Native Americans for over a thousand years that we know of, but the first recorded visit by white men was that of the John Wesley Powell party in 1869. Thereafter, prospectors used the area and, in the early 20th Century, the Grand Canyon Transportation Company began to develop its potential for tourism.

A trail from the camp to the North Rim was improved and, in 1913, President Theodore Roosevelt visited with his hunting party. Thereafter, it was known as Roosevelt Camp and, in 1919, the Grand Canyon joined the young National Park System. Three years later the Fred Harvey Company was granted the concession for the camp and hired architect Mary Colter to design permanent structures and other improvements.

Colter designed the picturesque buildings so admired by visitors, using the natural materials available in the area such as natural stone and hand-hewn timbers and shakes. Colter was one of those who developed the style that became known as National Park Service Rustic, which has always been so popular in our national parks, and of which Phantom Ranch is such a good example.

During the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) made improvements to the ranch and its access trails, and other parts of the park at large, as it did in national parks all over the country.

The park’s popularity continued to grow throughout the 20th Century, and the ranch became one of the most popular destinations in the national park system. People arrived by foot or mule over the trails, or by boat from the river. Permits became necessary for overnight stays in the cabins and bunkhouses at the ranch, and for meals as well, which are often sold out a year in advance. Our permits were the result of some of that intensive Cracker Barrel planning I mentioned.

It goes without saying that we slept very soundly that night (the sleep of the just or the dead or something like that), although, sleeping within the earth, I guess we were never the same again. Whether that was good or bad would be the domain of our respective wives.

Final Ascent : Phantom Ranch to Indian Gardens

Always keen to get us away in the cool hours of the morning, first call for breakfast at the ranch was at 4:30, but the meal was delicious. Sonny did not even need his oatmeal rasin cookies at the ranch, where we decided they were not legal tender.

We said goodby to the marvelous ranch and a two mile hike brought us back to the river, where we enjoyed wading before recrossing the suspension bridge and beginning the arduous climb out of the canyon. We took Bright Angel Trail, which climbs 4460 feet over 9.5 miles from the ranch to the south rim. Indian Gardens campgrounds is about half way up and was our destination.

The ascent was sort of the reverse of the experience we had the day before, and you felt as if you were slowly emerging from very far within the earth (which of course you were). In the steep, dark inner canyon the trail switches back over and over in order to negotiate the steep canyon wall. And of course we were again time traveling, covering centuries of time with every step upward.

At the top of the inner canyon you reach Plateau Point, which provides great panoramic views of the inner canyon below, and the vast outer canyon above. It is a place where you feel very much “in the middle”,”on the brink”, right at the dividing line between the two vast and different worlds of the inner and outer canyons. It was also an excellent place for Sonny to introduce us to his new friend, Chief Tomor.

Sonny never ceased trying to help others understand or experience something he had discovered, in this case a particular rock outcropping high up on the wall of the outer canyon, which Sonny was convinced looked exactly like the profile of some illustrious Indian chief of the past. He named his discovery Chief Tomor, and had set about assisting the National Park Service to see the chief as he did, and in adjusting their maps, guides, and other material to reflect their new enlightenment.

I believe he wrote the Park Service several times , enclosing photos of the Chief’s likeness in its canyon, but apparently the Park Service failed to embrace the Chief with the same enthusiasm shown by Sonny. At least I have not noticed any changes in the U. S. Geological Survey in that area relating to the Chief.

Of course he offered the same assistance to us, as well as other hikers, random strangers, and so forth. Reactions varied.

Indian Gardens campgrounds is an outpost about half way between the top and bottom of the canyon. It makes a very good stopping place, ascending or descending, and, thus, became our camp site for this our last night on the trail.

Our campsite was right on the main thoroughfare, allowing us to watch all those passing through this well known oasis, and we relaxed and enjoyed the night, with its passing entertainment.

And a jolly night it was. I had lugged a heavy (and precious) pint of Jack Daniels all this way with which to properly commemorate the last night of a great hike. And in our exhausted and dehydrated state, the elixir was even more effective than normally. I announced that I was not about to tote that bottle another step and that, since all of us were good stewards of the environment , we certainly couldn’t pour any of that foreign matter onto the delicate desert flora, and so it would simply have to be drained then and there, before anyone slept. I heard no objection, and we proceeded to protect the environment.

Final Climb to the El T

The last leg of the hike, from Indian Gardens to the south rim, was perhaps the hardest, since it is essentially straight up. Every step is up, and it definitely separates those who are in shape from those who are not. It also separates those who are ascending from those who are descending. As you huff and puff with every step up, lightly clad day hikers are cheerfully skipping down the trail, wondering what is the big deal. A few hours from now, going in the opposite direction, they will have no doubt.

The El Tovar looked even more welcoming this time than it had on our first two arrivals, and a broom closet would have been perfectly acceptable to this weary crew. But, to our surprise and great pleasure, we were given our wonderful original suite again, the President having decamped during our latest absence.

Our last night at the hotel was spent in cheerfully recovering in the dining room, where we made a number of interesting acquaintances. For instance, at the next table sat Paul Hogan, the Australian star of the then popular movie, “Crocodile Dundee”. Nearby was the party of Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, whom I had known from my page days in Washington. He came over and visited. Everyone in the dining room seemed merry and convivial, and it was a very pleasant conclusion to a most memorable hike. But the final coda of the trip, appropriately provided by Sonny, occurred some weeks later.

Sonny’s Post Script

As mentioned, Sonny was fond of helping people and often volunteered to do so. He didn’t always understand when his offers weren’t gratefully accepted, and such was the case with the Havasupai.

Being an Ophthalmologist (eye doctor), Sonny had noticed certain eye problems among the members of the tribe we encountered in and around Havasu Canyon and the village of Supai. Wanting to help, he mentioned the problems to the Chief and said that he would be willing to come back out to Supai and check the eyes of the tribal members, free of charge, to identify any problems they might have. Sonny called it an ophthalmic survey, the normal professional term.

The Chief thanked him and said he and the Tribal Elders would consider the matter, but Sonny had heard nothing further at the time we departed Supai. This was not surprising since we were only there a couple of days.

A week or two after returning home, Sonny got to thinking about the Havasupai and realized that he had heard nothing from them concerning his kind offer. So, he wrote the Chief a letter and repeated his offer of the free ophthalmic survey for his tribe. More time went by and, still hearing nothing from the Chief, Sonny decided to call him on the telephone and inquire.

Sonny was finally able to get the Chief on the phone, and the conversation went something like this:

“Chief, do you remember my offer to come back and do the ophthalmic survey of your people, free of charge?”

“Yes, I do.”

“And did you get my letter about my offer?”

“Yes, I did.”

“And did you discuss it with the Tribal Elders, like you were going to?”

“Yes, I did.”

“And they considered it?”

“Yes, they did.”

“Well, I didn’t understand why I hadn’t heard back from you. You and the Elders would like me to do it, wouldn’t you?”

“We don’t think so.”

“Why on earth not? It would be free, and would help your people!”

“Well, Dr. Cotten, we appreciate your offer but, you see, over the years every time white man does survey, we lose land!”

Memories of Cleve

I recently read of the death of a Mississippi civil rights pioneer named Cleveland Donald, and a flood of old memories reminded me, after all these years, of my classmate at Ole Miss in the Fall of 1964.

Cleve and I arrived at the University at the same time, albeit by somewhat different routes. I was an average middle-class somewhat privileged white fraternity boy, whose parents had both attended Ole Miss during and after World War II (so this was actually my second time to matriculate there; the first time I was in a baby stroller).

While I was not unaware of or immune to the waves of change that were washing over my home state, having just lived through “Freedom Summer” in my hometown of Hattiesburg, I had not been directly involved or directly effected by “the movement” at that time.


Standing, from left to right Cleveland Donald Jr., Hodding Carter, the editor of the Delta Democrat Times; Sen. Ted Kennedy; Charles Evers, brother and successor to slain NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers; and Aaron Henry, then state president of NAACP.

Cleveland Donald Jr., left is shown in this picture from his personal collection, taken circa 1964, with other key leaders of the civil rights movement in Mississippi when he was a young Democratic organizer and youth field coalition leader for the NAACP. Standing, from left to right with him, are Hodding Carter, the editor of the Delta Democrat Times; Sen. Ted Kennedy; Charles Evers, brother and successor to slain NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers; and Aaron Henry, then state president of NAACP.Cleve, on the other hand, was already a veteran of the Jackson Movement led by Medgar Evers, and had been one of its student leaders.  I learned only recently that Cleve had been recruited and encouraged to come to Ole Miss by members of the Mississippi Council on Human Relations, including my friend Dr. Gerald Walton and my political science professor, Dr. Russell Barret.  They were seeking to fill the place left by the 1963 graduation of James Meridith, the University’s first black student, and the short stay of its second black student, Cleve McDowell.

No doubt Cleve Donald was well trained for what he was about to do and was protected by U. S. Marshals wherever he went.

First Meeting

So, there we were, Cleve and I, about to attend our first class together, Geology 101, meeting in historic Ventress Hall, that beautiful little Victorian castle sitting in The Grove.  Cleve was a nice looking, well groomed young guy who, it goes without saying, stayed pretty much to himself in the beginning (kind of hard to make friends with U. S. Marshals at your elbow).

Ventress Hall

Ventress Hall

That first day nobody knew what to expect. Few, if any, of us ( Cleve or the rest of us) had ever been to school with a member of the other’s race. And of course things were still very edgy at Ole Miss after the terrible trauma of James Meredith’s admission just two years before. And while the great majority of students were just there to go to school, and didn’t have much of an ax to grind in the great socio-political-legal drama that had been thrust upon Ole Miss without its consent, there were a few of those die-hard types in the classroom that day who still wanted to have a say in the matter.

Fortunately, also present that day was kindly old Dr. Douglas, the Chairman of the Geology Department, who was as much a gentleman as he was a scholar. He was rarely known to raise his voice. Didn’t need to; his presence said it all.

The Marshals would hold Cleve out in the hall until everyone else was seated, and then bring him in (just heightening the drama, of course). That first morning Cleve was brought in and a few of those I mentioned started hissing in the back of the room. The rest of us wondered what would happen next, but we didn’t have to wonder long. The kindly old professor immediately stated loudly and firmly that we were all Ladies and Gentlemen (giving us the benefit of considerable doubt at that moment), and that nothing like that would be tolerated in his classroom. And that was the end of that—no more disturbance.

However, when the bell rang and we all got up to leave, some of the same ones that had hissed earlier shot some verbal insults at Cleve as he left to meet his Marshals. And his reaction surprised me. He seemed genuinely stung or hurt by the slurs which, again, surprised me. I thought that a handpicked veteran of civil rights work would have already seen and heard enough of that to not let it bother him; that he would simply consider the source and let it roll off. But no, he actually seemed hurt or offended by it, and I have obviously never forgotten the look on his face that day forty-eight years ago, as he surreptitiously offered the offenders his middle finger. At that moment, he seemed a vulnerable young player in one of the great dramas of our time.

Cleve and I were History and Political Science majors, and had a number of classes together. And it must be said that things improved markedly for Cleve (and the rest of us) after that first day in Geology class. He stayed at Ole Miss (James Meredith had graduated after only a year), which led to a very memorable Political Science field trip to Washington, D. C. during, of all times, the great “Blizzard of ’66”.

The Blizzard of ’66

Led by our popular Indian political science professor, Dr. Bagat, our little group, including Cleve, took the train from Mississippi to Washington in January, 1966. Between Cleve, Dr. Bagat, and other ethnic types, we were decades ahead in our diversity (a term rarely used at the time), and looked like a delegation of the United Nations in those days.

As we traveled northeast, the weather, specifically the snow, got steadily worse until trains were about the only things moving. As we traveled through Virginia, it was clear that the train had become a very popular mode of transport (perhaps the only mode), and every stop produced more and more passengers—all trying to get to Washington. When we stopped at Staunton, Va., a bunch of seriously cute girls from Mary Baldwin got on, their exclusive girls school having let out due to the storm.

The girls brought with them the traveling troubadours who had performed at their school the night before, namely The Kingston Trio, a popular folk group in the 1960’s, and Godfrey Cambridge, a well known black comedian of the day.

As the girls and the entertainers began to mix with each other, and with our Ole Miss group, and with the normal passengers, a strange and loopy alchemy began to develop — a sort of shipwrecked or marooned mentality. Beer appeared from somewhere and, pretty soon, the Trio’s instruments were up and running. To complete the scene, the imminent Mr. Cambridge, who had recently appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine in, of all things, a pink satin Klan outfit, complete with hood (I remembered seeing the issue), of course had to break it out as well.

Once Godfrey was properly attired, it seemed the appropriate time to tell him that we had with us the second black student at Ole Miss, which he did not believe. So, nothing would do but to produce Cleve, which we did with great fanfare. Most impressed, Godfrey hugged and wrapped Cleve in his Klan outfit, exclaiming, “Come here, you token baby!” We all loved it, especially Cleve. I never saw him happier.

And so the Magical Mystery Train wound on through the Northern Virginia blizzard, with proper young ladies “gatoring” down its aisles until, at some point, it finally entered the District of Columbia. The last of the college girls I saw detraining was wearing a conductor’s hat. I didn’t ask.

The Interviews

The next morning it was at last time to do what we had come there to do, interview Washington luminaries of the day. Dr. Bagat, or someone, had done a great job of lining up potential subjects of interrogation. And even the storm had cooperated, since many who would probably have ducked out on us were now trapped in the city with us, like fish in a barrel!

To say that Bobby Kennedy was somewhat less than overjoyed to see us, even with Cleve, is probably an understatement. I don’t know whether a group from Ole Miss brought back uncomfortable memories for him (as well it could), or whether he would just rather have been doing something else that otherwise beautiful morning (also a distinct possibility). After all, his nearby trophy table prominently displayed a dented U. S. Marshal’s helmet from Ole Miss, and he may have been unsure as to exactly how we felt about all that. I suspect that we were unsure as to exactly how we felt about all that. At any rate, I found him cool, stiff, and pretty uncommunicative. We tried to loosen him up a little, but he would have none of it. He was quite obviously doing the time he had agreed to do, and nothing more.

Mr. Justice Brennan was a bit warmer, but gave you the distinct feeling that he suffered fools poorly (and that we were probably fools). Any time he really didn’t want to get into something, he would just say, “I’ll leave that to your general reading.” (whatever that meant).

Senator Stennis was the warm and genial older gentleman you expected, and we left him feeling warm and fuzzy (no wonder Charles Lawton studied his accent and diction for the movie Advise and Consent).

The rest of the interviews must have been pretty routine, since I don’t even remember them (perhaps I was still remembering the train trip up, something more memorable to a twenty year old kid).

Post Trip, Post Script

After we returned from our field trip, I saw Cleve around campus for the short remainder of our undergraduate careers but, like most of us, lost contact after graduation. I never really knew a lot about what became of him and what he did with the rest of his life (except for the occasional news snippet, not revealing much) until his early death last month, at age 65. And then I learned that Cleve had been busy indeed these last forty-five years: Harvard, Cornell, Ole Miss(again), the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Connecticut at Waterbury, as well as being an ordained minister all the while. Dr. Leslie McLemore summed up Cleve well when he recently said,”Cleve was able to combine his activist nature with academics.”
It’s interesting how life works out some time. From that Geology class in 1964, the average middle-class white kid has remained pretty much just that, while the black kid on a mission has moved onward and upward in many amazing ways.

You did very well, Cleve, and made many people very proud. . . . including me. Godspeed!