Above This Wall
Nobody cares that we are sitting in the open truck bed. Houston cops have bigger ribs to grill. Eric and Lee, two youthful activists inside the cab, turn up the radio. The music punctuates the rhythm of the traffic as the faded gray pick-up inches along South Main Street. The July heat will soon give way to another late afternoon thunderstorm. My soon to be roommate, Larry, chats with Terry and Kim, arguably two of the more interesting people assigned to the VISTA project sponsored by Houston’s Council on Human Relations. Terry has come from Humboldt State in very Northern California and sports rimless glasses, long frizzy hair and a soothing smile. Kim, a recent Smith graduate from Westchester County, New York, is slender with short platinum hair and very British eyeglasses. I’m instantly attracted to both and feeling very fortunate to be included this adventure.
I’ve moved to the driver’s side of the truck, supporting my back on the wheel- well. I’m looking only at the sky. When the next tune blares from the cab, my eyes close and my smile widens. By now, South Main has morphed into North Main and the size and condition of the buildings changes. Houses wear less paint. Corner stores advertise chicken backs and gizzards. Se Habla Espanol. We’ve rolled to the other side of the railroad tracks now. I leisurely open my eyes to find Terry nodding to the music and smiling back.
“Green Onions,” I shout, the sound of my voice lifted by the stiff breeze. She nods still grinning. “Booker T and the MGs,” I add. The truck picks up speed and the conversation ends there. The purpose of this journey is to find some North side barbeque. The place we located was dark, inside a basement filled with the promise of ribs, chicken and hot links. I’m sure this smoky garret has a name but all that remains is the intense sense of freedom I feel that evening. In the days that follow, we all go into the mouth of the beast. We occupy squalid homes, eat government surplus commodities on a regular basis, and learn how to live on $180.00 a month.
The training I received as a VISTA Volunteer wasn’t completely unappreciated. I realize now, however, it could never have prepared me for the personal transformation that would follow. Self-doubt, ethical crises, selfishness, and pure terror lay ahead. That night I fall asleep fingering the grain of a Dylan song that stalks me like a vigilante.
They say everything can be replaced,
Yet every distance is not near,
So I remember every face,
Of every man who put me here.
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.
A few weeks before that pick-up truck ride, I’d taken my California life and folded it like a bedroll. I rolled up every romantic relationship, every obligation, and every expectation. Three days after my last college final exam, I was on a plane headed for Texas. Anticipating this first flight, I was dismayed at the June overcast and my inability to see anything from takeoff until the seatbelt sign blinked off. Having no previous experience in a Boeing 727, I wasn’t prepared for the jolt of sheer joy when the plane burst through the cloud cover. Suddenly one world becomes two. The sunlit blue silence basks above the damp, foggy city of Los Angeles. Out of this fog a sunlit land of white fluff appears. The metaphor isn’t lost. I no longer need a weatherman. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, but closing my eyes, that Dylan song rattles around my brain while I replay a montage of scenes from the previous year.
In my mind, I see another silver airplane carrying Bill Garcia’s body back to California from the Army base in Dover, Delaware that turned body bags into flag draped coffins. Garcia will forever be locked in my mind at age 20, driving his black ’59 Ford convertible back from Sorrento or Santa Monica Beach. His Louie Lou I smile has become a fossil of my adolescence. He completed a semester of college, broke up with his high school sweetheart and joined the Army. Visions of a tour of duty in Germany, a la Elvis evaporated. Angry, confused letters followed before his death in Suoi Cai. I wonder if he knows it translates to “Happy Valley” in Vietnamese?
The scene shifts: my father and I take our places at the dinner table. Even though my sister married and moved away three years earlier, and my mother’s early death from ovarian cancer the previous year remains ubiquitous, four chairs still attend the table. This early April evening my father and I, unable to discuss the war in Vietnam beyond two minutes, sit down to dinner in silence. He is essentially Nixon and Laurence Welk. I am Dylan and Eugene McCarthy. The year is 1968. Thoughts of my draft status collide with reading my last letter from Bill Garcia
My father says something that touches a nerve. Probably uses the words “freedom” and “defense” to justify the death of this week’s batch of 19 year-olds. I rise with my full plate. He thinks I must be going back for more mixed vegetables, or mashed potatoes; perhaps another piece of chicken? My arms extend. I’m holding the plate above my head now as if offering food to a god. A grenade inside my head explodes and I smash the full plate to the floor. The force stuns me as much as him. Tiny shards of my mother’s dinnerware cover the floor. The kitchen linoleum looks more like Jackson Pollack’s studio.
My father charges me with tears streaming and fists balled. I am remarkably calm. I am also bigger and stronger, and my momentary grip becomes a hug. Even a month later, I find pieces of diced carrot or potato residue underneath the molding or behind the refrigerator. We don’t speak for 3 days. He allows me to mourn. I apologize. We agree to disagree, but two years later, we disagree less. I become a conscientious objector. He writes an eloquent letter attesting to the sincerity of my beliefs.
I conjure up the demonstrations. Students occupying buildings, singing, always singing through the fear. Chanting rhymes…”Hey, hey LBJ how many kids did you kill today?” Single file we march, across the campus, through the streets, into the draft board. The clerks look horrified. I want to tell them that I’m an Eagle Scout but I say nothing. I am as horrified by their complacency as they are by indignation. We chant at the governor’s motorcade. We watch the former movie star whisked into his Regents meeting. His insults don’t sting until the 6o’clock news. We scream at the undercover cops flushed out of our classrooms. We escort them into the waiting doors of undercover cars. We run when the first wave of cops with drawn nightsticks begins to gallop. We check our pockets for plastic bags of water in case the tear gas flies. On TV news footage we always look so unified. Even then, before my escape to Texas, the gulfs were widening. Some are committed to nonviolence but other can’t wait for the bloodletting. Sanguineous days will follow. The blood will drip, warm and sticky, over mothers with baby carriages, college students with scholarships, veterans with government pensions, and too many deemed dissident. We may be listening to the same music, but we hear disparate notes.
I have a particular image of Texas in my mind. It is yellow and orange and rusty brown and brick red and hot as desert dust. It is cattle ranches and rural poverty and green broke horses and red meat. In the quiet hum of this flight I continue my mental year in review. I miss my music already and figure out that Fridays were always my day to buy new records. They were paydays for my research library job or leisurely afternoons when the work of the week was done. I see the grass quad near Kerckoff Hall on the UCLA campus. A small Kelly green free-speech platform occupies this political putting green and on Fridays it comes alive with Bible thumpers or LSD advocates or Black Panthers or my favorite, General Hershey Bar. In full military uniform, General Hershey Bar (named for General Lewis B. Hershey, director of the Selective Service System, aka the draft) was quite a sight. His uniform was adorned with ribbons and small metal missiles and fighter jets. On his epaulets and his hat they were particularly erect. He was always loaded with literature to distribute and his deadpan delivery was both humorous and thought provoking. Often accompanied by his sidekick, General Waste-More-Land (Gen. William Westmorland) these two anti-war activists never missed a march, demonstration, music festival, or free speech opportunity. I know General Hershey Bar will not be going to Texas anytime soon. By the time the seatbelt light flashes I’m smiling.
The plane stops first in Phoenix. More passengers and very little time to look around. The couple sitting near the tail looks as if they just met, as if they could be going to Austin for the VISTA training as well. He is wearing bell-bottom Navy surplus pants with a pea jacket. Long, dark hair frames his ruddy face. She strikes me as preppy with a plaid scarf holding back shoulder length hair. Her skirt is knee length and she wears black tights and Frye boots. Her button reads, “what if they gave a war and nobody came.” His button is a portrait of Che Gueverra. I continue to read Kenneth Patchen poems. Three Patchen books are the only anchors I’ve got. Three books and the birth certificate my mom put in a file folder for me shortly before her death. My papers are in order. A small dial built into my seat intrigues me. It’s connected to an even smaller plug outlet. Airborne again, the flight attendant hands out plastic headsets. The white mini-stethoscope with soft rubber earplugs is my ticket to airborne stereo. Half the passengers look like futuristic doctors ready to listen to heartbeats. I turn the numbered dial to sample the range of music offered. The jazz, number 3 is tempting, the classical on number 5 too soothing, the country-western, number 2 can wait, so I settle on number 7 rock. Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” seems appropriate. When the seatbelt sign flashes off I’m lost in thought about the LA club scene I’ve left behind, wishing either Credence Clearwater or LOVE were on the Continental Airlines program.
Arthur Lee is the lead singer of a popular group called LOVE and I’m thankful I was able to see them play before I leave LA. The Arizona landscape is fading fast but with my new friend the headset, I close my eyes and tumble back to the club scene one last time. I recall the gig LOVE played at Bido Lidos, a favorite Hollywood nightspot. I was having a strong reaction to a smallpox vaccination, still required then for admission to the University of California, so I went with Kenny and Susan. Driving over Laurel Canyon in a VW bug at night is only for the healthy. Kenny knows the best spots and is a keen observer of the LA music and art counterculture. Susan, a former “Goldwater Girl,” is painfully cute with her Buster Brown bob, plaid mini skirt, and knee socks. She reminds us that she only appeared with the candidate at the Republican convention to get a free trip to San Francisco. I’m feeling woozy and feverish but LOVE is really feeling the music tonight so I gut it out. Trouble with Bido Lidos is it’s tiny and when the set ends, ascending the spiral staircase takes a long time because everyone wants to get out to the street for air, a smoke, or even just to hear each other speak. As we crawl upstairs, taking minuscule steps, I notice a flyer someone has tacked to the wall. “Coming Next Week, a New Group, The Doors,” it announces. I consider the possibility of returning the following week but soon come to the conclusion that they better be something special because LOVE is going places. Like many in the crowd that night I’m sure that there is space for another black rock star beside Hendrix. Alas, “My Little Red Book” is not being offered for my listening pleasure.
By the time we get to El Paso I feel completely free of California. I can see into Mexico and across the Texas plain and the landscape is completely rojo. By now I’m certain there are other potential VISTAS on the aircraft. I peek occasionally. But Austin is loaded with students so I might be wrong. The thought of who I’ll be training with intrigues me and I fear they won’t be as driven as I am, as political, as angry, or as knowledgeable. I don’t know at that point that they are from every corner of the country. I don’t know that they are from Ivy League schools and working class towns. Some will be former SDS leaders. Some will be experienced in voter registration in the Deep South, or war resistors from New England. I don’t know them, and I barely know myself.
Austin is hot and muggy. But green, very green. It rains all through the summer and I’m not prepared for the color of the landscape. It is not the dry Texas I imagine. What is the Texas of my imagination is the bus driver who takes us from the Airport to St. Edwards University, site of the VISTA training. His neck must be a size 32 and I easily have more hair on my right arm than he has on his entire body. I’m thinking he must have some idea that we’ve come to his home state to do what his beloved America can’t seem to get done. That we obviously have some simplistic notion of the relationship between hard work and success and that we’ll all be scampering back to our affluent family’s bosom as soon as the first Texas cockroach shits on our head, or when we hear the roar of the cicadas that very evening.
St. Edwards University lives up to its name. It is a medieval fortress overlooking the city of Austin. The gray stone arches create shaded walkways. Clumps of trees and grass quads suggest a cooler climate. I can almost see the Romanesque architecture of UCLA if I squint. I’m a few hours into my Texas life and already I can’t find any cowboy hats, oil wells or beef cattle. Everyone does say y’all so I’m not too disappointed. After dorm room assignments and a cafeteria dinner, it becomes clear to me that what I’m in for just might amount to summer camp for recent college graduates. But not all of us have new degrees. Some are near retirement age. Others are college dropouts who need a break. That evening we sit outside the dorms as the sun retreats. Talk is mostly about music and someone produces a joint. After Dylan, Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the conversation turns to the blues. A rumor swirls that Texas bluesman Mance Lipscomb lives nearby and is playing for the married trainees at the motel they inhabit. It turns out to be true but doesn’t bother us too much because we make our own music for the next two hours. I have three harps with me, key of C, key of G, and fortunately, key of A which cross nicely with David’s E tuned guitar. We turn Kansas City into Austin City. “Austin City here I come, they got some crazy little trainees there and I’m gonna get me one.” People laugh, sing along, and test each other silently. This may not be that bad. I don’t sleep for two days.
That first weekend we experience the “drop off.” All prospective candidates will be sent in pairs or trios to small Texas towns. Inside the plain white envelope given everyone is a round trip Greyhound Bus ticket to a town within a 100-mile radius of Austin and a ten-dollar bill. I’m teamed with Mike from Stanford and John from Cal Poly. Three Californians sent to Temple, Texas with a specific observation assignment and even more explicit instructions to stay invisible. We’re supposed to evaluate how this community serves its citizens.
“And don’t hail a cab and say take me to the poverty,” the head VISTA trainer jokes. “No really,” he cautions, “Some fool actually tried to do that.”
We look at the demography, the boundary lines, and the surface appearance and then decide to walk the streets. It becomes clear that we might not pass for Texans, so we duck into a Salvation Army thrift store and spend five of our dollars on the only cowboy hat they have. This felt Stetson doesn’t fit any of us well; nevertheless we take turns wearing it for the next few days just in case.
When the thermometer hits 102 we duck into a bar. Crowded around a small round table in a dark corner I hear lots of hoopin’ and hollerin’ and notice the TV is tuned to a boxing match. When Joe Frazier knocks out white hope Jerry Quarry and the bout suddenly ends, we’re treated to a paroxysm of racism from the bartender. Frazier’s happy face fills the screen and he reiterates how he was in no trouble and could have ended the fight any time. He easily retains the title and his comments don’t play well in Temple. “They can run and jump and play ball,” the barkeep spits out, “But when they get to flappin’ them lips.” He smacks the TV set off. We leave soon afterward wishing we had two more cowboy hats.
These two I’m with are sharp and we soon figure out that the best way to “find the poverty” is to find the opposite. Since poverty is often invisible, or hidden, we figure that if the local politicos live on one side of the town, it must be the affluent one. Sure enough, the hypothesis is correct. We see who lives Northwest and then follow the streets across railroad tracks to the Southeast. Here, with addresses the exact opposite in direction from the mayor and city council, we find another Temple, Texas. What develops before us, like a Gordon Parks portrait is a community so strikingly different than the one of the previous day that we may as well be in another country. We are in another country we conclude. We find burned out buildings and inadequately maintained streets. We see no public mailboxes or trash containers. Inside the corner grocery stores are the only non-African-American faces. The phrase “the poor pay more,” rings in my ears as I look at the price of a dozen eggs or a loaf of bread. But I know that these Mom and Pop stores often extend credit and the locals are loyal to them. The cycle perpetuates itself. Forget freshness, some of the refrigeration cases look as if they haven’t been cleaned since I was in middle school.
When we return to our cheap hotel near the city center, we write out responses for the set of questions all drop off teams were given. Like a slowly developing black and white photograph the picture emerges. Not only do we see what has previously been invisible, we learn that this pattern persists in many cities and towns. Not just in the South. Before we leave, I take the small telephone directory in the room and leaf through the yellow pages one last time. It is the size of a paperback book. In various advertisements for services like mortuaries or rest homes are the words “colored only” in parenthesis. Before we leave Temple, I carefully bury this artifact in my overnight bag. It rests on my bookshelf to this day.
After the drop off our ranks are slimmer. Some decided the heat wasn’t for them, others were not willing tolerate the rats, roaches, or prevailing attitudes. One trainee was thrown in jail in La Grange, Texas because of his hair length. Under a drawn gun, the local Sheriff told him he’d spare his life because, “I don’t want to get blood in my car.” Then he brought his kids down to the jailhouse so they could “see what a traitor looked like.” It took bail money and a Vista lawyer to get him back to Austin.
The following week we are paired up with new partners and sent to live in communities all over Austin. I end up in a semi-rural area called Montopolis with a new roommate, Irv, from New Jersey. Irv and I are complete opposites. He is husky, if not overweight, speaks no Spanish, is fairly boisterous, and wants to be sent to a large city. We share a small back room in the home of Miguel and Maria Reyes right off Montopolis Drive, the main thoroughfare. That first night I learn that Irv worked the previous summer in Mississippi on voter registration, that Miguel works as a custodian at a local middle school, and that Maria has had only15 months of schooling in her life. The neighborhood has a diverse mix of poor Latinos, blacks and whites. In the daytime we attend training classes and workshops at St. Edwards. Evenings are spent in Montopolis. The temperature in the Reyes’ home must be over 100. We sometimes sit on the front porch and I try to teach Irv some Spanish and Maria some English. In the three weeks we are there neither benefits very much from my attempts. Though Irv quickly learns the word “hielo,” so he can refresh his constant consumption of iced tea. Maria Reyes’ soft tacos make life worth living during this time. As night falls Irv and I go for walks in the neighborhood. Often, in the less populated areas fields that once held crops are burned. The roadway is filled with a fine ash and my new brown suede boots are turning black. One particular evening we stop in a small rural market and I find the most beautiful Charleston Gray watermelon. Carrying it like sleeping infant we pass by a church meeting at the New Life Pentecostal Assembly of God. Live music! We pause by the highway and a grandmotherly member, who turns out to be the preacher’s wife, invites us in to sing hymns. We follow dutifully. The congregation is mostly white, with a smattering of blacks and Latinos. In the next half hour, with the accompaniment of electric guitar, bass, and drums, (I just can’t resist a church with a drum set and amplified guitars) we sing about 10 hymns. We rise to sing, hymnals in hand, and I set the watermelon down on the pew. When finished, we sit while the minister speaks for a minute or two, so I pick it up, place it on my lap to sit. This happens repeatedly. I rise, set the watermelon down and sing. The hymn ends, I pick the watermelon up and place it on my lap. Nobody says anything to me but they must be wondering why the Semitic looking kid is so obsessed with his melon. We leave with the hollow promise to return again. The watermelon must wait till tomorrow night. It will be righteously cold by then.
The days pass. Irv begins to call the beefy girl who lives next door to us “Amazing Grace.” The hymns we sang have left their mark. Mike, my colleague from the drop off weekend is living with a nearby Latino family. He comes by to inform us that the single mother of five didn’t come home the previous night. The kids, ranging in age from 3 to 11 are hounding him like horse flies. They follow him over to the Reyes house and we both entertain them for a while. Randy and Ramon are fascinated with my rimless glasses. I let Randy try them on and he beams. Mike takes his picture. It hardly seems like the photo of a child who can’t locate his mother. By the time we accompany the kids back home we’re relieved to find mom has returned. We can report to training on time.
The final two weeks in Austin are devoted to cleaning up a cemetery near a Latino church. The work is difficult given the heat, but we strip away layers of weeds, Poison Ivy and nearly a ton of broken rock. In our honor, the locals slaughter a goat and after a softball game and picnic, we eat “cabrito,” drink lots of Lone Star and Pearl beer, and celebrate the grand re-opening of the cemetery. In Montopolis I find the Latino community very warm and welcoming. Many of my fears and misgivings about being accepted or trusted because I am an outsider are beginning to lift. It is the black community that concerns me most now. I get that I am an alien. While the anger and random violence I saw in the Watts Riots a few years earlier doesn’t seem to be here, I do see signs of change. Whites in historically black areas aren’t as common here, especially after dark. A small store, the Montopolis Trading Post, owned and operated by two black men has a fascinating door. Across the top are painted the words “Malcolm X has Risen.” I’m pleased to see this, but when I ask the kids in my neighborhood if they have ever heard of Malcolm, the answer is no. Reports are coming in to VISTA headquarters of increased attacks on VISTA volunteers in black communities. VISTAS in the field try to teach us how to talk our way out of difficult situations. They call it learning to jive and it involves laughing at the fact that you would have any money then switching the conversation to why you are there. Even the vague promise of more community services can defuse a violent encounter. On my final night in the Reyes home I’m suffering from flu and poison Ivy. I remain in bed but toss and turn until midnight. By 3 o’clock in the morning I awake with more itching than I’ve previously experienced. Turning on the light I find enormous red ants biting my arms. Combined with three weeks worth of mosquito bites and my Poison Ivy splotches, I wonder if this is a unique kind of hell. The fear and apprehension of the previous evening abates. I’m ready to move on.
The last few training days are filled with more films, more speakers, and more meetings. By the sixth week, a number of folks have departed and soon the final “de-selection” will take place. That’s the word they use, “de-selection,” something only a government program could muster. If they send me home my draft status will immediately determine the course of my future. But I’m not too concerned because I’ve become close with a trainer from New Mexico, Cruz Chaverra, and I imagine myself on some sort of alto plano sharing a new appreciation for fry bread. But no. It’s decided that my LA roots will serve me well in Houston’s sprawling ghettos and barrios. That’s where I’m headed. There is a fledging Urban Arts program that could use some fresh blood. I see myself doing poetry workshops. My strong background in ethnic studies should serve me well. Sadly, I never see Cruz again. My dream of working on a Reservation collides with my ambivalence about living a year in Houston. But Houston has horses and blues music. I think of all the Texas blues personalities I have seen at the Ashgrove, my favorite folk club on Melrose. I wonder if Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, Long Gone Miles, or Juke Boy Bonner might actually be my new neighbors?
That evening, someone produces the latest Life Magazine. It has an unusual cover which folds out. Apparently, exactly 100 U.S. troops were killed in Vietnam the previous week. Surprisingly that is good news, down from the 300-500 the Thursday evening news shows usually report. But the magazine has chosen to go beyond the statistics. On the special cover, the high school pictures of all 100 are featured. Like a yearbook, we see the faces head on. The impact is devastating. Everyone wants to see the magazine cover and we pass it around silently. We know we are about to go to work for the same government and that contradiction will surface often in the months ahead.
The last two days in Austin resemble a cross between tribal council on Survivor and a minor deployment to the Gulf coast. Bob, an older man from St. Louis is missing. De-selected. It’s probably for the best. Some trainees who coupled up or simply spent more time with each other than others are going to different states. It’s not about their needs. Tears flow. We are all anxious to get on with it, though, and with our first official Office of Economic Opportunity paycheck, our new Vista ID card, and a Southwest region city of assignment firmly in place, we report to a final meeting.
First the good news. We have made it through the training. Selection. There will be a party on this our last night, and we are urged to eat well during our final meal in the St. Edwards cafeteria. Some of the ranking bureaucrats from the regional office speak like high school principals to us. When they leave, the local training staff congratulates us and our head trainer speaks. He is serious as cancer. Aside from reminding us what we’ve learned about the communities we’ll be occupying, he mentions that there is one final thing that he insists we hear. He is bluntly evasive, but we get the message. He tells us that it is crucial that we not travel into the region with some of the “things” we may have secretly brought to Austin. We know exactly what he’s talking about. That night, after our official going away party is over, the word goes out. Are you holding? If so it’s really important to use everything up. A considerable pile of marijuana appears. Before departing to Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana, or other parts of Texas, the contraband goes up in smoke. We leave Austin “clean,” if not drowsy.