Making a Little Room for Someone Else’s Reality

April 21, 2016 6:02 pm

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It wasn’t the best of neighborhoods, or the worst, even for Memphis. I had started out trying to track down local art galleries, looking for one that would carry my paintings for the Memphis market. Not finding any, I had lunch at a sandwich shop in a drab strip mall, then moved over to the used bookstore next door. Time passed pleasantly.

My wife, Martha Hannah, was at a film production studio nearby, working for the day. She was acting in an Industrial, a corporate training film. I had ridden with her from Nashville to Memphis to keep her company on the long drive. While she worked, I explored the area of the city surrounding the studio.

Browsing the bookstore, I watched through the front windows as a young woman roamed the parking lot, approaching people as they got in their cars. She was obviously panhandling. Sure enough, as soon as I left the bookstore and got into my own car, she wove through the parked vehicles and tapped on the window.

“Do you have any spare change for bus fare?”

The last of my spare change had just been spent on a used copy of a 500 page Dorothy Dunnett book. I thought of handing her the book, but it would not have worked for bus fare.

“Sorry, but I don’t have any spare change.”

“You hate women, don’t you?”


“I know what you’re thinking. You hate women.”

“No, I don’t hate women.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I don’t hate anyone. I just don’t have any spare change. Really.”

“I know what you want to do. You want to hit me, don’t you?”

“I don’t want to hit anyone.”

“You want to hit me. That’s what men want to do to women.”

The young woman was getting more and more intense as she spoke, elaborating on what men thought of women and what men did to women to shut them up. I let her talk. When she ran out of words and stopped to catch her breath, I asked her, “Do you feel better now?”

The question surprised her. She thought for a moment, smiled and looked squarely at me for the first time.

“Yes, I do.”

Then, without another word, she turned and walked back through the rows of parked cars to continue her quest for spare change.

She lived a reality very different from my own. Abuse of any kind towards anyone is absolutely unacceptable to me, but it apparently was or had been a part of this young woman’s life. Choosing to acknowledge that took no effort on my part. It was an easy kindness, a simple act of listening, that I hope was as much value to her as the spare change might have been.

The memory of this young woman has stayed with me. I’ve often wondered what more I could have done for her in our brief encounter that afternoon, without breaking the fragile truce of that moment. I think she was a strong woman and a survivor. I hope she found the peace and acceptance in her life that she deserved.

A Lifelong Dedication to Voting

April 1, 2016 3:39 pm

LeeEDowell-1945 As we inch our way through this election season, one that is particularly tainted with extremism, intolerance and hate, I keep thinking of my father, Lee Ellis Dowell. He served in WWII and stood up against that very kind of extremism, intolerance and hate.

He volunteered for the Army in the early days of WWII and served through the end of the war. He served in spite of being partially blind in one eye and having both knees damaged by the soon outlawed duckwalk exercise during basic training and the botched Army surgeries afterwards that compounded the damage.

My father served in the US Army 8th Service Command based in Dallas, Texas, which covered Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. He was a Military Police, transporting prisoners of war by train all over the country. He visited just about every state in the country and probably had the network of rail lines committed to memory after years of travel.

He was based at prisoner of war camps in Arkansas. The camp at Harrisburg was set up in 1942 at the county fairgrounds. The camp at Earle was set up in 1944. Both camps were low security camps and the prisoners were lent out to rice and cotton farmers for day labor. High risk prisoners such as SS troops were sent to more secure facilities.

LeeDowell_Earle_Ark_WWII-smThe German prisoners were probably glad to be far from the Russian front. They were housed, fed and well treated. My father talked of taking them out on fishing expeditions. He described one time when some of the POWs wanted to seine fish the nearby drainage ditch. As they waded along the muddy chest deep water, dragging the net along between them, they snagged something very large. What they eventually pulled out of the water was an eight foot long alligator gar. He said they never wanted to go back into the water after that.

After the war ended and the German prisoners were repatriated, he was sent with some of the first occupational forces to Japan. In Tokyo, he helped maintain order in the virtually destroyed city, where the city’s infrastructure was obliterated and everyone was starving. Some of the occupational laws he enforced were that no Allied personnel were to assault Japanese people or to take food from them.

My father was always hesitant in speaking about his military service. Much of what I know about it comes from photos, postcards and mementos he collected during those years. What I do remember about him is his dedication to our country and to the democratic process. He believed in the importance of voting, and voting in every election, no matter how insignificant, for he had served his country in the dire time of war to preserve those rights. And he had no regard for Republicans and their rhetoric.

I honor my father and his dedication by following his example. I vote in every election and encourage others to do the same. I see, as he did, how fragile our democracy is, and I will not let his sacrifices and the sacrifices of all who served during that horrific world war be diminished by complacency and disregard.


Pace Yourself, It’s Gonna Be a Long Day

March 4, 2016 2:49 pm

Long-DayThe rural farming area in Kentucky where I am from had been very diverse in my grandparents’ time and before. All that had changed when I was growing up; by then, there was only one Black person living in the community. He was Brady Gaines and he was a distant cousin. What was remarkable about him, for me, was not that he was the only Black person in the community. He lived alone and was known to have women over to stay the weekend and to drink. What I naively thought was, “Wow, he’s living like James Bond.”

One year we had a very rainy spring, which meant a bumper crop of hay in the summer. The hay had been mowed, left in the field to dry out, then raked into windrows and baled. When it was time to haul it in, my father hired Brady to help. Daddy drove the tractor pulling the flatbed hay wagon. As the tractor crept along, two people walked the field, lifting the hay bales onto the wagon. Brady and I were on the wagon, stacking the bales as they were loaded.

I had just turned thirteen and was nearing six feet tall and thin, weighing no more than 120 pounds. Brady was a decade older than my father and was taller than me. I looked like the skinny nerd with black rimmed glasses that I really was and Brady looked like a fit retired athlete. I’m sure we were an incongruous sight working together on that wagon.

As soon as a hay bale was set on the wagon, I rushed to grab it and get it stacked. Then I rushed back to the side of the wagon to be ready for the next one. The bales weighed 60 or 70 pounds each and I was soon out of breath. Brady worked steadily and methodically. After a short time of watching me, he stopped me and said, “Son, you gotta pace yourself. It’s gonna be a long day.” Of course, he was right. I slowed down, matched his pace and we started working as a team.

We stacked the bales nine feet high, criss-crossing them to stabilize them for the ride across the rough field. When the wagon was full, we headed to the barn to unload it. The wagon pulled up under the door of the barn loft and we started unloading the hay. That became more and more difficult, because the lower the stack of hay on the wagon became, the higher we had to lift and swing the bales to get them up into the loft. Brady had to do the last few bales, because I just didn’t have the strength and reach to get them up. Once the wagon was unloaded, we headed back to the field to repeat the process, over and over. It was an absolutely exhausting day.

When lunchtime came, we returned to the house. My mother had a big meal cooked and ready for us: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, boiled corn, sliced garden tomatoes, cornbread, pies and other treats. Brady filled his plate, got his iced tea and said, “I’ll just take my plate outside to eat.”

The Civil Rights movement was still going on then and Black people were being assaulted and murdered across the country for standing up for their rights. Racism and bigotry were rampant. I followed the news and was horrified by what was being done to marchers and demonstrators. Still, it had all seemed foreign and distant from my own secluded life. That is, until Brady had said, “I’ll just take my plate outside to eat.” That one sentence brought it all right into the room with us.

Without a moment’s hesitation, my father took his arm and said, “No, Brady, you eat with us.”

I had watched Brady’s face as my father spoke. He did not show relief or thankfulness or humility for the acceptance. It was the look a teacher gives when a tough question is answered correctly. My father had given the right answer.

I don’t remember much of the conversation during the rest of the meal. It was just one of countless family gatherings, unremarkable, except for that one moment. And that moment has stuck with me, not because of what my father said, although I am proud of him for being the person he was. It was the look in Brady’s eyes, prepared for the wrong response, accepting of the right one.

That was the moment when racism and bigotry became very real to me, because a lifetime of their effects showed in Brady’s eyes. I cannot speak for Black experience, and I wouldn’t presume to try to do so, but I did get a glimpse of it that day. That brought an acute awareness of racism and bigotry that has stuck with me all my life.

That made his advice to me even more touching and personal. I realized he had already lived a lifetime by that wisdom. “Pace yourself. It’s gonna be a long day.”

An Unexpected Diversity

February 19, 2016 4:48 pm


As soon as I pulled the old photo out of the box the other day, I remembered it and the day, decades before, that my aunt first showed it to me. We had been going through old family photos and she was telling me who each person was and how they were related to me. When we came to that photo, it surprised me, and I asked about their connection to the family.

“That’s Uncle Hat and Aunt Callie.”

I hesitated, wondering if those titles she used were just the familiar dismissive ones given to Black people in that era.

“No, that’s Uncle Harrison Anthony and Aunt Callie Boren Anthony. They’re family.”

My father and my Aunt Dabba’s grandparents, on their mother’s side, were Byrd Follis Anthony and Allie Boren Anthony. So Uncle Hat and Aunt Callie were related to their mother on both sides of her family.

My family is from a small, rural county in Kentucky. The Dowells, Anthonys and Borens settled a corner of it called New Roe, which sits right on the Tennessee border. It is such a conservative area now, it was surprising to find these relatives in the family tree. They were cherished members of the family to have their photo saved for generations with all the other family photos.

After rediscovering the photo, I had to find out more about Uncle Hat and Aunt Callie. Going through census records from the 1800s, I found Harrison Anthony and his family in the 1870 census. He was six years old, having been born in 1864. His parents were David Anthony, Mulatto, and Adaline Anthony, Black, and he had four siblings. Mulatto was the archaic, slave culture term for biracial. They were listed in the census very near to Byrd and Allie Anthony’s household, so they were probably close neighbors. I couldn’t find Aunt Callie and her family listed in the census.

I searched through the rest of the New Roe 1870 census records and later censuses to see if there were other Black families. There were many other families in the area listed as Mulatto or Black or a combination. They seemed to all be concentrated in that part of the county. I would never have expected there to have been such racial diversity in that area in the late 1800s.

In fact, it was amazing, for the area had been patrolled by post-war Confederate Regulators, vigilantes who robbed and murdered on both sides of the Kentucky-Tennessee border. The Regulators killed my great-grandfather Martin Van Buren Dowell there in the early 1880s for some reason I could never discover. It was possibly because he had served in the Union Army. They shot him through a window while he was inside his house, then dragged his body out and threw it in the pig pen. I found court records showing the murderers were arraigned, but they were never prosecuted and the case was dropped.

The smiling faces of Uncle Hat and Aunt Callie indicate that they had a happy life together. He was a carpenter or builder of some sort, judging by his work clothes and the variety of lumber in the background of the photo. I found Uncle Hat’s death record; he died in 1935 at the age of 70 and Aunt Callie was listed as his wife, so they had many years together.

Aunt Dabba was born in 1913 and she told stories about what a close community there was in New Roe when she was growing up. Even though there was a White school and a Black school, she said each one would do a play every month and invite the other school and the community. Neighbors would bring lanterns to light the play. If the weather was warm, the play was outside and they brought quilts to spread on the ground to sit on.

I have discovered many interesting stories in my family’s past; this was one of the most intriguing. I would love to be able to talk to Uncle Hat and Aunt Callie and my great-grandparents to find out how that little pocket of diversity thrived in such a dangerous area and in a time of such cultural strife. I am proud of them all for living their lives together in harmony.