The Middle Distance 9.22.11

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

photo by Sean Cayton

The other day, when the September air became nippy and a few stray leaves began to flutter and fall, I remembered going to the fair when I was a young teenager. This was the Southwest Tennessee State Fair in Jackson, a classic September fair with beauty pageants and 4-H competitions and bake-offs and a carnival with games and rides. I was in 8th grade and girls had just begun to pair off with boys. On the night when entrance to the fair was free for school kids, a bunch of us piled into someone’s mother’s station wagon and went to the fair.

I walked the fairgrounds with a dark-haired boy named Johnny. He had a limp, either a chronic injury or an accident of birth, and I worried that if I sat in his lap I would hurt him. We ate cotton candy and churned up our stomachs on the Twister, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and the Paratrooper. We rode through the dark, damp maze of the Old Mill. We rolled all the windows down on the ride home and inhaled the autumn air, a tonic against the sour car scent of sweat and skin and awkward self-consciousness.

What I neglected to remember was that in 1967 there was free admission night to the Southwest Tennessee State Fair for white school kids on one night and a separate one for black school kids on a different night. That in our town there were strictly all-white schools on one side of town and all-black schools on the other, and between those two worlds there was no connection.

Forty-five years later, out in the time warp of the middle distance, I am often astonished to realize how the world has changed in my lifetime. And I am bewildered by what is certain to be the future. I pick up the New York Times most mornings and read which aspect of experience will soon be virtual or mechanized or digitized. I straddle the present, glancing backward more often than forward, not because I idealize the past but because I can’t imagine what the future will be like.

In the late 1980s, my grandfather lived at our house. Born in 1902, he was now 86, a simple man who’d outlived two world wars, who hadn’t seen a car until he was 14 years old. He’d ridden a mule to town as a boy, and in his entire lifetime had never ventured farther than 100 miles from the western Kentucky tobacco fields where he grew up.

Ours was a difficult and frequently chaotic household at that time with three preschool aged boys, a teenaged daughter, an overworked father, and me running the show. Grandaddy, in his wheelchair, rolled right through Lego villages on the living room floor and generally demanded little attention. One afternoon, while cooking dinner, I decided he might enjoy listening to the news on the radio, remembering how tuned in he had been throughout my childhood, never missing the 6 o’clock news either on his black and white television or on the large, bulbous radio in his kitchen. I placed a set of headphones on his ears, checked the volume, and tuned my portable radio to WPLN, the Nashville public radio station.

The boys ran in and out as I fried pork chops and boiled a mountain of potatoes. A neighbor dropped in and my daughter arrived home from school. Somewhere in the midst of it all, I stopped to check on Grandaddy, parked in the living room next to the piano, the late afternoon sun painting a blinding streak across the wood floor. His head hung low over his sunken chest. I thought he had fallen asleep, but then I saw that he was crying.

I took the headphones off and asked what was the matter.

“It’s lies,” he said. “It’s all lies.”

I’ve tried to imagine what story he might have heard that day. It was early 1989 and the first George Bush was president. Saddam Hussein and Chemical Ali had recently killed 5,000 Kurds in Iraq. Oliver North’s trial and the Iran-Contra affair were in the news.

But I understand now that it wasn’t any particular story that broke Grandaddy’s heart, it was that at 86, he was an old man who no longer recognized the world he was barely living in.

Today’s news is mostly grim — crime and poverty and war and economic strife. But this September day the sky is brilliant and blue and, in the breeze, a slight chill, a hint of woodsmoke. It is almost true autumn, the beginning of the end.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

 

6 Responses to The Middle Distance, 9/23/11: It’s All Lies

  1. John says:

    Thank you!

  2. Joe Lillard says:

    Why do we all wait to this “certain age” to remember all the good and poignant vignettes that populate the back corners of our minds.

  3. Rose Enyeart says:

    Sometimes I agree completely with your Granddad. I don’t watch TV news because my stomach isn’t able to handle it. I listen selectively to NPR and read the newspapers selectively. There is so much going on in this world that isn’t any of my business and something that I just don’t need to know.

  4. Mary says:

    This has been a gorgeous September. Maybe it’s due to the fine rain we’ve gotten this year. Neighborhoods out here in the Power’s corridor are finally looking normal with mature trees lining streets instead of baby trees with poles holding them up. They are full of healthy leaves actually hanging over the sidewalks. The beautiful blue sky lifts my spirits almost every day this month. I’m doing my best to swim outdoors as often as possible before the pool closes for the winter.

  5. cathy reilly says:

    Kathryn,

    your talent never ceases to amaze me. Yet another simply beautiful piece here. Thank you for sharing with us.

    Hugs,

    Cathy

  6. Elayne Gallagher says:

    It is all lies when the U.S. media presents the Israeli Palestinian conflict. I spent the last month in Ramallah in the West Bank working on a project. This was my third time in the Palestinian Occupied territories, the last being in 2008 when the U.S’s 51 state (Israel) bombed the hell out of homes and fertilized fields in Gaza. One of my Palestinian colleagues asked, how can they (Israeli’s) be pictured as the victims when they have the power, the money, the weapons and their settlers are continually attacking our villages?

News

Invision for Nintendo/Facebook
December 6, 2016 | NPR · Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube announced they are cooperating to keep track of terrorist recruitment videos and violent images in order to remove them from search results and social media.
 

Bloomberg via Getty Images
December 6, 2016 | NPR · But stocks represented a tiny fraction of Trump’s personal fortune, most of which is tied up in real estate and brand licensing deals.
 

Getty Images
December 6, 2016 | NPR · After the storm hit in 2005, the insurance company ordered claims adjusters to misclassify wind damage as flood damage to shift liability to the U.S. government and spare State Farm’s coffers.
 

Arts & Life

December 6, 2016 | NPR · Once a day until December 25th, NPR’s “Monkey See” blog is highlighting a small, good thing that happened in pop culture this year.
 

December 6, 2016 | FA · Maria Semple’s new comic novel is about a stressed-out wife and mother who starts every day with a mantra. She tells Fresh Air‘s Sam Briger that the book was inspired by her own experiences as a mom.
 

CBS via Getty Images
December 6, 2016 | NPR · Press tours with networks and cable companies give TV critics an opportunity to have Q&A sessions with top executives. In January, many executives will skip a big one in LA, and that concerns critics.
 

Music

Courtesy of the artist
December 6, 2016 | NPR · Film composer Ennio Morricone, known for his use of harmonica and whistling on Western scores, has re-imagined his most popular sounds with help from the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.
 

December 6, 2016 | FA · Kevin Whitehead reviews a newly released recording of the ’80 Montreal concert in which Dizzy Gillespie is joined by jazz legends Milt Jackson, Hank Jones, Ray Brown, James Moody and Philly Joe Jones.
 

December 6, 2016 | FA · The country star plays songs and talks with Fresh Air about his grandfather’s work in the coal mines. Yoakam’s latest album, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars … features bluegrass versions of his hits.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab