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Return to Hayneville


ISSUE:  Summer 2008

I was born and raised in rural, upstate New York, but who I am began with a younger brother’s death in a hunting accident when I was twelve and he was eight. I held the gun that killed him. But if my life began at twelve with my brother’s sudden, violent death, then my end, determined by the trajectory of that harsh beginning, could easily have taken place a scant six years later, when, in June 1965, I was kidnapped at gunpoint by vigilantes near the small town of Hayneville, Alabama.

Barbed-Wire Fence

When I was sixteen, in my senior year of high school, I became involved in the civil rights movement partly because I hoped I could lose myself in that worthwhile work. I became a member of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and canvassed door-to-door in poorer neighborhoods in the nearby city of Kingston. I traveled down to Atlantic City with a carload of CORE members to picket the Democratic National Convention in August 1964. Earlier that summer, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party—another civil rights group—had chosen a slate of racially-integrated delegates to challenge Mississippi’s all-white official Democratic Party delegates for seats at the convention. The goal was to put Lyndon Johnson and the whole liberal wing of the party on the spot—testing their commitment to change. I was one of about twenty or so people parading in a small circle on the dilapidated boardwalk outside the convention hall. We carried signs urging on the drama inside: support the freedom delegation and one man, one vote. I felt confused and thrilled and purposeful all at the same time.

Three marchers carried poles, each bearing a huge charcoal portrait of a different young man. Their larger-than-life faces gazed down at us as we walked our repetitious circle. They were renditions of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) volunteers who had been missing for months, whose bodies had only recently been discovered. They had last been seen alive on June 21, driving away from the Neshoba County sheriff’s office in Philadelphia, Mississippi. When an informer led investigators to the spot where their tortured bodies had been bulldozed into a clay dam, the mystery of their whereabouts ended abruptly and they began a second life—the life of martyrs to a cause. Those three faces mesmerized us as we circled the boardwalk, singing and trying to ignore the heckling from bystanders. The artist who had drawn them had resolved their faces into a few bold lines that gave them a subtle dignity. They seemed at peace, all their uncertainties and inner complexities over. I longed to be like them, to transcend my confusions and the agonies of my past and be taken up into some noble simplicity beyond change. I longed to sacrifice myself and escape myself—to become a martyr for the movement. If it took death to gain access to the grandeur of meaning, so be it. And thus are young soldiers born.

I was too young, only seventeen, to go to Mississippi that summer, but a year later I was on my way. I drove south, alone, in a ’56 Ford my father had bought me for the trip. And so it commenced—my instruction in the grim distance between the myth of the martyr and the intimate reality of violence.

Cut to November 2006—over forty years have passed since my late-adolescent misadventures in the Deep South. I’m a poet and a professor—that’s how I’ve spent my life. One of the happier perquisites of my profession is that I’m sometimes asked to read my poems at various colleges and universities. One such invitation has come my way—a former student of mine, a poet named Chris, is teaching at Auburn University and has invited me down. I’m reading that same week in Atlanta, and as I look over my Rand McNally, I see that I can not only drive from Atlanta to Auburn, I can proceed an hour or so farther and drive straight through time and into my own past. I decide to go back to Hayne-ville—the tiny town that has been so long lodged like a sliver in my memory.

Chris says he’ll take the trip with me, and he brings Brian, a former student of his own. I’m glad of the company. Three poets from three generations: I’ll turn sixty within the year, Chris is in his early forties, Brian in his midtwenties. As we leave town in my rented, economy-size Hyundai, pulling onto the interstate in the late-afternoon drizzle, Brian asks where we’re headed. For several days, I’ve felt a quiet tension about this trip, and suddenly it seems I can release some of the tension by telling Brian and Chris the story of that long-ago summer. At first, I try to talk about what happened to me in Hayne-ville itself, but I quickly see that I’ll have to start further back in order to make a coherent story of it.

As we drive down the highway toward Montgomery, I feel like one of those pilgrims in Chaucer, challenged by my travel companions to entertain them on the journey. Brian’s in the back seat, and as I begin my story, I occasionally turn my head slightly as if acknowledging I’m aware of him as an audience, but soon I’ll become so caught up in the narrative that I’ll lose all sense of my companions and of time and distance passing. I’ll drive steadily toward Hayneville, as though the story and the highway were a single, fused flowing.

It was late May 1965. After brief training, another volunteer, a man from Pittsburgh named Steve, and I were assigned to work in Bolivar County, Mississippi—the Delta region, where COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) was trying to gain momentum for a strike of field workers. The going wage was $4 a day—dawn to dusk hoeing the cotton by hand, everyone from seven-year-old kids to octogenarians. We’d been in Bolivar only a week or so, helping out at the office. Suddenly, there was a summons from headquarters: everyone who could be mustered and spared from their local work—any new volunteers and all the local residents who could be persuaded—should report to the state capital in Jackson. The governor of Mississippi had called a secret session of the legislature, and the movement was organizing a mass demonstration to draw national attention to what it suspected was serious political skulduggery.

At ten in the morning on June 14, about five hundred of us—men, women, teenagers, old folks—assembled in Jackson. We walked two abreast down the sidewalk toward the capitol building. Our leaders told us we’d be stopped by the police and warned we could not parade without a permit. At that point, we would have to choose to be arrested or to disperse. We were urged to let ourselves be arrested—the plan was to fill the jail to overflowing and apply the steady pressure of media and economics (they’ll have to feed and house us at city expense). The powers-that-be had learned to present a sanitized image to the media, so our arrest was very polite— journalists and photographers there watched each of us ushered onto a truck by two city policemen who held us by both arms, firmly but calmly. The trucks themselves were large, enclosed vehicles—the kind you’d use to transport chairs for a rally or municipal lawnmowers. They packed about thirty of us inside, then closed the doors. And we were off—each truck with its own motorcycle escort gliding through red lights, heading, we presumed, toward the city jail. But the actual destination was our first big surprise. We activists may have had a plan to demonstrate, but the State of Mississippi and the City of Jackson had their own plan. We were taken to the county fairgrounds—twenty or so fenced acres of clear-cut land set with half a dozen long, low, tin-roofed barns. Another thing we didn’t know: when each truck entered the fairgrounds, the gate swung shut behind it, and police turned back anyone else who tried to enter.

The truck I was on stopped, backed up, then came to a final halt. When the doors opened and our eyes adjusted to the flood of light, we saw we weren’t at the jail at all—but in a narrow alley between two barns. A score of uniformed officers were gathered there, wearing the uniforms of motorcycle cops—tall leather boots, mirrored sunglasses, and blue helmets with the black earflaps pulled down. Each tanned face was almost indistinguishable under its partial disguise—only the nose and mouth showing—some already grinning at the joke of our surprise and what was in store for us. Each of them had his nightstick out—some tapping their clubs rhythmically in the palms of their hands, others just standing there expectantly with the stick held at each end. I didn’t notice until I was up close and even then, in my confusion, didn’t comprehend that the lower half of each officer’s silver badge, where the identifying number should have been displayed, was neatly covered with black tape. An officer ordered us to climb down, and when some of us didn’t, two officers climbed up and pushed us to the edge where others pulled us down. And it began. They swung their clubs right and left, randomly but thoroughly, for about ten minutes. It made no difference what you did, whether you screamed or were silent—you were struck again and again and, if you fell to the ground, kicked. It hurts—to be beaten over the head or back or shoulders with a wooden club. It’s also terrifying. Then an order came and the clubbing stopped—we were told to get up (one kid couldn’t and was dragged away somewhere, his leg too damaged to stand on).

We filed through a door into one of the barns. Inside, there was a calm that felt surreal after the violence outside. In the middle of the empty concrete floor, five card tables had been set up in a row, each with a typewriter and a city policeman seated in a folding chair. The far end of the barn, half hidden in shadow, was a milling cluster of frightened women and girls who, their initial beating and processing over, had been told to assemble there. Our dazed group lined up, and each of us in turn was formally processed and charged. The women from our truck were sent to join the other women at the far end of the barn. I was told to go out one of the side doors to the next barn where the men were being confined. Just as I was about to go through the door, an officer told me to take my straw hat off and carry it in my hands. I emerged into the outdoors and the bright sunlight and saw them—two lines of about fifteen highway patrolmen on either side. I was ordered to walk, not run, between them. Again, I was beaten with nightsticks, but this time more thoroughly as I was the only target. When I covered my head with raised arms to ward off the first blow from the officer on my right, I was jabbed in the ribs with a club from the other side. Instinctively, I pivoted in that direction, only to be left vulnerable in the other. I heard blows and felt sharp pokes or slaps fall flat and hard across my ribs and back from both directions—whether they were simultaneous or alternating, it made no difference; my defense was hopeless. By the time I neared the end of this gantlet, I was cringing from feinted blows—the humiliation of my fear and their laughter far worse than the physical pain.

Inside the other barn, men and boys were assembled in a dense clump surrounded by a loose ring of officers. Later that afternoon we would go through another ritually structured set of beatings. When anyone tried to sit down or move out to the edge of the impacted group to get some air, two or three officers dashed across the small, intervening space and beat him with clubs. This technique was designed to make us prisoners panic and fight one another to get to the safer center of the mass. But it didn’t work. We tried to protect ourselves as best we could and keep the most vulnerable, especially the children, safe in the middle. A bearded young man in our group was noticeably defiant, and at a certain point an officer ran in and deftly struck him with a slicing motion of the blunt end of his nightstick in such a way that the taut skin of his forehead split and blood streamed down over the whole of his face. To see an individual human face suddenly turned into a mask of blood is to witness the eradication of the personal, and, if you’re standing nearby as I was, to be sickened and unnerved.

The hours went by as more prisoners were processed and our group continued to grow—there were over a hundred and fifty men and boys in the barn. Evening fell. We were ordered to sit in rows on the concrete floor—three feet apart, three feet between the rows. We didn’t know it, but we were waiting for mattresses to be delivered. We were told to sit bolt upright and not move; officers walked up and down the rows. If you leaned a hand down to rest or shifted your weight, a shouting patrolman rushed up with his club raised.

A black kid of maybe ten or twelve sat next to me. We’d been there for an hour and things were pretty quiet when a state patrolman stopped in front of the boy. He looked him over for a minute, then ordered him to take off the pin he was wearing—one of those movement buttons that said freedom now or one man, one vote. No safety clasp, just an open pin. The guard told the kid to pull the pin off his shirt. He did. “Put it in your mouth,” the guard said. I turned my head to the right and saw the boy place it in his mouth. “Swallow it,” the guard said, his voice menacing, but not loud. If the kid tried to swallow it, the pin would choke him or pierce his throat and lodge there until he bled to death in agony.

Watching the scene, I felt murderous rage fill my whole being, geysering up in the single second it took to see what seemed about to happen. I became nothing but the impulse to scramble to my feet, grab the guard’s pistol before he knew what was happening, and shoot him as many times as possible. Nothing but that intense impulse and a very small voice inside me that said: “You don’t stand a chance. It would take longer than you imagine—long enough for him to turn on you, for his buddies to rush up and grab you. And then what? You would be their sudden and absolute target.”

How long did that moment last? How long did the guard loom over the boy with his threats? How long did the boy sit there with the pin in his mouth, tasting its metallic bitterness but refusing to swallow, or unable to swallow? It could have been five minutes; it could have been less. The guard repeated his command several times, along with profanities. And then, other officers were there, urging him to give it up, persuading him to move on, to move away.

The mattresses finally arrived, and each of us dragged one off to his place in a row. We were officially segregated according to the laws of the sovereign state of Mississippi—a vigilantly patrolled lane separated two imaginary cellblocks, one for blacks and one for whites. We lay down to sleep. The pounding of nightsticks on the concrete floor woke us at dawn, and we realized the highway patrolmen who had abused us with such relish and impunity the previous day were nowhere in sight. They’d been replaced by Fish and Game wardens who looked altogether more rustic and thoughtful (some even had moustaches) and made no effort to conceal their badge numbers and even wore name tags. Later that morning, a plainclothes officer entered our barn and announced that the FBI had arrived and that if anyone had complaints about their treatment, they should step forward to be interviewed. I did so and was ushered out into the same alley where we’d first been greeted and beaten. The narrow lane had been rigged at one end with an awning for shade. Under the awning, four FBI agents sat at small desks. When my turn came, I told my narrative about the beatings, but how could I identify the perpetrators? The agent asked if I could specify hair or eye color, or badge number? I couldn’t. Could I point out now, in person, any of the officers who had beaten me? They weren’t there, of course—they’d left in the middle of the night. The agent recorded my story of the previous day’s beatings and violence and thanked me for my time. If they had actually wanted to protect us, the FBI could easily have arrived any time the preceding day. Many in the movement already knew what was inconceivable to me at the time—that events like this were stage-managed and that the FBI wasn’t a friend or even a neutral ally of the civil rights movement.

For the next ten days, we lay each morning on our mattresses until breakfast—grits and a molasses syrup and powdered milk so watered-down I could see all the way to the bottom of the fifty-gallon pot that held it. After breakfast, we rolled up our mattresses and either sat all day on the concrete floor or paced the imaginary confines of our collective cell. Twice a day, we were lined up for the bathroom—it was then or never as we stood pressed up against one another, waiting for our brief turn in one of the five stinking stalls. No showers, no chance to wash at all, the same, reeking clothes day after day. Hot as hell once the sun heated the tin roof, but chill at night when we huddled, blanketless, in the dark on our bare mattresses. The mosquito fogger sprayed around the outside of the barn each evening, sending its toxic cloud in under the closed doors to set us all coughing. Boredom, stench, heat. Word came from outside—we could, at any time, be released by posting a $50 bond that the movement would provide, but the plan called for as many as possible to stay inside for as long as we could. There was hope we would seriously inconvenience the state by staying, that another demonstration in support of us might take place—there was even talk of Martin Luther King Jr. himself showing up for it. Rumors and hope; and a request to persevere. Most of us stayed, though some of the youngest and oldest chose to leave. The violence mostly gone; if it occurred, it was sporadic and spontaneous and ended quickly without major consequence. Exhausted by lack of substantial food, worn down by boredom and discomfort, I gradually lost heart. I had dreamed of meaningful work and even heroic martyrdom, but here I was merely cannon fodder. I held a place; I counted—but only as an integer in the calculus of a complex political game playing out in rooms far above me. And close up, as close as the arc of a swung billy club, I had discovered that for every martyr whose life was resolved into a meaningful death, there were hundreds of others who were merely beaten, terrorized, humiliated. Even as I sank into depression and brooded in the stifling heat of that jail-barn, I was learning that I wanted to live.

On the tenth day there, my name was called and I was led outside and taken to a pay phone attached to a post near our barn. Picking up the receiver, I heard the voice of my father’s lawyer, who was calling from upstate New York. We’d only met once; I hardly knew him. He began by saying he couldn’t stand me or any of the causes I believed in, but my father was his dear friend and was frantic with worry. My fine had been paid. I was to leave now and drive back north immediately if I cared a damn about my family. End of story. His tongue-lashing eliminated the last of my resolve. The officer standing beside me took me in a patrol car to where I’d left the Ford ten days ago, as if the whole thing had been prearranged.

I should have called the COFO office and told them I was leaving, was heading north that very day—but I was ashamed. I was deserting—a frightened and confused teenager. The map told me my quickest route north was by state roads from Jackson to Selma, Alabama, and then on to Montgomery, where the interstate began. When I passed through Selma it was early evening and I was starved (we’d been fed nothing but vegetables and grits for ten days), but I was too afraid to stop for dinner.

It was dusk on US 80, past Selma and within fifteen miles of Montgomery, when I heard a siren. A white car pulled up close behind me, flashing its lights. I thought it was a police car and pulled over, but the two men who jumped out, one tall and rather thin, the other shorter and stout, wore no uniforms. They did each wear holsters, and as they approached, one on each side of my car, they drew their pistols. I rolled up my windows and locked my doors. Rap of a pistol barrel on the window two inches from my head: “Get out, you son of a bitch, or I’ll blow your head off.”

I got out and stood on the road’s shoulder, beside my car. They prodded me with their guns and told me they were going to kill me. They searched my car and found SNCC pamphlets in the trunk. They were sure I was an agitator rumored to be coming to their town—my New York license plates had been a strong clue that the pamphlets confirmed. The men made two promises about my immediate future, the first was that they would kill me and dump my body in the swamps. The second, made a few moments later, was that they were going to take me to a jail where I would rot. With those two contradictory threats left floating in the air, they took my wallet and went back to their vehicle, ordering me to follow them in my own car. They pulled onto the highway and zoomed off. I started my car and followed them. We hadn’t driven more than a mile when they signaled and turned off to the right, onto a smaller road. I hesitated, uncertain what to do, then made the turn and followed.

I pause in this story I’m telling Chris and Brian when I realize we’ve reached the green sign marking the turnoff for Hayneville. I’d been so caught up in telling it that I hardly noticed we’d passed through Montgomery and were speeding down Route 80 toward Selma. Suddenly, I realize the old story and my present journey are eerily coinciding at this forlorn intersection. It’s as if my ghost Ford from forty years ago is approaching the turnoff from the west, coming from Selma, at the same moment that my shiny, white rental reaches that same turn from the direction of Montgomery. The terrified boy in the ghost Ford drives right into us, and for a moment, we and the story are one and the same. Now, I’m driving slowly down that backroad toward Hayneville, telling Chris and Brian what it felt like the first time I took this road, alone, following the car driven by my would-be killers.

Their car was newer than mine and faster. It sped up. A voice in my head started screaming: “What are you doing? You are obligingly speeding to your own death—driving to your own grave! Turn around and make a run for it!” But how could I? They had my wallet with my license and all my money. It was pitch-dark now. The road was so narrow there was no place to turn around; there were swamps on either side. If I tried to make a getaway, their car could easily overtake mine, and they would surely shoot me. This hysterical dialogue raged in my head for the ten long minutes of that ride, and then we emerged out of the dark into Hayneville. We passed the courthouse, pulled into a narrow street, and stopped in back of a small jail.

Even as I describe that terrifying drive, I see that the wooded swamps are gone. (Or were they imagined in the dark so long ago?) It’s mostly fields and pasture with a pond here and there gleaming like oil in the deepening gloom. And now we’re arriving in the town itself. Again, as with the first time I was here, it’s almost completely dark under the overarching trees, only a glimpse of a gray sky from which all trace of light is gone. I recognize things: there is the courthouse—no wonder it stood out—white and two stories high on its tree-filled lawn in a town of twenty or so tiny houses and bungalows. And there is something completely new in town (the only new thing as far as I can see)—a BP convenience store where I stop for gas. The station is shiny and all lit up, its blue-green signs glowing intensely in the dark like those roadside stores in Edward Hopper paintings, gleaming forlornly against the primeval dark of rural Anywhere, America. I’m trembling with a kind of giddy excitement as I pump the gas. Even here I can see changes—the man behind the counter in the station, whom I take to be the owner, is black, so are most of his customers. Back then, whites owned everything. As I pull my car out of the station across from the courthouse, I see that the sheriff’s car, just now parking beside the small police bungalow behind the courthouse, is driven by a black officer.

When we got to the jail forty years ago, I felt relieved. At least the terrifying drive was over. But my torment was only entering another phase. I’d be held there in solitary confinement without charges for eight days. I was kept on the second floor the entire time, separate from all other prisoners and personnel, seeing and talking to no one except the silent trustee who brought me food twice a day and took away my empty tray. Why was I so isolated from the rest of the prisoners? It was possible they didn’t want people to know where I was as they waited to find out if anyone was aware that I was “missing.” Ever since the murders of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, volunteers were under strict orders to check in with headquarters before traveling any distance, to record their destination and expected arrival time, so that if anything went wrong an alert could be sent out for an immediate search. I hadn’t called, so no one knew I was in Hayneville’s jail.

Four days into my incarceration, my father’s lawyer called the DA in Jackson, Mississippi, to ask if he knew why I hadn’t arrived home. The DA didn’t know; they’d let me go. Then he tried the state attorney general’s office in Montgomery, which was run at the time by Richmond Flowers, a racial moderate. His office made inquiries and learned I was being held in Hayneville, but they couldn’t offer any help. They told Dad’s lawyer that Lowndes County resisted all outside interference, even from Alabama state authorities. On my fifth day there, my father’s lawyer managed to call the jail and was told (by the sheriff himself, slyly posing as a deputy) that indeed a young man named Greg Orr was there and was at that moment playing checkers with the sheriff.

Of course this was a lie. I had no knowledge of the call, no sense that anyone in the world knew where I was. Each day I spent in that cell was an eternity. I was unmoored from structures except food and the alternation of day and night. I didn’t know when my spell in solitary would end. If someone had said to me: “You’ll be kept alone in a small cell with no one to speak to for eight days,” I could have tried to organize the ordeal in my mind—I could have, for starters, kept track of the days and known that each one passing brought me closer to the end. But there was no known end point and so no measurement—it was wholly arbitrary and made me even more aware of my own powerlessness. Already depressed and disoriented by the ten days in “jail” in Jackson, I was even more frightened in Hayneville: I had a better sense of how dangerous my situation was, and my imagination took over from there.

In the middle of my eighth day the sheriff came to my cell, unlocked it, and told me I was free to go. That was it: no apology, no formal charges, no anything. I was taken to my car, told to get out of town. I was set free as abruptly and mysteriously as I had been captured and incarcerated. I got in my car and drove. I drove and drove. I have one memory of stopping in some rest area in South Carolina in the middle of the night and trying to wash and shave, but my hands were shaking too much to control the razor. I slept whenever I couldn’t drive any longer, pulling into parking lots and climbing into the back seat. By the time I reached New Jersey, I was hallucinating huge rats running across the highway in front of my headlights. And then I was home, back in the Hudson River Valley town I’d left only a month or so earlier.

I spent July in my hometown, but in early August I took a job in New York with a small film company, synchronizing sound and picture. On my way home from work one August day, I bought a New York Times to read on the subway. When I looked at the front page, I saw a story about a murder that had just taken place in Hayneville. I turned to the inner page to finish the article and was stunned to see a photograph of one of the men who had kidnapped me on the highway. The news article related that he had shotgunned Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopalian seminary student and civil rights volunteer, in broad daylight on the courthouse lawn, in front of half a dozen witnesses. From what I could tell, the victim and the others with him might have been the “outside agitators” whom I had been mistaken for. According to the newspaper, they, like me, had been arbitrarily arrested and held without charges for days in the jail and then suddenly released. But unlike me, they had no car. They spent several hours desperately trying to find someone to drive them to Montgomery, while the murderer, a friend of the sheriff’s and a “special unpaid deputy,” became more and more agitated. He found the released organizers near the courthouse and aimed his shotgun at a young black woman, Ruby Sales. The seminary student pushed her aside and stood in front just as the gun went off.

Though he was charged with murder, the verdict, given by a local, all-white jury in that very courthouse, was “not guilty” on the basis of self-defense. The same courthouse later saw the trial of the killers of Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit housewife who, three months before my arrival in town, had participated in the Selma to Montgomery march. On the evening of March 25, she was killed by gunfire while ferrying marchers in her car on Route 80. Her slayers, quickly apprehended, were also found not-guilty by another all-white Hayneville jury, even though eye-witness prosecution testimony was given by one of the four Klansmen (a paid FBI informer) present that night in the murder car.

My situation in Hayneville resembled the seminary student’s: arbitrary arrest, jail time without arraignment or trial, and then sudden release. But I had a car, and timing mattered: the New York Times article stressed that the killer had been upset about the passage of the Voting Rights Act—as if part of his motivation was a kind of crazed act of political protest. When I was apprehended and jailed, the status quo in Hayneville seemed secure—if my presence there was a sign of change, it was the sort of change they felt they could easily contain and control.

Two others died there; a murder in March; another in August—and in between, in late June, my own narrow escape as I slipped through the same violent landscape. “Slipped through” makes me sound like a fish that found a hole in the net, but surely I was trapped in it, surely it was luck that pulled me from its entanglements and casually tossed me back into the sea.

And here I am again, forty-one years later, approaching the jail, that brick edifice in which all my emotions and memories of Hayneville are concentrated. Not the memory or idea of jail, but this dingy incarnation of incarceration—a building full of little cages where people are captive. I’ve been monologuing until now, spewing out non-stop the whole story that brought me here, but as we travel the last few blocks, I go silent with anticipation. Chris and Brian are also quiet but excited—now that we’re in the town itself, certain key nouns connect to real things—there is the courthouse pretty much as I described it. And here, down this little lane a half block past the courthouse, is the jail itself, that brick, L‑shaped building I’ve been talking about. But how different it is from what I remembered and described! It’s an empty husk. Boarded up—from the looks of it, abandoned a number of years ago. Deserted, dilapidated, the mortar rotted out between the grimy bricks. The only thing not in utter disrepair is a small exercise yard attached to the back, behind a chain-link fence topped with razor wire.

When I stop in the cinder parking lot and hop out of the car I feel like a kid who has arrived at a playground. I’m surprised by my responses. Here, at a place that was a locus of some of the most intense misery I’ve ever known, I’m feeling curiously happy. Chris and Brian have also climbed out. I can see they’re glad, too—pleased to have found some real, palpable thing at the end of a tunnel of words burrowing from the distant past. Chris has a camera and begins to take pictures, though it’s night now and there’s no way of knowing if anything will register. The doors to the building are locked, but Brian, exploring the fence’s gate, finds it’s open, and we’re able to enter the yard. We climb some rusty steps to a second-floor landing; from there I can point to the window that was across the corridor from my cell and that I peered out of after shinnying up my cell door’s bars and craning my neck. That giddiness I felt when I first set my feet on the parking lot has been growing more intense—I’m laughing now, and when I’m not laughing, I’m unable to stop grinning. Earlier, in the car, telling the stories of my long-ago misadventures, the words had zipped directly from my brain’s private memory to my tongue in a kind of nonstop narrative that mostly bypassed my emotions. Now my brain has stopped functioning almost entirely, and I’m taken over by this odd laughter that’s bubbling up from some wordless source far down in my body—some deep, cellular place.

Brian and Chris poke around the weed-grown yard, looking for anything interesting, some rusty artifact to point to or pick up and ponder. I’m ordinarily a person who likes souvenirs—a shell from a beach, a rock from a memorable walk in the woods—but I have no wish to take anything physical from this place. Even a pebble would weigh me down, and the truth is I feel weightless right now, as if I’m a happy spirit moving through a scene of desolation.

My beginning was a rifle shot and someone innocent suddenly dead. My end might well have been something eerily similar: perhaps a pistol shot, my own death in this tiny town so far from my home—a beginning and end so close to each other as to render the life cryptic and tragic by way of its brevity. Only, Hayneville wasn’t my end. It was a place where my life could have ended but didn’t, and now, almost half a century later, I stand beside that closed-down, dilapidated jail, laughing. But laughing at what, at whom? Not at the confused and earnest kid I was all those years ago, the one who blundered through and escaped thanks to blind luck. What is this laughter that’s fountaining up through me?

As we’re leaving and I pause in the cindery parking lot with one hand on my car-door handle, taking a last look at the old jail, a single word comes to me: joy. It’s joy I’m feeling—joy is at the heart of this peculiar laughter. Joy is my body’s primal response to the enormity of the gift it has been given—a whole life! A whole life was there waiting for me the day I left this town. A life full of joys I couldn’t imagine back then: a long, deeply satisfying marriage to a woman I love, two wonderful daughters, forty years of writing poems and teaching the craft of poetry. Laughing to think that the kid I was had come south seeking the dark blessing of death in a noble cause, but had instead been given the far more complex blessing of life, given his whole existence and all the future struggle to sort it out and make it significant—to himself and, if he was lucky as a writer, to others also. Laughing at how my life went on past this town and blossomed into its possibilities, one of which (shining in the dark) was love.

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