THE PORTABLE ELECTRIC CHAIR AND THE GAY COW

The following is an early edition of a chapter of George McNeill’s upcoming memoir.

Here I sit, two years older then dirt, well past my misspent youth and middle age when I was writing best selling novels and living in Manhattan and Rome and Tangier and taking endless freighter trips and living adventures and risks and romances and getting pissed as a newt, living right back down here in the land of the dull and the strange.

Yeats wrote:
“An aged man is but a paltry thing,
Tattered coat upon a stick,
Unless soul clap hands and sing
And louder sing for every
tatter in its mortal dress.”
And, so we do, soul and I,
clap hands and sing:
“Be kind to your web-footed friends
For a duck may be somebody’s mother.
Now, ducks live down in the swamp,
Where it’s dark and wamp…”
You were expecting a hymn?
When Jan and I were young and living in the House of Flowers in Greenwich Village, we’d lie naked in bed and sip Strega and read Andrew Marvell: “Had we but world enough and time” and, “Thus, though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet shall we make him run.”
Well, the sun and Jan and I are all tuckered out and more nearly I remember Prufrock:
“I grow old, I grow old,
I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?
Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers
and walk upon the beach…”
Well, not this, exactly, but more nearly:
“I grow old, I grow old,
I shall wear the bottom of my penis rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?
Do I dare to beat my meat?
I shall wear white flannel trousers
and dream of girls to eat…”

After so many years, after measuring out my life with coffee spoons, trying to figure out what on God’s earth happened to my mind, my cognitive functions that I end up with such verse, I’ve come to realize that it’s really quite simple: I was born and raised and programmed and DNAd in Mississippi, a place of which I said before I fled: “If God wanted to give the world an enema, he’d stick the tube in Mississippi.”

A Sunday school room of 14-year-old boys on a hot, muggy morning before air-conditioning and I was one of the boys the teacher was trying to convince how sinful dancing was. Red-faced promises of burning in hell obviously failed to convince us and further frustration drove the teacher to pull a boy to his feet and embrace him and force him into a stumbling dance and almost shouting the terrible temptations if you held a girl closely.

We were barely able to contain our incredulity and shock and laughter until the teacher released the boy and fled the room.

It’s difficult to remember whether the southern Baptists hated dancing or drinking the most. They were most surely puritans. (H.L. Mencken said that a puritan was a person who was afraid that somewhere, someone was happy.)

I was happy, I suppose, during my growing up years in Laurel, Mississippi.. I certainly wasn’t unhappy. I mean, the vocabulary didn’t exist for anything unhappy, no matter what, in my growing up house. My parents never once had an argument, never once uttered a word of profanity. They doted on me and my two younger sisters. No negative comment was ever made by any of us—bored, depressed, angry, envious…unhappy.

No white elephant ever existed in the spotless living room.

The time I was coming out of school and saw trustees taking Mississippi’s portable electric chair from a truck and into the courthouse or the time I stood at the edge of a lynch mob on the courthouse lawn—never mentioned. The time that friends and I left the Senior Prom and drove down to the Colonial Supper Club and got so drunk on Singapore Slings and Zombies and vomited, peed on, spilled booze on the new Ford Woody station wagon and it stood in the sun so long it corroded and had to be junked—never mentioned. Nor the time I watched my friend, Shannon, bend over a filthy toilet bowl and heave out his guts, in the honky tonk that sold only cheap, foul bootleg Scuppernong wine, a toilet on whose walls were scrawled such graffiti as DONT THROW CIGARETTE BUTTS IN TOILET. IT MAKES THEM SOGGY AND HARD TO LIGHT. Never mentioned.

One of my earliest memories is of my Mother and Beatrice, the cook, bending over the bathroom tub on a swampy summer morning years before air-conditioning, washing the family’s clothes. There were no washers or dryers so they washed and rinsed in the tub, including cloth diapers, then put the hot, dripping pounds of washing in huge metal tubs and took them out to the back yard and pinned each item to a clothes line. In the afternoon, they went out and unpinned the dry washing and brought it back into the house and folded and put away each item.

During the morning’s washing and hanging up, dinner was also prepped and cooked. (The noon meal was the big meal of the day. At night, there was a lighter supper.) Every Monday, my Mother put down on index cards the week’s menu: salad, green vegetable, yellow vegetable, potatoes or rice, meat, fish or chicken, cornbread. There was iced tea during the meal and black coffee with dessert, coffee so strong that a cousin called it “walking coffee”—able to walk from the stove to the cup by itself.

Whatever was bothering me became totally tucked inside me and on I tottered, smiley-faced, a musk of happiness hovering around me. So many of my thoughts were kept desperately internal, and much of what I did and one of the largest and most important was Onanism…self-abuse…beating my meat…masturbation, two or three times a day, fearing I’d get caught, in a bathroom with no lock on the door.

The short version of my story is that I went to bed sober one night when I was fifteen and woke up drunk the next day and I was fifty-two.

Paco was an entertainer living in London when he visited relatives in a remote mountain village in Spain. On the first day, he met Rocco, a simple, roughhewn family man who had never ventured more than ten miles from the village.

The two men spent the night together and, before dawn, they traveled south to the Straits of Gibraltar and fled Fascist Spain for Morocco.

On one of my periodic trips to visit a friend in Tangier, I was taken to a new bar, The Villa Rosa, that was owned by a couple of people who had recently moved to Tangier from Marrakech, in the south. We sat at a table among trees and were greeted by an enormous man, in all his proportions, particularly weight, with a charismatic smile. The man spoke excellent English.

This was Paco.

He had an infectious manner, was full of enthusiasm as he shook my hand and welcomed me to the Villa Rosa, asked where I was from and what brought me to Tangier. He served us Moroccan beer and delicious tapas.

Before we left, a short, dark, compact man joined us briefly. Paco introduced him as Rocco and said he was the cook. Rocco’s hands were rough-skinned, those of a farmer or physical laborer, his handshake strong, as different from Paco’s fleshy hands as could be imagined.

We complimented Rocco on the tapas. His fleeting smile was shy and kindly. We returned to the Villa Rosa almost every evening and between waiting on customers, Paco regaled us with stories of his heyday in London, when he played the Palladium–the pinnacle for an entertainer such as Paco. He said that he wore only a small grass skirt and played a tiny ukulele as he swayed his bulk around the stage and sang, “Me and My Ukulele.”

“The audience loved me. I was called The Gay Cow.”

Rocco always joined us but only for brief periods. He only spoke Spanish.

We tried to talk Paco into performing “Me and My Ukulele.” He said, no, no, it wasn’t possible after so long, then relented and said that, maybe one night he would, when there there were no other customers.
Once, I walked inside the small, freestanding building to find the toilet. From beyond a closed door came the smell of food. The room in which I stood was painted white and was completely empty–except for, on the wall, the head of an enormous black bull with a leering expression.

I turned at a sound and Paco stood there. “My late husband,” he said.

Not all Paco’s talk was entertaining and nostalgic. On some occasions, his mood would change abruptly, he would become somber, even bitter, as he talked about how weary he and Rocco had become of Morocco, about their deepening desperation, as they got older, to return to Spain.

“The day Franco dies, we’ll take the money that’s in the cash register, we won’t even wait to sell the Villa Rosa, and we’ll board the first ferry back to Spain.”

Thousands of Spaniards lived in exile in Tangier, most as a result of having fought against the Fascists in the civil war. Others were in the same situation as Paco and Rocco, unable to cross the Straights of Gibraltar for home because they could not live as they wished in a fascist country that was dominated by the most conservative Catholic Church in Europe.

Tangier had always been a haven for gay men from the West. “Homosexuality” as the West knows it was thought of differently and was so intertwined with Moroccan culture and sexual practices–and had been back through the ages–that many men with children, contentedly married a long time and for life, enjoyed the company of younger men, on occasion.

While tourists wanted to visit places featuring female belly dancers, the men of Tangier packed the Dancing Boy Cafe, where they sipped coffee or sweet mint tea, smoked long wooden pipes of kif and watched a young teenage boy in diaphanous outfit dance sensuously to the music of ouds and drums.
I had known gay men well, from Mississippi to New York to Rome. The friend I visited in Tangier, a college roommate, told me first when he exited the closet. But, at the time of the Villa Rosa, I had never known a gay couple with a long, dedicated relationship.

Knowing Paco and Rocco not only provided me with a valuable expansion of my experiences, a deeper understanding of the universality of human love and devotion but a sharp sense of the cruelty of exile and how love and devotion made such exile not only bearable but filled with many good things of life.

Paco’s somber times were always brief.

Mostly, Paco, sometimes joined by a quiet Rocco if it was getting late, would tell his tales, talk with us about our lives, about Morocco, things that were going on in the world. There was a vein of humor in whatever we discussed. Paco didn’t exclude Rocco, always talking to him in Spanish and one could tell, from the way they talked and looks they exchanged, the deep feelings between them.

I knew from things he said that Paco was older than the younger 50s that his face suggested. His frequent smiles were always so full of the joy of life and of feeling for Rocco that his attitude seemed to keep age from marking his unblemished face.

Finally, late one night, Paco performed for us. Even without the grass skirt and only pretending to play the tiny ukulele, his swaying his huge body around our table, while singing, was hilarious.

After leaving the Villa Rosa, I stood on a hill, watching the lights on the Spanish coast, and felt in my gut what a terrible exile this was, to be able actually to see your native country, every day, year after year, and not be able to go home.

I didn’t return to Tangier for some three years and, during that time, my friend ended his expatriate days and returned to live in New York. The first evening back, I walked alone to the Villa Rosa, excited about seeing Paco and Rocco after so long.

I was stunned to find the Villa Rosa closed. The place looked as though it had not been open for a long time. I learned, the next day, that Rocco had died and, shortly after the funeral, the Villa Rosa didn’t open open one day and hadn’t since. No one knew what had happened to Paco. None of his old friends had seen him. I assumed that he had returned to Spain.

One day, I was walking down the sidewalk in a part of Tangier I had never visited. The sidewalk was deserted until I saw a stooped old man with white hair shuffling toward me. A little closer and I saw his face, ravaged by wrinkles and bumps, his eyes sunken and surrounded by dark gobs of flesh.

A few more steps and I stopped: It was Paco.

When he recognized me, a sad remnant of his old smile struggled across his face. We shook hands. I told him how sorry I was to learn of Rocco’s death. He thanked me and asked how I was doing and about my life since I was last in Tangier.

He seemed to remember, then, that he still held my hand. He squeezed once, gently, and released my hand.

“What are you doing, Paco? Are you working?”

“I’m tending bar.”

“Where? I’ll come visit and we can talk and…”

“No, please. I don’t want my friends to see the kind of place in which I work now. I want them to remember the good times we had at the Villa Rosa.”

We talked a minute more. Paco shuffled off. I never saw him again.

All of us belonged to the Boy Scout troop sponsored by this Southern Baptist church. The troop met on Monday nights in the Scout hut that stood behind a vacant lot between the church and the parsonage. The scout master had a couple of favorite games for his boys.

One was Murder in the Dark: A small chalk circle was drawn on the concrete floor and all the boys crowded inside the circle. The lights were turned off for a couple of minutes and the boys fought, slugged, kneed, bit and clawed to stay in the circle.

The lights were suddenly turned on. If any part of a boy’s body was outside the circle, he was eliminated and to be tossed out in that first round, no matter how bloody and battered a body might be, was humiliating. My cousin and I devised a strategy: During the first round, as soon as the lights went off, we grabbed some huge body and hung on for dear life—pretty much literally. When the lights were turned on, we were still in the circle. When the lights went off the second time, we fled the circle.

Running the Gauntlet was the second game: On his hands and knees, a boy had to crawl between the legs of the other three dozen boys while they swatted his butt with their metal-tipped belt buckles.

Enthusiasm for the Scouts had been steadily declining. We were boys in our early teens and we wanted to go to dances. Following that unlikely Sunday School lesson, we simply stopped going to Scout meetings.
Shortly after this, word went around that the Scout Master had been accused of trying to diddle some Scouts and he got out of Dodge late one night.

Many popular aspects of Piney Woods life were illegal and one of them was high school fraternities. Not likely in the Free State of Jones.

On a Sunday afternoon in April of 1952, members of Phi Kappa drove deep into one of the quarters. The stench from open sewage ditches was so strong it seemed almost corporeal in the hot, muggy air. Shotgun shacks whose holes were stuffed with newspapers and, for every eight shacks, an outdoor cold water pump and an outdoor privy whose odor was worse than the sewer stench.

The unpaved street ended–all the streets were unpaved and there were no electric power lines–and we parked for our rummage sale– so that we could afford Papa Celestine and his band from New Orleans for our spring formal–half a dozen high school fraternity members and two girls, one of whom owned the white Buick convertible on which we displayed the clothes.

Black women moved slowly from the shacks, hesitantly, examined the white boys’ and girls’ clothes before taking from pockets and purses dimes, quarters and wrinkled dollar bills. I recognized two of the women. They worked for my aunts and I had known them all my life. We acknowledged each other. I didn’t understand why I felt such a debilitating sense of guilt and the feeling was exacerbated by the odors from sewage and toilets.

The black janitor at the Southern Baptist church was fired and the reason given was that a still had been found in the boiler room. There was more than a little skepticism at this explanation but the incident passed. I was to learn later that the still actually belonged to the church’s fire-and-brimstone preacher and the wife of a stiff-necked businessman, who got together every afternoon to get slopped up together on the moonshine. I learned this from both my cousin and from a close friend who knew the woman well and drank moonshine in her home. She hid the whiskey from her teetotling husband in a detergent bottle under the sink.

Mississippi was the last dry state—not even state package stores were legal—and it was up to the sheriff in each county to enforce this prohibition. Booze was illegal in Laurel but cross the city limits and it was honky-tonk heaven.

I walked from my fifth grade school building and saw, across the street at the courthouse, four black trustees carrying a huge, scarred-wood chair, silver cap on metal stem over the chair reflecting the sun, broad leather straps flapping as though the broken wings of some monstrous bird of prey.

The trustees carried the chair into the courthouse and I realized I had just seen Mississippi’s portable electric chair.

On a warm night in May, 1951, I stood at the edge of a mob of some 1,500 men on the courthouse lawn and listened to a group of somber old men talk about the best lynching they’d ever seen, while they ate hot tamales from Mr. Peacock’s pushcart and drank from bourbon bottles in brown paper bags.

“Best one I ever saw was down to Tucker’s Crossing. Big nigger buck done raped this white girl. We cut off his black balls before we hung him.”

I moved away and glanced around, afraid that someone who knew my family would see me. For so many people, the mob was quiet and talk was subdued.

The black man to be electrocuted appeared in the barred, second floor walkway from the jail to the adjacent courthouse. Willie McGee had been convicted of raping a white woman in a case that covered five years and included three trials, six stays and three Supreme Court refusals.

The woman who had accused McGee of rape had two daughters in high school. I knew them both and went out with one of them a couple of times. We all felt sorry for them and didn’t know to act around them.

This is the only racial incident that my friends and I actually talked about and speculated about guilt and innocence. I don’t know what kind of lingering impression it had on me but when McGee was executed that night, talk and thought about him and the incident vanished.

Jones County wasn’t known as the Free State of Jones for nothing. During the Civil War, a deserter from the Confederate army, Newton Knight, returned home, formed a band of deserters and fought Confederate troops sent up from Mobile throughout the war. They were never defeated though some were caught and hanged.

In Ellisville , the county seat at that time, there is the Deeson House, where Newt Knight shot and killed a Confederate major. People claim that, at times, the major’s blood can still be seen on the wooden floor.
Newton Knight left a bitter legacy for his heirs. He was married, with children, but also had a years-long affair–and children– with a slave woman named Rachael. When I was growing up in Jones County, there were constant, bitter controversies over the Knight ancestries: Was one descended from Newt Knight’s wife or from Rachael? People were considered white Knights or black Knights. The controversies were bitter and sometimes lethal.

I remember seeing Knight’s son, Thomas, an old man with a long, white beard, selling pencils on the street corner by the First National Bank. Largely on his testimony, soon after the Second World War, a Davis Knight, who had always lived as a white Knight, was convicted of miscegenation for marrying a white woman and was sentenced to five years in Parchman Penitentiary. (The verdict was overturned on a technicality.)

Illegal also were the strip shows at the county fair each autumn but the fairgrounds were in the county and therefore in the sheriff’s jurisdiction. Friends and I visited the strip shows of Sally Rand, Georgia Southern, Evelyn West (and her “$50,000 Treasure Chest”) and a nameless show, which was the nastiest I’d even seen—and then, for an extra quarter, I followed a group of men into a smaller tent where a woman took off every strip of clothing (and there was no g-string) and said that, for a dollar, a man could lick her all over.
An old man in overalls gave her a dollar and proceeded to lick her…everywhere. There, in the gringe of the Bible Belt, where simple dancing was considered a grave sin, this was the raunchiest thing I had ever seen.

But it was in the vast array of honky-tonks, bootleggers and moonshiners, all out in the county, that the illegality of Jones County was most evident. Lord love a duck, it was honky tonk heaven to me and my teenage friends. And, since it was illegal, there were no state laws, no state-wide liquor authority, to enforce such things as minimum age, opening and closing hours or anything else. Several of the joints had hot sheet rooms upstairs and a couple had gambling. The only authority in the state to enforce the prohibition law was the county’s sheriff and the Jones County sheriffs got rich by not enforcing prohibition.

So many late nights blend together in an amalgam: Boys we knew from high school would play popular-hillbilly music until some time after midnight, then play the jazz they loved. We’d drink Jax beer from New Orleans or cheap Bourbon DeLuxe and listen to the music and talk about, well, whatever teenage boys talked about.

On two or three occasions, someone who had been thrown out or who had a grudge would come in the door with a gun, but no one was ever shot and those nights were exceptions.

At some later night hour, three, four, maybe a tad later, we’d pile into a car and head for town. Down a couple of winding roads with hairpin curves and suddenly there, on the right, would be the tops of rough wooden crosses jutting out of the rising ground fog in memory of the victims of drunk driving accidents and as a warning to others. We’d suddenly be on the narrow bridge over Talahala Creek, a silent drive into town, silent street after silent dark street…then, in the hot, muggy air would be the increasingly strong smell of baking bread.

We’d park at the back of the Smith Bakery and, from one of the drivers loading the just baked bread, we’d get a couple of loaves, score some butter and have a dawn breakfast feast after all that booze.

Every night, as I left the house, my mother would say, “Be home early tonight,” and I’d reply, “I will.” My parents didn’t drink and never went out but nothing was ever said to me about my constant, late night drinking.

Paul Harvey, one of the most listened-to radio commentator of his era, said that Jones County, Mississippi had more churches per capita than any other county in the country.