Saturday, July 21, 2007

Hunting Civil War Relics - The Background

The only brother James Dickey ever knew was Tom, who was two years younger. There had been another brother, Gene, who died as a child before Jim and Tom were conceived, and whose memory haunted them both. A picture of Gene, a beautiful blond child in a sailor suit, always hung in their mother's bedroom.

Jim and Tom competed hard against each other during their adolescence, especially on the playing fields of Atlanta. But then Jim went to war, and Tom, a much more talented athlete, became a nationally ranked runner. My father wrote at least one bitterly jealous letter home from the Pacific about the success Tom was having on the track.

As adults, I think the two men mystified each other. Both had beautiful wives, both had two kids, and they both lived comfortably in the Atlanta suburbs during the late 1950s and early 1960s. But Jim, the advertising man and poet, was obsessive and ambitious for his art, while Tom devoted himself to the relatively undemanding world of real estate, and to his one great passion: The Civil War.

Whenever Tom could, he'd take an old World War II surplus mine detector out onto the old battlefields to find such bits of ordnance as he could. And there was a lot. Eventually the walls of his rec room were lined with neatly catalogued artillery shells and other treasures dug up from yards in Atlanta, swamps in South Carolina, even pulled from the bottom of Louisiana bayous. The concrete floor of his basement looked like an ammo dump. Eventually he wrote an authoritative illustrated treatise about the ordnance which is on the shelves of many military academies and specialty libraries. Tom died in 1987, but much of his collection is now on display at The Atlanta History Center.

In the early 1960s, Jim wrote a poem about Tom's relic hunting that is also, ultimately, about their search for a common history. It begins:

As he moves the mine detector
A few inches over the ground,
Making it vitally float
Among the ferns and weeds,
I come into this war
Slowly, with my one brother,
Watching his face grow deep
Between the earphones,
For I can tell
If we enter the buried battle
Of Nimblewill
Only by his expression ...

Years later, in 1974, I decided to make a film about Tom. Of course, when I was a little boy in Atlanta, memories of the Civil War had been all around us. The centenary came and went. So did a second "premiere" of the movie "Gone With The Wind," which my parents attended in costume. Then, when my father was at the Library of Congress in the mid-1960s, I spent hours taking advantage of my special access as his son to pore over photographs of the Civil War battlefields. Many of them showed carnage that had been airbrushed away in popular history, and it added to my sense of shock and discovery that most were printed as "stereo" cards that could be viewed in sepia-toned 3D.

In film school I had seen the historical documentary "Nuit et brouillard" (Night and Fog) by Alain Resnais, which juxtaposed oddly bucolic scenes of the destroyed Nazi death camps as they looked in 1955 with the horrors that had existed in them a decade before. My idea with the film about Tom was to use a similar technique, with the still photographs of the Civil War dead that I had found in the Library of Congress played against scenes of Tom searching forgotten battlefields and vacant lots in the Sun Belt South.

The film was supposed to be about history and memory, and there's something of that, to be sure. But really it's about Tom: his great charm, his wonderful humor and his strange, and in some ways wildly dangerous obsession with the past.

-- C.D., Paris, July 2007

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

James Dickey on Saint Simons Island

The pictures above, taken from the family album, are from the summer of 1942 when James Dickey was 19. He'd played football and run track in high school in Atlanta (those are North Fulton shorts he has on), but this particular summer he'd just graduated from the Darlington School, a military academy in Rome, Georgia. The United States had entered World War II, but Jim was headed for Clemson, where he'd spend his freshman year playing as a wing back before joining the Army and eventually the Air Corps.

Jimmie Dickey, growing up, had spent many summers on Sea Island with his father, Eugene (known as "Pop"), his mother Maibelle Swift Dickey ("Mom"), his older sister, also named Maibelle, and his baby brother, Tom.

Not one of those people is alive today, but Tom's wife, Patsy, remembers well the stories of Sea Island and the life the family led there. The boys spent their days with friends who'd descended from slaves and still spoke the patois called gullah or geechee. Although Mom lived into her nineties, when she was young she was diagnosed with a heart condition and she made it her practice to rest in a darkened room every afternoon. She would leave the boys in the care of a nursemaid or playing with their local companions. When they were very young, Patsy was told, they were actually tied to their older friends with a rope or harness to keep them from getting swept out to sea.

James Dickey wrote several poems that drew on his experiences in and around Saint Simons. The best known is certainly "The Shark's Parlor," about a couple of teenage boys on Cumberland Island, south of Saint Simons, who catch a fish much bigger than they bargained for: a huge hammerhead shark. They wind up dragging it not only out of the water -- the "beery shallows" -- but, with the help of bystanders, right through a rickety beach house much like the one pictured below:

The screen door banged and tore off he scrambled on his tail slid
Curved did a thing from another world and was out of his element and in
Our vacation paradise cutting all four legs from under the dinner table
With one deep-water move he unwove the rugs in a moment, throwing pints
Of blood over everything we owned knocked the buck teeth out of my picture
His odd head full of crushed jelly-glass splinters and radio tubes thrashing
Among the pages of fan magazine all the movie stars drenched in sea-blood.*
Many other poems that are less well known were also inspired by experiences along the South Georgia coast. "Near Darien" is one of James Dickey's best love poems. He has taken a flat-bottom boat out into the river in the night under a full moon. A wind blows up ...

And finds me exultantly sleeping,
My ear going down to the floor
Of the sea, overhearing, not fish,
Their gills like a bracken all swaying,
But man and wife breathing together.
A few years later, in the poem "At Darien Bridge," the poet likens marriage to the experience of the chain gangs he saw building the span across the water when he was a little boy:

The sea here used to look
As if many convicts had built it,

Standing deep in their ankle chains,
Ankle-deep in the water, to smite

The land and break it down to salt.
I was in this bog as a child

When they were all working all day
To drive the pilings down.

Jim Dickey's childhood experiences on Saint Simons also resonated in the way he raised his own sons, Chris and Kevin, and his daughter Bronwen. One of the family rituals on the island was fishing with a hand line. Even when James Dickey was dying of lung fibrosis in the summer of 1996, his breath aided by a heavy oxygen machine, he would recall those days as he and Chris worked their way up the stairs to the third-floor bedroom of their house near Pawleys Island, South Carolina.

This if from Chris's memoir, "Summer of Deliverance," published by Simon and Schuster in 1998:

The machine was about as big as a hotel minibar and probably as heavy, but I held it next to me as I climbed, afraid that I'd lose my balance. I'd always tensed up around my father; always been clumsy. I was forty-four years old and that hadn't changed.
One flight, the landing, one flight, the second floor, another flight and another landing, and finally the last flight to the top floor. I set the machine down delicately, then stood up and stretched with some slight sense of accomplishment as I felt the muscles in my back and shoulders pump up a little from the strain. I found a plug; hit the switch. The machine sighed to life. The little ball floating in a tube on the front climbed to the 3.5 liter line and steadied.
"Five!" he shouted from below, and I wondered where he got the breath. "Five! Got to have it!"
I adjusted the knob; watched the ball rise. "You got it," I shouted down. I couldn't see him from where I was. I shook out the long plastic tube to make sure it wasn't kinked and he had some slack. It went taught. And jerked.
Then jerked again.
And again.
"Chrissy?" His voice sounded -- as okay as it could.
"Chrissy? What's that?" He jerked on the tube again, like a fish striking a line.
He was playing. Ah, God. He was calling up memories of summer vacations forty years ago on a long pier in Florida; memories of a father teaching a son the secrets he'd held onto from his own childhood, that code you build up over a lifetime: How to hold a marble and aim it and shoot it, or how to make a predator-call from a blade of grass between the thumbs; or how to know when a fish was striking a hand-line, or a crab was just sawing at it. I jerked gently on the tube to set the hook, just like he taught me, and went back downstairs smiling.

The thirteen pictures below were not dated in the scrapbook that Maibelle Swift Dickey kept for her oldest surviving son from 1923 to 1948, and many of them were arranged on the black pages by size rather than chronology. From appearances, most were taken when Jimmie Dickey, born in February 1923, was five to ten years old.

None has been published before.

*"The Shark's Parlor" is written with gaps in the lines which this Blogger software removes automatically. The text will be a little clearer if you read the full poem as published in "James Dickey: The Selected Poems."

Note: All these pictures can be enlarged if you click on them. The computer file names of the scans begin with the words "Sea Island," but all were taken, I believe, on St. Simons.

All photographs and text on this site copyright Christopher Dickey

Maibelle, Jimmie, Tommy and friends, circa 1932
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On the steps of a house called Vann Haven, circa 1932
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Tommy and Jimmie fishing with nursemaid.
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Tommy and Jimmie on horseback, circa 1929
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Pop with Tommy and Jimmie about to go fishing.
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Tommy, Jimmie and friend ready to race
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Nursemaid and Jimmie in the shallows, circa 1927
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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Jimmie and Tommy on sand sled, circa 1929
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Jimmie dives off Pop's shoulders, circa 1929
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Jimmie, happy with Mom in the shallows

Friday, January 12, 2007

Maxine Dickey, 1926 - 1976

James Dickey's first wife, Maxine Syerson, was the only child of Maxine Webster and Valdemar Sejersen, who changed the spelling of his name when he immigrated to the United States from Denmark. This is a picture of the Sejersen family in the old country. Val is seated on the far right.

Maxine Webster and her sisters were raised in Union City, Tennessee, by an imposing father who bore a certain resemblance to President William Howard Taft.

One of Maxine Webster's first loves was Reggor Motlow, heir to the Jack Daniel distillery. But Maxine was a flapper and a free spirit. She went out West with some friends and met Val at a campsite in Yellowstone Park. (She drew his attention when she sang "Pistol Packin' Mama Don't You Two-Time Me" by the campfire.) The courtship was quick and Maxine was soon pregnant.

Their daughter, nicknamed "Ting," was born in 1926.

Val and Maxine separated when Ting was still an infant, and Maxine Webster got a job in Nashville working in the attorney general's office. Ting was sent off to Birmingham, where she was raised by her aunts. Eventually she moved back to Nashville, where she graduated from Saint Cecilia Academy.

In her late teens during the war, Ting briefly married a Naval ensign and jeweler named Joe Watts. They divorced after about a year, and young Maxine got a job as a ticket agent with American Airlines. On a blind date, she met Jim Dickey, who was studying at Vanderbilt on the G.I. Bill.

They were married in 1948.