Excerpt from Waveland

Once there was a girl who did everything wrong. Take the time in 1963 when she took part in a wade-in to desegregate a public pool in Chester Pennsylvania. She almost drowned. She had been the only white girl in the demonstration. When the crowd took the pool by storm, she flailed and sank, and she was pulled out by a lifeguard who forcibly detained her as her Negro comrades were loaded into vans. The police refused to arrest her. They said she should go home and learn to swim.

“Did she?” Tamara asked. She was sitting in the bathtub, with her knees drawn under her chin. The tub was ancient, and the faucet leaked enough to draw a dull brown line across the porcelain.

“Eventually,” Beth said. “Your daddy taught her.”

So Beth had done it. She’d mentioned Ron. It was the third time that week, and though Tamara let it pass without much comment, that girl noticed. Tamara was the sort of girl who noticed everything. And if Beth was going to bring him up, these stories were as good a way as any.

Beth couldn’t remember when the stories started. It might have been the time she’d dropped a book in the bathtub. It might have been after a day of teaching French to sullen engineering students, when she could no longer contain her angst and let it weigh down the first line about the girl who did everything wrong which fell, like a lead sinker, into the cozy hour before she put her daughter to bed.

Those were hard years. Beth was teaching part-time at two colleges and starting her dissertation, and she and her daughter occupied the top floor of a house full of graduate students who considered Beth bourgeois because she kept her own refrigerator. But the stories were a success. Tamara couldn’t get enough of them. Beth rationed her to one a day, at bath time. Tamara wanted to hear about the time the girl crossed the wrong street searching for a open store where she could buy a mop, or drove down the wrong Mississippi highway and hit a cow, destroyed her car, and was picked up by two elderly and terrified Negroes who hitched that car to the back of their pick-up truck and drove her as far as they dared. This time, Beth did end up in jail.   The old men were arrested for running a towing service without a license.

“Was daddy arrested too?” Tamara asked. Her voice was tentative.

‘Not that time,” Beth replied. “No, then I was on my own.”

But that was not quite true. She’d shared the cell with a local prostitute who slept with her skirt hiked well above her waist, and a foul-mouthed teenaged girl who exchanged banter with the matron, mainly about Beth, hardly the cellmates Beth expected when she’d volunteered for Freedom Summer. Of course, Beth had been charged with prostitution. Also, the words “on my own” implied self-pity, and Beth had been too busy to feel anything like that at the time. No, that came later. Feeling came later.

Not in 1964. Back then, Beth Fine, age twenty, was always, relentlessly occupied. It was as though if she let herself stop moving, something terrible would happen.   Everything about her in those days was marked by acute anxiety: buggy hazel eyes, frizzy red hair, a chin wrinkly with concentration. She would storm into rooms, or back into furniture. There wasn’t a door she wouldn’t slam. In those days, if a gesture wasn’t emphatic, it seemed, to her, half-hearted, and force was a form of honesty.

Such was her state of mind the spring she met Ron Beauchamp. Ron had come to Swarthmore to recruit students for the Mississippi Summer Project. His photograph had been in Life Magazine the previous fall when he had handed out copies of the U.S. Constitution to high school students in the Delta, and marched them to a courthouse by the Yazoo River where he’d fallen to his knees led them in prayer until he was struck across the head and shoulders with a two-by-four. In the photograph, his features were distorted with agony and the caption below read: The Face of Freedom. Ronald Beauchamp of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), cradles a copy of the Constitution on the Courthouse Steps.

In that photograph, he’d looked about sixteen. In person his age wasn’t easy to determine. He was slight and angular, and he wore dark glasses that made him look as inaccessible as a movie-star, but his voice was gentle with fatigue as he said, “You kids got the prettiest college I’ve seen yet. We sure appreciated those blankets you all sent down last winter. That was you, wasn’t it? Sorry if I seem a little unsteady on my feet, but I been on all these Greyhound busses for two weeks now.” He was well known in the Movement for his cowboy driving, tearing across cotton fields at ninety miles an hour to evade the Klan. He’d gone by bus, because the Greenwood project couldn’t spare a car.

“You got to understand, in Mississippi, we Negroes got these old cars, right? Maybe twenty-five years old, but on the road. Because when a Negro has a car, it is a way to keep his dignity.   Your car’s your kingdom. And when you travel from Greenwood down to the Gulf coast, you don’t stop at some restaurant where they won’t serve you. You make yourself a picnic on the side of the road and nobody can tell you where to sit, or what to say.”

It was, he said, his first time out of Mississippi. He was a country boy, born in the Delta.   The people in the Delta were a little slow, but they would all have to get used to that if they went to Mississippi.   They would have to get used to a lot of things—outhouses, baths in tin tubs, people who didn’t answer right away

“You all got watches? Don’t bring them along. You all got patience. Bring that. Bring us books and school supplies. Bring typewriters. We got an office in Greenwood, got three typewriters working full-time typing affidavits, and two of them typewriters skip the letters e and i. Both of them letters are in license, as in the license plate of the car that keeps circling the Freedom House that belongs to a man we’ve been unable to identify. Those letters are in the name of Corrine Saunders, a Negro girl who was strip-searched and beaten for taking her momma to our Citizenship School to learn to register to vote.”

And then he told them about those Citizenship Schools, about the trips to the courthouse, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. He told them there would danger. He told them there would be frustration. And maybe they’d know a little of the danger and frustration that Mississippi Negroes faced every day, and they could take that home with them and tell the story.

“Bring the good will of your families. We’ll need you to tell them everything you see—and I mean everything. And when the white and Negro Freedom delegates show up in Atlantic City at the Democratic convention, come August, we need the support of everyone you know. We are David facing Goliath. We are Gideon’s army, outnumbered, and you all have to be our trumpet. We may not have watches, but we know what time it is. That’s why we all say Freedom Now. Not someday. Now! Hear me, brothers. Freedom!”

Beth rose to her feet to chant “Now!” along with the other Swarthmore students who filled the compact auditorium. She was in the third row, having arrived early to see if she’d run into anyone she knew from the demonstrations last winter. But Ron Beauchamp had attracted a different crowd, well-dressed young men in ties, girls wearing ironed blouses, none of the Chester people. She felt conspicuous, unwashed, unbuttoned, a different class of person altogether.

A couple of kids from the Northern Friends of SNCC passed out the applications and brochures, and Beth took one of each just as the professor who’d introduced Ron came back to the microphone and announced that regrettably, the speaker could not stay for questions. He would be expected at a fundraiser at Carnegie Hall that night, and had to catch a bus. Could anyone volunteer to take the him to the Greyhound Station in Philadelphia.

That was when Beth called out, “I can take you all the way.”

Ron turned then. So did everybody else.

Exposed, blushing to the roots of her hair, Beth clarified in a voice so high and trembling that she might have been singing opera. “All the way to New York. I can drive you.”

And when Beth looked back on the girl she had been then, she found the next turn of events incredible. Ron Beauchamp, who’d been looking at the bus schedule, lowered it. He took a step forward. Then, he asked, “What kind of car you got?”

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