Penn Cage 04 - Natchez Burning
“IF A MAN is forced to choose between the truth and his father, only a fool chooses the truth.” A great writer said that, and for a long time I agreed with him. But put into practice, this adage could cloak almost any sin. My mother would agree with it, but I doubt my older sister would, and my fiancée would scoff at the idea. Perhaps we expect too much of our fathers. Nothing frightens me more than the faith in my daughter’s eyes. How many men deserve that kind of trust? One by one, the mentors I’ve most admired eventually revealed chinks in their armor, cracks in their fa?ades, and tired feet of clay—or worse.
But not my father.
A child of the Great Depression, Tom Cage knew hunger. At eighteen, he was drafted and served as a combat medic during the worst fighting in Korea. After surviving that war, he went to medical school, then paid off his loans by serving in the army in West Germany. When he returned home to Mississippi, he practiced family medicine for more than forty years, treating some of the most underprivileged in our community with little thought of financial reward. The Natchez Examiner has named him an “Unsung Hero” more times than I can remember. If small towns still have saints, then he is surely one of them.
And yet …
As the cynical governor created by my distant relation, Robert Penn Warren, once said: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.” My younger self sometimes wondered whether this might be true about my father, but time slowly reassured me that he was the exception to Willie Stark’s cynical rule. Like poor Jack Burden, my hopeful heart answered: “Maybe not on the Judge.” But Robert Penn Warren had the kind of courage I’ve only begun to discover: the will to dig to the bottom of the mine, to shine his pitiless light downward, and to stare unflinchingly at what he found there. And what I found by following his example was proof of Willie Stark’s eternal rule: There is always something.
It’s tempting to think that I might never have learned any of this—that my mother, my sister, and I might mercifully have escaped the consequences of acts committed deep in the haze of history (a time before cell phones and digital cameras and reporters who honor no bounds of propriety, when N-word meant nothing to anybody and nigger was as common in the vernacular as tractor)—but to yearn for ignorance is to embrace the wishful thinking of a child. For once the stone hits the surface of the pond, the ripples never really stop. The waves diminish, and all seems to return to its previous state, but that’s an illusion. Disturbed fish change their patterns, a snake slides off the muddy bank into the water, a deer bolts into the open to be shot. And the stone remains on the slimy bottom, out of sight but inarguably there, dense and permanent, sediment settling over it, turtles and catfish prodding it, the sun heating it through all the layers of water until that far-off day when, whether lifted by the fingers of a curious boy diving fifty years after it was cast or uncovered by a bone-dumb farmer draining the pond to plant another half acre of cotton, that stone finds its way back up to the light.
And the man who cast it trembles. Or if he is dead, his sons tremble. They tremble by an unwritten law, one that a fellow Mississippian understood long before I was born and casually revealed to a reporter in a French hotel room in 1956, dispensing eternal truths as effortlessly as a man tossing coins to beggars in the road. He said, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past. If it were, there would be no grief or sorrow.” And ten years before him, my distant relation wrote, “There is always something.” And six decades after that, I thought: Please, no, let me remain in my carefully constructed cocoon of Not-Knowing. Let me keep my untarnished idol, my humble war hero, the one healer who has not killed, the one husband who has not lied, the one father who has not betrayed the faith of his children. But as I know now, and hate the knowing … Willie was right: there is always something.
So let us begin in 1964, with three murders. Three stones cast into a pond no one had cared about since the siege of Vicksburg, but which was soon to become the center of the world’s attention. A place most people in the United States liked to think was somehow different from the rest of the country, but which was in fact the very incarnation of America’s tortured soul.
At his best, man is the noblest of all animals;
separated from law and justice he is the worst.