(c) 2016 by Donald Dorman
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1: “What’s your hurry?” … 1
Chapter 2: “Oh, we’ll find something to talk about!” … 7
Chapter 3: “The Good Lord … endowed me with a gizzard!” … 35
Chapter 4: “You’ve burned down Ronnie’s playhouse.” … 71
Chapter 5: “Sling me off!” … 93
Chapter 6: “Well, you better bring in the bedspread too!” … 111
Chapter 7: “We all cried.” … 127
Chapter 8: “So you’re a Dorman?” … 153
Chapter 9: “Broken” … 201
Chapter 10: “My sweet little girl” … 225
Chapter 11: “Don’t worry. I can teach you the song.” … 235
Chapter 12: “With strings attached” … 297
Chapter 13: “I still had a lot to learn.” … 311
Chapter 14: “All I care about is you.” … 325
Chapter 15: Why I Am a Christian … 337
“What’s your hurry?”
It is the kindest and gentlest of rebukes. It is a declaration of unreserved hospitality, a willingness, an eagerness to go deeper. I do not hear that question so much anymore, but I used to hear it often and especially in one place and from one person. I have not heard the words from those wrinkled lips in fifty years, but they challenge me now, even as they did so very long ago.
My grandmother asked this question every day as our visit in her living room neared its end. Slow down, she invariably urged. What could be more important or pleasant than staying a little longer and talking a little more? There will be plenty of time to grow up, to take care of business.
Do you have to go, so soon? There’s more to talk about; we’ve only gotten started. Tell me about your day, what you enjoy, what you dislike, what you fear, where you hurt. I want to hear more about you, all about you, and if you care to listen, there is wisdom here; there are lessons learned from experience, just waiting for you to soak them up. You belong here. You have a place here. You matter here, and you always will.
While young, I was in a hurry. On a determined quest for all that life could offer, I soon moved far from my little Southern hometown. While still a teenager I eagerly shook off the red dust of the hills where I grew up, the easy pace of my family, friends, and neighbors as they strolled through life.
I did a lot of thinking, but I wound up moving faster than I was thinking. There then returned, haunting and daring, across forsaken miles and years, the simple question that I had dodged as a youth, that I had not taken the time to consider seriously.
This is the account of how I found my way. It will not be hurried. Hurry had no place in Myrtle, Mississippi, and this book pays tribute to that small town that I left so hastily but love so dearly and remember so fondly. It recounts the experiences of a boy growing up in Myrtle: the colorful, caring, and creative people he learned from and played with, the enchanting physical environment he enjoyed, and the life lessons he struggled with—often not very wisely. I tell of fun and friends and family—and also of fears that, pulled along by those strangely well-matched yokefellows shame and pride, would lead to loneliness and pain and desperation.
Every child in Myrtle was introduced early on to two institutions the people loved: church and school. There were several churches within the town or nearby. For the most part the people of Myrtle were either Southern Baptists or Methodists. The denominations were friendly rivals, and it would be taken for granted that anybody belonged to the one or the other. Adherence to the Christian faith was a way of life in Myrtle—the exception was noteworthy.
While there were differences regarding church, when it came to school there was unity. The Myrtle School, with grades one through twelve, served the town and the surrounding area. In the early 1970s the school had about twice as many students as the town had residents. With the school, the town grew bigger and bigger-hearted. As every Myrtle child who was of age attended the school, naturally the people came out to support any school function.
One such activity clearly was supported above the rest. Even so, that activity serves well as an example of how things worked in Myrtle. It was a basketball town, and its citizens lived and died with their team.
The people of Myrtle were passionate and faithful in nurturing and standing behind their basketball teams in good times and bad, and they could see the results of their support year by year, if not day by day.
The people of Myrtle also nurtured, trained, inspired, and encouraged the children who grew up there, including me. This support also was passionate and faithful—agonizingly so when times were especially difficult—and its fruit was a long time in ripening.
In living out my early youth, I wrestled with an issue that is common to boys everywhere: what it means to be strong. As I was not very tall and not very muscular, I chose to define strength creatively, and my definition served me disastrously: I set an impossible standard and caused myself and my parents a great deal of pain while blindly pursuing the impossible. The details of my solitary struggle are unique, or nearly so; yet they are but variations on a universal theme: that of a boy gradually discovering who he is and what it means to be strong.
Then, in my mid-teens, following months of intense turmoil that reached a crisis, came a subtle shift. Being strong was no longer quite so important as before. Rather, I now was preoccupied with what it means to be a success. I call this a subtle shift because strength and success have much in common, and I merely exchanged a simple, basic ideal for one that was more sophisticated, more ambitious. What I understood to be strength was, for me, physically impossible to meet. What I understood to be success was attainable—but at what cost?
Part of the charm, as well as poignancy, of coming-of-age books and movies is that children and youths must take on many of life’s lessons without the perspective that maturity brings. Fears and passions often are based on faulty, unrealistic assumptions. My story includes feelings of shame, of being burdened with an unshakable weakness that, whatever the cost, must be kept secret from an unforgiving world, a world that could only accept and love me if I was perfect, a world that could not possibly see me, know me, understand me the way I really was and still accept and love me: I was among a multitude of youths that faced such struggles and such confusion, but I felt completely alone.
Understandably, most memoirs or biographies concern prominent figures. I have read many such books and admire the brilliance, tenacity, and drive of the subjects and the lasting impact many of them made on the world; and I generally am left to observe how different my life has been from theirs, how different the social circles within which I move, how much more narrow my impact. These subjects of biography—through raw talent, fortunate birth, or extreme dedication to a goal—have achieved at a level that is beyond most of us. But are only their stories worth telling?
When I was a journalism student at the University of Mississippi in the 1970s, the editor of the Daily Mississippian, Otis Tims, told his staff that everybody has a story that is worth hearing. I believe Otis was right, and I believe it more firmly now than I did when I heard him say it—because by now I have listened to many people’s stories. I have gained much wisdom by listening to others share details from their lives. Some of these stories I have heard in church settings, as testimonies before assemblies, or in small groups, or one on one. Others I have heard as a journalist or lawyer, in both roles digging hard for the smallest detail that might reveal hidden value, or simply the truth, which has its own value.
I hope that, as a result of reading this book, more ordinary people, such as I am, will be encouraged both to tell their stories and to listen to the stories of others. We need each other, and, whether we wish to admit it or not, the need is deep, even desperate. We need family. We need friends. We need community. And we each have a God-given part that no one else can fill, a unique set of opportunities to reach and to bless those around us in ways no one else can.
But for the grace of God, my story likely would have been brief and tragic; by God’s grace, the near-tragedy became just one chapter in a longer and happier story. Noticing how God has wisely and lovingly protected, directed, and provided for my life is a good way to read everything that follows.
Myrtle has long been something of a conundrum for me. When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get out, to spread my wings and do things that I couldn’t do in Myrtle. I wanted to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist; I went on to write editorials in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that would have fit in perfectly with life and politics in Myrtle. (A shared Pulitzer Prize did come my way in Fort Wayne, though it was for a team effort in which my role was among the least.) I wanted, later, an exciting career practicing corporate tax law; I went on to set up a one-man law office in Chicago’s Loop, dealing, for the most part, with issues that are common to everyday life and people in Myrtle.
Many people say they have no regrets about their lives. I cannot say that of myself. The Myrtle I knew was a wonderful town in which to grow up. I wish I had heeded my grandmother and not been in such a hurry to grow up, that I had walked at a more leisurely pace and soaked up a little more of the town’s goodness. Paul Nolan’s 2014 book Myrtle, Mississippi vividly describes the town, its people, and its happy places in the 1950s and 1960s. I highly recommend that book, not only for its gentle, good-natured humor and insight but also as background for the material to follow. I do not attempt, as Paul successfully did, a comprehensive description of the town and its residents. I do, however, describe in detail some of the people and places that touched me deeply. These are the details that follow, details that, for me, were essentially frozen in time and place as I witnessed them in the Myrtle of about fifty years ago. May the residual warmth of that little town’s friendly, unhurried atmosphere thaw these memories so you can enjoy them with me.