Monday, October 26, 2009

Natchez Trace VII: Beers with Rube and Hank

I didn’t notice Rube, Kathryn and Hank pull into the parking lot. Rube had finally traded in his iconic Volvo station wagon for a generic Japanese sedan. Kathryn had long been encouraging the upgrade.

“Now we’ve got to work on his wardrobe,” Kathryn said.

Michael Rubenstein was a long time sports broadcaster in Jackson who has founded and for the last 15 years run the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Rube’s stentorian voice and cracking wit made him a natural television personality.

Rube went to Vanderbilt with my stepfather, and was the guy I wanted to sit next to at the homecoming games. For one he broke the lawyer, doctor, businessman mold of most of the guys who showed up that weekend, and he also knew what was going on down on the field, whether the coach was any good, and what we could expect in a couple of months from the basketball team, the real Vanderbilt sporting interest. He was also the seasoned traveler and had been just about everywhere in the world I wanted to go.

I got the chance to travel with Rube when he joined Steven, David and I on a trip to China in 2002. Three weeks on the gringo trail is ample time to get to know a man, and Rube demonstrated he was one cool customer.

We were floating down the Yangtze River two months before they closed off the Three Gorges Dam and flooded its namesake valley when Rube realized he had miscounted his pills. These pills weren’t cholesterol regulators or happy candy; Rube was short the medicine that kept his body from rejecting his transplant kidney. He must have been worried, though he only mentioned the oversight in passing one morning at breakfast, casually enough so that it didn’t interrupt for too long our oggling the waitress with the largest chest in China. No, death’s shadow did not stop the man from appreciating the oddity of a humongous pair of boobs on a tiny Chinese girl.

He must have been really worried when Fed Ex screwed up the emergency shipment Kathryn sent that night from Jackson. If we had taken this same trip five or ten years before, Rube might have died in central China, or at the least found himself back on a dialysis machine, perhaps for the rest of his life. Fortunately there was a new pharmacy in Chongqing that had the proper medicine in stock.

Hank Klibanoff was Rube’s other houseguest for the night. Hank won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his book The Race Beat. Meticulously researched and masterfully written, his book will become the definitive history of journalism in the civil rights movement. The protagonists in his tale, the small band of enlightened newspaper editors who fought for equality in the Jim Crow south, were the models I looked to when I first sought to be a liberal. No elitist dweebs, these liberals presented an easy going, disarming face to the world, men who personified the good qualities of the southern way of life even while they battled the great majority of their contemporaries to expose and defeat the glaring injustices and inequalities inherent in racial discrimination.

Not even a Pulitzer could shield Hank from the cost cutting blades of the publishing industry; he has since been laid off as managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Hank’s position encapsulated the vicious cycle ravaging the American press. An editor flush with contacts and germane knowledge of the history and politics of his region is invaluable to maintaining a standard of excellence in the press. Yet the profit model for print journalism today cannot afford this excellence, and continuing decline in circulation must be in part a response to a diminished product. Worse, the stakes are far more serious than profit models eviscerated by the internet. The fourth estate has long been the pillar upholding transparency and accountability in democratic governance. No army of bloggers or TV screaming heads can replace the guild of newsroom editors steeped in the rigorous pursuit of objectivity and civic interest.

Hank is now director of the Cold Case Truth and Justice Project. His center examines civil rights related murders that were never investigated or were dropped by local police departments. Through interviews and the examination of old documents Hank hopes his team can bring conclusive evidence against alleged perpetrators who evaded the slipknots of criminal justice in the Old South. In some cases they seek out suspects from new leads. The aim is not to bring octogenarian defendants to show trials, but to document the many unsolved cases so the stories of the victims can be remembered and the guilty tried in the historical record.

Rube and Hank became friends back when Hank was a reporter for a local paper. They were introduced one night by their respective girlfriends who had planned a double date. They spent the evening talking to each other more than to their dates.

Rube took us to a restaurant on the reservoir north of town. It was a warm night and there was a band playing on the docks. The crab sandwiches were tasty and the cold beer was the perfect tonic to soothe my legs.

Hank told us about why he was passing through Jackson. If my retelling is murky, it is no fault of Hank’s, he was a raconteur in the best of Southern tradition. I was too tired to take copious notes later that evening, and my brain was awash with endorphins and in no shape to nail down details. Two days on the road and I already had the makings of an exercise junkie.

Hank was investigating an unsolved murder from the Oxford riots that erupted when James Meredith arrived in the fall of 1962 to enroll in the University of Mississippi. Before the army could step in to bring back order, the Mississippi Highway Patrol stood idle as a white mob rained rocks, bricks and gunfire upon the campus. Two men were killed in the maelstrom, one a French journalist who had come to cover the Meredith story.

“People don’t realize that a lot of these people came from Alabama,” Hank, The Alabamian, said.

“Our rednecks in Mississippi, they try,” Rube conceded, “but those Alabama rednecks, they’re the real deal.”

Hank had recently received a tip from a man living in Jackson who remembers as a boy one of those Alabama rednecks visiting his house to retrieve a rag-wrapped parcel hidden in the basement. The man believed the parcel might have been a gun. Hank had reason to believe that it could have been the murder weapon used to kill the French journalist.

There are many reasons the boy’s family would have been afraid to speak up. A KKK riddled police department was unlikely to be interested in such a report in the 1960’s, and the Klan had a reputation for brutal retaliation against snitches. Hank wasn’t sure if the story would lead to anything, but the chance was enough to pull him from Atlanta.

That night Kathryn left us with the best pound cake on either side of the Mississippi. Rube got the best of worlds, the bachelor lifestyle and a fantastic girlfriend who was always bringing homemade treats to his kitchen, and then leaving. Women have always chased after Rube, and he has always resisted encroachment. He had been with Kathryn since before the China trip, but they still maintain separate residences. Kathryn has figured out the formula for keeping in the picture, and seems happy with it.

Before bed there was time to absorb what wisdom I could from these esteemed elders. I questioned Rube about bachelor life and asked Hank for his perspective on the state of journalism. I have yet to earn my stripes in either field, but as I yet I am relatively young. There is still hope.

“Last time I heard from your mom and Stevie, you were damn well near married,” Rube said.

“I guess I dodged a bullet,” I replied.

“Good for you.”

“I might not have been so lucky, but I couldn’t pass on the French girl.”

“French girls.” Rube smiled. “It’s something about the way they talk.”

That’s exactly what it was. Even English sounds seductive in a French accent.

Rube told us about the French Canadian girl he met on the beach in Acapulco. It was probably from thirty years ago, but Rube told it fresh, uncluttered with the embellishments that tend to accumulate over time. Wise men knew which memories to preserve. It would have the perfect weekend if he hadn’t gotten food poisoning just before he could get her into bed. Still, he managed to see her a couple more times, once in Montreal, and another time on a weekend in New York City.

“Not bad for a boy from Booneville, Mississippi,” Rube said.

Not bad at all. Rube’s college housemate Steven Fayne, later my boss in San Francisco, told me a story that sized up Booneville. Steven and some Zeta brothers were on a road trip between semesters and decided to spend a night in Booneville. They pulled into a gas station in town with a payphone and dialed Rube’s house.

"Rube, we're in town!" Steven said.

“OK. I’ll come down and get you.” Rube said.

“How do you know where we are?” Steven asked.

“Because you’re at the payphone.” Rube said.

An old veteran from Booneville I’d meet later on the trip was impressed when I dropped Rube’s name. He was even more impressed that a TV personality had hailed from Booneville. He had assumed Rube was a Jackson man.

I wish I had talked less and listened more that night with these heavyweight Southerners from Booneville and Florence, Alabama, but my body was spent and my mind still swimming with those damned exercise opiates.

I had more of Kathryn’s pound cake for breakfast, and wrapped up a big chuck that would last half way to Tupelo. I wanted to visit Kathryn’s classroom, she worked as a fourth grade teacher at a public elementary school. Her career sounded like an extension of my brief experience teaching in the Delta. That she does her job well, presents a positive and fun loving face to the world, and manages a successful relationship with Rube likely qualifies her for sainthood.

There just weren’t enough hours of sunlight to see her children and get to Kosciusko before dark.

Hank didn’t have his interview until the afternoon so he offered me a ride back to the Trace. We went for lunch at a Greek restaurant where the friendly owner opened a half hour early when he saw us pull up.

As I unloaded my bike, Hank gave me a copy of his book to take with me on the road. Few books were worth hauling 300 miles in an overstuffed pannier bag. I suspected right that this was one of them. The civil rights movement was perfect subject matter for a slow crawl through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.

Just after noon I started peddling north along the reservoir. Fueled with stuffed grape leaves, pound cake and great conversation, I peddled over the bumpiest stretch of the Trace and reached my next stop well after sundown in the last minutes of twilight.

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