I’m thinking of James tonight.
James worked with my father, but they all called him a baby: he was the youngest of all the men and the newest machinist at the machine shop where they worked. Only ten years older than me, he had shaggy brown hair and an easy smile.
I liked James. The first time I met him he was wearing his grease-smudged blue uniform with his name stitched onto a pocket patch. He grinned. “What a little catbird,” he said, and that became my nickname. “You’re lucky you ain’t as ugly as your Daddy.”
I laughed. Dad laughed, too.
After that, I started to collect facts about James. He was fresh out of a brief stint in the coal mines. He’d graduated high school and said his biggest regret was not going to college. He didn’t have a wife or any children, which was unusual in the shop, but I didn’t understand at the time why my mother shook her head with grim disgust every time that particular truth surfaced.
Only once did I glean that James was different. His name came up once, at my uncle’s house, and my uncle bristled. “James is funny, ain’t he?” He dropped into a mincing, limp-wristed posture and sashayed across the living room.
My dad was preoccupied dipping snuff, so he just nodded. My uncle barked a sharp, short laugh. “As long as he knows better than to act funny ’round here,” he announced. He made a twisting motion with his hands, violent and quick. And he wasn’t laughing when he spoke again. “‘Cause I’d wring his neck.”
I didn’t understand then that James was gay, or even what gay meant; my strict religious upbringing meant no one ever told me or so much as alluded to it. Nor did I understand why the last time I saw James – right before he left the shop to go work elsewhere for reasons that to this day remain foggy – he gripped my shoulder and looked into my eyes and didn’t smile at all. “You go on to college and get yourself an education, catbird,” he told me. His hand tightened. “Understand? You go on and you get the hell out of here.”
This is the confession of an Appalachian woman: I grew up steeped in hatred without understanding that’s what it was. I grew up in ignorance and with a very narrow view of the world, without the initial ability to question assumptions and flawed ideas presented to me as truth. But reading saved me and writing saved me and kind people saved me. I’m a different person, now.
I wish I could find James to tell him that. I wish I could give him a hug. But since I can’t, I’ll write about it, about what it means to make a journey from ignorance to awareness, and why words matter in that journey. Why they mean everything.
This is The Catbird Song.