Evenings with Dotson

From In the Mountains of America

By Meredith Sue Willis

I remember those summers when Dotson used to visit me at my grandmother's as dark green and rank with Virginia Creeper and weedlike saplings along the sides of the road. High Gap, where my grandmother had her store, was a mere row of mailboxes with a church across the creek and a one room school overlooking the road. I loved going down there in the summers; the sudden rises and drops of mountainside fed my imagination, and the slat-sided houses stilted for balance on the slopes. There were people, according to my grandmother, who lived so far up the mountain that there were no roads, only paths; people who came down once a year to buy goods at her store; people who never came down.

If you took the hardtop down the mountain, you came to a real town named Pound because the Indians used to impound their horses there, and that was where you could find a drug store, a dentist, the consolidated high school Dotson attended. Pound became famous a few years later as the hometown of Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 spy pilot, but when I spent summers with my grandmother, he was known only as a local boy who made a good career in the Air Force. The military was considered prime employment in that part of the world, and the Air Force the best of the services. Something about the mountains must have made the boys want to go even higher: Dotson's uncle owned a Piper cub, and Dotson talked about flying all the time.

It amazed me, the summer I was twelve and Dotson fourteen, that my grandmother didn't refuse to let him visit me. He arrived at dusk with his hair wet, wearing a white shirt and slacks, and my grandmother invited him in for a glass of iced tea. He answered her questions about his mother and little brothers with attentive respect, and then she sent us to sit on the concrete steps of the back porch overlooking the creek and the Freewill Baptist church. I remember the heaviness and dampness of the air, and something sweet-smelling that Dotson wore on his cheeks and neck. He talked about playing football for a while, and then I boasted about what my town had that Pound didn't -- a public library and a municipal swimming pool. I told him about the books I'd read, and he told me I was different from other girls and promised to take me up in an airplane. Then my grandmother turned off the television and started walking around the kitchen, flashing lights on and off until Dotson stood up crisply and said good-bye.

We didn't kiss till the next summer, when I was thirteen and his shoulders seemed to have doubled in width. He knew more about town life now. He never wore overalls anymore, and he was more proud of his football letter than of his ability to hunt squirrels. He still loved best, though, to go up with his uncle and take the controls of the Piper cub. That's when you know who you are, he said. That's when you feel like you could do anything.


The kiss came three nights after he told me a story about the town boys. He liked to laugh about the practical jokes the town boys pulled and what they said to each other. This particular story concerned a car full of black people who had driven through Pound in some old car that didn't look like it would make it over the next mountain. "Well," said Dotson, "there was no question of whether the boys was going to get them out of town, it was only a question of how they was going to do it." So what the boys did, said Dotson, was when the car stopped for the light, they just sort of surrounded it, and then leaned in the windows and stared. Then one of the boys said, real softly, "Y'all ain't planning on stopping here?" Like they were almost being polite. "Y'all ain't planning on visiting here long are you? Because, you know, it ain't healthy after dark, not for y'all, that folks can't see after the sun goes down." Well, said Dotson, they were so scared they just peeled out, didn't even wait for the light to change, just took out of Pound and that was the last of them anyone saw around town. He gave a big Hoo Hoo and hit his leg with the heel of his hand. "That must of been something to see," he said.

I didn't say a word at first, just like the town boys leaning on the car. I waited till Dotson had hooted and snorted and finally settled down. All summer we had been having half-flirtatious, half- rivalrous debates over our towns and high schools and football teams and marching bands and cheerleading uniforms. Dotson usually deferred to my opinion in the end, but I had begun to suspect him of humoring me, as if in his heart he knew that my arguments weren't going to convince him of anything, but he liked to make me happy.

For this reason, I was thankful for his story, delighted to feel firm ground under me, to take a stand. For the moment the soaring black mountains were mine and Dotson down in the muggy valley. "Dotson Otis," I said, "You sound like you're proud of what those boys did."

He stirred on the steps. He had perhaps expected a giggle or a tsk tsk of disapproval. I said, "Dotson, if somebody passing through High Gap came and asked you for a glass of water, wouldn't you give it to them? Wouldn't you give them directions if they were lost or a piece of bread if they were hungry? I mean, what if it was your mother or your little brother in a strange town? What if there was a car accident and those people in that strange town said, 'You can't use our hospital?'"

Dotson said, "But those were Niggers, Blair Ellen. I explained that. They were colored."

I remember the control I felt over my voice, as if I were making a speech I had practiced for a long time. How I felt righteousness like a mantle around my shoulders. "Those were people in that car, Dotson," I said. "And you shouldn't use that word for people. They were just people driving through and maybe needing to get something to drink or a sandwich or some gasoline. And those boys you think so much of denied them, denied the Least of These My Brethren, and if you do it to them, you are doing it to Jesus, he said so himself in the Bible."

Dotson seemed a little stunned to have Bible quoted at him. I think he saw it as his people guarding the passes against outsiders. I think that's what the story meant to him. But I didn't give him a chance to restate it, I just moved on from Jesus to Thomas Jefferson.

I said, "In this country the Declaration of Independence says people are created equal and they have a right to drive their cars where they want and go to school where they want and live their lives just as free as you and me. Didn't you ever hear of the Supreme Court?"

Dotson got a little sullen. "They have places to live. They should stay there."

"Those people were driving through your town, Dotson Otis," I said. "That's all they were doing. And your friends treated them like dirt."

We sat with dew falling on our faces and knees, and the cold coming through our pants from the concrete steps. Abruptly he stood up and said, "Well, I guess I better be going." It was the first time he didn't wait for my grandmother's noises.

He's prejudiced, I said to myself, feeling lonely, but proud.

He didn't come in the store for two days, but on the third day he went through the whole ritual again of hanging around drinking Pepsi till late, finally asking my grandmother for permission to come over. The nights had begun to cool, almost time for my parents to come and get me. He sat with his knees separated and his hands clasped between them, his head lowered.

"I've been thinking," he said. "I decided to think over what you said, and I've been thinking about it for three days, and like you said, the Declaration of Independence and all. Now I don't mean I want them living next to me, but I can see where they should of been able to stop and buy gas or a Pepsi. Anyhow, I decided our boys were wrong."

His voice got deeper and softer as he said this, and I found myself overawed that he had spent three days thinking about something. I tended to take things literally in those days, and I imagined that he had thought for the full three days.

"Now don't get me wrong about one thing," he said. "I doubt I would have done a thing to stop them if I'd been there, because they're my friends. But I think you're right and they were wrong."

I meant to scold him for not putting his new belief into action, but I let it go, let the argument run out into the enormous sounds of the creek battering its stones and the mountains singing with crickets, and Dotson asked me -- with a politeness so profound I absolutely believed he would accept a No as easily as a Yes-- if he could kiss me. I presented my face and opened my mouth, and when he found the open mouth, his whole body stirred, and waves of sweet melling lotion passed over me. I am thirteen years old, I thought, and I am tongue-kissing for the first time.

"I want to take you up in a plane," he said into my ear. "I want to take you up in a plane and show you the mountains."


Dotson finally did take me up in an airplane, but he didn't show me the mountains. I was a sophomore at Barnard College in New York City, and the Air Force was about to send him overseas. He called me from Teterboro Airport across the river in New Jersey to say he'd just flown up in his uncle's new Cessna, and he wanted to take me out for an early dinner and a sunset flight to see the Manhattan skyline.

I had classes the next day and I hadn't seen him since high school, and I knew from my grandmother he was married, but I had just had a fight with my boyfriend, and there was an air of adventure about the whole thing. Besides, I told myself, this was a unique opportunity to try and convince someone not to fight in that war.

The New Jersey restaurant he chose had red carpets and chairs with upholstered arms and lights that hung from wagon wheels. We were so early that we were the only customers, and he insisted on ordering both of us the Steak King Platter with the potato and garlic bread and sour cream and cheese cake. He sat back in his chair and said, "I like this place. I have a good feeling about it. I predict the steaks will be as thick as the cushions."

The thing that amazed me was how he looked the same as he had at fourteen: very white, head and shoulders too big for his body, the long jaw, the thick forearms, and the stubbly hair that exposed his scalp. So familiar, and yet so unlike most of the boys I knew. We liked our men hairy in those days: sideburns, moustaches, even pony tails. I said, "Lately I've been eating in a lot of Chinese and Italian restaurants."

He grinned. "Then you must be ready for a steak."

I had a feeling anything I said was going to be all right with him. It made it hard to get up a controversy. I told him more about the restaurants and different styles of food in New York. I tried to convince him of how wonderful New York was, and why I intended to live there. He listened; he smiled at whatever I said; he remained unconvinced.

He said, "Me, I've had too much dormitory food, and who knows what slop they'll feed us over there."

"When are you leaving?" I was trying to work my way into my subject, what I needed to tell him.

He looked at his hands longer than seemed necessary. "Soon," he said, and began abruptly to talk. I had somehow thought he invited me to hear my message, but he had things to tell me first. He told me how he had suffered at his military college the first year, how homesick he had been for High Gap and Pound, even becoming physically ill, throwing up every morning when they sounded reveille. Losing weight, hating the other cadets, the rich men's sons from the suburbs of Richmond and Washington. How even with enormous effort he had come as close to flunking out as possible and still stay in.

He hated the regulations too, the uniforms and Yessirs and salutes and stiff backs, but sometime during the second year he had begun to feel less alone, to understand that everyone hated the same things. He began to feel that what he was going through was something he did for the other cadets as well as for the people back home. Little by little he began to feel the man that the discipline was shaping him into, just the same as you could feel your own bicep thickening over time from lifting weights. He felt this knotty, disciplined core of an officer maturing inside him. "I'm ready for responsibility now," he told me. "I bought a piece of property up on High Gap. I want to build a house when I get back."

The salads came. I said, "You and Peggy Sue."

He touched his lower lip with a thumb. "We got married. I didn't know whether you knew or not."

"I heard. Does she know you came up here?"

He looked me straight in the eye: an act of discipline, I thought. "No. She thinks my uncle and I flew to Canada to go fishing. I would never of done something like this behind her back except I wanted to make sure I saw you one last time."

It flattered me, and reminded me that he was going to be in danger too. That his faintly freckled forearms, his thick wrists and square hands, his painstakingly cleaned nails -- that this Dotson was going to be strapped into a little airplane with missiles coming at him, dropping from him.

I wanted to make it simple, to shout: Don't endanger yourself, Dotson. Just don't go over there. Don't drop the bombs.

And have him simply nod: I'll think it over, maybe you're right. But dinner came, and I had to compliment the steak, and Dotson sighed his satisfaction. "The property is way back up on High Gap. Farther up than your grandmother's store. Peggy Sue is having the site graded this summer. We're going to build a brick house."

I could imagine it: I'd seen the solid brick houses with aluminum awnings in clearings up there half a mile from shanties with no running water. It would be their cousins in the shanties: you built your good house near your people, that was the way it was done.

"I'm going to be a father, too," said Dotson. "I've had a hard time, but I feel like I'm coming out the other side now. Even if something happens over there, Peggy Sue and that baby will be taken care of."

"A baby," I said. "A baby and a house on Wise Mountain."

"There's no better place. I can't think of anywhere I'd rather go back to. Or fight for."

I was finally moved to speak.

"You know, Dotson, your place -- High Gap, Pound -- that's home to you. I mean, where you were born and where you want to go back and live? And you say you'd fight for it."

"You bet," said Dotson. "That's America. That's my home. That's why we're over there, to fight for it."

"But the people over there, Dotson, in Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia. We're the ones who're destroying their homes."

He shook his head slowly. "We're fighting to help them hold the line against the Communists."

"No, Dotson. We take them out of their villages and make them go live in refugee camps and cities, and you can imagine how country people like that. They prefer the communists to us -- we're the invaders over there."

Almost to himself he said, "I'm glad to hear this. This may be my only chance to ever hear this."

I said, "Doesn't it make any sense to you, what I'm saying?"

"I'll tell you the truth, Blair Ellen, it sounds strange to me. It sounds like you're on the Communists' side. But I just want to listen to you for now. You go ahead." He leaned forward, arms on the table, head to one side.  

I took a deep breath. "We're supporting a dictator who puts his own people in jail if they disagree with him. It's a civil war, and it's none of our business."

"Now I don't know," said Dotson. "I don't know as much as you do. I'm an officer and a flyer. What I see happening over there is that it's the first step of an enemy who'd like to take away my little place on High Gap. The way I look at it is, if somebody came up to High Gap and aimed a gun at me, I'd fight, and this gun is just farther away. Now I know the Air Force is going to tell me things to keep my morale up, and I don't suppose every word of it will be true, but I've signed on. I trust them in the long run that the missions they send me on will protect my home and my family." The thing that astounded me, the thing that left me with no ground under my feet, was that he and I were envisioning the same thing --the brick house on High Gap and a new baby -- that we could both see this, and yet he thought he was fighting to save it and I thought he was destroying it.

He must have seen something stricken in my face, because he touched me for the first time, tapped my elbow with one finger. "Listen, it's okay. It's a free country."

I had a sensation like a child who is given something sweet to eat when there is a pain in her body. The touch reminded me of his easy, time-consuming kisses, and at the same time I saw him, for a moment, with a mask over his face and a bank of flashing buttons, his voice cracking over a radio: "Payload number one deployed," he would say. "Ready Payload number two." I imagined tons of clinging fire, on trees, on the round heads of children. I thought of those things, but they kept fading to Dotson with his shiny stubble of hair, his hillbilly smile.

"Did you come to get tested?" I said. "Am I part of your officer training?"

He stroked my arm. "I told you. I just wanted to be sure I saw you one last time. It's my way of preparing, as best I can."

I laid my hand on his, worked my way up his forearm as he worked his way up mine. The skin cool on top, the muscle underneath rounded and hard like something machine tooled. The steel they'd made inside him, I reminded myself. How they'd brainwashed him. But not just the Air Force, also what they told him on the football field, his friends at Pound. It wasn't anything new, it was just more of the old thing.

He said, "Let me take you in the plane now."

I went with him, passive in the face of his conviction, a power that came from both of us knowing he might die. I let him pay the bill, drive me to the airport. I followed him down the row of planes, stood back as he checked over the Cessna, looked under the wings, turned the propeller by hand. I was reminded dreamily that this white thing was only a machine, that machines have to be maintained or they'll break down. Reminded that I was trusting him to take me up and set me down safely.

He flipped switches, tugged at my safety belt, tested his gauges, tucked his chin, and then the engine, the propellers, and a familiar sensation of rolling on the ground -- followed by a sudden heady absence of friction, and we were flying, over the ranks of blue, yellow and white planes, over New Jersey roofs, over cars creeping on an expressway. A sweep around, the domination of the George Washington Bridge with its green night lights just coming on.

My breath came rapidly, and I began to revive from my passivity, to feel a little of the flush of power that comes from danger. I shouted, "You pilots like to risk your lives, don't you, in these little tin cans?"

He laughed; it was the first time we had teased each other all evening.

"I never feel as safe as when I'm flying," he said. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"

We were flying south along the Hudson River. New York on our left, lit both by electricity and by a sunset that turned bricks and concrete gold and pink, made windows flash. We weren't very high; some of the tallest buildings were higher than we were, and the river seemed vastly more broad than I had ever supposed. I could look down the canyons of streets for an instant as we passed. At midtown, the glitter of the skyscrapers seemed to overwhelm even the sunset, and Dotson tipped the wings so I could see better, and again I felt the rush of adrenaline, knew what he loved.

We flew over the bay. A fat yellow ferry was leaving its berth. We began another maneuver, tipping in my direction this time, executing a complete circle, a turn on a dime, and a hundred feet directly below me was the upraised arm of the Statue of Liberty, the spikes around her huge head.

"It's beautiful, Dotson!" I shouted. "It's so beautiful!"

He circled the Statue once more, at a slightly greater height, and then started back up the river. "This is the way I like to see a city," he said. "I like a view of it, but I don't like to be in it."

This city, I thought, amazed by the way it filled my eyes. This city is one whole thing. And I live here. But a single target too; you could drop a bomb on this city. For a moment I felt sorry for the vulnerability of the city. I looked at Dotson, who knew how to drop bombs, whose profile had a ruddy aura from the sun, whose jaw stretched deliberately as he surveyed what was below him.

"Dotson!" I shouted, and I laid my hand on his shoulder. "Dotson! Listen to me. Don't go over there. If you go over there, you're going to kill people. There's no way it will make it anything but worse."

Damp faced, half laughing, he shrugged my hand off his shoulder, then grabbed it up with his and squeezed it.

"Come on, Dotson," I said. "This is so beautiful. No wonder you love to fly. I don't want to go down. Let's keep flying. Let's fly this thing to Canada!" I meant it, too, at least for that moment. I felt perfectly free: I could go to Canada as easily as back to college. "It would be easy, Dotson!" I shouted. "You can find Canada. I could practically find Canada. Just go up the Hudson River. How long could it take from here? Two hours? Just go north. Peggy Sue can come too, they have good hospitals in Canada. It's a nice country, Dotson. I'm right, Dotson, you know I'm right!"

I think, at that moment, in his favorite place, with the world laid out underneath us, George Washington Bridge looming ahead, I think he was as close to agreeing with me as he ever would be.

"You're really something," he said. "You make deserting sound like this great thing to do." I leaned over and turned my face to him, and he kissed me, and I felt desire in a swelling wave that would carry us all the way to Canada.

But the plane tipped. Not a lot, just enough that Dotson had to take action. Had to stop kissing and do what he was trained to do. When he had righted us, he was still flushed and laughing, but amusement had become stronger than the wave.

"What if I say you're right?" he said. "What if I say you're maybe right, but in a dream, and I'm in the real world. I'm in the real world with real Communists and the Air Force and commitments."

"That's the old world," I said, perceiving a sudden heaviness, an almost painful precision of detail in the hard edged skyline.

"Yes," said Dotson, "that's the way it's always been."


I have never been sorry for anything that happened between me and Dotson that night. I would have been far sorrier if, in some other life, I had not spent the night with him. And he was very wise to say good bye to old friends, because he did not come back from Asia. He was shot down somewhere over Cambodia. I hope he was able to believe in his final fiery moments that he was protecting his home on High Gap. And I hope his final moments were indeed fiery and not at the hands of some bitter farmers who saw him as the destroyer of their little High Gaps. I hope they did not visit on his tight, white body the rage of their loss.