Evenings with Dotson
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"You bet," said Dotson.
"That's America. That's my home. That's why we're over there, to fight
"But the people over there,
Dotson, in Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia. We're the ones who're destroying
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
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
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
"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
"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.