On Nov. 10, 1967 there appeared a picture of singer Bobbie Gentry on page 107 of Life magazine. In the iconic black and white photo she is pictured casually crossing the Tallahatchie Bridge in Money, Mississippi. The bridge collapsed in June 1972 — physically and metaphorically.
Although the last Marine combat units had left Vietnam in 1971; in the summer of 1972 I was training in Quantico, Virginia while serving in the Marine Corps Reserves.
That summer, on a thick, muggy-molasses southern afternoon, the mosquitoes were drawing blood while feasting on those of us getting some instructions in combat first-aid. Above the thump-thump-thump of an incoming CH-47 Chinook helicopter, with a mosquito-like M60 machine gun hanging out the side; there was a casual discussion of the number of Marines that had trained at Camp Upshur and later died in Vietnam.
It was explained to us that the holes in the bottom of the helicopter were for added ventilation. It was at that time that the sergeant took the opportunity to casually explain to us that when riding in the helicopter it was best to sit on your helmet.
Oh, that’s right, I should casually mention that it was on that day, on Saturday, July 1, 1972, that Jane Fonda triumphantly posed for the cameras with a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun outside Hanoi. In South Vietnam, guns like that added ventilation to helicopters and killed Marines that had trained at Camp Upshur.
In July 1967, Freddy Magsamen, the 1966 Westminster High School graduate who worked on his car in my neighbor’s back yard, enlisted in the Army. On May 9, 1969, the lead helicopter in which Sgt. Magsamen was riding crashed. He is buried at Gettysburg National Cemetery.
On Nov. 10, 1967, I recall reading Life magazine while watching Walter Cronkite on the “CBS Evening News,” casually discussing the latest casualties in the Vietnam War. It was just about then that the seemingly meaningless numerics coldly and callously recited on the black and white TV screen in our living room had begun to turn into shades of blood red as the reality of our friends and neighbors in Carroll County being killed in the war had started to be real. We discovered that there was nothing casual about casualties.
It was on July 10, 1967 that “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry was released. I first heard the song on WCAO on the AM dial of the car radio. It was in this time period that I became firmly hooked on the existential, “Southern Gothic” genre of storytelling. Other examples of authors of the Southern gothic genre include William Faulkner, Truman Capote, and Harper Lee. Tennessee Williams is said to have described the genre as stories that reflect “an intuition of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience.”
Who can forget: It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day. … Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the TallahatchieBridge.”
Of course another intriguing feature of the story is that it takes place in Carroll County: “And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billy Joe put a frog down my back at the CarrollCounty picture show.”
The “Carroll County” Gentry is referring to in the song is “Carroll County, Mississippi.” There are approximately 13 places in the United States called “Carroll County.”
And speaking of the callous disregard for life, this is indeed the Money, Mississippi where 14-year-old Emmett Till was killed on Aug. 28, 1955 after he casually stopped at Bryant’s Grocery store to buy some candy. Three days later, Till’s body was casually found in the Tallahatchie River — weighted down by a seventy-five pound cotton gin fan that was tied around his neck with barbed wire.
Over the years, I have become much more enamored with Southern gothic storytelling, which is frequently more creative — and often more disturbing — in the manner in which it peels away the layers of a community; yet does not tell a reader what to think, but causes them to think.
The song’s plot makes known several themes. The first of which is obvious in that it reveals a snapshot of life in a particular period in history.
But it is the other prominent theme that is particularly disturbing as it peels away the layers of indifference that contemporary society casually and callously shows toward our fellow human beings — or in the case of “Ode to Billie Joe,” the loss of life.
In “Ode to Billie Joe,” the family of the narrator nonchalantly mentions the gentleman’s death with the line, “Billy Joe never had a lick of sense/ pass the biscuits, please.” They may as well been having a dinner conversation about the weather.