The book is a collection of photographs taken by Miss Welty during the early 1930s when she traveled over the state of Mississippi for the WPA. I grew up in Mississippi. Kimberly had recently moved there and begun a new job in Jackson. She was in the process of discovering a Mississippi that she never knew existed.
Miss Welty’s photos are mostly of black folk in everyday poses and settings–scenes which I had grown up with, but ones that Kimberly was seeing for the first time. She seemed especially taken with the picture on page twenty-nine of a little Negro boy in an aviator cap. She laughed when I remarked that I had once worn caps just like his. What she didn’t, and couldn’t, understand was what I really meant when I said that my caps were “just like his.”
The little boy is holding a kite, homemade of newspaper. He is wearing a tattered sweater, knickers, and knee socks. The bottom half of the outfit is one that no boy has ever been able to keep together properly for any length of time, and it was obvious that he was having no more success than I had at the same age. One sock is bagging around the ankle, and the elastic on the opposite knicker leg has long since relinquished its grasp on the upper calf and hangs halfway to the ankle like a baggy, cloth stovepipe. But a person who had grown up in that place and time could tell a complete story by seeing only the head encased in the aviator cap.
Aviator caps were popular during the ’30s. Practically every boy I knew had one. Aviation itself had caught the popular fancy. Airplanes were not very common in rural Mississippi, and they represented mystery and adventure. When one flew over, everyone would go outside and watch until it disappeared. To a little boy standing there in the Delta mud, that shiny object in the sky represented the ultimate in freedom. When grownups asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I never responded with fireman, policeman, or cowboy. “An airplane pilot” was my standard answer, and with an aviator cap I was one … at least in my imagination.
Some of the caps were, according to boys who had them, “just like the ones the pilots wear.” They were authentic– and expensive. They were made of fleece-lined leather with adjustable straps that buckled under the chin. They came equipped with real leather-framed glass goggles which were held to the cap by an elastic band that passed through a series of loops in the cap’s crown. These goggles were normally worn on the forehead and could be dropped in an instant to cover and protect the eyes when the head was thrust from a side window of a moving car or when the wearer was running at breakneck speed across the playground. But most of us had caps like the little Negro boy in the photo. They were either black or brown and were made of some type of imitation leather material on canvas backing. The lining on the other side of the canvas looked and felt like a finish on a cotton flannel shirt. With wear, it rolled up into little balls and rows. The earflaps snapped under the chin. Since I was never too careful with the snapping and unsnapping, one snap usually pulled off, leaving me with dangling flaps which had a bad tendency to curl up, giving the appearance of a fat string hanging beside each cheek.
Whatever process was used to attach the imitation leather to the canvas seldom effected a perfect union. The “leather” usually separated, cracked, and peeled off in odd patterns–a process hastened by cold weather. The goggles were of celluloid, framed by the same material as the cap, and usually came out after a week or two of hard use. They were attached upside-down to the forehead of the cap by three snaps. To position them over the eyes, one had to unsnap them, turn them over, and resnap them. Even the most ill-informed boy knew that any aviator would have been blinded by the rushing wind before this maneuver could have been executed.
At any time the line between rich and poor is a variegated one of many separate yet connected strands. Children see and feel different barriers than do adults. 1 don’t remember my parents ever telling me we were poor. They didn’t have to. The aviator cap was there for all to see.
But a second-rate aviator cap was better than none at all. And it was always a thrill to get a new cap and have it on when a plane flew over, and to watch the plane through the new, unscratched goggles until it disappeared; and to wonder where it had come from and where it was going, and to wonder what was over that horizon, and to wonder if I would ever get to see either end of the plane’s journey.
Some images remain sharp, but, by and large, the memories of those Depression days have been dimmed by the intervening years. Although I never had one then, I’ve been fortunate to acquire many genuine aviator caps since. They have come in many forms: people, things, events, opportunities, college degrees, accomplishments. Looking at the picture of the little Negro boy and knowing when it was taken, I would judge that we would be about the same age. I can’t help but wonder what course his life took and if he ever got an aviator cap in any form.
(For more short stories by Luke Boyd’s “Coon Dogs and Outhouses V1,” go to www.totalrecallpress.com or www.amazon.com.)