Old Man, Look at My Life*

Literary Themes Subconsciously Rooted in Childhood

j1
My father and his “Mama” on the family farm, early 1940s.

Insecurity and salvation.

These two themes recur often, yet unplanned, in the fiction and poetry I write. They usually emerge from a character’s self-doubt, countered by an unrealistic belief that situations, no matter how awful or threatening, will eventually turn out okay, that adversity will ultimately surrender to peace. But why do these particular themes keep showing up?

A few years ago, a political disagreement with my father ignited in him a firestorm of condemnation of other cultures and races—never mind the mixed racial heritage of my spouse and our daughter. Communication ended abruptly in mutual expletives. After more than five decades, he and I were finally done. I figured I’d never hear from him again, that the next time I visited him would be at his graveside.

The relationship with my father has always been tenuous at best. I felt safe with him only once—in 1958 as he carried me through the hospital parking lot on my way to a tonsillectomy. I was two. Fear soon obliterated that initial sense of safety, thanks to repeated episodes of rage, from verbal abuse and an eagerness to fight, to animal cruelty and domestic violence, a few incidents recounted in my published fiction.

My parents separated when I was twelve. I’d spent that summer of 1968 working in my father’s Phillips 66 service station in Crestview, Florida—sometimes alone and always under order to wear a “Wallace for President” Dixieland hat and campaign necktie. Dad’s small, two-pump station had three restrooms in back, designated as “Men,” “Women,” and “Restroom,” the third to which he directed people of color.

j2
My father, age 18, holding me, mid-1956.

In the station’s front window, he’d hung a hand-drawn recreation of an auto tag that read “Put your (heart symbol) in Dixie, or get your (donkey symbol) out.” One hot day, a traveller from a northern state noticed the sign after I’d gassed his car. “If I’d seen that damn thing,” he snarled, “I wouldn’t have stopped.” I was glad my father was away at the time. Otherwise, a fight would have certainly ensued.

Bizarrely hot-tempered, my father was quick to violence. I witnessed such fury that crippled and killed animals and bruised and broke people both emotionally and physically. I felt a flood of relief and freedom when my parents split and I ended up in Pensacola, Florida, fifty miles from Crestview and my father. Marrying his second wife shortly after the divorce finalized the following year, he moved some forty-five miles north to his hometown, Andalusia, Alabama. With his wife’s deft support, he established a used car dealership that provided a good income, even though he faced legal problems at one point for buying and selling stolen cars. Due more to his wife’s business savvy than his public charm or honesty, he skirted prosecution and became wealthier than he’d ever imagined he would, though it had no effect on his refusal to pay child support, doling out only small portions when I visited him.

During my visits that never exceeded two days, he appeared to have mellowed since the divorce—specifically, his propensity to violence had apparently evaporated. I became jealous of his wife’s two sons whom he’d adopted. They, I believed, enjoyed the father I craved, a reasonable man who respected them enough to do what a parent should do. The emotional distance between us increased while the frequency of my visits decreased. Only after his death did I become aware of the psychological and physical violence he waged against his new family.

Fast forward four-and-a-half decades.

My father’s wife died in April 2015, succumbing to cancer. During her decline, her children visited her at home, but not without consequence. When his wife’s daughter said she would not move into my father’s home to take care of him after her mother’s death, he became so livid he threatened to kill her if she ever returned for any reason. She didn’t. When his oldest adopted son visited his mother a few days before she died, my father accused the son of plotting to steal his money and slugged him. The son responded instinctively, knocking my father to the floor.

Phillips
The Phillips 66 station where I worked summers, afternoons, and Saturdays when I was age 9 to 12.

“Get out!” my father raged. “Get out before I kill you! I’ll put you in the ground you ever come here again!”

Increased paranoia followed his wife’s death and led to rabid accusations that relatives were constantly plotting to steal his land and money. He threatened to kill many and alienated all but one, a cousin whose tolerance ensured the care he needed.

Already receiving thrice-weekly dialysis treatment before his wife’s death, my father had developed a notorious reputation among Andalusia’s medical workers for verbally abusing doctors and dialysis personnel. In early August 2016, he suffered a mild heart attack that placed him in a hospital where doctors determined he’d require rehabilitation center placement upon release. Facilities in his hometown, thanks to his reputation, refused to take him, necessitating placement in a Crestview facility where he required sedation most of the time. Shortly after placement, my cousin informed me that his condition had begun to deteriorate rapidly, that he suffered from advanced diabetes, kidney disease, and increasing dementia.

Living in New Mexico, I decided not to visit him. Any possibility of reconciliation, no matter how remote, had surely vanished within sedation and the distortions of dementia. Then my wife’s brother in Pensacola died unexpectedly, and we made the 1,350-mile drive to attend his memorial, placing us within forty minutes of the Crestview rehab facility.

On a rainy Wednesday morning in a town that’s grown unrecognizably large since my childhood, the nurse in the rehab facility’s locked wing pointed out my father at the end of a line of wheelchair-bound patients parked along one wall. The greasy pompadour he’d worn most of his adult life had been replaced by shorter hair, brushed into a faux mohawk, the result of a nurse’s playfulness. He stared blankly toward the opposite wall, murmuring. I knelt before his chair and took his hand.

“Dad?”

He slowly turned his gaze.

“You know me?”

dadcigarette
My father in his prime.

After a moment, he nodded almost imperceptibly.

“Who am I?”

He smiled slightly. “Ray,” he whispered.

“No, not Ray.” I have no idea who Ray is. “Try again.”

Something clicked. His face tightened, his lips parted slightly, and he began to cry. “Chris…”

Just as quickly, his expression muddled, and the stare returned. He nodded. And nodded.

I engaged him in talk as best as possible and took a few photographs.

He held my hand off and on, muttering things like, “I used to have lots of money. No more. It’s okay, it’s okay. Madelyn [his deceased wife] is coming soon.”

Aides began wheeling patients to the dining room for lunch.

“You seen Mama?” he asked. His mother had died some forty years earlier. “She ain’t been by.”

“No, but you’ll see her soon,” I said. “She’s waiting.”

A shadow of a smile played on his lips. He nodded once. “I love everybody.” He nodded again. “Everybody loves me.”

“I’m sure they do.”

He leaned slightly forward. “I’m proud…”

My breath caught with hope that, at last, he’d express something he’d never before expressed.

“I’m proud,” he whispered again, “real proud of my life.”

I let the breath go. “Yes, you should be.”

He sat back.

An African-American nurse arrived to take him to the dining room. My father, whose racist rants were legendary, reached for her hand and grinned.

dadcarlot
My father (right) discussing one of his used cars with a potential customer.

“She’s nice,” he said. “People…people’s the same everywhere.”

The nurse positioned herself behind the chair.

“We need to go,” I said. “Time for you to get some lunch.”

He raised a hand toward my wife—that unsuitable, racially-diverse person who married me thirty-eight years ago.

“I love you,” he whispered.

She hugged him.

He then held his hand out to me. His face twisted momentarily as though he might cry again.

“I love you,” he said. And he nodded.

“Yeah, I love you, too, Dad.”

His eyes glazed.

I lowered his hand to his lap and let go.

The nurse said, “Y’all can wait or come back after lunch if you’d like.”

We thanked her and stepped aside, and she wheeled him away.

Six days later, the day after our return to New Mexico, he died. My cousin said that he had been en route from dialysis to the rehabilitation center when he went to sleep for the last time.

I didn’t travel to Andalusia for the funeral, but my cousin filled me in. The preacher of the church my father attended—designated as a primary recipient of Dad’s estate after he disinherited his wife’s children and me—delivered a glowing tribute that had some attendees wondering who the hell the preacher was talking about.

That’s fine.

Southern preachers consider eulogies sacred opportunities to exploit insecurity and harvest souls by lobbing sizable chunks of fire and brimstone while praising the exceptional life of the dearly departed, now cozied up in heaven with Jesus.

Jeff1
My father six days before his death. (May 11, 1938 – August 16, 2016)

What does it hurt?

Most of us—kind or cruel—reach for higher standards at some point. And we all fail in different degrees. It’s okay to remember people as better than they were. It’s okay to grant a little salvation.

At some point, I’ll stand at my father’s graveside, keenly aware of how he influenced me to strive to be his opposite, of how he will always affect the characters and themes in my fiction and poetry.

Perhaps I’ll thank him.

Perhaps not.

 

* from Neil Young’s “Old Man”

 

Personal Experience Effect

No matter the effort to avoid it, personal experience—from the drama of relatives to political shenanigans—creeps into every writer’s work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. The Confederate flag hoopla and the fight for and against the rights of people of color, women, and homosexuals are examples of issues that have proved provocative, disruptive, even destructive in interpersonal relationships and a godsend for the political powers who use division as a control device. Buying into the propaganda of political and media organizations, we make extreme decisions that affect our interpersonal relationships for the rest of our lives. When those decisions involve a writer, you can bet the effects will be reflected in the writer’s work.

Politics is naturally contentious, each generation viewing its own political tomfoolery as more contentious than what came before. Since the advent of 24/7 “news” channels, whose primary purpose is not to report news, but to stoke fear, frustration, hatred, and anger, politics has been exploited fully as a tool to divide and punish rather than to find compromise and serve the common good. I’m not so naïve to believe this use of politics is something new, but its in-your-face nature has strengthened exponentially in recent decades, thanks to technology. We’re assaulted relentlessly through our televisions and radios, computers, smartphones, tablets—umbilically connected to designer “news” sites that feed our prejudice and fear to the point we lose grip on reality and rationality and strike out at all who differ in opinion, worldview, gender, sexuality, religion, lifestyle, or race.

I grew up in South Alabama and Northwest Florida during the late 1950s through the early 1970s. The region wasn’t then nor has it become one of the most tolerant of diversity. Flaming midnight crosses lit up country pastures. Robed, hooded figures gathered like kids at a mega weenie roast, singing angry, hateful campfire songs about folks born of different race or religion, preaching the end of the world was nigh if lesser races acquired the same rights whites already enjoyed. Oh, save us, Jesus! It’s Armageddon! Color me silly, but I don’t think Jesus the Jew would be welcomed at such an event.

A close relative was then and remains a man of the white robe, flames flickering in his eyes, despite his interaction over the decades with a variety of people of color and cultures, thanks to his public sales business. He has never felt a need or desire to question the region’s prevalent stereotypes and fears of people who’re different, to overcome the hatred, to grow. Why, I don’t know. To my knowledge, he’s never suffered physically, financially, or mentally due to malicious acts by any person of color. And he certainly hasn’t lost his rights to groups or individuals gaining their own. He has, however, been a willing, unquestioning consumer of the Wallace/Thurmond/Trump/Helms/Cruz/Santorum/Fox/et.al. stream of fear and hate mongering, never once seeking objective verification to even the most extraordinary claim, never once attempting to understand any issue through a viewpoint other than his own bigotry.

During a phone conversation four years ago, I voiced support for the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. “Don’t you tell me,” he growled, “you like what that communist nigger’s done.” I wasn’t shocked by his response. We’d debated his use of such small-minded epithets on numerous occasions, especially this particular word which he uses not only in reference to anyone black, but also to persons of Middle Eastern, Mexican, and other cultural and racial backgrounds. I suspect he used the word this time simply to anger me as he began a litany of irrational charges against President Obama, that the President had “ruined” the economy, that he’s Muslim, that he’s waging war against Christians, that he’s not even American—all the batty, right-wing talking points and conspiracy theories that even reality can’t counter in the true believer’s mind. Then he asserted that the U.S. should have never pulled out of Iraq, that Obama had secured the destruction of America by doing so.

“We never should have invaded Iraq in the first place,” I said.

He took a breath. “That’s something we agree on,” he said. “We should’ve nuked the hell out of them because them A-rabs ain’t even human.”

That was it.

We were done.

After a lifetime of shared, reluctant tolerance, our relationship had abruptly come to an end.

Earlier this week, my spouse received an email from one of her relatives, an email purporting that the factual histories of the Civil War and Rebel battle flag are instead myth, that the war had little to do with slavery, that the flag is a symbol of only southern heritage, not racism. The sender did not copy me on the mail, perhaps because she understands my view of such bigotry and did not want to risk rebuttal. When my spouse replied to the mail, she copied all to whom the original had been sent, and she copied me as well, addressing the original mail as though her relative had offered it as an example of how gullible people are when something supports their bigoted worldview:

“People will believe anything rather than admitting that it’s been 150 years since the end of the Civil War and we still have racism. How sad and disappointing. As a nation we have made progress, but we still have far to go.”

A day later, the following landed in my mailbox, thanks to my spouse’s relative who hit “reply to all.” It’s presented unaltered:

“No one living today is a slave or has owned a slave, am I wrong in not liking group of people who have different views of life than I do? I have always been told ‘your rights end when they intruded on mine’ how much longer do we as Americans need to bend over and take it up the as…before these people realize they need to start to take care of themselves? This crap has been going on for years. The American public has, in my opinion done way too much to make amends for what has happened in the past and they still want more, work for it like the rest of us have done and quit asking for a hand out.”

It would have been wise not to reply to the rant, but I’m not a wise man. I thought that, by engaging the writer in a rational, fact-based discussion, he might look beyond the hyperbole of pundits, might change his mind. So I responded, copying all on the list:

“Thanks for your entertaining mail. If you would like to engage in a rational debate on specific issues, backing your points with objective, valid sources (not political organizations such as Fox News or DailyKos), I’d be happy to debate you. However, specifics are required. For example, instead of generalizations such as ‘these people,’ define whether they are black, of Mexican descent like yourself, Jewish, Middle Eastern, East Indian, Asian, etc., since the average southern white lumps all races of color into the same lesser-than category. Another example would be ‘handouts’ and the group to which the so-called handout is provided–social security, Medicare, food stamps, housing assistance, etc.–and how it affects you and how or why it is right or wrong. Back your argument with objective sources. Another example is ‘your rights end when they intrude on mine.’ Be specific. For example, do you mean you have the right to fly a Nazi flag on your property, but you don’t have the right to demand government or public entities to fly the flag on their buildings or property since that property represents all people? Or I have the right to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster but not to force you to say my prayers in school?

“You get the idea.

“If you and the others in this mail exchange do not desire a rational debate but would prefer to vent anger and frustration over issues based on the ‘factual’ nonsense regarding the Confederate flag that began this exchange, I prefer to be left out of the loop.\

“Take care…”

A few moments later: “Fuck you.”

My response: “Okay.”

Then: “Just forget my email address and I don’t ever want to see you or any of your family again. Chris you are a looser.”

“For future reference,” I replied, “it’s ‘loser,’ not ‘looser.’”

When we refuse to engage in rational discussion, when we set our minds so rigidly based on irrational hatred and fear, when we refuse to consider another point of view unless it agrees with our own, when we refuse to grow, all of us are losers.

From fiction to poetry, creative nonfiction to straight reporting, personal experience colors my work in some way. One example of experience influencing my nonfiction work began with intervention in three on-the-street domestic violence incidents in Hawaii in the early1980s, which led to an article for Honolulu Magazine on the state’s problem of domestic violence, what police termed “local love.” The article helped in a small way to push a mandatory arrest bill through the state legislature to become law, requiring police to arrest aggressors when responding to domestic violence calls. In fiction and poetry, the above relatives, as well as others, have provided models for characters in stories such as “Side-Road Shack” and “Luau,” the novel Big Daddy’s Fast-Past Gadget, and in many of the poems in White Trash & Southern ~ Collected Poems, Volume I.

We writers are grateful to the relatives who manufacture drama, the politicians who stir the pot of fear and hatred, the citizens in our communities who fuel suspicion and discontent. By simply being who they are, these people prove an ironic benefit to writers. We thank them for helping us to explore the irrational, the hateful, the destructive through the characters they inspire. If, by chance, our work benefits the reader or society at large in any measure, we owe them that much more gratitude.

Yes, we’re deeply indebted to them.

I wish we weren’t.

Muscle Shoals: The Hit Capital’s Heyday & Beyond

From Dexter Johnson’s garage studio to James Joiner’s “A Fallen Star,” Tune Records to FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound studios, Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones and the Black Keys, from the beginning to present day—Muscle Shoals: The Hit Capital’s Heyday & Beyond is an updated, expanded version of Music Fell on Alabama, the original book-length history of the Muscle Shoals music industry, first published in 1991, chronicling the cooperation of black and white producers and artists during one of the most volatile times in U.S. race relations, cooperation that produced many of the most celebrated and enduring songs of all time.

Much has been written about the Muscle Shoals music industry and even a movie produced, most accounts crediting the area’s phenomenal success to some mystical power divined from the Tennessee River. Myth makes for good drama, but Muscle Shoals: The Hit Capital’s Heyday & Beyond details the true source of the industry’s success: the tenacious determination of talented individuals obsessed with the desire to make a difference in music.

And what a difference they made…

Purchase Muscle Shoals: The Hit Capital’s Heyday & Beyond online at Amazon.com, Kobobooks.com, B&N, and other retailers. Muscle Shoals can also be ordered through most local retail bookstores.

White Trash & Southern explores joys, sorrows of living

Collecting 232 poems spanning more than three decades, White Trash& Southern explores the beauty, joys, challenges, and sadness thatencompass life. From the book’s cover:

“Poetry in this data-saturated age is not, for most, a viable way to make a living. So why expend the time and energy to create something that few people will read and even fewer will purchase? To which I must ask, why do people sing in the rain, paint pictures, dance? Because it provides pleasure and reward and perhaps even keeps them sane. As a writer of fiction and nonfiction, I am most concerned with story. When I write poetry, I view it not as some lofty literary tool to fool or condescend, but as an exercise in crafting story within the strictest confines. White Trash & Southern is a collection of such exercises, spanning nearly three decades. To create a complex story within a limited number of words—to communicate far more than appears on the page—is a challenge that can provide enormous reward and satisfaction. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I don’t. But at least I remain sane. Sort of.”

“With an eye for the particular and an ear for the music of everyday life, C. S. Fuqua shares with readers his brave and lyrical view of human experience. An unflinching examination of the sorrows and joys we experience while moving through the world, White Trash & Southern is a fine collection of poems.” ~Dr. Wendy Galgan, Editor, Assisi Literary Magazine

White Trash & Southern is full of empathy and honor for the human condition that we ultimately all share. This is a wonderful book of poetry, and a fine achievement that will greatly enrich its readers.” ~Devin McGuire, Editor of the Unrorean literary magazine and author of After the Hunt (Encircle Publications 2013)

“White Trash & Southern [by] C.S. Fuqua [is] gritty, insightful, humorous, tragic, and celebratory … [B]egin anywhere, skip around, or read it from back to front … a well-written, coherent collection … however you read it.” ~Jonathan K. Rice, Editor/Publisher, Iodine Poetry Journal

A good friend asked whether the poems in White Trash & Southern are autobiographical.

Yes.

No.

All of the poems evolved out of experience, certainly, but that doesn’t mean the events explored transpired exactly as detailed. Some did. Some didn’t. Some sort of. Many of the ideas came from other people. Some poems are simple exercises of placing myself in other people’s situations. An idea has a way of becoming more on the page, transforming into something completely different from the original inspiration and intent.

Don’t believe anything you read.

Believe everything.

White Trash & Southern is available in paperback, Kindle, Nook, and audio formats.

To Hell with Common Sense

On April 27, 2011, Alabama suffered the most severe outbreak of tornadoes in recorded U.S. history. Dozens of tornadoes snapped trees, destroyed homes and businesses, and injured and killed people across the region. By the storm system’s third wave, the electrical infrastructure could take no more, and power winked out across much of north Alabama, including the whole of Madison County which is served solely by the Tennessee Valley Authority. All primary feed-lines had been destroyed, and officials speculated that restoration of electrical service would require several days. Water service continued, but in a reduced capacity because some treatment plants had been knocked off-line.

Authorities urged residents who suffered little or no damage, injury, or death of a loved one to remain calm, to stay home and exercise common sense so emergency services could better serve those severely affected by the storms. On April 28, voyeuristic and frantic — some callers to local radio ominously claiming the arrival of Armageddon — people hit the highways, speeding through major intersections, even though by law light-controlled intersections become all-way stops during power failures. Emergency services were suddenly sidetracked to help those foolishly in auto accidents caused by failure to think.

The national news media arrived on day two to broadcast and publish their standard “place-location/disaster-here” stories with the stereotypical “battlefield” and “war zone” analogies and interviews with individuals thanking God for sparing them while spanking the hell out of everyone else. Not one star reporter asked, “Why did God choose to spare you?” or “Why did God wreak such destruction and take the lives of others in the first place?” Reporting straight, informative news based on interviews with authorities is obviously not as entertaining as pieces choking with the blather of those claiming special connections to God.

By day two, folks had calmed somewhat, and many had begun to heed laws governing such things as intersections. The increased presence of police certainly had bearing on their new attentiveness. As for the police, when they weren’t enforcing traffic laws or the dusk-to-dawn curfew, they were responding to increased domestic disturbance calls because, if many of us enjoy anything, it’s being with our families during long periods of high stress. Perhaps that joy explains the dimwit who decided to fire his weapon twice in this urban neighborhood. Certainly he hadn’t been reduced to hunting squirrels for survival, not with a grocer operating on emergency generators only a half-mile away, but you never know.

Those of us lucky to be uninjured but sustaining damage and downed trees began to clean up. The media, running another of their stock plug-in-name stories, highlighted the “volunteerism” and “cooperative efforts” of those affected most by the storm. And, yes, a minority of good people, for nothing more than the personal satisfaction of helping fellow human beings, did volunteer and are continuing their efforts. It’s the same in every disaster: the media-highlighted minority of selfless volunteers; a second group who offer services for personal benefit, whether money or goods; a third, larger group who take care of themselves, neither asking for nor offering help to others; and finally a second minority who claim need even though they’ve suffered no loss. As my grandfather used to say, “it takes all kinds.”

As the power outage stretched into the fourth day, the number of food poisoning cases rose, causing authorities to advise residents to discard all foods from refrigerators, that it was no longer safe to eat, no matter how long cooked. Meanwhile, local home improvement stores, operating on backup systems, brought in hundreds of portable generators. Sales and use skyrocketed, and so did the number of cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, forcing officials during the daily press conferences to plead with residents to exercise a smidgen of common sense when operating the gas-powered generators. Officials implored residents to read all instructions, to operate generators in well-ventilated areas, not inside their homes or garages or under open house windows. Some generators had even exploded because owners had run them continuously, never checking oil which eventually ran dry. Some acts of brilliance simply speak for themselves.

Officials continued to emphasize daily the need to conserve water due to decreased capacity of online water treatment plants. “Don’t wash your car. Don’t water your lawns,” the water department spokesman advised. On the fourth day, one homeowner in this neighborhood washed out his rain gutters. Another guy washed his car. I asked the second fellow whether he’d heard the news conferences. He hadn’t, so I informed him of the request to conserve water. That, he said, didn’t apply to our neighborhood because the offline plants were in the southeast part of the county, and we were in the northwest. His car sparkled.

Sunny, mild weather dominated the first few days following the storms, with highs comfortably in the mid-70sF. As TVA restored power neighborhood by neighborhood, officials requested residents to reduce normal electrical use so the fragile replacement lines wouldn’t buckle under the burden of high demand. The obvious and most easily accomplished point of conservation was air-conditioning. When power returned to our neighborhood on the fifth day, three out of every five air-conditioners hummed. One couple sat on their porch, waving and chirping to passers-by about all the hardships they’d faced without power while the inside of their house cooled down to whatever temperature they normally enjoyed. The next day, rain returned, and the temperature dropped to an unseasonable mid-50sF high. Some who’d been air-conditioning their home the day before conserved now by switching to heating.

By day seven, TVA had restored power to most of the county by rerouting electricity through secondary lines. All water processing plants were back online, inspiring the water department representative to declare that residents no longer needed to conserve, even as TVA officials warned that, without power conservation, outages would lie ahead as primary power routes remain down and power use increases during summer. But who cares? We’ve got water and power now, and that’s all that counts.

Common sense may once have been common, but no longer. It’s one of those myths like “community cooperation” and “God watched over me while letting others die.” It’s something we like to believe in, something we use to convince ourselves that we’re smarter, more charitable, more special, that we really care for one another. But we live in a greedy, narcissistic society, exacerbated by such silliness called social networks and reality TV in which most of our lives are neither social nor real. The pending doom of our planet through human-induced global warming, starvation, natural disaster, war, terrorism, genocide, antibiotic-immune bugs, and more requires little or no thought and certainly no preventative action from us individuals as long as we have what we want. If we don’t have it, we’ll secure it by any method possible, to hell with common sense.

As for our children and their children, friend, they are the future. And the future is their problem as long as we’ve got ours.

A Long Way to Go

A giant Rebel flag—the Stars and Bars battle flag, not the official Confederate flag—has been flying high beside I-65 between Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama, since 2005. Although it’s the most recognizable Rebel symbol today, the battle flag was used on the battlefield like other flags that displayed various Confederate states’ regimental colors, never earning official recognition by the Confederate government. Still, according to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group that erected the huge version beside the interstate, the battle flag is the perfect symbol to celebrate Southern “heritage” in its stated campaign to insure “that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved,” in part, by asserting that Confederate soldiers “personified the best qualities of America,” that the war was the result of the South’s determination to preserve “liberty and freedom,” underscoring its “belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” despite the fact that Confederate states completely disavowed the U.S. Constitution by seceding from the Union and going to war.

In Texas, the school board recently decided that the state’s history schoolbooks require updating, that the term “slave trade” is outdated and needs to be changed to the “Atlantic triangular trade,” that Thomas Jefferson has no place on the list of great Americans, that Senator Joe McCarthy was an American hero rather than the paranoid, communism-obsessed lunatic whose witch hunts ruined countless lives, that Confederate president and slave-owner Jefferson Davis must be taught favorably alongside Abraham Lincoln. There’s more, but you get the gist.

In several countries including the U.S., some groups assert that Nazi Germany never waged war to exterminate Jews. These groups insist that no gas chambers, no mass executions, no experimentation, no torture, no starvation—that nothing against the Jews was ever perpetrated by the Nazis, that the Holocaust is myth.

For decades in Japan, nationalist groups have portrayed the country as the primary victim of World War II because of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings while maintaining that the country’s invasion of China and involvement in the war were justified reactions to Western imperialism. During his term in office, Japan’s recent prime minister, Shinzo Abe, rejected claims that the Japanese military had forced Korean women into sexual slavery even as legislators denied the six-week massacre conducted by the Japanese military in Nanking, China, in 1937-’38. Observers have long condemned the Japanese government and educational system for not addressing these and other issues in Japanese textbooks.

Of course, historical revision like these examples is nothing new, in part because so many of us are unwilling to question authority even when we know something is wrong. In my short story, “Contrition,”  Eiichi Takada, a WWII Japanese veteran, is struck by a car as he crosses the street to visit Yasukuni Shrine, which honors as heroes Japanese military men who committed heinous acts during the war, including those in China and Korea. Eiichi is unsurprised that he’s uninjured. He’s grown used to surviving otherwise fatal injuries. Having served in a unit that enslaved and tortured women during the war, Eiichi has since forced himself to forget, succumbing to popular revised accounts of history, but fate refuses to allow him to die until he accepts responsibility and atones for his actions. As he visits the shrine, fate sends him a stark reminder of his crimes, the vengeful ghost of a woman he tortured and killed. Of course, that’s fiction. Fate isn’t so proactive in real life.

After the invention of the cotton gin, the American South moved increasingly toward a one-crop economy, relying heavily on slave labor, solidifying a stratified class system that had little interaction between the classes, while the North progressed into a society in which cultures and classes worked increasingly together. As the federal government asserted more power over states, Southern states promoted the view that state’s rights superseded federal power. With America’s expansion, especially after the Louisiana Purchase, a political battle erupted over whether new states admitted to the Union would be slave or free. Then came the Dred Scott Case, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, all fueling the Abolition Movement, and Southern leaders grew increasingly defiant and afraid that the federal government would attempt to outlaw the very thing on which the Southern economy so heavily relied. The election of Abraham Lincoln, whom Southern leaders feared would free the slaves in preference of “northern interests,” spurred seven states to secede from the Union even before he took office, while four others seceded after the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861. Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States, declared that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.” The Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865. More than 600,000 people lost their lives.

Perhaps groups or individuals who fly the battle flag truly believe the Civil War had little or nothing to do with slavery. Perhaps some Japanese believe the country never invaded Nanking and never enslaved Korean women. Perhaps Texas politicians believe that rewriting textbooks can change historical fact. Perhaps Joseph Goebbels was right when he said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” echoing Lenin’s more concise declaration, “A lie told often enough becomes truth.”

Perhaps.

Reality isn’t privy to the ghosts of fate found in fiction, but real life conjures up its own ominous specters to remind us of mistakes past. That shrine in Japan, those altered books in Texas, the campaign to deny the Jewish holocaust, and that flag flying beside I-65—no matter their stated or perceived reason or justification—symbols and acts like these serve as stark reminders that authority must always be questioned, that truth must be sought and its lessons learned to avoid the mistakes of the past, that movements and their symbols purported to celebrate heritage instead serve most starkly as testaments of how far we still have to go.