The Fall of the House of Zeus (4 page)

BOOK: The Fall of the House of Zeus

Scruggs worked out compulsively at the campus gym, lifting weights and running through a daily regimen of exercises. One morning, after shaving in the common shower room at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house, Scruggs patted his cheeks and said admiringly to the mirror, “You good-looking Greek god, don’t you ever die.” A classmate overheard him and instantly proclaimed him Zeus.

Scruggs might have been dubbed Adonis, for the vain and handsome character from Greek mythology. Or Narcissus, for that matter. But the boys at the SAE house knew little Greek beyond the alphabet, a requirement for initiation. So they stuck Scruggs with “Zeus,” the king
of the gods, and that name endured for decades among friends from his college days.

He was a handsome young man, and as he matured there remained something boyish about him, even as he flew navy attack jets off the decks of carriers in the Mediterrranean at the time of a Middle East War and international crisis of 1973.

He was a bona fide Baby Boomer, born in 1946, the year after World War II ended. There had been any number of dissolute young men drifting through the South during this period, and Dickie’s mother, Helen Furlow, married one of them, Tom Scruggs, an attractive, hard-drinking ne’er-do-well from Texas. They christened their only child Richard Furlow Scruggs; the middle name came from Helen’s more stable side of the family. The Furlows were respectable people in Brookhaven, and they took the boy to their bosom after Helen’s marriage cracked, was soldered back together, then broke again. Dickie had no memory of seeing his father after the second divorce; he only remembered his mother getting a phone call that Tom Scruggs had died, somewhere out in Texas.

Years later, Dickie learned he had a half-brother, said to be living in Austin. When he found himself in that Texas city, he looked for an entry in the telephone directory for Leonard Coe Scruggs. When a young girl answered, he asked to speak to her father. There was a hesitation, followed by the voice of a woman. “This is Susie Scruggs, can I help you?” Scruggs identified himself and explained why he had called. “I’m sorry,” she told him. “He’s been dead ten years.”

If he struck out with the Scruggses, he was nurtured by the Furlows. The boy and his mother lived for a time with the family of her brother, Bill Furlow. When Helen Scruggs moved to Pascagoula to take an office job at Ingalls shipyard, a position arranged for her by her classmate at Millsaps College, the Gulf Coast Godfather Eddie Khayat, Dickie stayed behind in Brookhaven with his uncle Bill’s family. Though his elementary school playmates sometimes referred to him as the boy “who didn’t have a daddy,” Dickie never suffered the loneliness of an only child. The Furlows had three boys of their own, and they seemed to him as good as siblings.

Although Brookhaven, fifty miles south of Jackson, lay in Ku Klux Klan territory, a sense of innocence prevailed in Scruggs’s early life. He had no knowledge of the murder of a black man, Lamar Smith, on the Lincoln County courthouse lawn in 1955 as Smith encouraged Negroes to vote. Nor was he aware of the rantings of a local segregationist judge,
Tom Brady, who wrote a widely distributed polemic “Black Monday,” which excoriated the U.S. Supreme Court for its
Brown v. Board of Education
decision that struck down segregation in public schools. The racial tensions that roiled Mississippi had little impact on Scruggs until his college years, after he realized his family in Brookhaven was affected. The Furlows were known as “moderates,” a designation for Mississippians who understood that segregation was wrong yet rarely challenged the system for fear of being socially ostracized. But after his uncle, who served on the town’s board of education, voted in favor of a plan to begin integrating public schools to comply with a court order, he became the target of threats and vilification. Judge Brady’s brother, Tullius, who had been one of Furlow’s best friends and golfing companions, told him, “Bill, if you do this, I’ll hold you personally responsible for the miscegenation of the races.” He never spoke to Bill Furlow again. And some who did had only spiteful words.

Other than that bit of unpleasantness, Brookhaven evoked happy memories for Scruggs. He lived a sort of Tom Sawyer existence. Troublemaking for him consisted of slamming doors to wake napping neighbors, or trespassing through forbidden property during games of hide-and-seek. Facing prison a half century after his childhood, Scruggs remarked with dark humor that his “life of crime” had started in Brookhaven when he and a friend swiped a carton of empty soft drink bottles from the back of a diner and cashed them in for a refund in order to buy Cokes for themselves.

One incident was a bit more serious. After older boys in the neighborhood had picked on Dickie and a pal, the pair retaliated by setting fire to a cardboard fort their tormentors had built. The flames spread to a nearby garage, which burned to the ground. To curb his rambunctious nature, Dickie’s guardians sent him an hour’s drive away, to Jefferson Military Academy, near Natchez, to begin the fifth grade.

Drama had a way of pursuing him even then.
Forty years before Hollywood made him a character in the movie
The Insider
, Scruggs took his place with dozens of other young Jefferson cadets on a meadow near the school, the set for John Ford’s Civil War epic
The Horse Soldiers
. The cadets played the roles of Confederate schoolboys making a comic raid on Union forces commanded by John Wayne and William Holden.

In the seventh grade, Dickie moved to Pascagoula to join his mother. There was a mystique to the old Gulf Coast city. Around the time that French explorers made landfall in the region in the sixteenth
century, two indigenous tribes, the Pascagoula and the Biloxi, were battling for control of the territory. When the Biloxi gained an upper hand, members of the Pascagoula tribe were said to have waded, hand-in-hand, into a river and drowned themselves en masse rather than submit to their victors. Both the settlement and the river took the name of the martyrs. The Pascagoula River became known as the “Singing River,” and old-timers claim that on warm, quiet evenings the lamentations of the Pascagoula can still be heard, sad singing on the water.

In both location and milieu, Pascagoula lies far outside stereotypical Mississippi. Tucked into the southeast corner of the last low-lying county washed by the Gulf of Mexico, Pascagoula barely fits inside the state. The nearest metropolis is Mobile, Alabama, forty-two miles away. Pascagoula’s lunch bucket population of shipyard workers—sons of immigrants from Slavic states and seaports in Lebanon and Greece and Italy; often men of Catholic faith or no faith at all—bore little resemblance to the farmers and small-town merchants, the earnest Rotarians and churchgoing Baptists, who characterize Mississippi in the minds of strangers.

Pascagoula has always been a rough working-class place. It swelled from a fishing village before World War II, mushrooming into a home for more than twenty-five thousand people. Its dominant industry—the largest private employer in the state—was Ingalls Shipbuilding. During the war, Ingalls produced dozens of ships on a breakneck schedule. The brisk pace continued afterward because of the power of the state’s two senators, Jim Eastland and John Stennis (who became chairman of the Armed Services Commmittee), to deliver military contracts. Ingalls built destroyers and cruisers and nuclear submarines, feeding the local economy. And its work force was unionized, a rarity in Mississippi. The company was a huge presence in Pascagoula, and enormous steel gantries, the infrastructure of the shipyard, loomed over the coastline like a giant erector set.

But there was a deadly product used at the shipyard: asbestos.

Asbestos would turn into the scourge of Pascagoula, and decades later, it set in motion a series of bitter lawsuits, windfall fees for lawyers, contentious quarrels over the division of the spoils, petty feuds, charges of corruption, and an unbelievable outbreak of personal betrayals.

Scruggs would grow rich in Pascagoula, and he would meet many people who would have an influence on his life—the politicians Trent Lott and Mike Moore; his early mentor Robert Khayat the Godfather’s son; and the girl who would become his wife. In Pascagoula, he would
also take on as legal associates Roberts Wilson and Al Luckey, two men who would claim he had cheated them. They would pursue him through various courtrooms in the state across two decades.

But no one anticipated any of this when young Dickie Scruggs moved there in 1959.

    Like other places of comparable size, Pascagoula was layered by class distinctions. The little city had three basic components: a white, working-class base tied to Ingalls; a smaller, poorer black population; and an elite group of doctors, lawyers, business owners, and shipyard executives.

Ordinarily, Scruggs and his mother would have been firmly grounded among the shipyard workers. Their undistinguished tract home was a bit roomier than the tiny two-bedroom “navy houses” in an adjacent neighborhood filled with Ingalls employees, but it couldn’t approach the elegant mansions that graced the beachfront. In an environment where money determined the social pecking order, Scruggs would naturally have been cast among the children of the navy houses. Instead, using the force of his personality, he bridged the gap between the kids from his modest background and his affluent contemporaries who lived along the beach. He made that jump, in part, because his mother had a college education and knew the value of establishing a favorable impression. She was a stickler for high standards at home, insisting that her son not only study hard, but also practice good manners. He learned, for example, how to hold a fork properly, to consume his food like a gentleman, not to gobble. He addressed adults as “sir” or “ma’am.” He knew that proper behavior might raise him above his unlettered schoolmates. As a result, Dickie began to infiltrate the more privileged young crowd from the beach and prosperous Washington Avenue.

In the ninth grade, Dickie Scruggs was assigned, by the alphabet, to the same homeroom as Diane Thompson, the daughter of Dr. Perry Thompson, a successful dentist. Scruggs found her especially pretty, but didn’t dare ask for a date. She lived in a big, comfortable home just off the beach, and her social standing intimidated him. But like the Montgomery Clift character in the 1951 movie
A Place in the Sun
, he aspired to someday rise to her company of friends.

Their homeroom teacher turned out to be the Godfather’s son, Robert Khayat. Recovering from an illness that disrupted his professional football career with the Redskins, Khayat had returned home to Jackson County to take a temporary position as an assistant coach and
instructor. Knowing that his father had gone to college with Scruggs’s mother, the athlete took a special interest in Dickie. The boy showed little promise in spring football practice; he was enthusiastic, but not blessed with talent on the playing field. In the homeroom, however, he struck Khayat as exceptionally wholesome and refreshing, a boy with an engaging grin. There was a mutual attraction. The boy admired Khayat; he felt a bit awed by his presence. In a way, Khayat, eight years older, represented the big brother Scruggs never had. Dickie called Khayat “Coach.” He used the honorific for decades, until the time that they were both grandfathers and two of the most prominent men in Mississippi.

In the early 1960s, as Scruggs yearned to move beyond the world of navy houses to the beachfront, he cultivated new interests. He wanted, desperately, to escape the occupation of a mechanic or a pipefitter that seemed destined for so many young people in Pascagoula. Sports, especially football, offered a means to excel, but he realized that his physical abilities would never make him a star in conventional athletics. Still, he wanted to be a winner, so he began to swim, taking up the sport with religious zeal, and he discovered that this was an area where he could compete with the best.

Otherwise, his was a normal boyhood. He liked to hang out with other teenagers at Edd’s Drive-In, wondering about far-off places. He was delighted to be invited to informal sock hops and dressy dances. It all seemed removed from Ingalls and other critical issues of the day. His boyhood coincided with the revolution of rock ’n’ roll and the first stirrings of the civil rights movement. But if the youngsters living along Pascagoula’s beachfront thought of black people at all, they thought of Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard.

Just as he had been oblivious of racial problems in Brookhaven, Scruggs and his friends paid little attention to the upheaval in the state. In 1962 he went with his uncle, Bill, to an Ole Miss football game in Jackson that was highlighted by a halftime speech by Governor Ross Barnett, braying of his love for the segregationist tradition of Mississippi. Barnett delivered his message at the height of his confrontation with President Kennedy over the admission of the first black student to a white school in Mississippi: James Meredith at Ole Miss. Scruggs had been unimpressed by the governor’s demagoguery; in fact, the boy thought little of the crisis, not even the next day, when the campus erupted in a riot that claimed two lives and left hundreds injured. Before it was over, the federal government had deployed thousands
of troops and U.S. Marshals to ensure that Meredith was allowed to enroll.

The Pascagoula newspaper,
The Chronicle
, had been more passionate in its objections to the Mississippi insurgency. Owned by an irascible native of New Orleans named Ira Harkey, the paper ridiculed Barnett as a false prophet. In one editorial, Harkey wrote:

A pall of contradiction covers our state as if every one of us had developed schizophrenia … there is the call upon the United States of America not to send marshals into our state to enforce the law. How can we make such a demand without appearing devoid of all sense? … Gov. Barnett knows full well how laws are enforced when the lawless are defiant … In a madhouse’s din, Mississippi waits. God help Mississippi.

For challenging orthodoxy in Mississippi, Harkey was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. But he received few honors in Pascagoula. After he was effectively driven from town by boycotts and social shunning, he wrote that he had been left with only one ally: Claude Ramsay, a union organizer at Ingalls who then served as state president of the AFL-CIO. Ramsay, said Harkey, “was the only one of Jackson County’s 54,317 persons who came publicly to The Chronicle’s defense.”

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