Category Archives: Vernon Dahmer

The Story I Really Want to Tell

The Color of Justice
The murder occurred
Only a mile or two from
My bedroom window.
Hattiesburg, small town
And comfort-laden
Had become a seat
Of violence. 
I didn’t know
The fire was set
I didn’t know
White men did this
I didn’t know
who Vernon Dahmer was.
I didn’t know.
I am part of a family
Of people, so involved
In survival, so involved
In day-to-day living,
So involved with other
Concerns, like my mother’s
Alcoholism, my father’s
Pride, that the event may as well
have happened
on the other side of the world
As I played with torn out
paper dolls with white faces.
I didn’t know.
I wrote this poem in 1966. I was 16 years old.  Hattiesburg Mississippi is my birthplace, and my world revolved around school, my friends, and my after-school job at a dry cleaners.  Even so, I was quite isolated because of the culture of the time.  There was a television in our house, most of the time. My father repaired them and would bring one home “just to make sure it would stay tuned up,” he said.  These television sets always held a place of honor in the middle of the dining room table, plugged into the overhead socket. 
When he finally delivered the TV to its owner, we would be setless until he brought home another newly repaired set, usually within a day or two.  In the interim, we missed several big news stories.  One of the stories I did not miss was the shocking story of the burning of Vernon Dahmer.  
Photo from Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

My father knew Mr. Dahmer.  He had repaired his television (or could have been a radio) about a year before.  I rode with my father out to deliver that TV to the Dahmer home, and sat in the truck while he went in the colorful Dahmer store (which was next door to their home, I think) to collect from Vernon Dahmer.  Several light-skinned boys sat on the porch of the store.  I almost got out of the truck to purchase a soft drink, solely on the influence of the Barq’s Root Beer sign on the front of the store, when I saw my father coming out the door. 

Several months after that, I remember standing with my father in front of another loaner TV perched on our dining room table watching the photo of Vernon Dahmer and hearing the news that he had been murdered, his store and home fire-bombed.  Mr. Dahmer was assisting in voter registration drives and had a voter signup in his store. Up until that moment, I did not know Vernon Dahmer was black.

More about this story here: Justice is done.

This story is only one of the stories of my growing up years.  We were not middle class America, but we did not know that we weren’t. We were too busy existing day to day. These and many other stories are still bumping around in my head. I am trying as fast as I can to write them down so I won’t forget them.

One such story I have turned into fiction.  And that story is now a 300 page novel manuscript based in part on the fascinating history of the Dahmer family. I’ve incorporated countless true events in my fiction stories. And you do not always have to base a story on a traumatic event.  The best fiction I’ve read lately are every-day event-type stories, like meeting someone for coffee, and the dialogue that takes place where a secret is revealed or a person has a sudden awareness. I’m certain these stories are based on the writers’ true life events, or things he/she has heard or read about.

I recently heard a story about a writer talking to an agent about a fiction manuscript that was not finished, and that he was struggling with completing the novel, but he just couldn’t get an ending. The Agent told the writer to put the entire project aside, and “to write the story he really wanted to tell.”  I don’t know who the writer was, but according to the teller of the tale the writer began to write creative non-fiction stories about his life and his world was changed forever. But I thought this to be very powerful advice. What draws us to write fiction, when the truths of our own lives are far more interesting?