Barnstorming with Christoper Dickey

Earlier this month I was asked to be on a panel in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with poet and novelist James Dickey’s oldest son, Christopher, and Payson Kennedy, the founder of the Nantahala Outdoor Center and one of the stunt doubles for the filming of “Deliverance.” Next year “Deliverance” will be 35 years old, and it continues to resonate with those who remember seeing it the first time or have come to view it since its release. Over a hundred people came out, and when the moderator asked for a show of hands everyone present had seen the film.

By the time the movie was made on the Chattooga, Chris was in college and old enough to work as a production assistant. The only scene he appeared in (as a body under a sheet) ended up on the cutting room floor, but the memories of making the film are still sharp and deep.

The point of the panel was to talk about ways in which the film helped shape perceptions of the mountains, both good and bad. From the beginning our hope was that it would move behind stereotypes and jokes about “squealing like a pig” and begin to consider the film (and its source, James Dickey’s novel) as part of the cultural and intellectual landscape of the South, even of America.

Talking about “Deliverence” and the Chattooga River where it was filmed has become a minor industry for me since my book “Chattooga” came out in 2004, but it has meant even more to my two fellow panelists. The development of NOC, the six million dollar company Payson Kennedy heads, was fueled by what Kennedy calls “the Deliverance syndrome” when thousands of middle class adventurers began coming to the mountains to raft in the 1970s. Many of them wanted to test their skills against wild water like they’d seen on the big screen. All left happy they encountered nothing as scary as the Tallulah Gorge waterfall everyone washes over near the movie’s end.

Chris was in college when the movie was made worked as a production assistant. The only scene he appeared in (as a body under a sheet) ended up on the cutting room floor, but the memories of making the film are still sharp and deep. He is now the Paris and Middle Eastern Bureau Chief of “Newsweek,” and he’s known today mostly for his coverage of the war in Iraq, not James Dickey’s son. I knew that sooner or later the mess in the Middle East would rear its ugly head, but while we were in Chattanooga “Deliverance” was front and center.

What Chris Dickey has taken from his 50-year history with “Deliverance” is surprising and enduring. His lessons from growing up the son of a famous poet he has chronicled in his own book, “Summer of Deliverance.” What’s surprising is how he still relates it all to his life today. Though he has lived his entire adult life outside the South, he has a profound understanding of how the film captures a time and a place. I was fortunate enough to hear his take on the father’s novel, the film’s legacy, and what it might mean to us in the South today as we drove backroads though the mountains on Saturday in his rental car. When his father traveled from college to college in his glory years reading from his poetry James Dickey called it “barnstorming,” and so we too took that spirit on the road with us. We talked and talked as we cruised through the mountains toward Clayton, Georgia where we were scheduled that night to attend a fundraiser for the Chattooga Conservancy.

“Deliverance,” Chris Dickey insists, helped define the seam between the old and new South, and for that reason we should still read and watch the story today. Set in Sunbelt Atlanta and the Southern mountains, there are none of the predictable “Gone with the Wind” Southern cliches. “Deliverance’s” main characters, Lewis Medlock and Ed Gentry are in advertising, and investments and real estate. Ed, who becomes the story’s hero, is forced to act with great courage and abandon the usual mode of operation he’s learned in the suburbs-“sliding” comfortably through modern life. Lewis, an early prototype for today’s survivalists, has to learn humility when he is injured in the rapids and forced to ride passively down the river in a battered canoe.

Chris, for three decades a war correspondent for “Newsweek,” says he can’t help but see in his father’s story the roots of some of the same arrogances that make up the modern American political situation today. He easily makes parallels between “Deliverance” and the mess of a war he has covered from the beginning in Iraq. He points out that Lewis Medlock is like the “neocons” who got us into this quagmire to begin with, and Iraq is the river, and once you’ve made the mistake of getting on it unprepared, there’s no way out but down through the chaos and horror.

Later that evening at the Clayton fundraiser Chris Dickey talked for an hour about the making of the movie “Deliverance,” but someone asked him about current events when the floor was opened for questions: What’s the one thing every American needs to know about Iraq that they don’t know? Dickey thought for a moment and said, “Occupation-Most Americans don’t understand occupation,” and all Americans should understand that we are an occupying army in Iraq no matter how good our motives were or are. “Like the American South,” Dickey said, “like Southerners in Georgia, the Iraqi people will not forget this occupation, not for hundreds of years.”

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