Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Nothing in Common goes South, Part 2, Day #6

We are pulling out of the vast campus that used to be the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot and Epileptic Asylum, when my cell phone rings. I see on the caller ID that it is Bill P, and I know that something is up with my mother. He tells me that the police will be hand-delivering the notice from the Dept. of Transportation revoking my mother’s license. (I am visited by an eerie recollection of the time when Lilla’s late-lamented mother was likewise visited by the local police, in North Wales, likewise on account of her driving mishaps, and she sent the constable to the back - that is the servants’ - door. This, of course, will not be an option at my mother’s house.) Knowing that my mother will quickly pocket the document, then hide it, and then forget where she has hidden it, I ask Bill if he can possibly get me a copy. He says he will try.
We are driving south, toward the southernmost point of our journey, which will be Waycross, Georgia, the gateway to the Okefenokee Swamp, the swamp I have longed to visit, the swamp I have dreamt of, the swamp I have imagined, the swamp inhabited by a witty and wise Possum, a cigar-smoking Alligator, and an owl who speaks in dark Gothic script. On the way we pass cotton fields, lots of cotton fields. If you live in southern Georgia cotton fields, fields of cotton, are not an exotic sight. If you live outside NYC, they are. So I want to stop the car and walk into a field of cotton and actually pick some cotton and extract the cottonseed. CSB pulls over, and as I get out, he warns me about: rattlesnakes, fire ants, and crackers with guns. He stays in the car and watches as I cross the ditch and wander into the cotton.

Many years ago I read that Aldous Huxley* had a specially constructed traveling trunk in which he kept the entire set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Presumably it was the iconic 11th edition, all 29 volumes. Those were the halcyon days of porters. Because Huxley could not imagine traveling without that wonderful source of knowledge, that repository of obscure facts and incontrovertible argument-winner. I love this detail because I too cannot imagine traveling without having the population of Macon, Georgia or the number of bales of cotton produced by South Carolina (400,000) or the symptoms of lupus, as suffered by Flannery O’Connor, at my fingertips.
I cannot verify Huxley’s bespoke trunk anywhere. I have looked in all the obvious places (the encyclopedia) and some less obvious. I would give quite a lot to find the source. I would be sad to learn it was Somerset Maugham who had the bespoke trunk, but I would accept the fact gracefully.
Unlike Aldous Huxley, or whoever it was, we do not have to carry around 144 pounds of information and develop incurable curvature of the spine, because we have iPhones and on my smart talking pink device I can look up ….almost anything. One of the many delights we discovered on our road trip was that in the Wikipedia entry for more or less every town in American, along with the demographics, geography and history, there is a section called: Notable People. All sorts of small towns have all sorts of notable people. True, most of them are high school football players. Then there are the surprises.
Among the notable residents, past and present, of Waycross, Georgia, I doubt there is anyone quite as intriguing as Sonora Webster Carver, the Horse Diver.
I very much hope I am not the only person who has never before heard of – or even conceived of - horse diving as a career option. It was in 1923 that Sonora ((1904-2003) responded to an ad seeking a horse diver, placed by William “Doc” Carver. He signed her on and soon she was the star of the show: riding a horse up to a sixty-foot tower and then hanging on for dear as it dove into a puddle below. Sonora soon married Doc’s son, Al, who took over the show and brought it to the Atlantic City Pier. That was where Sonora was blinded, when she hit the water off balance. But she kept right on diving with her horse for another 11 years.
It seems worth noting that she lived to be 99 years old.

And now it is time to reignite my torrid relationship with William Shatner.

*Based on the number of books she owned by each author, Aldous Huxley was my paternal grandmother’s second favorite writer, between H.G. Wells, #1 by a long margin, and Tagore at #3.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Nothing in Common Goes South, Part 2, Day 5: All the Andalusias

Andalusia is not only an autonomous region in Spain. It is also the home of Flannery O’Connor, where she wrote most of her great stories and where her mother managed a dairy farm. It was the home of over fifty peacocks and other fowl, both exotic and ordinary.

The name Andalusia, the autonomous region in southern Spain, comes from the Arabic: Al-Andalus. Most Spanish words starting with al derive from the Arabic; I love knowing this simple fact, and conjuring up the words that comprise that group: words for cotton, lunch, warehouse, and pillow. The origin of the name Andalusia, the former dairy farm in Milledgeville, is shrouded in the mists of time and the Spanish moss.

Andalusia is in the town of Milledgeville, Georgia. When O’Connor and her mother lived and farmed there, it was considered to be outside of town and in the country. Now it shares its address of North Columbia Street - also known as Route 441 - with a Ford dealership, Holiday Inn, Econo-Lodge, Wal-Mart and more chain store you haven’t even heard of, Appleby’s, Domino’s Pizza, Papa John’s, Firehouse Subs and Longhorn Steakhouse. That is, Andalusia is tucked between strip malls and is across the street from strip malls, miles and miles of strip malls, leading into the older downtown of Milledgeville.

Unlike most people in my demographic (Yankee, geeky, parochial) I have known of Milledgeville for a long time, that is to say, I have known it is a place in Georgia where Flannery O’Connor lived with her peacocks and her mother.

I knew nothing else about Milledgeville. I never knew that it was, from 1804 until 1868, the capital of Georgia, which explains why the enormous pink stucco Greek revival mansion is known as the Old Governor’s Mansion. I had no idea that Milledgeville’s Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum was once the largest mental institution in the world.* Nor did I know that for most Georgians, Milledgeville is best known as the home of this vast mental institution. According to April Moon, the lovely docent at Flannery O’Connor’s house, when she told her grandparents she was moving to Milledgeville, they asked if she was crazy. If you tell someone in Georgia you used to live in Milledgeville, they will ask, “When did they let you out?”
This is the Green Building at the Central State Hospital. From 1947 until 1977 it housed "white convalescent patients who suffered from conditions such as schizophrenia. These patients were likely to never leave."

I did not know that in 1825 the Marquis de Lafayette, by then a hero of two revolutions, visited Milledgeville and was honored with a barbecue and a formal ball.

Andalusia has always been in the back of my mind as a place I wanted to visit, if I ever got to southern Georgia. Over time it became clear, even to me, that I would never happen to be in southern Georgia, and that I would need to purposefully go to southern Georgia in order to see Andalusia. CSB had no idea that he too had always longed to see Andalusia.

So we brave the strip mall gauntlet and turn into the dirt driveway where a smallish sign announces “Andalusia” and we drive through a grove of cedars, oaks and longleaf pines up to the old farmhouse.
We walk through Flannery O’Connor’s house and admire the 1950’s refrigerator she proudly bought with the earnings from her first novel. We also admire the chicken costume sewn by the lovely docent, April, in homage to O’Connor’s penchant for sewing clothes for her chickens. One of the things I come away with from Andalusia is the understanding that I don’t love my chickens nearly enough. It would never occur to me to name our rooster Haile Selassie. Down the gentle hill from the farmhouse is a pond, surrounded by tall oaks and noisome with frogs. My delight upon spying a turtle basking in the mud at the edge of the pond is perhaps hyperbolic. I have no picture because the thing about turtles in ponds is that they blend in so well: their brownish carapace is one with muddy shores. This is how they avoid being constantly annoyed by people, like me, who are endlessly intrigued by the very fact of a turtle.
Because it is a simple farmhouse, because the oaks are taller now and getting taller, because the yard has its share of rusted farm tools, because there are only three peacocks left and they reside in an apiary because there are coyotes about, because it is so close and yet so far from the strip malls, Andalusia is absolutely worth going all the way to southern Georgia.

* This is such an amazing fact that I have to credit my source: A Literary Guide to Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia, by Sarah Gordon. U of Georgia press, Athens: 2008

Monday, November 17, 2014

Nothing in Common Goes South, Part 2, Day 4 something

It is a much longer trip from Greenville, SC to Milledgeville than anticipated. This could be on account of a lengthy stop in Pendleton, SC a small town with more than its share of historic buildings.
Despite rumors that we have nothing in common, CSB and I both like old historic buildings and old graveyards, though his fondness for unrestored and decrepit old buildings far outstrips mine.
While we are walking through the old and atmospheric St Paul’s Cemetery in Pendleton, I get the first call regarding my mother’s driving license. Or the revocation of her driving license. The driving license that is no more. I am reading Confederate era gravestones when I get the call from Bill P., her caretaker and great friend, who is also a Fire Chief and hence a super-safety conscious individual. He has learned from the local police that my mother’s license has been revoked, effective immediately, for “Immediate Threat-Medical.”
This is the best news I have heard in a while.
Someone else, a faceless entity, someone/thing who is neither me nor my sister, has taken away my mother’s license to drive a 3,560 pound machine capable of moving at over 100 mph, and we can stop worrying about her driving off the road into a snow bank, or mistaking the gas pedal for the brake and driving into a plate glass storefront and killing a family of six celebrating a child’s birthday, or getting hopelessly lost and ending up in a sketchy neighborhood in another state.
My mother, however, does not see this news as the positive step it is. She has informed Bill that she plans to appeal this egregious error.
I am standing here, reading the epitaph composed for his wife, Anna née Calhoun, by Thomas Greene Clemson, “erected by her disconsolate husband.”
Meanwhile, CSB would like to visit Ashtabula, a lovely example of the Lowcountry plantation style. The lady at the Visitor Center – she is wearing period costume, and yes, people wearing period costumes make me very anxious – informs us that Ashtabula should be open now for visitors, but she is not making any promises.
We drive over there, and it is closed. It is unclear if it is closed for the day or closed for the season, but it is closed.

Here is CSB looking in the windows. We discuss, heatedly, the shade of blue used for the porch ceiling; CSB feels strongly that it is not the correct, that is, robins’ egg shade of blue traditionally used for porch ceilings as a mosquito repellant, as well as because it is lovely.
Later, at the Agricultural Museum of South Carolina – where we can operate a real cotton gin, a very small hand-operated cotton gin, but a real one – we see the same lady from the Visitors’ Center, but now she has shed her period costume, and it is a definite improvement. She is enthusiastic about the genuine old McCormick Reaper on display. It also works. I mention to the Visitor Center lady now in mufti that Ashtabula was closed this morning. She does not seem surprised.
This is a lot of architecture and agriculture for a morning, and CSB has heard rumors that somewhere in the vicinity is a restaurant called The Esso Club which is in an old gas station, an oddly appealing concept. I won’t mention which brand, and it serves many types of local beer. We find it. We slake our thirst. We have still not left South Carolina.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Nothing in Common Goes South, Part 2, Day 3 1/2

Textile Recycling as Meteorology
Cirrus or cumulus.
Cirrostratus or cirrocumulus.
Cirrus nebulosus?

Read all instructions before starting the test.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Nothing in Common Goes South, Part 2, Day 2

An alternate title for this entire saga could well be:
Things (people, places) that Are Well-Known and Obvious to Almost Everyone, but about which I was Tragically Ignorant.
The above would include O. Winston Link. CSB knew all about O. Winston Link and his iconic photographs of steam trains at night. I had no clue. But now I do, and I am delighted. Also, the O stands for Ogle, which seems noteworthy.

In the former Roanoke railroad station of the Norfolk & Western RR there is now a museum dedicated to the pictures of Link; it is also full of all sorts of random RR paraphernalia, such as menus of train travel. Sometime in the 1960’s, while riding the rails you could get 3 strips of breakfast bacon with eggs for $1.25, and “Parents may Share their Portions with Children without Extra Charge”. That seems generous.

Winston Link was born in Brooklyn in 1914. He studied civil engineering but soon after school he began to work as a commercial photographer. At one point his most famous image was of a man pointing a gun at a pig wearing a bulletproof vest. I have no idea what this was meant to sell. I don’t think Hamlette would have let me dress her in a vest of any style. (Unlike Flannery O’Connor’s chickens, who liked to wear costumes.)

Around 1955, while doing a job in Virginia Link’s lifelong affection for railroads expanded into a total obsession. N&W was the last railroad to transition from steam to diesel, and Link began photographing steam trains, at night, when he could control the lighting.

Link’s first wife was a former Miss Ark-La-Tex who later became a body double for the Hungarian femme fatale Franciska Gaal. His second wife, Conchita, stole a collection of Link’s photos and tried to sell them, claiming that he had Alzheimer’s. For this she went to prison for 6 years. As soon as she got out, Conchita tried to sell Link’s pictures again on eBay. The second time she got three years. One has to admire her determination. Or something.

Also in Roanoke we visit the Taubman Art Museum that has several fine paintings in its collection, but most notably it has what may be the world’s largest collection of Judith Leiber handbags. If this isn’t amazing enough, it turns out that CSB was pretty amazed and impressed by these sparkle-studded evening purses or minaudieres. It is a good thing to be surprised by your spouse.

Somewhere on the road between Roanoke and Greenville, SC I reach into my very carefully organized back seat looking for the watercolor set. I am thinking of painting my impressions of Jesus billboards. But instead of my paints, there in the canvas satchel, I come upon a Giant-Family size bag of Twizzlers™, and a similarly gigantic bag of Reese’s Peanut-Butter Cups™. How did they get there? CSB’s expression is as innocent as a politician’s, denying that latest incident in the Potomac Fountain.

Given CSB’s evidenced taste in road food, it is all the more shocking how little he enjoys the American-Made Cow Tales, a gift from a chatty fellow in Union Grove, NC, where decades ago CSB had been to a Fiddlers’ Convention. We went to check it out, and yes, there still is a Fiddler’s Convention, and Cow Tales were the favorite snack of our newfound friend. Chucker throws it out the window; I save the wrapper for my Travel Log.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Day #1 of Nothing in Common Goes South, Part 2

There are fond farewells with Bruno, more cursory farewells with the chickens, (yes, I admit to preferring, canine over avian pets) and we depart Hastings for the second iteration of Nothing in Common goes South. But first we go to the bank and the drug store for items already forgotten. Ten minutes later we turn around because I forgot my watercolors, and even though I never once lifted a paintbrush during the entirety of the first incarnation of Nothing in Common goes South, I have a sixth sense that this will time I will. Hence the U-turn on the Saw Mill Parkway.
Three states away there is a horse stranded in the middle of a highway, which will be the subject of our first photograph. Who knows how the horse got there, but he/she is clearly not happy.
Our first lunch on the road is in Hagerstown, Maryland. The eatery calls itself The Rhubard Café, but there is no rhubarb on the menu, and the food goes downhill from there. What you need to know about Hagerstown is that on July 6, 1864 Gen. John McCausland’s Confederate cavalry demanded a ransom of $20,000 and some clothing from the town. I don’t know the style and color of the clothing, or if it was specified, and this seems like an unfortunate lacuna in the historical record. Having seen what happened to neighboring towns when the ransom was not paid (conflagration, destruction) the local bankers paid the ransom, and Hagerstown was saved. After the war the bankers were repaid by a tax levied on the people.
I like free maps. Ladies in welcome centers like to give away maps, so we are well matched. After Pennsylvania we drive though the western panhandle of West Virginia for exactly 26 miles. In order to get my free map of West Virginia at the West Virginia Welcome Center, I am asked to sign the register with my name and home state, and indicate whether or not W.Va. is our final destination. I do as required, and note that everyone else on the register (from New York, Maine, Quebec, and Pennsylvania) had likewise indicated that No, West Virginia was not their final destination. I feel bad for the ladies, handing out free maps to a state no one is actually visiting. I consider changing my answer to yes, just to enliven their register. I never consider not taking the free map.
Outside Roanoke I begin what will be a long and complicated relationship with William Shatner. With the Priceline app my nephew just last week installed on my phone, I banter with William, that eager battler and barterer, and find us a hotel room. Just me, CSB and the specter of Captain Kirk.