Monday, December 29, 2014

Nothing in Common Goes South, Part 2, Day 11 or 12 or whatever

On the way to Charleston is Beaufort, where I learn to speak Gullah, or at least I acquire a Gullah dictionary. "Dat seek'n' sistuh git 'ligun."*
Beaufort is known for its gorgeous antebellum homes in various states of decay and restoration (CSB prefers the elegant decay), and much as we love old houses we get sidetracked by the many political lawn signs bearing the name of a man who was once married to a very attractive friend of CSB’s younger sister. He has not forgotten her, the very attractive friend.
This was enough to set CSB to search for the whereabouts of this very attractive friend, whom we shall call Z D Spink. If you Google her name the very first two items to pop up are:
1. Her wedding announcement in the New York Times in 1982 to the man with the political lawn signs.
2. The legal record of a lawsuit, Spink vs Spink enacted about 3 years after their divorce.
And between those two items, in that white space on the screen, in the interstices of small print, lays the history of a marriage made and sundered, of lives derailed and rebooted. The stuff of stories.
Further investigations discover the successful business of Z D, now using her maiden name, and CSB sends her an email. Does she remember him, from back when was in boarding school and visited with the family, and he was the very tall and amusing older brother? She does indeed.

It is true that Charleston is full of history and old houses and excellent restaurants. But it has a dearth of public restrooms. In point of fact there are no public restrooms south of Broad Street. This is obviously very valuable information, and to aid the weary traveler, Historic Charleston has printed up a map indicating the public restrooms along with the aforementioned proviso. In my vast experience, this printed document constitutes an unrivalled public service.

Having just visited one of the rare public restrooms, we are strolling through St Philip’s Graveyard, where several notables are buried, including John C. Calhoun. Like Abelard and Heloise his remains traveled quite a bit before being translated to their current home. I am tempted to relate to other cemetery tourists how Calhoun’s corpse’s travels resemble numerous stories of saints’ relics being transported across countries and oceans, often by miraculous means. CSB is not enthusiastic.
Then my cell phone chimes its generic tones. It is Bill P. calling, to let me know that the police have in fact hand-delivered to my mother notice that her driving license is revoked. She promptly announced to Bill that this is surely a egregious error, and that she plans to appeal the decision. Bill wants me to be forewarned.

A few other interesting items about Charleston:
The oldest house in the city is pink. Also pink are the high heels worn by CSB’s very attractive friend, as she bicycles around the city.

The first theater in the US is in Charleston, the Dock Street Theater. John Wilkes Booth’s father, Junius Brutus, plied the boards there in the 19th century, but no presidents were shot there.
On the corner of Church Street and Queen Street is a massive Gothic revival Huguenot Church, even though there are technically no more Huguenots. Anywhere.
I am learning to love fried green tomatoes.

*Translation: "That sister wanting religion was baptized."

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Nothing in Common Goes South, Part 2, Day 9 or 10, or both

Day by day our relationship deepens. We are in sync. Often we don’t even need to communicate with words, so visceral is the connection.
William Shatner and I have gone from mere acquaintances to bosom buddies, BFFs, bonded at the hip and the fingertip. I honestly don’t know how it is for the rest of you, because I know William Shatner is pointing at me personally and that he is doing his best negotiating on my behalf. I know that when Captain Kirk is putting up his dukes, he is doing it to assure me alone (& CSB by association) the best possible price at the No-tell Motel in Savannah, Georgia. In fact, Captain Kirk directs us to the Cotton Sail Hotel, in an old cotton warehouse and with a river view. One morning we will watch a container ship slide by, and I will be thinking of William Shatner.

There are many wonderful things to see and do in Savannah, most of which involve old houses, lovely squares, and cemeteries, but it goes without saying that the one thing above all I long to visit in Savannah is the childhood home of Flannery O’Connor, at 207 East Charlton Street, off Lafayette Square, and a stone’s throw from the ginormous Cathedral of St John the Baptist.
I am particularly eager to see the “kiddie koop” Flannery slept in as a babe, because my mother had the identical model of "kiddie koop"* for us, including the screened top, and I used it a generation later for my number one daughter when we lived in a house on the salt marsh with a vast and various population of biting spiders.
According to the guidebook and the website, the house is open from 1 to 4 pm, on Wednesday through Sunday. Or we could say: it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. I have timed our travels to ensure that we are in Savannah on the proper days.
I am also eager to see the backyard where Flannery raised the chicken that learned to walk backward – a news sensation in the late 1920’s.
So after lunch on Wednesday we walk over to East Charlton Street. And here I am, sad, bereft and downtrodden, because for reasons unknown and clearly spurious, Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home is CLOSED when it is meant to be open. I call the number listed on the sign and leave a rather long message to the effect that I am bereft, sad and downtrodden that the house is closed and that I have made a special trip from the land of Yankees to visit it, and someone should call me immediately to explain and rectify the situation.
No one calls.
The house never opens while we are in Savannah.

This is me, sad, bereft and downtrodden outside Flannery O'Connor's closed Childhood Home.
Just now I revisited the website and found this message, which was not on their website back when we were in Savannah, and perhaps was put on the website in response to my pathetic and tragic phone message.
We apologize that we will have several exceptions to our regular hours over the next few months, and appreciate your patience with our changing schedule. If you are devastated that your trip to Savannah will not be complete without a tour of the Childhood Home, please get in touch via email with a week or so notice, and we will make a heroic, if not always successful, attempt to accommodate.

Or maybe I just should have put William Shatner onto the case of Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home?

*Through the miracle of Google, I have learned many poultry farmers are using kiddie koops for their chickens. Or they are on the Internet.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Nothing in Common Goes South, Part 2, Day 8 something

What we see between Waycross and Savannah

What we don't see between Waycross and Savannah, or anywhere else

An old wooden church, in the vernacular style, that CSB has read about, and wants to see, because he loves old buildings and in particular old buildings on the verge of collapsing and in need of restoration, called the Smyrna Church. We drive down the Smyrna church road which quickly becomes a very rutted dirt. We see houses falling down and lots of beautifully weathered old timber. We see porches separate from their houses. We see a couple of donkeys and several chickens. We have seen so many other churches, but we don't see the Smyrna church.

The island of Sea Island
So, having spent vacations on Sea Island when he was a lad prone to falling into scuppernong bushes, CSB wanted to show me the place. We took a few wrong turns – I was following the church signs and not the road signs – and crossed a few bridges, and finally found ourselves at the gatehouse for Sea Island. Where there was an armed guard. A very polite armed guard.
CSB pulled up.
Guard: Your name, sir.
CSB gave his name and explained he wanted to show his dear wife some of the settings of his boyish escapades.
Guard: Do you have a property on the island, sir?
CSB: No as I explained…
Guard: Sir, do you have reservations here?
CSB: No, we just want to drive through and see the old place.
Guard: I am afraid you can’t do that, sir.
CSB: We can’t?!
Guard: I believe you can call the Cloisters and reserve a room – they start at $500 a night.
CSB: What if I just told you I have a reservation at the Cloisters?
Guard: I would call the desk to confirm that, sir.
CSB: What if we just drove through the barrier and took a quick look?
Guard: I would call the police and they would arrest you, sir.
CSB: What if my wife takes a picture of you rejecting us and posts it on her blog?
Guard: That is her privilege, sir. Then I would have to arrest her.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Nothing in Common Goes South, Part 2, Day Seven - "It's a finger of speech."

All I knew was that I really wanted to go to the Okefenokee Swamp and that I had wanted to go there for as long as I could remember. When we planned NiCGS, Part 2, the idea was that the Okefenokee would be our southernmost terminus, and everything else fell into place around that point.
Then one day came the coup de foudre, the light-dawns-over-Marblehead-moment, the Jupiter-zap: Pogo Possum lived in the Okefenokee Swamp. Many years ago, in my bean sprout days, my father read Walt Kelly’s Pogo in the Boston Globe every morning. It amused him. I didn't get the satire on political campaigns, or the mockery of Joe McCarthy as Simple Malarkey, and the Jack Acid Society…but I could get that it amused my father. He approved of Pogo.
So it wasn’t really the swamp I was after, but some glimmer of a memory of my father, some connection to the father that in fact I knew very little because he traveled so much and when he was around, he was more interested in the three sons. I couldn’t get his attention when I was a child, but I could pay homage to the wit and wisdom of Pogo and Albert the Alligator and I too could quote Pogo: “Don’t talk life so serious…It ain’t no how permanent.”

So from a simple ‘wildlife adventure’, our trip to the Okefenokee is transformed into a pilgrimage, a quest of sorts. I am looking for Pogo Possum, in order to find my father.
CSB is agreeable. True, it isn’t Andalusia, but he is happy to come to the swamp. He recalls going there as a boy with his father: they rented a canoe and paddled under looming cypresses. It was mysterious and hidden. They surprised alligators and were surprised by water moccasins. He does not recall any possums, but he wasn’t seeking one either.
After a long day driving (recall the daring foray into the cotton fields) we eat in, happily ensconced at the Waycross Comfort Suites -thanks to more repartee with my guy, William Shatner. We dine on car snacks: nuts, dried tomatoes, clementines, and dark chocolate, and drink some white wine. (Foolishly, we leave the white wine behind in the Comfort Suites mini-frig, and we will regret this.) Here is our view:

The next morning, it is bloody-hell, nose-numbing freezing cold the next morning. In Waycross, Georgia. On the cusp of the Okefenokee. Almost into Florida. I am outraged and indignant. Also very cold.

Upon cursory reading of the website, it becomes obvious that we will give a pass to the Okefenokee Swamp Park, with its Serpentarium and ‘railroad’ tours, and go further south to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

This involves a lengthy chat with the lady at the entrance booth. She is wearing a lilac sweater. She is friendly, very friendly. She wants us to buy a Yearlong Senior Pass to National Wildlife Refuges. “A great deal,” she says. “That y’all won’t regret.” CSB hesitates because we are unlikely to go to another wildlife refuge this year. She is insistent. CSB mentions that there is a car waiting behind us. She says we needn’t worry. CSB says that back in New York that car would be honking impatiently. (He does not specify that he would be the one honking.) She is interested to learn that we are Yankees from New York. She tells CSB that y’all in New York are responsible for the terrible president we now have, and CSB tells her that we actually like that terrible president. She looks incredulous. The lady in lilac promises us that no one in Georgia or the Okefenokee will ever get impatient or honk a horn. CSB caves and buys the Senior Pass to all National Wildlife Refuges. He tells the lady in the booth, “Lilac is your color.”

Then we are at the swamp, and well, it is not quite what I imagined. Feared. Hoped.

Most of it burned down in 2007. Lightning struck in April, and fire overtook the swamp until July; its smoke could be seen in the skies of Atlanta and Orlando. Pretty much the whole swamp went up in flames. Then again in April of 2011, the Honey Prairie fire ignited. It was not declared to be extinguished until a year later.
These fires meant that the towering bald cypresses draped in mosses, the swamp tupelos were gone. The hammocks were denuded of their evergreen oaks and longleaf pine. The flora that had been home and hiding place to all that fauna, to Pogo, Albert Alligator, Churchy LaFemme, Howland Owl, Mam’selle Hepzibah and Porky Pine, was no more.

We tread a boardwalk over the prairie, see a mother alligator and three or four babies, and we climb a five-story tower, for the view. We take a boat trip along canals and see exactly two alligators and some birds. It is so cold we wrap up in fleece blankets provide by the refuge. I am wearing: a tee shirt, a flannel shirt, a cashmere sweater, a fleece jacket –the black one featuring the FANNIN/LEHNER/ PRESERVATION CONSULTANTS logo stitched over my left breast – and a very old red barn jacket that will turn out to have a hole in the right side pocket. I have a fleece hat and a pair of lightweight pale yellow gloves, which I had thought I might have to wear in the mountains on North Carolina. It was never my intention to wear them on the Okefenokee. CSB is wearing about 3 fewer layers than I am, and he complains of the cold far less than I do.
The swamp is still beautiful and the water is black and shimmering. I do not find Pogo Possum, no more than Peter Matthiessen saw the snow leopard, but all day long I thought about what my father found so funny, and muttered to myself, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Whose art is this anyway?

Germaine Jeanne Marie Lev√™que Lehner painted the canvas sometime in the early 1950’s.

The paper wasps, Vespidae polistes, built the nest out of ‘paper’ sometime in the summer of 2014.
They raised their brood in the open honeycombs beneath the paper outer cover, they pollinated crops, then they all flew away or died.

Tristram, Number One Son, climbed the tree with a pair of lopping shears between his teeth, and clipped the branch that was anchoring the nest. He passed it down to his grateful mother.

This morning, with a box cutter, I sliced an X in the center of the painting, then inserted the branch through my grandmother’s canvas, and affixed it to the stretcher bars with wire threaded through eyehooks.

It has recently been discovered by scientists that paper wasps have the ability to recognize faces, on the same level as humans and chimps.
Other research on wasps tells us that the intensity of their coloration can indicate the intensity of their toxicity. According to the Starr sting pain scale, paper wasps come in at 3.0, worse than fire ants, yellow jackets or Africanized bees, but not as bad as bullet ants. According to the Schmidt pain index, the sting of a paper wasp feels “Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.”

Just so you know.