Friday, August 28, 2009

The Old Bridgeport Road

Wednesday, April 22, 2009   

In the brief intermission between book events I retired to Bolton on Saturday evening to rest and regroup. I have received many interesting emails about Sultana, though the book has yet to generate as much email interest as my Lost magazine article about Jan-Michael Vincent, which has resulted in a steady stream of uniformly strange emails. I also received one very cryptic letter from a woman in North Carolina that intrigues and baffles me because it is almost entirely illegible, is folded oddly, has its return address sticker affixed upside-down, and is addressed to “Mr. Hoffman” at my correct mailing address; I don’t know how this person got my address if she doesn’t know my name, nor, for that matter, what she had to say, but the message appears earnest and seems to concern the Sultana.

Otherwise, after perusing the internet for Sultaniana, I find that I still have only three reader reviews on amazon – yes, I’m talking to YOU. Apparently the general public has not yet felt compelled to share its insights, and my friends remain unmoved by both my plaintive requests and the threat of banishment from the pig roast if they do not write a reader review. I have meanwhile watched, bemused, as Sultana’s sales rank has fallen since the days immediately after the NPR show. It’s still selling well, but its flirtation with bestseller status has abated for now. Apparently I need to go on NPR once a week.

The book tour resumes on Friday, after a morning talk to the Mississippi Heritage Trust preservation conference about the Old Bridgeport Road, a route that played a cameo role in the Sultana saga. I live in a house known as Holly Grove, which stands along the Old Bridgeport Road, the second oldest road in Mississippi (having been built soon after statehood, in the 1820s, to connect the capital with the Mississippi River; it once carried twice-daily stagecoach service between Jackson and Vicksburg).

The Old Bridgeport Road is a story in itself. Among the scenes that have unfolded along its route during various eras: Choctaw Indians and Union and Confederate soldiers trod it; an old woman, who has since died, reminisced about the passage, during her childhood, of a wagon pulled by two white horses with a casket in back, bound for a now-abandoned African American cemetery; a bright, well-dressed woman stood beside it -- and I am not exaggerating -- for five years, day and night, including during inclement weather, waiting for who knows what; a gangsta slaying occurred a mile west of my house in the 1990s; and once, a short, rotund woman in fluffy pink slippers danced and twirled past a stopped school bus while my dog tried to bite her.

For the purposes of this note the road’s most significant scene occurred when it was traipsed by recently-freed Union soldiers on their way to board the Sultana in 1865. The soldiers had taken boats and trains from Confederate prison camps to Jackson, after which they’d had to walk the remaining 50 miles because the railroad tracks had been destroyed during the war. It was spring and the dogwoods and irises were in bloom. The houses along the way had been ravaged by the war. According to contemporary accounts it was raining much of the way and the road was a muddy mire. Many of the men were barefoot, weak, injured, ill, or all of the above. They were on their way home, or so they thought, and they walked past what would one day be my home. Holly Grove stands on the site of a house that was there when the soldiers passed, and which had been used as a Union army camp several times during the war. The original house was abandoned in the 1970s and eventually fell in; in 1990 I moved Holly Grove, which was actually slightly older and was threatened by neglect, to the property. The relocation of Holly Grove is its own story (see my last book, Mississippi in Africa).

My section of the Old Bridgeport Road is the only part still in use in its original form. Everywhere else the route has been bulldozed, widened and paved or else abandoned and allowed to grow up in trees. I got my segment listed as a Mississippi Landmark so it would be preserved, and it was a good thing because our county supervisors are apparently ignorant of history and infected with the power of minor bureaucrats. One supervisor appeared to view everything through the prism of race, and to feel that because I am white and I wanted the road preserved, it was somehow an affront to black people. It was crazy. For one thing, there were people of both races who wanted the road preserved.

There were four families, who, yes, happened to be black, if you must typecast them, who lived along the road, and they desired a new, more modern route to their houses. I sympathized, and convinced an adjacent landowner to donate land so the county could build a new route bypassing the old one. But this particular county supervisor was intent on bulldozing the high banks, carved by wagon wheels and horses’ hooves, and the centuries-old live oak trees. It became a pitched battle, in the media and in state government, and eventually I won. The county abandoned the Old Bridgeport Road and built a new route bypassing it, to the four houses. One of the families sent me a nice fruit basket for my role in getting them a new road. So, there.

The road’s future is now secure, in part because the Mississippi Heritage Trust listed it among the state’s most endangered historic places. You can walk down it now, beneath a lovely, arching canopy of trees, and see it the way the men saw it on the way to the Sultana. Meanwhile the families further down the road have a new, modern route of their own homes. Everyone is happy, with the possible exception of the supervisor.

After telling the story of the Old Bridgeport Road to the preservationists, I will hurry out the door to head to Knoxville for the reunion of Sultana survivors’ descendants. The drive from Jackson to Knoxville takes 7.5 hours, with no stops, and I have 7.5 hours before the Sultana event, so it is going to be a tight squeeze, in addition to a long haul.

The reunion of Sultana descendants is a quirky episode that my publicist has so far been unable to successfully market to the media. I thought it would make for a great feature, because: Why do they do it? Why do people travel from across the country to commemorate a horrific event that involved an ancestor whom they (in all but one notable case) never knew? For comparison purposes, will descendants of Sept. 11 survivors be meeting 150 years from now to discuss how their ancestors made it out of the towers? What about the woman who preserved her family line by taking refuge with her children in a wombat burrow to survive the recent Australian wildfires? Will she be the impetus for similar reunions in the future? It’s odd how these things can work their way into people’s identities. I look forward to finding out why they take pleasure in talking about horrific survival stories while grazing a buffet line.

I am unsure why the media – neither local nor national -- does not find this remotely interesting. My publicist, Scott Manning, is very good at what he does, so I know that if he can’t get them to cover the reunion, it is because they are absolutely not going to cover the reunion. Oh well. I’ll be there, inchallah, and I look forward to it, though I’m a bit daunted by the logistics of getting from Jackson to the Mt. Olive church outside Knoxville on time. If I’m late, I’ll be keeping both the descendants and the Borders bookstore staff (who are doing an off-site book sale) waiting.

Still, we’re talking about a commemoration of an event 144 years ago, so what’s a half-hour or so? The descendants will have plenty to keep them entertained, including the buffet, a series of exhibits by individuals about their respective ancestors, and a concert of Civil War-era music. This will be a very specific gathering, and they will no doubt be very specifically entertained. I expect the crowd will be much abuzz about Arkansas Congressman Vic Snyder’s resolution commemorating the Sultana disaster, which came up during last week’s NPR show. The possibility of congressional recognition excites the descendants, because finally the government is poised to take notice. I hope they will also be moved to buy books.

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