Sunday, April 25, 2010

Weather terrorists

A Weather Channel talking head named Vivian leveled her gaze at us, the worried viewers, on Friday night as an insane late-spring weather system bore down on the South like an invading army, on a front that was hundreds of miles wide.

After a notably quiet tornado season, during which the Weather Channel had run a headline that petulantly asked, “Where have all the tornadoes gone?”, Vivian could not contain her excitement over a storm system that seemed designed for sweeps week. She was clearly energized by the specter – nay, the CERTAINTY – of impending meteorological-related death and destruction.

“There is a strong likelihood not only for tornadoes but for severe tornadoes,” she said, with a glint in her eye. “And they’re going to come during the night, when we’re most vulnerable – as we’re sleeping.”

Even within the realm of weather forecasters who are notoriously aroused by meteorological threats, this seemed an unfair exploitation of the vulnerability we all felt. Plus, are not all tornadoes severe?

Watching Vivian, it was easy to imagine a Weather Channel job interview including questions such as, “Do you enjoy frightening children on Halloween? Not just giving them a start, but really frightening them – as in, making them cry? How about insecure old people at home alone at night during lightning storms?”

Vivian urged us to keep our weather radios on all night, and to make use of a new Weather Channel feature whereby they would call you on the phone if a storm was coming your way. (There is also an available phone app called “Severe Weather in the Palm of Your Hand”).

On the night in question my friends Mike Kardos and Katie Pierce and I were in Columbus, Mississippi for the Southern Literary Festival at Mississippi University for Women. Mike, a fiction writer and instructor at Mississippi State University, and Katie, a poet who is likewise an instructor at MSU, had done readings and/or led workshops with student writers as part of the festival. That night I spoke about Sultana, after which novelist Dedra Johnson read from her book Sandrine’s Letter to Tomorrow.

The Friday night event was held in a dim, 1960s-modern chapel that, as Dedra pointed out, felt like a mausoleum, against a backdrop of lightning flashes that illuminated the single stained glass window behind the podium while torrential downpours roared against the roof. I thought of the guys from the Sultana and all they’d gone through, including cowering, exposed without shelter, as prisoners of war during just such a storm. The crowd on hand for the literary event was surprisingly large considering the weather.

I'm a complete 'fraidy cat when it comes to tornadoes, after having once seen one approaching my house – a squat, roaring wedge of swirling navy blue, encircled by wispy pink clouds that were being sucked into its vortex – at which point I decided to do what they always advise against, which was to run. I got in my truck with my dog and sped away. I hadn’t made it 100 yards before the rain was falling so hard that I couldn’t see the hood of my truck, and was forced to roll slowly, hoping not to drive off into the creek or into a tree, at which point I suddenly realized I wasn’t running at all. I came through the episode unscathed, as did my house, though several trees were blown down. I never saw storms in quite the same way.

On another occasion a tornado swept by my house, downing trees before destroying a series of homes down the road. When I stopped to check on one family they were probing the debris for significant possessions, many of which (including a lot of clothes) had been blown from their obliterated house and hung, burning, in the tops of battered trees. The house had caught fire as it was being blown apart. Did I mention that it was also snowing? The weather. Man.

More recently, I encountered an approaching tornado while driving through the town of Bolton. I abandoned my truck in the middle of the street and ran toward the bank, knowing they had a vault. Curiously, as I ran toward the door one of my footfalls failed to reach the ground. Just one footfall, ending in the air. I’d been briefly lifted by the wind, after which I entered the lee of the bank building and continued on my way. It was just a few feet of involuntary flying: Not much, but enough. Together with the bank’s employees and one other customer I watched from the area near the open vault door as the roof of the fire station across the street and the disintegrating car wash tumbled past the windows.

I feel safer during tornado weather when I’m with other people, so the weather in Columbus that night was more energizing than frightening to me. We joked about the weather terrorists on TV, and continued to do so the next morning, when they informed us that we had an “8 in 10 chance of seeing a tornado today.” We did notice, with some bemusement, that they seemed particularly fixated on Mississippi, where numerous tornadoes had torn through the region to the west of us during the night. We also joked about the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” Whistling past the graveyard, as it were.

I was supposed to drive back to Bolton that day, Saturday, and did not look forward to a three-hour drive through a meteorological nightmare, especially after it started to hail in Columbus at around 7 a.m. But checking the weather radar, Katie, Mike and I decided that there was a narrow window during which we could make it to Starkville, their home (and where we could, if necessary, take refuge in the basement of the MSU English Department building), which would also put me a half-hour closer to my own home in Bolton. The drive to Starkville turned out to be unnerving: Few cars on the road, the sky dark with clouds that dragged little streamers, like tornado starter-kits. It felt like we were driving through the turbulent atmosphere, rather than on the ground.

Frequently returning to the radar screen while ensconced in the English Department, we observed that the storm was actually going to intensify as the day progressed, which meant that I could either hunker down there, in Starkville, for the rest of the weekend, or make use of what appeared to be another narrow window and high-tail it back to Bolton. The radar appeared to indicate that Highway 25, my route home, passed between a series of ugly red Weather Channel blobs, but was itself relatively clear.

It’s stupid, I know. You should not undertake a two-and-a-half-hour road trip when there are tornado warnings. Likewise, it had been stupid to run from the tornado that day at my house. But running is instinctive for me. So we agreed that Mike would monitor the weather and call me if it appeared that I was headed into something ugly, at which point I could, hopefully, seek refuge.

Between Starkville and Louisville, Mississippi I entered a strange meteorological zone. The sun came out and the wind picked up, blowing perhaps 60 mph, which had the effect of driving the racing shadows of clouds across the pavement directly at me. It was kind of dizzying, and reminded me of time-lapse photography. After that lightning began to flash to the south, where I knew a red blob sat, then to the north. I entered heavy rain, called Mike, who checked the radar and said there was a mostly green blob over Marydell, a community I’d just passed through, and that it was mostly green blobs from there to Jackson. “Not even any yellow, really,” he said, adding that there was a wicked looking red blob west of Vicksburg, headed toward me, on a parallel course, though it looked like I could make it to Jackson before it hit.

This was around 11:30 a.m. What was happening, as I nervously navigated my own green blobs, was that the red blob was crossing the Mississippi River north of Vicksburg, after having touched down in Louisiana, and was on its way to killing 10 people across a swath of destruction nearly a mile wide and 200 miles long. I’m glad I didn’t know it at the time. (You can see the path of the storm here:

After a few follow-up conversations with Mike, I made it home uneventfully. I heard about the killer tornado later, and felt a bit chastened about having scoffed at the maniacal Vivian, and, for that matter, for having set out on a road trip under those conditions.

My nerves were a bit frazzled, not only because of the drive but because before I departed Starkville Katie and I had seen our doppelgangers in the reflection of an elevator as the door opened – supposedly a bad omen – and, having perhaps been primed for it by so many image-rich poetry readings – I had noticed what seemed to be an inordinate number of buzzards roosting along the stormy highway. I had also passed a hearse, and meanwhile, what seemed to be the same, lone black man driving in different cars.

It was eery, freighted, and menacing. So it was that the day should end on an equally weird and disturbing note, when my friend John and I, while sitting at a bar in Jackson, saw a woman at the next table sink from her chair onto the floor, having passed out from what her friends, both of whom were texting obliviously as she sank to the floor, said was “four or five drinks, plus she used to be in the Air Force, and she takes medication for migraines, and she had amnesia.”

As John and I and the guys from the surrounding tables hoisted the unconscious woman into a chair and someone called an ambulance, one guy who turned out to be a dentist monitored her pulse. We never heard what happened to her after the ambulance took her away.

I had nightmares that night, reminiscent of a David Lynch movie, in which I was aware that I was dreaming, and performed magical dream stunts for my dream characters, including folding my knees against my chest and flying, high into the air, into the clouds.

The next day I read on the Weather Channel that Saturday's tornado had carried debris, including pieces of tin, houses, trees and who knows what else, 8,000 feet into the air.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


After 173 years, the Rocky Springs Methodist Church held its final homecoming on Sunday, as the few remaining congregants prepare to close and, for the first time, lock the doors. On June 30 the venerable brick church, the last building in the extinct town of Rocky Springs, will be shuttered, literally. Its motto, “Our doors are always open”, will no longer apply.

The closure is immeasurably sad for Jesse and Jane Regan, heirs to the church that Jesse’s ancestors helped found, and likewise for former members and families who attended the homecoming, including a group of my friends in Bolton who helped restore the church more than a decade ago. I rode down with Lee and Dick Harding in their T-Model Ford, which seemed an appropriate vehicle for the historic occasion.

As a standing-room-only crowd sang “Amazing Grace,” accompanied by Mrs. Regan on the piano, the view through the wavy-glass panes of the tall windows included the storied cemetery out back, which, as if to add insult to injury, had recently been vandalized. To my mind, cemetery vandals fall into the same category as child molesters, which is to say there should be a special spot for them in hell, and I have no desire to understand what drives them to attack those who are utterly defenseless. My friend Dick, who led the late nineties restoration, had enlisted his son’s Boy Scout troop to renovate and repair the cemetery following a previous vandalization, but its fate, like that of the historic church, is now unknown.

“It’s ironic, isn’t it? The church looks so great, and it’s closing,” observed Libby Hartfield, part of the Bolton contingent at Sunday’s service, which included music by a Vicksburg bluegrass band and a final dinner-on-the-grounds -- an epic southern repast laid out on antique wooden tables beneath the church’s old, moss-draped cedar trees.

It is tempting to blame the Methodist church organization for withdrawing its last itinerate minister, who travels to Rocky Springs once a month, but as Paul Hartfield, who also worked on the restoration, pointed out, “There’s a difference between ministering to a small congregation and providing what amounts to private lessons.” In recent years the congregation has dwindled to the point that on many Sundays the Regans are the only ones there. That said, the April 18 program offered a quiet rebuttal to the idea, quoting a passage from a past sermon that read, in part, “The church is not of spires or fancy choirs in tune; the church is built by Christ where two or three commune.”

The Rocky Springs church stands atop a knoll adjacent to an eponymous park on the Natchez Trace Parkway. The surrounding countryside is lush and sparsely populated, and has a particularly rich, conflicted history. Author Eudora Welty coined the phrase “sense of place” -- which unfortunately has been worked to death by southern writers -- to describe the abiding allure of the area in her essay “Some Notes on River Country”.

“Perhaps it is the sense of place that gives us the belief that passionate things, in some essence, endure,” Welty wrote. “Whatever is significant and whatever is tragic in its story live as long as the place does, though they are unseen, and the new life will be built upon these things – regardless of commerce and the way of rivers and roads, and other vagrancies.”

Welty penned her piece in 1944; since then the river country has continued its inexorable economic and population decline to the point that even its sense of place is now easily overlooked. Entire communities have vanished, marked only by planted flowers that bloom, untended, each spring, and many others that survive are clearly on life support.

Rocky Springs had a comparatively brief heyday between the 1820s and the Civil War, when settlers flooded into the region from Europe and the Eastern Seaboard to build lavish plantation homes. At its height there were just under 5,000 people living in the town, almost half of whom were enslaved. After the Civil War Rocky Springs suffered a succession of misfortunes -- economic collapse, soil erosion, yellow fever epidemics and finally, the devastation wrought by the cotton boll weevil. The last store in closed in the 1930s, and eventually the springs that had brought the town into being ran dry. Aside from the church, all that’s left are two rusty bank safes resting in a vine-choked ravine, their doors long ago torn off, and a scattering of brick cisterns.

A few representative examples of the region’s historic architecture survive, mostly in towns such as Vicksburg, Port Gibson and Natchez, but the majority of the rural landmarks are going or already gone. By some estimates there are more than 250 abandoned cemeteries in Claiborne and Jefferson counties alone; the Regans’ family home, Vernalia Plantation, one of the last historic houses in the Rocky Springs area, burned in the nineties.

Churches are usually the last to go, and the Rocky Springs church managed to survive the long decline, with few alterations. The building went up in 1837 as a permanent home for a congregation that had previously been served by an itinerant Methodist minister, as its final congregation will be until June 30. Jane Regan said the congregation hopes to find someone to take over the church and cemetery, either for a church or for special events such as weddings, but so far no one has stepped up to the plate.

This is what I heard from the minister, Elizabeth Piazza, who drove down from Clinton, (heard, at least, before I gave up my seat in the back to late arrivals, then quietly backed out through the double paneled doors, across the deeply worn threshold, into the April sunshine to wander the graveyard, where I found, among others, the couple who had a little girl who lived a year before she died, presumably of yellow fever, but who had another child a month before the first died -- so there was that -- except that the second child lived only a year before dying, presumably, of yellow fever): That the Lord will provide; that a use for the building will be found.

This is what the children ate before scampering off to play among the toppled obelisks and crypts of the graveyard, to fashion Spanish moss into wigs and chase each other around, squealing; to climb into the two T-models and manically pretend they were driving; and to repeatedly climb the steep hillside between the men playing the banjo, fiddle, guitar and upright bass, singing, and the gullies of the abandoned town site, where they pulled themselves up by clinging to exposed tree roots: Butterbeans cooked in a crockpot, with bacon; crowder peas cooked in a crockpot, with bacon; homegrown snap beans; roasted potatoes; about 12 different kinds of pasta; multiple hams; pot roast with potatoes and carrots; sausage; corn casserole; fried chicken; glazed chicken; baked chicken; Mexican cornbread (three kinds); various other cornbreads; various casseroles; assorted “health food,” presumably for “heart patients” and possibly suburban visitors; other items that I forget or never saw because my plate was full and I didn’t even get to every table; plus coconut cake; lemon meringue pie; bread pudding; chess pie; pecan pie; chocolate pie; mousse; cheesecake; brownies (several varieties, large and small); puddings; cakes too numerous to mention; and I don’t know what all else for the reasons stated previously; with sweet tea. There were beautiful old folding wooden chairs, along with the usual kinds.

This is what the adults talked about, after they sang about Jesus and heard the preacher say something good will come of the collective loss, and listened to the band play “Salty Dog” (!): People they knew or had once known, whether dead or alive.

Then, without further ado, the tables were struck, the children begged to be allowed to play a little longer, and were disappointed, and the cars slowly started backing away, with little wisps of Spanish moss dangling from their antennas and other appurtenances. The word on everyone’s mind was: “Amen.”

Friday, April 16, 2010

Civil War Roundtable talk

When I heard the first question of the trivia contest at the monthly meeting of the Jackson Civil War Roundtable, I thought: Uh-oh.

I’d been aware, when I agreed to speak to the Roundtable about my book Sultana, that they might be a comparatively challenging audience. I’d be decrying the sufferings of Union soldiers, after all, to a group of obsessively knowledgeable Confederate sympathizers.

But I hadn’t anticipated that they’d cut to the chase so quickly, starting with trivia, which I’m terrible at. I’ve never been good at remembering dates or names, and here I was, the featured speaker at an event that was opening with a glaringly public test of everyone else’s numeric and nomenclature memory.

The first question was, “What was the name of the horse Gen. Longstreet rode during the Battle of Fredericksburg?” (The answer, in case you ever face interrogation by Rebel soldiers who suspect you of being a spy, is “Hero.”) Seriously, someone knew this, and when the audience heard the answer everyone nodded knowingly, as if to say, “Of course, I knew that.”

The second question concerned someone’s boot size. The answer was “Size 9.” Someone actually knew that, too.

This set the tone for what I knew would be a rather pointed Q&A at the conclusion of my talk. The truth is, I don’t remember half of what’s in my book. For me writing a book is like building a house. I pick out a site, research possible plans, consult extensively with experts, develop a blueprint, acquire the necessary materials, assemble them, make allowances for unexpected developments, then put a roof on it, paint it inside and out, get the power turned on and open the doors. Afterward there is a reception; actually there is a series of them. Then I move on.

The house is my creation, of course, and it has my name on it, but I don’t live there. After it’s finished I start another one. Which is to say that a year later I don’t necessarily remember the cornice mold in the guestroom, even if I spent hours selecting just the right one. Then I find myself speaking at a convention of probing, strangely sensitive cornice mold salesmen, and I am forced to admit that the guestroom trim was more or less a one-night stand. I don’t even remember its name.

Does it damage the credibility of the house? I don’t think so. But it does make me look like maybe I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

Considering the dynamics, it naturally followed, I suppose, that I would be unable to summon the name of the Sultana’s captain when asked by one of the Roundtable members. This was not, let’s face it, a trivial question. It’s something anyone familiar with the story should know, and particularly someone who had WRITTEN A BOOK about the disaster which said captain oversaw aboard his fated boat.

“I’ll think of it in a minute,” I sheepishly told the guy who asked. It seemed my brain had basically quit the field in the face of a superior opposing force. The group itself did not oppose me, of course, but we did start out with a test, and as part of my introduction Ron Stowers, the supremely likable guy who invited me to speak, had indicated, good-naturedly, that one of the source books I cited, a copy of which he held aloft before the crowd, was “full of lies.” Which was true. I said that in my book. But, still.

When I got up to speak, I prefaced my remarks by saying that I am not a historian. In fact, in the case of Sultana I wasn’t even the equivalent of an embedded journalist. I was more or less a time traveler who took copious notes. I researched the Sultana saga, evaluated my findings and recounted it in my book, which concerns the monumental sufferings and ultimate triumph of a small group of Union soldiers, and in which the Confederate army, it must be said, plays the role of “the enemy.”

“I grew up in Jackson,” I added. “When I was a boy I loathed the Yankees and wished the South had won the war, but then…” I could not bring myself to say, “I outgrew it,” though in fact I did. I came to see that the cause of the Confederacy was fatally flawed, and that there were good guys and bad guys on both sides, each with their own story to tell. In my book I set out to tell an epic story that had, for all practical purposes, not been heard. The dates and the names of the generals and the battles represented supporting information that I had located and included, and then, in some cases, had promptly forgotten. All of which drew blank stares. “Size 9!” I wanted to blurt out.

I enjoy interacting with audiences whose perspectives are different, in subtle or profound ways, than my own. It opens up the terrain. And it’s not as if these guys were speaking an alien language; I did grow up wishing the Confederacy had won. For white southerners they were our ultimate football team; we had ancestors who played for them. And there’s no doubt that the Rebels are far more romantic than the Yankees, many of whom were pressed into service and did not care a thing about freeing the slaves. All of which means there was common ground in the back room of the Picadilly Cafeteria, where the Roundtable meets, even if some of it was destined to be contested.

With the possible exception of one man in the back who asked a series of pointedly technical questions, everyone seemed to accept the fact that I was not there to compete with them in the realm of Civil War knowledge. I was there to talk about a story. Once the dynamic was clear, I was freed to tell that story, and they asked many thoughtful questions, most of which I was able to answer.

After my talk, as Stowers went over Roundtable business, I sat obsessively probing the moldering files of the Civil War sector of my brain and finally came upon the captain’s name: Cass Mason! I was so excited I blurted it out, which caused Stowers to stop talking and turn to me. Everyone else looked, too. “That’s his name!” I said. “Cass Mason.”

Then Stowers presented me with two books, one a defense of the notorious Confederate prison, Andersonville, by none other than Jefferson Davis, the other a defense of Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz, the only Confederate tried (and hanged) for war crimes. Again, I’m always interested in different perspectives, and I appreciated the gifts.

The implications, of course, were that this was largely an unreconstructed crowd, yet overall it was a very genial gathering. I respect reverence for the past, particularly because the current historical paradigm trends otherwise. We revere the early American settlers, after all, despite their systematic genocide of Native Americans. Secession and civil war were radical acts, and seem particularly disturbing in the context of the vitriolic and potentially violent political atmosphere of America today. But from this distance, in the back room of the Picadilly, it felt more like nostalgia, even faithfulness, to care so much about the details.

Before my talk, as I sat with two Roundtable members, we discussed how their group had sought to preserve a National Landmark house on the Champion Hill battlefield, not far from my Mississippi home, and their maintenance of the historic Greenwood Cemetery in one of Jackson’s blighted neighborhoods. And during Stowers’ remarks he noted that the Roundtable was raising money to replace markers at the Vicksburg National Military Park that had been melted down for the war effort during World War II. All of which represented important, valuable undertakings. It was about preserving memory, about storing, retaining and recalling history’s most telling information. On that front we could all agree, even if my own working memory sometimes fails me.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ladies Night at the Old Court House

My father’s father, who’s been dead since 1967, made a surprise appearance at my Sultana talk on Saturday night, having found me through two young women, also deceased, whose elderly niece came to hear.

Also present was the late Blanche Terry, who was far and away my best source when I was a newspaper reporter in Vicksburg in the early eighties, and who is commemorated in a plaque near the stair of the Old Court House Museum, where I gave my talk, and where she worked for 30 years.

Mrs. Terry knew everything about the ins and outs of life in Vicksburg, her working knowledge encompassing both contemporary and historical life, which in these parts tend to be inseparable. She knew the story of the Sultana as well as who, at that moment, was having an affair with whom. Which is to say that if I was covering a murder trial she could predict the day’s courtroom action before it happened, down to the most minute details, along with the final outcome. She knew all the characters and had discerned the patterns.

On the surface, Mrs. Terry looked like a stereotypical blue-haired lady, with her prim dress and perfectly molded hair, and might easily have been mistaken for the kind of southerner who walked out of “Gone With the Wind” the first time Gen. Sherman’s name was uttered on the screen. She was, however, a maverick among southern belles. She once told me that when she worked at a plant south of town in the sixties she got crossways with the KKK for sitting at a table in the cafeteria with a black woman who had recently been hired. The woman, the first black employee of the plant, had been universally ostracized, except by Mrs. Terry. The result was that one day when Mrs. Terry and a friend who also worked in the plant, who drove a convertible Barracuda, were headed back into town after work, a group of redneck women ran them off the road.

I had hoped that Mrs. Terry would be there for my talk, and didn’t realize she had died until I came upon her plaque at the top of the stair. My first thought was that I wished she had taken the time to write a book of her own. Trust me, you would want to read it.

By way of a disclaimer, I will point out that on the drive over to Vicksburg I had stopped by my friend Chad’s place, and he had asked what I planned to talk about. The obvious answer was my book about the Sultana, I said, though I wasn’t otherwise sure what the focus would be, beyond the role Vicksburg played in the saga. Chad allowed as how I sometimes wander pretty far afield during my Sultana talks, which is true. I’ve grown tired of telling the story straight through, after a year of doing so over and over again, and would rather gage the audience’s interest and pursue that, wherever it may lead. Likewise this note concerns my Sultana talk during the Vicksburg Pilgrimage, but what it’s really about is ladies night at the Old Court House Museum, and along the way, my grandfather, one of the primary subjects of my first book, Ten Point, which was set in the bayous of the low-lying Delta about 30 miles north of town.

I had some Sultana-centric observations to make, naturally, and I looked forward to speaking at the Old Court House, which in addition to being historic is an architecturally perfect building commanding a rise in the center of town, overlooking the old channel of the Mississippi River. The museum itself is a refreshing departure from the modern paradigm of carefully lit and curated artifacts; it’s basically just packed with stuff, a lot of which you can touch even though you probably shouldn’t. The Old Court House is very much old-school as museums go, and mixes adoration for Confederate President Jefferson Davis with occasional fondness for noteworthy African American culture. It offers a decidedly local take on history, pure and simple, and it made sense that Mrs. Terry had worked there, and it made sense that an elderly woman, whom I had previously not met, would arrive there with a tantalizing tidbit about my grandfather from her personal archive. It’s that kind of portal.

A sign in the courtroom noted that Davis had spoken there during a post-war lawsuit in which he sought to regain his nearby Brierfield Plantation, which had been seized by the federal government for use by the Freedman’s Bureau (“Take that, former leader of the failed rebellion.”). Anecdotes about Davis are the “Washington Slept Here” of Vicksburg. Pilgrimages, in the South, are essentially a way to draw tourists to towns where the trappings of antebellum life still resonate, for better or worse, and so it was that there was a lady in a pale blue hoopskirt in the audience on this particular night, though there were also numerous Yankee tourists who smiled and nodded as I related the travails of the Union soldiers who boarded the Sultana.

As readers of the book are aware, Vicksburg was the point of departure for the Sultana disaster. At the city’s old waterfront docks the doomed boat was overloaded with an estimated 2,400 recently freed prisoners of war, and it was there that greed and corruption on the part of U.S. military officials and private contractors conspired to doom 1,700 people to horrible deaths. One of the villains of the story, Capt. Frederick Speed, returned to Vicksburg after the war and became a prominent judge. Speed Street is named for him. Mrs. Terry told me that.

The freed prisoners were held for about a month in a camp east of town, and finally, in late April 1865, had made their way down the bluff to the waterfront, where the Sultana was moored. For most of them, it was to be the last leg of a journey that led to their doom. In my talk I noted that most of the landmarks of their world had disappeared, with the most prominent exception being the building we were in. I also took the opportunity to point out that one surviving landmark, Ceres Plantation, is scheduled to be razed by the county because the supervisors didn’t want to maintain the house, which was built in 1830 and fully restored in the late seventies. How a community that supposedly reveres history could deign to demolish a house that’s under consideration as a Mississippi Landmark is beyond me, but suffice it to say that Vicksburg is an intriguing, historic place, and overall, a mess.

When I lived in Vicksburg I found that owing primarily to its river-town ethnic diversity there was no real consensus, which was both fascinating and part of the city’s central problem. In addition to the familiar black-white conflicts, there were competing cliques: The Lebanese, the Italians, the Irish, the Chinese, the Jews. (Mrs. Terry was Irish.) No one could agree on anything. A lot of beautiful buildings were torn down as a result, and a great many others burned while I was there.

Only one person in the audience seemed concerned about the fate of Ceres, which most communities would see as a potential tourist goldmine. That person was an attractive older lady seated near the front, who shook her head and said, “Well, it’s my understanding that it’s not a fait accompli, just yet.” Such old ladies were once a formidable force in the South, particularly when it came to historic preservation, but that force has diminished considerably in the last few decades, owing to attrition, and their numbers are not being replaced. I was glad that this particular woman, whose name I later learned is Martha Leese, was still at work. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Leese is in the Daughters of the American Revolution. Though no one said so, I imagine she is also a Daughter of the Confederacy.

After the part of my talk about the Sultana someone asked about Mississippi in Africa, my second book, and the dialogue shifted to nearby Jefferson County, Miss., where part of the story took place. At this point Mrs. Leese again spoke up. Mrs. Leese, who is originally from Jefferson County, is a very beautiful, very poised woman, and her first question, as is usually the case down South, was, “Where are you from?” When I told her I was born in Jackson she asked, “Do you have family in Jefferson County?”

At this point I assumed we were simply having a little exchange. I wasn’t aware that she was going somewhere very specific with this. I said no, but that I had a friend whose family was from there, that I had moved a house from there, which was how I came to hear of the story of Mississippi in Africa, etc.

She looked somehow expectant, or was it knowing? I had the feeling she knew something. Then she said, “Are you related to a Paul Huffman?” I said my grandfather was named Paul Huffman. She then pulled a small photograph out of her purse and handed it to me (she was seated near the front).

I looked at it. There, alongside someone I didn’t recognize, stood my grandfather as a young man, younger than I’d ever seen him. A handsome guy, around 21, judging from the date of the photo, which was taken at the now-vanished train depot in Lorman, Miss., in Jefferson County.

“That’s him,” I said.

She asked if I was aware that he had lived in Jefferson County (I wasn’t). I knew he was from Memphis and lived in the Delta, but nothing about Jefferson County. Yet there he was, at the depot, smiling and holding a valise. At this point it became apparent that Mrs. Leese had essentially commandeered the courtroom, and we had more to discuss than would be of interest to the general audience, even by my liberal standards of digression, so we agreed to continue later in private, and returned to the audience Q&A.

After the talk ended Mrs. Leese took me by the arm and we slowly descended the stairs. She began explaining how her two aunts had met my grandfather, which piqued my curiosity. Unfortunately she was interrupted by someone who wanted me to sign his book. Mrs. Leese smiled and let go of my arm. “We’ll talk after,” she said.

“After” turned out to be a long time coming. I suppose I ask for it, by digressing so much myself, but I’ve observed that at my talks there’s always someone who wants to talk about their family’s genealogy, and it’s invariably a long spiel, during which I dare not offer any comment for fear of extending it. I simply nod, and as soon as there’s a break, say, “Shall I inscribe or just sign the book?” So the book signing at the Old Court House went long.

Among those who bought books were the lady in the hoopskirt and her husband, who was dressed in tails and a derby, who also lingered for a chat. As I signed their book it occurred to me that hoopskirts, which once seemed archaic throwbacks, were starting to look pretty radical. A hoopskirt would be a real attention-getter on the streets of New York, now that purple hair and nose rings are passé.

At one point I managed to sign two books for Mrs. Leese, but when the event finally ended she was nowhere to be found. I went outside, saw the amber evening sun lighting the vista of the Mississippi River and the Louisiana swamps, but no sign of her. I supposed she had given up and gone home, so I left my card with the museum director and asked him to give her my number. I’m curious about the two young ladies who knew my grandfather during a period of his life neither I nor anyone I’ve ever known had heard about. Plus, I wanted to know more about Mrs. Leese herself.

Afterward I had dinner at an antebellum house known as Anchuca (“Jefferson Davis Spoke Here”) with Sue and Bill Seratt, the latter of whom had facilitated my pilgrimage talk. Sue is in the DAR with Mrs. Leese, she said, and the conversation eventually wended its way to hoopskirts, at which point she informed me that it is possible to buy one on eBay for next-to-nothing. Apparently, after all these years, it’s a buyer’s market. Not that I’m interested in buying a hoopskirt, but Sue is, and I was curious to know about the surviving supply line. You can get one for as cheap as $17 plus shipping, Sue said. She thinks they’re made in Tennessee. Also there’s an Asian woman in California who will make them to order.

At this point, Sue dispelled another stereotype of southern femininity for me. The prevailing image of the hoopskirt is that it is all about propriety and, you know, putting women on a pedestal, but Sue said the real point was to dress large without the added encumbrance – and heat – of multiple petticoats. “It would have been too hot with all those layers,” she said.

So… it was possible that…

“…you could wear nothing under them at all,” Sue said.

At that point, the careworn imagery of the old South looked a little different. Which is, I guess, one of the joys of talking with people who know about things you’re unfamiliar with, something Blanche Terry, for one, totally understood. That, in fact, is one of the real rewards of talking publicly about the Sultana. Everyone has their own perspective, and everyone carries their own tidbits of knowledge, and it’s nice to have a big, old topic to roam around together.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A hop, skip and a jump

Sometimes life stars you. Your film wins at Sundance. Your book becomes a bestseller. You win the Nobel Prize. You jump a mud puddle in a way that is absolutely exhilarating, that for just one moment is a symphony of perfectly choreographed synapses, and a stranger is there to see it and grins with approval. Look at dude! Look at upright human jump and run!

The point being, you take stardom when and where you find it.

One of the sheer, unadulterated joys of my life is trail running, usually on the mountain bike trails at Butts Park, on the Clinton-Jackson border, where I go nearly every day when I’m in Mississippi. I’ve been running for 40 years, but am relatively new to trail running, having been introduced to it by my buddy Les about three years ago.

I’ve never been all that competitive, but since I was a kid I’ve always loved running full out, synching my breathing with the rhythm of my stride, feeling my feet slam the ground and take off again, heart pounding. I dream of running, in strides 10 feet long. There was a time when I was a pretty fast sprinter (“I was once a great beauty!” the hideous old woman tells Woody Allen in “Annie Hall”), but my speed has declined with age. When I was young I could never throw or catch very well, and was no good at regular football, but I was invincible at roughhouse because no one could knock me down. I was sure-footed, which is probably why I took to trail running right away.

For years I ran on the levee in Jackson, a flat, open route that induces a sort of detached Zen state during a long run. While traveling I’d run in places like New York’s Central Park, or find local routes on the website Now, wherever I travel, I search runtheplanet for trails. There is nothing like the constant stimulus of running on a primitive woodland trail. Complications can really foul up a day, but not on the trail. There, the challenges are their own reward, and it keeps you on your toes in more than the obvious ways. I’ve run up on snakes; I’ve burst into the midst of a herd of deer, so close that if I were a caveman I could have killed one with a club; I’ve run through a swarm of bees. I’ve run upon lovers in a remote, ferny glen.

One of the downsides to aging, aside from the fact that your muscles don’t snap as fast as they used to, and that you’re LURCHING TOWARD CERTAIN DEATH, is that you don’t do a lot of the things you did as a kid that are pure fun, and might actually help you when you really are old. Things like jumping and doing somersaults. You just quit doing these things. There are some behaviors you have to give up over time, but not nearly as many as most people seem to think.

Back when I climbed recreationally with my friend John – on a wall, that is, there not being any cliffs in Mississippi, I found that the beauty of the sport lay in its concert of mental planning (of your next move), manual dexterity (obviously), balance, physical strength and willingness, daringness, to fail. That was what I really learned from climbing: You will never get better if you’re afraid to fail. Because when you’re hanging by a thread, legs spread so that each foot is pegged to a different point on the wall, and one hand is crinched around a hold, and the next hold above you is too far considering what you’ve got to kick from, you have to just do it, as they say. You fail 20 times and then suddenly you make it, and you’re ready for the next level. It’s good for you physically and mentally, and it makes you see failure in a different light.

Trail running incorporates all those things, but on the fly. You’re moving very fast. You have to anticipate where your foot will land, and where that will put you in terms of where your next footfall will be, for 30 minutes, an hour, whatever. You learn to throw your weight around by jumping logs, threading your way through exposed tree roots, leaping over creeks and mud puddles, through twists and turns, up and down hills.

To rediscover this kind of thrill after many decades is a kind of gift. Like I said, running has always been my thing -- I can be depressed or anxious and all I have to do is go out and run and the bad vibes evaporate. So dependent am I on running that in the days immediately after I was diagnosed with melanoma I threw myself into running with a kind of mania. Before my surgery, as all manner of terrible thoughts were going through my head, I came up with a novel escape strategy. The melanoma was on my thigh, and it meant removing a big chunk of tissue and muscle, and the doctors wouldn’t know how bad it was until after the surgery. My immediate fear was not dying but losing my leg, because it would mean I couldn’t run the way I always had. I guess I could have run with a prosthesis, but at this point I was panicked. I wanted my leg.

Part of the terror of such a diagnosis, aside from the realization that your own skin is trying to kill you, is that you lose the illusion of control over your life, so I guess it really does go back to the fear of death, whether you acknowledge it or not. My idea was that if they told me I was going to lose my leg, I simply wasn’t going to do it. Instead, I would go out to Butts Park and run myself to death. I was convinced I could do it. It sounds pathological, I know, no pun intended, but the idea enabled me to at least feel that I had regained control of the situation, which was beneficial in a totally adverse way. People look at me strangely when I tell them about it, but it was liberating at the time. As it turned out, the melanoma was small and contained. There’s been no recurrence, and over the course of a year the gap in my quad has pretty much filled back in. It hasn’t affected my running at all.

Obviously, running has a psychiatric, curative effect, but it also taps into the brain’s most receptive pleasure zones. Over the course of my running life I’ve had a few moments of perfectly endorphic running, where it felt effortless, which I guess is the famed runner’s high. The first time I was about 15 and I just felt like I could run forever. I started running at around 4 pm on a track, and kept running and running and running until 10 pm. I never really got tired. Apparently I was cashing out on something, because the next day I woke up with the flu.

More recently, I was running along the promenade of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches in Rio, and owing to the breathtaking scenery and unsurpassed people-watching, I ran for 12 miles without even thinking about it. That won’t mean much to serious marathon runners, but it was a particularly satisfying episode for me. Running that 12 miles was as easy as taking a stroll.

The trails at Butts Park are used mostly by mountain bikers, so there are lots of challenging twists and turns and short, steep ascents and descents that, when I first started running there, caused my hands to touch the ground a few times. I only see a few runners out there, always alone, always young. We nod in passing. It’s a strange, marginal place, not particularly pretty; it was farmed to death at one time and has had many uses, including as a German POW camp during World War II. Today the network of trails branches out in every direction through mostly low, eroded, wooded hills abutting soccer fields and the Mississippi College cross-country training area known as Choctaw Trails. You pass along the edge of it on I-20 and would never guess there’s anything interesting there. Young pine trees, mostly. Though it’s not as beautiful as the trails I’ve run on with Les on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, where he now lives, right now it’s greening up and the fields and forests are blanketed with sweet-smelling white flowers. Also, because it’s spring, it’s muddy in places, which makes it more fun. There’s more leaping about.

My favorite parts of the trails are the natural obstacle courses where trees have fallen across the route and there are lots of exposed roots and mud holes. Because I run there so often I can run through a ridiculously complicated gauntlet surprisingly fast, and it feels really good.

There’s one section that’s particularly technical, where you have to make a long leap across a mud hole, and when your first foot lands, spring off of it immediately to leap onto (and off of) a fallen log that’s a couple of feet high, then leap over another wide mud hole in a curve of the trail, changing direction slightly in mid-air to bounce off some gnarly tree roots and keep going. I can run through this section perfectly, and I say that knowing that pride goeth before a fall.

A couple of days ago, as I came to this section, I saw another lone runner approaching from the other direction. I knew I had time to make it through the chicanery before we met, so I ran without thinking, really, and after I did my little high-speed hop, skip and a jump I saw the guy break out into this huge grin. I don't know if he was thinking: Look at old dude! or just: Look at dude! but it occurred to me that there was something extraordinary about something I had taken for granted. I glanced back and saw him slow down to carefully pick his way through the obstacle course.

The momentary euphoria I felt wasn’t about showing off – I thought nothing of it until the guy grinned. It was about the pleasure of knowing that sometimes your mind and body work seamlessly together. It was a very small thing, far smaller than the infernal spot that used to be on my thigh. But in the course of a lifetime, it was the kind of thing that matters.