Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Vigil Begins

Tim, Maria, Ruthie and I were on guard duty Friday night at the barricaded Stone Gate entrance to Fort Benning where the stage had been set up that afternoon for the weekend of activities remembering the six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter who had been murdered in El Salvador in 1989 by soldiers who had been trained at Fort Benning's School of the Americas.

Tim and Maria set up their tent on the stage, while I stuck to the grass under the giant flag at the Fort entrance.

While Vigil volunteers erected the stage, military personnel erected fencing topped with barbed wire across the entry to the Fort and fencing on both sides of the four-lane wide road leading to the Fort for several blocks from Victory Road.  They also greased the lower part of the flag pole to prevent anyone from climbing it.  And cameras had been mounted to monitor the Vigil, the largest annual anti-military gathering in the nation.

While we began the Vigil, workshops and a concert were being held at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center five miles away in the heart of the city.  I had stopped in that afternoon on my way out to the Fort south of the city.  Tables were being set up with literature by various groups mostly about injustices relating to Latin America.

Before this entrance into the Fort had been closed I biked on in to give it a look. I passed a vast parade grounds complete with tanks named for Senator Daniel Inouye.

Adjoining it was a memorial park with many monuments to soldiers who had distinguished themselves, including a Vietnam War vet who died in the World Trade Towers after rescuing a large number of people and going back to rescue more.

 When I reached the official check-point a mile further I was greeted by a soldier with the words, "Welcome Home," evidently assuming I was among the many thousands serving there.  ID was necessary to enter.  I gave him by driver's license.  He scanned the bar code on the back and gave me a sheet of paper that said, "No demonstrations, marches or organized political activities of any type will be permitted on Fort Benning."  It went on to warn that anyone violating this will be subject to fine and imprisonment.  Two of the women helping set up the stage could attest to that.  Ruthie had served six months in 1996 and Mary six months in 2001 for trespassing on to the Fort, fully knowing the consequences.

The soldier directed me to a bike path that wound through forested terrain to the heart of the Fort.  It ended up near an Infantry Chapel with services in English and Spanish and blocks and blocks of suburban-type homes and also a baseball stadium and track.  After half an hour of uninterrupted exploration I returned to the bike path and followed it for over ten miles out of the Fort back to Columbus, where the path is known as the RiverWalk.  There was no check-in point on the path.  It granted one free access.  It joined up with the Chattahoochee River, which forms the border with Alabama here.  Signs warned of "Alligator Habitat." 

Earlier in the day I crossed the Chattahoochee from Alabama just two blocks from where its Carnegie Library had stood overlooking the river.  It had been torn down more than fifty years ago. It had been such a significant building that its entry arch with Carnegie chiseled into it still stood.

Just behind it was the Mott House, an antebellum mansion that had recently suffered a fire and was barricaded.

It was of historical importance, as a Union general had appropriated it during the Civil War and used it to direct the final battle of the War on an Easter Sunday, not realizing the War had ended.  The young librarian who told me about it still took it personally, saying, "The Union came in and massacred us."  I felt as if I ought to apologize.

I had swung over to Alabama to visit a Carnegie at Auburn University, thirty miles to the west.  As I cycled down to Auburn after entering Alabama I finally felt as if I had reached the South passing one small rural Baptist church after another, each with a message board with a Biblical quotation or sermon title and witty homily--"Wrinkled with burdens?  Come to Jesus for a faith lift," "If your day is hemmed with prayer, it is less likely to unravel," "Be a blessing, not a turkey, this Thanksgiving." I also encountered the first cotton fields of the trip.  If it had been the day before when it was below freezing, I might have thought I was seeing snow.

As I meandered about Auburn's campus I swung by the football stadium on Heisman Road.  Three of its football players have won the most coveted award in collegiate sport--Pat Sullivan in 1971, Bo Jackson in 1985 and Cam Newton in 2010.  It had some significance to me, as I came to know Sullivan when he spent three weeks in Evanston with the College All-Stars preparing to play the Super Bowl Champions.  I served as a manager for the team and lived in the Orrington Hotel with them, shuttling them to their practice facilities at Northwestern and running around the field with them.  Sullivan was a genuine southern gentleman, one of the nicer guys I got to know during the four years of my College All-Star experience while I was at Northwestern. 

Auburn's Carnegie was now an administration building and had been renamed Mary Martin Hall, in honor of its librarian who served from 1912 to 1949.

The only indication on the outside of the building that it had been a library were the words "Letters, Art, Science."

At the entry though were two large framed photos from 1950 picturing the library as it had been.

There was also a most dignified portrait of Martin.  Many small-town librarians honor their long-time librarians with plaques or photos or paintings, but few rename their libraries in their honor.  But that is the way of the South.

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