Monday, April 6, 2015

Easter Sunday in Alabama

Rather than hunting eggs, my Easter was devoted to finding a grave.  I was assisting the esteemed Don Jaime, my long-time friend and occasional touring companion (when he can get away from his bed and breakfast in Ecuador), track down the burial plot of his mother in Sylacauga, Alabama.  He had been there when she was laid to rest twenty years ago in June of 1995 at the age of 82, but had forgotten the exact location of her grave or even which of the four cemeteries in Sylacauga she had been buried in.  A search four years ago had been unsuccessful.  He had since learned from a relative which cemetery she was buried in narrowing it down a bit, but didn't have a precise location.

We had nearly made an attempt on the cemetery last November, when I biked to Fort Benning on the Georgia/Alabama border for the annual protest of the School of the Americas.  When The Don, also known as Jim, learned I was not more than a hundred miles from his mother's grave he tried to meet up with me for a bike ride over to Sylacauga, but couldn't get away from his B & B.  It has been nagging at him since, and me too.  When he needed an escape from the demands of his business a couple of weeks ago, he asked if I'd be interested in trying again, meeting up in Atlanta, and I gladly agreed, even though I happened to be in Pennsylvania with Janina on her Spring Break from Columbia on a driving trip with our bikes to attend a friend's wedding.  

It turned into a fabulous road trip, as we happened upon one seminal site after another, some planned and others not--Fallingwater (Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece south of Pittsburgh), the Johnstown Flood Museum in a former Carnegie Library, the Flight 93 National Monument, Gettysburgh, a few miles of the Appalachia Trail at its mid-point, the Carlisle Indian School where Jim Thorpe's athletic career was launched and a sampling of Carnegies in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana.  

We were only able to camp once, ending up in a sleazy hotel one night on the outskirts of Canton whose only TV station played porn, much to the horror of Janina.  And we only got in one significant bike ride, but it was a doozy, circumnavigating nearly the entire route of the Gettysburg battle fields.  We were continually thanking my equally esteemed Telluride Film Festival friend Funky, famed for riding his unicycle around the South Pole,

for drawing us to Pennsylvania for his nuptials.  It was a fine occasion held in a small Mennonite church in the town of Lititz, where the Hershey kiss was invented.

I barely had time to catch my breath or suffer trip-withdrawal when we returned to Chicago before resubmerging myself into the never boring world of travel.  My portal this time was Amtrak, accompanied as always with my bike. It might have been preferable to choose Greyhound, as there is no direct train to Atlanta from Chicago, and, as all too often, Amtrak couldn't keep to schedule.  I had to go via Washington, D. C., making it a thirty-six hour trip including a three hour lay-over in D. C.  It should have been five hours, but the train was two hours late, partially to arrest someone caught smoking on the train after being given a warning. My second train was also late, but only by an hour, pulling into Atlanta at nine a.m.  I did manage to sleep the two nights of my travel by claiming space on the floor behind the seats.  The late arrival didn't delay Jim and I, as he had only flown in shortly before my train and had to go to a bike shop and buy a bike and have a rack and bar ends installed.

We were both drained from our travel, so agreed to bike for just an hour or so before finding a place to catch up on our sleep--Jim a hotel, as he hadn't brought along a tent or sleeping bag, and me a place to camp.  Not too far off our route out of town to the bike trail we intended to follow stood the lone Carnegie Library still standing in Atlanta of the four built in the early 1900s. It was on the fringe of Georgia Tech University, just off North Avenue, the same street in Chicago near where I live and where Jim once lived.  We took that as an early omen that these travels were blessed.  It wasn't necessarily so, as we managed to get separated when I swung around a bus to make a left turn while Jim thought I was just passing it and spurted ahead of me and kept going without looking back to see if I was behind him.  When I checked to see if Jim was behind me he was long gone.  We were both totally mystified.  Jim didn't know where the Carnegie was and since it was no longer a library, he couldn't ask.  Neither of us had phones so we had to rely on email to communicate.  It wasn't pressing that we immediately meet up, as we knew the bike trail would be a rendezvous point, but it was still frustrating not to introduce Jim to another Carnegie, as he has fully appreciated every one we have come upon in our travels.

Like all of them, this one was immediately recognizable as a Carnegie and had a distinctive charm.  It was modest in size, but had had no additions.  It was the first I had encountered that had been turned into a bank.  It was built in 1909 and was known as the Anne Wallace Branch Carnegie, named for the woman instrumental in gaining its funding.  It ended its days as a library in 1964, when it became the Techwood Recreational Center.  In 2001 the Sun Trust Bank converted it into one of its branch.  A plaque inside the door states, "It remains today a testament to the progressive vision and tenacity of people like Anne Wallace and Andrew Carnegie to provide the opportunity for literacy."

I sat out front luxuriating in the seventy degree temperatures for half an hour eating the last of the hunk of cheese I'd brought from Chicago between slices of bread hoping Jim might find his way there.  I tried not to worry.  This was the first time in our several trips we had managed to get separated. 

It wasn't until later that evening after I had found a place to camp in a pine forest along the bike trail and emailed Jim my location from a nearby McDonald's that we connected and arranged to meet the next morning.  Biking the trail was Jim's choice, as he reviles the automobile. He only learned about it shortly before he left Ecuador as he researched bike routes out of Atlanta.  He was thrilled to learn that it was named for the Silver Comet train that he had ridden as a youth, a train route from Birmingham to New York that was discontinued in 1969.  The conversion of the track line to a bike trail was begun in 1998 and completed in 2008.  It is 61.5 miles long in Georgia and connects with the Chief Ladiga Trail at the Alabama border for another 33 miles, making it the second longest paved bike trail in the US behind the Paul Bunyan Trail of a little over 100 miles in Minnesota.

It made for a fine ride through hilly and wooden terrain. Jim rode at a brisk pace on his new $400 Raleigh cross-bike, as if being drawn to his Alabama roots. For stretches the bed was an artificial high ridge with steep drops on both sides keeping the grade even.  It included a few bridges over roads.  We shared the trail with quite a few early morning joggers and walkers the first few miles from its starting point in Smyrna north of Atlanta, but as we escaped the urban sprawl we pretty much had the trail to ourselves. The lone cyclists we talked to shared their water with us as we were running low. We could ride side by side and catch up since we had last ridden in October when Jim was in Chicago for a family gathering in a house they had rented for a weekend in the Indiana Dunes across the street from the cottage where Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir had lived and written their best known books, "The Man With the Golden Arm," and "The Second Sex."  That trip also included a search with Jim into his past.  We biked around the University of Chicago, which had brought Jim to Chicago as an anthropology student.  We stopped by his very first apartment where he had been robbed in its lobby as he and his girl friend and now wife Marshia had been robbed as they were moving in.

It was wonderful to be off on another ride with Jim, entertained by his great wit and wisdom and stories of his international clientele.  We rode leisurely, making the trail to Anniston a two-day ride, stopping to chat with whomever we came upon.  We spent a couple of hours in the Piedmont, Alabama welcome center along the trail when we met a seventy-year old lifelong hobo by the name of Virginia Slim, who regaled us with tales of his travels.  Like Jim he was a poet and had quite a few committed to memory, some that he had written, including a history of the Mormons, and others that were hobo classics. It turned into an impromptu poetry slam, though no one was trying to upstage one another.  Virginia Slim was so impressed by Jim's poetry that he scraped together twelve dollars from his pocket and that of a friend to buy the spare copy of Jim's book that he was reading from, a collection of poems and travelogues, "One Way of Looking at the World," even though Jim offered it to him free.  It was still a discount from its normal $20 price. 

When Virginia Slim learned we were from Chicago, he asked if we had ever stayed at the Pacific Gardens shelter.  We knew of it but had never availed ourselves of its services.  Virginia Slim said he was collecting Social Security thanks to a wife who had been a school teacher even though he had only contributed $498 to the system for a job he had in his early days for a short stint working for the park service.  He said he only knew of one person who had contributed less, Seldom Seen Sam.  On and on he went rattling off stories and names of fellow hobos, but also expressing a genuine interest in our travels.  He justifiably called himself a folklorist and had even been hired from time to time to speak. Several other local old-timers were also hanging out, welcoming and providing local color.  They were much more informed than the bleary-eyed young woman at the welcome center on the trail in Cedartown, Georgia.  When we asked her a few questions, her response was, "I used to know, but I can't remember."

We learned this was Creek country, which gave Jim a jolt of pride, as he is part Creek.  But he wasn't happy with the assertion that they were the most ferocious of Indians and had run off the Cherokees and also resisted the whites with a vengeance.  In 1813 they killed some 400 whites amassed at nearby Fort Mims, remembered as the Fort Mims Massacre, the largest massacre of whites by Indians in US history.  The Indians were finally defeated and uprooted from the region in the 1830s, in violation of treaties they had signed, after gold was discovered in northern Georgia on Indian lands in 1829.  They were sent to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears, acknowledged by a museum in Cedartown.

We were glad to be in no hurry and could enjoy this southern ambiance.  We'd had a similar experience on the porch outside a packed black barber shop in Cedartown.  We had stopped to ask where we might find a grocery store, as the one along the trail across the street was closed down.  We plopped down on a couple of chairs and were joined by a couple of older guys.  They told us the store across the street had been closed down by the Feds for food stamp violations.  It was one of quite a few empty stores we saw that would be tempting to reopen as ice cream parlors for the cyclists.  Jim also envisioned many as potential brew pubs, another of his passions.  He's also known as "The Hoppy Wanderer."  He was thrilled to find a brew pub in Anniston where we overnighted before our final push to Sylacauga.  He availed himself of the pub's five beer sampler priced at a bargain $7.  The middle of the five was a sweet potato beer.  While Jim fulfilled his duties as the Hoppy Wanderer, I dined on catfish and sweet potato fries.

When Jim last visited Sylacauga, he took a forest trail the fifty miles from Anniston through the Tallageda Forest .  We would have done the same thing this year if there hadn't been a Carnegie Library in Talageda halfway between Anniston and Sylacauga.  The traffic was light on highway 21 on Easter Sunday.  Our efforts were rewarded with a typical majestic Carnegie outshining even the many surrounding antebellum mansions.

It was now a museum and art center but still had Public Library chiseled above its entry.

The only redeeming feature of the new, one-story, utterly bland library behind it were the names of the authors adorning its surrounding facade.  There was of course Faulkner, along with Hemingway, Steinbeck, Chaucer and many others.

From the library we began the final twenty mile stretch to the destination that had us on these travels.  We managed to slip through Talageda without a glimpse of its famed speedway, but we did have the sad experience of riding around its once grand town center with more than half its shops adorned with "For Rent" signs.  As we entered Sylacauga we passed the cemetery where Jim had tried to find his mother four years ago.  The actual cemetery was much older off on a side road.  A plaque in front of it said it contained nine Confederate soldiers and one from the Union side.  There were three directories beside the east and west entrances to its twelve acres, but none listed Hicks, the family name of Jim's mother.  There were several plots of Lees, the name of her second husband.  We went in search of them, but his mother wasn't among them.

Jim's memory was that her grave was near one of the lanes intersecting the cemetery, as he recalled it was just a short walk from their parked car to the grave.  We scanned all the plots near the roads and then biked around the perimeter of the cemetery without success.  After nearly an hour Jim said he was tired and hungry and wished to go for some food before resuming our search.  It was growing late and he thought it might be best to try again in the morning.  Rain was forecast for the next day, so I was all for finding it today and not in the rain.

We couldn't find an open restaurant, so had to settle for some snacks from the Dollar General.  While Jim ate I volunteered to return to the cemetery and begin a systematic search.  I have experience in such matters, having sought out the graves of Tour de France winners--Garin, Robic, Bobet, Anquetil, Fignon, Coppi, Pantani and other cycling luminaries including the founder of The Tour.  Its rarely easy, but always a thrill to find the grave.  Plus I needed some practice, as at the end of the month I would be looking for the grave of Octave Lapize, 1910 winner of The Tour, in a suburb south of Paris.

The cemetery was divided into four sections.  We knew that her tombstone was a simple stone flat on the ground, but that there might be a large Hicks tombstone nearby.  I had completed a couple of rows by the time Jim rejoined me.  It was half an hour later after I was half-way through the third section when my eyes lit upon Christine Hicks Lee.  It was my longest search ever and as satisfying a find as any.  Jim was several rows over.  He took a slow walk to join me and then knelt down to brush off the stone.

He silently communed for several minutes before opening his book of poetry to read the poem he had written about the burial ceremony. Although he had planned on this private reading, he was having second thoughts, concerned that the poem's frank edge, as with all of his writing, might not be entirely appropriate for the occasion.  But he had written it shortly after the burial to honor his mother, so went ahead with it (see below).  Jim felt like a bit of an outsider at the burial having left his southern roots decades before and not really knowing any of his mother's friends.  She had spent the last couple years of her life in Chicago under Jim's care, but the pastor administering the ceremony made no mention of Jim, his mother's only child.  

The poem was a moving and fitting memorial.  We lingered a while longer.  It was nearing dark.  Jim said he would like to return in the morning with some flowers.  He headed back into town to the hotel he had stayed at four years ago while I found a place to camp in the forest a couple miles down the road, allowing us to each end this most memorable Easter with the privacy of our own thoughts. We agreed to meet at the library in Childersburg, ten miles up the road on the way to Birmingham, where Jim would give me a tour of his old haunts.

The Burial
The tent's set up like a cemetery side show.
The hole's lined with astro-turf.
And I wonder where the dirt-pile is.
Relatives are arranged among the flowers
Like plastic hummingbirds.
The funeral director stands just outside,
Posted, southern sheriff style.
I'm unfamiliar with the protocol.
Should I shake hands all around?
Do I seem suitably aggrieved?
Should I sit with the others?
I look for a chair
But after 20 years away there's no room
For me among my southern blood-kin.
The ones who stayed behind,
Became preachers, or married one,
Lived in trailers in their mama's back yard
'Til zoned out by shopping malls.
The survivors.
Sisters suited up like upright replicas
Waiting their turn in the box
Beneath these very folding chairs
Where 80 years go their daddy Jesse
Laid out their plots like cots in a spare room,
Knowing they would all visit, sooner or later.
The preacher starts to pray her down.
Says she was a good employee,
Knew how to cook a fine breakfast,
Did her church time, too.
No words about motherhood,
Or me, her only begotten,
Standing there,
Surveying the bloodline,
Trying to cast it off.
But it's too late.
The creatures deserting her vessel
Have already started gnawing at mine.
The show's over.
The bereaved take leave before the mechanics begin.
The tent comes down. The turf comes up.
And the director admires the gravework
As he waves in a load of clay.
Alabama red.
That hole's well dug, he says. Sheared them roots clean off.
Gravity takes one last tug
And they clamp her down with a concrete lid.
Sylacauga, Alabama, 1996
[Note: this poem is about my mother’s burial. In the Spring of 2012, I took a bicycle trip from Anniston, Alabama to Sylacauga, where I intended to visit my mother’s grave. I thought I would remember where the cemetery was, but after 17 years, I could not find it. I went to the library for burial records. I visited all the cemeteries in and around Sylacauga, to no avail. I do not know where my mother is buried. This is inexcusable.]


Tim Furlong said...

Is that what friends are for?

RRT said...


Thanks for attending my nuptials.