It’s half way through my “planned” summer of discovery – Two months in and a week here in Columbus, Ohio to catch up including writing some scenes of the summer to share.
May 22 – July 24, 2019
3 am, State Park outside Salt Lake City…It’s my second night out after leaving Seattle. Steady rain. I love the sound of rain on the tent…..5 am – I roll over and see the lake formed at the side of my tent, and my phone floating. What most surprises me is how I respond. Not mad, not beating up on myself for not setting up the tent properly or wrapping my phone in a plastic bag or despairing but instead just curious – how do you find a phone store without a phone?
8 am, Trainer Hill, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York….The small group of us lined up on the grass half way up the ski hill for the Colgate Alumni 5k Fun Run. The Track and Field Director jokes that we could set our PR if we would like to. I think, why not? As we round the bend into the woods, I’m surprised that I’m in the lead when the white golf cart pulls out in front to guide our way through the cross country trails up and down the slope through the trees. So instead of slowing down half way through, I keep up, steadily following my own pace car up curving through the trails, rounding the bend into the open field, keeping going – I can’t believe I’m still in the lead – I could actually win this I think – and across the finish line. My first and only athletic achievement at the “jock school” I attended.
Mid-Afternoon, Somewhere along the Wisconsin River…. A hard few hours of paddling a relentless headwind, white capped waves. Finally, around the bend, at last a sandbar where we can camp tonight. The four of us sitting on sand in our camp chairs, a cold beer in hand, facing north, into the wind. Broken white turtle shells curled in the hot sand. Our tents lined in a row filled with air and tossing in the wind like great green and red balloons. There is nothing else to do, no where else to go, no better place to be.
Noon, Ithaca, New York, DeWitt Mall…..a small white table in the brick lined lower level of the former school, around the corner from the Moosewood Restaurant. We haven’t seen each other in thirty years. Before we leave, I tell him that there is one thing I wanted to ask about.
“I remember you saying….”
“Really? That doesn’t sound like anything I would ever say, does it? It does however sound like something you were thinking.”
I am reminded again that the memories I hold are all a good deal of fiction – a mixture of what “really” happened and what I have always believed did.
We both laugh.
Mid-afternoon, the Belgian Diner, on the way to Door County, Wisconsin….. At last a place to stop for a snack that’s not a fast food joint. We pull off the highway into the gravel parking lot. My sister Nancy and I are sitting at the lime green bar stools at the counter looking over the one page plastic sheet menu.
“What’s cheese curds?” I ask.
“You’ve never heard of cheese curds?” the waitress, a rising high school senior, replies. “You have to try them.”
“Do we want them with BBQ or Ranch Dipping sauce?” Nancy asks.
“If this is your first time, I’d start with plain.”
The waitress, her grandmother (the cook), her brother sitting beside us on a neighboring stool lean in to watch as we take our first bite of the hot crispy oh so delicious melt in your mouth Wisconsin cheese curds.
Late morning, the Exhibit Hall at the Milwaukee Conference Center, last morning of General Synod, the national United Church of Christ gathering….. I’m standing behind my little table wearing my Center for Wooden Boats ball cap, the table covered with paper sailboats holding my business cards, the last of my sailboat cookies my friend Sheila made. It’s been a fun and exhausting week – so many people I’ve talked to, connections I’ve made. A person who looks vaguely familiar comes by the table and I launch into my spiel about what “Navigating Through Change” is all about –
He interrupts me, “Peter, it’s John. I’ve already heard all this. We had dinner together a week and a half ago. I didn’t know how long to wait for you to go on before stopping to tell you!”
We both laugh!
Mid-morning, sitting at the outdoor little table at the coffee shop, Lawrence Kansas….
“I can’t believe you’re camping – it’s so hot!”
“Yes, it is,” I admit, “But sometime around 2am it finally cools off – and to hear the coyotes in the middle of the night – or the owls talking back and forth to each other, it makes it all worth it.”
Noon, Little Rock, Arkansas, Central High School. National Park Ranger Tour…. The park ranger stands by the reflecting pool outside the grand entrance to the biggest, most expensive high school built at the time. He walks us down the street and through the story – where the 9 African American students gathered – and where the 10th, Elizabeth, got off the bus. She’d come to school that day alone – didn’t receive the phone call about where to meet up with the other students. Turned away again and again by the angry crowds, the National Guard…here where the picture was taken of her, head bowed, a young girl screaming at her….Elizabeth headed down the street, the pharmacy that locked the door on her, the bench where she sat for half an hour waiting for the bus surrounded by screams and taunts. The journalist who sat beside her, told her not to let them see her cry.
And the park ranger tells us the story from earlier this year about taking a mom and her daughter through the school on a tour and finding the mom huddled on the bathroom floor sobbing. “I didn’t want to come here – I didn’t want to come here at all,” she said. “I was a student here in 1957. I watched while others like me attacked the Little Rock 9 all year at school. I was right here when they pulled this girl out of the stall, pulled her dress up over her head, hit her and threw her into the hallway. I watched. Did nothing. I am so ashamed of what I did not do.”
“Never doubt that one moment can’t change your life,” the ranger reminded us. “If you look for an excuse not to act you’ll always find one.”
He points up at the four statues above the entrance to the school, to the third one, ‘Opportunity.’ “I hope you leave today with a better understanding of yourself and your opportunity. Take that word home with you. The speed and trajectory of change depends on people like us. We need more people willing to speak up, show up. Less people who hold back, keep silent.”
Afterwards, I ask him, “I am doing this civil rights pilgrimage – any thoughts….”
“Go with an open mind and no agenda. Listen, ask questions. Sit at the feet of people who have been there. Find a way to share with someone what you experienced.”
Later that afternoon, Little Rock, Arkansas, Mosaic Templars… Outside the brick building a marker noting that the African American History Museum here is built at the intersection where in 1927 an African American man was hung, shot 200 times, his body burned. People fought over the bones…. Inside, Theo stands by the picture of his grandfather, J.C. Knox – he and eleven other African American men were arrested following the Elaine Massacre. Though the exact number will never be known, hundreds of African American sharecroppers were killed for meeting to talk about organizing together for better working conditions. I locate Helena, Arkansas and the Elaine Massacre site on my google map. I’ll drive down that way this evening.
Evening, the Mississippi Delta….The foothills of the Ozark’s flatten out into the Mississippi Delta. Vast flatness – flatter than most anyplace I’ve been all this trip. And such humidity. I know there were plantations here, some of the biggest in the South here along the Mississippi. It seems a land built for slavery – the necessity of needing vast quantities of enslaved labor to cultivate this land and in such an inhospitable climate on summer days like this. Windows down for a few minutes to let in the hot, humid air but it is way too hot and I roll up the windows again, flip on the AC. I think of what it might have felt to look out over this land as the slave master and the power to wield at whim over other’s lives – your every mood, command, wish – to be able to do whatever you wanted to do with whomever you pleased. This too is me. Think now on the enslaved man. Such despair, hopelessness of escape of getting out of any of this. An inability to imagine anything beyond the flat exposure of this land. How could there be anything else? The despair, the hopelessness of seeing, imagining anything different. This too is me. Last month I learned that Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin that made cotton plantations so able to boom, is one of my relatives.
The middle of the night, Crown Plaza Hotel, West Helena, Arkansas…. too hot to camp and the campsite just off the side of the road with no one there. I’ll go for a hotel tonight I think. It’s been six nights of camping. An Indian mom with a child crying in the bedroom behind her. I push my credit card, ID through the slot at the bottom of the bullet proof glass. Awake now in the middle of the night – itch, scratch, look out behind the heavy red curtains to check on my car – has it been broken into? Banging on the wall behind me. Loud music. Check myself in the mirror. No bug bites. Throw back the white and purple polyester coverlet cigarette burns underneath. I have no idea where I am or if this is safe. Is it? I have no idea. I google the name of the town. The average salary – $19,000 compared to $23,00 statewide. 68% African American. Am I afraid because the people are poor or because they are Black or because I don’t belong here? Wonder if I’ll ever sleep. Do. In the morning see my night fears as just that. The room is better than I thought, families, young kids staying here as well. I want to be more than my small minded fears that taught me to hate and make excuses for horrific behavior and not know what to do with my prejudice so that I deny it – all that makes me less than I am. Reminded of the National Park ranger who called us to be more than that.
Noon, Sumner, Mississippi, sitting on the stoop of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center….. The small town square deserted, mine the only car here. An occasional passing pick up truck. Across from the county courthouse where Till’s killers were acquitted – later admitting in magazine interview that they killed him and dumped his 14 year old body wrapped in barbed wire around a rusted fan into the river. “We had to kill him,” his murderers said, “He never looked afraid.” A confederate statue to the Brave Heroes next to the flag pole – an American flag on top, Mississippi state flag below – with the confederate flag in the corner where the blue stars are on the American flag. Inside the center behind me, leaning against the wall, a bullet ridden sign marking the place where Till’s body was discovered.
“Some writers have suggested that almost every story about Mississippi returns to Till or the Delta region in which he died in some spiritual, homing way.” 51 sites in the Mississippi Delta are memorialized for their associations with Till.
Late Morning, Security Gate, Tougaloo College, Jackson Mississippi….
The security guard, pad in had, a puzzled expression, comes up to my car.
“I wanted to see if I could get in.”
“I wanted to see if I could see the chapel. I was told that it is pretty.”
The security guard looks puzzled, “It is…You want to see the chapel? It’s up on the right, you can’t miss it.”
The gate lifts.
The chapel doors locked so I go to find the Administration building. I meet Joel, a young man on the Admissions Staff who tells me all about this amazing place. He’s on his way out to a meeting, an armful of red notebooks and a bag of pens, but he talks with me on the sidewalk for half an hour about the historical Black college built on the grounds of a former plantation. The beautiful trees dripping with Spanish moss. “You know some of these trees were here back then. You know that bodies have hung from some of them…..It all happened here – ground zero for the civil rights movement in Jackson. They’ve all been there in that chapel – the leaders of the civil rights movement – King, Abernathy… Robert Kennedy came to speak here too… It’s the closest you can get to where the leaders sat. If this doesn’t give you a sense of purpose, nothing will.”
Sitting in the dark chapel, feeling that peace Joel spoke of. “Purify me of all that prevents me from doing my part.”
Sitting on the steps of the former plantation house looking out over the campus, the security guard drives by, smiles, puts down her car window, “Did you find what you were looking for?
Medgar Evers house, Jackson Mississippi… When Evers had the house built he put in no front door so that you would have to get out in the car port right by the door where it would be safer, a flat roof that wouldn’t catch on fire, high windows in the children’s room and their mattresses on the floor. Evers was shot has he closed the car trunk with an arm load of “Jim Crow Must Go!”tee shirts. The bullet that killed him came through the house – here in the wall, bounced off the refrigerator propped against the back door and rolled onto the counter. The ambulance never came and he had to be driven to the hospital where there was no blood available for a transfusion – no mixing of “colored” with “white” blood. One white doctor at the segregated hospital said, “I will work on him.” 32 years later his murderer was found guilty. “You can kill a man but you can’t kill an idea,” our guide tells us.
“This is what King spoke of,” the young Black man says, motioning to our small diverse crowd gathered in Ever’s living room. “All of us here for the same purpose. United.”
Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Jackson, Mississippi…..
“I was told Milwaukee is the most segregated city.”
“I don’t think so. I think Boston is. I’ve been stared at there more than any other place I’ve been and called the N word. The only place where I’ve been told to stay out of these areas at night because I won’t be safe.”
“That’s where I’m from.”
Late the next afternoon I drive back to Tougaloo to thank Joel. He’s getting out of his car as I pull in, his two young sons with their paper bags of fast food for dinner. Joel showed me yesterday a video of his son reciting King’s words as he stood in the chancel at Dexter Avenue church in Montgomery. Told me how earlier that day he had looked up at him in Selma, the picture of the police dogs attacking people falling at the bridge. “Why are they doing that Daddy?” His other son tells me about his experience at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, “I liked the church best. I didn’t like the gun shots.” “Me too.”
6pm, Natchez Trace Bike Trail…..
“Watch out here there’s a big bump here – and a huge one coming up!” 8 year old Henry speeds ahead of me blond hair sticking out the sides of his helmet, bumping along the trail he knows by heart. Chattering away all the way down the trail and back. We pause to get our picture taken to show his folks how far we road. The next evening we bike down the grassy hill to the shore of the reservoir. Look for signs of turtle tracks in the sand.
Afternoon, Peace and Justice Memorial, Montgomery, Alabama….. The green field in the courtyard, surrounded by great cylinders hanging from the roof of the open-air building, the names of African Americans inscribed on them who had been lynched. How many of these small towns, cities I have passed by – Lawrence, St. Louis, Little Rock, Memphis, Elaine…. How many of those like me who have stood in the field and watched, witnessed what has happened and done nothing or cheered the violence on? We hear that you can’t really move forward until you know and claim your history. What do I need to mark and remember here? What moves me to justice?
Montgomery, Alabama…… Banner outside the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Someday the South will recognize who its real heroes are.” Just down the street the state capitol, monuments to Jefferson Davis, doctors, confederate soldiers.
10:30pm, a grassy field sloping down the to the base of Stone Mountain, Georgia….the bare rock with the world’s largest bas relief of three confederate soldiers lit in white lights. Red, blue, green, yellow laser lights from the world’s largest laser show strafe the rock face – become Confederate soldiers springing to life. The Star Spangled Banner morphs into God Bless America and fireworks explode above us.
Druther’s Diner, Campbellsville, Kentucky. A short line to order breakfast – sausage and biscuit, biscuit and gravy, breakfast plate (eggs and bacon, biscuit, hash browns). White men in ball caps at small plastic tables, booths. Windows dripping with humidity. A few African American men come in to order, eat outside at the back of their pick ups. Everyone knows “their place.” What’s mine? Before heading out to the Abbey of Gethsemani where Thomas Merton lived, I read about his work on civil rights.
“James Baldwin decried the interference of white liberals – incredible, abysmal, and really cowardly obtuseness. The Harlem native knew that white liberals lacked any perception of black person’s lives. They could deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim but had no sense of him as a man. Merton gravitated to Baldwin’s affirmation, concurred that whites also needed liberation but we were clueless when we came to realizing it.”
“It makes a world of difference that you came.”
“It makes a world of difference that I did.”
“Where do you live?”
“I should say I live in my car although I have yet to spend a night sleeping in it!”
“What’ a _?” In this case a “Runza” that I’ve been told is a Nebraska thing and I must try. Ground beef inside a white bun. I’m told if it’s my first Runza – start with plain. The high school marching band tuba player is too happy to tell me all about life in his town. “It’s not like anyone is excited about moving to Nebraska but the people are really nice here.” Later it’s Brent’s Drugs in Jackson, Mississippi sitting at the counter across from the soda fountain, glass mirrors, asking what is “come back” salad dressing? The young waiter explains – it’s like 1000 Island – mayo and ketchup – So you’ll ‘come back’ for more!”
“You’re all set. Welcome!” Greeting at numerous Y’s across the country where I go to swim several days a week.
“I am so happy – I mean even in the hard stuff – I’ve just been so happy. Everything is a wonder when it’s all a discovery. So many reminders that I am doing just what I need to be doing. Whatever comes next I don’t want to give up this joy in being in time and knowing that I am following where the wind is leading.”