Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thoughts on the Drive South

As we made our way from Maryland back to Florida last week I was reminded that it's been almost forty years since I first made this trek from Massachusetts to the land of sunshine and skin cancer. Back then, I-95 was still unfinished and the old route 301 took us through what was, to me, another world. Fresh out of college, I was a strange mix of naive yet aware - aware of the outrageous disparity between my good fortune and all that it entailed (solid home life, great education, etc.) and the very unfortunate others whose rough hewn, falling down shacks we drove by as we wended our way through the Carolinas and Georgia.

On the one hand I marveled at the beauty of the landscape, the old southern plantations with their wide porches flanked by pillars and the miles long driveways lined with old oaks dripping Spanish moss. Why, you could almost envision Scarlet O'Hara racing her dad, both on horseback, down toward the barns. What you didn't see, of course, were the then slaves, now servants, who tended to those horses, barns, grounds and people, living in the unheated, unplumbed shacks that dotted the countryside. There's no question that this knowledge detracted ferociously from my appreciation of the surroundings.

Add to that the certainty that 200 years really hasn't changed all that much here in the United States and, if you dwell on it long enough, it's extremely depressing. When we stopped at the welcome station in South Carolina we were greeted by the smiling face of Gov. Sanford, still serving and more popular than ever, though he abandoned his postion last year, leaving the country and failing to even set someone up as the "in-charge" person should a state emergency arise. I've read that he even went so far as to have an aid "tweet" occasionally during the week he was in Argentina with his paramour. Yet New York's Gov. Patterson was villified for accepting tickets to a baseball game. Sometimes I think we're living in a science fiction world!

We stopped in Walterboro, SC, to visit a memorial to the Tuskegee Airmen, the famous African American soldiers who trained as World War II fighter pilots at the then Walterboro Airport, now the Low Country Municipal Airport. The day was perfect, warm and clear, and out at the little air strip small planes were doing touch and go's. Men were parasailing or hang gliding or perhaps parachuting down from the clear blue sky. In a pine woods area to the right of the field was a beautiful sculpture of a young pilot along with a glass case full of sun-faded photos of the original cadre of brave young men who actually had to fight to go overseas and fight for freedoms they didn't even have here at home. It could break your heart.

We read that the farmers who donated the land for the airfield still continued to raise their crops and that they actually hired German POW's who were being held in Walterboro - back when we followed the rules of the Geneva Convention - to help them. The Germans were not only paid a stipend but were fed and actually befriended by the locals, some of whom stayed in touch years after the war ended. That's a great story and I'm all for it, except for one problem.

The black American soldiers who were actually going off to fight against the Germans were not allowed to mingle with the whites, not even with the POW's. They were segregated in both their living and eating quarters, not even able to socialize at the dances. How can this be, you might ask. I have no answer, but this is your history lesson for the day. The more we learn the more we can try to understand the suffering of our fellow men - that's my hope. For more information on the Tuskegee Airmen and their incredible feats:

Yes, I'm still reading like mad and will report next on Let the Great World Spin, recommended by my former manager and deep reader, Linda Holland. I'm also listening to two books, an old Donna Leon and a new James Lee Burke. All three of these novels are very dark - suprise, surprise. I also may have to take up where Don leaves off in the new book by Pulitzer winner Isabel Wilkerson. The Warmth of Other Suns, the story of what she calls "the great migration" of Southern sharecroppers to the Northern cities, looking for opportunity and a more equitable life, is on my radar for book discussion next season but I already know that, psychologically, it'll be tough going.

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