Monday, May 14, 2012

Southern Comfort?

I was eager to reach Ocala and meet with a City Daily Photo blogger friend whose page I had been following since 2009. I was surprised as I approached Ocala how the landscape had changed. Gone were the flat marshes, defoliated forests, and pit-mine-pocked landscape. Instead I found lush pasture fenced with freshly-painted white posts. Horses grazed peacefully near huge stables and contemporary homes. I had seen pictures of this on his website and knew that I would see some pockets of wealth. Also my friend and I had exchanged a few emails and I had determined that he was a thoughtful person who seemed to express some ideas about politics and religion that I found both intriguing and sympathetic. I was not disappointed by our meeting. We sat at a Starbucks and he related to me some of the salient events of his past life and spoke pointedly about a source of irritation in his present one. He was living in a stronghold of right wing politics and fundamentalist religion. He went so far as to say that many in the community disliked Obama. He seemed to think that his fellow citizens hid behind a veil of political excuses, like the president's poor handling of the economy, to mask their true sentiments. They disliked the president because he catered to phony liberals, sucked up to minorities, and more significantly that he was godless and black. My friend spoke about how strong the Tea Party was in Ocala, that seeing an Obama sticker was rare, and then quipped jokingly that having one might even be a liabiltiy. Ultimately he felt that he was not in tune with the mood of rural Central Florida, but enjoyed living there nonetheless in a safe, gated community along with other transplants from the big cities of the North or from Orlando who enjoyed the golf, the green landscape, and some modicum of cultural activity.

I shared with him some of my observations from my drive along the back roads before reaching Ocala. I had seen huge numbers of single-wide mobile homes, many in poor condition with junk stacked nearby. Others were in seedy trailer parks, parked in rows, dilapidated worn out sheet metal structures with an older pickup or minivan squeezed between wooden steps leading up to the door. It was my impression that these parks contained poor white people who labored in the phosophate mines or in orange processing factories or were home to folks who didn't work at all.

Then I spoke of the churches advertising their denomination on reader boards using every imaginable combination of religious words such as savior, gospel, truth and ministry. These houses of the faithful could be found in rude block buildings or frame houses, and occcasionally in more modern centers. Even though it wasn't Sunday, their parking lots usually had quite a few cars. God knows what their owners were doing there, but I'm sure it was Gawd's work, and I certainly had no intention of going in and finding myself at Bible School. I had stopped the night before at a Comfort Suites near Bartow, Florida, and was told by the receptionist there were no rooms available. She spoke with such pride that the entire place had been booked for a Children of Noah convention. The pentacostal charismatic experience seemed to have trumped handily the traditional church world which, although housed in more formidable buildings, appeared to me lonely, empty and closed, except perhaps on Sunday.  

I recalled the small towns I had seen. Those before Ocala and many that I saw along the road after my visit contained a botched up mixture of awkwardly renovated historic buildings. These stood in marked contrast to the rest of the business district which consisted of one or two old warehouses and a motley collection of stores, their names faded and some with windows boarded up. New hope and opportunity seemed to have been found along the edges of the city center. There I observed dated strip malls with a Dollar General, a larger regional super market, the usual beauty shop and other boring-looking stores anchored by a McDonalds and a Pure Oil gas station. Along the street I saw a surprisingly large number of used car lots packed with models that I felt in other geographical areas would have long been crushed.  Also pawn shops with brightly illuminated signs advertising that the owners also paid cash for gold jewelry seemed overly abundant. Likewise there were many old single level motels which might have been considered quality in their heyday and had boasted an AAA sign or a Best Western rating. Now they stood in disrepair or transformed into permanent living quarters with rusted air conditioners looking like old buck teeth protruding from their windows.

When I was hungry, I would look around specifically for the catchy phrase on a sign, "home-cooked food" or "home-style cooking." I found  this usually below the name of a restaurant named, not unsurprisingly, something like "Mary and Bud's Kitchen."  I figured that there I could find something authentic and nutritional to eat. In addition, such a restaurant could provide an opportunity to chat with  local people. Although the McDonalds or Checkers seemed to attract the main lunch crowds, I looked forward to eating in the local "simple" places. I would usually look for an empty stool at the lunch counter next to some unsuspecting fella and hope that my conversational skills would help me make a "friend."  I have to admit there were moments also when I was just plain lonely and desired to have some human contact. Before having a chance to utter a word, an 18 - 20 year old waitress wearing a cheap t-shirt which said Strawberry Fields Forever on it approached, flopped down a menu before me and asked in a friendly, but unpleasant sounding accent, if I wanted a glass of water with lemon. She clearly wasn't Mary, who I learned  had died several years earlier after she and Bud had sold the place and moved to Nebraska.  As I scanned the menu I suddenly became anxious. I was at a loss for what to order. Since I had become sensitive to avoiding trans-fats and food with high salt and sugar content, the thought of eating cheap hamburgers, chicken fried steak, or breakfasts of eggs and biscuits and gravy seemed unpalatable. After deciding to try a tuna fish sandwich, I was offered my choice of sides of either tater tots, fries, mashed potatos, potato chips or cole slaw, certainly none of these were homemade. I looked around and saw the other patrons eating what amounted to grotesque food, especially chicken nuggets with canned green beans, including a big thick piece of toasted white bread slimy from grease from the grill. Many of the men had large bellies. The women were overweight and exhibited a dull, uneducated expression,  I surmise, from spending too much time talking of the weather or about their pastor. I left feeling disappointed. I knew that economic austerity had cheapened the food. Also there was a blatant disregard for integrating more current medical and dietary information into the choice of servings.  I remembered briefly those days as a child sitting with my parents and sister at similar family-orientedeating spots and eating real fried chicken, vegetables from the garden and even a slice of homemade pie served by Ma and Pa. Now, as I climbed back into my car, I realized that, surrounded by an atmosphere where ignorance, conformity and poverty seemed so pervasive, it was imperative for me to retain good spirits. After all, how fortunate I was to be on vacation and able to explore the world..

At the entrance to one town, a tattered banner proclaimed that the high school team had earned the title of 2011 State Cheeleading Runners-up. I imagined that there had probably been a parade honoring the winners. The grandstands at the sporting events were surely full. The townspeople were proud of their children and the community. For a fleeting moment I saw the pageantry and knew their happinesss. Just as quickly the thought, like a speck of dust kicked up from my tire, was gone and replaced by my next vision. I realized I was already out of the city limits and on the road to Georgia.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Stopping in Time?

One of the best experiences on a trip is discovering special, unexpected places. So it was, as I was driving on a quiet highway, U.S. 301, near Bushnell, which is in Central Florida. It was a beautiful morning and, after driving an hour or so, I began to feel the urge to stop. Then, almost simultaneously, I spied a sign at County Road 603 announcing that somewhere nearby was Dade Battlefield Historical Park. I had heard the name Dade before and knew that Miami, which was hundreds of miles away, was in Dade County. So I asked myself who was Dade and, as I was about to put this question in Notepad on my phone to remind me to look up the answer later, I decided to follow the arrow and explore the park. I considered momentarily I would find myself at some obscure, insignificant Civil War site. As I drove up to the entrance and its ticket booth, I had hoped that there would be no money-taker to collect the $4.00 entry fee because all I wanted to do was drive in, cruise around, satisfy my curiosity, and resume my trek north. Unfortunately, a portly uniformed guard peering down at me suspiciously sat inside, informed me of the cost in a most unpleasant accent, and thrust a brochure in my hand. As I handed him the money, I found myself tongue-tied and drove off still unclear about what lay before me. The short gravel road ended at small empty parking lot nestled in a grove of magnificent trees shading a block building which appeared to possibly be a visitors center.

Near the door, a stone monument with a bronze plaque explained that this luxurious, peaceful, forested spot was, in 1835, the site of a well-calculated ambush by Seminole Indians against a column of American cavalry as it was crossing tribal lands. The massive defeat of the soldiers marked the beginning of what is called the 2nd Seminole War. Recently I had read a book about Andrew Jackson, who was president at the time, and I had  learned something of the tragic story of the Seminoles. White settlers had coveted the lush timber and the wildlife-rich tribal lands after Florida had been purchased from the Spanish and had become an American territory. They were also piqued by the Seminole tradition of harboring and then integrating runaway black slaves into their culture. In addition, the Indians had shown disdain for Christianity and had resisted conversion. The visitors center chronicled the salient events of the entire conflict with the Seminoles on signboards and also with a movie which showed reenactments of the pivotal battle that took place several hundred yards away. I learned how Major Francis Dade had been ordered to march two companies of men on an established path from a fort in Tampa through the Indian lands in order to supply an outpost, Fort King, near present day Ocala. He had been attacked here and 108 men, including Dade, had been "massacred." The Natives lost only three braves in the conflict.

I then chose to walk the original military trail and reflect on the Seminole Wars which had transpired  177 years ago. It was not hard to feel the appalling disrespect and reprehensible immorality perpetrated against the Indians in the name of progress. The war ended in the utter defeat, enslavement, and relocation of the local population to Oklahoma. Even though the tone at the visitors center was to report the sad, complicated history in a matter-of-fact manner and to avoid any critical point of view, I couldn't help being struck by the feeling that this park was no lasting memorial to the Native horror, but was established solely to commemorate the only place in this war where the aggressors had been handily defeated. I had experienced a similar park years ago when visiting the Alamo, where a minor loss for American conquerors had been heralded as a great tragedy of the time. The repercussion was enormous. It stimulated increased brutality against the Mexicans and fostered further justification for seizing their land. Similarly, every American history book focuses on the story of the atrocity perpetrated by the Seminoles on the Americans that took place here, and thereby gives a distorted impression of equivalent suffering. It portrays the eventual victorious invaders as victims who had  a justifiable excuse for revenge.

As I walked quietly across a stone bridge, the trail jogged slightly and turned into a small glen. There placed in the leaves were two large grave markers. The songbirds in the canopy above became aware of my presence in this idyllic setting and ceased chirping as I came nearer. I read the description on the stones and learned that before me were the remains of Francis Dade and one of his soldiers. I felt strangely placid and in touch with the desire to accept the sad facts without judgement. I know that questions of historical choices are important to ask, especially when events are recent. It is worth debating about what should have been or could have been, or what behavior was right or wrong. Yet the day and circumstances of the battle played out here seemed to me now like a drop of rain which had fallen long ago, had mixed with volumes of water from subsequent showers to join a river and was now far downstream into the present, bobbing as an idealized memory of the past.

I continued walking on the well-maintained path until it ended at a fence, marking the boundary of the park. I stood there for a moment, let my eyes travel across a marsh and imagined the continuation of the route, now long overgrown, a length the soldiers never reached. Beyond the marsh I knew the trail had been covered with concrete. I could hear the traffic from it on Hwy 301 and then from I-75. Soon I would be back on that trail getting gas for my car, also perhaps buying a sandwich at Subway, and then taking my turn to complete the soldiers' journey to Ocala.