Monday, September 30, 2013

Third Entry of a Long Journey

Yesterday, as I crossed into the Smoky Mountains, almost immediately, I recalled the enjoyable feeling I experienced as a child when singing folk ballads such as "On Top of Old Smoky."  It was one of a number of songs, especially those of Stephen Foster, that I learned  both in school and from my father. On much too rare occasions, he would be relaxed enough to sit down and pick up his guitar, strum a few chords, and sing with my sister and me lyrics which described the Old South. Our family had a historical connection to Tennessee. The Volunteer State had been my parents' first home after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. They had settled in, of all places, Nashville. There, they had learned English with its distinctive drawl and experienced southern style American culture.  As a youngster my parents told fascinating anecdotes of those early years, including one that suggested I had been named after Robert E. Lee, as part of a bargain made with my father's mentor Lanier Merritt, a crusty old Confederate, who taught my dad how to letter signs.

My route, after leaving the mountains, would take me through Eastern Tennessee. I stopped first at Davy Crockett's birthplace and then arrived in Greeneville, Tn, the hometown of Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's vice president, who took over the presidency upon Lincoln's assassination. I spent over an hour hearing the perspective of the National Park service guide of the events leading up to and through the Civil War. I was moved by the sensitivity he showed while talking to other guests and me. It was clear that every day he spoke with visitors whose opinions covered a wide political spectrum: some were passionate modern day rebel sympathizers and others were Northern liberal Yankees who still  blamed the South for slavery and treason. I left feeling inspired and gladdened from listening to well-informed discussions of history.

My ultimate destination was Gray, Tennessee, the home of Eastern Tennessee State University. In 2000 when a bulldozer, while preparing to straighten a road, unearthed some strange bones, a monumental event had its beginning in the world of paleontology in America.  Almost rivaling the La Brea tarpits in Los Angeles as the motherlode of ancient animal finds, the Gray Fossil Site Natural History Museum was built adjacent the dig site. I was able to watch people unearthing Miocene Epoch (5 - 3 million years ago) mammals and reptiles such as jaguars, camels, llamas, weasels, tapirs and lizards  that are so plentiful in the soil that the joke among researchers is that you can throw a rock and hit a bone. While I stood  at the viewing platform outside, I watched a fellow scratching away the earth from an ancient alligator skull. Also indoors, through large windows, guests can watch graduate students, volunteers, and researchers cleaning, classifying, and arranging bone fragments with tweezers and microscopes. Not surprisingly, this museum has had a startling and perhaps a somewhat annoying impact on many of the fundamentalist Christian residents who live in the surrounding area. The second day I was at the museum, I spoke with an older couple who had come to see  the displays. They said the dig was a great place, but the school had lied about numbers. They claimed that the alleged ages of the animal and plant fossils conflicted with scriptures and therefore were false. This error, they attributed, was partially the result of the devil's handiwork.

I have given you a thumbnail's synopsis of my days in Tennessee. I am so full of experiences and so limited by the time and format that I have skimmed over so much. Today I leave for Kentucky and then to Ohio. Yikes! I'm not even remotely half way through this adventure.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Second Entry on a Long Journey

It is early Fall here and the tropical air mass has brought an unusual amount of rain. The ground is muddy, the air is humid and the low lying swamps have more standing water than usual. These inclement conditions are not putting a damper up on the start of huntin' season. I have seen more gun shops, taxidermists, meat packers, and sporting goods shops advertising great sales on deer paraphernalia than anyplace else I've been. Car dealership parking lots, adorned with large American flags, are filled with rows of pick up trucks that are ready to be purchased with no money down and e-z credit by burly looking outdoorsmen. Even the shape of the State of Florida looks like a pistol.

I have driven almost exclusively on rural highways. The original business district of most small towns has rotted away with few historic buildings gentrified. It has been replaced by one or two strip malls containing a generic gas station/"country" store and an assortment of pawn shops, gold and silver buyers, a Burger King, a beauty shop and, most important, the Dollar General. The surrounding land is either pine, cypress, or oak forested or plowed with crops of cotton, nuts or peaches. Interspersed among the scarcer brick or whitewashed-siding farm houses are countless single wide mobile homes, many in seriously shabby condition. It is confusing to me to grasp what goals and dreams their inhabitants have. Many of the residents are the people who attend  the hundreds of oddly-named churches which line the road which push goofy divine messages from plastic reader boards. I doubt these people are ever reached by Eastern establishment pollsters who ask questions to develop data on the nation's opinion of U.S domestic or foreign policy. Even though many are certainly eligible for public assistance and fall well below the poverty line, some pay dearly the costly price of participating in the system at large. Every bridge I crossed has been renamed and memorialized for a local fallen youngster, who saw his ultimate way out and to "salvation" by joining the military.

After covering many miles, I arrived late in the afternoon in Athens, Georgia, the home of the University of Georgia and immediately began experiencing a different environment than I watched roll by me during the day. I found it  pleasing and relaxing to see the stately antebellum buildings of the campus. I saw young people carrying books and heard them laugh. I saw billboards on telephone poles advertising dance troupes and theater productions. While I sought dinner last night in a local hangout, the waiter carried his Physics book along with my menu. These places produce people whose dreams I better understand. Tomorrow I leave for Tennessee and the Smoky Mountains. I'm curious about what I will find.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

First Entry of a Long Journey

Two weeks ago I arrived in Fort Meyers, Florida, to visit and take care of my ailing friend Stephen. Today I am leaving and am about to drive to Orlando to visit my nephew and his family. In this almost finished snippet of time, I have chosen to not allow my emotions to emerge. I have been neither lighthearted nor deeply cynical. Aside from being annoyed by a predictable negative experience at a car dealership and once, when Stephen in his condescending, humiliatingly judgmental tone hectored me incessantly on the correct way to toast a bagel, I have rarely been moved enough to even respond passive aggressively or laugh heartily at anything. I have dealt more or less methodically and efficiently with every task at hand from taking care of my own health to making Stephen comfortable.

It seems that I have been coping in a calm, controlled manner with the traffic, the disorientation of being out of my element, the heat and humidity, Stephen's complicated personality, dealing with his severe medical issues, and my own physical discomforts. It is as if my own survival depended on diligent detachment. I like to believe that this behavior has become a useful seminal characteristic of my personality, a socially acceptable persona which depicts mature adult behavior. Over the years I have learned to cultivate this image to serve as an attractive veneer to cover the core of the incredibly frightened child I have always been.

Therefore I have little passion today to describe deeply or critically the world about me. I am writing from a Starbucks from one more generic shopping complex of anywhere, except its probably Florida, since the gardeners are gathering fallen palm fronds from the surfaces of boring ground cover. I find it particularly difficult to have a welling up of emotion while sitting by the window watching the traffic whizz by. Some drivers are from the wealthy waterfront sections of the town and many others are the folks I saw at Walmart the other day; namely, a bubbling stew of ethnicity whose lives swim in a sea of issues associated with poverty and ignorance. Saying more about my observations of Southern Florida means drawing conclusions befitting a psycologist, sociologist, historian, or monk. Today I lack the dedication, intelligence, conviction, energy, or purpose to gamble with words in an attempt to share thoughts.

I feel like average cat-eyed marbles stacked in a fragile glass jar. To the untrained eye the content appears solid, valuable and colorful. The fact is that I have been sitting on the shelf these past weeks self-contained, firm and cool in demeanor and purpose. I have been living, but not really in the large game. Perhaps this next episode with Mark and family will reorient me and help me get back into the the pot.