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I'm a big fan of Garrison Keillor. He once said that if you drive around the country, stop in small towns, and sit down with the locals in their breakfast cafe, you never know when you may hear something interesting, surprising, or even profound. John Steinbeck also believed that. He took his dog and drove across America, talking with ordinary people and collecting stories. They went into a thoughtful and entertaining book titled "Travels With Charley."
Well . . . I came to the desert town of Payson, Arizona. I ordered breakfast in a small diner there beside the road. The adjoining booth was occupied by a local man, sitting by himself, talking on his cellphone, his voice lowered. He had long, unkept hair and a long, unkept beard. His clothes looked as worn and tired as he did, and his speech had the lingering of alcohol about it. I heard him use the word "innebriated," a term less confessional and more respectable than the word "drunk." But meaning the same, of course.
The man was talking with a woman. You could tell she was someone he missed, someone he owed something to, someone he needed to have around and planned to see again.
The man was doing most of the talking, mostly about nothing, until the end of the conversation. The woman on the line had apparently said, "I love you."
Now, a man in those circumstances must say something. As a man myself, I know about this moment, that pause that needs a response, as the woman awaits one. I didn't expect a memorable response from this man, but I heard one.
There was a moment of hesitation, and then: "I love you . . . no matter what I say or do."
I love you no matter what I say or do.It was said wistfully. Like saying you don't want to borrow money again, but you really have to. Wistfully, like thinking of an old friend and remembering your last words were something you wish hadn't been said. Wistfully, like remembering that opportunity of a lifetime you missed out on, because you were so stupid, stupid.
"No matter what I say or do," remember I love you.
The man is admitting his sins of the past, but also anticipating their repetition in the future. He's disclaiming in advance the hurt that he may cause. He's professing both his love, and his liklihood of acting contrary to it. In essence, he wants forgiveness in advance, saved up for a rainy day. What a deal!
I tried to imagine . . . what were those words and deeds that had passed between them, out there in the desert?
Did he verbally abuse this woman? Call her names, or fat, or ugly? Had he insulted her family, her friends? Had he sworn hatefully at her, unprovoked?
Did he maybe wreck her car, steal money from her purse, break up her furniture? Did he hit her? In the face, or somewhere else? With his fist, or with something else? And whatever that history was, it's one thing to own up and ask forgiveness, but how, at the same time, do you say you'll be repeating such things in the future?
Pathetic, I thought, sitting there listening. "Believe that I love you, no matter what I'm about to say or do to hurt you?" Can his woman accept that, and live with it? And if she does, is she to be admired or pitied?
It may well be that she did accept it, did believe it, and was willing to live with it. It may well be that in spite of his drinking and all his flaws, she loves him. Maybe she knows and appreciates qualities of his the rest of the world has missed. There are women like that. There are women devoted to deeply flawed men. There are women who feel they have no choice except to go along and make the best of things. I imagined that maybe the woman on the phone line was that sort of woman. And not knowing her, I felt sad for her.
I felt sad because her fear of loosing him may be greater than any fear of him. She can put up with his drinking and abuse, because her greater fear is being without him and alone.
But then . . . hold on . . . who am I to know or to judge about any of this?
Could there be another side to it, I've asked myself since then? Should his words be viewed in a more positive light? Was this the true confession of a down-and-out man who knows and freely admits his failure and weakness? An honest man. Honest to a fault, and about his faults. When he said "no matter what I say or do," did his woman smile a knowing smile, or even laugh out loud? I imagined that happening. Did this woman love him truly, despite anything he'd said or done, anything he might say or do?
If so, we onlookers would say he's lucky to have her. But she may consider herself lucky to have him, even him. He may be the best she can do in Payson, Arizona.
The man left the restaurant ahead of me, and I observed him as he went. The kind of man people glance at, but then away from. Who appears sad to the world, and is. The kind of man you might want to forget, but can't.
I did take something home from this. When my own woman says, "I love you," and a reply is called for, I've tried out those words of his. I say, "I love you . . . no matter what I say or do."
Sometimes she laughs, but not always.
Listen to a reading of this story:
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Being somewhat of a nature and wildlife photographer and in the general area, I decided to visit the Point Lookout State Park in Southern Maryland. For those not acquainted, this is a remote location where the Potomac River joins the Chesapeake Bay. It was a clear and windy day, and very peaceful. A very few sightseers were around, but mostly I had the place to myself. I did see a variety of wildlife: bald eagles, brown pelicans, ospreys, great blue herons, swans, and assorted ducks and seagulls. I had come to Point Lookout innocently, unaware of the dark history of the area. But history overtook me.Almost immediately I noticed markers telling that a Civil War prison had been located here. The Union had established it after the Battle of Gettysburg, and it had housed more than 50,000 Confederate soldiers and Confederate-leaning citizens of Maryland. Some 4,000 had died and were buried here (the number is approximate because no accurate records were kept). There are no individually marked graves of these dead; all are buried in a common mass grave.
No prisoner of war camp has ever been a happy place. The prison at Point Lookout had no buildings for the prisoners, only military tents. Summers were hot and winters were cold. Water was contaminated and diseases were frequent. Food was scarce and poor in quality. It should be understood that neither the Union or the Confederacy was adequately prepared to handle prisoners of war, and that conditions on both sides were disgraceful. It is believed that 26,000 Confederates died in Union prisons, representing 12% of all captured. And some 15% of Union soldiers died in Confederate prisons. Clearly neither side has anything to be proud of. More information can be found here.A cemetery for these Confederate dead is maintained at Point Lookout by the National Cemetery Administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although called a cemetery, it is actually just a mass grave location; there are no tombstones or individually marked graves. The site is marked by an impressive 80-foot-tall monument with bronze tablets containing the names of those known to be buried here. There are 3,382 names.
The American flag flies here, although none of the soldiers buried here fought under this flag. The soldiers buried here (all of the Union soldiers' remains were moved to Arlington Memorial cemetery) fought against that flag. So the business of flags at Point Lookout is something of a paradox.
None of this history was in my head when I first noticed the other memorial. The other memorial also honors the Confederate dead and proudly flies their battle flag. I slowed the car and did a double-take (also popularly known as a WTF). Driving around in Maryland and Virginia you do notice the occasional Confederate flag displayed in someone's yard or in the back window of a pickup truck. But this was much more than a yard display. This was a large memorial area with the Confederate flag flying uppermost, surrounded by flags of the 13 states of the Confederacy. There is not an American flag in sight. And this is not South Carolina or Mississippi, this is in my own home state of Maryland.Then I discovered that although some trees separate the areas, the Confederate memorial is located right beside the Government memorial. So, in a sense, we have dueling memorials here.
The Confederate memorial is on private land and operated by a private group known as the Point Lookout Prisoners-of-War Descendants Organization. The group tried unsuccessfully to have the Confederate flag flown at the adjoining Government memorial. In walking around and reading the plaques, I gathered that as in much of American life these days, the issues of the Civil War still live on. Lincoln famously said that a house divided against itself cannot stand, but America still manages to stand even as our divisions seemingly increase.
The issue of soldier burials in any war is a potent one, but especially so in a civil war. The American civil war began with no plan for soldier buriels on either side. In 1864, a Confederate private from Virginia wrote a letter to his father as follows: "Dear Father. This is my last letter to you. I have been struck by a piece of shell and my right shoulder is horribly mangled and I know death is inevitable. I am very weak but I write to you because I know you would be delighted to read a word from your dying son. I know death is near, that I will die far from home and friends of my early youth but I have friends here too who are kind to me. My friend Fairfax will write you at my request and give you the particulars of my death. My grave will be marked so that you may visit it if you desire to do so. It is optionary with you whether you let my remains rest here or in Mississippi. I would like to rest in the graveyard with my dear mother and brothers but it's a matter of minor importance. Give my love to all my friends. My strength fails me. My horse and my equipments will be left for you. Again, a long farewell to you. May we meet in heaven. Your dying son, J. R. Montgomery,"
This letter is read in a PBS "American Experience" episode titled "Death and the Civil War." It illustrates the fact that if dead bodies were buried and graves marked, it was done by friends or relatives or fellow soldiers or by volunteers. Private Montgomery had made his own arrangements, but most soldiers could not. After the war, the Union launched an effort to identify the remains and mark the graves of Union soldiers. But although the war had officially ended, the effort did not include Confederate graves. Southerners interpreted this as revenge and retribution, not a promising step toward national reunification. It is estimated that about half of the 750,000 Civil War dead were never identified.
I did not come to Point Lookout to get involved in all of this. It was like walking along and tripping over something you didn't know was there.
When I was a high school student in Maryville, Tennessee, I knew three things about the name "Gregory." I knew that my girlfriend/later wife's relatives were named Gregory and were buried in Cades Cove in the Primitive Baptist Church cemetery. I knew that Gregory's Bald was named for them. I had climbed it and camped there numerous times. And I knew that somewhere in Cades Cove there was a cave by the name of Gregory. So one weekend Charlie and David and I set out to find this cave.
Over the weekend we explored every foot of Gregory's Cave. The cave was largely one long channel with a series of connected rooms and a few short offshoots. Despite our looking we found no weapons, skeletons, gold coins, or other items of interest. The cave was mostly empty except for some wood lying around.
On one of our trips into the cave, we decided to gather up wood and make a fire. The wood was dry, of course, and the fire was started easily. We settled down around the fire and were taking it easy. But after awhile, we began to notice something peculiar. The ceiling of the cave had disappeared. The ceiling was now like the sky on a cloudy day. Then we noticed that the ceiling was getting lower and lower. Our smoke had been rising up and the ceiling was lowering down.
There was no water to put out the fire. We soon became alarmed and decided we must beat it. By the time we reached the entrance to the cave we were almost crawling to keep our heads beneath the smoke. But we did escape.
According to an article in smokies.com the cave was actually a commercial operation of the Gregory family in the 1920's with a charge of 50 cents for tours. And during the cold war it was stocked with food and equipped as a fallout shelter. Also, it is said that the Missionary Baptist Church once held services in the main room of the cave.
The national park has never chosen to make an attraction of the cave, or to advertise its location. I believe it is now boarded up and inaccessible.
I am from the South: Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina. Perhaps Maryland, where I now live, is not usually counted as southern, but people here still comment on my southern accent. When I travel down home I do notice the accents there, and I find that instinctively I can revert back and talk just like the local folks. This is handy for blending in.
I was down in North Carolina recently and went out for dinner to a popular local restaurant. Very local. Great food and great prices, but nothing fancy like cloth on the tables or someone taking your order and bringing you your food. You get in line, study the menu on the back wall, and place your order at the counter. You pay right there. wait on your tray of food, and take it to the table of your choice. After you finish you clean up after yourself.
A large group was cleaning up after itself and leaving as I got my food. They had on red tee shirts identifying themselves as "Tea Party Patriots." They carried political signs and paraphenalia from their meeting. They seemed happy and enthused. It was the evening of a presidential debate, and I thought they might have been heading out to gather somewhere else and watch the debate together.
Having never been to a Tea Party party, I listened in on what conversations I could as I paid for my tray and sat down at my table. Close by my table near the door, the owner of the restaurant was shaking hands with two members who appeared to be leaders. The owner did not have on a red tee shirt, but he was clearly a supporter. I knew this for sure when I heard him say the following:
"You know, if we just had George Wallace, none of this would have happened."
He did not elaborate on what he meant by "this," nor did he need to.
As a southener, I knew exactly what he meant. His listeners nodded in agreement. Then one of them confided that although he certainly planned to vote for Romney, he wasn't sure things would be any different. I thought to myself that he had good reason to be unsure. The Romney of late is far removed from the one who participated in the 20 primary debates and cast himself as the most conservative choice in the race. The Tea Party man was right to wonder which candidate he would be putting into office.
In case you are not southern and uncertain about the coded reference to "none of this," let me tell you plainly what it was about. "None of his" meant "this black man in our white house." That is why the memory of George Wallace was invoked. He would have stood in the way of "this" like he blocked the doorway to the University of Alabama in 1963. He would have stood up for our way of life:
"It is very appropriate that from this cradle of the Confederacy, this very heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us time and again down through history. Let us rise to the call for freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." (From his first inaugural speech as governor of Alabama, 1963)
Wallace ran for president as a third-party candidate. In a campaign speech in 1968 he appealed to his constituency:
"And it is a sad day in our country that you cannot walk even in your neighborhoods at night or even in the daytime because both national parties, in the last number of years, have kowtowed to every group of anarchists that have roamed the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles and throughout the country. And now they have created themselves a Frankenstein monster, and the chickens are coming home to roost all over this country." "Yes, they’ve looked down their nose at you and me a long time. They’ve called us rednecks — the Republicans and the Democrats. Well, we’re going to show, there sure are a lot of rednecks in this country."
As a southerner, I dislike the term "redneck." I dislike the stereotype, and the fact that southerners are one of the few groups in the country that are still fair game for crude jokes that would be off limits for others. But Wallace did show in the '60's that there were a lot of them around. And the fond calling of his legacy made me realize there still are.
Animal behavior is always fascinating to me. I filmed this in Bedford County, PA beside the Juniata River. It truly did appear that the geese were embarrassed by the mallard fight and wanted to make them stop. The mallard fight went on and on and was vicious, not sporting. Of course, geese are known to fight as well, but on this occasion they tried to be the peacemakers.