Back in 1989, I left Memphis one morning and decided to visit the national park that commemorates and preserves the Civil War battlefield at Shiloh, which I consider one of the more intriguing–and somewhat neglected–moments in American history.
The park is beautifully preserved but the battlefield itself is hard to get a grip on because it ranged over miles, back and forth, for two days. No way to see it except via the driving tour.
In 1989, I was just over half-way through the 20-stop tour (stop 11 as it turned out–and I was getting out and walking at every one…ah, Youth!), when my car refused to start back up.
Let’s just say that I never got to finish the tour and my sporadically starting-and-stopping vehicle finally gave out completely in Iuka, Mississippi, at around 5:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. The only place that was open was a pawnshop. The owner was behind the counter talking to a customer. When I walked in, he asked if he could help me. I explained that my car had broken down about a half-mile up the road.
Then he asked where I was trying to get to.
I told him I was headed for Florida.
At which point he proceded to completely ignore me for about fifteen minutes, evidently hoping I would go away.
Finally, perhaps sensing that I wasn’t likely to leave when there was literally no place else to go, he turned back to me and said, rather icily:
“What part of Florida?”
“Tallahassee,” I said.
From then on, he couldn’t have been nicer.
Turned out I was from the right part of Florida. The northern part–which is the Southern part.
I always got the impression that if I had said Orlando I would have been left to rot and if I had said Miami I might have been thrown in jail.
Eventually, when it was determined my car was not going to start again without some new parts, the pawnshop owner (who, when he heard I had been in Memphis, told me he had been on the car lot the first time Elvis bought a Cadillac for a stranger) offered to put me up at his house. He was very concerned about me having the stay in “the nigger motel” (the town’s only motel was owned by Pakistanis and, evidently, Elvis hadn’t made much impression on the pawnshop owner after all.). I was finally able to assure him it was okay but I imagine he thought less of me. (I also did not mention that my niece Candy’s husband Billy lived in Iuka. I did not mention this partly because they were going through a nasty divorce. Also partly because the last time I had seen Billy a couple of years earlier, Candy was set to take me to the tourist part of town on some expedition or other–Mud Island if memory serves–and, just as we were ready to pull away, he had leaned in the car window and basically said “Watch out for the niggers down there…Because whatever they do to her, I’ll do to you….You hear me?”)
I heard him. And I made up my mind if I was ever in Iuka, I wouldn’t bother to let him know.
While the pawnshop owner was calling around to arrange for a tow truck and a ride to the motel, his customer (who was still hanging around, probably because I was the story of the year–it’s like that in small towns) sidled over and asked, in all earnestness:
“The Cubans ain’t taken over Tallahassee yet have they?”
I assured him, that to my knowledge, they had not.
Three days later, I left Iuka with a new fuel pump and lots and lots of, er, interesting memories.
And the certain knowledge that, someday soon, I would get back to Shiloh–the battlefield just north of the town where they were still pretending the Civil War never happened–and finish that driving tour.
Twenty-three years later, some day came:
I hope it’s not twenty-three years before I get back again…but at least I can finally say I saw the whole thing once!
Tomorrow….I conclude my Southland tour with the Alabama Theater and Gone With the Wind.
(Photos, as before, courtesy of Dan Watson)