I’ve flown into Atlanta on my way home to Columbus, Georgia, countless times in the last four decades. It’s impossible to arrive again without flashing back to the trips that occurred on the occasion of the deaths of my parents in Jan. 2002 and Dec. 2003. There’s a certain emptiness caused by the fact that though I’m returning “home” to the place where I spent the first eighteen years of my life, that it’s not the same because my parents aren’t there anymore.
The purpose for this month’s trip was to join the celebration of my maternal aunt’s ninetieth birthday, celebrated in her small hometown of Sylvester, Georgia. Susan and I were unable to attend the main Saturday party, because we couldn’t fly to Georgia on the day before, due to a big band recording session taking place on the preceding Friday evening in Reno. However, most of my aunt’s family was still in Sylvester the day after the party, on Sunday, when we drove the two-hour distance south from Columbus to Sylvester.
This aunt of mine still lives alone and drives around her small sleepy town. She is my mother’s older sister, the last surviving sibling. So she is the closest living link to my mother. They look alike, talk alike, cook alike, and share their family history. So she is a vivid reminder of my mother. One of her daughters prepared a slide show of my aunt’s long life. There were numerous photos of my mother and father in their young and healthy years. Growing up, a child always views his parents in relation to himself. It’s easy to forget that they had their own active lives apart from their offspring.
My aunt has eight children, a number quite rare for a non-Catholic southerner. Seven of her “children” were in attendance for the celebration. The eighth, the youngest (at age fifty), was unable to attend due to his professional obligations. That cousin of mine is a Brigadier General in the Air Force, currently commanding the Air Force base squadron in Columbia, South Carolina. It’s hard to imagine a cousin of mine having risen so high in the military hierarchy. He is a longtime top-gun F-16 fighter pilot and has worked in the Pentagon “war room”. One time Susan and I visited him and his family near Washington, DC, while he was working at the Pentagon. He and I had heated political discussions (from our polar opposite political orientations) over drinks until late at night. He was forced to call in sick the next morning since I had kept him up so late…my unintentional and inconsequential anti-war action.
Returning to my old hometown of Columbus, I did what I always do to meet as many of my family members at one time…I hosted a lunch at my favorite bar-be-cue restaurant. In all my travels, in my humble opinion, Columbus has the best bar-be-cue that I’ve tasted anywhere in the world. My three surviving aunts in Columbus are 86 and 88 years old. There are no surviving uncles. Note to readers: Enjoy your close relatives as much as possible while they’re still with you. Ask all those family questions that only they can answer. Give them the love, respect, and attention that they deserve, even when your religious and political beliefs may be at odds with theirs. Going home again won’t be the same once they’re gone.
Asheville, North Carolina
The main purpose of visiting Asheville was to see a musical mentor of mine, Dr. Bertil Van Boer, now 88, and his wife, Helen, who is 86. We had a wonderful evening together, including the company of a CARE Channel artist, Richard Shulman, a pianist who lives in Asheville. After Richard and I had played some of Richard’s compositions for everyone, Helen recited some of her poetry while Bertil improvised on the piano. They are both extremely creative and spontaneous at their advanced ages…an inspiration to all of us “younger” people.
This visit to Asheville was an opportunity to visit four other friends who live here. Our social calendar during our two days here was very full. Asheville is an interesting town, one of the most attractive places to live in the South. It has been long recognized for its good climate and beautiful landscapes. It is home to the Biltmore Estate, an extravagant mansion built by the Vanderbilt family in the early 20th century. It is comparable to the Hearst Castle in California, built by the famous San Francisco publisher Randolph Hearst. After the largest hospital in Ashville, the Biltmore Estate is the city’s largest employer.
Another historic building located in Asheville is the Grove Park Inn, a historic hotel, uniquely constructed of stones stacked upon each other. This grand hotel has a long hallway of photos of famous politicians, movie stars, and business tycoons who have stay there during the last century. Of particular interest to me, something that I never knew of before, is that Hungarian composer Bela Bartok sketched out his final composition, his third piano concerto, while staying at the hotel, even naming it his “Asheville Concerto.” For years, this concerto has been my favorite of Bartok’s, but I was never aware of the Asheville connection.
Our local friends took us on a driving trip up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we visited the oldest folk arts store in the country, a store on national forest land that is filled with artistic products supplied by the local Asheville arts collective, including artistic glass, wood carvings, quilts, leather goods, clothing, and furniture. There is also a museum gallery with contemporary and historic exhibits. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a highway that basically traverses the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. It was built in the height of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, with labor by members of the CCC, the Community Conservation Corps, that government program that created many lasting structures, roads, and improvements to the nation’s national parks and to its general infrastructure. During those years, rich taxpayers were willing to have their taxes pay for useful government programs that provided jobs to the unemployed. Besides billionaire Warren Buffet who believes that he should pay a higher tax rate than his secretary, what’s wrong with the many super-rich people in this country who oppose paying their fair share of taxes, which is to say, as least a tax rate equal to what poor people pay?
Reflections on Contemporary Southern Culture
International readers of this blog may be unaware of the clichés used to describe lower class people in the Southern states of the US, those states that tried to perpetuate the institution of slavery, leading to the bloody Civil War 1861-1865. While poor Southerners have generally been more likely to hold racist beliefs, believing themselves to be on a higher social rung than poor blacks, more educated whites have used the pejorative “white trash” or “redneck” to describe this particular lower class mentality. My friends and I had quite an interesting discussion as to why “rednecks” believe the things they do and exhibit the attitudes commonly associated with them.
To illustrate one example, a couple of our Asheville friends hired a local painting company to paint their newly bought house. Professionally speaking, the house painters, all white men in their twenties, did an excellent job. However, mentality-wise, they represented a lifestyle that is uneducated and basically unhealthy. Our friend, the lady of the house, offered to provide fresh sandwiches to the painters every day for lunch. But she insisted on two things: They could not smoke in her house, and she would not provide them with sugary soft drinks (e.g. Coca-Cola) to them. (She would provide coffee, tea, or mineral water with lunch.) In response, the workers would arrive in the morning with a supply of sugary soft drinks. They all smoked and took regular cigarette breaks. Some of them even preferred to buy lunch at McDonalds rather than eat the freshly made healthier sandwiches. Even in the absence of any in-depth discussion, it was safe to assume that these young men embraced the right side of the political spectrum, being against immigrants who might infringe on their jobs, and being anti-Obama, even without expressing their underlying racist attitudes in an overt way.
Driving through the South, Susan and I generally listen to public radio stations. However, in scanning through the radio stations one day on the road, I happened to land on a conservative religious station in which the commentator was urging all listeners to boycott ABC television network which airs Ellen de Generes’ show, and the JC Penny company for whom Ellen is a spokesperson, all because she is openly gay. According to the religious beliefs expressed on the radio station, a boycott of both companies was called for, to oppose the “promotion of homosexuality.” The commentator made a strange point (to my way of thinking) that this proposed anti-gay boycott should not be compared with the non-violent pro-civil rights boycotts led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., because Dr. King had taken inspiration from Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu, and thus Dr. King was necessarily anti-Christian.
America’s original sin was its shameful treatment of the native Americans, the “Indians” who were relentlessly displaced, killed, and ultimately forced to live on reservations throughout our history. An equally grievous national shame was the institution of slavery, which was even enshrined in the US constitution in which a black slave would be counted as three-fifths of a white person for census purposes. While the Civil Way of the 1860’s officially abolished slavery, the South has continued to suffer from that shameful legacy to this day.
Overtly-expressed racism is no longer as evident as it once was, when I was growing up in Columbus. However, speaking as a native Southerner myself, I find lingering racism still present just below the surface in many Southerners’ attitudes and beliefs. And disturbingly, the more overt expressions of rejection, prejudice, and proposed repression are now loudly directed by conservative political and religious factions against gays and immigrants, with the same vehemence previously expressed against non-whites. Of course, the Ku Klux Klan, America’s oldest racist organization, has chapters in many states outside the South, notably Idaho and Michigan. So lingering racism is a general American problem, not just a Southern problem. It just sickens me to turn on the radio and hear anti-gay tirades being broadcast on a daily basis by so-called Christians. If Jesus were to come back and hear the hateful broadcasts, he would certainly say, “I am not a Christian.”