Friday, May 25, 2007

City of the Dead

Last week I spent time in Savannah, Georgia and Hilton Head, South Carolina. I'd never been in the South, unless you count Florida, which somehow seems separate from what I think of as "the South." Probably because of its drug lords, theme parks, retirees, and crazy Cuban expatriates. And Katherine Harris.

I went south to attend my cousin's wedding, who last Saturday married a fine young gentleman from Georgia, whom she met in college. He seems a kindly, if somewhat reserved chap. To his credit he smiles broadly and warmly and often, which are always handsome features in a person. I wish them well in all their future journeys! At the very least, I hope that they need never again endure the maudlin drunkenness of groomsmen.

Hilton Head Island, where we stayed, is not a real remnant of the Old South - there is nothing historical about the place. It is a giant gated community set in the midst of golf courses and surrounded by docks berthing sea-faring luxury fishing boats. Truly, a creation of leisure, affluence and modern technology. The island did have one thing to offer, however: I got a chance to ride a rented bicycle on a lovely day, and its natural beauty was arresting.

Across the South Carolina border, perhaps an hour from Hilton Head, lies Savannah. This is a city steeped in American History. Walking its streets one can almost reach back to colonial times and even back to the Old World and our European heritage. The city was fought over during the Revolutionary War, and one macabre tour guide intoned solemnly that it is "difficult to take more than a few steps in Savannah without stepping over someone's bones."

On the urging of my mother, while in Savannah, I made the pilgrimage to Bonaventure Cemetery to see some of the artifacts represented in the book Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil. I never read the book, but I did see Clint Eastwood's film version. The cemetery was made famous by an iconic statue within that appeared on the cover of said book.

Incidentally, the so called "Bird Girl" statue has since been removed from Bonaventure. People couldn't resist the urge to paw at this wistful, serene figure, and apparently it began to rapidly deteriorate. It can now be seen in an art museum in downtown Savannah.

The cemetery is not gigantic, but its moss-covered live oak and its secluded location make it a remarkable place. Savannah had a large Jewish population from the earliest days of its history, and the cemetery possesses a sizable division for the Jews interned there. And one simple stone marks the spot where the ashes of 344 victims of the Holocaust are buried.

The remains of some of Georgia's most famous citizens lie in Bonaventure. But the most entertaining sites to visit are certainly the graves of Johnny Mercer and Conrad Aiken. Aiken was a poet whose stone is actually a bench, inviting people to sit and have a martini with him (one set of visitors were doing just that on the very day we went!). His epitaph reads "Cosmos Mariner, Destination Unknown" and beside that, "Give My Love To The World." As for Johnny Mercer, you may not know the name, but he wrote some of the indelible songs of the mid-20th century.

If it seems I have written a lot about the cemetery, it is because history holds a fascination for me that is awakened in such places. I find myself imagining the lives of the names on the stones, how they lived and died, their funerals, and even their subsequent visitors. In no way is this better illustrated than in the story of Gracie, a girl who died at the age of six in 1889. The daughter of a wealthy and successful hotelier, she was the delight of the guests who stayed at her father's inn. She was stricken with pneumonia and died, and her grieving father commissioned a statue of her to mark her grave. It is a vivid portrait: its cherubic, angelic face undimmed by more than one hundred years. A moving tribute of a family's love for a life cut short.

Before I embarked on this trip, I got into an argument about the South with some friends of mine. They were intent upon berating the denizens of that region as red-state, ass-backward hicks. What bears remembering is that Republicans win 55-45, 60-40 in those states, and Democrats win 55-45, 60-40 in the so-called "blue" states of the North. We're not as different as some people want to believe. One can find fascinating people and culture and history almost anywhere!

That said, I did have two experiences that can only be described as surreal. The first was while taking a tour in Savannah. We entered the Sorrel Weed House, where a man from Youngstown, Ohio gave our tour. He asked the group, "are you Lee fans or Sherman fans?" Most of the small crowd seemed dumbfounded by his question, but I quipped, "I am a fan of neither!" Astonishingly, the mark of the Civil War is still felt in the South, so much so that it compels a young man from the North to claim allegiance to a long-dead general of an unhappy conflict. I would love for someone to explain this phenomenon to me.

The second experience was even more bizarre: at the wedding, there was an all-black rock/soul band that played covers of "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Play that Funky Music White Boy." The all-white crowd danced gleefully to both songs. Oye. Maybe I should have passed on the vodka cranberries and went for the Southern Comfort.

4 comments:

┅☆伈随风飞 said...

I liked it, although I do not particularly understand

ladieslovetk said...

Awesome pictures and writing. I enjoyed this very much. It reminds me of my boyhood in Virginia.

Knight of Nothing said...

Thanks, TK. Have you ever been to Savannah? It's worth a trip if you haven't. I actually feel like I have some better pictures from the trip, but these seem to go best with the text. Maybe I'll post a few more.

ladieslovetk said...

I've never been to Savannah but I was once in a very rural part of Georgia on a farm where they raised pigs and everything. We stayed with one of my father's friends from college. Everyhing this family ate, they raised themselves. Also the son (Randy) could hit anything with a
BB gun. He'd sit up in his bedroom and ping the wires on a barbed wire fence that encircled the farm house. A feral cat attacked my sister.