Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling

 

 Porch Tale   

 

 

Roundabout History 

By Palmer Fitzgerald

 
 
 

My wife mentioned recently that I seem destined to live near historical areas in the South, not that I try to because I have always shied away from museums or anything culturally significant. Just the same I was born at Meridian where Sherman destroyed railroad tracks for twelve miles in each direction. Mama knew personally of a woman who had thrown a sack over a Union soldier's head before killing him. Then I lived in Tidewater, Virginia where my daily walks took me through Confederate earthworks, and squeezing through the fence outside Newport News City Park, I encountered Washington's Headquarters and parked cannon of the Revolutionary War. In North Carolina we rented an ante-bellum house. Now we are just outside of Danville and while I see it as more ratty than Sharon McCrumb would describe it, it has extended my minor gambit with history.

As kids we played around Miss Victoria's Victorian mansion at Russell and visited the Isaac Russell house where Union troops had been quartered. Like many families thereabouts we vacationed to sultry points of interest. Jackson's capitol exhibited busts of former governors, and the delta? Well we went up there to say we had been to Arkansas and I believe there were a million black people in sight of our car. At Vicksburg we toured the CSA cemetery, too casually I'm sure. Down through St. Francisville we motored and turned off for Afton Villa, where the stove piped greeter invited us by for a dollar. In New Orleans two mobsters walking behind us huskily discussed business. At a picture show in Pensacola we saw Target Zero and MacArthur gave his farewell address. From Foley, Alabama we swam at Gulf Shores when there was only a hut to change in. On the bayou we swam in thick rain, dodging underway cabin cruisers.

At Meridian in 1960 I was on noon break from a deadpan job when I strolled over the concrete floor of the train depot, each footstep hollow in the great old building, and out to the trains where a whistle stop was in progress. From the last car LBJ held forth introducing Lady Bird and his two daughters. He was Vice President and the highest ranking dignitary I had ever seen. Such lazy hot days where Jimmy Rodgers and the Calf Scramble were king, and I didn't appreciate that my pal and schoolmate was Ruben McLemore, whose ancestors founded that part of Mississippi.

Getting close to history is more through; I felt it intimately at the aged unpainted house on Settle Bridge Road. It was two stories, the upper porch blown away many decades ago. Begun in 1832 and finished in 1834, its ceilings and windows were high, and there was a unique landing at the top of the winding stairs for peering out over huge oaks spread below. Over the kitchen, a bath was the previous slave quarters sporting a Princess tub and small cubbyhole windows. A washroom, its logs cinched, stood innocently away from the rear of the house, once the kitchen when it was considered rude to dine inside the main house.

We were there a few months, in 1985 and again in 1986, I cutting firewood in winter and weeds in summer when a spider gave birth in the bedroom. The owner rented it cheaply to have someone there and hippies were drawn to it, except one was an artist whose excellent work was left pinned to slanted tables topside. He left us a small tractor to cut the grass but I turned it upside down and it never worked again. We had to leave, my wife was complaining about losing hot water and the house was beginning to slant. But it had been a slant in progress. The place was history however. The hedges were skewed away from the blacktop, for in the woods across from it I discovered the old road that once went to the house, a cut in the earth and large trees growing in it. Nearby was a tobacco warehouse sinking into the ground, our mailbox sat on wheels. A spring down the hill provided water using an electric pump, but once was carried by hand. I liked to imagine the commerce once attendant on the residence, the horses and carriages, then gas-driven cars similarly shaped, followed by humpbacked Chevrolets then boxy vehicles of the 1950s. Now my VW van and my wife's old Monte Carlo sat in the drive.

We assumed renting it from a woman tenant who walked us through the yard pointing out the mint and other plants. They were going to Florida to grow oranges. Her husband, a jovial six-foot-six guy lay inside on a hospital bed, his back out, and we would get in soon as he improved. A couple met down the drive and left an auto, she advised, for the wife could not get a divorce. But this is getting away from history and into sociology.

Here next to Danville I live not far from the Chaneys, the parents and two adult sons. David runs a Mercedes repair facility, it being common in Pittsylvania County to place businesses in the countryside. Mercedes ply Ceder Road, going and coming, as do mechanics on test runs. His brother, Junior, I see often, cutting hay in summer for his cattle, baling and pulling it by tractor to them in winter. The elder Chaneys appear to share the cows, and all accept my intrusion with either our Dalmatian or Lab mix. Gray barns and houses, one crowded by round hay; a lone chimney, tell the story of another way of life, for the buildings are tall, suggesting a time when tobacco was dried in them. Trees stand over their dead off the road the way modern ranchers do these old structures. I have stumbled across three family graveyards, their occupants unborn when Jefferson Davis made Danville third capital of the Confederacy, prior to moving it on to Greensboro, each a far cry from Richmond. 


Our porch photo is of Wallow Lodge on Sapelo Island, Georgia.

Palmer Fitzgerald is a long time resident of  Virginia and Cochise County, Arizona, another historical outpost.  Email address is houstonfitzgerald@yahoo.com.

 

2005, Palmer Fitzgerald, All Rights Reserved