One of the reasons for parking the Caravan in Lake Glendale State Park in Southern Illinois was to allow me one day in Marion, my father’s home town, to sit in a library and do what I love to do—pull from library shelves one book after another looking for something, anything, somewhat randomly, somewhat by stealth research methods I have developed and refuse to divulge here. One morning, I did just that for a couple of hours, then decided I needed a goal and got on the Microfiche machine seeing if I could find obituaries for my father’s parents. There is nothing like working on a Microfiche machine, examining old, yellowed fragile newspapers that have been photographed quickly and sometimes badly, and loaded on rolls of celluloid that go swoosh swoosh swoosh through a large film projector with a cloudy and smudged screen. Microfiche machines are why we give awards to academic books that no one ever reads—somehow we have to reward labor under inhuman conditions. Goal accomplished, I was famished. So I drove down Main Street, passed where the home place used to be, and where now a bank building stands, and then rambled on to the Dairy Queen, where I ordered a salad and Diet Coke (I hadn’t worked hard enough for the calories contained in a burger and shake), and plotted my way to Mt. Hebron, where my grandparents are buried. Turns out, I discovered yet another place of which neither Siri nor the Nice British Lady in my GPS had ever heard. But I made it, anyway, thanks to a strategic call to Knightsmama, who has even better research skills than I.
|"Proceeding On" by Evertt Beidler, Cairo, IL|
I have to admit that one of the failures, so far, for the Caravan is that home school has been very difficult to accomplish. Certainly everyone is learning a great deal. While we are imbibing facts, themes, and experiences that will nourish us for a long time, we are still a bit more in vacation mode that I think we should be. I am hoping that when we arrive in Acadia, Maine, and begin to stay put in places for a week or two at a time, that we will transition from vacationing to living. This is my way of confessing that I have been allowing Dr. J. off the hook with regards to Dad’s American Literature Class. The truth is I haven’t had time, either, to read or reread the books I was hoping discuss. Still, before my confession becomes too maudlin I should point out that after our visit to Hannibal Captain Crunch read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and at this moment—9:19 p.m., September 4, at Pinery Provincial Park on Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada—both boy are lying in their beds reading books on their respective Kindles.
Still, Dr. J. and I worked out a deal about Huckleberry Finn, which he says he has read before. We would read my two favorite chapters: Chapter XV and Chapter XXXI. The second of the two chapters presents Hunk’s great moment of decision: “I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then I says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’” For us, today, this passage is such a wonderful moment of irony. The lead-up is a tennis match of opposing tones. At one moment, Huck is doing his damnest to be a Good Christian, support slavery, and make sure Jim’s owner, Miss Watson, knows where Jim is. While Huck is confused, Twain is clear. Slavery (and our versions of it—racism), is an obvious breech of Christian values. Then, Huck remembers the events that have made up the book so far, featuring a catalog of Jim’s kindnesses toward him. Jim has behaved in a completely civilized (and Christian) manner—that is, real civility, not the ersatz stuff of polite society—and Huck can recognize it. Here, Twain has withdrawn his tongue from his cheek and told us plainly what human love is like. Then in the paragraphs following his decision, Huck still believes he is evil, and Twain’s irony shines as Huck begins listing all good things he will do for Jim because he believes he has committed himself to a bad life. But Twain is very clever: watch him say what he means to say ironically and un-ironically at the same time. “I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog” [my italics]. What is good? What values form its foundations? How do we know when our behaviors are good? This chapter is an astonishing attack on the false morality of much of mainstream, middle-class American Christianity, and I wonder why Twain was so popular in his day. I know I can’t place myself back in the 1880s, when the book was first published. And I know that it is silly for me to believe that today we read the book with some greater perception. Still, Twain really is vicious. Yet so are Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, and John Stewart, and they are the toast of the ironic class and thus for those of us in the Middle Class who aspire.
But our preparation for this moment is in Chapter XV, when Huck and Jim get separated in the night fog and pass Cairo, and thus end up in the South. I suppose, over the years, Cairo had taken kind of iconic presence in my uninformed mind. All I knew of Cairo was its importance in Huckleberry Finn, its symbolic power as a gateway to the North (or the South, depending on which direction one is traveling) and some sort of romance I had attached to it because of the way my father pronounced the name as he spoke of visiting the city in what turns out to have been its heyday in the thirties. I also have a kind of genuine appreciation for its location geographically, the point where two of American’s great rivers join, and where Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri face each other. If I were one of Thomas Jefferson’s advisors, I would have recommended putting an outpost there.
This trip, Waller Grant headed south on Illinois 145, and crossed the Ohio at Brookport. To our regret, we did not have our cameras ready, because our first sight of the Ohio was one of the “Oh, my, I had no idea” kinds of moments.” “Look, Captain Crunch. Look, Dr. J. It’s the Ohio,” Knightsmama and I called out. In Paducah, because of our never ending search for Wi-Fi, a portion of our time was given to a nice little coffee shop named Etcetera, The shop feature student art both inside and outside in a little courtyard. Once, necessary internet connections were made, we ventured downtown and discovered a cute town that is doing is best to establish itself as a town that welcomes tourists and artists. While I would not call the town vibrant, it displays some energy and an appreciation of his history. At the coffee shop, we talked with the barista/musician who had returned home after sojourns to Oklahoma and Austin. He did not appear to take his return home as a moment of defeat. That’s a good sign. Some city father or mother was making some strategic decision that were working.
For lunch, Dr. J.’s choice this time, we found a sandwich place with a salad bar that featured pie, but no one had pie. Captain Crunch had his eye on a place that made its own ice cream, and I, usually the pie aficionado, had my eye on my girth. Soon we were on the road again, but only after a pleasant walk along the Ohio below the flood wall, which is now painted in a series of murals telling the proud story of Paducah.
There are no such murals in Cairo, and really, nowadays, no such proud story. Instead, one finds graffiti and trash, empty store fronts and burned out houses. I saw only three people as we drove Highway 57 that runs through the middle of town. One was a long-haired teen in what might have been a black heavy-metal t-shirt, just sort of looking lost, hanging out in front of a rundown house, the kind I imagine is filled with liquor bottles and mattresses without sheets. He could have been some contemporary version of Huck. The others were a white woman and a child of five or six crossing the street toward the liquor store. She was blonde, bone thin, with a face that looked decades beyond the age of having a young child. Knightsmama and I said to each other at the same time as we watched her: “meth.” We don’t know her story, of course, but we humans deserve kinder lives.
Sometimes I wonder where the hell I have been because now that I have seen Cairo and read about it on the internets, I know that Cairo’s demise as a town is notorious. At its height in the twenties and thirties, Cairo was a thriving town of 15,000 to 20,000. Now it just falls short of 3000. At one time, it lived up to its potential as a trade center, home to ferries, railroads, and trucking. Fortunes were made in this town. But as railroads declined and highways and bridges by-passed the small town, commerce headed out on the same roads. But what really killed the city was prejudice.
During the Civil War, the Union quickly took possession of Cairo. Following the Civil War, the town attracted a significant African American population, with a third to a half of its citizens being Black by the turn of the century. In fact, Cairo had the largest population of African Americans of any Illinois city south of Chicago. Then in 1909 violence struck. A black man was accused of killing a white woman, and although the sheriff appears to have attempted valiantly to prevent it, a mob took the man, shot him, beheaded him, and displayed the head in the city streets. But that was nothing compared to the sixties when African Americans reacted to structural racism by boycotting white businesses for years and turning to violence themselves. Whites formed a group called the “White Hats” to patrol the streets and protect law-abiding citizens. They were accused of repression. At one point, police and firefighters were fired upon by someone with a high powered rifle, and the Chief of Police resigned, being unable to combat such tactics. The National Guard was called in to keep the peace. Wherever blame lay, the result has been the continued flight of money and the business class. Still, the town hangs on and a few are trying to tempt tourists to a historic district with its large and fancy houses from the bygone days.
In addition, Cairo has experienced catastrophic flooding in spite of a large system of flood walls and levees, which essentially makes it possible for Cairo to become an island surrounded by flooding Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. In May, 2011, everyone in town was evacuated when the Ohio flooded. My guess is that no one wanted another Katrina. If you desire to see the ruins of Cairo, you can do so by following this link. Do so at your own risk. There is a concept I have learned called “ruin porn.” And the idea is that there is a danger of us becoming gawkers, voyeurs to other people’s misery, that we somehow “get off” on looking at the wasted lives that abandoned buildings and wrecked cars represent. I know that as we drove through Cairo, Knightsmama and I felt some vague twinge that we were spying on something private. There was a misery here that we were not equipped to remedy, and if we were not ready to be present authentically, we should not be there.
But Waller Grant was determined to find the rivers and after driving up and down the main drag from the south entrance to town to the north exit and back, we found an abandoned park. The asphalt roads, in disrepair, had been laid out with care, several magnificent large trees provided shade over unkempt grass and weeds. Rotting wooded polls stood at attention with electrical outlets hanging from them with such regularity that we finally recognized that we were driving through an abandoned trailer park. At the tip, the far end, a strange two-story concrete structure stood facing the watery triangle where the Ohio and Mississippi meet. When we climbed the stairs, we noticed the structure was built like a ship, its bow facing the point. Then sadly, forlornly, it seemed to me, between the “ship” and the water was a work of art, a metal sculpture that Dr. J. recognized as a sundial, named “Proceeding On” built by Evertt Beidler of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, dedicated to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who used this spot to ready their team for their great exploration of the West. I wondered what does the artist feel, his work dedicated to that momentous feat of imagination and determination, left without ceremony in an abandoned park? It was such a contrast to Paducah and the Etcetera Coffee Shop, which celebrated student artists.
But I can tell you, even with all of this tragedy, Knightsmama, Dr. J., Captain Crunch, and I, all of us, stood on the wet earth, beached branches and tree limbs at our feet, looked to our right at the Mississippi, then turned to our left and saw the Ohio, faced straight ahead at the Mississippi as it continued to Memphis and Vicksburg, and New Orleans. This is a wondrous spot, so vast are these rivers.
And then, of course, I thought of Huck and Jim, separated just north of there in a dark foggy night. One way, south, leads to immense danger in slave holding states; the other way, east and north, takes Jim to freedom. And they miss it, their river to freedom. Once they find each other again, downstream, unknowingly past the point of no return, Huck’s first instinct is to play a trick on Jim, to treat him for a fool. And Jim’s is to cry with relief that Huck is safe.
At this moment, Huck begins to become a mature human, without prejudice, perhaps to be real Christian, without all the church stuff.
“Then he [Jim] got up real slow, and walked to the wigwam, and went in there, without saying anything but that. But that was enough. It made me feel so mean I could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back.
“It was almost fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger—but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither.”
Too bad Cairo could not have learned this lesson also. The town, to me, appears to be a failure of humanity. I wasn’t there, of course. I don’t know anywhere near the full story. But I have to believe that at some point somebody, some leader, could have just said, “We are sorry for the past. Let’s look toward the future and figure this out, together.” Maybe someone did, and the people refused to listen. If you read Mark Twain, it’s all there—the feuds and the mobs, the humility and the forgiveness.
Soundtrack. Marvin Gaye: "What's Going On"
Soundtrack. Marvin Gaye: "What's Going On"