The cock stopped suddenly and curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tiers of pregnant suns floated in a green-gold haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed, his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had ever seen such an idiotic old man. “Christ will come like that!” he said in a loud gay voice and wiped his hand over his mouth and stood there gaping.
—“The Displaced Person,” by Flannery O’Connor
While you study history be prepared for what it does to you emotionally. We visited Camp Sumter today in Andersonville, the Civil War prison camp. It’s a place of death. Nothing but death. Plus, later today I had to put on The Shirt of Unhappiness.
Sometimes history can make you happy and sometimes it can make you sad. If your eyes don’t tear up from time to time from what you see I think you might not be pursuing and understanding history hard enough, because in your pursuits you’ll learn pretty quickly that a large part of history involves the cruelty people impose on each other.
I wouldn’t recommend a visit to Camp Sumter unless you can handle feeling pretty roughed up for the rest of the day.
I know we did.
I know we did because this week my official indication of what got to the boys emotionally, and what didn’t, was whether the chit-chat and the jibber-jabber cranked back up the moment we got back into the bus and headed out for the next place on our list. We had toured the National Prisoner of War Museum on the grounds and walked through the Andersonville National Cemetery, too, and when we headed back to Americus to eat bar-b-que for lunch it was quiet in that bus for a long time.
But it was quiet at Camp Sumter too. Our footsteps and the words of our park guide were the only sounds. A snap or two from Gary’s camera. That was it. For only fourteen months near the end of the Civil War what had happened on the soil we walked on was almost too much to understand … and to attempt to understand no matter how painful history can be is a scholarly pursuit, but the suffering that haunts that great field with an inadequate creek was way too much to comprehend in an hour or so. I think the boys might have asked two or three questions. We were stunned.
Ahead of us with another guide were a group of modern soldiers … about twenty of them. Fit. Young. Alert and respectful, but dressed in casual civilian clothes. Clean shaven. They were soldiers from Fort Rucker in Alabama. Their presence there was oddly striking. I wonder what they were thinking.
Thirteen thousand soldiers died in that stockade … in that incomprehensible squalor and misery and spring and summer and fall heat. Later, in the National Cemetery a few hundred yards away you gaze silently at their thirteen thousand headstones, packed tightly together. Row after row of small, marble headstones. This is a stunning site, too. The headstones glimmer in the bright January light. You instantly feel sad for people you don’t know. Our guide told us the dead were placed shoulder to shoulder, in trenches just three feet deep. Standing in any spot and turning and looking … it’s too much to comprehend. It was too much to comprehend then.
We stopped in Plains on our way to Columbus. Tomorrow morning we’ll visit the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center just outside the main gate of Fort Benning in Columbus. Georgia has produced only one president and we felt it was our duty to visit where this man came from. You begin the tour, which takes you around town, in the Plains High School building that serves as the visitor center and museum. Matriculation ended a while back and now it’s a national historic site. It’s just like the Carter Center back up in Atlanta where we went last week, but with old wood floors and plaster walls. It’s an old school, but Old School. The floors made wonderful old noises. The lady who was working the reception desk and the gift shop spoke in a southern accent as rich as molasses. I loved listening to her. She was instantly interested in who we were and where we were from and where we were going. After a while or sort of gawking around at everything, I asked her if she had gone to high school here.
She said she did. When we were about to leave the lady said she wanted to show me something. She actually tugged at the sleeve of my coat. I instantly wondered why she was so excited. Down a long hallway she drew me and Percy to a row of lockers.
These are lockers, she said brightly. Our old lockers.
There were about ten of them, and more across the hall. Each locker, made of wood and painted blue, had two panels left and right and a shelf … and then there was a top shelf, too, where you could put your stuff. The panels on the left and right ended about two feet from the floor and there was no door. The lockers were open, and each locker had two hooks attached to the wall.
The lady was so pleased with this beautiful and simple thing, too, in a building full of rooms of hugely important artifacts of the life of a former president of the United States who had roamed these halls.
For a long moment she would look at the row of lockers and look at me and I noticed she had not yet dropped her arm … she was still pointing at them as if I had not yet comprehended something.
I almost hugged her as we left, but didn’t. I don’t think she would have thought a hug from a visitor was odd in any way. In any way.
Driving out to the west part of town to Jimmy Carter’s boyhood home, a national historic site, too, I finally understood. She was showing me in her own sweet way how they trusted each other a long time ago. As my eyes and mind were being mesmerized again by watching the pecan groves and cotton and peanut fields whiz by like the pages of an old movie flip book, I pondered the lockers in our school. They have doors, but no locks. I’m proud of us, too.
At President Carter’s boyhood home site, the site manager pointed to some pecan trees by the house that Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian, had planted when they moved there. The trees still produce and before the boys went into the home they scrambled around in the leaves and packed their pockets with pecans. Percy made his way over to me before we walked into the house. I asked him did he know the significance of those pecans.
Well, think about it, I said. Those pecan trees were planted by the mother of a president of the United States a long, long time ago. Those are some special pecans, in other words.
Percy had a lot of them in his hands.
I asked him how do you think they’ll taste.
He said … Sweet!
I told Percy he was probably right. We walked the grounds. It was quiet out on Old Plains Road at the boyhood home of a president. I walked out to the road to get the street view of his home and the grounds. I noticed the mailbox by the road, under a magnolia tree. What was I thinking … but I did it anyway … I walked over there and opened the door to see if Jimmy Carter had any mail.
We walked over to the barn. A male peacock strutted out of the barn door. He instantly showed us his plumage, violently shaking it as the feathers fanned out. He was getting it just right for him, and us. We stood in awe for a long time, watching him strut and slowly spin around while a nearby donkey brayed and some goats sniffed the air. We fed the peacock some of Lillian’s pecans. In a way only a peacock on display can, as no one said a word, the peacock quietly fed our road-funny spirits as the southwest Georgia sun began to set over a president’s boyhood home.
President Carter didn't have any mail. I was shocked.
Next Entry ... January 15: Field Trip Confidential