A handful of impressions from a trip down South: There, the Ukrainian front is far, far away. Joe Biden is no war hero. What weighs heavily on people’s minds is the ever-rising price of carburants.
In May, the US South is still bearable. The plague of spring breakers has left. Heat and humidity are this side of misery. Hurricane season has not yet begun. Nothing can hold you back, the time is right for another road trip. We start in Hollywood/FL, my Berlin pal Thomas and I, cross over to the Gulf, amble along the Redneck Riviera until New Orleans, with a side dash to Montgomery/AL in between. In order to avoid the predatory drop-off, charge I then bring the rental back to Washington, D.C., via the Great Smoky Mountains und gorgeous Northern Virginia. Topping the whole thing off is a sailing week with Captain B on the good ship“Windspeel” on the Chesapeake Bay.
What do you learn on such a trip? What is worthy of communicating to the outside world? You travel with your baggage of things experienced and things preconceived, you keep your eyes a bit open, you chat with those you meet at random, you digest all this with the help of the enzyme of comparison and the acid of ratio, and you finally discharge what a normal person calls an “opinion” and today’s German journalist an “assessment”. An upshot. Mine is as follows: a) the era of the cheap American motel room is over. Even the shabbiest fleabag establishment charges at least three score and ten bucks. b) Gas is so expensive that running the V-8-tanks Americans are using as cars might be starting to hurt (Captain B: I gassed up my truck yesterday and paid 104 dollars). c) Florida produces – a true surprise – mighty fine oysters, the finest ones we had in the panhandle. d) the rental companies appear to build some kind of barrier into their car radios. Our Nissan Rogue only had Christian bullcrap and rock of the most barren variety on the dial. e) the war in Ukraine does not matter much in the places we have been, the masses there do not seem overly concerned. f) Climate change still is no showstopper, even on the Chesapeake Bay, America’s most endangered estuary, we found folks keeping their eyes closed.
What you read is true. Yes, the beaches of the panhandle and further west in Alabama and Mississippi until New Orleans are white as snow, thinly grained, all clean. And in May they are largely empty, the waters a refreshing 65-70 degrees instead of the lukewarm 90s of summer. The big silos for harboring the tourists are less densely spaced as on the West coast, not everything old has been replaced, some towns sport a modicum of Main Street charm. Large junks of marsh and swamp land are protected areas. Ever eager to spot an alligator, we drove into the Tate’s Hell Wildlife Management Area, thanks to a nice couple who offered to drive in front of us deeper and deeper into the forest, on rough and rougher unpaved paths, along still waters until a turning point where the road ended. Some kind of viewing dock led into the dark, plant-covered waters. Mangroves or swaps as far as the eye can see – a decidedly un-European and almost otherworldly feeling. But no sight of an alligator. We were too late, we are told, the gators preferred to show up in the early mornings, and at night you could spot their eyes glowing in the water, more or less far apart, depending on the size of the beast. This said, the nice couple bids a fast goodbye on account of a swarm of nasty gnats and makes for their truck. We too move on.
In Cedar Key we visit the small State Park. It offers a short – really short – walk through the marsh and a small museum relating the history of the town: 1860 it was an important railway station for a few months before the outbreak of the Civil War, and also a logging metropolis until all was deforested by the end of the 19th century. Today the economy is seafood cultivation and tourism. The museum describes in some detail the lifestyle of the Seminole Indians but keeps mum on the Black population. This is hardly an accident. Cedar Key is not far from Rosewood where in the year 1922 the violent conflict between white attackers and black defenders were such that both left for ever.
We talk to the ranger who turns out to be a modern nomad, living in a truck-drawn caravan for the last ten years, moving from one place to the next every few m- onths. For the time being in Cedar Key.
What do you think about the war in Ukraine? Should America support the Ukrainians?
I hope that we keep out and will not be drawn in. We have other things to worry about. The price of gas for instance.
So, President Biden is not doing the right thing. Would Trump have done better?
Oh yeah, for sure.
Do you think Trump will run again in two years?
don’t know. But I sure hope so.
The National Museum for Peace and Justice und the accompanying Legacy Museum in Montgomery/AL are the big find of the trip (thanks for the tip, Paul!). They document the practice of lynching inflicted on the descendants of the Black slave population and honor the victims. In a monumental outdoor hall on a hill at the edge of town heavy steel plates are hanging from the ceiling, one for each county with incidents. Names, place, and day of death of each victim are engraved, 4400 of them. Each plate has a double which is offered to the respective county to be positioned as a local monument. The unclaimed pieces are stacked outside of the hall. They are many.
In an old warehouse downtown the museum relates the museum the history of American Black people from the beginnings of slavery to the Black Lives Matter parades – not (or not alone) as story a of progress made in achieving equal rights. Besides the fights of the civil rights movement, the elimination of racial separation in public transport and restaurants or equality of access to higher education and – particularly – the voting booth, there is a second emphasis on the terrorism against blacks in the defeated Confederate States after the end of slavery: Lynching or extrajudicial killing as it is known in the language of today’s UN resolutions. The origins of the term are not certain (one version links it to a Judge Lynch who operated extrajudicially in pre-revolutionary times) and the practice is not limited to the United States. But in the hundred years after the defeat of the South in the Civil War lynching became a tool of wielding power there. It was tolerated and resigned to, often with the participation of gawkers, fellow travelers and collaborators who let themselves be photographed by the dozens and took home as souvenirs what the victims left behind. There were postcards made and sold, and the press did not merely report what happened but announced what was in the offing. «John Hartfield will be lynched by Ellisville mob at 5 o’clock this afternoon», the Jackson Daily News reported on 26 June 1919, the clip is exhibited. According to the paper the Governor declared that there was nothing he could do about it. On the same day, a New Orleans paper reported out of Ellisville: Negro sulky and sullen as burning hour nears.
Museum and Monument are the work of a private Equal Justice Initiative, founded 1989 by a lawyer in order to provide legal support to death row inmates. The initiative was private, the funds were privately raised. The next stop after our visit is the «first White House of the Confederation», nestled between the Alabama State Capitol and the State Archives. The first seat of Rebel President Jefferson Davis. It is well kept with funding from the taxpayer. We ask the friendly caretaker whether blacks are among the visitors. “Rarely», he answers. We tell him that we just come from the Lynching Monument. “I have been there», says the man. «Impressive».
The place is humming again. The corona virus was yesterday, no one person wears a mask, nobody cares about keeping distance. Bourbon Street is pretty much full, on Frenchmen Street every place is booming with live music. The Big Easy – you go in, without a doorman checking your face, you get your hands on a drink, you listen a bit and you move on. The music is often less than sterling, sometimes good, mostly very loud, at times great and always no frills, no attitude, modest, fun Populaire. You do not get this anywhere outside of the United States. We happen on a very able tenor man.
For the second time in the amply designed World War II Museum. I am interested whether the evident parallels to the Ukraine situation are made an issue: «neutrality» vs. Engagement; defense of “Western values” vs. imperial Great-Power aggression; domestic dilemma, the isolationists and Hitler trolls around then-celebrity Charles Lindbergh, the polls showing majorities for America standing back (America First), then the attack on Pearl Harbor, the change of the public mind, the gigantic armament effort to build the arsenal of democracy. Battle by battle we move through the rooms until we see a very old couple in the segment on the battle of the bulge. “That’s where you were? » asks the Woman. «Yup», says the man. On a map he points out where he was after the battle of the bulge (heaviest losses of any engagement in US military history): Aachen, Cologne, southern Germany, Salzburg, he says. The man is Bob Bokey. He is 97 years old. The couple was married only three years ago.
You were in the battle of the bulge?
Yes. I was with Patton, to the end.
Then I had to go to the Pacific. I would have had to fight again against the Japanese, if the bombs would not have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Were you ever in danger?
Yes, in Cologne. I climbed the tower of the dome to see the views and got in the crosshairs of a sniper. I went down quickly.
There is not a trace of a link to the events in Ukraine in the museum. Not one Ukrainian flag, no one handing out a flyer or holding up a banner. The World War II Museum is separate from the present, a time capsule for the conservation of a heroic era. The good war, as Studs Terkel said. Why the insulation? I suppose it has something to do with the deep rift in American society which encompasses the attitudes toward the war. There certainly are polls showing support for the policies of the Biden administration (massive arms support of Ukraine, diplomatic leadership in organizing economic sanctions against Russia), and the President’s proposals for financing Ukraine aid got majorities beyond his Democratic party. But in the Senate 11 Republicans and in the House 57 of them voted against Biden’s second aid package, und the majorities in the polls grow thinner. Presidents at war are frequently strengthened at home, they are able to pose as «leaders of the free world» etcetera, Clinton in the Balkans, the Bushes in the Gulf and in Afghanistan. But Ukraine does not seem to trigger the same effect. Joe Biden is no war hero. On our trip we only detected to Ukraine flags so far, both in New Orleans.
Up to Tennessee on the interstate. There, you do not see a lot but landscape, the red soil of Mississippi, vast forests and agricultural lands in Alabama, the beautiful river bend of Chattanooga. Until things change in Gatlinburg/TN. I arrive at night, neon lights on full force. Miles and miles of fast-food joints, amusement park rides from Pigeon Fork down in the valley up to Gatlinburg at the edge of Smoky Mountain National Park up on the mountain, all engulfed in an endless traffic backup. Gatlinburg seems to be a prime destination for people who cannot afford the coast, rednecks, country bumpkins, hicks – the folks Hillary Clinton mocked as deplorables. Las Vegas cannot be worse. A second drive-by in the morning solidifies the impression. Evidently there is neither any such thing as land-use planning in these lands nor any consideration of the beauties of the adjacent national park. Whoever sees a need for yet another pizza parlor or rollercoaster can set it up.
Dollywood is among the attractions, the establishment of country singer Dolly Parton (her birthplace is not far away). Against my better instincts I drive to the entrance, I am tempted, for all things considers Dolly Parton is one hell of a country artist indeed. But the parking area is as large as an airfield and half full already – I flee. Not without taking in the Trump Store though. A shop in a little strip mall, between Papa John’s and the Chocolate Monkey. The customer is greeted with a flag Buck Fiden, inside you find the usual paraphernalia, hats, shirts, teddy bears. A lot of T-shirts say Let’s go Brandon, and one slogan is new to me: Jo and the Ho got to go. So – the Vice President is called a prostitute. Is this free speech? Or could a wearer be sued for libel? Compared to this, Let’s go Brandon is plain vanilla. It stems from a TV interview with Nascar driver Brandon Brown which was disturbed by a crowd yelling Fuck Joe Biden. The interviewer asserted the viewers – ridiculously wrongly – that they were yelling Let’s go Brandon, immediately coining a war cry for the movement. I ask the young man at the cashier what the whole thing means. He has no clue because he evidently does not know English. I ask in Spanish:
Do you know what this means “let’s go Brandon”?
Not really. People like it.
Do you like Trump?
Yes, a lot.
Did you vote for him?
How long are you here?
Six months. I came here from Mexico.
How could you vote then?
I did not vote. I meant to say that I would vote for him if I could.
Driving on into the National Park, the cars all of a sudden stop. Another traffic jam. On the other side of the road a bear is trotting along, everybody takes pictures. The road climbs up to the top, the Morton Overlook, breathtaking views, chains and chains of mountains, each in its own shade of blue. Then down to Cherokee, the last remainder of the native Americans which– ethnic cleansing – were marched off of their homeland into the wild west and further to Asheville/NC. Another world. The older people in the street look sharper, the younger ones hipper than on the back side of the ridge. Restaurants are often vegan. Lots of rainbow flags. Asheville is woke.
The Chesapeake Bay east of Washington, D.C. is the largest estuary of the United States, four times the size of Switzerland. Not very deep, ramified into countless bays, coves, creeks, and rivers. The flat shores harbor some of the oldest European settlements of America, accompanied with a growing number of second homes. The important deep-water channel to the port of Baltimore goes through the bay, oystering and crabbing are traditional trades, the blue crab being the delicacy of the region. The Chesapeake Bay belongs those shores of North America that are most endangered by climate change and the effects are visible for quite a time. Rising water temperatures drove some species of fish to cooler waters further north, the precarious balance between sweet and salty water is disturbed. Climate scenarios for this century project water level rises between one and six feet. On maps illustrating such scenarios large swaths are crosshatched. They mark those populated areas which will be under water.
We actually aimed for sailing to Smith Island, Captain B and me on the 28footer «Windspeel». Smith Island is on the border to Virginia, population 200, crab fishing the trade, the survival threatened by erosion and rising water levels. In some decades nothing inhabitable will be left of the island. After the devastation by hurricane Sandy in 2013, the government of Maryland offered to buy out the locals, enabling a new beginning on the mainland. They refused. They demand adaptation, the construction of sea walls and dams. We had in mind to get a first-hand impression of how the fight against the forces of nature is playing out.
We did not make it to Smith Island. But a whiff of an impression of what climate change does to the minds of bay locals we got anyway. For instance, Characters Bridge restaurant in Knapps Narrows on Tilghman Island. We struck up a conversation with the waitress,
You are directly on the water. Are people concerned about the rising sea levels?
Not at all.
But the houses here could be flooded or even disappear.
That does not bother anybody. It is not an issue for anybody.
Characters has no crabs on the menu, we are told that we are too early in the season, and oysters are not offered raw, but only fried. Behind us the boats of the watermen are docked. At 3 a.m. they sail, loudspeakers blasting and five hours later they come in, yellow nets filled with clams. I chat a bit with one crew, probably father and son. The chat was not bad, says the older man, 8 dollars for the bushel of bait. Oysters, which almost disappeared in the eighties, were back, he says. A matter of the cycle of nature. “Oysters come and go; I saw this three times during my lifetime already». The real problem was not the rise of the waters, the man says, but the rise of gasoline prices. The sign at the Marina pump shows more than 6 dollars for the gallon of diesel – far more than the pumps on the roadsides. Then the older man asks me:
Did you vote for Biden?
I’m asking whether you voted for Biden.
I am a foreigner, I don’t vote.
I have no clue what made me suspicious. It cannot be the haircut. But in the America of 2022 on both sides of the political aisle a sense for the party affiliation of one’s counterpart seems to be honed. Captain B, a died-in-the-wool Democrat has clear ideas about who positions himself as a Democrat and who as a Republican. We play, tongue in cheek, «red» and «blue». Sailors are mostly blue, i.e., Democrats, as long as the yacht is not over 48 feet. Motorboaters tend to be Republican, particularly those with more than 500 horse powers behind their behind. A little trickier was an encounter in Oxford, a noble and sedate town on the Choptank River, pre-revolutionary buildings, the oldest ferry in America (first running in 1683), barely a house under a million. In the town park a lady walking her walking her dog starts a conversation. “Isn’t it terrible? », she asks, referring to the war in Ukraine. “Like in the thirties, and again in Europe». Again, America was called to help out, saving the free world. “This woman is from money», says Captain B after she disappeared. Red or blue? I tend to blue. Captain B is on the fence on this one.
Am Dock in Knapps Narrows ist der Fall klar. Der Kahn meiner beiden watermen zeigt Flagge: Jo and the Ho gotta go.
Published in German on e-newsmagazine www.watson.ch