After dumping Jessica at the crossroads leading back to Birmingham and wishing her luck—hey, how you gonna be a Plucky Survivor if you don’t survive something with pluck?—we headed towards Monroeville.
Now, this small town has a famous literary heritage; among its former and current residents include Truman Capote (who spent a large part of his early childhood here), Hank Williams and, most notably, Harper Lee. You may have heard of her one novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was inspired in large part (for setting, at least) by her hometown.
Mary reads about a book a day, and always has trouble with the question “so what’s your favorite?” But if she had to choose (comparisons are odious, said John Donne. Or someone.) it would be “Mockingbird.” She knows a lot of it by heart. She’s worn out at least three paperbacks to tatters. So a stop here to look around—oh, and to stalk the reclusive author in an almost certainly futile and absolutely intrusive quest to ask her to sign Mary’s book (a hardcover now, lasts longer)—was a must. See, Ms. Lee used to sign books on random occasions, but has more or less stopped entirely, because people were abusing it; booksellers would get several signed copies and sell them for tremendous markups. Mary has no intention of ever doing this and has vowed to curse her heirs unto seven generations if they ever do so themselves.
The old courthouse is the setting for the book’s famous trial, and Ms. Lee absolutely drew upon it (and her lawyer father’s experiences therein) for inspiration. The building is no longer a governmental one, but instead a meticulously preserved homage to the hometown novel. As you stand in the courtroom, and gaze at the balcony, you can hear Rev. Sykes say “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”
Exhibits upstairs discuss Ms. Lee’s and her book’s relationships to the town and revealed that the art director for the movie spent two days with her, photographing Monroeville and especially the courthouse, so that he could meticulously recreate both for the film’s sets. There was also a temporary exhibit on Capote’s childhood here and his local family. That house was destroyed in the 1940’s, but there is a historical plaque near the remaining stone foundations. There is nothing to mark where the Lee home presumably once stood; it was next door, but now there is a drive through an ice cream (or something—Jessica would have known!) stand.
This lack of signs pointing the way to the town’s most famous living resident was puzzling to us, coming as we do from Hollywood, where maps to the stars homes are hawked on the street. Perhaps this is why Mary figured she could go up to anyone at all, and ask them where Harper Lee lives. Which she did. No one knew. Or if they did, they weren’t telling, though one woman in a gift shop said Ms. Lee’s sister gets her hair done across the street.
Mary did ask the lovely woman running the gift shop at the museum/courthouse, who totally knew, and totally wouldn’t tell her, probably because she would get fired or would compromise her ethics or something honorable like that. Mary tried varying levels of winsome, but this was a far tougher broad than she, and she would not budge. Actually, she came close, when Mary (sincerely) vowed not to ring Ms. Lee’s doorbell or otherwise accost her, but just leave the book and a note behind on the porch. But at that point, Mary felt guilty; pushing this good person farther, to make her abandon her principles (both job and personal) didn’t seem right. Nor did she want to intrude on Ms. Lee. It would have been one thing if the locals said “Nelle? She’s right over there at the coffee shop having a sandwich, does it every day. Here, let me introduce you.” But anything else was, well, way to miss the point of the entire end of the book, Mary, she reminded herself.
So she settled for mailing the book (with another stamped envelope to make it easy to send back) to a PO Box Plucky Jessica had obtained from an old acquaintance of Ms. Lee’s. At the post office, she asked the nice person at the counter if the address was correct. “No, it’s not,” the person said, and Mary’s heart sunk some more. “But I’ll fix it for you,” they finished, and then very casually crossed out the erroneous information and wrote in the right one, and then even more casually turned it so Mary could make note of it for the future. Mary then asked some advice about the letter she had enclosed, and the person thought her polite request was appropriately framed. So what the hey? It’s worth a try, but as that same letter says, if Ms. Lee chooses not to do so (it’s hardly the only such request she has gotten today, much less ever), and just sends the book back unsigned, Mary’s love and respect for both book and author will not be diminished.
But it still would have been cool if we had met her. And bought her some pie.
Back on the road, we stopped in Mobile for lunch at the Dew Drop Inn, established in 1924, claiming they introduced the hot dog to the South. We had one—radioactive pink—and it was…eh. Mary’s fried shrimp loaf featured good Gulf shrimp but they were too crusty and dried out a bit. Also, the portions were too small for Plucky Stomachs.
Then it was back in Mississippi (our third time!) and heading down the Gulf Coast, with a stop in Ocean Springs at The TatoNut Shop, where they make the donuts with potato flour. We were too late for the cake ones, but a dozen glazed (we were sharing with people back in New Orleans! Really!) were just fine. The town was adorable, classic southern oak-tree lined Andy Hardy look, all serene and peaceful but it took donuts called “Katrina pieces” to remind us about events a year earlier.
“Hey, how’d y’all do?” we asked the gal at the counter. Donut shop was fine, town’s coming back, but her house got five feet of water and is gone. “So are all the ones at the shore,” she added.
Right, the shore. We’re there. We turned to the south, and began what should have been the triumphant last 100 miles of Plucky Survivors, all a boastful retelling of lusty Plucky Adventures, and instead ended up sober and somber.
This entire stretch along the Gulf, from Ocean Springs, through Biloxi and Gulfport, down to Long Beach, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian (some 40 miles or so), was all but wiped off the map by Katrina’s fury. We were at a disadvantage; foolishly, we hadn’t seen it in its pre-storm glory, but we could imagine.
Along the north side of Hwy 90 stood glorious Southern mansions, some dating back to the 1800’s, set amongst mighty live oaks. So it’s the best of the South, the most beautiful a beautiful region has to offer. And on the south side was the wide, wide Gulf of Mexico with warm waters lapping at white sand beaches. We looked at this, and said “Well, who wouldn’t want to live here?”
And now? The beaches are still there, but on the north side of the street, a broken driveway, a column or two, a ruin, but mostly….nothing. Mile after mile after mile of nothing.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. There are casinos open in Biloxi, with fresh hotels attached, a business or two, a restaurant, and those beautiful beaches. Honestly? Even now? We’d still want to live there.
So if you are sitting in the comfort of your living room, wondering, a year after Katrina, how you can help, it’s simple: come down and visit. Drop some money in the casinos, eat at a restaurant, talk to some locals, stay here. Unlike with New Orleans, we can’t promise you won’t see any destruction. You will. A lot of it. The post Katrina flood missed the New Orleans tourist areas. Here, this was the tourist areas, and it was all swallowed up by a 28 foot storm surge.
You see a sign designating a house built in the 1800’s as a historical landmark, but there’s no house there any more. The barely standing monument to Hurricane Camille has become a cruel ironic joke. The art museum, formerly topped with deconstruction building materials is now an unintentional extension of that, what’s left of its girders.
But... Those oaks are still there, a bit skimpier than they were, but they are starting to spread their leaves once more. There are gallant people trying to make it back. Trailers, FEMA or otherwise, with sweet wooden porches decorated with plants, chairs and other homey touches, dot the devastated area. The occasional rebuilt house, nearly always on very tall stilts (take THAT, ocean!), is there, just about ready to be occupied. There’s even a very, very short stretch of older houses, set up a little higher on a rise, that were able to be salvaged and stand gleaming with new paint and other reconstruction, giving a sense of what it once was. These are people making a stand, and let’s not let their efforts be in vain.
Our final official stop on the trip was the Friendship Oak at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast campus. This live oak is 500 years old (it was a sapling when Columbus landed!), its trunk’s circumference is over 18 feet, and its branches spread out 156 feet. Legend has it that friends who stand under it will remain friends for life. A perfect ending to Plucky Survivors, we thought, until we actually got there. We barely cared about our Hollywood movie ending once we saw this place.
We had no idea that the Friendship Oak stood on ground right next to the gulf and that virtually every building on this once idyllic campus was ravaged by the storm, lush grassy gardens replaced by sand and dirt. It’s empty, desolate, unthinkable for those who worked, studied, and loved here.
We spoke to Trista, the security guard, who told of riding out the storm in her house with her kids and mom. They heard the roar of the surge, and when water started shooting up from the toilets and sinks, they headed upstairs to the attic. Trista looked out once and saw the water line was within two feet of their sanctuary, about nine feet rushing through the structure, but she pulled her head back in and said “Oh, everything’s fine, Momma! Nothing to worry about!” She’s rebuilding and looking forward to the big bathtub and nice kitchen she’ll have in the new place.
We spoke to another security guard who also stayed—why? Because his house is farther back, and it went through Camile in 1969 just fine, as it did this time. We told him how we understood why people would live here in the first place, and he said, “Once you’ve lived here, you can’t live anywhere else.”
Apparently, it will take 5 to 9 years to repair the campus. In the mean time, classes are being held in nearby Gulfport, and so many students have returned that they are too crowded and need other quarters. Speaking of helping out, why don’t you go to their web site and buy a school shirt or hat or something?
Because despite all this, the school may survive. It has a splendid role model in the Friendship Oak, which rode out the storm just fine. Plucky Survivors have nothing on that.
It was a more quiet drive back to New Orleans than we had once anticipated. There, Nettie and Diana greeted us with the stuff of life, to wit, food, in the form of Nettie’s ziti made with love, plus kinship, considerable tale-telling, and a whole lot more.
Six states, more than 2500 miles, nine days, lots of barbeque; what did it all add up to? That the rural south is not something to be afraid of (sadly, that’s not an uncommon belief in urban areas) and is in fact filled with some extraordinarily friendly, and endlessly interesting, people. That you can drive and drive and drive and never see it all, but you might see what you need. That this country is great, in all senses of the word, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. That there is so much work to do, and it’s overwhelming to contemplate. And yet…
We try to keep the lessons we learned during our Civil Rights visits in mind. The things we saw on our trip, the plights big and small accumulated as “The State of America” seem like an impossible obstacle, all of it—renewing after such devastation, ensuring justice for such a complex and varied group of people all lumped under the name “Americans,” preserving small town America while letting it advance and thrive, this business of life itself.
But as we read at the Clinton library, “There is nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what is right with America.” Further, something is always possible; your actions may only chip away at a problem, but that still means there’s less of it.
Whether it be Civil Rights, recovery from a hurricane, poverty, or just a road trip, Plucky Survivor or your own, Dr. King’s words are there: “If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving.”
See you on the road.