A few weeks back, we returned from a trip to Savannah, Georgia and Beaufort, South Carolina. A visit to the old South, as people would say, enjoying the parks and public squares of Savannah, the stately homes around the square, enjoying the tours particularly the pirate house and other interesting legends like the Williams Mercer residence, the subject of a book and a film directed by Clint Eastwood. My memories of the so called American South did come from the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”, the gothic atmosphere, the decadent and aristocratic city recovering from the Civil War, an update on “Gone with the Wind”, where the landed elite lose their holdings amidst the destruction of General Sherman’s army. But it was a young town, with students from the surrounding universities, the playing bands in the squares, the music festival, young people lazing in the park, bring a youthful vibe reminiscent of New York, with both its greenery in its public spaces and the cosmopolitan taste of its food and culture. The trip was a welcome escape after the area contest I organized and dues payment deadline which I worked on the previous week.
I did not expect Beaufort to be more interesting than Savannah, but I was mistaken, enjoying first the beach and lighthouse at Huntington State Park, imagining life in a remote area beside the sea, with the museum on light keepers enough to trigger romantic images. The mansions in Beaufort were next after an excellent lunch of Shrimp and Grits, fried oysters, shrimp bisque; enjoying the waterfront and finally a tour on a horse led carriage, around the quaint settlement beside the Beaufort river, the guide talking about the history of its old houses. But Beaufort was a Union town, after Robert Small (later congressman) helped the Union army takeover the surrounding coastal areas, effectively blockading the South and stop any shipment of arms from European enemies. The pace was slow and leisurely, topping the surprise and enjoyment of the Savannah excursion, thinking that one must return and enjoy these old cities saved by Sherman who visited the area before the war, instead marching on and burning Columbia to the ground. The legacy of the Union presence is Parish Island, the training ground of the US marines; also the historic capital of the Spanish colonies, long before the English came and changed the history of the continent.
After returning from the trip, one was engrossed with the problems at work, back to the grindstone, fighting issues and assaults from colleagues, finally settling on a system of more organized work, instead of the current turbulence. Last Saturday was the division speech contest, where I served as judge for 4 contests; enjoying the orations and glad my term as area governor is finally coming to an end. I was crazy to take on that role plus my new assignment at work, compounding my stress and increasing work load. I feel I am emerging from a tunnel, hopefully better organized, with more free time, instead of being dictated by problems, meetings and fighting fires. The trip to the old South was refreshing, reconnecting mental images conjured in books, finally seeing the old coastal towns where ships from Europe crossed the Atlantic and berthed into the New World. During the road trip, as we travelled along towns and highways, we listened to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatzby’, possibly the great American Novel, equal to ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’, by exploring the way wealth corrupted the New World in its mad dash to supremacy. ‘The business of America is business,’ said Tocqueville.
I felt a connection to the old towns of the South and Jay Gatzby, the drive to accumulate wealth by vice, enriched by slavery in the cotton, indigo and rice plantations, transforming the local planters into a landed gentry but eventually destroyed by war; the cleansing of an evil, the stately homes now owned by carpetbaggers as the old aristocratic families fled in the wake of Sherman’s destruction. There is history looking around the stately parks, the old churches, the ruins in Sheldon of the Anglican cathedral, of long lost grandeur and decaying mansions, the military presence in Parrish Island was like a lifeline, a sort of equalizer that started de-segregation in it’s ranks after the world wars, a lifeline for Jay Gatzby, too as he embarked on a quest of re-invention and wealth accumulation, perhaps like the slave owning plantation owners, with a sort of twisted purity of a lost time, only to perish in violence. It’s crazy to try to link the history of the south, with its stately homes and crumbling ruins, to a romantic hero chasing a gold digger, who also owned a mansion beside the sea. But there is the same core of purity amidst the corruption like living in the antebellum South with its soft gentle manners and cruel slavery.