Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Georgia On My Mind

During the fifties, Arthur Godfrey, who was on everybody’s radio in the morning, was promoting Miami Beach non-stop.  After Carl Fisher, nobody, with the possible exception of Morris Lapidus, did more to stimulate the growth and success of Miami Beach. 

When I was a kid in New Jersey, we didn’t take a lot of vacations, but a few times my parents got fed up with the cold winters to the point where we took Godfrey’s advice and fled to Florida.  Being gentiles of modest means, we went to Miami, not Miami Beach, and we rented rooms in a place near the Brickell Bridge.  We went by car, by train and by airplane so there may have been three such trips in all.  Getting out of the NJ cold was wonderful and Florida was a pretty enough place but I don’t recall being overly impressed by Miami.  This was before Castro so the food was white bread fare, more reminiscent of Minneapolis than Havana, with the one culinary novelty of note being key lime pie.  The beaches looked better than ours did but swimming in the warm, calm water offered none of the thrill of battling the surf at the Jersey shore.  My fondest memory of Miami was seeing a statuesque blond drive up to Crandon Park on Key Biscayne in a Jaguar XK-120 and recline to sun herself in a white and blue bikini just a few feet away from us.  She must have been German.  Nothing like that had been seen on American beaches in those days.

Flying to Florida in a Lockheed Constellation was an exciting new adventure, about as comfortable as flying is today.  The twenty-six hour train trip was also a new adventure, but as we were sitting in a crowded railroad coach for that long, it was not the trip’s highlight.  The best way to go to Florida was by car.

In the pre-interstate days you actually went through cities and towns.  I recall going through places like Petersburg, Virginia and Rocky Mount, North Carolina, birthplace of Thelonious Monk, though I hadn’t heard of him then and I suspect few people in Rocky Mount had either.  My father was a traditionalist who stopped for three meals a day and started looking for a place to stay around 4:30 or 5:00, while it wasn’t yet dark.  That made it at least a three-day trip each way.  With age I’ve come to appreciate his approach, but at the time, I was appalled.  Perhaps it was the seed of filial rebellion, planted then, which a decade later led to thirty-hour non-stop trips from Virginia to Florida and from Oklahoma to Virginia.  It may have affected my brother even more.  At an age when some people consider giving up driving altogether, he embarks on twenty-hour solo pilgrimages to the Buffett Shrine in Omaha every year.

I didn’t see much on those express trips but I certainly did riding with my parents.  The road paving, painting and signs changed from one state to the next but otherwise, Virginia and North Carolina looked much the same.  In South
Carolina the green tobacco country gave way to swamps full of trees covered in Spanish moss.  The two-lane road, raised about ten feet from the swamp, seemed to go on endlessly through this fascinatingly eerie landscape.  The monotony was broken occasionally by the sight of a rusting school bus abandoned in the ditch, or by billboards advising that it was only 100 miles to Stuckey’s.  These were repeated every twenty-five miles or so until finally the Stuckey’s would come briefly into view.  They sold pecan pralines, Confederate flags, fireworks, gasoline and God knows what else.  Crossing into Georgia the lane markings changed back to yellow but the swamp and the Stuckey’s provided continuity.  I think it was in Georgia that the tread delaminated on my father’s snow tires.  Those tires are wonderful in NJ.  They just aren’t the best choice for driving to Florida.  We made it to a little town where I vaguely remember a bunch of large red-faced men in bib overalls sitting around looking at the car full of Yankees and discussing what should be done.  We weren’t too sure just how soon or if we’d get to resume our trip but new tires were eventually acquired and we were on our way.

Besides the major Stuckey’s emporiums, it seemed that nearly every little crossroad or settlement would have a place called The Dixie Pig.  It was not a chain.  The need for a barbecue sandwich place was universal and the spirit of SC/GA so homogenized that they were all named the Dixie Pig.  I’m surprised that no one, to my knowledge, has started a chain of Dixie Pigs.  They were to South Carolina and Georgia what Original Ray’s has become to NYC.

Many of those little clearings in the swamp would also have a motel or two and to this day I remember seeing pigs grazing in front of some of those plain long buildings, as if waiting for the occupants to come out and throw them some scraps. 

That was Georgia about sixty years ago.  I doubt that I’d recognize it today.  The Dixie Pigs have probably all been replaced by Burger King or KFC and by now the pigs live in industrial compounds.  But here in Umbria, down by the river, grazing at the edge of our local no-name gas station, we have a whole bunch of unrestrained pigs.  With old trucks and cars parked at the end of the lot next to a rotting wooden storage shack, the scene could be old time Georgia, except for the hills, and except for the fact that these aren’t really pigs.  They’re the result of the mating of pigs and wild boars.  They live down along the banks of the Tiber, occasionally coming up to play with the owner of the gas station.  He chases them down the hill and they chase him back up again, stopping to let him rub their snouts.  Out of town motorists are probably just as surprised as those Yankees were, driving through Georgia.

I’m adding another picture having nothing to do with pigs, except that, like the free range pigs, this one, depicting winter’s end, raises my spirits.