There's Such A Lot of World To See
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Now to see if I can get back on track.
I’ve never read a book on the South. Never wanted to. I’ve never thought of myself as a Southerner nor a Georgian. Being an American doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy but it has proved pretty agreeable. The obvious examples of where you don’t want to be born are places like Cambodia and Bangladesh. Less obviously you could’ve been a white person in South African during apartheid.
But I do think of myself as a Savannah boy. (Caveat: everything I’m going to say about Savannah may no longer true, likely much of it was never true.)
Savannah was one of the original colonial settlements; one of the details that funds its great self-love. Lots of American towns and cities are conspicuous in their self-admiration: San Francisco and New York for reasons I’d never fuss about. The men of Houston much love themselves for their manliness and oil money. Los Angeles is likely illimitably proud of its role as the major supplier of American tackiness and prepackaged, just add water pap. I wouldn’t argue with them either. Somebody gets to be the source of ‘national character’ – why not them?
In the 7th grade I was dragooned into the required Georgia History course. The teacher sure had an easy time of it. Most days all she did was show us tapes about Georgia history. A dim recollection of seeing a list of Georgia’s colonial exports is the only recollection that survives. I think she may have actually loved the subject but had no gift for imparting it. Which would be a real challenge with an audience of thirteen year olds.
Having passed their statues often I know that General Oglethorpe founded the colony. It was his kindly way of getting lots of people out of debtor’s prison. And he got John Wesley to come over. Wesley didn’t have a happy stay but all of the Methodist churches in the South show that he had more influence than he could’ve ever guessed. And people never tired of saying that before the War Between the States (better known as the Civil War, when I was little I didn’t know they were the same war) Savannah’s port was as busy as New York City’s.
That exhausts the bulk of what I know about Savannah’s past. Thanks to the signs that little the downtown Colonial District I learned that George Washington really did sleep somewhere thereabouts, Flannery O’Connor had been around and that the oldest church organ in America is sitting in one of the local churches.
During my early elementary school years I lived across from an old colonial cemetery. The plaque above his grave was a regular reminder that Button Gwinnette signed the Declaration of Independence.
That really does sum up all I know about Savannah’s history. Not having been there in almost twenty years the only thing I know about its present is that the elementary school
I’ll add one bit of trivia. Long years ago Victor’s wife, Nancy mentioned that her uncle was Johnny Mercer. That he’d founded Capitol Records meant nothing to me. Had she told me he’d written Moon River I’d have been impressed. Now I enjoy him both as a singer and a lyricist. His old Savannah home is maintained by a determined fan.
I’d been going to is now The Savannah College of Art & Design.
As I entered my teenage years I grew increasingly impatient to be out of Savannah. I was looking forward to my days at Caltech or MIT (no kidding, gang aft agley and all that stuff). Learning that I’d like to get naked with a skinny, winsome boy, getting out grew to a necessity of daily sanity. So, at eighteen, I left.
There’s nostalgia for a few things back home. I don’t know that Oglethorpe really formed Savannah’s original layout after Beijing’s. Or even some eighteenth century British imagining of it. The twenty-four squares in what has come to be known since I left as the Victorian District are what I miss most. Some of the squares are like tiny parks. All of them have one or more neat things: statues of people, the huge rock atop the grave of Tomochichi, an 18th century Indian chief. Some of the parks have merely wooden benches, other have impressively long stone benches any one of which could hold the congregation of many a small church.
Growing up with hundreds of old houses (a few very old) you don’t regard them much. There’s a dense stretch of them back in Savannah. Now all annoyingly tourist attractions; when I was a little kid people still lived in them.
Savannah’s downtown wasn’t lovely. Regrettably it grew less so. The ten-story bank my momma worked in was just a big building with a stone façade, pretty common among the old buildings of Manhattan. When they replaced it the surprisingly powerful Savannah Historic Preservation Society forced them to replace it with a building only four stories tall. But they did let them build something that looks like a giant Kleenex box that would be more comfortable in San Jose.
The Riverfront District was becoming commercial as I was growing up. When I was small there was only the Confederate Museum, a public library branch (I remember checking out Asimov’s robot stories there) and a couple of law offices. Otherwise the old cotton warehouses were deserted. You could walk down the cobblestone street to the river and you wouldn’t see much aside from the statue of the Waving Girl (A woman who waved a towel at passing ships, the statue is a reproduction of one in Italy. Victor’s mother was a pal of hers and in her last years when she was broke sold copies of an old picture of the Waving Girl to tourist shops.)
Even before I left shops like one called Untiques had sprung up. On a much later trip I discovered a gay club had been opened down there. I didn’t go in but it had to be better than the old Basement that was nothing more than its name implies.
Living in Durham whose greatest architectural glory is probably nothing more than an old Woolworth’s I miss the old surface splendors and charms of my hometown. But not enough to ever consider living there again.
It is still a backwater. And it stinks. When Gordon came to visit me he complained about the odor. I hadn’t a clue. Later when I’d left and returned home I learned what he meant. Savannah’s most important employer was the Union Camp plant that was, perhaps is, the world’s largest supplier of paper bags. Downtown smelled like the world’s largest collection of rotten eggs. Nothing like the smell Durham had before the tobacco companies moved out, the scent of freshly harvested, unsmoked tobacco.
No harm that I’ve divagated down memory lane but I didn’t intend to. Funnily enough I still haven’t written the journal entry I’d intended. So I’m going to chop this off and try for a third time or spend my time trying to achieve some more readily achieved goal .