Editor’s Note: It’s the final day of September. The ritual changing of the leaves has been delayed by the seductive blandishments of Indian Summer. Autumnal radiance warms up in the bullpen. Hints of magic inhabit the breeze.
I have returned to the Paoli House of Bitterness, where I squandered the month’s penultimate day. I sat in standardized comfort here at 15 E. Lancaster Avenue for nearly seven hours and accomplished nothing. It’s a new record for lack of productivity.
What I did is hard to say. It’s easier to count things I didn’t do. I didn’t write, work, play, exercise, juggle, dance or masturbate.
But I existed. I waded in the shallow end of the stagnant pool of my own meaninglessness.
Oh, dear Jesus. On the Starbucks Radio comes the Neil Young (technically Stills-Young Band) classic, “Long May You Run.”
“It was back in Blind River in 1962 when I last saw you alive;
But we missed that shift on the long decline, long may you run.”
I have heard this song here for I don’t know how many days running. The first time I heard that opening harmonica run, I was genuinely uplifted. I was enthusiastic. I messaged Kenny Via saying how much I love the song.
Which recalls one of my dad’s favorite idioms: Familiarity breeds contempt. He said that a lot, though I think sometimes he was really saying “familiarity breeds unplanned pregnancy, not to mention unsavory disease,” so watch your step.
In any case, the poor song is getting the Brown Eyed Girl treatment on Starbucks Radio. It is being played into unbearable banality, the association with Howard Schultz’s Empire of Bitterness is sucking at its soul like a succubus on a small-town preacher.
Did you know “Long May You Run” is a tribute to the 1948 Buick Roadmaster Hearse that Young dubbed Mort, short for Mortimer Hearseburg? At least that’s what the Internet tells me. It would explain that business about “your chrome heart shining in the sun.”
Today I will work, despite the sterile surroundings. I don’t like Howard Schultz at all, but I must admit he has furnished a setting where I can get something done. Usually.
Since I consume his overpriced coffee, I feel free to say a few unkind words about Howard Schultz. Howard is, what is the polite word for it? Oh yes. He’s a dickhead. A well-heeled putz.
And it’s more than the way he blithely (and for nothing more than $350 million) sold the Seattle SuperSonics to a cabal of carpetbaggers from Oklahoma. Much more than that.
Howard Schultz is just another billionaire who thinks America’s economic future can be guaranteed only if we all come together to feel the pain. The moguls behind austerity movements everywhere call this “shared sacrifice.” In other words, Howie will sacrifice the social services he’ll never need if we promise to give back some of our social security and lower taxes on people like Howie. And we will. The game is done.
But Howie is not satisfied to simply preach and proselytize and put his vast wealth behind the mean-spirited homilies underlying the Fix the Debt movement, he wanted to bring his employees along for the ride. And so it goes.
If I have slipped into a rant when I should be setting the stage for a story I should have written four months ago, I apologize. I am simply giving myself a bit of latitude as I try to break free of the invisible chains that shackle me to nothingness. Some days I have a hard time getting past my own limitations. Some days I am stymied by the feeling that I am writing nothing of any significance, and doing it poorly at that.
As I walked the back roads of Tredyffrin Township, the sun shone upon me with the warmth of August. I sauntered into a mild breeze and wondered just where I am going.
If someone asks, “Why would anyone want to read this?” I’d have to answer, “beats me.”
I could go on ad nauseam about the walk, and I probably will.
Let me just say it was nice. I did not reconquer any holy lands from any corporate infidels, but I did complete a lovely, 3.5-mile stroll from Chez 531 to the House of Bitterness.
At Paoli’s Montessori School, I picked up a fellow traveler. This just doesn’t happen. He was an ordinary, middle-aged man like me, walking with his head bent into the prevailing winds of fate.
I am white. He is black. But here we were, walking down the road of life together. I thought about this. I wondered how I’d respond if a butched-up cop, armed to the gills with post-9/11 firepower, slowed down and hassled him.
Because Thoreau is dead. Walking is not a common pastime anymore. Something about it just seems suspicious. I do a good bit of walking, and I always get to feeling that I’m up to no good.
My fellow man walked on the left side of the road. I hewed to the sidewalk on the right. After about a quarter-mile of this arrangement, he took a detour through the DePuy Synthes campus. I ran out of sidewalk, so I crossed to the left side of the street.
It is an odd setting for a corporate outpost. Angling rectangles of brick wedged into a narrow patch of land that abuts SEPTA’s rail line to the south and Russell Road to the north.
DePuy Synthes, the sign says, are Johnson & Johnson companies.
And inevitably, here comes an entirely predictable digression about the occasionally questionable ethics of the Job Creators, in which I go from Hearseburg to Heisenberg in three easy steps. I used to have a brother-in-law who was a high-ranking executive at Johnson & Johnson. Then I sabotaged my marriage and lost any chance of reaping the benefits of that insalubrious relationship.
Seems wherever you walk in the brightly lit landscape of Corporate America, you encounter more or less the same story. This one involves meth. Yes, even I have noticed that “Breaking Bad” has become all the rage. It’s been about a year since I watched 46 episodes in 15 days, a bender that, while entertaining enough, cured me of my passion for “Breaking Bad.”
But crystal meth, that’s the real deal. And here is where you find the unlikely intersection of Johnson & Johnson and “Breaking Bad.” Johnson & Johnson, in concert with its fellow giants in the over-the-counter medicine racket, has worked feverishly to thwart legislation intended to curb the scourge of meth. Such legislation, it should be noted, played a lead role in reducing the number of meth labs found in Oregon by 96 percent.
I hate to bash my economic betters and court accusations of class warfare. People, they’re OK. I love people. Even rich people. At least theoretically. Up with all people, for god’s sake.
When people come together in the tribal pursuit of money, alas, an essential bit of our humanity gets obscured. Sometimes it gets obliterated. I think Karl Marx said that.
And thus do you get conglomerates paying millions to public relations firms, robocalls going out en masse and finally, sentences like one where an executive explains that the whole campaign helped “capture the voice of consumers, which made the critical difference in persuading legislators to change course on an important issue to our member companies.”
Mr. Orwell. Paging Mr. Orwell.
But you don’t have to be a meth merchant to make a name for yourself in the fields of corporate chicanery. DePuy Synthes need not feel like a penny-ante stepchild. It made its own mark on the world, and now faces 11,000 lawsuits thanks to its shoddy hip-replacement system. My favorite line from the Wikipedia entry: “Even if the defective device is replaced, it can leave behind dangerous, possibly deadly fragments that may not be discovered for years.”
Back on the road of life, as my fellow man was exiting at the other end of the DePuy Synthes complex, I saw we were on course to collide. I slowed down to make sure he had breathing room.
He didn’t seem to appreciate the gesture. In fact, he began to treat me with suspicion. Every 25 yards or so he turned about to see if I was still lurking. The first time he looked, I answered with a wave and a smile. He did not respond in kind.
When we got to Route 252 in Paoli, he turned left toward Route 30, and I turned right to approach Starbucks from the rear. After a little more than a half mile together, we parted ways.
Fifteen minutes later, as I made my way across the parking lot at Paoli Station and approached the end of my journey, I looked up to see my friend coming the other way. As he exited the Starbucks and made for the depot, my heart soared.
He saw me. I smiled broadly and laughed out loud (LOL).
We had another chance to our experience.
Yet he maintained his stony mien.
I had a sad.
And now I end this writing exercise and turn back to the middle of May, four and a half months ago, when we followed the course of serendipity from Anniston in western Alabama to Pickens County in the east. We were looking for the lost steamport of Vienna (pronounced, as always, Vye-enna).
David Hodnett put us on this course.
This is what we found:
The Road to Vienna
Vienna, Ala., May 15 – We accepted Terry Paschal’s challenge and drove hell-bent for Cheaha State Park, even though it required a bit of backtracking. We arrived in time to enjoy an idyllic sunset picnic. The kid at the entrance station let us in for free, though he made us promise not to cause any problems or make a nuisance of ourselves.
We sat right down on a promontory called Bald Rock and gazed at the sinking sun. We ate cheese and drank the wine Terry had chosen for us.
When darkness fell in earnest, we returned to the Behemoth. Along the way we paused for a while to listen to a chorus of frogs.
We decided to take a chance and slept right where we were parked.
Half-expecting to be roused by a park official, I endured a night of uneven sleep. I got up around 5:30, secured the camper and drove out of Cheaha State Park. As Becky and Max slept, I found my way off Cheaha Mountain and back onto Interstate 20.
It was still early morning when I left the interstate at Eutaw, where we spent a couple hours on Dec. 13. We followed a northwest course along Alabama 14, which parallels the Tombigbee River. My head swam in the beguiling fragrance of roadside honeysuckle. A sweet breath of springtime in the sunny south.
Maybe this is where the Sweet Home Alabama thing comes from. Knowing only that Vienna was somewhere along the river, I followed signs for the Tom Bevill Lock and Dam.
We found ample space in the visitors center parking lot. Max and I frolicked on the playground and listened to songbirds while Becky cooked egg-and-cheese tacos.
After breakfast, Becky cleaned up and Max and I walked down by the river. We gazed at the dam and watched fishermen.
It’s not really a river anymore.
We visited the visitors center, which is a replica of a grand plantation house. They called Tom Bevill the King of Pork, and you can see how he might’ve earned the nickname. We perused the exhibits but found no rangers or interpreters who might tell us where the hell Vienna was, or what birds were singing outside and just what they did with the Tombigbee River.
I did find a small reference to Vienna on a wall exhibit. Vienna, Warsaw, Demopolis, all forgotten towns which drew their lifeblood from the Tombigbee River.
In the gift shop, they sell all sorts of memorabilia which celebrates the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway, aka America’s Newest River. The Ten-Tom is a man-altered system that includes 10 dams, a series of locks, and alligator-infested lakes and backwaters.
Perhaps “infested” is hyperbole.
Vienna was a significant port until the 1870s, when the railroad came through Pickens County. Farmers hauled their cotton here from the surrounding countryside and shipped it off to Mobile and then on to New Orleans.
Mule traders gambled, drank and fought in saloons. They shopped in a half-dozen stores. There were a couple warehouses.
A thriving community, vanished without a trace.
Where could we find Vienna? I asked the woman behind the register. She looked like she could use a good meal. Could she help us?
No, was all she said.
We left the Tom Bevill Lock and Dam Visitors Center and wandered back out onto Alabama 14. The more we wandered, the more it seemed like our search for Vienna would prove fruitless.
A complete deficit of intuitive country wisdom hindered our search.
We traded 14 for 17 and drove back and forth across the Ten-Tom. We found the George Downer Airport and a wood-pellet plant run by a company called Westervelt Renewable Energy. A sign out front said they’re hiring. I thought about it for a second.
We found no hint of David Hodnett’s Vienna.
About ready to give up, we retreated to Aliceville. We took a couple spins around town in search of the library. Failed again.
Aliceville is an impoverished town of about 2,500 people. It threatens to follow Vienna into the pit of irrelevance. As of 2011, 53 percent of Aliceville’s people lived in poverty.
The population peaked during World War II, when it welcomed 6,000 German prisoners of war. In 1943, German soldiers started filing in to town from North Africa.
Now the Germans are long gone, though Aliceville does have a minimum-security women’s prison.
We managed to find the Aliceville Museum, which chronicles the history of that POW camp. We parked the Behemoth at the corner of Broad and 5th and went inside, where I introduced myself to a former high school history teacher named Martha Horton. She knew of Vienna, but darn if she could tell us how to get there.
She knew of David Hodnett. Both his books, it turns out, are for sale here. After a brief conversation, Martha disappeared into a back room. She’s not taking ignorance for an answer.
Less than five minutes later, a stranger walked through the door. He wore a safari hat and a big smile. He introduced himself as Everett Owens III and said he was ready and willing to take us to Vienna. He pretty much owns Vienna now.
I continue to marvel at the way hidden connections expose themselves on the road. If you get profoundly lost, someone will show up to find you. At least it seems that way.
We said goodbye to Martha and followed Everett out the door and onto Broad Street. He climbed into his pickup, and we followed him out of town and onto 14 south. In about four miles, we turned right onto a country road. We bounced along for another five miles before we arrived at Everett Owens’ cabin, which sits 30 feet up a blue-rock bank overlooking the mocha waters of the Tombigbee.
Relieved to have found Vienna and thrilled to have a tour guide, I was happy to allow Everett to unload some of his knowledge.
His desire to oblige was unflagging.
“By the 1830s this place was well known enough, a doctor from North Carolina heard what a grand place it was and decided to move his whole family down here,” he said. “He decided he wanted to be a farmer. He almost went broke till he went back to doctoring.”
The population of Vienna continued to swell in the decades leading up to the Civil War, reaching its peak around 1870.
Everett’s an old sod farmer. He worked the land here until he sold the business about a year ago and leased his thousand acres to a farmer who grew peanuts.
His father bought the place in 1960, but his roots go much deeper into this land. He told the story of one relative, a distant cousin or uncle, who bought a gristmill north of Vienna.
“He went to New Orleans to borrow the money,” he said. “He came back up the river with the money in a keg. And when the boat docked at Vienna, it was night and he didn’t know what to do. So he sat out there on the keg all night on top of the money. I’m sure he had his pistol with him, too.”
Everett invited us in to check out the photos and maps on the wall. He wasn’t content to interrupt his afternoon just to show three strangers around Vienna. No, he offered us something to drink.
We politely declined. When he said he was going to drink a beer whether I participated or not, I said yes, please.
And this is the reward of for a lot of uncharted wandering:
Drinking beer with an old sod farmer while the river formerly known as the Tombigbee flows by on its way to Gainesville, Demopolis and Mobile.
I asked him what happened to old Vienna.
“There was no town of Aliceville,” he said. “Aliceville came in when the railroad came in. The folks in Vienna tried real hard to get them to bring the railroad down through here; in fact they even sold shares in a project to build a railroad. It just didn’t make enough sense. The land was fairly low, and a bridge down here into this low country right across the river would’ve been very expensive.”
I asked him about a photograph of his father, Everett Owens II, standing alongside his beloved bird dog, Sam Spunky John.
“My dad raised bird dogs,” he said. “When I was a young fella, that was my brother, the dog. I always said he liked the dog better than he did me.”
There is some industry percolating here. In 2011, Westervelt bought an old felt plant and promised to convert Southern Yellow Pine trees into 500,000 metric tons of pellets each year. They ship the pellets to Europe. Everett didn’t mention that he played an integral role in bringing the business to town.
He’s that kind of guy. Unassuming and unfailingly helpful.
I asked about the Ten-Tom project. He said it’s been good for the area. Now they have fishing lakes and eagles. Alligators and armadillos.
Wild hogs present the biggest nuisance. Everett, he can tell you about the heartache of wild hogs.
“We’re not real happy with them, but there’s not a whole lot you can do,” he said. “They are more prolific than armadillos and a lot more destructive. A mama hog reaches maturity in six months. She then can have two and a half litters a year, and they average 6-12 pigs a litter and they are just impossible to control. They are worse than rabbits. When we decided to put hunting pressure on them, we hunted them things hard for three or four years and they would just look like they were expanding.”
Then one year they left, and nobody knew why. Then last year they returned with a vengeance.
“I built me a hog trap, and they’re not paying a lick of a attention to it,” he said. “I think they’re smarter than I am.”
Everett grew up in Pleasant Ridge, about eight miles south and west of old Vienna. His dad grew up there. His granddaddy grew up there and farmed over there till 1960. Everett is just an affable, straight-shooting country farmer. Had he been looking for Vienna, I’ll bet he wouldn’t have required the kindness of a stranger.
“I love farming, always have,” he said. “The profit margin is just kind of squeezing down, and we didn’t see a lot of real promise. We just got out. My son’s working a farm 10 miles west of here. Raises almost everything, a big family farm. He absolutely loves it; they just put in 20-30 center pivots. Almost anything has to be done on a big scale now.”
That’s why he sold the sod farm. As the years unfolded, it became harder and harder to turn a profit from these 1,000 acres.
“The profit margins, as they squeeze down you have to increase your volume,” he said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the way things go. You have to meet your competition, and competition comes from all over the world now. The fish farmers are catching it now because of tremendously high grain prices. A lot of that comes from the federal government subsidizing biofuels. That increases the demand for corn, which is good for the corn farmers, but it’s not good for the cattle farmers and anybody that uses corn. It’s just kind of a balancing act. You just figure out what you can make a dollar or two at and do it.”
I recalled a story David had told me about old Vienna. A statute prohibited opening a saloon within three miles of a church. Intent on satisfying their thirst, resourceful townsfolk moved the church. Everett hadn’t heard that story.
“That might be the truth; there are no churches down here,” he said. “There’s not a church for five miles in either direction.”
I could have stayed all night, watching the oaks and hickories sway in river breeze and listening to Everett Owens tell stories. Another beer or two wouldn’t hurt, either.
“It’s a pretty country,” he said, letting his gaze wander to the passing water. “And we try to keep things slowed down as much as we can.”
He wasn’t done with his tour yet, however. We climbed back in our vehicles and traveled about a mile upriver to where most of Vienna was 150 years ago. He said a guy named Hagerman ran a gambling house hereabouts. That is, he ran it until he was shot dead while playing cards in Memphis.
The land up here was more forgiving than the blue rock where the Owens made their homestead. It was good for business, bad for posterity. Down here was the ferry dock, the boat landing, the warehouses, the bustling commerce of Vienna.
“Everything down here was wooden houses,” he said. “A lot of them were built on the bank. Most of it is not there anymore. They just washed out.”
We parked at a public boat launch which also bears the mark of the Owens family.
“Commercial fisherman asked Daddy if he would allow the county to build a landing down here so they could launch their boats, and he let them have a little piece of land down here,” he said. “We had a lot of free fish after that for a long time.”
There is, he said, one surviving piece of Vienna. Somewhere amid the oak and ivy and brush is a tombstone that marks the final resting place of a woman named Selie Cook.
She was a midwife who delivered many of Vienna’s most prominent babies. And she was black.
“It’s the last real relic of this settlement we have,” Everett said as we crunch the leaves of previous autumns and struggled though swampy underbrush.
Everett didn’t want us to get the wrong idea. We were not tromping through any potter’s field.
“It’s the only paid-for tombstone in that whole graveyard,” he said. “She was highly thought of.”
We walked and crunched and swatted mosquitoes for a good 15 minutes before Becky spotted a forlorn piece of orange flagging tape that marked the spot.
We were cut up and scarred and bitten, but none of it seemed to matter. We got up close to see if we could distinguish the words carved into the stone.
And this is the sum: Selie Cook, died April 15 , 1891, at age 89.
That’s a meager haul, yet it seemed like so much more. We were floating. Perhaps it was just the generosity of Everett Owens, who answered a phone call and then scooped us up in Aliceville and treating us to a three-hour historical tour of Vienna.
The unprovoked kindness of strangers is the magic of the road.