The road back to Tallapoosa


In this photo capturing nine Clark siblings. Stan is second from left.

Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 – Still alive, I am.
Still I succeed wildly at the involuntary task of squandering my allotted time on this sorry planet.
That said, I will try to bypass the usual farrago of apologetic bullshit, unseemly self-pity and rhetorical self-immolation. My therapist says I need to tone down the negativity.
(And I look at the record and wonder if there is another proper appraisal.)
Once upon a time I would drop in the occasional reference of my fictitious therapist with ironic glee.
Guess you might say shit is real. At least Chris, my therapist, is. Nice guy. Too nice, I fear.
And so.
I called my convalescing buddy Peter this morning. He asked if I’d seen the SOTU spectacle last night. He kidded when he spoke of SOTU.
What the fuck has become of us? POTUS, SCOTUS and SOTU, oh my. Somewhere George Orwell is awfully glad he is dead.
The national infatuation with acronyms of all stripes gives me eczema of the cerebellum. The only one I can abide in the least measure is STFU.
It is almost certainly a symptom of our cultural degradation. We are a degenerate mess. The abasement of language is integral to the corruption of our so-called democracy.
The linguistic madness is abetted and consecrated by the well-dressed emissaries of the corporate media, who for the most part are too lazy to do their jobs and too enamored with power to give a fuck about it.
And yes, I am not too blind to miss the hilarity of a shiftless scoundrel such as myself calling others for lazy. I get it. But, you know, STFU.
Such is the lower-case state of the union. As for the upper-case one, I just don’t have the stomach for the whole charade. You know at some point a gruesomely injured veteran will be trotted out to make us weepy and thankful and hopeful at the same time.
Such shameless exploitation always fires the imaginations of our leading journalists.
Typical is this report from NBC News reporter Becky Bratu:

Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg’s story of courage, struggle and survival had the entire room in a standing ovation near the end of the State of the Union address Tuesday — as President Obama recognized one of the nation’s wounded heroes as a symbol for the country’s own resilience.
Praising the 30-year-old Army Ranger, Obama said that “like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, SFC Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit.”
The president added that “men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy.”
The unifying moment — which made both Republicans and Democrats, some misty-eyed, stand and applaud in unison — was the emotional highlight of a speech …

What a load of absolute bollocks.
In four paragraphs she makes two references to our duly-elected collection of shills on Capitol Hill. Oh the glory of bipartisanship! They rise as one to applaud the inevitable result of their shared delinquency when they should be burying their heads in shame.
I saw a good bit of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” the other night. I always thought it a bit hoary and sentimental.
Jesus, somehow it has grown balls over the decades. Maybe I’m just a sucker for Frank Capra. I can’t help but think of Claude Rains’ hopelessly corrupt Sen. Joseph Paine. (And a moment to reflect on what a wonderful actor Claude Rains was.)
Only in the world created by a Capra or Dickens would such a venal wretch find the human decency to even attempt to blow his brains out.
A “symbol for the country’s own resilience?”
In a rational universe, Cory Remsburg’s injuries would be interpreted as a symbol for the country’s barking insanity. Ten deployments? For what? For whom?
For freedom, of course. Freedom! It is the new opiate of the American masses. Any travesty, no matter how mean-spirited, harmful and depraved, can be whitewashed with a heartfelt reference to freedom.
I suppose the real message we are to draw from the sad spectacle of Cory Remsburg is this: If he’s willing to get himself blown up in Afghanistan, perhaps the rest of us shouldn’t be so damned selfish when it comes to sacrificing our union protections, pensions, living wages, Social Security and Medicare.
Ask not what your country can do for you, bitches.
I will, to quote the Scrooge, retire to bedlam.
What a fantastical notion is Ebeneezer Scrooge. Nowadays it would take a million ghosts and a million horrific visitations to compel even one plutocrat to reconsider his (or her) rapacity.
But enough pontificating. Sorry.
I am back at work. I return now to Tallapoosa, Ga., where it all began to fall apart.
We spent 11 days there, immersed ourselves in the stories and fabric and rhythms of anachronism. And I’ve still got hours and hours and hours of audio recordings that haven’t been transcribed.
When we left Treasure Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast of Florida, I I was flush with optimism. I had caught up on the narrative and completed a proposal for not one but two agents who had shown a little interest in the project.
I thought I’d turned a corner. Turns out I was marching headlong to another dead end.
Nine months hence, no one is interested. I almost lost interest myself. I’m forever losing interest in I don’t know what it is that paralyzes me and turns me into an indolent bastard.
Though it may avail me of little, I will finish this interminable project. Somehow. Some how. Some way.
I am lucky son of a bitch (not literally, Mom). I am surrounded with wonderful, loving family and friends. They are all too accommodating and too forgiving.
Enough already.
Back to the road.


May 2, 2014: Three days removed from our Gulf Coast sojourn, I’m scuffling to regain the rhythm of the road.
We are just two hours out of Columbus, Ga., yet the day is nearly spent. Shadows fall away. Dusk covers Atlanta like a rueful shroud.
Becky abandons Interstate 85 in another of our involuntary moments of last-minute panic. We land somewhere near downtown, nowhere near anyplace we know anything about. Navigational uncertainty always gets tensions boiling in the Behemoth. Someone must be culpable, and potential scapegoats are in short supply.
We lumber about in hopeless fashion, spilling a gallon of gas every 10 miles, as if the Behemoth had been commandeered by by a blind driver and an idiot navigator.
Everything will be OK, because I had a plan. I had Jimmy Berry on my mind. Jimmy Berry would save us.
When I think of Atlanta, I don’t think of William Tecumseh Sherman, Scarlett O’Hara or Henry Aaron. I think of Jimmy Berry. Ten years ago, we met Jimmy Berry on Peachtree Street.
I remember Jimmy Berry as an ordinary homeless man with an extraordinary sense of salesmanship. Short in stature, long in entrepreneurial spirit.
I don’t recall much about our meeting, except that we ducked into a nearby McDonald’s where, in exchange for a $5 bill, Jimmy shared his story. As our parting neared, he grew anxious.
He lowered his eyes. He frowned. He stirred his ketchup repeatedly with a cold french fry. Loathe to sully our visit with business, he nevertheless said he needed money to get into the Salvation Army shelter.
After pondering this possible corruption of our newborn friendship, I agreed to meet Jimmy at the shelter and, if everything checked out, give him the money.
I labored under the misconception that shelters were free. I understood the Salvation Army might hit transient guests with a laundry list of rules and curfews. Might even make them attend a religious service. But charge admission? I had no idea.
It took us a bit of getting lost and error before we found the Salvation Army that night, but we found it. Jimmy wasn’t there. This shouldn’t have surprised me. I love homeless people, but we never cease to disappoint each other. Our expectations our each other our mutually unrealistic.
As we retraced our path into town, who rode past us on his bike but Jimmy Berry. He passed us by like a ghost on wheels. He didn’t wave.
A month or so later, I emailed Jimmy. He replied promptly, requesting I wire him money via Western Union. Said he’d been sick. Needed money for a coat and food. Being a parsimonious bastard, I failed to meet his request.
We had one more exchange. He again asked for money. I never sent him any. Ten years later, I am afflicted by guilt. Now I proposed to defy staggering odds and find Jimmy Berry, homeless man, somewhere on the streets of Atlanta.
How would I accomplish this? Why I’d just Google “Jimmy Berry” and “Atlanta” and boom, we’d be minutes away from a reunion. I’d make it up to him.
We stopped at the Golden Arches Internet Cafe. The Internet, always so ready to provide information, failed to provide clues to Jimmy Berry’s whereabouts.
Crestfallen, I did a search for Atlanta Walmarts. We returned to the road. Finding a Walmart in 21st century America is remarkably easy. If you consider degree of difficulty, it is the opposite of locating an impoverished wretch in the middle of a major American city.
We drove into the darkness. We squandered two hours. We discovered that, while Walmart is a ubiquitous blight upon the landscape, all locations in the Atlanta orbit ban overnight parking. The sting of defeat heavy in our souls, we found our way to Interstate 20 and wandered west for about 20 miles. We exited at Austell, which, god bless it, has its very own Walmart.
Here we saw no signs prohibiting overnight parking. Frustration dissipated in a collective exhalation. Becky went in and bought supplies. Such abject displays of consumerism never fail to leave us feeling as if we haven’t showered in a fortnight.
A half-hour later, snug in the Behemoth’s slovenly parlor, we swilled $3 white wine and ate hummus. We squelched thoughts of Bangladeshi children stitching shirts in 19th century firetraps for 29 cents an hour. This is distressingly easy to do.
The sound of an idling engine seeped in through our kitchen window. I gazed out and beheld a security guard in a white pickup truck. He knocked on our door. He didn’t want to party.
No camping here, either.
Fucking Walmart. Seething with indignation, we thought of Bangladeshi children stitching Walmart shirts in 19th century firetraps for 29 cents an hour.
We sympathized with the blue-clad, minimum-wage workers who keep the Walmart train rolling along the tracks to hell.
We pledged to stop supporting Walmart. And we got back on 20 west. We got off in Bremen and holed up at a truck stop on U.S. 78. Just a short jaunt east of Tallapoosa.
Oh, Tallapoosa.

Our stay in Tallapoosa turned out far more hospitable than initial indications suggested.

Our stay in Tallapoosa turned out far more hospitable than initial indications might have suggested.

May 3, 2013: Yesterday I turned up an old email from my Tallapoosa file. The story featured a moonshine still, a mischievous Georgia boy named Stanley Clarke and a getaway swim across the Tallapoosa River.
Stan Clarke was the de facto mayor of Bremerton’s Rocky Point, where he poured me generous tumblers of Crown Royal and regaled me with evocative stories of his boyhood days in Tallapoosa. His stories never failed to intrigue me.
Stan graduated from Tallapoosa High in 1935, just before he turned 20. He was the ninth of John and Emma Clark’s 11 children and the first to graduate high school.
He paid, he said, for his class ring by making a batch of white lightning. He borrowed a friend’s still. That was easy enough to do. If you weren’t in the habit of making your own whiskey, you always knew a friend or relative who was. It was a fact of life in rural America.
Buster Lambert had to go out of town for a spell. For the sum of $5 a day, Stan agreed to watch over Buster’s still, which was concealed by a tangle of fallen trees and rising vines along the river’s east bank.
It was easy money, at least until lawmen came tromping through the underbrush.
There was no choice, Stan recalled, but to dive into the tawny Tallapoosa and swim for freedom. When he reached the far bank, he shook himself dry and waved at the cops across the way. The lawmen unholstered their revolvers and riddled Buster Lambert’s copper kettle with holes.
This failed to scuttle Buster’s riverside distillery. He simply plugged the holes with bolts from the local hardware store and went back to work.
I met Stan in 1996. He was 81; I was 33. He lived with his wife, the former Monophae Hagen of Crookston, Minn., in a modest house on a sublime patch of land overlooking Dyes Inlet.
He liked to gaze at the Olympic peaks on the horizon and count ducks. He bought it for $8,000 in the middle of the last century. He delighted in saying the deal required him to put $50 down and pay $50 each month.
Our unlikely friendship inspired me to visit his sister, Clara Williams, when I wandered the country in 2002. I returned with Becky in 2003. I came back with Lauri Lebo in 2007, the year Clara turned 90.
I guess you could say I have an affinity for the place.

Tallapoosa Piggly Wiggly, circa 2007.

Tallapoosa Piggly Wiggly, circa 2007.

When we awoke outside the truck stop, it was Friday morning.
Renewed optimism tingled in my bones. We brushed our teeth, washed our faces, shook off the daze, gathered ourselves and set out for Tallapoosa.
Awash in bittersweet nostalgia, we stopped at Piggly Wiggly on the town’s eastern edge. It sits across 78 Highway and the railroad tracks, from Johnny’s Bar.
I stopped at Johnny’s on my first Tallapoosa visit in 2002. I’d arrived after sunset and thought it too late to descend upon Clara. So I hung out among the Rebel flags and NASCAR posters before bedding down in my old BMW at the nearby truck stop.

Here’s a bit of doggerel I found it a tattered notebook:

Saturday, Oct. 19 (2002), 9:33 p.m., Tallapoosa, GA.
Here at Noble Auto Truck Plaza on Georgia Route 100, cock rings (Electrify her with studded rubber nubs while prolonging your erection) go for two bits a pop. What a steal.
I have just returned from an expedition into the Heart of Dixie, aka Johnny’s Bar and Package, proudly serving Tallapoosa since 1962. Look away!

At Johnny’s, I stuck out like a cartoon lump on a misshapen head. At least I felt that conspicuous. I sat at the bar, dulling my anxiety with $1.25 Miller Lite drafts and trying to manufacture an interest in Auburn-Florida.
The paneled wall bordering Georgia 100 features, from left to right, an American flag, Confederate flag and Georgia flag. They hang in a line, beneath an old Busch clock.
A furtive scan of the joint reveals at least seven Confederate flags. 
What is my purpose?  To my left, five Southern boys play Master Strike. Another flag. It’s heritage, not hate.
To the left, a poster for Old Milwaukee’s 2002 NASCAR racing season. All 39 dates are listed in chronological order. A shapely blonde, starter flag tossed over her right shoulder, commands center stage. Her stomach’s concave. Her generous breasts overrun her white halter.
Beneath the schedule, a note touting Old Milwaukee as “America’s Best Tasting Beer.” Trademarked.
Perhaps this is not the most pernicious lie the snake-oil salesmen of Madison Avenue have ever foisted upon us. An absurd one, yes. The bartender was dour. No one seemed interested in striking up idle chat with the Yankee interloper. At 8:39, the karaoke machine cranked into gear.
The hostess, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming Johnny’s as “The best little bar in Georgia,”
sings an impassioned if uneven version of “Leather and Lace.”
I seem to be the only asshole drinking beer from the tap.
Maybe I’ll have cholera by morning. Will serve me right …


Don’t know what it is about Piggly Wiggly, but I’m fascinated. Perhaps it’s the friendly swine on the logo. So happy to be part of your breakfast, lunch or dinner.
I love Piggly Wiggly T-shirts. In 2007, Lauri and I found them for $10 a pop at the Lineville, Ala.. In the years since, as I traveled from Washington east, south and north, no item of clothing provoked conversation like my Piggly Wiggly shirt.
Strangers stopped me and spoke with a strange nostalgia for their lost Piggly Wiggly stores. 
It’s the swine that binds, I guess. Well, we found a couple shirts we liked and walked to the register.


That’s where we met Barbara Anderson.
She greeted us cheerfully, her voice dripping with a syrupy lilt. She asked if I came from Maine. I shook my head. She pointed to my T-shirt, which made me a walking advertisement for Down East country. She said she’d traveled to Maine as part of her bucket list. I was oddly intrigued.
I’d never taken an interest in anyone’s “bucket list.” Barbara seemed different. I asked about her list.
The marquee item was a tribute to unrequited love. Across a chasm of six decades and untold miles, she tracked down the love of her life. I was sold.
We paid for the shirts. Barbara gave me her phone number. Eventually we made a date for Saturday at the Waffle House on Georgia Route 100, a winding country road which runs south from Tallapoosa to Bowden.
Barbara got there ahead of us. It didn’t take much prompting to get her talking. Barbara and Cesar fell in love in Panama, where her dad served with the U.S. Navy in the Canal Zone.
She was 15. He was 16. Last time she saw him, he was waving goodbye from the shore as she stood topside and sailed out of his life.
She’s carried his photograph in her wallet ever since. It is tucked in there lovingly, a silent bulwark against indifference of time and forgetfulness. Cesar never escaped her heart.
Remarkably, Barbara sustained her love through six decades and two marriages. With the help of her granddaughter, she succeeded in finding Cesar.
One day her phone rang. From across the bewildering haze of the years came the voice of her one true love. Was at all awkward?
“We talked, and it was just like yesterday,” she said. “I felt like I did when I was 15. He couldn’t understand why I carried his pictures all these years.
I said, ‘Well, I still feel the very same way I did then.’”
She longs for him still. She is unflinching about that.
“I don’t want to rock anybody’s boat, but I still feel the same way,” she said. “I know everybody changes and you can’t go back, but I still feel the same way.”
Cesar’s part Chinese, part Panamanian. They went to school together in Balboa. She was smitten, but worried about her dad.
“I thought, ‘Gosh, my daddy will never let me see anybody like that,'” she said. “One day my dad came to pick me up, and Cesar just walked up and introduced himself. He told him he wanted to see me.”
Her dad was impressed by his directness. Perhaps he was in touch with the passion of youth. It seems to run strong in their bloodlines.
“My mother was 9 the first time she ever saw my daddy,” Barbara said. “He had gotten to be good friends with her three brothers. She said he was the best-looking thing she ever saw. And she loved him then. They finally got married when she was 14. ”
Mary Williams was 15 when she gave birth to Barbara. Her father was a no-nonsense soldier who returned from Europe with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
 “He was a tough man,” she said. “But he made sure we did a lot of things. When he was growing up, he didn’t really have that much and he had a hard time. He hunted and fished to help his family make a living. I don’t guess he ever really got many Christmas or birthday presents. He made sure we always had big Christmases and birthdays. He taught us to swim. We’d go fishing.”
Her parents were married 49 years when John Williams died of cancer in 1985.
As for her bucket list, it’s far from over. In addition to Cesar and Maine, she knocked Graceland off the list (Her family hired an Elvis imitator for her 70th birthday party).
She plans to take her four great-grandsons to New Orleans on an Amtrak train.  She wants to ride in a hot-air balloon.
Likely she has time to cross out each item on her list. Her mother is 90 and lives with her brother in Bowden.
“She’s as sweet as my dad was tough,” she said. “She gets around better than I do. We’ve never had any cross words, and I’m thankful for that. I’m well-blessed.”
As for Cesar, well, who knows?
Her eyes radiate longing. Likley she won’t be satisfied until she sees Cesar in person.
She’s been married for 50 of her 75 years. The first ended in divorce after 20 years. Her second husband left her a widow after 30.
Through it all, she nursed a silent fidelity to her beloved Cesar. They corresponded for a time after she left Panama. One year she got a birthday card and learned he’d attended Iowa State on scholarship, retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and returned to Panama to serve on the canal commission.
She shared this with unmistakable pride in his accomplishments.
She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them with a wistful smile.
“He still has my heart,” she said.

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One Response to The road back to Tallapoosa

  1. Arnold Lytle says:

    I’m glad Obama’s (unsettling) State of the Union brought out the endearing indignation in you and jolted your blog back to life.

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