Friday, April 16, 2010

Rallying Across Georgia

Mystery History

April 12-13

"If you ever wanted to pay money in advance to go someplace overnight that you had no idea where you are going, this is your opportunity." So began the announcement of the Landings Automobile Society's First Overnight Mystery Rallye. We love a good mystery, are always up for a road trip, and can't pass up a bargain, which is what this seemed to be, at $148 per couple, including "unique historic accommodations," dinner and breakfast. We were hooked.

We joined the other 39 rallying cars at our usual Baptist Church parking lot gathering spot, picked up the envelopes with our instructions, and used them to frenetically fan and swat at gnats, which had voracious appetites after being awakened from their winter hibernation by the clear skies and warm temperatures that have finally arrived on our island. Their enjoyment of the moment detracted from ours, and we retreated to our cars a bit prematurely, with hopes that our final destination would be gnat-free.

Our route took us west on rolling rural roads past pine plantations, cotton fields, pecan groves, and small towns that were behind us in minutes, each with a 25 mph speed limit posted at the city limits and a single blinking red signal light in the central business district. We barely missed hitting the biggest tom turkey we have ever seen crossing the road in a wooded area between Claxton, the self proclaimed "Fruitcake Capital of the World," and Lyons, "Home of the South East Georgia Soapbox Derby." Miles and miles of fields crowned with hardy green onion shoots heralded our arrival at Vidalia, "Sweet Onion City."

We lunched at the only non-chain eatery in McRae, La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant, located just across the street from the town's Liberty Square, featuring reproductions of both the Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty which, to put it kindly, were not aging particularly well. Hence, they were our favorite kind of roadside attraction, inspiring Dick to risk being run over by a fully loaded logging truck while he stood in the middle of the main intersection of town getting the best possible angle to photograph Lady Liberty.

Further down the road in Abbeville, Jefferson Davis standing high overhead on a soaring pedestal flanked by two historic markers beckoned us to pull over across the street from a stately county court house.

When we read the words etched on monuments like this one placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy, we often get a different perspective on history than the one we learned in school. In this case, we were particularly struck by the story told on the historic markers, placed by the Georgia Historical Commission in 1957. They told us that Jefferson Davis camped here with his family and soldiers on May 8, 1865, on his way to negotiate "a just peace." Instead, two days later, further down the road, his camp was surrounded by northern regiments, and "he became a state prisoner, his hopes for a new nation in which each state would exercise without interference its cherished constitutional rights, forever dead." Clearly, the wounds of war were still raw with the Georgia Historical Commission over ninety years later.

Our mystery destination turned out to be Americus, Georgia. We stayed in the eclectically elegant Windsor Hotel, established in 1892. The hotel is the ornamental centerpiece of the town, displaying its elaborately embellished combination of Romanesque, Queen Ann, and Italianate styles along a full city block in each of the four directions it faces.

With Plains, Georgia less than a dozen miles away and the world headquarters of Habitat for Humanity just down the street, the Windsor boasts of hosting Jimmy and Roslyn Carter often, although we didn't see them there.

The owners of the hotel bear the familiar name of Patel, and we had heard that many in their extended family live on the top two floors, but we were amazed when we peeked into a meeting room with about 100 pairs of shoes lined up outside its door—inside was a huge gathering of women in colorful saris seated on the floor. We would never have guessed there were so many women of Indian heritage in this sparsely populated area of the state.

We had a couple hours before our scheduled cocktail gathering to browse about the town, which seemed to have an extraordinary number of barber shops (at least eight we counted, including one that was a combination produce stand and barber shop) and a small number of shops that sold anything of interest to us (about two).

Cocktail hour out on Windsor's second floor patio, a pasta buffet dinner in a private dining room, a little walk about town (nothing open after 8, except a couple extremely uninviting bars), and a night cap with friends back at the Windsor completed our perfect day.

The next morning we were up early and to breakfast by 8, so that we could tour nearby Andersonville National Historic site before heading home. Andersonville was one of the largest Confederate Military Prisons built during the Civil War. Although it only existed for fourteen months, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were confined there, and some 13,000 died there. It was built to hold just 10,000 prisoners, but up to 32,000 were held there at one time. There were no barracks—prisoners had to construct their own shelter from tarps, blankets or extra clothing. Water and food were scarce, sanitation was poor, and disease spread fast under the overcrowded unhealthy conditions.

We began our visit with a movie in the visitor center that dramatized the dreadful history of this site. Then we visited the National Prisoner of War Museum, dedicated to all Americans who suffered captivity, including both those who were incarcerated by our enemies, as well as those whom we have incarcerated on our own soil. The museum takes a broad and shallow view, glossing over our country's use of torture and violation of civil rights of citizens in wartime in a brightly lit hall, while highlighting inhumane conditions in enemy prisons in darkened exhibit galleries. The story here is more about the human spirit overcoming the loss of freedom than the prison's function to break the spirit.

We borrowed a car tour CD from the gift shop, and followed its narration around the grounds. Not much of the original prison is left. The most sobering evidence of its existence is Andersonville National Cemetery, which contains over 18,000 graves, including many rows with headstones side-by-side, no space between them, marking original trench graves of those who died at the camp. The acres of neatly arranged veterans' headstones stand as another sad, and proud, lesson in our nation's history.

Another part of the lesson is that the victor gets to write history. So, we may forget that the Andersonville camp was so crowded because the Union refused to trade prisoners, in an effort to reduce the number of Confederate troops on the battlefield, thus contributing to the terrible conditions that captured soldiers on both sides endured. The Union prisoner camp in Elmira, New York had a death rate of 24%, almost as high as the 29% death rate at Andersonville. I grew up near Elmira and never even knew there was a Civil War prison there.

We had plenty to talk about on our drive home.