January 15, 2007

Memphis: Lorraine Motel, Heartbreak Hotel

As part of its “Hour of Classical Music,” Memphis public radio played the Kansas City Chorale singing “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye,” an Irish war lament whose haunting melody echoes the Civil War song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” The doleful notes, the chants of “drums and guns and drums and guns,” and the long, hushed “hurroos” hung in the air like spirits unable to sleep.

Since Tennessee, the war whose ghosts walked the landscape had changed. Farther north, we’d passed fieldstone taverns where the Continental Army had planned attacks on redcoats. Now, we passed silent fields where hundreds or thousands of boys in gray and blue died.

The weight of war felt heavier in the south than I feel it up north. Back home, buildings and monuments of the Revolution are the stuff of school field trips to clapboard places like Paul Revere’s house. Its fighters are valiant figures with rousing collective names- Sons of Liberty, Founding Fathers, Green Mountain Boys. But those men were over two hundred years away from us, known through writings and artists’ renderings. I thought of them as icons, not as somebody’s son, brother, father or friend.

Here, it was closer, more intimate. The boys who lie under this grass were not so far in time from us. There were photographs to show who they really were. We could study their eyes and hands and the buttons on their shirts. They were men and boys somebody loved and cried for. When we passed the sign for Shiloh, Adam and I exchanged a glance. Shiloh. The word had a powerful sadness. We had left behind places where Americans created the nation and now looked on places where they almost took it apart. The hush of these southern knolls and grasses intensified the ability to imagine the death played out here. As if it happened yesterday. I’d never felt so palpably connected to war.

Yet, from what I’d seen since we left Boston, love of the country we became bridged any regional divide. From Massachusetts to Tennessee, the Stars and Stripes adorned barnsides, billboards, truck panels, car windows. Messages of encouragement and patriotic optimism hung from churches, restaurants, beauty parlors, used car dealerships. Only one flag flew over America that summer, and one message of unity. The country was declaring that, while it was needed and for as long as it was needed, all its parts would stay welded into a galvanized whole. Throughout our journey, the declaration rang clear. It was an invisible tensile thread stretching into every corner of the country, sewing it together.

I-40 now had a name as well as a number: The Music Highway. A stretch named for Carl Perkins. The Johnny Cash Rest Area, where a family from New Jersey decamped from a huge, black SUV, mom on one cellphone, dad on another.

We entered Memphis on Sam Cooper Boulevard, where a billboard urged people to “Rollerskate For Health.” Union Avenue’s parade of huge churches – Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic – led through downtown to the Mississippi.

We crossed the river’s pedestrian bridge to Mud Island and its scale model of the river system. The kids splashed downriver all the way to Memphis from Cairo, Illinois. We stood on Old Man River’s real bank and tried to find a place where Adam could cast his line into the water. Before we left home, he’d bought himself a collapsible rod and a stocked tackle box and was looking forward to a little fishing here and there. And here was the Mississippi. I offered an Adam-Huck simile, got a teenager look, and let fly my happiness anyway. I was standing in the sun on the banks of America’s greatest river with my barefoot kids, one smiling wide and happy, one with rod in hand.

We watched the world’s luckiest ducks wrap up a day of lolling in the Peabody Hotel’s lobby fountain. Ushered by a bellman, the ducks climbed out of the fountain on a tiny ladder and waddled on a red carpet to the elevator that whisked them to their penthouse. Spectators clutched five-dollar bar drinks and bags of duck souvenirs from the gift shop.

At the Rum Boogie Café on Beale Street, I held the cellphone up to the band so Mike could hear some blues. The music was wonderful, but I was more excited by my still novel ability to make a phone call from the middle of a Memphis dance floor.

We left Beale about 7:30 p.m., just as dusk dropped and seriously armed and muscled cops in groups of four began to appear. On the riverbank, people filed up the gangway for the 8 p.m. cruise on the Mississippi Queen. The night and the river were red and purple, and the soft green lights on the steel bridge that held the Arkansas state line in its middle glowed like mints.

Before we left Memphis early the next morning, we stood in front of the Lorraine Motel. A white wreath hangs on a blue metal railing, marking the second-floor room where Martin Luther King died. I’d hoped to see Jacqueline Smith, the protestor who’s camped for years across from the Lorraine and who lived in it before it became the National Civil Rights Museum. All her stuff was there on the corner. Her boxes and cardboard and signs. I half-wanted to stick around and meet her. I wanted to hear her story. I wanted to hear her tell how money spent on the museum could do more civil right by improving living conditions for Memphis’ s black poor. But we had miles to cover, and Smith was still in bed somewhere, probably on a friend’s couch. We left Memphis as the sun rose, rays bouncing off a riverbank jogger puffing along in something that looked like a tin foil spacesuit.

Shortly after a quick stop at the graffiti wall outside Graceland, where I took a picture of Roop and his father from California and mentioned, perhaps unwisely, that we weren’t real Elvis fans, we entered Mississippi and rode the sterile interstate all the way to Vicksburg. We drove the powerfully haunted battlefield road and looked down sobering rows of endless gravestones in the cemetery.

from Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America, the book with the
money-back enjoyment guarantee.