Travel Log: Poetic Controversies

Travel Log 2

(Dec. 15, 2017) Outside my window it’s a cloudy morning over Ft. Knox, Kentucky. For three years (2007 – 2010) I was an instructor at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, Maryland. My former students are all over the map now, and many have built highly successful careers for themselves, some in the ranks, some out in the civilian world. Brent is one of the later, having left the Navy and pursued a career as a civil service public affairs specialist on staff here at Fort Knox, and I wanted to catch up with him.

It’s also a time to slow up, catch up on laundry, blogging, cataloging and posting my photos to Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sparks_photography/) and Instagram (@sparks1524). You only get to see a few select images here; go to Flickr or Instagram for the whole megillah!

Monday (Dec. 11) was, by accident, book-ended by poetical controversies. I drove from Bowling Green to Fairview and visited the birthplace of one of the most controversial men in American history—Jefferson Davis. Davis rendered invaluable service to the governments of Mississippi and the United States for many years, but his legacy is forever either gilded or sullied (depending on one’s historical perspective) by his tenure as the president of the ill-fated Confederate States of America.

Like Abraham Lincoln, Davis was born here in Kentucky. Whereas Mr. Lincoln’s family moved north (partly due to Thomas Lincoln’s aversion to slavery) Davis’ family migrated south (they were slave owners). Davis was born in 1808, Lincoln in 1809. They were born 100 miles apart as the crow flies, and fought their war from capital cities only 97 miles apart as the crow flies. Both men lost minor children during their tenures as hostile presidents (Lincoln even sent Davis a condolence letter across the lines after learning of the death of Davis’ son). After visiting the start of President Lincoln’s life outside Hodgenville, I was compelled to visit the start of the other Civil War president’s life.

The monument that is central to the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site is a towering obelisk built of cast concrete. It stands on land his family owned when he was born (Bethel Baptist Church, immediately adjacent the park, today occupies the actual spot of the cabin he was born in). The obelisk is over 300 feet tall and is the second tallest obelisk in the world…after the Washington Monument.

Jefferson Davis birthplace
The obelisk to Jefferson Davis at the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site in Fairview, Kentucky.

My first thought upon finding this towering structure in the middle of Kentucky farmland was, “Trying to ape Washington much, are we?”

While not entirely charitable, it was an accurate assessment. For many in the South (but not all of us), Davis was a hero akin to Washington…and the monument built to him reflects that.

One of the things that I like about American history is just how…how convoluted, controversial, and human our leading figures are. “Leading figures” doesn’t necessarily mean “hero;” I would never put Davis up with Washington, Hamilton, Adams, or Lincoln. But he was a leading figure. Very rarely are the people we cast as “villains” in history truly evil—and even those we call evil (Stalin, Hitler, Scrappy Doo) are people striving to do what they believe is right, and thus the conflict is born of which definition of “right” will prevail.

Davis certainly followed a course that would have, if successful, kept part of the human family in chains. That action is, even by the standards of many in his own time, evil. But Davis himself was, if prickly, a very decent man in many ways. The good, of course, does not erase the bad, but, conversely, the bad doesn’t eradicate all the good, either. It’s an interesting conundrum—how much do we heap scorn on our predecessors as human beings versus scorning their actions?

Do we embrace Davis as a hero fighting for a better world, but merely misguided in his approach? That is certainly not a very realistic halo to put on the man. Do we destroy his monuments and erase his name out of condemnation for his many sins? Again, not a realistic or even intelligent approach. To erase Davis from history is to forget all we’ve learned from his errors…and put ourselves on the path to repeating them. After all, the same humanity that flow through his veins flows through ours, and we’re as capable of committing the same violently egregious sins he did. The only honest course is to face him in all his controversial splendor, accept him as part of our story, and continue moving on while continually striving for a better world.

Still, the day was not all a study in the controversy and conflict. Kentucky has really enchanted me in a lot of ways. I’ve been here far longer than I intended for many reasons—every time I turn around I’m discovering something new. As I headed back to Bowling Green, I saw a small sign pointing south that indicated the birthplace of the American poet laureate Robert Penn Warren. In the spirit of free-spirited travel, I hooked a right and went south.

I stopped in the tiny blink-and-you-miss-it town of Elkton for lunch. I parked in the town’s center and chose the L&R Soda Bar and Eatery thinking it looked like a terrific, old, and local place. I was 2/3 correct—it was terrific and it was local, but it sure ain’t old! The L&R captures the essence of the 1950s diner so perfectly you’ll think it really was founded in the 1950s, but it was founded in 2011! If you’re very lucky, your server will be Pam Alder. She is a happy woman with a thin build and award-winning country smile that lights up the room. Considering the wit and energy she exuded, I think she’s a cosmic nexus of happiness. Based on her recommendation I tried their chili cheese burger with cheese fries, a “Dr. Pepper” jerked from a proper soda fountain by a proper soda jerk, and a “dirt” sundae made up of chocolate ice cream, crushed “Oreos,” and whipped cream topped with a cherry and a gummy worm.

Well, Pam liked me, so I got two gummy worms!

Elkton
Pam Alder made my visit to the L&R Soda Bar and Eatery a real joy!

You would do well to go to Elkton just to eat at the L&R. I was rather reluctant to try a chili cheese burger, but Pam talked me into and, dagnabit, it was outstanding! Of course the chili made the bun soft enough that I had to eat it with a fork, but the chili was not overpowering. It had just enough bite to remind me that I was locked in mortal combat with my lunch, but not so much that my mouth felt like the set of The Towering Inferno. Of all the small, local places that I’ve eaten at, the L&R was the best…and that is saying something after Laha’s in Hodgenville (I haven’t written about them yet, but I will!).

After lunch I finally made the last 14 miles to Guthrie to encpounter the birthplace of Warren…but first encountered a life-sized pink elephant. Seriously. Out in the middle of south central Kentucky farmland is a 10-foot high pink fiberglass pachyderm proudly posed on the pavement outside a gas station on the corner of U.S. 79 and U.S. 41. Talk about an unexpected roadside attraction.

Only in America!

Guthrie, Kentucky
Yep.  A pink pachyderm poised proudly on the pavement in Guthrie, Kentucky!

Another five minutes brought me into the center of Guthrie proper. Guthrie is a sleepy town that is by no means dead, but was obviously passed over by the great engines of economic wealth long ago. It is, like Elkton and Fariview, a small town that centers a farming community (the smell of manure in Elkton alone was enough to put me in mind of getting into the fertilizer business). Guthrie is just a shade bigger and more prosperous that Elkton or Fairview, but it’s a quiet town nonetheless.

Robert Penn Warren was born in 1905 in a lovely little brick home on the corner of the Cherry Street and 3rd Street one block behind the Guthrie Post Office. The area is still a residential neighborhood and only the brass historical marker lets you know you’ve found the Warren house. It’s a late 19th century house that looks remarkably like a late 20th century house. Today’s it’s maintained by the Committee for the Preservation of the Robert Penn Warren Birthplace in Todd County.

Robert Penn Warren birthplace
The birthplace of Robert Penn Warren.

Warren spent only a short time here before his family moved, but it’s marks the start of his story. Though his adult life was spent on the East Coast, Kentucky never left him:

          Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.

                                   —From “Aubon: A Vision,” 1969

Warren is the only person to win a Pulitzer Prize in both poetry and fiction. He was also prominent in the Civil Rights Movement before it was fashionable to be so. Displaying real courage, he wielded a pen that was mightier than the sword during that highly controversial time. Put yourself back into that era—the civil rights we take for granted today were highly controversial ideas in the 1960s. If they weren’t controversial, there wouldn’t have been scenes like soldiers protecting children just trying to go to school or police dogs being set on people marching. Warren did not shy from publicly placing his flag. For instance, one of his many efforts was a 1965 book interviewing figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X entitled Who Speaks for the Negro? A great poet, and a great man.

Today was not only filled with poetical controversies, it was book-ended by an almost poetical confluence of history. Think about it—the day opened with a visit to the birthplace of a leading political figure in the Civil War era who promoted racial bigotry and ended a visit to the birthplace of a leading artistic figure in the Civil Rights era who promoted racial harmony.

Not a bad day’s driving!

***

The poem…is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see — it is, rather, a light by which we may see — and what we see is life.”

—Robert Penn Warren

Saturday Review (22 March 1958)

#Kentucky #history #historical #civilwar #robertpennwarren

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