Saturday, June 21, 2008

George Washington is Dead

The Odds Were Against Me
by Charlie Leck

It was probably a thousand to one! Maybe it was hundreds of thousands to one; nevertheless, I was hoping to see George Washington III again and to shake his hand, or maybe give him a big bear hug.

We slid into Canton, Mississippi in the late morning. We parked the rental car in a spot right in the town square and climbed from it. The southern heat, humid and stinging, smacked us in the face and slid into our nostrils. We knew, now, that we were in Mississippi. The early morning stop for grits, sausage and eggs had been pleasant, while the day was still an infant.

Canton is all southern, all the time. The county courthouse is at the heart of the square and there are magnolia trees everywhere. The buildings that ring the square are almost all at least a century old and most have second floor balcony porches, with rocking chairs adorning them. Their design is delicate and intricate. You can still feel the slavery era here and sense the economic engine that it drove.

We walked the square and I tried to remember where I was arrested for jaywalking and where the sheriff’s office might have been. Which way was it to the railroad station where the City of New Orleans had deposited me? What street went out to the poor, motley black neighborhood where George Washington’s store was at its heart?

“Hey y’all!”

There were kind, southern greetings from owners of the retail establishments who had come out to the street for a gulp of the hot, scorching air. Some of them started friendly, chatty conversations with us.

“Where y’all from?… Minnesota?… I’ve got a friend from Minnesota…Well, they came back some years ago, to retire here. He was the principle of the school in Dassell, Minnesota for years and years…. His name was Moe… Ever heard of him?”

Moe is a well-known Minnesota name. We wondered. Big time politicians in the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party! Achievers! Shakers!

We took some photos, trying to capture the southernness of it. A gentleman kindly directed us to the railroad station.

“Count seven of those American flags,” he said, pointing down a street off one corner of the town square, “and the station is just on the left right there. Nothing but a museum now, though.”

We looked down the flag decorated street and saw where the 7th flag waved and we thanked him as graciously as we could, failing to capture that sense of dripping politeness that only real natives of the south can project.

“I wouldn’t walk down there, however, if I was y'all,” he concluded as we moved away.

We wondered what he meant. Was it too hot to walk that far? Was it dangerous? We couldn’t seem to ask him why. We never figured it out.

Indeed, we found the station just on the left at the seventh flag. It certainly wasn’t a passenger terminal anymore, but it was still in remarkable condition. I went around to the old passenger platform and tried to remember the morning of June 22nd when we stepped down from the train. It was hotter that day, 44 years ago. Mississippi was searing. It was burning.

The signs were gone. There was no indication about where the “Colored Only Waiting Room” was nor where the one for the “Whites Only” stood. I tried to guess, but it was only that. It was a long time ago.

The water drinking-fountains – one for colored people and the other for white people – were also gone.

And, the museum was closed – even though a sign indicated it should be open – and so the hope of finding a photo of the station from the 50s or 60s was gone too.

We walked around to the front of the station and saw a small produce stand across the street. A black farmer was setting up, putting out fresh melons that looked scrumptious. We wandered over and I bought myself an ice-cold Diet Coke. Only 75 cents. The girls didn’t want one. They’d sip on mine.

The farmer and his wife seemed suspicious of us. We sure were different and talked funny. I jumped into a conversation anyway and told them I was back here for the first time since ’64, when I was a young man. It didn’t seem to strike a cord and make a wits bit of difference to them.

So much for being a civil rights hero!

I wondered aloud about George Washington’s grocery store and if they knew about it and where it might have been back then.

“Still there,” the woman said. Some curiosity appeared in her face. I took advantage of it.

“How would I get there?”

She pointed the way and I counted on the girls to understand what she meant by this turn and that.

“What’s the name of the street?” I asked her as sweetly as I could.

“Why, George Washington Street, of course,” she answered as if I was the dumbest thing ever.

I screwed up all the courage I could find within me and hopefulness soared from my heart.

“Ever heard of George Washington III?” I asked the question quickly and clearly. “He was a great guy to me. A wonderful fellow! He helped me out of some jams. I’d like to see him again.”

“He’s dead,” she said bluntly. No more.

I looked to her husband for help – for an explanation – for some possible correction. He nodded his head silently. I think he saw the lump rise in my throat and the instant tear that dashed from my eye. I took a long, quick draw on the coke. I thanked them and turned away with the girls and headed for the car.

It was clear to me. You not only can’t go home again, but you can’t go back in time either. It’s all moving so quickly -- ad astra!. There’s no point of turn around and it’s impossible to get off. We’re just rocketing onward.

We found the corner of George Washington Street and Martin Luther King Avenue. It was on the other side of the tracks. Curious, black faces stared at us as we drove by. We found a little grocery store where the woman had directed us. It was a brick structure. It’s not what I remembered. Across the street, and up from it just a bit, stood an old and abandoned, boarded-up building with a front porch. That seemed to be it, but Freedom House was not across the street and just up the road from it, where it was supposed to be.

The neighborhood didn’t look any more hopeful now than it did back then. It was still pretty run-down and the kids still looked oddly poor and improperly nourished. We saw no signs of friendliness and no cheerfulness.

I tried to find the home of Angelina Davis, the kindly woman who’d given up her bedroom for us in 1964. I got hopelessly turned around and lost and frustrated.

I needed to find the way out. We needed to move on toward Meridian. I was wondering if I should have come at all.
No George Washington III. No Freedom House. No Angelina Davis!

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