Sunday, May 29, 2011

“Is it true?”

“Is it true about George Wallace being a great man?”

“Excuse me?” I replied. Actually I had not heard the name clearly or I might have asked, “The Las Vegas comedian?”

“Is it true that George Wallace put Alabama together? My father voted for him.”
Now, I got it. His wife had asked me where I was from. I had said, “Montgomery, er, Auburn, Alabama.” I occasionally make the mistake of saying “Montgomery” as I lived there 40 odd years before I moved to Auburn and then to Opelika, a nearby city. Most people would just say “Where?” if I said I was from Opelika, so I finally decided the correct answer to the question about where I was from would be Auburn. Most people have heard the name because there is a great interest in sports in America. Nothing much distinguishes Opelika except the interesting fact that the movie Norma Rae, one of Sally Field’s finest performances was shot on location there. No one actually knows that but it is the only distinguishing thing I can remember about Opelika.

Auburn, Alabama is a different story. Auburn University Football is fairly well known. There really is some kind of comment there about the wonderful movie about a millworker;s triumph, a work of art, being eclipsed by something as artless as sports, but I could get in trouble for such nonsense. At any rate, most people who recognize the city name say “War Eagle!” as either a heartfelt emotion or a goodwill gesture. “War Eagle!” is the battle cry of the Auburn Tigers football team and pretty much the cry for any Auburn sports team or athlete. Of course, there are fans of the rival state team, Alabama Crimson Tide who in politer moments might just say “Oh.”

I think I have blogged about this nagging problem before. I work for the City of Auburn, I live (or used to live) in Auburn. I’m proud of my city. I received the Employee of the Month award last year and it was for my service to the city, the citizens and not the War Eagle. It is one of my proudest accomplishments outside of managing to graduate from college under the circumstances at the time. I’m proud of my son for reasons he knows very well, and I’m proud of my daughter for reasons she may not know, but I hold securely in my heart. But as for my own accomplishments in life, Employee of the Month was a biggie. A gesture of appreciation went a long way for me. 

I love my city actually more than the place I grew up. Anyone who knows my personal history knows the problems I had in my job in Montgomery. Even now the terror of that experience keeps me from relating it in public writing in any detail. Terror is terror and it belongs in the past but the fact is, my health problems resulted from that hour of my life. Now that the problems seem to be finally and entirely diagnosed, I have no ill will against people or institutions, just no love for locality.  The love of my birthplace is long gone as is the apartment complex I grew up in, and the hospital building on Maxwell Airforce base near Montgomery where I was born, and the replacement hospital facility where my mother died. I believe that too is gone. I hope I have that correct, I really do hope it is gone.

George Wallace,  now there is a person also long gone. George Wallace was governor of Alabama for quite some time. I was not politically minded during his reign but our paths crossed just a bit. First, there was the lady who ran a convenience store near my home. We called her “Swansy” which was her last name. She was a thin elderly lady and we bought our cigarettes from her. I worked at that store as my first job for 75 cents a day, free Icee drinks, and all the “hoop cheese” you could beg for or sneak. The cigarette thing came later. I started smoking about age 14 as my “peers” began smoking. Swansy would always ask whether the cigarettes were for our parents. They weren’t and she knew it.

For some reason, once, Swansy was mad enough at me to call my mother and tell her that I bought cigarettes and smoked them myself. My Mom, always with unshakeable presence of mind replied, “Of course he smokes. Anything else?”  When I got home she asked me if I smoked. I did my usual dancing around the subject and she told me about Swansy. I said, “Yes I smoke some.” She asked why I had never smoked in front of her and I told her I did not want her to know, of course. From that day I was allowed to smoke in the living room. I think I was about 16. It took a while to actually smoke in front of my parents but once I did, it felt comfortable knowing that my Mother supported me in all things, at all times. It is not an unreasonable suggestion to say that my Mother was a saint. She was to me.

I’ll leave her sainthood for another more important day, but let me get back to George Wallace. Swansy had us young kids handing out Wallace bumper stickers on the busy corner in front of the “Handy Andy” convenience store. Cars would stop at the Court Street and Delano intersection and we would hand them out for hours on end.

[A hamburger from room service, I’m unbelievably blessed.]

Now the upshot of all this work was that Swansy wanted to show off  to us by taking us to some Wallace for Governor type event that was held at some hotel ballroom or conference room. I want to say it was in the old Diplomat Inn, but that does seem like the wrong side of the “bypass” in my memory map of Montgomery. At any rate, after some amount of argument with some officials about how hard we had all worked for the campaign, Swansy, true to her word, got us in to see George Wallace. He was seated at a table behind a white table cloth. I remember especially being impressed by the white table cloth which a decade later would represent pomp and cheesiness. But at the time, it worked on me. I was in awe of meeting the man whose name was on the stickers I had handed out in the hundreds if not thousands.

Swansy may have only used us to meet Wallace but the fact was, we met him in rather informal circumstances that I honestly can remember very little of except a pat on my head, with a little twist to muss up my hair a bit. The next time I met George Wallace was at a campaign rally a few years later. We kids had snuck behind the stage at the Coliseum  and watched Wallace speak from the back. After his speech everyone crowded around him to shake his hand. We just snuck in there and I found myself unable to get back out. The crowd had surrounded Wallace and he must have shaken my hand at least 3 times before I could extract myself. Then I wondered, as I have in many moments in my life “Is that all there is?” I stood on the stage for quite a while watching people shake Wallace’s hand.

I happened to go to school at Bellingrath Junior High which was right on the same corner as the church where George Wallace’s wife Lurleen was eulogized after she died of cancer. I believe she was governor at the time. [Still no Internet, but I do have a few fries left from the room service tray.] I watched the television cameras and event with supreme awe. I saw Wallace but did not meet him that day. The next time actually I met him was in an elevator in the Liberal Arts building at Auburn University in Montgomery where I went to college. I believe I was coming out of my sociology class but anyway, there he was in his wheelchair, a result since the assassination attempt on his life when he ran for president. It was the third time I had shaken the man’s hand, well, 5th if you count the three stage handshakes separately. By that time I was clear on his politics and knew the racism he represented. But he was in a wheelchair and looked so pitiful. Also he had asked the person who was pushing his wheelchair to let me into the elevator [for Steven, that is “lift” should you be reading, and earlier Mom = Mum :) ] even though I was declining entrance due to the obvious space problem. “Come in, let him in,” he said. Again, less for respect and more for pity, I asked “Mr. Wallace, are you teaching a class?” He answered affirmatively and made small talk that I should remember but don’t. The lift eventually made it to the bottom floor and he was off. I remember feeling that same “Is this all there is?” feeling.

My final encounter with George Wallace was not in meeting him personally but picking out books for him to read. Many times an ordinary looking man would come into the library, I only remember his white shirt now and it seems like he stooped some. Eventually, I came to know that this man was delivering books to George Wallace. They were mainly biographies and political things, but there was a lot of variety. Only a few times had I been called to pull a particular book, and that one was always a biography. Again, George Wallace was pitiable. Eventually I asked a question of the man who took care of him and he said “constant pain, continuous pain” which was not publically known or known by me at the time. I envisioned this poor man who had such an ordinary caretaker.

This man emphasized the pain Mr. Wallace was in quite a few times afterward and once it appeared that George Wallace was about to die. He told us it was coming and sure enough, CNN and the rest showed up to cover what turned out to be a false call. Soon after that he did die.

The man on the cruise ship who asked me tonight about George Wallace really didn’t know why I paused so long before answering after I figured out the what the heck he meant. His wife had just given me a pitch to join the Disney Vacation Club probably to get some kind of referral. They were looking for someone named “Pat’s” cabin and this lady’s husband had done almost no speaking before he heard “Alabama.” I think there was some kind of learning disability involved in this roughly 50 year old man because the question had been asked in such a strange reflexive way. Finally, it clicked in my head that his father had voted for Wallace not in my bumper sticker days, but in the year Wallace had run for president and had been shot. Wallace’s racism was known to me by that time and coded as an “anti-bussing stance” in those days.

“It’s true that he was a very successful politician.”

After all, I’m on a cruise and have a new attitude about politics. I didn’t relate that this same hand that had shook George Wallace’s hand a number of times, also shook Barack Obama’s hand with tears in it’s owner’s eyes over the new world being witnessed step by step. I looked at my wife next to me, both of us were in tears. Nor did I tell him that one of the greatest moments in all of my life was the moment that CNN stated they had some news we were all waiting for on that wondrous election night that followed months afterward.

Good-bye Montgomery, really, good-bye.