This story comes from The Last Sunday Drive—Vanishing Southland, out fall 2019.
Sunday drives carried us past junkyards, past James Dickey’s “parking lot of the dead,” into no man’s land. There they were, wrecks by the score open to the sun and open to my little boy eyes. Wrecks that scared me, that fascinated me with all their colors and randomly parked carcasses, parked seemingly forever. People died in some of the wreckage. Did I know any children left to grieve their parents, seemingly forever? No, but the day came when I knew a girl who left grieving parents behind.
Junkyards. So many cars, so many trucks, so much mangled steel. Junkyards scared me because of my first contact with a wreck. When I was seven, a speeding car lost control in a curve about a mile from home killing a local girl. It so happens I rode the school bus with this dark-haired beauty. It so happens the wreck was in a schoolmate’s driveway. In a case of morbid curiosity, Dad drove me to the scene. Speechless people stood and stared. Shattered glass glittered and littered the road like sequins. The careening car had gashed open the ground and car parts lay scattered like the bones of a luckless dog. As everyone stared, I picked up a round, black knob with one word in white set into it, “Heater.” I slipped it into my pocket. Why? I still do not know. Days later, the brutality that knob participated in got to me. I threw it as hard as I could into the pines, never to be seen again. Thus, did it escape the junkyard.
All these years later, I asked my friend, Eddie Drinkard, if he remembered the accident. I knew he would. “I will never forget it, may have blocked some of it out. It was at night but not late. I think her name was Lucinda Marie. The car hit the culvert at our driveway. I remember her brother coming. I took him into the house to use the phone. Not much talking between us. A few days later, her father put up a white wooden cross where my brother and I would wait for the bus. Don’t think he ever quite got over it.” I remember that cross. Each time the bus stopped at Eddie’s, I stared at it. I know the car responsible for that cross must have ended up in a junkyard. How could it not.
And then many years passed and I began to see junkyards, iron bone yards of abandonment, as a museum. Among the peeling paint, missing hoods and doors, cracked windshields, shattered headlights, and strewn hubcaps, I’d spot old Fords and Chevies, chrome-shining beauties once upon a time become queens ravaged by time, gravity, and sunlight. I’d spot a car with huge fins, a prehistoric shark sent to devour Volkswagon Beetles crushed at the intersection of bad luck and destiny. I spotted wrecks no mortal could live through, a junkyard’s dark side.
For better or worse, junkyards became a necessity, and junkyards are where some ill-fated Sunday drives ended, but you can’t see car morgues liked you once did. Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act required that screens conceal junkyards. More than that, some simply vanished, relocated to parts unknown, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I find strange beauty in the multicolored crushed, twisted, smashed cars and trucks I stumble across. For one thing, they keep the past alive. Seeing the old Plymouths reminds me of Dad’s devotion to Chrysler products and King Richard. I’m sure many a classic ’57 Chevy has been cannibalized and reassembled as a restored beauty. And how many shade tree mechanics found cheap parts in the chain link kingdom where tires dry rot. For many a fellow, a trip to a junkyard was like mining for gold.
No, you just don’t see junkyards like you used to. Back in the day, though, we’d pass an old junkyard and all heads would turn in its direction, drawn by some unknown force. No one said a word, but I know what we were thinking. “How many people died in all those rusting trucks and cars?” Blood and rust, they’re twins, you know. On we drove with many a question lingering in my mind. Junkyards. Strange places.
Today, from the comfort of my writing studio, up rises an image of junkyards as the old folks home for cars and trucks. Their best days done, they find themselves heaped together in this final resting place, forced to be roommates. If each wreck could speak it would recall its favorite trips, its favorite place to park, beneath a chinaberry, perhaps, and the people it ferried across Mother Earth’s face. Perhaps, too, it would reveal its fate … blown engine, head-on collision, obsolescence, or a cancer called rust.
Dickey’s “parking lot of the dead” was Steve Goodman’s “graveyards of rusted automobiles” in the “The City of New Orleans.” As for me, all the colors, collisions, and ghosts make for a morgue of sorts, and I see an end for some synchronized with their car’s demise. Others will ride off into the sunset like some hero in an old Western. Either way, all road lead to junkyards. Just ask Janisse Ray. She knows all too well that wrecking yards will never empty, and she’s right.
RIP, Faithful Ones
I had to see it. I heard it was up North Carolina way, and with the aid of my son-in-law’s Garmin GPS I found it, the resting place of mules and horses. To see this poignant cemetery is to see how urban encroachment chews up farmland. To see it is to witness a changing Southland. Granite tombstones stand in a ridge of woods overlooking I-540. To their back sits a large apartment complex. Farmland no more. Mules and horses no more. A man who loved and appreciated the hardworking animals that kept his farm and his life going buried them with dignity. Well, that was a ways back before combustible engines put mules and horses out to pasture for good.
Mr. Fabius H. Page possibly is buried on this ridge as well. At least the coordinates for his grave will take you there. That’s how we found this wooded graveyard for faithful farm animals. We parked and walked up a wooded ridge. Then we began to see the stones.
“Lulu, Bay Mule, Very Swift, 1902, Age 28”
“Bessie, Driving Mare, Brown, White Face, 4 White Feet, 1903 – 1937”
You’ll find eight other graves here, the resting place of Fab Page’s beloved farm animals. Back then locals knew the man who buried his animals with dignity as Fab. It’s said that Fab’s will stated that his family could not sell the land the cemetery is on. He intended it to be a perpetual memorial and so far it is. It’s not far from the Research Triangle Park. You can stand on this wooded ridge, close your eyes, and imagine what Page’s farm might have looked like. Perhaps a sweep of green pastures stood where the apartment complex and all its cars sit. Over there, perhaps, stood a handsome barn. As for I-540 with all its speeding traffic, we know this. It used to be a dirt road. Every Fourth of July locals would host a horse race there. Now it’s the site of traffic jams and accidents.
You can stand on that ridge with your eyes closed and imagine cattle lowing. You have to concentrate hard, however, to block out the commercial air flights roaring low overhead. You can imagine rows of corn standing green in the sun, but that takes focus too. Asphalt and buildings dominate the land. Wholesale change has arrived full force.
I had a reporter for the Athens Banner Herald, Wayne Ford, write something I hold dear. “Tom Poland is an inquisitive man who keeps an eye out for extravagant chunks of nature, disappearing cultures, and people who are salt of the earth. Change is what Poland touches upon frequently.” Indeed I do and this mule and horse cemetery represents change in a way I have not seen. If you drive the land as much as I do you will see junk yards filled with twisted, crushed, rusting vehicles. You will see, too, forsaken tractors overtaken by vines and weeds here and there. I suppose these are cemeteries too, but none have gravestones like Fab Page’s mules and horses. The close as I have come to such a magnificent place are the handmade monuments at the graves of dogs and cats that were beloved members of the family.
I have no doubt these faithful beasts of burden were members of Fab Page’s family, and it touches me that he erected monuments to them. I hope no one or nothing ever disturbs this resting place. As much as anything it is a memorial to a South the likes of which we will never see again. Each day the land surrounding us dies a little but we fail to take notice.
Thank you, Fab Page. Long may your faithful ones RIP.
On its way to a confluence with that Georgia river entire, the Altamaha, the Ocmulgee River flows through a place I’ve been to five times. The first time I crashed through Macon’s city limits was high school when I went to state in the 440, a track event I washed out, a loser. The second time I went to play Mount De Sales in football. I remember it well. Scored a 70-yard touchdown. The third time I interviewed an attorney, David Higdon, for a book project. The fourth time I went with my family to get legal counsel for my terminally ill Dad from that same attorney, a path that led to disillusionment. The fifth time was cheerier though it had a blue moment. I visited the graves of Greg Allman, Duane Allman, and Berry Oakley the afternoon before spending time with Chuck Leavell of the Rolling Stones, once with the Allman Brothers.
Well, that’s stepping in high cotton as Dad would say, and it’s among my better memories of Macon, but when I reflect on Macon, I think of the Ocmulgee River, the legendary but defunct Capricorn Records, and that long touchdown run. Mostly, though, I think of the Allman Brothers. For me, the Allman Brothers are Macon, Georgia, though they were born in Nashville and honed their sound in Florida, “Yankee South,” as a friend puts it.
Notes strung together with care make memories. How well I remember listening to the Allman Brother’s At Fillmore East in the musty basement of a brick home outside Athens, Georgia. I cranked up “Whipping Post” on a big set of wooden JBL speakers. I hear it as I write these very words. Played “Not My Cross To Bear,” too, and now I hear Greg’s growling delivery.
In the early 1980s a gal named Linda and I saw the Allman Brothers in concert at Columbia, South Carolina’s Township Theater. I watched Greg stand at his Hammond B-3 organ and I must have dreamed it but through the haze I see “Cher” on the drum kit. Had to be a dream. Cher and Greg had long been divorced, but divorce doesn’t kill you. Motorcycles do.
The Devil has a name and it’s Motorcycle. You know, a lot of fellows and gals love riding motorcycles. Not me. I learned way back in ’71 and ’72 that motorcycles kill people. “Duane Allman Nov, 20, 1946 Oct. 29, 1971.”And Berry Oakley’s tombstone, “Our Brother B.O. Raymond Berry Oakley, II, Born in Chicago Apr. 4, 1948, Set Free: Nov. 11, 1972. And The Road Runs On Forever.” I don’t ride because of Duane and Berry. You know that sad motorcycle-setting-free Macon story.
I had long wanted to see Duane and Berry’s graves, side by side they are, and then Greg joined his brother and bandmates. Thanks to a visit with Chuck Leavell I finally got my chance. The afternoon of January 14 I drove through the big iron gates of Rose Hill Cemetery, a place of eternal sleep that overlooks the Ocmulgee River. Robert Clark was with me. The sun was dropping. After wandering about, we stopped to get a sense of where Greg’s grave might be. Looking out the passenger window I saw a large mushroom, red with white spots lying in the grass. It was plastic. The Allman Brothers’ logo contains a large red-and-white spotted mushroom, you should know. We found some directions on a door. We drove downhill, made a right turn and soon came to the Allmans’ resting place. Uphill we walked to where a fellow was finishing up a day of laying bricks in what looked like a small stage. The plot, I’d learn, is being expanded and secrecy shrouds its purpose. No one in the know says much but they forgot to tell a brickmason to be quiet.
“Why are you laying bricks, making a stage,” I asked.
“No, Greg had a lot of children and he wants them to be buried here,” he said. Well, all right now. How much of that is true I just don’t know. I stood there looking through the wrought iron at all the stuffed animals on Greg’s grave, so many I couldn’t tell if he had a headstone. People have left all manner of guitar picks, mushrooms, coins, and rocks on Greg’s fence. A railroad track runs within view of this resting place of three band members. I thought of Sarah Jones, the Columbia native, who was killed by a train during the making of Midnight Rider.
I stared at Greg’s grave as “Multicolored Lady” played in my head. Chuck’s piano stayed with me as I held onto the dead man’s wrought iron. Once again Macon made me blue. Several of my teammates from that Mount de Sale football game are dead. The coaches are dead. Dad is dead. The Macon attorney is dead. The Allman brothers are dead. Poor Sarah whose sun went down while it was yet day is no more.
I like to reflect on things that don’t turn out as I hoped. Now and then I look in James Dickey’s “book of the dead,” my high school annual. On page 35 there it is, words typed in a Roman font, proof of one shining Macon moment. We beat Mount de Sales 13 to zero in 1966, and fifty-three years later I’m still running and remembering Blue Macon.
I will go back. We all need a place that makes us remember things we’d rather forget. For me it is that musical, melancholy city down by the Ocmulgee, that place where brown water runs by a blue town on its voyage to a green, salty sea.
An Honest-To-Goodness Fly Swatter
In Sunday drives’ heyday, air conditioning was gaining momentum but you’d be hard pressed to find air-conditioned stores and homes in rural areas. Oh, you might see a window unit or two but central air was rare. Breezes whirled through windows and screen doors on sultry summer days. Inevitably, flies found their way insides and made themselves at home in the kitchen. It was there, at the hands of my grandmothers, that they met their maker.
Remember honest-to-goodness fly swatters made of screen-wire? My grandmothers wielded those instruments of doom with an Olympic fencer’s skill. How many times did I watch those ladies pull off a trifecta: dispatching three flies with one swat.
My grandmothers didn’t need bug sprays. Nor did they have new-fangled bug zappers. No, they walked around with a screen wire fly swatter in hand. While talking to me their eyes would dart about and a smooth backhanded “swat” sent Mr. Fly to the that great compost pile in the sky. Those ladies had fighter pilot reflexes. They even clobbered flies buzzing in the air.
My grandmothers relied on the real deal. They would have disputed the New Oxford American Dictionary’s definition of “fly swatter” as “an implement used for swatting insects, typically a square of plastic mesh attached to a wire handle.”
Plastic mesh? Please. Screen-wire swatters struck with deadly force and were far more effective than today’s plastic swatters, which flies evade with ease. You see, the little critters detect changes in air pressure and a clunky plastic swatter says, “Here I come” as its thick plastic mesh hurls a wave of air that tips the fly off. “I’m outta here” and off he buzzes. A thin mesh of screen-wire, however, arrives swiftly and silently with no shock wave, converting the fly to a countertop’s version of road kill possum.
Screen wire swatters swat plastic swatters, (say that seven times) but you will be hard pressed to find a genuine screen wire swatter today. All you’ll find are plastic ones. Go online, however, and you can find honest-to-goodness screen wire flyswatters. I suggest you get a few. Someday you will need them.
No visit to my grandmothers’ home was complete without watching those Southern ladies reach for an old-fashioned screen wire flyswatter. Both had radar. A flick of the wrist and a bloody stain marked the spot of the fly’s demise. But now we have plastic swatters not worth a hoot. Flies live to drop specks yet again.
Know what else was good about screen-wire flyswatters? The vanquished fly stuck to the screen where a shake over a toilet bowl buried the critter at sea. When a plastic swatter scores a kill over a slow, dimwitted fly, the departed remains where right it was, albeit wider, thinner, bloodier, and best of all, dead. But now you have to scrape up the mess.
One more thing … Flies and kids make a bad combination. Kids have an annoying habit of standing in an open door, neither going in nor out. This will sound familiar to you baby boomers. “Close the door, you’re letting flies in.” Let ’em in we did and when the flies flew inside, my grandmothers were armed and ready. The war commenced.
The days of smashing flies are behind us. Air conditioning made life more tolerable but it robbed us of color, character, and conflict. The war against flies required screen wire swatters and cotton puffs stuffed in window screen holes. Despite such patchwork measures, pesky, nasty, greasy flies managed to invade the house. It was there that they encountered the original No Fly Zone, and if chaps, as we were called back in my day, got out of line, well, the swatter was good medicine for us too.
A Song For Miss Johnnie
—“I hear the train a’coming, rolling round the bend”
—“Look a-yonder comin’, comin’ down that railroad track, it’s the Orange Blossom Special, bringing my baby back” … Two songs the man in black sang. Two trains, similar names, and a story.
Oh sing that train song, Ronnie, … sing it through the year. Blow that horn, blow it for her to hear. Strum your guitar, strum it hard, cause Miss Johnnie someday soon is gonna meet the Lord …
And now I turn the clock back to long-gone days in the red clay state and one Ronnie Myers. My abiding memory of Ronnie is hearing him sing and play guitar in his high school band, the Comets. Ronnie strummed a red electric guitar if memory serves me right. The Comets? Well, they came to age during the British Invasion, and for a while I thought Lincolnton, Georgia, had an answer to the Beatles. Ronnie and the Comets played in the old Spires pool hall located between Charles Ware’s Hardware and East Beauty Shop—all no more. Nothing lasts forever, and that goes for railroad men and their devoted fans.
Ronnie and me? We parted the usual way. We graduated and moved on. Then some fifty years later, we crossed paths. He, too, lived in South Carolina and he had done something I envied: worked as a trainman. “Tell me some train stories, Ronnie; tell me some please.”
Among them is this lonely happy, happy lonely tale of what some folks call an old maid.
Who doesn’t need something to look forward to, something that gives life a cadence, rhythm. For Miss Johnnie O’Bryant trains did just that. The clacking of the rails must have been music to her. She lived in a small four-room house just west of Auburn, Georgia, about 100 yards from the railroad tracks that parallel Highway 29. “We could see her house really well from our train,” said Ronnie. “She lived all alone except for her cats.”
Miss Johnnie loved the railroad men and their conveyances of steel. She could hear the train a’coming, coming round the bend. By day, she waved a hankie; by night, a flashlight. “We all looked for her,” said Ronnie. “Even in the wee hours we would see her flashlight waving from her window. We always blew the whistle when we passed.”
Miss Johnnie lived in lean circumstances, so the men learned. At Christmas, the trainmen, conductors, and engineers would chip in some money and an old conductor friend of hers, Ben Powell, would drive to Auburn to deliver it. “Practically all 100 or so railroad men from Abbeville would contribute about $20 each,” said Ronnie.
An appreciative Miss Johnnie wrote letters to the men and they would put her letters on the bulletin board in the crew room at the Abbeville depot. She wrote about everyday life. Her flowers and vegetable garden, her cats, the frogs in the little spring close to her yard. (She didn’t have running water.) “She even had names for certain frogs,” said Ronnie. “She talked a lot about her favorite radio announcer, Ludlow Porch, whom she listened to religiously every day.”
Unfamiliar with Ludlow (Bobby Crawford Hanson)? Well, he was one of Lewis Grizzard’s stepbrothers. Ludlow, a humorist and radio talk-show host, always ended his show with, “Whatever else you do today, you find somebody to be nice to.”
Ronnie certainly did. “Occasionally I would be called to cover an outlying job and I would drive my personal car to other towns to work a switcher (an engine and crew that work local businesses). “One summer day I had gotten off work in Lawrenceville and driving home I decided to stop by Miss Johnnie’s and introduce myself. I wanted to meet the lady who always waved at us.”
Ronnie walked through Miss Johnnies’ fragrant purple old timey petunias; the perennial kind our southern grandmothers grew in their yards. He knocked on her screen door and waited. He waited some more and then her visage materialized through the screen. “It startled me at first. She had a serious, cautious look so I immediately told her my name and that I worked on the railroad and had been wanting to meet her.”
A smile crossed Miss Johnnie’s face and she invited Ronnie into her front room. “We had a chat about her cats and how dry the summer was.” She told Ronnie one of her cats was sick because it had eaten too many lizards. She told him she had loved trains and always lived near the tracks since she was a girl. And then music—that balm of the soul—entered the picture.
“Through the open bedroom door I saw an acoustic guitar on her bed,” said Ronnie. “I see you play guitar.” Miss Johnnie said she played a little bit and Ronnie said he did too. “Matter of fact I have mine out in the car.” You could say a mini-concert took place.
Miss Johnnie had an old Sears & Roebuck Silvertone guitar. “They were really good quality guitars back in the day before they started manufacturing cheap department store toy guitars and passing them off as real guitars,” said Ronnie. “Miss Johnnie played the guitar pretty well. She sang the old tune, ‘On Top of Old Smoky … all covered with snow, I lost my true lover for courtin’ too slow.’ ”
Ronnie couldn’t help but feel this “old widow” was thinking of an old boyfriend while singing. Maybe so. “An old railroad friend who lived near her told me she, a sister, and her mother had lived in that same old house as long as he could remember and that Miss Johnnie had taken care of them until they both died.”
After some music, Ronnie left Miss Johnnie’s with vegetables from her garden and a bag of dried apples she had placed on tin in that hot Georgia summer sun. “I left with a good feeling and a song in my heart,” said Ronnie. A few months later in his Atlanta motel room, a melody popped into his head. And then the words came …
Miss Johnnie O’Bryant lived by our tracks, she always waved, and we waved back
On a midnight train, we’d see her light, and she’d hear our horn blow
I stopped by one summer day; her flowers smelled sweet in a strange purple haze
This lady loved trains like her flowers loved dew
She lived all her life in this small Georgia town reading her Bible and tilling the ground
When she leaves this world, full of sorrow and pain, when she goes to heaven, she’ll go on a train
She said I could have married a long time ago, I could have said yes, but always said no
I’d rather live all alone just to hear those old trains and their big engines moan
We who ride these rails every day, sure miss our families in so many ways, but just a wave in the passing, a how do you do, sure eases our sadness, it’s the least she could do
She lived all her life in this small Georgia town, reading her Bible and tilling the ground
When she leaves this world full of sorrow and pain, when she goes to Heaven she’ll go on a train
When Johnnie sees Jesus, she’ll be on a train
Ronnie saw Miss Johnnie one more time. He stopped by, sang her song to her, and gave her the lyrics. And then those trains rolled on and so did time. Lots of time. The day came when they moved Miss Johnnie to a nursing home in downtown Winder. Fate was kind, however. The home sat just across Highway 29 from the tracks. Said Ronnie, “From then until I left the railroad, when we came through Winder, no matter what time of day or night, I’d blow our horn loud and long because I knew she’d be listening.”
Oh sing that train song, Ronnie, … sing it through the year. Blow that horn, blow it loud for her to hear. Strum your guitar, strum it hard, cause Miss Johnnie, she’s wandered off to meet the Lord …
In 2005, many years after he left the railroad Ronnie learned Miss Johnnie O’Bryant had passed away. She rests in a cemetery in Winder. “I hope to go by her grave someday,” said Ronnie.
Well, at least her home and petunias stand across from the tracks. Right? Well, no. “I heard her little four-room house was torn down and an appliance store was built at that location,” said Ronnie, “but to us older railroad guys, Miss Johnnie O’Bryant will always be there.”
Yes, she will.
People pass on but their presence remains. A fragrance, a song, why even a sound brings them back. “Hey, buddy, do you hear that horn? Look a-yonder comin,’ comin’ down that railroad track. Hey, look a-yonder comin,’ comin’ down that railroad track, it’s Ronnie and the trainmen bringin’ Miss Johnnie back.”