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Stars Fell On Alabama
By Carl Carmer, Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 1934 Carl Carmer
All rights reserved.
THE train had left the echoing passes in the high hills during the morning and now for some time had been rolling through vine-hung woods standing in yellow water. Suddenly it came out on a plain of red clay land sparsely overgrown with sedge grass. "Tuscaloosa, folks, Tuscaloosa," shouted the conductor.
As I came down the car steps, I felt a sudden burning gust. The train had been hot and still but this heat was alive and virulent. My tweed suit was oppressive and it made me a marked man. A dozen taxi drivers surrounded me. "Carry you to town, boss?" I gave up my bags and climbed in.
First some straggling low unpainted stores — a creaking wagon bearing one cotton bale and that bearing one old black man who slapped his reins over a slow mule — a few overpretentious bungalows, a lane of gaunt old elms, then a great blue-gray ghost of a house, dark and rambling. "Van de Graaf place," said my driver laconically. "Built before the war."
The shade of the elms ended. We were in the center of the low-lying town. A tall flagpole marked the junction of two wide streets. We swung around it.
"There's our skyscraper," said the driver, pointing to a tall office building — ugly promise of the future — rising into the hot sky. "And here's your hotel."
The heavy green carpet and the faded green walls of my room depressed me. I picked up the black Bible on the table and put it down. Through my window I could see into the street below. Men were strolling about in their shirt sleeves. The sunlight was cruel on the gray pavement. A group of young black girls in brightly spotted cotton dresses had stopped outside a store from which came the sound of a phonograph. Their hearty laughter interrupted it pleasantly. I lay on my bed and tried to sleep.
About an hour later there was a rap at my door. "Here's a bunch of flowers for you, sir." They were roses of many kinds, wrapped in a newspaper, and there was card — "From some people who are glad you are here." I have never known who sent them. It might have been any one of the hundreds of families I later came to know, for it was a typical gesture. No people are more perfectly master of the unexpected and kindly.
I went down into the lobby, for it was dinner time. I saw the clerk jerk a thumb toward me as I passed and a pleasant short gentleman with a gray mustache and kindly gray eyes approached me.
"You're one of the new members of the university faculty, aren't you? I'm Howe, professor of history. Won't you join me at my table?"
At dinner, I learned soon enough that I did not like corn bread — it was heavy and unsweetened — not like the "johnnycake" it resembled — nor could I eat okra, or collards. But the fried chicken made up for it. Professor Howe kindly volunteered much information about the town and the university but the more he said the more unreal and fantastic they seemed.
As we reëntered the lobby after dinner a group of men standing by the desk spoke to Howe and he stopped and introduced me to them. They spoke cordially — all but a short bald man with a white mustache. With no warning he began: "I've just met you and they say you're a college professor. I hope you're not the kind of a college professor who teaches that men are descended from long-tailed apes. That's the kind of blasphemy that is making our sons and daughters what they are today. The Bible expressly denies ..."
Howe pulled me away bewildered as the other men tactfully interrupted the vehement speaker. "Don't mind him. He's a type down here. I used to argue with them when I came. That just drives them crazy. Now I avoid them. Let's take a walk."
The air had cooled a bit and the sun was setting in a crimson bank of clouds as we strolled down Greensboro Avenue — back to the old blue-gray ghost of the Van de Graaf place. Then we turned off on a side street and suddenly came upon a house whose white pillars rose high to its roof, their bases hidden by flowering bushes. The air was soft and very sweet with the blossoms.
"That's the back of the Washington Moody place," said Howe. "The other side is just like it." We walked around to the front to see again the clean white lift of the pillars. We saw, too, smoke curling up from the brick chimney of the little one-story wing at the left, evidently the kitchen. "This is what I thought Alabama would be," I said.
"It's part of it," said Howe.
We strolled back to the hotel. There was a note for me from an old friend — my only acquaintance in the state before my arrival:
"We are waiting for you in a car at the curb. Come join us. Knox."
I excused myself to Howe.
"Stop by my room when you come in," he said. "I'll be up."
It was a jovial party outside. Knox had brought a young married couple along — also a tall and beautiful lady who lamented in her soft contralto that her husband, Jim, was in Montgomery. She and Knox and I sat on the back seat.
"We've drunk up all the corn waitin' for you," said Knox. "Now we'll have to go back home and get some more. We'd go there to have a drink but Grandmother's visitin' us and she's the woman who gave Alabama prohibition before its time."
We drove through the moonlit town, stopped at a house wherein Knox ran the gauntlet of Grandmother, and drove on. Suddenly the car began to lurch and toss. We were going down a steep incline and there was no road-bed save a few worn tracks through a dense wood. For half a mile the descent continued and then we were all at once in a flat open clearing.
"Dell's woods," said Knox. "I reckon the Klan won't find us here. Let's have a drink."
"Let's get out first and sit in the moonlight," said the soft contralto.
"Do you really mean," I said, "the Ku Klux might object to our being here?"
"They certainly would if they knew it. They've driven the parked cars out at Riverside and at the Country Club — off private property, too. That's what they were trying to protect in the seventies when my grandfather was high mucky-muck. — He'd turn over in his grave if he knew what poor white trash are wearing the sheets now. Oh, well, here's to 'em."
All about the little barren clearing the slim bare trunks of the pines rose like vertical bars to their tufted tops far up in the moonlight.
Knox turned to the husband and wife. "You've forgotten the baby," he said accusingly. "You've left him in the stuffy car when he could be enjoying this fresh air."
"I'll get him," said the husband and he took from the car a pillow on which rested a slumbering infant.
"But where was he?" I said, "I didn't see him."
"On the floor by my feet in front," said his mother, "where I could watch him. You see," she continued, "none of our servants live in the house where they work. And they all insist on being at their own homes early in the evening. And so if we have parties at night — well, the easiest way is to take Baby along. He just sleeps through it all like an angel." She bent over the child who slept placidly on in the moonlight.
"Have a drink," said Knox. "Let's sit down and enjoy ourselves." For six years I was destined to drink, on occasion, corn whiskey. Friend after friend has assured me that this time he had something "just as good as rye." Expert upon expert has explained his method of treating it. It remains as vile and as uglily potent a liquor as ever man has distilled. It is swift and deadly — odious to the taste. And too often it ruins the geniality it is meant to encourage.
I drank, coughed, sputtered. I said: "It's terrible." There was a silence — long enough to be ominous. Knox saved the day: "Y'all have to expect his sayin' things like that once in a while — till he gets used to us. He's a damn Yankee — and likely to tell the truth."
"But why should he — why should they —" said the soft contralto slowly. "It just sounds rude."
"They think there's a virtue in it," said Knox. "That's one thing I learned at Harvard Law School."
"I'm sorry," I said miserably. "It was surprised out of me."
"It is never surprised out of us," said the contralto. "Don't you mind, honey," she went on, "you're a friend of Knox's and if you're as sweet as he is, we'll all like you — and if we do, you'll be the first Yankee we ever did like."
"Forget it," said Knox. "Stop sweet-talkin' the new man long enough to hear Mary Ellen tell what happened to my cousin Tennant in Eutaw last week."
"I haven't heard anything else since she got back," said Mary Ellen's husband. "But I reckon I can stand it once more."
We were all sitting on the ground in a little circle leaning forward eagerly.
"Well, Tennant was wantin' to go swimmin' in the river and Mary Louise had gone to Demopolis to see Cousin Augusta and Tennant couldn't find his bathin' suit. He says she always puts it in a different place. Anyway Tennant got so hot he decided he'd go anyway. He found an old middy blouse of Mary Louise's and an old short blue skirt of hers that didn't come down to his knees. He put 'em on and put his long raincoat on over 'em. He put on shoes and socks and got out the Buick and drove down to the river. He had his swim all right, but on his way back he decided to stop at the drug store for some cigars. He got out of the car at the corner — so he wouldn't have to turn around — and he was walkin' toward the store when something happened.
"Seems young Jim Batson, he's deputy sheriff over there, was talkin' to that new doctor that moved in from Linden; Acker's his name, he comes really from the Ackers down in Choctaw County. Jim was tryin' to get the doctor to join the Klan — but the doctor wouldn't do it and said somethin' about the Klan that made Jim mad. So he said: 'You can't say anythin' like that about me or my friends,' and the doctor said: 'I'll say what I so-and-so please,' and they both began shootin' at the same time, standin' out in the road in front of the courthouse square.
"Just then Tennant came along to go into the drug store and the first he knew about it, he was shot in the leg. The bullet made a hole right through the outside of his calf. It made him mighty mad and he let out a yell so loud that they stopped shootin'— they'd been too excited to aim well. Tennant saw Jim Batson standin' there with a smokin' gun — so he lit into him and he swore at him somethin' awful. Jim just stood there. I reckon he knew he was in the wrong. Finally Tennant got so mad he said: 'Just put down that gun and take off your coat for I'm goin' to whip you plenty.' Then he took off his raincoat and threw it on the ground and stood there in a dripping wet middy blouse and short old blue skirt — with the blood pouring out from his leg. His father says he looked like a piece of red, white and blue bunting.
"Jim Batson took one look and began to laugh and that made Tennant madder than ever and he stepped up to whale Jim when some men stepped in and stopped it all and got Tennant to put on his coat and go home. They've 'most had trouble down there ever since, for both Tennant and Jim are kin to half the county and every day some menfolks would ride in with their guns. They said they'd heard a feud was startin' and they wanted to do their part."
We all laughed and the corn liquor emboldened me:
"Please don't be offended if I ask about these people you've told about. Do you people know them well and who and what are they?"
Knox spoke up quickly.
"They probably do sound fantastic to you. They won't seem strange when you meet them — you will when we all go down to the Greene County Rally next spring. They are all charming civilized people — I reckon Alabama's about the only place left where exciting things can happen to the gentility."
"Don't boast, Knox," said the contralto. "Tennant is kin to you, you know. And speakin' of kin, my husband's goin' to call me up at midnight — so let's go back."
On the way back, Mary Ellen said: "You're the first Yankee who hasn't told us how fascinating and exciting New York is. Maybe you'll do."
"I hope so," I said. I certainly felt disposed to "do."
As I passed an open door in the stuffy hotel corridor that led to my room, I heard Howe call me.
"Come in," he said. "I want you to meet Saffold of my department."
A courtly bald gentleman in a spotless white suit greeted me. His tone was friendly and his manner gracious. I liked him at once.
"We are having a little scuppernong wine," he said. "Won't you join us?" I thought of the corn whiskey I had consumed and hesitated — but a glass was pressed into my hand and I found myself tasting as mellow and palatable a drink as the former had been raw and distasteful.
We sat up late talking shop, while two electric fans moved the hot air about us.
About two, a cool breath came from the window. Saffold rose to go and I left with him. In the corridor he said: "I am glad to know you and I hope you're going to like your work and the place." He paused. "On second thought," he said, "I'll withdraw that last clause — for if I knew you well enough to advise you, I'd say 'For God's sake, get out of here before it's too late.'" He turned abruptly and walked away, his footsteps echoing in the silent corridor.CHAPTER 2
I WAS to live in Tuscaloosa six years before I fully realized what Saffold had meant and left Alabama. Whether it was "too late" then is a matter of opinion. Certainly the virus against which he had warned me was by that time in my veins and I had learned to live the Alabama way. I knew what to expect of the people and what they expected of me. I believe that many had even forgotten I was a Yankee.
There were differences at first. I remember that once before a large class I had become enthusiastic over the picturesque quality of Tuscaloosa on a Saturday afternoon. I spoke of the crowds of negroes come to town to shop, their husky deep laughter, their ceaseless high-pitched chatter, the red, green, yellow brilliance of the clothes of the women, the careless graceful nonchalance of the men. They formed a strange contrast, I said, with the taciturn, lean white farmers and their soberly clad wives, and I could think of no streets in the world that provided so fascinating and variegated a human mixture save those of the cities on the north coast of North Africa. On the next day six serious young men waited upon me with a petition asking me to retract the statements I had made with regard to their native city whose inhabitants I had made out to be "no better than a bunch of foreigners."
For a year or so I was suspected of being a "missionary of Eastern culture" as one student dubbed me. I was described on one occasion as "one of those damn-Yankee professors who lectures on poetry and goes without a hat." But gradually suspicion of me lessened and I found myself, if not a born Southerner,born to be a Southerner. My lectures were all scheduled for the morning, leaving the long afternoons for tennis and swimming. My evenings were spent in bridge and dancing and swimming and drinking. And while I was enjoying the diversions of Alabama life I slowly became aware of the fact that they are a frivolous film covering deep waters. Living was always too bright or too dark. There was no middle way of normality. Strong contrasts followed each other in startling sequences.
No people of the world give more thought to social enjoyment than the Alabamians. The early afternoon finds most of Tuscaloosa's business men on golf courses and tennis courts, even when business might be improved by closer attention. In the evening the town is alive with small impromptu parties except on the nights of larger, more formal affairs.
During the hot months social activities do not decrease. Moonlight swimming parties in the Black Warrior River are frequent. There is dancing on the "front gallery" to radio and phonograph, the men looking very tanned and fit in their white starched suits, the women very feminine in the ruffled dresses that are the despair of their New York relatives when they come north to visit on Manhattan Island.
Excerpted from Stars Fell On Alabama by Carl Carmer, Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge. Copyright © 1934 Carl Carmer. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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