It is nearing eleven o’clock on a sunny, breezy Tuesday morning, April 19.
My good friend, Thomas McGonigle, and his wife, Anna Saar, are on their way from Durham to my home, a few miles from Knightdale. They’ll be driving me down to Johnston County, the seat of so many shining childhood memories. I lie on a couch in the living room, awaiting their arrival.
At precisely eleven o’clock, I see Tom standing before the open front door, just outside the screen door. He appears just as I remember him from our year together in the writing program at Hollins College: short, slight of build, already balding, bearded. But now, over four decades since we graduated, his hair and beard are touched with gray. He wears a black NYU baseball cap, a blue, striped long-sleeved shirt over a white T shirt, black casual slacks, and a pair of recently shined, black dress shoes.
I rise, open the screen door, and say to him, “You found me!” To my chagrin and dismay, his response is wholly inaudible to me. I have been hearing-impaired for some time, but I have not realized the extent of my hearing loss until Tom and Anna arrived that day. After asking him to repeat what he said, he speaks softly slowly, so that I can lip-read: “We have a GPS—better and quicker than a map and your directions.” Beyond Tom, I see a black SUV with New Jersey license plates and Anna standing outside among the pine trees ever-present in this part of North Carolina and holding a triple leash attached to the collars of three Pekinese. She staggers a bit as the dogs sniff the grass and pull on the leashes. She seems as short as Tom, but heavier. Since she is twenty years younger than Tom, her hair is the light blonde of persons of Estonian ancestry. She wears a dark red blouse, a dark red skirt reaching to her knees, and a pair of athletic shoes.
Two hours later, we take an exit from I-40, drive around the traffic circle in Newton Grove, a town that seems not to have changed since Eisenhower was president, and enter Johnston County.
As I type this, my first entry in this blog, I am gazing on a large loblolly pinecone, its brown needles still intertwining through the large buds. I retrieved it (surreptitiously) from the center of a cemetery for fallen Confederate soldiers on the Bentonville Battlefield nine days ago.
It has become, now, the talisman of my memory: all those Saturdays during my childhood and adolescence when my maternal grandfather, William A. Smith, drove me to Smithfield, North Carolina, with its nefarious billboard on the outskirts that proclaimed:
Welcome to Johnston County!
This is Klan Country!
The billboard stood just before the Neuse River Bridge. It was an embarrassment to the town, but it couldn’t take it down since it stood on private property. The billboard remained until 1970, when the town council voted to buy the property and dismantled the eyesore.
From Smithfield, my grandfather drove me out to his farm in Brogden. After visiting the farm, Grandfather digging up soil into a small carton and filling an old Mason jar with water from the tenant’s hand pump (for testing), we’d stop at Braswell’s General Merchandise and “feast” on a Coke and a couple of packs of nabs. In grandfather’s conversation, the old store owner would always claim that the Pope had “the biggest bank in the world!”
From there, we would drive by the old, clapboard, then-nameless church that my great-great grandfather had built “for the colored people in 1868,” as my grandfather put it.
A few miles further, we came to the highlight of those Saturdays together: the long, slow, dramatic approach along a straight dirt drive, once lined with tall pines, to the old antebellum homeplace where my great-great-grandfather resided from 1853 until shortly before his death in 1888. At the time, my great-uncle Roger Alexander Smith allowed tenants to live in various rooms of the great house–and he left it shamefully neglected, one of the Ionic columns gone and now replaced by a large creosote pole. The tenants, being gracious, welcomed us inside and gave us a guided tour of the old home, which we both, especially my grandfather, relished.
After passing the crumbling ruins of Brogden School, where my great-aunt Alice was said to have taught Ava Gardner, we would turn around, drive back down Brogden Road, and by circuitous paved roads, make our way to the Bentonville Battlefield. We would always stop by the battlefield and tour it for a time, my grandfather pointing out the various trenches and earthworks still preserved; the Harper House that was used as a field hospital during the Battle of Bentonville; and the old, now restored slave cabins to the right of the Harper House. We would also visit the Confederate Cemetery (where I had retrieved the large pinecone) and the monument that the Goldsboro Rifles erected in 1893. In 1895, my grandfather, so he told me, was present at the commemoration ceremony—he was seven years old then.
In 1982, the Johnston County Historical Society bought the old homeplace (with four acres around it), placed it on the Register of Historic Places, and hired a man from New York to come down and restore it. He finished the restoration in 1992, and when I arrived at the house in June (the old homeplace now called the Atkinson-Smith House), he graciously allowed me a tour inside, where I took a number of photographs. I also stopped by the “old colored church,” which was slowly collapsing. (Its last surviving member died earlier in the year.)
I didn’t visit “Klan Country” again until July 2002, when I was 54 and feeling the first signs of hearing impairment and, worse, tinnitus. A rather surly middle-aged man named Joseph accompanied me. We learned that the old homeplace had been put up for sale. Our visit to the Bentonville Battlefield was cut short owing to an uptick in my tinnitus—much to Joseph’s chagrin.
Nearly a decade later (I had just turned 63), two good friends from the East Village in New York City, Thomas McGonigle and his wife Anna Saar, drove down to North Carolina to visit some acquaintances there. Together with their three cute, charming Pekinese, they accompanied me on what may likely be my final journey to Klan Country.
Tom was a fellow-classmate of mine in the Hollins College writing program, 1969-1970. Along with his wife, Anna Saar, we’ve been in touch by e-mail and Facebook since May of last year. Tom is also the author of two novels, published by Dalkey Archive Press, The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov and Going to Patchogue. BTW: Tom has an excellent blog, The ABC of Reading (http://www.abcofreading.blogspot.com). It contains, among other entries, his unpublished novella “Nothing Doing.”
For this tour, on Tuesday April 19, we began not from Smithfield but from Newton Grove and that forlorn, cracked, well-oiled U. S. 701 that leads to Harper House Road and the Bentonville Battlefield.
While Anna sat under the shelter of the concession stand tending to the three Pekinese as they sniffed at the mowed lawn, Tom and I walked to the tiny battlefield museum, toured it briefly, then walked outside, heading toward the Harper House and the slave cabins. We never made to the house and the cabins—Tom owing to a painful, pulled calf muscle, I staggering around like a sailor as my right ear gave me fits. Tom took photos, however, and we both managed a trek to the old Confederate cemetery, where Tom, too, picked up a couple of loblolly pinecones. (I was struck by how large the battlefield had grown, as the state had bought private property to expand the field. There is now even a “driving” tour through the various points of the battle, each marked by a large plaque.)
From the battlefield, we drove by circuitous paved roads to Brogden Road. Shortly, we passed what used to be my grandfather’s farm (the old tenant house had been demolished), the old Braswell Store (now closed and shuttered), and then the “old colored church.” Tom and I got out to look at it and take photos. Much to my surprise (and delight), the Johnston County Historical Society had restored it and placed it on the National Register of Historic Places. For the first time, I learned its name and construction date—as inscribed on a plaque above the front door of the church: Shiloh Church, Est. 1878.
A few miles further down Brogden Road, we turned into that long, straight dirt drive that so dramatically leads to the old homeplace—the Smith-Atkinson House. It was almost exactly how I remembered it: I saw, at first in far, aching distance, at the beginning of a long, straight, dirt drive, the sunlit, white façade of an antebellum house, the middle third of it a double portico of balustrades and four Ionic columns. Under a green, low-pitched roof shone a triangular pediment with a little arched window in the center—a third eye, if you will, winking back the sun. As we came closer, I saw, near the left end of the portico, a huge, old oak in full leaf, its thick branches arcing over the drive. A white-brick chimney stood high at each corner of the great house. Closer still, I saw the large upper and lower double windows on each side of the porticos, their green shutters attached. And I saw, in the center of the lower portico, the broad, white, intricately molded double door.
The house was now privately owned, and the new owners had constructed a back screened porch and had installed central heat and air conditioning. I rapped on the front and back doors, but even though vehicles were parked in the backyard, no one answered. I was hoping the new owners might give Tom and Anna and me a tour.
After Tom took photos of the house, we drove along Brogden Road to Smithfield, passing the Ava Gardner Museum.
I felt pretty lousy the whole day—ears ringing, eye floaters floating, my balance awry, my hearing more impaired than usual, and my shame at having to ask Tom and Anna to repeat what I said.
But at the end of the brilliant, blue, sunny, slightly breezy day—and of our journey into Klan Country—my soul recharged itself, and I felt anew.
Maybe I’ll return to Klan Country after all—perhaps during March 19 through March 21, when costumed men will reenact the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Bentonville, that largest Civil War battle fought on North Carolina soil.
So was this a day of light, or a day of dark? Perhaps, it was both.
Since much of this blog entry is mere words, I’ll post photos in a later post—some taken April 19, 2011, some from the Bentonville Battlefield site brochure, some taken in 1989 and 1992.