Luxora to Bassett. 21.9 miles/712.7 total
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
It's cloudless and cool as I leave from behind Charlie’s grocery store in Luxora, headed through Osceola and a few small towns to my destination, Bassett. I should get there by just before dark today. There's a breeze blowing at my back, like a gentle hand pushing me along. I’m back to wearing my sweatshirt, at least for the morning. It’s supposed to get up to about 66.
Lately I’ve been seeing, here and in Missouri, green and white signs on front lawns, bearing the word “JESUS.” The signs are about the size of the campaign signs people put on their lawns at election time. It’s got me wondering if maybe Jesus is running for office down here. It can’t be sheriff or even governor, since I’ve seen the signs in two different states. (Unless he’s trying to be in more than one place at the same time, a possibility, I suppose.) The other possibilities are that it’s not the Jesus—Jesus H. Christ—but maybe some Hispanic guy who’s so well known that people just call him by his first name. Or it could be someone like Jesus Shuttlesworth from Spike Lee’s movie, He Got Game.
Such speculation is frivolous, I know. More likely people are declaring their allegiance to Jesus over all the other candidates running for all offices—dropping out of mainstream secular politics in favor of religious rule for the country, like in Iran. They're saying, in effect, “A pox on both your houses. We’re going to back the guy who died on the cross. He’ll put an end to those pro-choice commies and their homosexual fellow travelers. And he'll make sure all the criminals get the needle, all the lazy mud people get off welfare, and when he's done with that, he'll kick some serious Arab ass!”
I’m sure that if Jesus ran for office around here he’d be overwhelmingly elected. The problem with that is that it brings up the whole question of WWJD—What Would Jesus Do? That gets dicey, because what if he doesn’t do what people expect? What if these southern Baptists are all wrong about old Jesus. (Do ya think?) What if--he does absolutely nothing. Puts me in mind of the last lines of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, “A Coney Island of the Mind No.5”:
Him just hang there
on his Tree
looking real Petered out
and real cool
according to a roundup
of late world news
from the usual unreliable sources
One thing I’ve noticed in the south, and in rural places generally, is that you don’t get a whole lot of choices when it comes to coffee. Lots of places out in the country don’t have decaf, and even the regular stuff is all gone by about noon. I guess after that if you want a pick-me-up, you get yourself an RC Cola and a moon pie. Hell with all that fancy-Dan cappuccino and latte.
I’ve had a few comments from friends about the sinister capabilities of southerners. No doubt the south has a history and tradition of committing atrocities in connection with race, from slavery to Klan activities to the assassinations of civil rights people. That can’t be denied. But having said all that, I remember from growing up in Oakland County, Michigan, that the town I lived in had racial hatred every bit as deep as anything in the south, just not directed at any one in particular, because we were all white. There were kids who used the “N” word as a common insult, in place of “asshole” or “jerk.” And on the very rare occasions when someone would try to integrate the township, they were shown the door. So let’s not kid ourselves. Outside of a few urban and academic enclaves, Michigan is as redneck a state as any in the nation.
After an hour and a half I enter Osceola, population 8,875. Osceola shares the name of the county in Michigan where my other grandmother was born, in Reed City. Osceola was a leader of the Seminoles. But I think this Osceola was named for a nearby river. Here it’s pronounced OH-ceola.
In the center of town is the Mississippi County Courthouse. Because today is Veteran’s Day, this and all other government offices are closed. Actually, this is one of two county courthouses, since Blytheville also has one. Osceola is the seat of the southern part of the county. It’s a brick building of an unusual brown color, topped with a copper dome. A little monochromatic, but interesting. There’s a plaque honoring William J. Driver, who donated the land for this courthouse. Also in front of the courthouse is something I expect to see more of now, a monument to the Confederate veterans of Mississippi County, put up by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
A couple of historical markers tell the story. This has been the county seat since 1836. Since about 1900 the county has maintained the other courthouse in Blytheville. This neo-classical courthouse was built in 1912. The big deal around here was the establishment of a drainage system, in which old William J. Driver was instrumental, enabling the area to become the largest cotton producing county in the world. I’ll have to check out the building tomorrow when it’s open, and also visit the museum across the street, housed in an old store.
In front of the Eastside Baptist Church, south of town, is another one of those Jesus signs. He obviously has the votes of the Baptists of Osceola. Wonder when the election will be?
I sit down on the wall at the memorial garden in front of the Roller-Swift Funeral Home and watch the cotton being harvested across Highway 61. There are no tombstones to sit on, just those bronze flower holders with the artificial flowers, looking all bleached out and especially phony.
Unlike the machines that harvest corn and soybeans, that cut down everything, blow the chaff out the back, and keep the grain, these cotton pickers either pick or suck up the cotton and leave the plants untouched. Later on, the plants will be cut down and ground up, maybe for fodder, I don’t know. When the hopper in the picker is full, they dump it into a truck with a large cage in the back. Then the cage trucks take the loose cotton over to machines that operate like giant trash compactors, using hydraulics to compress the cotton into the large rectangular bricks, called modules, you see everywhere. It’s a thing of beauty to see the sophisticated mechanization of the whole process. Only a fool would look back nostalgically at the days when the raising of cotton took huge numbers of low-paid or unpaid workers. Millions of jobs for peons is not what this country needs.
About halfway through the walk I come to a sign for a place called Rotan. A road goes up over the railroad tracks and I can see about six houses and a few pole barns. Down the road a piece, there’s another little community called Driver, named no doubt for William Driver of Osceola. I sit down in front of the post office and watch a BNSF railroad engine go by pulling 96 empty flat cars.
At 16 miles I enter the town of Wilson, population 939. For a half mile or more coming into Wilson I pass a succession of large mansions set back 500 feet or so from the road, with ancient sweet gums, oaks, and bald cypresses growing in the front yards and along the driveways. Each place has a large horse pasture. In the far distance are the cotton fields. There’s definitely some money around here, and has been for many years.
This town was named after Robert E. Lee Wilson, who was the big bossman around here. Wilson is an unusually shady town. Old trees, old houses, old money. Shady. The small downtown business district has been done over with faux Tudor facades, a not unpleasant touch. Somebody put some money into this little facelift. Up close, however, the Tudor stuff is a little dingy, and not all the buildings are occupied. There’s the Gunn Supermarket and the Wilson Drug Store, and a bank. That’s about it. But an interesting idea. There must be a story here somewhere.
Well, sure enough, there is a story or two in Wilson. One thing is that they found a mastodon skeleton not far from here. Also the remains of a pre-Columbian village. But that’s just everyday stuff. Check this out. According to an undocumented story on the Wikipedia page, in the early part of the 20th century, the Frisco Railroad would throw hoboes off the train in Wilson, where, regardless of race, they would become slaves on Lee Wilson's cotton plantation. If they were caught trying to run away, they would be shot and killed. This practice allegedly persisted into the 1960s, when it was ended after a senate investigation.
True or not, it’s a good story, obviously inspired by hostility toward old Robert E. Lee Wilson. Another source says that in 1925 the Wilson plantation was investigated after complaints by the Mexican Embassy that Wilson had recruited 5,000 Mexicans to work for him but was not paying them the wage he had promised. Lee Wilson was charged with tracking a guy down in Memphis and having him arrested and put in the Mississippi County jail (in Osceola, probably) until he agreed to go back and work at his place.
The moral of those stories is to keep moving when you’re in Wilson. Which I do. Hundred year old trees line both sides of the highway. A few of them are so massive that they may have stood here when Confederate soldiers marched down this road, perhaps after having been released from the Union prisoner-of-war camp in Rock Island, Illinois--sick, skinny, weak, and dispirited. The thought makes me feel robust by comparison.
All afternoon, dozens of soybean trucks have been driving by, along with the cotton trucks (some from Lee Wilson & Co.) taking modules to the huge Willow Gin, near Bassett. Next to the gin is a plant of the Gilster-Mary Lee Corporation, from which a tantalizing sweet smell emanates, like maybe from some sort of fruity drink mix.
At last, nearing the end of my day’s journey, I enter Bassett, population 168. The sun is low in the sky, directly in front of me, just a few degrees above the trees. I’m always happy when my home away from home comes into view. Today it is parked right alongside Highway 61.