Thursday, December 3, 2009

Day 51: Bertha D. Blues

Lurand to Albin. 21.6 miles/869.7 total
Thursday, December 3, 2009

I’m leaving from the northern edge of Lurand, headed south on Highway 49 to a point a little south of Albin, on 49E. Lurand, by the way, is spelled that way on maps, but on the signs on the way into and out of the village it’s spelled “Lu-Rand.”

It’s in the high 30s this morning. The sun is visible from time to time under sporadic thick low clouds. It promises to get only into the high 40s this afternoon. Although it's chilly, I soon realize I’m wearing too many layers of clothing. I have on a t-shirt, another knit undershirt with long sleeves, a heavy outer shirt, my walking vest, and two oversized hooded sweatshirts, one lined with imitation fleece. Well, clothing can always be shed if necessary. From the young guys I’ve seen lately, it looks as though I'm dressed somewhat stylishly. The oversized hooded zip-up is all the rage. If my jeans were only baggier and about eight inches longer in the legs, I’d be right in fashion. Sort of.

At about five miles I enter Dublin. Dublin has a post office and an old gas station converted into a store, which may not be open any more. I don’t bother to check it out. The rest of the village lies about a quarter mile to the west of the highway.

All down through the Delta I’ve seen signs for Delta Plastics. It makes polyethylene plastic irrigation tubing, but it also seems to encourage or promote recycling of its plastic, which gives it bragging rights on its signs, as an environmentally concerned company. Delta Plastics--making the world safer and better and more righteous.

At a little less than halfway through today's walk I enter Tallahatchie County. This makes me think of Bobbie Gentry’s song from the 60s, “Ode to Billie Joe,” and that thing about throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge. I guess Bobbie Gentry lived in Mississippi, but I don’t think it was in this county. She went to school in Greenwood, which is in LeFlore County, the next one south of here. There are probably bridges to jump off of down there.

Right after the sign for Tallahatchie County, and also the sign that I am entering Tutwiler, “Where The Blues Was Born,” is a huge jail on the west side of Highway 49. It’s a pretty new one, too, built of light grey concrete, with at least seven two-story cellblocks, featuring slit windows about three inches wide by two or three feet high. Wide enough to stick a gun through but too small to escape out of. The name of this grim-looking place is the Tallahatchie County Correctional Center. It's surrounded by the usual fifteen-foot-high double chain link fence topped with barbed wire. Actually this looks a lot more like a prison than a county jail, and it’s much bigger than a jail would be, especially for a little county like this one.

[I looked it up on the internet after the walk. Turns out it’s one of those private prisons, run by a company called CCA--Corrections Corporation of America. The capacity is 2,500, and the population of Tallahatchie County is only about 15,000, which means there’s room in there for every sixth person in the county. But guess what? The web site says its “customer base” is Tallahatchie County (for which it serves as the jail) and California. So most of the inmates, probably ninety percent, are from California. Its “customers.” I love that. “Tallahatchie County Correctional Center. How may we serve you?”]

I’ll bet the prison provides a number of minimum wage prison guard jobs for the locals. Once again, old Oscar Wilde comes to mind, as he always seems to when I go by a prison:

In Tallahatchie jail by Tutwiler town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In a burning winding sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.

And there, till Christ call forth the dead
In silence let him lie:
No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

As far as Tutwiler proper is concerned, there’s the whole birth of the blues thing to consider, as noted on the water tower and one of the signs welcoming strangers into town. I imagine that back in 1903 when W.C. Handy heard that weird music being played at the train station, the city fathers would have been horrified to know that someday people would be boasting that Tutwiler was where this black music genre originated. Of course the blues wasn’t born here anyway--that is, not specifically in Tutwiler. Some guy from out of town just happened to hear the blues being played here on a certain day. But then, that’s how history oftentimes is made. Somebody prints something in a book and it becomes the truth. Of course now, with not much else going for it, this little agricultural community wants some claim to fame, and here it is. And with a population about 87% African American, it also attests to the fact that, politically, things have turned in favor of the majority, at least in matters involving civic pride. So that’s a good thing.

It suddenly occurs to me why two young black guys asked me for directions to Tutwiler the other day, as I was walking south out of Clarksdale. They weren’t going to pay homage to the spot where the blues was born, but rather going to visit someone in the joint. Maybe they’d flown into Memphis from California.

A mile or two on down Highway 49 there’s another water tower, an older blue one that bears only the name of the town. Probably built before the birth of the blues became a good thing. I stop at the Double Quick gas station and convenience store. From the front door comes the delicious smell of fried food—chicken, catfish, shrimp. Fried food, which is absolutely everywhere down here, is one of the allurements of the south I have successfully avoided, for the most part, even though its smell tempts me at every turn. The Double Quick is quite a center of social activity, and I get a drink and relax out front, watching the steady procession of customers. A stray dog comes by and licks my hand.

I start back out after my travel break, greatly refreshed. Highway 49 splits at this point, into 49E and 49W. I take the left fork, to 49E, which goes toward Greenwood. The 49W branch goes to Indianola and Belzoni before rejoining 49E just north of Yazoo City.

Highway 49E out of Tutwiler is named the Emmett Till Memorial Highway. Emmett Till was a fourteen year old black kid from Chicago who was down near here in 1955 visiting relatives, in Money, Mississippi. He allegedly whistled at and made some comments to a white woman, for which transgression he was beaten, had his eye put out, and was shot to death, and his body weighted down and wrapped in barbed wire and thrown into the Tallahatchie River near Glendora. (Hey wait! Maybe that's what Billie Joe McAllister was throwing off the bridge!) His killers were tried in Sumner, just down the road from here. They were acquitted by an all-white jury. This killing is considered to have been one of the early galvanizing events in the civil rights movement in the south. What a price to pay to have a highway named in your honor. But I guess this, too, is progress that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.

The clouds are dissipating, and the afternoon is becoming more sunny, but the temperature still has not reached 50. I stop to sit on a galvanized guard rail by a bridge. These rails are my favorite places to stop and rest during my walks. They’re just the right height.

Next I arrive at the outskirts of Sumner, a town of about 400. The sign on the highway has a wreath around it, complete with twinkling lights. Most of the village is over to the east, and I’ll bypass it. Sumner’s water tower is painted and shaped like a cotton boll.

At the south end of Sumner I stop to visit a cemetery behind the Old Antioch Baptist Church. As I’m sitting on the tombstone of Lawrence L. Dodd, a Tallahatchie County Sheriff’s car pulls up next to the cemetery. The deputy gets out, an African American guy about six and a half feet tall, and asks me if I’m looking for a particular grave. I say no, that I’m just visiting the place, and he says he owns the cemetery. I tell him that it’s a nice cemetery, and that I’m just walking through. He seems a little peeved, but he gets back into his car and takes off. This state just gets stranger and stranger.

Not long after this I come to the Emmett Till Walking Trail. I take a little walk on it, to the extent that it runs parallel to 49E. A little while later I come to a historical marker about Tallahatchie County. It says it was organized in 1833, and that the name means River of the Rock. Tillatoba was the first county seat. Today the county seats are Charleston and Sumner.

At 17.3 miles I enter Webb, a town of about 600 that was named after Judge James L. Webb, a Confederate veteran from North Carolina who settled here in 1882 and opened the only store. Now Webb’s got it all going on. A Dollar General, a Napa Auto Parts store, a couple of gas stations, one on either side of the highway.

The next little place is Albin. It might exist, but it’s well hidden. No sign on the highway, no other serious indication of a village. Just a cotton gin and a big old plantation house. Well, that’s enough.

The late afternoon sun’s shining hard into the right side of my face. The sunset is going to be beautiful. About a mile and a half in the distance the white side of the motor home reflects the sunlight like a beached whale.

1 comment:

Michael Roberts said...

An old fav, by Kansas Joe McCoy: Joliet Bound

Now the police coming with his ball and chain
Mmmm mmmm
Police coming with his ball and chain
And they accusing me of murder, never harmed a man
Now some got six months, some got one solid year
Mmmm mmmm
Some got six months, some got one solid year
Now me and my buddy got a lifetime here
Now the judge he pleaded, clerk, he wrote it down
Mmmm mmmm
Judge he pleaded, clerk, he wrote it down
That if I miss jail sentence now, must be Joliet bound
Now cook my supper, let me go to bed
Mmmm mmmm
Cook my supper now, let me go to bed
I’ve been drinking white lightning and it’s gone to my head
Now you quit me baby, first thing you want to do
Mmmm mmmm
Quit me baby, first thing you want to do
Some day you gonna want me, cinch and I won’t want you
Now the police shivved his old pistol in my side
Mmmm mmmm
Police shivved his old pistol in my side
Said if you run big boy, now, must be born to die
When they had my trial, you could not be found
Mmmm mmmm
Had my trial, you could not be found
Now I done got all messed up and I’m Joliet bound