Saturday evening I sat on the porch of a little shotgun house on 7th Street in Columbus, Ga., and breathed sweet and spicy air of magnolia and camellia and honeysuckle, the whole orchestra of Southern fragrance out and about, comforting the afflicted, and I thought of words I'd never ordinarily use, such as "suffused" and "redolent," and listened to Georgia friends talk about ancestors and their recipes, and I said to myself, "Well, maybe I should send for the family and look for a house and find another line of work. I could be happy here."
An odd notion, since I arrived in Georgia with a full-blown case of the spring blues, feeling like cracked china and not up to socializing, but I was taken to Minnie's for fried chicken, collards, butter beans and slaw, and to a barbecue joint in the old bus station, an ancient Greyhound parked alongside, for the sliced pork and mustardy sauce, and was given a tour of the old cotton mills along the Chattahoochee River, and my friends did all the talking for me. All I had to do was throw in a phrase or two, like "Well, bless their hearts" or "Don't mind if I do."
Driving down on Interstate 85, a section named the Chet Atkins Parkway, I remembered a conversation with Chet and how grievously lonesome he was in his teenage years, living here in the '30s with his dad. His only friends were the glamorous stars of radio and a cheap beat-up guitar. What he remembered about Georgia was snake tracks curving in the dust of a dirt road on a hot afternoon and a strong urge to go somewhere else as soon as possible.
Columbus is a good place to go to be sad since there is plenty of it around so you don't feel you are a freak if you're not grinning and chuckling. The history of the town is not a jolly one. It was an old Creek settlement that was stolen outright in 1838 and cleared of Indians, who headed down the Trail of Tears, a third of them dying on the way to Oklahoma. It became a cotton mill town, a place where country people with no education could earn enough to subsist on and get drunk occasionally. A couple blocks from this shotgun cottage is the white granite obelisk honoring the Confederate dead, floodlit on a broad boulevard above the river. A few days after Appomattox, a Union detachment came through and burned the mills and ran off the old men and teenage boys in gray under the command of John Pemberton, who later concocted the headache remedy that became Coca-Cola, a formula that he sold for peanuts. And then there is the century of insults and violence that black people were subjected to after emancipation. Everywhere you look in this city, you find suffering to make your own seem insignificant.
And on the south side of town is Fort Benning, home to 35,000 young men and women of the infantry who have either just returned from Iraq or are on their way there, or perhaps both. Last Saturday morning, on Veterans Parkway, the main drag leading to the base, a little band of folks stood on a corner, waving, smiling, holding flags, next to four signs stuck in the ground, "Stop ... The ... War ... Now" like the old Burma-Shave signs except it didn't rhyme. They were all dressed up as if going to church.
Flying to Columbus, you change planes in Atlanta and sit in the waiting area with young people in sandy camo. They are so terribly young, and so polite. It's not easy to look at them and imagine them getting chewed up in Mr. Bush's mill as if they were sorghum. Here we sit, knowing full well now how the White House rushed headlong into this war and what enormous lies were employed to sell it, and four years later these kids stand to get shot on behalf of the al-Maliki regime in its subtle alliance with the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr against the Sunnis, and which one among us can explain this mess to them? I can't.
The Creeks got robbed and driven out, and then Georgia enlisted in the worst cause known to man, the cause of oppression, from which after a century it finally emerges, and now we send these children to die in a war that should never have been. A paradise of flowers in a violent world and a person is darned lucky who only has the blues and you know that's so.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.