Thursday, July 30, 2009

Reflections of a Road Trip: Pirates in the Piedmont

In early July, I tapped the frequent-flyer bank and spent 4 1/2 days in North Carolina. The ostensible purpose of the trip involved meeting fellow researchers at Blowing Rock, near Grandfather Mountain. Most of the time, however, I shuttled between Charlotte and Salisbury, in the heart of the Piedmont. The Appalachians are certainly beautiful, but they don't hold my interest for long. I guess I am more of a rolling-hills-type-of-guy.

My visit just happened to coincide with the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain. While these Scottish festivals are often heavy on affectation, this one is the granddaddy of them all, as authentic, I suppose, as these sorts of things can be. I visited our clan tent, ate a Scottish meat pie, and watched some good ole-fashioned pole-tossing, duck herding and Scottish wresting (just like Turkish wrestling except that the contestants are not first slicked-down with olive oil.) And of course, there was the obligatory Celtic band (that I was never able to actually see for the crowds) and the ever-present din of bagpipes (which somehow seem appropriate here in the mountains.) That said, I still have the sneaking suspicion that the whole thing is merely an excuse for men to strut around in kilts and pretend they are laird o' the manor. Oh well, I have done worse myself.

Charlotte epitomizes the much-ballyhooed up-and-coming New South, with little time for the quaint distinctiveness of our various regions. (Bill Kauffman has some excellent observations on this aspect of Charlotte in a recent article, here.) On my first night there, I attempted to look up a first cousin that I had never met. One of my dad's brothers was something of a ladies' man, you might say. Swarthy and handsome, with a pencil mustache, he cut a dashing figure as a young man. Just before the Second World War, he married a stunning California girl, much too beautiful for her own good. Neither my uncle nor his new wife particularly behaved themselves while apart during the conflict, and not surprisingly, their marriage was a casualty of the war. Loraine went on to other marriages (as did he), and from the look of things, did quite well for herself in a material sense. I am intrigued by a snapshot of her taken 20 years later, in 1965. Even at that time, she was a dead-ringer for Audrey Hepburn. Anyway, there were 2 children of this marriage. The daughter was murdered years ago, and the son, I learned, lived in Charlotte. I especially wanted to meet this cousin, if for no other reason than he bears my grandfather's exact name. I googled and found the address and decided to just show up unannounced--"Hi, I'm your cousin"--at the front door. When I arrived at their house, the car was in the driveway and the lights were on. I rang the front doorbell. Nothing. After a couple of minutes, the blinds parted and two eyes looked out at me for a moment, and then disappeared back into the house. I rang the doorbell again. After a while, I began to feel foolish standing there on the front porch. So, I left my card in the door and moved on. It is a bit funny to realize that others may view one as a suspicious-looking character.

The next night, I chose a restaurant downtown for supper. The meal required 2 draft Yuenglings, so I deemed it prudent to sit awhile on a bench outside before driving back to the motel. I relaxed in front of the nearby Charlotte Metro Station. I am a sucker for any train, subway or tram, and enjoyed watching the sleek new train pull into the station. The high-rise behind me was outfitted in futuristic multi-colored neon tubing running up the building. While sitting there, the lights started flashing in sequence. An audio recording accompanied the light show so that each time a neon light flashed, it triggered a creepy laugh-like soundtrack. Until then, I had been sitting in silence, admiring the train. Now I felt as if I were intruding, almost as if the building was laughing at me. Suddenly uncomfortable, I made my way back to the safety of my room. I am sure Charlotte is a lovely city, and snap initial impressions can often be misleading, but, I'm just saying....

Salisbury, on the other hand, was altogether inviting. Located midway between Charlotte and Winston-Salem, the city is far enough removed from either to avoid (so far) the sprawl inching its way. I found the town to be one of the most impressive I have visited. Salisbury is a quarter of the size of the city where I work, but its downtown is actually much larger. The beautiful old commercial buildings are still in place, functional and in good repair and housing actual businesses. The library (again much larger than in my larger city) is a beautiful Georgian brick building, in perfect harmony with the surrounding neighborhood. A graceful 3-story spiral staircase anchors the structure, with the library teeming with actual patrons instead of just warehousing the homeless. Apparently the city fathers decided generations ago to maintain and beautify their downtown, with mature trees, crape myrtles and statues lining the thoroughfares. In 1950, my city had a town square that people now would drive many miles to see. The short-sighted businessmen would have none of it and had nearly wiped it clean within 20 years. Ever since, town leaders have been fighting a losing battle to "revitalize" downtown. Would that we have had leaders of the caliber of those in Salisbury.

The rural Rowan County Piedmont is as pleasant as any you might find: sturdy farmhouses, ancient red oaks, towering Presbyterian churches of Georgian brick every few miles, acre upon acre of soybeans, and corn reaching to the sky. My great-great-great-great-great grandfather settled here from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the 1750s. Some brothers and innumerable cousins poured into the area between 1750 and 1785. They formed a web of connections with a half-dozen other area families that holds to this day. I suspect I could stop at most any farmhouse and in short order establish a connection of some sort. Wood Grove is the oldest surviving house in Rowan County, a 3-story country manse built by my kinsman in 1774. After 235 years, the place remains in the family. My extended kin fill the 4 most historic church graveyards in the area. When they first arrived, my Scots-Anglican family tried to establish an Episcopal church in the area. Fierce opposition from their Scots-Irish Presbyterian neighbors prevented this from ever happening. After a final attempt in 1769, my family settled in to become solid, respectable Calvinist churchmen. But my particular line did not stay here. In 1784, my ancestor moved on to the next frontier, this time in Georgia. The next generation settled the frontier in Tennessee, and the next Arkansas, and the next Texas. Nowhere did they establish the connectedness with a particular place as did those relatives who remained in Rowan County, North Carolina. My Piedmontese cousins stayed put and prospered, becoming fat and happy. Or so it would seem.

My Arcadian idyll was tempered a bit on my drive from Wood Grove Plantation to the old Thyatira Presbyterian Church. Two observations reminded me that the region I was in the process of romanticizing was in fact, very much in the 21st-century along with the rest of us. The fields of corn parted and flowed around a 5 acre home place. The woman of the house--certainly old enough to know better--was out by the road, mowing the yard with a push a thong bikini. For all practical purposes, she was mowing the yard in the nude. Upon arriving at Thyatira Church (the oldest Presbyterian church in central North Carolina and one of the state's most historic structures), I couldn't help but notice the sign out front. The following Sunday, they were having "Contemplation Sunday." What in the Sam Hill is a Contemplation Sunday? What it told me is that the wells are drying up here as well.

Of course, religiosity is still alive and kicking in North Carolina, as befits the home of both Billy Graham and Heritage USA. Indeed, the state seems to be ground zero for AM radio religious broadcasts. I listened to a fair sampling of them on Sunday afternoon after Liturgy in Charlotte, while I wandered along the back roads of Rowan. One preacher assured his audience that the Bible would be in heaven. Somehow I never envisioned eternity sitting with a Bible in my lap, highlighting and cross-referencing proof texts. Of course, bibliolatry can even carry over into the naming of churches, such as the storefront King James Baptist Church. One probably wouldn't want to walk in there with a NIV Study Bible. Another radio evangelist illustrated his sermon with examples taken from the Civil War...excuse me, The War of Northern Aggression. He explained to his flock that the only people who referred to it as the Civil War were "Yankees and other ignoramuses" (that would AM religious broadcasting is much more entertaining that talk radio.

For me, the real insight came from my day in the county courthouse, pouring over old deeds, wills and estate settlements. The people I was tracking were certainly an acquisitive bunch, accumulating land and slaves at a quick clip. And they seemed a litigious group, as well, showing no hesitancy in suing the kinsmen who sat across the aisle in their Presbyterian churches. They purchased, sold and traded slaves with cool indifference. Back in graduate school, my professors warned us repeatedly of presentism, that is, the projecting of contemporary values onto the past. Much of what passes for the popular understanding of American history is simply that. And I am not unfamiliar with the type and tone of the documents I was reviewing. That said, some of them simply took my breath away. Slaves were divvied-up between children as nonchalantly as one divided the kitchen utensils. Sometimes a will would contain a provision for one heir to receive a particular slave and her children, except the 2 oldest, who were to go to another heir. A 1827 deed I remember in particular. A debtor of my most prominent kinsman deeded him 2 slaves in partial payment of his obligation. The document contained instructions to the grantee to sell the slaves as quickly as possibly to apply to the debt. The servants were identified as Clarissa age 3 years thereabouts, and Porter about 18 months.

Reading through the county histories and cemetery records rounded-out the picture for me. Prosperity and Presbyterianism characterized antebellum Rowan County. And while this continued on after the war, the society had something of a dark underbelly. A number of high-profile and grisly murders seemed to crop up far too often, the most sensational occurring as late as 1906. A tension persisted between the white over class and their former slaves, now tenants. It would seem that a thin veneer of culture, sanctimony and piety covered over what could be termed a brutish society.

On my last day there, I determined to drive back out to Thyatira Cemetery. I uncovered an intriguing story concerning the hanging of 3 pirates back in the 1700s. What pirates were doing this far inland is a mystery to me. I suspect that they might have been merely highwaymen. No matter, they were captured and strung up in quick order. The elders of Thyatira Church agreed to allow them burial in the churchyard, but with one caveat--their names could not be inscribed upon their tombstones. Only a skull and crossbones would be allowed on the stones--perhaps as a warning to future pirates. I could not leave the state without seeing these graves. Thyatira Presbyterian Cemetery covers several rolling acres enclosed within an ancient rock wall. The gravestones are aligned in the straightest lines I have ever seen in any cemetery. Maybe it is a Presbyterian thing. It took me a while to find the graves, but sure enough, there were the 3 smalls stones, each carved with a fading scull and crossbones.

In looking down the rows of monuments marking the earthly repose of these respectable planters and merchants and churchmen, I could only think of acquisitiveness, of greed, of thirst for power, of trade in human flesh, of families torn-apart, of Clarissa and Porter. Pirates all, rows and rows of pious pirates. This is not to condemn this particular community, for they were no better or no worse than their contemporaries in like circumstances...or us, for that matter. But I walked away a bit thankful my family left here before succumbing to these particular temptations (to be sure, they found others along the way.) I suddenly stopped and walked back to the pirates' graves, to do the only thing I knew to do. Before each of the 3 stones, I crossed myself and chanted the haunting and unforgettable words we sing at Orthodox funerals:

With the saints give rest O Christ, to the souls of Thy servants, where there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life unending.


The Ochlophobist said...

Beautiful. Many thanks.

Milton T. Burton said...

"In looking down the rows of monuments marking the earthly repose of these respectable planters and merchants and churchmen, I could only think of acquisitiveness, of greed, of thirst for power, of trade in human flesh, of families torn-apart, of Clarissa and Porter. Pirates all, rows and rows of pious pirates. This is not to condemn this particular community, for they were no better or no worse than their contemporaries in like circumstances...or us, for that matter."

An astute observation. I would like to add that in self-protectivness we usually focus on what little good there is to be found in human history. Otherwise we might all (or at least those of us with humane sensibilities might) simply do ourselves in in dispair or else lapse into some form of insanity. I am serious about this. In those few moments when I allow myself to dwell on the grim reality of things, I am amazed that our sorjourn on this planet has been littered with so many acts of causal brutality that the mind reels. And emphasis here is on the "casual"---by which I meant the thoughtless, the offhand, the unthinking; the treating of the ripping apart of slave families and the slughter of Native American infants as though they were the most inconsequental things in the world.

Kirk said...

What?!? No picture of the lady mowing her yard?