Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Summer Travels: Road to Rowena

    In recent months, I have traveled twice to San Angelo, Texas on business.  For those unfamiliar with a Texas road map, that is a drive of about 370 miles from my home.  You leave the South far behind long before you reach San Angelo.  Incredibly, El Paso is still another 400 miles further on.  Although vistas such as the one above might suggest that the road holds long stretches of nothing much at all, such is not the case.  There is plenty to hold your interest--that is (as I like to say, with apologies to Evelyn Waugh)--if you are interested in things.

     One such place of interest to me is the dried-up cotton town of Rowena.  The highway between Ballinger and San Angelo just barely clips one corner of the town.  About all one can see from the highway is a number of boarded-up cotton gins and abandoned farm machinery--but the impressive spire of a church indicates that there might be reason to double-back and poke around a bit.  And of course, I did that very thing.

     If they were to ever make a remake of The Last Picture Show, Rowena could definitely be a contender for the movie shoot.  The town was obviously once a going concern, laid out properly, about 6 blocks by 8 blocks.  The downtown area, was completely boarded-up.  The most impressive commercial building was the old bank, built in1909, according to the plaque on the wall.  I thought I detected a light on inside, but there was no visible sign of activity.  There were 2 Suburbans parked behind the building, so perhaps the banker and a teller were keeping the doors open.  Rowena did boast, however, at least 5 watering holes:  a VFW Hall, a S.P.J.S.T. Hall, a Sons of Hermann Hall, D. J.'s Bar and the Turning Row Bar.  It is nice to see a community with their priorities still in order.
      I drove out the other end of town and turned around at the cemetery, or I should say, cemeteries.  All three of them were lined-up in a row:  the large and well-kept Catholic Cemetery, the Protestant Cemetery about half that size, and the much smaller and somewhat forlorn Evergreen Cemetery-a branch of the mega-cemetery of the same name in the county seat.  And so, I was able to form some conclusions about the town's beginnings:  an old German-Czech Catholic West Texas cotton town.

     I passed by the old two-story stucco schoolhouse, long closed but still in relatively good shape.  The only real going-concern in the town seemed to be the St. Joseph's Catholic Church, a graceful brick edifice, accompanied by hall and expansive school--which apparently now served the community in place of the public school.   Rowena was not completely a Catholic company-town, however.  I saw another building that had once obviously been an old stucco church, now converted to a residence.  But the oddest thing, I found on the edge of town.  I ran across a small frame church--probably from the late 189s or early 1900s--on a largely residential street, 2 or 3 blocks east of the main street.  The ruins of a much larger brick church were immediately adjacent, on the same lot.  The cornerstone read:  Deutsche Evangelische Zoar Kirche 1928.  I found it interesting that the German was still in play, even at that late date.  This was one of those solid churches built in the popular style of that day--with outside stone steps leading to the sanctuary above, and classrooms below.  These German Evangelicals were wise not to tear down their older church upon building this impressive replacement.  In time, the newer building burned--or at least the top of it did.  Not willing to waste anything, the congregation tore off the rubble, made a flat roof and retained the rooms below--and the stairway now leading nowhere.  The congregation moved back into the old building, and used the rump newer building as their classrooms and hall.  The old Zoar German Evangelical Church is no more immune to the trajectory of American Protestantism than any other evangelical church, and so now it is, as one would expect, the Zoar Community Church.  At the bottom of their sign, it reads Se habla espanol.  In fact, the only people I saw in the entire town were Hispanics.  No doubt the descendants of the German pioneers still own much of the surrounding farmland, and keep the lights on  and the beer flowing in the Sons of Hermann Hall.  But for all practical purposes, German Rowena has smoothly transitioned into Hispanic Rowena.  Having a really nice Catholic Church and school in place just makes it all the easier.  There's some irony here, I suppose.  And many in my state would be alarmed at the demographic shift I have casually described.  I am not among their number.

     On my way back, I made a  slight detour at Glen Rose, home of the Dinosaur Valley State Park.  A number of years ago, dinosaur tracks were discovered in the old bed of the Paluxy River, and the site has became something of a tourist attraction in those parts.  I did not go to the State Park, and was not inclined to peer at the dinosaur tracks.  Science, paleontology included, has never interested me.  What did amuse me was the human absurdity clustered just outside the park.  Billboards all around promote the "Dinosaur World" exhibit, which imply that it is a component of the real dinosaur tableau presented by the State Park.  Not so.  "Dinosaur World" is a cheesy tourist trap just outside the State Park entrance.  The entrance looks like it came right out of "The Flintstones," with pterodactyls perched atop for effect.  And there's no way to miss the T-Rex out front.  But lest one get carried-away with all this paleontological secularism, a Christian fundamentalist group operates the "Creation Evidence Museum" on the road before "Dinosaur World."    Frankly, this is not a battle with which Orthodox Christians need to unduly concern themselves.  Friend-of-this-blog Owen linked to an interesting (if very lengthy) article by Deacon Andrew Kuraev, here, which sets out an Orthodox perspective on such things.   

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Summer Travels: Ancestral Trails

     I took a week off this summer to research old family haunts in two locales-the Piedmont of North Carolina and the Pequea Valley of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  My wfie was more than happy to stay home and forego the thrill of spending every day poking around old graveyards and archives.  Some people are just strange that way, I guess.
Old Fourth Creek Presbyterian Burying Ground,
Statesville, NC.
     The trip hardly made a dent in my budget.  I taught a seminar in July and had already designated that honorarium for this purpose.  Recently discovered frequent-flyer miles covered the flight and car rental.  Motel 6 and Red Roof Inns helped out on the lodging.  My itinerary took me from Raleigh to Charlotte to the Salisbury-Statesville area, then up through the Shenandoah Valley and across a tip of West Virginia and Maryland into the Pennsylvania Dutch country, then back down the spine of Delaware and the Eastern Shore, across and through the Chesapeake bridge/tunnel into North Carolina and back to Raleigh.  I have been trying to compose this post for 3 weeks (months now,) but have hardly had the time to devote to it.  So, instead of a coherent, flowing narrative, I believe I will just record my impressions in bullet-point fashion, to-wit:

North Carolina in general--I found it to be a very appealing region-as nice as Virginia, but without the pretense; Southern, to be sure, but not part of Crazy Land.  I like nothing better than driving the backroads, and North Carolina offers up some of the prettiest farmland to be seen anywhere.  People go there for either the beach or the mountains, but it seems to me, the best part is in the middle.  This is what Texas could be if we had cooler weather, more rain and we picked up our trash.  I understand that the state has its own bat-shit crazy politicos, but even here it seems to be more out of a sense of tradition than from ideology.

Charlotte-The city reminds me of Dallas (not a compliment.)  I stayed there as a convenient base, as I needed to tour a historical home on the city's outskirts, and the other areas I wanted to research were only a county or two away.  I did enjoy a good seafood supper at a Greek-run restaurant one night.  Three generations were working the front, with the 5 year old son taking customers to their table.  The place was painted all in aqua, with fish murals on the wall so that you felt like you were in an aquarium.  It reminded me of a bizarre establishment we visited 25 years ago in Yorktown, Virginia--also run by Greeks.  The plastic seagulls dangling from the ceiling was a nice touch.  No matter.  The fish was excellent.

Rowan and Iredell Counties-These adjoining counties and their seats-Salisbury and Statesville-are the best of the Piedmont, in my view.  My favorite experience turned out to be a visit with my distant kinswoman, a no-nonsense farmer straight out of Flannery O'Connor, she being the 7th-generation of our family to live in the 1774 brick country house built by Capt. Thomas Cowan.  There are plenty of little communities to poke around, and much to hold your interest, that is, if you are interested in things.  The pirates' graves at Thyatira is a favorite, as is the grave of that old faker claiming to be Marshall Ney.  Old Fourth Creek Burying Ground (not cemetery, not graveyard, but burying ground) is as scenic as any.  Cleveland (formerly Cowansville) looks like it could be right down the road from Mayberry.  And finally, there is the Epic Chop House in Mooresville, which will remain a destination if I ever again find myself within 100 miles.

Davidson College-Southern Ivy League, don't you know.  Perfect college in perfect little college town--all leafy and red-bricked and professory and Presbyterianish.  In other words, as dull as dishwater.  Every single building on campus, and I do mean every building, looked as though it was built at the same exact same time, out of the exact same batch of bricks. I firmly believe that red-bricks should be rationed to Presbyterians.  They are as thick on the ground in the Piedmont as Baptists are back home, and you can spot their identical red-brick churches a mile away.

Raleigh--a great little city, believe it or not.  The Texan in me just has to note that we have courthouses bigger than their statehouse, but it is all nicely done nevertheless.  The state capitol is anchored on 4 corners with 4 churches--Christ Episcopal on the NE corner, First Baptist (black) on the SE corner, First Pres on the SW corner and First Baptist (white) on the NW corner. Interestingly, both First Baptists claim descent from the original First Baptist in Raleigh.  The Methodists didn't make the cut on the 4 corners, but their campus occupies an entire block, one block west.  Another Episcopal church and a Catholic church round out the religious offerings within a block of the capitol.  And yes, Raleigh does have a nightlife--a good selection of cafes and bars downtown.  I found a Turkish restaurant in the restored old City Market, south of Moore Park.  I enjoyed a pide' and got to talk at length with the owner.  But the most amazing thing about Raleigh has to be the Trolley Pub.   This is a rolling pub, powered by the pedaling patrons.  The weird thing is, the pub is moving 90% off the direction they are all pedaling.  I don't have to understand it, I just know its neat as all get out to watch--and hopefully one day, pedal myself.

Fearrington Village--a distant cousin encouraged me to check out this place on my way, even though they would be away from home at the time.  This is an old dairy farm, now transformed into one of those precious new-old retirement communities.  She raved about the bookstore and the shops and eateries on the "town commons."  I checked it out--dairy barn still there with real cows and goats, bookstore with overpriced books that didn't interest me in the least, places to eat scones and socialize--picture perfect, except for all the rootless and well-fixed old people in khaki shorts and golf caps, wandering about, looking for something to hold their interest until they die.

Radio preachers on a long day of driving--Leaving Statesville about 10:30, I pressed on towards Pennsylvania, by way of the Shenandoah Valley (which was not as beautiful as I remembered, but it may just be my prejudice for North Carolina over Virginia.)  I opted for a Sirius Radio package when I bought my truck back in 2008.  And so, I have become spoiled to listening to my news shows and talk radio.  I never much listened to music while traveling, anyway, which in the old days used to drive my wife and son up the wall, as I was constantly fiddling with the radio to find a NPR station.  And so, in the rental car, I listened to radio preachers out of North Carolina and all the way through Virginia.    I wish this were fresher on my mind.  I have now forgotten most of the highlights I was trying to remember.  I know there were some doozies.  I do recall one call-in show, however.  As it turned out, it was a Catholic show wedged in amongst all the evangelicals.  The host was having a discussion with a young Protestant who was insisting on the the inability of the saved to ever lose their salvation--I guess that would be the P in the TULIP.  The host walked him through several scenarios, as the young man became increasingly frustrated.  Boxed into a corner, he finally admitted that if a faithful Baptist converted to Catholicism, then he had had never really been saved to begin with and was lost.  I had to hand it to the host, who got the caller to say what he really meant, even  though he was doing his best to avoid doing so.  Orthodoxy has its quirks, to be sure, but at least we have never had to manuever through those contortions.

Right-wing radio--It's been a while since i had been exposed to any of this sort of thing, and frankly, I had no idea just how bad it had become.  My preacher shows played out in northern Virginia, and I began to pick up Fox News stations instead.  Before long, it had me scrambling the dial to find a preacher--any preacher.  Sean Hannity was absolutely unlistenable.  But for pure loathsomeness, Laura Ingraham inteviewing Dinesh D'Souza had to be the worst.  On one low-budget show, a guest was outlining his scenario for Muslim Brotherhood Egypt.  First, they would blow up the Aswan Dam.  This would flood much of the country, causing a humanitarian disaster.  President Obama would step in, bringing millions of Egyptian Muslims to this country.  He would then declare a state of emergency, and settle the immigrants on our National Parks (yes.)  This would be the spring-board for the Islamification of this country, and of course, the killing of American Jews.  For pure inventiveness, this equals any of the pre-millenial fantasies I was listening to on the religious stations.  The scary thing, of course, is the fact that the speaker freely walks our streets, out of the control of the trained psychiatric workers he so clearly needs.  After this, I did what I should have done 200 miles earlier, and turned off the radio.
Wood Grove, Rowan County, NC

The Amish Country--Lancaster County has long been a favorite of mine.  The best drive leads east out of Lancaster, through Bird-in-Hand, Intercourse, White Horse, Compass and Sadsbury--turning off on any side-road along the way to have a better look at the Amish farmland.  Leacock, Salisbury and Caernarvon Townships comprise the better part of the Pequea Valley, and then you cross the ridge at Compass into the Brandywine Valley for West Caln and Sadsbury Townships. I do not romanticize the Amish way.  I rather like electricity.  And I find their theology, to the best that I can understand it, pretty dreadful stuff.  But I do have tremendous respect for them.  They live their lives (at least outwardly) with dignity--something we moderns fail to do at almost every turn.  And they have been good stewards of the land.  I love to watch them during their harvests.  I slowed down on one back road to watch as a crew of Amish were cutting their cornfield.  They had a hay bailer like the kind my dad used as I was growing up, but it was pulled by a team of 6 magestic horses.  A trailer was attached to the back of the bailer so that a man could stack the hay on the trailer as it came out.  I remember days in the hay field.  We were not that inventive and had to pick the bales up off the ground, then toss them up, onto the back of the truck.  The land there is simply some of the best farmland to be found anywhere, and their care for it is really remarkable.  The city of Lancaster is pressing hard on one side, and you do not have to drive too far east before encountering the outer suburbs of Philadelphia.  With property values being what they are and the pressure of development on either side, the Amish have their work cut out for them.   Generally, however, they are pretty well off to begin with.  In fact, some might say that the admonition in Scripture against "bigger barns" could well apply to them, as it does to the rest of us.  I have to wonder what they think of us, as we whiz by in our cars on the roads we share with their buggies.  I would have to think that they have to tune-out the modern world buzzing around them.  I find it interesting to see the accomodations they have made with modernity.  Gas motors and generators are fine, as long as they are not used for motion.  Weed-eaters and push lawn mowers are acceptable, but riding mowers are not.  Bicycles are not allowed, but they can take a bicylce frame and make it into a scooter for their children.  Speaking of which, they are everywhere.  If you see a young Amish couple going into town, chances are they have 5 to 6 small children onboard with them.  And they all look the same, largely because they are all dressed alike--overalls, dutch-boy haircuts and barefoot for the boys.  All the children seem to be blond.  I also think that the fact they have been drawing from the same shallow genetic pool all these generations must have something to do with it as well.  I talked to a woman I know there who lived in the Amish neighborhoods.  She told me that Sunday afternoons and Sunday nights were the times the young people got together, socialized and had parties.  She said she and her husband would be laying in bed, and at about 4:00 AM in the morning, they would hear the clip-clop of horse's hooves on the road, as the buggies were returning home.  The rule was that the young people could stay out as long as they wanted, as long as they were home in time for milking Monday morning.  She said the young men would generally be asleep in the buggies, as the horses knew the way home. 
Cowan family plot, St. John's Pequea
Episcopal Cemetery, Compass, PA
At old St. John's--My main reason for being there was to oversee the installation of a monument in the family plot of an Episcopal cemetery that contains burials of my clan back to 1730 or so.  That went off without a hitch--I took the requisite pictures, and everyone who contributed from across the country was very pleased.  While in the area, I actually stayed in Harrisburg.  This allowed me to visit and enjoy a meal with a family from our church, now living in that vicinity.  I was also searching for a document in the Pennsylvania State Archives.  A kinsman of mine got into trouble during the Revolutionary War.  He was a prosperous bachelor farmer--mid thirties or so--when the war broke out.  He remained loyal to England and refused to take the Oath of Alliegance.  This is not surprising as he fought with the British during the Seven Years War, was captured and held prisoner in France.  During the time the redcoats occupied Philadelphia, my cousin David openly traded with them.  After they left, the colonial officials confiscated his farm and he had to go into hiding.  He was soon found-out, however, and jailed in Philadelphia.  We know so much of his story through the writings of his cellmate, a Quaker conscientious objector.  I found the documents I was searching for in the Archives, namely the letters from family members, including his mother and sisters, begging for clemency.  My Aunt Margaret gently reminded the judge that while he was now in a powerful position, that one day he too would be on his deathbed--in need of mercy--and that it would be a great consolation to him at that time if he showed mercy now.  Her anquished pleas fell on deaf ears, however.  Her son was hanged on the town square of Philadelphia--without a trial--on November 25, 1780.  My aunt and her daughters carried his body back home for burial.  This is not the sort of story that fits well into our national mythology.  Real history is messy that way.

Delaware--Leaving the Amish Country late in the afternoon, I ambled southeasterly, staying on the backroads down through the old Quaker areas, where Friends Meeting Houses still dot the countryside, and into northern Delaware.  I now know that the University of Delaware is in the northern town of Newark.  As Johnny Carson used to say, I did not know that.  From there, I followed Highways 1 and 13 down through the spine of the state.  Once past Newark (which is really just outlying Wilmington,) you have the odd sensation of being in limbo--not quite urban, but not rural either.  The rest of the state feels like you are coming into the outskirts of some town, but you never quite get there.  Enjoying geography as I do, I always like the read the occasional articles that suggest better configurations for states than we have now.  No doubt many (myself included) have colorful ideas of what we could do with Texas, for example.  I do enjoy small places and small states.  That said, I have never really gotten the point of Delaware, exactly.  Wilmington and New Castle County seem to be a better fit for Pennsylvania and tbe Philadelphia metro area, while Kent and Sussex Counties could be sucked into Greater Maryland, which borders on the west and south.  The rest of Delaware--wait, there is no rest of Delaware.  You get my point.

Oak Grove Methodist Church,
Wachapeague, VA

The Eastern Shore--Before running out of Delaware, I swerved into Johnny's Diner, where I had the best fresh corn on the cob that I can remember.  Johnny's redeemed Delaware a bit in my eyes.   I slept in Maryland, but pushed on early the next morning, arriving in Virginia, which claims the long narrow finger of the Eastern Shore.  A huge Rebel flag adorns the north-facing wall of the first liquor store past the state line, informing everyone that they are now in the South.  This is false bravado, though.  There is nothing very Southern about this part of the world.  Before crossing the Chesapeake, I turned off on a side road at Melfa, wandered down through Wachapreague and Quinby on the Atlantic side of things, and then looped back onto the main road.  Just as the Carolina Piedmont is heavily Presbyterian, the Eastern Shore is traditionally Methodist country.  I stopped and looked around at the unique Oak Grove Methodist Church between Melfa and Wachapreague.  Apparently, this is where Sunday School began, and they claim the oldest continuous Sunday School in the nation.  So, if you have SS horror stories, then blame these folks.  I also liked the simple little unadorned Weslyan Church in Quinby. 
Weslyan Church, Quinby, VA
Just outside of Quinby, I passed a sign in a tobacco field that said "James Farm, circa 1662."  Now those are some roots.  Before finally leaving the Eastern Shore, I had to do a   U-turn and come back for a picture of this church sign.  It reminded me of the late, great Milton Burton, who often called unsuspecting people using his alter-ego:  "the Reverend Buford T. Smeets, Senior Pastor of the Greater Gum Springs Apostolic Church of the Final Thunder."

On being tested--The thing about being tested is this:  we usually don't realize it until after we've failed.  Sunday afternoon found me in historic Mooresville, North Carolina.  The town had been laid-out along the railroad, with a downtown consisting of one long street paralleling the tracks.  I had not eaten all day, except for snacking around at coffee hour after Liturgy in Charlotte.  I happened upon the aforementioned Epic Chop House, in an old two-story brick building with a sign in front saying "since 1888."  Sounded like my kind of place.  The valet parking out front seemed a little out of place for Mooresville, which seemed much more of a working-class town than its neighbors Salisbury and Statesville--to say nothing of Davidson.  But I was hungry and I always make it a habit to eat at local establishments when travelling.  I sat at the bar, and looked over the menu that, while upscale, was not as high-priced as I imagined.  I do not think I will ever forget the meal they served me. I had "3 peppered filet medallions over country potato cake with cabernet mushroom demiglace, & haystacks," accompanied by a Malbec, Italian bread and whipped butter and a salad.  Simply put, it was one of the finest meals I have every eaten.  And I was not too proud to use the last piece of bread or two to sop-up every drop of that "cabernet mushroom demiglace."    Finishing-up with coffee and bread pudding tipped the scales from indulgence to outright decadence.  And so, I was feeling pretty flush and satisfied as I started motoring back to Charlotte.  There was a convenience store next to the Motel 6 where I was staying.  I needed to dart in there and get a bottle of water--for the CPAT machine which allows me to sleep at night.  This is one of those stores with a door on each end.  As I approached the north entrance, I noticed two thuggy-looking dudes hanging out by the door.  Without thinking, I pulled around to the south entrance.  Again, two thuggy-looking guys standing out by this doorway as well.  In addition, there was a man in a wheelchair next to the door.  Looking back now, I don't know why I was acting like some kind of scared white guy from the suburbs.  I am generally not afraid of anything, or any neighborhood.  I ducked my head, looking neither right nor left, and aimed straight for the door.  The man in the wheelchair said something to me, in a gruff manner, as I entered.  I guess I, like most people, want our beggars to be washed, polite and cuddly.  Water bottle in one hand and keys in the other, I made a bee-line for my car upon exiting the store.  I was all the way back to my room before it hit me--the full enormity of what I had just done.  There I was, on vacation--playing, you might say.  I had just enjoyed a sinfully extravagent meal--excess upon excess.  I stopped at this store, eyed my fellow sinners with distrust and apprehension, then, with cash in my pocket, walked right past the beggar to purchase a damn plastic bottle full of water!  I went back to the store the next night to see if the beggar had returned, but he had not.  I was not going to get off the hook that easy.  Late on Tuesday, I was in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a working class town west of Harrisburg.  At dusk, I was tromping around the Carlisle Old Burying Ground, where some of my kin have a plot that dates back to the 1760s (One stone even has a bullet hole through it, left by a Rebel soldier either right before or right after Gettysburg.)  As I was leaving town, about to work my way onto the turnpike, I saw a young man and woman begging at an intersection.  They were of the scruffy hippie-dippie variety.  Ah, here was my chance.  Unfortunately, I was in the wrong lane.  I swerved over to the right lane, but had to circle way around to get back to where they were and be on the right side of the road.  By the time I worked my way around, a policeman was stopped there, talking with them.  They had a car in the nearby parking lot, and a dog.  I noticed the young man had a crutch.  Whether it was a prop or not, is not for me to say.  But the  end of the story is that I was still not going to be let off the hook that easily--throwing a $5 their way and thinking I had made everything right.  I haven't.  And I'm still on the hook.