Monday, May 9, 2011

Ghosts of rural North Carolina


I went to North Carolina again tonight to meet a man in the empty parking lot by a rural courthouse where I used to spend far too many wasted hours sitting through board of commissioners meetings.

We went into the old jail house that had been converted into the kind of museum that nobody ever visits. He told me about the Civil War for an article I'm researching.

He didn't seem to realize I'd interviewed him a few years earlier in the same place and insisted on giving me a tour of the museum that lasted about five minutes.

A feeling of melancholy came over me as I looked through the bars of the windows at the occasional isolated light twinkling  far away across the fields. It seemed so long since I had been here that the historian didn't remember me. And it felt so much longer since I had arrived here. The time since I had last been home was stretching out like the miles and miles of fields around me. For a second or two I felt I was gazing at the earth from afar, while lost in the wastes of the Sea of Tranquility on the face of the moon.

I was glad to get the interview over and to be driving home but rural Carolina, as opposed to the beach, has always made me feel strange and insignificant. The roads dissecting the flatness, the gaping depths of the swamps, the storm clouds gathering above the over ripe trees, the sinister humming of the wires and the trailer homes of the poor, conspired to unnerve me.

This was a world away from the manicured English countryside with its duck ponds, cricket and gastro pubs. It was the hinterland of a vast and still untamed continent.

And when you cover news in such an area you start to see things other people don't see. In your mind's eye you see the bodies that have long since been removed.

On the winding road north I noted the landmarks, the school whose construction I wrote about at tortuous length, now completed and looking like any other school, the curve where a truck wiped out a family. With the pink twilight falling over fields and swamps, this landscape was shuttered up, its few residents sequested away in their homes. I wondered how they could live there, year in year out, looking at the blurred world of fields and trees and telephone wires and not lose their ambitions, the aims or their reason for living.

Reaching a straight section of road, a strange feeling came upon me and the hot air from the blower, descended a few degrees. It came back to me now, the message on the scanner and the freezing rain of Christmas Day. I was wearing my Christmas fake leather jacket that neither kept out the cold nor the rain, the photographer her Christmas dress.

And we stood there in the highway behind a fire truck, a couple of police cars and an ambulance as the rain drove through us.

There was a mean roadside store and yellow tape round a trailer. We kept on walking until a police officer told us to stop. In front of the charred trailer a body lay under a tarp.

We beat a retreat from the rain and the law, back under the awnings where a ragged man dragged on a cigarette and told us the victim was his crippled cousin. His wife had recently died and he didn't want to spend Christmas alone. There was a spark as the story came together but it was hard to keep up our spirits at this godforsaken incident scene on Christmas Day, with the rain pricking us like needles and running in icy rivulets down our backs.

It struck me that so many hours and days a months separated that freezing day from this warm May evening and that this tiny and sad tragedy had been left behind like the asphalt on the road behind me. But then I spied the mean little store that the dead man had owned, that was now closed down, boarded up. And I was shocked to see the trailer behind it, its windows still gapping and black, the scorth marks still livid and black as if the fire took place yesterday.

In these parts of North Carolina much changes but much stays the same.

Yet it felt eerie to be in on the story and to have witnessed this obscure tragedy whereas most would drive by in blissful ignorance.

18 comments:

  1. I am sorry you had to visit that part of the State.

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  2. Such a tragic story....

    I've seen those rural areas in other states, including my own, and they always have the same feeling-- a sort of stark, vulnerability spattered with hopelessness--

    You wonder about those who live there year after year... they never leave because they don't know that they can. That "blurred world" is all they've ever known. Really puts things into perspective.

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  3. This whole piece felt haunting. You're really good with words. I felt like I was there, and I didn't like it one bit.
    xoRobyn

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  4. You know you're that true Southern person when you see those swamps and see tranquility in that stagnation, in the refusal to move forward. Say what you will about the rural South but often times that stagnation, that halt of time, is purposeful. The South has always clawed and fought its way to keep that something that makes you Southern. God knows why but it's the tragedy of it all that makes you Southern. You drink it all in and pray no one forgets it. Shrug. My friend Bill Faulkner wrote a lovely series of books that try to encompass just that. Yay Bill!

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  5. There are many who innocently believe the US is the land of milk and honey, and that the streets are paved with gold. Perhaps if they were to witness some of what you so accurately described here then they might have a more well-rounded perspective.

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  6. Very gritty David, I could sense the desolation, and like Robyn didn't like it.

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  7. I've had the same feeling - in some areas of the South it really is like being in a completely different country. Some people can't get out because of poverty or poor education, but some choose to happily live in wild isolation. The salt marsh and the scrub pine, the slow pace, the freedom which comes from not having to spend time and energy on a manicured lawn, waxing the car, and wearing a suit and tie - some wouldn't want it any other way.
    I can well imagine what a shock it was to you, coming from England though.

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  8. I love your posts as you know but this one in particular really got to me. It was very interesting and moving seeing this particular situation through your eyes.

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  9. Found you via Happy Frog and I,glad I followed her (them?) here. Thank you for seeing, hearing and writing this story, it made me feel blessed and thankful.

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  10. Once again you had me riveted to my seat with this powerful retelling of a tragic story forgotten. It makes one pause and reflect the conflicting message of our smallness and as well as our impact. Well done.

    Kindest regards,
    Julie
    Julie Magers Soulen Photography

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  11. This is beautifully written and so sad...I felt lonely reading it.

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  12. That was a haunting story, David. Well written. It doesn't take much to trigger a memory from our past. It's surprising how quickly it all comes back, whether we want it to or not.

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  13. Ah, the dismal rural areas of my Old North State, tucked in all around the jewels of Charlotte, Greensboro, Chapel Hill, Wilmington, Asheville, Raleigh. Are their inhabitants sadder and lonelier than the urban poor? I always wonder.

    My defense against the discomfort of a brush with misery has always been to demand, "Tell me more." How crippled: Vietnam, diabetes, bar fight? Was there a love story back there somewhere? Were there principles and philosophies to be wrestled with before this hellish suicide, or just oppressive fears?

    And, all the while, the desire to flee, too.

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  14. Wonderful post! Your writing skill made it possible for me to see and feel what you've described.

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  15. Beats living there, oilfield. for sure e.a.s.and I guess Arkansas is even more remote feeling. Thanx Robyn, you are too kind. Nice comment Anna, I have read some Faulkner, cool, albeit rather hard to concentrate at times. thanks Sue, although there's something evocative in the desolation. thanks so much Scots lass.

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  16. for sure, the south still shocks me at times, Li. thanks Frog, yours are great too, need to catch up. thanks for the follow Shopgirl, will check out your blog. thanks Julie, always appreciate the comments. thanks for the visit JackSamMum. For sure Nance, and it's strange in this part of north eastern NC, how poverty is so close to large houses and wealth. Glad you liked it Daisy. thanks so much Olga, good to herar from you.

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  17. thanks everyone - BTW I replied individually but for some reason all the problems with Blogger have wiped out my reply as well as a newer entry and I don't have the energy to write it all again.

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