Friday, October 26, 2007

Old 82 - Part I

I was sitting front and middle in a brand new, four-door, aquamarine 1965 Pontiac Catalina. I was sandwiched in between my dad, who had been driving all day, and my mom, who was skimming the pages of Life. I was thinking about a motel pool, Magic Fingers bed, and Kentucky Fried Chicken mashed potatoes. To my right, the air conditioning vents were aimed up and over so Granny and my older brother could get some circulation in the back. To my left, the speedometer was pushing seventy for the first time in a long while. Straight ahead, the dashboard crucifix had the centerline in the crosshairs. I was sporting black PF Flyers low tops, newly cropped cutoffs, and a fresh summer crewcut. I held a Scrooge McDuck comic in my lap, but I wasn’t looking at it. I was up front because I had to see where we were, where we were going. I was eight years old.

A job in science brought me to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and as a function of that work I regularly roam the countryside sampling both stream water and backwoods barbeque—though directly consuming only the latter. Not long ago, I was at a new site on a bridge over the Sipsey River, just west of the tiny West Central Alabama town of Buhl, leaning over the guardrail while straining to hoist a collection jug brimful of cool, liquid murk the shade of stiff sweet tea. An ambitious student, tagging along to gain precious field experience before making a run at graduate school, was patiently half-sitting the rail beside me. He handed me the first of two plastic bottles that would hold the portioned contents of the jug. We were deep into a discussion about something: football, cars, the scratch biscuits and salty red-eye at the Waysider, anything. I mindlessly filled the first bottle, traded it for the second, and then unconsciously inserted a pause into the conversation when I remembered that I hadn’t double-checked the labels. The undergrad, a native of the area, had written "SipOld82"—his code for "Sipsey River at old highway 82 bridge"—on the bottle I was holding. It flashed through my mind that the map and road signs claimed this segment as Tuscaloosa County Road 140. I started to raise the question, but when I looked up he was already halfway back to the truck—a distance that would reduce any communication to shouts and exaggerated gestures. I stared for a good minute as he walked down that straight, deserted stretch of cracked pavement. My focus wasn’t on him, however, I was absorbed in the whole scene; his silhouette was more like the shadow of a head at the bottom of a movie screen. I stepped to the center of the eastbound lane, turned toward its direction of travel, and mentally framed the road like a view through a windshield. The old surface in that setting peered back like a portrait, haunting me with the familiar eyes of a childhood acquaintance set deep in the wrinkles of an aged face. For a moment, the feeling was a mystery. But when I turned back around to the west, I saw it coming, knew what it was, and it hit me head-on. A vision and a revelation: 1965 Pontiac, a road remembered.

Uncle Bill and Aunt Melba built a house in Edgewater, Florida. My family made the trip to their place every summer and an occasional Christmas from 1962 to 1981. The annual migration had our Southwest Missouri hometown of Nevada as its origin and nearly always followed the same route: southeast to Springfield, West Plains, Jonesboro and Memphis; then due south toward Jackson. At Winona, Mississippi we left Interstate 55 and used U.S. Highway 82 East as a tether across three states to I-75 at Tifton, Georgia—after which it was wide open, four-lane, Stuckey’s and Howard Johnsons the rest of the way south. We did this for twenty years. We probably passed through Tuscaloosa fifty times.

No east-west non-interstate highway transects the South, both geographically and culturally, like 82. Start to finish it roams 1500 miles from Alamagordo, New Mexico to Brunswick, Georgia—literally points A to B—crossing the Pecos, Red, Mississippi, and Chattahoochee rivers along the way. From the southern tip of the Rockies to the South Georgia coast it loses two hours to time zones and 8640 feet to elevation. It is two-thirds transcontinental, but unlike other long federal routes it favors a rural course, shunning the multiple lanes of the big cities and the temptation to piggyback on a parallel interstate. In Dixie east of the Delta, the stretch I knew best, 82 wades through swamps, weaves around hills, and whisks by cotton rows. It brings students to Starkville, crops to Cuthbert, and revivals to Reform. It was a part of my youth as sure as banana seat bicycles and Dairy Queen dipped cones. So I decided to follow it again, west to east, Winona to Tifton, and not just as it is now. I wanted to see it as it was then.
Eastward view from Sipsey Road Bridge of Tuscaloosa, AL County Road 140.

Day One

On a sunny, late March morning, I purposely drove the 140 miles from Tuscaloosa to Winona wearing mental blinders. The objective was to mute everything of interest along modern-day U.S. 82 West until I turned around at Interstate 55, and it was easy—a testament to the numbing power of fast-food breakfasts, bypasses, and talk radio. Two and one-half hours later I pulled my 1992 Nissan Sentra into a Texaco next to the I-55 entrance ramp, filled up with gas, and washed down a two-bit bag of goobers with a Coke. Refueled, refreshed, and resolved, I paused for just a second to reset my trip odometer back to zero, and my course and curiosity back to the east.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation had made it easy—or so I thought. A week of research with vintage state and oil company highway maps at the University of Alabama Cartographic Laboratory verified that in most places where Old 82 runs estranged from contemporary U.S. 82, Mississippi calls it state road 182. The section of the old road through Winona must have been too short for them to mess with; all I had to follow was a hunch that the faded yellow lines leading east from the West Winona exit might be the initial divergence of the old from the new. I trusted my intuition and took the exit, then drove slow, surveying the landscape for clues. I did not have to look long or drive far. Less than one-half mile on the left was an older Citgo gas station—a holdout from the pre-convenience store era—looking as uncomfortable with its contemporary red and orange roofline façade makeover as Archie Bunker with a toupee. On a sign above the pump canopy was this garish, hand-painted affirmation:


Two words over and two words under the CITGO formed this meek, heavily faded salutation:


I went on east, confident of the route and content with a welcome that had not yet worn out.

Personal travel proverb number one: Seek not the least sinuous path, for each bend in the road is a flex of the mind. From Winona to Kilmichael, Old 82 has been lost forever to fourteen miles of four-lane, restricted-access, minimum-speed, grade-stabilized, modern antiseptic automotive monotony. The scenery reminded me of the backdrop in a 1970’s vintage Hanna-Barbera cartoon, and I was a frustrated George Jetson in a compact coupe de cosmos whirring past the same asteroid over and over again. My attention started to drift, so I turned on the radio in search of something regionally unique on the far end of the dial. Nothing but hiss, static, and syndication. The sound and the futility of tuning triggered a flashback from the old road, however. I remembered Dad as desperate for some midday news, and in a time before search buttons he was manually surfing AM when he hit on this noteworthy local announcement:

It says here that there was a bad tornader in (a town with a name that I can’t recall) last night. Tore things up pretty bad. Nobody was kilt, but a bunch were sure boogered up…

At Kilmichael I avoided the bypass and turned onto Montgomery County Road 413, which followed the path of 82 on the old maps. Still no sign of 182 yet, but a fractured remnant of pavement cut the corner of the right turn I had just made, so I trusted its jaywalking lead and carried on east at the point where it dissolved into a newer surface. Immediately I passed through the business district; one compact city block fronted with a quaint patina of softly weathered brick, glass, tin, and townspeople, all seemingly leaning on some component of the other. It was a charming southern setting—which I had absolutely no memory of whatsoever. How could that be? Did I nap at this exact geographical location twenty years in a row? First the contentment of a timely welcome gets kilt on an asphalt treadmill, and now Kilmichael was boogering up confidence. Demoralized, I retreated to the bland homogeneity of the bypass.

Wide and fast funneled down to narrow and tedious east of Kilmichael, where the original roadbed forced four lanes of traffic to tiptoe on two for a while. At the Webster County line, 82 angled north to test new asphalt, and I caught myself rubbernecking to the south where the old pavement lay quiet, waiting to be exhumed. I saw a section where the edge of the road had been sliced away, exposing a clear cross-section of the entire blacktop, so I stopped and walked across dry, cracked clay to get a close look. The original concrete was visible under three dark, distinct seams of overlying asphalt, each approximately eight inches thick. As I squatted to scrape at the outcrop, it struck me that the strata could be dated much like a geologic road cut; with the oldest layer at the bottom and successively younger deposits on top, it was an artificial bedrock and synthetic sediments representing very real epochs of highway history. I studied each layer, guessing when it was exposed and which of our family vehicles may have left imperceptible footprints on its surface. The thought gave me an idea for a classification system. The first layer probably predated any car I knew, so it was from the Precatalinian Age. The rest, from oldest to youngest: Catalinian, Deltaceous 88, Fordivician Van.

One mile later, Mississippi 182 appeared for the first time and beckoned me to Eupora. Entries from my notebook as I drove this stretch:

2 fisherman w/straw hats & cane poles
welcome from Lions, Rotarians, and Methodists
old National Guard armory
old natural gourd aviary
white, half-buried passenger tire planter borders
no filling stations-turned-tanning parlors
no portable signage w/pulsing arrows
retrospectively pristine
@ stoplight—building—straight ahead—?????

The sign on the window said CENTRAL SERVICE GRILL. As I waited at a red light, I clearly remembered the character, but not the chronicle, of this building. It was a brick structure with odd, rounded angles—sort of like a square with one corner sanded not quite flat. There was glass across the front, a metal awning over the glass, an old clock centered above the awning, and up on the roof, art deco lettering that—like an old mouth minus some molars—had lost a couple of C’s and E’s from each side but still managed to spit out NTRAL SERVI. The hands of the clock had been stilled at a 4:55 from who knows when—a moment in time in which I, too, was stuck. Had it been a service station? An old garage? A car dealership? The car behind me tapped the horn. The light was green.

Dee Dee was real busy. Besides being the only waitress, she was also working the cash register, where we were both standing. Without looking up, she counted change to a paying customer, grabbed an order pad, pulled a pencil from behind her ear and said, "To go?"

"Actually, I was just needing a quick answer to a short question." I realized it was straight-up noon. The place was packed. She handed me a menu, still without looking up. "I’m sorry, I’d just like to know what this place was before it was a grill," I said.

She looked up. "Oh, uh, well, it was a car dealership—but you know, you really oughta talk to Cindy because she’s the owner. I’ll go get her." After about thirty seconds she came back and told me Cindy was really busy but Henry was sitting over there, and I really oughta talk to him because he’s the owner. She pointed toward a head in a booth at the far end of the room.

I started toward Henry, sidestepping tables and excusing myself through conversations while scanning the scene. The place was nostalgically trendy, using lots of memorabilia and era-appropriate décor to take full advantage of its mid-1900’s automotive roots, but I was finding it difficult to look behind the theme for clues of the original layout. I passed by a couple of state troopers slumped over their food, all four elbows on the table, hands working forks from the back of the plate. Some people say the presence of more than one policeman—especially highway patrol—in a roadside cafe is a sure-fire indicator of good food. I’ve heard the same thing about calendars. In our midwestern travels, Dad and I documented the existence of a positive linear relationship between the quantity of bowling trophies and the quality of diner fare. Edibles grew exponentially savorous, however, if there were bowling trophies and a refrigerator—preferably old, without glass doors—located in the dining area containing JELL-O salads. We never ordered a square of lime JELL-O with diced pineapple and pear on a lettuce leaf. We just wanted it around.
Henry Ross standing in front of the Central Service Grill, Eupora, MS.

I hated to bother Henry Ross; he looked wrapped up in his paper, The Wall Street Journal, which was spread out across the table. On top of the editorial page, a red plastic basket lined with wax paper housed his barbeque sandwich between bites. At that moment, the sandwich was being held aloft in his right hand, poised for a pause in the print. Not a drop of sauce was on the paper or his shirt, which happened to be the whitest, most perfectly starched oxford cloth long-sleeve button-down that I had ever seen. Henry looked to be in his mid-forties, no noticeable gray and only a slight retreat of hairline at the part. I introduced myself, apologized for interrupting his lunch, and asked about the history of the building. He looked up through round wire rims and offered a seat. He then pointed to a framed newspaper that hung on the wall above the booth directly across from us.

"Well, just about everything you would ever want to know is in that article. It’s a pretty good summary of the business conducted in this building."

I couldn’t read the headline, let alone the print, and the booth below it was very occupied with four people in a very animated conversation. Henry noticed my apprehension of the prospect of another personal lunch space encroachment.

"Well, let’s see—I might be able to come up with a few events and dates…." He proceeded with this brief summation:

"The building was originally a Ford dealership—Central Service Ford—and was operated first by my grandfather. My father, Joe Ross, ran it together with my grandfather for several years until ’59 when Dad took sole possession of the business. Not too long after that, the Jameson family bought the dealership—although we retained ownership of the building—and kept it going until ’68. I know I’m skipping over a bunch of years, but it bounced around between proprietors until Ford finally closed it down in the late ’80’s—like many small town dealers, it couldn’t match big city prices and inventories. The grill opened in June of 2000."

He anticipated my next question. "We are now sitting in what was the parts department. The open area to your right was the showroom, and the kitchen was the garage."

I had to ask: "So you’re the owner of the building, and Cindy is the owner of the business?"

"That’s right."

That cleared up the double-owner dilemma. I told him about my experiences traveling on old 82, how his building was a familiar icon from that era, and my goal of retracing the old route.

"Well, yeah, this was a fixture on that highway, up until November of ’98—when the bypass around Eupora opened." He thought for a minute and then asked, "You going to write about all this or something?"

"I started out just trying to scratch an old itch—but if the whole thing gets interesting enough, I might take a shot at it." I didn’t feel like much of a journalist—I had to borrow his pen and one of Dee Dee’s Guest Checks to get everything down.

He said, "You should. I know of a guy who took a chance on writing, and wound up doing quite well with it."

I bit. "Who’s that?"

"John Grisham was a law school classmate of mine at Ole Miss."

I smiled and nodded. We sat quietly for a minute until Henry caught me stealing a glance at his sandwich.

"You had lunch yet? It’s pretty good."

"No, not officially. It does smell really good, but to be honest, I didn’t anticipate stopping anywhere for more than a couple of minutes, so I filled up on snacks." An egregious violation of a basic barbeque tasting tenet. I thanked him, shook his hand, and promised I would come back sometime to try a sandwich. Who knows? Maybe a pair of troopers trumps a full house of trophies.

State road 182 dissolved into four-lane 82 a couple of miles east of Eupora. Just like that—gone. I cranked the Sentra back up to seventy and pouted my way under the Natchez Trace and through Mathiston. It was not long before construction crowded all traffic onto the original two-lane where it was narrow, congested, and rhythmically rough from the steady cluh-clump, cluh-clump of front, then back tires hitting seams. The familiar cadence paced me on through Adaton and into the city that is the home of Mississippi State University.

I owe an apology to Starkville, Mississippi. Sometimes the old southern two-lanes were indifferent to monuments of wealth or culture; they buzzed through town on a beeline, snubbing the boulevard with the mansions and museums. U.S. 82 passed through some of the poorer sections of Starkville, and for years I was convinced the town took its name not from a brilliantly heroic officer of the Revolutionary War, but from a brutally honest adjective modifying -ville. Flashbacks: shotgun houses, sagging porches; an LTD with a shredded Landeau top idling blue-gray smoke; blanched curtains wafting from wide-open windows; a blank expression in the back of a school bus. Maybe some memories turn cruel over time, because it was not nearly as bad as I had remembered. Still, as I crept with traffic by THE DERBY and UNIVERSITY MOTEL signs—two rusting neon relics from another commercial era—I decided to take a detour through the heart of town. I turned right on Montgomery Street, toured the business district, cruised through campus and a few neighborhoods, and—for the first time in forty years—gave the town the good looking over that it sorely deserved. Please accept my sincerest apologies, Starkville. You have a nice place, here. I’ve passed you on the street a few times, said hello, but we’ve never really been properly introduced.

Twenty-three miles to Columbus, and 182 materialized again to slice straight across the Black Belt—a crescent-shaped spread of ancient prairie earth so named because organic and mineral amendments from native grass and stone have turned the soil dark, friable, and productive. The road relaxed with the terrain, recumbent now with gentle slopes, easy curves, and wide aspects. The tranquility was short lived, however, because soon 182 was ordered to heel; except for a short section dug up for the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, it was leashed tight to four-lane 82 as a service road the rest of the way into Columbus.

I remember three long, narrow bridges we used to cross while travelling on Old 82. The first spanned the looping channel of the Tombigbee River at the lap of downtown Columbus. I found it there, still intact, as the centerpiece of a city park. Traffic was no longer allowed by axle or ankle on the old bridge (a much newer one was just to the north), so I trudged up to its west approach, halted only by a sorry wire fence succumbing to thick braids of still-dormant kudzu. The old steel structure looked pitifully decrepit, but I was glad they left it. As a child I imagined it as a long, narrow drawbridge over a steaming, monster-choked moat. We would race across; barely slipping through groping tentacles, just sliding through two massive, shutting wooden doors set in the mossy stone walls of downtown Columbus. You can call me hopelessly nostalgic or declare my venture wildly hallucinogenic, but there was a kind of strange synergism between these slow, muddy rivers and this old road that made memories flow fast and clear.

Old 82 was Business 82 through the heart of Columbus, and just up the hill from the bridge the route passed through downtown and by the birthplace of a great American playwright. To be honest, when I was young, I knew more about Tennessee Tuxedo than Tennessee Williams, so I wasn’t much impressed with his connections to Columbus. While on our 1971 Florida trip, however, I read Eudora Welty’s latest book at the time, Losing Battles—and I let the passing sights of rural 82 illustrate the settings of the story. Her descriptions of fictional backwoods Banner, Mississippi and the antics surrounding Granny Vaughn’s 90th birthday party/family reunion became as real to me as the view out my window. I was hooked. Anyway, I noticed on the dust jacket that Ms. Welty attended the Mississippi State College for Women (now Mississippi University for Women) in Columbus. That’s what impressed me about this town. Business 82 passed within a couple blocks of the campus, which catches the eye with two architecturally unique towers that project above the surrounding residential landscape. I took a short side trip to get a closer look at the tall, perfectly round, painstakingly prim, red brick spires. If you stand facing the university’s main entrance gate, then turn forty-five degrees east, the tower on your left features a large clock and a roofline shaped like a Hershey’s Kiss. The tower on your right seems built to house a large bell and skewers the sky with a lid that looks like a dunce cap. There is a passage in Losing Battles where a main character—Gloria—is asked to describe the college where she was trained as a teacher:

"Two towers round as rolling pins made out of brick. On top of the right-hand one was an iron bell. And right under that bell in the tip-top room was where they put me. Six iron beds all pointing to the middle, dividing it like a pie. When the bell rang, it shook us all like a poker in the grate…."

In 1971, the experience of reading those sentences, then seeing these structures, rang a bell that shook me, too.

* * *

Kevin Pritchard is a Research Technician in the Center for Freshwater Studies at the University of Alabama. He lives in Tuscaloosa with his wonderful wife, and they have two fine sons in college. This is Kevin's first published work of creative writing.

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