Sept. 12 | Day 6: I sometimes do things for the most trivial of reasons1 and our stop in Saraland, Ala., was one of them.
At work four months earlier, I discovered Saraland by accident while compiling a massive database of retail store closings across the country. By coincidence, I was working with an intern named Sara2, a brilliant graduate student at American University.
“Hey, look,” I wrote when forwarding her the link. “They named a town after you.”
“As well they should,” she said.
Idly curious, I searched for other Sara-named towns in the U.S. — Saraville, Sara City, Sara Heights — and found only this Saraland, a town of 13,000.
So Saraland became a bit of a running joke between us, though I suspect it was more of a one-way street running from me to her.
The notion of actually visiting Saraland didn’t occur to me until Linda and I decided on New Orleans as the 2017 motorcycle ride. There were places I wanted to see in Alabama on our way outbound and Saraland fell into the flightpath.
That’s why we’re spending a few moments here in Saraland, off I-65 some 43 miles south of Atmore, Ala.
Just for chuckles, I shoot a few Saraland photos and email them to Sara and I find a Hibbett Sports store3 where I get a Spartans athletic shirt. Linda and I have lunch at the Saraland Sonic4.
I’ll carry that shirt aboard Terra Nova all the way back to Virginia. Later, I’ll box it up and send it to her at work. So now Sara has her own Saraland Spartans shirt purchased in Saraland.
Sara and I may never work together again.
But we’ll always have Saraland5.
1 — I once visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., to see if I could find a Marine mentioned by Michael Herr in his excellent but disturbing book, Dispatches.
2 — Who went on to a better position, job-wise. She’s doing some great work, too.
Sept. 16 | Day 10: We got up early on our last full day in New Orleans and walked over to Café Du Monde, where the beignets and cold milk are the best, and cut through Jackson Square on the way back.
The Square1 is crowded with tourists, street vendors and what looks to be homeless people, who’ve taken the lead in commandeering metal park benches that line the street.
Linda wants to look at some shops along St. Peter Street and I investigate one or two myself and find high-priced stuff I don’t need. She’s in someplace that sells linen or something and I’m dawdling on the sidewalk when I hear raised voices across the street behind me.
I turn to see a group of six or seven apparently homeless guys on a bench angrily yelling at another guy nearby, also apparently homeless, with a medium-sized black-and-white dog. The dog owner is folding up a sheet of plastic.
“Don’t you hit that dog!” one of the bench dwellers says to the owner.
“That is not cool, man!” says another.
The owner says nothing. I’m standing there trying to figure out what’s happened. The dog is on a leash and is following the owner, who’s finished packing his stuff and is walking off. The dog — and this is important to me — does not seem cowed or afraid.
The bench guys, briefly united against a perceived cruelty, settle down.
Linda returns and I tell her what happened, adding that I did not see the guy hit the dog and that the dog seemed okay.
We walk around the Quarter for a while longer, trying to savor this last day, knowing we’ll suit up and head into Mississippi on the motorcycles tomorrow.
But now there’s a nagging thought at the back of my mind as we range from Chartres to Royal to Bourbon Street and beyond. Is that guy abusing his dog?
Linda and I have two dogs and four cats back home at Starbase 8 in Virginia. So we love dogs and cats and the notion that there’s a dog suffering out there on Jackson Square starts to consume me.
We make a reservation at Irene’s Cuisine for that night, our only dinner in the Quarter. We’ll walk there, of course, but now I have an idea.
“This is going to sound crazy, but I want to go by Jackson Square,” I say to Linda. “Let’s see if we can find that guy and his dog. I want to know.”
My understanding wife consents to this ridiculous reconnaissance. Night falls as we regain the square, still sprinkled with tourists, and we walk the length of St. Peter Street twice under streetlights.
“We’re probably not going to find them,” I say, resigning myself to it, and suddenly, there they are.
There they are. We sort of surreptitiously follow them for a short distance — I want to see the relationship between the guy and the dog.
He’s a young guy, middle 20s, I think, and there doesn’t seem to be any abuse going on. We approach by asking about the dog, what he is, his age and that sort of thing. Linda pets the dog, who looks happy.
The guy thinks his dog is a mix of Dalmatian and some other breed. He came from friends who couldn’t keep him. The guy says he was living somewhere but has been on the street for a while.
“Would you have some change you could give me?” he asks, and I make the biggest mistake of the New Orleans ride and give him three measly dollars from a pants pocket, not wishing to pull out my wallet on the street.
He takes it with thanks but I sense he’s a tad disappointed that it’s not more. Or maybe that’s my projected guilt.
Linda gives the dog a final pat and we say good-bye and watch them disappear into the night. The intersection ends there; we go to dinner and back to our lives, and he and his dog continue with theirs.
I’m relieved — greatly relieved — that the dog is okay but I kick myself a hundred times for not giving more to his owner. I’ve failed to live up to the example set by the baseball cap gentleman in Selma, Alabama, six days ago. All because I didn’t want to take out my wallet.
Later that night, I offer a bit of karmic atonement by donating online to the New Orleans Humane Society. But it isn’t enough.
The next day, two guys — the first with a baseball cap, the second with his dog — haunt me as I pack up the bikes. They stay with me as we ride north toward Hattiesburg, Miss., to pay tribute to a U.S. Navy pilot who died in Korea 67 years ago.
1 — Jackson Square is named after President Andrew Jackson, considered the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The battle was a series of skirmishes between U.S. and British forces in 1814 and 1815, and is considered the last major engagement of the War of 1812.
Sept. 18 | Day 12: The original plan was to leave New Orleans, ride to Natchez, Miss., and pick up the Natchez Trace northeast to Tennessee. We’d scheduled a full-day layover at Starbase Nashville to check the bikes and take it easy.
But we were only 111 miles from Hattiesburg, Miss., home of the African American Military History Museum. It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit since learning of Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the U.S. Navy’s first black carrier pilot.
We change plans and head for Hattiesburg, crossing Lake Pontchartrain on I-10.
A short — 39 seconds long — 360-degree video of the lake crossing. You can play the video and use your cursor to spin the image around and view it from different angles. It’s best with the sound off. (Trust me.) Go ahead, try it! You won’t break anything.
Brown, who broke the color barrier to Navy flight decks, is one of the most overlooked men in U.S. military history.
He grew up a sharecropper’s son in Hattiesburg and fell in love with flying while watching planes take off and land at a nearby airfield. He entered the Navy through the college V5 program while studying architecture at Ohio State University.
He persevered in flight training, endured some racist instructors, and earned his pilot’s wings.
He was flying a Corsair F4U-4 providing close-air support for Marines in the freezing Chosin Reservoir in North Korea when he was shot down by groundfire and crash-landed on Dec. 4, 1950.
His plane started smoking and threatened to catch fire. Brown was pinned inside.
Brown’s wingman, Lt. Thomas Hudner, ditched his own Corsair to try and save him. But Hudner and a Marine rescue helicopter pilot could not extract Brown, who froze to death in his own plane.
Hudner received a Medal of Honor for his attempted rescue. The Navy named a destroyer after him in 2017; I went to Bath, Maine, in April to cover the christening ceremony for the Navy Times. I was fortunate enough to meet Hudner there.
Brown has always fascinated me for his courage, for the way he refused to give up his dream of flying, even in the face of intense opposition. He didn’t just become a pilot, he became a Navy carrier pilot – the best of the best.
I’m not sure why that is. Most Americans are familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen, the ground-breaking African-American pilots who flew combat missions in World War II. But Jesse Brown is virtually unknown1.
The Hattiesburg museum helps remedy that with a detailed exhibit on Brown. That’s what I want to see.
Back on the bikes, we find the museum with little trouble. They’re usually closed on Mondays, but I’ve emailed them and Latoya Norman, the manager, kindly invites us to visit anyway. She unlocks the door and we leave our riding jackets and helmets by the front desk.
The museum is a handsomely refurbished USO club that opened in 1942 for African American soldiers at Camp Shelby, an Army training site for armored vehicles north of Hattiesburg. Once inside, I marvel at the painstaking care with which the building has been restored. A common room, used for informal gathering, is warm and inviting. I can see myself playing chess by the stone fireplace.
Ms. Norman tells us to take our time and withdraws to her office to work. We find ourselves in a first-class museum.
“Look at all this,” I say to Linda.
The exhibits, covering service from the Revolutionary War to today, are well designed. Paintings and murals are exquisite and the lettered presentations have a Smithsonian quality. Someone put in a lot of love and effort here.
I’m fascinated by all of it, especially the Jesse Brown exhibit, which has an imaginative presentation of him on the deck of the USS Leyte. I’m gratified to see Brown, an ensign, listed as flight leader, with Hudner, a lieutenant, as his wingman.
So many other references get it backwards. Hudner outranked Brown, but Brown had more flying experience, which qualified him as flight leader.
We soon thank Ms. Norman and take our leave, but Brown stays with me as we ride away.
I wonder about the ifs of that day in 1950 — if it had not been so cold, if the flight squadron had drawn a mission earlier in the day, if the Corsair had not been vulnerable to rifle fire from the ground, if the helicopter had carried a cutting torch, if a second rescue helicopter had been available … perhaps Brown might have survived.
But what would he have come home to find? Mississippi and America were still mired in the Jim Crow era of unyielding racial segregation. Brown, like other African Americans, risked his life in service of his country; his life would’ve still been at risk from southern whites after he returned.
The civil rights movement wouldn’t really begin until four years after Brown’s death. I’ve wondered what he would have done, and I asked members of Brown’s family that question the day I met them in Maine.
“Oh, yes, I think he would have been part of it,” said Lura Brown, Jesse’s younger brother. “If not for himself, then certainly for his family. He would have gotten involved.”
I ponder that as we ride north that afternoon, through Jesse Brown’s lost Mississippi. We’ll be in Greenwood tonight. Emmett Till waits for us tomorrow.
1 — It may be simply because Jesse Brown served in Korea; shamefully, Americans have never given the Korean War and its veterans their due.
Sept. 19 | Day 13: We find the store — “the ghostliest structure in the South,” author Paul Theroux says — shrouded in kudzu on a lonely stretch of Leflore County Road 518.
Bryant’s Grocery Store and Meat Market is a collapsing two-story brick building in Money, a tiny community in Mississippi. The day after leaving Hattiesburg, Linda and I are stopping here on the motorcycle ride home from New Orleans, now 300 miles behind us.
This is a sacred place, worthy of attention. What happened here 62 years ago is still with us today.
It was in this store, on Aug. 24, 1955, that Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old black teenager from Chicago, spoke with a white woman behind the counter and was horrifically murdered four days later in an act of brutality that shocked the nation.
Carolyn Bryant, 21, was the woman in the store. On Aug. 28, her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, both white, came with guns to the house where Till was staying with relatives. They took Till away.
Till’s body, naked and mutilated beyond recognition1, was found in the Tallahatchie River on Aug. 31; he had been shot in the head. Bryant and Milam were tried for murder. Carolyn Bryant testified that Till had accosted her and whistled at her — a black man propositioning a white woman2.
After deliberating 67 minutes, an all-white jury acquitted the two men on Sept. 23.
Like Bloody Sunday on the Edmond Pettus bridge in Selma, Ala., 10 years later, coverage of Till’s death and the murder trial grabbed the national spotlight and helped drive the American civil rights movement3.
Though Till was a teen, his brutal death might have eluded national attention during those unforgiveable Jim Crow times — countless other African-Americans were killed by whites who also escaped justice — had it not been for two things:
Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago. “I said I want the world to see this because, there is no way I could tell this story and give them the visual picture of what my son looked like,” she said. The Sept. 3 service drew 50,000 people. Photographs of Till’s body were published in African-American magazines and sparked additional outrage. Till was buried Sept. 64.
J.W. Milam, left, Roy Bryant and their wives celebrate the acquittal.
After the acquittal, journalist William Bradford Huie interviewed Bryant and Milam5 for a story that appeared Jan. 24, 1956, in the mass-market magazine Look6. The two men admitted killing Till and expressed no remorse. Despite the confession, they could not be tried again under the double-jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment7.
All this horror started here, in a simple grocery store that’s falling into itself. The roof is long gone, there are trees growing inside. The wood porch has collapsed. A sign stapled to plywood over broken windows warns trespassers will be prosecuted8.
We shut down the bikes and look around. A Mississippi Freedom Trail sign out front explains the store’s significance. We later learn this sign is new — someone fired bullets into the first one, requiring a replacement.
The road is quiet with only two or three cars passing by. It’s as deserted as a town after the apocalypse.
Across the street, there’s an abandoned Canada National railroad locomotive that looks as if its engine has caught fire. The building next to the store looks like a old gas station under refurbishment. But there’s no one around.
The store itself is cordoned off by orange netting, itself falling down. In the back, wood and old lengths of metal gutters are lying where they’ve fallen. On the south side, where the walls aren’t as heavy with vines, I can see the ghost of wood stairs angling up to the second floor.
And yet there are old signs of tribute: a white plastic planter is on the old concrete porch and there are long-dead flowers, roses perhaps, wrapped in clear plastic and tied with ribbon.
So people have come here to remember Emmett Till and 1955, which is why we’re here, too. The institutionalized and relentless subjugation, the brutality of the murder, the callous indifference of those who committed it and those who acquitted them, is beyond my comprehension.
And though it seems like a poor effort on our part to even stop here, we would have been remiss in simply passing by.
History like this has to be remembered, because it will confront us again and again and again. I think of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, for example, and I wonder how those people would have treated Emmett Till.
As we prepare to leave, I find thick shards of glass on the concrete porch, small pieces of a shattered front window. I consider taking one for a colleague I respect, a journalist and virtual civil-rights scholar.
I hold the glass for a while, thinking about putting it in Terra Nova’s tankbag, but it doesn’t seem right. It’s like stealing from a cemetery. I put it back but I tell my colleague about it after Linda and I get home.
“You did the right thing,” she says. “You were on hallowed ground.”
1 — He was identified by a ring on his hand.
2 — After decades of silence, Carolyn Bryant, now 83, recanted her testimony in 2007. In an interview with historian Timothy Tyson, she said Till did not accost her or touch her. She was unable to say exactly what Till did in the store that day, but she did say, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” Her memoirs are at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill archives but won’t be made public until 2036.
3 — Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, is credited with starting the freedom movement. She considered moving to the back of the bus, but, as she told the Rev. Jesse Jackson later, she thought about Emmett Till and “couldn’t do it.”
4 — Till’s body was exhumed in June 2005 as part of a federal investigation into Deep South murders during the Jim Crow era. DNA tests proved conclusively that the body was that of Till, but no new charges were filed. The original glass-topped coffin, which by law could not be reburied, was later found at the cemetery and donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2009.
5 — J.W. Milam died of cancer in 1981; Roy Bryant died of cancer in 1994.
6 — William Bradford Huie and Look magazine paid Milam, Bryant and their attorney a total of $4,000 for the interview, about $37,000 today, accounting for inflation.
7 — Huie talked to both men again for another Look article that was published on Jan. 22, 1957. He found both had suffered financially after the community turned against them. Black workers refused to work for them and black boycotts shut down their businesses. Even many whites turned against them, some fearing they might be shot, too. It was difficult for the two to get loans for farming.
At the time of the second interview, Milam was driving the same Chevrolet pickup truck in which Till was taken.
Over the years, other details have been brought to light. Tyson’s spellbinding 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” lists others present at the time of Till’s death and postulates a relative of Milam pulled the fatal trigger.
8 — The building is reportedly owned by a son of one of the jurors who acquitted Bryant and Milam. Over the years, plans have been floated to turn it into some sort of civil rights museum, but nothing has come to fruition.
Friday, Dec. 29: It wasn’t that long or notable of a ride, but I took Terra Nova to work this day, suiting up for temperatures that — according to the finicky dashboard thermometer — ranged from 27 degrees in the driveway to 37 degrees in the parking garage.
It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I pulled the Dow cover off the Yamaha, inserted the key, and thought if she starts, I’ll take her in. The engine hesitated at first, then turned over and ran smoothly. That’s it, then.
The only problem was the cold air streaming through the helmet, setting my face on fire and forcing me to lower the faceshield. But it was fine, and I was the only motorcyclist on the road I saw. As I was pulling off the jacket and supporting layers at work, I got comments of appreciation from a fellow biker, a Vespa owner.
I parked on P6, the lowest level of our parking garage, figuring I could hook up my small charger if Terra Nova’s battery needed it for the ride home. But it didn’t.
We live about 5 miles from work, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. Still, it felt good. Woke up the next morning to find an inch of snow on the ground.
“I give up,” Alice said. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.
“Nor I,” said the March Hare.
— Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”
I can’t speak to ravens and writing desks, but motorcycles and fountain pens are alike because you operate both with care.
Motorcycles demand much of their pilots. You get wet in the rain, chilled in the cold, and filthy from the road. You have to suit up like a deep-sea diver before climbing aboard.
Writers with fountain pens find their lines can skip, bleed through paper and leave stains on fingers. You have to make sure you have enough ink on hand because the supply will run low when you least expect it.
In short: A bit of suffering is endured with both.
In return: You experience something car drivers and computer keyboardists never get: The ability to see things in a different way, a greater level of personal control, and a sense of satisfaction at doing something few people do.
On a motorcycle, the road winds invitingly ahead of you; with a fountain pen, the writing unspools across the page in elegant lines of ink.
You’re also forced to live in the moment. On a motorcycle, you have to maintain situational awareness at all times, lest some inattentive motorist, road debris, or sudden turn tries to kill you.
With a fountain pen, you can’t backspace and delete. The words you’re writing will remain for eternity, unless you scratch them out (which is excruciatinglybad form) or start over.
So you have to think ahead with both.
I’ve been on motorcycles for 23 years and started using fountain pens back in high school. Both always make me smile.
“Sinatra probably forgot about it at once, but Harlan Ellison will remember it all his life.”
— Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”
Sept. 22 | Day 16: We leave Nashville in mid-morning, bound for Bowling Green, Ky., where Linda’s meeting an old friend from college. The Vespa’s speedometer is still offline — broken, as I’d discovered the day before — so she’s taking it easy. I’m flying wing behind her, as usual.
It’s Friday and traffic is already choking our exit and apparently making some drivers crazy. A guy in an oncoming red pickup truck makes a surprise and illegal U-turn in front of Linda on a city street, forcing her to brake. He races away as we pause at a stoplight.
“Did you see that?” she says, and I say yes, what an idiot. There’s a tenseness on the street that I normally would not associate with Nashville. We get on the freeway and head north.
Traffic is still heavy but starts thinning out as we proceed. We move to the left-hand lane and throttle up to the speed limit.
I’m about half a football field behind her when a brown Chevy Suburban in the center lane makes a panicky move and cuts violently into Linda’s lane, coming this close to knocking her over.
I’m watching this from too far back and my only thought is the certainty that she’s going to go down. I’m already bracing myself to watch the impact, knowing how bad it will be. I know it. I know it.
She swerves, the Vespa pitching from side to side, and heads for the breakdown lane, pulling away at the last second to avoid the killer rumble strips in the asphalt. She keeps it upright. The Suburban jerks back into the center lane.
And this is where I make things worse. I drop it down a gear, rocket up to the Suburban, pull even, lay on the horn, and flip off the driver. He starts to say something but I turn away and speed up to Linda. My heart’s beating in triple time.
She seems all right and we keep going. It’s okay, I tell myself, she’s okay. We’re good, we’re good.
Then the Suburban reappears on my right, the driver leaning out his window, holding out something in his hand, literally screaming “YOU SEE THIS? YOU SEE THIS?” and he’s got some kind of police badge.
My first thought is ah, great, a psychopath with a badge, and we glare at each other across the white lines. He’s daring me to do something.
And that’s when I somehow go completely calm and I hear a quiet voice in my head — as relaxed as having tea with an old friend in a drawing-room — saying you know, any move you make will be the wrong one.
I turn away and he says “I DIDN’T THINK SO,” or somesuch, winning the argument, I guess, and moves away.
Linda tells me later he passes her after me and says “HEY, RELAX,” and she ignores him. He changes lanes and is gone.
We soon arrive in Bowling Green without further incident. Linda says she was scared and yelled at the guy herself. As in Underwood, Ala., she’s remarkably resilient.
But the encounter will lay heavy on my mind for days. In Bridgeport, W. Va., a day or two later, I talk with a guy piloting a silver BMW with a sweet sidecar rig and the story spills out of me, with the confession I hadn’t helped.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” the guy says after a moment. “It’s hard, but you can’t really challenge them. You don’t know who’s behind the wheel. Could be someone with a gun, you just don’t know.”
I stopped dwelling on the incident a while ago, but I do think about it from time, hoping the next time — and there will always be a next time — that I’ll keep my head and de-escalate the situation.
Maybe, maybe not, but I’ll try. I’m certain, though, that like Harlan Ellison meeting Frank Sinatra, I’ll remember it all my life.