Rosemary D. Cox,  Professor of English

 

“On the Road Again”—with Writers’ Forum

 

“It was a dark and stormy night . . . .”  At least that’s the way the old cliché says that stories of misadventure are supposed to begin, but when the members of Writers’ Forum decided to set out on their first Literary Tour of Georgia in 1992, it was a sultry afternoon in late June, hot enough to melt the dye from my Indian batik top into the sweat on my back as we sat sweltering in the College van parked outside the new Plant Operations building on Clarkston Campus (which some wag had dubbed “The Taj Mahal” for what seemed by the standards of the time to be lavish ostentation).  We were waiting for the mechanic on duty to diagnose the mysterious malady that plagued the air conditioning system. Finally convinced it had something to do with the electrical connections, he confidently handed a small plastic bag to a skeptical Harris Green.

 “Everything should be fine,” he assured us. “If it starts to act up again, just pop in one of these fuses, and you’ll be set to go.”

Harris was our self-appointed tour guide and chauffeur for the trip. One of the “Triumvirate”—as Harris, Tim Tarkington and I (the three co-advisors for the club) called ourselves—Harris was approaching that magical number, thirty, when all the joys and tribulations of teaching composition and literature to college freshmen would be rewarded with a pension from TRS and enough free time to start his own business: organizing educational tours for groups like Elder Hostel. He decided to “practice” and hone his skills on Writers’ Forum. We were all very willing to accommodate him, for when would we ever again have the opportunity to take in literary landmarks—and bask on the beach, to boot—in the congenial company of fellow writers? The agenda was set: we would make our way to Sidney Lanier’s Marshes of Glynn and the Lanier Oak in Brunswick via Flannery O’Connor’s Milledgeville farm, Andalusia, and to please the non-fiction writers in our group, we planned a brief sojourn in that environmentalist’s paradise, Cumberland Island, before heading back to Atlanta.

With one last assurance from the mechanic—the van was “as good as new” because they had just rebuilt the engine—Harris climbed in behind the steering wheel, and we set off, two hours behind schedule.

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived in Milledgeville, and thunderheads had begun to gather on the horizon. After some dispute as to where O’Connor’s farm was located, Harris deduced that if we drove down the dirt track (which we had already driven past several times) veering off to the right of the highway, he was sure that we would find the elusive Andalusia. After much bumping over ruts and gravel, we pulled up in front of a dilapidated two-storey frame house, surrounded by several ramshackled out-buildings. The house was abandoned except for a couple of rooms at the back which were inhabited by a so-called caretaker who had no intentions of letting us—or anyone else—in.

So this was Flannery O’Connor’s farm. Andalusia we repeated to ourselves in a reverie much like Candide’s in Eldorado. We amused ourselves by imagining Flannery herself, welcoming guests onto her raised front porch, her mother serving mint juleps to the assembled company (refusing one to Flannery on account of the lupus, but Flannery helping herself to a drink when Mrs. O’Connor went back into the house). Such stories had been recounted by Dr. Ted Spivey, one of my English professors at Georgia State University, who had spent many summer afternoons sipping mint juleps on that very porch.

We were loading back into the van when rumbling down the drive came another car—not just a curious traveler, but Sally Fitzgerald, one of O’Connor’s New York friends who had been instrumental in editing and publishing O’Connor’s work. Kismet. While still denied access to the house, Mrs. Fitzgerald led us on a pleasant trek through the pastures where O’Connor’s cows had grazed, past the barn where she had kept her peafowl, and down wooded paths, now fringed with briars and poison ivy, that O’Connor would have walked. The sky had become very threatening, so we cut our rambles short, bid a gracious farewell to Mrs. Fitzgerald, piled into the van, and left Andalusia to its ghosts amid the creaking and groaning of storm gusts in the ancient oaks surrounding the house.

Harris calculated that if we made good time, we could hit the coast and get settled in our lodgings before the night drew down too far. Dublin was the first town of any measurable size we came to after Milledgeville, so we decided to take a supper break. Where should we eat? To economize, we had each brought food to share: fried chicken, coleslaw, chips, sandwiches, bananas, cokes, ginger ale, and a various assortment of snack crackers. What we needed was a nice picnic table to spread out our fare. After a few circumnavigations of the town center, Harris noticed a sign pointing to the city park, so off we went in that direction.

Ever since we had driven through the storm in Milledgeville, the van had been running roughly, coughing when it idled, and vomiting black smoke from the exhaust pipe. Harris had acquired a permanent frown of concern: this was the newly renovated van’s “maiden voyage”; why hadn’t Plant given it an extended trial run? Sputtering to the park, we were taking a vote on whether we should go for a picnic pavilion or settle for a tree when the van made one dramatic convulsion and died, enveloping us and the surrounding bushes in a formidable shroud of ebony smoke.

Harris was a military man, and this setback was just another enemy to confront and conquer. Taking the bag of fuses from the glove compartment, he popped the hood and started jiggling wires. Half an hour passed . . . forty-five minutes. . . . Evening had started to dim the sky when Harris, triumphant, turned the key, and the engine, with another burst of black fog, cranked. A voice from the back of the van, belonging to our oldest member Jim Doyle, rang out, “And we have lift off!” We collapsed in laughter and relief, but our mirth would not last long. The van was mortally ill, and we would have to find a mechanic. Forgoing supper, we crawled along the road, coughing our way out of the park, back into town.

Night had fallen with all the soft, sweet humidity of a South Georgia summer. If we had stopped on the side of the road, we would have heard bullfrogs croaking in rainwater ditches that ran into swamps, thick with green-trumpeted pitcher plants, and crickets and katydids sawing out their rhythmic ballads from forests of long-leafed pines, slashed for turpentine. But we were looking for a full-service gas station, still open on a Friday night in this peaceful hamlet on the coastal plain. When Friendly Gus’s Stop-n-Shop loomed up, eerily illuminated like a gargantuan firefly in the black swamp mist, Harris made practical application of the theory his literature students had defined for him many times—carpe diem—and seized the moment. Pulling in beside a gas pump, the van made one final violent lurch and expired.

Gus was a very pleasant man with a florid face and a soiled white apron covering an impressive belly. He lived up to his slogan, “friendly,” but he was no mechanic. He advised us to put up at a local motel and wait for the morning when we would be able to find an auto repair shop open. He would be happy to let us leave the van parked by the gas pump overnight. While Harris was discussing lodging options with Gus, several students on the tour (young and forever hungry) decided that they would break out the fried chicken, so amid the aroma of gasoline and the clutter of crushed soda cans and cigarette butts by a greasy oil-barrel trash can, we finally had our picnic.

“Ya’ll got some trouble?” The young man leaned out of the window of his shiny new Ford pickup, pushing the peak of his baseball cap back up on his head. He had pulled up beside the opposite pump for gas while his friend got out and went into the store for beer. We all started talking at once. Not making any sense of what we were saying, and being of a practical bent, he got out and came over to the van, getting someone to click the hood open so he could inspect the engine. After a few tense moments of silence, he announced that not only did he know what was wrong, but that he could fix the problem. It just required a special part which, as luck would have it, he had at home. He was a former mechanic for Ford Motor Company and kept spare parts on hand. If we’d stay put, he’d be back “in a jiffy” to fix the van, “no problem.” Saved by this “knight on a white steed” (or, in this case, a black truck), we didn’t ask questions about how he came to have all those spare parts in his garage.

While the rest of us were discussing the spare parts, Jim was unusually quiet at the back of the van. He had remembered to bring his cooler with some food and water, but he had carelessly forgotten to pack his insulin, and if he did not get an injection within the hour, he would begin a downward spiral into a diabetic coma. All the other troubles we had encountered that day paled beside the grim reality of Jim’s dilemma. If we got the van fixed, could we find an emergency room? And how long would it take to fix the van? How far was the nearest hospital? Did we have time?

Friendly Gus to the rescue! One of his good friends and the pastor of his church, owned the local pharmacy in town, and he wouldn’t mind being bothered at home at eleven o’clock on a Friday night. So with one telephone call, Gus arranged for the pharmacist to meet us at the drugstore—after the van had been repaired. About that time the young man returned with the part and some tools, and as good as his word, fixed the van for the cost of the part. So before midnight, Jim got his injection and a supply of insulin to last the weekend.

The rest of the tour went as if it had been planned by the Olympic Committee. We saw all the landmarks, both literary and natural, that we had hoped to see, and we returned home with renewed inspiration and ideas for stories and poems. But the one lasting memory of this trip is “the kindness of strangers,” as Tennessee Williams would phrase it. In a world where we are all too busy or reluctant to assist those in need—whether those needs are great or small—how refreshing to find a community where people are still not afraid to help each other.

Herman Melville ends his tale of the sea, Billy Budd, Sailor, with a ballad (“Billy in the Darbies”) written by Budd’s shipmates to immortalize him in verse. Likewise, one of the Forum’s own aspiring talents—Sydney Taylor—recorded the events of our first Literary Tour of Georgia for posterity in the following verse.

 

 

 

Saga of the Writers’ Forum

 

It was a Writers’ Forum tour, that’s what it was.

At exactly one thirty things started to buzz

We loaded the van with baggage galore,

Why we wouldn’t need to stop until we reached the Georgia shore.

He started the engine and no one spoke

For the van belched out ugly black smoke.

 

We drove 30 feet to maintenance door

“This van’s got to be fixed before we start our tour.”

“The engine’s brand new, you’ll do just fine.

“There’s nothing wrong here, but have a great time.”

The engine was started and still no one spoke

The van was still belching out that ugly black smoke.

 

He gave us some fuses, say about fifty

For the air conditioner wasn’t that nifty.

Down the freeway we rolled confident of course

For the van was “all right” said the reliable source.

The passengers were friendly; they started to joke,

Driving along with the van belching out ugly black smoke.

 

At Miss O’Connor’s farm we arrived about four.

We learned that the farm was not Flannery’s that was for sure.

A tour of the grounds was what we were given,

Some questions were answered and a gracious farewell we were bidden.

We started the engine and someone outside had started to choke

‘Cause the van was still belching out that ugly black smoke.

 

Into Dublin we cruised, a merry bunch

Looking for somewhere to spread out our lunch.

To the park we went, but none could agree

Should we eat at a pavilion or under a tree?

And then on a cross street the van it did croak

The engine did nothing, not even its ugly black smoke.

 

The motor sputtered and spattered and refused to turn over.

It was dead—we should bury it in the tall purple clover.

But Harris worked and he worked and the engine started.

“And we have lift off” the sage reported.

The engine roared then gave a choke

And covered the little cottage in ugly black smoke.

 

With a lurch and a jump we started slowly

To a service station we headed immediately

Now it’s Friday night in Dublin town

With a mechanic to find things were looking down.

The weary band needed help and that was no joke.

The van needed fixing, someone to stop that ugly black smoke.

 

The van limped in to Friendly Gus’s place

“I’ll help,” said the man in the apron and the friendly face.

Out of the woodwork, self proclaimed mechanics came.

In spite of their effort the problem did remain.

Then from his pick up truck he spoke.

“I can get rid of that ugly black smoke.”

 

So grabbing some tools and an extra part

Our hero was determined—this van would start.

Meanwhile our travelers were trying to use the telephone.

But much like ET from Dublin they couldn’t phone home.

About this time our hero again spoke,

“It’s fixed. There’ll be no more of that ugly black smoke.”

 

One by one our travelers loaded in

When it was discovered we couldn’t find Jim’s insulin.

So the man with the friendly face called the Reverend Pharmacist

Who opened the pharmacy and turned the group to optimists.

Jim got his insulin (a shot with a poke).

And the van headed away without any of that ugly black smoke.

 

The picnic was forgotten and now the only goal

Was to get to Saint Mary’s with body and soul.

They reached their destination at three in the morning,

To bed for three hours, not much time for snoozing and snoring.

Off on their adventures as soon as they awoke

And never a trace of that ugly black smoke.

 

(poem written as a joke by Sydney Moulton Taylor, July 1992)