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Excerpts of Mississippi Travel Diary
State 47 - MISSISSIPPI 24 APR 00 - 28 APR 00


Easter Sunday

Holidays on the road are strange. Usually I want the day to end quickly because a holiday emphasizes family. Picturesque scenes of relatives and loved ones enjoying each other's company are magnified by my lonely eyes. Every family I see brings a pang as I realize how truly alone Ken and I are on this journey. We try to make a holiday seem special, but all the decorations, new recipes and special desserts simply mask an inherent dishonesty. We appear as though we are part of the Easter holiday: we've got our festive colored Easter clothes, our pink and yellow Easter bunny cookies, our colored eggs, but these items are just for show, for the festivities lack one essential ingredient: loved ones. But a bit of luck has come our way for this year's Easter holiday, for yesterday I heard a park ranger announce that there will be a sunrise Easter Service at the Vicksburg National Military Park. So Ken and I arise at five this morning, dress in whatever makeshift Easter finery we can glean from of our respective 13-inch closets, and take Ruby to the top of Fort Hill at the National Park. It's perfect! Just what I needed. I might not be with my family today but as the service begins, I feel part of the "Family of Man," among my brothers and sisters in our devotion to Christ. We sit high on a grassy hill, music and song fill the air, as I look around at the rosy cheek children in their adorable Easter outfits. Too cute. Just too, too cute. All of us are sitting on blankets atop this grassy hill overlooking the Yazoo River. The wind rushes through our lightweight spring clothing, as we look expectantly at the purple sky above outlined in an eerie golden hue, suggesting that at any moment it will break into sunshine or thunderclaps. Not one of us here can predict the weather, but we can enjoy the moment together albeit with a tinge of skyward apprehension. Every face seems to beam with love and joy. Right now, it is not raining. Right now, the songs are lovely. Right now, the wind is just right. "Let's enjoy the moment," every face seems to say. While the minister delivers his sermon, the clouds part and the sun's rays shine down on each blessed face. Every person seems to have his own personal ray of light streaming on his face, as if he or she alone is singled out from the crowd. Straight lines of light point down from the sky, touching every beloved soul. It's magical. When the service ends, a bus takes us back to the Visitor Parking Lot. As we disembark from the bus and walk towards Ruby a cloud bursts and torrential rains descend upon the dispersing crowd. We've made it just in time.

Home now we have coffee and the bunny cookies I made yesterday. Pathetic looking yellow and pink bunnies. Handmade, misshapen rabbit ears top distorted, swollen, doughy faces. We eat these cookies until we are sick. The sun is out now so we decide to return to the National Military Park, tour its museum and hide the chocolate candied eggs for a two-member Easter Egg Hunt.

The Military Park museum shows a film about General Grant's six-week Siege of Vicksburg and General Pemberton's desperate defense of the last Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River with a band of soldiers determined to die for the cause. More than 100,000 of the Gray & Blue military occupied the city back then, overcrowding its 3000 residents, or "noncombatants," who were forced to live in hurriedly arranged cave dwellings built into the city's clay bluffs. Imagine living in a cave for six weeks while your town and your home are torn to shreds, or blown to smithereens. One man's diary reported, "Every day is Sunday," meaning that every part of regular daily life had stopped. All they did was hover together with the other residents listening to the bursting shells overhead, and wondering what remained of their town and their homes. Occasionally these "cave dwellers" as they began to call themselves, ventured out, and after a few weeks, developed a "normal" life again. More and more frequently they began to return to their homes, which had been relieved of all glass windows, but remained somewhat intact. A house without glass is better than a cave with all its snakes and vermin, I suppose. So they lived in their houses part-time and retreated to the caves during episodes of extreme danger. They walked the streets again, and became expert at determining when a bomb demanded a retreat to the cave, and when it could be ignored. It's amazing how humans can adapt to just about any condition forced upon them.

After touring the museum we drive around the various battlefield sites. We simply cannot believe what took place here. Blue markers show Union advances and Red markers show Confederate defenses. A quick scan of the area, dotted in red and blue markers, shows how close the enemies were to each other. Sometimes it was almost hand-to-hand combat. And yet, the park is so serene today. Beautiful green lawns trimmed in honeysuckle and white Japanese Pinchette bushes perfume the entire park in a heady smell of thick, sweet fragrance, a fragrance that reminds me of Estee Lauder's "Youth Dew" perfume. The sweet smells, mixed with the sour memories, confuse the spirit.

The Art of Congeniality

I'm sitting at the dining room table, reading Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi," when I happen to glance out the window and see an elderly couple walking, hand-and-hand down Cool Million Lane (all the little lanes here in this Casino RV Park are named after winnings, i.e., Cool Million Lane, Avenue of Aces, Double Diamond Drive, etc.). As I watch this couple from my window I notice how they gaze into each other eyes like teens in love and I suddenly realize that almost all the couples we see in these RV Parks seem to remain in love with each other. Granted, they are probably on vacation or retired and, therefore, liberated from the strains of the workaday world, but vacations are strains, too, sometimes.Trying to find one's way around, getting lost, getting deceived and overcharged by tourist traps, etc is stressful. I believe that RV couples form a more loving bond toward each other because they have learned to live together in a small tin box that either fractures an already fragile marriage or forges a strong one to greater strength. I mention my theory to Ken and he readily agrees. "Of course that's it." He avers. "If two people can live together in these tight quarters, they've pretty much mastered the art of congeniality."

Right in my own back yard . . .but not for long

The Magnolia trees of the south have captivated my heart. They are in various stages of blooming* now, and I'm charmed by their delicate beauty. Whenever we pass one of these "Southern Ladies" on the road my thoughts stop churning -- all attention turns to this magnificent tree. As we pass it, my head spins around to take in every feature, every aspect of this sweet, elegant tree, so foreign to my native land in the northeast. Big white flowers grow on beautifully shaped trees that appear manicured or cultivated as though designed as a wedding bouquet for giant bride. But I'm getting ahead of myself, because before they become flowers, they are huge white, flamelike buds that sit gracefully on the thick, waxy leaves like candle flames on a king's candelabra. Midway, as the buds open, they appear as white roses the size of baseball mitts. But their last stage, at full blossom they spread open wide to form a star shape. When I see the full blossom my spirit soars as though beholding the face of an angel. These large, star-shaped white flowers are divine -- pure, open, honest and vulnerable. Too bad they are always at a distance, either too far from the road, or too high up to smell them. Today I'm lucky, though, for I spot a new Magnolia tree here in the RV park, right in my own backyard. A temporary backyard to be sure, but my backyard nonetheless, for the time being. The tree is only a sapling, newly planted, which somehow I had overlooked when we first arrived here a few days ago. This morning I'm sitting at the picnic table having my tea when I happen to look up and see a small, fragile, adolescent Magnolia tree just a few feet from me, and just a few feet taller than me. One open flower, within reach, invites me to come and explore. I walk over, bend the flower to my nose. The starlike flower is so big, it covers my face in a white silken mask. I take a big whiff and my fascination is complete. It smells exactly as I had imagined. Its perfume is ecstasy, yet potent. Too much of this heady scent could send a person into a blissful stupor. I return the flower, delighted to have had this opportunity to indulge in its powerful fragrance, and I shall miss its feminine charms when I return home among the masculine pines and oaks of New England.

*Note: Perhaps they bloom all summer, I don't know. When I tried to make conversation with the recalicitrant Ford Courtesy Card driver taking me to back the Dealership to retreive Ruby from her Day of Maintenece, I asked about the blooms but didn't get an adequate answer. The conversation went like this:

Me: "Oh, I just love these Magnolia trees!" I ooze. "Do they bloom all summer?"
Her: "Huh!"
Me: " . . .the Magnolia trees . .. Do they bloom all summer?"
(Uncomfortable silence. A full, awkward, deadly minute lingers. Maybe she didn't hear me, I wonder.) Silence breaks suddenly with a reluctant, "I dunno."
(All conversation ceases with these final flat words.)

Front Row Seat

Shakespeare said, "All the World is a Stage" and men are merely players." If that's true, then the "Big-Director-Up-There" never assigned me a role on his World Stage. All my life I safeguarded an embarrassed silence when ministers would claim that everyone is endowed with a special God-given talent to offer the world, or when a well-meaning teacher would say the same thing. For I have no talent. I excel at nothing. I am the most average person there is. Or . . .so I thought. But this trip has made me realize that I do have a talent after all. I'm the Audience. If the world is a stage, the players must be playing to someone for recognition and applause, and I am happy to supply it. I take my place, gladly in the front row seat. I've kinda suspected this all along, but never pinned it down before now. I mean, I knew I wasn't a major player. I thought of myself perhaps as one of the many extras, or as the person offstage making scenery and costumes. But this trip made me realize that I provide an even more important role. I am the audience, and the critic. It's a perfect role, too. So many people vie to be the star and disdain the multitudes, because the sheer numbers deem them nameless and faceless. But I contend that they are the most vital part of a play. What good is a group of actors if they have no one to perform to? If they have no applause. No appreciation. The person in the front row, the critic, is the one they are doing this for, he or she need only sit comfortably, waiting to be impressed or disappointed as the case may be. The Audience doesn't have to impress anyone. It is the actors who have to impress the audience. Oh, it's a marvelous role, and I accept it enthusiastically, along with my legion of other Average People.

Today, for example, Ken and I are sitting poolside here at the Casino RV Park. We've got a bottle of white wine between us. The sun is about to set and we've got the pool and jacuzzi to ourselves. As Ken swims I recline my cushioned lounge chair and take in the scenery and accommodations put here to impress me, the Guest, the Audience. Seems management thought I would like cushions on my poolside lounge chairs. (They are right. Good job.) I give them an appreciative Gold Star in my mental critique. Seems they also thought tables would be needed to hold my refreshments. Yes (applause) I appreciate that. And the jacuzzi. My goodness! Three stars for that alone. Of course, the other niceties complete the scene perfectly: an arbor to shield me from the sun, but only on one side of the pool, in case I'm sun worshiper. All this is duly noted. Yes, they are trying hard to impress me, the Guest, the Consumer, the Ticketholder, the Audience. And I bestow upon them my high marks. (Oh, I do so love this role. Thank you God for giving me the easiest possible role on your World Stage.) Ken returns from the pool, sinks into the lounge chairs, interrupts my reverie and shares a toast with me. We sit and crack jokes and have a wonderful time when we are soon intruded upon by an older couple, oh, about 70 years old, competing guests who wish to share the facilities. They are friendly, gracious people. And I notice immediately that the husband wants to be a star. He lusts for the center stage. In a booming salesmanlike voice, although pleasant enough, he begins cracking jokes. Old, stale jokes. Ken and I smile politely, for we are a polite audience. One after another this old man delivers waves of stale jokes, rolling from his tongue, accustomed to his years of practice. Soon his jokes turn to slamming the country, what he calls the "dumbing down of America." His tone is forced jocularity, laced in acrimony. An incongruity of bitterness packaged in joviality. I'm uncomfortable for I don't agree with his complaints about Americans, but I can see that he wants to be funny, wants to be well-liked, wants applause from the Audience for his astute observations on the decline of American society. So I smile. A weird, weak, wiry smile. This swimming pool jester is wearing a beautiful terrycloth robe. The material is plush, the cut, well made and flatters him greatly. About to enter the jacuzzi, we warn him of its extreme temperatures which we had discovered earlier. (Ouch.) He dismisses our warnings, (assumes we're wimps) takes off his robe, and my senses recoil at the vision before me: an old man in a purple thong bikini, his indulgence of fatty foods evidenced by a pasty, white-skinned belly that overextends the tiny swimsuit like an overfilled water balloon restricted by a tight purple rubberband. He puts his foot in the jacuzzi and pulls it out alarmingly. "Wow!" He bellows. "That's ridiculous! That thing could scald a person. These people are gonna have a lawsuit on their hands," he predicts. "You remember that lady who sued MacDonalds because of a hot cup of coffee in her lap. Well, that's nothing compared to this." On and on he harangues about lawsuits. But now I'm attacked by a double flank of negativity. Before he disrobed I was only uncomfortable about what he said. But now he's giving his ranting and raving in this unforgiving lycra string of a bathing suit. Whereas before I didn't want to hear him. Now I don't want to see him either. But his booming voice requires attention. I try to look past him, giving the impression that I'm listening, but really my eyes and ears are beyond him. I'm looking at a pretty tropical sign advertising the casino and wondering if we should go to the buffet later, all the while pretending to be giving this man the audience her craves. For that's my role in life, and I am required to see bad performances as well as good.

Idaho Revisited . . .

We received Email today from a new subscriber who goes by the name of "Jennifer in Chicago." She is a columnist for Postcard Collector magazine and wrote us to say that she solved the mystery about the exclamation point in the Boise Public Library sign, which I had written about almost a year ago in the Idaho Diary. At the time, I had mentioned that the Boise public library had big shiny chrome letters on a tall building shouting "Library!" (exclamation point included.) and wondered what's up with the exclamation point? Usually exclamation marks are used to show emphasis, surprise, or to accompany an imperative sentence. Why, I wondered, did the library directors choose to incur the added expense for the exclamation point?

Jennifer responded with the following Email message:

"If nobody solved the "LIBRARY!" mystery for you yet, here it is courtesy of American Library magazine (April 1995):

[The Boise (Idaho) Public Library kicked off its centennial year in January by adding exclamation points to its outside neon 'Library' signs. The punctuation marks were a gift to the library by Boise's Flying Pie Pizzaria, whose general manager, Howard Oliver, said, 'When the library got a sign that said simply 'Library,' it immediately occurred to us that what it should say is 'Library!' That's the kind of library it is.]

When I wrote back to thank Jennifer, she explained the coincidence:

"Priscilla -- I am so glad that I was the one to give you the scoop on the Library! sign. I love coincidences and this was one indeed! . . . For my "What's in the Mail?" column, I'm always on the lookout for books of addresses that might serve my needs. One such book was Public Libriaries: Travel Treasures of the West. Earlier yesterday I was looking up something else in this book and came across a photocopy of the Libarary! sign and that blurb I quoted to you this morning. I thought, wasn't this neat that I saved this and taped it in here . . .Then last night when I read about you and Ken actually seeing the library and its sign, I let out a whoop and rushed to show this jolly coincidence to my husband . . . " --Jennifer in Chicago

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