Great road trips, like great movies, require a certain suspension of disbelief, and for 24 hours everyone waited on the edge of their seats, enjoying the ride. By now, much of the world knows the spoiler – the starlet’s shine faded, her throaty purr fell silent, the good guys lost and the villain got the girl. It made no difference. For the people of Tulsa, the journey was the destination anyway, and some of the best parts ended up on the cutting-room floor.
The war in Iraq may be a half a world away, but in the age of the Internet it’s as close as the flip of a video switch – making it in many ways the most intimate war in history. Using video technology and the Worldwide Web, soldiers are tying into the most private moments back home – weddings, funerals, birthdays. Today’s soldier doesn’t have to wait for a box of brownies: He can see his 4-year-old proudly making them. Some innovative couples have used the technology to get married, renew vows, or choose an insurance carrier. A father saw his daughter learn to tie her shoes. A brother said goodbye to his dying sister. The age of the interlinked war is raising profound questions: Does it boost the morale of soldiers or add to longings for home and divert attention from the task at hand?
She says while she supports tonight’s event, it’s going to take a lot to heal race relations in Ashburn, a town where people still refer to the railroad tracks separating the white and black neighborhoods as “the line.” She points out that just last week, a group of white students held a private prom at a nearby marina, heedless of this week’s prom, which had been heavily announced and heralded by what the local weekly newspaper called a “media storm.”
It’s the middle of nowhere and the hour is nothing, a sliver of time dutifully noted by the alarm clock’s efficient blue glow. It’s surprisingly cold here in Pearlington, and the volunteers burrow more deeply into their bunks, grateful for the woolen blankets that stave off the chill. In the darkness, shadows rise and fall, punctuated by soft groans as worn bedsprings do what they can to help tired shoulders. This isn’t the Four Seasons, but as far as volunteer camps go, this wooden bunkhouse is luxury accommodations, a home away from home. The scrape of clay-caked Timberlands on the bunkhouse floor announces the latest arrivals – a father-son team from Dansville, N.Y., here to spend a week building houses with Locklin’s group. Next week, fresh volunteers will arrive, some armed with little more than goodwill.
White pauses for a moment as he passes the spot where the library still stands. With a distant look in his eyes, he softly admits that he hasn’t had a raise or vacation in three years. But, for him, it isn’t about the money. He says it’s about the little things, like making a child smile or giving a ride to an elderly resident to spare her the grueling walk down streets still laden with debris. There are moments like last week, when a frantic mother called from her job to say her 8-year-old son had found a gun in the woods.
Conversation dips and swells to the soaring lilt of the “1812 Overture,” as restaurant patrons chat amiably while waiting to be seated. French phrases swirl through clipped New York consonants and Louisiana drawls as flannel-shirted men and Chanel-suited women hunch over steaming bowls of gumbo. This could be 1940s Paris or modern-day Manhattan. These could be paupers or princes. Time and truth have a way of getting lost here, weaving an ambiance that still enchants, even in a post-Katrina world.
The chicken and I are just two of the 79,813 participants in the sixth annual National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo, for short – a self-directed, kamikaze approach to writing that embraces quantity over quality. The premise, dreamed up by San Francisco writer Chris Baty, is simple. Everyone says they’ll write a book one day. What if each person wrote a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, setting aside fears and making a mad dash for the impossible? It’s a beautifully insane scheme that appeals to insomniacs, masochists, and – apparently – the would-be writer in thousands of us.
Ruby Jane Smith is perched on a shaggy floor pillow in the middle of her sky-blue bedroom, suede-booted feet crossed, head tilted, and brows furrowed as she tries to remember the night she forgot what city she was in during a performance. It’s understandable if the past three years seem a blur. Between winning her first fiddle competition after only six lessons, taking the Mississippi State Fiddler title, and performing at the Grand Ole Opry, life’s kind of busy these days. Particularly when you’re only 11 and there’s a disco birthday party to plan and Lemony Snicket to read.
Tall reeds line the banks of the Alabama River, swaying lazily in the dark water’s eddies as the wild tenor of crickets and cicadas dips and soars through the October stillness. Fat water moccasins sun themselves on cracked red clay as long-legged egrets snatch greedily from a school of water beetles skimming the surface. A fish jumps once, then twice. A man laughs once, then again as he joins a handful of people boarding the ferry. All God’s creatures are free in Gee’s Bend.
Friday night’s game allows residents a chance to get away, but no one forgets. Approximately 236 people died in Mississippi, 95 in Harrison County. Seventeen of those people were pulled from the muddy waters of this field, where the Pirates are now battling Poplarville. Rather than being sacrilegious, it seems appropriate – football is a fiercely loved pastime here, and there’s never been a better place to be, even before Katrina made the Pirates the only show in town.
I’ve never been one to turn down a hot story, and Centralia is smoking – literally. A Pennsylvania coal mining town that’s been on fire 44 years; 11 stubborn old-timers who refuse to leave; fiery sidewalks that melt the soles off your shoes. How could I resist? An abandoned strip mine caught fire in 1962, igniting an underground coal seam that has burned under Centralia ever since. Experts say it could burn another 250 years. I imagined an eerie, smoke-laden atmosphere, sun streaming across a barren landscape, miles of scorched Earth. Why would people live in such a Godforsaken place?
From her perch high atop the factory floor, she pulls red and white stripes through her hands over and over, being careful to keep the seams neat and tidy. Always a perfectionist, she is even more prudent here. This isn’t just any flag – it’s Old Glory. And this isn’t just any version – it’s an interment flag to drape a veteran’s coffin, one last embrace from a grateful country.