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En Route From Virginia to Texas

I am en route from Appalachian Virginia to Texas, that uniquely surreal American state, which is not to imply that Appalachian Virginia is without its own forms of surreality.

There was a time, a couple of decades ago, when we did the 1000-mile/1600 km trip in a day, but the toll of increased age (I’ll be 70 in 5 months) has necessitated a more leisurely progression to the Lone Star state, this involving overnight stops in Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis.

Driving on Interstates 81, 40, and 30, provided many reminders of why the US, despite having a better road system than the poorer European countries, sees many more people die on its roads than in Europe or other wealthy countries.  According to Newsweek (3-27-2014):

Americans die on the roads at twice the rate of Europeans. Against all rich countries the U.S. doesn’t fare much better. The World Health Organization calculates an average of 8.7 fatalities per 100,000 people in high income countries compared with 11.4 in the U.S. and only 5.5 in the European Union. Subpar road safety in the U.S. shows up in other measures too, such as deaths per car or deaths per mile driven.

Sweden for instance, has a zero-tolerance policy on traffic-related deaths and injuries, and it has been building roads for safety rather than speed or convenience. Last year, 264 Swedes died on the roads, the lowest level ever, around three fatalities per 100,000 people.

Australia had significant success in lowering road deaths… and its death rate is now around five fatalities per 100,000 people.

On a day with constant heavy rain between Knoxville and Nashville, cars were driving insanely close to each other at high speeds in poor visibility, some without their headlights on.  Other impatient drivers weaved and darted between the rain-slowed vehicles without using signals.

From time to time we’d see small wooden crosses on the side of the road with a bunch of flowers at their base, serving as obvious memento mori, but the hurtling kamikazes around me seemed oblivious to these reminders of traffic-related mortality.

Many of the drivers I saw would not be on the road if they had to take a reasonably stringent driving test.

The typical US driving test is ludicrously undemanding– a simple multiple-choice test, followed by a leisurely drive round the block around the testing office.  You pass if you don’t crash or drive into a ditch.

By contrast when I got my UK driving license I had to take a lengthy theory test with written answers required, an eye examination, a vehicle safety test, and a 40-minute driving test with an eagle-eyed examiner who noted my mistakes on a check list each time I was at fault.  Very few examinees pass the test at the first attempt.

When I took my driving test in North Carolina in the 1980s I was astonished when the examiner, with no checklist on his lap, told me I had passed after 5 minutes and asked me to drive him back to the test office.

Apart from the wretchedly sub-standard driving, also to be seen on this trip were towering metal crosses next to churches that more often than not resembled nondescript shops in a strip mall (we were in the bible belt after all), and vast Confederate flags flapping from lofty poles on farm land adjoining the interstate (reminding me I was in the former Confederacy).  Talk about nailing your cloth to the mast of a lost cause!

Memphis is now for me the most interesting American city.   Twenty years ago, I would have said it was San Francisco, but SF has become an over-priced yuppie paradise/dystopia, this choice depending in the main on one’s income level.

New Orleans, sadly, has not recovered from Hurricane Katrina, and will probably never again be the gloriously, and at times riotously, seedy place it once was.  So Memphis it is, where yours truly is concerned.

Memphis and Nashville vie with each other to be Music City USA, but in my view Memphis wins the title hands down.  Nashville is above all the headquarters of country music, most of it pap, say, about a lonesome man and his dog in a truck, after the former had been dumped by his lover.

Memphis is associated with the blues and gospel (B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Lillie May Glover, Lucie Campbell, Booker T and the MGs), early rockabilly (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash), soul music (Tina Turner, Al Green, and Percy Sledge), and Stax Records (Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, Dionne Warwick, several of the afore-mentioned pioneering musicians, plus a host of lesser luminaries).  This is indeed an incomparable local musical history, in terms of its sheer variety and depth.

As is the case with several southern cities, Memphis, while located in the former Confederacy, is primarily or significantly African-American (64% in this case).  Also in common with many places in the former Confederacy, it has sought to deal recently with the affront constituted by statues and memorials commemorating Confederate stalwarts.

Ostensibly, the statues commemorate Civil War “history” and its key southern protagonists, but since 80-90% of such allegedly commemorative items were erected in the 1900s-1930s when Jim Crow became entrenched, their real purpose was not so much historical commemoration of that war, as a symbolic affirmation and confirmation that segregationist Jim Crow now prevailed remorselessly in the American South.

It is easy to see how the machinations by which this happens operate.

Today’s white supremacists who wear Nazi regalia are not “commemorating” Hitler and his associates (come on!), instead they are using this as a brute assertion of their own aspirational white supremacy in the present conjuncture.

Such machinations always about the present, unless we are talking of the delusional individual who dresses as Jesus or Napoleon because they really believe they are the living embodiment of Jesus or Napoleon.

Just before we arrived, Memphis got rid of its Confederate statues by the simple expedient of selling the statues, which were city property, to a private foundation created specifically for the purpose of removing them.

Selling city property to a private entity is entirely legal as long as proper procedure is followed, and the frothing of local Republican politicians threatening legal action notwithstanding, the restoration of the statues to their original locations is seen to be unlikely.

This surely provides a legal template for cities such as Charlottesville to follow as they seek to remove Confederate excrescences from public locations.

Memphis is also one of the great homes of barbecue, along with Kansas City and Dallas-Fort Worth, and Owensboro, Kentucky (the latter for its grilled lamb and mutton).  However, mindful of the sensitivities of my many vegetarian friends, I won’t provide rationales for this assessment.

Suffice to say that eating barbecue at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis is an utterly memorable experience.

Next week:  Texas itself.

The Parthenon, not in Athens, but Nashville, Tennessee.  Built in the late 19th century by a former Confederate soldier, it was intended to signify Nashville’s aspiration to be the “Athens of the South”.  Perchance, was Walt Disney aware of these earlier attempts at replication when he embarked on his theme-park replicas decades later?             

More articles by:

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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