I saw the sign pictured below alongside the road in a nearby town a few weeks ago. It struck me as the kind of sign I would post if I were selling boiled peanuts, an inside joke to spin up all the grammar police and second guessers out there. Who’s to say that the author of the sign doesn’t have a Ph.D. in linguistics, and that he or she is not hiding in the woods and chuckling at us as we drive by; laughing at us as we laugh at their “false flag” of roadside signs. If someone wants to post a sign saying “KEEP CLAER” or “WE ARE COMMITTED TO EXCELLENSE,” more power to them. If I saw signs around the bend from “BOILD P-NUTS,” saying “TARS FOR SALE,” “GOT FAR WOOD,” and “NO UNORTHERISED PARKING,” before I got all smug and condescending, I would have to wonder who the joke was actually on.
Unfortunately, I never cared for boiled peanuts. I’m a parched peanut guy. The smell of the boiled ones reminds me of hog killing time in Dixie. When I was a kid, my daddy would butcher a hog at the first fall cold snap and remove the hair and bristles by singeing them in boiling water, hence the smell. Also, I identify boiled peanuts with that fruit stand on Highway 98 just over the state line in Wilmer, Alabama, once the home of the most infamous speed trap in the South. They got me once or twice. My granddaughters must stop there and stock up with boiled peanuts on our way to Orange Beach. Wilmer is also the site of a long-ago annual rodeo where a wild-eyed Brahman bull tried to kill me when I attempted to ride him back in college.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that much of life is often different than what we supposed it to be. Things are not always as they seem. Just in the last month, a well-known business in Hattiesburg advertised itself ad nauseum as “going out of business” only to recently be miraculously “born again” under new management. You can’t always believe what you see, hear, or read.
Jerry Lee Lewis, “The Killer,” died this week, and he made his living singing songs about the difference between what was and what should have been. After he married his 13-year-old first cousin, rock and roll’s “first wild man” was forced to transition to country music where he began topping the charts with such enigmatic songs as “Another Time, Another Place,” “There Must Be More To Love Than This,” “Would You Take Another Chance On Me,” “Sometimes a Memory Ain’t Enough,” and my all-time favorite: “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye.” Jerry Lee Lewis also owes me money. In 1964, when I was attending Mississippi College so that I could qualify for Officer Candidate School and get my Navy commission, he was scheduled to appear at Jackson’s Fairgrounds Coliseum. Several thousand of us showed up for the concert, but Jerry Lee was a no-show. I never did get a refund.
I later spent most of my naval career trying to sort out fact from fiction, to separate myth from reality. I’m certainly not the first, nor the last. In a chapter out of his autobiographical novel, “Life on the Mississippi” (1883), entitled “Two Ways of Looking at a River,” Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) talks about reality versus the myth of the mighty Mississippi which, I understand, is now about to run dry. When he was merely a passenger on a steamboat, he saw only “the beautiful sunsets; a solitary log floating in the water; rippling water surrounding a dead tree which stood like a sentinel.” When he became the captain of a steamboat, however, his perspective changed: “The sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means the river is rising; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights; and that dead tree, now gone, was a landmark for navigation. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river.” Clemens saw things as they really were. We need to do the same thing.
We often see the disconnect between how we think things are and how they really are when we travel. I remember the first time I saw Athens, Greece. I was about 18 years old, and we dropped the hook in Piraeus, the port of Athens. You couldn’t see the Acropolis, or the Parthenon, or any of the other spectacular temples above the sea from there, but we had seen them coming in and they were beautiful. The ancient ruins on the verdant hills seemed so timeless and peaceful, but things were not as they seemed. Right before liberty call, the Old Man himself came up on the 1MC (ship’s loudspeaker) and gave us a warning. He said, “I want you to have a good time ashore in Athens, but you need to be careful. They just had a political revolution here [Regime of the Colonels] and the police are a little touchy, and they will shoot you, but more to the point, the national drink here is called ‘ouzo,’ and you need to stay away from it. It tastes like licorice, and it’s about 150 proof. You can’t handle it. If you drink it, it will make you lame, blind, and crazy. Don’t mess with it!” Of course, sailors being sailors, when the first liberty party hit the beach, the first thing they asked for was ouzo and, sure enough, it made most drinkers lame, blind, and crazy. Reality struck. I had the quarterdeck watch that first night, and it was like watching a “cinema verité” movie, documenting things as they happened with no comment. You never saw such pitiful scenes as when the liberty boats started to shuttle back and forth around midnight – boatloads of sick sailors, many missing kerchiefs, hats, shoes, and some even a few teeth.
I went back through Athens several times more over the years, and I was always amazed at how ruins always seemed to be being “constructed” on the Acropolis, particularly the Parthenon. Of course, when you investigate its history, you see why they were being reconstructed. Since it was completed in the 5th century BC and dedicated to the goddess, Athena, it has had an intriguing past. Becoming derelict with the decline of the Greek empire, it became a Christian church in the 6th century AD, an Ottoman Mosque in the 15th century, and it was severely damaged by a Venetian bomb in the 1687 siege of the Acropolis while being used to store bombs and ammunition. It was then thoroughly looted by the English in the early 19th century when its famous marble sculptures (the Elgin Marbles) were chipped off and hauled away to the British Museum in London. It wasn’t until the early 1960s, when I began my visits, that numerous large-scale restoration projects were undertaken to preserve the remaining artifacts and ensure its structural integrity. Seeing this reconstruction, however, one couldn’t help but wonder what was true to the original and what rebuilding was only conjecture.
Sometimes, however, people do see things as they really were. Palermo, Sicily, comes to mind. Dating back to the ancient Phoenicians and known as the “most conquered city in the world,” Palermo is beautiful, especially when viewed from the sea, with many baroque-era buildings dating from the 14th and 15th centuries still standing. It is, however, the home of the Mafia, or as it is known locally, the Cosa Nostra (“Our Thing”), and while this was long before the” Godfather” movies came out, every sailor knew intuitively that it was probably a good idea to be back on the ship by dark. In over 25 years of foreign port calls, Palermo was the only place I ever saw where the Shore Patrol didn’t have to go round up sailors after liberty call ended. It was always like “Cinderella Liberty:” everyone was back onboard by midnight. Apparently, nobody wanted to “sleep with the fishes.” Oddly enough, statistically speaking, Palermo is one of the safest cities in Europe.
I have an antique mini car that I purchased at Naval Air Station, Sigonella, Sicily – “Peewee,” my 1966 Fiat “Cinquecento” (500), whose two-cylinder, 499 cc, air-cooled engine is pumping out 18 mighty horsepower, and it could outrun just about anyone’s self-propelled lawn mower. While it’s 9 feet long and weights 1100 pounds, many who see it confuse it with a toy. In fact, one day while paying for gas inside a convenience store in Lumberton, I looked outside and saw two teenagers trying to pick it up. But, again, appearances are deceiving. Fiat produced over 5 million of them after World War II, and it was common to see a husband and wife, two kids, a mother-in-law, and a dog packed into one, rolling through the tight and congested streets of Rome.
For Peggy Lee, a famous “torch” and lounge singer of the 1940s and 50s, her signature song, “Is That All There Is?”, full of angst and ennui, summed up all her disappointments in life. For example, when she was a little girl, she looked forward to going to the circus. When she finally went, she was underwhelmed, and her response was, “Is that all there is?” After cycling through several of life’s significant events, she got married. Unfortunately, her response to that experience was “Is that all there is?” Fortunately, there are some things that are as they appear to be.
Take the observance of Veteran’s Day next week, for example. It’s a week from tomorrow,
and I have been asked to make a presentation at two elementary schools, one in Forrest County and one in Lamar. There will be 60-80 veterans at one of the schools, as well as the student body. I always enjoy speaking about Veteran’s Day, especially to young people, because they are without artifice. For too many others, it’s just another holiday. Many confuse Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day as well. Veteran’s Day is the day set aside to thank and honor all those, living or dead, who served honorably in the military of the United States, in war and in peace. Originally called Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I at the 11th hour, on the 11th day, of the 11th month of 1918, it became a legal holiday in 1919 to honor those who had died. In 1954, after World War II, it was officially renamed “Veteran’s Day” and set aside to honor veterans of all American wars, living or dead. Memorial Day, on the other hand, was first officially observed in 1868 when flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at what became Arlington, Virginia, National Cemetery. It was originally known as “Decoration Day” and is now a day for remembering and honoring military personnel who died in the service of their country, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle.
There’s also evidence that the first “Memorial Day” was in Mississippi when women in Corinth placed flowers on the graves of soldiers killed in the Battle of Shiloh which took place at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River (1862). In any event, if we are not careful, important events like Veteran’s Day can become meaningless blips on the calendar whose true significance becomes lost in the fog of nostalgia and a similar refrain of “Is that all there is?” For whatever reason, perhaps through oversight or lack of information, my feeling is that many of us tend to overlook the reality of Veteran’s Day – a day set aside to honor those who served in all branches of our military with honor and sacrifice. This year let’s take a few moments and see the day for what it really is.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: [email protected].