‘Mockingbird’ town

Monroeville street banner.

Monroeville street banner.

Outside of connecting with my family history at Pine Level, there was nothing more appealing on our Alabama trip than a visit to Harper Lee’s hometown in Monroeville.

Lee’s story had gripped me for a long time.  In 1960, at the age of 34, her bestselling novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published and won the Pulitzer Prize.  It has become an American classic.  What engaged me was the fact she stopped writing.  One book and that was it.  Her controversial and yet to be published “Go Set a Watchman” pre-dated ‘Mockingbird.’  In fact she has often called ‘Watchman’ the parent of ‘Mockingbird” and saw no reason to have it put into print.

Nothing like a whiff of fragrance from the spirea.

Nothing like a whiff of fragrance from the spirea.

Now, here it was, 55 years after ‘Mockingbird,’ and she was still alive, at age 89, residing in a care facility in Monroeville with the ‘Watchman’ controversy surrounding her.  The new-old novel apparently was discovered by Lee’s attorney, sent to a literary agent with the author’s approval and is set to be published on or about July 15 by HarperCollins in the U.S.  It will also be published in Great Britain.  Many of Lee’s friends in Monroeville question whether she is mentally competent to OK a book that for more than a half century she has chosen not to publish.  Many think it is an attempt by others to enrich themselves and to bring new fame and tourist business to her hometown.

Also, at least in my mind, was the question of her authorship of  “Mockingbird.”  Her late cousin and celebrated author of “In Cold Blood” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” has long been linked to at least having an editing role in ‘Mockingbird.’  As a young boy, Capote, spent summers in Monroeville, living next door to the Lee family, and becoming close friends with Harper.  In fact, years later Lee accompanied Capote on his reporting trip to Kansas for “In Cold Blood.’

All this stirred my interest, although there was one apparent setback to our visit.

Crowd awaits start of the play.

Crowd awaits start of the play.

Since 1990, local amateurs have been putting on a two-act play of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the old Monroe County courthouse in town.  To see the play in Lee’s hometown while she was still alive and nearby was the big attraction.  Trouble was the play, which runs several weekends each spring, was sold out.  Every performance.  I knew that as we left Sikes and Kohn’s Country Mall in Pine Level and steered south for the 120-mile drive to Monroeville.  At least, I thought we could do the “Mockingbird” walking tour and check out the museum in the old courthouse.

Despite storm clouds moving in from the southwest, the drive proved enjoyable.  Alabama seems to me nothing more than a zillion small towns, most of them interesting.  But I saw none as nice as Luverne, between Troy and I-65 at Greenville.  Luverne bills itself as “The Friendliest Little Town in The South.”  Some of my distant kin live here to this day.  In my notebook, I jotted “very pretty place.”

Then there was tiny Rutledge where on the west side I saw a Confederate flag flying high.  It was the only one I would see during the entire trip.

The traveling was greatly enhanced by the fragrance of spirea blooms along the roadside.  Growing an estimated 15 feet high in places, the sweet scent of these abundant bushes and their cascading white flowers permeated the Yaris as we drove along.  Getting off 65 at Greenville, we stopped to take a closer look and a whiff of this intoxicating flower.

Capote house's ruins.

Capote house’s ruins.

It was mid-afternoon when we finally reached Monroeville.  Plenty of time to look around.  And maybe, just maybe, we could luck in to a pair of tickets to the play.  A woman at the museum I’d talked to by phone was not encouraging.

We had turned back north on 21 highway after seeing the sign to Monroeville, “The Literary Capital of Alabama.”  Two writers, Lee and Capote, have made that boast plausible.

Coming into town from the south, the “new Monroeville” emerged.  Sparkling signs dotted Alabama Avenue. Wal-Mart, Sonic, Shell gas for $2.29, the Monroeville Inn, McDonald’s, Burger King, you name it.  The main town was quite different.

The old courthouse rests in a town square with store fronts on all sides, some empty and gathering dust.  It appeared to be a poor town in decline.  I thought, if it were not for “Mockingbird” and Harper Lee, this town would have dried up and blown away years ago.

The museum covers two floors in the courthouse.  Separate rooms are devoted to Lee and Capote.  On the west side is the court room itself, clean and sparkling as if it were awaiting the next trial.  It became the model for the Hollywood set in the “Mockingbird” film of 1962 that starred Gregory Peck as the defense attorney, Atticus Finch.  The film won three Academy Awards including a “Best Actor” for Peck.

We picked up a map of the walking tour and set out south along Alabama Avenue.  The map shows 33 points of interest.  Only two caught my eye, Nos. 14 and 15.  They are the sites of the houses where Lee and Capote once lived side by side.  Both houses are long gone.  The ruins of a foundation and rock wall are all that remain of the Capote place, that and a metal plaque in front with bio notes and brief history of the house.  Lee’s old home, just to the south, has been replaced by Mel’s Dairy Dream, a confectionary that dispenses tasty strawberry shakes, etc.  The sites are just two blocks south of the courthouse.

Act 2, inside the courthouse.

Act 2, inside the courthouse.

While I napped in the car, Nebra poked around the area.  I awoke to an excited rap on the window.  Nebra had run across two tickets for the play at the regular price of $50 each.  The play would start in about an hour, at 7 p.m.  Sprinkles of rain had started.  We walked over to The Courthouse Cafe and had a pleasing supper.

The two-act play began on time.  It lasted 2 1/2 hours.  Act One is performed outside at the west end of the old courthouse.  When it is over, everyone gets up and walks around to the  courthouse entrance and into the courtroom  where the trial of the black man, Tom Robinson, is held.  At the end, audience and cast intermingle.  It was a powerful moment, the troupe’s director describing how much the play meant to everyone and the town.

As in so much of my life, good fortune had visited again.  That we were able to get tickets to the play at the last minute, that the rain clouds had stayed away, well, it was a memorable evening.

Now, it was on to a motel in Greenville for the night.  The next day we hoped to travel to Selma for some of the most important history in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

So much to do, so little time.



Sikes and Kohn’s Country Mall

About 50 cars parked  here during noon hour.

About 50 cars parked here during noon hour.

It is 12:20 p.m. on a Friday and the parking lot in front of Sikes & Kohn’s Country Mall  is lined with 50 cars or more.  The large, plain building looks more warehouse than mart.  And “mall”?  It’s one big store in the Alabama boondocks.

“You come here for the discounts and brands not the atmosphere,” a poster on Yelp writes.

Inside, big and impressive.

Inside, big and impressive.

On the mall’s north side is a water tower.  It says “Pine Level, AL.”  That’s 26 miles south of Exit 9 at the nearest big city, Montgomery.  The water tower and the mall.  That’s it.

On the mall’s east side is lightly-traveled U.S. 231.  The road takes you to Troy 15 miles to the south.  Along the roadsides it is trees and more trees.

Spit cups not allowed.

Spit cups not allowed.

The store has been around since 1970, I read.  “Blue Jeans USA,” proclaims a sign above the front door.  It is the area’s answer to the modern outlet malls.  Other signs along the road list the brands of men’s and women’s clothing, hats, shoes, sun glasses, gear, etc.  Columbia, Cole Haan, Ray Ban, Oakley, Levi’s, Ariat, Justin, Allen Edmonds, Guy Harvey, North Face, Teva, Kavu.

Nothing elegant.  Sign has seen better days.

Nothing elegant. Sign has seen better days.

Nebra wandered through the large store for a while and decided against shopping.  Time was short.  We had a destination to reach by mid-afternoon. Still, Nebra the shopper, said there were many good deals.

An unusual store in an unusual location.  I am beginning to see we made a mistake in our travel plans.  No way to do it all justice in only five full days.

Pine Level, Alabama

Pine Level, a water tower and country store.

Pine Level, a water tower and country store.

It is April 24, about noon on a sunny Friday, and I am standing on Alabama land my great-great grandfather, James, acquired from the federal government 180 years ago.  In that year, 1835, he was 33 years of age, a restless native of South Carolina with a young family and looking to grow cotton and raise cattle 30 miles southeast of Montgomery.  His 40-acre tract rests near a community called Pine Level.

Until the night before, on the 23rd, I did not know where the land was.  And I had only a vague idea about Pine Level, just that it was off U.S. 231 to Troy.  It’s on the map.  Actually, there are three Pine Levels in Alabama.  One in Autauga County, another in Coffee County and this one, in Montgomery County.

This is James's land along both sides of Peake Road, I believe

This is James’s land along both sides of Peake Road, I believe

The BLM website map showed the exact section of land, No. 26, but I had to figure the “aliquots.”  They are the divisions of the section.  James’s was on the northwest 1/4 of the southeast 1/4.  It appeared the land was east of Pine Level a few miles.  Peake Road nipped a corner of the property, just past Radio Tower Rd.

Driving south from Montgomery on 231 we encountered upscale homes on large subdivisions.  Farther on, we ran into heavy forest again.  And finally Pine Level, which, best I could tell, is basically a blue water-tower and unique store called Sikes and Kohn’s Country Mall, on the west side of the road.

Barely a hop away to the south was the turn-off to Peake Road.

With Nebra driving, we turned east on Peake, passed a pond with an attractive sign that said “Royer Hills” amid a forest of long-leaf pine and deciduous trees.  At Radio Tower Road I grew excited.  A half mile beyond, the forest opened up into a large clearing with homes on the north and south.  This had to be James’s land on both sides of the road.  It was fairly flat and had a sandy feel to it.

Looking south of Peake Road to James's land.

Looking south of Peake Road to James’s land.

We lingered for a while.  I shot a few photos.  Almost everyone out here had bird houses.  I guessed they were for purple martins.  Down the road a piece, I had Nebra stop the car, and I got out and walked up to the front porch of a house where an elderly black man stood.  He had lived on the property for 19 years, he said, but could not tell me if his house stood on Section 26.

I was reasonably sure James was buried out here somewhere.  Neither did the old man know of any old graves in the area.  State Archives held many Montgomery County cemetery records but none was comprehensive.  I pored over a few and found nothing of my family.

Olustee Creek

Olustee Creek

On our way back, we detoured onto Radio Tower Road.  It was a short drive.  Nebra got nervous when a troupe of excited dogs emerged from a house, barking and growling at the front tires.  And, of course, at the deadend was a high tower for a Troy radio station.  It was along this road too that little Olustee Creek emerged from the forest and passed under a culvert.  I believe it crossed James’s land above and was a probable enticement for him to settle there.

It was getting late and we had a long drive ahead to Monroeville, the home of Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  We pushed on.

At least I had set foot on the land of my great-great grandfather and had a sense what a prodigious task it must have been to clear the forest and ready the soil for planting.  And I wonder what his thoughts were the first time he made his way through the wilds only a few short years after Alabama became a state.

I will have to make yet another trip to Pine Level when I have more time.

Microfilm, index books and the SPLC

I did research in Archives section (left) at the Dept. of Archives and History.

I did research in Archives section (right) at the Dept. of Archives and History.

Much of Day One in Alabama, a Thursday, was devoted to family history, first at the Montgomery County probate offices and later at the state archives.

It had been a while since I delved into my father’s side of the family.  And, for some reason, I forgot to bring along some records I had gathered on my great-great grandfather, James.  I knew this much, that he was born in 1802 and for much of his life resided somewhere in Montgomery County.

Probate wasn’t much help.  I had hoped to find James’s will, if he had one, or some other records that might indicate where his property once layed.  The clerk, “Sheilah,” disappeared in a backroom and emerged to tell me it would be difficult to find records without more information from me.  No name indexes at all, she said.  So I walked up the street a few blocks to Archives.

A simple sign outside building.

A simple sign outside building.

On the way, I stopped to take a few photographs.  I had noticed earlier a building at a corner with a sign etched in a nearby wall, “Southern Poverty Law Center.”  The SPLC brings lawsuits against the actions of hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations.  I have been a member now for a number of years.  The SPLC’s co-founder and leader, Morris Drees, has had his life threatened many times and the building is under tight security.  My presence and camera soon drew attention.  A security guard came to stand at a corner across from where I was unloading my long lens.  Soon another guard appeared on the opposite side of the street and then out came a third man in plain clothes that I assumed to be the security supervisor.  All three kept their distance but it was obivous I was being surveiled.  I took a few photos and left without incident.

At Archives, I pored over numerous Montgomery County indexes.  They covered the waterfront.  Marriages, deaths, cemeteries, census records.  I found little I didn’t already know.  Shortly before closing at 4:30, I discovered in yet another index that James had left a will and it had gone to probate in 1857.  In short order, I found a microfilm copy of the will and made a copy of it.  Unfortunately, the will did not disclose the location of the land.   One of my goals in Alabama was to set foot on the land he owned almost 200 years ago.

SPLC, on Washington Ave.

SPLC, on Washington Ave.

Just as I prepared to leave, a clerk suggested a website.  Since most of the land in Alabama was originally owned by the federal government, she told me I should go to the Bureau of Land Management site at glorecords.blm.gov/detail/patent and do a search for James.

That evening back at the motel, I did as suggested and, lo and behold, found James’s land, purchased in 1837.  Not only did it provide details of where the land was but provided a proactive map.

I was sure then that tomorrow I would be standing on James’s land southeast of Montgomery near a community known as Pine Level.

A first view of Montgomery

Nebra at capitol in downtown Montgomery.

Nebra at capitol in downtown Montgomery.

We had flown awhile above rain clouds and the air was choppy.  But, as the little 50-seat airliner closed in on our destination of Montgomery, the clouds parted just  enough to catch my first-ever glimpse at Alabama, land of my fathers.  Or at least some of them.

The view was night and day from where I currently live in the desert of Arizona.  Trees, actual forests, ran in all directions.  And there were streams running through them. Lush.  I had been in the South before.  Louisiana, Mississippi and more recently South Carolina and Georgia.  I wasn’t surprised.

Montgomery’s airport too was night and day from DFW, where we had a two-hour layover.  It was small with one terminal.  Everything including baggage claim and rental car agencies were smacked together with the ticket counters of the few airlines that flew in there, all of that in one intimate building.

At Dollar, we picked up our sub-compact, a cream-colored Toyota Yaris, and headed for Montgomery, only 10 miles or so to the northeast.

Driving along with Nebra at the wheel, I was reminded of something one of her friends had said about Rosa Parks, the inspiration behind the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement.  To paraphrase, she said, I don’t know why Rosa Parks needed a bus, the place is so small.

Small or not, as chief navigator of our car, I needed to orient myself quickly.

You don’t need a GPS to find your way around Montgomery.  All you need to know is this.  Which direcction is north and the two coordinates that divide the city.  Interstates 65 and 85.

The 85 runs east and west just south of downtown, and 65, north and south, more or less marks the city’s west boundary.  That was enough for me.

It is the 85, to Atlanta, that really defines Montgomery, touching as it does more of the city.  Along that wide ribbon,  you first run into Exit 1 to downtown and the magnificent capitol building.  Not that you can see downtown for all the trees. Anyway it was easy to learn the town by Exit numbers.  Eastdale Mall is off this exit, Alabama State University is off that one and so on.

We turned off at Exit 6, or East Boulevard.  It is an area loaded with motels, particularly along the first street south, Carmichael.  Along that strip you find lodging from Courtyard Marriott to La Quinta to Country Suites.  We pulled in at the Holiday Inn Express, our home for the first two nights, checked in and began looking for a restaurant along East Boulevard to the north of 85.

It was dark and already about 8 o’clock, too late for breakfast at the nearby Waffle House, one of my favorite breakfast joints.  Jason’s Deli and a Korean restaraunt didn’t sound enticing either.

Heading north along East are signs of what I assumed was Montgomery’s first big suburban movement.  It is now, or so it seemed, in decay.  The moneyed suburbs apparently now rest east of East.  The large Eastdale Mall with its Sears anchor seemed all but dead.  We settled on chicken fingers and grilled grouper at a local establishment, Jan’s Beach House Grill.  Good food but nothing special.

Back in our motel room, I pondered over what lay ahead in our seven-day visit.  Surely historic Montgomery would be more interesting than this first glimpse.

Tomorrow, as Scarlett says, is another day.










Layover at DWF

Beatrice Lebreton's

Beatrice Lebreton’s “Celebration.”

You can’t get to Alabama by standing still.  Unless you live there.  In our case, we took a morning flight from Phoenix to the state capital in Montgomery.  That required a layover at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport.  DFW for short.  It was a long day.  A long day made shorter by wandering this, the second largest airport in the U.S. behind Denver.  Believe it, 30 square miles.

Although the actual flight time to Montgomery is only three hours, it took twice that to reach our destination.  That’s counting the layover and taxing time from gate to lift-off.   You have to make the best of it.  Even if it means trying to find stuff to do during the layover in DFW.

Utitled.  Viola Delgado.

Utitled. Viola Delgado.

Not long after we arrived and got settled at our Gate in one of the two E terminals, I set out with my camera while Nebra guarded our carry-on bags and dealt with her email.  By the way, all major airports now have Wi-Fi and free charging stations for electronic gadgets.  At DFW, I’ll add, there was a constant tug and pull for rights to the stations.  Drop a bomb near one of them and there’d be plenty of seats on all those sold-out flights.

You’d think at such a large airport, you’d spend most of your time traveling the elevated rail called Skylink to get to your destination.  Not true.  A very efficient transport system it is.  Or stumbling over fellow-passengers.  After all DFW is the third busiest in the world.  Only Chicago’s O’Hare and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson see more plane traffic.  The fast-changing digital Arrival and Departure boards can send you into a swoon.

But there I was finally, shuffling along looking for unique stuff.  It didn’t take long.

Failed to catch the artist's name.

Failed to catch the artist’s name.

I soon discovered colorful circles of floor art in the long hallways.  Each design was different, each had a different artist.  My favorite, “Celebration,” was done by a 60-year-old French woman by the name of Beatrice Lebreton who now lives in Texas.

The sad thing is that many walked over these little masterpieces without looking at them, heads buried in smart phones or eyeballing the little screens.  A minor disappointment.

Soon, I went back to the gate and continued reading Thom Hartmann’s depressing “The Crash of 2016,” while Nebra took off for a while.  By then I was ready for the next lap, the flight to Montgomery on a little regional airline plane, American Eagle.

Come on, Dixieland.