Amid all of this controversy over the Southern flag — I nearly forgot about the time I was wrapped in a Confederate Stars & Bars.
It happened 30 years ago. In those years, in the 1980s, I had become an enthusiast for bicycling and camping. In 1983, I packed my 12-speed Schwinn, departed from Pittsburgh on a sunny Sunday morning in July — and rode for 44 days, until 3,650 miles, when I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge.
Much of the adventure was the unexpected. Slogging through a hellish heat wave in Kansas, suffering heat exhaustion at one point, I was rescued by a young farmer who invited me to spend the night in his air-conditioned house. One inky dark night out West, pedaling worriedly through a vicious storm that looked like the end of the world was arriving, I found shelter from the Apocalypse by curling up in my sleeping bag on the sidewalk of a truck-stop diner in the middle of nowhere in southern Idaho.
In 1984, I rode all around Pennsylvania (the accomplishment being you’ve got to ride three long & steep mountain ranges in order to traverse Pennsylvania).
For 1985? The trip that I planned was to ride from my Oakland apartment in Pittsburgh — and to visit every Southern state.
I had never visited any place below the Mason-Dixon Line other than Washington, D.C. I had been to Maryland a few times (as the sports publicist accompanying the Point Park College baseball and basketball teams when we played Frostburg State University). So, in planning the bicycle trip, I wanted to go through as many Southern states as I could reach in a month.
Once again, the unexpected made for much of the adventure. Approaching the coast of North Carolina, my bicycle broke down — a wheel needed spokes. I pulled into a 7-11 and just sat on the curb drinking a Lemon-Lime Gatorade trying to figure out what to do — when I saw a van swing past. A van! Something big enough to put my bicycle in!
I went up to the driver — he and a partner were air-condition repairmen. They instantly and graciously welcomed me into the van, and began driving down the highway, looking for a bicycle shop. We rode around for a while, when I remarked, “Hey — North Carolina has everything! You’ve got mountains, you’ve got ocean!”
The driver looked over his shoulder and exclaimed in his Southern accent, “You in the GARDEN SPOT now!”
I had never ridden in an entire region that was so strikingly beautiful. I went through the mountains of western Maryland, the stunning Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, coastal North Carolina and South Carolina, and then southernmost Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana — a long stretch surprisingly forested with pines — and then up the Mississippi River — and then swung back through central Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia — headed into the mountainous region of North Carolina, crossed the Smokies into Tennessee…The forested area making up northeastern Alabama, northwestern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee is called T-A-G: Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia. I’d never seen a more thoroughly beautiful area! It’s mostly the Nantahala National Forest, and I came out of there thinking it was the prettiest corner of the entire country.
I also had never been through a region so thoroughly friendly. I mean, FRIENDLY! Any time you stopped at a store, the employees always told you their name, asked you your name, invited you to sit and talk…Black and white alike — they would engage you in cheery conversation.
One time I was riding tiredly through central Alabama, on a hot, early evening, when a vehicle pulled up alongside of me, and a woman’s voice called out from the passenger window, with classic Southern accent, “Would you lahk a hot MEE-AHL?”
They not only fed me a hot supper but invited me to spend the night.
In all of my conversations with Southerners, what they enjoyed the most was — talking about a Northerner who had visited the region — and never left. I encountered so many Northerners who had chosen the South for their retirement. Not Florida. Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas…
Back when I had been planning this trip — the prospect of a Northerner travelling alone through the Deep South — this universal friendliness and charm is NOT what I had expected. Much of what I’d heard about the South were — the horror stories. Red necks, tobacco-chewing ignoramuses, bullies…
I had only one such experience. On the day before the 4th of July, I had finished riding — I normally rode until dusk — and began looking for a place to camp. By now I had arrived in southwestern Alabama. I was nearing the Tombigbee River — one of the largest rivers east of the Mississippi. As darkness neared, I began stopping to ask, “Hey, is there a place where I can pitch my tent for the night?”
Enthusiastically, one person after another told me the same thing: They’d said, “Oh, pond eight! Pond eight! That’s where you want to go.” And they’d give me the directions.
“Pond eight?!” I said to myself. Sounds like they’re sending me to a SWAMP!
I followed the directions, and arrived at a huge wooden sign at the entrance to a state park. This was the Tombigbee State Park, and they had directed me — “Pond eight” — to a camp site called POINT A !
Since it was the evening before the 4th of July, the park was already crowded. I was glad to see that, not wanting to camp out alone in an empty place. But the people who had gathered included — up ahead — some guys sitting on the hoods of their pickup trucks which were parked facing each other. There was no avoiding them. The path that I was walking on took me directly to them.
I was walking my bicycle, and arrived where the trucks faced one another, and one of the guys who had been sitting on the hood hopped down and came up to me. He was holding a bottle of whiskey and a Styrofoam cup. He held out the cup. “Want some?” he asked.
I patted my stomach and said, “If I drink that, I’m going to be sick tomorrow when I’m riding in the hot sun.”
He nodded. Then he said to me — with the others watching — “Who do you like: Auburn or Alabama?”
I knew about this rivalry. When Alabama’s two most famous football programs faced off, it was known as “The War Between the State.”
They stared at me waiting for my answer. “Auburn or Alabama?”
I replied, “I’m from Pennsylvania — I root for Penn State.”
They nodded. The one fellow said to me, “Y’know, there are a lot of red necks down here?”
“Oh?” I said, pretending to be surprised.
“You just be yourself,” he continued. “They’ll let you alone.”
I thanked him for the advice, and went on my way to the camp site.
By the time I got settled, I wound up camping next to a disabled Green Beret, his wife and two boys. They invited me over for a supper of catfish.
As friendly as everybody was, however, I had problems — with the accent. The farther South I went, the deeper the drawl. Have you ever heard somebody talk through a fan? That’s what they sounded like! I would hesitate, not sure I knew what they were saying. The confusion culminated in Mississippi.
I had stopped outside of a country store. I was sitting on a wooden bench in front of the store when a large, husky black man came out of the store eating a slab of cheddar cheese in a napkin. He walked over to me. With typical Southern politeness, he introduced himself and offered me some of the cheese. He said, “Mah name’s Carl Thompson. Ah live in Port Gibson. Ah’m a…”
And I THOUGHT he said, “I’m a film director.”
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “What kind do you SHOOT?”
He blinked and stared at me and said, “Ah beg yo pahdon?”
I said, “You’re a film director. What kind do you SHOOT?”
He realized I had misunderstood. See, he wasn’t a film director — he was a FUNERAL director!
I wound up cycling 3,200 miles in 37 days — from Pittsburgh to Louisiana and back. I went through every Southern state except Kentucky and Florida. In those days I was working as a free-lance writer. I found a cycling magazine that was interested in my trip. I wrote an article — about how much I had been delighted by the South — sent in the article and waited. A month or so later, I was sent a copy of the magazine. My article appeared with an illustration. Somebody had drawn a large heart covered in the Confederate flag!
I loved it! I thought it expressed exactly how I felt about my experience in the region.
It was only in recent years that I had second thoughts about that illustration of my heart covered in the Stars & Bars appearing in a magazine. That’s because what had arisen was the controversy over the flying of the Confederate flag from state capitols all through the South,
Southern colleges which had boasted the Stars & Bars on football helmets and jerseys and pennants — began dropping the displays once the teams were recruiting black players.
Fans resisted. People showed up in Dixie jerseys and hats. But the items were no longer officially part of the university sports.
State governments began taking down the Confederate flag from Capitol domes.
Thus, there arose a forked approach to the display of the Stars & Bars. One approach was to recognize: The South has been the only region of the United States to experience military defeat. The display of the “losing” flag all over the region from the end of the Civil War until the 1960s was nothing less than the South thumbing its nose at the North. “Okay–we lost–but we’re not defeated. Our symbols still fly. Our values still hold.” In spite of federal laws outlawing slavery and discrimination, the South found a way to keep the status quo.
That is undeniably the purpose of the Confederate symbols being displayed by state governments and universities since the Civil War. And today there is the same “in your face” attitude towards liberals, Northerners, the federal government, environmental laws…for which many display the symbol in the windows of their pickups. The modern, revisionist history about “saving heritage” is merely an attempt to keep the symbols any way that people can think of. The hard reality is that they were originally upheld after the Civil War as symbols for the ugly face of defiance and racism and narrow-mindedness.
By now in the 21st Century, enough Southern politicians have seen things clearly enough to advocate bringing the Stars & Bars down from state buildings.
But there IS also a love of the South that many people have who are NOT merely anti-North, anti-black. They love the region, they love its style, its charm, its unique character among our nation’s regions. The traditional symbol for this South has been the Confederate flag. Until something new comes up — that HAS been the symbol for the region.
There are those who embrace the symbol as an expression of Southern heart, without the baggage of Southern history. That’s why I didn’t mind 30 years ago — nor do I mind now — that an article of mine about the South was accompanied by an illustration of my heart wrapped in the flag that is instantly recognized as the symbol for the region. The drawing reflected well the way I felt towards the many people who were polite and gracious, and the impressive beauty of the region.