Caution: I Brake For History

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The route varies annually. New historical destinations are added to the itinerary, as are local festivals like Fairmount Museum Days Remembering James Dean in Fairmount, Indiana, and the Literary Renaissance Insomniacathon in Louisville, Kentucky, which were last-minute additions to the 1994 excursion. Flexibility is the governing ethic. As the teacher on the Majic Bus, I find it essential not to become creatively stagnant or structured to the degree of losing spontaneity for convenience’s sake. There is an Outward Bound quality to “American Odyssey,” a belief that character is built through individual struggle and collective sharing. Roughing it is a requirement, part of the education in self-reliance. The single most important rule for the course, the one that cannot be broken, is posted on the front of the Majic Bus: “No Whining Allowed.”

 

As Wynton Marsalis’s version of “Flight of the Bumble-bee” soared from the speakers, the students positioned their sleeping bags on the floor of the bus for their first night on the road. With our driver, Frank Perugi, alias Neil Cassady, at the wheel, we experienced the quiet, humming camaraderie of the highway at night that is so much a part of Thomas Wolfe’s America. One by one we drifted off to sleep with the whoosh of trucks passing in the darkness, an occasional horn, and the rattle of loose metal.

At dawn we woke up in Hope, Arkansas, in front of Bill Clinton’s first home, a mere shack in a state of rickety disrepair. We had been invited for the President’s forty-eighth birthday celebration, as a highly publicized visit to help promote the restoration of the Clinton homestead. After groggily stumbling off the bus to wolf down jelly doughnuts and hot coffee provided by a local women’s club, the students went to work pulling out rotted floorboards, scraping paint from the walls, and sweeping out piles of shattered glass. The second-floor bedroom at 117 South Hervey, where Clinton spent his first four years, was little more than a broom closet.

As a reward for our morning labor, we spent the afternoon at the Hope Watermelon Festival, not only inspecting the prize fruit of Arkansas but participating in speed-eating and seed-spitting contests. Hope, for good reason, is considered the watermelon capital of the world. Back in 1935, we learned, a Hope farmer brought in the largest melon on record, weighing a whopping 195 pounds. In 1991 the Bright family grew a 230-pounder. A local farmer named Pod Rogers told us, “I took a picture of them melons one time and the negative alone weighed ten pounds.”

The Clinton home cleanup was the first of many such projects we embarked on along the road. We were to be given so much throughout the journey that we wanted to give something in return. In the spirit of George Bush’s “A Thousand Points of Light,” my students planted trees like a pack of roving Johnny Appleseeds, worked in ghetto soup kitchens, picked up litter along Highway 61, and participated in a five-day house-building project with Habitat for Humanity in Americus, Georgia, where we all talked with Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter over a breaded catfish supper. Doing community work and learning of the work of others both helped us better understand our nation and created a bond between the students.

Our day in Little Rock, Arkansas, is a good illustration of the Majic Bus approach to social history. En route to the capital we collectively read Maya Angelou’s less than idyllic view of her state:

Old crimes like moss pend from poplar trees. The sullen earth is much too red for comfort.

I followed our reading with an impromptu lecture about Johnny Cash, the man with the sepulchral voice, who grew up during the Great Depression in the hardscrabble Arkansas cotton town of Dyess. Arriving in Little Rock, we stopped by Doe’s Eat Place to pick up Melba Pattillo Beals, the most outspoken of the nine black teenagers chosen to integrate Central High School in 1957. The students had been assigned her searing memoir, Warriors Don’t Cry .

Melba Beals showed us the spot in Little Rock’s Central High School where, as a fifteen-year-old, she had acid thrown in her face.

Ms. Beals had flown in from San Francisco to give us a tour of the massive concrete high school—it resembles a state prison—which she had refused to enter for decades. She showed us the precise spot where, when she was fifteen years old, acid was thrown in her face, the stairs she was shoved down, the water fountain where she was kicked for daring to take a drink. She spoke to us about courage under pressure, the price one pays for justice, and what it was like to receive daily death threats just for going to school. It is impossible to express how much we learned from Ms. Beals. The students, overcome with anger and sorrow and hope, thanked her for her bravery in being a trailblazer on our road toward national equality.