- Historic Sites
One Englishman’s America
A distinguished military historian’s forty-year quest to plumb our essential mystery: the “secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth”
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
Today long-distance travelers by road in the United States make their way along the great interstate highways. There were no interstates in 1957, only the old numbered federal highways that wandered the stagecoach routes between city and city. U.S. 1 was the route we chose southward out of Washington on an itinerary only partly planned, and it took us to Richmond, Virginia, then—Americans still laugh when I tell them—we headed over to Goldsboro, North Carolina, thence to Charleston, South Carolina, and so to Atlanta, Georgia. Gentle memories of Goldsboro, hick town though Americans may think it, remain with me still. I liked it because in the middle of unfettered space, its citizens had chosen to build what then passed for a skyscraper in the South, a touching symbol of civic pride. I liked it because it was the first town in which I stayed in a motel, that brilliantly creative American contribution to the conveniences of travel, the American caravanserai, without vermin, camel smells, importunate hangers-on, or unspeakable sanitation. I liked it because in the growing cool of a Southern evening, I could sit outside above the dust of an unpaved sidewalk and watch the beautiful legs of girls otherwise unseen in the dying twilight walking—where? I longed to know. I longed to follow. The English girls with whom I had grown up wore skirts below their knees. Southern girls, even in 1957, wore abbreviated shorts above golden, athletic thighs.
Then Charleston, as perfectly classical as Bath, but softened by palmettos, bougainvillea, and flowery, trailing tendrils. I was enchanted by Charleston at first sight, decided then that it was the most beautiful city I had ever seen, a decision from which visits to Venice and Aix-en-Provence have scarcely deflected me, and settled down to enjoy it. Introductions brought us meetings with eccentric Charlestonians; explorations down side streets and along waterfronts introduced us to oysters in hot tomato sauce drunk with arctic-cold beer; pressings on doorbells took us to Colonial interiors that seemed scarcely changed since Barbadian sugar merchants had unshipped their English furniture and silver into them two hundred years earlier.
Charleston tempts one to linger and calls one back. I have been there since, more often than to any other small city in the United States. In 1957 I had to leave, sooner than I wanted, for Georgia and the deeper South. In a soda fountain in a tiny backwoods place, we were mistaken for traveling revivalists—“You-all preachers?”; seersucker suits had a different semiology south of New York—and made our first encounter with red earth roads, verandaed, ramshackle cabins, and the watermelon culture; however cold the interiors of the Coca-Cola chests from which melons were sold by the roadside, I never acquired the taste.
Deep, deep in Georgia, drawn by Maurice’s inexplicable urge to visit something called the Okefenokee Swamp, we spent one of the most memorable of our dozens of nights on the road. In Lumber City— POPULATION 69 said the signboard at the city limits—there was only one place to eat, we were the only diners, and the dinner hour was already over before our arrival. The proprietress nevertheless relented, covered a wooden table with what she had to offer, and left us with her father and infant son to pick through dishes of okra, grits, black-eyed peas, pork, and potatoes. Grandfather remembered Lumber City as a thriving place, full of immigrants who had come to cut timber from the virgin pine stands. He had difficulty placing us. “England? New England?” When we said no, he mused while the little grandson surveyed us with wide eyes in a silent face. Grandfather tried again. “How long you-all been over?” Six weeks, we said. He mused some more. “You sure have learned the language fast.” In memory I see planked walls, planked floor—can I have imagined oil lamps? The heavy insect sounds of a Southern night filled the gaps in conversation. Second-growth timber stood close about the shanty. It might have been a sinister setting. I remember kindness, gentle hospitality, the innocent curiosity that travelers among remote peoples report.
Just over the border in Florida we turned west to begin our circuit of the Gulf Coast. Beyond St. Augustine with its tiny, bastioned fort—the first outpost of Spanish power in the Americas north of Panama—on a morning of pearllike stillness, we crossed the St. Johns River, filled with mothballed destroyers surviving from the Battle of the Atlantic, and then moved on by daylong hops to Tallahassee and Pensacola and Mobile and Biloxi toward the mouth of the Mississippi. We had a date with friends of friends at, I forget now, either Bay St. Louis or Pass Christian. I remember our arrival and the blissful days that followed. The friends of friends either were rich or had found that way of living without money that seems rich. It had no equivalent on any of the shivery, shingled English strands where we had spent our childhood summers. Their beach houses had sandy surroundings that merged with each other and with the shore, about which they padded in permanently bare feet, unfussed by work, timetables, or set hours for lunch or dinner. Fires were lit, fish suppers cooked in the light of the flames, strong cocktails passed from hand to hand. Sunburnt boys and girls emerged out of the twilight in scraps of ragged clothing that might once have been sold over the counter at the Harvard Coop, beautiful, different, utterly uninterested in Europe or England or anywhere a dozen miles distant from Bay St. Louis.