Mr. Head reached across the aisle and tapped him on the arm. “The thing to do with a boy,’ he said sagely, “is to show him all it is to show. Don’t hold nothing back.”
—“The Artificial Nigger,” by Flannery O’Connor
Location helps explain Atlanta’s becoming a large city.
—Georgia, by Elmer D. Williams
It's freezing outside and here I am shoving extra sock hats and gloves and into a hideous bright green adidas shoulder sack just in case no one’s noticed it’s freezing outside and they don’t have these human essentials that keep you from dying while we're on an outdoor history field trip. Some of them want more history. I’m happy to oblige. Even on a Saturday.
A few weeks ago I had learned about a fellow who gives walking tours to groups on top of and under and even farther under the streets and viaducts of ancient Atlanta. The fellow is named Jeff and he’s an architect and he’s worked in downtown a long time and has walked a large part of it … then he came up with the idea of this walking tour.
You have to e-mail him to sign up for it. The tour, called Unseen Underground, is only for people who really dig this kind of thing … it’s out in the elements and you get to see, by default, certain human elements of the city, too. It’s about a four to five mile walk, out where the railroads once merged, and still do today, but on a smaller scale, and exactly where their spewing engines stunk up a patch of the Confederacy. Thrasherville, then Terminus, this patch was once called.
Then Marthasville. Atlanta. Then Sherman’s army.
I’m pulling into a Red Lobster a few miles north of Atlanta to pick up Johnny. It was asked if the teacher could pick him up near the highway and drop him off back home as it would be greatly appreciated by Johnny’s parents.
We meet up in the parking lot and Johnny’s dad noted that it was noted to him by Johnny that Johnny didn’t actually finish the recent final exam and even though he didn’t have an exam Monday and had the day off could he come back Monday and finish it up. It would mean a lot to him to improve the 72 he scored … and to me and his mother. We know he’s a slow worker.
I said he does works slowly … I know that, too … but he cares like no one else. I know he wants to be successful, I said. Here we are standing in the parking lot of a Red Lobster and it’s south of 40 degrees and not expected to do better. Here we are on a Saturday where Johnny could still be asleep and upon waking could spend the day watching TV or killing zombies in video games. Instead, here is Johnny going on my field trip. Johnny's okay with me.
We’re heading south and I look over at Johnny and he’s slightly smiling. I figure he thinks it’s pretty freaky to be flying down a highway with your teacher in his muddy truck with fake bullet hole stickers all over it who’s dramatically breaking the speed limit. I asked him did he feel like puking.
He said no. He was okay.
I said with the way I drive you might start to feel like puking, but I didn’t bring the trash can from The Cozy Room of Learning, so if you puke … puke out the window and spray the cars behind us, okay?
He started laughing, but he wouldn’t look at me.
That’s the first time I’ve seen him laugh in a long time. I asked him what geographical feature was it we’re about to cross. I pointed over to the right. We blew by a sign that said Luther S. Colbert Memorial Bridge.
Johnny looked out over a flowing body of water.
We passed over it and down the highway a good ways.
He finally said, The Chatta … hoochee.
We get to downtown and find a parking spot in a parking garage for three dollars and walk across the street to our meeting spot. A corner of Steve Polk Plaza. I’m a Georgia history teacher and I don’t know who Steve Polk is and I feel slightly terrible about it. He did something to earn him a marble monument with his name on it, though, but I’ll worry about Steve Polk later.
Then Dexter pulls up and his mother is driving an SUV with a dog that sort of looks like a poodle in her lap. Dexter’s all excited and bundled up. Dexter’s always all excited when he’s not asleep. We talk and decide I can give Dexter a ride home, too. Dexter’s mom zips away with her dog. I asked Dexter how much coffee he’s had this morning.
Then Earl and his mom and dad show up and they’re all excited about the tour, too. Earl’s so bundled up he looks like an astronaut.
Then Jeff comes walking up and we all hand him twenty bucks.
All of a sudden I’m wondering where it is we’ll pee.
Jeff lines us up and he stands on a little curb built around the base of a tree in the park. He tells us what we’re going to see while he passes out some booklets he’s made that have pictures of all the old sites we’ll see … or attempt to conjure up in our minds because most of these sites have been torn down or blown up.
While he’s telling us about the day ahead, a hardy-faced street woman with wild grey hair a few yards from us with a number of filled-up shopping bags lined up in a row beside her starts shouting Mother fucker real, real loud to no one in particular. It seems she’s just angry at the air around her face.
Jeff continues his talk without pause. He didn’t even look over there.
I’m shivering and wondering if he’ll tell us where we’ll be able to pee.
Dexter and Earl and Johnny are smiling. They’re really enjoying this. I can tell.
She screams again. Mother fucker!
Then we go underground. Or so it seems. Jeff takes us to deep and dark places under viaducts. We’re actually standing on original Atlanta streets … we’re actually standing a few feet away from the exact spot where the zero mile post was set in the ground to mark the end of the line … to mark where men would end the line and begin again to build rails that would open up the interior of Georgia to commerce and movement and goods and progress. The Chattahoochee River, north of us, is not navigable by boats and barges. Trains, loaded with things people need, can go anywhere. That’s why Atlanta became a railroad town.
Jeff and the rest of the group move down dark Wall Street. There is no one else around ... that we can see.
The zero mile post.
A stone monument … an obelisk, but square at the top … was sitting hidden just feet from me and Dexter. The lone existing symbol of the reason for Atlanta’s greater existence. It was in a small, locked-up brick building under an enormous viaduct that was also surrounded by a high chain fence that was locked. The building, Jeff had told us, was now owned by the Georgia Building Authority.
The zero mile post.
Dexter understood what it was.
I knew what it was. What it represents. I said to Dexter … let’s come back late one night and steal it and put it in The Cozy Room of Learning where people can see it and touch it. Can you imagine having that thing sitting there in class?
Dexter said that’s … stealing.
I said to Dexter that’s exactly right. Stealing. I was a little more than half serious. Chills were running up my spine. Super Dedicated and slightly nuts Georgia History Teacher Steals Historic Zero Mile Post And Openly Displays It In His cozy Classroom.
Dexter said that he’d get in some real trouble if we did that.
A mental image occurred to me. Lurlene would give birth to a zeppelin if we got caught stealing the zero mile post. No doubt. One of the bigger zeppelin’s, too.
Okay, I said. Okay. I patted Dexter on the back. We won’t come back and steal it.
Dexter seemed relieved.
We caught up with the group. We saw sites you cannot see from your car driving along the famous streets. Peachtree. Alabama. Forsyth. Central Avenue. Even from sitting high up a bus you cannot see these places. We saw at ground and underground levels where real history began for a big southern city. We’d stop. We’d listen to Jeff and we’d look. We’d move on to another spot just yards away.
In the shopping mall of Underground Atlanta Jeff showed us a gas streetlamp. It witnessed and felt the Battle of Atlanta in 1864. It’s lamp was brightly burning while hundreds of people were shopping or walking along or just standing there looking at each other. It was a streetlamp that survived … but had been moved around town to serve as a special beacon during important post bellum Atlanta events. The city fathers had once stuck it in the sidewalk in front of Leow’s Grand Theater during the premier of Gone With the Wind. In 1939.
But today it’s back at near its original spot. Now near the entrance to the shopping mall toilets.
On the staff of the lamp post are two plaques describing its history. One noted to us that the hole near the bottom of the post was caused by a shell hitting it during the famous battle.
I shouted above the Christmas shopping clamor … This is real history, boys. I pounded on the post with a fist. You can see it and touch it.
Johnny and Dexter and Earl stood there, reverently. So did Earl’s parents.
I knelt down and looked into the hole in the front … and at a hole in the back where the cannonball came out … or its sizzling fragments. I touched both holes because I wanted to. I shouted and pounded again … History! Right here!
Earl juked out of the group and bent down and touched the hole in the front … quickly … and got back in line.
Okay. So that’s the way he touches history. Like it might bite back if you touch it for too long. And that’s okay. I understand exactly, because it can.
So we move on … back in time ... and it feels wonderfully unnerving. Everywhere we walked I felt as if we were there to respect the dead, too. Everywhere we walked in the cold December wind we were constantly reminded of what made Atlanta so—the sound of train horns. Modern sounds, but rumbling and ghostly at the same time. Asking us, maybe, on our special Saturday field trip, to remember that a long, long time ago, right here, and right over there, and right under our feet, that people were once living and working and building and fighting and resurrecting and dying and making history for us … so mightily and so fearlessly that one day certain citizens would crave to understand it and respect it and want to steal it for ourselves.
And we’re still here, in the new cycle. Resurrected. Reconstructed enough.
On the way back up the highway in my truck, rumbling toward where we all lived, Dexter and Johnny and I finally warmed up, but chattered forever about the mystifying things we’d heard ... and the mystifying things we'd seen.
Next Entry ... December 14: Happy Exams