Another day packed with the unexpected and one of my favorite days so far on the tour. We started out by journeying north to Henning, TN, the boyhood home of Alex Haley, author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Published in 1976, the book became an instant bestseller and is credited with spurning America's nascent fascination with genealogy. Based largely on decades of oral histories collected from Haley's own family, the novel traces his family's roots to the 1700's and his African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, who was forcibly brought to America as a slave. For many Americans, the book was their first exposure to the horrors of the slave trade and the day-to-day lives of slaves in the Antebellum American South. The book was the 20th century answer to Harriet Beecher Stowe's, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the bestselling novel of the 19th century and a book widely credited with stirring up anti-slavery sentiment prior to the Civil War.
Although I have never read Roots, I remember as a kid growing up in the 70's being riveted to the television set when the Roots mini-series based on the book was originally telecast. It was truly a groundbreaking television event, one in fact that defined what a TV mini-series is. It was “event” television at its height, long before the widespread adoption of cable TV and the birth of the internet. In those days, the big three TV networks (Fox was not around back then) were where all the evening entertainment was focused in the household – no mobile devices with video games, no personal computers with access to the world wide web and no cable box with hundreds of channel options. Things were indeed simpler back then and the TV networks commanded huge audiences, having far less competition than they do today. Roots broke all kinds of TV viewership records over its 8 episodes aired over 8 consecutive evenings in January 1977. At its peak, the series generated an audience of over 36 million homes, an astounding 51% of all TV's in America and 71% of all TV's turned on that evening. According to Wikipedia, the series' final evening of broadcast achieved the third highest audience of any American TV broadcast in history. By today's standards, only the Super Bowl or the Oscars can come anywhere close to that kind of audience size. Certainly no mini-series today commands that kind of audience. In summary, over 130 million Americans watched at least some of the Roots telecast.
Our tour of the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center, was hosted by Beverly Johnson, a distant cousin of Mr. Haley. She enlightened us with many fascinating stories about Haley's upbringing and his process of researching his family history. As we gathered around and pondered Mr. Haley's burial plot, I was struck by the symbolism in his decision to be buried in the front yard of his boyhood home. It is a very unique burial situation, but it clearly spelled out to me the circle of life – beginnings and endings – we are born, we live our lives and we die. Here was a man who led a remarkable life's journey and chose to end it where it all began – his own humble roots. To see Alex Haley's beginnings in this small village nestled among the farmlands of West Tennessee and how much impact he and his work had during his lifetime proves once again that America is the land of opportunity, and anyone with enough talent and determination can achieve remarkable things.
As we concluded the tour of the Haley homestead, all those memories of the mini-series of long ago came rushing back to me, so I could not resist purchasing a DVD set of the original TV series in the gift shop at the conclusion of the tour, and later that night, tucked away in the over-cab sleeping compartment of our Class C motorhome, I watched the first episode of the series, just to see if it would still have the same impact on me 35+ years later. To my surprise, the series held up and I was just as transfixed in watching the story as I was so many years earlier. An excellent piece of filmmaking, actually any creative work, will stand the test of time and appeal to generation after generation. Roots is just such a monumental creative achievement. I highly recommend that every American family should invest the time and watch the mini-series together. It my understanding that the History cable network will be remaking the series in the coming year.
After touring the Haley homestead, we drove a few miles down the road and met up with local volunteers, Minnie Fleming and Anne Tate, who hosted a wonderful front yard picnic for us and the assembled volunteers, a testament to classic southern hospitality. It was a gorgeous day and a beautiful setting in the countryside. It was also a reminder of how committed citizens can take ownership of a problem and do something about it. Both ladies have had a strong leadership role for several years in gaining the edge on the local litter problem.
After lunch, we caravanned to our nearby clean-up destination, the Bethlehem Cemetery, where Chicken George, one of the main characters in the Roots saga happens to be buried. Immediately adjacent to this quaint country cemetery, someone had dumped a truckload of household goods unceremoniously in the parking area. We uncovered all manner of items from coat hangars to toys to bras. It appeared to be an assortment of things you might find at a local thrift shop. It occurred to me that someone might have been hired to take the items to a local Goodwill or Salvation Army, as they appeared to be in relatively good condition and certainly re-usable. Instead, in an all-too-common scenario across the state, the person pocketed the money and did the more expedient thing – he drove to the nearest convenient spot where he could make a clandestine dump, leaving it to others to clean-up. Shame, shame, shame.
Our next destination was a beautiful spot, Porter's Gap Overlook. High atop a bluff overlooking the “bottomlands.” We learned about the history of the area from Lauderdale County Mayor Rod Schuh. The bottomlands were created several generations ago when the Mississippi was diked to prevent seasonal flooding. That created a very fertile soil for farmers and the area has been a prosperous agriculutral area ever since. But more and more in recent years, the consensus among scientists has been that the natural cycle of seasonal flooding needs to be returned for the long-term benefit of keeping the river clean and healthy and allowing for more wetlands for migratory waterfowl. As land has become available from private owners, the government has been buying it up and returning it to is natural state. The mayor and others in Lauderdale County are understandably not excited about that trend because their entire economy depends on agriculture. While I have always been a staunch environmentalist, I have sympathy for both sides in this debate and it proves how complex environmental issues are in the 21st century and at the heart of matters, everything really is a local problem. If the farmlands are going to be taken away, it is only fair that the local economy not be devastated. Surely there is a solution where both sides can benefit, but I'm afraid that will take a strong political will and a spirit of cooperation at all levels of government, something that seems in very short supply these days.
As we left Lauderdale County, I reflected on how much I enjoyed meeting the people there, many of whom choose to live a simpler life far removed from the stresses of the big city and I was encouraged by the local leadership. Hopefully, the citizens will successfully navigate the tricky waters of the near future. One notion I have is that heritage tourism, spearheaded by the nearby Haley Museum, could be part of the solution for a sustainable future for the local economy.
Arriving at the at Davy Crockett Cabin and Museum in Rutherford in Gibson County, we experienced our second brush with the legendary Tennessean. This home was restored using timbers from his last home in Tennessee. He moved progressively further west during his life in the state and after losing his seat in Congress because of his opposition to the Indian Removal Act, he became disillusioned and cast his sights further West to the fledgling Republic of Texas. He would die two years later in the valiant defense of the Alamo, ensuring his folk hero immortality.
Performing for us on the front porch of the cabin were the fittingly named group the Cabin Porch Gang. They are dedicated to keeping “old-time” music alive and charmed us with their harmonica-driven renditions of “Lorena” and “Cindy.” Continuing my musicology education, it was fascinating to listen to music the way it was originally played, with the instruments it was originally composed for, long before the days of amplification and electronic instruments.
Journeying north from Rutherford, we reached the extreme northwest corner of the state, Reelfoot Lake. You have to make a special trip to get there because it really isn't on the way to another destination. As we arrived, it quickly became apparent that we could not have cooked up a better ending to our day. After having already seen and done so much today, I did not honestly think Reelfoot Lake State Park would offer much stimulation, but boy was I wrong. We pulled up to the park just before sunset and were summarily escorted to a waiting pontoon boat by ranger Warren Douglas. He grew up on the lake and new it like the back of his hand. As the sun was setting over the lake, we glided across the still waters and among the ancient cypress trees listening to Warren explain the natural history of the lake and its many feathered inhabitants. What a stunningly beautiful place. Let the pictures speak louder than words:
The boat trip on Reelfoot Lake was truly a magical experience, one my family and I will not forget for the rest of our lives. It is one of those experiences best shared with loved ones and is an instant reminder of all the great things about living. If every day ended like this, I don't think I would ever have a worry in the world.