May 19, 2008

No Museum Here

The May issue of Man's World (now called just MW) carries this essay of mine. Comments welcome.

***

No Museum Here

The intersection is reminiscent, first of all, of that intersection in Alfred Hitchcock's classic, North by Northwest. Cary Grant in the middle of flatland nowhere, looking puzzled yet dapper as only he can, and eventually he gets cropdusted -- that's right, go see the film again. Admittedly, this meeting of roads isn't quite as nowhere, isn't quite as flat, isn't surrounded by miles of crops and isn't frequented by malevolent cropdusters. At least, none that I can see. But it is the first thought that comes to mind.

Cary, while looking for Casey. I remind myself: I have come here on purpose. Meaning, for weeks and months, going back to the other side of the planet, this very intersection has been a destination.

So having arrived, I feel an urge to soak in everything, maybe because it is such a nondescript spot. On my left a yellow sign says "High Water Possible". On the right is CJ's Liquor, Wine and Beer, where they sell Keystone Light -- featuring the vaguely suggestive slogan "It's Good To Be On Top" -- by the six-pack at $2.99, by the case at $9.99. A few seconds go in trying to figure how "It's Good To Be On Top" might apply to beer. None of my answers are fit to print.

I like this place already. Cayce: tiny flyblown windswept nondescript pick-your-adjective town in the southwestern corner of the Kentucky.

Why did I come here? For that, oddly, it helps to know how you say the name. For months, I have known that Cayce is not, as I might have imagined, pronounced "Case". No, this is "Casey". As in Casey Jones, legendary locomotive engineer, subject of song after song. One, by the Grateful Dead, famously if unfairly asserts that he was "high on cocaine". Like all else we know about the man, it only adds to the legend.

And this right-angle town gave him that name.

Casey was really John Luther Jones, a successful engine driver in these parts in the late 1890s. The story goes that early in his career, some colleagues asked where he was from. When he said "Cayce", the name "Casey" stuck. Jones went on to make a name for himself as an engine driver, even evolving a distinctive way of sounding his whistle that many remembered.

That is, afterward.

One day in 1900, Jones was driving a New Orleans-bound passenger train, the "Cannonball". Whistling through Mississippi at 70 mph, he saw a freight train on the track ahead. With no time to brake to a stop, Jones ordered his fireman, Simeon Webb, to leap off and save himself. Jones stayed at his post, trying desperately to slow down. Futile, because he plowed into the freight train anyway.

The stuff of legend, Casey Jones. His name is one of those tidbits of Americana that I remember from I don't know how long ago. I suspect I didn't even realize this was a real man. Just another intriguing story from an intriguing land. Johnny Appleseed flinging seeds about, Yankee Doodle who called his feather "macaroni" -- Casey Jones, legend like that.

Eventually, I realized he had actually existed. At Cayce, there's proof: a plaque across the street, under a tree on a gentle grassy rise. I cross and read:

    "In this community, the famous locomotive engineer John Luther Jones (alias Casey Jones) spent his boyhood days. Casey's many record feats as locomotive engineer engrossed him deeply in the hearts of his fellow workers. On the morning of April 30th 1900, while running the Illinois Central Fast Mail Number 1, "The Cannonball", and by no fault of his, his engine bolted through three freight cars at Vaughan, Miss.

    Casey died with his hand clenched to the break helve and his was the only life lost.

    Famous for bravery and courage, the name of Casey Jones lives deeply set into the hearts of American people in both tradition and song. It can be truthfully said of him, "Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friend."

    Casey Jones Memorial, erected by admirers of Casey Jones, July 9th 1938.
    "

Next morning, I was some 80 miles south -- Jackson, Tennessee, home to the Casey Jones Museum. It's smack in the middle of one of those dreary American landscapes, the recreated "Olde Towne". "Old Country Store" with attendants in "authentic period costumes". Store selling Elvis memorabilia. Others named "Southern Magnolia Dolls", "Gifts Etc", and more. All signs painted in the heavily-serif font that practically screams "Wild West".

The Museum is part of this faux kitsch, and I wondered: Why, oh why?

It's like this: In India, I often wonder why we remember so much of our history so mournfully. Yes, our freedom fighters sacrificed for the struggle, many their lives. Yes, their spirit inspired generations. So Independence Day festivities are, and patriotism itself is, often solemn.

Yet why not also celebrate the euphoria of '47? After all, those who remember that August 15 speak of the sense of joyous idealism and hope. Winning freedom was a thing of joy. We knew it then. Why not remember it that way now, sixty years later? Can we let our hair down a little about patriotism? Might it mean more if we did?

I mean, in the States I've watched exuberant a capella renditions of the "Star-Spangled Banner", for example before baseball games. I cannot imagine "Jana Gana Mana" being sung as informally as that in public. Perhaps it's the differing way in which each country considers itself. The 60-year-old, pomp and solemnity. The 230-year-old, able to take itself less seriously. Maybe a country needs that long.

But then this Museum, where maybe informal goes too far. OK, Casey Jones wasn't a freedom fighter. Still, there's a sense of the trivial in how this hero to millions is remembered. The "authentic period costumes", that tiresome font, kitsch everywhere -- they almost cheapen a deed of uncommon courage. A century later, we need not be mournful about Casey. But must we be cheesy instead?

So at the Museum, I nursed a small ache. Then I recognized it: an almost physical yearning for the windswept junction in Cayce, where I was yesterday.

Where the only sounds are the breeze and birds in the tree above a plaque.

For a while, anyway. A muscle car -- fat rear wheels and body sloped forward like a lion at a water hole -- peels off the road and thunders into CJ's parking lot. Black leather jacket and tight black jeans, she slams the door and saunters into the store. Out a few minutes later with a bag of cookies and a six-pack. Is it "Good To Be On Top" Keystone Light for her, $2.99 a pop? I can't tell. But she has a smile on her face, then she has peeled onto the road and gone. I get the feeling that in Cayce, this is the memorable event of the day, maybe the month.

CJ's belongs to Judy and Kenneth Blackburn: she hearty and whitehaired, he tall and terse. "The museum should have been up here, honey," she tells me while I'm buying orange juice, no Keystone for me ahead of the drive down to Jackson. "Seeing as how he grew up here, not in Jackson."

"Would you have liked it here?" I ask.

"Yeah hon," she says, "I think Casey would have liked that." She has misunderstood me. But it's such a charming answer that I don't feel like correcting her.

Now I don't know what Casey Jones might have liked. But this intersection in Cayce, this desolate spot with its breezy quirkiness, makes a fine memorial to the man.

Sorry, Judy, but I hope they never have a Museum here.

2 comments:

AMOK said...

You original layout was much better. This one is less readable. For some.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thanks, amok, for the feedback! I'm still playing around, trying to see what works. May take a while to settle into something I like. Let's see.