By Sam Burnham
2016 has proven to be a year of loss as far as influential entertainers are concerned. We've said goodbye to David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Dan Haggerty, and Glenn Frey to name a few. Social media has been abuzz over the cruelty of the year thus far. We've seen the obituaries of many of the designers of our memories from youth and childhood. It doesn't really take food off our table but it does grab out our emotions to learn that those particular creative forces won't be wowing us with any new memories.
Yesterday, as I was leaving the GPB studio after a radio appearance, I learned of yet another death this year has sprung on us. I think this one is the hardest yet for me. Given her age, recent health challenges, and a bizarre gut feeling, I knew the instant I heard her name over the radio that the words that followed it would not be pleasant. We've lost Harper Lee.
Harper Lee wasn't going to wow us with any new stories. I accepted that as my eyes passed over the last few words of Go Set a Watchman with a sad sense of satisfaction that Ms. Lee had told us all she was going to tell. She had given me just enough information to know: 1) that Jem was resting in peace, 2) Atticus was not only still the prototype Southern man but also complex, having flaws that made him better, and, most importantly, 3) Scout still loved Dill and he was still out there waiting for the moment she realized he was the only man she wanted.
But I knew Watchman was where the story would end. I had joked that Harper Lee was going to quietly wait out another 50 years and then spring another story on us. But I knew that a silly joke was all that would come of it. Unless she has another manuscript shoved behind and old chifferobe somewhere in Monroeville, we've read the last words from her pen.
But I was okay with that. To be honest, Harper Lee didn't have to write another thing. I was content in the knowledge she was in Monroeville doing what she did. She never left that quint Southern town. She wasn't wasting away in New York City eating cream cheese bagels and living in a 57th floor condo off royalties of the Broadway smash hit Mockingbird starring Liza Minelli as Scout, Gabriel Byrne as Boo Radley, and Michael Flatley as Atticus. For that, I'm thankful. I'm thankful that until her health intervened she spent her days shopping in the local surpermarket, feeding the birds in the local park, sitting on the front porch being Southern, and living among people who knew her as their neighbor, not as a celebrity.
Harper Lee stayed true to herself which, in turn, made her true to The South. In my mind, that above all makes her a hero and worthy of our fandom. The next time I pass the Monroeville exit en route to Gulf Shores, I won't smile in the knowledge that Harper Lee is there, just being Harper Lee. I won't wonder if she's on the front porch scribbling away on some masterpiece, only to throw it in the fire before bedtime. I won't wonder if the pigeons are happy to see her coming. I'll probably take one of those opportunities to actually take the exit, look around the small town, take a pause at a grave marker that will remind the world that such a woman lived. And I'll be thankful for a story, in the form of two books, that gave us a good long look at ourselves, helped us to see the good and the bad in us all, brought us together in some ways and showed us the divide in other ways while challenging us with the suggestion that "there's just one kind of folks. Folks."
Godspeed, Harper Lee. We'll never forget you.
By Sam Burnham
He stands atop the hill, his gaze fixed on the distant horizon. From atop his perch, he has sustained the onslaught of wind, rain, sleet, snow, and the sweltering Georgia sun with nothing but his homespun jacket and the brim of his hat to shield him from the elements. He has his rifle ready, yet not aimed.
His mission is not martial. He stands guard, not against foes with guns or sabers, but against time, forgetfulness, and apathy. His existence is intended to stand tall and gallant, "lest we forget". He stands for those who can no longer do so themselves - his courageous forebears whose bones, now dust, lie in neat rows beneath six feet of red Georgia clay. They came from all over. They died here. Some of their stones are adorned with their names, their home states, their units. Others are marked "Unknown", having fallen far from home leaving their loved ones to wonder where, when, how, and why their loved one was gone.
This particular sentinel stands alone, mostly out of the public eye. Many of his colleagues, those crafted with the same intended mission, have stood their watch on town squares and courthouse lawns across The South. Most face North, guarding against the threat their charges faced, symbolically guarding against further intrusion.
But these sentinels face a new threat. It's not a plague or invasion from far northern lands. This one is local. It's all around them. Ignorance, indifference. and the effort to focus any and all understanding of the Confederate side of the War Between the States on the role of slavery and nothing else, whatsoever. The effort insists that every single Southern participant in that conflict was fighting directly for nothing but the continuation of slavery and no other cause could have motivated any participation in the war. It claims that any person of any rank was the same as the most active and dedicated members of Hitler's SS and no one could ever find any nobility or character in any moment of any one of these soldiers' lives.
So all over our land, these sentinels are under attack. They are removed from our public squares. They are vandalized under cover of night by people who must be really brave, as assaulting a stone statue in the darkness requires an amazing level of valor.
But these sentinels stand for far more than these protests would ever be willing to admit. The men who lie in the clay have complex stories, as complex as the cause they took up. They were as complex as people today. None were perfect. The prayer books in their haversacks would teach them that. Some were better than others, just as men of our day.
But the sentinels also stand as a monument of what can happen when polarized political forces see no reconciliation between opposing policies. When politicians lose all hope of compromise and communication, things can get ugly. The sentinels should remind us to talk, to listen, to think. As long as one stands, there is a reminder of one of the darkest and most tragic times in American History. We can learn from it...or we can repeat it.
For now this particular sentinel stands. His glance remains set against the progression of time and the elements. He stands tall, a reminder of so many things, good and bad. His presence is much less threatening than his absence could ever be. Long may he stand.
It's an old German tradition. If the sun is shining sufficiently on the morning of Candlemas Day (February 2) for an animal to cast a shadow upon the ground, Spring is still six more weeks away. But if the sun is obscured by clouds on that mid-winter morning, Spring is just around the corner. The old Germans used badgers to be the harbingers of the arrival or tarrying of warmer weather and sun. I haven't been able to find any reliable records to determine just how accurate the badgers were.
During the 19th century, German people brought their families and many of their traditions to Pennsylvania. They found the native groundhog to be a better choice for weather prognosticating in their new home. The cuddly looking creatures have a mid-winter intermission from their hibernation, call it a hiatus from their hiatus, to take a peek around. So, if the groundhog is up anyway, you might as well let him do it. Besides, I don't have much experience with the creatures but it doesn't take a badger specialist to know that if you go out at 6:30 am on Candlemas, stick your hand down in a badger hole, grab one, and yank him out, and stick him up next to your face, he's going to have things on his mind besides looking for shadows and whispering his thoughts on the weather quietly in your ear. My guess is you won't celebrate trying it again the next year, that's for sure.
We've all heard about good ol' Punxsutawney Phil and his (less than stellar) record of predicting the weather in Pennsylvania. In Georgia, we don't tune into Pittsburgh for the weather, no even from Phil Connors. So we have our own groundhog. General Beauregard Lee lives in his Greek Revival mansion at the Yellow River Game Ranch and boasts a 94% accuracy rate. He slipped up in 1993 and 2014. We'll give him that.
Beau strolled out on his porch for a cup of coffee this morning, looked around at his adoring fans as if he wasn't expecting company but was magically ready with hospitality for all, just like any Southern Gentleman of such status. And then he announced an early Spring. To his credit, today's high at ABG World Headquarters was 70 degrees under a glorious sun that appeared after Beau had turned in for his afternoon nap. Tonight we're expecting some Spring-like storms. He's on the right track so far.
Before you know it, we'll be wearing seersucker and Panama hats. There will be horse races and The Master's. The dogwoods will bloom and the world will be green again. We are confident. Our hero, General Beauregard Lee has proclaimed the changing season. It's all warm weather and sunshine from here on. Well, either that or we'll be up to our knees in snow in the middle of March.
Let's think positive.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire