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30 Ugly Opinion
On Moonday he left his apartment at dawn. He breakfasted at a Crack on his way south. At 8:30 a.m., he idled his Del Sol around Pioneer Cemetery, said a greeting to Meriwether, and parked under a leafless tree. At 11 a.m., he went to Hohenwald for lunch. At Lewis County Middle School, he paid a visit to Christy. Then, he drove back out to the monument. Still, he saw no sign of Park Service people or archeological work about to be done. Irate, he headed back to Nashville. He played the angriest songs on the tapes he had in the car. Cranking up the volume, he sang ferociously, ad-libbing when so inspired.
“I’ve got one heart, and it hurts like hell! … If you can’t rock me, somebody will! ….”
He took out the tape and inserted another. He cued up the last song and screamed and growled along.
“… Well, you’re crazy, mother, with your ball and chain. You’re plain psychotic, plain insane! If you don’t believe I will do it, just wait for the thud of the bullet! ….”
When he finally clicked off the player, and breathing hard and deep, he felt improved, purged.
At his apartment, he phoned a Natchez Trace Parkway ranger station, the one at which Ranger Morgan was perched. Some guy answered. Jim, hoarse, asked about the archeological work. The guy said the workers were spending the day driving from Florida to Tennessee.
On Tyrsday morning, he arrived at a chilly but sunny Meriwether Lewis Park at 9 o’clock. He found a team of four Park Service archeologists pounding wooden stakes into Pioneer Cemetery. He introduced himself as a freelance journalist and Meriwether lover. The two men and two women responded cordially but said they were somewhat wary of journalists.
“Me, too,” he replied, nodding. “I don’t blame you a bit.”
By afternoon, the weather and the relations warmed. He strapped on his camera and took some stills. As usual, he sighted with his left eye. But his young blind spot pestered his focus. After exposing half a roll, he eagerly donned a borrowed video camera. He narrated as he shot:
“Here’s Tom Hodgson, archeologist technician, sighting through a surveyor’s instrument as the team lays out a reference grid on Pioneer Cemetery and the Grinder’s Stand area. Tom is the one smiling, in the bushy brown hair, reddish mustache and goatee. And—. Oh, here come the ladies returning from, yes, the bathroom. The one on the left, in the gray, Russian-style hat, is Regina Meyer. And on the right is Rhonda Brewer, wearing a white cap. Both are archeological technicians. And there they go, in a fruitless effort to escape the camera’s unblinking eye. Whoops. Did I hit pause? No! Ha ha. That’ll be edited out.
“And now you can see crew foreman John Cornelison, standing about 20 yards away, ready to pound another wooden spike into the ground to mark another corner in the grid system. John, an archeologist, is a big fella. Let’s zoom in and fill the frame with John. Oops. Too far. John is tall and, well, let’s not describe his belly. John is too far away to hear my glowingly complimentary description of him. He appears mean, with his black beard and piercing stare, but really he’s a big teddy bear. Right, Tom? Flash-pan back to Tom. He’s nodding now, unlike a few seconds ago. Heh heh heh. Just kidding.
“Now, one might observe these two men and two women, here, all attractive specimens in their thirties and—dare I say—forties. Uh—I forgot how I started this sentence! Rewind! Heh heh. Anyway, they are not couples. I, of course, had to ask. They informed me in no uncertain terms that they are completely unrelated, although they do enjoy working together. There’s Rhonda holding a spike. Regina is about to pound. Um, let’s see. This team is from Tallahassee, out of the Southeast Regional Office of the National Park Service. They expect to be here about two weeks doing various studies. One is ground-penetrating radar. Another is EM38, which measures the electro-conductivity of the soil. Another is, uh, magnetometer, which is fancy metal-detecting. And the fourth one is—penetrometer. That’s a measurement of the compactness of the soil. Also, they plan to do a little digging, but no major unearthing of anything.
“Okay, let’s pan left, past the monument, and slowly back to Tom—because the camera loves Tom! Next week, an independent contractor is expected to come to do a study of the monument. And now I’d better turn the camera off before I use up all my tape and battery juice!”
He skipped the next day of the archaeologicals. That night, the local tv news reported that Judge Higgins had rendered his verdict in the Meriwether Lewis case in federal court. Jim saw it and made a call.
“Joe faxed me the ruling,” the Professor replied. “It is a pretty ugly opinion. In effect, the judge said Joe is being manipulated by me. Joe may be miffed by that. But the judge is obviously opposed to the exhumation. That much was clear on the day of the hearing.”
For sure. “So, what happens next?”
“Since the judge threw out the entire proceeding brought by Joe on behalf of the state, we simply proceed with the appeal process within the National Park Service. We must exhaust our rights of appeal there, in the Executive Branch, before bringing suit against the Park Service in federal court here in D.C. Oh, Joe could appeal Higgins’ ruling, but that is unlikely.”
“Hm. Well, on a potentially happier subject, are you coming to view any of the archeological work?”
“Yes. I am scheduled to fly into Nashville on Sunday and talk with Joe, then go to Hohenwald to see Marjorie Graves. But also, I would like to stop at the monument and pay my respects to the big man, when nobody’s around and I can have a sense of the two of us being together. I have kind of developed an affection for the man.”
“Haven’t we all.”
“Indeed,” agreed the scientist. “Uh, on Monday, I hope you and I can rendezvous at the monument before I go speak to Christy Ricketts’ class at Lewis County Middle School.”
“Oh! That’s great!”
“Monday evening, I have planned a dinner with you, followed by the NCAA championship basketball game on tv in my motel room. On Tuesday, I am afraid, I must return to my various and sundry duties here. Are you there?”
“Yes! I’m just quietly writing down the itinerary. Proceed.”
“Okay. Do you want me to tell you what I’ve learned of the archeological work, so far?”
He gave his friend the scoop. And he found himself defending the federal four. He ended with, “Of course, I’ve only been with them one day.”
“I feel compelled,” the Professor said, “to share a sentiment with you—not unlike the way you did with Jane Lewis Henley that day in Franklin. It has been a wonderful thing to know you and to work with you. And whether we succeed or fail, part of the success is that I made a good friend. Even going through life as many years as I have, I can count my good friends on the fingers of one hand. So, I am glad to be able to count you among them.”
“Thank you.” He was touched. “I feel the same way.” He quipped, “I don’t even need a whole hand.”
Thorsday in The Park, on a beautiful spring day, the journalist was grateful to be invited to lend a hand. It was simple manual labor, nothing technical, but it made him feel a part of the team. And it vanquished his fear that the team viewed him as a media judge and jury ready to pounce on any error they might make. With the higher comfort level came a loosening of lips.
“John, uh—.” Jim took pause and smiled at Mister Cornelison. “Ahoy, there.”
“Yeah,” the big fella said, nodding, “I’m in my pirate garb, today.”
He laughed. “I love it—the head scarf and the black beard—.”
“The scarf is to prevent sunburn. Of course, I had a cap on the other day. But today, as you can see, we’re all in sweats or whatever that have no metallic components.”
“Oh. The magnetometer that Rhonda and Regina are operating would be thrown off by the metal. What about the rivets in my jeans?”
“Yeah,” Blackbeard said, “and coins, keys.”
“How far does the magnetometer reach?”
“About 18 feet.”
He pulled the notebook from his back pocket and jotted down his new knowledge. “By the way, have any other journalists come to visit—like yesterday, when I wasn’t here?”
“No,” the buccaneer replied, hands on his hips, belly stretching his long-handles shirt. “Well, let me correct that. Somebody from the local paper in Hohenwald stopped by. But no others, that we know of.”
Mister Hodgson said, “Why is that? After the court case and the Inquest you told us about, I would think there’d be more media interest. But don’t get me wrong. I’m just as happy without the bother.”
The three chuckled.
“I guess they’re waiting for the monument guy next week,” Jim replied. “That’ll make for sexier pictures. And groups of students are scheduled for next week, too, which will greatly enhance the visuals.” Hodgson and the pirate nodded. “Then again, they might not give a shit.”
Later, as he motored north toward Nashville, his domestic life crowded to the fore in his mind. He pushed an old favorite tape into his car stereo and cranked up the volume. He had more purging to do. Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band sang. Jim sneered along.
“… It ain’t hard to read between the lines. You jerked me around just too many times.
I could hurt you, baby. But I ain’t gonna do it to ya.
I could hurt you, baby. But let’s just say I’m through with ya!
Yeah, let me show you where the front door is!”
With zeal, he zipped past several tunes and stopped on “I Can’t Believe You.” The blues-based rock stomper started majestically, then thumped menacingly as charges were leveled. Voltage surged, justice was served, and the verdict was shouted to the heavens. Suddenly, the jury caught its breath, but the victim restated the decree, spurring the judge to rejoin in glee. They repeated, with each repetition rising in conviction, leading to a call-and-response finale of primal scream therapy. It buoyed Jim through searing ache and anguish yet again.
The journalist did not know, of course, that Peter Wolf and the band were jews and that the songs had multiple purposes against the true Americans. The angry breakup talk was meant for Whites to employ against Whites, to help prevent White families from starting, and to hasten couple and family breakups. Also, such songs were intended as occupiers of emotions and time, possibly supplying salve for emotional wounds but never supplying hard clues to the true cause of White societal breakdown, and never suggesting solutions.
That night, lying awake in his apartment, his silent contemplation slit open his superficially salved wounds. The suture he grasped was escape. Early Freysday morning, he fled to Crossville, seeking sanctuary with his parents. Washing Day night, still seeking, he returned to Nashville. Sunday, too, passed without solace.
In the morning of another Moonday, he rolled his Del Sol into the parking lot next to the faux Grinder’s Stand and stopped near the pay phone. The sun was clearing the naked treetops. The atmosphere stood calm. He could see the four of the feds’ archaeological team conversing as the women put a shovelful of dirt onto a metal screen and shook, sending loose soil falling into a pile on the ground two feet below. He climbed out of his car and moseyed over to the crew.
“Hi, Jim,” Hodgson said, wearing a white t-shirt and army-type camouflage pants.
Everybody shared greetings and smiles. “We’re doing shovel samples, like I was telling you about the other day. We hope to find a few artifacts that may help confirm—or deny—that Grinder’s Stand really was here.”
“What kinds of things would you expect to find if Grinder’s Stand was here?”
“Pottery shards would be most likely. Anything that might have been broken in the kitchen, or any other hard objects discarded as garbage. I wouldn’t expect them to have walked very far to toss the trash.”
They grinned. He glanced up at Cornelison, who was swashbuckling in a pink corduroy shirt and a matching scarf knotted at the back of his noggin. Mrs. Brewer wore gray sweats with her hair held by a white cloth headband. Mrs. Meyer was clothed in baggy brown pants, a maroon sweatshirt, and her ponytail was tied in blue. He asked, “Anything noteworthy, yet?”
“Clay,” Brewer said.
“Yeah, muck,” Meyer added.
“Not much of the dirt is shaking loose,” Hodgson said, “so, they’re having to inspect the clumps by hand, which makes it tedious.”
“Women’s work,” foreman Cornelison quipped, with a wink. After a round of ribbing and laughter, the boss’s face fell sober. “That Professor Starrs is here.”
“He’s down the other side of the monument.” John pointed across the nearby parking lot at a neon-jade Neon. “That’s his car, there. Tom and I were taking magnetometer readings by the monument when Starrs came by, walking down the road.”
“Ah. Did you talk with him?”
“No. He didn’t approach us. He went down that section of old Natchez Trace toward the campground—which is just as well.”
The journalist grinned quizzically. “Just as well?”
“Uh, you know,” Cornelison said, “isn’t he angry at the Park Service? Maybe he’d be ornery toward us.”
“Oh, no, he wouldn’t be negative in any way to you. I first met Professor Starrs almost two years ago, and I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. He may be perturbed at your superiors, at the lofty leaders of the institution—in fact, he is.” He showed a knowing smile. “But he wouldn’t transfer that emotion onto you guys. He would know you’re just doing your jobs. You have nothing to do with policy.” He liked the positive expressions he saw on his new friends’ faces. “I have no doubt that you’d all enjoy talking with one another. I don’t mind saying, I know you four to be good people—unless you’re pulling the wool over my eyes!” Everybody chuckled. “And I know Jim Starrs to be good people.”
“That’s comforting,” one of the archeologists said, and the others agreed.
“If the opportunity arises, I’ll introduce you to each other.”
As the four reengaged in the shovel-sampling, Jim went back to stand near his car and get some things in order. After a few minutes, he glanced at the road. Starrs was striding his way. They smiled. Each gave a one-stroke wave. He welcomed his gray-bearded buddy with a handshake. Starrs was clad in walking shoes, navy blue pants and a light jacket to match. A purple “GW” cap covered his summit. After greetings, the Professor led him to the rented Neon.
“I am on my way to speak to the students in Hohenwald.”
“Oh, good. I’ll go, too. But first, I want to introduce you to the Park Service folks.”
“I avoided them. The men were at the monument earlier, so I went on by and down the trail a ways.”
The younger was troubled, at first, by the scientist’s attitude. But soon a smile grew on his face. “Reticence,” he announced.
“Reticence. You said it on the phone to me. I don’t remember when. You’re being reticent. Anyway, I was telling them a few minutes ago that you’re all good people and you’ll all enjoy each other’s company. And I said I’d introduce you.”
“Oh. But the timing is not good. I must go—.”
“That’s the beauty of it. Short and sweet.”
Starrs checked his watch and gave a nod. They walked to the four, who were still shoveling and shaking.
“John Cornelison, please meet Jim Starrs.” The journalist finished all the introductions. Then he stood by and beamed. The five engaged in 10 minutes of good-natured scientific banter.
“Uh, Professor,” Jim interjected, “You’re on your way to the school, right?”
“Ah, yes. I really must be going.”
After friendly farewells, Jim and Starrs walked together toward their cars. “My good deed for the day!” remarked the younger. “And who knows, maybe this seed of goodwill we just planted will grow throughout the Park Service.”
On the front steps of the school, the visitors waved goodbye to Christy and headed for their vehicles.
Starrs asked, “How do you think it went?”
“Wonderfully!” reported Jim. “Are you kidding?”
“I am always uncomfortable when speaking to young people. My fear is they will view me as a boring old fossil.”
“Ha ha. I must say, I was concerned for a moment, when you brought up your grandson Willie. But you got a laugh out of it. And the rest of the time, you engaged them, you talked to them, not down to them. And look at all the questions they had. That’s proof.”
“Perhaps you’re right. I am hungry. Are you hungry?”
Inside the General Cafe, a homey diner a block off Hohenwald’s main drag, Jim took a sip of his coffee and frowned.
“Oh, it’s okay, for restaurant coffee. But it’s gotten cold. I oughta just quit coffee, again.”
“Heh. Yeah. I guess I’m doing with coffee what Mark Twain did with smoking.”
The famous Mark Twain, real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens, had long been a favorite of journalist Jim, the racially clueless, who most enjoyed the author’s biting wit against Christianity, robber barons, and the U.S. government, not realizing that it was all anti-White. But nearly two decades later, an awakened Jim would amass evidence to justify a conclusion that Samuel Clemens was a crypto-jew whose every major deed had served the jew agenda, especially his appearances at fund-raisers to help the jews overthrow Russia’s White governing family, an effort that achieved its awful success not long after Clemens’ death.
Jim’s Twain reference was to the dead international celebrity’s remark: “Quitting smoking is child’s play. Why, I’ve done it hundreds of times.”
Starrs smiled and reverted to the previous subject. “As to your career concerns, I was 48 when I found what I really wanted to do, forensic science. So, by that yardstick, you have plenty of time!” After a laugh, he said, “But for the time being, I would like to find a way to provide a monetary stipend for your services.”
“Hey, yeah. Imagine how much help I’d be if I were being paid!”
After lunch, the two split. Jim headed to The Park while Starrs attended to other business.
At the monument, he was excited to find a “cherry picker.” The orange vehicle sported a yellow bucket on the end of its massive hydraulic arm. Three Park Service maintenance men were relaxing against the shady side of the muscular machine. He’d met the three the previous week and was happy to see them again. Their first names quickly came to mind: Billy, Paul, and Ted.
“Greetings, guys. The monument guy must be here, huh?”
“In the campground,” Billy said. “Ought to be here shortly.”
Paul asked, “Wanna go for a ride?”
“I sure do. But would it be okay? I mean—.”
“We’re probably not supposed to,” Ted said, “But hell, I don’t see nobody that’s gonna object.”
“Take him up,” Paul said to Billy.
“All right,” Billy said, climbing into the driver’s seat.
“Let me get my camera.” He ran to his car and back as Billy revved the beast. He and Paul stepped into the bucket, and Billy lifted them above the monument’s broken peak.
As Jim snapped photos, Paul said, “Oh, here come the uniforms.” To Billy, he yelled, “Better take her down.”
On the descent, Jim said, “Oh, they won’t really care, will they? We’re all adults, here.”
“That’s right. They won’t care, no way.”
“Anyway,” he said with a smirk, “I hear it’s easier to ask forgiveness—.”
“Than get permission!”
The two laughed. A pair of uniformed females with holsters strode near. Billy shut off the engine. Jim stepped out of the bucket and onto the turf. “Just testing,” he said. “It’s safe for the monument guy to go up, now.”
“Yep,” Paul confirmed.
Jim smiled and introduced himself to the women.
“Ranger Francine Morgan,” the taller of the two said flatly, pulling her hand out of his.
“Sara Leach,” the other said with a grin.
“From the Tupelo office?”
“That’s right. Came up to observe the progress.”
He nodded. Morgan turned to Leach and began speaking. He felt shunned, so he walked over by Billy and the boys. Another vehicle arrived. Two men and a woman jumped out and joined the group.
“Michael Drummond Davidson,” a stocky, graying, bespectacled, bearded fellow said as he jack-hammered Jim’s hand.
“Jim Laffrey. Good to meet you. We spoke on the phone recently.”
“Yes, yes. A pleasure. And this is my wife and preservation architect, Belinda Stewart. And my assistant Jacques Murphree.”
By turns, they shook hands.
“Very well,” Mister Davidson said, donning a hard hat. “Let’s get started, shall we?”
Jim stepped back as Paul fired up the cherry picker and lifted the married experts in the bucket. The journalist snapped a few photos and was amused at how Ranger Morgan seemed to be denying him a clear shot of her. He put his lens cap on and sat next to Billy under the nearest tree. The two chatted, slowly winding their way into the stories about Meriwether.
“You know, I’m related to the Griners who owned the stand.”
Wow. “No kidding?”
Billy nodded. “No kidding.”
“But—. What’s your last name, again?”
“Griner. Most people put a ‘d’ in it, but it’s ‘Griner.’ And that’s what Robert and Priscilla’s name was. Griner.”
“Priscilla? I thought her name was lost to history.”
“No. Heck no. You can see the names on their gravestones.”
The journalist wanted to laugh in delight. “What are you saying?”
“I’m sayin’ they’re buried right over near Centerville, where the family was from, where most of their land was.”
“You’re pulling my leg.” He watched Billy cock his head. He feared the elder man was getting perturbed at the skepticism.
Billy said, “Go see for yourself.”
“This is great. I will. How do I get there?”
“Just take Highway 50 out of Centerville a couple o’ mile. There’s a trailer court on the right on a hill. Dottie’s Trailer Court. The cemetery’s right back up there.”
“Oh, Billy. Thank you. I love this.” He whipped out his notebook and jotted down the directions. “I will go there one day this week. For sure.”
By and by, Starrs arrived. Privately, Jim briefed him on the rangers and monument crew. He offered to make introductions. “It’ll be my second glorious deed today!”
The remains of the day were spent in an atmosphere of professional cordiality. For supper, he and Starrs decided to drive the 50 minutes to Columbia.
He set out in his car with Himself in the Neon close behind. The Professor drove separately to save Jim from having to return to Hohenwald before heading back to Nashville for the night. In Columbia, Jim turned and led the elder south on Highway 31. He kept his eyes peeled for the TGI Friday’s restaurant. After a few more miles, they ran out of town. No more street lights. No more businesses. In the dim moonlight, he pulled into a farm’s driveway. He hopped out and walked to Starrs’ car as the Professor rolled the window down.
“I’m so sorry. Gosh, I was mistaken. I know there’s a TGI Friday’s in Columbia. I ate lunch there, once.”
“Don’t beat yourself up over it.”
“Thank you. But I’ve wasted so much time. I’ve misled you.”
“Yeah. Don’t let it happen again!”
“I saw a Pizza Hut back there,” Starrs said. “Is that okay with you?”
“Oh, the irony. There’s a Pizza Hut in Hohenwald.”
Forty minutes later, over a dough pie smothered in vegetables and cheese, the younger served up his personal turmoil. “As your friend, I feel like we’ve reached the point where we can share opinions or advice and not fear offending each other because we know we’d mean no harm.” The Professor nodded and took a sip from his glass of the Hut’s see-through brew. “And I would be a fool not to seek your counsel, given your experience and—.”
“Don’t say ‘age’!”
“Ha ha. No, you’re not a geezer, yet!” They laughed. “So, please, if you will, you don’t have to, but—. Well, I’ll just ask. Please give me any opinion or advice you may have in regard to my situation.”
“Hmm. I’ll say this much. Some years back, I used to file divorce cases for my students—when they had no lawyer and could not afford one. Many of those cases involved mothers with young children. What I found, generally, is that those mothers put their children first, above their husbands, above their boyfriends, above anyone else.”
“I might add that sometimes, in the case of a boyfriend and a divorcee with kids, that if the kids are fond enough of the boyfriend, he can be a very close second in the woman’s eyes. And for many men in such circumstances, that is sufficient for them.”
“Yeah. Hm.” He picked up his glass. “Well, right now, I’m still a very distant second.” With that, he downed the last of the pale brew.
Tyrsday in The Park, he mixed with his Park Service pals and met two new arrivals to the archeology team. He found both David Brewer and Jeff Jones as engaging as the “pirate” and his mates. Meanwhile, monument-man Davidson and assistant Murphree took turns on a shovel to uncover the east side of the monument. Then they turned the corner and freed half the north face from the earth. During that digging, Starrs arrived. The journalist and the forensic scientist stepped to the edge of the trench.
“This,” Starrs said, “is a sight unseen for about 64 years—the bottom four feet of the Meriwether Lewis Monument.”
Nodding, he thought: Four feet closer to Meriwether. Aloud: “It’s a shame it’ll be buried, again, by the end of the week.”
Soon, students streamed out of two yellow buses from Lewis County schools. Starrs reluctantly bid adieu and set out for the Nashville airport.
Jim initiated conversation with some of the archeologists. Twenty minutes in, he was driven to say, “But the Park Service claims that if this exhumation were allowed, it would spur a flood of other exhumation requests from all over the country. That’s nonsense to me. People don’t want to dig up their relatives without good reason. But for the sake of argument, let’s say there did come a flood of requests. The Park Service could decide, on a case by case basis, which ones had sufficient merit to be okayed. And that number could be tiny.”
Brewer said, “But the Park Service—as far as I know—isn’t set up for that.”
“How difficult could it be to establish a simple, clear set of criteria? Then the judgments could be quick and easy.”
“What I mean is, I think there’s no budget, no structure, in the bureaucracy to pursue that mission.”
“Yeah,” Mister Brewer said. “What you seem to want is someone to do a job that isn’t in anyone’s job description. I’m not sure about that, but—.”
Just then, foreman Cornelison joined the discussion group. “Jim, let me caution you. Nothing said among us is the official word of the National Park Service.”
“I know, John. Don’t worry, you’re not going to see your crew’s quotes in tomorrow’s headlines.”
Mrs. Brewer asked, “Where will we see your story?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, having pitched his coverage of the event to a couple of magazines. “I don’t have a buyer for the story, yet.”
Everybody nodded silently. The hush grew to an awkward five seconds.
“Hey, Jim,” the foreman said. “Last night, I was writing up some of the reports I always have to do for our projects, and I got to thinking about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It’s amazing how Lewis was able to recognize so many plants and animals that were new to science.”
“Yeah. What a keen mind. But I can’t help feeling a little sad knowing that most of the names he and Clark gave to what they found have since been changed. Rivers, especially. They named one for each member of the party—who all deserved it.”
“Uh huh. Yeah, Lewis really didn’t get his historical due.” Then, the foreman’s face energized. “But you know why?”
He nodded, confident he knew where it was going.
The big fella boomed, “He didn’t publish!”
The group laughed. Jim added, “Yeah, ‘Publish or Perish.’ He perished.”
Funny, and unfair, were their quips, as Jim would later learn. Meriwether Lewis had far more written and collected material than the public had been led to believe by the publishing industry and other corporate media. A proper job preparing for publication would take years, and it was a job the governor earnestly pursued amid his other responsibilities. Delays came not only from his governmental and family duties but at the hands of those deceitful gatekeepers of Philadelphia and New York in publishing, banking, and in key positions in government.
The group jovially split toward their separate tasks. Jim meandered over to the faux Grinder’s Stand and found Tom Hodgson. He felt closest to Tom in both age and attitude.
The archeologist technician smiled up from his sitting position on the ground against the back wall of the little wooden building. He had a computer on his lap. “I was just working with some of the preliminary data.”
“Can I see?”
He sat on the grass next to Tom. After a few displays of squiggles and colorful blotches, he asked: “What can you conclude from all this, so far?”
“Not much. Like I said, it’s really just raw data. When we get back to Tallahassee, we’ll get on our computers and use some techniques to enhance the images and do a full-scale analysis. But I’ll tell you, there’s nothing here that proves Grinder’s Stand was in this location. Of course, there’s nothing here to prove it wasn’t, either.”
Tom closed the laptop, and Jim changed the subject to Tallahassee. He asked about the quality of life, cockroaches, humidity, jobs. Tom answered all the questions, and then asked, “What are you looking for? Newspaper work?”
“No. Not that again.”
“What do you really want to do?”
He put a hand on his chin. “Gee.” He gazed up at a modest cloud drifting by.
“Realistically, what do you most want to be doing five years from now?”
“Well, I hope it’s realistic: I want to be writing books.”
He migrated back to Meriwether and sidled up to a discussion between Leach, from the Park Service office in Tupelo, and Davidson, the monument man.
“There’s nothing official about these thoughts, you understand,” Leach said, with an eye on the journalist, “but I envision a parking area near the monument, here. And restrooms nearby. I don’t see the removal of the four feet of backfill over the cemetery—that would probably be too costly. But I can see uncovering the base of the monument all the way around, and a wheelchair-accessible pathway up from the parking area and encircling the monument.”
That evening, he noted:
March 31, 1998.
She’s OUT LIKE A LION.
Thorsday, April 2, he peered through the videocam lens as he zoomed in on the sun-drenched scene of students and teachers swarming across the cemetery and circling above Meriwether. “And who are you?” he said, focusing on a friendly face.
“You know who I am,” the educator giggled.
“Yes, but your public is dying to know.”
“Ha! I’m Miss Ricketts, 7th-grade teacher at Lewis County Middle School.”
Panning right, he prompted, “And you are the charming—.”
“Miss Holcomb—Belinda Holcomb,” the woman said, smiling but shaking her head. “I teach 8th-grade.”
“And lastly in this threesome,” he said, filling the frame with a beaming face, “the utterly adorable—.”
“Hee hee. You’re silly.”
He added, “And wittily uncooperative—.”
Teacher Ricketts coaxed, “Say who you are.”
“My name is Ashley Pierce. Um. And I’m in Miss Ricketts’ class.”
“Thank you very much,” he said quickly, doing an impression of Tupelo’s most famous native. In his normal voice, he prompted, “And you’re all here because—.”
A boy, off-camera, shouted, “They’re digging up Meri-Lewis, uh, Meri—, oh, you know who!”
Amid the group’s laughter, Ricketts exclaimed, “We wish!”
The crowd assembled around the monument. Ranger Morgan said a few words and introduced Davidson. Mister Monument described the stone memorial, its history, and the toll that nature had inflicted on its pyramidal base, etched plinth, and symbolically broken spire. Some tourists and local folks, including Marjorie Graves, arrived and heightened the happy spectacle. Jim confabbed and hobnobbed into the afternoon until the hordes had dispersed and only the dutiful remained. Davidson and the maintenance crew reburied the monument’s bottom.
The journalist met the husky fellow alone by their vehicles. “You’re all done?”
“Yes. The investigative work is done. Now, it’s mostly a matter of waiting for lab results. Once those are in, I will arrive at my recommendations and submit them to the Park Service. Then, presumably, the Park Service will determine what course of action, if any, to pursue.”
“How long will that process take?”
“Oh, couple of months.”
“Can you tell me anything that seems obvious at this point?”
“Hm. The limestone shaft ought to be cleaned. That can be returned to its original, almost-white color, and it will actually sparkle in the sunlight. That can be done at a relatively minimal cost.”
“Well, anyone who knows stone can tell you that the sandstone of the base, there, should not be underground. Or, if their decision would be to leave it buried as it is, some type of waterproofing should be performed to protect against the moisture in the soil. Otherwise, wet sandstone wants to turn to clay.”
He nodded and stuck out his right hand. “Michael Davidson, it’s been a pleasure—and an education—to meet you and talk with you, sir.”
“Good luck to you, Jim. Next time you’re in Europa, look me up.”
“I will. Hey, is that anywhere near Tupelo?”
“About an hour further south.”
“Ahh. Well, who knows.”
He waved and walked away, rubbing his aching hand. Near the pay phone, he fell in with the archeologists. “Will you guys be back tomorrow?”
“It depends on the weather,” foreman Cornelison said. “The forecast calls for rain. Thunderstorms. If it looks wet in the morning, we’re out of here. If not, we may stay one more day. But all the work we really needed to do will be done by the end of today.”
“Well, in that case, I’m going to go visit the Griner cemetery that Billy told me about. Then, I’ll be back here by your quitting time. So, how ’bout a pizza party tonight? All the beer’s on me.”
“Ho ho!” Cornelison bellowed. “You may live to regret that offer!”
Tom Hodgson chuckled, “We’re a beer-drinkin’ bunch, Jim. I mean, even the women down it by the pitcher!” Everyone laughed. No one disagreed.
“Good! Then, it’ll be fun. Guaranteed.”
Jim couldn’t find Dottie’s Trailer Court. After a thorough search of the Centerville area, he was running out of gas. He stopped for a fill.
“Dottie sold out some year back,” said the attendant at the Amoco filling station and garage. “I believe it’s—no, I can’t recall the name. But it’s just up yonder, ’bout a mile, on the right.”
Jim knew the place. He’d been by it twice already. Riverview Mobile Home Village. He drove into it. But he saw no evidence of a cemetery. Finally, a woman unloading groceries from the trunk of a car about half her age told him that there were some graves behind her trailer. “Don’t know whose they are,” she said. “They tell us not to disturb ‘em.”
Following her instructions, he drove round about and found the plot. The cemetery was the size of a tennis court and surrounded by a chain-link fence. But the gate, right next to a dumpster, was one foot ajar. Carrying his camera and notebook, he stepped sideways through the opening. He trod solemnly on the rough, grassy ground and along a row of weathered and broken gravestones. A few paces farther, he came to a stone that bore the inscription “Priscilla Knight Griner.” And near the bottom, it said, in italics, “A loving wife and mother lies buried here.”
He whispered, “The mother. Wow. I’m atop the woman who last saw Meriwether alive—as far as we know.” He reflected for a moment, remembering the conflicting, evolving lies the mother had told, as recorded by an author and reporters. Then, a realization: “That ‘loving wife’ line seems familiar.”
A few feet to Priscilla’s left, he saw the broken base of a headstone. The bulk of it—the part presumably bearing an inscription—was nowhere to be seen. But a footstone bore initials. He read the first as “R.” The middle initial was illegible. The third, “G.” Proceeding to the next headstone, he read, “Robert Griner.”
“Aha. This would seem to be the husband. Another suspect.”
He had an inkling that it was improper to talk ill of the owners of Griner’s Stand while walking on them. Amused, he stooped lower and fingered a faint inscription near the bottom of Robert’s headstone. Finally, he figured it out.
“Only sleeping,” he said. “Now, that’s very familiar! I’m sure I’ve read of these before. But where?”
Proceeding on to the last stone in the row, he read, “Noble Griner.” And at the bottom, “At rest.”
Going back to Priscilla’s right, a newer, taller, easily legible stone told of “Pvt. Robert E. Griner Jr.” as a veteran of military service in the Confederate States of America. Unlike the other stones, the private’s marker offered dates. It said junior was born June 22, 1809, and died December 28, 1876.
“Hmm,” he uttered as he did the math. “So, the likely oldest son was 3 months and 19 days old when Meriwether met his demise. Very interesting.”
He found a few other stones of less interest, but he photographed them along with all the others. He drew a map of the cemetery and included every gravestone and every piece of a stone that he could find. When finished, he took a last photograph of the entire scene. As he peered through the Minolta lens, his black car adorned the foreground. The silent, neglected graveyard—protected by trailer homes—filled the background. As he drove onto the highway, he looked back and marveled at how the plot was entirely hidden from the view of all passersby.
In Hohenwald’s Pizza Hut, he helped the hostess push two tables together. Then he ordered a pitcher of beer and waited. Right on time, John came in with Tom and Jeff. Soon, Rhonda and Regina joined the party. In short order, pizzas and pitchers went round and round amid tall tales—all sworn true—and wave after wave of laughter. Amid the mirth, he overate and overdrank. But there was no overdoing the camaraderie. Of that, he could not get enough.
Late night, as he drove away, he said, “Man! I wish I lived near them, or they lived near me.” An instant later, he added, “Yeah, maybe then, to count all my friends, I’d need my other hand.”
He considered turning on the tape player but decided to forgo any distraction as his brain buzzed with memories of the happy day of uncommon events. He drove all the way to Nashville, and on to his apartment, in silence that was golden.
The high lasted well into the next day. Late afternoon, wind began to whip up, clouds blocked the sun, and soon a massive, black cloudbank with a tint of olive loomed to the northwest. “That looks like trouble.” In his car, he turned on the radio. The announcer warned of tornadoes. At home, a stormy evening ensued.
(Next, Chapter 32: Books)