54th Post: 6th DIXIE. CHATTANOOGA – The Choo Choo Town


 2001 April: Saturday

During the short haul flight over the Appalachian Mountains, I concentrated my thoughts towards this last leg of the US trip. Wilde’s own tour of the South had started in my current destination of the State of Tennessee. He had given his first lecture in Memphis where his manager had ignored his plea for low-key publicity and swathed his train with a billowing white canvas with his name emblazoned in four-foot high letters. At one station, when he stepped from his carriage, he was greeted by the town band playing ‘See The Conquering Hero Comes’ and a storm of applause from a crowd under the impression that he was Buffalo Bill.

My arrival at Chattanooga airport was considerably more prosaic – just a hand-held sign with my name inscribed in four-inch high letters. However, holding that sign were a couple who turned out to be an absolute delight. They were both in their seventies – Ann was a bubbly and clever Englishwoman, who had retained much of the stilted English accent of the 1950s (‘orn’ for ‘on’, etc), but now tinged with American (‘bedder’ for ‘better’).

Her husband, Roddy, was a tall, relaxed Tennessean with a hugely engaging smile. He had been with the US Army in Britain prior to the D-Day landings and had become fascinated by the ancient village churches of Wessex. In pursuit of this hobby, he had wandered the countryside with a camera and, as a result, had been constantly arrested on suspicion of being a German spy.

The lodgings in Chattanooga

We drove back through the city to their home in the hills. It was a long ranch house set in ten faux-wild acres of land. The most prominent features of the garden were a small lake ruled by a heron, and a genuine log cabin built around the time of, and possibly by, Davy Crockett. A further cabin housed Roddy’s collection of clocks under repair, while inside the house he showed me a cabinet filled with Civil War artefacts. A dealer had sold him a piece of wood cut from ‘the very chair that General Grant had used during the Battle of Chattanooga in 1863’.

Roddy: “My son said that if anybody offers to sell me a piece of the True Cross, to call him.”

They were a sweet couple. As he shook his head over the remnant of ‘Grant’s chair’, Ann laughed and put an affectionate arm round his shoulders. Still in love – after fifty years.

A Tennessee log cabin, Chattanooga

2001 April: Sunday

I woke at 8am and lay back in bed. The morning drifted in through the open window – a trickle of contrasting birdsong, punctuated by the croaking of Appalachian bullfrogs. They sounded like someone trying to play the bassoon and failing. Ann told me later that their absent son had tape-recorded this garden chorus to remind him of home.

The garden at the Chattanooga lodgings

The Chattanooga show took place at lunchtime at a modern restaurant called the Loft on Cherokee Boulevard. It was a hot day and the performance lacked sparkle. Nothing particularly went wrong, but nothing went particularly right either. Maybe the tragic element was too heavy for a Sunday lunchtime. The audience were polite and even congratulatory, but I knew they’d been short-changed.

The Loft Restaurant – the venue

Afterwards I talked with a local arts administrator who described the problems of funding the arts while reliant on private donations:

“The trouble is that you have to appeal to vanity all the time. When you’re dealing with mega-wealth, it’s not so difficult to get a good response if you ask ‘Would you donate enough money to build a brilliant new theatre with your name on it?’ It’s a different matter when it comes to: ‘Would you donate the money to pay for the theatre heating bills for the next ten years?’”

The Tennessee River gorge at Chattanooga

Having packed up the Wilde props, Roddy and Ann took me off on a tour of the city. Chattanooga was a strange place. Its natural aspect was one of spectacular beauty, set astride the broad Tennessee River and overlooked by the pine-covered mountain ridges of the Appalachians and the Cumberland Plateau. The original settlement had soon developed into a railway and industrial centre, at one point being nicknamed ‘the Dynamo of Dixie’. However, with the slump in industry by the 1980s, the place became a classic notch on the infamous Rust Belt, characterised by deserted factories, dilapidation, and all the baffled resentments of blue-collar America; the world of Springsteen and Dylan. ‘Desolation Row’ squatting in Arcadia.

An advert in Rossville, Chattanooga

More recently, though, some real thought had gone into regeneration, and the downtown riverside area had been turned into a celebration of the city’s history. The ‘camel back’ structure of the 1890s Walnut Street Bridge soared above the river; the carnival music of a working ‘Rogers and Hammerstein’ carousal echoed around Coolidge Park; but most evocative of all was the restored Terminal Railway Station.

The Promenade Bridge, Chattanooga

For me, nothing sums up the nonchalant confidence of World War II America better than Glenn Miller’s ‘The Chattanooga Choo Choo’. In its own way, it was as jauntily unbeatable as Churchill’s V-sign. The station had been turned into a hotel, the railway carriages into hotel bedrooms and diners, but the ‘Choo Choo’ itself took centre stage, its fresh red and green paintwork gleaming in the sun. It was proof that a machine can be truly beautiful.

The Chattanooga Choo Choo

As we drove back, Roddy remarked that the great blues singer Bessie Smith had been born in the city. From Nashville country to Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis’, it struck me that Tennessee had made an enormous contribution to popular music.

We passed yet another of America’s collection of weird museums. I’d thought that I’d seen the oddest with the ‘Sports Commentators Museum’ of Salisbury. That was before I saw Chattanooga’s ‘International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame’, dedicated to tow trucks.

View of Chattanooga from Lookout Mountain

2001 April: Monday

The main event of the morning was the drive up to the top of Lookout Mountain just outside the city. The Tennessee River wound in a vast loop below the 2000ft high cliffs and the views were suitably glorious. They also overlooked the sites of two of the bloodiest incidents of American history.

In 1838, an area known as Ross’s Landing at the foot of the mountain was used as an encampment where most of the Cherokee tribe were interned prior to their removal from their land. That winter the Cherokees were forced to walk from this spot via Ohio to Oklahoma. It was a journey of 1000 miles and became known as the ‘Trail of Tears’. Out of roughly 130,000 who set off, over 60,000 died as a result of exposure, starvation, and murder en route. The French author of ‘Democracy in America’, Alexis De Tocqueville, who witnessed one such brutal exodus, wrote that ‘one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung’.

Civil War cannon on Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga

The other event was the more famous Civil War battle, when Union troops, very much against the odds, managed to fight their way up the steep slopes of Lookout Mountain and gain an unlikely victory over the Confederate forces. This engagement was copiously commemorated with ceremonial cannon, explanatory plaques, and a museum diorama. A tall column had been erected as a symbol of reconciliation; at its top were the statues of a Northern and a Southern soldier shaking hands. I said to Roddy that it was an impressive sight.

He glanced up at the statues and replied: “It’d look a sight better if they knocked that damn Yankee off it.”

The Peace Column on Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga

After a further foray to the southwest of the city to see the 1864 battlefield of Chickamauga, followed by a very unplanned detour into a black ‘Housing Project’, (with Ann hissing anxiously: “Get us out of here, Roddy, they’ll think we’re drug dealers”), we drew up outside a municipal library. About 80 people were standing around a sculpture. It had an aluminium exterior and represented a fountain cascading over a pile of books.

The Library ‘Book’ sculpture, Chattanooga

As we climbed out from the car, a woman hurried across. She stared at me then smiled:

“Oh, Mr Titley, I so admired your performance yesterday. You must do us the honour.”

She took my arm and led me over to the group. I was introduced to various Chattanooga grandees, including a couple who had paid for the sculpture, and it dawned on me that this was the unveiling ceremony. The Director of the Library gave a lengthy speech (in which I was referred to as an ‘Ambassador of Literature’), before standing back, pressing a button, and unleashing the fountain water flow.

After a round of applause, a large black lady cleared her throat and began to lead a very robust rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’. Not having a clue what the words were, I stood to attention with the other dignitaries, placed hand over heart, and solemnly mouthed whatever choral crumbs I could overhear. Out in the crowd, I could see Roddy’s shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter.

Next week on June 19 – Post 55 – Birmingham, Alabama and an amiable Bishop.

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