Flying Into the Past

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Mar 12, 2008 12:01 AM
Flying Into the Past

I stooped to get aboard the little Chautauqua jetliner, full of trepidation. Not because of any fear of flying but because I was headed to Richmond to give a talk about Robert E. Lee. What next, fly to Rome to talk about the pope? The cause of my uneasiness: a bad case of laryngitis. An awkward ailment for a guest speaker.

But the show must go on, maybe with a little help from a cough suppressant, cough drops, sheer faith and that universal elixir for emergency use, a sip of Irish whiskey. The last also helps a speaker's anecdotes flow. The blarney must be aged in.

A story: Just the other day, for obscure bureaucratic reasons, I had to have my fingerprints taken, for maybe the first time since the Army. (The modern state has its always-encroaching requirements.) But it seems the prints didn't take the first time, so I had to go out to state police headquarters here in Little Rock to try again. When I did, the fingerprint lady, who must do this all day long, asked if I'd had much contact with paper in my life. Oh, only for about 50 years in the newspaper business. That explains it, she said. Paper tends to wear off the ridges that make clear fingerprints possible.

I have no idea if that's true, but it did give me a strange sensation of power. Like the Invisible Man. Then, when this case of laryngitis struck, I envisioned the headline my embarrassing little catastrophe might inspire in my favorite journal, the satirical newspaper The Onion:

Man With No Fingerprints
Arrives in Richmond
With No Voice

Yes, an awkward position for a guest speaker. But no Southerner can resist the temptation to talk about Robert E. Lee, even with a raspy voice.

When I began writing an annual tribute to General Lee on his birthday, it was back in the '60s and I was editorial page editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial. Even then there was something daringly 19th century about devoting an editorial to the general on his birthday. Especially for a supposedly modern, up-to-date newspaper in the newest New South.

Folks in town thought of their local daily as a liberal paper solely, because of its stand on the race issue. Which was the only issue that really counted back then in the still one-issue, one-crop, one-party South.

In reality the paper's oh-so-courageous stand in the bad old days amounted to little more than a respect for the law, our fellow man and simple decency. Which of course is never simple. It was enough to get us tagged radical in some quarters. Ah, those were the days. I miss 'em. Things were so simple. For one thing, back then the racists seemed to be of only one race.

But even then, I was aware that, by running a piece on Lee's Birthday, we were committing a small act of defiance against the bland, unquestionable, chilling spirit of modernity.

Remarkable thing, modernity. It is the ideological equivalent of white-out. It can take the blasphemous, the profane, the supposedly daring or disgusting that's now supposed to be art, and immediately convert it into the utterly boring. How does it do that? Maybe it's the modern, now the post-modern, soon to be the post-post-modern, absence of any continuity. If there's no shared past, no common standard, there's no meaningful way to depart from it. Isolated from any past standards, the shocking becomes simply the meaningless.

Now I was flying into that other country that is the past, swaying in the little jetliner, looking down on this cold, dank, windy day through the Confederate gray clouds, thinking of what I would say if my voice should ever return.

It did, just in time. This being Virginia, and Richmond at that, my hosts could not have been more understanding, or gracious. The hot tea and home remedies flowed. Before leaving, I even got to touch a few time-honored bases - the stately Tuckahoe Woman's Club, the Jefferson Hotel restored to its old grace, and Monument Avenue with all its demigods in place. It's all still there. Civilization yet lives. Yes, Santa Claus, there is a Virginia.