That's what driving south into the South is like: a series of flashbacks, usually in black-and-white, pre-Technicolor. Along the blue highways, the demagogues of the 1950s and '60s, or even the '30s, come to life again. It's we the living who seem pallid ghosts.
"I have fallen in love with American names," wrote the poet. He would have stayed in love with Southern ones, which are good enough to last a lifetime. They loll on the tongue, ripple through the void of time, conjuring up a past that still has not quite passed. And turn us all as garrulous as good ol' boys at a family reunion. ("Oh, remember when Bobby here...")
We love the past here, even if it's with a wink and a nod. If you've grown up anywhere Southern, you know the people who live along this winding highway even if you've never met them. You can hear their voices, even their pauses. The cultivated Suthuhn of the aristocrats. The everyday ring of black laughter -- which is one of my first childhood memories. We lived above my father's shoe store in Shreveport, and the joyous sound would drift up to my crib from below, like the sound of life, beckoning.
We stop at Lake Village, Ark., to see an old friend, the kind of Southern matron who is an old friend as soon as you meet her. Ensconced in her unchanged lakeside house, attending meetings of her clubs, all kinds of them, she still has time, all the time in the world, to entertain us -- or so she lets you think. For nothing must ever be hurried in these latitudes.
Over a Coke and nibbles, she tells us there is indeed something new under the sun in Lake Village: the Teach for America delegation. The young teachers live across the street in an old house big enough for a whole passel of them. You can almost feel the lifelong friendships being formed from where we sit in her parlor. They've brought hope and cheer to the public schools in Lake Village along with their dedication and math skills. And must be charmed by their hosts. Yes, Virginia, there is still a Southern hospitality.
These young people come from schools like Indiana and UCLA, Harvard and Stanford. They've got their undergraduate degrees college and are pausing before entering law or medical school. Some find it hard to leave teaching or this little town. Which doesn't surprise. Who wouldn't be entranced, at least on a day like this, in a house like this, in the company of a lady like this, by a small Southern town by the side of a lake?
You can take the Mississippi or Louisiana side of The River down to New Orleans, choosing to cross at either Greenville or Vicksburg. Each has its attractions, but I've always preferred the Mississippi passage; it seems to have more ruins. Or maybe it's the language; something majestically, quintessentially Southern seems to happen to it once you cross over The River.
Deep into the night, leaving the two-lanes and shanties behind, getting onto the interstate and beginning to enter American anonymity again, we stop for coffee at a convenience store. But the South persists. We hear a black clerk impatiently admonish a friend, "You heard me what I said!"
We drive on through the sweet, enveloping night, unable to stop repeating the phrase. Is it a variation of the reflexive, a Shakespearean echo, something all its own? It doesn't matter. It has force, clarity, a beat, and it stays with you. Like the South. You heard me what I said.