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  • Ednold

Beyond Smut Eye 7/10/23


It was early on a bright, muggy, morning as we headed north on highway 231 bound for Montgomery, Alabama. It was a straight shot into town, and we didn’t really have time to dilly-dally, but when I saw the exit for highway 239 and a place called Smut Eye, I struggled to keep from turning off and seeing what kind of place that was. Smut Eye? A few possible explanations came to mind regarding the origins of that name. In this part of the country, where many towns consist of nothing more than a Dollar General and a church, I wasn't sure what I might find in Smut Eye, but curiosity killed the cat, and one of my passengers might have killed me if we went an hour out of our way just to see Smut Eye, so I still can’t tell you anything about it. I stayed strong and continued on along our planned route to see some interesting things beyond Smut Eye, and soon we had entered the state capital.


We began the day with a trip to the world’s only museum dedicated to F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, located in the last home they ever lived in together. Scott, Zelda, and daughter Scottie lived in the house for seven or eight months starting in the fall of 1931 while he worked on Tender Is The Night. Zelda was already losing her marbles and had just been released from a sanitarium in France, so Scott thought moving back to her hometown might be good for her mental health.


The two had met when Scott had been stationed in the area toward the end of WWI and, though they were crazy about each other, they were also just plane crazy, and tragically mismatched. Her grandfather had been a confederate senator and her father was a wealthy state supreme court justice. Scott, named for his distant cousin, Star-Spangled Banner author Francis Scott Key, was a Princeton dropout from Minnesota who planned to make his living as a writer but had so far not published a single thing. She wouldn’t marry him until he had some money, but when This Side of Paradise was published in 1920 she raced to New York City and they were married within the week. As with most people digging for gold, she would end up very disappointed.

The Fitzgerald House

For the next decade and a half Zelda was both Scott’s muse and a ball and chain around his writing ability, and in a way they ended up inflicting long, slow, deaths upon each other. She was jealous of his ability but frustrated that he could never make enough money to meet her needs. The eleven years between their marriage and return to Montgomery were drama-filled and largely unhappy, and they were hoping for a fresh start in this house. But by this time the roaring 20’s, the decade that they had helped define, had given way to the great depression and The Great Gatsby was practically ancient history. Within ten years he would be dead, and she would be confined to a series of mental institutions.


She was never really able to forgive him for being a yankee, and he couldn’t stand that she was a southerner. When she asked to return from New York to Alabama to give birth to their only child he was horrified and whisked her away to Minnesota so the baby wouldn’t be born a southerner too. During their courtship, one of her favorite places to take him was Oakwood Cemetery, where she would pay her respects to the fallen confederate soldiers while scolding Scott for not showing the appropriate amount of sympathy for the cause they had died for. I’m afraid my reaction would have been the same as his, which is why we ignored the soldiers on our trip to the cemetery and headed straight for a more important spot not far away.


Hank Williams spent the first half of his short life in several different places in southern Alabama, but spent his teenage years in Montgomery, where his mother ran a boarding house. By the time he was 16 he had dropped out of school to tour with his band, The Drifting Cowboys, fulltime, which soon led to his being an alcoholic, fulltime. At least partially due to back pain from the spina bifida he’d suffered from since birth, Hank was addicted to alcohol and pain killers for the rest of his life. He was disqualified from military service due to the spina bifida, but his bandmates were all drafted at the outbreak of WWII. He tried to find replacements, but his alcoholism soon drove away anyone willing to try playing with him.

Audrey and Hank

Which brings us to the Ednold angle to this story. In 1942, lured by a free bus ticket and good wages, Hank made his way to the shipyards in Portland, Oregon, where my grandfather and grandmother happened to be working at the time. While my father’s father was a no-nonsense fellow who would have steered clear of the young Alabaman, I’m sure my mother’s mother would have been intrigued enough to have a conversation with the alcoholic Drifting Cowboy. I suppose it is possible that Hank didn’t write some of his biggest hits with my grandmother in mind, and it’s also only conjecture on my part that she was the one who actually wrote I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Honky Tonk Blues, Jambalaya and Hey, Good Lookin’, and gave them to him as a gift. I don’t have any proof, but they were in the same proximity at the same time, so I’d say it’s quite likely.

Anyway, whether or not the Ednold family really is responsible for all of Hank Williams’ success, the following ten years were filled with hit songs and empty bottles until his strange death on New Years Day 1953. In the early hours of the new year, he quietly passed away in the back seat of his Cadillac on the way to a show in Canton, Ohio. By the time his driver realized he was unresponsive he’d been dead for some time, and entire books have been devoted to disputing the facts of when, where, how, and why he died, so you can find that information elsewhere if you’re so inclined.

There are a few facts that everyone does seem to agree on, though: Hank had only been 29 years old and had just remarried after divorcing his first wife, Audrey, only seven months prior to his death. That second marriage was eventually annulled, since the second wife, Billie Jean, had still been married at the time. Everyone also agrees that he left behind a three-year-old son with Audrey, Hank Jr., and a second child was born to one Bobbie Jett just five days after Hank’s death which, along with the alcohol, probably at least partially explains the divorce.

So, we skipped the confederate soldiers and went right to the easily-identifiable graves of Hank and Audrey. The monuments are large and the white stones stand out against the artificial turf that had to be installed after the surrounding grass was worn away by the throngs of people like us who wanted to see Hank’s final resting place. In the middle of Hank and Audrey, Hank Jr., on what I assume will soon be his own place, requests that visitors respect the sacred spot, which leads me to believe that has not always been the case. We showed due respect, though, then headed across town past the capitol buildings – the State Capitol and the First Capitol of the Confederacy – mumbling some choice words to the confederate statues on Capitol Hill under our breath on our way by, to somewhere even more depressing than a graveyard.

The Peace and Justice Memorial Center opened in Montgomery a few years ago, and that’s a good thing. I’m all about peace and justice, but I can’t say I was terribly disappointed when we arrived to find it closed on a Monday morning in the middle of tourist season (Where is the justice in that?). I’m sure there’s more to it, but the centerpiece of the Center is its monument, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. The Memorial “documents the most active era of racial terror lynchings between 1877 and 1950”, and it does so with 800 steel blocks hanging from the rafters, each with a victim’s name etched on it.

The Peace and Justice Memorial from a distance

I’m sure it’s powerful and was probably designed to make me sick, which it did without me even able to go inside and get the full effect. We’ve all heard the stories and seen the pictures, and it’s not something I like to dwell on any more than I have to. It’s like a baby with a full diaper: I know the solution is to acknowledge the stench and confront it, but I’d do almost anything to avoid having to think about it, which doesn’t make the stink go away. It’s sad that we need something this graphic to bring people to an acknowledgement of our true history, and people like me are probably the exact audience they were targeting when they built it, but personally I was grateful when the young man let us know they would be closed for the next two days. We walked around a little, took a few pictures from the outside, and were on our way.

There’s a lot to see in Montgomery, and there are neighborhoods, such as the one Scott and Zelda lived in, where you can see why people would make it their home. But, collectively, it has the feel of a city whose glory days are long gone and a resident’s satisfaction must be correlated with their ability to ignore the grime, decay, and crumbling infrastructure in other parts of the city. At least those were my thoughts as we entered the stream of traffic headed east on I-85 out of town to somewhere hopefully a little less disturbing than lynchings, alcoholism, and insanity.


Not long thereafter we had exited the freeway and were on Pleasant Springs Drive headed south to the town of Tuskegee where, on the north side of town we came to Tuskegee University. Booker T. Washington was the first president of the school that opened in 1881, originally known as Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers, then Tuskegee Institute and, as of 1985, Tuskegee University. By recruiting the best teachers to come to Tuskegee, such as George Washington Carver, Washington built the institution into one of the finest colleges in the country.

I had heard of Tuskegee in a historical context, but its profile seems to have shrunk over the years. Other similar institutions in the south get more attention these days, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when we got there, and judging by the community adjacent to the campus I wasn’t optimistic. But we found the campus standing in sharp contrast to everything around it. It’s large and immaculately maintained. The buildings range from the 1800’s to recent construction, but it appears no expense has been spared for the upkeep and landscaping of each. It was nice to see the old place looking so good, but the juxtaposition with the shabbiness of the rest of the town is a little disappointing.

Moton Field Hangars

Just up the road a mile or two we came to Moton Field, home of the Tuskegee Airmen. The field was completed just a few months before Pearl Harbor, after the Army Air Corps had awarded Tuskegee Institute a contract to provide basic flight training to African-American pilots. It was the only place of its kind in the country, and by the end of the war 994 pilots had been trained there and their record in battle was exemplary. Sixty-six of those airmen were killed in action, which is sad, but those lives were lost by people freely doing something heroic. It was much less depressing than all that stuff we’d seen in Montgomery, and we got back on the freeway in a lighter mood.


Our next stop was Auburn, the home of Auburn University. The freeway runs right by the town, and we took a short detour just to see what the campus is like. This is where Bo Jackson honed his knowledge, and that Round Mound of Rebound, Charles Barkley, played his college basketball. This is where Cam Newton had one of his two good seasons before, as Mike Tyson would say, returning to “Bolivian”. This is where Bo Nix sucked before he went to Eugene to do his sucking, proving he can suck just about anywhere.


I know I’ve mentioned this before, but apparently some didn’t get the memo: If you have a color in your name or the name of your mascot, that color MUST be one of your team colors. It’s one of Ednold’s cardinal rules of sport. I have to admit, Auburn didn’t miss by much; the orange color they use along with navy blue is close to being auburn, but it’s officially listed as burnt orange, and that’s not auburn. I just don’t understand, but I think that horse has taken his last breath, so I’ll move on to another atrocity. Auburn are the Tigers. Which would be fine if their battle cry was not “War Eagle!”. They have a live golden eagle that flies around the stadium before each home football game and the fans all yell “War Eagle!, War Eagle!”. If you need a reminder, let me tell you again that Auburn are the Tigers, not the War Eagles.

Frank Thomas and Plainsman Park

I do have to say that the campus and the surrounding neighborhoods are very nice and very new looking. If you’re looking for a good example of the effects big time athletics can have on a university campus and the town it’s in, Auburn might be a good place to start. It appears the whole place has been transformed over the past 20 years and I have to assume the financial pipeline from ESPN to the schools in the SEC is a big reason why, and it’s hard to blame schools in other conferences for wanting a piece of that pie. It must be mentioned, however, that the Auburn baseball team, no matter how big and shiny their stadium is, (or how silly its name is: Samford Stadium at Hitchcock Field at Plainsman Park) has never come close to winning a national championship. Just so you know.


I do hope they plan to use some of that money to open a College of Traffic Engineering and Land Use Planning for the state of Alabama. In most of the country, on-ramps and overpasses have been in common use for many decades, while these things are almost unheard of in Alabama, where the road system has seemingly gone unchanged since horse and buggy days. They undoubtedly lead the nation in per-capita traffic lights, many in the middle of nowhere for country roads intersecting four-lane highways, creating cross-traffic where there should be none. Other lights are the result of sprawling suburbs and residential areas where there shouldn’t be any residences. There are no industrial districts or residential districts; everything is just a hodgepodge of randomness. Together, the poor planning and poor engineering are like a rabid vampire bat: ugly and dangerous. Putting up a few signs here and there to let people know where to turn would be a big improvement too. But Auburn could fix all of it! Go Eagles! or, War Tiger!, or whatever.


We continued on across those poorly-planned roadways through Opelika and into Phenix City. The seal of Phenix City has a picture of a phoenix, so the city is presumably named after the bird, but I’m not sure why they didn’t spell it correctly or why nobody has bothered to correct the misspelling over the past 140 years since the town was incorporated.

Then we crossed the Chattahoochee River and entered Columbus, Georgia. If we had made this trip two months earlier we would have also skirted the boundaries of Ft. Benning, the giant military post just outside of Columbus. As of May 11 of this year Ft. Benning is no more, and has been renamed Ft. Moore. General Benning was a confederate general and a total loser, while General Moore was a stud, so it was a pretty easy decision for reasonable people to make. Guess who played Moore in the 2002 movie We Were Soldiers? Mel Gibson! Guess who played General Benning? Nobody! Like I said: Total loser.


We drove right by Ft. Moore and kept east on Hwy. 280 and before long we were rolling into the little town of Plains, population 500 or so, made famous when its favorite son, Jimmy Carter, won the 1976 presidential election. I had heard of Plains before and always assumed we would see some plains there, or at least some planes. We saw neither. Turns out it was named for the Plains of Dura, which I had to look up and found that it’s in reference to a bible story that I’m not familiar with.

Jimmy's boyhood home

We started at Jimmy’s boyhood home a few miles out in the country, and it really was interesting to see where he had grown up during the depression. It had to have been a rough life but if you had to live it, that farm was probably as pleasant a place as any to do it. Then we went to the old high school in town that the National Park Service has converted into a headquarters for the Carter historic park. It’s full of stuff that makes you either glad you didn’t have to live in those simpler days (the audio/visual equipment consisted of a chalkboard and a globe!) or sad you didn’t get to live in those simpler days (the audio/visual equipment consisted of a chalkboard and a globe!).

We saw the old train depot across the street that had served as Jimmy’s campaign headquarters and went in the general store around the corner where the shelves were bursting with Carter paraphernalia and every conceivable type of peanut-themed souvenir. I strongly advise anyone with a peanut allergy to stay well away from the store and probably the whole state of Georgia, but if you like peanut ice cream (and what kind of sick person doesn’t?) you won’t find any better anywhere.

I’m glad they’ve kept the town much the same over the past 47 years so that we can see it as it was when Carter was inspired to run for president, but it must have been strange for Jimmy’s classmates and others who knew him when he was nobody, when buildings and whole sections of the town were designated as historic just because he had lived there. It must be strange for him too. You can’t go on the grounds of the home he lives in now, but we drove right by it, and you can see it from the street. He must feel like he’s living in a museum, and that everyone’s just waiting for him to kick the bucket so they can start bringing tour groups through. Fame is weird, but everyone still seems to want it.


Coincidentally, and conveniently for us, Plains is only a half hour away from another National Park site: Andersonville. Andersonville was the site of a prison camp built by the Confederacy and in use throughout the final year and a half of the Civil War. It was designed to hold 10,000 prisoners, but ended up holding more than 30,000. At 16.5 acres, the camp was the size of 12.5 football fields, which would mean there were about 2,500 men on each football-field-sized portion. That's a 5’ x 6’ plot of land per prisoner. Most of the men were wounded and starving before they even got there, and things would only get worse. By that point in the war the south couldn’t even supply their own men with what they needed, and they sure weren’t going to waste any of it keeping the yankees alive.

Andersonville prison grounds

The prisoners were provided minimal food, shelter, and clothing, and were largely left to their own devices to survive in a real-life Lord of the Flies situation. The only source of water was the little creek that also served as the camp’s latrine, and of the approximately 45,000 men held there during the war, 12,920 died, mostly from scurvy, diarrhea and dysentery. And if hunger, disease, and exposure didn’t kill you, your fellow prisoners might. Gang warfare was common, with groups armed with clubs and other self-made weapons desperately taking by force the necessities they needed to survive. Not surprisingly, when the camp was liberated in May 1865, the survivors were described as human skeletons. Also not surprisingly, but on a brighter note, within months of the end of the war the commandant was found guilty of war crimes and hanged.


Today the grounds are kept as an open field with several monuments having been placed by northern states to commemorate their prisoners who lived and died in the camp. You can see the dinky creek running through the middle of it and there are photographs placed around the tour loop that show you what the scene looked like from that vantage point almost 170 years ago, and you can try to imagine the hell that took place right where you’re standing, but it’s hard because it’s all so serene now.


We really needed to end our trip at a cheerier place than Andersonville, so we arranged for one last stop, since it was only a few miles away, at Jimmy Carter Regional Airport outside of Americus. At what was then called Souther Field (Jimmy wasn’t even born until the next year), in May of 1923, Charles Lindbergh made his first solo flight. It wasn’t a big deal at the time, but it became a big deal retroactively when he became the first pilot to successfully fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean four years later.

Before his first solo flight Lindbergh had spent time as a wing-walker in a flying circus, and had some experience as a co-pilot but had never flown alone. He had heard there were a lot of surplus Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” airplanes at Souther Field that the army was trying to get rid of. Lindbergh bought one, but had no way of leaving until he learned how to fly it on his own, which he proceeded to do over the following several days. Now there’s a plaque commemorating the flight, and a statue of Charles during his wing-walking days.

And that was the last stop on our day trip through the deep south. We had packed a lot into a single day and gotten to Andersonville near closing time for the park, and they practically chased us and a few other cars from the grounds when the time came, so I guess I’m glad we’d skipped the detour to Smut Eye earlier. But someday I’ll get there and tell you all about it. I’m looking forward to hearing that story myself.

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