|Photoillustration by Charlton Walters Hillis|
|Perhaps one of those types who would never want to leave her native Chickamauga, Georgia. But she's already been to Israel, is planning a trip to the Netherlands and dreams of traveling far and wide. Robert met her when he moved to Chickamauga from Valley Head, Alabama (named for its location in Will's Valley--population in 2000: 611), when he was thirteen years old. Chickamauga's not but about forty-five minutes' drive, but he never went back but twice until the other day, and once was for a funeral. He just never was interested in going back.
He never was interested in going back, but he never forgot the place. Could not forget it if he tried. And once the subject of the supernatural comes up, he jumps on it. Promises if I'll come by the house, he'll tell me some ghost stories. Not generic ones but--as he takes off his glasses and points at his own two eyes for emphasis--things he's seen personally.
I take him up on the offer and am not disappointed, but on reflection, believe he just might have two different kinds of bogeymen in mind. Not to detract from the ghost stories, mind you. They're on one level, the others on another, less easily shared. I'm a realist, not a writer of the supernatural, and human nature fascinates me. My underlying intention is to write the tale of an ordinary man who lived through extraordinary circumstances.
Once Mr. Winston gets to telling the ghost stories, he seems to be wanting to go back, but only for the purpose of showing someone else where it all happened. Coming off the top of the mountain at Mentone, Alabama, he gets positively excited upon pointing out to me the sign for Valley Head. Many a time, he tells me, he and a buddy hiked the two miles up this mountain to fish at the top. A straight-up trail through the woods, at night. Surely they used a flashlight? He doesn't remember having one.
We're on our way to Winston Place, now a bed and breakfast, and it isn't hard to find. Back under slavery, they divided up the children of a particular family, with half going to one white home and half to another. Mr. Winston's ancestors went to the Winstons. By the time he came along, his father, Gus Winston, was a cook at the same house. Grew a little corn in the summer. Raised a family in a little house just across the pasture from the big house. When we drive over later, it's still there. Nobody's home, but it's now guarded by a rottweiler who takes his job very seriously. Pins Robert against the side of his Eldorado until he cannot even get the door open but finally slips around to the passenger side while my husband slides over to drive.
Before that, though, we go to Winston Place, drive over the railroad tracks which run alongside the main street of Valley Head and up the lane to the rear, where there is a small brick house and a man coming out to meet us. He introduces himself as "Colonel" Matthews, but that turns out to be from Vietnam rather than the Civil War, as one might be ready for in that setting.
While we wait in the car, Robert steps out to get acquainted, and it doesn't hurt he has a purple heart from his Vietnam days right there on the tag of his car. Colonel Matthews is married to one of the descendants of the original owners, and he is more than happy to show us around.
Winston Place is a pre-Civil War colonial, 172 years old. He tells us the original house had four bedrooms on each side, which are no longer there. Out back are slave quarters, a corn crib, a barn and a carriage house. The kitchen used to be outside also (Robert remembers it well), but it's gone, and the kitchen inside, although period charming, is a recent development.
Robert isn't familiar with the elegant dining room--he'd not had any reason to be in there before. We are taken upstairs through all the bedrooms, and I wonder if he has ever been up there before.
He never says if he has, only, "Talk about ghosts! They wouldn't wait till night to come out here--they'd be right out there in the daytime!"
We began at the rear and end up on the front porch. It's a wide, wrap around porch with massive Doric columns, and is repeated on the upstairs balcony. The lawn is large and green with big old trees, and you just want to sit down on one of those white wooden chairs and dream. Colonel Matthews tells us the Union army made this its headquarters in the fall of 1863 and spared it because the owner was a Union sympathizer.
Lingering, looking out across the lawn at the train going by, Tommie Lee tells me about how when she was in high school, she had to take a train every day to the black school in Lafayette. The government paid for the students' tickets rather than have them in school with white children. The whole day is a sobering experience for a Southern white girl, and at no point more so than right there on that blinding white porch.
After a down home good dinner at the Tigers Inn, a place that appears not to have changed inside or out for at least forty years (Matthews directed us there, and from the window you can see part of the mansion across the street), we set out to look for the site of Robert's best ghost story. He likes to tell how, not just once or twice or three times, but many times he has stood at the foot of the hill and heard an entire church service--sermon and singing all--coming from the old church building in the woods which also served as the school for black children.
Whenever he tried walking on up that hill to better join the nocturnal worshippers, all became quiet and still, empty. They were still holding services in that building then--on Sunday and the occasional revival meetings, to be sure, but these were on nights when nothing was supposed to have been going on there. He used to take unbelievers there--he was a regular tour guide for the ghosts.
I wonder but don't ask about details of the story. What songs were they singing? What was the sermon about? Was it all just a blend of sound and impressions, or was it clear as a bell, and if so, has he understandably forgotten the details?
He is sure it is no longer standing, but Matthews just this morning said it was. Robert drives to where he thinks it ought to be, but has trouble finding it. Along the way he points out a particular house. This is where, he says, more than once was discovered a small fire burning on the back stoop where no fire should have been. When the owner was alerted, he did not appear alarmed but rather resigned to it. Eventually, this man in his 80s went out and sat down at an outdoor table and shot himself.
Finally Robert pulls up into a yard to ask directions to the old church building. A man is working in the yard, and there is a Confederate flag on his parked truck. It occurs to me he might be asking the wrong fellow, and it will be the rottweiler all over again. But the man is most helpful, even gets in his truck and drives ahead to show us. It is all there up in the woods on that hill, overgrown with brush but intact.
We stand in the driveway with our guide, who stays and shares some local history. Robert had told me before that almost anyone in Valley Head could and would tell you ghost stories. This man, Gary, is a confirmed realist. He has no interest in our ghost stories. He is a just-the-facts sort of guy. After a few subtle tries on the subject, though, Robert has him telling us about a close friend of his who was awakened by the ghost of his own dead mother checking to see if he was covered on a cold night. Things like that are not for Gary, but he is not one to doubt the word of a friend.
Several times during the day I regret having forgotten my camera. Robert says he seriously considered bringing his but decided against it. He's not sure he wants pictures in the house that would cause him to wake up in the night with nightmares. I remember his disinterest in going back to Valley Head all those years, and thoughts of Jim Crow era horror tales are looming in the back of my mind, and I'm wondering if he's not talking ghosts anymore.
It takes me a while to get up the courage to press him further on the subject. If he has not already said more, it might be he thinks I would not be interested. When I do finally ask, several weeks later, he seems ready to spill the beans. We all meet over Sunday dinner at the Plantation Restaurant in Chickamauga, Georgia, a nondescript little place with great home cooking and real biscuits.
I haven't brought my notebook and wonder if there will be enough napkins to write on, but it turns out there's no need for either. Mr. Winston has been laughing at me, waiting for me to ask, sensing my questions. And he doesn't have a thing to tell me; neither one of them does.
"Guess I'm not giving you much to write about," he laughs. Raised in a north Alabama hamlet in the thirties, and in the forties in a small town in Georgia--site and name of a most famous Civil War battle and to this day proudly entrenched in its own history--this gentleman of African American heritage can tell me of no more than segregated schools and sitting in the balcony of the movie theater the one time he remembers going to a movie (it was Gone with the Wind).
Those situations at that time seemed so normal to him, they went unquestioned. His father and his mother made respectively one dollar a day and fifty cents a day, but he never went hungry. They raised their children to work, so that Robert was making his own money by the age of eleven. He says he never felt afraid walking out at night on his many boyish adventures (the exception being when he heard voices crying in the cemetery), never was a victim of racial cruelty. Tommie Lee's is a similar experience.
So aside from the ghosts, it's a non story. Or is it? Maybe it ought to be spread widely so that out of the smoke of Mississippi burning and all the other too real horror tales of racism of all colors, will stand a testament to a brighter America. It's a part of our history often made out to be as doubtful as ghost stories, far from perfect but weighing heavily in favor of decent, freedom loving individuals, subject to change and improve without rewriting history. That's better than a tale of the supernatural any day.
Charlton Walters Hillis has a fine arts degree, but her first love is creative writing, primarily the short story. She has a nonfiction work in progress of an art buyer in the Voronezh region of Russia. By day Charlton is a graphic artist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
©Copyright 2006 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.