Friday, April 22, 2011

Thinking about escaping to 'A Place to Come To' and visiting Robert Penn's ghost while Sparkplug serves us burgers

For acclaimed Southern writer Robert Penn Warren, Guthrie, Ky., truly was A Place to Come To, his hometown, which he would visit to reconnect with his roots.
For me, it has not been a place to reconnect with roots, but rather a place to go to escape stress, where a girl named “Sparkplug” strains against her tight T-shirt while peddling burgers and fries at the American Café, where Mennonites mingle with their more modern agrarian brethren of multiple races and colors.
In my early escapes to this village, on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line, I was running from murder. No they weren’t murders I committed, but murders I covered as an editor and columnist for the newspaper 15 or 20 miles south in Clarksville, Tenn.
I wasn’t really running away from my job as a newspaperman telling tales of life and death of young people cut down by vile punks.
Rather I was running to Guthrie.
To a place that for more than 30 years now has become at least in my mind, a Mayberry.
Oh, there have been acts of violence here, too. I once wrote about a merchant whose life’s blood ran out on the steps of his store on U.S. 41.
Here I could find an uncommon peace, though. Decades ago, it was found in the warm embrace of a fellow who was a stranger just once, Louis Buckley, a native son himself, who was battling colon cancer.
He too had run to this town. He’d been a record peddler in Nashville, but decided to close up shop after one of his clerks was murdered.
He hauled his records into a series of deserted storefronts, welcomed collectors.
Gave away more records than he sold, I’d reckon.
At least to me. On my first visit he not only loaded me down with albums, he also opened the doors and the heart of the city to me.
He introduced me to Reuben Toliver, the king of the whole hog barbecue. This peculiarly southern traditional food still can be purchased in Guthrie. But it truly isn’t what the Rev. Reuben cooked in the pits outside his church in nearby Sadlersville as much as it was the spirit of the man himself. Reuben Toliver’s annual Labor Day picnic, a family dinner on the grounds, was a sight, and experience, to savor, as I spent the night out there in Sadlersville, helping as the old preacher maintained the coals, sizzling with the aroma of pork.
The first time I tasted this barbecue was when Mr. Buckley took me into Longhurst's General Store. At the time it was the rare thriving business on Ewing Street, U.S. 41, as it rolls beneath the blue Kentucky sky.
It was in that store that I first met William Longhurst Sr., the proprietor whose mantra was “If We Ain’t Got It, You Don’t Need It.”
His son, Bill Jr., inherited not only the business, but the smile of an attitude, the warm welcoming character of his dad.
It was also in this store that I first met Thomas Warren, Robert Penn’s brother.
Sometimes the visits would extend to the skyline’s most-imposing structure: the grain elevator that Thomas ran. “I love my brother, but I don’t understand what he’s writing about” (or words to that effect) the gentle soul confided one long-ago afternoon when his office was my refuge from the cold.
Oh, it’s a hard-scrabble town in the middle of the “prairie.” Mennonite carriages and tobacco farmers’ tractors rattle slowly through.
Some people escape the storms of life by visiting spas. Others play golf or, if they are fortunate, visit exotic ports of call.
For me, the moment I step from my car and onto Ewing Street, the moment I go into Longhurst’s to see how things are going, it is as if a weight is lifted.
Many people I’ve known here have died.
The old poet and great novelist Robert Penn Warren never made it back to town after the home of his birth, a block from downtown, was turned into a museum 20 years ago. He'd planned to. But he became ill.
Through his relatives he passed on word that he was a fan of my writing, that he was glad I loved his town, his people.
Among the items inside that museum are baseball trousers from the poet’s best friend, Kent Greenfield, whose first pitch for the New York Giants was a fastball knocked out of the park by the Philadelphia Athletics’ Cy Williams. In later years, Greenfield raised bird dogs and occasionally welcomed young reporters.
Most of the men I first met here are buried in the cemetery at the edge of town.
When Mr. Buckley died, Song of the Islands, a scratchy old 78 rpm recording by Louis Armstrong, was played at his funeral. It was by his instruction. A note requesting that song was found tucked into the album sleeve in his home. A column I’d written about Guthrie, about Buckley was also tucked in the sleeve with the record. It was one of many I wrote about the town, about Robert Penn and Jesse James, about Reuben Toliver and the befuddled bicycle rider who lived in an open shed on Ewing Street. About the murdered hardware merchant. And tattooed redneck women. All parts of this wonderful town.
Yet I still come to Guthrie.
No time hasn’t stood still. Yet it is a place where for almost half a year the high-noon siren pierces the peace at 11 o’clock. Why bother changing it? It’ll only have to be changed back when the time changes is the logic. Sounds reasonable to me.
Today, yesterday, rough struggles continue for us all, not just for this old man still making his way, searching for answers. Asking "Why?" So I stopped for a few minutes to think about, to write about Guthrie. I'd written a part of this tale long ago and, every so often, I either read it or add to it or both. Today, a bit gloomy perhaps on a Good Friday, 2011, seemed a good time to post it.
And it also is posted as a way of promising myself that soon I will return to watch the red-tail hawks sail over the cemetery, the Buckley and Warren plots, to wander in and continue a conversation with Bill Longhurst Jr., as it we'd never stopped talking.
Maybe meet my old pal, Rob Dollar, and go to the American Café to see Sparkplug and have a burger.
Walk down Ewing Street. And take a deep breath of a place to come to for freedom.