Elvis, Dixie, the Ladies’ Auxiliary, and Me
Trying to shut off my brain and act like a normal American in Vicksburg, Mississippi
How much mindless pageantry could I take? Our first morning in Vicksburg, I soon found out when we joined a “ladies auxiliary” ceremony in the Military Park. We faced the ruins of a Civil War battleship, spit-shined politicians, and rows of seated women arrayed in white, Old Glories resting on each shoulder.
Flagless, scanning the scattered Ladies Auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, George and I took places in the back row. I tried to pass as a normal American, appreciative of our veterans while inside I seethed over how often we sent soldiers into pointless foreign battles. The speakers stood under the skeletal battleship, their speeches kicking off the Auxiliary’s national convention. Just waiting for my chance to interview the National Military Park’s superintendent, I didn’t belong here.
The whole ceremonial shebang piled cliché atop cliché, all of it as hollow and marooned in time as the USS Cairo hovering over us. I felt terrible. Like a heretic stuck in a church service—a familiar feeling—I knew I should shut off my brain and cede the field to the faithful people around me. Listening to the speakers’ endless invocations of the women’s sacrifices, I felt sure wives of war vets endured challenges beyond my comprehension. Their common costumes, shared songs, and flag ceremonies must bond them in comfort.
I hated the bind these pageants put me in. I didn’t want to be the prick who made light of war veterans’ spouses and their hardships. Yet judging by the ages of most attendees, the war most of these wives’ spouses served in was Vietnam. Vietnam. Since America’s interference in that Asian civil war was based on official lies and Cold War panic, it’s hard to reconcile that twelve-year nightmare with tears for America’s virtue or preserving our “freedom” in any way. This pageantry didn’t want us to think about that, only cover the bloody truth with showy patriotism.
George absorbed it all calmly beside me. He interpreted my freak-out as a non-military person’s naïveté. The son of an Army officer who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, he pointed out that I wasn’t a sports fan, either, so I didn’t get exposed to patriotic ceremonies at games. “It’s got a Southern spin to it, too,” he explained, “which you’d know if you ever watched NASCAR. These ceremonies just throw red meat at the audience. They don’t ask for reflection. That’s really how the ceremony dishonors these women, treating them as if they can’t think.”
After this one finally ended, George answered a VFW official’s inquiry by pointing out that the whole concept of a veteran’s “auxiliary” seemed dated. Following recent wars in which women soldiers played crucial roles, how would they and their husbands join or gain support from the future “wives” organization? And where would he, as the son of a three-war vet, find a place to fit in? The official hurried to agree and just as quickly, hurried away.
Maybe I wasn’t up on ballpark-and-racetrack patriotism, but I was already deep into another kind of competition. Our whole experience of Mississippi would set cruel truths against misty myths. Myths had the home advantages on the field.
The trip from Little Rock to Vicksburg marked another extended period of driving with little exercise beyond a few feeble stretches during stops for food and gas. Despite feeling more inclined to take a nap after checking into the motel, I recognized that Lee’s suggestion of a walk through the nearby Vicksburg National Military Park was the wiser choice if I wanted to avoid the slippery slope of inertia that plagues me beginning with autumn’s shorter days and falling temperatures.
We entered the park on foot after crossing a busy intersection designed to move cars efficiently but with little regard for pedestrian safety – no crosswalks nor flashing signs warned walkers that the lights were about to change. There was still some daylight left as we climbed over the traffic gate extending across the primary road exiting the park. A park ranger drove slowly to meet us. I suspected it was closing time and thought she’d ask us to leave but instead provided us with a map and general orientation to the park. Learning of Lee’s quest to speak with the park superintendent, she told us of a welcoming ceremony he was scheduled to attend the next morning and took Lee’s information with a promise to attempt to facilitate a meeting. We were lucky to have reached Vicksburg when we did. A few days earlier and she’d have been unavailable to assist us due to the government shutdown.
A surprisingly steep uphill greeted us soon after passing the visitor’s center. A cemetery on our left elicited jokes about ghosts and needing to finish our walk before completely losing daylight. A few runners were exiting the park taking advantage of the downhill to finish their runs with a strong kick. Soon only small groups of deer could be seen in the distance bounding across open areas as we approached. When we didn’t give chase, they slowly returned to grazing with one male watching us warily as if to ensure we weren’t going to change our minds.
The cemetery soon gave way to thickly forested hills that were backdrops to monuments to confederate and union divisions that had participated in the Siege of Vicksburg and lesser placards marking the opposing armies’ troop movements. I hoped that if we walked fast enough we might see a more recently erected monument honoring African-American troops that had fought during the Vicksburg campaign. In the numerous battlefields we’d visited in other states, I’d not seen monuments to African Americans. In fact, many times it seemed African Americans were only mentioned as an afterthought with just one of two information panels that seemed inadequate to capture the conditions under which they lived if enslaved or provide the reader with any ideas of other roles African Americans had played during the Civil War especially those related to emancipation.
During previous visits to several battlefields in Georgia and Tennessee, I saw just two other African Americans – a female park ranger and the only person of color working in a hair salon that had chosen the Chickamauga battlefield as the setting for a photo shoot. Call me paranoid, but I sensed white visitors looking at me strangely as if questioning my right to intrude on their sacred spaces. Besides wondering why these battlefields should be visited by African Americans if they did not see information about their ancestors as major players during the Civil War, I also wondered what value they held for whites especially as younger whites seemed less likely to rally around a notion of white supremacy in a supposed post-racial U.S. But, after a few minutes reflection, I recalled how our reluctance to learn and recognize the impacts of history had crippled our abilities to effectively address the country’s racial and economic divides. Instead, people who struggle to survive economically are told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps with little regard for the systems that were put in place to hinder their advancement while advantaging others. Many of these systems originated with the battle over slavery and for that reason alone the parks need to exist as reminders of that history and to aid us in connecting the dots.
Of course, attracting African Americans to visit the country’s national parks is not just a challenge for parks focused on the Civil War. When I hike national forests in Colorado, I seldom see African Americans and wonder why that’s the case. I’ve theorized that our failure to take advantage of the country’s parks might be a kind of survival strategy reflecting years of calculating where one could safely travel without being challenged by some white racist intent on “protecting America.” Or perhaps costs of travel, hiking and camping gear are too prohibitive for black families on a budget. As an adolescent in Ohio, I don’t recall ever hearing of an African American family visiting the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite National Park. Most family vacations involved a car trip to visit relatives “back home” in the south or relatives living in northern and western urban enclaves where many had fled in search of safety and opportunity outside the south. But, perhaps this survival strategy loses its usefulness when it evolves into an admonition from both black and white arbiters of African-American behavior that “Black folks don’t do ________.” (Fill in the blank with an activity of choice, e.g., figure skating, skydiving, spelunking, etc.).
We didn’t reach the African-American soldiers monument, deciding to turn around when we could barely see the road ahead. A few hundred yards downhill we saw two African-American women deep in conversation while speed walking in the opposite direction. I didn’t think it wise for two men to approach them in the near total darkness but thought how otherwise it would have been a great opportunity to explore their relationship to the Vicksburg’s national park. Who knows – maybe African American’s relationships with our national parks were starting to change beginning in Mississippi.