JIM DODSON: In the Garden of Good and Evil
The man peeled off his New York Yankees ball cap and scratched his graying head.
It was a cool, gray Sunday morning, and we were strangers standing beside each other looking at Johnny Mercer's gravestone in historic Bonaventure Cemetery near the rustic fishing village of Thunderbolt, a few miles east of Savannah. Our wives had wandered off in separate directions to look for interesting graves.
We'd come to the right place for that.
This stately, gorgeous municipal cemetery on the bluff above the Wilmington river, with its 160-odd acres of headstones and ornate monuments dating back to Colonial times, atmospherically laid out over a grid of sand avenues under moss-spangled live oaks, was pretty much a locally known treasure until Clint Eastwood made his 1997 film based on John Berendt's best-selling book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." After that, Bonaventure became a mandatory stop for literary tourists and lesser eccentrics.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Conrad Aiken was also buried somewhere here. I hoped to find his grave, too.
I knew Bonaventure from my years as a rookie reporter in Atlanta in the late 1970s and early '80s. One of my first interviews was with a flamboyant Savannah poet and writer who led me there to see Johnny Mercer's grave not long after he died in 1976. She'd known the legendary composer of such standards as "Moon River," "Days of Wine and Roses" and "Hooray for Hollywood" and insisted we toast her departed friend with a nice chilled wine. She had a flair for the dramatic. I had a story to get. I hadn't counted on falling in love with a garden of good and evil.
"I can't be sure, but I think Johnny Mercer also wrote 'Take Me out to the Ballgame,'" said the man, respectfully holding his Yankees cap as he squatted to examine the song titles carved into a marble bench that the Mercer family provided for pilgrims like us to sit for a spell.
Other famous Mercer tunes listed on the bench included "Aut-umn Leaves," "Accentuate the Positive" and (my personal childhood favorite) "Jeepers Creep-ers." I was pretty sure, however, that "Take Me out to the Ball-game" was a Tin Pan Alley tune written by someone else long before Johnny Mercer did his "Old Black Magic" in Hollywood. But I kept this to myself.
Composer John Herndon Mercer's flat, unadorned gravestone was aptly and simply inscribed: "And the Angels Sing." Someone -- presumably recent fans and visitors -- had left 13 small stones lying on the stone.
Before she moseyed off to look at other grave markers, my wife had informed me that placing a stone on a grave is tradition that comes down from the ancient Hebrews -- meant to convey to living and departed alike that someone had "been there" to pay respects and grieve.
With no disrespect to Mercer, Conrad Aiken and the other residents of the cemetery, I was in a mild state of grief because my college alma mater's football team had needlessly blown its big football game with N.C. State and lost an important game it should have won. To make matters worse, the European Ryder Cup team -- whom I typically root for -- was losing big in Kentucky.
Good Timing for Escape
Between bike rides and nature walks and a round of golf, we'd watched bits of the game and the matches at a beautiful isolated retreat called the Palmetto Bluffs Inn, our first "weekend away" in almost four years.
It struck me that the timing of our brief escape couldn't have been better. On the Friday-evening drive down from the Sandhills, we listened to a major business commentator on NPR sum up America's sudden financial crisis as "the biggest financial meltdown in American history -- something that will change life in America forever."
After the most volatile week on Wall Street since its Black Tuesday of 1929, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson soberly declared, "Raw capitalism is dead."
At which point, I switched off the radio and declared a moratorium on all news from the outside world.
On the back end of our blissful weekend, before we headed home and eager to extend our busman's holiday, I offered to show my Yankee wife Wendy around Savannah, my old stomping ground. She and her two sisters and mom had recently done a "girls' weekend" in Charleston and come away gushing about the place.
"Charleston's nice," I agreed. "But Savannah is far more interesting -- true Southern Gothic." I told her I could show her the original Garden of Good and Evil.
"Sounds great," she said. "Will we see Clint Eastwood, too?"
After breakfast at Clary's on Abercorn, I'd led her on a driving tour of Gen. Oglethorpe's 24 municipal squares, then headed for the famous Thunderbolt burying ground.
'All Lovely Things'
Given the brooding national atmospherics, I was eager to accentuate the positive. I was also killing time until my wandering wife drifted back so we could try to find Conrad Aiken's grave. I'd heard it had an interesting inscription.
"So you're a Yankees fan," I said to my fellow Johnny Mercer pilgrim.
"Sure am," he said. "You know, Yankee Stadium closes tonight. I'd give anything to be there. It's like the death of my childhood."
He explained that he grew up on Nash Street in the Bronx.
"I saw my first Major League game at the House that Ruth Built. I even saw the Pope there, too," he said, shaking his head. "It's all over tonight, though. Seems kind of fitting the Yankees didn't even make the post-season. Eighty-five years of history -- just gone. They're sending home plate to Cooperstown."
I was tempted to give him a stanza of a Conrad Aiken poem I'd memorized from Googling the beloved poet that very morning. It seemed perfectly relevant to this week's events on Wall Street and elsewhere. "All lovely things must have an ending / All lovely things must fade and die / And youth, that's now so bravely spending / Must beg a penny by and by."
Instead, I conversationally wondered who the Yanks were playing.
"The Orioles," he said.
Here was an unexpected reason to smile.
Remembering Uncle Carson
I saw my first Major League game at old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore with my Uncle Carson Jewell in 1963. Uncle Carse was an irrepressible force of nature, a diehard Orioles season ticket holder, fanatical Chesapeake Bay fisherman, and perhaps the most delightfully profane character I ever knew. At the critical moment of any "Birds" game, he'd cup his massive hands around his mouth and shout the most appalling things at visiting teams. He saved his best invective for the hated New York Yankees.
Jeepers creepers but Uncle Carson had a leather lung! He also had a wife -- my Aunt Leona -- who sternly advised me to forget instantly anything I ever heard my favorite foul-mouthed uncle shout at an Orioles game.
"Your uncle, dear, has a big mouth to go with a bird brain," Aunt Leona liked to say, shaking her head.
One evening down by the first base line, though, Uncle Carson introduced me to mountainous slugger Boog Powell and third baseman Brooks Robinson. Robinson signed my new Rawlings fielder's mitt. He went on to win 16 consecutive "Golden Gloves" and become the greatest third baseman who ever lived. I went on to become -- at least in my mind -- the Brooks Robinson of Greensboro's Pet Dairy baseball league. My baseball career fizzled about age 14, but somewhere I still have that mitt.
Ten years ago, I was writing essays for Major League Baseball's official programs of the All Star Game and World Series. Ironically, the year I wrote the cover story for MLB about the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, I met Boog Powell again. By then Brooks Robinson was safely in the Hall of Fame and Powell had owned a barbecue joint just over the right field fence.
"Did you ever hear fans yelling appalling stuff in the stands behind first base?" I asked the Birds' most popular first-baseman and slugger of all time.
Powell grinned. "Only if they were yelling at the other team," he said.
"That was my Uncle Carson!" I proudly informed him.
Telling a Story
How times have changed. Lately, my interest in all professional sports in America has vanished quicker than a hot stock tip from a Lehman Brother. I'm still not entirely sure why. Sometimes I grieve for my vanished baseball passion. The only sporting events I seem capable of mustering much enthusiasm for these days are college football and the British Open Championship.
My natural baseball adversary and unexpected companion in Bonaventure cemetery, grieving for the death of his old stadium the way I'd once done for old "Bird" Stadium, put on his Yankees cap again. We were both looking around for our wandering wives. I spotted mine finally moseying our way.
"Part of me thinks baseball will never be the same again," he said.
"I know what you mean," I agreed. With another baseball season drawing to a close, I sometimes wished my baseball passion might come wandering back, too.
My wife and I spent the next delightful hour or so poking around the Garden of Good and Evil, writing down bits from the stones. She observed how sad most modern graveyards seem in comparison to places like Bonaventure or the old burying ground by Bethesda Church in Aberdeen. Many prohibit monuments and carved stones of any kind.
"But stones and monuments tell a story," she said. "You come away feeling these were people you could have known. They are us."
I was drawn to Noble Hardee ("born Camden County, Georgia, September 24, 1805, died September 10, 1867") who had a lovely lichen-covered stone that read: "I am not afraid to die, having frequently considered the issues of a dying hour." What a Southern stoic. Then again, he'd also just survived the Civil War.
We also paid respects to Elizabeth and Edward Padleford, who had six children and sadly outlived them all between 1799 and 1830. Edward outlived Elizabeth by 25 years. I couldn't imagine such a fate.
We went looking for the famous "Bird Girl" who graces the cover of Berendt's book but couldn't find her. (Turns out she was removed in 1997 and placed in the Telfair Museum -- probably for her own safety.)
We did find the monument for Gracie Watson, the little girl who died just before Easter in 1889. Her father ran one of Savannah's most popular hotels. For over 100 years she's been popular with locals, who believed just touching her head brought them some kind of spiritual healing. The family recently put up a large iron fence to protect Little Gracie from vanishing.
We found graves of people who were lost at sea. We found the Society of Train Conductors. We found a couple who died only a week apart. Their gravesstones were linked by a carved vine of ivy. Another simply read: "Died of Yellow Fever."
We found a gorgeous monument belonging to Ann Marion, who died in 1817. Her stone was fading, but I could make out some of the lovely words: "At the close of a distressing disease, fell into a sweet sleep, and left the world without a struggle. Fair Stranger, whose feet have wandered into this land of silence, mayest thou live and die in the same manner. "
"That's a man who loved his wife," said my wife.
Just before heading for home, we even found Conrad Aiken's grave.
He also had a bench where weary pilgrims might sit and reflect on their own mortality. We sat down and agreed that, at the end of a week like the one America has just been through, a walk through this beautiful old burying ground had been good for one's perspective on living.
Leave it to a poet to say it best. Conrad Aiken's stone merely read:
"Give my Love to the World -- Cosmos Traveler, Destination Unknown."
For whatever it's worth: That night, the Yankees won their last game in the House that Ruth Built -- 6-3, over the Orioles.
Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence at The Pilot, can be reached by e-mal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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