Are you sure we really had men up there and walking on the moon? The Traveler’s Story.
June 19, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: The high, rugged mountain terrain of northwest Georgia is haunted by the mysteries of the unexplained. The Indians came first to find a refuge, then a home, in the highland wilderness. Their ancient Etowah Mounds, near Cartersville, are the sacred reminders of a thriving center for political and religious life which spanned five centuries in the little river valley. A museum illustrates the history of the village, and clay ramps lead to the top of the mounds, where the temples of chieftains and priests once stood. Their time on earth is a puzzle yet to be solved.
The Sights: Neither can anyone explain a puzzling fortification that rises in ruin upon Fort Mountain near Chatsworth. No record has ever been found of the men who piled those rocks together for protection against an unknown foe. The curious wall rises as high as six feet in places, and spans the mountainside for eight hundred and fifty-five feet. Its builders could have been the Indians, or Conquistadores searching for gold, maybe twelfth century Welsh adventurers led by Prince Madoc, or even the strange “moon-eyed people,” who once roamed the woodlands. All vanished without a trace. Their time on earth, too, has been lost with the ages
The Story: The man down the road at the second service station on the left said it was a beer joint. The sign out front said it was a café, although the sign was too old to be believed, no self-respecting egg had been singed by bacon grease in a long time, and the barbecue was neither pulled, nor was it pork. A vegetable plate consisted of either rye, barley, or hops, and mostly they came from a bottle. It was pretty much what could be expected in a little hamlet that had spent a good deal of its early years without a name. Then, said the man down the road at the second service station on the left, a wooden sign fell from the flat car of a passing freight train in the dead of a summer night. Somebody came along and hammered it in the ground. On the whitewashed board was painted a single word: Chatsworth. Nobody ever called the little hamlet anything else.
The beer joint looked pretty much the way it was supposed to in the middle of a hot, muggy, and thirsty afternoon. Dark. A naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Another one above the bar. Sawdust on the floor. It had not been swept out in a while. Maybe never. Keep it dark. Can’t see the dirt. Dust in your throat? Wash it down with another beer. A jukebox sat in the corner. It was dark as well. Hadn’t played a lick, if you believe the man wearing a stained white apron behind the bar, and I did, since Hank Williams had his last confrontation with a cheating heart. Those lovesick blues could ruin a man and a jukebox both. Such were the cold, hard facts of life.
I asked for a menu. The man wearing the stained white apron pointed to a shelf behind the bar. “Take your pick,” he said.
It was the usual. Bourbon. Beer. Gin. Rum. And a little vodka. It did not look as if the Scotch had been opened in a long time.
“It comes either warm or cold,” he said.
“Breakfast ain’t no different from dinner,” he said.
“I can splash it with water. I can serve it straight,” he said.
“It is if you’re hot.”
The room was crowded and far too quiet. Men were hunkered over their tables, leaning on their elbows, their hats pushed back on their eyes, their eyes staring, without blinking, at the old black and white television stuck on the back wall above the bar. The picture was blurry. No one cared. They were watching the once and glorious achievement of a lifetime. None had believed it possible. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, maybe, but no one else.
A lunar module had landed on the surface of the moon, someplace called, if the man on the tee-vee could be believed, Tranquility Base, and they had seen it with their own eyes, which called for another beer. They had feared a crash. They were afraid they would be watching good men die a long way from home. Hope and pride had been dimmed by the shadow of impending doom. Their breaths came in short bursts. Their pulse quickened. Their nerves fluttered. Their shoulders were rock solid tense. But there it was. The Eagle had landed, which called for another beer.
They had heard a voice in the manned spacecraft control center say, “Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
Mostly, the words were stubbornly working their way through static, but the men of Chatsworth were grinning loudly. A few cheered. The man in the white stained apron behind the bar was already opening another round of beer. Everyone leaned forward in the damp darkness to watch Neil Armstrong make his small step for man and giant leap for mankind. The beer bottles were sweating. So were the men of Chatsworth.
A farmer sat alone on the far end of the bar. He had been withered by time, cold rains, a famine or two, and hard work. He wore bib-overalls and an old straw hat. He had not bothered to remove it. No need to. No ladies were in the joint. The wrinkles in his face were not unlike the plowed furrows in a field. His blue-checked shirt was clean but patched. He had been sipping on the same beer for most of the afternoon. He knew all about the advances of technology in a world grown far too modern for him. He had broken new ground behind a mule, then astride a tractor. He had strung up a hog in a smokehouse, knew how to cook everything but the squeal, and finally settled down to buying bacon wrapped with plastic in a grocery store. He had watched the world around him slowly change, mostly against his will, but this was too much.
He said his name was Virgil. Probably was. Said his last name didn’t matter. Probably didn’t. He nodded toward the television. “That’s not happening,” he said.
The cheering stopped.
“Somebody’s lying to you,” he said.
Every eye turned toward him.
“Ain’t nothing but a hoax,” he said.
The men of Chatsworth frowned.
“Probably just one of them moving pictures,” he said.
“How do you figure that?” I asked.
“We can’t get pictures from the moon,” he said. “Hell, we can’t even get pictures from Atlanta.”
The heads nodded. Somebody ordered another beer. The man wearing the stained white apron behind the bar turned off the television. Might as well, he thought. Couldn’t argue with common sense.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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