Eldridge, Alabama
November 26, 2001

Back in the day she would have rocked your world.

I was blasting down US 78 out of Memphis, through Tupelo, and on into Birmingham. Tupelo, and the birthplace of Elvis. Simple and loving. Much nicer than the death place of Graceland. Out of the slow drawl of Tupelo and on to the mountain rollercoaster ride of Eastern Alabama.

Eldridge is the kind of place most of us smash through without noticing, other than a vague annoyance at the momentary inconvenience called for by the insistent “Reduce Speed Ahead” signs along the entry into town.

3,500 miles into the trip and finally got pulled over by John Law. Along this road I have become fascinated with displays of the flag and have repeatedly made the mistake of not getting photos of some that grabbed me. Eldridge grabbed me. Grabbed me so much that when a blur of Red, White, and Blue smoked past my passenger side window, and my brain had just enough time to figure out something interesting was here but hadn’t quite been able to process what that interesting thing might be, I stood on the brakes and power slid into a hard right turn onto a side road so I could go back and take a look at whatever that thing was.

Only on the strength of his training did the officer behind me at the time manage to keep from parking his patrol car inside my camper shell. Many thanks to the instructor at the Police Academy whose lessons kept me from getting killed.

Policemen, from my experience, are generally a reasonable lot. However, very few would take kindly to a lunatic with out of state plates locking it up right in front of him. Certainly, the officer in Eldridge that night did not. It took awhile to talk him off the ledge. After a stern lecture doubling as an exercise in self control since I think he most likely wanted to slap the cuffs on me and drop me in a creek somewhere, he finally asked me what the hell I was doing.

“I saw the flags,” I told him.

This drama played out along the edge of a small grassy triangle. At the eastern edge of the triangle is a small monument. Spreading out in a “V” beyond the monument is an array of flags on white poles. The plaque atop the monument reads,

“Dedicated to the memory
And in honor of veterans
Serving our country
From the eldridge area”

I asked him how long the monument and the flag display had been there.

“Long as I can think of. They always keep the flags nice and neat and replace them if they get dingy. Keep the lawn nice and trimmed. Around here we been proud of service to our country even when it wasn’t in fashion…Somebody keeps the flowers fresh.”

At the base of the monument was a nice Red, White, and Blue floral arrangement in a large vase. The State Trooper didn’t know who took care of the place in general but knew that Johnny, a resident nearby always brought the main flag in each night and ran it back up each morning. And while we discussed my ticket, the flags, and the town, a man in his early thirties strode forcefully over to the center flag and lowered it. He folded it with military precision and then strode, or more accurately marched, up the street and out of site. He never acknowledged that we were there.

“Johnny’s a little different,” the Trooper told me.

He guessed that driving irresponsibly to take a look at the flags was an okay excuse. He wrote me a warning citation. I asked him what that meant. He said it meant that I’d just gotten off and warned me not to ask him too many questions or he might change his mind. The light was fading rapidly and I haven’t quite mastered outdoor distance shots with this camera. I mentioned this and asked if it would be alright for me to walk over by the flags and take a few photos while he wrote up the warning. He wasn’t crazy about it but I added that if I didn’t get a few worthwhile pictures my bad driving and his kindness would be for nothing. He acquiesced.

The officer gave me the impotent ticket. We talked a bit more about Eldridge, about Alabama, about America. Like most people I’ve met along the way he wanted to give me his opinion and then struggled for words. To try to make it easier for him I asked him why he had chosen a career as an officer of the law. He mentioned pay and retirement and medical benefits for his family. I pointed out that a lot of jobs supply those. “Why this job,” I asked, “Why a dangerous job?”

“It ain’t all that dangerous. Most of the time it’s boring. I guess I just wanted to help people. I like that part. Helping someone who’s in trouble. Feels like I’m doing something.”

I kept trying to prod him into a commentary on America being a nation of laws and upholding and enforcing being critical to that and all that good political philosophy stuff. He didn’t bite.

“I just like helping people.”

After he left I sat on the grass off to the side of the flags and watched the daylight die out over the wooded ravine of Eldridge, Alabama. I hung out eating some apples and cheese I’d picked up at a market in Tupelo. My body had been crying out for fruit or vegetables, anything to break up the parade of heavy, greasy road food I’d been shoveling down for the last several weeks.

Some headlights swung over me as a car turned off the highway and rolled to a stop.

She struggled out of the car carrying a long, narrow box and made her way to the monument. She hadn’t seen me sitting about fifteen feet away in the darkness. She opened the box and took out a bright red flower. I don’t know much about flowers. It wasn’t a rose. That’s about all I know. She set it on the ground at the base of the floral arrangement.

“Hi,” I said. She jumped about fifteen feet in the air and yelped. She didn’t stay scared long.

“What are you doing over there in the dark scaring old ladies half-to-death,” she demanded. She bounded over to me. Her words were angry and she looked a little jacked up standing there with her hands on her hips but her eyes smiled. Judging from the crow’s feet around her eyes, they smiled frequently.

Her name is Maggie. She is sixty years old. When she smiles you see a much younger woman. And back in the day that younger woman would rock your world. She didn’t make any visible effort to disguise the slow march of age. Maybe the naturally beautiful don’t need to. She lived about thirty miles up the road in Jasper. I asked her why she was there.

Back in the day, that younger woman had rocked the world of a young man from Jasper. They had been high school and college sweet hearts. As things began heating up in Vietnam he enlisted. Back when it wasn’t cool. They were married in 1965 when he was home on a three day leave. A few months later he shipped out to Vietnam. He didn’t come back.

He had been stationed up near San Francisco. She had planned to go up there to see him. His orders came suddenly and there wasn’t time to get in that last visit.

Maggie has since remarried. She has children that are grown now and a grandchild on the way. I asked her why she came here with her flower.

“It’s a way to remember him.”

She’s known about the Flags forever. She doesn’t want to make to big of a show near her home…doesn’t want her husband to think he’s somehow second best. But she once loved a young man and now other young men are off fighting in a strange place and she wanted to remember him and send out a thought for them. She wanted to feel like she was doing something.

I asked if she missed him still.

“Sometimes. Not often. But I feel him every day.”

She said she worries now for the young women today whose husbands are gone overseas. She got lucky, she said. She met another man, one she could love as much and they built a life together that she would not trade for anything…almost.

“Maybe,” she said, “maybe I’d trade it for him coming home. Not that I can imagine a better life than the one I’ve had. Not that I’d want to give up my boys. It isn’t that my husband isn’t enough…it’s just…”

Words fail. Tears will do. I put my arm around her shoulder and told her she didn’t have to explain it. I told her that not everything has to be ranked, to make sense. I said other things I can’t recall, hoping that if I talked enough I could say the right thing or make her laugh or somehow help her stop wrestling with the dilemma of the man she loves now and the ghost she feels always.

It didn’t work.

She pulled back and dried her eyes. She told me she had to be getting home. I walked with her over to her car. She laughed nervously and asked me how many old women I’d made cry during my travels.

“Just one,” I said.

She laughed, for real this time and said, “I guess that makes me special.”

You have no idea, Maggie.

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