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
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 hadnt 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
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 wasnt 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 didnt 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.
Johnnys a little different, the Trooper told
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 Id 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 havent 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 wasnt
crazy about it but I added that if I didnt get a few worthwhile
pictures my bad driving and his kindness would be for nothing. He
The officer gave me the impotent ticket. We talked a bit more about
Eldridge, about Alabama, about America. Like most people Ive
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 aint all that dangerous. Most of the time its
boring. I guess I just wanted to help people. I like that part.
Helping someone whos in trouble. Feels like Im doing
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 didnt 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 Id 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 Id 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 hadnt seen me sitting about fifteen
feet away in the darkness. She opened the box and took out a bright
red flower. I dont know much about flowers. It wasnt
a rose. Thats 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 didnt 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 crows
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 didnt make any visible effort to
disguise the slow march of age. Maybe the naturally beautiful dont
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
wasnt 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 didnt 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 wasnt
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
Its a way to remember him.
Shes known about the Flags forever. She doesnt want
to make to big of a show near her home
doesnt want her
husband to think hes 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
Maybe, she said, maybe Id trade it for
him coming home. Not that I can imagine a better life than the one
Ive had. Not that Id want to give up my boys. It isnt
that my husband isnt enough
Words fail. Tears will do. I put my arm around her shoulder and
told her she didnt have to explain it. I told her that not
everything has to be ranked, to make sense. I said other things
I cant 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
It didnt 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 Id made cry during my travels.
Just one, I said.
She laughed, for real this time and said, I guess that makes
You have no idea, Maggie.