Southern Travel

Just beyond the Florida town of Jasper off Interstate 75, I crossed into Georgia, where the great slide blues guitarist J.B. Hutto (1926-1983) lived in Augusta from about the age of 3 until seeking his squealing fortunes on the south side of Chicago.

The home state of novelist Flannery O’Connor, who shouted her own blues with a tinge of the Gregorian, reminded me of a recipe for peach butter from a beautiful new book of southern delicacies from the Tupelo Honey Café (McMeel Publishing, 2011). Start with one large, ripe peach, peeled and finely diced, and soon you’ll find me back on Daisy Avenue, somewhere between English Consul and Lansdowne, in the last moments before Beatlemania changed everything.

Dennis Boggs as Abraham Lincoln outside of Mom's Kitchen in Plains, Georgia. (Photo by Macon Street Books)

There, in my parents’ first home after leaving East Baltimore for the climb up the suburban ladder of promise, we kept a half-dozen or so peach trees.

“They were beautiful if you picked them [just] before they fell off the tree,” remembered Mom. “I had never made preserves before. With a cookbook, I learned to put up peaches and added oranges in a few of the batches. The color was gorgeous and they tasted delicious.”

Mom’s peaches are one of my earliest memories. I remember eating them out of square, dimpled bowls of clear Depression glass for dessert or by themselves at lunchtime, the syrup eminently slurp-able.

In Georgia, I did laundry at coin-operated machines in Valdosta and ate ribs hot off a front yard smoker on Highway 84 near Thomasville, a shady lawn with a picnic table where a wife ran the barbecue as her husband held court with cronies and sold fresh produce from an abandoned gas station next door, both doing business in front of “Willie’s Tire Shop.”

Also in Valdosta—a $10 shower at a Pilot Travel Center truck stop.

And thus, with a haircut, hot towel shave and clean clothes—freshly showered and my mind flushed of impure thoughts—I was ready to attend Sunday school in Plains and meet Jimmy Carter, one of my personal heroes no matter how history scores the game.

Jimmy told us the truth, preaching in that corny sweater by the fireplace more than 30 years ago that we should drive 55 and turn down the thermostat. We kicked him in the face. The next guy told lies so big they named an airport for him.

Why is it un-American to practice humility?

Jimmy’s memoir advises travelers that if they “keep on for another 30 miles, still heading toward Columbus, Georgia; Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; and points beyond, you’ll come to Plains …

“… a small town on land as level as any you will ever see. As people have always said, ‘When it rains, the water don’t know which way to run.'”

I arrived about 10 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 27, and made my way to Maranatha Baptist Church a few miles beyond downtown and old Plains High School. The renovated 1921 schoolhouse is now part of the U.S. Park Service’s Jimmy Carter Historical Site. It is also a near-shrine to his English teacher and principal—Miss Julia Coleman—who he quoted in his Jan. 20, 1977 inaugural speech:

“As my high school teacher, Miss Julia Coleman, used to say, ‘We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.’”

Coleman also had young Jimmy reading War and Peace, before the seventh grade, which is almost unthinkable in today’s America. (If anyone knows of a local kid who has read War and Peace before high school, please let me know and I will write a glowing feature about that student.)

I should have known that Carter was not in town when I pulled into an almost-empty church parking lot before the Bible lesson that precedes weekly services.

Because it would have been rude to say at the door—“Oh, Jimmy’s not here? I’ll see you later”—I went in.

And who did I find in a metal folding chair in the back row, so tall his knees seemed to touch his chest?

Honest Abe.

Carter was apparently fishing with friends off the coast of Peru. His substitute—Mashuq Askerzada, an ex-Afghani military man who became a U.S. citizen and a Muslim converted to Christianity—asked if there were any visitors.

I raised my hand, stood up and said: “I drove here from Baltimore looking for Jimmy Carter. I didn’t expect to meet Abe Lincoln.”

Or Dennis Boggs of Nashville, as the man with the fake mole on his right cheek is known when he’s not wearing a long black suit and top hat. The veteran Lincoln impersonator was in Plains to speak at local schools and also hoped to meet Carter.

After the Sunday school lesson—from the Old Testament book of Numbers featuring a talking donkey and a prophet-for-hire named Balaam—Abe and I retired to the nearby Mom’s Kitchen diner on Highway 27 for lunch.

The waitstaff at Mom’s—a classic southern buffet of fried chicken, turnip greens, catfish and now and again quail—was African-American. The older women asked if you wanted another slice of cornbread while teenagers bused tables.

It was a little uncomfortable sitting down to lunch in the Deep South with a guy dressed like Abe Lincoln—truly a spitting image when Boggs is in full mid-19th century regalia—surrounded by black people.

They didn’t seem to mind, but I was reminded of a Baltimore Halloween story from about 20 years ago when the very tall artist Chris Connell (who painted pictures of household appliances in Crabtown under the pseudonym “Billy Ray Gombus”) dressed up as Abraham Lincoln.

Walking down Lancaster Street near Broadway for revelries in the Fells Point square, Connell said a young black kid appeared out of nowhere, bashed him in the legs with a baseball bat and said: “Free me, [expletive].”

This is likely no more than yet one more story of idiocy in Baltimore. But it was palpably strange to be sitting down to lunch with a dead-ringer for the man who issued the Emancipation Proclamation while being waited on by the descendents of those he’d freed.

In An Hour Before Daylight, Jimmy Carter writes: “My life was shaped by a degree of personal intimacy between black and white people that is now almost completely unknown and largely forgotten.”

Boggs—who will not appear at car dealerships or furniture stores and doesn’t think the car insurance ad where Abe tells poor Mary Todd the truth about her ample stern is funny–takes the Lincoln role very seriously.

Elvis impersonators, of whom he knows more than a few, have more fun, he said.

Boggs knows the difference between what Abe said and a boatload of errata that people think he said. His personal library of books about the 16th president (he didn’t read much before assuming the Lincoln role a dozen years ago) now runs to some 150 volumes, a small fraction of the more than 15,000 that have been published.

And he keeps copies of the secession papers of various Confederate states on hand to show combative and contrary schoolchildren why the war was fought.

(Hint: It wasn’t over taxes and tariffs).

Boggs has been heckled in parades, called a mass murderer and had his hand refused to be shaken by an 8-year-old boy, all of which and more he expects to endure again as the nation approaches the 150th anniversaries of the four years of the war, which began on the 12th of this month.

When I asked when he finally knew he had the role of Abraham Lincoln in his bones, Boggs replied: “When they hate you.”

Sunday Supper with Honest Abe, Part 1

This article first appeared in NorthBaltimorePatch.

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Rafael Alvarez

Rafael Alvarez

A lifelong Baltimorean, born on Bob Dylan's 17th birthday, Rafael Alvarez has spent the last 35 years writing about his hometown -- and when he can get away with it -- nothing else. The author of the epic "Orlo and Leini" stories, he is about to finish a history of The Tuerk House, a pioneering drug and alcohol rehab in Baltimore that was one of the first facilities for the poor when alcoholism was decriminalized in 1968.

Alvarez wrote for each of the first three seasons of the HBO drama, " The Wire," and was especially involved in season two, which focuses on the Baltimore waterfront. His book about the show -- the encyclopedic "The Wire: Truth Be Told" -- was published by Grove/Atlantic and was nominated for a 2011 Edgar Award. 

His influences include the great Johnny Winter, Isaac Bashevis Singer and the art of Henry Ossawa Tanner.