from pompey’s head

From 1954 to 1956 we lived down the street from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Two years was about par for course for living anywhere, but I did get to spend my high school years in the vicinity of 161st Street, albeit in three different apartments. By that time, relocating every two years had become one of my maternal parents fixed habits.

It is said that seven moves are equivalent to a house going up in flames. Truth be told, when our house burnt down, it was actually less disruptive than settling in big apartment buildings and getting used to the neighbors. But, at least, remaining in the vicinity of the subway/elevated stop at Yankee Stadium meant attending the same school and accessing the same stores and entertainment venues. Since moving from apartment to apartment consumed quite a bit of money, there was never much for entertainment. Indeed, getting a knish or a loaf of fresh-baked French bread after school did double duty. And, as far as I can remember, we only visited the local movie house once.

I suppose it was because my mother did not understand spoken English very well that she shunned TV (wouldn’t have one in the house) and limited her movie-going to the spectacle and costume dramas that reminded her of her tenure, as a teen, as a ballet dancer at the Munich Opera. So we saw “Quo Vadis” and the like for the costuming and exotic venues, which also served as reminders of yearly vacations in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

And that was the context in which she took me to a show that had come to the lowly neighborhood theatre and spared her the expense of taking in a Broadway show. The title, “The View from Pompey’s Head,” led her to anticipate a pictorial return to Italy, where she had climbed Mount Vesuvius and ruined a pair of shoes on the volcanic soil under which lay the ruins of Pompeii.

Given those expectations, the movie, starring Richard Egan, Dana Wynter, Cameron Mitchell and Sidney Blackmer, made no sense. Which may well account for why I always remembered the title, as the exception to my usual forgetfulness when it came to movies–not an inconsiderable habit, given my spouse’s professional and recreational interest in such things. Not inconsiderable but also not really annoying because it provided an excuse for endless retellings of plots and acting achievements without my being bored.

I note that the case notes for the modern DVD are not quite accurate:

… a New York lawyer … returns to his Southern home town to investigate an embezzlement charge …. But it is the novelist himself who is siphoning off his earnings ….

By putting the back-story in the present tense, the notes undermine the rather complex social relationships that are being displayed, not just between blacks and whites, but between the lower and snotty upper class. None of which registered with me at all since, at that point in time (1956), having had little to no interaction with “real” native born Americans in the immigrant communities in which we lived, the story line was a mystery from beginning to end.

Other than Southern California, where we lived for a few years, I hadn’t a clue that the American South is a special place. And then, when I met the man who was to be my spouse and claimed to be from there, the stories he told were surely fictions and his disdain for family connections an effort to relate to a young woman who had none. A honeymoon trip to Mississippi, in the summer of 1964, came as such a shock (dirt roads in the United States!) that it was, like a bad movie, best forgot. Then, in 1977, the spouse announced he was going back. The South, he proclaimed, had changed and Florida, which isn’t quite the South anyway, offered a good job and the prospect of tenure at an expanding university.

The promise of permanence convinced me and I stuck it out in what was surely a third-world country for fifteen years. And for fifteen years of annual trips back to New England we dutifully heeded the local injunction not to stop anywhere in Georgia, that den of inquity. Since the distance from Florida’s border to South Carolina is just a hundred miles, it wasn’t hard to comply. Besides, the flat marshlands and pine plantations gave no hint that there was anything worth stopping to see.

However, in 1992 it happened that our friend Jim came to visit and, having taken him on excursions to the springs, the Gulf and the Ocean, as well as the Okefenokee Swamp, we’d sort of run out of places to visit and it occurred to me that Cumberland Island, recently declared a national seashore just across the border in Georgia might be of interest. So that’s where we headed on a sunshiney October 30th. But, a visit to Cumberland was not to be, since I hadn’t thought to secure reservations on the boat (the only access from St. Mary’s), and we had to explore alternatives. A look at the map revealed more islands just a bit further north, so we drove on to Jekyll, taried on a sand beach with school kids on an outing and then thought to head even further north to St. Simons for supper and an overnight stay, for it was getting towards dusk and we were famished. We stopped at a sea food place on the causeway and then discovered there were no rooms to be had on the island because the football fans for the Florida/Georgia game had requisitioned every inch.

PompeysSo, we headed back to the mainland, located a Day’s Inn and vowed to at least see the beach in the morning before heading back to Gainesville to beat the rush of football fans. And that’s how I came home. For that’s what I felt when we stepped onto the sand on East Beach and caught sight of the ocean at first light. I was home, but I didn’t know why.

Later that year, on another visit, we toured a small art museum and the spouse chatted with Mildren Huey about art and movies and such and discovered that a movie, “The View from Pompey’s Head” had been filmed on the islands, as well as Brunswick and Savannah.

Their conversation about movies hardly registered with me, as usual, and, of course, I remembered nothing of the film, other than the title. But, I was quite determined that St. Simons is where I wanted to live and several things conspired to make it happen. We bought a house at 61 Maxwell, rebuilt it and dug a pond in the back yard and I’ve lived here ever since, more or less, at least in my mind. The six years in New Hampshire from 2003 to 2009 were to make up for the spouse having commuted for ten years from Gainesville to indulge my preference for Georgia.

But, neither of us knew where that came from until the spouse thought to get a copy of “The View from Pompey’s Head,” which was reissued as a DVD in 2008. The very first image of the movie obviously got stuck in my memory.

The dunes are still the same.

Only the names have been changed to Tamberlain and Pompey’s Head (recalling Hilton Head).

Even Fort Frederica and Jekyll’s Driftwood beach get to play a part.

The first word of the movie is “memory,” as if memory were to be called out. Apparently, it worked.

Editor's note: This story also appeared at Hannah Blog.

Monica Smith

Monica Smith writes Hannah's Blog. Born in Germany, she came to the United States as a child, living first in California, then after an interval in Chile, in New York. Married to a retired professor at the University of Florida, where she lived for 17 years, she moved to St. Simons Island, Georgia, in 1993 and now divides her time between Georgia and New Hampshire. (New Hampshire, she says, is always interesting during a presidential election.) She and her husband have three children and five grandchildren. Ms. Smith says she "learned long ago that I am not a good team player when I got hired at the Library of Congress, fresh out of college with a degree in political science and proficiency in four foreign languages, to 'edit' library cards and informed my supervisor that if she was going to insist I punch the clock exactly on time, my productivity was going to fall from being the highest to being the same as everyone else's. The supervisor opted to assign me to another building where there was no time-clock. After I had the first of our three children, I decided a paycheck wasn't worth the hassle."