A Quick Trip to the Deep South
The Family Day ceremony at Fort Benning was short, with all four platoons of Foxtrot Company marching in with their dress blue pants, spit-polished patent leather shoes, and starched, white, short-sleeved shirts. Fourth platoon came in last, marching in a highly choreographed formation with soldiers passing by, and then through, each other from opposite directions as they marched within a tight rectangle.
They came the order, “Don the berets!” Each soldier pulled a beret from his right-hand pants pocket and took a full thirty seconds to collectively pull, push, smoosh, and stretch the berets into the final position over their shaved heads, as if they were shaping clay. My son told me later that a soldier who had misplaced his beret earlier that week had been forced to march for a full hour with the open palm of his hand resting on top his head, fingers spread wide like an octopus, to approximate the space that the beret should have occupied.
After the ceremony, we drove to Eufaula, about 50 miles further to the south, across the border in Alabama. Our family had spent many week-long vacations with my retired parents in South Carolina, so we were no strangers to the South, but Alabama was the deep South, where rednecks wear sweat-stained tank tops, restored civil war era plantation houses line the main streets, and Yankees stick out like Japanese tourists as soon as they open their mouths. That South.
We were all primed for this experience, so we weren’t disappointed when we ate lunch at the Cajun Corner, a restaurant highly recommended by a friend of ours who grew up in this little town. Here, they weren’t afraid to bread and deep fry their pickles, or do the same to sliced green tomatoes and eggplant, or serve (as our waitress called it) “good ‘ole fat-free bread,” which was a restaurant euphemism for white flat bread sprinkled with white shredded cheese and liberally drizzled with melted butter. The menu called this short list of grease-entrenched hors d’oeuvres, Nawlin’s Nibbles, and we ordered one of each, shooting for total immersion in authentic southern cuisine. The dipping sauces that came with them were creamy with a hint of horseradish and we wantonly scooped it all up with our nibbles and washed it down with tall plastic tumblers of sweet iced tea.
For us, this was the southern culinary high life from a restaurant that claims in the menu to put “some south in your mouth.” They had eight different po’ boy sandwiches and as many plated lunches, including one with Louisiana crawfish that I just had to try. The crawfish arrived piled high on a plate—breaded and deep fried, of course—but they were smaller than I expected, looking more like shrimp than the miniature lobsters I was accustomed to fishing out of ponds. But they were delicious, particularly when those dipping sauces were liberally applied.
Most of us ordered sweet potato fries, which, had it not been for the caramel sauce that was poured on top and yet another dipping sauce that came with it, was probably the healthiest food on the menu. For desert, my son ordered peanut butter pie because, as he said, “I thought it sounded southern.”
Fast forward to Atlanta, the big city, and the point of departure for all points north and west.
After dropping off the rental van, an Enterprise driver (“We’ll pick you up!”) who was new to Atlanta and not intimately familiar with the city, drove me to the mid-town Atlanta MARTA train station where I would pick up the south bound train to the airport. “I just moved here from Little Rock about eight months ago,” he told me, as we pulled to curb in front of a drab unmarked building, “so I hope I’ve got the right place,” I hoped so too, otherwise the other four members of my family would be waiting even longer and more impatiently at the Atlanta Airport where I had delivered them an hour earlier. I was confident that I wouldn’t get on the wrong train and leave them stranded any longer than they pessimistically expected me to. Outside, a MARTA employee leaned over a trash can smoking a cigarette and nudged his index finger towards the entrance to the station. That way.
It was 4pm and the large anteroom to the subway turnstiles was completely empty, not a single soul to help me decipher the instructions on the intimidating blue ticket kiosks along the wall. I was still smarting from five years ago when my daughter had to save me from myself by completing the transaction at a ticket kiosk at the BART train station in San Francisco. I had quickly exhausted the thirty seconds that she had allotted for the transaction so she decided to take over.
“Jeez, Dad, let me do this,” she had said, elbowing me out of the way. “We’re going to be here all day. Now give me your credit card.”
For some reason, I have never inspired confidence in my daughter or any of my family members when it comes to being a trustworthy leader on these trips, even though I remind them often that: I’ve never missed a plane, I’ve never lost my wallet or keys, and neither of my kids ever got lost at Disneyland, Seaworld, or for more than 20 minutes at Walmart. But when my wife realizes she left her purse on a park bench in Eufaula, Alabama after leaving the Cajun Corner restaurant? All I hear is why I am taking so damn long to find a u-turn to race back and retrieve it.
So here I stood, alone, with no impatient teenager to hold my hand, facing a collection of poorly labeled slots and keypads, accompanied by two vertical rows of alphabetized buttons, and instructions to get to various Atlanta landmarks, none of which I’d ever heard of. Each of the buttons had an option for a single ride, one day, seven day, a month, or full year tickets, plus what appeared to be options for the bus, and bus and train combos. And everything seemed to be dependent on purchasing something called a Breeze card.
Thirty seconds, then a minute went by, and I imagined the rest of my family watching the last passenger roll his carry on down the jet way to our plane just as the security door closed behind him. My wife would be googling divorce documents and my daughter would eagerly begin to look for a computer terminal to download and print the proper paperwork. “This is it,” my daughter would say. “I’m ready for a new father.”
Having no luck here, I slid over to the adjacent kiosk that was in Spanish, thinking that it might act as a sort of commuter shock therapy. But after 20 more seconds of getting even more alarmed at the possibility of missing the train – and then the plane -- I returned to the original machine, which now was making a little more sense, compartively speaking. I pressed the top button as the most likely choice for a single ride ticket and inserted my credit card. I expected the ticket to be issued from one of the slots, but instead, it produced a happy looking blue, yellow, and orange Breeze card that fell all the way to the bottom, like a bag of Cheetos from a vending machine. I’m sure they never intended it this way, but as I pushed through the plastic hinged door to retrieve it, the card’s colorful design – even its size – looked exactly like an individually packaged bar of soap.
Instead of the typical turnstile, each of the gates that lead to the MARTA trains look more like metal saloon doors. They swing outward, but after pushing on them -- hard -- a few times, it was clear that I was missing a critical step. There were no slots to insert my card, and the card had no magnetic strip on the back. There was just a big blue circle on the divider that said “Breeze. Tap here.” I tapped it with my finger and nothing happened.
The very first person I saw since the start of my kiosk ordeal was a man in a business suit that was coming through the gate from the other direction, probably the first one off the train. “How do I get through here?” I asked. I tried to sound like a hip Atlantan, the athletic type who preferred to bicycle or jog around town and never needed the train--until now.
Without even slowing down to look at me, he said, “Tap it. Tap it with your card.”
I did, and the saloon doors swung open, allowing me to pass into the dusty streets of the main train station.
Off to my left, I saw a security guard I hadn’t noticed before but who had probably been watching me the whole time. Rather than rushing to the aid of a mentally handicapped Yankee, he never moved a muscle; he just continued to lean against the wall, slowly shaking his head in apparent disgust as I descended the stairs to the train.