Small World: You can go home again, but…

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Our clan — nine of us with an age range of 70 years — decided to dig down and inspect our roots. That meant a week-long visit over Christmas to Savannah, Ga., a place a majority of us had never visited and where only one (me) had grown up. That meant I got to dig up most of the memories and tell most of the stories.

We started out from Maryland on Sunday and returned on the next weekend. So did, it would appear, a majority of car owners on the eastern seaboard. Congestion at both ends slowed us to a crawl. Twice, it could be attributed to gawking at an off-highway accident; occasionally to slower speeds as the road went up a hill or as me-firsters dodged in and out changing lanes. Mainly, however, crowding was simply the consequence of too many of us on the road.

In our vehicle we ruminated on what remedies might reduce the congestion (and inherent dangers). Give every car owner a number and permit travel only by odd or even numbers on rush days. Sell permits for travel over, say, 100 miles. Require more goods to be shipped by rail, rather than trucks, and subsidize expansion of the system.

Thus, does the liberal, autocratic mind work.

It had worked to achieve the beautiful, human scale historic part of Savannah. The city’s preservation was, in good part, a function of a less than dynamic economy, which didn’t have the purpose or energy to tear down the old and build new. Squares laid out by the city’s founder, live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, brick or wooden houses built by craftsmen (like Bridgton’s) and conforming to local standards invite one to stroll. The enterprise and wisdom of the Savannah College of Art and Design contributed mightily, buying up and using outdated structures — old schools, jails, the armory and such.

Since my time the city has grown — government offices take up much more downtown space, as do hotels. Outside the old town, new money capitalism has moved in with fast food, box stores and other North Windham-like sprawl. Depressing, but a different world, not traditional and true Savannah.

One fundamental change is cheering: race relations are vastly improved. In my day, African-Americans rarely ventured beyond the rigid color line and then usually to work in the homes of whites. On this visit, we saw handsome mixed race couples in restaurants or in squares being photographed for their weddings. Young black men and women held front line jobs as efficient hostesses in restaurants or managing tourist operations. The praised female mayor is black.

Back to a somber note: While the 11-year-old and his father tossed a football in Forsyth Park, I tried to locate high school classmates. It was a toss-up whether more had moved out of town (like me) or moved up to new lodgings above the clouds. Most of the remaining bunch suffered one or more of the afflictions that age brings.

The city brought back memories of my parents. Both were conservative Republicans in a then solid Democratic state. Both believed strongly in education (neither having been to college); my father tried unsuccessfully to get the city to improve Negro schools. They strongly disliked both Roosevelts, who promoted change. They spoke their minds — quietly and based on facts — never distorting or ranting as we too often hear and read from today’s right-wing descendants.

Back to a lasting virtue of the city and region: Its food. We came determined to find the best barbecue and seafood offerings. From North Carolina to Savannah, we dined only in local establishments, never a chain. In our rented apartment, we drifted toward the Italian (which didn’t exist in my youth). Our Christmas Eve dinner was pasta with clams; Christmas morning was panettone. Christmas dinner began with two fixings of oysters followed by grilled whole salmon and a homemade pecan and date pudding.

Driving home we stopped in Charleston, a competitor city which we agreed indeed merited second place, to walk along the Battery in the warming sun to gaze out at Fort Sumter where the “War of Northern Aggression” began when the locals fired on and failed to capture the Yankee outpost. My South Carolina cousins dug up cannon balls in their traditional, then run-down now gentrified, Charleston home.

After we had another serving of grits with shrimp, we pushed off north toward home.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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