Driving Miss Mandy by GEORGE BRAINE
Mandy had been abandoned once. A Sri Lankan friend had found her wondering in the woods and taken Mandy home. When the Sri Lankan herself left, Mandy came to stay with me. She was so scared of being abandoned again and followed me everywhere, and crawled under my bed to sleep at night.
Mandy was a Welsh Corgi, obviously of mixed parentage, and perhaps six months old. I was living in Mobile, Alabama, while my wife was working in Arkansas, a good 500 miles away. So, at least once a month, I drove the thousand-mile roundtrip to see her, and I took Mandy along. She refused to rest on the seat, preferring to wriggle and crawl under the driving seat. My attempts to pull her out failed, so I let her be.
To travel from Mobile, at the southern tip of Alabama, to Arkansas, I drove through Mississippi and Louisiana. All four states are large, each about twice the size of Sri Lanka, with a population around 4 million each. Considered backward and poverty stricken, all four rank at the bottom in terms of the economy, education, and health care among the 50 American states.
I travelled in a north-westerly direction, on secondary roads, passing small towns. I do recall a few larger towns like Hattiesburg, Jackson (the capital of Mississippi state), Vicksburg, where I crossed the legendary Mississippi river, Pine Bluff, and Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas. The first few times, I relied on my road atlas. Having forgotten the names of the smaller towns along the way, I recently checked on Google maps and was reminded of Wilmer, Lucedale, Seminary, Mendenhall, Transylvania, Eudora, Greenville, Dumas, Grady, Moscow, Jefferson, Sweet Home, and Mayflower. Some of these towns came straight out of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Somewhat rundown, grass growing on the sidewalks, people moving slowly, with nowhere to go, nothing much to buy, and perhaps no money to buy with. Some were so poor that even Walmart, the ubiquitous discount chain of the USA, did not bother to open stores there. The local “supermarkets” were Winn Dixie and the hilariously named Piggly Wiggly, with a peculiar smell of spoiling meat, and shirtless, shoeless locals wandering in and out. As for fine dining, the choice was between McDonald’s and KFC.
All four states had heavy historical baggage. They had been slave-owning and had fought on the losing side in the Civil War. The Ku Klux Klan had rampaged, and thousands of Blacks were lynched, mainly in order to control and terrorize them. The last lynching had taken place in Mobile, where I lived, as recently as 1981. I was aware of the fearful history; mine were not scenic drives.
The Civil Rights Act had been passed three decades ago, but segregation had not ended. All along my route, in every town and city, the races appeared to live separately in their own neighborhoods. Conflicts were rare, as long as the blacks knew their place. The white areas, even the churches, looked better maintained and affluent. As V.S. Naipaul noted in A Turn in the South, the segregation was best seen on Sundays, when the races worshipped separately at their respective churches.
The poorer areas were noted for “shotgun houses”, so called because a bullet fired through the front door would go right through the back door without hitting a wall. These houses consisted of a front porch, an inner room, a kitchen, and an outhouse in the backyard. Elvis Presley was born and raised in a shotgun house in Tupelo, Mississippi, which I have visited.
The whites in these areas were generally called “red necks”, a sometimes humorous or otherwise derogatory term, which described their crude and unsophisticated lifestyles. Their large, somewhat battered trucks, open at the back, with a rifle mounted behind the driver’s seat, were everywhere. Naipaul’s hilarious description of a red neck, considered the best ever, takes-up nearly a page.
At one time, the Mississippi Delta, as the area is known, was exclusively cotton country. The slaves were brought to work in cotton plantations. Although cotton is still grown, other crops such as soybean, corn, and rice also thrived in the rich, black soil. Because these were grown in large, heavily mechanized farms, jobs were few. Many locals appeared to live on welfare, lounging around their homes or in the pool halls and bars.
The primary forest had been cleared to plant pine trees to feed the local paper mills. So, for mile after mile, the scenery was monotonous. The only diversion were the crop dusters – small aircraft that flew very low above the ground, often paralleling the road – spraying a cloud of pesticide. To stay awake, I listened to country music, mainly to Jim Reeves, and for a touch of home, to Victor Ratnayake. I sang along, with not a hum from Mandy. And I took breaks at rest stops.
These are places where all long distance drivers – of cars, trucks, U Hauls – stopped to use the toilets, to stretch their legs, and perhaps chat with fellow travelers. Not being on the interstate highways, these stops had the minimum facilities: parking places, poorly maintained toilets, a water fountain or two, and some shady benches. Not even a vending machine, which would have been vandalized. After making sure that Mandy’s toilet needs were met, given water and snacks, and taken for a short walk, I used the facilities. From the license plates, I could see that the vehicles came from various states across the country. People were eager to talk, especially those who traveled alone in silence. They brought their regional accents – New England, Mid-West, Southern – and were curious about mine. Many people brought their pets along, so they too were a topic of conversation.
Vehicles traveled at high speed, and the inevitable result was roadkill, animals getting hit and dying. In fact, dead animals – rabbits, chipmunks (large squirrels), deer, and armadillo – littered these roads, a virtual carnage. The armadillo is a small mammal with a peculiar appearance, bony plates covering most of its body. Slow moving and perhaps with poor eyesight, they were the most common roadkill, a gruesome mess of blood and bone.
I always paused at Vicksburg, a historic town on the Mississippi River (“Ol Man River”). The twin bridges were magnificent, and I could watch the barges that moved serenely on the water, always pushed, never pulled, by tugboats. Strung together, these barges could be hundreds of feet long.
Nearing Arkansas, I could see the terrain and the vegetation change. The low-lying delta was behind, and hills began to appear. In place of the monotonous pine trees, oak, maple, and hickory appeared. The drive was more enjoyable partly because my destination was drawing nearer. I crossed into Arkansas over a bridge, and a large metal sign which said “Welcome to Arkansas – Home of President Bill Clinton”. The sign always had bullet holes on it!
Tugboat pushing barge on the Mississippi River
Twin bridges of Vicksburg, on the Mississippi River
My wife Fawzia lived in Conway, a small college town. She was a librarian. Unlike my house in Mobile, hers had a large backyard, which Mandy loved. She also preferred the rice and curry that Fawzia served her. When the meal appeared, Mandy would dash madly in circles around the backyard before attacking the food. She also enjoyed the evening walks around the old neighborhood, accompanied by a friend, Miriam.
Once, I started late from Conway and was speeding way above the limit, when an Arkansas state trooper stopped me. Tall and good liking, he resembled the President. After checking my driver’s license, he asked what I did in Mobile, and hearing my reply, “College professor”, he thought for a while and said he would let me go, with a warning to slow down. Some hours later, well into Alabama, darkness had fallen, and I was still speeding. Suddenly, sirens wailing and red and blue lights flashing, a police car was right behind me; he had been waiting in ambush on a side street. An older, big-made patrolmen appeared. The same question, the same answer, and I was allowed to go again, with a warning not to kill myself. Twice, in the same day. I think of this when I get pulled over for crossing that blessed white line on Sri Lankan roads.
When we left for Hong Kong, Miriam was glad to take Mandy in. They later moved to Washington DC, where Mandy lived to a ripe old age.
More than 30 years later, I recall those surreal drives with affection.