I had a dream.
The Georgia General Assembly funded a memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. and his top aides to be carved on Stone Mountain.
The lawmakers commissioned a bas-relief of MLK and John Lewis and Andy Young, this to be beveled into gray granite beside Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. (A half-century ago, the Georgia General Assembly maneuvered to have that holy trinity of notable Confederates, along with their horses, carved onto Stone Mountain.)
At dream speed, hundreds of stonemasons dangled by rope down the side of the most famous … and infamous … pluton in the South. They lit the fuses on sticks of dynamite. They pounded chisels. They swung picks and fired up thermojet torches.
In no time, they sculpted a brand new Stone Mountain monument.
When the artisans stood back to admire their work, they beheld the great black generals of the Civil Rights Movement. They stood side-by-side with the great white generals of the Civil War.
Here stood a New Stone Mountain.
Many felt the fresh sculpture symbolically represented a start and a finish. Here, a single mountain face held the profiles of Southern men of greatest prominence at the start and the true finish of our century-old American Civil War.
A century of Civil War? It can certainly be viewed that way. The fighting between the blue and the gray ended in 1865, but the ongoing battle for equality under the law between black and the white lasted another 99 years, culminating with the 1965 signing of the Voting Rights Act.
So the new Stone Mountain stood for something. And, of course, the Georgia General Assembly wanted to make the attraction even better.
Lawmakers funded a new laser light show, twice as bright and dazzling. (Astronauts could see it from space.) They tripled the parking space to accommodate overflow crowds of visitors. Whites and blacks tailgated in racial harmony, knocking back Coca-Cola (with shots) and swapping recipes.
Stone Mountain Park sold MLK and Jeff Davis bobbleheads. Elvis sang over tinny loudspeakers, then James Brown took a turn. High school bands played Dixie and marched the five-mile path around the mountain. Then they marched around the mountain the other direction playing "We Shall Overcome."
Mass media fell in love. Social media fell in love too. Facebook buzzed like a billion bees. Twitter grew twitterpated.
Stone Mountain came to be an American version of the hajj, the trip to Mecca every able-bodied Muslim makes as an act of self-renewal. Every U.S. school kid grew up knowing he or she would visit Stone Mountain at least once in a lifetime.
All over the South, and then all over the world, lions lay down with lambs. Armies hammered swords into ploughshares.
People all just got along.
On a trek to the top of Stone Mountain today, you'll meet every kind of people, as photographer Aaron Coury found throughout a week's worth of hikes up the largest exposed granite dome in the South. And, as the old song goes, it takes every kinda people to make what life's about, yeah.
I am happy to have this space in The Bitter Southerner to pull a thorn out of my 61-year-old heart.
My daddy was a bigot. He grew up at the knees of bigots, in the age of bigots. He raised six kids as a bigot. He went to his grave, I truly believe, an unreconstructed bigot.
Don’t stop the presses. You’d be hard-pressed to find a white man raised in the Deep South in my father’s day who wasn’t a bigot … or at least complicit in bigotry.
Look, we get a lot of revisionists nowadays. Southerners or their families glance back 50 years and claim they were better than that. These wishful thinkers hide behind the handy smokescreen of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and pretend they behaved a whole lot more like Atticus Finch than bigoted Bob Ewell.
The truth? Most white people of the day sat on porches and dipped snuff and shelled peas and didn’t lift a finger while their yayhoo peers cracked the heads of blacks who had the audacity to think they ought to be able to vote or spend two bits at Woolworth’s. Or get a drink from a water fountain, for God's sake.
My daddy was one of those people. In the living room and at the polls and in the coffee shop, Charles Cunningham McNair, whose name I carry, supported politicians and positions most willing to prevent “the mongrelization of the races,” as I once heard him put it.
This meant, boiled down to its simplest terms, the blending of ethnicities that would inevitably follow integration and equal rights.
This Scots-English-Dutch-German-whatever-all-the-way-back-to-Africa mix … who married a Scots-Irish-German-whatever-all-the-way-back-to-Africa mix … and then created me and five other little McNair mixlings … felt the sudden urgent need to avoid mongrelization.
One family vacation in the late 1960s, my daddy drove the family to Stone Mountain, east of Atlanta.
It was a sight anybody would want to see.
A sculpture of Confederate leaders spread out bigger than two football fields, the “largest high-relief sculpture in the world,” as proudly claimed by Stone Mountain Park tourist literature. Jeff Davis and the generals in literal gray stood 19 titanic stories high. They loomed over the world, so gigantic that during the carving of the monument stone masons would scuttle inside a horse’s mouth to keep out of Georgia thunderstorms.
The vacationing McNairs learned that the Stone Mountain carving began as a twinkle in the eye of a charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). Inspired by her vision, in 1912 the venerable Venable family deeded the entire north face of the 300-million-year-old igneous core of a mountain once as tall as an Alp to the UDC for the purpose of creating a larger-than-life memorial.
The gift came with a 12-year deadline.
The original sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, received a commission in 1915, but World War I and money issues delayed work until 1923. After blasting rock off the north face for two years, Borglum ran into differences with his client, the Stone Mountain Monumental Association. He abandoned the project, escaping with his drawings and plans, leaving only Lee’s head crowning from the rock. (The artist moved on to South Dakota, where he hacked Mount Rushmore from the granite of the Black Hills with more success.)
Another sculptor attempted the project.
Augustus Lukeman entirely overhauled the project’s original design. (Borglum envisioned seven major figures accompanied by “an army of thousands,” according to the park Web site.) Lukeman effaced Borglum’s early work, toiled three years on a new carving of his own, then ran out of money. In 1928, the land reverted again to the Venable family. So after five years of physical work by two different sculptors, Stone Mountain displayed only Robert E. Lee’s head – the new head carved by Lukeman and his team.
The solemn general’s gray eyes stared balefully north for more than three decades.
In 1958, the Georgia General Assembly acquired Stone Mountain and the land around it. By this time, the Civil Rights Movement had gained real traction, and lawmakers who were playing defense against the school-integration mandates of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and other legal and social attacks on segregation felt it incumbent upon themselves to memorialize the defiant rebel cause in various ways. They introduced the Confederate battle flag into the design of the official Georgia flag. They moved forward on a new Stone Mountain monument plan.
Nine world-famous sculptors offered ideas for the newest effort at a Confederate memorial.
The project’s advisory committee settled on Walker Kirkland Hancock, a Massachusetts teacher and sculptor bearing the same last name as a Union general who outfought the Confederates at Gettysburg. (Hancock’s men held the center during Pickett’s Charge.) The Yankee sculptor Hancock achieved wartime fame in his own right as one of the Monuments Men of World War II, a group of soldiers responsible for rescuing looted art from the Nazis.
Hancock and his chief carving artist, Roy Faulkner, worked on the monument from 1964 to its finishing touches in 1972. Visitors to Stone Mountain Park today see their final vision of the memorial.
Politics aside, the Confederate monument remains a fantastically imagined and executed work of art – a world-class sculpture etched onto the most intractable of mediums, the stone heart of a mountain.
Conception to completion, it required seven decades.
Stone Mountain would be only one of several stops on the Atlanta vacation of the McNair family.
We tramped through Six Flags Over Georgia on a 106-degree day, standing most of it in one endless line to board one lousy roller coaster. The soles of my brand-new Sunday shoes literally melted off on the blistering paved surfaces of the amusement park.
We went to a baseball game at Atlanta Stadium. Hank Aaron, that gifted black man, hit a home run for the Braves that night. My daddy drank beer, one of the very few times I ever saw him consume alcohol.
We discovered Krystal burgers. They cost a dime then. (An hour before, my outraged daddy marched the entire family out of a Howard Johnson’s when he saw the hotel restaurant charged 65 cents for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.)
Stone Mountain made no particular impression, though I remember its sheer enormity.
I knew all about the Confederates carved there too.
The Civil War played big in my house. One of my favorite boyhood books, "Generals In Gray," contained a picture and description of every Confederate general. (Just one lacked a photo.) As a child, I could quote you chapter and verse on Bushrod and Stovepipe and Stonewall and That Devil Forrest. I could walk you through troop movements and blow-by-blow events of every major Civil War battle … especially those won by Confederate soldiers.
We heard so much about the Civil War in my family because my daddy was one of those white southern people who simply couldn’t stomach the thought that our great-grandfathers lost a war. Daddy came from people who couldn’t stand the thought of losing anything.
Part of this attitude, surely, came genetically, a rebel DNA strand.
My people come from the Scots borderlands and Highlands. Folks from those places were “born fighting,” as former Virginia U.S. Sen. Jim Webb put it in his book by that same name. The fiercely independent nature and the codes of manhood among Celtic emigrants to the South made them the perfect rebels — and damned fine soldiers — when war started.
People so bellicose would finally be subdued only by other Celtic warriors, men named Grant and Sheridan and Sherman, equally as fierce, but with bigger armies and more ammunition. Yankees also had a higher moral cause – the freeing of slaves – as an ultimate motivation.
After defeat, the Southerners who didn’t have a thing to their names held the deepest grudges and longest memories. They fantasized a world like Tara to believe in, and they somehow made themselves and their sons and their grandsons – plus all those precious Daughters of the Confederacy – believe in a Lost Cause as noble and glorious as Eden before the fall.
Defeat left an indelible bitter taste and a persecution complex (warranted in ways). The grudge never faded.
I heard the historian Shelby Foote explain it once at a writer’s conference in Birmingham.
In a Q&A session, a young man with a Yankee brogue took the mic. He asked the great historian how a Yankee could grow up in Pennsylvania feeling the great Civil War was history, a bygone event, yet move to Birmingham and hear people talk about the war “like it happened yesterday.” The young man declared that he heard about the Civil War every single day of the year.
Shelby Foote gave this answer.
When I was a boy growing up in Mississippi, I had a number of playground fights.
I couldn’t tell you much today about any of those fights I won.
But I can tell you every detail of the ones I lost.
A bumper sticker in the 1960s, a century after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, displayed a wild-eyed, white-bearded old Confederate with a rebel flag.
The caption: Forget, hell!
Visitors to Stone Mountain Park see an amazing Confederate memorial. A certain history of the mountain, however, feels anything but monumental.
For many black people, for many years, Stone Mountain symbolized not Confederate glory, but something much darker.
In November 1915, a century ago, the following news story ran in The Atlanta Constitution, spelling and capitalizations as given:
Klan is established with impressiveness
Impressive services of the past week were those conducted on the night of Thanksgiving at the top of Stone Mountain.
The exercises were held by fifteen klansmen who gathered at the behest of their chieftain, W.J. Simmons, and marked the foundation of the invisible empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
The new secret organization is founded with a view to taking an active part in the betterment of mankind, according to the statement of its members who are known as klansmen, and the motto is “Silba Sed Anthar.”
The rites incident to the founding of the order were most interesting and the occasion will be remembered long by the participants.
The Klan had swept back into vogue after “Birth of a Nation,” the D.W. Griffith film that extolled the role of the terrorist organization in maintaining white power in Reconstruction. The 1915 lynching of a Jew, Leo Frank, by a white mob in Marietta, just 30 miles from Stone Mountain, further fueled Klan causes.
On top of Stone Mountain that Thanksgiving night, the Klan torched a rude cross. Two of the original Klan members took part in the ceremony. The event captured the public imagination so thoroughly that the Venable family granted the Klan ongoing rights to hold meetings at Stone Mountain any time they wished.
The Venables and the sculptor Gutzon Borglum – yes, the Mount Rushmore man – had Klan associations. Klan members filled the ranks of the original fund-raising organization for the Stone Mountain memorial. Even the federal government inadvertently helped, issuing in 1925 special half-dollar coins with Gens. Lee and Jackson on them. (In fairness, the Klan had no presence at Stone Mountain when the state of Georgia condemned the Venable property and bought the site in 1958.)
The ugly history of Stone Mountain might have made it forever a place like Wounded Knee or Andersonville or any former slave plantation. It might have been a grim reminder of how America fails sometimes in the application of its first and finest value: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But something happened.
And something is still happening.
My daddy drove our big white station wagon around Dothan sporting a GEORGE WALLACE FOR GOVERNOR bumper sticker. When Wallace’s term limits as governor ended and his wife Lurleen Burns Wallace ran as his proxy (she won), my daddy cut up two Wallace stickers, rearranged and inverted letters, and fashioned a new bumper sticker: MA WALLACE.
My daddy pulled our station wagon off two-lane Highway 231 late one night. He walked me and my two little brothers down a grassy slope and through a sedge field to a Klan rally.
Three crosses burned in that field that night. Whatever else, the Klan could put on a show. What young mind could ever forget the powerful images of white spectral figures with gaping eyeholes and cans of gasoline setting Jesus’s own cross on fire? At age 10 or so, I could easily have swallowed the bait of bigotry. Hook, line and sinker.
So many others did. I’m still not entirely sure why I didn’t.
So, fellow Southerners, here’s the ugly thorn. Look at it. Right at it. Here’s my father, the bigot. His brown eyes gleam in the light of burning crosses. His three impressionable sons stand in his giant flickering shadow.
But now let me give my daddy’s story a little twist.
Just about everything in the South gets more complicated if you scratch the surface. Nothing is skin deep here.
Life fell apart at age 12 for my daddy.
One afternoon when the kids got in from school, his mother dropped dead in the front room of their house in Troy. The McNair children watched their father leaning over her already lifeless body. He rubbed a wrist, crying, “Mary! Mary!”
Before the shock subsided, the aftershock.
The father remarried, to a woman who worked very hard, if you believe the family tales, at driving away all four children of the first wife.
My dad found himself a runaway at age 15, sleeping in the straw of a barn full of dairy cows. At age 17, with his own father’s help, my daddy enlisted in the Air Force.
After two tours in the Philippines, he came home to Alabama, met my mom just as she was graduating from Troy State Teachers College, and started a family.
He tried his hand at carpentry. He built one house and sold it. He built another, and it sold too. Soon, he bought land tracts and sold lots to other builders until he made back his investment. He turned a profit on the remaining subdivision parcels, building and selling houses as McNair Construction Company.
He quickly learned that to make real money he needed to stop driving nails and start driving deals.
So who built the houses?
He hired two permanent crew members. His white foreman, Gene, had thumbs on both hands somehow flattened out into the shape of big toes by years of hammer blows. Gene could read house plans, and Gene could use a framing square, the two essentials for building a three-bedroom, one-car-garage McNair home. Gene showed up for work in a blue Chevrolet pickup every day precisely at 10 minutes to 7 a.m., rain or shine.
The second crew member, Willie Rogers, hired on at age 18. Willie rode to work in the mornings and rode home from work in the evenings in the cab of my daddy’s truck for more than 30 years. Every model Chevrolet we ever owned smelled like my daddy’s Tampa Nugget cigars and the eye-watering body odor of Willie Rogers.
Willie was black. A nigger, back then.
Like John Henry, Willie was a steel-driving man, only the steel he drove came out of a cloth belt full of 16-penny nails. Willie could outwork any human being I ever saw … and I know this as an eyewitness.
Every summer from age 10 to age 25, I crewed with my daddy, desperately attempting to earn his approval and to amount to something in those stern brown eyes.
I flung dirt from a hundred miles of ditches with Willie Rogers. I hammered a half-million nails into floors and decking and two-by-fours and trim alongside Willie Rogers. I hoisted hundreds of wheelbarrows full of heavy wet concrete with Willie Rogers.
No matter how fast I dug or nailed or rolled or did anything else, I would look up, pouring sweat in the brutal Alabama summers, to find Willie already moving on to the next job. He just seemed superhuman.
He was my daddy’s man.
In 30 years, Willie might have voluntarily spoken 30 words to my daddy. Daddy did the talking. Willie did the working.
Every Friday at 4 p.m., my daddy signed a paycheck for Gene, one for Willie, one for me and my brothers, if they happened to be working. By Friday midnight, Willie had generally blown his week’s pay. So he showed up nearly every Saturday afternoon, in a car driven by some weekend buddy, reeking of Hai Karate and malt liquor, to make a draw from his next paycheck.
This went on for decades, a circadian rhythm of work and reward, loan and repayment.
When Willie got cut up in fights, my daddy paid the hospital bill. When Willie got thrown into jail for eyeballing – serving as a lookout for two thieves taking apart a Coke machine – daddy posted bail. When Willie got slapped with a paternity suit (Judge: Willie, is this your child? Willie: I reckon) my daddy made sure the child support reached little Freddie Rogers.
My daddy began to buy land as he grew prosperous selling homes. He quilted together 4,000 acres, most of it planted in loblolly and slash pines … most of the pines planted by Willie Rogers.
On the coldest days of the year, Willie would climb out of daddy’s green pickup before the sun rose, step out on the frozen ground, then start the back-breaking work of hand-planting pine seedlings, one by one. Except for a break at lunch – always a can of Vienna sausages, a box of soda crackers, a honey bun and a Coke – Willie worked till the sun went down.
He worked can to can’t, as the saying went. I know, because I planted pine seedlings too, trailing far behind on my rows.
Willie worked weekends when he needed to make good on his deeper debts. He worked holidays.
You could call the relationship of my daddy and Willie Rogers a metaphor … or a stereotype. How many white men for three centuries rose to prosperity by exploiting black muscle and sweat? How often had the nests of white children been feathered … with black feathers?
So … here’s the old bigot at the construction site barking orders to his hired man. Here’s the old bigot riding for miles to reach fields where young pines wait to be put in the ground. Here’s the old bigot frowning in court beside Willie as a judge dispenses justice.
And here is where things get really complicated.
After I had gone away to school and begun to unmoor, with years of pain, from the Honor Thy Father commandment, I got a phone call.
I lived in Birmingham then, a college graduate after 12 years (not a typo) as an undergrad, paying my own way. I had a job with the telephone company, making decent money at last. My writing had begun to show up here and there. I finally felt like a grown man … and my own man at that.
On the phone, news. Willie Rogers had passed away. Some kind of cancer. He suffered. His funeral was coming up.
I drove to Dothan. My daddy and I dressed in Sunday suits. We went to the church where Willie Rogers rested in a coffin lined with pink satin.
The cancer had reduced this superhuman working man to the size and physiognomy of a black baby-doll. My daddy wouldn’t look into the open coffin.
We stood in the back of a drafty church, about as basic as a house of worship could be. It surprised us that so many people came to see Willie off. He appeared such a loner to us white folks. That day, we were the loners, the only two white people in the church.
When time came to say nice things in remembrance of Willie’s life, a few folks spoke up. I cleared my throat. My daddy always had an unholy fear of public speaking. He let me do the talking.
I told how Willie helped me understand that all people are equal. Except I didn’t really feel equal at all. He could outwork me at anything I ever tried.
We returned to daddy’s truck after the funeral, passing up the graveside service.
We settled into the cab. My daddy, the old bigot, took a deep breath. He wanted to say something to me.
Then he began to weep.
And finally, he began to sob like I never heard any human being sob before or after in all my life.
Every time daddy tried to catch his breath, he uncontrollably blurted out a hysterical, heartbreaking sound that has only one meaning in this world.
I realized at that moment how deeply my daddy loved Willie Rogers. Loved him.
Here lay the great duality of Southern whites. The bitter South.
My daddy could somehow hold an enduring, deep, honest love for a black man at a personal level. But somehow, for whatever damning reason, he could never let that benevolence extend one black soul further … never mind to embrace an entire race of people.
I will go to my own grave bewildered at this mystery.
How could my daddy love a black man, but see nothing worth respecting in Black Man? Was it a willful refusal? Was it just an act all along, a way to appear recalcitrant, like granite? (Who knows what’s really in a man’s heart?) Was it simply a human flaw, a prejudice like each and every one of us displays in some way, at some time, to some person or group, consciously or not?
Every one of us.
My daddy passed away 10 years ago. In the end, he turned to the same dust as Willie Rogers.
The same color dust.
Unique to Stone Mountain and a tiny surrounding geographical area, a rare yellow daisy blooms in fall each year. The lemony petals surround a black center. A Yellow Daisy Festival commemorates the blossoming.
Like that daisy, surprising communities and subdivisions have sprouted on the land around Stone Mountain since the 1960s.
The towns around Stone Mountain have filled – surprise! – not with bigots or Klansmen, but with middle-class black families, many of them professionals who fight the traffic down U.S. 78 each day into downtown Atlanta. They report to jobs in law offices and corporations and utility companies and hospitals and state and federal buildings. They wear jackets and ties and Anne Taylor suits. Many don’t even know … or else don’t care … that Stone Mountain once symbolized hate for people their color.
A great many ethnic communities cluster close by, too. A well-attended, fantastically ornate Hindu temple stands in nearby Lilburn. Clarkston knows celebrity as home to the famous Fugees soccer team, a collection of immigrants and lost boys and people rescued from trouble spots all over the world.
These blended people, a United Nations of suburbia, go see Stone Mountain. They visit the park in droves, heedless of Confederate memorials or laser light shows glorifying ancient U.S. history. They bike and jog and hike miles of trails and paddle waterways, simply enjoying the natural beauty of the outcrop. Many regular visitors no doubt wonder who the heck those gray men carved on the mountain might be.
The white misdeeds at Stone Mountain, like the mass of mountain that once soared 20,000 feet high around it, flake away with time.
Stone Mountain now has a new champion.
“By the lottery of birth,” as she puts it, Shannon Byrne grew up in Stone Mountain, Ga. She graduated from high school there, attended the University of Georgia just a stone’s throw away. With an English degree in hand, she bought a one-way plane ticket to New York City 10 days before the start of the new millennium. She arrived with $400 and a suitcase.
Irrepressible, charming, pretty, energetic, Byrne landed a job as a book publicist. After a few years, she returned to the Atlanta area to do publicity as a freelancer. She represents Michael Connelly, the best-selling crime novelist.
On her return, Byrne rediscovered the mountain she’d left behind.
It hurt that the place she enjoyed so much, a one-of-a-kind park filled with woods and water and wonders, had been stigmatized by racial issues.
Byrne set out to right an old wrong, to bring redemption to an old sinner. Her personal, one-woman mission to reinvent the image of Stone Mountain seems as monumental as the old rock itself.
I Am The Mountain, Byrne’s Web site, celebrates the diverse community she finds thriving on the trails and summit of the mountain. She blogs, photographs, interviews, provokes, challenges. A visit to the IATM site leaves one questioning anything and everything ever assumed about Stone Mountain.
“This website humbly attempts to illustrate freedom ringing at long last and to celebrate all of the new faces that are reclaiming the mountain,” Byrne posts on the homepage of her site.
Shannon Byrne (in black clothing in these photos) created I Am The Mountain, a website celebrating the diversity of the population that hikes to Stone Mountain's peak.
“I moved back to Atlanta from New York, and found myself climbing Stone Mountain an awful lot for exercise and head-and-heart-clearing goodness,” she says. “What amazed me most upon my return to the mountain itself after years away were the people I began meeting there from all over the world.
“It wasn’t this diverse when I was younger, so I was absolutely moved by what appeared to be the mountain’s transformation from the infamous 20th-century rebirth place of the Ku Klux Klan, 100 years ago, into such a stunning ethnic mosaic of so many new faces.”
In the summer of 2014 alone, Byrne met, photographed and captured the stories of mountain hikers from Ethiopia, Mexico, Colombia, Somalia, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Guatemala, Vietnam, Cambodia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iran, France, Japan, Guyana, Venezuela, Kenya, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, England and South Sudan. She interviewed refugees from Myanmar who had been living for years at a camp in Thailand. She met a young man of Mexican and Palestinian descent. (Byrne herself is half Mexican, one quarter Irish, one quarter English.)
One afternoon, I hiked the mountain with Byrne. No one we met on the way up or down could resist her.
We talked with Muslim girls from Africa, a Chinese family, a Russian woman who shared her lunch and stretched out a hammock so travelers could rest briefly and listen as she read verses from a Bible. Hikers passed in turbans. Hikers went by on artificial limbs, undaunted by the steep 1.3-mile hike to a summit more than 800 feet above the surrounding Georgia landscape.
Swarms of kids darted past. Women in burkas descended from the heights. A photographer lugging a tripod and long lens chuffed by. An extreme fitness freak, running, passed us going up. Twice.
On top, seated on a wind-and-rain polished rock, a pair of teenage lovers shot selfies, snuggled close.
All those people. All those stories. Red and yellow. Black and white. All are precious in Shannon Byrne’s sight.
Mark my words: This is not your father’s Stone Mountain.
For a quarter-century, every winter and summer solstice when I wasn’t traveling, I climbed to the top of Stone Mountain.
Something compelled me to get to that high place to see the shortest and longest days of the year. I witnessed maybe 30 solstice sunsets.
I loved to see Atlanta in the west that time of day, a city on fire once again, 150 years after Sherman.
A watersmooth mountain path to the crest always felt holy to me, the climb a meditation. The mountain seemed a righteous way to start a new year … or a new life.
On Jan. 28, 2015, my 61st birthday, I relocated to Bogota, Colombia. I love a special woman here.
My last trip to the summit, the winter solstice before Christmas 2014, only five weeks before my move to a Deeper South, something happened on the mountain.
I had a dream. A waking dream.
I had made it to the top and found a smooth rock for a seat near one of those strange waterholes that miraculously hatch fleets of little shrimp when conditions get just right. (Shrimp live on top of Stone Mountain. Don’t tell me it’s not a wondrous place.)
The solstice sun fell. It goes down very fast when you watch from the mountain. You have a keen sense of the earth spinning on its maypole at 1,000 miles per hour. Dark rushes in, a star or two flares in a purple sky. The lights of Atlanta and its merrily mixed suburbs twinkle like a man-made Milky Way.
Sweat as you might on the arduous path going up, the summit always feels chilly. This day, I nearly froze to death. The Arctic wind blew all the way from Canada, nothing to stop it before Stone Mountain.
Still, I lingered after sundown, savoring the solitude and the beauty of it all. Knowing how way leads on to way, I felt this might be a last goodbye. I might never make it to the top of Stone Mountain again. I might not ever live in the South again.
At last, stiff with exertion and cold, I struggled to my feet. I set off down the smooth stone path toward my car, then my home.
Not a hundred yards down the trail, I spied a figure climbing toward me in the gloaming, passing in and out of view among the bonsai pines of the mountainside.
It stopped me in my tracks.
I give you my Bible oath that the approaching silhouette looked exactly like my daddy.
The walk was distinct. Daddy had a stroke toward the end, and his right arm dangled. He favored his right leg when he stepped. He never quit trying to move on his own, without any help.
The whippoorwills called, out in the woods. I heard a train, that low harmonica. Those same sounds filled childhood dusks on Parish Street in Dothan, when we sat on the porch and listened to my daddy tell about growing up and how he learned things.
I waited, still as could be, for the figure to near.
It never did. No one ever came up the path. I waited 10 minutes, rooted to that one spot. It got so cold I could no longer feel my feet.
Finally, I eased on down Stone Mountain. I kept vigilant every step for … what? A ghost? Apparition? Doppelgänger?
It happened months ago. But I’ve been thinking that maybe the old Confederate, God bless him, still walks the trail up there on Stone Mountain.
Somebody please let me know if you run into him.
Stone Mountain is a forgiving place now. A place where redemption feels possible, real. Right.
Shannon Byrne, if you see that old man, tell him I miss him and love him so much … and I forgive him, no matter what.
And ask him to forgive me, for what I had to write.