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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2524

Lalin’s Column: Carolinas and Georgia (USA) holiday

By Major General (Retd.) Lalin Fernando

I visited the USA for the first time at the age of 75, last July (2014). Greenville County, South Carolina once known as the textile capital of the world was the base. It has a population of 451,225 people and spends US $ 426m on education (SL with 21 m people spends US$ 415m). It is beautifully green with rivers, lakes and mountains too
At the US Embassy when we went to get our visas, we were treated with friendliness and warmth. This was unlike the reception one gets at the British and Canadian High Commissions (both members of the Commonwealth we are told to imagine) where rude, insulting and demeaning behavior is the fashion.

Here are some of the observations I made on our visit which included North Carolina and Georgia too. These were all former ‘slave owning’ states that became very rich on cotton. Today South Carolina’s produce (meat, eggs, corn, wheat, soy, cotton and green house etc ) brings in US$2,595 million. It also grows tea.

The size of the United States is mind boggling. It is 9.3 million sq kms (SL 65,610 sq kms) with a population of 316.1 m. (Canada that is almost the same size has only 35.16 m people). South Carolina (82,831 sq km) is about a third bigger than SL in size but has a population of only 4.7 million.

We felt completely at home in the US.I began to wonder how a Sri Lankan could, despite the vast and obvious disparities. Amongst other reasons it is the English language, beliefs and behavior that goes with it. We were warmly greeted with the ubiquitous ‘Hi’ Hw you doin’ all the time whether it was in the Malls (within seconds of getting in), homes, churches, restaurants, tourist sites and everywhere else. Whatever Prof Doolittle said about English not being spoken in the US for years, I thought I heard SL voices often in the malls and while walking in downtown Greenville, when actually all around me were Americans, even if most had a pronounced Southern drawl!

Despite the left hand drive cars on the right of the road, the orderliness, the respect and concern for others and not just the law for which there is a healthy respect, also contributed to my sense of well being. Of course there were the banjo playing ‘Hillbillies’ who only understood each other when they spoke. One gazed at them like one would a holy man in India.

Then there was the connection. I remembered from long ago that there was a place in the USA called Ceylon. It is actually in Martin County, Minnesota, (pop: 369 (2010). Legend has it that the people there around 1899, just when the railway went through the county, were discussing what name they should have for the place. Looking around the store they saw an old tea box with a ‘Made in Ceylon’ label on it. That was it. ‘Ceylon’ also produced in Walter Mondale a US Vice President and also a senator.

What overwhelmed one most was that the people, American (Red) Indians, whites, African Americans, Hispanics and more recent immigrants from Asia, without exception were so courteous, polite, well mannered and welcoming. Allowing others to enter a place ahead of you was the custom. No one ever tried to brush past or push you or break queues. Only pregnant women were shown more courtesy than elders who were also charged special low rates as entrance fees to places of interest. At the Atlanta airport we as seniors did not have to take off our shoes to pass the security check. The Americans are not as inhibited and restrained as the Northern Europeans.

On the roads which were mainly 3-4 lane highways and tree lined, the same courtesy was shown. Americans learn to drive at school. No one ever hogged the road. Drivers slowed down and gave way to traffic turning in front them and to pedestrians crossing the roads. They never cut into other drivers. Driving in the town areas was careful, considerate, friendly and pleasant and always with a mutual waving of hands to thank and acknowledge any courtesy. The number plates in front were blank. Each state had a distinctive state symbol on the rear number plate.

Everyone appeared to own one car at least. Public transport appeared to be mainly for long distance travel.

Considerable effort has been taken to keep the environment, pollution free, clean and green. Every where one went trees in abundance lined the roads. As there were no walls around houses one could observe that the gardens were kept neat and tidy. There were laws to ensure it. Painting of houses in the towns, especially where there were traditional old homes, had to be in keeping with the neighbor hood plan. Some of the beautiful clear blue clean lakes (which invariably had boats sailing on them and people swimming) had been created by the Army Engineers by damming up rivers.

Outside of the towns and mall areas there were no pavements to walk on as the roads were all highways, federal, state or toll. Speeds of 120 kmp were common. Police allowed some leeway as long as the drivers did not exceed the limits set by more than about 5-10 mph or were driving dangerously. Horns were rarely if ever heard. Drivers stuck to their lanes except when overtaking. Police were present unobtrusively but effectively as was seen when the occasional accident happened. Almost all vehicles had their lights on in day time too despite no laws requiring it at the moment in South Carolina.

When school buses, all painted yellow, stop to pick up children or drop them, traffic on both sides of the road stopped dead while the red lights of the bus, front and rear, blinked. The children were allowed to exit only if a guardian was present.

When an ambulance came along with its siren sounding all traffic in its path stopped immediately to allow the ambulance to pass. We could see these were not only laws but customs too as the police were not required to enforce them.

Many of the firemen in the local fire services or departments are volunteers who man shifts to do something challenging for the community in their spare time. Trained firemen also demonstrate to parents to be, how to install child safety seats in vehicles. They then check back that the parents can do it on their own thereafter.

As the leading cause of death in children is due to road traffic accidents there are stringent safety rules for taking babies and children in vehicles. New born babies, on leaving hospital are firmly strapped into their carry cots and secured into the safety seat with the infant facing backwards. It is an offence to carry an infant while travelling.

Between ages 1-5 children must be forward facing in child safety seats. Children from age 5 - 12 must be seated in the rear in a harness or a booster seat facing the front. They cannot ride in the front seat of a vehicle anyhow.
Some roads and bridges were named after hero soldiers, many with ranks of Corporal and Private reminding all of the sacrifices made by the real heroes of war- the ‘doughboys’ (infantrymen mainly) who did all the fighting and sacrificed themselves. Some others were named after famous Southern leaders.

There were very many museums which were very informative and a pleasure to visit. There is an eagerness to preserve their heritage with nothing, good or bad, lost in the telling .The expression ‘ante bellum’ (“before the war” -meaning the civil war (1861-64) which led to abolition of slavery was often used, when visiting historic sites.

Information was put across in a matter of fact way with a wry sense of humour. The speakers were aware they were dealing with educated people who could interpret events correctly. A common quaint phrase was ‘Take a listen’.

The libraries were well stocked. A lot of fairly unbiased American history could be learnt. Instead of an index cards system, books could be borrowed using an electronic membership card. Books could be returned even when the library was closed just by dropping them in a purpose box built outside the library.

Restaurants of almost all ethnicities in the world with reasonably priced meals and exceptionally clean rest rooms gave us all the variety we could want. I ate a Mexican meal for the first time in Greenville. In Atlanta on our last day we had our first Ethiopian meal.

The malls and shops in size and content were beyond imagination and the prices were not fancy. To one who had in 75 years only heard of Seers, Wal-Mart (open 24 hours) Macy’s, Barnes and Noble and the famous Wells Fargo bank. Except for the last, we sort of haunted the others. The General Electric Turbine and Caterpillar diesel factories as well as the BMW, Harley Davidson and Michelin HQs were also located in Greenville. Then there was a unique road that was called the ‘car mile’ for reasons that did not baffle. Most names of places had historical connections.

US flags were flown over all public buildings and even at the shopping Malls. However Confederate flags could occasionally be seen flying over houses. It caused no turbulence. Those who flew them were obviously very proud of their heritage as they had proved themselves in the civil war battles and still do for the USA, despite the Southern states having been pro slavery then.

We visited Asheville, North Carolina about 100 miles away, twice. A coach tour took us through the old residential area with its beautiful Victorian type homes in well laid out gardens on shady roads that made many rich and famous people who came there to work, decide to stay. If the Carolinas look like England but many times bigger, parts of Asheville looked like Nuwara Eliya in the 1950s, multiplied many times. There was also the fabulous 200 room Vanderbilt mansion, the biggest house in the USA, set in hundreds of acres of gardens and farms, which can be visited on payment of $59 on week days and $74 on Sundays .Asheville showed its mettle in the Civil war when a handful of their old and bold, dug in at a turn pike cross roads saw off a much larger contingent of Union troops but more by accident than design.

We visited Charleston which has millions of visitors in the summer. They have a great time wining, dining and swimming in the sea. This was where the first shot in the Civil war was fired at Fort Sumter by a rebel artillery officer of the Citadel Military College. We visited it the day before a new term was due to start and saw the new cadets being ‘warmed up’ at the double. There was also a traditional firing of a 19 Century gun on Saturdays. A cadet academic instructor briefed us. Apparently at the USA University he graduated from, his best friend was a Sri Lankan.

Sumter guarded entry to and exit from Charleston harbour. It was after South Carolina opted out of the Union, preemptively taken over by Major Anderson, a Southerner himself with 35 years military service, with just 80 Union troops. The fort was cut off from resupply by sea which was attempted. It was 40 ft high, had 8-12 foot thick walls but only half finished and 48 guns but was within easy range of Confederate Artillery, barely a mile off on the mainland. After negotiations failed, unable to withstand being heavily shelled, (4,000 shells in 36 hours), and having fired all its own 1,000 shells ineffectively, it surrendered. Anderson was later present as a Brevet Major General to raise the union flag at a ceremony when the fort was retaken towards the end of the war (1864).

The first casualty in the war was a union soldier who died of shrapnel wounds when his own Artillery fired a salute during the unasked for ‘surrender’ ceremony insisted on by Anderson. Over 600,000 people died in that war, more than all Americans in 2 WWs. Gen Sherman (“I will make Georgia howl)’s March to the sea across Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah could be considered the beginning of modern total war. After the war, certain unrelenting Republican (Union) extremists made it difficult for reconciliation to take place early, perpetuating bitterness between North and South. Sherman, later Commander of the military division of the Mississippi and then C in C of the Army (after ’No surrender” Gen Grant), refused repeated requests to run for President.

We visited Boone Plantation, a sprawling farm of many thousand acres in Charleston. It used to grow cotton, rice (brought from Africa by the slaves), corn and indigo. Farm produce can be bought on the road side. Straw berry picking (with pay) is very popular. 200 year old Oak trees lined the road to the stately home of the owner (tickets were priced at $ 20 dollars per person) to witness their perfidy in owning slaves that they called ‘property’. The contrast to the slave log cabins was stark. There were about 10 empty cabins. In each there was a recorded commentary to tell visitors about the lives the slaves (only 40% even survived the journey from Africa) led from eating, cooking, hiding cooked wild game hunted in the marshes nearby, worshiping, working, handicraft making and sleeping. It had been terribly oppressive. It was heart rending.

At the last cabin was an African American belonging to a special tribe called Gullah. They are found in the Coastal Southern states and speak a Creole language. They weave baskets from the sweet grass in the marshes. Their straw hats sell for $ 25 in the town. After playing a traditional welcome beat on his drum, he gave us an idea of the lives of his ancestors. He said they had only 2 religions when they came over, Islam and Voodoo. He said they had longed to return to Africa and when they died they believed they would ‘go home’. It was not to heaven as so many African spirituals like ‘Sweet Chariot’ may have indicated but to Africa. However few if any of them today would wish to go to Africa as they have lost all connections with their ancestors. The saddest story of all in America. We share their pain .The whites have given up trying to persuade them to go back.

We also visited (on payment) another lavish house of a rich former Charleston Governor Aikin Rhett, built in1830. In the rear there still were, the slaves’ quarters. About 25 of them slept virtually on top of each other in each of the many tiny rooms.

Charleston has a lot of history with countless and varied ‘ethnic ’restaurants. The first one we dined in was the Fleet Landing Restaurant and bar that served some first class fish dishes. There the ‘server’ told us he was into meditation and had studied Buddhism. We dined out every night in very old buildings that had been carefully restored. Each night after dinner we ‘walked a mile’ among very festive crowds in the town.

The horse wagon ride (could Kandy do the same?) through selected parts of the old town area with stately houses was a bit of a strain for our backs. The horses must have felt terrible in 98 degree F heat. Many of the restaurant ‘servers’ and hotel coach drivers were under graduates. They made it clear that they would welcome big tips ‘to fund their education’. One is in any case expected to leave a 15% tip in all restaurants.

In searing heat, we visited the Naval and Maritime Museum at Patriot’s Point and boarded the 852 long, 30,000 ton USS aircraft carrier Yorktown II that had 91 aircraft, took hits from 21 Jap kamikaze aircraft off Okinawa and survived. We also crawled around a submarine USS Clamagore and inspected a destroyer USS Laffey, also a WW2 Pacific theater and Vietnam veteran.

The ‘Africans’ in the Southern states after the Civil War ended, went to the North in the ‘Jim Crow’ long distance trains (1200 kms to 1,600 kms and more) to escape the oppressive conditions that still persisted in the South, despite slavery being abolished. Segregation of the most intolerable and cruel kind existed until the 1960s. Until the trains left the Southern boundary, the ‘Africans’ having paid the same as the whites for their tickets, had to travel tightly packed in rough ‘Jim Crow’ compartments reserved for them. Once they crossed over they could if they wanted get into the almost empty ‘whites only’ compartments. But even in the North they had still to face racial discrimination. They took it all in their stride, probably singing too, as only they know how.

We missed out on Savannah about 100 miles to the South. It takes its name from the river that runs through it to the sea. The book ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ (John Berendt) vividly describes Savannah, its oak lined streets, its people, architecture, museums, well preserved old houses and its scandals. It was once Georgia’s oldest state and colonial capital established in 1733 and became rich on cotton. There are slightly more African than white Americans there. Voodoo with night time visits to cemeteries is still heard of there. In the civil war it was abandoned by Lt Gen Hardee and his 10,000 strong Confederate garrison on the approach of Gen Sherman and saved itself. Sherman offered it to President Lincoln as a birthday gift.

One Sunday we attended St Mark United Methodist church which was predominantly if not completely African American. The people, many of them of no small size, really let themselves go. The singing was beautiful and moving, with most of them, generously endowed physically, standing up, rocking themselves and reaching up with rhythmic and vigorous swaying of hands. As the singing reaches a crescendo, the rafters appeared to tremble every time. One may be led to believe God must surely have heard them. All first timers to the church were asked to identify themselves and say where they came from. There was an audible gasp and huge echo of ‘Sri Lanka’ when we said where we came from. We were not actually mobbed after the service but told we would always be very welcome to return. The frequent police attacks on them, as at Ferguson, is not only a blot on how America looks after its ‘Africans’ but a problem that will sadly remain in a big way for some time.

We visited the Ocanaluftee Indian village to see the Cherokee American Indian Reservation in North Carolina. At Waynesville we saw the breathtakingly beautiful Lake Junaluska, named after a Cherokee Indian Chief and the Great Smoky mountains so called for the white clouds above it. One round of the lake measured 5 miles. We walked half of it before breakfast. At night we went into the town to enjoy a pleasant evening of country song and dance on a street with shops open and totally cleared of traffic by the police for the purpose. In down town Greenville on some summer Saturdays, the main street is also blocked off for farmers to sell their wares while in Charleston there is a covered permanent market with a lot of traditional ethnic ware for sale. The old ‘Slave Market’ remains as an attraction for some.

We were shown how the Cherokees lived in the past, at peace with and preserving their environment and as good neighbours, farming, fishing and hunting (only for food), what houses and furniture they had and how they cooked, had tribal meetings and danced. It reminded us of the distant and vague memories of the beautiful ‘Song of Hiawatha’ (HW Longfellow) that began ‘Should you ask me whence these stories, whence these legends and traditions, with the odors of the forest, with the dew and damp of the meadows…”.The visit stirred sad thoughts.

The Cherokees unfortunately supported the British in the Revolutionary war (1776) against the rebel Americans and paid for it by an Act of ‘Removal’ from their ancestral lands. Lt Henry Timberlake’s ‘Memoirs’ gives the best account of their lives at that time (circa 1770s). He took 3 Cherokee chiefs to England where they excited all of London. They met King George III who assured them that their land west of the Appalachians would be guaranteed by the British crown. They paid an awful price for supporting the losing side. US Presidents Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and finally Van Buren acquiesced with the growing pressure of white Americans in Georgia to expel the Cherokee as they wanted their lands to grow more cotton and discover more gold. This was despite the US Supreme Court’s ruling disallowing such acts. The Indians, totally outnumbered, were considered ‘inferior’ and always discriminated upon.

The US Army forcibly ‘removed’ the Cherokees. The forced march referred to as the “Trail of Tears” left about 5,000 of 15,000 Indians dead before they reached their ‘reserved’ destination, across the Mississippi in Oklahoma on land that the ‘Whites’ considered unsuitable. Curiously the Americans retained native Indian names for nearly all the rivers, mountains and many places in that land. That the Cherokee retell their history without any visible rancor or pain, makes one feels all the more terribly sad for them.

Ironically, in the 2 World wars more Indians than Africans fought for the USA. This is not surprising as the ‘Africans’, who fought as valiantly as the ‘whites’ on the side of the Union in the Civil War, were made scapegoats for General Meade, (the Union Commander)’s awful blunders that led to disaster at the ‘Crater’ battle (Petersburg near Richmond -1864) The Africans were treated as inferiors and terribly discriminated upon.

In Atlanta, Georgia (250 miles - 400kms) away, we visited the CNN Global HQ. We were given an insight on how carefully normal and even breaking news were prepared for presentation. We were let into a secret on how the weather forecast presenter appeared to be showing the weather patterns in different cities without even glancing at the map that was apparently behind him. On the ground floor were the flags of the world’s countries including SL. We missed seeing Christiana Amanpour, as she was in London, while the Americans looked (in vain?) for their favourite, Cooper Anderson, the son of multi millionaire Gloria Vanderbilt who renounced all claims to her wealth and is the CNN’s best news anchor.

Next we visited Coca Cola HQ which is probably the best known location in Atlanta, 29 storeys high. Coco Cola is over 125 years old. What it sells worldwide is basically soda water and sugar but with a recipe that many would do anything to get at. Coke has been 35 years in China. To get in, after buying a ticket, one has to go past security that would do credit to any military. No one objects as they know that Coke has a big secret, its recipe, which is guarded by a virtually impenetrable system. However it was found out once - by a man working for them in India. At the tour’s end, visitors enter a room where over 100 varieties of Coco Cola from around the world including SL could to be tasted. My favorite was from South Africa. A small bottle of Coke that shows it has been bottled at its HQ is the only parting gift.

Coco Cola has made many charitable donations from its very beginning. In 1914, Emory College was bought and relocated in Georgia by CEO Candler. It has given to education, medicine, health care, (Cancer Foundation), arts, libraries and a Scout Camp Reservation but with little publicity. In 2013 it gave $ 98 m for 134 m people round the world. Being unobtrusively charitable seems to be second nature to Americans in general. In many, if not all towns and cities in the Southern states, poor people are given soup and meals daily by church volunteers.

We also visited the Atlanta Aquarium. It was the world’s biggest when it opened in 2005 on 5 hectares of land donated by Coca Cola. The whale sharks in the center of the Aquarium were the star attraction, swimming in more than half the water of the Aquarium which has 10 million gallons. They had been imported (transported by water, land and air) from Taiwan. There also were 5 Beluga whales (also called white or canary). They weigh 1,600kg. There were 500 other species among 100,000 fish.

The next day we visited the Martin Luther King (Junior) museum. Nearly all American visitors were ‘Africans’. King followed Mahatma Gandhi’s non violent tactics conducting protest marches against segregation in the 1960s. They had to face the cruel and bullying tactics of the ‘white’ lawmakers and police but did so without flinching. They were arrested but returned to ‘fight’. On returning to SL we saw on CNN that Paul Robeson my favourite singer had also been a marcher who was arrested. We also saw the Methodist church King worshipped in and his ancestral well built house (he came from a well educated and well off family) which are both well preserved with both private and public funds. Almost all historic sites in the USA are. We also saw the Jimmy Carter Museum and were made to understand that Atlanta (that hosted the Olympic Games in 1996), was transformed by him.

On our last day in USA, we visited the Atlantic City ‘Cyclorama’ theater and the civil war museum. The center piece is a painting of the battle for Atlanta, “one of the regrettable memories of the Civil War”, that weighs 9,334 pounds, is 358 feet wide by 42 feet tall (taller than a 5 storey building). There are 184 seats on a rotating platform to view it to the accompaniment of the sounds of battles including canon blasts, soldiers screaming and charging, as the narrator (African) describes the scenes. There were about 12,000 killed, missing and wounded that 22 July 1864. There is a 30 foot span between the Observation deck and the painting, giving it a 3 dimensional effect. Soldiers (128 of them) sculpted to scale to blend with the painting are only 42 inches tall but appear much taller as our narrator demonstrated by getting into the pit .It also show roads, railway road crossings and trees destroyed by explosions.

General Sherman is seen riding his horse at the spot where the Carter Presidential Library is located today. The ‘Cyclorama’ is due to be re located. It will be a monumental task. Maybe one day the epic battles SL fought against the colonial powers could also be painted and exhibited like this in Kandy. The British attempt at genocide in the Uva rebellion (1818) could then be etched into the minds of the people for ever.

It was a great holiday.

- Asian Tribune –

Images Oak Boone Plantation
Yorktown (CV 10)
Lalin’s Column:  Carolinas and Georgia (USA) holiday
diconary view
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