2017: Memphis

No-Grace Land

April 19-21


Once again we were apprehensive about leaving such a nice comfortable RV park and setting out for the great unknown. I knew we would miss that daily view of the mighty Mississippi.

But we needn't have worried. While we didn't have an unimpeded view this time, Tom Sawyer's RV Park was right on that big river again. We had booked a week, and I could imagine staying longer.

Mike had been asserting for days that he was hearing a critter, probably a frog, making noises somewhere in the coach, probably underneath one of the slideouts. I pooh-poohed him, since I'm the one with the bat-ears and I hadn't heard it. But on our first camp-day in Memphis, I was typing away at the computer when I heard it. It was real. And loud.

Mike thought it was somewhere in the area underneath the sink. We took out some drawers and hunted with a flashlight, but a tangle of wires and cords and who-knows-what made our search fruitless. Mike even took out the bottom of the adjoining bathroom sink to no avail.

The frog had gone silent with all the hubbub so I went back to the computer, figuring the hunt was done. I had been working and concentrating about 30 minutes when I heard Mike behind. Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. He was tapping with his fingers on...something. I was busy so I tried to ignore it. Then I heard sounds of dismantling, so I had to turn around. Mike had pulled everything out from under the sink, taken down one of the side panels, and was working on uprooting the floor of the cabinet.

Gotta hand it to him for perseverence. But not for success. Frog 1, Mike 0.

The next day, we ventured into Memphis for the first time. It was going to be rainy so we opted for an indoor activity, touring the Gibson Guitar Factory to see how they manufacture their famed instruments.

The building has an enormous atrium, and an appropriately sized and shaped front desk. Just off the atrium is the guitar store, where you can drop between $700 and $5000 for one of their shiny prizes.

Huge atrium. Fab front desk. Rows of guitars for sale.
Ouch! Gorgeous acoustic. Heavy lift. Blues piano?

We learned after we got there that no photos would be allowed on the tour, so I surrendered my Lumix to the front desk rather than lug it around unused. The tour guide was a fellow who normally works in the factory; his specialty is building and finishing the guitar necks. The tour was somewhat interesting, but I felt that it was not structured for the more casual tourist; rather it seemed more appropriate for the sophisticated guitarist who plays regularly and understands the lingo. Additionally, most of what they manufacture is electric guitars and my experience is limited to the acoustic variety.

We did come to appreciate why the instruments command such high prices. Although machines are employed, nothing about the manufacturing process is automated. Our guide observed that there are three major factors that go into the creation of a high-end guitar: wood, glue, and time. I think he forgot about a fourth factor -- skill.

The factory turns out about 50 guitars per day; it surprised me that there is that big a market for these expensive instruments. It takes about three weeks total time to complete a guitar when you include drying time for glue and finishes. The raw wood laminates used for the guitar bodies are all sorted and chosen by hand, and then glued into veneer-sandwiches which must dry thoroughly before being put into heated presses that create the body shapes. Our guide took us through many, many different stations for shaping, sanding, gluing and laquering. All along the way were both parts of guitars and fully assembled guitars in various states of completion. It was pretty overwhelming and by the end of the tour, the price tags seemed quite reasonable.

When we emerged from the building, we saw the rain had slacked off so we went in search of some lunch. We were in the heart of old downtown Memphis. I suppose it could be called "funky", but the word that came to my mind was more like junky. There were many, many nightlife joints in the three square blocks we walked. We saw a strange building facade - the back of the building was gone - being held up by steel girders extending down over the sidewalk. I surmised that it was perhaps historic for some reason and therefore being preserved, but if so it was supremely ugly.

Funky or junky? Facade squad.

After a so-so-lunch, we decided to try for another nearby destination. The National Civil Rights Museum is located at the old Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. In fact, the museum is the motel, or at least the facade of it. In the early 1980's the motel's owner worked with several organizations to raise funds to save the motel as a memorial to Dr. King and to the civil rights movement.

Lorraine Motel.

It's a spooky feeling, walking up near the still-standing outside wall of the old motel and realizing you are a looking at the exact spot where Dr. King was standing when he was fatally shot.

Inside, the museum is like a work of art. The usual placards and artifacts on display are supplemented by wonderful sculptures representing people of different periods and experiences.

The very first room focused on the African slave trade and even employed the floor as a canvas, with backlit directional lines connecting the various continents and illustrating how the slavers operated. In this room, I learned that slave trade in Africans existed since medieval times among Arabs, and African chieftains enslaved and sold other Africans.

There was an alcove representing a slave ship, with statues of naked Africans chained together in a line across the floor, and background audio of ocean waves and slavers' commands. It was chilling.

Slave ship.  Floor map.
State laws... ...that protected slavery. 1794 slave-ship manifest. Slave auction.

There was more to learn, and re-learn. Of course I knew the name Rosa Parks and what she did, but I didn't realize that she was an established activist in the NAACP. And I had frankly forgotten about the subsequent bus boycott that ultimately led to the end of Alabama bus segregation via a Supreme Court decision. I also did not know that it was during this boycott that an unknown young pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. began his rise to national prominence in the civil rights movement.

The museum had on display an actual Montgomery city bus, surrounded by statues representing the boycotters.

I had never heard the name of Charles Hamilton Houston, the Harvard-educated director of the Howard University Law School whose program turned out many successful civil rights lawyers including Thurgood Marshall. Houston, who in 1934 was the first director of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, saw early on that a direct constitutional challenge to the concept of "separate but equal" was likely to lose. Instead, he formulated a long-view strategy of lawsuits which would force school boards to allocate equal resources to black schools, knowing that the costs would prove too high for most school districts. This approach resulted in a series of legal precedents that ultimately led to the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ending school segregation for good.

The final examples of the excellent statuary were seated at a simulated lunch counter, representing the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, that forced Woolworth's to end their policy of refusing service to African-Americans. I remembered seeing this on the news in 1960, although my 14-year-old self could not fully appreciate the implications.

The last display in the museum was a recreation of the Lorraine motel room occupied by Dr. King, including a view out onto the balcony where he stood. It was a sobering experience to stand there and look out the window as he might have done.

As we left the museum, Mike said it was one of the best things we'd seen on the trip, and I had to agree. Not only was it extremely well-organized and effectively presented, it was informative without being boring. I walked away with a sober admiration for the courage of thousands of men and women who endured abuse, intimidation, violence, imprisonment and even death in the fight to gain their rights. Even more than that, I gained a new appreciation for how much change they were able to effect in the face of enormous odds.

When we got back from downtown, we discovered that the heavens had dumped on camp while we were gone. Even the next day, there were significant puddles remaining; and the river itself looked angry.

According to the forecasts, the weather wasn't going to clear up for another couple of days. That, plus our disappointment in Memphis as a destination, led us to a decision to leave early. I'd just have to live another day (or more) without seeing Graceland.

We'd also decided that we were ready to head home; it was just a question of which way and how fast. After looking at the endless miles of I-40 between us and home, I convinced Mike to take one more short detour, to Hot Springs Arkansas.