Every so often I am confronted by a vivid memory and I think to myself, Why is this coming to my attention right now? What is it I am needing to learn? I think everything happens for a reason. Part of being human is figuring out that reason.
I subscribe to an online publication called The Bitter Southerner and their lead story yesterday was excellent. Good Luck Morons is about an ultramarathon race in East Tennessee called the Barkley Marathons. You should take a few minutes and read the story. Go ahead. Here's an excerpt:
"Today, people come from all over the world for the chance to annihilate their minds and bodies in a 60-hour, 100-mile, sleepless, nearly impossible gauntlet through the merciless mountains. Lost and alone, they struggle through hallucinations, extreme cold, heat, thunderstorms, sleet, and rock-bottom exhaustion while they navigate vast stretches of sinister, unmarked woodland with only a compass and their prayers."
Why would anyone put themselves through THAT hell?! I cannot imagine. I usually wonder every day if I should take the dog for a longer walk around my suburban neighborhood and most days I think nah, I'll head on back to the house. (Of course, I hate shopping with such a passion that I'd choose the Barkley over being forced to walk around a mall any day.)
The story starts off in Wartburg, Tennessee.
Now, I spent third grade through high school living in Knoxville, which is about an hour from Wartburg. When I was in 5th grade, I sang in the chorus at Cedar Bluff Middle School. We took a trip to Wartburg to sing at their school. I remember it not for the scenic drive over Route 62 through Oak Ridge and on to Wartburg, despite the lovely scenery that spring day.
No, our chorus concert was memorable for a strange reason.
We got to Wartburg (a teeny tiny town) and went into their school and sang a concert in the cafeteria. While we were standing on the risers singing, a bird flew in the window and flew around the room for a few minutes. For 11 year olds that was pretty exciting, and I'm sure our singing was not flawless. I cannot tell you the name of a single song we did that day, but I can see the bird flying around the cafeteria just like a movie.
That year, the fifth graders were famous for two reasons. One, we had an excellent chorus. Two, we were very ill-behaved. Various teachers relished telling us how awful we were. We talked incessantly. Maybe it's because most of us were born in 1962, the Chinese year of the Tiger.
Anyway, our fearless leader Mrs. Gilbreath was justifiably proud of us, as a chorus, but that trip to Wartburg was vexing to her. Birds were not supposed to distract from our wonderful singing.
On the way back, we were excited about the bird and talking up a storm. Mrs. G was fuming. We drove right by the entrance to Brushy Mountain Prison. Mrs. G asked the driver to pull the bus over so we could all see the prison gates.
Mrs. G proceeded to stand at the front of the bus and tell us, sternly, that if we didn't straighten up we would all end up in prison. We were actually quiet for a few minutes, contemplating that.
Then we went right back to talking and the bus took us back to Knoxville.
None of us ever went to Brushy Mountain, I am pretty sure. Many of my classmates are now my Facebook friends. Most of us have had reasonably successful lives - we're doctors, business leaders, artists, etc. The most famous one of us is probably Jeff Joslin, a professional football player and now an actor. (I interviewed Jeff for my Twenty Questions series a few years ago.)
The words "Brushy Mountain" fill me with uneasiness, though.
My parents were news junkies so I knew that James Earl Ray, the man who killed Martin Luther King, Jr. was an inmate at Brushy Mountain in 1973 when we pulled up outside the prison. I didn't appreciate what an evil guy he was until years later when I studied the life of King and was able to comprehend the incredible life he led and what he accomplished, and what a tragedy it was that he lost his life so young.
I was scanning my Facebook feed this morning and came upon an article called A Terrifying Tour of This Haunted Prison is Not for the Faint of Heart. Hmm...
I have no desire to "tour a haunted prison," thanks anyway. Pulling up outside of it in a bus was quite enough.
Hauntings are not limited to places. There are spirits all around us, I believe. I think 99% of the time they are benevolent.
East Tennessee is a beautiful area and there are much better things to do than tour an old prison. The great Smoky Mountains provide wondrous beauty and if you like to photograph nature, hike, camp, cycle, or go to amusement parks like Dollywood, you will enjoy a trip to East Tennessee, despite the recent fires.
I'm not sure what I am supposed to take away from this little trip down memory lane.
I don't want to end this blog, though, without mentioning that Mrs. Barbara Gilbreath was a beloved music teacher of mine for 6 years, and I learned a lot from her, and I cherish her guidance and help in making me a better singer and in giving me a love of all kinds of music. Our choruses went on to compete in All State competitions every year for the next 3 years, and in 6th grade we sang Handel's Hallelujah Chorus - quite an accomplishment for 12 year olds.
Sadly, Mrs. Gilbreath was killed in a car accident my freshman year in high school. On the last day of 8th grade she hugged every one of us as we went out the door after our last chorus rehearsal. She hugged me and whispered in my ear "You're very special and you are going to do great things one day."
I imagine she likely said that to every child she hugged that day.
If you want to appreciate the incredible beauty of East Tennessee I invite you to watch this short video of Cades Cove, and listen to the lovely music. That's one of my favorite places on earth. Or just Google Smoky Mountains and enjoy the views.
I regret not having the grace to really hug back Mrs. G that spring day in 1976, and thank her for all her time and care. That day she stopped the bus in front of Brushy Mountain was the only time I ever really saw her wig out, even though we were a wild bunch. I wouldn't trade those days of singing with her for anything in the world.