From the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Mississippi River

Friday, September 16th, 2011

COMING APART After 9/11 transfixed America, the country’s problems were left to rot. by George Packer Download NYer PDF

I grew-up in New Orleans and my wife grew-up in Mount Airy, North Carolina. We sometimes amuse ourselves during cocktail hour by reciting the differences in our social and cultural circumstances, always marveling that we found enough in common to want to marry. We could never imagine that a New Yorker article would connect our hometowns.

We both moved away from our hometowns for a reason and we remain attached to each of these spots on the map: one on a river and the other at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The troubles of our hometowns were a long time in coming and will take a while to fix. Certainly, such is the nature of civilization: people try, succeed and fail in one location then move to start-over in the next. Right now, we’re all caught-up in something that seems much larger than us – is the population too large? do we use too much gasoline? is the government to blame? – where we’re not sure what to do or even if we’ve hit the bottom yet.

I wonder if our nation’s decline is represented by these two uniquely charming locations or are their declines better represented by America’s?! Certainly New Orleans is not the city that it used to be – and probably never was any way. Its mythical gentility and creativity was perpetrated while those in authority neglected nearly every fundamental civic responsibility. Katrina washed away this veneer.

The folks in Mount Airy have made do since they settled the area prior to the American Revolution. They display a strong sense of self-reliance coupled with a short horizon to the world at large. As I think about it, this is pretty much the opposite of how New Orleanians have seen themselves and their world.

Now both communities share the understanding that as any semblance of reliable, centralized leadership is in dangerous short supply, self-reliance in the day to day is how they will have to survive and to re-construct a future for their friends and families.

As a 14 year old water boy, my wife’s great-grandfather walked from Virginia to Gettysburg in 1863 for the battle. Wounded on the third day in the North Carolina attack adjacent to Pickett’s charge, he was paroled and returned home. He wore his uniform in the annual town parade into the early 1930s. New Orleans surrendered early in the war with barely a fight, never considering itself actually a part of the American South. My money’s on Mt. Airy. Meanwhile, here’s a cut from a recent David Letterman show where the Preservation Hall Jazz Band joins with the country-gospel Del McCoury Band performing I’ll Fly Away. Hope springs eternal!