Ghosts of Savannah

Another trip around the sun completed this past week. Another mile rolled over on my life odometer, another year gone by with astonishing swiftness. To celebrate, earlier this month Sue and I met my brother Doug and his wife in Savannah for a few days.

As always, I took the long way down along Route 17, remembering all the trips to Florida as a kid; the back of our station wagon with Doug and our dog, windows open, the smell of jasmine and pine, the smells of the South.

Savannah is an old town, a town with lots of history, lots of stories of heroism, intrigue and treachery. It’s allegedly one of the most haunted cities in the US. It’s a giant checkerboard, straight streets that run north-south and east-west, shaded with 300-year old live oaks. Numerous parks and statues abound, dotted with historic figures whose noble bronze countenances remain remarkably unchanged after two centuries. Everywhere, Spanish Moss barely stirs in the humid breeze. I can almost sense ghosts moving among the living.

The Savannah River bridge as seen from our cruise on a paddlewheel boat. Loads of info and fun, highly recommended.

We toured some of the cemeteries. Many were from the Revolutionary and Civil War eras, the inscriptions now almost unreadable. We learned that Yellow Fever frequently ravaged Savannah, a deadly illness that was believed to be carried by some mysterious element in the air. Cannonballs were fired through the streets to “shock the ether,” a measure that did little unless it happened to make a direct hit on a disease-laden mosquito. Entire families succumbed to the illness; I saw family plots, pitiful tiny mildewed headstones of infants who never made it past Go.

As I wandered, I heard a church bell. I looked up and saw the spires of St. John’s Cathedral between two oaks; an assortment of headstones drifted off in that direction, the ones in the distance so small they were barely visible. It was just before Holy Week and the symbolism was not lost on me…I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. I had to see this.

The spires of St. John’s Cathedral, over 20 stories tall, can be seen from anywhere in the city.

It was magnificent. Originally started in the early 1800s, it was built in the French Gothic style and had endured numerous fires and repairs. I sat in a pew, admiring it all. The soaring sanctuary, almost 100 feet tall, the stained glass windows, the candles, the majestic altar, the palpable sense of reverence and solemnity stilled my mind. I felt I was being told to be still and listen.

I thought of all the uncounted people who had sat here over the years and what they came seeking.

Every time…ours included…is filled with uncertainty. There are no guarantees. We’re in that game Labyrinth, the box with the maze and the holes and we must try to maneuver the marble to the end without dropping through. The cemetery was a stark reminder that some had fallen immediately, others later, while some lucky ones made it all to the way to the end. We never know which hole has our name on it.

Every era is filled with danger, fearful imaginings, despair and death. But also, life, laughter, excitement, love. Perhaps things in our time seem so overwhelming because we have no reference point, no comparison. We can’t relate to people shooting cannon balls at diseases 150 years ago. Yeah, they had their problems…but things have never been this bad.

But I think that the myriad things that assail us, that weigh on us, that haunt us…will ultimately pass. Good always triumphs over evil. It’s as Frodo lamented to Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

As I drove over the towering Route 17 bridge on my way north out of Savannah, I glanced in the rear view mirror. Above the oaks, above the brick streets, the buildings, the statues, the decay and the ghosts…the twin spires of St. John’s arose, two sentinels watching over the living and the dead. Time that was given, and is going or has gone.

Gandalf, think you’re on to something.

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