#104: Ty Cobb Museum

It’s been awhile since I’ve marked something off my List of Things to Do Before I Die, so I took the opportunity in December to stop at the Ty Cobb Museum in Royston, GA. I was on my way home from a trip to Atlanta, and a detour of about 20 miles off the interstate was all it took.

First of all, the museum is in an unusual location. Cobb donated a lot of money to the medical center in Royston, which is named after him, so the museum is actually housed inside the medical center, just off the waiting room. I stopped in on a Saturday afternoon and was the only visitor thus far that day.

Ty Cobb was an amazing player, but not necessarily a nice person, so the museum focuses primarily on his accomplishments on the diamond and not on his winning personality. But it was still super fun to see lots of old relics from the game.

Ty Cobb’s Tigers Uniform

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A seat from the old Tiger Stadium in Detroit

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One of Ty Cobb’s many American League Batting Titles

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The town is small, so it wasn’t far to the cemetery where Ty Cobb is buried. (Fun fact, at the cemetery, I realized that Ty Cobb died on the exact day my mother was born.)

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And Ty Cobb now has the privilege of being the only non-Atlanta Braves bobblehead in my collection.

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The Light & the Dark (Revisited)

It’s been a year and three days since I returned from Haiti on one of the greatest experiences of my life, since I saw such beauty and chaos, such light and such dark, existing side-by-side in a country I have come to love dearly. One of the greatest lessons I learned was how distinct the boundaries between good and evil are. It’s tangible in Haiti, in a way that it isn’t tangible in our cozy, comfy, middle-class American lives.

A year later, I’m even more thankful for my experience. It’s not been an easy year.

Five days after I posted that blog about Haiti, I received a terrible phone call. I was in the checkout line at Publix when my dad called. I hurriedly answered and said I would call him back, then walked out to my car. From the way Dad had said “Hello,” I knew this would not be an easy phone call. In my car, in the darkened parking lot, gripping the steering wheel, I listened to my dad tell me that my uncle–his sister’s husband, our neighbor, our loved one–had taken his own life. The gasping, aching hole was immediate, the sobs wrenching. I was, fortunately, on my way to my small group at the time, so minutes later, after I’d composed myself enough to drive, I headed straight there, to my family who comforted me and prayed with me, even while my biological family grieved far away.

The next night, I made the three-hour trip home, moving between numbness and uncertainty to crying and questioning. When I pulled into the driveway late at night, my parents came out to meet me. They had news, updates: my uncle, who had long been an evolutionist, had been attending church with my aunt and cousin. He had accepted Christ just two months before and was scheduled to have been baptized the following Sunday.

I collapsed on the ground in grateful tears. Here, then, was the light in the middle of so much darkness. Here was the sliver of hope. For whatever doctrine exists on suicide and unpardonable sins, we at least had hope when there had been none before. God’s glory was brighter than the darkness.

Just two and a half weeks later, however, the darkness threatened again. Another phone call from Dad, another intuition from the “Hello.” My grandfather–my mom’s dad–had been found dead that day of a massive heart attack or stroke. My only grandfather–my Papa Ting, my funny little old grandfather–was gone forever. The man who’d been proud to have me as his first grandchild, the man who’d financed much of my trip to Haiti, the man whose imperfections often made his family life difficult–was gone.

I made the trip home again, and this time I arrived physically sick–dizzy, nauseated, weak. I felt the effects of the compounded losses to my bones. The next day arrived, filled with trips to flower shops and the funeral home, and finally, the visitation, where I stood in a line for three hours, greeting hundreds of people, each of whom had a different story. I smiled, I laughed, I explained who and where and what I am now. Visitations aren’t for the family to grieve; they’re for celebration. And they’re exhausting.

The next day was Valentine’s Day–cold, rainy, gray–perfectly ironic for a funeral. The tension between grieving for my own loss and supporting my mother and grandmother, for whom the loss spread over decades and generations. And the oddness of smiling for photos because–for the first time in years–the whole family was gathered together, even in such a harsh setting.

The next day was the hardest of all: leaving my family, terrified that yet another loss would happen and I wouldn’t be there. Driving back to teach a class I wasn’t at all prepared for. Driving back to deadlines for my thesis, wondering if I should even bother trying to finish (after all, I’d attended the funerals for two loved ones before finishing chapter one–what else could happen before I finished all five chapters?). I almost emailed my advisor to withdraw and then realized I needed something tangible to lose myself in.

My thesis became my life. I wrote fast; I wrote long; I wrote well. One hundred pages in six and a half weeks. Finishing my thesis, graduating, and another ending also felt like a loss even as other celebrated with me. My purpose was gone alone with so many other losses.

The darkness of those few weeks in January and February–even though they were tinged with so much light–still managed to overcast the rest of my year. I didn’t care about much, and my heart felt aimless and wandering. In the fall, a hectic semester and students who weren’t always appreciative made me question my sanity and my calling. Did I want to teach ungrateful students for the rest of my life? What was I working so hard for? Would any of this ultimately matter?

Then, at Thanksgiving, when I was cherishing the time with family, we learned of another loss: my mom’s pastor, who’d been fighting brain tumors for two years, had finally passed away. At his funeral, I felt the love of so many people for him and I also profoundly missed my grandmother, my uncle, my grandfather.

And New Year’s Day, I awoke to a text from Mom. My cousin Todd, just a few days younger than me, had been wheelchair-bound his whole life after being born with spina bifida. He’d had surgery for an abdominal infection a few weeks before, and his health had been declining. He passed away the morning of New Year’s Day, just 27 years old. I missed his funeral but got a full recap from Mom: a celebration of a life that was worthy, even in the midst of hardship.

Here, in this new year, I’ve found myself reflecting on one of the toughest years of my life. So many losses, so much pain, so much hardship. In my life, in the lives of my family and others I care for, in the world. I’ve sensed the darkness in so much: the global disasters and tragedies, the national government issues, the scandals, the brokenness.

I’ve never felt the darkness so profoundly before. I know this is because of Haiti. You can’t walk through the streets of Jacmel or drive through the streets of Port-au-Prince and not believe that evil is real and present and powerful. And I cannot live knowing that evil is real without understanding that God’s power and might are greater and stronger and more beautiful than anything I can even comprehend. This year of darkness and brokenness has sometimes overwhelmed me; however, the good that’s come out of it is beautiful and wonderful and worth it. For the first time in years, I feel unity within my family–on both sides, my mom’s and my dad’s. The Gambrells have returned to our tradition of celebrating Christmas together, which fell by the wayside when my grandmother, our matriarch, was ill. The loss has brought us together again, and now we celebrate the next generation that will come when my cousin Whitney has her first child in March. On my mom’s side of the family, we were all together on Christmas day, and I heard for the first time in a long time “I love you” pass from sibling to sibling; I hugged cousins I’ve rarely seen in past years, and I feel a bit of hope that my grandfather’s death has brought us all together again. I’ve seen my family take care of one another and love one another, and while I’m sad that it’s taken loss to make this happen, I’m grateful that it’s happening nonetheless.

I have spent much of this year fearful, anxious, and worried about what the future holds and how much my life matters. I’ve seen a lot of the brokenness and wondered if wholeness were possible. I’ve questioned tragedies and grieved loss.

And now it’s a new year, a time of rebirth. And while life is hard and sin inflicts pain and hurt, God is real and true. I have seen darkness and death point toward life and light and love. I have seen unity come out of the pain. God’s love is strongest when it overcomes the pain of our fallen world. I found this truth in Haiti and carried it back home with me. In those few weeks in early January last year, when I wondered why I had to return to America and how I could hold on to what I learned in Haiti, I had no idea what was coming. I certainly didn’t expect the year that I had. But I’m grateful for His timing, for His mercy, and for the way He cares for His children. I’m grateful for a new year in which to see His glory shine and to worship him in new and unexpected ways. And I’m so thankful that His life shines so brightly and overcomes the darkness of this world.

The Light & the Dark

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1.5)

Sixteen days ago, I arrived home from Haiti. I brought home several hundred digital photos, a pound of whole dark roast coffee beans, and a deeper understanding of the nature of God. I left behind part of my heart.

I’m planning on posting several entries about my experience in Haiti, but when I sat down to decide what to write about first, one image came to mind. Sadly, it isn’t a physical image, but a memory that I can describe only in mere words.

On Monday, Jan. 2, two days before we left Haiti, our team accompanied Mrs. Sarah, the missionary with whom we were working, to downtown Jacmel, a city on the southern coast. We’d spent most of our week with the teachers at a nearby school or attending church services at Hosanna Ministries or spending quality time together at the mission house, so our team was pretty excited to see the actual city. Even with all the tragedy and poverty Haiti has experienced, beauty remains:

The French Quarter of New Orleans was modeled after Jacmel, and some of the older buildings are magnificent.

It’s all so very Caribbean. I love it!

We drove through downtown, perilously found a place to park, and headed to the market. Naively, I had imagined a scene similar to the market in downtown Charleston, but poorer and dirtier. Surely among the food vendors, someone would be selling crafts and jewelry. My mental image was so far removed from reality.

I have no pictures of the Jacmel market because, first, I was afraid my camera would be stolen in the crowd of people and, second, I felt like taking pictures would be exploiting these Haitian people somehow. The market was the dirtiest place I’ve ever been to and far worse than I could have even fathomed. Rotting food covered the ground, mixed in with trash and standing water. Raw meet sat on the tables, covered in flies and filth. Vendors packed every available space, trying to sell anything they could, and everyone stared at the white people pushing through the crowds. A few people greeted us in Creole, but most glared or murmured or cackled.

This scene, in the midst of this beautiful city, just one block away from the most beautiful ocean I’ve ever seen!

(This beach is actually a few miles away, but you get the idea.)

I couldn’t remove the scene from my mind. Never before have I seen a more perfect analogy for the kingdom of God. God created perfection, a beautiful Eden, a Caribbean island with white sand beaches, palm trees, balmy weather, and water the color of jewels. And man’s sin and filth has the potential to destroy such perfection. But if I walked away from the market, I could leave behind the sin and filth and witness God’s glory once more. I could leave behind the darkness and return to His light. This is image that I have not been able to stop thinking about since I left the market that day.

In Haiti, I felt much more sensitive to the distinction between darkness and light. In the United States, we’re comfortable, we’re complacent, and we don’t often believe that demons hold so much power. In Haiti, though, I met people who’d been possessed or oppressed by demons, and I heard testimony of those who’d been redeemed. Supernatural beings–be they divine or demonic–hold incredible power in Haiti. Those who’ve accepted salvation seem to radiate so much peace and light, but those who still live in darkness appear so defeated. The market in Jacmel and the streets of Port-au-Prince reveal so much destruction, at odds with the beautiful skyline and coast. The kingdom of God perseveres, even while others remain enslaved to sin.

God is moving in Haiti. He is calling His children to Him, and He is sending others, like my team, as his emissaries. I cannot deny that God called me to spend that week in Haiti, and I’m praying that He’ll send me back there again. Meanwhile, may I continue to testify about what I’ve seen in Haiti so that the name of my Father may be forever exalted!

#25: Texas

This year has not been a very List-worthy event. Until November, I had only accomplished two goals from the List. But Thanksgiving brought a whole new adventure.

#37: Fly on a plane.

I’d never flown before. And I chose to fly from Atlanta, the Southeast’s busiest airport, alone at Thanksgiving. Honestly, I almost quit before I even got to security. I sat in the airport with Harvin, thinking that I was flying alone, in a plane thousands of feet above the ground, and I wouldn’t be able to get off if something happened. Then I prayed really hard, breathed really deeply, gathered up my courage, and walked confidently through security.

What I learned from this experience:

A) Sometimes, striding confidently through an airport is enough to convince myself that I am capable and courageous and adventurous. Pretending it’s true makes it true.

B) Flying on a plane is exhilarating and not as scary as I imagined.

C) When the plane begins its descent into an airport, flying becomes very painful for me because of the problems I’ve had with my right ear my entire life. I’m currently nursing a sinus infection, which I think might be in part because of flying and intense pressure in my ear canal. At least I know now, and I can be prepared for illness when I fly.

When I landed in Dallas last Monday night, I was also able to mark another achievement from the list.

#25: Go to Texas.

I love Texas. Dallas has a beautiful skyline and is a city rich in history and culture. Also, the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is one of the best museums I’ve ever visited. The story of JFK’s assassination is tragic and incredibly important to American history, and the museum has done a fantastic job of preserving the importance of that day.

Another tragedy (though not quite as weighty): Raquel and I visited the Dallas Museum of Art for the sole purpose of seeing the two Edward Hopper paintings on display (that’s #61 on the List). When we reached the floor with early 20th century American art, I was first delighted to find two paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, and I knew Hopper would be in the same area. But I looked and looked around the whole section, and the Hopper paintings were nowhere to be found. Finally, Raquel asked one of the museum employees. Turns out the Hoppers were in storage–replaced by the O’Keeffes I had been so delighted to see. I’ll admit: I shed a tear at the thought that I was so close to works by my favorite painter, yet unable to actually see them. Discouraging.

I did see a bit more of Texas than just Dallas. We also drove to Waco on my first day there because I had an appointment with the head of the English graduate program at Baylor University. Yes, I’m considering applying in a few years for the Ph.D. program at Baylor. It’s a good program, and my meeting has given me a lot to think about in regards to deciding about my future. Also, Waco is in the middle of nowhere. That’s kind of a good thing. Between North, SC, and Tigerville, SC, I’ve always lived in the middle of nowhere. Why should it be any different if I decide to move to Texas?

My last night in Texas was my favorite part of the whole trip because I marked one more item off the list:

#26: See a rodeo.

Every Friday and Saturday night, the Fort Worth Stockyards host a rodeo competition. Rodeos are way more fun than I actually thought they would be.

It’s dangerous and exciting, and there’s also something incredible attractive about a man on a horse…or a bull. But that’s enough about that.

The Stockyards are designed like an Old West town, and I wish we’d had more time to explore. Every day, they close the street down for a cattle drive through the town, and the whole experience is tourist-y, yes, but also a ton of fun. I’ve been telling people that if I lived in Texas, I would go to rodeos all the time. 🙂

Now, here are some more photos from my trip:

Baylor is home to the Armstrong-Browning Library, an extensive collection of manuscripts and artifacts from Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. My favorite thing in this museum, however, was this handwritten note from Charles Dickens. I do love Dickens!

The Dallas skyline.

I’m sitting on the Grassy Knoll beside the street where JFK was assassinated. The Sixth Floor Museum is directly behind me. Just behind the tree is the window from which Oswald fired the shot.

There’s a V on the plaque marking the exact location where the fatal shot hit Kennedy.

Is this an intentional reference to V for Vendetta? Probably by some poser kid who just wants to pretend to be an anarchist. Punks.

He’s on a horse.

#84: Antietam

Road trips are the traveler’s manifestation of a rite of passage. At least, it seems that way, if one reads enough books or watches enough films. Last year’s road trip to Boston was certainly epic and proved to me that extensive traveling didn’t have to be expensive or difficult. This year’s trip to Pennsylvania and Maryland reminded me that my own history is stretched out over more geography than the road between Greenville and the town where I grew up.

This year’s road trip was supposed to be 9 days of American history between D.C. and Philadelphia. Because of various incidents beyond our control, I spent 7 days on the road with Ticcoa, and Harvin joined us for several days in Pennsylvania, but did not travel with us for most of the trip. And we skipped D.C. altogether.

But I sort of got a bonus out of this year’s road trip. When Ticcoa and I were at Gettysburg, I flipped through a Civil War battlefields guidebook and realized that Sharpsburg, MD, wasn’t all that far south of Gettysburg…and definitely within a geographic range to visit on this trip, if we so desired. So I proposed a slight change to the plan: Ticcoa and I left Pennsylvania Saturday morning instead of Saturday evening and made the 3 hour journey southwest to Antietam National Battlefield.

Antietam is the bloodiest single-day battle in all of American history–not just the Civil War. In less than a 12-hour time span, 23,000 casualties occurred, including my great-great-great grandfather Harmon Reed Gambrell.

I discovered that I had a Confederate soldier for an ancestor six years ago when I took a class on American folklore and was assigned a large family history project. I searched genealogy records and found out that my 47-year-old great-great-great grandpa left behind a wife and eight children to enlist. And he was one of only 3 men killed from his unit at Antietam, a tremendous surprise considering the overall number of casualties. Furthermore, he was the only rifleman actually killed in his unit on the day of the battle. The 1st man was a colorbearer killed early and the last man was killed by a Union sharpshooter the next day (according to accounts in the official Civil War Records). I’ve always wanted to visit Antietam, just to see the land where my grandfather died. Among a lineage of small-town farmers, a Confederate casualty stands out a bit, particularly since he died in such an epic battle.

When Ticcoa and I arrived at Antietam National Battlefield, I really had no hope of figuring out where his unit had been fighting. Because Antietam was a spontaneous addition to our trip, I had left all my records and information at home. I knew his name, that he was a private in the 1st South Carolina Rifles, and that he died on that day. But, truthfully, I had not uncovered very much more information. So we went to the visitors center and then started driving around to all the monuments and stops on the driving tour.

We saw Dunker Church, where much of the fighting took place, and then a place called “the bloody cornfield,” where I again wondered if this was where my grandfather had spent his last moments. But when we arrived at stop 5, the West Woods, a volunteer named Jim Buchanan walked up to us. The conversation went something like this:

Jim: “Are you from Boston?” (Note: I was wearing a Boston t-shirt. He’s not a mindreader.)

Me: “No, we’re actually from South Carolina.”

Jim: “Oh, really? We had a number of units from South Carolina fighting here.”

Me: “I know. My great-great-great grandfather died here during the battle.”

Jim: “Oh, really? Do you know his unit? We can probably figure out where he died.”

This was the moment where Ticcoa pulled out her video camera. She has footage of our conversation, which I haven’t seen yet, but I can imagine the wide-eyed look on my face. I had no idea, no expectation, that I would actually discover where my grandfather had been on all the miles and miles of farmland that is part of the national battlefield. But Jim pulled out his book, entitled The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, flipped to the back, looked up the 1st SC Rifles in the index, and was able to determine when and where my grandfather’s unit had been fighting. He then informed me that the battle of Antietam was incredibly well-documented, and someone has actually made maps of the troop movement down to the half-hour. After reading the account in the book, Jim pulled up maps from later in the afternoon, and I saw on the map when my grandfather entered the battle. He then unrolls his map, starts comparing the location to the park service map, and told me exactly how to find the hills where the 1st SC Rifles were fighting.

Somewhere past that wooded area is where the 1st SC Rifles engaged in battle.

Here’s what I learned: my grandfather’s unit had been on reserve most of the day, and they were called up mid-afternoon (after 3 p.m.) to engage with the 4th Rhode Island regiment near Burnside Bridge. The Confederates were able to hold onto that piece of land, and, in fact, remained camped nearby until the morning of Sept. 19 (the battle of Antietam occurred on Sept. 17, 1862). Eventually, they were the last Confederate troops to leave the area by crossing the Potomac.

The plaque nearby describes exactly where the unit was fighting. Jim called it exactly!

I’m still not sure where my grandfather is buried. Most likely, he is buried with most of the Confederate soldiers who died at Antietam in one of three mass graves nearby. Something like 10% of the bodies were ever identified, so the chances that he was once of them are slim. However, some reports on ancestry.com show my ancestor as being buried in Honea Path, SC, his hometown (though I suspect that may just be a monument and not a gravestone). I’ll soon be traveling a few counties over to Honea Path to find that cemetery and confirm whether he’s buried there or not. Another posting on Ancestry lists him as being in Jackson, Mississippi, though that may be confused with his older brother, who also died during the Civil War, though of a disease and not in battle. At any rate, I may never find his grave. But that’s okay because I pulled off the side of a road and looked down the hills to the area where he was fighting. And it was beautiful.

This might be the greatest thing I’ve marked off The List so far. I mean, Boston was epic in so many ways, and there are others that I’m proud of. But at Antietam, I found a piece of my history, and it’s a place I plan on revisiting whenever possible. Also, I’m a little obsessed now with Civil War history: researching online, narrowing down where exactly my grandfather fought before Antietam, etc. But that’s totally okay. 🙂

#107: The Liberty Bell

When we first began discussing a trip to Philadelphia, I, of course, realized that seeing the Liberty Bell had to be on The List. After all, how could I go to Philadelphia and not see its most famous icon?

Here’s a clue: everyone else who goes to Philadelphia wants to see the Bell, too. We went at the end of the day, when there was actually not a line out the building, as there had been all throughout the rest of the day. Nonetheless, we still faced a crowd of people inside. When you walk into the building where the Liberty Bell is housed, you can read lots of information about its history–the casting of the bell by Paul Revere, when it was rung and where it was located (including a tour that brought it to SC!). Or, you can skim most of that information and head straight to the bell. You can then join the crowd of people hovering around the bell at the end of the room, and you can wait your turn to stand next to the bell and have someone take your picture.

I’m glad I saw the Liberty Bell. It’s a fascinating piece of history. We’ve just been spoiled by having been the sole participants in tours at literary house-museums that it’s a little weird to have to fight crowds just to get a glimpse of history.

Is it worth it? Yes. I like bells. I like Paul Revere. I dislike crowds, especially in big cities that I’ve walked around for hours. But that’s mostly just my issue. If you’re in Philly, go see the Liberty Bell. Just don’t expect to spend some solitary quality time with it. What you don’t see in this picture: all the people staring at me while I stand there awkwardly. 🙂

“The 2nd Annual Road Trip of Epicness”

Friday night, my best friends Harvin and Ticcoa and I held a planning session to finalize the details of our upcoming vacation. Last year, we spent 10 days on the road and around New England, and it was so wonderful! This year, on our “2nd annual road trip of epicness” (so dubbed by Ticcoa on her blog), we’ll be road-tripping again, though not quite as far: nine days on the road to Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.

The potential itinerary:

Saturday, July 31: Leave SC; drive to Annapolis, MD, to stay with our awesome friend Karen.

Aug. 1-3: Washington, D.C., where we’ll tour the Library of Congress, several of the Smithsonian museums (specifically, the Mus. of American Art, American History, Air & Space, and perhaps the Postal Museum), and as many of the monuments that we can fit in. We’ll also have dinner on Melville’s birthday at Moby Dick House of Kebab (I’m dead serious!) and sometime get a meal at Eatonville’s (themed after Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God). Also, used  book stores galore.

Aug. 4: leave Annapolis and head to Gettysburg, PA, for the day.

Aug. 5: Hershey & Lancaster, PA

Aug. 6-7: Philadelphia, including the Edgar Allan Poe National Historical Site, Independence National Historical Site (the Liberty Bell is there!), Elfreth’s Alley, maybe Valley Forge, and maybe this awesome museum called The Museum of Mourning Art. That last afternoon, we’ll leave Philly for Baltimore, where we’ll once again stop at the Annabel Lee Tavern, before heading back to Annapolis and then home on Aug. 8.

This trip is less literary and more historical, but it’s still going to be awesome. I can’t even believe that two weeks from now, I’ll be touring D.C.! Yay!