After a 12-hour trip from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois without a map, we intuit our way through rural Georgia by following the language of war. We pursue signs leading to Veteran’s Parkway, Fort Oglethorpe, Memorial Stadium, and sure enough we are guided into Columbus by a flag-lined street called Victory Drive, the whole time feeling like part of a tailgate party for some non-existent game.
My first impression: Columbus wears economic hardship on its sleeve, right next to a God Bless America patch. The two – desperation and patriotism – seem intertwined, at least in Columbus, Georgia.
The journey from the highway to the base, along Victory Drive, tells the story: title loan agencies, pawn shops, inexpensive Chinese buffets, a half dozen topless bars flanked by cheap motels where the guests have local license plates. There’s a “Gus’s Chick n’ Shrimp Drive-in” with a printed menu the size of two billboards, and “Freddy’s Fast Tattoos” just down the street from a strip mall with Army, Navy, and Air Force recruiting centers. The Civil War Museum faces two expansive cemeteries across the street. Several billboards shout out the number of a hotline for compulsive gamblers. There is the merest shadow of green in the midst of all of this – grizzly gray grass struggling out of the cracks in the cement, looking like the beard of an unshaven old man.
The roads are wide; the parking lots are huge and empty. Giant flags flap every fifty feet for several miles. The face of Osama bin Laden, ten feet high, looms over the highway, with the crosshairs of a gun sight laid over his face to advertise a local radio station. “We are All American Radio” the billboard declares, and its hostility proves it. A factory stretching several blocks lies vacant, an enormous steel gate rusting on its hinges, its wide loading docks empty, doors gaping open like wounds.
It is a city made for giants, but the giants must have left, because all I see are tired looking black folks and mean looking white folks hovering around the shoulders of the highway.
In my search for life in Columbus, this is my inventory: hotels buzzing with men in uniform and several factories actively cranking out snack cakes. And then there’s us. We have come to protest the SOA, and in doing so, have breathed life into the city for a weekend. Between the military and its opposition, the tourist industry of Columbus ekes out an existence. Luckily, I say to myself, the SOA protests come right in time to put a little extra cash into the pockets of people short on money for Christmas presents.