Saturday, October 27, 2012

Guns and Power Tools -- The MLK Hearse at Silver Dollar Pawn in Alexandria Louisiana

As many of you have seen from my weekly Facebook posts, I am in Dry Prong, Louisiana. Actually, that's not true; I'm in Pineville LA. But Pineville simply isn't as funny as Dry Prong. So, first, let's get the geography right. I'm here for four to eight weeks to participate in a survey for unexploded ordnance at the former Breezy Hill Artillery Range in the Kisatchie National Forest. Dry Prong is the little town smack dab in the middle of the Kisatchie. Alexandria LA is the nearby city of about 50,000 where we fly into. It's about 20 miles south of Dry Prong. Pineville is just across the Red River from Alexandria, a bit closer to the survey site and easier to find a decent hotel at Per Diem rates.

When I'm on the road for work like this, I'm generally content to work, 10-12 hours a day in the field, 2-3 hours a night processing data in the hotel, 7 days a week, until it's done -- it's not like there's a lot else to do -- but, as per my previous Facebook post, it's hunting season in the Kisatchie, and they just switched from bows to rifles, so we ain't out there this weekend.

So I did what I find oddly relaxing to do when I'm on the road -- hit pawn shops. I picked up the pawn shop habit when I lived in Austin TX in the early 80s, and bought a boatload of high-end stereo equipment, band gear, specialty tools, and musical instruments. Now that everyone has an Internet connection, though, it's next to impossible to get a deal on anything in a pawn shop; one google search and even a proprietor in a remote corner of American can learn that a Mossman guitar is worth money. But old habits are hard to break, and hope springs eternal.

So this morning I loaded up the GPS with locations of five pawn shops in Alexandria and I made the rounds. I found myself at the Silver Dollar Pawn & Jewelry, which, unknown to doesn't-watch-reality-television-me is the home of the cable show Cajun Pawn Stars. This is a large, very impressive store, more than just your usual dirty shelves of guns and power tools. They have a number of collections of photo and print memorabilia, some of which are civil rights era-related. There's a case for Rosa Parks-related items, there's one for Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and of course one for MLK.

When I was done wending my way through the large store, I began to leave, but noticed some signs referring to the "MLK Hearse." Sure enough, in an offshoot of the ground floor, behind a velvet rope, is the restored 1966 Cadillac Superior hearse used to transport the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr's body from the hospital to the funeral home after that horrible day in Memphis in 1968. (Note that this is different from the mule-drawn wooden farm wagon used to transport King's body during the funeral.)

One never knows quite what to make of these sort of macabre physical curiosities, particularly when an object was a player in the true historical drama of civil rights. I'm a person to whom context is crucially important. A lawn jockey is offensive, whereas a collection of lawn jockeys as part of a museum display on the history of racism in America, now that has proper context. But this is not a museum; it is a pawn shop / antique / memorabilia store. So what is the intent of the display of the MLK hearse? 

Along with the display of the hearse was a storyboard explaining that the store owner's son bought it to add to their civil rights memorabilia collection, then was killed in a plane crash. The restoration of the hearse was thus something of a tribute from the father fulfilling the vision of the son. The vehicle was displayed quite respectfully, in a separate section of the building, behind a velvet rope, with other King-related memorabilia, but it still seemed more than a little bit out of place, like a dead body quietly watching a raucous dinner party.

I found the physical presence of the hearse quite jarring. I may have been only five when JFK was shot so it's hard to discern the actual root memory from the endless replays seen over the last 49 years, but I was ten when the twin tsunamis of the MLK and RFK assassinations roiled America, so they're smacked in there with a leather punch. The events are forever linked by the speech Bobby Kennedy gave in Indianapolis to the largely black crowd who did not yet know that King had been assassinated:

"For those of you who are black and are tempted to ... be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."

Two months later, RFK was dead.

44 years later, I'm face to face with the hearse. In a pawn shop.

The wooden funeral farm wagon is apparently on display at the King Center in Atlanta (you couldn't ask for more appropriate context than that), but this ain't the King Center; it's a bustling pawn shop featured on a cable show. The hearse is here as a tourist attraction. While the hearse was respectfully displayed, and while there was some mitigating context to its presence, that context was myopic by historical standards.

As a Car Guy, I have mixed feelings about these macabre vehicles. On the one hand, people should follow their passions and collect whatever blows their skirt up, but on the other, I thought "this is just weird. People don't collect things like this. If they did, the JFK hearse would be out there attracting attention, and it's not." Then I did a quick google search and found I was wrong: In early 2012, the JFK hearse sold for $160k to a collector. Further, the ambulance that took JFK to Parkview Hospital sold the year before for $132k. I thought, what kind of collector buys these things? What is the mechanism for enjoyment of this sort of vehicle? How much does the excuse "it's a piece of history" let you get away with? What is the endpoint? A private museum of hearses used to carry famous people, displayed along with strands of hair found during restoration? Imagine, Marilyn Monroe's lifeless body was right here. Next hearse. Imagine, Kurt Cobain's lifeless body was right here. I don't think so. Would I pay money to see the hearse that carried John Lennon's body? Hell, I'd pay money not to see the hearse that carried John Lennon's body, and it's difficult to imagine any context where the display of such a thing is historical as opposed to exploitative. Is the MLK hearse the exception because it's part of the 60's political assassination holy trinity? I don't know.

The guns that shot JFK, RFK and MLK are evidence in crimes; they should be preserved, in the custody of appropriate agencies. Whether the vehicles that carried their bodies have true historical significance is questionable.

A part of me would feel better had these vehicles been allowed to pursue their normal life cycle, which is for Neil Young to party in them, then for them to return to dust. Instead they're being kept alive, as if on life support, as mute reminders, like stroke victims who have seen horror but cannot speak.

And then I looked up and saw... guns and power tools.

So much for context.

Bentley Publishers Has Officially Announced My Book

Bentley Publishers has put out an official press release announcing my book. Click on my name to drill into the "author blurb" page, and on the title to see a book blurb. There's a "keep me notified" button where you can sign up for release
 info, and a link to my October "Roundel" article where I told the story of how the book deal was 18 years in the making.

I have a long history of being uncomfortable with self-promotion, but I must admit that I can't stop smiling about this.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Book Getting Closer

I received another advance check yesterday from Bentley Publishers for my book "Car Nut: Why Men Love Cars, and How Fixing BMWs Saved My Sanity (a memoir with actual useful stuff)." Bentley says that, very soon, they'll have an author's page up on their web site. More news as I know it.