Hour of the Dawn

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hourofdawn
Illustrations by Brandon Francis

In the summer of 1972, President Richard M. Nixon denied any knowledge of the five burglars who entered the office of the Democratic National Committee, the last US combat troops finally departed from a naval stronghold in Southern Vietnam, and I went to Savannah to die. I had never been to Georgia before. I knew of Savannah only from what I’d learned in the tones and faces of oil-painted jazz legends and in the subtle memories spilled quietly by my father years before. But in the sticky climate of that hot, political summer, I was determined to find a peace I had never known.

The kiosk that sold liquor and cookies at the train station carried travel guides, which pointed me to the library on the north end of Savannah. The library where my father had worked in his youth, where he had spent peaceful times and long nights with Goethe and Blake and Lewis. I wasn’t about to pay for a room, hadn’t planned on being around come nightfall. Today would be the day. The pain had become unbearable—the tightening in my chest, the anxiety, the curling of stomach and mind, all twisted together, all brewing in the final moments of my life. Yes, today. Three or four hours. I was sure of it.

On the trolley, I watched the townsfolk speak to each other. There was a certain elegance about their manner—the southern dialect, cool and easy—it was the kind of smooth tone spoken by a people without concern, who would return to their narrow white homes across from a small park and take pleasure in the sunflowers that graced the foyers of their living rooms. There seemed to be some simplicity in their voices, a gentle confidence in their eyes. I longed for a moment in that southern mood. Perhaps it’s what I came here to find, a bit of the peace I craved.

It was still morning when I arrived across town at the MacArthur Library. I stepped out into the cool air and onto the grass of the park across the street, staring up at the massive, colonial structure. It stood on a row of white pillars, though the paint ran yellow in certain corners and cracked in tiny veins that ran to the very top of the building, as though the library were an old, living creature, wrinkled and worn now by time.

Approaching, I came across a podium that stood waist-high and boasted a bronze plaque, nobly declaring the origins of the library. According to the fixture, this had been the estate home of a Mr. Wilbur Holmes in 1788. After giving up most of the rooms in the house to soldiers during the war between the states—General Lee himself had stayed here for an entire week during the capture of Fort Pulaski in 1862—it had been donated to the city by Mr. Holmes as a memorial for Savannah’s valiant war efforts and support. A structure of pure memorial, a salute to the gallantries of war…as I too shall be.

I steepled up the narrow stairs to the third story, the faint smell of cedar mixed with modern cleaning solution settling under my nose. The cedar told a story of the estate’s blistering age, the kind of structure they used to build out of local trees rather than imported lumber. The cleaning scents, though, seemed set on washing away the smell of that deep-rooted cedar. And somehow, I could almost hear the march of the soldiers up these stairs, echoing my own steps, as though the States were still at war and a number of armed men, teenagers and seniors alike, would be resting downstairs with their feet up on the old mahogany tables, dressed in dirty grey uniforms and waiting for news of the northern invaders.

I found a book by Lewis—something about the devil—and another on the pains of post-war trauma. And a whole section on the US Civil War and Georgia’s gallant participation in the effort. They thought of it down here not as a de-unification endeavor to separate man and country, but rather as a fierce declaration of the free will and right-to-fight that this great country has always stood for. They were very proud of their assertion. What a fascinating place to live—a place where there are no penalties or punishments for tearing oneself apart from within. Freedom of internal combustion.


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