Atlanta - 2007
My best friend at school was Peter, but when we left and went our separate ways we lost touch completely. Imagine my surprise when he called me almost fifty years later to say that he and his wife Norma were planning a visit to the UK from their home in Atlanta and would like to meet up. We had a short but enjoyable reunion, and resolved not to leave it so long again before our next meeting.
So in 2007 we visited them in Atlanta and had a splendid holiday. Peter and Norma made us very welcome and we enjoyed lots of new experiences with them in Atlanta and its environs. The weather was unseasonably hot for April, reaching 95°F one day, but happily the humidity was low so it was not unpleasant outside, and naturally everywhere inside was air conditioned. They live in the small town of Roswell, about twenty miles north of Atlanta, in a large well appointed house set in a generous wooded plot in the suburbs. It is a measure of American affluence that their massive house is available for less than the price of our own! I was engaged by the service culture: gardeners cut the grass and maintain the garden, two Mexican ladies clean the house, and while we were there the gutters were cleaned - no mean feat on this house! It seems that there are local companies happy to service your every need.
Our schedule embraced an eclectic mix of culture, history and sightseeing. The city of Atlanta has much to offer the visitor with its rich history of black culture, civil war memorabilia and metropolitan diversity. The Georgia Aquarium is magnificent, providing underwater views of many fish species and an amazing glass tunnel through the middle of a gigantic tank containing fifteen foot sharks. Where else but America might you see three enormous whales in an indoor tank so large that they could somersault and even leap out of the water.
We visited the Margaret Mitchell House and saw the apartment where the author wrote 'Gone with the Wind', ascended the 73 story (722 feet) Westin Tower and had cocktails in their revolving rooftop lounge, and spent a couple of hours in the Titanic exhibition which happened to be in town. On entering the Titanic exhibition each visitor was given a boarding card identifying a real passenger, and we were able to view the exhibits in the guise of our given character. In the final room you learned your fate! I was a twenty-eight year old engineer travelling first class to my father's funeral - and drowned like most of the men. Elsa was travelling in second class with three young children - they all survived. It was a clever paradigm and made the recovered artefacts come alive, including a massive piece of the ship that had lain at the bottom of the Atlantic for over eighty years.
Atlanta has a predominately black population, but the races seem at ease with each other and we encountered no friction. This was nicely exemplified by an experience we had on the Marta, Atlanta's underground transport system. When I remarked that my hands were black from the escalator handrail an elderly negro man exclaimed 'Why, mah han's bin that color all mah lahf!', reducing us all to helpless laughter.
I guess most people understand the historical significance of the city in the American civil war. It was a truly bloody affair claiming 670,000 US soldiers' lives, more than the total lost in all other wars combined. We visited the Civil War Museum and learned all the gory details. America has a short history, but it makes the best of what it has and this museum was superb. Our visit to the gold mining town of Dahlonega, North Georgia was similarly revealing. Wishing to encourage migration west, the authorities extolled the potential pickings of the California gold fields in the full knowledge that the Georgia gold fields were richer and easier to mine. Many trekked west, even though the local clay was so rich in gold that Dahlonega's court house bricks, made with it, are worth millions.
I also spotted an immaculate example of the classic Chevrolet Powerglide car, America's first automatic and the model I had ridden in when my father purchased his first car from a US master-sergeant in Paris in 1952. The owner came out of his shop and gave Peter and me a guided tour, another example of the courteous hospitality so prevalent in the South.
We had a short excursion into Alabama via Tennessee to visit the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, some three hours drive from Atlanta. I enjoyed seeing exhibits from the US space programme, including the original Mercury capsule and one of the Apollo modules burnt on re-entry from space. I 'flew' the Shuttle in a simulator and was commended by the computer for my perfect landing, and we watched the foolhardy ride in the Zero-G tower designed to give you a taste of weightlessness. It was fun, but aimed more at kids than adults and run as a space theme park rather than a museum.
The comparative cheapness of America was brought into sharp relief by the breakfast we had in Huntsville: two thick pancakes with sour cream and maple syrup, two eggs, two rashers of bacon, an enormous pile of hash browns and coffee for just $4.99, about £2.50. How they do it I can't imagine, but add the courtesy and efficiency of the staff and you realise how bad we are at service in the UK. On the way home we stopped at Chattanooga, Tennessee for barbequed ribs at the 'Sticky Fingers' restaurant, a city immortalised by the famous song 'Chattanooga Choo Choo'.
Towards the end of our stay we took a tour of the CNN studios where the worldwide news corporation is based. It was fascinating to see how their continuous news programmes are put together from the enormous quantity of information they receive, and to watch the actual studio where it was broadcasting the current news seen on the monitors.
Driving in the South is a fast and furious affair. I remembered from my earlier visits to the US that speed limits were strictly enforced and most drivers seemed to comply. In Georgia it was quite different, and driving habits were, if anything, worse than at home. Peter let me drive his Corvette, the nearest thing America has to a popular sportscar, and I joined in with enthusiasm despite being on the 'wrong' side of the road. Peter sat beside me with gritted teeth, saying little until I confused left with right!
We attended a local sixties dance and met many of Peter's and Norma's neighbours, giving us another take on the South. They are a friendly bunch, gracious and polite with their slow drawl and soft consonants. We conclude that it is generally a much nicer place to visit than the brash North. We are indebted to Peter and Norma for their generous hospitality, and for introducing us to the delights of the Deep South. We look forward to accepting their open invitation to return before too long.