The Color Yellow, POWs, Leadership, and the Circus

This is something I wrote in April of 2003, about spring break when my daughters were teens. I came across it this morning while looking for something else, decided to post it along with a drawing from a few years ago.

Wild canaries my father calls them. I know them as goldfinches. A few have been around for many weeks, visiting my feeder. When they first arrived, they were olive colored with black wings but as the daylight hours have increased, the color of the males has gone from olive to yellow, each bird’s head topped with a smart black feather cap.

My goldfinch feeder hangs from the eaves of my house along the narrow front porch. The feeder is a clear plastic tube about three feet long, three inches in diameter and pierced at regular intervals along its length by nine brightly colored perches. I fill the feeder in the morning and by late in the day, the goldfinches have eaten more than half the seeds. I find this remarkable because each seed isn’t much larger than a flea. Right now, the larger flocks are flying through on their migration north. For most of the day, all the perches are occupied by the yellow fellows (and a few females),  eighteen at a time. Often several are waiting their turn, perched on small branches of the Japanese maple not far from the porch. The deep burgundy leaves of the tree and the pale green wing seeds are not an entirely harmonious contrast to the goldfinches. Swooping to and from the tree, the birds and feeder create a colorful twirling animated diner.

When I was a child, I remember seeing a flurry of tiny birds, olive green, swirling about a few stray weeds in front of the neighborhood dry cleaners. I wanted those small birds which looked like they would be a perfect fit for my small hands. I wanted to know what they were. I wonder now if that was a migrating band of goldfinches I saw on that overcast day.

During most of the week of spring break, it rained. I watched the goldfinches from my kitchen window, twirling in the rain throughout the week.

My family and I took a quick trip overnight to Andersonville at the beginning of spring break. Andersonville was the site of a prisoner of war camp, known as Camp Sumter, during the Civil War.  I’m familiar with it because my parents took us kids when I was about ten. My mother recalls that we all whined and complained and generally created misery for my parents. I remember none of that but do recall how terribly hot it was and that the site of the camp was parched and almost bare of grass, like walking a vast desert. I remember my mother told me that conditions had been so awful there, so little food, that sometimes men would search through feces looking for some undigested bit. This presented an image so objectionable that it remains fixed in my mind as a powerful image hunger and desperationof those prisoners.

Walking some of the sixteen acres that defined the camp, I could feel nothing of the suffering that space had represented so many years ago. It appears now to be open pastureland, covered with a mix of meadow grasses and plants. From each end of the sixteen acres, the land rolls downward to a tiny rivulet no more than a foot wide at its widest. This served as the water source for a POW population that amounted to thirty-three thousand at its maximum, with forty-five thousand having been lodged there over the year plus the camp was in use. I could not begin to imagine that space hosting so many, nor fathom that single source of water as being remotely adequate.

White posts set at intervals define the location of the camp. An inner line shows where the stockade wall stood, the outer line of markers indicating the “deadline”. The stockade wall was punctuated regularly by guard towers from which Confederate soldiers could fire easily on any prisoner.

At two points along the perimeter are re-creations of the stockade walls, one including the gate through which new prisoners would have passed. When standing between the outer and inner walls, very little was visible. The original walls stood 15 feet tall, of rough-hewn logs set so close together that even a glimpse of what lay outside was nearly impossible. 

I imagined the effects on the land with thirty-three thousand occupying such a small area. I assume that all plant life must have disappeared almost immediately from the friction of so many footsteps. No waste treatment or removal, so I assume the stench would have quickly been nearly overwhelming.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be unable to see out, only up. Or within the enclosure. The area is rimmed by mixed forest typical of this part of the country but I think most of that would have been impossible to see because of the heighth  of the walls. The world would have been a sea of people, diseased and malnourished and dying. If there were the energy, the desire to see something beyond the suffering, the sky above would have been what was most available. I imagined that I might have needed that expanse of sky, the stars, the sun, the moon, as some sort of emotional sustenance.

While standing uphill from the narrow water source, I became aware of birds darting and dipping above. Dark silhouettes with forked tails flew erratically. Swallows, I thought. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen swallows but it was what came to mind. I wondered if birds had been around while the stockade walls held their prisoners. And if so, I wondered if the prisoners had seen the birds, if they’d brought any sense of hope or satisfied even briefly any longing of spirit, of freedom.

My mother told me that she’d felt moved to go to Andersonville and to take us as a result of reading the book Andersonville. A few days ago, she gave a copy of it to my family. I’ve been reading and skimming. Last night, I came across a passage that spoke of the swallows that flew above the stockade walls, dipped down within its confines. I read a description of a POW batting one of the birds down with a jacket, killing it and eating it raw. I read of the futile attempts of others to attempt similar captures. How odd it seemed to me to have noticed the birds and then to come across the paragraphs about a flock of swallows there within the camp walls. To some of the soldier prisoners, the birds didn’t represent freedom, they represented food. Or freedom from hunger, however brief.

Within this passage about birds was also a reference to the goldfinches who alighted outside the prison walls. I thought of the goldfinches here at my home, the migratory groups heading north.

Rows and rows of white tombstones make up the national cemetery at Andersonville. I remembered them from childhood, though as a child, I found the rows somewhat monotonous. My family sometimes visited interesting cemeteries whose tombstones and fences and vaults were varied. But this cemetery had no variety. Upon seeing them this time, I was struck by how small the tombstones were, how close together. I wondered how there could be so many people buried so close together. I began to suspect that the burials were close because the prisoners were so emaciated by the time they died that their bodies took up very little space. I pictured long trenches being dug, filled with bodies, then covered with dirt. People died in such numbers it probably didn’t take long to fill trenches.

Almost every tombstone had a name on it, some saying simply “unknown”. But every tombstone had a number. I realized the numbers were sequential and that as I passed row after row, I was witnessing a tally of the total deaths—3000; 5432; 7895; 9722 and so forth. I think I read that more than thirteen thousand soldiers died while Camp Sumter was an active prison camp. The mortality rate was twenty-nine percent. Because of the indifference to the terrible conditions which Camp Sumter’s commandant had displayed toward the prisoners, it seemed curious that such care had been given to recording the names of the dead, of placing a tombstone for each.

I did some research when I was at home again and discovered that Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross and a Unitarian, had been instrumental in seeing to it that each soldier’s grave had a proper tombstone. I’d found on the internet a transcript from a Congressional hearing in 1866 at which Clara Barton had described the process of accounting for the deceased. She spoke of working with Union soldier prisoners whose job it had been to bury their dead, that they had placed bodies close, arms crossed over their bodies, in long trenches. They’d taken great care to keep accurate records. 

At one edge of the cemetery are six tombstones marking graves which are set apart from the rest. We read that these six were part of what came to be known as the Andersonville Raiders. In addition to disease and starvation, prisoners had reason to fear bands of their fellow imprisoned soldiers who beat, stole and murdered within the prison compound. These six were eventually identified as the ring leaders and put to death, buried apart as an eternal  shaming for crimes committed against their own. And again, there was the oddity, that there was recognition of the brutality of these Andersonville Raiders who were executed but there was not recognition of the brutality of the General Wirz who allowed conditions to fester.

Following the war, General Wirz was tried and sentenced to death because of the atrocious conditions at Camp Sumter. He was hanged in Washington DC, the US Capitol as backdrop to his execution. I understand his final words were that he was being put to death for having followed orders.

We also visited the Prisoner of  War Museum at Andersonville. This is dedicated not only to POWs from the Civil War but those from other wars and conflicts as well. I had pointed out a photo of a man who had been a prisoner at Andersonville, drawing my 13 year old’s attention to it. Her response was shock “He’s not skin and bones, he’s just bones!” she’d said. And then she asked me if he’d been alive in that photo. It was hard to imagine that he could have recovered. It was even harder to imagine how it was that Wirz could see humans who were little more than corpses and not feel moved to do something. I think perhaps that is what evil is, when it becomes possible for a person to so thoroughly distance him/herself from another that he/she no longer sees the other as even remotely like him/herself. If the other is not like you, then why care what happens to the other. It is the only way I can make any sense as to how a person can see that kind of suffering, can be the cause of that kind of suffering, and not feel moved to do something to help. 

Moving through the POW museum, I felt especially taken with the many objects prisoners had made while captive. In addition to fear, uncertainty, lack of food and the likelihood of disease, there was also terrible boredom. Some prisoners sought to relieve that boredom by creating, if not great art, then at least something. Some recorded their experiences, others made small objects of materials at hand, all as a way of occupying their minds. I found myself wondering if these were people who’d always created or if it was only within their captivity that the urge to create came to them. I wondered if, assuming they survived, they continued writing or drawing or creating. Did the soldier prisoners not yet weak sing, laugh, tell stories, enact small plays as a way of passing their days.

My children peppered me with questions. On the one hand, I was glad they were interested, on the other I was frustrated, trying to absorb enough of what I was reading to adequately answer. One or both of them complained about the gnats that pursued us while we walked outside. We all wandered, read, remarked and thought. 

On our way home the next day, we drove forty miles or so to Buena Vista, Georgia in search of Pasaquan. We drove by way of Americus, current home of Habitat for Humanity International, not far from Plains, home of Jimmy Carter.

Pasaquan is the home, compound and creation of Edward Owens Martin or St. EOM as he called himself. Originally from that area, he’d lived an eccentric life, having run away from an abusive father as a teenager, winding up in New York where he lived for many years, returning to Buena Vista for annual harvests, an annual migration of his own. Sometime after his parents died, a voice told him to come home for good.

When he returned to Buena Vista, he began creating an entire environment on several acres of property, his vision brought to life.

We found Pasaquan without much difficulty though it is not marked with signs and were able to look at some of the buildings from a distance but not able to wander among the walls and structures he’d created.

I’ve been fascinated by these kinds of things, creations of folk artists, for years. I wonder what compels people to create on such a scale and in such an obsessive way.

Our entry to Pasaquan was prevented by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire which surrounded the property. A crudely painted sign attached to the fence welcomed us to look from the broken bit of driveway on which we stood, expressed regret that Pasaquan was currently closed and warned us not to walk along the fence due to the risk of stirring up poisonous snakes. We’d seen a rattlesnake the day before at Andersonville so I didn’t take that as an idle threat. But standing in the driveway provided only one view. I chose to take my chances and wandered along the fenceline to get a better view of the yellow house, the connecting walls and some of the strangely decorated pagoda-like structures St. EOM had fashioned out of concrete and painted with what I assumed was probably ordinary house paint. I could see cracked and peeled and flaking paint. A conservator’s nightmare, I thought. 

Surrounded as the place was by fencing and razor wire and having just been at Andersonville, I couldn’t help but think of Pasaquan as having the look of a prison of sorts though I do not believe that was at all St. EOM’s original vision. Still, I wonder at the sort of mind that produces such a place, wonder if such a life really is more free or only confined in a different way when contrasted to the more ordinary lives most of us appear to live.

Partway through spring break, I came home from work, gathered my children and took them to the Carter Center. I took them there because I thought it would be a way of showing them something about the work Jimmy Carter has done as former President, his striving for peace and justice. It was fairly cold and gray and raining as it had been through much of the week but my children were up for an outing. 

We watched a film at the Carter Center which featured various US presidents who’d defined or redefined the presidency, including the president which Carter had felt most influenced by, Harry Truman. Interspersed with these various profiles of presidents were segments with Jimmy Carter himself talking about his views of the Presidency, his thoughts about leadership, some of the crises he’d had to respond to while in office. He spoke of the obvious crises, like the hostage crisis his administration faced and I thought as he spoke of the yellow ribbons which began to appear everywhere at that time. My mind flitted to the yellow ribbons I’d seen as we’d driven to and from Andersonville, once more a symbol. Who would have thought that such a light piece of fluff song would inspire this expression of hope then and now. I find the song and the yellow ribbons a bit too precious, though I can understand the desire for the safe return of people held against their will. I do recognize that Carter’s presidency has been regarded as less than exceptional but I’ve long been impressed with him as a thoughtful man who has committed himself to human rights, public health and the process of peace. 

What inspires someone to become a leader, to endure the inevitable criticism from some, to pursue a vision? Are leaders people born to eventually fill that role? Or are they created by us collectively? Do we assign leadership to others? Or is it defined by documents that describe the role a leader should have? Is it up to each new leader to define his/her role? Perhaps a combination of all these.

Following the film, we wandered through what I thought of as an avenue of presidents. It was actually a collection of presidential portraits which originated from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. This is the sort of exhibit that would have seemed like a giant yawn to me as a child but which I found much more interesting now. I got curious as to how each president had chosen the artist who would depict him. And I wondered about the relationship that must have developed between artist and subject. I wondered how each president communicated whatever it was that he hoped to appear to be. I assume that each gave his approval, wanted to be seen in a certain way which may or may not have been as he really was. For instance, Richard Nixon’s portrait is oddly romantic with an uncharacteristically smiling Nixon, his head inclined. And John Kennedy’s portrait painted by Elaine de Kooning, wife of Willem de Kooning, stands out as so radically different from any presidential portrait before or since. Was that what Kennedy intended to communicate, that he was something radically different? I felt as if I had conferred with the presidents that afternoon. I was struck suddenly with what a remarkable and flawed and brave experiment this country has been.

I hadn’t expected to find, nor had I been looking for, Jimmy Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize but there it was, a substantial medal cast in gold, I suppose. Along with it was the written document, open. On the right side were hand-lettered words, multi-colored. On the left was an abstract image, slashes of color, marks, against a dark blue background. One image appeared to me to be that of an abstracted white dove. I hadn’t expected the Nobel Peace Prize to have been such a hand-made document. Is each Nobel prize unique, created especially for its category and recipient?

Lovely gardens surround the Carter Center but it was wet and cold enough that we didn’t wander out farther than the gray patio at the back. From there, we could see a pond rimmed with rushes, green among the grayness of the water. I watched rings appear and disappear on the surface, evidence of the strokes of raindrops. Mist rose from the pond, then began to roll toward us, pushed I suppose by some surface air current. At the far edge of the pond, I could see where the water fell away and down and could hear the sounds of splashing water. 

We looked to our right and there, at the edge of the patio, was another pond, rimmed with rough gray stones and filled with large goldfish—white and orange and combinations of the two– which swam at an easy pace, no particular hurry, surfacing briefly then moving along, content within their confined space. 

At week’s end, the sun returned to Atlanta broke the spell of gray and rain and cold.

We’d had tickets for some time to see Cirque du Soleil and off we all went in search of the yellow and blue big top up I-75 and outside the perimeter. 

Through our gate, we ascended and then descended steps, were escorted past rows and rows of closely spaced numbered seats, arrived at our row and took our place. To my right, a couple had already settled in, the very overweight woman looking uncomfortably stuffed into her fairly narrow seat. She and I sat quite amiably side by side, her thigh pressed against mine throughout most of the performance, somehow reassuring, this presence of a stranger. 

Brass poles, vertical and reed-like, stood at one end of the stage and though it was bright and sunny outside, there was the unmistakable sound of water dripping. My younger daughter leaned over to me and remarked that it looked like a mechanical forest. As the performance began, a mist arose and rolled through the brass rushes and out across the stage. Creatures appeared from among the rushes and crawled and creeped and slithered in colorful, shiny costumes. A white bird appeared above, as if falling, and landed, white wings outstretched, a curiosity to the many creatures who’d made their way out. For the next hour and half, we were entranced and dazzled by the perfection of bodies, the result of hours of disciplined hard work. They tumbled and spun and leapt and twirled and made us laugh and worry and marvel at their bravery and inventiveness and joy and exuberant energy. 

And there you have it, my week of contrasts. The leadership of a Wirz, indifferent to the sufferings of his fellow humans and Jimmy Carter who has worked tirelessly these many years since his failure to win a second term as president, both Southerners; the apparent need to express something of the creative self, whether as prisoner of war or the strange visions of a southern eccentric folk artist or the disciplined regiments of performers with the circus from places all around the world; and the color yellow, its brilliance against the grayness of a cold week of rain, my yellow-jacketed birds; and the return of the sun.

2 Comments on “The Color Yellow, POWs, Leadership, and the Circus”

  1. Thanks so much for your comment, Denys Ronnie Meldon. And thanks for taking the time to read this post.

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