A benign sun poured honey on the leather guided hogs that roamed in packs along the Appalachian Highway as it shadowed the Ocoee River. Canoes, kayaks, and their helmeted crews fell headlong down to Georgia, white-water rafts on rugged rock, while we worked our way upstream and across the border to Franklin, North Carolina, home of the Scottish Tartans Museum. A rural mountain gem, Franklin stands aside from the alienating mess of chain stores and garish advertising signs kept at bay out on the Highway. It had seen better days but we checked into a Downtown motel and, out on the front porch overlooking the swimming pool, I had a beer with Cody, the bloke next door.
Cody wanted to know where the accent came from then told me that from what he’d seen on television I was too short to be an Australian. And what did I think about the election? I gave him the standard ‘American renewal’ line, saying that we non-Americans were hanging out for the USA to become a responsible leader. He nodded his head so I added that while McCain might be a salty sea dog he was no captain yet here he was sailing into the teeth of a brewing perfect storm. Cody concurred. Did he think the American would be fooled again? He wasn’t sure about that. And was non-committal concerning Obama. Wade, though, he assured me, was a real Democrat, one who knew all there was to know about politics.
Cody had recently lost his girlfriend of 10 years—an heiress worth more than $30 million at the time of her death—and was now living on next to nothing. She had taken ill and was prescribed pharmaceuticals that killed her, he said. A chap I had worked with went to the USA as a tourist and came back as cargo a few years ago; some over the counter medicine for bronchitis had killed him. Cody’s tale of woe may have been true. His internet conspiracy talk about a secret trade corridor being shoved up through the Midwest from Mexico on the one hand and Chinese container ships on the Pacific shelf waiting to offload who knows what on the other warned me it was time to fly.
But he had hit his groove and went on with a tall tale to the effect that the bad blood between Donald Rumsfeld and the French had been the end game in something that started during the hostage crisis in the lead up to the 1980 presidential election: the French would not let the Americans fly over French air space and a number of helicopter Special Services personnel had been killed in consequence. When President Reagan subsequently attacked Libya, so the story goes, one man’s bitter memory of lost mates from the Special Services rescue mission in the dying days of the Carter Administration caused him to target the French Embassy with a laser beam bomb.
Wade came out and Cody called him over but it wasn’t politics he had on his mind. Bible in hand, he spoke of how he was introducing the woman in the end motel room to Jesus, having her welcome Him into her heart. He heard my accent, mistook it for British, and talked about his frequent trips to Manchester, England, preaching the word of God, then realised I was Australian and talked about a friend of his who goes to Australia to weld pipes and talk about Jesus. Cody wanted us all to breakfast together in the morning but Wade said he couldn’t make it because he had to be at work.
Did I believe in Jesus, Cody wondered. I gave him the usual line about Australians being primarily secular in outlook but that didn’t do it for him. So I told him I’d been raised a Catholic but had learned to doubt as an adult. Belief in God failed the knowledge test, so it’s all a matter of faith, I argued. Cody could appreciate that that was a reasonable point of view but Jesus had healed his knee so he knew there was a God. I said that I would take his word for it that his knee had healed but would not go so far as to put it down to Jesus. I would no more believe that it was Jesus in America than I would believe that the same thing happening in Pakistan was the work of Allah.
Cody said that he could understand that but that I could not say such a thing in front of Wade. He went on with more Jesus stuff for a while and I asked what would have happened had I said to Wade what I said to him. You wouldn’t say that to Wade, he said, because he would lose it. I asked him what Wade would say was happening to a Pakistani whose knee was healed supernaturally, as his had by Jesus. “Satan. The evil one.” I said I’d like to attend a church service out of curiosity and Cody explained that Baptists take the pews on the right and Pentecostals on the left of the pulpit. “But don’t go up the back because that’s where people who don’t feel good about themselves sit.”
Chapter 27, 'Mercurius at Monticello'