I snapped off the cardboard back of the wooden triangle and took it out. A slight musty smell rose from my hands, filled as they were with a thing that had been locked up for several years now. Dusty stars clung to my fingers while lines of color tumbled across the floor. Maybe you started with the stripes, I thought, kneeling down inside the four corners. Maybe it was mostly luck—luck and accumulation—like folding a map. Even halfway through I felt lucky, turning a quick corner into three points like a child making paper triangles. But reaching the end, I saw the same old picture again: my last rows twisted and dangling beneath a field of stars.
I wondered if I should try once more. Wasn’t it a matter of simple geometry—easy crease and tuck like the soldiers did on TV? Yet I had failed every time I had tried to fold it. Over and over, I’d felt compelled to correct the improperly shaped thing in its cheap display case, and over and over, my efforts had come to bad ends. So I stuff ed Old Glory back into its container, blue patch of stars jutting out unevenly against crooked stripes. I hoped the neighbors wouldn’t notice the flag case tucked beneath my arm, because I’d have to explain it. I’d have to say I was taking it—my father’s burial flag—on a little trip, that I was going to carry it with me through the back roads of Alabama on a kind of pilgrimage.
And of course I couldn’t stop there—on the loaded word “pilgrimage”—because they’d only want more. I’d have to say I was setting out on a trip through the low hills of northern Alabama, climbing Lookout Mountain, hoping to descend again into the valley: to the Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Georgia.
But my own bewilderment about the excursion itself, and about that flag, would prevent me from giving a practical description of what had happened at Tri-State. Instead, I’d probably head straight to the big trouble: I’d say, yes, astonishing as it may be, my father had died and his bones had been resurrected. And then those same bones, the bones of my father, had been abandoned at the Tri-State Crematory for five years. The man was dead, rose again, and dwelled among the other dead for a time.
Even in the South, such apocalyptic declarations might overwhelm my devout neighbors. But the story required no articles of faith. My father had died and I had gone to his funeral and he was buried in the ground. I saw him lowered into the red dirt. My father was dead and the doors of his grave flew open and he came again upon the earth.
I would have to tell all that to my neighbors because I didn’t know what else to say. I was setting off to unholy ground, to a field with a lake where hundreds of bodies once lay scattered and alone, hoping that something would happen. For a while I’d lived with an image of my father lying lost at the Tri-State Crematory, and I needed to change it. I needed to take a ride to Tri-State and see where he’d lain those long years. I needed to tell him goodbye, or hello and goodbye, or tell him nothing but that I had tried. I had tried to make amends for his troubled bones.
And I had that flag, wrapped up all crooked and wrong, to prove it.
There are flowers that grow mostly in disturbed areas. In the middle of May, when I turned onto University Avenue in Tuscaloosa, I was thinking about those flowers. Passionflower and mistflower. Morning glory and fleabane. A copy of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Southeastern States, which I’d spent some time with the previous evening, pressed against my father’s burial flag on the front seat. I was thinking about those flowers, and the idea of those flowers, as I rode through the old downtown.
To be honest, the phrase “disturbed areas” had always bothered me in my occasional searches regarding plant habitat—I really didn’t know what it meant—and yet last night that ambiguity seemed suddenly strange, almost ominous. I could easily imagine the other landscapes offered by the field guide: “moist pinelands,” “meadows,” “thickets,” even the more poetic “rich woods.” And I could see the “ditches” and “roadsides” that some species favored. But the phrase “disturbed areas” was so abstract. If it didn’t include marred ground such as “ditches”—if it meant something more—then I could envision only horribly dug-up places, unearthed and scarred.
I was considering this phrase, then, as I drove past the rubble of what was until recently the home of, respectively, Norris Radiator, Auto Trim & Tire, and the Firestone Tire and Service Center. I passed the old post office—set for destruction next—and gazed down Sixth Street, where soon the Diamond Th eater would disappear forever, along with KSV restaurant (a soul-food buffet that doubled as the Orchid nightclub), and the longtime Tuscaloosa News Building. City planners had also scheduled demolition for various other businesses—two shoe-repair shops, a barbershop, a pool hall, a paint store, an antiques shop, and several furniture stores. Maybe the place would be better off in the end. I didn’t know—it was okay the way it was. Yet there were no flowers springing from these ruins; this was not a disturbed area in the strict sense of the phrase.
On the other hand, I knew of at least one place that had to be a disturbed area, if that meant a natural location generally torn up by backhoe, a place where the earth was moved from here to there, trenches dug and the ground cleaved. Black-eyed Susan, Venus’s looking glass, Queen Anne’s lace, Carolina cranesbill, peppergrass, chickweed, fleabane, southern dewberry, blue toadflax, Asiatic dayflower, painted leaf, kudzu, poison ivy, prickly sow thistle, horrible thistle—at least some of those flowers must have flourished at the Tri-State Crematory, blooming among the dead.
I first learned about the Tri-State Crematory when I glanced up at the television to see emergency workers in north Georgia rummaging through the thick brush surrounding a rural area. At the time—February 2002—I was living in Portland, Oregon, and I distinctly remember a helicopter onscreen, beating overhead, filming the workers from above at night, the spotlight causing their green jackets to flicker on and off against dark trees. Apparently, the workers had uncovered a few dozen decomposed corpses sprawled about the crematory grounds. The news report explained there would be more bodies to come.
By Sunday morning, authorities had recovered ninety-five bodies from the Tri-State Crematory and feared that many more—hundreds, perhaps—lay scattered throughout the overgrown premises. There were accounts of bodies piled in pits, bodies in shacks, bodies stuffed into metal vaults beneath a small lake.
Eventually—after a series of Gothic events, blackly fantastic—the full extent of the desecration was revealed. In all, authorities recovered 339 decomposing bodies, making the Tri-State Crematory Incident the largest mass desecration in modern American history.
And the details of the incident were gruesome, to say the least. More than thirty of the bodies were discovered in the main crematory building and two storage sheds, either lying on the floor or piled high in metal vaults. Th e remaining three-hundred-plus bodies were distributed throughout the dense brush and woods of the crematory grounds. Of this larger group, the majority were dumped into eight burial pits of varying depth, which were then covered with dirt, trash, and, in one instance, an old pool table. Body parts were found sticking out of the pits, like grisly plantings in a neglected garden.
The skeletal remains of other bodies were strewn haphazardly through the brush on cardboard and plywood burn pallets. Still others were discovered in discarded body bags beneath the pines. Finally, a small group still lay in their caskets (generally cremations do not involve the added expense of a casket), and the rats had found their way into those enclosures, shuffling the bones.
My father’s bones were among those found at Tri-State, where he lay abandoned for five years. And for five years the crematory backhoe dug pits and built mounds, divided the earth and piled it up, opened the ground and closed it. The metal edge leveled trees and heavy brush, crushed kudzu and passionflower, chickweed and thistle. And in so doing made a new place for all these things to grow.
My mother, it seems, had her own idea about altering the ground.
On the third day of the Tri-State Crematory Incident—as the reports told of more bodies piled up in pits, more bodies scattered in the brush, possibly many more locked in metal vaults beneath the lake—I knew only that my father’s corpse had been sent to a crematory in the area five years before.
On the far end of the phone I heard the same news account blare back at me from my mother’s den in Santa Fe, the same helicopter hovering above. She didn’t know if the body had been sent to Tri-State. But from her tone I could tell she felt particularly anxious about the potential bad news, though not only because her husband’s corpse might be involved. There was more. Her anxiety arose from an event that occurred five years before Tri-State, which began with a phone call saying she was going to “dig Daddy up.”
Such an odd phrase, heavy and hard. But at the time I immediately understood it—her burial phobia had gotten the best of her. In her haste and disorientation at my father’s abrupt death, my mother had purchased two plots in the small cemetery of their north Georgia resort community. For seven years it appeared she had subsumed her long-standing fear of being buried, of “sleeping with worms,” as she often said. Suddenly, however, in 1997, she announced she wanted to exhume my father, have him cremated and then shipped out to New Mexico. That way, she calmly stated, she could avoid the worms and have my father nearby. And when she died she would also be cremated, their ashes scattered together over the New Mexico mountains.
Did we—my sister and I—want to come to his exhumation party?
My sister, Kim, who lived in Houston, and I were stunned. We all knew my mother was eccentric, but all this talk about Daddy’s party was a bit alarming. Yet after a flurry of conversations and e-mails we decided it was all my mother’s show. If she wanted to go through with this bizarre idea, it was really her right to do so. We would not try to dissuade her, though we did not want to participate either. So it was that my father reentered this plane as a modern-day Lazarus, torn from the earth by a backhoe.
For my mother, this unburying proved helpful. She placed his remains in a black box that she kept in a special nook for family memorabilia. Now she was freed from her fate of worms and at the same time felt less alone in the world. In fact, she talked to the box throughout the day—sad though it may be—and her interaction with him was somehow therapeutic.
So when my mother spoke to me on that day in February 2002—before we knew that my father’s body had been sent to the Tri-State Crematory—there was an edge to her voice. My God, had she dug up her husband for a psychological reason, to assuage her own burial phobia, only to facilitate his arrival at Tri-State? Had he been lying for five years in the woods, in a deep pit, in a stuffed vault sunk beneath that awful lake? Had she made some terrible mistake?
The first step, of course, was to find out whether my father had actually been sent to the Tri-State hell camp. That would take some phone calls over the next two days. In the meantime, Honor thy mother must have been ingrained in my brain because I didn’t mention anything about the exhumation during our conversation. And, as she later explained, she got off the phone and didn’t say a word to that black box—the one she’d talked to for five years—the box now filled with God knows what and God knows who.
The flag case kept sliding around on the front seat, and I pulled over and tried to buckle it in. The stars and rumpled stripes gave the effect of a slouched and harried traveler. So I asked if it was okay, if it was comfortable. Did it want the air conditioner on?
As it happened, I had pulled over in front of a historical marker: Alabama corps of cadets defends Tuscaloosa. Like everyone who walked past the marker on occasion, I had read the thick print before, but today I decided to get out and study it more closely. This would be part of my ritual, I thought, the making of meaning as I traveled along. The official marker read like an encyclopedia entry, dispassionately describing the futile actions of a ragtag group of teenage boys who defended the city from the federal “enemy” during the Civil War—the word “enemy,” I’m sure, being just a little slip of the engraver.
Behind me I could hear the rumble of heavy machinery clawing at a fresh pile of rubble where the new federal building would soon rise. And then something strange happened, something I’d like to attribute to the thunderous and timely collapse of another old building, yet I heard no calamity of such kind. I’d like to say I felt the sidewalk shift, a small swerve and tumble, right there at the center of the city. I’d like to say I didn’t just falter over my worn-out boots, stumbling as I turned back toward the car.
We’ve all felt it at some point: a dizziness, an unexplained misstep, or perhaps in my case a little giddiness about my trip momentarily depriving my brain of oxygen. But this was ritual and magic, I told myself, look around.
And I saw an elderly black man, who did not look up, turn slowly into Oak City Barber & Beauty Shop: the only black barbershop downtown not scheduled for destruction. A simple image, without consequence, but as a matter of mission and belief something else entirely. As a matter of seeking and finding, of moving toward revelation, I wondered—in the miraculous sense of that word—if my small spot on earth, the ground where I stood, had trembled in the wake of the old man’s passing.