Driving in Memphis

The legendary Beale Street in the rain. Glowing in isolation. ©2020 Derek Henry Flood

Memphis- After the family Civil War bucket list adventure in Chattanooga, I began my westward journey in earnest. My next planned stop was Corona but I decided to cool down in Memphis for a few days after so much relentless preparation in NYC and travel, I decided to take the slow road for a few days. Having driven straight across Tennessee many times on previous cross country trips, I decided to take a southern route getting a look at three states I’d never set foot in: Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

The drive through Georgia was green and quiet but rather short and unremarkable. Alabama was a bit more interesting as I came across Huntsville where so much was influenced by, and thus named after, Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. From the Von Braun Complex all the way to the sprawling Von Braun Center in the heart of the city, his named was inescapable. It was the most obvious present day reminder of the fruits of Operation Paperclip whereby Nazi rocket scientists were ferried en masse to the United States to help jumpstart America’s rocketry, and later, space programme.

I found it a bit unsettling how much the Nazi connection to Huntsville and the United States more broadly, had been thoroughly sanitised. In this 2014 Chattanooga Times Free Press article, Hidden in plain sight: German influence is everywhere in Huntsville, but you may not know it, the word Nazi is not used once. The Nazi-turned-Cold War scientists are merely ‘Germans’ as if their pasts were apolitical endeavours that just so happened to occur in the political geography of the Third Reich. This was not so. But these Germans were useful for America’s competition with the Soviet Union, particularly as the space race got underway in the mid-1950s.

But von Braun in particular was an avowed member of the totalitarian National Socialist Party that arose in the economically moribund Weimar Republic. This cannot be disputed. Yet much of a sizable American city is named after such a man. In Huntsville, one can observe a direct connection between the 20th century’s most publicised genocide and the then highest scientific aspirations of mankind to reach the moon. The connection between mass violence and high technology is undeniable.

The to-scale model of a Saturn V rocket on display, fenced off and devoid of tourists in Huntsville, Alabama. ©2020 Derek Henry Flood

Getting back on the road I crossed into Mississippi where I was briefly taken aback that the design of the state flag there has within it the Confederate battle flag. Attribute it to my northernness, my ‘urban elitism,’ if you like but I was sort of shocked by how backward this appeared. That huge swathes of people cling to the symbology of a failure. A design that represents oppression writ large. The utterly shameful end result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Even if you adhere to the concept of racism, an inherently flawed ideological spectrum belonging to the ash heap of history, it is a sign of separateness. An icon of a disunited States. How can 21st century Americans, much less a constituent state of the union, display this visual? Well in Mississippi apparently they do, and proudly so. I had to keep in mind that in my country, opinions are more than widely diverse, they are wholly irreconcilable. As I drove toward Memphis, I spotted the occasional Confederate flag displayed on peoples’ homes. History dies slowly here.

Arriving in Memphis, I was guided by the 1991 hit single Walking in Memphis by Cleveland singer-songwriter Marc Cohn. In the middle of the pouring rain I drove straight to Beale Street. No hustle. No bustle. A police car with its high beams on, engine running. A sole pedestrian darting across the road in the neon shadows. I turned the corner and drove down Union Avenue but there was no sign of Elvis. A balmy emptiness. The miasma of viral uncertainty. The downtown didn’t seem like the right place to stay for the night. I settled on a Days Inn on the outskirts of town.

Up to the gates of Graceland. The last time I arrived here it turned out to be Elvis’s birthday and cult-like fans from across the industrialised world were on the mansion’s grounds to celebrate the life of the King. Some of whom seemed to be in denial that he had died in ignominious circumstances decades earlier. ©2020 Derek Henry Flood

Unlike Harrisonburg, Chattanooga, and Huntsville, I’d been to Memphis a number of times before. My original plan had been to depart Memphis toward Corona, Tennessee and then from there head to Corona, Missouri. But judging by Google Maps, Corona was a merely patch of remote farmland and was more realistically a day trip from Memphis. And so it would be.