Forsyth Park

10 Careless Lies Told by Careless Guides

Oooh, shots fired! Pow! Pow! Everything I do, I do out of love. I want the tourism industry in this city to meet world-class standards. At the moment, it's still a scantily regulated hodgepodge of large, distantly owned corporations (i.e. Old Town Trolley) and variously qualified small operators. This leads to very uneven experiences for tourists who visit Savannah and may make them leery of ever coming back, especially if they sense they're being lied to for the sake of someone's bottom line. I don't mean to hate on my fellow tour guides and make them look bad. Most of them are perfectly nice people who do not spread incorrect information out of malice. It's just that the majority of tour guides in this town are regular 'ole employees working for a larger company. They get paid by the hour or by the tour. They are paid to show people a good time; they are not paid to do extra research during their off hours. Company owners or managers should be the ones putting forth that effort and conveying the information to their staff, but, well... management, you know?

As a result of this lackadaisical concern for accuracy, patent untruths sometimes seep into the tourism cannon and can circulate for years like a dead goldfish in the toilet bowl. So, here is a list of ten such casual lies I hate the most, arranged in order from mildly annoying to egregiously stupid.

1. Chiggers (red bugs) live in Spanish moss

Yeah, it's a small inaccuracy and a minor peeve, but it bothers me because there's no reason to tell people the wrong thing when it's just as easy to tell people the right thing. Chiggers are rotten little monsters that will make you itch like hell (speaking from experience here), but blaming their presence on Spanish moss is an unfair libel against a picturesque and harmless plant. These tiny red devils lurk near the ground in grass and under low vegetation. I got eaten up by them when I was very young just from screwing around in some woods and tromping through pine straw. No doubt they turn up in Spanish moss that's been lying on the dirt long enough, but chiggers would never find their way to moss that is still hanging high up in the trees. Please don't interpret this to mean I'm giving you the all-clear to yank moss from the nearest branch and go prancing around with it. There is a species of jumping spider that lives only in Spanish moss....

2. The city was named for the surrounding landscape, i.e. Savannah = savanna

This one is an understandable confusion. After all, it's been making the rounds since at least the 19th century. I don't fault any tour guide who repeats it, but I would like to see this detail corrected. The idea is that our first settlers from England looked out over the Georgia coast, saw the tall smooth cord-grass waving over the vast salt marsh, and named the city for the grassy African plains they thought the landscape resembled.

It sounds good for a minute, but makes less and less sense the more you think about it. A bunch of white English dudes named the first city in their new colony after a geographical feature of the African continent? You know, that continent they had already been plundering for two centuries and which they had no reason to love? And had any Europeans actually made it as far as the savanna at this point (the 18th century)? Weren't they still mostly scooting around the coast and hiring other Africans to traipse around the interior for them? On top of that, I'm pretty sure the first people here, especially our founder James Oglethorpe, were not completely stupid. Surely Oglethorpe was capable of telling the difference between a treeless grassy plain and a muddy salt marsh. I mean, the boat sailed right through it. He got a close look. What slams the final nail in place on this one, though, is the fact Savannah was never a treeless grassy plain. There's even a picture to prove it!

Savannah, GA, 1734, Peter Gordon, Bonnie Blue  Tours
Savannah, GA, 1734, Peter Gordon, Bonnie Blue Tours

This drawing of Savannah was done in 1734 and given to the Trustees of Georgia as a gift. Also a gift to historians, as it turns out. This is how we know what the city looked like early on. Oglethorpe found a high bluff overlooking the river and decided it would be the perfect place for his new city. How convenient the bluff was covered in pine trees the colonists could use to build their first little homes. In fact, the whole area was thickly forested in old growth pine. It was a forest.

Hm, so why did Oglethorpe name this place Savannah? According to Savannah in the Old South, which is a favorite resource of mine and one I re-read every few years, the name was already there. It was the river. And the river got its name from the Indians. Various Indians had been living along the Georgia coast for thousands of years and had given the river various names. In the 17th century, a tribe called the Westos dominated this territory and named the river after themselves, so it was the Westos River. English settlers over in South Carolina did not like the Westos very much because the Westos wouldn't trade with them. So, South Carolina sidled up to a competing tribe, the Savannahs, and traded them guns 'n ammo (the actual stuff... not the magazine...). The Savannahs cheerfully drove out the Westos, set up trade with South Carolina, established Savannah Town on what is now Beech Island, SC, and renamed the river for their own tribe. Although those Indians and their settlement were gone by the time Oglethorpe and the Georgia colonists arrived here in 1733, the river still had that name. I guess Oglethorpe thought "Savannah" sounded pretty and maybe figured it would reduce confusion about the city's location if he just named it after a river that was already well known. Lucky break, I say, or we might be living in the historic city of Oglethorpia right now.

3. Savannah's Waving Girl spent her life waiting for a lover who sailed away and never returned

savannah, ga, bonnie blue tours, waving girl statue, morel park, savannah river, river street
savannah, ga, bonnie blue tours, waving girl statue, morel park, savannah river, river street

Ok, this one gets especially creepy when you consider she began this tradition as a child. Sucks the romance right out of the whole scenario, doesn't it?

Florence Martus was the Waving Girl's real name and she was born to a local lighthouse keeper in 1869. Her father originally tended the Cockspur Island Lighthouse, but then the family moved to Elba Island and that's where Florence spent most of her life. You can see Elba Island if you look east down River Street. It's easy to spot for the large, light blue liquid natural gas (LNG) tanks squatting on it.

Savannah, GA, Bonnie Blue Tours, Elba Island, LNG
Savannah, GA, Bonnie Blue Tours, Elba Island, LNG

Florence developed the habit of running down to the shore and waving her handkerchief to sailors on ships coming and going from the port. Being a sailor in the 19th century was such a demanding, underpaid, suck-tacular job, ships' captains regularly had to kidnap men to make them do it. So, you can imagine how much it must have warmed the hearts of these bedraggled men to see this fresh-faced girl offering such a sweet welcome. Naturally, the sailors waved back. Florence upped her game after a while and began greeting ships at night too by waving a lantern back and forth. Now, no one likes to tell stories more than sailors, 'cept maybe fishermen, so tales about this waving girl at the port of Savannah spread far and wide (acquiring many invented details along the way) and sailors from all over the world would look for her and wave back. Florence never married and remained on the island until she was too old to live on her own anymore. She died in 1943, having greeted more ships and sailors in her lifetime than anyone can even count. The city erected her statue in Morel Park many years ago to continue her welcoming tradition.

Why did Florence Martus remain unmarried and wave at ships decade after decade if a failed romance wasn't the reason? The truth can be very frustrating sometimes, especially when the truth is that we simply don't know. The romantic legends do make for really good storytelling and it's no surprise any tour guide would prefer to tell it that way. Honestly, I know many a tourist would prefer to hear it that way. It's so much more satisfying than "Just because." And the truth becomes even more unattractive when evidence points to the likelihood Florence had some sort of compulsive disorder and waving at every passing ship was how she expressed it. Sorry guys, but that's the way it is. And that's the way I tell it on my tours whenever the subject comes up.

I do not feel it diminishes The Waving Girl as a cherished local legend, however. The fact she has a statue makes it clear enough her actions transcended disappointing reality and made her into a symbol. Florence Martus is not important because of Florence Martus, but because of the imprint she left on the international seafaring community. She was the first greeting for countless men who sailed here and the last memory many of them took from here. I'll take that over a clichéd old romance any day.

4. Mary Telfair never married because of a thwarted romance

Savannah, GA, Bonnie Blue Tours, Mary Telfair
Savannah, GA, Bonnie Blue Tours, Mary Telfair

Ugh, why is it both literary and historical tradition simply do not know what to make of a single woman? Some versions of this story say Mary soured on romance forever after being dumped by such-and-such suitor, some say she and her sister Margaret fell in love with the same man and he chose Margaret over her. Why does it always have to be a lost love or a jilted romance or some tired old canard like that? This one gets on my nerves in particular because it dismisses the deliberate and perfectly self-aware decision-making process of a very, very intelligent woman whose impact on Savannah was vast and valuable and should not be ignored in favor of trite gossip.

She never took a husband because she simply never found one she wanted. It's true Mary Telfair didn't have much to offer in the looks department, but she was very intelligent, well traveled, well connected, highly educated, and fabulously rich- qualities that surely piqued the interest of many an upwardly mobile gentleman looking to make an advantageous match. But the self-possessed and headstrong Mary Telfair did not fancy being anybody's meal ticket or societal stepping stone and likely never encountered a man she believed had nobler intentions. Also, her standards for people in general were set maybe a little too high.

As for the man she and her sister allegedly both fell for, that would be William Hodgson. Mary and Margaret encountered him while vacationing in Europe and there was never any question which sister he was going to end up with. Hodgson completely flipped out for Margaret. He wrote her steamy letters nonstop between the time they got engaged and the time they got married and gave up a juicy appointment to a consular post in Turkey because Margaret didn't want to live there. This internationally lauded diplomat and preternaturally gifted linguist gave up his career to live in stupid old Savannah because he loved Margaret so much. It puzzles me a little. I mean, Margaret had all the same advantages as Mary (also the same lack of visual appeal), but was four years older than William and already 45 years old when they got married. Maybe he had a fondness for mature ladies and didn't want any kids? Was he blown away by her mental acuity? Did he just fall head over heels for no real reason in truly classic style? I think if there is a deep romantic story to be told here, it's probably William Hodgson's and not any of the Telfairs'. At any rate, there is no reason to believe Mary ever carried a torch for the guy. She stayed single because she liked it that way. Plenty of modern women should be able to relate.

5. General Sherman did not burn Savannah during the Civil War because he thought the city was so beautiful/ because he had a mistress here

Oh, please. This one's easy to poke holes in. We can dismiss the first point because Sherman burnt or ransacked plenty of attractive places during his March to the Sea. Beauty was not going to slow this beast down. Also, Savannah did not look as good then as it does now. Go check out some old-timey photographs, you'll see I'm right. The second assertion, about the mistress, also wobbles under closer scrutiny. Sherman spent a little bit of time in Florida and Georgia when he was stationed down south during the Seminole Wars, but that's about it. After that, he got married and had a career that sent him zooming between Washington DC, California, Indiana, and New York. None of those places are even close to Savannah, so when was he supposed to digress down here to keep his mystery lady satisfied?

Well then, why didn't Sherman burn Savannah down when he got here? It's pretty straightforward, really. He had no reason to do so and lots of reasons not to. The 9,000 or so Confederate soldiers who had been in the area skedaddled the night before Sherman's arrival. The general in charge of that maneuver, William Hardee, knew he'd never stand a chance against 60,000 Union soldiers and decided the wiser strategy would be to take off and leave Savannah the opportunity to surrender and perhaps escape destruction. It worked. Savannah offered no military resistance, surrendered politely, and Sherman was glad to hunker down here for a while. It was in his best interest to keep the city intact, especially the port. He needed to get Union boats up the river to resupply his men and deliver the mail. His army needed a break too. They had just marched nonstop for six weeks to get here from Atlanta and the last of that was through pine barrens where there were precious few farms to raid for supplies. They were low on everything and desperately tired, despite being triumphant conquerors of Georgia. On top of all that, it was cold. The soldiers got here just before Christmas and left at the beginning of February, so that means they waited out the worst part of winter before moving on. That's it. We were more useful as a pit stop than as... a pit, I guess.

6. Gangsters shot up people in front of the Lucas Theatre in 1928

The Lucas is a movie palace built in 1921 and operates today as a movie theater and venue for live performances. It's right next to Reynolds Square, a square which serves as the starting point for many different ghost tours. So, it's no surprise ghost guides keep passing this story from one to another like a cold sore. So many tour groups walk down this block and they need something to fill the space. To make it more compelling, there are some suspicious looking, smudgy little holes in the tile on the front of the building. Oooh, bullet holes? And Savannah played a major role in the rum running trade during Prohibition and there were loads of illegal stills hidden away back in the sticks. Gangster shoot outs are totally believable! It's just too good to be true! Yep. That's the problem. I'll let my colleague James Caskey handle this one, from his book Haunted Savannah:

The first problem with this story is that the shooting never happened. [...] An exhaustive search of the archives at the Georgia Historical Society reveals not one bit of supporting evidence.... [...] the black marks pointed to by tour guides are decidedly not caused by .45 caliber bullets. A round from a Thompson machine gun would have almost certainly shattered the Spanish style tile [...].

Thanks, James!

I do ghost tours and I understand the need for, um, stretching the truth sometimes. We must keep our skills sharp in the ancient Southern art of exaggeration-fu. I'm also pretty sure people expect to be BSd just a little bit on a ghost tour. I mean, come on, you're already on a tour where people tell ghost stories. But I personally draw the line at details or stories that don't jive with what I know of actual history. It just... it feels less like good storytelling and more like telling a lie to make a buck. And I don't like it when I see other tour guides doing that. To be fair, though, I'm sure many who tell this story picked it up from the coworkers who trained them and have no idea it isn't true (see my earlier point about quality control being management's job).

I've been pretty understanding so far, but that's enough of that. The last four entries on this list are the idiotic falsehoods I hate most. Their details splatter against the windshield of common sense like verbal bird poop. They strain the available supply of synonyms for the word "stupid". They make me want to set things (mostly other tour guides) on fire with the power of my white-hot rage. They make Savannah's entire tourism industry look bad. I give no quarter to any tour guide who continues disseminating the following infuriating and clearly untrue yarns. Those who do are basically the Typhoid Marys of storytelling and should be quarantined on Hutchinson Island where they can forever stare forlornly back at the city they maligned with their unforgivable disregard for truth and basic logic.

7. Something about slaughtering pigs (or possibly people) inWright Square

I won't name names or point fingers at any particular company, but I've heard this one up close and in detail. It's been a long time, so the story's gotten fuzzy on me. I know it was still making the rounds on the ghost tours a couple years ago, but I'm not sure it still is. Anyway, if a guide tries to tell you anything about feral hogs being chased out of the woods surrounding colonial Savannah and into a pit in Wright Square where they were then barbequed alive and devoured by voracious English settlers, just kick that guide right in the knee, snatch your money back out of their pocket, and go spend it on booze or something. Even when Budweiser pretends to be beer it isn't lying that boldly.

There's a variant on this involving strangers in the city being barbequed and cannibalized. Both versions of this story hit me right out of nowhere when I first heard them years ago. I have no idea where they came from, since there is absolutely no physical feature in any of the squares that would suggest such nonsense and nothing I can think of in the city's history that may have been distorted into this macabre and stupid legend. This. Never. Happened.

8. Our lovely (and expensive) Jones Street is the origin of the phrase "Keeping up with the Joneses"

I kind of just want to type a frowny face here and walk away. I know for a fact tour guides out there are still selling this little pork pie to people and I don't understand how they can say it with a straight face. Doesn't it just strain credulity? And sound dumb? Really, really dumb? Also, twenty seconds on Google is all it takes to deflate this myth: Keeping Up with the Joneses was the title of a popular early 20th century comic strip. And no, the guy who wrote that comic strip had never been anywhere near Savannah. I would never spout off this brain dead drivel to a group of tourists for fear someone's smartypants kid would whip out their iPhone, look it up, and prove me wrong on the spot. I can't believe the guides who keep saying it aren't struck by how unlikely it sounds. I can't believe none of them have been shown up by teenagers with phones.

9. People used to stuff their mattresses with Spanish moss, would get eaten up by the chiggers that lived in it, and that's the origin of the saying "Don't let the bedbugs bite"

This is another one that makes me sigh and knot my brow in exasperation. It bothers me not merely because it is factually untrue, but because you don't even have to know the facts to know this doesn't make the tiniest iota of sense. Any tour guide who tells this to a group of tourists is openly insulting their intelligence.

We've already gone over the matter of chiggers in Spanish moss. I could stop there, but I'm not going to because chiggers ≠ bedbugs. Just because "redbug" rhymes with "bedbug" does not mean you can use the words interchangeably. These are two completely different insects. Actually, chiggers aren't even insects, they're classed as arachnids. The last thing these two creatures have in common is their Phylum! The ease with which one can ascertain these two bugs are, indeed, two different bugs is not the only thing about this story that drives me nuts. Even if someone on a tour did not know that chiggers do not live in Spanish moss and even if they did not know for sure that bedbugs have no relation to chiggers, they might dimly perceive the specious nature of this tale due to a vague recollection that bedbugs are, well, everywhere, including places where Spanish moss is not to be found. That includes the Old World before the discovery of the New World (where the offending plant is native).

Why, why do people keep repeating such obviously half-baked and easy to disprove tripe? I expect a lazy person not to bother correcting a mistaken story, but someone had to exert themselves to get this one wrong in the first place. It makes so little sense, I feel sure the guides who tell it must be consciously suppressing their own critical thinking skills in order to force the words out of their mouths. You don't have to, my compatriots. I'm setting you free from this lunacy right now.

Aside from all the inconsistencies regarding the bugs themselves, this legend also rests on the assumption- which seems to be the basis for many historical myths- that our ancestors were dumber than my cat when he gets his head stuck in a jar. Yes, they did use the soft, springy Spanish moss to stuff their mattresses and cushions. In fact, people used to do all kinds of neato peato stuff with Spanish moss which you can read more about here and here. But do you think they were so stupid they didn't know there were critters living in it? They had ways of curing and ginning the stuff to make it usable, people. There may have been regular 'ole bedbugs crawling around in their mossy mattresses (because those things were impossible to get rid of until people started bathing in DDT), but no one at the time ever mistook them for redbugs. And there is no reason we should be making that mistake now.

By the way, you may have noticed a theme appearing here. Any time a tour guide tells you thingamajig in Savannah is the origin of blah-blah world wide colloquialism... just assume it's bullcrap. We've never been such a major player on the international stage that our quaint habits are rewriting the English language.

10. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1876, doctors tried to hide the scale of the disaster by sneaking corpses out of Candler Hospital via secret tunnels and burying them at night in Laurel Grove Cemetery (or possibly Forsyth Park)

All I can do here is raise one eyebrow disdainfully and ask, "Really, ghost tours?"

How is that supposed to have worked, pray tell? In the middle of an epidemic, someone had time to dig tunnels from the old Candler Hospital to Laurel Grove Cemetery a mile away? Without anyone in town noticing? The current hospital building was only completed in 1876. They must have added those long tunnels really fast to be ready for that epidemic! Wouldn't it have been faster, easier, and just as discreet to catapult the bodies across town from the roof of the hospital? Would have been a hell of a lot more fun than lugging putrid corpses around under the city, I tell you what. Why haul them all the way to the cemetery at all? You got this mile-long tunnel handy; just stuff 'em in there, it's the same thing! Now, burying people in Forsyth Park is a pretty nifty alternative except mass graves suddenly appearing in the middle of a large, popular public park would probably blow your cover.

Eeeeuuuuuurrrgh. This trash makes me want to punch all of the faces. Aside from the practical impossibilities, the story of the Candler Hospital tunnels relies on two other fallacious assumptions. 1: Again, all of our ancestors were morons. 19th century Savannahians couldn't count, I guess? Or they were really distractible and kept forgetting how many of their friends and relatives had died? Or they just forgot from year to year that every summer was Yellow Fever Season and someone was for sure going to die? Did people used to interact on the Schrödinger's Cat principle and assume anyone they couldn't see was both alive and dead at the the same time? 'Cuz that's the only logic I can come up with for trying to sneak away the bodies of folks everyone already knew were dead. 2: Overestimating the severity of the epidemic and the degree of panic. As noted before, every summer was Yellow Fever Season and Savannah had 3 major outbreaks under its belt (1796, 1820, 1854) by the time our last big one rolled around in 1876. That's at least one brush with deadly disease per generation. Not to say people were used to it or it wasn't scary for them, but it doesn't qualify as a surprise. And although the yellow fever of 1876 killed the most people in terms of sheer numbers (more than 1,000), it was far less severe than previous epidemics when you consider the mortality rate as a percentage of the total population. So, I know people were freaked out, but they dealt with it.

This logistically insulting, aggravatingly persistent ghost story is a sleazy way to exploit fascination with the very real hospital tunnels that once served a morbid, yet perfectly ordinary purpose. They were morgue tunnels. Just passageways built to connect the main building to the new morgue, all of which were upgrades made to the old 1819 structure in 1876. People die in a hospital and the bodies have to go somewhere and how are you going to keep them cool and prevent rot before the advent of refrigeration? You build your morgue underground, of course. It was a world class facility, in fact, and was even written about and touted in medical journals of the time. Nothing secret or shady about it!

Blatant lies like this, as well as the other fibs and falsehoods I've listed, dismay me badly. It's rude to the people who pay you money in exchange for the truth, first of all. It's also unfair to get paid for work (research) you haven't actually done or that you don't have the skills to interpret usefully. People can often sense when they're being lied to even if they can't tell precisely what's wrong, and having that experience while in Savannah is likely to leave tourists with a bitter taste in their mouths. It will discourage people from coming back to the city if they think every tour company is run by a con man or every guide they meet is some joker who doesn't take their job seriously.

It's a problem I think the City needs to tackle by becoming more active in the licensing process. Right now it's pretty much "take a test, pay some money" and poof! you're a tour guide. Comparably historic cities like New Orleans and Charleston have much more stringent licensing requirements and way more comprehensive tour guide manuals. I think it would be great and would improve the overall caliber of the tourism industry here if the process required prospective guides to enroll in a semester-long course that goes over the material in depth. The time commitment would weed out fly-by-nights and a structured class would promote better retention of the facts and ensure a high baseline of knowledge among employees across all types of tour companies. My hope is that it would also foster respect for History as a discipline. A high-quality work force is most likely to attract high-quality tourists to this area and those are the kind I prefer.

But until the City of Savannah calls me up and asks for my opinion on the matter, the next best thing I can do is empower you, dear tourist, with my knowledge. Now you know the commonest untruths to beware of while you're in town. Use this power wisely. Together we can smack down the jokers!

For the love of potato latkes

Ah, October: the month when Savannahians can finally wipe the sweat from our brows, shake off the indolence of a sweltering summer, and PARTY! Fall is a big festival season here. Savannah has 7 large scale celebrations that take place in October, to say nothing of smaller events put on by individual organizations and business owners. The first of those big parties, Oktoberfest, is of course dedicated to booze. Two others, the Greek Festival and the Shalom Y'all Jewish Food Festival, are all about the food. Three more are all about movies and music. The one outlier is the Tybee Island Pirate Fest, although maybe that should fall under the "booze" category. I think the focus on food, booze, and sitting on our butts watching movies is a survival tactic. We stuff ourselves and fatten up in the fall so we can hibernate straight through the winter until February, when the Spring festival cycle begins. The Shalom Y'all Jewish Food Festival was on Sunday in Forsyth Park. I went last year, since I had never gone before and it was easy to walk over there after finishing my afternoon tour. Don didn't go because he was working. This year, however, he has a job with a sane schedule, so both of us got to enjoy some kosher deliciousity! I skipped breakfast because I knew what I was in for... and because I got up late. The two of us walked down to Forsyth- man, I love living where I can walk to stuff- and got there about 20 minutes into the festivities. There was already a ton of people. It made me glad we didn't have to drive and fight for parking.

Though bustling, the place had still not gotten as crowded as I expected and I realized the cleverness of holding this particular festival at mid-morning on a Sunday: the Jewish Sabbath is on Saturday, which frees them up to be first in every line on Sunday while the silly gentiles are sitting in church. Brilliant! I actually bumped into a couple of church-going friends, Kim and Deborah, about 1 o'clock as Don and I were leaving. They had just left Asbury Methodist and confessed it was hard to sit through the service knowing there was so much tasty food only a few blocks down the road. Kim told me most of the congregation could be found re-congregating at the Jewish Food Festival as soon as they got out of church. We joked how the minister, Billy Hester, should just declare that particular Sunday every year a field trip day.

Anyway, Don and I bought our tickets and split up. I hustled over to the matzoh ball soup booth for some lunch, which I ate while sitting on a bench next to the Forsyth fountain. Just like last year, the event organizers had set up a small bandstand there with a couple of violinists from the Savannah Philharmonic. Throughout the day, I heard klezmer, tunes by Jewish composers, and, naturally, the most famous tracks from Fiddler on the Roof. After my soup, I zoomed down the sidewalk for some potato latkes. The line was atrociously long when I got there at last year's festival and I was hoping I wouldn't have to stand around all day this time around. The potato latkes are the most coveted delicacy at the festival. Surprisingly, there were only about half a dozen people in line ahead of me, I guess because it was still early in the day. I grabbed my precious, precious latkes and made my way back toward the fountain, where I found an empty chair at a table.

The funniest thing happened while I was sitting there munching away. This guy with his wife came out of nowhere and asked me where I had gotten my shirt. It's a t-shirt Jim Reed had made especially to celebrate Leonard Nimoy's 80th birthday, which he also celebrated with a special movie screening by the Psychotronic Film Society. He did something similar to celebrate William Shatner's 80th birthday a couple years ago. I don't have one of the Shatner shirts, but I am kind of a Spock fan, so I ponied up for a Nimoy shirt. It's light green with the design done in purple: a picture of Nimoy (from the 70s, with a mustache) with a tiny Star of David on the left and the phrase "Living long and prospering" down below. I put the thing on that morning because it's soft and comfortable, not because I was going to a Jewish festival and Leonard Nimoy is Jewish. I wore a t-shirt with a picture of a well known Jewish actor on it to a Jewish festival without even thinking about it because I had completely forgotten he's Jewish! It did not occur to me until later how intentional my oblivious wardrobe choice must have seemed. Anyway, I explained the unique genesis of the shirt to the man and his wife and wrote down Jim's contact info for them because I'm pretty sure he still has one or two of them floating around. The couple told me they were visiting and had just gotten into Savannah, so I handed them my business card and let them know they might find my website useful. The woman, it turns out, had come here to research her 6th cookbook. I was too stupid and distracted to ask their names or I would be able to tell you who she was. Anyway, those two picked a good week to be in town!

So, after my latkes, I ambled over to the drinks stand and got a Brown's Cream Soda, then used my last two tickets on some cheese blintzes for dessert. My dessert last year was a muffin or cookies or something. I can't remember. But I'd never had blintzes and thought I'd give them a try with some strawberry topping. I stood at a table where some acquaintances of mine also happened to be, Trish and Chris, whom I see at the occasional Drinking Liberally function. We all had a hard time recognizing each other out of context, but we figured it out. We b.s.ed a bit about the presidential debates and I shared with them my idea of giving every moderator a paint ball gun and permission to shoot any candidate that is rude or talks beyond their time limit. Somehow that seems less petty and more satisfying than simply cutting off their microphones.

Trish and Chris drifted away, Don reappeared at my side, and I told him we couldn't leave until he'd eaten some potato latkes. It just wouldn't be right. Since he had used up all his tickets, I gave him $5 to buy some more and told him I would stay put while he stood in line. So, off he went. Some other group of people ended up at my table and I heard one of the ladies comment on how great the weather was for the festival and what would the planners have done if it were raining? I couldn't resist chiming in with, "Well, it's a Jewish festival, so if it had rained, they all would have sat around and kvetched about it." That got a laugh out of them. The weather really was great, clear and sunny and the perfect temperature, same as last year. Maybe the Jews really are God's chosen people? Hm, by that logic God must also really love gay people since the Pride festival almost always has beautiful weather as well. I guess we'll just stick with the more reasonable assumption that late October is a good time in Savannah.

I waited and waited and waited and waited for Don to return, but it became obvious he had been sucked to his death inside the latke vortex or something. Some acquaintances of mine strolled by and we chit chatted for a while, then I finally walked past the fountain and down the sidewalk to see what was up. I found the latke line had expanded like a slinky unleashed in the short interval between when I was there and when I sent Don there. Oops. The necessity of changing the oil on the fryers had also caused a severe backup of people. They were just about ready to get things sizzling again, though, so Don asked me to get him a cup of coffee while he waited, which I did, and we met up again a short while later.

We sat down in the grass and pondered... um... stuff about food. Do you ever notice that completely unrelated cultures seem to develop similar tastes in the preparation of certain foods? Fried dough, for one. All over the world, peoples who have no connection to each other came up with variations on the same thing: take dough, fry it, cover it in something sweet. In America we have doughnuts. The Creoles invented beignets. The Greeks have honey puffs. It was the honey puffs at the Greek festival that got me thinking about it. Fried potatoes are like that too. The Belgians invented French fries (maybe), Southerners love hash browns, and the Jews have potato latkes. I think it's strange that antisemitism should ever have been a thing in the South, since the two cultures really have so much in common. Both love deep-friend, cheesy, carbohydrate-laden goodness. Both love to maintain their own distinctive society and history within the country they occupy. Jews are known for manipulating guilt; Southerners love to hold a grudge. Those are just two manifestations of the same impulse, right? Both originate from a hot and hostile climate. Jews and Southerners were practically made for each other!

It worked out well in Savannah at least. The synagogue that sponsors the festival, Mickve Israel, is the third oldest Jewish congregation in America. Georgia's English (and therefore Anglican) colonists got here in February of 1733. The very next people to arrive were a boat full of Sephardic Jews in July. The English had very good reasons at the time for not immediately going "Ack!" and telling them to clear out, but you have to take my tour to hear that story. All you need to know is the Jews stayed, nestled themselves into Savannah society, and have been here ever since. Thank God. Otherwise, we'd have one less tradition for the frying of potatoes.

The perilous life of a local monument

Interesting headline in the Savannah Morning News yesterday: Terror plot targets Forsyth. Forsyth Park, that is and, more specifically, the antique cast iron fountain in the middle of it. A group of 3rd Infantry Division soldiers formed their own anarchist militia, stockpiled thousands of dollars worth of guns and ammo, and decided to overtake Fort Stewart and eventually topple the US government and assassinate the President. I'm sure taking over the world would have been the next logical step after that. And somewhere on that busy itinerary someone wrote this line: Step 3) blow up Forsyth Park fountain. The only response I can muster is "Why?" Why was blowing up this fountain-

Forsyth Park fountain, Savannah, GA

-that vital to the plan? Did one of these guys get arrested for playing in it when he was a teenager? Did one of them fall and conk his head on the fence? What did that fountain ever do to anyone? Was making everyone in Savannah real sad and angry for a while an indispensably important part of the overall scenario? Given the grandiosity of these soldiers' scheme, why would they waste time and resources on such a petty digression?

The Forsyth Park fountain is a local icon and losing it would hurt. Of all the beautiful buildings and churches and squares, this one mid-19th century cast-iron fountain has become the most identifiable landmark in town and the most enduring symbol of Savannah. It is to this city what the Hollywood sign is to Los Angeles. You know where you are as soon as you see it. And losing it would hurt a lot. But it would only hurt the people here. Destroying that fountain doesn't even approach the same caliber of terrorism as crashing planes into the Twin Towers because neither Savannah itself nor anything in it has a national symbolic status. What made the September 11th attacks so painful for the entire country was that Manhattan and every feature of its skyline are American icons. It's a legacy that belongs to all of us. Then, of course, there was the loss of human life. An explosion in the middle of Forsyth Park would not lead to an especially impressive body count. I'm sure fast-moving cast-iron shrapnel would do serious damage to any unfortunate bystanders, but we're only talking about maybe a dozen people here. How could a group of men ambitious enough to jump start an anarchist revolution be distractible enough to set their aim so low? What sort of idiot aspires to be a small-town terrorist?

You'd think the existence of a monument in a mid-sized Southern town would be simple and straightforward: stand still, look pretty. But it's amazing how frequently, just in my lifetime, Savannah's statues and fountains have been the victims either of targeted vandalism or of destructive carelessness. Sometimes it's just people being cute, like when Friday night drunkards scale the John Wesley monument for the hilarious joy of leaving a beer cup in his open right hand. Yep, that's real funny, guys. It'll be even funnier when one of you falls one night and busts your head open. Then there are your I'm-gonna-write-my-name-on-it-with-a-marker-because-I'm-that-cool type of taggers. These are not real graffiti artists who unsheathe their spray cans to colorize the black and white nocturnal world. These are just morons who stagger through Ellis Square and think it's the height of comedy to scribble all over the bronze Johnny Mercer statue. Lucky for us the statue's sculptor, Susie Chisholm, anticipated that and made it easy to clean off. Make no mistake, I don't have much respect for the higher class of graffiti artists either. It's pretty presumptuous to think you have any right to leave your mark all over something that's meant to be shared with everyone or on the wall of a building that someone else has bought and paid for.

For the most part, though, basic stupidity and alcohol have wrought the greatest havoc on the Downtown scene. I've read of drivers fecklessly zooming into Franklin Square and Greene Square. I remember one, and maybe two, instances when inebriated motorists rammed into the armillary sphere that adorns the center of Troup Square. It's taken some serious damage and had to be rebuilt at least once. The mother of all local monument murders, though, has to be the total and complete annihilation of the winged lion fountain in front of the Savannah Cotton Exchange in August of 2008.

I remember getting that phone call: I was in Florida, visiting my grandma, when a friend of mine back home called to tell me about it. I was completely amazed and scoured the newspapers for all the details when I returned to Savannah. I had to go Downtown and take a look myself, of course. Sure enough, that lion was gone. It was a winged lion (not a griffin) that had been installed as a decorative fountain in front of the Cotton Exchange in 1889. Although it was originally nothing more than an expensive lawn ornament ordered from a catalog, by 2008 it had become a local treasure and there wasn't another like it to be found anywhere else in the country. All that was left when I got there were it's terracotta paws, as if the statue was still gripping its base in petrified terror upon seeing the headlights barreling toward it down Drayton Street at 70 miles per hour.

Oh yes, I forgot that detail. Was it terrorists or pyromaniacs or malevolent teenagers who blew up the lion and the antique fence around it? No. It was a drunk woman at 7 in the morning. She charged down Drayton Street, jumped the curb, crashed through the iron railing, demolished the lion, bounced off a lamp post, and slammed to a halt against the outer doors of the Cotton Exchange. She suffered only minimal injuries, though considering how incensed Savannahians were over the damage, she may have wished for death. So, to tally it all up, a beloved statue had been obliterated, a section of 19th century fencing was mangled, and a historic building had absorbed a full-frontal vehicular assault.

Thus we began the long road to recovery. The Cotton Exchange was able to replace the windows that had been broken by flying debris. They also had to replace their doors. The original outer pocket doors were red oak and weighed about 450 lbs. To the credit of their maker, those doors did their job and admirably withstood the impact of that woman's car- the inner doors were completely unharmed. The new doors are Spanish cedar and weigh 300 lbs. The damaged fencing was replaced thanks to a sharp-eyed local who realized the very same cast-iron pattern was at the back of the Philbrick-Eastman House and they could use that to make a replica. The lion, however, appeared to be a lost cause. It had been shattered to pieces, there was no other one like it from which they could cast a new mold, the original mold was long gone..... Then, Providence smiled upon our despondent city and bequeathed us Randy Nelson, restoration artist. This daring (or crazy) man pieced together what he could, used old photographs to recreate what he couldn't, magicked up a new mold, and cast us a fresh lion out of concrete. And so, when you come to Savannah and walk by the Cotton Exchange along Bay Street, remember this story and admire for a moment the pig-headed dedication of the people who would not let their beloved fountain go quietly into that good night.

Had the 3rd ID Idiot Brigade succeeded in their nefarious plot to obliterate our even more cherished fountain in Forsyth Park, I'm sure we would have reacted in much the same way: outrage followed by mulish determination to put everything right back where it belonged. And replacing that fountain would not be nearly as difficult as replacing the lion since there are ones just like it in Cuzco, Peru and in Poughkeepsie, NY. So, you know what? Explode whatever you like, morons! We are rednecks, we have duct tape, and we will fix it!