The birth of a grandchild brings a groundswell of emotions and reactions. Including reflection on one’s own past. Therefore, it’s only natural that as I hold Bennett Malone Burnette and wonder what the future holds for her, I also reflect on my past and the experiences that shaped my life
We were both born at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. However, she was born into a world that is much smaller than the one I entered 64 years ago. My formative years were influenced by the reflections of close relatives, The Albany Herald and a black and white TV that picked up three channels, all located within a 90-mile radius of Albany. For insight into the world at large, the family subscribed to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Bennett’s formative years will be shaped by internet contact with friends and relatives scattered across the country and around the world. Current and future technology allows her to see in real time events happening anywhere in the world if not the universe as we currently know it.
It won’t be long before I begin to regale Bennett with the joys of my misspent youth and the inevitable comparisons to her experiences. I once read that for whatever reason, those born in the South consider themselves first as citizens of the place of their birth and only upon further questioning will they broaden that identity to that of a state or the nation. I have proudly lived most of my life as an Albanian. Over the past few years, I have discovered this identifier has required more and more explanation when meeting others for the first time. Therefore, with Bennett’s birth, I have concluded that I very well may be the last Albanian.
Bennett is not likely to be as impressed as I was with the fact that Albany has two of the “10 natural wonders of Georgia” — Radium Springs and the Sand Dunes. Other iconic natural wonders like the Lincoln Oak and the Friendship Oak are long gone, victims of our progress. Living in the “quail capital” of the world will probably elicit no more pride than being from the pecan capital of the world.
She will likely be unimpressed that relatives were cast in “The Biscuit Eater” and “Goodbye, My Lady,” both filmed in and around Albany. Her great-grandmother was crowned the Cotton Queen in the Casino at Radium Springs. Her great-great-grandfather toured with the Albany Blues. He met his bride at a dance at Cordray’s Mill. The fact that an Olympic Gold medalist and a famous musician were born here will probably hold little awe.
I will more than likely bore her even more with local trivia regarding a city laid out and founded by Connecticut Yankees who fought for the Confederacy and were almost hanged for treason. That we were the second city in the region to get electricity after Newton. The pride of having the best fire department in the nation. The importance of having an “unlimited” supply of radiated water. That of the 13 Albanys in the country named after a New York city located on a river, one in Texas was named after our hometown.
Will she believe me when I tell her that we were once a wilderness on the western frontier of our young nation where a half-bred Scotsman built an empire trading with the Creek villagers? Will she believe me when I tell her of the Indian depredations and resulting battles that took place here with the same tenacity as the Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee?
Will she have any comprehension of what a Yankee is and why for a period we hated them passionately but loved their money when used to purchase local plantations in pursuit of Bobwhite quail? How do I explain a city that did not want an interstate and did not utilize one of the largest runways in the country for potential growth? When she looks around, can she even comprehend that at one time we were one of the fastest growing cities in the nation?
When she watches “Gone with the Wind,” will she care that the trains leaving a burning Atlanta brought hundreds of refugees to our region? How do I explain the events that led to churches serving as hospitals and thousands of Union troops being imprisoned in unbearable conditions in the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy?” How do I provide a balanced explanation of the events leading up to the largest slave auction in our nation’s history taking place on the Dougherty County Courthouse steps? Will she appreciate the irony that it took place because a slave owner died defending a slave?
How do I explain why Albany was a police state first under President Lincoln and a hundred years later under Police Chief Laurie Pritchett? How do I explain how a city that has always been comprised of an African American majority bragged about being the city that “defeated” Martin Luther King? Will I be honest enough to acknowledge “the good ole days” weren’t that good for some Albanians? Will she appreciate the irony of a handful of whites burning African- American churches because some African Americans had the audacity to assemble and pray on the courthouse steps? When will she be old enough to understand the fear of the “Cold War” and how Albany was the tip of the spear during the Cuban Missile Crisis? When I tell her a president visited Albany and following his death a petition was circulated to remove his name from a street because he was Catholic, will she understand the progress we have made?
Will she be amused that Isabella was once a recreational community for wealthy Albanians? Will she care that Hernando Desoto passed through in his quest for gold? Will tales of ponds disappearing overnight taking the ducks along make her wonder about the labyrinth of caves below her feet? Will the fossils of mammoth, mastodon and camel mixed with the remains of whales and Megalodon show her that the earth’s climate has been in continual change?
I do know she will never know the delights of eating a Baby Bear or drinking local milk delivered fresh to the door by one of the local dairies. Nor will she wake up in a town cloaked with the sweet scent of peppermint or the smell of raw alcohol, depending on which way the wind blew. She will never know the exhilaration of jumping into 62-degree water or sliding down a mountain of sand on a piece of cardboard. She won’t chase the skeeter truck or make a wager on who’s Coke was bottled the greatest distance from Albany.
Regardless of how she identifies with Albany, I can only hope that her childhood is as carefree and happy as mine and that she will always be proud to have been born here. The future and that possibility are hers. I look forward to sharing some of the history and trivia that binds me to this patch of dirt with her and you in the future.