secret_history (2006-11)

Signs & Portents

by Jack Neely

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column inspired by the Keep Asheville Weird movement. Inspired originally by the Keep Austin Weird initiative, which has in turn inspired like-minded movements Keep Louisville Weird, Keep Boulder Weird, etc., the movement’s stated purpose is to encourage citizens to patronize locally owned businesses, especially those that aren’t carbon copies of businesses in other cities.

It’s not just a cute fad. The idea behind it is that residents of each city should appreciate and respect what makes their city different from other cities, not what makes it resemble other cities, and to spend their consumer dollars accordingly. Support what makes the city different; don’t support what makes it bland.

I knew there were those who believed Knoxville was every bit as weird as any of those cities. And I didn’t know, but should have guessed, that yes, of course there’s already a Keep Knoxville Weird movement.

A couple of readers wrote me about it. So far, they’re just putting together a website, keepknoxvilleweird.com. At the moment, there’s just a placeholder, a silhouette of the Knoxville skyline with the Sunsphere, certainly our weirdest piece of architecture, prominent.

Knoxville’s plenty weird for that admirable philosophy to work here. There is, for example, nothing much like Yee-Haw Industries or the WDVX Blue Plate Special or the Time Warp Tea Room anywhere in the world.  But that Keep...Weird slogan has been used in at least half a dozen other American cities, and is beginning to sound a little hackneyed. I hope we can come up with something just a little weirder.

Knoxville has a good many problems with signage. Take the old Market House bell. It materialized on Market Square about two years ago. It looks good on its concrete pedestal. I’m glad they got it fixed up. For various Square events, it works as a family meeting spot. But it’s missing something.

It draws nearly every curious first-time visitor to the Square. People wander over to it like people on a beach wander over to a shipwreck. Over the holidays, I saw one ice-skating family after another stop and look it over curiously. I’ve heard parents read it to their children, as if it were some ancient wisdom: “McShane Bell Foundry,” they read aloud. “Henry McShane & Co., Baltimore, MD, 1883.”

That is all the knowledge the bell has to impart. For all these visitors know, it’s just some antique we found in a junk store and thought it looked pretty. There’s a fad among new-urbanist developers to do stuff like that, plop quaint artifacts into a public space just for perspective.

This bell’s a lot more than that, of course. During the bell’s actual ringing days, around the turn of the century, it hung in the old Market Hall on the north end of the square. In days long before radio and television, the bell rang whenever there was an emergency, like a fire or a riot or a notable escape, of which there were several. By the mid-1930s, the 2,600-pound bell in its lofty rotting belfry was deemed a safety hazard, and removed. For the next half-century, it got around a lot for anything that heavy, sojourning at the Burlington Fire Station and later at the Kingswood School in Grainger County. Just before it would have been forgotten altogether, the city tracked it down and returned to Market Square in the late ’70s. It has moved around some on the Square, on the ground at the north end of the square and up in the air in the faux belfry in the market shed in 1986.

You can overdo a plaque, and it doesn’t need much. Just something small, a little brass plaque on the pedestal, a story to tell the kids.

There’s another different sort of signage issue with the new East Tennessee Veterans Memorial. Designed like a graveyard of large marble slabs, it’s to be constructed on the northeast corner of World’s Fair Park over the next year and a half.

Its prospective site has wandered around downtown for a few years, but the World’s Fair Park, near the old L&N, is probably as good a place as any for a monument to honor our war dead. After all, especially during the world wars, the last place many parents saw their sons alive was at a train station. And years ago I heard that this valley was a place where recruits were trained for the War of 1812.

Anyway, the memorial will be called the East Tennessee Veterans Memorial, and some of the literature I’ve read indicates that it will honor “5,400 fallen veterans.” 

So far, that doesn’t seem to bother anybody, and maybe I’m just a semantic troublemaker for bringing this up. But how many of those honored were ever actual veterans?

I’m not questioning anyone’s service record. But according to my Webster’s, a veteran is either a.) an old soldier of long service b.) a former member of the armed forces.

I don’t know, but I bet the overwhelming majority of those 5,400 were very young guys who were actively enlisted in the armed forces. Many of them perhaps hoped to be veterans someday, but never had the opportunity.

Veterans often do serve in wars. But it’s generally the young guys who are carrying the guns on the front lines, the ones hunting for insurgents house to house, the ones most likely to die: not veterans, but soldiers.

I did some combing through old speeches since the Gettysburg Address, and it looks to me as if the practice of referring to war dead as “veterans” is a fairly recent phenomenon. For generations, the word veteran referred mainly to someone who survived a war. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, probably the best-known war monument known as a “veterans memorial” in the world, may be popularizing a shift in definition.

However, even today speechwriters tend to be careful about the distinction. In a speech on Memorial Day, 2004, President Bush referred to “the memory of the ones who did not live to be called veterans.”

Take the mutterings of a literalist it for what they’re worth. But I wanted to bring that up before anything’s carved in stone.