The Memorable Memorial
Toward a more user-friendly medium for conveying history
by Jack Neely
So thanks to the efforts of some legislators, the South Knoxville Bridge is now the â“James C. Ford Memorial Bridge.â”
Leave aside whether Memorial is exactly the word weâ’re looking for. Most of us wonâ’t literally remember James C. Ford when we cross that bridge; he died 84 years ago. Some historians I know had never previously heard of the guy, though he may be perfectly worthy of honoring. He was once, we hear, a postmaster, a city attorney, and county superintendent of education, by all regards a solid citizen. The reason his name is materializing here is that, several decades before they built the bridge, he owned some of the land on which it sits.
Is anyone, ever, going to call it the â“James C. Ford Memorial Bridge?â” Moreover, is anyone, having seen the name, more likely to learn about James C. Ford?
Consider another high-profile bridge-renaming effort a while back. A major downtown bridge was renamed for one of the most dynamic political and industrial figures in 20th-century Knoxville, a former mayor, city manager, and inventor of the Dempster Dumpster, which changed the world. The guy actually had a lot to do with the construction of this particular bridge, and it was renamed with some pomp and circumstance, well-covered by the press. Today we know the George Dempster Memorial Bridge as the Henley Street Bridge.
Also consider one J.E. â“Buckâ” Karnes. You know his name. You might assume he was a lumberjack or a rustler. The guy did have an interesting life, as a hero of World War I in the Alvin York mold, and then, for a while, as a Knoxville cop before he moved to California. But the main thing most people who cross the Alcoa Highway bridge will ever know about J.E. Karnes is that his nickname was â“Buck.â”
What useful information is it even possible to learn about James C. Ford, or George Dempster, or Buck Karnes, by crossing bridges named for themâ"especially when youâ’re wedged in 50 m.p.h. traffic? Driving across bridges away from home, I have to ask a passenger, â“What river was that?â” Iâ’m curious about rivers I cross, but I habitually neglect to check the sign thatâ’s there to tell me what river it was. My priority is keeping my car out of it.
Some plaques offer more that just a name. Like the big, wordy state historical plaques you see on major thoroughfares. They do have interesting information on them, usually a miniature biography or the strategy of a Civil War battle. Maybe there was a time when those signs actually got read, and some dad, grateful for a break on a long, hot drive, pulled the station wagon over and read a plaque to the kids. Maybe theyâ’d even stop and have a picnic and discuss Longstreetâ’s advance into Knoxville.
Even the most curious among us may find weâ’re less interested in historical lore when weâ’re driving in traffic, and some dorkâ’s cutting us off, and some other jerkâ’s tailgating us behind, and thereâ’s a cop right over there who appears to be watching closely.
Here in the 21st century, people still feel a sacred responsibility to put up these signs. Few feel any responsibility to read them. New ones go up every year, as if we still go motoring with the family on a Sunday afternoon, at speeds conducive to an impromptu history lesson.
Itâ’s not that people donâ’t care anymore. Even in this era of iPods and cell phones, we still crave distraction. In recent years, vacant or underused buildings downtown have sometimes posted historical anecdotes in the street-level windows. People stop to read those. People walk around waiting for a movie, or waiting for an appointment, or just killing the rest of a lunch hour. When thereâ’s nobody behind them honking, people tend to look for interesting stuff to read. Itâ’s the reason we distribute Metro Pulse on sidewalks and in restaurant lobbies, and not on highway bridges.
When they installed the otherwise lovely womanâ’s suffrage statue on Market Square, I criticized the sheer volume of prosaic information on the plaques below it, which look like a semesterâ’s worth of notes jotted by an earnest freshman. But judging by the people who stop and stare at it, Iâ’d be willing to bet that every one of those words gets read dozens of times every day. People do read when theyâ’re afoot.
If you really want your ancestor to be remembered, write up an engaging few biographical paragraphs about him or her, find a photo maybe, and have it all printed up and post it on a plywood wall on a vacant storefront. Put narrative placards in KAT buses; some cities do that. Or make them into little cardboard triangles and put them on cafe tables. James C. Fordâ’s life of civic accomplishment could prevent awkward pauses on a first date, or get a kid to reconsider his pro-basketball career path, or maybe just get Grandpa talking. Put some more information on all the otherwise puzzling mayoral portraits hanging all over the City County Building.
Put brochures in doctorsâ’ offices; Iâ’m so bored in those circumstances that I resort to Glamour or Golf. Iâ’d be grateful for a short biography of James C. Ford.
Or put inspiring stories about great Knoxvillians above urinals, or on the backs of bathroom-stall doors. People would learn much more about our history that way than they would from a dozen memorial bridges. Or hang true historical stories, perhaps including some with cautionary value, in traffic court, for the appreciation of the ticketed populace who sit for hours in mandatory silence, waiting for their cases to come up.
History, well told, can give our lives some context.
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