Saturday, July 21, 2007

Hunting Civil War Relics - The Background

The only brother James Dickey ever knew was Tom, who was two years younger. There had been another brother, Gene, who died as a child before Jim and Tom were conceived, and whose memory haunted them both. A picture of Gene, a beautiful blond child in a sailor suit, always hung in their mother's bedroom.

Jim and Tom competed hard against each other during their adolescence, especially on the playing fields of Atlanta. But then Jim went to war, and Tom, a much more talented athlete, became a nationally ranked runner. My father wrote at least one bitterly jealous letter home from the Pacific about the success Tom was having on the track.

As adults, I think the two men mystified each other. Both had beautiful wives, both had two kids, and they both lived comfortably in the Atlanta suburbs during the late 1950s and early 1960s. But Jim, the advertising man and poet, was obsessive and ambitious for his art, while Tom devoted himself to the relatively undemanding world of real estate, and to his one great passion: The Civil War.

Whenever Tom could, he'd take an old World War II surplus mine detector out onto the old battlefields to find such bits of ordnance as he could. And there was a lot. Eventually the walls of his rec room were lined with neatly catalogued artillery shells and other treasures dug up from yards in Atlanta, swamps in South Carolina, even pulled from the bottom of Louisiana bayous. The concrete floor of his basement looked like an ammo dump. Eventually he wrote an authoritative illustrated treatise about the ordnance which is on the shelves of many military academies and specialty libraries. Tom died in 1987, but much of his collection is now on display at The Atlanta History Center.

In the early 1960s, Jim wrote a poem about Tom's relic hunting that is also, ultimately, about their search for a common history. It begins:

As he moves the mine detector
A few inches over the ground,
Making it vitally float
Among the ferns and weeds,
I come into this war
Slowly, with my one brother,
Watching his face grow deep
Between the earphones,
For I can tell
If we enter the buried battle
Of Nimblewill
Only by his expression ...

Years later, in 1974, I decided to make a film about Tom. Of course, when I was a little boy in Atlanta, memories of the Civil War had been all around us. The centenary came and went. So did a second "premiere" of the movie "Gone With The Wind," which my parents attended in costume. Then, when my father was at the Library of Congress in the mid-1960s, I spent hours taking advantage of my special access as his son to pore over photographs of the Civil War battlefields. Many of them showed carnage that had been airbrushed away in popular history, and it added to my sense of shock and discovery that most were printed as "stereo" cards that could be viewed in sepia-toned 3D.

In film school I had seen the historical documentary "Nuit et brouillard" (Night and Fog) by Alain Resnais, which juxtaposed oddly bucolic scenes of the destroyed Nazi death camps as they looked in 1955 with the horrors that had existed in them a decade before. My idea with the film about Tom was to use a similar technique, with the still photographs of the Civil War dead that I had found in the Library of Congress played against scenes of Tom searching forgotten battlefields and vacant lots in the Sun Belt South.

The film was supposed to be about history and memory, and there's something of that, to be sure. But really it's about Tom: his great charm, his wonderful humor and his strange, and in some ways wildly dangerous obsession with the past.

-- C.D., Paris, July 2007