By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
Thousands of cars pass Follow That Dream Parkway on U.S. Highway 19 in Yankeetown every day. Few of the people in those cars probably notice it. And of the few that do, a good number of them likely think it is somehow Disney-related. It sounds Disney-related. At best, the road warrants a moment’s thought as people pass through on their way to Tampa, Gainesville or Tallahassee.
The collective mind of any generation tends to be a narcissist. As a society we feel secure in our place in history. We invented the computer, the Internet, and championed civil rights a century after the nation descended into a bloody hell over human property rights. We have made our mark, surely we will not be forgotten.
Perhaps that is what the generation that invented the wheel thought. The truth is, we don’t remember them at all. We take their triumph for granted, and we know nothing of those who so dramatically changed the world.
In 1961, Hollywood came to Yankeetown. State Road 40, also known as Follow That Dream Parkway, ends with a stunning vista of the Gulf of Mexico. Like much of the natural gulf coast, it was also a place filled with scrub and underbrush. A film crew changed all of that, bringing in sand and palm trees to build a tropical paradise for a movie.
Elvis Presley was just 26-years-old when he went to Yankeetown to film Follow That Dream. He was already well outside the orbit of just any star of the day. To say that he made a splash in the little towns along the coast of Florida would be an understatement. The locals scratching out their humble livings mingled with the stars as they traveled by limousine. Things were different then, there was no grumbling or resentment; nor were there guards to keep the locals at bay. Dozens of photos exist of the iconic young man posing with local residents, smiling and connecting with the unwashed masses. Stories have been told and re-told of locals meeting and joking around with Presley. Several were even paid to appear in the film, fishing, something they normally did for recreation, from a bridge on State Road 40 alongside Presley.
Crowned by paupers, Elvis was the King. In Yankeetown and Crystal River, he was royalty within reach. He graciously went out of his way to leave them with that impression, at least. Elvis contributed greatly to those people at that time. He gave them something to smile and dream about.
Nearly half a century later, the bridge is still there but nothing marks the spot where Elvis sat with a bamboo fishing pole. Except for a fading sign six miles up the road, there is nothing there at all that says, “Elvis was here.” The tropical paradise created for the film has largely returned to what it was before the King arrived and the locals still fish from the bridge, although today they do so in the shadow of cooling towers from a nuclear power plant.
History remembers only a very select few people. Despite our belief that we are somehow different and that our time has been the greatest of all, time is relentlessly turning the pages. Someday that bridge will be torn down by people who have no idea who Elvis Presley was.
But go there today, close your eyes and maybe you can see it, or perhaps, feel it: Elvis, the film crew, and even the locals were on top of the world in 1961. With your eyes closed, you may be able to hear their laughter and feel the majesty they felt. In your mind’s eye you may even catch a glimpse of what it looked like being at the top of the world, thinking that it would last forever.
A short distance north, another sort of history played out in Rosewood. There is no majesty and laughter lingering in the air from the events that took place in early January, 1923. Through the course of six days, five innocent people, including two women, were murdered by a mob over an accusation. By the end of the first week of that year, at least seven people were dead; and Rosewood, a predominately black community supporting a school, churches and businesses, had effectively been wiped off the face of the earth.
If there are ghosts in Rosewood today, I don’t think they are angry. They could be confused, perhaps, about how the same species that can build the Louvre, or devote themselves to art, or teaching other people’s children could turn into a bloodthirsty mob bent on murder. I don’t think they know the answer to that. Hopefully God knows. Certainly someone should.
In 1994, Governor Lawton Chiles signed a bill to provide $2.1 million in compensation to the Rosewood massacre survivors for the loss of their property. In 2004, Governor Jeb Bush dedicated a permanent historical marker along State Road 24 in Rosewood, creating a bookmark in the turning pages of history.
The most profound contributions to human history are forgotten and taken for granted. Ask a young person about Jonas Salk and you’ll likely get a blank stare in return. Polio has been forgotten (in this country, anyway) and that it no longer exists allows us to take Salk’s incredible contribution to humanity for granted. But then ask that same young person about Hitler and you’ll likely see a different response.
Rosewood is a permanent marker for something we’ve deemed should not be forgotten. Elvis, on the other hand, is a fading road sign. That is how it should be. Almost everyone in the whole of human history has been forgotten; but that doesn’t mean they didn’t contribute. Rather, it means they did — and so much so, they helped to build a world in which we no longer even need to remember them.
We can only hope that someday we, too, shall be forgotten by history. If we live right, we will benefit our children to such a degree they will take our contributions for granted. Our best and most selfless hope is be remembered in the form of accomplishment so powerful and universal that it can be taken for granted, just like those who invented the wheel. At best we should warrant a fading road sign and not a permanent marker.
This is our time. Enjoy it, enjoy your time. Perhaps even savor some of the time of those who came before us, such as imagining a young Elvis fishing from a forgotten bridge. But then walk away because today is all we really have.
Contributing, rather than scarring, hopefully someday our spirits, wherever they may be, will take pride in being taken for granted and forgotten. For the first generation with the capability to destroy all life, simply fading into history would be an unparalleled triumph. Because if we have been forgotten, that means we actually managed to not exterminate the planet despite our ability to do so.
The majesty of our ideals is a shiny new road sign for our generation. Yet the pages of history keep turning and the sign will fade until one day, like us, it will be gone. By simply following our dreams, our children will be free to follow their dreams, thus serving as both our legacy and our redemption. If we achieve that, we did good. We did really good.