Glimpses into six centuries of life on the approximate site of the Concord Motor Speedway in Concord, NC
In 1566 the governor of Spanish Florida ordered Captain Juan Pardo to march west with 125 soldiers from Santa Elena (on present-day Parris Island) in search of a route to the silver mines of Mexico. The people who lived in the foothills of the great Appalachian Mountains could not know that their world was about to collide with a civilization and a people whose existence they had not imagined.
The sarjento shouts orders and steel rings on iron as soldiers gather their gear and weapons: pikes, crossbows, swords, helmets, breastplates and shields. Horses are saddled. They neigh in protest and whirl, their iron-shod hooves thudding in the sandy soil of Fort San Felipe. The priest shoves Bible, rosary and holy water into his traveling bag. The dogs of war, leaping and howling, are leashed.In a Siouan town some three hundred miles to the northwest, a young woman is sitting in her house making a cloak for her husband. The house is round and made of pine bark, sweet-scented. The woman is the color of the dressed deerskin she wears tied about her waist. Her black hair, shining in the firelight, is groomed with bear grease and tied at the nape of her neck with a leather string. Patiently, with small slender fingers, Winona stitches together the skins of the heads of mallards. Their emerald sheen will be magnificent against her husband’s sun-warm color.
Her baby wobbles about the room with the neck of a small gourd in his fist. The only sound in the room is the crackling of the fire and the rattling of beans in the baby’s toy.
Captain Pardo’s army proceeds by “Indian” trails up through present-day South Carolina and pushes, through winter sleet, into the Piedmont. Inexorable, relentless as time, this small contingent of the greatest empire on earth advances from town to town of the Creeks and the Cherokee, the Pee Dee, the Santee and the Waccamaw, stripping the towns of food, treasure and women. They take young men as slaves, porters to carry their supplies. The dogs are hunters, enforcers, executioners.
The houses in Winona’s town are opened to the soft breezes of spring. The men are hunting and fishing, the women planting their gardens with corn and melons and squashes. On the day of their annual celebration of spring, Winona tints with a little red powder the bear grease with which she grooms her hair. She dabs a little on her temples, and fastens pendants of fluffy white bird feathers in her ears. On the benches by the door she has set bowls of barbequed venison and bear, fried fish, little cakes of acorn meal and dried peaches, roasted nuts, hominy. Winona’s husband ducks into the house with their two-year-old slung over his shoulder. The child’s shrieks of delight are punctuated with grunts. The effect is so comical the baby’s parents laugh with him.
The unfamiliar clinking of metal on metal, the tremor of the earth beneath the hooves of animals unknown in this forest, flush the birds. They lift as one, their wings working furiously for altitude. Standing in a field of summer corn, Winona notices the sudden stillness and shielding her eyes from the sun, gazes into the far trees. She hears a clinking sound and glimpses a flash of light between the trees. Sunlight striking off a breastplate. A horse sighs heavily, shuddering his flanks, rattling his bridle and bit.
The clearing that Winona’s town once occupied is overgrown with pine and hardwood. The idol that had once stood in perpetual temple gloom, has returned to the red clay from which it was fashioned, toppling under the onslaught of mounted horsemen, its necklaces of shells and pearls softly jingling.
Within a year or two of their first encounter with Europeans, the people of Winona’s town were finished. Some had been killed by the Spanish. Winona’s husband had clasped his hand firmly around the wrist of a soldier who took Winona by the arm. The soldier hacked off the boy’s head with his sword. Those who were left after the Spanish moved on later died of smallpox. Thus began the dark ages of the Siouan culture, an age in which their tradition of kings, with its hierarchy of nobles, its well-ordered towns and commerce with other tribes vanished. The remnants of the people who remained were heartbroken and demoralized, struggling like animals merely to survive. They would retain only fragments of the memory of their former culture. These fragments, like many of the tribes themselves, eventually would be forgotten altogether.
Over the forgotten site of an old Siouan town, the trees have been cut down to stumps and the earth plowed for corn and flax, the plow turning up a few arrowheads, ancient corncobs, and the corroded bit of a Spanish horse. The field now lies under a light cover of frost sparkling in starlight. Deep within the shadows of the trees, a one-room log cabin glows like a solitary candle.
Inside the Alexander homestead, flames quietly lick a pine log, occasionally spitting a bit of flaming bark onto the hearth. The cabin door and wooden-hinged shutters are bolted against wolves, bears and Cherokees. Sarah Alexander is spinning linen threads from a distaff. Moses, a descendant of Sir William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, poet in the court of King James of Scotland and England, sits hunched before the fire in a homespun shirt of linsey-woolsey, worrying his clutched hands. He retains in his speech the tripling “r’s” and elongated vowels of his ancestors.
“Ah hafta goo.”
Sarah wets her fingertips with a smack, applies them to the thread spinning from the distaff.
Moses turns his head and looks at her. “You ken tha….”
Moses drops his shoulders and shakes his head dismally. “Wooman. I canna let oothers fight foorrr me. Ah’ve na luve for the auld enemy, the murtherin hinglish…ah despise theirrr taxes ‘nd bluudy lairds prooprietoors, bu’ ah despise the Frenchies with theirrr poops ‘n bishops ‘n sneakin’ ‘eathens moore. Herre, oout herre, ah feel a free mon an’ as a free mon ah mus fight to keep ma frreedoom.”
“And who will stand between oos and the ‘eathens,” Sarah nods toward the cradle by the fire, “with you goone?”
Moses gazes at his sleeping infant son, Nathaniel. “I’ll take ‘ee to Foort Dobbs. You’ll be safe there ‘til ah is settled.
“An if ye doon’t coom ba?”
“Ah’ll coome ba.”
Moses Alexander returned from the French and Indian War and lived to see his son Nathaniel attend Princeton College. Nathaniel graduated from Princeton the year that the colonies declared their independence from his father’s “auld enemy.” He served in the war as a surgeon, and in 1805 became governor of the new state of North Carolina.
And built a new house, on the site of his parents’ old homestead, near a raw little town named Concord in newly formed Cabarrus County.
Under the hot September sun, the cotton plant stands two feet high, each ripened boll bursting with its sun-warmed flower of cotton. The roots of the plant twine through the pitted silver buckle of an eighteenth century dancing slipper.
A breeze passes over the cotton plant, briefly rattling its leaves. Moments later the leaves tremble once again at the approach of booted feet. Large, black, calloused hands move swiftly over the plant, stripping it of its cotton. The boots scrape dirt, moving on to the next plant. Insects rasp in the heat.
At the end of the row, Abraham groans and straightens, pressing his hands to the small of his back. “Ooooo lawd.”
Abraham turns and waves at the small figure hopping and screaming on the dirt path along the field. He cannot look at his daughter without thinking, “my girl.”
Before the war she belong to the white man. Now she belong to her daddy. He a slave no more. He got a share now in the work of his own hands. That shack over there, with the smell of greens n’hog fat comin’ with the smoke from the chimney, that shack his now. He got the responsibility now for his own wife and chillren. He gonna work cotton ‘til he have enough money for the Scotia Seminary. His little girl gonna study to read ‘n write. Gonna know evrythin’ white folks know. Know as much as Mr. James Hamilton Smith who own all dese many acres. Ummhmm. Yeah.”
With one hand still pressed to the small of his back, Abraham starts toward his little girl, stumbling a little over the crusted furrows of dirt.
Cotton bolls are sharp. Abraham leaves smears of his blood on the leaves.
The brass accompaniment to Nancy Sinatra’s wavering, “These boots are made for walking…” blasts from Peggy’s pink plastic radio. The horns are faintly audible in the den where the news on television features black and white footage of a race riot, combat in Vietnam, an unmanned exploratory U.S. spacecraft on the moon, and women burning their bras. The land where the farmhouse stands used to be a cotton field.
Peggy’s mother marches through the voice stream of Nancy Sinatra to her daughter’s bedroom. Peggy, her peroxided hair on jumbo rollers, is seated before her dressing table mirror working a piece of bubble gum with her tongue. Gently, she blows a bubble the size of her face.
“Peggy, if that history report isn’t finished tonight, you are not going out this weekend. Do you hear me?”
The bubble slowly deflates across Peggy’s nose and cheeks. Her mother strides back down the hallway to the kitchen.
Picking the gum off her face, Peggy makes a face at her mother in the mirror. She has had a history report due for two weeks. Her assigned theme is “North Carolina in the French and Indian War.” Yuck. Who cares? Peggy studiously pulls the tatters of bubble gum off her upper lip. I hate that stuff, she whispers, frowning into the mirror. Suddenly she gets up and slams her bedroom door, shouting through it at her mother. “I hate that stuff, Mom. It’s boring. It’s stupid. Who cares about dumb ole Indians,” she screams and whirls, sitting down hard on her dressing table chair. After a moment she reaches up and begins to jerk the rollers from her hair, her big curls bouncing. Viciously she turns up the volume on “Surfer Safari,” whispering the lyrics and twisting to the drums.
One point seven million dollars worth of lights flood the speedway, a 1.5 mile oval track that had once been farmland. The mirrored lights dazzle the brilliantly colored cars at the start line where pit crews are swarming in bright suits. They illuminate like sunshine the tens of thousands of people massed in the grandstands and sheet the glass front of The Speedway Club in the seven-story glass and steel Smith Tower. Inside the dark lounge, young IBM executives, men and women of Anglo, African, Latin and Asian descent, drink beer from bottles or sip martinis, absorbed in the television monitors overhead, in cell phone conversations, in munching chips and salsa. The noise in the room begins to diminish a bit as the pit crews leave the cars. The crowds in the grandstands outside grow quiet.
In the silence, as in a momentary suspension of time, Winona turns in a field of summer corn. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she gazes toward the far trees.
“Gentlemen, start your engines.”
The rumbling thunder of forty-three cars, each gunning engine producing more than 750 horsepower, becomes a roar that drowns out the cries of more than one hundred thousand people.
Deep beneath the earth, shell beads, bones, tremble.