Flagg Day in Alabama

Wednesday, November 06, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

On the Road Again, Day 1:  Chatom, AL to Columbus, MS

For various reasons, 2013 has not offered us as many chances for extended travel as the last few years, so we were excited when we discovered a window of opportunity for a longer road trip this month.  Inspired by the unique scenic beauty of the Western U.S. last year, we have been eager to head back west to check out some of the places we were unable to visit earlier.

But before we hit the road toward the Pacific, we had one stop to make.  A couple of months back, my mother announced that Alabama's own Fannie Flagg—humorist, actress, and best-selling author—would be touring the state to promote her new book in November.  And one of her stops would be in Chatom, a mere 20 minutes from Mother's home.  Before you could say 'fried green tomatoes,' Mother and I had ordered tickets for the luncheon and book-signing to benefit the local public library.  And since it was to be a girls only event, we had to entice Jeanne to come with us.

Our moment at the book-signing table with the ever-smiling Ms. Flagg
Finally, the day—and Ms. Flagg—arrived.  Though we vaguely remember her regular 1970s appearances on such television staples as Candid Camera and The Match Game, Ms. Flagg came front and center on our radar screen when she turned to writing and set her stories in Alabama.  Having read her break-out 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, we found the movie adaptation four years later just as satisfying, probably because the screenplay was penned by Ms. Flagg herself.  We have both enjoyed her subsequent novels, particularly the audio versions which are usually read in a lively manner by the author.

With a high opinion of this Birmingham native, our great expectations for today's event did not go unfulfilled.  As her novels had already proved, Fannie Flagg is a gifted storyteller.  She brings this talent to her speaking engagements with great enthusiasm and sincerity.  Without doubt she has frequently told the story of why she changed the name her parents gave her, Patricia Neal, to Fannie Flagg (to obtain a Screen Actors Guild card), but today's audience felt she was sharing it for the first time with us.  And she wisely realized that this room full of dyed-in-the-wool Flagg fans (who else would attend at $100 a ticket) would love to hear how she found inspiration for the stories she tells so well in her books.

Set in World War II, The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion relates the seldom-told story of an elite team of 1,000 Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), America's first female military flyers.  Ms. Flagg became aware of this pioneering group through a chance conversation with her restaurant owner friend at the moment the cafe was hosting a reunion of Alabama WASP veterans.  Hearing that Ms. Flagg was impressed with their service, the vets asked the author to tell their story.  As in most of her other books, events in the novel take place mostly in Alabama.  However, the book's characters also visit some other spots for which the author holds a special fondness—like her adopted state of California and the nation of Poland, where she has a surprisingly large audience of fans.

Local organizers of the event transported us all back to the era of the book's setting, and no detail was too small for their attention.  Old automobiles, gas pumps and other period gas station trappings were set up at the entrance.  Greeters were attired in 1940s garb, and even the luncheon's menu (served in individual lunch pails) was geared to the war years.  Soft drinks (only the old brands) were served in glass bottles with a metal cap.  Each pail was decorated with a red polka-dotted scarf of the type seen in the iconic We Can Do It! poster (often called Rosie the Riveter) representing the American women who worked in factories during World War II, many of them producing war equipment and supplies.

Displays of memorabilia from the war era were exhibited around the room, and centerpieces featured vegetable plants meant to symbolize the ubiquitous victory gardens grown by so many Americans to support the war effort at home.  To make guests' time travel complete, backgrounds were set up to facilitate photo ops recreating the Rosie poster and the famous Uncle Sam recruiting poster.

Rosie and Jeanne, both ready for whatever comes
Like Fannie Flagg's books, the luncheon and book signing projected a cozy, feel-good atmosphere.  Though the author looked tired at times, she continued to flash her winning smile and greet her fans enthusiastically before all went home clutching their copies of the new book.  Most will probably finish reading it before the week is out.

After the event, we left headed northwest on US-45 through Mississippi.  As the sun set just before 5 p.m. and rain began to fall, we decided to call it a day and spend the night in Columbus.  Tomorrow, we plan to make a stop in Little Rock to visit the Arkansas State Capitol before locking our position in the westbound lane.