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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Prosperity in the South

By the time that you read this, I’ll be home from a trip of some 2500 miles to, from, and within Arkansas, our home state. Hubby and I are thoroughly sick of air travel these days, and we always drive when we can. We enjoy that, especially checking out the state of the South and its economy. We can tell you, it’s good. People are prospering to an extent that never would have been predicted when I was young. Whether or not that shows in tomorrow’s election, I can’t foretell -- but I see no reason whatever for unhappiness with the current administration. Things are going well, and I trust that Arkansas will reelect Democratic Senator Mark Pryor. James Lee Witt, whom you may remember from his very successful days as head of FEMA during the Clinton administration, is running for the US House, and I expect him to win and to be an outstanding member of Congress.

But there are broader changes, in the “In Context” sense, throughout the South. We have lived on the cosmopolitan East Coast since 1965, in Boston, Washington, and then Tampa. We’ve gone back home at least 40 times, and I well remember trips through the South when poverty prevailed – along with hypocrisy. When we began these treks, most counties were “dry,” and nowhere in the entire state of Mississippi could one buy a legal drink of alcohol. In South Carolina, “cold beverages” was the code on a storefront that sold beer. Now one can get it even in convenience stores in most towns. My own county remains legally dry, but at least a dozen restaurants now serve wine, and they even have dropped the longtime pretense of paying fifty cents to join a “private club,” which permitted alcohol sales. And Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana – the former “Bible Belt” -- now feature casinos, too.


Yet there remains much evidence of the Bible Belt in terms of churches, and that inspired this thought that I’d never thought about before: Much more than Catholics, Protestants name their churches for places in the Bible. I don’t know why, but if you see a church named Calgary or Mount Moriah or Jerusalem or Damascus or any other place name, the chances are that it is Protestant, even fundamentalist Protestant. St. John’s, St. Mary’s, St. Paul’s – those are going to be Catholic or perhaps Lutheran or Episcopal. Sacred Heart definitely is Catholic. And I think there are many fewer “Firsts” and certainly “Seconds” then there were in my youth, when every town had a “First Presbyterian” or “First Methodist” and sometimes a “Second Baptist.” I guess no one is counting anymore. But I would like more speculation on the place name thing if anyone has any ideas.

So speaking of names, it seems to be a given now that Southerners understand the initials “WMA” on highway signs. In case that is news to you, it stands for “Wildlife Management Area,” and all of the Deep South states clearly are taking advantage of the federal government’s concern for land management and wildlife preservation. It could be – probably is – that the chief reason for preserving wildlife is so that hunters can kill ‘em, but the WMAs nonetheless are not only frequent but also pristine. Arkansas has an extensive program through the US Department of Interior of what is called “cooperative farming,” wherein farmers are subsidized for leaving a portion of their grain in the field for birds and four-footed wildlife. No one complains about wasteful government spending, and convenience stores put up signs that they will open at 5 AM during deer season. Along I-20 in Mississippi, there are signs to be watchful of bears. I never would have expected that a couple of decades ago, when almost everyone wanted to pave over almost everything.

And speaking of paving, I wonder how many people today understand that the interstate highway system was justified on the basis of national defense. Just today I said to Hubby that probably no president other than Dwight Eisenhower could have achieved this goal of a network of limited access highways. When he was elected president in 1952, only a decade had passed since 1942, when he commanded American troops in North Africa. He went on to continental Europe, where he led literally millions of men with trucks and tanks and jeeps on roads that had been designed for horses. Ike understood the importance of transportation – not only for successful warfare, but also for a prosperous economy. The millions of vehicles that traverse our interstate highways every day probably would not have been able to do that except for this exceptional Republican president, who understood that federal spending almost always is, in fact, worthwhile investment that will pay huge dividends over time.


But we still need more bridges over the Mississippi. Back in the 1990s, when I went home for my mother’s 90th birthday, a young great-niece accompanied me as far as Georgia – and I never shall forget our bathroom plight when we were held up by a five-hour traffic jam. It occurred at the intersection of I-40 and I-55 near Memphis, near the only bridge that crosses the Father of Waters between Dyersburg, Tennessee and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Although it would have meant a 200-mile detour, I wished that I had turned south as the traffic stood still for hours – but by then, of course, the option no longer was available.

While reminiscing on that today, I counted up the bridges over the Hillsborough River. I believe there are about a dozen. In contrast, from the junction of the Ohio and the Mississippi, when the Big Muddy becomes really big, there are just seven trustworthy bridges. That’s more than a thousand meandering miles with seven bridges, while the infinitely smaller Hillsborough River that runs through just one county has more. The Mississippi’s dearth is partly because the river is big, but it isn’t that much bigger than our river. Instead, the Mississippi’s infrastructure shortage is at least in part because every state bordering it has a differing state on the other side, and so it becomes a federal problem. Think about that.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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