Jeanie Parnell’s tourism short story “Tunnel Vision” won the 2018 SELTI Writing Contest, which focused on Montgomery, Alabama. This Southern city has a rich, dramatic history that helped shaped our national character in very powerful ways. Please visit the short tourism guide at the end of this story to learn how to visit the real locations within the tale. Jeanie’s first place win earned her a $500 prize from the Alabama Tourism Department and the 2018 SELTI Tourism Fiction Award, to be presented soon in Montgomery.
By Jeanie Parnell
The children bounce out of the family’s new 1954 Oldsmobile, eager to explore the riverfront. Charles leads the way,finding a tunnel entrance I haven’t seen in years. “Stay together!” I call after them, and my voice echoes in the arched chamber. I came here once as a small child to watch my father work, loading and unloading cotton from the riverboats. I sit on a bench, grateful for a moment of respite. I hear a train overhead, and I decide to close my eyes until the clatter ends. I lean back against the tiles, allowing the breeze to whisper against my neck and rustle my apron. I am tired, and the summer heat in Montgomery, Alabama is oppressive. Momentarily, I embrace the shade, the solitude, the stillness.
Before long, I feel a tug on my hand, and I open my eyes to Emmy, the youngest. Her blonde curls ring her face like a halo, but her blue eyes sparkle with mischief. She grins, delighted she has caught me taking a break.
“You were sleeping, Mary.”
“Just resting,” I say. Emmy’s little hand tugs on mine again.
“You have to come see something!”
I smile, unable to resist her enthusiasm. “What is it?”
“I don’t know,” she says, her little face lit with wonder. “I’ve never seen this before.”
We’ve been to the river a dozen times in the last month, and the children always find little curiosities and treasures. “Did you find a baby turtle?” I ask.
“No, Mary, nothing like that. Wait ‘til you see! Everything is different!” Emmy tugs me along as quickly as her four-year-old stride will allow.
“Ladies don’t run, Emmy,” I remind her gently. She shoots me a frown of disdain, and I swallow my laugh. Emmy is not meant for the reserved, proper life her family leads. She is a free spirit, full of spunk and gumption.
Outside the tunnel, I squint in the bright sunlight, and Emmy grins in triumph. I look around, confused; my surroundings are unfamiliar. This is not the riverfront we know. Uncertain, I rest a comforting hand on Emmy’s shoulder, but she is unburdened in her innocence and excitement. Emmy runs to Elizabeth, who is dancing across a stage. Matthew and Charles are viewing panels in an exhibit that apparently predicts the future; the date says it was erected in 2014.
Our surroundings are wrong, changed.The sun is too bright, the air too filled with static. How can the bend in the river move, even slightly, in only a week? How can there be new structures? I walk to the children, mindful that we are the only people here. Everything seems eerily quiet and surreal.
I hear voices in the distance, and we make our way upriver towards the sound of children playing. Incredibly, we come upon a playground of water spouts. Children wearing swimsuits are running and jumping through fountains. I hear a mom call, “Five more minutes on the Splash Pad, kids!” I look around for other maids, but I don’t see any. There are black children and white children, all playing together. My four charges are as stunned as I am.
We continue walking, and I notice a trolley giving tours of the city. The fare costs two dollars a person, which seems ridiculous, but I have enough money. I find seats for the children in the middle and one for myself in the back. As the trolley fills, the children get uneasy. People are dressed strangely, and they hold distracting devices of some kind. Emmy moves first, and soon, all the children come to sit with me, but no one seems to mind. The bus driver explains the history of the city as he drives, but truly, nothing looks familiar. The children and I observe the scenery outside with awe and alarm.
“Perhaps we have stumbled upon a set of some kind, and people are filming a movie,” Matthew suggests. “Maybe we will even be in it!”
The children seem relieved to have a logical explanation they can accept, all but Emmy.
She shakes her head, disbelieving. “Daddy would have told us.”
“Maybe he meant it as a surprise,” says Charles.
The children relax, marveling at the cars, buildings, and other changes they see. We drive around Court Square Fountain, and the driver tells everyone that the telegram to begin the Civil War was sent from the office on the corner. We continue down Dexter Avenue,passing what was apparently Martin Luther King’s church on the right. I wonder who he is.
The trolley pulls up in front of the Capitol, and the tour guide shows us where Jefferson Davis once gave a speech as President of the Confederacy. He asks if we know anything about slavery, and Charles perfectly regurgitates his last school report: “Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which applied only to states that had seceded, as an attempt to cripple the Confederacy, where slaves were needed to work the fields and care for the homes, allowing more white men to fight. Initially, the North fought to preserve the Union, but as casualties grew, they began to question the cost. Lincoln knew it was necessary for the North to have a moral cause for which to fight, so he created one. The Gettysburg Address simultaneously rallied the North while preventing European countries, which were mostly anti-slavery, from joining the South’s cause.”
“Very good,” the guide acknowledges.“By the end of the Civil War, more than 200,000 African-Americans had joined the Union forces. Of course, real racial equality was not yet achieved. Our next stops are the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a display of truth in the quest for justice.”
I do not know what he is talking about, and neither do the children. How can there be a museum acknowledging a practice that is still widely accepted? We board the trolley and pass the First White House of the Confederacy, which is one of the few buildings I recognize.
“The location for the museum was chosen to sit within 400 feet of one of the largest slave auction sites, where thousands of Africans were sold after arriving in Montgomery by train or boat.The museum is a memorial dedicated to more than 4,000 black lynching victims,”the guide explains.
As we enter, the mood is somber, and we naturally lower our voices. There is an air of respect and sacredness that we can almost taste.
We notice a dedication date: April 26, 2018. I look at the children. The date is impossible, but we say nothing. We walk along the path and are greeted by statues of chained Africans, frozen in terror as their families are ripped apart. Nearby is the first of several large plaques positioned on a path winding through the memorial’s six acres. We pause for Charles to read each inscription aloud as we make our way uphill. The words describe the history of an evolution of terror, culminating in a display of mass atrocities that were fueled by hatred.
In the memorial, we walk through hundreds of columns representing each county where one or more blacks were lynched. As we walk, we make our way downhill, and the pillars begin to look more and more like hanging coffins. The representation of a lynching is obvious, and the experience is as chilling as the cold metal of each memorial.
We return to the garden, hopeful to be leaving the era of injustice behind. There is a sculpture of several Africans being drowned, and I am reminded that hatred can be as suffocating as water. We pass three statues of black women, their missing husbands represented with footprints. I think of all the men and women who have bravely walked towards freedom and equality, and I am inspired.
“This reminds me of The Holocaust,” Charles mentions softly.
We know survivors of The Holocaust, and we are haunted by their stories but inspired by their strength and resilience.Young Matthew grabs my hand, looking up at me with soft eyes that reveal a sensitive, caring, and kind heart. I love these children and the white family I serve, and they love me. I have many friends and family members in similar situations. We are loved, we are considered members of the family, but we are not offered the same privileges and rights as they are. Then again, it wasn’t very long ago that white women weren’t either.
As we walk back to the trolley, we are quiet. We have all been emotionally affected by the memorial. I pray that the memorial, in its attempt to reconcile and acknowledge the past, brings people together, rather than ostracizing blacks and whites even more. The Holocaust taught us that polarizing people is dangerous. It taught us the importance of finding a common ground to bring people together, and that we must never discriminate, persecute, or dehumanize anyone. Perhaps most importantly, we must not deny the truth, and this memorial is a beautiful, honest revelation of American history.
The trolley arrives at our next stop, The Civil Rights Memorial. It is a black granite waterfall with the words: “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” by Martin Luther King. I realize he must be an important figure. There is also a fountain that chronicles the events of something called the Civil Rights Movement. I watch as Charles and Elizabeth walk the circle, touching the inscribed history like the hands of a clock. Emmy and Matthew walk with me,holding my hands. The flow of the water is soothing, and I feel at peace, but I am also shaken. Is it really possible we are experiencing a glimpse into the future?
We continue the bus tour until we are back where we started. Quietly, the children and I make our way off the trolley, finally stopping at the tunnel. We are thoughtful, reflective, metamorphosed.
I am holding Emmy’s hand, and I bend down, suddenly urgent. “Emmy,” I say, and she turns those bright and earnest eyes to mine. “Never forget this day, Emmy. You must always remember. Promise?”
Emmy nods her head. “I promise, Mary.” She cocks her head and studies me. Then she turns her head and considers the tunnel. “Do you think we will forget?”
“I don’t know,” I say wonderingly. “I hope not.”
Emmy focuses her stare on me again. Very seriously, she offers: “Do you want to stay?”
I waver. The idea is arresting, and my eyes fill with tears. Emmy takes my face in her tiny hands. I hug this precious child, pure and unscathed by hatred.
“I love you,” she says.
“I love you, too, Emmy.”
She turns her head up again: “Maybe you have work to do at home, Mary. Maybe that’s why we are here—to show you the way.”
I consider that thought. These children are so bright, and Emmy’s ability to discern the truth is something I’ve learned to trust. I look at our entwined fingers, black and white, and I realize that I already know the way.
“I think we have to go now,” Emmy cautions.
The light is changing, and I can feel an electric charge to the air. “I think you’re right, Emmy. Let’s run along and catch up.”
Emmy runs into the tunnel, and for once, I don’t correct her. Instead, I run too. This time, I am the eager one. This time, I have possibilities to explore.
Emmy and I reach for the others. Holding hands, we walk back through the tunnel. We are home again in 1954. We return with wisdom, with purpose, and most of all, with love. I have work to do.
by Patrick Miller
Truly, if Montgomery citizens from 1954 suddenly stepped forward into the Montgomery of 2018, they would not only have a hard time recognizing the new buildings but also the dramatically new culture. No one could have predicted in 1954 the profound social changes that would erupt from the Civil Rights Movement like the epicenter of a cultural earthquake from Montgomery. Today, the city that is known as the Cradle of the Confederacy is also known as the Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. As this story demonstrates, those two historical forces can still be felt in opposition across the streets of downtown Montgomery. The Winter Building where the telegram was sent to start the Civil War stands directly across the street from the spot where Rosa Parks stepped onto a bus and refused to give up her seat to a white person almost a hundred years later. The statue of Jefferson Davis in front of the Alabama State Capitol where he gave his inaugural address as the first president of the Confederacy is only a block away from the church where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Legacy Museum is housed on the site of a former slave warehouse that once helped serve one of the busiest slave auction sites in the South.
The main character of this story is given a choice at the end to stay within the safe confines of modern Montgomery or return to the racial hatred and challenges of the past. Although she is a fictional character, her choice to return lies in harmony with the bravery and selflessness of the real pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement. They knew they had work to do, and they volunteered fearlessly to help build a new foundation of justice that would benefit generations to come.
There are few places in the nation where the struggle to achieve this justice can be felt as powerfully as in Montgomery. If you would like to experience this in person, please use the Tourism Links below to help plan your visit. Today, the signs of progress are everywhere in this small city, but the challenges of the past can be explored in the many museums, historical markers, and historical sites. The Civil Rights Memorial in the story is not just an outdoor monument but also fronts an indoor learning center. The Rosa Parks Museum offers a wonderful presentation of her achievement and is located a block away from the spot where she was arrested in 1955, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice are in two separate but nearby locations and were recently featured on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.
Most of these sites are within easy walking distance within the downtown area of Montgomery. Many delicious restaurants and several great hotels are also located within that tourism district, and the links below offer more information on many of them. Two other locations from the unpublished finalist stories are farther away but also worth driving to during any visit to Montgomery: the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. There is also a link below to the Alabama Tourism Department that introduces readers to countless exciting and unique travel destinations throughout the state.
Although the trolley tours that long served Montgomery have recently ended, another tour operator has quickly gained some local fame: More Than Tours, operated by Michele Browder.
Many thanks to all the writers who participated in this contest. Using fiction to inspire readers to visit real places is an innovative challenge, but our participants did an amazing job. Judging between stories is always extremely hard. Our many contests have taught us that there could be an anthology of tourism short stories introducing unique attractions all over the South. Many thanks also to Charisa Hagel, winner of the 2016 SELTI Writing Contest, who accepted an invitation to join the volunteer judging panel of this year’s contest. Read her winning story set in nearby Selma here.
SELTI encourages all writers to consider using the creative power of fiction, whether through short stories or novels, to introduce their readers to unique and enriching real-life attractions. Give your readers a chance to literally step into the settings of your stories and engage them on a whole new level. Publishers and literary agencies are also encouraged to jump into tourism fiction by putting out a call for tourism manuscripts and short story collections. SELTI has proven that governments from the municipal to the federal level are interested in promoting these types of writing projects. College administrators can also jump in by introducing tourism fiction writing courses and eventually degree programs for tourism fiction. Such programs will help fiction writers not only succeed in the publishing world but also help drive local economic development by promoting tourism spending. Another consideration is that creative writing programs which help bring in new tourism dollars will also be much easier to get funding for in higher education budget battles. Someday, a university will gain credit for having the nation’s top tourism writing program. Will that program start at your university?
About the Author
Jeanie Montiel Parnell is a Montgomery native and college English instructor. She has an undergraduate degree from Auburn University and post graduate degrees in English and Teaching Writing from Auburn University Montgomery. Jeanie also wrote the novel Fairhope, which was a second prize winner in the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Follow her on Facebook: @AuthorJeanieParnell or visit her website: jeaniemontielparnell.wordpress.com.
2018 SELTI Writing Contest Results
First Place “Tunnel Vision” by Jeanie Parnell
Second Place “A Question of Art” by Elaine Schmeck
Third Place “Hank and Me” by Chuck Howard
Fourth Place “Days Along the Weir” by Deborah Earle
Fifth Place “Lost in Zelda’s Eyes” by Margaret Roper