The first year I did the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll, I portrayed the second governor of Alabama, Thomas Bibb. The second year, the regular Bibb portrayer returned, and so I was assigned a new character.
To be honest, I was a little disappointed with the change. Bibb was a more fun story than Turner Mayes, a local man who died in World War I, and I felt that I’m not the greatest fit for the character — I’m twice his age and twice his mass. But for the last three years, while I’ve occasionally checked on the availability of other characters, I’ve tried to do the best by Turner I could.
I was surprised by how immediate and present the Great War was during our trip, particularly the week we spent in France. I had an academic understanding of where and when and how the war was fought, but it did nothing to prepare me for how it had touched and scarred every where we went. There was perhaps more awareness in these centennial years, but the reminders and effects are permanent.
It had a particular impact visiting the site where the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” armistice that ended World War I was signed; at the museum there we saw images and artifacts of the war from throughout France. My travels did not take me to the places Turner walked, but here I saw where he had been. Between the places I visited and the things I saw there, and the stories of the family I stayed with, for whom the war had cost relatives only two generations back, Turner’s story became a little more real. A little more concrete. A little more visceral.
I won’t be asking about a different character for the Stroll this year. If I portray Turner Mayes for as long as I do the Stroll, it will still be the smallest token of deserved respect and gratitude.