By Jamil Zainaldin
All place has meaning, so long as it can still support memory.
The spot of earth upon which we stand has importance if we can remember what once was there. The stories about the places we occupy give meaning to them and thus to our own lives. Sometimes our sense of place becomes so strong that it establishes sacred space.
For many, Camp Toccoa in north Georgia is sacred ground. It was built in the mid-1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps — Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era project that put millions of young men to work. Intended initially for Georgia’s National Guard, Camp Toccoa was commandeered in 1942 by the U.S. Army to prepare a new kind of soldier. Four regiments of men received their primary training as paratroopers here. During the next three years, 18,000 recruits passed through a space that was filled with hundreds of tents, buildings, training areas, roads, and parade grounds.
Today, we remember Camp Toccoa especially as the place in which that band of brothers known as E Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment bonded and went on to distinguish themselves during the invasion of Normandy and the siege of Bastogne during World War II. (See my earlier posts on the boys of Currahee, part 1 and part 2.)
A winding, slowly climbing dirt road from the camp leads to the top of Currahee Mountain — a three-mile route along which these young soldiers hiked and ran in seemingly endless drills to condition themselves for combat. (A memorial to the 101st Airborne stands at the camp entrance, and five miles away, the Stephens County Historical Society’s Currahee Military Museum in Toccoa tells much more of the story.)
The camp ceased to function as quickly as it had been converted to a military training post. Ownership returned to the state of Georgia, which used it as a juvenile detention center and then a prison for adults before leasing it to a textile mill that eventually closed. Few structures remain from the period of its brief military use: a water tower, a modest single-story structure, a well, fire hydrants, and some curbs that outline former streets. The rest of what was Camp Toccoa is flat, barren land, sprinkled with saplings.
And that would be the end of the story if we were to forget why the camp came into being and if we were to ignore the lives—and deaths—for which those young men prepared themselves in a war that changed the course of human history.
Many would contend that to “learn history” in school is a waste of time. That kind of knowledge, as the saying goes, won’t get you a job. It may be true, but it is also a fact that we pay a heavy price for choosing to forget what came before us and with whom we are thus connected. In that decision to ignore our past we are deeply diminished and made less whole.
Two seemingly paradoxical truths help to define who we are. On the one hand, each of us stands alone. Currahee, the southernmost peak of the Blue Ridge mountain chain that juts from the rolling hills of the piedmont, takes its name from a Cherokee word meaning “stand alone.” And the young troops who trained on that mountain would yell “Currahee” as they parachuted from their planes. In that moment, they were indeed on their own. And yet, like all of us, they became stronger when they reconnected with their comrades on the ground.
In this cyber world of instant communication, rapid change, and fleeting meanings, the greatest threat to our future is forgetting who we are and what brought us here. Without the sense of place that history provides, the world we inhabit can easily become an alien space of unknown contours and unfamiliar markers. In these “empty” spaces, we are in danger of becoming empty, too, losing our bearings and our sense of responsibility. The stories of those who came before us help us to understand our own unique place in history and encourage us to contemplate what legacy we may leave for future generations.
“Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them,” wrote George Eliot. So true. It is our memory that gives meaning to the Camp Toccoas of our lives.
Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides Jamil Zainaldin with editorial assistance for his SaportaReport columns.