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Hometown Secrets and Why I Tell Them
I write about my people because someone should. It really is as simple as that. There are few famous people dangling from the branches of my family tree. The only time any of them made history is when they knocked some rich man off his horse or shot some government lawyer who tried to maneuver a land grab on the sly. So if I didn’t write about my kin, no one would.
I am the first person from our clan in at least a hundred years who went off to college. Most didn’t even finish high school. But they were the kind of people who made this tired world fit to live in, “salt of the earth,” as they say. Folks whose collars were blue, whose necks were red, and before that, whose uniforms were gray.
My recollection of home is not the genteel South. We can’t boast of a single veranda, and I’d give you a Buffalo Nickel if anyone with my last name could tell you what a mint julep was. My family were members of labor unions and deer camps, not country clubs. They didn’t live in big houses, or attend large churches. They weren’t Freemasons or Oddfellows or Klansmen. By the time they put in their time at the paper mill or the cotton gin or the farm, there wasn’t much time left for dressing up in aprons or running around like bigoted fools in bedsheets. Though more than a few had their pictures hanging in places of honor down at the VFW hall.
My South is where the working folks lived. They didn’t have a lot, but they were proud of what little they had. And they kept things looking nice. Close cropped grass. Tight bales of hay. Hydrangeas and Camellias rising serenely out of comfortable beds made from old tractor tires. The rough wooden houses and single-wide trailers were kept clean and presentable too. My folks may have been too poor to paint, they weren’t too proud to whitewash.
I come from a long line of men who could build or fix virtually anything. They weren’t particularly talented, but when faced with the choice between hiring a professional or having food for the children’s breakfast, one develops certain skills pretty much on the spot. I’ve watched my grandaddy repair engines that were 30 years old with little more than spit and a few mild expletives. And during lean times, he’s been known to catch more than his limit of fish using only a dip net and a crank telephone.
Our women weren’t feminists, demanding men’s work for men’s wages. Had that been the case, no one could have afforded to pay them. Most did the work of ten men. Washing and cleaning and cooking and mending and schooling and gardening and generally maintaining our entire chaotic world.
In my South, dreams were small and manageable. Get a job. Get some land. Get married. Have some kids. Get old. Then sit out on the porch and talk about how you did all that. No one aspired to greatness, and I reckon that’s why so many of them attained it. That rare peace of a hard won but quiet life. These are my people.
Frankly, I don’t give a damn about writing about the kind of folks that, by reason of their lofty station or name, are bound to have buckets of ink spilled recording their legendarium anyway. I’ll turn my pen to record the unstoried deeds of the clod kickers and hell raisers from my side of the tracks.
Men like Lucius McNutt who slept in a hollowed out bail of hay in his field because he had turned the house over to a swarming horde of cats. And Sheriff Bull Wells who once arrested a man for breaking and entering because he had flown through the windshield when a squad car ran him over.
I want to memorialize Miss Hill, the faithful Sunday School teacher who took a second job to buy a good lawyer for the drunk driver who killed her baby boy. And I want to remember that boy, Billy, who could throw a baseball faster than greased lightning, and how a whole town wept and sang along at his funeral “Billy Bob Loves Charlene,” when they played his favorite song: “John Deere Green.”
I want to write about the people who made our corner of the world what it is, and the people who made me. Part-time saints. Full-time sinners. Angels with broken halos. I will keep their faces lit by the hearth fires of memory. I will tell tales about them as long as people want to hear them. And should a time come when nobody wants to listen anymore, I will tell them anyway. My South will endure as long as there’s a single fistful of red clay or one lonesome pine or a solitary ear on which to hang a story.