Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: August, 2013

Southern Country

Sometime in 1979 I began to recognize some of the differences between country folks and everyone else. I was headed to my Grandmother’s home for a weekend away from College. I brought along a friend. I’ll call her Kate. She was kind and smart and very much a Southern girl. I had warned her we were headed to rural Alabama, to the country. She smiled and said, “You know I’m from a small town,” as if to reassure me. She thought being from a small town meant she was country.

Now don’t misunderstand. Small towns in the South are great places. Most of them have had a Jack’s Hamburgers or a Dairy Queen or something called a Frosty or Tastee-Freez. In the late 1970’s some small towns in the South have even had a McDonald’s. But there’s always a place where old men gather to drink coffee and share the day’s latest “news.” No one calls it gossip. But everyone knows what it is. Especially when so much of the conversation is punctuated with “bless his heart.” As in, “Y’all know that Owens feller thinks he can write a story. He’s not real smart, bless his heart.”

Small towns have a courthouse, a First Baptist Church, and a high school football team that drives everyone’s plans for Friday nights from September to December. Where Kate and me were headed had none of these things. As we drove down the Old Hull Road, a kidney rattling drive resulting from the daily passage of countless coal trucks, past ramshackle houses with sofas on the front porch, tin roofs, and dogs of indeterminate breed, I saw Kate begin to question her decision to make this journey. “Don’t worry,” I said. “My grandmother lives in a late model ‘double wide’ and she doesn’t have a sofa on the porch. Heck, she doesn’t have a porch.” Kate gave a soft sigh of relief until she realized I’d used the term “double wide.” She was relieved when we drove up the gravel driveway to a three-bedroom home with indoor plumbing, air conditioning and no dogs.

Kate was from a small town. But her Grandmother didn’t “put up” her own strawberry preserves. Her cousins didn’t cut the grass on the family’s cemetery plot, or dig their own worms to go fishing in a pond. They didn’t pick the tomatoes, onions or peppers from the garden immediately before supper. They didn’t start a bird hunt by loading the dogs into the trunk of an old Chevrolet. I’m pretty sure Kate had never skinned a catfish. Nor had she seen dogs come out from under a house to greet guests. I know she’d never gone snipe hunting or walked deep into a holler before sunrise to squirrel hunt. Kate was from a small town. But she wasn’t country.

My grandmother, both of them actually, were the best of the regal simplicity of Southern country. Kind. Forgiving. Generous. When Kate and me arrived, she met us at the doorway, pushing open the screen door. “Hey, Son,” she said as she gave me a gentle hug. She smiled and met Kate with “Y’all come on in. Are ya hungry?” This is, of course, the obligatory greeting when family and friends arrive at one’s home here. At Grandmother’s house, I was always hungry.

You can be Country by birth or by experience. Me? I guess I’m a bit of both. My Dad plowed fields behind a mule. His Dad lost several fingers when an ill-tempered mule team decided they’d prefer not to be hitched at that particular moment. I was born in the Deep South and country is in my genes. I’m country by experience. I’ve been snipe hunting though I’ve never caught one. I’ve never really lived in the country. But because of countless summers, Thanksgivings, and Christmas vacations there, it lives in me. It always will.

Southern Born and Southern Bred

In 1968 my family left our home in Birmingham to move to a foreign place. The language and cultural barriers proved less challenging than you’d think. Even the climate and four feet of snow on the ground weren’t that bad, although I did watch television and snack my way through the winter. By spring I none of my clothes fit. But all in all Augusta, Maine wasn’t that bad a place. The people were friendly though they didn’t really speak English.

These people ate “pee-kan” pie. They ate home fries and openly wondered if grits were edible. One boy told me he had eaten grits but didn’t like the way they felt in his mouth. He had obviously failed to put the requisite amount of butter and sugar in them. These folks actually believed Athens was just a place in Greece. Nor did they know how to make a suitable glass of iced tea. My Lord, they actually drank hot tea. But they welcomed me with open arms despite their initial suspicions that I must be a hillbilly. I soon became a novelty in school.

The kids often asked me to “say sumpin!” and I quickly learned the value of exaggeration. “Whudyallwameetasaay!” One teacher reprimanded me for saying “yes, Mam,” believing I was disrespectful. I dutifully replied “Yes, Mam,” and quickly explained the consequences of failing to say Mam and Sir in my household. I’m not sure she was convinced but I didn’t have to take a note home, albeit my penchant for exaggeration included reference to “my Momma whippin’ me with a switch I’ll have to cut myself.” Sorry, Mom. You never used a switch.

My family traversed the country from 1968 to 1973 as my father’s career progressed. We settled in Northern Virginia as I finished the 8th grade, my third school for the year. I wore a symbol of my deep faith to school on my first day. I was mocked heartily by the testosterone-fueled ignorance of teenage boys who knew nothing of the SEC, Bear Bryant, or the meaning of Roll Tide. Kilmer Middle School, off Old Courthouse Road in Vienna, Virginia, was filled with boys who knew no better than to recognize the simple meaning of my Crimson lettered BAMA shirt. Now, almost 40 years later many of my high school classmates still call me “Bama,” it having lost its pejorative meaning sometime after my then 6’4″ frame proved somewhat useful on the basketball court.

Deep inside I always knew I’d return to Alabama and the Deep South. Summers in Walker County and vacation trips to Panama City every kept the Southern Boy burning in me. Learning important things on those trips like how to drive a tractor, quail hunt and tie a string on the leg of a June bug gave me a sense of belonging that seems uniquely Southern. My grandmother’s fried apple pies cooked with hands that never touched a measuring cup or spoon were at the same time nourishment for my body and Southern soul. So while my friends were headed off to Virginia Tech (where they now claim to play football) and the University of Virginia, I headed back to Birmingham in my gold 1973 Ford Mustang Grand.

I returned to Birmingham-Southern for College in 1978 in large part to be close to my family’s roots, partly because freshmen could bring their cars on campus. Initially, and to my surprise, I was the kid from Virginia. Once again I found myself adjusting to some cultural differences. But no one believed I talked “funny,” though I didn’t own a single pair of khakis, a button down shirt, or topsiders they somehow knew I was a son of the South. They did have to get past the yellow slacks, Sebago loafers, and a few other wardrobe selections, but again, my now near 6’7” frame appeared useful on the basketball court and they somehow forgave me my sense of fashion. Though I still cringe to think how I must have looked.

Despite a brief move to Georgia and the Panhandle of Florida I’ve been in Alabama since 1978. The move to Florida doesn’t really count since we all know that’s Lower Alabama. I travel enough to enjoy it. I get to see other places, meet different people. But when I’m gone I often hear the lyrics of “My Home’s in Alabama” in my head; “No matter where I lay my head. My home’s in Alabama. Southern born and Southern bred.” That’s me.