Friday, July 25, 2008

Being Southern

I want to be southern again.

I know it probably seems that if you're a southerner you would always be southern, but it isn't like being say, British. If you leave the South for a significant period of time, you lose the drawl, you try new things and forget the old, you begin to think the world has changed because your world did. Turns out I miss it.

This bit of self-awareness caught me by surprise after taking Harry Murray's fly fishing class on a whim seven years ago. I fell madly in love with the sport and then realized that it was really my second fling. Remembering that fishing had brought me great joy when I was growing up, I began to wonder why I had simply given up the sport for nearly twenty years, and to wonder what else I had discarded and forgotten along the way. It turned out to be a lot.

I fished with friends in rural western Kentucky in my youth. We would grab our Zebco’s, dig a can of worms and head for nearby ponds and lakes on our bikes. We didn’t catch many fish and the ones we caught were usually small bluegill, but that wasn’t the point. It was one of the few forms of recreation available to us in that decade long before Laser Tag and Space Invaders. We could play Little League, fish, hunt when we were older, or swim in the local lake. Catching a fish, hitting a home run, these were the big thrills of my youth.

My father died suddenly when I was twelve and there are two memories of our brief time together that are burned into the sepia snapshots of my memory. One is the night when I was in sixth grade and sank four free throws in a row in the last minute of a game that would make Hall Street Elementary city champs. Basketball is big in Kentucky. Very big. And my dad was there to see it. The second is a fishing trip to Kentucky Lake with my mom and dad. Dad bought me a cane pole and a small bucket of minnows. When I asked if we should buy a stringer, he laughed and said, “Son, I’ll carry home all the fish you catch today in my back pocket." I caught a large sunfish for each of his pockets that day.

It didn’t take a lot of pondering to realize that I stopped fishing after college when I moved to a big city because I was far from my fishing buddies. I could have fished by myself I suppose, but like I said, that wasn’t the point.

As I grew into my teens, I started hunting. My grandfather took me squirrel hunting and quail hunting. In high school, I would go hunting with my friends. We never worried about the dangers of hunting, we’d been taking hunting safety classes in school since the seventh grade. There was nothing unusual about three teens walking through open fields with shotguns. We didn’t think about the ethics of killing animals for sport, it’s just what we did. We hunted, we fraternized, we enjoyed the sport, and we ate the game. What was there to think about?

But now I think about why I stopped hunting. Mostly, I stopped for the same reasons I stopped fishing. My new friends in the city didn’t hunt and I didn’t know where to go by myself, so I let it slip away.

My children grew up in a different place and a different time. Growing up in the city, they link guns to human violence and I’m glad they do. I’ll be perfectly happy if none of the three ever sees a gun. I’m not even sure that I could hunt again. I’ve been changed by the city, too. I think I would really enjoy skeet shooting, though, and it might be an adequate substitute. I plan to give it a try one day soon. Recently, I was startled when my oldest son told me out of the blue that he thought he might like hunting. I wonder if being southern is as much genetic as geographic.

It’s not just hunting and fishing that I’ve lost. I’ve grown tired of scrounging for edible barbecue. On a recent trip through North Carolina, my family stopped for a pulled pork sandwich with the local vinegar-based sauce. One bite and my children’s expressions told me they knew they had just enjoyed their first real taste of barbecue. You see, barbecue is sort of like bagels. Once you've eaten a New York bagel, a bagel from anyplace other than New York is not a bagel at all. It's just something that makes you really wish you had a bagel.

In my youth, the drive from my grandparent’s farm into town passed a small, white building that housed a tiny country store, two gas pumps under a small roof supported by a single post in the shape of a “Y", and a small restaurant. Creekmur’s Store, locally pronounced Crickmers, with “Store" omitted as an unnecessary clarification, made its own barbecue that announced itself for a mile in either direction, the sharp, sweet, smoky smell unabated by rolled up windows in that era before air conditioned cars.

I want to order grits for breakfast in a small, family-owned restaurant where the waitresses call everyone “hon" and it doesn’t sound like an affectation. Without the drawl, the sentiment loses its credibility. While I’m asking, I want the grits to be good and lightly salted and cuddling a pat of butter that has just begun to melt.

I want to trade my MacMansion for a real house with quirks. Neighbors and friends will always use the back door, stepping inside and yelling “hello" instead of knocking, and not bothering to call ahead. I want to have a fishing boat and to park it behind the garage, out of the view of neighbors and out of the reach of a homeowner’s association. Our kids’ friends will be as comfortable in our house as in their own-- polite, but comfortable.

Recently, I instinctively opened the door for an elderly lady, who inched slowly by my extended arm with the aid of a cane. She smiled and with ever so light a drawl said, “Why, thank you!" Sensing that she was from a different time but similar place, I smiled back and apologized. “I can’t help it, Ma'am. I’m southern."

“And if you didn’t, your mama would have taken a hickory switch to you, wouldn’t she?", she added with another smile.

I want to sit in a swing with my wife on a wide, deeply shaded front porch that is cool on the hottest day, dragging my heels ever so lightly back and forth across a floor made of wide, tongue-and-groove boards, thickly coated with many years of imperfect but glossy, gray enamel.

My fives and nines abandoned me soon after I moved to the city. The chuckles from strangers and barbs from my new friends sent them into hiding. My fahvs were replaced by fives and my nans gave way to nines. I want them back. I want to again feel comfortable and unapologetic with my southern English.

I also recently realized that I am the only member of my family, or my wife's family for that matter, who has ever lived in a large city and worked for large corporations. For nearly three decades I suppose I thought that everyone else's life was just like mine. But the truth is mine has been nothing like theirs.

My days here have been successful and rewarding well beyond anything I could have imagined when my wife and I left college and moved east in a red and white VW minivan full of "furniture" that should have been abandoned and with just enough money to pay for the gas. But I want to close out this grand experiment that has been the last 29 years of my life and walk away content that, although it was great while it lasted, its time has passed.

I want to go home.

I want to be southern again.

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