Forgotten Where You Came From… Too Smart For Your Own Good… High Falutin… You Didn’t Get That Attitude From Me… You Can’t Be Part Of This Family Because You Talk Like a Yankee
I’m Southern by association only. Others can claim a geographical and cultural root to their lives. Home for them can be pinpointed on a map with a distinct location that grounds their lives, history, familial bonds, and outlook. Bred, born, and raised Southern by Gawd comes out of their mouths as if there is no other alternative. If Roy Blount Jr. “Gone Off Up North,” I went and gone off up everywhere but where I should be from. I have cut a zigzag course through the head winds of my life.
Winfield is where the family is from, statistically the clan still sets camp in northwest Alabama… specifically 33.9289 N, 87.8172 W. Former Native American tribal lands… the Chickasaw tribe hunted the area prior to the arrival of the whites… now it is 94.56% white. This area celebrates Mule Day on the 4th Saturday in September… my dad, uncles, cousins have ridden in the Mule Day parade… the family name is known. My grandfather was a sharecropper, my dad joined the Army and left. Roots run deep here… I was severed from the roots and the tree following my birth here in 1970.
My mother still cooks with Crisco, my dad gardens… the domain of those who get older and turn to bending and moving the soil. After nearly three decades of an Army nomadic life, my parents returned to the South when I was 13. Instead of returning to the family home in NW Alabama, my parents decided to settle in southern Middle Tennessee. Their farm straddles the Tennessee/Alabama line. One day I was living in Germany… the next day I was living on a farm in rural Tennessee, literally. My parents made the transition easily… they had return to the life of their childhood… they had returned home. I was transplanted… my voice had a Southern twang to my Army brat friends, years of learning the mother tongue from my Southern parents had imprinted the long “i” in my speech… new friends in rural Tennessee thought I talked funny… “You talk like a Yankee” is how many would describe me.
I had only known Army bases as home. Fort Riley, Kansas; Baumholder, Germany; Fort Knox, Kentucky; and Bad Nauheim, Germany… life for me was Army quarters, squat uniform military buildings, men in uniforms, names and accents that portrayed a country that was full of different people, different colors… no one was from any single place, region, or culture. Everyone was green, everyone spoke the language of the Army brat, Army wife, Army soldier. At the age 13, I had spent 6 years of my life in Europe. I knew how to eat like a Southerner… my mom never lost her way from the school of Southern poor culinary arts. I knew how to run around as a kid with my feet in the dirt and play the games my cousins had taught me… flinging coal at one another… my grandparents heated their home with a coal stove… mumbly peg was part of the game lessons… older cousins always had pocket knives… younger cousins had toes that needed severing.
For 5 years I learned how to adjust to rural Tennessee and the angst of the teenage years. I was never a member of the Future Farmers of America… I never participated in Tractor Day. Shop class was the area of high school that existed only in my mind… it seemed to be located in a far off location of my high school that could have been as imaginary as Narnia… except there was no secret passageway through magical wardrobes. I had no access to secret Southern locations… I had no access to a life of being from somewhere… I was always from somewhere else.
Being different causes one to act different. No matter how hard I tried to fit in… the looser the soil became around my feet. I play acted at being a Tennessean, I play acted at being Southern. I blindly stomped the rituals of Southern life… the night I had my first beer (Miller High Life pony) is the night I tried my first chew (Red Man). The vomiting that ensued was a physical representation of my life and brain telling me that I would never be a Southerner. I would never be part.
Lazy and unchallenged school years almost led to me becoming even more rudderless. Fortunately, I made it to college… Middle Tennessee State University. MTSU was a haven for a lot of us who really didn’t know or want to go anywhere… some knew what they wanted and they wanted MTSU… some of us just didn’t really care but had to go somewhere… a parent’s home loses its appeal quickly. After a year and a half… college wasn’t what I wanted… beer and loose ladies was my goal in life. Enlisting in the Army was the next route… back to Fort Knox, Kentucky. I had been there as a child… now I was a child in an Army uniform play acting soldier. I quickly learned that play acting as a child was going to get me nowhere. I may not have had roots in a single place… but knowing when you weren’t in the right place is just as valuable.
After that it was back to college… full-time employment with no degree sucks… no one likes counting loose change all week to afford a pizza and a movie rental on Friday night. $3 pitchers of Busch beer can only be stomached for so long. MTSU took me back after my hiatus… sometimes colleges aren’t picky… lucky me. Two final years of college and then I was a newly minted 2nd lieutenant… one Uhaul and off to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Trees grow bent to the south in Oklahoma… some say it is because of the cold winds that sweep down from the north… Canadian air pushing strongly against its southern neighbor. Others say it is because Texas sucks… either way… bent trees causes one to wonder who would call Oklahoma home.
At the age of 25 I returned to the one place that I had considered home… Germany. Again I was in a location that had been part of my childhood… now it was part of my adult life. Dr. Seuss had called out to me Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Traveling in uniform means going and getting dirty… muddy tents is definitely one way to see the world. Life in a modern hotel chain is one way… but you are removed from the world. One hotel room looks like any other… but when you sleep in the mud of a place… the place becomes part of you. It not only settles in your skin and hair… but digs into your soul and brain.
After Germany it was Oklahoma again… more training… more preparation for more travel. Texas followed… the Texas Hill Country of Central Texas has a blanket of Blue Bells in the Spring… it also has a brown tinge that ranges as far as the eye can see. Trees still bent southward… but my life was not Southern bent… it was a vagabond life. The wind was blowing from one place to the next. Never settle in one place… growing older seems younger when you don’t have to watch your environment and home grow old with you. When you move from place to place you have no reckoning of how it was before you were there… everything is new when you newly arrive.
Army and Texas ended, stakes were pulled, tents were collapsed, wagons were packed… the caravan moved East. Washington DC awaited… suburbs were occupied… long daily commutes filled a new space in my life. Soon that too ended, easier to settle in the middle of the city than fight the daily Virginian migration to and from the Nation’s Capitol. I had grown up in Army quarters… places really no bigger than apartments or duplex… now I moved to a small condo. Relinquished ownership of cars… began the daily commute of a quick walk, a quick subway ride. Again, life is new and fresh when you are a new resident.
Passing the 40 year-old water mark caused a certain retrospective back look. Making an inventory of where I had been, where I have lived, traveled, and experienced caused me to wonder aloud of who I am, where am I from, and ultimately… where am I going. “Where are you from?” is an easy question for me… I am from where I live. Today I am from DC… tomorrow may be somewhere else. I no longer mourn the fact of not being from anywhere because I know I am from a lot of places. Modern life is probably making a lot of individuals like me… vagabonds, nomads, travelers that have no root but completely grounded. I have never forgotten where I came from because all of the places of my life have added a unique perspective… My family is Southern… I’m American with a bit of Southern accent… and I can order a beer in about 5 languages. That is the type of skill that will get you far in life.