I won’t romanticize where I grew up: there were some problems. The Blair Witch would consider the woods out back behind my house as being a little too wild. We have a nest of copperheads in my front yard, water moccasins in the lake, and rattlesnakes in our backyard. In the summer, mosquitos buzz heavily, coming up the wooden floor’s slats on the back porch, and in the winter, we’re clinging to the side of an icy mountain with no easy way to get into civilization in the valley below. My country town is the sort of town that has more cows than people. More tanning beds than people, even. There’s a bait shop/church/wrestling club all in one building, and that building used to be a gas station a few years back. Rusty pumps lay on the ground in the parking lot, large hand-painted signs declaring “GIVE YOUR HEART TO JESUS” and “OPEN WRASSLING EVERY THURSDAY” in the pines above. There’s an active KKK chapter, but there aren’t any minorities to harass, so instead they burn crosses in the front yards of business rivals. One Klan member recently burned a cross in the front yard of a guy who refused to sell him his dirt bike. That Klan member was the sheriff’s brother-in-law.
I don’t put much stock in all the people of my hometown. There are some truly kindhearted people, and there are some people who are terrifying in their backwardness. What I value in my hometown is how in some ways it was one of the last nostalgic All-American places to grow up (provided that you were white, of course. I won’t claim it’d have been pleasant for anyone more racially-diverse). But picture this:
- I tore all over those woods as a kid. Six, seven, eight – I have memories of finding arrowheads, of tying rattlesnake skins to my wrist, of running with jackrabbits and finding an old moonshine still. No one called for me, no one watched me. I was powerful and free and wild. I squeezed berries and painted my cheeks red, and when I was hungry, I sucked the juice of local honeysuckle.
- Norman Rockwell himself would’ve declared our Fourth of July’s The Best Ever. A massive picnic in a neighbors yard, a potato salad competition, a caving expedition, more brownies than you could possibly eat, a pool party, and then fireworks at dusk. Star-gazing followed, and firefly baseball. (What is firefly baseball, you ask? It’s… exactly what it sounds like, but you only got points if you whacked a firefly while it was lit up, the glowing evidence of it smeared on your baseball bat. Should I be admitting to this? Aren’t all children basically horrible? I still feel a little guilty. Poor fireflies.)
- Everyone knew your business, everyone knew your name. This was good and bad, obviously, but when my parents’ home burned down last summer, the neighborhood rallied and watched it go, holding Mom and Dad up with a silent dignity. We had pies and water and clothes and a place to sleep thanks to our neighbors. Southern hospitality is no joke here.
- It truly is beautiful. The trees stand proud against the side of the bluff, and the drop-off into the valley is staggering. The colors of the fall are something off of a postcard, and now in the spring, everything is vibrant and flowering and new.
There are some problems, of course, such as the above-mentioned casual racism. I’ve been invited to a book burning or two (usually Harry Potter, and yes, I declined). In recent years, the gun violence has escalated. And meth use has sky-rocketed. I think my memories of growing up here wouldn’t be replicated in today’s world.
But I’ve got them, hard and warm like a stone in my hand.