September 3, 1949; ten years after Germany invaded Poland, a little less than four years after the war ended, the same year the hydrogen bomb was invented. The H-bomb and I had a good run together. I came into the World dirt poor but I didn’t know it for a long time. In rural Georgia in those days heritage and social status meant a lot more than material wealth. Those with ostentatous wealth got it after The War from the cotton lands they bought from widows and from the timber boom of the ’90s; being able to rattle off what company and regiment in General Lee’s Army your grandfather or great-grandfather served in meant a whole lot more for your social status. That all changed when the Yankees came again.
Rural Georgia of the 1950s was differentiated from rural Georgia of the 1850s by gasoline and electricity and nobody had much of either. I saw some pretty good arguments between my mother and father over whether it was necessary for the single 30 watt light bulb in the living room to be on. The only really ugly fight I ever remember them having was over the fact that my father simply could not comprehend how she could have managed to spend $12 for her weekly trip to the grocery store. Generally, if we didn’t grow it or kill it, we didn’t have it, and the grocery store was for stuff like sugar, coffee, tea, flour, and meal, though we often had our own meal ground. Doc and Betty, a mule and a horse, did the heavy work until we finally got a tractor in ’54 – a Farmall Cub. My grandfather did most of the farming and my dad helped but also worked for wages at Rosenberg’s department store in town. Old Martin, who lived across the branch in Price’s Quarter, did most of the handyman work and after my grandfather was probably my greatest youthful influence. Blacks did NOT come in through the front door or eat with whites except in the fields in those days so in an irony not lost on me even in my youth, Old Martin always came in through the back door and ate dinner – that’s the meal in the middle of the day – in the fairly fancy dining room while we ate at the kitchen table. Like the medieval world described in Manchester’s “A World Lit Only By Fire,” thus it was and thus it shall ever be; Southern farming life was eternal and unchanging – or so they thought.
In some ways it was an idyllic world; nothing changed, everyone knew everyone, people lived alright as we understood alright to be. If you didn’t know any better, it was good. We were cultured and well-educated; I knew which fork to use. My great grandfather was a teacher. My grandfather and father had some college. My grandmother was also a teacher. She could speak, read, and write Latin and read Greek. She always told me that if I couldn’t do that, I’d always be a barbarian; she was right. She could rattle off long passages of Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin or whole Acts of Shakespears plays. The skill that has served me best professionally is my ability to memorize and I attribute it to her constantly demanding it of me and to the Sunday School ritual of always having to recite a Bible verse at the beginning. “Jesus Wept” was my best friend! That said, they and thus I were abysmally ignorant of the World. I don’t mean we didn’t know what was going on. My earliest memory of anything political – one of my earliest memories of anything – was sitting with my grandfather and father listening to, I think, the Republican convention on the old tube-type radio. Looking back, it must have been in ’52 because my grandfather died in ’54. I don’t remember anything about it except the doing of it; just my grandfather, my father, and me sitting in the kitchen in the dark – no need to waste electricity – and the reason it is memorable is they included me.
By the time I started grade school, what passed for leadership in The South was doing everything it could to get Southerners off the north end of southbound mules. In my little town, we started to get “plants.” Now plants that don’t grow out of the ground were pretty much a foreign concept in the rural South, as was being anywhere other than school, church or court at a particular time. Getting a Geogia farm boy to actually show up at eight o’clock every day and do what somebody not related to him told him to do was a major cultural transition. And that’s when we began to see it. The Yankee plant managers demanded their modern houses. They drove new cars and their wives had station wagons. And somewhere in there, ’58 I think, we got a TV, then it all changed.
Nobody I knew lived like Beaver and Wally or David and Mary Stone. Fast forward through it all; Kennedy’s assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, the Riots, the long, hot summers, the Klan, the Freedom Riders, Having a Dream, and MLK’s assassination, the war in Viet Nam. The World I started grade school in in 1955 had ceased to exist by the time I heard “Pomp and Circumstance” in 1967. By the time the Principal thrust that piece of paper in my drunken hand, I didn’t believe a single word coming from parent, pulpit, lectern, or stump. When I got to college, I was a marxist professor’s dream; I’d believe anything that was contrary to what I’d been brought up to believe. So, by the early ’70s I was the archtypal long-haired, dope-smoking, FM Radio-listening liberal Democrat. Then I got mugged.
Atlanta in the early ’70s taught me all I needed to know about liberal policies. I sold out and packed Wife 1.0, kid, and dog into a Toyota LandCruiser and struck out for Alaska. I had no airspeed or altitude, but I did have ideas. I’ve sold suits, cleaned floors, drove trucks, and most anything else I could find to make money. What I liked most about Alaska was that nobody asked what your daddy did and if they asked where you went to school, they didn’t follow up with a question about what fraternity you belonged to. Hell, I was barely willing to admit to belonging to the human race; belong to a fraternity?
Anyway, I’ve led a charmed life, lived the American dream. I have a God-given right to be working for the minimum wage in the lawnmower factory in Swainsboro, Georgia; that’s what any of my teachers and civic leaders would have told me I could look forward to – and they were proud of their accomplishment of making that possible, there was always farming.
In those sixty years that also parallel the Pax Americana, I’ve never been hurt badly except by my own doing, I’ve never been sick since childhood, I’ve never really wanted for anything that I actually needed. As someone said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor; rich is better.” But in this Country, even poor as most of us understand it ain’t bad. I know the worst off I’ve ever been is scrounging the sofa cushions for cigarette money. And now, I’ve even given up the cigarettes after forty years of Winstons and Marlboros; probably too late, but at least I did it.
So, to sum this up; generations of my forebears dug up the dirt to make my life possible. My life has been beyond the wildest imaginings of my forebears. Their efforts and sacrifices made a life of money, power, and relative luxury possible for me. And to bring this back to a political theme, ain’t nobody taking that away from me unless they’re prepared to pry it from my cold, dead fingers.