When I was a young boy growing up on Swift Street in Perry, I would lay on my back in the grass, place my hands together like I was getting ready to pray, then spread them slightly apart, looking upwards through them, and conjure images of fish, boats, mountains, dogs, mules and all manner of things until the clouds drifted away — just like so many things that I love about the South are doing today – drifting away.
Despite the relentless heat and racial segregation and separation, which I learned about at an early age, I was largely content, as content as a boy could be. I knew my people, where I was and where I needed to be, and where I would stay.
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The Good Book tells us that the road is long and narrow and for someone from a small town in Middle Georgia, and I guess always will be, it was. And, I wouldn’t and didn’t get on it for California, New York or even Atlanta.
Oh, I had and have the wanderlust, which I am sure I got from my Gray grandparents, Grandbuddy and Granny, who lived in California, twice (where Grandbuddy was a cameraman at Universal Studios) and Oklahoma (where they homesteaded) before they came to Perry somewhere around 1920. They knew the road was long and narrow.
What is it about this place, this flawed place, like all of them are, that has such a hold on me? I can’t answer fully to your satisfaction or mine, but I will try.
Family, first and always, it’s family. Early on, I was taught by Daddy that family was the most important. A man who once told me that he had “74 first cousins, living” should and did feel that way. And, Daddy knew where most of them lived and what they did.
He expected, no required, that I honor and appreciate my immediate and extended family including, and probably most importantly, my two Gray grandparents in Perry and the two mule farming ones in deep rural Washington County, the Walkers, Grandma and Papa, who made syrup, killed hogs, burned wood slabs in the stove and interested and thrilled me beyond words. They epitomized the South of an earlier day, and I got to see it!
I’ve been blessed, beyond measure, with so many wonderful friends. They are just behind family in importance. I will use “Do-Tricks” as an excellent Southern example. Let me describe him in his prime. About five feet, six inches, and 150 pounds. His arms looked like short stove pipes and his fingers like ten Vienna sausages. I saw him arm wrestle a state weightlifting champion, eight inches taller and 60 pounds heavier. It took the big boy about five minutes to put Do-Tricks down. The big boy won the match, but Do-Tricks won the crowd.
There was no one else like Do-Tricks and yet, the South is full of characters – all distinctive. Jerry “Do-Tricks” Horton never held an office, not even in the Kiwanis or the Rotary Clubs, wasn’t rich, could do anything (and did), was loved by children and animals, and had one of the biggest funerals ever in Houston County. He played lots of tricks, practical jokes, but he got his name from Ed Beckham and it had to do with rabbits. Characters, nicknames, practical jokes – all so Southern, and its part of what I love.
And, it’s black people, or African Americans, my friends. It’s their home, too, and they’ve been a large part of my life. I worked with Joe Hodges at the “feed store.” He taught me lots about life, and I loved him. I worked for George “Big Hoss” Johnson in the cotton field. I was put in his charge by Daddy, and although I was nervous around him, I knew that this giant of a man, with part of one arm missing and not a tooth in his head (he could bite an apple in two) would look after me, and he did. And, Amos and Solomon Brown in Washington County who were both handsome and my idols. To those who helped me get a start in my law practice, became my clients and allowed me to represent them. Thanks.
Dirt roads. It’s hard to find them, but you can. Next time it rains, find a red dirt road, take off your shoes and socks, walk in the mud and the mud puddles. Let the mud ooze between your toes. Brooks and Dunn knew. Get their top hits album and listen to “Red Dirt Road” – over and over. A good wet red dirt road can help with what’s bothering you. It’ll keep you from needing a psychiatrist.
Barbeque, the best in the world. Tomato sandwiches. Homemade peach ice cream. Caramel cake. Chocolate pie. Sweet iced tea. Boiled peanuts. Fried chicken (wings?). Grits. Grits with redeye gravy. Fried catfish and hush puppies. Cat head biscuits. I could go on, but space prevents. Anyway, you Southerners understand.
It’s never been easy to be a Southerner – black or white — but, it’s worth holding on to, and we must. I promise to do my part. I won’t let them make me feel inferior because I use “y’all” and do it often, or because I have a drawl. And by the way, do you think God talks more like I do, or Sen. Al Franken? I think you know the answer.
Yes, the road is long and narrow, but, it’s wider down here in the South than it used to be and it was getting wider all the time, but there have been recent problems which will probably have to be addressed. We can’t afford to fight the Civil War again – either here in the South, or in the whole country.
It’s time for me to finally close, and let me do so by thanking Janice, Carlene, Teresa, Matthew, Hannah, Meagon, Foy, Julie, Danny and my friend, Charles Richardson. Without you I couldn’t have done this for 16 and a half years. But, most importantly, thanks to my readers – those who liked my column and told me so and those who didn’t and didn’t tell me. Two bad letters in 16-plus years, with one because I called chickens “dumb,” which was not very smart on my part. You are the best, and may God bless all of you.
Larry Walker is a practicing attorney in Perry. He served 32 years in the Georgia General Assembly and serves on the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.