Journal of Writing & Environment

Deep in the heart of July, my wife and I wind our way slowly by car from Augusta to Macon. We take a route that is new and strange to me, one of the blue highways instead of the sterile Interstate that takes you within the fatal orbit of Atlanta, that black hole that draws you inexorably into its center and from which you cannot escape if you pass too near. I have a very personal love-hate relationship with Atlanta. But Atlanta is not on my mind today as we pass by farms and deserted meadows with crumbling wooden and rusting barbed wire fences overgrown by green vines and kudzu, and as the sun climbs and we travel farther and farther into the green heart of the country, our journey is spiced with the tang of adventure.

We are going to mix business with pleasure today, and when we reach our destination, after passing by Flannery O’Connor’s old haunts, I am reminded of the Georgia of the late 1950s. I see myself and my older sister drinking Ni-Hi sodas at the tiny store at the end of the road where our grandfather used to live. The time is summer of course; it always is in those old memories that come back to you like friendly puppies in muted shades of black and white, just like the old pictures from a Brownie camera my sister had. No matter that the pictures are old now, stored away in an attic in my sister’s aging red brick cottage, that we cannot remember some of the people (possibly even relatives) who are captured on the Kodak film stock. No matter that the negatives have long crumbled into desuetude, that many images have been lost forever. They are proof, however circumstantial, of the reality of those long ago days.

It’s a scene, I am suddenly aware, that evokes all of the flavor of the old Andy Griffith Show. It’s strange I never thought of myself in connection with that ideal rural landscape of Mayberry. Has that world ever existed, I wonder, except in the life of the imagination? The answer comes back to me quickly as the cows and I stare at one another on the winding road we have chosen this fresh, bright, summer morning.

My wife and I came to know “Mayberry” as graduate students in Knoxville. Mayberry was the voice of reason amid the flurry of prelims, of taking classes and of teaching classes; it became a touchstone for normalcy, the still point of our world, a fiction and yet a reality so tantalizingly near that we could enjoy if we could only reach it by stretching our minds and hearts outward to meet it. By then I had been seduced by the lights of Atlanta, the crowds of New York, the charms of San Francisco’s Chinatown, Montreal’s new world French, and the distant, more foreign, and unfading colors and sights of Amsterdam, London, Paris, and Rome—pictures now soft and safe in some cabinet of the mind, a cabinet always locked but to which you still retain the key. And yet that simple but arcane world still called to me, perhaps it always has, with just a faint hint of the music of the wind in the leaves, the sounds of insects making good use of the sunlight, and the gentle murmur of farm animals off in some distant pasture. It’s like the feeling you get when you churn butter in a real wooden churn or drink goat’s milk from a jar still warm from the source or hand churn ice cream made with fresh ripe peaches and real cream and sugar in a porcelain sink by a lake.

When you journey from the city to the green heart of the country, everything is different, everything changes. Even the angle of the sun seems different, slightly off-kilter, as if you were suddenly wearing glasses with a slightly wrong prescription. But the most profound change is in the tempo of life. In Atlanta, your pulse is quickened; people stand in long lines, queued up to eat, to see the movies, to buy something. Country Georgia is in many respects a separate reality.

In the country, life moves at a more leisurely pace, slowly, even dully. When I was a child visiting my grandfather, who lived semi-retired on a small farm in rural Wilkes County, Georgia, that time often dragged. There was no television, and the local radio station ran mostly agricultural news and weather, along with some gospel and country music.

I, on the other hand, have always been a city boy at heart, like my father, and loved television with a passion best reserved for one’s profession. (Our youngest son has inherited this gene, but it has metamorphosed into an inordinate love of video games played on an HD widescreen, miles away from the black and white cabinet TV of my youth.) Like clockwork, my father would call my sister and me in from playing in the apricot orchard behind our house on the outskirts of San Jose, to watch The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid, and, if we were very good and made no noise, sometimes even that stalwart sleuth Boston Blackie. Even today, my heart and blood thrum with that long-ago anticipation and joy, and the thrill of that inevitable race (always won by my sister) to the doorstep and inside to the living room to arrive just at the precise moment to savor the stirring brilliance of Rossini’s William Tell Overture.

But no such nostalgia awaited us at my grandfather’s. And there were no Top 40 hit parades on the radios of rural Georgia in the late 1950s. Instead, my sister and I collected lightening bugs in Mason jars with holes drilled into the tin lids. Yet, thinking back with the benefit of time and experience, there was one thing that I remember as being positive and almost making up for the occasional stretches of boredom and the feeling of time standing still.

My grandfather’s was not really a working farm. Of the two hundred acres or so that remained of a once-rich plantation lost during the Depression, he only planted a small garden for vegetables and melons. He was one notch up from retirement then, and he had only one old female goat (for milk) and one very old, odiferous and ornery mule (for no reason I can recall, as he most certainly didn’t plow with the beast or grind sorghum).

I remember the sweet taste of watermelons and the fun of spitting out the slippery black and brown seeds, the juice masking our faces. I was always ready for one more bite, even though my full stomach was tight and complaining.

In the rich, dark soil, capable of such organic fecundity, there was solace; there was a sense of permanence, even of protection. Without modern conveniences, television, or even radio as I knew it in the city, there was a different, deeply felt life of personal sacrifice, a life steeped in old, uniquely Southern traditions and agrarian values. Despite the conservatism of a farming community, here I found an honesty, a liberality of the spirit, a kindliness and selflessness that made me feel protected and serene in a way I never did in the city, with its screaming technology and fast pace.

Sitting on the screened-in porch with its inevitable wicker chairs, I could look across at the deep green meadows alive to the golden summer sunlight, surrounded by pines, evergreens, oaks, and cypress, and know that here no one had to strive to compete, to waylay and mislead his fellow man, or cheat to make money. Theft here was unknown. All the flim-flam men, con artists, and high-pressure salesmen came from the city, which, I later understood, could easily become that heart of darkness we all fear, where the beast rules the passions of the people like an evil magician or a silver-tongued demagogue.

Of course evil’s dark wing touched even the country, which was not immune to the cancers and sicknesses of the larger urban society. The one I remember with the most trepidation was the Ku Klux Klan, which often gathered in the late 1950s and early 60s in rural Georgia. The KKK was a virulent and mutated form of the secret society organized during Reconstruction to help preserve some semblance of normality in the lives of defeated Southerners. The KKK’s early mandate was to combat the carpetbaggers—those opportunists who invaded a South weakened by the hardships and strife of a prolonged war intent on a new kind of pillage. The KKK was founded by Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of history’s true military geniuses. But early on, the KKK had metastasized into an especially evil and heinous group of bigots, xenophobes, and racists of the worst caliber. No one familiar with American history can forget the many atrocities of the Klan, visited upon the innocent. Forrest saw, early on, the direction in which the KKK was heading and was quick to distance himself from the group, even ordering its disbanding and dispersion. Strangely, the symbol behind which these villains hid was the American flag, the Stars and Stripes, which they flew proudly at their rallies and gatherings, and not the Confederate battle flag; that was adopted much later during the time of their violent and atavistic attempts to deny civil rights to black Southerners.

Not only did the KKK of the 1950s discriminate against Blacks, they also hated Jews, Catholics, and all foreigners—basically anyone who was in any small way different from the norm, who might be perceived as an outsider. My father, a naval officer in World War II, born and bred in the Netherlands, fell into this hated category. Distinguished war records and marriage to my Southern belle of a mother carried no weight of forgiveness or dispensation if the individual failed to meet the criteria of native-born, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. To use O’Connor’s phrase, though we had the strongest of blood ties to the land and people of the South, we were nonetheless “displaced people.”

I remember being frightened when some KKK members stopped our car one day as we went for a drive. I sat in the backseat with my sister, praying they wouldn’t notice my father’s accent. But as my mother, a true specimen of Southern beauty and womanhood, did all the talking, we were smilingly waved onward and found our way back to grandfather’s farm, a beacon of solidity and safety in a world that had suddenly shown the dark side of its face.