The day was still young and the heat had not risen yet, the morning dew still lingered where the grass lay shaded by tall pines and a few oaks were catching the last cool breeze before forenoon would announce the brilliance of clear skies. Georgia was not like central Texas where the dry wind would beat that last ounce of moisture from the sky before mid morning made its call for the day. Nearly a thousand miles if I reckoned by the road signs. The crow begged to differ, it always did. Abilene, Amarillo, and Big D marked the confines of my youth, the years acquiring that Texas twang and heady bravado as well as a love for black skies at night perforated by so many points of light, some brighter than others. Now my parents had moved to the Atlanta area and drug me along like that bronco unwilling to concede his confinement. My older brother surprised me by being so agreeable to the move. Well, he was the favorite and I was trouble enough. The baby was too young to know any better. My older brother and I had spent the summer working on my aunts farm, six hundred acres of cattle, corn, cotton, and hay. That was an ideal summer for two young men, one of who was already in his teens and the other just entering that nether world of hormones and growth of hair on his chest. Well, a little hair, a young man has his pride to think about.
This was a new experience for all of us. A new custom built house in a neighborhood of other custom built houses with rather large lots. Pine trees towered over everything that grew and honey suckle vines twined about in a most wild fashion. And the humidity, god how it grew in oppression to the soul, sweat clung fiercely to the skin and suffocated the body. Worst of all was the process of making new friends, of starting from being unknown. By age thirteen one usually found one’s niche in the neighborhood, in school, in life. The rules had changed without my knowledge, the confusion was great. The boys were indifferent at best and inclined to make my life miserable. I had to prove myself all over again. The girls were different. Well, girls were a different species in Texas and only two had ever caught my notice, so to speak. One lived across the street and the other a street behind. Call it a natural selection since we took to each other in that playmate sort of way. Chris would prove to be the first girlfriend I had, she taught me how to dance. But this suburb of Atlanta was different. The girls were not as direct in their communication. Worst of all, they talked funny. Yeah, you heard me. Middle class southern women all had that soft southern baby talk drawl that is unintelligible to the human ear or phonologist. One of my mother’s friends was talking to me and I had to ask that woman to repeat herself four times before I had some general idea of what she had been saying. Such a total foreign language. No, life would be hell for the most part with no way out.
Of course southern culture is that symbolism and charm of hospitality as long as one is not a damn yankee. But I was a Texan and not sure where I fit into the scheme of things. One of the keys to fitting in was to read a bit about the south and in particular those antebellum days that led to the Confederacy (notice the capital C) and the long years of lamentations. True, we Texans were patriotic and served our time in the cause but we were more concerned with the longhorn cattle than whether cotton was king. We would find cotten soon enough. Anyone who has chopped cotton can tell you about its importance. Cutting and baling hay was by far the more enjoyable activity in triple digit heat. My tales of summers on the farm failed to impress the gentry, I suppose I was labeled common for having engaged in such work. At least when winter came I was held in a neutral sort of esteem, you know, people don’t really think about you one way or the other. And since I lacked the resources such as a library close by or the small department store with its rack of paperback books, I was a reader of nonfiction for the most part, I had to take up reading the set of encyclopedias so as to satisfy my curiosity about the world.
Spring came and so did the fancies of many young men. Having gained some ability to converse in southern my social progress crept forward, albeit at a snail’s pace. But progress was being made. I still had no friends to speak of but I was no longer the stranger that attracted laughter. The end of school came with a pool party held by one of the young male students of our class and I was starting to feel at home again. I was about to finally make a friend or two. That southern hospitality that women in the south love to extend to those judged worthy was being extended to me. Ah, the summer would become an experience, a chance to find my place in southern society. The land of pecan pies and southern fried chicken, of girls with ribbons in their hair talking ever so dainty like. This dance of social obligations and morality I was learning how so ever crude the learning. But no good deed ever goes unpunished. We were moving to the dreaded north, Philadelphia. I would have been happy for that except American Bandstand had moved to LA after the payola scandals. Back to my aunt’s farm for the summer. Back into oblivion once again. Finally, my brother and I came back for two weeks before we drove the cars and sailboat to the Philadelphia suburbs. I shall not forget those few days when finally all things southern connected. Yes, I know, I see through a lens darkly but I remember all too well that I found a society, a culture that exuded a soft civility, a tenderness of spirit. That gentle charm of femininity, so graceful, so loving to those who they deemed worthy.
Philadelphia was a land of cliques and social stratification beyond belief. But that was the way of that northeast coast society. It was an ugliness that I came to detest. Maybe I am too harsh but I found war to be a better experience than my last years as a teenager in Philadelphia. Southern woman, thank you for your hospitality.