By Chris Tramel
I am a Southerner and shall always have the heart of Dixie in my soul. My experiences growing up in the South, and later travels away from home, have made me appreciate the beauty and culture of the region. The people, its music, the cuisine, and the sheer wonderment of the landscape are like no other on this world. Sure the South isn’t perfect, but then again the Garden of Eden had its problems too.
Spending my childhood in the South, my memories are etched with the unique people, mannerisms and sites that give the region its personality. Living with my parents in the city, and spending time with my grandparents in the country, allowed me to see two sides of southern living, giving the best of both worlds.
Having been born in Tennessee, we frequently traveled to neighboring states to visit friends and see the sights. Tennessee borders more states than any other, and we often found ourselves in Cherokee, North Carolina, Richmond, Virginia, or Atlanta, Georgia. During these trips I discovered the diversity of the South and how unique certain parts of the country are. From the grassy plains of Texas, the rolling foothills of Virginia, and the sandy beaches of Florida, I’ve always admired the beauty of the South.
One of my earliest reminiscences was a road trip to the then small town of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. There we took in a roadside attraction that still hangs in my memories. Featured at this small mom-and-pop market was a bear that would drink Coca-Cola. Tourists would buy a Coke or a Nehi and hand it to this old-timer, whom was apparently the bear’s trainer. The old-timer would then slide the bottled drink over to the black bear, which would in turn take the bottle in its paws and quickly down it.
Such an attraction today would most certainly garner protest from animal rights activist, but this was a different time. And looking back, I can’t help think, “What could be more southern than a black bear drinking Coca-Cola.”
I grew up in Chattanooga, a small southern metropolis, which sits in the Tennessee Valley on the border with Georgia. There I would go to church, attend school, and live my life until adulthood. Back then the city, like many others in the country, was not the cleanest or most sparkling place to live. On outings to the downtown area I can remember a bluish-brown haze, created by numerous factories, which enveloped the area like a shroud. And the smell was something that would also take getting used to.
But that was downtown and we lived on the outskirts of the city. There the air was somewhat cleaner and the homes a lot more in line with modern suburbia. Nestled in rows of houses we played with other neighborhood kids, imitating Evel Knievel on our bicycles and playing cowboys and Indians.
In our neighborhood we would gather with other kids and engage in hickory nut and walnut wars. The object of the game was to hit the other guy with pretty much anything you could throw, accept rocks, after all, those were dangerous. Yes we were a little rough, and often came home sniffling and bleeding from some war wound received on the battlefront. I’m often amazed we were able to make it out of our childhood with both eyes in tact and without severe brain damage. We were southern boys and played like southern boys.
During the summer months my brother and I would always stay with my grandparents who lived on the family farm in the country. It is there that you could find us building forts in the woods, riding horses, and stomping through creeks while catching crawdads, snakes and minnows.
My grandmother was a master of southern cooking and always got up early to make us biscuits and gravy. Like many southern ladies my grandmother was a genteel woman who expressed her love through her cooking, and there was always plenty of love in our family. Chocolate pie, fried chicken, and ham with redeye gravy were just some of the culinary delights produced in her kitchen.
My grandfather was a simple farmer who enjoyed working the land and raising cattle. He loved history and it is he who would tell us stories, about old Dixie, which had been passed down through the generations.
I remember fishing on the creek in what my grandfather claimed was a boat. It didn’t have a motor and leaked constantly, but we didn’t care, to us it was high adventure. During our fishing trips my grandfather taught us how to make a fishing pole and hook with a piece of cane and a straight pin. We would proudly come home with thirty to forty brim that, to us, had to weigh a couple pounds each.
My grandparents lived near Alexandria, Tennessee, where everybody knew everyone. There were no fast food restaurants, or chain stores, only the locally owned businesses you would expect in a small southern town. There was one particular gas station, “Judy’s,” where in the mornings all the farmers would gather, mostly to talk politics, whittle, and tell tall tales. In a time before the information age this was the place where my grandfather could catch the latest news and talk with friends.
During one of the times when we rode to “Judy’s” with my grandfather we would notice that everyone who passed us on the highway would wave and my grandfather would wave back. I asked my grandfather, “Do you know them?” He replied, “Nope, not sure who that was.” I soon realized that everyone was just being friendly, something unheard of in the big city. It didn’t matter if you knew them or not, it was just good manners to say “hello”.
In those days we were free to roam into town on our own, around a mile down the road. There was practically no serious crime in the area and people never even thought of locking their doors at night. The idea that a child might be unsafe walking or riding to town was unheard of. Besides, practically every person in the homes you passed knew who you were. With perhaps 50 cents or so burning a hole in our pockets we would ride our bikes to the square. There we would visit the local drugstore for the latest comic book or make our way to the 5&10-Cent Store where we would purchase a balsa wood glider or matchbox car.
In the evenings we would be found, Mason jar in hand, running through the backyard catching lightning bugs. As it grew darker we would lay in the front yard and, with the scent of honeysuckle in the air, stare up at the heavens, occasionally catching a glimpse of a shooting star as it streaked across the night sky. Later, as we lay in bed, we would fall asleep staring at our makeshift lightning bug nightlight as it blinked away the darkness.
My memories of the South are dear and have shaped what I am today. Though many things have changed since that time, many others remain the same. Days fishing with my grandfather, or tasting my grandmother’s home cooking, may be long gone, but today I find myself on the banks of the water, pole in hand, teaching my children how to real in the big one. I find myself walking the streets of clean and revitalized cities and rediscovering areas not seen since my youth. Today the South is modern, but still has its charm.
I love Dixie, where, as for me, old times shall never be forgotten.