MRBlog | DISPATCHES. Waypoints: Navigating a Southern Soul — By Shawn Duncan


“Look for an old tractor tire on the side of the road. When you see that, turn left.”

This is how we in the South give directions. Well, at least in those few remaining places where horizons can still be seen in the distance. No shopping centers or office buildings to obscure the view. No major intersections, red lights, or clear street signage to tell you where you are. No internet connection reliable enough for GPS.

We are driving through the land of wide-open spaces. Rolling hills. Corn fields. Homes separated by acres not feet.

The waypoints for this journey are faded tractor tires, mechanic shop gas stations, and easy-to-miss side streets with names that include words like opossum and holler. (For my non-southern friends, “holler” can either be parlance for “to call out loudly” or a regional adaptation of “hollow” used as a topographical term. If you see it on a street sign, FYI, the latter is meant.)

My wife and I, with our two sons in tow, are driving through rural Alabama to get to a weekend away with friends. The longer we drive away from our home in Atlanta, the further we get from what has become familiar and the closer we get to the geography of my soul.

Flashing between the images of the South that roll across my passenger-side window are reflections of a person I once was and yet still very much am. Scattered across this landscape are artifacts of my youth and the history of my people, Scottish immigrants who generations ago settled in Howenwald, Tennessee. (No, I am not making up that name. Yes, it does kind of sound like “Hole-in-the-wall.”)

We are looking for the sign for the county line, which follows a large red brick house and precedes a Dollar General.

The road we drive on is narrow. The fields are wide. Time and cars do not travel as fast as they do at home. Houses are the only thing that outnumber the church buildings.

I am enchanted by the barns. Crippled by the weather, crumbled by disuse, eaten by time. Piles of wood and iron. Rust and rot. Still holding enough form to know what it once was, too far gone to serve any purpose other than nostalgia.

That they have fallen to such disrepair means a new world has emerged. That they remain means the old one is not gone, nor is it forgotten.

The man driving the truck up ahead has his arm out the window. There’s a tattoo on it. As we pass him I see that it is the cross of our Savior. There is another symbol soaked in blood that he proudly displays. It is attached to a pole extending up from the bed of his truck — a rebel flag.

Looking for that county line I see remnants of five old cars on someone’s lawn, rusted out bodies with weeds trying to cover their injuries. One of these bodies has been still long enough for a tree to grow up from where the engine used to be.

The quiet and calm out here is not mirrored by what is happening within me. I find myself breathing deeply, my chest expanding through this touch of home. My skin bumps; my stomach seizes.

Memories of Grandpapa and the old country store he took me to fill my mind. He and Nanni lived in a place like this for a while. It was there I learned how to shuck corn and pick green beans. I think of that time when he walked with me down to the corner store. It was a rare moment for the two of us to be alone together — just he and I. He wore his overalls and that white beard that made him such an authentic Santa for our small town Christmas parade. I felt so proud to stand next to him, to be introduced to his neighbors and friends. The store was at a corner where two country highways intersected. Not much traffic there. Customers did not come in, make a purchase, and rush off. People stood around and talked. The summer sun and the songs of the birds where not obscured by the structures and sounds of the city. They were welcomed guests that, like the others, leisurely hung around that day. I felt taller standing there with him. I have no idea what he bought, or if he bought anything at all. I don’t remember what we did before or after that stroll to the store. But I remember him waking with me, just me, down his dirt and rock driveway to meet his neighbors.

My wife sees the sign, and we finally cross the county line and turn. A truck passes. There’s a rebel flag on the license plate, matching the one flying from the front porch of the house up ahead. And the one a few miles back attached to a pole over a storage shed. And the one hung up high outside a family-owned mechanic shop. And the one waving to us from the flag pole mounted to the bumper of a rusted out pickup truck on the side of the road.

Grandpapa was a kind, gentle man. A tall man, a person of stature. When my mom speaks about him, in her voice I hear a fierce love for her daddy – and a profound wound that his passing has left. I was there the day he died. His heart – after years of surgeries, hospitals stays, and medications – had finally had enough and he collapsed on the floor. Nanni called my parents in a panic. Old enough by then to drive, I raced my Dad over to their house before the paramedics arrived. I knelt by Grandpapa’s side and held his hand. He looked me in the eye, unable to speak but able to squeeze my hand. I can still see him looking me in the eye. I don’t know what I said, but I remember talking to him for a brief moment before the rescue workers burst in the room and carried him off. That was our last moment together.

I make my kids look up from the iPad to notice the cows shoulder deep in a pond, cooling off on this blisteringly hot summer day.

I see a small diner named after someone’s aunt. And another two churches.

Since Grandpapa passed long before I was wise enough to deliberately capture moments with him, my memories are scattered, random things that are half history, half family lore. I don’t have any quotable words of wisdom from him that I have used to give my life direction at critical junctures. I mainly just remember his wit and the way he would lovingly pick on us grandkids. Teasing, O the constant teasing. Laughter, there was always laughter when Grandpapa was around. A story is often told that, when I was a toddler, he asked me with great consternation in his voice what happened to cause that crack in my bottom. It caused me more than a little concern.

I sure do miss Grandpapa. It’s almost been 20 years since he passed. God, where has the time gone? What would he think of the world today? What would he think of these two boys of mine? I wonder what they’d think of him? I’m sure they’d giggle at his teasing as much as I did.

I tell my wife that we need to go five more miles, cross a bridge and turn right onto a gravel road.

In the years following his passing, Thanksgiving and Christmas meals were always served with a side of stories about Grandpapa. It was during one of these meals I remember being told that if any of the grandkids came home with a black boyfriend or girlfriend he would turn over in his grave. This was spoken jokingly.

My Nanni’s birthday, August 8th, shares the anniversary of when, in 1863, Tennessee Governor Andrew Johnson freed his personal slaves. There are a number of African-Americans in my home state that gather with their families to give honor to this day. My family had a racially derogatory name for this holiday, which, up until a few years ago, would be spoken each year when Nanni’s birthday rolled around. It was embarrassing to hear. I can’t bring myself to say it or even write it down. It, too, was always spoken jokingly.

Jim Grimsely wrote, “It is easy to see racism in the violent events, and lynchings and beatings, in rapes and other acts of terror. It is easy, too, to pretend that we are not racist if we did not take part in such overt acts. But I was taught to believe in white supremacy in small ways, by gentle people, who believe themselves to be sharing in god’s own truth.”

How does one come to terms with the depth of love, generosity, and nurturing that gave you life while also being honest about the fears, judgments, and practices that brought pain to so many others?

The sound of gravel crunches under the tires of our minivan. We are close to our weekend retreat by the lake. The first home we pass makes me feel as if the turn we took was through a portal into the past.

It’s a past I need to return to more often. There are angels and demons there that I, for too long, have not faced. Neither my gratitude nor my repentance have been given the room they need to make me more of the man those two boys in the back of this van need me to be. The world in which I live and raise them demands that I go back so that we can move forward.

As I recommit to encounter the history of my people, I will keep my eyes open, looking for a worn out tractor tire so that I know when it’s time to turn.

Image credit: “Roadway in David Crockett State Park (Autumn 2008 – Horizontal Image)” by Wdwic Pictures – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.