Sunday, June 06, 2004

Watch out for Tractors (Part III)

What a Long, Strange Trip it's Been
To borrow a catch phrase from Magnum PI, “Now I know what you’re thinking. Why would someone who disdains Southern attitudes move from SoCal to Nashville?” Believe me, it wasn’t *my* idea. However, rather than making this entry so long that even *I* wouldn’t read it, let me say that I’ll cover the “why” at another time. The important part is that we did make the move, as did another one of our closest SoCal friends, who relocated to Memphis about 3 years after we arrived in Nashville.

These friends are a family we’ve known well for more than 20 years. We’ll call them the Franklins (that’s not their real name — but I’ll bet you already figured that one out). As a matter of fact, Mrs. Franklin and my wife have been best friends for the better part of those 20 years, and have become particularly close in the past 9 or so since the Franklins moved to Memphis.

For you non-geography buffs, Memphis is located in the extreme Southwest corner of the state of Tennessee, while Nashville is located nearly dead-center geographically. Depending on what part of Memphis you’re going to, it’s a little over 200 miles from Nashville to Memphis, or around a 3 ½ to 4 hour drive via I-40. My wife makes the trip to visit her friend often. Mrs. Franklin reciprocates nearly as often. Sometimes I’ll come along with my wife to Memphis, or Mr. Franklin will accompany his wife when she comes out our way. Our families have have spent Thanksgiving, The 4th of July and various short getaways at regional spots together several times throughout the past 10 years.

The Franklins have twin sons who are the same age as our daughter and an adopted daughter who is currently middle school age. This is truly a family friendship. Our respective children have spent a lot of time with each other growing up and all get along famously. So when it was announced earlier this year that one of the Franklin twins was getting married, there was no hesitation on our part to affirm that we would attend the wedding...even if it was going to be held some 425 odd miles rural Mississippi.

Now one thing I’ve learned living in Nashville is that stereotypes are just that — stereotypes. And to that end, one of the things I’ll get into at that aforementioned “other time” when I explain why we chose to come here from Southern California, is how delighted I was to learn how far off base my SoCal cultural elitist training had been. Tennesseeans are just people, and for the most part they’re more genuine and caring than folks from other parts of the country. They’re very intelligent, and just as well-rounded on things like politics and world events as anyone else. Sure there is still some lingering cultural racial prejudice, but it’s no more apparent in daily life here than it is anywhere else. Those attitudes are changing much more quickly than the rest of the country gives them credit for, I assure you.

But...Mississippi? You want me to Mississippi? Eeeww…

Yep, old stereotypes die hard...for all of us. The Franklin boy was marrying a pretty young woman he’d met in college who was from a small farming community in West-Central Mississippi delta country, conservatively 50 road-miles from the nearest interstate highway. You know...the very *heart* of “The Evil Empire.” I have to admit, as wrong as I’d learned I had been about Tennessee, I still had never allowed myself to give states like Mississippi and Alabama the same benefit of the doubt. Surely there must still be hooded Klansmen patrolling the streets; and no doubt every town square must surely be adorned with giant Confederate flags or statues of Jefferson Davis, right?

Well, I’m happy to report that I was dead wrong on all fronts. What I did see was normal life on a Saturday, albeit at a snail’s pace compared to my own. No one was in a hurry, on the roads or elsewhere. Most of the people out and about that I saw were black. I saw a lot of what appeared to be poverty, but just when I began to take that opinion to heart, I noticed that about 95% of the cars on the streets and in the driveways of most of these modest homes were shiny and new. So without drawing any hard conclusions, it was clear that things aren’t what they appear to be on the surface. I saw cotton fields — everywhere, and concluded that this must be a major employer in the region — another of the ways things are still the same in this part of the country, and most likely always will be. There didn’t appear to be a lot of other visible places folks could work in these isolated towns, which even by today’s travel-happy standards are much too far away from major highways for the average person to commute to and from a job someplace else.

Next: How Small *is* it?
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