Men in this town seem to be passionate about two things (and with apologies to the town’s women, you are not one of them). This fact dawned on me gradually, beginning with the discovery that the male neighbors living closest to me in Traveler’s Joy* possessed dogs named Ruger and Daytona, respectively.
One important rite of passage for sons south of the Mason-Dixon line, occurring when a boy is around seven, is receiving your first firearm. (On that score, however, I have witnessed at least one man-child who didn’t look old enough to be out of training pants twirling a pellet rifle in his matchstick-sized arms.) The second, equally important milestone, is obtaining your first car.
This second rite is not restricted to sons. Men and women in this town have told me hair-raising, coming-of-age tales of reckless races, dramatic wrecks and near-misses experienced in their first high-horse-powered rides. One young man’s first date with a girl ended at the hospital for both of them as well as the two teens in the car they were racing – the teens surviving, but not the cars. Another local boy was driving himself and his uncle in a pickup truck when a tornado lifted them and set them down elsewhere, unharmed. And a tiny eighteen-year-old redhead told me how she routinely raced challengers on the straight, broad lanes of Highway 9,* south of town, with her seven-year old sister perched on the front seat beside her.
The husband of a friend of ours, Charlie M., maintains that for Traveler’s Joy adolescents, outrunning the law on a country road is virtually a senior-year requirement. Charlie graduated from a speeding teenager to a paramedic with a legitimate reason to push the engine to bolt-busting speeds whenever he and his team were called out in Tomahawk County*.
One rainy night the ambulance was dispatched to the scene of a crash on the Thicketty* highway. The driver of a white Cadillac had been clocked doing 85 mph when the car glanced off a bridge railing, hit a tree head-on, and landed upside down in a shallow creekbed. When the EMTs first laid eyes on the Caddy, which looked like a refrigerator that had been fed through a trash compactor, none of them expected to find survivors. They climbed down in the darkness to the creek, however, when they heard someone calling out.
Charlie was the first to reach the driver, a scrawny old man who reeked of booze. Because the man’s body was twisted at an unnatural angle, Charlie assumed he must have broken his legs, or his spine, although there was no sign of blood.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
“I be paralyzed!” the old man shouted.
Charlie crawled into the half-submerged and flattened car, trying to feel the driver’s limbs and assess the damage. It was hard to do, because the old man wasn't demonstrating pain and didn’t appear to be injured.
“Does that hurt?” Charlie asked, prodding and pressing as gently as possible.
“I be paralyzed!” was all the man could say.
At last, Charlie discovered a length of wooden 2” x 2” wedged under the driver’s torso, and understood. Paw-Paw wasn’t injured; he’d been paralyzed from the waist down years earlier in a rash bout of drinking and driving, as Charlie learned before the night was over. On this rainy night he’d “borrowed” a friend’s Cadillac and gone for a joyride, using the 2” x 2” to hold the gas pedal to the floor until his hand slipped and the car became airborne. The combination of a sky-high blood alcohol level and a profound lack of nerve endings meant that the old man had bounced harmlessly around the Caddy’s interior like a life-sized Gumby in an industrial dryer, and he would no doubt try to repeat his feat at the earliest opportunity.
“Lord, he was booking it when he hit that tree,” Charlie recalled, not without admiration.
Speeding teenagers and risk-happy septugenarians wrecking their cars on country roads explain why there are so many salvage yards in this county. Several vast junkyards of eviscerated automotive bodies stretch out on the wastelands beside the railroad tracks west of town and the abandoned mill site to the east, eastern red cedars and trumpet vine thrusting up through sprung hoods and shattered windshields. The thriftiness of southerners, enforced by many decades of sclerotic economic growth, is as ingrained as church-going in these parts. Little is wasted, and that includes any part of a car that can be repaired, reused, or converted into profit, however small.
When my husband’s compact car was rear-ended on a visit to Charlotte recently, he was given estimates from the dealer there in the thousands of dollars for repairing the body, and more than one mechanic told him to junk the car and start over. However, starting over is what we’re doing with our lives out of necessity, meaning that we must fully adopt the southern practice of ‘making do’ or we’ll go down. No matter how essential it may be, there is no possibility of buying anything so expensive as an entire car.
FK visited several of the salvage yards in the area, narrowing the search for a replacement hatchback door for his uncommon model. Ultimately, he located the door at one yard and the expertise at another, less than a mile from our home, where three generations of the Tessick* family preside over a salvage, auto body and mechanical repair dynasty. After about a week with the car in the shop, FK going in several times for companionable consultations and time spent discussing automotive parts and engines, Bobby, head mechanic and second-generation Tessick,* left word that the door was installed and the car ready. An exceptionally reasonable amount of money changed hands and then my husband drove his car home, as good as new. The only difference in the car’s appearance, and it is a distinguishing one, is that the formerly all-silver compact now features a shiny purple door. We feel that the car finally ‘fits’ its surroundings in Traveler’s Joy, displaying a sort of battle-tested survivability; a proud homeliness.
The car of choice among youngsters in this town tends to be long, low and American – a Plymouth Barracuda with a V-8 engine, or a Camaro jacked-up on tractor tires. The boy next door owns one of these vehicles, and for a time while he was holding down a regular job the sound of that engine starting up outside our bedroom window shortly before 6:00 a.m. every morning reminded me of Alabama-born writer Rick Bragg’s descriptive memoir, “100 Miles per Hour, Upside-Down and Sideways.” In that essay Bragg writes about the 1969 GM muscle car he bought and owned exactly two weeks before smashing it in a ditch, describing how “when you started her up, she sounded like Judgment Day” (Bragg 13).
J.J., the boy next door, is a lot more responsible than Bragg apparently was at that age, but there are plenty just like the writer who treat Limestone* Street more like a runway than a road. I try to keep off the streets of Traveler’s Joy on weekdays at 3:30 p.m., when the high school lets out. Pets and pedestrians alike are in danger when our town’s testosterone-pumped adolescents get behind the wheel for the first time in six hours, and I’ve seen too many spring kittens end up as autumn road-kill on the thoroughfares leading to and from the Home of the Wildcats.
I sometimes think that this predilection for vehicles as well as for firearms is simply a case of adaptation, writ large. When the Civil War broke out and the two sides sized up their opponents in order to plan strategy, there was no doubt of the North’s superior strength in numbers: more men, more munitions, more manufacturing, more mules, more money. On the other hand, the south held the tactical advantage of possessing more battle-ready soldiers, considering that southern men mostly hailed from farms and rural communities where they learned to ride and shoot while still in the cradle. Given the average Palmetto-state dweller’s dim view of government today, a hold-over from the days of occupation and moonshine-running, it occurs to me that the habit of riding and shooting continues just in case it’s needed when the developed world collapses.
Many people hunt in this part of the world, but hunting is only part of the picture. The first barbecue my husband and I were invited to in Traveler’s Joy occurred at the same time a dangerous criminal was on the loose in the upstate, a man who had already murdered four people in cold blood and continued to evade police in two states. Sitting around the picnic table eating burgers and slaw, the conversation among our hosts and the other guests quietly revealed that virtually every man at the cookout – excepting my husband – was at that moment ‘packing heat.’ It shocked me at the time, but I’ve come to understand that guns serve a kind of compensatory purpose for people who are gripped by, as Faulkner put it, “the old, fierce pull of blood.” In trying to explain the southern psyche he once told an interviewer “we have to be clannish just like the people in the Scottish highlands, each springing to defend his own blood whether it be right or wrong… only a comparatively short time ago we were invaded by our own people, speaking in our own language, which is always a pretty savage sort of warfare” (Hiles 516) Southern men have gotten into the habit of expecting disenfranchisement, and are constantly readying their response for what will likely never come.
One can’t speak openly against gun ownership here, not that I would want to. I was taught to shoot by my high school librarian, a transplanted Alabamian who drew a coterie around her like a rock star and who, during Sunday gatherings at her property high in a distant mountain range, drank mightily, spun elaborate stories, and fired her antique Colt Revolver into the trees cloaking the canyon until dogs began to bark a mile away. I sometimes think Mary Jane P. is the reason I ended up in Dixie (certainly the reason I read Faulkner), and I’m indebted to her for teaching me about books and life and how to shoot the s_ t out of a Jeffrey pine. So I understand the appeal of guns, which is really an appreciation of the power guns possess. But I don’t understand why logic and rational thinking can’t also be part of the approach to dealing with gun violence in the U.S.
For instance, if, as many vocal supporters of gun rights attest, we are safest in this society when everyone is armed, and that our possession of handguns and semi-automatic assault weapons serves as an equalizer against ‘the bad guys,’ why isn’t that borne out by statistics? South Carolina has high stats for gun ownership, but gun deaths are also high. Interestingly enough, our state ranks 18th in the nation for the number of residents owning guns, at 42.3% of the population, but we are also 18th in gun deaths, earning us a place on the list of the twenty deadliest states in the union. There are 13.4 gun deaths per 100,000 people, annually. All those armed men at the barbecue did not necessarily make us safer.
It makes me think of a homicide that occurred a few blocks east of our house two years ago, a tragedy Faulkner could have scripted. A man was shot and killed by his brother-in-law as he was in the process of beating his wife, the killer’s sister. By all accounts, the murdered man was a scoundrel: imagine Abner Snopes addicted to drugs and alcohol. He had terrorized his family for years and abused his wife habitually, so he wasn’t widely mourned. The shooter was an ex-con who had very recently moved in with his sister and her family when he had nowhere else to go. The police asked him what he was doing with a gun when he must have known, as a felon, that it was illegal for him to possess one. He replied, without a trace of irony, that he’d obtained the gun because someone told him he was moving into a very bad neighborhood.
Bragg, Rick. “100 Miles per Hour, Upside Down and Sideways.” The Reader. Ed. Judy Sieg 3rd ed. New York: Pearson, 2010. 13. Print
Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer, 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 503. Print.
Hiles, Jane. “Blood Ties in Barn Burning.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer,, 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 516-517. Print.