I’m Glad I’m in the Land of Cotton
Raised deep in the heart of Pennsylvanians Allegheny Mountains, you might say I qualify as a Yankee.
I’m proud of that heritage and my roots run deep.
When it’s baseball season, I live and die (dying more than living over the past few years) with my Pirates. And when it’s time for football, my heart still belongs to the Steelers and Penn State’s Nittany Loins. And I’ll call home during the fall to find out how my high school team-Altoona’s Mountain Lions-are faring.
But now I belong to the South…. you can’t get much farther South than Jesup. I’ve lived in Virginia (Richmond), South Carolina (Charleston and Anderson) and, before coming to The Press Sentinel, Savannah and Waycross.
I guess I was about 8 when I first read about the Civil War. It was the summer before fourth grade and I hadn’t been taught history–in the formal sense, that is. My mother had a low opinion about comic books. No Woody Woodpecker, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Donald Duck or Superman for me.
"You don’t need to read that," my mother said with a thinly veiled tone of disgust in her voice. "If you want to read comic book, read "Classics Illustrated."
"Here’s one," she said, pointing to a copy of Stephen Crane’s "Red Badge of Courage" in Gene Dodson’s neighborhood candy store.
I glanced at the cover. "Human, not bad," I said to myself. There was a picture of a battle-frightened Union soldier stepping over a fallen comrade, fleeing an onslaught of confederate troops.
My mother plunked down the 15 cents and I had my very first comic book. (*Comic" was a bit of a misnomer, though.)
After I finished "Red Badge," there was, at the back of the book, a piece entitled, "An outline History of the Civil War." I was entranced.
There was one panel detailing Sherman’s march to the sea where two Yankee soldiers had wandered upon an elderly Southern woman and a small child.
The Yankee were slovenly and unshaven, while the woman and child appeared terrified, hollow-cheeked and dressed in rags.
As the Yankees seized two emaciated chickens, the woman said, "Please, those choices are all we have left."
One of the soldiers sneered and said, "Who told you to secede from the Union?"
"That’s awful … terrible. How could they do that?" I thought aloud.
My heart went out to those poor people. In my mind, the Yankees were the bad guys.
A couple of weeks later that summer, I met my first Southerner.
He was visiting neighbors two doors down from my house and it didn’t take long to get acquainted.
He was from Tennessee, he told me in an accent I never heard before. "Mah name is Donnie," he drawled.
I showed him that comic book, and he smiled and said, "Your’re not a bad guy … for a Yankee."
Being two or three years older than me, I was flattered.
We got to be friends and he told me about his part of the country.
After he went back to Tennessee, I bought a Confederate flag and a gray cap with the flag on top of the crown. I cut a long straight branch, about six feet long. off a tree and affixed the flag to it and flew it in my yard.
I talked the neighborhood kids into playing "Civil War" instead of "cowboys and Indians," and I insisted on being the "South."
Instead of being Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy, I was Robert E. Lee.
That Christmas, Santa Claus left me a book called, "Lee and Grant at Appomattox" by MacKinley Kantor. And that following spring, the circus came to town. For some unfathomable reason, it was selling chameleons as souvenirs.
I talked my mom into buying one for me, and I named it (you guessed it) Robert E. Lee.
As you can see, my fascination for all things Southern was growing.
During that fourth-grade year, my teacher, Mr. Marinelli, asked my mother whether I read a lot. He seemed amazed at how much I knew about the Civil War, particularly since history hadn’t been part to the elementary curriculum up to that point.
I affected uniquely Southern expressions such as "reckon," "Ah declare" and "y’all."
I was a "rebel" in more than one sense of the word.
Someday, I daydreamed, I’d like to live in "the land of cotton," sip a mint julep on the veranda of a whited-columned mansion and gaze upon mossdraped magnolia trees.
I’ve toured a white-coluned mansion (Boone Hall near Charleston), and sipped a mint julep (at Savannah’s Pirate’s House) and there’s a magnolia tree growing next door to my house.
It’s been a bit more than 30 years since I took up residence in the Deep South. I’ve always felt welcome in every Southern city where I lived and I’ve made many friends over those years.
Southerners, it seems to me, are much more inclined that Yankees to be friendly toward strangers they encounter in their daily lives.
Walk down the streets of Manhattan or Philadelphia, and you’ll find people tend to avoid eye-contact with strangers.
In the South, at least in the smaller communities, people tend to acknowledge strangers with at least a nod. And out in the country, folks will wave from their porches to passing cars along the dirt roads.
That’s a quality missing north of the Mason Dixon Line.
Around Christmas a couple of years ago, a friend of mine brought back a souvenir from the Margaret Mitchell Museum in Atlanta.
It was a bookmark which contained a line from "Gone With the Wind." It quoted Aunt Pitty-Pat: "Yankees in Georgia?…How did they ever get in?"
I turned to my friend and said, "Probably by finding a market for these book marks," pointing to the place where it read, "Made in West Grove, PA."
I like it down here. Thanks, y’all, for putting up with me.
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