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My family is from the South. They lived in and migrated through Georgia but that was a bloody Civil War ago. They fought here in the Revolution; some fought in Savannah in 1779. So, though I am “of the South” I am not “from the South.” Manifest Destiny carried us with the wave of humanity that washed across the continent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Like Mark Twain we are “American mongrels and proud of it,” a little Cherokee, a little Choctaw, some Scottish, some Irish, a butt-load of Scots Irish and a little English. The latter, however, we usually don’t talk about in polite company.
We are Southern Americans. Though I was not born here I have long-since been converted and baptized – sprinkled and immersed (to cover all bases) – into Southern-dom naturalization. Marrying a Georgia girl helped. If you knew the peach you’d know why.
It took a while to adapt after I moved to Savannah. That was twenty years ago. It’s different here. Or so it seems at first. To explain (and to risk mimicking Ted Knight 0n the Mary Tyler Moore Show) I was born in a tiny hospital in Central California, out in the sun-baked and cracked-adobe farmland that surrounds State Highway 33. My older brother and I were the first of our family to divert the lineage from those who were house-and-home-born; unknowingly, of course.
Our birthplace was named Westside Hospital. The structure was a stretch in healthcare nomenclature. Those who zip pass on the two-lane, dirt-shouldered road can easily mistake the building for just-another in the scores of cheap, flat-topped, ranch-style houses that had popped up after the World War II.
I remember from later visits it had five rooms; an operating/delivery room, waiting room, and a couple of cubical for examinations. My first experience there is still foggy, save the bright-light, tunnel-view and a subsequent roughing up by Dr. Jimmy Thompson. I am his namesake since my mother had expected a girl. I was not, however, and am not to this day though I have met ladies that carried the name, Jimmie. I shall not interpret my mother’s intentions.
After a few months of crawling, then running, in the flat, furrowed fields of Dompe’s bean ranch near the town of Crow’s Landing we moved to the “city” where I was raised in one of the rural “Little Okie” settlements. These were semi-impoverished hamlets that housed upper-lower and lower-middle-class farm laborers and tradesmen. These communities punctuated many towns in the state but especially those in the rich farm-belt land that carried U.S. Highway 99 from Bakersfield to Red Bluff. In the fifties the burgs were a breeding and grooming ground for post-pubescent, pre-adult teens that inspired the slick-haired, hot-rod driving, main-street dragging screen characters depicted in American Graffiti and Happy Days. Harrison Ford’s cowboy-hat topped character depicted another faction from the cultural group.
We, like our neighbors, spoke with accents. Those with first-language English carried the twang of Oklahoma or Texas or the South or the Mid-West. Second-language-English speech was tinged with Mexican-Spanish highlights with a few from Portugal. The locals of Japanese descent had been there for generations, had no accent and, save a short stint at a war-relocation center across the mountains at Manzanar, worked the land and kept to themselves. They were represented by only a couple of families on acreage adjacent to the subdivision where the Okie drawl was predominant. Current-day academia sometimes calls the sub-culture, “Steinbeck’s Okies.”
In that area, just before I popped into the light of the world, the emigrant-Okies were often met with shotguns and with that’s-your-truck-and-that’s-the-road greetings from the locals. The Japanese kept silent, busy working their fields.
Also during that era signs on some movie houses declared, “Negroes and Okies in the balcony.” In most cases we got second billing. The Japanese sat with everyone else – until the war. But by the 1950s and the time I was old enough for a movie matinee the rules had slackened – for all groups. In Modesto the Strand, the State and the Covell theaters were a weekend haunt for my cousins and me. Cartoons and newsreels were a highlight in the days before our first black-and-white TV and its fuzzy image of Sacramento’s champion of kid-dom, Captain Sacto.
Aside from a few brief attempts by my parents to return to the Holy Land – the area called Oklahoma by others – we tended to hover around the towns of Ceres and Modesto. I can think of no famous person who came from the area, at least at that time. Years later several notables sprouted including Olympian Mark Spitz, who didn’t stay long, film-maker George Lucas, who left as soon as he could, taking his hot rod with him, and actor Jeremy Renner, who did the same. I don’t know if Renner had a hot rod, but I am told by my daughters and grand-daughters that he is definitely “hot.” I have no opinion.
Other than those examples I might include two more, congressman and cleared murder-person-of-interest Gary Condit and a young man named Scott Peterson. Condit slipped from national headlines when commercial jets crashed into the twin towers on 9/11 only to have detectives drop their investigations of when the real murderer was found.
Peterson was convicted of murder. He killed, then dumped his beautiful-pregnant wife in San Francisco Bay so he could marry a blonde stripper. Go figure. I guess divorce wasn’t an option. Both I am told were of Okie origin. Few people in Georgia are familiar with the term, Okie. I constantly have to explain.
But, I digress. Savannah is different than my home in the West. It’s more cosmopolitan on the outside but distinctly Southern when you get to know her. You have to examine below and beyond the transient cultural façade of the military bases, the global influx of Savannah College of Art and Design and other area schools of higher learning. Then you must look past the society of “Old” Savannah, the NOG families as author John Berendt noted.
Once you look beyond those levels you find the “common” folk, those whose families have been here for generations; working people, river people, island people. They are like the townsfolk in the background scenes of movies, always seen but rarely noticed… with the exception of Paula Deen. They are like the people I knew in another life.
Here we have those with accents and those who talk Southern. Most locals have ancestors from other parts of the globe; Europe, Africa, Asia, India, Central, and South America. We even have the occasional South African and Kiwi. When they’re here long enough they unconsciously utter provincial terms like fixin’ and y’all.
Here and in the surrounding rural areas beyond the city limit you can find the same culture of my youth, the culture of my upbringing. The red-state people, people who will welcome you with open arms and love to get along with the throngs of in-moving blue-state folks. They are welcomed even though a few newcomers haven’t learned that locals don’t give a damn how it was done in New York or in New Jersey or on Nantucket, God bless ‘em.
Then, again, I have met a few locals with jackass traits. Some I’m told come with pedigrees of highly-selective, pure-bread jackass personae. But, that’s another storyline and that list is quite short. Then, again I’m of the South not from the South. Those who don’t understand… God bless their hearts.
– James Byous