Proudly Provincial

“A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amid the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection…”

—George Eliot

I suppose the percentage of adult Americans who currently reside in the house wherein they were reared is very small. I am a member of this tiny minority.

My home is in the eastern portion of the Saks community of Anniston, Alabama. We are centrally located at the foothills of the Appalachians in Calhoun County, which is named after the great Southern statesman John C. Calhoun.

I lived in the house for the first 18 years of my life, until I left for Tuscaloosa and college. Like most freshmen, I experienced homesickness, probably to a higher degree than most. I missed my family, my friends, my house, and the land that surrounds it. I frequently made the two-hour drive home after classes on Friday to spend the weekend there.

On my 27th birthday, I moved back onto the roughly six acres of family land, where I remain 20 years later. 

I first lived next door to my parents in a shotgun-style house my dad had previously rented. I used to joke that, if your stride was long enough, you could put your foot in the backyard when you stepped through the front door. I remember sitting in the silence of that tiny house one day, conversing with a high school friend regarding my newfound circumstances. I shared my vision of looking across the yard of my parents’ home and seeing my future children playing on the same ground I did.

Five months later, I began courting my future wife and the mother who would home school those children not yet born.

The author’s two youngest
children in the pasture
outside his family home.

We were married six months from the date of our first conversation. Our oldest son was born the next year. Three years later, my wife was pregnant with our second son and we realized we were outgrowing that small house. My parents, advanced in age, sold us their house, downsized to a new, modular home next door, and the small house we’d been living in was razed. I was back living in the house of my childhood. 

One of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life was when, as a boy, I awoke on Saturday mornings and saw the late-morning sunshine through the blinds. Wonderful Saturday morning. The sun was so bright because there was no school and I had slept in. Monday morning seemed years away when there was a weekend full of childhood adventures ahead of me.

My childhood was very good. As an adult I look at my three children at play and marvel at the innocent bliss in which they revel, oblivious to the trials of life that lay ahead. In the Stephen King novel Hearts in Atlantis, Ted Brautigan tells young Bobby Garfield, “When you’re young, you have moments of such happiness, you think you’re living in someplace magical, like Atlantis must have been. Then we grow up, and our hearts break in two.”

“Provincial:” of or concerning the regions outside the capital city of a country, especially when regarded as unsophisticated or narrow-minded.

—Oxford English Dictionary

My father was raised in Saks. After serving a stint in the military, he spent a few years living in Maryland but he soon came back to settle here, like I would later do. 

He tells the story of being with his parents visiting relatives in Tennessee when he was an adolescent in the 1950s. His aunt and uncle lived only 15 or 20 miles from Nashville, Tennessee—known as Music City and home of the Grand Ole Opry

One Saturday night, his aunt asked him if he wanted to see the Grand Ole Opry. Stunned, my father enthusiastically affirmed that he sure would. All present enthusiastically crammed into the family sedan while his aunt nonchalantly remarked that she’d been to the Opry many times before—as if it were no big deal.

Heart pounding, my dad sat up straight in his seat on the way, thinking of what stars might grace the Opry’s stage that night— singers he knew only through their voices heard through the radio.

Traffic intensified as they approached the majestic Ryman Auditorium, and music could be heard coming from inside as the car approached. His aunt rolled down her window and pointed at the huge building. “There it is!” she beamed proudly.  

The car continued rolling past the building and my dad’s heart sank as it turned around and his aunt drove the group back to her house. Thus was completed my father’s thrilling account of “The Time I went to the Grand Ole Opry.” Laughter accompanied many such stories told in the living room of our old house. 

My father was what high-falutin’ folks call “small town.” My mother, one of four daughters born to her Cajun father, a World War II veteran, and her Georgian mother, a charming, caring, country woman, was raised in that same Saks community. My parents were Saks High School Wildcats, just as I would be.

My home sits on top of a hill (my own Redneck Monticello) at the intersection of two streets largely unknown to anyone outside the immediate area. The road on which I live dead ends on both sides. Standing at the foot of my driveway and looking east, I can see Alabama Highway 21.

Trying to calculate the number of times I have crossed the threshold of this driveway is difficult, but I would not be surprised if it is in the hundreds of thousands. I can look north and see the house where my friend, Justin, used to live, and imagine all the times I walked up and down that road to his house and back to mine, usually with my mother waiting at the top. Now my daughter and I frequently walk those same steps. 

I remember being picked up by the school bus here in the mornings and being dropped off by that bus in the afternoons (the difference between those two occasions, to me, being akin to losing and winning the Super Bowl).

Standing in this spot today, I can look around and see all the current and former neighbors I have and have had. Prior to its closing in 1995, Anniston was home to the military base Ft. McClellan. It was the fort that brought my grandfather here from Louisiana. The fort increased our population, but also meant there was a constant influx and exodus of families due to military reassignments. I sadly recall short-lived friendships with Joe, Jason, Daison, Anthony … It seemed like every time I solidified a new friendship the father would get marching orders, and the friend would be gone. In and out of my life they flew.

I recently saw a sign in an antique shop that read, “Home is not a place. It’s a feeling.” It is both for me. I tell folks all the time, I love to be home. There are times when I have off days from work when my goal is to never leave the property. 

Many times I go for walks and reminisce. Our house sits near the roadway, with most of our land behind it, making it the earthly equivalent of the mullet hairstyle: business up front, party in the rear. It has been my family’s place of refuge, a shelter from the storms of life, a slower pace and a soft place to fall after wrangling with the darkness of the world. 

Our property borders seven other properties and several more are within eyesight. None of the residents of those places are the same ones who occupied them when I was a boy. They have moved on or died. 

There is a trailer on the northern end that was occupied by an older, single man known to us as “Bud” when I was young. While I was home from college in the summer of 1996 my father and I went to check on his welfare after not seeing him for several days. We found him lying dead on the floor. Ten years later another single man named Alan moved into that trailer and on the second day of 2018 he was also found dead and alone on that floor. We now own the trailer and use it for storage. I walk through it and think of Bud and Alan.

A pasture stretches westward from our backyard. In that pasture I have played the dual role of the likes of Kenny Stabler throwing to Ray Perkins, catching my own passes as so many lone gridiron warrior children have done. We kept livestock as pets on these grounds. Goats with names like Pete Rose, Forrest, and Bubba, a small pony we called “Big Red,” sheep, donkeys, etc. 

My father was an auto-body worker and our pasture, like in an old country song, was “a graveyard for automobiles,” which he used for parts. My friends and I—and my goats—would play on top of those cars and leap from roof to roof. 

There is a large pine tree that I acknowledge on my walks through the pasture. It was this tree my middle son crashed into on a four-wheeler when he was ten, suffering a concussion that gave us quite a scare. Every time I pass the tree, I look at it and thank God for His mercy.

There is a small barn near the western edge of the pasture. I spent a lot of time there by myself and with friends when a lad. It was sort of a clubhouse for us. It was the site of my first alcoholic intoxication when, as a teenager, a friend of mine procured some unsecured beer and a bottle of cheap wine from a party and brought it back to sneak into the barn and partake. A few years later, again at home from college during Christmas break, another friend and I took cigars inside on a frightfully cold night. After about an hour and a half smoking inside, we emerged into the chilly night air, smoke billowing around us in what must have appeared to anyone looking like a barn fire. 

There is a backstop my dad built when I was a child. He used to throw baseballs to me so I could practice hitting until the sun would set and I could no longer see them. Years later, I would take his place on the mound and throw to my two young sons. The circle of life on the same ground continues, laying generational foundations, building bonds, and making memories.

There is a somewhat crude goal post just a bit north of the backstop my father built for his grandsons from PVC pipe. It may not look like much, but he obtained the precise measurements from the Saks High football field to make sure it met specifications.

That high school field is where I played in the century past. It sits just about a mile as the crow flies from our pasture, and during home games in the fall I can walk out there and see the lights between the trees, hear the band, and make out the announcer on the PA as I relive gridiron glory days. 

A picture of Saks Stadium, the high school football field, taken by the author.

It was this same pasture ground where I first came to seriously contemplate God as a child, and where I often come again to walk and pray today. As a boy, I played in the woods that surround the pasture, and I look to them now for the comfort that familiarity brings. I gaze at the top of the trees; their branches swaying in the wind make me feel as though it is God letting me know He hears me. Those same footsteps I tread as a boy I retraced as a man when talking to each of my three children about eternal life and the salvation of Jesus Christ.

It was this same piece of earth to which I took each of my sons to have the talk of the birds and the bees. I knew of no other place where I could feel the necessary freedom to address such issues. (Not my daughter, though—I delegated that obligation to my wife. A father should know his limitations.) 

The auto body shop, where my dad skinned his knuckles and calloused his hands turning wrenches all those years, rests where the pasture begins. It is now a hangout for him, me, and my children. It was my dad’s policy to never return a car to a customer without washing it. When I was home, I was on standby to assist when my dad called to say a customer was on his or her way to pick up a car he had finished repairing and we had to have it looking better than ever when the customer arrived. I have never had a vehicle serviced that was washed when I retrieved it. But that’s not the way my dad did business. Today, we wash our family cars in that same spot. 

A short walk from the shop is my parents’ home, where I am blessed to still have them both. Inside I regularly have coffee and conversation with my mother, who enjoys the simple pleasure of being at home as much as I do. She left the workforce when I was born to raise my sisters and me. When I graduated high school, she returned and worked 16 more years before retiring. Now she and I continue to share so much of our lives here. 

Christmas Days, barbeques, walks and talks, waves to passing neighbors, front-porch swinging, the fragrance of supper on the stove, bicycle riding, laughter, the Southern Cross on the flagpole popping in the wind, country music coming from a speaker, ball games in the yard, the stillness of a late night with cicadas buzzing a tune, me immersed in solitude in a rocking chair smoking a cigar and reading a book … for decades we have enjoyed these small, consistent rhythms of life at the place we call home—a place we have occupied for so long we feel we have become that place. Home is more than a feeling for us. It is a place, too.

Ben Franklin is credited with saying that fish and guests have the same quality—they both begin to smell after about three days. I feel the same about being a guest. Even on vacation, I begin pining for home after only a few days. Home is where I am most myself, and it is the source of my strongest earthly roots and ties. It is the most pleasant of inns on my journey to my final home in heaven. 

I am proudly provincial. Most of my dreams do not stretch farther than the county line. Many young people cannot wait to get away. Many leave and never come back. 

I have traveled and visited some fascinating places and hope to do so yet again. But my home is at the intersection of Long Ave. and Hillcrest Rd. in this small Deep South community. My memories gather around me here. 

They say you can’t go home again. Heck, I don’t know. I never really left.

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