“He wasn’t a perfect man, by any means, but none of us are and just as our good cannot wipe out our faults, neither can our evils wipe out the small kindnesses that mean so much,” writes N.C. Harrison.
My family and I took a drive down country, today. “Down country” is one of those things you might hear on the semi-popular (and it should be way more so) Youtube series Sh%t Southern Women Say.” It means, at least in my experience, taking to one’s automobile, cutting mud (another one of those phrases) out of a big city like Augusta or—God save you—Atlanta and heading to some place on the map which is geographically further south than you are. It also means, in the most general sense, some place that is greener and cleaner than where you came from and, hopefully, that green you’ll be seeing won’t be the runoff drainage pond from a kaolin mine sliced deep into the Georgia earth. Down country is, you might say, relative. Augusta is, in fact, down country from Atlanta (everything in the South, except maybe Charlotte and parts of Florida, is down country from Atlanta), Waynesboro is down country of Augusta and places like McIntyre, Sardis and Grey—Honey Boo Boo country—is down country of Waynesboro. We’re all down country of somewhere, you might say, and it all just depends on where you’re standing… or, during the hot days of August, lying in the shade.
This particular trip took us past graveyards, the sturdy little churches standing watch over them, the foundations of houses that might have looked architecturally grand in antebellum days but which were now ramshackle and fields of cotton, beans and corn that had been plowed and picked by yeomen, slaves and sharecroppers alike. Our conversation turned, as it might have naturally, to those among our relatives who had lived and died in these humble, wide open surroundings. We talked about aunts, uncles and the acquaintances of grandparents with names like Slick, Rabbit and Catfish, and on top of it all we talked about the curiously Southern practice of “funeraling,” or spending at least a week or more on those obligations that we feel to our departed friends, relatives and—in this place—sometimes even strangers.
During one lull in the conversation, when the sky looked almost too blue and the clay too red, I brought up my memories of a man named Roy, one of those people who had lived in what is at least my own distant past. He was the son of my great-aunt, Lila Mae. They lived on a small farm and, as I loved my grandpa’s tractor at home, the idea of the farm thrilled me a much as its actuality frightened me. I loved it, wanted to explore its every corner and cranny, but the big, loud pigs and goats—which, when you are less than five years old, must seem like every primordial swamp or savannah beast that has ever bellowed—left me terrified.
Roy came to my rescue. He was not one who would seem, at first glance, like he could inspire confidence in a tiny child. Roy was enormous, or maybe he just seemed like that to my little eyes, with a barrel chest and a ruddy face with blue eyes that twinkled over a thick, red, bristling beard. This, ladies and gentlemen, was the original Duck Dynasty beard, and I still accept no substitutions. Roy was as gentle as he was physically imposing, however, and I sensed this with a child’s sometimes deep perception. We became fast friends, after the fashion young boys and those they find impressive are capable of, and he took me on a tour of his mother’s farm. I sat on his shoulders while he pointed things out to me and told me stories about them, some of which might have even been true, a tiny mahout swaying on this huge, bipedal elephant that smelled sharply of cigarettes, sweat and beer.
It struck me like a blow, then, two years later when I heard—or overheard, as the case may be—that Roy had died. My mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were whispering words like “drugs” and “overdose” to each other in the soft but piercing tones in which Southern females have always seemed to intone terms like “affair,” “arrested,” “alcoholic” and, in those days, “homosexual.” I felt sad in that sort of vague, deadened way that the very small can, and so the best expression of grief I could manage on that day was coloring quietly while my family talked.
So now, a couple of decades later, I’m going to say thanks and raise a glass to a man who could have ignored a shy, quiet, sort of timid little kid, hovering in the dust on the edge of his ma’s farm, but chose instead to spend time with him, show him around and help—along with countless others—to instill a love of the outdoors, this place in the world and its people deep inside him. He wasn’t a perfect man, by any means, but none of us are and just as our good cannot wipe out our faults, neither can our evils wipe out the small kindnesses that mean so much. So here’s to you, big guy, and I hope you’re doing great wherever you are… see you on the other side.