I was given the greatest compliment I could have earlier today, as Jon told me he had been reading and enjoying my stories for years. It’s been a long time since I’ve done one, but this storytime bearwall is for you, Jon. Put another way… this is all your fault.
Back when I was a cub even younger than my son is now, I lived with my mother in Miami.
I don’t talk much about those years for various reasons, but I do have one story I thought might be fun to share.
My mother had a lot of family living in South Florida, mostly in and around Miami. The world that I knew was fairly close, geographically.
One relative, my mother’s sister, lived in the distant, far off land of Fort Lauderdale. To my then-young ears, rumor said Fort Lauderdale was where all the hookers, sluts, pimps and white trash hung out, and my aunt chose to live there because that was where she fit in best. If tyou think that language is bad, you should hear what they actually said.
In later life, of course, I learned that Fort Lauderdale was no better or worse than anywhere else… but those years held other horrors in store. Specifically, the fondue craze, and macrame. Just, macrame. How many flower-pot holders does one house need, anyway?
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, if the words “disco”, “fondue” and “macrame” do not send shivers of terror racing up your spine… bless you. Some viruses must not be propagated.
There was at the time only one other relative I knew of that was regularly absent from the South Florida area, and that was my mother’s brother, my Uncle Charlie. Uncle Charlie was a truck driver by profession, who it was said had once traveled as far north as Orlando, but I scoffed at such tall tales. I knew the map was a lie, told to install false hope in children that there was a possibility of escape from Hurricane Alley.
Ah, my Uncle Charlie. He lived in a rathole apartment, brewed his own beer in a closet, carried a gun in the cab of his truck, always had a full beard and wore a Peterbilt ball cap 24/7… what a great guy. He was who I always wanted to be when I grew up. I’m pretty sure I became a truck driver just because, hell, Uncle Charlie did it.
Anyway, this one hot Miami winter, my mother announced out of the blue that we were going on vacation.
I knew that she wanted to get away from her life for a short time, she’d just had another bad relationship fall apart, and whenever that happened she wanted to get a change of scenery.
Normally, that meant leaving our one room apartment for a week or two to live at the grandparents, next door to the Hialeah Race Track.
In other words, an advance insight into what purgatory would be like.
People talk about zombie apocalypses, but they hold no fear for me. I spent summers living in my grandparents house in Miami.
How to describe what that was like? A place where, during high summer, no windows could be open, no fans were active, breezes were never to be seen, Charlies Angels and the Rockford Files were the highlights of black and white television, and the yard was where you escape to, to see if you can hunt lizards with lego robots. Swift movements were frowned upon, and loud noises forbidden.
I still remember, the highlight of my entire week one time was they had a Texas Instruments calculator in a desk, that was the size of a Bible and had red glowing digits when fired up. I learned how to type 7734 on the calculator, and other words of deep personal meaning. It gave me something to look forward to sharing when I returned to school. That was a banner week, all right.
As you can imagine, when my mother announced we were going on vacation that hot Florida winter, I was… unthrilled. The lizards would be hibernating! What the 7734 would I do for fun?
Mother quickly corrected my mistake. This was no ordinary vacation. Oh, no.
No, this vacation would lead us… out of the state. Across the state line to hillbilly hell. Out of the state, to some strange, far off distant land known as North Carolina.
To my mind, this meant I was going to where the damn Yankees lived. There was a North Carolina, and a South Carolina, and we had had a war of the north against the south called the Civil War, and so North Carolina must be where all the Damn Yankees lived, and South Carolina was where Johnny Reb lived.
Would we be in mortal danger when we crossed those battle lines?
At the time, my mother said no. Now, I know better.
But how could we possibly leave the state? Where would we go? How would we live? I’ve heard of winter UP NORTH, they have, like, snow and shit. I heard tell that it felt like living in your ice-cube tray all the time! And I’ve stuck my head in the freezer section before, everything in there is all hard, cold and has sharp corners. Sounds painful.
My mother shared with me a story of far off distant kin that lived amongst the great smoking mountains, in and among the green and verdant valleys. She painted a picture of a vacation spent in a place where deer run wild, bears eat the unwary, and there is this stuff on the ground, its water, but somehow it’s solid, too, but not like the ice cubes in the fridge, more like this soft powder shit, but not cocaine either.
I grew up in Miami, even at that age it was important to make the distinction.
Like, you can pick the shit up, and flop in it, and it’s cold. But it’s really water! I know, right? I’m calling bullshit on this powdered water on the ground thing. I’ve seen our freezer, that shit is hard as rocks. Cold sharp rocks? Oh yes, sign me up for the cavorting.
No, she explained to me, it’s like the stuff on the walls of the freezer when it needs to be defrosted.
OOOOHHHHHHHHH. Now I get it.
So the idea is, these far off relatives who I had never, ever heard of before in my life supposedly lived in the mountains of North Carolina, and had a cabin at their tobacco farm we could stay at for a few weeks, up where the Great Smoky Mountains divide the land between the Carolinas and Tennessee.
Now, this excited me. Tennessee? Hee Haw was my FAVORITE SHOW EVER!
Gloom, despair, and agony on me.
Deep dark depression, excessive misery.
If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at alllll.
Gloom, despair and agony on me.
Or my other favorite,
Where oh where are you tonight?
Why did you leave me here all alone.
I searched the world over and thought I’d found true love,
You met another, and PBBBHHHT you was gone.
Hell ma, why didn’t you say so? Let’s get on the road!
Off we went… with our thrift store winter coats packed and ready for a winter adventure.
The drive was going to be fairly long, but I was used to long roads trips of even as much as an entire hour on the road. This would just be a little longer than that, right?
It turns out that driving from Miami to the Great Smoky Mountains takes a tad longer than an hour. Fortunately, I was able to stretch out and sleep for most of it, and read books and comics. We had a big old boat of a car, and this was back in the 1970s, where the rules were vastly different.
There were no child car seats, and nobody used seat belts, let alone seat belts in the back. Where did I sleep? Sometimes I slept stretched out on the back seat, and sometimes I climbed up into the ledge of the window well above the back of the seat and slept up there, like a cat in the Sun. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?
The change from sunny Florida to chilly North Carolina mountains was… dramatic. It was already a winter wonderland covered in snow when we arrived, and it was like something from a picture book.
Our relatives turned out to be fairly prosperous tobacco farmers, and their “cabin” a two-story stone and brick structure accompanied by a big curing barn for leaf tobacco tucked up in the high country, crowded by dense hardwoods.
We pulled up and unloaded our scant belongings, and were shown into the “cabin”, which to our poor asses was as luxurious as a freaking mansion. Cabin? How do you call a multi-room structure with separate living and dining areas and kitchen and nice furniture and a wood burning stone fireplace a cabin?
First round of culture shock. Where I grew up, “cabin” was semantically equivalent to “dinky little shack”. The word cabin just seemed too puny and insignificant next to this opulent splendor. Hell, they even had a bookshelf with boxed puzzles for whiling away the long winter days snowed in! Talk about posh!
I felt very much like a fish out of water, thrust into a very unfamiliar world. We were shown around the property and up into the treeline, where we were told about the deer we might see, and I’m not talking your Florida deer which are little more than small dogs with antlers. I’m talking DEER, like the things Marlin Perkins might talk about on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, narrating a scene. “And now, as I enjoy this lovely cup of coffee, Jim will cautiously approach the vicious, brutal man-eating deer to scratch it behind the ears. Let’s watch. OH MY! Well, that will certainly leave a mark. As we leave jim to extricate the antlers from his posterior, may I suggest you protect your children from the mauling of massive marsupials with an insurance policy from Mutual of Omaha?”
The folks that showed us around were dressed well in many layers of heavy winter clothing. We, of course, were dressed like idiot Floridians that thought long sleeve Henley shirts were a bit too much. Our relatives, it turned out, were sober, respectable tobacco farmers. They had all their teeth. They did not talk about “Gittin’ Johnny Reb”. They DID talk about the deer hunting that year, and made jokes about how they’d have to take me up on a hunt, get me my first deer and smear deer blood all over me as part of the grand hunting tradition of the Great Smokies.
I wanted to ask if that was anything like the blood I got all over me in my first school knife fight, but saying that kind of thing around strangers was one of the fastest ways to get my mom to beat the shit out of me in public, so I managed to refrain. She was in one of her ‘good moods’, and those were to be cherished and encouraged as much as possible, usually by being invisible.
Still, the talk of killing deer and being covered in blood (which, in my mind, meant my thin clothing would be sopping wet, and damnit I was already cold) left me feeling happy when the “grownups” all headed back into the house to chat and visit with each other and catch up on lost time, and I was left outside to explore.
Not long after they all went inside, a guy came roaring up the narrow dirt path that led to the property. He had this incredible piece of shit for a car, all rust and bondo and patches welded on, cracked windshield, just a piece of shit. He layed down on his brakes, scattering rocks and dirt everywhere, and when he got out he hopped straight up the steps to the house as if he owned the place.
He was a complete stranger, of course, but so was everyone up there, tall and thin with whiskers and overalls. Basically, he looked like a country version of my moms infamous “Fort Lauderdale white trash”.
He came bopping out of the house minutes later, hurried over to his car, and then noticed me standing there, watching.
What follows is a fairly accurate recreation of what happened next.
He looked at me, and yelled, “Hey boy, you want to go for a ride in a race car?”
“Well, hop on in boy, let’s get going.”
I ran over and approached the passenger side of the car. I tried to open the door, but there was no handle… just a flat patch of bondo. The guy reached across and opened the door from the inside, and pushed it out. I climbed on inside, and I didn’t have to bother with a door handle, because the door slammed closed as he rocked it from zero to fifty in nothin’ flat, spinning around to head back down the, did I mention before, NARROW single lane dirt trail that led back to the road.
Thus began my misty mountain hop, as we barreled down a single lane dirt road at up to 60 mph, with no hope to survive if someone happened to be coming up that damn road at the same time.
I grabbed ahold of the armrests and the door handle, as he hit the road at full speed, skidded into the turn and got us pointed in the general direction of ‘down’.
“Hey boy, you like racing?”
What followed then was an absolutely indecipherable running discussion of K cars, Detroit steel, Nascar, stock car racing (all I knew about race cars were the Utah Salt Flats and the rocket cars that went for the world land speed record, a fascination I had at that age. Nascar? WTF was that? If it didn’t have a rocket engine, how could you call it a race car?) and bootlegging in the mountains, and how racing all started from good old boys running moonshine through narrow mountain roads.
All this being said while we are blasting through narrow country roads in the high mountains, weaving in and out and occasionally hitting gravel shoulders on the turns. Gravel shoulders overlooking some truly gorgeous scenery. Just, stunning. In my expectation of sudden, imminent death at the hands of this COMPLETE ASSHOLE, I was gratified that some of my last moments as I lay dying would be of such beautiful snow-covered mountains.
Eventually, we arrived at the very bottom of the mountain valley, and came to a stop next to a trailer home, rust spotted and with cars up on blocks around the acre sized lot that looked to be in better shape than the piece of shit he was driving, and of which he seemed so proud.
He got out of the car, and a couple more good old boys came out of the trailer.
My driver opened the trunk, got out a few glass jugs of what looked like water, and handed them over. The three of them pulled a cork, a no-shit yes I am dead serious cork out of one clear glass jug and drank right from the jug. They passed the jug around while the two trailer guys talked to my driver, and it turned out, holy shit, the race car the guy was talking about was the PIECE OF SHIT HE WAS DRIVING.
I was thirsty, and so when one of them offered me the jug, just a straight “here, want some?” I said sure, I usually hate water, I’m more of a Kool-Aid drinker, but I’m thirsty, screw it.
Did you know that, when distilled properly, moonshine really is perfectly clear and indistinguishable from water? I didn’t. I had no idea.
I think I could be excused for not knowing this information previously, though.
Why? Probably because I WAS SEVEN YOU STUPID REDNECK ASSHOLES.
From there, we climbed back into the car, with an empty clear jug left at the trailer behind us, for the trip up the mountain to take me to the ‘cabin’.
It kinda blurs from that point. I was drunk and didn’t know what drunk was, I knew the maniac driving the car was a crap driver who kept taking it right to the edge, I was out of my mind with fear and expected to die at any moment.
But, and I want to be clear about this, I still had my pride. I was DAMNED if I was going to show this son of a bitch how scared I was by his driving. I may be about to die, absolutely certain of it, but I flat-out refused to show it. Fuck you, drive it off the cliff, I don’t give a shit.
Who said you can’t learn anything of value in public schools? I already knew how to spit in the face of death.
When we finally came roaring up the dirt lane, the cabin was deserted. He told me to get out, and then took off like a bat out of hell.
I wandered around for a while, wondering where everyone went. I was in a daze. I was still drunk, I was still alive and felt kinda cheated by this, since I’d gotten all the worrying and fear out-of-the-way already. After all that, to just be wandering around a snowy barn and stone house seemed… lame.
The barn was open, so I went inside where all the aromatic leafy tobacco was piled up in a massive mound. It smelled pretty good.
Uncle Charlie always chewed Old Red out of a pouch, and that looked fairly easy, so what the heck, right? If my Uncle liked it, must be pretty good stuff. It hadn’t occurred to me until right then to wonder why I never saw any kids chewing tobacco. Everyone I knew smoked like a chimney, so it must be all right.
I got a wad of leaf and stuck it in my mouth and started to chew.
Right then, I heard an engine straining to make it up the drive, and I walked outside the barn, but I was still focusing on chewing this stuff that, wow, you know that stuff is really pretty nasty, and why do I suddenly feel lightheaded and dizzy, good lord everything is buzzing and tingling, okay this is some good shit, I have a lot of juice in my mouth though, gotta move the chew around and swallow some of this OH WHOOPS BAD MOVE….
And this is how I was when my mother got out of the car after spending two hours with my relatives frantically driving all over the mountain trying to find me after I “vanished” with the bootlegging, moonshining occasional farm hand and all around lunatic that had just been fired by my relatives.
Wobbly. Drunk. Buzzed off my mind from chewing tobacco. And sure as hell that there was no way, NO WAY, that I would ever get in a car with a Nascar fan ever, ever again.
If that’s how a Damn Yankee acts, God save us from the rednecks!