After four days of getting to know Pop during a transnational road trip, our intensive “captive audience” journey was nearing its end. Ahead of us lay Calhoun County, Pop’s home turf, in a very minimally populated part of the Florida Panhandle. There are offices in San Francisco that have more employees than the entire county’s 14000 or so people. As I said before, this is what you’d call an “insular community.”
We had seen rolling hills, verdant mountains, flat plains that extended to the horizon all around, forests, swamps and marshes, beaches, the Gulf of Mexico, bayou… Now we were heading into a gently-rolling landscape of pines, moss-dripping oaks fringing grassy meadows, everywhere dotted with marshy pockets of cedars in the low points.
An interesting thing occurred to me while driving the plains and being out in the middle of flat country on a few days prior. I grew up within an hour of the Pacific Ocean, pretty much my whole life. The Pacific is, of course, the biggest single anything on the earth’s surface. When you’re standing on a cliff, gazing out to the west, it’s awe-inspiring. For me being in the plains, though, was a similarly awe-inspiring moment. The vastness. The vastness of it all. Every direction you look ends at a single horizon, all around. Nothing interrupts it. It goes on forever, like the Pacific but in every direction instead of just a 180 view with mountains always behind you. It makes you feel so small, in a way the Pacific oddly doesn’t.
The previous day on the Gulf, I’d had a similar moment of awe. As we neared the gulf, Pop looked at his watch and gunned the accelerator. “Oh, shit, Nnaz, you’ve gotta see this. I think we can make it.” We flew down a remote coastal road, perhaps a mile parallel to the beaches. The road was made of ground oyster shells, like we would do to make a gravel road in places that have access to rock. For Florida, oyster shells are numerous and freely available and make a great stable bed on sand. Pop had explained before how they grade out the road and the ditches (that’s his job, and I got a personal tour of ditches that he had dug along highways), build a layer of oyster shells, and pave on top of that. This road was not paved, though. As we flew along, Pop screeched and cranked hard right, creating a cloud of dust and shells as we then punched it straight towards the water. Pop’s tour guide self continued the tour as we raced up and down an oyster road over the dunes and through the scrub. Off on both sides of the road were where artillery practice used to be held, and where Vietnam vets were trained for beach combat. “That’s not why we’re here, though.”
The gulf leaped into view as we crossed the last dune, wide and sunny and sparkling. Pop rolled to a stop at the head of the beach and we got out. He looked at his watch again. “Perfect! Perfect.” Looking out across the water to the south, way way way on the distant horizon, you could see a tiny dark line stretching from east to west. “It rains here like clockwork, Son. Let’s see, it’s eleven and thirty-four right now. It’ll be raining dogs on us long about eleven and forty seven. Forty six maybe.” I looked out over the water, appreciating the difference from my familiar Pacific: smoother water, smaller waves, expansive views the same, but no cliffs behind me so it felt more like being at a lake.
The dark line on the horizon got thicker and thicker. Within five minutes I could clearly see that it was a solid line of towering white clouds with dark shadows of rain underneath. We stood. A few minutes more, you could hear the rain. The breeze was starting to turn into a mild wind, straight off the water. Moments later you could see the line of disturbance where the rain was hitting the sea, and it was moving fast, right towards us. It only took another minute from that point for it to reach us completely. It was like when you’re playing hide-and-seek, and you haven’t quite hidden well enough. You know you’re going to be found any second, and you start getting goosebumps as you prepare to leap out and startle them before they startle you. The wave of rain swept up the sand and was on us in seconds. We stood there and enjoyed the warm shower for a minute, and got back in the truck in case of lightning. Ahead on the horizon I could see a white line growing, like the dark line had done earlier. Fifteen minutes after it began the storm was over, as abruptly and thoroughly as it had begun. The air was now fresh-smelling, but the humidity of the day was upon us.
Before long, the mesmerizing beauty of our journey would be clouded, like the Gulf’s horizon at 11:34am.
The landscape of Pop’s country was attractive to me, with the sometimes wet, sometimes dry land, alternately open and wooded. We drove briefly through Blountstown, the county seat, and headed up north a bit to the town of Altha so that he could grab his mail. Altha was the nearest post office to his home. Back south about midway between the towns we turned west until hitting a little town called Chason. Calling Chason a town is an exaggeration to the extreme. Two roughly-paved roads intersect. The intersection is framed by four poles, holding a single blinking red light over the center of the intersection on crossing wires, to function as a stop sign. Somebody decided at some point that this was better than just putting actual stop signs at the four corners. One corner had a cinderblock general store that advertized via white plywood signs that they sold mullet (a local fish, amusing me so much that it was the subject of far too many of my photographs of signs on our road trip), liquor, cigarettes, ammo, and food.
That is the town of Chason.
The “liquor and ammo” combo is a funny thing I noticed in the South while driving. Pop explained to me that the religious domination of the region meant many communities ban certain vices within their jurisdictions. All along our drive, we would be out on a rural stretch of highway, and there would be a huge sign above the trees touting “Gas! Guns! Ammo! Fireworks! Cigarettes! Ice-Cold Liquor! Porn!” all on one sign, and as you’d turn the bend there would be this enormous metal warehouse on the shoulder with its own exits and no other businesses around, a one-stop vices shop out of the jurisdiction of any city’s limits. The parking lots were exceptionally large as well, and more packed on a Sunday than any church parking lot in the South.
A few miles west of Chason, we turned up a dirt road and wound our way between a few properties with houses or trailers. One part of the road went straight towards a giant oak, only turning when it got there, only to arc around it and continue on the same straight line as before. Pop’s property is six acres of pine forest on a bit of high ground, and his “hootch,” as he calls his house, is a double-wide nested into a clearing he made. He positioned it smack in the center of his acreage, where he can see nor be seen by nobody. He likes to be left to himself.
Coming up his driveway, I realized I was about to see a different side of him than I’d been seeing the past few days. We were now back in the South – the Deep South – where mentalities are different than, well, the world. Pop made no effort to hide his embrace of local heritage. Along the driveway he was building a colonnade of posts to hold a collection of old lawn jockey lamp. I didn’t know they have a racist implication at the time until retelling stories back home, but it was all the more fitting to learn about that when considering Pop had mentioned they’re considered controversial but he likes them to “keep away the dark.”
Pop’s place was nice, furnished about exactly as you’d expect the inside of a double-wide to look. Clean and orderly, but nothing modern. Oppressively dark forest green carpet throughout. Carpet is not a good thing in humid environments, for reasons that don’t need explanation. Handmade Confederate flag quilt, actual Confederate flags as curtains, antique Confederate flag in a display frame, Confederate flag license plates on his other truck (the “local” truck; the one we had been driving was his new one for driving beyond locally, so he knew the implications of his plates).
Sarah was immediately welcoming and gracious. She reminded me very much of a former roommate from Alameda and San Francisco, a favorite of my past roommates, and I instantly took a liking to her. She proved to be very much like this friend in personality and humor. The first thing she did was whip out a tin and start rolling joints while Pop made a batch of cheese grits that could feed a stable. We smoked and talked, talked and smoked, and there were no leftovers left over. Pop had a couple of mastiffs, being a big fan of the breed. Very sweet pair, father and daughter.
The next day Pop wanted to get an early start to explore his local area with me. We got in the Local Truck and drove cross-country out the back of his property to (yes, really) Back Woods Road. The landscape was rolling with wide dunes of red earth, and his dogs ran along behind us for a mile before turning back. We pulled out onto another country road, one that did not have signs and may well have been a private drive or something. Pop was carrying a beer out the window. A little spot of dust in his rearview mirror soon proved to be the county sheriff, and he put his lights on behind us. Pop said, “Hang on a sec, Son, I’ve gotta talk to this guy.” “Is it the beer?” “No, Son, beer’s not a problem. The law here is specific that you can’t have an open container in the car, so everybody just holds it out the window. I’ll be right back. Don’t get out.” He got out and finished his beer, tossed it into the truck bed, and walked to the front of the truck to wait for the sheriff.
The sheriff looked like Boss Hogg, except for the uniform instead of a white suit. His and Pop’s bellies were in a sumo face-off, Pop’s thumbs looped in his belt loops, the sheriff’s thumbs tucked into his suspenders, both of them rocking on their heels as they talked. After a few minutes the sheriff left, both of them bidding each other goodbye by first name.
“That was [Billyjoebob or something like that, but it was at least three names for sure]. We went to school together. I left in the eighth grade, but he went on another year so’s he could get a good job. Now he’s this power-hungry guy who acts like he owns the place, and he wouldn’t hesitate to put cuffs on you for sneezing.” “What did he want?!” “He saw me with a stranger in the truck.” “What?!” “You. He didn’t recognize you, so he wanted to know who this stranger was in his county, why I was driving a stranger towards the county line. I set him straight. We won’t see the law again while you’re here.” Oh good. Who doesn’t want to hear that? Actually, down there that’s exactly what you want. Exactly.
Free of our tailing sheriff, we turned towards the gorgeous metropolis of Blountstown. The town is tiny (I mentioned in an earlier chapter that it’s about 2500 people), with a main street that looks to me like it was built in the 1950’s, based on the brick architectural style. I could be wrong. The highlight is the town hall, or rather the Old Calhoun County Courthouse (Wiki link). It’s this big, pink sandstone building, probably the biggest building in a hundred mile radius. Blountstown is more or less Goff Central when it comes to my own twig of the Goff Tree that has covered the entire South since the early 1600’s. In the yard of this historic courthouse is a train engine. This train engine is historic. It’s historic because it carried the “worker trains” to the plantations, and passed through Blountstown, right on this bit of tracks that’s still left to hold this engine. This is the Deep South, where not everybody is welcoming of everybody else, and this historic train brought unwelcome people through Calhoun county. Apparently this train, this very engine, would carry the black workers through the white county, and stop here to transfer supplies, and not all of the workers on the train would leave alive if it stopped here. As Pop detailed, one senior Goff in the day, my great grandfather I believe, was locally celebrated for his personal goal of lynching a worker from each passing train. What’s more, he kept trophies of his “success” in the form of a jar containing a finger from each, pickling. If his telling is true, this jar had been proudly on display as a “historic memento” in the entry lobby to said Old Calhoun County Courthouse until the Civil Rights Movement changed things. I have not researched these claims.
I had to shut off emotion at this point. True or not, the sentiment is locally present. It may be more prevalent in just Pop than in the county at large, but I’m led to believe it’s the county. I’m only going by two confirmations, though: Pop’s and Sarah’s, and they may not be the best sources.
We left Blountstown and headed farther afield. Pop showed me the Suwannee River, just because of the song. He took me to other rivers that were favorites of his, one in particular that was so clear you could see the bottom the whole length of it from my vantage point. (No sneaky gators!) We drove to the monument marking the highest elevation in Florida, a whopping 312 feet. He crammed in the rest of what he could think to show me.
On our driving tour, we saw many old plantation mansions, surrounded by grand oaks and immense lawns. It was so gorgeous, seeing these impressive icons of grander days. But then I started thinking about what, exactly, “grander days” means. We read history in school, and so much of it is focused on the perspective of life on a plantation from the owners’ perspectives. These grand houses, with everything you needed at your fingertips, all you had to do is demand it. It was very grand. But taken in perspective, especially with what I was seeing and hearing around me fairly consistently, the grandness appeared to me to be less of a monument to greatness and more of a mausoleum. Despite the impression and upkeep, these magnificent mansions represent an ominous darker side of our history. One that’s not as purely “historical” as I had thought before visiting the area. The “greatness that once was” is an idea of supremacy that’s still tightly clinged-to, celebrated, ingrained in the local psyche. I’m hopeful it can change. It may take several generations still, though, until people like Pop who won’t even stop to pee in certain places because “this is ‘their’ county – we don’t stop here and ‘they’ don’t stop in our county” have been replaced by younger generations with more open minds. Given the insular nature of such a small town in a small county, though, it can take a remarkably long time before inclusiveness reaches there.
At last our trip was coming to an end. One last night at the Hootch, and the next morning (after another vat of cheese grits) we hit the road for the airport. We had a breakdown on the side of the road, that I often suspect was a ploy to avoid having to go to the capital and have an emotional goodbye at the airport. They got me a cab for the final leg of the trip, and I arrived at the airport after the plane had boarded. Being a regional airport (still tripping me out that this was the case for a state capital), they flagged down the plane and held if for me as I was hurried through security. You know how museums often have a big plexiglas case to drop in donations? What stood out at Tallahassee was a similar case, but for people to deposit pocket knives, Bowie knives, guns, etc., before boarding. It was full.
I ran across the tarmac in stocking feet after security, up the steps to the plane, smiled at the two other Orlando-bound passengers who I had held up, and away we went. The rest of the journey home I was an exhausted emotional zombie.
We stayed in frequent contact after the trip, for probably another year, and started planning a reverse trip, with Pop coming to San Francisco to see my own home turf. He said he liked the idea of seeing “the place where all the world’s advances come from. If it starts in Frisco, it spreads to California. If California says it’s right, then soon it’s the country’s law.”
The day came that Pop was supposed to arrive, and I’d planned to get a rental car and take him on a trip around the area up through to Willits. I was poor as heck, though, and all my reservation attempts fell through when I hadn’t left enough on one credit card, assuming they’d accept split payments (they do not). Frustrated and trying to figure out what to do, I arrived back home, dejected, to a phone message from Pop. There was a long tale about a time in the late 70’s when he was supposed to fly out of Tallahassee. The plane was delayed an hour for a mechanical problem, then they finally announced a replacement was on the way. It arrived, everybody boarded, it itself had a mechanical failure, and it crashed. As it went down, he prayed and promised that if he survived this crash he would never fly again. Well, today he was breaking that promise. While waiting for the plane, they announced it was going to be delayed for an hour for a mechanical problem. Then they announced later that a replacement was on the way. He took that as a sign, and went home.
We’ve never had another reunion since then.
Our meeting answered so many questions for me, and at the same time put so many of my own life observations into context. It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. It’s interesting to see how many similarities we have, despite a lifetime not shared. We have a similar apathy, in fact, when it comes to staying in contact. Like I’d mentioned with extended family, you know they’re there if you want to reach out. After the vacation no-show, which I get, we talked regularly for some time, then started to drift off. Aunt Tina and Cousin Lisa had mentioned how they saw him very infrequently, that he would pop up out of nowhere and then disappear for years at a time. Aunt Tina had the same to report. Our own relationship soon settled into a similar routine. Calls on birthdays and holidays soon turned into unanswered voice mails. We catch each other by phone maybe once every year and a half or so now. I’ve got his last eight voice mails saved, and listen to them every now and then. They’re my version of the Father’s Day card I sent him when I was ten, that he carries in his truck visor.
I know Pop is there, and that’s enough for me. He’s as there as he ever was. Moreso, in fact. I talk to him frequently, in my own mind. I tell him my stories when I’m writing them. I tell him local histories when I think of them. I give him tours of the land whenever I’m driving around. I tell him everything I can about my own home turf. I wonder if he still does the same for me.