This is another in a series of counties I'm describing for my upcoming book "A Quest for Counties"
Georgia – Clark County
When I fly, I try my best to get a window seat, and preferably one away from the sun. Since they stick me in a metal missile cruising at 35,000 feet, I might as well learn something about the landscape over which I am passing. A painful divorce had made it impossible for me to stay in North Dakota, for psychological reasons if nothing else. Instead of living out my days on the prairie, I transferred to an office in Georgia, a state that caused many misgivings in my mind.
I had only once before been in the south, but never the “deep South” like Georgia. To someone who had grown up in northern Wisconsin, any place at a latitude below Milwaukee was "the south,” and any place below Indianapolis was the "deep south." That May, the "deep south" had been subjected to tremendously heavy rains for over a week causing some people to talk about building arks. Once we passed over Indianapolis, the news reports were apparently not wrong. Each valley, no matter how wide, was flooded from bank to bank. Southern Indiana and most of Kentucky were floating toward the Mississippi River.
Once past northern Tennessee things seemed to dry out a bit as we approached the Appalachians. On each of my earlier trips to Washington, D.C., the Appalachians had been hidden either by clouds or by darkness or both. Today, the sun shone brightly and I was finally able to see them.
Not far north of Chattanooga we began our descent into the next stage of my life. We approached Atlanta from the northwest, then passed over the city in an easterly direction almost to Stone Mountain before beginning our final approach into the airport. I knew that Atlanta was a big city, but had no idea it was this big. It seemed to go on forever.
When I asked in the airport for a map showing me how to get out of the airport and on the road to Athens, the woman at Hertz said, "Y’all have such a sweet accent, y'all must be a Yankee."
"No,” I said, “I'm an American.”
Getting out of the Atlanta airport and onto the freeway is a trip and a half during the daylight hours. Its nuts the first time you try it and ten times worse at night. Finding the right road, I turned in the direction of Athens. Forty-five minutes later a sign was pointing to Macon. I had made a wrong turn somewhere and was nowhere near Athens. In fact I was about 40 miles the opposite direction and far south of Atlanta. Swallowing my pride, I stopped in a gas station for help. Not only was I lost in a strange state, but Georgians apparently spoke a different language. A British author once said that Americans and Britons were the same people separated by a common language. He should have visited Georgia first.
I told the man behind the counter that I was lost and needed help.
"Where y'all headed?"
"Well y'all's headed in the wrong dye-wreck-shun.”
"I know. That’s why I stopped.”
"Well where y'all from?"
"Y'all ain’t Yankees up there is y'all?"
"No, we're American just like you.”
"This y'all's first time in Joejaw?" This man was a master at double contractions.
"Yes, and it might be my last if I don't figure out where I am.".
"Well, where'zit y'all is headed again?"
"Well, y'all's headed in the wrong dye-wreck-shun."
"That was obvious when I stopped here for help, now would you please give me some?"
"Well, alls y'all needs ta do is ta turn around and head back towards Atlannah, right the direction y'all just came from. In a few miles y'all see signs for Athens.”
Now we were getting somewhere.
Eventually a sign came into view directing me to Athens, home of the famous Georgia Bulldogs football team. Many people, especially Georgians, seem to forget that Athens is also the home of a prestigious university. Athens was also the home of the "40 Watt Club,” and the new wave groups REM and the B-52s. Not long before this trip to Athens, Newsweek ran a piece about how this little island of liberalism in a sea of red necks was the epicenter of new wave music in the United States.
Never before had I lived in a football-mad town. Here you do not greet a friend on the street with an outstretched hand and a "hi, how are you?" In Athens, you reach out your hand and say "Hi, how 'bout them dawgs!" On a football Saturday, the stadium where they play "tween the hedges" becomes the fifth largest city in the state. If you ever wanted to rob a bank in Athens, just do it on football Saturday because all the police are at the game. For added cover, wear a red blazer so you look like all the other football fanatics.
Although Georgia was “home” for three years, it was never really home. Instead it was more of a way point I passed over when traveling from one place to another. I had misgivings about having to live in Georgia since the day they asked me to move there. Most of the misgivings came from notions I had about the state long before I moved there. Some things I thought about were things like, weren't Georgians the ones who still called us northerners "Yankees?” Weren't Georgians the people who played "Dixie" at the start of basketball and football games? Weren't Georgians the ones who still called black people "niggers" - and in the twentieth century no less? Wasn't Georgia the state that once had a governor who ran for President on a platform of racial segregation? No, that was Alabama - but it bordered Georgia.
Georgia promotes itself as the capital of the south. The huge, cosmopolitan city of Atlanta has dominated it, but beyond the lights and glitter of the city lies and lives a state that still has not gotten over the fact that a Union Army General named Sherman once visited Atlanta and created quite a light show during his visit. How any group of people could evolve from once being slave owners to claiming they are cosmopolitan while still harboring resentment over a war that none of them fought in is still an impossibility for me to comprehend.
I used to enjoy it when some redneck somewhere would call me a “Yankee” only to have me tell him moments later that the only Yankee I know plays center field in a baseball stadium in New York City. Georgian’s like North Dakotans’ never seemed to appreciate hearing an opposing view point. Countless times in Georgia someone told me that I did not understand the issue because “y’all’s not from around here are you, son?” Apparently in the mind of a Georgian, if you have not grown up with the same backward thinking of all your ancestors who rarely ventured beyond the county line, then your opinion does not matter because “y’all’s not from around here.”
A pair of south Georgia rednecks waiting in line with me to board a flight to Houston one night at the Atlanta airport symbolized just how far Georgia has to go if it really wants to be the capital of anything. I knew these two were south Georgia rednecks and not from north Georgia by how they spoke. A north Georgia redneck would say to me “come over here,” while a redneck from the opposite end of the state would say “come over he-uh.” These two were saying “he-uh” in every other sentence.
Their topic of complaint this night was the how the “Goddamned Yankees” were ruining the south. Their conversation was about the “Goddamned Yankees” this, and the “Goddamned Yankees” that, incessantly. Standing in line with me was a woman from Los Angeles who had a look on her face that suggested she was waiting for the Starship Enterprise to appear and beam her out of Dog Patch.
After several more references to “Yankees” I couldn’t resist any longer. It may have had to do with it being 1:30 in the morning, or it could have been the fact that I had just reached my fill of this ignorant outlook. However, I decided to say something about this obsession with Yankees, especially since the “Northern War” had been fought and lost more than a hundred years ago.
“Ah, excuse me, but didn’t the Civil War end more than a hundred years ago?” I asked.
One of the two looked down at me and drawled out “The Northern’ war won’t be over ‘till there ain’t no more of you Goddamned Yankees.” He placed special emphasis on the last two words.
I never really enjoyed Georgia for several reasons. I did not enjoy it because Georgia was where I went as an absolutely raw nerve after a painful divorce. Mainly I did not like Georgia because, except for a few close friends I made, Georgia never gave me the chance to feel like I belonged. I was “not from here” and that made me a suspect. I might spend time in Georgia and spread ideas that were different from what my “my great-granddaddy who fought in the war for southern independence,” had thought. And heaven forbid someone with an original thought should upset the parochial apple cart of the Peach State.