Some years ago the son of one of my closest friends had been accepted into a swank college in Virginia and, as he met his new roommate on the first day, he was delighted to learn that the two shared quite a bit in common. It appeared that the “blind draw” process, where no freshman had any idea who their first-year roommate might be, had turned out well until right after they flipped off the lights for the night.
“Hey … can I … would you mind … if I asked you a question?” said the halting voice that had come all the way from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My friend’s son, now a bit uneasy in the darkness, slowly countered, “Sure … I guess … what’s up?” And the Michigan kid replied, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, or say anything I shouldn’t, but I just want to know … Uh, have you ever been to … um … Alabama?”
Seriously! My friend’s son was expecting something like, “Does it bother you that I am an axe murderer?” So when his new roommate could stand it no longer and blurted out this stereotype he had of the South in general -- and Alabama in particular -- it resulted in crescendos of laughter neither teenager will ever forget and a first-night promise, “I’ll take you there myself … it is one of the most wonderful places in America.
I was reminded of that conversation the other day when my eyes were drawn to a column in the Birmingham News by writer John Archibald that attempted to define, “What is … Alabama.” The writer was at his best when he answered his own call. Please savor this excerpt:
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“It is doohickeys and thingamajigs. It is driving in a day from mountains to beach, marveling at the first sight of Spanish moss and the first smell of salt. It is stopping mid-way to buy boiled peanuts from an old man with an open fire on the side of the road.
“It is renting movies set in Alabama but filmed in Georgia, where men with bad accents sip mint juleps on the porch. Wrong in so many ways.
“It's a place where music is perfected in churches and practiced in bars, where speech itself has the rhythm of a slow dance.
“But Alabama is more than that, too.
“The real Alabama was always able to see its own eccentricities and smile. It can thank God for Mississippi with a wink, and forgive its own flaws like family. Of course, the state has long been hobbled by its own decisions and by the edicts of others. It is proud, so it is naturally defensive.
“But Alabama – I still believe this -- is not mean. It seems so, to many. But it is not.
“Alabama, after all, is a place where a nod is the least you can give a stranger. It is a state that answers all manner of anguish with kind words and Jell-O molds, that begins the healing process with plenty of cream of mushroom soup.
“I have to say it took a Yankee to really define it for me. My former colleague Jeff Hansen used to constantly marvel at the Alabama way of responding to crisis. "Show people a need," he said over and over again, "And they will respond."
“He was sure of it, because he'd seen enough houses raised by regular Alabamians, bank accounts set up to help sick children, organs, money and hours donated in the wake of storms.
“In those times – times of genuine human need – race did not matter, politics did not divide and Alabamians cared for Alabamians. No matter where they were born or what team colors they wore.”
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As a Child of the South, I adored John’s stance and apparently so did many from within the state. His column brought a furious flutter of replies from readers and, as I went back to the website to check the response, here’s the one that tickled me most:
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"Buttered biscuits on my grandmother's table, her coffee so hot it would scorch your tongue. Breakfast food at night. Fish in clear running streams, "still" hunting squirrels with my dad; the "Townley, Alabama rest Stop", the sign painted by hand on a piece of plywood, sitting beside a commode and a couch …
“Cool fall nights at the high school football game; the "field party" in the four wheel drive truck, good cold beer (not craft beer for sure, but pretty good at the time); the big old Sunday Birmingham News in the driveway; Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler, Johnny Musso; and Pat Dye, Pat Sullivan, Bo Jackson; Gene Bartow and good basketball …
“Even George Wallace, who is surely part of our memories, no matter what our politics; the fact that you who are reading this remember all these things too, some with a smile, some not so much, that means you "know what it means to be Alabama". And that's a good thing."
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I wish I knew how to send a copy of this to the kid from the Upper Peninsula.