Friday, February 20, 2009

Civil War: Jonesborough 1968

I was kind of a roughneck little kid. I liked to fight and get dirty and eat and explore and pick up disgusting creatures and bring them home. But I was also shy, sensitive, lived life in my own mind. When we moved to Tennessee when I was ten or so, we first moved to this strange little town--Jonesborough--where we rented a house with an acre or so of woods behind us. We kids also entered the Jonesborough school system.
Now, we were no sophisticates, but coming from the new, progressive, west coast world of Washington to a deeply southern small town world of northeast Tennessee in the late 60's was quite the culture shock. People were nice, but they talked very funny (the word "tar" could be interpreted as tar or tired or tire or tower to our ears), there were expressions and attitudes we had never encountered before and we were obviously "outsiders" from the get-go. The school was in the town (we lived along a highway/road on the outskirts of town) and it was a big, hulking, dilapidated three or four story wooden school house that included about all the grades. The teachers didn't seem to be all that smart. I don't mean to denigrate the South, but Jonesborough--at that time--lived up to most of the stereotypes you can think of. it was so out of whack to our sensibilities and we must have been like foreigners from some strange planet to them. But, being a resilient semi-sensitive-tough guy, I went about making friends. It took a while, but getting through recess helped.
Because at recess, I had to fight.
I had no real interest or deep connection to the North and South, but my little peers sure did. When they found out I was from out west, that I'd been born in South Dakota, well, that was Yankee enough for them. So recess was spent playing Civil War.
"You're from the north, so you're the Yankees. We're from the south, so we're the Rebs," they said. And they were about, oh, I don't know, maybe a dozen.
So, I fought my way through these kids. Now, this wasn't like punching, kicking, stick-throwing fighting. It was more wrestling and such, though I did see a bit of choking, the kind with thumbs stuck into the soft part of your throat. Fortunately, I was bigger than most kids my age--tall, agile, quick, strong--so I held my own. And luckily, these kids had their own scores to settle amongst themselves, so they fought each other even though they were Rebels. But as days and weeks went on, I made friends through this cultural/historical rough-housing exchange and eventually the sides of Yankee and Reb, North and South, pretty much evened out. And later--even though it was never quite healed (like the Civil War even today)--the whole issue was kind of dropped and we all just played and fought because that's what we did.
There was no real supervision on the playground and the land was hilly and had trees and little hollows and gullies covered by vines and branches where we did the most dangerous damage to each other, scuffling about in the scattered leaves and weeds and thistles and honeysuckle vines and all that surreal red clay dirt. Even inside, on cold or rainy days, when we played in the cavernous-broken-down gym, the same antics were played out with no teacher ever saying much about it. There was only one kid I was afraid of. I don't recall his name, but when I conjure up the image of a bully, it's his face I see. He was a sociopath even at that age and all kids avoided him. I was tough with about everyone--sometimes purely in a facade sort of way--but him I never messed with. I recall, in the gym, there was a leather basketball which had its skin torn in one place so that it was like a strap or a handle. And this kid would always get that ball and grab it by that strap and wind up and just slam it into the other kids. I mean, he'd wing it with such force it could knock you down, it would leave big welts on your skin. That was his entertainment.
But I only went to school there in Jonesborough for a half year or more. We moved to Johnson City, where we bought a house outside of town. So, I left behind that bully and all those strange kids. I went to a county school--Cherokee County School--for 5th and 6th Grade. And at Cherokee there was a new class of country kids and bullies and Civil War games. But, I had been through the fire and so I adapted quicker and--with these kids--they seemed a little more welcoming than the other group. For 7th grade I went to a junior high in Johnson City--East High, I think--and made new friends and played football. But by November of 1970, we moved away to Iowa.
We were all glad to go. To get back to a place where things seemed normal to us. (Though father liked Tennessee very much, I believe, and probably wanted to stay.) But, when I think back, Tennessee taught me a lot and I had more fun than probably in Washington or Iowa as a kid.
And I got to fight in the Civil War, almost 100 years late.

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