A friend of mine asked me recently if I liked G.R.I.T.S. Had she asked me face-to-face, my answer would have been simple. I would have understood ‘grits’ and given her a ‘Yee-haw!’ and asked her if she was going to cook some. That’s right, I’m a grits fan. But she posed this question in that all-too-familiar format of our digital age, the text message. This gave me the oppourtunity to be clever and do a bit of research to figure out just what G.R.I.T.S. were before responding. I failed. I found a hip hop band with the same name and wrote back accordingly. I’d never heard of them, wasn’t a huge hip hop fan, but if she was looking for someone to go to a show with, I might be persuaded. At least she got a laugh out of it.
G.R.I.T.S., in case there are others like me out there who don’t know this, are Girls Raised In The South. Being from the South, I was a bit mortified that I had never heard the expression, but I guess I’ve been gone a long time. There’s something about the South that sticks with you, though. You can leave it, but it never quite leaves you, and it comes out in the funniest ways. I don’t have much of an accent, for instance, but certain things I say are a dead giveaway. ‘Might could’ and ‘might should’ are probably the best examples. Many is the conversation I’ve had in California where people stop me in the middle of speaking to get me to repeat myself, not because they misunderstood me, but because they think it’s funny and want to hear it again. ‘Oh, we might could go that way, Peter?’ Yes, Shane, we might could.
So often, though, it’s the stories that get people’s attention, and being in Slovenia it’s even more magnified. Just after I arrived here last year I was talking with some friends about differences between the US and Europe, and they asked, as Europeans always do, about guns. We talked about them for a while before one of them asked if I owned a gun. My instinctive answer was to say no. When I think of ‘guns’, I think of hand guns or machine guns. Shotguns don’t really enter into it for me, and I suppose that says something right there. So I backed up and explained that, yes, I supposed I did own a gun, but only a shotgun. You would think I had confessed to making bombs in my basement. Big eyes and mouths wide open in surprise, they finally decided that they didn’t believe me. How in my right mind could I own a gun? ‘For duck hunting’ was not an answer that earned me any points.
But let’s talk about hunting for a minute. I don’t hunt anymore, and I haven’t since I was around 16 or 17. The last couple of chances I had to do it, I passed on it, and I’m not even sure if I would really like hunting anymore. That doesn’t mean I disagree with it. In my opinion, if you eat meat you can’t get too squeamish about the idea of hunting, even if you don’t want to do it yourself. And I should highlight the fact that we ate everything we killed. Cleaned them, cooked them and ate them. I tell you what, there are some vivid memories of duck cleaning rootin’ around in the ol’ noggin, but ultimately I think that the whole thing was a valuable experience. It taught me to appreciate food and nature, as well as a whole lot about patience. Can you learn these same things from doing wildlife photography and taking a nutrition course? Probably, but that’s not how I did it, and that’s okay.
And, man, the duck camp where we went for Thanksgiving and New Year’s was a world of its own. A cinder block building in the middle of nowhere, backing up to an enormous wooded pond where the duck blinds were. The Ritz it was not. Mouse traps, empty and otherwise, were in no short supply, and crickets the size of field mice always seemed to stake out the bathrooms and leave you holding it until it became an emergency and you didn’t care if the cricket fought back. Believe it or not, these things were part of the charm, and I have fond memories even of them. It was a time and a place for family and friends, with the smells of a crackling fire and my grandfather’s cooking, and hardly a moment went by without peals of laughter coming from somewhere in the house. We played tile rummy like it was goin’ outta style, and at night my brother and I would crawl into the bunk beds in the far left room and fall fast asleep.
There was one down side to our times at the duck camp, and that came somewhere in the darkness between night and morning. If you asked my brother to tell you about it, he’d probably describe it in the exact same way. In the end it comes down to three little words. We would be lying in bed, fighting the covers for warmth and probably trying to convince ourselves that we didn’t really have to pee after all. We would hear the noises outside the door, movement in the hallway, but we would shut our ears and close our eyes, pretending it was nothing, that we didn’t hear anything at all. It would continue, and we would find ourselves digging under the covers for protection, as if those orange, moth eaten blankets could impart some kind of magic, transporting us to safety or at the very least rendering us invisible. When that didn’t work, we would resort to praying that the footsteps growing closer would just turn around and walk away, but they never did and finally we would hear those three dreadful words as the door to our room cracked open: ‘Boys, it’s time.’
No alarm clock could shatter a person’s sleepy hopefulness like those three words, spoken by our grandfather. ‘Pops’, as we called him, would have no nonsense when it came to mornings. There was no snooze button, no last minute call from the governor, and no amount of pleading or special entreaties could budge him. In fact, this only raised his ire, and that was not something you wanted to do. Now don’t get me wrong. Pops was awesome. Behind my father, he was probably my greatest male role model, for better or for worse. He had a laugh that brought smiles to everyone around him, but his temper could take the air out of the room. That, and there was something a little unsettling for your average child of the 80’s. Allow me to illustrate with a story.
My brother and I, like most of the soft children of our generation, enjoyed watching television. Pops did not watch television. He watched sports. A lot of sports. The fact that sports were broadcast on television did not seem to make much of an impression on him. If he was in the den, likely as not there was a golf game on, or maybe football. The point was that if Pops was watching the box that showed sports, you were not going to be seeing Alf that night. And when you did watch Alf, he would let you know just how silly television was. Alright, I can live with that. Well, one fine day, my brother and I were watching Jedi. It had long been an uneasy topic of conversation between us that when the Emperor smiled or spoke gravely, he kinda looked like Pops. No insult to my grandfather, who was a very good-looking man, but the resemblance was undeniable. If there lingered any doubt in our minds about when or not this was true, it was dashed to pieces when he walked into the room that day, looked at the television and said, ‘Well, that fella sorta looks like your Pops!’ Flashes big smile. Walks out of the room. Has no idea that he just traumatized two children. My brother’s panicked face was a copy of my own, to be sure, and our eyes locked for one unspeakable moment. I will never forget the look on his face the second before we both burst into howling, therapeutic laughter.
But we were talking about guns, yes? I have left my Slovenian friends in the recent past, having carried you all the back into distant memory. Shame on me. So back to guns. I explained my having a gun by telling stories about the duck camp (so, you see, the tangent was just my way of drawing you into the original story…or something like that), and at some point they asked when I had gotten my gun. My first gun, I told them, was a .410, and it was more of a hand-me-down that all of the kids learned on. How old was I? I don’t know, 6? 7? I honestly don’t remember the first time I was allowed to shoot, but I know that I was pretty young. Assisted at first, naturally, but pretty young. Then, I told my friends, I got my grandmother’s 20 gauge. This did not seem like a strange statement to make, but I’m pretty sure one of them spit out whatever it was she was drinking.
So, okay, I inherited a shotgun from my grandmother. I guess that’s pretty Southern. Add that to the list of things that makes my brother and me B.R.I.T.S. We spent summers working on a farm, swam naked in Horseshoe Lake, went fishing with our cane poles and even baited our own hooks (with minnows, always with minnows…crickets and I have never seen eye to eye, as you may have gathered above and from a previous post last year). We picked pecans up off of the ground and cracked them one on the other. We chased lightning bugs and lizards and watched out for snakes. And when summer comes, wherever I am, I long for Southern nights: the air so warm you can walk around in a T-shirt and shorts, and driving with the windows down rewards you with a warm summer breeze.
I suppose that’s what childhood does to a person, no matter where you were raised. It sticks with you and digs in deep, becomes imprinted on your soul. Well, that’s just fine with me. I’ll take the good with the bad and keep on truckin’. There was little bad to begin with, and what bad there was I think I’ve learned a lot from. And, Pops, I know you know I love you, and I know you know how much I miss that mischievous smile, that big belly laugh and your wise words of instruction and encouragement. You had your demons, like we all do, but in the end it was your ability to rise above them and show us how wonderful you were that made us love you all the more. I’m proud to be from the South, and I’m proud to be your grandson.