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I grew up in the North. That wasn’t really my fault, just where my parents wound up after meeting and marrying in Georgia. We would go back down to Georgia to visit family every year or so. We had a joke that it always rained in Louisville, KY, because every time we would be driving through it on the way from Illinois to Georgia, it would rain there. We might stop on the way. For instance, one year we stopped at the home of a family friend who had moved down to Tennessee. They had a line of blackberry bushes down near where the old railroad tracks used to be.
Just an aside here, but have you ever noticed how folks out in the country give direction by what used to be there?
“Yeah, you take a right where the old silo used to be.”
These kinds of directions are great if you’ve lived there all your life. It may be that that silo fell over in a storm in 1932, but the folks there about are still saying, “Turn where the old silo used to be.”
Or, they’ll give directions based on who used to live somewhere. “Go down to the old Jenkins Place, and half a mile beyond, you take that little dirt track on the right.” Except the sign on the mailbox will say, “Smith,” and has said so since 1978 when the place was sold after Fred Jenkins died in that accident when his tractor hit a bull that had escaped while he was turning in the field. Fred on his tractor was turning. The escaped bull was going straight.
Anyway, there was a line of blackberry bushes along by where the old railroad tracks used to be, and I happened to be wearing a white knit shirt. I know I had that shirt on in my school photos for second grade, so that must have been the summer between second and third grades when I was eight years old, wearing a white shirt, and picking (and eating) blackberries. I might have gotten a little blackberry juice on that shirt, which stained it up right fine. Mama never let me wear that shirt again, either. It would be too small for me by now anyway, I suppose.
But that’s not what this is about. You see, in all my time in the South, I was in the Southeast. Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, even Florida. And in all my visits, I was always in places with a fair amount of shade. Bigmama’s backyard, for instance, had fig trees, and it was a fine thing having fresh figs, but it was a finer thing having shade. Plus, the trees tend to have their version of perspiration, putting cooling water into the breezes beneath them. There is certainly sun in the Southeast, but it isn’t like the sun one might find in similar latitudes further west.
When he was perhaps twenty, my eldest brother took a job with a company, and that company offered him a promotion, a management position down in Houston. He took it. Those were boom years down in Texas and Houston in particular. Jobs were easy to find, and he was doing very well for himself and living the American dream. He found a young lady, and they decided to get married.
The summer I was eighteen, I drove down with my father to Houston. My mother and other brother were flying down, but my father had a penchant for avoiding planes. It was probably because he was a law enforcement officer and might have to be separated from his 9 mm friend on an airline flight. I learned some things on the drive down, like how to keep the car windows from fogging up in Mississippi heat and humidity. They never covered that in driver’s ed class.
I also learned about the Southern sun. My brother lived in a part of Houston that was just being built. This meant there were no substantial trees. I was a reader, as well as a writer, and I liked to sit outside in the sunshine and read or maybe scribble down a few thoughts or a poem or two. So, I grabbed one of my brother’s lawn chairs and sat down with a book, a pen, and a small spiral notebook. I still have that notebook with one of that day’s entries starting,
Contrails slash across an azure sky…
Well, I was eighteen, and simple observations in high-falutin’ language could pass for poetry back then. But mostly, I sat out there reading. I felt the sun upon my skin. It was warmer than I had ever felt it. Sitting outside in Northern Illinois I was lucky to get any vitamin D or a tan. I went one summer working out in the sun in Northern Illinois and went from blue-skinned to pasty white after the whole summer.
I was reading a dense and philosophical tome. It didn’t have any pictures or anything. Not even a centerfold. I was intensely into the book and enjoying that warm feeling of sun cooking my skin. I was probably out there for two hours.
Now, for those of you who are used to the Houston sun in July, don’t judge me here. Sure, it was a stupid thing to do. But did I know that? I had sat in the sun in higher latitudes without any such effects. It was like what I had learned about clearing the windows in Mississippi. Do you think they had taught that in driver’s ed class in Illinois? No, they had not. And I’m old enough that this was before the big sunscreen push. When I was young, people were still trying to figure out how to get more tan, especially when they were Anglo-Saxons from Illinois.
The wedding was the next day. My brother had picked out white tails for his outfit for the wedding and dove-gray Tuxedos for the groomsmen. Now, there are shades of red that go well with dove gray. Bigmama had dove-gray walls in her living room with white trim, sort of like the white Tuxedo shirt was trim for the Tuxedo, and then she had a dove-gray sofa and chair that had burgundy threads through it. Burgundy and dove-gray are a tasteful combination. Lobster red, as my sunburn was, and dove-gray was not quite as good of a combination. It would have gone better with basic black or white. But there I was, the bright red groomsman in the party. I had gotten enough of the old solar radiation to have more effects than just a bit of color. That made everything over the next few days very interesting. But I lived through it.
Nowadays, I prefer my sunblock to be several layers of sheetrock, shingles, and brick. And if I ever go back to Houston, I’m staying out of the sun.