I dearly love being a son of the South and Arkansas. There are so many things that make up the character of the South that with any sensibility a person cannot begin to adequately describe it. You can try, but to really describe Dixie you have to live it, you have to live in it. When I look for the influences that gave me the love of where I was raised, I find they are beginning to disappear. They are not fading from memory for in memory they will always exist. I see my South being changed by the wearing down of the culture that has given this nation and the world such a marvelous tapestry of life. The beliefs of people from the South are the threads that have woven the fabric of the Southern character. There are flaws in all cultural heritages. To be sure the South has as many as other regions of America as well as less than some. I apologize for none! That’s just the way it is. In the end the good will always out weigh the bad. Anyone not raised in the Southern United States will never truly understand Southerners. I can say with conviction that if one is raised in the South it is a privilege to enjoy and for others to envy.
On the back of a pickup truck I recently saw a bumper sticker with the Confederate Flag displayed and the words “Not hate but heritage”. I know there are people that cannot get their minds around that statement: “Not hate but heritage”. This is because of a narrow definition of the South framed by historical events and the incessant denigration of its values. Thousands of men and women died standing under that flag, not because of hate but rather because of heritage and beliefs. In today’s time we celebrate various holidays brought to our nation by persons of many nationalities and that is a good thing . For example there is Cinco de Mayo which celebrates the Mexican defeat of French troops at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. It is a celebration of Mexican heritage and the belief in their heritage. Heritage and belief in it is the crux of being a Southerner. That’s what it’s all about. Heritage cannot be acquired simply by moving to the geography of the South. Heritage goes back over years. It is imprinted in the DNA of those lucky enough to have a Southern genealogy. It is grown from the soil of cotton fields, pine forests, the sound of a Blue Tick hound baying, or smell of turnip and mustard greens cooking on the stove. A Southerner’s heritage never leaves; it tugs at your heart pulling you back to your roots every day of your life.
When I think about childhood in the South I know that I did not have a lot of material things. I did have the love of my parents and all my relatives. That cocoon was a steady molding that shaped me into the man I am today. Men in my family didn’t speak about loving one another; you just knew you were loved. They didn’t talk about their girl friend or wife as many men do today. All the men in my family took an interest in all the children.
My Grandfather Otelius Holst was a raw bone of a man. Six feet tall of Danish decent with broad shoulders and strong hands but with legs broken down by walking behind a team of mules plowing fields. One day my grandfather called me out to the back porch and said, “Come on son, poppa is gonna teach you to fish.” Using a walking cane and in pain, he shuffled his almost useless legs out to his green Buick and drove us to Ten Mile Creek. There we sat on a stump as Grandpa baited a worm on a cane pole with line and bobber, and taught me how to catch a mess of bluegills. And, when I was sick with pneumonia, he went to the pantry and from sacks on the top shelf took dried leaves he had collected in the woods and fields making a poultice to ease my suffering. He taught me how to make a corncob pipe, how to read animal tracks, how to take care of mules, and how a man shakes another man’s hand. There is so much more I learned at his knee but most of all he taught me about my Southern heritage. Most of my family does not know about my time with my Grandfather. My brother was a toddler, my sister not born as yet, and my parents too busy trying to make ends meet. Grandpa was in his declining years. I was lucky enough to be at an age where I could benefit from the time he had left.
My grandmother was a ninety pounds dripping wet spit of a woman. She wore her hair in a tight bun on the back of her head. Lord, that woman could cook. She always kept a plate on the kitchen stove with some biscuits, cornbread and fried bacon for the grand kids. She had a little dog named Petey. I hated that dog! Whenever I went into the kitchen to grab a biscuit Petey seemed to sense my hunger and would stand on a straight back chair next to the stove. As I would reach for biscuit on the plate he would growl and nip at me. Every once in a while he got lucky. One day I was fed up with Petey. So I took a fly swatter and hit him pretty hard. He started yelping and ran to granny. I ran out the front door and climbed up in a tree with low hanging branches. Granny came out with the swatter and asked me if I hit Petey with it. I fessed up to it and she told me to come down out of the tree because she was going to swat me so I could see how it felt. I said no and climbed higher. Granny was in her sixties but she climbed in the tree too! I went as high as I could with granny right behind me. When she reached me she whipped the tar out of me and climbed down. After a lot of bawling and bruised ego I got out of the tree. When grandpa got home he was informed of what I had done and he whipped me. When mom came in she whipped me. When dad got home work he whipped me. All of this spanking was not because I had hit Petey with a fly swatter, it was for not minding my grandmother. It was about honoring your elders, it was about being man enough to take your punishment, and it was about a lesson in my Southern heritage.
A Southern heritage has no form, it has no weight, and neither can it be bought or sold. To possess it will define a human being for the rest of their life. I could go on and on about all the lessons learned, about the unspoken way I was taught to handle myself as a Southern man but there is not enough space here to do that. What I want you to take away from this brief moment together is one small thread of the tapestry that is part of being a Southerner. If you can gain a reasoned understanding about the South from these memories and the content of their meaning, you will find yourself a better person. If you can look at the strength of the symbols and beliefs of the South in a different light, if you can begin to understand that being a Southerner is not just a word defining ones birth, then, maybe you can find a little bit of Southerner in your own life.
God, how I love the South!