Saturday, August 15, 2009

Dispatch From The Shallow South

by John Ramsey Miller

I live in the "rural" South. She nurtures me in those big warm arms, and she shares her stories with me, and it’s because of her that I speak with that pleasing twang we southerners share like a genetically induced cowlick. I’d rather set a book in a small southern community than in New York City, and I find a character who goes shirtless and eats instant coffee from a jar with a spoon infinitely more page worthy than a slumming detective who’s secretly a multi-millionaire playboy. I am known as much for my oddball characters as for anything else in my novels. My oddballs aren’t a stretch for me. I actually saw a man eat Sanka because there was no hot water. It was not a pretty sight, but one that stuck in my mind in the way piping-hot mozzarella cheese clings to the roof of my mouth. I don’t hang out much with multi-millionaire detectives so I have little idea as to how they behave.

Here in the sticks I see a lot of mullets and other accoutrements of Out-Of-Touch-With-High-Fashion-and-I-Don't-Give-A-Hoot disease. Last night in a local restaurant I saw a middle age man with a Prince Valiant hairdo, a work shirt, jeans and hunting boots. Here in the outer regions I am often among people in 12 step programs due to a WALMART shopping habit. I have heard music dance mix tapes have both country and hard rock music on them. I spend time with people whose social filters were due for a change 100,000 interactions ago. Out here you can wear a NASCAR t-shirts and jeans and sport coat to church and be overdressed. Women may have a closet full of camouflage fashion accessories, consume their alcoholic beverages from cans, have a distinct fascination with mud and four wheelers, and spit at the ground to accent a point they’ve just made. Their men are a lot rougher around the edges than the gals.

The other afternoon my wife had to stop because a 40 lb alligator snapping turtle was sunning in our driveway and wouldn’t give her right of way. I took the turtle by its tail (at some peril since I have seen these reptiles snap a broomstick in half) put it in the back of my SUV and drove to a large pond between here and the town nearest my house. And the whole time I was lugging this prehistoric monster down the bank, and I was trying to hold it out to keep from losing a chunk of right leg, I was thinking about the turtle soup from Commanders Palace. For a few seconds that shelled critter came close to a cooking pot. I seriously considered looking on the Internet for instructions on dressing out a snapping turtle and searching for a recipe for that soup I do love so. Only a reluctance on my part to do the necessary research saved it. Well, that and my desire to save a creature so stupid he’d wandered from his pond and into the woods. It’s possible that it was on its way somewhere and I interrupted turtley vacation plans. God, I love the sticks.

This weekend I am going to be digging post holes in the earth to sink 4x6s for a new chicken coop that I’m building and for setting fence posts. I have 50 chickens arriving next week and I've waited until the last moment to shelter them. So, I’ll be sweating and smiling and thinking about the healing power of hard work. And next week I'll be writing again, which (as we all know) is far harder than digging holes or building structures for Henny Penny.

To end on a high note, here's a picture of my youngest grandson sitting in my wife's lap that I took this afternoon. He is quite a character, and this is what life is all about.


  1. Cute picture!

    I'm a Southerner too...there aren't many of us in the Charlotte region. :) Mostly Northern transplants. I grew up in Anderson, SC which was fairly rural (no alligators, obviously!) and then moved to Birmingham before coming to Charlotte. Living in Southern cities is definitely a different experience than the rural South. I enjoy the cultural offerings, though.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Lordy, that sounds like home. We almost had alligator snapper soup one time when my daddy and his fishing buddy pulled one into their john boat (who knew a turtle that size could climb out of the bed of a pickup while they were in watching the Senators -- the Yankees won as usual).

  3. I can understand a spoonful of Folger's Crystals. But Sanka? What's the point?

  4. I remember one cloudy summer afternoon growing up in Fairhope, Alabama when one of our neighbors drove up in his pickup with a giant alligator snapping turtle in the bed. All us kids crowded around for a glimpse of that prehistoric monster. At the time, it looked like it filled the entire back of the truck. In reality, it was probably about the same size as the one you caught. Children see everything through a magnifying imagination. Our job as writers is to capture that same magic. Nice post, John, as always.

  5. I should make Hubby read this one... writing is harder than putting in fence posts! Lots in common here. We just got 50 new chicks this spring and now they're laying! Love fresh eggs. I've never had turtle soup, but my FIL knows how to cook a groundhog.

  6. Evocative post John - and though I've never really been to the "South" living on the border of Oakland and Berkeley the fashion is definitely stuck in 1969(Berkeley) or 1975 (Oakland):) I'm somewhat partial to looking hip circa 1985. No snapping turtles alas but lots of other violent native wildlife...

  7. I live in the sticks in Kansas. I don't just live here, I practice law here, so I get to deal with all the best folks. Hygiene is often optional.

    So, with authority I speak, do not try to dress a snapping turtle. It is a rotten, stinking, foul-beyond-words job. A snapping turtle is nothing but guts and shell. You do get some nice chunks of meat, but let's just say it is on the STRONG side. I had to throw out my deep fryer. It was never the same.

    How we came to be eating turtle.

    Husband went fishing for catfish. Had several on his stringer when he noticed something tugging at it. Pulled out his stringer and found a freaking turtle the size of a garbage can lid feasting on his catch. It had snagged itself on a hook he found in the belly of one of the catfish. Beat turtle to death and brought the whole stringer mess home (in the back of MY car). Hence our adventure in cleaning and cooking turtle.

    Snapping turtles are a good post-apoc food source (plentiful, not too bright, and likely to survive the holocaust), however right now, I'm just not that hungry. Give me a nice mess of catfish anyday.

    Gawd, I love small towns!


    verify word - 'unful', ummm, that would be 'empty'

  8. Well John, I am literally the polar opposite of Southern. But here in very not hot & humid Alaska we have a very similar experience. Albeit rather than mullets and canned beer folks here wear dead critters on their heads and drink homebrew...a lot of homebrew.

    And instead of Walmart addiction its firearm and snowmobile addiction issues. Bears and moose get in our driveways as we have no reptiles whatsoever. But otherwise its all the same.

    And physical labor really is theraputic.

  9. Kudos for your realistic description of the South. I don't believe that anyone raised north of the Mason Dixon line could ever appreciate the near death experience you suffered when hauling Mr. Turtle to a safe (for society) haven. I'm from northern Louisiana and I give praise for the warm way in which you embrace your Southern living. And although I've never eaten coffee grounds straight from the can, I have opened a new can with a knife when the can opener was proving difficult to find and often pondered the possibilities of a caffeine I.V. Your grandson is one handsome fella too.

  10. What a beautiful child.
    I am from the Mississippi Delta and we love our eccentrics as much as any the Brits may claim. I have often wondered why Mississippi seems to grow so many fine authors. I am beginning to think that all they needed was the skill to remember the odd Thomases and then be touched by divine providence, or maybe they traded their souls to the devil at the crossroads.