People are always telling me how great it must be to live in the country and how they’d trade places with me in a second.
I grew up in Mississippi, and I’ve lived in Texas (twice in Dallas, briefly in Austin), Washington, D.C., and New York City.
For the last several years, home has been my family’s farm on Coburn Mountain, a slight prominence in the landscape of the Tennessee Valley near Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
When I was a kid, the last couple of miles to the farm were gravel road. You knew you were almost there when rocks started to ping off the bottom of whatever station wagon the six of us happened to be jammed into that year. If it was late and we were all asleep in the back, the pinging gravel woke us up.
The trip to the farm was long and fraught with peril. In close quarters, young siblings are a vicious lot, and we were no exception. One of my brothers once bounced a half-full aluminum canteen off my head. I still have the dent in my skull. This probably explains a lot.
No matter what hour of the night we arrived, my grandmother was waiting for us, rocking anxiously on the porch swing under the bare bulb that cast a weak cone of light in what seemed to be an infinite darkness.
As far as I was concerned, the farm was better than Disney World. There were very few rules. It was forbidden to fall in the old well, and that was about it.
We ran wild from morning to night. If the adults saw us at all, it was when we invaded the house to gulp down a cool dipper of water from the bucket in the kitchen.
The new well was next to the back porch. It was a tube only a few inches in diameter. We lowered the long cylindrical well bucket on a rattling chain. Once submerged, we raised its capture with our tiny muscles.
You pulled a ring at the top of the cylinder and the water exploded from the other end. It was fabulous.
It never occurred to me my grandparents lived much the same lives their parents did before them, or that there was anything shameful about a place with no indoor plumbing, air conditioning, or television.
My maternal grandparents were farmers. Papaw Isbell supplemented his income with other jobs from time to time, but when I was kid, it was always a working farm.
There were cows, chickens, pigs and mules to pester, ponds to fish, and plenty of guns and ammo around. It was understood we were not to shoot the livestock or each other. Okey-dokey!
We made friends with the country kids from up and down the road, who first looked at us like we were from Mars. Half the time we didn’t understand what they were saying, and I’m sure it worked both ways.
One kid had a dangerously fast mini dirt bike he gladly taught us how to ride. This was the Evel Knievel era, so I don’t have to explain how insane that particular bit of fun was. (If you aren’t familiar with Mr. Knievel’s work, youngblood, it’s on YouTube.)
When it came to pickup football or baseball games, it was always city (suburb, actually) vs. country. We felt compelled to make a good showing in these contests, and we won our share.
Here’s the truth: We skinned our knees and elbows. Noses were bloodied. When you felt the sharp scratch of a barb as you negotiated the taut strands of wire, you used one or all three of the available swear words, rubbed some spit on the wound, and kept moving.
We fell out of trees and haylofts. We explored forests full of vipers and vermin, and scrambled up vertiginous paths strewn with ankle-breaking chunks of limestone.
But no one ever died. No one ever had to go to the doctor. (At the farm, I realized, doctors were considered an extravagance, at best. At worst, they were viewed as avaricious con artists with soft, icy hands.)
We knew, for instance, that when you placed a round in a .22 rifle, rammed the bolt home, and pulled the trigger, the lead projectile would leap from the barrel with astonishing velocity. We understood if the rifle was pointed at a human being, something very bad would happen.
We had seen John Wayne do this sort of thing about a million times. Shooting bad guys looked like a lot of fun, sure, but we knew that John Wayne was an actor and after the director yelled “Cut!” the bad guys got up, dusted themselves off, and went to lunch.
Even girls knew this.
We feared the wrath of adults. Period. There was a line you did not cross. Over time, we became sneaky and developed highly proficient ways to cross the line and return unscathed, like miniature, elite commandos.
That world is gone, but I’ll always carry it inside me. I have never thanked my parents for those trips to the farm, or paid proper tribute to my ancestors, whose hard work and sacrifice turned a tract of wilderness into a thing of beauty, a sublime, living legacy.
I do so now.
John Hicks treasures his collection of Willie & Wade records.