[So this happened last week. My second novel, Truly Are the Free, was awarded an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. This is kind of a big deal because the Writer’s Digest awards are Very Top Shelf. My novel was selected for this honor out of 2,300+ books judged–last year they awarded a mere 35 Honorable Mentions across all eight genres. Thanks to all who have read, reviewed, and supported Truly Are the Free and my other writing, including this blog!]
I’ve often said offhandedly that I was born and raised in Flyover Country. You know, that snarky term used by Urban Cave Dwellers and Coastal Types to denigrate the two-thirds of America that makes up the Midwest, Great Plains, Mountain, and Desert Southwest states? I bought into that insulting term hook, line, and sinker. But after four decades of running away from and minimizing exposure to my hometown, I’m back in Skeeterville for the third time since May.
It all started with Mom’s 90th birthday—a mandatory-fun family event if ever there was one. Not too bad, what with all Mom’s grandkids (fully grown) and great-grandkids (cute and little and not having quit college on any of us yet).
Then it was my 40th high school reunion. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was much more fun than I had dreaded. With some of my classmates retiring and many of us with grandkids now, there was a lot less of that annoying desire to primp and pose and prove ourselves “successful” to each other. And it was a genuine pleasure to hang out with those who were the most important people of my teenage years—for better or worse. Everyone loved Kay-Kay, my non-Skeeterite wife. I often say people like me better because I’m married to her. And I was relieved I only had to sweat out one Ex-Girlfriend Encounter by Kay-Kay. At the end of the reunion shindig dinner, they were actually hugging and kissing each other goodbye. Seriously, how cool a wife is that?
Now we’re back for two weeks over and around Thanksgiving. Mom is declining, albeit rather gently, and her world has shrunk mostly to the walls of her assisted living facility and the 40-odd residents therein. Since we can work from anywhere with an internet connection, Kay-Kay and I resolved to spend more time in Skeeterville with Mom. So here we are, in an Airbnb apartment above a Victorian carriage house in the nearby county seat. Not too many listings in Skeeterville as it turns out. Don’t even ask about the motels.
The county seat has eclipsed Skeeterville since my salad days. The two towns used to be exactly the same size and were traditional rivals—we always referred to the citizens of the county seat as “river rats” because of their situation on a major waterway. Over the decades, the two towns diverged. Skeeterville is now the smaller by 8,000 souls and likely more after the 2020 census.
I have some bona fides in the county seat, mind you. My mother comes from a long line of local politicians—and she was once one herself. These included Great Uncle Cap who was mayor and Great Uncle Nick who was county treasurer.
Uncle Cap had been a captain of volunteers in the Spanish-American War, although I suspect this may have been something of an Illinois equivalent to a “Kentucky colonel.” He only served as mayor for a year because the incumbent dropped dead and none of the other city councilmen wanted the gig. It was, however, long enough for a grateful citizenry to name a parking lot after him. So there’s that.
Uncle Nick was county clerk for 24 years. This was back in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, so not a full-time position. His day job was owning a cigar store downtown in the county seat. For those of you not savvy to the nomenclature of that period and location, “cigar store” when my mother was a girl was a euphemism for “speakeasy in the back.” When I was a boy, it was code for “gambling in the back.” This being Before Casinos, Riverboats, and Video Slots in Gas Stations, said gambling was, needless to say, illegal.
In Skeeterville back in the day, there were a half-dozen “cigar stores.” I began frequenting one of these—Casey’s—when I was 12. I was reminded of this unsavory chapter of my youth at the recent class reunion by an old friend, Dudley, who often accompanied me. He also reminded me it was where we learned to smoke–he still does, I have not for 35 years. We also played low-stakes, loose-change euchre with the local undertakers. Kinda by definition, their business was unpredictable and on-demand, so they’d hang out in their somber suits at Casey’s until The Call Came. We also learned to shoot snooker there. Now this is a Very British Version of billiards and I have never had an adequate explanation as to why all the “cigar stores” in Skeeterville had snooker tables. This was, as the Baltimore Catechism frequently taught us, a mystery. Nevertheless, snooker provided another opportunity to gamble while smoking and acting disreputable. We were basically those Bad Boys on Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, although we managed to avoid turning into donkeys. Which is a relief.
That Mom allowed me and my brother and our hoodlum friends to hang out in this Somewhat Questionable Environment should not compel you to question her parenting. You see, Casey’s wife was Mom’s first cousin once removed, so she considered Casey’s a “family place.” In a real sense, it was. My Grandpa suffered a series of comparatively minor strokes before The Big One took him a year before I was born. He had one of these warm-up strokes inside Casey’s. I assume Cousin Casey called an ambulance immediately, minimizing any disruption to the cigarette smoking, pool shooting, and card playing. Of course, there would have been ample undertakers on hand, as needed.
Sadly, Casey’s closed many years ago. Uncle Nick’s “cigar store” is now half of a sports bar, although I recognized the original tobacco-juice stained wooden floor when I took my kids inside for a look back in May.
I had a two-hour lunch with a local Skeeterville guy yesterday, the owner of a successful seed company who, just for grins, also farms 3,000 acres. Himself. And he’s 74. He contacted me and said he was noodling around with the idea of turning his 53 years’ worth of stories into a book and wanted to know how he’d go about that. (He’s right—he has incredible experiences that would make for a grand book.)
Towards the end of our would-be literary luncheon, he threw me a curveball. After we’d discussed ghostwriters, editors, and book designers, he asked me, “Why did you leave and never come back anyway?” I hadn’t really discussed that with anyone other than Kay-Kay, and not even that much with her.
I realized I couldn’t actually remember the specifics—just an overwhelming sense of restlessness, of wanderlust, of wanting to see the Big Wide World. Maybe it was just an overwrought belief that the grass is always greener on the other side. One thing I remember clearly, however, is that I was hyperventilating to shake the dust of Skeeterville from my shoes and leave skid marks when I graduated high school.
So it was college in New Orleans, but that wasn’t far enough, so Junior Year Abroad in Scotland. Then it was the Air Force and bombers—the world from 39,000 feet. 20 years in uniform, then the never-unpacked-suitcase life of an international consultant. International studies dean at a NYC law school. All told, 65 countries, three of them for a year or more. And all the while limiting my trips back to Skeeterville to the bear minimum required by funerals, weddings, and guilt.
These past months have got me realizing that I was indeed running from something, but it really wasn’t Skeeterville. I’m not sure what—my own feelings of not belonging, my rather unlikeable youthful self, my square-peg place in a somewhat dysfunctional family. Pick one. Maybe all.
It wasn’t about the town or the people who passed through my life there, of that I’m now sure. My hometown made me much of what I am 40 years later. I don’t regret all I’ve seen and done over those four decades—I certainly wouldn’t trade that for anything. But I’ve at least learned to stop blaming a place that nurtured me, allowed me to make a lot of awful mistakes, and sent me on my way with best wishes.
It’s not Flyover Country. It’s country where mostly good people mostly try to do their best to live mostly honest lives and raise their kids to be mostly decent people. I for one am going to stop just flying over, especially Skeeterville.