Thursday, January 6, 2011

Departing the Text

The little town where I grew up has seen its share of tragedy. Those who grew up there know that death always comes in threes, and in the past 10 days or so, that adage held true. A young woman who as raised there to a tragic accident. An elderly woman whose husband owned a favorite hamburger stand in the 50s and 60s. Then brother of longtime friends to another accident. Add to that, damage done by a foot of snow on Christmas night to one of the few thriving entities in town. So we breathed a little. But today, comes another, this time the town optometrist, long loved by all. Dr. E. was once kidnapped by a prisoner from a nearby prison farm who had come to the office to get his eyes checked. When we heard on the transistor radio at school that a doctor in town had been kidnapped, I panicked, because I had been present when some of those prisoners came to my father's office across the street. I don't remember all the details clearly, but I seem to recall that the prisoner forced Dr. E. into the country, where he left Dr. E. shackled to a tree. But first, he took Dr. E's his clothes. Dr. E. lived many, many years to tell that story. 

But no more.

Thinking about this, it seems as though I need to pay tribute to my little town in this space. I did some years ago in the newspaper. In the years since, some of the landmarks I wrote about are gone. The town has grown smaller, sadder, poorer. I suppose everybody who has been raised up by a small town thinks of their world as special. I know those who hail from my town do. And when something bad happens, we are drawn to each other in hopes of saving what's left of it, if only in memory.

Anyway, sometimes things just bear repeating. Thanks, Doug, for the pics.

The Town that Raised Me
Copyright 1999 By Susan Byrum Rountree

“What this place needs is a GAP,” my daughter says as we drive down Main Street toward the house where I grew up. As we pass The Freeze — the landmark of my teenage years where they make the best Pizza Burgers in Eastern North Carolina — I try to see my hometown through her eyes.
There is a battered car wash, old buildings and empty store fronts in need of fresh paint. The Idle Hour Restaurant sign advertising “air conditioning” hasn’t been lit in years, and the Zip Mart stands empty, its front windows boarded shut.
This is Main Street, Scotland Neck, NC, how a passer-through on Hwy. 258 might see it. People who don’t know it and love it as I do might find little here but the remnants of a once-thriving farm town.
But I wish that my daughter could see what I see. Her view, when compared to the mirrored marble sidewalks of her Crabtree Valley Main Street offers little more than peeling paint and crumbling buildings. There are no khaki-clad mannequins artfully backlit, no sidewalk vendors selling the latest styles of silver jewelry, no clusters of teenagers sharing the latest gossip.
But my eyes see home. There is the old Pittman’s Department Store where I bought my first two-piece bathing suit and worked wrapping presents on Christmas Eve. Though it stood empty for a time, in what used to be the men’s department, waitresses now serve the breakfast crowd hot coffee and homemade biscuits.
I can still hear the creak of the Roses floor as we rushed to buy notebooks and pencils for school, recall the smell of the Post Office when I pulled mail from my father’s box, see the audience staring back at me as the curtain opened for my dance recital, feel the touch of newsprint between my fingers as I read my first byline in the Commonwealth.
Scotland Neck. The place with the funny name like the country and the body part. Folks new to North Carolina have never heard of it, but anyone who grew up east of Raleigh most likely knows someone or is kin to someone from  there. And that’s saying a lot for a town of just 2,500 people.
Sure it was the cliché, a mix of Mayberry and Maycomb, with a cast of characters no less colorful than Barney or Boo Radley. There were a couple of old houses we swore were haunted, a handicapped man who used to walk down Main Street on his knees, and every now and then, a murder or two, just to keep our attention.
We picked flowers for our teachers in a neighbor’s back yard without fear of a scolding, saw first-run movies at the Dixie Theater Saturday matinee, crunched on frozen Cokes like popsicles between Sunday School and church. And if your dog wandered the school hallways looking for you, nobody thought a thing about it, though you might be asked to take him home.
It was the kind of home town my city-bred kids will never know. Where everybody knows who you belong to, and where you ought to be. Where they know you had prickly heat, watched you ride your bike down Church Street to school, believed in you until you finally made a name for yourself. And they weren’t the least bit surprised. Folks from Scotland Neck have always done that.
We never had stoplight (still don’t) much less a GAP, but the eastern North Carolina town where I was born, raised a governor and a Congressman, doctors, lawyers and farmers, even a writer or two. Not so long ago, our former mayor was president of the National League of Cities. Imagine that, a sleepy little town in the southeastern end of Halifax County, one of the poorest counties in the state.
The population has remained stable most of my life. When I was 11, the headcount did swell for awhile, when over 11 million blackbirds roosted there. Each evening at dusk “The Birds” converged on the woods behind my house, circling for hours like a stationary tornado, until each one found a spot to perch for the night. They woke us each morning as they headed out, turning the sky black.  Their annual infestation brought some notoriety and national media attention, but it didn’t last. The birds, like many of the young people, found little opportunity in Scotland Neck, so they moved on.
For those of us who’ve left, there has always been a difference between “where do you live?” and “where are you from?” — we are always “from” Scotland Neck. Ask us about “home” and our first thoughts won’t be of the places we live now. Instead, we’ll tell you about the pink Crape Myrtles blooming in the middle of the street in July, or learning that All Have Sin from the Biblical alphabet Miss Lucy Wells taught us all in public school, or of baring our arms for Typhoid shots so we could swim all summer at the murky waters of the Scout Pond. It is a life I would go home to in a second, if it were still there.
Since I moved away from  “The Neck.” as those who grew up there call it, I’ve found fellow natives in the least likely places. Like Atlanta Braves games in the old Fulton County Stadium, sitting 10 rows behind me. Or as the contact for my very first interview as a new reporter in Augusta, Georgia. Be it on Sunday morning, the first time I attended my new Raleigh church 10 years ago, on an escalator at the mall, in the hallway of a Wake County elementary school, no doubt somebody besides me will be from The Neck.
World traveler that he is, my Atlanta-born husband has never  had a similar encounter. I moved to his hometown, and wouldn’t you know it, I soon found a friend from Scotland Neck. In time, Rick began seeing people he knows from Scotland Neck in his travels around the country. But not once has he run across anyone he knew in Atlanta.
I never thought myself disadvantaged because of my small town beginnings. The town limit sign may have separated me from the rest of the world, defined me as being “from” someplace, but it was never a boundary keeping me from discovering what was best in me.
Though I have lived in five cities since I left home 20 years ago, this tiny speck on the map is the one place I’ve always known I belonged. And it is in belonging that we define ourselves, know who we are and where we fit. I could not be who I am if I didn’t hail from this place, couldn’t look at the world the way I do without the growing I did there with the help of all the people who nudged me.
There are dozens of Scotland Necks in this largely forgotten corner of the state, in the “other North Carolina.”  Some are growing, some, like Scotland Neck, could use a coat or two of fresh paint. Not one will ever have a GAP.
But my friends who’ve stayed there are making it a good place, though different, for their children to grow up in. They’ve built a new town hall and a new hospital, and they keep nurturing the Crape Myrtles, their pink blossoms becoming more beautiful with each year.
And as they watch the communities around them fading, they’ve loosened the boundaries that once separated Scotland Neck from the towns nearby, their citizens mingling at work, church and school, in hopes of keeping the sense of community they used to know.
And they always welcome me back, proud of the freckle-faced daughter who likes to see her name in the paper. I hope they know how much credit the town that raised me deserves.