GEORGIA ON MY MIND

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA, 1968: My Sunday Magazine windows looked out on the Confederate monument on Broad Street. The woman I was quite sure was the love of my life came for a visit and sketched this drawing. The anonymous reporter gazing out at the night was to illustrate my Sunday editor’s column that week: “Rain Is Memories, Just Beyond The Window.” Appropriate maybe for a story about Georgia memories spurred by recent news coverage.

Born a Georgian, forever a Georgian. No matter how far you roam or how long you stay away. My formative years were in Georgia before my grandfather retired and relocated us to a Florida beach-house. There were plenty of trips home before and after I graduated high school. I did Basic Combat Training and Military Police School in Georgia and my MP classmates always remembered weekend passes where my relatives introduced them to Georgia hospitality and barbecue.

The Sunday editor of the Augusta Chronicle wrote one of the nicest reviews of my first novel while I was in BCT and I got my picture in the paper, scalped-bald head, baggy fatigues and all. Three years later I was the Sunday editor, my windows overlooking a Confederate memorial on Broad Street. When recent news hit of “woke” attempts to remove/destroy the memorial, Georgia came strongly to mind, though I live far away and haven’t been back this century. I wrote about that on this platform.

Back then, I worked the night side, and helped my uncle elect a Republican sheriff. A retired city cop who’d been my grandfather’s running-mate in poker games and drinking and skirt-chasing — and who handed six-year-old me a loaded .38 Colt with which to terrorize the Fireman’s Ball while my grandfather played Santa for the kids of cops and firemen. My grandfather already had taught me how to shoot his .45 Colt auto, and drilled gun safety into me, so I lugged the revolver around muzzle up, finger off the trigger, and was thought “cute.”

By the time the retired captain ran for sheriff against a well-connected Southern Democrat stalwart, my favorite uncle had broken the ground. When the Democrats spurned his interest, he had reached out to the GOP, almost a non-entity then in Georgia, and became one of the first GOP state representatives since Reconstruction.

The campaign punch line we hit on that put the captain over the top played on the well-know existence of the ruling party. In radio spots and advertisements we featured county-dwelling wives of shift workers worried about prowlers and burglars: “When you call the sheriff’s office, who do you want to answer? A cop — or a politician?”

My uncle burned the roads between Atlanta and Augusta in his big blazing-fast Oldsmobile or small Rambler. He did some memorable things and had a lot of fun doing them. I recall his address at the end of a session where he announced passage of maybe hundreds of new laws. Pause for effect. “Now how we got along without all these new laws I will never know.” Eruption of laughter and applause.

He campaigned in wash-and-wear shirts and cheap suits inches too short for his long arms and legs. His mother was furious at his wife for letting him be seen in public like that. I was back in Atlanta in the early seventies, out of the news business and working for a public-employee union, trying to win collective bargaining for city workers. When he picked me up for dinner in the Olds, I commented on his tailor-made suiting and glossy brogans, and mentioned my grandmother’s ire. He laughed and said the campaign “look” was deliberate. “Think Honest Abe, poor country boy. I got the height and the cadaverous look to pull it off.”

He divorced and remarried — an heiress — ditched the cheap threads and returned to his pre politics clothes-horse ways. The height and cadaverous looks remained. By the time he stumped the South for Reagan against Nixon’s operatives, his seat was so secure there had been no serious challenge in a long time, and he was living large. He told me Jimmy had to borrow his fancy silverware and flatware for state dinners at the Governor’s Mansion.

His luck ran out when he abandoned his safe seat and attempted to move to the state senate in the midst of Watergate turmoil. He became collateral damage along with scores of other Republicans. He landed on his feet in a cushy federal-agency job — the GOP looking after its own — before Jimmy went to DC. Then the real bad luck: his touted cadaverous look presaged adult-onset leukemia. He held it at bay a long time, his way. VA Hospital doctors served him — and guests — his favorite beer in his room.

My grandparents and mother returned to Georgia for my grandfather to finish dying of complications — including double amputation — from diabetes. My grandmother descended into Alzheimer’s and soon followed. My mother — their caregiver — was next, far too soon. She would trundle down to the kitchen in my Pacific Northwest home, to smoke away from the oxygen needed to fight the cancer. Said the smokes can’t do more than they already have, and I like my cigarettes!

Georgians are stubborn. When she died I closed her eyes, bathed her, and shipped her body back to Georgia where my brother handled interment in the family plot. In my final trip to Georgia, on Mother’s Day, I viewed the family graves, grandparents and mother, and ate Kentucky Fried Chicken with my uncle’s daughter and his first wife. I failed to notice if there was room for more.

Of late, Georgia is in the headlines again, about a U.S. Senate race too close to call. I read a Medium post by a purported Georgian, mostly satirical, about why Georgians love Hershel Walker, ex footballer and GOP candidate. The comments were many and all over the board, mostly from the outraged “woke.” The writer said Walker became a favorite son winning the Heisman football trophy at the University of Georgia and somewhat facetiously implied college football is more important than politics. Maybe. I was a Georgia Tech fan myself back in the day. The Yellowjacket-Bulldog enmity makes GOP-Democrat rivalries resemble a pillow-fight.

But it was an interesting post, and its wry tone called Georgia strongly to mind. Walker reportedly was born in my hometown a couple decades after me. That’s literally all I know about the man. The other guy? From Savannah, a preacher by trade, the news says. After out-of-state postings he took Martin Luther King Jr.’s old Atlanta pulpit before launching into politics. Back when I was trying for collective-bargaining for Atlanta employees, it was obligatory to meet “Daddy” King and the widow for their support since so many city employees were black. If the Ebeneezer old guard isn’t gone, he would have needed its approval to get that pulpit. More than I know.

Georgians are just…Georgians. Take ’em or leave ’em. The Georgia runoff — it’s two principals — seems to me quintessential Georgia. All the headlines have Georgia on my mind a lot. On a lighter note, from my roman a clef about a Georgian named Ishmael:

The preacher’s daughter

In a land largely populated by pale-skinned Scandinavian stock she was a deeply tanned sun worshiper. So deep and natural were her mahogany good looks, set off by dark hair and lustrous deep-brown eyes, I first took her for Mediterranean or Mexican. She was wearing jeans and cowboy boots the first time I spoke to her in an office-building elevator, going up to work. The boots argued Southwest. But when I said “nice boots” her reply dripped magnolias and mint juleps. She was Georgia-born and bred. The first of many surprises.

But beyond that single encounter, for a long time I had no real awareness of her. She worked in a restricted area, no public contact. On the other hand, public contact was my entire job. There matters might have rested but for softball.

The co-ed softball team our agency fielded was a great equalizer. Division chiefs and junior clerks and everyone in between were on the team, where skill with a bat or glove or both was the common denominator. Other employees came to watch the summer games. One game I performed rather well, if I do say so. Our scorekeeper came over to congratulate me. She introduced me to her friend: the dark lovely from the elevator, wearing slacks and tennis shoes instead of her boots. Her accent stirred almost atavistic memories of my Georgian roots. She said mine had been diluted by too much time away.

When the game was over her accent almost defeated me. She paused near me and I swear said “Bice beer?” I am sure I looked befuddled. The score-keeper interpreted: “Buy us a beer?” Named a nearby tavern. Oh. Zorba famously said God’s heart is not large enough to encompass a man called to a woman’s bed who does not go. I instantly expanded the idea to tavern invitations. We drank a couple beers. The scorekeeper flirted mildly and so did the Georgian. Pleasant way to cool down after the ballgame. They left first — but the Georgian leaned in and said don’t go anywhere, I’ll be back. I thought that’s what she said.

The coach of our team, my thirty-something hunting buddy with a heavy drinking and womanizing habit, took her chair at the bar. Talk turned immediately to sex. A few seats down, a truly gorgeous woman tried to eavesdrop while pretending to read newspaper classifieds in the dim light. When my buddy went to the bathroom I leaned over and told her it would be dark soon. Nice smile. “What? What do you mean?”

“Well,” I said, “if you can read the small print in this light you must be a vampire waiting for nightfall. I thought I’d mention it.”

“How helpful of you!” She laughed and put the newspaper down. “Pretty original for a pickup line. But I thought the sunbed queen said she’d be back.” Eavesdropping for sure.

My horn-dog buddy returned in time to hear. “More the merrier,” he said grinning. “After all I’m here now.”

“So you are,” she said. “Let’s hear your line, now your friend’s broken the ice.” Quick on the uptake as well as gorgeous. He sat between us and commenced to flirt. She batted it right back, including me in the banter.

Well hell. The last thing he needed was help. He was smooth. And she seemed appreciative, but clever enough to keep me in the loop, which held him back somewhat. I stayed for a bit to enjoy the dynamic. But it really was getting on for dark and my commute wasn’t getting any shorter. I thought maybe the looker and I both misheard the tanned brunette, and got ready to go. “I probably should too,” my buddy said. She pouted prettily. He walked me to the door.

“Damn,” he said. “You had her. You really gonna pass? I’m supposed to be home already but damn. You gonna pass, I’m sticking around, see what happens.”

Bad call. When I visited his office next day he told me they had their heads together and she had her hand on his knee when his wife walked in. About the only advantage of my long commute was insulation from that sort of thing. He hadn’t counted on that. Or his wife’s classic imitation of a fishwife, screaming and raging. And nothing happened! He was all wounded innocence. Stayed at his dad’s overnight to let her cool down. Good thing too because she called repeatedly, demanding to hear his voice. I said guess that takes care of the cute babe. “Nah,” he said. “She thought it was a riot. Seeing her later this week.”

A curious footnote was his wife’s sudden interest in softball. She attended every game and practice thereafter, sitting in her car — and knitting! I warned him about the knitting, envisioning tumbrels and Madame Defarge. He laughed it off until she changed locks on the garage, imprisoning his salmon-fishing boat and all tackle. Called 911 when he tried to break in to get his boat. They ended up divorced. All tracing back to my remark about vampires.

Those troubles were still in the future when I went back upstairs. The Georgia brunette,wearing her jeans and boots, was talking to my secretary, waiting to see me. Telling her about going to the game and that I played well. My secretary, dryly: “Yeah, thinks he’s hot stuff on a ball field.”

The Georgian followed me into my office. My visitor chairs were ancient oak with brass-studded leather seats shaped almost like a tractor seat. Or a saddle. She said saddle, and mounted one. I asked if she was a rider. She said all her girlhood. She eased her cute butt back and forth, rubbing her Mons over the pommel-like swelling.

“Almost like a saddle horn,” she drawled. “A gal needs to be careful not to pleasure herself by accident.”

Maybe my jaw dropped. She gave me a nice smile. Then apologized for not coming back to the tavern like she promised. She’d been riding with the scorekeeper and when she got home her husband had their car. “But,” she added, “I got the car today.” She offered to buy me a drink, because she had been awfully bored lately and I seemed like fun.

I spent most of my life missing signals from women interested in me. Always afraid to infer too much only to hear, in the immortal words of J. Alfred Prufrock, “That is not…what I meant at all.” But I figured an invitation for a drink was safe enough. After work we met in a quiet dim bar in an adjacent town.

We exchanged parts of our Southern life stories. She was a preacher’s daughter, raised strictly. Married; older than me. One almost-grown son, quite a baseball player himself. Had I played in high school? I had not, which required explanation. Led to a history of my ball-playing. Her Georgia town was maybe a hundred miles from the town of my birth. Felt like neighbors on the other side of the continent. She noticed the longer we talked the more my Southern accent came out of hiding. She liked that.

She was drinking bourbon of course, just rocks, same as me. She also slowly and meditatively masticated a wad of chewing gum. Bourbon and bubble gum. Only a Georgian I thought. As if she caught my thought out of the air she sat up straight, folded the gum in a cocktail napkin and put it in the ash tray. “Can’t be sittin’ chewin’ my cud if we’re havin’ an affair,” she drawled.

Almost choked on my bourbon. “Is that what we’re having?”

“Could be,” she said thoughtfully. “But not tonight. I have to get home. You do too.”

Wise woman. I don’t recall if that night I got around to telling her I never had a Southern girlfriend. Given dire warnings against them by the matriarch of my family, and bitterly painful experience when I reached puberty, I almost swore off females entirely. Eventually women from other nations, and other parts of this one, modified my view — but left intact my fear and loathing of Southern belles.

Now here was Georgia personified, drawling and damn good-looking, reaching out to me with signals even I couldn’t miss. I had a hunch the preacher’s daughter was going to prove the exception to my long-held rule.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.