Saturday, July 23, 2005

For Chester

I was city born and city bred, and you just don't take a girl out of Miami, pluck her in the middle of the country, and expect her to know what's what. I was very impatient with the country. The people drove too slowly, spoke too slowly and they seemed to take their time with every single thing they DID! Six months after we moved out here, I had begun to resign myself to a whole new concept: the art of being laid back. It was a foreign term to me.

Miami, with it's freeways, expressways and major six lane highways, had become too busy and chaotic, too noisy for my taste... and yet this country business was at the extreme end of the spectrum. I needed to find my place, and the country wasn't it. I was lost.

Chester was a big, fat, beer bellied man with a sweaty red neck and a dirty pickup truck to boot. He laughed whenever he saw me, driving down the side roads on the way out to our 5 acres of delusional paradise. He'd always wave too, and nod his head or tip his baseball cap to me. The name on the cap said "Chester's Supply" and he wore it everywhere he went. I was well familiar with Chester... we ordered truckloads of fill dirt from him whenever we had the money. We were young and thinking about planning a family. Money was tight and precious. To this day, I can't believe we spent it on fill dirt. We needed the dirt, however. We had bought five acres of land on a lake up in North Florida, about 40 miles south and due west of Jacksonville. That's lake country, sits in the middle of Florida, where people talk with a slight drawl and take their sweet time when they've a good mind to.

Now, roughly two of those acres was swampland, but we didn't know that when we bought it. Our goal was to cut down scrub oaks and pines to make way for a house we wanted to build. The house would go on the high and dry part of the property, and the trees would be carried off to fill in the low wet areas. Thanks to the scrub bush, we couldn't see the the lake from where the house would go, so we began to construct a wide path through the low areas of the land. Every tree and branch that fell was topped with rocks and loads of fill dirt from Chester. We would get off work, grab a bite to eat and then start our "second job", cutting down those trees and clearing the scrub until dark. I learned to use a chain saw, something I am still proud of to this day.

Every morning we'd get up, long before the sun rose over the tall stretches of pine forest and head out, determined to beat the train on the way to work. This was important, otherwise we'd sit at the RR Crossing for what seemed like forever, and always end up late for work. Had a good 30 mile drive ahead of us, into nearby Gainesville, on a two lane road that always had one or two lazy pickup trucks casually making their way down the highway. That could slow you down until you found a way to pass 'em. So, we had to beat the train and pass the trucks and somehow skid into town just before work began for the day.

But one morning, the train got there first. It was the endless train, on and on it went. Rick and I looked at each other, silent in the cabin of the truck. I actually liked the ride into town, and the shortcut we'd take once in a while, with it's lazy roads that curved every which way, the tall oaks that spread into a canopy over the gravel. Sometimes we'd see deer or rabbits standing on the side of the road as we drove past.

But that morning, when the train reached the crossing, it brought all those years of South Florida bred impatience to a screeching halt. There is no hurrying in the south. You just learn to go with things and learn when to let them ride.

We heard noises then, and in the distance, we could see the headlights of a truck approaching. It came to a slow lingering stop and paused.
For a moment, nothing happened.... just us, the rushing train and the truck. Driver turned his keys off and got out. As always, my thoughts turned to the headlines:
"City Couple Slaughtered in the Boondocks."
"Serial killer emerges at RR Crossings.. public urged to keep windows closed and doors locked."

The man walked up to the window, and in the darkness, we could make out the unmistakeable looming figure of Chester. He nodded when we opened the window. Tipped his hat as always. " Long train" he drawled in that redneck manner of his. And then in the middle of the darkness before the sun began to rise... we found ourselves doing the very things we left Miami for... talking to mere aquaintances in the pre dawn hours as if it was just a natural thing to do. Only it wasn't natural for us.

Miami didn't work for us. The final straws began to break the day my car became stranded on the side of the highway on US1 and not a single person stopped to help. People honked their horns angrily at me, as if i'd invaded their space. I managed to coast the car home, without brakes, if only to get it off the highway and get out of their way. Non-English speaking sales clerks barely looked at us when we'd hand them money for the groceries. I felt like an invader in the town I'd grown up in, and I'd lost respect for what it had become. When we left, we were looking for a place where people stopped to help one another, and treated each other with respect and hospitality.

I didn't know it then, but the southern ways were growing on me. I was leaving behind the speed of the the city and forming a deep appreciation for that one southern quality that I'd probably been looking for all my life... that ability to stop and reflect, to talk to your neighbors, whomever they might be. I believe the South has a way of working it's way into your soul, a little at a time. And once it's planted in there, it's there for good, no matter where life takes you.

In all the years to come, I have found that the South taught me to slow down some... one just can't speed through life when the roads are winding and turning, or you'll miss the scenery along the way. Where there are people like Chester, who would get out of his truck in the early morning and stop to chat awhile, that's the South. That's where my heart will always be.