Hampton, GA – There was a time when my whole world revolved around the little quiet town I called home. Though our address was technically Rural Route 1, Locust Grove, I went to school in Hampton. We went to church in Hampton. Dad worked in Hampton. I played ball in Hampton. That was my universe. Even now, though I have lived here longer than I lived there, when I think of where I’m from, I think of that little red brick house just 3 miles east of town across the Towilaga bridge.
I loved a Saturday morning when Dad would take me to town with him. We’d stop in at Roy Greer’s Service Station to get a fan belt or something. Wicker bottom chairs sitting on the concrete under the awning. Old men sitting and standing around the pot-bellied stove inside. Too warm for a fire, but they still gathered round spitting tobacco and talking like men do.
“Got my corn planted this morning.”
“How come you wait so long? Mine’s almost knee high already.”
Talking about vegetables among men with unshaven whiskers and straw hats is like a sparring match. One jab after another. Country folk have bragged about their gardens forever. Since the day Adam learned to work the ground, I guess. The first beans to run. The first melon to make. The first corn to tassel. And the Cu de’ Gra in any herbaceous crop dispute, the first ripe tomato.
Men have been known to lie about having special recipes to grow their tomatoes. Sneaking out at night under the cover of darkness to stir the soil and conjure up the best Big Boy or Better Girl in three counties. Come early June, the first slice of homegrown tomato is like a slice of heaven. The angels themselves are jealous of men with a succulent slice of red tomato sandwiched between two pieces of Colonial white bread.
While they talked, Dad opened up the Coca Cola chest cooler. He reached down in the ice water and grabbed up two 10oz bottles of Coke. One bag of Tom’s salted peanuts and we’d split the peanuts between us and stuff them in the neck of the Coke bottle. This was the stuff of my life.
While we were in town we’d pull around back of Marvin Daniel’s store. Dad seemed to prefer the back entrance that came in by the butcher counter. I loved the sound of the thick cooler door and the sawdust on the floor. Mr. Jack, I can’t remember his name for sure, wore a white button up coat that hung down to his knees. A little blood spatter and grease smear across the front and sleeves.
“What you need today, Mr. John?” It seemed to me that everybody knew Dad by name. Men like Byron Coker and Earl Pendley and Ed Fortson joined in. “Morning John.” In a town like this, there was a fraternity and a shared history that spoke to the past and present as if it were one. A place where old men and young boys were aware of a common thread that stitched their lives together like a patchwork quilt.
Mr. Jack would work his knife and saw right there in front of us while we waited. Maybe crank the grinder for a few pounds of ground beef. Burgers on the grill tonight. He’d weigh it all out and wrap it up tight in white butcher paper. A quick pull on the tape to seal it up. Round steak and Roast written on the outside in bold black letters. We’d leave with five or six packs thrown in a heavy wax coated box.
Dad would hand the box to me to carry out. “That’s a good helper you got with you today.” I’d look at the floor. The men would shake hands. I’d set the box up in the truck seat between us and take the last few swallows of Coke. Shake the bottle to get the last of the peanuts.
I think what sticks with me the most about growing up in a small town is the feeling of having a kind of extended family. A place where a kid could ride his bike 3 miles into town and walk into Gene Copeland’s Hardware or hang out on North Avenue playing ball in Blake Yates’ back yard, and no one worried about who you were or what you were up to.
“Can I go play baseball?” Mama would look up from her sewing machine.
“Did you finish hoeing in the garden like your Dad asked you to do?”
“Yes M’am. I fed and watered my calves, too.”
“What about the grass?”
“Can’t I do that tomorrow? I promise.”
“Well, I reckon it’d be alright. You be home by six o’clock. Don’t make me call Miss Margie looking for you. What you gonna do for lunch?”
“Miss Margie will feed me. She makes fried bologna sandwiches.” Which was something I secretly loved and didn’t get at home. I slid my glove down over my handlebars and was gone.
Everybody has childhood memories. And I know that some memories are not the best. Broken homes. Being passed from one Foster family to another. Never living in one place longer than a year or two. Suicide. Alcohol abuse. Dark moments that make a kid feel lost and afraid. Extreme poverty that leaves a kid hungry every night and cold every winter. Not all stories are full of fond memories.
That’s why I feel so lucky. That’s why I promised myself that I would do everything possible to give my kids what I had. A home in one place. A small town where they would have extra parents and grandparents to do for them what we couldn’t always do. Church folks and shop keepers who looked after them without ever being asked. Somebody else’s house where they could find a fried bologna sandwich if they needed one. A backyard in town where they could play with friends.
Home is a place in their time and world that they will remember because Mr. Bill always had peppermint candy in his front pants pocket. A place where Miss Annette loved to keep them for an afternoon. She still asks me to this day when I run into her at the Post Office, “How’s those precious children of yours doing? What are they up to these days?” Even though they are now all grown up.
Life has gone by way too fast. I hope my kids think of the place they grew up with wonder and awe. I hope the past still speaks to them. I hope they never forget where they come from.
Pine Mountain is our home now. Has been for a long time and will be for years to come. I love this place. But one of these days I will return to Hampton. Out behind Old Berea, where my people are buried, there are two spots reserved. My grandparents are there. My folks are there. Mr. Marvin is there. Ozer Daniel is there. Uncle Clem. Aunt Annie. Billy. Walker. We just buried Mary Kate.
It’s only right that I end up there. After all these years, that little town still has my heart.