This is the second assignment for my personal essay class. We were to write about place and I attempted to capture how the experience of place can shape biases and beliefs - good or bad.
My head gently bounces against the large pane of glass of the bus window, nudging me awake. My eyes register “snow” before my brain kicks in and I remember that the white dotting the fields cannot possibly be snow as I’m somewhere in the south, having left South Carolina for Alabama earlier that day.
Cotton, my brain offers although this is a unfamiliar sight. I’m accustomed to rows and rows of corn and soy bean, crop staples in Illinois. In Illinois, the soil is dark, reminiscent of the morning coffee my dad would drink. The soil framing the cotton field is red.
When we reach Ft. Rucker, Alabama, where I am to spend the next eight-weeks learning my job as a Flight Operations Specialist, drill sergeants greet our bus. This is more jarring to me than the cotton or the red soil. I’d thought I’d seen the last of drill sergeants as I’d boarded the bus at Fort Jackson that morning, having completed eight grueling weeks of basic training. I’d even exchanged pleasantries with Drill Sergeant Stancil, the biggest hard ass of the three drill sergeants who’d been assigned the task of shepherding us through basic training. The Alabama drill sergeants are being kind and I am wary, waiting for the other combat boot to drop. It doesn’t happen and the eight weeks pass without so much as a raised voice. Their demands are reasonable – no food in your room, keep it neat, look sharp. The first rule doesn’t stop my roommate, Private Miller, from tucking grilled chicken into her storage locker. She’s found out during a surprise room inspection.
I’m eager to learn where I’ll be stationed once I complete my training and disappointed to learn I’m remaining at Ft. Rucker. Miller is too and we become roommates a second time in the barracks a few miles over. Miller is thin and her appetite insatiable. One Saturday afternoon, I open the door to our room and am greeted by an unfamiliar, unpleasant smell.
“What are you cooking?” I ask, peering into the pot that she has going atop a not permitted, single burner cooktop.
“Tripe!” She says happily. “Want some?”
“What the hell is tripe?” I ask, peering at the white mass that’s burbling in the pot.
“This here’s cow’s stomach!”
“No. No; I do not want any tripe. Thank you."
Like me, Miller is from the Midwest. Specifically, she’s from Michigan, adjacent to Illinois. Her mom grew up in the south with an affinity for tripe, chitlins and okra that she passed on to Miller. For days, the smell of the tripe hangs in the air of our small room.
There’s not much to do in southeast Alabama so I sign up to take classes at community college located off the base in neighboring Enterprise, Alabama. I have time to kill before my first appointment with the guidance counselor, so I drive around the small downtown, hoping to discover something to do that’s evaded me. Instead, I come across a towering monument of a woman, don in a flowing gown, a large bug hoisted over her head. I despise bugs and this bug looks like one I’d most definitely recoil in horror from and not loft it above my head as if it were a champion to be revered.
A historical marker adjacent to the monument proclaims it to be the BOLL WEEVIL MONUMENT. I’ve not heard of, nor seen, a Boll Weevil and pray I don’t come across one while in Alabama. Apparently, the boll weevil was indigenous to Mexico but appeared in Alabama in 1915. A few short years later, farmers were losing entire crops of cotton and turned to peanut farming which paid off. The monument was erected in 1919, a tribute to how something disastrous can be a catalyst for change.
When the national peanut festival is held in Dothan, Alabama, it seems only right that I check it out. Miller joins me. She’s clearly the more adventurous eater so she tries the boiled peanuts. I abstain, the words “boiled peanuts” bring unbidden images of slugs to my mind.
While attending Enterprise State Junior College, I meet people who are not in the Army. They are regular, local, “civilians” attending classes. I begin to hang out with a girl who’s close to my age, Stephanie, and introduce her to an Army friend of mine by the name of Mark. The two begin to date. I’m dating a fellow soldier, Brian. Mark, Brian and I are all stationed at Fort Rucker. One Saturday night, while the four of us are out, Stephanie casually refers to a person of color as the N word. I recoil in horror, thinking of Miller and suddenly viewing of my time with Stephanie as a betrayal to Miller.
“Why would you say that?!” I demand to know. Stephanie laughs and makes it clear, under no uncertain terms, how she feels about an entire race. When I see her at school the following week, she says she had a great time. I stare at her and know that when this class ends, I will never spend time with her again. And I don’t. She and Mark continue to date.
I receive orders to participate in something referred to as “funeral detail”. This is an assignment in addition to my job. It’s an honor guard detail for the burial of Army veterans. There are seven of us in total assigned to my detail. Six of us carry the coffin and one is our leader. I’m the only female on the detail – a situation I’ve grown accustomed to during my short tenure in the Army. Veterans, of course, die without notice so we hastily meet to check out our M-16s and then board the van to head to wherever the services are being held - - Alabama, Louisiana or Mississippi. One day, we cannot find the rural cemetery where the service is to be held. Our leader pulls the van up next to a man who’s walking alongside the road to ask him for directions.
“Well. Is it a colored person or a white person?” The man drawls of the deceased soldier.
A hush falls over the van and our leader answers that he doesn’t know – it’s a veteran of the U.S. Army and we’re to do his service. Our leader, Santiago, has light brown skin. I feel embarrassed by this exchange. My cheeks burn in shame as if I’m the one who came up with segregated cemeteries. Santiago gets directions to both cemeteries and we drive on in silence. Spotting a crowd at the first cemetery we come across, Santiago eases the van to a stop. We assemble graveside to perform the military honors. I feel a fire ant bite into the top of my foot and remain still, ignoring both the fire ant and the sweat that rolls down my face. I focus on the brown skinned soldier standing across the casket from me. His name is Nunez and he’s from the Dominican Republic. He catches me looking at him and gives a small smile.
Brian and I marry at a courthouse in Ozark, Alabama and when we both receive our honorable discharges a few years later, it’s Brian who suggests, “Let’s tie a snow shovel to the roof of our car and drive north. We’ll live at the first place that doesn’t ask, ‘What’s that?’”
I agree, eager to leave the heat, the bugs, most of the food, and the pervasive, antiquated views on gender and race behind. I remain in Massachusetts even after Brian and I divorce. We both remarry and one day, my wife tells me she’s being considered for a promotion that would require us to relocate to Lynchburg, Virigina. The south. What I know of the south has been largely shaped by the time I spent there while enlisted in the Army in the early to mid-1990’s.
“Lynchburg! What is that named after?! LYNCHINGS?!” I demand in horror.
“No! It’s named after some guy.” Andrea tries to assure me.
“Yeah. Sure.” I mumble while googling on my phone, Is Lynchburg VA named after Lynchings? It seems that it's not the first time that Google has fielded this question.
“Hm. Says it’s named after its founder – John Lynch.” I read, still suspicious.
“See?” Andrea says while I wish the place was founded by someone with the surname of Smith or Jones. I still cringe when I people ask where we’re moving and I’m forced to reply, "Lynchburg."
When I break the news to my mom that we are moving to Lynchburg, she wonders aloud, as any lifelong Midwesterner would, “What kind of crops do they grow in Virginia?! Tobacco?”
“And cotton!” I add, remembering the long-forgotten boll weevil. And although I wouldn’t classify the move as disastrous, it will be a catalyst for change, perhaps to shift my view of the south formed decades before.