As best I can recall it was the summer of ’65. It was a sweltering day, a muggy miserable day. The Kudzu vines that were overtaking the lopsided old barn seemed to make the heat even more oppressive.
Every summer when we visited the old farm up on Sand Mountain between Dutton and Pisgah, I would spend hours exploring that ancient barn. I would climb on the decrepit buggy and farm wagon, and poke around the loft among the old harnesses and broken tools. Sometime I would sit high up in that loft, stare out across the dusty Alabama fields towards the woods, eat watermelon and daydream.
On this particular day I had been tagging along behind my Uncle Burton. I helped slop the hogs and gather eggs. Then we had driven out to the Pisgah Creek mill for a can of fresh sorghum. It was late afternoon. We were in the barn, and being just a kid, was more interested in swinging on a rope tied to the rafters than paying attention to Uncle Burton who was cussing over a battered old Fordson tractor.
I don’t remember how it all came about. But I sure remember the jolt. He was trying to get the tractor to fire. I was sitting on that old iron tire. Entranced by a dancing spark I grabbed a wire. Curiosity and lesson learned.
Pa always told me that a smart man learns from his mistakes. A genius learns from the mistakes made by others. I have learned a lot from mistakes made. I attribute that to curiosity.
My passion for history is rooted in a desire to learn lessons from the mistakes made by others. Over the years I have come to see that history is also a wellspring of inspiration.
I have very fond memories of my time on the farm on Sand Mountain, and on family farms near Monteagle, Tennessee and Mentone, Alabama. But the 1960s were a time of transition in the south, and for a curious kid there were lots of questions. Few had answers, or at least easy answers. And I still puzzle over some of those questions today.
My grandmother in Michigan had a picture on the mantle of my grandfather on the front porch with Henry Ford. At Aunt Violet’s house the wall over the mantle was dominated by large pictures of General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in ornate antique frames.
My grandmother in Michigan provided few answers to my probing questions. It was the quest for answers that led me to the kick off of my writing career. My family on Sand Mountain was just as vague. The stock answer for questions asked about the ancient pictures of two stern looking generals was almost always framed by a simple response. They were heroes of the “War of Northern Aggression.”
It was an odd time to be a kid that read lots of books and that had an insatiable curiosity. Why did Uncle Burton get so made at me for drinking out of the “wrong” drinking fountain on the courthouse square in Scottsboro? Why was there a shrine at Stone Mountain but not at the site of the Fort Pillow massacre?
Lots of things have changed since the mid 1960s. But sometimes the more things change, the more they remain the same. I am still possessed of an insatiable curiosity. I am still looking for answers. I am still looking for answers to questions posed a half century ago.