Monday, December 08, 2008

Kentucky 101: Part One

I have a terrible tendency to live in my head. I think this is one of the things that makes me a writer by nature. It wasn't until I was thirty that it occurred to me that this was sort of a bad thing, I was shaken awake by a book coupled with some life experience and other realizations, and it has since been my constant struggle to be present for every wild, wonderful, terrible, boring, silly moment of this one amazing life I have been given.

I have a penchant for history that I think feeds into my "live in my head" tendency. It would be so easy for me to begin to devote myself to the study of this or that era and spend my time in a dreamy reverie of imagining life in a different time and place. I nearly plotzed with delight upon discovering the PBS series based on the premise of taking ordinary modern families and, to the greatest extent possible, stripping them of every modern convenience, placing them in another historic time (right down to replacing their underpants with their historic counterpart), equipping them with nothing but the tools and resources of the time, and then filming their experience. The resulting series: 1880's House, Frontier House, Colonial House, 1940's House, Manor House is some of the most fascinating programming I've ever watched in my whole entire life. Ken Burn's famous documentary series "The Civil War" is something, given half a chance, to which I could devote days and days. I own and have read, of my own free will, the Diary of Mary Chestnut. I've read countless biographies: Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, John Adams, Ben Franklin to name a few.

All that is to say, then, that it may be a little dangerous to put me in a college history course.

That is, however, where I found myself this semester past, due to the fact that one cannot get their paper without: Kentucky History.

Ya'll. We are nuts in Kentucky. You only have to live here a little while to know it and you only have to take one semester of Kentucky History to come to a certain realization: we come by it honestly.

In a state built on the production of whiskey, horseflesh, and tobacco, it's not real hard to figure out why your average Kentuckian of yore is some drunk pissed off somebody riding a too fast horse, sucking on a corncob pipe, and looking for some ass to kick (in other words, native Kentuckians: your (and my) great-great grandpappy). This is how the Bluegrass state lost more soldiers than any other in the War of 1812. And why when Aaron Burr, the Vice President shot Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury in a duel...where did Burr run to and hide out? Why Kentucky, of course! Come on down, have a drink and a smoke, we know how to keep a secret down here (and our pie is divine)! Ever wonder why the Kentucky state line takes a nonsensical jog at the southwest corner? It's because when the surveyors showed up, and plotted the line, a certain farm owner's land ended up on the Tennessee side. And this farmer didn't want to live in Tennessee, see, he was a Kentuckian, he said, and, by the way, he had a vast store of whiskey. And surveyors + food + whiskey = the state line gets moved.

Which brings us to, God help us, Kentucky politics. I'm not going to comment on current KY politics, although, the mess in Frankfort is pretty legendary and continues. But I will say, on a note closer to home, I'm fond of recounting the story of a certain newly elected official's first meeting with his staff. This official, once everyone was seated a the conference table, took a deep breath and said to the assemblage, "Okay, let's start here (gesturing to the employee nearest him) and go around the table and ya'll tell me who's your mama and who's your daddy." Not, mind you, their credentials, or their history of working for the organization, or professional accomplishments, or a little something about their department but, more importantly, who's yer daddy?

Now, this particular elected official had been around a while and his objective was actually friendly, in that we play a little game down here in the south sort of like the seven degrees of Kevin Bacon. And that is, we figure we know a lots of people, and upon meeting someone new, we'll sorta go 'round and 'round each other's friends and kinfolk until--we happen upon a mutual acquaintance--thus getting a fix on who this person is. The conversation will go a little like:

Person #1
So, are you one of the Huckleberrys from Fancy Farm?

Person #2
No, I'm from Possum Trot

Person #1
OH! A Possum Trot Huckleberry. Didn't one of ya'll marry that girl that used to sing at Tater Day?

Person #2
That was my uncle, Rufus Huckleberry.

Person #1
Rufus Huckleberry is your UNCLE?! I'll be darned! Why Rufus and I go way back...

And, etcetera. So, essentially, this official was trying to be neighborly and play a round of Seven Degrees of Kentucky Bacon with his new staff, thereby gaining an immediate understanding of who they are and where they come from. Trouble was? Not everyone at the table was a native Kentuckian.

Which can only mean one thing.

Those people? The people not from Kentucky?

Aren't from around here.

Which means? Ain't no amout of bacon chewin' gonna acquaint you with this person. And that casts those that aren't from around here in a certain suspicious light. Oh, you'll still get an extra hushpuppy with your catfish and a big slice of Derby pie for dessert. It's not that they don't like you, but more like maybe they might just step lightly around you until they gets to know you a little better. In fifteen years or so. This phrase is also sometimes used by way of explanation.

Person #1
What's he doing?

Person #2
Don't know.

Person #1
Is he putting ketchup on his biscuits?

Person #2
He ain't from around here.

Person #1

[To Be Continued...]


Brenda said...

Ha ha ha...I LOVED this!

ChristaD said...

So true! I have to add that Western Kentucky is the only place that a man can shoot some guy he doesn't like in a quasi-duel and end up being elected sheriff a decade later. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Suzanne said...

I'm actually not sure that whole "duel" thing isn't a plus for a KY politician.

keena said...

Darn, I was going to say SO TRUE but Christa beat me to it. It so must be so true then. I can't wait for the next installment; your writing is unique and so inventive.

Suz said...

OK, you'd better come across with Part Two one of these days, you've just whetted my interest here.

I don't know what political "mess" is happening in Ky, but I'm sure it has to be less grossly venial than the latest mess of felonies happening in Illinois. And no doubt carried out with more wit and style?