I was born in northeastern Arkansas but raised in California. That’s generally my response to “Where are you from?” I like to think it grounds me- the Arkansas part connects me to the rural, agrarian types in the world, and it also puts me “in the know”, so to speak- the California part connects me to the urban, hip crowd. Or at least that’s how I like to frame it.
Anyway, here’s what I know about it:
My dad was born in Detroit to an auto working family whose roots were in Northeastern Arkansas. My grandfather moved to California to take a job at a steel mill sometime in the sixties. My dad was just probably in fourth or fifth grade at the time; I’m not quite sure. I’ve seen a couple of their home movies from the era and that’s about how old he looks. When my dad was in his late teens/early twenties he made a trip to Arkansas to visit his grandparents. That’s where he met my mom.
She was raised in the middle of nowhere northeast Arkansas on a small farm- I’m assuming she was raised on the farm we always visited growing up. And by farm, I mean a couple to a few acres with a large garden and a hog pen. My mom always talked about not liking to eat the chickens they raised. She also mentioned on several occasions that my grandmother was a keen shot with a “peepsight rifle” whenever snakes got after the chickens. She said that when she was a little girl they would have to pick cotton. Apparently they were tenement farmers at some point early in her life. She explained that the more kids you had, the more help you had on the farm- there were 11 in her family. So the older girls would take care of the younger kids, and if you were old enough to carry a gunnysack, you were old enough to pick cotton. Right now that’s about all I can recall of my mom’s stories of growing up.
So they met at church. Wonder of all wonders, right… My dad’s grandfather was a oneness pentecostal preacher, as was my dad’s dad. So when my dad took this trip to visit his grandparents, he went to a youth service on a Friday night at the church where my mom attended. My uncle told us the story about how my mom’s family got into church a few years ago after she died. Apparently my grandfather didn’t want much to do with church. My grandmother took the kids to church once in a while, but not really regularly. When my mom got into high school, she got a job and then bought a car. Once she had the car (a “gunmetal gray” Dodge Demon), she started taking the kids who were younger than her to church regularly. Even now, the siblings who were older than her or the same age either don’t go to church or have nothing to do with oneness. Of the younger ones, three are pastors of small oneness pentecostal churches, and the other tried to be a traveling evangelist for a while.
So that’s my stock; that’s where I come from. My dad eventually married my mom and moved to Arkansas. I eventually came along, and then when I was 4, the shoe factory they both worked in shut down. My dad moved the family to California to get a job at the steel mill where my grandfather worked. So that’s how I ended up there; from a little town of maybe three hundred people and two paved roads to an Inland Empire town in southern California with nearly 100,000 people and an interstate less than a mile from our house.
I started kindergarten in 1980 and stayed in the same district through high school. That’s where I got my education, and I believe the
exposure to immersion into California culture deeply impacted who I am. I was thinking about it the other day and realized that I voted for California’s medical marijuana law which happened shortly after I graduated high school. At the time, I hadn’t even been exposed to marijuana. I didn’t know anything about it except what I had been taught in school, and what I knew from others and popular culture. But apparently at the time, I thought it was a good idea to either let people use it for medical reasons or have more personal freedom. That’s just a glimpse into what being raised in California did to me. My dad’s parents lived a mile or two from where we lived, and for much of my early years we would go over to their house on Friday nights to watch TV. We would watch The Dukes of Hazzard, then Knight Rider, and us kids would go and play as soon as the intro to Dallas was over. We always stuck around for the intro because of the mirror buildings. As soon as the mirror buildings were off the screen, we were gone.
We didn’t get a television at home until I was in fourth grade. I’m not sure if it was because we couldn’t afford one, or because of religious reasons- maybe both. There were a lot of oneness ministers that taught against television; but then my dad also worked at a steel mill after making an across the country move- he couldn’t have been making that much. We got the TV from my best friend’s parents. They had just bought a new TV. I happened to be at their place one afternoon watching G.I.Joe. When my Mom came to pick me up, they offered to give us the old black and white set that took about five minutes for the picture to come up after you turned it on. I think my mom called my dad to make sure he was OK with us getting it before accepting it. We kept that TV for a few years and after we moved into the new house, my dad bought a real TV that had color and everything. He hasn’t been without one since.
Every couple of years we would take a road trip across the country to visit my Mom’s people in Arkansas, and we usually saw some of my dad’s uncles and aunts while we were there, although I never really felt connected to my dad’s people like I did to my mom’s. Frankly, they were all a bunch of weird farmers and such- not all of them, but many. I remember this one time we were visiting some cousin of my mom’s and this one old guy kept talking about this medical roller device that he rolled on his arms and all of his pain went away. He referred to it in his thick Arkansas accent as “that roww-lerrrr” (that’s the best I can transliterate an Arkansas accent in print- sorry). And then my dad’s aunt and uncle’s place, which I flashed back to the first time (and every time since then) I watch national Lampoon’s Vacation; the scene at Cousin Eddie’s place WAS my great aunt and uncle’s place. My grandmother’s farm was surrounded on three sides by rice paddies and across the road was a soybean field. The road was about three miles outside of town (the one with two paved roads) and apparently used to be a train track. All that was left at that time was the road bed of pinkish tan gravel. There was a wooden bridge a little ways before you got to the farm that was the big talk one summer. A combine harvester tried to cross the bridge and didn’t get lined up with the treads on the bridge and fell through. They talked about that for years. Another time we spent the fourth of July there and my youngest uncle cut open some firecrackers and poured all of the powder into a used shotgun shell. He thought it was going to be the best explosion ever, but he didn’t seal the end well enough for it to even produce an audible bang. Another memorable experience from that trip was him putting a firecracker into a frog’s mouth.
So that’s somewhat of a glimpse of my roots. You’ve seen some of my dad’s family and some of my mom’s. You’ve been privy to some of my thoughts and perceptions. Maybe I’ll share more in the future. Personally, I think my roots are a little weird, but the older I get, the more I realize there is weirdness in all of our pasts. But I think mine is a little more weird than most; rural and urban, conservative and liberal, backwoods and city- all rolled into one.