In his second column for The Obelisk, Beaten Back to Pure/Birds of Prey frontman and master storyteller Ben Hogg recounts the middle years of his youth spent in Towns County, Georgia, and his awakening to the racism that was endemic to the area at the time. Please enjoy:
Fire on the Mountain II
When I left y’all last, I was up to age five and my mother’s unfortunate dog-biting/nose-losing incident. So, in the interest of time and space (gotta save something for the book! Hello… anybody????) I’m going to blow by some of the minutia. I’ll gloss over some bizarre shit I remember from early childhood — like in first grade there was a boy named Scott who vomited up a large worm onto the classroom floor just as he had crossed the threshold and entered the room. I recall it spasming on the tile. I suppose that isn’t a specifically Southern thing, but I expect it is far more common in areas, like ours, where kids regularly would play outdoors shoeless and share the yard with farm animals and their feces. Probably just a rural thing, primarily. I remember in my second grade year, I would be daydreaming out of the classroom window over an old Civil War graveyard that sat adjacent to the building and not understanding what I was seeing completely, but recognizing the aged tombstones as having been dreary and significant.
I’m going to fast forward to my next major stop of my coming up: Hiawassee, Georgia. By now my mother had hooked up and married a good dude named Bill. In retrospect, they were both completely young (late 20s/early 30s), but they had their shit together in a big way. I’m significantly older than they were as I type this and I can’t even begin to fathom ever buying a house that isn’t a boat, tilling a garden or slaughtering rabbits for meat. Luckily for me they could handle the thought processes involved in putting that together.
Just an aside, my folks were at the forefront of the healthy-eating craze and were trying to get back to basics and natural food as much as possible. There was a brief wave in early ‘80s of people eating rabbits due to their lower fat content and ability to reproduce like… well, rabbits. In the 90s, a similar thing happened with ostriches, but that experiment ended similarly, I believe. You can find both of their meats but it certainly isn’t prevalent. For six months, we caged a few of these Easter Bunny-looking meat machines and would kill and eat them in whatever recipes usually called for beef or chicken. I didn’t have the stomach for much Peter Cottontail murder, so it mainly fell onto my stepdad to do the deeds required to extract our bloody brown harvest from their white puffball fur. The meat wasn’t even that good if memory serves correctly. It was cheap, however, so we stayed the course until the day eventually came where Bill wasn’t into it any longer either. So an ad was taken out in the paper to sell what had become a concentration camp’s worth of these varmints. We were gone one afternoon and upon our arrival home we quickly realized someone had stopped by and made themselves at home in our barn, taking all the gear and rabbits we owned and replacing it with a $20 bill on the table where their cage had sat. I think we were all just glad that the Great Hare Experiment of 1982 was finally over.
My people had just scooped up a house on the cheap with crazy pink, blue and green brick that looked like a Roman shower come to life. It was big and drafty, and for about half the year there was even a lake down the hill — the cooler months saw the water recede from out of sight for some sort of damming and electricity creation. The thing I think most of you readers may find crazy about this place was the fact that Towns County (Hiawassee was contained within), GA, was, at least during my entire tenure there from 1980-‘87, a 100 percent white county. Now granted, by rock and roll standards, I’m a fucking dinosaur at 40, but in real life, that was only 25 years ago. I have since returned and seen a Mexican restaurant with actual Mexicans working inside, so I have to assume the stranglehold has been loosened. That shit would not have gone over back then.
The Ku Klux Klan operated openly in the downtown region and on many weekends would have unopposed rallies in the square and pass out literature for all those just driving through. They would wear their hood but leave their faces uncovered so you could easily recognize your friends and classmates’ parents as being members and as a young dude, I didn’t know what was all the way up, but I knew something was amiss. Probably easy to be an open Klansman in a town with no minorities, but I think their agenda leaned more towards the “keep ‘em out” end of the spectrum. I’m curious how the group is surviving these days. My money would be on “thriving” with the newfound acceptance of, at the very least, brown people within city limits (still haven’t seen any black folks). I’d like to talk to the first people to decide to bust down the doors of this particular color barrier. What would be their motivation? I can’t imagine they had numerous job offers and certainly no family to attract them, as it had us. That’s just something I’d be curious to know. I’m going to assume the town elders had died off and slightly more open-minded people had come to power. I’ll use the term “open-minded” very loosely, as I’m not talking about Renaissance time here. I’m betting it was more of a gradual erosion of flagrant bigotry replacing the in-your-face variety of my childhood. Inevitable, I suppose. I can recall vividly my eighth grade teacher using the term “nigger” in her class on two separate occasions — one as a comment on social activist/”troublemaker” Hosea Williams and his recent (by 1986 standards) drunken hit and run arrest, and the other when she made reference to her family’s trip to Hotlanta (the ATL, the dirty dirty, etc.), and her son spotting a black dude and calling him a “nigger-man.”
It seemed that open racism was almost an expected and accepted way of life. It was the norm. My family had none of that going on behind our closed doors, but we didn’t dare buck the status quo when it came from others, either. The overtones of racial purity came from all directions, and normally from the vantage point of “safety for the children” or a “we got a good thing going here.” Churches and their members (i.e., everyone) were pretty open about it, although some much more modestly than others. I remember there was talk of that same man, Hosea Williams, heading a march through our county as he had done previously in another lily-white town farther south and the heated debate that arose at the mere notion of that happening. In one of my seventh grade classrooms, we even openly debated the topic of black people potentially coming to our town. 30 kids in the room, 28 were against it and Melinda Long and myself were on the other side (always the contrarian). Hell, none of us had really ever met black people at that point and were going with our gut. Our teacher was the main rabble-rouser for the majority group, spearheading the list of cons versus our tepid pros. Twice during our football team’s pep rallies, the band from the opposing school came to play their music at our gym, and god forbid black kids were in those bands. Right about then a timely bomb threat would be called in, forcing everyone into the parking lot and usually home for the remainder of the school day. So it wasn’t altogether bad. A half-day is a half-day.
Needless to say, with a team of all white boys, we needed all the pep we could get because the Towns County Indians were to high school football what childhood cancers are to children. No more than one win over the course of five or six years. Legendarily bad. I heard they had their first winning season in decades three or four years ago. Times they are a-changing.
The one man of color who could come to town on a nearly annual basis without any fallout was country music’s Charlie Pride. I suppose he was considered “one of the good ones.” Many bigger country music acts would come and still come to play the Georgia Mountain Fair, a big-ass to-do that used to swell our little town’s population from about 2,000 locals to about 50,000 tourists for a week in the heat of summer. A tremendous boon to that area economically and — while I don’t recall seeing any black people aside from maybe a carnival worker or two — I’m sure even their money wouldn’t have been shunned. Green is a color even the most cantankerous old fool understood for that one week a year.
Well, that wraps up my second installment of my ongoing series, if you dig it, make sure to tell my man Dy-no-mite (JJ). Thanks for letting me get some thoughts down on paper. Until next time, don’t go up there unless you know somebody, them woods be creepy crawling.
Y’all come back now, ya hear?
Tags: Ben Hogg