A word from Curt
This is another chapter in my upcoming e-book, A Pineywoods Manifesto. It’s a collection of anecdotes and lessons for my four grandsons.
Today’s story will be part of a speech I’ve giving Tuesday night to the 150 Honor Graduates in my home parish of Beauregard. My short talk will consist of three parts:
- Remember where you came/come from.
- Remember you didn’t get here by yourself.
- Remember that this is just the beginning of your journey.
Today, I’m sharing about the Pineywoods art of remembering from whence you came. You may move to Nashville, Boston, or even Alexandria, but your roots are still deep in the sandy soil of the pines.
Remember where you come from
I walked through the small rural cemetery looking for the grave of my hero.
I was on a business trip through SW Mississippi and veered off I-55 at McComb to visit East Fork Cemetery. It was where Jerry Clower was supposedly buried.
To a younger generation, the name Jerry Clower may not be familiar, but he stood large (literally and figuratively) in my upbringing. During the 1970’s he rocketed to fame as a storyteller of yarns from growing up in Amite County, Mississippi.
Jerry became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Grand Ol’ Opry, had his own television show and died a very rich man. All from telling stories about characters like the Ledbetter family, coon hunts, chainsaws, and life as a poor fatherless boy during the Great Depression.
As I drove to the cemetery, I took note that Amite County looked just like my home parish of Beauregard. It was Pineywoods. Exactly like where I come from. More like East Texas than New Orleans or the flat Cajun country. That’s why I loved Jerry’s stories. They were about people just like the ones I grew up around, and they were funny and clean. His storytelling set the template for the type of writing I would eventually put into my books. Jerry Clower was, and is, my hero.
But I couldn’t find his grave in East Fork Cemetery. I was reasonably sure he’d been buried in the community he came from, although he lived most of his adult life in Yazoo City, Mississippi as he traveled the world.
But there wasn’t a headstone in the cemetery that seemed worthy of where a famous star was buried. The markers were the two-foot-tall granite double headstone so common to the rural South.
I finally found his grave. It was simple and the size of the others around it. It read: Gerald Wayne Clower. 1926- 1998. The adjoining headstone was the future grave of his wife, Homerline. (I am not making up names. I have an Aunt Lloydell and Aunt Marjorie Nell.)
At the foot of Jerry’s grave was his military marker from his service in the Navy during World War II.
And that was it. No sign or marker that this was the grave of a famous American.
And then it hit me. Here is buried a man who never forgot where he came from.
Jerry Clower came from the pines of rural Mississippi and when he returned home (he and Homerline built a nice home on the land she inherited from her parents) he kept his bearings.
He remembered from whence he came.
I call it the sin of the Pineywoods: to forget where you come from. To move away and be changed by time, fame, money, or distance. I don’t think that happened to Jerry Clower. He knew it would be obscene to erect a tall edifice denoting who was buried there. Beyond all of the fame and money, he was still a Pineywoods man buried among others like him.
I brought my three sons up to always be proud of being from Dry Creek, Louisiana. Now, I’ve heard every joke and remark about my native home. I nearly gag when someone snidely says, “Well, how dry is it in Dry Creek?”.
When our youngest son Terry found himself backing into a Harvard education, I reminded him that he was traveling to foreign territory and they’d make fun of Louisiana and where he was from. I wondered if he’d put down “Lake Charles” as his hometown. It’s a little wetter and sounds more cultured.
Terry told me this story of his first class at Harvard, where he is getting his doctorate in Hebrew and Middle Eastern Languages. (That’s an oxymoron in itself. A Dry Creekian studying Hebrew in Cambridge, Massachusetts.)
“Daddy, everyone introduced himself and their hometowns. Chicago. Tel Aviv. California. Madison, Wisconsin. When they came to me, I said, ‘I’m Terry Iles, and I’m from Dry Creek, Louisiana.’”
Terry continued. “There was a pregnant pause before the entire class, led by the professor, burst out laughing.”
The Professor asked, “Is there really such a place named Dry Creek in Louisiana?”
Terry, who has a fine self-depreciating wit, took it in stride. I could not have been prouder that he stood his ground. I’m Terry Iles and I’m from Dry Creek, Louisiana. Period.
Later in the semester, there was a bonus question on an exam. “What would be the past perfect participle be in Hebrew if a creek could really be dry?”
Terry passed that test, but he’d already passed the test that meant the most to his Dad. Like my hero Jerry Clower, he hadn’t forgotten where he came from.
It’s the mark of a true Pineywoods man.
May it always be so.