I had just finished my junior year in high school, and my family was getting ready for our annual summer holiday. I recently described our now established tradition of spending this time in a cabin by a lake in neighboring Wisconsin. My mother decided that she was getting tired of this routine, and over my dad’s objections, it was decided that this summer we would find a new place to visit in this vast country that was becoming our new home. I don’t recall how the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee were selected, but we found ourselves in the car for our first visit to the South. As we rolled through the small towns of Southern Illinois, into and through Missouri, then veering East through rolling hills and past endless farms, we began to appreciate the vastness of America. Places that until then had only been names of Civil War battles in my history books suddenly took on a real identity.
Knoxville didn’t hold much appeal for us at the time, and we drove past it in order to reach our desired destination, Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Located in the heart of Smoky Mountain National Park, the small town each summer becomes a tourist haven, filled with motels, restaurants, hunting and fishing supply stores, and collections of souvenir shops reminiscent of the Wisconsin Dells. The mountains were smaller and gentler than I expected them to be and the morning vistas, with their layered clouds between peaks (hence the name) were impressive and beautiful. The local bears had grown used to having tourists around, and were easily found by looking for a cluster of cars pulled off at the side of the road, while the occupants busily snapped photos from rolled down windows. There was a profusion of signs warning everyone not to feed the bears, along with the usual knuckleheads who didn’t feel the signs pertained to them. These were not the big brown or grizzly bears of the Pacific Northwest, but their smaller black cousins. Nonetheless, their claws and teeth were impressive, and despite their placid, apparently docile behavior, wild animals have to be treated with respect.
My mother loved having her picture taken, an assignment usually given to me. One day, we stopped at a scenic lookout, and she was posing on the wall by the side of a road. A bear jumped up on the wall, and started walking slowly in her direction. I was just about to take the photo when the bear made his (or her – I wasn’t going to get close enough to investigate) appearance. I didn’t want to startle the bear or my mom, so I told her to stand up and start walking slowly toward me (and away from the bear she still hadn’t seen.) However, she wasn’t finished posing, and requested I take more shots. I sharpened my voice enough to get her to move, telling her, “Mom, you need to stand up and move toward me NOW!” so she finally complied. I still have the photo of her sitting there smiling, with the bear on the wall no more five yards from her back. The scene became one of those family stories that get repeated and embellished with time.
Once we learned to tune our ears to the regional southern accent, we appreciated the diversity not only of speech, but also of mores. People in the South were friendlier than in Chicago, and when they asked us where we were from, most actually were interested in our answer. There were some new experiences, such as when my mother ordered coffee ice cream in a small restaurant, to have the waitress look at her crossly and say, “So what will it be lady? Do you want coffee, or do you want ice cream?”
While in Gatlinburg, we found a restaurant serving sweet, fresh watermelon. This was one of my dad’s favorites, and almost every afternoon we would stop in to order some, quenching our thirst, cooling us down, and satisfying our sweet tooth. One day, as she saw us walking in, the waitress yelled out to the back of the shop, “Get the watermelons out! The Yankees are back!”
Attending a Catholic high school taught by Carmelite priests, I wore a Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel around my neck. This consisted of two small rectangles of brown cloth, one side of which contained an image of Our Lady, connected by thin linen strips, so they looked almost like tea bags. One day, I walked into a soda fountain in Tennessee wearing an open neck shirt and jeans, wanting to get a Coke. The man behind the counter looked at my neck, squinted his eyes, and asked, “You a Catholic, boy?” When I replied “Yes, sir” he turned his back and snarled, “Get out of here, boy! We don’t serve no Papists here!” I was dumfounded, but left. It was my first time experiencing overt prejudice in the States, though it would be far from my last. As I got older, I saw that prejudice existed equally in the North as it did in the South, only here it was more overt.
It was good for us to broaden our experience and we enjoyed our trip. I especially liked hiking along the mountain trails, while my dad developed a genuine fondness for Southern cooking, especially fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, as well as BBQ ribs. It was a long ride back to Chicago, and since I now had my license, my dad and I alternated driving. I happened to be at the wheel as we were driving though St Louis on a Sunday morning. The traffic in front of me slowed almost to a stop, forcing me to engage the clutch and downshift the transmission. As I did this, the clutch pedal literally broke off and fell to the floor. Luckily, I was still in second gear, and there was an off ramp right next to me. I was able to take the ramp and find a gas station. Rolling into the station, I knew we were going to be stuck there until we could get the clutch fixed.
This is the point where another angel comes into my life, offering rescue and hope. The mechanic easily assessed our situation, but needed someone with welding equipment to fix the broken clutch petal. Hearing the worry and concern over the costs and logistics of having to spend an extra night in a strange city, he called a friend with the needed equipment at home. Despite being Sunday, the friend drove over to the gas station, and in an hour was able to weld the clutch back to functioning order. When my dad inquired as to how much he was going to charge us for his service, the man thought for a minute, smiled at us, and looking at my neck said, “No charge. You folks have been through enough. This is my Sunday service. You, son, just see to it those priests keep you on the straight and narrow.” There are all types of people in the world. Based on my experiences, there are more than enough good guys out there to keep hope shining for the future.