The Price of Whistling Dixie
BY L. ROY AIKEN
I was all of 28 years old, very nearly 29, when I married into the Navy and took off down that long, nomadic trail which would bring me to Japan.
Yet it was only while I lived in Columbia that I would walk into the credit union, the auto shop, wherever, and the first thing out of the clerk's mouth after I'd opened my own was a smirking, "Yew ain't frum around here, are yew?"
My perceived lack of an accent had marked me as an Outsider. One of those uppity overeducated middle-class types, or just plain queer. Either way, I was fair game, if not for cheating outright, then at least to more general jerking around than a more "regular" customer might expect to put up with.
After so many years of this crap my only regret upon leaving South Carolina was that I hadn't done it 10 years sooner.
On the road, however, I would soon learn that non-Southerners had no problem whatsoever pegging my Southernness by my accent.
I might have found it amusing that all those years of training myself to speak in a neutral accent were only good enough to fool those yokels I'd meet across service counters and elsewhere throughout Columbia.
Instead, I was disappointed. And my disappointment, in turn, surprised and disappointed me.
What was I ashamed of?
That was easy. All I had to do was think back to those chuckleheads behind the service counter. Those nimrods at work. The white trash in my neighborhood. Those kids at my school.
It wasn't just my overeducated middle-class white boy's terror of downward mobility. I associated the dialect of my native region with all that was thick-headed, bullying and just plain stupid.
But if that answer came easy, was it also fair?
Hell no. True, my general experience in Columbia was unhappy, but to deny my Southernness was also to deny those friends and family members who had helped me through the bad times, who had shown me that there is a goodness in the world worth living for, a rightness worth fighting for. To throw all that away for the bitter memory of people who were worthless and no-account in anyone's language would be the worst kind of sin.
Certainly I already knew better than to do that. As a student at the University of South Carolina I'd straightened out many a no-neck from north of the Mason-Dixon line who would complain about the lack of "culture" in South Carolina -- as if those yabbos had ever been to a museum outside of a school trip, or could tell a Beethoven symphony from a Bach fugue. I'd seethed when the self-described "northern liberal" wife of a newspaper owner I once worked for made cracks about my infant daughter crying in "that funny accent." And I'd exploded when I'd read the New York Times' review blurb on the back of Molly Ivins' first book: "Ivins proves that intelligence and a Southern accent can be real good buddies" -- as if the Times' own William Safire and A.M. Rosenthal proved that a Northern accent and a cross-eyed right-wing reactionary viewpoint not only make for a natural combination but are worthy of our respect.
So again: Why would I feel embarrassed for being caught with a Southern accent?
I honestly don't know. Maybe I've victimized myself with the popular perception that intelligence and a Southern accent are good buddies only by lucky accident.
I expect to be working on this question for a long while yet. In the meantime, I've learned that being Southern does have a certain cachet.
In 1991 in Imperial Beach, Calif., I learned just how lucky I am to be where I'm from.
Two boiler techs from the soon-to-be decommissioned aircraft carrier U.S.S. Midway had moved into the apartment under mine, and in order to foster good will they had invited my wife and me to their house-warming party. I was talking to someone at the door when someone asked the question that always comes up between people associated with the military: "So, where ya from, man?"
My answer caught the attention of one of the hosts.
"All right!" he called out from his command post on the sofa. "Did I hear you say you're from the South? C'mon, sit over here!"
He slapped me on the back as I settled in next to him. "Damn, it's good to meet someone like you! Hell, man, I've been on the ship so long...look, where I'm from we never...look, it's just so good to meet someone I can talk to without having to make excuses for myself!"
I was so thrown by his effusive welcome I had trouble following his words. For an irrational moment I thought he was going to tell me he was gay.
Instead, he asked again: "Where did you say you're from?"
"Columbia, South Carolina."
He held his beer skyward and addressed the ceiling. "Oh thank you, God! THANK YOU!"
He turned back to me. "You just can't know how it feels, man! After all this time -- oh, thank you, God! -- I have finally found someone who hates niggers as much as I do!"
Those who would chide me for laughing out loud as I did upon hearing this are advised that this incident says as much about the poisonous effect political correctness has had on national discourse as it does about how Southerners are viewed outside their region.
As it turned out, my host was a young man who had lived all of 18 years in his native Oklahoma without seeing one black man. He'd joined the Navy immediately after high school.
And so it was that he saw his first black man, and a few more besides.
And they played that awful boom-boom music. And no matter how politely he asked them to turn it down they would say stuff to the effect of "Go to hell, white boy." Among other things.
And he had no one to talk to about it. Even his fellow white shipmates just shrugged their shoulders and said, "Well, so what?"
So here I was, a blood representative of the Land of Dixie. Surely I would understand. Surely I would sympathize.
I just let him talk. He really was a decent fellow at heart.
In the end he taught me that there are far, far worse things than being Southern.
Suffering my ignorance and letting resentment fester like the world's largest ingrown hair, for one.
Or being just plain ignorant.
Columbia native L. Roy Aiken zaps out his column via mojowire from the eighth
floor of a high-rise overlooking the west end of Atsugi Naval Air Facility.
He has worked as city hall reporter and columnist for the Imperial Beach (Calif.)
He has worked as city hall reporter and columnist for the Imperial Beach (Calif.)Times and contributed to The San Diego Writers' Monthly, The Poetry Conspiracy and (in collaboration with Columbia artist Mike Hoffman) the horror anthology Taboo.