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an alaskan yankee in b.b. kings court
Bob Babin

Nearly twenty years ago I worked in Memphis Tennessee. Those were two years that passed like a decade. An African American man walking into a bar adorned with Confederate flags comes close to describing my alienation. Why did I go to that damp delta town? How did a guy from Alaska end up living on Mars? Excuse me, I mean Memphis. I’ve asked myself that question many times. It pains me to admit this, but my greed brought me to that foreign place. It took me years to recover from my time in that steamy kingdom. I was an Alaskan Yankee in B.B. Kings Court.

My wife Katy reminds me that Memphis isn’t some earthly hell. For many Memphis is a good place to live. The city fathers like to remind visitors that Memphis is home to B.B. King and the music of the blues. Those are good things. But as B.B. King said himself “…It wouldn’t be so bad if I knew I had a home.” Memphis never felt like home. Hell is different things to different people. Memphis was mine.

Katy, a slender brunette with a ready smile, worked her usual magic with coworkers and neighbors, but her magic was seldom powerful enough. She is an easy person to like and often acts as my front person to the world, but we were that “Northern” (I.E. different) couple from the start. Before you place the blame on me, and my inability to fit in, let me tell you something about my particular skill set.

I’m an expert at fitting into new places. In my life I’ve had to be. When I was six years old my widow mother remarried. My new stepfather was a military man. He, and that meant mother, siblings, and me too, were reassigned almost immediately. We never stayed in one place for more than three years from that point forward. Today the military uses more care moving families, but when I was growing up we moved when it was convenient for the military, not for families. Three times we transferred in the middle of a school year. I’d arrive in the new classroom facing a ring of staring, sometimes hostile faces. I was not big, cute, or particularly quick-witted. I had to find other ways to survive, and I did. My rules became: Try to be inoffensive, keep smiling and talking, run when smiling and talking fails, and fight only when you’re cornered. I couldn’t articulate these rules as a kid, but I understood them. I’ve also moved a lot as an adult. I’m skilled at adapting. Memphis was the exception. I never fit in.

I made no secret that I loved mountains, trees and wild things. Years of living in Alaska had instilled a deep appreciation of nature. None of these things existed close to Memphis. Not counting huge anthills I couldn’t find a hill anywhere in the Memphis delta. Any trace of wild had been scraped away by the plows of progress. Developers were busy knocking down trees and popping up new strip malls. Why the people in Memphis loved pulling down every tree I don’t know, because those trees provided the only shade in the entire region, and Memphis needed shade.

Memphis is hot. Really hot. You might think you understand hot because of summer where you live. I’m sorry, but you don’t. Memphis heat wraps you in steamy suffering and won’t let go. In Memphis it’s a hundred degrees most every day, and that’s in October. July heat in Memphis will bring the unwary to their knees. I worked outside, and the top of my thinly covered head often felt like the proverbial boiled egg. My wife attributes my mental decline to those two years of having my brain seared over and over again.

I also discovered heat rash. I was thirty-four years old and I found out what makes babies cry. Heat rash burns. Trousers’ rubbing against the inflamed red skin of my inner thighs is a torture I don’t care to repeat. I’ve also come to believe heat rash is the real reason cowboys are bowlegged. Limping to work, I confided my problem to Gerry, one of my co-workers. He laughed at me. Actually he didn’t laugh, he snickered and said:

“Don’t you Yankees know a thing? You all heard of talcum power? I thought you Northern boys were smarter than that, shit. Boy its hot prit near all the time down here, don’t’ you know?”

Yes, he snickered, but neither he nor any other local was ever outright mean to us. They thought we were weird because of our accents and our fast paced way of going through life. Or as my wife’s coworker said: “Katy, you all talk too fast. You’re makin my brain throb, slow down.” Come to think of it we thought they were weird too, because they moved so slow and talked like they had marbles in their mouths. We tried to slow down, really we did, and I worked on my accent, but it didn’t fool a soul.

Being civil is a point of pride for Southerners. The thing I learned is that southern civility is a veneer. The warm greetings did not necessarily equate to a desire to be your friend; it’s just considered good manners. True Friendship offered to an outsider is a rare occurrence.

This initial warmth always confused me. Northern people will shun you right from the start. You’re never confused about where their feelings.

Being civil has another dimension in Memphis and the south. That version of civil is a preoccupation with the Civil War. For me the Civil War was, and is, ancient history. In my mind, it is only relevant because of the echoes of slavery. For all other purposes I find the stories of the Civil War not particularly meaningful. But for many of my Memphis coworkers and neighbors the Civil War just ended, and for some it’s still going on. One day a coworker named Roger and I were talking about how fast Memphis was growing and how many outsiders were moving in. I’ll never forget Roger, thin, bearded, and weather worn, telling me: “The boys should have pushed you all out of the Mississippi Valley at Shiloh. We all wouldn’t be talking right now. You folks would still be living up north, sure enough.”

As happened to me so often in Memphis, I found myself staring blankly at Roger. He was speaking English, but I had no idea what he was talking about. I knew the battle of Shiloh took place in Tennessee, beyond that I couldn’t figure out how a battle that took place a hundred and fifty years ago had any relevance to the present.

“I’ve heard of the battle of Shiloh, but what’s that got to do with the population growth in Memphis?” I finally asked.

“Our boys should have kicked your boys out of Tennessee and just kept on kicking till they was back up yonder. Thar might still be a CSA today, and you all would be visitors,” he added.

“CSA? Oh you mean the Confederate States…”

“That’s right.”

I didn’t say much else. I couldn’t understand his worldview. Roger had a son in the U.S. Army, so it wasn’t like he was some revolutionary. I stumbled my way through the rest of our conversation, and walked away feeling even more dazed and out of place than ever.

But perhaps nothing made me realize how far I was from home more than my attempts to order food from fast food drive-ups. No matter which take out place I drove up to I was guaranteed to feel as though I was speaking in tongues, foreign tongues.

“I’ll have a bacon burger and a large fries. Hey, can you hold the pickles?” I’d ask.

“What? You all want what?”

“I’d like a bacon burger, large fries, and hold the pickles.” I tried again.

“Whaat?”

“A bacon burger, fries…”

“This ain’t Kentucky Fried, that’s down the road.”

Totally confused I checked the menu. I was in the right place, but apparently in an alternative universe. I surrendered. I left with whatever was in the bag, and I was happy to get that. My attempts to explain and correct my order were met with such confusion that I quit trying. My current distaste for fast food no doubt began during those two years of culinary trauma.

The day our transfers to Minneapolis were approved I felt the joy of a prisoner being handed his parole. Two weeks later, house sold and belongings packed, I was driving a rental truck heading north. My eyes were glued to the road ahead. I looked nowhere but north. I left the court of the King and I never looked back. This chameleon had met his match. I was an Alaskan Yankee in B.B. Kings Court no longer.

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