A Life Lesson from Alabama

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
A lesson I learned in my youth about understanding how to deal with my life experience'

Submitted: April 17, 2016

A A A | A A A

Submitted: April 17, 2016






That nasty twinge of doubt that had been plaguing me for the whole trip resurfaced in my mind again, I was trying to ignore Ensign Harris as I looked out the window of the bus at the passing jungle, thinking the south sure is green, year round its forever green. But, my mind kept veering off this bus trip it was traveling another not quite so green and peaceful road. The snail pace of this damn bus was intensely aggravating making everything much worse. It had been two, maybe three hours since the last stop with a get out and walk around, my legs and butt were asleep, but not my mind. It was complaining like a ten year old on a cross country trip, begging me to please find any distraction from the monotony of this necessary but evil bus trip.

Pensacola Florida to Atlanta Georgia, whatever it was supposed to be time wise, sure felt a lot longer, because this was 1965 rural Alabama and I was on the mail run Greyhound. The express cost too much. And, every single wide spot in the road had a name, I never saw so many small towns and each one was a mail stop. Mostly on small rural back roads, sometimes dirt, the worst part was the distance between towns, it was not even enough to get a good breeze coming through the windows. The mail drop was mind numbing, to me a pointless delay of varying durations. If there was no actual bus terminal in the town, which was most of them; the mail drop was usually at the local barber shop, or feed store both seemed kind of an odd place for the post office to me… but then, everything was odd here in the Deep South.

I never seemed to guess right, every time we came into a town I would wake up; I was at the ready, chomping at the bit I could not wait to get out, walk around, I mean fresh air… yes sir, let me out of here. I don’t mean to pick on anyone, and I know it was close, and with so little breeze pretty hot and sticky… the bus was crowded and my fellow passengers… well, they just plain stunk. Me to I suppose. Anyway since the beginning of the trip starting with the first few towns as soon as the bus slowed I was ready for air, and then the driver who was just trying to stay on time would yell “Please stay in your seats, we will be moving on in five minutes”. Which was always a lie. After a while I just got used to it.

Trying to occupy my mind I was reminiscing... thinking of Mom, home and past autumns taking place in other times.  I was thinking of the various ways mother nature presents her seasonal display relative to your geographic location. After up-state New York the seasonal change here in the Deep South seemed even more anti-climatic than Dad’s reassignment to Southern California. Suddenly my mind was flooded with a vision of Mom complaining; every year she went on and on about how she was once again missing the colorful pageant of trees preparing for their winter sleep back in New York. When I was younger it seemed to be so much unneeded drama, back then I thought ‘Hey, we moved so get over it already’. Then suddenly I thought… ‘I’ll bet I miss her right now more than she ever missed those damn trees.’

The driver shifted my emotion along with the gears, something about the grinding noise… there he was, back in my mind again Ensign Harris. I almost forgot, I’ll deal with him later. That is if I live through this damn bus ride, come on Gregg it’s all right… settle down it’ll end, I need time to think about Atlanta anyway. What am I going to say to Dad, what does he think about what happened. What do I think is going to happen next, he is going to want to know.

How about the big question… the validity of my decision to join the Navy instead of trying to get back into school. Flawed thinking was a serious possibility there, the navy was not the only face saving way out of my dilemma, I may have missed some other options there. I was going over those it’s to late now options in my mind, tip toeing and side stepping around discomfort, while trying to dodge my regrets.

Suddenly there was an obvious slowing in the sound of the engine refocusing my attention on the changing scenery outside of the window. We were passing some small houses with ill kept yards, I suppose as often as God waters the grass here in the South one would need to be a serious gardener to keep things looking as neat and tidy as the old neighborhood in San Diego California.

I was wondering where in Alabama we were, I realized that I had no idea, and I did not even have a reference point in my mind that might provide a clue. All I knew was that I wanted to get off this bus and walk around on solid ground, I was hungry and I wanted to find something to eat. Maybe even get lucky enough to find some food reminiscent of home, although my experience with this place said that that sounded rather doubtful.

The differences between Southern California and the Deep South made the differences between New York and California seem minuscule. Since arriving here I almost always felt like I was lost in the unreal mental imaging you experience when reading a novel about another time and place, that surreal feeling of wakeful dreaming. But this was real, and at times somewhat unsettling.

The bus meandered through the small town streets finally turning into the bus terminal. There were not many amenities there, just the basics; a few benches nestled under the ever present magnolia trees, two small waiting rooms with the standard restrooms and drinking fountains. There was a sign indicating that food was available across the street at a combination grocery store, post office, and of course barber shop… according to the sign they also had an ice cream parlor with a lunch counter. A bus rider discount at the counter or if the bus was running late an extra discount on food to go.

Looking around taking in the newness of this place once again I found the white and colored signs on everything to be viscerally disturbing; on a level so deep in me that my processing abilities were again spinning out of control. No matter how hard I tried to understand; I could not get used to, or make sense of these divisions between colored and white. Was everything divided based only on skin color? What was meant by that word ‘colored’ anyway, I mean I was white and that’s a color too, I think… I just had no reference in mind for the word when it was used in that way.

I found in my conversations with locals back in Pensacola, the separation between self and other runs much deeper here. In general conversation I found intense friction just because I was from New York and even worse ‘reared’ in California, that caused me to wonder is location somehow a color too? California was a place the locals considered to be so foreign to their sense of reality that my origin alone created an instant and palatable barrier between us. Due to the feelings generated from those experiences I felt a mild kinship with those people that the locals called, colored. All this caused me to keep questioning the very fabric of the social network in this place.

After getting my ready made sandwich, and a huge dill pickle from a barrel in the store I was looking around for a place to sit and eat, maybe even someone to talk to. I was still feeling quite uncomfortable and out of place, all rubbery in my legs from the bus. Conversation with the people on the bus was difficult to understand, they were very strong minded, with their opinion seemingly limited to the local culture. Not being a local, rural, or ‘southern’ I found that most conversation here eventually upset my comfort zone.

The words of the language spoke were in English and even with their unfamiliar twang and accent everything sounded recognizable, but somehow I was always left with a feeling of uneasiness. Like there was a hidden meaning behind everything, a secret coded message that was hidden between the lines something that I was not privy to. I sensed that they thought somehow I just did not get it, like it was me that was confused not them, they were all good… their world made sense, it was me that did not understand. Young and out numbered, I was having a lot of confusion about how to fit in to this society.

But, at nineteen years of age there was a great need to feel like I fit in, to feel accepted. Yet, having been raised in mostly in Southern California this whole white colored thing taken to these extremes was just so nonsensical, not to mention… that it felt so terribly wrong. After the first few months of adjustment in Pensacola I had decided to just ignore the whole thing as much as possible, I adopted the idea that it was not me with a problem.

It was in that frame of mind, pickle half gone my hero sandwich in hand that I sat down next to a middle aged black lady wearing what I assumed was a ‘flour sack’ dress, I had heard them described on the bus. She was sitting on the waiting bench in front of the colored waiting room; she looked up and smiled as I sat down, and that smile reassured me a lot. I was worried that she might have found the situation uncomfortable, and I had no desire to put her in harm’s way, or make her feel uneasy, I just wanted company. So, even though I did not have a good understanding of etiquette in this place, I decided to use my ignorance as my shield, and I just sat down.

It was so long ago I really do not remember the small talk that led her to so profoundly change me, by clarifying so many of the future turning points in my life. I do remember she was very proud of reaching the third grade in school, before going to work in the fields. I remember not knowing much about share cropping, planting, or the local economy, it was a wonderful day and for half an hour or so we had a very enjoyable and pleasant conversation.

At some point I started getting worked up about Ensign Harris, I remember his name but not what my problem was, so it must have been something trivial and inconsequential. However the ancient wisdom that she displayed so casually in her response to my ranting, belied her lack of formal education, for she was amply compensated by her command of common sense. She changed my life.

Essentially what she said was so simple, it was only one quick sentence… she looked at me with a puzzled stare and said…”‘Son, you have to be careful what you give power to.” I said, what do you mean by that? She answered “If’n ‘you’ don’t give that ‘thing’ the power to bother you, it can’t”

I don’t know if it was the unfamiliarity of the place, or the uneasiness of my mind, Dad’s upcoming reunion and all. It took some time on the bus before the depth of her words lingering in my sub-consciousness took effect, dismissing my Ensign Harris problem completely. I do not believe I recognized, or understood at the time. But later upon reflection, the magnitude of how her words…  such a short sentence, a mere bakers dozen packed into her brief statement of what in her mind was the obvious. And yet in those chance three seconds, she changed everything… it was just so simple and yet with those few words she altered and defined my entire future life script.

As a way too simplistic example of her gift to me. Years later someone would severely cut me off in traffic my initial response was always to get upset, maybe even a little yelling and screaming. But thanks to my mentor, now almost immediately comes the thought do ‘I’ want to give this ‘thing’, 'that guy' the power to bother me, because if’n I don’t… it can’t.

Her wisdom reminds me that after all ‘that guy’ does not even know that he has upset me, look he is almost out of sight already and he is cutting off someone else, he’s busy just being himself. But hey, my blood pressure is still up, what’s with that. Where is this energy to upset me coming from, I mean if I’m still all red in the face and he is gone not even in sight… that must mean that this angst I feel is generated totally, and completely somewhere within me. He is no longer here and so he no longer has anything to do with it at all, he’s gone. Now the only place he exists is here in my mind, and even worse not only did I somehow invite him in, I am asking him to stay here, actually I am holding him here.

That must also mean all of the power over this entire situation resides totally within me, it is all about what 'I' choose to continue thinking about 'him'. So why do ‘I’ want to give him… ‘some guy’ that I don’t even know… that is already gone… the power to affect me in any way. He’s just a selfish jerk thinking only about himself, and his private road. I am merely an object that was in his way. So to him I am an object, is that it… if not what, does he have some strange kind of power.

Wait just what is it that makes him so powerful that he can upset me at all, how can he make me feel anything; oh yea, now I remember I’m the one giving him all that power, so all of the power upsetting me is only me, doing this to me… the power comes from me, and like she said I gave it away freely… he never even asked. Well…neither Ensign Harris or that jerk is worth all that, I want his power, my power, all the power back.

Usually the just my thought process from that long past defining moment now automatically puts most things into perspective, it is mostly unconscious now. But nowadays it dissipates or eases most of my problems both large and small. Not always, depending on the event and my mood sometimes the answer is… hell yes I want to give this thing the power to bother me, a lot. But,not usually .

My life lesson from Alabama:

My perspective is the birth of my choice, if I can expand my perspectives to see more of what is actually me, I increase my choice’s of how I feel about me, being me. Understanding that there are not many things I can actually change in the world, but I can change the way I feel about most of them.


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