Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Carolina on my mind

You have seen me write about growing up in Florida many times.  And it is true most of my formative years were spent in the sunshine state.  But before I lived in Florida, I was a child of the Carolinas.

My father was military--Air Force, specifically. I was actually born in New Jersey, but I left way too early to have any memories at all of that place.  When I was one, Dad was assigned to Germany.  We lived off-base for a few years.  I only have one memory of that house in Mackenbach, and that's of my family's horror at discovering me playing with a dead rat. Hey, I was only two or three...and I haven't actually played with dead rats in...weeks, honest.

We lived on base for several years, and that was the first home I can recall in any level of detail.  An air force base, however, is both a place yet not a place.  All bases are pretty similar, and they are all insulated from their surrounding areas.  On Ramstein, though, that was amplified somewhat by us actually being in the middle of a foreign country. It was cool leaving base, but whenever we did so, we were definitely outsiders stuck in tourist mode.

So when Dad was assigned to Charleston, South Carolina, it was a big deal for me.  My brothers and sisters had memories of America.  I, however, did not.  On the plane ride over, I tried to imagine what my home country, the country in which I was born would be like...but failed miserably to come up with anything tangible.

Upon arriving in Charleston, my observations on living in America were as follows:
  1. It was hot.  I had lived all my life to that point in cold climates.  Then you dump me in the middle of a 95 degree summer in the South? Whenever I stepped foot outside, I feared I would spontaneously combust...but then I realized the heavy layer of sweat probably kept me from igniting. To this day, I still hate the heat.
  2. There were bugs everywhere.  Along with beginning to smolder every time I stepped outside, I also was immediately attacked by hordes of little vampires I soon learned were called mosquitoes. They would gravitate to me before even looking at anyone else around me.  Then there were the palmetto bugs, giant roaches which crunched when you killed them.  And don't even get me started on my shock upon seeing my first cicada. If you've ever seen a shot of civilians fleeing from a rampaging Mecha-Godzilla, you get the picture.
Beyond that?  Not much.  I was, after all, still living on a base, and as I was only in second grade, I really couldn't drive around exploring or sight-seeing.  When we did leave base, I noticed a distinct lack of castles, and I noticed the people had a different (and slightly more comprehensible) accent.  But otherwise, being in the United States of America wasn't all that least from the perspective of an eight year old.  Shouldn't, I thought, there at least be regular parades or something?

This year was my parents' fiftieth anniversary, and they decided to rent a beach house just outside of Charleston for the family celebration.  So we all converged on the Isle of Palms so we could be closer to our memories...such (in my case) as they were.

Driving into town was surreal. One of the things about being a military brat is that unlike most people, you really cannot go home again. Seriously. I cannot gain entrance to the base to see where I used to live (even if the house hadn't been torn down). Sure, I could (and had) explored my old neighborhood using Google Maps, but the perspective is off way more than for any normal adult visiting childhood haunts.  And since, for the most part, the base was my existence, my experience is particularly skewed.

But then I started noticing some of the street names on the exit signs, and I recognized tons of them.  But the names had utterly no connections to any mental pictures.  It was the damnedest pseudo-nostalgia one can possibly imagine.

We had been to the Isle of Palms often when I was a kid.  Yet while driving over to the island, it became clear this was by no means the same place.  Forget the common-place changes brought on by decades past that most experience.  Post-hurricane construction had gentrified the island into a whole new social class.  This was effectively a new place, with wealth-dominated getaways not just replacing the ramshackle beach shacks of years past but effectively obliterating any trace of them or the island which used to be.

Yes, there were some similarities.  It was still way too hot.  I still got eaten alive by mosquitoes whenever I went outside.  There was still good fried seafood. Tourism was still the main business.  And palmetto bugs still made a distinctive crunch when stepped upon.

Mostly though, I spent the trip trying to fit the visions I was seeing to the memories I never got to experience in the first place.  And the first time I really had a chance to contemplate this disconnect was when my lovely wife and I were sitting in a beach bar I had never entered before...yet still remembered its theme song from the early 1980s radio commercials.

As the trip wound down, I was unable to see Charleston, my home of many years, as anything other than a nice place to visit.  I couldn't even start to experience anything of what I remembered of my life there.  Our day trips did bring some memories, but only of the day trips of my youth...not of my actual life.

Our last night together, we hit this small, out of the way restaurant specializing in Carolina Low Country cuisine which my Dad stumbled across.  I chatted with my brother, tried to freak out my nephews and niece, and watched my daughter pull my wive around the restaurant while I drank my sweet tea.

For my meal, I ordered a South Carolina Low Country specialty, shrimp and grits.  I took one bite.  Within seconds, I dropped the spoon and just stared into space for a full minute or more. It was awe-inspiring food.  The grits were smooth, creamy, and rich.  The shrimp were staggeringly fresh and had obviously been swimming the night before.  The gravy exploded in my mouth.  Even after just one bite, it had already entered my top five meals ever.

Here's the thing, though. When I actually lived there, I had utterly no interest in South Carolina cuisine...or in Southern food in general. As much as it pains me to publicly admit, I didn't even try grits with an open mind until my thirties.  And now, I had my best Southern meal of my life as a tourist visiting from his Ohio home, where he had lived for fifteen years...not when I had any real claim to be a southerner.

You might expect this to be a sad realization, something about the folly of youth.  While I did find it revelatory, I took a different view.  Yes, my childhood. is either unattainable or superficial.  Would my life have been richer if I, as a youth, were more around of the glories around me?

Possibly.  But there was another (and I thought better) interpretation.

Yes, I had to wait until year 43 of my life to finally "get" and experience the best of South Carolina cuisine.  Yes, this filled an absence in the experiences of my youth. Yet when I did finally partake, I was mature enough to fully appreciate the magnitude of the experience.

More importantly, however, I was able to come to this awareness while watching my daughter shove food down my wife's throat...while tweaking my nephews and niece...while talking to my brother...and while being with my parents who are full, complete people to me rather than just one dimensional mother and father figures.

There's something to be said for perspective...but there's also something to be said for a mean bowl of shrimp & grits.

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