V I E W P O I N T S
Jim Bowen died this year. He was big in the New Salem community, where he had been a Boy Scout leader time out of hand.
I say “time out of hand” but actually Jim, like me, was originally from somewhere else. He came here as a young serviceman stationed to the Cold War air defense station on Lookout Mountain, which most people have now forgotten existed. I interviewed him six or seven years ago for a news feature about that. Since he died, I’ve been looking for the article in my files, with the notion that I might run it again as a Veterans Day tribute. I didn’t find it in time. I haven’t found it yet! But I do recall a story he told me about a man with a mule and I’m going to tell it here from memory:
Jim had never heard of this place before Uncle Sam sent him here. Nobody where he came from up in Yankeeland had, either, to the point the military had a hard time figuring out what bus to put him on to get him here. Even after he got to Chattanooga there was some residual bewilderment on the part of the taxi driver.
Once he arrived, though, he never left. I like to think that people stay here because they recognize it instinctually as the pulsing epicenter of the universe; but Jim said in his case it was because of the man with the mule.
Not long after he arrived, said Jim, he and a buddy who had a car were driving around the back roads on Lookout, which were all dirt back then, and got lost, or maybe the car even broke down. Anyway, they were in a spot of trouble and a man who was plowing his fields with a mule noticed them and came over to sort them out. He was so wonderfully friendly and helpful, so kind and willing to leave his work to give them a hand, that Jim decided this was the best place in the world and he wanted to spend the rest of his life here.
Me, I postulate it also had something to do with him meeting a pretty local girl named Louise within a few weeks of arriving—they were married shortly thereafter and stayed that way until she died in 2015—but Jim stuck by his mule story, and I know how that sort of thing can endear a place to you because I have a story like that myself.
I came here with my husband from Atlanta in 1990. He wanted to be closer to the caves where he spent his weekends anyway, and he had a job where he could work from home. I had no interest in caves but I thought I’d like living in the country where I had more garden space. I was (and remain) nuts about rolling in the dirt.
Accordingly we rented a little crackerbox house in Rising Fawn we called our Shack by the Tracks, because it was so close to the rail crossing all conversation stopped when the train went by (roughly every 52 seconds) and the pictures on the walls were never quite straight. It was way too small for us but it had a big garden space.
We moved in in May, planting time, and one of the first things I did was rent a tiller so I could get crackin’. One of the first things my husband did was find new caves to check out. We invited our Atlanta friends Art and Paula up for the weekend, and on Saturday the boys went caving while we girls stayed home to garden.
But Paula and I couldn’t get the tiller started! It was a beast, a huge heavy thing impervious to our girlish efforts at cranking it. I only had it for the weekend, rain was in the forecast for Sunday, and Paula and I became increasingly frustrated.
Finally I was desperate enough to call the emergency phone number my husband had given me for the owners of the land where he’d gone caving. (This was before cellphones.) The lady of the house answered and explained she had no idea where my husband was. She and her husband lived on a couple hundred acres with multiple caves, so they didn’t even know where he’d parked.
I hung up and Paula and I began formulating giddy schemes: We would go to the Rising Fawn post office and see if we could pick up some of the men who hung around there. They all wore overalls and looked like experts on agricultural machinery, who could crank a tiller without breaking a sweat. We would enlist their aid by promising them food, beer, and our bodies if necessary.
But whether or not we would really have prostituted ourselves (or tried) for the sake of the garden, or compromised Art’s sacred Sunday beer supply, will never be known. (Art took his beer seriously and he always had an active case, a spare case and a just-in case; but he would have known if one went missing.) There was a knock at the door and who should it be but the woman I’d called looking for my husband? There was a man standing behind her and she explained he would start the tiller for us. She had not been able to find my husband, so she had brought me hers!
I was overwhelmed and began thanking the couple so hard I was spitting when I talked, but they just shrugged and explained that’s what people did in these parts: They helped each other.
That’s my story. The tiller got started, my garden got planted, and I decided this was the best place in the world and I wanted to spend the rest of my life here.
I still feel that way, and that’s why I’m trotting the story out now. Some of the things I heard and read about this place online during the last election cycle disturbed me.
Normally, of course, there’s nothing a newspaper writer likes better than screaming and hollering at election time. It means people are paying attention—and reading the newspaper for once!—and it also means they’ll vote. (I adore democracy almost as much as dirt.)
But nobody much voted this time. A full 90 percent of the county stayed home. I was disappointed in the amount of voting (practically zero) and campaigning (completely zero) in the Trenton City Commission part of the election, but at the same time I was tickled pink, just the way I was in the 2016 county elections, at the sweetness of the candidates. “I like everybody,” one of them told me when I offered him a chance to take a swing at the others in The Planet. Not great politicians to write about, but pleasant ones to live among.
There was also no controversy about the liquor-by-the-drink issue on the Trenton ballot. Not a peep out of the “drys” this time. Not one sign at the courthouse, and the referendum passed easily. (So maybe one day the Margaritas at the Mexican restaurant will really have tequila in them!)
No, what people found to get mad about this year was the TSPLOST (transportation special purpose local option sales tax) referendum.
The county and city governments wanted TSPLOST because it would have financed desperately-needed transportation projects. I secretly wanted it because if it passed I was fixin’ to bite into them with both jaws and keep chewing until we got some sidewalks around here. But I was determined to keep my mouth shut on TSPLOST.
In Dade, people are usually generous about voting themselves an extra penny here and there in regular SPLOST to pay for government buildings, musical instruments for the school band, roads, all that stuff that local governments depend on it for. This year, though, I’d heard bitching about the way SPLOST gets spent and frankly this year I’d been scratching my head about it some myself.
SPLOST gets spent without much argument on fire trucks and police cars, things you imagine there's a real need for; but both the county and city also seem to be constantly upgrading their computer setups, spending hundreds of thousands of SPLOST dollars for laptops and software, new communications software in particular. And I always think, communication? C’mon! The city gummint especially is dead set against the dissemination of information of any kind.
A website Trenton paid a couple of grand for a year and a half ago sits hidden in cyberspace so deep you can’t even get there unless you know its address, and meanwhile, good luck getting hold of so much as a meeting agenda! The mayor won’t share it with City Hall so City Hall can’t share it with you. And at its last meeting the city commission approved $9000 for software to process police ticket payments. I’d thought that’s one thing the website would do. But what do I know? I just sit in on the meetings and take notes.
Which gets you nowhere with the city. I’ve railed until even I’m sick of hearing it about the mean, sneaky, almost certainly illegal way the city eliminated an elected office without bothering the voters’ pretty heads about it. Last week I gave up on that whole line of complaint, though, when I learned the city commission had chosen a new town logo on the Q-T, picking a whole ‘nother design than the six exhibited for public comment last year. A gummint that makes a harmless, fun little job like choosing a town logo part of its Black Ops is channeling Stalin too hard to be reformed by the likes of me. So from now on I’ll make gentle fun of the city gummint instead of hoping for real change.
But weren’t we talking about TSPLOST?
I really still am. It’s regular SPLOST stuff like that that kept this old dog out of the TSPLOST fight. Do you trust the county and city with more SPLOST money after the website that was paid for but never used, the $50,000 parking lot that sits padlocked month after month behind a NO PARKING sign, and the $50,000 the county commission cheerfully pissed away on an option to buy land for a lake? I mean, a lake? It would take better communication software than anybody’s bought so far to explain why the county needs a lake, who will pay for it or how it will be maintained. Really, no one’s really even tried!
(And while we’re ragging on SPLOST spending, leave us not forget the board of ed, which is also always beefing up its equipment with (E)SPLOST funds—remember the security system at the high school that cost half a million?—as it refuses to part with a dime for books to make up for its continued shirking of its fair share of public library support.)
Anyway, those are some (though not all!) of my beefs with the three local gummints. (Trust me, you don’t even want to get me started on the county’s insane liquor ordinance!) I feel it’s a newspaper’s job to point these things out, not just to inform the public but to let the gummint know somebody’s watching. Keep ‘em honest and all that.
But at the same time, I still love this place and believe the people who live in it—even the ones who lead it!—are basically good. While honestly, from the things people said and wrote on FB just before the election, you would think our local pols were all convicted felons rubbing their hands together in glee as they figured out ways to rob their constituents, burn their villages, rape their widows and enslave their orphans. While meanwhile the media—I guess that means me—were either in on the conspiracy or too stupid to do anything but sit in the corner and pick our butts. And all this acrimony was sparked because of a tax people could simply go to the polls and vote no on!
Well, all that’s abated somewhat after the election and I’m pleased about that, but I thought with the holidays coming this would be a good time to remind everybody of the basic truth about where we live: that it’s a good place.
Here’s where I yank the cloth off and tell you that the woman I called in 1990 about the tiller was Diane Rumley, and the man she brought me to start it was her husband, Ted Rumley. Ted later went into local politics and became the county boss. But I don’t think he started my tiller because he knew one day he’d be an elected official and one day I’d be the local press. I think he did it because that’s really how people are around here: They help each other.
I haven’t seen any men with mules in these parts recently, and lately I realized with a jolt I don’t see many of those old men in overalls anymore, either. Time moves relentlessly on. But some things haven’t changed. I recently recovered from a broken leg and I can testify how friendly and neighborly people are here, how willing to help you when you need help, how sometimes they’re so good they leave you at a loss as to how you can ever repay them.
Well, it’s time to stop before I break into a chorus of Kumbaya, which is not my style, but not before I remind you that we live at the center of the universe, a place where neighbors look out for each other, a good place, the best damn place in the whole world, where 27 years later I do seem to be living the rest of my life.
Now eat your turkey and remember as you lapse into your food comas to be kind to one other. The politicians among you should remember to spend public money responsibly, and everyone should remember to be thankful that there are still good places like this, and that I am finally shutting up.