Wednesday, July 5, 2006

A Yankee Amongst the Magnolias - 1

Then, there's the “We're from Cleveland,” people who never get to see rivers burn any more. What they do is rent a raft and float down Atlanta's scenic Chattahoochee River. At lunch time they pour gasoline on the water and roast wienies. ~ Lewis Grizzard

At the earliest opportunity, I left the land of the burning river (yes, the river in Cleveland really caught fire) to move south. I eventually landed in Alabama after a four-year sojourn in Virginia. I liked Virginia, and I like Alabama. I am not going back to Cleveland. Ever.
There are Northerners who cannot cope with the fact that it's nicer down South. People are nicer, the weather is nicer, the roads are nicer. Let's take those one at a time.

Yes, we have hurricanes, which are not fun. In Ohio, though, they have blizzards, which have high winds and last longer. Our roads are nicer because without the extremes of heat and cold during the year and without snow plows gouging into them, we have fewer potholes. Without salt on the roads, our cars last longer, too. And the people are friendlier, easier to get along with, and willing to give you the shirt off their back. I don't know why Northerners are so surly, but I suspect it has something to do with saying good-bye to the sun in November and not seeing it again until May.

Yes, the river really did catch on fire. Honest.

Each southern state has its own personality. Take Virginia, for instance. Virginia is steeped in history, almost to the point of obsession. Remember the Bicentennial where communities in the Eastern half of the country put up historical markers identifying every rock and stump that had anything to with the American Revolution? Well, Virginia already had those in abundance, plus they raise the ante with Civil War memorials everywhere you turn.

The week I arrived in Staunton, they were re-enacting the “Flight of the Virginia Legislature” at the start of the Revolution. The re-enactment consisted of two guys dressed 1776-style on horseback who rode from Richmond to Staunton to someplace else, spending the night at the local Holiday Inn at each stop, an amenity denied to the original Legislature during their flight.

Virginia does have its share of idiosyncrasies. For starters, they have a strange relationship between counties and cities. It stops just short of armed warfare but not by much. The entire time I lived in Virginia, there was always some county in court to prevent some city from taking its land. Basically, a city can annex county land by simply saying it wants to. They do this because the cities are old and cramped, so if they want to add industry (and the attendant tax revenue), they have to put the grab on county land, preferably some that already has tax-paying industry on it. The counties, of course, don't like this so they go to court. Everyone files briefs for a couple of years, then a judge says they've got to have a vote on alternative land grab options.

One would think that they would simply have a law that says this and cut out the lawyers, but the county state legislators and the city state legislators can't agree on how the law should work. This disagreement has been going on for over two hundred years, so it's unlikely to change anytime soon.

Virginians also can't seem to spell their towns like they pronounce them. Staunton, for example, is prounced “stanton” not “stawnton” as one might expect. Swoope is pronounced “swope” with a long “o”, not “swoop”. But the award winner was McGaheysville, pronounced “mcgackeysville”. How an “h” got transformed into a “ck” sound is completely beyond me.

Yes, the river caught fire as in “it burned and had to be put out.”

But, Shenandoah Valley folks may be the friendliest in the entire country. For instance, I once was considering camping out for a couple of days during a vacation so I wouldn't have a long drive to go fishing. Somehow I had managed to land myself in an area of the state that was at least an hour from any major lakes, so I decided to rough it, which I didn't look forward to doing because I am not a “rough it” kind of person. Fortunately, Hal, a co-worker, heard about this and gave me a call to tell me I could use his trailer down at the lake. He was sorry to say I would have to pay a fee for its use because the campground only allowed family to use it for the basic fee. The cost? One dollar a day. I told him I thought I could manage it.

At any rate, I had a great week in his camper. On Saturday he came down to spend the weekend and got very peeved at me because I had brought my own food. I said, “Well, I couldn't go eating up your stuff and leave you with nothing.” Nonsense, he said, he had plenty of food and besides, he had invited me to stay as a guest. Guests don't have to bring their own food. Maybe a little desert, but not a week's worth of groceries.

That's a Virginian for you.

Okay, okay, you really want to know about the river. The Cuyahoga River winds its way through the industrial section of Cleveland. By the 1960's, it was phenomenally polluted with industrial waste, sewage, and whatever other runoff material you care to name. It was orange and stunk, and mutant fish were appearing. In the summer of 1967, I believe it was, it caught fire. No one really knows how it caught fire, but flames rose high enough to mangle a railroad trestle about 200 feet above the river. The weird thing was watching them trying to put it out. They had fire boats on the river pumping river water on the fire. Somehow that didn't seem like the method most likely to work, but I guess the junk that was burning was floating on top of the slightly less gunky water underneath.

I don't know of anyone else's river catching fire, but I wish to heaven someone's would because I'm sick and tired of people asking me if it's true that the river caught fire. I mean, would you make up something like that about where you came from?

No comments:

Post a Comment