Do you know with what little understanding the world is ruled?
- Pope Julius III
When our family left civilian life behind 35 years ago, Hartwell and Jean (Lewis) Morris became our close, military friends. We met on a small Army post in Budingen, Germany, in the stairwell of an apartment building we would share for the next two years.
Were from Augusta, Georgia, Jean drawled to the first New Englanders she had ever known. Later she confessed she wasnt really from Augusta but from a little-known town called Evans. Three years later, after Germany and subsequent tours to Vietnam for the men, we would move to that same little Columbia County town, largely on the Morris recommendation that schools are better out here.
Despite our North/ South differences, Jean and I had much in common. We both had small children, our husbands were away on maneuvers for weeks at a time, and we liked to read. Jean, a former schoolteacher (at Bel Air Elementary School), had an assignment for me:
While you have all this time on your hands you need to read Gone With the Wind so youll understand the South.
Like most Americans I had already seen the movie, but I did my homework anyway, even as I wondered how much I could learn about the South by reading one work of fiction.
My second lesson took place at the Cyclorama in Atlanta during that Vietnam year, when my boys and I spent Christmas in Georgia with Jean and her little girl. The stirring music and narration about the Civil War Battle of Atlanta had hardly begun when my 5-year-old asked in a loud voice, Are those the good guys or the bad guys?
Hoo boy, Yankee kid and embarrassed mother surrounded by a sea of Southerners. I could only stammer, Honey, it all depends on your point of view.
And thats when it hit me. To understand the South you have to be a Southerner, or at least live here for a good chunk of your life, which, these many years later, Ive done. I may be far from the head of the class, but I think Im right about the being here part, as I learned again the other night when, with another Southern friend, I went to see the new Civil War movie Gods and Generals.
The critics panned it, and judging by the sparse attendance at the theater the other night, local audiences are either panning or passing up the opportunity to see it, too. But since I have my own critiquing standards - Did I like it or didnt I? - I thought it was well-done, accurate as far as I could tell, and the music is outstanding. My Southern friend agreed.
In rechecking the critics after the movie, I noticed that a few people thought the film battered the South as usual. But most took the opposite view, that this film actually highlighted the Southern victories of the war and, conversely, the losses and faulty strategy of the North. So why would I, the proud Northerner, like a film that criticized my side? Because it was true; because the film covered only the first two years of the war, the time when most of the victories were the Souths.
Lesson No. 3: Southerners know more about their history because they study it in their schools, the same reason I know more about Northern history than Southerners do. I would still be ignorant of Civil War details past Lincoln freed the slaves and the North won, if I werent steeped in Southern history now as I compile the story of Columbia County. Its human nature - or folly - that we are less prone to criticize what we understand.
Jean Morris jump-started my Southern education, and a writing project plus my own criticism of a people still enmeshed in a 150-year-old war, and politically sidelined by the design on a flag, have kept me studying beyond that first novel and a couple of Hollywood films.
I will always be indebted to my first Southern friend, who still teaches school near her present home in Atlanta. Sadly, Hartwell Morris Jr., whose father owned a general store in Martinez for many years (where the Shangri-La Buffet is today), died suddenly a few weeks ago.
Without these fine, Southern ambassadors, our family might never have come to the land of mild winters and early springs, and Id still think the North won not only the Civil War, but every battle along the way.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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