Sunday afternoons were once meant for visiting all across The South. Sometimes family and sometimes friends, but the lazy Sunday afternoon visits, after church and then dinner, were a very important part of the connectedness that we all shared. And, by the way, dinner is the meal you ate at mid-day and supper the evening meal… just to set that straight. The visits were made all the more special if it was at one of the old homeplaces that are fast going into ruin nowadays… but you remember the old homeplaces – often built in the late 19th century or early 20th,, often on sizable tracts of farmland. Houses normally set on pillars of stone to raise the house up off the ground, for a variety of good reasons. A very utilitarian back porch and a very welcoming front porch. Various barns, smokehouses and corn cribs dotted the place. The interior rooms of the house were normally quite large and only a few in number. The ceiling heights often high. Bedrooms had no closets – just chests and a perhaps a ‘shiff ro’ or two, often with more than one bed in the bedroom.
I put ‘shiff ro’ in scare quotes because, like so many other items, the word you heard to identify something did not always closely align with what that thing actually was. It would be some years later that I learned that there was indeed a legitimate type of furniture piece called a Chifforobe. I was already gone from home before I learned the outside water faucet that you connected the water hose to was actually not a ‘spicket’ but rather a spigot. I can literally take you to the spot of ground where, as a 12-year-old boy, I learned that one guided an automobile with a steering wheel and not a ‘stern wheel’. We will just leave skupnins for another day…
So, it was in my grandparents old homeplace one Sunday afternoon where I was visiting while home on leave from the Navy in the early 1980’s. Not really a family reunion, per se, but on this one day all the main elders of the family were there and it was a lively gathering. In these large old living rooms with a long sofa, a couple of recliners, a few big cane bottomed rocking chairs and a few other sundry chairs and a hassock or two, there was ample seating for 20 or more folk.
Sometimes the conversation was one large group conversation and sometimes it would veer into assorted side conversations.
But, then, The Topic came up. A hush immediately fell over the entire room as one of the elders gave an update on The Topic. The tension was almost palpable. I had no idea what The Topic was – but I was certain it was a big deal.
So, after several had shared updates, I blurted out, “What are y’all talking about?” Instantly every eye in the room was trained on me.
One of the older aunts said, “You mean you don’t know?”
“Know what?”, I said.
Then one of the more articulate elder uncles began to fill me in on The Topic. With an almost electric tension in the room, he said, “The government is keeping such close tabs on all of us, they knew your Grandaddy and Grandma just had their 50th wedding anniversary and Ronald Reagan sent them a card in the mail.”
Oh no. That sinking feeling where you know you are responsible for a misunderstanding… But we will come back to that in a second.
I must also freely confess right here to being a little more than mischievous.
I mentioned being home on leave from the Navy and that it was the early 1980’s… still very much in the midst of the Cold War. I had gone into the Navy on a six-year enlistment to study advanced electronics. We now live in a world saturated with high tech… but this was the rural South and it was decidedly not a high-tech setting. The first cellular telephones would not be commercialized until 1984. (Atlanta, Miami and New Orleans in September of 1984 in the southeastern US). Even though IBM had just launched the Personal Computer that very year, word had not yet reached rural Walton County, Georgia. All that to say this – the family knew that I was, comparatively, somewhat of a high-tech wizard at this time AND that I was active-duty military.
So… I just could not resist the temptation.
I began to slowly and cryptically regale them with stories of satellites and computers and espionage; safe to say all were blown away with what US Government technology was capable of at that time.
With everyone in the room in a strange and thoughtful state, pondering what they were hearing, I still very much had the floor.
I subtly shifted gears. I went on to add, “The White House has a service where if you write to them with sufficient advance notice of a key event, like a 100th birthday or a Golden Anniversary, they will arrange for the President to send a card to commemorate the event. Several months ago when I was aboard ship, I wrote telling them about Grandma and Granddaddy.” A factoid I had not intentionally neglected to share, but had nonetheless forgot to share with anyone in the family.
Zap. A very strange and discernable shift in the ambiance in the room. One of the uncles confirmed, “You wrote to Ronald Regan?” With my best poker face, I simply replied, “Yes sir.”
Other than quite a few disapproving and disgusted looks, no one else said a word.
The matter has not been spoken of since.