Get a map. Put your finger in the smack-dab center of Alabama. That’s Chilton County. Land of dreams, beauty queens, peaches that will ruin your shirt, and Stokes Chevrolet, Buick, & GMC.
I’m in the county seat today, the town of Clanton. I am giving a speech at an event the governor has attended, and I’m trying my level best not to sound like an idiot.
Everyone knows where Clanton is, of course, because there is a ginormous 500,000-gallon pedesphere water tower off I-65 shaped like an R-rated nectarine. You’ve probably purchased peaches near this tower. Everyone has.
Right now, I’m down the road from the tower, at Jefferson-State Community College, telling stories to educators and literacy advocates, causing my audience to nod off. Which isn’t difficult to do, inasmuch as most educators are sleep deprived. Although I might have set a new indoor speed record.
Meanwhile, the entire time I’m speaking, I am marveling at how I’m actually here in Clanton, of all places. I never thought I’d have a reason visit this little town again.
The first time I came to Clanton, I was a 16-year-old. I came with my friends to attend the annual Peach Festival, which is a big deal here. People in this town take peaches more seriously than, say, the threat of nuclear war.
My friends, however, were less interested in the festival and more fascinated with the beauty contest.
In this part of the world, Clanton’s pageant is legendary. The pageant dates back to 1947 when the Junior Chamber got together and decided to hold the first Chilton County Peach Queen beauty contest over in Thorsby.
Back then, the pageant was just a rural contest. The rules were simple and loose: Each contestant had to be (1) between ages 15 and 25, (2) unmarried, (3) the daughter of an actual peach farmer, and (4) have most of her original teeth.
The first winner of ‘47’s inaugural pageant was Essie Lou “Chick” Jones. It was a tense battle, but she won by a landslide victory. Also, she was the only competitor.
Today, the Peach Pageant is much more polished, and considerably more serious. Currently the pageant awards prizes for several age groups: Miss Peach, Junior Miss Peach, Young Miss Peach, Little Miss Peach, and The Girl Who Cries the Most When She Wins.
That summer long ago, one of my friends happened to be dating a pageant contestant. So he was very enthusiastic about us visiting Clanton.
To convince us guys to join him, he gave us an old copy of a Chilton County newspaper featuring an article on the pageant, with a large photo displaying dozens of young competitors clad in swimwear. The headline—I’ll never forget this—read: “Chilton’s Peach Crop.”
Thus it was, four of us boys departed from my friend’s house near Milton, Florida, early in the morning. We made the long drive in someone’s dilapidated ‘79 Chevy Impala, stopping every few miles to reinflate the tires and refill the radiator.
When we arrived in Clanton, we were overwhelmed by the crowds. Each year, about 10,000 people attend the Peach Festival. On that afternoon, these people were all fighting for the same parking spot.
The festival was fun. They had music, food, kids running around screaming, Elberta peaches larger than regulation volleyballs, and the Peach Parade.
The Peach Parade was your quintessential small-town ordeal, the kind you don’t see much anymore.
Local dignitaries rode through town in slow moving vehicles, doing the screwdriver wave. These vehicles were followed by John Deeres, Ford tractors, fire engines, military Jeeps, and people on floats who tossed handfuls of party favors at parade-goers. My friend Andrew almost sustained a concussion when the Jemison Future Farmers of America nailed him with an ear of corn.
The highlight of the parade, however, was when a flatbed trailer chock-full of teenage beauty contestants rolled down the main drag. The girls sat amidst crates of peaches, smiling at onlookers. All my adolescent friends stood in rapt silence, watching the float pass by.
My cousin, Ed Lee, placed his hat over his heart and remarked, “I love this town.”
I was thinking about all this while onstage in Clanton, telling stories to a room of gracious people who were—and I mean this from the bottom of my heart—asleep.
Because in many ways, it seems like I’ve come full circle in my life. Sometimes the vivid moments of my youth return to me like ghosts. Maybe this happens to everyone as they age. Maybe everybody feels like I do, like a kid trapped in an middle-aged person’s body.
Yesterday, for example, I felt like a child when I was rifling through old journals in my office. I found a limerick I had written a hundred years ago on notebook paper. I emailed this poem to my pals this morning.
“Four Florida boys left from Milton,
“In a Chevy with no A/C built in,
“They saw Clanton’s peaches,
“And girls in short breeches,
“Then my cousin said, ‘May God bless Chilton.’”