FRANKLIN—It’s colder than a brass bra in Tennessee. This is the second day of my book tour and my cheeks are frozen solid. All four of them.
We left the hotel this morning and drove southward through Nashville. At each stoplight the morning road crews were spreading rock salt, slowing traffic to a crawl. Local traffic reports said that, due to frozen conditions, Nashville’s I-65 was gridlocked with nine miles of bumper-to-bumper bachelorette parties.
I was not prepared for cold weather. I am from Florida. I own exactly one winter jacket, which still has the pricetag on it. I usually wear this jacket on Christmas morning to walk the dogs—purely for a joke. This past Christmas, for instance, it was seventy-two degrees where we live.
But today, I’m wearing gloves, a scarf, long underwear, and the whole nine yards.
As part of this tour, I am a guest on some podcasts, which is a new experience for me. I am told that being on the air is sort of like taking powerful hallucinogenic medication.
Basically, you get locked in a studio and talk to inanimate objects (microphones, padded walls, English majors, etc.) for several minutes until you either fall asleep or the producers start decomposing.
Chris is the host of this show. He’s courteous, kind, and he asks thoughtful interview questions about my life and my work. Chris also has a real talent for listening. Which comes in handy.
Because when I answer his questions I tend to ramble and speak in caffeinated run-on sentences that can go for nearly six or seven minutes without a single breath or pause so that everyone inside the studio has fallen into a deep sleep and is currently having hallucinatory experiences of their own, kind of like you are having right now, because I just won’t shut up, because I keep coming up with something else that I HAVE to say until Chris finally dies of old age.
“So,” Chris asks, fitting a word in edgewise. “How do you like Tennessee?”
As it happens, when I was a kid we spent some time here. My father was an ironworker, building the GM plant in Springhill, not far from this studio.
I remember my father telling stories about his Tennessee coworkers and how great they were. What he loved most was how easygoing the Appalachian ironworkers could be.
I remember my father told me about one old Tennessee ironworker who wore a special wristwatch. On the clockface were numbers that read: “1-ish,” “2-ish,” “3-ish,” and so on.
My father thought this was so hysterical that he bought a watch just like it.
The funny thing is, I was not raised in an “ish” family. In my fundamentalist household, punctuality was one of the Ten Commandments. Being on time came right behind “Thou shalt not steal,” and just before “Thou shalt not dance at wedding receptions even if the band plays ‘Get Up Offa That Thing,’ by James Brown.”
Punctuality is such a big deal that when my family agrees to meet up for supper we always lie to my mother about what time. We do this because we know that she will arrive extremely early.
To give you an example: Let’s say that we all agreed to meet for supper at a Mexican joint at 6 P.M.
My wife and I would likely arrive at 6:03 P.M. My sister’s family would arrive about the same time. But by the time we get there, my mother will have been sitting at the same table since 10 A.M. the previous morning, and she will be semi-fluent in Spanish.
My people are early for everything. In fact, to them it is sinful not to be at least fifteen minutes early. It was even rumored that once when my grandfather had a bad case of chest pain he checked himself into the county morgue so he could be a few hours early to get his death certificate.
It bears mentioning, however, that my wife is not punctual. For the purposes of this column, I’ll give you a hypothetical scenario:
Say my wife and I are invited to a surprise birthday party for her friend Maureen. And let’s say that Maureen’s husband told us to be there at 8 P.M. sharp.
That same evening, my wife will begin getting dressed for Maureen’s party at precisely 7:58 P.M. She will change her outfit sixteen times, eating up valuable minutes, pausing only to ask me if her pants make her butt look big.
I will eventually answer, “For the love of God, can we please GO! We’re gonna miss the party!” And by about 8:46 P.M., provided traffic wasn’t too heavy, we will finally be walking into the ER because I have a broken jaw.
But anyway, it’s funny what I remember about Tennessee. I remember my father taking me to the GM plant, early one December morning to look at all the work everyone had done.
The cold ground was muddy and frosted. My father was wearing ten layers of clothes beneath his denim. He carried me on his shoulders and pointed out all sorts of heavy equipment, introducing me to bearded workmen who spoke with mountain accents.
“These guys are great, ain’t they?” my father said. “You know, I’d be tempted to live in Tennessee, except that it’s colder than a witch’s…”
Chris? Chris? Hello? Are you still awake? Speak to me.