PAXTON—I am driving a U-Haul through the north end of Walton County on the way to Birmingham where we will begin a new chapter in our lives. The sun is setting. The rural parts are covered in tall grass, old trees, and mobile homes.
I lived in this county (past tense) just south of here. When I was a young man, I once got a part-time job helping an elderly preacher who was from Paxton. He needed help around his house. He paid twenty bucks for three hours of labor every weekend.
It was decent money until he asked me to clean his garage. His garage was a titanic abyss of ancient junk. I told him that I would need some help before I would agree to clean it.
So he told me to pray for some, and said if my faith was strong, maybe someone would show up to help. Nobody ever did.
Paxton is the highest town in Florida. It sits 318 feet above sea level, right on the Alabama line. The highest point in Florida is a couple minutes away.
The place is a perfect example of Northwestern Floridian culture. The same culture I will miss. You have Baptists coming out your ears, and Methodists, and Tongue-Talkers. You see cardboard signs on highway shoulders advertising “free puppies.” A middle-aged man on his porch counting cars.
There are 797 residents in Paxton, unless Sister So-And-So has her baby tonight, then it will be 798.
And do you know what I like about Paxton best? The little country school. They just don’t make them like Paxton School anymore. The school has been here since 1939. In its entire eighty-year-plus history a little over 2,000 students have graduated from it. Total. That’s how small we’re talking.
It’s a thirteen-year school. Kids start in kindergarten and attend until they’re seniors. And they are unbeatable, too. The agricultural program churns out prize-winning hogs. The boys and girls basketball program doesn’t just win games, they win seasons, and have players who make it to the WNBA. And don’t even get Paxton started on its baseball.
God, these guys are great. This whole county is great. It was a great place to spend my youth.
Baseball is in the drinking water in these parts. I once counted all the baseball diamonds in the north part of our county and I lost count. I think it was in the hundreds.
Baseball is important to rural hamlets in ways that non-rural people could never understand.
Down in the south end of the county, for example, affluent high-schoolers drive Land Rover Defenders to ball practice and use three-hundred-dollar mitts. In Paxton, you have freckled boys who can throw a four-seam fastball through a moving tire swing from sixty feet, who wear a glove that smells like axle grease. At least that’s what I’ve heard.
There are batting cages sitting next to the Paxton sheriff’s substation trailer. You pass these every time you drive through town. In the summer, you see boys swinging away inside the nets, and nearby deputies reminding them to follow through.
Baseball used to be everything in American culture, but times have changed. Today’s kids go to martial arts classes and learn how to break two-by-fours with their foreheads. Or they play soccer and learn how to cuss in Portuguese. I’m not against such things, it’s just a different world.
Baseball fits with the belief systems of my people. It’s gentle. It’s humble, with no time limit. In baseball, a game can last five hours. You don’t need protective facemasks or shoulder pads. And if a fella wants to scratch his personal regions during a game, so be it. If he gets to the majors one day, he is still free to scratch away on national television. These are the things I like about baseball.
Right now, I am driving through this sleepy village and it’s reminding me of all I’m leaving behind. The water tower stands high, looking down on its ball fields. The town hall is about the size of a Tom Thumb. The town itself is four miles wide. If that.
I once wrote a story about Paxton earlier in my career—if you can call it a career. I’ll never forget it. I was watching the news when the announcer said the Bobcats boys basketball team had played the 1A championship game in Lakeland, and they played like lions. It moved me. I was so dang proud that I stayed up late writing a few hundred words about it.
The funny thing is, I have no vested interest in this school. I don’t know any of the students or teachers. I just lived in the same county, that was all.
If you know me, you know I’m a guy who never attended high school, I dropped out when I was a kid. How exactly I became a writer is a long story. I tell you this simply to say: I’ve never had high-school spirit. In fact, I don’t even know what it feels like. But I enjoy rooting for Paxton.
The next day I got several emails from local people who read the story. I’d never met them, but they wrote sweet messages to me as though I were one of their own. One lady invited me to her grandfather’s birthday. Another invited me to her son’s game. Somebody sent me a Christmas card.
I suppose that’s what you get from a county like this. If I would have written the same story about a school in, say, Atlanta, I wonder if anyone would have cared. Probably not. But small-town people are woven together like fibers in a cotton rag. They support their own, they love hard. And if you’re not careful, they’ll try to get you to clean their garage.
Leaving my home county is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.