Knoxville Dirt

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—It’s sunny weather. The college town is filled with frat boys and sorority pledges who buzz around the city like fire ants on a fallen Snickers bar.

The happy city that feels like Disney World for 20-year-olds this morning. There are a lot of people wearing Tennessee Orange.

Today I am meeting with my friend’s son, Peter. Peter is a 19-year-old student, and he is going to take me to visit The Mound. At first, I didn’t know what mounds were. But now I do.

The North American mounds are prehistoric hills that were formed by early-early-early Native American tribes. As it happens, there are mounds all over the Knoxville region. Some estimates suggest that there were once over 200 mounds in this area. Today, about a dozen are left.

I’ve known Peter since he was a baby, he’s always been into history-type stuff. It used to be dinosaurs. Today, it’s mounds.

Peter is a brilliant young man who looks like a college kid on the outside, but has a nuclear-physicist’s brain. He is on the autism spectrum, and it was not always easy for him growing up.

This is why when he decided to leave home for college his parents were worried sick about him being on his own with friends. But Peter was determined to do it. So they let him go.

Peter’s dad told me, “It’s hard having your son leave. He’s my best friend. Hardest thing I ever did was driving away from the school, seeing my baby in the rear mirror, waving goodbye. Ripped my heart out.”

But getting back to the mounds, Peter tells me all about them.

“The mounds are really cool,” Peter says, “Knoxville was originally built by the Mound People. They lived here back in 3500 BCE.”

Peter talks like a professional tour guide, and he keeps looking to me for appropriate responses to his speech.

“Wow,” I say.

Peter leads me to our first exhibit of the day. It is located on the university campus so we navigate through the busy byways of Knoxville on foot, trying not to become traffic skidmarks.

On our walk, I notice about 90 percent of the college kids walking the streets are looking down at phones. Everyone wears a surgical mask.

I can’t help but notice how different this modern world looks.

Pete is a wealth of knowledge. He tells me that the North American Mound People were pre-Cherokee, pre-Shawnee, pre-pre-everything. These mounds predate the Spanish explorers, the colonists, and according to new groundbreaking studies, they even predate the iPhone.

The more I learn about the historic mounds, the more my energy starts to fade. I am really feeling like an old man in a city of gum-chewing teeny boppers today. There are so many hormones floating in the air you have to hold your breath to keep from coughing.

Peter’s friend Thomas joins us for the walking tour. The two boys have a long conversation about girls, Star Wars, and girls. And the old fuddy duddy accompanying them ceases to exist.

But I don’t mind. Because watching Peter have fun with someone his own age is a treat. His father would be so proud.

Yesterday, his dad said they’ve been working on eye contact since before Peter left for school. They have been practicing for months.

“Peter has a hard time making eye contact,” says his dad. “We’ve been working on it, because it was his idea.”

And it paid off. Peter makes a lot more eye contact than he used to.

After our long walk, we finally arrive at our destination. The mound sits upon the University of Tennessee campus, near the corner of Joe Johnson and Chapman Drive. This dirt is officially the oldest thing in Knoxville. It is a feature on the agricultural campus, part of the beautiful university gardens.

Peter shows me the mound with a big “Tada!”

I act very impressed. But to tell you the truth, I don’t get it. This is a hill.

“No it’s not,” Pete insists. “This is a burial mound, built in 600 AD. Look at it.”

“I’m looking,” I say.

“Don’t you think it’s cool?”

“I guess.”

“Are you REALLY looking?”


Actually, I’m looking at a great young man. I’m remembering when he was born. You’ve never seen happier parents. And you’ve never seen a mother work so hard to make sure her son was treated fairly in a judgmental world.

Society isn’t always kind to those who don’t fit their molds.

But Peter’s family never let this hold him back. And their hard work is paying dividends. Before me stands a handsome young student with an active social life, a glistening future, and all the prehistoric mound dirt a guy could want.

Peter is having the time of his life at college.

After our tour, we walk back to my hotel. I’ve got a long road trip ahead of me today, and I need to get on the highway.

I bid him goodbye. And before we part ways Peter shakes my hand firmly. He’s never shaken my hand. Not for as long as I’ve known him.

He says, “I enjoyed seeing you today.”

And my heart hurts. Because I can’t believe how fast kids grow up, or how quickly boys turn into men. Or how beautiful another human can be. It seems like only ten minutes ago I was his age, filling the atmosphere with smelly hormones.

He releases my hand and says, “Maybe you could write about the mounds in one of your stories sometime. You know. For me?”

Consider it done, Peter.


  1. Lynn Thomas - September 6, 2020 6:51 am

    Beautiful story. I did not know that Knoxville had mounds. Here in Bama, we have Moundville. It’s in South Alabama. The next time I’m in Knoxville, I know what I am going to be looking for. Again, beautiful story.

  2. GD - September 6, 2020 9:46 am

    Sean, next time you’re looking at a little unimpressive burial mound just remember it’s what’s inside that counts.

  3. Toni Keeling - September 6, 2020 11:13 am

    Thank you. What a wonderful post, and very loving parents who really their boy to live well. I am Australian and loved learning about these mounds. Thank you. God bless you all.

  4. Pilgrim - September 6, 2020 11:27 am

    We have a grandson on the autism spectrum. He is determined to make something of his life. Thank you for this story. ICH

  5. Patsy Boshears - September 6, 2020 11:28 am

    I am with Peter! The Mounds are fascinating and his enthusiasm is almost as extinct as the mounds are. Take that young man to Poverty Point and get on the enthusiasm train!

  6. Jane Chandler - September 6, 2020 11:51 am

    Thank you, I love this story. Jane Chandler, Huntsville, Al

  7. Jan - September 6, 2020 12:15 pm

    Excellent job, Peter! Great story, Sean. Thank you both.

  8. cronkitesue - September 6, 2020 12:45 pm

    This one is top-of-the-heap wonderful. Hooray for Peter, you, and for the long-ago people who built that mound.

  9. RCK - September 6, 2020 12:53 pm

    Once upon a time, I had a little boy (…now 49) who would often say and do spontaneously and spectacularly inappropriate things. He was quite normal and bright but had no “filter” and I would hold my breath most of the time with this little one, waiting for his next cringe-inducing antic or pronouncement and the scolding/explanation/redirection I would then have to give. It was challenging and exhausting as I had three other children. He grew into a dream, honor-roll teenager with great friends and then into a quiet, circumspect, successful adult but his younger years were a roller coaster until he got control. We did not do drug therapies back in the early 70s so simply “growing up” was our therapeutic approach. What Peter and his family have endured and will continue to experience makes my heart ache. I will keep Peter in my prayers as I did my own precious but difficult little boy back in the day.

  10. Marcie Emory - September 6, 2020 12:53 pm

    Having 2 boys on the autism spectrum, this hits home for me. My youngest will never have the opportunities that Peter does as he is not as advanced as Peter is, but my Charlie is so very happy in the life has. My older son is very much like Peter, and has the same struggles he does. He graduated from college this year (he went away to school for 4 years!) and I could not be more proud. While he still struggles with trying to find that special group of friends, and that special partner in life, he has become a very successful young man. It is nice to hear of others like my son doing all the things they dreamed about.

  11. Marvin G Tubbs - September 6, 2020 12:56 pm

    Why did you use 3500 BCE?

    Per “English Language & Usage Stack Exchange” a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. BCE/CE usually refers to the Common Era (the years are the same as AD/BC). That is, BC is usually understood to mean “Before the Common Era” and CE to mean “Common Era,” though it is possible to reinterpret the abbreviations as “Christian Era.”

    The simplest reason for using BCE/CE as opposed to AD/BC is to avoid reference to Christianity and, in particular, to avoid naming Christ as Lord (BC/AD: Before Christ/In the year of our Lord). Wikipedia, Anno Domini article:

    For example, Cunningham and Starr (1998) write that “B.C.E./C.E. …do not presuppose faith in Christ and hence are more appropriate for interfaith dialog than the conventional B.C./A.D.”

    If there is a standardization or shift occurring, it’s likely toward BCE/CE, at least in the United States. Common Era notation is used in many schools and academic settings.

  12. Nan Claypool - September 6, 2020 1:19 pm

    and in your own part of the country there is Kolomoki and not far north are the Etowah Mounds.. Good for Peter. He has done well!

  13. Betty F - September 6, 2020 2:21 pm

    Tell Peter, “Way to go!” from me and every other parent who had a kid who didn’t fit the mold.

  14. Betty - September 6, 2020 2:28 pm

    Good grief! Lighten up! Oh, wait… you probably don’t fit the mold. Sorry for my reaction.

  15. Betty - September 6, 2020 2:30 pm

    That was for Marvin

  16. Patricia Gibson - September 6, 2020 4:04 pm

    What a wonderful story❤️

  17. MAM - September 6, 2020 4:33 pm

    Sean, you have an incredible insight into people! And you use it well to do good. Thank you. I always enjoy your stories. And kudos to Peter’s parents!

  18. Andrea Murphy - September 6, 2020 5:09 pm

    Wonderful Story. Awesome that he has come so far. UT is a great place. I went there & I am from Knoxville. I had forgotten about those Mounds. Thank you so much. I love All your stories.

  19. Della Haase - September 6, 2020 5:20 pm

    Sean Dietrich, you old fuddy duddy! You make my heart smile every. Single. Day.

  20. Linda Moon - September 6, 2020 5:34 pm

    A gingerhead I know and love played in the Pride of the Southland Band at U.T. A former student of mine is on the autism spectrum. He’s a history buff and introduced me to Oak Alley Plantation. Because of him, my guy and I eventually took a road trip to Vacherie, Louisiana to visit it. For him and Peter and others born on the spectrum of diverse abilities, thank you for telling their stories, Sean. The musician and the student have grown up to be wonderful young men!

  21. Yvonne Callison - September 6, 2020 5:43 pm

    Sean, you’re the best. Yes, you’re truly the best!!! Thank you for reminding us of the good in a world that’s not so good lately. 💞

  22. terrykerns - September 6, 2020 7:19 pm

    Thanks for enlightening me, us. Thanks for Peter and my grandson, who sounds a lot like Peter.

  23. Diane Bailey - September 6, 2020 8:22 pm

    This touches my heart so much. I have a family who was diagnosed as ”on the spectrum” as an adult after a head injury. Off the chart IQ, but people skills are lacking. Thank you for sharing, I feel encouraged by this story.

  24. Paul Alge Moore - September 6, 2020 8:34 pm

    Too bad you don’t get it Sean. Can you not imagine what there world must have been like. Research it. I live near a set of cool mounds called Mound Bottom along the Harpeth River. My favorite is in Macon Ga. call Okmulgee The big mound has a tunnel that takes you inside to a ceremonial area with a big thunderbird carved in the ground. You should check it out

  25. Miss Jillian Crocker - September 7, 2020 12:36 am

    “Society isn’t always kind to those who don’t fit their molds.”

  26. Jamie - September 7, 2020 4:05 am

    I just read this to my son for story time. My wife is out of town so we didn’t want to read ahead in the novel we are working on. I welled up a bit.

  27. Christina - September 7, 2020 5:26 am

    Sean, one of the reasons your writing moves me is the way you see and value people for who they are. We can use more of this nowadays!

  28. turtlekid - September 7, 2020 11:32 am

    Interesting details. Thanks!

  29. Margaret Jackson - September 7, 2020 12:01 pm

    Dear Sean,

    Knowing how you like to travel, you might want to go to Moundville, just south if Tuscaloosa.
    There are many, many mounds left by the Mississipppian civilization.
    It is believed that this was a trading crossroads of sort for people from miles away.
    There is a really good museum there, telling the story of the Mississippians.

    There is also a “Moundville” episode on the Discovering Alabama website. I was so glad when these were uploaded to the web!!!
    I had a VHS tapes of a couple of the episodes that I had used in my classroom for years. They were about worn out AND the player was, too!
    (I taught 4th grade in Wedowee for 38 years. No matter what system we used, I always taight Alabama history!)

    I really do enjoy reading your stories. You have an insight into the heart of people and can touch your readers. Laughter or tears, usually both in the same article!

    Margaret Jackson

  30. Jane Elder - September 8, 2020 12:56 am

    Great story. Beloit College in Beloit WI where I went to school has mounds too. Very historic. School mascot is The Buccaner…go figure. And as to Peter and his new life…hurrah. I spent 26 years teaching exceptional kids…and I rejoice in the few who have been able to go on with their on their own and succeeding.

  31. Jill Sumpter - September 10, 2020 4:29 pm

    I had never heard BCE used, so appreciated the explanation.

  32. Mary Hicks - October 10, 2020 3:06 pm

    I know a young man who is autistic and this is his 2nd year at the University of Montevallo. I remember him growing up and there was nothing he did not know about dinosaurs!! So, so smart! He wasn’t a touchy person then, but maybe he is now. They grow and are gone out into the world so fast! God bless you, Sean, for sharing such a wonderful story!!

  33. nebraskannie - October 10, 2020 3:16 pm

    I lived next to the Cahokia mounds in Illinois and the museum used to be one of our favorite places. I love that you write about what’s important now, though. Good for you both!!!

  34. Kathryn. - October 10, 2020 8:31 pm

    Oh, Marvin! (I bet you hear that a lot!)

    Great column Sean. I know how you feel – one day it just hits you – that little baby who you held in your arms, that little boy with skinned knees is, suddenly it seems, a young man, handsome, full of life and energy, and all grown up.


Leave a Comment