Moreland, Georgia. Population 382. Unless someone died last night.
I was on my way home from Newnan when I took a detour southward along Highway 29. I had just made a speech at the Southern Lit Fest literature festival at the Coweta County courthouse. I had time to kill, a full gas tank, and the sun was setting over America’s Fourth State.
I’ve been reading about Moreland since I was a little boy, but I’ve never actually seen it.
The first time I ever read about it, I was an 11-year-old kid whose father had just shot himself. I was a lost child without anyone to love me.
One of my father’s friends gave me a book entitled “Kathy Sue Loudermilk, I Love You.” I read it in one sitting. It was funny. It was touching. It changed the trajectory of my life. The author was from Moreland.
That same year, I read every single book by the author at least a quarter million times.
I was an untalented kid. I was overweight, redheaded, and a straight-C student with dim prospects. Moreover, I came from fundamentalist people who were so tightly wound they suffered debilitating constipation and refused to wave at each other in the package store. Books were all I had.
At age 12, I sent my favorite author-columnist a letter, typed on my typewriter, double spaced and everything. I licked the stamp and mailed my envelope to The Atlanta Journal Constitution, c/o Mister Grizzard, 72 Marietta Street, Atlanta, GA, 30346.
I told him I thought he was amazing. I said I was sorry about the death of his dog, Catfish. I told him that he was my hero. He never wrote back. He was pretty busy.
So anyway, the sun was shining. I was driving with one finger on the wheel and a Coca-Cola in my other hand. In my center console was a Styrofoam cup of boiled peanuts. Still warm.
I bought these peanuts from a side-of-the-road stand outside Moreland where a man with exactly three teeth talked my leg off for upwards of 30 minutes. I wish I’d known what he was talking about, but he could only make vowel sounds.
I saw the sign ahead.
WELCOME TO THE TOWN OF MORELAND.
I sort of went numb. There are moments in your life when the past and present merge. This was one of those moments for me.
I tried to imagine what Moreland might have been like long ago, but here’s the thing: I didn’t have to. I’ve been imagining it most of my life because I’ve read all about it.
I knew about Moreland’s First Baptist Church—proudly washing feet for 200 years. When I saw the white siding, the dual church spires, I felt as though I had already taken communion there.
I saw what I assume was the old Cureton & Cole general store, where kids used to buy Zagnut bars, Mary Janes, and jawbreakers. The place where old men used to sit on a porch and discuss who exactly was running around on whom.
And there’s the barbecue pavilion, where I guess they still hold the July Fourth barbecues. Each year they cook 2,000 pounds of pork and several metric tons of stew which has been, I am told, outlawed by the American Heart Association.
The festival started in ‘47 when folks got together to celebrate after the hometown boys in uniform had whooped Hitler’s everlasting aspirations. People start lining up at 10 a.m. There is also a children’s bicycle parade.
The Moreland Welcome Center is next to the old W.A. Brannon Mercantile, a two-story redbrick structure built in 1894. It looks like an old Steinway factory. To the left is the old knitting mill/cotton warehouse.
When I saw the welcome-center sign I pulled over.
I knocked on the door, but it was late, the lights were off. So I sat on the steps and listened to the crickets on a June night in a sleepy Georgia town, located somewhere just below the Gnat Line. I don’t think a single car passed me.
In this private moment, I was no longer an adult. I was an 11-year-old boy, hopelessly lost, underconfident, often sad, but faintly optimistic about his future. A boy I can hardly remember.
“Dear Mister Grizzard,
“…You’re my favorite writer. I have all your books but my mom doesn’t let me read any of your stories with the cuss words, but I read them anyways. …I am sorry about your dog Catfish. I cried really hard when he died. And also my dad is dead just like yours. Please write back if you can cause I really would like to be friends if you want. But I understand if you can’t. Thank you for your time. —Sean Dietrich”
Great little town, Moreland.