It’s more than embarrassing but I have to admit that I’ve had a long-time obsession with that icon of squeaky-clean Hollywood-style Appalachia, John Boy Walton. Growing up in my large, sometimes poverty-stricken family, I latched onto John Boy like a sinner in need of a saint, making sure in my pre-teens to never miss an episode. In John and Olivia, I saw my hard-working parents and in John Boy, the oldest son and a writer, I saw myself, leader of the pack, typing late into the night in that modest room. Both John Boy and I knew that someday we’d leave “the mountain” for the wider world.
Somehow I got sucked into every melodramatic and ridiculously wholesome episode. The Waltons were the good kind of mountain people—salt of the earth, honest, thoughtful, and compassionate. The Confederate flag never darkened their porch, nor did they turn away people who were different. Somehow they always tried to do the right thing. In their grittiness, they reminded me of my mother’s extended family, farm folk in south Jersey.
Little did I know I’d end up living in Front Royal, only two hours from the Walton’s Mountain Museum in Schuyler, VA. When I found out, I almost peed my pants. Oh my gosh, I thought when I realized we could actually go see the place where Hamner/John Boy lived and wrote—we need to pack our bags—let’s go!
But we’ve been in Front Royal for almost three years now and haven’t yet made the journey to Walton’s Mountain. The truth is I’m afraid to drag all of us there. What if the museum and Mr. Hamner’s house don’t measure up? What if seeing the real home of the real John Boy destroys my childhood fantasy? What if the thrill is gone? It’s not like I’ve read Hamner’s actual writing. Maybe John Boy was nothing more than a piece of Tinsel Town fluff.
Living in Front Royal, I really need to hold onto my country-writer-boy dream as long as possible. It makes me believe that living in the rural south means living around simple, decent people like the Waltons. In fact, it makes me think every now and then about just how much country I carry inside of me, how in the very center of my being and despite my love of the big nasty city, I am—please don’t tell anyone—just a country white girl at heart.
I certainly can’t deny that my roots on both my mother’s and father’s sides stretch deeply into rural culture. I can remember visiting my Great Aunt E.’s turkey farm in New Jersey and sitting in her 1940s-style kitchen. She and her husband ran the place along with their two sons, growing tomatoes, as well as raising turkeys and hogs. I can still see the boys in their denim overalls lumbering about the place, layers and layers of dirt under their nails.
Several of my maternal grandmother’s six siblings farmed, although she married a factory worker, my Pop-Pop R., who spent most of his working life at the big Dupont chemical plant in Deepwater, NJ. When she was growing up, my Mom-Mom R. lived every summer at the beach—literally just squatting in tents on the Jersey shore. The family loved it, living cheaply with only the bare necessities during those months.
On my Dad’s side, my Pop-Pop Davis grew up on a farm in Michigan only to run away when he was 15. He rode the rails around the country doing odd jobs and working as a farm hand until he earned an electrician’s license and began working at that same Dupont plant in Deepwater. He was a tough guy with a quick temper who later owned his own small farm in southwestern Virginia. There’s a photo of me when I was a year old sitting on the back of a pony at his farm.
Some of my fondest memories are of visiting places like the Cowtown Rodeo in rural Salem County, NJ, where dust swirls in every direction and cowboy boots are haute couture. Later I spent many Fridays at the Green Dragon Farmer’s Market in Ephrata, PA, a massive collection of merchants selling everything from cold cuts to handmade furniture. Pop-Pop R. ran a stall there selling his duck carvings and various odds and ends right next to some Amish folks.
None of my grandparents attended college. They were working class people, not writers, not artists, or people with degrees. They were creative though, always making something beautiful and functional—cabinets, quilts, houses, clothes.
Being with the older generations of my family, I always had this sense of their ability to survive and thrive with whatever was at hand. They knew how to do things like fish and camp and hunt. They went visiting for entertainment, sat on porches, gathered at church picnics. They cherished old houses, weathered furniture, and being outdoors.
My mother spent a substantial amount of time as a teen pulling the guts out of turkeys and eating fresh pork cracklins and scrapple. She also contracted hepatitis from a possum someone shot and brought home for dinner.
So sometimes, when I look around Front Royal, I feel a certain familiarity. The town is not unlike Quinton, NJ, where my mother grew up and where we stayed with Mom-Mom while my mother worked as a nurse. When I open my front door for the nearly toothless old farmer who comes and mows our lawn and whose accent is almost impossible to understand, I feel like he could be my Great Uncle T. When I see the pastel ladies with their Bibles shuffling to the local diner on Sunday afternoon, I know one of them could be my Aunt B. The skinny blonde guy in the dirty pick-up hauling god knows what from this yard to that sure looks like my cousin C.
My city-boy husband has no idea just how much redneck I’ve got in me. Not that he hasn’t met my more colorful country relatives, but I don’t think he knows what a huge impact Salem, NJ had on me as a child. I just don’t feel as immediately repulsed by the seeming ignorance of rural folks as he is. The funny thing is that Jose’s own 94-year old father lived his youth farming not with a tractor but with a carabao and an old-fashioned wooden plow in the Philippines. A carabao is a kind of water buffalo—it’s the national animal of the Philippines and still used today for all kinds of tasks. Lolo went from leading that animal around the fields outside Manila to managing the maintenance of the Philippine Embassy in DC and serving dignitaries during his night job as a waiter for several DC caterers. There is a photo of Lolo with General Carlos P. Romulo—a famous Filipino diplomat, politician, soldier, journalist and author—and a photo of Ferdinand Marcos with Lolo in the background.
Lolo worked the land the same way his family had been doing for hundreds of years and now his middle son has no idea how to grow even a tomato. In fact, if the flowers on our front porch need to be watered or the hedges need to be clipped, you won’t catch Jose out there. It’s me and Maggie every time. Of course, I like to work in the yard and wish I had more time to learn about gardening. I do what I can but I really don’t know a forsythia from a frog. Jose’s horrific seasonal allergies probably also have something to do with his lack of interest in foliage but sometimes I just want him to be a little more hardy, to get his hands in the dirt.
Of course, when I examine my redneck heritage more carefully, I can’t ignore the less pretty side. My Pop-Pop R. suffered from that strange variety of prejudice that allowed him to treat an individual of color well while complaining about “those people” as a whole. Then again, he was none too happy when his youngest daughter dated a Hispanic guy—that one didn’t last long. And I hate to say it but I’ve heard one of the most beloved elders in my family complain about the Blacks and Hispanics who’ve moved into the neighborhood where she grew up. I know she doesn’t mean to imply that the decline of that area has anything to do with race but that’s how it comes out—“Ever since ‘they’ moved in, the place is in shambles.” And there are a few young members of my extended family (on the more conservative side) who never have seemed to warm up to Jose and who won’t really look him in the eye. You get the feeling they don’t quite know what to make of him and that they listen to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh a little too often.
With this kind of history in my own family, how can I be surprised at Jose’s discomfort with a lot of public spaces in Front Royal. I can feel at home almost anywhere and have never been made self-conscious because of my skin color. The flea market, a campground, the county fair, the town pool—I can blend in and chat comfortably with almost anyone. I just reach back to my country white girl roots and play the part. It also seems that women can always find something to talk about with each other across all kind of dividing lines—race, class, age, religion, etc.
For Jose, the public pool is a horror show. Maybe it’s all those almost naked, mole-rat pale tattooed bodies, the literal and psychic nakedness of the rabble. Maybe it’s the experience of being barred from a white beach on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake as a child, or the fact that he never learned to swim. Whatever the cause, he performs his fatherly duty in taking Maggie to swimming lessons and coming with us when she and I want to take a dip, but he does not enjoy it. When the three of us are alone in a hotel pool, it’s a different story—Jose can relax a bit. Except for when some snooty mother refuses to let her family in the water with us as happened at a hotel in Rehoboth Beach this summer.
Moving to Front Royal has brought into sharp relief how radically different Jose’s background, experiences, and coping mechanisms are from mine. The city may have brought us together but we come from galaxies light years apart. I know it drives him crazy when I play down the nasty looks he sometimes gets around here. I always have a hard time accepting that anyone can treat another person with suspicion because of his/her race. It’s my natural inclination to say, “But wait, are you sure—maybe that person is just having a bad day, maybe it has nothing to do with you.”
Or maybe I am just naïve. Still, I am usually looking to make connections and build bridges where Jose is always on guard, not wanting but expecting positive attitudes about him to disintegrate at any moment. I didn’t really understand this dynamic when we lived in the city because Jose is much more accepted there, so much more at ease. In DC we were just another couple of struggling poet-types. In three-quarters of “chocolate city,” the areas where tourists seldom stray, being white isn’t necessarily an asset and being brown is not a liability.
Of course there are urban people who are bigots and northern people and educated people who harbor prejudice (and usually hide it very well), but there tend to be many fewer racists in these categories than in insular places where folks don’t get exposed to “the other.” So life for both of us was a little less bumpy in the city. And when Jose encounters some negative shit in the Shenandoah Valley, that nasty stuff rubs off on me too. I’ll never really know what it’s like to live in his skin and see through his eyes but what happens to him and how he feels about it have a huge impact on both Maggie and me. If he bumps up against ignorant attitudes, so do we. If he carries around a certain amount of rage, we feel that heat too.
It’s truly exhausting sometimes. But I can always retreat into my country white girl self and my John Boy delusions. On Walton’s Mountain, every conflict is worked out amicably and small town bigots can be won over with reason and compassion. The family’s harmony always uplifts the troubled drifters and strangers who wander into its midst—that’s why so many people watched the show. It wasn’t about real poverty in rural Appalachia or about the huge political and social changes of the era. Like the faux southern Cracker Barrel restaurants that sell DVDs of selected Walton’s episodes, the show existed to create a non-threatening romanticized American past full of homey goodness like a soft old quilt. No wonder Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition has held exclusive syndication rights for the series since 1991.
Having just learned that last factoid from the Internet, I feel a bit closer to letting go of my John Boy fantasy. How can I love anything owned by Pat Robertson? Or maybe there’s a redeeming lost episode where John Boy drives in a blinding rage to Richmond, drinks himself silly, and pukes all over the dance floor of a strip joint? No…not possible. That sounds more like some of Front Royal’s less upstanding residents—throw in a little crystal meth or oxycontin and you’ve captured them brilliantly.
I think I do need a visit to that museum in Schuyler after all.