Monday, October 1, 2012

A Conversation at Duke's Diner

Heavy rain is forecast so I decide to spend an extra day in this small town in rural Tennessee. The motel is clean and there are three different restaurants available within easy walking distance. Dinner last night was at Monroe's. I'm starting to get used to catfish. It often seems to be a headliner in this part of the country.

Breakfast this morning was at Duke's Diner. Almost a caricature, it is like walking into a movie set. People are friendly and with the chatter going on there is no doubt that I am venturing further into the southern U.S. The drawl is unmistakable. I'm just waiting for Jed Clampett to walk in.

It doesn't take long before I am engaged in conversation. At first I think he is the proprietor, but he quickly corrects that misconception. “Just here to he'p ma wife. It's ma day off.” he tells me as he slowly moves about clearing the odd table while flashing me an easy relaxed grin.

When I let it be known that I am cyclist passing through staying an extra day at the motel up the road the chatting starts in earnest. Others from adjacent tables are drawn in. “What have you seen so far?” I am asked. When I mention a couple of the civil war battle sites, the stories begin to flow. Everyone has something to say about their connection to the history of the area.

“My five times great grand-dad was murdered after the civil war. The soldiers was leavin' but they killed him on his farm.” I am told. “One of his sons had his new saddle stolen by them retreating Union soldiers.” he continues. “It was a terrible, terrible time. It wasn't all about slavery. It was about taxes on cotton. The slaves you know, around here, they lived in their own houses, and were free to go about as they pleased. Some of the things that happened after the war were just terrible. My grandma told me some of the stories.”

A fellow at an adjacent table nodded in agreement. “Everybody was wrong.” I am told. “But them Union soldiers shouldn'ta done what they did. They was stealin' just to make money, not because they needed what they took.” As the talk continues I hear The Band singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in the back of my mind.

I don't detect anger as I am told these stories. I do pick up on the sadness however. My new friend makes it clear that this is an oral history, that has been passed down to him through generations. He tells me quietly, at times with a smile, but often slowly shaking his head, as if he is reliving the tale told to him by his grandmother. His ancestors experienced the horror of that war, and the story continues to be told, and re-told.

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