I was talking to my buddy Jeff one day about how when I was a kid we lived four years in Tunnel Hill, GA. I haven't been there in years, so I can't say what it's like today, but at the time it was the kind of place that gave southerners a bad name. For example, the county almost shut down when Elvis died. Smokey and the Bandit and Convoy were perennial conversation topics. A kid could say, "My daddy can beat up your daddy!" -- and then he would.
The town is named for a train tunnel, long-since closed, that -- at 1477' in length -- was the engineering marvel of its day. It was the site of skirmishing between Confederate and Union troops during the American Civil War at the beginning of the Atlanta Campaign.
Jeff is about as Georgian as a fellow gets, of the good and generous sort. We met when I was changing a flat tire -- Jeff didn't know me from Adam, but when he saw me in the parking lot with the tire iron, he walked up and gave me a hand. Some time later I was able to do him a courtesy in turn. He protested my offer, but I explained, "You have yourself to blame Jeff -- I was just there changing my tire when you came up out of nowhere and lent me a hand. Don't blame me that we ended up friends." I'm now Godfather to two of his kids.
Given that most people are surprised to learn I'm southern -- I don't have much of an accent, a fact I attribute to my folks being from other parts of the country -- that unreconstructed Tunnel Hill was in my background surprised Jeff to no end. "Sean, I don't even go to Tunnel Hill," he told me in disbelief.
One survival tale from those days involved an older neighborhood kid named Steve, a strong-willed contrarian who befriended my brother and I perhaps because all the other kids around the block routinely abused us* for our non-southern vocabulary (e.g. mom and dad wouldn't allow us to say "ain't," though we sometimes used it under duress as a means of self-preservation) and the fact that we attended the city school in nearby Dalton rather than the local school just down the road. Taking us under his wing was perhaps a way for Steve to differentiate himself from the rest of the redneck rabble.
Steve owned a go-cart. I still remember how you would crank it like a lawn-mower by pulling the start cord, the rattle of the little engine, the smell of gas fumes. For fun Steve would take us around on the back of his cart -- it had only one seat, so a passenger was obliged to stand on the rear bar and hold on to the driver's shoulders for dear life when he floored the thing.
One fine afternoon as we were touring the neighborhood we came upon a picket line of local kids spanning the road: they'd formed a blockade, arms joined, across the entire street.
"Watch this!" Steve shouted, and he put the pedal to the metal.
Now, "watch this" are famous last words of a great many good 'ole boys.
Steve gunned the go-cart, aiming it right at the kid in the middle of the line. It became a game of chicken, and at the last moment the kid jumped clear of Steve's screaming cart.
Well, not quite all of him jumped clear: the kid's foot was just a smidge too slow.
Which is how I got kicked in the face, zipping along at 30 MPH. The effect was, well, disorienting.
Not surprisingly, I lost my grip on Steve's shoulder. For a moment I flailed about, trying to regain my balance, but to no avail. Worse, I managed to smack the driver in the head, who became disoriented in turn. He over-compensated by turning the wheel too sharply to one side, throwing me free while he went in a circle.
Which is how I got run over by the go-cart I'd just been standing on.
I landed on my back, and Steve rode the cart right over the top of me. The tires ripped my shirt and my jeans, and I had sooty black tread marks on my chest and thighs.
The kids ran away. Steve -- who was the mercurial sort -- yelled at me for hitting him in the head, then drove me home at a modest pace.
"What happened to you this time?" mom asked when I walked in the door.
It had been just another day in the neighborhood.
* Mom told me that within the past few years she'd heard from the mother of one of the neighborhood bullies, now in his early 40s, who to this day feels bad about the way he and the other kids treated my brother and I. It's good to know he developed a conscience.