Paradise Lost: The Vanishing East Tennessee Way of Life

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By Gary Anderson

The old saying that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone is one that we all know too well. So often in our lives we think of this famous saying and feel its bitter bite.

Bittersweet too are our memories of the rapidly vanishing East Tennessee way of life we once enjoyed. Soon the witnesses to the pre-mall, pre-asphalt, pre-cell phone, pre-central heat and air, pre-Internet days will be gone forever. Already gone are many of the unique things that made East Tennessee life one of pleasure and contentment.

My most powerful childhood memories of rural East Tennessee are linked to the seasons. In the summer months, before Dave Lennox brought us air-conditioning, we kids heard the world come to life every morning outside our screen windows. My dad’s rooster and hens raised a ruckus long before my feet hit the floor, and the then-bountiful quail serenaded the rising sun with their characteristic call, “Bob White.” The night watchmen of summer evenings were the whippoorwills, bull frogs, and katydids. With the advent of electronic gizmos still decades away, we swam or played softball from dawn to dusk. Summer weekends meant bass, bluegill, and rides to the lake on the tailgate of my uncle’s war era Chevrolet truck; RC Cola and Moon Pies were there too. There were chores, of course. Mowing grass in the sweltering Tennessee heat, helping out in the garden, and stringing countless beans for canning in Mason jars are preserved in my middle-aged mind forever.

Winters were no less wonderful. Somewhere in our home, noisily, a Warm Morning Heater was brought to life. I can still smell and taste East Tennessee on cold winter mornings- the aroma of JFG coffee percolating in my father’s percolator (the gadget that made coffee before automatic drip came along); mother’s golden buttermilk biscuits and cornbread made from scratch with White Lily or Martha White flour; sizzling bacon, sausage or ‘Tennessee Steak’ (bologna) from our own hog; Cas Walker’s Farm and Home Hour, often featuring some gal named Dolly Parton, received mysteriously over rabbit ears from faraway Knoxville; and lots of  little boys, jumping up and down to keep their toes warm, sporting burr haircuts and wearing Pointer brand overalls waiting on the rural route bus. Winter Sundays meant breakfasts of hot oatmeal, eager beagles, and scurrying cottontails. Today, some 35 years on, I still have the same winter chore that I had then: hauling wood to feed the stove. Some things never change.

Thankfully, some icons of yesteryear are alive and well, such as Mayfield farms, Tennessee Pride sausage, Martha White, and White Lily. Kerns Bakery and Kay’s Ice Cream are back. Piggly Wiggly is still around too. Yet many traditions have disappeared. Community schools, witnesses to the greatest slow-pitch softball games of all time, are almost gone. Small but vibrant towns, such as LaFollette, where my uncles owned thriving jewellery stores, surrendered to the malls years ago. Rabbit hunting on Sundays went out with the subdivisions of prefabricated homes demarcated by ‘Posted: Keep Out’ or ‘No Hunting’ signs. Rabbit ears gave way to cable TV with hundreds of channels but nothing on. And where have the Bob Whites, whippoorwills, katydids, and bellowing bull frogs all gone?

Oh, they’re still alive and well—in our boomer generation hearts, somewhere between Cas Walker’s “Thumpin’ Good” watermelons and Grape Nehi.