Five days before Christmas 2020 and Covington County is stone cold dead. The green of Bahia and Bermuda grass pastures has long since dried up. Cows tug at the tiny tufts which has got to be like chewing cardboard all day. Fields that grew cotton and corn last summer have been mowed into nothing.
Of course, pine trees are still green and their limbs shake in the December breeze. Most hardwoods have shrugged off their leaves leaving squirrels to scamper from one bare branch to another.
And for someone whose roots have always been and will forever be tied to the soil, it is a fine day to ride dirt roads and imagine a world that once was.
I turn to the west on a well-established dirt road that leaves four-lane highway 55 in a curve just a trace north of the South community. I’m sure the road has a name, but I do not know it. I’m just sure that it goes for a number of miles and that at some point I will cross Pigeon Creek. This is the same creek where Marion Lloyd had his grist mill and where I would go with grandpa to get corn ground. And on some days, we went about 100 yards south of the mill to “Rock Wall” swimming hole. One of those places where mamas told their children to come out of the water when their lips got blue.
I’d driven only a couple hundred yards when I crossed a railroad track Today it is called the Three Notch railroad and runs 36 miles from Andalusia to Georgiana. Built in 1901, the then Alabama & Florida railroad went all the way to Graceville, FL, just south of Dothan. The line still runs right through the middle of Red Level and McKenzie. But 120 years have sucked most of the life out of rural American such as Red Level and McKenzie and a train whistle is a lonely reminder of long ago times.
I knew my journey would be made mostly in solitude. When men from south Alabama went off to fight Germany in World War I, many of them came out of the shacks of sharecroppers that covered these sandy hills like fire ant hills once did. That was the story of Grandpa Lee who was born in 1899 before going to war.
I think of the children of that era. Kids like mother and daddy. Poverty was all they knew. Poverty that was so pervasive, most did not really know what it was. In a world of scarce to little communications, there was no TV to expose them to other worlds and big cities. We’ve all heard someone say, “We were poor, but we didn’t know it.” Truer words were never spoken.
I’ve often wished I had a chance to talk again to grandpa. I would ask a 1,000 questions about his life, his boyhood, being a sharecropper, etc.
But since I can’t, I will just have to make do with afternoons on dirt roads.