On Friday, Rick Bragg, the man Shakespeare would have been had he grown up in North Alabama, spoke for nearly an hour without notes to a chapel full of McCallie School students, then had lunch with a dozen or so more in John Lambert's English class.
All morning long, Bragg, in a white shirt and black suit that looked like a Southern version of John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction," told story after story, like he was scattering bread crumbs down the forest trail.
We followed him through tales of his messy and graceful South: knife fighters that used brown sugar to plug up their wounds, the joy of listening to dogs howl while leaning on pickup trucks, the pain of getting bit by miniature donkeys.
"You know that spot in the back of your leg where you don't want to get bit?" he asked.
After his years in journalism, Bragg began writing books about his life growing up in North Alabama among fistfights and moonshine, honest mechanics and Sunday suppers, his saintly mother and his cottonmouth-mean father.
Like a summer wedding cake, his stories contain layer upon layer: poverty, class, love, violence, broken men and strong women.
This is why they've given him so many awards, why folks fly in from Australia to visit the house he built his mama, why, at least the way I heard it, some have even asked to be buried with a copy of his book.
Just listen to what he said Friday:
• "There's nothing uglier in this world than a field people are doing nothing on."
• "I ain't Anne Rice."
• "I have never played a video game. Ever. What good is a virtual anything? What good is a virtual pork chop? A virtual biscuit ... a virtual fist fight where nothing is lost. You get hit in the mouth and you don't bleed or you don't get hurt."
• "Never underestimate the power of four old women sitting in a living room with nothing else to do [but tell stories]."
• "Poetry to me is like sushi. Very delicate ... and bland, kind of like when you lick your fingers when you've been bass fishing."
• "Any story without a dead mule in it is not a story."
But it was while sitting in the office of upper school head Kenny Sholl that Bragg, for a moment, grew serious. I'd asked him about the future of the South in the 21st century.
"It's changing," he said.
The Braggian South seems to be softly fading, like a long sunset or someone slowly pulling a white sheet over a dead body. Any Southerner feels it; Bragg feels it more, and measures the change by one factor above all.
"Work," he said.
Bragg's people, as poor as they were, still identified themselves by their work.
"That was the thing that lifted them up, made them feel better. Self reliant, as though they could grab hold of life with both hands and fashion a dignity from it," he continued. "That blue collar self-sufficiency has faded."
And then Bragg said this:
"Sometimes, I don't understand my own South," he said.
What does it mean to be a Southerner today? This region has always had something no other place does. We carry something a little heavier than other places, like an extra lead weight on a fishing line.
There is a haunting grief in the South, but there is also such gentleness. People drape their arms over one another. We pull off to the side of the road for funerals. Our food has soul.
How long will that last?
In this 21st century, when home can be wherever our Internet connection is, what is the future of the South?
Bragg told the crowd of McCallie students -- wealthy and not, from here and from all over the world -- to remember their people. Whomever those people are, remember them.
"You never get away from your people," he said, "nor should you want to."
That's a good answer, or at least half of it.
The other came during his lunchtime conversation. Sipping sweet tea in-between questions, Bragg, after doing his best Bear Bryant impersonation, got to the heart of everything. Leaning on the white table cloth, he looked the students in the eye:
"It doesn't matter where you're from. Whether you're privileged or at the bottom. All that matters is whether or not your backbone is flexible and strong enough to meet life head on," he said.
That's the lesson Bragg and his stories teach us. The South is the land and food and religion and politics, but trumping all that is the way we live. How we deal with our problems. How we love each other.
"Thank y'all," he said at the end of his talk.
The pleasure, Mr. Bragg, has always been, and will always be, ours.
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...
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