Things They Said: Drunk Driving in the 19th Century

My grandmother, who was born in 1890, told how her family would load up their wagon and go to house and barn raisings in the Carolinas.  It was the only way to build a house in the country back then, everyone showed up and did their bit.  So the men would build and teach the boys, and the women would cook and teach the girls.  Two big meals were served, one midday and one in the evening when the framing was done.  The point of the day was to get the frame up so the floors and the rest could be laid by smaller factions, though it often sounded like they got more than that done.

So at the end of the evening and the big meal and the cleaning up, there would be a celebration of sorts, a thank-you party where people, if they were not Baptist, might dance and drink a bit.  Some moonshine generally found its way to the premises and a good time was had by the men.  The children and women would fall asleep, and by about midnight the men would place them into the wagons on beds of hay and drive home.

As the know-it-all teenager, I chided my grandmother for her father driving home drunk.

“He didn’t drive drunk!” she said.

“Who did?” I asked.

And she looked at me like I was soft in the head.

“Well, the horse knew the way home.  Daddy was in the back with us.”

 

Postscript:  Apparently, the horse not only knew the way home, but would deliver them to the back door and shake his harness until the noise woke them up.  Her parents carried the children into the house, the horse would have his riggings removed, and he would put himself up in the barn.

Little Story: That Time I Was the Only Openly Gay Person in South Carolina. Okay, Not Really. Well, Maybe.

South Carolina – 1983.  Robin Williams was big, everybody wanted to be a stand-up comedian.  Comedy clubs were big, small towns had them, open mike nights were big.  So I thought, “I can do this.”  So I went and watched and there were funny women, and funny rednecks, and cool black guys, and hipster political types and I thought – “No gays.  I’ll be a gay stand-up comedian.  I’ll be funny, it’ll be fine.  It’s 1983 in South Carolina, what could possibly go wrong?”

Surprisingly, the act went pretty well, and think it’s because people thought I was kidding about being gay.  (That still happens.  I don’t know.)  There were a few hecklers, and some older comics taught me to prepare ready-made put downs.  My favorite was to point to the heckler, give him a big smile, and says “Oh, sorry!  I didn’t recognize you — from the front.”  I never got red-lighted, I got laughs, I got asked back.  A group of us went to Atlanta for a big break in a big comedy club and we all got bumped by a surprise unbilled set from Richard Pryor, but if you’re gonna get bumped . . .

So the local paper wanted to do an article on the four of us who were coming back week after week and seemed to have some potential.  This nice reporter came and interviewed us and sat with us between sets and had us come to her offices for photos.  There’s a horrific photo of me trying to be funny with comedy props, because we all make mistakes.

So about a month later, the reporter calls and she says there’s a little – delay – with the article, which is going into their Sunday magazine.  That’s huge exposure back in the day when the Sunday paper was something every human read.  Apparently, I’m the delay because – this statewide paper has never actually ever identified any local person as gay.  So after many meetings with higher-ups, she’s calling because they’ll print the story but maybe I need to sign a legal document saying that if anything were to – happen – to me as a result of the article, they would not to be liable.

And I said “sure” because I’m basically likeable and I’m sure once people got to know me they’d probably like me because I’m twenty-three and an idiot.

Somehow, I never sign anything, but the article comes out anyway.  A color picture of me gets nearly a whole page.  With bad gay jokes.  Because my good stuff was too dirty to print.

And the next day at work, I walk down the halls and it’s like the parting of the Red Sea.  People are leaping out of my way, into offices of people they hate, into broom closets, and onto fire escapes.  People who were, I thought, my friends…and already knew.  The young closeted gay guys were the worst.  There were also old closeted guys that repeatedly managed to save me, but I don’t know who they were or how.  But they did.

My home phone rang exactly twice the Sunday the article came out, once from a married bisexual who wanted to have sex, and once from a very scared young kid who wanted to know “how do you know if you’re gay?” I tried to talk to him, but had no clue what to say.  I remember breaking into a cold sweat, and there was the sound of a door opening over the line and he hung up quickly.

After that, I could’ve disconnected the phone for a few years and saved a lot of money.

I was out to my parents, but I got a letter from my mother who lived at the edges of the state.  It was truly a statewide paper and she had the clipping.  I’ve never read the letter a second time, but I still have it in the house.  We’re fine now.

Another shock were all the gay people who would have nothing to do with me in any public setting, and only vaguely acknowledged me at what were becoming fewer and fewer private gatherings.  It was guilt by association.  Exactly one gay guy stood by me.  The rest stood – slightly apart.  I remember every one of them to this day.  I don’t really blame them, I guess.  I just remember them.  For reference.

That left a few straight people who thought it was cool and who would introduce me as their “gay friend” like it was my first name.

Not that I wasn’t known.  One woman I didn’t know called to ask me to speak at a gay man’s funeral and went on at such a pace it took me a horrific number of minutes to break in and explain, basically, that all gay men didn’t know one another.

I became the “homosexual” speaker for the University of South Carolina’s Abnormal Psychology class, where something was better than nothing, and I gamely answered questions like “Well, who’s the man and who’s the woman?” and “Do you believe in God’s Word?” and “Were you raped as a child?”

Years later, an old gay guy at a country club asked me about “that time” and when I told him how gay people reacted, he purred like any good movie homosexual and said “Of COURSE, dear!” and in my mind he suddenly dropped dead and the waiters just stepped over his body to serve us the meal he had paid for and nobody missed him.

The next time you gaze upon a gay pride parade, remember that there was a time when, in every community, it was a parade of one.  And one.  And one.  And one.  “That guy.”  “The confirmed bachelor.”  “The old maid.”  The “Bless Her Heart.”  Nobody ever said “thank you.” I never said “thank you” to the ones before me.  So.  With all my heart and soul.  Thank You.

Congratulations! Your Ancestors Were Hanged By King George

…is not exactly what the letter from the North Carolina Mecklenburg County Historic Society said, but it was close.

As it turns out, a year before “the” Declaration of Independence, there was another one in Mecklenburg County near what is now Charlotte, N.C., and it was signed by two of my ancestors who were summarily punished for the act.  My grandmother attended a historical pageant about the event, and was disappointed to find our glorious forebears in a bar in most scenes.  Still, as you may have gathered, there’s a certain vein of patriotism running within apparently due to this history.

The other side of the family descends from the Byrds of Virginia, which I don’t need to tell you are one of the founding families of America, which actually I am telling you just to make sure you do know, because I am Southern, and you need to know about this so you can effing kneel down right now before me according to certain relatives.

But I digress.

Both sides of the family, though Southern, apparently came to different conclusions as to the merits of the Civil War (notez bien from my paternal Byrd grandmother: there was nothing civil about it, it was The War Between The States), so we have a mixed history.

Having been descended from hangants, however, the fierceness of “all men are created equal” does seem to be imbedded in a passionate way.  So.  Go eat hot dogs tomorrow, we are not equal yet but we will be.  See you back on the field on the fifth, where we will all do each of our lgbtq compatriots proud.

And I hope the new baby George the royal family just had takes after the ugly side of the family.