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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Columbia

Columbia - City of Charm on the River Pearl ...

... at least that's what my police department patch says.  

Lord knows I blew through Columbia many a time in my youth ... It was little more than a couple of redlights set up on highway 98, a place I had to slow down for no real damn reason at all.  I started coming to Columbia when I was 15.  That was 1984.  I had a driver's license (back when you could get a DL at 15), I had a '78 Chevy Rally Sport Camaro and I had no good intentions at all.  Back then, Highway 98 was a two-lane affair rife with blind spots and its own "Bloody 98" reputation for having so many people killed on that stretch of road.

Later, in the late '80's, the MS DOT began to widen the major two-lane highways into four lanes and getting to Columbia from Hattiesburg and back wasn't that much of an adventure anymore.

Columbia never crossed my mind as a place to settle.  I never thought I'd stop here for long let alone marry into this place and live here one day but life is funny strange like that, especially my life.  I guess I should have known that if I passed through a place often enough I'd eventually grow to like it, maybe even enough to live there one day. 

I passed through Columbia many times in high school, on my way to play basketball games at other schools and riding our big school bus with the rest of the team.  Years later, I used to haul medical supplies and specimens for a long defunct medical lab and Marion General Hospital was one of my stops.  I never thought I'd be working there one day let alone working there for twelve years in a row now.

I've been in Columbia for over 15 years now, that's nearly a third of my life.  I look back at where I wanted to be ... somewhere else.  I always thought that I would be the one who would move off ... way off like to Colorado or Texas or Alaska.  Instead I settled thirty miles west of where I grew up.

Big leap there.

I've realized something along the way ... I've realized something over the years ... people leave the area where they grew up not because something is holding them back but rather because there's nothing really holding them back.  I know a lot of people I went to school with who grew up in this area and now they're in other states, scattered across this once great country and I used to be a little jealous of that fact.  I used to sometimes wonder why I hadn't left for somewhere else ... and then I realized that I didn't need to.  Everything that I needed, everything that I wanted in life was right here, just 30 miles west of where I'd grown up and gone to school.

People leave and go far away because they're looking for what they don't have here and often they're not only mistaken but they're dead wrong as well.  It's sad to know that someone you thought was pretty grounded is now on the other side of the country having the exact kind of life that they had here only somehow it's so much better way out there ... or so they tell me.  It's funny that I don't really hear the joy in their words.

Several people that I knew left for the big cities ... New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, Miami ... and most of them are doing about the same as if they had stayed here, some worse, some better.  You couldn't get me to live in a place like New York city ... you don't go to a big city to find yourself, you go there to lose yourself ... to be absorbed because when you live in a city ... a city ... that has five times more people in it than the entire population of the state where you came from then you have to ask yourself one simple question:

"If I couldn't stand out in a place one fifth this size, how am I going to stand out in a place that is five times larger than where I came from?"

I'm 43 years old at the time of this writing and I've had a really good life ... no, scratch that.  I've had one hell of a great life.  I sit back and read about other people on Facebook and I have to smile.  Some are as old as I am and still chasing their dreams ... and truth be known they will probably still be chasing their dreams when the Reaper comes for them, all the while refusing to give up and admit that a dream was all that they were chasing.

John Cougar Mellencamp once sang about the charm or small towns and while I never liked that song when it was new the truth is that the song has grown on me over the years.

So, I live in Columbia.  It wasn't really a choice on my part, no, I married into Columbia way back in 1995.  Two years later I settled here so that my wife could be close to her family and have a job that she wanted.  I didn't mind commuting the 35 miles one way to Hattiesburg each day; I like driving.  A lot of time I turn the radio off and just listen to the hum of the engine, the song of the road and the cool breeze of the climate control system.  There are days when the road is covered in a light haze or a slowly wafting fog.  There are days when God draws up the curtain, slowly, on some of the most magnificent sun rises and slowly lowers the curtain on some of the most beautiful sunsets.  Bad weather tends to break north and south of Columbia though the clouds do get impressive more often than not.

Sometime in 1997 I started working part-time at Autozone ... in addition to my job at the DOT.  I just wanted some extra folding money for the weekend and for my sports cars and sportbikes.  I didn't have kids so ... Sometime in '99 I started looking at a MP position in the Army Reserve and was one step from being sworn in but Y2K was coming up and even though MDOT had to let me go they weren't happy about it since I was the only computer guy in the entire district.  About that time my manager at Autozone talked me into joining the Columbia PD as a reserve officer ... six months of training and all the powers and responsibilities of a regular police officer only I didn't get paid for my time.

I'm glad that I never signed on as the MP ... another guy I went to school with got that position instead and things were good ... until 9/11 when his unit got activated and he was one of the first to get shipped overseas where he stayed for a long time.  If I had chosen the MP position, that would have been my fate as well ... I may not have had children or had them when I did and I certainly wouldn't have been there for them growing up like I was.

Columbia isn't a really exciting place to live ... it's an even more boring place to die.

People have asked me what it's like to live in Columbia.

I have only one answer; Columbia is like Mayberry ... if Quintin Tarantino had directed "The Andy Griffith Show".  In fact, Columbia is one part Mayberry, one part Picket Fences, one part Twin Peaks and one part Twilight Zone.  Columbia is like a frontier town in the Old West ... it's not much to look at, it has its own special charm, it has everything that you need and it gets a bit rowdy sometimes.

For a little while in the 19th century, Columbia was the capital of Mississippi but the capital was later moved to Jackson.  There is a famous large and very beautiful house, very old, that is to this day still referred to as "The Governor's Mansion."  Our courthouse has four giant clocks on it and reminds me of the courthouse and clock in "Back to the Future."

I told you what Columbia is like ... well, it's also part "Eureka."  There have been UFO sightings in and around Columbia and even a few Bigfoot sightings.  Hell, we even have a toxic waste dump that's kind of like Love Canal where I hear that there is a huge pond that has a chemical sheen across the top of it, mutated, tumor sporting fish swimming in it and tiny silver bubbles which burble to the top of the water and burst into puffs of smoke once they reach the surface.  I've never seen any of that but I've heard it often enough to think there might be just a bit of truth in it.   Anyway, it's interesting barber shop or coffee shop talk that seems to come up more often than not.

To give you a taste of what it's like to live in Columbia, I went out for a ride the other day and found myself sitting in the local McDonald's, eating my lunch which has gotten cold since over the last fifteen minutes I've had to talk to and converse with about six different people who know me or recognize me.  Looking out at the highway I see a dust devil swirl by, wind and loose dirt from a construction project nearby.  It might as well be a tumbleweed and the effect would have been the same.

A pair of people wearing western wear and cowboy hats are riding horses at a slow clop through the Super Walmart parking lot.  A woman in a long dress, white gloves and a bonnet is riding a rusty old bicycle through the parking lot trying to sell homemade peanut brittle.  A rusted out Papa Smurf blue Geo Metro with an unlit Domino's Pizza sign on the roof buzzes by sounding like a giant constipated beetle.  

Down the road is the old Walmart which has been gutted and retrofitted to a variety of smaller stores that share space in the strip mall that also has an aging Winn Dixie and the three trio of fast food; KFC, Hardees and Taco Bell.  Next to the Taco Bell, in the same parking lot, is a long ago closed Burger King ... the sign out front reads "CB Whop er Me L" and gives a price that is six years ago. 

Down the road and across the highway from that is the old Jitney Jungle which is now a Tractor Supply store, the old K-Mart which is now a flea market and a host of other small stores including a rent to own, a check cashing place and a liquor store ... the liquor store has been there longer than any other store ... vice is always necessary, it may even be something that Maslow needs to rethink the priority of, even adding it to his hierarchy of needs.

There's other ghosts and free market corpses as well ... the abandoned and half overgrown Sonic on Lumberton.  The steak house that is now a gym.  The two old western wear stores ... the Autozone that I used to work at that's now a consignment shop and had once been a bowling alley long before it was a parts store.  The empty slab where the old A-frame house used to sit across from Autozone ... a house of drunks and poor white trash ... the house where I personally saw two trashy women leave drunk one night ... only to French kiss a tree later that night and both perish in the twisted wreckage of their car.

There's auto parts shops, tanning places, family restaurants that change names and ownership more than they change menus, antique shops, a Walgreen's, gas stations, bait and tackle shops, hunting supply stores ... a Radio Shack ... and a Ward's (fast food).  Ward's is such a tradition in Mississippi that I don't think that you're even allowed to put a city dot on the map unless it actually does have a Ward's.

I finish my cold meal and ride my Honda through my neighborhood, passing a deep creek.  Looking down into the bottom of the creek I notice it is almost dry.  There, on a sandbar in the middle of the creek, with a trickle of water running around each side, is a large gray television set ... just sitting there on the sandbar with the power cord trailing off into the water and I think "there's nothing good on TV."  Two days later a collection of storms moves through the area, heavy downpour and when I ride by the creek  a few days later the TV is gone ... swept away by the raging waters of the swollen creek.

I ride around ... relaxing ... and look for the "Yard of the Month" sign or who got "Student of the Week" this time.  I'm often surprised by what the houses look like where I find those signs in the yard.  I head downtown on my Honda, passing over exposed bricks dating back to the 19th century when roads still weren't paved with asphalt.  I pass down Beef Alley, past buildings that are older than my parents, over railroad tracks that have been almost covered up completely and past loading doors in the sides and rear of buildings big enough to hustle cattle out of train cars and into the buildings. 

I turn and ride past the police station, heading for one of my favorite spots to relax and just be alone.  I ride past Pioneer Aerospace ... the company that makes parachutes for the US government, the company that used to make parachutes for the space shuttle and I remember tales of the employees taking the chutes out to the water park and folding them there.


I ride on to the scenic bend in the river.  I park my Honda, take off my jacket, my helmet and my gloves and sit on the bank watching the water flow by and occasionally a fishing boat or even the local tourist air boat go by.

Columbia: City of Charm on the River Pearl.

I guess that's not too far from the truth and I guess Columbia's not too bad a place to live ... if you like Mayberry and Quintin Tarantino.