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The Final Day of the Challenge: Z is for Zip City

May 1, 2015

For you Drive-By Truckers fans out there, yes, there is a real Zip City.  Though born and reared in the same county, I didn’t actually live there myself, but my father was born in Zip City and my grandparents lived there all their lives.  Located just south of the Alabama-Tennessee line, the community had the distinction all the time Lauderdale was a dry county as a pass-through on the way to the bars and beer joints just over the Tennessee line.  My grandparents moved from the home where my father grew up when I was young, but I can still remember being given baths outside in the washtub, since they didn’t have indoor plumbing.  We thought the “new house”–a basic ranch-style brick house sitting right on Chisholm Road was a mansion.

I can still smell the house, a pleasant mixture of home cooking and Pawpaw’s Aqua Velva.  The formal living room, where the grownups rarely ventured had a Victorian sofa and pictures of Pinky and Blue Boy over it.  The den had pine paneling popular  in the fifties and sixties. The sliding glass doors on the tub were etched with silhouettes of swans, and the walls were pink tile.

In the summer, though, we rarely spent time inside. My grandparents farmed.  They had other acreage nearby, but we spent time in the huge garden out back where they grew strawberries, cantaloupes, and watermelons, potatoes, beans, peas, okra, and corn–and plenty more.  My sisters and I were city girls in comparison to the Zip City neighbor girls our ages, so we felt we were on an adventure when we visited my grandparents.  We’d help pick fruits and vegetables, catch tiny rain frogs in jars, chase baby pigs.

A ride to Haygood’s General Merchandise was a great treat. It was the perfect old-fashioned country store.  My dad tells me that in the Depression, when people often lacked money for groceries, they’d barter. His mother would tears a strip of fabric and use it to pinion the chicken’s wings. He’d hold the bird as his daddy drove to the store.  One of his cousins had a chicken he’d use for trade. After the merchant tossed it in back (with the others), it would find its way home to be bartered again.

My grandparents always had metal folding chairs in the carport, where they’d sit and watch the traffic go by. She’d shell beans and peas; he’d listen to tapes of sermons on his old cassette player. Nowadays I take so many photographs that I can’t believe I don’t have a single one of them sitting there in their front yard, the old black sedan in the carport with mimosa sprouts growing out of its bumper.  I guess the sight was so commonplace I never thought to capture it.  I’m sorry now.

My grandmother worked until retirement in the cafeteria at Wilson School, a  place she loved.  My cousins went there, but I never did (although for a few years I joined the school troop there, along with three other friends from my school). My granddaddy continued to farm, but managed to get a job during hard times as a crane operator at Reynolds Aluminum, where he worked for 35 years. He gave me his retirement tie clip with its tiny diamond chip.

They were both faithful members of the Salem Church of Christ (the same one DBT mention in their song), where my grandfather served as an elder and taught the “young men’s training class.”  He had only a third grade education (though I am told he stayed two more years and taught third grade curriculum to the younger students), but he taught countless young men to deliver a talk and to lead singing. Then he hauled them to churches all over North Alabama, Mississippi, and probably Tennessee, so they could lead church services.

When I began teaching, I had a particularly cantankerous red-headed student who lived in Zip City.  He gave me nothing but grief in class, but after my grandfather’s eyesight grew so weak even he knew he shouldn’t be driving, Shannon would pick up him and Mama Coats for church.  I walked into my grandfather’s hospital room–his first time there and he was in his eighties–and there sat Shannon, holding the sweet old man’s hand.

There must be something special in the dirt there. The rain was never dependable–not enough when they needed it, too much when they didn’t–but the folks there were made of tougher stuff than many of us today.  I hope a little of that runs through my veins.  Maybe I don’t even need the photographs.

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