By James Calemine
I was lucky to know Paul Hemphill. We shared the same birthday. I counted as one of the last writers to interview Hemphill before he passed away on July 11, 2009. I used those interviews for an article I wrote for Swampland that eventually also appeared in my book Insured Beyond The Grave. Today, I wanted to write about an insightful story Hemphill penned about the state of Georgia in his inimitable book Too Old To Cry as the August heat smothers everything here on St. Simons Island, GA.
Hemphill earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his 1993 book, Leaving Birmingham, experienced Hollywood adapt his work (Long Gone) to film and over 40 years wrote 15 books with a rare degree of experience about truck drivers, baseball, football, basketball, roller derby queens, stock car drivers, politics, journalists, musicians and bootleggers. Some of his books include The Nashville Sound, Wheels, Nobody’s Hero, The Sixkiller Chronicles, Long Gone, Hank Williams: Lovesick Blues, Lost in the Lights, King of the Road, The Ballad of Little River and Leaving Birmingham.
Hemphill told me about the era when he moved to my hometown of St. Simons Island, GA in 1972: “In the 1970s I wrote for a lot of magazines. I did two or three pieces for Life, one for Reader’s Digest, several for SPORT magazine. I had a deal for a column a month. So many major pieces a year. Dick Schapp became my editor there. He was excellent. Then I just up and moved to St. Simons Island. My marriage began to die in a small place like that.”
In 1981, Hemphill published his strongest collection of articles–Too Old To Cry. The story “Georgia, Georgia” provides clear, impartial insight to the Peach state, and it’s vast history. Too Old To Cry contains stories about minor league baseball, Roger Maris, the late Karl Wallenda, dirt racing in places like Waycross, Woodstock, Valdosta, Savannah and Jacksonville; NBA stories, Auburn football, fishing, writing, Merle Haggard, newspaper heroes, hitchhiking, Vietnam, whiskey, moonshiners, fatherhood and other memorable stories.
Hemphill wrote with a sustaining perspective in Too Old To Cry that may echo many a great man: “Most of my best writing is ultimately sad. It is about lost dreams and excess baggage and divorce, whiskey, suicide, killing, and general unhappiness: a boy who died in my arms, in a bomb crater, while I wrote in Vietnam: an old lady who simply died of loneliness; a young couple with a child, stranded in a bus station; a pathetic kid from Tennessee who messed up a bank robbery in San Francisco.”
In “Georgia, Georgia”, Hemphill reminds the reader the state was one of the 13 original colonies, and had to compete against states like Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. He wrote: “Even with the arrival of the 60s, Georgia still had a bad name. This was the land of racism and demagoguery and high school football and Gone with the Wind and depressing blacktop highways lined with eroding red banks of dirt and billboards proclaiming STUCKEY’S roadside joints and GEORGIA PECANS and REAL ALLIGATORS–LIVE. To the tourists Georgia was the last place you had to endure before you made it to Florida…”
“The natives, of course, felt differently. The natives of Georgia knew a different place. They knew about the mysterious, foggy, mile-high mountains in the north. They knew about the sleepy coastal islands between Jacksonville and Savannah. They also knew what was happening in Atlanta, where one third of the state’s population suddenly lived, and they knew of the abrupt changes taking place in what sociologists were calling “social relations”.
“(Georgia) It spawned fascists and populists and demagogues and bomb throwers and libertarians and libertines and sports heroes and authors and hillbilly singers and sopranos. If Georgia has been anything, it has been pluralistic.”
Hemphill elaborated on the cultural landscape in those days: “I was in Atlanta at the time Martin Luther King was killed, when that was the only important city in America that did not suffer through race riots, and I knew the singer Otis Redding and the redneck Lester Maddox and the ballplayer Henry Aaron and the young governor Jimmy Carter.”
And he drilled in on how St. Simons Island served as a power spot in the state: “I worry most of all about St. Simons Island. It seemed a perfect place for a free-lance writer and his three children: four thousand residents; within bicycling range of anything important; one minute from the airport; three hundred miles from Atlanta; an hour’s drive from Jacksonville and Savannah and the Okefenokee Swamp…
“The people on the island were, for the most part, natives who worked at the Georgia Burger House or changed mufflers or tended bar or ran fishing boats. The social center was the Binnacle Lounge.
“Now, I am reading, St. Simons Island is the likely Summer White House of the Carter Administration. As a kid, Carter, who grew up two hundred miles to the west, probably spent some time on St. Simons. He probably likes the place, as I and thousands of other Georgians have liked it over the years. But now it, like the entire state of Georgia, has been thrust into a whole new orbit. Now St. Simons Island, Georgia, is important. It is, therefore, not worth visiting anymore.”
Hemphill understood how carpetbaggers stole from the southern culture, and yet still treated southerners with a condescending sneer. Looking back, Hemphill only wanted to discourage tourists. But, they still come in droves. And he knew what was coming back then. It’s hard to believe ‘ol Hemp’s been gone for a decade. Hemphill told me back then, “I can’t believe I’m here to watch the death of the newspaper.”
We could use his insight in eerie times like these…
Photo #1 credit The New York Times
Photo #2 credit James Calemine