Monday, May 16, 2016

Back Home to Pinetta

When people ask me where I'm from, I tell them "Pinetta, Florida."

I get a blank look.

"Near Madison."

Another blank look.

"Just south of the Georgia line near Valdosta."

Blank look. So I give up.

If I can't link myself to a word that conjures up a geographical location, I am from Nowhere. Which I'm okay with, because Greek for "nowhere" is "utopia."

(What kind of word is "pinetta" anyway? Was there once a Hank Pinetta? Or is it local slang for a small pine?)

This past weekend, I got on the road to Nowhere for the Pinetta Reunion so I could join my fellow Nobodies, many of whom I haven't seen in 59 years.

As I approach Pinetta, the traffic disappears -- no one in front of me, no one behind. Moments earlier, an old pickup passed me going towards Madison, the driver lifting his index finger from the steering wheel to say hello.

Yep, I'm back home.

I remember my home as the land of mammoth oaks and towering, whispering pines, blackberry briar-patches, crodelary, beggar weeds, and buzzard grass; the home of greedy, fragrant, climbing wisteria vines, choking the life out the tree of its choosing; fox squirrels stealing pecans* before they (the pecans) could fall to the ground; it was the land of rough, dusty, washboard, washed-out dirt roads, John Deere and Farmall and Ford tractors plowing or planting or cultivating the perfect rows of corn, tobacco and cotton, and green fields of rye and soy.

There was, and is, sort of, a downtown Pinetta. Heading north on State Road 145, there's a Baptist church on your left, a Methodist on your right, staring each other down for many decades, immersion on the left, sprinkling on the right.

But the center of it all is the school, once Pinetta High, then pared down to Pinetta Jr. High, and now Pinetta Elementary.

It is Pinetta's home base or anchor, its heart and soul, the institution (though we never thought of it as such) by which we identified ourselves. And we showed our pride in Pinetta at basketball games, the Blue and Gold, the Pinetta Indians. It gave us a place to blend our voices into one, as we shouted cheers and fight songs while we demolished the hopes and dreams of the Lee Rockets, Greenville Pirates and the Day Trojans.

Before going to the site of the reunion, I take a slow drive by the school, but it has been demolished, replaced by a more modern building that houses an elementary school.

So now the school has become a ghost with all our ghosts mingling forever in its echoing halls, the legendary Mrs. Morse at the door of her classroom keeping an unblinking eye on us all, Mrs. Shadrick putting the finishing touches on another science or Home Ec. class, the endless din of forever teenagers, grades 7 through 12, with their jokes and insults and mating calls.

I drive a little ways down the road till I see the Pinetta Community Center and pull in under the shade of an overgrown azalea shrub, ease out of my car and breathe in the still clean Pinetta air and then walk into the Center where the ghosts of Pinetta have taken on flesh and they mimic their noisy teen-aged days with their jubilant, joyful noise of laughter and chatter.

It is an overwhelming experience from start to finish. There are dozens of friends, cousins and heroes scattered throughout the hall. I don't know that, of course (except for my still young and witty cousin Dale Gibson and the towering Joe Adams), until either they introduce themselves or I squint at their name tags.

Then it becomes like a bountiful Christmas morning: Presents are everywhere -- which do I open first?

Judi, Lili, me, Faye

 I'm soon joined by my friends from the Class of '66 (that date refers to our last year at Pinetta, not our senior year at the not-Pinetta school we graduated from), Lili(an) Falk, Faye Hollingsworth and Judi Gibson (also my first cousin, she was featured in an earlier Starknotes post, but still doesn't know it).

Mrs. Evelyn Poindexter and me

I was reunited with Mrs. Poindexter, who taught me all the academic stuff I needed to know when I was a second grader, but much more importantly, how to teach (and live) with kindness and good cheer. She also taught me what it was like to have a stunningly beautiful teacher, and now, 58 years later, she is still stunningly beautiful.

I got to talk to my first cousin Joyce Elaine Higley, and she seems to have finally forgiven me for allowing her canary to fly out our grandmother's front door, never to be seen again.

I finally met my first basketball hero, Jack Strickland, a spark-plug sharp-shooter who played on the same team as Joe Adams before Joe grew to 6'8. (Jack never quite made it to 6'8. Like me, he would've settled for 5'8.) When I first wrote about him in "Pinetta's Golden Heroes," I didn't even know he was still in the world. In large part, I owe him my lifelong love of basketball.

I talked with Jeannette Coody whom I remembered as the tall, attractive lady in the back row of Pinetta First Baptist's choir, standing next to my dad, and generously and subtly fanning him with her insurance-company-sponsored paddle fan with a picture of Jesus on the front, probably to help him (my dad, not Jesus) cool down.
My man Jack Strickland and me.

I was reunited with my early teen girl friend and skating partner Linda Gail Johns (fictionalized as "Melinda Mae" in "Young Love Lives on . . . Somewhere") and while we chatted and reminisced with Becky Buchanan, I was reminded that the Community Center we were in was a renovation on top of our beloved skating rink. It's still the same floor! The very floor Linda Gail and I never fell on because we were leaning on the rails, talking and laughing our time away!

I believe that everyone at the reunion was a gift to the rest of us. 

(I wondered if life itself was supposed to be like that, that if we looked at everyone's name tag carefully enough, we would recognize them as someone we loved.)

When I was talking with Nels Falk, one of the reunion's organizers, he said, "Pinetta was our whole world," and I agree. It was a very snug world, small, familiar and safe. It was nowhere near the other world, hadn't even earned a place on most maps, hidden away like some still undiscovered tribe deep in the rain forest (or, okay, corn field).

The eloquent but windbaggish southern writer Thomas Wolfe famously claimed "You can't go home again," but you can. I went back home Saturday. I was surrounded by all my brothers and sisters, and it had been so many decades, I forgot how much I loved and missed them.

This tiny community birthed and raised us all. It provided a web that connected pretty much all of us, and a light that made us all feel like we mattered.

After Pinetta, I can't say that I really experienced community again. I've lived and worked at places that called themselves a community or even a family, but they weren't. I was usually an outsider at those places, always feeling an absence, a gap, maybe because I felt they were missing a sense of genuineness or authenticity.

Well. All things must pass, as the quiet Beatle said, and the reunion slowly broke up, and you could practically hear our old bones creaking as we lifted ourselves from the chairs, said our goodbyes, and prepared to return to what's left of our lives.

It was a melancholy time. As usual I fell for the old trick of wanting a gift to stay forever instead of being happy that it existed at all. "It's better to have loved and lost," and all of that.

So long, little Kingdom of Nowhere, home of the Blue and Gold, home of the mighty Pinetta Indians, and home of me.

See you next year, same time, same place.

*Pronounced "PEE-cans." To say "puh-CAHNS" means you're from somewhere else.