Weekend brings a taste of America at its best

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Having lived in such diverse places as Los Angeles, Akron, Ohio, and West Palm Beach, Fla., the little town of Vardaman, Miss. would seem to be at the very bottom of your choice of vacation spots. With only a few over 900 people, Vardaman is the sweet potato capital on the topside of the planet.

I had a chance to spend the Fourth of July weekend there with Marion Besse, my first wife's mother, and I can safely say I had a great time. Here, let me explain: my main purpose this trip was to visit my son, whom I had not seen in more than 10 years. He moved back to Vardaman after having spent most of his life in places like San Diego, Las Vegas and Washington state. A rather dramatic change, I assure you.

I knew virtually no one there except Marion, but in a couple of days, I had the opportunity to meet a few of the most friendly people on the planet. There was Walter and Emma Nell Jordan, who dropped by with a carload of food for the barbecue that was scheduled for the weekend. My son cooked up several cases of ribs and more than a few chickens. Walter is restoring a vintage Farmall tractor on his farm. Their son Terry teaches handicapped children. Emma Nell's sister was present, as was Steve Harmon, a neighbor who works at Wal-Mart in Houston, Miss.

As with most holiday festivals, there was enough food to feed a small platoon, topped off with watermelon, banana pudding, cheesecakes, and enough calories to last a month.

My son, who also shares the same name as I, has been clearing the property of jungle-like growth and found some twisted sticks I like to use to make walking furniture, so we worked off the excess calories from the barbecue by cutting sticks in the woods. Walter came over and joined us and we found a nice one for him.

All weekend long, people dropped by to visit, as is their way up there, bringing vegetables from their gardens, swapping stories, and lending a hand with whatever needs doing. In short, being good neighbors, something in short supply in most places these days.

The local cemetery, just a short way up the road, is the final resting places of generations of these folks, who all seem to be related to each other in some way or another. People in this area for the most part have spent their whole lives within a few miles of where they were born, a concept not entirely unknown in rural America, but not a bad idea, either. Of course, they don't have the dubious excitement of high crime or drugs, that plague larger cities, but neither do they have to lock down everything and install alarms on their cars.

Upon leaving these friendly folks, who made me feel like a part of their family, if only for a weekend, I brought my son back here to stay with me. We are getting to know one another after nearly 40 years apart, The strange thing is that while his road led him in a far different direction than mine, we each had very similar experiences along the way.

My first wife - my son's mother - was struck down too young g in life with a terminal brain cancer. I have a daughter who lives in Spokane, Wash. Perhaps she will one day return to the slow, friendly life in Vardaman. I think Maxine would like that.

After experiencing the fast life of the big cities, you'll find the real America in small tons all over the country that value and friendship, and mostly live healthier lives because of it.