In 1975 I took a trip to Kentucky with a friend who wanted to visit with his relatives. Before the Dukes of Hazard, before I decided to cut my shoulder length blonde hair…bell-bottom jeans and all, I spent a week in Hazard, Kentucky.
Despite my apprehension, when we got to my friend’s aunt’s house it was all hugs and kisses. And although her house wasn’t fancy and was missing an indoor toilet, it was clean and charming. Soon after we arrived, as the grandfather clock patiently ticked off the time, Tommy and his relatives sat in the living room and began catching up. As I listened to the conversations, I noticed that they all seemed to revolve around relatives that had passed away from various horrible diseases. “You remember Uncle Billy?” “Sure…He’s a great guy! How’s he doing?” (Tick, tick, tick…) “He’s dead. Died of the consumption last year.” (Tick, tick, tick…)
Before they could kill off another relative, I excused myself and went out for a walk in the sunshine through the tobacco fields. It wasn’t long before I ran straight into an old man hunched over, hoeing between the rows of tobacco. He looked up at me like he had been expecting me, wiped his brow and gave me a nod. “Howdy!” I suddenly felt like a trespassing stranger that was about to be shot and held up my hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…” “Where you from?” he interrupted. I turned and pointed cautiously. “Well, I’m staying with…” “Nooo!” He spat on the ground and then pointed at me. “Where YOU from!” “Oh! I’m from Florida, south of…” “FLORIDA?” he said, amazed. “Yep!” I said nodding my hippy head. He threw his hoe over his shoulder, turned and began walking away. “Will you go with me?” he said without turning around. I had no idea what he meant. “What?” He turned towards me and pointed down the hill. “Will you go with me?” “OH!” I said, pausing at the thought of what might be in store for me. But then… “Yeah, sure!” and I ran to catch up.
Soon, we came upon a colorless old wooden house with a pleasant looking older lady in a freshly pressed dress on the porch. “Margret… we got company! From FLORIDA!” the old man yelled proudly, propping his hoe against the porch. “Ooohh!” she marveled. “I’ll get some lemonade.”
We sat there for a bit, them smiling at me (maybe a little too much) until finally the lady announced matter-of-factly. “So, Florida is an island!” My eyebrows popped up. “Umm… no. It’s a peninsula.” They looked at each other then back at me. “You see, it’s only surrounded on three sides by water, not four.” I said making a U in the air. They looked at each other again. The old boy scratched his chin and asked slowly. “So you can look in all three differnt’ directions and see water?” I shook my head. “No, It’s big… I mean… when you’re near water and you look out at it, you can’t see anything but the water. And when you’re not near it you can’t see it… the water… that is.” I rubbed my neck. (Why was this so difficult to explain?) The nice lady leaned forward as if to help. “So, when you look out ‘cross the water, what place do you see on the other side?” I leaned back in my chair and rocked a bit. Having lived in Florida my entire life, it never occurred to me that some people had never seen a horizon. I shrugged. “Well… all you can see is a line.” Her hand went across her mouth, and then she almost whispered. “A line of what?”
An hour later, after describing what a horizon was and why you couldn’t see Mexico from Florida, they told me that they had never been out of the valley, never watched television, and had never been to school. This beautiful valley was the only world they had ever known.
As evening came and the shadows grew long, the couple graciously thanked me for the conversation, hugged me, gave me a generous portion of cornbread and pointed me towards home. I often think about them and the stories they must tell about their encounter with the skinny young stranger with the long hair, who appeared in the tobacco field one day. But more often it reminds me that although we are all products of our environment and preconceived notions… it’s never too late to learn from each other.
My new friends in Kentucky learned a simple lesson in geography that afternoon… I learned how a simple act of kindness and acceptance can make our fear of others fade, turning strangers into friends.