I admit it: I’m a carpetbagger. For the unenlightened, according to Merriam-Webster, a carpetbagger is “a person from the northern United States who went to the South after the American Civil War seeking private gain under the reconstruction governments.” Colloquially, a carpetbagger is any Yankee who moves to the South…and stays.
As far as the former definition goes, I am indeed “a person from the northern United States who went to the South after the American Civil War.” It was after the Civil War…104 years after. I didn’t have much of a choice: I was 11 years old when my family moved to Georgia after my father retired from the Air Force. As to the last part of the formal definition, well, I’m still waiting on “private gain under the reconstruction governments.” Maybe if I’d tried sooner than 104 years. For the latter definition…well, that’s me.
My mother was a daughter of the South, born and raised on a small tobacco farm in eastern North Carolina. Her family’s roots ran deep in that rich, dark soil… her clan can be traced to North Carolina to well before the Civil War. Indeed, one of my great-great-grandfathers fought for the South, was gravely wounded, and spent the rest of his life with a mini-ball (the term for the large-bore bullets used in Civil War-era rifles) lodged in his leg. Since half my blood comes from the South, maybe I’m a “semi-carpetbagger.” Or maybe I’m rationalizing.
Whatever. The point is, after living the first decade-plus of my life up North, I had some adjusting to do. Up there, most children answered adults with “yeah” or “no.” My mother forewarned my siblings and me that that would not be tolerated down South, and that we needed to learn “yes, ma’am,” “no, ma’am,” “yes, sir,” “no, sir,” “please,” and “thank you,” and make them automatic responses. Being raised in a military family helped there: we were used to responding to adults with “ma’am” and “sir.” (Also standing at attention with our hands over our hearts during the playing of the National Anthem during ballgames…but that’s a tale for another time, although I will say that even today, I do that. Lest you think I’m a flag-waving, jingoistic zealot, let me say here that if someone wants to sit, kneel, pick his nose, whatever, during the National Anthem—hell, even if someone wants to burn the flag—that’s all free speech, and I support his right to it. Free speech is free speech, no matter who disgusting others may find it. I stand at attention with my hand over my heart and my eyes on the flag during the anthem, because that’s how I was raised…my free speech, and I’m stickin’ to it.)
Boy, have I digressed. Sorry. One of the biggest adjustments for a carpetbagger was adopting the language of the South. Saying “Ah” instead of “I,” dropping the “g” in present participles (learnin’, reachin’, drinkin’—pronounced “drankin’” in many Southern places), adding extra syllables, and so on. It took years (“YEE-uhs”), but I finally got it. I even find myself saying “up and died” (“upped and died” in formal settings) instead of simply “died.” And “fixin’ to” instead of “about to” or “going to” do something.
You know what’s aggravatin’? Actors who attempt a “Southern accent” after a few lessons from a language or dialect coach. For example, as good as it was, Forrest Gump was distractin’ because Tom Hanks and Sally Fields (both outstanding actors) were tryin’ to talk with Hollywood “Southern accents.”
Another area of carpetbaggery that took time was learning to eat Southern cooking. Grits especially posed a challenge. Sadly, up North I was used to the abomination known as “Cream of Wheat,” which required mounds of sugar and milk to make it palatable. I admit it here: once we moved here, for a while, I put sugar on my grits. It took some time, but I gradually came to love them the way they’re supposed to be loved: with butter, salt, and pepper. Add some cheese, and oh, my goodness. Throw in some boiled shrimp… heaven.
Vegetables cooked to death took a while, too. Up North, we ate crunchy green beans. I know! Now, thankfully, I can’t eat them until they’ve been cooked to within an inch of their lives. Squash, collard greens, black-eyed peas… I hadn’t even heard of them until we moved down here. Now, I can’t get enough of them…provided they’ve been slow-cooked for hours and hours. Throw a ham hock in them greens and peas while you’re at it.
Speaking of the marvelous beast that is the pig: ah, Southern barbecue (Insert Homer Simpson voice: “Mmm… barbecue”): something unheard-of in parts North. Everyone is partial to a regional variety, it seems: vinegar-based sauce in North Carolina (my favorite; see why, above), mustard-based in South Carolina, ketchup-based in Georgia, molasses-and-dry-spices in Memphis. Doesn’t matter: it’s all So. Damn. Good. Hail Thee, O Porcine God, your sacrifice is not in vain.
One last thing about being a carpetbagger… my last name. In a region awash in Anglo-Saxon surnames, having a Germanic one is downright…foreign. Folks in the South are used to your Smiths, your Lamberts, your Culpeppers, your Moodys. But “Eisel?” What the hell!? People down here almost invariably try to pronounce it “EE-sel” (like “easel”). I’ve gotten “Ee-ZELL,” “Ed-suhl,” and most memorably, “Eye-sore” (honest). For the record, it’s “EYE-suhl.” We had a president in the 1950’s whose surname was Eisenhower, and I don’t recall anyone saying “EE-zen-hower.” Unfortunately, that was so long ago that apparently few remember. I’ve simply resigned myself to the fact that I’ve got a weird last name in a land of unweird ones, so I just gently and politely explain how it’s pronounced. Or just let it go.
Despite living in Georgia for almost half a century, despite adopting and falling in love with and never wanting to leave this wonderful region, despite falling in love with and marrying an intelligent, talented, beautiful Southern woman, despite cherishing the best of its customs, foods, words, and people, I’ll never be considered “truly Southern.” I understand and accept that, and it’s all right. There’s an old Southern joke: how do you tell the difference between a Yankee and a damn Yankee? A Yankee is someone from up North who comes down South. A damn Yankee is someone who comes down South…and stays. So call me a damn Yankee. Call me a carpetbagger. Just don’t forget to call me when the pig’s on the spit.