If you drove by Cass Grocery in the 26 years that my Dad owned it, you know what it looked like on the front. Three gas pumps with areas on both sides to park your car, the ice machine, a Coke machine and the benches on either side of the front door. The benches have been there since anyone can remember. Long before my Dad took over, before my great uncle R.B. owned it, before the Bible was translated out of Hebrew…you get the idea.
Every generation can recall a large group of local men who sat on those benches every morning, drinking coffee, smoking and telling stories or discussing world events. By world events, I mean how many cops got called out to Cedar Creek Road last night or how much copper was stolen at a construction site in Kingston.
As an innocent young bystander, I was not truly included in the group. Although I was welcome to stand and listen, I did not meet the qualifications set forth by the patriarchal society that ruled the roost that was the benches of Cass Grocery.
1) Age and Gender
You must be over 40. That's old enough to have worked a long time, had children that are "growed" and you’ve probably gone through a divorce or two.
No women. No exceptions.
2) The Look
a) wear a John Deere hat; or
b) wear flannel regardless of temperature; or
c) smoke cigarettes; and
d) never wear shorts.
This is very important. The John Deere hat is a badge of honor, to say the least. I'm talking the about the ones that sit tall on your head, not these low riders they make now. (You can see plenty of them on college campuses, worn by suburban kids whose fathers own a John Deere lawnmower.) This hat validates any statement you make on the benches, especially if you are referring to anything regarding construction, farming, car repair or tools. Don't ask these men where they bought their hat, however. This will give you away. John Deere gives away free hats with large purchases, so they'll laugh at you and say, "This dang hat cost me $58,000." Any man worth his salt knows this. You are then branded as "soft" and "don't work for a livin." Or even worse, "I'll bet he puts cream in his coffee."
Flannel is also a sign that you know a little something. Flannel indicates you probably are into construction, farming or car repair, can likely work with your hands, and may have killed a deer or two. These are big ticket items on the benches. You cannot work in an office, wear a tie all day, and watch Entourage or anything like that. You will be ousted before you can say "Dale Earnhardt, Seven Time Winston Cup Champion."
** A deer kill MAY get you included, but it depends on where, how, when and the circumstances. For example, if the pull on your compound bow is less than 80 pounds, then you are disqualified. You are a sissy.
Cigarettes. Almost as validating as the John Deere hat. Nothing puts an exclamation point behind a statement about installing sprinkler pipe in Pine Log quite like a huge drag off a Marlboro Red. You MUST be able to hold it in your mouth without squinting from the smoke. You MUST also have smoked long enough to "try and quit" (not try to quit) but fail miserably (usually due to the aforementioned "growed" kids or divorce). You can get away with 100's or Lights, but it better be a serious brand. No generic crap. The use of smokeless tobacco is also acceptable, if not welcomed.
Shorts. A sure sign that you are a sissy. If you do any kind of hard work, then shorts cannot be worn. There are no exceptions. You better be in jeans, coveralls, overalls, Dickie's work pants or Carhartts.
Personally, I had no John Deere hat and only wore flannel if it was below 40 degrees. I could not smoke because my Dad would have sacrificed me like an Aztec virgin, plus it's hard to run up and down a basketball court hacking up a lung. And I wore shorts all year long with high top Michael Jordan basketball shoes. Cue "The Price is Right" loser music.
3) The Talk
Numerous topics were touched upon out there, from construction and car repair, to politics, the weather, the Braves and women. Now, anybody from anywhere can talk about these topics. What differentiates the men on the benches from everyone else is HOW they talked about it. You must use colloquialisms, hyperbole and swearing.
"If that dang Obama keeps raisin' taxes, I'm gonna be paddlin' to Cuba!"
Everyone nods in agreement. Further discussion ensues. If you had said, "I'm very disappointed in the tax increase this admininstration is proposing, I fear that I may enter a new tax bracket. I need to call my accountant," you would have gotten the bewildered look from everyone. Then they would all look at each other and grunt, sending the message to the others (almost like whales and raptors) that you are not to be included.
4) The Ride
Another extremely important factor in your inclusion is your vehicle. A truck, American made, 4 wheel drive, covered in red clay with various tools in the bed is the ride of choice. If you have a diesel, you are automatically elevated to a higher status. A 2007 F-250 with mud all over the tires, with a coondog cage and three Skilsaws in the bed? You're money. There are certain variations that are acceptable, like if you are driving a car instead of a truck, you need a weedeater to be in the backseat. If your truck is clean, you need to claim that it rained on your way back from south Georgia (I say this because they know the weather within a 50 mile radius, so use south Georgia as your reference point, it throws the dogs off the scent. See? You gotta use your head). If the vehicle is foreign, say it is your brother's, and you had to fix it because he "don't know nothin' about fuel injection."
What It Meant
I watched this subculture for years and picked up on their habits. I listened to stories about bar fights, deer hunting, fishing, work, women, drinking, and stories about people from Cassville who had died years before. Just as with Elvis, these dearly departed citizens were held to a God-like status by those who remained.
"Hell, they weren't nobody tougher than ol' Jack. By God, that man could lay brick in 100 degrees and drink a fifth of whiskey the whole dang time.”
I could not question the truth of such statements (see earlier disqualifications), so I learned to accept them as part of life up there. I actually enjoyed the extremity of it all. In my mind, the toughest, meanest, hardest working people in the world all existed in Bartow County, Georgia. They never took a day off, never lost a fight and never said no to a drink. As I got older, I knew it was not ALL true, but it honestly gave me a ton of pride to call these guys my friends. They had their way of life, like it or not, and they did not ask the world if it was OK. When I passed the Bar, they couldn't have been prouder. When I would come up to the store afterwards, they would all say laughing, "Oh, here he is! Hide your wallets, boys!" They all hated lawyers (a topic of discussion over the years), but I guess they made an exception with me. As I've said before, people in Cassville actually are happy for you when you do well.
So, if you are ever in Cassville, or any small town, and you see a group of men sitting in front of a store, stop by. Stand and listen. Observe them in all their glory. And if you get a chance, put a flannel shirt on and say, "By God, it's hotter than two rabbits fighting in a wool sock out here. I was Bush Hoggin' my field and ran out of cigarettes, must've left my other pack at the VFW bar last night."