Southern Choctaw High School hired me as Artist-in-Residence for three weeks. Choctaw County is a really far out, very rural community with a relatively high poverty rate. But, as is the norm in Alabama, the people are sweeter than honey. I couldn't ask for a more comfortable, accomodating, graceful, and grateful place to work. I had a wonderful time in Choctaw County and I pray to the good lord above they invite me back some day. I'll show the excellent murals we created in my next post but right here and now I'd like to introduce Mr. Jake Utsey.
Jake looks like the kind of southern guy who will gladly rip your head off and...well...Jake IS the kind of southern guy who will gladly rip your head off, but only with good reason. Jake is a whole lot more than meets the eye, however. Although he describes himself as a "typical white southern redneck" Jake ain't some cookie cutter stereotype. He's more like a Redneck Renaissance Man; a wellspring of Dixie knowledge. Hanging out with this dude is the best schoolin' an AfroYank like myself can get when it comes to learning a few things about Red state life and culture.
Coming from very different, almost oppositional backgrounds, Jake and I hit it off damn well regardless. I think this is because I sort of fancy myself an intellectual and Jake is indeed an Intellectual. We also share a bit of the, dare I say, 'bunker mentality' when it comes to the world outside and its awful proclivities. This educator, horticulturalist, weapons expert, political operative, local folklorist, and hardcore collector of everything from indian pottery to African-American military history has a library of books I'd be happy to spend a large portion of my life perusing.
With his wife, Pia, Jake owns and operates Water Valley Lodge, a top tier hunting establishment in the south. Deer, wild boars, quail, wild turkey, and other forest dwellers meet their fate under the guns of Water Valley Lodge. But an arrangement was made between the school and the Lodge wherein I had the good fortune to be housed there during my stay in Choctaw County. They put me up in Camp House, a little 4 room cabin on the edge of woods. Camp House was well-kept, clean and quiet. Off season, there were no guests other than I and a good bunch of mosquitos.
Just about every evening after work, Jake, who also farms hay and assorted other grains, comes in from the fields , dusty with an aching back but still full of energy. The man loves his work. Work is a cornerstone of his life and his philosophy. But it's after work when an even greater part takes over.
There's no vegging out in front of the TV or constant video games . No sir. It's all about family life and its adventures, building character, creating memories. Jake and Pia have two young kids, Gaddy and John Jacob. I think they're the luckiest little kids in the world. I tend to think all rural children - black,white,rich, or poor - are lucky, but the Utsey's gave me my first up-close and personal view of all there is to envy about being raised in the country, or closer to the earth, so to speak.
I got to tag along on some of Jake and John Jacob's outings. The properties they own or lease for farming and hunting are vast. There's a different territory to explore for every day of the week. I'd be kicking back in the lounge after toiling away at the school, exhausted in my own way, but anticipating that knock on the door and the charged, "Let's Go!"
We might 4-wheel it through a hidden creek or over freshly cut fields on a new road they've recently laid. Jake will break down for me the process of growing, cutting, and sustaining crops, the science of soil, and the effects of subtle changes in the terrain. I saw machines I could never imagine. I had no idea of the technology and invention, not to mention hard labor, that goes into getting bread to the table and I think I speak for most city dwellers in this regard.
In the distance stands dozens of posts planted that very day, the foundation of a giant shed to house hay bales and equipment.
We live in what's called The Black Belt. It stretches across the lower portion of Alabama and parts of neighboring states. The Black Belt is named not for the majority Black people but for the black soil, a soil considered rich and able to grow just about anything. But Jake pointed out the abundant white and red soil along side the black soil and the different functions and usages of each (such an irony considering the historical human demographics of the region). He described the glacier flows that caused this tumultuous blend and the fact that millions of years ago all or most of Alabama was part of a vast ancient sea, revealing evidence of its oceanic past every day.
Jake and John Jacob spend many evenings hunting fossils - giant oyster shells, whale bones, and shark's teeth - long extinct species now lying hundreds of miles from the nearest sea. It's hard to distinguish one thing from another in the natural debris of swamp and woodland but that John Jacob is an expert little paleantologist. He can literally spot a needle in a haystack. While I did nothing but grab at useless bark and dried leaves, John Jacob found several impressive shells and a few of the elusive but prized shark's teeth.
The Utsey's store many of their fossil finds on shelves in the Orientation Room. The hunters gather here for rules and regulations before going out. Along the wall below the mounted deer heads are snapshots of many hunters with their kills.
One evening, we actually spotted a female whitetail darting back into the bush. She was absolutely stunning but I can understand wanting to shoot a deer to eat. I had my first wild venison in Ireland and it was delicious, I'm sorry.
Jake says he's butchered probably over 3,000 creatures but his own hunting days are over. John Jacob is the hunter in the family now and at 6 years old, this kid already knows tons about weaponry. He can name calibur, year, make, and style. He's a good shot too. Your average urban liberal would be horrified but I think it's great. This is a real live American country boy here. Kids like this destroyed the Nazis darnit!
Jake has a vault full of unbelievable things. He's collected stuff over the years both in his travels and through internet trading. I can't begin to run down the extensive catalogue but most of it is World Wars 1 and 2 related - photos, rare books, guns, knives, uniforms, and helmets with bullet holes through them, which Jake himself scooped up from the steppes of Russia amongst the dried bones of German soldiers still lying there after all these years.
I'm a bit of a WW2 buff myself. Been into that conflagration since I was a kid, burying myself in Time/Life's History of World War Two, a giant photo book my parents owned. I've read a lot of the major literature on the subject as well and, of course, I can give a passable run down of WW2 movies. But this here Jake has humbled me. I realize how much I DON'T know. It's just a blast discussing that history and others.
We gab into the night, covering all points, linking everything in time, coming nearly to blows now and then, two fiery hard-heads name-calling over dusty old unchangeable events.
At the end of my stay, the good man, Jake Utsey, generously gifted me with a novel about Black soldiers in WW1, an Iwo Jima documentary, a "Whites Only" sign from Jim Crow, and THIS!...
...This, my Most Precious Southern Possession.
Thank you Jake Utsey. Thank you for making me the coolest Negro in America.
Now I just had to include this cute video of Jake, Pia, and John Jacob trying to subdue Tip, a very powerful dog. They needed to spray him with a flea repellant and the mutt just wasn't havin' it.
Tierney Malone has almost nearly completed that mural in York. He's been going back and forth to Houston since the fall. The Coleman Center hosted a hotdog and soda reception for it.
John from Mobile is the guy in the hat on the right. He's Tierney's uncle. John has a slew of vintage cars and he's a car genious. We talked shop for quite awhile and he turned me on to facts and figures about the Queen Esther.
The colorful fellow on the left is holding a naked dog.
Timber is a huge industry in Sumter and Choctaw counties. They just rip them trees down. It's awesome to behold. Kinda like Jurassic Park.