Yankee Phobia

In which the columnist ponders his true heritage

Most of the guys who wander around mumbling are harmless. You stay out of their way and they'll stay out of yours. I've been eating outdoors downtown for most of the last 20 years, and there's only one time that one of the guys has ever given me a start. It wasn't that he shouted at me, but what he shouted.

It was maybe four years ago. I sitting alone at a table just inside the window of one of the several restaurants that aren't on Market Square anymore, eating a bowl of spicy Chinese cucumber soup. This guy with a prophet's beard lurched in and asked for a dollar. I just said, sorry. That's usually plenty. It wasn't this time. He didn't touch me, but looked at me with pure hatred. "You damn Yankee," he said.

I was flummoxed. Yankee? Where'd he get that? I looked around. Was he taking exception to the fact that I was reading the New York Times? He didn't seem the sort who would have recognized the Gray Lady's font. Even if the Times was his problem, if he'd given me a chance I would have discussed the matter with him. The guy who created the Times as we know it was no Yankee, but a Southerner who, in fact, had begun his long career in journalism here on Market Square, a few steps away from where this gentleman was hollering.

But this prophet's pronouncement sent me into a perplexing reverie. Have I, somewhere along the way, become a Yankee? It's not an easy diagnosis to make. The fact is, I'm a lifelong Southerner from an old if not very aristocratic Southern family. In our family tree is one stray Yankee, a mariner who lived in New Hampshire circa 1810, but his daughter moved South, and stayed. My last ancestors who came from anywhere else besides the South were some Scottish people who landed in Southern Kentucky, in the 1840s, I think.

My credentials as a Southerner seem unassailable. Every one of my ancestors who was alive anywhere in the world in 1861 was, as far as I know, a Confederate sympathizer. Several were Confederate soldiers.

Still, people do ask me, "why don't you have a Southern accent?" Then again, the people who ask me that are nearly always people from up North who haven't been in Knoxville very long.

Most tests of Southernism don't apply to me. I'm afraid I wouldn't recognize cornpone if I found my desk drawer stuffed with it. I have, however, tasted Krispy Kreme donuts. I hate them. I didn't even like them when I was a sticky little boy and they served them with pineapple juice in Sunday school 40 years ago. Wouldn't any true Southerner be true to Krispy Kreme?

Further evidence: I don't like my iced tea pre-sweetened. I don't have any practical use for Lite beer. I don't understand NASCAR.

I do like pastrami, which some people think of as an especially Yankee entree, and profess to be surprised to find it here. But I first tasted pastrami when my dad made me sandwiches of it on steamy Saturday afternoons in Knoxville when I was a kid. To me, a pastrami and rye is real down-home cooking, comfort food. I also like mettwurst, which is one of the oldest menu items in old-line Knoxville restaurants. I like bagels with cream cheese. I first tried them when I was a teenager at a Cumberland Avenue deli in the '70s, unaware that bagels had any particular connection to urban centers of the North. At the time, I think I assumed they must be a Southern thing.

If that wasn't enough, I don't wear a visor cap. At school in Mississippi in the fall of 1977, I got one just to try to fit in. My girlfriend, a local girl who sometimes wore a visor cap herself, thought it looked stupid on me. Could she see the same Yankee cast about me that the bum later spotted? Anyway, I got rid of the hat. I got rid of the girlfriend, too, and made a clean break from the whole deal. I suddenly recalled that episode with concern.

The more I thought about it, my suspicions of Northernness grew into full-blown might-be-a-Yankee hypochondria. Which only made it worse. True Southerners don't worry much. I'd seen Woody Allen movies; anxiety is a Yankee trait.

I thought of a couple of my Confederate ancestors who came home maimed, the ones I heard about from the old people who had known them: my great-great grandfather unable to move his right hand, another missing his right leg, another missing part of his skull. Would they be embarrassed that they bred people who bred people who bred me?

Some Confederates never forgave, refused to fly the American flag or celebrate the Fourth of July. As far as my own ancestors go, I think they all got used to the idea of living in the U.S.A.—which was, after all, the same nation they all grew up in. And, to the end of their lives, Krispy Kreme doughnuts were as foreign in concept as bagels and cream cheese.

One of my ancestors, the one the old folks always called Uncle Henry, was a Confederate lieutenant. He grew up in Middle Tennessee, west of Nashville. I never knew he was involved in the siege of Knoxville until he materialized in Digby Seymour's book about the Knoxville-area campaigns, Divided Loyalties.

In his soldier's portrait, the young man in the gray uniform is not wearing a gimme cap. He's clean-shaven, with pale skin, dark eyes and dark hair, neatly trimmed. On his belt is a pistol and dagger, but in his right hand he's holding a book. In his eyes is the unmistakable tinge of anxiety.

Hellfire. He looks like a Yankee.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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