My revered Daddy died long before I set foot in Wonderville for the first time. My Momma still lives in the desert town where they both raised me. She regularly demonstrates that her superpowers of guilt are impervious to the time-space continuum. So when I was told that duty to my family name dictated I meet his Kappa Psi fraternity brothers at their 50th Vol Reunion, I had no choice but to go.
Mr. Carl and Mr. Clifton graduated pharmacy school with Daddy. They and their wives, Miss Erma and Miss Dot, sat with me at Club LeConte in the corner of the bar. I had never known that the daytime view from the top of Gay Street was equally spectacular to its moonlight brother. In the distance of a watery blue sky were the rocky tops of the Smokies. Four white wines arrived with my Bombay martini. I fiddled with the olive pick and realized that after 15 months of living here I still don’t know the words to “Rocky Top.” In truth, I just don’t get it. What is it with that song?
We talked about life in 1950-something: a time before me, and before Momma. I previously had heard the stories of the Miss Arkansas mink whom Daddy dated; she was sweet as soda pop. When that hellcat kicked his biscuits to the curb, he tempered his 22-year-old heart with something thing decidedly not white wine.
Popcorn? That Popcorn? Dad met Popcorn Sutton? Well yes, he did know his way around a shotgun. I just never thought about why. The conversation got significantly more interesting, as the Dad I knew sang in the church choir and played golf with the pastor on Sundays. The Dad I knew was an elegant gentleman and hated it when I cursed. Who was this glorious bad-ass I was hearing about?
I could feel my tablemates struggle between wanting to tell me stories of my Dad’s youthful adventures, and preserving his status as saint. After a bit, Mr. Carl beamed and gently said that talking with me was like talking with Daddy. Over and over they said how spooky it was to see me use the exact same mannerisms, inflections, and comic timing as their silenced friend. Their faces were a bittersweet mix of longing and delight as the ghost of their fraternity brother drank a Bombay martini and told a funny story of her own.
Daddy demanded that when the bill came it was my treat. I looked one last time out the window at the Smokies. The Osborne Brothers’ tin harmony of the song wishing for simpler times crawled into my ear. I could hear my father whistling the first few bars as he turned the key over to start the truck. His hands thumped the steering wheel in time to the banjo.
Damn, “Rocky Top” has powerful song mojo. It conjures times past and helps a daughter understand the youthful adventures of a man beyond his role of father. The men of Kappa Psi taught me that the one who bequeathed to me his name was a pistol, a gentleman, a good friend, and a proud son of Tennessee.
My first visit to Wonderville was in 2010 to sign a contract for a new job and look for a place to live. The airport taxi driver was a 40-year-old woman who looked about 55 and was missing her two front teeth. She kept her foot on the gas while she incredulously turned all the way around in her seat to face me when I told her I did not know the words to “Rocky Top.” The car steered itself down the road as she said, “Hon, I guess you better learn or you’ll never get it around here.”
I get it now. I get it Daddy. Just a minute and I’ll turn up my iPod:
Now I’ve had years of cramped up city life
Trapped like a duck in a pen.
Now all I know is it’s a pity life
Can’t be simple again.
Rocky Top, you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me.
Good Ole Rocky Top,
Rocky Top Tennessee, Rocky Top Tennessee.