The Dukes of Hazzard

The Dukes of Hazzard (or, Ehrhardt, 1970-something, school lunch)

It’s the late 1970s. Ehrhardt South Carolina is a teeniney town. It seemed to be some warped sense of pride to tell people I’m from a town so small its sole traffic signal is a blinking yellow light. Four hundred souls call this hamlet – settled primarily by German immigrants in the 18th century – home. Lucky me.

There was an elementary school. Kindergarten (not yet legally required) through I think 5th grade. About six blocks down, at the dead end of my street. Classic mid-60s architecture, which is to say, about as inspiring as a fashion show in the USSR. If you can even believe it – not air-conditioned. This is significant in lowcountry South Carolina – in the way breathing is significant to living. Oh dear God the heat, condensing on my neck, behind my ears, at the crook of my arm, every month but January.

Just about 100 students in these five grades. Precisely 10 of us white.

Did I mention this was the late 1970s? Did I mention this was a farming town in South Carolina? (Need I remind you my home state fired the first shots of the American Civil War? Okay then.) The civil rights movement glossed over my home state, but in a decidedly lower case sort of way. This wasn’t Atlanta, people, much less Selma; it was the stomping grounds of Strom Thurmond.

Okay. So there I am, a scrawny (skinny is too nice of a word), shy and also timid, uncertain, quiet, little white bookworm (yes, as early as first grade, when I had to prove to Mrs. Ramsey the librarian that I could read Walt Farley’s Black Stallion before she would let me check it out. I mean can you imagine? What kind of librarian tries to hold a kid back from reading the next level?). I’m surrounded by big black girls who don’t think twice about cheating in hopscotch and then looming over me when I pipsqueak in tremulous protect.

Oh dear. I mustn’t dwell on the playground scene or I will have nightmares tonight, 3- years later. Suffice it to say I shriveled into my chair so thoroughly it’s a wonder my teachers even knew I was there.

Except of course I stood out – being one of two white children in the classroom of 20-plus kids. The other was Bill. Bill Copeland. His dad was a dairy farmer. Bill was red-headed and shockingly fair-skinned – though his neck and arms were about as red from the sun as his hair.

It’s possible Bill and I would have been friends even if we hadn’t felt the need for white people solidarity. Who can say? I look back on my segregated childhood, which persisted, unquestioned by anybody, into high school, and just can’t even fathom that world anymore.

But I digress. Let’s move on to the cafeteria. Oh sweet Jesus, the noise, the echo of scraping metal chairs on red tile floor, clattering lunch trays and utensils, and 60 decibels of 100 talking children. It was too much for this mouse. I got my tray and just tried to find a seat at the end of a table, out of the thick of the terror. Head down, hope nobody speaks to me, focus on eating, get through lunch and hope I can persuade a grownup to let me escape to the quiet library. I promise I’ll put every book back exactly where I found it.

Except about half the time, when I could finangle a seat near Bill. He was my carrot top lighthouse in a sea of dark skin and kinky corn row hair. It didn’t much matter that half the time he jabbered on and on about farm life (which was foreign to me, and not nearly as interesting to me then as it is now). He wasn’t big or loud, didn’t cheat at hopscotch, looked like me, and went to a plain vanilla Methodist church, which even at that age I knew made him like a cousin, spiritually speaking, to us Baptists.

Also he also watched The Dukes of Hazzard. (If you must, look it up. And for God’s sake, don’t judge. You’ve watched your fair share of…well…) And to be honest, that was the main attraction of my main boy Bill Copeland.

See, The Dukes of Hazzard was a one-hour television show that aired on Friday nights at 8 p.m. My bedtime on Fridays was a generous 8:30 p.m. Do the math. Then try to imagine the weeping, the wailing, and the gnashing of baby teeth that ensued each Friday evening about 7:45 p.m., as I lobbied, with fervent evangelical passion, for an extension just this one time.

Mama was unmoved. Well I was nothing if not a child with an inflated sense of self-importance, and this convinced me that the best way to spite my cold-hearted Mama was to declare, with great pomp, that I “just won’t watch any of it, then!!” (Fear not. I have since learned how to hone the gift of spite well, and my nose is quite safe.)

Mama remained unmoved. In fact, if the scene played like so many from my childhood, she probably didn’t respond at all. And so, in my Tivo-deprived world, I grieved all weekend at the loss of that great joy, the potential weekly highlight of my under-stimulated little life. But, the Lord provides; there was hope.

Tuesday, Bill would tell me the whole episode. His mama let him stay up and watch the whole thing.

Not Monday at lunch, because Bill was gone to some odd thing called “Gifted and Talented,” whatever that was, and the GAT kids were spared lunch with the rest of us riffraff that day. But he was back on Tuesday, and my scrawny hands shook with anticipation as I wrangled with the cardboard milk carton. I could hardly finish my school lunch (and let’s not even talk about that semi-tragic divided plate) before corralling Bill into a detailed rendering of our mutual favorite entertainment.

And he happily indulged. Here’s how it went:

First, Bill would arrange all the containers and leftover piles of food on his tray into a facsimile of Hazzard County: the mound of mashed potatoes was the high bank of a creek; the pint-sized milk carton was the jailhouse (a key component of every episode); the sideways-laying fork was Roscoe P. Coltrane’s booby trap.

Once all the props were in place, Bill began at the beginning, and went blow, by blow, by blow, through the entire one-hour (45-minute) episode. He explained every plot point from the handsome ne’er-do-well fella who caught Daisy Duke’s eye at the beginning, to every dirt-road turnaround and cow pasture runaround Bo and Luke employed, to the details of Boss Hogg’s conniving. Bill’s fingers (the General Lee, aka the Dukes’ muscle car with the jammed door handles) moved up this ramp (potatoes), under this fork (booby trap), into and out of the milk carton (jailhouse). His 8-year-old voice moved through all its limited registers yet bounding variety, mimicking Daisy, Uncle Jesse, Roscoe, Boss, Cooter (I told you not to judge), and of course Bo and Luke Duke.

I was riveted. I couldn’t move. Forgot the decibels of overwhelming around me. Didn’t finish my milk. Didn’t even think about asking to finish my lunch period in the quiet safe library.

I had missed The Dukes of Hazzard Friday night, but thanks to Bill, I knew everything that had happened.

Folks, this was the highlight of my first three years of school. Make what you will of that – a comment on me, on my hometown, on public education in the late 1970s, even on the possibly sad state of late 70s television, I dunno.

All I know is, I waited with baited breath for lunch on Tuesday. And my friend Bill never let me down.

In fourth grade, though I stayed in Ehrhardt, I moved to a school in the next county – Mom had started teaching there and the schools were considerably better quality. I left Bill at Ehrhardt Elementary to fend for himself, which wasn’t nearly as scary a prospect for him as it would have been for me.

And about nine years later we went on a few dates.

But that’s another story.the_dukes_of_hazzard_large

Published in: on September 22, 2016 at 1:20 am  Comments (2)