1. ELEVATION 690 FT.
IN MARCH OF 2004, just when the urge to rake out garden beds and plant summer bulbs is too strong to resist, despite the possibility—the near certainty—that snow will come again to Philadelphia, I pick up my father and his wife and head south.
We drive from their suburban retirement community to Philadelphia International Airport, then fly to Georgia, them in business class, me in coach. In Atlanta, we rent a car and aim for Monticello, a small town surrounded by small towns: Zebulon and Sparta, Musella and Smarr. This is Monti-sello, not chello, seat of Jasper County, home to the fighting Hurricanes, one-time buckle on the Georgia peach-growing belt, birthplace of my father, and the town he shunned for decades, until twenty years ago when he gave in to a childhood dream and bought a farm a few miles from Monticello’s town square.
Across the seat of our full-size sedan, I see my father, George Newton Funderburg, grow more energetic with each mile. He looks out the passenger-side window as big-box malls trickle away, replaced by pine forest and signs for barbecue. My father is a handsome man. I tend to look at him through a lens in which surface and shape hardly register, except as conveyers of emotion, but I can see that at seventy-seven, he has barely a crease in his skin, much less a wrinkle. He is still in the vicinity of his peak height, five feet eleven inches, and his close-cropped hair, never grown long enough to complete a kink, is slightly more salt than pepper. His face and body are well-proportioned, except for the large-belly/no-posterior dilemma that plagues many men after a certain age, and his gray-blue eyes and meticulously flossed, brushed, and later-life-orthodonticized teeth sparkle with charm and good humor when the spirit moves him. Down here, most people look at his skin, the color of faded parchment, and call it “high yellow.” Up north, most people assume he’s white.
Dad interrupts his own reverie with projections: how we’ll occupy ourselves on this trip, what changes we’ll encounter, what will have stayed the same. He anticipates, accurately, that we will find his 126-acre farm-cum-vacation home in pristine condition, thanks to the attentions of Troy Johnson, a friend and fellow retiree who watches out for the house and three ponds, the ancient grove of pecan trees that yield seemingly on whim, and several well-manicured pastures Dad rents out to the cattle-farming Howard brothers, forty-eight-year-old identical twins named Albert and Elbert.
DOWN SOUTH, spring has advanced. Pear trees are in full bloom, naturalized daffodils stripe the just-greening pastures with yellow, and deep red camellias dot walkways and yards, sentries at every door. Sweaters need to be kept nearby but not on, windows are cranked open to ensure a cross breeze. We make good time from the airport to the farm, just over an hour, and Dad and I don’t bother to unpack before we turn our attention to the two items on our agenda: roasting a pig and getting him some chemo.
First, the pig. In January, my father read a newspaper article that chronicled the author’s experiment with cooking a seventy-pound pig in a Cuban-American–designed roasting box called La Caja China ['kä-hä 'ch-nä]: a simple plywood cart lined with metal and designed to suspend coals above rather than below the meat. The outcome, sweet and savory, succulent and crisp, earned the paradoxical moniker “pig candy.”
Dad ordered the largest model Caja from its Miami manufacturer and had it sent to the farm.
Clever inventions and well-prepared food both make my father’s list of favorite things. Together they were irresistible. My father has always displayed a fascination for crafty mechanics, for improved ways to clean and fix and open and close. Over the years he has plied Diane, Margaret, and me, his three daughters, with laundry tables, vises, fingernail buffing systems, magnetic polishing kits, and Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Dynamics. Efficiency is his aesthetic, and in any given room of his various abodes, you are assured of finding flossing materials—waxed thread, plastic, and mint-impregnated wood—in the drawers of ubiquitous side tables that support the ubiquitous lamps (You can’t read in the dark), coasters (Put something under that glass), and Kleenex (Who’s sniffing? Blow your nose!).
Dabbling is my father’s über-hobby. He’ll become possessed with something new (thank-you notes, golf, people’s middle names), and, like polar bear club swimmers on a winter beach, he’ll plunge in completely, then retreat from the depths, shaking off water and done with it all. If there’s an instructional video, all the better. Sometimes watching that is enough and he won’t expend energy on the actual doing of the thing. This was the case with net fishing and square-foot gardening, horse whispering and harmonica playing.
Dad uses word of mouth to support his passing fancies. In Monticello, population 2,500, with its intertwined bloodlines and relationships, word gets around. Dad tells everyone we run into about La Caja China, or “pig box,” as we have come to call it. He informs anyone he can corner that he’s looking to find a whole pig: that he needs it dressed and delivered and preferably one hundred pounds, which is the box’s stated maximum capacity. He mentions this to Connie, the cashier at the Tillman House Restaurant. He inserts this into small talk when he’s charging wigglers and deer feeder pellets at Monticello Farm & Garden. He broadcasts it at Eddie Ray Tyler’s barbershop, where one or two men sit in the defunct shoeshine stand that serves as a waiting area whether someone’s in Eddie Ray’s cutting chair or not.
At Eddie Ray’s, the men sit for hours, reading the paper and talking about politics and the land’s yield, which, these days, is suburban sprawl. Every few months, another local farm is subsumed into Atlanta-orbiting subdivisions. The prefabricated houses are vinyl-sided and asphalt-shingled, central-air impervious to barometric shifts and connecting to the state capital by way of long, arduous commutes. Developers swallow up fields and pastures, enticing title holders to abandon the land that ate up their parents’ lives, maybe broke their parents’ hearts. In the year of my dad’s birth, 1926, Georgia had more than 250,000 farms. Now there are fewer than 50,000, with no signs of that number going anywhere but down. Since 1959, when I was born, Georgia land dedicated to farming has been cut by half.
As with seemingly everything else in Monticello, the demise of farming is intertwined with race. My grandfather used to say that once land went from black hands to white, it never went back. My father has found that to be true in Jasper County, except for this farm of his and a parcel of property bought by the city manager. Those are exceptions, Dad says when I raise them. But they don’t take away from the truth of your granddaddy’s point. When I investigate the claim, I find that Georgia farming is an overwhelmingly white enterprise. The state’s black population is almost 30 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, but nonwhites own only 3 percent of its farmland.
MY FATHER’S LIFELONG LOVE of farming has never wavered, even as the romance of living off the land seduces fewer and fewer people. And it truly is a romance, marked by all the irrational fervor that accompanies infatuation. Obstacles for the individual farmer are vast and varied, from agribusiness competition to the disdain of the local labor force—what dwindling labor pool remains.
Still, Georgia is a farming state. It ranks first in the nation in peanuts, pecans, and rye. It is also the number one producer of broiler chickens and thus, not coincidentally, eggs. Jasper County, covering 374 square miles, grows mostly corn and wheat. And despite the seemingly irrevocable tumble toward suburbanization, a direct link to nature endures among its people. Concern for weather is deeply embedded, locked into their consciousness along with the taste of summer’s first ripe fruits and the smell of a coming storm. Everyone talks about how it’s been raining too much or too little, been too hot or too cold. Crops are growing too fast or not fast enough. Pecans and peaches are coming in good this year or they’re not.
Dad discusses these topics with endless enthusiasm, but his interest is largely theoretical. Beyond fertilizing the pecan grove and ponds, weed-whacking the fence line, and mowing the pastures, most of which falls to Elbert and Albert, Dad’s property is as much nature preserve as it is agricultural enterprise.
Alfred Johnson, Troy’s older brother and a Monticello fixture five years my dad’s senior, remembers my father calling when he purchased the property in 1985. Dad had bought it over the phone, sight unseen, knowing only that it sat next to farmland his own father had once rented. Bubba, my father said, using Alfred’s nickname. Bubba, I bought a pig in a sack.
Before Troy, Dad formed a partnership with Bubba. My father had the funds and the spirit of adventure, but Bubba had the skills. He had been the town’s first black plumber-electrician, spent years as the local demolitions expert in a terrain where holes couldn’t be dug in the red clay soil as easily as they could be blasted, and worked at Georgia-Pacific’s lumber mill for more than twenty years. Bubba’s grandfather owned more land than any other black man around, a nine-hundred-acre farm in nearby Gladesville, where Bubba spent much of his childhood. Bubba knew how to work the land.
From the start, and aside from the occasional trash pickup or brush removal, my father farmed primarily by phone. His hands are big but soft, not like Bubba’s. Dad pored over agricultural how-to articles and wore out phone books looking for experts to call. He built his cattle chute based on a pamphlet he saw on the county agent’s bulletin board, and its efficiency in holding cows for worming and tagging still prompts visits from the curious and the admiring. He frequently prevailed on the University of Georgia’s Extension Service for information: on beaver control and management, whether topical surfactant treatments would kill the persimmon seedlings that grow out of cow dung, and what price per inch he should pay for fish to stock his ponds with.
In the 1980s, with Bubba riding shotgun, Dad attended viniculture seminars and cattle auctions. He and Bubba bought a bull and thirty head of beef cattle, Herefords and Angus mixed, and enough grapevines to plant fifteen rows, six vines per row. He joined the American Chestnut Foundation, which counted fellow Georgian and former President Jimmy Carter among its members, and Bubba planted the ten whips that came by mail. In only the slightest nod to his and Bubba’s advanced years, Dad had a roll bar and seat belt installed on the riding mower. When Dad had a sign painted for the entrance to the farm, he asked Bubba what he’d prefer to be called: manager or overseer? Overseer, Bubba said, without a moment’s hesitation, choosing a title that, in their youth, black men never held and that Dad immediately had printed in black block letters across the bottom of the sign. Alfred Johnson, Overseer.
Every farm-related transaction was calculated for its impact on both individual and community. People are more likely to make themselves available to you, he explained, and no one feels taken advantage of. When Dad hired people to do anything, he paid more than the going rate, which he based on whatever various laborers told him they earned, or, in the absence of such information, on what bag packers earned at Ingles, the recently opened “American-owned” supermarket just around the bend. Next to the Georgia-Pacific plant, a little ways down Highway 83, Ingles was the county’s biggest private employer.
My father made Bubba a signatory on a local checking account so Bubba could be the one to write checks when supplies had to be bought or work was done. I never paid anybody, my father says. They had to go to Alfred to get a check. And, boy, there’s nothing that improves relations better than having that kind of buying power. People would come to Alfred and say, “Mr. George want to buy any more land? I got forty acres out here.” “No, Mr. George don’t want to buy any more land.”
My father’s agenda was to draw attention away from the source of funds and to share the power that came with purchasing. Why? By way of explanation, my father tells two stories. The first concerns my paternal grandfather, Frederick Douglas Funderburg, who served as the town’s black physician for half a century, starting in 1922. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, my grandfather had just started to earn a decent living. He was walking through town when an old white farmer (a redneck, my father says) called out.
Hey, Doc, the man said. How you doing? I hear you banking a bale of cotton a day.
A 480-pound bale of cotton was worth about fifty dollars at that time. Somehow the man, although not an employee of the bank, knew the amount of my grandfather’s cash deposits. From then on, Grandfather took the month’s receipts, wrapped them in newspaper, and carried them off to banks in Atlanta and in Eatonton, the next town due east.
If somebody knew you had money, my father explains, they’d figure out a way to get it out of you, arrest you, make false accusations.
The second story takes place in the midst of Prohibition. Because my grandfather had some standing in the white community due to his profession and his light complexion, other blacks would come to him for help negotiating the white-dominated social and legal systems: posting bail, buying property, even arranging private loans, using their houses and livestock as collateral. A neighbor named Charlie Couch earned his living making moonshine and trapping rabbits. My grandmother was a regular customer for the latter, often buying one rabbit for fifteen cents or two for a quarter.
Mr. Couch came to Granddaddy and said, Doc, I got this two thousand dollars. I want to put it somewhere where it’s safe.
Don’t put it in the bank in Jasper County, Granddaddy told him.
Well, could you help me out?
Grandfather took Couch to the bank in Eatonton.
Hello, Doc, the banker said as soon as Granddaddy and Couch walked in.
I have Charlie Couch here. He wants to open an account.
What kind of account you want to open, Charlie? How much money you got?
Two thousand dollars, my grandfather said.
Come right in, Mr. Couch.
THANKS TO MY FATHER’S PENCHANT for order and Bubba’s ability to implement it, often by himself, the pig in a sack turned out to be a prize. The farm became a beautiful sprawl of cleared pastures, well-fertilized pecan trees, manicured ponds, and freshly painted gates.
As purchased, the farm came with a house, a single-story wood-frame building topped with a corrugated tin roof. A small sitting porch faced away from the entrance road, partially shaded by the largest, oldest pecan tree on the property. The farmhouse, as purchased, came with tenants: Paul Marks and his family. Marks worked a long career at a sawmill but had been forced into early retirement by emphysema, the lung disease that would make him weak, chain him to an oxygen tank a few years down the road, then take his life.
Beyond any reluctance he might have felt about dislodging the Markses, my father never considered living in that building, which he refers to by its address, 294 Fellowship Road. Instead, he and Lois, his second wife, stayed at his boyhood home. By then, the street he’d grown up on had been renamed Funderburg Drive, in honor of my grandfather. Funderburg Drive had also been paved since Dad’s childhood, and the smaller, surrounding houses wired and plumbed.
Two years after Dad acquired the farm, Granddaddy passed away, and the house in town was willed to his children. My father promptly bought out his siblings’ shares. But that house presented problems that made it, too, an unlikely base of operations. Nothing was modern about it, despite past claims to cutting-edge technology. It was, after all, the first house on Colored Folks Hill to have indoor plumbing and electricity, although the latter consisted of bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling by a cord. No similar innovations followed those early glory days, and from the day Granddaddy moved out in the late 1970s until my father took up part-time residence, the house had been tenanted by an eccentric local dentist who considered himself a health-care protégé of my grandfather, who grew juice-bound wheatgrass in wooden crates that seemed to take up every available kitchen surface, every counter and tabletop.
It wasn’t the house’s dog-eared kitchen or wood-paneled den that troubled my father once the dentist moved out and he and Lois moved in. It wasn’t the enduring decrepitude of the neighboring shotgun shacks, wood-frame boxes packing in one generation after another of the same families. The problem with the house, to my father’s mind, was its location. It sat squarely inside one of the town’s remaining all-black sections, the other sections bearing names like Frogtown and Blue Ruin, as in the popular brand of bluing, the laundry-whitening additive so many black women had used to do white folks’ washing. My father was sure most white people would feel uncomfortable coming to a house on Colored Folks Hill, even if they were too young to know that name for it or too polite to use it. He was bound and determined that he would never host a segregated event in Monticello. So he turned his gaze to the farm, outside of town and free of racial associations, at least as much as a place owned by a black man could be.
My father decided to build his own house. He and Bubba discussed its siting: Dad leaned toward breaking ground along the farm’s northernmost edge, parallel to Route 16. Bubba disagreed. There was the noise factor, first of all, between general traffic and the constant rumbling of lumber trucks: forty-foot trunks of freshly sawed wood jostling against one another, straining against their chain-link lashings with every bump in the road. More important, Bubba thought, there was the hill.
Along the property’s southern boundary, five yards or so from the cattle fence that signals the beginning of a neighbor’s pasture, was the farm’s highest point. Bubba had noticed its panoramic view during a foray on the riding mower. You could see thirty miles to the south, he figured, all the way to Forsythe and beyond. The next time my father came to town, Bubba drove him to the apex. Dad looked out over the swells of grazing land and forest and decided, on the spot, that Bubba was right.
It seems only logical that the house you build from scratch is going to embody your dreams. You might think that. You would not be my father.
He had initially handed over to Lois the design aspect of the project, but when her dreaming began to spin out of his control, he took the project back and called up the architects who designed Waverly Heights, his retirement complex ten miles from the center of Philadelphia. Waverly has town houses and apartment buildings and a medical wing fused onto a 1912 manor house built for a railroad executive. Dad flew Waverly's designers to Georgia, told them what he wanted, and wrote a check. They measured the site, noted the direction of the sun, and drew up a plan re-creating the single-level villa in which Dad and Lois currently reside.
Granted, there are slight modifications: more square footage to each room, higher cathedral ceiling, extra bedroom and bath, sun porch, and the designation “354 Fellowship Road” rather than “Villa 13.” Still, the overall effect is the same, as are the materials, down to the brick wainscoting outside and slate hearth inside. And because Lois is so constant in her household organization and spare decor, a quirk has resulted: in photographs of family gatherings, it is nearly impossible from backgrounds alone to tell the location.
When the house was built, exactly ten years after Dad’s purchase of the property, he changed the “Funderburg Farm” sign. He relocated it from the rental house entrance to the new driveway laid for 354 and had it amended to read “George’s Hill.” He also had Bubba’s name painted over. After eight years of partnership, serious stomach troubles and surgeries gone wrong forced the seventy-five-year-old Bubba to step aside and his brother Troy to step in. Bubba cut back to tending just his own vegetable “patch” of twelve and a half acres, his grapevines, flower beds, dozen cows, and three dogs. In place of Bubba’s name, the farm sign read “Elevation 690 ft.”
One morning, Dad and I look out over the biggest pond, the one that has a white sand bank surrounding its dock, the sand installed subsequent to my sister Margaret’s offhand mention that a beach would be nice. Morning mist hangs over the water, the sun just beginning to burn through, and a majestic heron rises up from the opposite shore. It flies across the pond and into a tree with vast, slow-moving wings that seem to defy gravity. Look! I exclaim, the city child ever thrilled by manifestations of the natural world. My father follows my pointing finger in time to see the bird alight onto a branch.
Hunh, he grunts. He’s eating the dollar bass.