Buddy includes two tours in Vietnam with the Army on his resume. He then worked for the Navy as a civilian and had 33 years of federal service when he retired. Originally from Meridian Mississippi, he started traveling in a van about 10 years ago. He liked it and kept buying bigger ones. He lives with and cares for only Boots. He spends much of his time thinking and reading. He listens to the radio, reads newspapers, and prefers the History Channel if television is in his plans. He sits in a chair outside the coach door, plays with Boots, and thinks about the meaning of life, as he knows it. He has a limitless curiosity about people and places and current events and is a wonderful storyteller once he gets over his shyness with strangers.
He left school at 10 when in the third grade to help his father run their farm. He liked that better than school. He enlisted in the Army at 20. Having figured out that the more stripes on your sleeve, the more money in your pocket, he had his high school diploma and was a Sergeant. He did nine years. He decided to leave the Army when he was due to re-enlist one month short of finishing his second tour in Vietnam. The consequences of reenlistment in those days were 30 days combat leave and a return trip to that Southeast Asian paradise for 365 more days. He decided that it was a good time for him to go.
He applied for an apprenticeship program, and by the time the Navy sent him to retirement, he had become a master metalworker on aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines at the Norfolk, Virginia shipyard. He can't think of a reason to regret his career or retiring and has insight that is simple, direct, and logical. He at times has trouble expressing what he means with precision thus seeming less eloquent than he really is but he could be in a room with any group of Television Talking Heads and he would more than hold his own. He is as devoted to his own continuing education as his southern roots and Boots. When you talk to Buddy, Studs Terkel comes to mind. There are people at Harvard and Yale not fit to carry his books. His patience appears to be infinite. He does not wear his beliefs on his sleeve, but he will talk about and defend them with quiet, reasoned passion. He voted to leave the Confederate Stars and Bars as part of the flag of the state of Mississippi. He will tell you, if you ask that in a democratic society the vote was the will of the people, and it was the will of the people to retain them. If it had gone the other way, he says he would have accepted that. He believes it has nothing to do with the south's segregationist past. It is only a symbol of its history and he is proud enough of it that he will give you a pin with the flag on it. You do not have to agree with him or wear it, only promise you won’t throw it away.
Our daily conversations would start over something banal when I wandered down to his campsite to find him softly tossing a ball or grooming Buddy and drinking coffee under the awning of his camper. Buddy would then settle in a chair and speak in a curious rhetorical way much of the time, asking cosmic questions about a world he said was too complex for his understanding. He said he was a typical poor rural Mississippi boy, who quit school as is common here to “do other things.” Here, that could mean to take care of a family, run the streets, work a farm, or because school didn't seem relevant. He believes that he had the chance to do what he had done in his life because of both luck and design. The luck (bad or good) was that his daddy died, and the farm was sold by his Mother and Buddy went in the Army and learned what was important. It was hard, Buddy admitted as he worked to compete with others while trying to make up the reading and learning deficit and overcome the feeling of inferiority while he caught up with his peers. He was angry that he never had the chances they had. Yet Buddy had been stubborn and curious, and had enough natural intelligence to know that leaving school when he did was not the correct decision. He could admit he had made the wrong decision and smart enough too to do something about it despite the time it took, a long and humbling time to be sure, to make up for it. There were several young men who worked in and around the campground who, as they say, were “similarly circumstanced.” Buddy n’ Boots spent time with them under the shade trees in the late afternoon trying to explain it all.
These and other rural southern truths are things that Buddy understands and can talk about to someone who knows nothing about them. He believes many rural southern whites are dirt poor because they toss their chance at education the minute they can so that they can hunt and fish and help Daddy run the farm. Southern males identify strongly with their fathers. They don’t come from single parent homes much and even if they do Daddy is their hero and role model, no matter what jail he may be in now. Since Daddy likely did the same thing, the circle is perpetuated. Buddy did it because he thought it right and had received very little counsel or guidance from a substandard school system overwhelmed by the sheer numbers which required attention. Buddy and so many others like him never got any help thinking through the consequence of his decision. They are the "Kleenex' of southern society, poor whites perceived to be of less than average intelligence, tossed away to be the security guards at campgrounds, or do other menial work and fend for themselves. They become angry and develop a sense of righteousness. As they grow older they believe even more strongly that what they did was the right thing and defend it irrationally. As Buddy points out, not many 10-year-old kids know the right thing to do. The same kid does know, maybe five, or ten years later. Rather than try to rectify it by trying to find a better life, hard as that may be, they accept the earlier decision because of a false pride or belief that they couldn't make a mistake and never really are at peace with themselves. They remain angry. They don't like educated people, because they never had the chance themselves. It is their reason to explain why they are always being "messed with" by the system, the government, the boss, the DMV, and a host of other enemies real and imagined.
If these sound like the same sort of problems found in South Central Los Angeles or Southeast Washington, D.C., they are. The ethnicity is different and the people they blame, but the anger and inadequacies are the same. Buddy spends time thinking about that too and wondering how we can make it better, how to get them to make the leap it will take to get out of the circle of anger and poverty and hate. He knows it isn’t easy. It wasn’t easy to convince him those many years ago.
He thinks these things these days as he sits in his chair outside the door of his Motor Coach while he watches Boots chase a ball or chew a bone. He does not believe that what he has done proves anything. Yet, the man I talked to was a man who improves the world by his existence. He has worked hard, still likes, cares about, and helps the people he meets, and a little sick dog he didn’t have to care about at all.
Buddy isn’t finished. When he and Boots move on he talks of home, of Meridian, of trying to help the boys there understand that time is important, that doing something other than getting angry everyday is useful and good. He wants to try to do that. He has a plan he says with his characteristic soft chuckle and a tap on the side of his head. He will go back there and try to make it work.
Buddy believes that if you remain as inquisitive about what make things work you remain intellectually stimulated. If he does a good deed for a person, he is improved by the act and that person might do one as a result.In a pine grove in Mississippi you learn that a man can make a difference. It is not what you expected to find here, but it was here nonetheless. It is good to know when you leave the next day that Buddy will stay until Boots is well and help those that he can here in this quiet place and then again when they move on together