In the unwinding, everything changes and nothing lasts, except for the voices, American voices, open, sentimental, angry, matter-of-fact; inflected with borrowed ideas, God, TV, and the dimly remembered pasttelling a joke above the noise of the assembly line, complaining behind window shades drawn against the world, thundering justice to a crowded park or an empty chamber, closing a deal on the phone, dreaming aloud late at night on a front porch as trucks rush by in the darkness.
At the turn of the millennium, when he was in his late thirties, Dean Price had a dream. He was walking to his minister's house on a hard-surface road, and it veered off and became a dirt road, and that road veered off again and became another dirt road, with tracks where wagon wheels had worn it bare, but the grass between the tracks grew chest high, as if it had been a long time since anybody had gone down the road. Dean walked along one of the wagon tracks holding his arms out spread-eagle and felt the grass on either side hitting the underneath of his arms. Then he heard a voiceit came from within, like a thought: "I want you to go back home, and I want you to get your tractor, and I want you to come back here and bush-hog this road, so that others can follow where it's been traveled down before. You will show others the way. But it needs to be cleared again." Dean woke up in tears. All his life he had wondered what he was put on earth for, while going in circles like a rudderless ship. He didn't know what the dream meant, but he believed that it contained his calling, his destiny.
At the time, Dean had just gotten into the convenience store business, which was no calling at all. It would be another five years before he would find one. He had pale freckled skin and black hair, with dark eyes that crinkled up when he smiled or laughed his high-pitched giggle. He got the coloring from his father and the good looks from his mother. He'd been chewing Levi Garrett tobacco since age twelve, and he spoke with the soft intensity of a crusader who never stopped being a country boy. His manner was gentle, respectful, with a quality of refinement that made the men drinking vodka out of plastic cups down at the local Moose Lodge question whether Dean could properly be called a redneck. From childhood on, his favorite Bible verse was Matthew 7:7: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." What he sought his whole life was independenceespecially financial independence. His greatest fears, which haunted him all his life, were poverty and failure. He came by them naturally.
His grandparents on both sides had been tobacco farmers, and so had their grandparents, and their grandparents, back to the eighteenth century, all of them on the same few square miles of Rockingham County, North Carolina. They all had Scotch-Irish names that fit neatly on a tombstone: Price, Neal, Hall. And they were all poor. "It's like if I were to walk down to the creek, I'm going to wear a path," Dean said. "And every day I'm going to go the same way. That's how the roads in this country were built, basically. The people that built the roads followed the animals' paths. And once that path is set, it takes a tremendous amount of effort and energy to take another path. Because you get in that set pattern of thinking, and it's passed down generation to generation to generation."
When Dean was a boy, tobacco grew fencepost to fencepost. From April till October you could smell it all over Rockingham County. He was raised in Madison, forty minutes' drive up Route 220 from Greensboro, and though the Prices lived in town, Dean's real life was spent out on the tobacco farm of his grandfather Norfleet Price. Norfleet got his name when his daddy, Dean's great-grandfather, brought a load of tobacco on a two-horse wagon to Winston-Salem, where a man by that last name gave him a very good price. Dean's father was born on the family land, in a clapboard shack with a front porch, at the edge of a clearing in the hardwood trees. A few feet away was the tobacco barn, a cabin of oak logs cross-stacked with dovetail joints, which Norfleet built with an ax. When Dean was a boy, during the late-summer days when the bright leaf tobacco was primed and hung in the barn for flue curing, he would beg to be allowed to stay there overnight with his grandfather and wake up every hour or two to check that none of the tobacco leaves had fallen into the flames of the oil fire. Priming was backbreaking work, but he loved the smell of tobacco, the big yellowing leaves that grew heavy as leather on stalks four feet high, the way his hands were stained black with sticky tar during the priming, the rhythm of looping the leaves through the stringer and hanging them in bundles like dried flounder from tobacco sticks across the rafters in the barn, the family togetherness. The Prices raised their own meat and grew their own vegetables and got their buttermilk from a lady with a milk cow down the road. School was delayed if the crop came in late, and in the early fall the auction warehouses in Madison burst into life with the harvest jubilee and the brass band parades, a celebration for families that now had their cash for the year, leading up to the holiday feasts. Dean thought that he would grow up to be a tobacco farmer and raise his kids the same way.
Copyright © 2013 by George Packer
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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