Slowing down and taking in the history in America’s Southland

When my wife and I were contemplating a vacation trip to the South, she had to face down some Southern stereotypes she had harbored her entire life, based mostly on two movies: “Easy Rider” and “Deliverance.”

I told her it wasn’t fair to judge millions of people because of the redneck characters who shot the hippies off their motorcycles in the final scene of “Easy Rider” and the hillbillies who came out of the woods to do mean and nasty things to the canoe tourists in “Deliverance.” (Unlike my wife, I had traveled through the South and even lived in Nashville, Tenn., for three months.)

She said it wasn’t just the movies. What about the KKK and all that terrible history? I replied that we in the North aren’t always so wonderful on race relations, either. I have vivid memories of KKK ralies in downtown Meriden in 1981, 1982 and 1983.

Anyway, we were off to visit my sister Anne in her new home adjoining a lake in the tiny town of Dandridge, Tenn. She got weary of living in Colorado, with its ferocious development. I think seeing a Jiffy Lube sprouting outside her home was the final straw.

But my wife and I aren’t small-town people and we knew we would get antsy spending an entire week in Dandridge. And so we flew from Bradley Airport down to Memphis, where we could behold Graceland and other cultural touchstones.

While driving around in our rental car, we soon noticed something different about the South compared with us up here: they drive more slowly, more courteously. Although I usually drove at a “Sunday afternoon” pace because I was trying to figure out where I was going and what the GPS was advising, only once during our entire week did somebody honk at me. Imagine that.

My cousin Sue, who also moved to Tennessee a couple of years ago, explained: “It’s considered rude here to honk your horn.”

Sue and her husband, Garrett, who bought a house overlooking Douglas Lake, the same body of water my sister looks out upon, moved down there from East Granby. A prime reason for their big change was they got fed up with the high property taxes in Connecticut.

They are clearly very happy in their new home and plan to remain there for the rest of their lives. They pay about $2,000 per year in property taxes for their lakefront home. Imagine that.

Garrett told me that when he was at a motor vehicle office — with pleasant, polite people behind the counter! — the woman taking care of him noticed he was a former resident of Connecticut.

And she gave him this advice: “Just slow down and breathe.”

I think Sue, Garrett and Anne have learned to do this and enjoy the pace of Tennessee. But my wife and I often were surprised by the Southern hospitality, such as the people who called out to us as we walked down the sidewalk past their porches: “How are ya’all doin’ today?”

And imagine this: when my wife needed to buy an adapter to charge her cellphone in the car and we stopped at a Walgreen’s in Memphis, the saleslady came out from behind the cash register to help my wife go through the racks of items and find the charger that fit her phone. It took a few minutes but that saleslady took care of her customer in a friendly, relaxed and unhurried manner.

And this: When we toured the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the converted Lorraine Motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, we made a wrong turn in the building and missed a key part, the room where he stayed on the final day of his life. After we got outside, I looked up and saw people up there near the room adjoining the balcony where King was shot. I asked a museum guard: “Is that part of the tour? How did people get up there?”

He looked at me in surprise and said, “You didn’t get to see it? Come on.” And he led us upstairs, past the checkpoints and to that room, maintained with the same furnishings and personal effects that King had with him in April 1968.

I am so grateful to that museum guard. Yet another example of helpful people and Southern hospitality.

Yes, if you go to Memphis, don’t miss that museum, which is such a sad site but so educational as it tells the history of U.S. slavery and the civil rights movement.

You’re wondering about Graceland. Sure, it’s interesting to walk through it, to see how Elvis Presley lived, to get a sense of all the playthings he brought in, how he enjoyed his raquetball court, his 24-hours-a-day kitchen service, etc.

But it’s much more meaningful to go to Sun Studio. This is where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and many others were discovered in the 1950s by Sam Phillips, who owned that small studio and ran Sun Records.

Our enthusiastic and knowledgable tour guide, Zach Ozburn, took us into the holy place and told us: “In this room, the world was changed forever.” Indeed, they call it “the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Ozburn noted Elvis and the other musicians were packing up after a not very successful session when Elvis spontaneously started playing “That’s All Right (Mama).” Phillips heard it in the control booth, stuck his head out and said, “What was THAT? Do it again!” And Phillips got the tape rolling.

Ozburn showed us the microphone Elvis used and invited us to hold it. “But please don’t lick or kiss it.”

After the tour, I asked Ozburn how old he is; he seems like such a kid and yet knows so much about those historic events. “I just turned 21. I have a passion for this music.”

I realize the South isn’t utopia. During our drive down the Music Highway from Memphis to Dandridge, we were reminded where we were as we saw these billboards: “Girls’ Pistol Range” and “Have You Repented?”

Occasionally, we wondered: would people be this nice to us if we weren’t white? We will never know.