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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Down Here

In memory of Blake Starr, Justin Sollohub, and everyone we’ve lost down here.

Growing up in a slow moving, small, southern town gives a person a different outlook on life. Outsiders might think southerners are at a disadvantage without skyscrapers and a Starbucks on every corner, but small town folks have something that some will never have-a place where everybody knows your name.

Down here, people still buy tomatoes and boiled peanuts at roadside stands and chat about the weather with the stand owner whom they’ve known for 20 years. Walking into Wal-Mart is like walking into a high school reunion, and Saturdays are spent sipping lemonade (or beer) by Terrapin creek with old friends.

Down here in this little corner of Northeastern Alabama, people grow up together. The town grows up together. In Jacksonville, Alabama, most kids attend Kitty Stone Elementary, and friends made in kindergarten often remain friends for life.

Growing up in a small town, a person’s identity is based on more than who he or she was at one point in time. Whereas others might see a man, small town friends see a toothless six year old from first grade, the best kickball player in fourth grade, a slightly awkward adolescent at the 8th grade dance, and a fellow graduate from Jacksonville High School.

Down here, high school sweethearts get married and elementary school friends attend the wedding. Some friends even go on to become college buddies.

Down here, people get to read the whole book from cover to cover, not just a chapter.  

A family is the foundation a person, and in a small town, folks know a person’s family. Friends in in 4th grade have siblings in 6th grade and older brothers play basketball together. Families are referred to by their last names - the Tippets, the Joneses, the Sollohubs, the Starrs.

People don’t just grow up together down here. Families grow up together.

Those school years don’t last forever. Some friends stick around and raise their own little families while others move off. Either way, people have a tendency to lose touch. They spread out, especially these days. But for those fortunate enough to grow up in a small town, there’s always that place to come back to. There’s always that group of people that can never be replaced in time, heart or memory.

A hometown and the family and friendships that it holds is like a safety net. It’s always there, sometimes just a car ride away, sometimes an airplane ride away. When life gets tough, a person can always come back home.

Occasionally, however, that solid piece of earth that folks have known all of their lives gets shaken, or worse. Sometimes it gets ripped apart like the aftermath of an Alabama tornado.  The recent loss of two wonderful, young men, Blake Starr and Justin Sollohub, reminded the little town of Jacksonville, Alabama just how fragile life can be.

The passing of someone in a small town affects the entire community.  Friends and cousins and schoolmates come from all over with tears in their eyes, packing into one of the local churches to pay their respects.

One phrase can be heard over and over: “It’s been so long. Too bad it takes something like this to bring everyone back together.”

It is too bad, but it shows just how many people care. It shows just how many lives can be touched by one person in one little town.

I started first grade in Kitty Stone Elementary with Blake’s little sister, and my sister started 3rd grade with Blake. Justin was one grade above me, and his little sister was one grade below me. I played softball with Blake’s sister and PARD soccer with Justin.

We all grew up together. Our families grew up together, down here.

Last month, Blake’s funeral was held at West Side Baptist Church. That’s the same church I attended when I first moved to Alabama. The Reverend Truman Norred officiated the service.

Over 20 years ago I sat in that church as a fidgety child, listening to that same pastor speak his words of love. The Starr family sat a few pews ahead or behind, listening to the same words.

I’ve spent the past 10 years trying to escape the mistakes I made as a teenager in this little town. I’ve traveled around to big conferences in fancy clothes, and kept my small town roots and my past mistakes hidden.  

Blake and Justin helped me remember that this little town made me who I am. They helped me remember that every chapter of life is important. A person is an entire book, not just a chapter.

To me, Blake will always be a grinning teenager who grew up to be a loving husband, brother and son.

To me, Justin will always be an energetic 12 year old playing soccer who grew up to be a heroic police officer.

In the Miranda Lambert song, “The House that Built Me,” she sings, “You move on you leave home and you do the best you can. I got lost in this big world and forgot who I am.” In the song, she goes back and visits the house she grew up in.

I thought about going back to the house in Jacksonville that I grew up in, the house that built me, but I didn’t need to. I realized that I’d already come back to the place that built me, and it wasn’t a house. It was this little town, down here.

I am so thankful that Blake and Justin were a part of this town, and they always will be. 

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