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The other day, when the September air became nippy and a few stray leaves began to flutter and fall, I remembered going to the fair when I was a young teenager. This was the Southwest Tennessee State Fair in Jackson, a classic September fair with beauty pageants and 4-H competitions and bake-offs and a carnival with games and rides. I was in 8th grade and girls had just begun to pair off with boys. On the night when entrance to the fair was free for school kids, a bunch of us piled into someone’s mother’s station wagon and went to the fair.
I walked the fairgrounds with a dark-haired boy named Johnny. He had a limp, either a chronic injury or an accident of birth, and I worried that if I sat in his lap I would hurt him. We ate cotton candy and churned up our stomachs on the Twister, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and the Paratrooper. We rode through the dark, damp maze of the Old Mill. We rolled all the windows down on the ride home and inhaled the autumn air, a tonic against the sour car scent of sweat and skin and awkward self-consciousness.
What I neglected to remember was that in 1967 there was free admission night to the Southwest Tennessee State Fair for white school kids on one night and a separate one for black school kids on a different night. That in our town there were strictly all-white schools on one side of town and all-black schools on the other, and between those two worlds there was no connection.
Forty-five years later, out in the time warp of the middle distance, I am often astonished to realize how the world has changed in my lifetime. And I am bewildered by what is certain to be the future. I pick up the New York Times most mornings and read which aspect of experience will soon be virtual or mechanized or digitized. I straddle the present, glancing backward more often than forward, not because I idealize the past but because I can’t imagine what the future will be like.
In the late 1980s, my grandfather lived at our house. Born in 1902, he was now 86, a simple man who’d outlived two world wars, who hadn’t seen a car until he was 14 years old. He’d ridden a mule to town as a boy, and in his entire lifetime had never ventured farther than 100 miles from the western Kentucky tobacco fields where he grew up.
Ours was a difficult and frequently chaotic household at that time with three preschool aged boys, a teenaged daughter, an overworked father, and me running the show. Grandaddy, in his wheelchair, rolled right through Lego villages on the living room floor and generally demanded little attention. One afternoon, while cooking dinner, I decided he might enjoy listening to the news on the radio, remembering how tuned in he had been throughout my childhood, never missing the 6 o’clock news either on his black and white television or on the large, bulbous radio in his kitchen. I placed a set of headphones on his ears, checked the volume, and tuned my portable radio to WPLN, the Nashville public radio station.
The boys ran in and out as I fried pork chops and boiled a mountain of potatoes. A neighbor dropped in and my daughter arrived home from school. Somewhere in the midst of it all, I stopped to check on Grandaddy, parked in the living room next to the piano, the late afternoon sun painting a blinding streak across the wood floor. His head hung low over his sunken chest. I thought he had fallen asleep, but then I saw that he was crying.
I took the headphones off and asked what was the matter.
“It’s lies,” he said. “It’s all lies.”
I’ve tried to imagine what story he might have heard that day. It was early 1989 and the first George Bush was president. Saddam Hussein and Chemical Ali had recently killed 5,000 Kurds in Iraq. Oliver North’s trial and the Iran-Contra affair were in the news.
But I understand now that it wasn’t any particular story that broke Grandaddy’s heart, it was that at 86, he was an old man who no longer recognized the world he was barely living in.
Today’s news is mostly grim — crime and poverty and war and economic strife. But this September day the sky is brilliant and blue and, in the breeze, a slight chill, a hint of woodsmoke. It is almost true autumn, the beginning of the end.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.