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A song of the South amid holiday carols

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LISA BUIE
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By LISA BUIE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2003


I didn't want to make this trip.

Not because I didn't want to see family -- I especially enjoy playing cards with my husband's grandfather. But making this trip means leaving the warmth of a Florida Christmas, with inflatable white snowmen against backgrounds of green grass and neighborhoods decked out in lights that would send Clark Griswold screaming to the deed restriction police. After a while, the tackiness kind of grows on you.

It means packing three coats of varying thickness because the weather in South Carolina's foothills this time of the year is a crap shoot, and breaking out all the heavy sweaters I don't have to wear here and trying to cram them into one suitcase.

But harder than that, making this trip means returning to a place with which I have a love-hate relationship. The hate is part of the equation because I often am embarrassed by the backwardness that persists, despite its being the home of the first North American BMW plant. The one that made that sporty Z3 roadster that James Bond drove in GoldenEye.

Yes, race is still an issue, but the sexism that seems to draw less national publicity is just as bad if not worse. The message that girls there get is that the pinnacle of female achievement is to be pretty and demure. Step out of your place, honey, and you'll pay.

Shannon Faulkner, the first woman to try join the cadet ranks at the state-funded boys' club the Citadel, received death threats and had to be guarded by U.S. marshals.

About the same time, Kristie Greene, who was from the same county as Faulkner, was crowned Miss South Carolina 1994. She got a parade in her honor. County bigwigs turned out in droves to tell her how she stood for "all the right values." The same day, a state pageant official fretted about how the svelte 120-pounder was still too porky for the Miss America Pageant.

"We're running her 4 miles a day," he said with all the seriousness of an Olympic trainer.

Seven years after that, not much changed. In 2001, folks at the Capitol got caught circulating a memo spoofing the dress code. In it, female pages were told to "conserve" blouse material. Soon after the memo surfaced, the state Republican and Democratic party chairmen tried to be hip with the teenage delegates to Boys' State by saying their party gave better access to beer and girls. The Republican chairman took things a step further, saying the GOP stood for "hot" girls and "cold" beer. At least he apologized; the Democratic chairman refused.

The county where I come from is a cluster of textile mill villages. On the rivers are the abandoned, dilapidated factories. Tucked up into the red clay hills are simple houses once occupied by people who, because of the mill village system, were virtual indentured servants to the company owners.

Over the holidays, I ventured into one of these old mill villages with my father, to his favorite breakfast dive.

Called Dolline's, it's not much bigger than a storage shed and a far cry from the strip mall environment of Wesley Chapel. When you walk in, the first thing you see on your right is a machine that vends 20 brands of smokes. Stripped across the top is a handwritten note: "Please do not let your children play with the cigarette machine." Ashtrays sit atop the bar, and patrons help themselves to the self-serve pot of coffee, the smell of which mingles with that of bacon grease and buttered toast.

Unlike Dade City's Lunch on Limoges, I doubt you'll see Dolline's -- where the eggs and grits are served on plates cast off from an old rib joint -- praised in Southern Living magazine any time soon. But it was been written up in the local newspaper a few years ago, and the story is posted on the bulletin board along with photos of Dolline's grandkids.

The food is hot, tasty and cheap: $2.35 gets you an egg, grits, toast, sausage or bacon and coffee. Owner Dolline Inman and her waiter, Margaret, know almost every customer by name, including the big guy in the orange Clemson cap with tattoos on his leg that look like body builders or professional wrestlers. He ordered two breakfast sandwiches the size of cheeseburgers and polished off both.

Strangely enough, amid all this deep fried atmosphere are reminders of Florida, which from my perspective seem progressive, though my colleague Howard Troxler probably would disagree. In the middle of the black and white historical mill village photos, in the heart of Atlanta Braves country, is a New York Yankees wall clock with pictures of Art Fowler and Billy Martin. Of course, Fowler lives there and is a patron of Dolline's, though he doesn't get out much now.

Step into the rear dining room and you'll see a poster from the Tampa Tribune wishing the University of South Carolina Gamecocks luck in the Outback Bowl.

Also, South Carolina voters finally broke free of the religious right's stranglehold a few years ago and approved a lottery. In November, they elected a Florida native as governor.

When the local columnist showed up at Dolline's to take the pulse of the community, my father was true to his Southern roots.

He called the new governor "a foreigner."

Note to my Northern friends: Do not think by what all I just said that I will welcome your hillbilly jokes or self-righteous rants about the South. Instead, I'll forward your e-mails to all my Southern friends, who will burn you with replies so fiery they'll make smoke rise from your computer mouse faster than from a wrecked NASCAR Chevy. Of course, the venom will be softened by the phrase, "Bless your heart" thrown in there somewhere.

-- Lisa Buie is the editor of the central/east edition of the Pasco Times. You can reach her at (813) 909-4604 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4604. Her e-mail address is buie@sptimes.com .

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