Born Too Late

January 13, 2013 | By | Comments (4)
Illustration by Jack Unruh

Illustration by Jack Unruh

Captivated by a time before my time, I increasingly find myself most at home in the presence of the past.

The house is a century old. It towers into the treetops from its corner lot in Tuscaloosa, two massive stories of yellow brick with a porch so wide and deep I have watched little boys play football across it. The house is built around a massive staircase, the kind you see only in the movies. You expect to see an elegant woman descend it in her evening gown—I imagine Lauren Bacall. A ghost walks its upper rooms, people say. I was a guest here for months and never saw her. Still, something dwells in that house, something from another age.

The couple who welcomed me inside, Ken and Jessie Fowler, are true friends. They are almost a generation older than me, a generation of grace and civility. Their house has more rooms than a Marriott, but mostly we lived in the kitchen, talking about the places they had seen and the times they had lived, of Manhattan in an age of miniskirts, and Miami Beach when Gleason and Sinatra played, and glorious football teams that traveled by train.

It was there, beside a refrigerator filled with limitless pie, I realized I was a man lost in time. I had always been most comfortable in the past. But I had never really wrapped my mind around it till then, staring at a forkful of lemon icebox, talking about how, in a bad wreck, you really can’t beat a Lincoln.

I do not want to turn back time. Too many people want to do that already. Too much good, too much justice has come to be, out of the darkness of our past. But I felt a comfort in that room, and in that company, I have seldom known. Maybe that is because by taking me into their past, they took me back to my own.

The past we spoke of had music that did not make you want to murder the radio. It poured sweetly, static and all, from big console sets and Art Deco Bakelites, flew as if on a magic carpet from the orchestras in the Blue Room in New Orleans. Hank Williams played the VFW then, and rode a big Cadillac a thousand miles to an American Legion to do it again. I would have liked to have seen that. Now, country music sounds like pop music in a bad cowboy hat from Stuckey’s. The radio seems mostly to consist of men hollering about how people do not belong. When I was a boy, we listened to Swap Shop, hoping someone was unloading a hubcap for a ’66 Corvair, and heard Merle Haggard sing “That’s the Way Love Goes.”

I used to love television. We had two channels—three if the antenna was turned toward Anniston—but there was always something on. Now I flip through banality till my thumb is sore. Used to be, the worst thing on TV was wrestling. Now they tell me I can watch every football game being played on this planet on my phone. I do not want to watch a football game on my phone. How silly would I look, hollering at my own palm?

I used to love cars. I loved tail fins, loved the sculpture of Detroit steel. My first Mustang cost $542. Last summer, my car’s catalytic converter went out and it cost me $2,500.

Sometimes it seems I do not like anything anymore. I do not like outsourcing, or multitasking, or fusion restaurants.

But I remember a night when I stayed in that house. I came in very late, and eased quietly through the big rooms, every ancient board creaking underfoot. As I started up the stairs, I heard the faint sound of music. Big band, maybe? Glenn Miller? And as I eased up the stairs I heard, I believe, the sound of two people dancing.

I liked that.


  1. Carmen Over In Dalton

    Rick, Saw you in Chattanooga at Writer’s event! Started reading. ” All Over But..” again and falling in love with your story (so relate as child of Korean Vet…). Then Melba sends me link to these Southern Living essays and suddenly I am taken back in time to a similar home with a couple dancing in the dark I’m sure as slipped up the stairs. You helped me recall the priceless forgotten .

    April 16, 2015 at 6:46 pm
  2. Michelle

    I love your blogs. I found them today searching for a radio station online. I appreciate the way you write. As I read “Born too late” I had a clear image of the home, the past, and the appreciation for the past. I am a 70’s baby and I miss the simple life.

    Thank you for your words.

    Michelle Gagne
    Orlando, Florida

    March 13, 2013 at 6:23 am
  3. Cheryl McMahan

    Rick describes a feeling that resembles what my husband and I felt the first time we went to an open house at the stone manor house we ended up buying a little over year ago. We both felt like “home” the minute we walked in. Feeling so lucky to become the caretakers of the property, we are the fourth family to live in this house. I feel Miss Pauline’s presence frequently but I think she likes us because we are trying to restore the house to the grandeur that was present during her lifetime there. Also, she was a very talented artist and she knows I am trying to be one also.

    January 16, 2013 at 8:06 am
  4. Leigh

    Rick Bragg’s columns make me sigh in the nicest way. He knows my people–Aunt Orrie, who was with modern times, calling the icebox a Frigidaire, never minding it was a Whirlpool. That I understood, but maybe he can explain to me why Grannie called an iron skillet a “spider.” I bet he wouldn’t be shocked in the least to hear my Grannie, born in “19 and 6” danced to Elvis–his gospel album, that is.

    January 15, 2013 at 6:13 pm

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