By Charles Houston
Every publication will have a lengthy year-end retrospective on COVID and on 2020. This is a different story.
Bubba was my father’s first cousin, and hence my second. Bubba had no siblings, no wife, no children. As a bachelor, his closest relations were my two brothers and me. We were very close. Bubba died in 1970.
He had worked in my grandfather’s business, fished in fecund farm ponds, trained beagles, hunted quail, and sat in a recliner watching the news. A simple life for a man’s man, but Bubba did have strong opinions. They were not learned at a fancy university, nor in fashionable salons. His opinions were just part of life as he knew it. These days when my brothers and I talk about things of the day – politics, whatever – one of us would utter a faux-mournful, “What would Bubba say?”
One balmy October day I was enjoying a post-breakfast interlude and pondering the state of the world, often thinking, “What would Bubba say?” Then, zounds! Bubba returned to life! In the flesh! For real! Right here. He looked like a strapping man in his early fifties. He had his old pipe, a tin of Prince Albert tobacco and a simple question, “What year is it?”
October, 2020, I told him and he startled. “Tell me about it. Show me around. Have no idea how I got here but it’s mighty good to see you, Hotshot.” (Bubba had nicknamed all of us. Mine was embarrassing so I’ll use “Hotshot” here.) It was mighty good to see him, too. We hugged, something we’d never done when he was alive.
I said brothers John and Will were in Georgia doing well, and asked him how long he’d be here. He replied, “Don’t know.”
Neither did I, so I wanted to show him 21st Century life before he might be gone. “I’ll show you around. This is Loudoun County, about fifty miles west of Washington.”
“Too damn close.”
I went on. “We’re in the western part of the county. Lots of farms, foxhunting, the Blue Ridge to the west. The Scots-Irish came though here on their way south, and many stayed. We may have some very distant relations here.”
I led him through the house. “I’d introduce you to my wife but she’s at a horse show. She’d give anything to see you.” Bubba nodded. (He was generally taciturn and each nod had nuance.) He saw the big flatscreen television and looked quizzically at me. “That the TV?” He got bug-eyed at the clarity and size of the picture.
Bubba usually shook his head or nodded, signaling amazement or approval, depending on the context. He was vocal about things he didn’t like, though, as when I pointed to some of our contemporary art. “You must be crazy, Hotshot.”
On the way to the barn, I hopped onto the zero-turn mower. I sped off, twirling and mowing right and left, then heading back towards Bubba. He slowly shook his head, this time meaning that he liked it. I showed him our pet goats and donkey and patted the three Border Collies. “Nice dogs, Hotshot. Only saw a few in Georgia but they were good dogs. Smart.”
Two barn cats meowed at seeing me; Bubba moved back a step – cats not being among his favorite animals. We walked down the barn’s center aisle and looked at horses in their stalls. I saw him happily inhaling their aroma. At an empty stall I explained, “This is the horse she took to the show.”
“You ride?” he asked me.
“Used to. I did show jumpers and fox-hunted.”
“We’ll, aren’t you fancy!” Bubba kidded.
“Let’s drive around some,” I suggested.
“Virginia has villages and hamlets, which Georgia doesn’t,” I said on the way to Waterford. “We also have what developers call ‘clusters.’ They’re just an excuse to cram more houses onto a piece of land.” We turned into one of them, where the big houses looked identical. Fake wood. Fake stone. Styrofoam cornices. Plastic window frames.
“This is junk, Hotshot. Horrible. What a waste of pretty land.”
“Some of us are trying to stop clusters, at least ones like this,” I said.
“How much do they go for?”
“A bit over a million.” Bubba looked pole-axed.
“You’ll like this old village,” I said, entering Waterford.
He did, very much.
“We’ll head for Leesburg. Used to be small but not so much now.”
On the way Bubba kidded, “Hotshot, this is a fancy car. I said you were fancy, didn’t I?”
“It’s a V8. A system with maps and navigation. Run-flat tires. Power everything. Mood lighting inside – you can choose from about ten colors. Listen to music from a satellite over ten speakers. Make phone calls by talking towards the steering wheel. I get around 30 miles to the gallon.”
“You’re out of your mind, boy!” (I’d not been called that in a long time.) “With all that stuff, how do you get that mileage?”
Bubba snorted derisively. Fifty years had not moderated his conservatism.
That showed again as we slowly drove through Leesburg, “That girl has blue hair! Whoa, she’s kissing that other girl!” It was nothing unusual to me but clearly Bubba was not woke. “Don’t stare, Bubba, they’ll see that as a microaggression.”
“I’d like to show ‘em a macroaggression.” He noticed guys with beards and others with tattoos. “Hotshot, that’s more like it. Good to see men with beards, and lots of my platoon got tattoos in the war.” Bubba was woke after all, but not for this century.
“Nice town,” he observed. “Nice shops, houses.”
We headed east on Market, through its section of older shopping centers and car dealerships. “Places like this aren’t good for the soul,” Bubba declared.
Minutes later we parked at Wegman’s. The big supermarket stunned him. “That whole aisle is nothing but bottles of water. Can’t you use your taps? He saw racks of beef jerky, energy drinks, more meat than at a butcher’s, wine departments, fewer cookies than in the old days. He reacted with just one sentence, “I saw non-alcohol beer. What’s the point in that?”
“What’s Woolworth’s like now?” Bubba next asked.
“Gone.” Bubba looked a touch sad when he heard that. I needed to cheer him; show things he’d like.
He liked Walmart and Target. He loved Home Depot.
On the way home he asked, “Is the USSR still a problem?”
I told him about Amazon and that you could get stuff delivered the next day, right to your door. “That helped during the toilet paper crisis.”
I replied, “Yeah. I’ll tell you about it later. At least government is clean here.”
“If it was that good, why didn’t stop all that building near Whatsman’s? Or the cluster things?”
He had a point.
We drove back the long way. Bubba loved the old stone walls, manicured pastures, the grand estates, our little farm. “We definitely aren’t in Georgia,” he allowed.
“Nope,” I said.
“This land is special,” observant Bubba said as we drove down the unpaved road. “You better take care of it.”
We went home. The electronic world amazed him. “Here’s Google; it finds things.” I typed in “Beagle.” Bubba smiled over my shoulder, read some, looked at hound photos. He nodded approval. I showed him Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. I opined, “Some of these are plain stupid, but it’s what people do.”
I showed him a smartphone; he liked what it could do. Then I told him about selfies and texting, which he didn’t.
“Lots of new stuff, Hotshot. But you’ve got to be thankful for what you have. Protect the countryside most of all.”
I nodded at that statement with my eyes closed. When I opened them, Bubba had vanished.
Charles Houston developed office buildings for an Atlanta-based firm. He lives in Paeonian Springs (etc.) and misses Bubba, who was a real family member.