Nerd Among Rednecks

Soon after my boyfriend and I bought land in central Florida for our house-building adventure, I moved to the area to begin filling out paperwork. He would join me later, after we received the building permit. I didn’t want to waste money paying rent to live somewhere else while we built the house, so I decided to squat on the property as inconspicuously as possible, an activity we dubbed “stealth camping.”

On the first night, I pulled into the lot with the headlights off and wove into a clearing among the many pine trees. Back then, the neighborhood was semi-rural, but there were still several houses nearby, resulting in a good chance that one of the neighbors would eventually discover me. I waited uneasily for awhile, listening to the calls of the whippoorwills and watching the beams of moonlight shift through the trees. I started to relax, but then a rapping at the window jolted me to attention. A boy wearing a baseball cap stood outside, waving a flashlight on the ground. He looked about fourteen. I rolled down the window and said hello.

“Whatcha doing, rutting?” he asked.

Rutting. I had just finished my graduate program in biology, so when he said that word, I imagined bucks with long antlers strutting their stuff in front of females during the mating season. Just three words into his first sentence, I was utterly lost.

“Rutting?” I said.

“You know, off-roading.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed, relieved that I now knew what he was talking about. “No, my boyfriend and I are going to build a house here.”

“Oh okay,” he said with a shrug. “See ya around, then.”

After he left, I realized I was completely out of my element; I was woefully unqualified to be a redneck. I did not own a single piece of camo clothing. I immersed myself in nature quietly, without the roar of an internal combustion engine from an ATV, swamp buggy, or airboat. I didn’t hunt gators, nor had I ever eaten gator meat. I was wary of the confederate flag, and skittish at the sight of firearms. I did want to play the banjo when I was six years old after watching Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Movie, but I had a feeling that wouldn’t count. Besides, the banjo was more hillbilly than redneck. My only saving grace was that I drove a pickup truck, a decision based more on necessity than desire, but no one had to know that.

From previous experience living on a boat and sailing to the Bahamas, I had discovered that the best strategy to adopt when immersing oneself in a different culture was to keep an open mind and a good sense of humor. Plus, I did like BBQ and beer….

Several months later, Mark moved up and we began to build our house. We attended several of the neighbor’s parties, where I learned the art of starting a fire redneck-style. Contrary to my conservative beliefs, it was not an event to be considered carefully, with regard to the possibility of torching your property. Instead, it was a celebration of man’s singularly greatest triumph, and as such, privy to going over the top by either producing a fireball or a ring of fire like the one that Johnny Cash sang about. Both techniques require copious amounts of lighter fluid:

The kid who asked me about rutting also had a thing or two to teach me; namely, a sport I never heard of before:

Eventually, I found that the neighbors could benefit from my nerdy skills too. I fixed their computer once, and took photographs at their wedding, including this one:

I also made t-shirts for their friends. One of them posed in front of his large 4X4 truck with his pit bull and requested the slogans “Git ‘er Done” and “Hawg Dawg” as captions.

Despite the initial cultural gap, the neighbors are always eager to extend their hospitality, including the beer and BBQ. You couldn’t ask for any better neighbors than that.

Side note: lest anyone think I use the term “redneck” pejoratively (ie, Mom), let me assure you, I don’t. I mean it in the most positive, Jeff Foxworthy type of way: a pride in one’s country roots; the ability to live off the land, independently of cushy conveniences like grocery stores; and a spirited, kick butt, hell raisin’ approach to life. Most of us can stand to benefit from a little more get ‘er done in our own lives.