The other day, while channel-surfing, I glimpsed a scene from that old series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
I watched it for a few moments. It reminded me vividly of how, once upon a time, everyone in our neighborhood would tune into that show every week, without fail, and laugh our fool heads off. That was then; this is now. Time has not been kind to that series, so brimming with its corn-pone humor.
Still, the scene I watched did amuse me a bit because it reminded me of real “hillbillies” I have known in my life. Like the family from the wilds of Arkansas who moved into an apartment next to mine in the 1970s. They loved to eat jalapeno peppers, raw. They told me they were surprised at the lack of outdoor toilets in Minnesota. And one of the sons burst over to my apartment one day to ask me if I knew Paul McCartney used to be in a band called The Beatles.
“No!” I said. “You gotta be kidding.”
“No kidding!” he said. “It said so just now, right on the radio.”
They grew up in rural Arkansas, without any conveniences. They were fun neighbors, and I still miss them.
When I was in grade school, Dad would often take our family on Sunday trips to some godforsaken place in the boondocks of central Minnesota. One of his good friends, a fellow musician, lived there in an underground “basement house,” as they were called. He and his nearly toothless wife had a swarm of kids (13 of them!) who would swirl around our Studebaker like happy savages when we pulled up to their weedy lot. The littlest kids, drooling and grinning, waddled around diaperless. Piles of garbage were stacked by the tar-paper top of their “buried house.” My brothers and I had a lot of fun playing outdoor games with those kids, but we had to hide our chuckles about their hillbilly ways.
Queen Elizabeth II of England is – or at least was – a big fan of “The Beverly Hillbillies” show. I heard that when I was studying in London 33 years ago. I used to imagine her watching that show and laughing at her crude American “cousins,” that nation of colonial upstart hillbillies who made the mistake of overthrowing the British king.
But I would always laugh with vengeance when I’d think of all the English “hillbillies” I’d see in the streets of London, the rabble mixed in among dapper gents with pinstriped suits, bowler hats and umbrellas. I even met English-style hillbillies in a concert hall. One evening I attended a performance of Richard Strauss’ “An Alpine Symphony” at Royal Festival Hall.
As the orchestra tuned up, there was a commotion to my right. A bumpkin family – an older couple and their Li’l Abner sons – were scuffling, bickering over where they were going to sit. The parents looked, for all the world, like Ma and Pa Kettle blown in from the Ozarks. The two “growed-up” sons looked like giant hulks of dim creation who fisticuffed each other and laughed like braying mules.
The symphony began; heads in the audience turned, perturbed by the noise.
I surmised the family was down from north England to take in a little culture in the big city. They sat down next to me, the Pa to my right.
“This is gonna be a loud one,” he said to me. “They got one of them wind machines down there.”
During the performance, Pa played with his fingers and slurped noisily on peppermints. He chattered to his wife, who riffled through the program.
One of the strapping sons began waving his arms, furiously “conducting” as he aped the orchestra conductor. His twin mountain of insensibility just sat there, his jaw agape in a kind of thunderous stupor, as if struck by lightning.
Faces in the rows ahead kept turning around, hissing like snakes.
“Ssssh!” I whispered to the family.
The wife, her budget feathers ruffled, gave me a dirty look and stuck her beak in the air.
When the symphony came to an end, Pa turned to me and said, “That sure was noisy!”
I felt like saying, “Yes, you sure were.”
As they left the lobby, the sons were punching each other and guffawing about the “dull” music.
Every time I hear the word “hillbillies,” I see that family as vividly as yesterday. They are an example of hillbillies as a universal phenomenon, not restricted to the American South but descended from remote hills everywhere.