Grass Valley, Calif., an easygoing town of 11,000 located an hour north of Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, owes its existence to the California gold rush. It is the home of test pilot Chuck Yeager and also is where Jimmy Jordan's roots have been in place for more than 19 years -- reflecting a landscape and lifestyle in stark contrast to the one where he grew up in middle Georgia.
New and different surroundings reshaped the life of this one-time country boy. He didn't grow up filled with wanderlust, but he was shaped by the provincial atmosphere of a farm outside Wrightsville in the '50s to become a savvy Westerner who took a consequential turn to a different life and never looked back.
His father made a bold move when Jimmy was in high school, settling in Blythe, Calif., to operate a big cotton farm. He leased big acreage and ran a cotton and cattle operation, which is how Jimmy was relocated to the West.
In high school, playing class C football, his 365-pound frame made him a man among boys. After his senior year, Alabama belatedly offered him a scholarship, but he had already joined his family in California. Word of mouth traveling west resulted in Dan Devine at Arizona State tendering an offer. At first Jimmy agreed to play for the Sun Devils, but later changed his mind and enrolled at the University of Arizona. A shoulder injury forced him to give up football, but at Arizona he met Anne, who became his life partner, and, with a degree in marketing, began a postgraduate career in sales with J.I. Case Tractor Company and later the Gehl Company.
His territory was the western states of the United States and western Canada. For the better part of 35 years, he left home on Monday and returned Thursday or Friday nights, which is why he considers his spacious deck off the back of his house his Shangri-La.
Through the years, I have tried to visit him wherever he has lived, finding his outgoing and gregarious personality always alluring. People naturally gravitate to him. Sadly, our visits are always too brief. As he grilled ribs from his deck, he was misty-eyed as he looked out to the mountains of northern California and reminisced. "I guess I could've settled somewhere in Georgia if I had not gone to school out here. It has been a good life. My kids live in Montana and Seattle." Then a pause. He had to clear his throat as he continued. "My parents are buried in Wrightsville. A piece of me is still there, but when I'm gone I don't guess it matters where you are laid to rest."
Our conversation had its ongoing light side, as we recalled graphic scenes of tomfoolery and the colorful and peculiar personalities of our high school friends. Teammates. Girlfriends. Town characters. Friday night football and forgettable times when, no matter our second and third efforts, we could not beat Dublin, a bigger and better team, as most of our opponents were. Romantic interludes. Basketball practice with our coach, who always played for either the "shirts" or "skins." Owing to the dearth of uniforms, all of us wore long pants, and our coach, Red Bullock, wouldn't let the scrimmage end until his team either won or bolted into the lead.
"Now that I know the difference," Jimmy said, "I prefer the lifestyle of living out West, but I have never thought condescendingly about those who chose to live back home where they grew up and have embraced a more provincial environment. They're different now, but they'll always be my friends. I miss 'em and I love 'em."
Sentimentality prevailed the rest of the evening that concluded with a toast to those with whom we grew up, tipping glasses of preferred local wines, which he enjoys most evenings on his deck. "I wouldn't go back there to live," he said with his eyes clouding over, "but I'd give anything to relive those high school years."
He can't go home again. The turn he made a half-century ago precludes that, but home will always have a sentimental sweetness, even when you can't reach out and touch it.
Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.