A drive-in movie theater, a skating rink, the Dairy Queen and the Tasty Freeze, the high school football field, a pizza parlor ... these were just a few of the places that made up the small Georgia town where I grew up. Hazlehurst isn't just a small town, it's a small southern town, and that makes a big difference. In the south fall Friday nights always centered around the high school football game. Everybody was there whether they cared about football or not (though most people did) - it was just the place to be. If it was warm enough on Saturday we drove to one of the beaches, Jekyll or St. Simons, for the day. Saturday nights were spent at the skating rink, riding around town, or going to a party at someone's house (somebody was always having a party for some reason). Most of the boys drove pickup trucks, some of them so high off the ground the girls had trouble getting inside! Sunday morning was spent in church, and the afternoon was often reserved for going to the river. It didn't matter if your family didn't have a boat - everyone went there just to hang out and socialize. We didn't have shopping malls, fancy restaurants and hotels, a convention center, or clubs of any kind. Homecoming dances were held in the high school gym, and my senior prom was actually held in a tobacco warehouse! During the summer many of us went to camps - cheerleading, football, 4-H at Rock Eagle, Christian Life Conference at Epworth by the Sea - while others spent their time working, often in tobacco fields.
I enjoyed growing up in Hazlehurst, but I didn't know enough back then to truly appreciate my life in a small town. I left in 1982 to attend college in Columbus, and I never lived in Hazlehurst again. I continued to visit regularly until my mother left a few years later. After that my visits gradually decreased and eventually stopped altogether. In time I lost touch with most of my friends there - my family, my job, my house, and my new friends were all in Columbus. I never forgot my years in Hazlehurst, though. The people I knew, the places I went, and the things I did have all remained a part of my life. Now 30 years later I've realized something very important ... Hazlehurst will always be my home. Like the Zac Brown song Chicken Fried says, "I was raised up beneath the shade of a Georgia Pine and that's home you know."
A little over a year ago I returned to Hazlehurst for a weekend and have been back for several visits since then. Not much has changed except there's a Wal Mart, a McDonald's, and a Burger King now and people grow cotton instead of tobacco. During these visits I've reconnected with some old friends and have found going "home" to be very therapeutic for me. I realized on one of these trips that I could actually feel myself relaxing and my stress level decreasing the further away from Columbus I drove. It was if I was physically leaving the difficult times and bad memories behind me, if only for a short time. While in Hazlehurst I've found that I truly appreciate life in a small town now. I'm content to spend Friday or Saturday nights riding the dirt roads just listening to music and talking (if you don't know about dirt roads listen to Jason Aldean's Dirt Road Anthem) then going to the river to watch the moon on the water and experience the quiet. I enjoy attending a small church on Sunday morning, going to the Dairy Queen for lunch or an ice cream, and spending the afternoon sitting in a swing on the front porch ... "Well it's funny how it's the little things in life that mean the most" (Chicken Fried). It's taken me a long time to realize it but there's definitely something to be said about life in a small town!