As I was growing up, my parents chased the economy.
In the city of my birth, Tampa, Florida, my Pop was one of the best crane operators in the business. He was a legacy, following in his father’s footsteps. If you have ridden the monorail at Disney World, you have experienced some of his handi-work.
In 1973, when the gas crisis hit, things began to change. Some of my first memories are of my mom and me dropping my sister off at school and then sitting in a line at the gas station for hours to buy our ration of the lifeblood of the United States. We were fortunate enough to own two cars so while dad would take one to work one day, we would take the other one and sit in line for what seemed like an eternity. The next day, we would do it all over again.
It was a pretty scary time for an almost four year old. I didn’t understand what was happening but I could sense the fear in my parents and other adults as they spoke of fuel shortages and talked about how the world was running out of oil. Years later, I still feel somewhat resentful after realizing the deception that my parents and the rest of America were led to believe. OPEC became a dirty word in our house and the days of owning that seemingly 30 foot long Buick Skylark station wagon were coming to an end as Americans sought more fuel efficient cars.
Out of necessity, our family car became an AMC Hornet as the 400% increase in the cost of a barrel of oil over a few short months caused gas prices to skyrocket to over 50 cents a gallon, a floor which would never be seen again. If you are a car aficionado born after the 70’s and are not familiar with the Hornet or its counterpart, the Gremlin, don’t bother looking for one at an antique car show that has been carefully restored by the loving hands of its adoring owner. These cars had no adoring owners. They were Detroit’s answer to the fuel crisis and luxury went out the window as fuel economy became the focus.
As the fuel crisis expanded to become a full blown energy crisis, construction slowed and, in 1976, at the ripe age of 6, my family packed everything we owned into a 24 foot U-Haul and headed for Tennessee seeking greener pastures.
I sat in the U-Haul with Pop, pretending all the while that I was the Snowman, Jerry Reed, hoping desperately that we might get caught up in a convoy. I got seemingly hundreds of acknowledgments from fellow truckers by way of tooted horns as I pumped my fists up and down every time we passed a semi.
Conversely, every time we were passed by a Pontiac Fire Bird Trans Am (which, for the record, you will find at an antique car show that has been carefully restored by the loving hands of its adoring owner) I was convinced it was Burt “Bandit” Reynolds running a blockade against Smokey to prevent detection of our potentially illegal cargo composed of couches and box springs.
I’m pretty sure I drove Pop nuts the entire trip but he gamely played along.
I still remember clearly the first time I laid eyes on Knoxville in 1976 as we rolled up I-40. The Brown Squirrel had a huge “Going Out Of Business” sign. I was horrified to see this believing like my parents that the economy was more solid in Tennessee. I fretted over their financial health for years before I realized that frequently they posted a “Going Out For Business” sign on the building. My six year old mind must have missed the play on words originally. Good one, Brown Squirrel. Really funny. There could be a career out there with OPEC for you if you ever really do close your doors.
As we travelled further down the road I saw downtown Knoxville before the Sunsphere existed. Somewhere today there is a lovely lady that must be in her sixties that has no idea that her inquiry of a timid little six year old at the Magnolia Avenue McDonald’s 38 years ago was my first exposure to the beautiful music that is the East Tennessee accent.
This flatlander took it all in not failing to notice that every image was set with a backdrop of beautiful mountainous views. I was also introduced to the joys of motion sickness as my body took years to acclimate to the transition from flat, curve-less roads to the Tennessee equivalent that must have resulted in the entire East Tennessee population having forearms like Popeye as they fought every twist and turn prior to the prevalence of power steering.
Although I was clearly a stranger in a strange land, there was some part of me that immediately connected to the beauty of this area and couldn’t help but feel that, in a sense, I had come home.
I still refer to East Tennessee as home to this day. The traditions, culture and community that I have grown to love over the last 37 years have permeated all that I am and I am hopeful that countless years from now, there will be a Collins proudly telling someone about how his or her great, great-grandfather came to Sevier County before there was a Dollywood and when Highway 66 had only two lanes.
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© Michael L. Collins
This Column appeared in the September 10, 2014 edition of The Mountain Press under the name “The economy made Rocky Top sweet home to me.”