For nearly forty years, I’ve called this animal a buffalo. Somewhere along the way, I learned it’s also called a bison–American bison, to be exact. But that didn’t make it any less a buffalo, it just now had two names–interchangeable, like pig and hog.
At Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, the part near Cadiz, Kentucky, I’ve driven through the Elk & Bison Prairie numerous times, once even having to stop the car completely, because buffalo–er, bison–had surrounded us (I was with my dad). It was a transcendent moment, having these beasts on all sides, who could end us with one toss of the head, these icons of the American plains.
There are cities named after it; there are national brands with the word in their names; the animal is used in countless folk and Americana songs. But I learned, not too long ago, that to call this furry behemoth a buffalo, is to call it the wrong thing. After all these years, I decide to look it up, to see if there’s a difference between the two terms. What I discovered surprised me. It turns out the only true buffalo are in Asia and Africa (think water buffalo). What we have in America is actually only a bison. Though it’s no less majestic, it’s also no more a buffalo.
Imagine all the names of things that must be changed now, things integral to the very culture we inherit, and that we hope to pass on to our kids and grandkids! Doesn’t this revelation make you wonder if everything we assume to be true is really just made up? Or that we’re making it all up as we go?
Okay. I might be overreacting. But now, when I see Blue Buffalo dog food in the grocery store, with a little blue bison leaping on the logo, I think, “Your brand’s a lie!”
Fads are often silly from the start, and yet they grow even sillier with age, some of them degrading entirely to pure nonsense (think tight-rolled jeans). One of the sillier fads I embraced as a kid was the lifeguard tank top shirt. It must’ve been about 1984, give or take a year–the start of a period which, spanning the entire second half of the eighties, I’m realizing was seminal in the development of who I am. The seeds of lifelong interests were sown in those roughly five years. Memories I have from that time rank among my favorites. There was a magic in that long corridor between ages eight and thirteen that I didn’t identify then–though I certainly felt it–that is becoming clearer with age. An innocence on the verge of experience. The mystery of girls deepened, resulting in some killer crushes. Music became a vehicle for any emotion or memory I might have had, and it did so with increasing intensity–any music I was into, in fact, from Huey Lewis and the News to 3rd Bass to Guns N’ Roses. What I now know to be a budding self-consciousness, was to me then an expansion of the horizon itself, and the awkwardness and heartbreak were as necessary as the triumphs and thrills.
At that age, I also became increasingly image-conscious, which sounds a little shallow to the present me, but at the time, it somehow fit: blissfully ignorant of social class, the idea I could wear a certain shirt and be part of a certain group held a charming simplicity. I didn’t know any better then; I see the folly of that view only in reflection. What I did know was that the world (for me) was getting bigger; that the teenage years looked exciting and grownup; that things were now either “cool” or not, and to be “cool” was everything. Even if it meant traipsing sunburnt down Panama City Beach in a tank top with the word lifeguard printed on it in red letters.
In every memory of the front view of my childhood home, my dad’s 1978 Ford F-150 two-tone brown and tan pickup is parked in the street. It’s not because my dad stayed home all the time–he maintained a long workweek for most of my youth–but because I can’t separate the truck from my memories of growing up. My brother and I both learned to drive in that truck, and we both left our marks on it, some of which remained indefinitely. Yet even as a self-conscious late-stage teenager, long after appearance had begun to matter, I was never too proud to be seen in the beat-up truck. In fact, I excelled at finding excuses to drive it, one of which involved 90s alternative band, The Breeders.
Imagine a lonely northwest Tennessee town in winter. It’s night and the brown grass and busted-up concrete of vacant lots lends a desolation to the sideroads off the main drag. Behind and around the big-block headquarters of the local paper, the shadows are deep, as they are around the Bakery Thriftshop across the street, its facade like the whitewashed walls of an abandoned warehouse. This is all seen from the road, where the 1978 Ford cruises along. It may or may not be 1993, but the teenage boy driving the truck is most certainly me. I had my own car by now, so I’m not sure why I was in my dad’s truck–perhaps mine was in the shop, I don’t know. Memory’s not yielding this detail. What memory does yield, however, is the music I was listening to: the album Pod, by The Breeders. The old Ford had a cassette deck, but I was all 1993-modern with my compact discs. My solution was to set a boom box on the seat next to me, but for this to work, I had to have enough D batteries. Did I buy the batteries that night, or did I find them at home? I don’t remember this detail, either, but it’s likely I bought them, because nobody keeps enough D batteries lying around to power anything. Or maybe they were C batteries. Whatever they were, I went through a lot of trouble to listen to The Breeders. No one was with me, and I had nowhere to be, but when you’re young and restless and have a driver’s license, sometimes you just have to get out, and if you’re going to get out, you’ve got to have music you love. So I traveled the sideroads, alone and looking for signs of life, while Kim Deal sang “When I Was a Painter.”