Morris: An Ode to Wide Places in the Road
by Leo Morris
All I want to do today is tell you where I was born, but be patient. It will take a while.
The following is mostly accurate, based on a real occurrence. While some parts of the conversation quoted might have taken place largely in my head, there is a greater truth involved, and I have been faithful to the essential spirit of the exchange. I believe that meets what passes for ethical standards in today’s journalism.
The story begins when I realize I need a certified copy of my birth certificate when I renew my driver’s license in September, so that I might upgrade to the federally mandated Real ID version.
The need for this license saddens me beyond words. Real ID is not exactly that dreaded national identification card good conservatives have been fighting against for years, but it is on the slippery slope toward one. The next step, I fear, will be guards at the borders demanding to see our papers when we want to cross state lines.
But, alas, the Real ID will be required to board airplanes and “enter certain federal facilities,” like nuclear plants. I have long given up on my childhood dream of touring a real nuclear plant, but I do want to continue flying to Texas to visit my brother.
So I grit my teeth and try to order the birth certificate online. I give up after two days because the people who run the vital records service keep demanding my signature, and for the life of me I can’t figure out how to “sign” my name on a computer screen. (I eventually did discover that what they wanted me to do was print out my request form, sign that and put it in the mail. But my computer would print only the sample form with blurred-out examples of the blanks filled in. It couldn’t seem to handle the real form.)
I choose another option offered by the vital records firm and dial its 1-800 number. I am connected with a woman on the Kentucky desk, and after getting some preliminary information, like my name, address and phone number, she gets to the nitty gritty.
“Spell that again.”
It finally sinks in. “R-a-d-e-r Morris,” she says. It occurs to me that I have not reached a little old lady who’s been toiling away in a Kentucky clerk’s office for the last 100 years. I have reached a smart young lady employed by the nationwide vital records service, briskly attacking her keyboard in a hive somewhere in a large coastal city.
“Mother’s maiden name,” she says.
This will not go well.
“Maiden name,” she explains patiently to the dimwitted hayseed, “is the last name of your mother before she was married.”
“Jimmie Campbell,” I say.
“No, your mother.”
“That’s your mother’s name?”
“Yes, Jimmie, with an ie instead of a y. J-i-m-m-i-e. Her middle name is Jean. Jimmie Jean. It’s an Appalachian thing.”
“We don’t do middle names.”
“Well, we don’t, either, except for my mother. My father didn’t have a middle name, so he didn’t believe in them. I don’t have a middle name, nor do my brother or sister. My father probably didn’t like it that our mother had a middle name, but she came that way, so what could he do?”
“Jimmie, with an ie, Campbell?”
I dread what’s coming next.
“Place of birth. The city in Kentucky.”
The pauses are lengthening to the point where a novelist might call them “dramatic.”
‘I don’t find that in the computer,” she finally says.
“Well, it’s not really a city, not even a town. It’s a post office.”
“You were born in a post office?”
“No, no, no. I was born in a wide place in the road in rural Kentucky. Dunraven was the nearest post office.”
She allows as to how that never in her career as a clerk had she ever seen, nor anywhere in her future life did she ever expect to see, the “place of birth” space on a birth certificate filled in with “wide place in the road.”
I am about to agree with her when she asks if I had ever seen my birth certificate and remember what city might be listed there. Yes, I say, but no.
“What city might be on it?” she asks, taxing the mental abilities of a poor country boy.
“You might try Hazard. That’s the county seat.”
“That’s in the system,” she exclaims happily. We’ll go with that.” She does not add, “Thank God,” but I’d bet anything she is thinking it.
All questions answered, finally, I give her my debit card number, and she tells me the document will be reaching me in a few days by U.S. Mail, and I am left to ponder one of life’s great mysteries.
If the vital records people so insistently needed my signature to order the birth certificate online, why do they so casually let me order it on the phone with no mention of a signature? Possibly for the same unfathomable reason Indiana officials require us to show photo IDs in order to vote in person, but seem to have no anti-fraud measures at all in place for those of us who want absentee ballots mailed to us.
Anyway, my curiosity piqued by the clerk’s failure, I decide to Google Dunraven, Ky.
“Dunraven is an unincorporated area located in Perry County, Kentucky, United States,” says its Wikipedia entry. “Its post office is closed.”
Well, that explains it. I now know apparently everything there is to know about my place of birth, so from now on I will give the correct answer when asked.
I was born in Wide Place in the Road, Ky.
If you’re a big city journalist who wishes to go there in order to “report on the real America” for your viewers or readers, here’s what you do.
First, go to Flyover Country. Starting out at Hicktown, Mich., go due south to Podunk, Ind., then head east to Middle of Nowhere, Ohio, and take the second right. If you reach Amerpit of the Universe, Ky., you’ve gone too far. You can’t miss it.
But if you should somehow end up in Bush League, simply go to the post office and ask for directions.
Just make sure your papers are in order.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.