My Life In Redneck Country

In September of 1980, my parents and I moved out of the Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) church and to Penryn, 45-minutes drive north of Sacramento. I was 14. Within a year, we got homes in nearby Auburn and then Newcastle. I’d live at 7955 Bullard Drive, Newcastle, 95658 for most of the next 13 years.

Compared to the tight SDA communities we’d known, we all felt isolated and lonely in 95658. We got our water from an irrigation ditch that ran for miles through the country that cows shat in and we had a filtration system at our home that usually cleaned things up.

I felt desolate. The temperature was over 100 degrees most days during the summer and the grass was dead, the fire danger high, and the fields were covered in brambles.

Just after we moved in to our new digs in July of 1981, I went to a welcome party at the home of our new neighbor Bill Murphy (brother of the former Stanford broadcaster).

My family is socially awkward and this bloke Bob McKee, who lived a mile away, took mercy on me and struck up a conversation. He said his son was my age. He asked what type of music I liked. He said his son was into “REO Firewagon.” Had I heard of the band? I had.

In the fall, I was going to public school for the first time — Placer High in Auburn. Bob described Placer as “redneck.

I had never heard the term. I figured it meant people who got a lot of sun and by that measure I was a redneck. We didn’t have Wikipedia in 1981 but I learned that night that “redneck” meant poor uneducated whites, the type of people who drink domestic beer, eat at McDonalds, smoke cigarettes, play tackle football, chew tobacco, work with their hands, and enlist in the armed services.

Prior to this, I lived in Seventh-Day Adventist college communities which were racially diverse and educated. None of the people I knew there used negative terms for races, not even “redneck” for poor whites. This was foreign to the way of thinking I had learned in my church. We divided people by their religious faith, not by the color of their skin. You were either saved or lost, whether you were black or white.

Adventists tend to live in the country because cities are dens of iniquity. Though it’s considered a good thing to work the soil in Adventism, my dad and family and peers never got into this. We were more into books.

One major subset of my high school population were the “aggies.” I stayed away from these rough kids. I would never considered a career in agriculture or in manual labor. That was a whole different world. Getting a PhD was where it was at and dad had two of them.

The rough crowd at Placer scared me. Even the middle class kids acted rough at times and sought to bully me. I remember these kids in my grade taunted me in my first year and for some strange reasons, I pulled out my apple and bit into it in their face and they laughed and chased after me and taunted me. A year later, one of these boys turned to me for help in publishing an article in the school newspaper about how football players got preferential treatment in Spanish class.

My first few weeks at the school, the big kids thought I was a freshman and wanted to haze me (throw me in a trash can or rip my clothes or paint my face or degrade me in some other way I’ve forgotten). There was no hazing and almost no fighting or bullying at my Adventist schools. At Placer, we had to lock our lockers and watch out for thieves. Theft was almost unknown in my Adventist upbringing.

The people I knew in Auburn with advanced degrees had tasted the wider world and wanted to retreat from it. I was itching for advancement and didn’t mind who I stepped over to get there. They by contrast had seen the suicides (after my journalism advisor Bob Burge saw one, saw the brains splattered over a wall, and decided to get out of daily journalism) and the crime and the mess of the big city and wanted a more tranquil life. We were going in opposite directions.

On Bullard Drive, everyone had about seven acres of land. It was a bedroom community. Most people worked in Sacramento.

I was used to tight-knit Seventh-Day Adventist communities. Now I lived in a community united more by skin color than religion. It wasn’t as close as what I had known. We weren’t united by a transcendent purpose and history. The secular world scared me a bit. It didn’t have the same limits.

One of my favorite teachers at Placer High said privately that if whites would just breed with blacks, we’d eventually get rid of all black people. My teacher wasn’t an evil man. He’d never do anything to hurt a black person because of his skin color and he never treated the occasional black student any differently from other students, but like many of the people around Auburn, he was glad to be away from the high crime rates and social dysfunction of American black life.

One of the teams in our athletic conference was Grant High School, a predominantly black sporting powerhouse in Sacramento. Games at Grant were scary. Some of the black kids when I was there would come over to our section in the bleachers and try to provoke fights.

Many of the adults I knew in the Auburn area were glad to live away from blacks, but I never saw them deliberately do anything to hurt a black person because of his skin color. I’ve never seen any white any where do this. I’ve only ever seen blacks discriminate against people on the basis of race.

I never had dreams about living my life in Auburn. I wanted to get to the city, probably Los Angeles, and make it big.

It was over 100 degrees most days in the Sacramento area during summer. My classmate Kevin and I would grab our inner tubes and float for miles down the irrigation ditch below our homes and then trudge back. The icy water was run-off from the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

At Kevin’s place, we’d listen to REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity and bake chocolate chip cookies and sip Kool-Aid and sit in the shade on his deck and talk about the hot wife next door and the things Kevin saw one day when he hopped the fence to retrieve a ball and saw her sunbathing naked by the pool. He was my first friend who wasn’t religious.

Kevin had played Doctor a few times, something I completely missed out on. We mused about how awesome it would be if you could put RaeAnne’s tits on LeeAnne’s body (two of our classmates).

Down the street, Drew, a year younger than us, lived in a trailer home. He drank a lot of Coke and his face was covered with oozing zits. He had a VCR and one day we watched The Blues Brothers. Not a big deal except I was raised a Seventh-Day Adventist and movies were a sin.

The first film I ever saw in a theater was that summer with Kevin — Raiders of the Lost Ark. There were advantages to leaving the church. The outside world had many attractions.

I graduated high school in 1984 and planned to get the heck out of redneck country but ended up going to a redneck junior college (Sierra, where the San Francisco 49ers held their summer camp) from 1985-1988 and working in landscaping. By the time I transferred to UCLA, I was ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and had to drop out of school after a year and live with my parents on Bullard Drive until July of 1993.

One day in 1992, we heard a small plane buzzing overhead. Running out of fuel, it kept circling until it found a paddock just up the road in which to make a safe landing.

I identified with the pilot. In distress, I kept landing in 95658 until I could find the fuel to get out.

I’ve only been back to Auburn twice in the past 19 years. Driving up the I-5 in May, the air is filled with the smell of cut grass and agriculture. It makes me feel sad and uncomfortable. Why? Because it reminds me of an unwanted self.

I was not particularly happy nor successful in redneck country. I ended up there because my dad got kicked out of the Seventh-Day Adventist church ministry in 1980 and we had to leave Pacific Union College, where I had been happy (when I was away from my parents).

I stayed in the Auburn area from 1985-1988 because I was slow off the mark into adulthood. Only in 1987, just before turning 21, did I become serious about my schooling and begin to get the grades necessary to transfer to UCLA. Then illness struck me in 1988 and my independence got delayed another six years.

Going back to Auburn makes me want to curse. It’s not a bad place, but it just reminds me of all the misfires of my life. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I wasn’t supposed to spend 13 years in redneck country.

As the years moved on from 1980, a brown haze gathered over Sacramento and each year it got worse, moving further north and taking up residence in our foothills. I hated the smog because it reminded me of Los Angeles, the city where I wanted to live and where I would gladly breathe the car fumes in exchange for the opportunity to be great.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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