Hampton, Ga. - Stuck in what he calls "the Northeast corridor," Billy Shaffer can't turn his back on the three generations of family who have lived in New Jersey. His life is, and will remain, in the North, he says. Yet his heart longs for the Southern red clay roads presided over by the General Lee.
Maybe Mr. Shaffer never would have known better unless he'd sat down on that Friday night in early 1979, when a car shot across the Georgia landscape, a Dixie horn sounded, and the world changed. Like so many devotees of the hit 1980s TV show, "The Dukes of Hazzard," Shaffer's interest only grew after the show went off the air in 1985, as its iconic pop elements lingered – not the least of which was a 1969 Dodge Charger named for the Confederacy's greatest general.
Last weekend, Shaffer, a county park ranger in coastal New Jersey, joined thousands of devotees at DukesFest 2008, a carnival-meets-carshow held at the Atlanta Motor Speedway here in Hampton. Hollywood stuntmen launched late-model cars off ramps and old-car buffs displayed their homebuilt General Lees – some of which cost $35,000 to create, but have made the owners mini-celebrities back home.
After rushing to finish his own General Lee vehicle in time for the show, Shaffer looked around at the four-barrel-carburetor atmosphere and pondered the stubborness of the Dukes' appeal. Typical among the fans here, he traces his interest in the show to the hard-living travails of good ole boys, the search for redemption from crooked laws, and, more personally, a bond between himself and his grandfather that grew out of a fictional place of swamps and mountains called Hazzard County.
"It's a different type of people in the North, and even though I grew up in New Jersey, I feel like a transplant. I don't belong there, I belong here," he says, looking out over a racetrack peppered with nearly 200 '69 Dodge Chargers, all painted red-orange with a Confederate battle flag on the roof and "01" on the doors.
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"The Dukes of Hazzard" riffed on well-trampled stereotypes of the South – Daisy Duke and her Daisy Dukes (denim shorts), Uncle Jesse's moral (and moonshine) stewardship, the hapless law embodied by Roscoe P. Coltrane, Waylon Jennings's narrative baritone, and the car that was the real star. But it ended up turning stereotypes into archetypes.
Taken from a true-life story about two bootlegging cousins from North Carolina, the Dukes always followed the same Robin Hood story line. Bo and Luke Duke, the cousins, were on probation for running bootleg liquor, and they always seemed to find themselves in the middle of trouble even when they weren't at fault. They were either going to jail or getting out of jail and chasing around Hazzard County – and sometimes the "big city" of Atlanta – to clear themselves of trumped-up charges and catch the real bad guys.
"It was good ole boys, plain and simple," says Rusty Cash of Chattanooga, Tenn., who came to DukesFest dressed in the blindingly white tuxedo of Boss Hogg, the hapless county boss whose outlandish corruption the Duke boys always stymied. "The law was always after them, but they were always good ole boys. It wasn't nothing about prejudice, it was always about Uncle Jesse saying, 'If it ain't done right – Southern with a Christian attitude – then don't do it.' That's what the whole story is about – doing what's right."
The show was a midseason replacement that became a sleeper hit, capturing the South at a peculiar crossroads. A decade after the civil rights movement, the new South was rising, stock car racing was hot, and shows based on Southern themes – remember the movie "Cannonball Run"? – were box office gold. Critics say the "Dukes" producers played brilliantly on those themes – a success that still lingers today, to the surprise of many of the show's actors.
"As long as this goes on, we don't have to grow up," says Ben Jones, who parlayed his stint as Cooter Davenport on the "Dukes" into a term as a Georgia congressman.
Still, Duke fandom, in a nation where Confederate flags are a touchy subject, can come at a price. Some critics have faulted the show for perpetuating stereotypes and portraying a "simple South," one that didn't touch on race issues or the traffic-choked suburban angst that has come to define much of it today.
Still, a large majority of Southerners surveyed in 2005 didn't find the show offensive. Some see a reason for that. "The appeal of the 'Dukes of Hazzard' is not based on race, but it's much more a conflict between father and son figures and between the sons and the system," says Bill Ferris of the University of North Carolina and coauthor of the "Encyclopedia of Southern Culture."
Which is a universal theme. Many of the fans at DukesFest have come from north of the Mason-Dixon line. Chuck Shoup of Pittsburgh wears Duke-themed sunglasses. He goofs off with Kevin Shook and Julian Witt, who are dressed up as Roscoe and Enos. In true "Dukes" fashion, Mr. Shook and Mr. Witt drove to the festival from Spotswood, N.J., in a '90s-era Caprice that was a former police car, complete with a lightbar. The duo put Hazzard County stickers on the doors. They were pulled over three times and could have been charged with impersonating an officer, but were given only warnings.
"Thirty years later and I still love it," says Shoup of the show, as Shook, playing Deputy Enos, shackles him with plastic handcuffs.
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Plot points, car chases, jumps – all are hotly debated here among self-identifying rednecks, in a scene that's as much about pop culture as regional solidarity. Hazzard County cop cars, even the Batmobile, are on hand. People line up to get a $5 autograph from John Schneider, who played Bo Luke, and Catherine Bach, who played his leggy tomboy cousin Daisy Duke. "The classic cars that you see, the 'Dukes of Hazzard' General Lee cars, they've all been handcrafted by people, brought back to life by the families who own them, as a hobby for the whole family," says Ms. Bach.
Shaffer's gambit to bring his own General Lee to DukesFest began in 2003, after his grandfather, Clarence, passed. The two had shared a love of the show, and Clarence, on various flea market trips, would always find new "Dukes" memorabilia to add to his grandson's collection. Shaffer would help his grandfather refurbish old Edsels, which they'd drive together in a local Memorial Day parade. A generational bond grew around lug nuts and chrome bumpers. In his will, Clarence left enough money for Shaffer to buy a '69 Charger.
What began as the rusted shell of a car purchased on eBay took five years to transform into the bona fide General Lee that found its way to Hampton this weekend. It's now patent-leather shiny and nearly all-stock – right down to the General Lee's license plate number.
Shaffer put the Dixie horn on the day that he left for DukesFest, without which the General Lee isn't a General Lee. He says the car is his reminder of the South, in his own garage. Granddad would, no doubt, approve.
"I always wanted one so other people can enjoy it as much as I do," says Shaffer. "When people see this car, they can have the flashbacks, just like I do."