By Tom Lawrence
Klug stood in the opening of his cave, and stared at the stack of smoldering wood he had covered with muddy dirt just before sundown last night. There were still wisps of blue smoke coming from a hole near the top of the stack. Klug was comfortable with the aroma of burning wood. Fire had been the only thing that made it possible to live here in the hills of what would one day be called Tennessee.
There was something strange about the smell of this smoke, something more acrid and bitter. Klug shrugged it off, figuring it was probably caused by something in the dirt. Later that day, he kicked some of the dirt off the pile, and was surprised to find black hunks of what appeared to be wood ashes. He picked up a piece and found that while it looked like wood, even had the same grain as wood, it was almost half the weight of wood.
He gathered a pile of the new material and put it near his fire pit in the cave. He wasn’t sure why he saved it, but he did. Klug was a member of a small band whose members had been following the retreating ice caps for thousands of years. They were frightened by the loss of ice, and tried to stay as close to the caps as possible. They understood this icy environment, and feared global warming, much like their ancestors would 12,000 years later.
Klug and his mate had lived in the family cave, just as his forefathers before him. In the short summer months they gathered edible plants, and all winter they lived on meat killed by Klug and his buddies. A couple of days before, Klug had managed to kill a large hairy boar, and his family had been sticking pieces on sticks and holding them in the fire. The burned meat was bitter and tough, but it kept starvation at bay.
As the winter sun sank below the river bluffs, Klug began to set up his night time cooking fire. He piled a small bunch of twigs and moss, took a burning ember from the main fire, and lit the little pile. He tossed on twigs and small sticks until the flames were flickering off the cave walls. He looked at the fire and thought, “Oh what the hell,” and tossed all of the charred wood he had salvaged onto the flame. A strange thing happened. Rather than burning away like wood, the stuff got very hot, and soon Klug had a glowing bed of coals in his fire ring. He noticed that the strange stuff burned much hotter than a bed of wood coals, but he went over to the boar’s carcass anyway, and sliced off a large section of ribs.
The fire was much too hot to hold the slab of ribs with a stick, so Klug piled his firestones a little higher and balanced the rib rack above the fire. Soon the cave was filled with the aroma of grilling pork. Klug carefully turned the ribs when the first side was done. When both sides were ready, he removed the slab and cut off a single rib and took a small bite.
Not only did Klug’s life change that day autumn day, but likewise, would the entire course of mankind. Klug and his little family soon stopped chasing the receding ice cap, and decided to plant some grass seeds down by the creek. Soon their whole standard of living began to improve, and all of it could be attributed to the magical properties of what is now a Memphis tradition–and hands down, the best in the world–barbecued pork ribs.
This piece first appeared on www.tomlawrenceblog.com
Fire image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to jknewspoint.com
The illustration is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.pixaby.com
Barbequed ribs image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked toen.wikipedia.org
A work of fiction, based in fact
By Tom Lawrence
Fred Gray sat in his law office in downtown Montgomery, listening to the March rain pelting against his window. He was expecting visitors, and had a fresh pot of coffee burbling on the office hot plate. He was about to pour a cup, when the front door opened, revealing a tall dark man, dressed in a three piece suit, folding an umbrella as he stepped in from the street. Gray turned to the man and said,
“Good evening, E.D. I was just about to get some coffee. Want a cup?
“Always want a cup of coffee,” the man with graying hair and a worry lined face replied. Am I the first one here?”
“You are, but everyone else should be here shortly. I thought we’d better meet this afternoon and come to some agreement as to what I should do tomorrow.”
“I agree. Who all did you call?”
Gray handed E.D Nixon a steaming mug of coffee, and replied,
“Martin King and Cliff Durr. I thought we ought to limit our exposure until we decide what to do.”
“Again, I agree. There’s just too much at stake to start letting events take over. We’ve been planning this too long to risk a misstep.”
There was a knock on the door, and when Gray opened it, a smiling white man in a drenched, tattered raincoat stepped in. As he stood dripping on the floor, he said,
“Sorry I’m late. I had a last minute brief to file, and the courthouse was packed. Is everyone here?”
“Everyone but Martin. He was visiting a church member at the hospital when he returned my call. I expect he’s on his way.”
Gray poured another mug of coffee, and handed it to Cliff Durr.
“Cliff, how’s Virginia?”
“She’s fine. She wanted to come with me, but I promised to fill her in when I got home. You know Virginia; she’s too hot headed, and she’d want to storm the jail and free the young lady tonight.”
Nixon nodded and said,
“We all might want to join her, but we have to stick to our plan. Today’s incident may be a God sent opportunity, or it may be an open trap.”
Gray’s office door flew open, and a handsome man in a tailored suit under a Burberry rain coat came barging into the office. Martin Luther King was such a presence, that he seemed to suck the very air out of any room he occupied. He was in his late twenties, with a neatly cut mustache, and fire in his eyes. Despite the fact that he was by far the youngest and least experienced man in the office, he just naturally took over the meeting.
He peeled off the dripping rain coat, and stood near the edge of Gray’s desk, looking around the small office. Finally, he spoke in a rich baritone voice that reminded people of Moses speaking from the Mountain.
“From what Fred tells me, we may have the incident we’ve been waiting for. This young woman,” he paused, and looked at Fred Gray, and arching his brow asked, “what did you say her name is?”
“Claudette Colvin. She’s a student at Washington High.”
“Well, Miss Colvin’s decision to sit in the front of the bus certainly came at a propitious moment. What do y’all suggest we do about her?”
“Her daddy called me as soon as he got the news that she’d been arrested and taken to jail. I’ve been to see her, and I’ve made arrangements for bail later tonight.”
“What’s she charged with?” Cliff Durr asked.
“They’ve booked her for violating the law concerning segregated bus service, disturbing the peace, and assault,” replied Fred Gray.
“Where’d the assault charge come from? Did she resist arrest?”
“She says she didn’t. She did shout loudly about her constitutional rights being violated,” added Gary.
“You say she’s in high school? I’m surprised that she had the presence of mind to talk about her rights,” observed Martin King.
Nixon spoke up and said,
“The young lady in question is a member of the NAACP’s Youth Council, and they’ve been studying about constitutional rights at Washington High. This may be the exact situation we’ve been hoping for.”
Martin King thought for a moment then said,
“I think we all agree that the segregated bus service is our best target to get a case into Federal Court, and Miss Colvin’s action could certainly be such a case, but remember, we also agree that the success or failure of such an effort will depend a great deal upon the events following the arrest. We’ll need someone who is calm, polite, and determined to see this whole thing through. Fred, judging from your visit with Miss Colvin, can she handle the aftermath?”
“Well, considering that I’ve spent less than an hour with her, it’s difficult to say for sure. I can say that she was pretty upset about the whole thing. Her language was what one might describe as salty, and I’d have to say she’s a bit feisty and emotional. She’ll need a lot of coaching before I would want her put on the witness stand.”
King looked at Nixon and said,
“E.D. where are we on grooming a candidate to be our test case?”
“Martin, I believe you know Rosa Parks. She’s the Secretary of our Local NAACP Chapter.”
“I do know Rosa—a fine church lady—but could she handle the aftermath any better than Miss Colvin?”
“Rosa has been active in the movement since the early years. She’s calm and determined. We’ve scheduled Rosa for the summer session at The Highlander School to study the whole concept of non-violence. She also just happens to ride the city bus back and forth to her job as a seamstress.”
King looked at Durr and said,
“What’s your advice Cliff?”
“I think we wait until Rosa’s ready to do it. There’ll be too many opportunities for a teenager to make an embarrassing mistake. If it were up to me, I’d do everything we can to get this young lady out of jail, and we’ll certainly help defend her against the trumped up charges, but I think we should continue to work with Rosa until the time is right.
King looked around the room and said,
“I agree with Cliff. Rosa Parks it’ll be.
Nine months later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery City bus, and became an icon of the civil rights movement. Claudette Colvin faded into history’s background.
The bus photo is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.flickriver.com
Scars Are Tattoos with Better Stories
By Mollie Smith Waters
I collect magnets. I have a wall in my house that has a magnetic board where I display them. Most of the magnets are from places I’ve visited, and over the years, I have purchased or had sent to me magnets from six of the seven continents. Some of my magnets simply have slogans, and one of my favorite states, “Scars are tattoos with better stories.” I do not have, nor have I ever had a desire for, any tattoos. Instead, I have multiple scars. For me, my scars are a symbol of honor, a badge if you will, of a life well-lived.
For me, my scars are a symbol of honor, a badge if you will, of a life well-lived.
My first, and biggest, scar is on the inside of my right wrist. Unless I hold my hand up and angle it just right (or show it to someone), it’s not really a scar most people notice. I got that scar when I was five years old. Everyone who knows me will tell you that I’m truly one of the clumsiest and most accident-prone people you will ever meet. I can walk across a room and fall down without provocation. The big scar on my wrist comes from a fall. I got it during spring break of my kindergarten year in school. My great-grandmother used to collect glass Coca-Cola bottles that she would return for the five cents deposit. She would sit them on the steps leading down from her back door until she got enough to return them. One day during my break, it rained, and that night, there was a freeze. The result was that one of the bottles broke, and a jagged piece protruded from it. The next morning, I walked down the steps of my great-grandmother’s back door, promptly fell, went head over heels, and felt a tear as my wrist slipped right under that jagged piece of glass. The cut was so deep that my main artery was shaved. Every time my heart beat, blood would spurt everywhere. I was lucky, though. My step-father and grandmother rushed me to the emergency room, where I received fifty-five stitches and had a week-long stay in the hospital. After that trip, my daddy would never ride anywhere with my grandmother again; I don’t remember the journey, but apparently, he never forgot it! That scar doesn’t remind me of the fall or nearly dying; it doesn’t remind me of pain or the hospital. Instead, that scar always makes me think about my family, who in a moment of panic, did everything they could to save my life.
Another scar of mine is hidden in my hair on top of my head. I got it during spring break three years after the first one. I was playing hide-and-seek with some friends. I had hidden under our trailer, and the girl who was “it” snuck up unawares. I jumped from the surprise, and managed to crack my head open on a piece of jagged metal in the process. I put my hand to my head, and when I pulled it away, I had blood everywhere. When I went in to show my mother, she panicked and managed to lock us out of the house in the rush to get to the hospital. We had to walk to the doctor’s office. Luckily, I only needed three stitches. That scar always makes me laugh when I think about it. I could never play a game of hide-and-seek again without looking up first. Plus, the scar reminds me of how my dad always joked that the incident was what resulted in my not being “quite right in the head.”
The third scar that proves to me that scars are better than tattoos is the one on my lower abdomen. That scar is from the C-section that saved both my life and my son’s. I had a difficult pregnancy, and without going into too much detail, we were both on the verge of death when my nurse realized how dangerous our situation was. I was put under anesthesia during the panic that ensued, and when I woke up, I didn’t know if my son had survived or not. Of all my scars, that is the one of which I am the most proud. It’s a testament to motherhood and a reminder that my greatest accomplishment in life is my son.
While I have other scars with great stories, too, the final one I’ll mention here is the most recent one I’ve acquired. This scar is on the outside of my right wrist. That poor wrist has caught trouble over the years! I got this scar because I needed to release pressure on my tendon due to excessive grading. I’m a teacher, and while my condition is more commonly referred to as “gamer’s wrist,” you can get it from writing too much as well. I’m oddly proud of that scar. It’s the most visible, and the ugliest one, but I feel like I won it in the hard fought battle of educating the many students I have taught over the years. My life would not be complete without my profession. I believe in what I do for a living, and teaching has blessed me with some of the greatest moments of my life.
So, yes, I’m pretty scarred up, but I like each one. To me, they are much more beautiful than any tattoo I could have ever gotten. I have nothing against tattoos; I just think scars tell more about you than tattoos ever can. Scars show you’ve lived.
*Mollie Smith Waters, a frequent contributor to Porchscene, teaches composition, literature, theater, and speech at Lurleen B Wallace Community College in Greenville, Alabama.
Coke bottles image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.flicker.com
Tattoo image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to Greg James (tattoo artist) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaen.wikipedia.org
Grading papers image: Deborah Fagan Carpenter
By Chip Burson
Why, pray tell, did they call it barren? Cloudless and just warming with the pent up energy of an oddly Spring-like November morning, this lovely bower walk hid all the history; every spilled drop of it.
They had been ordered down south, these boys from the cities. These were not the raw and ignorantly brave farm lads of Indiana or Ohio. No. These were the hard-edged, spit ‘n cut, knife totin’ alley cats of Irish ghettos in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Belligerent immigrants, newly minted Americans, conscripted or pressed to service from poverty, serving as proxy-warriors. Paid for by well-to-do cowards as their substitutes. This could give a man $300 to leave for his family. His life, by any calculation, might not be worth that anyway. To him that life didn’t amount to all that much, but his freedom did.
The idea of conscription tasted like the English boot in his Irish mouth, and that was enough to make him a pretty good killer; if not a good soldier. The only thing these men even agreed on was that this was “the rich man’s war and the poor man’s fight.” Their officers, mostly arts and science boys, who reckoned their charges a little below the Rebs, and just above the Negroes, had never been deeper South than Baltimore, if that far. But here they were, down below Atlanta and moving South behind Sherman; slouching toward Savannah. “That Man Sherman,” as the women called him, in less than a month would give that city to President Lincoln for a Christmas present.
There were Irish aplenty in the Southern forces, too. Whole lot of Irish were allowed to join the 10th Tennessee, and then there were The Sons of Erin; Kelly’s Irish Brigade from Missouri. The Louisiana Tigers were full of Irish. And these Southern boys all knew the Yankee Irish Brigade hollered, “faugh a ballagh!” Meaning, “Clear the way.” Pissed off those Reb Irish right down to the core. Echoes of British overlords telling a field hand to get to the side of the road so as not to spook his fancy horse.
The Irish in the 24th Georgia Volunteers followed General Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb, who was killed at Fredericksburg in ‘62, and well-remembered down here. Many of his boys were in the fight for the training and experience, with a plan to return home to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and free Ireland from the British. The Yankee Irish Brigade threw themselves at the sunken road before Marye’s Heights, where their Southern kin manned the wall below, and to great slaughter. Cobb’s force reduced the Yankees from about 1600 down to 250 survivors. Reduced meaning gun-butchered, and that was that. Countrymen from the homeland slaughtering their own countrymen in the new land; brothers and cousins and one-time neighbors.
The remainder of the Scots-Irish Georgia McDuffie Rifles, proud volunteers back in ’61, were now returnees, paroled prisoners of war, and mostly old men. The rest of these determined rear action guerrillas were the walking wounded (missing arms, legs, or both), a few boys, some Negroes; and three women who constituted the cook, the quartermaster, and the medical corp. They had served since Shiloh, and were all but gone by Chickamauga. This bunch had mostly straggled back to the bowels of South Georgia, or been found unqualified to serve when it all started, and had never left home. The women and Negroes were recent volunteers, more or less. Everybody was armed and expecting to personally kill That Man Sherman, and then be hanged. Or at least, that story helped them sleep at night.
As those singing Irish came marching down the treed avenue, broader and less overgrown then, the McDuffies lay in wait along the fence lines and hedge rows. They weren’t much as soldiers, but the veteran survivors knew exactly what crossfire and surprise could do, regardless of the irregularity of the firepower. More shotguns and muskets than rifles, a few pistols, lot of knives, and some brick bats and assorted other hand missiles made up the armory. All this, and an overabundance of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it courage was arrayed to knock off That Man Sherman, and as many other Yankees as time, ammunition, and breath would allow.
And that’s what they did. All but the Sherman part. Po’ Man Henry, who was nicknamed ‘toe foot,’ slipped and fell backward through the hedgerow and out into the line of march, startling the Yankees, who took him to be a just a crazy old black man. So, they poked at him with bayonets and boot toes. The McDuffies lay low and quiet while the fun was being had until one of the wags put a rope around the old man’s neck; clearly planning to drag him a while. Silence was still being held when the fatal cry came from the back of the Yankee Irish ranks, “faugh a ballagh!”
The fence line and hedgerows exploded as one, the Rebel Yell went up like a high yodel from the Devil’s hound master, and they killed every damn one of them. Murdered, really. It happened so fast and loud that men dropped with weapons still on their shoulders. Yankees fired two, maybe three shots, but they were dead before they hit the ground. The dying Captain College Boy was alive just long enough to see the cook put a camp knife to the throat of his lieutenant, and his last breath left him as old John Terrapin, the wise and perpetually drunk Creek Indian mix, eased on over to see what it might be like to take some hair. McKenna, the youngest of the McDuffies, spit on the harp pinned to a Yankee’s tunic, and said, “See you in hell, and not the homeland.” And that was that, except for the stripping, boot fitting, and burying.
This morning, there’s a circle of mostly beet-faced, hungover, white dudes with bellies heading from fit toward fat. Relocated Yankees down from Atlanta for a weekend of Preserve Hunting, all arranged around a dove field mostly spraying each other with number eight shot and bad football jokes. Not exactly “Deliverance.”
Mrs. Agatha O’Reilly McIntyre and her daughter, the first local African American school superintendent in the county, enjoying a slow stroll up the Alley were just about mowed down by an already drunk Ohio transplant in a camouflage golf cart. Camouflage. Golf. Cart. They eased off to the edge of the road, as the mighty hunter bellowed, “Gotta go pee!
Clear the Way!”
Faugh a ballagh, indeed.
Photos by Deborah Fagan Carpenter
IT’S ABOUT THANKSGIVING
By Mona Sides-Smith
Over the gravel and through the weeds, to Grandmother’s house we went. It was Thanksgiving. It could have been any holiday. Or any Sunday. Or any day, for that matter. It was where we went when I was twelve years old — give-or-take a few years. When I was ten years old, we moved from the farm to a coal mining settlement in Southern Illinois, to be near my grandparents when my father was drafted to go off and get himself bombed-blasted up against a tree in the Belgium Bulge during World War II. He survived, physically anyway – but that’s another story. This story is about Thanksgiving, beyond the weeds, at Grandmother’s House.
There would be a mob of people there, that day and almost any holiday or Sunday. Twenty-five people, not an unusual number. We would be a motley collection of farm kids in bib overalls, coal miners and other assorted people of all ages. About half of us were Native American or some mixture of Native American, Middle European immigrants and Southern Illinois folks born-and-raised somewhere not far from the Mississippi River between Cairo and East St. Louis. Grandmother’s house (and ours) was in Ezra according to a map, Pershing according to the post office and was generally referred to by folks in and around Ezra/Pershing as Fifteen. Old Ben Number Fifteen was the soft coal mine that overlooked the mining dusty patch settlement of about a hundred families. Probably half of the households were English speaking. The rest were a mixture of Polish, German, Russian, Czechoslovakian, Yugoslavian, Lithuanian and an occasional Native American blend. This was Thanksgiving Day.
People brought food and my grandmother cooked food. Many of the participants had ancestors who originally came from Holland. The Zuider Zee, I have been told. They were the first Lutherans into the United States, having landed in what is now North Carolina. When they were able, the hopeful pioneers began meandering west until they came to what we now call the Mississippi River. The family story is that they decided to settle there. My story is that the women, having recently been hauled across the Ohio River, in make-shift boats full of their damp stuff and damper complaining children, said, not only “No” but “Hell no, we’re not crossing another river.” So the men acquiesced, divided up the land and built a Lutheran Church, which still stands, for weddings and other special occasions, in Dongola, Illinois. The wandering pioneers were managed and preached at by Tenth Great Grandfather Zachariah Lyerla, whose tombstone (provided a few generations ago) broods over the church on a daily basis. The men without wives, mixed and mingled with the natives, if you get my drift, and produced the first half-Indians to help them hack out logs for houses and to plant and grow foodstuffs.
The Grandma and Grandpa of my childhood would start the Thanksgiving Day by ambushing several chickens, grasping them by the head and, with a quick flick of the wrist, beheading them. That was the part I liked to watch as a kid; it grosses me out now to think about it. Then the birds were dipped in pre-prepared boiling water in an iron pot over a fire in the back yard. This was for the purpose of loosening the feathers. There was an art to it – dip them long enough to release the feathers and not cook the skin. Then came the chicken plucking: The small feathers were saved in cotton feed sacks so pillows and feather beds could be made after we had eaten enough of the unfortunate birds. The larger wing feathers were thrown away. I tried to avoid that plucking part by hiding in the barn or going to the outhouse.
The rest of the morning was a mix of activity with kids running in all directions, women sweating over cooking pots and fogging the air with flour while the men were sitting in chairs in the yard swapping tales, laughing and lying to each other. The most memorable one for me was the holiday morning my cousin, Maxine, and I reached up from outside and each stole a pumpkin pie from the kitchen window sill where they were cooling. We took the pies upstairs and had a contest to see which of us could eat a whole pie the fastest. I don’t remember who won, but I do remember that we ate the pies and that we both lost the contest. It is a quirk of physics that a whole pumpkin is not likely to stay down in the stomach of an adolescent girl. Ours didn’t, but the rest of that particular Thanksgiving Day is a blur.
At noon, give-or-take a half hour, the gorging began.
The men were summonsed and seated around the large round oak table in Grandma’s kitchen. Well, the table actually was made oval for holidays with at least two foot-wide leaves that were inserted in the stretched out middle of the table for the occasion. The women continued to sweat, wiping their furrowed brows with their aprons, while replenishing the bowls and platters of steaming food in front of the diners until the last of the men leaned back in his chair, patted or rubbed his distended mid-section, then scooted his chair back, chose a toothpick from the container already provided on the table and returned to the yard, much subdued to doze, chew the toothpick or some tobacco, and, tell or re-tell some stories from other similar days.
The children then were corralled, the worst of the dirt removed from their hands and faces, before they were seated in the chairs recently vacated by the repleted men. I think the requirement was that the male members of the family had reached eighteen years or older to be deemed men. Children ranged from seventeen to highchair age and were both male and female. This second seating of hungry growing humans proceeded to eat, spill or throw large amounts of what remained eatable. The thing that held the women slightly back from the brink of insanity was that kids though loud are quick eaters when they belly-up to their plates. The bedlam soon ended and the diverse next generation left the building.
What was left of the women were last to eat; they found whatever eating utensils remained in a fairly usable condition and slid their exhausted body onto sticky chairs and looked with bleary eyes at whatever remained of the now cold, congealed and picked over food. Chicken wings, cold potatoes and raw onions ranked high. They rested, nibbled, shared family failures and accomplishments, caught up on the gossip, bragged, and shared secrets.
Then the women sighed, assessed the damage and began the struggle of bringing the kitchen and its equipment back into order. Any teenage girls who could be found were pressed into service to help with the washing and drying of the dishes. No men or boys ever were asked to help. In my memory, neither man nor boy ever volunteered.
The day ended with the women in the living room, quilting, piecing quilts, crocheting or just rocking until the men, one at a time, announced that it was time to go home. Then individual families were sorted out and sent or carried to the collected wagons or cars, except for those of us who walked through the weeds and over the gravel to home.
Thank God for those days and thank God things are better now. Or, are they?
My Dad, Tom Lawrence, took me to my first Mississippi State football game in 1968. I was four years old, and I don’t remember much about it—only that State lost. Today, I know it was our season opener against an out of conference patsy, Louisiana Tech. I know this because I am still in possession of the game program. Terry Bradshaw and the visiting Bulldogs beat us 20–13 to start a no-win 0–8–2 season. I can’t actually remember this, but I imagine Dad and his buddies standing under Scott Field dog cussing the whole MSU coaching staff. Their only consolation would be that one of the ties was Ole Miss, 17–17.
It just happens that the 1968 season proved to be the low watermark of Mississippi State football fortunes. For Dad, that season seemed like the final humiliation of an ordeal that started in 1947. To the State fans of my generation, it was a hard and difficult birthright. Mississippi State’s overall record from 1947 through 1968 was 86–116–10, for a winning percentage of just 40.5%. Not only did we lose more than we won, it was the heartbreaking manner in which we often lost that broke the spirit of Dad’s generation.
Time after time, our Bulldogs would find a way to lose, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory—including a field goal against Ole Miss that God blocked. The years from 1968 through 2009 were marginally better. We won 210 out of 458 games, for a winning percentage of 45.8—a little better—and at least we were beating Ole Miss as much as they were beating us. I saw this as an improvement and reason for hope. Dad saw it as “the same old, same old.”
It was against this background that My Magic Year was written. I encouraged Dad to write the book because so many of the younger Mississippi State fans cannot understand why some of those old men at the games are so damned negative. They see it as a lack of loyalty to the University, and bitterness about not being part of a hip generation. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Dad and his cohorts bleed maroon and white, and have given their support, both emotionally and financially to an effort that has yielded scant results over the years.
My Magic Year gives us an insight into the psyche of Dad’s generation of MSU fans, as well as a chronical of SEC football over a sixty year period. It is difficult to sit in the monster stadiums of today, with gigantic jumbotrons and massive speakers, and try to imagine how it must have been when you could park just outside the stadium and the kids could play on the track during the game. Dad and his buddies were there when 10,000 fans showed up for a non-conference game, and a sellout meant 35,000 on hand.
Most college football fans, especially those in the SEC, will enjoy My Magic Year, and if your Dad is of the same generation as mine, then I can guarantee you he’ll enjoy it.
Once a long time ago, back in the days when our state was more farmland and cotton fields than highway and industry, there was a beautiful young girl named Abigail who loved to dance. This young lady loved a jaunty tune more than she enjoyed a good meal, a hot bath, or a nice book. Her parents often scolded her when they discovered her humming a happy melody and swaying in time to the music. They’d jokingly tell her, “Abigail, one of these days, you’ll dance yourself to death!” Of course, Abigail paid them no attention. What did parents really know anyhow? She continued to dance, day after day, night after night, humming her favorite tune and swaying in time to the music.
As Abigail grew older, she became more and more attractive. The young men in the area knew of her beauty, and soon her porch was filled with suitors, who had ridden their horses over rough miles to pay her a visit in her ancestral home. Some young men would bring her strawberries picked fresh from the vine, but these young men she paid no heed. Others would bring her lace handkerchiefs as mementos, but these she just quietly tucked away. Seeing so many other suitors turned away, one young man named Thomas was determined he would find a way to capture the beautiful Abigail’s heart.
From Abigail’s maid, Thomas learned that the young lady adored music and dance. So one evening, he brought a man to play his fiddle while the young couple danced the night away. Abigail was delighted. She and Thomas danced the length of the porch and back, time after time, late into the night. Knowing they’d been defeated, the other suitors started to slink away, but their departure was unnoticed by Abigail. She only had eyes for Thomas, who had clearly won her heart and her hand by the time morning came.
Now engaged to be married, Abigail excitedly made preparations for her wedding, which included a full band, so she and Thomas could dance and be the envy of those in attendance. Yet, as the day drew near, Abigail grew ill, and soon, so did many others in her small community. The cause of her illness? Yellow fever. Abigail tossed and turned in her bed. She hovered between life and death, but slowly, the illness subsided until finally, everyone realized that the worst had passed. Thomas visited her many times during her illness, praying that his betrothed would be spared, and she was. She began to recover, but the progress was slow.
One morning, Abigail awoke to the realization that her wedding was only a few days away. The plans for the wedding had been put aside with Abigail so sick, but she was determined that her wedding take place as scheduled. Her parents begged her to wait until she had fully recovered, but Abigail would not yield. Even Thomas asked her to postpone the wedding for a few weeks, so they could enjoy their nuptials without the veil of sickness still hovering over them. Abigail simply would not bend. The plans continued, and finally, the day arrived.
When the band showed up, Abigail had them play her favorite tune while she danced up the long hallway and back down. Yet, she felt strange. A flutter arose in her heart, and she had to sit and wait for it to pass. Not wanting others to see her tiredness, she returned to her room where her maid dress her in her wedding gown. Abigail was anxious, but elated that she would soon be married to the handsome Thomas.
As the guests arrived, Abigail’s excitement grew to the point of agitation. She became restless, and no amount of cajoling from her maid or her parents could stem her excitement. Finally, the minister called the service to order, and as her father walked her down the aisle, everyone gasped at her ethereal beauty. Her anticipation for the dance to follow clearly shown in her feverish eyes. With their vows declared, Thomas and Abigail became man and wife.
The guests did full justice to the food and punch, and many paid their respects to the newly wed couple. But, Abigail could not wait for the music to begin. After what seemed like an eternity, she and Thomas began the evening’s long procession of dances. Abigail danced with her husband, her father, the minister, and many of her former suitors. But each dance seemed to take a little something out of her. Her already bright eyes started to burn furiously, and her partners noticed the heat emanating through her gloved hands. For the night’s last dance, Abigail returned to Thomas, but just as he closed his hand over hers, she collapsed, dead. Unbeknownst to anyone, her body had never truly healed from its battle with yellow fever, and as her parents had once predicted, the exhaustion brought on by too much dancing had killed her. She was buried the next day, and Thomas soon left the area for one where her memory would fade.
Yet, Abigail’s spirit could not rest. Her love of dance was too much to keep her forever in her heavenly home. Wherever there was music in the little community where Abigail had lived and died, a ghostly visage of a beautiful young lady would materialize. Not realizing the attractive girl was an apparition, many a suitor would ask her to dance, only to extend their hands into nothingness. Sometimes, though, her will to dance was so strong, she would appear more fully, and she and her young partner would traverse the length of the ballroom. Only to everyone present, it looked like the young man had lost his mind because he was dancing alone with no partner in sight.
To this day, wherever a jaunty tune is being played, Abigail’s ghost will sometimes appear, seeking a partner for a dance. And young men, should she ever show herself to you and accept your invitation, don’t be too upset if you get picked on for dancing alone later. Just be pleased that you were able to bring happiness to a young girl whose love for music and dance was so strong that it has kept her coming back for more.
Mind you, I’m not ungrateful for store-bought body parts; it’s just that they are such a drag on my mind. It’s been going on for years and I’m about to put an end to it.
My boobs are hanging down again. It takes the magic of Victoria’s Secret for me to look like I have more shape than any eighty-year-old man would have. A flat chest and a little pot belly is a lot less attractive on a woman than it is on a man – at least in my opinion. There was a time years ago, when I had nearly a pound of extra pulchritude on each side. They would have been hanging to my waist by the following Thursday. That is when I consulted a doctor who happily removed a couple of pounds of something or other and gave me a charming C-cup that lasted for several years. Now the C has flattened out to a C-minus. Don’t get me wrong here; I’m still grateful not to be carrying around that extra boobage.
Eyes. Well, here we go again. I was precocious when it came to cataracts. In my fifties, even with glasses, I was legally blind in one eye and couldn’t recognize my current husband across the room. Eye surgery happened, so I have a store-bought lens in each eye. Now, in my eighties, I can read without glasses but, over time, have become nearsighted and, again, if I had a husband, I would not be able to recognize him from previous ones. However, expensive and wonderful glasses provide excellent eyesight. Again, I am grateful, and somewhat poorer.
Then, there is that picture of my heart. With five by-passes, it looks rather like a plate of pasta. And, it works as well today as it did ten years ago after the surgery. I didn’t see it coming. I was about to get on a ship going to Alaska with a hundred people who were expecting me to produce an informative and borderline brilliant on- board retreat. Two doctors told me that my heart was a still-ticking, but not very well, and that I should not get on that cruise ship unless I was okay with being taken ashore, through icy waters, in the middle of a heart attack, to some place like Skagway, Alaska. That was not a pretty picture. Nor was it a pretty scene that I created, in that examining room, demanding a better prognosis. Ugly story short: Two days later, I had a heart attack in the hospital room while being prepared for surgery. Happy ending: My heart wasn’t damaged and my store-bought restructuring left my heart with no damage to major working parts.
My dentist. Now, there’s another story. She suggested that she might want to replace a set of four teeth, consisting of two crowns and a bridge. Even though they are a set of only a few teeth that I do not keep in a glass of water at night, I am going to hang on to them, at least for now, and save the several thousand dollars to use in my old age.
Then there is the “adult undergarment” bit that even I am not willing to go into right now. I know that almost all underwear is store-bought nowadays but, really, what a big business it is selling utilitarian and sexy (surely they jest) disposable underpants.
At night my sleep doesn’t really happen without a store-bought breathing machine. You may have one, too. They are fashionable today. It blows air up my nose while I sleep and, believe it or not, I sleep very well with it, and have been doing so for eight or nine years. It makes the nights so peaceful that I get sleepy just looking at that machine on my night stand. Sigh.
I don’t travel much anymore either. It is just too complicated to get all of the store-bought equipment and parts loaded up here and then unloaded on the other end.
Traveling with babies was easier than I travel with myself now. Granted, I was fifty years younger, much stronger and in possession of most of my original body equipment.
If this all sounds like a complaint, that is because it is. However, in closing, I want to express my gratitude for the store-bought body parts that I do not have – such as hips, knees, metal tubing around the spinal cord, artificial limbs, hearing aids, wheel chair (although I do have a fancy cane that I use from time to time), and I do not have an oxygen tank to carry around. The gratitude list for not having those parts goes on and on.
As does my complaining.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, but it is also one that brings me some consternation. Why? There’s no purchasing of gifts to have to contend with, or the fear that one’s gift won’t be liked or appreciated by the receiver. Of course, not having to spend extra money on presents helps me to like the holiday a whole lot more. However, since 2010, Thanksgiving has taken on a whole new importance for me, but my slight agitation with it actually stems from a better understanding of that first Thanksgiving in 1621.
In July 2010, the National Endowment for the Humanities program directors selected me for participation in its program about the Pilgrims and Wampanoags, the Native Americans who were involved in the success of the Plymouth Colony. I was really excited to be selected for the program because it meant I’d spend a week in Plymouth and see the locations I had read about from William Bradford’s book Of Plymouth Plantation. I wasn’t as knowledgeable about the Pilgrims as I wished to be, and because Bradford is included in the literature anthology I use for my college students, I wanted to learn more. And boy did I ever learn more!
The first thing I learned was that much of what we think we know about the Pilgrims and Wampanoags is incorrect. Take for example those buckles on every Pilgrim-related item you see sold in stores. Almost every single one of those decorative Pilgrim figurines is dressed in all black, and they all have buckles on their hats, belts, and shoes. What I learned at Plimoth Plantation, the recreated village of Plymouth town, is that the Pilgrims wore colors, and they didn’t wear buckles. I have taught that lesson to my students, and now, they take great pleasure in snapping pictures of buckle-wearing Pilgrim items sold in stores around the holidays. They love to share those photos with me on my Facebook page. Instead of my blood pressure going up, I just smile and am proud that I have taught my students so well.
Another misconception that we have of the Pilgrims and Wampanoags concerns that first Thanksgiving. While they almost certainly ate turkey, it was not the main dish. Instead, the Pilgrims were having more of a harvest festival in early autumn at which the Wampanoags showed up. In a way, the Wampanoags were party crashers, but unlike people who simply come to mooch off others, Sachem Massasoit had some of the ninety folks who attended with him go off and hunt deer. One detail all the accounts about the first Thanksgiving agree on is that Massasoit and his men provided five deer for the festivities. So, instead of gorging ourselves on turkey and going into a turkey coma each Thanksgiving, we really should be eating deer instead.
I also learned many other great facts about the Pilgrims, but instead of bombarding you with that information, I’m going to share why I love this holiday, too.
Growing up, I spent every Thanksgiving at my maternal grandmother’s house. Nanny, as her ten grandchildren called her, enjoyed having her entire family with her each Thanksgiving day. Because our neighborhood was small, and most everyone in it was some kind of kin, her home became a stopping point for many of the neighbors as well. At times, there’d be upwards of fifty folks in her house.
Nanny would begin Thanksgiving baking at least three days ahead of time. She’d make red velvet cake, German chocolate cake, coconut cake, carrot cake, and the list goes on. She had so many varieties of desserts that there would hardly be room for them all. After her death, almost all of the grandchildren inherited a cake plate. Each time I pull mine out, I remember the love that Nanny put into baking those cakes for all of us to enjoy. Of course, Nanny wasn’t just good at making dessert. She had several types of meat, veggies, and bread. In addition to her food, each of her four children would bring goodies, too. No one went home hungry at Thanksgiving, and because most of us lived close by, we would eat at her house for the days that followed. It was like Thanksgiving just went on and on; all of us grandchildren enjoyed this extension of the holiday because we loved our grandmother and being with each other.
A Thanksgiving tradition we celebrated at my grandmother’s house each year was the drawing of names for Christmas. About twenty names went into the drawing, and the rule was that we couldn’t get a name in our immediate family. Sometimes, the cousins would swap around until we got our favorite’s name, but it was always done in good fun. At Christmas, opening presents was always the grand event; oftentimes, it would take us an hour to get through all the gifts.
My grandmother passed away in 2001. Since her death, all of her grandchildren have grown up and had children of their own. Now, we go to my mother’s home for holidays, and while it is a chance for my son to make memories with his cousins, somehow, for me at least, it just isn’t the same. I miss those large family gatherings with all the cousins. My father has since passed away as has one of my uncles, and Thanksgiving just isn’t the same without them.
Like the Pilgrims, we aren’t just celebrating a bountiful harvest when we gather in our homes each Thanksgiving. We are also celebrating life and being with friends. Half of the Pilgrim colonists died before the first Thanksgiving, and the ones who survived knew how blessed they were to still be alive. So, while we may have many misconceptions about the first Thanksgiving and its participants, at least we got one thing right: Thanksgiving should be a celebration of life and happiness. It should be a holiday for the gathering of loved ones and the enjoyment of their company. This Thanksgiving, be with your family, and if you must, eat some turkey and pull out the buckle-wearing figurines, too!
Relatives? I don’t much get involved with what most of my relatives do, and vice-versa. I seldom see most of my family of origin and, when we do get together, we say how nice it is to see each other, whether we mean it or not. Hey, we haven’t seen each other in years, and most of us haven’t thought about each other twice since the last funeral we attended en masse.
My immediate family is an exception. We don’t interfere with what each other does, which is not caring about their agenda but caring about them. We see each other often and get along better than most close blood kin. But then, we’ve worked at being civil with each other over the years. It hasn’t come easy, but it has become strong. There is a lot of love in our homes.
Neighbor’s tidiness? I didn’t used to much like the way my neighbor’s took care of their yard, what with the tall grass, the trash can, the dead car in the driveway and the parked car on the street because the garage was too full of stuff. But I had reached a certain level of not much caring, since they were very friendly – noisy at times, but always had a smile and a wave handy, and sometimes even a hug. Then one night, about four in the morning, I really cared a lot when their two parked cars simultaneously exploded into flames that I could see through my bedroom window. Dang, one of the cars was against my giant magnolia tree. I instantly assumed that the tree would burst into flames and then my house would burn down. I said my most used four-letter word and called 911. The firemen were here in minutes and put both car fires out. I was proud of them and, whew, grateful. And told them so. It was quite a night. There were investigators, and the fire chief, in person, until broad daylight. Now as I look out my window, I see a good-looking front yard, as neat as there is on the street. Green grass carefully mowed. Driveway and curb edged. Shrubbery pruned. Not an extra blade of grass sticking up anywhere. I am a happy neighbor, so happy that, in the spirit of tidiness, I freshened up the landscaping between my front yard and theirs.
And then there’s proper diet. I don’t much care. I’m eighty years old and already have high cholesterol and the recommended prescription to prove it. My weight is within the current acceptable limits. I like all kinds of food and eat my four daily meals off little salad plates to fool myself into believing that I have eaten whole meals. It works for me. Oh, yeah, sometimes a piece of pie is one of those meals.
What people think of me? Except for my grandchildren, it bothers me not. And my grandchildren, they all think I’m terrific and tell me so. The baby says it with a smile (like my neighbors). I have a very few close friends whom I love dearly, several very pleasant casual friends who like me and vice-versa, and a lot of acquaintances who don’t particularly think about me much at all, unless we bump into each other somewhere. Then, there are a few of you who do not like me at all, for one reason or another. I have to tell you, that bothers me not at all. There are a few people that I don’t like either. I just stay away from them. That’s how I don’t get bothered by them.
I have spent a lot of years learning to maintain a prudent distance from people, places and things I can neither tolerate nor change. I have, simultaneously, worked on changing me and at least some of my unpleasant actions and attitudes. The result is the white-haired, generally happy, slow moving, usually laid-back person here before you. I’m still working on me.
It is somewhat less painful to document the metamorphosis of “the performing child,” when you are a generation or so removed by the title of grand “anything” to the little creature. When you’re the mother of this unique and gifted breed, it is much more difficult to present the truth, because your report becomes a reflection of you, your parenting skills and more or less a rap sheet, amplifying every flaw that your moral fiber has reproduced in your child. A “grand,” in my case, grand aunt, however, does not come into question with the same caustic suspicion as a parent, and is pretty much exempt from direct responsibility of the changeling when reporting the chameleon behavior of the performing child.
Take my two “grands” for instance. On an ordinary night, you can put these two warm, snuggly little strawberry muffins to bed, plumed with pillowed pink frosting, and wake up the next morning with pretty much the same. Hand in hand they’d gladly walk through fire to please you, in any way they could. Case in point, I dashed over for a minute to help their mother, Baby Kristen, who although now past forty, still graciously responds to that nickname given by me at her birth. My two grand nieces, Tatti and Siddah, flung open the front door with pure glee. They instantly recoiled in simultaneous shock shouting, “Graaaand Celia”!!! You don’t have on a STITCH OF MAKE UP!!!!! GET IN HERE WITH US!! And with that, they whisked me off to their mother’s boudoir and began to empty her bountiful drawers of top-of-the-line cosmetics, applying them liberally to my bare face. Pudding-pleased with themselves, they worked feverishly like Christmas elves meeting a deadline, and I must admit, I, along with them, swelled with pride at the result of their handiwork. In an attempt to make a little light, grateful conversation, I casually said, “Thank God for both of you, I know I can depend on you not to let me die ugly.” The little one quipped back without even looking up from my lip gloss tedium, and said, “Grand Celia, you step one foot toward Jesus, and we’ll crawl up in that box (meaning casket) and make you look like a movie star!” The other nodded, working feverishly on my hair, and said, “Umm hmm… sure will, so don’t you give that another thought!!!!!” Now, at this point, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry because they are both dead serious, so I just fall in tandem with them, all three of us nodding “yes” in agreement.
From that moment on, this heart-felt conversation has become my point of reference for the true definition of absolute devotion, and one doesn’t come by that kind of thing just every day.
Now, that’s the confectionary side of these little darlings, Hearts big as Moon Pies and intentions to match. But you just let a performance of any kind loom on the calendar, and who you THINK you tucked into the covers last night, wake up on a performance morning like a couple of wild hares caught in a snare, teeth set on edge and talons sharp and extended, just lookin’ for a place to sink in and take hold! Mean as keen switches, these two little pistols come out spoiling for a fight, and fight they do! Somebody’s looking at somebody sideways! One snatches the other’s waffle and sends it crumbling to the floor! Feral howls wail up from the victim, and another crisp Eggo, dripping with extra everything is slung from toaster, straight into the gape of the squaller to help ease the dreadful offense. And so the morning continues with an even exchange of kicks, pinches, and thorny quips, until each child is satisfied the score is tied, and then they scamper off to shampoo their long tangled ponytails.
Two sets of dripping curls burst from the shower through a cloud of steam, darting like bees on clover, jockeying for position to be the first one chosen for preening and polishing. Baby Kristen’s hands tremble slightly as she examines their make-up and costume cases, hoping, literally praying she has thought of everything. For the truth is, if one small hair pin is missing or the tiniest ribbon has been left on the closet floor, it could be just the spark to set off a tantrum heard round the globe, and not easily quieted. Her thoroughness is such a fundamental “must” that she leaves her husband at home, ready and poised by the phone until the last minute possible, so just on the outside chance she has forgotten something, he can grab it and race it to the venue, in the knick of time. Yia Yia, their grandmother, sits quietly governing over their beastly conversations, “Now, you simply cannot talk that way to your mother,” or, “I know you can be a little nicer.” There’s stage base foundation, heavy eye shadow and rich lip gloss to be applied. Then there’s curling, straightening, spraying and glossing. Nothing is spared either little diva, and in a few short hours, what looked like drowned kittens, emerge as storybook swans, ready for presentation.
When the lights finally dim and the curtains rise, there are a few magical seconds of one-on-one interaction with the performing child, where for one split second your hearts beat together as one. I watch in slow-motion as Tatti’s tiny chest swells, filling her lungs to capacity. And with the confidence of a Sunday night quarterback, she shouts out a four-count — their performance begins!!
They tap and stomp and shuffle and nod, beating out their numbers with precision fit for Radio City Music Hall. Their clear strong voices peal out like battle arrows across a frenzied crowd, who shout back at them in awe and expectation of their skill and flair. The house turns electric as they shower us down, literally drenching us in perfect harmony and step, every ounce of heart, every drop of soul, they leave all they have on the performance hall floor. My throat still catches to tell it.
But, alas the final overall winner of the talent contest is a wee Asian child, no more than 3½ feet tall. She is dressed to the floor in blush chiffon as pale as the tint of her porcelain cheeks. The grand piano bench and pedals raised close to a foot to accommodate her tiny limbs, and she approaches it with the intrepid lilt of a garden spider, head hung elegantly low, like a dim lit chandelier, hands and wrists poised ballerina like, high above the keys. She prepares to spin her art, and spin it she does, from beginning to end. The prodigy plays without a fray. I scarcely take a breath during her entire performance for fear of missing a note. And, when she finishes, her hands folded and her head bowed in reverence, I jump to my feet and cheer with abandon, as if she were my own.
And this is the rest of the story:
And then it hits me, like the sound of a death rattle. I can hear my little grands voices clattering up from my raw guilty conscience, crying out in horror, “Graaaand Celia, WHAT ARE YOU DOING??? You’re cheering for a total stranger!!! WEEEE ARE THE LIGHTS OF YOUR LIFE!! You’ve already told us so, and you CAN’T take it back!!!!” I shoot back down in my seat, clutching my pearls and heaving for undeserved air. My eyes glaze over with unbridled fear as I snatch my body backwards as if I were trying to hide behind a tree, peering out to catch a glimpse of anyone who might witness my treachery. Thanks be to Glory, there is no one!! I pretend to straighten my blouse in an attempt to regain my composure. “Oh well,” I rationalize now, “The Asian child did alright, but now that I’ve had a chance to reflect, I’m just not sure….hmmmmm…”Which is what any Grand worth her salt would be thinking.
It crashes down on me like a West Coast mudslide! What have I been thinking???! I snap out of it. My honorable, unbiased loyalty to the expertise of a complete stranger flies out of my head like a single shot comet, soaring to earth, plummeting into the ground with such a shattering crash that it literally blows me back sober. I begin circling and sussing out, rooting up the real issues at hand in this moment! Are the judges really paying attention? Are they even qualified to judge the talent of young children? My children? And if they ARE qualified, do they all have fresh batteries in their calculators? Do they tally the final scores together more than once? Who has the judging sheets? And don’t think I won’t be requesting them either. God is my witness, a judge made a notation not long ago that she preferred NOT to hear lyrics sung while tapping!!!! She really preferred to hear JUST THE TAPPING!!?!? For cryin’ out loud!!!! That’s what my Grands doooooo!!!! And, if that’s the way it’s going to be…there goes Broadway! Let’s all fly up there and shut THAT baby down!!! Blight her out!!!! After all, those unruly Broadway thugs sing while they dance, EVERY. CHANCE. THEY. GET!!
I catch myself again. What am I doing??? Have I gone nuts? Compose yourself!!! Someone may read your thoughts and call security! Well, I’ll show them! I’m gonna look right around here and SMILE at some people. That’ll throw ‘em off! Now then, they can’t say there’s a raging lunatic loose in the crowd fixin’ to hurt somebody. Crazy things!!! Who’d say such a thing about me anyway! “Fine, and you?” I know no one asked me how I was, but I just thought I’d let them know – just in case.
Is that a judge coming down from the balcony? Why, that is the dentist! I know who he is. I know some people that have gone to him, and him trying to act like he knows a blessed thing about talent! I’ll bet you he fixed those children’s teeth who won! I can guarantee you he did, and OUR children have both got STRAIGHT TEETH!!! Now, truth be told, ours were probably marked down for singing while they danced, AND HAVING STRAIGHT TEETH!!!! Ooooh the gall of it! Oh well, I can’t think about that now. We have to concentrate on getting ready for the show next week, because NEXT WEEK, NEXT WEEK… Which is also what any Grand worth her salt would be thinking!
will d…a life in science, is the recent publication release from our parent company, Front Porch Press, LLC, and was written by our very own Tom Lawrence. As a scientist, Dr. Carpenter participated in many significant scientific events of the twentieth century. Dr. Carpenter not only headed the team that brought to market two products that revolutionized agriculture worldwide, Lasso and Roundup, but as the U.S. Chemical Industry’s primary representative, he played a significant role in the signing and ratification of the Chemical Weapons Treaty.
We’re going to indulge in a little shameless self-promotion and present a conversational video between Tom and Chip Burson, for his Southern Authors series, Burson on Books. Chip is a writer, editor, story-teller, interviewer, and performance artist, and was anxious to speak with Tom about his latest publication.
For more on the book, will d…a life in science, please visit the website www.willdcarpenter.com. You will find information on how to order this book, as well as, great information about Dr. Carpenter’s life and work.
Be sure you’re right, then go ahead – David Crockett
While it is true that you should never underestimate the actions of a woman scorned, neither should you miscalculate the thought process of a Redneck who has been wronged. Old Ezra Pond over to Mataha, the County Seat of No Hope County, was telling me recently about the nephew of his good friend, e.e. goings. It seems that e.e.’s nephew, Tommy Bent, got a divorce about a year ago from his lovely bride, Lila, and it was a particularly messy one. They had only been married a few years, and as Lila Field used to like to say, “I left Field and got Bent.” It’s really too bad that her excellent homespun humor departed when she went to divorce court. She asked for pretty much everything and pretty much got it.
Judge Evelyn Poor over-extended her ruling and gave everything to Lila. Judge Poor harbors a thinly-felt though deep-seated hatred of all men. It seems that Ms. Poor felt lonely and unappreciated as a homely child. She tried her hardest to get her attractive and socially-active uncle to molest her, and he absolutely refused. Though too shy to say or do anything toward that end in her street clothes, she donned a judicial robe and turned into Everywoman, with a quest of righting every perceived wrong felt at the hands of people of the male persuasion. To this day, she takes her vengeance on all men who appear before her. In her judge’s garb she feels empowered and emboldened.
However, that’s another story for another time. I want to tell you about the Field divorce. Now, many of you may be familiar with the no-fault divorce, but I am about to acquaint you with the No Hope divorce, which is a fact, not an impugnment of this particular divorce nor divorces in general. The fact is that all divorces granted in No Hope County are No Hope divorces.
When their divorce was finalized, Tommy and Lila played out the words of a Johnny Cash song, that “she got the gold mine and he got the shaft.” When he asked Judge Poor to reconsider, she eloquently rebuffed him by stating, “How dare you question my ruling.” So much for give and take.
When he came back before her in a hearing to revise the alimony somewhat in his favor, he explained that he was required to pay more alimony than he was able to make working two full-time jobs. She replied with, “Well, Mr. Bent, do the best you can.”
He figured out that he wasn’t going to get any relief at the judicial bench, so he determined to seek his own relief at his work bench. Tommy still had keys to the house that Judge Poor had granted to his former bride, where Lila was now living with her new boyfriend, Clyde Excalibur. Tommy quietly began executing hia long-planned strategy.
Shortly after moving into the new house, Tommy had taken Lila down to the Jefferson Hardware Store and let Lila pick out the curtain rods which she had been eyeing for some time. Though a bit pricy, he bit his lip and said, “Nothing’s too good for my little honey bun.” Up went the new curtain rods, much to Lila‘s delight.
On a certain day when Tommy knew that Lila and her stay-at-home boyfriend would be out of town, in went Tommy and down went the new curtain rods. Back on his work bench in the shed where he lived, Tommy went to work. He carefully opened one end of each curtain rod for every window of Lila’s house. Into the circular, hollow rods, he poured a carefully prepared mixture of ground shrimp and caviar. Meticulously resealing the rods to ensure no marks were made, he returned to Lila’s house and replaced all the curtain rods throughout the house, painstakingly putting the curtains back and erasing every trace of his entrance to the house.
He had been vigilantly planning and plotting, so now all he had to do was wait. Within a couple of weeks, the seafood mixture began to rot . . . and to smell. Ooh, did it ever smell! Lila called in every expert she could find to help identify and take care of the odor, which had become overpowering. Fumicides were applied; then pesticides, odor-cides, smell-icides and every other cide known to man. No one could trace the origin of the foul odor. Finally, in desperation, she moved out.
In another couple of weeks, Tommy approached Lila and told her, “Look, Babe, I know that you’re kinda in a bind about the house and the smell and all. If you’ll cut back on some of my alimony payment, I’ll buy my interest in the house back and I’ll move back in at a discount, even with the bad odor. The house has a lot of sentimental value and all.”
She quickly agreed and they had the documents drawn up to make it legal. There was one proviso that she asked for: that she could come in and take some of the things out of the house with her.
On the appointed day, with lawyers present to ensure proper closure by all parties, she came in, and then walked out of Tommy’s life. On her way out, she took her prized curtain rods with her and moved forever to Michigan with Clyde. Whew! I think I smell her all the way from Saginaw.
Every morning when I go walking, I see them: the mummified remains of hundreds of earthworms littering the sidewalks and roadways of my route. Many of the carcasses are straight as if the worms were extending themselves as far as they could to reach safety, only to fail in the end. But, most are curled into a fetal position in their last ditch efforts to save themselves from “dawn’s early light.” I don’t know why they wait so late to start their final adventures, but inevitably, most of them get caught by the sun’s unforgiveable rays.
Death by sun exposure would have to be a bad way to die. First, with the sun beating down on their liquid-filled bodies, the earthworms begin to slow even more than their usual “snail’s pace.” Then the sun starts to heat the asphalt and concrete, which results in blistering on that side, too. They just don’t stand a chance. If the sun doesn’t finish the job, the ants usually do. Either way, this is a painful, slow, and terrible way to go.
The odds are always against earthworms anyhow. Those lucky enough to make it home before the sun can torture them to death are often eaten by birds, and some even become fodder for the fishes. Still, these previous two ways seem less painful, and somehow more humane (after all, they are helping with the life cycle), than the sun simply evaporating their insides and leaving only a crunchy outside for me to bemoan. Thus, I have decided to save the earthworms.
I don’t necessarily enjoy touching them; without legs, they remind me of snakes, which I abhor, but my compassion always wins out, so I am compelled to act on their behalves. Mostly, I don’t find them in time to do any good, but every once in a while, I do. Recently, I saved one who was certainly doomed without my help.
When I saw him (yes, they’re asexual), he had almost reached the pavement’s edge. Yet, how he intended to scale the curb and get into the grass was a mystery to me, so I decided to intervene.
I bent down to pick up my earthworm and was surprised when he began to trash about wildly. Finally he exhausted himself; he simply gave up. Gently, I lifted him off the road and put him on the grass that was still wet with the morning dew. My earthworm’s new location didn’t motivate him, for he remained still. To begin with, I wondered if in attempting to move him, I had given him a heart attack and only hastened what the sun had already started.
Even though he was on the grass now, I feared my earthworm would be dead in the 20 minutes it would take me to make my loop and return to check on him. So, I began tearing up wet grass and placing it on top of him. This action would at least give him some additional moisture and some protection from the sun. Feeling I had done all I could do, and praying that the homeowners whose grass I was tearing up hadn’t seen me, I left him. I’d done my part, and now it was up to him to do the rest.
When I came back through, I checked on the earthworm. He had started burrowing into the earth, but more of him was out than in. I tore up some more grass, keeping an eye on the house’s curtains in the process, placed it on top of him, and wished him luck. Hopefully, my efforts were not in vain and the little guy had enough time and strength to get back into the ground.
Now, most of you are probably wondering, so? What’s the big deal about saving an earthworm? If he lived, he probably died the next day anyhow. Well, yes, that’s true. He may not have made it through the day, and if he did, he may not have made it through the next one, but then, neither may any of the rest of us. Sometimes we all just need a little help along the way to get through to fight again the next day. The other day, I was that earthworm’s salvation, or at least, I hope I was, but it’s about more than that really. It’s about compassion for all God’s creatures both big and small, both cuddly and slimy, and both important and insignificant.
I helped that earthworm, but tomorrow, who knows what creature may need my assistance; perhaps, that creature may even be human. I just hope I’m there to lend a helping hand if it is needed, or that one is extended to me if the roles are reversed.
Be kind! Save the earthworms!
Tomorrow I will be back out in force. As always, I will watch the ground to make sure no snakes are lurking in the bushes, and along the way, I will see hundreds of earthworm carcasses, but should I be lucky enough to see a live one, I will pick him up, find him some shade, cover him, and wish him the best. It’s all I have to offer, and while it may not seem like much, to that one earthworm, it’ll be everything.
I don’t know why I keep getting married. I got married in my twenties. I got married when I was pushing seventy. And I got married several times in between. You’d think a person would learn not to keep doing that. I don’t particularly like to live with people – too self-centered. Me, I mean, not necessarily any of them. Well, not some of them anyway.
There were five weddings. In my behalf, I would like to say that there were only four husbands. My third husband and I married twice. It is still baffling to me that the divorce from him was no more successful than the marriage. I had a wash-and-wear wedding gown. Last year, after my eightieth birthday party, I gave the gown to the Salvation Army resale shop. If you see a bride and groom dodging rice in the middle of rubble from some natural disaster, she may be wearing my cotton-poly one-size-fits-all wedding gown.
My children still think wedding cake is one of the food groups. All three of my daughters have had multiple marriages. If a person looked through the freezers in our assorted houses, one just might find a wedding cake, frosted over and waiting for the next big celebration. Like mother, like daughters. Lord, help us all.
My last marriage was the best one; at least, I hope it was the last. When we got married, Smitty was eighty-something and I was pushing seventy. The clerk at the license bureau told us that we were old enough to know better.
People would ask me how Smitty proposed to me and I would say, “I don’t remember.” One day he was making a speech to a large gathering and he introduced me as his fiancé. I assumed the proposal had happened. I never said anything to him about it. No man wants to hear that his bride-to-be doesn’t remember when he popped the question. Romantic that he was, after the surprise public announcement of our engagement, gave me my ring over a plate of ribs at the Pig ‘N Whistle in Bartlett, Tennessee.
Smitty had a house where he lived in Nocona, Texas, but at our ages, maintaining a house in Memphis and a house in Nocona was daunting. So, we decided to live in Memphis and he would sell the Texas house.
We optimistically rented a Texas U-Haul truck to bring his favorite furniture to Memphis. We got ourselves dropped off at the truck place and Smitty told the proprietor that we wanted to rent one of his trucks. He looked us up and down and said, “Who’s gonna drive this truck?” “We are,” we answered. The man evidently needed the business so he took the credit card, made the transaction and disappeared into the bowels of the building.
Waiting out front, we watched a dilapidated yellow truck rattle to a stop beside us. “This is the only vehicle we have available,” lied the man, handing us the keys and walking away.
Smitty opened the driver door, I opened the passenger door, and neither one of us could climb up into the truck. With a bit of innovative senior citizen creativity, however, we worked it out. We reached out toward each other across the seat, grabbed hands and pulled, and somehow we got each other into the darn thing and out on the highway.
After packing up choice pieces of his worldly goods and loading them into the truck in Texas, we rattled and bumped our way from Nocona to Memphis the next day, pulling each other up into the truck after each stop, and taking turns driving.
When we returned the truck to the Memphis U-Haul folks the dealer said, “This baby’s going to the junk yard. This was its last trip.” Also, it was my last trip down the aisle but it was the start of five happy and adventurous years, and can truthfully say it was the best marriage I ever had.
– The End –
The old truck sputtered into the empty lot and came to a stop in the gravel next to the store’s dumpster. From the look of it, the truck wouldn’t make many more trips anywhere, but Sue knew looks were deceiving. Old trucks like this one would still be making their sojourns up and down back roads while their newer counterparts sat in some dealer’s shop for the latest recall.
Sue had been warned about this particular truck, though. In the two weeks since she had been working as a cashier at Hargrove’s Country Store, she had been expecting it daily. Old Hargrove had described the vehicle, a 1965 Chevy C10 with patches of baby blue still visible, in such precise details that Sue could hardly doubt its existence, though she was inclined to do so. She had already learned that the residents of this area were prone to exaggeration. But now here sat the truck in all its rusted glory.
Hargrove had cautioned Sue about the truck on her first day of work. Sue and her family had just moved to Pine Knot at the beginning of summer to take over the Glower family’s chicken farms. Being a newcomer to the community, Sue didn’t know about any of the families or their peculiarities. So what Hargrove had really warned her about wasn’t the truck, but rather its occupants, the McCrorys. According to Hargrove, Cecil McCrory was “the meanest man who ever walked the face of the earth.” Mrs. Hargrove had been even less complimentary in her description of him as “a known wife beater and just plain trash.” Both had told Sue she had best be on her guard when the McCrorys came to Hargrove’s because they’d try to steal them blind.
Sue had figured that Cecil would have come in on Monday when the government checks came out on the first, for Mrs. Hargrove had let slip that Cecil got a “crazy check” each month. That would’ve been just fine, too, because both Hargroves had been at work on Monday collecting their customers’ charge accounts for the month. The Hargroves allowed their government-check customers to charge purchases for a month at a time, but they expected payment in full when the checks came. They didn’t have any problems collecting either, for most folks in the community preferred driving to Hargrove’s to get their checks cashed instead of making the 20-mile drive to the nearest bank in town.
But Cecil McCrory hadn’t come on Monday. By Thursday, Sue had asked Hargrove why. He frowned as he explained, “Mrs. Hargrove don’t allow beer on credit, and that’s all Cecil ever buys.” Yet now, on what had been an otherwise lazy Saturday afternoon, the truck had finally made its appearance with its owner in plain view. Sue had been trying to envision the man for two full weeks, and what she saw in the truck did not disappoint her.
Cecil appeared to be a tall man, for his shaggy-haired head nearly touched the ceiling of the truck’s cab. His gaunt face may have been attractive in its youth, but now it looked haggard and old, though he was only 40. He had a thin, cruel mouth that was snapped shut in a hard line. His nose was crooked and looked like it had been broken more than once, but his eyes were the most haunting of all his features as they appeared to be nothing more than two small, hollow points set deep in their sockets.
After all she had heard about Cecil McCrory, Sue was ready for him, but she was surprised when the passenger door of the vehicle opened instead of the driver’s. Around the front of the truck walked a boy who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. That the boy was Cecil’s son could not be questioned; his eyes were exactly the same, as if, even though still in their youth, they had already seen too much of life’s hardships.
The boy had looked straight ahead while he walked to the door, but upon entering, he cast his gaze to the floor. Sue was on her guard in an instant, and she began to wonder if the McCrory propensity for thievery was an inherited trait.
Like his father, the boy did not have on a shirt. His only clothing was a worn pair of blue jeans; even his feet were bare, and from the amount of filth on them, Sue guessed the child probably hadn’t worn shoes since school had let out. His bare back was a dark sun-toasted brown, and his hair was so blond as to appear white, bleached from a summer spent outdoors.
The boy walked in the front door and immediately headed down the nearest aisle to the back of the store where the drink coolers were located. From her vantage point at the front counter, Sue could see down each of the four aisles. The way Hargrove had set up the store ensured that he never lost sight of any customer, so stealing was cut to a minimum. Hargrove also had the foresight to install two large mirrors in the back of the store that magnified the customer’s actions in the corners.
Most of the children who came into Hargrove’s usually ran wild, picking up various items along their way before being told by a parent to put things back where they came from. Some children actually returned the items to their proper places, but the majority of them just dumped everything on the bottom shelf of whatever aisle they were on. Not only did the McCrory boy not dart around the store, but he didn’t touch anything either. Instead, his hands were wadded into fists and shoved deep into his pants’ pockets. He did not even look to his left or right as he walked, but kept his gaze focused on the floor.
Sue expected him to open a drink cooler and pick out a bottle of Coke. Instead, the boy went to the right corner where the beer and wine was stored. He reached inside, pulled out a six-pack of Old Milwaukee’s Best, and turned on his heels to walk back to the cash register.
As the boy placed the beer on the counter, he did not look up. Small for his age, the child merely kept his head bowed; he would not meet Sue’s gaze. Sue simply stared. Surely this child could not expect her to sell him beer? Why, even if his father did happen to be sitting in a truck not twenty yards away from the front of the store did not change matters. Sue bristled under such an assumption, and her voice came out a little harsher than she intended when she spoke.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot sell you this beer. You’re underage,” Sue stated. The boy, who had started shifting his weight from one foot to the next, remained mute. “You’ll have to go on out to the truck and tell your daddy that he’ll just have to come in the store and purchase the beer himself.”
Still the boy did not look up.
“Look, hon’,” Sue began again. “I realize that you aren’t drinking the beer yourself, but rules are rules. Your daddy will have to buy his own beer.”
The boy turned his head to look out the glass door to where his father was waiting in the truck. Obviously growing impatient, Cecil McCrory made a quick gesture for the boy to come on. Sue, who had also looked out the door, saw Cecil’s face storm up like a gathering thunderhead. Good, she thought! Let him get angry! Make the sorry jerk come in here himself instead of sending his child to do his dirty work.
“You go on out there and tell your daddy to come in this store and get the beer.” Sue waited for a response, but she did not get one. “I’m not going to sell it to you.”
No sooner than the words had left her mouth than a loud honking noise issued forth from the rusty truck. Cecil was mashing down on the horn and did not appear to be inclined to let up. The boy shivered slightly; a move that Sue did not miss.
Sue was glad that Cecil was getting angry, and she didn’t care if he blew on that horn the rest of the day. But something about the boy’s reaction to his father’s honking the horn made Sue do a double take.
Although the store was cool, it certainly was not cold enough to explain why the goose pimples had started popping up all over the boy’s arms. A flush of red began to appear in the boy’s chest area and continued darkening as it progressed up his neck. Sue supposed the red had spread to the child’s face as well, but the boy still had not lifted his head, so she could not be sure.
Instead of going out to the truck or even taking the beer back to the cooler, the boy began digging in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled five-dollar bill.
Finally, he spoke. “Please, ma’am,” came a voice barely audible above the sound of the horn, “is this enough for the beer?”
Sue stood still. She knew the boy had heard her tell him that she would not sell him the beer, but here he was attempting to pay for it. Sue’s anger began to boil. How dare this child ignore her command to make his father come in and buy his own beer! These McCrorys, even the little ones, sure had some nerve!
Just as she was about to yell at him to leave, the boy finally looked up at her. Tears glistened in his eyes and threatened to roll down his flushed face, but the boy was trying to check them. On his right cheek was a purple bruise that had started fading into yellow. For the first time, Sue noticed that his outstretched arm had four roundish bruises on the top; they were finger-size.
Sue felt her own face flush as her anger faded and the new emotion of embarrassment took over. The boy had not looked away from her, but now she glanced outside and stared at the truck. The horn had stopped blowing.
“Please, ma’am,” came the voice again, “is this enough for the beer?” The child offered her the money on his outstretched, dirty palm.
“Yes,” said Sue quietly. “It’s enough.” She rang up the charge and gave the boy his change. Feeling guilty she asked, “Would you like to purchase something else with what’s left? You could get a pack of gum or something?”
Almost imperceptibly, the boy, who had again bowed his head, nodded a “no,” so Sue placed the change in his hand.
“Would you like a bag?” She asked.
The child shook his head. He put his change in his pockets, grabbed the beer, and tucked it under his arm as he walked out the door.
As the boy started to the truck, his father leaned out the window and spat a long spray of tobacco juice on the ground. “’Bout damn time,” Cecil McCrory sneered, but the boy never said a word as he climbed into the truck with the beer.
Sue saw the truck ease out on the road, and as she sat back down on her stool to await the next customer, she realized that there was at least one McCrory who’d never steal her blind.
I did not want to be an Auburn fan. Instead, I wanted to pull for Ole Miss. At my grammar school, located in the northeastern corner of Mississippi, the supply cart lady sold single subject notebooks: some with the Mississippi State bulldog embossed on the front, others with Ole Miss’s very dapper-looking Colonel Reb on the cover. I liked Colonel Reb; he reminded me of my great-grandfather. My choice of team also had to do with Ole Miss’s close proximity to our small town. Most citizens in our community were Rebel fans, hence the double appeal of rooting for Ole Miss.
Yet, it was not to be. As my step-father informed me, we were from Alabama, and his family, and as it turned out my mom’s family as well, were AUBURN fans. Imagine being six years old and having a step-father whom you were in awe of, but still getting to know after only two years, tell you with a conspiratorial wink, “If you’re going to live in my house and eat my food, you’re going to be an Auburn fan.” So Auburn it would be!
To me, my step-father seemed like a giant of a man. When you are young, though, all adults look like giants. A little over six feet tall, Robert had married my mother when I was four. Although my biological father showed up occasionally, he was never a constant presence in my life. My step-father filled that void, and because I was so young when my mother married him, Robert, for all intents and purposes, became my Daddy.
I loved Daddy from the start, but because he was such a big man in my eyes, I was also a little bit afraid of him. When he first married my mother, he worked for Deaton as a truck driver, so even his “big rig” intimidated me. Shortly after marrying Mama, Daddy took a job with W.S. Newell under the supervision of my great-uncle. Daddy moved us nearly 250 miles away from our hometown in south central Alabama and away from everything I loved, most especially my maternal grandmother. I resented Daddy for that move, but our family was growing. My mom was pregnant with my younger sister, and the job with Newell meant more money and security, so away we went.
Before my sister was born, for six years, I had been the center of attention at home. I was the oldest grandchild in my mother’s family and the youngest in my biological father’s. I was spoiled. When my sister came along, I did not like her at all. She stole the attention that had been previously paid to me, and honestly, I was downright jealous. Blonde and cute, she was everything I wasn’t. Even though I was only a child, I had always been observant, and when my sister arrived, I wondered if Daddy would love me any longer. Mama had to; after all, I belonged to her. But would Daddy?
Because I craved a way to remain Daddy’s girl, too, his announcement that I would be an Auburn fan provided me with an opportunity to do just that. Each Saturday, if he wasn’t working, Daddy would sit for hours on end watching SEC football. Although we were Auburn fans, he believed in the old adage of knowing one’s enemies. He’d watch the Ole Miss games, secretly making me very happy; he’d watch the Florida games; he’d watch the LSU games. As long as it was SEC, he watched. Of course, he pulled for the SEC, except when it came to Alabama. He was for Auburn and whoever played Alabama.
To begin with, I did not understand a thing about football. I just sat and copied whatever Daddy did. When he cheered, so did I. When he criticized a referee with choice four-letter words, so did I, at least until Mama caught me. Over time, I began to catch on to some of the rules, but often, Daddy would just volunteer the information. He explained what it meant to punt, what downs were, and why Pat Dye was just as good as Bear Bryant. When Bear Bryant died, Daddy was sad. According to him, the man was a worthy opponent, and one he’d actually miss.
Sitting on the couch next to Daddy having him explain hour after hour of football to me alone was intoxicating. Sometimes, though, Auburn’s games weren’t televised, and we’d tune in to the radio and listen instead. The early 1980s brought us the booming voice of Jim Fyffe, and his elongated “T-O-U-C-H-D-O-W-N—A-U-B-U-R-N!!!!!!” became a staple in our house. Often, we’d turn the volume down on the television and the radio up to listen to Jim Fyffe work his magic and envelope us in an ecstasy of play-by-plays. When Fyffe died too young in 2003, Daddy was sad again, but, knowing who Fyffe was and having come to love his performances, so was I.
I realized early that being an Auburn fan means you have to be loyal, for you are sorely going to have your allegiance tested on occasion. Yet, the 1980s were not times when rooting for Auburn was difficult. During this period, some football genius at Auburn discovered Bo Jackson, who made his every move look like art in motion. Daddy’s favorite call was “Bo over the top,” and on Saturdays I’d make “Go Bo Go” signs out of crayons and construction paper. Daddy also loved Lionel “Little Train” James. So fast, if you blinked, you’d miss him; so hard to catch, he passed like quicksilver through the outstretched arms of his opponents. The 80s brought us other Auburn greats, too, such as Al Del Greco, Brent Fullwood, and Tracy Rocker. With each passing season, my understanding of and love for Auburn football deepened.
When I entered the sixth grade, my parents allowed me to join the band. I think my mother did this because she knew I loved music; Daddy, on the other hand, may have come to the conclusion that this would be the only way he’d ever get to cheer for his alma mater on Friday nights during football season. My brother would be born in 1987, but neither he nor my sister ever expressed any real interest in the game until they got older. No, the game would always belong to just Daddy and me; it became our common ground during my adolescent and young adult years.
Because we couldn’t afford Auburn tickets for the whole family, Friday night high school football games stood in their stead. I was in marching band for five years, and Daddy and Mama attended all the home games and most of the away ones. Playing baritone meant I was in the low brass, and we always sat at the top of the reserved band section. Daddy and Mama would sit right behind us. During my first year of marching band, I tried my best to ignore Daddy’s attempts at embarrassing me. His calls of “Bertha Mae,” his special nickname for me even though my name is neither Bertha nor Mae, went unanswered. When I ignored him, he’d resort to throwing boiled peanuts in my general direction. To my dismay but to the amusement of my fellow band members, Daddy turned out to be a remarkable shot. More times than not, those peanuts ended up down the bell of my baritone, causing me to scramble to get them back out. Knowing it was really the only option available, I humored Daddy and just talked to him during the games, but so did all of my friends. They liked him, especially when he’d let loose an expletive at the refs. His use of four-letter adjectives was superb, and even if he did try to mutter them under his breath, his voice managed to carry them to our ears, thus resulting in snickering and sheer delight on our part.
In 1992, I graduated from high school, and Pat Dye spent his last season on The Plains. I had grown up only ever seeing Dye on Auburn’s sidelines as head coach. He was a staple of my childhood. Now, Daddy and I worried what would happen to Auburn football. We spent the entire spring of 1993 discussing it, and as we passed around the deviled eggs at Easter, we wondered if the replacement, Terry Bowden, would live up to our expectations.
Son of legendary Florida State (former) head coach Bobby Bowden, Terry was a marvel to us, and we just did not know what to expect. What we got was a perfect season, 11-0! We couldn’t go to the playoffs in 1993 due to probation, but no one could deny that “Terry’s Tigers,” as they were beginning to be called, had pulled off a miracle season! Stan White and James Bostic dominated the field, and with Bowden on the sideline, we knew a turn for the better was on the horizon. The era of Terry Bowden had begun!
The era of Terry Bowden was short-lived. After five years, he left Auburn amid talk and speculation. Yet, he was on the sidelines when I attended my first Auburn game. In the 1998 season opener, Auburn played Virginia. Virginia outsmarted, outlasted, and outmaneuvered Auburn to win 19-0, but all of that was lost on me. I had never even been to Auburn before this game, and everything about the town and the stadium excited me. I drank way too much lemonade from Toomer’s Corner, but it certainly lived up to all of its hype. After the game, I stood under the Toomer’s Oaks and marveled at how traces of the previous year’s toilet paper still clung to the branches. Because Auburn lost that night, we did not add new paper. Only wins called for tree rolling, a tradition that has now been compromised.
Because I had gone to the game with friends, Daddy had not attended it with me, but when I returned home, he wanted to know every detail. Did you see Aubie? What was it like to watch the Tigers run out of the tunnel and across the field? How did it feel to sing the fight song while watching them play? Daddy so badly wanted to attend a game, but financial difficulties always seemed to stand in the way.
As I grew older, I left home and moved away for school and, eventually, my marriage. I could no longer sit on the couch every Saturday and watch Auburn football with Daddy, but when I could, I was there next to him, both of us cheering a touchdown or arguing with the refs over a bad call. When other obligations drew me away, I would watch the games wherever I was and call Daddy during an exciting play. If Auburn scored, we’d try to beat one another in calling the other in order to say, Jim Fyffe-style, “T-O-U-C-H-D-O-W-N—A-U-B-U-R-N!!!” Whether Auburn only scored one touchdown or six during a game, each resulted in a quick call between us.
After Terry Bowden left, Auburn recruited Ole Miss’s head coach Tommy Tuberville, the “Riverboat Gambler,” to lead the team. For me, having Tuberville as Auburn’s head coach would be the closest I would ever get to being an Ole Miss fan. From 1999-2008, Tuberville led Auburn to an 85-40 record, including a perfect season in 2004 and six straight wins over Alabama; he even survived the “JetGate” scandal in 2003 when there was talk of replacing him. Under Tuberville’s leadership, Auburn thrived, and the phone calls between Daddy and me took on a whole new intensity. Daddy was excited, but still, he had not been to a game. He told me that it was his one wish to see Auburn play before he died.
In 2000, Daddy, age 56 at the time, had to have triple-bypass heart surgery. A diet of fatty Southern foods coupled with diabetes often results in some type of heart surgery. Daddy came through it like a trooper, but his recovery was slow. He hoped to return to work, but his heart simply would not allow it. From 2000 on, his health was a constant source of concern for us, but more often than not, Daddy felt fine, providing he did not overexert himself by doing anything physically taxing. The two of us still talked and watched football every fall, but now, we had to make sure he didn’t get too worked up over a touchdown or bad call.
When the 2007 season rolled around, Auburn was still playing well. The Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, and Jason Campbell era had ended a few years earlier, but the new guys were holding their own. Ben Tate and Mario Fannin danced across the field with ease, and Quentin Groves stopped anything that blipped on his radar. Being an Auburn Tiger was fun. In early October of that year, I took my son and nephew to their first Auburn games, but neither cared much about it. They were more interested in the concession stands. Daddy had been too sick to go, but he started feeling better, and I knew it was time. So, I purchased five tickets to the Auburn/Ole Miss game for October 27.
When I told Daddy and Mama that they were going with me to the game, Daddy looked at me a little funny. At first, I thought it was because he couldn’t believe he was going to an Auburn game, but as he slowly smiled, he asked me, “You finally change allegiance?” After nearly 30 years of being an Auburn fan, I wasn’t about to pull for Ole Miss now! No, the lesson had been learned, and for better or worse, we both knew I’d always root for AU.
October 27 arrived and was a perfect Southern fall day. We left early enough to beat the traffic, but when we got to the handicap parking area, we worried when we saw how full it was. Finally, we found a spot, and just as we did, a transport cart drove up. Daddy arrived at Jordan-Hare Stadium in style: in an orange and blue golf cart with a tiger tail swinging gently from side to side on the back. When we got to the entrance of the field, Daddy stood still for several minutes. Seemingly unable to grasp the stadium’s enormity, he sucked in his breath, and whispered, “It’s just so big.” Before long, we were seated on our row: Mama and Daddy at their first ever Auburn game alongside me, my son, and my husband (a Florida fan).
One of the great traditions at Auburn is the flight of the eagle. During our game, I believe Nova, one of three Auburn eagles, was the chosen bird for the pre-game flight. Because we were in the nose-bleed section, we were in a prime spot to see Nova being released. Knowing this was a moment Daddy had waited to see for such a long time, I prepped my father for the eagle’s flight. But as the trainer got set to let Nova go, Daddy started saying, “Where is it? I don’t see it.” Nova was released, circled, and nearly landed before Daddy ever figured out where the eagle was. In fact, the bird swooped so low over our section that several people instinctively ducked when it passed overhead. When Daddy finally espied the eagle, he said, “Oh, there it is! Well, I’ll be. That was alright.” Yet, he saw with perfect clarity the drum majors high stepping across the field, which seemed to impress him even more than the eagle’s flight. The fight song rang out as the Tigers exited the tunnel, and once the starting lineups were announced, the game began.
The SEC is notorious for having outstanding defenses, and the October 27, 2007, Auburn/Ole Miss game highlighted defense at its best. Auburn marched down the field during the first quarter for a touchdown, putting them on top 7-0. Brandon Cox, Brad Lester, and Rod Smith began to rack up some impressive numbers. Ole Miss rallied in the second quarter for a field goal, and by half-time, the score was 7-3. I can’t remember all the plays or much of what transpired on the field; what I do remember is my father’s excitement and his play-by-play commentary as the game unfolded. Whether the play was an option, quarterback sneak, or blitz, Daddy knew them all.
Although Daddy cheered his way through the first half of the game, he was quickly beginning to tire, but he did not want to leave. Yet, when Auburn scored a second touchdown, he decided it was time to go. Upon exiting the stadium, a cart was available, and as the driver helped Daddy in, he asked, “Did you enjoy the game?” Daddy told him, “I sure did! It was my first one, but it won’t be my last.”
Daddy had certainly had a night to remember; he had laughed, yelled, and even cursed a time or two when a call didn’t go Auburn’s way, but he had loved every single minute of it. On the car ride home, we listened to the end of the game; Auburn won it, 17-3. Although he was really tired for the next few days, Daddy happily recounted to anyone who’d listen the story of his first Auburn game.
Auburn finished with a 9-4 season in 2007, including a win in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. 2008 proved to be disappointing with a 5-7 finish, but even more upsetting was the loss of Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville. Daddy and I had enjoyed his antics; although a few of the risks he took didn’t pay off, more often than not, they had. Always one to have a surprise or two up his sleeve, Tubby had been a pleasure to watch.
When Gene Chizik was hired in Tuberville’s place, we had our doubts. Chizik had just finished an unimpressive season as head coach at Iowa State; would he be able to do any better at Auburn? Daddy and I wondered, we speculated, we reviewed, and in the end, we decided only time would tell. In 2009, Auburn finished 8-5, and they won the Outback Bowl. Of course, most people know that 2010 would be the year that Chizik would impress everyone, but that season would come too late for my Daddy to enjoy.
On Christmas Day 2009, Daddy had to be hospitalized, and over the next few months, his health steadily declined. In March of 2010, Daddy spent two weeks in Baptist South in Montgomery growing steadily weaker until, on March 28, he passed way. He was 66 years old.
No words can express how one feels after having a parent pass away, so I am not even going to attempt to it. Unfortunately, grief and I are old acquaintances, for I have buried two fathers in my lifetime. I lost my biological father in 1993 when I was only 18; he died of lung cancer. I was 35 when I lost my greatest hero, my step-father, who taught me the value of hard work, respect for my elders, and the love of football. Although most people say that football is only a game, and they are somewhat right, for me and my Daddy, it was a bonding agent. It was the glue that sealed our relationship, and now, the game will never be the same without him.
Since my father’s passing, Auburn has gone on to win the National Championship in 2010, fired Chizik, hired Gus Malzahn, and almost won another championship just this year. My father would have been thrilled to have watched Cam Newton explode across Pat Dye field; he would have had a strong opinion about Chizik’s departure; he would have possibly had a heart attack after the “miracle at Jordan Hare” and the “kick six” this season. Yes, he would have loved it all, but instead, I have had to enjoy it for him.
I must admit that a little bit of the magic football once held for me is gone. After Auburn has made a particularly great play, I still catch myself reaching for the phone to beat my Daddy in making the call to yell “T-O-U-C-H-D-O-W-N—A-U-B-U-R-N!” (always Jim Fyffe-style). Only now, I can’t. Sometimes, I call my mother instead, but she finds watching the games too difficult, so the connection that should be there isn’t. She loves Auburn and wants them to play well, but it’s just too hard for her to watch. The wounds and hurt are still there for us both, and they always will be. A part of my life is gone, and I miss it. I miss him. I guess my one consolation is that I took Daddy to the only college football game he ever attended; it was and always will be one of the best nights of my life, and for that and for him, I say loudly and proudly: “War Eagle!”
For those of us who grew up watching the game sitting side by side with our parents and learning about it through them, we know it is about more than school spirit and rivalries. It’s about more than bragging rights and merchandising. It’s about more than just football. No, the game is really about the memories we create and the people it connects us to. Although some may find this difficult to believe, for a few of us, it is about love. Through it, my Daddy and I found our common ground, and for that if for nothing else, I will always love the game.
Image Courtesy of Patricia Neely-Dorsey
About Mona We’re excited to bring a little prickly wit to our readers with the musings of a new contributor. With sardonic humor, our friend and writer Mona Sides Smith will take an irreverent look at the joys and woes of aging in her regular column, About Mona. Tune in as she shares her tongue-in-cheek views on everyday life as an eighty year old workaholic, with caustic wit and sarcastic hilarity. March 13, 2014The thing about aging is that it is here to stay. Don’t worry about it. It will get worse. Aging is very common. The older a body gets, the more time-consuming it is. There are the doctor appointments. In the doctor’s office, most of the help assumes that you are hard of hearing and they shout at you. They shout things like “Hello Sweetie,” as they pat you on the shoulder and bend over toward you, I guess to see if you have your eyes open or if you have drifted off again. There is Walking Slower as the years go by. I walk so slowly that I annoy myself. I am amazed by how fast people can pick up their feet and put them down. I can’t do that. When I practice fast walking, I increase my speed up to Very Slow. Then there is the sleeping problem. I hate getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. I could sleep well, except for my bladder. It holds about half a cup of liquid and then begins to leak. I could go into how I deal with it but I’m not ready to do that yet. I am, however, open to suggestions from others who have bladders that seem to have shrunk to the size of a kumquat. And there are the store-bought body parts. There are these store-bought teeth that make it possible for me to eat, provided I do not bite on anything firm – like peanuts, my dentist says. You see, I have some of my front teeth. A few are mine, ground down and crowned. A few are bridges. But, they don’t come out for dunking in some caustic liquid for cleaning them so I don’t breathe denture breath on people. At least, I hope I do not. Please tell me if I do. Once I lost one of the partials in an airplane. I thought I dropped it in my purse, but I must have dropped it on the floor. I talked my late husband, Smitty, into calling the airline and describing it to the Lost-and-Found folks. God bless him. I doubt that I would have done the same for him. It was never found. I can only imagine whatever happened to it. There are other store-bought parts and by-passes and repairs and additions and removals. Dear God, I feel like a hypochondriac when I present my list to yet another physician. I’m eighty now and some things are no longer a problem. How about that decision about whether or not to get a PhD? Moot point. It would take me half a day to walk across campus to get to a class that would be over by the time I shuffled in. Sex? Forget about it. All of my husbands but one died, and the only one still standing moved to Australia forty-five years ago. It doesn’t look like he is coming back. Not that I believe you have to be married to have sex. I watch TV and I don’t mean X-rated movies. There is more sex information on one morning news program than I got the first twenty years of my life. Aging is here to stay. Aging problems are here to stay. Don’t worry about them; they get worse. I just deal with it and occasionally complain to a captive audience like this one.
…“We’ll be back in a little bit,” I said, and Nancy and I went in the front doorway. The foyer was a large area with gleaming heart-pine floors, elegant oriental rugs, and rich fabrics. The living room was to the right and was similarly decorated, with a baby grand piano in the far corner, at which a middle-aged man in a seersucker suit and thinning hair was skillfully playing cocktail lounge tunes.
To the left of the foyer was a large dining room with a massive walnut Sheraton dining table and twelve mahogany Queen Anne chairs that were pulled back against the walls of the room to provide seating. The table practically groaned under its load of scrumptious-looking goodies. The table was covered by a full-length damask tablecloth that was surely a family heirloom. China, crystal, and sterling silver filled the room with a rich glow.
The bar had been set up behind the table on the far outer wall, and we began to make our way through the throng of guests, eating, drinking, and visiting. No one paid the least bit of attention to either of us. Behind the bar was a black man dressed in black pants and a white tux shirt. He saw me coming and smiled,
“How ya’ll doin this fine spring evening,” he sang in a deep, melodic voice. “I’m Coleman, what can I fix you to drink?”
“I’ll have a couple of scotch on the rocks, and I’ll need a Jack Daniel’s for Miss Manning,” I replied.
“Yes, suh, two scotch on the rocks and one Miz Bertha coming up.”
It was clear that this was not Coleman’s first night on this gig. If he would be willing to tell it, he probably knew where all the bodies were buried. Strange that I should have thought about buried bodies at this moment. Nancy tugged on my sleeve and inclined her head back toward the buffet table.
“Do you see what I’m seeing,” she asked incredulously.
Her eyes led me to the far end of the buffet table where I saw what had caught her attention. There were two legs sticking out from under the tablecloth from the knees down. They were encased in a pair of ecru support hose rolled down to the knee joints, and were sporting a pair of very sensible black shoes. The rest of the person was hidden under the table. Guests were moving back and forth along the buffet, filing plates and talking to each other and, when they approached the legs, they were very careful to step over them without comment or any apparent concern.
“Maybe she’s had a little bit too much to drink,” I offered.
“She picked a strange place to pass out,” Nancy said.
“Well, nobody seems too concerned, so I guess we just go with the flow. There may be some ancient Canton custom involved and we don’t need to interfere. We’re only guests, after all.”
“I don’t suppose that you could just casually reach down and feel for a pulse, could you?”
“What do you want me to do, crawl under the table and give her a physical?”
“Oh, hell no, you’d probably try give her a pelvic. Let’s just take our drinks out and see what Miss Bertha thinks about it all.”
Nancy and I found Miss Bertha sitting on one of the porch swings, gently rocking and singing along with the piano, whose notes were drifting on the evening breeze. I handed Miss Bertha her drink and said as matter-of-factly as I could,
“We just saw something that seems a little unusual; there’s a lady lying under the buffet table with her legs sticking out. She’s not moving. Do you think someone should check her out?”
“Aw, shit, I can’t believe that ditzy old crow has done it again. Laura Devon is going to have a duck.”
“I take it that this is a regular event on Friday evenings?”
“Well, it’s getting much worse since her last heart attack; she just lies down and prepares to die every time she feels the least bit bad. We think she’s doing it to try to get a rise from her son, Millsap.
“Is her son here tonight?”
“Yes, he’s the little thing playing the piano. He may be a little light in his loafers, but he sure can tickle the keys.”
“Do you suppose someone might oughta give him a heads-up that Mommy is taking break amongst the hors d’oeuvres?’
“I suppose we should. Come with me and we can turn this over to Laura. After all, it is her house.”
The three of us returned to the living room and Miss Bertha quickly corralled Mrs. Devon and whispered the news. Laura Devion frowned and said, “Damn it, Bertha, I saw the silly thing’s legs sticking out into my dining room and decided not to give her the satisfaction of noticing. It only rewards her deplorable behavior. But I suppose somebody needs to check on her. Where is that young Dr. Ed Reed? I saw him and Patricia here earlier.” Miss Bertha pointed across the room to a very upscale young couple listening to the piano music.
Laura Devine walked over and said, “Dr. Reed, could I trouble you for a moment?”
“Of course, Mrs. Devon, what can I do for you?”
“If you could rather discreetly examine the person lying under my buffet table I would greatly appreciate it.”
“I beg your pardon; someone is lying under the buffet table?”
“Yes, and I am certain there is nothing wrong with her but a mean and hateful disposition, but I suppose one has to take every precaution in a situation like this. Just give her a quick look, if you will.”
Nancy and watched as the young doctor eased his way to the end of the table and, acting as if he had dropped his fork, slipped totally unnoticed beneath the tablecloth. In a moment, the two exposed legs slipped neatly under the table and soon Ed Reed emerged as if nothing was the least bit unusual. He strolled over to our little group and said,
“Mrs. Devine, I am sad to report that your friend is quite dead. She appears to have suffered a massive heart failure. I believe we must call the authorities and report this.”
“Dr. Reed, I really appreciate your help, and I’ll take care of everything from this point on. I have no intention of allowing that awful woman to ruin my party.”
She looked at the three of us and said, “Since you already know what’s going on, the three of you can help me clean up this mess. The first thing that I’m going to do is to call Billy Maxwell and tell him what has happened and to be sure he doesn’t send a bunch of police cars and ambulances here to make a big scene.”
Billy Maxwell was the sheriff of Hamilton County and a well-known law and order hard nose. If you got so much as a traffic ticket in his county, you got the full treatment, including a prison haircut and a cavity search. He had a female deputy of undetermined sexual preference on his force who very much enjoyed searching young women who were unlucky enough to be ensnared in Hamilton County justice. I was pretty sure Mrs. Devon would be subjected to the full Billy Maxwell treatment. Just the thought of some deputy performing a cavity search of Laura Devon boggled the mind.
What actually happened was quite different. Maxwell came to the house alone and pretty much faded into the general hub-bub. The owner of The Carroll Brothers’ Funeral Home arrived with a hearse and two attendants and parked discreetly in the back of the house. Mrs. Devon took one of her silver forks and gently tapped a crystal water goblet and, once she had everyone’s attention, said,
“Ladies and gentlemen I have just been informed that there will be a total eclipse of the moon in about five minutes; why don’t we all move onto the front verandah and observe this astronomical wonder?”
A general excitement rippled through the guests and everyone began to move toward the front of the house. When they were all gone, the two men from the funeral home brought in a collapsible gurney, and without ceremony, drug the body from under the table and removed it to the waiting hearse. It was all done in less than five minutes.
I looked at Nancy and said, “Now it ought to get really interesting. I’ll bet Maxwell tells all of us not to leave until he’s taken our statements. I’m expecting Mrs. Marple or Hercule Poirot to suddenly appear. I guess we can kiss Tico’s steaks goodbye.”
Soon everyone started to drift back into the dining room, having been informed that there had been a mistake about the eclipse. The party was back in full swing, with the piano player hammering away. Miss Bertha walked over and said, “Laura and I would like to thank the two of you for keeping cool during our recent little unpleasantness. We hope that both of you will become regulars for out little soirees.”
“Why, thank you, ma’am, I suppose someone has told the piano player that his mother is dead? He sure is taking it well.”
“We decided to wait until the party was over to mention it to him. He will be beside himself when he finds out.”
“Well, I can imagine he will; he just lost his mother.”
“Oh that won’t be a problem, they hated each other. He’ll be excited to know that she’s gone and he will be inheriting over $50,000,000 dollars. He can finally move to New Orleans and move in with his friend. She would have cut off his allowance if he had done it while she was alive. We just want him keep on playing till the party ends.”
“I don’t see how y’all will be able to keep it from him when the sheriff begins his investigation.”
“Oh, there’ll be no investigation. What’s to investigate? Billy Maxwell likes being sheriff too much to mess up our party.” She paused for a half second and her eyes flickered towards the window. “In fact, I see him pulling away as we speak.”
Sure enough, the sheriff’s car was easing away from the curb and there would be no further inquiry into the death of Norma Langston. There would be a family funeral sometime next week, and Millsap would be leaving for the Vieux Carre before they could fill in the grave.
Miss Bertha smiled at Nancy and me and said, “Now, you young people need to circulate and meet some more of our members. I’m gonna have another drink and see if there is some old coot who might like a night of perversion. Enjoy the party.”
Carl and Cathy walked up as she disappeared into the crowd. “We were about to come rescue y’all from the clutches of Bertha Manning – she’ll talk your ear off,” Cathy explained. “We’re getting bored; let’s head for Tico’s. I don’t guess anything interesting has happened to you two?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary. We’ll fill y’all in on the way.”
Nancy and I lived in an area of Jackson, Mississippi known as “Belhaven,” an older neighborhood that had been developed in the 1920s. At one time it had been the place to live in Jackson, but had since been replaced after World War II by what was now known as East Jackson. If you asked anyone who lived in Belhaven to describe the area, they would probably refer to it as a quaint, well-established area of elegant old homes. Most everyone else called it that old rundown area behind Baptist Hospital. It depended on your perspective.
Tonight was our supper club meeting and we were going to Tico’s Steak House for dinner. But before dinner, Carl and Cathy Sides were taking us to Canton, their hometown just north of Jackson, to attend a pre-dinner cocktail party.
I came through the front door just as Nancy was leaving to go get our babysitter for the evening. I had better pause right here and try to explain exactly what a babysitter used to be. In the 1950s and ‘60s it was considered rude and thoughtless to bring small children into adult situations. For instance, you did not bring your toddler to see Splendor in the Grass. Bambi, yes. On the Waterfront, no. You did not bring a colicky infant to dinner at a nice restaurant. The soda fountain at Brent’s drugstore maybe, but not LeFluer’s. What you did was employ a local teenager to come to your home and tend to the little angels while the adults went out for the evening.
This person was referred to as a “babysitter” and the act of “babysitting” provided a much-welcomed source of teenage income. Every young couple had a secret list of babysitters, and the list was protected from your friends. There were many hard and fast rules governing our social set; you did not wear a colored shirt during the business day, ladies did not wear white shoes until summer, and if you had a little too much to drink, you didn’t barf in someone’s car. Good common sense stuff.
Our society was very tolerant and forgiving if you slipped up on most things such as adultery, teenage pregnancy, or alcohol abuse, but there was one transgression from which there was no redemption. If you stole your neighbor’s maid, yardman, or babysitter, there could never be a meaningful future relationship. Something like that could get you thrown out of the Junior League, bounced from a half-dozen bridge and garden clubs, and tossed from the country club. You were socially fried; you might as well have been a Yankee.
By the time Nancy had returned with our young lady of the evening, I had managed to shower, shave, and put on a pair of khakis, a blue button down cotton shirt, a navy blazer and black loafers – the standard weekend uniform. Carl and Cathy pulled into our driveway and we all started for Canton, our first stop of the evening.
Carl and Cathy were both born and raised in Canton. Carl had been an outstanding high school athlete and Cathy, a couple of years younger, had been Homecoming Queen and a yearbook beauty. Cathy’s father had been a prominent physician before his untimely death, and her mother, Bitsy, was at the very top of the Canton social register. Bitsy lived on the best street in one of a dozen large white Victorian homes on large, shaded lots. The widow ladies of a certain age who owned these homes were members of an ad hoc organization known as “The Canton Ladies.” Mrs. Bomart Devon was the titular head of this group, and it was her home to which we were heading. Mrs. Devon’s son, Beau, was a well-known figure on the Hamilton County scene. He had attended several institutions of higher learning on an on-again-off-again basis, but to no one’s knowledge had Beau ever received any sort of degree. This did not hamper Beau; he had never had a job and was not the least bit interested in getting one. What the Devons did have was over 20,000 acres of Black Belt cotton land that had passed down from Beau’s great-grandfather.
Beau always wore a white suit, a la Colonel Sanders, and drove a stable of sports cars. He oversaw the manufacture of the finest sour mash whiskey that ever was, and ran the only private race track for trotting sulkies in Mississippi, complete with illegal pari-mutuel betting and a large grandstand. On any Sunday afternoon during Beau’s racing season, several hundred well-dressed friends and acquaintances would fill the stands for a day of racing and a gourmet dinner on the grounds. Somehow all of this escaped the notice of the Hamilton County Sheriff or any other law enforcement agency.
It was the custom of “The Canton Ladies” to host a little soiree each Friday night, starting in the spring and ending on Labor Day. Tonight’s gala would be at Beau’s momma’s house, and there were several dozen cars and pickup trucks lining the street in front. There was no official guest list. Everyone just knew if they would be accepted or not. Cathy’s status as Bitsy Streel’s daughter and “Princess in waiting” assured that we would be welcomed. Carl had definitely married above his station.
Carl parked in Bitsy’s driveway several doors away, and we walked in the early summer twilight toward the sound of a tinkling piano and subdued laughter. We climbed the steps that lead to a large white verandah with rocking chairs and swings. Every seat was filled with what appeared to be the cast party for a Tennessee Williams play. Cathy knew everyone, Carl knew most of them and Nancy and I knew Bitsy. There would be no introductions made – you were on your own. It was assumed this was not your first party, and that you could meet and greet like a grown person.
Cathy and Carl disappeared into the house and Nancy and I spotted a henna-haired lady of indeterminate age nursing what appeared to be a tumbler of straight sour mash, while taking periodic drags on a smoking cigarette in a holder. She wore an orange and gold caftan, a purple turban, and was barefoot. She looked like a good prospect for an interesting conversation. I walked over and said,
“Good evening, Miss, I’m Tommy Larch and this is my wife, Nancy. We’re from Jackson and this is our first time at the Friday night party.”
The woman slowly turned in my direction and looked me up and down before saying, “I’m Esmeralda; I’m a gypsy. I can tell your fortune if you’d like.”
“Gosh, Esmeralda, we don’t get a lot of gypsies around here. Do you live in a wagon?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, I’m not a real gypsy. Just on Fridays. The rest of time I live in the house across the street.”
“Is your name really Esmeralda?
“Just on Fridays; the rest of the time I’m Bertha Manning. My late husband, Charlie, was President of Canton Bank and Trust and now my son Chaz is in charge, but I own all the stock so they have to be nice to momma.”
“Are they nice to momma?’
“Very nice. Now exactly who are you?”
“Nobody in particular, we were invited by Bitsy Streel’s daughter, Cathy.”
“Oh, Cathy is such a beautiful girl. It’s a pity she made such a poor marriage. We try so hard to teach our girls that one may fall in love and have passionate affairs, but always marry for money. My Charlie was no great lover, but he was rich as Croesus and very indulgent where I was concerned. We were the perfect match.”
Nancy grinned and said, “Mrs. Manning, you seem to know everyone here, why don’t you tell us about some of them?”
“Oh, call me Bertha, my dear, and I would be delighted to fill you in on our little crowd – there are some quite interesting characters among us. For instance, see that old fool in the bib-overalls? That’s Jethro Cummins from Artesia. During the depression he ran a little country store over near Flora. He lived in the back and pinched every penny that came through the front door.
“He managed to save a couple of thousand dollars, and in 1933 he bought 10,000 acres of cut-over scrubland for twenty-five cents an acre from J.W. Raines, an old coot who owned everything in Flora. We all knew it must be worthless if J.W. was selling it. Well, in 1938 Standard Oil found the Tinsley Oil field, and most of it was under Jethro’s land. He still lives behind his store and he drives that old beat up pickup across the street, but he banks at our bank and I can tell you he’s got more money than God.”
“Is he married?” Nancy asked.
“No, he’s a life-long bachelor; I believe his only social contacts are our little parties.”
“I would have thought he would have been the perfect target for some young maiden with marrying for money on her mind.”
“Oh, my God, honey, everything has its limits. Jethro bathes on Fridays just before he comes to our dos, and puts on clean overalls and a fresh shirt. All of that will last him until this time next week. Besides, even if a girl could get by the odor, she would still be married to the tightest fist in Mississippi; Jethro is not a generous man. Rich as all hell, but a real skinflint.”
“I bet you could straighten him out Miss Bertha. You’d have him taking a daily shower and driving a Cadillac.”
“I probably could, my child; I certainly gave Charlie Manning all he could enjoy and some more. They will try to tell you that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but I can promise you that the key to men is about eight inches below their belt buckle. Take good care of that little thingy and you will have a long and successful marriage and an even better widowhood. I wouldn’t touch Jethro Cummins little thingy for twice his net worth.
“Why don’t you children go in and fix a drink. You also may want to visit the buffet table. This is a B.Y.O.B and potluck party, but there will be plenty of booze on the bar and the food can be pretty good; all of our maids do the cooking and bring the dishes over. While you’re at it, you can bring me another drink.
“I’ll be delighted to get you a drink, Miss Bertha, what can I fix for you?”
“If you’ll just pour about a half glass of Jack Daniel’s over a couple of ice cubes it would just be fine.”
“We’ll be back in a little bit,” I said and Nancy and I went in the front doorway. The foyer was a large area with gleaming heart-pine floors, elegant oriental rugs, and rich fabrics. The living room was to the right and was similarly decorated, with a baby grand piano in the far corner, at which a middle-aged man in a seersucker suit and thinning hair was skillfully playing cocktail lounge tunes.
To Be Continued…
A sweet welcome to Spring
in poems by PorchScene
“Alabama, they say, is like one big front porch where people gather on summer nights to tell tales and to talk family. Everybody, they say, is kin to everybody else – or knows someone who is.It’s a sprawling porch, stretching all the way from the Tennessee River valley to the sandy Gulf beaches, with its sides slipping over into Mississippi and Georgia. Folks there are close kin, too. The tale-tellers don’t all look alike and they don’t talk alike, but the stories they tell are all alike in their unmistakable Southern blend of exaggeration, pathos, folklore, and romanticism. Family history is woven into these stories. And pride. And humor. Always humor.” — Kathryn Tucker Windham, Alabama, One Big Front Porch. In my college days at Huntingdon College, the library was my sanctuary. I tended to linger in the stacks on the third floor, back near the antiquated philosophy books that probably haven’t been checked out in over a decade. My sophomore year, tired of sitting on the cold floor, I wedged a small desk back between the shelf and the wall – it remained there, undisturbed, for the remainder of my academic career. I’m willing to bet it’s still there. (Things don’t change much at Houghton Memorial Library.) But when things did change I took notice – this brings me to the point you’ve probably been waiting for me to make: in 2008 the college remodeled one of the study rooms on the second floor and placed a simple plaque on the door that read, ‘Kathryn’s Study.’ Curious, I asked one of the librarians who Kathryn was. She led me to a shelf that was lined with numerous titles by the same author, Kathryn Tucker Windham.
Kathryn, I discovered, was a Huntingdon alumna known for many accomplishments; she was a newspaper reporter, talented photographer, Emmy-nominated actress, NPR commentator, prolific author, and storyteller – a great storyteller. She is often regarded as one of the last great, old-fashioned storytellers, one that could even capture the rapt attention of a generation obsessed with smartphones. Kathryn devoted her entire life to writing and rhetoric. Born in Selma in 1918, by the age of 12 she had already made a name for herself as a movie reviewer for The Thomasville Times; she was paid for her efforts in movie tickets. In college, she majored in English and minored in history, and was editor for The Gargoyle, Huntingdon’s newspaper. When she graduated in 1939 she began looking for a career in serious journalism. With the men enlisting and shipping for service during World War II, many roles previously unobtainable to women were now available. Kathryn landed her first job as a reporter for Montgomery’s Alabama Journal, and became the first woman to cover the police beat. Her position at the magazine proved that women could handle the tough stories and report them truthfully, fairly and without ever yielding. As the war escalated, Kathryn moved to Birmingham and became the publicity director for the Alabama War Bond Committee from 1942 to 1944. She devoted the following two years to writing for The Birmingham News as state editor, aviation editor and courthouse reporter. From Birmingham she returned to Selma, and from 1959 until 1973, Kathryn served as a reporter for the Selma Times-Journal, where she won many Associated Press awards for reporting and photography. She witnessed violence and injustice during the Civil Rights Movement and her bold, relentless coverage of the heartbreaking stories of her state would play a vital role in race relations in America. Kathryn’s gift of storytelling was not limited to the written page. Though she would author 29 books in her lifetime that would win her fame, in the early 1970s she revealed a talent that would set her apart from all others. She took the stage in 1973 at the second-annual National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee and won the audience’s adoration. “She connected with an audience whether there were 20 people in the room or 200. She was always generous with her time and talent,” remarks actress, friend, and fellow storyteller Dolores Hydock. “My storytelling style is very different from hers, because I didn’t grow up in same environment or in the South. There’s a sittin’ on the porch, rockin’ and talkin’ style of storytelling. That was Kathryn’s. She loved to engage people with the events of the day.” Kathryn made nearly two dozen appearances at that festival that year, and over the course of her lifetime she would recount beautiful, moving, personal tales to audiences in 28 states as well as overseas. Her most famous stories, ultimately penned into books, focused on Southern ghosts; she wrote several titles concerning a spirit that lived in her Selma home, a spectre that went by the name Jeffrey. These ghost stories became beloved classics for Alabama natives – for children as well as adults. In June 2011, shortly after her 93rd birthday, Kathryn Tucker Windham’s long and remarkably creative life came to an end. Before passing, she was inducted into the Academy of Honor in Montgomery, nominated by Harper Lee, a fellow Huntingdon student, and renowned Alabama author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Throughout her long career as one of the nation’s best and most captivating storytellers, she always insisted on the humble introduction wherever she was speaking: “Please welcome Kathryn Tucker Windham. She’s from Selma, Alabama, and she tells stories.” Even when her audiences climbed to 1,000 listeners, that line remained. Kathryn’s stories were mesmerizing – she had a knack for pulling people into her world and her home, and had a way for making her small, unassuming part of Alabama a place where her listeners felt they belonged. Whether she spoke for a few minutes or even a few hours, she did so confidently and without ever relying on a note card. “Everybody here has stories to tell … to tell to someone you love,” she said at her final performance at the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee. “And now is the time to tell them.” (If you’re interested in purchasing Kathryn Tucker Windham’s books, they are available here.)
On a hot summer day in 1945 I was informed by my maternal grandmother, a devoted Christian Scientist, that I was about to become a “Sunbeam”. At five years old I had no idea what she was talking about, but I gathered it involved her best friend, Mrs. Tracy, the wife of the pastor of Ruleville’s First Baptist Church. Even at the tender age of five, I was somewhat confused by my religious affiliations. I had been christened in the Episcopal Church, courtesy of my paternal grandmother, who by the way was a complete agnostic, and then sent off to whatever denomination was handy at the time.
“Jesus wanted me for a Sunbeam,” and in spite of the somewhat unclear grasp of my spiritual destiny, I was hustled off to First Baptist Church. It is not unusual for young people to have a life-changing transformation when exposed to new religious experiences, and this was mine on that June morning in 1945. My moment of clarity however, had nothing to do with theology, but everything to do with Miss Elisabeth Stansell. I experienced a “Some Enchanted Evening“ moment, and my life was never quite the same.
Upon entering the Church and “looking across a crowded room,” I didn’t see the other dozen or so kids. All I saw was my vision of absolute perfection, dark brown hair and flashing eyes and the prettiest girl I could ever imagine. I knew right away that somehow “I’d see her again and again.”
Elizabeth Stansell became the central figure in my summer. My grandmother, who was a romantic at heart, managed to secure invitations for me to visit Elizabeth’s home half way between Ruleville and Drew, and we spent many summer afternoons together. By the time school started in September I was completely under Elizabeth’s spell. But midway through the first grade World War II ended, my Dad came home from Europe, and we moved to Mobile, Alabama.
When I returned to Ruleville to attend part of the second and fourth grades, I was naturally eager to see Elizabeth. But competition had reared its ugly head in the form of Buddy Jones, and though I had every intention of killing him, Buddy was very fast and elusive, and I could never catch him. My everlasting love for Elizabeth was never realized, but I was soothed in the knowledge that she grew up to marry one of God’s good guys, who took very good care of her for the rest of her life.
I search out antique stores with such passion until I think my spirit remains there overnight and converses with the ancient photos I saw that day. I picked up each one and gazed at it longingly, searching for my face in the stern lines of the sepia toned or black and white faces that gazed back at me. I can’t bring myself to purchase one of these treasures and bring it home with me to love. If I did, the next person to gaze at the photos in that particular bin may have been a descendant in search of her ancestor and it may well have been the picture I took home. I couldn’t deny her the opportunity to find a part of herself, while I’m constantly looking to find a part of me.
I know there must be photos of my ancient relatives lying in antique stores from Ohio to North Carolina to Georgia to Florida, for it is in these states my ancestors settled. Orphaned at seventeen, there is much about my family I do not know, from both maternal and paternal lines. So, I search. One day I might find that elusive picture, or pictures, and then I will buy it and take it home with me. I will put it in a special spot and I will treasure it always. It, or they, will be passed on to my children with names written on the back with the familial connection to them. They will know more about their heritage than I. I am a part of their heritage and the antique photo is as well.
I see them there, sitting in their billow-tailed christening dresses.
Expressionless, looking like frozen-faced porcelain dolls.
Same – featured older siblings, staring bleakly in their ruffles and pantaloons,
Their knee – length trousers and sailor suits, stand stiffly at their sides.
In a high-bosomed, long-skirted black dress with cinched – in waist sits a mother, weary, worn, and cradling one of the unsmiling babies in her shawl-fringed arms.
Her hair part slices her scalp, the lackluster locks swept back into a tight bun,
And her work-roughened hands clutch a white handkerchief, as if in surrender.
Behind this tableau stands a stern-faced patriarch, old before his time, his face etched with sun-weathered lines, his shiny black suit sleeve is short at his knobby wrist, as he rests his hand upon his mate’s already burdened shoulder. Solemn, they stare at the man who hides his head beneath a black cloth — and captures their likenesses for all time.
This picture is of whom? These ancient relatives who were once members of
someone’s family? Long forgotten, they now make their home in a bin of similar
photographs — way in the back of a dusty antique store, among the refuse of
other people’s lives. Mistreated and forlorn, they lay there with the others, hollow
eyes endlessly gazing out, searching for a family member to take them home.
Who are they, these forgotten ones? Surely someone loved them at one time. How could they end up here unloved and unwanted? Perhaps their destiny is to lie in some stranger’s scrapbook titled “Old Pictures.” Or to hang on some restaurant wall to be ogled and marveled at.
Old pictures without names. Old pictures of someone’s mother. Someone’s grandfather. Someone’s child. Who could give away their heritage as if it never was?
(Editor’s Note: This is the second part to Tom Lawrence’s “Thanksgiving 1951” short story. The first part was posted Wednesday November, 27th, and can be found in our November 2013 archives)
There was also a dish of oyster dressing, ala my grandmother’s recipe. I knew better than to try even a spoonful, as my mother hated her mother-in-law, and would take it as a direct insult and display of dis-loyalty if anyone but Dad ate it. We had the usual southern desserts, pecan and sweet potato pie, lemon pound cake and ginger bread, hot from the oven.
According to the stop-watch in my mother’s head, the meal lasted exactly 21 minutes before Dad and I moved into the living room and turned on the TV. She would spend the better part of the entire Thanksgiving weekend comparing our 21 minute gobble-down with the 12 hours she spent cooking and serving it. We offered to help with the cleanup if she could wait until the ball game was over, but the offer was met with a disgusted snort and the cold shoulder.
Watching a ball game on television in the Mississippi Delta in 1951 required a great deal of technology, most of which was poorly conceived and hastily executed. It also required the physical dexterity of the Bolshoi Ballet. Let me put it all in its proper prospective and explain how we came to own a 12” Admiral console housed in a cabinet the size of a Volkswagen.
The problem stemmed from the fact that there were no TV stations anywhere near Cleveland. There were two in Memphis, one in Little Rock and two in Jackson, all well over a hundred miles away. This necessitated the installation of a large metal tower with a revolving antenna mounted about forty feet in the air. The system came with a small control box that allowed you to aim the antenna in the general direction of the TV station.
On this particular afternoon, the game was being carried on WWL-TV in New Orleans and KMOX-TV in St. Louis. The mid-south didn’t have a pro football team. This was college football country and most folks felt the same way about pro football as they did Roller Derby and rasslin’. All three, along with hockey and curling were Yankee sports and had no place below the Mason-Dixon Line. Dad and a bunch of his golf and gin buddies liked to bet on sports, and thus the interest in the Packers and Lions. Nothing personal, just business, but it got us a TV.
We had experimented with picking up the New Orleans and St. Louis stations, and if you somehow managed to aim the antenna just right, and assuming the atmospheric conditions were favorable, you could occasionally receive a picture that was viewable. It was like watching a game in a blizzard, but you could keep up with the score, if nothing else. The score was the only thing Dad cared about, so this worked for him.
We began futzing with the tube just after dinner, and by kickoff, we had the semblance of a picture, and the sound came and went with the cosmic situation. The set came with rabbit ear antenna, just in case you actually lived near a station. Dad determined that if I would stand by the set and hold onto the rabbit ears, it made a big difference in reception. This made it awkward for me to actually see the picture, but if I bent over and leaned just right, I could see a little, mostly snow, but still a little.
I suggested that Stevie would actually be better for this task, and Dad agreed. He called Stevie and gave him general instructions, which were quickly overruled from the kitchen. I was at my post when the game began, and it was actually a pretty good game.
Early in the first quarter, Doak Walker, the former SMU All Amrican and Hiesman Trophy winner, kicked a 20 yard field goal, and the Lions took the lead. The Packer’s quickly answered with a 15 yard pass from Tobin Rote, the former Rice quarterback. The Lion’s Bobby Layne threw a 17 yard TD and the Packer’s Rote scored from the one, just before the end of the quarter. The Packer’s led 14-10.
Rote hit Dom Mosselle for a 48 yard TD at the start of the second quarter, and it was the Lion’s game from then on. It was 28-21 at halftime, and 52 -35 final, and Dad was a happy camper. He had the Lions -8. I had a serious crick in my back.
After the game we offered to help with the rest of the dishes, but our offer was met with a cold stare. My mother did ask me to take out the trash and garbage, which I did as cheerfully as possible. Dad decided to go play a little gin rummy at the club, and Stevie had long ago gone back to Tim’s house. Mother planned on a nap, and I decided to go see if I could kill a few doves.
Dove shooting had always been a challenge for me, even at the first of the season when the birds were young and dumb. By late in the season, most of the young dumb ones had been shot, and those that remained were wary and strong. This, coupled with winter winds and lack of cover, made it much tougher shooting. They were hard to hit, but offered a real challenge and a lot of fun. I gathered up my gear and called Nappy.
I figured we had about an hour or so of daylight left, and I knew exactly where I wanted to go. There was a sewage treatment plant on the same edge of town as Hickory Woods. There was a large pond near the plant, and a strip of woods about a hundred yards to the south. The field between the woods and the pond had been planted in corn and recently harvested. A gravel road led to the woods from the blacktop.
This made for perfect dove shooting. The doves had everything they needed in one spot: food, water, gravel for their craws, and a place to roost. I decided to take cover in a small ditch, which would put my back to the pond and let me face the cornfield. I didn’t want to shoot a bird and have him fall into the pond, and besides, I couldn’t hit a turkey coming in from behind me and going away.
Nappy and I settled down in the ditch, and waited until just before sundown when the action should get started. I wish I could say that Nappy came along to retrieve my birds, but the truth was that he was there for the company. He didn’t know retrieving from peanut butter. We waited patiently until the first flock of doves came swooping into the cornfield. They came from the south into a strong north wind, and were bobbing and weaving in every direction.
I was shooting a single shot, which meant that every shot needed to count. I was shooting high base 6’s, and could reach out for some fairly long shots. I managed to maintain my one out of three dove shooting average, and killed eight birds with a box of shells. By the time I ran out of shells, the sun had set and the birds had gone to roost.
When we got home, it was full dark and I fed Nappy his dinner and took a shower. I retired to my room and lay on my bed reading several editions of EC Comic’s Frontline Combat and Two Fisted Tales. I was just dozing off with the Les Paul and Mary Ford singing How High the Moon, when the thought crossed my mind, this may be my best Thanksgiving ever, and sure enough it has been..
(Editor’s Note: We will be posting this short story in two parts. Part two will post on Friday, November 29)
The alarm clock taped to the headboard started to clang just after five am. The November 21 edition of the Memphis Press Scimitar had predicted sunrise to be at exactly 6:33 am, and I wanted to be settled into the woods at least by 6:00 am. I slipped out of bed and took my hunting clothes into the kitchen. Still dressed in only my underwear, I cracked open the back door and checked the thermometer that hung on one of my mother’s planters. It read Twenty-seven degrees; cold, but not killer cold.
I knew full well how to dress for hunting. I slipped into a pair of long underwear, two pairs of boot socks, a wool sweater and canvas hunting pants. After grabbing a glass of orange juice and two leftover biscuits, I put on my heavy hunting jacket and tiptoed back into my room. I pulled my single shot Mossberg .20 gauge out of the closet and grabbed a box of high base No, 6 shot.
I eased back to the kitchen and quietly shut the door as I went out. I took my gloves out of my hunting jacket, pulled them on, slung my shotgun across my back and pushed my bike to the street. I whistled for Nappy, my mix breed fice dog and he came charging out of his house, ready to go. Pulling my navy watch cap down over my ears, I started to Hickory Woods.
After making the turn onto 5th Avenue, with Nappy happily trailing behind me, I rode the six blocks to Hilburn’s store. 5th Avenue ended in the gravel parking lot of Hilburn’s and marked the Southern City Limits of my little town of Cleveland, Mississippi. By this time it was nearly 5:30 and it was still pitch dark. The street lights of 5th Avenue faded behind me as Nappy and I took the dirt road that led to the woods.
There’s something about riding through the stubble of a cotton field on a frigid winter morning that intensifies the cold to near Siberian levels. The sky was filled with about a billion stars and there was no sign of pink on the Eastern horizon. The slight north wind was at my back and I only had about half a mile ride to my destination. I darn near froze, but soon I was ditching my bike at the edge of Hickory woods.
Nappy and I crept as quietly as we could deep into the interior of the small patch of hardwood trees. Hickory was maybe a quarter mile wide and half a mile long. It was mostly oaks and hickory trees, the perfect habitat for squirrels.
There was a small slough along the backside that at one time had been a creek of sorts. In 1951 it had been reduced to a marshy area with a few old cypress trees, dry most of the year, and holding a little water in the winter. I had stuck three beat-up wooden duck decoys out on the little patch of water about a week before, with not much chance of attracting migrating ducks, but you never knew.
We found a fallen tree and settled in to wait for sunrise, still about thirty minutes away. The woods were still and quiet, nothing was stirring. Snuggling down into my hunting jacket, I reached into a pocket and pulled out one of the biscuits. I shared it with Nappy who was curled around my feet trying to stay warm. Soon I noticed a slight pale pink smudge to the East and some of the creatures began to stir.
A large owl flew over my head on his way to his daytime roost and some of the birds began to chirp. It would be close to daylight when the squirrels started to move about, and I knew I could depend on Nappy to let me know when they awoke. Nappy was a natural squirrel dog and there was no place he would rather be than right here, deep in the woods just before dawn.
I decided that it was light enough to check out the slough just in case some totally confused duck might have spent the night there. Nappy and I slipped to the edge of the little marsh and there they were, my three forlorn decoys, all be themselves. Time to go squirrel hunting.
It was my opinion, and one shred by many of my friends, that Hickory Woods contained the largest per acre squirrel population on the planet. One thing for sure is that there were a blue ton on them, and Nappy and I collected a half dozen before we called it quits about 8:00 am. I field dressed the squirrels; we ate our other biscuit and headed back home, hopefully in time for breakfast.
When I returned to the house, everyone was up and breakfast was over. My mother had already started cooking Thanksgiving dinner, and the house was filled with the aroma of a baking turkey and a myriad of other goodies. I was just fixing a plate of left over biscuits and bacon when my Dad came into the kitchen dressed in his usual weekend outfit; corduroy pants, shirt and sweater and raggedy-assed sports coat with leather patches on the elbows. He looked at me and said,
“I can’t believe you’ve been hunting in this weather. You have to be half nuts. I’m surprised you didn’t freeze your butt off.”
“Where are you headed,” I innocently asked.
“To the club; we’ve got a 9:30 tee time.”
“So, it’s too cold to go hunting, but just fine for a round of golf, huh? I noticed the temperature had risen to a toasty 33 degrees as I came in a minute ago. I’m sure you’ll be very comfortable.”
“Golf is different from hunting; you’re moving around and keeping your body temp up. Totally different deal.”
My mother looked up from her chopping board and said,
“Tommy, don’t try to reason with your father where golf is concerned. He sits in the air conditioning all summer playing gin rummy, and plays golf in the dead of winter. Men are strange and he is among the strangest.”
“By the time we tee off it’ll be in the fifties, and besides, we’re only playing nine holes. Everybody wants to be home in time for Thanksgiving dinner and the Lions-Packers game.” He retorted.
My mother gave one of her standard warnings, pretty much a knee-jerk reaction,
“Just be sure you’re here by noon. We’re going to eat at twelve if you’re here or not.”
“I’ll be here; I don’t want to miss the kickoff.”
After Dad left to go to the club, my little brother Stevie took off to his friend Tim’s house, while Mother stayed in the kitchen with the bubbling pots and delicious smells. I decided to go to my room and work on the model of the Sopwith Camel I had been building for over a month. I had reached the point that the balsa wood frame had been completed, and I needed to start applying the tissue paper skin.
I sat down at my desk and flipped on the radio to WCLD at 1490 on the AM band. Pattie Page was mid-way through The Tennessee Waltz as I started in on the tissue paper and glue. I’d just finished the top wing when Nat King Cole began crooning his new hit Too Young.
I had saved up and ordered a McCoy .49 engine, and this would be my first attempt to build a plane that might actually fly. This was a critical moment in the construction process, and it required my total attention. I was grooving along to Tony Bennett’s Cold, Cold Heart when I heard the back door slam and my Dad come in from golf.
I walked into the dining room where the table had been set with my mother’s best crystal, china and linen. Everything looked ready to go. I was about to go wash up when my mother said,
“Go call your brother. It’s almost time to sit down for dinner, and by call him, I don’t mean stand in the front yard a yell his name. Go down to Tim’s and get him. I’m sure Tim’s family is about to eat too.”
Now, believe it or not, we did have a telephone, but according to my mother’s rules of engagement, the phone couldn’t be used in such a trivial manner. Local calls, which by the way were free, had to be used only when it was impossible to reach a party otherwise. Long distance was reserved for births, death and a weekly call to her mother. I hit the back door and biked down the three blocks to Tim’s.
Stevie and Tim were sitting in Tim’s front yard leaning on their bikes. I rode up and said,
“Hey, dumbass, dinner’s on the table and you need to get your butt home.”
“Talk about a dumbass,” Stevie replied, “at least I didn’t get up at the crack of dawn and go freeze my ass off in the woods. What’d you kill, anything besides time?”
“Mom’s going to skin your skinny butt if you don’t get on that bike and hot-foot it home.”
I rode back toward the house having fulfilled my instructions. Whether Stevie came or not was not my problem. I parked my bike and headed to the bathroom to wash-up for the feast. And feast it was. Roasted Turkey, Cornbread dressing, giblet gravy, green bean casserole, homemade yeast rolls and cranberry congealed salad.
To Be Continued…
It took another two days to cross the Florida Panhandle and finally we arrived in Pensacola. Escambia County Florida teemed with my Dad’s family, including his mother and father and we spent two wonderfully restful nights at their home. Because I was a military dependent and my grandfather was a retired Naval Officer, I was taken to the hospital at the Naval Ari Station, where my back was cleaned, lanced, drained and bandaged. I wanted to stay in Pensacola, but my Ruleville grandmother had been gone for several weeks and needed to get back home, so we started north at our usual 40 MPH pace.
We might have made it to Hattiesburg, Mississippi had Julia Belle been willing to drive through the Bankhead Tunnel, which connected the causeway across Mobile Bay with the City of Mobile. We discovered that Julia Belle suffered from claustrophobia, in addition to extreme body odor and a fear of speed and so we took the back roads, east of Mobile and spent a day going a net six miles. The good news was that we were within 300 miles of our destination, and with any luck we would spend the night in Hattiesburg.
This was not to be. Julia Belle had dropped by her local AAA office and picked up maps and a travel guide for the trip, which had been the source of the bargain accommodations and low budget eateries we had been patronizing for the entire length and breadth of Florida. The guide also included helpful hints about local customs along the way, and made a point of identifying speed traps, which were common across small towns in America during this era.
Wilmer, Alabama just north of Mobile on US 98 was cited as the most blatant of all of these, and until the Governor of Alabama shut it down in the 1980’s it was indeed notorious. Julia Belle, who had not exceeded 40 MPH since we left Miami, decided that she could not risk a ticket, so once again, we took a detour. She consulted her maps, and concluded that we could cut cross-country and avoid Wilmer and its corrupt law enforcement.
This decision led to the most interesting day of our trip–actually two days and a night, as it turned out. In the 1920’s Mississippi had been among the first states to build a statewide network of modern concrete highways, and it included six east-west routes and four north-south all-weather roads. While the main highways were first class, the secondary roads could be iffy, and this proved to be painfully true in Southeast Mississippi.
After much consultation with the AAA map, it was decided we would take a two-lane county road due west from just outside Wilmer, and connect with a network of farm-to-market roads, eventually leading to US 49 and on to our elusive destination of Hattiesburg. All went well for about twenty miles, when the two lane paved road turned to one lane of black top. Julia Belle reoriented her maps, and we pressed on until the one lane turned to gravel. Now gravel farm-to-market roads were the norm, not the exception, and after another brief consultation we continued.
If Julia Belle averaged 40 MPH on major highways, she was lucky to manage 25 MPH on the two-lane paved roads and down to 15 MPH on gravel. Just before sundown the gravel gave way to dirt and it began to drizzle a light rain. We had made it about four miles from the gravel, when the bottom dropped out of the sky and a torrential rainstorm descended upon us. We continued about a hundred feet in the driving rain before sliding into a deep ditch beside the road.
The rain poured, the ditch filled with water and night fell like a pitch black fog. The right side of the car was in the ditch and soon the muddy ditch water began to seep inside the car. I moved into the empty area that usually housed a back seat, in order to give my grandmother room to get her feet out of the rising water. After a few futile attempts to regain the road, Julia Belle set the emergency brake and cut off the ignition. I was glad she had set the brake, otherwise we might have floated back on the road. You can’t be too careful.
The three of us sat silently in the Plymouth as the rain beat a steady rhythm on the roof. Finally the downpour settled into a steady rain, the water in the ditch receded and we faced the fact that we were stuck for the night. Outside there wasn’t a light to be seen, and in spite of Julia Belle’s sunny optimism that we would soon be rescued, I knew we would be right here in the morning.
The sun was high in the sky when a light rapping on the driver’s side window woke us. A man in bib overalls, standing beside a pair of large brown mules, gestured for Julia Belle to roll down the window. She did so and he said,
“Mornin’ Ladies, looks like y’all could use a little help. I’m Lester Ledbetter and I live just down the road a ways.”
“Good morning, Mr. Ledbetter, and you are quite right that we are in need of assistance.” replied Julia Belle. “It would be a great help if we could use your telephone to call the local AAA office and get someone to tow us out of this ditch.”
“Well ma’am, I ain’t got a telephone and I didn’t realize that you could depend on a bunch of drunks to tow your car. They don’t seem to be a particularly dependable bunch, at least not ‘round here.”
“If you don’t have a telephone, perhaps you could direct us to the nearest pay phone so that I may call the American Automobile Association, not Alcoholics Anonymous.“
“Ma’am, I don’t know exactly what you’re talking about, but the nearest phone, pay or free is in Mt. Moriah and that’s about twenty miles away. If y’all are willing to let me do it then Jenny and Bill here can have you out of that ditch and back on the road in no time a’tall.”
Julia Belle eyed the two mules with skepticism. She was a longtime member of AAA and a real believer in their towing ability, and she was clearly torn by the prospect of depending on mule power to get us back on the road. Finally she said,
“I have to say that I doubt that your mules are strong enough to move this car, but I guess it won’t hurt to allow you to try.”
“Yes’ m, I’m pretty sure we can do it.”
Mr. Ledbetter moved his team to the back of the car and began connecting a heavy duty chain to the rear axle. As he completed the hook-up Julia Belle muttered to herself,
“I knew he didn’t know what he was doing; he’s already using the wrong end of the car. I wish we could get in touch with AAA.”
“Just be patient dear, mules are much stronger than you might think,” my grandmother replied.
In a minute or so, Jenny and Bill were all hooked up and Mr. Ledbetter called their names and gave them just a light slap on their haunches. The pair took the slack out of the chain in two steps, and pulled us out of the ditch without even straining. Mr. Ledbetter began unhooking the chains and when he was done he came back to the window and said,
“There you go Ladies, the rain is gone, you’re out of the ditch and the road is dry enough for you to be on your way. Just where you folks heading?”
Julia Belle got out of the car and said,
“I want to thank you Mr. Ledbetter, how much do I owe you and your mules?”
“Well ma’am, I’m glad to help you and you sure don’t owe me a thing. No sense giving Jenny and Bill anything, theyd just throw it away on carrots or apples. You ladies be careful on the rest of your trip. By the way, where did you say you were going?”
“We’re on our way to Ruleville, up in the Delta, but today I’m planning to get to Hattiesburg.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, just how in the world did you manage to get here on your way to Hattiesburg?”
I could see Julia Belle stiffen a bit and her voice took on just the hint of an edge. She replied,
“I wished to avoid Wilmer and carefully consulted my AAA map and plotted an alternate route. Here, you can look on the map and see that we are on the road to Wiggins.”
“Yes’m, you are surely on a road that leads right into Wiggins, and the good news is that it is blacktopped on the other side of the Pascagoula River, which is about seven miles west of here. The bad news is that there is no bridge across the river.”
With this, Julia Belle spread her AAA map across the hood of the car and pointed to a faint gray line crossing the aforementioned river. She firmly said.
“Mr. Ledbetter, you are a very kind man and I know you mean well, but I’m afraid you just don’t know what you are talking about. My AAA map clearly shows that one can cross the river right here.” And she pointed to the little gray line.
“Actually, we’re both right. There’s no bridge and you can get across the river anyway. There’s a ferry run by Elroy Skinner and his brother Bubba. They have a dilapidated one-car ferry that they hand pull across the Pascagoula. That is to say they do it if they ain’t fishin, huntin, playin cards or just dead drunk. You might just wanna turn around and take your chances in Wilmer.”
“Again Mr. Ledbetter, I know you mean well, but if there were a problem with the ferry, my AAA guide book would certainly warn us and show an alternate route.”
“Ma’am, I’m sure you’re right and I’ll be takin my leave of you folks. I do want to say that in all my years of going to church and attending tent meetings and revivals I have never seen the level of faith that you have witnessed in that automobile outfit. With faith like yours, I won’t be surprised if the ole Pascagoula just parts like the Red Sea and gives you a dry road to get across.
With that testimonial, Mr. Ledbetter and his mules headed back toward Wilmer and what passed for civilization around those parts. We, on the other hand, had a quick breakfast from Granny’s endless basket of sustanence, and headed west.
It was close to noon when we reached the banks of the Pascagoula River and the ferry landing. There was on old houseboat tied to a fence post on the opposite side and alongside of houseboat was a barge just about the size of a car. Our side of the river was completely deserted, but there was sign nailed to an oak tree proclaiming,
FOR FERRY SERVICE
BLOW YOUR HORN
Bubba & Elroy Skinner
Julia Belle quickly complied with the instructions and began relentlessly tooting her horn, though nothing on the opposite shore showed any sign of recognition. Julia Belle persisted, achieving the same result, but continued to blow the horn to the point that I was certain the battery would soon run down.
Suddenly, a window on the river-side of the houseboat opened and someone threw an empty whisky bottle in our general direction and shouted.
“Hold all that damn noise down over thar, we’re trying to get a little sleep.”
Julia Belle was stunned, and grabbed her AAA guide book and began frantically leafing through it, looking for instructions on summoning ferries. Apparently, there were none to be found and as her shoulders sagged and she slumped against the steering wheel in defeat she said,
“I guess there’s nothing we can do but turn back and go through Wilmer.”
She had no more gotten that out of her mouth, when my grandmother pointed to the southwest and said,
“I hate to mention it, but that looks like a pretty bad thunder storm coming this way.”
At this point I’d had enough. I said, “Just let me out of the car and I’ll go get the darn ferry. We can’t go back with that storm coming and the road’s paved on the other side. Just let me take care of this.”
Now the Pascagoula is about 250 yards wide at this point, and has a fairly strong current as it nears the Mississippi Sound. I had no idea if I could actually swim across it, but I had suffered enough, and there was no way I could face another day. I pulled off my shirt exposing the bandages on my back, which I ripped off, I kicked off my shoes and dove into the river. My grandmother went ballistic, and I was about ten feet into the river when I heard her jump in after me. I think she would have caught me and pulled me out, but I had a distinct advantage over her. I could swim and she could not. She was up to her waist when the dawn of realization hit her, and she slowly waded back to shore, certain that she would never see me again.
About half way across, I thought I might have to agree with her. The current was pulling me downstream and I began to tire. Now there comes a time in every life when one believes that all that can be done has been and is finally willing to succumb to fate. God invented adrenalin for just such occasions. Fear of drowning released a huge burst of it into my system, and somehow I made it to the other bank. At this point however, I was downstream around a bend in the river and out of sight of the ferry.
I managed to pull myself to shore and stumble to safety, and after a brief rest, I gathered myself together and started walking down stream toward the frantic shouts of my terrified grandmother. When I appeared in her line of sight, her shouts quieted down, and just then the first drops of rain began to fall.
I walked through the brush on the river bank until I got to the ferry and the house boat. The rain was pelting down now, and I began banging on the side of the door frame until finally someone cussing a blue streak threw the door open.
Standing before me was an apparition straight out of Deliverance. Bubba Skinner had on long johns that appeared never to have been changed. He was barefoot and his gray hair stood almost straight out from his tobacco colored head, he had a two-week stubble of a beard, and he smelled like Early Times meets Jack Daniels. He was not in a good mood; he burped loudly, cut a big fart, looked down at me and yelled,
“Boy, just what in the hell do you want?”
I still had a good shot of adrenalin working and I answered,
“Listen, you big damn redneck, I just swam across that damn river to get your sorry ass up and operating your damn ferry! So drag your scrawny damn butt out here and go get our damn car.”
Believe it or not, that is exactly what he did.
We made Hattiesburg that evening and we had another meal from my grandmother’s cornucopian basket, and I slept the sleep of the righteous. Early the next morning we set out north on US 49, a fully paved and modern road, at a steady 40 MPH. Just after noon we went under the wrought iron sign that said, Welcome to Belzoni –The Heart of the Delta, and I experienced the same feeling that the Israelites must surely have felt when they saw the land of Canaan. Salvation!
(Editor’s Note: We are posting this story in two parts. Part 2 will be our feature post on Wednesday, October 30)
My Dad’s service in WWII ended with the surrender of Japan in August of 1945. After four years of war in Europe his return to civilian life was something less than successful, and he re-enlisted in the Army Air Corp in 1946. With family in tow, he was stationed at Lowry Air Force base in Denver. Our next stop was Fort Wright in Spokane, and then in the summer of 1947, we were sent to Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone. I was in the fourth grade and the Canal Zone was a great place to be nine years old; I loved it. The jungle that started just outside our back door extended all the way to Columbia, and we were allowed to roam at will.
When school ended in June of 1948 we all hit the base swimming pool at about seven one summer morning and we stayed in the pool all day. Panama is very close to the equator, and with my red hair and fair skin, –think Pillsbury Dough boy– my little butt burned to a crisp. By nine that night I was in the base hospital with 2nd degree burns all over my body.
During the years that Dad was overseas, Mother worked in a defense plant in New Orleans while I lived with my maternal grandparents in Ruleville, Mississippi. My grandmother thought I hung the moon, and when she found out I was in the hospital with severe burns, she came running. But getting to Panama from Ruleville, Ms in 1948 was no easy trick. First, she was on the City of New Orleans, then the Pan American Clipper, with stops in Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras, before finally arriving in Panama City following an all-day flight. This little grandmother, who might go to Memphis once a year, didn’t hesitate to go to such lengths, as her baby was sick and she was coming to get him.
As soon as I was released by the Army doctors, we prepared to go home to Ruleville. On the day of our departure my parents drove us across the Isthmus to Panama City and thus began an adventure that I remember in vivid detail to this very day. My grandmother was decked in her Sunday go-to-meeting outfit, severely cut wool suit, sensible shoes and nylon stockings, with the seam perfectly lined up and pill box hat. Armed with her wicker “grandma basket” containing enough food to feed the entire crew and all of the passengers of the Queen Mary, we set out for home.
My grandmother was absolutely terrified of flying and I suspect that I was the only person on earth who could have gotten her anywhere near an airplane. She assumed a firm grip on the armrest and gritted her teeth, as she personally held the plane in the sky. The first leg of our journey took us to Kingston, Jamaica for a re-fueling stop, where we deplaned and spent an hour or so listening to a calypso band while drinking the punch provided by Pan Am. No one mentioned that the punch was laced with rum, and we both got snockered. Once we were airborne and on our way to Havana, demon rum sent us to la-la land,and we were snoring away when the big four engine Boeing hit a massive air pocket and the whole business dropped about five hundred feet. It scared the hell out of me, but my grandmother woke up and said,
“Now that was fun; I wonder if they can do it again.”
(It was probably a good thing that she was a teetotaler. There may have been a party girl hidden under that prim exterior.) We were still a little tipsy when we landed in Havana, but we stayed on the plane during re-fueling and were soon on our way to Miami International. After clearing customs, we were met at the baggage area by my grandmother’s niece, and hence my distant cousin, Julia Belle.
Julia Belle was in her early thirties, and to my nine year old eyes she seemed like an old lady. She wore tailored shorts with a halter top and sandals, very Florida and her hair was tied up and hidden under a bright orange turban, very Carmen Miranda. Julia Belle helped us with our bags as we made our way to the long-term parking lot and her 1939 Plymouth Coupe. The back seat had been removed at some point in the past, though I can’t imagine why, and the trunk was the size of Carlsbad Caverns. Our plan, as I understood it, was to spend a day or two at Julia Belle’s apartment, then the three of us would drive the Plymouth to Mississippi. This would give Julia Belle a chance to visit relatives while getting grandmother and me home, all of which sounded like a workable plan to me.
As we stowed the luggage in the humongous trunk, I realized that with no back seat, the three of us would have to share the front bench seat. Since I was the smallest, I sat in the middle, accepting my place in the pecking order. Things were going just fine until Julia Belle threw her right arm over the seat-back to look as she backed up. This left me at eye level with Julia Belle’s right armpit and I immediately knew something was terribly wrong. I was engulfed in a stench akin to a stack of dead dogs smoldering in the Delta sun, and as I gasped for clean air, I discovered there was none to be found. Finally Julia Belle managed to back out of the parking place and resumed her normal position. This was long before the blessed advent of auto air conditioning, but thankfully the windows were down and as the air cleared, I thought to myself,
She must have been working in the yard before she came to pick us up, but I sure hope she takes a bath as soon as we get home. A small amount of body odor lingered in the air, but nothing like the full shot I received at the airport.
The drive home from the Airport took about forty five minutes but I didn’t think much about it at the time. Traffic was heavy and I assumed we were making standard time. Subsequent events would disprove this theory.
That night my grandmother changed the bandages that covered blisters the size of fried eggs across my back and shoulders, and as she re-bandaged me, Julia Belle attended to a much needed shower. We spent the next day seeing the sights in Miami, which included Miami Beach, where we gawked at the beautiful hotels and had lunch at a beachfront hot dog stand. I thought Miami was okay, but I really wanted to get started on our drive to Mississippi.
In 1948 there were no interstate highways, but Florida had built several very modern four-lane roads to promote tourism. These were a great improvement over the old two-lanes which went through the heart of every little burg in their path. I had asked that we stop and get one of the free maps that every service station gave away so that I could follow our progress. I proceeded to map out the optimum route, and as we were about to leave I offered to share this information with Julia Belle. She promptly let me know that she had no plans to get on one of those four lane race tracks; too many cars going way to fast, she said. Instead we were going to take US 1 all the way to Jacksonville. After consulting my map, I concluded that at 50 MPH, we could easily be there before dark on the first day. The traffic in Miami was bumper to bumper, but I felt certain things would loosen up as we left town. Eventually, Miami gave way to Hialeah, then to Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale. It was nearly noon when we finally made it to Fort Lauderdale where we stopped for a hamburger at a roadside café. We had been on the road for close to three hours and had gone less than 50 miles. I re-calculated my flight plan as I munched on my burger. Jacksonville was totally out of the picture for this evening, so I settled on Daytona Beach as our likely overnight destination. The traffic remained heavy until we cleared Fort Pierce around three that afternoon, and finally we hit the open highway. I expected we would accelerate and at least drive with the flow of traffic, but Julia Belle maintained a steady 40 MPH. As the cars and trucks began to stack up behind us, I decided to mention the increase in the speed limit.
“You know it’s really great to finally get on the open road and we should make up for lost time with the speed limit at 60 MPH.”
“I never drive at the top of the limit; it’s just too dangerous. I try to find a happy medium that’s safe.”
I looked behind us at the ever growing line of vehicles and thought,
Talk about dangerous, wait til these guys behind us get desperate to pass, then you’ll see dangerous.
Soon my prediction was coming true and every time there was the slightest opening, a car or truck would gun it and fly out in the passing lane. It was usually a game of inches and often the oncoming car would have to slow down and, in one case, pull over on the shoulder. Julia Belle kept a steady 40 MPH, not noticing the mayhem all around us. She also started to get a little ripe and even with the windows down I could smell her armpit just beyond the tip of my nose. We drove until 7:00 when, even in the dead of summer, the sun started it’s decent in the west. I was hoping we might drive until it was pitch black dark, but it seemed that Julia Belle would not drive even in the twilight, let alone the dark of night. We were still a little south of Titusville when we pulled into the parking lot of The Cape Canaveral Cabins.
This was long before the advent of the Space Psrogram, and Cape Canaveral‘s main claim to fame centered on Spanish shipwrecks and Patrick Air Force base. The Cape Canaveral Cabins were what were then known as a Tourist Court. It would be years before Kemmons Wilson brought consistency to the motel business, and quality varied all over the place. These little cabins fell somewhere near the bottom of the spectrum.
After Julia Belle checked in and pulled the car over to one of the little units, we grabbed our gear and entered the front door. Let’s start at the screen door, a necessity if you didn’t want to be carried off by mosquitoes. There was no screen door. There was a front door that appeared to be one layer of plywood with a long faded coat of what might once have been white paint. The rusty hinges had bled down the edge of the door, giving it a weathered appearance. If the door seemed a little shoddy, it gleamed in comparison to the room. Our little cabin was a symphony of worn and torn linoleum, flaking veneer and threadbare chenille. The rust stains on the door were complimented by those in the bathroom. It was pretty clear that $8.00 per night didn’t get you the Grand Hotel. Since there was only one bed and the adults were going to share it, I was relegated to the vinyl sofa that sat sagging in the corner. I did not protest. I figured that the likelihood of bed bugs and other vermin abounding among the chenille would be less likely on the vinyl. We dug into my grandmother’s travel basket and made a light supper, then took a walk on the beach until the mosquitoes got so bad we had to get indoors to escape them.
Unfortunately, the theory that one could escape the mosquitoes by being inside the cabin proved to be totally erroneous. There were probably more inside than out. Talk about a long night. My sunburn blisters were starting to become infected and were painful. The sofa was lumpy and uneven, and the only way to escape the room full of mosquitoes involved pulling the sheet and spread over my head and hunkering down. This would have been a viable plan with air conditioning, but without it, you were left to choose between suffocating or expiring from terminal mosquito bites.
Mercifully morning finally came. We made a quick breakfast from the wicker basket, my bandages were changed and we hit the road for another day of 40 MPH travel, leaving The Cape Canaveral Cabins in our rear view mirror. As things turned out, the CCC was the best of our overnight accommodations for the entire agonizing trip. On day two we traveled over 130 miles in just less than seven hours. We managed to find an even rattier motel than the CCC, and spent another miserable night in the stifling summer heat.
The next morning my back was starting to show definite signs of a serious staph infection, and my grandmother had Julia Belle stop in Jacksonville where she bought additional medical supplies. As she was shopping in the Katz and Besthoff Drug store, we enjoyed a brief respite from the unrelenting heat and humidity and we sat at the soda fountain soaking up cherry coke and air conditioning. While we were there my grandmother sprung for an oscillating fan which proved to be a lifesaver and that night, another 135 miles closer to home, the fan finally made sleep possible.
I rode the range with Gene Autry, Hop along Cassidy and Roy Rogers when I was a child. I was invisible to them, but they were ever-so-visible to me. We had many brushes with outlaws and some very narrow escapes. They liked me because I was the “fastest draw” on Back Bay of Biloxi, or so I thought. On occasion Gene, Hoppy and Roy even listened to my advice, which was more than my parents did for their five-going-on six year old son.
My favorite horse was named “Trigger.” I named him after Roy’s. He was a golden palomino with a flowing mane and I rode him all around the yards, warehouses and shipyards that surrounded our oyster shell pile home on the shoreline of the bay. We enjoyed one adventure after another. I tied him up every night next to my bed for ‘he’ was one of my Mom’s old worn-out yellow mop handles. He was a good horse and I really missed him when he mysteriously disappeared one day after the trash men passed by. The time was the early 1950’s, my Dad was foreman of the Dorgan-McPhillips Canning Company in Biloxi and my Mom worked picking shellfish for the Southern Shell Seafood Company. They both put in long, hard hours for relatively little pay. That was the circumstance back then for most everyone. We never counted ourselves as poor because most people were in the same shape. Even if we had nothing at all, my folks never would have called themselves poor. It was a matter of pride. My blue jeans were not generally blue by the time I inherited them from my cousins, and my Mom often made my shirts.
Anyway, during this period, my folks on a shipping trip in town bought a big cotton sack of flour at the A&P (Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company) food store on Howard Avenue. I remember first seeing it and noting what a wonderful sack it was. It was mustard yellow and had cowboy scenes imprinted all over it. I was in cowboy heaven! I did not think that we would ever eat that sack of flour down. My Mom was locally famous for her cooking and particularly her large “cathead” biscuits and I was demanding them for every meal. I doubt if in the history of the world that there was ever a gradually emptying flour sack watched so closely. I hardly ever wore a shirt and shoes, but I wanted a shirt out of that sack more than anything in the world. The day finally arrived when the last biscuit was eaten out of that cotton sack.
Mom’s work schedule began long before dawn and generally ended very late, sometimes after dark. Twelve and fourteen hour days were not uncommon for either her or Dad when the factory lines were operating. She must have really been tired when she cut out the pattern to make me that shirt. I did not see her do it because I was nestled cozily in bed for a good night’s sleep after a hard day of play. When I awoke and discovered the shirt that my Mom had lovingly made I was ecstatic. I immediately put it on and to my horror discovered that the cowboys were all upside-down except on the sleeves. I pitched an infantile fit, but it was all to no avail. Nothing could be done and I defiantly pronounced that I would never wear it!
Well, I was blessed with two loving, caring parents. Most times their love took form in words of wise council; sometimes it took the form of a switch or leather strap. I was never brutalized, but I did see the error of my childish ways and “the light” whenever it was necessary. I wore that shirt under duress and it caused me more than one childhood scrape with my buddies and cousins, but looking back it was the most special shirt that I have ever worn in my life. My precious Mother had made it for me in the late hours of the night when her tired body told her to rest, but her love pushed her on.
Editor’s Note: This post is Extracted from The Button Jar, Memories of My Childhood on Back Bay of Biloxi byH. Grady Howell, Jr. H. Grady Howell, Jr. has published 19 nonfiction books referencing Mississippi Civil and Mexican War history as well as a pictorial history of Jackson, MS entitled Chimneyville. Both he and his wife, Gail, reside in Madison, MS. You can contact Grady at his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
It was the football season of 1955 and I was starting at defensive guard on the Cumberland Bulldogs. I was a sophomore that year and had lettered the year before, but this was my first year to be a starter. Five of my 10th grade teammates and I had been playing on the high school team since the eighth grade, and this year we were playing in every game.
When we first came out in the eighth grade, Cumberland had just come off a Delta Valley Conference Championship and almost everyone had graduated. The coaches were desperate for players and we had jumped at the chance. Not only had we paid our dues over the past three years, but we had matured physically. I was 5’9” and weighed 165 in the eighth grade. I started this year at 6’2” and 228. We were enjoying the first winning season in Cumberland since that Championship year.
The Delta Valley Conference had three senior-laden, outstanding teams in 1955 and we had already played one of them. Kazoo City was loaded with talent and ran the new T formation that had been introduced by Coach Bobby Dobb of Georgia Tech. They had beaten us badly early in the season. Winona had one of the best athletes to grace the Mississippi high school scene in years, a quarterback named Billy Stacy. He was a senior and was being recruited by half of the Southeastern Conference. We would be playing them in our next to last game. Tonight we would be going up against Indian Springs on the road. They were 6-0 and we were 5-1. Everyone was expecting a good close game and we were thinking upset.
The seventh period bell rang and most of the students hung around the campus planning to go to the girls’ gym for the pre-game pep rally starting at 5:00. I pitched my books in my locker, grabbed my letter jacket and set out to the team meeting in the football locker room. I met up with Benny on my way to the boys’ gym and he fell into step beside me.
“Got your game face on?” He asked.
“You know I don’t believe in that crap. I have never understood why banging my head on a locker would make me a better football player.”
“Your problem is that you have a deep seated dislike for authority.”
“Well, there’s that too, but I don’t need to conjure up additional hostility, I’m plenty damn hostile; as it is.”
“You know what they say about good football players; they should be ‘mobile, agile and hostile.”
“Yeah, and the greatest of these is ‘hostile.”
We entered the gym and joined in the general hub bub of players starting to get the pre-game jitters. Everybody gets a little edgy just before a game; we called it getting “butterflies in your stomach.” Some guys got so worked up that they would vomit and nearly have a nervous breakdown before the first licks were passed. A whistle blast quieted down the mob scene and Coach Wiley signaled for everyone to take a knee and listen up.
“By this time in the season ya’ll should all know the drill, but since some of you have the attention span of a yard chicken we are going over it one more time. I am going to cover the whole game plan before we breakdown into offense and defense. There are a couple of the brighter guys who will be going both ways and ya’ll will have to decide which side of the ball you need to work on most; it’ll be up to you. I’m turning the meeting over to Coach Biles who will lay out the game plan.”
Coach Lacey Biles was our assistant head coach and offensive coordinator. He plunged right into the game plan.
“Both teams will be running the single wing, but Indian Springs does it with a slight twist. They will come out with an over shifted line on every play. They will have two guards between the center and tackle, and this could be strong side right or strong side left. Coach Kemp will cover how we intend to defend against this when we break up into offense and defense.”
Coach John Kemp nodded his agreement and Biles continued,
“Defensively they will be in a standard six-man front and they will over-shift to our strong side as we go from right to left with our blocking back and wing back. They are particularly strong on defense and probably have the best linebackers and defensive halfbacks in the conference. Nobody’s been able to run on them this year, and they are tough defending against the pass. We’ve put in a couple of variations on offense to confuse them and maybe give us an advantage.”
Coach Wiley took over and said,
“Okay, let’s break up into offense and defense. The pep rally starts at 5:00 and I sure don’t want you lads to miss your inspiration.”
The defense moved to the rear of the gym and gathered around Coach Kemp and Coach Slade, the defensive line coach. Coach Kemp walked up to the chalk boards and started laying out our defensive game plan. Seeing that we had been practicing this all week, it wasn’t much of a surprise, but we knew better than to act bored. Coach Kemp went through the overall plan and quickly turned the linemen over to Coach Slade.
“Well, girls, here we are again, playing a team with a hell of a lot better players than we have. Since ya’ll may be the least talented players in the DVC, it is good that you have such a superior coaching staff. It is my job to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. It’s a large task, but one that I am willing to accept.”
“When I look down the Indian Springs offensive line I see three, maybe four seniors who will be playing on Saturday next year, most probably in the SEC. They have two ends that are top notch. Larry Smith, their strong side end, will line up on the over shifted strong side on every play. He maybe the best blocking end in the conference; he weighs in at 220 and is 6’3”.
“Their other end is a speedster with good hands. His name is Kent Loveland and he is a sprinter in track and their favorite receiver. We’ll have to double cover him or he will eat our lunch. Their weak side lineman are just ordinary, in fact, if we have an advantage at all it will be here. They seldom run to the weak side and when they do they pull the beef from the strong side to lead the play.”
“Their strong side is something else. The center is a senior named Wayne Browner and he is huge. They carry him on the program at 255 and 6’5”, but he probably he’s more like 285 and 6’6’. That’s the bad news; the good news is that he can hardly run out of his shadow, I’ll have to admit that he cast a pretty big shadow. He is virtually immoveable, but he is also immobile and won’t be a factor outside of his three or four-yard area. We’ll just have to run around him. Larch, you and Tong are going to be playing nose- up on Browner all evening, think you can handle him?”
What was I going to say, “No coach, probably not, he’ll just beat us by himself’? I had been at this football business far too long to fall into that trap. In spite of being outweighed by thirty to fifty pounds and being half a foot shorter I quickly snapped,
“John and I got him covered coach; he’ll be dragging his fat ass around looking for an escape route when we finish with him. He’s nothing but a tub of lard.”
“Now that’s the attitude I like. Larch is not intimidated by Browner and will take care of that problem.”
Right, I thought, Browner is nothing but a tub of slow moving lard. Of course he can probably out run our backs and can bench press a John Deere. He shouldn’t be a problem.
Coach Slade moved on to the two strong side guards. The outside guard was named Marvin Terrell and not a lot was known about him. He was about 6 feet and close to 200 pounds. This was his first year to start and he played in the shadow of their super star, “Buck” McKinney. McKinney had been all DVC for the past two years. He was 6’1” and 230 and they said he could run with the backs. He was the most intensely recruited high school lineman in Mississippi and it was assumed that he could not be handled by any one man.
When Coach Slade had finished his press conference on the many skills of Buck McKinney, he turned again to me and said.
“Larch, you may be able to hold your own against Browner, but we are going to have to get you some help with McKinney. I want you to shift to the outside and play nose-up on the Terrell kid. John Tong will move over on Browner’s nose and the two of you will have to neutralize McKinney. I doubt that this Terrell guy will cause you much of a problem and you can concentrate on helping Tong with Browner and McKinney. Capiche?”
“I got it Coach; John and we’lll take care of them.”
The meeting moved on to how we planned to stop their passing game which only involved us linemen in the hope that we could put a little pressure on their tailback and not give him all day to throw. The single wing was primarily a running formation and pass plays generally took a while to develop and were usually nothing more than an attempt to keep our defensive backs honest. If we could get at the passer, all the better, but in the meantime somebody needed to knock down a couple of pulling guards, a blocking back and a fullback. Penetration was the key to taming the single wing.
The team meeting finally broke up about a quarter to five and we were free to attend the pep rally that would soon be starting. Benny and I walked over to the Girls’ gym, took off our shoes and joined the rest of the team gathering at center court. You might ask why we removed our shoes? There was a very good answer to that question. We did it to save our ass.
The girls’ gym was owned and operated by Coach Margaret “Peggy” Woods, the Cumberland girls’ basketball coach. Coach Woods had won a stack of DVC championships and multiple State titles and treated her domain with the same attitude Attila displayed toward Hunsville. To say she was protective really didn’t do her justice. Nobody walked on Peggy Woods’ shiny gym floor in street shoes, or at least you only did it once, I mean nobody, not even W.J. Parks, the Superintendent of Schools, would do it twice.
The band began to play the Cumberland fight song and the bleachers were full of singing and cheering students. It was amazing what winning a couple of games could do for school spirit. During our three- year-run of losing we may have had a couple of hundred students and parents at a pep rally. Today the gym was totally packed with people standing along the edges of the court in their socks. Many were alums and knew the wrath of Peggy Woods.
The band played, the cheerleaders cheered and the coaches and captains made totally inane speeches about our loyalty and devotion to old Cumberland High. The rally broke up with the band playing the Cumberland High alma mater and it was clear that not ten people knew the score, let alone the lyrics.
The students and parents left to go home and get ready to drive to Indian Springs for the 8:00 kickoff. The band and cheerleaders headed to their buses and the team meandered back to the locker room.
John Tong caught me at my locker and sat down on the bench. John was one of the third generation Chinese Americans whose ancestors had come to the Delta with the railroad in the 1880’s. John’s grandfather had done manual labor on the railroad, his father owned a small grocery store in the Negro section of town and John would go to Mississippi State and become a CPA. Three generations to the American Dream. He looked at me and said,
“What do you think about the game plan?”
“Hell, John, you know that all the planning goes out the window when the whistle blows. Can you and I handle Browner and McKinney? Probably not, a lot depends on just how good this Terrell kid is. If I can handle him and give you some help with the other two, we might just make it work.”
“Well, you certainly sounded confident in the meeting.”
“I hope you didn’t buy that load of crap, it was just ‘coach talk’.”
“’Coach talk’, what in the hell is that?”
“John, when an intellectual giant like Coach Slade asks you a question, it is purely rhetorical. He knows the response he wants and if you don’t feed it to him, he’ll eat your ass out. I’d rather get chewed out if we can’t get the job done rather than listen to it beforehand. Who knows? Terrell might be a complete chicken and we can manhandle the other two.”
“So, you think we can maybe handle it?”
“I don’t really know, let’s just fake it, ‘till we make it.”
“Thanks,” John said, as he walked away, “I can’t say that I feel any better, but I guess we’ll know soon enough.”
If this were a home game, we’d be in the school cafeteria eating our pregame carbo stuff. But since this was going to be played in Indianola we would get our uniforms on, sans shoulder pads, and get on the team bus. Sack meals would be passed out and we would eat them on the way.
I was getting my ankles taped by one of the managers when I watched an unfolding drama just across the room. Buddy Clements was sitting in front of his locker looking completely baffled. Buddy played defensive end, the single wing suicide position. He feared no man or beast; he was a little shaky around girls, but that was another story.
Tonight he was dealing with something that completely bum-fuzzled him; math. He was holding his white game jersey trying to decide how to put it on. Finally he turned to the manager taping my feet and said,
“Carter, how in the hell do I get this damn jersey on?”
“Gee, Buddy, I think I would start by sticking my head and arms through those holes.”
“Don’t give me any shit, I got that part, I just need to know which side goes in front.”
“Okay,” Carter sighed, “Put the small number in front and the big number in back.”
“I already told you not to give me any shit. Both of the numbers are the same, 86.”
Carpenter, looked at Buddy with complete disdain and said,
“Goddamn, Clements, are you retarded?”
Since Carter and I had been friends since grammar school, I thought this might be a good place to step in and help. If I could defuse the situation it might just save Carter’s ass.
“Hell, Buddy, I have the same problem myself. Here’s a little trick I learned. Look in the neck hole and find the tag. Just remember the tag goes in back. Carter is a bit out of his element seeing that he has never put on a football jersey.”
“Yeah, thanks, the little turd could have told me that.”
“He’ll know next time.” I said and signaled Carter to keep his mouth shut.
Having solved his jersey problem, Buddy left to go to the bus. I turned to Carter, who was putting the finishing touches on my tape job and said,
“Tommy, one day you are going to let your alligator mouth overload your hummingbird ass and I’m not going to be there to save you. Buddy Clements may well be a little retarded, hell, he may be as dumb as a bucket of pig spit, but that doesn’t mean that you have to point it out.”
“You don’t think I could take Clements?”
“Carter, I don’t think you could take his little sister.”
“I might like to try his little sister on for size; maybe we could set up a wrestling match.”
“I just hope you remain alive until football season is over, you tape a mean ankle.”
“You’re welcome, you little twit.”
I grabbed my shoulder pads and helmet and boarded the bus for Indian Springs. I slipped into the seat Benny was saving for me and flopped down holding my gear.
“Let me stick that stuff under our seat,” Benny said. “You look like a thunder storm. What’s up?”
“I had to pull Carter’s foot out of his mouth again. He was giving Clements a ration of crap and was walking mighty close to the line.”
“You ever think about just letting him try to handle stuff by himself?”
“Yeah, all the time, but I don’t want to see him killed. Besides, he kinda depends on me.”
“It’s nice to be needed, isn’t it?”
“It has its moments. I guess you and I need to decide how we’re going to play this genius defense that Slade has come up with.”
Benny would be playing inside linebacker just behind Tong and me and would be primarily responsible for stuffing up the running game. We always worked out a system that allowed Benny to cover an open hole if either John or I stunted.
“How y’all gonna play it tonight?” Benny asked.
“Won’t really know till we get going, but if I can handle Terrell, then you and John can pretty much play it straight with the other two.”
“Think you can handle him?”
“I don’t see why not; I’ve never met a guy I couldn’t handle one-on-one.”
“Then we’ll be in good shape. They won’t be able to run in the middle.”
The managers came down the bus aisle passing out sack lunches. I took mine and looked inside. A tuna fish sandwich and a bag of chips looked back at me.
“Ugh, tuna fish before a football game, gimme a break.”
“Well, it’s your fault, aren’t you some kinda Catholic? It is Friday, you know.”
“Benny, you know damn well I’m an Episcopalian.”
“Pretty much the same difference, isn’t it?”
I knew Benny well enough to know when he was screwing with me and decided not to return the ball.
“What did you get? I might be willing to trade.”
“I got ham and there is no possibility of a trade.”
“Hey,” I shouted, “anybody want to trade for my tuna sandwich?”
I was shouted down with about forty sarcastic comments about my sandwich and I decided to eat the damn thing and hope I didn’t see it coming up later. The bus made the 33- mile trip to Indian Springs while we were eating our sandwiches and we soon pulled into the brightly lit home of the Indian Springs Indians.
Since most of the little high schools in the DVC did not have visitors’ locker rooms, we used our bus as our home away from home. We finished dressing, putting on our pads and game jerseys, then filed off the bus and jogged to the far end zone to have our pregame obligatory pep talk. This frustrated some of the more gung-ho guys since there were no lockers to bang their heads on. The goal post would have to do.
From our vantage point in the end zone we had a perfect view of an October harvest moon just peaking its nose over the horizon. The evening promised to be perfect for a football game, pleasantly cool with clear skies and a light breeze. The stands began to fill and the Indianola band was on the field with a pre- game show. Cumberland and Indian Springs were about the same size and since it was only 33 miles separating them we had almost as many fans as they did. There just wasn’t a hell of a lot to do on Friday night.
When the band completed its show, the Indian Springs Indians came racing onto the field, led by their cheerleaders and pep squad. The band played their fight song and the home crowd cheered. I noticed Benny paying close attention to the cheerleaders and pep squad.
“Well, Bowman, I’m glad you’ve got your mind narrowly focused on the upcoming game.”
“Yeah, I’ve been paying close attention to their personnel, seems to be a bumper crop this year.”
“Prenatal care and good nutrition has done wonders for teenage girls.”
Coach Wiley’s whistle blew and we all gathered around him. He briefly went over the game plan and quickly began his little pregame inspirational. Rig Wiley didn’t hold with oratorical rhetoric and he was no great public speaker. He had seen far too much war to have any illusions about what motivated men.
He believed in loyalty and responsibility- first to the guy next to you, never let him down. Secondly, to the team who depended on you to tote your assigned load. Past that, screw ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out.
He pointed out that football required only two things of you. First to defeat and destroy the guy in front of you, take him completely out of the mix. Secondly, to be there at the end, stronger, faster and more determined than your opponent. He and the coaches would provide the conditioning that would allow you to do this; the will was up to you.
Finally he pointed out that a high school football game lasted only 48 minutes. If all things were equal and offense and defense played the same amount of time this was only 24 minutes. If it took 20 seconds to call a play, get lined up and go through the snap cadence, and the play itself took a max of ten seconds to be completed, then you only played football for about 8 minutes a game. If there was anyone who didn’t feel that he could go full speed for 8 minutes, raise his hand and get the hell out of here.
We jumped to our feet and charged on to our end of the field to go through our pregame warm-up drill. I’ll have to admit that every time I heard Coach Wiley give that little talk it made me want to deliver my end of the bargain. Tonight I knew that John Tong and I had the task of neutralizing two of the best high school lineman in the State of Mississippi. I had every intention of screwing their evening completely up. Browner and McKinney didn’t have any idea what was coming.
The two teams lined up for the opening kickoff. Indian Springs had won the coin toss and had chosen to kick to us and go on defense. I am forced to admit that I was never on a kickoff team, neither kicking nor receiving. I was just too damn slow. I was fairly quick within a three yard area, but way too slow to operate in the open field. I watched as the kick sailed down to our fifteen yard line and Mickey brought it back to the twenty-two.
We ran three running plays that netted a total of four yards and T.C. punted it away. Indian Springs had the ball first and ten at their own thirty-three yard line. They came out in their over shifted single wing and I moved head-up on Marvin Terrell, the outside guard. The following eight minutes, if that is indeed how long you actually play football, provided me with a life changing experience. It is amazing that a mere eight minutes can seem like several days.
The Indian Springs tailback called the snap cadence and Browner snapped the ball. I was prepared to receive McKinney’s charge on my left and play off Terrell to my right. McKinney disappeared and I felt myself being carried completely out of the play and watched helplessly as the Indian Springs fullback sailed through the hole I was supposed to be defending for an eight-yard gain.
I had no idea what had happened. Apparently McKinney had pulled behind Terrell and blocked down on our tackle and somehow I had been swept out of the way. I had not felt any impact from Terrell, it was as if he simply ushered me away. Talk about confused, I was totally baffled.
On the next play McKinney hit me high and Terrell hit me low and once again I saw the fullback zoom by untouched. First-and-ten from the Indian Springs forty-eight. On the next play the tailback hit Loveland with a fifty-yard touchdown pass and our defense was off the field. I jogged to the sidelines and sat down beside John tong.
“Well, that really went well.” he said.
“I have no idea exactly what happened. One minute I was in position and the next I was nowhere near the play.”
“Do you think maybe you got blocked?”
“Well, I got that part, I just don’t know how.”
“The word ‘completely’ comes to mind.”
“Well, I can guarantee you that won’t happen again.”
But it did, not only on the next series, but all night long. I totally ignored McKinney and Browner and let Tong deal with them. Marvin Terrell became the sole focus of my attention. I tried every trick and technique that I knew to defeat his block. Nothing worked. You can’t hit what you can’t catch.
I have tried over the years to describe what playing head-up on Terrell was like and it defies every football cliché that I know. This was not the only Friday night I got handled by an offensive lineman. The difference was that in the other cases I could explain exactly how it happened. They were either bigger, quicker or stronger and in some cases all three. They would hit you like a run-away Mack truck and bulldoze you out of the play.
Terrell was different. True, he was quicker and stronger and I know that played a part, but the only way to describe him is to say that he was ‘elegant’. He exploded in your face like a hand grenade and simply placed you where he wanted you to be. His upper body strength was impressive, but his ability to drive his legs and scoop you up was even more impressive. It was as if I was playing against a ghost or a whiff of smoke. I cannot remember but a couple of plays that I had any part in tackling someone, and then only because I was McKinney’s responsibility, not Terrell’s.
Usually, when you are getting your butt handed to you the game seems intermediately long. This one flew by. By the middle of the fourth quarter Terrell was giving me hands-on coaching advice. He suggested that I try to keep my initial charge lower and not let him into my body mass. He felt that I needed to work on my upper body strength and try to keep my legs churning after contact. I listened to what he said, but to tell you the truth, none of his advice made much difference. He just had his way with me all night.
When the game ended we had actually played one of our best games all year. They beat us 14-7, which surprised everyone including Coach Wiley. When the whistle ending the game blew, I walked across the field, found Terrell and said,
“Believe it or not, I enjoyed playing against you. You’re far and away the best football lineman I have ever been up against. Tonight was a real learning experience.”
Terrell looked at me and said,
“Thanks, I appreciate the compliment. Keep on learning. You can be a good player yourself.”
We shook hands and I said,
“Thanks for the coaching clinic; I learned just how much I don’t know. Good luck for the rest of the season, hope you guys win it all.”
I walked back to our end zone and met my Dad on the way.
“Tommy,” he said, “I’m surprised your uniform shows any dirt or grass stains.”
“I take it you have some fatherly advice you’re about to share.”
“No advice, just an observation. The next time you want to go to a football game as a spectator, buy a ticket and sit in the stands. That little guy beat your ass all over this field.”
“That he did,” I admitted, “he was something else. We can go over my mistakes later; I got to get on the bus now.”
“I’ll be surprised if they let you on the bus, they oughta make you walk back to Cumberland.”
“Thanks again, Dad, I’ll see you at home.”
He walked off shaking his head. I took off my shoulder pads and put my jersey back on and got on the bus. I found my seat next to Benny and sat down.
“Good game,” he said.
“Yeah,” I replied, “I’ll probably be on the “B” team next week after they review the game film.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I just got my ass waxed; that’s the worst game I ever played.”
“I played right behind you and I didn’t think you looked all that bad.”
“That’s because Marvin Terrell led me around like I had a ring in my damn nose.”
“Well, you and Tong kept Browner and McKinney from being much of a factor.”
“John gets all of the credit for that. All I did was provide Terrell with an evening of mild amusement. Like I told my Dad, tonight was a complete learning experience.”
“Really, what did you learn?”
“If Marvin Terrell represents a typical college prospect, then I better let go of the notion of ever playing on the next level.”
Indian Springs went on to win 1955 Delta Valley Conference Championship. Mississippi State beat out a dozen other schools and signed Buck McKinney. He never made a difference at State. Ole Miss was the only school willing to take a chance on Marvin Terrell.
He started at guard for three years and was All SEC and a consensus All American his senior year. He played four years for the Dallas Texans in the old American Football League. Marvin Terrell proved to be the real deal.
Summer break is the most wonderful 3 months out of the year. It is the time when people focus on fun, go on adventures and face their fears. The warm weather, planned vacations and no school is what makes summer so loved. It is a time when students have little responsibility and can finally be free and at ease. Sleeping in, going out all day and staying up all night is the summer schedule. People walk around in shorts, tank tops and shoes with no complaints. Everyone is just a lot happier during the summer. Sadly, like all good things, summer has to come to an end. This is why it is so special. People don’t take it for granted.
It seems too hot to be considering the end of summer, but the theme for August is officially “Summer’s End”, so consider we will. I can remember when August was smack in the middle of summer as defined by summer = summer vacation = no school. You still had plenty of pool time left, trips to visit grandparents to make and lots of empty days left to fill. Now, school starts by the second week of August, so if you haven’t done it by now, and you have or work with children, you are out of luck. You blinked and missed it. Summer has come to its end and August is just the really hot, early part of fall. I don’t like this new system. I want a full month left to loaf and sweat over my dying flowerbed. I want bands to keep playing in the park on Tuesday nights, another fireworks holiday would be nice and maybe a watermelon festival or two. I love watermelon. Oh well, times change and summers end, don’t they.
This brings to mind one summer spent during early spring that seemed to last forever. How is that possible? Through a good book, anything is possible. I remember reading Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine while a student at Power Elementary School in Jackson, Ms. This book may have been the first to completely absorb and transport me. By the time I finished reading it, I had lived summer so thoroughly that I fully expected fall to begin at any moment. For days afterward, I would catch myself thinking it was too hot for fall. It was April. I was confused, but hooked on the experience of a good read that you live so completely, you don’t want it to end.
Dandelion Wine takes place in the summer of 1928 in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois. This isn’t a southern place, but it represents small-town America and the simple pleasures found there, and the south is full of towns like this. The title refers to wine made with dandelion petals and serves as a metaphor for saving all of summer in a bottle.
Douglas Spaulding, a 12-year-old boy loosely patterned after Bradbury, has just realized that he is alive, that the right pair of shoes can carry you like the wind, that old people were never children and that things change. Overcome by the truth of death and his own twelve-year old mortality, Douglas drifts away in an August fever, only to be revived by Winter’s cold air. Douglas finds his wonder at summer and life restored. A beautiful story of the wonders of everyday, imagination and our own childhoods spent running like the wind.
After 30 years it still lingers with me, like the hint of sweetness from a honeysuckle flower. I can taste it now.
– Mary Prater
Ah, the joy of sitting on the beach soaking up the sun, listening to the surf, enjoying the warm breeze, while reading a good book. For now however, I’ll have to settle for enjoying one in my own garden. In keeping with the theme of Porch Scene: Exploring the Culture of the South, I’ve read a couple of Southern themed novels, and I’m going to revisit an old favorite.
Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman, set largely in Savannah, GA, describes in tender detail the interaction and bonding of exceptional, strong but diverse women, as seen through the eyes of an emotionally damaged twelve year old girl. It also examines mental illness and its painful affects, not only on the individual with the disease, but on those closest to them.
Hoffman has created an eclectic cast of characters, and placed them in the beautiful Southern city in which charm, grace and eccentric behavior fit comfortably together. The book takes a candid look at both the darker side of humanity and the compassionate, caring and nurturing opposite. The delightful little book is crammed with joy, sorrow, intrigue, whimsy and wisdom, and hosts an amazing collection of “steel magnolias.”
The antics of a bizarre menagerie of New Orleans French Quarter misfits are brought to life in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Protagonist Ignatius J. Riley, a brilliant, dysfunctional, rotund 30 year old living with his mother, is at the forefront of a band of hilarious but tragic characters who bring the underbelly of the “Crescent City” to life with dark delight.
Ignatius, at war with the modern world, records his revolutionary rantings in Big Chief tablets. Lamentably, he is able to put his skill inciting chaos to good use when he is forced to seek employment after his mother demolishes a Volkswagen with her 1946 Plymouth. Armed with his green hunting cap and caustic intellect, he lands first at Levy Pants, where “promptness was sufficient excuse for promotion,” and later in the French Quarter, where he begrudgingly lumbers behind a hot dog cart, charged with selling weenies.
The dark humor has made the book a cult classic and is a glimpse into the magical lunacy that is at the heart of the city. Published posthumously as a result of the relentless persistence of his mother eleven years after Toole took his own life, the book won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
A much more upscale vision of New Orleans is presented by noted author and columnist, Julia Reed in her 2008 The House on First Street. Although not the newest of her novels, this book gives a firsthand account of the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, and its horrible aftermath, as witnessed by one of the more fortunate survivors.
The book presents the dilemmas facing the elite residents, which while not usually tragic, were non-the-less real and frightening. Although her own home in the historic Garden District was virtually unscathed, (a fact about which she is fully cognizant and grateful) she is able to present the tragedy from several viewpoints, in addition to the one most of us saw in the media as experienced by the less fortunate. And because of her Newsweek credentials, Ms Reed was able to get into restricted areas to witness firsthand the horrors that came to be what is indelibly imprinted in most of our minds; that of our fellow human beings losing everything they had, including in some cases, life.
Ms Reed paints a vivid and insightful picture of the realities of the tragedy. She brings to light the shortcomings of local, state and federal governments, the violence and manmade carnage, the heroes, who were many, and the amazing stamina and determination of the residents who would not give up on the city they loved. Because no description of New Orleans would be complete without some mention of food, and because Julia Reed is a noted “foodie,” there’s much recounted about that as well.
– Deborah Fagan Carpenter
I love the beach early in the morning and late in the afternoon, not so much around mid-day. Probably this is a result of being a red head and having the complexion of the Pillsbury Doughboy. At any rate, we were on our annual two week visit to Alabama’s Redneck Riviera, Gulf Shores, and I led my two youngest kids, John, age four and Mary, age two, through the sea oats and down to the whitest stretch of beach to be found anywhere.
The beach in the early morning has a fresh pristine beauty that will dissolve later in the day as more and more people set up umbrellas and beach towels surfside. This morning we were here just after sunrise and had it all to ourselves. Gulf Shores is on one of the barrier islands that shield the mainland from the open Gulf of Mexico and the surf is at its calmest early in the day. Today there were very small wavelets gently kissing the beach.
The lack of a pounding surf made it possible to see the waist deep depression where the surf usually broke, leading out to a knee deep sand reef before the bottom dropped off to deeper water. The sand reef in calm waters was the perfect place for two toddlers to play. I picked up the kids and carried them through the trough to the reef and allowed them to play in the crystal clear salt water. Very calm and very safe, or so I thought.
Since the kids were content to paddle around on the shallow reef, I decided to move back toward the beach and wallow around in the deeper water of the surf depression. I have always been able to float in salt water. It has been suggested that this is due to a very low ratio of muscle to bulk. Apparently fat floats, and I was doing just that on my back while trying to keep an eye on the paddlers.
I was floating along with my mind in neutral when I noticed a gray fin about eighteen inches high cruise between me and the beach like the conning tower of a nuclear submarine. Since it was kinda shallow for submarines I suspected the object was connected to a barely submerged and probably very large shark. He swam within arm’s reach and continued quietly swimming alongside the beach.
I have a firm policy regarding snakes, sharks and large mammals. I leave them alone and in turn, they generally leave me alone. The very height of stupidity is to go shark fishing. Who wants a 300 pound eating machine in your boat? I was content to watch as the twelve foot monster cruised out of sight. Things were going well until John thought it would be great fun to splash his little sister with large slaps of water. The shark, upon sensing the commotion did a 180 and started back toward us.
I did not trust his intentions in spite of our unspoken agreement of mutual non-aggression. I suspected he would only see two hors d’oeurves and an entrée. The instinct to protect one’s off spring overcame my desire to hit the beach in safety during the hors d’oeurves, and I headed toward the splashing and yelling kids. At this point I had about a fifteen yard lead, but he was accelerating and closing the gap.
I grabbed both of the kids and heaved them up onto the beach. Now I’m no great athlete. In high school the football coach thought that anyone playing defensive tackle should be able to toss the shot put with ease. My best effort barely got the big iron ball out of my own shadow, but this morning I found super human strength and set what is still probably a world’s record for the kid toss. They were safely crying on the beach and I was nose to nose with certain death.
When you go to the beach regularly you get all kinds of advice regarding things like undertow, jelly fish and sharks. The consensus of everything I had ever heard about what to do if confronted by a shark was simple. Stand completely still, and chances are the shark will lose interest and move on. This was on my mind as I stumbled, splashed and scrambled toward shore. I was waiting to feel his razor sharp teeth hit me somewhere near my knees.
I made it to dry land, much to my surprise, and once I was certain that he had not followed me ashore I turned and looked directly into the eyes of a nearly fifteen foot mature hammer head. He was treading water and looking at me like “Just what in the hell is your problem?” John and Mary were racing toward our cottage yelling for mamma. – Tom Lawrence
Rice farming came to the Mississippi Delta in the early 1950’s. There are basically two kinds of soil in the Delta; fine grained river silt that has been deposited by eons of spring flooding along the Mississippi River, known as ice cream land, and a clayey, coarse soil known as buckshot land. Buckshot, when wet would clog up any piece of equipment sent into the field. No farmer in his right mind ever grew anything but cotton on his ice cream land, but all farmers were constantly looking for a crop that did not require a great deal of cultivation for their buckshot. Rice seemed to be the perfect crop.
Rice grows in water. Admittedly not much water, about six to eight inches is enough, but in order to be able to flood the rice field during the growing season and drain it during the harvest, a certain amount of contouring and irrigation engineering is required. Once the land is prepared the water has to be brought in when needed and removed in order to harvest. This is accomplished by a system of wells and ditches.
In a land where the bayous, creeks and rivers were slow moving, turgid and muddy, the system of wells and flume ditches filled with fresh, clear artesian water was irresistible to a variety of creatures such as children, frogs and water moccasins. The rice fields provided the perfect environment for mosquitoes of size and in numbers never before seen. I’ll deal with the mosquitoes at another time.
The first summer or so of rice cultivation we all swam in the ditches and the frogs quickly adapted to the new environment. Then came the moccasins. We quickly gave up swimming in the rice ditches and the snakes kept the frogs from overrunning our part of the world. Nature balanced it all out. Natural selection took a year or two but soon the snakes had thinned the frogs so that the current generation began to produce some Boone and Crocket grade amphibians. We were talking close to a pound a piece with legs like a large chicken.
Now I have always heard that frog legs were a delicacy and that they tasted like chicken. My reply was I would choose to eat chicken; it tasted just like frog legs. While I wouldn’t eat a frog under any circumstances, I was perfectly happy to hunt and gig them.
This is how I found myself in a small aluminum boat sculling down a flume ditch with a carbide light strapped to my head. We were armed with a .22 rifle rather than a gig. Shoot em and net em was our strategy. As the boat eased down the ditch we kept our lights focused on the nearby banks. We darn near filled the boat up with large bull frogs. While we were shooting and scooping I heard a consistent bump, bump, bump on the back of the boat. I turned my light and the night lit up with a thousand eyes. Every moccasin in Bolivar County was trailing behind our boat like an armada of fireflies.
My first reaction was to start shooting. I knew enough to discard that idea; we just didn’t have near enough ammo. I reminded myself that snakes do not have arms and legs and would have a difficult time climbing in the boat, which was somewhat comforting, but raised the question of just how good are they at the high jump. They seemed content to just butt up to the back of the boat; maybe they couldn’t get a firm footing to leap.
All of this begged the question of just how in the hell were we going to get out of the boat and up the ditch bank when we got back to the pickup truck?
“Throw them a frog,” suggested Benny, in hopes that they would be distracted by something that tasted like chicken.
I had no problem with that idea. I didn’t plan to clean them, let alone eat them, and would have gladly sacrificed the entire night’s haul to buy a safe exit back to dry land. Didn’t work. The frog sank and the snakes kept coming. The thought of throwing Benny out as bait had a certain appeal, but best friends are hard to come by and he wasn’t one you wanted to try and toss out of a boat. Back to the drawing board.
We continued to putt-putt down the flume ditch keeping pace with what seemed to be all of the water moccasins in Mississippi. Finally we came to point where an irrigation pipe about three inches in diameter crossed over the ditch on steel supports. Benny said, “Stop the boat and hold it under that pipe.”
I sculled the paddle, holding the boat in place and Benny stood up and grabbed the overhead pipe with both hands, swung his legs up and monkey crawled to safety. He looked down and me and said,
“Now you do it.”
At age sixteen Benny was a wiry, muscular 168 lbs. while I was 6’2” and 235. Benny could do fifty pull ups and I was lucky to get ten. I had a vivid mental image of the likely outcome of me trying to monkey crawl out of danger. I’d grab the pipe, swing my legs up, lose my grip, fall into the bottom of the boat, turn it over and face a massive and fatal dose of snake venom. Bad plan.
“Bull!” I replied, “You go to the truck and get the shotgun and a couple of boxes of bird shot. Then you can hose down the area. That oughta get their attention and I can make a dash for it up the bank.”
Benny came back with my Remington 870 and three boxes of shells. He removed the plug and shucked a shell into the chamber and four into the magazine. We put our head lamps on the back of the boat and Benny began firing away. He fired five loads of No. 8 shot and the water frothed with a pink tinge. He was in the middle of his second volley when I decided to make a break for it.
Just before I jumped from the boat to the bank something from physics class ran through my head. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That is exactly what happened. I braced my left foot on the side of the boat and pushed off to propel myself halfway up the bank. What actually happened is that the boat scooted halfway across the flume ditch and I fell face first into the ditch very close to the area which Benny was spraying with birdshot and snake parts.
Every time I tried to gain my footing, I slipped on the muddy bottom and went back under water. Finally I just said, “Screw it.” and crawled on my hands and knees up the weedy bank waiting to feel the first of what I was sure to be multiple snake bites. Miraculously, I managed to drag myself to the top, covered with mud and a variety of plant life, but no snake bites. Benny was holding the smoking Remington and laughing his ass off. He said,
“Larch, do you remember the scene where the monster in The Creature from the Black Lagoon came crawling out of the swamp? Well you just replayed it. It was all I could do to keep from shooting you. By the way you have a dead moccasin on your foot.”
I shook the dead snake into the underbrush and glanced back into the ditch just in time to see our boat drifting along with the slow moving water about twenty yards downstream. Benny laughed and said,
“Since you’re already soaked, why don’t you go back in and chase down the boat?”
“Why don’t you kiss my grits? We’ll come back after sunrise and collect that little dude.” – Tom Lawrence
If you learned to drive in the Mississippi Delta before 1960 you learned on gravel roads. Mississippi had a very good system of concrete highways that connected all parts of the State. No responsible parent would allow their twelve year old to use them for practice. The cities and towns had a few paved streets, but again, they were off limits to neophyte drivers. We were stuck with the network of farm to market roads that crisscrossed the countryside.
Did I hear you question a twelve year old driver? I can explain. Some of us were a little slow on the uptake and maybe a little uncoordinated, otherwise we would have been driving at nine like most of the farm kids that road the big yellow buses. Farm life meant early responsibility. I have a lady friend who was driving six miles into town to pick up tractor parts before she was ten. She took her Girl Scout troop for a joy ride at midnight when she was twelve. No one thought anything about it.
Learning to drive on gravel presented opportunities as well as challenges. The good news was that the entire Delta is flat as a flounder and the roads followed section lines for the most part. You could see another car well over a mile away. The bad news is that driving on gravel is an acquired art. For starters gravel is unstable; it tends to roll around under you tires. Secondly, in spite of Mississippi buying more grader blades than the rest of the nation combined. Gravel roads soon adopt the surface features of a washboard. Both the instability and the washboard effect can be overcome by going fast enough to allow your car or pickup to plane out like a ski boat.
You begin to get a little relief from the sliding and wash boarding at about 35 MPH; it really smooth’s out around 60MPH and at 80 or better it’s like driving on velvet. It was best to practice this technique when driving with a friend or alone. Parents were not as concerned about comfort as they might have been. We, on the other hand, felt a lot more at ease with a smooth ride and we very quickly learned how to handle a vehicle tearing across the county with WLAC blaring Randy’s Record Shop from the radio.
Yes, accidents happened, usually through no fault of our own. Cars tend to become airborne if you hit a railroad embankment at 80MPH. That’s unfortunate, but since there were few, if any trees and a scarcity of light poles the ensuing wrecks, while spectacular to a uniformed bystander, were for the most part non-fatal. You could fly out into a cotton field without hitting anything until you ran out of momentum.
Most of us reached adulthood and moved to locations with all paved roads, but every time I go back to the Delta I try to give it a go on one of the few gravel roads that remain.
THE YEAR WAS 1947
By Tom Lawrence
My friend Billy and I were walking home from school on a warm October afternoon in 1947. The aroma of burning leaves filled the air, and there was just the hint of a chill. We decided to take the long way home, detouring through downtown. We’d gone less than a block, when we saw the first brightly colored poster, wrapped around a light pole. The poster showed a black faced dandy playing a banjo, grinning from ear to ear. The figure wore a derby hat and spats on his shoes, and the poster announced:
COMING THIS WEEKEND!
MUSIC, DANCE AND COMEDY FOR ALL!!
We read the billboard with excitement! The minstrel shows were the only live entertainment that ever came to Ruleville, and they were anticipated by nearly everyone. Memphis hosted the Mid-South Fair and the Barnum & Bailey circus, Cleveland had the Bolivar County Fair, but we got the minstrels, and we loved them. If the minstrels were a baseball team, they would be playing in the show business Class D, but to two young boys, they were the only game in town.
Billy and I enjoyed a special place during minstrel week. The show rented the vacant lot next to my grandfather’s ice and coal business, and we were allowed to watch the tent as it was being set up, and to also mix with some of the performers. On Friday morning the Sugarfoot Minstrel traveling caravan pulled into town. There were trucks, a couple of old buses, and private cars and pick-up trucks pulling campers.
The manager, a black man wearing a derby hat, came over to the ice house and knocked on my grandfather’s office door. My grandfather stood as he came in, and then removed his own hat. They shook hands and my grandfather said,
“Well, Dan, it’s good to see you again. Looks like y’all are about to get set up.”
“Yes sir. We’ll have the tent up as soon as I can round up some help. You still okay with me hiring some of your hands?”
“Of Course. They always look forward to the extra pay and the free tickets. I’ll have my foreman, Crip round them up, and they’ll meet you on the lot. Do you want to park your vehicles inside my coal yard?”
“Yes sir, if you don’t mind. I like to get em off the street.”
“Well, fine. You know you can use our plant restrooms and showers, just like you always have.”
“I do, and it means a lot to our folks. Most places, we have to find a Negro church or school, but here we feel welcome.”
“I’ll send Crip and the boys over as soon as I find him, and they’ll get you all settled. Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Yes sir. We sure appreciate you and Miz Rainer.”
Billy and I followed Crip and the guys over to the lot, where we watched as they set up the tent. Once the tent was up and the stage was in place, they began to move in the chairs for the audience. When all was ready for the first show, all of the vehicles moved into our coal yard, with Billy and me following closely behind. This was my favorite part, because then we got to mingle with the performers.
Since the actual show, performed by an all-black ensemble, was considered “adult entertainment,” we would not be allowed to attend. Many of the performers knew I was Mr. Rainer’s grandson however, so we were welcomed by most everyone during rehearsal. We managed to view most of the upcoming show in the coal yard, where we gleefully watched the dancers, singers and comedians run through their acts, and no one chased us off.
All of the performers were in Blackface makeup, in spite of being black to begin with, which seemed to make it acceptable for a white person of the time to attend the show. The singers stuck to the standard vaudeville repertoire, with songs like I came from Alabama with a banjo on my knee, or Way down upon the Suwanee River. The dancers all did tap, and the comedians specialized in double entendre jokes, with sexual overtones — nothing smutty, but a bit suggestive.
Later, all of them would move backstage in the tent, and we were allowed to stay until just before the show started, but it wasn’t appropriate for two young lads to attend such a risqué function. Soon the tent began to fill with an all-white, mostly male crowd, and we were shooed out, and had to go back to the ice house. My grandparents didn’t go into the tent for the show either. They felt it was unseemly for a Christian white couple to mingle with the “riff-raff” who were in attendance. They, however, set up lawn chairs overlooking the tent, where they listened to every act.
After the first show ended, Billy and I took our blankets and returned to my grandparent’s apartment in the ice plant. My bedroom looked out over the lot, and if we cracked my window, we could hear the second show for the “colored people.” The black audience was much more participatory in their response to the show than the white audience had been, and we fell asleep to the lively music and laughter. When we woke up the next morning, the tent was coming down and the caravan was loading up to move on to Indianola for the next show. Ruleville’s annual dose of live entertainment had ended for yet another year.
The stereotypical practice of Blackface in theater began around 1830, with white performers creating a clichéd caricature of blacks, and by 1940, black entertainers began to see the economic value of it as well. The practice largely ended in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement, as both whites and blacks were furthering the belief that blacks were racially and socially inferior through the use of the mocking caricatures.
For more on Blackface Minstrels visit these sites connected to the images:
The header image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to black-face.com
The first image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.cs.pomona.edu
The second image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.jezebel.com
FACES IN THE CROWD
By Tom Lawrence
In every generation and in every society there are those who make a difference without the receipt of either recognition or fame serving as the motivation for their actions. Mostly, they are just plain folks leading everyday lives who find themselves thrust into a situation that demands courage, integrity and solid common sense. At a crucial moment in their existence these average citizens simply rise to the occasion. They do what needs to be done, then fade back into ordinary lives. These special people deserve our thanks and respect. Here is an example of one such person.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in a matter known as Brown v Board of Education, which made State sponsored segregation illegal under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The concept of separate but equal would no longer apply to schools all across the South.
In September of that same year, Ruby Nell Bridges was born in Tylertown, Mississippi. Ruby’s parents, Abon and Lucille, worked as sharecroppers on the farm that Abon had grown up on. The Bridges were hardworking people who were not politically active in the civil rights movement.
Equal opportunity was now the law of the land, but implementation of that law proved to be extremely difficult. But the segregation barrier in higher education fell in 1956, when Authorine Lucy was admitted to the University of Alabama, and Ruby Bridges had just turned two years old. The first high school in the South admitted black students in 1957, when President Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne to escort nine black students to class at Little Rock’s Central High. Ruby Bridges was now three years old.
In 1958, Abon and Lucille decided to leave the farm, and moved to nearby New Orleans to seek a better life for Ruby. Abon got a job as an attendant at a gas station, and Lucille took on domestic work.
Louisiana had implemented a law that required black children to pass a test to determine their ability to attend an all-white school, and responding to a call by the local NAACP, Abon and Lucille reluctantly agreed that Ruby would take the test. She was one of six black children to pass the admission examination.
Ruby was assigned to all white William Franz Elementary School for the school year of 1960. The other five children, for one reason or another, either stayed in their existing school, or were assigned to other schools, leaving Ruby to attend William Franz by herself. Abon didn’t want Ruby to be exposed to the expected white backlash, but Lucille convinced him that it was the right thing to do, both for Ruby and to further the cause of black rights.
On November 14, 1960, Ruby was escorted to William Franz Elementary School by a U.S. Deputy Marshall, making her the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in Louisiana. Ruby described the scene at the school as very much like Mardi Gras — “throngs of shouting people throwing things.” Once Ruby was admitted to class, many of the white parents pulled their children out of the school, and all but one of the white teachers refused to teach in an integrated institution. The one exception was Barbara Henry, a native of Boston Massachusetts, who became Ruby’s teacher for the school year.
Ruby’s first year at William Franz saw her segregated within the school. She was taught one on one, ate her meals alone, and had no interaction with the white students. In further retaliation against her admission to the school, her parents, Abon and Lucille lost their jobs, they were refused service at their local grocery store, and her grandparents were evicted from their farm in Mississippi. Although there was some community support — both black and white — most of her first year was filled with angry racial slurs, threats and protests against her attendance. Ruby persevered however, and stuck it out, and she won the respect of not only her teachers, but also the Marshalls who were assigned to protect her. Former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks later recalled,
“She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very very proud of her.” American artist Norman Rockwell immortalized Ruby’s first day with his painting, The Problem We All Live With, which graced the centerfold of Look magazine in 1964.
The events of that November day in 1960 set Ruby Bridges on a path of service that has lasted throughout her life, but the quiet courage of a six year old child remains an inspiration to us all.
For more by Tom Lawrence: www.tomlawrenceblog.com
The photo of the 1954 Supreme Court is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to Brown v. Board of Education – Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaen.wikipedia.org555 × 380Search by image
On May 17, 1954, these men, members of the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.
The photo of the Norman Rockwell painting, is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.nola.com2048 × 1263Search by image… ‘The Problem We All Live With’ depicts 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, who was the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in Louisiana
The opportunity had surpassed my expectations. My employer, the public television station and PBS affiliate in Memphis, WKNO, was holding a reception promoting and celebrating the return of Ken Burns’ acclaimed television series, The Civil War.”
I had arrived at the reception a bit early in the hope of speaking with the guest of honor for the evening. I recently had developed a special interest in the Civil War years, having happened upon a review of a book about a prominent figure of the period, Jefferson Davis. The review interested me, so I had obtained the book…and found it enthralling
Suddenly, there I was, speaking about my discovery with our honored guest, the renowned author, Shelby Foote, whose marvelous, smooth voice with rolling tones of the American South, was a highlight of the PBS television series.
Shelby Foote was gracious and attentive. While I cannot recall his exact response to my expressed interest in the life and career of Jefferson Davis, what he said to me was close to the following quote in the introduction to the very book I was reading:
“‘The strangest thing to me,’ writes Shelby Foote, who for years has been working on a history of the War Between the States, ‘is how human and warm Davis turns out to be. My admiration for him is virtually unbounded.’”
The book to which I have been referring is a sympathetic biography of the Confederate President by Hudson Strode. A measure of that sympathy is probably noticeable in Strode’s reference to The War Between the States, rather than The Civil War.
In this paper I come not to praise Jefferson Davis, but to share some of the high drama that played out in the life of this man; drama that is generously sprinkled with sheerest coincidence. Three such coincidences are particularly poignant.
We might start things with a pop quiz about dramatis personae of the American Civil War (or War Between the States.)
Question 1: What American served his country as President during that war, who was born in a log cabin in Kentucky in 1808? Ah, I’m sure some of you are aware that Lincoln was born in Kentucky, not Illinois. However, Lincoln is not the correct answer to my question, and here is Coincidence ONE!
Lincoln was, indeed, born in a log cabin in Kentucky, but in 1809. Jefferson Davis was born in a log cabin in Kentucky in 1808. Perhaps you did not know that the President of the Confederate States of America was born in a log cabin in Kentucky, not quite one hundred miles from the Kentucky log cabin birthplace of the President of the United States of America during the Civil War.
How might history be different had the Davis family moved north, say, to Indiana and then Illinois and had the Lincoln family moved south, say, to Mississippi?
There is no Question 2 at this point, but more coincidences await us.
Early Life and Education
Jefferson Davis was born to Samuel and Jane Davis, the youngest of ten children. His four brothers received names from the Bible; Joseph, Samuel, Benjamin and Isaac, but Jeff’s parents departed from scripture to name him Jefferson, for the red-headed President then in office, and gave him the middle name of Finis, no doubt in the fervent hope that this child was the last. He was.
By the time Jeff was weaned, says Shelby Foote in Volume One of his Civil War narrative, the Davis family had moved to Bayou Teche in Louisiana. However, the unhealthy climate, especially with the prevalence of malaria, occasioned yet another move. This time it was to Mississippi. Jeff may have escaped the dreaded Louisiana mosquito with this departure from the bayous, but the insect was to pay a tragic visit to him years later.
Jeff’s education began at a nearby wooden school at age 5, but Samuel Davis had been impressed by the reputation of a Dominican school in Kentucky. The Davis family was Baptist, but the friars of St. Thomas Aquinas were extraordinary educators and without telling Jane Davis of his intentions to get her son to Kentucky, Samuel, setting aside fears that Jeff would be subjected to Catholicism, arranged for Jeff to depart with a friend, Major Hinds, and his family, who were embarking for Kentucky. Major Hinds was pleased to take Jeff as company for his own seven-year old. Jeff departed on the 700 mile journey to Kentucky, riding his pony. His mother was to be told later.
One of the most memorable events of Jeff’s life occurred on the way to his new school. Major Hinds had fought beside Andrew Jackson at New Orleans and he had received an invitation from Jackson to stop and rest at The Hermitage in Nashville. “Old Hickory” was a national hero of whom Jeff had heard much. He, Major Hinds’ son, Howell and Andrew Jackson. Jr. enjoyed each other’s company and were urged by “Old Hickory” to contests of running, jumping and pony races. However, General Jackson discouraged wrestling, which could lead to a fight. Jeff was to learn later that Old Hickory was famous for vivid profanity, but during this stay the lad was impressed by General Jackson’s propriety, his saying of grace at meals, and his “unaffected and well-bred courtesy.” The experience was so enjoyed by the travelers and the gracious Rachel and Andrew Jackson that the brief stay stretched to two weeks. Jefferson Davis marked this experience as one of the very most important of his life. He had met the day’s leading hero and the future President of the United States.
Jefferson Davis enjoyed his education at St. Thomas and it stood him in good stead. The British-born friars offered excellent education in English and Latin. He was so impressed with the dedication of the Dominicans that at one point he determined to be instructed so as to become Catholic. The members of the order gently suggested that he might wish to wait for such a momentous step. He did decide to wait and some years later severed his Baptist ties to become Episcopalian.
By the time Jeff had reached age ten, his mother insisted that he come home. Upon his return and as Jeff’s carriage neared his home, he asked to be allowed to walk the rest of the way, thinking to play a prank on whomever he encountered. His mother was sitting on the family’s porch. Jeff, having put on some inches since he left home, called out, asking if anyone had seen any stray horses in the area. His mother responded, “No, but I have spotted a stray boy!” She flew to him with great joy.
By the time he was 13, Jeff was considered ready for college. Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky was an excellent school with an enrollment larger than Harvard’s. When Jeff’s namesake became discouraged in the founding of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson counseled, “We must send our children for education to Transylvania (Kentucky) or Cambridge (Harvard). The latter will return them to us as fanatics and tories, and the former will keep them to add to their population.” He preferred Kentucky over any other state, ”because she has more flavor of the old cask than any other state.” (Of course, Jefferson had not been afforded the joys of Tennessee Jack Daniel’s at that time.) Jeff Davis distinguished himself at Transylvania. At the commencement in 1824, Jeff gave an address on “Friendship” that the local newspapers praised, reporting that Davis’s “On Friendship” made friends of the hearers.
While Jeff was at Transylvania, he received word that his father had had financial reverses and had lost most of his holdings. His father died soon after. Three days after his father’s death, Jeff accepted an appointment as a cadet at the United States Military Academy.
West Point and Military Service
The career of Jefferson Davis at West Point was not that of a distinguished cadet. He had a number of demerits for absence after hours, revels in the local tap rooms and the playing of practical pranks. It is noteworthy that the cadet to whom Davis was to be commander-in-chief in later years had gone through West Point with not a single demerit. His name? Robert E. Lee.
In 1832 Lieutenant Jeff Davis had been assigned to western Illinois, where troubles with Native Americans were requiring the presence of army troops. The famous chief Black Hawk was having his realm shrunk, his grounds diminished, and the cagey, crafty leader would occasionally raid settlements in order to feed his people. Jeff felt some sympathy for the chief because of regular encroachment on Indian lands by settlers. When word spread that Black Hawk had sought the help of the British in Canada and was brandishing a British flag, Illinois sent militia to northwestern Illinois in a call to arms. One young Illinois’ captain (with no military experience and who had to borrow a horse to go to war) led his troops in a difficult crossing of the Henderson River. Despite Colonel Zachary Taylor’s order against the unnecessary firing of arms, the militiamen, by way of celebration of the river’s crossing, began wanton firing of weapons. The young captain was subjected to minor disgrace and made to wear a wooden sword. Less than a month later, some of this very captain’s men broke into an officer’s quarters, making off with four bucketsful of whiskey, and became too drunk to follow marching orders the next morning. As poet Carl Sandburg tells us, the captain was again sentenced to wear the wooden sword for two days. The captain was Abraham Lincoln. Jefferson Davis, although assigned to this area, was on extended leave in Mississippi at the time, returning approximately a month and a half later. At that time Black Hawk, despite masterful tactics and maneuvers, had suffered a massacre of his people at a little river called Bad Axe.
On August 27, 1832, Jeff saw Black Hawk brought in before Colonel Zachary Taylor. The old Indian wore a resplendent suit of white deerskins, and his prominent Roman nose gave his face distinction. Jefferson Davis took charge of Black Hawk and forty other prisoners. Hudson Strode tells us in his biography:
“As Lieutenant Davis proceeded down the river with his famous prisoner of war, he treated the Indian “with all the consideration and courtesy due a fallen warlord.” Black Hawk later wrote in his memoirs, “(We were) under the charge of a young war chief, who treated us all with much kindness. He is a good and brave young chief with whose conduct I was very much pleased (and this is the beginning of COINCIDENCE, 2!) Black Hawk continues “….people crowded around our boat to see us, but the war chief would not permit them to enter the apartment where we were, KNOWING WHAT HIS FEELINGS WOULD HAVE BEEN IF HE HAD BEEN PLACED IN A SIMILAR SITUATION, THAT WE DID NOT WISH A GAPING CROWD AROUND US.” COINCIDENCE 2 is completed toward the end of this account.
While serving in the Midwest area, Jeff became enamored of the beautiful daughter of the colonel commanding his unit. Jeff requested the hand of the colonel’s daughter, Knox, whose portraits disclose a beautiful girl. The colonel wanted no part of a son-in-law who was likely to make a career of the military, and refused to give his blessing. Jeff was totally smitten, writing to her, “By my dreams I have been lately almost crazed, for they were of you.” So ardent was his love that he resigned his commission and the couple were married in Louisville, Kentucky, at the home of the bride’s aunt, without the presence of or the blessing of the marriage by her father, but with his consent. The newlyweds were given by Jeff’s brother an 800 acre plantation in Davis Bend, Mississippi. Before the first crop, however, Jefferson Davis became ill with malaria, and Knox became ill the following day. At first it appeared that the young husband’s illness was more severe than his wife’s, but her fever spiked sharply and, when Jeff was helped into her room, he held her. She died in his arms.
This, then is COINCIDENCE #3. Jefferson Davis, future President of the Confederate States of America, was married to Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor, future and twelfth President of the United States of America.
Politics and Government Service
In 1845, Davis was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He did not act as a freshman representative, going headlong into speeches in the House. After one address to his colleagues, he was offered fulsome congratulations by former President of the United States, John Quincy Adams. To others the former Executive said, “…that gentleman is no ordinary man. He will make his mark yet, mind me.” However, Jeff resigned his seat to fight in the Mexican War under the command, again, of Zachary Taylor. Jeff, now a colonel, distinguished himself as war hero, when the unit he led saved the day at Buena Vista. Having formed his troops into a unique V formation that fit the terrain, he strengthened his unit and broke the back of an outnumbering Mexican cavalry charge. Zachary Taylor, a general by this time, is reported to have said to Colonel Davis after the battle of Buena Vista, “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.”
Within sixty days of that battle the governor of Mississippi had appointed Jefferson Davis to the United States Senate. There Jeff fought hard for expansion of slavery into the western territories. He lost in this fight and resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate to oppose a long-time enemy, who was sympathetic to the Union, in a race for Governor of Mississippi. Jefferson Davis suffered a devastating loss. He was through, he thought, and came home to plant cotton.
Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was elected President of the United States. He had admired Jefferson Davis and selected the Mississippian to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of War. As Shelby Foote observes in his Civil War Narrative, “Whatever his reasons, Pierce chose well. Davis made perhaps the best Secretary of War the country ever had. He strengthened the army, renovated the Military Academy and came out strong for a Pacific Railway through Memphis or Vicksburg, financed by federal appropriation.” He no longer seemed to champion secession, but believed (things) might best be accomplished within the union.
Franklin Pierce had attended Bowdoin College in Maine. Bowdoin was a prime center of learning and had as alumni Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Jeff was a popular speaker in Maine, whose message was one of preference for national union. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law degree by Bowdoin
College. But he was roundly assaulted by strong southern states’ rights advocates, who felt that his conciliatory messages weakened Southern resolve.
When Jefferson Davis bid his colleagues in the United States Senate goodbye, because Mississippi had seceded from the Union, his speech was passionate with disappointment that Americans were splitting their bonds. “I see now around me some with whom I have served long. There have been points of collision, but whatever of offense there has been to me, I leave here. I carry with me no hostile remembrance.”
He stressed that secession did not signify enmity. To those with whom he had sharply disagreed in the Senate, “I now say, in the presence of my God, I wish you well.” Jefferson Davis sat. He put his head in his hands. Writes Shelby Foote, “Some in the gallery claimed his shoulders shook. He was weeping, they said.”
But the carnage came. His government fell. Jefferson Davis was arrested and taken to Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he suffered the humiliation of being shackled with ball and chain. Now, here is the conclusion of Coincidence TWO. Hudson Strode says, “Black Hawk was transferred to Fortress Monroe in Virginia, where three decades later, Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, was displayed to jeering crowds.” The President of the Confederate States of America was made to suffer the very humiliation that Black Hawk was spared, due to the compassion and decency of that very President.
Jefferson Davis shed his share of tears. The loss of his beloved Knox had been devastating. He was fortunate to meet and marry a worthy and comforting helpmate in Varina Davis. But another familiar, but disastrous loss came to him in October, 1878. The loss was once more the result of the bite of a mosquito. His son, Jeff, Jr., became the fatal victim, but not in Louisiana or Mississippi and not of malaria. He died in Memphis of yellow fever.
At age 80, Jefferson Davis must have been immensely gratified and refreshed to learn from Bowdoin College, that despite efforts to nullify it or to withdraw it, his honorary degree from Bowdoin was still intact and in good standing.
On occasion I have thought that the high drama in the life of Jefferson Davis could be the subject of a musical on the order of “Les Miserables.” Here was a man of extraordinary talent and his share of foibles, caught in the sweep of history, having been born in a log cabin in Kentucky, as was caught in that mighty sweep another man of considerable talent and foibles, born less than one hundred miles away and one year later.
The title of the musical might be, “March to Autumn.
Cooper, William J., Jr., Jefferson Davis, American, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000
Davis, William C., Jefferson Davis, The Man and His Hour, Harper Collins, 1991
Eaton, Clement, Jefferson Davis, The Free Press, New York, 1977
Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, Fredericksburg to Meridian, Random House, New York, 1963
Merriam Webster’s Biographical Dictionary
Strode, Hudson, Jefferson Davis, American Patriot, 1808 – 1861, Harcourt Brace and World, Inc., 1955.
“Song, song of the South; sweet potato pie and hush my mouth,” as performed by the country group, Alabama
This is a type of soft speaking which was primarily developed in the South during the northern occupation of the beloved Southland by the hated Yankee invaders and conquerors. Many of the occupying soldiers were fresh from Yankee battlefields where they had lost a lot of comrades to Confederate shot and steel. They weren’t in much of a mood for any back talk from the uneducated, rebel people they had just conquered and were as apt to kill a Southerner for the slightest perceived insult.
The defeated South developed a style of double-speak known now as Southern speak so that they could hurl disguised epithets at the occupiers while smiling innocently and the ignorant Yankees would believe that they had been praised or applauded. Terms like “Bless your heart,” means just about anything the speaker intends from ‘you’re such a ninny’ to ‘you ain’t got the sense that God gave a goose’ but is seldom meant as a blessing.
“Now, ain’t you the one,” can mean ‘you’re an idiot,’ while ‘you just beat about everything’ means ‘how can someone as stupid as you actually exist?’ I think you get the gist. If you don’t, then you ought to be ‘real proud of yourself.’
“Genteel Southern speech”
The South has always been outnumbered, out-financed and out-gunned by the Yankee north. When Grant came east in 1864 he purposely built up his army into a behemoth in order to bludgeon the Southern army into submission. When Sherman marched through Georgia, his avowed purpose was to kill and burn everything in a sixty-mile swath from Atlanta to the sea in order to make war so hellish that the Southerners would submit.
As a result, Southerners have always had to speak nicely and say, “Good doggie,” until they could pick up a big rock. Genteel mothers taught their children this from birth. “Never say ’Shut up!’ like the northerners,” they would advise, “say shush or hush your mouth, instead.”
They clearly followed the advice so succinctly stated a hundred years later by the northern mobster, Al Capone when he said, “You can always get more money with a gun and a smile than you can with just a smile.” Bless his heart! At least he is one Yankee who knew how to do something right.
“Why ‘the War’ was actually fought”
This simple ides has continued to evoke constant argument throughout the years. The point of view of the debater is usually discerned by the term used to name the conflict. ‘War of northern aggression’ is the preferred view of the majority of Southerners, while ‘war of Southern rebellion’ is used by most militarily-inclined Southerners and the ‘civil war’ is used by most from the aggressor nation, viz., the north.
Let me be precise, though. It was not a civil war. No war can, by definition, be civil. This war, though, was particularly uncivil. It was a duel to the death of two distinctive and competing cultures. Only one could win. While the South wanted to co-exist, the north demanded complete capitulation and barring that, finally, annihilation of its adversary.
It was a foregone conclusion that the north would win but Southern honor was at stake. When honor is at stake, all else is moot. If you understand that, then you are a Southerner. If you are not a Southerner, then you will never comprehend this idea. Bless your heart!
“Save your Confederate money”
In order to finance ‘the Recent Unpleasantness’ Southerners sold, financed or pawned everything they owned or could steal of value. Alas, when the northerners invaded the defenseless South and waged a war of aggression against the people, the land, the animals and every green thing, the glorious South was finally beaten into submission and finally called a cessation to hostilities. Please note that various armies of the South surrendered to their northern counter-parts but the Confederate government never surrendered or capitulated to any central northern official.
When ‘the war’ ended, the Southern economy had ground to a halt and its printed money was worth zero. There were many then (and even a few still) who advocate that you hold onto your Southern money, for the South will truly rise again.
The South is perhaps the only place in the English-speaking world where a preposition is permitted to end a sentence with. It is required, actually. A little known and even less understood amendment to the constitution of the United States of the South was passed early on, requiring that all sentences should end-dangle prepositions. That law has never been stricken. A good illustration of its use: “where ‘bouts are you at?” followed by “what are you over there for?” Therefore, I implore you, to honor that noble nation by using prepositions to end all your sentences with.
Por qué no hacen el sur carolinans habla español – (Why don’t South Carolinians speak Spanish?) by Tom Lawrence
I posed this question to several of my learned friends and got a variety of answers such as:
“Well, because South Carolina was settled by the English, dummy.”
“A whole bunch of them do.”
“Well, because the English drove the Spanish out of the State.”
And my favorite:
“Who do you suppose really gives a damn?”
I soon realized that I had hit upon an area of great concern, not only to natives of South Carolina, but to many Southerners in general. Just the subject I was seeking for this week’s history blog. I decided to do some research and get to the bottom of the issue. What I found was very interesting and illustrated just how close the Capital of the State came to being in Santa Elena on Parris Island rather than Charleston.
The first reliable record of Europeans in South Carolina looks at the efforts of a Spanish Naval Officer and slave trader. In 1520 Lucas Vasquez de Allyon, a Spanish official based in Hispaniola, modern Dominican Republic and Haiti, ordered Captain Francisco Gordillo of the Spanish Navy to explore northward of the Bahamas, seeking Indians to be taken as slaves to feed the mines in Central America.
He met up with an independent contractor who was running a slave trading operation and the two of them began searching for Indians to enslave. As they sailed along the coast of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas they discovered and named many rivers and geographic points, but they found very few Indians. The combination of Jesuits, venereal disease and slavery had pretty much wiped out the natives of the Caribbean.
Their next move was to turn to the mainland for Indians to kidnap. They landed near the mouth of the Santee River in present day South Carolina and managed to kidnap about 60 unsuspecting natives. One of the Indians taken by the slavers was a young man whom they named “El Chicorano.” The young Indian became a renowned story teller and regaled the authorities in Hispaniola and eventually Spain itself with tales of great riches to be had in his homeland.
The tales of riches prompted Ayllon to obtain a patent from King Charles V and in 1526 he led an expedition to establish a settlement in the area now known as “The Land of Chicorano.” After landing near present day Georgetown, SC and moving inland for 40 to 50 leagues, he built a fort and called it San Miguel de Gauldape.
This was the second attempt by the Spanish to establish a colony in what is now the United States, The first was an effort near Charlotte Harbor, Florida by Ponce de Leon in 1522. They both failed and in 1527 the survivors of Ayllon’s folly returned to Hispaniola. It would be nearly fifty years before Spain returned to the area, but return they did.
In response to the French building a fort on Parris Island in 1562, the Spanish returned to the area in 1566 and drove the French out and established a fortified village and named it Santa Elena. The Spanish were active in exploring the interior of North America for the next two decades, but due to constant pressure of Indian warfare, they were forced to retreat to Florida and Santa Elena was abandoned in 1587. It would be 125 years before the English showed up in 1712. -Tom Lawrence
As a child, I spent my summers with my paternal grandparents in Pensacola, Florida. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Pensacola was a sleepy little city completely out of the American mainstream. Because my grandfather was a retired Naval Officer, we had full access to the facilities at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. My grandmother had grown up in Pensacola and you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one of my many cousins. We spent our days playing baseball and swimming in Jenny’s hole, a perfectly clear and ice cold spring-fed creek with a sand bottom. One of our great treats would be a day trip to Santa Rosa Island and Pensacola Beach. My grandparents would set up shop in one of the public picnic areas. My grandfather and I would always go and visit Fort Pickens, the only U.S. Fort to remain in Union hands throughout the War for Southern Independence, as well as the place of imprisonment for Geronimo, the Apache chief.
Every year Pensacola would celebrate the Fiesta of Five Flags, and as a result, I was aware that the city had a long and interesting history. We visited the site of Fort San Carlos de Brannacas, and I was generally aware of the city’s Spanish heritage. Few Pensacolians knew much about the area’s political and military importance for nearly a 500 year period. It was difficult to believe that such a laid back place could have been a key player in the great game of nation building and international intrigue.
The Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon landed in Florida in 1513, just 21 years after Columbus had stumbled upon the West Indies. He noted the present day site of St. Augustine and charted Pensacola Bay. Over the next fifty years other Spaniards paid visits to both areas, but in 1559 the Viceroy of Mexico dispatched an expedition to the site of Pensacola Bay with 11 ships and over 1400 soldiers, priests and settlers. They were chargeded with establishing a permanent settlement to control the great natural harbor. This attempt to settle the Pensacola Bay area pre-dated the permanent founding of St. Augustine by six years. A massive hurricane in September of 1559 decimated the settlement and forced the settlers to abandon their colony. If not for this, Pensacola would be the oldest permanent settlement in North America.
Pensacola’s location in the panhandle of Florida made it one of the natural harbors on the Gulf coast. Mobile, Biloxi and New Orleans were the others, and all were controlled by either France or Spain. As part of the treaty ending the French and Indian war in 1763, this area became the 14th British Colony of West Florida, with Pensacola as its capital. During the American Revolution, West Florida remained loyal to the British Crown and became a haven for Tory’s. In 1779, after Spain joined the American side in the Revolution, it re-conquered British West Florida to control the area until selling it to the United States in 1821. There was a great need for access to shipping ports for exporting agricultural goods from the new states of Mississippi and Alabama, and the acquiring of West Florida filled these needs. New Orleans became a great port due to its location on the Mississippi River, and Mobile prospered because of the Tombigbee River system. Pensacola slipped into the background, never becoming a serious port for international commerce. This allowed it to be the sleepy quiet town that I knew as a child. – Tom Lawrence
The great alluvial flood plain known as the Mississippi Delta begins just south of Memphis, Tennessee and extends to just north of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Delta is nestled between the Mississippi River on the West and the chain of hills on the East encompassing the Northwest quarter of the State of Mississippi.
Each year the Mississippi would flood all or at least a great part of the Delta leaving behind an additional layer of rich river silt. Ninety percent of the Delta was covered by virgin hardwood forest and low lying cypress groves. It was this vast stand of timber that would provide the financial capital to clear and prepare what would become one of the world’s agricultural paradises. Cotton would be the great cash crop in the Delta, but the timber made it all possible.
In the last quarter of the Eighteenth century planters from the Natchez area began to look north along the banks of the Mississippi for new lands to expand their holdings. Many new plantations were carved out of the oxbow lakes and hardwood forest north of the mouth of the Yazoo River. This area was owned by the Choctaw Nation and the early planters simply ignored the Indian’s claims. In 1817 Mississippi was admitted to the Union and things began to change.
The United States empowered General Andrew Jackson to enter into negotiations with the Choctaw Nation in an effort to trade some 13 million acres of land in the western Arkansas Territory for 5 million acres of Choctaw holdings in the Northwest corner of the new State of Mississippi. In October of 1820 the Treaty of Doak’s Stand was signed and the Mississippi Delta was opened to white settlement. Not much happened.
In the period from 1820 to 1866 there were no roads, no railroads and travel was limited to small river boats and horseback. Labor was scarce, goods remote and capital non-existent. The river counties grew, but the interior remained largely unsettled. The Delta remained a vast primal forest until after the Civil War. In the post war period things began to change.
In spite of confiscatory post war taxes imposed by the Reconstruction Republicans, the Delta began to be cleared for farming. This massive clearing effort continued until well into the 20th century and the timber provided the capital to clear and prepare the land for farming. Roads were built and railroads connected the cotton fields to an insatiable world cotton market. Towns grew, schools opened and civilization made its way to the Delta.
Since the earliest French settlers entered the lower Mississippi basin, man has attempted to control the flooding along the Mississippi River. In 1852 this task was assigned to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and they have been attempting to harness the river since. For the most part they have succeeded, but there have been dramatic exceptions resulting in devastating floods.
The Delta has received and absorbed several waves of migration. First came the Natchez planters, mainly patricians from Kentucky, Virginia and the Carolina’s. Many were second sons of prominent families sent west to seek their fortunes. They settled in the river countie, built grand homes and imported large amounts of slaves for labor.
Beginning in the late 1700’s and extending up until 1865 the great majority of laborers in the Delta were black slaves. After emancipation these black families continued to provide the labor force in the Delta with many entering into the sharecropping system and others as day laborers. In the 1950’s thousands of these descendants of slaves were displaced from their agricultural jobs by mechanization and were forced to move north to seek jobs in the industries of the American mid-west. The remaining blacks are still the largest single ethnic group in the Delta.
After Doak’s stand some white yeomanry came west from the Piedmont and Mountains of the east to seek a better life in the rich agricultural lands of the Delta. These hard working, god fearing folks never owned slaves, and for the most part did their own labor building small, but prosperous farms . They were the origins of the white middle class.
In the years following the Civil War, a great many Eastern European Jewish peddlers followed the Union Army into the Southern states. Many of these merchants settled in the Delta and opened dry goods stores so that by the early 20th century there was a vibrant Jewish community, and most small towns had at least one synagogue. Many of the children of these early settlers perused professional careers that meant moving to larger cities seeking opportunity. There are old store buildings in many Delta towns named Silverblatt’s, Sklar’s and Dattel’s.
As the cotton economy prospered the need for transportation increased and railroad construction brought a large number of laborers from mainland China to the Delta. In the 1880’s they built the railroads. In the early 20th century they owned small grocery stores in mainly black neighborhoods. The children of these small shop owners became doctors, lawyers and CPAs and left the Delta to seek their fortune in mainstream America. In every small Delta Town there is an abandoned Chinese store called Wong’s, Gee’s or Chong’s
In the early 20th century, immigrants from Italy and Lebanon came to the Delta. The Italians became farmers and prospered. These families continued to be landowners throughout the central Delta. The Lebanese settled in the River cities and became prominent restaurateurs and real estate owners. The Delta has a rich and diverse cultural history and has benefited from each wave of migration.
Today the Delta is home to large Agribusiness farms. The small farmer no longer exists. Most Delta farms are several thousand acres in size and require millions of dollars in equipment to be competitive. Modern farms employ very little labor, thus removing the major source of employment. Now the entire area is dependent on the support of programs from the Federal Government. All efforts to establish a manufacturing economy have failed and unemployment is at record levels.
Tom Lawrence has written an entertaining collection of short stories about the adolescent life of boys in the Mississippi Delta circa 1950. These tales are colorful depictions of a past, but not forgotten era full of innocence and southern soul. Tom is also the founder of PorchScene.com and part owner of Front Porch Press, LLC. We want to share one of the stories from Delta Days that is a wonderful recounting of a boy’s adventures in baseball and the ever-present southern church youth group during the carefree days of summer. Here is the first of two installments of “Royal Ambassadors”:
ROYAL AMBASSADORS (Part 1)
It was full daylight when I woke up. I could tell that no one else was awake because the attic fan still pulled the cool morning air across my bed. This artificial breeze brought with it the faint smell of yesterday’s newly mown grass mixed with the rich aroma of Confederate Jasmine and Sweet Olives. There was just the hint of cotton poison and a touch of last night’s DDT truck blending into the overall effect. Summer in the Mississippi Delta.
As much as I wanted to lie there and soak up the cool fragrances’ of morning, I had to get up and get going. Today was Saturday and there was baseball to be played. I slid out of bed and reached for a rumpled pair of jeans and slipped them on. Socks and tennis shoes followed, the whole thing was topped by a faded Mississippi State tee-shirt and Bulldog baseball cap. I was fully outfitted for a day at the diamond.
I grabbed my Peewee Reese fielder’s glove, my Ted Williams Louisville Slugger and tiptoed to the kitchen. I opened the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of milk. I took several big swigs of the ice cold milk straight from the bottle. I immediately felt a twinge of guilt. My mother didn’t have many hard fast rules, but “don’t drink from the milk bottle” along with “always wear clean underwear” were chief among them. This morning I was violating both taboos.
Oh well, what she don’t know can’t hurt her, or more importantly, can’t hurt me.
She’d probably know I did it, along with not changing underwear, as soon as she got up. I didn’t know how she’d know, but I suspected she had hidden cameras strategically placed throughout the house. Maybe she was just way ahead of her time on DNA testing. Dad and I never knew, but we suspected that she might be a psychic, or possibly, a witch.
I overcame my little twinge of guilt, grabbed a banana and slipped out the kitchen door. I found my bike propped on the side of the open carport. I stuck the bat and glove in my basket, peeled my banana back and headed toward the ballpark.
Little League Baseball started in Williamsport, Pa. in 1939. By 1953 it had pretty much spread across the nation, but it had not penetrated the Mississippi Delta. There were probably several good reasons for this, but I have always suspected that it was tainted by the specter of being a Yankee invention. Anything so cursed would be suspect in a society that refused to celebrate the 4th of July because of the fall of Vicksburg in 1863.
We might not have had Little League, but we actually had something much better. Our baseball was tribal based and was governed by hard and fast customs and rules. There were no inept adult coaches and umpires; these roles were filled by the older guys, who for the most part, were top-quality ball players. The adults in our little world played softball for the Volunteer Fire Department and were a hell of lot more concerned with BBQ and beer than our athletic development.
I stopped by Benny’s house on my way to the park. He was sitting in his driveway, drinking his usual nutritious breakfast of a bottle of Coke. He mounted his bike and we rode the five blocks to the Cumberland City Park, the site of today’s baseball game. Our version of baseball was divided into two distinct groups. The A league, in which the older guys, say from 15 to 18, played, and the B league for the rest of us. Both groups played at City Park and both games were all day affairs, starting about 8:00 am on Saturday morning and lasting till it was too dark to see. The A league played on the Volunteer Fire Department’s softball field which had lights and dugouts. The rest of us played on a much more modest diamond that barely had bases and a pitcher’s mound.
Both leagues organized the Saturday games the same way. The players gathered early in the morning, two captains were voted on, and the captains took turns choosing their players from the available talent pool. Those players not chosen in the first round stayed on the sidelines until one of the starters got hurt, had to go home or just wanted a break. Then the team captain would pick a replacement from the sideline pool. In the course of the day everyone would, sooner or later, get a chance to play. The only way you could advance from the B league to the A was by being invited. Talent ruled the day and good friends might be in different leagues.
Benny and I were regular starters in the B league, but we didn’t want to be late for the choosing. That could mean sitting on the sidelines for several hours waiting for an opening. In addition to leaving the game for voluntary reasons, you were automatically benched if you made an error or pulled some stupid stunt like a balk or a base-running mistake. The system was brutal and there was no appeal. If you wanted to play, you had best learn the game. There was none of that “every kid gets to play” kum baya that Dads, whose sons couldn’t chew gum and walk at the same time, invented.
There were about a dozen guys hanging around the B ball field and we knew them all. Some were regular starters and others were wannabe’s. A couple of kids were as young as nine or ten. We parked our bikes and trotted over to the crowd. Things would be getting started soon. Benny was usually elected as one of the captains. He played a mean shortstop and was a consistent hitter.
I ,on the other hand , was all hit, no field. I had learned to be a switch hitter by playing on an undersized lot when I visited my Pensacola grandparents. You had to bat opposite your natural swing in order to keep the ball out of Palafox Highway. I was probably the best hitter in the B league, which would all change the first time I saw a high school curve ball, but for now I was the Sultan of Swat.
The fact that I was a little iffy in the fielding department and could barely throw the ball back to the infield from my permanent perch in right field, kept me from being a really hot property. I would never be elected one of the captains, but I would always get picked in the first bunch. Benny would pick me up if I lasted for four or five rounds, but only after he got his pitcher and infielders. Benny loved defense and I wasn’t much of a defensive asset. He just stuck me in right field and hoped no one hit anything my way. I rarely made an error, but anything hit deep to right was going for extra bases.
We were just about to start the election of captains when a battered pickup truck pulled all up on the grass and headed our way. Stan Rushing, the youth director of the First Baptist Church stepped out and signaled for us to gather around him.
“Hi guys,” he started, “I’m Stan Rushing, Youth Minister at First Baptist. I have an announcement and some flyers to pass around.”
He started handing out mimeographed sheets and continued,
“First Baptist is forming a Royal Ambassador’s youth baseball team that will compete in the Delta Baptist Convention League. There will be twelve teams in the league representing most of the towns in the Delta. I will be coach of the team and I will be holding tryouts Sunday afternoon. I am hoping to see all of ya’ll at the tryouts. You must be at least eleven years old as of June 1 and no more than fourteen. I will pick a traveling squad of twenty-five. Two guys at each position, four pitchers and three managers. Do any of you have questions?
“I do,” I said, “I’m an Episcopalian, will I be able to try out?”
“Absolutely, your denomination won’t matter, just your baseball skills. The only requirement is that you will have to join our Chapter of the Royal Ambassadors. There is one other little catch: in order to be in the Royal Ambassadors, you will have to attend Sunday school and church with us each Sunday. Other than that, anyone is welcome.”
Oh, that’s all there is to it, huh? I’ll have to really work to finesse this by the goalie at home.
Rushing fielded a few more questions and was soon back in his truck and at work in the local vineyards of sinners. The news had caused quite a stir and everyone was talking about it.
“Well, what do you think about that?” I asked Benny.
“Maybe a good deal. Rushing played baseball and ran track at Mississippi College. He probably knows what he’s doing.”
“Yeah, from the little I know about him, he seems to be a straight arrow, but a pretty nice guy. We’ll have to clean up our language if we do this.”
“Oh, what the hell, that shouldn’t be a problem,” Benny said with one of his big grins.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of. I’m going to take the flyer home and run it up the flagpole to see if anybody salutes it.”
“I’m sure I can do it,” Benny said, “Hell, they hardly ever know what I doing anyway, and I know Sunday morning won’t be a problem. Dad will be teeing off at the Club and Mom will still be asleep till after Church.”
“I may run into a little more resistance,” I said, “It will all depend on Mom’s current religious affiliations. I may be able to catch her between conversions, who knows?”
We spent the rest of Saturday playing baseball, and by the time we headed home, the stars were peeking out. I parked my bike by the back door and eased into the kitchen. We usually had sandwiches on Saturday evening. I would have been out doing something all day, while Dad would have been playing gin at the VFW or American Legion clubs. Tonight would be no exception; there was no visible kitchen action.
Dad was sitting in his chair watching the end of a Yankee-Red Sox game, eating a sandwich and drinking a beer. He looked up and said,“Hi, how’d you play today?”
“About usual, I got a bunch of hits and didn’t embarrass myself in the field. There is something I need to talk to you about.”
“Am I going to like this?”
“I hope so,” I said, handing him the flyer about the new league.
He read it over and said, “Looks like a good idea to me. Think you can make the team?”
“Probably, but I might need your help getting it by you-know-who. This has religious overtones which means she’ll be all over it.”
“Whoa, Bubba, you’re not going to drag me into that swamp. I don’t discuss religion with your mother.”
“I’ll handle the negotiations; just back me up when she comes to you for the tie-breaking vote. By the way, do you know the brand she is currently into?”
“Last I heard she was a Christian Scientist, but that was a couple of months ago. Today, who knows?”
He turned back to the ballgame signaling the end to our little moment of quality time together. I began to formulate my strategy concerning my mother. She was a kind, caring person, but when it came to religion she was a complete nut case. She had been raised as a Southern Baptist and married my Dad, who had been raised a Catholic and had attended Jesuit schools. As soon as he left home, he vowed that he would never darken the door of another church of any ilk.
When I was born, my grandmother on my Dad’s side had me christened in the Episcopal Church because she had been raised an Episcopalian before converting to The Church of Rome when she married. During World War II, I lived with my maternal grandmother, who was a Christian Scientist. I attended Sunday School at the First Baptist Church, but only because my grandmother’s best friend was the pastor’s wife.
When the war ended in 1945 my parents returned to Mississippi and I was pretty much stuck with whatever my mother was into. We had brief encounters with most of the mainstream Protestant sects and some of the less extreme evangelical groups. There was a brief encounter with the Greek Orthodox Church when mother bought a cook book. She spent a couple of years as a Roman Catholic during which she did her best to convert my agnostic father back to the true church.
He considered all forms of organized religion to be scams designed to manipulate the masses, and besides he liked to play gin on Sunday mornings. He escaped her clutches, but I was always forced to go along with the faith de jour. I had managed to avoid any formal rites of conversion in all but the Catholic Church. She had me baptized before she decided to move on.
When I reached the age of reason, in this case about ten years old, I put my foot down and announced that hence forth I would be attending the Episcopal Church, thank you very much. The young priest at Cumberland’s Church of The Holy Trinity listened to my story, checked it out with my Dad (Mother would not talk to him), and at last my spiritual journey was at an end, or so I thought.
Tonight I would have to appear before mother’s ecclesiastical court and plead my case for a brief detour from my Anglican path in order to play baseball. I did not expect her to be sympathetic to my plan. She didn’t want me to be an Episcopalian, but if I insisted on it, she would want me to be faithful to my creed. Attendance at First Baptist would not please her.
I waited until I had finished my sandwich and caught her in the kitchen puttering about. I brought the flyer with me. I carefully chose my moment and said,
“Mom, do you have a minute? I want to share something with you.”
She turned and looked at me with suspicion and a little apprehension.
“What are you up to now?” She asked.
“Gee, Mom, do I have to be up to something?”
“You may not be aware of it, but the only time you ever initiate a conversation with me is when you want something, and it’s usually something that I disagree with.”
Hmm, she might have a point there. My basic policy is to have as little direct contact with authority as possible, thus reducing the opportunity for advice and instructions. I might have to adjust this to include an occasional casual conversation without a motive. Something to consider.
“Well, this time it is something that I believe you can relate to. I have decided to broaden my spiritual horizons and spend the summer examining other religions. I don’t intend to abandon the Episcopal Church, but I think I should learn about other faiths.”
“I’ll have to admit that you have surprised me with this attitude, and I am certainly pleased that you are open minded enough to examine other beliefs. What do you have in mind?”
“I thought that I would first have a conversation with Father Mullen at Holy Trinity, to enlist his guidance and support, then I might start my quest at First Baptist.”
“You know how I feel about that, but I suppose you need to make up your own mind. I can’t see any real harm in giving it a try, just don’t get consumed by the hellfire and brimstone.”
Actually, I had no idea how she felt about First Baptist or Shintoism for that matter, but I recognized all of the “buy signals” and decided to close the sale before I talked her out of it.”
“I’m glad you approve, you know I respect your views on religion. I’ll get everything cleared with Father Mullen next week and start to visit First Baptist next Sunday.”
“I want you to keep me up to date as you move along your pilgrimage, I might have some suggestions on where you should go next, there is a very interesting new pastor at the Church of God in Boyle. You might want to check them out.”
“Yes maam, I’ll keep that in mind.”
Who knows? The Church of God could have a Lacrosse team, I’ve always wanted to try Lacrosse.
Later, I overheard my mother relating our conversation to my father, who to his credit, grunted in the right places and didn’t blow my cover. He came into my room before he went to bed and said.
“That was skillfully done. I want to award you both ears and the tail.”
“What in the world are you talking about, both ears and the tail?”
“Look it up. Again, well done!”
“Will you sign the parental permission form?”
“Sure, give it to me.”
I was on my way to tomorrow’s tryouts.
I was scheduled to be the acolyte at the early morning prayer service the next day and I cornered Father Mullen in his office studying the collects and lessons for the day. I stuck my head in and said,
“Good morning, Father, do you have a moment to spare me?”
He set aside his cup of coffee and invited me to have a seat.
“What can I do for you, Tommy?’ He asked.
I explained my plan in detail and asked for his permission to carry it out.
“I really can’t see any real harm in what you plan to do. I realize that the quest for spiritual information is really a ruse to get it by your mother, and knowing your mother, I think it is the only chance you had to get her to buy into the deal. I’d rather debate Satan himself than to have a conversation on comparative religions with Kathleen Larch.”
“I figure I could make the seven o’clock morning prayer service and still have time to be at First Baptist at nine for Sunday school and church. I don’t think I’ll be required to attend the Sunday night service so I can still make it to EYC.”
“That’s a lot of religion just to play baseball. I hope you can pull it off.”
“I guess you’ll just have to have a little faith.”
TO BE CONTINUED IN “ROYAL AMBASSADORS” PART 2
Sunday dinner was the big deal meal of the week and attendance was mandatory. No one ever had to urge my participation, the fried chicken alone assured that I would be there and ready to pig out. My mother was a good cook and she had all of her mother’s recipes. My grandmother was to country cooking what Ted Williams was to hitting a baseball. Dead on the best there was.
The mandatory aspects of the meal were really aimed at my gin-playing father, he had been known to lose track of time at the card table and miss the whole deal. He would just as soon have a plate warmed up about three o’clock, but it would send my mother into orbit. She would be angry for a week and everybody’s life would be miserable. I always called the club about thirty minutes before we were to sit down and remind him to come home. This usually worked. HHHe didn’t like conflict or confrontation and my mother was the drama queen of the Delta. She thrived on recreational confrontation.
Dad showed up on time and the meal went off without a hitch. I helped clear the table and dried the dishes. I made inane small talk as part of my new “mother manipulation “program. I had to be sure to use a very light touch; it could be very dangerous to manipulate the master manipulator. I was trying to beard the lion in her den and it would be very easy to screw it up. I managed to make it through the cleanup and eased over into nap time.
Every Sunday afternoon my parents took a nap after dinner. My little brother was forced to participate, but I was allowed to skip the nap time, if I got out of the house. This suited me fine and as everyone retired to their rooms, I headed to the ballpark for tryouts. I biked to Benny’s house and gently knocked on the back door. Benny came out, admonishing me to be quiet.
“She went back to bed when he left to go play golf. I got him to sign the permission slip as he left. He didn’t even read it. You get yours signed?”
“Yeah, it required some doing, but I have it.”
“Now we have to make the team. It would be a bitch to have to watch them play from the stands.”
When we got to the park there were about twenty guys standing around and no sign of Rushing. Another dozen or so candidates drifted in before the old battered pickup rolled up. Coach Rushing dismounted and motioned for everyone to gather around him and take a knee.
“’I’m glad to see all of ya’ll. Now we are going to move right along and choose our team. Does everybody have their permission forms signed?”
This was met with a chorus of, “Yeah, Coach.”
“Good, pass them up to Benny; he is going to be my assistant this afternoon.”
This was a positive start. I doubted that Rushing would make Benny his assistant if he didn’t plan to pick him for the team.
“Here’s how we are gonna do this thing. First, we are going to check out everyone’s speed and quickness. Let’s line up on the first base line and we’ll sprint to the fence in left field and back.”
Let me say right away that speed and quickness were not my long suits. I just needed to finish in the top twenty or so. It’s like the two hikers being chased by a grizzly bear; you don’t have to out run the bear, just your fellow hiker.
Following the sprints, we went through the usual fielding drills with Rushing hitting fungos to each of the guys. Benny and I were pretty good fielders and we passed this test with ease. Fortunately, Rushing did not ask us to demonstrate our long throwing ability and I slid by unnoticed. When the tryouts ended, Coach Rushing said that the final roster would be announced at the next meeting of the Royal Ambassadors after school on Wednesday. He got in his truck and left. A couple of guys wanted to get a game up, but Benny and I decided to bike over to the Keen Freeze and get a coke. I wanted to make sure that whatever took place at my house on Sunday afternoons had plenty of time to reach a climax. A couple of hours should be plenty.
The new baseball team was the hot topic the next week at school. Everyone who had tried out showed signs of anticipation and anxiety. I was sure Benny had made the team, and I really thought that I had, but you never know when adults are in charge. They tend to make some really strange decisions. Finally, on Wednesday afternoon Benny and I rode our bikes straight to First Baptist and the Royal Ambassador’s meeting.
We parked at a bike rack just outside the door to a building with a sign proclaiming “Fellowship Hall”. The whole complex was much different than it had been during my Sunbeam days, and nothing looked familiar. We were trying to figure our next move when we saw Coach Rushing walking across the parking lot. He waved and said,
“Hi guys, we’re going to meet in one of the large Sunday school classrooms. Give me a minute to drop by my office and I’ll let ya’ll in.”
“Thanks, Coach” we replied as we noticed several other guys looking just as confused as we were.
“Hey, ya’ll come over here, Coach has gone to get the keys to our meeting room, and he’ll be right back.”
By the time Rushing returned pretty much the whole contingent of hopeful players was on hand, plus some guys who must have been nonballplaying members of the Royal Ambassadors. He led us into the Fellowship Hall and opened the door to what appeared to be your standard school class room. There were large windows facing the outside of the building, chalk boards in front, bookshelves on the third wall and a storage room in the back
There were religious posters all over the place, most depicting scenes from the Bible and some showing missionaries at work in pagan lands such as Mexico and Canada. Coach asked everyone to find a seat and turned the meeting over to Larry Bemis, the current president of the club. Larry stood up and said,
“Let’s all bow our heads and open our meeting with a moment of silence followed by the Lord’s Prayer.”
Once the prayer was out of the way, there were some opening ceremonies to be observed and the meeting was called to order. We then sang a ragged rendition of Onward Christian Soldiers and someone read the Royal Ambassador’s creed. Larry then read a Bible verse dealing with the parable of the Good Samaritan and we were all invited to comment on what we thought the parable meant. After a lengthy discussion with no real consensus, Larry announced that next week’s Bible reading would be about the wedding in Cana. So far no mention of baseball.
Finally Larry suggested that we move on to the business portion of our meeting and asked for a report on the RA Project. Another kid that I didn’t know reported that the RA mothers’ cake sale had netted $23.89 and that amount had been sent to the Chapter’s mission church in Kenya. Still no baseball.
At long last, Larry suggested that Rev. Rushing had an announcement concerning the RA baseball team.
Coach Rushing stood and said,
“I have posted the final roster for our new baseball team on the bulletin board in the hall. I suggest that each of you who tried out for the team consult the roster as soon as the meeting ends. For those of you who have been selected, our first practice will be at the Volunteer Fire Dedpartment’s main field at 3:00 pm tomorrow. Now Larry you may close the meeting in the usual manner.”
Two prayers and one hymn later, having found our names on the roster, we were back in the parking lot getting our bikes.
The team had a couple of weeks to practice before the season started, and by the time we played our first game, we had put together a pretty good ball club. Coach Rushing knew the game and he coached with a light, but firm hand. Our games were after school on Tuesday and Thursday which left us time for our regular Saturday pickup games at the park.
By the time school ended in early June, we were about half-way through our schedule with a record of 8 wins and 4 losses. Not the best in the league, but far from the worst. If we could keep it up, we’d make the playoffs for sure. The winner of the Delta League would go to Nashville and play in the Royal Ambassadors World Series. We were in the hunt. Benny and I faithfully attended the RA meetings, Sunday school and Church. Everything was going along just fine.
It was the last Sunday in June. I got up early and did my acolyte duty at Holy Trinity and steered my bike toward First Baptist. The full heat of the Delta summer would not come until the end of July or the first of August, but today was probably the warmest so far. I had plenty of time to ride the six or so blocks between churches and I tried to stay on the shady side of the street and take my time.
Sunday morning is generally a quiet time in most of rural America and this was a nearly perfect early summer day. The blue sky was accented by a few pure white clouds and the warm air smelled of morning glories and honeysuckle. The leafyresidential streets of Cumberland were ruffled by a light breeze that felt good as I rode slowly along.
I parked my bike in the rack, went into the First Baptist fellowship hall and found our Sunday school classroom. Benny and John Tong, the catcher on our RA baseball team, were sitting waiting for class to begin.
“Hi, guys,” I said, “What’s up?”
“Nothin much” John said, “How ‘bout you?”
“Just plowing through my Sunday morning obligations, I’ve done the Episcopal thing and now its Baptist time.”
After Sunday school there was a break before Church started and Benny, John and I decided to skip the punch and cookies and take a walk in the nice weather. We strolled around the block and managed to kill the thirty minutes before the main service started. The three of us dutifully filed into the main sanctuary and scored the last three aisle seats in a pew about half way to the front.
The service started with the choir singing The Old Rugged Cross. There was an opening prayer that was all encompassing and called God’s attention to most everything and everybody. The church was filled almost to capacity, and with no air conditioning, became warm and stuffy. Soon the ushers were moving down both sides of the sanctuary opening the large windows and letting in the light summer breeze. Immediately the level of comfort improved considerably. The Pastor was reading the Old Testament Scripture for the day and as he finished the congregation broke into a spirited rendition of Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken which was followed by Wonderful, Merciful Savior.
I have to admit, I really enjoyed the old traditional hymns sung at First Baptist and to this day recall that part of my Baptist Summer with affection. When the last strains of the hymns died down the Pastor read the New Testament Scripture and the combination of beautiful music and the summer breeze had a soothing effect on the soul and body. When my soul and body were soothed, I tended to nap.
Following a rousing version of Rock of Ages, The Pastor launched into his sermon for the day. The three of us were attempting to look as attentive as possible as he assailed sin in all of its many forms. The gist of the message seemed to be that Satan would test each of us in many ways before we could enter God’s glory. At about this point the soothing overtook the potential sinning and I lost touch with the here and now. The droning of the Pastors voice coupled with the warm, sweet scented air lulled me into my own thoughts and I became disconnected from my surroundings. I wasn’t’t asleep, but darn close.
Suddenly the organ blasted away with the first bars of How Great is Our God and everyone in the congregation stood. John tapped me on the shoulder and whispered,
I assumed that the service was over and John wanted to get a head start on our exit. The three of us, led by John, started moving out of our pew, but rather than turning left and heading toward the exit, John hung a right and started down the aisle toward the front of the Church. Like lemmings Benny and I followed behind him and the three of us walked slowly toward the Pastor who was standing at the pulpit with his eyes closed and his arms outstretched.
At this point my head began to clear a bit and I realized two horrifying facts. Church was not over; we were at the point known as The Invitation. It was now that anyone who wished to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Savior was invited to come on down. The second fact was that John Tong was in a state of spiritual rapture and heading for salvation. Benny and I had been scooped up in the net of John’s new found fervor.
I desperately looked for an escape route. There was none. We were caught up in events beyond our control with no choice but to go with the flow. Now it became a matter of making the most out of a bad situation and saving face. When we reached the Pastor, he opened his eyes and a huge smile split his normally stern visage.
“Praise the Lord.” he shouted, “These three young men have been moved by the spirit to accept Jesus as their personal Savior. Praise the Lord.”
Two of the deacons came up and led us to the side door in the sanctuary and into a hall that led directly behind the pulpit. We entered a small dimly lit room that smelled just like the dressing rooms at the swimming pool. We came out of our church clothes and stripped to our skivvies. One of the attending deacons handed us a white jumper that looked like a nightshirt. We were then led to a room that held a large tank of water with steps leading into it. There was the Pastor who had changed clothes and now wore a set of black and white robes.
He descended the steps into the water which came up about to his chest and motioned for John to join him in the tank. The water came up almost to John’s neck and the jumper kept floating revealing his skivvies. At that point, the heavy red curtain that stood behind the pulpit began to open and we were facing the entire congregation of the First Baptist Church of Cumberland. The front of the tank was made of glass and everyone had an aquarium view of John Tong’s shorts.
The Pastor put his thumb and forefinger on John’s nose and dipped him backwards into the tank until his head was underwater and said,
“John, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Welcome into Christ’s Church, John!”
Beaming with divine sanctification John ascended the stairs to dry land and I was invited to descend into the tank. After my baptism, Benny followed and soon we were all back in our church clothes and rejoining the congregation.
The service concluded with all six verses of A Closer Walk with Thee after which we were the center of congratulations and attention for about another twenty minutes. When the crowd began to drift away and head home for fried chicken or pot roast we three new workers in the vineyards of righteousness found ourselves alone in the parking lot.
“Exactly how in the hell did that happen?” Benny asked, with some amount of irritation in his voice.
“Don’t ask me,” I said, “I was following Tong.”
John, who seemed to be coming out of his advanced state of grace, looked a little puzzled and said,
“I’m not really sure what happened. One minute I was perfectly sane and before I knew it I was swept away in the moment. All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“I guess it will be all over town within the hour.” Benny mused, “I better get home and prepare them before my aunt has a chance to call.” He grabbed his bike and quickly pedaled out of sight.
“Yeah, this poses a couple of possible problems for me too, not the least of which is that this was my third baptism. I hope that the three of them don’t cancel each other out or something.”
John had not said another word but was standing there with a stricken look on his face.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said, “I’ve got to go explain this to my Buddhist parents. This will probably disturb the karma of some seventy generations of my ancestors or at least my mother will say it does.”
In the end, John decided that it would be best if he didn’t mention his conversion to his parents. He rationalized that since they didn’t speak very good English, it would only confuse them. This also assured that he would be able to continue playing on the RA team.
Benny’s parents didn’t seem particularly interested in his new found faith and pretty much left it with an “Isn’t that nice?” comment. His aunt never mentioned it.
I checked the whole thing out with Father Mullen and he allowed that it would not affect my status in the Episcopal Church , and what the heck, it couldn’t hurt my spiritual condition. My mother wanted to know all about it and seemed fascinated. I was afraid she would show up at First Baptist some Sunday morning ready to take a dip. Dad just rolled his eyes and muttered something about religious fanatics. Things returned to normal and we made the playoffs, but got beat before we got to Nashville.
Coach Rushing declared the season a huge success and said that he looked forward to next year. Before we knew it football season was underway and my adventure in the Royal Ambassadors drew to a close.