Since retiring from the corporate world, a little over three years ago and devoting myself to a lifelong desire to write more, I have probably spent an average of twelve to fifteen hours a week at my local Starbuck’s. It is a small L-shaped space wrapped around the bar with four club chairs, one large table, and half a dozen small tables with chairs. There are another half a dozen tables on the sidewalk outside; a few have umbrellas.
Spring, summer, fall and winter, hot weather or cold, rain or sunshine, in almost all weathers, I usually arrive at my Starbuck’s between 5:30 and 6:00 AM, every Monday and Friday, and sometimes an afternoon in between.
The morning begins with a grande Pike Place no room for cream and either a Blueberry Muffin with Honey and Yogurt (not warmed) or a Sausage, Cheddar & Egg Breakfast Sandwich (warmed). Then I fire up the laptop, clean out the spam filter, read and respond to email, and check the news feeds. Then I get down to business and start writing.
In the last three and a half years, amid the clatter and chatter of customers coming and going, of running into to old friends and making new ones, I have conservatively consumed something north of 100 gallons of coffee while finishing my first novel (120,000 words), a volume of my outdoor adventures (48,000 words), a novella (30,000 words), and any number of mostly forgettable poems. Additionally, I am 68,000 words into a memoir of my junior and senior high years and 17,000 words into a novelized account of 20 years of my grandparents’ lives. Oh, and I blog.
That is a lot of coffee drunk and a lot of words written, mostly at the second table from the front door by the window with the view of the traffic circle in the small shopping center. My window faces east and catches the sun as it rises over the stores on the other side of the traffic circle.
The sun’s rising over the stores’ façades serves as a rough calendar. In the height of summer, the sun rises over Total Wine. By fall it rises over Sun ‘n’ Ski Sports to the south. In winter is rises over Anne Taylor Loft. With the winter equinox the sun begins working its way back north over Sun ‘n’ Ski in the spring and back to Total Wine. On bright days, I must pull the blinds just to see my laptop screen.
From that window I can watch the changing of seasons. As I write this the trees are all clad in autumn browns and oranges, the small patches of lawn are lush and green, swept clean by the yard crew. In winter, my window drips condensation. In the spring, rain cascades and puddles around the sidewalk tables and chairs chasing everyone inside. Heat shimmer rises off of the pavement in midsummer.
My wife, who prefers minimal or no distractions when concentrating, once asked, “How in the world can you write at a Starbuck’s?”
I thought for a moment and replied, “I guess after nearly 40 years in an office with constant noise and interruptions, it just seems normal. If I hadn’t learned to concentrate in that environment, I’d never have gotten anything done.”
Besides it’s not all writing. There is the regular crowd at the first table: Mark, Jim, Butch, Charlie, Mario, William, Gordon, and Larry, to name a few, all engaging and entertaining company, some still in the workplace, some retired. They gather daily, and each arrival is a Cheers moment. I am a peripatetic member, allowed to enter or withdraw from the general conversation at will.
Sometimes an old friend from the corporate world walks in, a co-worker or a vendor with whom I dealt, like Braden or Bob or Mark or Matthew. There is that initial, brief glance, then the flash of recognition as the mental tumblers fall into place. It is a time to catch up on life and families and friends still punching the clock or finding fulfillment in other areas.
And then there are the hours spent on research. Having written one period piece and in the process of writing another, one must purge any modern colloquialisms that might creep into the text and to have some idea of what a cotton farmer in 1905, in Mississippi, might expect to get for a bale of middling, long staple Delta cotton. Then on other days it might be preparing and uploading a manuscript for self-publication or updating my website or trying to generate some activity on social media or blogging or designing a book cover or even trying to find a literary agent, a process yet to yield any fruit.
Through it all, the line for coffee ebbs and flows as the morning progresses. At one table is a business meeting, at another a sales pitch or a Bible study group, or someone just touching down to make a call or to check email at a Wi-Fi hotspot. People shake hands or embrace depending on what brought them to Starbuck’s and with whom they are meeting. People of all shapes, sizes, ages, and colors come and go in suits, casual wear, or workout gear, speaking in accents or even languages from far away.
There is also the relentless carousel of baristas. Most are congenial, some more reticent. Some sport piercings or tattoos or hair of hues with which no human has yet been born. For many it is a first job or a second job or a stop-gap job. For a few, it fills idle hours of retirement. Most are well educated. Many have phenomenal memories for customers’ regular orders.
It is a comfortable milieu, a retreat, one on which I have become so dependent that in a life no longer ruled by the alarm clock, I invariably wake up by 5:00 AM on Mondays and Fridays. That is rarely the case on the other five days of the week.
Around noon I am well into my second refill of Pike, and it is time to start wrapping up for the day. There may be an errand or two to run, then back home to Sherrie for a quiet lunch and maybe a short nap, before an afternoon of chores around the house and in the yard.
But I will be back at Starbuck’s in a day or two, maybe for a morning of writing or an afternoon meeting with Scott, my best writing and critiquing buddy, but I will be back to that small hub of familiar faces and friendly chatter, that little writing home away from home, my neighborhood Starbuck’s.
Since retiring from the corporate world, a little over three years ago and devoting myself to a lifelong desire to write more, I have probably spent an average of twelve to fifteen hours a week at my local Starbuck’s. It is a small L-shaped space wrapped around the bar with four club chairs, one large table, and half a dozen small tables with chairs. There are another half a dozen tables on the sidewalk outside; a few have umbrellas.
On the second anniversary of my father’s death
Let us not delude ourselves with platitudes
The end of suffering
Heaven’s aching need for another angel
Burdens lifted from the living
No, let us not delude ourselves
Death is a brute, a thief
Who takes from us those we hold most precious
Time and distance may separate us
From the beating heart of a dear one
But that heart still beats
That love is still tangible
In the warmth of flesh
In touch and embrace
Needing only to be reunited
If only briefly
But death rips that away
Stills that beating heart
Chills that once vibrant flesh
Erases the gentle smile
On that familiar face
Death is an ogre
One whose features are not softened
By familiarity or frequency of visit
Remorseless, it intrudes
With shuddering suddenness
Or lingering expectancy
Memory, the cruel consoler
Delivers images of both joy and remorse
Days of burnished beauty
Words that could not be unspoken
The faith core within
Affirming that death is not the end
That ultimately even death will be conquered
Is still assailed, battered by the loss
The carnage of shattered souls
For one last word
One brief smile
One final embrace
Let us not delude ourselves
For us, the living
Dark days will alternate with bright
The vivid image of a loved face dims
Some memories fade
While others remain deeply etched
Roiling through the mind
Bringing an unexpected, fleeting smile
Or a wistful moment of melancholy
Let us not delude ourselves
There can be no loss lest first there be love
On All Saints Sunday
For each name intoned
A single votive is lit
A single bell is tolled
Resonant, the solemn peal diminishes as
Another name is intoned
Another votive is lit
The long litany of names
Each another life
Severed from this world
In this last year
Leaving its wake
Of love and sorrow
Laughter and regret
Wistful smiles and soft sighs
The entire arcing panoply
Of human feeling
Congregants stand in serried ranks
Solemn array of bowed heads
The soft sheen of tears on cheeks
A quivering lip or shudder
A too firm grip on a pew as
Another name is intoned
Another votive is lit
Fresh grief released or stifled as
Their lost one’s name is uttered
Old anguish renewed as
A loved name or face from last year’s list
Or the year before or the year before that
Rises unbidden but embraced as
Another name is intoned
Another votive is lit
A fellow mourner’s comforting touch or
Firm arm around a shaking shoulder
The questioning face of
An uncomprehending child
Who somehow senses something amiss as
The last name is intoned
The last votive is lit
Then the other litany
The litany of faith and triumph
The surety of the resurrection of the body
Why else conquer death or
Resurrect the body or
Preserve all the things
Body and mind and spirit that
Make each of us ourselves
Except we should praise
Each in our own distinct voice
Arrayed about the throne of the Almighty
Heaven and earth reconciled
See the Lord and each one gone before face to face
It was about 5:50 AM in the morning, and I was pulling my laptop out of my daypack when Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” came over the Starbuck’s sound system, a deep cut from his 1976 album, Desire. My head began to subconsciously weave back and forth to Carmen Rivera’s sinuous, seductive violin line. I closed my eyes for just a moment and was transported back to the Reed Green Coliseum on the campus of Mississippi Southern. It was May 1, 1976, and the Rolling Thunder Review was on tour, Bob Dylan and a rotating caravan of musicians including Joan Baez, T-Bone Burnett, Kinky Freidman, and Carmen Rivera. They were performing “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)”.
Music in all of its forms had been important to me ever since I can remember. Being born in the Mississippi Delta and growing up close to Highway 61, I may have had no choice. My first musical memory was of fellow Mississippian Elvis Presley on the radio in 1956. I was three-years-old and “Hound Dog” ruled the airwaves. Our family did not have a TV yet, but Mother had the radio on all day long. Early rock-and-roll, country, gospel, and dance music was the background of our lives, but ironically, I never heard Mother sing. She did however make me a cardboard and rubber band guitar so that I could strum along to my favorite songs.
Father, on the other hand, sang constantly, improvising lyrics as it suited him. He taught me all the words to On Top of Old Smokey and The Red River Valley among others. My grandfather, Father’s father led the singing in the small Baptist church they attended in Brazil, Mississippi. I sang my first duet there during revival week. Mother’s father played the fiddle, her mother the pump organ.
I played a drum and sang in the cheesiest pre-teen garage band ever, The Strummers. We were heavily influenced by The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, The Rolling Stones, and Paul Revere and The Raiders. One of our band members, Johnny, had a younger sister Martha who took us to task for our name. “How can you call yourselves The Strummers?” she asked. “Greg and Peter don’t strum their drums.”
Mike was quick with the absolutely perfect reply, “And The Beatles don’t beat their guitars either!”
Our concerts were held on the back porch where we thrashed our instruments and sang along to our favorite hits, all 45 RPM records, spinning on Johnny’s record player. Cheesy.
I later sang in the youth and adult choirs at Calvary Baptist Church in Tupelo for years and played and drums and percussion in the junior high concert and marching bands. In high school, my friends, Stuart, Vergil, and I would listen to the radio as we rode around, almost always singing along, usually in harmony. In our senior year of high school, we all secured singing and dancing parts in Annie, Get Your Gun, our lone experience in a high school musical.
By the time I entered college, I had been exposed to practically every genre of Western music there was: Delta blues, rock and roll, jazz (both traditional and avant garde), opera, classical, pop, big band, country and western, bluegrass, and hard rock. And I liked it all. In fact, one of my college roommates, Danny, once exclaimed, “Your taste is so broad as to be no taste at all!”
At Mississippi College, I auditioned for and joined the Vesper Choir. In addition, we listened to FM radio, WZZQ “The Mississippi Mutha” which played new albums in their entirety. We knew the drop date of the next Hendrix or Stones album like kids today know the opening day of the next Star Wars movie. Like so many others, I picked up a guitar and began playing and jamming with friends.
With a life so steeped in music, I was immediately drawn to the burgeoning live music scene in Jackson, Mississippi. Memphis, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Mississippi Southern, and the University of Alabama were within easy driving distance, and were popular tour stops for most of the major acts. We attended every concert we could: The Rolling Stones; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Joe Cocker; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Yes; Jethro Tull; The Guess Who; Chicago; and on and on. We believed in music and still thought it could change the world.
That May Day of 1976 at The Rolling Thunder Review was not my only visit to Reed Green Coliseum that year. In September, we were back to see The Band, one of our favorites. How a former rockabilly cover band who had backed up Dylan and wrote and recorded music with an old-timey Appalachian feel which was completely out of step with anything else in contemporary music is a story for another day. But we loved them, and we made the trek to Hattiesburg. Ostensibly, they were touring to promote their latest album Northern Lights/Southern Cross, but, unbeknownst to us at the time, it was actually their farewell tour. The Chris Hillman Band opened, fronted by the former Byrd, Flying Burrito Brother, and key member of Stephen Stills’ Manassas. Both their performance and that of The Band were outstanding.
Ten weeks later, The Band would gather with some of their favorite musicians, including Dylan, Neil Young, Doctor John, Van Morrison, and Muddy Waters, on Thanksgiving Day for The Last Waltz concert which Martin Scorsese would film. That configuration of the Band would never perform together live again.
That year, 1976, was not the first time I had seen Dylan, or The Band either, for that matter. No, that had been January 23, 1974, at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, the first time Dylan had toured since his horrific motorcycle accident six years previously. And to top it off, he was touring with, The Band, the same group that had backed him in 1965 when he had gone electric and alienated all his folkie fans. Tickets were a staggering $8.00 each, available by mail order only. You could order a maximum of four tickets. Music fans were in a frenzy. Shows sold out everywhere they played.
The girl I was dating at the time was still a senior in high school and her parents would not let her go to a concert on a school night. That Wednesday afternoon, I along with several friends from Tupelo rendezvoused with my old buddy Vergil, who was at Ole Miss at the time. We joined a cavalcade headed north on I-55 to Memphis. Unfortunately, as we worked our way into the Mid-South Coliseum, we ran into Vergil’s girlfriend who had turned down his invitation to attend the show with him, apparently so she could go with some other guy whom she was hanging all over. Vergil now believed what his friends had been trying to tell him for quite some time about the nature of her fidelity.
Despite that downer, the show was fantastic. First The Band backed Dylan, then The Band did a set of their own material. With no intermission, The Band turned the stage over to Dylan for a set of solo acoustic numbers, and finally The Band rejoined Dylan onstage to tear the house down. That concert had it all. Probably no group of backing musicians ever pushed Dylan like the guys in The Band. Check out Before the Flood, the live album from the tour for proof.
In addition to backing his 1965-66 going electric tour, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson had spent most of 1967 playing with Dylan in the basement of a pink house in Woodstock, NY, documented by their album The Basement Tapes released in 1975. Those sessions also produced Music From Big Pink, The Band’s seminal first album. These guys had played together, a lot, and it showed.
It is arguably the best live concert I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of great performers. In addition to those mentioned above, I have seen Eric Clapton, Eagles, Paul McCartney, Jerry Garcia, Yes, R.E.M., Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Weather Report, pre-Buckingham Nicks Fleetwood Mac, Bonnie Raitt, and Little Feat, some of them more than once. But I feel especially fortunate to have seen the Band on their two most iconic tours and Dylan on two of his three most historic tours. I had to miss the 1965-66 tour; I was only twelve.
It was just 3:43 minutes of music, but I had been transported back, if only briefly, to those heady and formative days and surrendered to the cascade of life experiences that led to those days. Music must be the most abstract of all art forms. A work of visual art, a book, a play, or a movie, all of which, no matter how profound or moving, seems to enter through eye and ear, then proceed to the brain for processing before making their impression on our hearts. Music, on the other hand, a collection of sound waves, unseen, ephemeral, hovering then fading, seems to proceed, with no cognitive filter, from the ear directly to the heart where it makes its immediate impact.
Of course, it only just seems that way. The mind is surely involved; else why would music make our hearts swell or our pulses quicken? Why would it calm and soother or flood us with sadness or strengthen our spirit? Why would it trigger deep transporting memories as few other things can? Why would we remember every word to every verse of a song we first heard over 50 years ago?
I sat down with my Grande Pike Place, no room for cream, just as “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” ended, the last notes shimmering above the soft clatter of the two baristas. I flipped open my laptop and began to write what you are reading now, trying to encapsulate all the things that had coursed through my mind in those few minutes.
The door sighed open with another customer and a bit of autumn’s chill air. Daylight Savings Time had ended the previous Sunday. Autumn’s colors were barely visible on the trees outside, a muted palette in the dim light of not quite yet morning, less vivid than the memories that one song by Bob Dylan had triggered.
The first cool morning of autumn
The first morning to dig out a flannel shirt
Or a sweater
Against a freshly washed morning sky
Still green leaves quiver and shimmer
Burnished gold and bronze
By the low, slanting rays of the rising sun
Foretaste of their impending change
Scattered brown leaves crunch underfoot
On the newly lush lawn
Harbinger of more, many more to fall
A breathtaking change
After late summer’s many long dry, desiccating days
Then suddenly one day of thick, rolling clouds
Splashing, soaking, puddling rain
Dripping from leaf to leaf
Washing clean summer’s
Weary and fading verdure
Painting trunk and limb black
Then a nighttime of steady wind
Fleeing clouds and clearing skies
And tumbling temperatures
All leading to this day
October the seventeenth
As if the cycle of the seasons
The regular, relentless tilting revolution of this old earth
Conspired to produce this one perfect day
This day of chill, brisk air
Ironic, invigorating herald
Of the approaching death, decay, and slumber
Of the shorter days and longer nights of autumn and winter
Yet oddly energizing on this morning
Of breathing deeply
Pondering that ambiguity
For long, languorous moments
Willing that this moment might linger
To hover just a bit longer
Accepting that it will not
Except in memory
Sometimes a day is more than just a day, and a trip is more than just a trip, especially if it involves a day and a trip through old familiar places encumbered with memories etched deeply from telling and retelling, especially if the trip involves a grown son and his father. Then it becomes a special day that remains vivid over 30 years later, flush with memories called up that day, old memories, but newer memories too, memories that inform the older ones.
It was the autumn of 1985. I remember because Uncle Grady had passed away the year before and Sherrie and I would not marry until the following year. I had driven from Atlanta to Mississippi to visit my parents, when Father suggested we take a trip over to the Delta. Father loved the Delta, its flatness, its vast fields of cotton and soybeans, its lakes, brakes, and bayous. He had been born and raised there, and I had been born and partially raised there, enough so that even though I came of age in Tupelo, in some indefinable way I still thought of the Delta as home.
Father and I rose early the next morning. He was not one who saw the need to wait for daylight if you were taking a trip that day. After a hearty breakfast with Mother, biscuits, bacon, and eggs, off we went in Mother’s Buick, me at the wheel. Father had just turned 60. I was 32.
We took old Highway 6 west out of Tupelo, driving through rolling hills of farm and forest. The shadow of the Buick stretched far out ahead us as the sun rose behind us. The late September air was still warm, but had those first, hard to define hints of fall, a palpable dryness, perceptibly cooler nights.
We passed through Pontotoc, and as we approached Oxford passed the turnoff to Camp Yocona, the Boy Scout camp I attended growing up. This reminded us of the Milams, our next-door neighbors and their eight boys and two girls. Their third son Johnny was my age and we had gone to Scout camp together.
The camp is located just a couple of miles from the Yocona River, which was originally called the Yoknapatawpha, a combination of the Chickasaw words yocona and petopha meaning “split land.” The Yocona flows into the Tallahatchie River which flows into the Yazoo, which essentially meanders along the eastern boundary of the Delta before flowing into the Mississippi at Vicksburg.
And yes, that is where William Faulkner got the name for his fictitious county of which Jefferson stands in for his hometown of Oxford.
We zipped around Oxford on the bypass. When we had first moved to Tupelo in 1962, we would drive through Oxford and the Ole Miss campus on trips back and forth from the Delta. On every trip through the campus’s spreading oaks and stately brick buildings graced by tall columns, I dreamed of the day I might study there.
Those trips through Ole Miss had ended abruptly in October of 1962. James Meredith became the first black to enroll there, and racial tensions were running high. President Kennedy called out the National Guard and federal troops to restore order after the State Highway Patrol, who had been maintaining a semblance of order, were withdrawn.
That October morning, in the days when filling station attendants pumped your gas, checked your oil, and cleaned your windshield, we had stopped for gas on the east side of town. Imagine our surprise and unease to see the attendant wearing a well-oiled revolver in a well-used leather holster on his hip. Like their forefathers a hundred years before, apparently they were ready to take on the Godless Yankees. Sadly, some of them did. At least two people died from gunfire in the riots that followed.
That day Father wisely opted to take the newly-completed bypass around Oxford, and we did so from then on, initially for safety, later for convenience as we did that morning in 1985. Besides, we were planning to stop about 25 miles on at a filling station in Batesville at the intersection of Highways 6 and 51.
Our first home in Tupelo had been a rental on Madison Street. Next door was a small apartment house, two apartments downstairs, two up. That spring four young women, all student teachers, rented one of the apartments, and we got to know them as parking for our house and the apartments was in the shared backyard. One of the young women was from Batesville where her father owned a filling station. On our next trip to the Delta, we stopped and introduced ourselves. These stops became regular features of our trips.
After a short visit, Father and I headed west through town passing the Piggly Wiggly on the left and the offices of Tallahatchie Valley Electric Power Association, the local electrical co-operative, on the right. My grandfather had served on the board of TVEPA which involved monthly meetings in Batesville. After the meetings he would head for the Piggly Wiggly to buy staples for the farm: flour, cornmeal, sugar, coffee, tea, and such, essentially anything the farm did not provide. As soon as I could drive, I would drive him there and back whenever I was staying with them.
As we left town, we took the bridge over the Illinois Central Railroad tracks, which was the original route of the City of New Orleans, the train immortalized by Arlo Guthrie in the song written by Steve Goodman. Later the City of New Orleans was rerouted through Yazoo City and Greenwood.
Unless one is crossing the Mississippi River, all of the routes into the Delta, whether from the east on Highway 6 from Batesville or Highway 82 from Carrollton or Highway 8 from Grenada or from the south on Highway 49 from Jackson, have one thing in common. There is always one last hill. Sometimes you top it and there stretching to the hazy horizon is a flat tabletop of land, green and lush in the summer, gray and fallow in the winter, cut by meandering bayous and brakes. Sometimes it sneaks up on you, the hill after hill getting lower and lower, further and further apart, until the land opens up around you, as flat as the surface of a billiard table as far as the eye can see.
Entering the Delta from Batesville is one of the latter. As soon as you leave town it begins to feel like the Delta, but when you see the old, narrow, concrete and steel truss bridge spanning the Little Tallahatchie River, old because it was built nearly 50 years ago, narrow because it was, well, built nearly 50 years ago when cars were smaller, you know you are nearly there. The thump-thump of your tires rolling over seams in the surface of the bridge that you are really back in the Delta.
For those born and raised in the Delta, something comes over you when rolling down that last hill or crossing that last bridge. For me, despite all the Delta’s contradictions, it is like returning to a place where I know I belong, a place where I understand the people, regardless of race, and they understand me. That must be why it feels like home.
Cotton and soybean fields stretched far into the distance. Soybean combines, their courses marked by the thin haze of chaff rising in the still morning air, worked back and forth across the fields. Large, green John Deere cotton pickers scythed across the fields eight rows at a time.
Soon Father and I crossed the bridge over the Coldwater River which flows into the Tallahatchie, bumped over the tracks of the new route of the City of New Orleans, and rolled into Marks. At the four-way stop, we turned south on Highway 3. Had we gone straight for another 18 miles we would have come to Clarksdale and the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, the Crossroads, the birthplace of the Delta Blues. In 1936, Blues legend Robert Johnson recorded “Cross Road Blues” later covered by Elmore James. Legend says the song refers to this particular place. Then in the late 1960’s Eric Clapton of Cream combined “Cross Road Blues” with another Johnson song “Traveling Riverside Blues” to create the blues-rock classic “Crossroads”.
Highway 61, sometimes called the Great River Road because it generally follows the Mississippi River, is also referred to as the Blues Highway because it connects the Delta with New Orleans, Memphis, and St. Louis. The highway runs within a short drive of Bob Dylan’s hometown Hibbing, Minnesota, whose album Highway 61 Revisited is arguably his best.
But we did not go to Clarksdale that day although a plateful of tamales at Abe’s Bar-B-Q is always a welcome treat. Instead we turned left towards Lambert, four miles south. Besides we were having lunch in Sumner with Aunt Charlene, the widow of Father’s brother Grady. Although dropping in on kin unannounced, even close to mealtime, was not considered rude in those days before cellphones, Father knew that Aunt Charlene would appreciate a call and that it would give her the opportunity to put together something special. So he had called her the day before.
We were ahead of schedule, so in Lambert, we cut over east to 6th Street and headed south on Highway 321, then as now, mostly gravel, running arrow-straight 12 miles to Brazil. Two miles south of Brazil, it sweeps to the left for four miles before intersecting with Highway 32 just east of Webb.
Brazil was our destination, or actually Hiram, two-and-a-half miles north of Brazil. That was where Father spent his last few years of farm life before joining the Navy in World War II, where I had spent summer after summer and countless weekends with his parents whom I adored.
In 1940, my grandparents’ farmhouse has burned to the ground. My father, the youngest of their eight children, was the only one still at hope. He was still in high school. The three of them moved into Brazil. In addition to running the farm, Grandfather and Father cut cypress from the bayou and oak from the forest beyond the cow pasture, hauled the timber to the sawmill on the place, and began sawing lumber for the new house.
The next spring, Grandfather paid two brothers and a black man, itinerant carpenters, $300 to build the house that he had drawn on a piece of brown craft paper with Grandmother’s input. That was the house I remembered and the house for which we were headed.
And there it stood, still shaded by oak and mimosa, and protected from road dust by a tall row of hedges. The cowbarn in the distance, the chicken house out back, the smokehouse, they all still stood, though they looked a bit more rickety than I remembered.
We pulled in through the gap in the hedgerow and parked beside the cascading wisteria. The old concrete sidewalk was cracked but the steps to the front porch were in good shape. Before we even opened the screen door to the porch, several faces appeared in the open door to the house, black faces, questioning faces, the faces of an older woman and three small children.
“Does A.J. still live here?” Father asked.
Smiles broke out on every face.
“He sho do,” said the woman. Then I recognized her. It was Loovie, A.J.’s wife.
She invited us into the familiar living room, and there was the man that Father had plowed fields with, had sweated beside in the hot Delta sun, had joked and laughed with at the end of a long day. He and Father recognized each other immediately.
A.J. rose from his chair, and the two men shook hands warmly as A.J.’s grandchildren stared up at them with smiles. The two men looked into each other’s eyes and searched each other’s faces for traces of the young men they had once been. Although of a similar age, A.J. looked much older that Father, no doubt as a result of the hard years spent outside working and later managing the farm.
It had been at least 15 years since I had been in this house on this farm which had been so central to my life growing up. And, yes, it seemed surprisingly small. I had spent entire summers here as a child, and even up through my high school years would find at least a week or two to spend with my grandparents. I was glad that people who understood, people who remembered them, lived in this house, still tended Grandmother’s irises in the front yard.
Father and I only stayed a few minutes, long enough to catch up on each other’s families. A.J. and Loovie’s son Willy, whom I had played with as a child, was out working the fields, so we missed him.
We bade everyone good-bye, but before leaving the farm, we drove across the railroad to the Lot. The house where A.J. and his family had lived when I was a boy still stood on the left close to the peach orchard Grandfather had planted. The mule barn was a rotting derelict, but the tractor sheds were in good repair. Grandmother’s garden site was a soybean field. We decided not to risk the old bridge across Possum Bayou. The bamboo thicket, the source of material for spears and whistles, still flourished by the wellhouse.
Cool, sweet water still flowed from an iron pipe in front of the wellhouse. When I was very small, the women on the place still fetched water here. Waterlines had been run to all the houses on the place now, but the water still flowed from the iron pipe. Many times Grandfather and I had stopped for a cool sip on a hot afternoon, maybe even splashed a little water on our faces and necks. Father and I could not resist. We got out, placed our cupped hands under the flow, and took deep gulps. The water was as cool and sweet as we both remembered.
Continuing on south, we passed the Vinson place on the way to Brazil but did not stop as Mr. and Mrs. Vinson had passed away. In Brazil we were sad to see that Mr. Tate’s store was closed and falling apart. We stopped at Mr. Word’s store which was open, but we did not know the current owners. Where Miss Nettie’s store had stood was a pasture where two horses grazed leisurely.
The Brazil Baptist Church, built the year I was born 1953, looked exactly the same, a solid, brick structure with a small cemetery off to the side. Father’s family had attended the First Baptist Church in Webb until helping to organize the church in Brazil in 1940. Grandfather had lead the singing there when I was growing up.
On Sunday mornings he would tune the television to the Florida Boys or the Happy Goodman Family and sing along to the gospel songs he knew so well. He loved to sing and had a rich baritone voice. Grandfather’s mother was a Blackwood, the same family that had in the 1930’s produced the members of the Blackwood Brothers, the Grammy-winning Southern gospel quartet. As a child I attended Blackwood family reunions with Grandfather and Grandmother.
When it was time to leave for church, Grandfather would turn off the television, take his director’s baton from the mantel, and off the three of would go.
We left Brazil a little sad and headed for Webb where Father reminded me of Grandfather’s friend Mr. Ed Turner. Mr. Turner ran Turner Brothers, a clothing store. An interesting phenomenon of the Delta is the large number of department stores owned and operated by Jewish families, the Kantors, the Goldbergs, the Kornfelds, and in this case, the Turners.
When their house burned in 1940, the Father’s family had needed to replace everything, including their clothes. Mr. Turner had refused payment at the time, reportedly saying, “Henry, I know you’ll pay me when you can, but I suspect you have more pressing needs for your cash right now.”
Father’s brother Dick was an outstanding football player, and had once tackled an opposing player so hard that he knocked the ball carrier out. Father laughed again as he told the story of how he and Dick were in Turner Brothers the next week when Mr. Ed asked the boys to step into his office. Pulling open his desk drawer, he motioned to the revolver resting there, then looked at Dick and said, “Dick, if you ever hit me like you hit that boy last Friday night, I swear I’ll shoot you!”
Mr. Ed held out as long as he could, then erupted into laughter. The man loved a practical joke. Within a year, Mr. Ed had to make good on a promise he made to Dick. He had pledged to give Dick a watch the day he turned 18 if Dick agreed to foreswear Co-Colas, Delta-speak for any carbonated drink, until then, which Dick did.
Sadly, Turner Brothers had been replaced by a generic dollar store. In fact, Webb itself looked none too lively, so our stay was short. We still had a little time before we needed to be at Aunt Charlene. Sumner and Webb are less than three miles apart. Rather than head north on Highway 49W, we decided to take the old Webb-Sumner Road along Cassidy Bayou. We stopped at Woodlawn Cemetery to pay our respects at the Catledge plot. Grandfather had been buried there in 1972, Grandmother in 1974, and Uncle Grady in 1984.
I still miss my grandparents. They were such a formative influence on my life. To this day, any time I am in the Delta, I make time to stop by their graveside for a silent prayer of thanks for all of the love and discipline and instruction that they provided.
We still had a few minutes, so we ran by the Mississippi Power & Light office on the Square in Sumner. Mother’s sister Jean’s husband Charles might be in the office. He was and we had a brief but good visit, catching up on family. Aunt Jean and Uncle Charles had four children: Marsha Jean, Charlie who was my age, Sandy who was my sister Jo’s age, and John.
Charlie and I had played all over Tutwiler as young boys. We pedaled bikes or ridden motorcycles, dipped for crawdads to sell and collected Co-Cola bottles for the refund to buy Cokes and comics, climbed trees to swing on vines, walked the rails across the railroad trestle, hunted and fished, and hung around the airstrip where Uncle Grady and Bill Williams had their crop dusting service. Basically we ate and slept at the house and roamed the rest of the time. I could still hear Aunt Jean, “Cholly, Greg, you two get in here and wash up for supper.”
Charlie passed away in 2012. He was only 58 when cancer took him. His challenges in life were many. He has a beautiful daughter and a grandson that looks remarkably like him.
Bidding Uncle Charles good-bye, Father and I got back into the Buick for the half-mile drive to Aunt Charlene’s. When Uncle Grady retired from managing the Michener Place, he bought a house in Sumner, a spacious story-and-a-half wood-framed house with a wide, deep front porch supported by four stout columns. The house sits on Walnut Street on the south side of town and faces Cassidy Bayou right across the street. The backyard is dominated by an Indian mound crowned with three spreading oaks.
Before moving in, they had the exterior bricked. Ollie, Aunt Charlene’s maid and cook since forever, had moved into town with them but had declined the offer to move into the house with them. She had always had her own place and still wanted one, so Uncle Grady had purchased a mobile home and installed it in the backyard between the house and the Indian mound.
The first thing I noticed when we pulled up the gravel drive was that Ollie’s home was no longer there. I had forgotten that she had passed away. I had known her all my life. She often called me Little Jimmy because I looked so much like my father as a boy. I had visited her in her little wood-framed house out on the Michener place and I had visited her in her mobile home here. In the late 1960’s, she had sat with the family in the First Baptist Church when Charles Grady and Mary Ann were married. It was hard to believe, but she was gone now.
Aunt Charlene greeted us at the front door. She was a short, plump, bespectacled woman, wearing her usual print dress. Her eyes twinkled behind her glasses as she hugged and kissed us both. She still reminded me of Aunt Bea, only with less flutter. We retired to the parlor and began the delightful process of catching up on all the family news.
After a half hour or so, a stout black woman appeared smiling from the doorway to the dining room, wiping her hands on a checkered apron.
“Miz Charlene, dinner’s ready.”
“Thank you, Essie,” Aunt Charlene replied and we all rose as Aunt Charlene led us into the dining room.
“How you, Mistah Jimmy?” Essie asked.
“Fine, mighty fine, Essie,” Father answered. “How about you?”
“I gets by,” Essie replied. “I still stays up to Tutwiler. Comes down here to help Miz Charlene out from time to time.”
Essie looked me up and down. “My, my, this must be yo boy. He look just like you,” she said.
“He is. This is Greg.”
“Pleased to meet you, Essie,” I nodded.
“Likewise, Mistah Greg,” Essie replied with a bob of her gray head and a hint of a curtsey.
I did not offer her my hand. It would have made her uncomfortable. She knew it and I knew it. Ollie I would have hugged. In fact, I would have already been back to the kitchen to speak to Ollie, but Ollie was gone and Essie and I had only just met.
“I’ve knowed yo famly since, well, since forever,” she added which was no doubt true.
The Mississippi Delta is 200 miles long and only 70 miles wide at its widest and being farmland is sparsely populated. For instance, Tallahatchie County, where Sumner is located, has 24 people per square mile as opposed to 1,500 per square mile in the state capital, Jackson. The largest town, Charleston, has less than 3,000 souls. Sumner, one of the two county seats, had less than 500.
As a result, seemingly just about everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, either knows or knows about or is kin to or has a friend that knows everybody else. A common refrain when meeting someone for the first time is, “I believe I know some of your people.”
For instance, in July of 2016, I was in the Delta for my Aunt Jean’s funeral when I was ticketed for speeding out on Highway 49 just north of Sumner. I went to Sumner the next morning to see if I could pay my ticket.
I climbed the steps into the cool, musty courthouse, the very one in which the murderers of Emmitt Till were tried and acquitted much to the shame of all involved. There I was directed across the street to the Justice Center located beside the small brick building that had once housed the County Health Department where I would bring my grandparents for their monthly B12 shots back in the 1960’s.
The day was shaping up to be a hot one. I was already dressed in my black dress suit for Aunt Jean’s service and broke a sweat just crossing the street. The thermostat in the Justice Center was set to Arctic which immediately chilled my sweaty skin. There was a young black woman at a desk. I gave her my name and my business, and she checked her files. My ticket had not yet been turned in. Then she looked up at me.
“My granddaddy used to work for a Mistah Catledge up from Brazil,” she said. “You must be kin to him.”
I laughed out loud. “Yes, yes, I am. That would have been my grandfather,” I said. “My uncle managed the Mitchener Place for years before retiring and moving into Sumner.”
“You sounded like you might have been form a round here,” she noted and nodded her approval, an unspoken acknowledgement of what we both knew, that being from the Delta was like being a member of a club, a non-dues paying club, at least in the monetary sense, but a club that neither time nor space can ever weaken or dissolve the bonds that tied its collective members together.
We talked about the weather and what brought me back to the Delta. Of course, she knew the Thomases. Uncle Charles had run the Sumner office of Mississippi Power & Light for years. She offered condolences on the loss of my aunt. We were members of the club.
Now properly introduced, Aunt Charlene, Father, and I sat down at the table. Aunt Charlene insisted that Father sit at the head of the table. She took the other end and I sat on the side. Fine china, crystal, and silverware sparkled on the lace tablecloth. A platter of fried chicken was surrounded by a galaxy of bowls: butter beans, crowder peas, creamed corn, fresh tomatoes, squash casserole, and boiled okra. Steam rose from a plate stacked with wedges of fresh cornbread. The entire room was filled with the heady aroma of Southern cooking. It smelled like home.
We passed the dishes, loaded our plates, and ate to non-stop conversation, how Charles Grady and Mary Ann were doing in Atlanta, my prospects for marriage, Father’s plans for retirement. We ate until we were filled, then had peach cobbler with a dab of fresh butter and coffee. We complimented Aunt Charlene and Essie on a truly outstanding meal.
Stuffed, we retired to the den with a second cup of coffee and more conversation. Father had known Aunt Charlene since at least 1935. I had known her all of my life. During my college years in the early 1970’s, I had joined my friend Bobby Fancher for a weekend at Sumner’s First Baptist Church. Bobby was essentially interviewing for a summer job as youth minister at the church, a job he secured.
I stayed the weekend with Uncle Grady and Aunt Charlene. I reminded Aunt Charlene of that weekend and of how she was appalled at what I had planned to wear to one of the events.
“But Aunt Charlene,” I had protested. “It’s just an informal get together at the church.”
She had brooked no discussion. “Come with me,” she had said. “You are not going to my church dressed like that.” She meant not in slacks, shoes, and a striped, long-sleeve pullover shirt.
“I assume you brought at least one collared shirt,” she then asked.
“Yessum,” I answered.
She opened Uncle Grady’s closet and lifted out a sports coat. “This should fit you,” she said. “You may select your own tie.”
Like practically every Catledge male I have ever known, I was already over six feet tall and well filled out at 18. Of course, the sports coat fit.
We laughed at the story all over again. In many ways, Uncle Grady was considered the dourest of Father’s brothers, but a heart attack and his subsequent recovery seemingly changed all of that. He became more voluble and genuinely seemed to relish time with his extended family.
But as a small boy, Uncle Grady had always treated me kindly, indulgently even. In addition to owning the 500 hundred acres that Grandfather had farmed for him and managing the he Mitchener Place, Uncle Grady was a licensed pilot and part owner of a crop dusting service along with Bill Williams which was based in Tutwiler.
I must have been no more than five years old the first time he took me up in a Cessna 150, just the two of us. He even put me in his lap so that I could pretend that I was flying. We buzzed my grandparents’ farmhouse and Grandmother, unbelievably small even as low as we were, came out, shielded her eyes from the sun, and waved. I waved back furiously.
One day, Uncle Grady even convinced Mother to go up with him, to my knowledge the only time she ever got in an airplane. She sat in the back and I sat up front with Uncle Grady. Mother was tense but seemed to enjoy most of the flight. It was the landing that really had her worried. Uncle Grady said, “Don’t worry, Caroline, it’ll be so smooth you won’t even realize when we touch the ground.”
We dropped down low over the grass strip, skimming along right off the ground.
“See what I mean,” Uncle Grady said. “You didn’t feel a thing, did you?”
Mother breathed a long sigh of relief. “Thank God,’ she said, just as Uncle Grady reduced power and let the plane drop the final foot to the ground.
Mother shrieked, then reached forward and slapped Uncle Grady on the shoulder, hard.
“Grady Catledge,” she shouted.
Uncle Grady just laughed. I did too.
Aunt Charlene, Father, and I laughed at the story all over again, there in the cool den.
Soon, all too soon, Essie appeared at the door.
“I’z finished cleaning up, Miz Charlene. I be calling Sonny Boy to come pick me up if’n that’s OK.”
As was customary and accepted, Essie had had her dinner, which was the same one we had, in the kitchen, then put away all of the leftovers and cleaned up.
“That’s fine, Essie,” Aunt Charlene answered.
Father placed his large hands on his knees. “I ‘spect we’d need to be heading back to Tupelo. We’ll be glad to take you home, Essie.”
“You sho that ain’t no trouble?” Essie asked.
As is usual in family partings, at least in the South, maybe everywhere, but certainly in the South, it took a while: admonitions for safe travel, love to be shared with this person and that, the seemingly small things that strengthen the bonds that tie people who love each other together. Father’s family was so close that in my very young days, I did not know which of my aunts and uncles were his six surviving siblings and which ones had married into the family. I still think that is special.
Eventually, we were loaded up and ready to go. We backed down the driveway and rolled down the windows for one last wave good-bye to the sweet woman waving back from the front porch. Aunt Charlene would survive Uncle Grady by 15 years. Several years later after she had moved into a nursing home, Sherrie and I paid her a visit. She looked remarkably the same, a little slower, a little more fragile, but her fingers were still nimble. Our conversation was accompanied by the soft clicks of her knitting needles as she worked on another placemat. A neat stack of her work was stacked on her desk, and insisted that we take a full set for our dining room table. We still have them.
We drove back through the Square, across the railroad tracks and past the still stately but decaying Delta Inn with its mansard roof, gables, and balconies, and out to Highway 49E. On the short drive, Father and Essie spoke of their respective families, the celebrations, losses, and sorrows. Her family roots ran deep in the Delta too. Both families had sweated in the hot Delta sun and shivered in the cold Delta winters, although ours had certainly been the better off all those years.
It was only five miles to Tutwiler. As we neared town, we passed the airstrip tucked into the angle where Highway 49W and 49E converged. For reasons I have never been able to discover, Highway 49 begins in Gulfport and proceeds north to Jackson and on to Yazoo City where it splits into 49W, which runs roughly up the middle of the Delta through B.B. King’s hometown Indianola, and 49E, which runs along the eastern part of the Delta through Bobby Gentry’s (and my) hometown Greenwood. The two highways merge at Tutwiler and continue up through Clarksdale before crossing the Mississippi River into Arkansas at Helena.
Once in town, Essie guided us to her home in a set of row housing.
As Essie got out of the car, she said, “Thank y’all fo bringing me home. Can y’all wait here just a minute?”
Without waiting for an answer she hurried into her home and returned with a two-pound block of yellow cheese wrapped in plastic with a generic white label. In the early 1980’s the federal government began distributing stockpiled cheese to those individuals who were needy, on welfare, or on social security. Everyone called it government cheese.
Essie offered the block of cheese to Father.
“Thank you, Essie, but we’ve got all the cheese we need,” he protested.
“I knows you do, but I wants to say thank you fo going out your way to bring me home. ‘Sides, I know how Miz Carolyn like that gov’ment cheese.”
It was a moment fraught, weighted even, with so much of what makes the Delta the place that it is: an elderly black woman with very little, maybe just getting by, but offering a gift, a token of thanks, a statement of ‘I too have something to offer. I helped prepare and serve your meal and for that I was paid. I accepted your ride which, even though I know was freely given with no expectation, I would offer this thank you, this declaration that I too have something to offer other than my services.’
And Father understood this, as did I. “Thank you, Essie,” Father smiled, “She surely does.”
Father stepped from the car and accepted the cheese, then gave Essie a big hug. I got out and hugged her too, the mild formality of our earlier introduction gone now. We knew each other, had traveled together, if only five miles. I had eaten and enjoyed food she had prepared.
We were not equals, at least in our particulars. She was black, elderly, poorly educated, and poor. I was white, well educated, successful, and reasonably well off. But we were equals in our humanity, our need to love and be loved, our dreams and desires, the importance of home and family, our respect for other people, our respect for each other.
Leaving town, we passed the shuttered barbershop/pool hall/domino parlor of one of Grandfather’s cousins, Oraien Catledge. I had accompanied Grandfather there many times for a haircut. Oraien’s son, also named Oraien, although hindered by failing eyesight became a photographer of note in Atlanta, taking stark, unflinching portraits of the inhabitants of Cabbagetown, a former mill village just east of downtown Atlanta.
From Tutwiler, we turned north on Highway 3 through Vance, Longstreet, Denton, and Lambert, fading little towns with more storefronts shuttered than open. Combines and cotton pickers were still working the fields as the afternoon slipped away.
At Marks, we turned east towards Tupelo, the sun now sinking behind us. Father napped part of the way. We climbed into the hills, again our shadow raced ahead of us. We made it home just as the sun dropped below the horizon, just in time for supper. The last thing we needed was another big meal, but that had not stopped Mother from preparing one. Or us from eating it.
It was just one day, but a particularly good day. Father and I had just talked all day, letting the memories of people, places, and events pour out spontaneously. There had been other days with Father, many other days, my first dove hunt, my first college football game, days spent working in the yard, traipsing through the woods, learning to make a bamboo whistle, but those days became less and less frequent as I grew older, left for college and eventually a career.
As the years passed, and Father slipped into senility, we still had good times together, running simple errands around town, joining his friends at Shockley’s for coffee, snippets captured as time, distance, and other obligations allowed. But that one golden day with Father in September of 1985 was more than just a day or a trip, but a journey together, metaphorical as well as physical, and its memory still lingers enhanced by the accretion of additional memories, still rich and vivid, complex and comforting, especially as all I now have of Father are memories of our days together.
First things first. A solar eclipse at 98% of totality is not 98% as awe-inspiring as a total solar eclipse. It is maybe 20% as wonderful. I know. Now that I have seen both.
On the August 21, 2017, my wife Sherrie and I joined a few friends from Mississippi and a couple of thousand other people at a small, private airport in central South Carolina. At least a thousand drove in to join the thousand who flew in.
There was a grass airstrip, an unmanned control tower, a lake, several tents and pavilions, and restroom facilities scattered across acres of rolling, sun-drenched, green countryside. Campers and tents were clustered in the wooded areas on the periphery. Rows and rows of airplanes glistened in the morning sunlight: some home-built; some restored, vintage planes from World War II; some production models by Cessna or Beechcraft or Piper. People sought out the shade under the wings.
It was hot and humid, so we too gathered in the shade at the edge of the enormous, white tent set up for lunch: Sherrie; my old friends Vergil and Charlie; Charlie’s wife Tupper, and their granddaughters, Ella and Leigh Leigh. It was the first time we had met Tupper and the girls, all of whom proved to be as delightful as expected.
Suddenly at about 1:30, word circulated. The eclipse had started. I looked at Sherrie. “A squirrel is eating the sun,” I said. “At least that is what the Choctaw Indians thought.” We slouched in chairs with our funky, single-use eclipse glasses and regularly checked the progression. Ella and Leigh Leigh were fascinated by Vergil’s welder’s goggles and took turns looking like Junior Birdmen.
As the moon’s occlusion of the sun progressed from 25% to 50%, we noticed our surroundings change. It was like an increasingly cloudy day. At 90%, the very air took on a strange shimmering quality, but a brief, unfiltered glimpse at the sun revealed what still appeared to be a huge, fiery ball.
By the time we reached 98% of totality, we were all locked into our eclipse glasses watching the thinnest slice of orange sun shrink thinner and thinner. The chatter of excited voices filled the air. Suddenly, the last, least sliver of the sun winked out and the world through our dark glasses went black.
I slowly lowered my glasses, unsure of what to expect. All I could do was stare at the sky above. It was totally black. The moon was a flat, black disc that hid the sun. An irregular ring of pure white light, the corona, flared around the moon. I realized that I was holding my breath, had been from the moment had I dropped my glasses.
The temperature dipped perceptibly. The chatter of excited voices ceased and was replaced by the chirr of night insects. Awesome, otherworldly, all of the usual adjectives came to mind, all so insufficient as to be trite. It was easy to see how frightening a solar eclipse would be to a people with no knowledge of what was happening or why.
For over two minutes we reveled in the strangeness, trying to comprehend and articulate in hushed tones what we were experiencing. We took pictures that turned out poorly and promised to be better prepared the next time. Then with a cheer we rejoiced as the sun peaked out from the other side of the moon’s umbra.
There are at least two, sometimes as many as five, eclipses somewhere in the world each year. It is a matter of orbital mechanics and the plane of the ecliptic. The earth’s rotational axis tilts about 23° off of the plane of the ecliptic, its path around the sun. The moon circles the earth in a path that moves from 5° above to 5° below the ecliptic. Additionally, the moon’s rotational axis is nearly 7° off of its orbital plane.
These conditions combine to give us the rising and falling tides, the waxing and waning phases of the moon, and the seasons in their regular progression, things that make life on our planet a thing of transcendent beauty. These conditions, along with the speed of the earth’s and the moon’s respective rotations and orbits, also make total solar eclipses a rare occasion.
The human mind knows all of this, can predict with certainty when an eclipse will occur, but none of this detracts from the experience, it is so singularly unusual and, well, weird.
If one believes in God, and I do, it is another opportunity to thank Him for a universe of such majesty and wonder, for the stars, and planets, in their courses, and for the ability to understand and appreciate something so rare and moving and humbling.
Later that afternoon after fond farewells to friends old and new, we all headed for our respective homes, a new image vividly etched in our minds. And, yes, we are already making plans for the next total solar eclipse in the United States in 2024. We are now officially Totality Junkies.
For those who share these memories …
How often it is, a long unheard but well remembered song triggers a cascade of memories, unbidden yet vivid, some pleasant, some bittersweet, some heartbreaking. This morning “Bell Bottom Blues” by Derek and the Dominoes popped up on my iPhone as I was out running errands, and it happened.
Suddenly I was back in the college grill shooting the breeze with my usual group of guys and girls, when one of our friends walked in with that loose-jointed saunter we all knew so well, his lank, shoulder-length hair swaying with every stride. With a bemused smile and a sigh, he slumped down in our booth and plopped his books onto the table just as “Bell Bottom Blues”, no doubt selected by one of us, ten cents a song, three for a quarter, dropped onto the spindle of the jukebox.
He had a rather long, clean-shaven face with angular features and wire-rimmed glasses perched precariously on his nose. He perked up at the opening guitar chords and proceeded to expound on how wonderful it was to have friends who understood and appreciated good music as opposed to so much of the drivel passing for music on the radio. In fact, he expounded almost all the way through “Bell Bottom Blues” so that we did not get to really listen to the song. But that was our friend, and his foibles were accepted along with his many fine qualities because, well, because he was our friend.
I lost a little part of me a few years back when I heard that he had, in the words of one of our gang from those days, “finally succeeded in drinking himself to death.”
Our friend’s family lived a few south of the campus in a house his parents had designed and built on land purchased from his mother’s mother. It sat in a densely wooded area, a two-story, white, wood-framed house, reached by a gravel road running down the left side of a large pasture before diving into the woods and winding through the trees to a small clearing just large enough for the house. We were always welcome there.
His father was a usually taciturn but occasionally engaging artist who had moved into management at the advertising firm to better provided for his family. He composed symphonies on the side. My friend’s mother had taught school but now kept home. She had wavy hair, freckles, and a ready smile and warm hug. His younger sister was a delicate flower with long, straight hair who loved horses. His younger brother was the only high school aged kid I knew who was an avid Elvis fan.
From this milieu sprang my friend, a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, bass, piano, and drums, to my knowledge) who could read music and excelled at math and science. He was prone to the outrageous statement such as “Steve Earle is god!” His musical taste ran from the Romantic symphonies of Shostakovich to the acoustic harmonies of Bread to the blues of Mose Allison to the Southern rock of the Allman Brothers. Our tastes coincided on most points, but I could not quite make it all the way to Bread. America was as far as I could go down that road. He was smart, frequently unfocused, always open-handed, a chain smoker, and a true friend.
There was always a place at his family’s dinner table, even if two or three or more were hanging around. His mother insisted on patching my torn jeans with the most colorful swatches she had. Through the family, we added another member to our loose coterie, a recent graduate of our college who had met the family through his electrician father who had wired their house.
One Christmas the girls in our gang suggested we each decorate a square of fabric in some appropriate fashion, which we did. Then the girls used the squares to create a quilt to present to our friend’s mother. It made up in love what it lacked in aesthetics. She treasured it.
Our gang enjoyed those times hanging out with our friend and his family. It was our home away from home, a house was filled with good conversation, music, and laughter. I believe that in our heart of hearts, we thought this was the ideal family, the kind of loving and accepting family and home we hoped to create someday.
We progressed through our college years. Soon, my friend’s younger sister began dating another classmate of ours. One afternoon the two of them were pedaling bikes on a country road near her house when a motorist struck and killed her boyfriend. Devastated, her life spiraled out of control. I might bump into her at a concert or music venue, out of it, unaware of where she was, abandoned by whomever she had come with. I would load her up and take her home.
Around this time, my friend’s father began an affair with a woman in his office which led to a divorce and more heartbreak.
In those pre-social media days, time, distance, careers, and families led us down different paths and we all lost touch except for sporadic and unexpected contact. I learned that my friend began a career in information technology and that he had lost his mother to cancer. Then I learned he was in a hospital in New Orleans, dying. Then he was gone.
All of these memories and more erupted into my mind unbidden, whole, intact, nearly palpable, and all in the blink of an eye, the space of a heartbeat. Music, that most abstract and evocative medium, was certainly the trigger, but it must have been more than that. How many times have I heard that song? Who knows? The driver’s seat of an SUV has little enough in common with a vinyl-covered booth in a campus grill, a parking lot with a college campus.
For whatever reason, it happened, revealing the arc of all those lives, rich in detail at times, frustratingly patchy in others, each joy and sorrow and loss acute and real.
It is a blessing that with each remembering, those people, those friends that shaped our lives so, are etched more deeply in our hearts and minds, where they can be clutched more dearly and treasured for the times that were precious, where all that happened can be pondered upon, searched again and again for answers and meaning.
All that and more because “Bell Bottom Blues” popped up on my iPhone, and I was suddenly 20-years-old and my friend strolled into the campus grill with a grin on his face.
I have recently completed the first revision of my novel, Beside Still Waters. Here are the first two chapters. More will follow. If there is interest!
1 – IT HAD BEEN WINTER THEN TOO
The rays of the weak winter sun, diffused by high thin clouds, flooded the kitchen with pale, white light. The old man’s hands rested on the checkered tablecloth that covered the kitchen table, big hands, weathered, curled in repose.
It was warm and quiet in the kitchen. The only sounds were the susurration of gas vaporizing in the heater, tiny tongues of blue flame heating the waffle pattern of the ceramic bricks cherry red; that and the soft, domestic clattering of his wife at the stove. A one-pound coffee can half-filled with water sat steaming on the fender of the heater, releasing moisture into the stove-heated, dry air.
From time to time the northwest wind, sweeping unhindered down from the Great Plains and across the Mississippi Delta, would whip another gust against the house with enough strength to rattle the windows. But inside it was warm and protected and redolent with warmed-over leftovers.
The old man told a story which was at one moment rich in vivid, life-giving detail, draping flesh to bone, then opaque, lost in a frustrating paucity of telling features, like an old man’s memory, which it was, dredged up from over a lifetime ago, memories long buried, subsumed, as a long-suppressed shame, which in part it was, but recounted now with a firm conviction that the years of silent, unshared retrospection had imparted, obliterating any uncertainty or equivocation of thought, will, or intent that might have existed at the time.
He shifted his gaze from the boy across the table and stared absently out the window across the ocher stubble of the pasture and field to the gray smudge of the distant forest, a diminished remnant of what it had been when he had first come here, still rich in thick stands of oak, wild brakes, sloughs and bayous, small game and deer, gray and red fox, too. But it was only a shade of its former self, too little left to sustain the bear and panther which were hunted out long ago as the shadowed world they roamed was remorselessly reduced by axe and plow and given over to pasture and field, the woods still wild but no longer primeval, subdued now, diminished if not tamed.
His wife, almost as old as he, adjusted the heat on the stove as she warmed their supper and listened with belying inattention. She knew some of the story but not all. She never had. They were of a time and place, another world really, where the orbits of men and women, the things they shared and discussed, even if married to each other, overlapped far less than in these days.
But it was more than that, much more. There were things he talked about with men, men who shared the same goals, desires, and hopes: bank shares and loans, cotton prices and gin rates and yields per acre, things he would never have even thought to share with her. Just as he would never have presumed to interfere with how she managed their home and household expenses or raised their children.
But it was even more than that. There had been men he could not understand with motives he could not fathom and threats he could not ignore, things that he wanted desperately to shield her from.
But even that was not the whole of it. He had never shared with his wife, the mother of all his many children, the only woman he had ever loved, all that he had risked, all that he had dared, the part of him that he had sacrificed during that first year of their marriage.
The house in which they now lived was larger than that other one but still wood-framed, still simple, still painted white although green striped fabric awnings stretched over metal frames shielded the windows from the remorseless Delta summer sun. That other house, long gone now, had been warmed by wood-burning fireplaces, cooking done in a wood-burning stove. Now gas appliances made all of that easier, although he was not convinced it was better, only easier, but there was something to be said for that.
It had been winter then too, when it had all started, not deep winter with the ground frozen iron-hard and brittle branches rattling in the northwest wind like the sound their antlers make during the tentative jousting of bucks in rut, but that last gasp of winter when one senses that spring is just holding its breath waiting for the right moment to exhale.
The old man paused and without conscious thought ran the blunt fingertips of his left hand along the scar on his left temple just above the templepiece of his wire-rimmed glasses. The scar was as wide and long as his forefinger, not deep, not even puckered, faint, lighter than his sun-browned face, almost white. His big hand drifted down his cheek and across his mouth, then dropped back to the kitchen table.
“This all happened a long time ago, 1905, to be exact. Your grandmother and I had only been married about a year,” the old man spoke slowly, softly.
He hesitated and looked at the boy across the table not sure exactly why he felt compelled, after all these years, to tell the story or why he chose to tell it now, to this boy, one of their many grandchildren. Was it because the boy had spent so much time with them, had followed him all over the Place until he knew every inch of the farm and woods as well as the old man did, had listened enthralled to so many old stories?
His decision made, the old man continued, “You know, I’ve never told anyone this before, but I have to now. Son, old age doesn’t just take your strength, it takes your memories too. Almost everyone else is gone now. All but one, and she doesn’t know the entire story, no more than I do. When the two of us are gone it will be lost.”
The old man hung his head. “And I don’t want the story lost,” he said, even as he thought, too much had happened, things that had shaped him and consequently his entire family, even this smooth-faced, eager boy across that table from him.
He raised his dark eyes and looked into the boy’s face, unlined, innocent, trusting, on the verge of manhood, just a few years younger than he had been when it had all started. The old man paused. Could he have been that young, that innocent then? No, not quite so much. After all, he already had a family at that time and responsibility for a farm, the farm which he now owned and on which he still lived.
“I wadn’t much older than you when I first came to New Bethel,” the old man sighed. “But I already had a couple of crops behind me when it happened.”
2 – THE FADING OF THE DAY
With a gentle pull on the reins and a light touch of the brake, the man eased the creaking wagon to a halt in the middle of the bridge. The mules stood patiently in the weak, late winter sun, their hindquarter muscles twitching in that peculiarly equine manner to the perceived presence of imaginary flies. The only sound was the soft rattle of trace chains and the occasional hollow thump of a hoof against the sun-bleached planks of the bridge when one of the mules shifted its weight.
The man draped the reins across his thigh, stretched his back, and lifted the brown hat from his head to run his fingers through his short, dark hair. Settling his hat back on his head, he re-gathered the reins, but instead of calling up the team, he leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and let his eyes drift over the edge of the rail-less bridge to the still, brown water of Flautt Bayou far below. The low-angled rays of the sun filtered through the trunks of the cypress trees rising from the murky water in fluted columns like ancient architecture, casting alternating bands of light and dark across the water, sun and shadow.
The man pulled his makings from his coat pocket, folded the paper into a little trough which he filled with tobacco from his pouch, and rolled a cigarette. He struck a match on a bolthead of the wagon’s seat, lit his smoke, and again stared at the water.
The sluggish water was brown, but not really muddy. It was so still that one had to take it on faith that the water in the bayou even moved at all, except after a heavy rain. Rather, silt and untold number of decaying leaves and other vegetation had released tannins giving it that distinctive flat, almost milky, brown color, like cloudy tea. The occasional bubble broke the otherwise surface, gas released by rot and decay in the murky depths. The man knew all these things without even thinking, knew it as one understands and internalizes his world.
Even seated on the wagon, it was obvious that the driver was a tall man. His attire was as dull and monochromatic as the surrounding countryside: hat, jacket, tie, trousers and boots, everything was some shade of gray or brown. Only his stark white shirt relieved the monotony.
He shifted on the hard wooden seat and stared at his wrists protruding from his coat and wondered why it was so hard to find a coat that fit his frame and had sleeves long enough to cover the wrists on his inordinately long arms. One of the mules shook its head. The abrupt movement was transmitted up the reins and brought the man out of his reverie. The day was fading, more cold already seeping into the chill, late winter air. He had just enough time to make his last delivery.
The fruit trees, their root balls wrapped in heavy burlap, had been delivered to the train depot in New Bethel from Stark Brothers Nurseries on Monday. The rest of the week he had been at the depot by dawn to rewet the burlap, load the wagon and make his rounds, delivering the trees that local farmers had ordered months ago. Many of the farmers ordered and planted in the fall, but some preferred the spring. The Mississippi Delta’s long growing season and relatively mild winters allowed for success either way.
As a representative for Stark Brothers, it seemed that between selling and delivering trees that he had met nearly everyone in Okaloosa County in the few short years he had lived north of New Bethel. But the time away from the land he farmed meant that fewer chores had been accomplished, although the extra money was welcome. Any money that he didn’t have to borrow to make his crop was money he wouldn’t have to worry about repaying.
After one last draw on his cigarette, the man rolled the last shreds of tobacco and flimsy paper between his fingers. The remnants cascaded from his fingers only to be lifted away by the winter breeze, as ephemeral as the smoke that drifted from his nostrils. He flicked the reins and the mules eased back into their plodding gait, pulling the wagon off the bridge with a clatter and into the ruts in the hard-packed dirt road. The Gentry place was not far, but it would be dark by the time he made it home. It was his last delivery and Mattie would have supper waiting, maybe squirrel stew, one of his favorites.
He hated being away so much this week and not just because of the untended chores. The baby was due soon, their first, and the strain on the once slender wisp of his young wife was obvious. Not that she ever complained. In fact, the patience and serenity that was so inherent in her character, if anything, seemed to be enhanced by the mere idea of the new life growing within her.
The road stretched away through gray, fallow fields, stubble from last season’s cotton was barely visible, having been cut and plowed under after last season’s harvest leaving softly rounded furrows after the winter rains. Soon turning plows and middle-busters would be digging deep beneath the dry surface to reveal the moist, black earth below where the moisture from those winter rains and snow was stored. Jake knew from experience that the Delta got more rain in the winter than in the summer, his rain gauge and records didn’t lie, but it sure didn’t seem that way.
Maybe it was because he was indoors a little more in the winter, or maybe it was because in the summer he was always concerned about whether he was getting too much or too little rain. Too much early rain could flood the fields and drown the crop; too much rain later could mean that he wouldn’t be able to plow the rows to kill the weeds that would sap the moisture and nutrients and choke his crop, compelling him to the alternative of sending the hands into the fields for the exhausting, back-breaking work of chopping the weeds out with hoes. Too little rain at any time could stunt the crop, and if it was dry for too long it could burn the cotton up in the fields. A lot could go wrong, either way, during the planting, growing and harvesting seasons.
No, he thought, winter was somewhat of a respite for farmers. Not from work, there was always plenty to do, but it gave them the opportunity to think of weather in the abstract rather than the particular. In many ways it was a hard life and a challenging one, the only life he had ever known. It was such a part of him, so deeply planted, that he never even thought in terms of whether he actually cared for it or rather he would rather do something else.
Making a crop was what he did, how he provided for himself and his family, but it was more than that, too. There was a deep satisfaction that he felt but hardly ever articulated, even to himself, but it was there nevertheless: the relentless, renewing wonder of growing things; empty, desolate fields erupting with life; then tended, cared for through growth, blossom, maturity, and harvest; ever new and ever beautiful, but in its own way a violent struggle, the struggle for life anew.
A wagon wheel dropped into a rut with a jarring thud, jerking the man from his contemplation. The fields on either side of the road were giving way to the scattered frame houses of farmhands on the Gentry place. Twisted tendrils of woodsmoke curled upward from brick chimneys into the still air before slowly dissipating among the bare limbs of black-trunked trees spreading above shacks of weathered boards huddled desolately along the road.
As the road curved, the man could just make out Mister Gentry’s Commissary through the oak saplings, saplings he had delivered here only a couple of years ago, his first season in Okaloosa County.
A sharp crack almost like a pistol shot shattered the winter stillness. The man jerked his head around toward the nearest house to see two men, bodies clutched together in a frantic, clawing embrace, hurdle off the porch and land with a dull thud on the hard ground.
The man hesitated, realizing he had only heard the door of the hovel slam open against the wall. It looked like it was barely hanging from its hinges. He stared at the motionless bodies amid the softly settling dust. Slowly the more slender man, the one on top rolled to the side and up onto his knees, his mouth bleeding, a smear of blood on the front of his patched and stained overalls.
The man hauled back on the reins and flipped them around the brake pole and leapt from the wagon before it even stopped rolling. Charging across the yard toward the two men, he came to a halt and gaped at the body of the larger man lying face-up on the ground. Thick, dark blood, nearly black in the fading light, oozed around the blade of a small hunting knife which jutted from his chest and was already soaking into the man’s clothing. The man recognized the body still sprawled out on the ground. It was one of Gentry’s hands, Rad Timmons.
The man’s mouth tightened into a grim line as he stared at the kneeling man. “What happened here? You hurt?”
The smaller man gradually became aware of his presence and pulled his stunned, anguished face up from staring at his cupped, bloody hands. Tears pooled at the edges of his eyes and made moist tracks down his dusty cheeks. It was not a man. It was only a boy, Rad Timmons’ oldest son, Henry.
A flat, hesitant voice answered, “I – I don’t know, Sir. It’s hard to say just what happened. Is he dead?”
The man squatted by the body carefully avoiding the spreading puddle of lifeblood, already beginning to soak into the packed dust, and kneaded the still-warm flesh of Timmons’ neck, searching for the pulse he never found. The sweet-sick miasma of cheap liquor hovered around the dead man’s face. The man grimaced, swallowed the bile rising in his throat, looked sideways from under the brim of his hat.
“He certainly is, Son. How about you? You hurt?” he asked for the second time.
The boy, his blood- and sweat-soaked overalls and shirt plastered to his chest, rose slowly, unsteadily to his feet. Tall for his age, he looked no more than 15, and rail thin to boot. He was so thin and dazed that he looked insubstantial, as if he might disappear in bright sun or be completely dissipated by a strong wind.
No, Sir.” The boy’s voice was flat. “Only from being hit.”
The man stood too. “Wanna tell me what happened?” He prayed it was an accident.
“He come home drunk again. H–he kept hitting Momma. He wouldn’t stop. I tried to make him stop. You know how he could git.”
The man really did not really know that much first hand but had some idea based on his few experiences with Rad Timmons, what he knew about some of the company Rad kept, and certain things that he had heard, some of which he believed.
“That’s when he started hitting me. I hit him back, the first time I ever did that.” The boy sighed. “That’s when he went crazy-like. He kept hitting me, harder and harder. The next thing I knew he had a knife. Everything else is just a jumble ‘til we landed in the yard. Did I really kill him?”
“I’m afraid so. Let’s get him covered up. Where’s your momma?”
He looked up to see a woman standing in the doorway, simultaneously tugging at her torn dress and apron while trying to push stands of her disheveled hair back under the faded rag tied around her head. Her thin, almost gaunt, face already livid red where her husband had struck her, could not hide the stunned expression on her face nor the deep lines that life had carved there.
“He’s daid, ain’t he, Mister Jake?” Her gaze was steady but the question caught in her throat.
“Yes, Vertie, I’m afraid he is. Are you hurt?” Jake felt curiously uncomfortable looking at her, kept involuntarily averting his eyes. He had never seen a woman who had been beaten.
She sagged against the doorframe and a sob wracked her shoulders, whether from the death of her husband or the fact that her son was responsible Jake could not tell. Both facts had distinct and profound dimensions that the new widow would be forced to plumb, if not articulate, after the shock wore off, but not now. Now they were just part of the enormity of a single act.
“I’ll be alright,” Vertie replied, gingerly drying her battered face with a corner of her apron. “Besides, a coupla bruises ain’t my biggest worry right now.”
As uneasy as he was looking at her, Jake could sense the weight that was beginning to settle on the woman, inevitable and crushing. She looked like she might collapse at any moment.
Jake started toward the porch, but the boy leaped up ahead of him, gently placing his arm around her shoulders for support, taking care to keep his blood-smeared hands and clothes from brushing her. Jake watched as the boy’s dirty, tear-stained face softened as he comforted his mother. Not the first time, I’ll bet, thought Jake.
The boy looked down into his mother’s upturned face. “Don’t worry, Ma. Everything’ll be alright,” he whispered.
Brave young man, Jake thought, especially considered what just happened. I hope he is right.
The distant, happy, unaffected chatter of children drifted over the fields in the crisp air and brought Jake’s attention back to the task at hand. “Where are the other children?” he asked.
“Down by the slough, playing,” Vertie answered.
“They weren’t here for any of it?’
“No, thank heaven,” she sighed.
“Probably for the best. Mister Gentry up at the house?” Jake wasn’t sure if the Gentrys had returned from their trip.
“No, he and the family’s been visiting kinfolk for the last coupla days. Should be back later tonight.”
“Sounds like him. Wouldn’t dream of traveling on Sunday or even being away from home, would he?”
“I reckon not.”
Jake thought for a minute. “If you’ve got something to cover him with, I’ll unload these trees over at the Commissary and bring the wagon back so we can load the body and take it into town. I expect I had better take the boy along with me.”
“No, no,” she pleaded, clutching her son more tightly to her. “Please don’t, Mister Jake. Henry’s only a boy.”
“I know that, Vertie,” Jake said, staring at the boy, “and I know how much you depend on him, but a man is dead. The sheriff has to be told, and he’ll want to talk to him. But first I ought to get this body to town. Doc Tate ought to have a look at you, too.”
Gathering herself together, she pled, “Oh, no, no, I cain’t go into town looking like this. Folks think poorly enough of us as it is. I’ll be alright. Besides, I got the kids to gather in and feed.”
“Well, alright then, but let’s get this cleaned up. Don’t call the children up ‘til we are gone,” Jake said with finality and turned toward the wagon.
It was less than a quarter-mile to Gentry’s Commissary, a large, low building with a wide, deep porch that ran all across the front and halfway down both sides. As Jake suspected there was no light within. The Commissary would be locked. A black and tan hound resolved itself from the dusty gloom of the crawlspace as the wagon rattled up to the porch. The dog stretched, head low and hindquarters high, then clambered up the steps onto the porch, waiting expectantly to be petted.
Jake pulled the wagon right up to the edge of the porch for ease of unloading and stepped right onto the porch. The old dog ambled over and Jake scratched him behind the ears.
“Hey there, Old Fella,” Jake said into the deep brown eyes.
The hound closed his eyes in apparent bliss. When Jake withdrew his hand, the old hound moved aside, walked in a circle, and settled on the well-trod planks and dropped his chin to his extended front paws as he watched Jake unload the trees.
Jake lined the trees up neatly along the south wall to provide them warmth from the morning sun. He considered going to the wellhouse for a bucket of water to rewet the root balls, but decided against it. Too much to do, and the trees would keep until tomorrow when one of Gentry’s hands noticed them.
Jake reached down to pet the old hound one last time before settling back into the wagon seat and turning back toward the Timmons’ house.
By the time Jake got back from unloading the trees at Gentry’s Commissary, the last of the sun’s rays were brushing the distant treetops, burnishing them all golden even as their lower limbs and trunks were dissolving into gray.
Jake knew that Mattie would soon begin to worry a little, not much, but a little. She knew as well as he that a mule could pull up lame or a wagon wheel might cause a problem. Life had its uncertainties, as Jake knew now more surely than ever before. There was just not much he could do about it at the moment.
Vertie Timmons had cleaned her face, straightened her hair, and changed into a clean, though shabbier, dress than the torn one she had removed. She had also found a faded but clean piece of blanket to cover Rad’s body, the outline of a man’s body distinct despite the sickening way the handle of the knife held the blanket clear of the chest. Like a teepee, Jake thought.
Henry had changed his overalls and washed up. The boy’s hair was still damp. In his ragged coat, he stood beside his mother on the porch, his arm again around her shoulder.
“Time to go, Son,” Jake called softly.
What a grim job, Jake thought, having to load up your own father’s body, especially when it’s you that’s killed him. It was going to be a long ride into New Bethel.
Henry embraced his mother and reassured her again before stepping down from the porch to help Jake. They loaded the limp, sagging, unwieldy body into the wagon bed. There was nothing left but a small pool of drying blood. With the toe of his boot Jake kicked some dust over it, but though obscured, the stain remained.
Jake looked up. Vertie was coming from the porch with a sloshing pail of water.
“Leave it, Mister Jake. I’ll dash some water over it,” she said with finality and a sense of resignation.
The man paused to catch his breath. Rivulets of sweat streamed down his face to collect on the tip of his nose, tremble for the space of several heartbeats, then drop to the limb on which he rested astraddle, creating an ever increasing dark puddle on the rough oak bark. Climbing a tree was harder than he remembered. His abraded palms and scraped shins were testimony to that. But he had been twelve then, and now he was north of 60.
The air was still warm from the late afternoon September sun, but the first hint of dryness and autumn cool was noticeable, just like it had been when he was twelve and he and his father had hauled a few 2X4’s, some 1X6 planks, nails, and hammers into the enormous oak that dominated their front yard, spreading its branches into the neighbors’ yards on either side, out into the street, and back over their own house.
The horizontal fork, ten feet off the ground, equidistant from the massive, four-foot thick trunk, and the street, had been selected as the ideal spot. That afternoon a little platform, about four feet wide and six feet long with little two foot high walls on three sides, had been constructed, father and son working together, rare but not unheard of. There had been countless groundballs thrown in the backyard and untold pass routes run, but to build something together, that was different.
His father would surprise him again the following month, October, on a Saturday in mid-morning, by suggesting that after lunch they drive over to Ole Miss for a football game. Trips with his father, just the two of them, had been rare, and had never included a college football game, much less an Ole Miss game. The afternoon had been crystalline as only a sun-drenched October afternoon in Mississippi can be, the long, long, hot summer finally supplanted by autumn.
He had thought his father was a football genius with eyes that missed no detail: a flag was thrown in the offensive backfield and his father said “Holding”, then another was thrown during a punt return and his father said, “Another clipping penalty.” Only when the boy was older did he learn that nearly every flag in the offensive backfield was for holding and nearly every penalty on the returning team during a runback was clipping. Even then it did not matter; his father had played football and knew football. Practically everything the boy knew about football, and a lot about life, he had learned from his father.
He would see many more college football games, most with people other than his father, but this was his first and it still lived in all of its idealized, autumn-hued clarity, the precisely lined, emerald field, Ole Miss in crimson and blue, Vandy in black and gold, the rickety bleachers on the visitors’ side, the only seats available for walkups. Funny thing was, he could remember the mood and feel of the day as if the intervening years did not exist, but he not the score. Ole Miss must have won for the memory to be so wonderful.
His father was gone now, lost first to dementia, then completely gone, gone and buried, resting beside the man’s mother under a patch of ground so flat and grassy that it seemed improbable that it held their earthly remains even though he could clearly remember the sickening, hollow thump of dirtclods striking their coffins as the workers began filling the holes in which his parents now rested.
Rested, the man continued scooting out on the limb, gripping the limb desperately on occasion, the rope tied about his waist tugging gently, his goal in sight. The fork that was his destination was not as level as the one had been over 50 years ago, but the man knew how to correct that with shims. Settling into the fork, the man took hold of the rope that ran from his waist to the bundle of lumber and tools on the ground and braced himself. Hand over hand, he pulled the swaying, shifting load up into the tree and settled it across the fork, lunging for the hammer before it slipped from underneath the knotted rope, just as his father had done years before.
The treehouse had been the boy’s own personal retreat. As a man remembered the smell, the feel of Friday afternoons, no school for two days, homework deferred. Even as a man, some Friday afternoons felt almost the same. It was the smell, that first hint of dry fall leaves, that first caress of coolness in the air. It came back in a rush, unexpected, unbidden, welcomed, embraced, the feel of that last year of complete innocence when his world had been narrow, protected.
When he was twelve years old, he would race home from the junior high school – another transition being that sixth graders went to junior high that year – with the latest delivery from the Scholastic Book Services or a new treasure from the library tucked under his arm. Folding up an aluminum lawn chair, he would thrust his book inside, tie his rope to the corner of the chair, and toss the free end of the rope over the limb by the treehouse. Scrambling up the trunk, he would walk out along the broad limb to the treehouse, then pull up his chair and book and settle in among the leaves, leaves on the cusp of changing color but still holding onto summer’s green, a green now gone a little dull and tired, the long, golden rays of the setting sun slanting through them, burnishing them with hints of the colors to come.
It was peaceful, serene. The world passed beneath him unaware, unconcerned, just as it did today in the tree in his own front yard. The man pulled out the first 2X4, seven feet long, and laid it along the left side of the fork. The limb dipped a little at the far end. The man drove a 16d nail through the 2X4 and into the limb at the near end, grabbed a couple of 1X’s and scooted to the far end.
The man brought no level. Rather he decided to eyeball it like his father had done. There was a time for precision as practiced and taught him by his father, but there was an organic quality to a treehouse. It had to fit in and grow from the tree. Sliding the shim under the low end of the 2X4, he sighted along it. Level enough. He drove another 16d nail through the 2X4 and the shim and into the limb. Scooting back to the fork, he drove a couple of more nails to secure the 2X4.
The man was sweating again. The temperature hovered at that range that was absolutely perfect for a person at rest, but only at rest. A little exertion was all it took to start him sweating.
Dropping another 2X4 onto the right side of the fork, the man quickly and surely nailed it down. He quickly arrayed the pre-cut 1X6’s (all five fee long) across the fork on top of the 2X4’s.
They were new, yellow planks, not the grey, weathered ones, reclaimed from some other project that his father and he had used. As a boy he had never used a new plank, board, or nail. All had been scavenged from abandoned projects or repurposed, the nails carefully knocked straight only to frequently bend again when used. If nothing else, as a boy he had developed some pretty impressive hammering skills. At first the boy’s father had said he hammered like lightening. His momentary pride sank at the follow-up: You never strike in the same place twice.
Although true, It had been said in jest, not to be mean. His father had probably heard the same thing from his own father. The boy’s father had grinned, ruffled the boy’s short hair, and said, “Here, let me show you how.”
The man quickly lined up and nailed down the planks and was left with a mostly level, reasonably flat platform seven feet long by five feet wide. He imagined it was the same size as the one his father had built, but knowing childhood memories assumed it was larger.
The man stretched out lengthwise on the platform letting his drying sweat plaster his shirt to his chest while he stared up though the shifting leaf patterns, sun and shadow, light and dark. The greener tops of the leaves still maintaining some of their luster compared to duller lighter undersides.
Why was he doing all of this, building a treehouse of all things? The man honestly did not know. He loved his wife, even more deeply than ever, with a love too deep and committed to be attributed to habit or inertia. He had always been faithful to her despite the opportunities available to most men, having learned the difference between desire and love before he had met her.
His entire family, children, grandchildren, in-laws, nieces, and nephews were a never-ending source of wonder and joy to him. That he could be so loved by so many still filled him with amazement. He accepted it but could not understand it. Why him? He knew he did not deserve it but was thankful for it every day. No, that was not it.
But it could not be his job either. He had been reasonably successful in his career, remarkably so considering his frequent reliance on circumstance as opposed to actual planning. While his job was not perfect, he enjoyed it more than not, as much as any man wondering if he could afford to retire yet, and it paid well, meeting their needs with enough left over for the occasional indulgence.
No, it was none of those things. Maybe it was being nearer the end than the beginning. Maybe it was the loss of so many from those innocent days: parents, teachers, neighbors, Sunday School teachers, even contemporaries, people who had shaped his life, the last living touchstones with those days. The freedom and innocence could never be reclaimed, but faint glimmers like emotional memory washed over him from time to time. Like this afternoon.
Shaking his head and rising to his knees, the man laid the short 2X4’s on the deck and nailed the 1X6’s, three for each pair of 2X4’s, to them to create the kneewall (shinwall?) that would go around three sides of the platform. The boy’s father had thought that would be perfect: three walls with little 45% pieces tacked at the corners and longer uprights at the front joined by a crosspiece. And it had been perfect, perfect for the boy.
Sitting in his lawn chair with his heels resting on the corner of the low wall, the boy had read his first science fiction novel, Mission to Mercury. It was one of the last juvenile books he read, but it added fuel to the fire that the dawn of manned space flight had already lit in his heart and mind, a passion that ruled off and on for years, nearly but not quite shaping his career. He also read his first adult (in terms of not written for children as opposed to a euphemism for raunchy and steamy) novel, The Beasts of Tarzan.
No boy of his age and time had escaped the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies of the 1930’s and 40’s, and few enjoyed them more. That summer his mother had dropped him off at the hospital gift shop on her way upstairs to see his father who was recovering from routine surgery. In those days children were not allowed on the wards, and the lady who managed the bookstore lived only a few houses down the street from them.
Armed with an incredibly generous 50¢ and faced with a virgin field of comic books arrayed before him, he had eventually settled on the best four at 12¢ each. The problem had arisen as he approached the cash register. The revolving paperback rack had never in his short life caught his attention, but it did this day.
The cover had been mostly burgundy-colored, EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS across the top, THE BEASTS OF TARZAN right below. On the bottom half of the cover, Tarzan, a monkey on his shoulder and a spear in his hand, had sat astride a bull elephant with an African warrior in the foreground. The boy’s eyes had never left he book as his right hand reached out of its own volition and set the comics on the glass cabinet on the other end of which was the cash register.
He had lifted the paperback from the rack and had begun thumbing through the book. This was not a Tarzan he knew. This Tarzan was both more sophisticated and articulate and more savage than M-G-M’s Tarzan. He had been transfixed. Inside the front cover there had been a list: Tarzan of the Apes, The Return of Tarzan, The Beasts of Tarzan, The Son of Tarzan. The list went on and on, more than 20 titles. The boy had flipped back to the cover. Yes, plain as day in the top right corner, “Tarzan 3.” He had sensed rather than known that he had stumbled onto source material, and a wealth of it at that.
The decision had been difficult. The comics were a known quantity, not so the paperback. For the love of heaven, it had no pictures at all unless you counted the cover. Finally, fatefully, the boy had returned the comics to the rack and laid The Beasts of Tarzan on the shiny glass counter by the cash register. The man could not remember if he had four cents for the tax in his pocket or if his neighbor lady, the cashier, had covered for him. He knew that she would have. Neighbors did that in those days.
Slipping into the waiting room the boy had dived into The Beasts of Tarzan. It would take him a month to finish the novel. He had no idea what Stygian meant or what a denizen was, so he spent a lot of time with a dictionary. But the door to new worlds had been thrown open, and Burroughs introduced him to Africa, Barsoom, Venus, and Pellucidar.
The man smiled at the thought, memories coming unbidden yet welcome. He knew that if he rummaged around in the closet long enough, he would find that book, his name in cursive on the flyleaf with a ballpoint pen drawing of a loin-clothed Tarzan, one foot resting on a log, spear in hand, quiver and bow across his back.
The man rested, his back against the newly erected wall, his legs stretched out on the floor, ankles crossed, and listened. It was surprisingly still and quiet, little if any breeze, the leaves not even fluttering, very little birdsong. In the distance a dog barked half-heartedly, sporadically, and a solitary crow added its raucous cry on occasion. Then the man heard it. The most wonderful sound, children’s voices at play from the empty lot down the street, rising and falling, crescendo and diminuendo, words indistinct but emotions evident, laced with excitement: Tomorrow is Saturday, and we have not a worry in the world.
The man knew he could never reclaim that, knew when he started this folly that he could not, did not care. His muscles were tired. His wife would have dinner ready soon. He had called it supper as a boy.
But before that, he would climb down and settle into a comfortable chair in the living room with a tumbler of ice and a little bourbon splashed over it at his elbow. His wife’s soft, domestic clatter would drift in from the kitchen. She might even join him with a glass of wine. But until she did, he would look out through the French windows across the lawn to the tree and the tiny, plain treehouse, bathed in the light of the setting sun.
He would pick up his ereader, maybe pull up and read a little of Burroughs’ A Fighting Man of Mars, hold on to the feeling, the illusion, a little while longer, knowing it was fleeting, temporary, maybe a little childish, not really caring.
He would climb down and probably never climb up here again. Maybe his grandsons would though. Maybe they would climb up and lay claim to the treehouse, ask him for some planks and some nails to add on to it, make it their own, make it special. That would be the best, the very best.
Last Sunday as people were filing down the aisle of Myers Park United Methodist Church to receive Holy Communion, the organist played a brief passage from “In The Garden”, an old hymn written in 1913. Hearing it, I was transported to another time and place, Mississippi in 1968, to be precise, to Brazil Baptist Church, a small country church where I had worshipped with my grandparents every time I visited them, which was often.
I was fifteen in 1968, still largely innocent, my young life still unmarred by grief or loss, the only members of my extended family, two uncles, had passed away before I was born, but that would soon change.
Our country was in turmoil. The war in Viet Nam was raging. Inner cities were burning. School systems were struggling with desegregation. Tupelo, where my family lived, had so far avoided most of the racial tension tearing so much of Mississippi apart. With Freedom of Choice in effect, our schools were slowly integrating. Full desegregation would be completed within a year with no riots and very little rancor.
The Rascals, Cream, and the Doors provided the soundtrack that summer with “People Got to Be Free”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, and “Hello, I Love You” respectively. But in a year that had already seen the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” might have better exemplified the times.
As was my want, I was spending a couple of weeks with my father’s parents on the farm outside of Brazil before school started back up in September. I was headed to high school. A sophomore. As irony would have it, the Democratic Party had scheduled their convention and the Brazil Baptist Church had scheduled their annual revival for the same week, August 26-30, 1968.
The sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, had dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination and was replaced by his VP, Hubert Humphrey. An early frontrunner RFK was dead. A strong peace candidate in Eugene McCarthy was gathering delegates even as George McGovern began collecting former Kennedy delegates. The Democratic National Convention had all the makings of a circus, just not the one we expected.
Pop no longer actively managed the farm, but still checked on the fields every day. I would drive him on his rounds and to visit friends. I would take both Pop and Cat to the clinic in Sumner for their B12 shots. In the evening we would watch the news as we ate supper. Pop and Cat, who had lived through the Spanish-American War, the Great Depression, two World Wars and the Korean Conflict, multiple assassinations, race riots and lynchings, shook their heads again in disbelief.
They were inveterate readers of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal and devoted to the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC, current on local, national, and world affairs. However, nothing in their long lives had prepared them for 23,000 uniformed police and National Guardsmen with tear gas and nightsticks descending on 10,000 young protesters in one of America’s great cities.
As an obedient, first-born, rule-following child, I was as appalled as they were. That would change too, but not yet. My life was still too insular, too sheltered.
After supper we would head to Brazil Baptist Church where a Revival was in full swing, the gospel preached nightly and voices raised in hymns of praise. After church, we would return to the farm and Pop and Cat would head to bed, usually by 8:00. I would sit up to watch the drama of the Convention play out on TV. Or turn their huge box radio to a station in Memphis or New Orleans and listen to Top 40 radio which was still vibrant.
Brazil Baptist Church had been founded in 1940, and the solid, brick building had been erected in 1953, the year I was born. It was carved right there in the cornerstone on the southwest corner to the left of the door. My grandfather Pop had been instrumental in both. He even led the singing on Sunday morning, his rich baritone rolling through the small sanctuary. He and my grandmother Cat still attended and supported the church.
Mike Pinion was a local boy and church member who was attending Mississippi College. That summer he was involved with the Revival in some capacity and convinced a young teen-aged girl from Webb, whose name I cannot recall, and me to sing a duet one evening. Reluctant I may have been, but relent I did. Pop and Cat were delighted when I told them. The young woman and I selected “In the Garden”, rehearsed throughout the week, and sang for the congregation on Thursday night.
Now that I have grandchildren in whose accomplishments I rejoice, I have some idea of how Pop and Cat must have felt hearing me sing in their church, particularly Pop who had led so many hymns in that very sanctuary.
Sadly, within a year Mike would be dead, killed in a car wreck. Three years later I would enroll at Mississippi College. By that time age and health had compelled Pop and Cat to move into an apartment with their widowed daughter, Sadie, who was a nurse. That was the last summer I would spend with my grandparents.
College and career, marriage and relocations pushed me literally and figuratively further and further from that little church. I learned grief and loss first hand, losing close friends and eventually all of my grandparents.
Forty years after that last summer with Popo and Cat, my wife Sherrie and I took Dad to the Delta to visit the places of his youth. Alzheimer’s was inexorably stripping away his memories. It seemed like the thing to do. It may have been forty years, but I drove the 115 miles from my parents’ home in Tupelo to Brazil without a map, as unerringly as if I had driven it only yesterday.
We pulled up at Brazil Baptist Church. The church was locked, but the condition of the building, fresh paint and clean windows, the mown grass and edged sidewalks, and neatness of the tiny, adjacent cemetery indicated that it was still maintained and in use. Sherrie took a picture of Dad and me in front of that little church.
It would be another six years, the summer of 2014, before I passed that way again. Mom had succumbed to cancer the year before and now her brother Jim had been taken by a stroke. On the drive back from his funeral in Greenville, I detoured through Brazil.
The churchyard was unmown and weedy. A heavy padlock was attached to the front doors. The cornerstone had been removed, chipped out of the surrounding brick. Delicate tendrils of honeysuckle clung to the brick on the western-facing wall. Several window panes had been shattered leaving gaping black holes like hollow, lifeless eyes. I peered through the jagged holes in the panes at the dim sanctuary, every pew still in place, the pulpit a lone sentinel, hardwood floor scuffed by thousands of dress shoes, work boots, pumps, and high heels. So many congregants, so many sermons, hymns, revivals, marriages, and funerals. I turned away a little older, wiser, and sadder.
In the fall of 2015, Dad died. In the summer of 2016, Mom’s sister Jean, the last of Mom’s nine siblings died. I attended her funeral in Rome, Mississippi, again detouring by Brazil on my way home.
I was shocked. The church was gone. Tall stalks of corn rose from the ground where it had once stood. The old oak tree still shaded the small cemetery, surrounded now by a cornfield.
All of this and more flashed through my mind in an instant as those few bars of “In the Garden” rang out in the stately sanctuary of Myers Park United Methodist Church, a flood of thoughts fleeting like a series of shooting stars that only register in the mind’s eye after they have passed.
Memory. At one moment vivid, full and complete, then imprecise, vague and frustrating. I can remember the lyrics to “In the Garden” but not the name of the girl with whom I sang that duet. Did Mike handle the music only or did he also preach that revival? I could get in my car and drive 600 miles to where that church once stood without a map or a single wrong turn, but I cannot remember a single other thing about that revival.
Sherrie had seen me wipe a tear from my cheek and asked me about as we left the sanctuary. I tried to explain, shared the high points, but what I could not convey was how transient that time had been, that hovering moment on the cusp of maturity, or the depth of loss that had washed over me, how memory had flooded in carrying all else away. Just an instant, an instant that my meager skills cannot begin to convey or contain or encapsulate in a thousand words.
“I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.”