Category Archives: Memory

MORNING HUNT

The Boy awoke to the gentle yet persistent pressure of a large hand on his shoulder.

“Time to get up,” Father whispered.

The Boy stuck his nose out from under the heavy quilt. “Yessir,” he mumbled into the dark, cold air.

The sound of Father’s receding steps indicated that he was already headed to the kitchen. Neither Father’s light tread, even in his hunting boots, nor his whisper had awakened Grandfather who continued to snore softly from the large bed on the other side of the room.

The Boy pried an eye open and lifted the thin curtain over the window beside his bed in the corner to peer outside. Frost-covered pastures stretched away to the dark, impenetrable wall of the distant, shrouded woods, all bathed in the cool, pale blue light of a nearly full moon. It looked cold outside because it was.

Reluctant to leave the warm embrace of his covers but excited about the day, he tossed aside his quilts and scurried across the cold hardwood floor of the unheated room to the warmth of the bathroom where Father had left the gas heater on. He quickly brushed his teeth and splashed cold water on his face.

Back in the bedroom, the Boy plopped down at the foot of the bed. His clothes for the morning were draped across the chair at the foot of the bed. Scooting out of his pajama bottoms, he pulled on a pair of worn khakis and two pair of socks, then stuffed his feet into his hunting boots and laced them up.

Shrugging out of his pajama top, he pulled an insulated shirt over his head, paused for a moment to consider, then slipped back into his pajama tops for added warmth before putting on a flannel shirt. With his wool jacket, cap, and gloves in hand, the Boy slipped out of the bedroom and gently closed the door on his still-sleeping grandfather.

Five steps took him through the dining room and into the delicious warmth and rich aromas of Grandmother’s kitchen. Father stood at the sink, a cup of coffee in one hand, a thin slice of apple pie in the other. As the youngest of eight children, Father still relied on his mother’s indulgence when it came to his sweet tooth.

Grandmother was at the stove tending to a cast iron skillet of scrambled eggs and sizzling sausage. The coffee pot sat warming on an eye on the back of the stove.

“Good morning, Dear,” she said with a smile and used the back of her free hand to push back a stray strand of her white hair.

“Good morning, Grandmother,” he replied and hugged her slender frame and kissed her like he did every morning. And every evening. And at every arrival and departure.

“Have a seat,” she added. “Breakfast is nearly ready.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said.

But first, the Boy rubbed his eyes with his knuckles and crossed the small room. “Good morning, Father,” he said and wrapped one arm around Father’s waist and hugged.

“Hey there, Boy,” Father said and setting his cup aside, pulled the Boy close with his free arm and kissed him on top of my head.

The Boy looked up into Father’s smiling face and grinned back.

The Boy draped his coat over an empty chair and sat down at the breakfast table at his usual place. Grandmother had already poured him a tall glass of cold sweetmilk. In the center of the table, a plateful of yeast rolls sat cooling under a clean dishcloth, surrounded by a saucer of pale yellow, hand-churned butter and jars of peach, pear, and fig preserves.

Father took over at the stove while Grandmother went to the pantry. Father brought the coffee pot and a plateful of eggs and sausage to the table and sat down. “Ready for some hunting?” he asked.

“Yes, Sir,” the Boy said and tried to stifle a yawn.

“I can tell.” Father chuckled and ruffled the Boy’s short hair.

Grandmother returned and Father and the Boy rose. Father held her chair, and when she was seated, they joined her. Father offered thanks, and after ‘Amen’, all three began helping their plates. Amid the soft clatter of utensils and plates, Grandmother and Father talked softly as the house slept around them, Grandfather in the back bedroom, Mother and Younger Sister in the front.

The Boy listened idly and stuffed himself on his favorite breakfast. When the last crumb was tucked away, Father leaned back and said, “That was delicious, Mother. I certainly enjoyed it.”

“I did, too,” the Boy chimed in.

“I’m so glad you did,” Grandmother replied with a smile.

The Boy took a sausage patty and tucked it into a yeast roll, then wrapped it all up in one of Grandmother’s cotton napkins and stuffed it into his pants pocket.

Father and the Boy rose and took their dishes to the sink.

“Leave them. I’ll wash up. You two get going,” Grandmother said.

Father pulled on his canvas hunting jacket, and picking up one of Grandfather’s old felt hats, kissed Grandmother good-bye. The Boy kissed her too, then pulled on his wool jacket. It had been Father’s when he was young as had the red leather cap with the fold-down earflaps lined with rabbit fur that he seated firmly on his head. The Boy treasured that cap.

With a final good-bye, Father and the Boy slipped out onto the screened back porch. Their guns, a Browning Auto-5 12-gauge shotgun for Father and a J.C. Higgins Model 36 .22 rifle for the Boy, were propped against Grandmother’s heavy, old buffet. There was a set of drawers on top where Grandmother stored seeds for her garden, and in front of the drawers were two boxes of ammunition, one of Number 2 shot for duck hunting and another holding .22 long rifle cartridges.

Father seated Grandfather’s hat on his head and dropped a handful of shotguns shells into the pocket of his hunting jacket. The Boy put the entire box of cartridges in his pocket. The ever-alert Dog must have heard their footsteps because he crawled from under the porch and extending his front paws, raised his hind end high, and stretched. With wagging of tail, he waited for them at the bottom of the steps, dancing in anticipation. Dog was a not particularly attractive dog. In fact, he was a mongrel with a thick body and short legs, mostly white with a few black and brown splotches. But what Dog lacked in breeding and aesthetic appeal, he made up for in loyalty and eagerness.

Father and the Boy buttoned up their coats against the cold and hefted their guns, checked that they were both indeed unloaded and that the Safeties were on. With guns pointed toward the ground, they descended the steps. The Boy stopped at the bottom to kneel down and pet Dog who thanked him with a cold, wet tongue to the cheek, then nuzzled the Boy’s pocket that held the sausage and yeast roll.

“Not for you,” the Boy said and stood up.

They crossed the yard with Dog bouncing around underfoot. Past the plum tree, Father handed the shotgun to the Boy to hold while he crouched and slipped between two strands of the barb wire fence that surrounded the pasture. When Father was clear, the Boy passed him the shotgun and the rifle and followed. Dog ran under the bottom strand.

The sun was just peeking through the bare limbs of the treetops in the far southeast end of the pasture, turning the frost-covered brown stubble of the pasture into a sparkling blanket. They paused here, and Father loaded two shells into the shotgun’s magazine, pulled back the bolt to chamber the first shell, then added a third into the magazine. He then rechecked the shotgun’s Safety.

The Boy removed the spring-loaded rod from the .22’s tubular magazine and, one by one, dropped in 15 cartridges, then replaced the rod and pulled back on the bolt to load the first round. Just like Father he rechecked that the Safety was on. Father was a rigorous teacher when it came to most things, firearm safety in particular.

The sun broke free of the distant trees, and its low rays turned the pasture into a benign lake of shimmering gold. Father tucked his shotgun into the crook of his right arm. The Boy paused and breathed deeply of the cold air. The scent of woodsmoke from fireplaces and kitchens on the place tickled his nose.

He folded down his cap’s rabbit fur flaps over his cold ears and tucked the rifle into the crook of his left arm, then jammed both of his now-gloved hands into his pockets. Although, he was naturally right-handed, his eyesight was so poor in his right eye, that he had turned himself into a left-handed shot.

The frosty stubble, dry, winter-brittle, and frost covered, crunched under their boots as they walked across the pasture towards the old, old forest of oak trees that ran along the east side of the place. The Boy had no idea how deep these woods went. He had never walked all the way out the other side.

As they crossed the pasture, Father and the Boy spoke rarely and then in hushed tones as if in reverence of the dawning day. Dog trotted ahead on stiff, jaunty legs, nose to the ground, running down every intriguing scent. Occasionally, Dog paused, turned, and waited as if impatient.

Eventually, they came to the edge of the wood, the immense trunks towered above, dark and solemn. Bare, brittle limbs rattled and cracked in the wind-driven, bitterly cold air. The Boy shivered as the breeze cut through his clothes. Even Dog paused before entering, perhaps like Father and the Boy, not from fear or even unease, but out of respect for something ancient and wild, primeval and seductive.

The Boy pulled off his left glove, freeing his shooting hand, and with rifle at the ready and heightened senses, all three stepped into the still dark, still shadowy world of the woods. The ground was covered with a carpet of brown, fallen leaves and mast, thousands upon thousands of acorns, food for deer, squirrel and turkey.

Father and the Boy spaced themselves about 15 feet apart and moved as quietly as possible through the sparse undergrowth. Amid the soft rustle of leaf and the occasional crunch of acorn underfoot, they cocked their ears for squirrel chatter and swept their eyes through the branches above for movement. Despite the cold, the Boy had already flipped up the flaps on his cap in order to hear better. Dog ran down every new scent he discovered whether squirrel or rabbit or ground-nesting bird.

The Boy wondered if these woods were old enough to have been here when the first white men came to clear them for farming. The trees had to be old. He knew that many of them were nearly 100 feet tall and twelve to 15 around at the base. He had read in his science book that white oaks could live to be over 300 years old. Had the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians hunted these same woods where he and Father now hunted? He was sure they must have.

Grandmother had always kept chickens, and one day as a small boy, he had run inside with a particularly fine, large chicken feather. Grandmother had given him a strip of fabric to tie around his head, and he had thrust that feather into his headband. Then taking up the bow and arrow that she had been instrumental in him getting for his birthday that June, he had practiced slipping, silently and undetected, about the farmyard and tractor sheds and tree-lined bayou.

Now he hunted the big woods for real, not pretend, and with Father, among trees so evenly spaced that they could have been planted. But then again, every one of these old trees had a lot of roots and needed a lot of room to grow. He walked these woods in the summer too when it was an emerald world of perpetual shade, shade so complete that there was practically no undergrowth. Maybe they just grew this way.

As they moved deeper, the rising sun cast golden rays through the thick trunks creating long, dense shadows.  Waking birds, finches and sparrows began their morning songs. They came to a small sun-filled clearing, a nearly perfect circle of brown grass, dominated by the scarred, shattered carcass of one of the old trees. Struck by lightning, it had collapsed, falling to the ground in disarray. Slender saplings grew up through the broken branches, creating a small thicket. It reminded the Boy of weeds growing up through the bleached, skeletal ribs of a dead dog he had once come upon in these very woods.

“Quiet,” Father whispered. “There might be a rabbit in there.”

The Boy halted, expectant. From the corner of his eye he saw Father slowly bring the shotgun to his shoulder. The Boy stared intently at the thicket and held his breath as he eased the rifle up to his shoulder.

Ever impulsive, Dog bounded into the clearing, paused momentarily sniffing the cold morning air, and plunged into the thicket. The cottontail that Father suspected might be in the thicket erupted out of the other side, a long, low, sleek gray missile zig-zagging across the clearing, its white scut held high, Dog in furious but futile pursuit. The two charged back into the woods, the rabbit desperately seeking cover.

Father exploded in laughter, and the Boy did too. They could hear the diminishing rustle of the chase. Father paused in the warm sunlight. The Boy, his rifle back in the crook of his arm, blew his warm breath on his cold fingers.

Father said, “One winter, I was still in high school, one of the farmhands and I were out rabbit hunting. It was cold like today, maybe even colder, and we came up on a place just like this.”

Father continued. “Well, there was a rabbit hiding in that thicket too. That old boy crept right up to that thicket and when he saw that rabbit – he had a single-shot shotgun – he leaned in with that gun, couldn’t’ve been more that two or three feet from that rabbit, and pulled the trigger.”

Father was laughing so hard, that tears were starting at the corner of his eyes.

“And missed him,” Father finally choked out, still laughing.

The Boy was grinning and laughing so hard, not just at the story but at how tickled Father was at the memory, that his jaw ached.

Father wiped his eyes. “Before that rabbit could even flinch, he flipped that single-shot around and whacked that rabbit in the head with the stock.”

Father started laughing all over again. “Only rabbit we saw that day. It was so cold I couldn’t even feel my fingers or toes by the time we got back to the house. But we got a rabbit.”

They were still laughing when Dog reappeared at the edge of the clearing, tongue lolling out, defeated.

“Got away, didn’t he?” Father called out.

In response, Dog sat down panting and waited for them.

Father and the Boy crossed the clearing and Dog fell in beside the Boy. There was a log, the remnant of a downed tree, at the edge of the clearing. The Boy started to step over it.

“What did I tell you?” Father said sharply.

The Boy looked back, abashed. “Always step on a log not over it in case a snake is coiled on the other side.”

“That’s right.”

“But there won’t be any rattlers out. It’s too cold,” the Boy offered in defense of his lapse.

Father squinted that way that only he could. “Make it a habit and you’ll do it all the time. Without thinking. You won’t have to ask yourself if the snakes are out or not.”

“Yessir,” the Boy said.

He and Father stepped on, then over the log and re-entered the woods.

“Now, let’s find a good, fat squirrel for your Grandfather,” Father said.

The air was still cold, but here and there a squirrel poked its nose from its nest, drawn by hunger and the warming sun. Spaced out again, Father and the Boy continued to sweep the limbs above. They walked aimlessly among the thick, gray trunks beneath the lattice of bare limbs with no discernable pattern, deeper and deeper into the woods. The Boy savored the nip of the cold air and the relative quiet of the morning.

Eventually they were rewarded by the chatter of a squirrel calling or maybe admonishing another squirrel. The Boy followed the sound and finally spotted the squirrel. It must have been 30 feet up in the tree, plump and gray, acorn in its paws, gnawing away and chattering. Father saw it too and nodded. Slowly and quietly, the Boy raised the rifle to his left shoulder. As the gripped the stock with his left hand, he reached forward with his trigger finger and gently clicked off the Safety. Just as he did, the squirrel paused, then scampered along the limb and resettled, partially obscured by a branch.

“Still see him?” Father whispered.

“Yessir,” the Boy replied. “I can see his shoulder right above that branch.”

“Don’t shoot unless you’re sure,” Father said.

The Boy centered the blade of the front sight into notch on the rear sight and aimed so that the squirrel’s shoulder was right on top of the front blade. “I got ’im,” the Boy answered and squeezed the trigger the way Father had taught him.

There was a sharp crack. The recoil of the rifle ejected the spent cartridge and the bolt cycled back forward loading a fresh cartridge. Through it all, the Boy held his aim just as Father had taught him in case another shot was needed. It was not. The squirrel tumbled to the earth, landing with a soft thud.

Dog bounded towards the fallen squirrel. The Boy lowered his rifle, clicked the Safety back on, and started to run after Dog, fearful that Dog, more companion than retriever, might make off with the squirrel. Before Father could say a word, the Boy remembered Father’s injunction about running with a loaded rifle. With his rifle at his side, the Boy strode across the carpet of leaves and mast as quickly as possible. When the Boy got there, Dog was merely sniffing about and nudging the inert body with his wet, black nose.

The Boy lifted the squirrel by the tail. It was heavier than he expected, long and plump. His shot had broken the squirrel’s backbone right at the shoulder.

Father walked up beaming. “That may be the finest squirrel I’ve ever seen taken around here,” he said. “And that was some good shot! Why, no more’n you could see of that squirrel, I doubt I could have made that shot.”

The Boy’s chest swelled with pride for Father never praised lightly, even though he knew in his heart that Father could have easily made that shot. He handed the squirrel to Father, who hefted it.

“Nice and plump. Grandfather will be pleased,” he said. “Want me to carry him?”

“Yessir,” he said.

There was very little blood, but Father’s hunting jacket had a lined game pouch into which Father dropped the squirrel. “We got what we came for. Let’s meander on back.”

Father and the Boy walked closer together now and talked softly as they walked, while Dog ranged off in first one direction and then another. Despite their apparently aimless drifting, they soon arrived back at the clearing. The meadow was bathed in warm sunlight, and selecting a convenient limb on the downed tree, they sat.

The Boy reached into his pocket and pulled out his sausage and roll wrapped in Grandmother’s napkin. Walking in the cold morning air had made him hungry. He was unwrapping his snack and about to offer Father part of it, when Father fished his own out of his pocket.

“I’ve been sticking a piece of ham or sausage in one of your Grandmother’s rolls before heading out for the day for a long as I can remember,” Father said and took a big bite.

“Um-uh,” Father said. “That’s good.”

The Boy dug into his and agreed. They munched slowly, and Father told stories of other hunts, other days, and other dogs, but especially stories of duck hunts over on the River, the Mississippi River. The Boy loved to hear Father’s stories.

Redbirds and blue jays joined the finches and sparrows that darted across the meadow. A raucous murder of crows flew in, scattering the other birds, and lit to peck among the scrub. One particularly large crow settled into a tree along the edge of the clearing and began to chastise Father and the Boy with insistent cawing.

“Bet that rascal has been in your Grandmother’s garden and fruit trees,” Father said.

Father took his last bite and wiped his hands on Grandmother’s napkin which he stuffed back in his pocket. “You’ve never fired a shotgun, have you?” Father asked, even though he knew the answer.

“Nosir,” the Boy said. He had seen Father shoot and had pleaded, but Father had always said ‘Not yet.’

“Stand up,” Father said.

The Boy leapt up in anticipation and Father handed him the long, heavy shotgun.

“Now aim down the barrel at that crow.”

The Boy looked down the length of the barrel at the little bead on the end. “There’s no rear sight,” he said.

“Just look down that rib,” Father said, then added, “Put your left leg back a little and lean forward just a little bit.”

The Boy did as instructed, but the gun was heavy. Father must have noticed.

“Perfect,” Father said. “Now stand easy.”

The Boy lowered the heavy barrel.

“That shotgun’s going to kick when you pull the trigger. Make sure it’s snugged up tight against your shoulder,” Father said. “It’ll push you back and the barrel will rise but hold steady and the barrel will come back down.”

The Boy nodded. “Yessir.”

“And another thing. You’re shooting lefty, so that empty shell is going to be ejected right across in front of your eyes. Don’t let that bother you. It won’t hit you.”

“Yessir.”

“Now aim and fire,” Father said.

The Boy lifted the shotgun and tucked it tight against his left shoulder. With his forefinger he flicked off the Safety. He placed his left cheek against the cool wood of the stock and sighted down the rib, placing the bead squarely on the squawking crow. He squeezed the trigger.

The sound was deafening. The heavy gun slammed his shoulder back and the barrel rode up just like Father said it would. But his stance was good, and he was braced as Father had taught him. As he rocked back forward and the barrel came back down, all he saw was a cascade of tattered black feathers fluttering to the ground. The crow was completely gone.

“Wow,” he said under his breath. He was both in awe of the destructive power of the shotgun and in some way that he couldn’t describe, abashed. A living creature, even one as rapacious and irritating as a crow could be, simply no longer existed. The squirrel was one thing: that was for Grandfather who loved squirrel stew. This was another. Still, he had fired a shotgun and hit what he had aimed at.

“How’d it feel?” Father asked.

“Like getting punched in the shoulder,” he replied and clicked the Safety back on.

“You’ll get used to it. But that was a tight, heavy load for duck, not birdshot. Still, it shows you how devastating a shotgun can be. That’s a good thing to remember.”

The Boy looked over at the limb where the now-obliterated crow had been and gulped. But he was still a boy, and that thought fled from his mind as he hefted the 12-gauge. “When can we go dove hunting?” he asked, assuming that was the next logical step.

“When you learn how to shoot birds on the wing. You have to learn to aim so that your shot and the flying bird arrive at the same place at the same time. Hand me the shotgun.”

Father stood and took the gun. “Now run pick up that shell.”

Father checked that the Safety was on and took his shooting stance. With his free hand, he pointed to a spot well off to his left. “Now stand over there,” he said. “And when I say ‘Pull’, throw that shell as high and as far as you can.”

“Yessir,” the Boy said and went to the spot and cocked his arm.

“Pull,” Father shouted.

The Boy hurled the shotgun shell as hard as he could. It arced through the air, a small tumbling, red cylinder against the pale blue sky. Father traced its path with the barrel of the shotgun and pulled the trigger. Another explosion and the shotgun shell went spinning off in a different direction.

“Like that,” Father said and set the Safety as he lowered the gun.

“Wow,” the Boy said for the second time that morning. “How did you learn to do that?”

“Your Grandfather taught he. He must have told me a thousand times, ‘You don’t aim a shotgun, you point it.’ And practice. Lots of practice.”

“Is that why you don’t need sights like on a rifle, because you point it?” the Boy asked.

“Exactly.” Father nodded.

“But how do you figure out where to point the shotgun?”

Father thought for moment and finally said. “You know when we’re out in the backyard running pass routes and throwing the football?”

“Yessir.”

“How do you know where to throw the ball when I’m running a down and out route?”

“I just do,” the Boy said. “I just know how to throw it where you’ll be.”

“Do you think about it?”

“Nosir, not really. I just know.”

“But you didn’t at first, did you?”

The Boy thought for a second. “Nosir. I threw behind you all the time.”

“That’s right. But with practice you learned how to throw the football so that the ball and I got to the same place at the same time.”

The Boy was excited now. It all made sense to him. “Can I try?” he asked.

“Sure,” Father said and handed him the shotgun.

On his fourth try the Boy hit the empty shotgun shell that Father sent sailing through the air. Just like when he was learning to throw passes, he had been behind on the first three times.  Father threw one more and when he hit that one too, Father said, “Let’s stop while you’re ahead. Besides, it’s about time to head back to the house.”

They gathered up and pocketed their empty shells, then turned towards home. Dog, who had found other things to do during shotgun practice, rejoined them as they re-entered the woods. The sun was nearly directly overhead now and shone down through the skein of bare branches overhead, creating pools of brown and gold on the forest floor. Now that they were no longer hunting, the Boy picked up the occasional stick and threw it for Dog to chase.

They cleared the woods and stepped out into the pasture. It was warmer, not exactly warm, but warmer in the direct sunlight; all the frost had been burned off. Half a mile away stood Grandfather’s and Grandmother’s white, clapboarded house among the trees and outbuildings, the smokehouse and hen house. Smoke, thin wispy pillars of gray, rose into the still air from their chimney and the chimney of every other house on the place.

Dog headed to the slough that meandered though the upper pasture for a drink of water. Father and the Boy continued across the brown stubble of the pasture, talking now about the college football season. They might even be able to pick up a game on the television this afternoon.

They reached the fence, unloaded their weapons, climbed through one at a time, and crossed the yard where Grandmother’s chickens, rusty Rhode Island Reds and speckled Plymouth Rocks, clucked and cooed and pecked about in the bright sunlight. They stopped at the back steps to clean the squirrel. Grandfather must have seen them coming because he came out onto the porch shrugging into his coat.

“Let’s see what you got there,” Grandfather said.

The Boy held his trophy up high.

“Whooeee,” Grandfather said. “That looks like a good one. Got your knife on you?”

“Yessir,” the Boy answered and fished out his pocketknife.

“Good for you. A gentleman always carries a pocketknife,” Grandfather said.

Grandfather came down the steps, leaned over the Boy’s shoulder, and with his forefinger traced the first cut down the squirrel’s snow-white belly. Grandfather pulled out his Dr. Grabow pipe and pouch of Carter Hall. Soon Grandfather’s head was crowned with a blue halo of pipesmoke. The Boy drank in the rich aroma and skinned and gutted the squirrel at Grandfather’s careful instruction.

The Boy kept the tail for himself. Everything else, hide, head, and entrails he took out back followed by a cavalcade of curious chickens. He tossed it all over the back fence into the pasture. Dog nosed around but found nothing interesting. Crows soon gathered.

Returning, the Boy put the cleaned and skinned squirrel in the pan Grandmother had provided and started up the steps.

“Hope you’re looking forward to squirrel stew as much as I am,” Grandfather said.

The Boy turned and wrinkled up his nose and mouth in disgust.

Grandfather threw his head back and roared with laughter. Father too.

“Good. More for me,” Grandfather said, still laughing.

On the porch, Father and the Boy propped their guns in the corner for cleaning later and emptied their pockets of ammunition. The three of them shrugged out of their coats and entered the warmth of Grandmother’s kitchen. The Boy was the last to enter. He paused and stared off a last time across the pasture at the dark wall of the distant woods, then closed the door against winter’s cold, this day’s hunt over.

***

 

I would hunt those woods many times in the coming years, sometimes with Father, sometimes alone, always wary and alert, yet comfortable in the wild, never with any sense of fear of my surroundings or of getting lost in the big woods. I had been taught well.

In coming years, I would hunt other woods with other people, and as Father had promised, with practice I became a good wingshot. That accomplished, Father took me dove hunting as promised. But that is a story for another time.

Sometimes, I simply walked the woods, not hunting at all. And as the years went by, I hunted less and less and walked more and more. I became a Scoutmaster and avid backpacker. I hiked in the Appalachian Mountains and the Rockies too, the Sierra Nevadas and the Tetons, the Grand Canyon and southern Patagonia. I shared the things Father and Grandfather taught me with others.

Father’s birthday and deathday both come around every fall, within three weeks of each other. So, it is inevitable that as the sun begins its slow march into the southern sky and the days begin to shorten and the shadows lengthen, my mind turns more and more often to Father. When the leaves change color and the air turns sharp, I pull out William Faulkner’s The Bear and read that finest of all coming-of-age/hunting stories for the umpteenth time, and once again I can see and feel and smell the big woods that I had once trod with Father and Grandfather.

Age has slowed my step but not my ardor the wild places. I still get out there, and I still share the lessons that were handed down to me. Early one brisk morning this fall, I stood on a mountain ridge in the southern Appalachians with a Boy beside me, and it struck me as it sometimes does: I am Grandfather now.

In the low rays of morning light, the Boy and I stared out across fog-filled valleys. The surface of the fog was placid, smooth and featureless. Distant peaks rose from the fog like blue islands in calm, gray sea. It was one of those scenes of such transcendent beauty that your breath catches in your throat. I have experienced this many times, in a High Sierras meadow bathed in alpenglow or deep in the Grand Canyon with its walls bathed in the crimson of a setting sun or the intense turquoise blue of a Patagonian lake.

As so often happens at these times, I found myself thinking of Father and Grandfather and all they taught me. I found myself wishing they could be here seeing what I am seeing. And often, like that morning, I found myself speaking to them as if they, and not the Boy, were standing at my side.

“Did you say something, Grandfather?” the Boy at my shoulder asked.

“Yeah, I guess I did,” I replied.

He looked up at me and asked, “What’d you say?”

I looked at the smooth, eager face of the Boy beside me, then back across the magnificent vista stretching before us as if looking back across time to another frosty morning and whispered, “I said, ‘Thank you.’”

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Filed under Autumn, Autumn, Life, Memory, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized, William Faulkner

INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 19, April, 1927: Dick

DICK

He squatted by the slough and dropped his leaf boat into the muddy water. It bobbed along down toward the road. He jumped up to run after it.

“Mistah Dick, don’t you go down to that road,” Uncle Ned called. “You stay in the yard like yo momma say.”

Uncle Ned sat on the ground in the shade by the slough, making a leaf boat for Little Jim. He might be the oldest person he knew, maybe even older than Granpaw. His dark skin was kind of ashy, and the hair on his head and chin was white, like just bloomed cotton. Little Jim was watching Uncle Ned work, holding onto the shoulder strap of the old man’s clean overalls to steady himself.

He felt that since he was five-years-old, he should be able to go down to the road but knew better than to argue.

“Yessir,” he answered and scooped up his little boat and ran back. He had gathered the magnolia and oak leaves with Jim tagging along. Now Uncle Ned was making boats for the two of them. He watched as Uncle Nate poked a hole in the middle of a shiny magnolia leaf with his pocketknife. Then he carefully stuck the stem of an oak leaf into the hole. It looked like a little sail.

He handed the leaf boat to Jim. Jim grinned and said, “Mine.”

“Thas right, Mistah Jim. That one’s yo’s.” Uncle Ned said and laughed. It sounded like one of Mother’s hens cackling.

“Can you make me another, Uncle Ned?” he asked.

“Sholy,” Uncle Nate said and picked up another magnolia leaf.

“Me too,” Jim said. And Uncle Nate laughed again.

Little Jim was not even two-years-old yet, but if he had two boats, Little Jim wanted two boats too.

He watched the old colored man work. His hands and fingers were brown and shiny and lined with creases, except on the insides which were almost pink. He liked the way Uncle Ned smelled, like woodsmoke and fatback and pepper, all mixed together. And he liked Uncle Ned. He could not remember ever not knowing Uncle Ned, could not remember a morning when Uncle Ned had not gotten him, and later Jim, up and dressed for the day. Made him wash his hands and face too.

“Uncle Ned?” he asked, “Have you lived here forever?”

The old man laughed again.

“Nawsuh, Mistah Dick, I come here back in sebenty, eighteen and sebenty, with Mistah Henry Ferg’son. I’s still a young man then.”

Uncle Ned smiled at him. The white part of the old man’s eyes was light yellow, like the color of butter. Then those eyes got a glassy look, like the marbles in Dick’s pocket. Uncle Ned turned a little and stared out toward the road and across the road and the cotton fields over there.

“Wadn’t no cotton fields then. No hay neither. No roads. No houses. Nothing but woods, big ole oak trees it take two, three men to reach around. More of ‘em than you can count. Swamps and sloughs and brakes filled with them ole shaggy cypress trees, snake doctors buzzing over that black water.”

Uncle Ned looked at him with shiny eyes. “Why, you could walk through them woods all day and never once see the sun, everywhere you go squirrels and birds be jabbering and chirping in the trees, like they was passing the word that Man was in the woods.”

Uncle Ned had finished his second boat and sat there with it resting in his dark hands.

Little Jim tugged on the old man’s overalls. “Unca Ned, Unca Ned. Make mine. Make mine.”

“Jim,” he barked. “Uncle Ned was telling a story.”

Little Jim pouted up, but Uncle Ned set Dick’s new boat carefully aside and tousled Jim’s hair and smiled. “I start on yo’s now,” he said, and picked up a magnolia leaf.

“You ever go with yo daddy or one of yo brothers down below Blue Lake, that big ole patch of woods in the crook at the bottom end?” Uncle Ned asked.

“Yessir,” he answered. “Once. With Morris Bailey.”

“That sorter what it was like. Woods over everywhere. And critters. Chile, you never seen the like. There was bear, panther, deer, coon, possum, squirrel, beaver, alligator, snakes, and rabbit. And birds. What you say. More birds than you can ‘magine. Blue jays and redbirds and all kinds of black and brown and yeller and all mixed up colors. And them big ole peckerwoods hammering away. And them doves.”

“Where did it all go?” he asked.

“Lawd, Mistah Dick, hard as it be to ‘magine, we cut all them trees down,” Uncle Ned sighed, and the old man stopped again like he was looking somewhere else. Jim didn’t notice because he was watching a junebug crawl through the grass. A squirrel chattered at them from the oak tree they were sitting under.

“We come here from Alabama with Mistah Henry Ferg’son, seemed like hunderds of us coloreds, more’n I could count anyways, and mules by the hunderds, too, and wagons loaded with axes and handsaws and tents and stoves and food, everything we need to live here where there wadn’t nothing but nothing. It remind me of that Yankee army when they came through an ‘mancipated us back in sixty-fo.”

That surprised him. “You were a slave?” he asked.

“Sho, I was, Chile. What you expect?”

“I don’t know. Can you tell us about it?”

“Sho, but another day. Let’s finish this story first. When we come here, we free and we working fo’ wages. Slave days over,” Uncle Ned grinned.

“What did you do?”

“Well, we cut roads through them woods avoiding them swampy places and them brakes, and we pitched some tents to have a place to stay in. Them skeeters at night, Lawd, what you say! Then we commenced to clearing land, sawing and chopping down trees, oak and gum and who knows what all. Some we used to build houses and other buildings with the logs. Some we cut up for firewood for cooking and whatnot. Some that wadn’t good for nothing else, we saved for campfires. Most nights we went to bed early, but we’d have a fire to keep away skeeters in the summer and to keep warm in the winter.”

“Kinda like when Father and Grady and Morris Bailey go to hunting camp?” he asked.

“Sorta like that,” Uncle Ned grinned. “’Cept at our camp, there be a lot less whiskey and a lot more singing.”

“Like the songs we sing in church?” he asked.

“Kindly like that. Onliest most of ‘em made up and passed along. Not written down in a book like yo’ daddy have. Sometimes I think those songs rise straight up to heav’n like them sparks from the fire rise up to the stars in the sky. It was the best part of the day. Work done, belly full, smoking a pipe, relaxing ‘fore bedtime.”

“Father sings a lot. Grandma sings all the time. I like to hear her sing,” he said.

“She sholy do,” Uncle Ned agreed. He went on. “‘Ventually, Mistah Ferg’son hauled in a sawmill, and we commenced to sawing them logs we had piled up into boards.”

Uncle Ned nodded toward the house where Grandmaw and Grandpaw lived, then said, “We sawed the boards for that house right there. I he’ped build it too.”

The old colored man pulled a stick out of the pocket on the bib of his overalls and began to whittle on it, shaving off long strips of yellow wood. Then he stopped and stared out across the cow pasture and laughed. “And stumps. Good God a’mighty, we pulled stumps. Why, I could wear out two span of mules a day pulling stumps back then.”

Uncle Ned’s big hands rested on his knees. Little Jim was playing with his two boats in the slough. His brother’s feet were in the water, but he didn’t care.

“What did you eat?” he asked. It was close to dinnertime and he was beginning to get hungry.

“Oh, we brought flour and coffee and beans and such with us. Some bacon. The rest we hunted or fished for. Mostly venison, but turkey too. With all them woods being cleared out, game was ever’where. Ole Mistah Ferg’son he a good shot. His son, the Mistah Furg’son you know, he a good shot too. We fished the bayous and brakes too. Got us some fishes to eat.”

“Father’s a good shot too,” he said.

“He sho’ is,” Uncle Ned agreed. The old man brushed the shavings from his knees.

“I wisht you boys coulda seen it then. Hit was wild and scary and purty all at the same time. Them big ole trees. Why, it take three mens together to reach around one tree.”

Uncle Ned had already said that but maybe he didn’t remember.

“Cool and shady under ‘em too. Full of squirrels fussing at us as we work. And at nighttime them panthers be screaming and carrying on,” Uncle Ned said.

“I’ve never seen a panther,” he said.

“Reckon not,” said Uncle Ned. “Not likely to now. Might be one or two in them woods I told you Mistah Furg’son left down below Blue Lake. That be the onliest place ‘round here.”

“Maybe Father will take me there someday.”

“You ask him nice, he might.”

“When did you start planting cotton?” he asked.

Uncle Ned laughed. “Not for a while yet. First we had to drain them swampy places. That’s when we cut those sloughs and ditches to run the water offen into the them little runs or into the bayous. That water move slow but it move. It musta chopped the heads offen a five hunderd rattlesnakes and water moc’ssins down in the swamps. Had to be watchin’ all the time. Couple boys got bit. One of ‘em died. Wadn’t nothing nobody could do”

Uncle Ned shook his head and looked sad. “That was Philander, my brother. I talked him into coming with me and he fell in the water and got snakebit on the neck and died. I felt like it partly my fault.”

He sat down by the old man and put his hand on Uncle Ned’s knee.

“I’m sorry, Uncle Ned,” he said.

“Me, too,” Uncle Ned said and tried to smile.

“But one of them boys lived though. Go bit on the foot. Mitstah Furg’son cut that bite open with his knife, then snatched up a pullet – we was keepin’ some chickens by then, milkcows and hogs too – but he cut that pullet in two with an ax and slapped that raw meat on that bite. It pull that poison right out. Turn that pullet almost green, but saved that boy’s life. He was sick and fevery for a while. That foot swole up and got ugly too, but he lived even if he did limp the rest of his life. I ain’t never seen the like, ‘fore or since.”

“Dick. Jim. Time for dinner.” It was Lucille calling. Hungry as he was, he wanted to hear more.

Lucille called again. “Uncle Ned, Momma says to bring the boys on in for dinner.”

“Yes, Miss Lucille,” Uncle Ned answered. “Let’s go, young mistahs.”

“Aw,” he said. “I want to hear more.”

“I tell you more later. Time to clean up for dinner now.”

He set his boats at the base of the oak tree and started toward the house. He walked as slow as he could. Little Jim cried when Uncle Ned went to get him. He wanted to play in the slough some more. Uncle Ned picked Jim up and tickled him under the chin until the little boy laughed.

“You can take them boats with you, Mistah Jim, but we gots to clean yo’ hands and feet and face too before dinner. Like yo’ Momma say.”

Lucille had already run to the backyard and was ringing the dinner bell to call Father and Grady and Morris Bailey from the fields. they would be here soon. As he and Uncle Ned climbed the steps to the back porch, he smelled warm cornbread and his mouth watered. There would be peas and butterbeans and corn and pickled peaches, mostly put up last year because Mother’s garden was only just coming in. And she had baked a cobbler.

Uncle Ned scrubbed their faces, hands, and feet with cold water, soap, and a rag at the sink on the back porch. As he dried his hands, Father and his older brothers rode up on their horses.

Father climbed down. “Ned, will you take our horses to the stable, loosen their girths and give them a little feed and water?”

“Yassuh, sho will,” Uncle Ned said.

“Thank you, Ned,” Father said and stomped up the stairs.

“Hey there, Boy,” Father said and ran a big hand through his hair.

He grinned up at Father. Father was so big and tall, and strong, but then so were Grady and Morris Bailey who were washing up at the sink. He hoped he would be big and tall and strong just like them some day.

“What have you boys been doing today?” Father asked. He picked up Little Jim and gave his baby brother a kiss.

“We’ve been making boats with Uncle Ned and he’s been telling us stories about the old days when this was all woods with no cotton or hay fields.”

Father squatted down setting Jim on one knee. Father was no taller than he was now. “Well, Uncle Ned would know. Now, how about a hug?”

He hugged Father and kissed him too. Father rose and lifting him too, carried both of them into the house for dinner. Morris Bailey and Grady followed right behind.

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INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 14 – April, 1927: Minnie

MINNIE

She slipped into the study with the coffee pot hot from the stove in one hand and an extra potholder in the other. Henry was staring out the window, his mind obviously far away. His large hands rested on the edge of the desk on either side of his closed ledger. Weathered hands that sun and wind and work had been unable to rob of a surprising tenderness of touch. And skill. How many times had he delighted one of the children by taking their offered chalk and slate and drawing an amazingly lifelike horse or cow or chicken?

He looked up and gave her a weak smile when she reached over him to refill is nearly empty coffee cup. She placed the extra potholder it on the corner of his desk and set the pot on it, then settled into the extra chair he kept on his side of the desk, the one that Grady or Morris Bailey so often pulled up to the desk to sit at his elbow and go over the books and learn what they needed to know to run a farm. She used the kitchen table to sit with their daughters to teach them how to run a household.

He picked up his cup and swiveled his chair towards her. “Thank you,” he said, then blew across the surface of his coffee and took a tentative sip.

“You look worried,” she said.

“I am,” he said as he took another sip. “I think, I pray, we won’t see too much high water here. It’s one thing to have the sloughs and bayous overflowing and water standing in the fields, but the River …”

Lines creased his face. His cheeks looked hollow. He was 43 years old. Together they had left kin and home behind. They had brought their five children with them and she had borne three more. His parents had joined them. Together they had built a new life here at Friendship, and now it was being threatened.

“I’ve been reading about all that flooding up and down the River. Will it reach us?”

“I don’t think so, Mother, but our crop, if we get one in, will be off this year,” he sighed.

“We’ll get by. We always do,” she said.

“With the Lord’s blessing and the sweat of our brows, we will.” He managed another smile, as weak as the first.

“Yes, with the Lord’s blessing,” she said.

She came and perched on the arm of his chair. He breathed deeply.

“You still smell of flour from this morning’s biscuits. Smells good,” he whispered and wrapped an arm around her to pull her close.

“And you smell like Pinaud,” she said rubbing the back of her fingers across his freshly shaved cheek. She laid her arm across his shoulders and leaned against him. He looked up at her.

“We will get through this too,” he said, this time with assurance, as if he drew strength just from their contact. “I love you so,” he whispered.

She laid the side of her head on the top of his. Noted absent-mindedly that his hair was thinning there and graying. She sighed. Well, hers was graying too. They were no longer young. She had been a few months short of nineteen when they had married, and that had been what? Twenty-two years ago now?

No, they were no longer young, but their love was still deep and passionate, as yet unfaded by years and familiarity. He still treated her with tenderness and a respect that bordered on the courtly at times. She wondered if that from growing up in a household with nothing but brothers and a father who expected them to help their mother and treat her with respect. Whatever the reason, it was good and comforting and dependable. She gave thanks for him every day in her prayers and asked the Lord to watch over him.

She held him even closer. “I love you, too. More than you know,” she said.

They sat holding each other without a word being said. Soft clattering sounds of Iola and the girls came from the kitchen, familiar sounds, comforting sounds. Just outside the window, a wren lit in the nandina and began singing its heart out as if the swollen rivers, broken levees, and rising waters were a world away. It was so peaceful here that it was hard to imagine the horrors that people were facing in the flooding areas.

She felt Henry swallow and he said, “I’m sending Morris Bailey down to see if he can find George and Annie and their children. Help them get up here.”

She leaned back and stared at him. He must have noted the concern on her face.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Morris Bailey will be fine. He won’t take chances. He’s steady. And he gets along with everybody.”

“I know all those things. But by himself?”

“Can’t be helped. I need Grady here. Besides, Morris Bailey’s a man, you know, twenty years old, almost as old as I was when you and I got married.” He tried to put a little lightness in his voice to ease her worry.

“I know you’re right, but I can’t help it. I’ll worry until he gets back.”

“I know you will,” he said. “I will too.”

She knew he would but knew she would worry more. And differently. She already had one child far away where the water was rising and now another was headed that way. He was right. They had grown children who could make sound decisions and care for themselves and even others, but they were still her children. Becky had said more than once that a mother never stops caring for her children. So had Grandma Bailey. Now she was learning just how true that was.

She kissed Henry on the top of his head as she rose. Picking up the coffee pot and pot holder, she turned to head back to the kitchen. Henry reached out and placed hi s large hand lightly on her forearm. He looked up at her with real concern on his face.

“Morris Bailey will be fine,” he said.

She looked into his steady, dark eyes. “I know he will,” she said, knowing that Henry was right. But she prayed for her son anyway.Pop_Cat_Snow

Henry & Minnie playing in the snow, date unknown

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INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 13 – April, 1927: Henry

APRIL, 1927

 

HENRY

He folded and laid The Commercial Appeal on the corner of his desk. It had been delivered by the mail rider yesterday just like every other day except Sunday, but he was just now finishing it. Pale morning light filtered in through the windows, but he still needed the kerosene lamp. He gestured at the paper.

“Says here the levee broke near Greenville.”

“Yessir, that’s what we heard in Greenwood,” Grady answered.

Morris Bailey, sitting beside Grady nodded. He and Grady had gotten in late last night but he still had an unusual look on his face, like he had seen something so stunning, so unbelievable that he could not comprehend it.

“Were y’all able to get all the supplies we needed?”

“Yessir. The trains are still running. We got everything unloaded and stored in the Commissary last night,” Grady replied.

He nodded approval. “How about the tractor parts? Wade have what we needed?”

“Yessir, that too,” Morris Bailey said. “I’ll start on that today. Should have the Farmall running soon.”

He did not respond but stared out the window at the slough between their house and his parents’. Water surged over the footbridge he had built in 1919. He thought he knew everything a cotton farmer could face, knew that high water was not uncommon in the Delta, but nothing had prepared him for water like this. Nobody else for that matter.

The ground was sodden. It seemed like it had rained all winter. He had squeezed in as much planting as he could at the first opportunity. The ground had barely been dry enough. Then on Good Friday, the heavens and opened up and the rain had been heavier than any he had ever seen. Or even heard about.

“Don’t know that we’ll be able to use it much. Fields are just too wet as it is,” he said. He was still staring out the window at the gray sky and watery light.

“News in Greenwood was that with the way the River is pouring through that break at Mound Landing, practically the entire southern half of the Delta. Bolivar, Washington, Sunflower, Humphreys, Issaquena, and Yazoo Counties. Sharkey, are likely to be under water soon,” Grady said.

All three of them turned to look at the large map of Mississippi that hung on the wall of his office. Cities, towns, highways, and railroads were marked on it. And counties in faintly shaded colors. He stared at the counties Grady had ticked off one by one. Nearly half of the entire Delta. He did the math in his head and let out a low whistle.

“Why, if just those counties are covered, that’ll be close to 2 million acres, nearly 3,000 square miles under water.”

“Good God Almighty,” Grady said under his breath.

He nodded. “Yes, He is Almighty. Our efforts to control the River…,” He paused, “seem puny in comparison. The River made the Delta what it is, put all this deep topsoil here for use, and it seems to want to keep doing just that.”

He tried to imagine that much water, but his mind pushed back at the thought. It was simply too much. He turned back to look at his sons. “What were things like in Greenwood?” Henry asked.

“Well,” said Grady. “The riverbanks are piled with sandbags, but the water is coming over in places. I expect the north part of town between the Tallahatchie and the Yazoo may flood, probably part of Downtown too. The water is right up to the bottom of that new bridge, the Keesler.”

Greenwood_27_Flood

Greenwood between the Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers, 1927

Keesler_27_Flood

Keesler Bridge, Greenwood, 1927

All three of them had read the newspapers and listened to the radio. They knew it was bad. It had been bad upriver, and it would be bad here, maybe the worst ever. Morris Bailey still had that strange look on his face.

“Father, the Yazoo is actually flowing backwards, upriver. And as bad as it is in the Delta, its worse in Louisiana. Arkansas is hard hit too. What will people do?” his son asked.

So like his mother, Henry thought, worried about the people.

“I don’t know, Son,” he sighed. “Lose their crops for sure and maybe all they own. Might lose their places too. Your Uncle George and his family barely got out in time. Every scrap of cotton they had planted washed away.”

“Think he’ll lose his place?” Grady asked.

“Doubt it. I imagine he’s prepared for one bad crop. We’ll help him if we can.” He tried not to sound as concerned as he was.

“What should we do?” Morris Bailey asked.

“Try to get our crop in. We’re not likely to see that kind of water here. At least I pray not.”

“I suppose with all the lost crops, cotton prices will be up,” Grady noted.

“Suppose so. One man’s loss, as the saying goes.”

He stared out the window again at the overcast sky. There was no threat of imminent rain. It was simply a uniform, featureless gray layer of clouds. He lifted his cup and took a sip of coffee. It was tepid, but he didn’t care.

“Surely do wish this overcast would blow over. A little sunshine would be good. Lift our spirits and maybe start drying up this standing water,” he said.

“Guess we’re lucky being far enough away from Cassidy Bayou,” Grady said. “Water’s up to the bridge in Sumner and folks on the east side are flooded out.”

“All those people. Where will they stay? What will they eat?” Morris Bailey said.

“From what I hear and read, Herbert Hoover seems to be visiting all up and down the river. The government’s working to set up relief stations and such,” he said.

“Why him, I wonder,” Grady said. “He’s in the Cabinet, right?”

“He is,’ Henry answered. “Commerce Secretary. Seems to know what he’s doing though. More than Coolidge, anyway. The big question, is who’s going to pay for it all.”

Grady snorted and stared out the window.

“A letter got through from Sadie while y’all were away. Greenville’s mostly under water, but she’s safe at the hospital. Even the student nurses are helping tend to folks. She said reports were that the River was as much as 60 miles wide down in Louisiana.”

Both of his sons’ eyes went wide.

“Hard to imagine isn’t it? That much water. It rains in Montana and floods in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana,” Grady finally said.

Greenville_27_Flood

Greenville, 1927

“I certainly is,” he replied. “I don’t suppose anybody’s ever had to face anything quite this bad. All that water just has to soak in, run off, or evaporate. Cain’t much more soak in or we’ll be back to swamp, and it’s a long way down to the Gulf of Mexico. It’ll take time.”

“Too much time for a lot of folks,” Grady added.

He nodded, resigned to what he could not change but determined to do what he could, take care of his own and whoever else he could help, get a crop in. Someway. Somehow. Still, part of him wanted to roar in rage at the injustice, rail at God Himself for this disaster, but he knew that was senseless. Besides, he might question God and His plans, but he could never blame God. Not the way his life had been blessed. He shook his head to clear his mind.

“Tell you what, Boys. I want one of you to take the truck and head down towards Onward. You’re bound to run into George and his family. Help then any way you can and bring them here.”

Morris Bailey chimed up first. “I’d like to do that, Father,” he said.

“Very well, Son,” he said not surprised at all. Having something special to do might be just the thing. “Fill up the truck and a couple of cans. Gasoline may be hard to come by. Leave this morning. Tractor repair can wait.”

“Guess we better get to it,” Grady said and swatted his brother on the shoulder as they both rose to leave.

He watched the two of them as they walked down the hallway, settling hats on their heads and talking, the easy give and take of brothers, Morris Bailey asking Grady to help him gas up the truck and Grady agreeing. It had been the same with him and his brothers, particularly Swint, that special comradery you had with flesh and blood, someone you had known your entire life. He winced at that thought of Swint. He had been dead now, what, 13 years? Had it really been that long.

He turned to stare out the window. The sky looked sullen, the rising sun a diffuse smear of light in the overcast, but he saw none of it. Instead his mind wandered over other fields in other days, days long gone, just like Swint was gone. Long gone. And now this new undreamed-of threat to all he and Minnie, and now the children, had built and accomplished. He did not hear Minnie enter the room behind him.

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INTO THE DELTA-Chapter 12: September, 1925-Lucille

SEPTEMBER, 1925

 

LUCILLE

Lucille stared at the tiny, red, wrinkled face of her new brother. She had just turned five back in July and was feeling like a real big sister now that she had two younger brothers, Dick, only two, and now James. She tucked the soft blanket back under his chin and looked up at her mother.

Momma was stretched out on her bed. He long brown hair was loose on her pillow. She looked tired.

“Momma, what shall we call him?” she asked.

“I think with a name like James Ralph, we’ll call him Jim,” Momma said.

“Jim,” She said softly. “I like that.”

Maurice came into the room and leaned over the other side of the bed.

“He looks just like Dick did when he was born,” Maurice said.

Lucille could barely remember when Dick had been born. She had only been two, but now she was five.

“Momma?” she asked. “Can I help you take care of Baby Jim? Like Maurice helped with Dick?”

Mother smiled at her and reached out to touch her cheek. Momma’s fingertips felt warm.

“Of course, you may,” Momma said. “There will be plenty for both of you to help with. Would you like to hold him?

“Oh, yes, Ma’am,” she answered.

“Climb up here beside me,” Mother said.

She kicked off her shoes and climbed up, then leaned back against the headboard and smoothed her dress out across her lap. Mother gently laid the baby in her lap.

“Put your arms around him and don’t let his little head dangle,” Mother said.

She was excited and a little scared at the same time. Excited to hold her baby brother, but afraid she might do something wrong and hurt him. He smelled funny. It tickled her nose, but she liked the way he smelled.

“Do all babies look like this, Momma?” she asked.

Mother laughed. “Pretty much,” she answered.

She stared at Baby Jim. He opened his eyes just barely and she smiled at him. Then his mouth opened wide. He had no teeth, just a wet, red circle. Suddenly he let out a wail and his red face got even redder. Her eyes flew open and she looked at Mother, startled and unsure of what she had done. She had only smiled at him. She was afraid she would cry.

Mother patted her on the arm and smiled.

“it’s alright, Child,” she said. “You didn’t do a thing. He is only hungry. He hasn’t eaten yet.”

She sighed, glad that Mother would take care of things. She always took care of things.

“I’ll take him,” Mother said, and she did. As soon as he started nursing, he quit crying.

There was a heavy crash from the back of the house that startled them all except Baby Jim.

“Maurice, run see what Dick has gotten into, please,” Mother said.

Maurice ran from the room, squeezing by Father as he came in. He leaned over and kissed Mother, then cupped Baby Jim’s head in his big hand. He turned to look at her.

“Are you helping your mother with the new baby?” he asked.

“Yessir,” she answered. “Momma let me hold him. But he cried.”

Father laughed. “Babies do that a lot when they’re little. You did too.”

Father eased himself into the rocker beside the bed and patted his knee. She knew what that meant and crawled into his lap. He had been in the fields all morning and smelled like sweat and tobacco smoke. She liked the smell and laid her head back on his chest as he wrapped his arm around her and held her close.

She tilted her head back to look up at Father and said, “I’m so glad we have a baby that I can help Momma with.”

“I am too,” said Father.

Maurice came back leading Dick by the hand. He clutched a piece of cornbread in his free hand. There were crumbs on his face and on his romper.

“Dick was trying to get to the cornbread Iola had put out for dinner,” Maurice said.

“Looks like he made it, too,” Father smiled. “Dick, are you being a good boy? he asked.

Her little brother started to nod ‘Yes’ but then shook his head ‘No’.

“No, I guess not,” Father said. “Come over hear and let me have a bite of that cornbread.”

It didn’t look like Dick wanted to share, but he obeyed Father. They all did.

Father took a little bite and said, “Mmmm, come on, young ‘un. Let’s go wash up for dinner.”

She hopped off Father’s lap. He kissed Mother again, then took Dick by the hand and led him off to the washbasin on the back porch. They looked funny walking side-by-side.

“Winnie Maurice,” he called, “If Iola has dinner ready, you can ring the bell.”

Maurice ran form the room, calling for Iola. It was just the three of them.

“I think he is just about finished,” Momma said. “Now I am going to show you something that you can help me with, maybe the next time. Now watch closely.”

She climbed back up on the bed. She was excited because it seemed like Momma was sharing a secret just between the two of them.

“Hand me that cloth, Dear.”

She handed Momma a clean, folded cloth from the stack beside the bed, and Momma draped it over her shoulder. Then Momma held Baby Jim up to her shoulder with one arm and stated patting him on the back with her other hand.

“Can you pat Baby Jim like this?” Momma asked.

She scooted closer and began to pat her baby brother’s back, just like Momma had been doing. He didn’t seem to mind at all. She looked up at Momma.

“Keep going,” Momma said. “Maybe just a little bit harder.”

Suddenly Baby Jim burped. It surprised her and made her laugh. She looked at Mother.

“Why did he do that?”

“Babies nurse so fast that they swallow air too. If you don’t burp them, it makes them feel bad and they cry,” Momma said. “The next time I will let you hold him and burp him. That will be a big help. Will you do that?”

“Oh, yes, Ma’am, I will.”

“Good. No run clean up for dinner. I hear Maurice ringing the bell.”

She skipped out of the room so excited to be helping with the baby that she even forgot her shoes.

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INTO THE DELTA, Chapter 2

MINNIE

Minnie hummed to herself as pulled her personal items from her valise. She paused for a moment. Had it really only been this morning that they had left Concord? It had been a long day, but Greenwood and the Delta were so different that she felt they had traveled for weeks rather than one day to get here.

She smiled to herself. Grady had surprised her today when he asked if she would miss all the family they were leaving behind. It was something she might have expected from Morris Bailey, always the more sensitive of the two, not from the normally taciturn Grady, fourteen years old now and beginning to look more and more like a man. Actually, he looked just like Henry. In her innermost heart, she thought of Grady as Henry’s son and Morris Bailey as hers.

She had even expected Grady to accompany Henry in the second wagon while Morris Bailey drove her and the girls, but Henry had decided otherwise. Now she was glad he had, otherwise she would have missed that glimpse into her first-born’s heart.

She placed her last few items on the bureau and looked about at the finely furnished room.

“Henry, are you sure we can afford to stay here?” she asked as she admired the rich colors of the heavy damask drapes.

She rarely asked these sorts of questions. She handled their household expenses, and Henry handled everything else. When he said they could afford to buy the car, she had trusted him. When he had decided he wanted to purchase the Ferguson place at Friendship, she had trusted him. They had been married 15 years now. They had five children. He had worked hard for all of them. They both had.

The crops had been good. Henry’s father had practically turned over management of his farm to Henry and his brother George, the other brothers having pursued other interests. And Henry had done especially well as a representative of Stark Brothers Nursery.

“Still, it is so … opulent. It must be expensive,” she added, fingering the heavy fabric.

He looked up at her from the chair in the corner of their room, his long legs stretched out before him. He looked tired, his face ruddy from the long days in the cold with the wagons.

“Mother.” He had called her that since the day Grady had been born. It was what he called his own mother, but with a subtle, indefinable yet distinct difference. She knew that he loved, honored, and respected both her and his mother, but when he called her ‘Mother’ she also heard ‘You are dear and precious to me, the mother of our children, the anchor of our lives.’

“Mother, we can afford it. It is just this night for Morris Bailey and me and two nights for you, Grady and the girls,” he said with a weary smile.

“Still,” she said as she crossed to him and perched on the arm of the chair. He put his arm around her waist and squeezed.

“We had so much to do preparing for this move, and we have plenty of work ahead of us at the new place. It is an indulgence, I know, but we can afford it and I thought we all could use a treat, especially you,” he said. “Was it a hard day?”

“Mostly long, rattling, and cold. But the girls were reasonably well-behaved,” she answered. “You would have been proud of Grady. He took very good care of us. He even took us by Papa’s so that I could tell him and Lennie and her children good-bye.”

Henry hugged her a little closer.

“What’s it been now? Four years? Do you think Lennie will ever remarry?” he asked.

Minnie missed Lennie already. They were as close as sisters could be, often mistaken for twins. Their mother had died shortly after Minnie had been born. Minnie had never known her mother, and she carried that loss deep in a secret place in her heart. She never mentioned to anyone except Lennie, who had only been two when Mother had died and did not remember her either.

Grandma Bailey had moved in with Papa to help raise the girls. She was the only mother the girls had ever known, and she was gone now. Henry’s brother Swint too was gone, married to Lennie and the father of her children.  When he had died in 1914, Lennie had taken Jewel, Brice, Lucy, and little Mae, born just before her father died, and moved back in with Papa.

“Wool gathering?” Henry asked.

She nodded.

“Hard not to,” he said. “We are leaving a lot behind.”

He paused. “But the opportunity to buy the Ferguson Place. That was too good to pass up.”

She stared into his gray eyes set in his wind-chapped face and tried to smile. She knew he was right. Understood his burning desire not just to have his own place, as strong and consuming as that was, but also his desire to provide for her and their growing family. It truly was a wonderful opportunity. She had not even told him she suspected that she was carrying their sixth child. This baby would be born in the Delta, part of the new life they were creating in a new place.

Henry laid his large, calloused hand gently against her cheek.

“I love you, Minnie Bailey Catledge,” he said. His voice soft and laced with the love she knew he had for her.

She leaned down and kissed her husband who in turn put his other arm around her to hold her that much closer. He still smelled of cold and faintly of cigarette smoke.

“I love you, too, Henry Gray Catledge,’ she whispered in his ear.

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Filed under Delta, Life, Loss, Memory, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized

ONE MORE CUP OF COFFEE

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.

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Filed under Autumn, Memory, Mississippi, Music, Uncategorized

October the seventeenth

At last
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
Haphazard mosaic
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
And rain

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
Sharp, crystalline
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

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Filed under Autumn, Memory, Poetry, Uncategorized

One Day with My Father

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 home. 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 Kaye 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.

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BELL BOTTOM BLUES

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.

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