The Old Man and the C

                                                       A Parable of Purpose

Cephas Jackson was deep in South Georgia, driving down Hopeful Road near Chason Crossing.  He had been to look at an antique tractor, thinking he might enjoy having one to tinker with, hoping he would get asked to put it in the Christmas Parade.  The tractor was a bit overpriced in his opinion. He left it there and began the two-hour drive back home.   “Another wasted day,” said Cephas aloud, although he was alone in the truck.

A lot of Cephas’ days seemed wasted since his retirement.  He didn’t miss work, but he missed having something to do.  He missed the routine of having a place where he was supposed to be.

Cephas saw a homemade sign just off the right-of-way.   All he could read was a big letter C and a large dollar mark.  He figured it must be someone asking for a handout.  He didn’t know if the need was real or not, so he planned to drive on by, hoping they wouldn’t approach him at the four-way stop.

When Cephas got closer he saw that the scribbled C wasn’t for Cash.  “Collards – $1,” it read, a message that caught Cephas by surprise.

The old man had the sign propped against his rusted truck, a truck that held a generous supply of collards. He sat in a lawn chair that needed new straps.  He, the chair, and the truck seemed quite comfortable under a massive oak tree, a tree Cephas knew was much older than the man.

Cephas thought he might enjoy some fresh collards, and a dollar seemed like a bargain.   “Good morning,” he mumbled to the old man.

“It sure is a good morning,” replied the old man with a giant smile.  “I’ve got my health and a truck load of collards!  That’s a good morning to me.”

Cephas thought it was a bit of a stretch to be so happy about just two things, especially since one of those things was collards.  The old man’s smile, however, was infectious. Cephas could not help but smile back.

“I can understand being happy about your health,” said Cephas.  “But at a dollar a head, seems like you wouldn’t be that happy about these collards.”

The old man took another lawn chair off the back of his truck and placed it near his own.  “If you got a minute to spare, Mister, I’ll tell you about these collards.”

Cephas sat down, partly from curiosity, partly from having nowhere else he had to be.  The old man told how he had been doing this for over a decade.  He had retired from his work, then his wife had died.  Their three children lived too far away to visit often.

“These collards,” said the old man, “give me a reason to get up every morning.  I plant them, then keep them watered and free of weeds.  I bring them out here and make a little spending money.”

“Seems like you could raise the price and make a few more dollars,” said Cephas.

“I probably could,” said the old man, “but I ain’t here for the money.  I like having the folks stop by.  Sometimes I get lucky and another old man will sit in that same chair you’re in.  We’ll visit for a while. He’ll leave with my collards, and I’ll stay here with his dollar.  Most of the time we both feel a bit richer that day.”

Cephas folded a twenty-dollar bill so the old man wouldn’t know he was due any change.  He took a bundle of collards, shook hands with the fellow and drove away.  On the way home, he planned his collard patch.  And he thought about growing pumpkins for the fall and gourds to make houses for martins.  Cephas’ mind was overflowing with possibilities.  It was a feeling that he knew was worth way more than the twenty dollars he had left behind.

Cephas envisioned a small stand under the big oak in his own yard.  He would open it when the weather was nice, and would price everything at just a dollar.  He’d have an extra chair or two and maybe a checker board.  He knew that an old man might stop by on occasion, a man who had more time than plans, a man who had no particular place that he needed to be.  “This sure has been a good day,” said Cephas aloud, although he was alone in his truck. “This has been a really good day.”

Posted in 2018 | 8 Comments

We Are What We Eat

There’s an old saying that, “We are what we eat.”  It sounds logical if it’s said with conviction.  It seems a bit humorous if spoken with a smile.  I decided to test that adage by examining some of my favorite foods.

My palate strongly favors the country style meals that were common in my childhood.  They included the basic but wonderful offerings that were routinely found on southern dinner tables.  For this column, however, my focus is on three foods that I was introduced to by a friend.

Michael Sullivan was two years ahead of me in Unadilla High School.  We both lived in a rural part of Dooly County called Third District.  We were both members of Harmony Baptist Church.  Mike had a beautiful baritone voice.  I can readily envision him singing “It Is No Secret What God Can Do.”  His smooth clear delivery reminded me of legendary country singer Jim Reeves.

Mike played lead guitar in the Unadilla F.F.A. String Band.  The same five guys performed as VeEsta & The Country Gentleman when vocalist VeEsta Brown joined in.  Mike often sang “The Green Green Grass of Home.”  He sounded much better, in my opinion, than Porter Wagoner’s hit rendition.

When Mike was in the 11th grade and I was in the 9th, I joined the band as the piano player.  Jerry Pickard played rhythm guitar.  Charles Jones played the bass.  Jerry McIntyre kept time with the drums.  We practiced every Monday night in the school auditorium.

Mike gave me rides to and from practice and when we had occasional bookings.  On one of those late-night excursions, he asked if I wanted to go to the Allstate Truck Stop and get a ham and cheese omelet.  I had no idea what an omelet was.  Mama cooked a full breakfast for us six days a week and gave us cereal on Sundays.  Omelets, however, were not on the menu.

My first taste of that omelet was the beginning of a love story.  I’ve had several variations, but the one that I enjoy the most is still ham and cheese.  They are especially good at supper time with grits, biscuits, and pear preserves.

Mike and I took guitar lessons in Warner Robins for a while.  After about two months the teacher and I both realized that I should stick with piano.  During that short time, Mike helped me attain a greater appreciation for French cuisine.  I had never had a chocolate éclair, but with one bite I developed a severe addiction.  I thought about continuing the guitar lessons so that I could keep making those weekly trips to the pastry shop.

Mike also gets credit for introducing me to grilled cheese sandwiches.  Mama sometimes made open topped cheese toast in the oven.  It was, however, at Mr. Ed Langston’s Shell Station, in Unadilla, where I first had melted cheddar cheese encased in grilled bread.  It’s amazing how much good can be done with a stick of butter.

Mike Sullivan was a good friend to have.  He was more mature in his spiritual walk than most of us teenagers.  He was consistently a good example in both his conduct and attitude.  He drove me to band practice for two years, introduced me to three foods that I continue to enjoy, and made a lasting impression with his exemplary character.

He celebrated his 50th birthday on October 1st, 2000, then died unexpectedly on November 8th.  He was living in Chicago, a long way from his rural Georgia roots.

When I have an omelet, a chocolate éclair, or a grilled cheese sandwich, sometimes I still think about Mike.  I’m joyfully reminded of the good times we had in the band.  More importantly, I’m reminded of how readily Mike embraced his faith.  He knew what he believed, and he lived it.  It didn’t matter what was going on around him, Mike kept his feet planted on solid ground.

I guess in some ways it’s true that we are what we eat.  But it’s probably more important who we eat it with.  I’m glad I spent some time with Michael Sullivan.  The omelets and such were delicious.  But it’s the spiritual food we shared that I’ve come to value most.  It’s the spiritual food of which we can say without doubt, “We are what we eat.”

Posted in 2018 | 8 Comments

Kissing a Pig

In the fall of 2009, the Dooly County Livestock Association invited me to kiss a pig.  It was for a club fundraiser that was going to be held during the Big Pig Jig, the annual State of Georgia Barbeque Championship that’s hosted by the Dooly County Chamber of Commerce.

Jack Dukes came by Bank of Dooly to see me.  He named four well-known men who would join me in this endeavor.  Somehow that made the pig kissing seem more acceptable.  State Senator George Hooks was in the group, plus Myron Mixon, who had already attained legendary status on the barbeque circuit.  Local businessman Lee Harris was participating, as was our distinguished Judge of Probate Court, Rooney Bowen, III.

Jack explained that all of us would be in the showring, but only one of us had to kiss the pig.  That would be the person who raised the least amount of money.  The spectators would vote by dropping cash in our cups.  Jack was confident that I’d garner the most donations.  In a worst-case scenario, I figured that kissing the cute little pig he described was something I could live with.

We’d hardly stepped into the showring when Lee Harris made us an offer.  “I’ll give $500 not to kiss that pig,” Lee said. “You fellows can have all the fun!”  We quickly agreed, knowing it was saving the rest of us some money.

That’s when David Stephenson brought Wilbur into the ring.   Wilbur had once been a show barrow, raised from infancy by David’s granddaughter, Scout Weesner.  But he had grunted and smiled his way into the family.  He had become a 600-pound pet with access to a 24-hour buffet.  Wilbur was nothing like the precious piglet that Jack and I had talked about.

I made one desperate attempt to skip kissing that pig.  My wife, Jane, was in the stands.  I went over and asked her to give me her engagement ring.  I took it to Jack Dukes and offered to trade that diamond ring for a free pass.  I thought it was going to work, but Rooney noticed that the stone looked a lot bigger than something he figured I might buy.  Then Jack noticed the paint flaking from the gold band, and he saw the one-size-fits-all slit in the band.

Myron went first.  He had a confident approach that I assumed must reflect some prior experience.  A camera crew was filming him for his television show, and he gave them their money’s worth.  Rooney followed Myron, then George took his turn.  I figured all those years in politics had given George an edge on how to approach these kind of situations, so I asked him if he had any advice.  “The most important thing,” said George, “is to make sure you are at the right end of the hog.”

I followed George’s advice and puckered up.  Wilbur didn’t want to cooperate, so I whispered into his big floppy ear, “If you don’t behave, I’ll buy you and turn you into bacon.”  Wilbur knew that he wasn’t for sale, but it shocked him just enough that he paused for a quick kiss.

Wilbur’s makeup seemed a bit heavy and his lipstick far too red, but I’m not sure how much is stylish for an overgrown barrow.  Kissing that hog didn’t bother me all that much.  What worried me was going behind Myron and Rooney.  Sometimes at night I still have trouble sleeping.

I doubt there will be a next time for any of us.  George retired from the Senate and I retired from banking.   We don’t kiss pigs as readily as we once did.  Myron has a worldwide fan club, plus is busy as Mayor of Unadilla.  He would be hard pressed to squeeze in a pig kissing event.  Rooney could make a case that it might not be appropriate to the office of Probate Judge for him to get back in that pen.  I don’t know as it would matter, but I have a longstanding practice of not arguing with judges.

If by chance the five of us ever return to the showring, I believe we can negotiate a better deal with Lee Harris.  We took his first offer.  Next time I’ll ask to see the pig.

Should you personally encounter this type situation, there are three things that are critical to remember:  Ask to see the pig before making any deals.  Volunteer to be first.  Make sure you are at the right end of the hog.

If I can’t sleep tonight I’m calling Myron and Rooney.  It’s my fault for ending up in the back of that line, but it sure would be nice having some good company to help pass the time.

Posted in 2018 | 3 Comments

A Moment of Silence

“A story doesn’t have to be factual to be true.”  Andy Irwin, American storyteller.

Arlo and I were fishing for bream on the banks of Wishful Creek not long ago.  We had a pretty good string of fish, but Arlo, as usual, wanted to catch one more.  Our poles were baited with red wigglers from the worm bed near his barn.

I mentioned a news story about the February 14th school shootings in Parkland, Florida.  The article said that the U.S. House of Representatives had postponed the moment of silence they typically observe for such tragedies.

I said, “Arlo, there’s apparently some different opinions as to whether a moment of silence is appropriate.  I know it doesn’t resolve the problem, but it seems like a nice way of showing respect.”

It shocked me when Arlo said he didn’t think a moment of silence was the best thing to do.

“Why not?” I asked, wondering if he might be a little confused.

“I don’t think we ought to have moments of silence,” he said.  “I think we ought to have minutes of prayer.”

I told Arlo that was a good concept, but that it wouldn’t work.  “I think you’re forgetting about separation of church and state,” I said.  “You start praying on government owned property and you’re apt to get sued by the ACLU.”

I’m not going to print what Arlo said about the ACLU.  He’s a good-hearted sort of fellow, but when he gets riled up sometimes his language is pretty strong.

I reminded him that it wasn’t just the ACLU that would derail his proposal.  I figured he had forgotten that the Supreme Court does a remarkable job of keeping church and state as far apart as possible.

Arlo is not a member of the High Court’s fan club either.  But after he quit fussing about them, he said something that got my attention.  He said, “I don’t have a problem with separating the state from the church.  What I have a problem with is separating the state from God.”

I sure didn’t want to make Arlo mad. We hadn’t even talked about who was going to keep the fish.  But I wanted to make sure that he understood his minutes of prayer idea would be a violation of law.

Arlo didn’t see how that was much of a problem.  “If it’s against the law,” he said, “let’s change the law.”

“But Arlo,” I said, “to change the law you’ll need a consensus of people from many faiths and from people of no faith.  How are you going to accommodate the agnostics and the atheists who might be offended by prayer?”

Arlo said, “I don’t think there are many people riding the train who are carrying those tickets.  If 50 people are headed to Atlanta but two of them want to stay in Macon, then I’d stop the train just long enough to let those two folks off.”

“Maybe that would work Arlo, but then how would you get the Christians, Jews, and Muslims to agree on changing the law?”  I figured he had no idea how to trim the hooves on that horse.

Arlo said, “Those three religions have some very different beliefs, but we all claim to worship the same God, the one that Abraham worshipped.  Seems like we could agree that it’s okay to pray to Him, even if it’s not worded just like each one of us prefers.”

I said, “Arlo, sometimes you surprise me by almost making sense.  But do you really believe there’s a possibility of America embracing this minutes of prayer idea?”

“Not if we keep sitting on the banks of Wishful Creek,” he said.

“So how do you see this all playing out?” I asked.

“Well,” said Arlo, pausing briefly before he continued, “I figure that one day when it’s late in the fourth quarter, we’re liable to pray desperately for a Hail Mary Pass.  God might just say, ‘Let me get back with you on that later.  First let’s have a moment of silence.’”

Posted in 2018 | 3 Comments

A Greatly Blessed Life

Mr. Charles Speight was born in Unadilla, Georgia, on April 2, 1922.  He seems much younger than the 96th birthday he is about to celebrate.  I asked him the secret to longevity.  He told me, “Not dying.”  His answer came with a mischievous grin, a look quite familiar to his many friends.

We began our recent visit at breakfast with The Coffee Club, a group of men that have been meeting five days a week since 1993.  They only have one firm rule:  If you use a bad word or tell a lie you’re required to put a dollar in the kitty.  James Ray Irwin said most of the money comes from Cossie Brown.  Mr. Cossie, however, whispered to me that he is the only sane member of the club.

I didn’t get a recipe for good health from Mr. Charles.  He just says that he’s been greatly blessed.  He drives wherever he wants to go.  He sells onions for the Lions Club and serves as a director for the Chamber of Commerce.  He’s a solid spoke in the leadership wheel at First Baptist Church of Unadilla.

He remembers U.S Hwy 41 before it was busy with motorized vehicles or tourists passing through.  The traffic was mostly farm families who came in mule-drawn wagons.  They would park in the alley on Saturdays and go to one of the six downtown grocery stores.

Front Street was packed with people shopping and visiting, or maybe watching Roy Rogers at the Dixie Theatre.  Many of them stayed late into the night.  When Mr. Charles was 15 he worked in one of those stores for Harry Hamrick.  A 12-hour shift from noon to midnight earned him 75 cents.

The school he attended in Unadilla burned down when he was in the sixth grade.  He had walked the short distance home for lunch but ran back when he heard the fire whistle.  It was a two-story wooden building with an upstairs chapel.  A brick school followed and was put into use in 1936.

The croup was a common illness during his childhood.  Dr. Bishop told his mother, Ruth, that if she would take the shoes off her boys and keep them barefooted they would be fine.  He and his older brother, Amory Jr., went shoeless in all four seasons.  His feet became so tough he could stomp a pecan and crack it.  He doesn’t remember ever having the croup again.

If he stepped on a rusty nail, his mother made a smoldering fire from woolen cloth stuffed in a tin can.  He warmed his injured foot in the smoke to prevent infection.  In the seventh grade he got a pair of tennis shoes, a step towards the footwear that was expected in high school.

He attended the University of Georgia for two years, then took a year off before joining the Naval Air Corps.  He reported for duty in January of 1943.  World War II was in progress and would later claim the life of Amory Jr.  He was a soldier in the U. S. Army and died in France in 1945.

Mr. Charles’ flight training included eight months in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He left there for Melbourne, Florida, but stopped by Unadilla and married his sweetheart, Pasty Holliman, on July 2, 1944. Their short honeymoon began a long marriage of 67 wonderful years until her death in 2011.

Mr. Charles’ pilot training only included one practice launch of his F6F Hellcat Fighter.  His second launch was from the USS Lexington aircraft carrier.  It was the first of 72 missions he flew over Japan and was the first time that fighter planes were sent to Tokyo.  He received two Distinguished Flying Crosses, five Air Medals, and two Presidential Unit Citations.

“I did what I had to do,” he said modestly.  Then he spoke of the shattered homes on both sides.  “When it’s over you think more about the mothers and fathers.  Some of those Japanese kamikazes were just kids.  They were given funerals ahead of time, strapped in planes, and sent off to die.”

The atomic bomb was dropped while he was at home on a 30-day leave.  It brought a quick end to the war.  He and his younger brother, Joe, who was also in the Navy, took over the family grocery business in 1945.  They worked together at Unadilla Wholesale Company for decades.  With affection that is obvious, he said, “In all those years I don’t believe we ever had a cross word.”

I thought about titling this story, “Guns, Groceries, & God.”  Mr. Charles’ steadfast faith is reflected in many ways, but perhaps most notably in his service through the local church.  Rev. A. B. Hosea organized a men’s Sunday School class in 1955.  Mr. Charles has taught it since June of 1956.

Mr. Charles’ long years of capably leading that Sunday School class are amazing.  But what I find most remarkable is his attitude.  He’s teaching, visiting, and occasionally collecting a dollar from his friend Cossie Brown.  He says that his life has been greatly blessed.  Others say that his life is a great blessing.  That’s two different things, I suppose, but they sure do seem to be closely connected.

Posted in 2018 | 8 Comments

Remembering Names

I used to be pretty good at calling people by name.  I’m finding, however, that with each birthday I celebrate it becomes more of a challenge.  It is, therefore, a rare pleasure when I quickly put a name with a face for someone I haven’t seen in a long time.

In November of 2017 Jane and I were standing outside Brannen-Nesmith Funeral Home in Unadilla.  We were in a long line of people who had come to pay respects to our dear friend Charles Jones.

Jane was talking to someone just ahead of us, while I was having a separate conversation with the young lady behind me.  Our paths had not crossed in several years.  I was delighted that I readily called her name.

“How have you been doing Carol?  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you!”

“It sure has,” she said with a warm smile.

“Your dad called me a few days ago and asked me to speak at a Christmas banquet at church.  He said the deacons at Penia sponsor a dinner each year for the more senior members of the congregation.”  Then I jokingly added, “It’s a wonder that Allen would invite me to anything after that tornado incident.”

It surprised me to learn that Allen had never shared that story with his daughter.  I knew she would enjoy hearing it.

I told her about the tornado that came through Vienna on April 15, 1999.  Someone called Bank of Dooly and warned us that it had touched down and was headed our way.  We were fortunate to have a vault large enough to accommodate the staff and a couple of customers that were in the bank.

We locked the swinging glass entrances and squeezed tightly into the vault. Then we closed the heavy steel door behind us and waited.  After the tornado had time to pass, we cautiously peeked into the lobby.  Standing there alone was our friend and coworker Allen Morrow.  He was surrounded by the stillness of vacant desks, wondering in silence if The Rapture had come and why he was left behind.

Allen’s office was upstairs.  He didn’t even know we’d had a tornado.  I said, “I am so sorry, Allen.  We forgot all about you.”

Allen grinned and shook his head in disbelief.  He said, “With friends like y’all, I sure don’t need any enemies.”

Instead of tragedy we were blessed with an unexpected moment of humor.  Allen and I have laughed about it on many occasions.  It’s a treasured memory that has aged well.  I loved sharing that old tale with his daughter as she nodded and listened attentively to my ramblings.

The visitation line moved forward, and Jane turned around.  I said, “Jane, you remember Allen Morrow’s daughter, Carol.  I’ve been telling her about the time we left Allen upstairs during the tornado.”

Carol and Jane extended their hands to greet one another.  Carol smiled sweetly and spoke softly.  “Hi,” she said, “I’m Rhonda Youngblood.”

It took a moment for me to connect the dots.  “You’re not Allen Morrow’s daughter, Carol?” I asked.

“No sir,” she politely answered.  “I don’t believe that I know her.”

The three of us had a good laugh, which made for a happy ending to another one of my disastrous attempts to call someone’s name.  Jane says that I may need to stop calling people by name.  But if I hadn’t mistaken Rhonda for Carol, we would not have had nearly as much fun that night.

So, if I call you by the wrong name, you are welcome to correct me.  Or you can do like my new friend Rhonda and just see where the conversation takes us.  Either way works fine for me, Bubba.

Posted in 2018 | 5 Comments

Clouds

When I was a small child I enjoyed looking at clouds, searching their numberless shapes for something familiar. I saw a lot of dogs, but maybe that’s what I was looking for.

I would view the sky from various angles, sometimes sitting in an outdoor swing, sometimes standing and leaning against the unpainted boards on the side of the barn. My favorite place, however, was lying on my back in the grass, especially during winter. There was no better venue for cloud watching than our backyard on a cold clear day.   Sunshine and a corduroy coat provided a warmth that bordered on perfection.

I was seldom in a rush and rarely had anything that required urgent attention. I leisurely studied the fluffy cumulus clouds and their enchanting transitions of characters. What began as a dog pointing a covey of quail might become a charging bull. A cat might grow into a lion, or even morph completely into an elephant from the circus.

One time I saw Elijah in his chariot, but it wasn’t made of fire. It was instead the soft white and pale blue colors of billowy clouds in the sunlight of winter. Moses showed up on several occasions, or it may have been Charlton Heston. Sometimes I confused the two. Either way, he had no trouble parting the sea, nor using the massive walls of divided water to cover Pharaoh’s army.

Abraham and Isaac were together one time. Isaac looked especially relieved that his father had found a ram in the bush. I think I saw God once, but I’m not sure. I knew it was dangerous to look directly at Him, so the sighting lasted only a moment.

There were teepees and castles, flying fish and dolphins. There were assorted birds of almost every description, except that I never saw a whippoorwill. The eagles were most impressive, even more so when diving for fish.

I’m not sure how old I was when I realized it might seem odd for me to be stretched out on the grass. The artistry of the clouds became less intriguing. I didn’t plan to quit looking for stories in the sky. It just happened.

My wife, Jane, and I often walk the dirt road beside our home. We take our dog, Lilly, with us. She used to run ahead of us, and sometimes chased a rabbit into the woods. Lilly is 13 now and walks rather slowly. She still begs to go, but easily stumbles and often lags behind. Sometimes she stops and waits for us to turn around. We cut our walks short when she wants to go home.

Lilly has been part of our family since she was rescued by Michelle Gallett at Harmony Baptist Church. Someone left five puppies near the church. Michelle took them home, washed the fleas off, kept one for herself and found homes for the others. We know that our trips with Lilly down Coley Crossing must grow shorter, that our pace has to be lessened so she won’t strain to keep up.

At least one good thing has come from these slow walks. I’ve noticed the clouds again. I don’t find many clear shapes anymore. It seems that with age that would be easier, but somewhere between childhood and now my imagination lost some of its elasticity.

As a child I found something special in almost every cloud. I looked with simple faith, never doubting I would discover a remarkable formation. It’s much harder as an adult. I look now for shapes that are perfectly defined, whose lines need little interpretation. Grand expectations have been tempered with ordinary experiences.

I doubt that I’ll ever lie on the grass in winter again. We have wonderful neighbors who would no doubt stop to help me. The truth would be too embarrassing to share.

But I’ll spend more time looking upward on our unhurried walks with Lilly. I’ve come to realize that even the undefined shapes are quite spectacular, for I understand something now that escaped me as a child. I understand that in every cloud I see, there is always an image of God.

This story was written in September of 2017. Lilly died on October 24th. I haven’t yet seen her chasing rabbits among the clouds, but I’ll keep looking until I do.

Posted in 2018 | 5 Comments