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.

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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

Jolly Charlie Hill

I was born in 1952 and grew up on a family farm in Dooly County. Like most folks in our neck of the woods we listened to WCEH Radio based in Hawkinsville, Georgia. It was 610 on the AM dial and had a strong signal.

Mr. Charlie Hill was their longtime announcer. He had a deep, rich voice and a bigger than life persona. He seamlessly blended humor and candor with music and news. He showed a tender side each morning when he would dedicate a song to Annette. His loving gesture was meant for his wife, but offered a lesson, perhaps unintended, for husbands throughout middle Georgia.

My earliest childhood memories include waking up to music with Charlie Hill. He would be on the air well before I reluctantly rolled out of bed. I wondered how he could be so cheerful before the sun came up. Neither darkness, nor rain, nor cold weather, seemed to have any effect on his attitude. His radio moniker was Jolly Charlie and was well deserved.

There was a lot to enjoy about Charlie Hill. He had a call-in show where listeners could air problems they had with local governments or businesses. He had a knack for separating what needed attention and what didn’t. Sometimes he would resolve the situation during the show. Other times he would close the segment by committing to personally follow up.

Charlie also hosted The Swap Shop for a long time, a segment where callers could let others know what they had to sell or wanted to buy. It was a busy market place that he handled with flair. He didn’t just announce a list of items. He entertained us with his ad libs and laughter. He was an extraordinary matchmaker of people and goods.

WCEH was a country station. As I grew older many of my friends were listening to pop music being broadcast out of Perry. Our home, however, remained steadfastly aligned with Jolly Charlie Hill. Mama turned the radio on in the kitchen each morning. We knew not to touch the dial.

My memories of Jolly Charlie and some of the songs that he played have lasted over six decades. Those memories are where I continue to find inspiration and sometimes amusement.

The chorus of one song went “Do what you do do well boy. Do what you do do well. Give your love and all of your heart, and do what you do do well.” That was a good message to hear in childhood. I still sing that chorus today. There’s a lesson in those lines that’s worth remembering.

The Kingston Trio had a song called Desert Pete that Charlie enjoyed playing. It was about a man traveling through the desert and running out of water. He finds a pump with a note from Desert Pete. The note tells where to find a bottle of water that was hidden under a rock, water that could be used to prime the pump. It cautioned against taking the easy route by drinking the water from the bottle. “Drink all the water you can hold, wash your face, cool your feet. Leave the bottle full for others. Thank you kindly, Desert Pete.” Sometimes it’s tempting to drink from life’s bottles and be on our way. I’m glad that Desert Pete still reminds me that it’s best to leave the bottle full.

Whistle While You Work was another of my childhood favorites. The words were simple. “Whistle while you work.   Whistle, whistle, always whistle, whistle while you work.” Whistling was interspersed with the lyrics. I heard whistling from my parents, plus from watching Andy and Opie walking by a fishing hole near Mayberry. I still enjoy whistling and think maybe we should teach it in school. Another trip to Mayberry wouldn’t do us any harm.

Charlie played one song that my mother did not approve of. It was about “the girl wearing nothing but a smile and a towel in the picture on the billboard in the field near the big old highway.” When that song came on, Mama would say that she wished Charlie wouldn’t play it. Sometimes she would quickly turn the volume way down low. I stared at my scrambled eggs and wondered in silence what highway that sign was on.

I never did see that billboard that Del Reeves sang about. That probably worked out for the best. I’d love to know if the fellow who painted that lady’s picture was whistling while he worked. I don’t think I’ll ask Mama’s opinion on that, but I sure do wish that I could call Charlie Hill.

Posted in 2018 | 4 Comments

Causey’s Service Station – A Tank Full of Memories

John Randolph Causey opened a Gulf station in Vienna, Georgia, in 1918. It was on State Route 7, a busy highway that later became part of U.S. 41. He also became a distributor for Gulf Oil Company, his territory covering the southern half of Dooly County.

His grandson, John Causey, has a round metal Gulf sign from that first year in business. His grandfather had put it up in the nearby town of Lilly at Mr. Clay Ingram’s store. When the store closed the sign came back to Causey’s Service Station. On November 30, 2017, John sold the station, but he didn’t sell the sign. He took it on a short ride north to his home.

John grew up working at the station for his father, George Causey. Longtime employee Willard Satterfield taught him how to drive. John would often go with Willard to deliver fuel to stores and farms. Outside of town they would swap places. He learned to drive behind the steering wheel of a tanker truck, a highly unusual but apparently successful approach.

John’s wife, Lady, has also spent most of her work life at the station. They could have stayed on a little longer and made it an even 100 years for the location, but with a buyer in hand they decided 99 was close enough. John was a baby when he first went there. That was 79 years ago.

The Vienna of John’s youth was bustling with people and businesses. Right next door to Causey’s Service Station was the Vienna Hotel, a three-story inn with a restaurant and gift shop. The hotel burned in 1953 and wasn’t rebuilt. Maybe they had heard some crazy talk of plans for a four-lane highway, a road without traffic lights that would bypass the downtowns of rural Georgia.

John’s father, George Causey, opened his own station on Cotton Street in 1924. He was 17 years old and not long out of high school, after which he had taken a six-month business course. In 1958 he closed that station and built a new one on the original U.S 41 site. That’s the one that was recently sold. Vienna had numerous stations and stores in 1958, plus banks, gins, and assorted businesses. There wasn’t much reason to shop out of town. The streets were often packed, especially on Saturdays.

In John’s childhood there was a grist mill in town and a livery stable. Mule drawn wagons were still common. Folks would park at the stable, then go by one of the general stores and leave a list of supplies. They would visit on the streets, take in a show at the movie theatre, then go back and pick up their groceries. Their simple routine makes me think that progress may be a bit overrated.

John made fuel deliveries to country places like Calhoun’s Store. Mr. Bivins Calhoun sold groceries, hardware, hand tools, and fuel, plus had a dealership for Oliver tractors. His cotton gin was just across the road. One-stop shopping has been around for a long time. The superstores have just wrapped it in fancier packaging.

In 1958 John and Lady got married. I’m guessing that brand-new Gulf station helped clinch the deal. John was paid $37.50 per week by his father. That was the exact amount of their monthly rent for a small apartment. Lady soon began working at Citizens Bank as secretary to the president, Mr. Grady Williamson. With a two-income household, they began thinking about becoming home owners.

In 1960 they bought a house on Sixth Street. They paid $6000 and financed it for 12 years with payments of $45. John wasn’t sure where they would get an extra $7.50 per month, but they found enough money for the house plus two small additions named Michael and Wynn.

Four generations of Causeys have worked at the station, the last one being John and Lady’s son, Michael. But the station isn’t the only common thread that runs deep in their family. Their continuous history with the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department preceded the station and is still going.

John’s grandfather served as fire chief from 1908 to 1925. Their family has been pulling those big hoses ever since. Michael is the current chief and has been since 2008. I doubt there’s been a fire in Vienna in the last 110 years that hasn’t had at least one Causey helping put it out.

Someone said, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” I’m not sure I know what that means, but I’m thinking it’s probably true. There’s one thing that I do know. John Causey’s years at the family station left him with a tank full of memories. I see now why he kept that big orange Gulf sign. It came home when he did. There’s no doubt that’s where it belongs.

Posted in 2018 | 5 Comments

Bringing Up The Rear

I am by nature a modest person. When I was in the third grade, Dr. Baker removed my appendix at Taylor Regional Hospital in Hawkinsville. At some point during my hospital stay, I locked my bathroom door to ensure privacy. An older nurse came by. She threatened that if I locked it again she would get the key and go in with me. From my perspective, she would not have known the door was locked had she not pushed on it. I still believe that I made the right decision.

As a footnote to the story, it turned out my appendix was healthy. It looked so good that we kept it in a jar of alcohol in our farm shop for years. My surgery was due to having some suspicious symptoms during an era when appendectomies were popular.

In the past fifteen years I’ve had two and a half colonoscopies, one Barium X-ray, and two biopsies of the prostate, the first of which was done without anesthesia. When that tissue sampling gun clicked I understood why they had checked me for weapons at the door. It was the worst medical test that I’ve ever had, followed closely by the Barium X-ray.

The Barium ordeal was when I learned the value of anonymity. My approach was gleeful as I entered the room, blissfully unaware of what was in store for me. I still regret having introduced myself to a technician who was the daughter of a friend. I wished I had borrowed the Lone Ranger’s mask.

The reason I report 2.5 colonoscopies is that my first one didn’t take. Dr. Peter Donnan was practicing in Cordele at the time. He gave me a twilight drug that’s not as strong as full anesthesia but works for most people. They gradually gave me ten times the normal dose, but I reportedly kept flinging my arms and kicking my legs. He called the game in the bottom of the second inning and sent me to Barium Village.

Ricky Stevens has been my doctor for a decade or so. Knowing my history with twilight drugs, he uses Propanol, which for me works much better. Doc had me on the calendar for Friday, December 1, 2017, for our second colonoscopy as a team.

He has a good sense of humor, so I figured he and the other folks assisting might enjoy a little break from the usual routine. Early that morning before we left home, Jane used a brown permanent marker and wrote neatly on my rear, “Exit Only.” I wasn’t awake when they rolled me over, but I’ve been told it was a nice diversion to the mundane task at hand.

In case you are interested in entertaining the medical professionals at your next colonoscopy, here are some ideas. For those patients with an artistically inclined spouse, you could draw a smiley face, compass, sun dial, target, or anything that blends naturally with the landscape. For those who prefer the printed word, the following suggestions are loosely arranged by topics.

Just Say No: No Loitering, No On-Ramp, No Trespassing, and No Smoking.

Travel Guide: Scenic Overlook, North-South Connector, Detour Ahead, Next Exit Closed, The Great Divide, The Twin Peaks of Georgia, and “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Product Information: Periscope Not Included, This Side Up, Handle With Care, Slide Card and Enter PIN, By Invitation Only, and Out of Order.

Cautions: Do Not Over Inflate, Crime Scene Area, and, “Don’t look, Ethel!”

Miscellaneous: The End Is Near, Has Anybody Here Seen John? Charter Member of The Bedpan Band, Service Engine Soon, A Split Decision, All Employees Must Wash Hands, and my personal favorite, “Run, Forrest, Run!”

I’m not recommending you follow this path. Your doctor may disapprove, plus there’s probably a disclaimer on permanent markers noting they are not intended for writing on skin. You are, however, welcome to use any of these suggestions. It won’t matter that you weren’t the first to do this. When it’s a matter of health, there’s no shame in bringing up the rear.

P.S. If you think you don’t need a colonoscopy, please talk to my friend and fellow columnist, Clay Mercer, about his difficult but successful battle with cancer. You can contact him at

Posted in 2018 | 9 Comments

The Avon Lady

Mrs. Ernestine Braswell Furlow turned 100 on January 23, 2018. Woodrow Wilson was President the year she was born. Gas was 15 cents a gallon. It was also the year that a global flu epidemic claimed millions of lives, including over 500,000 in America. That’s a sobering number, especially so to Miss Ernestine. One of those deaths was her mother.

Miss Ernestine was nine months old when her mother died on October 28, 1918. She has a picture of herself as a smiling baby that was taken a month earlier. Her father remarried, but he died when Miss Ernestine was only five. She lived with grandparents, uncles, and aunts, and came to Vienna in the fourth grade.

In July of 1934 she had a blind date with Anderson Furlow. She married him in September of 1935 when she was 17. They were blessed with three children, Belinda, Anita, and Andy. Anita passed away in March of 2000. Mr. Furlow died in 2001 after 65 years of marriage.

In November of 1948 Miss Ernestine joined Avon Products Inc. She worked in outside sales for forty years. She was a regular member of the President’s Club, a recognition for agents in the top ten percent. Another former Avon rep, Mrs. Martha Brown, lives just two miles away and will be 104 on February 23rd.

It’s remarkable that a rural community has two Avon ladies whose average lifespan is 102. If you see me wearing makeup, please don’t laugh. It might be worth giving it a try.

While making her customer calls, Miss Ernestine also did volunteer work for her church, Vienna First Baptist. She was the Extension Director for decades, delivering magazines and visiting the sick. One of her longtime fellow church members, Mrs. Bobbie Odom, is almost 101. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Miss Bobbie was an Avon customer.

Miss Ernestine celebrated her milestone birthday a few days early in Loganville surrounded by 21 family members. Her Sunday School teacher, Murray Stephens, organized a second party held in Miss Ernestine’s home. Her dining room table is filled with cards, pictures, and a giant scrapbook.

She enjoys her scrapbooks, which are of library quality. There are clippings about churches, community events, family, and friends. She had saved an article about her next-door neighbors, Jim and Debbie Bolton, who have been helpful in countless ways.

Miss Ernestine has lived in the same house for 70 years and is not saving any boxes for moving. She smiled when talking about her long life but added that she’s not about to buy any new furniture. With a confident faith, she said that a much better home is being prepared for her.

I squinted through my glasses to read some of the news items that she’s kept. Miss Ernestine wasn’t wearing glasses. Nor was she using a cane or walker. She stood for over 90 minutes as we slowly circled a memory filled table.

The memories she treasures most are of family. She mentioned Anita’s piano lessons from Mrs. Louise Lewis and her gift for classical music. She talked about Belinda, also a student of Mrs. Lewis, serving for many years as a church organist. An article about Andy notes that he developed a computer program so the Georgia Board of Regents could modernize college registrations.

Miss Ernestine recounts childhood memories of ringing the dinner bell when it was time to eat or listening to her uncle play his fiddle. But she’s even more interested in what’s going on right now, in keeping up with her family, church, and friends.

She told me that she enjoys my columns, and that she’s noticed I like to include some humor. She said I could tell folks that she was recently looking for her coffee jar and found it in the refrigerator. I didn’t tell her I had just stuck my head through an arm opening while trying to put on a vest. That wouldn’t be so bad, except it took me a while to figure out what was wrong.

We paused at the front door as I was about to leave. She smiled and said with a hint of mischief, “Neil, I was just wondering if you would mind playing the piano at my funeral?”

I said, “Miss Ernestine, I’d be honored to. But I was just wondering if you would be willing to speak at mine?”

Posted in 2018 | 12 Comments

Junior High Reunion

The quarterly reunion for Junior High was held Thursday, January 4, 2018. Although the school was located in Pulaski County, the reunions are now held in Vidalia. This one took place at Meadows Park Health and Rehab in Room 223.

Junior High was a small rural school that included the first through fifth grades. Its name seems a bit of a misnomer. Perhaps the original plans also included grades six through eight, but that’s just speculation. Other than a blue metal road sign there’s nothing left of Junior High.

The school was housed in the original Bethlehem Church building. It preceded the Bethlehem I remember that was on Mock Springs Road. Folding doors separated the sanctuary from the classroom, an open span that accommodated all the students and two teachers. A coal burning heater kept it warm enough to study. It was as comfortable as most of their homes, which relied on open fireplaces.

My mother, Margaret Hill Joiner, only attended Junior High for the fifth grade. She went there because a relative, Robert Coleman, was a newly-hired young teacher and needed more students. Elizabeth Stokes Dunaway, Mama’s first cousin, attended all five years at Junior High. She serves as President of the Alumni Association, but has delegated most of the reunion details to Mama.

Cousin Elizabeth and Mama grew up near each other. They often visited, played, and had meals together. They attended church at Bethlehem Baptist, and were both baptized in the ice-cold waters of Mock Springs. They double dated, married Dooly County farmers, raised families, and spent decades together as members of Harmony Baptist Church. Harmony is two hours from Vidalia, where Elizabeth now lives, so they don’t see each other on Sundays anymore.

My brother, Jimmy, and I were guests at the recent reunion. We heard some delightful childhood stories from another generation. I asked Cousin Elizabeth if she remembered her first-grade teacher. Without hesitation she named Mrs. Bathsheba Johnson. “We called her Miss Bassie,” she said, noting she was a much better teacher than her sister, Miss Drusilla Sewell.

In nice weather Cousin Elizabeth walked the short distance to school. At other times she caught the bus or was taken by her parents. Mama lived about three miles away. She walked almost a mile, then rode Mr. Tom Dunaway’s school bus with her good friend Kat McKinney.

Mama and Cousin Elizabeth talked about their aunt, Ruth Hill Shelton, who each day milked four cows. She hand-churned the cream into butter that she sold or bartered. I remember as a young child in the 1950’s going with Mama to a grocery store in downtown Hawkinsville. She showed me some of Aunt Ruth’s butter, something I felt provided my great aunt with celebrity status. The days of homegrown products being carried in the stores were rapidly winding down.

Cousin Elizabeth said that she didn’t do much milking herself, but that she loved working in her family’s vegetable garden. Her mother, Aunt Effie to us, had big gardens. She liked sharing from them, especially with people in need. Gardening must have been in the Hill Family genes as Mama also seemed to relish the work. In my childhood, and many years afterward, she picked bushels of peas and beans with an enthusiasm I admired but did not understand.

I attended a funeral recently for Mrs. Helen Cross, a fine lady and renowned cook from the Harmony Church community. Her nephew, Reverend Mike Peavy, described love in a way that I had not heard before. Mike told about Miss Helen picking and shelling butterbeans, then cooking them in a big pot. But love, he explained, was when she gave those butterbeans away, something she did often and in generous portions.

I used to wonder how the ladies of that generation could enjoy the hard, sweaty, work of gardening. I think Mike Peavy gave me the answer. Maybe they loved the work, but I think what they really loved was the sharing. They gathered some to keep, but gathered much to give away.

The Junior High Reunion helped remind me that we all have gardens to tend. Every garden looks a bit different, but so do the needs that they meet. I guess the blue metal road sign isn’t the only thing left from Junior High. There are two alumnae and a huge collection of sweet memories. I hope that I get invited to their next gathering. Maybe I’ll find out what happened after fifth grade.

Posted in 2018 | 5 Comments