A Rocky Field

A long while back, maybe thirty years or more, I read an article in The Macon Telegraph that has stuck with me.  I don’t know how accurate my recollection is.  I would love to find someone who knows the details, or maybe even meet someone from the family that lived the story.

As best I recall the feature was about a widow whose husband had died in the 1940’s or 50’s.  She was left alone to raise their young children on a small rocky farm.  It was a challenging situation, not as bad as some but much worse than most.  The setting was in middle Georgia, but I’ve long forgotten which community or even county.

It was hard to make a living on a small farm, even for those with the most fertile land.  Tending rocky fields without her husband would not be easy.  It would, however, allow them to survive.

This determined mother decided they needed to do more than survive.  She wanted her family to thrive.  Rather than complaining about the rocks, she and those children began collecting them.  They built a stone house, thinking they would move in it since their home was in disrepair.  Instead of moving, she found someone to rent the house, which brought in some much-needed cash.

They built a second house and also rented it out.  Finally, the third rock house they built became their new home.  She turned those rocks into cash and into a better place to live. Moving those rocks out of the field also helped improve the farm, making it a little easier to till the land.

I wish I had saved that article.  The lady is no doubt long gone, but perhaps she still has family around.  I would have enjoyed meeting her and hearing her story first hand.  I would have enjoyed learning what helped her see the promise those rocks held.

It would have been tempting to look at those rocks and dwell on what appeared to be a somewhat hopeless situation.  But what seemed like a problem became a blessing.  The stones that had been rejected became the cornerstones of a better life.

She could have plowed around those rocks and bemoaned what a bad hand she had been dealt.  But she, instead, saw potential scattered around that small tract of land.  The rocks weren’t something to stumble over and rail against. They were something to embrace, to lift and move and use to build homes.  There was nothing wrong with the rocks.  They were just in the wrong place.

We all have some rocky patches to cope with, some being more severe than others.  We can complain, blame somebody else, or mope around wondering why so many rocks are in our fields.  Or we can look at those rocks and think about what we can do with them.  We can dwell in despair, or we can look for purpose in our problems.

One morning many years ago, I was at my Uncle Murray’s farm shop.  It was an unusually dry spring.  He and the other local farmers were having a hard time getting a good stand of crops.  I said something to Uncle Murray about it being a bad start.  He smiled and said, “Well, I’ve always heard that a bad start makes for a good ending.”  Uncle Murray knew that wasn’t always the case, but he understood it was a good way to look at life.

Sometimes when life seems more challenging than I want, I think about Uncle Murray and what he said that day.  And sometimes I think about that lady who turned her stones into homes.  Her story is one of a rocky start with a happy ending.   It helps remind me to look at the stones of life not just for what they are, but for what they can be.

I wish I knew more about that lady.  It sure would be nice if her story carried her name.  There may still be three stone houses in a rocky field somewhere in middle Georgia.  Or at least maybe someone remembers where they were and knows more about the history behind them.  That lady’s story needs to be told a while longer.  I hope there’s someone who still remembers.

Posted in 2018 | 2 Comments

Pranks

I’ve been in on a few pranks during my lifetime.  Sometimes I was the prankster and at other times I’ve been the prankee.  I’ve generally enjoyed one role about as much as the other.

Almost every community has a highly regarded prankster, one who has a knack for mischief but also understands that the best pranks are fun for both sides.  Mr. Frank Giles is legendary around Unadilla for the many pranks he has played.  Gene Deloach is the longtime champion of Third District.  Bubba Collins covers a big section in the Vidalia area.

Larry Walker and Foster Rhodes are two of the premiere pranksters based in Houston County.  They often work together and even bring in supporting cast members if needed.  But one of the best stories I’ve heard is about a solo effort by Foster.  It was a venture too risky to include anyone else.  Not even Larry or Foster’s wife knew what he was up to.

Riley Hunt is a good friend of both Foster and Larry.  Years ago, he bought a vacant residential lot on a dirt road on the outskirts of Perry.  Other homes were already there or expected to be built soon.  There was little doubt the road would be paved in the not too distant future.

Larry was a highly respected member of the Georgia House of Representatives.  He had considerable influence in state and local government.  Riley asked Larry to help get the road paved as he and his wife, Sandra, were about to start construction on their home.  Mr. Tom Moreland, who was head of the Georgia Department of Transportation, agreed to come take a look.  On the day that he came it had been raining and the road was almost too slick to navigate.  He and Larry were sliding from one side to the other.  Mr. Moreland told Larry that the state would make paving the road a priority.

Riley’s new house was in the early stages of construction when he and Sandra took a weekend trip to the beach.  Inspired by their absence, Foster Rhodes went to the discard pile at Tolleson Lumber Company.  He sawed scrap lumber into stakes then wrote RW in black magic marker on each piece along with random numbers.  It looked convincingly like the right of way markers used by the Department of Transportation.  On Saturday night Foster took his pickup load of stakes and a big hammer and went to the lot.  He began at one neighbor’s property line and went all the way to the other placing those stakes about 25 feet apart.

Instead of following the sharp curve in the road, Foster straightened it out.  He placed stakes within a few feet of where Riley and Sandra’s front door would be.  Their spacious yard looked as if it would soon be covered with asphalt.  Their future mailbox would be reachable from the steps.

When Riley and Sandra got home late that Sunday it was quite a shocker.  Sandra was crying as Riley began frantically making phone calls.  He contacted Larry and everyone else that had any possible connection to the D.O.T.  The local D.O.T. representative came out.  He was baffled by the confusing numbers and wondered why the stakes were placed so differently than he had understood.

I’m not sure how Riley and Sandra learned who the culprit was.  There’s one thing, however, that I am sure of.  I understand now why Larry and Foster stay in touch with each other and are regular fishing partners.  No one in their circle of close friends is safe from the others.  They almost have to keep a watchful eye on one another.

To all of you pranksters in the audience, Foster Rhodes has set the bar mighty high.  If you have a good story that both sides laughed about when it was over, I would love to hear it.  If your prank makes it into the column, you’ll be eligible for nomination to the Georgia Pranksters Hall of Fame.  A small nomination fee of $29.95 includes a personalized certificate that is almost suitable for framing.

And to my fellow prankees, thanks for being good sports in tolerating a little friendly mischief.  There’s no documented cure for Prankster’s Syndrome, but laughter is a proven remedy for helping overcome Acute Prankitis.  Proverbs 17:22 says, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”  When good medicine is free we should take a big dose and keep smiling.  Besides, the bigger we smile the more those pranksters will wonder what we’re up to.

Posted in 2018 | 5 Comments

Another Empty Pew

We have more empty pews at church than we used to.  It didn’t happen suddenly or under the leadership of any one pastor or group of leaders.  It’s been a gradual thing over several decades.

My wife and I joined First Baptist Church shortly after moving to Vienna in December of 1975.  We’ve been worshipping there ever since.  Reverend J. W. Wallis was our pastor for a few of those early years.  He was young and dearly loved by our church family as well as the community.  J.W. was soon called to serve a bigger church.

Another young minister, Al Cadenhead, followed J.W.  Al was good behind the pulpit and great with people.  He was clearly destined to lead much larger congregations.  There were times during both of those pastorates when we needed more seating capacity.  Our goal for high attendance Sunday would be 200 and we’d make it.  It was not unusual to watch people smile as they squeezed into an already crowded pew.

There’s not any one reason for the sparsely occupied pews at First Baptist today.  I wouldn’t mention it in a column except that it’s more than a local problem.  And it’s a concern that’s not limited to Southern Baptists.  Mainline Protestant denominations are dealing with declining numbers.  Congregations that were once vibrant and growing now face uncertain futures.

Part of the issue in rural America is demographics.  My father was one of seven children.  Six of them spent most of their adult life in Dooly County where they faithfully served in local churches.  Four of them remained at Harmony Baptist Church where they were baptized during their youth.  With my generation the families were smaller and more likely to relocate.  With my children’s generation most of them moved away.

But when children leave an area, that’s only critical to the local church.  It’s leaving the faith that is more problematic.  Empty pews across America give evidence of a transition away from organized religion.  Faith and religion are separate matters, but faith without religion often goes unnourished.  In John 15:1-17 Jesus talked about the branches not bearing fruit unless they are connected to the vine.  Religion, when functioning properly, offers a way to strengthen our connection to the vine.

Being connected to the vine seems less urgent today.  Faith seemed more critical when we occasionally heard a message on hell.  I don’t remember ever having a dreadful fear of fiery torment, but hell was occasionally mentioned in the sermons of my youth.  It was depicted as a foreboding place.  That wasn’t just the preacher’s opinion.  He quoted from the Bible.  A one-way ticket had little appeal to any of us.

Not many children today, or even young adults, have ever heard a sermon on hell.  Perhaps it still needs to be brought up once in a while.  Or maybe we’ve quietly decided it’s best to avoid subjects that might be offensive.  In Matthew 22:13 Jesus said, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Since Jesus spoke plainly about hell, it seems we shouldn’t completely ignore it.

Even with decades of pleasant sermons, attendance has faltered in many churches.  Part of that may be due to priorities that have shifted towards convenience.  The earliest family vacations that I remember were for two nights in Jacksonville, Florida, where we stayed at the aqua colored Seahorse Motel.  Daddy made sure that a pleasure trip didn’t cause us to miss church on Sunday.  He wasn’t legalistic about it.  He just felt it was important for his family to worship together each week.  That was a common approach toward Sundays among the church members I knew during childhood.

Sunday worship today has dropped several lines down on the priority list.  Church is often relegated to a backup role.  It’s the place where we go when it won’t interfere with other plans.

There are no easy solutions for filling empty pews.  The problem, I believe, goes far beyond demographics, sermon topics, or misplaced priorities.  It’s possible that the vacant places in our sanctuaries reflect vacant spaces in our hearts.  That’s something worth having an honest discussion about.  But let’s don’t talk about it today.  Let’s wait until some more convenient time.  After all, it’s just another empty pew.

Posted in 2018 | 7 Comments

A Story About Chickens

I don’t particularly care for chickens.  I appreciate their role in the food chain but find nothing endearing about their personality.  Our troubled relationship goes back to my first paying job of gathering eggs.  I was probably six or seven years old and got paid a penny per egg.

We had a large fenced area about 50 feet from our back door.  Our white-feathered laying hens had plenty of room to frolic and hunt grasshoppers and such.  A small opening at ground level provided the chickens access to a wooden building we called the coop. The coop was about twenty feet long and maybe ten feet wide.

Inside the coop was a row of straw lined nests for the hens to lay their eggs in, and a long wooden perch that was a few feet off the ground.  It was a spacious and secure fortress, almost impenetrable to potential invaders like the red fox who lived in the nearby woods.

The hens had access to an unlimited supply of ground corn that Daddy bought from Giles & Hodge Purina Store.  We poured the corn into the top of the round metal feeder in the coop and the chickens pecked it out from the bottom.  All that was asked in return was one egg per day.

By the time I began gathering eggs our rooster was gone.  He had attacked my brother Jimmy and learned too late the consequences of breaching unpardonable sin.  Most of the time the hens cooperated with my egg collections.  Occasionally, however, we would have a setting hen that was difficult.  They were called setting hens because they would set themselves on the eggs to incubate them.  Even though the rooster was long gone, their maternal instinct drove them to protect the nest.

It was my ongoing battle with setting hens that caused my relationship with all poultry to go afoul.  I was about eye level with their nest.  The setting hens would stare crazily at me and refuse to budge.  My solution for that was to pry them off the eggs with a stick.  That process on one occasion led to the death of a setting hen, a death which I still maintain was in self-defense.

But lately I’ve had to reconsider my attitude about chickens.  Maybe I’ve been a bit narrow minded in my thinking.  Maybe I’ve been influenced by a somewhat errant childhood perception.

Groves and Mary Jo Jeter from Byromville have a son named Walt who lives in Charleston, South Carolina.  When Hurricane Florence was heading that way in September of 2018, Walt and his family drove to Byromville to stay until the danger passed.

Walt, Lorraine, and their three children, Luke, Isa, and Ivey came to Georgia.  They also brought three dogs, two roosters, and two hens along.  I understood bringing the dogs, but the chickens seemed a bit of a stretch, even for a family of devoted nature lovers.

Their first chickens had come by way of The Easter Bunny in 2016.  The bunny brought a biddy for each of the children plus one for their mother.  They named them of course and provided good care and companionship.  Mary Jo confesses she is not a “chicken holding type of person” but says she could not resist when a granddaughter said, “Here, JoJo!  Hold Cora Belle!  Isn’t she sweet?”

The original cast members have changed some, but their flock still numbered four when the Jeter family left South Carolina.  Luna, Harbor, Louise, and Rooster Boy made the trip from Charleston to Byromville.  The stress of travel was too much for Louise, but the other three have been relocated to the home of a friend.  The Jeter children all went to help deliver the chickens and to say their goodbyes.  They left their fowl friends in Georgia but retained unlimited visitation rights.

I would have probably turned those chickens loose in South Carolina and told the kids they should be fine.  But Walt and Lorraine made the extra effort to do the right thing.  I don’t know as it mattered a lot to the chickens, but it mattered to the children.  Three children on James Island will long remember their unusual trip to Georgia.  They’ve been given a wonderful lesson in parenting.  That may not be obvious to them now, but I expect it will serve them well somewhere down the road.

I doubt that I’ll ever want a chicken for a pet, but I’ll admit that my attitude is mellowing a bit.  Maybe one day soon I’ll bring a chicken home for dinner.  That seems like a really good place to start.

Posted in 2018 | 3 Comments

Perfect Posture

I admire people who have good posture, people who carry themselves erectly with no hint of slouching. For some folks it seems to come naturally. Others of us have to work at it. I’ve known a lot of people with excellent posture, but none more perfect than Mrs. Sadie Belle Collins.

Mrs. Collins was my English teacher at Unadilla High School for all four years, plus she taught me two years of Spanish. Her manner was stately but pleasant, despite being surrounded by students whose attention often fell short of her rigorous expectations. She had a low tolerance for misbehavior.

I heard a former student years ago make a comment that has stuck with me. He said, “I couldn’t stand that woman in the ninth grade, but I loved her by the twelfth.” He went on to explain that he never was one of her better students, but that he came to respect what she was trying to do. She gave her best to those in her classroom, and she demanded their best in return.

I began attending Valdosta State College in the fall of 1970. I was enrolled in English 101, an introductory course for freshman. I think it was the first day of class when Dr. Trent Busch gave us a surprise assignment. He put three topics on the board to choose from and told us to start writing. I picked the elementary sounding title of “My Life as a Frog.” I wrote a silly story about a frog landing in an ant bed then saving himself by jumping in a pond.

The next day during class Dr. Busch commented on our papers. Before he returned them he read mine aloud, telling the class that it was a good example of what he was looking for. My tale of the careless frog was not riveting by any means. But it was organized, and the grammar didn’t warrant significant red marks. His praise made me more appreciative of Mrs. Collins’ sometimes stern approach to teaching. The discipline she dispensed wasn’t as much for her benefit as for her students.

Her authority was not confined to the classroom. She would stand in the hall as classes changed and keep a watchful eye for improper conduct. I don’t remember her ever giving a paddling or sending anyone to the office. I’m sure she did both during her long career, but it must have been a rare thing. What I remember is her slight smile as she assertively told students what she expected of them.

Mrs. Collins was born in Texas. I don’t know if that played any role in her fluent command of Spanish, but she could roll her R’s with machine gun speed. I never got the hang of rolling my R’s nor of the Spanish language. There was a time when I could read it pretty well and maybe write something simple, but I had no aptitude for the spoken word.

She sought to inspire us by hosting Spanish Club suppers in her home. A jovial atmosphere complimented her yellow rice and enchiladas. It didn’t occur to me at the time that she was going well beyond what was required. She was trying to help us enjoy learning and to appreciate another culture.

After two years of Spanish the only bit of conversation I knew was what was printed inside the cover of our books. It was a short greeting, typical of two people who might meet on the street and inquire about each other. I saw that conversation in print so many times that it stuck with me.

It was more than ten years after my high school graduation before I saw Mrs. Collins again. I was working at Bank of Dooly in Vienna when she unexpectedly walked into our lobby.

“Como esta usted?” she asked. I quickly responded by following the script. “Muy bien, gracias. Y usted?” She gripped my hand firmly and showed a tender side that was no longer disguised by her classroom demeanor. “Neil,” she said, “You don’t know how much good it does a teacher’s heart to know that someone still remembers.” I hugged her for probably the first time ever, and I silently prayed, “God, please don’t let her ask me anything else in Spanish.”

Her posture was as perfect as anyone I’ve ever known. Looking back these many years later, I think I know why. I think she walked that way, because she thought that way. It’s not always so obvious, but at some point our walk will reflect our thoughts.

Mrs. Collins stood tall in the halls of Unadilla High. In the halls of my memory she stands with perfect posture.

SADIE BELLE HANKAMER COLLINS – December 12, 1908 – May 13, 1997. “Descanse en paz.”

Posted in 2018 | 7 Comments

Foster Rhodes – A Good Story

Larry Walker of Perry recently introduced me to a longtime friend of his, Mr. Foster Rhodes.  Foster’s name is already familiar well beyond his home area of Houston County.  Hundreds of thousands of people have visited or passed by the Foster Rhodes Beef & Dairy Arena at the Georgia National Fairgrounds.  Many others know him through the Walker-Rhodes tractor dealership where he’s been hanging his hat since 1974.

But Larry didn’t invite me to Perry to discuss the decades that Foster has spent in business, or to talk about his commendable history of community service.  I went to Perry to hear a story that Larry knew I would enjoy, and to meet the man who tells it much better than I can write it.  If you see Foster, I don’t think he would mind giving you a first-hand account.

I published a recent column titled “A Flat Tire Memory.”  It was about a livestock show from my high school days in the late 1960’s.  Larry read it and was reminded of a story from Foster’s early career with the Extension Service of the University of Georgia.  After working a year or so in Houston County and then Soperton, Foster spent five years in Athens as the Extension’s beef cattle expert.  That was in the early 1970’s, a time when almost every county had some sort of fair or livestock show.  Foster judged cattle all over Georgia, something he had the ability to do with confidence.

The challenging part of judging often followed the main event.  There would be competitions for such things as chickens, pigeons, ducks, and rabbits.  The Extension specialists usually had no qualifications to judge these locally flavored contests, but their help was heavily solicited.  They were basically given only one option, which was to say yes.

Foster’s boss at U.G.A. advised his staff to leave as soon as the judging for their specialty was over.  He said nothing good was likely to happen after that.  His advice was sound but almost impossible to follow.  Foster did his share of judging critters that were far outside his realm of expertise, but he attributes his favorite story to a fellow worker and friend.

The late Bob McGuire was the swine specialist with the Extension Service during Foster’s tenure.  Bob told Foster about a trip he made somewhere in the north Georgia mountains for a county fair hog show.  He finished the judging, presented the awards, and thought he was about to leave for home.  He was, instead, invited to judge the Adult Division Coon Hound Show.

Bob told the local county agent that he didn’t know anything about coon hounds and absolutely could not judge the contest.  The county agent, however, prevailed.  Bob was soon joined in the show ring by seven weathered mountain men in overalls, each of them spitting tobacco and holding on to their best coon hound.  Bob quickly realized that a frivolous approach was not suitable for judging those dogs.

“Get me a yardstick!” Bob told the county agent.  Bob slapped that stick forcefully on the leg of his denim jeans as he did a visual assessment of those dogs.  He stared at those coon hounds with the same intensity as he had earlier focused on the swine.

Then he gave directions to those men, commanding their attention with his emphatically delivered instructions.  “Get him up!  Turn him sideways!  Straighten his head!”  After he had established what was expected, he turned to his trusty yardstick.  He pulled on the ears of each hound, measured them, then wrote it on a pad as he called out the results.  “Seven and one-half inches on the left,” he would say loudly, then nod his head or put his hand on his chin.  “Seven and a quarter on the right.”

Measuring their ears was followed by their tails.  “Twenty-two inches,” he would shout out.  The inflections in his voice and expressions on his face ranged unpredictably between admiration and concern.  The crowd’s respect for the judge’s prowess grew with each turn of the yardstick.

After what he deemed a reasonable time for judging a coon hound contest, Bob heartily congratulated the winner.  He headed again toward the exit gate, but one of the mountain men stepped into his path.  The man spit his tobacco, then looked Bob squarely in the eyes.  He said, “I’ve never known it to be done like that sonny, but it’s the best judging I’ve ever seen.”

Sometimes we don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re pushed into the show ring.  A confident approach can lend credibility to our efforts.  Bob McGuire disguised some subtle lessons with humor.  Those lessons are worth remembering.  We never know when our time in the ring may come.

Posted in 2018 | 3 Comments

Keep Pedaling

A longtime friend of mine, Mike Chason, taught his grandson how to ride a bicycle in June of this year.  In July they took the training wheels off and practiced on an empty tennis court.  Brody found his confidence amid his grandfather’s encouraging cheers to, “Keep pedaling.”  Now they ride together often.  On Labor Day they spent the morning exploring the bike trails of St. Simons Island.  But Mike and Brody weren’t just riding their bikes.  They were in Mike’s words, “making memories.”

Mike suggested that “Keep Pedaling” might be a good title for a column.  I didn’t know where it would lead, but his idea had instant appeal.  It’s a compelling little phrase that kept resurfacing in my thoughts.  Part of its charm is found in contemplating how such a simple expression can address complicated situations.  “Keep Pedaling” needs no explanation, but it seems deserving of its own story.

When I learned to ride a bicycle, our family lived on a sandy dirt road surrounded by Dooly County farm land.  The only thing I remember about my first bike is that it had been hand painted bright red.  I don’t know if the previous owner did that or if Daddy tried to make it look a little better.  The brush painted lines were visible, so it clearly wasn’t a factory job.

I don’t recall the actual process of learning how to ride.  Daddy, or Mama, or my brother Jimmy probably taught me how.  I don’t remember anyone shouting out for me to keep pedaling, but it’s almost a certainty that came with the coaching.  Keep pedaling is a line that many of us have heard or said at some point.  It’s what keeps us upright and moving forward.  It’s what helps us navigate the sandy spots on roads where the tires sink into the soft dirt.  It’s what helps us get up the steep hills, like the one just north of Joiner’s Store.

A cold Coca Cola never tasted better than after a July trip up that hill.  Even after the county paved the road with gravel, it still took a lot of effort to reach the store.  The downhill trip coasting toward Mr. Tom Sangster’s farm was splendid.  The ride back up to the store, however, was a challenge.  I understood it was a necessary part of the journey, that the fleeting thrill of downhill rides came with a price.  It’s a lesson that I’ve never forgotten, but have at times admittedly ignored.

Pedaling up that hill would sometimes get the best of me.  I’d hop off my bike and push it for a while.  Then I would get back on and pedal some more.  I knew it was best to keep pedaling but taking a break from the tiring routine was sometimes too tempting.

Maybe someone already sells t-shirts, bumper stickers, or cards featuring a “Keep Pedaling” theme.  If not, it sure seems like a good idea.  Most of us have been on some hills that seemed unbearably steep.  Or we’ve traveled sandy roads where it took standing up on the pedals to keep going.  Perhaps our bikes have even tipped over at times because we pedaled too slowly.

Alyssa Wehunt is a sweet little girl who lives a few miles outside of Vienna.  She’ll be six on December 18th.  She’s spent about half of her young life courageously dealing with Metastatic Pilocytic Astrocytoma.  She has inoperable tumors on her brain and spine.  Since her January 2016 diagnosis Alyssa has had countless hospital stays.  She’s had chemotherapy, radiation, and all sorts of unpleasant procedures.  She’s had pain, and nausea, and felt the sting of too many needles.  But she keeps smiling and bravely dealing with her illness one day at a time.

Alyssa loves getting mail.  She finds encouragement in knowing that others are thinking about her and praying for her.  Cards won’t cure Alyssa’s illness, but the medicine’s not quite as bitter when you know people care.  It’s inspiring to have cheerleaders lining the sides of the road.

I’m inviting all my readers to be cheerleaders for Alyssa.  I’m asking you to take a few minutes and write her a note.  And somewhere in your message tell her to, “Keep Pedaling.”  The hills don’t seem nearly as steep nor the sand quite as deep when others are cheering us on.

I think Mike Chason had a really good idea for a column title.  I hope you feel that way too.  You can write to Alyssa Wehunt at 677 Pleasant Valley Road, Vienna, GA  31092.

Keep pedaling, Alyssa.  Keep pedaling.  Always, always, always, keep pedaling.

Posted in 2018 | 6 Comments