Reunion Season

I retired from banking at the end of 2015.  Part of my retirement strategy was to find three free meals a week.  My Three for Free Program has not worked very well during the winter months, but summer is much better.  Summer is the time for reunions.

Reunion Season starts in June, peaks in July, and is pretty much over by the end of August.  I wish we could spread that July concentration over several months, but I haven’t yet figured out how.  Georgia Veterans State Park at Lake Blackshear is a prime location for reunions. I highly recommend it for your family gatherings, and I encourage you to schedule them during June or August.

Jane and I leave church on Sundays a little after twelve, then drive slowly toward the park.  We’ve learned not to get there too early unless you want to help set up tables and chairs.  About 20 minutes later we’re usually standing in line holding red plastic plates, asking folks we don’t know how they’ve been getting along.

Over the past few summers I’ve developed some guidelines that are quite useful.  If you decide to start attending reunions of people you aren’t related to, here are three things that may be helpful.

Rule number One is to “Follow the Crowd.”  I also call this the Twenty Plenty Rule.  It’s important to go where the people are, where you can more readily blend in.  I don’t stop at a place where there are less than 20 vehicles, unless it’s an emergency situation.

More people also means more food.  It’s disappointing to find out that someone has grilled just enough chicken halves for those who responded.  It makes me feel a little guilty to compete for a good position in line, especially if the crowd consists mostly of older folks.  Competing for a spot near the front is also more challenging because of Jane’s impeccable manners.  Unless she’s really hungry I have to tug on her arm to keep her from lagging behind.  When there are fewer chickens than people even a polite hesitation can be devastating.

With a big crowd you’ll have more variety for the meal too.  There’ll be chicken, ham, and maybe a plate of sausage or a pan of barbeque.  There’ll be at least five vegetables, plus deviled eggs, fresh tomatoes, and a whole table of desserts.  And there are always leftovers, which makes the trip even more worthwhile.

As soon as someone makes a move toward cleaning off the tables, I’ll jump up and offer to help.  One of those nice ladies will inevitably ask, “Would you like to take a plate home?”

“Not for myself,” I’ll say, “but Mama sure would enjoy some of your good cooking.”

“How’s your mama doing?” they’ll ask, while trying to figure out who I am.

“Doing pretty well,” I reply, “just hungry all the time.  The doctor says it’s the medicine she’s taking.”  A sweet lady like that will grab a couple of plates and stack way more on them than I’d feel comfortable taking.  She’ll cover them with aluminum foil plus send an uncut pecan pie along for dessert.

Rule number two is “Talk to The Texters,” the 4 T Rule.  By sitting next to a texter, or any type phone addict, you can avoid being asked questions you can’t answer.  Kids are ideal, but young adults will do.  You may need to nod once or twice as a courtesy, but you won’t have to speak.  Phoneaholics don’t want to be interrupted, which helps you keep a low profile and allows you to eat quickly.

Rule number three is “Don’t Stay Too Long at The Party.”  It’s best to go late and leave early.  If you rush off too soon, you’ll miss out on the leftovers, but there’s an element of risk in staying too long.  That lesson came early for me.  We had finished a scrumptious dinner when a young fellow of about seven or eight came running over.  “My mama says she doesn’t know who y’all are.  She wants you to show her where you belong on the family tree.”

I looked across the room and there she was, standing by an easel with a detailed genealogy.  She was staring quizzically at me, while holding a black magic marker with the top already removed.

I said, “Son, I sure do wish we could stay and visit, but we have somewhere else we need to be. If you don’t mind, just tell your mama that we belong on the part of the tree that’s about to leave.”

Sometimes I wonder what part of the tree that lady put me on.  Maybe we’ll find out next year.

Posted in 2018 | 6 Comments

Rufus

By the spring of 1964 I was already a seasoned veteran of the Unadilla Chapter of the Dooly County 4-H Club.  I had completed some noteworthy projects, such as my entomology collection.  It filled two King Edward Cigar boxes and included an elusive water bug thanks to Granddaddy Hill.  The insects were pinned neatly to green Styrofoam, which had been salvaged from a funeral wreath.

Public speaking was another memorable venture.  My mother still maintains that I was robbed of the district award.  She credited me with a stellar presentation of 4-H: The Democratic Way.  The thing I remember most clearly was being glad to get off the stage.  Standing behind that podium in Americus, I learned that public speaking can lead to bladder shrinkage.

I had also chalked up two years of experience in the Dooly County 4-H Barrow Show.  A barrow is a male pig who has been chosen to sing soprano in the choir.  The Bible speaks of eunuchs, a position for which the volunteer line was predictably short.  It’s the same with male pigs.

My prior entries in the barrow competitions were common farm raised pigs of undocumented heritage.  In 1964 I was determined to make a serious run for the coveted blue ribbon.  Daddy agreed to loan me the money to buy a registered Duroc, a breed with dark red hair and a history of stardom.

Mr. Rufus Coody had a large purebred swine operation.  He knew more about hogs than anyone in Dooly County and far beyond.  He searched carefully trying to find a winner for me.  We put that young pig in the back of Daddy’s pickup truck and took him home.  I named that promising little fellow Rufus, in honor of the man who brought us together.

Mr. Allen Fulford was our county agent.  He made regular visits to our farm to check on Rufus.   Mr. Allen would tweak the feed formula, adding or taking away various supplements.  He gave me a strict regimen of daily walks for Rufus to tone his muscles and help train him for the showring routine.  It only took a few trips around our large fenced pen until Rufus caught on.  I didn’t even need a walking stick.  It was more like playing in the yard with a good dog.

Rufus loved attention.  When our school bus made the afternoon rounds, he would trot over to the fence and stand on his back legs.  He would prop on the page wire until I petted him or scratched underneath that big chin of his.  The kids on the bus cheered through the half open windows.  He was delighted by encouraging chants of, “Ruuuuu-fus! Ruuuuu-fus! Ruuuuu-fus!”

One aspect of the 4-H plan was to teach good record keeping.  I knew exactly how much was invested in Rufus.  When it came time for the barrow show, I had spent 57 cents a pound raising him.  That was a lot in 1964, but Rufus had the look of a champion.

That little pig started out as a project, but he soon became a friend.  It was, however, a troubling situation, as I knew barrows shared a common fate.  They travel a one-lane road with no off ramps.  That’s the sobering thought that pounded my conscience when we walked into the showring.

Rufus didn’t win, but he came in a solid second.  I still have that red satin ribbon in a small cardboard box of keepsakes.  The top three hogs always sold for a premium, sometimes for as much as two dollars a pound.  I tried to focus on this being a lesson in business, but my heart had no interest in a lecture on economics.

Rufus was herded through the gate toward a big truck that would take him on his final ride.  He gave me a quizzical stare, but I couldn’t look back.  I turned away and bit my bottom lip.  There was no way to explain to him what was happening.  Even if I could it would have just made things worse.

A few days later our mailman, Mr. Bruce Poole, delivered an envelope from the sale barn.  It removed any uncertainty as to Rufus’ fate.  I knew he had been wrapped in white butcher paper and stacked in a cooler, stamped with a label that didn’t even mention his name or red ribbon.

I had a sick feeling as I walked toward the house while opening that envelope.  My good buddy Rufus was gone.  That was a hard thing for an 11-year-old boy to accept, the low point of a tragic situation.  I thought I’d hit rock bottom, but it got worse.  Rufus had only brought 32 cents a pound.

Posted in 2018 | 5 Comments

Porches

I don’t believe we spend enough time on porches.  During childhood porches ranked high on my list of favored places, four of them in particular.  My memories have perhaps grown more pleasant than the moments.  Tea is always sweeter the day after it’s made.

Mama Joiner’s home was an easy walk from ours.  Her long wraparound porch spanned the entire front of her house and most of one side.  It was furnished with rocking chairs and a green wooden swing with narrow slats like God intended.  A red vinyl cot with a reclining back was added after Papa Joiner had a stroke.  He enjoyed the view of the nearby road and regular visits with family and friends.  He died in 1957, three months before I turned five.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but an open porch now seems a perfect place for repose before taking a journey.

Joiner’s Store was only twenty feet away.  My brother, Jimmy, and I would often walk there from home.  Papa Joiner would sometimes be standing there, leaning against one of the small wooden support posts.  He’d say, “Come on and get a Coke, boys.”  An ice-cold Coca Cola on a hot summer day will buy a lot of good will with a young child.

Uncle Emmett, one of Daddy’s brothers, began operating the store in the 1950s when Papa Joiner’s health failed.  That’s when a lot of my store porch memories were made.  It was a gathering place for neighbors, most of them farmers.  Uncle Emmett’s furnishings included a school bus seat he had salvaged, one rocking chair, and plenty of Coke crates that made decent seats if you stood them on end.  There was a revolving cast of entertainers on that small but busy stage.

One summer when it was hot and unusually dry, Mr. Edgar Andrews stopped by for a cold soda water.  Uncle Emmett said, “Edgar, you think it’s ever going to rain?”

Mr. Edgar paused and studied the clouds like he was looking for a sign.  He said, “Emmett, I’ve noticed that it always rains right after a dry spell.”  The most likely place to hear that kind of banter is on the porch of a country store.  I miss those days, those people, and their charming conversations.

Grandmama Hill’s porch was on the side of their home.  The nearby woods had a spring fed stream and sycamore trees with initials of young lovers carved in the smooth white bark.  That porch is where the men gathered after Sunday dinners.  Granddaddy would sip ice water from his oversized drinking glass as he sat in his sturdy rocking chair.  He’d talk about simple things, like a feisty bull he had seen go through the auction at Ernest Mashburn’s livestock barn that week.

At nighttime in summer Grandmama’s porch offered front row seats to an exceptional symphony.  There were crickets, frogs, and other common voices, but the sound I loved most was the whippoorwill.  There was something intriguing about their lonesome call, as if they were trying to tell me something.  I wondered what they were saying, but I never figured it out.

The small screened porch on the front of our home was perhaps my favorite.  There were two rockers and a comfortable swing, the swing being my preference.  Family and friends talked and laughed on that porch, but the times I remember most fondly are when it was just me.  I’d strum my Sears-Roebuck guitar and sing a Hank Williams tune, or maybe something from the Green Broadman Hymnal.  I wrote a few songs and sometimes traveled with a band of Gypsies until it was time for bed.  The music was never exceptional, but it suited the audience.

Our porch was also a good place for reflection.  Psalms 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  A quiet porch on a star-filled night is perfect for stillness.  It’s an ideal setting for young boys, old men, or those who fall somewhere between.  I wasn’t always looking for God in the solitude, but I know now that God was always looking for me.

I don’t believe we spend enough time on porches.  I can’t prove it but I’m almost certain it’s true.  It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a whippoorwill, and far too long since I’ve even listened. Sometimes I still wonder what those whippoorwills were saying.  Maybe tonight I’ll figure it out.

Posted in 2018 | 6 Comments

Faith, Love, and Determination

Mrs. Betty Maples left Albany in 1966.  She had a station wagon full of children but not much else.  Tommy, her oldest, was 15.  Her youngest, Michael, had just turned two.  Rudy, Marcia, Ann, and Kirby were scattered between the bookends.

The road to Pinehurst was paved with uncertainty.  Her house was too small for seven people and she didn’t have a job.  But she had three things of value that can’t be bought – faith, love, and determination.  “I’ve been in a lot of valleys and the Lord pulled me through,” she said.  I told her, as I have before, how much I admire her.  She responded, as she always does, with modesty.  “I had some good children,” she said, giving them credit for doing more than she should have expected.

I don’t know much about her valleys and she doesn’t care to dwell on them.  What I do know, however, is that she speaks honestly about having good children. Rudy and I were in class together at Pinehurst Elementary.  Tommy was just ahead of us and Marcia not far behind.  Those were the three I knew best while growing up.  I added Ann, Kirby, and Michael to my friends from the Maples’ tree a few years later.

Miss Betty’s family now includes twelve grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.  I don’t know many from the two younger generations, but I have no doubt that strong gene of goodness has been passed down the line.

Betty Jean Speight was born just north of Pinehurst on November 14, 1930.  She graduated from Pinehurst High School in 1947, then went to Middle Georgia College in Cochran.  She worked a couple of years with the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service before marrying Serell Maples.  They first lived in Moultrie, moved to Pinehurst, and then to Albany.  Two years later she and their six children returned to her hometown.

Miss Betty found part-time work seven days a week at the Pinehurst Post Office, and soon added a full-time job at Middle Georgia Electric Membership Corporation.  For 15 years she worked both places while managing a household that was busier than most.  She retired from Middle Georgia E.M.C. as Secretary to the President after 29 years.

When I was a kid the only things that I knew about Miss Betty were what I could see.  She was real pretty, always pleasant, and had a lot of children.  I got to know her much better during my five years of working at Rooney Bowen Chevrolet.  She negotiated several car purchases for her family.

She’d give Rooney and me a one sentence lecture each time.  “You all know that I’m going to trade with you, but I mean you better treat me right!”  Her warnings always came with a disarming smile.  We’d laugh as we promised to take good care of her, but we made sure to keep our promises.

During those years at the Chevrolet dealership, I began to realize what an exceptional woman and mother Miss Betty was.  She balanced work and family beautifully, relying on faith, inspired by love, and loaded with determination.  When I changed careers, she continued to be my customer, banking with me for 35 years.  She still smiled when she occasionally told me that I better treat her right, and I still laughed when I promised her that I would.

I asked Marcia what life was like from a child’s view.  The first thing she said was how thankful she is to have been raised in a Christian home.  The Maples children didn’t have to wonder where they would be on Sunday mornings or nights, or during Wednesday prayer meetings.  Their frequent trips down Oak Avenue to Pinehurst Baptist Church left a trail of faith that’s still evident.

Marcia told me about a cherished Christmas tradition, in which her mother has them hold hands for prayer before anyone opens a present.  Marcia continued that practice with her children, and now it’s being taught to the next generation.  St. Nicholas would no doubt agree that “Prayer Before Presents” is a simple yet remarkable reminder of what’s important.

I first admired Miss Betty for what she did, then I came to love her for who she is.  She was a bit reluctant to have a column written about her, but good stories need to be shared.  I laughed when I promised to write something she would be pleased with, while knowing that promise would be easy to keep.  There’s a lot to be said for faith, love, and determination, and there’s a big loving family from Pinehurst that proves it.  It shows what can happen when three strong virtues come beautifully wrapped in the same package.

Posted in 2018 | 4 Comments

The Cost of Salvation

The cost of salvation has been on my mind for a while now, and I’m having mixed emotions.  I’m not referring to the price that Jesus paid with his shed blood.  I’m talking about the dollars that are spent collectively by today’s church.

It’s not that I’m against spending substantial funds to save souls.  I heartily embrace a generous approach to reaching the lost.  But I wonder if we need to take a fresh look at our methods.  Maybe we should critically examine the traditions and routines that we’ve grown comfortable with.

A number of years ago, First Baptist Vienna had a series of meetings to develop a strategic plan.  A very capable minister came down from Atlanta and led our effort.  The first thing we did was develop a mission statement.  I don’t remember what it said, but it sounded pretty good and we were all in one accord.  I think we printed it in the bulletin a few times.

A suggestion for a slogan that I do somehow recall was, “Empowering the saved to reach the lost.”  That’s a good thought and seems like a reasonable way to examine what we’re doing.

One issue that First Baptist Vienna and other congregations deal with is having a historic sanctuary.  The beautiful stained-glass windows create an aura of worship and inspiration.  It’s a picture-perfect setting for both quiet reflection and vibrant renewal, but the upkeep of our ancient building is higher than its cathedral ceiling.

First Baptist Vienna baptized 18 people during the past ten years.  Based on our total expenditures during that same period, each new convert came at a cost of over $100,000.

Is it worth $100,000 to save a lost soul?  Sure it is.  But most of those professions came from the children of faithful members, Christian families who would no doubt have been in church somewhere.  If we measure our effectiveness by public professions from outside our church family, the individual costs soar astronomically.

Baptisms are only one aspect of ministry.  There are many worthwhile efforts such as missions, benevolence programs, and fostering spiritual growth among the members.  Without baptisms, however, the proverbial well will eventually run dry.

I read somewhere recently that about 4000 churches close annually in the U.S.  I don’t know how accurate those numbers are, but I do know there is excess pew capacity in much of America.

Maybe it’s useless to talk about a problem without suggesting a solution, and I sure don’t have one.  I’m writing in hopes it will generate some conversation and ideas.  How do we make the best use of our tithes and offerings?  What’s the most cost-effective method to share the gospel?  What do we do with church facilities when the congregants become too few to support them?  Should shrinking congregations merge or perhaps share pastors, staff, and other resources?  How do we engage in polite non-threatening discussions?

First Baptist Vienna can probably kick the can down the road another ten years or more.  The most inviting solution is to do just that, to let somebody else deal with it.  But I don’t believe that’s the right thing, not for our church or the thousands of others who are facing gradual declines in members and, more importantly, in professions of faith.

Many of us are tenaciously clinging to a delivery system that comes at a high cost.  That doesn’t mean we should cut back on our giving.  It means that we need to find ways to use those gifts that will produce better results.  Maybe we’ve focused too much on saving churches and not enough on saving souls.  It’s wonderful to invite people to church, but it’s critical to invite people to Christ.

Salvation is free because Jesus paid the price.  The cost of sharing that message, however, has grown much faster than the resulting professions of faith.  I believe it’s urgent to have some honest discussions about more effective means of sharing the Gospel of Christ.  Or we can delay a while longer and let somebody else turn off the lights.  The cost of salvation has been on my mind for a while now, and I’m having mixed emotions.

Posted in 2018 | 5 Comments

Simplicity

One of our grandchildren, Megan, had a school assignment in April to make a toy from items that could be found around the house. She made a little truck that was pulled by a string. It reminded me of such things from my childhood. The toys I had in the 1950s mostly came from the store, but I learned about a few homemade gadgets from my father. There’s a lot to be said for simplicity.

When I was small Daddy made a tractor for me from a wooden sewing spool. Mama had used all the thread, probably to put knee patches on my blue jeans. Daddy cut notches on the two raised sides to give the wheels more traction, then ran a rubber band through the middle. He attached the rubber band on one end with a short stick held in place by a thumb tack.

On the other end he used a kitchen match to twist the rubber band and give it tension. With twenty or so turns the tractor was ready for the lower forty. A little soap on the side of the spool reduced friction to help it run faster. I broke several matches and rubber bands in a quest for more horsepower. As Detective Harry Callahan said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

I can’t claim that tractor was an exceptional toy. It paled in comparison to a cap pistol with a fresh roll of ammo. The tractor was special though because Daddy spent time with me as he made it. When it dropped out of sight while I was plowing a soggy bottom, he handed me his pocket knife and helped me make another one. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.

There were marbles, yo-yos, and tops during my childhood, the same simple toys that Daddy had played with in the 1920s and 30s. Paddle balls, sling shots, and light weight airplanes were always a hit. Mrs. Lillian Lewis had a variety store in downtown Unadilla stocked with items that were perfect for a child’s budget. I never bought toys on credit there, but I’ve been told that you could. Miss Lillian was a kind-hearted lady who helped make life a little sweeter for her young patrons.

Strings were an occasional source of entertainment. In the spring Daddy’s pickup would often be loaded with bags of peanut or cotton seed. The tops of each bag were sewn together. He showed me how to pull the string so it would easily unravel. Daddy would make a seesaw, boxing ring, or crow’s foot, while patiently teaching me how to make my own.

I was thrilled when I mastered the crow’s foot. I made my share of them over the years, but I’m not sure that I still can. I’m a little reluctant to try, unsure whether I prefer to know or to wonder. With knowing there is certainty and with wondering there is possibility. There are times when it’s not clear which is the better choice.

My first bicycle was a used one. I don’t know where Daddy found it, but he spruced it up by brushing on a coat of red paint. I didn’t need the training wheels very long and I quickly outgrew the little bike. I barely remember riding it, but I realized at some point that red paint was Daddy’s way of saying he loved me. He sometimes painted memories that took me a while to appreciate.

We’d go to the beach for two nights every summer, first to Jacksonville then later to Panama City.   Daddy would float on his back and talk about the training he had as a young man in the Navy. He showed me how to relax with my face above water, and how to trap air with clothing for an improvised float. He said that currents hidden beneath a smooth surface can take us where the water is over our head. In the safety of the shallows he taught me to prepare for deeper places.

Daddy bought some nice things through the years that made life easier and more fun for our family. But it’s the simple things I value most, those times that still remind me he always cared.

June 16th is Father’s Day. It’s a good time for fathers to reflect on how our children will remember us. Instead of adding to my collection of shirts, I think I’ll ask Erin, Seth, and Carrie to each give me a piece of string. I’d like to teach them to make a crow’s foot if it’s not too late. There’s a lot to be said for simplicity.

Posted in 2018 | 10 Comments

Pumping Iron

I never dreamed I’d be able to lift 300 pounds, and certainly not of attaining such a feat as I’m approaching middle age.  On a family vacation to Tennessee many years ago, my father told me about some mountain curves that are so sharp the back end of a vehicle will pass the front.  I think he wanted me to slow down.  My road to pumping iron was not quite that crooked but it was close.

My earliest inspiration for body building came from Charles Atlas.  His ads were everywhere during my comic book addiction days in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  On the inside covers were his cartoon character ads.  They featured a skinny young guy at the beach being berated by a muscular bully.  It was even more humiliating because his girlfriend heard every word of it.

The poor fellow was depicted as a 97-pound weakling having sand kicked in his face.  I didn’t have a girlfriend, and no one had ever kicked sand on me, but I identified with that hapless string-bean of a guy.  His physique reminded me of a toothpick, and I needed twenty pounds to have that much shape.

I didn’t start off skinny.  I was a big kid with more than my share of muscle until about the third grade, then things suddenly went uphill.  Mama ordered some Levi blue jeans from Sears & Roebuck that were two inches too long.  By the time they came they were closer to my knees than my ankles.  At nighttime I could lie on my bed and see the sheet move as my feet slowly inched toward the footboard.  I slept sideways to make sure I didn’t get stuck.

Daddy made me what he called Super Dupers.  It was a glass of whole milk with two raw eggs, generously sweetened with sugar, nutmeg, and vanilla flavoring.  Daddy was so skinny as a kid that he had a floating kidney.  I don’t know if that’s a real thing or something his doctor made up, but they put bricks under the foot of his bed so his kidney would reposition itself.  And they told him to drink a lot of raw egg milkshakes.  He turned out quite solid, so it seemed like a good plan.  But I just kept growing taller and thinner.

Charles Atlas had a sculpted body and a case full of trophies.  He credited his success to “Dynamic Tension,” a sort of one man arm wrestling contest.  The picture I remember showed his left hand pressed against his right with his biceps bulging during their friendly competition.

I sent a dime in with the order form and I sure got my money’s worth.  I tore into that brown envelope and found a bounty of information explaining how to get the actual life changing workout program.  I don’t remember how much it cost, but it was more than my budget could stand.  I shrewdly developed my own Dynamic Tension routine but quickly tired of fighting with myself.

I put body building on hold until I went to college.  The weightlifting physical education class under Coach Arnold seemed like a good way to get a muscular body, but something went awry.  I began the quarter looking like a pencil and ended the same way.  The one thing I was good at was chinups.  It was a low ceiling in an old gym.  When I stood on my tip toes the bar was at eye level.  I probably hold the record for consecutive chinups at Valdosta State College, but I don’t think it was documented.

This past Christmas, Jane found some exercise equipment in our attic.  I had bought it on sale a few years earlier and had forgotten about it.  Over the next two months I gained a great appreciation for “Some Assembly Required.”  Once I figured out where the cables went it looked almost like the picture.

In early April I began pumping iron with enthusiasm.  On the tenth of May I reached a milestone by lifting 300 pounds.  Instead of taking a shortcut to success, I lifted 20 pounds for 15 repetitions.

I’m no longer the poster child for Skinny Kid Syndrome either.  A regimen of two buttered homemade biscuits with pear preserves five days a week has completely cured me.  I’m thinking it should only take a month or so to convert this newly acquired bulk into well-defined muscles.  I’m planning to buy a new swimsuit and take my girlfriend to the beach before long.  If anybody kicks sand in my face, it better be one of our grandchildren.

Posted in 2018 | 3 Comments