Tales From Georgia’s Gnat Line

On Thursday, April 18th, I stood in a long line of people waiting for Larry Walker to sign his latest book “Tales From Georgia’s Gnat Line.”  This was the second offering in his gnat series, following “Life on the Gnat Line.”

You don’t have to worry about me doing many book reviews, because I don’t read many books.  I like to read but there are several things I enjoy more.  This year, however, I’ve completed two books in the first four months.  At this pace I will easily break my previous record.

I’m not sure what that record is but it’s low.  “Call of the Wild” and “The Old Man and The Sea” are the only two books I clearly remember reading in high school.  I made two reports on each book between ninth and twelfth grade.  That was all that our English teacher, Mrs. Collins, would allow.

My friend, Smitty Dennard, wrote a report in the ninth grade on “Beneath the Bleachers” by Seymour Hiney.  He told us at recess that he got a B plus.  I tried to check it out from our school library, but apparently Smitty didn’t return it on time.  I asked about it weekly until our librarian told me not to ask again.  There’s no telling how many overdue book fees are on Smitty’s permanent record.

Standing in line to buy an autographed book was a first for me.  I went to the Perry Arts Center with a clever acquisition plan, but it fell through.  Larry’s wife, Janice, wouldn’t take a check on the Bank of Elko.  My friend, Don Giles, had recently recommended that bank to me.  It didn’t work, but that’s probably because I looked nervous.  I think I’m going to shred the rest of those blank checks.

The first book I read this year was also by a Perry native, Billy Powell, who now lives in Peach County.  Many of you have read Billy’s books and his thought-provoking weekly column.  In “Pride of the Panthers” Billy gives a splendidly detailed account of a Perry basketball dynasty that is without peer.

It’s interesting that Billy Powell and Larry Walker both give Coach Eric Staples credit in helping shape their lives.  Senator Sam Nunn was another of Coach Staples’ basketball players.  The unparalleled wins of Coach Staples’ teams prove that he was an exceptional coach.  But his exemplary character and faith seem to be the common threads among numerous men who excelled far beyond the ball court.

A recent story in The Macon Telegraph said that Larry’s latest book would help answer the question, “Where is the gnat line?”  It does that and much more.  I had, for example, forgotten about lockjaw until Larry wrote about it.  Although I never knew of anyone afflicted with lockjaw, it was a dreaded malady of childhood often touted by our protective mothers.

The thoughts of stiffened jaws leading to inevitable starvation were horrendous.  It was even worse to think that it could happen on a day when we had peach ice cream.  Hand churned ice cream on a hot summer day was a tad sweeter than anything that comes in a carton.  I guess turning a crank made me appreciate it a little more.  Reward that comes too easily is often not as fulfilling.

Larry’s book reminded me of things that have faded from current conversation.  Traveling old roads can revive all sorts of memories.  He also addresses some serious matters, such as changing the Georgia state flag years ago.  Larry took a stand that was unpopular in many circles, because he believed it was the right thing to do.  There’s a lot to be said for a man who will stand up for his convictions.

When Larry was born in 1942, Perry was still a small town.  His years as a Southern lawyer and state legislator give him a unique perspective, but it’s his everyday stories that I enjoy most.  He tells about having a minority ownership interest in a dog named Tux.  He talks about boiling peanuts and selling them for ten cents a bag, and how his father taught him to make certain the bags were full.  And he shares stories of old friendships that remind me to savor such moments with special people.

I plan to read Larry’s book a second time, but I don’t guess I should count that in my annual total.  I hope he’ll take another swat at his Gnat Series.  His stories have warmth, humor and charm.  When it comes to sharing tales of the South, Larry Walker has a gnatural talent.

(“Tales From Georgia’s Gnat Line” is available at Gottwals Books and many other fine retailers.  For a signed copy you may email the author at lwalker@whgmlaw.com.)

Posted in 2018 | 2 Comments

Mother of the Year

In 2006 Mrs. Ruthel Andrews Patrick received the Mother of the Year award for the state of Georgia.  It was presented by the Georgia Mother’s Association and was based on a detailed process that included recommendations from community leaders.  She was sponsored by the Cordele Woman’s Club.

The front-page story carried by The Cordele Dispatch mentioned Crisp County as being her home.  She and her husband, Mr. Bo Patrick, are long-time residents there, but her roots run deep in the same place as mine, the Third District Community in Dooly County.

Miss Ruthel was born April 15, 1930, less than a half mile from Joiner’s Store which my grandfather owned.  She was a student at Williams School, a one-room building that was abandoned long before my childhood in the 1950s.  Her cousin, Faye DeLoach, salvaged an unpainted board from there and gave it to her as a keepsake.  That old piece of wood is quite valuable because she measures its worth in memories.  Miss Ruthel later attended Union High, a larger country school in that same area, then graduated from Pinehurst High School in 1947.

That background may not have much to do with her being named Mother of the Year.  I’m a bit partial toward Third District, so maybe I was just looking for an excuse to brag a little about one of our own.  But those formative years in rural Georgia no doubt influenced her approach to raising children.

When I asked about her mother, the first thing she said was that faith was important in their family.  She and her six siblings were brought up in church, a practice that Miss Ruthel and Mr. Bo followed with their three children.  Their commitment to an active faith was passed on to eleven grandchildren and is now being taught to nine great-grandchildren.  They keep adding links to their chain of faith.

Solomon said in Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”  A proverb is something that’s likely to happen but not guaranteed.  The extended Patrick family, however, gives evidence of Solomon’s wisdom.

While faith is the foundation of her parenting, Miss Ruthel says her philosophy is best summed up by the word love.  “Our children have always known that we loved them unconditionally.”  Love, coupled with a strong faith, seems quite enough for successful parenting.  Miss Ruthel, however, has one other aspect she considers vital, which is to teach your children to set goals to work toward.  Her three-pronged approach reminds me again of King Solomon, this time from Ecclesiastes 4:12, “A strand of three chords is not quickly broken.”

May 12th is Mother’s Day, a good occasion to thank our mothers in some special way.  Having a godly mother is a blessing that’s easily taken for granted.  I have an exceptional mother whose manner of parenting has been much like that of Miss Ruthel, one of love, faith, and encouragement.  Many of you have been blessed and have blessed your own children in similar ways.

Perhaps Mother’s Day is also an appropriate time for inward reflection on the role of a parent.  Mothers have an unsurpassed ability to love and to nurture, but a growing challenge is to impart a vibrant faith to the next generation.  While faith is constantly under attack in a secular world, a more severe issue may be the increasingly dispassionate efforts to instill the tenets of Christianity in our children.  If we choose to embrace a casual faith, we’ll fail to convey the depth of His grace.

For those mothers who are shaping the lives of future generations, I hope that you’ll give Miss Ruthel’s three-point philosophy a try.  Unconditional love is powerful beyond measure.  Encouraging our children to set worthy goals is a tremendous practice.  But a cord of two strands is not enough.  The strand of faith is essential if we are to be the parents God intended.

Some of you may be thinking that I’m not qualified to give advice to mothers.  I’ve been thinking that exact same thing.  So, don’t take this advice from me, take it from the Mother of the Year.

Happy Mother’s Day to all.  May God bless and guide every one of you.

Posted in 2018 | 3 Comments

A Song in My Heart

Valori Moore is the owner-editor of The Taylor County News, one of the papers that carries my column.  She wrote an editorial in March of 2019 about having a song stuck in her head that wouldn’t go away.  I think most of us have that happen on occasion.

Valori’s column led me to reflect on a few songs that I often recall from the distant past.  They are perhaps no better than many others, but to me will always be among the best.

Larry G. Hudson was the lead guitarist in the state champion Unadilla F.F. A. String Band.  He graduated from high school the year before I joined the band to play piano.  I enjoyed listening to Larry and the band as they practiced in the auditorium or on the lunchroom stage.

When I was in the eighth grade and Larry was in the twelfth, the band was playing a slow song one day called “Sleep Walk.”  It had a tender and somewhat ethereal quality.  As Larry picked out that soulful melody, it made me wish I had a girlfriend and knew how to dance.  Sometimes I play “Sleep Walk” on my piano, but the sweetest sound is the one I remember from Larry’s guitar on a lunchroom stage a long time ago.

Another Larry played rhythm guitar and sometimes took the lead in that same band.  Larry Hamsley came from the most musical family that’s ever graced Dooly County.  He was one of 15 siblings whose cradles were rocked to country tunes.  Larry H. was also ahead of my band playing days, but he joined in with our group one night in Vienna for a session at George Forehand’s house.

George was a disc jockey at a radio station in Montezuma, and he had a recording studio in his home.  Larry H. played lead on a song that I think he called “Bulldogging.”  I don’t know if it was a tune he had heard or if he made it up, but it had a bluesy sound that stayed with me long after the party was over.  I tried to learn it on guitar, but my talents are nominal.  I can stumble through just enough of it to bring back a good memory.

After the two Larrys graduated, I began playing piano in the band.  I was a freshman learning the ropes from four juniors, Michael Sullivan, Jerry Pickard, Charles Jones, and Jerry McIntyre.

Michael Sullivan had a smooth-as-silk baritone voice.   “The Green Green Grass of Home” was a hit for Porter Wagoner and was covered nicely by a lot of other good singers.  But Mike Sullivan’s version will always be my favorite.  The grass seemed a little greener when he sang about it.

Jerry Pickard sang a gospel song with conviction titled, “The Wings of a Dove.”  It’s the story of God sending Noah a sign after the waters receded.  “On the wings of a snow-white dove, He sends His pure sweet love, A sign from above, On the wings of a Dove.”  It didn’t surprise me when God called Jerry to be a minister.  I believe he would have been on the ark if he had been around back then.

Charles Jones rocked the stage singing “Johnny Be Good.”  Charles could play anything with strings on it and enjoyed music as much as anyone I’ve ever known.  When he hit the pounding chorus singing, “Go Johnny Go,” everyone in the audience would be grinning at full speed.  If you saw someone with a somber expression, it was probably too late to call the ambulance.

Jack Greene’s recording of “There Goes My Everything” played well on the radio, but Jerry McIntyre’s rendition was about two notches better in my young opinion.  Jerry had a clear voice that resonated with confidence, the same confidence with which he played basketball and approached life.

VeEsta Brown joined us when we performed as VeEsta & The Country Gentleman.  She belted out a string of country standards with a voice that was good enough to headline a much bigger stage.  My favorite was an old Kitty Wells number, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honkytonk Angels.”  Every band needs a star.  VeEsta was ours.

I planned to write a column about songs that are stuck in my head, but I realize now it’s more about songs in my heart.  The music was good, but it’s the memories that I cherish most.  If I ever forget those treasured moments from long ago, it’s probably too late to call the ambulance.  Just take me back to the green green grass of home.  That’s the place where I’ll always have a song in my heart.

Posted in 2018 | 9 Comments

Rattlesnake Roundup

Many years ago, I went to the Rattlesnake Roundup in Whigham, Georgia.  My father-in-law and I made the short trek from his Thomasville home, but I don’t remember why.  Neither of us had a strong affinity for venomous snakes.  My guess is that we were desperate to get out of the house.

The only thing I clearly recall from that outing is that we stood in a long line for southern fried rattlesnake.  Mr. Horne had no interest in a snake snack but said he didn’t mind waiting with me.  I was excited as I had heard that rattlesnake tastes a lot like chicken.

We inched forward for about ten minutes or so.  The closer we got to the dinner table the more I realized my appetite was waning.  I decided there was no compelling reason to eat something that reportedly tastes like chicken unless there was a shortage of the real thing.  We exited the line, watched somebody milk a rattlesnake, then returned to Thomasville.  A snuff-dipping lady that Mr. Horne knew at Maryland Fried Chicken sold us a box of wings that were exceptional.

My brother Jimmy and I hauled a few loads of scrap metal out of some woods in late March.  It’s mostly bulky household items that hardly weigh enough to pay for the gas to take it to Vienna.  The money is nominal, but we made a good dent in cleaning up a rather unsightly area.  A feeling of leaving something better than you found it is sometimes reward enough.

We saw a rusty push lawnmower that had probably been there 50 or 60 years.  The handle was gone so I grabbed the motor and managed to wrangle it away from the vines and leaves.  Underneath that mower was a giant timber rattler.  He was over six feet long when I saw him but shrank about 24 inches according to the tape measure.  Right after that encounter I pulled up a nearby sheet of tin and found his twin brother or maybe sister.  I don’t know how to determine the sex of a snake and it’s way down the list of things I want to learn.

Some of my friends, as well as many highly respected naturalists, say that the preferable thing to do is to leave such rattlesnakes alone.  I appreciate their view and they’re probably right, but I don’t think they ever heard about Mrs. Elmer Cheekwood’s leg.

I didn’t know Grace Cheekwood or her husband Elmer.  During my childhood they lived near Unadilla on what is now called Third District Road.  Our family traveled that way often, so I knew where they lived even though I don’t recall ever seeing either of them.

Whenever we passed their house, Mama would tell us about Mrs. Cheekwood being bitten by a rattlesnake while she was picking blackberries.  She’d say, “Mrs. Cheekwood’s leg almost rotted off.  It turned black and blue and became as hard as wood.  They thought for a while she might lose it.”

Jimmy and I helped Mama pick blackberries when we were young.  She would strain the juice through cheesecloth to separate the tiny seeds then put up pints of jelly in Mason Jars.  She’d also bake a few cobblers during the season.  Her blackberry cobblers were filled with hand rolled dumplings, a recipe for which there is no equal.  We’d take our tin buckets and pick wild berries from fence rows.  Each time Mama would say, “Watch out for rattlesnakes.  Mrs. Cheekwood got bitten when she was picking blackberries.  Her leg turned black and blue and became as hard as wood.”

There was a part of me that secretly yearned to see Mrs. Cheekwood’s leg, but I never had the chance.  Her story, however, influenced me to the point that I cannot embrace sparing a rattlesnake.  It’s fine for others to do so but not for me.  And so it was that on a sunny spring day in 2019, with the help of a little hoe that I wished had a trigger, two old timber rattlers came to the end of the line.

Those snakes reminded me of a story from a few years back about Hardy and Carolyn Gregory.  One day when they were riding around their farm Hardy stopped for a rattlesnake that was in their path.  Hardy is an advocate for leaving nature undisturbed.  He intended to do no harm.  Carolyn, however, said, “Hardy, half of this farm is mine and that snake is on my half.  I want him killed.”

I share Carolyn’s philosophy, but I will admit to having a tinge of regret about leaving those two big rattlers in the woods.  It bothered me for a little while.  They say it tastes a lot like chicken.

Posted in 2018 | 4 Comments

Miracles

Our Lifeway Sunday School books at First Baptist Vienna provide discussion questions.  Sometimes they’re easy.  At other times I leave the space allowed for notes completely blank.  A lesson in December of 2018 asked, “In what ways has God demonstrated to you that nothing is impossible with Him?”  That’s a fair question for a long-time professing Christian, yet I was perplexed as how to respond.  There are matters of heart I could share, such as my salvation experience, but I tried to think of tangible evidence, miracles that might even be convincing to a person who is skeptical of faith.

I believe God is capable of miracles, and that He regularly uses His ability.  I’ve been blessed beyond measure and give God the credit.  But I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a physical manifestation of divine intervention.  I believe I have, but I can’t say that with certainty.  God has worked inconspicuously on many occasions in my life, and I believe some of those events are best described as miraculous.  But I can’t deny there have been other plausible explanations.  My experience has been of God being more like a rudder, unseen beneath the water while gently turning a ship.

I’ve witnessed some unlikely healings, but medicine was also a part of the process.  I don’t know whether God routinely participates in matters of health, or if He selectively dispenses His unmerited grace.  I thank Him when things turn out well by my imperfect standards, and I don’t question His merciful love during the heartbreak of silence.  If silence sometimes reflects a failure in our relationship, I know the failure is solely mine and not His.

It’s hard for me to distinguish between God’s intentional will and His permissive will.  Does God always directly intervene in situations that are successfully resolved?  Or does He allow things to work themselves out in some natural order within this unfathomable universe He created?  I’d love to talk to Job of the Old Testament about that, but hopefully no time soon.

In trying to answer the question from our lesson, I couldn’t come up with any one concrete thing, so I began thinking about the miracles that are recorded in scripture.

I believe that God created man and everything around him.

I believe that Adam and Eve were lovingly placed into a perfect garden, then fell for a deceitful promise of something better from one who knew he could not provide it.

I believe Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, and that somewhere beneath the salty waters of the Red Sea are the chariots of the Egyptian army.

I believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, suffered and died for my sins, and rose again on the third day.

The Bible mentions far too many miracles to fit into a column and I believe every one of them.  So maybe faith is the answer for me.  Rather than analyzing evidence of God’s intervention, perhaps the best proof of His boundless power is the miracle of faith.

Noah witnessed tremendous miracles.  He was there when the animals peacefully boarded the ark, when the flood waters covered the earth, and when the waters finally receded.  But the most compelling part of that story to me is Noah’s obedient faith.  He built an ark on dry ground, no doubt surrounded by laughing neighbors and skeptics within his own family.

It’s the flood that grabs the headlines, but Noah’s faith is also a front-page story.  Noah was allowed to witness God’s exceptional power after God had witnessed Noah’s unwavering faith.  When I’m tempted to wonder why miracles are not more pronounced in my life, perhaps I should first ask myself, “Am I willing to build an ark?”  It’s a question with two simple answers, either a yes or a no.  But the lukewarm stream in the channel between is too often the place that I go.

God has demonstrated over eons of time that nothing is impossible for Him.  It is the miracle of faith that allows me to believe that.  Faith is the only proof of God’s unlimited power that I can claim with certainty.  But I know with certainty that faith is the only proof I need.  On Easter morning I will again be reminded that nothing is impossible with God.  I hope that you will be reminded too.

Posted in 2018 | 7 Comments

Choosing a Career – Part II

Some people seem to be born knowing what they want to do in life.  I wasn’t in that group.  My plans of being a cowboy left when Chief plodded off into the sunset without me.  It would sound more impressive to say that he galloped away, but that wasn’t his style.  Chief never embraced the joy of running.  He chose instead a painfully slow walk that was graciously accommodating to the swarming summer gnats of Georgia.  I believe he understood that his lack of enthusiasm translated into predictably short rides.

Somewhere not far removed from those cowboy days of grammar school, I had an idea that I might enjoy becoming a cartoonist.  When I was a small child, Daddy would read the Sunday Comics to me out of The Macon Telegraph.  Snuffy Smith and Beetle Bailey were his favorites.  He also enjoyed Lil’ Abner and a few others that I can’t readily name anymore.  He read Little Orphan Annie who had been wandering around America since the days of his youth.  He talked about Punjab, The Asp, and Daddy Warbucks like he knew them.  I guess in a way he did.

I began reading the comics myself at an early age.  I admired how they could capture a moment of humor or even tell a story within a few short panels.   It seemed like a pretty good career, but I realized there was a slight problem in my becoming a cartoonist.  I couldn’t draw.

That’s when I saw an ad for a place you could send in a sample drawing for a free professional assessment.  I knew I didn’t have any artistic talent, but I figured they could tell me if there was even a glimmer of hope to develop my ability.  They responded back quickly and much more favorably than I expected.  They noted my tremendous potential and outlined their phenomenal program along with its easy payment plan. That may be the first time that I understood what a scam was.

I kept reading the comics, a practice that I still enjoy today.   In my teen years I began reading syndicated columnist Art Buchwald.  He had a nationally distributed column that was often based around political satire.  It seemed like a nice way to make a living, but that was still a few years down the road, so I didn’t give it much serious thought.

I don’t remember any particular aspirations between the columnist stage and college.  In the 12th grade my longtime friend, Don Giles, and I interviewed with the F.B.I.  It was Don’s idea, but I quickly embraced it.  I’d been watching Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. on TV.  He always got his man and seldom even needed to straighten his tie.

We went to Macon where State Representative Larry Walker had arranged for us to meet with the agent in charge.  Don and I strolled in wondering how long it would take to get our guns and badges.  The agent was very gracious and hid his laughter well.  He suggested we get a college degree in accounting or law and come back.  Otherwise, he said, we’d be filing papers and working in the office, adding that he didn’t think that’s what we were looking for.  That cured our itch for fighting crime.

At Valdosta State College I majored in business but had little idea what I wanted to do.  Afterward, I spent 18 months selling computers, five years selling cars and carrying caskets, and 35 years working with cash at a small-town bank.  All my careers were linked to words starting with the letter C.

Maybe it’s providential that in retirement I’m staying with the C-word theme by writing a column.  I’m a few million readers short of Art Buchwald’s audience, but I hope that you enjoy our time together each week.

I’ve been thinking about borrowing a horse from my neighbor Marcus Brown to try that cowboy thing one more time.  A slowly plodding horse like Chief would be about the right speed for me now.  With a big hat and some gnat spray I’d be ready for the range.

Or maybe I’ll just write a column about gray-haired men who fondly recall their faded childhood dreams.  Some of those fellows are still around, but I need to write that column soon.  With each passing year the kids who dreamed of growing up to be cowboys are a little bit harder to find.

Posted in 2018 | 5 Comments

Choosing a Career – Part I

I graduated from Unadilla High School in 1970, having no idea what I wanted to do for a living.  That hadn’t always been the case.  There were times during my youth when I was sure of the career path I wanted to follow.

My earliest memory is of wanting to be an Injun.  That was what Native Americans were called on the black and white westerns in the 1950’s.  My inspiration came from a cartoon character of a young Indian boy.  His carefree life roaming the woods seemed quite appealing.

I’m not sure if I saw him on television or in one of those short clips that used to be shown at movie theaters before the main picture.  I only have a vague recollection of how he looked, but I can clearly remember in my preschool innocence telling people I planned to become an Injun.

Then I learned from TV westerns that the Indian life was not as idealistic as I had thought.  They painted their faces and rode bareback in circles around wagons, whooping war cries while cowboys shot them off their horses.  I wondered why the Indians kept repeating a strategy that predictably failed.  Eventually they would leave or be chased off by the Cavalry.  Smoking a peace pipe was seldom cause for celebration.  It more often represented a temporary break in their concessionary struggle for survival.

I gave up my dream of becoming an Indian, but I didn’t have any interest in fighting them either.  Thankfully the cowboy roles in future westerns shifted to herding cattle and rounding up bad guys.   Becoming a cowboy seemed like an option worth pursuing.  It would of course require that I have a horse.  That’s when Mable came along.

Daddy bought Mable from our neighbor, Mr. Junior Spradley.  Before Mr. Junior acquired her, she had spent most of her life in the circus ring.  Mable didn’t understand that trotting in circles was no longer appropriate.  She was fine with another horse beside her, but hopelessly stubborn if ridden alone.

Bryce Bledsoe rode his horse, Red, over to our farm one day.  We raced down the dirt road in front of Uncle Emmett’s store.  Bryce stopped his horse when we reached the highway, but Mabel and I kept going.  There wasn’t any traffic on the road at the time, so it worked out okay.  It made me a bit nervous, but I was thrilled to find out that Mable had a high-speed option.

When I saddled Mable a few days later she fell back into her circus routine, determined to trot in a tight circle.  I pulled hard on the reigns, confidently expecting to impress her with my cowboy skills.  She bucked me off instead, then kicked her heels in the same air I was breathing.  It happened so fast I didn’t have time to get scared, but Mama saw it all from our kitchen window.

When Daddy got home, she told him Mable had to go.  He got in touch with Mr. Herman Sangster who came with his livestock trailer.  I don’t know where Mable went after that.  We thought she had a mean streak at the time, but I realize now she was just trying to do the right thing.  Mable had been trained to follow a circular path.  She didn’t understand that life offered something much better.

When Mable left, I didn’t give up on becoming a cowboy.  Daddy found a brown and white Appaloosa named Chief in The Market Bulletin.  Chief was a fine-looking horse, but lazy beyond measure.  Like Mable, he would gladly run when he had company.  Alone, however, he would lie down and roll on his back if you demanded anything more than a walk.  There were multiple times I had to jump quickly from the saddle to avoid getting a crushed leg.  With Mable and Chief I had taken two shots at becoming a cowboy and missed badly both times.

Joining the Indians was in the distant past and cowboying didn’t seem to hold much promise, but I had learned some things along the way.  I had learned that Indian life was a lot more complicated than I had first thought, and I had learned that it’s hard to teach an old horse new tricks.  Riding Mable had taught me one other thing.  If you follow a perfect circle, you’ll always end up right where you started.

Posted in 2018 | 4 Comments