My father belonged to a men’s Sunday School class at Harmony Baptist Church for over six decades. His cousin, Wendell Dunaway, was the teacher for much of that time. Many years ago, Daddy shared with me something from one of their lessons.
The scripture they had studied that morning was Philippians 4:11, where Paul says that he has learned to be content. Cousin Wendell asked the class if anyone knew a truly contented man. Alvin Hogsett, a relative on my mother’s side of our family, answered without hesitation, “Fountain Bembry.”
Uncle Fountain was a brother to my grandmother, Carrie Mae Bembry Hill. He lived much of his life in a small and very old house that was a few hundred yards from my grandparent’s home. In his later years he lived with Grandmama. Daddy and I were somewhat amused by Alvin’s answer. We knew that Uncle Fountain’s contentment could also be viewed as a lack of ambition.
When he was young, I think he farmed a few acres. That was before tractors replaced mules and horses. He drove a school bus for Pulaski County and worked as a store clerk for a while. He did a little weekend barbering out of his house and sold Mason Shoes from a catalog. He worked enough to support his modest lifestyle, a lifestyle more simplistic than most would choose.
Uncle Fountain’s small farm was rich in iron ore. It was heavily mined in the early 1960’s. It’s the only place I know of in our area where that was done. Deep pits were left where the ore was removed. It was no longer suitable for farming or hardly growing timber. I don’t know how much money he got out of the iron ore, but he bought a clean used pickup truck, a light blue 1956 Ford stepside.
He wore a Stetson cowboy hat and a Texas string tie when he went to church or to see his lady friend. I was a child and thought that he was rich. I came to realize, however, that his wealth didn’t go much beyond what I could see.
He enjoyed spending time with Miss Mickie Calhoun, often bringing her to family dinners at Grandmama’s house. She was sweet and smart and would have made him a good wife, but he was a committed bachelor. He was satisfied with regular visits and an occasional trip to town.
When the weather was good, he would sit in Grandmama’s backyard under the shade of a big pecan tree. He kept two bricks under the front of his metal chair, tilting it back a few inches. Every hour or so he’d get up and adjust those bricks. Then he’d sit back down and cut a fresh plug of Bull of the Woods chewing tobacco. When necessary, he would lean over and spit, accurately but with little effort, into a tin coffee can stationed beside his chair.
I enjoyed visiting with Uncle Fountain under that shade tree. He was easy to talk to, never out of sorts, never complained that I can recall. I don’t remember talking about anything in particular. Sometimes it was just the two of us, or there might be a half-dozen men following a big Sunday dinner. The men all migrated to the shade tree or the side porch when it was time to clean up the kitchen.
When I was born in 1952, Uncle Fountain was 58 years old. I don’t know when he retired, but I don’t remember him ever working. He was old enough that retirement seemed appropriate. As I got closer to becoming an adult, however, I wondered why he hadn’t done more with his life. I wondered why he was content to live in a room he didn’t own, to date a woman he had no plans to marry, and to let his small farm be disfigured with almost useless clay gullies.
I wasn’t around in Uncle Fountain’s younger days. I don’t know if he worked hard or hardly worked. Ambition is sometimes doled out in doses that seem pitifully small. But too much ambition can be a treacherous thing, sometimes a lot worse than having too little. We can get so busy building more barns that we forget the importance of shade tree visits.
For a long time I thought that Uncle Fountain’s wealth didn’t go much beyond what I could see. Now, though, I view it differently. I think his wealth was measured in contentment. I think Uncle Fountain was a lot wealthier than I ever imagined. Alvin Hogsett was the only one that morning who had an answer for Wendell’s question. Alvin didn’t hesitate. He knew he had answered the question well.