Willie’s Nimble Fingers

Jane and I went to Macon in November of 2018 to see country music legend Willie Nelson.  Attending concerts of big-name musicians are a bit out of our regular routine.  I had not been to one since college days in the early 1970s.  Jane, however, had gone with her brother in 1991 to see Jimmy Buffett.  That put her one concert ahead of me, a position I expect she’ll maintain.

Not everyone is a fan of Willie or his music.  Like many of us he’s had some noticeable flaws in his personal life.  I read a book he wrote a few years back titled “It’s A Long Story – My Life.”  After almost 400 pages I’m still not sure what he believes about eternity.  He grew up going with his grandmother to a small-town Methodist church in Abbott, Texas.  At times he seems to embrace a traditional Christian view of God and faith.  At other times he sounds like he’s ventured way off the trodden path.

He started his concert with “Whiskey River” and closed it with “I’ll Fly Away.”  That seems an odd pairing of songs in some ways, but not so much for Willie.  His music and his faith both seem challenging to define.

He played for an hour with hardly a pause between songs.  Early in his career he was the opening act for a singer named Bob Wills.  Mr. Wills’ song-packed performance inspired Willie to leave off the chatter, jokes, and clever remarks.  His focus is always on the music.

But I didn’t go to the concert as much for the music as for Willie.  It amazes me that at 85 years old he’s still touring the country in a bus.  “On The Road Again” is about as authentically biographical as a song can be.  I don’t know how many thousands of times he has sung that tune, but he sang it with the enthusiasm of a debut album.  I guess he really “can’t wait to get on the road again.”

The man sitting next to me was 78 and having some health issues.  He said he had bought his tickets earlier when he was feeling better.  As we visited before the show, I learned that he’d had four back surgeries.  His grandson said that he had worn his back out driving a truck.  “I don’t need my truck anymore,” the fellow said.  “I gave it to him.”  I asked if he had seen Willie on stage before.  He said that he had but added this would probably be his last time.

Seated next to Jane was a lady with her daughter and son-in-law, a couple who looked to be in their twenties.  The daughter had one of those haircuts that’s almost shaved on the sides but plentiful on top.  Willie’s admirers transcend age, gender, and even politics, I think.

Willie probably performed 30 or so songs, some in their entirety with others just a phrase blended into a seamless medley.  When he sang “You Were Always On My Mind” I swallowed to hide the uninvited lump in my throat.  The aging trucker sitting next to me spoke softly to his grandson, “That’s the best one he’s sung all night.”  I guess we all have some little things we should have said and done but never took the time.  Willie’s music from that Macon stage was a poignant reminder.

Willie’s voice is strong but not quite like it was in his younger years.  He doesn’t hold the notes as long but covers it well with his unique off-beat delivery.  What I consider remarkable, however, is his masterful guitar playing.  He didn’t just strum a few chords, he played lead on every song.  He deftly navigated the frets from one end of the neck to the other.

I don’t play my guitar very often.  My index finger has begun to hurt a little when I do, and my little finger is trying to join that same party.  Yet Willie, almost 20 years my senior, looks at ease as he plucks his faithful guitar that he calls Trigger.  He tenderly plays soulful melodies, then smoothly transitions to numbers that are almost too fast to pat your foot to.

Jesus told a parable about talents that’s recorded in Matthew 25:14-30.  I’m not sure Willie always paid attention in that little church in Abbott, Texas, but he must have been listening carefully when the preacher delivered that sermon.  Willie’s nimble fingers have always been extraordinary, but they stay that way because he never stopped using them.  Willie just keeps on picking.

I think I know why my fingers may be growing stiff.  Maybe I’ll get my guitar out of the closet this afternoon, dust it off and play it for a while.  I may even christen it with a good name.  If you see Willie, tell him Nelson and I said thanks for the inspiration.

Posted in 2018 | 3 Comments

Whatcha Callit,

A July 2018 fire in Unadilla gutted what many remember as Hamrick Furniture and Appliance.  As a young man Mr. Harry Hamrick joined his father in the family business on Front Street.  Mr. Harry owned and ran it for 68 years.  In the early days they sold groceries plus all sorts of other items.

I knew that a good place to reminisce about Mr. Harry would be with the Coffee Club.  That’s a small group of men who gather for hot coffee and lively conversation five mornings a week.  Mr. Charles Speight, the most energetic 96-year-old I know, worked for Mr. Harry in 1937.  Mr. Charles was only 15 at the time.  Mr. Harry was less than ten years ahead of him.

A 12-hour Saturday shift from noon to midnight earned Mr. Charles 75 cents.  His mother, Ruth, called the store a little after 12 that first night of work to see if he was on his way home.  “I was about to leave,” said Mr. Charles.  “I was putting ice on the mullet and croakers.  The last thing we did before locking up was to put plenty of ice on the fish.”

James Ray Irwin mentioned home delivery of groceries.  “Those were the days when you left your list at the store,” he said.  “They would get your order ready and deliver it later.”  It was an early version of a shopping option that is again being offered today.  Maybe King Solomon was right when he said, “There is no new thing under the sun.”  (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Bobby Lemon is a youngster compared to most of the Coffee Club regulars, but he’s spent all 62 years of his life in Unadilla.  When someone mentioned that Mr. Harry sold Zenith televisions and Hotpoint appliances, Bobby added, “He sold paint too.  There was a big sign that read, ‘Sherwin Williams Covers the World.’”

Mr. Charles said, “A lot of the televisions that Harry sold had to be ordered, so Harry would provide the customer a loaner.  One fellow ordered a new TV that took about six months to come in.  By the time the new television arrived Harry had forgotten about the loaner.  That fellow traded it in.”  That’s typical of the charming kind of stories Mr. Harry loved to share.

He studied journalism at the University of Georgia.  For many years he was the editor of The Unadilla Observer, a weekly paper that was at one time sponsored by the Unadilla Lions Club.  Many of us fondly remember “Whatcha Callit,” the column he penned for over sixty years.  Each week he fed his loyal band of readers small delicious bites of entertainment.

My parents subscribed to The Unadilla Observer, so I was introduced to Mr. Harry’s column as a child.  He had a remarkable gift for finding glimmering little jewels among the common stones of life.

Bobby Lemon said, “I don’t know why I remember this, but Mr. Harry once mentioned a hammer that had been in Abner Hansard’s store since 1947.”  Mr. Harry noticed things that seemed insignificant by most standards.  They were important only because they brought pleasure to his readers.

Rodney Brannen was kind enough to look up Mr. Harry’s obituary in the funeral home records.  He told me that he had been mentioned in “Whatcha Callit” one time.  He and Jimmy Sellers were visiting with Max Conner and Judge Harold Hill at Max’s service station.  Flies were unusually bad for some unknown reason, so Rodney and Jimmy started swatting them.  Rodney was surprised to find their individual fly counts heralded in Mr. Harry’s next column.

I saw Harold Bridges on the Vienna-Pitts I-75 overpass back in the 1970’s.  He was positioned on his knees as he faced north.  His arms were resting on top of the concrete side rail.  The next week Mr. Harry told how many vehicles Harold had counted going in each direction.  Without Mr. Harry I would still be wondering what Harold was doing.

Mr. Charles said, “Harry loved his church and his Sunday School class.”  He pointed to him in a group picture that hangs on the wall.  Then he quoted one of Mr. Harry’s favorite sayings, “Don’t overwork the Lord with small stuff.  Don’t ask Him what time it is when you’re wearing a watch.”

Mr. Harry took good care of the small stuff.  He added flavor to the bland tidbits of everyday life by lightly sprinkling them with subtle humor.  There may be a journalistic name for his unique style of writing, but I have no idea whatcha callit.  I’ll just call it a blessing.

William Harry Hamrick – November 24, 1912 – January 6, 2001

Posted in 2018 | 7 Comments

The Cover of a Book

There’s an old saying to “Never judge a book by its cover.”  It’s sometimes hard for me to follow that sage advice, but it always comes to mind when I see John David Law.

I was 15 when I first met him.  He was doing some masonry work for my parents, building two short patio walls in the winter of 1967.  It was a small job, the kind I would learn many years later that he squeezed in between more substantial work.

He was only at our home for a couple of days.  Daddy introduced us as the two of them talked in our back yard.  He was a very personable fellow, but I figured him to be a man who walked comfortably on the wild side of life.

His beard was long and untamed.  He wore a red leather aviator hat with the front bill turned up.  The unbuttoned side flaps were comically positioned almost perpendicular to the ground.  He looked like a man who might be headed straight to the liquor store as soon as he got paid.

The next time I saw him I was living in Vienna and working at Bank of Dooly.  It had been about 14 years since our first introduction, but that childhood memory somehow quickly surfaced.  My boss, Luke Couch, told me that John David Law was one of the finest gentlemen I could ever know.  John David laughed and modestly deflected Luke’s comments.  Over the next 35 years, however, I learned that the praise given was well deserved.

I visited with John David in his home in mid-November.  The weather was cold and rainy, finally allowing me to catch him taking a rare break from work.  He’s 85 now and still laying bricks with no intention of retiring.  Currently he’s working 40 feet off the ground on a church in Americus.  I told him that seemed too risky.  He laughed and said, “Well, if you fall the ground will always catch you.”

His parents, Willie B. and Annie Mae Law, taught him about farming, family, and faith.  On Sundays they were all in church.  That’s where you’ll still find John David today, often singing or leading a devotional.  His home church only has services once a month, but John David participates in worship somewhere every week.

He graduated from high school in Vienna in 1953 then worked a few months at Robins Air Force Base.   Uncle Sam called him into the Army on March 9, 1954.  After serving his country he came back home and farmed for a short while.  One day in the Cordele Post Office he saw a listing of various occupations and incomes.  It was a moment that would change the course of his life.

He had never laid any bricks when he enrolled in the two-year masonry program at Savannah State University.  The GI bill provided $122 per month for education.  He and four other guys rented a house because it was cheaper than the dormitory.  In Savannah he learned about bricks and blocks and blueprints.

After graduation he worked for a construction company for 12 years.  His wife, Myrtislean, got sick and asked him to stay with her in the hospital.  His employer, however, wanted him on the job.  John David left the security of a regular paycheck and became a self-employed contractor.  He’s been busy ever since.  What looked like a potential setback to his career turned out to be a blessing.  John David smiled and spoke with deep conviction, “I’m a believer in prayer.  I prayed for it.”

He and his crew laid 250,000 blocks and 400,000 bricks for Malone Tower in Albany.  Not far away on Broad Street they laid 500,000 bricks for a housing project.  His personal one-day best is 4,000 bricks by his count.  J. C. Lloyd, who was hauling the bricks, said the count was 4,500.  I tend to think J. C. is right.  John modestly added, “I only lay about half that many now.”

After I got to know John David I told him about my misguided childhood perception.  We’ve laughed about it many times since.  I learned that he never took any paychecks to liquor stores.  He’s never tasted alcohol, not even in a fruit cake.  He credits his maternal grandmother for that.

He still sports a long unruly beard, but he doesn’t look wild to me anymore.  Behind that beard I found an exceptionally fine man, a man whose faith is as firm as his strong handshake.

Sometimes I’m still tempted to judge books without opening them.  That’s when I summon my childhood image of John David Law.  The cover that I saw didn’t tell the story I expected.  The real story was between the covers.  The story that matters is always on the inside.

Posted in 2018 | 4 Comments

The North Pole’s Got Talent

Sandra Wiley invited me to be a guest speaker for some writing classes that she teaches at Fullington Academy.  Knowing that would look good on my resume, I gladly obliged.  The older students realized I was telling them more than I knew, but I think I fooled a few of the younger ones.

Some of those same students are practicing a play titled The North Pole’s Got Talent.  I was told that It’s loosely based on the television show America’s Got Talent, in which performers vie for approval from the judges and audience.

There’s no shortage of talent in America.  I’m not sure, however, that The North Pole has a lot to offer.  I’ve been thinking it over and only came up with a few ideas of what their competitions might include.

Ice fishing would likely be featured.  There is without doubt an inherent stimulation in sitting close to a small hole cut into the ice while watching a handheld line for hours.  When a fish eventually grabs the bait, pandemonium reaches its purest form.  Winter is a dark time at the North Pole, so it’s critical that ice fishing is featured during the summer months.  There’s no doubt that ice fishing could be compellingly described during the darkness, but watching the drama unfold would add further intensity.

Carving ice sculptures would probably be one of the top talents.  I don’t think chainsaws are available, so they use chisels at the North Pole.  I expect the Polarites are exceptionally good at this since they have so much raw material to work with.  In most of America big blocks of ice are not easily obtained.  It would be frowned on in much of the U.S.A. to ruin a good block of ice with poor carving.  At the North Pole you throw that unshapely ice in the scrap pile and cut another chunk from the glacier.  If practice makes perfect, the Polarites have surely perfected this art.

Layering clothes can be a competitive talent.  It wouldn’t be that exciting in Georgia.  We think of layering clothes in small increments.  We consider whether to don a light jacket or maybe a sweater.  At the North Pole it’s not unusual to wear ten layers that measure a foot thick plus four pairs of socks.  That won’t keep you warm long, but it can help you get home to the fire.

Speaking of fire, that might be a good talent to showcase.  Building a fire can be a challenge at the North Pole and keeping it going requires constant attention.  The problem with fires, especially in the igloos, is the water dripping from the ceiling.  A small drip won’t put the fire out, but eventually it leaves a hole in the roof from which the heat escapes.  If someone can solve that problem they might get to the finals, or at least get a contract with the home shopping network.

There may be some folks at the North Pole who train seals or penguins to do tricks.  That could have potential, but they are likely to be competing with American trainers who do the same thing.  To play on the big stage, it’s essential the Polarites showcase something that is unique.

The only thing I can think of that they have a solid lock on is Santa Claus.  I don’t know exactly where Santa lives, but I imagine someone at the North Pole can find him.  If Santa included reindeer and elves in his act, he would surely emerge as the contest winner.  He could tweak Rudolph’s red nose or maybe demonstrate how quickly the elves can make toys.

Santa could go through his nice and naughty list and perhaps give the naughty ones a chance to change their errant ways.  That would get him tons of votes, and the naughty kids would finally get something for Christmas besides another compass.  It’s no fun when the needle always points south.

Maybe for his grand finale, Santa could take a sleigh ride and deliver toys to some of the little Polarites.  The excitement of young faces unwrapping new blocks of ice would surely persuade the judges to give him the big trophy.

If given the opportunity, I will vote as often as allowed for Santa.  I hope that he reads my column.  That might help me to get on his nice list.  The North Pole has definitely got talent!  And I’m one of his biggest fans.

(The Fullington Academy Drama Club will present The North Pole’s Got Talent on Friday, November 30th, at 7 p.m.  The public is invited to attend.)

Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment

A New Cotton Sack

During my early childhood the cotton on our farm, as well as that of our neighbors, was harvested by hand.  I picked a little cotton, but not enough to pretend that the hot work shaped my outlook on life.  It was, however, because of cotton that I got my first experience with buying something on credit.

I often went to the field with Daddy to weigh up.  There might be a dozen or so folks there who had picked cotton all day.  They walked down the rows, pulled the fluffy cotton from the burrs and put it into their sacks.  Then they emptied their sacks on to burlap sheets at the end of the rows.

Robert Richardson always had more cotton than the others.  I don’t know much about his father’s side of the family, but his mother Daisy was part of the Lawson family.  The Lawsons had a reputation as strong, honest, hard-working people who were also blessed with jovial dispositions.  I admired Robert for always picking more cotton than the others.  I’m sure there were days he was exhausted, but it didn’t show in his demeanor.

Weighing the cotton was done with a scale that was attached to a sturdy pole of about six feet long.  A man would stand on each end of the pole and Daddy would hang one of the tied burlap sheets onto the scale’s dangling hook.  The men would lift it off the ground, making sure it cleared.  Daddy would write down the weight beside the name of each person’s sheet.  Sometimes Daddy would hold one end of the pole and I would read the scales, a task I understood in which accuracy was important.

My approach to picking cotton was quite unremarkable.  Because of that history I was given a short and well-worn sack for my expeditions to the field.  It was more than adequate to accommodate my efforts, but that’s not how my young mind worked.

Joiner’s Store was just up the road from us.  Uncle Emmett kept charge tickets for Daddy and most of the folks in the Third District community.  He would write it down when something was bought, then people would settle up with him weekly or maybe monthly.  I had some understanding of the concept of credit at an early age.  Twice a day, when we were working, we could charge a drink and a snack on Daddy’s bill.  A Coke or a Pepsi with a Moon Pie was standard fare.

I’m not sure why I thought a new cotton sack would improve my picking skills, but it was like the call of the sirens that sailors hear on the ocean.  I asked Uncle Emmett if I could charge it and pay him back when I picked some cotton.  He didn’t try to talk to me out of it or tell me I’d have to ask Daddy.  He sent me on my way with that new cotton sack and my own charge account.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that Robert Richardson’s phenomenal weigh-ins had nothing to do with having a bigger or better-looking cotton sack.  What I found out was that long sack got heavy when it was filled.  And I realized that the highly welcomed breaks from the hot work came less often.  It took longer to fill up the sack, so it was longer between needing to empty it on the sheet.  It was longer between drinking water from the mason jar in the shade at the end of the field.

I paid for the sack, but I was glad to retire it when Daddy bought a one-row tractor-mounted picker.  I’d had a good lesson about easy credit, a valuable long-term reminder to use caution when spending money that I don’t have.  Perhaps, however, there was another lesson of even more value.

There’s an old saying, “All that glitters isn’t gold.”  I didn’t realize it at the time, but Uncle Emmett helped me to understand that adage.  I believed that new sack would transform my picking to legendary status.  I don’t know why I thought that way.  It seems quite foolish as I look back, even for a kid of maybe nine or ten.

But the thing that strikes me as even more foolish is how easy it is to ignore lessons already learned.  It can happen to any of us.  We see that new cotton sack and we’re smitten by its looks.  We like the fresh scent of the material and the smooth texture.  If we only had that new cotton sack, we’re certain that life would be better.

I didn’t need a new cotton sack to pick like Robert Richardson.  What I needed was a new attitude and more effort.  That new sack was seldom filled to the top with cotton, but it was packed full of lessons that thankfully linger on

Posted in 2018 | 3 Comments

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 | 3 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