A lot of folks in the Crisp County area remember Fatboy Mangum. I was a young man of 23 when I met him. He was in his mid-fifties. He grinned and introduced himself, told me that everybody called him Fatboy. He appeared comfortable with his massive rotund stature, but I called him Mr. Wayne. That seemed more appropriate coming from a lanky kid three decades his junior.
I met Mr. Wayne through the funeral home where I worked part time. From December of 1975 to December of 1980, I worked in Vienna with my cousin Rooney Bowen. Most of my time was spent at his Chevrolet dealership, but I also helped at his funeral home when we had a call.
Mr. Wayne had a vault business based in Crisp County. He had some helpers, but he ran the little backhoe that was used to dig the graves. In order not to damage existing markers the backhoe had to be tiny. Mr. Wayne overlapped both sides of the operator’s seat. Sometimes he’d ask me if I thought he better give that backhoe a short rest. I’d pat the hood and tell him that it looked fine to me.
We usually had 50 to 60 funerals a year. Most folks died on the weekend or either had their service then. If Jane and I were heading out of town on Friday after work, I’d caution her not to answer the phone, that it might be the funeral home. That was before caller ID and cell phones. It was kind of nice when you could leave your phone at home, when you could go for hours or even days without making a call.
Mr. Wayne put in the vaults for almost all the funerals we handled. I saw him a lot during those five years, and I always enjoyed our graveside chats. But the place I enjoyed visiting with him most was at the Chevrolet dealership.
Several times a year Rooney would have a supper back in the shop area. It would be for employees and a few close friends, maybe 15 or 20 men. We’d sometimes feast on barbequed goat that Mr. Parks Herrington had prepared. Most of the time, however, we had fried mullet, often cooked by Herschel Davis or sometimes by Barney Crozier. They both knew their way around a fish cooker.
Mr. Wayne came to those suppers. He would bring his flattop guitar and I would bring mine. He’d wait until everyone had finished eating and the conversation had waned a bit, then tell me it was probably time for us to play. Mr. Wayne was a good guitar picker and a better than average singer. He had a clear strong voice and knew a lot of songs. Three of them were his go-to numbers.
The lyrics of one were, “T for Texas, T for Tennessee, T for Thelma, who made a wreck out of me.” I’d never heard that song before, and I don’t think I’ve heard it since. Mr. Wayne sang it with passion. It made me wonder if he had known a Thelma somewhere a long time ago.
“Waltz Across Texas” was another of his standards. I thought that he and Thelma might have had a special connection to Texas, a connection that he still fondly remembered.
The last of his favorites was an old Jimmie Rodgers song titled “Waiting for the Train.” Mr. Wayne would sing about being flat broke and trying to hitch a free ride from Frisco to Dixie in a boxcar. “He put me off in Texas, a state I dearly love, the wide-open spaces all around me, the moon and stars up above.” Between the verses he yodeled in Jimmie Rodgers style and enjoyed the highly predictable grins of our small audience.
Mr. Wayne was happily married to a sweet lady named Madge, a woman he loved dearly. I don’t know if he had an earlier history with a Thelma down in Texas or not. All I know is that he enjoyed singing those three songs. Those mullet suppers were a long time ago, but I can easily picture Mr. Wayne smiling and strumming his guitar. His voice is still clear and strong as I remember him singing about two lovers waltzing, or about a lonesome man who couldn’t afford a ticket for a train ride home.
I never thought to ask him if there was a story behind that trilogy of Texas tunes, and I’m sort of glad that I didn’t. Sometimes there’s more pleasure in wondering than there is in knowing. He sang like a man who had lived the lyrics, but that’s what the best singers do. His waltzing days were long over, but sometimes a memory is almost as good.