We Bare All

Ron Gilliard is a friend of mine from college days. He’s a few years older than me and is now retired in Bainbridge, Georgia. He had a book published in early 2017 titled Our Journey. It’s about the role that faith played in dealing with an uphill battle with cancer. He’s someone whose opinion I greatly respect.

Ron recently drove through middle Georgia on I-75, the part of Georgia that I call home. He later sent me an email about the numerous billboards that advertise sex stores and such. He suggested those billboards might warrant a column. I think he’s right.

For several years there were a number of billboards stating, “We Bare All.” I think there is only one of those left. When there were many of them close together, I had an idea for a different slant on that phrase. My idea was a billboard depicting Jesus on the cross, with the simple message that, “Only One Bears All.”

Like many of my ideas, I did nothing more than think about it. I didn’t share it with anyone, or even spend time praying about it. I just mulled it over quietly during my occasional trips on I-75. It’s amazing how effective procrastination is. It has the same effect as doing nothing, yet it feels so much better. It seems more acceptable.

Some current billboards read, “Strippers – Need We Say More?” I guess not. The message is clear. But maybe there’s a need to say more about stripes instead of strippers.   A picture of Jesus bloodied from his severe lashings might get some attention. The caption could read, “Stripes – Need We Say More?” Another ad could reference Isaiah 53:5, “And by His stripes we are healed.”

There are multiple signs that advertise an adult superstore in Unadilla. That’s the town where I graduated from high school, a place of fond memories and good friends. Towns don’t have much legal standing in regulating such businesses.  We have strict rules against polluting water, land, and air. Pollution of the mind, however, is scantily covered. I don’t expect such laws will ever be strengthened, but sometimes we use that as an excuse for not doing anything.

Maybe a billboard could read, “The Bible – Adult Content Included.” Or maybe it could pose the question, “Remember Sodom and Gomorrah?” Those would have been great places for adult superstores and strip joints. They would have been perfectly positioned for the big fire sale at the end.

In April of 1997, I drove north from Valdosta on U.S. Highway 41. Somewhere past Eldorado I saw what remains my all-time favorite billboard. The sign showed a smiling Jesus. His welcoming arms were stretched wide open. The caption read, “Jesus Loves You This Much!”

When I got closer to the picture, it changed. Jesus’ expression evolved from being serenely pleasant to one of painful agony. Blood trickled down his face. His outstretched arms were pinned to a roughly hewn wooden cross. His open hands were pierced with gruesome iron spikes. But the message didn’t change. It still said, “Jesus Loves You This Much!”

I don’t know if people of faith need to sponsor more billboards or not. Maybe the money is best spent elsewhere. But it seems like what we are doing is not working very well. It’s more than a problem of empty pews. I believe we have a problem of empty hearts.

I’ll probably just keep on procrastinating. I’m okay with that, because I have a lot of good company. We’re encouraged by one another’s willingness to stay quiet and do nothing. We slowly paddle the placid waters of acceptance and sit very still in the boat.

God sent Jonah on a mission, but Jonah said no and ran away. That didn’t work out very well for Jonah. When we procrastinate, we don’t have to say no to God. We can just put Him off. We can pretend He doesn’t understand what we are doing. It’s easy to get comfortable with procrastination.

I don’t know if today’s column will make a difference or not. But I hope it will foster some conversations, generate some ideas, maybe even result in a billboard with a worthwhile message. It may not get printed on a sign, but there’s one thing I know for sure. I know that, “Only One Bears All.”

Posted in 2017 | 5 Comments

Baseball, Brothers, and War

Billy Irwin was one of the most talented baseball players to ever come out of Unadilla, Georgia. He didn’t play high school ball, but travelled two counties eastward to Cochran and made the Middle Georgia College team. He may be the only member in that club.

He played on a Class D farm team in Cordele for the Cleveland Indians. Billy quickly advanced to Oklahoma City, hoping that he was headed to Cleveland. His next call, however, came from Uncle Sam. In 1950, the Army gave Billy an olive drab uniform, new teammates, and a ticket to Korea. He traded his glove for a gun and served in a mortar outfit. Dreams of playing under the big lights quickly faded.

Billy made it home, raised a family, and faithfully served in his church for 57 years. He retired from civil service at Robins Air Force Base. His August 5, 2017, obituary noted that he was awarded three bronze stars for his service in Korea. His brother, James Ray Irwin, said Billy didn’t talk about his medals or how he earned them. Quiet humility seems to be a common trait among heroes.

Cecil Irwin was 17 when Billy was drafted. His bat wasn’t as sure as Billy’s, but he was an excellent fielder. Cecil, though, felt his brother could use his help in Korea. His mother signed so that he could join the Navy, her pride no doubt tempered by the sobering risks of war. He spent four years in the Navy, including 13 months in Korea. It was a long way from the baseball diamonds of childhood.

Cecil returned and joined Billy at Robins AFB, but God had other plans. Cecil quit a good job and answered God’s call to preach. He went to Mercer University, pastoring Georgia churches and raising a family while he studied. In 1968, he graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He served churches in Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia, and was a chaplain at the VA Medical Center in Salem, Virginia, for 25 years. Cecil was an exceptional speaker, and led five revivals at Unadilla First Baptist. It’s rare to be invited back anywhere that many times.  Cecil died September 25, 2009.

James Ray Irwin was a few years younger than Billy and Cecil. He was another outstanding ballplayer. In 1947, the Dooly County Athletic League was formed for adult baseball. There were six teams of young men from Vienna, Byromville, Dooling, Pinehurst, Dooly High, and Unadilla. James Ray was only in the eighth grade, but was invited to play ball with the grownups.

In 1952, he was a senior on the Unadilla High School team. They played the Unadilla Athletic Team, a test of youth against experience. World War II Veteran Charles Speight was among the talented young men on the adult roster. James Ray now privately confides that he doesn’t remember who won the game. But he laughs and says no one else does either, so he asserts victory for the school.

His graduating class was the first one having twelve grades instead of eleven. He and his classmate, Major Brannen, went to see Mrs. Sarah Woodruff at the local Draft Board. She told them their numbers were coming up shortly. Billy didn’t recommend the Army, and Cecil didn’t recommend the Navy. So, James Ray and Major enlisted in the Air Force.

James Ray entered the service on April 3, 1953. The war was thankfully winding down. He was the crew chief on a B36 Peacemaker, a ten-engine plane designed for high altitude missions. He saw Korea from 42,000 feet, taking pictures with sophisticated equipment to monitor a welcome but uncertain peace. On the baseball field, James Ray was a good man to have batting in the cleanup spot. It’s seems quite fitting that his role in Korea was also one of helping to get others home.

James Ray made it back in 1957. He married Brenda Herring and they raised two sons. He lost Brenda to health issues on August 2, 2017. After retiring from Robins AFB, he served as the first City Manager for Unadilla. James Ray is now 83 and very active in his church and community. He looks like he would still be pretty solid at the plate, or could even command a crew on a Peacemaker if needed.

Those three Irwin boys grew up loving baseball, but they rested their bats and became soldiers. Three brothers came home from Korea, standing somewhat taller than before. I’m too young to remember when Billy, Cecil, and James Ray left Unadilla, or to remember the celebrations when they returned. But I know, without asking, that touching home plate had never felt quite that sweet.

Posted in 2017 | 8 Comments

Albert Crozier Won’t Run

Albert Crozier lived a half mile up the road from my childhood home. He was born in 1914, 38 years before I came along. He had a thin work-hardened body, his hands and face tanned from long hours in the fields. His slight smile and clear eyes conveyed a sense of kindness, tinted, I thought, with some hint of distant sorrow. Albert’s voice was soft and his words came with noticeable hesitation. His beard usually looked a day or two old, like a man who only shaved once or twice a week.

Albert had a simple approach to life. He cashed his checks for one-dollar bills, carried his insurance policies with him on trips to town, and called his canine friend Dog. When leaving Joiner’s Store for the short walk back to his house, he’d say, “Let’s go home Dog.” It was a simple name that worked as well as any other, as Dog always left with Albert.

My mother said Albert would read aloud in their Sunday night Training Union class at Harmony Baptist Church. He read slowly and sometimes struggled with the words, but he liked being included. After he finished reading, he would look around the class and smile, glad he was asked to participate. Albert found pleasure in simple things, things that are often taken for granted.

He was married when he was young. The lady’s first husband had died. She was left with a few acres of land and two boys. Some folks thought it wasn’t a real marriage, that the woman just used Albert to work her farm. That was before I was born, so I can’t say. But Albert probably understood what they had. It’s pretty simple to feel love, or to know the emptiness of its absence.

After his wife died, Albert worked on some other farms around Dooly County. He later moved in with his uncle and aunt, Tom and Cardine Sangster. They gave Albert a home, and Albert helped them with their crops and garden. He worked hard. He wasn’t fast, but he was steady. He would carry a hoe down rows of cotton or peanuts or whatever needed attention. Hot weather didn’t seem to bother him. A weed didn’t stand a chance with Albert around.

For several decades, he would walk or catch a ride to Unadilla each Saturday, often staying overnight at Bill’s Place. It was a 24/7 gas station, always busy with travelers from U.S. Highway 41. He would visit with Johnny Black, Jack Pope, or whoever was working the night shift. The next morning, he would go to Sunday School at Unadilla First Baptist, dozing through most of Allen Head’s lesson.

On Saturday nights, Albert would buy fresh mullet from Mr. Lavender’s fish market and take them to the Unadilla Café. Mrs. Jackie Marshall would have her cooks clean and fry them. After supper he would sometimes head for home, walking alone in the darkness. He was easy to spot with his black overcoat. Albert wore his coat in all four seasons. It didn’t matter what the weather was like.

On one of those late Saturday night walks, Albert was leaving town, taking his usual route home. Two young men circled ahead of him on a different street. They climbed a big oak tree and took their places on a large branch that spanned the roadway. They pulled sheets over their heads and waited. When Albert got almost beneath them, the men jumped down in front of him. They wanted to see just how fast Albert could run. But Albert didn’t run.

He slashed out with his pocket knife, a knife he kept razor sharp. Albert did some pretty serious damage, enough to send them to the hospital. It could have been a lot worse. All Albert wanted was a plate of fried mullet and a quiet walk home. That’s not much to ask for.

Albert could have killed those fellows. A more complicated man probably would have. I don’t know if they thanked him or blamed him, or if their paths ever crossed again. I hope they realized that Albert gave them a second chance.

My father told me that story when I was a child. He admired Albert’s good disposition and his steadfast approach to hard work. He admired Albert for simple things, like the way he could hand sharpen a knife, like facing trouble head on instead of running away.

Those two young men learned, almost too well, what my father told me many years ago. He said, “There’s one thing you can say for sure about Albert Crozier. Albert Crozier won’t run.”

Posted in 2017 | 5 Comments

A Cow Named Star

Daddy preferred row cropping to livestock. In my earliest childhood memories, our small cattle herd consisted of maybe 25 brood cows. We had one very muscular Black Angus bull. It seems he would have been quite happy, but he never smiled. We knew to avoid him in the pen or pasture. There were calves, of course, but they were temporary residents on our farm.

The cows were mostly Angus, a common breed of beef cattle, but Star and Della were for milking. Only those two dairy cows had names. Sometimes it’s best not to name your livestock.

Daddy milked Star and Della by hand. He squeezed the milk into a silver metal pail. After he carried the milk inside, Mama took over. She chilled some in the refrigerator for drinking and cooking. Some of it she churned into butter. That butter sure tasted good on homemade biscuits with pear preserves.

An older neighbor, Mr. Ernest Holland, told me something during my childhood that I still think about sometimes. Mr. Ernest said, “You can eat just about anything, if you put enough butter on it.” I laughed and thought he was only talking about butter. Now, I think maybe he was talking about life.

Star and Della were both good producers. They provided plenty of milk for our family of four. Their attitudes, however, were worlds apart.

Della never liked to be milked. She would go right into the stall, understanding that’s where the sweet feed would be, the corn or oats that were quite a treat compared to the Bermuda grass in the pasture. She never understood, however, that the tradeoff for a good meal was to share her milk.

Daddy would occasionally try to milk her without putting the kickers on, but she always failed to appreciate the freedom. He would put one clasp around each of her back legs. A short chain between them kept her from being able to do much damage. Otherwise, she might have kicked Daddy, or even worse, kicked over a full pail of milk.

Star, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy the extra attention. She liked for Daddy to wash her udder with the warm soapy water, rinse the soap off, then gently massage the milk into the pail. He alternated squeezes between his right and left hands. The first sounds were streams of milk hitting the metal bottom. The sounds grew softer as milk slowly filled the open container.

Daddy called the cows to the barn using a two-syllable word that sounded like, “Ho-eck.” I don’t know if it’s a real word, something he heard, or something he made up. I just know the cows all came up the lane from the pasture. They knew it was feeding time. Star and Della knew it was milking time.

Daddy put me on Star’s back a few times and let me ride her to the barn. He didn’t have a rope on her and didn’t need one. She just kept up that steady walk toward the trough, ready for the feed, ready for the morning ritual with Daddy’s familiar hands.

I think I was eight or nine when Daddy stopped milking. He had milked cows almost every day since his childhood. I expect he was ready for a break. Most of the neighbors had already decided that store-bought milk wasn’t all that bad, that maybe store-bought butter wouldn’t ruin a good biscuit.

Milk cows and beef cattle have different purposes. Della and Star were milk cows, so their purpose on our farm was over. Daddy took Della to the sale barn, hoping she would find a good home. But Star was family. She didn’t go to the livestock auction. She stayed in the pasture and still came up the lane for generous servings of sweet feed. Nothing was required in return.

When Star died, Daddy sold the rest of the herd. He took up the fences and planted cotton where the pasture had been. Daddy never said much about keeping Star. All I remember is him telling me that he didn’t plan to sell her, that he would leave her in the pasture as long as she could stay.

I can’t say that I learned much about raising cattle from that experience. But I learned something about loyalty and taking care of family. And I learned that being put out to pasture is not always a bad thing. I’m glad that Daddy didn’t take Star to the sale barn. Star died at home, just like she deserved.

Posted in 2017 | 6 Comments

Cold Water Baptists

I’m not sure how many cold-water Baptists are still around. Elizabeth Dunaway, Mary Joyce Dunaway, and my mother, Margaret Joiner, are in the most senior group. They were baptized in childhood at Mock Springs, each of them having made professions of faith at Bethlehem Baptist Church.

When I was a child in the 1950’s, Mock Springs had long been the main place to beat the summer heat in the Pulaski County area. Somebody told me the water temperature stays around 68 degrees. To me it felt much closer to the freezing mark. It’s possible they used a faulty thermometer.

The boil, as it was commonly called, spewed thousands of gallons of water. The cold water filled the big swimming area then overflowed through a large metal pipe. The overflow poured out forcefully, dropping several feet to ground level where it formed a crystal-clear stream.

The push of water coming out of the boil was strong enough to keep children from getting past the opening. Tan colored electric eels also served as guards. I’ve heard that two young men with scuba gear swam nearly a mile in the underground stream. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I never considered trying to go past the electric eels. Daddy taught us to avoid mixing electricity with water, a lesson I still find helpful today.

When you went from 98 on the sand to 68 in the water, it would take your breath away. There were only two somewhat sane choices for entry. You could run in and do a shallow dive or you could go off the springboard. The board was my preference. Once you committed, there was no turning back.

Gradually wading into the chilling water never made sense to me. It worked okay for some people, mostly teenage boys who were trying to impress girls. I figured if that’s what it took to impress them, that I might stay single. As Clint Eastwood said, “A man has got to know his limitations.”

We’d go there on Sunday afternoons after church, and occasionally would have a Sunday School dinner on the outdoor picnic tables. Dinner was followed by a predictable lesson in patience. In the 1950’s our parents had a strict rule: No swimming until 30 minutes after eating. We would take turns asking if it had been long enough, optimistically searching for an adult with a lenient watch.

Our parents were convinced that rule protected us from cramps and likely drownings. We couldn’t even wade in the edge. The children knew that knee deep water was safe. Our parents, however, knew that temptation often starts in the shallow end.

Bethlehem Baptist Church was originally near Elizabeth’s childhood home. The back half of the building served as Junior High School. It was only one room that included the first through fifth grades.   Elizabeth and Mama both attended there. They don’t know why it was named Junior High. Maybe it started out with more grades, or maybe someone planned to add some later.

Bethlehem built a new church in the early 1940’s on Mock Springs Road. The ladies from my grandmother’s generation helped nail the interior boards that were sawed from local poplar trees. By the late 1950’s the church had dwindled to a few members, most of them having a lot more years behind them than ahead. On a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1958, Reverend Britt baptized Elaine Calhoun at Mock Springs. She was nine years old and perhaps the last person to join Bethlehem. Elaine still remembers the minnows being attracted to the white socks she wore. I was a five-year-old spectator. I mostly remember hoping it wouldn’t take too long. All swimming had been suspended.

Bethlehem closed the doors in the early 1960’s. Elizabeth, Mary Joyce, and Mama had already married, moved their church memberships to Harmony Baptist, and started families. Elaine’s family moved to Double Branch Freewill Baptist. She later married Covie Langford, a cold-water Baptist from a different stream. Covie was baptized in the spring fed waters of Double Branch.

Those four ladies from Bethlehem have faithfully worked, witnessed, prayed and loved their neighbors. That kind of commitment seems harder to find lately. It makes me wonder if we’ve made the water too comfortable. Maybe we need more cold-water Baptists. Maybe it’s time to go back to Mock Springs.

Posted in 2017 | 15 Comments

Steve The Tool Salesman

I don’t know exactly when Steve called. I think it was about 30 years ago. Jane and I were living on DeLiesseline Drive in Vienna, raising triplets. It was before caller ID. Sales calls always came right at suppertime.

Most of the calls were for George, using my first name. I would know that our friendship didn’t go way back. But Steve started off on the right track.

He said, “Neil, this is Steve! How have you been doing buddy?”

“Been doing pretty well, Steve. How about yourself?”

“I’m doing great!” he said. “Thanks for asking. Neil, we talked a while back and you said to let you know when we put our tools on sale. The sale is now running and we have some terrific prices!”

I apologized and told Steve that I didn’t remember talking to him about any tools, but that I sure was glad he had me on the list.

Steve enthusiastically shared the details. It included all the household basics. There was a ratchet set, open-end wrenches, adjustable wrench, pliers, hammer, and several screwdrivers. All of that was just $59.95, plus shipping and handling of $8.89.

I told Steve that sounded like a bargain and that nothing would make me happier than owning a set of quality tools. I explained to him, however, that $59.95 was out of my price range.

Steve said, “Neil, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m not supposed to, but since we’ve been trying to get you some tools for a while now, I’m going to knock off the delivery charges.”

“Steve,” I said, “I wouldn’t feel right about y’all having to absorb those costs. That might put a hardship on the company or even cause some problems with your job.” Steve said he was good friends with his boss. He assured me that he could easily get this discount handled.

I said, “Steve, we have several close neighbors on this street. I could go see them and maybe two or three would split the cost with me. If I could get two of them to go in on this deal, that would be $20 each. I could swing that.”

Steve said that was a great idea! He suggested we go ahead with the order, and that I work out the tool sharing agreement later.

When he mentioned “agreement” that brought to mind we should probably have something in writing. I asked Steve if they had a legal department that could help draft such a document. He said they didn’t, but he was confident that would be easy to resolve with our neighbors.

I said, “Steve, what if I have an urgent need for that ratchet set the same time one of my tool sharing neighbors does? How would we handle that?” Steve didn’t know.

“How do we decide who keeps the tools, Steve? Seems like it would make sense for one of the parties named in the agreement to have primary responsibility. But you could also make a case for dividing the tools into groups or perhaps rotating the whole set.”

Steve said he didn’t have any expertise in that. He said that he really couldn’t advise me on the details, but that he felt certain that wouldn’t be an issue with the neighbors.

I said, “Steve, it looks to me like we have a lot of things to work out on this agreement before I can buy that set of tools. What if you split them up? I could buy $20 worth now, and buy the rest of them in a few months?” Steve said they couldn’t do that.

I asked him if there was any way he could send me a medium sized Phillip’s head screwdriver. I explained that we had a swing set in the back yard with a loose screw, a situation that was interfering with our children’s playtime. Steve seemed to understand the urgency of the matter.

We must have had a bad connection. It sounded like Steve was talking to someone else in the office. He was saying something about a loose screw. Then the phone went dead. I wished I had gotten his number. I would have called him back, right at suppertime.

Posted in 2017 | 7 Comments

Sis Pearlie’s Marching Band

It was a summer day in 1957. I was five. My playmate, Sis Pearlie, was about 65. There wasn’t a record of Pearlie’s date of birth. Grandmama Hill said they could share hers, April 1,1892.

Pearlie Mae Frederick was a petite, energetic, black lady who lived a few feet from my grandmother’s back door. I don’t remember her husband, Bose. He had worked for Granddaddy on his farm. They had one daughter, Fannie Mae, who moved to Miami when she was young.

Miami was good to Fannie Mae. She asked Pearlie to come live with her. Pearlie said a tearful goodbye to Grandmama, then boarded the Greyhound bus in Unadilla. Five miles later she got off in Pinehurst. Pearlie loved her daughter, but Miami was too far away from Pulaski County.

Pearlie’s home only had two rooms. A double-sided fireplace opened to each of them. Granddaddy kept firewood cut for both houses. Pearlie had a small ax she used to chop her own kindling.

My mother was born in 1926. She grew up with Pearlie as her friend and caretaker. They took cane poles and freshly dug wigglers up and down the nearby creeks. Pearlie taught Mama a lot about fishing. She also taught Mama a lot about life.

I’ve never known a person with a more loving heart. I think Pearlie’s only vice was her friendship with Prince Albert.  Maybe she had two, if you count dipping snuff from the brown Maccoboy bottles. The snuff seems an odd habit now, but it wasn’t unusual at the time.

Grandmama bought the groceries and did the cooking. Pearlie helped clean up the kitchen. If there were leftover grits, she would let them cool in the pot until they stiffened. Then she would dip out a tablespoon and have a bite or two. I sometimes do the same thing today. The taste is okay and the memories are delicious.

Grandmama washed their clothes and Pearlie ironed them. She swept the yard with brooms made of gallberry bushes tied in a bundle. Around her ankle there was always a dime, held there by a light chain that ran through a small hole. On Sundays she put on her finest and enjoyed her friends at Lynwood Baptist Church. She had a picture of Jesus in her home. Jesus, no doubt, had a picture of her.

When Grandmama’s eyesight grew dim, the characters on television were blurry. Pearlie would serve as her eyes, when needed. They were a good team.

Despite our age difference, Pearlie was a wonderful playmate. I was the youngest of seven grandchildren. She entertained and loved this generation, just as she had my mother and her two brothers. That summer day in 1957 is perhaps my favorite memory.

Pearlie was prancing around the back yard, leading our two-member band in a spirited combination of marching and dancing. We each had a metal pot, borrowed from the kitchen, and a wooden spoon to keep time. Pearlie led the singing of, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I followed her lead, both of us focused more on volume than style.

I don’t remember what I complained about. Maybe I wanted to change songs or maybe I wanted to change games. Pearlie leaned way down low, as she often did, to be on my eye level. Usually when she did that, it was to make a comical face, knowing it was easy to get me to laugh. This time, though, she gave me something to think about.

Pearlie smiled sweetly and put her hand on my shoulder. In her most tender voice she said, “Child, if you don’t like my peaches, then don’t shake my tree.” She paused for a moment, then banged on her pot. We marched again like saints, confident that one day we would both be in that number.

I was just a kid, but I was old enough to know that I didn’t really have any reasons to complain.   Sixty years separate me from that summer day, but time hasn’t dimmed the value of her lesson. Pearlie taught my Mama a lot about fishing. She taught us both a lot about life.

Pearlie might have been better off in Miami. Our family was better off that she stayed. I don’t know if she made the best choice or not. I just know that I’m glad she got off the bus.

Posted in 2017 | 5 Comments