Memorial Day – 2017

Up at the court house is a monument to our veterans.  I’ve walked past it a hundred times. I bet most people never think much about what it means, what it represents.

There’s four tall slabs of granite, another slab sits on top, connecting the first four. Brave words on one side, heartbreaking names on the other side.

Brave, courageous men are listed on our monument.  They are Lincoln County’s contribution. They died fighting for our country.  Today is Memorial Day.

We can’t forget.

Today, a few men and women will gather on the east side of the granite.  Someone will place a couple of red, white and blue wreaths.  An American flag will be there.

The women and some of the men will cry.

The wreaths stay there a few days.

Someone will come by, pick them up and haul them away.  The artificial flowers stay until they fade in the sunlight.

Engraved red bricks surround the monument’s base.  I didn’t count, but today, there’s maybe two hundred bricks.  Maybe more.

Last week I stopped and looked at the bricks.  I had never paid attention before.  The bricks show  names of people who served, who offered to die for our country if need be.

I took a few minutes.  It was near noon and the sun was harsh.

I read each name  cut in the gray granite and the names in the red bricks.

There was a high school teacher on one side.  Then another, a few bricks away.  I thought about my high school history teacher.  He landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944.  He’s still alive.  May God bless him.

I thought about my science teacher.  He commanded submarines in the war and lost a brother in Europe.

There’s a Marine Corps Lance Corporal’s name.  He was in Vietnam.   He died while I was in high school.  He was a sniper.  His name is on the monument also.

Another  died in 1970. I knew him.   He was in the Army.  His name is also there, cut in stone.

Then another Marine’s name.  His brother coached baseball when my son was playing Little League. I didn’t know.

I saw names of men I knew growing up.  They are gone now, but they owned businesses, worked 9 to 5, raised the kids I played with.  Fathered the girls I dated.

Their children want us to remember.

More than a dozen or so were from the Vietnam war.  On one side, where they put the new bricks, were a half dozen names who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Each man and woman who fell while fighting for our country is a hero.

I can’t forget.  I won’t forget.  I thank you for your service.


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Real Bravery

I had met Mitch about six months earlier.  He was the county’s constable.  He was seventy-three years old.  Not a real big man, but you could tell he was tough.

Mostly, I remember he liked to bird hunt.  In winter,  he tried to bird hunt every moment he wasn’t working.  I envied that.  I was busy working as a news reporter, Mondays through Fridays and a whole lot of Saturdays and Sundays.

I cajoled the sheriff to let me do ride-alongs with his deputies. I was looking for the big story in small town Mississippi. It was exciting.  Riding in a cruiser, going out to the county line, visiting real honky-tonks in North Mississippi, stopping an occasional DUI.

I was young.  I was “at work.”

Every time I saw Mitch, he was talking about bird hunting.

He had been one of the first Mississippi Highway Patrolmen.

One night, I was riding with the Chief Deputy.  We were like two kids with a fast car with  a tank full of gasoline.  Cruising the gravel roads, talking, looking for trouble.  I wanted  names and photos. He was sworn to uphold the law.

There was trouble.

A man was in a house with a gun.  Things got serious.  Blue lights flashing, suddenly we’re going 100 miles an hour, a lot of talk on the two-way.  The house was on the other side of the county.  We got there fast.

Others were already there.

The man in the house was mad.  Crazy mad, I thought.  And, he had a gun.

The chief deputy got behind an old tree in the front yard.  The man in the house broke a window with the rifle.  I hid behind a car. Just like on TV.  Tense.

Then Mitch stood up.  He took off his jacket, he was wearing a white shirt, silver badge over his heart.

There were no bullet proof vests that night.

“We need to talk about this.” he said.  Mitch was calm, like a preacher in church  asking for an offering.  “There’s no need for you to get hurt.”

Yes, you could hear a pin drop.  I was praying for the man and myself.

“Look, I’m unarmed.  I am taking my gun off.  I’m going to turn around, I don’t have anything to hurt you with.  We need to talk.”

Mitch turned his back to the man.

He looked at the Chief Deputy.  “Don’t let him kill me!” he said in an urgent whisper.  He turned back around and walked up on the porch.  “We just want to take you to the hospital, that’s all.  We’re here to help.  We’re not going to hurt you.”

They talked for a minute or two.  The man stepped out of his house.

A minute later he was in a cruiser, headed to the hospital.

Mitch picked up his gun belt and his jacket, then headed to his car.



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Playing for Keeps

We had to be careful.  No doubt about that.  Not just one of us, but every one of us kept a keen eye out, making sure we didn’t get caught.

Back in those days, I was a gambler.  Every day, willing to put everything I had on the line.  Winning and losing.  I loved it.  I was good at it.

That was when I had no responsibility.  I could have lost it all, walked home and not a word would be said to me.

You see, we played marbles for keeps.  I had plenty of marbles.  I could buy more at the dime store about a block from our house.

I didn’t lose all my marbles.  Although some friends  have sworn I lost them…..many times.

Kenny, Tal, Al, Chris, Bolton and a few others.  Every day at recess, we ran to hide behind  the big oak tree, at the front of the school, right next to the fence

Someone would draw a triangle in the dirt, each leg about a foot long.   Another friend would take three giant steps away and draw another line.  The lag line.  We stood behind the triangle and rolled our marbles to the lag line.  The closest to the line shot first.  The second closest was second and so on.

Everyone who played put a marble in the triangle.  We had to ante up.   I learned my first gambling word under a pin oak tree in Louisiana.  We all put our cheapest, dirtiest, ugliest marbles inside that triangle.  Marbles we could afford to lose.  Everyone had a favorite shooter marble.

First shots were from the lag line.  You had to get close to the triangle.  If your shooter ended up in the triangle, it stayed.  You reached for another shooter.  The pot was more valuable.

We guarded our shooters with our lives.  Some of us had ball bearings.  They were deadly inside the triangle.  The oversized Crystals and Agates were almost as good.  Cats eye marbles were pretty, but you could buy them by the bag. They were losers.

The objective was to use your shooter and knock a marble out of the triangle.  The marbles you knocked out, you  kept.

When you knocked a marble out, you kept it and took another shot, at another marble.  A good shooter could run the table, leaving the rest of us reaching into our pockets, searching for another loser marble.

I think that’s what the school officials disliked.  The loosing and keeping of our marbles.

If the teacher caught us, we lost all our marbles.  Confiscation and a trip to the office.  Bad.

We were vigilant.  We didn’t see any harm.  We were learning the ways of man.

Today, people say kids need a million dollars worth of playground equipment to have fun.  I think they lost their marbles.


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The Deer Hunter

He’s about six foot two,  tall, lanky.  I met him at a country auction.  Worn and scuffed leather boots, faded jeans, a t-shirt and a baseball cap sporting a logo I can’t remember.

We tried to talk over the auctioneer’s chant.

The auctioneer held up a handful of gun parts, a barrel, a stock.  Seriously, Someone had taken it apart and now they wanted to sell it.  A handful of what used to be a rifle and a plastic bag of screws, nuts and stuff..

“I have a rifle for sale, I think it’s a twenty-two.  What’s my first bid?”  That’s his job, asking for the money.  Someone out there said he’d pay $3 and another, quickly said he’d pay $5.  I stopped listening.

“That ain’t no twenty-two, that’s a BB gun. I wish he had a real rifle to sell.”  The kid next to me.  “I need a twenty-two.  Did you kill any deer last year?”

“No, didn’t even get to go.”

“I killed my limit.”  Killed the biggest deer of my life, a nine point.  It was just barely legal.”  I looked at him, not knowing if I should ask a question or make a statement.  “Shot him at 6:32 in the morning.”

Earlier that day, I drank coffee with another generation of men.  One man  got to talking about his grandchildren.  He whipped out his wallet.  Passed it around.  Color photos of all six of his grandchildren.  You have to look, you have to nod, you have to say they’re all good looking kids.  You just have to.

Back to this eighteen year old at the auction.

“Here,  you want to see them, I’ve got some photos.”

Faster than the grandfather that morning, he whipped out his smart phone, touched it a half dozen times, d “Here he is.  Just got him back from the taxidermist Thursday.  Here’s a photo of the one my Dad shot.  He’s tied for the state record with that one.  Ten points, two hundred pounds.”

I’m looking at his telephone.  He’s got a hundred photos.  I see six, maybe eight deer heads looking left and right and straight ahead.  Big brown glass eyes looking straight back at me.

He’s telling me about this one from last year.  There’s the  one from two years ago   Those two killed were on the same food plot. one Monday morning and the other Tuesday afternoon.  There’s the one his Mom shot. There’s the one his little brother shot.  His first.

I ask him “Where do you hunt?”

“Over on the county line, we’ve got 600 acres just north of the highway.”

“Sold, make that $10.00 to the fellow in the red shirt.”  The auctioneer announced.  Someone owns a sack full of BB gun parts.

I realized I needed to get more photos of my grandchildren or spend more time deer hunting.


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A Lemon Ice Box Pie

The year was 1957.   I started second grade in Waterproof, LA.   Back in those days, school didn’t start  until after Labor Day.  Six weeks into the school year, my Dad’s drilling rig moved to Crosby, MS.  We packed up and followed.

It took my Dad’s crew about six weeks to drill two dry holes.  That fall I went to school in Houma, LA for about two weeks, then Baton Rouge for three weeks.  One dry hole after another.  We were back in Waterproof before Christmas.

Mostly, I remember Crosby.  Of Course, there was the sawmill.  We didn’t have anything to do with that.

We were oilfield people.  My Dad and his rig were there to drill holes in the ground, find some oil and make those guys who wore suits in Houston rich.

My Dad rented a house for my Mom, my sister and I.  It was big, and white.  In the back, just off the porch was a walk-in bird cage.  A big old thing for a seven year old to see.  And, it was plumb full of parakeets.  Easily a hundred.  Every color a parakeet can be.  I was fascinated.  Yellows, blues, greens and some reds.

Back then, people would rent out their houses, furnished, ready to move into.  We were trusted.  The owner, an older lady, would come out and check on her parakeets every day.  Maybe we were not trusted enough.

We only lived in half of the downstairs part.  I could not go up the stairs nor over to the other half, the part across the hall.  We had the kitchen part, a bathroom and two bedrooms.

Her name was Mrs. Crosby, I think.  Just like the name of the town and the name of the saw mill. It’s been a long time.  I didn’t make the connection until I heard the house burned down.  She lived in town, in another big house, bigger than the one we stayed in.

I remember she took me to town.   She was most likely baby-sitting me.  I just don’t know.  She said she would make me a lemon ice box pie if I didn’t get in any trouble.  I didn’t touch a thing in her house.

I had no idea you could make an ice box pie.  My Grandmother always baked her pies.

I watched her make the graham cracker crust, adding orange juice.  Then, with an electric mixer, she whipped up the filling.  She put the entire thing in her refrigerator.  A while later, she pulled it out, put on the meringue topping and stuck it in the oven.  She put it aside to  cool.

She cut it and gave me a slice on a saucer.  Remember, I’m a kid from the oil patch.  My Grandmother cooked a lot and my Mom cooked for my Dad, my sister and I. We had staple foods, a lot of meat and potatoes, peas and cornbread.  Never before in my life had I come face to face with a handmade  Lemon Ice Box Pie.

It was the first of many Ice Box Pies.


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I was Afraid of Sawmills

Where I grew up, we had a sawmill.   We were no different than any other small town in South Mississippi.  Back fifty years ago, every small town around here had a saw mill.   The hills and bottoms outside town were covered in three things, row crops, pastures and pine trees.

My Grandfather said “Some of that land ain’t good for nothing more than growing pines.” He was right.

The sawmill we had was big.  It was in town, on the north side.   The Central Lumber Company  straddled the road that led north to the next county.

The mill crowded the two railroad tracks that led to the rest of the world.   From the south side to the north side, it stretched over a half mile.  Pine logs were on the west side, next to the mill, where the cutting and sawing was done.  New lumber was stacked on the east.

I would ride my bicycle to baseball practice, I can still hear the saw teeth biting into the logs.  A high pitched whine that screamed when it made the first cut or got pinched.

Back then, huge machines straddled bundles of new lumber, to make stacks twenty feet high across the street.  It seemed like there was a perpetual dust cloud on the gravel road that ran through the center of the mill.

They burned the sawdust, the bark and the trimmings.  Black smoke floated towards the sky seven days a week.   Ash fell from the sky, like powdered rain.

There must have been a hundred men working there.  My Grandmother’s brother started there when he was seventeen.  He retired when he turned sixty-five.  Only job he ever had.

To this day, at exactly seven o’clock every morning, a steam whistle blows, still calling men to work.  Back when we slept with windows open and there was no electricity, you could hear the steam whistle all over town.

There were saw mills in Bude, Hazlehurst, Monticello, another in Silver Creek, and a good-sized one in Crosby.  Yes, there was one in Hamburg and another in Oldenburg.  Mississippi had a lot of sawmills in the first half of the twentieth century.

I was afraid of every sawmill I saw.

One of them killed my other Grandfather.  The one I never met.   The one who died when my father was an eight year old child. The one that made my father, my uncle and my aunt into orphans.   Something that bad, well, you had to fear it.

I remember my Dad’s folks saying he feel against a turning saw blade.  He was cut real bad.  They used a tourniquet.  He was going to be alright.  It was going to take an hour or two to find a doctor, put him on a wagon, take him to town.  He loosed the tourniquet.

Died on the back of a wagon on a dirt road in Arkansas.

Anything big enough to kill my grandfather was big enough to scare me back then.


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Losing Jimmy

He’s been gone for more than fifty years.  It’s so easy to forget about him.  Today, about all that’s left is a stone slab in a cemetery in Franklin County, that and a few memories.

He was my Grandparent’s first grandson.  Exactly what my Grandmother wanted.  He grew up hard in a hard world.  Never enough money.  A Dad that drank too much and missed all the good jobs.  No running water until he was well out of high school.  One big wood heater in the middle of the other room.  He cut firewood with a crosscut saw and an axe to stay warm in the winter.  And,  hauled every drop of water he needed.

He ate a lot of bologna. The turkey and hams were for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Most of the hot meals were from my Grandmother’s kitchen, a country mile away, if you walked through the woods A longer walk if  you took to the gravel road.

In the early fifties, Franklin County, Mississippi treated most everybody on The Ridge the same.  No mercy and nothing was easy.

He was my first real hero.  Taller than anyone I knew.  Slim, with a flatop haircut.  Arms and shoulders, strong and broad, like they should be.  He was tough.   One summer, he worked for my Dad, rough-necking on a drilling rig, sleeping in his car to save money.

He was the first in our family to go to college.  Rode a bus on Sunday afternoon, stayed three, sometimes four weeks at a time, then rode the bus back for the weekend.  The college was thirty-six miles away.

I was a cub scout. He carved and shaped my pinewood derby.  Today, it’s on the bookshelf in front of me.  It may be all that’s left of his handiwork.  He gave me his National Guard shovel for my birthday.  I was seven, maybe eight.  He was my genuine hero.

He went out to California to work on a rig.  Then up to Alberta, Canada.  He needed the money for senior college.  Gave the rigs two years of his life, so he could come home and go to college without worrying about tuition or his next meal.

The night before he was to leave, there was a car wreck.  He was not the driver.  He didn’t even drink. He was a sleeping passenger.

He died that night, but he was stubborn.  It took two more years before we buried him.  The wreck killed a part of his brain.  He killed off the rest of his body one afternoon when he was all alone.  I was there when they found him.  I was the one who told my Grandmother he was dead.

The family suffered from the wreck to the funeral.  My uncle, his father, he never quit hurting.  Losing Jimmy killed my Uncle August.   I’m now past sixty five and I still miss him.  I still wonder what he could have  become.

We all still ask “what if?”


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My Porch Faces the South

I heard a song on the radio last night, “My Porch Faces the South.  Willie Nelson wrote the lyrics.  I thought about it.  My porch also faces The South.

You can’t say enough about sweet tea, a couple of rocking chairs, the evening sun and a porch aimed southward.

I grew up down here.  I have never, ever lived anywhere else but the South.  And, frankly my dear, I don’t care to live anywhere else.

I love being down South.

Here, I watch strong men meet the breaking dawn,  planting cotton, corn and beans.  I follow log trucks down country roads and the interstate.  I take in a combination of new dirt, fresh tree sap, sweat and diesel fuel.  Then again, I have walked our halls of science and medicine.  Yes, we have brilliant people down here.

I have watched Chancellors and Presidents confer Doctorates and Masters Degrees and smiled, knowing what kind of talent we have developed.

It would be hard for me to be alive if I lived elsewhere.  Stifled may be the word I need to use.   I remember when I turned down the opportunity to live in Texas.   To me, it was not an opportunity to live.

Yes, I have seen the pain we southerners have brought upon ourselves.  We’ve raised more than our fair share of idiots,  people who just want to hate because hating  is the easiest thing to do.  I know about the tears it takes to cool the fires of hatred  Still I am looking southward, each and every day.  We can overcome the hatred.  We work on it, one person at a time.

I am grateful.  I have the pleasure of an education.  The South’s been good to me.  The South has let me grow old.  The red clay holds my grandparents, my parents. kinfolk, and already, too many friends and neighbors.

It holds me, as certain as my Mom held me in her womb.  Maybe, even now, it still protects me from another world or two.  And I hold it, as certain as a father holds onto his child’s hand.

The South has taught me.  I like that.  I learned to appreciate what we have down here.  I learned who I am because I am from the South.

I sat beside a petite French woman with a head full of red hair.  We were on a plane, flying out of Holland, headed to the US.  I was headed home, headed south.  She was from Paris, she said.

Over the roar of jet engines, I told her I lived in the South.  She just looked at me.  When I said “Mississippi” her face changed.  It dropped, like she wanted to look down at me.  Even though she was silent, I felt like I had been cursed.

So, I invited her to come visit.  I figured I could learn a bit of French and I knew I could damn well teach her a lot.

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Coffee with a Little Talk

May 16, 2017

They come together every morning, rain or shine.  They have been gathering for years.  The coffee shop sells a plastic cup for a buck fifty and you can get endless refills for a half dollar a day.  I started going down there about a year ago.  Then again, I turned 65 a little over a year ago.

I sit in a corner, on purpose, I like to have my back against a wall.

I leave my phone in my truck.  I do not want any distractions.

Soon, they start ambling in, one or two at a time.  Red cup in hand, they stand at the counter, handing over some change in return for fresh coffee.  They turn away and  head for two tables.  Someone has already pushed the tables together,  in the middle of the room. Now six men can talk at one time.

A couple of these men I’ve known since I was in junior high school.  There are a couple more I sold insurance to years ago.  And, another one I tried to sell and make a customer.   Another was in the Lions Club when I was just a cub.

They talk about women.  No doubt about that.  Woman of the past, current women and women in the future.  We’re men, we talk about women.  We have to.

Oh, there’s football in the late summer and throughout the fall.  These men are not farmers, so there’s not a lot of talk about the weather or crops or how the prices of supplies keep going up and the harvest price keeps falling.

Politics is always fair game.  We just had an election and there are both Democrats and Republicans sitting at the same table.  Brookhaven isn’t big enough for the two sides to separate when it comes to early morning coffee.

One of the men told me how early morning coffee was the highlight of his day.

“My wife is an invalid.  Her mind is gone.  I take care of her.  We’ve been married over sixty years.  I stay with her twenty-two hours a day, doing for her, seeing that she is taken care of.”

I look down at my coffee.

“I hire a woman to come in every morning at eight o’clock.  She bathes my wife, washes her hair, that sort of stuff.   I come here.  This is my escape.  I need to get away for a little bit every now and then.”

About once a week, someone they know dies.   It is a small town in Mississippi.  We all know each other.   They always talk about him or her and what they did.  Damned near everyone dies too early and too young.

The stories they tell are gems.  Diamonds on the table, so to speak.  Heroes who walked with us, rascals who played the game, some winning, most losing. The good guys, the strong and the weak, we’ve got a town full of them.

I wish I could save those stories as easy as I save what I write.

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Unfriending an Old Friend

May 15, 2017

Early this morning I did the unthinkable.  I unfriended an old friend.  I sat at this keyboard, thinking, talking to myself about the good times we had, the memories we shared since elementary school.   In my mind, I still recall the two of us sneaking away from some adult supervision to go adventuring on our own.   We were only nine or ten.  We rode our bicycles to town.

We got older.  We traded the bicycles for cars.  As they say, the fumes got to us.  We had to deal with gasoline fumes and girl’s perfumes.  Both could get us in a lot of trouble.  Both cost us most of our money.

We hit high school at the same time.  He made good grades.  I guess he studied.  I didn’t.  I barely squeaked by as they say.  He was on the fast track to success.

He went off to a big university.  He had the grades.  It was easy for him.  He had a scholarship.

I went to the local community college.  I was still a good distance from studying.  Some of those college text books were written in something like a foreign language.

We both finished college.  It took a complete change of attitude for me.  I think he always made his grades.  He finished first.  It took me an extra year and then some.

We set out to change the world.  We didn’t.  It took a while for the two of us to understand that defeat.

Still, he entertained people.  Made them smile, put joy in their hearts and wowed them with his natural talent.

Me,  well, I survived and did better than I expected.  Maybe better than I deserved.  I have never complained.  I know what could have happened to me.   I am grateful, believe me on that.

I think he was happy with his life.

Once you hit fifty, sometimes the threads that hold us together start breaking.  We come unraveled.  At sixty, things just start going wrong.  Doctors tell us what we don’t want to hear.

That fear of what always happens to other people,  we listen as some doctor tells us we’re now the   “other” people.  We can’t believe what we’re hearing, then it slowly sinks in.

We’ve got a problem, Houston.

Three years ago he died.   The morning I got the news, I sat on my front porch for an hour.  All alone.  Shaking my head.  Unbelieving.  I wanted to call back and ask them one more time “Are you sure?”

There was no funeral.  His lifeline just stopped, suddenly.   A jolt for all of us survivors.  At times I still forget.  His phone number and the last voice mail is still in my telephone.  I didn’t call it often enough.  That haunts me.

This morning,  it was his birthday.  The computer said I should wish him a happy birthday.  Why? I asked.

That’s when I realized it was time to unfriend one of my oldest friends.  It hurt me.