“All good things must come to an end…”
It was illegal for us to bring in boiled peanuts to eat at Hardee’s; so, at least one of us feeling guilty, after eating our fill and still having a big quantity, we gave them to Julia, the manager of Hardee’s, for the staff to eat. Which they righteously did.
We saw snow flurries outside just before Rev. Dan came in. He wouldn’t believe it. Secretly in my head, I thought to myself, “Hm. Doubting Dan.” The flurries were very light. He finally saw it, thus becoming “Believing Dan” in my head.
Rev. Dan taught us a song from his seminary days. He was part of a quartet which included a seminary professor. They sang at churches. The professor announced to the congregation, “Our next number will be ‘Love Lifted Me.’” The boys changed the words, though: “I was sinking deep in sin / Having a wonderful time; Very deeply stained within / While sipping on my wine.” The professor finally got them stopped, but the crowd loved it. Dan had to go, and said as he bundled up, “Well…I hate to leave good company.” Mike said, “And us, too?” He left us singing, “I was sinking deep in sin….”
Someone asked Johnny how his heart catheterization went yesterday. The doc said, “Perfect,” but when Johnny asked the doc to put that in writing so his wife would believe it, the doc wouldn’t do it, he said “No.” However, we believed the doc was pulling Johnny’s leg, so to speak.
Danny was feeling better. He has about lost his limp. However, he now has a nickname for his lady therapist. He calls her “Sergeant Slaughter” after the comic book character. Terry made up an imaginary dialogue between Danny and Sgt. Slaughter: “How does that feel?” “It HURTS!!!” “Well, good,” said Slaughter.
Maybe I’ll write some more Coffee Chronicles sometime in the future. But for now, I want to give the guys a rest!
It was a cold morning in February. The wind was whipping along the ground and the tops of trees as we came in one by one to Hardee’s, starting around 6:30 in the morning. First thing on everyone’s minds was how Ken had stood his stomach hernia surgery. He’s doing fine, being babied by his wife at home and loving it. He’ll be gone for a while till he heals some.
Mike made the first crazy remark: “There is a Toad Suck, Arkansas,” he exclaimed. Nobody said much to that. A few minutes later, Dan said he had trouble with armadillos digging holes in his yard. As though there was some sort of weird competition for non sequitur follow-ups, Terry pronounced, “Armadillos can give you leprosy.” There was a stunned silence, except for me raising my eyebrows and turning to Eddie. Eddie agreed. Eddie is the state forestry expert and retired chief administrator of the northern half of Mississippi and should know. Still, it sounded strange to me. I asked Eddie, “Would you back up Terry if he was lying?” Eddie said, “He’s not lying.” However, I was still suspicious.
I asked Terry, “If you kiss the armadillo?” Terry said no, but Mike Tolbert said, “Sounds like Danny’s first date.” Mike was implying that Danny’s first kiss was with a leprous armadillo. Fortunately, Danny had just gotten up to get some more coffee. Danny is the youngest and most hot-blooded of our crew, the amorous variety, and therefore suffers the most verbal abuse. It’s a kind of fondness we show him. In answer, when Danny got back he showed Mike some pictures of some sort on his iPhone. I am sure Danny’s pictures were not of armadillos.
A few minutes later, interrupting a discussion about women, Mike up and said, “They fired a guy from my plant last week.” What for, we asked. “He put something where it didn’t belong.” I include this to show that we do talk about tragedy as well as pulling one another’s leg. I’m not explaining Mike’s remark. You will have to work it out for yourself. In fact, we’d better leave Mike and Danny aside a little while.
Terry sadly remarked that he had lost a second hunting beagle. She was run over on the highway near where Terry was hunting. “She was five years old, and I just about had her trained, too.” He had lost another beagle earlier, so this was quite a blow. Terry now has only two hunting dogs left, and neither of them very well trained yet.
Danny said, “Let’s change the subject onto something happy.” So I told about my project, thinking up Chicken Hymns such as “I’ll Fly Away” and “When the Road Is Crossed Up Yonder I’ll Be There.” Chicken Sermons would include such titles as “Where Will You Roost In Eternity?” Also Chicken Novels, such as “One Flew Over the Chicken’s Nest.” Terry lit up and told that, when he was a young man, he and another guy were in charge of 6,000 laying hens, and had to pick up 4,000 eggs a day. I asked, “Did you wash your hands?” “Yes. Washed the eggs, too.” I wanted to ask him if he had ever kissed one of the hens and gotten leprosy, but kept quiet instead.
Terry then said he was going to Texas next week on another quail hunt. This made me mention that two of my Facebook Friends, both from Texas, wanted to become honorary members of our group. Coach Johnny piped up and said, “Tell them sure, but there is a $5,000 membership fee.” But that is just Johnny. Like we could collect a fee! We might have to pay them instead of the other way around. I wondered out loud if the Texans could keep up with all our lies if they did actually move to Tupelo and join us. (They both probably could, since both were born in Mississippi.)
A Snap-on Tools salesman named Greg came and sat down briefly with us, then took off. He brought a quantity of fried peanuts and gave them to us. They were good. He had heated some peanut oil to 300° and left the peanuts in the pot for about 10 to 12 minutes. Amazing.
About then, an old truck driver named George sat down with us where Greg had been. George stirred his coffee and asked what was going on. Terry, attempting to stir up trouble, said, “George, Wally here admits to embroidering the truth about us on Facebook. Wally, George here tells some pretty tall tales too.” I asked George, “Do you tell tall tales?” George answered, “My wife says I do…but she don’t count.”
Terry and George then began to gossip about their next door neighbors, which was my cue to hike on out of there and go walking at Barnes Crossing Mall.
“Welcome to Laredo, Texas – home of 50,000 wonderful people and a few old soreheads.” – Billboard, entrance to Laredo, Texas
I took a break from Hardee’s and went to Johnny’s Drive-in, just at their new, late opening time, 7:00 o’clock. No one was there yet except Craig the part-owner, Devyn the waitress, and The Curmudgeon (name not given here, to protect me from lawsuits). Right away I noticed new, thick brown ceramic mugs on the shelf. Craig had bought them and was very proud of them, figuring that the ceramic would keep the coffee hotter, longer. We shall see. The old white ones are still on the shelf. At Johnny’s, you pour your own coffee. The waitresses, or your friends, or you, keep your mug as full as you desire; then when you leave, you pay 85¢ plus 6¢ tax, i.e., 91¢, for all the coffee you can drink. Most of us leave a good tip; we like to be waited on.
Mac came in. To our amazement, Curmudgeon got up out of Mac’s usual seat and gave it to Mac, sitting back down kitty-cornered next to Mac at the table. Curmudgeon now had his back to the cash register instead of looking at the entrance door. Craig said in astonishment, “Why’d you give Mac your seat? You know we don’t give Mac no respeck.” “Yeah – and he don’t give none, either,” I murmured in local vernacular, chuckling.
Curmudgeon, on the other hand, both gives respect and demands it, too. Or at least gives it sometime. When he and Mac aren’t pretending to be at each other’s throats, Curmudgeon gives respect, that is. Mac and Curmudgeon remind me of the Odd Couple, total opposites yet somehow friends. One can never be sure if they are friends or enemies, in spite of the fact they tend to sit together. Curmudgeon usually won’t let Mac have his newspaper, and Mac keeps threatening to pull his gun (which he always leaves at home; an idle threat). Mac loves to mooch the newspaper.
Craig sat down with them, occupying the third and last seat at the table, which is shaped like a card table made of heavy wood, and butted up against a booth. The rest of Johnny’s is filled with wooden booths lined up on the right and left walls with the third row of booths up the middle, and the one table butted up against the middle line of booths, right in front of the cash register. The table thus has three chairs: one facing the entrance with its back to the coffee pot, one facing the booths with its back to the register, and one facing the coffee pot with its back to the door. You can see the kitchen behind the cash register.
For some reason, Craig declared his undying allegiance to the best peanut butter in the world – Jif, according to Craig’s lights. To my great surprise, Mac agreed with Craig for once. Mac added that Zest Premium Crackers were the best crackers in the world, and Craig agreed to that. What is this world coming to? Agreement all over the place! It made me suspicious.
Craig went to fry up bacon and we began to cuss and discuss the weather. It was 19° outside and threatening to go to single digits. Mac thought maybe the cold would kill the “Far Ants” but Curmudgeon said no, the cold would only drive them deeper into the ground. (Finally, normalcy – a disagreement, though quite a mild one.) With that, Curmudgeon paid and left, and I moved over and sat where Craig had been sitting, facing Mac.
Danny Hester, a carpenter, walked in behind me. He had bad sniffles but we didn’t care; we are too macho to worry about a little thing like the flu. I invited him to sit with us, in Curmudgeon’s vacant seat, “If you don’t mind lowering your standards that much.” Danny said, “It won’t lower my standards any….” Then he looked hard at Mac, and made like he had changed his mind, as if Mac’s presence would indeed lower Danny’s standards too far. However, after failing to scare Mac, Danny did sit with us. Now Danny’s back was to the cash register. We gossiped about sundry people and folks began to drift in.
About then, one of Mac’s friends, a stranger to me, went and got the coffee pot. He filled his own cup, then made the rounds, filling everyone’s cup. When he got to Mac, he pretended to stumble and almost – almost – spilled the half full coffee pot onto Mac’s lap. As you can see, Mac stirs everyone up to a new level of jiggery-pokery.
Danny got up to leave. He was talking about a certain female friend’s bad driving. “She couldn’t drive a duck through water,” he said, and left, blowing his nose first. Honk.
Craig walked by with a plate of freshly cooked eggs. Mac said loudly so everyone could hear, “Jest ‘cause he can scramble a egg, that don’t mean he’s no chef-t.” Craig just rolled his eyes and served his customers, who were chuckling. Situation normal at Johnny’s. The more highly you are thought of, the more you will get the guff.
Jesus: “The devil is a liar and the father of them.”
Oscar Wilde: “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.”
Samuel Butler: “Any fool can tell the truth, but it requires a man of some sense to know how to lie well.”
Jean Cocteau: “The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth.”
Bob Hope: “My father told me all about the birds and the bees, the liar – I went steady with a woodpecker till I was twenty-one.”
Lord Voldemort: “Tell the TRUTH!”
Mike, the long bearded electrical engineer and computer genius, was grieving over Mississippi State’s basketball team losing to Ole Miss the night before. Right then Rev. Dan came in, all bundled up against the 9° breezy cold. Kidding around, someone asked him why he felt the need for a hat. Brother Dan told us of U.S. Air Force films that showed conclusively, via infrared, that when you cover your head, you stop most of the heat loss from the top of your noggin; and it raises the temperature of your feet.
Questions were then asked as to whether more hot air escaped from preachers’ heads than from other people’s heads. Rev. Dan and I said no, no more than from other folks. There were some doubts of this, so I claimed that, based on the U. S. Air Force’s evidence of heat escaping from everyone’s head, therefore you could say that we all were equally hotheaded.
Mike nevertheless doubted this. He said he had never seen a preacher work enough to even sweat, so how could they be hotheads – unless it was from all that heat rising from their mouths during sermons. No, I said, ignoring the hothead issue and leaping to the new sweat issue. “The truth is, preachers do sweat from preaching,” I said. “Often they sweat so badly that the first thing they do, on getting home after services, is to change clothes.” Dan agreed solemnly. From the grin on Mike’s face, I knew Dan and I had been had.
The conversation then turned to laziness. I claimed to have a right to be lazy because my doctor told me it would be very healthy for me, at age 67, to take naps, mornings or afternoons, anytime I felt the need. Mike said that his doctor told him if he couldn’t get to sleep for his nap, to take two shots of whiskey. We all knew this was a lie, however, because of the look on Mike’s face. Coach Johnny piped up and said, with a poker face, that his doctor told him to take not two but three shots. Another lie. We knew it wasn’t his doctor who told him about taking any three shots of whiskey.
About that time, Danny’s cell phone began to let him know that he had a text message. It spoke to him, “Text!” in a certain key – Danny’s phone says “Text” in different keys and tones so he will know which girlfriend is calling him. He chuckled and texted her back. He dates several young hotties; they ask him out. Right on cue, Danny’s cell phone said in a different tone, “Text!” A different girlfriend. Danny stopped talking and texted her back, too. This second one, Danny said, was 50, about Danny’s age. This 50-year old has a 25-year old daughter, who is jealous because Danny is “keeping Momma away from home too much.” The daughter lives at home, Danny said. Finally! – We felt that someone at the table was telling the truth, precisely because it was stranger than fiction. Danny says he is always honest. We say it’s because he isn’t as gifted at lying as the rest of us are.
Apropos of nothing whatever, we started talking about people we knew with funny nicknames. One family has a very skinny boy who is called Albert, after Fat Albert on the old Cosby show. Makes perfect sense. But we cut nicknames short, for the following reason: We all began to argue about the best way to get from Tupelo to Jackson, Mississippi. After that, someone brought up the news on television this morning, about the huge fire from an ethanol plant in nearby New Albany. The explosion was so big that the ground was felt to shake from several miles away.
When we got done with a sort of mini-seminar on the best way to put out big fires, we switched gears again, and talked happily about our fellow coffee drinker, Ken , who is home from his stomach surgery for a hernia. He is doing so well, and enjoying his wife’s loving ministrations so much, that he said he is going to ask his doctor for an extension so he can laze around in bed six months instead of just six weeks. Ken can lie, too, but in his case it is rhetorical lying, not deceptive lying. I, for example, am also just a rhetorical liar. I lie for effect. You might say I am an embroiderer of the truth. It’s the only embroidery I know how to do.
Danny had to leave to go to physical therapy for his slipped disk, and I allowed as how the therapy must be working because Danny was nearly walking normally. Mike added, “Not that he is normal.” We called out to Danny that we were suspicious about his deepening relationship with his new female therapist, because he had not said anything bad about her lately. Danny said, as he went out the door, that he didn’t plan to give the new one his phone number. “But,” Danny said, “if Gayle” (his first, and ravishingly beautiful, therapist) “wants it, she can have my number anytime!” And that pretty well shut the door on our morning bull session. We all buttoned up before we went outside, and I suggest that my dear readers do the same if the temperature is low and the wind is blowing where you live. We will blow more hot air soon.
“He’s a pretty good guy.” “Yeah – when he’s asleep.” We say that about anybody we like….. — Coach Johnny, Danny, and I were talking about Ken’s hernia surgery which was supposed to be yesterday. None of us had heard anything. We perked up, though, when first Rev. Dan and then Terry came wandering in, around 6:35. Terry arrived at our table behind Dan just as Dan started a story he had heard on American Family Radio, told by J.J. Jasper, about a blind guy who phoned a preacher. The blind guy said he was sick of people telling him, “If you had more faith, your sight would be restored.” He asked the preacher how to respond. The preacher said, “Take your white cane and whack ’em, and tell ’em, ‘If you had more faith, that wouldn’t hurt.’”
We asked ourselves how long it had been since Mac had stopped by. Then someone noticed Mike’s “barn door” was open, and after that was fixed we asked each other if that had ever happened to Mac. Terry said, somewhat enigmatically, “Mac don’t need no zipper.” I think the implication was that Mac uses Depends – which, as insults go, ranks near the top. Terry finished it off with, “Mac told me that the third grade was the best four years of his life. But then he got drafted.” I will have to remember these comments for the next time Mac comes to Hardee’s, to see Mac’s response.
I had been trying to work a crossword puzzle from the New York Times Sunday paper. Since Mike is from Michigan, I asked him a puzzle question: what is the river that connects Lake Superior to Lake Huron? Johnny whipped out his iPhone and before Mike could answer, Johnny had asked Wikipedia and gotten the answer – Soo Locks. We then got into a debate about the name of the river at Niagara Falls. Answer: Niagara River. Duh!
We debated where the Niagara River started and ended. There was some difference of opinion as to where the Niagara River ended, but the answer turned out to be that the Niagara flows west and then north, over the falls, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, and then from Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence River, and on to the Atlantic Ocean. I concluded that the University of Hardee’s proved none of us to be as smart as Johnny’s iPhone, but didn’t say it out loud.
All that talk about people’s smarts somehow led us into a discussion of pulling people’s legs. Someone mentioned snipe hunting in the Boy Scouts, in which Tenderfeet were taught to hunt snipe with a croaker sack, calling, “Here snipe, here snipe, here snipe.” Terry one-upped that, talking how in a big machine shop the newbies were sent on errands to find a left-handed screwdriver or a cable stretcher. You can’t stretch a cable and there is no such thing as a left-handed screwdriver. Once again, we congratulated ourselves on how much we had learned that morning. I, on the other hand, concluded that I was not as smart as I had thought previously.
Finally, as we got up to leave, Mike told us of a drunk. The drunk fell asleep with his own legs folded up under him, and as a result had to use crutches for a while. This drunk decided to rob a liquor store, and did so, on his crutches. The police caught up with him about 9 minutes later, just a-gittin’ it going down the road, juggling with his crutches and his bottle of whiskey. And that’s all for today, boys and girls. And no, I have no idea if Mike was telling the truth, or just pulling our legs.
“If you want to buy a dishwasher, drive into a town, go to the nearest appliance store and seek out the dishwasher repair man. He spends a lot of time in restaurant kitchens and usually has strong opinions about them.” – B. Miller. Rev. Dan came in late, and interrupted a conversation we guys had already started about different denominations. He and I quickly got into all kinds of theological agreements (not arguments) concerning the woes of the major denominations, but then it was time for Dan to leave.
I had gotten there earlier to find Danny the truck driver eating his breakfast. He was still limping slightly. “These are homemade biscuits and they are really good, they melt in your mouth,” said Danny, his mouth full. I immediately got up and walked to the counter at Hardee’s. “Who made these biscuits, Julia?” I asked Julia, the lighthearted manager. “Monica,” was the answer. “Well, Monica just made a sale,” I said, and bought a buttered biscuit. Julia added two packets of strawberry jelly, smiling. Monica was smiling, too. My biscuit was everything Danny had said it was. (In case my wife reads this, it has been months since I had more than coffee – she faithfully feeds me every morning at 6:00 o’clock, and I knew I was sinning even as I put the biscuit into my mouth.)
Danny had finished his biscuits and was now talking about his first physical therapist, Glenda, who he said was so beautiful she made him melt. Poor young, hot-blooded Danny was bemoaning his current therapist, who was far from a looker. She really made Danny suffer, for two sessions of an hour and a half every day, he said. Danny can’t go back to driving his 18-wheeler until his herniated disk and his knee get well. Danny wanted Glenda back even though she was just as merciless as his current therapist.
Danny was showing pictures of his multitude of former gorgeous girlfriends – at least I think it was former girlfriends – on his iphone. Danny draws women like honey draws flies. Coach Johnny, who has known Danny most of his life, said he could tell a whole lot of things on Danny if he wanted to. Danny proved Johnny was serious by reacting – “You wouldn’t dare!” I dug out a nickel and passed it to Johnny. I asked him how much information on Danny I could buy for five cents. “Wouldn’t buy much,” said Johnny, so I pocketed the nickel. Danny’s secrets are safe because none of us wanted to know badly enough to spend more than 5¢ anyway.
Our friend Ken , the old farmer, was in Memphis today. He is getting his stomach hernia repaired by some high priced surgeon. Ken still works as a farmer, albeit not a poor farmer. All his lifting of machinery had ruptured him near his belly button. We swapped Ken’s cell phone as we left Hardee’s, and Johnny was going to call him that afternoon to see if he lived through it. (He did!)
“Stop dealing with the questions you can’t answer, and start dealing with the Answer you can’t escape.” – Billy Graham. I was once the Pope of Johnny’s Drive-in. It happened like this.
I spent 5 years as the pastor of a Methodist church directly across the street from the birthplace of Elvis Presley. I went to Johnny’s Drive-in every morning but Sunday to start my day. During those years, from 1999 to 2004, as fellow coffee drinkers got sick or had surgeries, I would go visit them in the hospital. As a result, Buddy and James “Train” James dubbed me the Chaplain of Johnny’s Drive-in. There was a heavyset waitress back then, named Red because of her long dark red hair. She was always very jolly and was good with the quick mischievous answer when us old men gave her any guff.
Then Red got cancer. After I had visited her a few times in the hospital, I was given a promotion and they began calling me the Bishop of Johnny’s Drive-in, because I kept the guys informed of Red’s condition. It was a brain tumor. Red had never complained, even though she would remark to me about how her head kept hurting her. Now she was unable to work any more.
The day came when nothing more could be done for Red. Her husband took her home, along with a lot of morphine pills. I got her address and would drive a fair distance to her house, around Lake Piomingo, and visit her. Her husband had to work, so she was alone in her house, little more than a shack, and would call for me to come on in and I would pray for her. She was very sick in bed, and the pills barely kept her ahead of the pain. She talked to me about Jesus, whom she loved, and I talked to her about heaven.
One day Red died. Her husband asked me to perform the funeral, and we buried Red in a little dirt cemetery out in the country. Her friends and family, and a few of the guys from Johnny’s, were there. She had asked that some gaudy hard rock songs be played during the graveside service, and we listened to the very loud music for about 15 minutes. I said the closing prayer, and people hugged each other, shook hands, and went home.
After that, I was promoted again to become the one and only ever Pope of Johnny’s Drive-in. But that was years ago, and since then I have been away serving in other parts of Mississippi in the intervening years. Now I am retired – in Tupelo. I have reverted to being just plain Wally again. I seriously doubt whether I will ever regain my former rank, and am not sure I would want it any more, anyway. There will never be another Red, after all.
A really good waitress who can find? She is more precious than rubies.
She poureth the coffee just when you start to miss it, yet stayeth away and doth not hover.
She can take a joke and tell a joke; she giveth as good as she gets.
She treateth her customers with care and respect. She enjoyeth them.
She remembereth what each one liketh to eat and maketh sure it is right.
She doeth her work without complaint, yet doth not deny if she is feeling bad.
She hath a good humor even when mixing the dough with a headache.
The other waitresses love her; she is a sister to them, she shareth her tips.
Her boss praiseth her. He counteth on her.
Her customers talk to her with affection.
They love to tease her and be teased.
They miss her on days when she is gone.
Strength and honor are her clothing;
She shall rejoice in time to come.
She openeth her mouth with wisdom,
And on her tongue is the law of kindness.
She watcheth over the ways of her household,
And doth not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
Her husband also, and he praiseth her:
Many daughters have done well,
But you excel them all.
Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing,
But a woman who feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands,
And let her own works praise her in the gates.
“Love Knows No Bounds.” – Somehow those words seem appropriate for the following, which is a true story. It involves drinking coffee, which is my excuse for including it here. It happened 10 days after Katrina hit. This true story takes place in Bay St. Louis, MS, on the Mississippi coast, about two blocks offshore, behind the then destroyed Catholic cathedral. The date was early September, 2005, a week or so after Hurricane Katrina.
Cyril, Jesse, and George were friends. They had grizzled and unshaven faces. They were drinking coffee early one morning, a Saturday, about a week after Katrina hit. They were sitting at a makeshift table under a large revival tent, on a ball field just off the ocean, in what’s left of Bay St. Louis, on the Mississippi coast. Bay St. Louis is a place where Katrina changed the coastline a lot, destroying a four-laned highway in places. Katrina made miles of rubble – like in London during the war – and reminded everyone that trees aren’t supposed to be splintered and cock-eyed and filled with torn, twisted bed sheets and pieces of rug. It looked like pictures of Heroshima in Bay St. Louis after Katrina hit, plus add cars stuck in the few trees standing, cars and trucks piled on top of one another in ditches, and huge gambling casino barges lying on top of motel buildings. It was so bad that you couldn’t tell where streets were located any more.
These three unshaven men were drinking coffee under a big tent, set up by some nice Christians from California. That’s where I met them. I was taking a break from cleanup work. They were sipping hot coffee at a table on the grass under the tent, beside other tables filled with Mexicans, church teams, police officers from Virginia and New York and other states, SWAT team guys from California dressed in black, and other assorted good guys, eating breakfast. These three old men looked as likely as any to sit down with. Their names were Cyril, Jesse, and George. They were obviously local people.
Until recently, Cyril had owned a big wonderful house in New Orleans, 60 miles west. He had decided to stay in Bay St. Louis for the time being until he figured out what to do. He had the most charming accent. He spoke like someone talking Spanish or French, only it turns out to be English. He was new friends with Jesse and George. He said he was not Cajun – but his mother was. He had a twinkle in his eye when he said it, because of course he was Cajun. However, he looked like a rich movie star. He was the best dressed of the three and had a Catholic medal around his neck, kind of like a Mafia boss. A former mover and shaker in New Orleans, I suspectd. Cyril had only polite things to say about the mayor of New Orleans. We talked about Cajun weddings, Louisiana shrimp, coffee with chicory, and garfish steak.
Jesse was from Bay St. Louis, which locals just call the Bay. He had gotten a call from his daughter a couple weeks ago just before Katrina hit. She told her dad, who had never left for any hurricane before, to leave. She must have used powerful words, because he left – and lived. Now he is back, helping his friends who still have houses to clean up. He – also until recently – owned a big wonderful house right on the shore, a couple blocks from where we were sitting. Jesse had not shaved, just like the old-timers who do not shave back at Riley’s dairy bar on Saturday morning, in Nettleton where I am from. I thought Jesse would fit in well with John Travis Whitlock or Joe Hester or Flois Conn. Jesse had personal weight, the weight of a person who has lived and loved a lot. His barely visible whiskers were mostly silver.
Jesse’s house was right on the beach. It was near the bridge that crosses the ocean between Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian. There was nothing left of that bridge but the huge concrete bases, looking tiny now and jutting up forlornly, going across the bay two by two. The whole distance of concrete roadway on top of the bases was gone; disappeared, just the same as the wooden planks and entire decks on all the nearby ocean piers had disappeared, leaving nothing but pilings sticking up out of the water. Now Jesse’s house, like the bridge, was only a slab of concrete and memories. Not far from us the ocean was flat across the bay. The waves rolled in quietly. It was hard to believe they had been thirty feet higher than now, and raging.
George had the third ‘until recently.’ He too, until recently, had a big, wonderful and old house, about a block and a half from the beach, built in the 1870’s to withstand hurricanes. It did withstand hurricanes…until recently. It had timbers in the bottom of it that were two feet by two feet thick. Katrina moved the entire house a foot to the west. George claimed that it was Bay St. Louis that moved a foot to the east, but Cyril and Jesse didn’t think so. A very little of George’s house was left. Many houses had been swept completely away, leaving concrete slabs and nothing more but an occasional two feet of bent pipe sticking up.
I asked them about Eddie the mayor. Eddie the mayor was at that moment fast asleep over in the fire station. The firemen had told my mayor, Brandon, that Bay St. Louis’s mayor, Eddie, had stayed up late in meetings the night before with FEMA and the like, but that he would wake up soon. Brandon at that moment was waiting on Eddie to wake up, so that Eddie could tell our work crew where he would like us to work. Did Cyril, Jesse, or George think Eddie would be re-elected? George opined that Eddie could have the job of mayor as long as ever he wanted it.
Jesse said that Eddie had reinstated himself. He said that Eddie had lost his standing with him back when Ivan came through, because Eddie had told everyone to leave town for Ivan. Jesse said Eddie got that one wrong. Ivan wasn’t anything. But, said Jesse. Eddie got Katrina right. So he was reinstated.
I had heard that one of several firemen from Vicksburg was staying in the local firehouse – along with a host of other firemen from as far away as FDNY – the Fire Department of New York City – and it had taken this fireman a week to realize that the guy in shorts and flip-flops talking on the phone all the time was in fact the honorable Eddie, mayor of Bay St. Louis, who had ridden out the storm with the local firemen right there in the firehouse. Yeah. That was Eddie all right.
Some children from Bay St. Louis had written letters to this FDNY fireman and his buddies back after 9/11. The firemen in New York City had been very blessed by the children. They were from a second grade class at the elementary school in Bay. That was in 2001. Now, in September of 2005, after Katrina, those firemen came to the Bay to help out. They brought an old red antique fire truck with them, and gave it to that second grade class of kids, who were now in the seventh grade. The kids gave it to their town. I saw it sitting by the Bay fire station where Eddie was still asleep.
Eddie had stayed with the firemen and policemen when Katrina hit. The firemen and policemen were still in town because they had been getting the last civilians out of town till the last minute. All of them were in the firehouse/police station building. They had to go to the top floor of the building when the ocean had risen 35 feet above its normal level, flooding the whole coast and flooding the building as well.
I told about my team, in RVs next to the firehouse. We were made up of a few Pentecostals, Baptists, and mostly Methodists, plus our own mayor, Brandon, who was big friends with Eddie. I let it slip that I was a Methodist pastor; didn’t mean to. They didn’t hold it against me. I told them Nettleton was right below Tupelo. I told them that I used to drink coffee at Johnny’s Drive-in in Tupelo, hanging out with people who knew Elvis. One time Elvis was in Johnny’s Drive-in with the chief of police and some friends, and it got to be midnight, and Elvis didn’t want to drive back to Memphis so late at night. The chief offered Elvis a bed in his establishment. So Elvis spent the night in the jail and left the next morning in his Cadillac. Cyril and Jesse and George allowed as how that may be where we got the tune “Jailhouse Rock.” Maybe so. Maybe so.
We didn’t happen to mention Jesus’ name much, just a little. But He was there the whole time at that table with us. Cyril, Jesse, and George know Him for sure. Jesse said he couldn’t cry over any of this, except one time he almost did. A relief worker had come to help Jesse, and was looking around at the devastation, and had begun to shed tears. As I shook hands with these men, hearing them express their gratitude for our coming and their pleasure in talking to me, it dawned on me that they are all still very rich men, Cyril and Jesse and George. They have merely lost every material possession they had. But they are still very wealthy in what counts. It’s not the money they still have. It’s courage. Love. Stuff like that. See, for us after Katrina down where the damage was, love was let loose big time. In fact, I saw that love can indeed cross all bounds. Yes. Once in a while, we see that love truly is meant to have no bounds.
“This boy from Florida married a Georgia peach, but she turned out to be a lemon.” At Hardee’s, the conversation began concerning whippings (pronounced whoopings) we had received in school back in the day. Danny, the truck driver, told of the time he put on three pairs of pants in preparation for a spanking he would be getting. He folded his jean cuffs a certain way so as to hide the extra pants, but the teacher picked up on it. “Off with the extra pants!” He says he is living proof that a woman can spank plenty hard.
Terry the metallurgy specialist discussed his math teacher. The teacher would call on Terry and his mischievous friends at the beginning of class and give each of them three hard licks just to start the day off right. Terry does not deny that he and his friends needed this, to sort of give them the right outlook and tone them down, much like walking a spirited horse in a muddy ditch for a quarter mile to wear him out at the beginning of the work day. Besides, Terry said, they were all going to earn those spankings later.
Rev. Dan bragged on his skinny little shop teacher in high school. This slight man took a small baseball bat and planed it down to a flat board, leaving the baseball bat handle on it. Then he drilled holes in it. He lined up all the boys in his class and gave them each one lick. After that, word got around that you didn’t want the principal to assign the shop teacher to spank you.
Eddie started reminiscing about how they used to bring their pocket knives to school, to trade. Most every boy also had his rifle or shotgun stashed inside his pickup truck, hanging on the gun rack he had made in shop class. At this point, somebody pulled out their pocket knife to show; in just a minute there were five or six other knives being ogled and passed around. It was agreed that the $60 Spyder Co. knife was top of the line, but wasn’t really small enough to be considered a genuine pocket knife. Case knives were to be preferred among several of us.
I had to get up at this point and go to Johnny’s Drive-in. I asked Danny what he would like me to tell Mac. He said, “Tell him to quit smoking.” So later, I sat down at Johnny’s by Mac. I told him what Danny had said. Mac slyly replied, “I might be making gun smoke the next time I see Danny.” Meaning that he might shoot Danny. Mac is always talking about his mythical gun as if it is in his pocket, which it never is. “Never bring a knife to a gunfight,” Mac always says, when he is appearing as if he were threatening. Usually he pretends to be threatening when someone tells him off over some dumb remark Mac has made. Buddy has recently been requiring Mac to hold up his hand when he wishes to speak, lest he interrupt those yakking at the Elvis booth where Buddy sits. Mac obliges by raising his hand, but he doesn’t necessarily wait until given permission to speak.
I told Mac that I had a couple of Facebook friends who wanted to join him and the other coffee drinkers in spirit. “Where are they from?” “Texas.” “I see; so there’s knot heads in Texas just like here,” says Mac.
Buddy said, “I just bought four rocks for $80.00.” Turns out he bought four Aberdeen Indian stone axes, which he judged had been made some time between 6,000 and 4,000 B.C. (Buddy’s hobby is Mississippi Indian archeology; he has one whole room full of books, and has donated priceless items to the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma.) Nobody laughed; Buddy takes it seriously.
When Buddy had to go to a meeting of the Tupelo City Council, and had left the building, Mac said he knew someone who had seen an otter the other day. Bill, a retired musician, automobile repair man and sometime golfer, doubted that. But Mac said, “I seen it with my own eyes.” But then he blew it, by following up with “I seen a wolf too.” Mac didn’t have a cigarette in his hand; smoking is verboten in Johnny’s; but we did think he might be blowing smoke at us. I asked Mac, “Have you ever seen a panther in Mississippi, Mac?” He replied seriously, “Wally, you know good and well nobody has ever proved there are panthers in Mississippi. But I TELL you, there are plenty of stretches of deep forest in Mississippi where there sure COULD be panthers!”
I turned back to the question of Mac’s vices. “I know you smoke. What else do you do?” Mac thought. He said, “Well, I’m about half blind, so I can’t get nothing from looking at pretty girls. I can’t stand the taste of beer or whiskey, they both taste awful to me. My doctor has ordered me not to eat no more honey buns. Why, smoking is my only pleasure left in life!”
Bill got to talking about pretty girls he had known. When he was 15 years old, a pretty 15-year old sidled up to him and asked him to take her for a ride on Bill’s friend’s putt-putt motorbike. Bill’s friend, a ripe old 17 years of age, said it would be all right. The friend leaned over his motorbike and unknown to Bill, turned off the gas line before giving it to Bill. Bill said they went about a half a block and that motorbike sputtered and died, and nothing he could do would get it cranked; and his 17-year old friend wound up with the girl. Very sad! Yes, we talk of tragedy as well as triumph at the coffee shop. (Violins play.)
Curmudgeon: A crusty, ill-tempered old man.As I got up to leave, I asked about The Curmudgeon. Mac and The Curmudgeon are friends, in spite of The Curmudgeon’s grouchy ways. Mac said, apropos of nothing, “Aw, he’d complain even if you hung him with a new rope.” And with that we shut the door on another morning with the coffee drinkers.