Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Signs and Portents

     Twenty years ago a popular bumper sticker expressed a universal truth, that being “+$#% Happens.” This prompted our state legislature to pass a law banning obscene bumper stickers, presumably so the kiddies could maintain the illusion of an ordered universe a few years longer.
     I thought at the time, and still think, the censure didn’t go far enough. They could and should have outlawed them altogether. I mean if it’s a “privilege” rather than a right to drive on the roads that you’re paying for so that the states has your “implied” consent to seize your bodily fluids and gases without a warrant, surely we can stop you from putting writing on your car that I have to read when I’m stopped at a light.

     I don’t want to read it because it’s mostly moronic.

     I don’t want to read it because I don’t care what you, anonymous motorist, would rather be doing and so long as you have brake lights, I don’t care what your vehicle stops for.

     I guess the people who sport such stickers are hoping to connect with other motorists with similar interests, e.g. a car pulls up beside them at the light, the window rolls down and the driver says, “Hey baby, I see you’d rather be doing needle point too. Your place or mine?”

     Some people like to put pre-printed jokes on their cars, often about their car or their driving, presumably to suggest their great wit, but usually conveying to the reader, “I’m an idiot, and I’m proud of it.”

     Perhaps the purest example of this phenomenon is a bumper sticker I saw in Athens, GA in the early eighties which read “We want Russia between the hedges!” (“Between the hedges” is a local idiom for the UGA football field.)

     Of course, even if bumper stickers were prohibited, there’s other means of expressing your written message to an unwilling audience, graffiti in the bathroom stall for example. (Talk about a captive audience.) At GG’s Pizza and Wings there is a simple piece of graffiti at eye level above the urinal which reads, “No amnusty,” which I think succinctly pretty much sums up that whole debate.

     And there’s nothing I see keeping people from putting signs in their yards with political speech or the ten commandments, or telling us where you’d rather be, (although the latter might be grounds for divorce,) but this right, except for a flurry at election time, is rarely exercised.

     Unfortunately this isn’t so with businesses and churches. It’s natural that stores should want to advertise their wares, but when they want to couple this with lowest-common-denominator political speech as in “Doral Menthol 2 packs for $4. God Bless America!” I gag. And am I the only person who, when given a choice, shuns the business advertising “American Owned and Operated”?

     Many churches force us to read messages, but, after all, delivering a message is one of their primary functions. Some of these are clever – though I must admit none come to mind – but most aren’t and many make me want to bash my head on the steering wheel.

     There should be a standardized test people have to pass before being allowed to write church sign messages.

     There’s a church between Social Circle and Monroe, which shall go unnamed only because I can’t remember the name of it, whose sign once informed me on the top line, “Stop drop and roll,” and on the second, “Don’t work in hell.”

     I took this as a nonsensical series of commands (“stop, drop, roll” and “don’t work in hell”) until my children explained to me that “stop, drop, and roll” was a fire safety procedure and that the message writer was grammatically illiterate.

     And churches and church people sometimes use bumpers to spread the word. I don’t know about you, but I do not believe grace will visit me via bumper sticker. It’s not salvation; it’s a country music song. (Maybe it wuz drugs/And maybe it wuz liquor/But I found Jesus on a Bumper Sticker.)

     Once about ten years ago, even the Presbyterians resorted to bumper-sticker evangelism – and when I say Presbyterians, I don’t mean the wacky fundamentalist sect; I mean the common milktoast variety we all know and love. Some of them were sporting stickers saying “I’d rather be in church,” which caused me to buttonhole a Presbyterian minister in People’s Drugstore and tell him I was printing my own bumper stickers saying simply “I’m so bored” and that I’d be placing them just over the Presbyterian stickers.

     My plan worked. If there’s one thing Presbyterians can do, it’s network. Within a matter of weeks the stickers disappeared nationwide.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Last White Mama

My wife, Cynthia Millsaps, is not, in fact, the last white mother whose children call her “Mama,” but she is one of a dwindling few in the American South, the home of mama’s last stand. I and all of my friends grew up calling our parents Mama and Daddy. Although we grew up hearing The Beaver and Wally call their parents Mom and Dad, these were people who lived in some strange Yankee place. These were people who would name their son “Theodore.” Besides, we called our parents Mama and Daddy because those were their proper titles.
Now, of course, a large majority of white southern kids, and a growing minority of African-American ancestry, call their parents Mom and Dad. I hear toddlers calling out for mama but that stops when they get to school. I even know adults of my advanced age who grew up with a mama and daddy who’ve been replaced by a mom and dad. I don’t think it’s only the influence of the media that has wrought this transformation. The Beaver and “My Three Sons” weren’t able to shake the hold of mama and daddy for my generation, so I think there’s more going on here.
But what does it matter? You may well ask. It matters because Mom and Dad ain’t got no soul, which is, I believe, a major reason they got stuck with those diminutives. That they have no soul is easily illustrated. If Bob Dylan had sung, “Oh, Mom, can this really be the end?” it would have been ineffectual, because no matter what combination of Texas medicine and railroad gin the singer has consumed, the problem can’t be that bad if he’s seeking solace from someone called Mom. Similarly, if you “turn twenty-one in prison doing life without parole,” and “no one could steer you right” but Mom tried, it’s no wonder you’re doing hard time Yo mama would have given it a serious, soulful try.

And speaking of “yo mama,” if you’re looking for fisticuffs and you issue the challenge, “Yo mom,” you’ll get no respect. “Yo mom? Yo mom? What’s the matter with you man? I wouldn’t embarrass myself fighting a pussyass like you.” And Yankee fans could never have gotten Pedro Martinez’s goat if their chant had been, “Who’s your dad?”
So how did Mama and Daddy lose their souls and become the cardboard cutouts Mom and Dad? I have a couple of theories about that.
I first noticed this trend in the 1980’s when I realized social workers and school teachers were referring to people whose names they knew, not as Mr. Jones and Mrs. Jones, or even “the mother” or “your father,” but as Mom and Dad, as in, “I’ve spoken with Mom and she says Heather and Justin are home every night, but Dad says she goes out to bars every night and the kids run wild.” Not only did they refer to the parents in the third person as Mom and Dad, they would actually address them in that manner as in, “Dad says you’re a bar-hopping crack whore. What do you have to say about that, Mom?”
They must have picked up this nomenclature in state university departments of education and social work. Some influential educator somewhere -- probably a disciple of the same behavioral psychology which decided that following a predetermined schedule of stratagems and goals was an effective substitute for scholarship, talent and intuition -- started referring to dealing with moms and dads and stratagems and goals for having Mom and Dad “utilize” goal-oriented “methodology,” and it spread like wildfire through departments nationwide. I’m willing to bet this unknown influential educator was not from the South; if he were his mama would skin him alive.
If you think there’s no harm in the “momming” of America, think again. Serious consequences can ensue from such cavalier pigeonholing. I’ve read that Cindy Sheehan thought President Bush was disrespectful to her in his initial meeting with her and other parents of soldiers killed in Iraq because he addressed her as “Mom.” I can just hear him. “Mom, I know how hard it must be to lose a child.” It’s obvious the man is a nitwit but how could his handlers let him utter something like that? Does he get it from his wife, a former school teacher? And doesn’t he claim to be from Texas? If his mama were from Texas, she’d skin him alive, but that was left to Ms. Sheehan.
(A kindred phenomenon of artificial intimacy is the shift of ostensibly educated people toward addressing adults whom they have never met by their first names. I first noticed this in salesmen but it has spread to professionals.)
My second theory is that Mama and Daddy lost their titles by losing their entitlement to them. They stopped being Mama and Daddy by passing their children off to day care, divorcing each other. How can you address your father’s or mother’s third spouse as Mama or Daddy? Mom or Dad is all they deserve. For that matter, are you going to call the man who divorced yo mama, Daddy? Daddy wouldn’t do that, but some guy called Dad might.
My own children are now twenty and twenty-three years old. My wife and I never suggested that they call us one thing or the other. When referring to each other to our children we used “Cynthia” and “Ellis,” “your mother” or “your father,” and we certainly never referred to ourselves in the third person, as in, “Give Mommie the butcher knife, sweetie.” They called Cynthia “Mama” because that’s who she was, and she never relinquished that position even though almost all their friends had moms and dads.
(I’m not suggesting our children came up with “Mama” and “Da” in a vacuum. [They call me “Da,” as do all their friends, but that’s another essay entirely.] They developed “mama” the way all children with English-speaking mothers do. “Ma” is as close as neophyte speakers can come to “moth-,” and although they realize there’s another syllable to deal with, forget that noise, it’s as hard as the first one. Just stick another “ma” on there. And I’m not a linguist but I suspect “Da” is as close as they can get to “Fa,” the same way they say “dis” and “dat” before they can make the “th” sound.)
So if you live in Jackson, Mississippi, and your children call you Mom or Dad, am I saying that’s a problem? Of course not; can’t you take a joke? But I am saying it might be a symptom, and the joke may be on you.
How come my children still call their mother, “Mama”? I think it’s because one or both of their parents were almost always with them or available to be with them during there pre-school years. We played with them and shared their fantasies, but didn’t talk down to them because they were children. We didn’t act one way and expect them to act another, and when they ventured into the world of moms and dads, they saw nothing they wished to substitute for the world of Mama and Da.
And by the way, their mama does dance and their daddy does rock and roll.

Paper Covers Rock: A Talking, Traveling Testimonial

I’m 53 years old, a feat I’ve achieved by not having died yet, which if you’d followed my lifestyle closely you’d know to be no small achievement. I’ve been a busboy, a waiter, a chef, a criminal defense attorney, a newspaper columnist, a writer of fiction, a husband, a parent, and now I’m embarking on the career for which all this has prepared me: the manager of a rock and roll band.
The band, The Cool S.W.A.P., are, like me, residents of Newton County. Two are friends of my kids who for years now have hung around my house playing my records, playing guitars, consuming my consumables, singing. Twenty year-old John T, it turns out, was born to sing rock and roll. T.J., also 20, has a driven work ethic that extends only to making music. The other two guys are a little older and have been professional musicians for a while. Scottie B, 28, is a drummer who doesn’t miss a lick, and Marshall McCart is a 30 year old UGA grad who works two day jobs. He’s also one of the best guitarists you’re ever likely to see up close.
I missed their first live show, caught their second in June on the patio of a Covington restaurant and was unprepared for how good they are. A carload of beautiful bohemian dancing girls materialized from somewhere, made me dance with them until I couldn’t stand it no more, and just as abruptly went on their way. Since then I’ve been the manager of The Cool S.W.A.P., an avocation that so far has cost me several hundred dollars in cash, gasoline, alcohol and sleep deprivation.
The rock venues of Covington are not the biggest or most prolific, which led us to quickly decide we want to make it in Athens because, as the Drive By Truckers have Carl Perkins say of Nashville, it’s “where you go to see if what is said is so.” So on a Monday in early August, T.J., John T and I, armed with a home-printed promo package and a demo of seven songs recorded in Marshall’s basement, set out for Athens via Madison, where we hope to book some shows.
Things are not exactly hopping on a Monday afternoon with school not in session in the Classic City, but we manage to locate Eyal Reisen and book two shows at DT’s Down Under and leave a couple of demos at places where we might even get paid. I’ve made calls to these places the week before, and I’m surprised that people remember my name and apologize for not having returned my calls, but I suspect this is partly due to my membership in W.A.M.G.A.T., one of the most privileged minority groups in the world: White Anglo-Saxon Males Graying at the Temples. Fast food restaurant managers spot me in the back of the line and say, “May I take your order sir?”
We head back on a curricular route by Lake Oconee because a waitress in Madison has told us we should leave a demo at a place named Zac’s which books live bands. My mouth tastes bad from smoking a lot of cigarettes, which seems to be a prerequisite for playing rock and roll.
“T.J.,” I inquire, “You got any chewing gum, mints, candy or something?”
“Look in the glove compartment.”
“Nothing’s in here but traffic tickets and whatever’s in this box.”
“Are they flavored?”

Wednesday, August 10, 2005
I call Murphy Wolford at Tasty World and he’s not only listened to our demo, he likes it and wants to put us on stage, Tuesday August 30th at 10:30, the first of three bands. Better news, we’ll get paid, one third of the door after the house takes $110.00 operating expenses. Can we play a 40 minute set of original material? Murphy wants to know. “Yes,” I assure him, because we are Brer Rabbit and our music is the brier patch.
That evening, T.J., John T., my son Jack -- an Emory student and sometime contributor to the band -- and I take two acoustic guitars and head off to open mic night at The Celtic Tavern in Conyers, where T.J. says we can win money. We get to do three songs. The first is a creation of Jack’s called “Natural Light,” which celebrates the pleasures of relieving oneself off the front porch. The second is a composition of mine, a sing-along called “When Queers Can Get Married,” a Randy Newmanesque satire about a homophobic young man who is uncomfortable with the idea of homosexual unions.
Conyers is about as red state as you can get. We open to a packed house who have come to hear the amateur efforts of their friends and relatives, and midway through the first verse of “Queers” we have cleared the room. People shout angrily on their way out. The place looks like Pompeii after Versavius erupts. Drinks are left unfinished and cigarettes burning in ashtrays. The old and infirm are abandoned in a mad scramble to protect the young.
Incredibly, we still win enough money to cover our bar tab, which under the circumstances we felt obliged to run up as high as we could.

Thursday August 11, 2005
One of the reasons the S.W.A.P. is so good is that they practice hard three nights a week. I try to make at least one, offering production advice and feedback.
They usually follow my advice because rock and roll has been the soundtrack to my life, which roughly coincides with the history of the genre.
Sometimes my feedback is simply awestruck praise. At the end of a particularly tight rendition of our “Sight Out of Mind,” I tell them the The Strokes only wish they had a song that good, but I pull no punches when the sound doesn’t suit me. “Too much guitar solo there. Save it for when we’re playing all day in a baseball stadium.” Marshall’s verse on “The Weight” sounds like he’s trying to do it the way Richard Manuel would. Now that he’s dead. The new song they’re working on sounds like a Pure Prairie League B-side.
Thursday, August 18, 2005
Tonight we’re playing our first Athens gig, taking the stage at midnight at DT’s Down Under. Somewhere along the way I pick up a Flagpole and read the first part of Ben Gerrard’s informative article on “Cracking The Scene” as a new band in Athens. The Cool S.W.A.P.’s excellent management, it seems, is already doing everything right.
It’s a good time to be playing, because it’s the night before the first day of fall semester. Walking down Clayton Street in one of my Colonel Parker costumes -- seersucker or linen, always the Panama hat -- it’s immediately apparent to me that I’m the only person on the street who is not a kid. They are spilling out of barroom doors, trash talking, showing lots of skin, vomiting in sewer grates.
They look at me guardedly, as if I might be The Man. I smile and nod, feeling like a character in a Velvet Underground song.
Them: “Hey white boy. What are you doing downtown? You chasing our woman around?”
Me: “Oh no suh, not me. That’s the last thing on my mind. I’m just waiting for my man.”
Although their bitches do look fine.
DT’s is like the basement of a frat house, a frat house that has severely gone to seed: a bar on one end, a band on the other, and not much in he middle but a little patch of concrete floor infused with decades of spilled beer. We’re right at home here; it’s a lot like Marshall’s basement.
Most of the best and brightest of our Covington friends, including my eighteen year-old daughter, are students here. They’re out in force and they bring people with them, fifty or so, half of them ridiculously good looking females.
“Yo! Da! Wassup?” they yell as I enter. They call me “Da.” Perhaps we can discuss why that is some other time.
The set opens, at my suggestion, with “Seven Nation Army,” a song they always nail. When you hear those opening bass notes, I say, it’s like “Satisfaction.” You say to yourself, “Oh, this place. I’ve been here before. I love this place.”
And that’s the way it is. The band hits the ground running and never looks back, cranking out one full-tilt rocker after another, luring the crowd into a screaming, jumping frenzy. Scottie B is happy as he can be. Marshall mostly shies away behind a post, kicking guitar ass like Clapton unbound.
The young guys though, have never had this much stage presence. They’re doing synchronized jumps; John T gets down on the floor. It’s all these sunny young tits, I know, that has wrought this transformation. Aside from the aforementioned “Miracle of the Dancing Bohemians,” we don’t get this in Covington.
I sit at the bar thinking that the staff at DT’s is amazed at how good my band is. People start wandering in from the street. An attractive young woman of graduate school age walks up to me and says, “What are you doing here?”
I explain that I’m a friend of the band. She tells me I look like someone she’d really like to talk to.
It’s too loud for talk, but she yells that she just walked in because this band sounds so good. “Who are they?”
“The Cool S.W.A.P.,” I shout, just as the Rastafarian with whom she came pulls her out, and before I have the wits to give her a business card and tell her, if she says she’s calling about the band, my secretary will let her talk to me for free.

Back on stage, a couple of our more zealous Covington fans have removed their shirts and are helping John T play the congas. At this show, at this stage of our career, this is kind of cute. Later we will employ Hell’s Angels who will break their fingers should they attempt such a stunt.
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
DT’s has been calling my office today wanting us to play the next night and just about any other time we want. As a matter of fact, we can pretty much be the house band as long as we’re willing to play for free.
I meet with the band at practice to discuss this and a couple of other things. One of the other things is that I’ve had the kind of brainstorm they’d be paying me for if we were getting paid. I’ve called Flagpole and talked to Mr. Gerrand’s editor, Chris Hassiotis, and told him I’d read Mr. Gerrand’s article with interest because I’m managing a band which is right now doing what the article suggested. What if Mr. Gerrand were to cover our upcoming shows and report on the progress of a “baby band” actively trying to “crack the scene?”
Mr. Hassiotis seems interested, or maybe he’s just being nice, but he’s actually heard of us and will pass this information along to Mr. Gerrard, who is currently out of town, and have him get in touch with me. Later it occurs to me that I failed to ascertain how long Mr. Gerrand would be out of town.
The other thing I want to do is demo a song T.J. and I wrote the night before, which I sing with T.J. on guitar. It fails to get Marshall’s endorsement, a prerequisite to anything this band does and with good reason. If, like Tom Hanks in That Thing You Do, you were saying who was what in The Cool S.W.A.P., (the funny one, the brains) Marshall would be “the talent.”
We call DT’s and tell them we’ll do the two free shows to which we agreed and if they need a fill-in tomorrow we’ll do it if as a favor, but they’ll have to give us a little cash to cover gas and cigarettes. We end up rescheduling our Thursday show for Friday, September 2, the night before the Boise State game.
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Yesterday I struck a jury in a drug case and the judge told me my trial will begin Wednesday at 9:00am. There’s no way around this. If it were any other show I’d stay home and go to bed, but the Tasty World show is the biggest we’ve ever played.
So I’m here, regretting that I’ll only get five hours sleep, regretting more that I won’t get to hear the bands after us.
Thanks to the cover change probably, our crowd is a little smaller than Thursday, but we’re still more than covering the house’s overhead with our fans alone. Also, they’re more subdued. This isn’t a place, I think, where people take off their shirts.
The set opens with “A.M. Hindsight,” a song with more hooks than Wilt Chamberlain, and I know everything will be alright. They have a sound man here who knows what he’s doing, and I can hear things I haven’t heard before, a few of which I want to change.
The highlight of the night is “Talking, Traveling Blues,” a pedestrian name for one of the crunkest songs you’ll ever hear. By the end of the show a group of girls sitting behind me who’ve come to hear the next band are yelling, “Oh, yeah! Cool S.W.A.P!”
In the morning my five hours of sleep has kept me sharp. I’m thinking about my closing where I wrap myself in the flag and make fun of the State’s witnesses, when an unexpected piece of evidence causes my client to bail and plead guilty.
By 1pm. I’m home having a couple of drinks and a cigar. At 3:00 I take a nap, get up at five and burn a pizza, then repeat the process and sleep eleven hours.
In the morning I learn that while I was out the price of gasoline has gone up fifty cents a gallon and the City of New Orleans now looks like an apocalyptic scene in a science fiction movie. I should be concerned about these things, I know, but what I’m really concerned abut is what Murphy thought about our show.
Friday, September 2, 2005
Walking in from the courthouse parking deck, the east side of Athens for some reason smells bad tonight.
The smell subsides as I make my way down Clayton, and I notice that while there are as many kids in town as the night before school started, they are considerably less raucous, and I soon see why: a healthy percentage of the coeds on the sidewalks are window shopping with their mothers, some even with they mama’s mamas, no doubt here for tomorrow’s game.
Ten o’clock at DT’s, not much is happening. There are about a dozen spectators, and the house sound system is providing a major glitch in that no sound is coming out the lead singer’s mike. The band asks me to work on this problem which is something like getting Mr. Magoo to handle reading the road map, then I engage the guy working the door who makes no more headway than did Magoo.
After ten minutes or so of shoulder shrugging, Damion -- a good Samaritan I’d earlier met outside, and a keyboard player with an accomplished band of his own, Greg and the Gruntones, who’ll be on at midnight -- addresses the problem and fixes it in no time. People have been drifting in and by 10:30 when T.J. hits the jangly intro to “American Girl,” our usual cadre of fans is here along with others I haven’t seen before.
Early on I make the remarkable discovery that one can purchase a healthy pour of Kettle One Dutch vodka for the nominal price of four dollars and fifty cents at this fine establishment, a phenomenon that later in the evening will lead to some minor property damage, but I’m not driving, and for now I feel like Jesus’ son as the band rips off a blistering Zeppelin medley that has jaws dropping.
In addition to the Kettle One, I’m feeling good because Murphy wants us back a Tasty World on September 26, we’re recording and E.P. of new material at an actual recording studio on August 18th, and although Flagpole hasn’t called me back, I’ve decided to write the article myself because, after all, it’s the sort of thing I do.
Like every show that we’ve played, this one is better than the last. I meet my daughter’s roommate, a clever girl who has brought her own contingent to swell the progress and already knows “Talking Traveling Blues” is her favorite song. When our show ends I mill around waiting for the Gruntones, but I only get to hear one song when T.J. says we have to leave because the guy on whose couches we are to sleep is about to get in a fight on the sidewalk.
And so we rock on, boats against the current -- O.K., you’ve heard that one. How about, “I’d like to thank you on behalf of the group and myself, and I hope …”

Words I prefer not to hear

Comes now the essay I promised when I stopped writing a regular column: words and expressions I prefer not to hear in 2006. First we’ll have a prologue, then a top-ten list.
Many of these annoyances come form the food service industry. As I’ve previously ranted in these pages, I don’t wish to be commanded to “enjoy” after my server has placed food before me. When I’m repeatedly asked, “Is everything alright?” at least one thing is not alright-- my server is not very good at the job-- but I also suspect I’m in an establishment I’m not likely to “enjoy.” The same is true when I enter a restaurant to lunch alone (possibly so I can work on something like this column undisturbed) and am invariably asked, “Just one?” as if I’m not only a social pariah but a burden to business. I want to reply, “No, supremely and abundantly one, one with the universe, one of God’s children, one who will tip bigger than the party of three requesting separate checks even though I’m assaulted by kitsch.” I’ve tried beating them to the punch by walking up and saying, “one,” but I’m getting old and can’t smack them with my notebook before they can reply, “Just one?”
At least food service jargon is confined to the trade, but when the corporate media, the entertainment industry or political commentators latch onto the trendy expression of the month, it spreads like a pandemic throughout the industry and into the population at large. I no longer care to think outside the box, and I’m not going to push an envelope unless it shoves me first. “Senior moment” is only funny if you’re so senior you can’t recall having heard it before, and I’m already getting tired of hearing a confluence of events described as “a perfect storm.”
Sports broadcasters are not only the worst offenders at repeating the popularly trite, they spawn a cornucopia of banality of their own. Once one of them spoke of “leaving it all on the floor” (court, field) they all had to say it in their sleep. The “walk-off” homerun didn’t exist two years ago, but now a summer broadcast of “Sportscenter” can’t go by without one. And no, Georgia Tech is not within three points of the lead, they’re exactly three points behind. Sportscasters are the worst abusers, if not indeed the originators, of the fallacy of referring to a particular individual as one of several of the same even if that individual is supremely singular, i.e., “your Barry Bonds, your Michael Jordans, your Jesus Christs.” Bobby Knight, famous for not suffering fools lightly, when asked how Indiana would fare when it faced “the Ohio States and the Purdues,” replied, “There’s more than one Purdue? When did this happen?”
I’d prefer not to hear pointless redundancies this year, each and every one of them, irregardless of how much you want to say them at this point in time, (Did you think we might think you were referring to some continuum other than time?) and I don’t want to hear anyone with any claim to being from the American South say that anything has “class,” (Everything has class, from the Brahamn to the untouchable) much less call anything “classy.”
The Top Ten List
10. “My ex” That X person is a human being whom you in your infinite wisdom selected from among billions as your soul mate. He or she is not diminished by your diminutive, you are.
9. “Quote-unquote” What does this mean? Its users are seldom quoting anyone, and what’s with the “unquote?”
8. “Has issues” I have issues with this expression because I’m sick of hearing it, the same as with
7. “Challenged” It was funny about once. Its current users are language-challenged.
6. “Proactive” Suddenly everything and everybody worth their salt is. I’m going to plan ahead so I won’t have to be.
5. “is priceless” I can mute the fiftieth nauseating version of the MasterCard commercial, but when you print your version on T-shirts and coffee cups to promote your organization and to show me how clever you are, unfortunately you do.
4. “Mom” Call your own mother “Mom” if you choose, but I say, “ Yo mama’s such a half-wit she don’t even get a whole name.” A level of purgatory is reserved for newspaper people who refer to mothers generally as “moms.” (“Mom says kids learn good in home school.”) A much lower level is set aside for those in social services and related fields who actually address people to whom they are not related as “Mom” and “Dad.” (Dad says the children are unsupervised because you’re a bar-hopping crack whore. What do you say to that, Mom?”
3. “24-7” A woman once interviewed for employment with me and the first time she said she was on the job 24-7 I knew we wouldn’t be a good fit, the third time she said it I foresaw that her employment by me would end in homicide and me in need of a lawyer.
2. “Veggie” No explanation required, I trust. If you use this term, you’re not reading this column because it has more words than pictures.
1. “Utilize” Out of the thousands of times you’ll hear or read this word next year, you’ll encounter maybe one instance of correct usage. Many were assigned The Elements of Style, but few read. In the fifty or so years since Strunk and White first lamented this situation, the cancer has spread throughout society. “Utilize” is now used as a synonym for “use” by a legion of people who want to sound techno-scientifically important.

Dick Vitale is probably the worst offender, but then Mr. Vitale, unless he has no former spouse, had used all ten expressions on this list in the last hour. There’s nothing Dick Vitale can’t utilize: talent, quickness, athleticism, even caution.
“Utilize” means to find a use for something formerly thought to be useless, such as the rectangle of matted lint one removes from the filter of a clothes dryer. One does not “utilize” caution unless maybe one discovers a lost stockpile previously believed to have been thrown to the wind.

Chapter 13, In which Wallace meets his maker

My father died before he was sixty-five, in the early 1970’s from natural causes that remain a mystery to me. At the time I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have, partly because I was awash in the sea of uncertainty which might and did engulf a young man from my peculiar background thrust into the wider world of social and spiritual upheaval which was America at that time, but also because for a long time I could not grasp that Preacher Millsaps was dying. The father whom I left when I moved to Atlanta at seventeen had been a robust man of sixty who could outwalk and outwork men half his age.
I remember the instant I realized he was dying. I was riding with him in the big Plymouth, and for the first time ever he was driving slowly and carefully on open road. This from a man who once passed an Ellijay policeman on a double yellow line because the cop was poking along with traffic lined up behind him.
(My father had little respect for wealth and power in themselves, only the means by which they were attained if he deemed them praiseworthy. He paid the ticket eventually, but not until we had visited half the merchants in Ellijay, all of whom he seemed to know, to protest what he saw as an abuse of power.)
There on the road between Madola and Epworth, I realized that my father, since the last time I had ridden with him, maybe the year before, had grown suddenly and dramatically old.
He, of course, saw what was happening well before that day in the Plymouth and, I see now, completed some things he thought he needed to do. In those last few years while I was away, in and out of school, he, sometimes with my help, but more often alone or with my brother-in-law Jack, went into the mountains and disassembled two snake-infested log cabins, one built in the 1880’s and one in the 1840’s by an ancestor named Stepp, transported and reassembled them into a single house on farmland he owned in Epworth.
He sat in the back yard and with a hatchet split cedar shingles from trees he had felled, then recreated the type of roof that would have originally topped the cabins. The chimney was made from rock which he hauled from the creek, evaluating each piece for fit. The floors and ceiling were the same wide boards from the original houses. The leftover chestnut boards were used to panel a kitchen he built onto a house he had built in the 1930’s, and in which my mother would live for twenty years after his death. (She covered the chestnut with yellow wallpaper, over her children’s protest, because it brightened up the room. It was, after all, her house and her kitchen.) Later, after the house was assembled and he was unable to do heavy lifting, he returned to the chair in the backyard and with a hatchet and knife separated from hickory logs long, thin strips of wood which he wove into bottoms for straight-backed chairs for his cabin’s kitchen.
A couple of years after my father’s death, I lived for a year in the cabin Preacher Millsaps willed to his son. Five years later, the money I got from selling it to my sister enabled me to afford law school.
People sat outside Lebanon Church in folding chairs at my father’s funeral, listening to the service over loud speakers. I remember that by force of will I did not weep, because my father hadn’t at his mother’s funeral because, he said, she was gone to a better place. I remember my Aunt Myrtle saying of the seminary-schooled preacher who delivered the eulogy, “Grover Jones said Wallus was a jane-yus, said there’s no telling what that man could’a done if he’d had an edjacation.”
Although I experienced tremendous grief at my father’s death, I have sometimes felt relief that we were spared the conflict that surely would have arisen from my lifestyle choices, that the only time I know he felt ashamed of me was that day on the Little League field, but that is self-serving speculation on my part.
There was a year or so in my early twenties that I was so depressed I can now remember little about the period other than where I lived and worked. During that time my father appeared to me in a dream. In the dream, I am sitting on a park bench with my head in my hands, distraught. My father, who in the dream I know to be dead, comes and sits beside me and I tell him that I don’t know what to do. He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “I know it’s hard son, but I can see you’re doing the best you can.” I don’t know where dreams come from, but I know I held onto that one like a talisman, a lifebuoy.
Now that we’ve killed off our hero; it’s time for this story to end, and exercising my perverse sense of symmetry, since we started back in Chapter I with John Lennon’s spoken intro to the Beatles’ last L.P., (“in which Doris gets her oats”) I opt to end with a paraphrase of his closing.
I’d like to thank you on behalf of Preacher Millsaps and meself, and I hope we passed the audition.

Chapter 12, In which I disappoint

Looking back, I think for the most part I was a source of pride to my father before I left home for college. I excelled in school and could and did memorize long passages of scripture and all the books of the Bible when some competition required it, and I could take down any kid I ever met in a “sword drill.”
I guess it’s time for another aside since I suspect that there are those among the unbaptized -- and when I say baptized, I mean the real thing, dunking like a donut, not some sprinkling with holy water mumbo jumbo -- who don’t know what a sword drill is or was. The sword drill was the ingenious fusion of Southern Baptists’ desire to indoctrinate their young with Biblical minutiae, with children of the fifties and sixties fascination with westerns and particularly the cowboy gunfight. (Other sects may have adopted this rite, but I see that as somewhat like comparing spaghetti westerns with John Wayne and Wyatt Earp.)
Children were placed in a line before an adult with their Bibles hung like six-shooters at there sides. The adult would then say, “Present swords” and the kids would bring the Bibles up flat on there right palms, their left hands placed gently on the top, left thumbs rubbing the gilded edges of the leaves like itchy trigger fingers. The adult would then cite a Bible verse, say Malachi 3:12, and then, I believe, “Charge,” (although I like to think it was “Draw”) pages would rifle and the first child to locate the passage, me if I were in that line, would step forward and read the verse, smoke rising in a gentle plume over the pages.
If you were the best kid in your class or your church, the quick draw sheriff who kept the peace, I was the punk kid whose daddy you had gunned down, my entire childhood spent splattering Bible verses like whisky bottles tossed in the air, coming to gun you down. It would be a fair fight, but I would blow you away, and when the smoke cleared you would be found writhing on your back between the pulpit and the front pew, your life’s blood oozing into the carpet since medical science was not then as advanced as now, and a fusillade to the gut of “begats” and “wherefores” was usually fatal.
(Of course, the only thing that could have made this drill more authentic would have been to have eliminated the “Present swords” bit of business and just let us shoot from the hip, but I assume that the game’s inventors envisioned a scenario where greenhorns would lose their grip and send Bibles sailing across the sanctuary, possibly endangering candelabras and the picture of Jesus, if not the drill instructor herself.)
Meanwhile back at Daddy and me, I was saying my father was mostly pleased with me. In addition to being a book whiz, I enjoyed doing things he had as a child -- hunt, fish, hike, camp -- but I also was proficient at that only competition of (real) boys that then existed in Cherokee County, the Little League baseball field.
I have previously told you that it was on the baseball field that I was for the first and only time ashamed of my father. It was later on that same field, a perfectly manicured tract in a bend of the Etowah River, that I would later cause my father for the only time I can recall to say that he was ashamed of me.
Which is not to say I didn’t disappoint him at times, but these incidents were nearly always things involving property damage, rather than the wound to another human involved in the incident on the Etowah. I’m not even counting involuntary property damage, windows and windshields I shattered while honing my baseball skills, but rather things like the time when I was eight or nine when he came out of some church member’s house to discover me amusing neighborhood children by tossing a pointed carpenters file, Jim Bowie style, into the trunk of the only tree in their little front yard. He was disappointed in this error of judgment, but he didn’t say ashamed. He made me apologize to the host, who of course said it was nothing, and then spent a while explaining how old and valuable the tree was, how it was an ornament in these people’s yard, how long it would live and how I had left it forever scared. Up until then I’d thought nothing about nailing stuff to trees. Cowboys did it all the time.
(Although I did have this continuing thing with knives and wood. My nephew David [the worm gatherer] and I were returned to the scene of the crime and lectured after we’d used the pocket knifes we’d recently been mistakenly deemed old enough to own to surreptitiously bore holes in our church pew to ease our boredom during Sunday Night Service. Later when I was a sophomore in high school my father would have to make amends after Buster Byrd -- son of former Lt. Governor Garland T. Byrd, from somewhere in south Georgia -- and I spent our spare time during a summer debate workshop tossing Byrd’s bowie knife [again, Bowie style] into the solid wood door to our dorm room. In my defense I can only offer that to this day I can sing you the theme song to the early 60’s T.V. series, “Jim Bowie.”)
When I was eleven I played on a Little League team which lost every game. I had never pitched, but our pitching was so bad that one day late in the season I got the chance to record a couple of outs. For the next week I make my father squat with a catcher’s mitt on the carport with the utility room as the backstop while I battered his shins with errant pitches. The next game, when we were again down ten runs and the usual pitchers were used up, the coach came out to make the change and I was already a few steps toward the mound from my second base position when he motioned to the outfield for a ten-year-old who was his next door neighbor’s kid to come to the mound.
Things are generally very quiet when a kid’s baseball team is changing pitchers and they’re ten runs down. When I saw Waters trotting to the mound I said, to no one in particular, but, I was later to learn, loud enough for people down river to hear, “Waters? He cain’t pitch!”

Chapter Eleven, In which Wallace disappoints

I only remember one occasion that I felt ashamed of my father. I was nine years old and it involved baseball, my consuming passion at the time.
Wallace had tried to discourage me from “trying out” for Little League. He was afraid I wouldn’t “make the team,” but I was insistent. He mentioned something about one of my sisters crying after not making some team -- school basketball, I guess. I shouldn’t come crying to him when it happened, he said, but I was insistent and he relented.
Some of my classmates had already played a year before I could start, because I was the youngest person in my grade, so I knew it wasn’t possible to not “make the team” of which there were twelve. I also knew something else my father didn’t, which was that I could play some ball.
I knew I could play some ball from competition at recess and after school, where I could stay as long as I wanted because I walked to and from it on a trail through Mr. Barrett’s woods. There were other “walkers” to play ball with at Holly Springs Elementary, and some of the best players had no choice but to stay after school because they rode the “Sixes” bus which couldn’t board until a bus had completed its forty-five minute “Toonigh” run and returned for them.
I had also virtually memorized the “Baseball” entry in my World Book Encyclopedia, and read every book remotely involving baseball in the little school’s library. I dazzled my elders in the Temple of Baseball Lore. They could name a good player from their childhood and I could tell them definitively whether that player was in the Hall of Fame. The “Black Sox Scandal” and “The House that Ruth Built” were things I relived with shame and pride even though they’d occurred a generation or two before my birth. I sifted through the box scores of every game in the paper. Then there was “The Game of the Week” from which I gathered tidbits from Pee-Wee and Old Diz. I could tell you how many stitches are on a baseball (“a hunerd and eight, podner”) and sing the Falstaff Beer jingle.
My father, I was to learn, knew next to nothing about baseball.
At one of the first practices with the Bears, my first team, I was playing second base when somebody fouled a ball into the stands behind third where my father sat watching. He retrieved the ball and threw it back in -- there’s no other way to say this that could capture my horror at the time -- like a girl.
I don’t know how long I stood there stunned before my face flushed. I’m fairly certain that if the next pitch had been hit my way, it could have smacked me in the side of the head before I moved.
If you don’t know what throwing like a girl means, it’s a fairly sure bet that you yourself throw like a girl, and more likely than not are, or were, a girl, or maybe an Eskimo. This is far less true now that stereotypes and sports opportunities for females have changed, but in 1960 there was only one girl in my school who didn’t throw like a girl, and she was a born athlete.
My father threw like a girl, I realized after I had digested this information, because he’d never played baseball. It’s entirely possible he was an adult before he ever saw anyone -- child or adult -- play the game of baseball.
I can assure you there were no baseball fields on Jack’s River. The game of baseball before Babe Ruth in the 1910’s, when my father was the age I was when I learned the game, was far from the national obsession it was to become, and then, before radio, Jack’s River was largely sequestered from what went on in flatland America.
More importantly, baseball is not a game well suited to mountainous forest land. A very small percentage of major league players traditionally have come from Appalachia; they came disproportionately from flat farm and pasture lands where summers and days were long.
Prior to that day when he threw the foul ball back, I had thought that my father, Preacher Millsaps, in spite of being fifteen or twenty years older than my friend’s parents, could do anything as well or better than any of them. None of my teammates mentioned it, surprising considering how cruel boys are to each other at that age, maybe for the same reason Wallace and I never discussed it -- it was just too embarrassing. It would have been like making fun of someone for having only one leg. Throwing a baseball well was that central to our notion of respectable male identity.
There would of course come a time when I looked back and was ashamed of my nine-year-old self for being ashamed of my father for not being able to do what he’d never needed to learn, but long before that, from the day it happened onward, there was a chink in his armor, and for all I knew there could be others.

Chapter Ten, in which Irene bears a grudge

To say that my mother didn’t take to the idea of moving back to the mountains would be a vast understatement. It was for her as if she’d followed Joshua into the promised land and had adjusted to a steady diet of milk and honey, only to have him up and decide to take himself and his house back to the wilderness where they would be dependent on a fickle god for food falling out of the sky.
I should mention here something I’ve previously referenced. Some time in the early sixties my mother was in an automobile accident which injured her back. She had at least two surgeries. A disk was removed from her back -- something I don’t think is done anymore -- making a woman who was barely five feet tall even shorter.
Anyone who has ever had even a strained muscle in his back knows the misery it brings and how it can sour one’s outlook on the world while it lasts. Some of the saddest cases I’ve handled as a criminal defense attorney involved educated, middle-class people who were repeatedly sent back to prison for forging prescriptions and burglarizing pharmacies to feed their addiction to pain medication. Invariably they had been victims of severe back injuries who had become addicted to powerful painkillers under medical supervision.
So I’m sure I should have cut Irene more slack than I did, but when you’re thirteen you only see how scary the world is for you.
My mother didn’t become addicted to Seconal; that would have defied the draconian moral code by which she lived. She became addicted instead to vitriol.
(“Old Maids” is the only card game my mother would play. Traditional playing cards with their pagan symbols were not permitted in the house. The rest of us were allowed to play “Rook,” although she never befouled herself with the game.)
I remember riding with my father and her to some thread mill in Canton where she was applying for a job, remember seeing her hobble to the door while we sat in the car. A child of today could not imagine the shame I felt thinking that my mother would get a job, any job. I was furthermore shocked that the world valued my mother’s considerable talents as only being fit for factory work.
Irene didn’t take the job. She may have never intended to. She may have been running a bluff that if my father wanted to go back to the hills he would do so without her and his son.
Near this time she would take me aside and tell me that she and I might be leaving at any moment, to be prepared. I listened to this without response, because even though I was scared by the idea of moving away from my friends in Holly Springs and the world as I knew it, I knew there was no way I was leaving my father’s house wherever it might move. I didn’t tell her so because I never had to. One of the lessons I learned from my father which serves me well to this day is to not fight unnecessary battles.
My mother was a strong and stubborn person and a great holder of grudges. Only death could release her from the hold of the grudge once formed. She refused to speak to her sister in Virginia for probably ten years after Ruby declined to take her turn keeping Grandma Harkins, but after Grandma died the grudge was lifted and they went back to being friends.
Even more remarkable, Irene had a brother of whose existence I never learned until his corpse was brought back to Fannin County from Ohio, and at 14 I was designated one of his pallbearers. The source of this grudge was a fairly substantial transgression on Uncle Charles’ part, but even though he didn’t kill anybody, except in WWII, the sweep of my mother’s vendetta was so broad that my sisters and my father, who knew Uncle Charles, were forbidden to mention his name in her son’s presence.
We did move to Fannin County where I was immediately accepted as being super cool because I was from “Atlanta” and had a Beatlesque haircut. There the force of my mother’s new grudge settled in and attached itself to my father and anyone who might have been involved in his progeny. Whenever she could corner me, she would assail me with my father’s many shortcomings which I should avoid at all costs.
I really don’t know now what she said about Wallace, because I didn’t listen. I couldn’t put my hands over my ears and go “Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah,” but I would incur my mother’s furor when she would realize I was singing under my breath, probably Beatles and Stones, and if that failed there was always revelry in my new found super coolness and the attention of pretty young mountain girls that status offered.
Suffice it to say that anything which she perceived as a problem could be blamed on my father. A minor example. Once when I brought a Catholic girlfriend home from Emory she took me aside afterward and told me Wallace should have had this talk with me if he’d been a decent father, but it fell on her to tell me I shouldn’t be dating a Catholic. She then went on to detail a fairly informed if absurdly biased account of papist atrocities from 33AD to present.
My father, as you may have garnered by now, judged people by the content of their hearts as manifested in their behavior. The girl in question, the daughter of a wealthy Harvard Medical School graduate from Asheville, was charmed by Wallace, and he had enough sense to see that the likelihood of her marrying me was so slim that counseling on the pitfalls of interfaith marriage was one of those battles that likely need not be fought.
Wallace purchased his freedom from Irene’s grudge by dying in 1974 at 63. After that she softened, became more tolerant, though not enough to keep her from criticizing at any opportunity the lifestyle of her wayward son, which was a far cry from her definition of Christian Gentleman. It was only after 1980, when I took up with and a year later married Cynthia Bolkcom, who was neither Catholic nor Yankee, and pointed myself toward law school that my mother and I again became the friends who had built a clubhouse from scrap lumber and read Little Golden Books until the son could read them himself. From then until she was overcome by dementia later in the century, we spent pleasant times together, I with the pretty wife and grandchildren, and she with tales of a way of life that survived only in memory and murky photographs.

Chapter 9, In which Irene is in her element

Irene was in her element as the pastor’s wife at the piedmont churches my father pastored. Her girls attended good public schools and, after some difficult adjustment and a lot of catching up, excelled. They were more help than hindrance now, handling their share of housework, the older ones helping pay their way by working the soda fountain at Cochran’s Pharmacy the same way a progression of pretty Covington schoolgirls made your shakes and floats at People’s. It was a choice job because, “It’s Kool Inside,” the penguin on the door told us, a rare thing in Carterville in the 1950’s.
Irene’s life had come a long way from being nursemaid to four baby girls in a seven year span in places like Devil’s Den without indoor plumbing and before Roosevelt electrified the mountains (although the lines only recently made it to Devil’s Den; no doubt pavement will follow.) And now she had the infant son whom she would raise to be a Christian Gentleman in a civilized world with four live-in babysitters competing for the privilege.
She had nice, solid, store bought furniture and milk was delivered cold to her door. In a niche apparently built into the house for that purpose sat a telephone with no dial, no buttons. When you were big enough to reach it you could put the receiver to your little ear and a lady would say, “Number please.” I remember when the delivery truck came and two men bought the big Zenith in, changing our lives forever, bringing “Mickey Mouse Club” to me, “America Bandstand” to my sisters, “I Love Lucy” and “The Red Skeleton Show” to my parents, although, except for my father, we all watched it all.
She and her husband were respected people in a community whose respect she valued. My father had started at a church without a church building. Goodyear had built only one church building, which the Baptists and Methodists shared, taking turns with the preaching. When the Baptists started meeting elsewhere, my sisters were disappointed to learn that most of the congregation and most of their Sunday school friends were Methodists. Methodism was big in Cartersville. The famous Methodist evangelist, Sam Jones, lived there.
When Wallace left fourteen years later the Baptist met in their own massive, columned brick structure shaped like a traditional cathedral, a cross with the choir loft and baptistry in the apse. My mother, of course, taught Sunday School and Training Union, ran the W.M.U. When she left, the church gave her, among other things, a china cabinet full of gossamer-thin porcelain that we never used unless we had company.
My mother, who, in my lifetime at least, never worked a paying job, played a large role in the family’s change of lifestyle. She encouraged my father’s self education, kept the babies out of his lap so he could study, and, working beside him in the cornfield beanpatch, corrected his grammar. Although he never lost the mountain twang, he eschewed double negatives and knew the difference between “good” and “well.”
My sister Joyce recently told me that the mother of my mother -- you may recall Lura Harkins, the “Tennessee Hall” -- was the daughter of British citizens. Her parents had come to Ducktown because the father -- my great, great grandfather, a Mr. Pruitt -- was an engineer whose skills were needed by the Tennessee Copper Co. She, my sister, also reminded me of something I’d known but forgotten, that my mother’s father and his brothers had been born and raised in New Orleans and that my grandfather had attended medical school but not practiced. There’s no telling what his speech sounded like. It could have been Cajun patois or it may have been that inner city New Orleans dialect that sounds more like New York City than Panama City.
At any rate, the dialect my mother spoke was not of Jacks’ River, though she learned it there near a logging operation the Harkins brothers had set up. Her great aunt came from England to visit her niece there and ended up having to stay for the duration of World War I. My mother recalled Papa teaching her to pronounce things one way and her aunt another.
Joyce speculated that we -- Wallace and Irene’s kids -- don’t sound like mountain people because of our mother, but while she was telling me this I was thinking she sure didn’t sound like Dan Rather. I also know that when at seventeen I entered Emory University, I was the only student from the Appalachian poverty belt, and my classmates -- who were largely urban southerners, Yankees, Jews or some combination of those elements -- had so much fun at the expense of my hillbilly–redneck twang that within two years I had changed my pronunciation to that of the standard American newscaster.
After I left that institution I came to see my change of dialect as a birthright-for-porridge exchange, and set about reincorporating Appalachian idiom into my speech, because when you loose that sense of place in your speech, you lose not only the expression, the way of saying things, but also the ability to communicate the ideas they represent.
An example. My mother-in-law, a southerner, married a man from Idaho and spent, as did my wife, significant chunks of her life living in Washington and northern Idaho. People there made fun of the way she talked, particularly, she told me, her use of “fixing to,” as in, “I’m fixing to pick up some Cocolas.”
“Eula,” I told her, clever and insightful son-in-law that I am, “you should have told them that there are some things you can’t say if you take out ‘fixing to.’ For example, ‘I’m preparing to slap a knot on yore head,’ just doesn’t cut it.” The sense of imminent corporal correction is lost entirely. A child would laugh, justifiably, at the parent who uttered such a threat, and things could only get worse from there.

Chapter Eight, in which Irene rolls up her sleeves

Because, at six years old, like Willie Nelson my heroes had always been cowboys, I would beseech my mother to sing me cowboy songs at bedtime. Irene Millsaps, I know now but apparently didn’t then, knew no cowboy songs. The one she sang to me, I only realized after I was grown, she made up. It went, “He’s my rootin tootin cowboy/ And I guess he’s worth a nickel/ Or he may be worth a penny/ But he may not be worth any.” It had kind of a western swing tune.
She taught me standard southern mother fare -- Jesus loved me; God knew every single bad thing I did and was taking notes for future reference; I should always wear clean underwear in case I got hit by a car -- along with some misinformation, for example, that beer was brewed in big barrels that rats fell in and drowned and were left to rot. She taught me things that many mothers wouldn’t have known, such as how to build a fire in a fireplace, (you’ve got to have a “back stick” against which the fire is built) and that the bark of birch twigs tastes very good, like Beeman’s chewing gum, which is now hard to find.
Perhaps the most valuable thing my mother taught me before I was six was how to read. She did it by spending a lot of time reading to me Little Golden Books of which I had a vast collection, sounding out the letters until I figured it out. At five I wasn’t old enough to start school in Cartersville, but when we moved to Cedartown half way through the school year, the first grade teacher went to our church and she let me start the first grade after Christmas. The class was divided into three groups and Miss Green seated me at the “slow” table, but by the end of the week I was at the first table. The time my mother spent teaching me was the cause of my rapid ascent.
My mother sewed all of my shirts as well as her own dresses until I got old enough to want my clothes to look like everybody else, and then later in high school, at my request, because she could make things I saw in catalogues and on British rock stars on T.V. but couldn’t buy in Fannin County, those sixties paisley prints with oversized pointy collars. Later when I wasn’t subject to her control, it would seriously irk her that I wore bell bottom jeans with patches over the holes -- youth fashion at the time -- because she had lived through hard times when patched clothing was a mark of poverty.
She taught me the names of flowers, trees, insects and animals even though the mountain names she knew for them didn’t always coincide with what the rest of the world called them. Canna lilies were simply “cannies” and dragonflies were “snake doctors.”
My mother of course loved me and I her. Until her dying day she would have made any sacrifice that benefited me. In spite of that, from the time I was around twelve until I was almost thirty, I didn’t like my mother very much.
We’ll have more on that later, but for now I want to stick with how remarkable she was when I was very young. She once caught a large snapping turtle and put it in an old washing machine we had outside -- the kind that was essentially an open barrel with three agitators like upside-down bowls and a wringer on top which you fed the clothes through before hanging them on the line -- so I could see it when I got home from school. She said “they” said if one bit you it wouldn’t let go until it thundered.
It was along about the time of the snapping turtle -- I was probably nine or ten --that my friend and I were wishing aloud one Saturday that we had a “clubhouse.” My mother, overhearing this, came out of the house shortly wearing overalls, inquiring how big we thought our house should be. She drew out plans on the floor of the carport, then got a handsaw and started working with the scrap lumber left over from building the pastorium. My friend, Johnny Champion, was agog.
By the next weekend we had an eight by twelve clubhouse with a porch, a window, a sloped tin roof and a ladder on the back by which you could get on the roof.
Having a clubhouse, I started a club, the Destroyers, and appointed myself its leader. We had a club song of my composition which, as you will see, was influenced by the network news’ reporting of current events. It was sung to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” except for the last line which was sung exactly as you would think. “We are the Destroyers/ Marching on to war/ Crushing the Black Muslims/ Because they are so dumb/ Cha Cha Cha.”
We did a little three-step hip shake to that last part.

Chapter 7, In which Wallace sees the other South

It is highly unlikely that my father ever saw a black person before he was grown. There certainly were none living on Jack’s River and it’s improbable that any visited there.
In fact, Wallace could have lived a considerable chunk of his adulthood before he ever saw a black person in the flesh, unless he encountered them during a brief stint working at the Alcoa Aluminum plant in Alcoa, Tennessee as a young man. I offer this conjecture partly because I went to high school in Fannin County and I don’t recall seeing a black person there until my senior year in 1969 when a Negro -- that would have been the term then politically correct -- came with a Chattanooga area high school to play basketball in our gym.
(The West Fannin boys would have won. We rarely lost in our gym and regularly advanced to the state AA tournament, going down only when we got far enough to meet Newton County.)
After my friends and I were old enough to drive -- legally, we drove the mountain backroads from the time we were big enough to see over the steering wheel -- I learned that two or three black families actually lived in Fannin County, lived in their own ghetto cul-de-sac in Blue Ridge. I remember going there only once, when my friend Rick Goss, whose father owned an office supply store in Blue Ridge and who told me about these underground citizens, took me there to quiet my skepticism that the place existed. We drove down a small street which went to the western edge of town where the pavement ended and the road dropped abruptly into a dell containing three shanty houses which were uncommon for Fannin County only because they were in town and close together. I later learned that the few children there were bussed to a “colored” school in Gilmer County. The adults worked at The Supper Club, a beer joint in Gilmer County.
Because I never heard anyone else mention the existence of this community, I suspect that most Fannin Countians only learned of it in 1971 when they were integrated into the school system. I know that the good folks at Blue Ridge First Baptist, perhaps as compensation for this oversight, recruited them as church members.
When Wallace and his family moved to Bartow County in the late 1940’s, they entered a different world. Although his church was in the Atco Mill Village, the house provided for the preacher was about a mile away in the Carterville city limits, a break for my sisters because it put them in the city’s excellent school system. This house in which I lived when I was born sat at the foot of Summer Hill. A hundred and fifty feet away, up over the crest of a steep hill, a large community of black people lived. There was absolutely no overlap of black and white family housing; past the street at the top of the hill no white people lived, no blacks below. As a preschooler, I recall black children regularly walking by our house and turning up the sidewalk of a busy street to Mr. Padgett’s store. I know that’s where they went because, as remarkable as it seems now, I also was allowed to make that same walk, unsupervised, to buy candy and cokes.
Since I was under six years old, I don’t know how my father established contacts in the Summer Hill community, but I do know that he sometimes visited and spoke at their church services. Atco Baptist, of course, tendered no reciprocal invitation to the black minister.
From 1959 to late 1965 we lived in Holly Springs, Georgia. To my knowledge, no black people lived there, and I would have known because I roamed its streets freely. Quite a few black people lived in the county seat of Canton, but I didn’t know it at the time because for me they were invisible, segregated from the schools, forbidden to shop in the same stores as white people.
The black people I saw as a child were on television, a few entertainers and baseball players, but more provocatively, on the news I watched nightly with my parents, courageous black southern ministers preaching freedom and equality to crowds of southern blacks, these same crowds marching into fire hoses, attack dogs, and billy clubs wielded by white southerners, photographs of civil rights workers slain. In spite of the parallel parade of white southern leaders blaming this turmoil on “outside agitators” meddling in sovereign state’s rights and my mother singing in the amen choir, I was horrified by the violent assault on non-violence and drawn to the sonorous intoning of freedom and equality which invoked the same biblical imagery on which I had been bred.

I usually paid attention to my father’s sermons. He was often funny, usually entertaining and, moreover, he was liable at any time to up and a tell a story with me in it. At a Sunday morning service in 1965 he told the congregation that if he were a colored person, he would look upon the Rev. Martin Luther King as a great leader of his people. To a young person of today, my father’s remark sounds like tepid textbook orthodoxy, but I remember being proud of my father, because even as an elementary school student I was aware that most white southerners, including my mother and virtually all of their elected leaders, viewed Rev. King as a demon bent on upsetting the divine order of things.

It was not long after that my father was summoned to pastor another church, a large country church in Fannin County where he had always intended to return eventually. It wasn’t until much later, too late to ask him, that it occurred to me that these two events were likely causally connected, and that he was probably gittin’ while the gittin’ was good.

Monday, April 26, 2010


It’s time to take a short break from the madcap antics of Wallace, Irene, Ulus, O.B., E.D. and their mountain mayhem, an “intermission,” if you will, in which you can get up, stretch your legs, get some popcorn, check your phone messages. For those of you who choose to stick around, I’m going to delve into “The Readers Mailbag” and sample a few of the hundreds of fan letters that pour in daily.

Yo! Da!
Wassup with all this crap you’re writing about your family, dude? When you gonna get back to writing something crunk, man? Like going on a river trip with Mickey Mantle or making fun of the Rant and Rave dudes. The macaroni gang is getting real tired of all this mountain malarkey. We get the picture: you were born a poor young black child. Wrap it up man. Have ‘em all get run over by a truck. You know, big family reunion and one of those three piece semis just drops out of the sky and flattens ‘em all. We’ve already wasted $2.50 that we could have spent on generic cigarettes buying newspapers with nothing crunk inside. Wassup with that?
The Macaroni Gang

Dear Macaroni Gang,
I’m sorry you’re not down with the family saga. I figure I’ve got three or four more chapters before I return to dissecting the burning issues of the day. Meanwhile I’m storing up a backlog of ideas. I’m going to talk about winning a short story contest and just what sort of lawyer fiction it takes to impress the young editors of The Georgia Bar Journal, about my experience managing “The Cool S.W.A.P.,” the best rock and roll band you’re likely to ever hear up close (And yes, the letters do stand for something, but trust me, it’s not worth the time it will take you to figure it out. I know I wasted about 14 seconds on it), about a song I’ve written and performed publicly twice now which carries a money back guarantee that you will be offended, and, of course, my usual random observations and anecdotes. For example, I’m riding with T.J. and John T. to talk to a club owner about booking the band. When I realize my mouth tastes a little sour, the following dialogue ensues.
“T.J., you got any breath mints, gum, candy or something?”
“Maybe. Look in the glove compartment.”
“Nah. Nothing in here but traffic tickets and whatever’s in this little box.”
“That’s just condoms.”
“Are they flavored?”
Anyway, persevere young readers; Da shall return.

Dear Ellus,
Honest to God now Ellus, whur do ye get them crazy idears?
Your cousin,
P.S. I’ve planted me some beans in my marijuanie patch, some half-runners and cornfield beans for camouflage, and them beans are climbing up the marijaunie just as purty as you please. Do you thank them beans will gitche high?

Dear Terry,
In answer to your first insightful query, I’d have to say it’s an affliction, like shingles or something, that I try to cope with as best I can. Writing them down seems to help sometimes.
Your second question is easier. No, I don’t think the beans will alter your disposition one way or the other, unless you just really like beans. I think you’d have to graft the bean vines into the marijuana stalks to get that effect, and if you were going to that much trouble, I recommend a less labor-intensive crop than beans, kudzu maybe.
Also, I don’t want to meddle in your business, but I think you might want to rethink this dopefield camouflage scheme. Granted, it’s a lot better than the time you decided to decorate all the plants like Christmas trees. I mean people who grow Christmas trees for a living don’t decorate them, and if they did, they wouldn’t do it in July, and I really think all those lights just attracted the Sheriff’s attention. If we hadn’t gone to high school with George, you might have seen your liberty curtailed.
Seriously, they’ve got helicopters and marijuana sensing cameras or something. I’m under the impression most domestic marijuana is grown indoors now. You might want to invest in a bigger trailer and some books.

Dear Mr. Millsaps:
We have made repeated attempts to collect this debt. How do you sleep at night? You are in possession of seven of our CD’s. In order to get the other five free ones you have to pay for just one, “The AC/DC Christmas Album,” and the six Modest Mouse C.D.’s and five others of your choosing are yours to keep with no further obligation.
Please, be a man Mr. Millsaps. Send us the regular club price of $19.99 for the AC/DC blasphemy, along with $247.43 shipping and handling, and we’ll send you the five volume “Sonny and Cher Anthology” you keep whining about. Otherwise this matter will be referred to our legal department.
Sylvia Sams
B.M.G. Music

Dear Ms. Sams:
I keep telling you people, No Habla Ingles!
Elliso Meelaspas

Chapter Six, Involving Grand Theft Auto and Roast Suckling Pig

Whenever I try to open my office door by pointing my car’s remote switch and pushing the button, which is occasionally, it never works, and I sometimes think of my father and know I came by this condition -- which some would call absent-mindedness but which from my side is a focused introspection that leaves a certain level of my brain working on autopilot -- honestly, as they say.
Whenever I realize I’ve driven off without paying for my gas again, I think of my father. If it’s at the Pony Express they say, “That’s just Mr. Millsaps; he’ll be back.”
Although I don’t remember doing it, I evidently drove off without paying for my gas in Conyers some years back, because a Conyers Police detective called me about it. After he described my car and most of my tag number, I said I had frequented that station, and though I didn’t recall the specific instance, it sounded like something I would do. The detective, who had by then determined I was not of African-American descent, said that something was wrong with his information because the attendant (he did not say, “In an obvious instance of prejudice clouding perception”) had described the thief as a black person.
My father never drove off without paying for his gas only because he died before the proliferation of self service pumps, but he did steal a car once. We lived at the time in Cherokee County and he was running a revival in Fannin County. A local car dealer had loaned him a demo to drive that week so that my mother could keep the family Dodge. In the early 1960’s, people in the country routinely left their keys in their unlocked cars. After a stop at Edsel Garrison’s Store, he walked out in a reverie of jokes and tales swapped, got in a car of the same make as his demo, and was miles down the road before he realized that none of the items in the car belonged to him.
He was notorious for setting the woods on fire. It wasn’t that he was inspired by Hank Williams’ lyrics, he just didn’t pay a lot of attention to details. He twice ignited parts of the same wooded tract belonging to a Mr. Barrett of Holly Springs, who owned a great deal of southern Cherokee County and who is no doubt the Barrett after whom the Barrett Parkway off I-575 is named. Thankfully, Mr. Barrett, although a Methodist, was on good terms with Preacher Millsaps and was more amused than upset at the charring of a few acres of scrub pine.
This came about because there was then no garbage pickup in Holly Springs, and smog was something which existed only in Los Angeles to provide punch lines for Johnny Carson. Everybody burned their trash in a pile or maybe in an oil drum in the back yard. The first time it happened, we lived in a white duplex while the pastorium was under construction (And it was a pastorium not a “parsonage” as The News substituted last week. My mother said Methodists have parsonages and she could get pretty het up about the distinction.) We were sitting at the dinner table having, as always, cornbread, string beans and black “sawmill” coffee, along with whatever was ripe in the garden and whatever farm denizen my father and I had last butchered, when we were interrupted by a knock on the door. My father answered it and the woman who lived in the other half of the duplex respectfully inquired, “Preacher Millsaps, did you mean to set the woods afar?”
The second occasion was a Christmas Eve after we’d moved into the new brick pastorium (they were always brick) on the other side of Mr. Barrett’s pine thicket. We had spent the morning building a pen for a pig my father had purchased (presumably not in a poke) to fatten on the table-scraps which it was intended to one day become. Our pen was evidently porous because we spent all day chasing the shoat. People would call from the other side of town to report things like, “Preacher Millsaps, I seen your pig over here rooting in Grandma’s flower bed,” and off my father, my sister and I would go to chase it. We chased it all day, eventually joined by enough neighborhood children and concerned citizens to corner and capture it, returning it to the newly reinforced pen.
The pen held, and the pig was unable to escape when that evening Wallace’s trash fire consumed the pig, the pen, and another stand of Mr. Barrett’s pulpwood.

Chapter Four, In Which I am Born

I think my oldest sister was married before I was born, to my brother-in-law Jack who fought in Korea. All of my sisters married sons of Atco Mill workers, except for my youngest sister Wylene, the little social climber, who went off to college and married a Porterdale boy.
Not only did I defy family tradition by being born in a hospital -- and not just any hospital, but the hospital in Rome, Georgia, the little hospital in Cartersville being thought not good enough for such an important undertaking -- but I further broke rank by coming out, to everyone’s delight, a male child. Legend has it that when I was old enough for the task, my sisters took me, over my father’s protest that it was a waste of money, to Olin Mills to be photographed, and that when they brought the package home to see which ones they could persuade him to buy, he maintained that this was the prettiest baby he’d ever seen, bought the whole package and ordered more. He called me “Churchill,” a name in the news at the time, because of my fat cheeks and double chins.
And I hear you saying, “Why don’t you show us one of these pictures, Cutie Pie?” and I detect a little sarcasm there, but I’ve chosen to include here another, more telling photograph of my infant self. I first saw this photograph when it appeared in my senior class yearbook, it having resided for the intervening seventeen years with the woman who took it, a Union County lady, who at the time of the picture was a Southern Baptist Missionary staying in our house -- people were all the time staying at my father’s house for indefinite periods, kind of like the way other people’s kids stay at my house now -- waiting to go to Africa, I think.
The foot in the photograph is an appendage of my father, of course. In the background teenaged girls are squealing “Daddy! Don’t let that baby suck your toes,” at the same time laughing, knowing full well Wallace will do as he pleases, while Mary Jo Gray just happens to be there with a camera, no doubt plotting a practical joke whose punch line won’t fall for almost two decades.
I don’t remember Ms. Gray taking this photograph; it’s lost in a blur of many photo ops presented to the young male scion. In my earliest concrete memory, I’m three or four and my nephew, David, is correspondingly two or three. I remember this incident not because of the psychic impression it imprinted at the time, but because the story was repeated with such regularity I was never allowed to forget it.
It is springtime and David and I are standing in the freshly plowed vegetable garden behind my house, our parents and my 14-year-old sister Wylene at the other end of the row, all of us in search of earthworms for fishing. My eighteen month superiority in age made me much better at locating worms than David, but I was afraid to touch them, while David would probably have eaten one had I suggested it. They looked a lot like snakes and we were, after all, standing in the only kind of garden I’d ever seen -- and as a matter of fact it did have an apple tree -- where, I well knew from a steady diet of biblical indoctrination, Satan was want to take the form of a serpent to try to trick me into doing something I and all of my progeny would regret. The earliest dream I can recall is of wandering in a beautiful garden when I am confronted by Satan, and when I say Satan I’m not talking about some glib Mephistopheles in evening attire, I mean the naked red devil, replete with horns, tail and pitchfork. I am very afraid and yell for my sister Wylene who then appears, banishing Satan, who is as afraid of her as I of him.
Anyway, I got around this worm touching problem by saying, “Here’s one David! You get it. I can’t see it,” logic David didn’t question, but which the other worm seekers thought was hysterical, and, as I mentioned, never let me forget it.
My wife, in her less charitable moments, maintains that this little episode is a metaphor for my life in general, that I always want somebody else to do the dirty work, and in my less argumentative moments -- which she will assure you are rare --I have to concede the accuracy of this perception. I am prone to offer ideas and suggestions for which I am, depending on one’s viewpoint, either too lazy or simply disinclined to do the dirty work of working out the details needed to actually implement the idea. The fact that my wife, a Virgo, is splendid at working out details and practical problem solving, for some reason does not incline her to the see the symbiotic beauty of such a collaboration.

Wallace and Irene bear young

Last week's digression into a Cliff Notes summary of population migration in the American South aside, faithful readers, both of you, may recall that I'm supposed to be in “Chapter Three, In Which Wallace and Irene Bear Young.”
I find I know surprisingly little about my four sisters growing up in the 1930s and 40s. I wasn't there and I now realize I just haven't heard much about it.
I know that Joyce was the bossy one because she was the oldest, and that Wylene, the youngest, was the baby of the family, which wouldn't be of note except that she still retains that title in her 60s, having solidified her claim to it in the 11 years before I was born.
I know that they sang as a quartet in church. Even after they were grown, I recall being at mountain meetings where a choir director would spot them and say “I see the Millsaps' girls out there, we'd sure appreciate it if you'uns would come up and sang us a spayshul,” and they would nail the harmony on a mountain spiritual even though they hadn't all seen each other in months, much less practiced. I recall at the age of 5 seeing Wylene sing on Atlanta television, on a local show called Stars of Tomorrow.
I also know that I had it a lot easier growing up than they, financially, of course, but also in terms of personal freedom. I know, for example, that my sister Jewel was not allowed to be the head majorette and had to settle for being a cheerleader, because majorettes marched around “half naked” at football games, and that my mother would run my sisters' suitors out of the house at 10 p.m., where they would stand on the porch and serenade her with “Good Night Irene” (“I'll see you in my dreams.”). This was partly due to their being girls, but more so because times had changed and the fact that I was spoiled rotten by my parents and four sisters who were more like doting aunts.
The one area in which things did not change that much in my parent's child rearing was discipline. My sisters say that if they misbehaved in my mother's presence, she would whip them. My father's discipline was to talk to them, and they always tried to finagle the whipping instead, because that pain soon stopped, but although my father didn't nurture grudges- there was just the one talking to and the incident was never mentioned again-- I well know the occasions when I disappointed my father still hurt to recall, and I still try to refrain from like behavior.
My mother often told me that her highest hope for me was that I become “a Christian Gentleman,” which was for her the highest praise a man could achieve. She had definite ideals about what that entailed and a hair-trigger temper when violations were observed. I don't remember her ever taking a belt or paddle to me (although I got that in school), but I vividly recall occasions when she grabbed me by the shirt front and slapped my face right and left.
One such occasion was when I was 6. A kid in Sunday School class had told me a joke which began with “Knock. Knock. Who's there? Madame,” and ended with the joke teller's foot being stuck in the door. I chose to repeat this joke for the first time to my cousin Diane while we were sitting with our legs sprawled on the front porch of her house, just outside the screen door, on the other side of which our parents were conversing.
I had led such a sheltered life that I had never heard this profanity uttered before my friend told the joke and had thought on hearing it that it was safe euphemism for “darn,” which I knew I wasn't permitted to say.
My mother, it seems, had heard this word before, and before I could get out “foot stuck in the door,” the screen door slammed and I was jerked up in bewilderment with my head being knocked from side to side in staccato rhythm to “Don't – ever – let – me --”
As long-term behavior modification, it wasn't too damn effective.

Chapter Three: In which Wallace takes a bride

My Mother, nee Irene Harkins, was born January 31, 1916 in Fannin County, Georgia, but not in the Cohutta Wilderness. She went regularly to real schools. She rode in automobiles.
Her father was one of three Mississippi brothers who in the 1920's prospered in the timber brokage business. Her mother, Lura, a corpulent, sedentary woman who daily occupied a platform rocker in our house, and who in her seventies bore an uncanny resemblance to Benjamin Franklin right down to the wire rimmed glasses, even then would assure her eight-year-old grandson that her ancestors were the Tennessee Halls,presumably to differentiate them from any lowlife Georgia halls of my acquaintance.
When the stock market crashed,the Harkins brothers lost everything. My grandfather, whose death precedes my memory, went to Charles Kiker, the timber baron of Fannin County, and asked him for a job. Mr. Kiker, who forty years later would donate a large farm to my father's church, reportedly told my grandfather that there was no business anymore in which he could employ Mr. Harkins, and the best thing Mr. Harkins could do would be to move his family to some land Mr. Harkins owned on Upper Jacks River, live off the land as best they could and try to wait this thing (which was not yet called The Great Depression) out.

At any rate that is what the Harkins did, but for that first year they sent thirteen-year-old Irene to live with Mississippi relatives so she could go to school. I suppose she came back to Georgia because she missed her family or maybe it was a matter of finances, but when the school year ended so did her formal schooling at the tenth grade.
It must have been a strong dose of culture shock for my mother, a child of relative affluence, to find herself living on Upper jack's River without plumbing,automobiles or domestic help in a land where, to hear her bitterly recount it to her young son thirty years later, the women did all the work while the men went around barefoot drinking corn liquor, smoking homegrown tobacco and trading tales. Adding insult to injury was the fact that my mother, who to her dying day considered Yankees to be culturally inferior and who was certain that General Sherman and Abraham Lincoln were incarnations of Satan, was asked to live among people who voted Republican and whose forbearers had not only remained loyal to the Union, but some,like my Great-Great Grandaddy Stepp, had fought on the blue side.(There's a reason the county next to Fanin is named Union.)

The next summer she would at the age of fifteen marry Wallace Millsaps, a young man in his early twenties already respected at church for his preaching. He, like many men of his time and place, was missing part of a finger from sawmill work, but he was witty, tall and handsome, he didn't drink and he wore shoes.

Next Week: Chapter Four, in which Wallace and Irene bear young

Chapter Two: Wallace Gets the Call

Shown in the photo are my Father with his hand raised,my sister Joyce about to be baptised, my cousin Madelyn holding the hand of a person I cant identify, & my sister Clara on the shore. This Picture was taken around 1940.

Once when he was eighteen he lay on his belly in the night. It was 1927. I can see him there in the forest on Jack's River, high in the Cohuttas. He is barefoot and his toes dig into the cool thick humus. It is summer, but the mountain breeze is cool and the air is sweet – rhododendron and laurel and sweet clear water running over smooth, slippery stone.
At the edge of the clearing is the Lower Jack's River Meeting House. He is transfixed by the white painted cubicle, the only painted building for miles, and he listens to the Celtic gospel singing. It is revival and the one room building is packed. Children sit in the open windows and men mill about outside smoking, drinking homemake liquor.
No one sees my father as he lies on the soft mossy earth. The church sits on a prize piece of flat land but Wallace lies in the woods, on the hillside above, his feet higher than his head, his arms folded under his chin.

“I will arise and go to Jesus;
He will embrace me in his arms.
In the arms of my dear savior,
Oh, there are ten thousands charms.”

Another verse begins but he does not arise. A still small voice whispers, “Wallace, answer the call,” but he does not go, and after everyone so inclined gets a turn to testify or pray aloud, (though he hears his mother beseeching the Lord to save her son Wallace, a sinner,) the service ends and he joins his mother walking home. Wallace is “under conviction,” and he is scared to answer the call and scared not to.
He did not arise, he often told people later, because he knew that answering the call did not mean, for him, merely entering his name in the Lamb's Book of Life and going back to the farm. His days of roaming barefoot through the hills, herding sheep by day, drinking corn liquor and whittling by night would be over. For he knew that, if he went to the mourner's bench and prayed with his mama, he would have to preach, and that scared him. He did not want to preach because he would have to tell the truth. It would be hard, he was uneducated and people would laugh at him.
But of course we know Preacher Millsaps answered the call. Whether people laughed at him, I don't know. He began as an ignorant, ranting, hellfire-and-brimstone mountain preacher – the only kind he'd ever seen – and went on the educate himself, reading the Bible, of course, but also John Bunyan, the Jewish historian Josephus and daily newspapers. He was particularly fond of the legendary Atlanta Constitution Editor, Ralph McGill.
He soon aligned himself with the Southern Baptist Convention, a relatively progressive group at the time compared to the independent mountain churches. He attended Mercer University Extension classes and obtained some kind of degree of which he was very proud. He became friends with many of its leaders. I am named after a Dr. Ellis Fuller, one of those leaders, and by the time I came along, his sermons relied more on humor and intelligent discourse than volume. In the 1960's, I remember the Governor of Georgia eating at our house and speaking at our church.
Preacher Millsaps baptized over a thousand individuals. I have heard it said that he was one of the first mountain preachers to make a living from preaching alone – most worked at a regular job and preached on Sundays – pastoring five and six “part-time” churches at a time during the Great Depression, supporting a wife and what come to be four daughters by the second World War.
But he always farmed. I grew up watching him behead chickens and pluck them – and they do run around like a chicken with its head cut off – helping butcher hogs of which we usually keep one fattening behind the house, walking behind him as he and someone's mule laid out rows in what was always a vast vegetable garden of mostly corn and beans.

Next week – Chapter Three: The Preacher Takes a Bride