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.