Treasure Hunt

You can view life in a lot of different ways.

Over the course of mine, I’ve imagined it variously as a puzzle to be solved, a race to be run, and a competition to be won.  Sometimes when the weight of the world presses down, life can seem like a sentence to be served.  But, as is the case with most things, there’s the counterpoint.  On occasional rare and care-free times, life can also seem like a party to be enjoyed.  Jerry Seinfeld called that “Even Steven,” I believe.

Lately, my paradigm of life has been this: “Life is a treasure hunt.”

Perhaps, it’s because I’m getting older – I’ve got four grandsons these days – but I’m finding more and more pleasure in uncovering some bit of knowledge or lost artifact that links the tangible goings-on of today with fading memories of yesterdays from long ago.  It’s darn-near time travel if you ask me.

My mother pulled out a small, brown cannister the other day and handed it to me.

“You might want that,” she said.  “That was Mama Gardner’s snuff tin.”

Immediately, my mind went back to sometime in the mid-1970’s when my grandfather Mort Gardner and I would eat lunch with his mother, Lois Gardner, at her home on East Main just east of where I now live.  We’d break from our day of pumping gas and fixing truck flats at his Sinclair Service Station on the southeast corner of Water Street and Highway 45 and enjoy home-cooked vegetables and cornbread mid-day with “Mama Gardner” and my Papa’s siblings.  They all spoke of my great-grandmother’s snuff-dipping in hushed tones, somewhat masking their mischievous glee at telling a secret and the nervous embarrassment that their own mama still unrepentantly dipped snuff … whenever she wanted.  I immediately remembered that.

“Your Mimi poked those holes in the bottom,” my mother said.  “Mimi” was Delia May Gardner, my grandmother.  I flipped the tin over and sure enough there were holes pierced inward through the bottom of the snuff tin.

“She used it to cut out biscuits,” my mother added.

I’ll need a separate story someday to discuss my grandmother’s cooking.  It was 90% of her existence for the duration of time that I knew her, about four decades.  It was the way she showed her family that she loved them.  And she loved them a lot.

“I’ve cut out biscuits with it, too, but mostly I just kept as a keepsake, because it was Mimi’s,” my mother said and slid the tin over to me.

“You should take it.  Now you know what it is.”

Lately, I’ve been digging around in the historical collections of Simon Spight and Claude Gentry, which we house in the Tom’s Drug Store building on Main Street in preparation for future presentation.  And in that effort, friends of mine and I have uncovered and rediscovered snuff tin after snuff tin – well, no tins literally, not yet.  But I wouldn’t bet that more of those little metal cylinders themselves won’t ultimately be unearthed from the mountainous walls of papers, pictures, pots and presently unidentifiable items we’ve been crawling through.

From the Simon Spight Historic Collection We’ve found some western books and posters that we’ve have put on display at Six Shooter Studios just down the street – some from Gentry, some from Spight.  We’ve pulled out Simon’s scale model of Baldwyn’s downtown, circa 1935, and we are going to restore it very soon.  It’s an impressive four-foot by eight-foot model, handcrafted and painted by Spight himself.  It needs to be seen.

We even found an old 1943 Baldwyn football schedule. My friend Simon had written on it “For Clark.”  I smiled at that discovery, and I heard him speak the written words, in his unforgettable deep voice, in my mind.

So much stuff.  I’ll tell you more about it in future weeks.

I left Mama Gardner’s snuff tin with my mother.  Yes, I know what it is now, but I also know my time with that little treasure can come later.  It’s got a good home for now.

Yep, life is a treasure hunt these days.  Life is good.


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Music & Optimism

It looks like winter is just about over on Main Street.

And with the birds chirping in the morning, and the people pulling out their short pants, and the flowers and ideas daily stretching from bud to bloom, a substantial layer of optimism has taken its annual place alongside the pollen of the spring air in our little Mississippi town.

Things are happening.

The 4th Annual County Line Music Festival is approaching at a rapid pace.  Our #2 local festival (after October’s Okeelala) will complete its solar cycle on April 21st and sprawl across downtown from The Claude Gentry Theatre to the Azalea Court Main Stage.

There will be a first-time music video film festival going on at the theater starting at 2 pm.  We already have entries from Mississippi filmmakers in Jackson, West Point, Clarksdale and Clinton, expecting plenty more.  Couched around those original works will be three or four classic movies about music – think Elvis, the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles – showing at 10 am, 12 pm and 4 pm.

An independent film called “The Gift” will also play during the day.  This critically-acclaimed short was shot on location in Tupelo in 2015 by Scottish filmmakers Gabriel Robertson and Ken Petrie (and co-stars local actress Amye Gousset).  You can take a guess as to what musical figure it might be based on.  Tupelo … know anyone from there?

Even our own Six Shooter Studios will get into the act as we release Marietta-native Chance Stanley’s debut video “Crosstie Town” to close-out the theater day.

Down on the Azalea Court Main Stage, the festivities will start bright and early at 9 am.  Baldwyn High School’s marching band will open the day with the national anthem, followed immediately by a stage full of talented and unique musical talents from across Mississippi. Ronnie Caldwell & JoJo Jefferies, The Sean Austin Band, Rust Bucket Roadies, TomFoolery, The Paul Tate Trio, Chance Stanley & The Michael Brothers, Of Warriors & Poets, Mark “Muleman” Massey & grammy-winner Billy Earheart, AND the 1st Baptist Church children’s choir will all entertain, from 9 to 5-ish.

Baldwyn’s Eric Nanney of the band Twenty Mile will host the Main Stage, and when he’s not doing that he’ll run down the street and help Paden Bell at County Line Music with their annual Singer-Songwriter competition, another huge part of the day’s events.

And the coupe de grace, for me at least, will be the All-Day Karaoke Contest at Tom’s Drug Store.  Yes, that Tom’s Drug Store.  The one with the big neon sign.  Bimbo Griffin, Stuart Cockrell, and I have been working on restoring that historic icon for, I think, 80 years now.  And finally – good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise – I’m actually going to let the public come inside.  The answer to whether or not patrons will truly have an option of drinking a milkshake or buying a hamburger made there that fateful day remains somewhat murky.  We’ll see.  But I know we can sell you a Coke, and you can sing your heart out with Scott Bratton and his karaoke machine, and you can look around at some of the neat things on display, graciously passed down to us by local historians Simon Spight and Claude Gentry.

Mixed in with all of this are a bunch of new businesses from one end of Main Street to the other that weren’t there last year.  Nothing but good in that.

So … spring has sprung, I guess.

I asked Eric Nanney if I could get in his singer-songwriter contest – I play guitar and fiddle around with music myself – and he said “sure.”  He said, “Just brush up a couple of the songs you’ve written and come on down.  We’ll have you a spot.”

I actually hadn’t written anything yet – I just figured I could do that sometime before April  21.  Maybe on the walk over.  Maybe I don’t have too good of a chance of winning, but I’m optimistic.

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Men At Work

When I turned in last Saturday night, I didn’t move for seven hours or so, not a twitch.  The positions of my head, my hands and my feet – when my eyes finally, grudgingly, greeted the morning sun early Sunday – were exactly the same as they had been when my consciousness had closed on the previous week the night before.

I contend that sleep that comes as the result of collapsing from total exhaustion is the best kind.  I don’t experience that kind of sleep very often.  And acknowledging such a fact here carries with it a twinge of shame for me, maybe more than a twinge.

I’ve been blessed throughout the greater part of my adult life to have been able to work mostly with my head.  Some might say, pejoratively, that I work more with my mouth than with my head, but that’s splitting hairs.  The fact is – unless the AC is on the fritz – shuffling through papers, making drawings, signing checks, writing stories, talking on the phone, calculating stuff, dreaming, scheming, and telling other people what to do while sitting in a chair do not make a person sweat.  But hard work, real work, often does.

IMG_8552I spent the day at Marietta Wood Supply on Friday.  A crew of talented people and I were filming a music video out there.  Thirty or so other guys – from the ages of my sons through and beyond my own age (that’s 53) – were out in the elements with us, steadily milling green lumber from massive logs brought in on truck after truck.  The day for the sawmill crew started in the crisp cold of seven o’clock in the morning and finished in the heat of the day about three.  The men, mostly of East Prentiss County stock, variously drove lifts and pickers, operated the conveyors and saws, bundled and sorted the finished boards, and stacked lumber with their hands, all day.

Our crew of eight, including director of photography J.B. Lawrence from Clinton and musical talent Chance Stanley, a Marietta native, worked at the sawmill most of the day on Friday.  I was on my feet directing our part of the whole circus –  achieving that elusive balance of keeping everyone happy, sufficiently accomplishing the task at hand, and, most importantly, giving those around me the distinct impression that I knew what I was doing, whether I did or not (ok, so maybe I do work with my mouth as much as my head) – from 5 am until 8 pm.  And then I did that again at a different location on Saturday.  And then I collapsed in sleep and didn’t move for seven hours.

Now this morning, I’m writing, not sweating.  But I know there are some good men at Craig Pharr’s sawmill in east Prentiss County that are driving lifts and pickers, operating conveyors and saws, bundling and sorting finished boards, and stacking lumber with their hands, all day.  They’re working – hard work, real work – producing lumber, so I could build a garden shed or a work bench if I wanted to, so talented people of a completely different type can make fine and beautiful furniture, and so that all their own families are provided for.

They’ll probably sweat.

Chance Stanley’s song, the one we produced the music video for, is called “Crosstie Town.”  It’s about the routine of hard work at a small-town sawmill.  The men at Marietta Wood Supply were the inspiration for it.  I can see why.

I hope they sleep good every night.

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Life Is Fragile

I didn’t know Tim Burke.  Not really.

Tim showed up at the Dixie Theater in Ripley two Sundays ago to audition for a theatrical production I’m directing over there this spring called “The Peacemakers: A Western.”  He filled the doorway that led into the 200-seat auditorium with a mountainous, six-foot-two, 260-pound frame, and before Tim had ever said a word, I said to myself, “well, we’ve got us one cowboy for sure.”

He was the first guy at the theater that Sunday.  He beat me there by ten minutes and sat waiting for our 2 pm start time.  I knew Tim’s “stat line” of height and weight because he included both those pieces of information inside the 3-page resume of his theatrical experience, which he handed me, tucked neatly behind his audition sign-up form.  I didn’t know Tim Burke, but it sure looked like I was about to.

Dixie Theater.jpgWe asked Tim to read three parts two Sundays ago – Gates, a tough Texas sheriff; Porter, his loyal deputy; and McKee, the town boss. He did well on all three, and we exchanged phone numbers.  I told him I’d be in touch.  Two days later I messaged Tim and told him he had a role for sure, but we hadn’t quite settled on which one.  I asked him if he’d come back the following Sunday and read a fourth character – the villain Van Belanger.  He was more than willing.  We started a texting conversation, and Tim suggested that I could learn more about his capabilities in theater if I would read the resume he had given me.  I already had.

Tim was born in 1958, and he had started his involvement in theater when he was about 30.  He had acted, directed, and crewed everywhere from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Memphis, Tennessee.  He had a couple film credits to boot.

One thing I learned in a hurry was that Tim was a talker, and his favorite topic, at least where I was concerned, was theater.  Over the next week we exchanged more than 90 messages.  Tim helped find a couple actors to come read for roles we hadn’t filled.  He told me about his experiences in acting and directing.  He told me he was moving to Belden.  He wanted to make sure that he didn’t have any F-bombs or GD’s to say in any of the roles for which he was being considered.  He mentioned his church.  He mentioned that he and his wife were thinking of taking a little trip as a Valentine’s treat to each other.  He mentioned his friends who might be interested in helping with our show.  He told me he’d picked up the ability to duplicate many accents because of all his time in the military.  He told me more than that, over 90 messages worth.

Tim came that next Sunday and read for the villain.  It’s the role any tough-guy actor would want – a black-hearted hired gun with ice-water in his veins with scene after scene ripe to be stolen.  But when it was all said and done a day later, we cast Tim as the loyal deputy Porter, the more demanding and vital role, and Tim, the seasoned actor who had nailed that character above all others in audition, gracefully accepted, his enthusiasm intact.  He took a script home and read it three times.  I know that, because he texted me and told me he had.  Maybe I was beginning to know a little bit about Tim Burke.

Tim sent me a message at 12:24 pm on Tuesday, February 20.  He told me he was, more or less, a method actor, and he had a couple questions for me.  Involved in something else at the time – something which now for the life of me I can’t bring to mind – I didn’t immediately text back.

Around 5 pm on Tuesday, February 20, while checking a trailer behind his vehicle along the side of the road near Cotton Plant, Mississippi, Tim Burke was struck when two vehicles on Highway 15 and County Road 81 wrecked and crashed.  Tim died at the scene.

His friend Rick Robbins commented, “Tim Burke was a good man, a friend of mine and a theater lover like me, and he’ll be sorely missed by his family and all who knew him.”

I didn’t know Tim Burke – not really – but I think I would have liked to.


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Plantar Faciitis

I may not get this story perfectly correct, but I contend that even a gist of this tale is sufficient to warrant publication.  The reader can be the judge.

I have a good friend – at least I had a good friend up through the writing of this column – who can best be described as a “worrier.”  He’s as true and faithful a friend as a man could ever want, but he is without question the kind of guy whose total sick days from work will always rival his vacation days on an annual basis.  I think he would admit that.  He’s an engineer by trade, like me.  For the sake of this fictionalization, let’s call him Stuart.

There was a day in the recent past when Stuart came to work in pain.  It was foot pain.  And apparently it was excruciating.  He sat at his cubicle desk on this stressful morning, and he pondered his affliction.  His co-workers and I passed by and couldn’t help but notice his agonizing condition.

IMG_7179.PNG“What’s the matter, Stu?” I asked.

“I’m hurting, man.  I’ve got something wrong with this foot.”

He wheeled in his chair to face his glowing computer screen, and he Googled.  I went for coffee.

Another friend and co-worker came by a while later, and he too addressed Stuart’s obviously painful situation.

“What’s wrong with your foot?”

“I don’t know yet.”

All the while Stuart’s left-hand fingers raced across his keyboard, in ambidextrous harmony with a right-hand steadily clicking away at a mouse in Morse-code speed.

Screen after screen whirred past in a blur.  WebMB, the Mayo Clinic, the Center for Disease Control, The Psychic Network – all were consulted. Until finally, eureka!  An answer, the answer, flashed on the screen.

“Plantar Faciitis.  I’ve got plantar faciitis,” Stuart told the two of us, his countenance sinking.

Having just returned to the medical waiting area outside Stuart’s cube, I heard the diagnosis first-hand, as it came in.  The other friend and I asked in unison, “What’s that?”

A deep sigh, and Stuart began the lengthy explanation of his condition.  Plantar faciitis, it was revealed to us in somber tones, is an inflammation of the thick band of tissue that connects the heel to the toe on the bottom of a person’s foot.

“The Mayo Clinic says it’s ‘a stabbing pain in the bottom of your foot near the heel,’” Stuart lamented.

“And ’the pain is usually the worst with the first few steps after awakening.’ That’s what I’ve got, man.”

“Listen to this, ‘although it can ALSO be triggered by long periods of standing or rising from sitting.’ That’s it.” Stuart slumped in his chair.

We looked over his shoulder at the information on the screen.  There was a whole section on complications and treatments.  A long silence ensued, broken only by the sounds of labored and mournful breathing from our friend in need.

Stuart slipped off his shoe to try and achieve some relief.  He stopped and stared.

“Oh,” he said.

And we looked down, too, into the shoe that Stuart now held at knee-height, at the cause of it all … a bright shiny nail, through the sole, at the heel.

“Well, I’ll be – Hand me those pliers, would you?“

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Finding Hope

Hope can be found as easily as lost.

My mother, now in her seventies, lost her mother some fifteen years ago to lung cancer.  They were best friends at the time.  Already an adult with children myself, I vividly remember the months of pain and suffering, my grandmother’s and my mother’s.  It was perhaps the bleakest time in our family’s history, at least in my lifetime.

I don’t know if it’s only a Southern thing that our parents transform into our best friends as we age, but it’s a fact that seems crystal clear to me now.  That’s my observation anyway.

A few weeks after my grandmother’s death, on Christmas Eve, my mother was feeling especially low.  She felt hopeless, she told me.  So, she asked God if He would please give her a sign that her mother was all right out there in the beyond.  Anything would do.

And she waited.

My mother’s never been known for patience.  I think she allowed God maybe five to ten minutes to complete His Divine response.

As no handwriting was immediately displayed on the kitchen wall – I imagine her looking around the house for some shining ghostly form, or bracing herself for the sudden lightning bolt that was surely forthcoming, or listening for the voice of James Earl Jones as it took over her television set and spoke to her in soothing tones from the heavenly plane – she gave up.

She gave up and decided to go out into her carport and grab a Coke from a fridge she kept there.

As she approached the aging, extra refrigerator, across a concrete floor slick with condensation, she saw her sign – an angel.  Truly, an angel.

Christmas Angel

At the base of the refrigerator, directly in front of the door, was an inch-high, wooden, shabby little angel, with stringy hair and inexact painting.  It was a Christmas ornament, but it wasn’t just any Christmas ornament.  It was an ornament that hung every year on my grandmother’s tree.  And it had somehow flown on wooden wings the eighth of a mile from my grandmother’s house and found its place on a slick carport floor directly in the path of my mother, when she needed it most.  There was no reason on God’s green earth for that angel to have been in that spot at that time except as the answer to my mother’s plea to the Almighty.

My mother now hangs the shabby little angel on her Christmas tree every year, and it speaks a message much louder and much clearer than the voice of James Earl Jones ever could have.  My grandmother is all right, out there, somewhere with her maker.  She’s all right.  We all are.  An unlikely wooden angel, out of place, with stringy hair and inexact paint, said so.

Hope can be found as easily as lost.

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Father’s Day

Sam Richey

My father lost his father in a car accident when dad was 10 years old. He ran and hid under a bed in my grandmother’s house when he heard the news. He stayed there crying, wouldn’t come out.

Something like that put a child to work in those days, on a family farm, in a way that our kids today and even my own generation might describe as cruel. My dad had to work very, very hard. There were no choices.

Only a few years later, he lost his only brother, to a freak lightning accident at their home near Frankstown. Life wasn’t very kind to my grandmother, my dad and his sister, but my Granny’s faith was strong. What a survivor she was. My dad, however, for the most part, flailed around in life back then. A little basketball at Northeast Junior College, service in the army in Cold War Germany, even worked for the Mississippi highway department for a short while. Finally, he got a degree from Mississippi State University, pretty much to avoid working for the highway department. He got it, nonetheless.

My dad never intended to be a basketball coach. He got a teaching job at Jumpertown HS in 1967, with my mother, and was assigned assistant basketball coach. In 1968 he was head coach, in ’69 state runner up, and in 1971 he and his Jumpertown Cardinals won his first state championship. He had found his calling. He fell backwards into it. 41 years of bouncing balls later, before his stroke, he stacked up over 900 wins and 6 championships, and other honors, like cord wood (a phrase the source meaning of which he can tell you the from first hand experience).

He can look back and say he was one of the best ever.

I say he was the best.

Whatever gets ingrained in a person who suffers the losses my dad did early in life, I don’t know. I thank God that I don’t. But whatever he got that made him at first a survivor and later a ferocious achiever and competitor, he passed on the best parts of all that to me. I thank God for that too.

My dad not so much taught, but instilled in me, imbedded in me, many things, the first of which was “be the best.” Not “be the best you can be,” but be the best — period. Just being the “best you can be” leaves too much wiggle room. You are either the best, or you are not.

I would sometimes make 10 or 12 tackles in a high school football game, and when I got home he would point out the 2 series I was not going full speed, how he had seen it, how it was clear to him. I ran 6 miles in training one summer afternoon, and I came in and reported what I had done. He asked, “Did you time it?” Obviously, I wasn’t pushing hard enough if I did not time it.   He made me so mad. He was so right.

I still think of how dad was once a man so obsessed with winning. He filled 10,000 notebooks with basketball diagrams – offenses, inbound plays, press defenses – every morning over breakfast for my entire lifetime. He finally reached the point that losing was the most painful thing, and no joy of winning could compensate for it. I’ve seen him win the state championship and immediately – not the next day or week – but immediately start working on the next season at the hotel with the gold ball sitting right there on the table in his room.

It’s clear to me now that dad was how he was because he wasn’t going to let life keep him a scared 10 year-old boy, under a bed, crying forever. He wasn’t going to let life beat him. Or anything or anyone else, if it was in his power to prevent it. That’s why he’s still alive – 8 years after a stroke that would have killed most men. And damned if he’s not still improving. He’s the toughest man I’ve ever known.

Most of my compassion probably comes from my mother, and her influence tempers the obsessive things I do. But my drive, my fight, my stubborn persistence to achieve, and to not quit even under crushing adversity – that comes from Sam Richey. I am so proud that he’s my father.

I love you, Dad.

Happy Father’s Day.

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