Simon Sez

As the opening of a newly-renovated Tom’s Drug Store & Soda Shop on Baldwyn’s Main Street rapidly approaches, an extensive effort is being made to identify, sort and evaluate the voluminous historic collection of the late Simon “Buddy” Spight.

Simon passed away over six years ago – June 2, 2012 – but the ultimate legacy of the man, who loved Baldwyn, Mississippi, with true passion, may just now be reaching its infancy.  In the back rooms of a few buildings on Main Street there exist ten thousand pieces of paper, pictures, paintings, models, and artifacts of all kinds, collected over a lifetime by Simon Spight.

I have myself already laid hands on framed commissions of famous Confederate officers, a 1903 Blue Mountain College class picture, mugshots from the Lee County Sheriff’s office from the early 1970’s, scaled drawings of Baldwyn streets with the homes marked with resident names at different times in the past century, a 1925 official map of Baldwyn from the Library of Congress, original poems in both hard copy and on cassette tape with Simon’s bass voice reading his works, pencil sketches of our town’s historic buildings as they once existed, and pictures of literally thousands of Baldwyn residents, taken throughout the entire duration of the town’s existence, 1861 to now.  The finds are incredible already … and we have barely skimmed through a quarter, maybe, of the materials the man graciously left this town.

Frankly, I can write from today until the day I die and never do sufficient justice to the tales that are contained in the archives of Simon “Buddy” Spight.  Nonetheless, I’ll try to periodically deliver some of the most notable re-discoveries to you in this column every few weeks.

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Along with providing inspiration for stories of Baldwyn’s historic past, many of the documents and photographs will also make their way to public display in Tom’s Drug Store, which will serve a dual purpose as the Baldwyn History Museum.  One such document that has been re-discovered in Simon’s collection is – I believe –the original layout of the town of Baldwyn.  The map would have been drawn in the late 1850’s or perhaps as late as early 1860.  It’s hand-inked on sepia paper and shows the city blocks of “Baldwyn.”  Simon or someone prior to him mounted the map on a backing board with glue – I do wish that hadn’t been done – but the faded and crinkled lines clearly show the dividing boundary between old Tishomingo and Itawamba Counties slashing at a slight diagonal through the Main Street of Baldwyn, just as the county line does today.

A reference to “Carrollville,” the original community that shifted a mile and a half over to Baldwyn when the Mobile & Ohio Railroad reached this spot in December of 1860, is shown about where the depot once stood.  The other words in the overall phrase written on the map aren’t clear.  I’m working on deciphering that.  I’ll report back if the rest of the notation becomes clear and means something interesting.

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(Just so you know, Marshall J.D. Baldwyn was the Mobile, Alabama, native who proposed the M & O Railroad.  He envisioned a connection between his south Alabama hometown and the Ohio River, suggesting that that connection would make Mobile a commercial competitor with New Orleans.  Baldwyn believed that providing an alternate route for finished goods to reach the gulf coast, other than the Mississippi River, would divert enough shipping to help his Mobile thrive.  Baldwyn himself ceremoniously drove a railroad spike into the track in our Baldwyn in 1860, and this town, sitting at approximately the halfway point of the full length of the railway, took the visionary prospector’s name as its own.)

I would propose that the map was drawn by Charles Wesley Williams, the first surveyor of old Tishomingo County and a founder of Booneville.  In a way, he was a founder of Baldwyn, too.  The records show that it was Williams, along with his close associates and relatives, who bought and sold the original plots of land outlined on the map.  Those friends and relatives included Col. Richard Clayton, Carrollville’s postmaster from 1840 to 1853, and Porter Walker, the sheriff of old Tishomingo County (which is modern day Alcorn, Tishomingo and Prentiss Counties combined).  Charles Wesley Williams is one of my direct-line ancestors, and though he may have been something of an opportunist, as an engineer, I’m significantly proud of the fact that I’m standing on a block in Baldwyn that he created on paper in 1860.  And today, I’m making drawings of things that I hope to create in 2020 and beyond.  That’s the kind of cyclical, generational, uber-coincidence that helps me know that there’s meaning under the surface of all this life-stuff.

I think Simon Spight saw that, too.

So … all this is derived from just one piece of paper, re-discovered in Simon’s collection … and we still have 9,999 to go.

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Movies On Main at The Claude Gentry

The Claude Gentry Theatre, located in the heart of Baldwyn’s historic district at 110 West Main Street, is hosting a series of family-friendly movies this summer beginning Saturday night, June 2, at 6:30 pm. The movies are sponsored by Six Shooter Studios, an emerging film and entertainment company also located on Baldwyn’s Main Street, and by Farmers and Merchants Bank, the theater’s season sponsor.

Disney Pixar’s The Incredibles will play first, this coming Saturday, and admission is free to all — thanks to the sponsors.  Children 12 and under must be accompanied by an adult, and limited concessions of popcorn and bottled water will be available,according to organizers.

This current movie series — entitled “Saturday Summer Spectacular” — is the 2nd collaboration between Six Shooter Studios and Baldwyn’s community theater.  The two businesses previously worked together on the County Line Music Video Competition in April.

Six Shooters announced its reasoning for the joint endeavor last week.

“We thought this would be a great way to do something positive for the kids in the community.  It’s a nice fit as a project for us to be a part of.  And with summer being a down time for community theater activity, The Claude Gentry Theatre was available. Obviously, it’s a perfect spot to host a summer set of movies.”

The series of films to be shown are all Disney Pixar classics.  Following the June screening of The Incredibles (which is nicely set for the week prior to Disney’s national release of The Incredibles 2) comes Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Frozen in July, August and September, respectively.

According to Six Shooter Studios, they wanted to show movies that were high quality and would interest both kids and adults, with appeal for both boys and girls.

“We think we’ve picked four good ones for this summer, and we hope that this will be something families can really enjoy together.”

The films were licensed for public viewing through Swank Motion Pictures Inc.

Baldwyn’s Main Street has a long history of movie-going, with silent films being shown in the same spot The Claude Gentry Theatre now holds. The Princess Theater, The Opera House, The Lyric, The Baldwyn Theater and The Ritz Theater have all existed and have entertained Baldwyn with Hollywood’s big screen offerings since the very start of the industry at the turn of the twentieth century. Now with Saturday Summer Spectacular at The Claude Gentry — and thanks to Six Shooter Studios and Farmers and Merchants Bank — kids of all ages in Baldwyn and the surrounding communities will get a new chance to enjoy an old pleasure, a night out at the movies.

Six Shooters Studios said they wanted to close out the series with the Disney mega-hit Frozen in September so that they could end this initial film series with a “sing-along.”

Sounds like fun.

Smiling kids singing along to Disney songs on a quaint, historic Main Street in the heart of America — that sounds like a movie.

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America the Beautiful

I’ve driven across twelve of our fifty states during the past two weeks, covering between three and four thousand miles.  Frankly, I lost track of the mileage number where my odometer started, but I do know that hard-driving miles were logged in Georgia, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Tennessee, Florida, Missouri, Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico and Mississippi — unique and interesting places, every last one.

D1B4995E-4712-4B06-BAB9-3FB0F194C805Wheeling along in my Dodge Charger — a vehicle made for such an excursion, by the way — I’ve had countless hours to ponder the mysteries of the universe.  I offer a few observations.

It’s a free country. That’s not just some tag-on phrase to use to emphasize a preceding statement. A man, if he is of a mind to and has the gas money, can go from Bangor, Maine, to San Diego, California, and stop along the way to look at every concrete dinosaur and every college football stadium he might ever want to see. That’s freedom.

588D58AB-DED8-46E3-82AA-1232AC256216Kansas is a sea of grass, a vast ocean. One afternoon near Salina, I wondered if my outlook on life would be the same if I’d grown up out here at this portal to Oz, looking at 360-degrees of endless, grassy horizon day after day instead of the dark, engulfing woods of North Mississippi. Would I be more fearful and cautious if I were raised where the distance to the nearest help from any accident was so great?  Or would I be more conscientious and prepared having always been able to see approaching storms or animals for miles before they reached me, with time to strategize?  It’s hard to say.

People can adapt to almost any environment. Without doubt, that can be said.

North of about Dyersburg, Tennessee, people stop being like me/us. Whether that’s good or bad is a matter of personal perspective.

B04AF927-83F8-4E50-9542-85410A2B90F1I think people in South Georgia are closest in kind to those in Northeast Mississippi. They’re hospitable and friendly in ways we recognize as hospitable and friendly. The late southern humorist Lewis Grizzard, a favorite of mine, was from there — born in Fort Benning, moved to Atlanta. That figures. I see life a lot like he wrote it.

When I was in Texas, I remembered — from mountains of past genealogical research —  that many Mississippians and other southerners flooded to the Lonestar State following the Civil War, escaping reconstruction.  In fact, a host of famous western gunmen came straight out of the South.   Natural selection left Mississippi with the stubborn crowd, I’d say, while the more adventurous (or the more proud or the more wanted or the more violent) “got the heck out of Dodge.”  Well, actually they got into Dodge, the real one in Kansas.  And they made that little cattle town a rough and tumble place for a spell, along with Abilene and Amarillo and Tombstone.

There’s still a tough, hard brand of human being, of common ancestry, scattered across those western states.   But while we may share the same great-great granddaddy, the western folk seem a bit more edgy to me. I guess that’s a feeling that could fall into the category of “paranoia derived from unfamiliar surroundings,” but I’m not entirely certain of that.  I am certain that I felt a little skittish at more than a couple of gas stations along the way over the last couple weeks.

FC3AC8BB-CDC4-4DFB-B769-CA8E5542A00BI thought about a favorite movie of mine — Lonesome Dove — as I traversed between Ogallah, Kansas, and Limon, Colorado.  I considered what true pioneers the people that inspired Larry McMurtry’s characters must have been. On my trip — by air-conditioned car on paved interstate highways — I worried a bit when my gas gauge got down to around 75 miles to “E.”  The stretches between signs of civilization were very long across those open plains. Yet amazingly, amazing Americans did drive cattle across there, two thousand miles on foot and horseback, from Texas to Montana. And they did it without a cell phone or internet access. Not some fictional character, but real life men — men of vision.  I’m envious of those pioneers … and I sincerely admire them at the same time.

The last part of my two-week expedition involved me and my youngest son Maddux helping my second-oldest Gabe return home from Fort Carson, Colorado.  Gabe served four years in the U.S. Army and received his honorable discharge.  I’m very proud of him, proud that he served his country.

Long drives offer time to think, time to consider where we are and what we are, as individuals and as a nation.

A final observation:  America’s a fine country, full of awe and wonder.

Go out and see it sometime.

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Yes, You’re On

“Is this on?”

He/she tapped on the mic and looked quizzically over the crowd/congregation/audience/student assembly.

“Is this on?”  It’s a universal question delivered by almost every public speaker or singer who’s ever gotten up and addressed a microphone.  I’ve noticed it, time and again – along with a vast array of other quirky and insecure human behaviors.  I love to watch people. And to listen to them.

Tap – tap – blow.  “Do y’all hear me all right?”

Please, for the love of heaven, just start talking/singing/speaking in tongues and let the sound guys work it out.

I’m sure I’ve done it, too.  I know I have. I’ve tapped on mics, shuffled papers, shuffled my feet, stared at my feet, stared at the words of a song on a piece of paper, said “uh,” “um,” and cleared my throat ad infinitum … a million times.  I try not to. I try to be smooth.

But frankly, we human beings just aren’t naturally smooth.  In fact, I am certain that I’ve told a story, the same one, to the same guy dozens of times. In my defense, however, if there’s a story that particularly connects me to someone, and I have limited other encounters with said person, the tale which we have in common between us just hovers between my frontal lobe and the back of my eyes, flashing like a neon sign, until I am compelled to tell it again — out loud.   Sure, he knows he’s heard it before.  I know I’ve told it before. That’s just the way it is. We smile and pat each other on the back nonetheless, as though we have spontaneously originated some new thought. We chuckle. We smile. It’s the same old repeated dance — we clearly know we’ve walked this path before, beyond any doubt whatsoever — but it’s our dance. And we like it, so we keep on doing it.

When we human beings go to a restaurant and someone comes in that we know — after we’ve been seated, after we’ve ordered — we might say something in this vein:  “Boy, I’m sure glad to see you.  I was needing somebody to come in who had some money so they could get mine.”

Ever heard that or a near version of it?  If not, listen closer. I hear it every single day.  It’s generally answered with “I was just thinking the same thing about you.”  And the participating parties smile and chuckle and pat each other on the back.

People are just quirky and insecure and predictable.  They seek inclusion and acceptance with small-talk rituals. People need people or at least they sure think they do. Bless their hearts.

And what else do we do?

Well, we rarely lead with what we truly mean to say.

Most things we do we do out of a sense of obligation.

We consistently drive over the speed limit … as though it’s merely a suggestion.

We’re timid when we should be bold, and we’re bold when we should be timid.

We talk about ballgames and the weather and long-lost cousins at funerals to mask our grief or to cover our lack of anything meaningful to say to the grieving.

We give to the needy to feel better about ourselves.

But we will occasionally stop what we are doing — something we might call “important” — to help a kid we don’t know put a chain back on a bicycle.

As bad as we don’t want to, we’ll go talk to a friend at a time of their trouble. When we’d rather run and hide and excuse ourselves by feigning busy-ness.

We recognize beauty in nature and in human creation, and we appreciate it.

We like kind people.

We’re not all bad. Sometimes we reach out and up.  We strive and achieve and live altruistically for brief moments, even when our animal natures would have us do the opposite.  I thank God that He gave us just a little spark of divine, a reflection, a flicker, somewhere in that whole created-in-His-image thing to help us do that. Quirky, insecure, predictable human beings that we are.

Tap – tap – blow.

Yes, we hear you fine.  Go ahead.

You’re on.

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The Gorilla Girl’s Relative Importance

“Come inside!  See her change before your very eyes!  The strange and beautiful girl becomes a terrifying ape!  Discovered in the wilds of darkest Africa, see her transform.  See the hair grow!  See the muscles swell, behind iron bars, placed there for your protection. Come!  See!  The Gorilla Girl!  If you dare.”

That’s what the carnival barker for the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show boomed, through his crackling microphone, just outside her tent.  A mystified kid of 14 and his friend stood slack-jawed on the east side of the midway.  An exchange of nervous glances and false bravado swirled in crescendo, culminating with the purchase of tickets to see this spectacle.  Our sweaty hands handed over our last crumpled dollars, and we huddled inside the square canvas enclosure with a dozen other lost souls.  How could such a shocking miracle of nature have come all the way to Tupelo, Mississippi, in September of 1978?

They are building an office building today near the spot where my friend and I stood spellbound by the Gorilla Girl forty years ago.  Four stories, they say.  The first of a matching pair planned for the ever-expanding Fairpark area of Tupelo, perfectly designed with its future mate to fit neatly into the aesthetically-pleasing architecture already in existence.  It’s a beautiful place.

At the south end of the fair’s midway, the “Himalaya,” twenty or so linked cars on a circular track, loudly blared rock music on a loop, coaxing passers-by into that high energy attraction.  Centrifugal force drove any passenger who sat to the inside of the ride outward into the passenger who sat at the edge.  It was crushing and irresistible and undoubtedly unsafe.  I remember how my arms felt straining to hold the lap bar in a futile effort not to drive the air from my friend who had mistakenly sat on the outside.  Once the ride started, it was too late.  And then it went backwards.

There’s now a statue of Elvis Presley, Tupelo’s most notable son, at the center of Fairpark.  Elvis was already a national phenomenon when he came to the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in 1956.  He was the King of Rock ‘n Roll, and his September trip to the fair that year was historic, an electric homecoming by a poor Tupelo boy who’d gone out into the world and made it big.  Those who were there on that day still remember it.  And they still talk about it.

Today, because of the perpetual love and adoration of Elvis, that one moment in September of ‘56 overwhelms all other moments in the history of the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show.  That’s an injustice, I think, to all those other years, decade after decade, that impacted impressionable Mississippians like me.  In 1978, my friend and I had not one thought of Elvis in our heads when those drum beats started inside that dark tent and a scantily-clad, long-haired girl writhed inside a cage in apparent pain.  Our hearts did beat fast though, probably even faster than the girls who squealed at The King twenty-two years earlier.

My mother took me on the “Zipper” when I was about five.  It was always set up near the south end of the fair, too, just northwest of the Himalaya.   The Tilt-A-Whirl, the Scrambler, the Octopus – they were all in that general area.  I assumed my mother was a mature adult when she put me on the Zipper, a vertical track of enclosed bench seats that went both up and down and rotated head over heels.  It’s hard to explain the motion.  It was like turning flips on a trampoline while on a Ferris wheel.  I was five.  She was twenty-five and today would be immediately arrested for child endangerment.  The thing had a “safety” restraint, which fit my mother nicely but allowed me considerable freedom of movement.  I’d say … sort of like a loose sock in a clothes dryer.  That’s about right.  She did try to catch me every cycle or so.  We never rode a Zipper again.

She changed.  The Gorilla Girl.  In dim lighting behind iron bars, a girl became an ape.  And we freaked out.  We didn’t talk tough.  We exhibited zero swagger.  When the gorilla grabbed the cage door and ripped it off its hinges, my friend I poured out of the tent back into the midway of the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show with the other dozen lost souls, like one homogeneous liquid, through every flap available, under tent walls.  We squirted out.  The drum beat had stopped, and the barker had screamed at the ape in a terrifying voice, “Get back! Get back! Get back!”  We heard it somewhere far, far behind us.

They are building a beautiful pair of office buildings in Fairpark today, near the statue of Elvis.  I’m sure they will be wonderful.  Almost as wonderful as the Zipper, almost as wonderful as the Himalaya, almost as wonderful as the Gorilla Girl.

Almost.

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Parents Should Eat Free

There is apparently no age limit when parents become unable to embarrass their children – no age limit for the child, and none for the parent.

I continue to find material for publication on this particular subject, appearing in both the role of child and parent.  This week, however, I’ve decided to give my usual target – my dear sweet mother – a break and instead focus on my ability to embarrass my own kids.  Any parent knows, it’s not really that hard to do.  Kids from 10 to 50 are precisely attuned to anything their parents might do or say that could bring even a speck of negative or questioning attention upon the child.

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Despite a few stray tales to the contrary, I consider myself a sane, mature and put-together guy.  I take pride in the fact that I’ve managed to navigate this earth, avoiding a decent percentage of disasters, to the age of 53.  My peer group, for the most part, seems to count on me as a person of some knowledge and discernment.  And then there’s my crowning achievement – four sons, mostly raised, who’ve all turned out pretty good.

Up until this past week, I had begun to think that I was over the “embarrassment” hump as a parent, and that I could now safely interact with the world around me while in the presence of any of my sons, aged 27 down to 15.  But then Maddux – the 15-year-old – and I decided to go to O’Charley’s for a steak, and I discovered that I was, indeed, still atop the hump.

We sat down on a Wednesday night and ordered our favorite O’Charley’s fare – two 7 oz., garlic butter filets.  Maddux tacked on an appetizer of chips and queso dip and expedited our waitress to deliver him some homemade rolls to the table … pronto!  He then rocked back in his booth seat, flipped out his phone and started explaining to me how much better LeBron James was than Larry Bird.  This generational assault by my progeny on one of my beloved sports heroes set me squirming in my seat, and that’s when I felt it.  Or the better description, I didn’t feel it.  My wallet.

“Maddux, we’ve got a little problem,” I said to the lad across from me, who was by now working on his second yeast roll.

“Yeah?”

And the server, hopping to please, spun our queso dip onto the table and asked if there’d be anything else.

“No thank you, not at this time,” I replied.  My voice might have cracked just a little.

As soon as she was out of earshot, I broke the news.  “I forgot my wallet.”

Before Maddux could verbalize a response from behind his now saucer-like eyes, I reached for a most improbable straw.

“How much money do you have?” I asked of my 15-year-old.

IMG_7375We both stared at each other for what seemed like a minute.  He knew the $20 or so he might scrape from behind his learner’s permit wasn’t going to cover two 7 oz., garlic-butter filets and a side of queso dip, and I knew it would take me about 45 minutes to drive home and back with funds enough to cover this now regrettable outing.

I crunched a chip from the queso basket.

“Well, don’t eat the chips!” Maddux screamed over at me.

“You don’t think they’re just gonna scoop these up and serve them to someone else, do you?!” was my flustered comeback.  Emotions were high.

I took a deep breath and said “I’ll fix it.”

I made my way from our table to the hostess stand and there explained my dilemma to two lovely young ladies who represented the face of O’Charley’s, assigned as they were to the greeting and seating of all customers.  Apparently however, they were mannequins, because upon hearing my tale of woe, they just stared at me, saying nothing at all.  Not a peep.

IMG_7970Fortunately, I was overheard by the bartender.  And thankfully, this cocktail-serving Yoda of Barnes Crossing gathered up a manager, and they together explained that I could re-order the food that we had just ordered at our table online, “to-go.”

Problem solved.  All was well!  Because of course, I had my phone, and I could accomplish this new strategy from the very booth in which we sat.  Birds chirped under a rainbow somewhere in the distance.

However, since I didn’t have my wallet, I also didn’t have a credit card.

So, Maddux had to call my mother, and after only 10 minutes of strolling room to room and rummaging through a half-dozen purses while chatting to us on various unrelated subjects, she ultimately produced a valid credit card that was indeed usuable by O’Charley’s Online.  And she saved our day, big time.

Maddux exhaled, finally.  So did I.  We would have hugged if there hadn’t been a table between us.

And thus, my heroic Mom finally gets a well-deserved break from the embarrassing tales of her exploits often spun by her sincerely grateful and loving son.  Thanks, Mom.

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Peter Walked On The Water

My preacher said on Sunday that people tend to focus on the negative. They are drawn to it, he said.

I’m surely more cynical than I used to be and something of a know-it-all anyway, but every now and then a preacher will still deliver an idea that I’m willing to take home and think about.

Our interim pastor there at the First Baptist Church — Pastor Chuck Hampton, a Shannon native —  continued his message with a rhetorical question that he believed accentuated his point. He asked us — his congregation — what was the first thing we thought of when we thought of the Apostle Peter. The rhetorical answer Pastor Chuck thought would be a “given” was that Peter denied Jesus Christ three times outside the Sanhedrin Council, before the cock crowed. And I think he was about 90% correct with his expectation. Most of us did think of just that moment.  We went straight to the negative, without passing GO, just as our preacher predicted we would.

In fact, I thought very specifically of James Farentino‘s portrayal of Peter in “Jesus of Nazareth,” the 1977 television miniseries, which was a pretty good depiction of the gospel story.  Being an impressionable 12 year old when I originally saw that classic made-for-TV extravaganza, it’s still Farentino’s image that illustrates Peter’s denial moment in my mind.

But Pastor Chuck pivoted in his message saying that Peter, despite our knee-jerk thoughts about him, was “the most courageous disciple.”  He pointed out that it was Peter who drew his sword in the Garden of Gesthemene against the Roman soldiers who were there to arrest Jesus.  Peter was clearly willing to die for Jesus.  He continued along that line for the balance of the sermon.  I think the larger message Pastor Chuck was trying to bring home was that we need to be on our guard so as not to always focus on the negative.

That’s certainly a good message to take from a church service any Sunday.  But it’s not exactly the one I left with.

Pastor Chuck got me thinking about Peter, the man. The disciple that Jesus himself nicknamed “The Rock” did fail, and he did so over and over. But he succeeded far more, and he did that over and over, too.

Peter denied Christ, without question.  But he had the opportunity to do so because he was there. Other “disciples” weren’t there.

I remembered that Peter and John ran to the tomb on that first Easter morning. That’s always stuck out to me.  A grown man. He took off and ran when he heard the women’s tale of the empty tomb — in excitement, in crazy hope, probably in dread of what he might find, too. John, in his gospel, says he beat Peter there, out-raced him.  They were real human beings, like us. Peter, in particular, was a man of action. I like that a lot.

Peter walked on the water one stormy night, before he sank. We all remember that he sank. But just think, he stepped out of the boat and did something miraculous. Peter was bold and courageous and faithful. Yep, he got scared and sank.  But Peter walked on the water. He actually did that. Just let that sink in. No pun intended.

“That’s the real deal right there,” Pastor Chuck might say.

Believe. Try. Keep going. Keep doing. Like ol’ Peter did.

That’s a message worth taking home.

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