What I’ve learned about bullying


Ancestry.com had a special over this past weekend that did more than give me a perspective into my family’s distant past.

It gave me perspective on my own.

I’m no angel. And I should be the first one to be extra careful not to single others out for abuse, especially the group-type abuse that so often happens in elementary and high school.

I recall being a ‘mean girl’ along with others I hung out with, to the new kid on the block. However, that ‘new kid’ eventually proved himself, and was given admittance to our group, which was, sad to say, a church youth group.

My story was different.

I was the new kid in town in 5th grade. The teacher, whose name escapes me, assigned me a ‘buddy’ to show me where everything was. By that age, being consistently abused at home, I had learned that trusting just got you in trouble.  Not seeing how the young girl assigned to be my ‘buddy’ would take it, I went off to find the bathroom on my own that first day.

I didn’t know I had made an enemy who would make it her business to torment me through the rest of my time at not just elementary but through high school.

This girl rode on the bus with me. I saw her get off the bus at a run-down trailer park. It was clear that she was very poor. Maybe suffering the same types of abuse that were a daily event for me. However, I don’t know that. Poverty does not immediately make abuse a certainty. My family had money, property and all the stuff a 10-year-old kid might ask for. Abuse still happened.

This girl traveled with her own ‘pack.’ I could name names, but years have made that unnecessary. Her best friend was especially cruel. That girl’s maiden name is embroidered in my memory.

When I looked at yearbooks during the free Ancestry.com special,  I saw the face of the second girl in question in our junior year photos. 40-plus years later, I looked with different eyes. She didn’t look like the stereo-typical ‘mean girl.’ She was not pretty, never was popular, never really did anything of note.

I got curious. What was her life like now? Enter Facebook into this trip back into the past.

I found everyone except my fifth grade ‘buddy.’ Seeing the faces, memories surfaced. There were the girls who would gather together, and scream out my name at unexpected times, in a mocking way. There was the one who spent most of our 7th grade math class making fun of everything I did, right down to the way I yawned. There was the one who seemed to constantly have a screwed-up look on her face when she looked at me.

My former bullies, as adults, all seem to be doing well, married or in seemingly healthy relationships, prosperous, loved.

We have heard about recent suicides which occurred because the ‘class victim’ felt that was the only way to escape. During my 8th grade year, that was exactly where I was headed. Bullying wasn’t done at that time by cyber-threats, and online insults. It was done up close and in real time.

There should have been some place for me to escape. It was not at home, where the height of the sexual, psychological and neglectful abuse was happening. When I needed eyeglasses, I was told by my mother that I was faking it, and just ‘wanted to be like’ a girl whose mother was a former classmate of hers, and to whom my mother felt socially superior. I’d made the mistake of telling her the girl had gotten glasses.

When I told her that the girl in question had been named the class beauty that year, my mother said to me, “You could have done that if you wanted to, You’re always going to be a little nothing.” She was furious that the daughter of her rival beat me out for something I didn’t have the confidence to try for.

School was worse. I was in an elective choral class, on the front row. Three girls behind me made me their personal victim. When we were singing, they would viciously pinch me, making me edge up to get away from them. It got so bad one day that I had almost gotten up to where the teacher was playing the piano. She snapped at me to get back in the row, not considering that there might be a reason for me to be so close to her.

It didn’t occur to me to turn around and tell them to stop, or tell the teacher. I had yet to find my voice.

Bullying that year got to the point that I began to check out library books on suicide. There were only about four, so I kept checking the same ones out. Carried them with me at school. One day, I found a note tucked in one, using my name, and saying how much everyone disliked me.

I hid out wherever I could during breaks. Lived my life in fear. My grades were terrible. I was sending out a dozen different red flags. One person, a guidance counselor, picked up on it,  and tried to build a relationship with me.

She backed off when I didn’t gush out my story. Perhaps she didn’t understand, despite her good intentions, that a person who had been silenced from a young age, can’t readily open up, even to a kind and loving person.

After two months of daily torture in my choral class, I finally asked to be transferred to another elective class. That class was a bit better. I had one girl who frequently threatened to beat me up. However, there were no more pinches.

The girls from my former class, after telling everyone that they ‘ran me out of choral class,’ pretty much saved their actions for gym class, making fun of the way I walked and my body shape.

In the midst of my ruminations about suicide, I met my first true friend–Jesus Christ–at an altar call at a non-denominational Protestant church. That experience not only saved my soul, but saved my life.

Bullying didn’t stop when I reached adulthood. It happened at workplaces (more than one), in a college class, in a few church congregations.  However, now in my mid-fifties, it doesn’t happen now, or hasn’t in a while.

Maybe because I’m different. I don’t suffer bullies in silence now. I don’t use suicidal behavior as a coping mechanism anymore. I might take a bit of nonsense from some adult who still thinks they are a ‘mean girl’ back in high school.  But now, after praying, and thinking it out, I take action.

If it is a workplace situation, and I can’t resolve it on my own, I talk to my supervisor. If that doesn’t work, I am fortunate enough to have a grievance procedure that I am not afraid to use.

Perhaps it is the way I carry myself now. I’m very strong inside, where it counts. Where bullying once did major devastation. As I get stronger, I notice such behavior from others hardly ever occurs.

I have jokingly said that it might be my ‘Don’t screw with me” look that pretty much lives on my face, wherever I happen to be. I think a lot of it is also protection from God, who I continue to get to know better, as I live longer and continue to gain perspective.

Perhaps, it is that relationship with God that made me respond the way that I did after that trip via Ancestry.com and Facebook to my past.

There was a time when I would have rather been tortured than to forgive. Finally, I realized, that to refuse to forgive was to bully myself. That little girl, adolescent, adult worker/parishioner (within me) deserved better.

This weekend, during rosary, the faces and memories of most of my former bullies came to mind. In learning to forgive, I have sometimes had to make it strictly obedience, saying, “Lord, I don’t want to forgive them. I don’t, but I will do it because You ask me to, and because You have forgiven me.”

This weekend, it wasn’t like that at all.

It was better.

Some of those memories still smarted as I prayed. Some resentment bubbled as I pondered the ‘good lives’ that Facebook showed of my former bullies.

Then, I remembered that Facebook is not real life. What we put on our pages is often what we wish was true, or what we want others to believe, not the actual lives we live. If my former bullies still have the hearts that led them to torment me and others, no amount of prosperity, pro-offered love or years married can make up for it.

I recalled a moment in a recent confession. Father Danny said to me, in a voice full of conviction, regarding a person who had repeatedly mistreated me, “You need to pray that God has mercy on them.”

Later, during prayer, I could almost hear him saying it.

Mercy.

Not what those who have been hurtful in my life offered me.  Not what I might have wanted to have offered in years past. But what was right to give. Mercy, even as I have been given mercy. Grace, even as I have been given grace.

So, with a full heart, I prayed for mercy on the souls of my former bullies. Wherever they are, whatever they are doing, I hope that their memories of their actions have shaped them into better individuals. If not, then again, may God have mercy.

Much mercy. Even has God has had mercy on me.

Amen.

 

Advertisements

The Gold Rush is on in Contentment


Now, most of the folks in Contentment knew what the Good Book said about greed.

Whether or not, that message took, was another story.

When Rudolpho Valentino Huffman (aka “Rat”) had been a resident of Contentment for a few years, he proved the unfortunate truth of this warning.

You see, Rat had a little time on his hands. He’d self-retired, pretty much because he could count his money all day and never get done. But, once he got to Contentment with his five children and his wife, Bessie-Ann, the poor fella was bored.

Back in his old stomping grounds, Rat had friends he’d known since childhood, folks who didn’t  mind his larger-than-life, occasionally over-bearing way. They just called him a character and let him be.

In Alabama, it was another story. Even though he and Clevus were very much alike in personalities, Clevus did it with charm and a Southern accent, and so Rat’s efforts to make friends in his new home fell resoundingly flat.

He messed up hunting and fishing trips by talking too loudly and too much, so menfolk didn’t ask him along after a while.

He didn’t like Brother Holland’s church and said (in the good pastor’s hearing) “Why, he acts like a jack-ass!” not understanding that most everyone in Contentment, by that time, thought the same of him.

Fire and brimstone preaching just made the Rat get to itching, so after a time, Bessie-Ann took their five children to church and left Rat at home trying to get something he could watch on one of the three channels you could pick up on television.

Eventually, Rat took to wandering.

Not because something was going wrong upstairs, but because he was bored out of his mind. He needed a challenge, and he needed one right THEN.

That’s where Johnny Paul Vernon came in.

Out of all the men in Contentment, Johnny Paul was the closest thing that Rat could have called a friend. At least Johnny Paul didn’t suddenly remember a pressing errand in the other direction when they met up in town. Johnny Paul, in his often inebriated, cheerful way, even introduced Rat to the Howling at the Moon club.

There were so many shenanigans going on there, that Rat’s comments about how New York table dancers were better built and prettier went largely unheard. Johnny Paul would keep Rat supplied with liquor, and learned that the more he drank, the quieter he got. However, he didn’t share this bit of new-found wisdom with his family, which might have made life with Rat easier to bear.

He did however, take pity on the man, and when Johnny Paul was too drunk to fish or to work, he’d often join the Rat on his aimless strolls about town. Sometimes, Rat would invite Johnny-Paul to ride in his sapphire blue Buick, which Rat claimed was most classy vehicle that money could buy.

One day, such a ride took them to Aunt Ginny’s back yard, and a whole new adventure that the folks of Contentment were never to forget.

Aunt Ginny’s home, over the years, had become the “go-to” place for both children and adults all over Mulberry County. There was always something good cooking or baking, which you could usually smell for miles. Aunt Ginny had invested, years before, in a few window air-conditioners, and so her home was cool when it was hot outside (most of the time) and when it was cold, she had a huge fireplace that local folks made sure had plenty of firewood.

Aunt Ginny had few rules for adults. Most of her rules were for children, or for adults who acted like children. She didn’t much like Rat, seeing that two of her beloved nieces had married ‘out’ of the South, but she tried to keep her mumblings about the fact down to a minimum when Rat was around.

Anyone who behaved themselves was welcome to sit down at her breakfast, lunch or supper table, and help themselves. So, that day, Rat and Johnny Paul came in, and ate a full meal of turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, assorted greens and veggies, and about half a dozen of Aunt Ginny’s delicious biscuits each.

They were starting in on the coconut cake when Eulalie, Julie Ann’s daughter, Clevus’s oldest boy Chester (called “Spud”), and Mickey, one of the rat’s oldest twin boys came roaring into the dining room.

Aunt Ginny was about to give them ‘the look’ to warn them that hooping and hollering had no place in her house, but then she saw they were seriously excited about something.

She wondered if they had found a rattler in the woodpile or saw a skunk nearby. She wouldn’t put it past her Northern nephew (as much as she loved him) to try to grab a skunk to show how tough he was. But no, she didn’t smell what would have been the resulting aroma from such an attempt, so it couldn’t be that.

The kids, breathing hard, managed to get out their news. They had found GOLD.

Now, the Rat, getting sleepy from Aunt Ginny’s resplendent feast, woke right up when this word was said. This was long before the days of personal computers and the internet, and long-distance phone calls were too darn expensive, so his wheeling and dealing days at the stock exchange in New York City couldn’t easily happen.

But here was a chance to be part of something new and exciting.  With his wisdom and his timing, he could make Contentment the new Sutter’s Mill of this century!

All this rushed through his mind as he swallowed his last bite of coconut cake with some sweet tea. He was on his feet with such a urgency, that the chair fell back on the floor. Aunt Ginny, not sure what to do, gave him the ‘look’ that was very effective on most folks who were acting the fool.

All to no avail.

As usual for him, Rat took charge. “Okay, kids, tell us where you found this gold.” The kids told them, why, it was right out in Aunt Ginny’s back yard. Loads of it. In huge piles.

As soon as that was said, grabbing Johnny Paul by the arm, Rat started pulling him out the door. “What are we doing, man?” Johnny Paul protested. Rat started up his Buick and impatiently insisted that Johnny Paul get in and stop asking questions.

On the short drive downtown, Rat finally revealed his plan. “I know you folks down here don’t know your history unless it was about that stupid war, or something, but I know mine. You see, when the gold rush happened out in California, the first fella who heard about it, a shopkeeper, made most of the money because he bought up all the mining supplies. We know the word’s gonna get out, so we need to buy every thing you can use to dig and scoop up the gold, and then we can SELL it to everyone else at our own prices. We’ll make a fortune!”

Now, Johnny Paul was just drunk enough to think this was a really good idea. And buying the supplies was going to be on Rat’s dime, not his, so he was all for it.

“All you have to do,” Rat instructed him, “is keep your Mouth SHUT til we buy up everything and put a back order on enough stuff that it will take months for the hardware store to get it. This is the middle of no-where after all.”

Rat didn’t realize it, but instructing his drunken brother-in-law to keep quiet was his fatal flaw.

While Rat was loading up the Buick with shovels, pails and anything else he thought could be used for mining, Johnny Paul was excitedly telling everyone about the ‘gold strike’ up at Aunt Ginny’s place. Despite the hullaboo he’d raised a few months before thinking the Loch Ness Monster was in the county lake, he still had minimal credibility, and folks listened.

And so, the fever was ON.

What Rat hadn’t counted on, was this was a Saturday, and most of the men were home from work. He also didn’t consider that said men had plenty of shovels and pails of their own. So, by the time they got back to Aunt Ginny’s there was a yard full of wanna-be ‘forty-niners’ all ready to make a haul in gold.

Rat got a little crazy, and started telling folks to get off the property. Aunt Ginny came out on the porch, and whistled in a way that she did when she’d had enough nonsense, and wanted everyone to settle down and shut up. It worked.

“Now, before you men go off to make your fortune,” Aunt Ginny said, “Hadn’t you ought to ask the younguns to show you where this treasure is?”

Rat looked at Johnny Paul and Johnny Paul looked back at him. They hadn’t thought about that. And they hadn’t thought about actually looking at the treasure, what with their haste to become mega-millionaires.

Rat rounded up his boy,  Mickey, and demanded to know the source of their find.

“Well, most of it is under that tree right there.” Mickey said, earnestly.

“Which tree?” Aunt Ginny asked

“That one right over there near the blackberry bushes, Aunt Ginny.” “Spud,” Clevus’ boy, said.

Aunt Ginny threw her hand over her mouth, and tried to control herself, but she couldn’t. She laughed until tears poured down her cheeks. The men, silent, staring at her, wondered what was going on. Finally she regained control of herself.

“Spud, Baby, tell your Aunt Ginny something. Is there an old empty cage near that tree?”

“Yes, Aunt Ginny! You can’t see it from here, but if you go around the tree…that’s where the gold is! Piles and piles of it!”

Murmuring rose up from the assembled men. A few of them started heading back towards their vehicles in disgust.

“What you got boy, is old rabbit turds.” Aunt Ginny said. “They may look golden, but that’s just because they have sat there in the sun since we sold the last rabbit.”

Rat, who had to be convinced, ran to the old rabbit cage, and verified Aunt Ginny’s words. He turned around, enraged and embarrassed. And his son, Mickey, headed for the hills with his father close after him, threatening dire things for his rear end when he caught the boy.

It took a while to live this one down, especially since it became Clevus’ favorite story to tell about his brother-in-law. Clevus rubbed injury into near fatal wounds, greeting Rat every time he saw him with “Found any gold around here lately, Partner?”

Ultimately, it all died down as much as it could. Rat was a bit wiser. As Bessie Ann insisted, he couldn’t fault a seven-year-old boy who’d never been around rabbits for making the mistake he made. And his cousins, well, they were the excitable type, and they probably just went along with it for the fun and drama.

It became an oft-repeated life lesson in many homes, that of ‘look before you lose your mind.”

And for many years to come, in addition to his much-hated nickname, Rat was forced to be known, in town legend, as the last living 49’er.

 

 

The ‘Rat’ escapes the trap


As much as Bessie-Ann wanted to move her four children (and the one on the way) home, she had one concern.

That being her sister, Georgia Grace.

After all, Georgia Grace and her impossible to deny charm, all 500 pounds of it, had had a devastating effect on Bessie-Ann’s first two marriages.

As it turned out, Bessie-Ann need not have worried.

Her husband, now forever known as “the Rat,” and Georgia Grace hated each other on sight.

As much as the Rat swore he loved women with ‘a little bit of meat on their bones’ he didn’t mind telling everybody that Georgia Grace had gone overboard.

Down South, folks might nicely refer to an overweight gal as ‘healthy.’ This likely had roots to their long-distant ancestors who considered excess weight as evidence of prosperity. If you could afford to be that size, you apparently had access to food and everything else you needed.

Over the centuries, however, this viewpoint had gotten lost in the translation. This was the early seventies, and gals like “Twiggy” where considered the ultimate in what was beautiful. And, Rat, unfortunately, had no problem pointing this out.

Now, folks, Rat wasn’t mean. He just had no filter. And where he was from, this was a survival skill, not a flaw. He called things as he saw it, and sometimes the way he saw it caused him more trouble than good.

The first time he saw Georgia Grace, she was walking alongside Hank at the Hoggly-Woggly grocery store. Hank, obedient husband that he was, was pushing an over-flowing cart of groceries and listening, enraptured, as Georgia Grace talked about something she planned to cook for him. Folks had gotten used to the couple’s differences, what with Hank never getting higher than 150 on the scale, even as well as Georgia Grace fed him.

Still, it was a total shock to Rat when Hank and Bessie Ann came around the corner, and ran into them. Bessie Ann had not seen her sister yet, and was reasonably worried about Georgia Grace’s charisma and what effect it might have on her third husband.

Rat saw Georgia Grace and hooted. This was not an admiring hoot. This was one of utter shock and disbelief.

“Would you take a look at that! The circus must be in town!” He said, in a none-too soft voice. In fact, Eleanor Grace, checking groceries at the front of the store, heard the comment loud and clear and told her customers to wait while she went and checked out the source. The customers, brimming with curiosity, didn’t mind to wait. In fact, they followed her, also wanting to find out.

Georgia Grace was never one to take a perceived insult without a parry of her own. When she heard Rat’s comment, she looked him up and down, in his lavender leisure suit complimented by a green and red tie, and said, without a smile, “And it looks like the lead clown is right here.”

Rat, puzzled at her quick jab in return, was uncharacteristically quiet for about 15 seconds. Then, Bessie-Ann elbowed him, and said, in a voice meant for damage control, “Ah, Rudi, this is my baby sister, Georgia Grace.”

Any chance for peace went out the window, when the filter-less Rat said the first thing that crossed his mind. “There ain’t nothing baby about that!”

At this point, Georgia Grace took a step forward with a look that Hank recognized and had learned to avoid at all costs.

Bessie-Ann, also alarmed, moved between the two of them, in a protective fashion. “Now, Rudi, you just hush and go find me seven nice-sized potatoes for tonight’s mashed potatoes–the ones you like so much. Now, go, shoo!”

“How can I go when she’s blocking the….” Rat protested.

“Go…the…other…way” Bessie-Ann snarled sweetly.

Rat understood his wife’s snarl, and quickly complied. But not before he did the ultimate damage to any relationship he might ever have with his sister-in-law.

“Lord have mercy,” He was heard to say, “I don’t see how that man gets his loving without getting swallowed up. Would be like making love in quicksand!”

Bessie-Ann, hearing that last comment, as did everyone else listening (and there was quite a crowd by now, as someone had run out and told folks passing on the street what was going on inside the store) reached out affectionate arms to her offended sister, and said, “Honey-bug, come here! You’re the only family I ain’t seen yet!”

When Georgia Grace hesitated, Bessie-Ann impulsively hugged her anyway. “You can’t mind him, Georgia Grace, He’s from up North. They will say just about anything.”

Georgia Grace frowned. “Well, Julie-Anne’s married to one of them, and he ain’t like that.”

Bessie-Ann realized that damage control was going to be somewhat difficult. “Aw, Girl, he’s learned.”

Georgia Grace was calming down at this point, and Hank, who had made an excuse to go look at the iceberg lettuce down the way, was gradually edging his way back.

Georgia Grace nodded her head, and gave Bessie Ann a hearty hug of her own. “Least ways you won’t end up in divorce court over this one.” She said.

And as it turned out, she was absolutely right. Rat and his sister-in-law hated each other for the rest of their lives.

And Bessie, now 100 percent secure in her marriage, was grateful. She’d finally made the right marital choice.

Her ‘Rat’ had escaped her sister’s trap.

 

There’s a rat loose in Contentment


Nearly ten years of eating the cooking of his Southern wife, Bessie-Ann, had a profound effect on Rudolfo Huffman. He’d always been solid, with bulging muscles, and could work off all the pizza and beer he cared to imbibe. But married life calmed him down.

Mostly because Bessie-Ann insisted on it. Once she started having babies, she expected her man to be home at dinner time. And soon the table was getting far too small for him. Rudolfo was starting to get a little…..well, fat.

Bessie-Ann loved her husband no matter how big he got, and continued to cook him vast portions of fried chicken, catfish, pork loins, and cheesy, creamy casseroles that would have stopped a Weight Watcher’s convention in its tracks. The more she fed him, the more he ate, and Bessie-Ann ate along with him.

Soon, gone was her girlish figure and a round, young Mrs. Santa Claus figure took its place. Still, she was beautiful, with a personality that dazzled her besotted husband. Her wish was his command.

Well, mostly.

About the time Bessie-Ann had her second set of twins, she got tired of cold winters. Rudolfo had made enough money to set them up for life, and Bessie-Ann didn’t see why they couldn’t move back down South. She missed her Aunt Ginny, who wasn’t getting any younger. She even missed Georgia Grace, and wondered what kind of home her little sister was trying to unconsciously wreck now.

Bessie-Ann even missed her 14 nieces and nephews begot by brother Clevus and his wife, Eleanor Grace. She had seen her two sets of twins taking on ‘mean’ New York manners before they even got out of their Pampers. She knew the only thing for them was to take her children down South where they could be taught the verities of decent culture.

It took her six long months of cajoling, pouting, withholding love, and durn near about wearing Rudolfo out once with one of her cast-iron fry pans before Rudolfo, agreed grudgingly to pack a huge Allied Van Lines truck with everything they owned, and get them started back on Bessie-Ann’s triumphal return home.

Now, I’ve said that when it came to Bessie-Ann, Rudolfo’s manners were without blemish. However, crossing the Mason-Dixon line did something to his will to be pleasant to most everyone else. By the time they passed the “Welcome to Alabama” sign, all bets were off. You could almost hear far away cannons being loaded up and primed in Southern self-defense.

Bessie-Ann forgot to tell her beloved many things about how to adapt in Southern culture. Mostly because she thought he was perfect, just as he was.

One, was how to dress. Rudolfo favored loud checks, plaids, and stripes–often in the same outfit. Bessie-Ann thought he carried it off admirably, but the deeper South they went, the more his outfits just seemed to hurt people’s eyes.

But even, then, his sins could have been forgiven, if not for his loud, Northern mouth and his way of giving hearty back-slaps knocking Southern gentlemen near about across the Mulberry River.

Clevus was the one who gave him his nickname, but Bessie-Ann indirectly helped.

Clevus was expecting them the day they arrived, so he was standing out in front of the bank he was now president of, about to wander over to the courthouse where he was newly elected mayor. He saw the Allied Van Line truck roaring up the road, with his brother-in-law behind the wheel, and heard screaming of children from the truck that gave his liver a turn.

These weren’t his wild-Indian nephews and nieces were they? Didn’t Bessie-Ann know how to keep them quiet on a road-trip?

Turned out, something had happened to Bessie-Ann during her ten years up North, as well. Having two sets of twins and a baby on the way had made her sort of what folks would call purposely deaf. So, to get her attention, her seven-year-olds would just scream louder until she turned around and would say  to the loudest of them, something like, “What nest of fire-ants got up your britches, boy?”

Since the seven-year-old boys had yet to know what fire ants were, and the damage that said ants could do if they in fact DID get up your britches, the boys would stand, their usually syrupy or cookie smeared mouths gaping open until she told them that they were gonna catch flies if they didn’t shut ’em.

Then, she’d walk away to do whatever she needed to do, and they’d start all over again. Then the 2 year old twin-girls would get in the mix, filling their diapers with something that the smell of which could cause the most stalwart of stomachs to start heaving.

But, to use a modern phrase, both Rudolfo and Bessie-Ann were, ‘nose-blind.’ They would just drag the kids with them, and take time cleaning them up. That’s how their friends in New Jersey did it, where Rudolfo had bought them a nice house after their two week courtship and later marriage.

If Bessie-Ann got mad at her neighbors up North, she had learned that polite words would not suffice in New Jersey.

Oh no, no, no.

Spicier words won the day, and Bessie-Ann became quite proficient in foul language, using a few words that might have embarrassed even the men who were frequent patrons at the Howling at the Wolf club down at the edge of Contentment.

The longer she was away from Aunt Ginny and her sisters, the more Bessie-Ann forgot that the best verbal slam took more intellect than savagery, more creativity than indecency. Added to her limited command of words to use when angry was a special little hissy fit she’d learned up North. She was quite a force once she took it on the road.

That day, Eleanor Grace walked up the sidewalk with seven out of her 14 children lined up silent and perfectly behaved, and was in barely controlled shock (her kids were actually admiring and taking mental notes) at their wild cousins leaping around the moving truck, as Rudolfo, being nudged by Bessie-Ann stomped toward Clevus, his huge hand outstretched.

“What’s he wearing?” Eleanor Grace asked her husband. That day, it was a Tweety-bird yellow tie that went down well over his leather belt, a bright, shiny navy vest over a red striped button down shirt and he had a significant belly hanging over some blue jeans. His hair was long, curly and flying everywhere putting Clevus in mind of a wild boar.

“Durned if I know. Bright ain’t it?” Clevus said.

“Bad taste is what I’d call it.” Eleanor Grace said. Just then the two men made hand to hand contact, and the sound nearly stopped nearby traffic, it was so loud.

Clevus held his own with his handshake, but winced just enough to make Rudolfo think he had the advantage. All his Alpha-male dominance that had made him such a success in the New York stock market now came to the fore, octaves louder than anyone wanted to hear.

Rudolfo started talking about the trip, everything he saw, and how, no matter how beautiful every sight was, New York City was better than all of it, and he was just moving down here to make his bride happy. Then, he started telling Clevus the right way to run his bank, and offered to give him a few ideas on how to be an efficient mayor.

Bessie-Ann, just then, heard one of her kids holler out in distress. She turned and ran to find one of her twin sons, Alvin, and saw that the child had stomped a red ant pile and the little buggers had aptly defended themselves. The boy now knew what having more than two fire ants crawling up his pants felt like.

Eleanor Grace watched her sister-in-law depart. “She’s gotten a little broad in the butt.” She noted.

Rudolfo swung around, his eyes burning with fury. “I like my women with some meat on their bones, Madame.” He swore loudly. Then turned to Clevus–“Ain’t you afraid you’ll cut your self on Miss Bony here?”

It was all Clevus could do to hold Eleanor Grace back.

Just then, Bessie-Ann called Rudolfo to help her get the ants off their Alvin, who was wailing so loud that some folks thought that a fire truck was coming down the road from the volunteer station.

“Baby, wait a minute, I gotta….” Rudolfo started to say.

Bessie-Ann let lose with a series of blue-language that made her brother Clevus worry about his little sister’s soul. Then, she topped it off that she didn’t give a rat’s posterior (though she didn’t say it quite that way) what he was doing, he needed to bring his #$## there right then.

Watching Rudolfo trot briskly towards his wife, Clevus was inspired. Rudolfo’s huge, strangely shaped buttocks put him in mind of two rats fighting in a burlap sack.

“You go fix that boy, Rat!” Clevus hollered.

And though Rudolfo didn’t yet know it, he’d just been christened.  And for the rest of his life, “Rat” or the more respectful “Uncle Rat” would be exactly how he would be addressed in the town of Contentment.

Bessie Ann meets the Rat


Bessie Ann, middle daughter of the Vernon family was gone from Alabama for a long time.

She’d left Contentment after her first two back to back marriages went ‘bust.’ She just couldn’t bear the pitying glances or sometimes, the mean-spirited snickers as people recalled how she was the woman whose sister, Georgia Grace caused twin brothers, Pinky and Jonah Brown, to get into a shoot-out at a family dinner.

Folks would have kept quiet if the two men had outright killed one another. I mean, there’s only so much ground you can tread before even the meanest Southerner backs up. But because the two boys had shot each other in the knee, pledged their undying love to Georgia Grace, Bessie’s kid sister, and the passed out, the story passed into the town folklore.

It was like a juicy ham bone that one wasn’t quite ready to pass along to the Sooner hounds under the porch

So, Bessie, embarrassed and beside herself, had to go.

She had enough money from her two divorces and the sale of her marital trailer home and Ford Mustang, plus a few years of earnings at the local sewing factory, that she could go and stay pretty much anywhere. So, she picked that place that most Alabama folk claimed to be scared of.

New. York. City.

She got on a Greyhound bus, and waved goodbye to her worried family and the only town she’d ever lived in since conception. The bus took her away and Bessie found herself on a great adventure. Only, she didn’t know til she got to the station in Manhattan, what kind of an adventure it would be.

The very first night in town she met the man who would become the love of her life and her third (and final) husband and the father of her five children.

Bessie, the most shapely and the prettiest of the Vernon women had a empty stomach and a sore bottom from days of Greyhound traveling. Despite the journey, she had given herself a dainty touch up of makeup and a cloud of hair spray, a traveler’s bath, and a change from one lovely frock to another on each day of the trip up North.

Fellow travelers became fascinated with this sweet faced Southern gal, who, despite all her softness had thrown one too-persistent cad for distance when he wouldn’t leave her alone. They were also impressed that she could carry every bit of her luggage by herself, though it likely weighed about fifty pounds all together.

Once off the bus in Manhattan, she opened her lush red mouth and using two beautifully manicured fingers, whistled for someone to bring her a cart on which to  load her belongings. Men came running like roaches fleeing from the kitchen light at two o’clock in the morning.

The one who won the battle to help her with her cases was Rudolfo Valentino Huffman. One look passed between Bessie Ann and Rudolfo, and even by Northern standards, it just wasn’t decent. He decided that he’d never leave her side, and she decided that she would never let him.

Rudolfo took her home to meet his Mama that first night. Turns out, he was just working his kid brother’s porter shift while the brother was sick with flu. Rudolfo was a stock broker, and a darn good one at that. He had a portfolio that would have made Donald Trump jealous, and this was in 1973.

Even though Rudolfo practically eclipsed Bessie Ann, towering to an incredible 6 foot five over her, Bessie Ann didn’t worry about just going off with him to meet his Mama and siblings. He wasn’t that much bigger than her brother Clevus, and Bessie Ann had torn her older brother up a few times. She figured, worse come to worst, if Rudolfo tried to get fresh on the way to his house, that she could take him.

However, no such display turned out to be necessary. Rudolfo, entranced as he was with this seemingly dainty Southern beauty, had manners that would made a latter day Martha Stewart take notes. He offered her his arm, and she took it. When some boy hooted at her about two streets down from his family’s house, he gently dropped his arm and said “Cuze me, beautiful.”

A half minute later, howls and pleas for mercy came from where the hoots had originated. Rudolfo came back dragging a miserable sack of clothing, pimples and quickly developing black and blue marks up to Bessie Ann. “Say it.” He said to the once brave peer.

“Rudy….I didn’t mean it, now lemee go….Owww….wow!!!”

“Say it.” Rudolfo said, his voice full of juicy New York accent, but also dangerously smooth at the same time. He had the boy by the hair now, “Sayyyyyyy it.”

“I’m sorry.” The boy managed.

“What you sorry for?” Rudolfo inquired. A hesitation by his prey was followed by another sound of agony.

“I’m sorry I was ever born, and got eyes in my head to look at you and make that rude sound, Miss! Please tell him to let me go!” The young man begged.

Bessie Ann looked at her defender, and smiled. “Now, Rudolfo, hasn’t he paid for his little mistake, hmmmm?”

Rudolfo dropped him like a cat would drop a beat up mouse he’s tired of playing with. “Yes, sweetness, I’ll do whatever you say.”

He didn’t know that from that moment on, he’d be doing whatever Bessie ‘said’ for the rest of his life. And that he’d pretty much like doing it, including moving down to Southeast Alabama eventually.

This was the first night of the rest of their lives, and the New York world was fresh beneath their feet like it was their own personal Garden of Eden. Each step taken was a step more irrevocably towards the lifetime celebration of love at pert near darned first sight.

Unfortunately, for the town of Contentment, sleeping more or less peacefully far away, events were being put in place that would throw that pleasantly confused town into permanent delirium.

But that would be another day.

Politicians, Make America Safe Again


It happened today.

I was tired and would have liked nothing more than to stay in my comfortable apartment watching World War II documentaries. However, my cats needed something, and I had a gift card for PetSmart, which I had yet to use.

When I have a choice between my pets and my comfort, I usually choose their needs. It was true today. I got dressed in casual clothing, drug myself out to the car, and headed towards PetSmart. But not before looking over my shoulder.

You see, I don’t feel safe anymore.

My job takes me into many places in Fayette County that are not safe. It’s part of the job. I pray about it, and just go, don’t really think about it. I feel safe in God’s hands because I am pursuing the work He called me to long ago.

But, now, after El Paso, after Dayton, I don’t feel safe in my own back yard.

I went to Pet Smart and walking through the parking lot to the store, I wondered: What if some mentally unhealthy person with a chip on their shoulder decided to open fire here? It would be a perfect time. There would be plenty of targets. Families, just getting off work, with their children were everywhere, trying to accomplish early evening errands. Just like me.

Just like me.

We’d be easy pickings. I don’t know what to look for in a sudden shooting spree. I don’t have a concealed carry license. Don’t want one. Have fired a ‘real’ gun once as a young child, during target practice with my biological father. It was such an unpleasant experience I never wanted to repeat it.

I understand that guns don’t belong in the hands of mentally ill people.

I grew up in a unpredictable, abusive home, with an angry, mentally ill father, who owned a gun, and slept with it near him, with the safety off. I grew up expecting that he would someday kill me. When he was in the army, a comment he made triggered a psychiatric evaluation. He apparently manipulated his way out of it, but to my knowledge, he never went to therapy again. Instead, his self-hatred and warped way at looking at the world was taken out on my biological mother and upon myself.

I recall my biological father going after a neighbor with his gun. It was only God’s grace that prevented what would have been a murder from happening. The police told him to build a fence, and so my biological father built one, courtesy of Sears. It was a strong, sturdy fence, and it matched the one that my parents had long ago built around what passed for their human souls.

When confronted, not too long ago by family, my biological father denied it all. Said that I was delusional. He’d isolated himself geographically with a wife who was herself mentally ill, and terrified of being poor again.

Any lie he told, my biological mother would gladly back up so as to not return to her poverty-stricken roots. Money meant more to her than the safety or well-being of her only child. Keeping up appearances, being envied (or hoping she was) by less fortunate family members meant more than being a decent human being.

As far as I know, they still live this lie, willing to live in a two person, self-centered hell of their own making, rather than to do the work to take responsibility for their sins, and create a productive and healthy life.

Through trial, mistake and tribulation, I got away from my biological parents, and now, in my mid-fifties, have a life I can be proud of, one of grace, health, and yes–of feeling safe.

But now, decades later, two back-to-back incidents have seriously damaged that feeling of safety.

Tonight, once inside Pet-Smart, I enjoyed my visit, even haggled with the cashier over a price of cat litter that was on sale, but didn’t show up that way on the cash register. My side prevailed, and I went out, with my supplies.

However, again, as I went across the parking lot, I wondered. Who might be in Lexington, struggling with hate or mental health issues? Who might decide to come to this particular store or parking lot to show the world their inner demons?

The gunman in El Paso wrote a racist manifesto. But then, he went after people of all races, not just those might appear to be immigrants. Blacks, whites, old, young. He didn’t discriminate who he tried to harm. In today’s news I heard reports that he still shows no remorse.

He got his gun legally. People around considered him ‘troubled.’ Yet no one expressed those fears to local law enforcement in his home town of Allen, Texas. If the police there are anything like our Lexington officers, they would have had no problem doing a welfare check. They would likely be grateful to the reporter for bringing a possibly lethal situation to light.

However, if anyone saw the hate, the growing deadness in this man’s soul, they didn’t speak up. Just as my angry young father was sent to a psychiatrist and then allowed to go free to commit mayhem in other ways within his family, this young man somehow was allowed to fester, simmer, and finally, to destroy.

I’m not really blaming anyone. My knee-jerk reaction was to write Congressmen McConnell and Congressman Paul and plead with them to vote for national red-flag laws, to outlaw assault weapons. I quickly got a cordial response back from Senator McConnell, saying that he would take my words into serious consideration when he went back to Washington.

I hope so.

However, I wonder how many Americans now pause before they go to shop in a Walmart, or a Kroger, or even a McDonalds. If it could happen in Dayton or El Paso, or California, Florida, or a school at Sandy Hook, then it could happen here. It could happen to them.

Only legislation and stronger assistance to identify and treat mental illness is going to cure the wound that these shooters have created in the fabric of America’s trust. For you see, when they wounded and murdered innocent others, they killed a part of us, too. The part of us that feels free to walk around living everyday lives without looking over our shoulders. Without feeling like every day, we might be the ones dodging a bullet.

I hope that our leaders will listen.

Listen.

I want to feel safe in my own back yard. And I want merciful and appropriate treatment for mentally ill folk before they unleash their hell on innocent others.

Once normal people, everyday people can walk without fear in supermarkets, hardware stores and in parks, we will be great again.

For now, America is a war-zone, and has lost its claim to greatness.

The time for this is long overdue. Congressmen, Representatives, and President Trump–while you are working to make America great again, let’s work on first making it safe again.

 

The Gift of Giving


by Laura Kathryn Rogers

 

There was a time when giving, for me, was a means to an end. Trying to buy love, curry favor, earn praise. Then, God taught me to give when I had lost practically everything of value to me. He taught me to really understand giving. Once I got that, it really became a blessing.

It’s not how much you give, when you give, or who you give to. It doesn’t mean saying ‘yes’ to everyone who asks. It is what is in your heart at the moment you give. If you give unwillingly, believe me, it shows, and you deprive yourself and your recipient of a blessing.

The brevity of life tells us that clinging to things that are better given to others is to lose. We lose all we cling to eventually, anyway, when we die. Why not find a way to wisely bring joy into the lives of others as God leads, whenever you can, however long as you can?

It is all about the motive. Once you get that, it becomes an ongoing joy, a party that carries on all the time. Because, in giving rightly, you are showing others the face of God.

The Food Fight at Robert E. Lee Park


By Laura Kathryn Rogers

 

For many years, Sue Beth (Jenkins) Snooker and Eleanor Grace Vernon didn’t have a bit of trouble at all.

This was because Sue Beth was living up in Wetumpka with her husband, Bobby Frank and their sole offspring, Elmer.

When the Snookers came back to town in the early seventies, it was another matter entirely.

By this time, Clevus and Eleanor Grace, had started to realize that they really needed to buy a television set, due to having limited entertainment alternatives. From the year they married, 1963 until well nigh into the seventies, it seemed Eleanor Grace was pregnant more than she was not.

It also seemed that she took the Lord’s directive to be ‘fruitful and multiply’ a little more seriously than she ought.

Before long, they had  three sets of twins, two sets of triplets, two boys and a girl. Then, Eleanor Grace’s baby-factory just went on strike. But when it did, the town of Contentment rejoiced. 14 kids who looked like Clevus and one who acted like Eleanor Grace,  was more than enough.

Clevus was proud of his offspring, especially the multiples. Eleanor Grace would get everyone dressed, fed, and sternly lined up in a perfect order. There wasn’t a spot of dirt on any one of them. Clevus would grin and brag to whoever would listen: “She shore makes pretty litters, don’t she?”

Later, when he was getting stitches at the emergency room, he would rethink the foolishness of his comments. But by then, the damage was done.

There was a sad story behind why Eleanor Grace and Sue Beth took to hating each other, and it was all about Clevus. Sue Beth had been his girl first, and almost married him. Eleanor Grace was the one who took him away without really much trying.

When Eleanor Grace did that, Sue Beth, after a few efforts to lure Clevus back, did the only thing a scorned woman could rightly do, at least in her mind. She married Clevus’ most fierce football competitor, Bobby Frank Snooker, for plain revenge.

Now, if she’d meant to stir up Clevus’ competitive nature, she had truly misjudged him. Bobby Frank had been a rival, but that was before Clevus took his wedding vows.  A bunch of rooster-like posturing meant nothing to Clevus now, and besides, he knew if he even tried to step out on Eleanor Grace, that she would kill him. She’d almost done that a few times without him stepping out.

Now, it must be said, that of the two of them, Sue Beth was the beauty. She was, even after having Elmer, long and lithe, putting folks in mind of a ballerina. She had white-blonde hair, and beautiful hazel eyes, putting some artistic souls in mind of a sunflower. Her voice was musical, and when she walked, her hips did things that got a lot of men in town in trouble if their wives or girlfriends were around.

Sue Beth knew she had this effect on men, and she loved it. Especially since things had gone downhill with Bobby Frank. They had honey-mooned long enough to produce Elmer, and then everything just seemed to go flatter than a open Diet-Rite soda left on the counter too long. If asked, neither of them could have told you what happened, but a lot of folks around them could.

Bobby Frank had gone to Auburn to become an attorney. And a good one, he was. So good that he made enough money in Wetumpka to last them the rest of their lives. Sue Beth, the spoiled only child of Mulberry Countyś wealthiest peanut farmer, missed her family and put in to go back home. Bobby Frank took a job as assistant district attorney for Russell and Mulberry Counties. He was a driven man, just as he’d been a driven teenager, and he played in court to win, just like he had once played football.

He did very well and was soon the District Attorney, and later the Mulberry County probate judge, but he had one problem. He forgot to play to win at home.

He found the many beautiful women he encountered through work too appealing to resist. When Sue Beth complained, he reminded her of the lifestyle his money provided her. Sue Beth, knowing she didn’t want to go home and live with her Mama and Daddy in sort of a second childhood, backed down. She contented herself with frequent shopping trips to Montgomery, Birmingham and even Atlanta, filling an entire guest bedroom with shoes and handbags. This kept her off his back, so Bobby Frank didn’t care much.

Sue Beth, when she wasn’t shopping, was building onto their 18 room home on the posh side of Contentment. But even this didn’t fill the emptiness within, so she tried getting a pink Mercedes convertible. This worked for a while. But driving up and down the four paved streets of Contentment just wasn’t enough, even with the top down. And there was just one reason why.

Every time, near about every time, she went down the main street, she passed Eleanor Grace, usually with some of her herd of kids. It made her downright jealous and miserable inside.

You see, that could have been HER, mother of fourteen, married to the town’s highly successful mayor and banker. Never mind that her own Bobby Frank was likely to run for governor someday, and maybe even win it. She compared her philandering type A Bobby Frank with the ever faithful, charismatic Clevus and Bobby Frank was just left cold.

Clevus was the one who got away, and a stringy hag of an Olive Oil impersonator, ugly enough to win a hog calling contest had somehow won him. This, Sue Beth Snooker just didn’t understand.

But, one hot summer day in June of 1973, she decided she was going to find out, or die trying.

Each June, the Daughters of the Confederacy got together to have a huge food jamboree.  This was always held in the Robert E. Lee Town Park next to the Mulberry County Courthouse. Tables were set up the day before, and cooking had gone on for several days prior. All the proceeds went to the Daughters of the Confederacy’s special fund, with which they did whatever they pleased.

This  event was so well known that folks came from as far as Mobile, Alabama to buy the food offered. There was virtually dozens of food choices, and at 3.00 for as many plates as you could eat, you could hardly go wrong.

The Vernons all got involved, ladling out untold amounts of their best recipes. For Aunt Ginny, it was the Barbeque chicken and pork that was so perfectly cooked that folks said it fell apart on your tongue. Johnny Paul and Jillian contributed freshly caught and steamed bass and brim, with Jillian’s Mama’s potato salad. Julie Ann and Tully produced their respective chocolate pie and sour cream pound cakes.

Tully and Luther produced sweet potatoes so tender and good that it made folks want to cry. Georgia Grace and Hank brought pans of hot, flaky biscuits, and Bobbie Ray and Wilmer brought gallons of tea, sweetened ‘just right.’

When Bessie was in town between her divorces and before her marriage to ¨Uncle Rat,¨ she provided several red velvet cakes, a few apple pies, and all sorts of vegetables she’d grown in her own garden.

Eleanor Grace brought the crowning touch: pots of macaroni and cheese fresh out of the oven, green bean casserole, and Shepherd’s pie.  Each of her older children were responsible for standing by a certain dish, keeping the flies away and serving each paying guest.

The rest of the town also contributed their own variations of meats, vegetables and desserts. The line stretched for miles, and folks would come up, mouth’s watering for a chance to fill their plates.

That year, it seemed that Sue Beth had been the only one not asked to contribute something. Tapping her perfectly manicured fingernails on her glass breakfast table, she wondered why. When Elmer would come in to ask for something, his mother would give him a look mean enough to make him give it a second thought.

Finally, Sue Beth figured it out. It had to be Eleanor Grace’s doing. Not only was she going to hog the best man in the county, if not the entire state, she was going to crown herself the queen of Contentment’s top yearly social event, the food jamboree.

And Sue Beth Snooker just was not going to have it. No Sir, ree, she wasn’t.

Bobby Frank was doing something in the courthouse that day, and Clevus was at the bank. The DOC women pretty much had the bake sale all under control. Luther was the only man out there, solemnly going from table to table, gallantly sampling the ladies wares and telling each woman without batting an eye, that they were the best cooks in the world.

Everything was all set, with Eleanor Grace in the main booth, scooping out her delicious macaroni and cheese to avid customers. Then, disaster in pink high heels and a matching designer dress (not to mention a perfectly coiffed bouffant) showed up in her matching pink Mercedes.

Eleanor Grace didn’t pay her any mind at first, she was too busy. But Sue Beth had worked herself up into a frame of mind that insisted that she would not be ignored.

Never mind that Eleanor Grace had done nothing but show up at a dance ten years before to irrevocably steal Clevus from her. Sue Beth had a slow cooked Southern drama bubbling in her mind about how this had been a years-long plot, long before Eleanor Grace even came to town, planned meticulously by Sue Beth’s scheming foe.

And Sue Beth was going to have her say about it.

Now it didn’t hurt that Sue Beth had a few nips (or more) before she got in her Mercedes. By the time she got up to where Eleanor Grace was serving food, she was practically fermenting.

But, once there, she wasn’t quite sure how to get it started.

So, she started simple. Folks around saw her standing there, hands on her hips, making a mouth of disapproval. Then, they heard the words, meant for Eleanor Grace.

“Look at that thang standing there, bet she don’t even know how to cook.”

“I bet that thang is going to give everybody here the back door trots.”

Finally after a few other similar comments, Eleanor Grace made a sweeping motion with her hands as if a female Moses parting the Red Sea. The crowd swept away nervously, the ones already served going to find a cool (and safe) place to have their meal.

“Can I help you, Sue Beth Snooker?” Eleanor Grace drawling sweetly every word.

“Yes, you sure can. You can give me my man back!” At this point, the level of alcohol was making Sue Beth sway a bit in her high heels, but she couldn’t stop now.

Eleanor Grace squinted at her as one might someone speaking a foreign language. She took her oven mitts off and set them down. “Why, Sue Beth, I haven’t seen Bobbie Frank around here at all today, and so you best just go look somewhere else. I don’t have time to fool with you.”

Sue Beth stepped back, confused for a moment. Then she reared up, fury on her beautifully made up face. “Not that man, you home-wrecking hussy! My man! Clevus! The one you stole from me! You’re gonna give him back, or I’m gonna know why.”

Folks gathered back in again. This looked interesting, and if there was anything better than excellent Southern food cooked just right, it was heated Southern drama to go along with it.

Eleanor Grace was never one to think about diplomacy. It had gotten her in trouble before, nine years ago when she tore up the town’s only beauty shop, and it was about to get her in trouble now.

“I think you ought step on back, Sue Beth. ” Eleanor Grace said, her tone dangerously calm. Some folks started stepping back again. Some started getting even closer. No one had told them this sort of thing was going to happen at the jamboree. “Get your prissy little tail in that Mercedes and go feel sorry for yourself at home. I married Clevus, and he’s mine. Now, scoot.”

Something about this dismissal just touched off the furies in Sue Beth. She let out a growl that seemed to get louder as it came out. She rushed the table and flung herself at Eleanor Grace. Macaroni and Cheese and Green Bean Casserole went everywhere.

The two women flailed at each other, wallowing in the food, kicked nearby tables, and soon had the contents of those tables on them as well. Someone got the bright idea that they should take sides, and before long, and all-out food fight was taking place in Robert E. Lee memorial park.

It seemed like this melee went on much longer than it did. Finally, help arrived. The volunteer fire department showed up with hoses, a few local men had pails of water from the nearby creek, and Aunt Ginny had dragged Brother Holland out of his study and insisted that he come down to the park and pray.

Dodging a pan of hot corn-bread, Brother Holland came, waving his hands, hollering at the fools, trying to cast Satan out of them.

If Satan was involved that day, at that point, he likely had taken cover because food was flying through the air like so many bullets.

Brother Holland got a whole tray of banana pudding in his face. Choking on the sweet dessert, he shook the mess off him, and stood staring at the warfare in the park. Then, he got an inspiration.

He ran over to a few of the men who were ducking and at times aiming for someone they didn’t particularly like. He grabbed them by the shoulders, and talked earnestly to them. Then he went to the volunteer firefighters and to Sheriff Plug Coursey.

The men advanced towards the center of the fight, which was of course, Sue Beth and Eleanor Grace pulling at each other’s hair and pelting each other with whatever they could find. Grabbing both women, several of the men took them and advanced to the nearby creek, to the deepest part. They then, under direction of Brother Holland, started a little baptism of sorts.

They dunked those women several times. It looked like the meanness was doused right out of them. Eleanor Grace was helped out, but then started to swing on one of the men. He dunked her again. About that time, I guess you could say, her fire was put out.

Sue Beth, dripping and crying, was put in the Sheriff’s truck, and Eleanor Grace was half led, half drug to the jail. The charge,  inciting a public insurrection, had too many witnesses to dispute.

Sheriff Plug had an inspiration of his own. He put the two women in a cell together, and left them to dry. He told them that they could kill each other in the cell, but they were going to leave his town out of it. And, once they decided who was going to live and who was going to die, that person would bring themselves out and start cleaning up the mess. Then, whistling a Johnny Cash tune, he left the jail.

By the time he came back a few hours later, both women decided to let the other live. Both were embarrassed, especially as Sue Beth sobered up and realized what her parents were going to think, let alone Bobbie Frank. Both women just wanted a hot shower and to get as far away from the other as possible.

Alas, it was not to be.

The girls got their shower, but then were marched out by their husbands and Sheriff Plug to the park. They were handed the first of many trash bags and told that it was either spend 30 days in jail, or make the park beautiful again.

The two women started working.

It would have been wonderful if this had been the last of their public warfare. However, it was not to be. This event only slowed them down for a little while.

Some of the town’s folk fussed at them because the food fight had ensured that they hadn’t gotten their meal at the food jamboree. Some just laughed at them. A few made unkind remarks. At least until Eleanor Grace decked one woman, and Sue Beth threatened to run a man over with her Mercedes.

In time, the whole thing faded into the annals of ‘truly weird’ of Mulberry County. However, as with all great events, even the ones that bordered on uprooting polite society, the food fight at Robert E. Lee Park was never truly forgotten.

The Hussy in the Hippie Bus


By Laura Kathryn Rogers

Johnny Paul Vernon was a blessed man, and he knew it.

He’d gotten his father’s bright blue eyes and long curly eyelashes. His skin, as a teen, never had the first acne eruption. His frame was long and lean, and he had plentiful hair in all the right places. He had been able to start shaving at about age ten. He had a mellow voice and longish blonde hair that put one in mind of a feller who was on his way to being star of something or another.

Johnny Paul got his first hickey when he was six, in the sandbox at school. Aunt Ginny wore out a peach-tree switch on him for that. No boy she was raising was going to be getting ‘the devil’s tattoo’ on his young, innocent skin, not while she was around. And God help the little hussy that mistook her lips for a vacuum cleaner hose.

But even Aunt Ginny couldn’t stop puberty and the evils (in her eyes) which followed. Girls loved Johnny Paul. They wrote him love letters, brought him treats, begged for kisses, and even called him on the phone at home. Aunt Ginny was scandalized.

She tried to keep all his would-be girlfriends away from him. She worked him around the house, the garden, and monitored what little free time he did have. She marched him to church every chance she got, hoping she’d work the devil out of him.

All this did was make Johnny Paul get secretive with his many girl followers. In a small town where everyone knew everyone else, he was pretty successful at keeping his girlfriends from finding out about each other, and Aunt Ginny finding out about any of them. He had to go to school sometime, and there he kept what jealous boy classmates called a virtual harem.

He was a raring, wild, red-hot young man in the flower of deep Southern youth, and he wanted to try every flavor in the Baskin-Robbins school of love before he settled down.

Aunt Ginny wouldn’t let him take phone calls from the girls, and if she saw him with gifts, she’d throw them away. So Johnny Paul took to eating his home-made treats in the woods before he got home. When Aunt Ginny finally said he could date, Johnny Paul sorta laughed to himself. He’d been dating in his own way, since kindergarten.

Johnny Paul, though well fed, clothed and cared for by Aunt Ginny on an amazingly tight budget, didn’t have much money for a car. That didn’t matter to the gals in Mulberry County. They had cars, they’d squire him around. Johnny Paul took it as his due, and it was a frequent thing to see him sporting around in the passenger seat of the county judge’s daughter’s mustang, or the most successful rancher’s daughter’s Camaro.

Johnny Paul had begun drinking as a youngun, too and it was better than mother’s milk to him. Although he was naturally funny, handsome and drop-dead charming, he felt that a little nip just made him that much more irresistible.

And he must have been right. That, and a slap of ‘Brute’ aftershave in all the right places got him more gals than honeybees to a hollow tree.

Johnny Paul graduated high school, and went to technical school at the nearby junior college. He learned to diagnose and fix a car to such a level that he was almost like a savant at it. He could listen to the car, smell the fumes coming out of it, even just note the way it was going down the road, and tell you exactly what ailed it. He quickly got a very good job with Monty Farmer over at the Ford dealership as a mechanic.

Monty Farmer loved having Johnny Paul working for him, at least at first. Gals from all over the county, all the way down to the Florida line would come for him to ‘fix’ their cars. Likely as not, not a thing was wrong with them. The gals just wanted a reason to spend some time near Johnny Paul. Monty made a small fortune on tune-ups and oil changes–sometimes the same car several times in one week.

Johnny Paul loved the attention, and the gals kept him so busy that Morty gave him all the overtime he wanted. Johnny might come to work a bit lickered up some days, but it never kept him from doing a good job. He gave Morty a ‘honest eight’ and then some.

The problem was, that the girls would get impatient, waiting for their turn with Johnny Paul. They’d get jealous of each other, and small fusses would turn into epic battles in the dealership waiting room. After awhile, Morty told Johnny he would screen the women coming in, and give the non-emergencies to other equally able mechanics. The girls didn’t like that one bit, and boycotted for a while. But finally they all came back in dribs and drabs.

Morty figured that if Johnny Paul had his own wheels, maybe he wouldn’t need the girls so much, and things would settle down. For that reason, out of practicality and gratitude for the business the gals brought, Johnny Paul was directed to pick out any used car on the lot. It would be his, as sort of a bonus.

Johnny couldn’t find a thing he liked. Till one day, a new vehicle drove on the lot, and Johnny Paul fell in love.

This was the mid-sixties. A lot was changing in Southeast Alabama, but a lot was determined to stay the same. The music was changing. All of a sudden, four floppy haired Liverpool lads were making girls everywhere scream. Elvis had been around even longer, singing in a way that made even the most solemn matron’s hips twitch just a little. There was the unpopular Vietnam war and the kids protesting against it up in Tuscaloosa (and even Auburn!). Girls hem-lines were going up, up, up, oh my, and boys hair was getting way too darn long.

That September, Johnny Paul was standing under a car that he’d just changed the oil on the week before. He was pondering if he should waste perfectly good oil just for the eight bits a cute redhead was willing to pay. She was pretty, alright, and he already got her phone number, but he felt sorta bad about it doing unnecessary work on her car. His conscience quieted when the redhead winked at him and walked off in a slinky way to get her a coca-cola.

Just then, his destiny in a multi-colored mini-skirt and thigh high hip boots walked into his life.

Jillian Armstrong was a newcomer in town. Her father, Herman, was a new president at the bank that was the rival of Clevus’ bank. They lived in a nice house on a nice street, and Jillian was the only child. There was nothing that green-eyed, strawberry blonde Jillian couldn’t wheedle out of her pappy. Her mother, Flossie, wasn’t much better. When Jillian got her driver’s license in Birmingham, where they’d lived before moving to Contentment, she only wanted one thing. A Volkswagen psychedelic van.

Her daddy, Herman, managed to get her one that was Tweety Bird yellow. But Jillian didn’t want that. So, her daddy gave her the blessing to take it to the Ford dealership and ask how to get auto paint to make it into the VW psychedelic van of her dreams. That’s where she met Johnny Paul.

Johnny Paul had been a ladies man since he understood what ladies were. He had broken many a heart but managed to keep his own intact. But Jillian was something special.

She cast her feline eyes on him, and he stared at her from the oil pit, wishing he could’ve taken a shower about fifteen minutes before. He’d never seen anyone so beautiful in his life. From her pretty pout, to the dimples in her heart-shaped chin, to the way she had her hands on her hips, determined to get what she needed for her van. Johnny Paul was completely and irreversibly in love.

Johnny Paul not only bought all the auto paint Jillian wanted for her van, but he quit his job with Morty during a very busy day to help her paint it, and get the van in perfect running order.

Morty called Aunt Ginny in a panic. “What has that boy done now, Morty?” Aunt Ginny asked. When told, she said, “I’ll be up there in a minute to straighten him out.”

When Morty told her Johnny Paul had gotten in Jillian’s van and took off,  Aunt Ginny took to prayer while on the phone. Morty initially joined in to be polite, then he figured, as a believing man, that Ginny had gotten the big guns out and he’d soon have his best mechanic back working for him.

He turned out to be wrong.

Aunt Ginny got all the entire family spread out all over the county looking for Johnny Paul. They looked, but there was no Johnny Paul anywhere.

Perhaps, if they’d looked in Jillian’s back yard, they would have been more successful. There, until the last light made painting impossible, he and Jillian swirled colors, shapes and fanciful words all over the VW van. Finally, exhausted, Johnny Paul fell into a lawn chair and was sound asleep. Jillian, thinking him just adorable in the moonlight, covered him with a light blanket and went into the house for the night.

When Johnny Paul didn’t come home that night, Aunt Ginny near about blew a gasket. Sure he was 22 by that time. Sure he was legally and in every other way an adult. But surely that boy had been raised better! Where could he be?

The next morning, after having breakfast with Jillian’s accommodating, though not quite impressed mother and father, he sidled on home, to figure out his next plan. He no longer had a job, and he wasn’t sure Morty would have him back, so he needed to figure out something else. He spent the day brooding on the back porch, not answering any of his Aunt Ginny’s questions. She finally got disgusted with him and went into the kitchen to fix supper.

About the time she had put the chicken and dumplings, biscuit, collard greens and corn on the cob on the table and called everybody, there was a distinct sound of a horn in the front yard. Not just a horn, but someone was being persistent with that thing. Beep, beep, beep, beep! Dang, it was loud!

Aunt Ginny went out to the front porch, ready to engage in battle. For someone to be that insistent on interrupting their supper hour, there had better be blood and broken bones–at least in her mind. Dinner time was sacred. If you weren’t married (and sometimes if you were) your presence was expected if you were one of Aunt Ginny’s adopted kids. Aunt Ginny didn’t like her boat being rocked one little bit.

Jillian wearing an outfit she’d gotten in Chicago that was similar to one that Grace Slick wore, all green silk, writhing serpents and way too much leg with tall, spiky heels. Jillian loved Grace Slick, and had eyeliner on like hers, and had her hair teased in a wild way that put Aunt Ginny in mind of a witch.

If this startling first impression wasn’t bad enough, Jillian made it worse by laying on the horn again, then standing up so that she came out of the place in the roof that slid back. Aunt Ginny had never seen anything like it in her entire life.

“Johnny Paul here?” Jillian called out, just as normally as if it was a formal call.

Aunt Ginny’s cheeks turned bright red, she started puffing like a blow fish, and stomped her tiny feet on the porch. “No he ain’t!” Aunt Ginny said, angrily. “And I won’t have no hussy in a hippie bus coming to fetch him, neither! Go home, girl!”

What Aunt Ginny didn’t know (who’d actually come to dearly love Jillian in time) was that she’d just met her match. No one had ever told Jillian ‘no’ and made it stick before. This tiny granny-looking lady wasn’t going to do it, either.

“Johnny Paul! Come on out here!” Jillian hollered.

Aunt Ginny was near about beside herself. She looked for the nearest disciplinary weapon in her reach, and found the broom she used to sweep the porch. She heisted it over her head, and went running towards the VW bus, waving it at the shocked Jillian.  “Now I done told you, GIT!” Aunt Ginny yelled.

Jillian’s emerald eyes narrowed, then seeing that broom coming closer and closer, called out Johnny Paul’s name once again, defiantly.

Just like that, a zip of wind rushed by Aunt Ginny.  Johnny Paul got past her somehow, got into the VW bus, and he and Jillian took off down the road, with Aunt Ginny still hollering and waving the broom after them.

Aunt Ginny spent the rest of the evening on the phone to the family who weren’t at the dinner table. She was too shocked to eat. Then, she got on the phone to Brother Holland. He put Johnny Paul on the phone prayer chain. Johnny Paul’s siblings all wondered what the outcome would be. Their brother had been kidnapped by a hussy in a hippie bus! What was the world coming to?

Several days later, Johnny Paul humbly went to Morty and asked for his job back. When Morty asked why, Johnny said it was very simple. He was a married man and he needed to support Jillian, his wife. The two had gone clear to Crestview, Florida and gotten married at her cousin’s church. Florida didn’t require a blood test, and her cousin knew the mayor, so getting it all done was pretty easy.

Morty, his better side appealed to, rehired Johnny Paul and offered his best wishes to the young couple. Johnny Paul, remembering Morty’s offer, picked out a bright blue Ford F-10 that had some miles on it, but would get him to and from work. Jillian would need her van after all, as a young matron.

This time, Johnny-Paul’s employment lasted about three months. Johnny gave proper notice this time, however, with the best of reasons for moving on. He was going to be a Daddy.

Jillian’s father had offered him a bank job (which he would manage to keep for a few years) and had let Jillian pick her choice of a two bedroom mobile home and a lot in the nicest trailer park in the county.

Aunt Ginny, despite her misgivings, finally came around and accepted Jillian. However, it rankled her from time to time that getting a new daughter in law came about because she’d been bested by a ‘hussy’ in a ‘hippie bus.’