A SONGBIRD MEMORY
It was 1961. I was eleven years old. Whether I wanted to or not,
I had to go to church on Sunday. A person who did not go to church
was considered a borderline
Communist—or at the very least, un-American. If you were eleven years old
and not in church, your prospects of a happy future were grim. In our home your
immediate future held prospects of a persimmon switch fanned hot with the fire
In that year, the church had not yet gained enough stature, or money, to buy
the white oak pews that today grace the sanctuary. The pews were made of wooden
pine slats, stained brown. They were comfortable in the summer. Air could circulate
all through the backs and under the seat to battle any amount of heat produced
by the climate or the preacher.
In the winter, two gas heaters, one on either side of the altar, near the front
pew, kept the faithful warm. In winter Preacher Renfroe found a warm and friendly
congregation of about forty people crowding the front rows. Everybody wanted
a front-row seat.
Regardless of my desperate attempts to avoid the ritual of wearing a tie and
shining my shoes for the sake of proper looks, or the thoughts of impending boredom
with the preacher's sermons, I actually quite enjoyed the Sunday interludes.
One of my favorite things was to read the comments written in the back of the
Cokesbury hymnals that were stacked at every pew. While I read the penciled commentaries
(Ann loves Troy, Bill is a two-timer, a heart drawn with the initials written
in about who loved who, and a joke about the chicken and the pig), our choir
would give a never-to-be-repeated, one-of-a-kind performance. I did not pay much
I do, however, recall my cousins Ann, Mary, and Brenda Howell singing as a quartet
with their mother, Juanita. The music would drift gently over pews and under
the window sills to the back pew where I was deep in thought, studying the encrypted
messages scribbled on the illustrated cardboard fans supplied by the funeral
They sang songs that normal people could relate to: "Bringing in the Sheaves," which
I envisioned as something like hauling in the hay; "The Old Rugged Cross," which
some of us irreverently altered to a song about an old Chevrolet; and "We
Shall Gather By The River," which painted for me a picture of the Escambia
River in full flood. It was going to be mighty hard for some of us to get to
the other side.
The music was simple. The people were genuine. Sometimes I think there is not
enough of either any more. And sometimes the old harmony of the Howell sisters
will haunt me, as I dream of a simpler time in the warm Sundays of my youth.
RANCID MAYONNAISE AND SNAKE
Joe Cook. You know—Wheeler's boy, Voncille's brother. It was
Joe who joined me on an equestrian outing one spring day in a long-ago
memory. Joe was one of
the brave few who would ride the crazy horses we kept on the farm. Sometimes
the Cotton boy, Ronnie, would ride. And, if Danny Holt had not been nearly killed
by one, he would have joined me more often.
It was a pleasant ride to Webb Landing, on the Escambia River. Peaceful and quiet,
except for the muffled sounds of unshod ungulates. In those days, I must have
had better ears. I can remember hearing birds voice the timeless notes of springtime.
I can remember the sound of a "rain crow" announcing a drop in barometric
pressure. The sounds of nature marched as an order of insects into battle with
the stilled air.
My olfactory senses were better then too. The smell of honeysuckle in bloom would
shout it's ownership of the surrounding atmosphere. Bay leaves there. Cypress
here. And newly plowed ground. Fresh earth turned hours before, to this day leaves
my senses refreshed.
As Joe and I rode, we unconsciously tuned in to a natural world that would record
itself in the deepest parts of our young memories. Time invested this way provides
a lifetime library of sensory perception.
Joe spotted the snake first. He had the vision of an eagle. He did not have to
wear glasses. I did. Besides, my glasses were perpetually dirty. They still are.
It was a very unusual snake. Neither of us had ever seen one like it. Only its
tail was exposed, hanging out over the drainage ditch beside the sandy, dirt
road. It was black, with longitudinal red stripes extending the length of its
body. The reptile was rotund, and yet it was long. It stretched almost five feet.
I found an appropriately long stick as quickly as I could dismount and thrash
the bushes on the road opposite the reptilian prize. Then, I cornered the animal
for capture. A little pressure on its neck and I picked it up. The eyes were
round; it was not a viper. Obviously, it was not a coral snake because of its
coloration. As amateur herpetologists, we knew immediately it was not a venomous
I patiently introduced the nervous, wide-eyed horses to the cool, round-eyed
snake. And soon we were on our way again. I held the snake in one hand, the other
hand free to control the horse.
Near the river we found a wide-mouth, gallon mayonnaise jar—a discard from
an inconsiderate camper. We rinsed it out and used it to store our pet. With
a gallon of fresh snake, and the odor of stale mayonnaise, our two-horse expedition
returned to base camp. Home. Civilization.
With the help of a reference book, we determined that it was a member of the
genus Abastor, species erythrogrammus. The book suggested we were lucky to find
it. The "rainbow snake" is quite shy, according to the authorities.
Few people ever see one in the wild.
Joe carried our valuable find home with him. He was going to build a wire cage
for it. As a temporary measure, he sequestered the shy reptile in a cardboard
box under his bed. But the snake disappeared overnight. It was never seen again,
not in the mobile home the Cooks lived in, or anywhere near it. After all, it
was a shy snake. The Cooks were a nervous family for awhile. I think Wheeler
steered Joe to other, less controversial, interests.
That was the last time I rode a horse down to the Escambia River. But, the sights,
the smells, the sounds—and the snake—made a lasting impression.
MASSACRE AT COON HILL CEMETERY...
Yes, I was present at "The Coon Hill Massacre of 1965." It was
very nearly an awful sight. It almost made the papers. And if it had actually
the way it appeared during moments of terrified imagination that Halloween
night, it would have been headline material for sure.
If I hadn't invited Junior Wade, the whole thing would probably have blown
over in a minute. Junior was onto the operation from the start. As soon
as he crawled
in the back of the pickup truck, I began to explain the mystery of Offal
Skidmore, the disgraced brain surgeon turned hermit and mass murderer,
who hid out in
the swamps around Coon Hill.
The others were falling for the story. Earl Cox paid special attention
to the saga. The pupils of his eyes grew larger and larger as my brother,
the part where Offal forced his victims to scrub behind their ears before
their minds," so to speak.
When we stopped to pick up Ezel Lowery, Junior slipped out of the truck
for a minute. He talked Ezel into loaning him an eight-inch "Bowie knife" and
then hid the knife in his left sock, under his pants leg. He strapped it
to his leg with a strip of rubber from an old bicycle inner tube.
Unknown to our passengers, but known to us, a fright crew had already been
posted at the cemetery. Our scare squad included Carl Griffin, John Kimbrough,
Cotton, Benny Enfinger, and Jimmy Saulz. They were stationed in strategic
locations throughout the graveyard.
Darkness coated the scene when we arrived with our quarry. As we walked
about the cemetery, skirting the tombstones, the chilled air wrapped its
around our very souls. We had just finished wondering aloud about the whereabouts
poor old hermit Offal, when John Kimbrough jumped up with a flashlight
shining under his chin and yelled "You gonna die."
He began to come for Earl, and Earl started to back off. Junior was concerned,
but kept his mind clear with the thought of the knife on his leg. Then
Benny Enfinger appeared from behind a tombstone and let out a hysterical
left a reverberating echo in the swamps around us.
As John and Benny came for the group, Carl Griffin joined in. Earl knew
it was a hoax at that point, because he recognized Carl's voice. Only,
a shadowy figure emerged from another corner of the graveyard, descended
on Carl, flashed a long blade in the moonlight, and appeared—from the angle of view—to
impale Carl on the gleaming shaft. Earl logically figured this was not
a part of the game. After all, who would be out to scare the scarERS.
All the scarEES had been in the truck with us. Earl assumed he had just
seen his friend Carl die. Within milliseconds, he was over the cemetery
deep in the swamp, taking his chances with snakes and panthers. He figured
was now among us, performing his butchery.
Junior had his knife out when Ronnie Cotton jumped from the shadows. When
Ronnie said "Boo," Junior said, "Be still and shuddup or I'm a gonna
cut off parts of your body." Ronnie swallowed hard and said, "Just
Junior and Ronnie made a quick pact to make Ronnie appear dead from the
big knife. Then Junior held up the knife, with ketchup all over his hands
all over Ronnie
and said, "I killed him."
Nobody expected one of the scarEES to have a knife. When the "chief scarERS," John
and Carl and Jimmie (Offal) Saulz, saw the "dead" Ronnie, they lost
their composure and began to beg Junior not to kill anybody else. Junior ran
around loose in the graveyard for some time, yelling, "Come near me and
I'll kill you." He was quite convincing, and Ronnie wasn't moving.
Ezel was beginning to feel sorry he had loaned the knife to Junior.
The end came when Ronnie realized he was lying in a bed of black ants.
The ants tired rather hurriedly of the ketchup and began feasting on Ronnie's
skin. The more Ronnie yelled, the deeper Earl pushed into the swamp. After
revived Ronnie settled down again, Junior gave up the chase. Then, we all
began to look for Earl. Midnight came and went before we could convince
him to leave
We were never again able to duplicate the thrill of "The Massacre
at Coon Hill." Earl never really forgave us for our invasion of his
innocent imagination. I can understand why. And, I can understand why Junior
is a successful insurance salesman.