08 January 2017

[TPC] - The Story of Millsaps

- TPC -
~ est. 2010 ~
[State of GA]
[Newton Co.]

The Story of Millsaps
Chapters 1 - 13
By TPC Cont. Writer Ellis Millsaps 

*Ed. note (8 January '16): I was originally going to do this in a serial format and had done a post of the first two chapters, but upon further review have decided to do this as just one post. It is a fine piece of work, and very interesting.

*Original Ed. Note: What follows is a familial history that Ellis wrote several years back, much of which was originally published in the Covington News. Most of it centers on his parents, and his father in particular. Enjoy! - MBM 

Chapter One: In Which Doris Gets her Oats

The man Wallace Millsaps, known to thousands as Preacher Millsaps and whom his Appalachian relatives called “Wallus,” was born in the spring of 1909 in a log house built by Millsaps before him on Upper Jack's River in what is now the federally owned Cohutta Wilderness Preserve in Fannin County, near the Tennessee/ Georgia/ North Carolina line.

The spot where the cabin stood is fertile bottom land situated as high above sea level as such land could be in Georgia and is sometimes occupied by a U.S. Forrest Ranger station until miscreant locals burn it down again.

My father's parents Mount Aubrey and Lovey Jane Millsaps. 

His father, Mount Millsaps, and his mother, Lovey Jane, lived on a parcel of land that was part of a 4,000-acre tract of Cherokee Indian land “given” to a Thomas Millsaps by the State of Georgia for his service in the War of 1812.

My father's great-grandmother was a member of that tribe.
The entire Cohutta range was then owned by descendants of the men who had received the original land grants, most of whom were land rich and dirt poor, and almost all of whom lost their land to the government for inability to pay its taxes during the Great Depression.

The boy Wallace's schooling ended at the sixth-grade level because the one-room church that doubled as a school only had six grades.
To go to high school required a 15-mile trip to the hamlet of Epworth and you had to buy your books, both insurmountable obstacles.

He kept attending the sixth grade for a couple of years after he'd graduated to pick up what learning he could – which is not as time consuming as it sounds because the young women the state sent to Jack's River to be schoolmarms never came back to face the mountain winters of Jack's River, once they went home at Christmas.
As a boy, while much of the country was engaging in the excess of the Roaring Twenties, Wallace worked as a shepherd, tending sheep that foraged in the forest, living off of what he could kill and catch, away from home for days at a time, sleeping on the ground.
He wore shoes only in winter. He was 16 years old before he saw a town bigger than a country store doubling as a U.S. Post Office – the town being the county seat of Blue Ridge 18 miles away, the barefoot teen-aged Wallace driving a mule, (who may have been named Doris, and who may have eaten oats) down the circular paths out of the mountains, pulling a wagon load of watermelons to be sold for whatever he could get.

Chapter II: Wallace Gets the Call 

Once when he was eighteen he lay on his belly in the night. It was 1927. I can see him there in the forest on Jack's River, high in the Cohuttas. He is barefoot and his toes dig into the cool thick humus. It is summer, but the mountain breeze is cool and the air is sweet – rhododendron and laurel and sweet clear water running over smooth, slippery stone.

At the edge of the clearing is the Lower Jack's River Meeting House. He is transfixed by the white painted cubicle, the only painted building for miles, and he listens to the Celtic gospel singing. It is revival and the one room building is packed. Children sit in the open windows and men mill about outside smoking, drinking homemade liquor.

No one sees my father as he lies on the soft mossy earth. The church sits on a prize piece of flat land but Wallace lies in the woods, on the hillside above, his feet higher than his head, his arms folded under his chin.

“I will arise and go to Jesus;
He will embrace me in his arms.
In the arms of my dear savior,
Oh, there are ten thousands charms.”

Another verse begins but he does not arise. A still small voice whispers, “Wallace, answer the call,” but he does not go, and after everyone so inclined gets a turn to testify or pray aloud, (though he hears his mother beseeching the Lord to save her son Wallace, a sinner,) the service ends and he joins his mother walking home. Wallace is “under conviction,” and he is scared to answer the call and scared not to.

He did not arise, he often told people later, because he knew that answering the call did not mean, for him, merely entering his name in the Lamb's Book of Life and going back to the farm. His days of roaming barefoot through the hills, herding sheep by day, drinking corn liquor and whittling by night would be over. For he knew that, if he went to the mourner's bench and prayed with his mama, he would have to preach, and that scared him. He did not want to preach because he would have to tell the truth. It would be hard, he was uneducated and people would laugh at him.

But of course we know Preacher Millsaps answered the call. Whether people laughed at him, I don't know. He began as an ignorant, ranting, hellfire-and-brimstone mountain preacher – the only kind he'd ever seen – and went on the educate himself, reading the Bible, of course, but also John Bunyan, the Jewish historian Josephus and daily newspapers. He was particularly fond of the legendary Atlanta Constitution Editor, Ralph McGill.

He soon aligned himself with the Southern Baptist Convention, a relatively progressive group at the time compared to the independent mountain churches. He attended Mercer University Extension classes and obtained some kind of degree of which he was very proud. He became friends with many of its leaders. I am named after a Dr. Ellis Fuller, one of those leaders, and by the time I came along, his sermons relied more on humor and intelligent discourse than volume. In the 1960's, I remember the Governor of Georgia eating at our house and speaking at our church.

Preacher Millsaps baptized over a thousand individuals. I have heard it said that he was one of the first mountain preachers to make a living from preaching alone – most worked at a regular job and preached on Sundays – pastoring five and six “part-time” churches at a time during the Great Depression, supporting a wife and what come to be four daughters by the second World War.

But he always farmed. I grew up watching him behead chickens and pluck them – and they do run around like a chicken with its head cut off – helping butcher hogs of which we usually keep one fattening behind the house, walking behind him as he and someone's mule laid out rows in what was always a vast vegetable garden of mostly corn and beans.

Chapter 3: In Which Wallace Takes a Bride

My Mother, nee Irene Harkins, was born January 31, 1916 in Fannin County, Georgia, but not in the Cohutta Wilderness. She went regularly to real schools. She rode in automobiles.

Her father was one of three Mississippi brothers who in the 1920's prospered in the timber brokage business. Her mother, Lura, a corpulent, sedentary woman who daily occupied a platform rocker in our house, and who in her seventies bore an uncanny resemblance to Benjamin Franklin right down to the wire rimmed glasses, even then would assure her eight-year-old grandson that her ancestors were the Tennessee Halls,presumably to differentiate them from any lowlife Georgia halls of my acquaintance.

When the stock market crashed,the Harkins brothers lost everything. My grandfather, whose death precedes my memory, went to Charles Kiker, the timber baron of Fannin County, and asked him for a job. Mr. Kiker, who forty years later would donate a large farm to my father's church, reportedly told my grandfather that there was no business anymore in which he could employ Mr. Harkins, and the best thing Mr. Harkins could do would be to move his family to some land Mr. Harkins owned on Upper Jacks River, live off the land as best they could and try to wait this thing (which was not yet called The Great Depression) out.

At any rate that is what the Harkins did, but for that first year they sent thirteen-year-old Irene to live with Mississippi relatives so she could go to school. I suppose she came back to Georgia because she missed her family or maybe it was a matter of finances, but when the school year ended so did her formal schooling at the tenth grade.

It must have been a strong dose of culture shock for my mother, a child of relative affluence, to find herself living on Upper jack's River without plumbing,automobiles or domestic help in a land where, to hear her bitterly recount it to her young son thirty years later, the women did all the work while the men went around barefoot drinking corn liquor, smoking homegrown tobacco and trading tales. Adding insult to injury was the fact that my mother, who to her dying day considered Yankees to be culturally inferior and who was certain that General Sherman and Abraham Lincoln were incarnations of Satan, was asked to live among people who voted Republican and whose forebearers had not only remained loyal to the Union, but some,like my Great-Great Grandaddy Stepp, had fought on the blue side.(There's a reason the county next to Fanin is named Union.)

The next summer she would at the age of fifteen marry Wallace Millsaps, a young man in his early twenties already respected at church for his preaching. He, like many men of his time and place, was missing part of a finger from sawmill work, but he was witty, tall and handsome, he didn't drink and he wore shoes.


Chapter 4: Wallace and Irene Bear Young 

Last week's digression into a Cliff Notes summary of population migration in the American South aside, faithful readers, both of you, may recall that I'm supposed to be in “Chapter Three, In Which Wallace and Irene Bear Young.” 

I find I know surprisingly little about my four sisters growing up in the 1930s and 40s. I wasn't there and I now realize I just haven't heard much about it.

I know that Joyce was the bossy one because she was the oldest, and that Wylene, the youngest, was the baby of the family, which wouldn't be of note except that she still retains that title in her 60s, having solidified her claim to it in the 11 years before I was born.

I know that they sang as a quartet in church. Even after they were grown, I recall being at mountain meetings where a choir director would spot them and say “I see the Millsaps' girls out there, we'd sure appreciate it if you'uns would come up and sang us a spayshul,” and they would nail the harmony on a mountain spiritual even though they hadn't all seen each other in months, much less practiced. I recall at the age of 5 seeing Wylene sing on Atlanta television, on a local show called Stars of Tomorrow.

I also know that I had it a lot easier growing up than they, financially, of course, but also in terms of personal freedom. I know, for example, that my sister Jewel was not allowed to be the head majorette and had to settle for being a cheerleader, because majorettes marched around “half naked” at football games, and that my mother would run my sisters' suitors out of the house at 10 p.m., where they would stand on the porch and serenade her with “Good Night Irene” (“I'll see you in my dreams.”). This was partly due to their being girls, but more so because times had changed and the fact that I was spoiled rotten by my parents and four sisters who were more like doting aunts.

The one area in which things did not change that much in my parent's child rearing was discipline. My sisters say that if they misbehaved in my mother's presence, she would whip them. My father's discipline was to talk to them, and they always tried to finagle the whipping instead, because that pain soon stopped, but although my father didn't nurture grudges- there was just the one talking to and the incident was never mentioned again-- I well know the occasions when I disappointed my father still hurt to recall, and I still try to refrain from like behavior.

My mother often told me that her highest hope for me was that I become “a Christian Gentleman,” which was for her the highest praise a man could achieve. She had definite ideals about what that entailed and a hair-trigger temper when violations were observed. I don't remember her ever taking a belt or paddle to me (although I got that in school), but I vividly recall occasions when she grabbed me by the shirt front and slapped my face right and left.

One such occasion was when I was 6. A kid in Sunday School class had told me a joke which began with “Knock. Knock. Who's there? Madame,” and ended with the joke teller's foot being stuck in the door. I chose to repeat this joke for the first time to my cousin Diane while we were sitting with our legs sprawled on the front porch of her house, just outside the screen door, on the other side of which our parents were conversing.

I had led such a sheltered life that I had never heard this profanity uttered before my friend told the joke and had thought on hearing it that it was safe euphemism for “darn,” which I knew I wasn't permitted to say.
My mother, it seems, had heard this word before, and before I could get out “foot stuck in the door,” the screen door slammed and I was jerked up in bewilderment with my head being knocked from side to side in staccato rhythm to “Don't – ever – let – me --” 

As long-term behavior modification, it wasn't too damn effective.

Chapter 5: In Which I am Born 

I think my oldest sister was married before I was born, to my brother-in-law Jack who fought in Korea. All of my sisters married sons of Atco Mill workers, except for my youngest sister Wylene, the little social climber, who went off to college and married a Porterdale boy.

Not only did I defy family tradition by being born in a hospital -- and not just any hospital, but the hospital in Rome, Georgia, the little hospital in Cartersville being thought not good enough for such an important undertaking -- but I further broke rank by coming out, to everyone’s delight, a male child. Legend has it that when I was old enough for the task, my sisters took me, over my father’s protest that it was a waste of money, to Olin Mills to be photographed, and that when they brought the package home to see which ones they could persuade him to buy, he maintained that this was the prettiest baby he’d ever seen, bought the whole package and ordered more. He called me “Churchill,” a name in the news at the time, because of my fat cheeks and double chins.

And I hear you saying, “Why don’t you show us one of these pictures, Cutie Pie?” and I detect a little sarcasm there, but I’ve chosen to include here another, more telling photograph of my infant self. I first saw this photograph when it appeared in my senior class yearbook, it having resided for the intervening seventeen years with the woman who took it, a Union County lady, who at the time of the picture was a Southern Baptist Missionary staying in our house -- people were all the time staying at my father’s house for indefinite periods, kind of like the way other people’s kids stay at my house now -- waiting to go to Africa, I think.

The foot in the photograph is an appendage of my father, of course. In the background teenaged girls are squealing “Daddy! Don’t let that baby suck your toes,” at the same time laughing, knowing full well Wallace will do as he pleases, while Mary Jo Gray just happens to be there with a camera, no doubt plotting a practical joke whose punch line won’t fall for almost two decades.

I don’t remember Ms. Gray taking this photograph; it’s lost in a blur of many photo ops presented to the young male scion. In my earliest concrete memory, I’m three or four and my nephew, David, is correspondingly two or three. I remember this incident not because of the psychic impression it imprinted at the time, but because the story was repeated with such regularity I was never allowed to forget it.

It is springtime and David and I are standing in the freshly plowed vegetable garden behind my house, our parents and my 14-year-old sister Wylene at the other end of the row, all of us in search of earthworms for fishing. My eighteen month superiority in age made me much better at locating worms than David, but I was afraid to touch them, while David would probably have eaten one had I suggested it. They looked a lot like snakes and we were, after all, standing in the only kind of garden I’d ever seen -- and as a matter of fact it did have an apple tree -- where, I well knew from a steady diet of biblical indoctrination, Satan was want to take the form of a serpent to try to trick me into doing something I and all of my progeny would regret. The earliest dream I can recall is of wandering in a beautiful garden when I am confronted by Satan, and when I say Satan I’m not talking about some glib Mephistopheles in evening attire, I mean the naked red devil, replete with horns, tail and pitchfork. I am very afraid and yell for my sister Wylene who then appears, banishing Satan, who is as afraid of her as I of him.
 Anyway, I got around this worm touching problem by saying, “Here’s one David! You get it. I can’t see it,” logic David didn’t question, but which the other worm seekers thought was hysterical, and, as I mentioned, never let me forget it.

My wife, in her less charitable moments, maintains that this little episode is a metaphor for my life in general, that I always want somebody else to do the dirty work, and in my less argumentative moments -- which she will assure you are rare --I have to concede the accuracy of this perception. I am prone to offer ideas and suggestions for which I am, depending on one’s viewpoint, either too lazy or simply disinclined to do the dirty work of working out the details needed to actually implement the idea. The fact that my wife, a Virgo, is splendid at working out details and practical problem solving, for some reason does not incline her to the see the symbiotic beauty of such a collaboration.

Chapter 6: Involving Grand Theft Auto and Roast Suckling Pig

Whenever I try to open my office door by pointing my car’s remote switch and pushing the button, which is occasionally, it never works, and I sometimes think of my father and know I came by this condition -- which some would call absent-mindedness but which from my side is a focused introspection that leaves a certain level of my brain working on autopilot -- honestly, as they say.

Whenever I realize I’ve driven off without paying for my gas again, I think of my father. If it’s at the Pony Express they say, “That’s just Mr. Millsaps; he’ll be back.”

Although I don’t remember doing it, I evidently drove off without paying for my gas in Conyers some years back, because a Conyers Police detective called me about it. After he described my car and most of my tag number, I said I had frequented that station, and though I didn’t recall the specific instance, it sounded like something I would do. The detective, who had by then determined I was not of African-American descent, said that something was wrong with his information because the attendant (he did not say, “In an obvious instance of prejudice clouding perception”) had described the thief as a black person.

My father never drove off without paying for his gas only because he died before the proliferation of self service pumps, but he did steal a car once. We lived at the time in Cherokee County and he was running a revival in Fannin County. A local car dealer had loaned him a demo to drive that week so that my mother could keep the family Dodge. In the early 1960’s, people in the country routinely left their keys in their unlocked cars. After a stop at Edsel Garrison’s Store, he walked out in a reverie of jokes and tales swapped, got in a car of the same make as his demo, and was miles down the road before he realized that none of the items in the car belonged to him.

He was notorious for setting the woods on fire. It wasn’t that he was inspired by Hank Williams’ lyrics, he just didn’t pay a lot of attention to details. He twice ignited parts of the same wooded tract belonging to a Mr. Barrett of Holly Springs, who owned a great deal of southern Cherokee County and who is no doubt the Barrett after whom the Barrett Parkway off I-575 is named. Thankfully, Mr. Barrett, although a Methodist, was on good terms with Preacher Millsaps and was more amused than upset at the charring of a few acres of scrub pine.

This came about because there was then no garbage pickup in Holly Springs, and smog was something which existed only in Los Angeles to provide punch lines for Johnny Carson. Everybody burned their trash in a pile or maybe in an oil drum in the back yard. The first time it happened, we lived in a white duplex while the pastorium was under construction (And it was a pastorium not a “parsonage” as The News substituted last week. My mother said Methodists have parsonages and she could get pretty hot up about the distinction.) We were sitting at the dinner table having, as always, cornbread, string beans and black “sawmill” coffee, along with whatever was ripe in the garden and whatever farm denizen my father and I had last butchered, when we were interrupted by a knock on the door. My father answered it and the woman who lived in the other half of the duplex respectfully inquired, “Preacher Millsaps, did you mean to set the woods afar?”

The second occasion was a Christmas Eve after we’d moved into the new brick pastorium (they were always brick) on the other side of Mr. Barrett’s pine thicket. We had spent the morning building a pen for a pig my father had purchased (presumably not in a poke) to fatten on the table-scraps which it was intended to one day become. Our pen was evidently porous because we spent all day chasing the shoat. People would call from the other side of town to report things like, “Preacher Millsaps, I seen your pig over here rooting in Grandma’s flower bed,” and off my father, my sister and I would go to chase it. We chased it all day, eventually joined by enough neighborhood children and concerned citizens to corner and capture it, returning it to the newly reinforced pen. 

The pen held, and the pig was unable to escape when that evening Wallace’s trash fire consumed the pig, the pen, and another stand of Mr. Barrett’s pulpwood.


Chapter 7: In Which Wallace Sees the Other South 

It is highly unlikely that my father ever saw a black person before he was grown. There certainly were none living on Jack’s River and it’s improbable that any visited there.

In fact, Wallace could have lived a considerable chunk of his adulthood before he ever saw a black person in the flesh, unless he encountered them during a brief stint working at the Alcoa Aluminum plant in Alcoa, Tennessee as a young man. I offer this conjecture partly because I went to high school in Fannin County and I don’t recall seeing a black person there until my senior year in 1969 when a Negro -- that would have been the term then politically correct -- came with a Chattanooga area high school to play basketball in our gym.

(The West Fannin boys would have won. We rarely lost in our gym and regularly advanced to the state AA tournament, going down only when we got far enough to meet Newton County.)

After my friends and I were old enough to drive -- legally, we drove the mountain backroads from the time we were big enough to see over the steering wheel -- I learned that two or three black families actually lived in Fannin County, lived in their own ghetto cul-de-sac in Blue Ridge. I remember going there only once, when my friend Rick Goss, whose father owned an office supply store in Blue Ridge and who told me about these underground citizens, took me there to quiet my skepticism that the place existed. We drove down a small street which went to the western edge of town where the pavement ended and the road dropped abruptly into a dell containing three shanty houses which were uncommon for Fannin County only because they were in town and close together. I later learned that the few children there were bussed to a “colored” school in Gilmer County. The adults worked at The Supper Club, a beer joint in Gilmer County.
Because I never heard anyone else mention the existence of this community, I suspect that most Fannin Countians only learned of it in 1971 when they were integrated into the school system. I know that the good folks at Blue Ridge First Baptist, perhaps as compensation for this oversight, recruited them as church members.
When Wallace and his family moved to Bartow County in the late 1940’s, they entered a different world. Although his church was in the Atco Mill Village, the house provided for the preacher was about a mile away in the Carterville city limits, a break for my sisters because it put them in the city’s excellent school system. This house in which I lived when I was born sat at the foot of Summer Hill. A hundred and fifty feet away, up over the crest of a steep hill, a large community of black people lived. There was absolutely no overlap of black and white family housing; past the street at the top of the hill no white people lived, no blacks below. As a preschooler, I recall black children regularly walking by our house and turning up the sidewalk of a busy street to Mr. Padgett’s store. I know that’s where they went because, as remarkable as it seems now, I also was allowed to make that same walk, unsupervised, to buy candy and cokes.

Since I was under six years old, I don’t know how my father established contacts in the Summer Hill community, but I do know that he sometimes visited and spoke at their church services. Atco Baptist, of course, tendered no reciprocal invitation to the black minister.

From 1959 to late 1965 we lived in Holly Springs, Georgia. To my knowledge, no black people lived there, and I would have known because I roamed its streets freely. Quite a few black people lived in the county seat of Canton, but I didn’t know it at the time because for me they were invisible, segregated from the schools, forbidden to shop in the same stores as white people.

The black people I saw as a child were on television, a few entertainers and baseball players, but more provocatively, on the news I watched nightly with my parents, courageous black southern ministers preaching freedom and equality to crowds of southern blacks, these same crowds marching into fire hoses, attack dogs, and billy clubs wielded by white southerners, photographs of civil rights workers slain. In spite of the parallel parade of white southern leaders blaming this turmoil on “outside agitators” meddling in sovereign state’s rights and my mother singing in the amen choir, I was horrified by the violent assault on non-violence and drawn to the sonorous intoning of freedom and equality which invoked the same biblical imagery on which I had been bred.

I usually paid attention to my father’s sermons. He was often funny, usually entertaining and, moreover, he was liable at any time to up and a tell a story with me in it. At a Sunday morning service in 1965 he told the congregation that if he were a colored person, he would look upon the Rev. Martin Luther King as a great leader of his people. To a young person of today, my father’s remark sounds like tepid textbook orthodoxy, but I remember being proud of my father, because even as an elementary school student I was aware that most white southerners, including my mother and virtually all of their elected leaders, viewed Rev. King as a demon bent on upsetting the divine order of things.

It was not long after that my father was summoned to pastor another church, a large country church in Fannin County where he had always intended to return eventually. It wasn’t until much later, too late to ask him, that it occurred to me that these two events were likely causally connected, and that he was probably gittin’ while the gittin’ was good.

Chapter 8: In Which Irene Rolls up her Sleeves

Because, at six years old, like Willie Nelson my heroes had always been cowboys, I would beseech my mother to sing me cowboy songs at bedtime. Irene Millsaps, I know now but apparently didn’t then, knew no cowboy songs. The one she sang to me, I only realized after I was grown, she made up. It went, “He’s my rootin tootin cowboy/ And I guess he’s worth a nickel/ Or he may be worth a penny/ But he may not be worth any.” It had kind of a western swing tune.

She taught me standard southern mother fare -- Jesus loved me; God knew every single bad thing I did and was taking notes for future reference; I should always wear clean underwear in case I got hit by a car -- along with some misinformation, for example, that beer was brewed in big barrels that rats fell in and drowned and were left to rot. She taught me things that many mothers wouldn’t have known, such as how to build a fire in a fireplace, (you’ve got to have a “back stick” against which the fire is built) and that the bark of birch twigs tastes very good, like Beeman’s chewing gum, which is now hard to find.

Perhaps the most valuable thing my mother taught me before I was six was how to read. She did it by spending a lot of time reading to me Little Golden Books of which I had a vast collection, sounding out the letters until I figured it out. At five I wasn’t old enough to start school in Cartersville, but when we moved to Cedartown half way through the school year, the first grade teacher went to our church and she let me start the first grade after Christmas. The class was divided into three groups and Miss Green seated me at the “slow” table, but by the end of the week I was at the first table. The time my mother spent teaching me was the cause of my rapid ascent.

My mother sewed all of my shirts as well as her own dresses until I got old enough to want my clothes to look like everybody else, and then later in high school, at my request, because she could make things I saw in catalogues and on British rock stars on T.V. but couldn’t buy in Fannin County, those sixties paisley prints with oversized pointy collars. Later when I wasn’t subject to her control, it would seriously irk her that I wore bell bottom jeans with patches over the holes -- youth fashion at the time -- because she had lived through hard times when patched clothing was a mark of poverty.She taught me the names of flowers, trees, insects and animals even though the mountain names she knew for them didn’t always coincide with what the rest of the world called them. Canna lilies were simply “cannies” and dragonflies were “snake doctors.”My mother of course loved me and I her. Until her dying day she would have made any sacrifice that benefited me. In spite of that, from the time I was around twelve until I was almost thirty, I didn’t like my mother very much.We’ll have more on that later, but for now I want to stick with how remarkable she was when I was very young. She once caught a large snapping turtle and put it in an old washing machine we had outside -- the kind that was essentially an open barrel with three agitators like upside-down bowls and a wringer on top which you fed the clothes through before hanging them on the line -- so I could see it when I got home from school. She said “they” said if one bit you it wouldn’t let go until it thundered.

It was along about the time of the snapping turtle -- I was probably nine or ten --that my friend and I were wishing aloud one Saturday that we had a “clubhouse.” My mother, overhearing this, came out of the house shortly wearing overalls, inquiring how big we thought our house should be. She drew out plans on the floor of the carport, then got a handsaw and started working with the scrap lumber left over from building the pastorium. My friend, Johnny Champion, was agog. 

By the next weekend we had an eight by twelve clubhouse with a porch, a window, a sloped tin roof and a ladder on the back by which you could get on the roof.

Having a clubhouse, I started a club, the Destroyers, and appointed myself its leader. We had a club song of my composition which, as you will see, was influenced by the network news’ reporting of current events. It was sung to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” except for the last line which was sung exactly as you would think. “We are the Destroyers/ Marching on to war/ Crushing the Black Muslims/ Because they are so dumb/ Cha Cha Cha.”We did a little three-step hip shake to that last part.

Chapter 9: In Which Irene is in Her Element

Irene was in her element as the pastor’s wife at the piedmont churches my father pastored. Her girls attended good public schools and, after some difficult adjustment and a lot of catching up, excelled. They were more help than hindrance now, handling their share of housework, the older ones helping pay their way by working the soda fountain at Cochran’s Pharmacy the same way a progression of pretty Covington schoolgirls made your shakes and floats at People’s. It was a choice job because, “It’s Kool Inside,” the penguin on the door told us, a rare thing in Carterville in the 1950’s. 

Irene’s life had come a long way from being nursemaid to four baby girls in a seven year span in places like Devil’s Den without indoor plumbing and before Roosevelt electrified the mountains (although the lines only recently made it to Devil’s Den; no doubt pavement will follow.) And now she had the infant son whom she would raise to be a Christian Gentleman in a civilized world with four live-in babysitters competing for the privilege. 

She had nice, solid, store bought furniture and milk was delivered cold to her door. In a niche apparently built into the house for that purpose sat a telephone with no dial, no buttons. When you were big enough to reach it you could put the receiver to your little ear and a lady would say, “Number please.” I remember when the delivery truck came and two men bought the big Zenith in, changing our lives forever, bringing “Mickey Mouse Club” to me, “America Bandstand” to my sisters, “I Love Lucy” and “The Red Skeleton Show” to my parents, although, except for my father, we all watched it all. 

She and her husband were respected people in a community whose respect she valued. My father had started at a church without a church building. Goodyear had built only one church building, which the Baptists and Methodists shared, taking turns with the preaching. When the Baptists started meeting elsewhere, my sisters were disappointed to learn that most of the congregation and most of their Sunday school friends were Methodists. Methodism was big in Cartersville. The famous Methodist evangelist, Sam Jones, lived there. 

When Wallace left fourteen years later the Baptist met in their own massive, columned brick structure shaped like a traditional cathedral, a cross with the choir loft and baptistry in the apse. My mother, of course, taught Sunday School and Training Union, ran the W.M.U. When she left, the church gave her, among other things, a china cabinet full of gossamer-thin porcelain that we never used unless we had company. 

My mother, who, in my lifetime at least, never worked a paying job, played a large role in the family’s change of lifestyle. She encouraged my father’s self education, kept the babies out of his lap so he could study, and, working beside him in the cornfield beanpatch, corrected his grammar. Although he never lost the mountain twang, he eschewed double negatives and knew the difference between “good” and “well.”
My sister Joyce recently told me that the mother of my mother -- you may recall Lura Harkins, the “Tennessee Hall” -- was the daughter of British citizens. Her parents had come to Ducktown because the father -- my great, great grandfather, a Mr. Pruitt -- was an engineer whose skills were needed by the Tennessee Copper Co. She, my sister, also reminded me of something I’d known but forgotten, that my mother’s father and his brothers had been born and raised in New Orleans and that my grandfather had attended medical school but not practiced. There’s no telling what his speech sounded like. It could have been Cajun patois or it may have been that inner city New Orleans dialect that sounds more like New York City than Panama City.

At any rate, the dialect my mother spoke was not of Jacks’ River, though she learned it there near a logging operation the Harkins brothers had set up. Her great aunt came from England to visit her niece there and ended up having to stay for the duration of World War I. My mother recalled Papa teaching her to pronounce things one way and her aunt another. 

Joyce speculated that we -- Wallace and Irene’s kids -- don’t sound like mountain people because of our mother, but while she was telling me this I was thinking she sure didn’t sound like Dan Rather. I also know that when at seventeen I entered Emory University, I was the only student from the Appalachian poverty belt, and my classmates -- who were largely urban southerners, Yankees, Jews or some combination of those elements -- had so much fun at the expense of my hillbilly–redneck twang that within two years I had changed my pronunciation to that of the standard American newscaster.
After I left that institution I came to see my change of dialect as a birthright-for-porridge exchange, and set about reincorporating Appalachian idiom into my speech, because when you loose that sense of place in your speech, you lose not only the expression, the way of saying things, but also the ability to communicate the ideas they represent. 

An example. My mother-in-law, a southerner, married a man from Idaho and spent, as did my wife, significant chunks of her life living in Washington and northern Idaho. People there made fun of the way she talked, particularly, she told me, her use of “fixing to,” as in, “I’m fixing to pick up some Cocolas.” 

“Eula,” I told her, clever and insightful son-in-law that I am, “you should have told them that there are some things you can’t say if you take out ‘fixing to.’ For example, ‘I’m preparing to slap a knot on yore head,’ just doesn’t cut it.” The sense of imminent corporal correction is lost entirely. A child would laugh, justifiably, at the parent who uttered such a threat, and things could only get worse from there. 


Chapter 10: In Which Irene Bears a Grudge 

To say that my mother didn’t take to the idea of moving back to the mountains would be a vast understatement. It was for her as if she’d followed Joshua into the promised land and had adjusted to a steady diet of milk and honey, only to have him up and decide to take himself and his house back to the wilderness where they would be dependent on a fickle god for food falling out of the sky.

I should mention here something I’ve previously referenced. Some time in the early sixties my mother was in an automobile accident which injured her back. She had at least two surgeries. A disk was removed from her back -- something I don’t think is done anymore -- making a woman who was barely five feet tall even shorter.

Anyone who has ever had even a strained muscle in his back knows the misery it brings and how it can sour one’s outlook on the world while it lasts. Some of the saddest cases I’ve handled as a criminal defense attorney involved educated, middle-class people who were repeatedly sent back to prison for forging prescriptions and burglarizing pharmacies to feed their addiction to pain medication. Invariably they had been victims of severe back injuries who had become addicted to powerful painkillers under medical supervision.
So I’m sure I should have cut Irene more slack than I did, but when you’re thirteen you only see how scary the world is for you.
 My mother didn’t become addicted to Seconal; that would have defied the draconian moral code by which she lived. She became addicted instead to vitriol. 

Old Maids is the only card game my mother would play. Traditional playing cards with their pagan symbols were not permitted in the house. The rest of us were allowed to play “Rook,” although she never befouled herself with the game.

I remember riding with my father and her to some thread mill in Canton where she was applying for a job, remember seeing her hobble to the door while we sat in the car. A child of today could not imagine the shame I felt thinking that my mother would get a job, any job. I was furthermore shocked that the world valued my mother’s considerable talents as only being fit for factory work.

Irene didn’t take the job. She may have never intended to. She may have been running a bluff that if my father wanted to go back to the hills he would do so without her and his son.

Near this time she would take me aside and tell me that she and I might be leaving at any moment, to be prepared. I listened to this without response, because even though I was scared by the idea of moving away from my friends in Holly Springs and the world as I knew it, I knew there was no way I was leaving my father’s house wherever it might move. I didn’t tell her so because I never had to. One of the lessons I learned from my father which serves me well to this day is to not fight unnecessary battles.

My mother was a strong and stubborn person and a great holder of grudges. Only death could release her from the hold of the grudge once formed. She refused to speak to her sister in Virginia for probably ten years after Ruby declined to take her turn keeping Grandma Harkins, but after Grandma died the grudge was lifted and they went back to being friends.

Even more remarkable, Irene had a brother of whose existence I never learned until his corpse was brought back to Fannin County from Ohio, and at 14 I was designated one of his pallbearers. The source of this grudge was a fairly substantial transgression on Uncle Charles’ part, but even though he didn’t kill anybody, except in WWII, the sweep of my mother’s vendetta was so broad that my sisters and my father, who knew Uncle Charles, were forbidden to mention his name in her son’s presence.

We did move to Fannin County where I was immediately accepted as being super cool because I was from “Atlanta” and had a Beatlesque haircut. There the force of my mother’s new grudge settled in and attached itself to my father and anyone who might have been involved in his progeny. Whenever she could corner me, she would assail me with my father’s many shortcomings which I should avoid at all costs.

I really don’t know now what she said about Wallace, because I didn’t listen. I couldn’t put my hands over my ears and go “Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah,” but I would incur my mother’s furor when she would realize I was singing under my breath, probably Beatles and Stones, and if that failed there was always revelry in my new found super coolness and the attention of pretty young mountain girls that status offered.

Suffice it to say that anything which she perceived as a problem could be blamed on my father. A minor example. Once when I brought a Catholic girlfriend home from Emory she took me aside afterward and told me Wallace should have had this talk with me if he’d been a decent father, but it fell on her to tell me I shouldn’t be dating a Catholic. She then went on to detail a fairly informed if absurdly biased account of papist atrocities from 33AD to present.

My father, as you may have garnered by now, judged people by the content of their hearts as manifested in their behavior. The girl in question, the daughter of a wealthy Harvard Medical School graduate from Asheville, was charmed by Wallace, and he had enough sense to see that the likelihood of her marrying me was so slim that counseling on the pitfalls of interfaith marriage was one of those battles that likely need not be fought.

Wallace purchased his freedom from Irene’s grudge by dying in 1974 at 63. After that she softened, became more tolerant, though not enough to keep her from criticizing at any opportunity the lifestyle of her wayward son, which was a far cry from her definition of Christian Gentleman. It was only after 1980, when I took up with and a year later married Cynthia Bolkcom, who was neither Catholic nor Yankee, and pointed myself toward law school that my mother and I again became the friends who had built a clubhouse from scrap lumber and read Little Golden Books until the son could read them himself. From then until she was overcome by dementia later in the century, we spent pleasant times together, I with the pretty wife and grandchildren, and she with tales of a way of life that survived only in memory and murky photographs.

Chapter 11: In Which Wallace Disappoints

I only remember one occasion that I felt ashamed of my father. I was nine years old and it involved baseball, my consuming passion at the time.

Wallace had tried to discourage me from “trying out” for Little League. He was afraid I wouldn’t “make the team,” but I was insistent. He mentioned something about one of my sisters crying after not making some team -- school basketball, I guess. I shouldn’t come crying to him when it happened, he said, but I was insistent and he relented.

Some of my classmates had already played a year before I could start, because I was the youngest person in my grade, so I knew it wasn’t possible to not “make the team” of which there were twelve. I also knew something else my father didn’t, which was that I could play some ball.

I knew I could play some ball from competition at recess and after school, where I could stay as long as I wanted because I walked to and from it on a trail through Mr. Barrett’s woods. There were other “walkers” to play ball with at Holly Springs Elementary, and some of the best players had no choice but to stay after school because they rode the “Sixes” bus which couldn’t board until a bus had completed its forty-five minute “Toonigh” run and returned for them.

I had also virtually memorized the “Baseball” entry in my World Book Encyclopedia, and read every book remotely involving baseball in the little school’s library. I dazzled my elders in the Temple of Baseball Lore. They could name a good player from their childhood and I could tell them definitively whether that player was in the Hall of Fame. The “Black Sox Scandal” and “The House that Ruth Built” were things I relived with shame and pride even though they’d occurred a generation or two before my birth. I sifted through the box scores of every game in the paper. Then there was “The Game of the Week” from which I gathered tidbits from Pee-Wee and Old Diz. I could tell you how many stitches are on a baseball (“a hunerd and eight, podner”) and sing the Falstaff Beer jingle.

My father, I was to learn, knew next to nothing about baseball.
At one of the first practices with the Bears, my first team, I was playing second base when somebody fouled a ball into the stands behind third where my father sat watching. He retrieved the ball and threw it back in -- there’s no other way to say this that could capture my horror at the time -- like a girl.
I don’t know how long I stood there stunned before my face flushed. I’m fairly certain that if the next pitch had been hit my way, it could have smacked me in the side of the head before I moved.
If you don’t know what throwing like a girl means, it’s a fairly sure bet that you yourself throw like a girl, and more likely than not are, or were, a girl, or maybe an Eskimo. This is far less true now that stereotypes and sports opportunities for females have changed, but in 1960 there was only one girl in my school who didn’t throw like a girl, and she was a born athlete.

My father threw like a girl, I realized after I had digested this information, because he’d never played baseball. It’s entirely possible he was an adult before he ever saw anyone -- child or adult -- play the game of baseball.

I can assure you there were no baseball fields on Jack’s River. The game of baseball before Babe Ruth in the 1910’s, when my father was the age I was when I learned the game, was far from the national obsession it was to become, and then, before radio, Jack’s River was largely sequestered from what went on in flatland America. More importantly, baseball is not a game well suited to mountainous forest land. A very small percentage of major league players traditionally have come from Appalachia; they came disproportionately from flat farm and pasture lands where summers and days were long.

Prior to that day when he threw the foul ball back, I had thought that my father, Preacher Millsaps, in spite of being fifteen or twenty years older than my friend’s parents, could do anything as well or better than any of them. None of my teammates mentioned it, surprising considering how cruel boys are to each other at that age, maybe for the same reason Wallace and I never discussed it -- it was just too embarrassing. It would have been like making fun of someone for having only one leg. Throwing a baseball well was that central to our notion of respectable male identity.

There would of course come a time when I looked back and was ashamed of my nine-year-old self for being ashamed of my father for not being able to do what he’d never needed to learn, but long before that, from the day it happened onward, there was a chink in his armor, and for all I knew there could be other

Chapter 12: In Which I Disappoint 

Looking back, I think for the most part I was a source of pride to my father before I left home for college. I excelled in school and could and did memorize long passages of scripture and all the books of the Bible when some competition required it, and I could take down any kid I ever met in a “sword drill.”

I guess it’s time for another aside since I suspect that there are those among the unbaptized -- and when I say baptized, I mean the real thing, dunking like a donut, not some sprinkling with holy water mumbo jumbo -- who don’t know what a sword drill is or was. The sword drill was the ingenious fusion of Southern Baptists’ desire to indoctrinate their young with Biblical minutiae, with children of the fifties and sixties fascination with westerns and particularly the cowboy gunfight. (Other sects may have adopted this rite, but I see that as somewhat like comparing spaghetti westerns with John Wayne and Wyatt Earp.) 

Children were placed in a line before an adult with their Bibles hung like six-shooters at there sides. The adult would then say, “Present swords” and the kids would bring the Bibles up flat on there right palms, their left hands placed gently on the top, left thumbs rubbing the gilded edges of the leaves like itchy trigger fingers. The adult would then cite a Bible verse, say Malachi 3:12, and then, I believe, “Charge,” (although I like to think it was “Draw”) pages would rifle and the first child to locate the passage, me if I were in that line, would step forward and read the verse, smoke rising in a gentle plume over the pages. 

If you were the best kid in your class or your church, the quick draw sheriff who kept the peace, I was the punk kid whose daddy you had gunned down, my entire childhood spent splattering Bible verses like whisky bottles tossed in the air, coming to gun you down. It would be a fair fight, but I would blow you away, and when the smoke cleared you would be found writhing on your back between the pulpit and the front pew, your life’s blood oozing into the carpet since medical science was not then as advanced as now, and a fusillade to the gut of “begats” and “wherefores” was usually fatal. (Of course, the only thing that could have made this drill more authentic would have been to have eliminated the “Present swords” bit of business and just let us shoot from the hip, but I assume that the game’s inventors envisioned a scenario where greenhorns would lose their grip and send Bibles sailing across the sanctuary, possibly endangering candelabras and the picture of Jesus, if not the drill instructor herself.)

Meanwhile back at Daddy and me, I was saying my father was mostly pleased with me. In addition to being a book whiz, I enjoyed doing things he had as a child -- hunt, fish, hike, camp -- but I also was proficient at that only competition of (real) boys that then existed in Cherokee County, the Little League baseball field.

I have previously told you that it was on the baseball field that I was for the first and only time ashamed of my father. It was later on that same field, a perfectly manicured tract in a bend of the Etowah River, that I would later cause my father for the only time I can recall to say that he was ashamed of me.

Which is not to say I didn’t disappoint him at times, but these incidents were nearly always things involving property damage, rather than the wound to another human involved in the incident on the Etowah. I’m not even counting involuntary property damage, windows and windshields I shattered while honing my baseball skills, but rather things like the time when I was eight or nine when he came out of some church member’s house to discover me amusing neighborhood children by tossing a pointed carpenters file, Jim Bowie style, into the trunk of the only tree in their little front yard. He was disappointed in this error of judgment, but he didn’t say ashamed. He made me apologize to the host, who of course said it was nothing, and then spent a while explaining how old and valuable the tree was, how it was an ornament in these people’s yard, how long it would live and how I had left it forever scared. Up until then I’d thought nothing about nailing stuff to trees. Cowboys did it all the time.

(Although I did have this continuing thing with knives and wood. My nephew David [the worm gatherer] and I were returned to the scene of the crime and lectured after we’d used the pocket knifes we’d recently been mistakenly deemed old enough to own to surreptitiously bore holes in our church pew to ease our boredom during Sunday Night Service. Later when I was a sophomore in high school my father would have to make amends after Buster Byrd -- son of former Lt. Governor Garland T. Byrd, from somewhere in south Georgia -- and I spent our spare time during a summer debate workshop tossing Byrd’s bowie knife [again, Bowie style] into the solid wood door to our dorm room. In my defense I can only offer that to this day I can sing you the theme song to the early 60’s T.V. series, “Jim Bowie.”)

When I was eleven I played on a Little League team which lost every game. I had never pitched, but our pitching was so bad that one day late in the season I got the chance to record a couple of outs. For the next week I make my father squat with a catcher’s mitt on the carport with the utility room as the backstop while I battered his shins with errant pitches. The next game, when we were again down ten runs and the usual pitchers were used up, the coach came out to make the change and I was already a few steps toward the mound from my second base position when he motioned to the outfield for a ten-year-old who was his next door neighbor’s kid to come to the mound. 

Things are generally very quiet when a kid’s baseball team is changing pitchers and they’re ten runs down. When I saw Waters trotting to the mound I said, to no one in particular, but, I was later to learn, loud enoug
h for people down river to hear, “Waters? He cain’t pitch!”
Chapter 13: In Which Wallace Meets his Maker 

My father died before he was sixty-five, in the early 1970’s from natural causes that remain a mystery to me. At the time I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have, partly because I was awash in the sea of uncertainty which might and did engulf a young man from my peculiar background thrust into the wider world of social and spiritual upheaval which was America at that time, but also because for a long time I could not grasp that Preacher Millsaps was dying. The father whom I left when I moved to Atlanta at seventeen had been a robust man of sixty who could outwalk and outwork men half his age.

I remember the instant I realized he was dying. I was riding with him in the big Plymouth, and for the first time ever he was driving slowly and carefully on open road. This from a man who once passed an Ellijay policeman on a double yellow line because the cop was poking along with traffic lined up behind him.

(My father had little respect for wealth and power in themselves, only the means by which they were attained if he deemed them praiseworthy. He paid the ticket eventually, but not until we had visited half the merchants in Ellijay, all of whom he seemed to know, to protest what he saw as an abuse of power.)

There on the road between Madola and Epworth, I realized that my father, since the last time I had ridden with him, maybe the year before, had grown suddenly and dramatically old.

He, of course, saw what was happening well before that day in the Plymouth and, I see now, completed some things he thought he needed to do. In those last few years while I was away, in and out of school, he, sometimes with my help, but more often alone or with my brother-in-law Jack, went into the mountains and disassembled two snake-infested log cabins, one built in the 1880’s and one in the 1840’s by an ancestor named Stepp, transported and reassembled them into a single house on farmland he owned in Epworth.

He sat in the back yard and with a hatchet split cedar shingles from trees he had felled, then recreated the type of roof that would have originally topped the cabins. The chimney was made from rock which he hauled from the creek, evaluating each piece for fit. The floors and ceiling were the same wide boards from the original houses. The leftover chestnut boards were used to panel a kitchen he built onto a house he had built in the 1930’s, and in which my mother would live for twenty years after his death. (She covered the chestnut with yellow wallpaper, over her children’s protest, because it brightened up the room. It was, after all, her house and her kitchen.) Later, after the house was assembled and he was unable to do heavy lifting, he returned to the chair in the backyard and with a hatchet and knife separated from hickory logs long, thin strips of wood which he wove into bottoms for straight-backed chairs for his cabin’s kitchen.

A couple of years after my father’s death, I lived for a year in the cabin Preacher Millsaps willed to his son. Five years later, the money I got from selling it to my sister enabled me to afford law school.

People sat outside Lebanon Church in folding chairs at my father’s funeral, listening to the service over loud speakers. I remember that by force of will I did not weep, because my father hadn’t at his mother’s funeral because, he said, she was gone to a better place. I remember my Aunt Myrtle saying of the seminary-schooled preacher who delivered the eulogy, “Grover Jones said Wallus was a jane-yus, said there’s no telling what that man could’a done if he’d had an edjacation.”
Although I experienced tremendous grief at my father’s death, I have sometimes felt relief that we were spared the conflict that surely would have arisen from my lifestyle choices, that the only time I know he felt ashamed of me was that day on the Little League field, but that is self-serving speculation on my part.

There was a year or so in my early twenties that I was so depressed I can now remember little about the period other than where I lived and worked. During that time my father appeared to me in a dream. In the dream, I am sitting on a park bench with my head in my hands, distraught. My father, who in the dream I know to be dead, comes and sits beside me and I tell him that I don’t know what to do. He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “I know it’s hard son, but I can see you’re doing the best you can.” I don’t know where dreams come from, but I know I held onto that one like a talisman, a lifebuoy.
Now that we’ve killed off our hero; it’s time for this story to end, and exercising my perverse sense of symmetry, since we started back in Chapter I with John Lennon’s spoken intro to the Beatles’ last L.P., (“in which Doris gets her oats”) I opt to end with a paraphrase of his closing. 
I’d like to thank you on behalf of Preacher Millsaps and meself, and I hope we passed the audition.