BILL MINOR: Tall tales from the hills stir memories of legislative yarn-spinners

JACKSON – Mike Mills was both an excellent state legislator and a heckuva spinner of yarns in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now
he is U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills of Mississippi’s Northern District, and he’s still a great story teller.
We were fortunate enough to have him speak last week at our Common Cause/Mississippi annual banquet and he pulled some stories out of his 2007 book “Twice Told Tombigbee Tales,” which draws heavily upon his beloved Northeast Mississippi. Thankfully, he relates some of the yarns of the real characters in the Legislature (whom I also knew) that he either served with or who just preceded him in the lawmaking body.
It happened that Mills in the 1980s represented one end of Itawamba County and Edwin J. “Jerry” Wilburn, the matchlessly funny gentleman from Mantachie represented the other. Jerry was 20 years Mike’s senior and never let Mills forget it, calling him “little Mills.” Having to ride to Jackson with Jerry down the Natchez Trace cramped into Wilburn’s pickup truck (sometimes crammed also with Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville) was like a circus coming to town. Mills describes Jerry thusly: “Archaism is the use of an old or obsolete form for another. Mr. Wilburn mixes archaism, metonymy and malapropisms all in one phrase.”
Once when the Legislature dragged on and could not adjourn, Jerry told Mills Itawamba Countians had sent an ambulance to get them. When Mike asked why, Jerry with straight face said “they read in the Tupelo Daily Journal that Norma Fields said it was time to sign or die (Sine Die) and they knew me and you wouldn’t sign.”
Actually, Jerry uttered his most memorable Wilburnism at the seemingly endless 1968 session, before Mills ever arrived. The House had debated a 1-cent sales tax increase all day long, with Jerry waging a noble fight against it, and how it would hurt the “purr widders.” As night fell, the bill appeared ready to pass as the vote neared. Jerry came forward from his seat in the back of the chamber for his last stand.
Grabbing the lectern with both hands, Wilburn began: “Ah know how General Cluster felt when he saw all them Injuns at the Battle of Big Horn…” And went on until time was called on him. When the roll was called, Jerry went down in defeat, much as General “Cluster” had years before.
Aaron C. “Butch” Lambert, from the country town of Holcut, Tishomingo County, had become something of a legend as a football player, coach and Southeastern Conference referee before he won a seat in the Mississippi House. He, too, enriched the lives of those around him with his stories, as Mills recounts.
Lambert (now deceased) told of his Aunt Maudie’s country store in Holcut where he often hung out near the store’s wood-burning pot-bellied stove. Some older brethren usually gathered around the stove to swap gossip. One day, Butch says, the loafers noticed a shiny new Buick pull up to the gas pumps, a man got out and started pumping gas.
What caught the eye of the brethren was the fellow had his shirt on backwards and one arm in a sling. So “Jim” was sent to find who this character might be.
Jim greeted him and inquired where he was from and what he did for a living. “Memphis,” he answered, adding “I’m a priest.” Of course, Jim had to know what a priest was. “Leader of a church in the Catholic faith…something like a preacher in the Protestant faith.” Next, Jim inquired why he had his shirt on backward. “This isn’t a shirt…it’s a habit, you might call it my uniform.”
The priest went on to say that his church had rented a cabin nearby to go on retreat a few days. He had to explain to Jim that a retreat was “something like a revival.” One more question, Jim said: “How’d you break your arm?” The priest explained that he had fallen after standing on a commode changing a light bulb.
Back to his comrades inside the store Jim went to relay all the information about the stranger he had gathered. He explained to some consternation that the man was a Catholic priest and what brought him to their community. Then Jim explained the priest had broken his arm when he fell off a commode.
The stove huggers couldn’t resist asking Jim what was a commode. “Hell if I know,” Jim replied. “I ain’t a Catholic.”

Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at edinman@earthlink.net.

Bill Minor