It’s a splendid Mississippi morning – 21 degrees at dawn. I just returned from a morning walk over the frosted fields of the home place at Sparta. I stood stock still as a wary buck skirted the fence rows 180 degrees around me. I snapped a photo of his footprint with my pocket knife (1976 Case Copperhead) alongside for perspective to show to my son and my dad. That’s the way to hunt: thrill of the stalk, but without the problem of dressing a smelly carcass, and then having to eat the darned thing. (Came back by Dad’s to show him the photos of the track – and sealed the fate of said buck. Three mornings later, he made the mistake of walking broadside to my dad’s stand in the rear of an old hay barn, overlooking a narrow field and its embracing woods. Dad’s 87, but thanks to Dr. Wesson’s skill at cataract surgery, he’s as deadly with a rifle as when he earned every marksmanship medal the infantry offered in 1944. The 9-pointer is now in the freezer.)
The funeral of my good friend and Lodge brother, Mike Cliett, a week ago today, puts me in mood to reflect. Mike and Ray Price died within a few hours of each other. Eddie Dean composed an old novelty number called “Hillbilly Heaven.” Wouldn’t it be a great thing if Mike Cliett and Ray Price arrived in Hillbilly Heaven at the same time? Music lovers would be rewarded with Ray’s rendition of “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You,” while old country boys who left Tennessee to die in Michigan could thrill to “City Lights.” Then all could gather around the camp fire and enjoy Mike’s rendition of good old redneck tales, followed by a helping of his famous gumbo–and (if G-d is truly good) passing the bottle of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7. (Maybe that’s why Protestant funerals run on so – conscientious clergymen are compelled to clarify the fuzzy boundaries among faith, fable, and superstition – a Sisyphean task, if ever there was one! Baptist children have been known to go from weaning to puberty during the course of a funeral.)
Later in the day, I drove down to the red hill Pine Bluff overlooking the Sewayiah Creek Bottom. Black Land Prairie stretched off to the eastern horizon, like a urologist’s finger examining Alabama’s prostate. Cyclonic winds bring copious amounts of rain from the Gulf via Texas and Arkansas. The red-hill ridge west of Mantee divides the waters from the waters. At Mt. Pleasant, the waters return to the sea that gave them via the Yalobusha and the Mississippi. Here, where a couple of dozen Masons stood and cherished Big Mike’s memory, commended his spirit to G-d who gave it, and consigned his body to the earth, the waters follow the Tombigbee to Mobile Bay. The red earth is settling in over Big Mike’s place of repose, and as I soak up the weak-as-watered-whiskey winter’s sun, a sense of peace soothes my troubled soul.
Like Quentin Compson’s roommate at Cambridge, acquaintances ask me: “Why do you live there?” Some ask out of friendly curiosity when the contrast between my world-view and that of my neighbors’ puzzles them. Others ask as a way to deliver an indirect insult to me, or to the land of my nativity. I usually respond that I was born here, and leave it at that. For the benefit of those whose intent is benign, I further offer: “Here, I have to explain nothing. I understand, as I am understood. Nowhere else do I feel so accepted, so comfortable. This is my home.”
Big Mike understood. He knew that being neighbors, or compatriots, or Lodge brothers does not mean we are clones – physically, mentally, or spiritually. He was not given to abstractions (except in unguarded moments), but he knew. We are brothers, whether we like it or not, and we may as well get along.
We were unlikely “brothers,” but having “been to the east” made us kin, almost as intimate as if born of the same mother. If I had a critical need and the time to make only one phone call, it would have been to Big Mike. My heart aches at his absence, even as it is filled to overflowing with gratitude for having known and loved him.
Sonny Scott, a community columnist, lives in Chickasaw County’s Sparta community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.