For my friend “Roberto”

Capt. Robert G. Johnston

I will try to keep this post short but it might be hard. When I first started practicing law, I represented a woman who had been served with a complaint the size of the New Testament containing more Latin phrases than I knew existed. The attorney on the other side battered me both inside and outside the courtroom to the point I could barely see straight. My father laughed at my plight and said, “That’s Robert.”

To know Robert Johnston was to love him. His stories were legendary and it was almost a rite of passage for young lawyers in Cleveland to spend a Friday afternoon in his office letting him tell legal war stories while trying to pour whiskey down your throat. (Nasty whiskey, I might add. He stopped drinking himself a long time ago.) He had nicknames for everyone, and I was “John Pops” because I would walk around the corner to his office and grab a soft drink from his office refrigerator whenever I was thirsty. That nickname stuck even after I put my own fridge in our office over ten years ago. Robert enjoyed people coming to him for help, advice, or a drink. I called him “Roberto” and I think he loved me giving him a nickname of his own more than anything.

For time eternal, Robert has been our Municipal Court Prosecutor. When I was first appointed to the bench 17 years ago, I was a bit nervous. To my relief, Robert was always prepared and did not hesitate to lend his opinion to the situation at hand, albeit with his requisite deference to the Court’s authority. He prosecuted every person the same, and I often kidded him outside of court that he pursued people with traffic tickets as if Charles Manson had been caught speeding in our fair city. He didn’t know any other way, and we were better because of his work. I am sure I infuriated him over the years with my rulings, but he very rarely ever spoke about the cases once they were complete. I have enough stories about City Court to fill two volumes, and you better believe Robert would be the main character. He and I would often speak of the cast of characters in City Court as if they were our family. It was a dysfunctional family, I would remind him, but they were our family. He would greet me with “And a good afternoon to Your Honor” at the beginning of court every week and wouldn’t leave without asking whether “he could be excused.” (I told him “No” one time and he looked at me a bit dumbfounded.) That small courtroom won’t be the same without him.

It’s the little things you really remember about someone when they’re gone. I will miss passing Robert on his way to work every morning during my early morning walk, and I will miss him throwing his hand up as he sped past me. I will miss that conspiratorial smirk when he was talking about someone, and the way he would mutter out of the side of his mouth, “Well, the Lord loves him.” I will miss his endless stories, most of them having little to do with anything relevant, but stories he delighted in telling me anyway. “John, sit and hear an old lawyer talk” is how those stories would always begin. I will miss Robert asking whether I had talked to his “poor, pitiful son Arthur” lately, and I will miss Robert asking whether I’m “getting enough to eat and drink these days.” I will miss Robert’s combative style in the courtroom, and how red his face would get when he would try a case. The last case we ever tried opposite each other was originally Ashley’s case, and Robert ran her through the ringer just as he did me in my first case with him. When I entered the case due to Ashley being out on maternity leave, Robert asked if I wanted to continue the trial date “so Mrs. Cox could return.” I laughed, told him I would be ready for trial, and it was time “he came to eat at the big kids’ table” on this one. He smirked that familiar Robert smirk that always came out when someone challenged him. I will miss Robert’s inimitable ability to say 10,000 words when 10 would do, and his genuine love of the practice of law. He worked like no other, always wearing a suit and tie to labor in his office 11 hours a day every day of the year except Christmas and Memorial Day. Robert was the only one of us who actually wanted to be a lawyer when he got to heaven. I will miss Robert telling me Navy stories or stories about Vanderbilt Law School. (“MO-Head, it ain’t,” he would always say.) I will miss Robert asking me what’s on my mind but _____. (If you knew Robert, then you know how to fill in the blank at the end of that last sentence.) I will miss Robert describing someone as “high type,” or a “fine young lawyer.” I will miss the inane arguments even Robert knew were bullshit but he knew his job required him to argue something. I will just miss Robert.

Years ago, Robert rounded the corner toward my office with a noticeable bulk in his overcoat. I was walking in myself, so I saw him coming in my direction so quickly it was as if he had just robbed a bank. Robert waved me toward the office and opened his coat once we were both safely inside. He had brought me a bottle of Scotch from the Army/Navy store in Memphis, and although we were eightysomething years past Prohibition, Robert enjoyed feeling like he was sneaking something down the street. Only Robert.

When my father died a couple years ago, Robert was his usual formal self and expressed the appropriate sympathy at both the visitation and funeral mass. Then, a day or so after we buried Dad, Robert called late in the afternoon to ask if he could come around “to my cubby.” He sat across from me for about 15 minutes, and told me a story or two about my dad over the years. Of course, he told the stories in his own self-deprecating way. Robert didn’t really need anything, but you could tell he wanted to share those stories with me simply to make me smile. As he was leaving, he stopped. “John, Ancil was a fine, fine man, and a credit to our bar association. He was really high type. He was always damn proud of you. And he should be. Now let me go.” Just like that- Robert was gone. I will never forget that moment.

Godspeed, Roberto. In a profession that can breed dullness, you were anything but. For all of our sanity’s sake, there will never be another like you. Lord knows I will miss you, and our good natured give and take with each other. You taught me more than I ever told you, and you did it with a style than could never be replicated. I have absolutely no doubt you greeted St. Peter at Heaven’s door two days ago with one question– “Peter, what’s on your mind but ____?”

George’s

“George’s”

Earlier this week, I caught myself glancing over at a small, nondescript house with a big front porch when I drove down Fourth Avenue here in Cleveland. No telling how many people pass this house any given year, and quite honestly, it’s easily passed if you’re not looking for it. The roof needs work, and the outside probably hasn’t felt a fresh coat of paint since the last of the Reagan administration. But I still look for it every time I pass down this small street. To me, that house will always mean only one thing– “George’s.”

You see, a long time ago, that house was the home of some very good friends in college (including George). I can’t tell you what I wore to work on Monday this week, but I can tell you the exact layout of that house. I can describe the back deck, the small kitchen, and of course, the spacious living room where it seemed like 200 DSU students would gather to enjoy college and all that it brings. It was a simpler day and time, for sure, but it seemed as if all of life’s troubles disappeared the moment you opened the porch door and made your way inside the house. It all sounds so stupid when I say at 46 years old, but that old house, and houses like it, were the best parts of college life. It wasn’t the professors, no matter how good they were. It wasn’t the buildings or the sporting events. Nope. Not in the least. It was the people who became your family.


I can remember the first time I ever walked in George’s. I was 18 years old and scared to death. A couple of my older friends had invited me to go this house with them, and it was my first “college party.” When we opened the door to the porch, a tall guy ambled over to us with a goofy grin, stuck out his hand and introduced himself as Chase. Shortly after that introduction, we walked inside, and judging by a quick look at my current text messages and social media, I have never left. The friends I made in college have stuck by me through some very hard times in my life, and I am a better person because of their friendship. It’s been some tough love, no doubt, but I always felt their support. Many of these friends have college kids of their own now, but in many ways, we are all still just as connected as we were when we were 20 years old.

What does all of this have to do with anything? Am I just having some bizarre trip down memory lane because I don’t want to grow up? Nah. These thoughts come forward because I am worried about this current crop of college students. We have all seen the current numbers. Enrollment is down at many places, including Delta State. The pandemic has created a culture where education is rapidly becoming an almost entirely virtual exercise, and social gatherings are discouraged if not forbidden. What will bring future students to a university? More importantly, what will keep those students at a university– will they choose the one with the best Zoom background?? Before the pandemic, our society was already becoming one nation under social media app. Now? This generation will not have any of the fond memories of friends and neighbors. They won’t tell stories about the time four guys sat in a house eating chips and salsa discussing the latest soap opera. (Yes, frat boys watch soaps!) Instead, 2020 students will remember Zoom and Canvas. They have Insta posts and Snaps that disappear as quickly as they appear. They won’t be able to dive back in time by simply looking over at a run-down rental house in a college town. They won’t be able to close their eyes and still see George holding court in his living room with everyone laughing together. There’s just no chance at our present rate. Unless something changes, today’s college student will have no loyalty and affinity to anything other than a laptop and a smartphone.

Is that really progress? Can we go back?

We Can’t Thank Them Enough

While I understand the abstract subject of military action, my mind does not really comprehend the realities of actually serving in combat.

Throughout my life, I have spoken to so many veterans who have described the realities of war as much as their mind’s eye would allow them to describe it to me. Very rarely do I see a smile come across the veteran’s face when telling me war stories. Some appear to be physically weakened by just opening their personal memory bank. In every one of these conversations, I detect a small sense of hesitancy…like they don’t want to open that door because of what might be waiting behind it. I shudder thinking of the things that go through their minds— the sights and sounds of their friends and brothers meeting their demise in a sudden, violent burst. Veterans speak in generalities about their service. I get it. I will never know it because I will never experience it. Lord God willing, I will never have that experience. I hope and pray that my children will never have to experience it.

Today, I say thank you to all of our veterans. I feel like my gratitude is nowhere close to being adequate, but I almost offer it to these men and women. I live and love in a world where my definition of sacrifice is cutting extra carbs at dinner or coming home a day or two early from a vacation to save money. I live in a world where I get up early for quiet time to read and write, and I am confident I will come back home at night after my day’s work is done. I live in my little privileged world because our nation’s veterans were willing to give of themselves completely to ensure that we can all live in our spoiled little worlds.

Thank you again. And God bless each and every one of you.

The Music Is Out To Get Me

Yesterday, our new receptionist stuck her head in my office and asked whether we “take plaintiff’s cases.” Like any self-respecting attorney, I quickly told her it depended on the case. She explained there was a woman waiting on the phone to talk to someone about her case. I picked up the phone.

“This is John,” I said.

“Yessir, do you take plaintiff’s cases?” a female voice I would guesstimate to be in her early 50’s asked.

“Yes ma’am. Why don’t you tell me about the situation?”

“Well, it’s a defamation case,” the woman said with authority.

Visions of my Constitutional Law class 23 years ago danced through my head.

“This woman. She’s talking about me on the radio. I’m in a nursing home and I keep hearing her talking bad about me.”

I was a bit unclear at this point.

“Ma’am? Someone is talking about you on the radio? What is she saying?”

“She’s using my nickname and saying all sorts of stuff about me. I hear her and I know she is. And everyone is hearing it,” the caller explained.

“Yes ma’am. What’s she saying?”

There was a sigh.

“She’s saying I’m sassy, moody, nasty. ‘Moody’ is my nickname. She’s saying all sorts of other things like she’s still that bitch.”

I remained confused.

“Who is this person on the radio, and does she know you?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear this answer.

“She’s a woman named Meghan Thee Stallion and I don’t know how she got on the radio and she knows this much about me.”

I can honestly say this 46 year old Mississippi white boy lawyer barely knows the difference between Meghan Thee Stallion and Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion, but I did realize perhaps my caller was not operating with all of her faculties.

“Yes ma’am. I understand. So you think the rapper is talking about you in this song? Do you have any proof?”

“No sir. But I’m tired of it.”

We discussed a couple other things about her being targeted by this song before I told her I just wasn’t sure I had time this week to take on an international rap star, especially one who was “still that bitch.”

I referred her down the road.

A Pretty Typical Week

Let’s see. It’s Friday, October 2nd. Let me recap the last 7 days.

Ole Miss can’t tailgate or play defense.

MS State is throwing the football all over God’s green earth but particularly Tiger Stadium.

The French Open is being played in the fall.

The Celtics lose a playoff series to a team that ran the exact same play every time down the floor for 6 games without being stopped.

We had a Presidential debate that should have been moderated by Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart and Mean Gene Okerlund.

Helen Reddy died.

Mississippi’s governor eases the statewide mask restrictions.

The President and First Lady have now been diagnosed with COVID and the presumed quarantine period will probably be the longest stretch of time they’ve been spent together since the inception of their marriage.

On the plus side, my oldest boy continued his onslaught on the ACT test with another good score.

In hindsight, Michael Stipe could’ve saved words and just named his song “2020.”

Crowds and live music- Please Come Back!

I need crowds. We all do.

Desperately.

One of the byproducts of this damn pandemic is the loss of crowds. We count capacity for the purposes of subtraction rather than addition. We are now swimming in a pool where the size of the gathering matters, and social distancing is more important than socializing. Isolation and quarantine are the safe plays, and division is prized more than multiplication.

One of my good friends lamented a couple weeks ago— “I miss live music.” Truer words have never been spoken. Earlier this year, before the world hid under the covers, I had convinced Ashley to fly to Red Rocks in August on a Saturday, catch Jason Isbell’s show the next day, and fly back to reality on Monday morning. (Lucinda Williams was scheduled to open the night so it would have been a double treat.) But all live music has been silenced this year, and that trip is a no-go. (Aside- Jason, see you next August on the Rocks!)

The beauty of a crowd at a live music show is its unity and singularity of purpose. Good God, do we need that shit more than every now. Social media is like the world’s biggest sandbox, with everyone fighting for the one plastic shovel. You can’t watch the news without seeing the conflict and now people disagree on which news you should be watching. The political discourse is anything but discourse, and our leaders are better off emulating Vince McMahon (or even Jim McMahon) than James Madison or Thomas Jefferson. To be fair, a reading of our history does show we have always had our share of high-pitched squabbles in our country (Aaron Burr did shoot Alexander Hamilton in a fucking duel. And oh yeah, we did have this little disagreement amongst each other called the Civil War.). But damn, it’s pretty loud right now. We need the feeling that comes from a crowd more than ever.

I have always been in awe of musicians and loved the rush of the crowd. Go to a rock show, and strangers are bound together by one love and one vision. Life is put on pause in favor of the experience. In the mix might be a Southern Baptist conservative Republican sitting beside a liberal gay rights activist. In a show crowd, however, a single body gathers and forms for one united purpose–a shared love of the music.

I’m linking a video of Pearl Jam in Madison Square Garden with this post– watch Eddie Vedder’s face while the Garden sings “Better Man” back to him. The words he wrote come back loud and clear, and his face is pure joy. At this single moment, the crowd is not clouded by politics or arguments, It’s the music, and it’s about sharing a common love with someone else. Even a stranger. I can’t think of anything our country needs more right now.

My Favorite Match Ever

My new doubles partner and me. We like green.

It was the doubles match I had waited for my entire life even if I never knew it.

It wasn’t because of our opponents. I had played countless sets of doubles with and against each of them. They were regulars around the courts.

It wasn’t because of how well I played. I’ve played better tennis. Honestly, my bad knee was killing me most of the match and I felt like I heard the Sanford and Son theme song in my head every time I skipped toward the ball. The sharp pain in my right arm is constant with every serve. Old age is having its way with this 46 year old body.

This match was special to me because of my partner. He was not just any partner, not just some random dude in the ad court. Nope. Not at all. For the first time, my partner and I shared a name. Today, my partner was my 15 year old son, and it  was my favorite match ever. Continue reading “My Favorite Match Ever”

That’s A Winner!

Somewhere around the time I was 8 years old, I discovered the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.  The Cards won the 1982 World Series then, and they did it wearing the red caps with the coolest baby blue uniforms in the league– a color choice that was all the rage in major league baseball in that era. I planted a red fitted cap on my head just like the big leaguers, and if I was not in school or church, then I was probably wearing that cap until I was around 15.  I can remember buying my first cap (size 6 7/8) from the only sporting goods shop in our downtown area, Judge Little, and as my head grew, I bought new caps– 7, then 7 1/8, and finally 7 1/4.  I found my last one a couple weeks ago when we were cleaning out my parents’ house, but that’s a story for another day.  I listened to Jack Buck and Mike Shannon every night thanks to our local radio station (WCLD-AM) being a Cardinals affiliate, and I learned the intricacies of America’s past time through two middle-aged, slightly intoxicated Midwesterners’ colorful description of the game.  Every broadcast was a slice of Southern boy heaven. Continue reading “That’s A Winner!”

What the Pandemic has really taken away…

Travel. It’s what I miss the most. These days, I find myself reading about something or another, thinking about how great it would be to check out some place or thing with Ashley and my boys, doing a quick feasibility process in my head, and then realizing the sad truth we aren’t going anywhere until the pandemic is lifted. It’s downright soul crushing.

My wants are becoming overwhelming. There are restaurants I want to try and cities I want to visit. I want to talk with people from other cultures. I have places I want to go- places like Dublin and Australia. I want to see the green grass at Wimbledon. I want to hear the roar of the crowd at a rock and roll show at Red Rocks. I want to take my boys to college football games all over this country before they are too old to spend with their dad. I want to get on a cruise ship with Ashley for the Alaskan cruise of her dreams. I want to eat and drink my way through the low country of Charleston, South Carolina. The list just goes on and on…

I am a born and bred Mississippian. I have never run from the place I call home. Yet I’ve always known the world is larger than the dirt in front of me. I appreciate the reinforcement of community and family that only a quarantine can bring. But real life is the experience of living. Are we creating an entire generation that will not understand what it means to be a citizen of the world? When the curtain is finally lifted, what will remain?

I guess maybe President Trump got his gosh damn wall after all— he couldn’t have imagined how tall the walls would be. More and more activities are being postponed, but life is not afforded the same pause button. Time knows only one direction— forward.

The Case of the Flying Gum Balls— a short Legal War story about Youth Court…

A friend pointed out to me the other day that this blog is entitled “The Flat Land Lawyer,” but I haven’t really written about the law or told any good legal war stories.  I think on some subconscious level I’ve avoided those stories by design, mainly because I deal with the law during my day job.  Trust me, tales from the practice of law in a small town are usually so far-fetched that no one really believes them, but believe it when I tell you that not even the most active imagination could dream up some of the things I have seen and heard in a courtroom or from clients.  For the sake of staying somewhat true to the name of this blog, I will share one of my personal favorites. Continue reading “The Case of the Flying Gum Balls— a short Legal War story about Youth Court…”