Thirty-two years ago today, a redshirt freshman defensive back for Ole Miss broke up a Vanderbilt pass over the middle one morning and never walked again. I was at that game, sitting with my dad in almost the exact same seats that I sit with family today. I have never heard as loud a hit as Chucky’s hit on Brad Gaines, and likewise, I have never a stadium fall to an eerie hush like I did that October day. The silence was deafening. Chucky never walked again, but he came back to the team. He inspired everyone who encountered him, and his story has inspired thousands more.
Since that afternoon, I have seen the Rebels play God knows how many games, and they’ve probably disappointed me as much as they’ve thrilled me over the years. I’ve cheered for goal line stands and quarterback throwbacks. I saw the Deuce get loose and Eli tumble coming out from under center. When I was in law school, Tommy T left in the cover of darkness one night and it wasn’t in a pine box like he promised. I’ve seen a 7 overtime game and I’ve seen opposing teams kneel on the ball at midfield to show us an embarrassing brand of mercy. At some point, Coach O assured me that Brent Schaeffer was the answer and after a couple games, I couldn’t help but wonder what in the hell was the question? Reverend Hugh promised we would be relevant again and I’ll be damned if Katy Perry and I weren’t in the same stadium to witness Senquez intercept a pass and the goal posts come down in the pandemonium that followed. Many years, the lows of the meltdown reached nuclear levels and I walked out of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium wondering why I continue to put myself through this damn torture. But just like Mississippi itself, just when you think the Rebels have hit the bottom, we rally forward to exhilarating heights, flying playsheets and all. No matter what, I’m aboard the train, to use a popular metaphor around Oxford these days.
As I look back, my true lesson from Chucky Mullins is greater than any stupid football game. The real takeaway is that the greatest blessing we have in our lives is family. When times are tough, it’s the only thing that really matters. Chucky’s journey taught us that qualities like faith, love, resilience, and courage transcend the insignificant things like wins and losses. Life is about the look on a child’s face when it’s time for the opening kickoff and anything is possible. Life is about knowing that child’s father has the exact same look on his face at that exact time, no matter how old or jaded he pretends to be. It’s the marvel in a young boy’s eyes when he listens to another tired story about his granddad rooting for that same team through thick and thin. It’s a tie that binds. I would do anything to go to one more Ole Miss game with my Dad. I cherish those memories of just the two of us on a two-lane road after a game. Maybe one day my own boys will look back at our own late night trips and smile as much as I do when we make those trips together. Maybe one day they will have kids of their own and make their own memories at these games. Wouldn’t that be something?
Our team will not win every game. Hell, some years it seems like our team won’t win any games. But Chucky is right. Families never quit. Thanks, 38.
Back in the days when Mark Zuckerberg was using a Sippee cup, my mother had pen pals all over the world. For those of you born with a smartphone in your hand, check this out. People used to write letters and mail them to each other via the United States Postal Service. We used stamps and everything. There was no e-mail or instant mail. We didn’t slide into DMs or post on anyone’s wall. Friendly folks like my mom would write a physical letter to another person and then that person would (hopefully) write back a couple days or weeks later. Antiquated, I know.
One summer day when I was around 12 years old, our house phone (I don’t have the energy to explain what a house phone was) rang one morning. As was usually the case, Mom answered. She then heard an unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line. One of Mom’s pen pals, a woman in her mid-40’s,had arrived via Greyhound bus to Cleveland without any type of prior warning and declared she was staying with my family for the next week or so. To any other family, this moment might have seemed strange. But to ours? Hell, it was just Tuesday. As my older brother likes to say, we quit being normal the moment he and my older sister moved out when I was around 8. So, with Mom being Mom, she was overjoyed at the thought of Ms. Crocodile Dundee shacking up at the house for a week. Dad being Dad, he just shook his head, went to work and rolled with it. 12 year old John being 12 year old John, I was trying to figure out how in the heck a strange-talking lady claiming to be from the Land Down Under ended up in our living room. Our visitor realized she had dropped in (from another effing continent!) unannounced, so she was adamant we should carry on with our lives as if she weren’t here. Do what you would do any other day, she said. Those days, Mom’s days usually consisted of running errands around Cleveland, so Mom just drove around Cleveland all day all day with her Australian sidekick in tow.
We were in the middle of June, and the sixth month might mean winter in Australia, it brings a sweltering summer in the Mississippi Delta. Deltans have learned to swim in the humid air, and once the brutal sun set, we were joined by the local mascot, the buzzing and biting mosquito. I had a Dixie Youth baseball game that evening at Bear Pen Park, and everyone knows the yellow baseball lights are a shiny beacon to insects like the Batsignal in Gotham City is to Bruce Wayne. The captive audience of parents and friends gathered around a mini-diamond was like manna from heaven for the bloodsuckers. My parents usually brought lawn chairs to the game, and Dad, being a Southern gentlemen, offered his chair to our guest. She swatted in her chair more than my team swung at the plate. She got up and walked around to try to avoid the buzz and bites. She coated her body in Off! mosquito spray like she was a 14 year old boy slathering on his dad’s cologne before his first school dance. She might have been from Down Under, but I think she would agree there was little difference, in her mind, between Hell and the Delta at that very moment.
Once my game ended, we came home. Our guest stood in our kitchen with tears in her eyes. Her hair was dripping with sweat, and her clothes were soaked with that familiar mixture of repellant and perspiration. Welps and bites covered her body, along with red marks caused by her constant self-inflicted slaps. For our part, Mom, Dad and I acted normal because, hell, it was normal for a Deltan.
“You know, the real mosquitoes don’t come out until July,” Dad said with a sadistic tone in his voice.
An icy glare was the only response. If she would have had a skewer, Dad would have been roasted on the Barbie.
At 6:30 a.m. the following morning, Mrs. Dundee woke up my parents with some startling news. Her plans had changed, she said. Sure enough, she had her bags packed by the back door and needed a ride to the bus station. She would continue her trek around the United States, but she had logged enough time in the Mississippi Delta. Apparently, one day of Delta hospitality was enough. I can still see the sly smirk on Dad’s face as he walked out the back door to take our guest to the bus station.
In hindsight, I think she and Mom quit writing to each other shortly thereafter. I guess sometimes long distance relationships are better off remaining long distance. But who knows? Maybe that poor lady’s fingers were too swollen to write anything else after she left us.
A version of this post was previously published in The Bolivar Bullet on July 28, 2021.
My father was in the local hospital for almost two and a half weeks before he eventually passed away. Dad was fairly lucid for the first 3-4 days, but was his mind was shutting down along with his body.
On the first Sunday he was in the hospital, I arrived at his room late in the day only to find him screaming at a nurse trying gamely to make Dad comfortable in his bed.
“I need a blanket on my legs,” Dad bellowed. The blanket was already on his legs. But the poor nurse was doing his best to pacify his 88 year old taskmaster, so he just straightened the blanket with the hope of satisfying Dad.
“I need to raise my legs,” was the next order. “Son,” Dad said as he pointed at the nurse. “Help this man raise my legs to put a pillow underneath them.”
Ever the dutiful son, I did as I was told, and propped up Dad’s legs under the pillow.
“Why are my legs raised?” Dad yelped almost simultaneously to his little legs hitting the pillow. “My legs need to lay flat on the bed. Who raised them?” I felt like my father had turned into Louis Gossett, Jr.’s Marine drill sergeant in An Officer and a Gentleman and I was Richard Gere in Basic Training.
We played this fun game of Dementia Simon Says for 15 minutes or so when Dad stopped suddenly and gazed up at the television on the wall. I recognized the unmistakable ticking ofthe 60 Minutes intro without even looking up,but when I did glance at the screen, I saw a familiar ruddy-faced man dressed in a navy suit with a shiny red tie tied just a little too long speaking to a huge throng of supporters.
“Son….who is that??” Dad stammered while momentarily forgetting about his leg raises. He looked like he was straining his eyes for better focus.
“That’s Donald Trump, Dad. You know who that is,” I explained. “He’s running for President now.”
Dad’s blue eyes looked over at me like a confused child separated from his family in a department store. So I continued.
“He’s probably going to win the Republican nomination, and he’s going to be tough to beat in a national election. He’s dominating the news. I really think people are following his message.”
My father studied the screen with intense curiosity, as if he were a prehistoric caveman seeing fire for the first time. Finally, after about a minute or so of listening silently to the television, the wisest man I have ever known spoke.
“Son. Have I died and gone to hell?”
I’m tired of it all.
No. Let me put it another way.
I’m fucking sick and tired of it all.
I had grand plans of putting into words the lunacy of this time in our history. I really did. It was going to be grand and dazzle every one of you with crisp prose filled with biting and incisive commentary. Since January 6th, I’ve been clipping articles and essays ready to go. But when I wanted to finally begin, I couldn’t do it.
I’m too tired.
We are being pulled apart by our fringes. The center is not holding, as Yeats warned us, and now the politics of hate, division and straight-up lunacy are becoming the norm. Both sides of the aisle are guilty and I spare no one. I have always prided myself on my vocabulary but I don’t have a better way to describe it all than this – It’s all just so fucked-up.
Inhis book, Idiot America, Charles P. Pierce put forth the three Great Premises of what he terms the new “Idiot America”:
Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
“Fact” is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
Anything can be true if someone says it loud enough.
That shoe fits our country like one of Kamala Harris’s Chuck Taylors, so we might as well wear it. We are all idiots. We are one nation under goddamn cell phones. If you can make a lot of people virtually “like” your views, then you’re golden. You’re practically a Kardashian then. Somehow, someway we have to go back to talking about ideas, not insults. Our commonalities used to be far greater than our differences. Our love of the whole— this beloved country— far surpassed our devotion to a political party or even worse, a person. Now I’m not so sure anyone gives a damn about our sameness. An incredible majority of our country has no desire to change its ways. We just want a faster internet service and our fellow man to leave us the hell alone so we can tap out pithy messages.
“If people see the Capitol going on,” Abraham Lincoln said to the Union Chaplain when asked about the expense of the dome during a civil war, “It is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.” For the first time in our nation’s history, on January 6, 2021, that little “shall go on” business seemed a bit dicey. I have good friends who went to DC for the rally. I know in my heart they didn’t go there with the intent to overthrow our government. But I also have dear friends who warned me for months of the impending federal marshal law or that the presidential election was “stolen,” even though they have no proof to that point. I guess the presidential election is a little like my own birth— I don’t have any proof I was there other than this document signed by a doctor which was purports to show evidence of the live birth of John Christopher Cox on June 11, 1974. But that doctor isn’t alive anymore so I should challenge the veracity of the entire document. I don’t remember being born so there’s a chance it didn’t happen. To believe otherwise is just buying into the government’s propaganda. Is that absurd? Absofrickinglutely it is. But the last 4 years has yielded a nation distrustful of itself. Our country should be the F.U.S.A., the Formerly United States of America.
God bless all of you. And may God bless this nation.
When I was in college, I had a good friend who was a normal, soft-spoken young man raised by a great family. He was handsome, kind, well-liked by guys and girls alike, and even known to lead a Bible study or two on campus. He drank alcohol on very rare occasions, and he seemed more mature at the age of 22 than any other 22 year old on the planet. When you saw him, you knew what to expect and there were no surprises. None at all.
One night, with no provocation, this same friend drank a little more beer than usual. Right before we left the house for an evening at the only college bar in our small town, he emerged from his room wearing nothing but a t-shirt and a bath towel wrapped around his waist. (I think he had a pair of gym shorts underneath, but I never checked.) For the rest of the night, Mr. Maturity walked around in public with a baseball cap pulled low and a towel covering his lower half as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Every person passing him would look at him and ask, “Is he wearing a towel?” In a flash, our forever reliable friend became “Towel Boy,” and no one knew how or what spurred his sudden transformation. Twenty-six years later, my college friends still shake their heads when we tell this story.
2020 became my friend “Towel Boy.” Everything we thought was normal in the world became abnormal, and quite honestly, life just got effing weird. To paraphrase the sportscaster Jim Nantz, 2020 has been A Year Unlike Any Other, and it will be a year we won’t ever forget. Most of us end the year carrying a couple more pounds than we started with, and some, myself included, finish the year with a helluva lot less hair than we had a year ago. Before March, I’m pretty sure I had never used the word “pandemic” in a sentence, and I’m also fairly certain I had never worn a surgical mask. These days, I do both on a daily basis. Social distancing sounds like a new break up plan with your girlfriend, but it’s now a way of life. We are all waiting and waiting to wake up from this bizarre dream and the only way I maintain sanity is thinking of William Faulkner’s words- “Even waiting will end…if you can just wait long enough.” So I wait.
As we head into 2021, I’m ditching the traditional New Year’s Resolution route. If 2020 taught me anything, then it would be that resolutions are pointless since this world’s greatest stability is its instability. But hope is always better than fear, and sometimes, our dreams can become reality. With that in mind, I’m just going to share my personal wishes for the New Year. Some are serious, some are not. But all of them are mine.
I wish for the Boston Celtics to win an NBA championship. It’s been my wish every year since 1985 and it’s been granted every now and then. It’s going to take some personnel moves and perhaps convincing the Nets to move to another country for it to happen this year, but this boy can still dream of another banner for the guys in green.
On a local level, I wish for a state championship for the Bayou Academy boys basketball team. Trust me, very few coaches work harder for their team than Wesley Aldridge, and the big trophies are coming sooner or later. I wish for sooner.
I wish to see live music and live sports in a big crowd again. I miss the hum of a packed stadium right before kickoff when fans are filled with that unmistakable combination of optimism and Jim Beam. I miss the long lines at the concession stand and the bathroom. I miss waiting in line forever to leave parking lots. I miss the rush that comes with 60,000 people rising to their feet in unison for a single pursuit. I miss it all and want it back.
I wish for the opportunity to coach my high school tennis team this coming spring. We were cut short by the virus last spring and I pray every day it doesn’t happen again. I passed my competitive peak many, many decades ago (where have you gone, forehand volley?) but I love teaching the game and pushing young people to reach their goals. My heart still breaks for the seniors of 2020. It cannot happen again.
I wish for the chance to take Quinn to a baseball game and let him fall in love with green grass in the sun. There is not a better way to spend a sunny spring afternoon than at a baseball game. Please Lord let it return to our lives.
I wish for cancer, the most vile of all diseases, to die an ugly death of its own. Although I was not personally diagnosed, it shrouded my life at every turn in 2020.
I want to travel. I have not left Mississippi since January. I was 17 the last time I went that long without taking some type of trip. My parents taught me that you have to wander from the Mississippi Delta to truly appreciate her beauty. I crave the opportunity to wander as soon as possible.
Above all else, I wish for normalcy to return. I want people to attend the church of their choice. I want kids to be kids again and I want restaurants and stores to be filled with customers. I want to hug a neck or shake a hand without the awkwardness of a teenage boy— Should I fist-bump or do I reach out my hand? I want to enjoy something as simple as tailgating in the Grove with my family and friends. Our regular routines don’t seem so mundane once they become nostalgia. Time waits for no one and memories are made in the moment. It’s long past time to have those moments again.
Am I too hopeful with my wishes for 2021? Probably. But I cannot let myself believe the black cloud of 2020 will last forever. It is but one year- 52 weeks-365 days- in the story of our lives. The human spirit is resilient even in the face of the strongest of storms. Albert Camus could’ve been writing of the great quarantine of 2020 when he said, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” 2021 will be something better, our own invincible summer.
For the record, “Towel Boy” returned to normal after his slight detour and is now a devoted husband and husband, just as we all knew he would be. His community and friends are better because of his work. Although we don’t talk very often, I am better because he is my friend. His days with a towel have long since passed.
One day and twenty years ago, Andy Mundy and I loaded up a car about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and headed towards Florence, Alabama. The Division 2 National Championship was the next day and our alma mater was, against all odds, playing for the big trophy against Bloomsburg University. Conventional wisdom tells you Florence is only about 4 hours east of Cleveland, Mississippi but Mundy and I have never been much on conventional wisdom. So, after somehow going through Jackson, we rode the Natchez Trace up to Florence and arrived at the hotel around 10 that night where we found a newly married George Bassi and his wife waiting in the lobby with a cold drink and the desire to go find something to do in the Shoals.
We discussed our entertainment options with the hotel concierge. (Ok, who am I kidding? We asked the woman at the front desk of our Holiday Inn where we should go for fun.)
“Well, do you want to go dancing?” the lady asked. She was on the telephone and talking to me in between smacks of gum and spitting quick words into a phone receiver. “I’m on hold,” she assured me.
Do Andy and I look like we want to go dancing, I thought.
“No ma’am. We want to go somewhere and have a few drinks before we go in,” I explained. “We have a late morning kickoff tomorrow.” I was kinda proud of my mature response. After all, I had been a lawyer for over a year.
She nodded at me, wrote the name of a place and an address on a sheet of paper and pushed the paper across to me.
“Just down the road.” The desk clerk/concierge motioned her hand towards the front door. “Perfect for y’all.” Considering she had never laid eyes on any of us before 30 minutes earlier, I had a little doubt she knew what would be “perfect” for us. As we walked to the car, I have never felt more like the dudes on Police Academy being sent to the Blue Oyster than I did at that very moment. But we were thirsty after a 4 hour car ride that took 7 hours, and we probably would have gone to Lucifer’s Lounge if it served cold beer.
Three blocks down from the hotel was a strip mall with a parking lot filled with cars. There, we saw a neon sign proclaiming the name of our chosen destination, or rather, the night’s destination chosen for us by the lady at the Holiday Inn. Like I said, there were lots of cars outside so we weren’t the only people with the urge to grab a beer or three on a Friday night in Florence.
Once inside, we found an old fashioned country and western honkytonk with Hank, Jr. and Merle providing the club soundtrack via a DJ booth. Through a smoky haze (yep, you could still smoke in public back then), we could barely make out a checkered dance floor filled with couples twirling their cares away. We moved to an empty booth in the corner of the place and immediately started drinking beer. Lots of it. We caught up on each other’s lives in the way old friends who haven’t seen each other lately do, and we reminisced about some of our favorite football stories— most illustrated how bad Delta State had always been at football. More than once that night, we expressed our disbelief that Delta State University, perennial doormat and the team no one cared about, was now one game away from a national championship. I would say the more we drank, the worse we became at football back in our day, but we were pretty damn bad without the help of alcohol as a memory aid and story embellisher. It was a great time toasting our football success and of course, George’s newlywed status.
About 45 minutes into our merriment, George got up and excused himself to go to the restroom. When he asked our waitress for the whereabouts of the bathroom, she pointed, “Go around the bar and through that closed door. Be careful.” Careful? Did she say careful?
George disappeared around the bar and then reappeared barely two minutes later wearing a broad grin like he had a secret.
“John, come with me.” George jerked his head towards the bar.
Don’t only women go to the bar in packs?
“You need me to come with you?” I asked. “Are you scared to go over there?”
“Oh no. But you have to see this to believe it,” George assured me. “Just come on.” He walked around the bar.
I guess I was curious so I followed George. I rounded the bar and shuffled toward the closed door.
George waited for me at the door and then opened it with a grand flourish. I walked past George into this other room only to be greeted by the sound of loud techno dance music. Loud. And techno. The room was lit with a black light, and sweaty people in leather were dancing, or actually grinding, with even more sweaty people in leather inside of large cages. The only comparison I can make is it reminded me of the old 616 club in Memphis in its vibe and urgency. Goth-looking people with chains and tattoos were standing around the bar, and in my blue Oxford button down shirt and pressed khakis, I have never looked more like a new lawyer in my life. I practically screamed, “I’m from the Grove! Have you seen Muffy and Alistair?” to every techno rave kid that passed me staring at me like I was the odd one.
George and I soaked in the techno a little bit longer before we decided to move back over to the other side. We were just sitting back down with Andy when we noticed our fellow DSU alum Ken Causey walking by our booth with an uncharacteristic spring in his step. Ken is one of the funniest men alive on a sober day, but add up our long car ride, the 4 beers we drank, and the fact there was a goth techno bar in a side room of a country and western bar in Florence, Alabama, and Ken is a fucking hilarious entertainment option. We yelled at Ken over the George Jones blasting through the soundsystem and waved him over to our booth.
Ken sat the end of the booth and eerily eyed us very similarly to the way Jack Nicholson leers at his family in The Shining. He stopped our waitress as she was walking by the booth.
“We need four shots of Jager. Now.” Ken demanded. No smile. All business. The night just turned weirder.
The shots arrived shortly and the smell of Jagermeister rose through my nostrils on a rapid elevator ride to my brain. Aren’t we too old for this? Can we just have a fruitier shot instead? Do people use this stuff for cough syrup?
“Drink,” Causey instructed. So we drank and I tried not to gag on that nasty shit. Ken finally broke the silence of three young men trying not to puke with a knuckle rap on the table. Ken looked at us as if he were about to unfurl the nuclear codes.
“The first time we score tomorrow, we are going to kick an onside kick,” Ken predicted. “We are going to get that kick. Then we are going to score again. At that point, those fuckers from Bloomsburg are playing catch-up the rest of the day.”
We all laughed at Ken’s prediction but he didn’t laugh. He just stared at each of us. So we quickly went back to telling old stories about football to change the subject. We drank until the bar closed and somehow found our way back to the hotel in the middle of the night.
Fast forward approximately 9 hours later to the championship game.
On a gorgeous day for football in Alabama, Bloomsburg scored first. We scored next. Then damned if we didn’t kick an onside kick and recover just like Causey said we would. We scored again just as Ken predicted. “Those fuckers from Bloomsburg played catch-up the rest of the day” until there was no time left to catch up. (We discovered later the truth that Ken had sat in a coaches’ meeting earlier that Friday evening and was tipped off to our strategy.) Josh Bright ran the midline option to perfection, and we shattered the championship game records for offense en route to our first football national title. Thanks to our Friday night, I had one helluva headache most of the day but the experience was worth the splitting pain I felt every time our band played the fight song (loudly) in the section beside me that afternoon.
We may never win another national championship in football but I will never remember that weekend, that drive, that bar, that prediction, that team, or that feeling when the clock struck zero.
We were champs. Forever and always. Those fuckers will play catch-up until the end of time.
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 ____?”
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.
Memories are funny. There just doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the things lodged up in our heads. Today is Wednesday. I cannot remember what I wore to work on Monday. I have zero clue what I ate for dinner last Friday night. I can’t recall any real details about anything from a week ago.
But I can tell you my childhood friends’ phone numbers like I can tell you my own. I can recall intricate details of meaningless high school football games. Without blinking, I can recite the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals normal starting lineup— Coleman, McGee, Tommy Herr, Clark, Van Slyke/Landrum, Porter/Nieto, Pendleton, Ozzie, and Pitcher. The terrible Braves’ lineups of the late eighties are burned into my brain- Claudell Washington, Ramirez, Murphy, Bob Horner, Terry Harper, Ken Oberkfell, Ozzie Virgil or Benedict, Glenn Hubbard and Pitcher. Who can forget the backup shortstop Paul Zuvella?? Insanity.
It’s all just fascinating to me. One day, when I am hopefully much older, and I can barely remember my own name, I’m sure I will bore all of the folks at the old folks home with my memories of bad baseball and Mississippi academy football games. I apologize in advance.
“Well, there’s a feeling in the air/Just like a Friday afternoon
You can go there if you want/though it fades too soon.”
— Better Than Ezra, “This Time of Year.”
In every community, there are The Lights. It is The Lights, quite literally, that rise above our flat land that symbolize Fridays in the fall. Buzz Bissinger may have been writing about Texas high school football when he coined the phrase “Friday Night Lights,” but he could have been talking about the Mississippi Delta. Drive into any Delta community on a Friday evening, and if you can find The Lights, then you will almost certainly find that week’s main event. Sure, I guess you could try to follow the cars but the real giveaway is to find that familiar hazy downward glow cutting through the humidity, insect spray, and of course, smoke from the concession stand revealing 100 yards of excitement.
In full disclosure, I must admit that sometimes the search for The Lights can go astray. In 1985, my parents and I drove to the annual Winona Shrine Bowl. Honestly, I did not know there was an annual Winona Shrine Bowl then, and I do not know whether this creature is still in existence. But on that brisk November evening, we set forth in my father’s small Cadillac toward Winona to watch the mighty Bayou Academy Colts. (It is important to note at this time that Winona is not technically in the Delta. It is actually at the foot of “the hills.”) As we drove into Montgomery County, I asked Dad if he knew where we were going. Dad looked back at me like I had asked him for ketchup for an expertly-cooked steak. Continue reading “Just Look for The Lights”