Shake, Rattle and Roll©Averyell A. KesslerThe sky was still December dark when my alarm clock rattled loud enough to shake teeth out of a corpse. Daylight was a long way off but I had an early class in Allen Hall, an ancient building facing the quadrangle at LSU. I rolled out of bed, stepping quietly to avoid waking my roommate and padded downstairs to the kitchen of my sorority house searching for coffee. When I entered the kitchen, our cook, Alma, was crying. She was an interesting lady and music lover who’d won a skinny legs contest at a Jimmy Hendrix/ Joe Tex concert.“What’s wrong,” I asked.“The king is dead,” Alma sniveled, dabbling her eyes with a tissue.“Elvis?”“Otis Redding,” she answered. “Plane crash last night.”“Oh, no,” I said. “His music is great.” We spent thirty minutes drinking coffee and talking about These Arms of Mine and Try a Little Tenderness.I remembered Otis this week when a strange item popped up on my laptop. It read “Wondering why young people are so angry these days? It’s because their music is $%#%!” Many folks don’t agree, but old time rock and roll still soothes my soul. Our music magic began with a revolution organized by Elvis and Buddy Holly, blessed by the doo-wop guys, and honed to a fine art by Mick Jagger, The Beach Boys, and James Brown. If you want to talk country music, I’ll toss in Charlie Pride’s Kiss an Angel Good Morning and Patsy Cline Walkin’ after Midnight.My music addiction started early when I realized something new was bubbling on the horizon. Big band swing and The Hit Parade were fading because no one cared what was behind The Green Door, or how much That Doggy in the Window cost. Daddy had already refused to listen the Rock Around the Clock, and snapped off Elvis singing Hound Dog on The Ed Sullivan Show. Even though Ed had only shown the upper half of Elvis’ body, rumors of his undulating hips caused community outrage. Suddenly, Joey Dee and the Starlighters burst into view with the Peppermint Twist. Anyone who’d hula hooped in childhood intuitively knew how to twist. Chubby Checker had a hand in it too – Come on baby, let’s do the twist. This was the ideal ice breaker for young teenagers wading into the frightening waters of a boy/girl parties. It was a perfect sing-along, required no body contact, and wore us out in short order – a chaperone’s dream come true. I made a short -lived effort to teach my mother the twist, but she was accustomed to Glen Miller’s big band and never got the hang of it.Then Murrah High School – a joyous mix of blossoming hormones, semi adulthood, the prom, and a sweaty cheek slow dance. We were lulled into romance by Ray Charles, I Can’t Stop Loving You, Percy Sledge crooning When a Man Loves Woman, and the ultimate snuggle up song, Nat King Coles’ When I fall in Love. Whew! If things got too intense, Hey You Get Off My Cloud or Wooly Bully took over. Somehow, we survived.I attended college in South Carolina for one desperate year, just long enough to hear the mellow sound of The Platters, learn to dance the shag, and sing With This Ring in the shower. Although I Can’t Get No Satisfaction was not popular at a women’s college, the Everly Brothers’ When will I Be Loved was well received. The only high point was our Christmas concert and dance when the scheduled performer canceled and the college was forced to hire an unknown substitute. Her name was Dionne Warwick.The next year I arrived at LSU. Party time! I discovered several college hangouts within 5 minutes of campus, all spotlight attractions making it hard to study for exams, compose term papers or arrive bright eyed for a 7:30 AM Botany class on Saturday morning. I learned that fancy heels don’t work well with Soul Man and that cutoff overalls (we called them hog washers) were far more fun. Anything by the Supremes was an instant dance event even if I was in my pajamas at midnight. I tried hard to figure out the mystery lyrics to Louie, Louie, but when that failed, I’d tune my radio to a station featuring Brown Eyed Girl and Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher. Somehow, I survived those years too.With little prodding, I’ll say that the music of my generation was terrific. My folks will not be listening to somnolent elevator music in a senior residence or popping Geritol laced Champagne bubbles with Lawrence Welk. We won’t be singing along with Mitch either. We’ll be moving to Honky Tonk Women, Mustang Sally, and listening to Aretha with the volume set to earthquake level. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me. Maybe I’ll work in a little Elton John too because I really like Honky Cat. I know that it is possible to hum Proud Mary, as well as Mr. Redding’s greatest Dock on the Bay. I can still dance The Shag, but I’m a little rusty with the Watusi. Perhaps I’ll summon up Sixty Minute Man and see if I’ve still got it.My story is not unique. Most folks can summon up a list of favorites from their growing up years. But we all know when Billy Joe McAllister met the grim reaper, and how to open up our hearts and Let the Sunshine In. So, I’m making plans. Maybe I’ll borrow a T-Bird, blast the radio and cruise to the Hamburger stand. Perhaps Maybelline will drive up in her Coupe de Ville and take me for a ride. Maybe aliens will land at Graceland and return Elvis. One thing’s for sure, while we live, let us live. Sock it to me and shama lama ding doing.
Jeremiah’s Song©Averyell A. KesslerI wrote this several years ago, mainly to see if people would enjoy reading my words. Thanks to those of you who responded to my first post.It started with a tree frog. He was a little fellow with orange toes, bright red eyes, and a tight grip on a wide hydrangea leaf in my son’s backyard. I remembered a favorite song from college and said, “Hello, Jeremiah.” Yes, I know he wasn’t a bullfrog, but he was an instant friend of mine. Although I never understood a single word he said, I’m sure he had a bottle of mighty fine wine hidden in the bushes. I posted these thoughts on FB and began receiving replies from friends, as well as some from folks I didn’t know. They asked for more. The next week I posted The Mimosa Tree, a short, simple story about my childhood delight in climbing a tree in my friend’s front yard. More replies. I was off to the races.This week, I noticed that these first posts have something in common. It’s joy. Jeremiah said it quite clearly, even to the fishes in the deep blue sea. As for the mimosa tree, where else can a child reach out to touch the clouds, pretend to be aboard a pirate ship, or travel to the moon and be home in time for supper.There’s not a lot of joy around these days. The pandemic years have been a bee sting on the tip of my nose, a simmering pot of boiled kale and Brussel Sprouts, and an invisible splinter working its way deep into my index finger. For some, it’s been a dagger in the heart. But joy’s still out there somewhere. I remember it well.Joy was Mama tip toeing into my bedroom before sun-up and whispering, “Wake up, it’s snowing!”It was the rush of relief when I clapped like my hands were on fire and Tinkerbell sprang back to life,Also, Seale Lily’s Purple People eater sundae, as well as a long row of revolving stools, crunchy cones, and the tantalizing aroma of melting chocolate.I remember a smiley faced substitute teacher who canceled the spelling test and replaced it with bingo and a discussion of the latest episode of Spin and Marty.Joy was finding a dime under my pillow instead of a missing front tooth, Riverside pool opening for the summer, fresh salty wind whipping through my hair as the Ship Island Ferry plowed deep into the Gulf’s murky waves.I loved to plunk coins into the drink box at Shady Nook gas station and pull out an icy Orange Crush and a frozen Pay Day.Joy was returning to my Power School classroom with sore arms after holding off aggressive attackers during a game of red rover. And hopping out of the way as a dodge ball whizzed by.Later it was screaming in the stands as the Murrah Mustangs won a close game with fierce delta rival, jumping on the Heidelberg Hotel’s bouncing floor at the prom, and the arrival of my class ring. (Still have it) Staying up all night at a giggly spend the night party. Clutching my diploma on graduation day when the future stepped up, shook my hand, and said, “Come on. Let’s go!”It was a dozen Krystals hot off the griddle, nibbling Shoney’s hot fudge cake while circling the parking lot to see who else was there. A homecoming bonfire on a frosty October night, and listening to Coach Carlisle give a rah-rah speech as cheers echoed across the parking lot.A pineapple soft serve cone at the state fair, a postcard view of sparkling lights from the top bucket of a double Ferris wheel, flying high and fast on a beribboned merry-go-round horse.In college, it was singing “Baby Love” with my Phi Mu soroity sisters, and waving our hands in unison, playing a zinc king washboard in a washtub band, and squeezing into Tiger Stadium on Saturday night. Learning how to peel crawfish, eat a dozen raw, and crack open boiled crabs with a knife handle before polishing off a 64 oz mug of Budweiser. (It took several hours and multiple trips to the bathroom, but I did it) Also, dancing more than I walked.Joy is simpler now, especially as horrible virus years shambles toward a merciful close and disappears into the quicksand of history.For me, it’s summoning up old stories, remembering the ones I’ve forgotten, and discovering a cache of overlooked photographs.It’s baby giggles, receiving a grandchild’s homemade birthday card, and blowing out candles with a 7-year-old. Maybe the dog too.Shirley Horne creamy voice singing Duke Ellington’s best, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Etta James’ At Last, and cranking up The Mississippi Mass Choir until the floor shakes.A rare and widely spaced lunch with friends, an unexpected message from buddies in Lake Charles telling me they’re safe after a hurricane, a good friend receiving an encouraging diagnosis. Somebody calling just to hear my voice. And always, posts from my readers saying I made them laugh. Or sometimes, cry.So little frog friend, thinking about you brings me joy. Thanks to your bright red eyes, I write all the time now and enjoy every minute. You encouraged me to be a high life flyer and a rainbow rider. I’ll never reach the status of straight-shootin’ son-of-a gun, but who cares? Peace is the inseparable partner of joy. I hope both return soon. When raucous voices fade, quiet takes control and anger vanishes like fog at sunrise, we’ll sing again.Joy to the world,All the boys and girls,Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea,Joy to you and me.Joy to the World, Three Dog Night
It’s finally football season and time to fess up. I am an addicted, sports page reading, ESPN watching, college football dependent, who lives for Saturday kickoffs, Corso’s headgear pick, and late-night re-caps. I can describe a spread option, dissect the AP and Coaches polls with my sons, as well as the guys in the groceryContinue reading “The Fourth Down©Averyell A. Kessler”
September Song©Averyell A. KesslerAccording to a beautiful old song, September is a time when “the days dwindle down to a precious few.” I think about it every year as August trudges to a steamy close and fall stretches above the horizon. In my day, we returned to school in September, usually on the Monday after Labor Day. The heat was vicious, and we had no AC. Nevertheless, the doors of every JPS school swung open for the beginning of an exciting, angst laden and sweat drenched new school year. For me, it was the equivalent of New Year’s Eve, and I still feel it.At my Laurel Street house, things got serious after the fourth of July. I considered it the halfway mark of summer. Boredom was creeping in. Poison ivy, mosquito bites, and sunburn were taking a toll, but I refused to give up the joy of no school, sleeping late, swimming pool days, as well as the absence of unintelligible math problems, spelling words, and the ever-present threat of a pop test. I would no longer watch the antics of Heckle and Jeckle during the school week, and I’d miss Alfalfa and Darla flirting on sunrise tv. Also, I wondered what horrors the cafeteria folks were dreaming up instead of a bowl of mama’s yummy chicken noodle soup. I had already survived the great liver and gravy debacle, as well as heaps of slimy green spinach, but who knows what evil lurked in the heart of the lunchroom manager!“How many more days?” I asked my mother. It was a repeat question.“It’s not September yet” she’d say. ” You have plenty of time.”But the days were dwindling and I knew it. Endless summer was almost gone, and precious few days remained. Soon we’d be shopping for school supplies, new shoes, and a fluffy petticoat that would keep its shape. My swimsuit would be packed away, also my sandals, shorts, and our blow-up swimming pool. I’d walk into Power school on a blistering Monday morning, still not knowing if I’d spend the year under the tutelage of Miss Cartwright or Miss Parnell or who else would be in my classroom. Thanks to Mori’s on Capitol Street, I had a new leatherette three ring notebook (turquoise) with my name stamped on the cover in bright gold letters. Also, rumors spread that a cute new boy had moved into Belhaven, and we were all waiting to see if he had a crew cut.Down deep in my childhood thoughts, I knew another year had passed and I wouldn’t be going back to Miss William’s class. I didn’t mind, not yet, but things were moving along faster than I’d anticipated. Soon I’d leave Power School for Bailey on the hill. Murrah High School had not yet entered my imagination. My age consisted of two numerals, instead of one, my baby dolls had been folded and put in storage. The clamp-on roller skates I adored didn’t fit anymore, even though I’d probably logged over 100 miles of scrabbling across the sidewalk behind our house. I could read anything I wanted, except Lolita, an enticing book I found hidden beneath my mother’s nightstand. Oh, well.Now, as a grown-up child, I can’t forget the potent words of lovely, mournful September Song. “The days dwindle down to a precious few.” It was one of my grandfather WG’s favorites and I still hear him singing in his scratchy, monotone voice. Somehow, those precious few days pass more quickly than shuffling cards or a blazing fastball in the ninth inning. They are ice melting on a hot griddle, the brief life of a butterfly, a graceful lily blooming for a single day.Still there is good news. September Song is not solemn requiem for the passage of time; it’s an anthem to life. The lyrics include a never fail remedy for dwindling days; a simple mending that I often overlook. “One hasn’t got time for the waiting game.”So true. Waiting is a game I don’t have time to play. None of us do. So, I won’t. I’ll have a second glass of wine at supper and buy a large Snickers bar at the grocery store. I’ll watch my grands perform in an emerging lower school band even if it’s a bit off key and I’m so tired I can’t keep my eyes open. I’ll take a good look at my life and embroider the things I want to remember then toss the bad things into a raging trash barrel. I’ll spend less time trying to figure everything out because life is not a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and nothing fits together perfectly. Never will. I’ll stop listening to people who say they know best (politicians? television gurus?)) and listen to my heart instead. I’ll pray more often, write more often, and reread The Great Gatsby again as well as the latest novel du jour. I’ll not overlook the sudden appearance of a rainbow or ignore a golden pink sunset, because both disappear in an instant. That goes for you too, cardinals fluttering in my backyard birdbath. I’ll remind myself of who loves me, as well as who I love and tell them so. Finally, there’s a turquoise leatherette notebook out there somewhere and I intend to find it.*Willie Nelson has a beautiful version of September Song, as well as a youthful Frank Sinatra and the honey-voiced Ella Fitzgerald.
Deep Roots ©Averyell A. KesslerRalph Waldo Emmerson said, “Earth laughs in flowers.” What an interesting thought. Especially now when laughter is rare, but flowers are not. Spring brings them on, as she always does, chasing winter away and filling her arms with daffodils, roses, and four o’clocks with bright faces. She smiles and waves as azaleas open and a clematis vine winds its way around a fence post. When May arrives there’s no holding back. Three ancient magnolias in my front yard will bud and bloom, then show off their velvet petals and send out the sweetest perfume this side of the Mississippi. On my patio, a tiny begonia I considered a goner is returning to life, and insistent green shoots are emerging from a left-for-dead poinsettia. They survived because of deep roots.I grew up in a world overflowing with plants and flowers. That’s not unusual in the south. My father was a happy gardener, if not a skilled one. Every year he tended a small triangular plot of Dutch iris by the side of our Belhaven house, blessing them with Vigoro until lovely purple blossoms appeared. He also planted a row of red floribunda roses but removed them when I tripped over a jump rope, fell into a cluster of thorns, and howled like a hyena. His grape vine experiment went well for a while, until he realized that it was close kin to Godzilla and overtook Mama’s clothesline. Not a single grape appeared, so he stuck to big boy tomatoes for the next few years. Finally, he decided he’d limit his gardening activities to raking leaves and mowing the grass. A good decision.My grandfather WG was also a flower guy. As soon as he was able, he purchased thirty acres of raw land on County Line Road and trucked up a load of azaleas and camelias from the Gulf Coast. He fashioned a loosely organized garden, no landscapers allowed. Later he dug a well and laid down pipes to draw water from his ponds. Fertilizer came from a highly suspicious source and smelled worse than rotten eggs. One rule prevailed. Never, under any circumstances, cut down a tree. Especially his prized sycamore which made a mess every spring by dropping spikey brown balls. To him, each tree was sacrosanct as well as his best friend. The house he built in Avery Gardens was constructed without sacrificing a single tree. Mine, on the far side of the pond, caused the loss of only two. He viewed their sacrifice as a necessary tragedy.“What’s wrong with cutting down a tree,” I asked him.“There’s no life without trees,” he answered. “No oxygen. No rain either.” Tenth grade biology was still miles away and I was amazed by this news. “Trees are meant to last,” he continued. “It’s almost impossible to dig one up because they have deep roots.”I’ve been thinking about deep roots lately, especially since we’re living in a tumultuous world. During the last few years, the south has been overtaken by floods, unrelenting rain pocked with deadly tornadoes and straight-line winds strong enough to topple whatever stands in the way. Hurricane season is closing in, and no one knows what that will bring. Now economic turmoil, rampant crime, and the shadowy specter of disease have inched their way into everyday life, spreading their boney fingers and gobbling up any semblance of normality.Television commentators and various government officials have assured us that we’re going to get through this. That somehow, we’ll stumble along , adapt to this new normal and survive our fate. I disagree. We will do more than survive. In my small, conundrum of a state, we may be down, but we’re never out. We may be scared, but we’re strong. If we fall on our knees, it’s for prayer, not begging. We’ll win out in the end because of grit and determination. Grace, courage and fortitude have been hiding for a long time. I believe they’ll emerge with flags flying and a big brass band. Quite simply, we want life back, our life. That’s a demand, not a request. A cadre of scientists have beaten polio, smallpox and measles, as well as whooping cough, tetanus, mumps and rubella. They will beat the virus too. That’s a statement, not a guess. Like the ancient magnolias growing outside my windows, our roots are deep. They are wide, permanent and secure enough to anchor us to the earth and to each other. They are strong enough to bind up hurt and turn trouble back on its heels. We will succeed because of our roots are deep, as is our faith and family. We are meant to last. So, summer, bless us with an abundance of flowers. We need them right now.
The Mississippi Book Festival is almost here. If you’ve never enjoyed Mississippi’s literary lawn party, here’s your chance. August 20, 2022, State Capitol Building and grounds. Here’s my experience at this wonderful event.
The Mississippi Book Festival: A Review -©-Averyell A. KesslerI was halfway through the Southern Hospitality panel at the Mississippi Book Festival when I realized what was really happening. Sheree Rose Kelly, CEO of Belle Meade Winery and biscuit maker extraordinaire, explained that she learned the baker’s art standing behind her grandmother’s apron strings. How true,Continue reading “The Mississippi Book Festival is almost here. If you’ve never enjoyed Mississippi’s literary lawn party, here’s your chance. August 20, 2022, State Capitol Building and grounds. Here’s my experience at this wonderful event.”
The Age of AC ©Averyell A. KesslerDuring my childhood in leafy green Belhaven, I experienced three out of four manageable seasons. Fall remained in full boil until November, but the sun rose at a softer angle and leaves were beginning to turn. I had hope. Winter brought long, dark nights, a slight blast of cold air and the faint possibility of frost and snow. Spring was rainy, full of flowers, and schools-out anticipation. But summer was a ring-tailed tooter. I recall steamy days when I roamed barefoot, in sleeveless shirts, short shorts or a damp bathing suit. Also, the delight of running through the sprinkler on a parched afternoon when the heat was especially brutal.Inside, we had a frightening monster of an oscillating fan which buzzed like 1000 bees and blew out tornado force wind. Also, the ultimate weapon, an attic fan. Didn’t do much good during the day, but at bedtime, it was a gentle friend drawing in cool evening air as it rumbled me to sleep.Pre-AC folks recall many things about life in the sweaty south, fluttering stick fans, sweat dribbling behind our ears, searching the fridge for a pitcher of Kool-Aid, and the icy delight of a grape popsicle. It also meant diving into Riverside pool or splashing in my own blow up version in the backyard. However, school loomed at the end of summer and we all knew that August’s unrelenting heat continued far too long. Power School’s first weeks were oven days each lasting 27 hours with sticky air, steamy cafeteria lunches, and the captivity of shoes. Outside, the playground was a Sahara Desert, and nobody wanted to run anywhere for any reason. Adding insult to injury, sips from the water fountain were tepid and unsatisfying. In my eighth year everything changed.“We’re getting an air conditioner,” Mama announced“What’s that?” I asked.“Woodie talks about them on TV,” she answered. “We’ll have cool air, like Sears.”Woodie Assaf, a early star of Jackson’s fledgling TV stations, was a trusted source of information and reliable pitch man for air conditioners. We watched carefully as he explained velocity, capacity and BTU’s – not terms I understood. But he could sell ice cubes to Eskimos and in this case, frigid air to perspiring Jacksonians. By the end of the day, a shining Fedders AC was hanging out of a window in our den and blasting out refrigerator cold air. Its inability to cool the entire house was a drawback, so we closeted ourselves in a chilly island of comfort along with a Stromberg Carlson black and white and a plaid sofa. Woe unto the poor soul who left a door open and allowed cool air to escape into the rest of the house. A year later, my parents expanded our comfort zone by adding a second air conditioner in our living room. Both units shimmied like hula dancers, leaked steadily, and rattled like empty dump trucks, but who cares. What’s an occasional frosty drip when it’s 99 in the shade?Air conditioning is essential now. It keeps everybody sane when simmering heat covers us like a wool blanket and humidity soars. But I still remember those soft summer nights when my bedroom windows were wide open. Our attic fan pulled in a breeze as its comforting hum blended into the steady rhythm of throbbing crickets. Sometimes, a dog barked in the distance or a possum scurried across the rooftop. Sometimes, I heard the quiet moan of a freight train passing through town. On rainy nights, the attic fan sucked in dusty aroma of earth and grass and coated my window screen with a spider web of raindrops. Our attic fan was a reliable companion, beating back the heat, if only for a few restful hours. It gave us a chance to regain our breath, and made nighttime a sanctuary of peace. I was safe and secure under a ceiling of glittering stars. The next day it would begin again, but I was accustomed to it. We all were. Didn’t matter what the groundhog predicted, or the weatherman said, pavement cracking temperatures arrived as soon as the sun rose. It may not be possible to fry an egg on the sidewalk, but the hood of a car is a possibility. Ouch!It’s just as hot now as always and July is plodding along like a sweaty mule in a treeless pasture. I’m certain August will be its usual pressure cooker self, barging its way into September until the first whiff of a fall breeze sweeps in. Until then, most of us will live in AC splendor. But in an emergency this pre-AC veteran would welcome our creaky old Fedders if necessary. Too bad Woodie’s not here to tell me about it.
Happy Birthday Sweet Land ©Averyell A. KesslerMy father never heard the words Big Green Egg. He did not believe dinosaurs still roamed the earth, and Dr. Seuss’s famous book hadn’t yet been published. If anyone had mentioned a gas grill, he would have asked how to attach it to the pump at a filling station. Our grill, made from the left half of a steel drum, was a product of his innovation. It teetered on four uneven legs fashioned from cast iron pipes as it waited to be dusted off and wheeled out of the garage. There was no lid. Hamburgers were his specialty.On the morning of the Fourth of July, Daddy was up before the sun cleared the line of cedar trees edging our backyard and the temperature eased above 93. He lifted six identical wooden frame lawn chairs from a rack in the garage and sprayed the cobwebs away with a garden hose. Also, a few aluminum folding chairs with multicolored vinyl straps forming seats. My family avoided metal lawn chairs because they could be lethal on a hot day when sun was merciless. Perhaps this is how the term “hot seat” originated. Next our tin tub, which he’d fill with ice, hose water, and the large striped watermelon residing on our kitchen counter. Last to appear was a pair of rickety card tables he’d cover with yesterday’s Clarion Ledger, as well as paper plates and napkins.The party began at six, when the heat was still brutal, but nobody cared. Our friends arrived with baked beans, cold slaw, Lays Potato Chips, and an unopened bottle of Jim Beam. It was a simple and glorious night, full of laughter, fireflies, sparklers and as many cokes as I could drink. If Mama had not plunged me into a cold bath after the party, I would have stayed awake all night, reeling in a caffeine overdose.As a child, I wasn’t sure what the Declaration of Independence was or why we celebrated on the fourth. Finally, Daddy explained.“It’s America birthday,” he said simply. “So, we have a party.”That I understood. “With a birthday cake?” I asked, as I envisioned a three-layered monster decorated with red icing roses and dripping tendrils.“No,” he answered. “Primos Brownies.”Good enough, I thought. Maybe a gingerbread man or two.I learned the basics of American history at Power School. It solidified in the 8th grade because of one man, history teacher extraordinaire, Mr. Moore. (I’ve had no luck in finding his first name.) I don’t know how he had the strength to teach five periods every day, but he did with unfailing enthusiasm. He was a stickler for dates – Magna Carta in 1215, Mayflower Compact 1620, Give me Liberty or Five Me Death, Patrick Henry 1775. He was expressive and vibrant, no one fell asleep in his class. Somehow, we made it through WWII and Iwo Jima before the year ended. Along the way, I learned that George Washington didn’t really chop down a cherry tree, but telling the truth was important. I also shouldered through 391 pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, finishing it with tears streaming down my cheeks.As a sophomore at LSU, I had the good luck to sit in the classroom of T. Harry Williams, an acclaimed historian, Pulitzer prize winner, and prolific writer of American military history. For me, it was an incredible experience in the hands of a supreme educator with a steel trap brain and the language to match.Funny thing, I don’t remember many of the specifics I learned from these master teachers. Over the years Mr. Moore’s dates dissolved, as have Dr. Williams’ colorful descriptions. What I’ve retained from each was their overwhelming love of the American story. Neither man dealt in myth or aggrandizements of glory. Neither held back when describing America’s hard times or tough challenges. But their optimism was always on display and inherently contagious. For me, the contagious part took root early and I am still an optimistic American. Always will be.E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. That’s our motto and has been since 1782. Thankfully, I’ve lived long enough to see us work through an abundance of hard times, often too many to count and too heavy to lift. Each time, we’ve beaten back trouble and marched ahead. Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.*Now, some people are trying to rip us apart. That’s a fool’s errand. You’ve picked the wrong path, folks, because our seams are strong, hand stitched by our history and heritage, as well as heroes of every race, religion, and political persuasion. In Mississippi speak, you’re following a pole cat instead of a redbone hound chasing a scent. As many of us know, an encounter with a pole cat never ends well. Neither does mob violence, destruction, crime, or the myth that problems can’t be solved, and the baby must be thrown out with the bathwater. I hope ex post facto thinking dissolves faster than sugar in sweet tea. Most of us have taken a good, long look in the mirror and seen things that we’ve done wrong. But that’s the first step in correcting wrongs. We’ve also done right, again and again. I hope all Americans will seek the best for our country, not it’s ruin.So, it’s birthday party time. An occasion for watermelon, flags, sparklers, and anything else that lights up the night. Roll out the grill, no matter how rusty or bedraggled, and gather around as the sweet aroma of sizzling burgers drifts into the air. We are 246 years old and it’s been a heck of a run. For an implausible experiment in “We the People” government, I think we’ve done a good job. Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.** Happy birthday sweet land of liberty. Long my you shine.*Henry Ford**Vince Lombardi
Silver Dollar Day©Averyell A. KesslerI wrote this several years ago and post it before every Fourth of July.For me, the Fourth of July is a silver dollar day. My grandfather, WG Avery, started this tradition and it goes way back. When he opened his business in Jackson, he celebrated the Fourth by giving each of his employees a silver dollar for good luck. He did not reveal that he needed good luck more than most. He’d lost his business twice during the depression, one from fire, the second time from a vicious tornado combined with economic loss. Mississippi was his last chance to make a go of it. Thankfully, our state was hungry for industry and welcomed him with enthusiasm. WG knew the ropes of manufacturing having learned the art of the assembly line from a master teacher in Detroit. His name was Henry Ford. Mississippi possessed timber and men seeking better paying jobs in the automobile industry. It was a good match.After the first tenuous year, his business took off like a downhill locomotive and he added a second silver dollar to the good luck pot. The next year three, then four. He was up to seventeen when I joined him for silver dollar day. Late on the afternoon of July 3, he blew the quitting time whistle and gathered his men on a loading dock fronting on the Illinois Central’s Mill Street train track. The day was blisteringly hot, but no one cared.My grandfather gave the same speech every year. “No work tomorrow. It’s the Fourth of July! My men need spending money in their pockets and a new shirt on their backs.” (In today’s money, seventeen dollars equals about $160.00). Behind him were envelopes of silver dollars and stacks of shirts, all large or extra-large. No one wanted a medium or a small, and if they did, they wouldn’t admit it. I watched as each man’s name was called and he stepped forward to shake hands with WG and select a shirt. Once done, my grandfather ripped open a money envelope and poured a shower of silver dollars into his hands. I stood beside him as it happened again and again, until all 103 men had a new shirt and celebration money. When it was over and the men drifted away, he handed me a silver dollar and said “Remember, girl, you can do anything you want to do.”It was a casual comment, tossed off like a high pop fly straight into center field. An odd one also. He was a 19th century man, born, raised and working long before women had the right to vote. I was a shy nine-year-old still negotiating my way through the intricacies of Power School, swimming lessons, neighborhood boys with cap-guns, and the perils of being an only child. At first, I didn’t understand. Me? Anything? Unusual advice for a young female in the 1950’s south. Not the traditional life plan offered up during those years. But his words stuck with me, and I still think about them.I don’t focus on “you can do anything,” because I certainly wouldn’t be a coloratura soprano, a hot shot investment advisor or win an Olympic gold medal. I hear the words “anything you want to do.” I call it chasing dreams. The Declaration of Independence calls it the pursuit of happiness.Independent thought and authentic dreams are a rare commodity these days, especially in a cut and paste society. If thoughts are clear and dreams are strong, they’ll blaze like a torch in the midnight sky. That’s the gift of July Fourth. The right to dream, imagine, try, fail, stand up and try again. Dreams are the basis of all creative endeavor. Age is not a diminishing factor, neither is youth, race, sex, or any other factor. The pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right, as important as the right to life and liberty. What a blessing!WG continued his silver dollar event adding one each year until his bank complained about locating so many silver dollars. All the fun dribbled away when he handed out cash instead of a handful of sparkling silver. But he kept at it. Shirts too.I’ve still got my silver dollar. It’s called a Morgan dollar and features a radiant lady liberty and the words E Pluribis Unum. If anyone tries to pry it out of my hands, take care! Lady liberty rules the day, and we are still out of many, one. Happy Fourth of July.Blest with victory and peace may the heav’n rescued land,Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!from verse four of the Star-Spangled Banner
Demands©Averyell A. KesslerWords, it seems, are in trouble. For a writer, this is especially painful. Words are the tools of my trade. They inhabit my daily work and whisper to me at night. I’ve had a lifelong romance with books of all sorts, the classics, of course, some edgy, some boring, and a few without merit except as a momentary diversion. Words are essential for life and learning. Hello law books moldering on the bottom shelf in my writing room. Now words, both written and spoken, are under suspicion, lying naked under the microscope of timid modern thought and seemingly able to produce as much pain as a swift kick in the britches. Surprise, this is not new. It’s been that way since Socrates drank hemlock.Although the word police have not yet invaded my writing room or erased my thoughts, they are circling and ready to pounce. I see them at work every day, cobbling together a vacillating list of unacceptable words and dissecting a fresh batch of no-nos. (Poor pronouns, they must be really suffering, adverbs have already bitten the dust). Recently, one of my least favorites is gaining popularity- demand. It’s the new mantra of The Society for the Protection of Green Beans, as well as National Carbuncle Association and Sutaso, a short form for Snuggle up to a Screech Owl. The green bean people, aka beanie’s, have presented a list of demands to a group of random six-year-olds as well as Vegetarians United. The Carbuncles demand official recognition from the CDC. The screech owl people are still figuring out how to snuggle up to owls without scaring the living daylights out of the poor creatures.Seems like I’ll have to make peace with ‘demand’ because it’s everywhere. Anyone who’s grown up in the south is familiar with this word and all its possibilities. For me, demand was a Mama rule that must not be broken, ever, under any circumstances. First and foremost was thou shall not talk, giggle, or fidget in church. Fidget wasn’t precisely defined, but I understood. I learned the church rule early in life. I also learned that sometimes rules must be broken. It happened on an ordinary Sunday in April in a densely populated Presbyterian church on North State Street.According to the hands on my Mickey Mouse watch, it’s 11:52 and Dr. Miller is still holding forth. He’s wound up tighter that the mainspring of a double bell alarm clock and shows no signs of stopping. I see my father sitting in the last row of the choir loft, his head bobbing like a fishing pole cork at high tide. His eye lashes flutter against his cheeks. A lady in front of my pew, shifts and adjusts a purple dawn camelia pinned to her sweater in hopes that the sermon will zoom to a rapid conclusion. Her husband is catatonic. Mama, however, is statue still. I tap her hand and point to my watch. She shakes her head slowly and fires a warning shot with her eyes. Sit still or else. I lose the battle when I see my friend sitting nearby. Our eyes lock. She stifles a giggle and sticks out her tongue. I become a howler monkey, my shoulders shiver as I fight for self-control. Mama captures my arm in a vice grip. Quiet, she hisses. Sit still.Dr. Miller is still strapped into a prime seat on the yakery-yak express. His words are velvet to his ears, bouncing off the ceiling as he booms out, “There are three main points here. The first is……………..” Mickey is now displaying 12: 10. I am becoming desperate. Surely Daddy’s stomach is rumbling too.I stop laughing as soon as I see it, a single wasp circling the camelia lady’s stout neck. It is silent and lethal; no one except me seems to hear the whirr of its tiny wings. I press myself against the back in the pew and watch as it settles on the camelia and burrows into its golden center.“The second point is………….” Dr. Miller rattles on, covering the congregation in a heavy blanket of thick fog. Camelia lady is desperate also. She fingers the flower on her shoulder then stretches her neck and fluffs her hair. The wasp abandons his home in the camelia and crawls onto a wide expanse of her raw flesh. I am entranced as it teeters on six spindly legs inspecting the territory before it disappears below her collar. Suddenly, she senses something amiss. She leans forward and tugs at her shoulder pads. Nothing. She whispers to her husband. He unzips her collar and looks inside. More whispering. Camelia lady is now in a hurricane of panic.“Do something!” she whispers. She bares her teeth, her eyes flame. When he reaches inside her dress, it’s a step too far. The wasp attacks. Her chin rises to the ceiling. “Owwww! It’s a wasp!” she shouts, yowling like a solitary wolf on a snowy night. She leaps from her pew and runs down a side aisle. A doctor rouses himself from oblivion and follows her. I hear shouting and scuffling in the entrance foyer. A soft murmur rises in the congregation. Is this wasp one of many? An entire nest, perhaps? An outbreak of feverish scratching follows as folks preen and inspect their clothing. Dr. Miller has the good sense to hop off his glory train and dismiss the congregation. As he flees through a side door, the organist launches into a robust run for your life tune. Every door in the sanctuary is wide open. Families gather their children and rush outside to safety. It’s over at last.“That poor lady,” Mama says as we leave the church. “I hope she’s alright.“I saw it on her neck,” I say. “But she didn’t know it was there.”“Why didn’t you say something?” Mama asks.“I’m not supposed to talk in church,” I explain.“Sometimes rules don’t apply and you must speak up,” Mama says. “especially if something bad is happening.”“I will from now on,” I answer. “Especially if it’s bad.”Good advice Mama. So, must we all. It’s important.
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