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.

Crisis on Laurel Street©Averyell A. KesslerMama’s story opened with a dramatic organ glissando and a vivid shot of a revolving globe against a dark background dotted with twinkling stars. Dramatic to be sure. We hadn’t made it to the moon yet, and it was the best the tv folks could do. Then a deep, intense voice boomed, “And now for the next thirty minutes……………….AS THE WORLD TURNS……brought to you by Instant Niagara and new Niagara Spray Starch.” Although it was a soap opera, Mama and Ella, our housekeeper, called it “the story.” It was a mandatory Monday through Friday noontime event. No matter that it crept along at a glacial pace, the plot took at least one plodding step forward each day and couldn’t be overlooked. The Edge of Night was a close second.The seductive Alexis Carrington and Sue Ellen Ewing had not yet appeared on the tv scene, and the daytime antics of the Hughes Family as well as the perceived normality of Oakdale Illinois were as far from ordinary as 1950’s TV would allow. Then an unexpected twist occurred that shook the foundations of soapdom at our house on Laurel Street.I was a rising fourth grader at Power School and Mama had decided the ‘’the story” was bland enough for me to watch during the summer months, especially during the blistering noon hours of July when I was forced to rest. In short order, I became familiar with all the characters as they trudged through one blighted romance after another, took calm advice from Nancy, the straight arrow matriarch of the family, and watched as carefully coiffed women competed for the attention of a handsome physician. Then it happened, a vaulting leap into the future as the story mentioned the unmentionable.Dressed fit to kill, my mother was on her way to Maids and Matrons, one of her many lady’s clubs that gathered at the Municipal Art Gallery on North State Street. It was an organization which published a cookbook called Pots and Pans and included only one maid. After she left, Ella and I were sitting the den, inches away from our console tv and shelling our way through a bushel of crowder peas. “Ya’ll be sure to watch the story today.” Mama said as she closed the back door. “I think something big is gonna happen.” We had no intention of doing anything else. The story opened with the following exchange:“What to do mean? You accepted an engagement ring from Bert!” Nancy yelled. (Bert was a stray Englishman who arrived in Oakdale for some obscure reason)“We’re going to get married,” her saccharin sweet daughter, Penny replied.“Have you told him about the baby?” Nancy asked, her eyes narrowing into searchlights.Ella sat us straight in her chair, dropping a handful of unshelled peas back into the basket. She lowered the volume, but I kept listening.“Not yet,” Penny answered quietly. “Maybe I won’t tell him at all.”“But your baby was born out of wedlock,” Nancy continued. “You have to tell him!”Sharp, ear shattering chords erupted from the show’s organ and Niagara interrupted with a jaunty starch commercial.“What baby, Ella? Penny doesn’t have a baby.”“The story hasn’t said anything about Penny having a baby.” Ella whispered. “Don’t worry about that mess. It’s nothing – bound to be.”“What does wedlock mean?” I asked innocently. “Mama said a big deal was coming!”“Ask your Mama when she gets home.”“Tell me, now, before I miss anything!”“I said, ask your Mama,” she replied, and changed the channel to The Edge of Night.I tore into my room, found my Webster’s Elementary Dictionary, and thumbed through the W’s. I found a simple definition on page 712. I also flipped past “voluptuous,” “weasel”, and “warlock, but I ignored them.“It means marriage,” I told Ella as the commercials ended.“Yes, it does,” she sighed.“How can Penny have a baby if she’s not married?” I whined.“Not my business to tell you. Ask your Mama.”Ella was waiting in our driveway when Mama returned from her club meeting. I watched from my bedroom window as they had an animated conversation in front of our garage. As a result, we left the distraught Penny moldering in Oakdale for a complete conversion to The Edge of Night, a crime drama also featuring a mysterious piano introduction, smoky trumpet solo, and Mike Karr, a hero lawyer and criminologist. It was Perry Mason during the daylight hours. There was another midwestern city, Monticello, and a cast of entrancing and disreputable characters. As a result, I learned an array of new words – grand jury, indictment, and testimony. I also became familiar with Proctor and Gamble’s many products. Luckily, The Edge of Night did not include unexpected announcements of surprise babies. It was a soap opera, advertising soap, with an occasional murder and a bit of blackmail tossed in. What could go wrong?When school began in September, summertime soaps and I parted ways. Their snail like pace and gordian knot difficulties couldn’t compete with cartoons, Lash LeRue or the Lone Ranger. I was more concerned with Sky King’s Penny, who flew in her uncle’s Cessna, hung out with Clipper, and help rescue the endangered. Lucy and Ethel were my new best pals because they allowed me to stay up for an extra half hour a school night. Mama, now fully aware that television wasn’t always benign, kept a careful eye on was flowing into our home. As a result, I almost missed Elvis’ Ready Teddy performance before an astonished audience on The Ed Sullivan Show. Almost, but not quite!

The Lemming Quadrille ©Averyell A. KesslerMy mother was astounded when I announced I wanted saddle shoes. “They’re for children,” she said. “You’ve outgrown them.”“Not now,” I answered. “Everybody has them.”“Everybody?” she asked.“Almost everybody,” I continued. “It’s a thing.”“Oh yes,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I know about things.”I was an eighth grader at Bailey Junior High and edging into dicey teen-age years. Maturity was blooming like four o’clocks on a picket fence. The ever-present specter of fads, popularity, and the overwhelming desire to fit in were creeping into my psyche. I’d already passed in and out of Bobbie Brooks pre-teen clothing phase and pressed shiny pennies into my loafers. I had learned how to stuff tissue into a size AAA bra, and squeeze into a panty girdle. (No one in the eighth grade needed a panty girdle, but they held up our stockings. Stockings? What were we thinking?) I had no idea I was trotting behind the bell cow of “follow the crowd” mania.After three days of whining and fruitless pleas, I spoke lethal words, “I’ll be the only one without them.” Finally, Mama gave in. We drove downtown to Capital Street and parked in front of Myron’s Shoe Store(??) the go-to shop for saddle shoe craziness. The salesman was delighted to see us when we stepped into a shoebox shaped store smelling of mold and air-wick, plus a faint tinge of shoe polish. It was late October, but the ice conditioner was still blasting out a whirlwind of freezing air.“Saddle shoes?” he asked eagerly, rubbing his hands together.“Yes,” Mama answered.“I don’t know what’s going on, but this saddle shoe craze had been really good for business,” he laughed. We settled into padded green chairs and waited as he climbed aboard a chrome fitting stool, pulled it to within an inch of my knees, and picked up his measuring tool. “Now little lady, let’s check your size.”The words little lady were fingernails scraping across a blackboard, but I ignored it. He darted into his stock room and returned with a single box. “I don’t have your exact size, but these might do. I can put them on the stretcher and they’ll be fine. Stretcher? Was that an instrument of medieval torture? Was I in competition with Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters, fighting to slip their enormous toes into a tiny glass slipper?The next few minutes flew by as I tried on the shoes. Ouch. The salesman stretched them again, then again. The third stretch sealed the deal, and I was able to walk around the shop without overt pain. He led me to a large, medical looking machine in the center of the store. It was a pediscope, the ultimate shoe fitting gadget of the day, and a frightening combination of a weigh-for-a-penny scale and goose necked X-ray machine. When I stepped on, a ghastly green light appeared on the dial exposing my bony feet (or someone’s bony feet) encased in shoes.“A perfect fit,” the salesman brayed. “Plenty of room for the toes.” He failed to mention heels.I was giddy when we left the store. I was set, blending in with the popular kids, ready to mix with the elite of 14-year-old society. Three days later, I began to limp.Mama noticed before I did. “I knew those shoes didn’t fit,” she said.“Yes, they do,” I answered. I’m surprised a bolt of lightning didn’t crash through the kitchen window and flatten me. My heals were throbbing, as red and raw as a Gulf Coast sunburn. My toes were pressed together like the teeth of a fine-tooth comb. I remembered Scarlet O’Hara sucking in breath as Prissy laced her corset tighter than a drum skin. I was undeterred. She who would be beautiful must suffer. Right?My grandfather WG arrived early then next morning with a box of fresh picked camelias for Mama. He noticed my limp and asked what was going on. After I told the story, he stared at me with searchlight eyes.“Remember what I told you – don’t follow the mob.”“Yes,” I whispered. “but everybody wears them.”“Forget about everybody. Those shoes hurt, don’t they?”“A little bit.” I bit my lip; my heels still thrummed from a fresh outbreak of blisters.“Do you want to follow the mob when it jumps off a cliff?”“No!” I answered.“Then be an individual. Walk in your own shoes. The ones that fit!” Good advice from a 19th century man.I’ve been walking in my own shoes for a long time now. I’ve managed to steer clear of lemming philosophy and group think because I’ve never read an entrancing story written by committee or heard a glorious sonata flow from a board of directors meeting. I welcome John Milton’s marketplace of ideas. Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.* This is not intended to be a political post, because I avoid those like a bad case of athlete’s foot. It’s just a brief push back against a world where labels are common, point of view seems to be everything, and independent thought is a pile of tin pennies. Cut and paste philosophy is not my thing, never will be. I’m glad my grandfather taught me not to follow the mob. His lesson was simple. The lemming boss is never the first one over the cliff, only his followers. He watches, as one by one they tumble into the sea, and I’m certain he’s not wearing saddle shoes.*Areopagitica – John Milton’s passionate speech to the British parlimant in defense of freedom of speech and expression.

Sunshine Days ©Averyell A. KesslerIt’s a hot Friday in May and Mama and I are driving to Power School for the most joyous day in the school year – the last. I’m eleven and the folksy voice of Farmer Jim Neal mixes with the steamy air drifting into our car. It’s a time for celebration and finality, my saddle shoes will be cast aside, my blue zipper notebook is headed for a high closet shelf, and the ultimate bete noire, my arithmetic workbook, will be cast aside as damaged goods. Sunshine days are back. Hooray!Sadly, I’m still dealing with “the arm.” This simple pre-seat belt technique wasn’t a product of Vincent Price’s fertile imagination or a variation of his seat-rattling chiller “The Tingler,” but a handy movement used by almost every parent in Jackson. As Mama’s black Chevy coupe slowly guides to the corner of Laurel and St. Mary, she is wary; a stop sign is just ahead. As usual, traffic does not exist, no cars are visible, no strollers either, not even a rambling dog. Nevertheless, her arm shoots out. Bam! The car stops, and I am pressed against the seat back, immobile, breathless, and pinned tighter than a butterfly in a bug collection. My voice catches, I am unable to speak.“Are you alright,” Mama asks. My stomach constricts, as my breakfast of sliced bananas and cheerios rises in my throat.“Uhuh,” I gasp, swallowing hard.She releases me. I am safe, I guess. That’s what she tells me. The car lurches forward; we pass the stop sign as well as a row of duplexes near Belhaven Creek. Riverside Drive is just ahead, so I know that arm is coming again. If I am lucky, maybe it will disappear over the summer. And summer, as I know so well, presents another set of challenges.Even though I am an only child, my mother is well schooled in parenting skills she learned from Dr. Spock, back fence chatter, and the Fletcher’s Castoria label. Her summer litany of rules and regulations will appear the moment the doors of Power School were closed and locked.-No swimming until 30 minutes after I’ve eaten. It doesn’t matter if I’ve only consumed one tiny mint or a handful of M & M’s, a mustard coated pronto pup, a bag of potato chips, or an enomous a dripping Nutty Buddy, I wait on the side of the pool as thirty unending, molasses-slow minutes tick by and I learn the meaning of eternity. Orange crush counts too.-Keep your band-aid dry, especially if a bleeding ankle has been slathered with merthiolate. Although it stains and stings like an angry hornet, it works. The arrival of stingless Bactine was a childhood miracle.-Do not step on an ant hill or poke it with a stick. Those pesky critters can outrun a Cheetah in less a minute. Never scratch a mosquito bite or touch anything that crawls across sidewalk, slithers down a honeysuckle vine, chitters, or hides in the azaleas. If something jumps out of the hedges and growls, run. Roses have thorns, and snapping turtles are aptly named. Duck and cover if something swoops down from the sky. Sounds simple enough, but there’s more.-Do not track mud, sprinkler water, or freshly cut grass into the house. Dripping bathing suits belong outside, not hanging over a towel rack in the bathroom. Going to sleep with damp, chlorine scented hair is a no-no. Although green is a lovely color, it doesn’t blend well with Sunday school outfits. Neither does bubble gum or dirty fingernails.-Make sure all the checkers remain in the Monopoly box as well as the dice, the get out of jail free cards and tokens, especially my favorite, the top hat.-And finally, lick your ice cream cone from the bottom not the top. The same goes for grape popsicles, push-ups, and anything else in Shady Nook’s tempting drink box.My childhood rules for easy, sunshine days were simple. Keep my shoes in the closet, a frozen coke in the fridge, and a quarter in my pocket in case the ice cream man comes by. Visits to the dentist will vanish, as well as spelling tests, piano lessons, and mushy green beans in the school cafeteria. I have a choice between Riverside pool and the blowup one in the back yard. The rigorous efforts of the Presbyterians will melt away and I will abandon memorizing anything, ever.In summer, my imagination blossomed as the adults in my life stepped back and allowed me to soar. I made up my own stories and plotted out my own games. It was a time for lying in the grass and staring at the sky as a menagerie of clouds floated by. I spent afternoon’s searcing for a drifting elephant or a puffy white frog. Genie’s too.The public library was a wonderland because Peter Pan lived there, as well as Madeline, Babar, and The Borrowers. So did Winnie and his gang. I had no idea where deepest darkest Peru was, but I knew Paddington.As I May drifted into June, the calendar taped to our fridge was blank. There was no drumbeat of organized activities and no adults stifling the simmering pot of childhood creativity. The smotherings summer heat meant nothing except running through the sprinkler, making clover necklaces, and watching Daddy lift a dripping paddle out of the ice cream freezer. Better yet, television had not captured my soul.Still, I knew what was coming, summer was not endless. When August approached, as it always did, my sunshine days would fade like dandelions in the grass. Power School would reopen again, the rattle of my alarm clock would shake me awake, and our Chevy’s would resume its slow path to Riverside Drive. As a rising fifth grader, my status at Power would be substantially upgraded, and anything was possible. But while freedom reigned, I intended to squeeze the last bit of sticky, sweet juice out of every sunshine day. When it was all over, perhaps the arm would finally disappear.

Watermelon©Averyell A. KesslerI watched closely as Hattie Jean Peaster leaned toward an oak- framed mirror hanging over her dressing table and inspected her face. When she opened her purse and withdrew a shiny tube of Revlon’s Fire Engine Red, I knew something was up. She’d already changed into a Sunday School dress and a pair of low heel shoes. She uncapped the lipstick and coated her lips with heart stopping red, then blotted her mouth with a tissue until only a soft pink remained. Hattie Jean was the mother of my best friend, Martha. I spent half of my childhood at her house on St. Mary Street.“Where are you going?” Martha asked.“We’re all going.” Hattie Jean said. She opened her compact and patted a fresh dusting of powder over her nose and cheeks. “Put on a clean pair of shorts.”“Where?” Martha asked again.“Watermelon,” she said simply.At my Laurel Street home, watermelon was far more than a tasty bite of sweetness dripping with flavor; it was an event. We called it a watermelon cutting, and it was woven into Belhaven’s social structure just a firmly as an Easter egg hunt, a birthday party, or a swirling sparkler on Fourth of July. Hattie Jean knew the rules and dressed accordingly. She was a delta lady and a party was a party, no matter what kind. With luck, there’d also be a tumbler of Old Grand Dad seasoned with a few ice cubes.I thought about a Belhaven watermelon cutting last week when I rambled through Kroger’s fruit and veggie department. As always, I saw rows of precision cut watermelon chunks in shiny plastic boxes as well as carefully measured slices also plastic wrapped. (What did they do with the juice? Just wondering.) A few whole watermelons were on a secondary aisle, nestled in a humble cardboard box like abandoned puppies. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. At least they weren’t paired with kale.In my growing up days, there were several ways to obtain a watermelon, from someone’s overflowing garden, the Farmers’ Market, or the Jitney. Of course, the real fun was selecting a Smith County beauty from the back of a pick-up parked south of Jackson on Highway 49. Over the years, my father honed the selection process into an art, choosing between green or stripped and large or extra-large (personal seedless watermelons did not exist, and we would have considered them serious aberration of nature). Next came his thumping technique to determine if the melon was ripe. A yellowish spot on the bottom was a good indication, but not always. Finally, he asked the watermelon man to cut a small plug out of our chosen melon and offer a sample. Once the decision was made, the watermelon road home in our backseat like a member of the family.A watermelon cutting was not a solitary occasion or lace tablecloth event. It lacked the elegance of an iced petit four or the delicacy of an angel food cake. Certainly not a romantic dinner for two. A watermelon cutting was a Saturday celebration, a gentle gathering of friends, an invite all the neighbors, come-on-in affair featuring good conversation, ubiquitous cigarettes, and laughter echoing into the night. Emily Post did not attend, neither did crabby relatives or anyone associated with the WCTU. Hattie Jean came with bells on. Sometimes it developed into an impromptu cookout, sometimes not. It didn’t matter. The watermelon, now lolling in a tin tub ice bath, was the star. Adults drifted into our backyard and mixed cocktails from bootleg bourbon and icy cokes. They unfolded lawn chairs and settled into a circle as children ran free, played may I, hopscotch or gathered under the basketball hoop. Mosquito coils were a necessity. So were card tables, newspapers and a good butcher knife. Also, a saltshaker for those addicted to the taste. Paper plates weren’t needed. Knives and forks? Laughable! Only a stack of paper napkins was allowed at a watermelon cutting. Keep the hose handy too.The highlight of the evening occurred when the ice-cold melon was lifted from the tub, placed on a nest of newspapers, and sliced open. Suddenly, the oppressive summer heat no longer mattered, and one of Mother Nature’s best creations stole the show.“Who wants the first piece?” Daddy called out. It was his mantra. The Laurel Street seal of approval for a glistening green melon with honey sweet fruit the color of a flaming sunset. The adults received a huge halfmoon slice, the children a carefully carved wedge. We ate it with both hands, tasting heaven as sticky juice ringed out mouths and dribbled down our elbows.And then, seeds. The disposition of seeds depends on the end game. Do you want to politely dispose of them or spit them at each other in a merry end-of-the-evening melee? Hattie Jean and my mother were in the first group, Martha and I the second. Nothing was more fun than squeezing a seed between your thumb and index finger and watching the slippery devil arc in the air and attack like an angry bumble bee. Not once, but again and again, especially when the victim wasn’t expecting it. A seed spitting contest was always the last hurrah before children were hustled home for a much-needed bath.Now, summer is here and I want watermelon. Not chunks in a plastic box or anything pre-sliced. I want an authentic Mississippi, field grown beauty that looks like sunshine and leaks juice sweeter the Aunt Jemima’s finest. I want to chill it in a tin tub and slice it in the backyard with my grandchildren. I want to hold it in my fingers, nibble it down to the rind, and suck out the last bit of juice. Most of all, I want to show them that I can spit seeds with the best on them! I’m sure Hattie Jean would approve.

A Silent Gathering ©Averyel A. KesslerI wrote this for Memorial Day Last year. It’s the story of my family’s visit to the American Cemetery in Normandy.As Memorial Day approaches, I am thinking of a man I never met. His name is Charles Willis Kessler; his was a young, second Lieutenant from the small town of Eunice, Louisiana. Two of his brothers went to war also, one older, one younger. Both came home. Willis did not. He lost his life a few days after the Normandy Invasion when a Nazi sniper saw the bright flash of silver officer’s bars on his uniform and killed him with a single shot. His family received word that he had been buried in a small churchyard in Mer St.Eglise, France. Nothing more. His mother never recovered.Over forty years later, my family decided to find Willis. No one else in the family had ever visited his grave. We’d been been touring France for over a week when we rented a car and drove to the village of Mer St. Eglise, a few miles from the coastline and close to the site of the Invasion. As we wandered through the churchyard, a priest came bustling out of the church and greeted us. He did not speak English, our French was spotty, but he spoke magic words “Cimetiere Americian Normandy.” We were off again barreling towards the Cemetery and Omaha Beach. What happened next made me proud to be an American.The cemetery is extraordinarily beautiful and a stunning tribute to all persons lost in the terror of WWII, even those whose bodies were never found. We were welcomed warmly by the officer on duty. He ushered us into his office, found the location of Willis’ grave, and asked us to sign the visitors’ book, recording the names of all relatives of the hero soldiers buried there. He produced a beautiful bouquet and a bucket of sand and led us through a sea of gleaming white crosses and stars of David. They were beyond number, a silent gathering of heroes, Suddenly, there it was, Willis’ grave, his name carved in stark stone letters. His name, Kessler, was ours also. After a small ceremony, we placed the bouquet on Willis’ stone and sprinkled sand over his grave. Then photographs. I still have them as a reminder of that sweet, sad day. As we walked away from his grave, it was difficult to speak. Even our young teenage sons were quiet. On that day, we learned the meaning of incredible sacrifice from one of our own.So, why did Willis go to war? What caused this young man fresh out of LSU to leave home and volunteer to fight for his country. A few facts are clear. Pearl Harbor. Hitler’s ruthless invasion of Europe. The sinking of American ships as well as those of our allies. Uboats invading the North Atlantic with plans to blockade all ships. The creeping realization that angry tyrants sought to conquer the world. But I think his motivations were more than that. I believe they were deeply personal. It was a matter of survival, and the preservation of his way of life. Hot bowls of oatmeal his mother served her large family on cold winter mornings, as well as tasting her homemade donuts. Watching his father walk to his job managing a sawmill, a job he chose, not one forced upon him. It was Willis’ small-town sensibilities, dedicated teachers, and Sunday meetings at Eunice’s Baptist Church, as well as a broadening of experience when he entered college. Again, his choice, his future, his chance to shine.He did not fight to affirm someone’s wish to control the free expression of ideas, parse speech, or advance the views of the easily offended who only offer their own brand of tyranny. That would have been unthinkable in his day when the principals of America’s foundation were honored . He did not give his life to encourages mob violence, censorship, or cut-throat politics. Again, unthinkable, even though memories of the Kingfish and scars Louisiana’s checkered past still echoed. He fought for the ideals he had been raised with and for the fear that his small-town way of life would be taken away forever. Although his early life may not have been more than a 5-mile radius around home, it was his and was worth fighting for.As we returned to our car, another humbling event occurred. Several large, heavily loaded tour buses passed through the cemetery gates and stopped on the parking plaza. Surely, these were Americans coming to visit Normandy as we did. But no. This was different. Out of curiosity, we watched as hundreds of people streamed away from the buses and walked into the cemetery. Many women carried flowers. Men spoke in loud voices, pointing and waving their arms as they described what had occurred on this sacred spot. All were French. They had come to remember the invasion and pay tribute to the Americans who died for their freedom. Viva Les Etats Unis! General John J. Pershing said, “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.” I hope it never does.I write in honor and remembrance of Charles Willis Kessler of Eunice Louisiana, Second Lieutenant, 357 Infantry Regiment, 90th Infantry Division, who died on June 14, 1944. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart.

The Last Day©Averyell A. KesslerIt’s the last day of school, my final day as a six grader at Power School. My brain is pacing back and forth like a caged tiger. We all are. Even Miss Latham, our teacher, has a faraway look in her eyes as she tries to hold back an imminent explosion of joy. Outside, the custodian and his crew are mowing and the fragrant aroma of just-cut clover drifts through the open windows in my classroom. The brown grass edging Riverside Drive is turning lush green, and pink puffs are falling from the mimosa trees on the front lawn. It’s summer. No one can hold it back. I feel it in every inch of my body, tingling like an electric current, or the stomach-churning rush of a descending elevator. After today, I’ll be free. A stay up late, run through the sprinkler, bubble blowing, bike riding, dive and splash summer stretches out like a golden road. I pay no attention to the sweat dibbing into my socks.About a mile to the east, the swimming pool folks at Riverside Park are preparing to open. They are sweeping the remains of winter debris from the empty pool, and stocking the concession stand with Tootsie Rolls, Life Savers, and Bit’O Honey bars. They’re revving up the snow-ball machine too. If I’m lucky, they’ll purchase a cotton candy machine. If I’m truly lucky, Mama will buy me a new swimsuit and a bathing cap covered with flowers. No chin strap!But the day is moving like molasses. Bright afternoon sunlight pours into the classroom and warm air covers me like a wool blanket. Desperation sits in the desk beside me, staring with laughing eyes. Gotcha, it says. I am trapped, held prisoner by the oversized wall clock hanging over Miss Latham’s desk. I am surprised when she stands, looks at her watch, and makes a stunning announcement.“I think we still have time to check the spelling test we took yesterday.” Oh no! I’ve been dreading this, hoping beyond hope that she’d forgotten about yesterday’s 45-word monster. Instead, she plows ahead, methodically passing out papers so that no one gets his own test. I sit squirming as Jimmy Evans’ test falls on my desk. Then it begins, Miss Latham patiently calls out Arizona – A-r-i-z-o-n-a, Kentucky – K-e-n-t-u-c-k-y, misery – m-i-s-e-r-y, despair d-e-s-p-a-i-r. Finally, she says, freedom – f-r-e-e-d-o-m. I rejoice. Jimmy scores 100, because I have not looked at a single word on his test. Miss Latham collects the papers. I doubt she will even glance at them, but the last torment is over. I look at the clock again. Hallelujah, it’s almost time for the bell. No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks! In five minutes, I’ll be gone forever. Gone? Forever? I remember the day it started. It’s only a whisp of remembrance, but it’s there.In August of my 2nd grade year, the new Power School was finally finished and ready to welcome its first students. A modern yellow brick marvel, it was a sprawling, one story building settled in the middle of 5 acres fronting on Riverside Drive. The campus included a softball diamond, a basketball blacktop, hopscotch patterns, and a wide lawn for games. Our new desks were even footed (no rocking) and without initials carved on top or concrete globs of bubble gum stuck under the bottom. The black boards had become green boards, and the windows opened wide to receive fresh air. Everything was fresh and clean, the walls were spotless, and seamless linoleum floors were polished to a high gloss. On that first day, we gathered around the flagpole with our teachers and parents, as Miss Briscoe, the principal, welcomed and blessed us. We sang a loud, off-key version of My Country Tis of Thee and recited the Pledge of Allegiance as the flag was raised for the first time. Here we come, ready or not. After everyone walked inside for punch and cookies, our parents wrangled us into our classrooms and kissed us goodbye. The new school had opened, and we settled in to learn the latest and greatest from a cadre of teachers, both young and old. Anything was possible.Now it is ending. This is my last day at Power School, my final stroll down the long hall leading to the cafeteria, my last time to slink past Miss Biscoe’s office and hope she doesn’t catch me sprinting across the front lawn. Bailey Jr. High was a gleaming star on a high hill, an exciting unknown adventure, with new friends, new teachers and the tantalizing prospect of lipstick and high heels. I couldn’t wait.I am thankful for my Power School teachers. They taught for the love of the job and of the kids too. They would rather have endured a three- hour root canal than miss a day of school. They called our parents when we were out with measles and intervened if anyone was being pushed around on the playground. They patched up skinned knees and helped us button our coats on freezing winter days. They had rules, could control a giggling classroom by clapping their hands, and God help the poor child who stepped out of line or cut up in the cafeteria. They smiled when we did well, and worried when we didn’t. Not just because of our failure, but because of theirs also.I hope there are still good teachers out there now, people who teach because they love learning and slog through difficulty to make sure everybody learns to read, understands fractions, and can write a proper sentence with a minimum of difficulty. The good ones open sleepy eyes and help fledgling adults emerge from the chrysalis of childhood. They are a parent’s best friend, and an ally in learning. They lead us forward, point to the stairsteps of learning, and say, “One step at a time. Take my hand. We’ll climb together.” They are a blessing. I remember them all.