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Archive for August, 2011

In this post I present the second of the two-part series on race relations in the South in earlier days. Specifically, I describe three events in my life in which I observed my mother’s Christian attitude toward and treatment of black people despite the prevailing prejudice and practice.
 
 “ . . . ‘place’ is memory-laden, full of associations and connections with the past.”
—Lisa Cade Wieland

One time during one of our “semi-annual pilgrimages to the Holy Land” of my rural Arkansas birth and upbringing, I was standing on the front porch of the old Selma general store looking off toward the historic Selma Methodist Church. Behind me I heard my young son ask his mother, “Mama, what’s Daddy lookin’ at?”

“He’s not lookin’, Sean,” she said. “He’s rememberin’.”

Selma general store as it looked in the 1980s

Selma general store as it looked in the 1980s

What I was “rememberin’” as I looked up the gravel road that led toward the church and then curved to the left to continue a mile or so on to the Selma Lumber Company sawmill was a scene from my childhood.

Selma Methodist Church as it looked from the Selma general store

Selma Methodist Church as it looked from the Selma general store

For a certain period during the ten years that I was growing up in Selma, my mother worked in the store with her friend Minnie Mae Eason, who, with her husband, owned the store. Although my father and Bill Eason had business dealings together at times, I can’t recall whether Mama was a partner in the store with Minnie Mae or simply helped her out.

In any case, not long after Mama had begun working there, a black man came into the store one day about noon and asked Mama if he could buy something to eat and charge it. When Mama said that she didn’t know him and that he had no charge account, he explained politely that he had just started working at the sawmill that day and that he would have no money until he was paid at the end of the week.

It was common practice for the sawmill hands to walk down to the store at noon and buy individual items for their “dinner” (as lunch was called in the rural South), which they consumed out on the store porch. These items usually included a can of Vienna (universally pronounced “Vye-enna”) sausages, some soda crackers, a dime’s worth of “rat cheese” (cheddar cheese thinly sliced with precision from a huge round wheel and carefully weighed on a meat scale), an RC (short for Royal Crown Cola), and either a Moon Pie (a popular Southern confection of the time) or a “goober wheel” (a Peanut Patty).

However, since Mama was alone in the store on this occasion, she was in a quandary because she could not bring herself to sell the items to the poor hungry black man who had no credit and no proof that he was actually employed at the mill. When she told him so, he sadly turned and walked out of the store to start his long weary trek back up to the mill to put in another half-day’s work with nothing to eat or drink.

As he did so, Mama and I walked out onto the porch and watched him while he strode manfully but slowly up that gravel road, his back straight and his head high but his very demeanor giving evidence at every step of his weariness of body and soul.

As he continued his prideful but sorrowful journey, Mama stood beside me and wrung her hands as she lamented, “I feel so sorry for him. I know he’s tired and hungry. But I just couldn’t let him have those things, because I didn’t know him.” It was obvious that she was “feeling his pain,” yet was pained herself because she felt she could do nothing to relieve his misery.

Mama at about the time of the Selma store incident

Mama at about the time of the Selma store incident

That was the scene that I was remembering more than thirty years later as I stood on the front porch of the old store looking up the road toward the Selma Methodist Church. It is the same scene that I recall each time I visit that place. Though Mama and the black man and the old store are all gone, I hope that Mama and that man are now feasting together at the Lord’s table on the store porch, and that I will one day join them there. I can almost taste that RC and Moon Pie.

 Mama’s Lack of Racial Bias and Social Conformity

 “Just what is it we all want . . . to get back to? Myth, memory and imagination. Land, language and literature. Race and place. . . . Every generation tells the next, the South is disappearing, yet it never disappears.”
—Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor,
“Pictures at an exhibition: The South, the South, the South . . .,”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, nd

That memory of Mama and the hungry black man reminded me of several other instances in which Mama’s perspective and treatment of black people was revealed.

Although it was “just not done” in those days in rural Southeast Arkansas, Mama gave no thought to entertaining black visitors in our living room. Obviously, in the rural South in those days these visits were few since the general unwritten societal rule was that black people would not enter the front door of a white dwelling. In fact, they would not even come to the front door and knock. Instead, they would stand outside the yard gate and call for someone to come out and speak to them.

At times some black man or another from our community would come to the gate while I was outside playing and politely ask me to call my father. I would do as I was asked, and Daddy would always go out and talk to the black man who usually stood humbly waiting, his hat held nervously in his hand. Often the reason for the visit and the requested conversation with Daddy was obvious, since Daddy would reach into his back pocket to retrieve his wallet and pull out a bill to pass to the duly grateful recipient. Somehow without being told I knew that “the word among the colored folks” was that my father was always willing to make a small loan to help the needy laborer get by until Saturday, the weekly payday.

Daddy as a young man in Selma

Daddy as a young man in Selma in 1937, the year before I was born

In fact, Daddy was so well known and respected in the rural black community that when he died in 1954, many of the area blacks were allowed to attend his funeral (seated in a carefully segregated section) at the all-white First Baptist Church of McGehee, Arkansas—an event that I do not recall ever happening previously.

McGehee First Baptist Church as it looked in 1954

First Baptist Church of McGehee as it looked in 1954

Black women, many of whom worked as domestics for white ladies, usually came around to the rear of the house where they either knocked on the back door or just went about their assigned tasks. So for Mama to invite a black woman into the “front parlor” was quite an unusual breach of protocol, one that she never seemed to note or realize.

On one such occasion, Mama was entertaining a young black woman and her son, who was quite a bit younger than I was. For some reason, during the conversation Mama instructed me to go get my new Daisy “Red Ryder” BB rifle to show the boy and his mother.

While I was demonstrating how the rifle was cocked and fired, the little boy grabbed it with his hand around the stock—with the cocking lever down. I knew that if he pulled the trigger, the rifle would go off, and the cocking lever would fly back up and strike his knuckles sharply. So I tried to stop him by saying, “Wait, wait!” and pulling the gun out of his hands. But Mama and the boy’s mother both gave me a hard look that revealed they thought I was trying to keep him from firing the rifle—which I was, for his sake.

Sure enough, he pulled the trigger, and the cocking lever flew up and struck his clenched fingers so hard that he burst into tears. Immediately both Mama and the boy’s mother began to console the weeping boy while glaring at me in anger, obviously convinced that I had caused the boy to be hurt on purpose. I tried to tell Mama the truth, but neither she nor the boy’s mother was in any mood to listen to me. So soon afterward the visitors left, never to return.

Mama then turned, pointed her finger at me, and said, “Aren’t you ashamed?” She often did that when I had disappointed her or fallen short of her high expectations for me. Throughout my life I always knew implicitly that Mama expected me to be superior in conduct and manners—I just wasn’t supposed to act superior, even to a person I might consider inferior.

Later in life I came across a quotation that I always remembered though I never knew its source: “The mark of a great man is the way he treats lesser men.” That quotation and subsequent events in my life became the basis for one of my own quotations: “My devout Baptist mother taught me to be honest and to be a gentleman. She just never taught me how to do both at the same time.”

Me and my two brothers Adrian (left) and Joe (right)

Me and my two brothers Adrian (left) and Joe (right) when we lived in Selma

The result of the incident was that I was never able to vindicate myself to Mama or the woman and her son, or even to explain what had really happened and why. As in many other instances throughout my life, I was left frustrated and upset because I was perceived as the villain when I was actually in a sense the victim—of misunderstanding. I am sure that in the mind and heart of that black woman and her son I was the epitome of a cruel and selfish Southern white racist. 

Mama Brought Us All to the Table

“You’ll watch Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets march into God’s kingdom. You’ll watch outsiders stream in from east, west, north, and south and sit down at the table of God’s kingdom.”
–Luke 13:28-30 THE MESSAGE 

Although there were other incidents of racial tension during my youth, the one that perhaps epitomizes most vividly Mama’s lack of racial bigotry and observance of unwritten social codes transpired after my family had left the country and moved to town in October 1948,  just before I turned ten years old.

After living in several houses for several years, in 1953, when I was fifteen, we built a new ranch-style house in McGehee and began to move into it. To assist us in this move Daddy retained the services of one of his former Selma “hands,” a black man whom I will call Charlie.

Mama during construction of our new house in McGehee

Mama during construction of our new house in McGehee

In the process of moving, we had transported part of the furniture and other belongings when it came time to have “dinner.” Mama had been busy making sandwiches, chips, and iced tea (“the table wine of the South”) and had set them out on the kitchen bar. As we were passing through the kitchen she began to urge us—all of us, including Charlie—to fill our plates, sit down at the table, and eat.

Since it was unthinkable in the South during those days for blacks and whites to eat at the same table, Mama’s inclusion of Charlie in her invitation left us all confused, not knowing what to do. Charlie seemed as uncomfortable as we were. I am sure he would have been much happier to step out on the back porch and wait for a plate of food and a drink to be handed to him to consume in isolation, as was the established custom in those days. But Mama was not following the unwritten code of conduct, which caused everyone great discomfort.

Finally, after we had stood and shuffled our feet for a few minutes, Mama intervened and insisted that we fill our plates, sit down, and eat—which we did. We were all noticeably relieved when the meal was over and we could get back to our moving chores.

Our new house in McGehee

Our new ranch-style house in McGehee in about 1954

That was the first time I ever sat down at a table and ate with a black person. The second time came in the mid-sixties when I was accepted to attend a U.S. government-sponsored French-language institute for high school teachers, including both blacks and whites, held at what was then Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia, Kansas. Since there were forty-four participants and a dozen native-French speakers and teachers, we were broken up into groups and assigned to eat at different tables with different participants and teachers for each of the seven weeks of the institute.

I must admit that the first time I sat again at a table with a black person was a rather traumatic event in my life, though I tried not to show it. As the weeks went by and I changed from one table to another the “novelty” gradually wore off and the experience became a normal routine. As such, it was just the beginning of a long process that gradually led me to accept black people as equals—a process that Mama never had to go through because she always accepted and treated everyone as children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ.

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“My devout Baptist mother taught me to be honest and to be a gentleman. She just never taught me how to do both at the same time.”
–Jimmy Peacock

I had intended to publish a different post this week. However, since the recent book and current movie titled The Help, about the relationships between Southern black women and their white female employers in the 1960s, have both become so popular and have provoked so much discussion, I thought I would offer one of my own writings related to that subject from days gone by.

 It is a piece I wrote decades ago about my mother and her “colored” washerwoman friend who was quite a natural philosopher. I had edited out the Southern black dialect as potentially offensive; however, since both the book and the movie version of The Help used such dialect, I have reinserted it in an attempt to provide the actual and authentic language used by this astute and articulate African-American lady.

“Drama is real life with the dull parts edited out.”
—Alfred Hitchcock 

Back in the 1940s when I was growing up in a rural Southeast Arkansas that was yet to receive the benefits of such luxuries as electricity and running water, my mother employed a struggling black woman to help her with the weekly family washing—an arduous, backbreaking task that involved soaking, stirring, and scrubbing the soiled vestments in a soot-blackened pot outdoors over a red-hot fire. Needless to say, in the shimmering months of summer this was no easy or glamorous undertaking.

Woman washing clothes in a black pot

A woman washing clothes in a black pot

One sweltering July washday, Viola, Mama’s faithful, long-suffering friend and helper, raised up from her knuckle-scraping scrub board, wiped the sweat that was streaming down her feverish brow, slowly massaged her arched and aching back, and painfully observed: “Ooo, Miss Viv’yan, life sho’ is reg’lar, ain’t it?”

Ruminating on that very astute remark one sleepless morning about two o’clock, I was led to make this observation of my own as I too grappled with the vicissitudes of daily existence:

“Life Is Reg’lar”

Life is not a bowl of cherries,
Nor is it a cabaret.
It’s not one great long fairy tale,
Despite what the poets say.

No, life is a daily thing, you see.
It’s morning, and noon, and night.
It’s making the best and meeting the test;
It’s striving with all your might. 

It’s winning some, and losing some,
And having some rained out.
It’s a time to laugh, and a time to weep,
A time to mourn, and to shout. 

It’s growing up, and then growing old;
It’s growing right from the start.
Yes, life is “reg’lar stuff,” you know—
As “reg’lar” as the beat of God’s heart.

Mama, me, and Madeline

Mama (right), me, and my cousin's widow Madeline Gibson, who is Mari's cousin

It was this same overworked and underpaid washwoman/philosopher who once poignantly exclaimed to Mama: “Ever’body tawkin’ ’bout what all dey gone do when dey gits to heb’n. Dey gone do dis, an’ dey gone do dat. Lawsy, Miss Viv’yan, all ah wants to do is jist git inside de do’ an’ sot down!”

In her later years Mama worked at the Arkansas Baptist Home for Children (now the Arkansas Baptist Children’s Homes) where she died of a heart attack on Easter Day 1973. Now she and Viola are both “inside de do’ and sot down!”

In next week’s post I will continue this theme of race relations in the South in earlier days by examining Mama’s Christian character as reflected in her lack of racial bias and her nonconformity to accepted social customs of her era and area.

For now I will conclude this post with a discussion of a poem I once wrote about Mama and her Bible.

My Mother’s Bible

 I make my living with my mother’s Bible,
I use it every day.
For I am a religious editor,
And with it I earn my pay. 

I make my life with my mother’s Bible,
I
read it every day.
For I am God’s child as well as hers,
And in it I find my way.

I wrote this poem back in 1981 or 1982 when I first started editing for a religious publisher in Tulsa and was actually using Mama’s old worn-out King James Bible. We had given it to her many years earlier. We inherited it when she passed away at the Arkansas Baptist Home for Children while we were working there as houseparents in the seventies.

Mama in later life

Mama in later life

When I started out editing religious books, I worked at home by typing on the kitchen table. (I banged so hard I had to stop and replace the long screws underneath it that fell out). I did that editing on an old 1936 Underwood upright typewriter that Mari’s father had bought when it was “retired” from the Missouri Pacific Railroad years earlier. I used erasable bond paper because I made so many mistakes (as I still do), because I had to type with two fingers (which I still do), because I virtually failed Typing I in high school (which I still would). My teacher was Ann Mosely, later to become Ann Peacock, my sister-in-law. She more or less gave me a C with the more or less mutual understanding that I would not take Typing II, which I didn’t.

Ann Moseley Peacock, my high school typing teacher

The late Ann Mosely Peacock, my high school typing teacher

Every evening after work, I would haul that old Underwood back to our bedroom where I kept it stored on a shelf. Besides Mama’s Bible, that old piece of junk to type on with two fingers, and the erasable bond paper, the only tools I had for editing religious manuscripts were Mari’s old Webster’s dictionary that she had used at Ouachita Baptist College twenty years or more earlier, and a copy of Strong’s concordance that the publisher loaned to me (and which I still have)—plus what English I remembered from Honors Freshman English at Ouachita in 1956-57—but with no formal training or education in English, journalism, religion, Hebrew, Greek, etc. How’s that for credentials! I say that the reason I am such a stickler for credentials is because I have never held a job for which I was qualified on paper—including the one I am doing now!

The differences between those days back in the eighties and these days in the first decades of the twenty-first century are many and varied. Of course, now I use a computer to do my writing and editing. And on my shelves I have many more versions of the Bible to use in copyediting, and even more versions on my computer Bible software to consult, if necessary. I also have the computer programs I need to research scriptural and secular reference sources. I have also gained a great deal more editorial knowledge and experience “on the job.”

But the fact is that basically all I know about religion is what I learned in forty years of Southern Baptist Sunday school—plus some additional information I have picked up over the past thirty-plus years of laboring daily “in the Lord’s vineyard.”

Selma Baptist Church

Selma Baptist Church where my religious education began as a child in my mother's Sunday school class

Note: Since I wrote this piece years ago some things in it have changed. For example, I no longer use my mother’s Bible in my copyediting, nor do I even read it any longer. Now I do my editing from more modern Bible versions, and I do my daily Bible reading in the same French Bible I used to translate French at a Tulsa international ministry thirty-four years ago.

I also no longer work on religious copyediting jobs “daily” since that work virtually “dried up” three years ago about the time Mari retired from teaching.

Now, like the Old Testament prophet who was being fed by God with food brought to him by the birds and drinking water from a stream that also dried up (1 Kings 17:1-15), I have to depend on the Lord to provide my continued sustenance. That was the basis of one of my unending self-quotes: “I have no visible means of support–I’m a writer!” (I could have also said: “I’m a Christian!”)

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“Most Southerners worship three kings: King Jesus, King Cotton, and King Elvis!” (As a tenth-generation Southerner, there are three days of the year on which I absolutely refuse to work—the birthdays of Jesus Christ, Elvis Presley, and Robert E. Lee!)
–Jimmy Peacock

Since we have just passed an important day in the life of Elvis Presley (his death on August 16 in 1977), I thought I would share a letter I wrote several years ago to Elvis Radio in Memphis in celebration of Elvis’ birthday on January 6, 1935.

In that letter I tell about the first time I ever heard Elvis Presley. It was while I was a junior in McGehee High School in the mid-1950s. (Be sure to read “The Rest of the Story . . .” and the quotes about Elvis after the letter.)  

January 8, 2002

Elvis Radio
Memphis, Tennessee

Happy Elvis-mas!

“I moved to Babylon (Oklahoma) from the Holy Land (Arkansas) in 1977 (the year that King Elvis died, see Isaiah 6:1) to take a much-needed job in religious publishing. If ever a man put his hand to the plow looking back, it is me. I only miss home two times—night and day!”
—Jimmy Peacock

A few months ago you broadcast an Elvis memory by Pat Scavo of Hot Springs. Pat (the former Patsy McDermott, affectionately called Patsy Mack) is a classmate of mine from the McGehee (Arkansas) High School Class of 1956.

Patsy McDermott

Patsy McDermott at graduation from MHS in 1956

I was the one who suggested she send her Elvis memory to you. In it she told how she and some of the other girls from the class heard Elvis’ first recording, “That’s All Right, Mama,” at the Desha County Fair in the fall of 1954 and later went to see him in the spring of 1955 at a concert in neighboring Dermott, Arkansas. They then invited him back to McGehee for an after-concert party in one of their homes. Naturally, they were all quite taken with Elvis. But that was the girls’ reaction.

Elvis Presley in McGehee, Arkansas, in 1955

Elvis and his band with an Arkansas state trooper at a motel restaurant in McGehee in 1955 after his concert in Dermott

My first encounter with Elvis’ music was at that same county fair and with the same recording, which I thought was “hickey.” Later, after the concert when the girls came back to school with their autographed photos of Elvis. I took one look at those long sideburns (which no one but country clods wore in those days), all that greasy hair, and that curled-lip sneer, and said, “You mean to tell me y’all paid a quarter for a picture of this yap?”—our word for a country hick.

Elvis Presley in 1955

The 1955 photo of Elvis the McGehee girls bought for a quarter

So my first two impressions of Elvis and his music back in 1954 and 1955 were not at all positive—which was perhaps more of a young man’s reaction than a young woman’s reaction. Soon afterward, however, I became a loyal and lasting Elvis fan (see opening salutation above, which I, as a religious editor, created and copyrighted).

Me in 1955

Me in 1955 (with pen marks above my head from signing my own yearbook photo -- I was no Elvis Presley!)

For our fortieth wedding anniversary on December 27, one of the gifts I gave my wife (also an MHS grad and a fan of the King) was a CD of Elvis’ love songs. She loves it, and me, and Elvis—but not necessarily in that order.

Elvis Love Songs

CD of Elvis love songs (available at all Hallmark stores)

Long live the King!

Jimmy Peacock

The Rest of the Story . . .

What I failed to include in that letter was a description of exactly what happened before and after the girls attended the concert and actually saw Elvis for the first time. Their previous knowledge of him had been only that same recording of “That’s All Right, Mama” that they and I had heard at the county fair and which one of them bought and played over and over.

The March 1955 McGehee Times ad

The March 1955 McGehee Times ad about the Elvis concert in Dermott

Before the concert the girls saw a photo of Elvis in an advertisement in the McGehee Times. Until then they had thought he was a black performer. The ad, which one of the girls still has in a scrapbook, said that Elvis would be appearing at the local radio station and signing autographs before the concert. The station, KVSA, “the Voice of Southeast Arkansas, located halfway between McGehee and Dermott on U.S. Highway 65,” began operating in 1953 and is still in operation today. (For a brief nostalgic video about KVSA, which includes scenes from its heyday in the 1950s and a reference to Elvis being there at that time, click here.) 

KVSA

KVSA as it looks today, unchanged from the 1950s

Unfortunately, when the girls got to KVSA they did not get to meet Elvis, so they went on to Dermott to attend his concert. That first personal encounter with Elvis was so overwhelming that the girls were totally captured and enraptured. They had never seen or heard anyone remotely like him. 

Elvis as he looked at the Dermott concert in 1955

Elvis as he looked at the Dermott concert in 1955

Since one of the girls, Berta Jo Taulbee, was dating Billy Mack Harkins, the president of the Dermott senior class who was in charge of the concert, the girls quickly began to make plans to invite Elvis and his band members Scotty Moore and Bill Black to an after-concert party in McGehee, an invitation that he freely accepted.

Berta Jo Taulbee in 1956

Berta Jo Taulbee in 1956

As Patsy Mc tells it, Pat Lally was chosen to ride with Elvis in the front seat of his pink Cadillac with Berta Jo and Billy Mack in the back seat. (And yes, Patsy Mc refutes the Graceland claim that Elvis did not own a pink Cadillac in 1955, because she and her classmates know better.) Scotty and Bill followed in another car on the way to McGehee.

Pat Lally in 1955

Pat Lally in 1955

When the two girls and Billy Mack were in the car with Elvis, the first they had ever ridden in with power windows, Berta Jo asked Elvis, “How do you roll down this window”? To which Elvis remarked with a smile, “You don’t, you push the button.”

Patsy Mc and the other girl in the group, Roberta Wyeth, were driven home by Roberta’s mother. They went ahead to Pat Lally’s house where they informed her mother that she would soon be entertaining company. When Elvis and the others arrived, Pasty Mc had already set up the phonograph to be playing the 78-rpm monaural record of “That’s All Right, Mama,” which Pat still owns. However, Patsy Mc admitted that she was rather disappointed when the first thing Elvis did when he entered the house was ask where the bathroom was.

Roberta Wyeth in 1956

Roberta Wyeth in 1956

A second disappointment came when some of the girls and Scotty and Bill started dancing to the music. When one of the girls asked Elvis if he would like to dance, he declined the invitation saying, “I really don’t dance very well.” That statement was a shock to the girls who had just watched his gyrations all over the stage for an hour at the concert.

However, Patsy Mc noted that as quickly as he could Elvis went directly to Pat Lally’s mother and politely introduced himself and thanked her for having him and his band in her home. Throughout the evening he was so gracious and attentive to Mrs. Lally that when he left she was convinced that he was one of the nicest young men she had ever met.

That opinion was shared by the girls when the next day they met and talked about the previous evening. Although they sensed that they had been “privy to a very special event,” none of them had any idea what was to become of Elvis Presley, “just that he was a very special person.”

Their conculsions seemed to be confirmed some months later. In our senior year at McGehee High School Pat Lally’s family moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, where her father was stationed at the Air Force base. While they were there, Elvis appeared at the Officers’ Club, and Pat asked Luke “Ben” Thomas of McGehee to take her to see Elvis, though she doubted that he would even remember her.

However, after the first song or two Elvis spoke to Pat and asked about her mother. That thoughtful act convinced all concerned that Mrs. Lally was right: Elvis Presley was a very nice young man–a true Southern Gentleman.

At age fifty the “girls” got together to share memories of their first encounter with Elvis. Although each had a slightly different memory of what happened that evening, they all agreed that it was an incredible experience, one that they would never forget.

So although it took me a while to become a fan of Elvis and his music back in 1954-55, the girls from my class of 1956 became devoted and lifelong fans from their very first personal encounter with the future King of Rock and Roll. 

 Collected Quotes about Elvis Presley

“I wanted to say to Elvis Presley and the country that this is a real decent, fine boy.”
–Ed Sullivan

“One reason Elvis was so successful is because he never got too far from his roots [or never strayed too far from home].”
—Anonymous

“His favorite music, by far, was old-time gospel. . . . He often said that his big dream was to make it as a gospel artist. That’s what his mother wanted for him, too. Who knows, that might have been best for him in the long run.”
–Bonnie Brown in Looking Back to See
(To read an article about this memoir
of the early days of Rock and Roll, click here.)

 “I wish I could do that [sing Gospel].
I’d like to go somewhere and start all over.
But I guess I got to keep being Elvis.”
—Elvis Presley to J. D. Sumner

“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
–John Lennon 

“One thing I learned . . . is that Elvis Presley himself once
entered an Elvis-impersonator contest—and came in third.”
—John Paget, documentary film maker

 “You might be a redneck if . . . your wife has a Jell-O
mold that looks like Elvis.”
—Jeff Foxworthy, quoted on desk calendar

 “Ladies and gentleman, Elvis has left the building.”
—Traditional announcement at the end of each Elvis live concert

“If life was fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead.”
–Johnny Carson

 “Elvis isn’t dead. Just his body is gone.”
—Col. Tom Parker upon hearing the news of Elvis’ death, quoted by Philip Martin, “In documentary Elvis is everywhere,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, nd

“I saw Elvis last night at the church in a long white gown,
and he sang like an angel of mercy from heaven sent down.”
—Scott Ayecock, native of Marked Tree, Arkansas,
“I Saw Elvis,” in album Pennies on the Track

MEMORIES
(Sung by Elvis in all his later concerts.
To hear Elvis sing this song and view
photos from his life, click here.)

Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind
Memories, sweetened thru’ the ages just like wine

Quiet thoughts come floating down
And settle softly to the ground
Like golden autumn leaves around my feet
I touch them and they burst apart with

Sweet memories
Sweet memories

Of holding hands and red bouquets
And twilights trimmed in purple haze
And laughing eyes and simple ways
And quiet nights and gentle days with you 

Memories, memories,
Sweet memories,
Memories

 Words and music by Billy Strange and Scott Davis

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My Religious Conversion

 A Traumatic Yet
Unforgettable Experience 

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling.
Calling for you and for me,
See, on the portals he’s waiting and watching;
Watching for you and for me.
 Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary come home;
Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling. O sinner, come home!

—“Softly and Tenderly,” words and tune by Will L. Thompson,
1880, Baptist Hymnal, 1975 edition

When I was a child in Southeast Arkansas, my maternal grandfather, Rev. Willis Barrett, was pastor of the Selma Baptist Church. He and my mother were charter members of that church, being among the small group that founded it in the early 1940s.

My grandfather, Rev. Willis Barrett

My grandfather, Rev. Willis Barrett, pastor-founder of the Selma Baptist Church

Before that time the Baptists, including my immediate family, attended, on alternate Sundays, the historic Selma Methodist Church that sat right across the “branch,” a small stream that separated the church from the homestead on which I was born. Since I came into this world on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving in 1938, I am sure that I was taken to church the next Sunday. I just don’t know whether the Baptists or the Methodists were in charge of the service that particular morning.

Selma Methodist Church

Selma Methodist Church

Later, in the forties, after the Baptists had erected their own church building, my family attended it regularly. At one period in my young life my godly mother was my Sunday school teacher, my small class occupying a single pew pushed against the wall at the back of the building. Needless to say, that church was not very large or very largely attended.

Selma Baptist Church

Selma Baptist Church

At some time after that single-room building was erected, when I was probably about nine years old, as the stirring altar call after each service was being made, I began to, as the Baptists say, “come under conviction.” During the invitation to come to the front of the church and accept Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior, I would be overwhelmed by an intense yearning that I can only liken to the emotional experience of true love, or the heart-wrenching sensation of homesickness. I felt called, drawn, and impelled to respond, to surrender myself and my entire life to the Lord.

Obviously, this sensation was heightened by the repeated verses of heart-tugging old traditional hymns like “Just as I Am” (“O Lamb of God, I come, I come”). These soul-stirring anthems were played or sung during the invitation and were often accompanied by the pastor’s impassioned pleas (in Jesus’ stead) to yield to the invitation and to surrender to the call.

I experienced the same inward sense of overwhelming yearning and calling each time an invitation to discipleship was made, regardless of the subject of the sermon that preceded it. I have often said that the pastor might have preached on tithing or the dangers of drinking, and I would still have the same intense internal reaction.

Me at about age nine

Me at about age nine when I "came under conviction"

The main reason that I resisted this continuing call (often with hands clenched on the back of the pew in front of me for support) was that, being terribly shy, I was afraid. Besides my natural fear of people, I was frightened because I didn’t know what to say once I went forward and presented myself before the pastor. I saw others going forward and being warmly received, but they always seemed to bow their heads and engage in a brief private conversation with the pastor, and I didn’t know what they were saying. I thought that, before I finally worked up enough courage to step out and walk to the front of that assembly, I had to know what I was supposed to say once I got there—and I didn’t know what that was, and was too embarrassed to ask.

Thus, I was so overwrought at that terrifying prospect that I fought even harder against the increasingly insistent call I felt in my young heart.

While I was going through this tormenting phase for several months, my family devastated me even further by informing me that we were moving from the tiny village where I was born, to the neighboring town of some five thousand inhabitants. There my parents subsequently joined the First Baptist Church, easily the largest in town. Needless to say, the trauma I was already experiencing at the prospect of going forward in front of fifty people, all of whom I knew, was increased dramatically when I was suddenly faced with the even more daunting and horrifying prospect of going forward in front of a congregation of hundreds of strangers!

McGehee First Baptist Church in 1948-49

First Baptist Church of McGehee, Arkansas, as it looked in 1948-49

So for an extended period of months, I continued to resist the repeated invitations, so much so that I actually dreaded going to church because of the agony I knew I was going to have to endure after the sermon. The invitations seemed interminable and unbearable.

Finally, one evening as I sat with my mother (who obviously sensed what was going on inside me), during one of those two-week summer revivals that added even more (then nightly!) emotional misery to my existence, I began to piece together my “confession” to the pastor. Over and over I silently practiced my “acceptance speech” to be delivered to an audience of One, the Lord Jesus Christ, through His duly authorized agent, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of McGehee, Arkansas.

I don’t remember the speech I had prepared, but I do recall leaning over and saying to my mother quietly and timidly, “Let’s go.” She didn’t say a word but simply nodded her head and stood up with me (itself a gargantuan “feat of faith” on my part); nor did either of us speak as we stepped out and walked down that long, long aisle in front of all those watching eyes. All that fearful way I was shaking and trembling, trying desperately to remember the precious few words that I had cobbled together to deliver to the pastor.

When we finally got to the front, I bravely faced the pastor and started to speak. But like the returning prodigal son in Jesus’ Parable of the Father’s Love, before I could even open my mouth the kindly, bald-headed pastor with the thick old-fashioned Coca-Cola-bottle spectacles, took my hands in his, leaned down, and began to quietly question me. “Jimmy, do you want to give your heart to Jesus? Do you want to accept Him as your personal Lord and Savior? Do you want to follow Him all your life as His disciple?”

McGehee First Baptist Church Vacation Bible School

McGehee FBC Vacation Bible School: Bro. Theo James, pastor (center of stairs), with my mother (second dark-haired woman to the right of the pastor), and me (seventh boy from the right in the third row from the bottom)

Whether it was relief that I didn’t have to deliver my carefully prepared speech, or relief that I had finally made my commitment to the Lord, or simply relief that the long grueling ordeal was finally over, I don’t know. But whatever the reason, I began to weep as I meekly answered each question with a sobbed, “Yessir . . . yessir . . . yessir.” Afterward, as was Baptist custom, my mother and I were asked to stand across the front of the church with the others who had “made a decision for Christ” so church members could come down and extend to us “the right hand of Christian fellowship,” welcoming us into the fold.

There, once again, I stood in my shyness and discomfort, while involuntary tears continued to stream down my cheeks unchecked, as I sniffed and snubbed and did my best to respond to the unending line of smiling faces and outstretched hands.

One reaction to this story that I did not anticipate in writing it just now, is that as I came to the “question and answer” portion of it, I once again, more than sixty years after this event occurred, began to experience that same emotion and to get “misty-eyed.” Even more surprising is that I have experienced that same reaction each time I have reread that section to edit it.

Me at the time of my conversion at age eleven in 1949

Me at the time of my conversion at age eleven in 1949

So as difficult and traumatic as that long-ago experience was, because of the two-year internal conflict that preceded it and the marvelous though tearful relief that accompanied its conclusion, I have never doubted my conversion. Like the Apostle Paul, I can say with total honesty and absolute assurance, “I know whom I have believed” (2 Timothy 1:12). And, I can also testify of the Lord, as the old hymn states, “You ask me how I know he lives: he lives within my heart.”

The only resulting uncertainly is why other experiences in my life in which I responded to that same type of consistent and insistent yearning and sense of longing have not produced the same satisfying and successful conclusion. Some of these continuing and overwhelming urges to which I have responded by “stepping out in faith” have, on the contrary, resulted in failure and disappointment, if not disillusionment.

Based on my conversion experience and these subsequent ones, can I ever have faith and confidence when responding to interior yearnings and longings, like homesickness? And in keeping with the theme of these “memoirs,” can I ever again have the oft-sung “blessed assurance” that I will indeed one day “go home again”—this side of heaven?

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 “You can take the boy out of the country,
but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”
—Arthur “Bugs” Baer

I am by my home state of Arkansas about like the old Texan was by his when at the funeral of a friend he stood up during a lull in the eulogies and proudly exclaimed: “Well, iffen ain’t nobody got anythang else to say ‘bout the dearly departed, ah’d jist like to say a few words ‘bout TEXAS!”

Well, I haven’t interrupted any funerals yet to talk about Arkansas, but I will admit that I have been tempted on occasion to leave behind a few color brochures on the subject.

And why not? After all, out in the country churches I was brought up in the pews were always well stocked with funeral parlor promotions.

As pretty as they were with all those Bible scenes in living color, I can’t recall that those old hand fans did a particularly good job of cooling us off, especially during those sweltering two-week summer revivals, but I would have to admit that their popsicle-stick handles made great spitball launchers for us kids. Till Mama caught us, of course.

#LC-RF-906 is the Good Shepherd religious hand fan.

Still there’s somethin’ to be said for sittin’ and danglin’ your bare legs over the edge of an old uneven-legged, homemade slat pew in an unair-conditioned country churchhouse on a scorchin’ August evenin’ listenin’ to a red-faced, shirt-soppin’, brow-moppin’ Baptist preacher while watchin’ a busy dirt-dobber makin’ his rounds and wearin’ out both your wrists fannin’ your feverish, sweat-soaked face and shooin’ off blue-tailed flies.

Selma Baptist Church

Selma Baptist Church in 1980s with an addition to one side and an air-conditioner on the other

 

But there is a consequence, an indelible trace left upon the heart by such experience. To this good day, more than sixty years later, I never hear or sing those old hymns we sang like “Amazing Grace,” or “In the Garden,” or “In the Sweet By and By” without experiencing a strange bittersweet emotion: a sort of odd mixture of joy and pain, of peace and unrest, of a sense of tremendous gain and of unspeakable loss.

I think it has something to do with an old saying about being able to take the boy out of the country. I can’t honestly say that I’d care to go back to that way of life on this earth, even if it were possible—which it’s not. But if you know what I’m talking about, then you will understand what I mean when I say that those were the days!

 

Daddy and Me as a Baby

Daddy sitting on the back fence and holding me as a baby with Old Shep on the ground

 
 
 
Me and my cousin Troy

Me as a boy sitting on Daddy's cattle truck (note sideboards on bed) with my cousin Troy Gibson, a sailor in WWII

 

Me as a boy up on Old Blue

Me as a boy up on Old Blue, Daddy's horse

My Country Grandma’s Visit to New Orleans in 1900

 “In God’s eyes at least, nobody from Arkansas is ever a nobody from Arkansas.”
—Jimmy Peacock

Good-natured, easy-going, and self-effacing, my grandmother Peacock loved to tell amusing anecdotes and stories, particularly at her own expense.

Tom and Simmie Peacock

Papa Tom and Grandma Simmie Peacock in later life

One of her tales that I recalled hearing again and again was so typical of her that after her death I wrote it up to share with family and friends, especially those who knew her best. That story is cited below:

In the year of Our Lord 1900 my paternal grandmother, Simeon “Simmie” Marius Sumrall, sixteen-year-old daughter of George and Molly Lampton Sumrall of Selma, Arkansas, was allowed to make a railroad journey to faraway, fabled New Orleans, Louisiana, to visit her Aunt Roma.

As the story goes, Aunt Roma had left her unsuspecting family one day working in the cotton fields to hitch a ride to Tillar where she caught the first train headed for the Crescent City, never to return. Later she sent for young Simmie, supposedly to try to “liberate” her from rural oblivion.

Grandma Simmie when young

Simmie Sumrall close up

 

In later years, Simmie loved to laugh and tell everyone how backward and ignorant she was in those days. For example, she told how, sleeping in a Pullman berth for the first and only time in her life, she awoke the next morning to find her discarded and sole blouse hanging out the open window, flapping in the fierce breeze, caught precariously by one loose button. Gingerly and with great dexterity, she finally managed to retrieve the precious garment by use of an old-fashioned high-top shoe buttonhook, which now adorns the lid of my late mother’s cedar chest.

Later, upon her arrival in New Orleans, she was met by her elegant but rather high-toned Aunt Roma who had come down to the station to pick up her young visitor in a regal livery carriage.

Laying eyes on Simmie, who had ridden most of the way with her head stuck out the window so as not to miss the fascinating sights in her first exposure to the outside world, sophisticated Aunt Roma was appalled at the sight of her countrified niece’s soot-blackened face, wind-twisted hair, and ill-fitting homemade clothes. Quickly, she bundled her into the carriage, drew the curtains, and hurried her off to 121 N. Miro Street where she set out for herself the impossible task of transforming her protėgėe into a proper lady.

It was as part of this Herculean Pygmalion effort that Simmie was taken to a fancy French restaurant where she promptly horrified fashionable Aunt Roma by drinking from the finger bowl, openly gawking and loudly talking, and stubbornly refusing an elaborate shrimp dinner with the ringing pronouncement, “No thanks, mister. Where I come from, we don’t eat crawdads!”

Needless to say, Simmie’s visit did not result in either a move to New Orleans or a noticeable change in her laid-back, down-home country ways, for which those of us who knew and loved her are the beneficiaries.

Instead, shortly after her return, she married twenty-year-old Thomas Benjamin “Tom” Peacock, who was to become my paternal grandfather (and the namesake of my younger grandson Thomas Benjamin “Ben” Peacock).

Tom and Simmie Peacock with daughter Betty

Tom and Simmie Sumrall Peacock with daughter Betty

From my grandmother Simmie I inherited two family treasures. First is the original 1850s Peacock family Bible with handwritten records of the births, weddings, and deaths of my Peacock ancestors in Georgia and Arkansas. Second are several letters written by my grandfather Tom and my grandmother Simmie in 1900 before they were married and while Simmie was staying with Aunt Roma in New Orleans.

Simmie Sumrall letter to Tom Peacock in 1900

One of Simmie Sumrall's letters from New Orleans to Tom Peacock in Selma in 1900

My grandmother’s father, George Sumrall, was from Southwest Mississippi (“between Hazelhurst and Gallman”). Sometime after the Civil War, he migrated up the Mississippi River to Southeast Arkansas in response to advertisements and circulars touting Arkansas as “the land of opportunity”—a slogan later adopted by the state and featured on its license plates.

In my possession is a letter written by a Southeast Arkansas Southern Baptist church to George’s home church in Mississippi requesting his letter of membership—plus a Christian “character reference” offering assurance of his faithfulness and good standing.

George’s wife, Molly Lampton, from Kentucky, is thought to be a distant relative of Jefferson Davis.

George Sumrall family

1910 photo of the George and Molly Sumrall family (George and Molly are in the center of the first row, Tom Peacock is on the far left in the second row with Simmie to the right of him with her elbow stuck out, and my father Arthur is on the far left in the first row seated in front of his parents)

My grandfather Tom’s father, George Levi Peacock, was born in Georgia (and is the namesake of our other grandson, Levi Jesse Peacock). George was part of the family clan of Methodist-ministers and planter-farmers who migrated to Southeast Arkansas just before the Late Unpleasantness Between the States seeking new lands both to sow and to reap: to sow cotton and to reap souls. One of them, Jesse Peacock (also the namesake of our little Levi Jesse) , was one of the founders of the Mount Tabor Methodist Church beside which Mari and I will be buried.

George Levi Peacock

George Levi Peacock in later life

A tenth-generation Southerner (with roots in Tidewater Virginia, Eastern North Carolina, and Middle Georgia), I was born eighty years after the migration of my Peacock ancestors to SEARK in one of their converted dog-trot houses. Though I have been far away from my rural ancestral birthplace for more than three decades, I am, and always will be, proud to say, “Thank God I’m a country boy!” (To see a video of John Denver singing that song which he wrote, click here.)

Me (right) and my cousin Lee Gibson (left) in front of a Selma dog-trot house

Me (right) and my cousin Lee Gibson (left) in front of a Selma dog-trot house of the era

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