Southern Folks: Military academy and the power of prayer

Bill Stamps
Bill Stamps
photo Bill Stamps

It was another of those already warm early summer mornings in Columbia, Tennessee. Once again, my brothers and I were living with my grandparents, Adrian and Miz Lena. My mother was having some difficulties in her life and was away.

A few years back (and a couple of years after the car accident that almost killed my grandmother), we moved from the farm into town. Grand Mom brought some of her workers with her. Elizabeth took care of the house. Ole Tom worked in the yard. Clarence ran the errands and drove me to school or down to Mr. Paul's ice cream shop. Dimple, his wife, worked under Elizabeth. They had all been with Miz Lena for years.

Southern Folks

The summer was drawing to an end, and I was just a couple of weeks away from starting the fourth grade. It had been a good summer for me and my best friend. We hung out together daily.

We had been inseparable since I was 5. I had it in my head that all I had to do was think the words, and it appeared to me that within seconds, he would give me the nod that he was in receipt of my thoughts. He was the smartest dog in all the world. I named him Prince.

Miz Lena said, "Looka here, take this can of Kennel Ration out to Prince. Make sure he's got plenty a water, and then git yore hands warshed up to eat. Hurry up now. The mornin's gettin' away from us." Grand Mom was always in a hurry. It was just a little past 7.

When I came back in, she said, "Now, you make sure you dry yore hands good, and no runnin' through the house. Be sure to put everything back where you found it. I don't want to see no rings in the sink."

I could smell the bacon cooking from all the way in the back of the house. I loved bacon. Especially when Elizabeth was cooking it. She was the best cook in the South and another one of my best friends.

Elizabeth looked just like Aunt Jemima. Everyone said so. She even wore a scarf around her head, pulled up and tied in a knot. She was kinda stylish.

She had her own style of cooking, too: her left hand on her hip, leaning over the stove, and her right hand performing magic with a fork, spoon or spatula. She'd be humming church spirituals all the while. When Elizabeth was at the stove, breakfast couldn't get any better.

I sat close by on a stool by the stove and watched, with great admiration and hungry anticipation, Elizabeth do her thing. She looked over at me and smiled. Elizabeth's morning masterpiece was almost ready to be served.

Yep, this was going to be a great day.

Grand Mom was at the sink with her back to us, washing and drying plates. She and Elizabeth talked back and forth across the kitchen. Just some of that small talk about nothing that grown-up women do. Then Miz Lena, talking back over her shoulder, said something that hit me right between the eyes.

"Butch (that was my nickname), I had a talk with Mr. Fletcher at the military school yesterday. He's got yuh put down for goin' to school up there this year. They got a swimming pool and a tennis court. And you get to wear a uniform."

I felt like a bolt of lightning hit me. My stomach started pumping as fast as my heart was racing. I looked over at Elizabeth. I could see her looking at me out of the corner of her eye. Her head down. She had one of her "uh oh" looks on her face. It was quiet in the kitchen. All you could hear was the bacon popping.

Columbia Military Academy, CMA for short, was, and is, a prestigious school for young men, starting at third-grade level all the way through high school.

It sat right next to the railroad tracks, its heavy white rock buildings laid out across green lawns enclosed by a black wrought-iron fence. There was a flagpole flapping Old Glory at the front gate. It looked like a place President Eisenhower would live or like a state penitentiary, depending on how you looked at it.

The academy was only a mile and a half up the road from the house, about halfway between Miz Lena's and the Piggly Wiggly grocery store. We'd pass right by it on the way into town. Grand Mom would always say, "Butch, just look at them fine young men all dressed up in their fancy uniforms. Don't they look handsome?"

You'd see young boys, in blue-grey uniforms, walking up and down the sidewalk. They looked like little robots. Uncomfortable robots. When we'd drive by, I would salute them through the back-seat window of Miz Lena's Cadillac. They'd just look at me.

Elizabeth refused to talk with me about my bad news. She said, "Now, Sweet Child, you knows they ain't nothin' you can do about this here. It not gonna do any good for you to fuss about it. Yo' grand mama already said, and dats it. You don't know, you might like it up there."

Yeah right.

Dimple was a little-bitty woman with a shrill voice. If you got her to laughing, she sounded like a siren. She was kid-like. Often, we'd race back to the house. She'd take off fast and laugh that little girl laugh all the way home. I could usually count on Dimple for a game plan or solution to whatever was the problem. She thought more like me. Not so grown-up.

She would stand there, looking at me, with her hand cupping her chin, tap her foot, and go, "Hmmm. Hmmm." The best she could come up with was to pray to God for help. I did, right up to the day school started. No clouds parted on my behalf.

Miz Lena had Clarence run me up to the school and give the front office a check that covered my first month and my uniforms. Clarence, barely able to see over the steering wheel, kept looking at me through the rear-view mirror and chuckling.

My first day at CMA was mostly indoctrination. We new cadets toured the grounds. I got sized for uniforms and was assigned a bedroom that I was to share with another boy.

Most of the boys at the academy came from well-to-do families.

My assigned room was on the first floor. I bunked with a little tow-haired boy with thick glasses. He came from a banking family out of Huntsville, Alabama. His name was Ulysses. He told me he was going to be an astronaut. It was his second year at the academy. He was a fifth-grader, grown-up acting and the only kid I'd ever met who had his own checking account.

Unlike I, Ulysses was dead serious about his studies. He read all the time. Many times, with his nose buried in a book, he would have burping attacks. Out of nowhere, he'd start burping and couldn't stop. He snored, too. He said he had adenoid problems. What was an adenoid?

My bed was hard, and the sheets and pillowcase smelled like Clorox. The food was unbearable. They couldn't even get the macaroni and cheese right. If you had to go to the bathroom during the night, you needed to get a hall pass from a kid who was a sergeant. He, for whatever reason, didn't appear to like me much.

From my second day on, right after they called for lights out, I climbed out the window, shimmied through a small opening in the fence and trotted back to Miz Lena's. Prince greeted me out by the road. He was happy as he could be to see me and seemed empathetic to my plight. We missed each other.

Miz Lena came to the back and through the screen door told me that I better "get back up there right now!" After my very best pleading, she let me in through the kitchen. I could smell the beans and cornbread they had had for supper. I sat next to Grand Dad's chair in the den and ate two bowls of butter beans and several squares of cornbread. I could tell Elizabeth had cooked it.

The next morning, Elizabeth made me some breakfast. Man, was it good! Dimple was glad to see me. She said to keep praying. I told her I'd been praying constantly. She said, "Sweetheart, da' Lord got a lotta peoples to help. You just gotta wait. He git back to yuh." I said another prayer for Dimple to be right about that.

Clarence ran me back up to the concentration camp and delivered a note to the front office. I'm not sure what Miz Lena wrote, but nothing happened to me.

For the next couple of weeks, after lights out, I bid my adieu to Ulysses and climbed out the window and took off south. Every next morning, Clarence hauled me back to school. He stared through his rear-view mirror at me. He wasn't chuckling anymore.

Even when they nailed the window shut, I escaped out the front door, right past the kid with the sergeant chevrons. He never caught me. I think he was relieved of duty. So I was told.

For whatever reason, Miz Lena never took the hickory to me. It could have been partly because I had laid it on thick about how her cooking was sooo much better than the stunt-growth stuff they served in the school's cafeteria. I think she took some sort of pride in that. It was the truth!

About three weeks into the ordeal, Grand Mom announced that I had been enrolled at McDowell Elementary. No more Columbia Military Academy! Dimple was right! The Lord had gotten back to me and answered my countless prayers. God was good!

A few days later, my paid-for uniforms were delivered to the house. Miz Lena made me put one on. She thought I looked handsome in it. It was the one and only time I wore it. The uniforms were hung in the upstairs closet along with my old Sunday School clothes. Grand Mom held onto things. They stayed in that closet for years.

One afternoon, not long after my final escape, Clarence, Prince and I were headed for Gilly Truelove's grocery store and had to stop at the railroad tracks to let a train go by. A bunch of cadets were walking back into the front gate of the academy. I looked out the window and saw Ulysses looking right back at me. I smiled and saluted him. He grinned real big and saluted me back.

Ulysses, if you're out there, I hope you got yourself a spaceship to fly. You deserved it.

Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tennessee. Contact him at or through Facebook.

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