Southern Folks: Time to start carrying a big stick

Bill Stamps
Bill Stamps

It's raining. One of those good rains. The kind you're sure comes to this part of the country, special delivery, straight from God.

If God set up shop in our mortal world, his preferred view from his window would look out toward East Tennessee - the Smoky Mountains to the left, beautifully contrasting with the fertile red soils of Georgia. We're living in heaven on Earth.

I was just sitting here by the window thinking of what life means to me, and with Independence Day still in the air, how glad I am that I was born in the South and in America.

Man, there's nothing like an East Tennessee summer storm. It's really coming down! Jana and I love the rain. Can't get enough of it.

That wasn't the case when I was a kid. Especially in the summer. If it started raining, you couldn't go swimming. On a child's misery list, it ranks right up there with having to go to the dentist or visiting some old person at the hospital. Nothing more boring than sitting in the house waiting for the rain to stop.

For kids living in the city, it was a public swimming pool. For us in the country, it was the creek or a swimmin' hole. For a while, in my younger years, I lived in the country, with my grandmother, Miz Lena, on her farm in Middle Tennessee.

A creek that ran through the front part of the farm had a great spot deep enough for swimming and diving. Birch trees grew up close to the bank, and a couple of huge black oak trees hung over the deep end.

There had been a rope swing tied to one of the higher branches. One of the older boys had swung out too far and dropped onto a rock. It was just a bump on the noggin, but it was serious enough that Miz Lena had the rope removed. There was still a raw wood circle around the limb where the rope had been.

All in all, it was the best swimmin' hole around. It's where I learned to swim. The only ones allowed in the creek were me and about a dozen or so little black kids. They were the children of the sharecropping families who lived on Grand Mom's farm.

We were all friends. Good times all summer long - unless it rained.

Miz Lena said, "Now, you can stand in front of the winda' and put on that sad face till the cows come home, but yore not goin' nowhere til the rain lets up. Yuh better hope yore face don't freeze up with that scowl on it. It happens ever once in a while. Yore face gits paralyzed and stays that way for the rest of yore life. People lookin' at yuh. Whisperin' about how pitiful yuh look. Looka here, go git yore colorin' book and crayons. I saw one in that Casper colorin' book you hadn't done yet. We can mail it up to yore mother. She loved the last one you sent her of the little witch girl."

It was Wendy the Witch. Mom was hospitalized, again.

When the sun came out later on in the day, Elizabeth or Dimple, Miz Lena's house help, would be assigned to walking me down to the creek and watching out for me. Had I begun to drown, they couldn't have done anything about it. Neither one of them could swim.

Dimple loved taking me. We'd get on the path, and she'd say, "C'mon, child, I race you."

And off we would sprint. She was fast!

Sometimes, we'd sing songs. Just the first couple of lines. That's about all either of us knew. Except for "Jesus Loves the Little Children."

Dimple was childlike, with a shrill, high voice and a piercing and contagious laugh. Seems like she and I had the giggles from the time we left the big house all the way down to the creek. I'd be in my swim trunks with a rolled-up towel around my neck. Not a care in the world. What they call a blessed day.

Grand Mom had a wooden nail-keg barrel out on the screen porch with about a half-dozen, 4-foot poplar sticks in it. Every time, just before we'd leave to go to the creek, Grand Mom would say, "Looka here, take one of them snake sticks with yuh. Y'all stay on that path. They's copperheads and white-mouths out there. They's a mess of green snakes, too, but they kaint do nothin to yuh."

None of that snake talk seemed to faze Dimple. With Elizabeth, it was a different story. All the way down to the swimmin' hole and back, she'd carry that stick like a rifle. She would look at me big-eyed and say, "Honey, you git right behind me. You look out back behind us and do what I does."

Elizabeth got real serious. She'd look from side to side, ahead and down the path. Stopping and starting. Looking behind us. Sort of shuffling her feet. Ready for anything.

The whole time, she'd tell me the same story about the devil and the snake and Adam.

She said, "Sweet child, da first peoples God made was Adam and Eve. Dey lived in da Lord's garden. Baby, da devil, he sneaky, and he talk da snake into lettin' him git inside he's body. Then, when Eve not around, da snake crawl up a tree, next to Adam, and da Devil talk Adam into eatin' da apple dat God tell him not to. Then da Lord kick Adam and Eve out da garden. Dey was on dey own after dat."

I never caught the full gist of that story. I couldn't get past the talking snake. As far as I was concerned, and from the many biblical stories told me, I figured in Jesus' time on Earth, there were some very strange things that went on: the parting of the sea so Moses could escape; how the food kept going at the Sermon on the Mount; Noah loading all those animals on his boat. And now a talking snake.

Fine. I believed everything Elizabeth told me. She knew more about God than anybody else I knew. A couple of times, she took off running, thinking she had seen or heard a snake in the grass. I took off right behind her. For as heavy as she was, when Elizabeth was scared, she was almost as fast as Dimple.

The whole time I was swimming, she walked guard, back and forth, in front of the swimmin' hole.

In all our walks to and from the creek, we only ran across one snake. It was one of those light green ones. I was with Elizabeth. She ran that snake down and beat it to death with one of those poplar sticks. I felt sorry for the snake and reminded Elizabeth of what Grand Mom had said about green snakes, that they were harmless.

Elizabeth said, "Honey, it don't matter if dey is green or a copperhead or a cottonmouth. If they bite you, they put the devil in yuh. Don't never let no kinda snake come up on yuh."

Not until recently have I realized just how metaphoric Elizabeth's warning applies to us all these days. We're Americans. We believe in God. We're all for one other. We tend to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

It's a different world out there now. There are snakes among us. The sneaky kind. The deadly kind. Some are apparent. Some wear a disguise. Their plan is to disrupt our way of life, our morals and beliefs.

I'm not an alarmist, but I do believe, now, more than ever, we need to look out for one another, have each other's backs. Time to start carrying a big stick.

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

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