Southern Folks: Chewing the rag with Mr. Remus

Bill Stamps

It was the '50s. I was a couple of weeks away from my 10th birthday. It was getting on into the afternoon. I'd just come back from a run to the store to pick up a six-pack of Dr Pepper and a white cloth bag of pipe smoking tobacco for Mr. Remus, a blind and balding black man with frosted glasses. He was a bootlegger. He paid me a quarter for my time.

I'm not sure what his real name was. He looked like a Disney character, Uncle Remus, so most everyone called him Blind Remus. He lived down on the right by the first bridge coming this way into town. He was my friend.

Summer was officially over. It was the first day of fall - right around this time 60 years ago - in a little Middle Tennessee country town just a few miles south of Columbia. He and I were sitting in his yard out back facing the creek and, as Mr. Remus called it, "Jus' chewin' da' rag." I don't remember, specifically, about what. Most likely, him telling me about the weather or the stars or something he urged me to remember. Or, and most likely, about fishing.

Mr. Remus had been blind since he was a little boy. He still had vague remembrances of how the world looked before his sight was taken from him. His other four senses galvanized in intensity and gave him what I considered a touch of magic.

If a flock of ducks came over low on their descent to Widow Thompson's pond, Mr. Remus could tell you how many there were overhead. Once in a blue moon, I'd fish with him. His No. 1 rule was to keep quiet. With his finger to his lips and a "shhh," he whispered to me that he wanted to hear what the fish were talking about. I was fascinated.

Mr. Remus never really left his home. He could walk his property, no problem. He knew every square foot of it. From the bridge, along the creek, back to the first cut and up the path to his back door. He'd lived there in that little tin-roofed house all his life. He was probably in his 60s when I knew him.

Sometimes, he'd ask me to run into the house and get something for him. He told me exactly where it was and what it looked like. His sense of touch and direction, he would tell me, was "a blessing, straight from Jesus Christ, his Self."

In the South, the last few weeks of summer can be as hot as the middle of July. You think it's gonna be a pleasant autumn day, then here comes Ol' Sol's hot and sweaty afternoon. You can still get a sunburn well on into October. Vegetables keep growing. Kind of a bonus given to Southerners from God.

Mr. Remus had himself a pretty good garden. In spite of him being blind, his planting lines were straight. His tomatoes were award-worthy. He used to hold up his thumb and say, "Tell me, boy, have my thumb turned green yet?" I would tell him it had, and he'd laugh. I guess you could say that Mr. Remus gardened in Braille.

He saw but one color: darkness. He couldn't see how ripe-red his tomatoes were. He sat down on the ground next to a plant and ran his fingers through the dirt, kinda massaged the leaves and rubbed the tomato on his cheek. He could tell if the plant needed water. A gentle squeeze, and he knew if it was ready to be picked. They were those juicy kind.

He said, "Boy, go git me dat salt shaker out da' top right draw' by da' sink. I fixin' to show you how good da' Lord an' me grows tomatahs." I brought back the salt. He pulled out his pocket knife and cut a big red one in half. We sat there in the middle of his garden and moaned with delight. It was so good that we laughed out loud. You can't do much better for your belly than a salted-down, juicy, garden-fresh tomato. I'll always remember that day.

Mr. Remus very rarely used his special wind-up pocket watch. He really didn't need to. He could walk outside and tell you within 10 or 15 minutes what time it was, based on where from and how hot the sun hit his face. He guessed the time of the evening based on how cool the temperature and quiet it was. Amazing.

He once asked me if I knew how he knew when it was raining. Without thinking, I asked him, "How?" He laughed hard and told me, "Cause it be rainin'! Boy, you done proved you ain't got sense 'nough to git yo' self up out da rain." And he laughed some more. He had a tricky sense of humor.

Aside from everyone bragging on Blind Remus' brewing ability, the other story about him was when he was younger and how he took care of two young black men who attempted to rob him one night. Entering a pitch-dark house owned by an armed blind man wasn't their brightest plan. Mr. Remus knew where every stick of furniture was and could hear you breathing. Blind people see better in the dark.

They said Mr. Remus shot one of them several times and was choking the life out of the other guy when an off-duty deputy showed up and pulled Mr. Remus off of him. Nobody heard from that would-be burglar ever again. They buried the other intruder. No charges were brought against Mr. Remus. Two against one blind man. They put it down in the books as self-defense.

Even if he had killed that fellow in cold blood, they wouldn't have done much. In the South in those days, a black man killing another black man didn't even make a blip on the screen. Besides, Blind Remus' moonshine was a three-county treasure. Enough said.

So here we were, sitting out back facing the creek. Mr. Remus precisely pointed out the tree that had succumbed to a storm and fallen to the ground, rerooted and started to grow again. He told me, "Dat tree fell over from da' winds. I used tuh play on dat tree. They come by and asked my daddy, do he want some help bustin' up dat tree. Daddy say, "No, jus' leave it be."'

Mr. Remus pointed over to the right, in the direction of a small grove of cedar trees, and said, "Dat's where my whittlin' sticks come from. I puts da shavins' in da' fireplace. Remind me of Christmas mownin'." He smiled.

His memories of the way things were before he went blind, he would tell me, "is still stuck in my head." He knew where to point in the night to identify certain stars. He said, "Boy, you kain't sees whut I does, an' I kain't sees whut you does, but we both sees da' same things." I thought I understood what he meant. Kinda.

Mr. Remus asked me if I prayed. I told him I did. He asked me what I prayed about. I told him mostly to please help get my parents back together. He said, "Boy, dat ain't up to Jesus." That's all he said about that.

He suggested that I pray for other people. He said, "Boy, dey's peoples out dere dat got a whole lot mo' problems and pain to deal wiff than whether they mama and daddy gittin' along. Dem peoples pray all dey life, and the Lord don't never answer 'em. It ain't in his plan. But da' Lord, he hug dem real tight, once dey gits up in heaven."

We sat out there for a while. Like most anytime we visited, invariably we ended up with him talking about fishing. His technique. His tricks for catching the big ones. How he always caught enough for himself and his first cousin. And what he always wrapped up with, "Fishin' is good fo' da' soul."

I worked for Mr. Remus, off and on, for the better part of two years, mostly during his peak bootlegging season. I never told him, but from that day on, us sitting out back "chewing the rag," I included Mr. Remus in my prayers. I asked God to please give him back his sight. God must have had other plans.

But I'll bet you that when Mr. Remus walked through St. Pete's pearly gates, the Almighty was there to greet him, gave him back his sight, issued him a halo and gave him a big hug.

I assume the fishing is good in heaven.

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