Used to be, you didn't have to go too far out of the city to be in the country. Out and away from city lights and traffic, there were small farming towns that had been the same way since their grandparents were kids. Everybody knew everybody. Local families married into other local families. First and second cousins and in-laws teamed up and made decent livings growing crops and raising livestock.
No crime to speak of. Once in a while, somebody might punch or cut or shoot someone. Usually somebody from the outside who had dared insult or hurt them or a member of their family. Out in the country, those retaliatory acts of violence were considered disagreements, not crimes. Nobody had the time, money or patience to go through a trial to prove some fool did them wrong. You might say, a lot of problems got settled out of court.
When I was in grammar school, my mother and my two younger brothers and I lived out in the country, a little rural community in the bottom part of Maury County in Middle Tennessee. The city limits were defined by bridges at either end of town. If you blinked, you were already out the other side.
Two doors down from Whiteside Drug Store was the home of Mr. Jenkins, a World War I veteran. He had lost a leg on the battlefield. His only son had been run over by a tractor and died not long after Mr. Jenkins had returned from the war.
They said Mr. Jenkins' wife, overnight, turned white-headed and unable to think straight. They placed her in a rest home, where she remained till she passed on. It about broke Mr. Jenkins' heart. She was his everything. He would say that he would gladly give up his other leg if the good Lord would give him just one last day to hold her in his arms.
The Jenkins home was a good-size, white wooden Victorian-style house with black shutters. Spindled front pillars held up the roof that covered the wraparound porch.
Mr. Jenkins brought his yard ferns indoors during the winter months, then put them back out the beginning of spring. He'd plant them up under the shade trees, some in the ground and a few in clay pots and in old tires that were cut in half and painted white.
There were a couple of huge hanging ferns at both ends of the front porch, hand-painted wicker furniture, two high-back rockers. Mr. Jenkins and his mother would sit out there in the mornings and have coffee together. She was confined to a wheelchair. Very old. Even in the summer, she always had some kind of shawl wrapped around her.
As I approached their expansive front yard and got to the sidewalk that went up to the house, I'd see Mr. Jenkins lean forward in his chair and be ready for me. He'd shout from the porch, "Hey, Mister! Do you know where you're goin'? Are you on time, boy? Have you given thanks to the Lord for this glorious day?"
I'd always stop and say hello. It was the respectful thing to do.
He'd continue, "If you're goin' to Whiteside's, get Mama a Tootsie Roll Pop, boy. She likes them Tootsie Roll Pops."
When I'd head off, Mr. Jenkins would scream to his mother at the top of his lungs, "That's the Stamps boy! His mother's a teacher at the school!" Everyone knew that his mother was deaf as a doornail. She had been for years. You could hear Mr. Jenkins' part of their conversations from a football field away.
I was usually on my way to Jenkins Hardware. Mr. Jenkins had owned the store and sold it to Mrs. Clara Stephenson's nephew, Buster, a few years back. Buster kept it the same name. No sense in paying for a new sign. Everybody was gonna call it Jenkins anyway.
If I got to the store before 8 a.m., I could sweep the floors and pick up outside around the building in exchange for a soda pop, a bologna-and-cracker sandwich and a pickle from the Coca-Cola ice chest that sat at the back of the store.
Sometimes, they'd let me read a comic book for free — "Superman," "Green Arrow," "Aquaman," "Casper" and "Richie Rich." The old man who ran the store would say, "Now, take yer funny book back to the back, and don't be botherin' the men."
Behind a couple of rows of store merchandise, there was a space set aside for the quiet men who sat back there on cane-back wooden chairs laid out in a semicircle around a kindling-fueled, black potbelly stove. All of the men had been to war and had returned home with a chunk of them left over there.
They'd sharpen their knives on the cement floor and whittle cedar wood. They bet a quarter a game on checkers, smoked "roll-your-owns," pipes and, every now and then, spit chewing tobacco toward the stove. The sharp, rose-blended pipe tobacco and those fresh cedar shavings created a flower-thick aroma that permeated throughout the store.
Over lunch, a few of them would add a couple of jiggers of Ancient Age to their coffee for flavor. Eighty-proof rye, barley and corn, mixed with mountain grown Folgers made the rest of their day go down easy.
Nothing much happened until Mr. Jenkins showed up. He'd greet the men every day the same way, "Good morning, men. Have you given thanks to the Lord for such a glorious day? God bless America and amen."
All the men would say, "Amen."
Mr. Jenkins was a barrel-chested man. Rather tall. He got around just fine on one crutch. He wore heavy slacks with the right leg pinned halfway up. A straw hat. No matter what shirt he wore, he had his war medals pinned to it above his left pocket. A Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a couple of other valor ribbons.
Between 3 and 4 in the afternoon, the gathering would begin to break up.
Mr. Jenkins had, once again, sat down in his special chair and told every joke he knew and several stories about his college football days to the men in the round. The same ones he had repeatedly told them for so many years. The fellows still laughed at every one of his jokes and marveled at his past athletic feats. They showed Mr. Jenkins the respect he deserved. He was their senior, and he had endured so much.
Just before the all-day meeting would adjourn, Mr. Jenkins would ask the men to bow their heads, and he would lead them in prayer.
Sometimes he'd get sidetracked and thank God for talking him into buying that new lawn mower or for helping him to remember to turn out all the lights in the barn. But he always wrapped up his prayer with, "And remember, Lord, if you need us to go fight for our beloved country, Lord, we're ready to go again. Can I get an amen?"
All the men would say, "Amen."
Even though I was just a child, I can still remember how touching those moments were, to see full-grown men standing there with their heads bowed and their eyes closed. They'd go on back home for the night and come back the next day to, once again, sit and visit with their friends, the ones who understood them.
I often took Mr. Jenkins' mother a Tootsie Roll Pop, on my way home. If Mr. Jenkins was there, he'd say "Thank you, mister! I salute you!
He made quite an impression on me. He was different. He was conflicted, and he was colorful. A proud American veteran. A patriot through and through.
Mr. Jenkins was the first war hero I ever knew.
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.