Back in the 1950s, when I was in the fourth grade, I lived in the country. Middle Tennessee country. To my way of thinking, it can't get any better for a kid than to grow up in the cradle of Mother Nature. Especially back then. You had room to move around. I guess most of the charm of those days has been swept way down the road in the name of progress. Whatever that is.
I remember people from those days almost in character form. I'm an observant person by nature. Sometimes, something or someone that I haven't thought about in forever just pops into my head. Such is the case with Mr. Elvin. Elvin was his first name.
He was average height with a farmer's tan and red-blond hair. More red than blond. Big piercing gray eyes. Big hands. Big back. He was a ruggedly handsome man, always in barnyard khakis and lace-up work boots. He was quiet. If he could answer a question with a nod of yes or no, that's what he did.
Elvin worked a mile down the road from my house at Mr. and Mrs. Thompson's farm. Mr. Thompson hit paydirt when he married the youngest and best-looking Thaxter girl. Evelyn was her name. She was blond, big-boned and a few inches taller than Mr. Thompson. Her father bought them a hundred-acre farm as a wedding present. They raised corn and tobacco and milked cows.
Mr. Thompson was not a religious man. No matter. Mrs. Thompson had enough "Glory for God" in her for the both of them. Throughout her busy day, she made up songs about God's miracles and sang them at the top of her lungs, way off-key.
The Thompsons had two boys, Bobby and Ray.
Ray was in the 11th grade. They'd set him back a year because he missed so many days of school. He could hardly read or write. Ray quit before the school year was over and joined the Navy. He came back home for Christmas with a tattoo on his forearm of a green-and-blue mermaid sitting on an anchor.
Bobby was a year ahead of me. He was a towheaded boy with freckles all over his face. He walked bow-legged. Sometimes, we'd double on my bike and pedal over the back bridge just out of town. You could veer right onto a little dirt road named after somebody, go down a ways, and there was Flora and Nora's house, blond-haired twins who were Bobby's age. We had a thing for them.
Almost every weekend, I slept over at the Thompson farm. I loved it because I got to ride a pony all day long, bareback with a bridle. First thing in the morning, Bobby and I would mount up and bring in their milking cows, about 20 Guernseys. After we got them down the hill and into the barn, we were free to go riding the ponies anywhere on the farm.
Mrs. Thompson packed us sandwiches and a canteen of iced tea and handed us a couple of beat-up cooking pots. We'd gallop to the back of the farm, where the creek started. We skinny-dipped for a while, ate our sandwiches, then lay back and talked about the twins. After the sun dried us, we picked and filled the pots with blackberries that grew thick and wild over a length of wire on a bordering fence. Then we'd jump on our ponies and race, full tilt, back to the house.
The other best thing about sleeping over with Bobby was his mama's cooking. She fried everything. Chicken, ham, pork chops and breaded catfish. That and fresh, off-the-farm vegetables made for a happy belly. Second helpings, no problem. Mrs. Thompson was only too happy to serve you. She did so with a song verse about the Lord.
The Thompsons' farm help started coming through the kitchen back door, for breakfast, just before 6. Three white men, all in their mid-30s. Two of the fellows were first cousins. The third man was Elvin. Mrs. Thompson called the cousins by their first names. With Elvin, it was Mr. Elvin. In her way of thinking, he deserved more respect than the other two.
In the close-by town in which he'd grown up, Elvin was revered. He was a local high school basketball star and popular with the girls. They said he was quiet even back then. Young Elvin was also known for being the best shot in the county. He had a keen eye and was steady with a rifle. Grown men bragged about him. Right out of high school, Elvin signed up with the Army and went off to fight in the Korean War.
Mrs. Thompson's kitchen was as big as a small house. She had it set up for cooking, baking and canning. A black potbelly stove sat in the middle of the room. Her countertops were stacked with cooking pots and a collection of chipped colored plates. In the corner, below open shelves, filled with all kinds of drinking glasses, was her plug-in record player. Next to it, she kept a stack of religious albums. Elvis was in there: "Elvis Sings Gospel." Mrs. Thompson loved Elvis. She'd say, "I thought he was the devil till I seen how he loves his mama."
Mrs. Thompson brewed the coffee on one side of the potbelly stove in one of those aluminum percolators with the little see-through glass knob at the top. She'd fry up bacon, sausage and eggs on the other side, while the coffee was settling. Her grits just needed reheating. Plenty of biscuits.
Not 2 feet away was a long picnic-type table with six or seven chairs pushed up under it. The top of the table had some lightweight tin wrapped around it and nailed to the under side.
At the table, the two cousins and Mr. Thompson did most of the talking. Mr. Elvin didn't say much. After Mrs. Thompson had filled our plates with her "heavenly breakfast," she'd ask us to bow our heads and, on behalf of us all, gave thanks to the Lord for the meal we were about to receive. She went on for a while.
Sometimes, she'd explain to the Lord how she went about making the gravy "just thick enough." It was a long time to keep your eyes closed. I'd sneak a peek at the rest of the guys. Mr. Elvin was the only one with his eyes open and staring at me. He usually got up from the table before the rest of us and took biscuits and jam to the two black men already down at the barn, setting up for the morning milking.
One morning, after he walked out, I asked Mr. Thompson if something was wrong with Mr. Elvin, him being so quiet and all. Mr. Thompson said, "Boy, yuh become a different kinda man when yuh kill another man. Elvin killed a bunch of 'em. He was a sniper. They say one of the best."
That explained everything to me. Even at my young age, I could just imagine how taking another man's life could cause you to go quiet. Little did I know that less than nine years later, I too would have those kinds of memories with which to deal.
This new perspective of Mr. Elvin put me on my mission to make him laugh. Maybe I could bring him back. Maybe, he'd be himself again, the cool guy he was before he shipped off to honor up for America.
Mr. Elvin sat on a milking stool, stripping a cow, and I'd start ripping off my jokes to him. He was a tough audience. I never got a laugh. If he thought my joke was bad, he'd turn around with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and just stare at me, one of those long blank stares. If he kinda liked one, he'd look straight ahead, but I could see the smirk line roll around the corner of his mouth.
The last weekend I slept over at the Thompson farm, after breakfast, I announced that my mother had accepted a teaching job in Chickamauga, Georgia, and that we were moving the following week. The two cousins and Mr. and Mrs. Thompson wished me the best. Bobby and I got a little misty-eyed, but we sucked it up and shook hands, like men do.
I looked over at Mr. Elvin and said goodbye and told him that I was going to miss him. He looked up from the table, straight into my eyes, grinned and said, "You're funny."
Next time you find yourself in the presence of a veteran, do what you can to make them laugh. I can tell you from experience, it'll make you feel good inside. Plus, the more you make a veteran laugh, the less time they have to think about anything else.
Bill Stamps' new book, "Miz Lena," is available in softcover and Kindle editions on Amazon. The limited-edition, signed and numbered hardcovers are sold out. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.