My grandmother, Miz Lena, grew up on a farm outside of town in Middle Tennessee. Chapel Hill was a little spot in the road dotted with tobacco and corn farms. It was home to rural, God-fearing families living off the land. They had mules for plowing and hauling their picked crops to be weighed, and cows, pigs and chickens for steaks, ham, bacon and eggs. Nobody got rich, but they ate well.
When Grand Mom came of age, she married a man who was short in stature with a ruddy complexion, big knuckled hands, dishwater blond hair and an omnipresent hint of Tennessee mash on his breath. He wore farm clothes and skinned-up heavy leather boots and smoked home-rolled cigarettes. Even in the summer, he wore long-sleeved shirts. Occasionally, he'd roll them up and expose a tattoo on his right forearm of an eagle in flight. Some said he was Cherokee. Everyone called him Doc Dean.
My mother, Doc Dean's daughter, was the only person from Miz Lena's blood who kept up with him. After 10 or so years together, Grand Mom had had enough of Doc Dean and went to court to get her maiden name back. After that, Grand Mom, nor any of her family, ever mentioned his name. It was as though he never was. Sometimes divorce is the same as death. Sometimes worse.
Even though he had no formal training, other than what he learned from growing up in the country, Doc Dean was the local self-proclaimed veterinarian. The farmers in the area thought Doc Dean was amazing with their mules, a genuine miracle worker. They swore by Doc Dean. After he'd made a visit, somehow their mules seemed to pay more attention and work better.
No telling where he got that old brown leather saddlebag with the big letters "MD" stamped on it. He threw it over his shoulder. Even with his bib overalls and that raggedy, straw-brimmed hat, the bag made him look somewhat official.
Seems like Doc Dean walked everywhere he went and at a lickety-split pace! He'd tread up and down those long, dusty, country dirt roads, bordered on both sides by barb wire and cornfields, seeing after his neighbors' farm animals. He specialized in curing mules. When the mules could no longer distinguish the difference between "Yea" and "Haw," it was time to get ahold of Doc Dean. A couple of times, I tagged along. He took big steps. I was a little guy and pretty much ended up running behind him to keep up.
He was cordial enough but kept mostly to himself and rarely spoke to much of anyone, including his own family. He had always been quiet but at least sociable. That changed when Miz Lena left him. He really loved her. The most love he ever showed to anyone was to her. Now she was gone, and his heart got tucked away.
Maybe it was my asking so many questions and a way for him to quiet me, but he'd start singing while we walked — slow nasal songs with a touch of scratch and an occasional yodel. I tried singing along with him. He slowed down, looked back and smiled at me. Then off we went again at full speed. He went right back to his singing. His songs were about being left by his woman and living all alone. That's all I remember.
As we were walking up the path, toward an old farmhouse, I smelled something foul in the air, like rotten eggs. It was coming from an old well on their property. Sulphur water. Some of the old-timers swore by it. To me, it tasted like it smelled. I suppose you could say it's an acquired taste.
There was a group of men and women, all ages, sitting out on the front porch. They were singing in perfect harmony. Somebody was picking a banjo. Hands clapping. Singing for the joy of singing makes for family unity and happy people.
A bunch of kids and a couple of dogs came running down to greet us. Way out there, company was a welcome novelty. When we got within shouting distance, one of the men hollered out, "Hey, Doc, we was wonderin' when you was gonna come see us. Bring that little feller up here, and let's git him some iced tea."
I sat down at the end of the porch with the kids and downed two glasses of the best iced tea I ever had. No taste of sulphur. Squeezed lemons and heaping tablespoons of sugar did the trick. After Doc Dean negotiated his vet fee, we headed to the barn to "cure" another mule.
Mules are big, strong and stubborn. Heavy on stubborn. Kinda like some people I know. They don't like being messed with. If they should ever kick you, which they're known to do, you'll be picking yourself up from a good 10 feet away. And, if you're planning on riding one, it's advisable not to without a saddle. They have a long and hard bone down the middle of their backs. If you ride them bareback and they get to trotting, there's a good chance you'll end up speaking a couple of octaves higher.
As soon as we got in the barn, Doc Dean said, "Son, stand by the door and let me know if anybody's comin' this way. Keep yore eyes peeled."
While I was on the lookout, he opened up his MD bag and pulled out the bag's only content. A quart jar of "white lightnin'." He took a sip or two, rolled a cigarette and lit it. He talked to the mule for a few minutes. Then he took another swig and talked a little more to the mule. The mule just stood there.
Out of nowhere, Doc Dean punched the mule, and it went to its knees. I hated it and began to cry. Doc Dean hollered across the barn to me, "Ain't nothin' tuh worry about, boy. Just puttin' some sense back into him. It'll keep him from runnin' out in front of a truck."
Doc Dean grabbed the mule's halter and helped him back up and started rubbing its neck. After some consoling words to the mule and a few more swigs, he patted me on the back and said, "Work's done. Let's go." I looked back at the mule. He seemed OK. I could have sworn he winked at me. Another miracle performed.
After I got out of the Marine Corps and moved back to the South, I went looking for my blood grandfather. Everybody I spoke with had nice things to say about him. I was told he had left the area "some time back." Nobody seemed to know where he went. One of the good ol' boys told me he'd heard something about Doc Dean had slowed down his drinking and became a roaming preacher. I stopped looking for him. As far as I know, he never remarried.
When Doc Dean passed on, he left a very small farmhouse to my younger brother and me. Frankly, it was shot and about to fall down, so we sold it to his neighbor for next to nothing.
I remember very little else about Doc Dean. More than once, I've thought back about me running to catch up with him out there on those country dirt roads. Him fast-stepping it, with that MD bag over his shoulder, singing his songs of heartbreak and loneliness and performing miracles.
Bill Stamps' new book, "Miz Lena," is now available in a limited-edition, signed and numbered hardcover. Contact him at email@example.com or through Facebook.