Editor's Note: A version of this column was published July 1, 2018.
When I was "knee high to a grasshopper," as my Uncle JT used to call me, I lived with my mother and two brothers in a small farming town in Middle Tennessee. Mom taught at the only school there.
It was a three-story dark brick building that sat on this side of Catheys Creek and across a dirt road from Widow Thompson's cornfield. Mature oak and sycamore trees surrounded it.
Children of the county's farming families went there, first through 12th grades all under one roof. Poor, but proud.
Dedicated Christian women, dressed like Louisa May Alcott, taught them their three Rs as best they could. In the mornings, just after the bell rang, everybody stood up, faced the flag that hung just above the chalkboard and with great clarity pledged allegiance to it. They had prayer sessions and faith-based discussions in the classrooms twice a day. Those kids may not have conquered algebra, but they knew their Bible and were proud to be Americans.
There was really no talk or hope of college for most of them. It was pretty much understood that right after graduation, it was back to the farm, or get married and start having babies, or enlist in the military.
In those years, college was still mostly for the students who came from affluent families. Or at least from families that didn't have to pinch every penny to make sure there was a roof over their heads and beans in the pot. Most of the local farmers just barely made a living.
We lived out back of the school between the principal, Mr. Graham, and the janitor, Mr. Thaxter. They both lived in white wood-framed houses. We lived in a little trailer.
Free lodging was part of my mother's teaching deal. Teachers made a paltry salary back then. Some things haven't changed. Having free living quarters was a bonus, even though it felt like we were living in a couple of closets with a bathroom.
Step out the back door and within 15 feet, you'd be standing on home plate of the baseball field. They had a backstop and netting put up. But the net was old and barely holding on.
Grown-up country boys played ball there every weekend in the late spring and all through the summer months. Several times a game, a fastball would get past the catcher, rip through a hole in the netting and hit our trailer. After a while, it looked like a gravel truck ran into it.
There was always a big game on the Fourth of July — usually two teams composed of the best players our town and another little farming community could recruit for the showdown. Those good ol' boys could play some pretty good ball. Especially considering how many bottles of beer they consumed over the stretch of nine innings.
There was a heavy-set boy out of Mount Pleasant who usually threw up and passed out in centerfield 30 minutes into the game. They just left him out there.
It was always the biggest crowd of the summer! Cars and trucks parked everywhere — at the school and up and down the dirt road out in front of us. When that was full up, they parked all across our front yard. They all had keys left in the ignition and the windows rolled down.
Everybody brought something to eat. All the usual stuff: potato salad, deviled eggs, sweet coleslaw, baked beans, hot dogs and hamburgers; jugs and Thermoses of iced tea and lemonade; coolers full of iced-down long-neck PBRs. So many watermelons that, toward the end of the day, you just ate out the heart of them. There was every vegetable you could name, all of them cooked with thick-sliced bacon and butter. Country women can cook.
Many of the tenured tailgaters, old-timers whose playing days were over, set up their lawn chairs and charcoal grills along the first- and third-base lines. They'd drink their brews, smoke, spit and laugh. They'd holler at the ump when they didn't care for his call.
Just about everybody around those parts kept a freezer full of meat. The smoke and smell of grilled and sizzling pork chops, steaks and chicken wings, with a splash of barbecue sauce and a little onion, flirted with your belly until it was time to eat. It was one of those summer days you felt extra happy to be alive.
Most of the old folks stayed downtown, saving up their energy for the walk up the little hill that led to a small cemetery. They came to honor the dead. There were good folks and great American veterans buried up there.
Riley Wright, the good reverend of the First Church of Christ, whom everyone called Preacher Man, presided over the ceremony and reminded us that they were men that had given their lives for the independence and freedom we were all celebrating that day.
A half dozen of the town's returned war heroes were too old to climb the hill, so they all piled into a wide Packard, three in the front, three in the back. All of them leaned forward in their seats as they flew by the rest of us.
I'm pretty sure they wanted to get there first so they could have a little nip before Preacher Man started his Independence Day speech to the congregation.
As small American flags were stuck in the ground next to the graves, Preacher Man read off the list of names of those who had died in combat and said a little something nice about each one of them. All of them had grown up around there. Most of their widows never remarried, remaining in town and raising their children. Those ladies stood around the graves together, sobbed into square hankies and consoled one another with hugs and back rubs.
Mr. Jenkins, a lifetime resident and Bronze Star recipient, had lost one of his legs during a famous battle over in France somewhere. He stood behind me, with faint whiskey on his breath, and balanced himself with his crutch and a hand on my shoulder. Tears swelled up behind his glasses. I could hear him choking back his empathy. He kept blowing his nose. It was a sad and solemn ceremony.
Time for me to pedal back over to the ballpark. The game was over. Dusk was setting in. I wanted to light my sparklers. I was hungry. Just behind our little trailer, the party was just getting started.
The thing about the country is that there's very little light. Sounds and smells carry. As I crossed the bridge, the frogs got quiet, and I could hear light chatter and laughing just above the fiddles, guitars, banjos and a harmonica.
Coming up the road, I smelled fried chicken. I parked my bike up on the front porch and ran toward the music and the crowd and the fried chicken.
The musicians were all lathered up on beer and Blind Remus' moonshine. They were strumming up a storm. Bluegrass. The kind of music you heard over the radio on Saturday nights from the Ryman in Nashville.
A few of the couples got up and tried to dance. A difficult undertaking if you've had a few, especially on uneven ground.
One liquored-up, dimensionally plump, big-bosomed woman with a low-cut front, tried to clog and took a big fall. Her ample assets were exposed, and one of her shoes flew off. The band stopped playing, and it was dead still for a minute. They took a long look. Then they cranked up the music again, and the woman's husband carried her off to the car.
We kids played kick-the-can and tag and ran after lightning bugs while the grown-ups told jokes, war stories and funny stuff about one another. A mess of poor people with firewater in their guts, God in their hearts and American pride in their souls having a fabulous Fourth of July.
As it got darker, some of the teenagers would make their way out to a vacant car and smooch. A couple of my buddies and I would sneak up by the car. I'd give them a couple of blasts with my water pistol and take off running into the night. They never caught us.
They started shutting things down before it got too late.
The limited fireworks show was over. All the booze and iced tea were gone. The food that was left over was sealed and stacked in Mr. Graham's kitchen. In the morning, he and his wife, a schoolteacher, would run it down to the widows' homes and to Mr. Jenkins and the boys, sitting around out front of Whiteside Drug Store.
A couple of guys who had ingested a little too much celebratory hooch ended up sleeping overnight in their cars. They pulled out the next morning just as the sun was coming up. There was a full day of chores for them to tend to. In the farming business, you don't get that many days off.
The Fourth was an exception. They knew celebrating being an American was important.
It still is.
Bill Stamps' second book, "Southern Folks," is now available in a limited, hardback edition, signed and numbered. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.