I try not to jump to snap decisions and conclusions about anything that's important to me. I was brought up that way. My mother, God rest her soul, taught me to always consider both sides of all matters. That being fair was of optimum importance. To always look for the good in people and obey the Golden Rule.
Mom and Dad divorced, and we boys went to live with her. She taught school. We ended up way out in the country. The school didn't pay her much, but we found ways to get by.
Mom was a troubled person. Her extreme intellect and her devout belief in God, combined with her broken heart and a dependency on prescription pills, kept her in a constant state of confusion and depression. She was barely able to make it through a day without an emotional breakdown. She would cry. Her crying made me cry. Those were some tough times.
I was the oldest son. Mom reminded me that, since Dad wasn't around, I was the "man of the house." That meant that I watched out for my two younger brothers and helped Mom with pretty much everything. I gave it all I had.
When she was a little groggy and not quite with it, I actually assisted her with grading her students' tests and homework assignments. I could read and spell at high school level when I was 9. Mom taught me.
There was a kid in her sophomore class; Terry was his name. He was a mean-spirited boy who used to pick on me when Mom wasn't looking. Whenever I graded his paper and he made a mistake, I'd write "Dumb A**" across the top of the page.
I considered my newfound title to be an honor. Dad not being around, I emulated other grown men in the little town. I tried to act like a man. I walked taller and began to use some pretty coarse language, words I'd heard some of the men out back of the grange hall use, words that would have made a sailor blush.
I was into one of my "grown man speeches" to my brothers, using all kinds of loud expletives. Talking like I thought men talked. Next thing I knew, Mom and I were in the bathroom. I remember thinking, standing over the sink, it just wasn't right for a "man of the house" to have his mouth washed out with soap.
As trigger-tempered as my mother was, she never swore. I guess you'd have gotten a completely different story had you talked to that bully kid, Terry.
My mother read the Bible to me every day. Sometimes, she'd have me read it to her. We discussed various passages and stories and their meanings. She reminded me that God spoke in a gentle, loving and soft tone, that a real man finds a polite way to communicate and rarely raises his voice.
I wrote what I thought were funny jokes for Mom and left them on her nightstand. Anything to cheer her up. She was unlike most anyone else.
The only thing that I can specifically remember writing for her was a Valentine's card. I was in the second grade. When you opened up the heart, cut out from red construction paper, it read, "Roses are red. Violets are blue. You got a nose like a B-22. I love my mother with all my heart. Amen."
They say that life is what you make it. For the most part, I agree. They also say that we learn from our mistakes. That stated, I should have a couple of Ph.D's by now.
I think I'm more inclined to go with the one about dealing with the cards you're dealt. Lemons to lemonade, that sort of thing.
I've been around people who seemingly didn't have a chance for a normal life who far surpassed anyone's expectations. From an early age, those people have played an important role in the ways I deal with things.
I grew up with and around folks of true grit. People who got up, laced up and faced up to adversity and, one way or another, got themselves over the hump. Role models. We all learn from each other. I learned from all sorts of people way out there in the rural hills of Middle Tennessee.
A few years before I was born, America's finest young men saddled up and took off for foreign lands to fight for our country's freedom. They won and came home. That was that. They didn't talk about it. A big part of being a man was taking whatever was dished out without complaint and then fighting back.
Such was the case with a little man I met and worked for from time to time when I was around 10. They called him Carl. The story was that he had been abandoned by his parents and was left at a bus stop in Nashville when he was just a little boy. I can't remember how they said he ended up out in the country. But he did.
For the better part of his childhood and into his early teens, he was taken in and raised by an elderly minister and his wife. They took care of him but worked him like a dog. He chopped down trees and split them into firewood. He walked a good ways back and forth to school. Later on, he became an accomplished carpenter. The minister told him that if anybody asked, his name was Carl.
According to Mr. Jenkins, a local decorated war hero who lost a leg on the battlefield, the minister and his wife became deathly ill from something they ate and died a few days apart from one another. Shortly thereafter, Carl was told he'd have to move out of the house. The church owned it and needed it for the new pastor and his family.
Carl's request to the church to stay on and work for room and board was denied. Some religious fanatic said his abnormality was a curse from God. Carl was born with one leg substantially shorter than the other one and one of his arms was underdeveloped. It was like a stub with fingers. He had a speech impediment.
Mr. Jenkins let Carl sleep out back in a tin-roof workshop with running water that they converted into a makeshift bedroom. Maybe it was Mr. Jenkins' empathy and his better-than-most understanding of what it was like not to be running at 100%.
Whatever the reason, Mr. Jenkins was happy to help Carl. They became good friends. Or maybe more like father and son. Mr. Jenkins lost his only child, a boy, to a tragic tractor accident shortly after his return from the war.
It was quite a sight to go into town and see Mr. Jenkins with just one leg and his crutch mowing his yard in a Texas two-step and Carl, with one good arm, working a shovel and pulling weeds. Both of them smiling. It put a shiver up my back. Mr. Jenkins would holler out to me, "Boy, if yuh'll run up to the gasoline station and git me and Carl a Coca-Cola soda pop, you can have one, too."
Eventually, Carl got his own place about a mile past the second bridge. He set himself up a carpenter's workshop. Sometimes, early in the morning, I'd be on my way to one of my favorite fishing spots, and I'd see him limping up the road. He couldn't drive. He was always happy to see me. It took him a while to get it out, but he'd smile real big and say to me, "Buddy, this is the first day of the rest of yore life. Live it all day long."
It's guys like Carl that make me appreciate every one of my days on God's green Earth. I don't know whatever became of Carl, but I'll bet you that, in his lifetime, he inspired many. He certainly did me. When you're feeling a little down and out, count your fingers and toes and thank the Almighty for them. Think about the Carls and Mr. Jenkinses of the world who are making the best of it and finding a way to live life all day long. And smiling.
Bill Stamps' second book, "Southern Folks," is now available in a limited, hardback edition, signed and numbered. For information, email email@example.com.