It's pouring down rain as I write this week's column. To me, "column" sounds so professional. I'm certainly not to be confused for a columnist. I never went to columnist school. I'm a storyteller. I figure you're spending your money on this newspaper to get the meat and potatoes of the news from educated people who work at this paper. They're good at what they do. If you get something entertaining from me, then that's gravy.
Writing about the past takes a while, especially since it happened so long ago. Concentration and being in the right mood usually do the trick. Such is the case today. For me, a good rain and an afternoon cup of coffee make thinking back to another time and place much easier to get to in my already very crowded brain.
I first started drinking coffee when I was living out in the country with my two younger brothers and Mom. I was 9. I'm not really sure if Mom's Sanka counts as coffee. That instant stuff — it kinda looked like coffee. It even tasted a little like coffee.
When I slept over at the Thompson farm, Bobby Thompson's mother let me drink the real thing, provided that I used a lot of cream and sugar. It was like having dessert with a kick to it. As I grew older, especially when I was in the service, I drank coffee throughout the day. For years, I used to have a cup just before I went to bed. It's a Southern thing.
Just a few minutes ago, there were a series of thunderclouds, those big black ones, that rolled by overhead. They bounced off one another and made the windows rattle. Our dog, Scout, came over to lie by my feet. He can't hear anymore, but he can feel the tremors. I sure love Scout.
When you're poor, as we were, you take what you can get. It was the 1950s. Mom landed a teaching job at a little school out in the country, a few miles south of Columbia, Tennessee.
Part of her deal was that the school provided a little trailer for us to live in. It wasn't much to look at. It was very small, with white paint that used to chip off every time it rained. Somebody had tried to hand-brush paint it and said, "To hell with it," about halfway through.
The trailer had a flat metal roof. When a heavy rain came in, it made so much noise that you had to yell to be heard. That wasn't so bad really. It was all those leaks in the ceiling that caused us problems.
The mop bucket and every pot, pan and good-size bowl we had was spread across the living room portion of the trailer and a couple more in the kitchen. The pots would fill up, and we'd pour them out and then try to set them back down in the exact same spot. I never once thought about how poor we were. I was just thankful that we had enough pots to go round.
When the rain let up, my dog, Prince, and I would head off down a path to the swimming hole. There were several spots in the creek to swim, but the best one was the same one where all of us fished.
It ran through an old farmer's property. He lived alone up on the hill and stayed to himself. His house sat above and back from the creek in a thicket of cedar trees. He told us boys, "I don't care none about youn's swimmin' or fishin' down here. But just remember to have respect fer my land."
I never knew his name. I just said "yes, sir" and "no, sir" to him. Me and every other country kid grew up being taught how to speak to grownups. Courtesy and respect are indigenous to the South. We all learned right quick not to answer an adult with just a "yes." Invariably, someone would ask you right back, "Yes, what?"
Often, I'd get down to the creek before anyone else. Before the last star left the sky to give way to the first eastern light of another sun rising. Before quiet gave way to the first yawns of Mother Nature.
I sat very still and became part of the morning coming to life. A gasp of warm wind rolled through, waking the June bugs. Across the tops of the green pastures surrounding me, clean Tennessee air cut into the morning haze and pushed it up and into evaporation. The creek was like glass. Birds woke up and began singing their thanks to the Almighty for another day.
Every once in a while, I'd hear the farmer playing his harmonica or his fiddle. Sometimes he'd yodel. He was pretty good. His cows would hear him and, almost on cue, cross the creek down at the shallow end and head up to the barn.
There's poetry and a touch of magic in the countryside. If the Lord lived on Earth, it would be out there.
The creek was a little murky from the storm. It had risen high enough that you could dive from the bank and not hit bottom. All us "children of the South" swam the same way. Naked as blue jays. Skinny-dipping is a wonderful and freeing experience. Funny how simple and innocent pleasures are the ones we cherish most.
If you're a fisherman, as was I, you know that right after a good downpour is the very best time to gather bait. Those big earthworms come up to get some air. Pull back a rock, and there they are. Easy pickins'.
All country boys keep an empty coffee can sitting around somewhere. It's your bait can. First, pick up the worms and drop them in the can. After you've caught enough of them, you fill the can up a little past halfway with pasture dirt. If you keep the soil damp, those worms will stay alive for a full week.
I used to keep my can in a corner out on the front porch. Eventually, I had to move it inside. Birds have some kind of radar when it comes to worms. They flew down to the porch and dug out my worms. Robins and mockingbirds were the worst. They'd sit in the trees, just staring down at me and the can. They'd look at me, then the can. Back and forth.
I was one of those kids who believed that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. After a good storm passed through, you could have as many as three rainbows in the sky. No telling how many miles Prince and I clocked searching for that pot of gold. I'd get to where I thought it ended, only to find it had moved on over to the other side of the hill.
I decided that if I ever did find a pot of gold, I was gonna buy my mother whatever she wanted. She was so deserving of some good luck coming her way. Raising three boys all by herself, living in that dinky trailer with no money and her demons always close by, was a constant challenge for her.
A good rain cleans up the world. Big, heavy-leafed trees go from beautiful to dazzling and brilliantly greener. Down by the creek, when the sun popped out and with some wind, the leaves on the big maples flipped and twisted back and forth. Green on the front of the leaves, silver on the other side. From a distance, it looked like trees full of diamonds.
When it rains, it makes me think of other rainy days. Seems like rain marks important and significant times in my life.
Fourteen years ago in northern California, the day of my father's funeral, there was a horrific storm that came in from the Pacific Ocean. Gale winds. Sheets of rain coming down thick and sideways.
At Dad's request, I had arranged for a local marching band to lead Dad's hearse from the funeral ceremony back up the street to the mortuary. Many of the town's folks were planning to walk behind the hearse.
It didn't appear that the plan was gonna work out. Under my breath, I asked God if there was any way he could help make Dad's request come true. It was one of those "long shot" prayers.
I was the last to speak. As I was wrapping up my eulogy, the wind stopped and the sun came out. It was truly miraculous. It stayed out just long enough for the marching band and Dad to get to the funeral home. As soon as Dad's hearse got under cover, the storm started back up with a vengeance.
The rain has subsided. Scout is asleep at my feet. Jana just walked into the room with a fresh cup of coffee and one of her patented smiles for me. Thank you, God. Today will be another rainy day I'll always remember.
Bill Stamps' second book, "Southern Folks," is now available in a limited, hardback edition, signed and numbered. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.