I was just finishing up a talk over at that big church in Panama City Beach about that fourth man in the fire when an older gentleman sitting towards the back raised his hand. Now, I figured he wanted some clarification as to exactly how many “dissidents” King Nebuchadnezzar had ordered tossed into the fiery furnace. Perhaps he was going to ask me how those three bound men got untied amongst all the heat. Lord, I was hoping he wasn’t wanting me to spell Shadrach, Meshach or Abednego! It crossed my mind as I recognized him that he might want to know if this was a literal story or some form of Christian hyperbole, or parable, aimed at teaching the brethren the importance of standing firm. At the very least he would expect some sure ’nuff Ecclesiastical explanation as to the presence and pertinence of the fourth man. You know how those Baptist can be at times…..
He cleared his throat and fairly shouted, “Is Leon a real person and are those stories you write about him absolutely true?”
My notes fell off the podium. I heard a murmur go through the choir behind me. The pastor turned as red as a fresh pulled rhubarb. The pianist, who had retaken her seat in anticipation of my concluding statements, accidentally hit a b flat. The whole congregation leaned forward so as not to miss my answer.
I have been asked that question a thousand times over the years. It has come up at Lions Club meetings, talks before the Historical Society, at VFW breakfasts, once at a Florida Property Appraiser’s Convention and numerous times coming out of restaurants, running onto the football field or standing in the paint department at the hardware store. I reckon this was the first time I had been confronted from the pulpit.
I looked that big fellow right in the eye and said, “Sir, Leon is as real as that fourth man in the fire!”
Folks have from time to time read my little stories and commented on my vivid imagination; or my flair for spinning a yarn. I appreciate their thoughts but they miss the point entirely. I don’t make this stuff up! Imagination has nothing to do with it! I’m not smart enough nor do I have the ability to make something out of nothing!
Leon is as real as rain. I grew up, as I have often stated, out at the end of North Stonewall Street in McKenzie, Tennessee. LaRenda Bradfield is real. Miss Carolyn Blades was my first grade teacher. Miss Polly Rucker taught me high school English. David Paschall ran over me so many times in football I have his helmet marks to this day permanently indented in my chest.
We ate hamburgers at the City Café. We bought our kites, candy corn and Valentine cards at the Ben Franklin Store. We spent hours trying to catch the gold fish in the city square pond. I got Smiley Burnette’s autograph in 1958 where the McKenzie Banner’s office is today. We bought cherry cokes and malted milkshakes at John Motherall’s drugstore. We escaped the humdrum of life at the Park Theatre chasing bad guys across the screen with Roy, Hoppy and Gene. We played baseball in the open lot between Ricky Hale and Jimmy Mabry’s houses. That field is still there…..it has just shrunk some over time.
It was a normal “mid America” life from a generation ago. There were thousands of towns, city squares, malt shops and movie theaters just like ours. I hope it doesn’t offend anyone that I just happen to believe mine was the best! Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, had a better childhood than we did!
Leon was a big part of it. As his younger brother I knew him better than most. That could be a good thing….but then again, that could cost you, too. If he wanted to play “Stalag 17” he would make me go up on the roof with a flashlight to “be” the German sentry. It was a two story house and I had to crawl out an upstairs window onto the small porch roof and then jump and catch the ledge of the upper roof and pull myself up over the edge to reach the top. I’d then sprawl out on the roof peak overlooking the side yard, trying to shine the light on Leon, Joe Gooch or Jackie Burns as runaway prisoners. If Leon tired of this game, he’d throw walnuts or dirt clods at me to see if he could knock me off the roof.
Leon was living “outside the box” even before there was such a thing. As a matter of fact, he couldn’t even see the box from where he was enjoying life. If you could think of it, he would try it! If it seemed impossible or made no real practical sense he would be off and running before you could say Jack Sprat! I have simply made a semi-living for a while now recording those thrilling days of yesteryear.
I might embellish a story here and there for effect. I don’t know if you’d say that was invoking literary license, good creative writing or expressing my poetic freedom. Daddy would say it was flat out lying. It wouldn’t matter that I was his middle son.
But, even Dad would tell you, Leon is real. The town is real. The people are real. And the memories are real.
And I thank God every day for them.