Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The King Of North Mississippi

No, this post is not about R.L. Burnside. This post actually concerns one of my many cousins that reside in North Mississippi.

Katrina pounding into Mississippi got me to thinking back about the days I spent in the state as a youth, which inevitably led me to remembering stories about "The King Of North Mississippi"; my cousin Fat Sammy. When I was a child I didn't think of him as a king. He was just Fat Sammy, an older cousin that I didn't care too much for. Sometimes a person will get the nickname "Fat" because they are skinny. This sort of irony doesn't happen in Ripley, Mississippi. Sammy was and still is overweight. In those non politically correct days of the Seventies if you were obese, there's a good chance you got called fat by your closest relatives. There was no malice involved that I could detect. It just was what it was.

He used to pick on me when I was younger, but I got taller and bigger when I hit the age of fifteen and the antagonizing stopped. Sammy had already taken steps toward being the king. He had quit working for a local utility. One day he was riding around with some co-workers when he told them to stop the truck. He jumped out, walked home, and never went back to work. He devoted himself to just a few things. Raising fighting cocks, a banana tree, heavy metal music, and "taking care" of his mother. All he really did for his mother was be her chauffeur and that was probably just so he could control the car. It was a luxurious Oldsmobile 98 that would be filled with the sounds of Van Halen or Black Sabbath once he dropped his mother off at the little cafe she owned.

He had to give up the roosters, so he spent most of his daylight hours tending to the banana tree and hanging out a little country store at the bottom of the hill behind his house. It was around this time that I started actually hanging out with my older cousin. He discovered that I liked heavy metal plus I got a kick out of the wrestling originating from Memphis, Tennessee which he watched religiously every week. I took to riding around with him in his mother's car with the stereo blasting. He'd cackle with glee, Vantage cigarette dangling from his lips, at the beginning of "Running With The Devil"; the siren sound doing something to his mental stability. He was also obsessed with Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne. He'd play Master Of Reality and Diary Of A Madman back to back on the phonograph in the house and pontificate about the devil worship inherent in the lyrics.

We'd cruise the strip in the late afternoon riding from Coleman's BBQ out to the Sonic and back again. But as the sun went down he would take me back to his place where I'd spend the rest of the evening with my aunt. After a few nights of this I asked him why I couldn't hang out with him. I was informed that I was just too young to go on "moose patrol". When I asked just what in the hell "moose patrol" was he would just laugh maniacally and tell me that when I became a man I would find out someday.

Well if I knew Sammy at all I figured he would eventually tell me before I had to go back home to Middle Tennessee. A few days went by and he decided I could be told about "moose patrol". It seems there were a couple of large boned young women in Ripley that liked to chase after men in their car. They would run you off the road and then have their way with you. Sammy and a bunch of his cohorts liked to run from them for sport. I had no way to validate such a story. I never got to go out on "moose patrol" and Sammy did indeed stay out late on many nights. There's not much to do in Ripley even to this day so there is some plausibility to the story, but I never met any of Sammy's friends so I suspect the whole thing was just made up to entertain me. He probably spent his evening's playing cards at the country store.

There was a brief window when I actually thought Sammy was pretty cool. He didn't have to work and he didn't seem to have a care in the world. There was a matter of fact pragmatism about him. His older brother was a black belt in karate who used to win tournaments all over the Southeast. I once asked Sammy what he would do if his brother decided to use karate on him. He glanced over at the corner of the living room where a double barrel shotgun was propped. "That right there ought to take care of him." I had to admit that karate wouldn't have done much good against it.

A few more years passed and the next time I visited Ripley I was listening to punk rock. I was wearing a hammer and sickle t-shirt I had bought from Raven Records in Knoxville when I saw Sammy again. He took one look at me and said I better stay inside because the rednecks would surely kick my ass. I did get called a fag as I rode a skateboard around the courthouse square, but that was the worst of it. Times were changing even there. Sammy had cooled on heavy metal, but there was nothing there to replace it. I tried to get him to listen to The Replacements and Black Flag tapes I had brought, but the only new thing he had bought was Prince's Purple Rain. His girth had also shrunk. He should have been called Chubby Sammy instead of Fat.

I started to think of Sammy in less complimentary ways. Living at home without a job or some future purpose suddenly seemed lazy and lame. It would be a good long time before I visited Ripley again. And then one day my friend Jay wondered if I wanted to go to some obscure Civil War battlefield just outside of Tupelo. I said sure as long as we could take a side trip into Ripley.

Off we went on a hot summer day, down through Shiloh, and past Tupelo toward Ripley which we would visit first. I was disappointed when I got there. My aunt's cafe, where you can get the finest slugburgers in Ripley, wasn't open and none of my relatives seemed to be around. We went and had a lousy lunch at McDonalds and decided to try aunt's house one more time before we left.

This time we found Sammy sitting outside in a lawn chair. My aunt had air conditioning, but she never let it be turned on. We pulled up and asked Sammy what he'd been up to and he replied, "Oh you know, just running things." We left shortly afterward with Jay in hysterics about the line "running things". There was a royal bearing in the way Sammy had said it, an unquestionable authority over everything and nothing. Jay jokingly said he wished he had a life where all he had to do was sit in a lawn chair and run things.

This led to me telling Jay the same things I wrote about earlier here. "Man, what a character," murmured Jay. You can say that again I thought to myself. Some might see Fat Sammy as a slacker, a goof, lazy, eccentric, or selfish. I now always think of him as being "The King Of North Mississippi". Benevolent, amusing, and always "running things."


Miss Templeton said...

Wally. I'm going to have to give this one a bit of a plug in my little corner of Blogger. This was a strangely moving piece and a bit reminiscent of John Kennedy Toole's portrait of Ignatius J. O'Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces.

sue mcjagger said...

Hey Wally Bangs....
I like what you write and your taste in music. I am Bruce Cockburn's publicist from his Canadian label, True North Records. I would love to send you some CD's for possible review.

Let me know.