This sinfully delicious and beautifully iconic blue cheese dressing will make your mouth water and your taste buds sing: silky and salty with a hint of sweetness, a perfect showcase for your favorite Maytag or Stilton. It is a beautiful thing; that is, until you have had to make it for a fine dining restaurant on the fly.
This recipe is by far one of the most temperamental that I have ever used. Everything has to be just right, including proper alignment of the stars and planets, and even then it might not work. However, I highly recommend giving it a whirl. The depth and flavor of this dressing is not like anything I have had before or since I worked at the Downtown Grill. We eventually retired it, and I came up with an easier alternative for the prep cooks to make; it would do, but it’s nowhere near as good as this one.
I started my professional culinary career at the Downtown Bar and Grill. I was a prep cook which meant I was the low man on the totem pole, the grunt; it was my job to do whatever the chefs needed me to do and get yelled at constantly for either not doing it properly or quick enough or both. That being said, I could hold my own and for the most part the guys gave me as much respect as a chef will give a prep cook (which ain’t much). I was allowed and expected to make everything and anything the guys needed for service, except of course the blue cheese dressing. Why would they not let me make it? And why did I never see it being made and why was only one person allowed to handle this recipe?
I would soon find out when I saw my name on the prep sheet aside the blue cheese dressing on a football Friday of an Ole Miss home game, in other words no room for error. Had I finally moved up to the upper echelon and was so bad ass that I was going to be allowed to make the sacred and secret blue cheese recipe that only Alison Wilkes was allowed to make? Alison was the Queen of the Downtown Grill and the most difficult recipes were given to her and her alone. It was at that moment I realized that for the first time during my shift Alison was off that night; she had worked earlier in the day and during the chaos the blue cheese was overlooked. The chef forgot to put it on the prep sheet! It was not the call to greatness I thought I had earned, it was out of pure necessity that I was allowed to make this recipe for the first time, much to the trepidation of the chefs as well as me.
There was really no room for failure now, all eyes were on me. I had no idea of the tediousness of executing this recipe, how everything has to be perfect: the measurements, the order of the ingredients as you add them, the temperature of the kitchen and the weather (not even kidding). I had no idea that this recipe had a 99% failure rate for anyone who tried to make it besides Alison. As I was reading through the recipe I remembered two things that Alison had told me prior to my employment at the Downtown Grill when we were just lifetime buddies. I remembered Alison talking about this recipe and that it gave her great pleasure basking in the joy of being only 1 of 20 people in a professional kitchen who could make this dressing that the Grill was so famous for; I also remembered her telling two key pieces of information as to why her always turns out, two things that were NOT written in the recipe. One, that there are three separate ingredients which are incorporated in one at a time, and they have to be added in alphabetical order: EOV; eggs, oil and vinegar. Two, everything has to be basically the same temperature, the bowls for the mixtures, the ingredients, air temp, all the same. Again, these instructions were not included in the recipe, so who knew? Well, Alison, of course.
So armed with this key information, I started the process, praying the whole time; please God let the dressing turn out. As I added the final mixture of vinegar the angels started to sing. ‘Holy crap!’ it’s working, I thought. I could see it coming together. To my surprise, I had done it, but instead of jumping up and down and screaming, which is what I wanted to do, I quietly tucked into my corner, not saying a peep, just getting the sacred dressing ready for service and storage. Then I casually walked up to the chef, container in hand. “Here you go chef. Do you need any on the line?”
Y’all, his jaw literally dropped. “What the hell!” he said. “You actually got it to turn out! We were planning on cussing at you for your futile attempt to make something that couldn’t be made.”
“Guess I just got lucky chef!” I said, remembering something else I learned from Alison: “Never tell the bastards anything.”
Downtown Grill Blue Cheese Dressing
2 eggs, whole
2 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon dried mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon white wine
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
a generous slash of Tabasco
6-8 ounces blue cheese
Using a blender, whip eggs for a minute, then slowly pour in the vegetable oil, a teaspoon at a time, until it starts to come together. Add a vinaigrette made with all the other ingredients. Mix for a minute. Pour dressing in a bowl, stir in crumbled blue cheese, and refrigerate.
Take 5 pounds of chicken meat with skin. You can bone a whole chicken, but a lot of times you can find thighs with only the leg bones, and I’ll use those and throw in a couple of skinless breast halves. Grind through a ¼” plate into a large bowl. Add two tablespoons salt, a tablespoon ground black pepper (more if you want), a quarter cup each of fresh chopped sage, thyme, and parsley, a half cup fresh chopped green onion, and a half cup cold chicken broth. Some people add cayenne, but I don’t. I think it tastes better if you let the herbs stand out. Don’t use fresh pepper of any kind, because that will kill the herbs. Mix VERY well! Stuff loosely into casings (pork or beef). You’ll need about 12 feet casing. Twist sausages into about 6-inch links. Refrigerate for a few days to let the seasoning work through the meat. You can pan-fry or broil these, but they’re best grilled. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of stuffing casings, you can make the mix into patties. Don’t let raw sausages sit in the fridge. If you’re not going to use them in three or four days, freeze them.
This recipe comes from my friend Jerry Bullard. He is among the few people in north Mississippi who not only appreciate the culinary heritage of our area, but are preserving and practicing it as well. This recipe is from his great-grandmother, Tempie Mills.
Chili Sauce by Mama Mills
This is a long cook recipe (8 hours). I cheated and ran the ingredients through a meat grinder, but Mama Mills had to do this by hand with a knife.
24 ripe tomatoes washed and decored
12 large onions peeled and quartered
10 hot peppers
1 cup sugar
1 cup vinegar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
4-5 cloves garlic mashed
1 tsp cinnamon or nutmeg
Add all ingredients to a large heavy bottom or cast iron pot and bring to a boil. Now the work begins; simmer until very thick, stirring most of the time. This will take several hours. If you burn this it is junk. When cooked, have sterile canning jars and lids ready, fill jars and process in boiling water canner for 15 minutes. Good stuff!
In 1981, Forrest L. Cooper and Donald F. Garrett published a selection of old postcards of Jackson from about 1902 until the mid-1950s, with more than 90% prior to 1920. The text was written by Carl McIntire, a self-professed “reporter, not a historian,” who nonetheless spent an enormous amount of time on the project, doing extensive research and interviewing more than 300 people. McIntire admitted to a margin of error, but states that “for the most part, all the dates and places are correct.” The book had a very limited printing and has hitherto never been republished. The link below will take you to a digital version of this exquisitely nuanced, intricately informative, and infinitely beautiful labor of love.
Jennifer Baughn says of her important work, Buildings of Mississippi, that the goal “from the start was to integrate—and I use that word purposely—black and white landscapes.” In this splendid essay (presented as a sidebar on p. 313), Baughn explains how the components of Mississippi’s landscape came to reflect the divisions of the state’s closed society.
Before the Civil War, enslaved blacks were discouraged or prohibited from congregating without white oversight, and although blacks and whites interacted on a daily basis, it was in the context of owner and owned, powerful and powerless. For a brief period following emancipation this power relationship eased, but after 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional, all manner of places and spaces began to be segregated.
As blacks began to move to urban centers around 1890, new neighborhoods of narrow streets and alleys lined mostly with shotgun houses were developed, as for example the Henry Addition (see DR54) in Greenwood. Dense populations, limited employment opportunities, and widespread poverty characterized many of Mississippi’s black neighborhoods, even as they gave rise to an African American middle and upper class. Towns with large black populations–notably Jackson, Greenville, Meridian, Hattiesburg, and Clarksdale–often developed a separate, self-contained African American community with its own business district, hotels, churches, cultural center, schools, and funeral homes. Although often located adjacent to industrial or flood-prone areas, these districts gave African Americans relative security to form their own institutions without white interference. Because churches were one of the few institutions owned and run by black leaders, they became the anchors of such neighborhoods, but public and private schools also provided focus and space for community events.
By the early 1950s, a rising African American middle class began to embrace suburban living, moving out of the old mainstays such as Jackson’s Farish and Greenville’s Newtown neighborhoods into new black subdivisions lined with small ranch houses, such as the residence of Medgar and Myrlie Evers. By 1960 many black congregations with modest newfound wealth began replacing their older churches with new buildings. Such projects often allowed black architects (e.g., DeWitt Dykes and Clair M. Jones) to make their mark in such churches as Laurel’s St. Paul Methodist (pictured below). It was in this complex landscape of neighborhoods dotted with bungalows and shotgun houses and modern schools and churches that the civil rights movement formed and activated around the state.
(From Buildings of Mississippi, published 2021 by the Society of Architectural Historians and the University of Virginia Press).
Edith Downing’s kindergarten was at 901 Poplar Boulevard, on the corner with North Jefferson Street.
Mrs. Downing’s husband, James Downing, was an executive with the Mississippi State Banking Department. A native of Lima, Ohio, Mrs. Downing attended the public schools there, Lutheran College, and graduated from Ohio Northern University. Later she took special musical instruction in Aberystwith, Wales, and in London. She was in charge of the music department of the Mississippi Institute, French Camp when she met and married James Young Downing. The couple moved to Jackson in 1912.
The Downings moved to 901 Poplar in the very early Fifties, and opened the kindergarten in 1951 or ’52. She and two other teachers, Catherine Lefoldt and Martha Taylor, held classes in a long, low building on the south side of the lot with a playground in between. The school building was a little shotgun with an “L” at the end with a one-way mirror where parents could watch their children at play.
As in all schools, everyone loved recess and the big green wooden jungle gym in the middle of the playground was a focal point for games. The May Day celebration featured a May Pole dance. The girls wore pressed, and probably starched, dresses every day. Students were often given worksheets, and stars were given for correct results. There were many “hands on” games where the children would begin an activity then move on to others in a planned order to stimulate their learning. A child’s birthday was celebrated with a party and he or she was told to throw pennies in a bucket to tell how old they were. Sometimes Mrs. Downing would split the double popsicles she served for sharing. Students also took turns churning cream in a wooden butter churn.
The kindergarten was warm and welcoming place, the teachers kind and attentive, and many of its far-flung graduates have remained close friends throughout the past 60 plus years.
Class of 1956-57: Bob Biggs, Graham Blue, Bill Brockman, Eddy Butler, Rick Carter, David Chapple, Laura Neal Dear, David Denny, Miriam Dickson, Kay Eisenstatt, Bruce Evans, Frank Ezelle, Karen Ezelle, Patty Farlee, Betsy Finger, Betsy Gordin, Lee Gotthelf, Gary Grant, Susan Haynes, Sarah Hendrix, Janice Hines, Bill Hollingsworth, Pam Howie, Jane Hutto, Sandra Jackson, Bob Lawrence, Harry Kirshman, Dudley Marble, Linde Mitchell, Joe Morris, Alan Orkin, Marianne Painter, George Reynolds, Roseanne Solomon, Ethel Louise Seay, Sally Sherman, Rusty Shields, Ely Siegal, Sue Stevens, John Studdard, Lynn Thomason, Tommy Underwood, Kathryn Weir, Willie Wiener, Robert Whitfield, Lina Yates, Yandell Wideman
(Contributors to this article include Bill and Nan Harvey, Cecile Walsh Wardlaw, Tish Hughes, Sally Brown, Patsy Shappley, Susan McRae Shanor, Michelle Hudson, Karen Ezelle Redhead, Susan Shands Jones, July Lane Douglass and Cindy Callender Fox, Annie Laurie McRee, Dr. Richard Pharr, Bill and Martha Mitchell Brockman.)
The other day my car was being repaired. I had it in the shop for an oil pump problem. I say it’s a car; maybe it’s a truck. I don’t know. It’s a twenty-two year old Jeep Cherokee with crank windows. Nothing fancy and that’s what I like about it. It was cold that morning so I put on my insulated boots with warm packs placed in each toe like hunters do, bundled up with my fingerless gloves, packed my painting kit, and set out walking around the block.
I saw a few people who might have thought I was indigent. I know the look. I’m loaded down like all I have is what I’m carrying. These things are my most valuable possessions. Walkers pass by not saying anything when, if I were dressed nicer and not for painting in the cold, they would probably say hi. I saw some people who recognized me and wandered why I was in the neighborhood. I explain I got married last March and we live around the corner. I’m out looking for something to paint. Things always look different on foot. Nothing is speaking to me yet. Then I come upon a painter friend of mine. We chat about the things going on in each of our lives and I reach down to pet her three legged dog. We say our goodbyes and as they are walking away I see a painting there.
I make a quick mental sketch of her and her companion. I begin setting up. I turn my AirPods on and begin listening to shuffling music. A car stops and a person is looking for some keys that may or may not have been dropped nearby. No luck. A young lady stops with a Polaroid camera and explains she is working on a series of photos depicting the neighborhood. Another car stops to drop off a meal on wheels to an older person. Then I get a call from my mechanic who says he’s going to need another day to finish the oil pump job. It’s okay. It’s all okay.
It’s been a little over two hours and I’m nearly through. It’s best not to get too through. I take a phone photo and post it like I always do. It feels good but I am not sure if it’s the painting or the process of seeing; but it does feel good. Then, I’m flooded with another feeling that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. All because an oil pump broke and a walk around the block.
If memory serves me correctly, the expedition to locate and raise Mr. Faulkner’s sailboat took place in the spring of 1953. For some reason Mr. Bill had left the boat at anchor at Cole’s Camp on the Sardis Reservoir during the winter months; and in the early spring, it was discovered to have drifted out into the cove and sunk in about eighteen feet of water. The recovery of the boat would not have presented any great problem had Mr. Faulkner called Memphis for a professional diver and rig; however, this would have been too conventional and commercial for his adventuresome mind. Therefore, he chose to make use of local talent, which I’m sure he felt would provide for a much more interesting day on Sardis Lake.
On the appointed morning Billy Ross Brown, a neighbor and close friend of the Faulkners, and I reported for salvage duty at Mr. Bill’s home. Also along was the Browns’ houseboy, Isom Cillum, who would act as all-round handyman for the project, as we were sure that we were in for some heavy work ahead. Upon arriving, we were surprised to find that a new member had been added to the party. His name was V. P. Ferguson; he was a student at Ole Miss, and I think it would be safe to say the “Veep,” as he was locally known, was something of a character. Billy Ross and I were quite familiar with the kimono-wearing, Koran-reading orchestra leader from the University, but we were admittedly quite surprised to see him here primed for the occasion. We were later to learn that V. P., upon hearing of the sinking of the sailboat, had called Mr. Faulkner and offered his services in recovering it. He explained to Mr. Bill that he was preparing for a summer excursion to the Caribbean to dive for black pearls, and that the Sardis outing would be good experience. I’m sure Mr. Bill discounted much of this story, but I’m also sure that he saw possibilities for an interesting day on the lake, and so invited him along. (Whoever says Faulkner had no sense of humor should have been along that day.)
The chief preparation for the outing seemed to have been the securing of enough food to satisfy the appetites of the would be salvage crew. Miss Estelle was in charge of this department and she had already sent Norfleet, the Faulkners’ Negro houseboy, out into the side yard with a large picnic basket of food. With the picnic basket safely secured in the Faulkner family station wagon, the five of us set forth to the Sardis Dam to begin salvage operations, To look over the crew-a Nobel Prize-winning author, two young college friends, a would-be pearl diver, and the faithful Negro houseboy—one could wonder about the prospects for the success of the mission. The route carried us through the University campus out Highway 6 West some eighteen miles, and then about seven miles up a gravel road to Sardis Dam. Our plan was to board the houseboat anchored at the dam and then to travel up the reservoir about five miles to Cole’s Camp, where the sailboat, as has been previously mentioned, lay some eighteen feet below the surface.
I think it would be well to pause here to say a few words about the houseboat which would be our base of operations for the day. Contrary to the general principle of shipbuilding (or in this case, boatbuilding), this vessel was built in the side yard of Colonel Hugh Evans of Oxford, many miles from any body of water. Being a neighbor and friend of Colonel Evans, Mr. Bill became inter ested in the boat and soon was a full-time partner in its construction. Two other families were involved in this venture, namely the Ross Browns and the Ashford Littles. After the completion of the boat came the problem of getting the rather large craft through the narrow streets of Oxford and out the main highway to Sardis Lake without tying up traffic for hours. It was decided to hire a professional mover from Memphis to undertake the task, and at the appointed time the boat was transferred by night to the lake. That morning the owners, their families and interested friends gathered at Sardis to watch her slide down the ways, and down she went, only to bob like a cork on a fishing line. It was quite evident that the boat was riding much too high in the water. The propeller screw did not reach the proper depth. Mr. Bill and his friends put their heads together and the solution was soon reached: put concrete in the bottom of the boat. Concrete was then placed in the hold, and the Minmagary set forth on her maiden voyage to reign as queen of the Sardis Reservoir for many years.
Mr. Bill was indeed master of his ship as we pulled out of the inlet onto the main body of water. After estimating the time of arrival at about an hour, and with Mr. Bill at the wheel, Billy Ross and I settled back in the deck chairs to enjoy the spring morning, I think we were doubly enjoying it because we were cutting classes at the University in order to make the trip. I know, too, that Mr. Bill was relaxed in his khaki pants and military-style khaki shirt, sitting at the wheel and smoking his favorite briar. In sailing and boating on Sardis, he seemed to find the peace and privacy that was more and more of a struggle to obtain after receiving the Nobel Prize.
V. P., always the nervous type, soon tired of watching the shore line go by and asked Mr. Bill if he could take over the wheel. Offering no objection, Mr. Bill let him have it and then joined us on the back deck to relax and discuss the problems of getting to the sailboat. Presently we were interrupted by the clanging of the deck bell and sharp commands being issued by the “Veep” sitting hard by the wheel.
“Full steam ahead; we are approaching the salvage area. We must have more steam,” he shouted into an imaginary tube that led to an equally imaginary engine room. The only person available to heed his commands was Isom, our houseboy turned cabin boy for the occasion, and he was thoroughly mystified by the whole proceeding. I’m quite certain that Isom thought Mr. Ferguson was “tetched in the head,” for he came back to me and said, “Mr. Howard, you know we don’t have no engine room down there, only that 75 marine engine and there sho ain’t nobody down there to hear him.”
It seems that V. P. had just finished some popular novel of the day concerning the rescue of a British submarine down in the South China Sea with all hands aboard, and through his imagination we were the crew pushing full steam ahead to make the res. cue. I believe Mr. Bill thoroughly enjoyed the fantasies of the “Veep” and he was soon resting again in his deck chair, probably assuring himself that he had made the right decision in bringing along Mr. Ferguson.
As we approached the entrance to the cove that led to Cole’s Camp, Mr. Bill took over the wheel again and steered us into position near the sunken boat. There was no real problem in finding the boat because of a safety line that was still attached from the sunken hull to a tree on shore. The plan of action was for us to take down a steel cable attached to a winch on the bow of the houseboat and hook it through an iron ring in the bow of the sail boat. After securing the hook, the idea was to crank the winch, thus pulling the boat to the surface. When this was accomplished, Mr. Bill planned to move the houseboat with the sailboat in tow to a nearby boat ramp, where we could wade in to maneuver the sailboat onto a boat trailer which would be backed into the water, The station wagon would be used to pull boat and trailer out and to Mr. Bill’s backyard drydock for repairs and overhaul.
All of this seemed relatively simple except for the fact that V. P. began complicating things from the start. For example, after his first dive he came up on deck, bowed in true Arabian Night style before Mr. Bill and exclaimed, “Oh, Captain Ahab, there is an octopus down below guarding the boat. Do you happen to have a machete aboard that might afford me some protection?”
Much to our surprise, Mr. Bill, with his usual composure, dis appeared below deck, came up with a machete and gave it to Ferguson, who immediately dived over the side with the weapon and disappeared below the surface while Isom stood by in wide-eyed wonder.
Just before noon, the hook was finally secured to the sailboat, but “Captain Ahab” decided to wait until after lunch to bring it to the surface. Isom broke out the picnic basket and began serving the food, keeping one eye, I’m sure, over the side for any sign of the octopus. Snakes were no problem for Isom, but an octopus was something else!
About halfway through lunch we heard the sound of someone on the other side of the lake trying to get our attention, and before any of us could answer, V. P. jumped upon the top deck and began wigwagging signals with a couple of towels. Before anyone knew what was going on, we observed an appreciable number of slightly disreputable looking fellows approaching, and within a short time the houseboat was boarded by what turned out to be the entire membership of V. P.’s dance band. It seems that V. P. had made slight mention of the expedition to his colleagues, and had in fact invited them to join him for lunch. They made short work of the contents of the picnic basket, and then they spread out all over the boat for an afternoon of sunbathing. I must say, at this point, that for a man who enjoyed his privacy, Mr. Bill seemed to take the whole affair in a very calm and understanding manner. The taciturn Nobel Prize-winner, in quiet and sly fashion, maintained his aplomb while V. P. all but took command of the situation.
The rest of the afternoon went by somewhat uneventfully with only the routine of securing the sailboat to the side of the houseboat and loading it on the trailer as described earlier. At dusk the sailboat was placed on the trailer and towed to its drydock in Faulkner’s backyard.
Some several days later Mr. Faulkner invited the group down to his house for a lawn supper, and I remember that the highlight of the evening was Mr. Bill’s dancing the soft shoe with Paul Pittman, one of the Ole Miss students.
William Faulkner spent many hours of sheer pleasure in the little sailboat that went to the bottom off Cole’s Landing and that was raised to sail again by Faulkner and a group of college students on that happy and carefree day. He usually referred to it as “the sloop.”
One afternoon while he, Miss Estelle, Hunter Little, and I were cruising, dark clouds appeared in the northwest and it was soon obvious that a squall was imminent. Fishermen, we observed, were scurrying shoreward. Faulkner calmly dismissed the idea of a squall and was maneuvering the sloop down the lake when a gust hit the craft and almost upset it. Life preservers were passed around. Faulkner declined his. Another gust took his hat, and Hunter went overboard to retrieve it and was almost drowned. After he was pulled aboard and matters were as much in hand as circumstances allowed, Faulkner called to me, “Howard, hand me a preserver. I am getting a bit chilly.”
In looking back over the years to the event just related, it becomes more apparent that the people who knew Faulkner best, outside of his own family, were the young people who grew up around the Faulkner home, as children playing with Jill, his daughter, later dancing and eating at her parties, and sharing many carefree moments with the man we all knew as Mr. Bill.
Just got another email alert about a plant being promoted alluringly as the 2020 Something of the Year. There’s always something.
I don’t generally fall for hype or jump on costly bandwagons that often fizzle. One I do follow is that of the Pantone Color of the Year. Not trying to be fashionable; I humor myself with it to keep my creativity on its toes by painting something in my garden with it and finding plants, pots, and accessories that coordinate with it. This year it’s Classic Blue. Ought to be fun.
My recent Plant of the Year email was from the Herb Society of America, feting “brambles” as this year’s highlight. Not just black, dew, or raspberries, but all of them. And to think of all the wild ones I pull every year by the Sisyphean gloveful from my garden! Not trying to be testy. I appreciate the sincerity and dedication of people who carefully winnow down the field, carefully examine the best contenders, and adopt a singular frontrunner to cheerily champion.
Usually the plant of honor meets multiple criteria such as proven survivability in a wide range of conditions with insect and disease resistance, exceptional beauty or extra good or long production, and unique growth habit; “pollinator friendly” is a current buzz phrase. And, cynicism aside, it isn’t always just a coordinated marketing ploy to push sales of a pricey new cultivar. Sometimes it’s a genuine effort to reignite a flame of popular interest under a precious heirloom or native plant worth being reintroduced into gardens.
The Mississippi Medallion program brings such plants to our attention but, unlike national promotions, promotes only those that are adapted to our state’s climate and soils and which could be produced and sold by Mississippi growers and retailers. For the most part they are all keepers, though a few are a bit tricky for newbie gardeners or are no longer being widely produced. You can find these outstanding shrubs, flowers, veggies, and others listed, with photos and descriptions, on the website of the Mississippi Nursery and Landscape Association (MSNLA.org; click on “programs” then Medallion Plants). Though over the years my garden has become overstuffed with plants brought to my attention through these kinds of promotions, so I farm new ones out.
My neighbor Jesse Yancy is a “guerilla gardener” who has transformed a neglected slice of dirt across from his urban apartment into a nearly overwhelming gallimaufry of vegetables, herbs, flowers, vines, bulbs, and anything else he can glean cheaply or free. They’re obliged to be robust because, though he’s a nurturing gardener he doesn’t have the resources or time to coddle. So I often hand over to him any newly-heralded plants that have been sent or given to me by promoters, and then watch from his curb. If they thrive in Jesse Lee’s conditions, and wows him with their performance, then I’ll give ‘em a go in my own garden the next year. Some favorites, such as African Blue basil, Tuscan kale, orange Profusion zinnias, Burgundy okra, blackeyed Susan vine, and the antique Mutablis rose, have become mainstays for us both, and are spreading amongst neighbors – a true indicator of long-haul success.
As for the herb society’s latest plant celebrity, I’m gonna pass. I usually wait for my wild dewberries to flower before I pull them, partly for the pretty and partly for pollinators, but leave just enough come back every year to keep this seasonal dance going without becoming too onerous.
Not being untrendy-grouchy, I just don’t want 2020 to become the Year A Trendy Plant Ate My Garden.
So far, I have written hardly anything to make you smile, which I certainly like to do, so I will tell a story featuring our late pal L.W. Thomas, one of the funniest boys who ever lived and a very nervous character who owned many peculiar phobias. For example, he was afraid of milk in any form. Also, when he bought a six-pack of beer at the Jitney Jungle, he would not touch the can with the price-tag on it (this, of course, was when things had price-tags). You could be sure L.W. would have a beer for you at his house, because there were always fifteen or so cans with the price-tag in his icebox. For Thomas, flying in an airplane was out of the question. Once, when he and Randy Cross and I flew on Delta Airlines to Washington, D.C., we had to render him comatose with three Ativan tablets before he would even get in the taxi to the airport.
Another late friend of ours, Captain R.A. Jung, owned a 1943 Taylorcraft tail-dragger (an old Army spotter plane) he named “The Yellow Peril.” She was canvas-covered (painted bright yellow) and could accommodate two persons in tandem seating. For instruments, she had an altimeter, an air-speed indicator, a horizon bubble, and a compass. That was it. We all enjoyed flying in this antique crate (sometimes we’d buy two or three bags of flour, then go hunting along the Illinois Central for a train to bomb), but, as you might expect, L.W. steadfastly refused to have anything to do with her. Finally, one evening at the local tavern, Captain R.A. Jung beguiled Thomas with the news that he had just installed a radio in the cockpit of “The Yellow Peril.” (Heretofore, the ship had been incommunicado, which meant the Captain could only land at strips without a tower.) This apparatus, claimed Captain R.A. Jung, made the old bird safe as a Chevrolet station wagon. L.W., girded with the bravado of a half-dozen draft beers, and no doubt embarrassed by his legendary reluctance, uttered the fatal words, “Why, there ain’t nothin’ I’d rather do than scale the airy heights with my old pal, Captain R.A. Jung. Excelsior!” After that, there was no turning back.
Next afternoon, a Sunday, the boys gathered at the Oxford airfield to see L.W. Thomas off on his maiden flight in the Taylorcraft. Having steeled himself beforehand with a half-pint of Cabin Still (no Ativan or Xanax in those days, and, at the moment, none of us had any reefer), Thomas squeezed into the cockpit and buckled himself in the rear seat, clutching to his chest a Gideon Bible he had swiped from some fleabag motel back down the line. Present as observers were Frank Walker, John Schorfheide, Steve Cook, Tommy Freeland, and I, each man enjoying the balmy day, each man uttering words of comfort and encouragement to our jittery comrade:
“C’mon, L.W.–if you crash, it won’t hurt–you’ll be killed instantly.”
“Don’t listen to him, pard–you’re back aft and may only be injured for life–”
“If that happens, man, try to keep your arms and fingers so you can play the
the guitar on the sidewalk by the bus station.”
“But . . . what if he’s only injured and the wreckage catches fire?”
“Good point! Lotsa guys survive a crash, only to perish in the flames.”
Meanwhile, Captain Jung ran through the pre-flight checklist:
Horizontal Stabilizer: OK
Loaded Revolver Under Seat: OK
Peach Brandy: OK
L.W. Thomas : Sitting quietly hating the Wright Brothers; hating Mr. Taylor who designed the Taylorcraft; hating all of us who, safely on Terra Firma, could afford to make light of hideous injury and death; most of all hating Captain R.A. Jung who, when satisfied of the craft’s readiness spoke up as follows:
“Awright, girls–knock it off and pay attention.” He rummaged around under his feet and produced a mare’s nest of wiring from which, after a few minutes of muted invective, he extracted two sets of headphones fitted with throat mics. The leather earpads were cracked and dry, like the antique Bakelite mics and the confusion of black wires that connected one apparatus to the other, then disappeared beneath the instrument panel where, presumably, they were somehow connected to the generator. Captain Jung explained that, while the device was not exactly a radio, it was a revolutionary, if makeshift, intercom system assembled from genuine WWII Naval Aviation components he’d discovered in a surplus store in East St. Louis, Illinois. As a result, the Captain pointed out, those in the cockpit would no longer have to scream at one another over the clattering of the engine and the wind howling through the wires and wing struts. L.W. Thomas–lucky boy!–was the first passenger to show up since the installation, and this flight would be the intercom’s initial trial.
Thomas revealed later that, in that moment, he did not feel lucky; his confidence was further eroded by the knowledge that Captain Jung had installed the rig himself. Not that the Captain wasn’t handy! It was he who built a muzzle-loading black-powder cannon from a length of steel pipe, so effective it could fire a dirt-packed tomato sauce can clear across the Mississippi River. His work with plunger-activated black-powder aerial bombs was pure genius. However, the Captain’s craftsmanship was generally applied to automobile repair, heavy machinery, and crude explosive devices; his experience with electricity was limited to hot-wiring cars in his youth. Thomas was aware of this deficiency, but his thought was, What could possibly go wrong with an intercom?
Now, to start the motor of the Taylorcraft, a ground crewman had to turn the propeller until he felt pressure on the pistons, whereupon that person would announce “Contact!” whereupon Captain Jung would flip the magneto and reply “Switch on!” whereupon the ground crewman would grasp the propeller blade and give it a heave counterclockwise. This is a very old-timey way to start an airplane, but she was a very old-timey airplane. After the engine was started and the prop spinning, pilot and ground crewman would exchange a hearty thumbs-up and “Cheerio!” (see illustration below), Captain Jung would take a draught from his flask of peach brandy, and off he’d go.
So it went on the day of L.W.’s first flight. We watched the little machine trundle onto the grass runway–in a moment, she began to roll forward–Captain R.A. Jung opened the throttle–the mighty sixty-five HP engine began to buzz–the tail came up–and in a moment “The Yellow Peril” was gracefully aloft and disappearing southward over the trees. Meanwhile, the boys walked back to the office to drink coffee and listen as the airfield manager, the late Mr. Jeff White, told us tales of flying in World War II.
Well, I started out with the intention of telling about the time our friend S. Cragin Knox beguiled L.W. Thomas into accompanying him to Texas to work on an oil exploration crew, and the foreman out there gave Thomas the job of driving the dynamite truck, which made Thomas very nervous indeed, especially when, one day, and without thinking, L.W. Thomas flicked his cigarette out the open window of the truck cab–but now I am all tangled up in the story of L.W. Thomas and the Taylorcraft. However, as I think about it, the two stories have a similar narrative thread. As a modern person (no offense), and especially a modern person (no offense) married to an Air Force fireman, you might question the wisdom of L.W. Thomas smoking a cigarette while driving a dynamite truck. Also, you might contemplate the photo above and ask yourself, “Should Captain R.A. Jung really be smoking a cigar in the cabin of a fabric-covered airplane swirling with gasoline fumes that is about to sail into the Wild Blue Yonder?” This behavior was perfectly routine in those times; today, it would most likely be considered poor judgment, if not moronic.
(At this point, I should insert an apologetic parenthetical. Beloved niece, you could not be blamed for assuming our gallant band were naught but a crowd of dissipated low-lifes and scoundrels. In fact, we were all in college at Ole Miss, save Schorfheide [a railroad detective on the Cotton Belt RR in Memphis] and Captain Jung, who, when he was not adventuring, worked as a millwright at a steel mill in Granite City, Illinois. Walker was an ex-Marine, Schorfheide and I were Vietnam veterans; Jung had served his Army time in Alaska as a ski-trooper; Steve Cook would become chairman of the graduate art program at Mississippi College. Tommy Freeland was a poet and intellectual from an old Mississippi family; he would grow up to become an excellent attorney, marry my ex-wife, and die of a heart attack at a tragically young age. S. Cragin Knox, in spite of his lowly beginnings slinging cable on an exploration crew, eventually became the State Geologist of Mississippi. As for L.W., he was a graduate student in theatre at Ole Miss, a musician, a restaurateur, and a fine writer. He died in his sleep at age fifty-two in ’02 as his beloved wife Jeanne watched by the bedside. Life was never the same for us after L.W. Thomas crossed the river, and I do not believe a man can own a higher accolade. The same can be said of Captain R.A. Jung, who was killed in the crash of “The Yellow Peril” on [fittingly] November 11th, 1976, just seven months after the events recorded here. These were lads who lived authentic lives, and I am proud to have been one among them, and I miss them greatly. Thus, though sometimes we were dissipated low-lifes and scoundrels, misbehavior was only part of the adventure.)
Anyway, since I am thus far into the airplane story, I will stick with it.
Time and again, we hear persons complain that Life is Unfair, and certainly it seems so at times. Some point to Fate; the Calvinist attributes every misfortune to God’s Inscrutable Plan; sensible people have no other recourse than to mutter the well-worn phrase, “Shit just happens.” Whatever one’s philosophy, it does seem patently unfair that events surrounding “The Yellow Peril” on that balmy April morning in ‘75 came to pass with poor ol’ L.W. Thomas, of all people, in the catbird seat. (As a writer, you will recognize this paragraph as intended to “stretch out the story” and “build up suspense” in order to delay the climax of the tragedy, so I will mention the wholly superfluous fact that, like old-timey barnstormers, Captain R.A. Jung always carried a number of wooden tomato stakes and a rolled-up bundle of cord affixed with colorful pennants like you might see at the state fair, a used-car lot, &c. so that, should he land in a cow pasture, as he often did, he could stake out a perimeter of wavy little flags around the ship. Remember that cows, though not very bright, are curious creatures; remember also that Captain Jung’s Taylorcraft was covered in a fabric treated with sealant [pilots call it “dope”]. Naturally, the local bovines would saunter over to investigate the big yellow insect that had buzzed down into their pasture; if Captain R.A. Jung neglected to set out a perimeter of wavy little flags to confuse them, the cows would commence to snack on the tasty, dope-covered fabric so that when Captain Jung returned from the nearby grocery with his sack lunch, he might well find a more or less portion of his fuselage gnawed down the the ribs. I always wanted to use this arcane fact in a novel, but never found the opportunity.)
In any event, but a few minutes after takeoff found our intrepid aviators at a thousand feet and crossing over the Yokona River. L.W. Thomas, of course, was not feeling intrepid. Below him lay the thin brown thread of the river, the greening woods, the checkerboard of cotton fields soon to know disc and plow, a sprinkling of white houses and, here and there, a wisp of cloud: truly a magical scene stretching to the blue hills and the world beyond. Alas, these aesthetic delights were not for Thomas. Later, he would freely admit that, from the moment the tail wheel lifted off the grass strip in Oxford, he shut his eyes tight and kept them shut. He white-knuckled the Gideon Bible and felt the rapid beating of his heart. He listened keenly to every variation in the motor’s rhythm and waited for the moment when it must surely quit altogether, all the while painfully aware that only a bit of wood and fabric lay between him and a thousand feet of empty air. Meanwhile, Captain Jung’s voice chattered amiably through the headphones clamped over Thomas’s Baltimore Orioles cap. Heretofore, L.W. had ignored the Captain’s observations, thinking them no more than the utterance of a madman indifferent to his own mortality. Now, high over the fields of Lafayette County, the Captain said something that made L.W. open his eyes and take notice: “Hey, man,” spake the Captain, “whatever you’re smoking back there smells like shit!”
This remark was an eye-opener for Thomas–first, because he wasn’t smoking at all, and, second, because he, too, all at once detected an unwelcome odor; i.e., the acrid smell peculiar to electrical fires. As the cabin began to fill with blue smoke, Thomas understood that the moment he’d feared was arrived at last, a realization confirmed by the Captain’s next announcement: “Well, hell, Thomas–we are on fire. Help me look for a place to set her down.”
Looking “for a place to set her down” was not among L.W. Thomas’s various array of skills. He’d never needed to “set down” from anyplace higher than his own bed, nor supposed he ever would. In addition, obeying the Captain’s order meant L.W. would actually have to look out the window! This he tried manfully to do, but the attempt was cut short when he realized (as he would later remark) that the distant ground, scary as it was from the sealed double-paned window of an airliner, was a hundredfold more so viewed through a vibrating half inch of cracked and oil-smeared plexiglass howling with wind. Thomas, heart palpitating, closed his eyes again and exclaimed “Oh, Jesus!” just as “The Yellow Peril” made a sudden stomach-churning drop. The Captain had chosen a field of broomsage nigh the river, and toward this he descended with dispatch, at the same time banking the ship hard over on her starboard wing in order to land into the wind, which direction he perceived by the smoke of a burning brush pile. The little machine hit hard, bounced high, hit and bounced again, and at last found her footing among the muddy ruts of the field. In a moment, she had rolled to a stop, whereupon Captain Jung shut off the engine and bailed out of the cabin door, pulling after him the still-smoldering remains of the intercom system, including L.W.’s headset. To say that Thomas was not far behind is to diminish the speed and agility of his exit.
Later, L.W. would admit that, once free of the cabin, he fell to his knees, pressed his cheek to Mother Earth’s welcoming bosom, and promised never again to leave her. It was, he said, not one of his finer moments.
For a time, Thomas and the Captain lounged under the wing, sipped peach brandy, and basked in the warmth of danger passed, peril overcome. Luckily, the Taylorcraft suffered no damage beyond a little bubbling of paint on the instrument panel; the intercom system, however, was hors de combat. One can imagine how, in that field to this very day, fragments of wire and Bakelite are turned up by harrow or plow, unseen and unlamented, their history lost to time like artifacts from a remote civilization. Here we must leave them, and here we must leave our tale of two gallant flyers–save for a final contemplation. When you feel safe, when the world seems in order at last and the Almighty has apparently wrapped you in His protecting arms–then look out, for the Cosmos is about to slap you up side the head. L.W. Thomas was still congratulating himself on his narrow escape when Captain R.A. Jung stood up, brushed off the seat of his pants, lit a fresh cigar, and said, “Awright, buddy–you ready to go?” Only then did Thomas comprehend that “The Yellow Peril,” having landed, must now take off again. With him aboard. True courage means that, when you’re scared shitless, you go ahead anyhow. This Thomas did, clutching his Gideon Bible as the ship bounced across the muddy broomsage field and struggled aloft. The last thing Thomas heard before he fell asleep was the brush of the landing gear through the greening branches of the trees.
 The generator was fixed under the starboard wing and had its own little red propeller. In flight, the wind spun the little red prop, and the generator generated.  When he told the story later, L.W. Thomas used a more colorful synonym for “makeshift,” i.e. “nigger-rigged.” Regrettably, the term has since fallen out of common usage.  In fact, we only had one; it was stoppered by a wooden plug so wouldn’t disintegrate; It made a most satisfying thump when dropped on an empty field, but when we landed, we had to get in the car and go retrieve it. The bomb in its experimental form wouldn’t hurt anyone, unless it hit him on the head. However, should any bad guys–Russians, Yankees, &c.–invade North Mississippi, we were ready to provide air support. Today, we’d be arrested as terrorists.  When I was a little boy in Primary School, certain children from poor families (known as “clay-eaters”) would eat library paste and even dirt from the playground to satisfy the cravings of vitamin deficiency. Perhaps this helps to explain cows’ tendency to chew on airplanes.  Originally called the Yoknapatawpha and so named in Faulkner’s novels and stories.