Summers in Mis'sippi can be gawd-awful intense. But relief from the heat could be found just up the street from my Papa's house in a store where we bought cold soft drinks and cooled off a bit under the big slow-turning overhead fan. I called my grandpa "Papa" because my mama and her whole family called him Papa except aunt Minne, mama's oldest sister. Aunt Minne called him "Sugar." All my cousins called him Papa though, even aunt Minne's young'ns. Papa lived on the south end of town and had an enormous porch with steps that led to the sidewalk and beyond to the paved street. I think the whole world passed by that porch.
The drinks weren't pops or sodas, as people who talked funny called them. To us they were soft drinks, which were served cold. Papa didn't like the people who talked funny. He called them Yankees. Even then, I knew Yankees were bad just by the way Papa spit out the word when he referred to them. For good reason I learned later; the soldiers came to the farm where Papa had grown up and killed all of his daddy's live stock and burned their house and barns. They went on to burn the whole town and ended up killing some of the local men who tried to protect their women. I suppose it was tit for tat because there was a little cemetery just outside of town on highway 19 with board markers that had "unknown northern soldier" neatly carved into each one. I remember there were over twenty markers that had been there ever since I could remember. Although they were faded and hard to read, they were all standing neat, tall, and defiant. Somebody tried to keep the place clean. They cut the grass and tended a border of marigolds to preserve the reverence of the place. Papa said that it was those people that lived in the shanties over on the back streets that dead-ended into Randolph road. One morning when we were going to see Papa, I noticed that the markers had been kicked over, broken, and scattered-no longer marking a particular gravesite. Later that summer the fellow who owned the land began to use the plot to store manure cleaned from the stalls in the nearby stockyard. He mixed the manure with leaves and grass clippings to make compost. There's no trace of the little cemetery anymore.
Just listening to Papa talk you could tell he hated the Yankees still. I never understood, however, why he disliked Catholics - maybe the Yankees soldiers had been Catholics. Sometimes he would talk about the Dagos who ran the store up the street but I think he liked the old Dago man because they would talk sometimes and laugh together. It was the Yankees and Catholics who he didn't like much.
We emphasized "cold" when we asked for a cold soft drink because a country boy living in Sand Flat, Mis'sippi, didn't get many cold drinks except for iced tea. Heck, I was so country that I was nearly sixteen before I understood the significance of the word "soft" in soft drink. The ice for our tea was delivered every two weeks in a truck that leaked water all over the yard as the man with huge arms leaked water through the house carrying that big block to the icebox. Mama didn't grumble though, ice was one of the few luxuries she had in her life and she wasn't gonna let a little water on the floor ruin it. We kids would only get ice tea the first week. By the second week the fifty-pound block would be so gone that only the grown-ups were able to get ice in their tea. We kids still got tea mind you, it wasn't hot tea, nobody drank hot tea, and it wasn't ice tea either.
If I got up early enough when I was at Papa's I went out onto the porch to wait for the milkman. It wasn't long before he came down the street and I got to see his horse pull the milk wagon, which was what I really wanted to see anyhow. The milkman hardly ever rode on the wagon. I don't think I ever saw him ride up on the wagon but he must have sometimes. He took bottles of milk from the wagon and placed them in a hand carrier that held at least a half dozen bottles. Walking up to the houses, he exchanged them for the empties on the porches. Sometimes he return to the wagon to get butter or other things he carried after reading the note people left stuffed in one of the empties. The milkman wove his way from one side of the street to the other, going from house to house. Sometimes he walked between the houses to put milk on back porches, I reckoned. Maybe he was delivering milk to the houses that faced the street on the other side of the block because, to me, he sometimes seemed to have been gone an awful long time. I didn't ever get to know for sure where he went because Mama wouldn't let me off the porch by myself to go look, and she wasn't interested. Anyway, the horse moved up the street, stopped at the right spot where the milkman needed to exchange the empties for full ones then continue on up the street
and around the corner. I would have given anything to own that horse. A five-year-old couldn't deliver milk but the dream of owning that horse made my heart happy. I liked visiting my Papa.
The author is Mr. Ellis Ulmer Speed, a 1970
engineering graduate of Mississippi State University. He currently works for
the Defense Technology Security Agency in Arlington, Virginia.