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Envelopes bring back memories
Without warning or explanation, the simple instruction was: “See that Dink NeSmith gets these.”
And with that, the visitor exited the White County News in Cleveland.
Three days later, our son, Alan, handed me two large envelopes from the stranger and said, “Let’s show these to Grandmother.” I escorted my mother into the room and settled her into a comfortable chair.
Before his brief preamble, Alan retrieved a box of Kleenex. Her grandson and I knew tears would be spontaneous as the contents of the packages were spread across her knees.
With one glance, her chin quivered as she dabbed her eyes with a tissue.
“It’s Joe,” she said softly, caressing his 1944 photo. It was snapped soon after her big brother and some of his sailor buddies had been scooped from the icy waters of the North Sea when the Germans torpedoed their ship. Marjorie Vines, my mother, was the second-oldest sibling. Billy and Bobby came years later.
Joe - they called him “Bubba” - was more than a big brother. When Howell Vines died young, Joe replaced his father as the family’s rudder. When his little brother’s promising high school football career was threatened by fumbles in algebra class, Joe and Billy huddled on the kitchen table, night after night, until algebraic equations were as easy to run over as linebackers.
Joe was born to teach. With the handsome ruggedness of the Marlboro Man and a gift for kindling inspiration, the students of Baker County High School were drawn to their principal. He taught. He coached basketball. Joe Vines made an impact in his tiny Southwest Georgia community that was the home of two economic extremes: the plantation rich and those barely scraping by.
Joe and his teacher-wife, Annabelle, were among the few in the middle. Their only child, a son, did not survive birth. But Joe also was born to be a mentor for boys. As soon as I was old enough to climb into his Jeep, I became Uncle Billy’s and Uncle Joe’s shadows. Uncle Joe never grumbled when I snarled his reel, but he always cheered when I hooked a bream or catfish.
He taught me that a bird dog can be a man’s best friend. Sitting in his lap, I learned to steer his Jeep. Before I was allowed to put a shell in my .410, he trusted me to retrieve the hunting buggy, while his English setter retrieved the quail.
Uncle Joe was a man’s man, but I once saw him crushed. He lost his campaign to be the county’s school superintendent. Years later, I was told that absentee ballots - from the graveyard - killed his bid. I believe it helped to kill my idolized uncle, too.
On the evening of May 12, 1963, Joe and Annabelle were in Eastman’s Stuckey Inn. Some speculated that he had been drinking. No doubt he had been smoking in bed. When the couple awoke, Joe gathered Annabelle into his arms to flee. In the smoky haze, he stumbled through the wrong door. They collapsed in the bathroom.
The next day at Wayne County High School, baseball coach Jim Collins knocked on Mrs. Mary Hodges’ door. I was summoned from her Latin class.
That was 47 years ago.
But as I watched my mother moisten and squeeze a second Kleenex, suddenly, it was yesterday.
Dink NeSmith is president of Community Newspapers Inc. in Athens. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. This column was printed in the Athens Banner-Herald.