During these years, there were five constants in my life: moving; my dog, Buster; Dad; Mom; and my extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins.
Buster was my faithful companion from age 6 until he died the year I married and entered graduate school. I admired him for many reasons, chief among them the fact that he never realized how small and insignificant he was. With the size and digging proclivities of a fox terrier, he had the chest, legs, and ferocity of a bulldog.
Like the Flynts, he would fight anything that strayed onto his turf or insulted his honor, including one huge boxer many times his size. I watched as Buster positioned himself between the big dog’s stomach and front legs, biting its belly and throat, maneuvering left and right to stay beyond the boxer’s teeth as it tried in vain to reach him, until the larger dog finally broke and ran.
He was less effective protecting me from Dad. My father did not whip me often, but every occasion was memorable.
I am sure I deserved them all. I was spoiled, pampered, and selfish. But Dad used his belt in the white-hot fury of the moment. Off came the belt, he grabbed me by an arm, and I began a peculiar dance to keep my legs just beyond the belt’s reach. I learned to lean into the strike; the further away I moved, the greater the force of the belt. Staying in close minimized Dad’s striking power.
Because the incidents were infrequent, Buster reacted as if my father were a mugger and I his victim. Tail stuck straight out, teeth bared and snarling, Buster lunged at Dad’s vulnerable and heavily scarred legs. When he reached his target, Dad’s fury quickly escalated.
In time, Dad learned to aim the first blow at Buster, knowing a canine attack was inevitable. A couple of good blows and my protector tucked tail and ran, leaving me worse off than if he had not intervened in the first place.
After the fact, Dad was remorseful because he had whipped me in anger. That played to my favor, and I used my tears for all they were worth. Mom sided with Dad before the whipping and with me afterward, which made his case even less tenable. In time, he simply gave up.
In a thousand ways he demonstrated his love for me. The belt was just one of his ways.
Mom was more of a problem. She seldom whipped me and never in anger. But her psychological warfare was more effective. She quite calmly made me go into the yard and cut a switch for her, warning that if my choice was of insufficient size, she would whip my bare legs longer and harder. The switching was never as bad as the selection, cutting and anticipation. Nor was her remorse so great as Dad’s.
Dad was seldom home long enough to play ball with me or take me fishing or hiking. He was a workaholic. I was not athletic anyway, nor an outdoorsman, so it really didn’t matter. Besides, I had Mom’s full attention.
There is a saying in the Talmud that God created mothers because he could not be everywhere. The saying never fit any woman better than Mae Ellis Flynt.
Southern men love to write about their mothers. Usually they slobber right through the story until woman and mythology are indistinguishable. And it’s a truism in Dixie that if you insult a man’s mother, you had better be bigger, tougher or faster than the family you insult because they will test your manhood. More than one man has died for such disrespect.
I have read memoirs written by Southern men who confessed to all manner of sins, but never one that admitted to being a “Mama’s boy.” I was one. The evidence is inescapable.
Though I have never been an intellectual pacifist nor felt compelled as a Christian realist to renounce all forms of violence and war as Jesus commanded, I was either born a genetic pacifist or became one under my mother’s tutelage.
Dad demanded that I fight the boys next door who pulled my hair. Instead I began wearing a cap with long ear flaps to protect my head. I attribute this practical pacifism to Mom’s gentleness, her revulsion at cruelty and her belief that family and personal pride began with self-restraint.
The first test of her influence occurred in Augusta when an older, tougher, streetwise boy tried to pick a fight with me while I delivered newspapers. He called my mother a name. I hated him for it, but I did what she had told me to do: I rode off on my bike as he shouted “Coward! Coward! Coward!”
Had my father heard the conversation, he would have kicked my rear end or insisted that I kick the boy’s rear end. How could my violence vindicate my mother’s honor or his insult diminish her honor, I reasoned. Names shouted in anger changed nothing one way or the other.
Later my revulsion at hunting and the degrading aspects of high school football (one Dothan High football player delighted in throwing dirt in my eyes and spitting in my face when we took our three-point stance at practice) deepened my rejection of physical violence.
By the time I turned 15, I had rejected three ideals of Southern manhood: I would not kill animals; I would not fight other boys over family honor; I would not play football. Mother was pleased. Dad worried about me.
The Pinson cousins
Mom was also ever present as my Cub Scout den mother, my preschool Sunday school teacher, my shopping companion and my best friend. And our regular pilgrimages to Pinson provided my peer group. My cousins taught me many lessons, good and bad. And they were always fun to be with.
When we arrived in Pinson, I became reacquainted with outdoor privies, Mama Moore’s unique approach to beheading chickens and my cousin’s games. Nine cousins lived within a hundred yards of each other.
A creek ran parallel to Sweeny Hollow Road across from the store and occasionally flooded during rainy season. At other times I could help my cousins set out minnow traps to catch bait that Pop Fee sold to fishermen.
A hundred yards south of the store on Center Point Road lived Jan, Joan, Leo and Rex Hagood. A hundred yards to the east up Sweeny Hollow Road lived Patsy, Arthur, Jack, Donna Faye and Paula Moore.
There were moments of high drama, none more memorable than when Leo Hagood bought his children a Shetland pony that had a wild streak. When “Little Leo” mounted it, the pony began to gallop, heading directly for a tree, then dodging just before collision. It ran through the woods between the Moore and Hagood houses, then back again.
Little Leo was terrified, but his father just shouted, “Stay with him, son, stay with him!” The pony made four or five circuits of the trail, each punctuated by Leo’s admonition, until Little Leo finally spotted a patch of grass and weeds and dove for safety.
Not all memories are so funny. At the top of the hill where Center Point highway dead-ended onto Highway 75 toward Oneonta, the Rock House honky-tonk proved an irresistible temptation to Curt, Leo and Dad when they had had their fill of our antics. A few beers late at night turned into loud talk and more serious drinking, as well as growing anxiety for Mom, Ina and Virginia.
Fights were not uncommon at the Rock House, and men sometimes were knifed and shot there. When anxiety levels reached their zenith, the women piled us into a car and headed for the honky-tonk to retrieve our fathers. Knowing that the men would resent the embarrassing intrusion of their wives, the women dispatched Patsy as their emissary to persuade the men to come home.
My cousins and I bonded in childhood, separated in adolescence and renewed our friendship in adulthood. They paid me the ultimate compliment by asking me to perform their marriage ceremonies. I also helped conduct Ina’s funeral.