Smokey sweet smells of barbecue greeted us when Gerald and I stepped out of his pickup at Dixie Barbecue just west of the Jonesboro Square. Dixie Barbecue is locally famous and it has fans of former residents all over the country who deem a visit to Dixie a necessary part of any trip back home. It opens at 10 in the morning, and it is soon filled with retired men gathering to discuss the day’s affairs and exchange banter and reminisces.
I’m a late sleeper, so I was still at the breakfast table drinking my second cup of coffee and absorbing the news as I simultaneously read the Southern Illinoisan and listened to CNN when Gerald came in from his shop and suggested we go to Union County to meet up with his brothers and the coffee drinkers at the Dixie. Then we could go on down to see the river overflow from the Mississippi.
His knees and back were objecting to the long day he put in on the concrete floor out at the shop yesterday trying out his new log splitter. He achieved a woodpile for his new heating stove, and he was having so much fun that he wanted to keep at it today, but decided that would not be a very smart thing to do. He knew if he stayed at the farm, he’d spend the day out there again so he decided on a drive to the Bottoms. So faced with the choice of doing the housework I ought to do or to run around with him, I chose to tag along to the Dixie.
I hurried and got ready so we would arrive not too much after the place opened. I knew I’d see my as my brothers-in-law Garry and Keith, who would be taking a break from their morning’s work. Like Gerald, they are early risers. I also knew I would see my buddy Harlan.
Harlan is the youngest of the six Coffman boys who lived in our neighborhood behind the school house on a small farm. I remember when Harlan was born. I woke up one day and my mother was not in the house—perhaps for the first time in my young life. My sister Rosemary or my daddy or someone explained that Mother had gone down to her friend Zella Coffman’s house to help her with a new baby.
The Coffman family was entwined in many of my childhood memories. All the neighborhood kids gathered in their front yard to play Kick the Can. There were week-long Monopoly games in the summers and wonderful games of Sorry in their living room when the boys got that game one Christmas. Their family took the daily St. Louis Post-Dispatch and we took the Globe-Democrat, so every Sunday we kids exchanged the two papers so that we could read the two sets of colored funnies and I assume our parents the editorials.
My brother Jim and the Coffman boys had marvelous adventures together, it seemed to me. I can remember going to sleep with the night-time sounds coming in my open window of a game the older kids played called Barbaree Lost Trail as one group hunted for another group by hollering that phrase back and forth. Jim and the Coffman boys built a telephone out of tin cans and wire out in their barn. Jim kept his horse Tony that he rode up from Goreville in their pasture. Since Harlan and I were the youngest of both families and not always welcome in the older kids’ activities, we hung together.
At some point in our lives, we started playing Face Tag. When our mothers would call us to supper or our time together was over, we would each try to be the last one to see the other’s face and yell triumphantly, “Face Tag!!” We played it for years in our neighborhood and after evening church services at the Baptist church. While the adults visited in the evening after church, we would run in and out hiding behind the parked cars along the street trying to be the last one to see the other. Then being about five years older, I left Jonesboro and went off to college. Harlan played great basketball for Anna-Jonesboro and then went on with a scholarship to play college ball in New Mexico.
When Harlan and Carmen moved back to Union County after his career in the FBI, he became the county sheriff and I would see his name in area newspapers often. Finally we all retired and we began to see one another occasionally, and the game of Face Tag resumed. I knew I would be at risk today, but planned as we drove down that I must be alert at leaving time.
By the time Garry and Keith arrived, there were probably a dozen guys at pushed together tables, and Harlan was at the first table quite away from us although we spoke when we came in. We had been there quite awhile when a waitress came to our third table and handed me a neat white sack. Inside was a saran wrapped pack of sliced pork and a cup of Dixie’s sauce. I waved my thanks to Harlan because I knew who had sent it.
Quite awhile later, the first table began breaking up. I was really expecting Harlan to come back and sit down at our table and was slow to realize he was leaving, and of course he won our Face Tag game. I was left holding the bag and knowing I had lost.
We went on down to the Bottoms and gasped at the fields flooded from the recent rains which cannot run off into the already full nearby river. We drove around Gerald’s old Wolf Lake High School building now vacant and surrounded by the sprawling Schaefer enterprises that engulfs the village with its enormous inventory of huge machinery parts spread out on every inch of ground available—something you have to see to believe and as ugly as anything can be if you are not a machinery buff. Nevertheless, an impressive sight to know that people all over the world through the Internet find the part they need in that small village. Boys were riding bikes through the village streets among the houses crowded by the metal carcasses of dismembered machinery since Shawnee schools were called off with so many roads closed by flood waters.
It was now past noon. And we spotted one of the few remaining businesses in the town—a very small restaurant with a sign saying they served lunch. I love to go to non-chain eateries, but I have gotten us into some real dumps a few times—some dirty and a couple where we really weren’t sure we were safe as locals eyed us. But I like being in the midst of the hometown people who know where the coffee pot is and are at ease walking into the kitchen to visit with the cook. This clean Rendleman restaurant proved to be a winner filled with men in jeans who had either been sandbagging or perhaps dismantling heavy equipment for the Schaeffer business.
Despite its small size, there was a drive-up window where people who had ordered ahead could collect their food. With pennants of school colors, patriotic decorations, a couple of retired high school sports uniforms on the wall, and plenty of Cardinal paraphernalia, local sentiments were aptly expressed. The large folding tables had metal folding chairs saying they belonged to the Wolf Lake community center down the street.
Without much thought, I ordered a hamburger. The lone waitress-cook who worked at a fast pace with a pleasant expression despite no time for chitchat during this rush hour delivered us the biggest hamburger I think I have ever seen. It had taken a long time to be delivered, but I understood why when I saw the size of that patty cooked well done and leaving no fear of food poisoning. With onion, pickle, lettuce, and tomato on top of this humungous piece of beef, our mouths could not widen enough to encompass the meal on a bun and we had to start out nibbling the edges.
Next we drove up into the Pine Hills, a part of the Shawnee National Forest that is found throughout our river region. The narrow well-kept graveled road wound ever upward through magnificent tall trees as we looked down on the tree-filled leafy ravines on one and sometimes both sides of us. The green was encompassing until we came to the Lower Magee lookout past the Magee campground area.
We pulled off to look at the flood-filled LaRue scatters below and the Muddy River and the Mississippi River beyond. We went on to stop at Crooked Tree lookout and Horse Saddle lookout with their astonishing displays of the swamp lands below filled with the overflow. We watched the tiny cars going up Route 3 and the train on the track beside the highway all protected by the levee systems with roads on top of them.
We avoided the poison ivy ground cover but enjoyed the patches of violets (only one bloom that I saw) and the May Flowers with pristine white blossoms hanging beneath the bright green leaves. There were a few other small wild flowers I don’t know the name of. The only time we met anyone was fortunately at one of the wider lookout areas. The lady was talking on the phone and her large German shepherd was in back looking over the cab of her pickup obviously enjoying the forest sights and birdsong as much as we were. We went back down to Route 3 and traveled through Grand Tower and then on through Murphysboro and Carbondale and finally to Marion, where we split the grocery list and gathered what we needed for the coming month since seniors get a discount on this first Wednesday each month.
Erin, her dog Sadie, and a friend had been over fishing at Woodsong yesterday, and she came back tonight to get a load of clothes out of the drier she’d left. She got to enjoy one of Harlan’s Dixie barbecues with us at the supper table. Afterwards she listened and watched the Texas A&M softball game against Texas on Game Tracker with Gerald despite her disappointment that our part of the nation chose the Cardinal game on television instead of the softball game close to her heart. Since A&M won, there was quite a bit of hollering at Woodsong and she left a happy granddaughter when it was over. I’m still pouting a bit that I lost at Face Tag, but my sister phoned me tonight, and all in all, it has been a good day.
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