Are You Ready?

img086Here’s Brownie Criss, all dressed up and ready for an early 1960s Ole Miss weekend. Like everyone else in our family, her fall Saturdays revolved around that little ear plug in Russell’s left ear, snaking down to a Philco or GE transistor radio, usually on the back porch. In those pre-SEC Network days, you could pretty well estimate the score by the number of cigarettes piling up in the green beanbag ashtray by his chair. Close game, a whole pack of Salems. Runaway Ole Miss victory (which happened fairly frequently in those Johnny Vaught decades), just a few smoldering smokes. If he’d smile and wink at you across the porch, it was safe to go over and crawl up in his lap, because the Rebels were having a good day. If he had his eyes closed and arms crossed, it was best to go on outside and pick up some pecans or take a bike ride.

Russell never took a class at Ole Miss. I don’t know that he ever had the money to see a game as a teenager. He was one of those kids who got hammered by Depression and War and football Saturdays were meant for someone else, for boys with nice cars and more than one suit and some money in the bank. But somewhere along the way, on those fall weekends in the 1920s and 1930s Delta, the essence of the Ole Miss Rebels was engraved on his soul, and it never left. The words, “Hotty Toddy,” never crossed his lips and he never pulled against anyone else’s team except LSU, but he lived and breathed and soared and suffered with the Rebels until the day he died. I had a standing date with him for the Veterans Stadium games in Jackson during the early 1970s, and those are some of my very best memories. He’s pull up at my MC dorm, beep the horn, and ask me “Ready for some football, Charlie?” as I got in the car. Was I ready? “Hell, yes, damn right…..”

Tomorrow is as big a Saturday in Oxford as there’s ever been. I’ll be there with Russell’s grandson and I’ll try my best to be as even-tempered as he was, no matter the outcome. And I will send up a quiet thanks to the man who taught me that caring deeply about something that, honestly, is just a game, is OK. We’re ready.

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Bungalow Dreams

Howard Evans (right) and unidentified friend at Buckeye Cottonseed Oil Mill, circa 1920

Howard Evans (right) and unidentified friend at Buckeye Cottonseed Oil Mill, circa 1920

And another happy birthday to my grandfather, Howard Evans, who would be 120 years old today. In that picture above, he’s about 26 and climbing the corporate ladder with Proctor & Gamble’s Buckeye Cottonseed Oil industry. Within 2 years, he would be running one of their largest mills, just west of the Greenwood city limits, and that excellent job would allow him to make Jessie Evans’ dream come true.

It seems that Jessie, a child of the Holmes County countryside, had her heart set on a “bungalow” like the ones she had seen in movie star magazines. After years of living in rented rooms along Strong Avenue, Mississippi Avenue and on the grounds of the Buckeye, Howard and Jessie bought a shady lot on the far west end of Strong Avenue, right where the cotton fields began. The street was dirt but it was filling with nice middle class homes, and Jessie was pleased as punch to be building the “first brick bungalow in Greenwood.”

1212 Strong Avenue, brand new, 1922

1212 Strong Avenue, brand new, 1922

The Evanses and their three little girls moved into 1212 Strong Avenue in 1922. This cozy, comfortable house was the first home my mother, Sara, actually remembered, and she cherished her seven years there all her life. In 1929, Howard’s ambitions took the family off to Jackson and the beloved bungalow was sold. When Jessie and her five children returned to Greenwood in 1932, Howard was dead, and at least part of the family would share space with the Stott clan on East Washington for the next 28 years. The brick bungalow would be one of only two houses Jessie ever owned.

Howard with Tiny, Sara and Mamie, circa 1925

Howard with Tiny, Sara and Mamie, circa 1925

1212 Strong Avenue passed through many families and housed Greenwood Leflore Hospital administrators for quite a number of years. Its last role was as the WIC distribution center, but even that purpose dried up about ten years ago. All the time since, it has sat forlorn and empty, all but forgotten and quietly sagging in on itself. I got to where I avoided driving Sara down Strong Avenue, because she would look for the house, comment on its deterioration and the happy years she knew there, and then get very, very quiet.

The same west windows, 89 years later (2014).

The same west windows, 89 years later (2014).

As I mentioned last year on this blog, there’s a little glimmer of hope for the bungalow and plans are picking up speed. I hope to have good news, very soon.

Happy birthday, once again, Granddaddy. We’re looking out for your house.

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Still Fooling Around

Sara on the left with two buddies in Jackson, around 1936

Another April 1st rolls around, and this one would be Sara’s 93rd birthday. Hard to believe it’s been almost a century since the third of Jessie and Howard’s stair-step girls came into the world on Strong Avenue. It was such an appropriate arrival date, that April Fool’s Day, and she always cherished the uniqueness of her birthday.

Sara definitely had a streak of prankster about her, evidenced above in a Belhaven photograph from the mid-1930s. Who knows if those teenagers bothered to replace the auction sign or if it’s in the bottom of one of these boxes of Sara’s ephemera that sit up in my spare bedroom? I wouldn’t be surprised at all to run across it. So many odd tidbits have come to light over the past year: As Allan Hammons, Donny Whitehead and I have worked well into a lot of nights with the Greenwood history volumes, one weird coincidence after another has us all convinced that we have at least stretched the time/space continuum if not ruptured it altogether (with apologies to Steven Spielberg and Marty McFly). Long-lost photographs have turned up, letters have appeared, trinkets and mementoes that were desperately needed to illustrate some Greenwood event have just mysteriously turned up, always just in time and with no viable explanation. Our suspicion is that Sara is to blame for all of this magic and mystery. We’re writing books about Greenwood and she has, as always, inserted herself smack in the middle of the action.

Happy Birthday, Sara…..and please keep those April Fool’s jokes coming our way.


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Russell at one of WWII training camps before deployment to Africa and Europe

Russell at one of WWII training camps before deployment to Africa and Europe

Happy 97th birthday to my father, Russell Criss. He’s a cocksure 25 years old in that picture above, ready to serve his country as a medic in the 45th Infantry. The next few years would be spent in a hell beyond what any young man should ever endure.


Now he’s made it back home, and home by 1945 was 115 East Washington, Greenwood, Mississippi. That was where all those letters from Sara and Tricia and Mamie and Son and Jessie and Big and Uncle Roy had poured forth for four long years, carried from that safe corner to Sicily and Anzio and Salerno and Paris and Dachau and Munich. He’s a much, much older man in this picture, though still only 28. But he could still blow bubbles with Tricia and a neighborhood kid, and that was the attitude he carried forward through his long and happy life.

200px-45th_Infantry_insignia_(thunderbird)I’m going through some of the boxes of WWII materials now, and I run across the 45th Infantry’s Thunderbird emblem quite often. Russell and Sara actually made a trek to Oklahoma to visit the 45th Museum, and I plan to do the same one day. It was a proud division and I assume that there were a lot of brave, dedicated men who made it one of Army’s finest. But in my mind, 70 years later, it all revolved around one unlikely medic who spent his war saving lives and the rest of his life making me happy.

Hope it’s a Happy 97th, Daddy. Miss you.

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Heart of my Heart

Sara's Commercial Appeal photo and article, probably around 1960.

Sara’s Commercial Appeal photo and article, probably 1960.

Sara loved holidays. Even those that weren’t really holidays. Valentine’s Day was a perfect excuse to roll out teacake dough, made with just the right amount of red food coloring to turn it a soft pastel pink. She had heart-shaped cookie cutters in every size from one-bite to mega-heart, plus cupids and arrows. The teacakes rolled out of her old oven by the dozens, bound for room parties at Bankston and Granny’s house and even a few for us.

And boxed Valentines? Not in Sara’s house, no matter how much you begged for the pre-packaged Flintstones or Roy Rogers or Barbie brands. A real Valentine involved doilies and red construction paper and scissors and glue and glitter. It was a down-on-the-kitchen-floor project that didn’t end until every child has a personalized heart, ready to be stuffed into their shoebox on the big day. I never see a doily that I don’t think about those February Sunday afternoons and the scent of fresh-baked cookies and Elmer’s glue.

The Valentine cookies followed me to college, where my dorm friends learned early on to watch my MC mailbox for the little pink slip that meant “package to be picked up.” At Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s, St. Patrick’s Day, or any event that even loosely qualified as a holiday, Sara’s box jammed with appropriate teacakes would land in the post office and I would suddenly have a group of devoted friends trailing me back to Latimer Webb dorm. Sometimes I would find nothing but a sad little pile of pink or green or yellow crumbs in the bottom of the box by the time I cleared them out of Room 218. Sara thought that was hysterical and it simply enlarged her circle of admirers. And more than one of those girls has used “Sara’s Teacakes” in various church or civic club cookbooks through the years. True talent never dies.

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Snow Day

409 East Adams in the 1950s

409 East Adams in the 1950s

Our recent brush with snow and ice in Greenwood brings back memories of wintry weather on East Adams. It seemed that every year there was at least one truly useful snow event, although I’m sure my recall is faulty. Oh, but when it did happen, it was Christmas Day and the Fourth of July all wrapped into one big package. Cathy and I would hover at the kitchen window, praying and hoping that those fat flakes would continue to the point where Kathleen Bankston would declare “No School!” Sara was as excited as we were, pulling our Yankee cousin’s hand-me-down snowsuits out of the attic and cooking up vats of hot chocolate. Russell was always the voice of reason and gloom, with dire predictions that “Grounds too wet. It won’t stick,” or “Grounds too dry. It won’t stick.” I never did figure out his climatological methods and didn’t appreciate that he had to get out and drive in this mess, no matter how treacherous, because his customers needed pickles and ketchup, no matter what.

There was nothing in the world for a Delta child like waking up to several inches of pristine snow. The whole neighborhood emptied into front yards: Crisses and Gwins and Stiglers and McLeans and Eidmans and Shorts and Leflores and Toomeys, tumbling like bunnies in the drifts and hurling lumpy snowballs at each other until someone started crying and everyone realized that their fingers were starting to ache. By afternoon, someone’s dad had carried the whole crowd over to the levees behind Crosstown, where makeshift cardboard sleds soon wore out whatever snow was piled up there. And there was always one kid who, for some reason, had a real sled and a parent willing to hook that contraption up to the rear bumper of their car, sending us sailing down East Adams in a whirl of pre-litigation ecstasy.

Cathy, me, ?, Martha Gwin, ?, Chris Eidman in front of the Gwin's house at 407 East Adams

Cathy, me, ?, Martha Gwin, ?, Chris Eidman in front of the Gwin’s house at 407 East Adams

This has been a long and bitter winter in Greenwood and I hope it ends soon.  But I do hope for one more day, at some point in my life, to have a waxed square of cardboard on the levee,  just for one good run, one more time.

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Greatest Generation

img904The words written above the pictures say it all. Russell was spending one last day in Greenwood with Sara and the Evans family before he was shipped overseas. 26 years old, scared to death, desperate for a chance to live his life as part of this warm, welcoming community at 115 East Washington. Sara had turned down his marriage proposal, probably the night before, and he seems to be putting a brave face on for the camera.

img905This was Russell’s life for three years, serving as a medic for the 45th Infantry, the division that saw more combat days than any other outfit in the European Theatre. I’m sure there were more days than not that he despaired of ever making it back to Greenwood. And to Sara.

img954By the time Sara was doing her cheesecake routine for G.I.Jabber, Russell’s spirits had likely lifted, as the war was winding down. Still ahead of him was a trek into Germany and the horrors of Dachau. But he did make it home, to Greenwood, to Sara and her delighted family, with a Minter City wedding two years after this picture was made.

Russell never bragged or complained about his years in the service. He signed up six months before Pearl Harbor, willingly, without a draft notice in his hand. He gave up almost five years of his young life for his country, packed his uniform away (I never saw it) and went forward with his career and fatherhood. There were nights when I would find him in the living room, in the dark, no light except the glow of his cigar or cigarette. When I would go in to check on him, he’d reassure me and then send me out. And I’ve always wondered where his mind was on those nights. Perhaps Anzio, maybe Rome, hopefully not at the gates of Dachau.

Here’s to my father, my own personal hero, on Veteran’s Day.

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From Durant to the Delta

monument dedication aerial

On a sunny October Thursday in 1913, it looks like all of Greenwood has gathered on the Courthouse lawn to watch the unveiling of the Confederate Monument. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, spearheaded by the inexhaustible Lizzie George Henderson, had raised most of the funds for not one, not two, but SIX Italian marble figures to be carved and placed on pedestals on the southeast lawn. Their contract with Columbus Marble Works is lengthy and numbingly detailed, right down to specifying that the female figure on the west side was to be a “sure enough woman,” i.e., no winged muse of history or toga-clad ideal of femininity. None of that for Lizzie and her fellow dowagers, tough-as-nails matrons who could squeeze blood from a turnip and wield their husband’s checkbooks with impunity. They built monuments and libraries and memorial buildings in those days and had no time or patience with wilting violets. Their Confederate Monument would be the largest in Mississippi, clustered with foot soldiers and generals and gallant young men and rock steady women.

It is extremely doubtful that Mrs. Henderson and her high society buddies were aware of two young ladies from Durant, huddled together somewhere in this vast crowd. Olive West, 21 years old, had screwed up all her courage and resolve just a few years earlier, packing a valise and a knife-sharp mind as she set out for the new nurses’ training program at Greenwood’s Kings Daughters Hospital. Along with three other ambitious teenagers, she buckled down to learn about babies and bedpans, caring for the ill and the dying and honing a sense of compassion and competency which would be her hallmark through decades on the wards of Greenwood Leflore Hospital and dozens of private homes.

Emboldened by her older sister’s courage, Jessie West packed her Durant High School diploma and followed that same path down the hills to the Delta in 1913. A few months at a Memphis business college provided the necessary skills with a typewriter and a stenographer’s pad, and she quickly found work with Barnwell and Ashcraft’s insurance agency on Howard Street.

Looking at the size of this crowd a century later, it’s unlikely that the insurance office or the hospital had any business on this crisp October day. Several hundred Confederate veterans were in attendance and their grandchildren were the favored few who unwrapped the drapes obscuring the statues. Olive and Jessie were not members of that club, but claimed an even more immediate connection to the Lost Cause: Their father, Anderson West, was a cavalry veteran who had passed on to his reward just two years earlier in Durant. So these two ambitious young ladies knew very well the sacrifice and valor being memorialized on that long-ago day in Greenwood.

I have studied this picture and the others taken that day with a hopeful eye, wishing that I could spot my grandmother Jessie and my great-aunt Olive beneath one of those umbrellas or whispering to each other in the shade of the bandstand. No luck. But just knowing that they are somewhere in the crowd on that exciting day, beginning the long chain of generations that would call Greenwood home, makes me happy.

There won’t be any celebrations of the monument’s 100th birthday in October of 2013, as Those Who Are Easily Offended seem to have the rest of us hesitant to make a peep about recognizing art and history for what it is. But I’ll give a nod to those old statues on October 9, maybe even a discreet honk of my horn, wishing them another century of quiet vigilance on their pedestals.

Jessie West, circa 1913

Jessie West, circa 1913

Olive West Stott ("Big") by old Greenwood Leflore Hospital
Olive West Stott (“Big”) by old Greenwood Leflore Hospital

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Under Siege


As another July 4th rolls around, this seemed like an appropriate photo to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Siege and Battle of Vicksburg. The picture was taken (undoubtedly by Sara) on what looks like a summer’s day, 1960 or 1961. Cathy, Russell and I are at Fort Hill, where the tour of the National Military Park tops out on a dizzingly high bluff overlooking the Yazoo Diversion Canal and Louisiana stretching away in the distance.(Yes, that’s the canal and not the Mississippi River. The river up and left Vicksburg a century ago.)

That expression of abject terror on my face was not faked. I remember the day and that stomach-dropping sensation as we got out of the car on the hillside. This child of the Delta wanted no part of geography where the ground was right underneath your feet one minute and fifty feet below the next. This was not natural or sane and I was reduced to tears, disgracing that brand new Confederate cap on my head. Security was to be found at my father’s side, clutching his right leg in a death grip. Cathy has her perpetual Pollyana smile but she’s not too sure about this arrangement either, as she has Daddy’s tie clutched tightly enough to choke him. You can see he’s kind of tickled about the whole situation and, as always, he’s got that cigar lit just behind Cathy’s back.

Looking back at that day in Vicksburg, I wonder if it brought memories to Russell of his own war years. I knew he’d been a medic in the 45th Infantry, but as a child World War II might as well have been the Pelopponessian Wars. Do the math: On that bluff, on that day, Russell was only back from Europe for 15 years or so. He wasn’t scared up there at Fort Hill. He had stormed the beaches at Anzio when he couldn’t even swim across the bathtub, driven jeeps carrying generals and majors and sergeants through mine-infested forests, discovered dead children in bombed-out farmhouses and witnessed the madness of mankind as the 45th liberated Dachau. Probably more than any other visitor to Vicksburg on that long-ago day, he knew in his bones what the men who fought and died there had experienced.

Russell came home from that nightmarish service and went on with life. And that life was Sara and his two girls, who, as you can see, knew him to be strong and safe and dependable.

Remember Vicksburg on this 4th of July and especially those men who never came home to their girls, in that war and wars to come. I still go to the Military Park, not as often as I’d like, but I never, never get out of the car at Fort Hill.

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The Man I Never Knew

Another 28th day of June has rolled around, intensely hot and humid, as I am sure almost all of these days have been since that one in 1894. 119 of them, to be exact. It must have been a scorcher in McNutt, Mississippi, in that old courthouse where my grandfather made his entrance into the world. Howard McTyiere Evans was the fourth child of an itinerant Methodist preacher whose make-do parsonage was that repurposed Sunflower County government building. An odd beginning for a cryptic man.

I never knew my grandfather. None of his grandchildren did. He was gone in 1932, nine years before his first grandson was born and 22 years before I arrived. As I age myself and realize just how tragic the death of a 38-year-old father was and how that death continues to echo down the generations, I miss this fellow that I once thought of as a stranger, a lost soul who my grandmother never mentioned. But as I’ve worked on Sara’s memoir and this blog, Howard Evans has come to life for me, captured in her words as a sweet, affectionate and doting parent. I would love to slip back to those days of the 1920s when he sat down in the yard with his girls and read the funny papers. I’d like to be in his lap with Sara, laughing at Gasoline Alley and Little Orphan Annie.

The only house Howard and Jessie ever owned is slowly collapsing on Strong Avenue, forgotten by its owner and most of Greenwood. I’m working on a way to save it, and you will be hearing more about those plans on this blog. Stay tuned and tell me I’m not crazy.

I’ve never known what to call Howard Evans when I talk about him. But more and more, the natural name seems to be “Granddaddy.” So here’s a birthday wish, Granddaddy. I love you and I miss you.
Evans Album 11_0001

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