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[NOTE: Louisville writer Cindy Lamb recently asked me to contribute to a book she's putting together entitled Good Grief, Great Food: Last Suppers of the South, about the classic Southern funeral, and the tradition of comforting the bereaved with a bountiful spread of down-home comestibles. I told Cindy I didn't have all that much to say about food, but would like instead to contribute a piece about — to borrow the popular euphemism — my "final arrangements." It appears below.]
I've instructed my friends to throw a going-away party for me when I check out, and I'm confident they'll see to it that there are plenty of good eats on hand, and, knowing my friends, plenty to wash 'em down with. But my favorite request in regard to my final shuffle off this mortal coil has to do not with the grub and grog (excellent though I know they'll be) but with that most indigestible of articles, my tombstone.
When I was a tyke growing up in the late 1930s in Brooksville, Kentucky — which as everybody knows is the capital of commerce and culture of all of Bracken County — my dearest pal was a kid named James Hubert Hamilton, whose double-barrelled given names I conflated (say them aloud, and you'll see why) into the monicker "Shoobie." He's long since been known to tout le monde as "Jim," but for 65 years or so, I alone have persisted in calling him Shoobie, just as he's the last man standing who still dares to call me by my old Brooksville name, which is, I blush to say, "Sonny."
Shoobie and I lived on Church Street, only about half a block apart, and we played together all day long when school was out. It was our boyish ritual that whichever of us was released first from the breakfast table would run out into the placid street and holler, at the top of his piping little voice, "Hey Shoo-o-o-o-bie!" or "Hey Son-n-n-n-ny!" Thus began our days of frolic and leisure, mischief and delight.
Brooksville — "population 700 when they're all at home," as the citizenry liked (and perhaps still does) to characterize itself — was a wonderful place to be a child in, a tiny little island of a country town with half a dozen stores that stocked, among them, an endless array of all the fundamental necessities of life — candy bars and chewing gum and rat cheese and baloney sandwiches and Cokes and comic books and Popsicles — and what seemed to us a palatial courthouse at the epicenter of it all, and Shoobie and I had the run of the whole metropolitan paradise, all day long, every day. From the age of five or six, we knew each and every one of those 700 citizens as well as they knew us, and we could go, for all practical purposes, anywhere we wanted — and in those days we wanted to go ... everywhere!
Together, we prowled the courthouse all the way from the basement to the clock tower that topped it off, and sledded madly on Church Street Hill, and snooped on couples smooching in their cars out by the county rock crusher, and, in the heat of summer, pursued the horse-drawn ice wagon through the streets of Brooksville begging for chips of ice, or carried cane fishing poles on our shoulders to the resevoir like little escapees from the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Together, as we grew older and our pleasures grew more daring and sophisticated, we climbed to the top of the water tower — a hundred breathtaking feet up, a hundred steel rungs on the ladder! — and tested (and, thirty years later in my case, found wanting) the heady joys of tobacco. When we were thirteen or fourteen, Shoobie got the coolest job of all time, as popcorn popper and ticket-catcher at the New Lyric movie theater — but whenever he came down with chicken pox or strep throat or some other convenient affliction, I was his backup.
Mr. Bales, who owned the theater, also ran the Brooksville roller rink, and Shoob and I both worked there too, putting clamp-on skates on other kids, for tips. This being small-town Kentucky in the post-war 1940s, it will come as no surprise that we weren't exactly raking in the dough; but skate-boys got to skate for free, so for awhile there we spent more time on our wheels than on our feet, and soon we were--at least in our own opinion — the two best skaters in Bracken County. One Saturday afternoon, a new girl turned up at the rink, and Shoobie and I nearly broke our respective necks showing off for her. The new arrival — her name was Joyce Parsons — evidently found Shoobie's moves more edifying than mine, for they quickly became sweethearts, and today, going on sixty years later, they still are.
In 1948, at the end of my fifteenth summer, my folks and I moved to Maysville, twenty miles east. I had acquired a Bracken County sweetie of my own by then, so I imagined I'd be bouncing back to Brooksville like a bad penny — after all, what was twenty miles to a man in love with Patty Ann Redden? — but in fact it didn't quite work out that way. Maysville — "population seven thousand when they're all at home" — was Gay Paree compared to Brooksville's penultimate Podunk (Note to Brooksville: Excuse me, dear hearts, but that's how it seemed to me in 1948), and it developed that Patty Ann and I apparently weren't soul-mates after all, for, unlike Shoobie and Joyce, she and I forsook one another almost instantly after I moved away, and to my recollection we never laid eyes on each other ever again.
Just one month after my family's move to Maysville, I spent the weekend of my sixteenth birthday back in Brooksville, visiting Shoobie. On Saturday night, he and I put together four bucks and gave it to John Burton, the town's most notorious — and certainly its most odiferous — drunk, to buy two pints of Sneaky Pete (for the uninitiated, which we certainly were, Sneaky Pete is a nickname for extremely cheap and exceptionally nasty sweet port wine), one pint for John, one for Shoob and me. Like many households in Brooksville in those days, the Hamiltons didn't have indoor plumbing, so Shoob and I took our pint to the outhouse, where we glugged it down and, swacked to the gills for the first time in our young lives, dropped the empty bottle down the hole, into ... archaeology.
Nowadays Shoobie and I live about 75 miles apart — he and Joyce in Northern Kentucky, I and my wife, Hilda, in Lexington — which ain't exactly hollerin' distance, so we don't communicate as regularly as we did in the days of our ladhood. But we stay in touch, mostly by way of lengthy phone calls once or twice a year. And one night back in 1997, he called to tell me that he and Joyce had driven down to Brooksville recently to choose their burial plot in the pretty little cemetery there.
As it happens, many members of my own family rest in peace in that same cemetery, and it had long been my intention to request that when I buy the farm, the Brooksville Cemetery is where it will be located. Indeed, by the most remarkable coincidence, on the night Shoobie called, I was in the very act of writing a letter regarding my funeral instructions to my attorney, with whom I had an appointment in the next few days for a discussion of my will.
"I prefer," I had already written, "to be cremated, in the most efficient, least expensive, least ostentatious manner available. (I did live fast and love hard, but I didn't manage to die young; therefore I won't leave a handsome corpse, so there's no need to put it on public display.) ... I have no objection to a memorial occasion whereat everybody testifies as to what a splendid fellow I used to be (the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would be a nice addition), as long as the ceremony concludes with a party good enough to make me wish I'd been invited to it."
I had requested too, in the letter, that my burial plot be marked by a modest headstone — and late that night after Shoobie's call, I added this:
"It would also give me great (albeit posthumous) pleasure if the words 'Hey Shoobie!' could be inscribed, in small, discreet letters, on the back of the stone. (Don't forget the exclamation point!)"
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