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Old Man Jeter and His Debts

April 8, 2013

Nobody ever called Ross Jeter by his given name.  If you were talking to him, he was Uncle Ross.  If you were talking about him, he was Old Man Jeter.  Ross Jeter was always old.  Most everybody agreed that he had been born old.   Even as a newborn drawn to his teenage mother’s breast, Ross was old.  His mother must have been astonished when little Ross was presented to her following his delivery by a midwife in a log cabin somewhere south of the Enoree River. He had no birth certificate, but judging by the looks of him, he was ancient. Whenever speculation arose about Old Man Jeter’s age, the conclusion was that he was at least as old as dirt.

Old Man Jeter was so old that his teeth were small stubs worn away by years of use and neglect. Several teeth were missing, but all that remained were tricolor.  They were mostly dark yellow, stained amber on the margins by tobacco and spotted black with decay. Sometimes when a man was old, he would be called long in the tooth.  Uncle Ross was so old he was short in the tooth.

Except when eating or drinking, Old Man Jeter always held a cigar clamped in the side of his mouth.  When he actually lit the stogie, smoke encircled his head, hanging just under the brim of his old straw hat.  More often than not, Uncle Ross just chewed on the butt of a cigar.  When he grinned, his peg teeth gritted together to hold the cigar in place. Ross Jeter was a stocky man, unusually strong for his short build and his many years. He always wore a straw hat to shelter his bald head which was completely covered with freckles. A long-sleeved shirt, khaki work pants, white socks, and old shoes with the leather cut out at the toes completed his outfit.

He was a Methodist, but Uncle Ross had been known to attend a Free Will Baptist Church occasionally.  Complaining frequently that his feet hurt, he sometimes laughed, “Gettin’ yo’ feets washed on Sunday shore do feel good.”

The day Old Man Jeter walked into the lumberyard asking for a job, Pappy handed him a sketch of a mantelpiece.  Jeter worked most of a day building a mantle that included fluted sidepieces, scrollwork, and dental work on the face board.  It was fine enough for Pappy to give him the job.

When it came to millwork, Ross Jeter was a master craftsman.  He had only a third-grade education, quitting school when he was eight years old to work at a sawmill.  There he had learned to savor the feel and the smell of lumber.

Shortly after Old Man Jeter started working at the lumberyard, Pappy discovered quite by accident that Uncle Ross could not read. Pointing to a comic strip in the daily newspaper spread out on the counter, Pappy said, “Ross, read this.”

Old Man Jeter answered, “You ’uns will have to read it to me.  I can’t make it out.”

Pappy asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you couldn’t read?  You read the drawing of the mantelpiece and all the work orders we have sent you.”

Ross Jeter could read lumber dimensions and diagrams, but he could not read words.  He explained, “Mr. Neely, I can read writin’.  But, I can’t read readin’.”

Old Man Jeter wore a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, the lenses of which were always covered with grease and sawdust.  It is a wonder he could see anything. Someone asked, “Uncle Ross, how can you see out of those dirty glasses?” “I’ve got two good eyes,” he replied.

Ross Jeter was always in debt.  He owned three wallets – one holding his money, another keeping his bills and overdue notices, and a third containing only a few dollars to show his wife. After working hard all week, he spent everything he made on Saturday afternoon, making down payments on items he did not need.

Just after starting Croft Baptist Mission, my dad asked where he could buy two floor fans to cool the church on hot summer days. Old Man Jeter said, “You ’ens can get ’em from me.”

When Dad went down to the Jeter home after work, the two men walked out back to a barn under lock and key.  Old Man Jeter opened the door, revealing a storehouse of furniture and appliances, most with the tags still attached.  All had been bought on credit.

“Why do you have all this stuff, Uncle Ross?” Dad asked. “Bought it all on sale. Never know when you might need something.” Dad bought the fans for the price on the tags.

Old Man Jeter was such a good worker that Pappy didn’t want to lose him to a better paying job.  Creditors swarmed around the lumberyard looking for Ross Jeter the way flies swarm around roadkill.  Though Pappy knew and generally approved of all of the tactics for collecting debts, he was annoyed with the presence of the creditors. They were so persistent that Old Man Jeter couldn’t complete his work.

In desperation, Pappy made an offer.  “Ross, I’ll pay you completely out of debt if you give me your word of honor that you’ll never buy anything else on credit.”

Old Man Jeter refused the offer saying, “Mr. Neely, I ain’t gonna do that.  All a poor man’s got is his credit.”

One day, Uncle Ross was in the office drinking a Coca-Cola when the conversation turned to the then-current television program “The Millionaire,” the series about people who had received a million dollars, a tax-free gift from John Bairdsford Tipton.  The popular show depicted the different ways people responded to instant wealth. Someone asked, “Uncle Ross, what would you do if somebody gave you a million dollars?

Taking a sip of his Coca-Cola and puffing on his cigar, Old Man Jeter answered, “I’d pay my bills as far as the money would go, and tell the others they would just have to wait.”

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