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June 5, 2016

The stories in this column will appear in the forthcoming book by Kirk H. Neely, Splinters: Tales from the Lumberyard.

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

Banjo Stark asked Uncle Jake one time how old he was.

Old Man Chester replied, “By crackies, I ain’t got no idear. When I was borned Mama wrote it down in the family Bible, but by crackies, Pa spilled likker on it before the ink had done dried good, and the figures all runned together.  Ain’t nobody been able to read it since.”

Whenever there was speculation about Old Man Chester’s age, the conclusion was that he was at least as old as dirt.

Old Man Chester’s teeth were dark yellow.  There were amber tobacco stains on the margins, and they were spotted black with decay.  Though he mumbled a lot, if a person spent enough time with him it was possible, though unpleasant, to observe his dental condition.  Several teeth were missing, but all that remained were tricolor.  Sometimes when a man was old, he would be called long in the tooth.  Old Man Chester was so old that his teeth were small stubs worn down by years of use and neglect.

Except when his was eating or drinking, Old Man Chester always had a cigar in his mouth.  When his cigar was actually burning, smoke encircled his head, hanging just under the brim of his old straw hat.  More often, Uncle Jake would just be chewing on the butt of a cigar with his stubby teeth.  When he grinned, his peg teeth gritted to hold the cigar in place.

Old Man Chester was a short, stocky man. His wore a straw hat to on his bald head, which was completely covered with freckles. He was unusually strong for his short build and his many years.  He always wore a long-sleeved shirt, khaki work pants, white socks, and old dress shoes with the toes cut out.  His feet hurt him all the time.  He was a Methodist but had been known to attend Tolbart Taylor’s Free Will Baptist Church occasionally.  “Gettin’ yor feets warshed on Sunday shore do feel good.”

Old Man Chester worked in the cabinet shop at the lumberyard.  When it came to millwork, he was a master craftsman.  He had only a third-grade education.  He quit school when he was eight years old to go to work at a sawmill.  It was there that he learned the feel and the smell of lumber.  The day Old Man Chester came to the lumberyard to ask for a job, Pappy gave him a sketch of a mantle piece.  Old Man Chester worked most of a day building a fine mantle.  He included fluted sidepieces, scrollwork, and dental work on the face board.  It was fine enough for Pappy to give him the job.

Shortly after Old Man Chester started working at the lumberyard, Pappy found out that he could not read.  The discovery came quite by accident.  Pappy had the daily newspaper spread out on the counter.

Pointing to a comic strip, he said, “Jake read this.”

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

Pappy asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you couldn’t read?  You read the drawing of the mantle piece.  You read the work orders we send you.”

Old Man Chester could read lumber dimensions and diagrams, but he could not read words.  He explained, “Mr. Neely, I can read writin’.  But, by crackies, I can’t read readin’.”  .

Jake Chester wore a pair of wire-rimmed glasses.  The lenses of his glasses were always covered with grease and sawdust.  It’s a wonder he could see anything.

“Uncle Jake, how can you see out of those dirty glasses?” he was asked.

“I’ve got good eyes, by crackies,” he replied.

Old Man Chester was always in debt.  He owned three wallets – one to keep his money in, another to keep his bills and overdue notices in, and a third containing only a few dollars to show his wife. He would work hard all week and spend everything he made on Saturday afternoon making down payments on things he did not need.  One day, just after my Daddy had started Croft Baptist Mission, he asked Old Man Chester where he could buy two floor fans to cool the church during the hot days of summer.

Old Man Chester said, “You ‘ens can get ‘em from me, by crackies.”

When Daddy went down to the Chester home that day after work, Uncle Jake took him to a barn out back.  The place was under lock and key.  When Old Man Chester opened the door, there was a storehouse of furniture and appliances, most with the tags still on them, all bought on credit.

“Why do you have all this stuff, Uncle Jake?” daddy asked.

“Bought it all on sale. Never know when you might need something, by crackies.”

Daddy bought the fans for the price on the tags.

Old Man Chester 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 Jake Chester the way flies swarm around road kill.  Though Pappy knew and generally approved of all of the tactics for collecting debts, he was annoyed with Jake’s creditors. They were so numerous that Old Man Chester couldn’t get his work done.

In desperation, Pappy made an offer.  “Jake, 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 Chester refused the offer, “Mr. Neely, I ain’t gonna do that.  All a poor man’s got is his credit, by crackies.”

One day, Old Man Chester was in the office drinking a Coca-Cola when the conversation turned to a then current television program, The Millionaire.  The program was a series of stories about people who had received a million dollars tax free from John Beresford Tipton.  The popular show depicted the different ways people responded to instant wealth.

Someone asked, “Uncle Jake, what would you do if somebody gave you a million dollars?

Old Man Chester took a sip of his Coca-Cola and a puff on his cigar and said, “I’d pay my bills as far as it would go, and tell the others, by crackies, they’d just have to wait.”

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