To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.
Mississippi beckoned us. It was time to trek east. To Collins and the heart of the South. Home to the Brooks, Norris, Smith and McCarty clans. Where Gertrude Smith once colored the world with creativity from her Red Barn Gallery. And where catfish go to camp. Kevin (remember, Johanna’s brother and fellow kid-wrangler) and I had decided to caravan to Mississippi together. Their driving route from Allen skimmed by Winnsboro so we decided to meet up at the McDonald’s in Mineola, about 35 minutes south of my sister’s house. We would then drive east on I20 to Jackson where Hwy49 takes you straight into Collins.
When we hooked up with the Brooks bunch the kids were excited to see their cousins again as they get along great.
|"You come here, often?"|
After a couple of stoppages on I20 due to accident/roadwork we decided to stop for lunch in Shreveport instead of Monroe as planned. It’s always an experience taking any kids into a Cracker Barrel. If you don’t know what that is – it’s a restaurant chain that specializes in southern cooking, offering great breakfast meals as well as lunch and dinner dishes. The founders were smart to build a store full of stuff kids and women love to buy between the front door and where you get seated. It’s especially hard when you have to wait for a table, as we had to do, as all those toys, clothes, hats, trinkets and funny slogans on a variety of stuff beckon like a siren’s cry: “Buy me. Buy me. You need me. You REALLY need me! Don’t listen to your father, what does he know.” Luckily, outside each Cracker Barrel, you’ll find rows and rows of rocking chairs (also for sale) and enlarged checkerboards. We retreated quickly outside until our table was ready. I’ve always wondered if anyone actually buys those rocking chairs.
|Cracker Barrel Front Porch|
Avery, Olivia and I left Cracker Barrel before Kevin. It takes longer to get a 2 and 5 year-old strapped in than my kids who can buckle themselves. This got us ahead on the highway but I had to stop and get gas on the other side of Monroe and then, of course, five minutes after that Avery decided he HAD to go to the bathroom and so we had to stop again.
Kevin, with a larger gas tank, was able to steam ahead of us by about fifteen minutes and got to Collins first. We weren’t racing but there’s always that tiny bit of competitiveness that’s in all of us so getting there that far behind was a bit disappointing.
|Grandparents, Grandkids and Me|
Wanda and Tom Brooks, or Raymond as his family calls him, have a home on what is called Baker’s Hill, the original property of Wanda’s now passed father Percy Smith, who purchased the land after leaving Collins to go make money only to return to his hometown to become a landowner. He raised cattle and sold gravel but eventually opened up a service station and café along Highway 49 that was adjacent to the land. When alive he sold an acre or two to his daughters Annette, Antje and Wanda. The son, Wayne, is a story best told another time, if at all. For purposes of this story Wanda and Tom bought some acres on Baker’s Hill one meadow over from their parents homestead and built a little house intended to be a retirement cottage. It is a 2-story Victorian style home with the bottom half a garage and a two- bedroom, kitchen, bath and small office upstairs. It was designed to allow for either a renovation of the garage into additional rooms or add on to the side if more space was needed.
|Red Barn Gallery|
|The Brooks House|
|A long way from home|
The small quarters, as it was, posed a problem when the gang of grandkids, plus two dads showed up because of the limited sleeping accommodations. After careful negotiation (not really) Avery and I got the master bedroom. Kevin and Cooper got the other bedroom and the girls and Grandparents got the living room sofa and air mattress. Avery and I lucked out but we weren’t complaining. It was only for three nights.
My mother-in-law plays the part of Southern matriarch very well, even though she’s lived most of her life outside of Mississippi. Her mother, Miss Gertrude, was a stately Southern woman who always made sure everyone was well fed and comfortable. I recall the first time I met her – my first trip to the Magnolia State after Johanna and I got engaged – we arrived at breakfast time as we had driven all night from Texas (something we became fond of doing – if you know the topography along the route you’d understand). She prepared a large Southern breakfast, complete with eggs, sausage, grits, biscuits and gravy and probably more, I can’t recall. I do remember that the food kept coming and not wanting to seem disrespectful I kept eating even when my stomach said otherwise. I literally could feel the food itching up my throat because it had no other place to go. Wanda kept the tradition her mother set and always cooks up great meals that always makes you feel at home.
|Wanda and her grandbabies|
Thomas or Tom or Raymond or TRB or Poppa was career Army who worked himself all the way to Command Sergeant Major of the Recruiting Brigade. Even though he retired several years ago he keeps close to the Army, having worked in a civilian capacity for many years since. He currently is ending a stint for a contractor at Ft. Gordon, Georgia.
|"Sure Poppa, whatever you say."|
|Ft. Sill beer stein filled with love.|
The tight living conditions in the house with four crazy kids warranted a lot of outings/activities with some that did not require paternal supervision. The dads needed a respite but that had to wait because the kids got up early and were itching to do something. The first involved Wanda’s red scooter that she purchased to be able to get around to her sister’s houses while in Mississippi. The kids all wanted rides, even while still in their bed clothes and I think Avery most of all as he likes all things with wheels. They all took turns on the scooter with Kevin the designated driver. All except Olivia who was brave enough to sit on the scooter when parked but not so much in motion.
|Ashley & Avery Waiting for Uncle Kevin and the scooter|
|Born to be wild|
|Hey, it's a mini Cooper|
|If you turn it on you'd go a lot faster, Olivia|
|In line at Grand Paradise|
There was also a separate area – a large gradated pool with several easy slides that sat up a slight hill and which was separated by a very hot concrete walkway. I pretty much stayed with Avery, Kevin with Cooper and Nana with the girls but when Avery and Ashley wanted to go on the big slides Kevin and I would accompany them. These kinds of rides are both joyful and scary for me. I enjoy the actual inertia thrill but there’s always a bit of fear of getting hurt, which I did happen so I’m not paranoid - I got a few leg burns and my privates got an unexpected jolt that was not that pleasing, I should say.
|Ashley & Olivia water maidens|
|Avery gets daring|
|Nana, Olivia and Ashely on the lazy river|
Avery was reluctant at first to go on the big slide, but since no-fear Ashley was going on it there was no way to avoid it - he couldn’t be showed up by a girl so he manned up. It didn’t take long for him to lose any fear and was hooked as soon as the mat slid down the slide. This opened up Pandora’s Box as he now became a water slide junkie. He does have a need for speed. I bet he becomes a surfer or Navy airman when he gets older. Olivia was daring and tried one of the more scary slides the little ones weren’t allowed on but she preferred floating down the lazy river. I had a scare while floating down the river on a dual float with Avery as he nailed me in the face with his arm knocking out one of the lenses to my glasses. At first I thought it fell into the water, then, luckily, I discovered it wedged between the float and me. Otherwise, I would have been one-eyed Rich for the rest of the day.
|That's a long way Dad...who do you think I am, Michael Phelps?|
|Kevin and Ashley|
|Me and the kids|
We decided to go back to the house for lunch and forego the overpriced food they sold at the concessions. Our day pass allowed us to exit and return. This also gave the kids some rest time out of the sun. We returned to close the place down. See an aerial view of the park here.
When we returned to the house we found out that Poppa had a stressful day due to a large gust of wind that blew the glass deck table over, smashing it into a zillion pieces, which then had to be swept up. He also couldn’t get the engine to their VW bug to turn over and I think there was something else that went awry as well, but I can’t recall exactly what that was but according to Tom it was a pain in the butt.
|Hey, look, I'm in a bug|
Once we had dinner and cleaned ourselves up after a day in chlorine we all ventured over to Annette’s house, Wanda’s sister and a retired schoolteacher. She invited us over for watermelon and though we were tired it was the only time we would be able to see family. Annette only lived a few miles from Tom and Wanda’s house in a nice wooded area. Not only were we able to see Annette and her husband Bob, but her sons, and Johanna’s cousins, Shane and Dennis Thorton, along with Shane’s wife Kathy and Dennis’ 5 year-old daughter Emily. Also, there was Annette's other son Brian's son Jacob. who is in his early 20's. We gorged on watermelon and visited for a while but then it was back to the house to get the kids to bed…always an interesting prospect.
|Cousins at Annette's house|
|Don't mind if I do.|
|A Mississippi tradition...yummy!|
Since Kevin and the kids and Wanda were leaving Sunday morning, Saturday became the only day the men could get in a round of golf. Tom had called his brother Billy, who now is an avid golfer, to arrange a meet up in the morning at the local course. Both Tom and Billy got hooked on golf when I left my clubs in Tom’s possession when Johanna and I moved to Manhattan right after we got married. I didn’t think I’d play much in the city and they would have taken up space in our tiny apartment. While Kevin, Tom, Billy and I attempted golf Wanda took the kids to the movies in Hattiesburg, a good 30 minutes from Collins. They ended up seeing Turbo. Wanda’s sister Annette was supposed to go along with her, but that didn’t happen for some reason. A storm had blown through during the night and it looked like it was going to rain again, but I had only played golf a few times since leaving Dallas for New York so I was eager to play and a little rain wasn’t going to stop me – the others agreed. We got in 18 and it only rained on us for a few holes. I was definitely rusty and even though I hit some nice drives my golf draught really showed. But as they say, any day you play golf is a good day.
Once we finished our round we returned to the house to get cleaned up and east some lunch. Kevin really wanted to have an early dinner at a Mississippi staple, the fish camp. He arranged with Wanda to meet us at Mack’s On The River, which was off Hwy 49 on the north side of Hattiesburg. It started raining a lot more heavily and we got into a traffic jam on the way down – it seems a semi was on its side in the medium and they were trying to get it out. On the way back we would go the back way and avoid the back up. Mack’s is on the Bouie River and is a lot larger than the typical fish camp, which is usually just a hole-in-the-wall where you get a lot of fried catfish and maybe some slaw, beans, and okra. This joint was far more touristy, with a big seafood buffet full of all kinds of fish, shrimp and fixins’. Olivia loved the shrimp and Avery had a big bowl of macaroni. I stuck to the basics.
|Olivia fills her plate up at Mack's|
We ventured back home during a deluge but once back the rain subsided and the kids were able to engage in some activities, those of which their momma would not immediately approve of, I don’t think. But she wasn’t there so…
|Annie Oakley takes aim|
|Olivia learns to shoot.|
|Avery of Nottingham|
I think everyone was wore out by the time the sun went down, though it took a while to get the kids asleep but Pixar helped a lot. “To infinity and beyond”=sleep. It had been a long day but we all had our own fun.
|Look what you do Pixar...put kids to sleep. Thank you.|
On Sunday Kevin and his kids were heading back to Texas and Wanda was taking a flight out of Jackson to return to Virginia. We were staying over until Monday morning when Tom was leaving to drive back to Georgia so it was mostly taking it easy.
|Cooper the lounge monster.|
|Artsy shot of Olivia and Ashley|
|Shane, come back. Come back Sh...we mean, Dad, come back Dad.|
Avery wanted some more target practice so we got the BB gun out again to take some shots. Even Cooper tried his luck. But before they packed up and headed out Poppa had to dole out the Army shirts and, of course, the group photo with the grand kids.
|Nana, Poppa and the grandkids|
|Percy and Gertrude Smith gravesite|
Once we got back to the house Poppa took Avery out on the tractor before getting it ready to place in the garage.
|"Green Acres is the place to be..."|
Dinner was easy because Wanda had pre-made some spaghetti and meatballs. We had a pretty relaxed evening with the house a lot quieter. On Monday we got up, cleaned up, packed up and got on the road. I wanted to have enough time to stop by Ben Wheeler, Texas – outside Tyler – to see an old friend and co-worker from my ad agency days who had moved out there from Irving. But that’s for next time. The trip back was uneventful, which is a good thing sometimes.
(Next on A Road Trip Adventure Across America: Catching up with an old friend, August heat and saying goodbye to Texas)