To understand the
world, you must first understand a place like 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?"|
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|
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
|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.
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."|
If you’ve been reading the previous entries you know he is a Vietnam
veteran and the kids visited Ft. Sill where he trained before going overseas. They presented him with the beer stein
we got while visiting Ft. Sill.
The kids were excited to give it to him and I think he knows its
|Ft. Sill beer stein filled with love.|
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|
The main outing planned for Friday was the water park on Friday. Grand Paradise happened to be next
door, built by a friend of the family.
It was on par with a Hurricane Harbor, though maybe a bit smaller but a
place all the kids were eager to visit. Nana, Kevin and I drove the half-mile next door and got there
close to opening at 10am.
|In line at Grand Paradise|
Paradise wasn’t cheap but since it was all on Nana I kept very quiet, but I
hope she knows we are very grateful. The park had four large water slides, two
of which the five-year olds could go on, a lazy river that drifts around the
park and in the middle a younger kid-friendly play area with easier slides and
a large bucket that periodically would fill up and then tip over dumping large
amounts of water on those below. Oh, what fun.
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|
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
|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.
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!|
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.
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|
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…
Bored kids are never very appealing and so we tried to come up with things to keep them entertained. Kevin asked
his Dad about the whereabouts of a BB gun within earshot of Avery. Well, if you mention “gun” in front of
Avery he gets all excited, to his mom’s lament. Of course, he was all over getting his Poppa to get out the
BB gun, which he did and that was enough for another hour of entertainment
until dark. We set up a makeshift
target and Avery took lessons from his uncle. He and Ashley took turns hitting the target. Then Avery got daring and was able to
shoot down leaves off the tree…pretty good shot.
|Annie Oakley takes aim|
|Olivia learns to shoot.|
Avery also had fun with a toy bow and arrow set that Nana
bought while in Hattiesburg - the kind with the suction cup arrows. He was told the only place he could
shoot was at the glass doors to the deck.
With the guns he got in Ft. Worth he could now play both sides of
cowboys and Indians.
|Avery of Nottingham|
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.|
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|
While Tom took Wanda to catch
her flight in Jackson the kids and I headed to the cemetery to see the graves
of Mamaw (Gertrude McCarty Smith) and Papaw (Percy Smith), their great
grandparents. We were given vague
directions so it took a while but we finally found the graves. Avery never knew them but Olivia had
fond memories of our trips here while we were helping Gertrude build her art
business: The Red Barn Gallery.
We’re hoping to ship all her art out to California so we can help get it
all out into the world and make the world a better place.
|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..."|
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)
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