James Jones: gardener extraordinaire

Savannah Morning News

April 17, 2016

James Jones likes to say he’s the oldest young farmer in Candler County. He’s 87. All he had to do to get famous – he claims – was to get old. He’s also wry, curious, a tease and not averse to trying new things. Last November he started writing stories for the Metter Advertiser about growing up in Metter, back when “all the stores stayed open until midnight and you could hardly get through the streets for all the people.” It was a casual time. “If there was a fire on Saturday we’d put it out on Monday,” he said, tongue firmly ensconced in cheek, but no one in the room who was listening believed him. He was just being James Jones, raconteur, storyteller, mischief-maker.

Jones is having so much fun with his columns he wants to publish them in a book.

“I told my wife Martha and younger daughter Suzanne they can use the proceeds to pay for my funeral,” he said with the slightest of grins. “Faye at Kennedy Funeral Home has agreed to bury me on credit until they can publish and sell the book.”

Later on he would say, “College and I didn’t get along.” So he did what a lot of people did back in the day when there was a draft, a dearth of money and a much easier access into the work force. He joined the Marine Corps, went to photography school, worked in a tobacco warehouse, got a job with the gas company, sold insurance for Life of Georgia and then started his own company, James M. Jones Insurance Company.  He wishes to this day he’d put more questions to his father, Lonnie Jones, who died young at 48. He was a World War I veteran who “got gassed” on the front line in France. He was a probate judge of Candler County and a correspondent for the Savannah Morning News.

Jones married his childhood sweetheart 69 years ago. Along the way in the marriage he learned to say, “Yes, ma’am.” He used to grow cucumbers and take them to market until customers became too picky, which reminded a fellow gardener standing nearby about why he doesn’t try to sell carrots anymore. People want them to be uniform, he said. They don’t want some small, some large. Someone else said a similar thing about people and excess grapefruit. “They don’t want to come out and pick them,” he said. “Either that or something about how they’re taking statins and can’t eat them.”

Now Jones helps organize the Good Earth Farmers club. This month it was at Harmon Woods’ cookhouse on Hwy. 129 South. The gathering starts promptly but when people arrive early – as this crowd is wont to do – they sit in their cars until 5:30 on the dot. That’s when the doors open and the night’s food starts to arrive. In no particular order in comes broccoli casserole, coconut cake, lemon meringue pie, chicken potpie, roasted root vegetables, fried chicken, cauliflower with currants and garlic, baked yellow squash and spinach/strawberry salad.

The meeting starts with a prayer from Jerry Larson, a retired county extension agent who quickly moved on to a detailed report on Muscatine grapes. That’s when Jones interjected, “We have the nicest coons. They put all the (Muscatine) hulls in a pile.”

Despite Jones’ claim of being the older farmer, fellow club member W.J. Joyner has him beat by 10 years.  When Joyner, 97, recently moved to a nursing home his daughter, who joined him at the meeting, said she was nervous about his future roommate.

“But we got lucky,” she said. “He is related to the administrator, who liked our idea of installing raised beds at the facility, raised to be wheelchair-accessible.” That will be the next project for the Good Earth Farmers club.

Joyner seemed pleased by that but he had another project in mind, something a little more experimental. The next day several people from the Good Earth group would work with Joyner to graft 200 tomato plants. Club member Alanna Brannen, who earlier told me about her moveable, in-ground worm buckets, said they would use Joyner’s homemade wooden block template with cutting grooves and labels to “prep the root stock and scions.”  They also planned to experiment by cleft drafting a few of the oversized plants and wrapping them with biodegradable rubber bands.

I was a little lost by the time they started talking about root stock and scions, kind of like how I felt trying to follow the high finance nuances in the movie, “The Big Short.” But I was in good company.

“He’s got the craziest ideas I’ve ever heard,” James said of Joyner. “You won’t believe the big things he thinks of to do.”


Laughing at old age

Savannah Morning News

May 6, 2016

If you can hang in there long enough old age can be pretty funny. You have to put in your years though. Otherwise you might be crying instead of laughing. OK, so I thought the sports team the radio guy in Knoxville was referencing was the Tennessee Balls (not the Vols). Made sense to me, if a bit on the crass side.

Then there’s the conversation my Nashville friend Susan couldn’t wait to tell me about. She was visiting her early-90ish mother, June, who was sitting around talking to another woman in “one of those places,” a term my mother used to use when she didn’t slip and call it a penitentiary.

“I used to teach school,” the other woman said pleasantly.

“I did too,” Susan’s mother said, also pleasantly, before she reconsidered her response and added quixotically, “I think.”

Susan and I did a bit of guffawing ourselves when we started doing the math to figure out how long we’ve known one another – or the last time I saw her mother. It became very real when she showed me a picture of June. Can’t say I’d be able to pick her out of a crowd.

I used to think it was all about the hair. People see gray, they see old, they see elderly, they see “put a fork in it and turn it over, you’re done.” Dye it and drop a few decades. Yes, it’s time and trouble but worth it, right? Then last month I spent a few days in New York City. This is a place where people are quick to give up their seat to you on the subway if you’re old or disabled. They’re trained or brought up right. Something. They don’t care how many steps you navigated going into the bowels of the city to catch the train. Except this time I was wearing a hat. It covered up the hair. It was a goofy hat, too, something I bought last minute on the street. It fit tight around the ears and was topped by a bunched up Mohawk-looking piece of fringe. No hair showed, grey, black or red. Nothing. But guess what? No one was fooled. No one took me for 22 or 35. People still popped up from their seats, asking compassionately, “Would you like to sit here?” Now I know: it’s the face.

Ah, well. Birthdays.  I just had one. They used to be a wee bit more exciting than they are these days. There was a time we would walk around with some kind of inner glow. “My special day.” Then the glow died down to a simmer. Then a funny thing happened. As the years pile on the glow is coming back (except maybe between two and four in the afternoon, the dead hours). We’re upright, we’re feeding chickens, walking dogs and trying to explain to a 4-year-old what “contrary” means.

Everything is grand (except when we read about what Andrew Sullivan calls this “dystopian election campaign” where he makes a credible case that democracy is ripe for tyranny; except for pre-cancerous skin conditions, except for words like procedure, treatment, diagnosis and power of medical attorney).

Everything is grand. We’re reuniting with cousins who live in faraway places. These are people we were forced to sit next to and like when we were growing up and going to Nana and Papa’s house for Sunday brunch – lox and bagels – even though we didn’t have much in common with them. Now they have become precious people in our lives. We knew each other’s mother and father.  We had the same aunts and uncles. We shared grandparents. We remember one another’s houses and first cars. Before he died last month, a dear friend of my cousin Melvin’s used to sit at a kitchen table with Melvin’s mother every Saturday afternoon and play cards while listening to the Metropolitan Opera – “brought to you by the Texaco Radio Hour.”

Last weekend I went to a wedding and was seated with a few people I didn’t know. When the man next to me started talking to someone on the other side of me I couldn’t help but hear and then join in on the conversation because it was one I had had a week earlier ago with my friend Susan. The conversation went something like this:

“How’s so-and-so? I haven’t seen her for a while.”

“So-and-so? Oh, she died.”

“What about (fill in the blank)?”

“She died, too.”

It’s funny and not so funny.

It’s real.