Column By Ricky Harpole

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Powder monkey from tender age learned lesson in local politics

Enough time has elapsed that I feel I can pass on this tidbit from my mostly misspent youth to point out just how complicated Southern Politics can be.

Take a sheriff, for example. To stay in favor of his constituents, a successful sheriff must be part high-wire walker and part bronc buster with a touch of rodeo clown thrown in. L. Q. Brunt was one of them.

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I was sacked out in my room one morning recovering from a nasty episode of tick fever when Mama came in with that “What-have-you-done-now” look on her face.

“The Sheriff of Quitman County is out here and wants to talk to you,” she said. “What have you done now?”

Well, I had not done anything except have tick fever for about a month, but I was getting better and started to get up.

“Stay put, he’s comin’ in,” she said. “He just wanted to give you time to hide anything you might have lying around that he didn’t need to see.

That sounded better. Sort of.

The last time we’d met I was 13, working on my Daddy’s farm. I had ridden the Mayflower Mare over to Mr. Cotton’s to return (or rather replace) 10 sticks of dynamite that I had borrowed the week before. Sheriff Brunt was canvassing for votes with Mr. Cotton and apparently saw nothing unusual about a 13-year-old equestrian cowboyin’ around his county with a saddle bag full of dynamite.

I didn’t recognize him. He never did look much like a sheriff. All he said was, “Son, your hair will be gray as mine before you get rid of those beaver.”

I said, “Yessir, but we gotta keep tryin.’”

(We were both right.)

Well, he came in and found a stool next to my bed and inquired as to my health, which was much improved, then got to the purpose of his visit.

“Do you have any dynamite layin’ around you could spare?” he asked.

This could have been a trick question. I considered my answer carefully. “I guess as long as we have beaver, we’ll have dynamite.”

I figured he probably had a beaver problem. Why not? Everybody else in the county did.

“Well now, do you think you’ll feel up to settin’ a charge for me next Sunday morning about 10?”

This was beginning to smell.

“Just one charge won’t even interrupt a coffee break with them beavers. They’ll laugh me all the way back to my horse,” I told him.

“You won’t need a horse, you’ll need a boat,” he replied. “And it ain’t a beaver dam, it’s a corn crib.”

Now that was a curiosity. Why would the sheriff want me to get in a boat and blow up a corn crib?

“Don’t worry about it, it’s politics,” he said.

I said I’d think about it and get back to him.

“Remember, 10,” he said, and left me to sweat.

I was pretty sure the sheriff wasn’t a terrorist or a Bolshevik, but the way that some people had been misusing dynamite in this country at that time, and especially in Mississippi, I decided I had better go and inspect beforehand the proposed demolition site.

I found that corn crib to be occupied by the finest, shiniest, state-of-the-art whiskey still that had ever graced a farm structure since creation began. There was corn in there, not only cooked, but double rectified and bottled.

I called the sheriff and told him I was in.

“Remember now, 10 o’clock or it won’t work,” he said.

I said, “Politics, I guess.” He hung up. If he could have seen me, he would have winked.

The sheriff was in a local church promising to clean out the bootleggers when the corn crib departed Quitman County. They said the bell in the steeple rang twice and the windows rattled joyously. The good sisters in that house of worship smiled for a week, knowing that they had done the Lord’s work in going to “Mr. Bud” about that old still.

The men in the church knew that the women would give them some peace, at least until they rooted up another sin for them to chew on, and they smiled too.

The sheriff was happy because he had satisfied both parties. He was smiling all through the services. That left only the poor old bootlegger with 10 children to raise and a lot of voting relatives to satisfy.

Now people, at age 20 with ten years of demolition experience, I wasn’t about to light that fuse until I made a fresh inspection of the premises and also get one last look at that magnificent piece of machinery.

Lo and behold, it was gone! Presumably removed to a quieter spot in another county. After all, it was never in the contract to blow up a still, just a corn crib.

The whole community was saddened later that year when Sheriff Brunt lost the election by a narrow margin. We all felt we had done our part at the polls. Now that’s politics.

Politically speaking,

Ricky Harpole.