My cousin, Lori Oxedine, posted photos of Uncle Jesse, my father’s oldest brother today what is his 121st birthday. He was the only one of six children born while my grandparents still lived in Statesville, a beautiful small country town about 20 miles east southeast of Lebanon where they moved in 1902. He was the largest, and in my memory the gentlest of a gentle clan of people. His smile could melt the coldest heart. The below is a poem written about the story he told me the last time i saw him in the mid-1980’s for the last time.
A wonderful man to remember.
Tennessee Steam Engine
Grandpa Cully and son Jesse
back in eighteen,
when my pap was four,
rode the train to Nashville
– a half day’s journey then,
fetching a steam engine,
the first portable saw mill in those parts.
Jesse was a strapping big man then,
a youth, not yet rounded with gut and jowls,
like when i knew him as Uncle;
when he told this story to me in eighty-four:
he wasn’t so strapping at 83,
shriveled into the baggy old man shapelessness,
pale cream complexion with wispy thin, pure white hair,
those eyes still sparking with mirth and caring
in the lazy boy rocker chair in his youngest daughter’s den
that November with the trees bare and grass
straw colored in the brisk sharp sunshine
of Middle Tennessee.
The trip was before Grandpa Cully
lost most of the fingers on his right hand
in that very same steam-driven saw mill on someone’s farm.
his hair had not turned white as it is
in the lone picture i have in the family book.
Uncle Jesse said Grandpa was wiry thin strong like my father
who sat at the other side of the den paying respect to the family,
while i listened to the tale.
Uncle Jesse said Grandpa Cully was more than
pulling his weight rousting the steam engine.
On the way back, driving that steam engine,
they couldn’t make it in one day:
Stopped the night
on a farm in Donelson Uncle Jesse related.
Pretty nice folks to put ’em up
without any idea who they might be.
had a good supper and pleasant conversation.
by my calculation the farm was
pretty close to where they built Opryland,
but the land was still country with
folks a lot more trusting than they are nowadays.
“When there’s static in the air and you can hardly hear
better turn on the radio of the Lord,”
A.P. and Mama Maybelle would intone.
Lonzo and Oscar, Lester and Earl, Foggy Mountain Boys,
even Minnie from Grinders Switch were real;
even Roy Acuff with his cave in Kentucky
would have made the show and held on till
the deep dark of three in the Nashville night
eating long after the opry closed for the night:
with coffee in thick mugs at Linebaugh’s
on Church Street downtown,
just down the hill from the Ryman.
Long after that shiny new steam engine belched toward
Lebanon from the Donelson farm front yard
by Grandpa Cully and Uncle Jesse
did they start the Opry at the Ryman,
even longer before Opryland
sprouted in its full festival of plastic country glory
in that self-same place
where the farm once was, which was
just before the pale, grown soft baby skinned old man
with sagging jowls and kind countenance
would tell me this tale
the last time i saw him.