– Charles H. Spurgeon
“I find friendship to be like wine, raw when new, ripened with age, the true old man’s milk and restorative cordial.”
– Thomas Jefferson
One of the matriarchs of Mississippi’s Civil Rights Movement, Ms. Winson Hudson of Leake County often told me: “Old friends, they is best. But, if you can find a new one that’s fit to make an old one out of, that’s mighty good too.” I have never forgotten Ms. Hudson’s advice and have tried my darndest to put her wisdom to good use.
Friendship, when you boil it all down, is really just one long, continuing conversation with people we love and respect. It is a school for character, and a fabulous teacher at that, which allows us to learn in great detail and, over time, views, attitudes and temperaments that may be like, or sometimes unlike, our own. The noted Roman orator and Senator Cicero, who wrote perhaps the most enlightened treatise on friendship, insisted that what brings true friends together is “a mutual belief in each others’ goodness.”
I believe that to be an absolute. Of my many friendships, the ones that have lasted the longest have been with people whose integrity, humanity, empathy, and strength have endured our most difficult and turbulent times. On the rare occasions that I have lost respect for someone, or them for me, the friendship faded away rather quickly. “Remove respect from friendship,” said Cicero, “and you have taken away the most splendid ornament it possesses.”
Although all the great thinkers and philosophers from Cicero and Aristotle, Francis Bacon and Samuel Johnson, Emerson and Pascal, have described friendship’s substance far more eloquently than I ever could, I’d like to put these highfalutin philosophers aside for a moment and take a moment to share my view. To me, friendship, distilled to its basic essence, is simply one story after another, told with a valuable life lesson by folks whom we care for dearly and respect, and who care for and respect us in return. Few things in life rival the importance of friends, old and new, and the treasured wisdom their shared experiences impart.
I was fortunate to grow up at the feet of front-porch storytellers. Men and women, family and friends, who could tell a story and make you believe that you were there – right there – when old “Sally” pointed that early morning covey on the hillside, or when our treeing Walker “Rattler” treed the big boar coon in the bottom late one Autumn night. My people, my friends, they had – and many still have – the ability to make you see the beauty of a baby you never touched, hypnotize you with a song you’d never before heard, and mourn, grieve and cry for a woman you’d never met.
These folks and the stories they shared inspired me as a child and continue to inspire me to this day. They instilled in me a fierce desire to live the same experiences, have the same kind of adventures, and feel the same emotions. They made me give a damn about the world around me, and perhaps more importantly, the people in it. This is the power of friendship. When you are its beneficiary, you consider more carefully, think more clearly, and just start to feel a heck of a lot better.
A couple of weeks ago an unexpected blessing from some old and a few new friends arrived at my doorstep. I was sitting alone having an early morning breakfast of country ham and red-eye gravy at Oxford’s renowned old restaurant, “The Beacon,” when in walks my old buddy, Coach Billy “Dog” Brewer. More than a decade had passed since I had visited with my old friend, so we had a lot of catching up to do. As you may know, Coach Brewer played football at Ole Miss for legendary Coach Johnny Vaught back when We are Ole Miss was said with pride.* He was a player on some of the most decorated squads in gridiron history, and a damn fine player at that. Although I was only eight years old at the time and barely understood the game, I fondly recall hearing his name called frequently over the radio as my father, cousins and assorted friends enthusiastically cheered our Rebels.
My favorite memory of “The Dog” as a player, in fact, was born on Halloween night in 1959, incidentally a night that has haunted our beloved football program for decades. That Halloween night is remembered by most for a punt returned for a touchdown by Billy Cannon, as CBS so painfully reminds us every Fall when we hit the field against the purple and gold clad Fighting Tigers of LSU. My memory of that night, however, has nothing to do Billy Cannon, and everything to do with Billy “Dog” Brewer. That night, I sat in the living room of my childhood home in New Albany and listened as the radio announcer called Brewer’s name not once, not twice, but three times for taking the ball away from our hated rivals. We may have lost that night, but it wasn’t for lack of effort from The Dog. And, in case you don’t recall, Brewer and the Rebels defeated the Tigers in their rematch later that year in the Sugar Bowl. So there!
Several years later, Coach Vaught’s departure from the sidelines at Ole Miss left a noticeable hole in our once-storied program. That hole went unfilled for more than a decade, when finally, The Dog came home in 1983. Although he inherited a cupboard as bare as the one the “Right Reverend” Houston Dale Nutt left for Coach Freeze a few years ago, Coach Brewer molded those young men into a team capable of celebrating unlikely victories over the likes of Arkansas and even the mighty Vols of Tennessee. Coach Brewer restored respect in our program, and restored a bit of history as well, bringing back the “powder blue” helmets of the Vaught era. In the years that followed, Coach Brewer did more with less than anyone in the history of football. And, he did it all for his Ole Miss. For my Ole Miss. For our Ole Miss.
All bragging on my old friend aside, by the end of our chance meeting at the Beacon, we had decided to have a “get-together,” as we say in the South, with a few mutual friends at my hunting lodge located east of Como. By the middle of the following week, on the eve of Coach Brewer’s 80th birthday, the get-together was in full swing. Old friends together again, with new memories to be made. In my experience, all good get-togethers share two things in common: good stories and, perhaps equally as important, good groceries. The old friends gathered on this evening in particular did not disappoint in either area. In fact, just as The Dog did with that bunch in ’83, they exceeded expectations.
Our good friend, Belzoni planter and businessman, Jimmy Sandifer, supplied the main course: beautifully marbled ribeyes, which were as tasty as they were thick. Darnell Lewers of the Como Steakhouse lent his expertise on the grill. Batesville businessman, Ray Poole, of the famed Ole Miss football family, treated us to some very old and very good Kentucky Bourbon and a hearty supply of Russian Vodka. My daughter-in-law, Kate, made a scrumptious “Delta Salad” as only a Delta Italian girl can. Our Como buddy, Richard Walden, even convinced his precious mother to fix her highly acclaimed and sinfully delicious dessert, aptly named “Chocolate Sin.” Of course, a meal of this caliber deserves a proper blessing, which was provided by our friend and fellow Rebel, Father Don Chancellor of Holy Innocents Episcopal Church.
Then came the stories. Batesville businessman and philanthropist, Bob Dunlap, entertained us with a true, yet unbelievable, story of a fella who had trained a raccoon to tree squirrels. That’s right, a squirrel-hunting coon. Coach Brewer regaled us with the story of how he once “tried” to ride 1941 Triple-Crown winner, Whirlaway. Preston Hansford, the lone Golden Eagle in the group, shared stories of his own glory days catching passes at USM from none other than Brett Favre. And, of course, we all shared our memories of one of the wildest, most colorful and lovable characters any of us have ever known: Vernon Studdard from Columbus, who caught passes in super human fashion from Archie Manning while at Ole Miss and later from Joe Namath while with the New York Jets. Old friends telling stories, continuing the conversation.
Perhaps one of my favorite moments of the evening arose from a story about how that ’83 Ole Miss team knocked off the Tennessee Volunteers. Batesville businessman and perhaps Mississippi’s finest horseman of all time, the world cutting horse champion Lee Gardner, sparked the tale by asking Coach Brewer how on earth he managed to get Greg Walker to block All-American defensive end, Reggie White – who later went on to a Hall of Fame career in the NFL – on that memorable day. The Dog broke out in a shining grin as he reminisced about telling Walker “don’t even worry about blocking him. Just get in that big ole boy’s way!”
I watched my young friend, Wes Ehrhardt, and my younger son John Calvin as they listened in earnest to their boyhood hero’s colorful tale. I couldn’t help but smile as my mind wandered to the thought of these boys sharing The Dog’s story at gatherings like this one for many years to come. A special evening on so many levels, born out of the simple, yet oh so special, bonds of friendship.
Aside from the sure grace of a loving God, my two boys, and perhaps my old bird dog “Chicken,” my greatest blessing in life has been having an abundance of friends. And, nights like our recent get-together always remind me of how fortunate I have been in that regard. Thank God for friends, the stories they tell, the laughter they bring, the songs they sing, and the priceless memories they provide.
*Thankfully, under Coach Freeze, the much-maligned phrase is finally being restored to its former glory.