“I love your ribs”, said Billy Bob. “Y’all make ‘em right. Best barbecue in the state of Mississippi”.
It was true that Dot’s BBQ made the best ribs in Monroe County and probably in Lowndes and Oktibbeha Counties as well. Dot and her husband Murray entered all the cook-offs to get some publicity. Word of mouth was the only advertising they could afford, and the big DOT’S BEST MISSISSIPPI BBQ sign above her smoker on the high school grounds in Aberdeen plus the juicy, succulent, meaty ribs that were her specialty were enough to generate a good business.
“So when’re you going with me on that date you promised?” It’s been three months now.”
“I told you, Billy Bob, that I would only go out with you when you got a new truck and not before. I ain’t setting foot in that piece of shit you’re still riding around in.”
Billy Bob’s truck could have qualified for Mississippi Antique license plates but he never got around to it and didn’t see the purpose. Anyone could tell that his old Ford had been around since way before Vietnam. It had holes in the floor boards and the roof. The windshield had cracks in it that made the sign of Zorro and the Cross of the Risen Christ. The transmission had no second gear, so Billy Bob had to throttle it up in first until the chassis shook and rattled and the screws and rivets started to pop out, then wait until third gear caught, groaned, and made it down the dirt road to town or towards Tupelo.
There were dog hairs on the upholstery, coffee cup rings on the dashboard, and a smell of creosote and rotten catfish that no amount of Southern air could get rid of. It was no wonder that JoEllen wouldn’t ride in it; but he knew that the truck was just an excuse. She was still living with her old man in Caledonia and as often as she said she was going to leave the bastard, she never did. Besides, Billy Bob loved his wife.
Billy Bob made ends meet like most people in Monroe County. He cut firewood for the rich people out on the prairie, hauled odd-lots of lumber from the independent mill across the line in Alabama, repaired lawn mowers and sewing machines, repaired roofs, and cleaned gutters. His wife Betty was no different. She took in sewing, did hair, had a part-time cashier’s job at Kroger’s, and helped Dot out when she needed extra hands in the kitchen.
Few people would hire Billy Bob after he got out of the federal prison in Yazoo City, five years for dealing meth, but he paid his debt, made his name and found his way by giving an honest day’s work. He was smart and savvy, never let an opportunity go by, and knew that long hours and low wages were the price one had to pay for the ignorance and carelessness of younger years.
The thing of it was, both Billy Bob and Betty thought that they had a good life. They were making a good living and staying out of trouble. They paid little for the second-hand motor home they set up in the trailer park in Aberdeen, paid no taxes and were completely off-book not because of any fraud or deliberate tax evasion; but because they were paid cash for work. True, they had few savings, no Social Security or health insurance, and it was either a miracle or a tribute to the Ford Motor Company that his old F1 still ran at all.
On a particularly hot day last August a county social worker came by the trailer to explain the benefits that he and Betty were entitled to. Food stamps, for example, and a new health insurance plan spun off from Obamacare and the state. The county was offering a one-time amnesty on back utility bills and a special program of energy-savings and deferred payments.
Billy Bob thanked the lady politely, but said ‘No thanks’. She drank some sweet tea with him on the jerry-rigged front porch of the trailer, said her good-byes, and gave him her card.
It was not that these benefits were suspect – hidden costs, tacky benefits, more promises than delivery – but that he did not want to compromise his independence. He had never depended on the government and was proud that he had made his way on his own. His refusal was indeed a matter of pride, self-worth, and dignity; and although he did not formulate his objections strongly, he would rather cobble together three jobs, barter greens and and repair work, fix up his place with remnants and seconds, and bang around the county in his beater truck than take from Uncle Sam.
The Tea Party was very active in Monroe County and was as rock-ribbed and conservatively doctrinaire as any in Mississippi. They were academically sound and built on the principles of free enterprise, low taxation, and small government; were vigilant to expose any opaque government scheme that was insinuated into the affairs of the county; and were loud and uncompromising in their support of conservative candidates.
Government welfare created lives of endless dependency, lassitude, and hopelessness. People lived on entitlements, public assistance, and taxpayer charity when they were quite capable of working. The public schools were sinkholes of ignorance because welfare families were dysfunctional, socially marginal, and a drag on society. The head of the Tea Party, Hendrick Barnes, was no backwoods, cracker racist. He simply had lived long enough in the Delta and now in East Mississippi to see that poor communities remained persistently poor, ill-educated, and unemployable. He saw troughs of public money filled each year for these families with little impact whatsoever. In fact not only did families, building on the public’s largesse, not pull themselves out of poverty; but new families with little promise or significant contributions to offer kept coming in to the County as poor as it was.
It was time to dismantle inefficient government programs, direct tax revenues into building infrastructure, attracting industry, and creating jobs. With Biblical resolve and secular purpose he took no prisoners in his attempts to reform the county and the state. He battled to preserve and extend Right to Work laws and went to the barricades to defend against any union inroads.
He lobbied for the dismantling of the public schools, saying that after fifty years of civil rights and government intervention, they were worse off than they ever were. He dismissed the so-called ‘social imperatives’ of crime – the social, economic, and historical factors which contributed to anti-social behavior and fought for uncompromising tactics of law and order. He understood that faith was the foundation for moral behavior, and disregarded the ‘ill-advised notion’ of the separation of church and state. His church, the Third Methodist Church of Columbus, was a paragon of Christian values. It insisted on unwavering faith, absolute belief in the saving grace of Jesus Christ, and the importance of charity and good works.
Billy Bob Parker had nothing to do with the Tea Party, and although he would have subscribed to most of their principles and tenets, his belief in individual freedoms and enterprise came from a very different place. He had never read the Bill of Rights like Hendrick Barnes had, nor the Federalist Papers, nor the works of Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson. He had never gotten past the fourth grade and had learned the principles of liberty from his grandpappy, his church, and his neighbors.
Billy’s family had migrated to the Mississippi hills over a hundred years ago, searching for a better life than what they had in the hollers of West Virginia. They had heard stories of the rich lands of the Lower South, particularly in the Mississippi Delta, and made their way through canebrakes, swamps, and semi-tropical forests to Mississippi. What they never counted on was the cavaliers of the Old South, the gentry, the Southern aristocrats who owned all the land and thousands of slaves to work it. There was little to do for the white yeoman, so the Parker family retreated to the hills and a living as hard as any slave.
By sheer good fortune the preacher at the Parker church in Allworth was the grandson of a New England minister who had been schooled in the Puritan way. Faith in early New England was simple and austere and Pastor Lickens had learned his lesson well. The Protestant faith he transplanted faithfully in Mississippi was one with no spiritual idealism, no personal relationships with Jesus Christ, no shaking epiphanies or revelations. It was a religion of discipline, order, and flinty granite faith. God created man with a soul, said Pastor Lickens. He insisted that he learn right from wrong and lead a principled life; but he also preached enterprise, liberty, and independence. God provided the rules. Man was created to follow them. It was as simple as that. Each man was endowed with a unique individual spirit and he was under God’s injunction to find it and express it.
Pastor Lickens never talked of wealth and poverty. He never referred to the heirs of Delta plantations either pejoratively or admiringly. He did not blame them for the lot of hill families nor suggested insurrection or disobedience. The proud yeomen of Allworth as good as any man endowed with a divine soul and the ambitious human nature to thrive. There was little of the emotional and relational Christianity of the lowlands. The religion of Allworth was as stern and demanding as that of Moses.
The worldviews of Hendrick Barnes and the Tea Party and that of Billy Bob Parker were the same although they had their origins in very different places. Both were fiercely independent. Barnes’ sense of legitimacy came from the Founding Fathers and the Enlightenment – secular individualism within community. Parker’s came from the Mayflower Puritans and the stern religious teachings of Scotland and the North. God had freed them from enslavement and discrimination but for a price – their refusal to submit to anyone or anything but God.
Northerners continue to vilify the South. To them it is a land of bigots, ignorant Biblical literalists, racists, and cultural Philistines. While Southerners do indeed have a badly tarnished history, and while many of them have been enslaved by fundamentalist preachers, most are honestly and willfully conservative in the purist sense of the term. Billy Bob Parker for example keeps his distance from government because of simple religious principle, not firebrand, antagonistic politics.
Billy Bob is modest in his ambitions, but he is an American hero. The cobbled-together jobs of husband and wife have generated enough capital for them to start small businesses. Betty will open a hair and nail salon in Aberdeen and Billy Bob a BBQ take-out stand on Route 45. Both have paid attention to others’ financial and personnel management, know how to balance the books, drive a reasonable bargain, and cut costs. They want no government loans, grants, or subsidies. While many federal and state programs are far from handouts, for the Parkers refusal is a matter of principle; a matter of respect for Grandpappy Parker, Pastor Lickens, and the flinty New Englanders who taught them both.
Both Hendrick Barnes and Billy Bob Parker are ‘good’ conservatives. Both have arrived at their convictions honestly. They have considered faith, tradition, Biblical injunction, Protestant tradition, and the realities of a hardscrabble Southern life. They are neither narrow-minded nor doctrinaire. They are charitable and respectful of others, but up to a point. Neither one can tolerate political bombast or a renunciation of fundamental American values, Both pedants and welfare dependents are suspect. They both have intellectual and moral integrity. They are my heroes.