Some said it was the fault of Curtis Tappmeyer. Others blamed the fiasco on Sister Beulah Clark or our friend Grady. Still others named Sam Huddleston and Jimbo Boynton as the culprits. I suppose you might even say, when you get right down to it, that the old general himself, the Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest, was responsible. My Aunt Mary, a hardshell Baptist, insisted it was all predestined to happen. And Howard Huckaby, the only educated member of our community, likened the events to the actions of the Greek Furies.
Whichever the case, the whole sorry episode led to the banning of baseball at Brice’s Cross Roads, and that, I’m convinced to this very day, cost me my chance to play in the big time.
It all started with the monument. That’s why the general may have been to blame. On June 10, 1864 old N.B.’s cavalry surprised the hell out of General Sturgis’s Union forces at Tishomingo Creek and Brice’s Cross Roads and claimed one of the most celebrated victories in all of Confederate history. The oldtimers who sat on the front porch of my father’s general store, just across the road from the monument, whittling or playing dominoes or checkers and spitting tobacco juice into the dust and gravel, recounted the story over and over, sometimes for visitors and feature writers from the Memphis Commercial Appeal or the Chicago Sun Times but mostly for their own amusement.
“Yes-sir-ee,” they would say. “Old Forrest sent them Yankees a-scamperin’ back to where they come from. And with a bayonet prickin’ their ass at every step.”
They loved to tell how Sturgis force-marched his army for seven days from Memphis hoping to engage Forrest and thus protect the supply lines for Sherman’s march to the sea. And how, after the ambush by Forrest’s cavalry, Sturgis’s army, its tail between its legs, made it back to Memphis in just three days. Of course they were traveling light on the return trip, having left behind most of their wagons and cannons and supplies, and several hundred corpses and prisoners (as the monument recorded) to boot. No doubt about it, the oldtimers related, old Nathan Bedford really kicked some Yankee ass that day. Why, to listen to those stories, you would have thought, as all of us kids did, that the South had won the whole war.
Anyway, they built a monument to commemorate the battle, and surrounded it with a lush green, perfectly manicured lawn and a six-foot steel-wire fence. Then they erected a flagpole and stationed cannon on each side of the monument and planted a historical marker with a map of the battlefield and got the park listed in the National Register of Historic Places. So that, by the time Gene and Sonny and Cootie and Joe Nathan (who was named after David’s best friend in the Bible) and James and Billy Joe and Hugh Ray and I and all the rest of our gang came along, Brice’s Cross Roads had become a popular tourist stop for civil War buffs and historians; and the local farmers and unemployed factory workers would sit on the store’s front porch, munching on their hoop cheese and crackers and moon pies and sip on their R.C. Colas while waiting for their wives to come home from their jobs at the shirt factory in town, and bemusedly watch the out-of-state visitors walking the grounds and retracing the troop movements in General Forrest’s greatest victory.
But it was not the historical and military significance of the place that attracted the kids of the community to the park. It was that wide expanse of neatly trimmed lawn, that green jewel among the dry, dusty yards and fields—an ideal layout for the pickup games we played every chance we got. Even the high school and town park playing fields scattered across north Mississippi had bare dirt infields, so the Civil War park at Brice’s Cross Roads, though no larger than a Little League diamond, presented a temptation too grand to be resisted. And, again unlike most of those other fields, ours had a fence, one close enough to occasionally power a home run over and tall enough to lean against to snag a high fly. When we didn’t have the ten or twelve players needed to field two opposing teams, we would play makeshift games by bouncing the ball off the monument. Its broad surface, with its decorative curves and angles, would ricochet ground balls, line drives, and pop flies in all directions. For us kids it was a perfect baseball setup. In fact, it seemed to us at ages nine and ten and eleven that the sole purpose of the Civil War had been to provide us with this magical place to play our favorite sport.
The only obstacle to our fun was Curtis Tappmeyer. He was the custodian of the park. The story was that he had secured the job because he was a disabled veteran of World War I, though no one seemed to know exactly what his disability was. He seemed healthy enough to us kids, especially when he got his dander up. A short, rotund little man with sharp, piercing eyes and a limping gait, he lived in a small frame house on the lot adjacent to the park. All day long (we were convinced) he stood at his window, peering around the curtain and just waiting to rush screaming and swearing at us kids if we dared set foot upon his sacred ground. (Years later when I first witnessed a Billy Martin tirade I was reminded of the temper tantrums Curtis Tappmeyer used to throw.) Though his disability (he said) prevented him from doing any work more strenuous than standing idly by while Nippy, the black gardener, mowed the grass and raised the two flags to the top of the flagpole—the American one, to the disgust of the diehard oldtimers, flying above the Confederate one, and quite frequently both of them mounted upside down—it was health be damned when he came charging out of his house and across the field to terrorize the Stan Musials and Ewell Blackwells and Joe Dimaggios of Brice’s Cross Roads.
But we country kids of Brice’s Cross Roads were no less ingenious and pragmatic than our counterparts in Baldwyn or other neighboring towns, so we had predictably found a way to circumvent Curtis’s rage and slip into the park unseen. Every day around high noon Curtis would enter the Baptist Church, situated just across the road from the park, climb the ladder into the dark, steamy attic, strip down to his birthday suit, and take his daily “sweat bath.” For the next hour or so he would sit there (as we imagined the scene) in that suffocating, airless heat, with the perspiration dropping from his body like slow curves and rolling down the loose folds of flesh onto the attic floor and falling through the ceiling cracks onto the pulpit and pews below. He insisted that this was the only means of ridding his body of its gross impurities, and that without this regular “treatment,” he would die within a matter of weeks. We didn’t know about that, or care. All we knew was that when he entered the church we would have the next hour and more to play unhindered in the park. So as soon as Curtis disappeared through the front door of the church we would spring from behind Willie Quinn’s barn, our arms loaded with balls, bats, and gloves, unhinge and pour through the park gate, and resume the game for the All-Time Championship of the Whole Wide World.
On this particular day, however, all the Fates were working overtime to wreak havoc on our best-laid plans. As events turned out, we would have been better off if we’d gone searching for Minie balls in the gullies and creek bed or skinny-dipping in Barmore Agnew’s pond. But then, how could we have possibly known that we were in for a rout and riot that would rival Sturgis’s ambush and retreat for confusion and chaos?
Our first miscalculation was that we agreed to let Grady play. Grady was an adult, at least age- and size-wise, but mentally he had been left stranded on first base. To us, though, he was just another kid, as he was always hanging around and begging to be a part of our childhood games: checkers or monopoly around the pot-bellied stove in the store, basketball or football in Jim Parham’s back yard, washers or marbles or mumble-peg under the cool shade trees behind the Baptist Church. Grady’s forte was football: with his bulk and strength he cold advance the ball with one of us kids astride his back and two more draped around his waist and leg. He wasn’t very good at baseball, with his big feet and all thumbs and slow, lumbering swing, but he could occasionally get hold of a pitch and loft it over the fence and sometimes over the road into the churchyard or the adjoining cemetery. That’s why we seldom let him play in the battlefield park: he hit the ball (when he hit it) so hard and so far that we lost valuable playing time chasing the ball, frequently having to search for it among the tombstones. And wouldn’t you know that this would have to be the very day that Grady would hit the longest home run in the history of Brice’s Cross Roads baseball—not only over the fence and across the road and onto the church grounds but with one bounce right through the stained glass window of the Baptist Church.
Now that would have catastrophe enough, but it so happened that this was the day for the monthly potluck dinner and prayer meeting of the Women’s Missionary Union. Ordinarily we were grateful when a church meeting coincided with Curtis’s daily sweat bath, since we knew he would be trapped upstairs until the meeting adjourned and, as a result, we would have longer to play, or at least an advance warning of his impending exit. But no such good fortune on this day. When Grady’s long drive crashed through the window, raining shards of colored glass into the midst of the women (I have this part from my mother, who was a member of the WMU) at just the moment when Sister Beulah Clark was leading the group in prayer for the missionaries in China and imploring the Lord to “Come, Lord Jesus” and establish His Kingdom on Earth, Sister Beulah lifted her head and let our a victory shout that we kids heard all the way across the road and recognized as hers because we had been hearing it at brush arbor revival meetings all of our lives. Apparently thinking that the crashing of the window was the archangel Gabriel breaking through the veil of eternity to announce the Second Coming, Sister Beulah opened her eyes and shouted for joy just as Curtis Tappmeyer, wearing not a stitch, came scampering down from the church attic. (What happened next I learned from general hearsay; my mother’s eyes, I’m sure, were closed from this point on.)
Curtis, of course, was under no delusions whatever about the Second Coming being at hand. When he heard that window break he knew exactly what had happened, and all he could think of was that those no-good rascal kids were trampling once more on his newly-mowed grass. And that he would never tolerate, whether clothed or naked. So, altogether disregarding his pile of clothes, and with sweat streaming from every pore, Curtis scooted down the ladder, charged through the group of astonished, now wide-eyed women (except, of course, my mother), exited the church, and raced toward the baseball game across the road.
By this time all the Fates had turned their hilarious and mischievous gaze on Brice’s Cross Roads and wanted to get in on the action. “It’s my turn!” “No, it’s mine!” “Let me play!” they jostled one another, falling all over each other in their haste and excitement to add to the confusion. One of the sisters cast her spell toward Jimbo Boynton, while another zeroed in on Sam Huddleston.
Jimbo Boynton was a veteran of the Korean War who was having trouble settling into civilian life once again. “He’ll be allright,” his mother said. “He just needs more time to find himself.” To give him a little more time, my father hired him on occasion to help out with the clerking in the store. Maybe it was the recent experience of Korea, or maybe it was the proximity of the battlefield and the monument and the cannons, but for some reason Jimbo still fancied himself a soldier. He always showed up at work wearing combat boots and fatigues and an ammo belt strapped around his waist. My father put his foot down, though, the day Jimbo came into the store carrying a carbine and live ammo; but he did allow Jimbo to bring with him the large, machete-like sword he said he had taken off a North Korean at Pork Chop Hill. Jimbo used the sword to slice the hoop cheese and bologna for the field hands and telephone linemen and farmers’ wives who were our principal customers. He also waved the sword to accentuate the war stories he told and to threaten us kids when we proved too bothersome. And he used it about once a week to keep Sam Huddleston in line.
Sam Huddleston was the local drunk. Sober, he was kind and civil and polite, but when operating under the influence he was vulgar and uncouth and, in the opinion of some, even a little dangerous. Unlike many heavy boozers, Sam was never content to do his drinking in private. With his first few drinks, he would stuff his bottle into the pocket of his overalls, slide behind the wheel of his pickup truck, and make a beeline to the front porch of the general store, where he would publicly proclaim his opinion, cursing and ranting all the while, on every subject known to man. Or at least such had been his habit until Jimbo Boynton returned, armed with carbine and machete, home from the war.
Jimbo’s actual job, as I said, was to clerk in the store; but he saw himself as the self-appointed constable of Brice’s Cross Roads, the defender of law and order, the Ultimate Umpire single-handedly enforcing the rules of public morality and decency. And since the only threat to any of these principles in our sleepy community was Sam Huddleston’s occasional drunks, Jim and Sam became bitter antagonists.
As I say, the Fates were working overtime on this particular day. By the time Grady stepped up to bat across the road, Sam had finished off his bottle of Old Crow and was well into his thick-tongued, stumbling diatribe against preachers, presidents, bankers, sheriffs, county agents, and the NAACP. And at precisely the instant that Grady smacked his memorable home run into the middle of the WMU prayer circle, Sam caught a glance over his shoulder of Jimbo Boynton opening the screen door and advancing toward him, eyes glowering and machete in hand, obviously intent on ending once and for all Sam’s public displays of impropriety.
The pandemonium that ensured from this remarkable convergence of events is still the stuff of stories told by Brice’s Cross Roads grandfathers at family reunions and ice cream socials in neighbors’ backyards. Only the whittlers on the store porch and Grady, standing bat in hand halfway between home plate and first base, were isolated from the general chaos. What they saw was a dozen kids scurrying in all directions, seeking safety behind trees and tombstones, inside Willie Quinn’s barn, or under the floor of Miz Laura Robinson’s house. Chasing them, and almost catching Cootie Davis, the slowest runner, was Curtis Tappmeyer, buck naked, his fat arms and belly (and other vital parts) bouncing like a bad hop grounder to second base. Hot on his heels, and gaining ground, was sister Beulah Clark, still celebrating the Second Coming but not about to miss her chance to see a naked man, even if it was Jesus Christ. Close behind her was Sam Huddleston, now entirely and permanently sober (and too frightened to remember to look for his truck), his mad dash being considerably wind-aided by the massive swings of the machete blade brandished at his rear by Jimbo Boynton. This riotous parade, with the American and Confederate flags flying upside-down overhead, impressed the oldtimers frame-frozen on the store’s porch as a Rookie League replay of Sturgis’s ragtag retreat from Forrest’s ambush on the same ground years earlier. Old General Sturgis, if he was looking in on the scene, must have dropped his harp (or pitchfork, if, as we were constantly told, God was a Rebel) from laughing so hard. After nearly a century of embarrassment and disgrace on the tongues of the community’s inhabitants, he was finally having his sweet revenge on Brice’s Cross Roads.
Well, predictably I suppose, that was the end of baseball games at Brice’s Cross Roads. That very evening the community elders, my father among them, met in the Baptist Church and voted to “hereafter condemn, ban, bar, and absolutely forbid” the playing of baseball within five miles of the Cross Roads. After that the only baseball we country kids had access to was through the sports pages of the Tupelo Daily Journal and Harry Caray’s broadcasts of the St. Louis Cardinals’ games over WCMA, Corinth. My playing days now abruptly ended but my love for the game as strong as ever, I quickly developed a rabid enthusiasm for those radio broadcasts, delighting in Harry’s descriptions of Stan Musial’s hitting (“It might be, it could be, it is! A home run!”) and agonizing over his call of Solly Hemus’s innumerable errors (“Boy, oh boy”). And convincing myself, as I still believe, that were it not for those fateful events that led to the banning of baseball at Brice’s Cross Roads, Harry would one day have announced my name in a starting lineup at Sportsman’s Park.
This account was first published in Elysian Fields Quarterly (Hot Stove Issue, 1992): 23-28. According to the author, every word is absolutely true.