A woman carrying a bag of cat food stopped and put a dollar in the red kettle.
“Thanks,” I said. “I hope you and your cat have a merry Christmas.”
She laughed as though it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard.
This is going to be fun, I thought.
The Rotary Club volunteers a day of bell ringing each Christmas, and I always sign up. It’s a good way to embrace the season. Nothing acclimates you for the holidays quite like standing in front of a big box store wearing a red apron and a Santa Claus hat, ringing a silly bell and trying to engage with passersby doing their best to ignore you.
About half an hour into my hour-long stint, a man walked up and, without a word, handed me a ziploc full of pennies. The bag wouldn’t fit in the kettle and I didn’t have a key for the lock, so I just held them. It never occurred to me to open the bag and feed the pennies into the kettle, one by one.
Later a woman with an armload of shopping bags bounced out and put a dollar in. “Santa’s gonna be good to you this year,” I said.
“Santa’s good to me everyday, baby,” she said before wading out into traffic.
A man walked out wearing a gray sweatshirt with a Christmas vest printed on the front. The pockets of the vest were filled with candy canes. Who comes up with these ideas? Some graphic designer in China, I suppose.
“Like your shirt,” I said, “where’d you get it?”
“They have any more?” I said, thinking someone in our family might need one.
“I don’t know, man. I got it last year,” he said.
A man in a yellow Motley Panthers sweatshirt stopped and shook my hand. Then he said in a voice so quiet I could hardly hear: “You remember the picture you took at Oakland Baptism? I was the kid in that picture.”
I stopped ringing the bell, dumbfounded. He was referring to a picture I made almost four decades ago. And here we were in front of Walmart, me in a Santa hat, meeting again.
In 1979 when William Earl “Sweet Daddy” Wilson was 10, he, at the urging of his family, chose to be baptized. William’s family attended Oakland Missionary Baptist Church outside of Crawford. Rev. John Henry Cockrell was the pastor.
Rev. Cockrell was a circuit preacher. As such he ministered to four churches, each one Sunday per month: Prairie Chapel, Oakland, Brick Church and St. John’s. He and the congregations of some of those churches allowed me to photograph their outdoor baptisms.
Rev. Cockrell baptized in August. In the case of Oakland, the baptismal pool was a farm pond behind the church.
It was a moving thing to be part of, to see. So much so, folks who had grown up in Crawford and gone north brought their children back to be baptized at Oakland. The congregation, led by the pastor, deacons and “candidates” for baptism would walk in the dappled sunlight through a grove of cedars down to the pond.
As I remember, the candidates, two at a time and looking like they would rather be anywhere but here, were ushered into the pond by deacons. Rev. Cockrell’s voice, lilting and sonorous, imparted its own majesty to the proceedings. The Reverend said a few words, put his hands over the candidate’s face and pulled him (or her) back until he was submerged. The child (although occasionally there were adults) would explode from the water, often shouting, “Thank you, Jesus.”
It was not uncommon for parents and relatives back on shore to respond with a similar show of emotion.
The man in the photograph to the left of Wilson is Bobby McCarter, aka Bishop McCarter, longtime pastor of Charity Full Gospel Church, where Wilson is now a member. McCarter once baptized in a pond near his church on Tarleton Road; he now uses a font inside his church. Bob Grace is on the far left and Johnson Bridges Jr. stands beside McCarter. The other candidate in the picture is Benny Coleman, who pastors a church in Aberdeen.
Wilson stopped by The Dispatch Friday and picked up a poster with the image on it used to publicize an exhibit at the Columbus Arts Council four years ago.
Wilson says a small print of the image hangs in Charity Church.
“I love the picture,” he said.
I love he finally has a print of it.
In the mood for Christmas lights? Tap “32 Fondren Road” into your GPS. It’s a bit of a trek if you’re coming from town, but never mind; it’s Christmas. Put on some music and enjoy the ride.
Soon enough you’ll find yourself in slack-jawed amazement as you approach the Christmas extravaganza of Jimmy Cook and his son, Jimmy Ray Cook, in New Hope (at the intersection of Ben Christopher and Fondren). It’s astounding.
Jimmy, the father, estimates he’s strung 80,000 lights since September. Friday and Saturday night Santa and his helpers will be at the Cooks’ passing out hot chocolate and cookies. Want to get out and walk about? Jimmy would be happy for you to do so.
Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. Email him at email@example.com.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.