P. O. Box 93

I was robbed.

Yesterday around 9:00 a.m., during an apparent attempted robbery, two men in a maroon Chevrolet Malibu reportedly shot and killed two women:  Paula Robinson, 33, and Judy Spray, 58, neither of whom was known to me personally. That's the who, the how, the what, the when, and possibly even the why

It's the where that is personal.  So very personal.  Because of where this crime occured, I spent a restless night, trying to process what had happened.  I'm hoping that writing about it will help.  Please indulge me.

Most of you know, or have figured out, that I'm a native Tennessean.  While I was born and spent the first three years of my life in the Big City 50 or so miles to the south, I grew up in the tiny town of Henning in Lauderdale County.  When I say "tiny town," I'm probably being generous.  As I recall, there were fewer than 500 residents, counting "dogs, cats, and gophers," as they used to say...although I can't ever recall actually seeing a gopher in Henning.

N/M/E...my mother...had come to live in Henning at the age of 13, from the farm of her maternal grandfather in Hardeman County.  Her father, called Jimmy by one-and-all...except for my brother, our first cousin, and me, who called him Papaw...had finally been able to provide his children with a stable home, six years after the death of his wife, their mother.  It was the early 30's and in the depths of the depression, but he was fortunate to have found a permanent job as a teacher...the profession of his Cummings ancestors and a profession he'd trained for at State Normal College (now known as the University of Memphis).  He would eventually be named the principal of the Henning School, before moving on sometime in the late 30's to the job that I identify with him.

N/M/E always said that she hated leaving the farm, hated leaving her grandfather (Nan-nanny, as he was called, since she couldn't manage "Grand-daddy" early on), and hated Henning.  Hated. It.  That she would leave there as soon as she was grown and would never come back there to live.  Never-ever.

"Never say never."  Much less never-ever.

Shortly after my brother was born, our family of four did indeed move to Henning...for a couple of very specific reasons.  My dear Daddy was then an electric lineman, climbing poles and helping keep the lights on for Memphis Light, Gas & Water.  Doing a job he loved, for sure, but still a job meant for a young man.  You can't climb poles forever.  And, at that moment in time, the U.S. Government had a mandatory retirement age of 65...which my Papaw was poised to have to accept.

You see, the job that Papaw had moved on to after teaching was that of Rural Letter Carrier for the U.S. Post Office.  A job that was steady and that paid well for the times.  A job that meant he had to have two cars...one for work and one for "town"...and that suited Papaw's sense of pride and ownership.  And a job that was reportedly a political plum, which is supposedly why my family was always identified as "Republican," when the majority of West Tennessee thought that was the same thing as saying "Damn Yankee."  I guess the powers-that-were in Lauderdale County were Elephants at the time he got the job?


Easter at Papaw's in Henning
 Anyway,  Papaw was "being forced out," as the story was told in our family, so he wanted to help Daddy get "in."  Daddy took the test, scored the highest score possible (Daddy had very little formal education, but he was a smart man), and was notified he was at the top of the hiring list.  So we packed up and moved away from the house on Lynbar.  Moved into Papaw's century-old two-bedroom house.  Moved to the town where Momma said she'd never live again.  That's a photo of me on Papaw's front porch at Easter (left).

Soon we were renting Miss Minna's house across from the Methodist Church.  I only remember five things about that house...three bad, one good, and one that still makes me laugh. 

First, I remember my brother getting so sick that he had to be rushed to the hospital emergency room...not once, but multiple times; he was sick in bed for a long time, it seems.  Second, I remember burning my fingers on the hot iron...which I had touched in spite of being warned NOT to touch by Arbella because it was hot; had to see for myself, I suppose. I tried to cool the burning sensation by hiding my blistered hand in a velvet sofa cushion; hiding the burns mainly because I was more than a little afraid of Arbella's reaction.  And third, I remember standing in the front porch swing and flipping backward, cutting my chin which bled profusely. Shouldn't have been standing, I know, but still...a bad memory, nonetheless.

The good thing I remember is so vivid that I can almost smell the flowers.  I was headed out the back door to go play with my friend Linda, who lived around the corner and down the street toward town.  It was a bright, sunny, newly-warm Spring day, and daffodils were blooming everywhere it seems.  It must have been one of the first decent days after a long, cold Winter.  Anyway, I remember being so happy.  So absolutely happy.

The memory that still cracks me up will tell you something about life in a small town.  I had gone to church with Linda.  Her father and her brother (who was my age and in the same grade with me at Henning Elementary School) attended the Methodist Church, where my family were members.  But, Linda and her sister belonged to the Baptist Church with their mother.  On this particular Sunday morning, Linda and I apparently did a bit too much chatting in the pew because the preacher called us down from the pulpit. Told us to be quiet, or something close to that. Linda's mother was appalled and told us so at the end of the service.

I thought I would get away with the transgression, though, because Momma wasn't in the congregation; she was at the Methodist Church.  But, when I walked in the back door, she let me have it.  Told me how embarrassed and ashamed she was to hear what I had done.  Talking out loud during the Service!

How had she found out?  Well, before I could walk the half-block back home from the Baptist Church, which "let out" later than the Methodist Church did, no less than 3 "helpful" neighbors had told her what had happened.  Truly, it was a lesson to be learned.  Oh, not the one about not talking in the service.  I'm talking about the lesson of "when you live in a small town, someone always knows what you are doing...and usually before you do it...and they are eager to tell your parent(s)."

We eventually made the move down the street, past the water tower, around the corner, and up the hill to the rambling house my parents bought...and devoted most of their money and time to renovating over the next 16 years.  I have many, many memories of that house, the majority of which fall in the "good" category.

What street was it on?  What was the address, you ask?  Well, that's just it.  There weren't any street names or house numbers in Henning.  It was just known that we lived in The Mann House.

[Funny aside:  my brother was at a party once.  Told someone that he was from Henning.  Oh, really?  I know Henning!  Where did you live?  Brother J described where we lived, and then fell back on "we lived in The Mann House."  You mean The Lunn House, don't you?  Apparently, we lived there long enough to have the house identified with us rather than with Mr. Mann who was the original owner and builder!]

I've mapped it on Google and found out that the streets do indeed have names now.  It appears that I lived all those years on Thum Street.  Who knew?

No, for all the years that I lived in Henning, in all three of those houses, my address was P. O. Box 93.  There was no home delivery of mail.  Just like everyone else in town, we went to the post office to get our mail.  You walked in the building on the main street (then, Highway 51), spun the dial to the correct combination, opened your box, and retrieved your mail.  I wonder if I could remember our combination if I tried really hard? 

Sometimes, especially if it was Summer or if we had a school holiday, I'd ask to walk to the post office so that I could take a detour to Turner's Cafe for some lemon ice-box pie and a 7-Up...if I still had some of my allowance left.  But, most of the time, there wasn't anything left in our box to retrieve. You see, even though there was no home delivery of mail in Henning, we had our own Mail Man in our house. 

Daddy carried the mail out of the Henning Post Office to those folks residing on Rural Route 2.  Out Highway 87 to Glimp (I kid you not...:), on to Fort Pillow and the Tennessee State Prison, and then down to Fulton and into the bottoms where the prime farming land was...and which was prone to flooding in the Spring when the Mississippi escaped her banks.  He worked from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00ish, six days a week, and he always brought our mail home with him.

During the other day-light hours, and many times into the night, Daddy cared for his coin laundry business, located on the main street, same side as the post office.  The washer and dryers were slot-operated and required quarters and dimes.  Hence, it should come as no surprise that my allowance came in change...all rolled up in tubes.

Daddy loved being a Rural Letter Carrier.  Even though he sometimes clashed with Mr. S. over some rule or regulation (hint:  if Daddy said it was written a certain way, you could take it to the bank...it was written that way], he loved delivering the mail...and he loved his patrons, as he called the folks on his route.  Heck, he even liked going to the Prison and getting a hair cut or a steak lunch for less than a $1.00.

Eventually, he transferred to the Millington Post Office, where he carried the mail on the rural route that included Shelby Forest...and the Rev. Al Green's house.  And, he retired after a few years on a rural route out of the Germantown Post Office.  But, looking back, it was the Henning Post Office that was his favorite.

Because of that post office and his job there, I got to go on vacations and do things in places that others in that county only read about.  Because of that post office and his job there, I got to get a car while I was still in high school, when I was barely 16, and charge the $.299/gallon gas at Johnson's Gulf Station for all our running around.  Because of that post office and his job there, I got to go to college and get my degree.  I owe that post office a lot.

So when the news story came across the internet yesterday that those two women...one of whom was a Rural Letter Carrier...had been shot and killed inside the Henning Post Office (which is in a different building now), I wanted to put my head down on my keyboard and cry.

Cry for the victims.  Cry for their families.  And, cry for what I had lost.

I have always had this strong sense of security, deep down in my being. I might not be sophisticated, and I had a lot to learn after leaving Henning, but I have always felt grounded.  I had a sense of place.  No matter where I lived at the present, I knew where I was from.  It was comfortable...and comforting.

And, that safe, secure, sense of place was taken from me yesterday.  I came face-to-face with what I've heard others say:  "it's just not the same as when we grew up there." 

I read a quote the other day.  "Nostalgia is the desire to repossess what you never had."  But, I tell you we had it.  We had a quiet, little town with neighbors who cared about you, where we felt safe. 

Henning may still be able to lay claim to being a little town (although I see in some of the news stories that the population has grown to 1200); Henning may still have neighbors who care; but it will be a very long time before anyone there...or from there...can feel safe.

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