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Sitting with Ralph and a Christmas past
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Forsyth County News
He was one of the funniest and most memorable men that I have ever known.

As I sat with him on a dreary, December Sunday afternoon, I realized that everything that would be said between the two of us had already been said.

Subdued voices reluctantly broke the silence that had for a moment enveloped the small room.

Outside a gray day struggled through ancient windows, windows that had at one time or another witnessed glorious days of spring and summer, inky blue thunderstorms and autumn’s vivid palette.

Not far from the back porch, a fallow garden spot — once home to tomato plants, peppers, corn and okra — offered a poor reminder that spring would come again and with that return, new plantings.

That is if the “good Lord tarries his coming,” as many elders were fond of saying.

That simple farmhouse had protected the hard-working inhabitants from the elements, inhabitants that I had been taught to admire as the salt of the earth.

Here the backbone of our land lived mostly in anonymity and the routine of lives well lived. Our visit to that home and my presence in a small, quiet room was anything but routine.   

There was really no reason to be in this room except for the happenstance of life that began with a simple request to my Dad.  

“Do you have a job for a sorry, broken-down, old man? I’ll do anything you tell me to do.” Ralph Holcomb did not disappoint.

As an early teen, I wanted a car and that meant summer work in construction. I knew little except sweeping, toting and occasionally driving nails.

If the job was hot, nasty and mindless, that was my job.

My refuge, though, took place during lunches and breaks. For then all manner of debate and conversation began.

Preachers debated millennialism, all discussed politics, the economy, war and the state of the nation.

Other topics included war stories, baseball, hippies, whether showers were better than baths, whether Fords were better than Chevrolets, and when that was decided, were six cylinders better than eight?

Most of those participants were resentful of authority, Atlanta papers, educated preachers and politicians from both parties.

Ralph was not above placing a rubber snake in a stack of lumber or adding a gallon or two of gas to someone’s tank who bragged about their gas mileage.

When asked why his old car ran rough, he replied, “I only cranked half of it.”

He once offered to trade his son-in-law for a good bird dog.

Ralph was occasionally aloof and mischievous, but that just made him that much more interesting.

Lanky and often unshaven, he was a mixture of charisma and something that just made you wonder what was next.

When summer ended and school began, I couldn’t wait for Dad to tell us about Ralph’s latest antics.

The week before Christmas 1968, Ralph told Dad that he was not feeling well. Could he leave early?

“Yes, go on home.” Ralph did exactly that.

A call came within a matter of hours that Ralph had passed away from a sudden heart attack.

Mentioning that event will cause Dad’s voice to break and tears to well up in his now aged eyes. He had lost an employee, and a friend too.

In 1968, it was customary to bring food to a grieving family.

A bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken was the best consolation we could offer.

I appreciated Dad telling Mrs. Holcomb of my admiration for Ralph because I was shy and would have struggled with that conversation.

Ralph’s body lay in state in the back room of his rented home.

There I sat with my friend, wondering why this had happened, but also realizing that we meet very few Ralphs during our lifetime.

Should a 14-year-old boy be shedding tears? It didn’t seem manly.  

Thankfully, no one saw manhood trailing down my face.

Dad and I would return home to our lively and loving family that day.

A flu pandemic struck our nation that year and made an unwelcome visit to our home on Christmas Day.

That Christmas season would observe man orbit the moon for the first time, political change and war.

Despite having the flu, I managed enough strength to hurl a few firecrackers, M-80s to be exact, into a chilled Christmas evening.

Those firecrackers were illegal, but somehow that noisy and brazen act seemed a fitting tribute and remembrance of Ralph.

It is funny what you remember at Christmas.

But then he was one of the funniest men I would ever know.

Forsyth County native Phill Bettis writes an occasional column.