There is a friend of mine, one of the heroes I have known and loved, who is fascinating in the life lessons he shares and the accumulation of wisdom that seems to come so easily to him.
He came to the Deep South as a young man, having grown up in California without the benefit of his father, who had died bravely in the Battle of the Bulge.
He became an attorney. A brilliant one. The kind who rarely loses. The Perry Mason-type who can take what seems like a certain loss and uncover the hidden truth that turns it into a winner.
I have often heard him say, “I’m for the little guy.”
I have spent hours with him, spellbound by the stories and his experiences. As a young girl, I met him through Daddy, who was a wise judge of people, and who saw in this hip, longish haired, lanky man, a person of integrity and sincerity.
“He’s a good ’un,” Daddy often said. “They don’t come no finer than Jim.”
Among the many things I have long admired about him is that he came to the rural South with no bias or pre-set notions. When he arrived here, he plopped himself down amidst a region of people so different in language and actions from those he had known in California.
Yet in the midst of foreign dialects, he made himself at home. He never mocked or laughed at the difference of us compared to what he had long known, but rather he appreciated and applauded the uniqueness and the sturdiness of our people.
Though I was barely a teenager when he first merged his life with ours, I innately knew that he was the kind of person to emulate.
Daddy’s old two-story garage, where he repaired cars, has a two-step platform in the back, which has a wood-burning stove. I rarely walked in to see Daddy working. He was almost always sitting in a small, black leather covered seat that rose only a few inches from the ground, his long legs stretched out as he sipped a cup of coffee — heavy with cream and sugar — and shooting the bull with four or five men who were just hanging out. Sometimes, Daddy would have his worn Scofield Bible flung open as he explained a “thing or two” they all needed to know.
Occasionally, I would find this rather out-of-place looking young man, prematurely silver in his 20s, who was sitting at the feet of this Southern Socrates, eager to learn all about life.
“Ralph,” he has often said of Daddy, “was one of the wisest men I ever met. I loved to sit and hear his stories. He taught me a great deal.”
What goes around surely does come around, and in years that followed, I would sometimes sit in the historical antebellum house from where he did much of his lawyer-ing and hear his stories, eager to grab bits and pieces of his wisdom to call mine. He once defended a member of the Dixie Mafia. He won a major lawsuit against a big tire company. He represented the child of an old-time moonshiner, who paid him with a rumpled paper bag of cash and a quart of ’shine. He won the freedom of a once-revered college football hero accused of murder. His victories are too numerous to recount.
Of all the wisdom he has graciously imparted to me, there is one that resounds repeatedly. His country clients, he said, would always say, “I’ll be there if nothin’ don’t happen.”
“They meant to keep their word,” he said, “but they were humble enough to realize that they couldn’t make certain plans because something outside of their control might happen.”
Arrogance makes us think that we’re in charge of our plans. Tribulations show us differently. That’s a piece of wisdom from my people by way of a Californian.