Birney Imes: May the good days outnumber the bad ones

January 5, 2013 9:38:32 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


Saturday morning I took the dogs down to Friendship. They know the drill. I open the gate and say, "Get in the truck." The truck being a battered Ford Ranger with a tailgate that wants to fall off. Hank leaps in barking with excitement while Maggie cowers, waiting to be lifted. 


It's a cold, gray morning and we park at the southwest corner of the cemetery. Hank is out of the truck and barking before we stop moving. As is their custom, the dogs roll in the grass, relieve themselves, and then they are off. They love it down here. So do I, walking among the old names -- Swoope, Norris, Puckett, Caldwell, Rubel, Marx. Old friends. 


I gaze down at a weathered tombstone and think of architect Sam Kaye, another old friend who died last week and who later this morning would join this group in this place. Sam loved Friendship Cemetery. For years he had in his office -- maybe he still does -- a tombstone rubbing from a stone marking the grave of "The Orphan Annie," who is also buried here along with the generals, doctors, professors, businessmen and the strong women who bolstered them. 


Death being the great leveler. 


Sam lived and breathed history. For him -- as with all historians, I suppose -- the past was a living thing. He was a great student of the Sanborn Insurance maps, which in the early part of the 20th century showed which businesses occupied downtown buildings. For Sam every storefront was a book of stories, with riddles to be solved; those who knew him professionally will tell you no one was better at divining a building's secrets than Sam. 


I never knew him not to be in good cheer. Sam seemed to delight in the quirks and contradictions that are staples of the historian's diet. Anyone with a question about local architecture or history found him patient and unfailingly generous with his knowledge. And with Sam there was always a smile and usually a story forthcoming. 


As we crossed the cemetery, the dogs and I came up on two men preparing a grave for a funeral. After one of them left, I struck up a conversation with the other, Byron Ruff. 


A veteran of Tupelo furniture factories, Ruff said he enjoys his cemetery work, likes being outside. 


"I love it, especially in the summer. It's quiet and you're out here alone." 


Soft music played on the truck's radio. Work on the gravesite completed, Ruff began removing folding chairs from one of two canvas cases and sets them up. 


"It's tough when you have to do this in the rain," he said. "But the good days outnumber the bad ones." 


The dogs and I move on to the northernmost part of the cemetery, then through a gate and to a bamboo forest between the old trestle and cemetery. Graffiti artists have used as their canvas a line of concrete abutments between the trestle and Carrier Lodge. I wonder what building they were part of, some sort of factory as I recall. Sam could have told me all about it, the trestle, too. 


We walk back across the cemetery and load up. Just outside the gate I notice a group of men standing around a large tree recently felled in a lot next to Zion Gate M.B. Church. The tree, majestic in its demise, dwarfs the men, who seem to be doing little more than taking note of the change in a familiar landscape. 


A few blocks later we pass Roger Larsen coming from his shop in the old tag plant; he too is driving a beat-up truck with dogs in the back. Maggie and Hank perk up, but stay quiet, and more importantly, stay put. I smile. The convergence offered a bit of irony that would not have been lost on Sam.

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.