August 14, 2018

Let’s keep Joe Phelps ‘alive’ through our stories


     We knew this day would come for our friend, and indeed we are sad.  But to get an appreciation for the past 28 years, go back—with me—to July 10, 1990.  On that sunny afternoon, word spread as quickly as the dark clouds of a summer thunderstorm.  The word was Joe Phelps had been in a wreck and critically injured.  By the time I got to Wayne Memorial Hospital, a crowd had gathered outside the emergency room.  And then suddenly, the double doors burst open. There was my boyhood friend, strapped to a gurney, on his way to the awaiting helicopter which would whisk him to Savannah.  
     That’s the day my prayers—and yours—went into overdrive, asking God to place His healing hands on Joe.  And entwined in those prayers was the request to give his wife, Judy, and their son, Joe, the strength and courage to endure the uncertain ordeal ahead.  And what a testimony of love, courage, endurance and faith the 28-year saga has been.
     Not long ago, I stood by Joe’s bedside, just as I had done in 1990.  He wanted to speak, but the ventilator in his throat wouldn’t let words come out.  With his eyes flashing and blinking, I could read his lips: “I love you, too.”
     How far back can you remember?
     Alan, Emily and Eric think I can remember the day I was born.  Actually, I can’t.  But I tease that I do remember the ride home from Ritch-Leaphart Hospital in the back of Bob Harrison’s daddy’s black Cadillac hearse, which doubled as an ambulance.  Big Dink was at the wheel, and my mother was cooing to me as I lay on a feather pillow in a wire basket.
     I’ve tried to stretch my memory to a time when Joe wasn’t a part of my life.  I’m stumped.  Somewhere before Cub Scouts, we became buddies.  His Waycross Highway neighbor, Steve Strickland, Joe and I were The Three Musketeers.  And as soon as we could ride bikes, we were all over Mayberry-like Jesup.  In those days, First Street was a narrow ribbon of asphalt, and I pedaled the two miles to Phelps Dairy more times than I can count.
     On rainy days, Joe, Steve and I scraped our knees learning to roller skate on the concrete floors of the dairy’s garage.  Our moms were our Cub Scout Den Mothers.
     To this day, I am grateful to Joe’s mother, Jeanette, for helping me kick the smoking habit before I ever got started.  Joe sneaked a pair of her unfiltered Lucky Strikes for us to try.  I almost choked after two puffs, and that was that.  Thank you, Mrs. Phelps.
     Griffin, when I was about your age, your Big Daddy wanted to give me a black eye.  And if your grandfather could have caught me, he most certainly would have given me a shiner or a pop knot on my buzz-cut noggin.  I knew how to push his “hot button.”  All I had to do was call him by his middle name, Latimer, and the footrace was on.
     While Joe and I were at Orange Street Elementary, we appeared together in a second-grade operetta.  Joe was the king.  I was Twinkletoes, his court jester, wearing the same silly-looking satin shoes with turned-up toes.  Years later, Joe threatened if I ever ran that picture of us in the newspaper, he really would catch me and give me a pop knot. 
     Joe spent many Friday nights with me in our tiny apartment in back of NeSmith Funeral Home, and I always looked forward to my nights at his house.  Griffin, I wish you could have known your great-grandfather, Joe Phelps Sr.  He was a man’s man, a World War II frogman.  Today, he’d be called a Navy SEAL.  Big Joe was tough as a pine knot, but the milkman was a comedian, too.
     Your great-granddaddy convinced me that I should never drink anything but Phelps milk from Waycross.  One day, my mother made the mistake of bringing home a half-gallon of Starland milk.  I howled in protest, “Mother, we can’t drink that.  Mr. Phelps said it would make me go blind.”  Big Joe also liked to tell the story of one of his retail customers giving him a case of Starland Milk, which he couldn’t sell.  Mr. Phelps told me, “I took that milk home and fed it to my dogs.  Why, they had to lick their tails to get the bad taste out of their mouths.”
     Griffin, your Big Daddy could spin a yarn with the best of them.  He got that storytelling gift honestly, just as he inherited his love of the outdoors.  I was a lucky boy.  My dad wasn’t an outdoorsman, but Joe’s dad was always happy to let me tag along when they went hunting and fishing.
     In those days, Kmart Plaza—across the highway from Phelps Dairy—was a wet-weather swamp.  Joe and I would drag his dad’s flat-bottom aluminum boat across the road, and pole our way in a make-believe bayou.
     Without a dog, we traipsed through what is now Wayne Terrace flushing quail.  And before Sunset Blvd. or Bill Morris Park was built, we explored the vast expanse of wilderness behind Joe’s house.  Once we walked all the way to U.S. 301 South.  You’d thought we had gotten as far as Jacksonville.
     About that same time, my mother took us out to Billy Poppell’s Bike Shop in Redland.  Joe and I rented a two-seater bicycle and took off on a 40-mile road trip.  We pedaled into Jesup and then to Screven.  After lunch at the Screven Restaurant, we struck out for Odum.  I was up front and I was steering.  Somewhere, among the Harris family farms, snarling dogs started chasing us.  I stood up to pedal faster.  Glancing back, I saw Joe with his feet up on the rear handlebars.
     In 2011, with the help of his nurse, I loaded Joe in my truck for a 50-year reunion of that boyhood excursion.  When we got to the dog-chasing-us stretch, I said, “You remember how you put your feet up on the handlebars and let me do all the pedaling?”  He barked, “No, no.  It was the other way around.”  And he went to Heaven believing I had misremembered how it really was.  If St. Peter lets me in, I’m sure Joe and I will debate that again and again.
     Not long after that bike ride, we were sweating and butting heads at Parker’s Paradise in Long County.  We loved being Yellow Jackets, so we endured the punishment of coaches Ben Park and Clint Madray’s football camp.  However, we couldn’t wait to get back to our side of the Altamaha River.  Fumes were starting to overcome us: perfume and gas fumes.  I didn’t have my own car, but there’s a stack of stories about rides in Joe’s red, three-on-the-tree Pontiac Tempest.  He pronounced it “Pony-act.” 
     There were double dates, Friday nights at the Dairy Queen and too-fast trips around the curves on the way to Cherokee Lake.  At times, we were young fools.  Praise the Lord.  God Almighty smiled and protected us through those dangerous teenage years of spinning sand on Fernandina Beach; a fast trip to the Beach Boys’ concert in Gainesville, Fla.; and a quicker trip back to Pa and Granny Phelps’ house at Orange Lake. I once read: “A friend is someone who will bail you out of jail.  A best friend is one sitting next to you smiling—‘Boy that was fun.’” Praise the Lord, again; neither of us ever had to use that line. 
     And when we were 20, we started on journeys which would, combined, almost make 100 years.  In 1969, we each took the hand of a farmer’s daughter.  Joe married the cute, petite Judy Bennett in our Class of 1966.  I married a pretty brunette from Mitchell County, Pam Shirah.  My wife of 49 years and I met on a blind date at the University of Georgia. If Joe were standing here, he’d agree: “We married better than we deserved.”  Our wives prove behind every good man is usually a great woman.
     Joseph Latimer Phelps Jr. was a good man, and Judy Bennett Phelps is the gold standard of a great woman and a loving and a loyal wife, who has bravely stood by her man.  By the grace of God, modern medicine and the tender, loving care of Judy, Joe outlived many odds. When she rejoins Joe in Heaven, the stars in her crown will be in the millions.  Amen?
     Joe lived to see his son, Joe, graduate twice from the University of Georgia and become a widely-respected attorney and judge.  Joe, when I hear you or Alan talk about the adventures the two of you have had, it always reminds me of a good times your dad and I had going to Georgia Bulldog games, hunting and fishing.  Joe was always welcome in UGA’s president’s box, because the Bulldogs won every time he was there.  And since I didn’t know much about racing, Joe was my NASCAR Google. 
     My dear friend, Joe, experienced the joy of getting a daughter, too, when Meridith came into the family.  And nothing made him grin more than the day Griffin was born.  Griffin, without a doubt, you added years to your Big Daddy’s life.  He’s smiling—right now—about that 10-pound bass you reeled in on your Zebco last year.
     Several years ago, standing in her kitchen (And she’s one of the best cooks to ever put a pot on the stove.),  Judy was Joe’s messenger.  She said, “Joe asked me to ask you if you would give his eulogy, when the time comes.”  With a lump in my throat, I said, “It would be an honor, but’s let’s hope it won’t be anytime soon.” This summer, Joe reminded me.  And today is that day.
     As I stand here, the floodgate has opened, spilling more than 60 years of memories.  People die twice.  We know when Joe’s heart stopped, after a 28-year courageous battle.  He’ll die next, when we stop telling the stories of his 70 years on earth. It’s up to us to keep him alive—in our minds and hearts—through our memories.  You and I know Joe left so many stories to be shared for generations to come. Can I get an amen?  Say it again, “Amen!”
     Joe, a past president of the Jesup Jaycees, had a legion of friends.  I am proud to have been among the many.  However, there are two who are beyond compare in their loyalty: Bob Harrison Jr. and Tommy “Doc” Causey.  Before Joe’s July 10, 1990 wreck, which left him in a wheel chair, the three were inseparable. But since then, no one could have been any closer and caring than his friends, Bob and Doc.  And right there by Judy’s side were their wives, Ruth Harrison and Ann Causey. What a testament to true friendship. 
     When Joe was in the Savannah hospital, I praised Bob for all he’d meant to Joe over the years.  His response was these powerful words: “We’re brothers.”  believe Harold and David Phelps would agree.  And moments after Bob had uttered that pronouncement, the other “brother,” Doc, called, apologizing for having to work that day and not being with them at the hospital.  Otherwise, he’d been there to echo Bob’s declaration. I feel the same way.  Joe was the brother who wasn’t born into my family.  More than that, Joe was a lifelong, irreplaceable friend whose courage and positive spirit inspired me.  “If Joe can endure these difficult odds,” I said to myself, over and over, “I can, too.”
     The Phelps family has proven that they are the shining example of faith, love and courage.  There’s never been an easy year in the past 28.  This past 14 months—12 of which were in the hospital—have been especially challenging.
     On June 21, 2017, Joe was rushed to Savannah.  From there, he went back to Shepherd’s in Atlanta.  For a year, Judy rarely left his side.  In their 49 years of marriage, Judy has been Joe’s rock and source of strength. I repeat: The stars in her heavenly crown will form a galaxy of its own.
     Joe and Meridith, you gave Joe perhaps the grandest gift ever—a grandson.  Griffin, you added years and boundless joy to your Big Daddy’s life.
     Yes, we are sad this day has come.  But we’re here to reflect and celebrate.  After all this time, Joe is out of his wheelchair, and he’s strolling—arm-in-arm—with his mother, Jeanette, and his daddy, Big Joe … and with Granny and Pa Phelps.  Harold and David, don’t you know they’re having a joyous reunion? 
     Just the other day, I heard a song on my truck’s radio.  Singing a duet were Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers: “You can’t make old friends.”
     As you sit in the sanctuary of the church Joe loved so much, Jesup’s First United Methodist Church, I ask you to close your eyes and think of the stories which you promise to tell about Joe.  And I ask you to do one more thing. While your eyes are closed, let’s listen to this:

“What will I do when you are gone?
                        Who’s going to tell me the truth?
            Who’s gonna finish the stories I start,
                        The way you always do?

           When somebody knocks at the door,
                        Someone new walks in,
 I will smile and shake their hands,
But you can’t make old friends.

You can’t make old friends
Can’t make old friends
            It was you and me, since way back when.                
 But you can’t make old friends.

How will I sing when you are gone?
Cause you won’t sound the same.
            Who will join in on the harmony parts,
                        When I call your name?  

You can’t make old friends
                        Can’t make old friends
            It was you and me, since way back when.
                        But you can’t make old friends.

            When St. Peter opens the gate,
                        And you come walking in,
            I will be there just waiting for you.
Cause you can’t make old friends.

                  Cause you can’t make old friends.

            When I am out on the stage all alone
And I hear the music begin,
            We all know the show must go on.
But you can’t make old friends.
You can’t make old friends.
                        Can’t make old friends
And you and me, will be young again,
                        You can’t make old friends.

You and me will be together again.
Cause we both know, we will still be old  friends.
            You can’t make old friends
                        Not the way we’ve been.”

     Joe, my old friend, I’m not saying goodbye.
     Instead, I’m saying, “I love you … we’ve got more stories to tell … so, I look forward to seeing you, again.

Dink NeSmith
First United Methodist Church                      
Jesup, Georgia
August 13, 2018