(Editor’s note: This column is an excerpt from Dink NeSmith’s upcoming book, The Last Man to Let You Down, My Daddy the Undertaker.)
“Dead folks won’t hurt you,” Big Dink would tell my boyhood buddies. And then the undertaker would wink and say, “But they might make you hurt yourself.”
Those words echoed in my head the first time I ever went to St. Marys. Daddy sent me to pick up a body in Camden County, down in the coastal corner of Georgia.
Just like cell phones, I-95 hadn’t come along in 1966. I could have gone to Brunswick and taken U.S. 17 to Kingsland and turned left on Highway 40, but Big Dink knew all the back roads. He drew a stick map to Hortense and through the woods to Waverly and White Oak to 17.
“Go this way,” he said.
When I backed the hearse to the St. Marys Hospital emergency-room ramp, the afternoon skies turned black. Thunder rumbled and vicious lightning slashed.
Inside, I found a lone nurse, wearing the traditional white uniform and starched cap. I explained that I was there to pick up a deceased person, and I asked whether there was anyone who could help me.
About that time, a gray-haired orderly walked up. The nurse said, “Thomas, please show the young man to Mr. So-and-So’s room.” As I rolled the stretcher in the right direction, I could tell Thomas was moving slower and slower.
When we got to the door, I asked, “Thomas, would you mind helping me load him?”
The orderly started shaking his head and backing up.
“What’s the matter, Thomas?”
“Lord, Lord. I can’t do that.”
“Lord, Lord. That man was scary enough when he was alive. I know I ain’t gonna touch him when he’s dead.”
And with that, Thomas vanished.
When I wheeled the stretcher in, lightning lit up the room.
I could see what Thomas was talking about.
The dead man’s toothless mouth was gaping open. His hair was spiked as if he had stuck his finger into an electrical socket. Mr. So-and-So’s face was covered with warts and black moles.
He was scary, but Big Dink preached that we should give respect to the dead as if they were alive.
I removed the hospital’s sheet and covered the body with a funeral-home sheet. Leaning in to hold the stretcher close to the bed, I reached over with my long arms and bear-hugged the man.
First I got his torso loaded, and then I pulled his legs and feet into position and strapped him on the stretcher. When I got to the back door, Thomas was still MIA. I loaded Mr. So-and-So by myself and headed back to Jesup.
Somewhere between Waverly and Hortense, the skies got angrier. Rain sounded as if frozen peas were pelting the hearse. Because I couldn’t hear anything but pounding rain and thunder, I switched off Jacksonville’s Big Ape radio.
When the lightning flashed, I glanced in the rearview mirror and thought: “Mr. So-and-So is right out of Hollywood’s central casting. This is a perfect setting for a horror movie.”
I laughed and thought about the vanishing orderly. Thomas didn’t need Big Dink to tell him, “Dead folks won’t hurt you, but they might make you hurt yourself.”