If you don’t know where the Black Hole is, your roots don’t reach very deep into Jesup’s sandy soil. The West Virginia family of five, newcomers, certainly didn’t know their new home was snugged up to our town’s infamous skinny-dipping spot.
Starting with Big Dink in the 1930s, three generations of NeSmith boys have shucked their jeans there. Splashing in the hidden mirror-like dark waters was a traditional rite of passage of my boyhood and the boyhoods of countless others.
Around 1960 Ben Milikin built for his Gardi family a sprawling ranch-style home on the corner of Persimmon and Ninth streets. He also dug two backyard ponds. The Milikins christened the largest pond Black Lake. Behind Black Lake—tucked in the woods—was McMillan Creek’s Black Hole.
In the 1980s Thomas Spell and family bought the Miliken house. A few years later, here came the Nickodems: Jacob, Mary Jo and their daughters—Heather, Jessica and Brandee. The high-energy, different-talking West Virginians couldn’t have made a bigger splash if one of Ben’s log trucks had been dropped into Black Lake.
By that time, my parents and my family were living on opposite corners across the street from the Nickodems. Whatever these newcomers were, they weren’t bashful. It was as if they had added a dash of “Tabasco” to our syrupy South Georgia drawls. Pretty soon, all of us were in and out of each other’s houses.
Now, it’s 2020.
The lightning bolt of Jacob’s bicycling death has seared our very souls. Oh, my, how our former neighbor and friend loved to pedal around his adopted hometown. Not long after they moved to Jesup, Jacob—in Pied Piper fashion—would lead his children and ours, Alan, Emily and Eric, on bicycle adventures.
There are a multitude of reasons why I am grateful the Nickodems moved next to us. Number one is the way they wrapped their arms around my parents—literally and figuratively.
They knew Big Dink was fanatical about grooming his yard. He had the reputation of catching falling pine cones on the first bounce.
One morning, Jacob and Mary Jo spray-painted a cone gold and placed it in my parents’ yard. Spying from their kitchen window, the Nickodems giggled as my dad stared into the sky as if to wonder, “Where did this one come from?” Ever the practical joker, Jacob did treasure a laugh.
When my folks announced they were going to Hawaii to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, Mary Jo and Jacob organized every detail of a luau at First Baptist Church. Their unbridled creativity included decorations and a commemorative scrapbook. They cooked every morsel, complete with an apple in the mouth of a roasted pig.
But when my dad died in 1998, the Nickodems’ arms wrapped even tighter. Mother and her neighbors never waited for the rooster to crow. By 5 in the morning, Mother and Mary Jo would be taking their exercise walks. And where was Jacob? Doing what he loved, pedaling along with them. And no doubt, he was cracking jokes.
Since Sunday morning, there’s a different kind of “black hole” in my heart, pierced by Jacob’s death. The only way I know to try to fill this painful void is by remembering what a blessing Jacob and his family have been to their former across-the-street neighbors.
And I am positive that, when Jacob pedaled his bike through Heaven’s Pearly Gates, Big Dink and Margie were there to wrap their arms around a much-loved neighbor.