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GUEST COLUMNIST: Zero and the hermit

Mike Ragland -Cotton in my Blood

Mike Ragland, Guest Columnist

Addison Crider was in the third grade when he took the test. As his teacher gave the test papers back to the students, she told Addison, “Son, that’s the lowest grade I can give you. If I could give you a lower one I would! You’ve missed every question on the test and even misspelled your name!” (Teachers could do this back in the 1950s.) Bertie Jo Gilmore, sitting directly behind Addison, peeked over his shoulder and saw the big red zero that took up the whole page.

Giggling with glee, she exclaimed loud enough for the entire class to hear, “Addison you’re a ZERO!” The name stuck. Within two years, nobody remembered his name was Addison. He was forever more known as Zero.

Now, even though Zero was mad as could be at Bertie Jo, he kept his mouth shut. You see, Bertie Jo could whip over half the boys in her school and if one did whip her, then her daddy, Big Henry, would come to the school and wear the guilty party out with his belt. And if that young man told his daddy, Big Henry would whip him, too. So nobody messed with Bertie Jo.

It wasn’t that Zero was really dumb, he just wouldn’t commit. For instance, if it was thundering outside with lightening dancing all around, you could ask Zero, “Think it’s gonna rain?”

His reply would be: “I don’t know.”

Or if it was the middle of August and the temperature had been over a hundred for the past week, you might ask, “Zero, do you think it’s gonna be another hot one?”

He would answer, “Maybe, I don’t know.”

By 1963, Zero had grown to be a fine young man. He was tall and thin and even at 18 he was losing his hair fast. He had a long gangling stride when he walked, and had a very noticeable Adam’s apple. Also, he had huge feet which made the girls whisper to each other and giggle.

Zero’s mother was almost 50 when he was born. His father died when Zero was just a baby and his mother had raised him by herself. She was a God-fearing woman if there ever was one, and she took Zero to church every Sunday morning and night. As she got older, and the rumatize got her down, she would still send Zero when she couldn’t go.

He would take the two dollars she gave him for the offering and drive himself to the church. Living in a cotton mill village, the church wasn’t that far, but Zero liked driving his 1950 model Ford through town.

His mother bought the car for him when he turned 16 out of his father’s insurance money. She bought it from a city policeman for $240. He in turn, had bought the car at a public auction. The car was impounded for hauling white whiskey and sold on the courthouse steps. It was identical to the Ford that Robert Mitchum drove in the beginning of the movie “Thunder Road.” This excited Zero to no end. He loved to fly up and down the country roads near the village in his Ford.

Immediately to the east of the little Shannon mill village was a 50 square-mile piece of land known as “The Colons.” Nobody knew why it was called that (maybe because it was at the end of one string of Blue Ridge Mountains). Anyway, it was wild territory then and still is today. The Colons is inhabited sparsely by anti-social, government hating, whiskey-making good ole boys. Unpaved roads, no water, no electricity or other modern conveniences are there. It’s still full of bears, mountain lions, and probably the last pack of red wolves in North Georgia. There have also been more than a handful of Big Foot sightings over the years. In fact, the Cherokee reported a slope-headed hairy giant in these woods that they called Tsul Kalu, and this was way before the white man came. His characteristics, behavior and offensive smell are almost identical to the West Coast Sasquatch.

This was ready-made country for Zero. He loved to take his Ford racing through the dirt roads of The Colons. He would pretend that he was Robert Mitchum and the revenuers were chasing him.

One Sunday morning, as Zero was driving through the village on his way to church, he saw Red Johnson sitting on the curb sniffling. Zero stopped the car and asked Red if he wanted a ride to church.

“Ain’t going” replied Red.

“Well, what are you crying about then?” ask Zero.

“Pa kicked me out of the house and told me not to come back till five o’clock,” Red stated.

“Why’d he do that?” asked Zero.

“Aw, Zero, we were eating breakfast and I smarted off at him,” said Red.

“You sassed your pa?” asked a wide-eyed Zero. He knew how strict Mr. Johnson was on his boys and he told Red, “You’re lucky to be alive!”

“I just barely am” said Red. “Pa back-handed me plumb into the living room before he kicked me out.” (Parents could do this back in the 1960s.)

“Well, get in the car and ride around with me,” said Zero. “I don’t feel much like going to church anyway.” Red jumped in the car with Zero and they headed toward The Colons.

They had driven around the dirt roads of The Colons for about half an hour when Zero asks Red “You got any money?”

“I think I got a little over a dollar,” Red replied. “Why?”

“I thought we might go up to Jugs’ house and get us a little white whiskey,” Zero said.

Red was almost two years younger than Zero and had never drunk any kind of alcohol in his whole life, but he wasn’t gonna tell Zero that.

“Sure,” Red said, “That’s fine with me.”

Zero himself had only been to Jugs a couple of times and always with older boys, but today it was his job to show Red a good time. Besides, he loved being a big shot.

To see if Red has a good time and becomes a big shot, check Mike Ragland’s column in next Sunday’s newspaper.  Ragland is a Cave Spring city councilman and a retired Rome police major. His most recent book is “Living with Lucy.” Readers may contact him at mrag@bellsouth.net or mikeragland.com