He wasn’t a large man; in fact he was only 5’4” and weighed about 135 pounds. But he was a giant to Chipmunk, Punky, Jenny and me. When he first came into our life he had seen 71 summers but the years hadn’t dampened his enthusiasm for life or the spring in his step. He wore little round wire glasses that usually sat out on his nose and, if outdoors, he always wore a well-worn fedora hat. His deep voice had an unusual quality, it was soft spoken and always caring yet it had a ring of authority about it. It was a voice that you never grew tired of. He could make subjects you weren’t necessarily interested in, interesting, a master storyteller.
The happy little man was a master with a shotgun. His well-worn J.C Higgins pump-action 16 gauge shotgun was thought to contain magic. He never missed in a dove field, when quail hunting, he usually put three birds on the ground at every covey rise and a running rabbit didn’t stand a chance. He outshot the best hunters around Tater Knob but never one time did I hear him boast.
The perky little giant was a man of God, our parents called him Reverend Alexander, we kids knew him as Brother Alexander. Our little country church was poor by most standards and I am sure that being the Shepherd of our flock kept him and his wife near the poverty line but they never complained and were always the first to step up when there was any kind of family crisis at the remote farmsteads. His pay was mostly from the fruit of the land, depending upon what season of the year it was. Vegetables during the summer, chicken and eggs in the fall, a ham or a slab of bacon during the winter and a bird dog pup or a fine tanned coon hide in the spring were just a few of his paychecks. One of his favorite dishes was groundhog and the housewife that could invite him to Sunday dinner of groundhog was the envy of the community as having the preacher eat Sunday dinner at your house was the goal of every household.
His sermons were famous for using just the right scripture to help the struggling farmers, moonshiners, trappers and homemakers around Tater Knob face many difficult days. His Vacation Bible School was the star attraction each summer for us kids as he would use hunting and fishing stories to teach us about the Bible. He especially liked to tell us that Jesus selected fishermen as some of his disciples. That gave being a fisherman a new meaning.
He loved dogs and knew how to take an English setter pup and convert it into a top notch quail dog in just a few months or a redbone hound that was the runt of the litter and convert it into a fine tree dog. He often used dog stories as examples for his Sunday night message. Because of this several hound men brought their pups to him to be blessed.
One summer night during a revival meeting Chipmunk brought a little redbone pup to church to have Brother Alexander bless the hopeful coon dog. Chipmunk also wanted the minister to help him select a name for the pup. Before service all us kids gathered around the pastor sitting on the front pew as he gently placed the pup in his lap and said a short prayer for the dog and his future. As he said “amen” a large wet spot suddenly appeared on his lap. He smiled and gently handed the pup back to Chipmunk. At the beginning of the service, Brother Alexander, with a large wet spot on the front of his pants and a twinkle in his eye, announced to the congregation in the hot little church that Chipmunk had a new puppy, named Puddles. Chipmunk grinned and, red faced, his mother slid down in her pew.
Brother Alexander really enjoyed hunting with us kids and we always welcomed his company. It was a great time for him to counsel us on our problems, and life’s questions, without talking down to us. He would listen when we talked and we trusted his every word. He was one of us and we loved him.
Many cold winter mornings he would show us how to spot a sitting rabbit, or how to be ready to pick out one quail to focus on when a covey flushed. His hunting coat had once, many years ago, been a stiff Filson Tin Cloth coat but now the stiffness was gone. His hunting pants were made of canvas cloth but so old and worn that the cuffs were just strings hanging around his worn out Chippewa boots. On his head was his signature fedora hat. To us he looked like the gentleman hunters we saw in Field & Stream magazine.
One cold January day we were hunting across a wind-swept, frost spewed creek bottom when the old pastor suggested we get down in a deep ditch out of the wind and build a little fire to warm up. We were all so cold that no one objected. Soon Jenny and Punky had a fire going and Brother Alexander was talking to us about trusting in the Lord and how important trust was. Then he told us about how much he trusted us. In fact, he said, he was going to share one of his best kept secrets with us and that we should never tell anyone. We all agreed, shook hands to seal it, and sat big-eyed around the fire not knowing what to expect. With that, the old minister reached into his hunting coat pocket and brought out a can of Prince Albert smoking tobacco and some cigarette papers. With the skill of an expert, his weathered fingers rolled a cigarette in an instant and he lit it. We were shocked, preachers didn’t smoke, but we could tell he enjoyed his one vice.
“My wife and many of my flock at church would disown me if they knew I enjoyed this,” he stated as he drew in a puff of smoke.
The next few years he enjoyed many “smoke breaks” on our hunts.
To my knowledge not one of us kids ever told Brother Alexander’s secret to anyone. We were just proud to be in his inner circle. The occasional secret hand rolled cigarette apparently never hurt him as he lived to be a very old man, saving souls and shooting darting quail right up to the end. I have always been glad to have had him in my life.