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Grilled Cheese & Sidearms

For reasons bewildering to me then and now, in 1981 I was invited to speak at the Annual Forum sponsored by the Pilgrimage Garden Club in Natchez, Mississippi. It was my first public presentation and should have been my absolute last. Simply put, I was terrible. I tried to be what I was not, a universal recipe for disaster. In retrospect, I reckon that at that point, so early in my career, I just didn’t have the stories to tell. Instead, I offered up a dry roster of facts and figures, painters and provenances, all of it about as enticing as a sleeve of stale Saltines. The response: general apathy.

Bill Gerdts, a rising star among American art scholars at the time, was presenting that year as well. Green as I was, I had not yet heard his name, and I’m not sure that suited him, but his critique of my presentation was kinder for its directness. “You were god-awful,” he said as we rode side-by-side in the rear-facing seat of a Buick station wagon carrying us to Waldo and Bethany Lambdin’s home for drinks and dinner. Bill’s bluntness only confirmed what I already knew and I can only imagine how he shared the story with his wife, Abby, when next he found a phone. To this day, Bill and I continue to joke about my inauspicious beginnings as a speaker.

Others were equally generous to me on that introductory visit to Natchez, including two lovely ladies who took me to lunch between speakers at this, my first Forum. A client in Philadelphia, Mississippi—fond of the occasional William Aiken Walker cabin scene—had arranged for his wife, as well as the wife of a close friend of his, to meet me at noon. I did not know the latter and barely knew the first, but learned something of business in this New World outpost over grilled cheese at a local sandwich shop.

My Neshoba County client had recently sold one of his early purchases to the aforementioned close friend, having insisted that the friend just “keep it” after admiring it during a visit. Several conversations later, a deal was struck; it was up to the wives to exchange funds during the appointed Forum lunch. I watched as the purchasing party—a model of Mississippi gentility— fished through her handbag, first removing a compact and then wallet, a checkbook, and other detritus. The rubber-banded bills were evidently on the bottom. Before the bankroll emerged—and without a glance to one side or the other—out came a Derringer. Neither lady counted the cash, which quickly disappeared into the purse of my benefactor’s wife. The sidearm and other miscellany were returned, one item at a time, to the anonymity of the bag, all of it done between bites of American cheese and Wonder bread.

I am not sure I’ve ever told this story in any of my public presentations since, but it is the sort of tale tendered by Southerners as proof of what it means to be quintessentially—quirkily, charmingly—Southern. I was learning that this was my South. Today, I can name—based on nothing more than miles logged—the route numbers of the roads leading to Natchez and so many other pockets of Southern-ness. These roads have carried me to friendships and customs and camaraderie. My friends in Natchez and beyond overlooked my lack of academic credentials, indulging instead my enthusiasm for this painting and that, sensing my earnest appreciation for the tutelage they provided, lessons unavailable in any formal curriculum. For instance, I learned that six of us really could eat fifty pounds of crawfish pulled from a hole in the levee on the Mississippi when the river went down. And that alligators maintained in a water garden between an otherwise scalable brick wall and the front door were a proven deterrent to intrusion. I also learned why ladies pack pistols.

William Aiken Walker (1839-1921)
Cabin by a Cornfield (1885)
Oil on canvas
10 x 15 5/8 inches
Signature Details: Lower Left
Owner: Private Collection, Charleston, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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