One of my most memorable, enjoyable weekends occurred at least 10 years ago in the sleepy, time-frozen town of Selmer in west Tennessee.
It is not a criticism that I call it “time-frozen.” It is in admiration. Much of the town and the undisturbed lay of the land harkens back to the 1960s when one of the South’s most iconic characters, Sheriff Buford Pusser, ruled with towering courage and a baseball bat. Selmer, which is situated in the flat geography of Tennessee (this is why there are three stars on the Tennessee flag to illustrate that the state has three distinctly different sections: East, Middle and West), is just a few miles from the Mississippi state line and the town of Corinth.
When I was 11 years old, I read the small paperback, Walking Tall, and developed a crush on Sheriff Pusser, one that was puffed up more when I saw Joe Don Baker portray him in the movie. The Sheriff had been determinedly working to break up the notorious State Line Mob which had involved many showdowns including on January 2, 1967 when Pusser was shot three times but recovered.
On the morning of August 12, 1967, he received an early morning call about a minor disturbance on New Hope Road. His wife, Pauline, said that she believed she’d ride out there with him and then they’d get breakfast. But it was a set-up. An assassin was waiting on the country road and, though he managed to critically injure the sheriff in the face and neck, it was Pauline who was killed. This was such a powerful story that ever since then, I think of Pauline Pusser on the anniversary of her death.
Seriously. Every August 12, I recall what happened on that dusty back road that still looks the same.
The weekend I visited Selmer, I stayed with friends Sam and Clara who took me on a complete tour of Selmer. I saw Pusser’s former office and jail in the basement of the courthouse, the house where he lived, the site of the assassination, the museum that pays homage to his bravery and tragedy (Pusser was killed in a fiery car accident in 1974 after having survived seven stabbings and eight shootings) and they took me to a little diner owned by the Pussers’ only child, Dwana.
Dwana, bubbling and talkative, sat with us in a booth for over an hour and told her story which I wrote in a column that I am including in my new book, “Let Me Tell You Something.” When I was working on the book, I discovered that Dwana had passed away recently at the age of 57. This caused me to remember a faded photograph that I had seen.
Dwana was barely six when her mother was killed. As I toured the museum, I stopped and studied a faded Kodak Instamatic square photo. Remember the ones that had the date in tiny print on the white border? Dwana, her face filled with quiet sorrow, stood next to the open casket of her beautiful, murdered mother.
It’s a stunning recollection but Dwana said that day, “I wanted one last picture with my mama.”
It was the norm back in those days to take pictures of people as they lay a’corpse, especially to show the flowers around them. We have a few in our own family collection. People take more photos than ever these days but two once-standard photos seem to have fallen to the wayside: casket photos and people standing with their cars.
“Do you have a photo of your first car?” Tink asked.
My heart ached. “No, I wish I did. I wish I had photos of my other cars, just to remember.” I thought for a second then added, “But I do have one of my Paw-paw in his coffin and all the pretty flowers.”
He thought I was joking. Until I showed it to him.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Tuesdays and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.