Monday, March 19, 2012

Tater Tales

My first conversation with Tater was by phone.  I can’t say for sure that there was a piece of straw in his teeth, or a wad of tobacco in his mouth, but I’m pretty sure he was in a rocker on his front porch, and there was a lazy hound dog close enough to hit with a projectile.  
We had just moved from Florida to the lovely town of Maryville, Tennessee, in the foothills of the Smokies, with our son Nathan, 13, and daughter Grace, almost 12.  I had spotted a cute little log home nestled in some trees, within a mile of the church grounds.  My thinking was, “We’re in Tennessee now.  We should live in a log home, as Lincoln would have done, if he had lived in Tennessee.”  The family could hardly argue with that logic.  The house I liked was vacant, so I left a note, asking if I could have it.  The owners, Kirk and Gail (to protect their identity, we’ll call them Dirk and Dale) who became friends and members of our church, called several weeks later to say they were planning on moving into the home soon; so no, I couldn’t have it, but they would put us in touch with the builder, a fellow named Tater.
“Sure, Bud.  I kin bild you a house.  You find yerself a lot, I’ll buy the lot an build the house an you kin git a loan from the bank fer the hole amownt and buy it from me.”  
A word to the cynic: If you had been an English Major, as I have been, you too would be able to detect when others misspell words in conversations.  For example, a lot of people, verbalizing the last sentence, would say, you to would be able to detect…“---forgetting to add the second o in too that would have made it correct.  (The lesson is, if you’re speaking to a former English Major, and a “you too” is called for, you’d be safer to say “you also.”)  The question of how an English Major can discern that a lazy hound dog is within throwing distance of a phone correspondent will not be addressed here, as it might get me off the subject.
So there I was, staring down a huge, charging black bear, with only a borrowed camera, my cat-like reflexes, and----oh----right----Tater. 
We found a wooded lot we liked in a well-established neighborhood, and called Tater to come take a look at it with us.   He was tall and gaunt, in well-worn blue jeans and western boots, with long straggly hair (Tater had the straggly hair, not his boots; why would his boots have straggly hair?).  You may be interested to know that this English Major was not sure straggly was a real word until he typed it and it wasn’t immediately underlined in red or green.  Tater reminded me of Willie Nelson, and there was something in his manner that suggested he was no more scrupulous about things like income taxes than Willie; chalk it up to my EMI (English Major Intuition).  The lot we had chosen had a pretty steep drop-off, which was, I suppose, why it had been bypassed as a building site; but it was heavily wooded, with dogwoods and oaks and tall pines and other trees that, if you pressed me to name, I could further misidentify for you. 
The actual spelling of Tater’s verdict on the lot went something like this:
“Yeah, she’s steap, but we kin build hear.  We’ll put a garage in the basemint with a drive on the side, a front portch, back deck, this’ll be fine. “
 I was surprised and happy; happy that he thought the lot would be suitable for our home, and surprised that, when he spoke, he spelled garage right, while he messed up on words like steep and porch. 
Several weeks later, I arrived at Tater’s own log home, high on a hill near the mountains.  It was pretty much as I had imagined it: old appliances in the yard, several cars and trucks awaiting transplants, a hound dog or two, the occasional black bear.  I had brought with me a check for about $3000, representing my life-savings (savings/borrowings to be precise).  Not long after I had entered his house, to a lot of ruckus from the dogs, I heard a voice from a loft above us say something like:
“Hey, Sue-Ellen, there’s a feller downstairs with a suit on!” 
I was hoping that information would not trigger some sort of automatic response that involved explosives, as in:
“Kids, remember, if you ever see a feller with a suit on nosin’ around here, you light that fuse and git out.”
(That reminds me of the time Donna and the kids and I stopped into a grocery store after worship one afternoon, and as some teenagers walked by, one of them cracked to his friend, “Git on yer church clothes, we’re goin to Sav’nPack.”  It became a family proverb.)
The Tater tots must have realized I was invited company, because before long, Tater’s son, who appeared to be about 14, came downstairs to ask his dad for some help with a Math problem.  I couldn’t help overhearing.  The conversation went pretty much like this:
“Dad, how do I do this?  I’m spose to add 3/4 and 2/3.”
Tater squirmed a bit, scratched his still straggly hair and said, “I don’t know, Son, I never did learn fractions.”
This little tidbit was of interest to me.  I was about to enter into a contract with Tater as my builder, and he “never did learn fractions.”  I reasoned that the house would have to be built exclusively with whole numbers.  About that time the thought struck me, “What’s the chance that I could grab that check and make it to the car before Mr. T. or one of his youngins made it to the nearest shotgun?”  I remembered those words of wisdom (which might have come from Willie Nelson if they hadn’t come from Kenny Rogers), “you got to know when to hold ‘em…when to fold ‘em…when to walk away…and…when to run.”  I decided this was no time to run.  I was gonna hold ‘em.  Fractions-Smactions, full speed ahead!
Fast–forward about six months, and we were living in a cozy three bedroom western hemlock log home, with a covered front porch, a great room, master bedroom and bath on the first level, and a bathroom in the upstairs loft, with two small bedrooms, where we stored the children. Somehow, Tater had done it without the use of any denominators, common or uncommon; and he had kept the cost of the whole project, house and lot, somewhere around (as I recall) $68,000.  [Back then, in what we used to call the late eighties, $68,000 was real money, which could buy real stuff.  That was, of course, long before the great collapse of 2018, after which, 68 grand wouldn’t buy you an old appliance or a broken down truck.  Oh wait---that hasn’t happened yet.]
Tater was not your typical contractor.  If you had seen him on a billboard or in a TV commercial, you would not have chosen him to build your home (or for that matter, to buy your old refrigerator) but he was a master craftsman, and I would have made a costly mistake if I had disregarded him.
The story is told in 1 Samuel 16.  Samuel was sent to anoint the new king of Israel.  The Lord said to him: “I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem; for I have provided myself a king among his sons.” One by one, Jesse’s sons were brought before Samuel, and some of them looked the part. “But the Lord said to Samuel, Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature…For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Seven sons of Jesse stood before Samuel, seven sons who might have been king, but Samuel told their father, “The Lord has not chosen these.”  Samuel asked, “Are all the young men here?”  “There remains yet the youngest, said Jesse, “and there he is, keeping the sheep.” David was not evident king-material.  He would not have been cast as a king if he toured with the Bethlehem Theater Company---a shepherd boy, maybe.  “Better yet, why don’t you just sell tickets, son.”  Yet he was the one the Lord had chosen. 
This was true as well, of the one who was foreshadowed by David, the eternal king of Israel. He was “the stone which the builders rejected.”  “The guys down at the quarry sent up this stone, but it’s not what we ordered.  It’s not like any of the others.  It doesn’t fit.  Those guys are idiots.  Send it back!”
“The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.”  It’s the Cornerstone.  That’s why it’s different!  No, He didn’t look or act like the king you were expecting.  He didn’t assume the throne, and vanquish your enemies, which is what you wanted, and you certainly never imagined that your king would die as a common criminal.  But God’s thoughts are not your thoughts; His ways are not your ways.  In God’s world, a Tater from the foothills of the Smokies can be a master craftsman, and a carpenter from the hills of Nazareth can be, and is our Lord and Master.

1 comment:

  1. Special thanks to Karen Metcalf for the picture of the house Tater built. It looks like bear bait, doesn't it? We regularly sprayed our porch with "Bear-be-Gone," but my recollection is, sometimes they still got into our cupboards (cuburds).