In ancient Greece Homer was a poet, to whom are attributed the great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Locally, Homer was a folk poet – who didn’t even know it; a man who could tell a story like nobody’s business and yet not even realize what a unique talent he had.
I spent a lot of time with Homer Barnwell this past year. He promised to let me record his stories for my Kudzu & Cotton archives on one condition – that I bring him pizza. He said Rick Bragg drained him dry and never once brought him any pizza. I made a vow that would never happen.
As fate would have it, I recorded less than 30 minutes of audio from Homer and I know that from now until the day I die, I will regret not stopping by everyday – as long as I had pizza.
I grew up in the mill village less than 300 feet from Homer’s door. As a child, not yet in my teens, I’d invite myself into the circles of the old men gathered around Bill Snyder’s boiling radiator or a busted waterline – maybe even find them crowded around Leamon Austin’s latest work of art in his miniature theme park that surrounded his house on B street. I was always great for a laugh back then – “Here son, hold this wire.” Yeah, I knew I was going to get shocked by the spark plug wire, but by the time one of the fellows would start to pull the crank cord, Tootsie Wynn would start laughing and gently pull my hand away.
That would always start the stories about someone somewhere who wet his pants and then the memories would flow like sweet molasses on a hot August Sunday. Homer was younger than that generation of storytellers, and he would listen intently to those wise old men, gather up and file away these oral histories of a town so rich in heritage and tradition that it would never be aggregated in one place again. One by one the old men faded away. I grew up and left town for 20 years then came back, and only recently it dawned on me that Homer alone, remained of all my childhood heroes.
On one of our last meetings I told Homer that two of the men on my interview list had recently passed: Al Shelton and Leroy Austin. After joking that I might want to take him off my list, he said bravely, “Well, you never know when your time’s coming. You just got to be ready.”