By David Decker
A cherished high school friend recently shared that when she introduces herself to others, she frequently adds that she grew up in Atlanta, back when Atlanta was a small town. For the first twenty years of this writer’s life, from the middle 1950’s through the middle 1970’s, Atlanta had the authentic “feel” of a small, southern town. Crime was low, traffic was easy to maneuver through, and folks were neighborly to one another. It wasn’t until the avalanche of “immigrants” swarmed into Atlanta from all corners of the United States (and more than a few foreign countries) that she changed into the sprawling megalopolis she is today.

Perhaps the most loved small town that has ever been is not really a town at all. Andy Griffith has said many times that “Mayberry” is more of a state of mind than an actual place or dot on any map. Still, Mayberry has an infectious appeal. The friendliness of its people, the pace of its lifestyle, and the uncrowded streets and sidewalks make Griffith’s Mayberry a place that multitudes of people would love to find and live out their lives in.

One of the most endearing elements of a small town is the local General Store. Long before the retail monster known as Wal-Mart took America captive, “moms and pops” ran dry goods businesses in every small town and community in this nation. They sold canned goods, seed, hardware, flour and sugar by the bag, clothing, and an array of other items. The General Store was the local community one-stop-shop. It flourished during a time when America was smaller, people were nicer, and small communities were thriving.

In every General Store there was an area where rocking chairs were arranged, most times in a circle, around or near a pot-bellied coal or wood stove. Every morning, long before sunrise, farmers and retirees congregated in these places to discuss, argue, tell tall tales, laugh, and share an occasional off-color joke. The daily topics of discussion in this gathering included gossip, politics, the weather, sports, business deals, and, sometimes, even farming. In the warm summer months, this forum moved to the front porch of the General Store where whittling and spitting were also engaged in. The store’s proprietor encouraged these gatherings mainly because the men involved were his loyal customers and friends. And, on occasion, he would also join in the fun.

During this writer’s days as a full-time minister, there were no General Stores in our small, bedroom community to Atlanta. There was, however, a strong desire among certain men of our congregation to have a gathering like the ones enjoyed in small town General Stores. One of those great men, a retired pilot and county government official, “organized” the first of these meetings at a local McDonald’s. Their group was to be called the, “The Spit & Whittle Club.”

Spit & Whittle came to order at 10:00 AM on that first Tuesday morning with an attendance of a dozen or so. McDonald’s reserved them a group of tables and booths in the back of the dining area, most likely so that the noise expected from their lively repartee would not disturb the other dine-in patrons. It was decided that since none of the attendees had regular jobs or schedules, a daily meeting of the club would be impractical. After only a few minutes of deliberation the group decided to meet once a week, every Tuesday morning at 10:00 AM.

There was no agenda for the discussion that first morning. “What are we gonna’ talk about each week?,” was asked. “Are you kidding?”, the group’s organizer replied, “we’re all so ‘full of it’ that ain’t nobody afraid of this well ever running dry.” All agreed. So, they did the natural thing for a group of church members who are sitting and talking, they discussed the preacher’s sermon from the prior Sunday. A few were for it, and a few were “agin” it. Most agreed that it was generally good, but could have been at least ten minutes shorter. One of the participants suggested that somebody tell the preacher about the, “world’s shortest sermon,” and to try and persuade him to use it occasionally. By the way, the world’s shortest sermon is: “Turn or burn, while we stand and sing.”

“Spit and Whittle” was off and running.

In the weeks that followed, Spit & Whittle gained great popularity. It’s existence and meeting logistics were included in the church bulletin and even in the Sunday morning announcements. Personal invitations to attend and be a part of the group were extended to different ones. Even the preacher was invited to come. The old brother that asked him worded the invitation this way, “You ain’t exactly retired, but then you ain’t got no real job neither, so what’s the difference?”

The preacher was honored. He knew that his members didn’t think he did anything that could be classified as work anyway. However, little did they know that while he was with the Spit & Whittle crowd each week, the preacher was “taking notes” and collecting material for sermon illustrations and maybe even a book he intended to write someday. What better source than a group of guys like Spit & Whittle?

Spit & Whittle eventually outgrew McDonald’s. Fortunately, there was a Burger King right across the street with a much larger dining area. BK also gave free coffee to seniors with breakfast. It was a done deal. Same time, same day, but now it would be Burger King.

In time, the group’s organizer built a new home on some farmland he had purchased and moved away. Some of Spit & Whittle’s members lobbied for changing the name of the group, which had been originally chosen by the now departed (relocated, not deceased) organizer. One of the participants, himself a retired air traffic controller, came up with a new name that every guy in the group loved. They adopted it immediately and unanimously as the new “official” name of the old Spit and Whittle Club. From now on, their weekly gathering would be known as, “The Romeo Club.”

R-O-M-E-O as the title of their group had special significance. It stood for, “Retired Old Men Eating Out!” Later, their wives started a weekly group of their own and called it, “The Juliet Club.” J-U-L-I-E-T was an acrostic for, “Just Us Ladies Into Eating Together.” Who says church folks don’t have vivid and creative imaginations?

The Romeo Club was a wonderful throwback to the days of the daily General Store gathering. This outstanding group of men represented all walks of life, with each having a lifetime of differing experiences and viewpoints. There was more wisdom, common sense, and knowledge in the heads of those men than on the shelves of some libraries. Their names and faces, and the lessons learned from these wonderful guys, are both indelible and pricelessly invaluable to this writer.

First, there was Buddy, the group’s organizer. Buddy was a brilliant man. A retired pilot, Buddy knew a great deal about the airline industry, which was and is a staple in Atlanta’s economy. Buddy had also served in county government, and thus could answer questions about why local elected officials often acted so mindlessly. Buddy was a blunt, frank person who told it like it was. If you didn’t want the truth, don’t ask Buddy.

Second, looking around the Romeo table, there was Bill. Bill was a true mountain man from Blue Ridge, Georgia. He had retired from building automobiles at a local General Motors plant. Bill was a terrific money manager, and an artist when it came to story telling. Some of the stories in this book came from the heart, mind, and lips of Bill.

Third, there was John. John was a quiet and meek individual who had retired from the banking industry. During World War II, John served in the United States Army and fought the Germans in Europe. He had been awarded the Bronze Star for heroism and valor in battle. You would have never known John was in the room he was so quiet and unassuming. True heroes almost always are.

Next, there was Ray. Ray had also served in the U.S. Army, and was a successful building contractor and developer following his honorable discharge from the service. Ray loved to discuss the Bible and other topics related to religion and psychology. In his own mind, Ray was always "right" when it came to the opinions he held.

Coming on around the long table at Burger King there was Vern. Vern was an old Lineville, Alabama, boy who had made his fortune working for GM in Atlanta. He was a dead ringer for rock legend, Roy Orbison, and occasionally performed lip-sync routines in musical shows as an Orbison look-a-like. Vern often described his retirement hobby as being a, “junk trader.” Vern bought and sold all sorts of items. In some cases Vern would do minor repairs to a tiller or lawnmower and trade for something of greater value. Having worked in the auto industry, Vern’s forte was cars, but, he was never averse to making a dollar by buying and selling just about anything of value.

Next to Vern was Al. Al served in the United States Navy during the Korean War, and later retired as an Assistant Fire Chief for the city of East Point, Georgia. Al was a very quiet man, who walked bent over at the back with the help of a cane in his latter years. Al was an accomplished mechanic, carpenter, and one who could do anything with his hands. Most of the time at Romeo, Al would just sit and listen, smile and laugh, and then get up before anybody else to go home and get busy on his wife, Nita’s, honey-do list. When Nita passed away, Al kept on coming to Romeo. He said it helped him forget, at least for a little while, how much he missed Nita.

The group's "other" Bill often sat by Al. Bill #2 was a tremendously successful salesman during his career, and the retired CEO of the McGregor Company in Athens, Georgia. This writer has never known a more intelligent, capable, and successful businessman than Bill #2. He was, and still is, the epitome of excellence, organization, and efficiency. Bill served his country in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and was our church treasurer for many years. He was and is a man of great wisdom and knowledge, having traveled the world many times. Too, Bill was perhaps the most astute observer and analyst of political and government issues that this writer has ever encountered. At Romeo, Bill was always the "go-to-guy" in regard to knowing the cold hard facts of any given situation that was being discussed.

Another of the “charter members” of Romeo was Jack. Jack was a retired air traffic controller who worked the majority of his career at Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport. He was an avid photographer, and motor home enthusiast. Jack loved to travel, and therefore was frequently absent from Romeo Club meetings. He would always have magnificent pictures to show and stories to share with the group upon returning from one of his patented three or more week motor home trips. If the RV world ever gave out “frequent rider miles”, Jack would be the unrivaled champion recipient.

Seated next to Jack was Carlton. Carlton was a retired accountant and comptroller for the Otis Elevator Company. He had lived in Texas and Massachusetts during his career, and was one of the rare birds in the group that loved cold weather and snow. If Carlton’s wife’s family had not lived in Atlanta, he would have moved to the North Pole. Carlton’s laugh was one of the all-time greats. He was and is a man with a truly, “happy heart.” Too, he was an excellent Bible class teacher and self-taught e-mail guru. If you couldn’t love Carlton, there was obviously something terribly wrong with you.

There were many other men who came and went during Romeo Club meetings. Each one contributed something different and vital to the ongoing life of the group.

The Romeo Club always provided opportunities to learn. The men who were part of it used their forum to share and teach what they knew to the younger men who came as guests and observers. During the summer, when possible, the younger men who attended would bring their adolescent sons to these gatherings. When this took place, the youngster was usually treated as a guest of honor and given special treatment by the group.

Too, Romeo was the perfect time and place to let fly with that age-old product of male gatherings – namely, “horse-hockey.” This was especially the case when the material included things that wouldn’t be allowed around the dinner table at home. And fly it did. Each time a tall tale was told, Romeo regulars would lean back in their chairs and in unison lift their feet off the floor. This was their way of saying that the horse-hockey was getting a little deep. What a comical sight it was to see a dozen old men pulling their feet off the floor in unison in reaction to a tall Romeo tale.

Perhaps the tallest Romeo tale ever told came from an attendee that didn’t show up every week.

Bob was a retired metal shop teacher at Forest Park High School. His hair was snow white, and his voice was deeper than renowned gospel singers Tennessee Ernie Ford and bassist Richard Sterban (of Oak Ridge Boys fame). When Bob opened his mouth, it was of the depth and quality that one would imagine the voice of the archangel Gabriel to be. Bob was constantly recruited at church to lead a prayer or make the announcements. His booming, rich voice could keep even the sleepiest saint awake.

In his retirement, Bob worked part-time at a local funeral home where his wife also worked as an accountant. Like every part-timer, Bob was given jobs around the funeral home that no one else wanted. He helped the funeral director dress the bodies after the embalming was completed, secured the containers of fluids and other bodily residue collected at embalming, and shaved and groomed the faces of the male cadavers before family viewings took place. Doing these jobs convinced Bob to arrange for cremation at his own passing.

One other task of Bob’s as a part-time funeral home employee was to arrange for any out of the ordinary concessions requested by grieving families. Bob said he saw folks demand things at a beloved’s funeral that the average person would never dream of.

For instance, Bob told of grieving young mothers who brought baby beds to the funeral home. The mother would crawl into the baby bed and hold the deceased infant’s body both during visitation and the funeral service. There were families who brought in Harley-Davidson motorcycles and parked them by the coffin. Bob spoke of the dearly departed's kin who brought in full-blown bluegrass bands to play during visitation and the service. And, he sometimes related how hunting buddies of the deceased would bring in hunting dogs, shotguns, stuffed wild game, and even one live (but caged) raccoon to symbolize the dearly departed’s love for such.

The most bizarre of these experiences was shared with his Romeo buddies one fall morning after Bob had finished his sausage biscuit and coffee. "How's business down at the undertaker shop?", someone asked. “Fellas,” Bob said, “I thought I had seen it all in terms of outlandish last requests - until this past weekend.”

As he spoke, fourteen old gray heads slowly turned in unison toward Bob - like little boys watching a batter at home plate during a baseball game.

“We had a family in this weekend whose father and husband had passed away,” Bob continued. “When we asked them what kind of casket they wanted, they said that they didn’t want one,” Bob remarked – shaking his head in disbelief.

“When we asked them if there was anything special they wanted, the grown children of the deceased looked at me and said…'We want you to come to our house and pick up daddy’s favorite La-Z-Boy recliner…We want you to bring it here and put it in the visitation room…We want you to also bring his big-screen color TV here and put it in front of his recliner…We want you to hook it up to cable or else put daddy’s VCR on top of it…We want you to find any live or recorded Braves baseball game that you can find…We want you to show it on the TV during visitation…We want you to dress daddy up in his overhauls and his favorite Atlanta Braves t-shirt and cap…We want you to sit him in his recliner…We want you to adjust his arms and hands so that it appears as if he is sitting in his recliner….We want you to sit an end table next to him on which we want you to place a Budweiser coaster and a bag of Fritos barbecue chips…We want you to place in one of daddy’s hands a cold Budweiser beer…And, in the other hand we want you to place the TV remote control, and put daddy’s thumb on the channel selector button so that it appears he is changing channels between innings of the game…We want you to place an ashtray on the end table and keep a freshly lit Camel cigarette burning in that ashtray during the entire visitation period…Every now and then we want you to stop the game or mute the TV…When you do this, we want you to reach behind the TV and start a cassette recorder that will play tape recordings of daddy that we will provide…These tapes are the actual recordings that mama made of daddy sitting in front of the TV, shouting at the Braves players when they did something wrong, and ordering our mother to bring him another beer…This is the way we want everyone to remember our daddy.'”

When Bob finally took a breath from the telling of this unbelievable yarn, sure enough, there were twelve pairs of old men’s feet lifted in the air.

The only exceptions were Bob’s and those of Bill the mountain man.

Bob looked at Bill and said, “Well, brother, it looks like you’re the only one who believes me.”

“Well, it ain’t exactly that,” Bill said with a chuckle, “it’s just that I can’t believe that somebody stole my will out of the safety deposit box down at the bank and copy-catted my last requests.”

The Romeo crowd burst into laughter.

Bill the mountain man did not join in their frivolity. Once their guffaws had subsided, he continued.

“I can't believe that ya'll are a-makin' fun of that man...Why, the only difference between me and him is that I done told Shirley (his wife) to make sure and put my old coon dog on my lap while my corpse is a-sittin' there a-watchin' that TV…Ya’ll got to promise me that yuns will make sure she does it, ya’ heah?”

The Romeo Club took a solemn oath that morning. They vowed to observe their dear brother’s last request. Thankfully, that day has not yet come. But when it finally does, one wonders if the final salute for one of their own by the Retired-Old-Men-Eating-Out Club will be a lifting, in unison, of their feet as his casket rolls down the church aisle.


© David Decker