The Old Man and the Tennis Court

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We buried the old man last week. My father-in-law was 77 years old. He was a lifelong hunter, cattleman, and athlete in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, 30 miles south of Jackson on Interstate 55. You might have seen his "rainbow barn" when you were driving to New Orleans.

I am not from the South, and I am not handy with tools or firearms. If I have a shotgun, you should take cover behind a dove. My first and only successful dove hunt was on an opening day many years ago when so many birds were coming in over that barn that I had to either hit one or make a lie out of mathematics. My salvation as a son-in-law was my ability to bullshit like a reporter and play tennis a little bit.

Bubba came to tennis after playing football and baseball as a kid growing up in Copiah County. He was about the same age as the writer Willie Morris and vouched for many of his published stories and corrected a few others. When he moved out to his farm, Dixie Gardens, 35 years ago, one of the first things he did was build a tennis court. For the first seven years it was a red-clay court gouged out of the ground with a bulldozer, lined with chalk, and rolled with a Buick Electra. I have seen too much of rural Mississippi to say there was never another one like it, but it was the most unusual court I ever played on.

After I came along and married his daughter, he upgraded the court to asphalt and put the Buick and the bulldozer away. It was a beautiful court after that, with a stand of tall pine trees behind the fence at one end, a stand of cedars at the other end, a little house with a porch with some rocking chairs on one side, and a flower and blueberry bush garden with a gazebo which he built on the other side.

But it still had character. You had to run the bird dogs off all the time, especially "Peck" and "Jack" when they were feeling frisky. One day an escaped emu ran across the court, scaring the crap out of us, and another time a bull that escaped from the pasture came running across the court with a pair of cowboys on horseback in hot pursuit. You don't see that much at The Racquet Club. One Christmas we were shot at from the road, and dived to the ground as the bullets whistled over us. We never knew who did it.

I played about a thousand matches there over the years in every sort of weather, from 100-degrees to below freezing. Hitting the court, if only for a few minutes, was a ritual. Bubba had a good throwing arm and therefore a good serve, even though he tossed the ball about a mile high and foot-faulted most of the time. If we got into the Budweisers by the middle of the afternoon, which we usually did in the summer months, sweating them out like so much water even as we dehydrated ourselves, the last few sets would be unusually competitive, and the threats, lies, and trash talking would escalate.

At the end of the day we would sit on the rocking chairs on the porch underneath the whirling ceiling fans and the metal signs and old plow parts mounted on the walls and replay it. The sun would go down behind the pond and the rainbow barn west of the court, and a cooling breeze would come up from the south and blow through the pecan trees before dinnertime. Life was pretty damn good.

Tennis was Bubba's hobby but building was his calling. He knew nearly everything there was to know about trees and logs and boards, and he could build you a house, a bank, a courthouse, a church, or a gazebo. His work is all over Copiah County.

We buried him down there, under a tree.

Eight months later, the rainbow barn that was battered by tornadoes and hurricanes blew down, this time for good, a week before dove season.

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