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Gill Autrey: A port in the storm

Gill Autrey Special to
the Times
The Apalach Times

Just about the time I think our house is finished and we can relax and enjoy, Lane’s creative juices start flowing and, yep, here comes another project.

This time it was a screen porch, but since I always wanted a cook shack, I thought this would be close enough. Problem is, we don’t have a lot of yard where to put it, but we do have a carport we don’t use so she decided to screen it in.

Well, as usual, she called in her partner-in-crime, our contractor, Eric Springer. When those two get together, something special is the result, and this was no exception. What a great place and very well-appointed by Lane; lights, many beautiful plants, a gnat buster ceiling fan, a fountain from Penny’s Worth (five dollars) and six gorgeous Adirondack chairs built from cypress pulled out of the swamp by Wood Duck, our friend and local fishing guide.

Wood Duck told me he pulled a deadhead log that was 1,200 years old; he said he counted the rings. So, I asked him, “Wood Duck, how many beers did you have to drink to count 1,200 rings?”

He replied, “It’s like this right here, I got a whole bunch of pins and every time I counted 100 rings I stuck a pin in the log in case I lost my place.” Pretty smart. He built his house (almost by himself) out of that cypress and heart pine, it’s beautiful.

It’s not in a particularly wet spot but it’s kinda high off the ground so I asked, “Wood Duck, why did you build your house so high off the ground?” He explained, “I wanted it to be where if I had a plumbing problem I could sit in a lawn chair and fix it.” Pretty smart, don’t you think?

Anyway, me being the man of words, it befell my lot to come up with a name for the space.

One of my favorite William Faulkner short stories is “A Rose for Miss Emily.” Miss Emily is a spinster living alone in an old Southern mansion as her fortunes dwindle after the death of her father. She resists the changes in Southern culture she is experiencing and lives on in solitude.

In 1897 Eugene Roberts Barber and his brother-in-law J. F. Holmes began the first Coca-Cola bottling plant in Valdosta, Georgia. In 1915, E. R. Barber built his home, an excellent example of turn-of-the century Southern Domestic Neo-classicism. (Don’t ask me, that’s just what it says.) Upon his death, he left the home to his daughter Olabelle “Ola” Barber Pittman.

Like Miss Emily, the Barber fortune had dwindled and Miss Ola lived in solitude with a whole horde of cats. In the 1960s the entire city block was condemned by the federal government for the construction of a new post office. Miss Ola was somehow able to get Lyndon Johnson on the telephone and he spared her home, so in the corner of the block is a beautiful oasis surrounded by a massive structure with no soul. In 1977, she passed away and her executor was left in a quandary as to disposition of the property due to instructions in her will as follows:

“My further purpose in creating this trust is to provide a place where persons may come and sit, reflect and think in an atmosphere of beauty and solitude. And therefore, in this trust, I have directed my Trustee to provide in the rear garden of my home a place of beauty and rest for the citizens of Valdosta.

Also, I have noted that there is no downtown open area where people may sit and talk and visit. I am reminded by my remembrance of Joel Chandler Harris’s “Uncle Remus” that in talking to a little boy, Uncle Remus said, “Everybody has got to have a laughing place.” So, in keeping with Uncle Remus’ directions, it is my desire to have my Trustee provide for Valdosta citizens “a laughing, talking and thinking place.”

And further, I love my country, my State and my community and in appreciation of all things, I desire to leave something for people to use and enjoy. A home of beauty dedicated to all people will serve a far better purpose than to bend to the will of commercialism and have a gasoline service station or used car lot on my family’s property.

All this I do so feel and now declare.”

Brilliantly, the trustee gave the home to the chamber of commerce. They beautifully restored the structure and in the garden, they constructed a gazebo with a sign, “The Laughing Place.”

So that’s it, we decided to call our little secret garden “The Laughing Place,” a “place where persons may come and sit, reflect and think in an atmosphere of beauty and solitude.”

But, somehow that didn’t really strike a chord.

One of my favorite Hemingway short stories is “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” James Joyce once remarked: "He [Hemingway] has reduced the veil between literature and life, which is what every writer strives to do. Have you read 'A Clean Well-Lighted Place?’ It is masterly. Indeed, it is one of the best short stories ever written..."

Now, I’m not going to tell you I fully understand the story or much of anything else for that matter, but basically an old man is alone and he doesn’t want be alone at night, home in the dark. He goes to the same café every night and drinks brandy at the same table until three o’clock in the morning when it closes. He doesn’t go to the bars because they are noisy and not clean and well-lighted. He is seeking solitude.

I have always told Lane I can handle anything as long as I have a port in the storm, I haven’t always until Lane. When our friends come to our secret garden and the little room, they say they feel a sense of calm and home. You can go into someone’s house and it feels like a house, and in others it feels like a home.

So that’s it. Our space will be named “A Port in the Storm.” A place where our friends can in Ola Pittman’s words, have “a place where persons may come and sit, reflect and think in an atmosphere of beauty and solitude.”

My Mama always told me, “Gill, it takes a lot of living to make a house a home.”

Your friend,

Capt. Gill