The Judge and me
The pull of childhood memories is strong. A sight, a familiar smell, even a taste can transport us back in time in an instant. Melear’s Barbeque had all three.
To some, it was a meeting place to discuss the current politics of the day. To others, it was just another barbeque restaurant. For still others, the stopping point before the big race. To me, it was much, much more.
I remember my first visit, some 25 years ago. A light, sweet haze from the outdoor pit greeted me as I opened my truck door. My mouth watered as I watched the cook walk past, carrying large hunks of the still smoking hams from the pit to the restaurant’s kitchen. Happily, I followed him up the steps and into the building.
Like many, I had heard this county had one of the best school systems around. The Boy would arrive in a couple of months, and it was time for a move from the big city to a better way of life.
That’s when I saw him for the first time. With his trademark cigar clenched between his teeth, a wisp of blue smoke surrounded his head as he surveyed the room from behind an antique desk next to the kitchen. At his restaurant, he served up some of the best barbeque in town and the sweetest tea in three counties. As magistrate judge at the court, he handed down justice and advice.
From his barbeque restaurant on the south edge of town, the soft-spoken man’s influence reached far and wide and has touched the lives of almost everyone in this county over the last 40-plus years. It flowed unobstructed from the small white block building, traveled down Main Street, and stretched across sidewalks into every shop on the old town square.
On The Boy’s first visit when he was 3 months old, we had placed him in the infant carrier on the table, his sippy cup was filled with sweet tea. From that day forward, a glass of super sweet tea enjoyed over a bowl of chips was always the reward at the end of a hard day’s work.
I watched across the table as The Boy grew into a man. And from behind his desk, The Judge watched also. He gave advice, shared his contacts, and helped whenever asked, a rare thing these days.
Looking back, there wasn’t a problem too hard or an argument too great that couldn’t be solved between father and son over a glass of super sweet tea and a bowl of chips. And the time spent with The Boy? That was priceless, and something I’ll treasure the rest of my life.
It was 13 years later that a young school teacher sat across the table from me enjoying pancakes. And her first visit. She said they were the best she’d ever had, except for maybe the ones in Tennessee. We left and started to drive north. After an hour, she asked where we were going. I smiled, and said, “To get those pancakes.”
That afternoon, I proposed to the school teacher at the base of Bridal Veil Falls in Tennessee. She said yes. Afterwards, we enjoyed a dinner of pancakes. All was right with the world.
That was then, but this is now. You see, last week it wasn’t just the doors of his restaurant that closed. It was the doors on an entire way of life.
Some called it the Good Old Boy System, but I never heard him not try to help when asked. The Judge would give money to support local causes, write letters of recommendations, and even hire you if you needed work.
I know. A long time ago, he hired me.
You may not have agreed with his politics, you might not have liked his food, or you may even have considered his influence as meddling, but not many can say that they’ve been in business for over 40 years and along the way helped build and shape a town and the people who live in it.
I will always remember those first visits. You were considered lucky to have The Judge hold your baby and take a picture for his scrapbook. It was as if he was personally welcoming the next generation to his town.
That day he said he expected great things from my son and me. I hope we haven’t disappointed him.
Now that the doors to his restaurant are finally closed, I wonder who in this town could possibly take his place.
Sadly, I realize the answer as I drive past the empty parking lot.
No one can.
[Rick Ryckeley, who lives in Senoia, has been a firefighter for more than two decades and a columnist for The Citizen since 2001. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]