By Larry Lee
Not a soul moved as the plaintive notes of Taps hung over this little spit of south Alabama that was now wrapping its earthy arms around one of its own.
It was late April when Vernon Ingram made his last trip to the Oakey Streak Methodist Church which he joined as a teenager in 1936. In between he traveled the world in the service of the U.S. Air Force. India, Tripoli, Libya, Puerto Rico were all stops for this boy from a Depression era farm who answered when his country called.
As family and friends gathered at the grave site, a military detail paid their last respects. The coffin was covered with an American flag, just like the one that sits over my right shoulder in a wooden frame as I write. The one that covered my father’s coffin on a wet, cold February day ten years ago.
Ceremonial shots cracked above the pines that stretched to the horizon. The sound reminded us all that service to our country is a duty that Vernon’s generation did not take lightly. That when Hitler set his forces on his neighboring countries and Pearl Harbor was engulfed in flames. kids who knew more about chopping cotton than where Germany or Japan were, kids out of Red Level High School like Vernon Ingram and Arnie Lee went willingly to serve their country.
Like so many rural places, Oakey Streak was far different when Vernon and Daddy went to war than it is today. Tucked just across the Covington County line in Butler County, it was teeming with life back then. The surrounding countryside was home to dozens of sharecroppers and yoemen farmers furiously trying to scratch out a meager sustenance from the sandy bottoms and red clay ridges.
A man’s worth was measured by the value of his team of mules and the number of children he had to work the fields.
But even 75 years ago the Oakey Streak Methodist Church already had a rich history. Community families had been making the trek to its cemetery for decades. Organized in 1831, the present church has stood since the 1880s.
One moves reverently among the graves. Many marked only by rocks. No headstone to tell us who rests there eternally. One grave is the resting place of a soldier killed at the Battle of Sharpsburg, Maryland in the Civil War. A small sign marks the site of 21 unmarked graves of infants. A harsh reminder of a world before antibiotics.
Oakey Streak was once a thriving community. It even had one or two doctors. I remember when grandpa would go to see Dr. Jernigan at Oakey Streak.
But that was then. Today the sharecroppers’ fields have been reclaimed by thickets where endless pine trees march off in rows across thousands of acres. A testament to both farm mechanization and Federal programs.
Fittingly, the church is on the National Register of Historic Places. On the fourth Sunday of October the church celebrates “homecoming.” Two long concrete tables under an awning beside the church will be lined with peas, butterbeans, fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, turnip greens, casseroles of all sorts, peach cobbler, caramel cake, cornbread and sweet tea.
There will be hugs and laugher and endless stories as kinfolks and neighbors gather once again to pay their respects to days and people gone by.
And Vernon Ingram will be waiting.
Larry Lee lives in Montgomery. He can be contacted at [email protected]