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Mr. Tucker
by Leroy Morganti

He was not what I would have ordered in a stepfather, but that's probably why they don't let 10-year-olds make life-changing decisions.

My mother, older brother and I were doing just fine, thank you, and we didn't need another man around the house. Or so I thought, and so did Miss Rosie, until he came into the picture.

Widowed at 39, Miss Rosie, still an attractive woman, had turned away several suitors, including one who had money. Money was very important to me since we had so little of it.

He didn't have money, at least not the kind I dreamed about. Bulldozer operators do okay, but they have to move from town to town to follow the work. And that's what brought him to our little town and into my life -- the levee needed some work, he needed some new khakis, and Miss Rosie sold khakis.

One Saturday, he showed up at Dattel's Department Store in Rosedale and asked specifically for Rosie, the work of my match-making uncle, I was to learn later. Apparently, the chemistry was there, and he asked her out for dinner one night.

She accepted. It was her first date after my father's death some four years earlier. I purposely went to visit a friend down the street so that I would not be there when he arrived to pick her up, and I stayed there until after his departure later that evening.

I was not happy. I felt threatened by this stranger from the hills, a geographically undefined term that Deltans in those days used to describe any place in Mississippi that was not flat. The hills were different, so I thought he must be different too.

Miss Rosie was very protective of her two sons. Every boy my age and at least one girl had a BB gun, but I had to satisfy myself by gazing at the Daisy Red Ryder lever-action model in the window of Mr. Stribling's Firestone store and dreaming of breaking bottles with expertly-placed shots. The $5 price tag and Miss Rosie’s protective nature separated me from my fantasies.

One day, Miss Rosie announced to my brother and me that he would be coming to supper the following night. I was devastated; this was starting to look serious. I’m sure my displeasure was noted by the very perceptive mind of Miss Rosie, but she said nothing. And neither did I.

The dreaded next day arrived all too soon and, as evening approached, the aroma of fried chicken filled our house. I remember it was fried chicken because Miss Rosie said it was his favorite.

I went into the backyard to pout in private, not wanting to be there when he arrived, and dreading the moment I would be called in for supper and he would be there. I was taking out my fury on an old wood storage shed with a rubber ball when I heard the screen door slam. I pretended not to hear and continued to pound the ball against the strike zone target I had painted on the wall, refusing to acknowledge Miss Rosie's approach.

But it was not Miss Rosie's voice I heard.

"Hey, you've got pretty good aim," the voice said. And I knew it had to be him. Finally, he and I -- face to face now -- and I turned to size up the competition for my mother's attention. He was a big fellow with a huge grin, and he stuck out his right hand.

"I'm Hayes Tucker."

I shook his hand briefly and lowered my eyes to the ground, more out of shyness than rudeness. Miss Rosie could tolerate the natural shyness of her two sons, but never rudeness.

I noticed he kept his left hand behind his back and, after a moment of silent awkwardness for both of us, he brought his left hand forward.

"Think you can aim as well with this?" he asked as he began stripping the brown paper around the object he held. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen -- a Daisy Red Ryder lever action BB gun with several packs of BBs!

"Your mother said you wanted one of these."

He and I spent 15 minutes drilling BBs into a cardboard box before Miss Rosie called us in for what had to be the best fried chicken supper ever.

A few months later, John Hayes Tucker became my stepfather, and even though no biological father and son were ever closer, I continued to call him “Mr. Tucker,” never “Dad.”

He taught me to hunt and fish and to do a lot of the manly things boys can't pick up from their moms.

And when the bulldozer work left town, he stayed, taking a lesser job with the highway department so he didn't have to be away from his ready-made family. He became a solid citizen of our town, a deacon at First Baptist Church and a 32nd degree Mason.

He gave me a lot and never asked anything in return, except once.

One member of his work crew was a guy from a nearby town who bragged continually about his son being a great high school football player. John Hayes Tucker suffered the guy in the Christian manner, or so I thought.

Before Rosedale's game with the nearby town, he told me -- outside the earshot of Miss Rosie, of course -- "If you get the chance, knock that kid's block off."

I just smiled and thought no more about it.

We were a much better team and had just scored to take a three-touchdown lead mid-way of the second quarter. In those days, Rosedale and other small schools did not have enough players to allow for specialists, so I played the unlikely combination of quarterback on offense, outside linebacker on defense, and defensive end on kickoffs.

My assignment on kickoffs was to line up on the left sideline and get downfield in a hurry to turn the play to the inside. The deep back on my side received the kickoff and raced toward the opposite sideline, only to hand off on a reverse.

I had done my job by "staying home," which brought the new ball carrier straight into my crosshairs.

As I charged for his knees to make the tackle, he attempted to become airborne, so I caught him just above the ankles instead. His own momentum, plus a little boost from me at the end, sent him feet over head in a somersault that ended with his landing flat on his back with a thud.

There were gasps from the crowd, but the tackle appeared more spectacular than it was. Thankfully, the ball carrier only had the wind knocked out of him.

As I got up from the ground, I glanced toward the sideline, and an ear-to-ear grin stood out. Of course, it was John Hayes Tucker. Even though I had forgotten his wish and had never identified the braggart’'s son, fate had intervened and allowed me to grant the wish of someone who had become very dear to me.

John Hayes Tucker died on Christmas Day, 1975, and few visits between us during his final 19 years passed without mention of "The Hit," and without a flashing of his trademark grin I had picked out of the crowd.

I visit him often where he rests alongside the love of his life, Miss Rosie, in the nearby Beulah Cemetery. I talk openly to them, mostly about things in general, and thank them for the upbringing they provided so unselfishly.

But no conversation with John Hayes Tucker, even from the grave, could ever seem complete without his thanking me once again for silencing one irritant in his life on an otherwise long-forgotten Football Friday Night so many years ago.

You're welcome, "DAD." And thank you. After all, you were the one who taught me to aim, to be a man, and so much more. Yes, so much more.


Leroy Morganti is a native of Rosedale, Mississippi. He spent the early years of his professional life as a reporter for various Mississippi newspapers and The Associated Press. He joined Delta State University in 1971 as Director of Public Information and retired in 2002 as Vice President for Executive Affairs. He resides at the Benoit Outing Club.

Read more of Leroy Morganti's stories at USADEEPSOUTH:
Saucy Miss Grazi
Camping With Preachers
Robert, My Brother
Things My Mother Was Wont To Say
Close Encounter With A Lie Detector Test

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