It was a recent Sunday night when Lucas, almost 15, humored his old man on an evening stroll. We had both gotten into some poison oak, me taking the most of it, and the steroids I had just started were kicking in. Hours after dinner, I strongly felt I had to burn off the medically induced energy. The source of my itching was a storm that left my family with a downed tree in the backyard a couple weeks prior.
We had chainsawed our way through a smallish oak without knowing we’d gotten into the nasty stuff, hauling logs to the street and some over the fence. Our efforts were self-rewarded with cheeseburgers and Dr. Peppers in Washington Square after the last chunk was tossed. But on this Sunday night, the itching and swelling were fought hard by a healthy dose of Prednisone. Side effects included grinding of teeth, excessive pacing and an increased desire to exercise or lift cars off of the ground. I should have read the label. Maybe I would have taken that pill earlier in the day.
As we hoofed it around our ungated, palatial Midtown neighborhood, solving the world’s problems and planning next year’s attendance at ASMS, we noticed the wind began to pick up. Blocks away, we turned on the speed, with me proudly in the lead while Lucas “struggled” to keep up. We got home just in time to find the local news channels going haywire with tornado activity.
A couple of days later, we woke to the sound of sirens and phone alerts. This time it was to the north of us, and we remained unscathed. We were lucky. Less fortunate than us during this pandemic was south-central Mississippi.
Easter Sunday was their first round in the little town of Soso, west of Laurel. This was followed by a Hattiesburg scare, where friends of mine hid in their bathtubs. Hattiesburg was, for the most part, OK. Soso had been hit hard.
The Easter tornado cut a swath across the countryside miles long (and impressively wide) that was chillingly visible from an aerial photograph. In the midst of a global pandemic, this small community had much larger worries thrust upon it. For one local man with a competition barbecue truck, helping in the face of the virus was the only option.
Jones County resident and businessman Jamey Cooley loaded his truck and headed west toward the epicenter of a severe weather outbreak the day after it hit. The black trailer emblazoned with red lettering reading “Team JD Q Competition BBQ Team” was in tow, and Soso was about to get the help it needed.
It was a time of crisis on top of crisis, but Cooley’s generosity and energy was more infectious than anything else the sleepy part of South Mississippi had seen. News traveled quicker than the storm itself, and others in the biz showed up to help.
Butchers donated pork chops and Boston butts. Local chicken giant Sanderson Farms of Laurel sent cases of yardbird. Flats of water, beans and more came pouring in, and what started as a scruffy looking guy with a barbecue outfit turned into a full-blown crisis center feeding needy residents and volunteers alike. Even the Southern Miss football team sent volunteers to help spread the cheer.
In 12 days the volunteers bravely gave their time and energy prepping, seasoning, cooking and plating over 24,000 plates of barbecue. From its hub at ground zero in Soso, the help radiated out to Purvis, Columbia, Bassfield, Centerville, Moss, Heidelberg and Sharon as deliveries went out to those in need.
Not to mention there was another round of tornadoes causing milder damage in Jones County this week.
Adversity often turns men toward religion, that is true. If that is the case, then the second direction in a tragedy is a hard left toward the food. Many of us feel that we need to feed others when crises arise. For Jamey Cooley and his team, it was second nature, and it all came together with nary a plan.
In a time of curfew, social distancing, forced shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, some lost their homes. It’s hard to stay six feet apart when running what is essentially an outdoor restaurant, but a focus can change when people are in need. Let’s hope the only thing anyone was infected with was the spirit of giving.
When asked what he would do when this was all over, the humble and exhausted Cooley only had one thing on his mind: “Sleep.”
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