June 5, 2011

Tommie "T-Bone" Pruitt's home destroyed in Memorial Day weekend fire.

Everybody calls him "T-Bone," but I just can't.  I call him Mr. Pruitt.  

He is sitting across from me in a two-person mini-booth in the Ward's fast food restaurant in Ellisville, MS.  His white undershirt is yellowed in spotsBlack suspenders hold his pants up with gold alligator clips

I have come to meet Mr. Pruitt and help him fill out requests for various types of assistance that are available to musicians in crisis.  I introduce myself, and explain that I contacted his granddaughter, who is sitting at another table, and offered my help.  I tell him that I am not a social worker, and that this is not my job.  

I leave out that I have a particular weakness for grandfatherly Southern men who play music.  I do not want to seem like a fan, even though I am a fan.  I explain that I will gather as much information as I can, and send it in for him.  I apologize that some of the questions may be personal. 

Mr. Pruitt is surprisingly relaxed and pleasant, despite having been through a traumatic loss and an overnight hospital stay.  He tells me his date of birth, and his wedding date.  He tells me that he is 78 years old, but that some paperwork may say that he is a year older.  

He pumped gas at a service station when Regular was a nickel a gallon.  When he was 17, he ran away from home, he says, because, "My momma would beat us and beat us." While his mother was away one Saturday, his sister gave him $5 so he could run off and marry Miss Verta, who was only 15.  Looking down at the mustard yellow laminate, he says, "Her momma used to beat her, too."  He pauses as if he is staring at an old photograph.  "Her family used to travel, always moving around.  So I married her."

My son, who is 10, sits at the table across from us, because he is out of school for the summer, and for the moment, he is well-behaved.  Still, when Mr. Pruitt's answers take him off the subject, I let him wander.  Long pauses hang between questions, in case he wants to keep talking, because everything he says feels powerful and heavy.  

The first form asks about his work in the music industry, and specific questions about his education, his work history, his health, his assets and his income.  It is four pages long. I ask him if he has any medical conditions: yes, glaucoma, high blood pressure, diabetes.   I ask if he has Medicaid, Medicare, and he answers yes, yes.  I ask him what prescriptions he needs, how much they cost each month.  

I ask if he has filled these since the fire, and who his doctor is, even though neither of these questions are on the form.  I write the doctor's name down.  

Own a car or truck? Yes.  Owns, or owned, the trailer?  

"Outright," he says.  

Any payments on anything? No.  

I ask him if he gets food stamps, and he looks confused.  "No, oh no.  I never needed those."  

His face lights up when he proudly tells me that he grows a garden.  "I grow tomatoes, squash, watermelons..."  It sounds like "waw-dah-melluns" when he says it, and the wonder and magic of it pierces me in the chest.  I repeat it softly before I can stop myself: "Wawdahmelluns."  

"Yes.  Them good ones, real sweet.  Squaw-shes, too."  I smile, but he is stone serious.  He raises his eyebrows and nods to convince me.  It occurs to me that under certain circumstances, being able to consistently grow a sweet, delicious watermelon must make a man feel like a king.

"I can grow okra from here all the way out to that parking lot."  He calls it "okrey."  He chuckles at himself, or maybe at me, or at the thought of a line of okra that goes on forever.  "Yes-suh, okrey for a long way," he says proudly. "Sho do."  

I ask him if they sell what they can't eat.  No, he says, they just try to give it away.   

Social security or SSI, yes.  Any other sources of income?  No.

Insurance policies?  No.

When it is complete, the form still looks empty, and the math is grim.  He barely had anything, and now what he did have is gone.


He says he will take me to where he was living when the house burned down, and we divide into two cars.  He rides with his granddaughter Romona, a soft-spoken woman in a long black cotton sundress and mustard yellow vest.  Her two children, also wearing mustard yellow, climb silently into the back.

I wait until my son closes his door before I ask what he thinks of Mr. Pruitt's story. "I wasn't really listening," he says.  I am gathering my you-have-no-idea-how-lucky-you-are speech when he adds, "It sounded kinda private."   I don't say anything else.

We follow them to a place just around the corner, and the site takes me by surprise.  The charred frame of a double-wide mobile home stands three feet off the ground, like the skeletal remains of the double wide dragon, the monster that ate Mr. Pruitt's whole life. The sweet taste of burnt wood tickles my throat.  

It is immediately obvious that it would be impossible to go through it all, and pointless, since nothing would be salvageable.  No clothes, no papers.  Not his Gibson P-335 that he paid $3700 dollars for back in 1976, nor the leather coat that B.B. King gave to him.  

"I know you were proud of that," I say.  

"Oh yeah,"  he agrees, lit up by the thought of it.  "Said his name where they sewed it in, right in the back of the neck: B. B.  K I N G."  We walk a few steps, and he adds, 

"It was warm, too."

Donations to the Tommie "T-Bone" Pruitt Fund can be made at any BancorpSouth location.

Music benefits are being scheduled during June/July 2011 in the Hattiesburg/Laurel Mississippi area.

Visit Mr. Pruitt's Facebook for current information about his relief fund:  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tommie-T-Bone-Pruitt/196139520419745.  For booking information concerning Mr. Pruitt, please call Ross Walton, at @ 601-434-6786.

1 comment:

  1. I like this story. I know Mr. Pruitt personally, not very well. My best friend is his daughter-in-law (April). And I can just hear him saying watermelon (of course the way he says it)! I've had the pleasure of talking to him a few times and I have been in there home. I hate that this happened to them. But I just wanted to tell you that you did a great job on this, I feel like I was sitting there with the both of you! :)


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