Now for the rest of the story Yarn-spinner Jeff Roberts picks up where he left off

Published 12:01 am Sunday, March 13, 2011

Jeff Roberts, who lives in Claiborne County, is a natural‑born story teller, and this is the last of a two‑part series based on an interview with the retired Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol trooper.

“Who is that?” Jeff Roberts asked a friend when he saw a girl walking down the street in Port Gibson. He recalls that “she was the most gorgeous creature I had ever seen in my life.”

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The girl was Brenda Boren. Before long Jeff would meet her — but it wasn’t totally by accident. Jeff seldom cooked, usually ate at Jimmy Ham’s Cafe, owned by Jimmy and Dottie Abraham, off the main drag in Port Gibson.

Brenda worked at a nearby beauty shop, and soon she just happened to be in the cafe at the same time he came to eat. Though he didn’t know it at the time, it was about as happenstance as the boys riding their horses through Pineville years before to attract attention.

“Dottie Abraham got us together,” Jeff said. “They were having a party at the beauty shop and I was off duty and went to the cafe. Dottie played like they needed some ice at the beauty shop. She said she just couldn’t leave, ‘Would you…?’ and so here I go like Gomer Pyle up the sidewalk.”

That night they had their first date and went to the Lorman Drive-in Theater where they saw “Walking Tall.” It was July 1973. The following November, 37 years ago, they got married. That marriage has been a happy one, unlike another Jeff tells about. It’s one of his highway patrol stories.

“I was after this guy one evening — he took off, zoom, zoom, and I wondered what was wrong with him,” Jeff said. He called ahead, got some help, stopped the man, got him out of the car, handcuffed him, and Jeff asked what did he think he was doing. The man explained: “Officer, I ain’t going to lie about it. My wife ran off with a state trooper about five years ago and I thought he was bringing her back.”

Those were the days when the Mimosa Cafe north of Port Gibson was a very popular place where folks often met, and one day when Jeff walked in, “Everybody was speaking, everybody knew one another,” he said. He was an avid hunter then and had some pack mules he used on western hunts. Someone asked him about his mules, and Jeff saw a man from out of town sitting nearby, drinking his coffee, “But you could tell he wanted to get into the conversation.”

“You got huntin’ mules?” he asked, and Jeff said, “Yeah, and one of ’em will tree a squirrel. He looked at me and said he didn’t believe it, but I told him it was true. He wanted to bet a hundred dollars, said his brother had a hunting club down on the Big Black. Wanted to take the mule down there.”

Jeff told him he couldn’t take the mule down to the river, and the man said, “See there. I knew you were lying,” but Jeff explained: “That’s not it. If I carried that mule down there near that river, I never would get her away from there as much as she likes to fish.”

Jeff’s patrol duties were on Highway 61 to the Warren County line, and one night a car passed him with its flashers on, and he stopped it to see if he could help. That was in the 1970s during the first scare of swine flu. There was an old lady in the back seat who spoke up: “Officer, we’re headed to the hospital.” Jeff suggested they were going the wrong way — the Claibonre County Hospital was in Port Gibson, and they were headed toward Vicksburg. The lady told him they were headed to a bigger hospital, to Kuhn because “my nephew, he got that old hog flu and got it slap to the bone.”

On another occasion, along the same stretch of highway, a car was moving along at about 30 miles an hour, and though there’s a minimum speed Jeff said he had plenty to do “without messing with someone for driving too slow. I was waiting for a passing place, when all of a sudden a whole wad of paper came flying out the window. I put the light on, pulled the driver over.”

The car was full of children who, the driver said, didn’t belong to him. He was “up here driving. I don’t know what they’re doing on the back seat.” After a bit of conversation, Jeff warned him that those children and their littering was about to cost him money, but as he seemed like a nice enough fellow he was just going to let him off with a warning.

“He got to giving me some of his background,” Jeff said. “He told me he had supported the sheriff, the chancery clerk, several supervisors in the last election.” Jeff told him that was all well and good, they were his friends, “but I’m going to be running for highway patrol again and I’d like to know what you’re going to do for me?”

The man assured him of his support, telling him, “I voted for you the last time.”

Jeff is never one to laugh at one’s misfortune, but funny things do happen in court. There’s one case he’ll never forget. It all began when there was a tailgate gathering at a local dive. Two men disagreed, then got into a knockdown fight, when one ran to his truck, got a gun and came back and shot the other man in the buttocks.

There was a witness who said he saw the whole episode because of the street light nearby. He told of the argument and told the judge, “That’s when Trunell run to the truck and got his gun. I seen him wretch under the seat and get the gun, and when Bernard wheeled to run that’s when he shot him in the ass.”

The judge stopped him, asked if he had ever testified in court before. He said no, so the judge said he understood, but, “I’m going to ask you for the remainder of these proceedings if you have to refer to that part of him again you just call it his lower posterior.”

The questioning and testifying resumed, and again the witness started to tell what he saw when he said, “and that’s when he shot Bernard — judge, what did you say his ass was again?”

All of Jeff’s experiences weren’t lighthearted. There were serious events he’d rather forget, and there were times when his duties involved the famous and influential, such as when he was the official escort for a visiting first lady from a northern state, and another when he was assigned to drive Gov. and Mrs. Bill Clinton.

Jeff retired from the highway patrol after 28 years, in 2000, then worked for the Department of Corrections for a while, “the only job I ever quit. Like the tomcat courting the skunk, I enjoyed it as much as I could stand.”

Jeff has an abiding love for Southern history, which he thinks began when he was a small boy playing with Confederate money stashed in an old trunk. His great-grandfather was a member of the Jasper Rifles, a heritage of which he’s proud. In Claiborne County, “I’m right in the middle of history, and there’s no end to it. When you read Miss Kate Headley’s book (‘The Promised Land: A History of Claiborne County’), you continually go back to it. You can’t absorb it all.”

He not only loves history, but Jeff lives in a very historic setting. In 1991, he and Brenda bought Magnolia Hall, a house on Powell’s Ferry Road that was built in 1852. They’ve painstakingly restored the home, and one of Jeff’s passions is tending the sprawling lawn, bordered with flowers and dotted with ancient trees.

He and Brenda do everything together. They used to hunt — now he doesn’t even want to shoot an armadillo — fish, scuba dive, ride motorcycles, “but now our greatest love is hanging around in flower or junk shops.”

Another of his loves is cooking.

He’s best known, though, for telling stories. Some are true. Others, well, let it be said that the truth should never ruin a good story.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.