Those who visit 90-year-old Margaret Joiner seldom leave without doing some required reading.
It is a patriotic poem, framed in red, white and blue. Her son, Neil Joiner, wrote it more than a generation ago. The 374 words have echoed down every dirt road in Dooly County and have been heard above the fruited plains of peaches and watermelons.
For the past 33 years, folks have gone up to Neil at the bank or flagged him down in the aisles at the Piggly Wiggly, and told him how much they were inspired by “What America Is.”
“Oh,” he would say, grinning. “I’m sure Mama made you read it.”
In the weeks leading up to the Fourth of July in 1984, the Vienna Junior Women’s Club ran a patriotic art and poetry contest.
Neil, who was president of the local bank and the father of 5-year-old triplets, was declared the winner after submitting his poem, “What America Is.”
In simple, rhyming verse, he told the story through the eyes of a father explaining America to his young son. The boy is sitting on his lap, a playful puppy at their feet.
America is the lump in your throat when the flag passes by … the statue in the harbor with a torch in hand … the laughter of children … a bald eagle … a mother’s embrace … a family praying in a country church.
The poem was published in a regional magazine called Back Porch. And Thom Smith, who owned WDEN radio station in Macon, recorded it at Muscadine Studios and made some cassette tapes.
After retiring from banking on Dec. 31, 2015, Joiner self-published the timeless poem with illustrations.
He dedicated it to his mother.
For six months, proceeds from the book went to the Flint Humane Society as part of a fundraiser.
Neil is a lifelong resident of Dooly County and graduated from Unadilla High School in 1970. He met his wife, Jane, when they were students at Valdosta State. They have been married for 42 years. The triplets — Erin, Seth and Carrie — are now 38. The Joiners have been blessed with four grandchildren.
A self-professed amateur painter and part-time Sunday school teacher, Neil has since published another book, “Lessons from the Ladder.” The ideas dripped from the end of his brush as he was painting his house last year. It is filled with wit, wisdom, “paint can theology” and “ladder matters.” Earlier this year, he began writing columns for the Cordele Dispatch.
He and Jane live along historic U.S. 41, perhaps the most iconic and All-America highway in Georgia. They are smack dab in barbecue and watermelon country — two food groups closely associated with the Fourth of July. (Vienna is home of the annual Big Pig Jig, the state’s oldest official barbecue cooking contest and one of the largest in the South. And nearby Cordele touts itself as the “Watermelon Capital of the World.”)
Neil is not a rah-rah, flag-waving, fill the sky with fireworks kind of guy. He prefers to display his red, white and blue in a humble way. Patriotism doesn’t just ride into town in the middle of summer, then saddle up and leave after 24 hours on Instagram. You can’t buy it in a store or order it from a catalog.
“Public celebrations are wonderful and appropriate,” he said. “Personally, we’ll stay home, have a quiet day, and that night watch “A Capitol Fourth” on GPB. It’s a rare moment when we as a nation can hopefully put politics aside and celebrate the freedom that has come at a cost to many.”
I visited with Neil last week and had a nice lunch. Jane made some of her delicious chicken salad. We sat at the kitchen table. He shared his thoughts on the flag, freedom, the Pledge of Allegiance and the importance of national unity, despite our political differences.
“Patriotism doesn’t mean we always agree, but it should foster an environment of respect, a desire to look for those things that unite us and a willingness to put others first,” he said.
There are no photographs or illustrations to accompany the definition of patriotism in the dictionary. But when Neil looks it up, he sees in his mind the face of one of Dooly County’s finest, Charles Speight, a decorated World War II pilot who flew more than 70 missions.
“Putting your life on the line is true patriotism,” said Neil. “But what is even more remarkable is that, at 95, he is still serving his country, this time by serving his community.”
Speight teaches Sunday school, is active in local senior citizen groups and for many years has been the top salesman for the Unadilla Lions Club during its annual Vidalia Onion fundraiser.
“He came home, worked in the family business, raised a family and started giving back to the community,” said Neil. “And he’s still at it.”
Patriotism manifests itself in many ways, Neil said. It can be holding your hand over your heart and singing during the national anthem. Or praying for our nation and its leaders. You don’t have to “like” somebody to pray for them, he said. Patriotism means being proactive, involved and an informed voter.
“A good question to ask ourselves is, ‘Am I trying to leave things better than I found them?’ ” said Neil. “It’s tempting to let someone else carry the load, but the load is much lighter if we all grab a handle.”
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.