My Friend Jim

John W. Pinkerton

I haven’t had many friends during my lifetime, but James Pinckney Smith was one of the few. 

About a year ago on a Sunday, I drove 300 miles to and 300 miles back from Pineville, Louisiana, where Linda and I attended Jim’s funeral. Jim had been a friend of mine since college.   Jimmy and I went to high school together, but he was a couple of grades behind me, and we never really connected.  We became friends when we were at LSU together.  The game of bourre (boo-ray), a Louisiana card game, was the common denominator. 

Jim was not only a fine bourre player, but he was also the finest artist I ever knew. His art was graceful and spirited. By comparison, I was discouraged by my own artistic ineptitude.  He took a few courses in art at a local college and received high praise, but Jim was determined to become a lawyer.    Probably because of the comparison to Jim, it was not until late in life did I pursue art aggressively.  The fault was mine, not his. 

Jim was a true Southern Faulkner character:  he was a law student who married the prettiest girl from high school: he lost her and his little dark haired boy not many years after he dropped out of law school. He was able to wear a tweed jacket with elbow patches when he taught a few college courses.   He married again, had a step daughter whom he loved and a little girl of his own whom he taught to curse like a sailor and who is presently a medical student.  He worked very enthusiastically as a group therapist for alcoholics reluctantly reaching the conclusion that, “You can’t do anything with the damned drunks.” He founded a government funded educational program for the undereducated and difficult to employ only to learn it was impossible to make any money at it without cheating: he opted out.  He went to the University of Georgia where he inexplicably withdrew when he only had his thesis left to obtain a doctorate.  Faced with, in his own words, unemployability, he turned to selling fireworks, which he had dabbled in for years, and worked it into a viable and profitable business.  His family still maintains the business.  His last indignity was the loss in a political contest to a man who had been a special education student.  His retelling of this was quite amusing. 

Then cancer came to him.  He and his wife went to Houston for treatments: he never went home.  Linda and I visited with them in Houston. We took him a watercolor set and paper to give him something to do during his down time.  Each time we were scheduled to meet with Jim and his wife in Houston, he would relapse, and we would have to delay the visit.  We were scheduled to meet with them again on a Friday.  He passed away Thursday evening. 

When he was a youngster just entering puberty, his parents decided that he was troubled.  Being good parents, they sought help where they could find it:   a self-help book for parents with problem children.   Jim caught on pretty quickly and began to surreptitiously reading one chapter ahead in the book.  His poor parents never had a chance.

Like all good Southern characters, Jim was a hunter of deer.  He once sacrificed his car to this activity.  He walked through the woods all day in a light drizzle hunting his deer.  Upon returning to his car he found it completely submerged.  Jim accepted this with a shrug. 

He was not a golfer, and I was not a hunter, but we were both fishermen. Some of my most enjoyable times with Jim involved fishing.  I know you expect me to say bass fishing, but, no, brim fishing.  I remember once hearing a fisherwoman say to her friend that she had thirty or forty in a gallon bucket.  Not these: these were brim the size of white perch and were great sport to catch.  They were in an old Cajun’s lake regularly flooded by an adjacent  swamp.  The secret to their size Jim surmised to be an iron deposit at the bottom of the lake.  On one of our trips, we caught almost seventy brim.  Iron deposit or not, they were great. 

I paid my dues to learn to play bouree which is a seemingly simple game...seemingly simple.  I became a perfectly proficient player and would be willing to sit down at any table with anyone for any stakes, but Jim was better.  We once hitchhiked to Opelousas, a Cajun town about fifty miles north of Baton Rouge to engage in a well-known continuing and, of course, illegal bouree game.  Being that it was a pretty high-dollar game, I gave Jim all the money I had to add to all the money he had to participate in the game.  He lasted for a few hours, long enough for me to get pretty tight at the bar up front.  We hitchhiked home on a rainy night, but it was worth the trip.  Bouree was important to me: gambling in general was important to me, too important I realized, so as an adult, I’ve kept that in mind when gambling.  Jim gambled all of his life: in later years, blackjack was his game of choice.  He kept records of his wins and losses, and he won enough to have his wife’s support which is a pretty good endorsement of his skills.

As I mentioned, Jim and I played a lot of bourre sitting at the same table.  One evening while playing with strangers in a dorm at LSU, I discovered that my cards had miraculously changed for the better between the discards and the new hand.  Without thinking, I immediately wondered aloud “These aren’t my cards?”  One rather large stranger at the table immediately picked up on the situation and turned on Jim who had dealt the cards.  Oh, Hell.  Jim apparently thought he was James Bond: he backed up near the only door, flipped the lights off, but then did something  which no one has ever been able to explain: Jim lit his cigarette lighter.  Needless to say, this was not the smartest move Jim ever made.  Fortunately, all he got out of it was a broken thumb.

Another evening Jim and I were playing bouree once again with strangers.  At one point in the game, Jim asked if anyone had a check.  Back then checks were generic, only specific to the bank.  He tossed his check into the money on the table and later  won it back.  When I ran low on funds, I too asked for a blank check although I knew I didn’t have an account with that bank or any bank.  I too won my check back.  After a successful bourre evening, we paused a moment after the game to have a cigarette outside the building at which we had played. 

I commented to Jim, “I didn’t know you had a bank account.”

Jim paused before he responded, “I don’t.”

“Me neither, Jim.  Me neither.”

When Jim and I were at LSU, Jim began dating a girl from New Orleans.  I never met her, but Jim seemed to be entranced by her.  I think part of his fascination with her was part of his Southern Gothic nature.  Who knows how they parted, but years later I read about a Russian roulette game a young man had submitted himself to which ended fatally for him.  The other participant in the fatal game was Jim’s old girl friend.  Southern Gothic has a limited appeal.

I guess one of the reasons I liked Jim as much as I did, is some of the thoughts he shared.  Once on the way back from a fishing trip, Jim proposed that because most criminals are not very bright and it was quite obvious that we were bright that we should turn to a life of crime if we did not achieve wealth by the time we reached forty.  You never knew when Jim was seriously entertaining an idea: I immediately declined the offer on the basis that regardless of how smart we thought we were, the risks were too high for me.  He seemed to take my response well.  As far as I know, he never did turn to a life of crime, although I have no doubt that he would have been a success.

Another interest we shared was politics.  Jim knew politics, and it nearly killed him.  He decided that political polling was an easy way to make a buck.  He was successful at this enterprise and developed a good reputation for accuracy.  His career in polling ended abruptly.  He was hired by some pretty serious folks who undoubtedly wanted to take bets on the outcome of a political race.  Unfortunately his female partner in this enterprise chose to drink on the job.  To say the results were skewed by indifference to accuracy would be an understatement.  Not being fond of losing money, the “serious folks” paid him a visit.  In my mind’s eye I can see Jim pacing back and forth with a cigarette in hand gesticulating as he eloquently explained the vagaries of polling.  It ended his career as a polling expert, but they left him undamaged, always a plus. 

After about fifteen years of not seeing Jim, I tracked him down by following roadside posters which read “Big Jim’s Fireworks.”  There he was, the proprietor of a fireworks stand.  Jim may have been the only fireworks guy with an undergraduate degree, a masters, and all but his thesis toward a doctorate.  Jim seemed as pleased to see me as I was to see him.  Although it was obvious that he was running a fireworks stand, I asked him what else he was doing.  He began by saying that he was unemployable.  Then he began to list the many reasons.  I don’t recall all of the reasons, but I do recall “not playing well with others.” 

When we visited Jim in Houston after the onset of his cancer, he seemed to think that he had not achieved many of the goals of his life.

Me neither, Jim.  Me neither.

But he did profess that he had really tried.

Hell, Jim, that’s the best any of us can do.

Although many people seemed to view Jim as an outrageous character who was better suited to be between the covers of a Faulkner novel, I always found him knowledgeable and pleasant in a Southern way.  I still miss Jim.  He was a good friend. 



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