In one episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” Aunt Bea decided it wasn’t good for Opie to hang out at the jail. She insisted Opie find somewhere else to play and when that got him in trouble, they all decided the jail wasn’t such a bad place to hang out after all.
When they were little, my brothers Don and Tom (formerly Donnie and Tommie) and my cousin, Charles, like Opie, hung out at the jail. The town wasn’t Mayberry, North Carolina; it was LaFayette, Alabama. But if you know Mayberry, you know LaFayette.
My dad’s father, John Thomas Estes, Sr., died before I was born so I never knew him. But everybody in LaFayette, Alabama, knew him. A veteran of World War I, Granddaddy Estes was a farmer who never owned a house or a piece of land. He raised his crops and his family on someone else’s land, earning a share of the profits (if there were any) after the harvest was sold. After his children/field workers grew up and left home he became the jailer in LaFayette. He and my grandmother, Naomi, lived in an apartment at the jail. They kept the place clean and cooked for the inmates and even though Granddaddy was not the Sherriff—like Andy Taylor, he had the respect of everyone in town.
My parents owned a small house and a few acres of land about 8 miles from town. When they came to town and stopped by to visit, Don and Tom blew through the apartment and went to hang out in the jail with their Granddaddy. They would walk down to the depot and get on the train and ride in the engine with the engineer down to where the train stopped for coal and water. They would walk over to the courthouse and sit on the courthouse porch in straight wooden chairs leaned back against the wall talking politics and weather with men smoking pipes and unfiltered cigarettes.
Sometimes an adventure with Granddaddy involved a walk over to the “filling station” to buy a bottle of Coca Cola from the cooler beside the tire display.
On one of those adventures, Tom earned a nickname that followed him into adulthood: Yellowjacket. Tom was just a little boy and his screams after being attacked by a swarm of yellowjackets brought assistance from all over town.
One day while visiting his parents at their jailhouse apartment, my dad stopped a jailbreak. He was in the family apartment when one of the cooks came running, yelling, “Mr. Raymond, Mr. Raymond. They are coming out.” When Daddy followed her around behind the building he found that the prisoners were, indeed, trying to escape. They had managed to chip away mortar holding a window in an aging wall and one prisoner was trying to back out the window. Daddy grabbed a nearby broom and began spanking the conveniently displayed backside. The invisible head attached to the escaping rear end yelled and cursed and complained about the beating he was getting. Daddy told him to go back in, otherwise he would keep beating. The arse finally went back in and Daddy later had to testify in court that the man had attempted (unsuccessfully) to break out of jail.
Years later the City of LaFayette tore down the old jail with the iron bars and built a modern incarceration center where the back yard had a tall fence with rolled barbed wire across the top. But Granddaddy kept both keys to the old jail cells. He gave one to Charles and one to Don and Tom. He wanted them to keep those keys as a reminder to always stay on the right side of the law.
Even though I didn’t know Granddaddy Estes and I didn’t inherit a jail key, I had my own crime deterrent to keep me out of trouble. By the time I was born most people called my Dad “Reverend Estes.” To many, he was a mild-mannered preacher. But to me there was always the mental image of my dad as the man who stopped a jail break with a broom handle.