Darold and Pauline Neal

Darold and Pauline Neal

The difficulty in finding a parking spot should have been the first clue. The wait to sign the condolences register was another. The line that wrapped from down yonder to over there was the giveaway, though.

In Mantee, Mississippi, on Saturday, family and friends gathered to say their final words to and about Darold Lee Neal, 75. And given a chance, everyone would have rather continued spinning yarns about the husband of 56 years and father of three.

Other than being a Rebel, he was the epitome of a great American. He loved Miss Pauline. Ronnie was the first-born, so they tried again. Tracy, my college roommate, was next, so they took one more shot at getting it right. Jada was the perfect bookend for this All-American family.

(Jada is literally the baby. Everyone who knows Tater, however, will attest that he’s the figurative whiny-butt …)

Hard work? Mr. Darold wrote several chapters of that book. Good times? He penned a few lines in that tome, too. In between, he enjoyed Hotty Toddy to great excess, which still fell short of the love he had for family.

Southern funerals are a gift. People generally gather to say good things, as did former Mantee Baptist pastor Dr. Ken Hester. The message made those clinging to Kleenex feel better. Yes, we were sad that Mr. Darold had left us – but we were better people because he passed through our lives.

End of the day, no family is perfect. Ronnie and T-Neal scrap; they’re brothers, and it’s expected. Jada worries about both of them, and they big-brother it around her but still keep an eye out for lil’ sis. All the while, Miss Pauline remains proud of how she and Mr. Darold raised three rock-solid good souls.

While shuffling down the hall, around the bend and back up the wall en route to the sanctuary to pay final respects, old and young told tales of time spent with the Neals. And there was laughter. Pastor Hester knew this; Darold Neal made folks feel better about themselves (especially if Mississippi State won the Egg Bowl — because you could rejoice that you weren’t an Ole Miss fan …).

You can tell a lot about a good ol’ boy by how many times he answers a dare with “Daddy’d whip my ass for that.” Tracy said that a lot – and then, hold my beer, he’d do exactly what he’d otherwise get a whuppin’ for just because Mr. Darold wasn’t within snatch-a-knot-in-your-butt distance. … Yes, we love Tater for that fearlessness (and probably encourage it more than we should, truth be told).

Thing is, besides leaving an indelible impression on T’s rear end, Mr. Darold touched everyone whose path he crossed. Just ask his son-in-law Jody or daughters-in-law Tammy and Betsy; his grandchildren Hunter, Cassidy, Cheyanne, Skylar, Lillie Beth, and Tyler; and great-grandchild Ainzlee Jo. Strangers when he met Jody, Tammy, and Betsy, they became family — and when Pop brought you into the circle, it was over.

That’s not to say he was all that and a box of Cracker Jack. Sister LaWanda and brother Donald could pop that notion before the thought bubble got too far from your head. And they loved him.

As I drove away, the thing that stuck in my head was the joy that permeated from those gathered in Small Town, USA. A local pillar had been laid to rest, but no one was distraught. Mr. Darold had done his part to ensure our foundations were not going to crack, to fall.

“Ole Miss” stitched into the casket lining should have been the first clue. The mourners and pallbearers with Ole Miss button-downs and Polos were another. The first notes of From Dixie with Love was the giveaway, though.

Mr. Darold went out the way he lived — showing love for his family, for his school, for everyone who knew him.

Indeed, old times there are not forgotten.