Last week I shared with you that I had spent some time with my brother, W.H. Williford, in Arlington, Virginia. While there I learned of the death of my friend Max Graham Futrell, one I had known since childhood. It was questionable as to whether I could leave W.H., who suffers with dementia, and get back home in time for the funeral, but things worked out.

I left early on Saturday and arrived at St. John’s Church just minutes before Rev. Jim Skinner motioned for the congregation to stand while the family was escorted to their pews.

Traffic jams are routine on I-95, thus during numerous snarls I had more time to reflect on my relationship with Max. My intent is not to propel Max into sainthood, but be assured he involved himself in more saintly deeds, by far, than the average man who has sojourned on earth.

After high school I was gone from the area for some 45 years during which time I probably never saw Max more than three or four times, but when I returned 19 years ago we rekindled a friendship that has lasted.

We have served together for several years on our high school class reunion committee. He and Mary Ann have done as much as anyone to make those reunions resounding successes.

By the way, we have held reunions consecutively for the last 25 years or more. At our reunion in June, Max repeated a statement that I had often heard from his mouth: “The reason, that we enjoy our reunions so much is that we love one another.” And he was exactly right! We were a tight group even in high school. More recently the Futrells have been active in our local Grantham Grange.

Max, like the average boy in our class, never made the honor roll. He was not selected as a superlative or pictured as such in our senior yearbook. He was not the best looking, he was not the most popular, and he was not the “most likely to succeed.”

In fact, as our friendship grew over recent years Max and I shared several things that we did not know about each other. He once told me that Elizabeth Lewis, our excellent math teacher, called him aside one day and said rather bluntly and very seriously, “Max, if you don’t change your ways you’re never going to amount to very much.”

Well, those of you who knew Max can vouch for the fact that Miss Lewis was dead wrong. He proved to be one that enjoyed as much or more success than any member of our graduating class. I would probably place him at the pinnacle of the pyramid!

In fact, when Max was 12 years old he was already on his way to success. Several years ago as I was searching for Grantham history stories, I came across this brief one in the News-Argus. It may sound insignificant but I have written it into my manuscript, “Grantham Chronicles.”

June 25, 1949: Early Bloom Wins Cotton Title for 1949

Three farmers raced for first place in the annual early cotton blossom contest on Saturday. Young Max Futrell, of Route 1, Four Oaks, seemed to be the winner. Max claimed a cotton bloom on Sunday, June 19. He had not been able to bring it in until Saturday because he had not had time to come to Goldsboro. Max is tending an early blooming type of cotton.

Another bloom came in for display by W. Luther Scott, of Route 1, Goldsboro, and still another by Napoleon Hagan, a tenant on the Perkins farm between Belfast and Hookerton Swamp. All three blossoms were in full bloom.

After retyping the story, I added this postscript:

Max is another of the “boys” of the class of ’55. Some sixty years later, you will still find him down on the farm on Steven’s Mill road. He has shared with me many times how much he enjoys the freedoms of farming.

Max was rather quiet all through our school years. In fact, I’m a little surprised that he was not the superlative tagged “The quietest” but that recognition went to Everett Stevens who was judged to have outquieted him.

I once told Max that of all the boys in our class, he would be the last that I would have ever thought would be outspoken enough to become a professional auctioneer. I’ve always surmised that an auctioneer’s tongue had to be loose at both ends. What loosened Max’s, I’ll never know. Perhaps it was confidence gained.

All who knew him are aware of the kindness he showed to others. Always willing to give a helping hand, monetarily and otherwise. I was complaining to him back in the spring about my inability to grow decent tomatoes. He quickly told me, “Yore soil ain’t right. We can fix that.”

A few days later, he beckoned me to come over. I drove down to the back of his and his son, M.G.’s, lower 40 by their expansive hog operation. He was sitting high atop one of his big ole enclosed tractor cabs just a bouncing up and down rows of soybeans. It was obvious that he was enjoying the ride.

Would you believe he had prepared two 5-gallon buckets of “special dirt”? Said he’d guarantee it would grow me some good tomatoes. Those plants have proven him right.

When his sweet corn crop came off he called wanting to know “whur I wuz at.” Said I, “I’m in my car right now.”

“Come on over here. I’ve got something for you.” Got there and he had pulled 20 ears for me and another 20 for my Aunt Elva Williford Baker.

A few days later, he called to apologize for not being able to give us more, but seems he had planted close to the woods and the ’coons had held several picnics using his scrumptious corn as a main dish.

A little over two months ago, we celebrated our 63rd class reunion at Selah Church. Who arranged for the food? Max and Mary Ann. Who stayed in the kitchen until the last dish was washed? No! No! Not me and Max! But, Mary Ann did.

We were too busy talking and carrying on to be cleaning up! As we looked over the memorial table filled with photographs of classmates who had died over the years, Max asked, “Just how many boys graduated with us?” “26,” I said. Then he asked how many had died. I told him 13. “That’s half of us,” he muttered in a serious tone.

I answered, “You’re right. We never know whose picture might be on that table next year. It could be me or you.”

Never, for a fleeting moment, did I think it might be Max that we will be eulogizing at next year’s reunion. Yet, I am wise enough to know that my image might well be sitting right there next to his.

For surely we all will pass through death’s veil one of these days. The Good Lord put us here but for a season and has given us a golden opportunity to prepare for the next realm of eternity.

What will be the determining factor as to what we can expect after this life is over? I believe it will be based on how well we have loved and treated our fellowman as we’ve traveled the journey together.

If that assumption is true, I can assure the family that Max’s inheritance will be among the best that our Creator has to offer.

As I drove south from Arlington, I traveled I-95 all the way to 701 and then eastward toward Newton Grove until I reached Harper House Road. What sight caught my attention as I turned toward the Bentonville Battle Field? (Which by the way is where I was born.) Well, right on the corner stood a massive cotton patch, its plants hosting thousands of beautiful cotton blossoms. Most were white, but a few had already turned their natural pink in preparation for creating the womb-like bowl that would house the cotton until it matured.

As I entered the fellowship hall where the family stood in greeting, what do you think was the first object to catch my attention. Several tables randomly spaced. Centered on each was a basket of decorations — not of flowers but of brown bowls that had opened wide and given birth to white fluffy cotton.

Coincidence, or were the tables decorated with cotton for farmer Max? Probably not, for I doubt that anyone present had ever read the story of Max and his cotton blossom prize. That is, no one except me.

After the cortege left the church on its way to Newton Grove’s Hillcrest Cemetery, we passed by bales of round hay. I saw Max. And then it was soybeans and corn fields and more cotton blossoms. And I saw Max.

We drove by Mr. C.W. Flowers’ country store, a retreat where local farmers congregate to toast each other with a cold “drank” or cut midday hungers with a round or square nab or with a pack of peanuts poured down the neck of an ice-cold Pepsi.

As I passed I imagined laughter coming through the open door, but Max’s laughter was not among them.

Those pals at Flowers’ store will miss you, Max, and so will I. We’ll be remembering you for a long, long time along with your family and that wide-stretching neighborhood of associates who were blessed to know you as their friend.

Sherwood Williford writes a weekly column for the News-Argus. Contact him at 919-440-8811, or P.O. Box 175, Princeton, NC 27569.