CONYERS -- George Merritt built a corn mill in 1823 south of Hightower Trail called Costley's Mill. Creek and Cherokee Indians helped rebuild the mill several times after devastating fires, but when Gen. Sherman passed directly in front of the mill during his "March to the Sea" and threatened to torch the mill again, Winnie Puckett grabbed a pistol and stood her ground. "You take one more step," Winnie threatened Sherman, "And I'll blow your damn head off!"
Apparently Sherman knew Winnie wasn't bluffing. He swiftly backed down; he and Winnie talked; he promised not to burn the mill; Winnie offered Sherman a plug of chewing tobacco as a peace offering. Rockdale County history does not record if Sherman accepted the plug or not.
"Winnie Puckett was my aunt," Magnolia Assisted Living resident Ruth Jones said. "She didn't put up with nothing from nobody, and that included Sherman."
Born in 1915 in a dwelling behind Honey Creek Baptist Church, Ruth said, "One of my aunts played the piano there. I'd sit beside her, but didn't want to. I wanted to go outside and play with the other kids."
At the age of 15, Ruth lost her mother in a car accident. "I never had a permanent home after that," she said. "I was sort of passed around to different relatives."
At the age of 19, Ruth received a proposal of marriage from Frank Jesse Jones. He promised Ruth, "When I get enough money to buy you a coat, we're getting married."
Orphaned as a teenager, a survivor of the Great Depression, Ruth would struggle to feed her two boys and two nephews, plus meet financial obligations when Frank and her younger brother, Norman Rice, joined the millions of men and women defending our country in WWII.
"I worked as a waitress, and part time for the Crown Candy Company and A&P Bakery," Ruth recalled. "Sugar was rationed, so the companies never had enough sugar to create full-time work. Everything went to the war effort."
Asked if she missed nylons, Ruth said, "Nylons? We were lucky to have socks!"
While struggling to put food on the table, Ruth lived with the fear of receiving the hated Postal Telegraph from the War Department. "We all lived with that fear," she said.
Her younger brother, Norman, enlisted in the Navy at the age of 18 in June 1942, trained at Norfolk, Va., and studied to be an aviation radioman in Bedford Springs, Penn., and Millington, Tenn. He graduated from Millington in February 1943, sailed from San Diego the next month, and on April 30 Ruth received the telegram that Norman was missing in action.
"We don't know much about it," she said. "The War Department only told us he was in a plane searching for downed airmen. They don't know if they were shot down or had a mechanical problem, but the bodies were never recovered."
Her voice softened to a whisper. "He was just a baby, a sweet boy, and loved the Navy. It was his first time out of Georgia, and always used the word 'swell' to describe his newfound world."
Her son, Donald, recalled, "I was 10 or 11 and walking home from school. A lot of the neighborhood kids were outside our house, and when I walked up they said, 'Your mom's brother has been killed.' When I went inside, Mom was standing in front of our front window, bawling her eyes out."
Her youngest son, James, recalled, "I was only about 5 when it happened. I asked Mom what was wrong, but she'd just say, 'Nothing' and continue with her private grief."
Ruth had written and mailed a letter to Norman on April 20, the date of his death. The Post Office returned the letter on May 1 with the notation "Return to Sender" and a reason block marked "Unclaimed." Ruth received a payment voucher for Norman's life, $842.40 in insurance money by monthly payments of $15.60. Norman's personal effects were never returned.
Her husband, Frank, was destined for a place in history. Drafted into the Army, he never discussed his duties with Ruth, understanding the heartache for her brother and not wanting Ruth to excessively worry about him.
What is known of her husband's service culminates with the surrender of Japan. Frank Jesse Jones boarded the troopship General W. A. Mann after the war and by November 1945 was part of the occupation forces stationed in the city of Nagasaki, the second city to experience an atomic bomb. Frank's health suffered as a result. Ruth and Frank finally reunited in 1946.
"I remember Frank arriving on the train at Fort Mac," she said. "When I saw him step off the train I jumped out of the car and ran as fast as I could to greet him. Everyone there was running for their loved ones. Our war was finally over."
Frank and Ruth were married for 60 years until his death in 1994. The Honey Creek Baptist Church's cemetery is the final resting place for several of Ruth's relatives, including a commemorative tombstone for her younger brother, Norman. Norman Rice is also etched in granite in front of the Rockdale County Courthouse.
"People call us The Greatest Generation," Ruth said. "We didn't have the time to think about being great; we were too busy making a living."
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist, and free-lance writer. Readers may contact him at: email@example.com