Keeping up with J.B. (Jaybird) Jones
In the four corners of his card of introduction are these words: old, retired, broke, senile.
The opposite side of the card depicts the face of happy man and reads: This man lives in Pulltite, TN. Rotate the card 180 degrees to see a fellow with a scowl and read: This man wishes he did.
Meet J.B. Jones, who is neither broke nor senile. He is retired, sort of, and wears his 83½ years of life well.
Tall, thin and stout as an oak, Jones has been an independent cuss all his life. He gets about in public wearing a ball cap, work shirt and pants, cowboy boots and a belt with a silver-dollar in the center of the buckle. He almost always seems to have a mischievous glint gleaming from his pale blue eyes.
"I done a little bit of everything but preach and bootleg," confessed Jones, who has operated
J.B. Jones Welding since 1959.
The octogenarian drives a white Ford pickup. Across the top of the front windshield he proudly displays the name of his home place: Pulltite Farms.
Jones has served as grand marshal of the past two Pulltight Christmas parades. As the unofficial mayor around here, he will tell you right off the bat, "Pulltight is the center of the universe. It's just the best place I know to be."
He explained how the Wilson County community, located on Tater Peeler Road eight miles south of Lebanon, got its name.
"It's been Pulltight as long as I been living. The way it got its name, there's several hills here back when roads were gravel. Well, it was a hard pull with horses, and their feet would fly out from under 'em. [The steep incline caused the horses' harnesses to stretch tight.] When I was a boy I had to take our horses many a time and pull people over the hill if you had a load in a wagon.
"Pulltight back then started the other side of [country music singer] Gretchen Wilson's place, where she used to live, and it came to Chicken Road about a mile and a half to two miles each way. There was a series of hills too steep to pull up," he said of the road which was gravel until about 1990.
For the uninitiated the name of Tater Peeler Road also begs explanation.
Jones obliges, saying "The way it got its name, the story goes, a feller lived out about here and had a wagon load of Irish potatoes. He pulled them to town by horse and when he got to town most of 'em was peeled. It was rough. Long as I been able to know anything it's been there as Tater Peeler Road."
An old newspaper account from the 1970s confirms that story and adds a bit more detail.
In the 1870s a farmer named Tom Jones hauled his wagon of new potatoes to market in Lebanon. When the buyer examined them, he found the taters had all been peeled. Asked what road he had come in on, he was told a name that has since been forgotten. The buyer noted, "Well, it's a tater peeler all right."
From that point on, folks called it Tater Peeler Road.
J.B. Jones has had his shop on Tater Peeler since 1987. He first picked up a welding rod at the age of 17.
"I've welded everything but the break of day," he joked. "When I started my business, steel was 10 cents a pound and now it averages from 75 cents a pound and up. I been retired now since '09. All I do now is piddle."
Asked what skills it takes to make a good welder, he answered, "You gotta have good eyesight and a steady hand and a will to make it right."
As for what he enjoys most about using an arc (stick) or a mig (wire) welder, he said, "Just taking a few pieces of steel and making something people can use."
Lebanon's Eddie Conrad, owner of Conrad Construction Company, has known Jones for more than 40 years and described his work and his character, saying, "In my opinion, he is one of the best welders in this part of the country. As far as welding metal, iron and steel, he can do anything that he sets his mind to do.
"He'd do anything for a friend day or night. He's a really helpful and kind person but a little bit hesitant about helping people that he's had bad deals with. I just found him to be a very honorable person."
Bobby James, another comrade of Jones, said, "He's just a great guy and has got a real good personality if he likes you, and there aren't many people he doesn't like. He's the most accommodating person I think I've ever known.
"He is kind of like a daddy to me. I couldn't ask for a better friend. He's always checking on me always asking me if I need something. If he don't hear from me in the morning, he'll call and check on me, kind of like a daddy would do."
Born Joe Buford Jones on Oct. 21, 1933, the welder is known to his friends as J.B. or Jaybird, a nickname that has stuck since he was a young man.
The son of Buford and Lillian Pulley Jones grew up the sole brother to his six sisters: Lorene Wrye, Sue Rollins, Shirley Short, Sarah Holycross, the late Mary Lee Moran and the late Jewel Eakes. Their father raised corn, tobacco, hogs, cattle and hay, and J.B.'s chores as a lad including cutting firewood and milking cows.
"That's how I learned to drive," he recalled, "taking milk in 10-gallon cans to the road driving an A-model truck. I remember getting off the school bus in first grade and going straight to the field to plow. We never had a tractor.
"Every Thanksgiving Day when I was a boy we killed hogs. When I was about 10, we were killing hogs one day, and General Patton came along in a Jeep with a driver. He stopped and stayed up there and watched us for about 30 minutes to an hour 'cause he said he'd never seen anything like it."
Jones grew up in a musical family as his mom played the guitar and sang. His dad played guitar and could pick a banjo, and most of his sisters could play the guitar and sing. His dad performed in a country-bluegrass band, The Pulltight Ramblers, which included fiddler Jess Thompson, and played square dances at Cedars of Lebanon State Park and on a Lebanon radio station.
Attending Flat Rock School through the eighth grade, Jones next went to Lebanon High but dropped out part way through his sophomore year to get a job at a service station on Sparta Pike.
"Times was hard," he explained, "and we had little kids [his four younger siblings] at the house, and I helped out. Ever little dollar helped back then. I think I started in at $15 a week."
From there he went briefly to another Lebanon service station and then to driving an ice cream route where he made $32.50 a week, plus a two-percent commission as he delivered the sweet, cool treat four days a week in Lebanon and on the fifth day hit such towns as Cookeville, Hanging Limb, Baxter, Gainesboro and Livingston.
His career-making moment came one day at about the age of 17 while he was hanging around
Lebanon Machine Shop and Tom Brown asked him, "You ever welded any?"
Jones said no, but then Brown handed him his tools and said, "Well, here, run a little bead."
"I did and it looked good," recalled Jones. "He run and got his boss. He asked me to do it again, and I did, and it looked good. He said, 'How'd you like a job?'"
And J.B Jones, welder extraordinaire entered his lifelong calling.
He tells a funny story about himself during those early days when he didn't have the use of a band saw and had to cut all the metal with a torch.
"Mr. Lewis Bell come in with a new pickup. His son had a car broke down in Memphis. He wanted a bumper grill so he could haul it back. My boss said, 'Slim, go back there and build him a bumper so he can pull that car home from Memphis.'
"I told him, 'You know I don't know enough about welding to do the job.' He said, 'I got faith in you.'
"I made the brackets and the crossbar. I started to put it on. It was vertical and overhead welding. I did the best I could. A week later Mr. Bell pulled back in, and I went out and looked. It [the grill] had been redone. I asked him, 'It came off, didn't it?'
"Mr. Bell said, 'One side broke off so it run off in the ditch, but it didn't hurt it. Don't worry about it.'"
A quick study, Jones was soon put in charge over the outside work and the structural steel jobs. "We did a world of business," he recalled, including the major steel work when the Lux Clock and Texas Boot factories were built.
From 1956 to 1959, he worked for the Lebanon Gas Department and then went into business for himself, building the first house on Piedmont Drive as his residence and a shop on the same property.
One of his lifetime highlights came after he received a phone call from his best friend, the late Alfred McFarland (a Lebanon lawyer and state commissioner of revenue during Gov. Buford Ellington's first term, 1959-1963), who asked him, "How'd you like to have breakfast with the President of the United States?"
"I told him, 'Well, I guess that'd be all right.' So I ended up going to the presidential prayer breakfast in 1974. There was 3,500 of us [including President Richard Nixon, evangelist Billy Graham and pop crooner Pat Boone] there in the Washington Hilton Ballroom. And within three minutes of time we sat down, we had our food in front of us," he said of the marvel.
Jones, who served 12 years in the National Guard, has a daughter (Laverne Griffin), three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. In his younger days he enjoyed square dancing and riding a Harley.
"I've seen a lot of lulus in my life," he says of characters he has known across eight decades of living. But any man who carries a card describing himself as old, retired, broke and senile has got to be a bit of a doozy himself.
Asked to share his philosophy of life, he says, "Always been to treat other people like you would like for them to treat you. It still works.
"I have bucoos of friends. I'm awful proud of that. But you have to be a friend to make friends," said Jones, speaking an everlasting truth.